Chateaubriand's memoirs, IX, 12

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book IX - Chapter 12
Continuation of the siege – Contrasts – Saints in the woods – the Battle of Bouvines – On patrol – An unexpected encounter – The effects of cannonballs and shells

London, April to September 1822.

Waldeck’s Austrian corps began operations. The attacks from our side became livelier. It was a fine sight in the darkness: ground mines exploding illuminated earthworks lined with soldiers; intermittent flashes transited the clouds or the blue zenith, while cannonballs and shells, crossing in the air, described parabolas of light. In the intervals between explosions, drum-rolls were audible, bursts of military music, and the voices of guards from the ramparts of Thionville and our own positions; unfortunately they would shout in French, from both camps: ‘Sentries, stand to attention!’

If the conflict was taking place at dawn, the hymn of the lark would follow the crackle of musketry, and when the guns were no longer firing we stared silently, mouths open, through the embrasures. The bird-song, stirring memories of pastoral life, seemed to issue a reproach to mankind. It was the same when I encountered bodies among the meadows of flowering lucerne, or at the edge of a stream that bathed the hair of those dead. In the woods, a few steps from the violence of war, I found little statues of saints and the Virgin. A goatherd, a shepherd, a mendicant carrying a wallet, kneeling before these pacifiers, said their rosary to the noise of distant cannon. Once, a whole village, with its pastor, came to offer flowers to the patron saint of the neighbouring parish, whose image lived in a grove of trees opposite a spring. The priest was blind; a soldier of the army of God, he had lost his sight doing good works, like a grenadier on the field of battle. The vicar led communion on behalf of his curé, since the latter could not see to place the sacred host on the lips of his communicants. During this ceremony, and in the depths of night, he blessed the light!

Our forefathers considered the patron saints of their hamlets, John the Silent, Dominic of the Cuirass, James the Mutilated, Paul the Simple, Basle the Hermit, and all the rest, no strangers to the triumph of arms by which the harvests were protected. On the very day of the Battle of Bouvines, thieves entered a monastery at Auxerre, dedicated to Saint Germain, and stole the sacred vessels. The sacristan presented himself before the reliquary of the blessed Bishop, and with a groan said to it: ‘Germain, where were you, when the brigands were daring to violate your sanctuary?’ A voice rising from the reliquary replied: ‘I was near Cisoing, not far from the bridge of Bouvines; with the other saints, I was aiding the French and their King to whom a brilliant victory has been granted with our help.’

Cui fuit auxilio Victoria praestita nostro.

We made sorties into the plain, and pushed as far as the hamlets under the further outworks of Thionville. The village on the trans-Moselle high road was endlessly taken and re-taken. I was twice involved in these attacks. The patriots considered us as enemies to liberty, aristocrats, satellites of Capet; we called them, brigands, cut-throats, traitors and revolutionaries. Sometimes a halt was called, and a duel took place in the midst of the combatants, who became impartial witnesses; ah, that unique French character of ours which even passion cannot stifle!

On day, I was on patrol in a vineyard, and twenty paces from me was an old gentleman hunter, striking the vines with the butt of his musket, as if to flush out a hare, then glancing around him in the hope of spotting a patriot on the run; everyone displayed his own habits there.

On another day, I went to visit the Austrian camp: between this camp and that of the naval cavalry stretched the border of a wood against which the place had trouble directing its fire; the town shot at us too often, thinking us more numerous than we were, which explains the pompous bulletins issued by the commandant of Thionville. As I was traversing this wood, I saw something stirring in the undergrowth; I approached it: a man extended at full length, face to the ground, presented only his broad back to me. I thought he was wounded: I grasped him by the nape of his neck and half raised his head. He opened scared eyes, and lifted himself a little, resting on his hands; I burst out laughing: it was my cousin Moreau! I had not seen him since our visit to Madame Chastenay.

Throwing himself face down during the descent of a mortar-shell, he had been unable to rise. I had all the trouble in the world setting him on his feet; his paunch had tripled in size. He told me he was serving in the stores and that he was on the way to offer some oxen to the Prince de Waldeck. Moreover, he was carrying a rosary; Hugues Métel tells of a wolf, that around 1203 or 1204 resolved to embrace the monastic state; but unable to become accustomed to being lean, it became a canon.

Re-entering the camp, an officer of the Engineers passed near to me, leading his horse by the bridle; a cannon-ball struck the creature at the narrowest part of its neck, and severed it neatly; the head and neck were left hanging from the horseman’s hand which they dragged to the earth with their weight. I have seen a shell fall in the middle of a circle of naval officers who were sitting eating, in a ring: the mess tin vanished; the officers, upset and covered with sand, shouted like a ship’s captain of old: ‘Fire to starboard, fire to larboard, fire all around! Fire in my wig!’

These remarkable blows of fate seemed to belong to Thionville: in 1558, François de Guise laid siege to the place. Marshal Strozzi was killed there, while Monsieur de Guise was speaking to him with his hand on his shoulder.