Napoleon’s Marine Artillery: French Naval Gunners and the Campaign of 1813—The Recollections of Jean Louis Rieu, an Officer of the Marine Artillery with A Short History of the Marine Artillery, 1795-1815
Jean Louis Rieu, John H. Lewis (editor) & Robert Bassett (translator and editor) Date Published:
2019/08 Page Count:
188 Softcover ISBN-13:
978-1-78282-845-7 Hardcover ISBN-13:
The Marine Artillery of Napoleon's army is possibly one of the least well known units in the military history of the First Empire of the French. During the later 18th century French naval gunners were quite separate from naval crews and their task was not only to serve the guns on ships of war, but also to garrison essential ports and fortifications along the long coastline of France and beyond. The dominance of the Royal Navy at sea during this period ensured the French fleet lay blockaded in its harbours and so the men of the Marine Artillery languished for years without being called to action. By 1813 almost continuous wars of grinding attrition, culminating in the catastrophic disaster of the Russian Campaign, had seriously depleted the ranks of the French Army. Napoleon realised that in the Marine Artillery he had a valuable but underemployed asset. Its ranks were accordingly expanded, including conscripts and officers from St. Cyr, and it marched to war, not as artillery, but as infantry, in the campaign that was to be fought in Germany. Marmont, who was given command of these troops, was initially sceptical as to their practical value, but events—as this book graphically reveals—proved him to be entirely wrong. Jean Louis Rieu was a Swiss officer of the Marine Artillery whose personable military memoirs (translated into English here for the first time in their entirety) provide compelling and unique insights into the activities of the Marine Artillery and its performance on campaign on the battlefields of Lutzen, Bautzen, Dresden, Leipzig and others. Rieu's account is accompanied in this edition by a short history of the Marine Artillery. Includes illustrations and maps.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
We were in position around large factories having a rather extensive view of the future battlefield: outposts of cavalry were already making a little war, not very lethal, and which did not look bad, like a play at the theatre.
The fatal day of 16th October 1813 finally appeared. We were, as I said, north of Leipzig in a position quite isolated from the rest of the VI corps, of which we were placed on the extreme right. At 9 o’clock in the morning the cannon were heard towards the centre of the army. This was the attack begun by the allies against the village of Wachau, at that time occupied by the French. We took up arms and were ranged in battle order on a height, at the foot of which were already positioned imposing enemy forces. To support us in our remote position and exposed to a powerful attack we had only one division of Marshal Ney’s army corps. The other two divisions of this corps were to form our reserve line and might have saved the day, so avoiding a defeat and captivity, but Marshal Ney had the unfortunate idea of sending them to the centre of the army, where they were of no use to anyone because of their late arrival. Thus 25,000 men and the small number of cavalry of Marshal Ney’s Corps were exposed without support to the assault of nearly 70,000 men. While we took a position, Ramu found a way to tell me ‘The day will be hot, if I am killed or wounded look after my shako, I have placed some papers there that are important to me.’ We shall see before long the use I made of this recommendation.
Nothing was more solemn than the plan of that battle; the sun was bright and the silence profound. We were deployed in line as though for a revue, and were made to form in two ranks instead of three in order to make our front appear longer, which was a bad sign from the outset for we were in no position where an illusion would assist us.
I can still hear the flag bearer, named Mutel, ask if would it not be appropriate to put the Eagle in its case because its glare in the sun was a target for the enemy and the major answering him at the top of his voice, that on such a beautiful day the Imperial Eagle could not be too bright. I believe that Mutel and many others who stood with us that morning did not ultimately find that the day was so beautiful after all.
All too soon, the profound calm was succeeded by the roar of the cannonade and musketry. Our only artillery battery was crushed in the twinkling of an eye by the formidable artillery of the enemy and to crown it all, a caisson filled with live shells caught fire and vomited death all around as it erupted. The tirailleurs were forced to retreat before superior forces. Meanwhile in order to receive the approaching cavalry we were made to leave the order of battle, to form in mass by battalions, but the enemy artillery grapeshot ploughed through us only more deeply. We held on however, hoping that reserve troops would come to support us though it was a hope in vain!
However, a regiment of Chasseurs à Cheval made a demonstration to charge the enemy (and especially his artillery), but they had not taken twenty strides forward before they turned their bridles and left us to our unfortunate fate. We were punished more and more by the grapeshot, still in line by battalions en masse. No order came to us, no leaders command was heard, we had somehow been totally abandoned upon the battlefield.
This has been explained by the fact that Marshal Marmont and General Compans were wounded; I do not know if Pelleport was too, in any case, I did not see him anymore. As for my bragging little battalion commander, he was invisible! I have learned since that he had taken the pretext of a scratch upon his person to withdraw shamefully from the mêlée, (as did the lieutenant of my company), all without saying a word. If the major who commanded the regiment gave no sign of his presence it was because he was doubtless bewildered by the storm. At least he did not run away and later we discovered him to be a captive.
However, the Prussian infantry battalions, with the help of their artillery and our immobility, were approaching so close, that they were confused with ours; so much so that an adjutant from our regiment, named Mourgue, taking them for French, because of their blue coats, similar to ours, went off informally to warn them that they were firing badly on their companions. He was very lucky to be captured and he himself told me that fact when he was in captivity.
Our position became untenable, besides the artillery which killed us at close range, a formidable force of cavalry was waiting, motionless, twenty paces off, for the moment of our rout to rush upon us, like a tiger watching for its prey to run. The companies were disorganised, and soon the battalions, huddled in upon themselves, offered only shapeless heaps from which a few more shots were fired and over which the officers only had influence by remaining themselves and physically restraining the soldiers.
This state of affairs could not last long, the instinct of self-preservation, though badly inspired in the circumstances, finally became stronger, and we broke up as we fled. As I was carried away in the first moment by the torrent, I soon saw that all retreat was impossible for the infantryman positioned before the cavalry, and if I was to die it was at least some solace that I would see the blow coming.