Robert Guillemard was one of those unusual people (a real life example of a character type now very popular in fiction) who found himself engaging with remarkable people during important historical events-not just once, but repeatedly! As a young soldier he found himself in the top of a French battleship at Trafalgar as the Victory closed for action and it was him-he claims-who fired the fatal shot that killed Nelson. He was present at the murder of Villeneuve, the defeated French admiral, and in the company of Napoleon. He fought in Germany at Stralsund and at Wagram. He campaigned in the Peninsula, was, captured and escaped. After the siege of Tortosa and the award of the Legion of Honour he marched on the fateful campaign into Russia-fighting at Borodino and beyond. There are a number of first-hand accounts of French soldiers of the Infantry during the Napoleonic Wars that have been reprinted with some regularity, but Robert Guillemard's with be an unfamiliar and new delight to many modern readers.
When the English top-men, who were only a few yards distant from us, saw us appear, they directed a sharp fire upon us, which we returned. A soldier of my company and a sailor were killed quite close to me; two others who were wounded, were able to go below by the shrouds. Our opponents were, it seems, still worse handled than we, for I soon saw the English top deserted, and none sent to supply the place of those who must have been killed or wounded by our balls. I then looked to the English vessel and our own. The smoke enveloped them, was dissipated for a moment, and returned thicker at each broadside. The two decks were covered with dead bodies, which they had not time to throw overboard. I perceived Captain Lucas motionless at his post, and several wounded officers still giving orders. On the poop of the English vessel, was an officer covered with orders, and with only one arm. From what I had heard of Nelson, I had no doubt that it was he. He was surrounded by several officers, to whom he seemed to be giving orders. At the moment I first perceived him, several of his sailors were wounded beside him, by the fire of the Redoutable, As I had received no orders to go down, and saw myself forgotten in the tops, I thought it my duty to fire on the poop of the English vessel, which I saw quite exposed and close to me. I could even have taken aim at the men I saw, but I fired at hazard among the groups I saw of sailors and officers. All at once I saw great confusion on board the Victory, the men crowded round the officer whom I had taken for Nelson. He had just fallen, and was taken below covered with a cloak. The agitation shown at this moment left me no doubt that I had judged rightly, and that it really was the English admiral. An instant afterwards the Victory ceased from firing; the deck was abandoned by all those who occupied it; and I presumed that the consternation produced by the admiral's fall was the cause of this sudden change. I hurried below to inform the captain of what I had seen of the enemy's situation. He believed me the readily, as the slackening of the fire indicated that an event of the highest importance occupied the attention of the English ship's crew, and prevented them from continuing the action. He gave immediate orders for boarding, and everything was prepared for it in a moment. It is even said that young Fontaine, a midshipman belonging to the Redoutable, passed by the ports into the lower deck of the English vessel, found it abandoned, and returned to notify that the ship had surrendered. As Fontaine was killed a few moments afterwards, these particulars were obtained from a sailor, who said he had witnessed the transaction.
However, as a part of our crew, commanded by two officers, were ready to spring upon the enemy's deck, the fire recommenced with a fury it never had had from the beginning of the action. Meanwhile, an English eighty gun ship placed herself alongside of the Redoutable to put it between two fires; and a French ship of the same force placed itself abreast of the Victory, to put it in the same situation. There was then seen a sight hitherto unexampled in naval warfare, and not since repeated—four vessels, all in the same direction, touching each other, dashing one against another, intermingling their yards, and fighting with a fury which no language can adequately express. The rigging was abandoned, and every sailor and soldier put to the guns; the officers themselves had nothing to provide for, nothing to order, in this horrible conflict, and came likewise to the guns. Amidst nearly four hundred pieces of large cannon all firing at one time in a confined space—amidst the noise of the balls, which made furious breaches in the sides of the Redoutable—amongst the splinters which flew in every direction with the speed of projectiles, and the dashing of the vessels, which were driven by the waves against each other, not a soul thought of anything but destroying the enemy, and the cries of the wounded and the dying were no longer heard. The men fell, and if they were any impediment to the action of the gun they had just been working, one of their companions pushed them aside with his foot to the middle of the deck, and without uttering a word, placed himself with concentrated fury at the same post, where he soon experienced a similar fate.