Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXI, 3

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXI, chapter 3
Extract from the eighteenth bulletin of the Grand Army



‘Mojaisk, 12th September 1812.
……On the 6th, at two in the morning, the Emperor rode up and down the enemy’s forward positions; the day was spent in mutual reconnoitring. The enemy held a very well-defended position…
The position appeared good and strong. It would have been easy to manoeuvre and force the enemy to leave; but that would have delayed the action………………………………………………………………………….
On the 7th, at six in the morning, General Comte Sorbier, who had set up the battery on the right with artillery from the Guard’s Reserve, began to fire…………………………………………………………………………….
At half-past six, General Compans was wounded. At seven, the Prince d’Eckmühl’s horse was killed………………………………………………...
At seven, Marshal le Duc d’Elchingen started to move forward once more and, under the protection of sixty cannon that General Foucher had positioned opposite the enemy centre the previous evening, advanced towards the centre. A thousand guns vomited death on every side.
At eight, the enemy positions were won, their redoubts taken, and our artillery crowned the summits………………………………………………
The enemy redoubts on the right still held out; General le Comte Morand advanced and took them; but at nine in the morning, attacked on all sides, he could not maintain his position. The enemy, encouraged by this success, advanced their reserve and their remaining troops in order to try their luck. The Russian Imperial Guard was part of the manoeuvre. It attacked our centre on which our right had pivoted. For a moment it looked as though it might take the burning village; Friant’s division fell on it; eighty French cannon first halted and then began to destroy the enemy columns which held out for two solid hours under heavy bombardment, not daring to advance, not wishing to retreat, while renouncing all hope of victory. The King of Naples put an end to their indecision; he ordered the fourth cavalry corps to charge; it penetrated the gaps that our cannon bombardment had made in the serried mass of Russians and theirs squadrons of cuirassiers; they scattered in all directions………………………………………………...
At two in the afternoon, the enemy abandon hope: the battle is over, the gunfire still continues; they beat the drums for a retreat and salute, but not for victory.
Our total losses are estimated at ten thousand men; those of the enemy at forty or fifty thousand. A like battlefield has never been seen. Of every six corpses one was French and five Russians. Forty Russian generals were killed, wounded or taken: General Bagration was wounded.
We have lost Major-General le Comte Montbrun, killed by a cannonball; General le Comte Caulaincourt, who had been sent to replace him, was killed in a similar manner an hour later.
Brigadier-Generals Compère, Plauzonne, Marion, and Huard have been killed; seven or eight Generals have been wounded, most of them lightly. The Prince d’Eckmühl is unharmed. The French troops have covered themselves with glory and have shown their great superiority over the Russians.

Such in a few words is a sketch of the Battle of the Moskva, waged thirty miles from Mojaisk and seventy-five miles from Moscow.

The Emperor was never in danger; the Guard, on foot or horseback, has not yielded or lost a single man. The victory was never in doubt. If the enemy, forced from their positions, had not decided to re-take them, our losses would have been greater than theirs; but they have destroyed their army in holding fast from eight till two under fire from our batteries and persisting in re-taking what they had surrendered. That is the reason for their immense losses.’

This calm and reticent bulletin gives little idea of the Battle of the Moskva, and particularly of the terrible massacre at the Grand Redoubt: eighty thousand men were rendered hors de combat; thirty thousand of them belonged to France. Auguste de La Rochejaquelein had his face slashed by a sabre blow and became a prisoner of the Muscovites: he remembered other battles and another flag. Bonaparte, reviewing the 61st Regiment which had been virtually annihilated, said to the colonel: ‘Colonel, what have you done with one of your battalions?’ – ‘Sire, it is in the Redoubt.’ The Russians have always maintained and still maintain that they won the battle: they decided to raise a triumphal funeral column on the heights of Borodino.

Monsieur de Ségur’s narrative supplies what is missing from Bonaparte’s bulletin: ‘The Emperor rode up and down the field of battle.’ he says. ‘There has never been one with so terrible an aspect. All things conspired: a cloudy sky, a chill rain, a violent wind, houses in ashes, a devastated plain covered with debris and ruins; on the horizon the sad and sombre verdure of the northern trees; soldiers everywhere, wandering among the corpses looking for supplies, even in their dead comrades’ knapsacks; terrible wounds, for the Russian cannonballs are larger than ours; silent bivouacs; no more songs, an end to stories: only a dismal taciturnity.

Around the eagles, the remaining officers and junior officers could be seen, and a few soldiers, scarcely enough to guard the flags. Their uniforms were torn from the fierce fighting, blackened with powder, stained with blood; and yet, in the midst of these scarecrows, this wretchedness, this disaster, they had a proud air, and even, on sight of the Emperor, gave a few victory cries, though sparse and frenzied: since, in that army capable, in those days of analysis, of enthusiasm, each man judged the position of them all…

The Emperor could only judge his victory by the dead. The ground within the redoubts was so strewn with recumbent Frenchmen that it appeared to belong to them more than to those who remained standing. There seemed to more dead conquerors than living ones there.

Amongst the mass of bodies, over which it was necessary to step in order to follow Napoleon, a horse’s hoof touched a wounded man and drew from him a last sign of life and pain. The Emperor, mute till then like his victory, oppressed by the sight of so many victims, cried out, and relieved his feelings in cries of indignation, and by a multitude of attentions which he insisted on this poor wretch being shown. Then he sent the officers following him away, to help those who could be heard crying out on all sides.

Above all they could be found in the deep ravines into which the majority of our casualties had been precipitated, and where several had been dragged to give them more shelter from the enemy and the storm. Some while groaning called out the name of their country or their mother: they were the youngest. The older men waited for death with an impassive or sardonic air, without deigning to plead or complain: others demanded to be killed on the battlefield: but we passed by these wretched men, able to bring them neither the vain mercy of assistance, nor the cruel mercy of despatch.’

Such is Monsieur de Ségur’s tale. Anathema to the victories which are not won in defence of the motherland, and which only serve to feed a conqueror’s vanity!

The Guard, composed of twenty-five thousand elite troops, was not involved in the Battle of Borodino: Bonaparte refused to use them, giving various pretexts. Contrary to custom, he kept away from the firing, and could not follow the manoeuvres with his own eyes. He sat or walked about close to a redoubt taken the previous day: when he was told of the death of one of his generals, he made a gesture of resignation. This display of impassiveness caused some astonishment; Ney exclaimed: ‘What’s he doing behind the army? There, only reverses reach him, not success. Since he no longer wages war on his own behalf, and is no longer a general, since he wants to play the Emperor everywhere, let him return to the Tuileries and leave us to be generals on his behalf.’ Murat swore that on that great day he no longer recognised Napoleon’s genius.

Uncritical admirers have attributed Napoleon’s torpor to the worsening of the illness from which, they assure us, he was then suffering; they affirm that he was often obliged to dismount , and would often remain motionless, his forehead pressed against a cannon. That may be so: a temporary indisposition may have contributed at that time to a lessening of his energy; but given that he regained that energy in his campaign in Saxony and his famous campaign in France, one needs to find another explanation for his inaction at Borodino. What! You confess in your bulletin that it would have been easy to manoeuvre and force the enemy to abandon his excellent position; but that would have delayed the action; and you, who had enough mental agility to condemn so many thousands of our soldiers to death, you had not the physical strength to order your Guard even to go to their aid? There can be no other explanation of this than the very nature of the man: adversity had arrived; its first touch chilled him. Napoleon’s greatness was not of that quality which thrives on misfortune; only success left him in full possession of his faculties: he was not made for disaster.