The famous recollections of a soldier of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard
Several English language translations of recollections written by the soldiers of Napoleon’s Grande Armee have become famous as they bring the exuberant days of the First Empire of the French vividly back to life. Infantryman Sergeant Bourgogne’s account of the ‘Retreat From Moscow’ and Parquin’s and Marbot’s wonderfully related experiences as light cavalry officers are fine examples. There can be no doubt however, that Jean-Roch Coignet’s highly informative and readable account of his long career in the Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard is one of the most important French military memoirs of that period. From his difficult childhood to his time campaigning in the armies of the revolutionary period in Italy, from the campaigns and battles of the empire which set Europe ablaze to the snows of the disastrous Russian campaign, and finally to the fall of the emperor whom he idolised, Coignet served Napoleon loyally. Steadily rising to the rank of captain, Coignet rallied to his master’s banner for the ‘Hundred Days’ which led to ultimate defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, 1815. Abridged versions of this book have been published many times, but this Leonaur edition is not only complete but also includes two useful introductions which will be invaluable to students of both the times and the man. ‘The Illustrated Captain Coignet’ containing over 100 historically accurate drawings by Julien Le Blant is also available from Leonaur.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket; our hardbacks are cloth bound and feature gold foil lettering on their spines and fabric head and tail bands.
I ran behind a big willow-tree, and fired into that column, but I could not stand it. The balls came from every direction, and I was obliged to lie down with my head on the ground in order to shield myself from the small shot, which were making the twigs fall all over me; I was covered with them. I believed myself lost.
Fortunately our whole division now advanced by battalions. I got up and found myself in a company of the battalion; I continued in it all the rest of the day, for not more than fourteen of our hundred and seventy grenadiers remained; the rest were killed or wounded. We were obliged to resume our first position, riddled by small shot. Everything fell upon us who held the left wing of the army, opposite the high road to Alessandria, and we had the most difficult position to maintain. They constantly endeavoured to outflank us, and we were obliged to close up continually, in order to prevent them from surprising us in the rear.
Our colonel was everywhere at once, behind the half-brigade so as to sustain us; our captain, who had lost his company and who was wounded in the arm, performed the duties of aide-de-camp to our intrepid general. We could not see one another in the smoke. The cannons set the wheat-field on fire, and this caused a general commotion in the ranks. The cartridge-boxes exploded; we were obliged to fall back and form again as quickly as possible. This caused us much mortification, but was atoned for by the intrepidity of our chiefs, who looked out for everything.
In the centre of the division was a barn surrounded by high walls, where a regiment of Austrian dragoons had concealed themselves; they burst upon a battalion of the 43rd brigade and surrounded it; every man of it was captured and taken to Alessandria. Fortunately General Kellermann came up with his dragoons and restored order. His charges silenced the Austrian cavalry.
Nevertheless, their numerous artillery overwhelmed us and we could hold out no longer. Our ranks were thinned visibly; all about us there were only wounded men to be seen, and the soldiers who bore them away did not return to their ranks; this weakened us very much. We had to yield ground. Their columns were constantly reinforced; no one came to our aid. Our gun-barrels were so hot that it became impossible to load for fear of igniting the cartridges. There was nothing for it but to piss into the barrels to cool them, and then to dry them by pouring in loose powder and setting it alight unrammed. Then, as soon as we could fire again, we retired in good order. Our cartridges were giving out and we had already lost an ambulance when the consular guard arrived with eight hundred men having their linen smock-frocks filled with cartridges; they passed along our rear and gave us the cartridges. This saved our lives.
Then our fire redoubled and the Consul appeared; we felt ourselves strong again. He placed his guard in line in the centre of the army and sent it forward. They immediately held the enemy, forming square and marching in battle order. The splendid horse-grenadiers came up at a gallop, charged the enemy at once and cut their cavalry to pieces. Ah! that gave us a moment to breathe, it gave us confidence for an hour. But not being able to hold out against the consular horse-grenadiers, they turned upon our half-brigade and drove in the first platoons, sabring them. I received such a blow from a sabre on my neck that my queue was almost cut off; fortunately I had the thickest one in the regiment. My epaulet was cut off with a piece of my coat and shirt, and the flesh a little scratched. I fell head over heels into a ditch.
The cavalry charges were terrible. Kellermann made three in succession with his dragoons; he led them forward and led them back. The whole of that body of cavalry leaped over me as I lay stunned in the ditch. I got rid of my knapsack, my cartridge-pouch, and my sabre. I took hold of the tail of a retreating dragoon’s horse, leaving all my belongings in the ditch. I made a few strides behind that horse which carried me away, and then fell senseless, not being able to breathe any longer. But, thank God, I was saved! But for my head of hair, which I still have at seventy-two years of age, I should have been killed.
I had time to find a gun, a cartridge-pouch, and a knapsack (the ground was covered with them). I resumed my place in the second company of grenadiers, who received me with cordiality. The captain came and shook hands with me. “I thought you were lost, my brave man,” said he;” you got a famous sabre stroke, for you have no queue and your shoulder is badly hurt. You must go to the rear.”
“I thank you, I have plenty of cartridges, and I am going to revenge myself upon such troopers as I meet; they have done me too much harm; they shall pay for it.”
We retreated in good order, but the battalions were visibly reduced, and quite ready to give up but for the encouragement of their officers. We held out till noon without being disordered. Looking behind, we saw the Consul seated on the bank of the ditch by the highway to Alessandria, holding his horse by the bridle, and flirting up little stones with his riding-whip. The cannonballs which rolled along the road he did not seem to see. When we came near him he mounted his horse and set off at a gallop behind our ranks. “Courage, soldiers,” said he, “the reserves are coming. Stand firm!”