“I am still at Eylau. The country is
(Napoleon to Empress Josephine,
In our previous chapter we saw the measures taken by Napoleon for the organization of the military hospitals and for the care of the wounded once he knew that a conflict was inevitable.
As was often the case, Napoleon was heavily outnumbered with only 45,000 men against the 90,000-odd commanded by Bennigsen.
Even if Ney, presently pursuing the last elements of the Prussian Army which had still not surrendered after Jena, managed to arrive in time with the 20,000 men under his command the disparity of the forces engaged would still be colossal.
A FINE DESCRIPTION OF MARSHAL AUGEREAU
And as his name has just been mentioned, let us dwell upon a portrait of the Marshal, who was then aged fifty, left by one of his aides-de-camp, Captain Paulin, of the Engineer Corps, in his memoirs.
The scene he describes takes place in the thick of the battle, just as one of the staff officers who was holding the bridle of his horse with both hands had both his wrists ripped away by a canon ball.
“At that moment I was next to the Marshal, on his right. His attitude was grave and he did not utter a word. Less hardened to battle than he was, I felt myself shiver [Paulin at the time was barely aged twenty-five], when a canon ball with the flopping sound of iron going through a mass of something offering little resistance, went from back to front through the body of Captain Fossarde of the Engineer Corps who was boot to boot with me. Instinctively, I turned my head towards the Marshal as if to warn him of the danger which threatened him.
A few moments later Augereau was flung off his horse which fell on top of him and Paulin lost sight of him in the hurricane of snow and fire.
Such were Napoleon’s marshals.
THE FANTASTIC CHARGE OF THE RESERVE CAVALRY…
“The men that formed the column touching my right arm were hit in the middle of the chest, a moment later the column on my left had their right thighs shot off”, later recalled a soldier in the Imperial Guard.
If there is but one episode we must retain the memory of amongst so much cruelty without, however, forgetting all the others who fought and died, we must dwell upon the great cavalry charge, probably the greatest and most impressive charge of all the battles of the French Empire, led by Murat, who was ordered by Napoleon to repulse the Russians who were approaching too close to the cemetery at Eylau where he was established.
In a well-known phrase addressed to his brother-in-law commanding the Reserve Cavalry, the Emperor demanded:
“Will you let us be devoured by these people?”
By “these people” Napoleon was referring to the Russian soldiers whose courage he had admired but a moment before, exclaiming:
“How audacious! How audacious!”
Immediately, Murat, wielding only a riding-whip (this is a witness’ account, not a figure of style) surged forward and rounded up his cavalry: hussars, chasseurs, dragoons, cuirassiers. Twelve thousand cavalrymen! Twelve thousand horses!
Whatever opinion one may have of Murat, whatever reservations one may have about his behaviour – notably his cowardly betrayal in 1813 - we must pay tribute here to the incomparable cavalry leader, who rode on the first line in front of his cavalrymen as they charged against the wall formed by the mass of Russian infantry.
Forty-eight thousand hooves shook the earth which was silenced by the snow as the torrent swept forward.
They broke through the first line of battle formed by the Russians.
Then the second, but there was a heavy price to pay in the ranks of the French cavalry as shot and bullet took their toll. Now the third battle-line was looming up. Would this line also be dislocated by the long straight blades of the heavy cavalry and the curved blades of the light cavalry?
No, for in support of the soldiers’ muskets and bayonets, eighty guns started firing case-shot on Murat’s centaurs. Confronted with a situation which had become unbearable, Murat rallied the survivors and ordered an about-turn and general withdrawal.
But the trap had closed in on them and the way back was cut off.
…AND THE HEROIC EXPLOIT OF THE IMPERIAL GUARD
As was the custom the cavalry of the Imperial Guard was not far from the Emperor. Not many men, in fact, for the impossible task at hand, barely more than two thousand.
But what men!
“The Emperor’s clothes bore traces of the battle, much more so than that of his lieutenant [Murat, whose horse was harnessed as gorgeously as if he were attending a splendid military review at the Carrousel, in Paris]. He had not shaved, yet until then he had never failed to do so. His white waistcoat in which he kept his gold snuff-box, his white breeches usually so immaculate showed that he had spent a long day on horseback and that he had not been to bed; his American style boots, his silver spurs which usually glittered, were completely soiled; his fine suede gloves were blackened indicating that the hand they covered had moved convulsively and repeatedly on the bridle of several horses he had worn out during the battle.”
Eylau was indeed a victory, but there had been a heavy price to pay!
Chosen from amongst many others, this account was left by a vélite (young soldier) of the Imperial Guard who was a witness and actor in the battle, Jean-Baptiste Barrès.
BENNIGSEN’S OUTRAGEOUSLY DECEITFUL PROPAGANDA
To take the full measure of Bennigsen’s deceitful presumptuousness one must read at least part of his proclamation to his troops.
“…The roads upon which they [the French] followed us are covered with their dead. They were lured to the battlefield of Eylau where your incomparable valour surpassed my hopes, where you showed the measure of Russian heroism [we can only agree, as the Russian troops fought so well that Napoleon himself admired their courage].
“In this battle, more than 30,000 [!] French soldiers found their graves. They were forced to retreat from every position, and they abandoned their wounded to us [scarcely believable, but true!], their standards and their baggage.
I attempted to lure them under the walls of Konigsberg in vain to achieve their total destruction. Only twelve regiments dared to advance; they were annihilated and taken prisoner. Warriors, you have now rested from your fatigues so let us pursue the trouble-makers [!!], let us crown our deeds of valour and after having brought peace to the world with new victories, we will return to our beloved homeland.
Much to his misfortune, Bennigsen was soon to encounter the “trouble-makers” again. At Friedland.
As always the number of casualties is hard to establish precisely. Approximately 6,000 dead and 20,000 wounded, including nine generals on the Russian side (most of who were to die at Konigsberg where they had been transported); 3,000 dead and 15,000-16,000 wounded for the French. Let us also mention the 4,000 horses that were killed in the various charges, for they also suffered.
The Emperor remained for eight whole days – from the 8th to the 16 February - on the battlefield to make sure that the wounded - on both sides! – were assisted and taken care of.
All the witnesses agreed: Napoleon was deeply upset by the carnage and it is to be hoped that no one will have the indecency to cast doubt on the words he had written for the circumstance.
Sceptics will undoubtedly protest that this was merely propaganda for the “Bulletin”.
In reply, here are letters - personal letters - which can hardly be considered as suspect or of having been written with the intention of spreading propaganda that the Emperor wrote to Empress Josephine, to whom he sent no less than six letters and from which we shall retain the following:
“To the Empress in Paris
“Eylau, 3 a.m., 9 February 1807
“My dear, Yesterday there was a big battle; I obtained a victory but lost many of my soldiers. Knowing that the enemy’s casualties are even greater is of no consolation to me. However, I am writing these few lines to you myself to tell you that I am in good health and that I love you.
Another letter dated 14 February, was a genuine cry of distress and disgust:
“My dear, I am still at Eylau. The country is covered with dead and wounded. It is the worst aspect of war. It is heartbreaking and my soul is oppressed at the sight of so many victims.”
Finally, there was the phrase that all those who accompanied him on the battlefield heard him utter:
“A spectacle fit to inspire princes with love of peace and a hatred of war.”
And while Napoleon in person was seeing to it that the wounded were being taken care of as was his custom, agents of the British Treasury were doubtlessly going over the battlefield to make sure that the Tsar Alexander had legitimately earned, with his soldiers’ blood, the subsidies that London had paid him.
To be continued…