Chateaubriand's memoirs, XX, 1

Free texts and images.
Jump to: navigation, search
XIX, 18 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XX, 2


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XX, chapter 1
The position of France on Bonaparte’s return from the Egyptian Campaign



I left England some months after Napoleon had left Egypt; we returned to France at almost the same moment, he from Memphis; I from London: he had seized towns and kingdoms; his hands were full of powerful realities; I had still only captured chimaeras.

What had taken place in Europe during Napoleon’s absence?

The war in Italy had recommenced, in the Kingdom of Naples and in Sardinia; Rome and Naples were occupied for a while; Pius VI, a prisoner, was brought to die in France; and a treaty of alliance was concluded between the cabinets of Petersburg and London.

There was a second continental coalition against France. On the 8th of April 1799, the Congress of Rastatt broke up, and the French plenipotentiaries were assassinated. Suvorov, arriving in Italy, beats the French at Cassano. The citadel of Milan surrenders to the Russian general. One of our armies, commanded by General Macdonald, forced to evacuate Naples, survives with difficulty. Masséna defends Switzerland.

Mantua succumbs after a blockade of seventy-two days and a siege of twenty. On the 15th of October 1799, General Joubert is killed at Novi, leaving the field free for Bonaparte; he would have been destined to play the role of the latter: alas for those crossed by fatal misfortune, witness Hoche, Moreau and Joubert! Twenty thousand English descending on Den Helder, where the Dutch fleet in 1794 had been partly frozen in the ice, and our cavalry charged and took the vessels, remain there ineffectually. The twenty-eight thousand Russians, to which battle and exhaustion had reduced Suvorov’s army, traversing the Saint-Gothard on the 24th of September, are engaged in the Valley of the Reuss. Masséna saves France at the battle of Zurich. Suvorov, re-enters Germany, blames the Austrians and retires to Poland. Such was the position of France when Bonaparte re-appeared, overthrew the Directory and established the Consulate.

Before continuing further, I will mention something of which the reader will already be aware: I am not writing a detailed life of Bonaparte; I am sketching an abridgement and summary of his actions; I depict his battles, I do not describe them; one can find such descriptions everywhere, from Pommereul, who gave us his Italian Campaign, to our usual critics and commentators on battles in which they have fought, to the foreign tacticians, English, Russian, German, Italian and Spanish. Napoleon’s general bulletins and his secret despatches provide the very uncertain thread of these narrations. The works of General Jomini furnish a better source of information: the author is especially credible since he has demonstrated his knowledge in his Traité de la grande tactique and his Traité des grandes opérations militaires. An admirer of Napoleon to the point of bias, attached to Marshal Ney’s staff, he provides a critical military history of the Revolutionary campaigns: he saw with his own eyes the war in Germany, Prussia, Poland and Russia up to the taking of Smolensk; he was present in Saxony in the fighting of 1813; from there he subsequently went over to the Alliance; he was condemned to death by a council of war of Bonaparte’s, and at the same moment named as aide-de-camp to the Emperor Alexander. Attacked by General Sarrazin in his Histoire de la guerre de Russie et d’Allemagne, Jomini replied. Jomini had at his disposal material filed at the War Ministry and in other royal archives; he was a thorough witness of our army’s retreat, having served to lead their advance. His narrative is lucid and threaded by fine and judicious comments. Pages have often been borrowed from him without acknowledgement; but I am no copyist nor have I any ambition to claim the renown of being an unknown Caesar, lacking only a helmet in order to subjugate the world once more. If I had chosen to assist the memory of the veterans, by manoeuvring around maps, jogging around battlefields filled with peaceful crops, making extracts from various documents, piling up description on ever-identical description, I would have accumulated volume after volume, I would have acquired a reputation for hard work, but at the risk of burying beneath my labours, my self, my readers, and my hero. Being only a humble soldier, I bow before the science of Vegetius; I have not assumed my public to be officers on half-pay; and the lowliest corporal knows more about it than I do.