Writings of the experiences of Napoleon's foot and horse soldiers which have been translated into English are few. There are several that have become well known and well regarded, but this book contains a delightful collection of lesser known works. With De Villargennes we experience war in the Peninsula, but the remaining episodes contain first hand accounts which all deal with the shared experience of the Emperor's disastrous advance into and retreat from Russia. Here are Oriot the Cuirassier and others telling their stories across time for today's student of the military history of the Napoleonic Age.
Oriot fought but twice—at the Moskova and in the engagement at Ostrovno, which he emphatically describes as one of the greatest and most memorable of battles; still at Ostrovno he did not charge; he "stood still in the midst of the firing of the cannon."<br>
It was the same at the Moskova. There, too, his regiment did not charge, but stood still under the rain of balls, shells and grape-shot, and sustained heavy losses. Oriot surveyed the countenances of his men, and was satisfied with their look and bearing; on the field itself, after the fashion of Napoleon, he said to them: "I am pleased with you."<br>
Nevertheless he witnessed, as he himself says, terrible things.<br>
Sub-lieutenant Grammont, when he was complimenting him on his coolness, answers: "I've nothing to complain of, and I only want a glass of water to drink"; and, as he speaks, a cannon-ball cuts the sub-lieutenant in two.
Oriot turns to another officer, saying how much he regrets poor Grammont; a cannon-ball kills his horse. He gets another mount, and while a cuirassier is holding his fresh horse, a shell hits the man and strikes him dead.<br>
Oriot, covered with the earth scattered by the shell, has not even a scratch.<br>
Whence came his coolness?<br>
He allows that he would have preferred to charge and fight; the heat of the fray, the excitement that fills the mind, leaves no room for reflection, it is like a game of base-ball.<br>
But to stand motionless under fire; to wait unmoved for death; to see one's comrades fall all around, wounded or dying, truly that is a thing often too much for human strength.<br>
How then did Oriot manage to rise so courageously above all fear, all anxiety, and what his secret means for preventing tremor or shudder in the midst of battle?<br>
He tells himself that this battle is but a lottery; that he can die but once, and it is better to die with honour than live dishonoured.<br>
The recipe looks simple; it is not so easy to most of us as it was to Oriot.<br>
The day after the Moskova, the French army set out for Moscow, and nothing remarkable happened till the 14th of September. The enemy abandoned its positions without making the slightest resistance. Oriot found leisure to admire the roads. What a triumph of skill they were!2 Ten carriages could drive abreast along this kind of avenue, and on each side were two rows of very tall trees with a footway for passengers between them.<br>
The trees, resembling weeping-willows, afforded a cool shade during the great heat of summer, and in winter served as landmarks amid the snows.<br>
During this march, Oriot felt a presentiment of coming disaster. On the 12th of September an officer of the Russian Guards came to parley; for two hours he talked with Oriot and predicted the catastrophe.