The recollections of one of Napoleons most dependable commanders
Among all Napoleon’s marshals Macdonald is one of the most intriguing, for he bears a name more likely to found among those highland regiments of Wellington’s infantry who were among his master’s most formidable enemies. Jacques Macdonald was born in Sedan in the Ardennes region of France, the son of a Jacobite Scottish exile, and was a close relative of Flora MacDonald who played such a memorable role in the flight of Prince Charles Stewart to the continent after the failure of the rebellion of 1745. Born in 1765, Jacques Macdonald was of an age to ensure he would take part in the momentous events that swept through France in the late 18th century bringing revolution, regicide, the Republic, Consulate and Empire under Napoleon Bonaparte. Perhaps predictably Macdonald experienced campaigns and battles throughout the Napoleonic age in most of the European theatres of the conflict and he graphically describes those events and his part in them in this book. He was a faithful and dependable commander who lacked true military genius but whose qualities made him trustworthy, and it was for these qualities that Napoleon was consistently entrusted him with independent commands. Whilst Macdonald’s career cannot fail to be of interest to all students of the Napoleonic Wars what makes this book special is its readability and Macdonald’s ability to describe vividly the events he witnessed in an entertaining and informative manner. The value of his book as an historical document is further enhanced by the insights he provides into his own character—that of an obviously decent, honourable and likeable individual.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
That night an appalling storm burst upon us; rain and hail fell in torrents, driven by a raging north wind, the whistling of which mingled with the peals of thunder and the roar of cannon. This tempest was extremely favourable to our passage of the Danube upon bridges built on piles, at which they had been working since the fatal 22nd of the previous May; they were masked by the thickly-wooded island of Lobau. I landed upon the island at about six o’clock in the morning: what we most wanted was a good fire to dry us, but the sun soon came out and warmed us with his kindly rays. Meanwhile, several corps of the Grand Army, which had roused the enemy from their security, were driving back their advance-guard, and this, being supported from behind, was slowly retreating towards the intrenched position of the camp.<br>
I moved forward in my turn, and was momentarily placed in the second rank with the remainder of the Army of Italy. Scarcely had I deployed, being myself on the extreme right, when I heard cries of ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ coming from the left.<br>
The soldiers, as he approached, raised their shakos upon their bayonets in token of joy. He turned his horse towards the direction whence the cheering proceeded, and, recognising the Army of Italy, rode down the line; as he approached the right, I moved forward slightly. He spoke to no one, merely saluting with his hand. In spite of what the Viceroy had told me, that I should be pleased with my first interview, I was not more favoured than the rest. I do not know where Prince Eugène then was, but immediately on hearing that the Emperor had passed, he hastened up and said:<br>
‘Well, I hope you were satisfied. No doubt he confirmed by word of mouth all that I have written to you?’<br>
‘He did not address a single word to me.’<br>
‘Not a word. He merely nodded, as if to say: “I can see through you, you rascal!”’<br>
The amiable prince was miserable, fearing, of course wrongly, lest I should think that he had been a well-meaning but clumsy interpreter; and he gave me his word of honour, of which I had no need, so convinced was I of his friendly and honest truthfulness, that he had only written to me the Emperor’s exact words.<br>
It was already late. The troops of the Grand Army, tired with marching and fighting since the morning, formed into columns to let us pass. We thus had the honour of becoming the front rank and of pursuing the enemy, who only turned now and again in order to check our ardour. They eventually regained their positions, and we halted within short cannon-range. I was then in front of the position at Wagram; the village of that name was on the left, and that of Baumersdorf on the right. A violent cannonade continued along the whole line while we were forming.<br>
The Emperor came up to speak to the Viceroy, with whom I was talking; I fell back some yards. He did not speak to me as yet, but I heard him say somewhat carelessly:<br>
‘Order General Macdonald to attack and carry the plateau. The enemy are retiring, and we must make some prisoners.’<br>
Thereupon he went away. The prince, joining me, said:<br>
‘Do you know what the Emperor has just been saying to me?’<br>
‘Yes,’ I replied; ‘I heard his orders.’<br>
‘Well, what is your opinion?’<br>
‘I think the Emperor is mistaken; the enemy are not leaving, they are simply retiring to the intrenched position they have selected for the battle. Do you not see, the entire army is there, looking very brave? In order to carry through such an undertaking, although we have but an hour of daylight left, we should need to attack with the whole army. Lose no time—go, or else send these remarks of mine to the Emperor.’<br>
But he was afraid of him, and answered: ‘Not I! He ordered us to attack; let us do it.’<br>
‘So be it,’ I answered; ‘but you will see how we shall be beaten,’ which of course happened, as it could not fail to do.<br>
We started, well protected by artillery, but our leading columns soon stopped at the Russbach, a stream with steep banks, which covered the Austrian front. I sprang to the ground, made my staff do the same, and sword in hand we set the example of crossing it, and were followed by the men. This bold stroke drove the enemy back, and we obtained possession of the plateau. We were obliged to halt near their huts, and form into columns, in order to attack the enemy, drawn up not far off, and also to wait till General Grenier, who was crossing the stream with his troops, could come up to our support. We had passed the villages of Wagram and Baumersdorf, which other corps of the Grand Army had failed to take; they had even retreated. The enemy debouched in large numbers, and attacked one flank, while the columns that we had held in check advanced against us.<br>
General Grenier’s troops, amazed at this unexpected onslaught, threw themselves in disorder among my men, breaking their lines and scattering them. All my efforts to restrain them were vain, although, sword in hand, with the majority of the officers, I had drawn up a line to check the fugitives. A rout ensued, and we were carried away, crossing the stream in the utmost confusion.