Chateaubriand's memoirs, IX, 11

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IX, 10 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> IX, 12


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book IX - Chapter 11
The Siege of Thionville begins – The Chevalier de La Baronnais



London, April to September 1822.

Near our obscure and impoverished camp existed another, brilliant and wealthy. At its headquarters, one saw nothing but wagonloads of food; one met none but cooks, valets and aides-de-camp. Nothing could have better symbolised the Court and the provinces, the monarchy expiring at Versailles, and the monarchy dying on Du Guesclin’s heaths. The aides-de-camp had become hateful to us; when there was a skirmish outside Thionville, we shouted: ‘Forward, the aides-de-camp!’ just as the patriots used to shout: Forward, the officers!’

I felt a pang, when we arrived one gloomy day in sight of some woods that rimmed the horizon, to be told that those woods were in France. Crossing my country’s frontier under arms had an indescribable effect upon me: I had a species of revelation concerning the future, especially since I shared none of my comrades’ illusions, neither with the cause they were supporting, nor the expectation of victory with which they deluded themselves; I was like Falkland in the army of Charles I. There was not a Knight of La Mancha, ill, lame, and wearing a nightcap under his three-cornered beaver, but was firmly convinced of putting to flight, unaided, fifty young and vigorous patriots. This honourable and amusing pride, a source of prodigious efforts in another age, had not afflicted me: I was not so convinced of the power of my invincible arm.

We reached Thionville, on the 1st of September, undefeated; since we had met no one on the way. The cavalry encamped on the right, the infantry the left, of the highroad which led from the town towards Germany. From the camping ground, the fortress could not be seen; but six hundred paces further on, a hill-crest could be reached from which one could gaze down into the Moselle valley. The Navy’s cavalry linked the right flank of our infantry to the Prince of Waldeck’s Austrian corps, while the left flank of the infantry was covered by the eighteen hundred horsemen of the Maison-Rouge, and Royal-Allemand Regiments. We dug a trench to our front, piling our weapons along its whole length. The eight Breton companies occupied two of the ‘streets’ crossing the camp, and below us my friends the officers of the Navarre company were positioned.

These works, which took three days, being complete, Monsieur and the Comte d’Artois arrived; they made a reconnaissance of the site, which had been fortified in vain, since Wimpfen seemed to want to surrender it. We had not won the battle of Rocroi, as the Grand Condé did, so we could not take Thionville; but we were not beaten beneath its walls, like Feuquières. We camped on the public road, at the top of a village serving as a suburb to the town, beyond the outworks which defended the bridge over the Moselle. We fired from one house into another; our force remained in possession of what it had taken. I was not involved in this first attack; Armand, my cousin, was there and behaved well. While fighting in the village, my company was ordered to establish a battery at the edge of a wood which covered the summit of a hill. On the slope of this hill, vineyards descended to the plain bordering the external fortifications of Thionville.

The engineer who directed us made us raise a turf platform, destined to receive our guns; we dug a parallel ditch, open to the sky, to accomodate us below the cannon shot. This earthwork went slowly, since all of us officers, young and old, were little used to pickaxes and shovels. We lacked wheelbarrows and carried the earth in our uniforms, which served us as sacks. Firing from a lunette opened up on us; it hindered us all the more because we could not reply: two eight-pound canons and a Cohorn mortar, which had a poor range, was all the artillery we had. The first mortar we launched fell short of the glacis; it excited jeers from the garrison. A few days afterwards the Austrian canons and engineers reached us. A hundred infantrymen and a naval cavalry picket relieved the battery every twenty four hours. The besieged prepared a sally; through a telescope, movement could be seen on the ramparts. At nightfall, a column was seen emerging through a postern, and gaining the lunette, protected by a covered way. My company was ordered in as reinforcements. At daybreak, five or six patriots undertook an action in the village, on the highway, above the town; then, wheeling left, they crossed the vineyards to take our battery on the flank. The Navy charged bravely, but was overcome, and exposed us. We were too badly armed to sustain fire; we marched with lowered bayonets. The attackers retreated for some reason; if they had pressed on, they would have beaten us.

We had several wounded and some dead, among others the Chevalier de La Baronnais, captain of one of the Breton companies. I brought him bad luck: the bullet that took his life ricocheted from the barrel of my musket and struck him with such force that it pierced both his temples: his brains splashed my face. Noble, pointless victim of a lost cause! When the Marshal d’Aubeterre summoned the Breton States in 17.. he stayed with Monsieur de La Baronnais, the father, who lived at Dinard, near Saint-Malo; the Marshal, who had begged him to issue no invitations, found on entering a table set with twenty-five covers, and scolded his host in a friendly manner, ‘Monseigneur,’ Monsieur La Baronnais, said to him, ‘it is only my children who dine with us.’ Monsieur de La Baronnais had twenty-two sons and a daughter, all by the same mother. The Revolution had mown down, before its maturity, this rich harvest of the father of a family.