The colourful career of a member of Napoleon's staff
This is the autobiography of the man who became Count Philippe de Segur, general of Division, Peer of France. Born in 1780, Segur was a child of the revolution. He was a private in 1800, an aide de camp to Napoleon and a general by 1812. His is the story of the Revolution, Consulate and First Empire of France. Segur saw campaigns throughout the epoch and the titles of the chapters of his memoir give clear indications as to the colour of its detail. Here are Austerlitz, Ulm, Vienna, Jena, Berlin and the war in the Iberian Peninsula. For those who are interested in the Napoleonic Wars this book, written by one who was intimate with the strategies and machinations of the Emperor, will be an essential addition to their library.
Our first rush through the midst of these hussars who were escaping in confusion had been so energetic, that, pursuing them much too far into the forest on the road to Wirziki, I found myself surrounded by them. I stopped to return to the attacking point, when one of them passed me so quickly that he only just escaped a thrust from my sword. This irritated me so much that I started in pursuit, plunging blindly into the forest until I had reached and struck him down.
I must own that this was a mistake, and a most imprudent loss of temper on the part of a soldier. I soon recognised this, when I saw how far I was from my own men, in the midst of enormous pine-trees whose motionless silence was only broken by the movement of the flying Russians whom I could perceive seeking the shelter of these great trees to the right and left of the roadway; they were fortunately so scared that they allowed me to turn my horse and rejoin the few dragoons who had followed me, and had imprudently taken the same course.
These dragoons were returning on their steps; and two of their officers, seized with giddiness, and not perceiving the danger of their position, were going along at a foot pace, talking as if we were in a state of peace, without even thinking of rallying the small squadron which they commanded. They neither listened to my representations, nor to those of their non-commissioned officers, who pointed out to them a mass of every arm of the enemy barring the exit of the forest above Nasielsk, and preparing to contest with us its issue into the plain.
It was very evident that there was no hope for us except to get out as we had got in—by a desperate charge; but these officers (one of whom, the son of a terrorist, had, I think, brought ill-luck upon us) had completely lost their judgement. Incomprehensibly persistent in their thoughtless negligence, they seemed to me to be stamped by fatality, like the branded beasts led to the slaughter-house. In their default I hastened to join their dragoons, of whom there were twenty-two; but as there was no one to command them, they had gone on in front, so that when I wanted to rally them and take the command, it was too late.
All this was the affair of a few seconds, for in these critical moments, action is quicker than speech. The dragoons who were furthest off without a chief, in disorder and repulsed, had abandoned the high road to throw themselves to the left into a swampy field which was contiguous to some canals. Notwithstanding my outcries and my imprecations, they carried on their officers with them, and, left alone on the high way, I was obliged to follow them on this land which had no egress.
There, surrounded and fired upon at close quarters, they allowed themselves to be shot down without seeking to defend themselves. I saw the unfortunates dismount and plant their swords in front of them, showing that they meant to surrender. All perished except three dragoons, the only ones I was able to rally.
Once at the end of this ground, crossing the canal, we got out of the bog, all four of us flying in our turn, and followed up a track through the last row of pines which separated the road to Wirziki from that of Srzégoein. This road seemed to lead us at first towards the sound of our own guns, and though the enemy’s rear-guard still occupied Nasielsk, which we were obliged to go through to rejoin our army, we had not yet lost all hope.
But I soon perceived that this unlucky road deviated to the left, thus increasing the distance to Nasielsk. We were, however, obliged to follow it and to get on quickly, for we again heard behind us the savage cries of a multitude of Tartars in hot pursuit. It led us in a few minutes out of the forest, but on the road to Srzégoein which was covered with troops marching in retreat. At this sight my dragoons, transported with joy, exclaimed: “They are ours! We are saved!”
“Say rather, lost!” I replied. “It is the enemy! We have fallen into the midst of the Russian army! There is only one thing to be done; we must join those first stragglers, take them prisoners, and surrender ourselves to them, they will protect us afterwards.” At that instant, seeing a foot soldier alone, I attacked him, and retrenching himself behind a ditch, he took aim at me.
I must confess, that in this desperate moment I lowered my sword, and swelled out my chest to receive the bullet which would have relieved me from an unbearable position; it was raining, and the shot missed fire!
As death did not choose to take me, I returned to my original idea. Not being able to reach this soldier, and hearing the shouts of the Kalmucks who were getting nearer and nearer to us, I left him to throw myself upon a frightened Cossack, on whose left side I had advanced, and whom I summoned to surrender; but perceiving his main body a few hundred paces in front and seeing that I was threatening him without striking, he continued his flight towards his own men, galloping by my side, and thrusting at me all the time until his lance pierced my right side.