LITTLE BIG MAN
JEAN-ROCH COIGNET OF THE IMPERIAL GUARD
“After victory, there are no longer enemies, only men.” (Napoleon) 1
Bivouac of Polish Uhlans at Wagram, July 1809 by January Such odolski (1797-1875)
From Berlin, Coignet marched to the Polish frontier and on to Posen and Warsaw. There was a foretaste of 1812 about it all: “The Russians were good enough to give their beautiful cities up to us, but they were not so generous about provisions; they ravaged the whole country, and carried off everything to the other side…” 2 The Russians were waiting on the far side of the Vistula, the largest river in Poland. 3 At midnight, 500 French swimmers stole across the water, carrying their muskets on their heads. When Ney found boats to make a bridge, Napoleon said: “That man is a lion.” 4
In Warsaw, Jewish businessmen secured the necessary supplies for the Army: “the Jews saved the army as well as made their fortunes.” 5 The Emperor was doing his best to pay his way in a foreign land. The general lack of provisions was a harbinger of cruel deprivation to come. And the cold and frost was setting in.
Reviews were held in preparation for a renewal of the conflict. At one, the oldest man in Poland, supposedly 117, presented himself to Napoleon. 6 When the roads were frozen enough to facilitate travel, Coignet got his biscuit ration for fourteen days. Deciding to supplement this meagre fare, he spent twenty francs on meat – all his got for it was a pound of ham. 7 When we recall that, back in France, 300 francs could buy a decent horse, or in Spain, 3 sous bought a bottle of that rot-gut Malaga wine, it can be appreciated that food prices had risen astronomically. This would have made the men fearful for their futures. When food simply could not be found, starvation was bound to follow.
Coignet and his comrades, trudging along sandy roads, were soon lost in the woods and forests. When they arrived at villages they found them all deserted. Meanwhile, winter stalked them like an unseen predator and morale plummeted. What might be called ‘Coignet’s luck’ came to the rescue. In a bivouac left by the Russians, he found two loaves secreted amidst some straw. In the dark, he carefully handed a piece of bread to Captain Renard. They later hid themselves in order to eat it. 8 Again, this is so redolent of the 1812 campaign. Snow gave way to thaws, soldiers sinking up to their knees in the boggy sand. Conditions got so bad that there were sixty suicides in the two days before the Army arrived at Pultusk: “Here we reached the depths of our misery, it could not possibly have been worse.” 9 Even Napoleon’s carriage got stuck in the mud and he had to abandon it.
It was at Pultusk that the Emperor christened his Guard grognards or grousers. 10 Indeed, they had plenty to bitch about. Coignet, true to his generous nature, decided to share two eggs he had bought with his Colonel. The officer insisted he take a gold napoleon in return. Food had truly reached the same sort of Klondike prices written of by Jack London during the Alaskan Goldrush. 11 Coignet had worked for thirty francs a year as a boy. 12
Some horse grenadiers saw a huge pig and they chased it back to camp. Coignet ambushed the beast and killed it with his sabre. Receiving his share of the spoils, he went to headquarters in search of salt. Only then did he discover that he and his comrades had taken their food from Napoleon’s table. The Lieutenant on duty told him: “The Emperor was furious at losing his dinner…his stomach was as empty as anyone’s.” 13
The next day there were only twenty potatoes for every eighteen men. It could not go on. Napoleon ordered Count Dorsenne to take the Guard back to Warsaw. Coignet describes France’s elite soldiers at this time: “we were in a perfect state of starvation; hollow-eyed, sunken-cheeked, and unshaved. We looked like dead men rising from the tomb.” 14 He reckoned they had aged ten years in a fortnight. Fortunately, on New Year’s Day 1807, they arrived at Warsaw and were treated like heroes by the Poles, the most loyal of Napoleon’s allies. 15
Then the Russians struck, moving towards the city. Napoleon responded and by early February the Army was marching towards Eylau. In the grip of an intense frost, the men were ordered to light a fire for the Emperor in the middle of the Guard. Each mess had to provide a log and a potato for him. Then, the victor of Austerlitz, the ruler of millions, got down on his haunches and baked ’tatees for his aide-de-camps. 16 Whatever the weather, Napoleon was in his element, First amongst equals. He was king of a castle whose ramparts were the living bodies of the Guardsmen, his grousers.
To pass the time, Coignet became a barber. Sitting his punters on the rump of a frozen dead horse, he shaved them with soap and snow melted over the fire: “Perched on top of his bundles of straw, the Emperor watched this strange spectacle, and burst into peals of laughter.” 17
Such propinquity, such shared experiences, forged bonds of camaraderie between Napoleon and his Guard that were virtually unbreakable. He was one of them, he shared their meagre fare, their disappointments, as well as the same dangers of shot and steel. Is it a wonder that they revered him?
The survivors were in a wretched position. The following day as the dead were being buried and the wounded taken to the hospitals, some Jews came from Warsaw with casks of brandy. For six francs per man, a glass could be dipped, once only, into a barrel: “The four casks saved the army, and the Jews made their fortune.” 26 Even the soldiers escorting them were paid three francs a day, about ten times the normal daily rate. Brandy kept out the cold, restored circulation, settled upset stomachs and boosted morale. Well did the French call it eau-de-vie.
After a truce was agreed, the Army headed for Thorn and Marienburg. At Osterode, another deserted village, some potatoes were found. However, after diligent searching, the men also found hordes of buried treasure in the shape of food of all kinds. Coignet adds: “Our beloved Emperor did everything he could to procure provisions for us; but they did not come…So we had to go out, in all that terrible weather, in search of food.” 27 Coignet decided to form a hunting party to track deer amongst the snow, But the venison remained on the hoof and aloof, while hares bounded away unscathed. But as so often in a tight spot, providence seemed to smile on Jean-Roch. As he looked for the place in the forest where a hare had vanished some of the small pine trees came away in his hands. He had discovered a massive store of food buried underground, a cache that extended for a hundred square feet. Then, he noticed boxes high up in the trees – yet more stores hidden by the peasants. 28
Back at the bivouac his comrades said: “Here is out ferret, it was he who found it all.” 29 Hence the smallest member of the Guard made the greatest contribution to their collective survival in those desolate wintry wastes. It took fifty men a whole day to unearth the stores of wheat, flour, rice, bacon and salted meat. There were twenty-five wagon loads of it. No wonder Coignet became a virtual mascot for his friends.
Coignet felt somewhat less charitable towards the Poles: “who wanted to starve us, for in our winter quarters we had passed fifty days without tasting bread… When we asked them for food, they always refused.” 30 It used to be said that a French radical had his heart on the left but his wallet on the right. For the Poles, Napoleon might have been in their hearts, but their food was in their stomachs.
Then, on June 5 th Ney was attacked. At six the next morning, the Army marched towards Friedland. The Russians were waiting for them in a strong position at a ford across a river. Lannes came up from Warsaw in a bad mood with the Poles: “The blood of one Frenchman is worth all of Poland,” he told Napoleon who replied: “If you are not satisfied, go away.” Lannes said: “No, you need me,” 33 addressing his Emperor with the familiar ‘tu’.
He was immediately sent to help Ney, opposing forces twice the size of their own. Eventually, Napoleon brought the rest of the Army up to the river: “The Russians fought like lions; they preferred to be drowned rather than to surrender.” 34 Coignet states that the Emperor slept on the battlefield as usual to make certain that the wounded were cared for.
On June 19 th, the River Niemen was reached and there was a stand-off as the bridges had been destroyed. When Napoleon arrived he sent bread to the Russians on the other side. Finally, Tsar Alexander saw reason, and an envoy came to parley. The famous meeting at Tilsit was about to take place. 35
A large raft was secured in the middle of the Niemen and a tent was erected upon it. Both rulers set off from opposite banks at the same time but, reaching the raft first, Napoleon went to offer Alexander his hand: “The two great men embraced each other as if they had been brothers returning from exile; and from every side rose shouts of ‘Vive L’Empereur!’ ” 36
The following day the King of Prussia appeared alongside the Tsar. He did not impress Coignet, although Jean-Roch was struck by the beauty of Frederick William’s queen. He adds that despite his victory, Napoleon was magnanimous and harboured no malice towards them. 37
After the monarchs had reviewed Davout’s Third Corps and the Guard, Coignet and his comrades were ordered to entertain their Russian counterparts. On June 30 th there was a feast. The Russian soldiers did not seem to be au fait with French etiquette however. As they gorged themselves, they loosened their coats and filthy rags, used to beef up their appearance, tumbled out. Even worse, when they had eaten their fill they simply stuffed their fingers down their throats and the contents of their bellies tumbled out as well. Then they began eating all over again. Coignet was horrified. 38
The Tsar as he liked to see himself.
On July 10 th, Napoleon left to go to Koenigsberg. Coignet and the Guard joined him by way of Eylau, remembering their fallen comrades . Only a few years later, they would pass another field of glorious dead - Borodino - as they retreated from Russia. At Koenigsberg, an English vessel came into port with supplies for the Russian army and the sailors were forced to surrender. 39
When the Emperor received a visit from the Prussian rulers, Coignet got another look at Louise: “Lord how beautiful she looked with her turban on her head. It was said that she was the beautiful queen of an ugly king, but I think that she was both king and queen.” 40 Coignet was on duty only feet away from her. He adds that he would have given one of his ears to be with her as long as Napoleon was. Her charms were wasted on the Emperor. If there was one thing that Napoleon did not like, it was women engaging in politics.
When his Adjutant–Major, Belcourt, sent for Coignet to tell him he was being promoted to Corporal he reminded him that he could not read or write. Belcourt told him that when he was presented to the General he was to say he was literate and that he, Belcourt would see that he was taught by good men in the Regiment. Once again, a superior officer took his part. 41
Put in charge of a mess of nineteen, he was given seven lazy but well-educated men. He was to shake them up, and they were to teach him his letters. This arrangement worked very well. His incredible memoirs attest to the fact. In celebration of his stripes and in thanks for his belated education, Coignet treated his ‘teachers’ and friends to a brandy in a café at a cost of twelve francs. On July 13 th, he set off for Berlin. 42
The atmosphere in the city was relaxed for everyone knew that peace had been made. When the occupants said that their own soldiers had not fought well, unlike the French and the Russians, Coignet corrected them: “Your soldiers are as brave as the Russians, and the Emperor had your wounded men well cared for; we carried them to the field-hospitals, as we did out own.” In reply he was told: “How kind you are, corporal! You make us very happy. You have behaved in Berlin as though you were our own countrymen.” 43 In 1815, the Prussians would come to Wellington’s rescue, having adopted Napoleon’s own corps system. Imitation is the best form of flattery – unfortunately, in this case, for the French.
When he got back to Paris, Coignet continued his education, receiving instruction twice a day from his young soldiers. And deep in the Bois de Boulogne he perfected his drill. When Napoleon set up a swimming school, he had to admit that he was afraid of the water. The Emperor himself excused him from the compulsory lessons for the Guard. Belcourt decided to teach the tone of command to some of his men, Coignet amongst them. He applied himself with his usual diligence. 44
In August 1808, there was a rash of parades and reviews - it was obvious that another war was brewing. The reign in Spain was falling down everywhere. Napoleon decided to spread some enlightenment, expecting the ideas of liberty and equality to be welcomed there as they had been elsewhere in the Empire. In October the order came to march to Bayonne. Coignet told his men what to expect, especially in regard to the local firewater. 45
Yet, after a week in Valladolid, French soldiers were once again being spoon-fed their soup. In Burgos, the war took an even nastier turn. When some horse-grenadiers stabled their mounts by the church, a little boy beckoned one of them up some stairs by the side of the building to the belfry. When he vanished through a door, the soldier followed him. This happened twice and neither of the men reappeared. A third man was suspicious so a group of armed soldiers went up the stairs together. Firing a volley through the door, they opened it and discovered the decapitated bodies of their comrades. There were eight monks in the room and they and the boy were given a lesson in flying from the top of the belfry. 46
In Spain, the teachings of Christ had been perverted by ignorant priests and fanatics into a religion of assassination and torture. As the French were treated, so did they respond in kind and the outrages and atrocities duly increased. Even before the Grand Army arrived, many a village priest rutted amongst his flock rather than attempting to save their souls. Spain was still in the Dark Ages. It was an appalling situation for the French soldiers to be in, many of whom were nominally Catholics themselves.
Shortly after, Coignet joined the new King of Spain, Joseph Bonaparte, who was on his way to meet his brother. Napoleon was already on his way to Madrid. They caught up with the advance guard and on November 30 th 1808, the battle of Somosierra took place. Here the Polish lancers covered themselves with glory, charging the Spanish guns high up in the mountains and clearing the way for an entry into the capital. 47 Madrid did not immediately fall as even though the garrison was weak, the inhabitants, including the ubiquitous monks, had taken up arms. It took a sustained artillery bombardment to force them to surrender. Lannes then took Saragossa, but it was a bloodbath. Spanish civilians were virtually irregulars in their own right. When news came of an English army commanded by Sir John Moore that was trying to cut the French line of communications, Napoleon set out to destroy it. Yet more mountains had to be crossed, it was like the St. Bernard Pass all over again. The conditions were horrendous, the snow-storms blinding: “It was necessary to have an Emperor like ours to follow, in order to be able to resist it.” 48
The English army had bolted for the coast, closely followed by the French. In bleak January weather the Guard had to cross a freezing river that rose to their waists. On the far side Coignet marched to Benevento, which had been sacked by Moore’s fleeing troops: “They killed all their horses and abandoned all their baggage-wagons and artillery.” 49 For some reason, this episode is not as well known as Waterloo. Although Moore died, the bulk of his army escaped via the port of Corunna.
The Guard was ordered back to Paris. From Limoges they were conveyed in wagons to spare their legs. At Courbevoie they were reviewed by Napoleon, before being sent on their travels again, by coach and wagon to Lorraine. At Metz they could finally change their linen and put on their full uniforms. Thousands of people came out to see the famous Guard, including those of the fairer sex: “A high wind was blowing at the time, with the result that our shirts flew up in the air, and we had the field to ourselves in no time, for the ladies screamed with horror when they saw the handsomest men in France stark naked.” 50
Once dressed, the Grand Army was once again on its way – destination Vienna. Coignet volunteered to be one of twenty-five men who were to join the Emperor and mount guard at Schoenbrunn. This march turned out to be more than a marathon.
Reaching Schoenbrunn at midnight, the officers gave the men fifteen minutes’ rest while they waited for Napoleon’s orders an hour’s march from the castle. When they finally arrived, he was furious. “What,” said he, “have you marched my veterans more than forty leagues in two days.” 51 Coignet had walked over 120 miles in 48 hours!
His legs and those of his companions had set like concrete. When Napoleon saw them all bent over and hobbling: “he became like a raging lion.” 52 He ordered sweetened wine and had cavalrymen running around in order to see to their welfare, a nice sight for footsloggers used to the haughty attitude of their mounted troops, nicknamed ‘the gods’ for their aloofness. Coignet says: “The Emperor never left us; he stayed with us more than an hour.” 53
Soon Vienna fell, and the Austrian army crossed to the other side of the Danube after blowing the bridges. The river was in spate and crossing it in the face of the enemy was doubly dangerous. On May 18 th, promotions were announced and Coignet became a Sergeant, the equivalent of a Lieutenant in the Line, with the right to carry a sword and cane in Paris. 54
Lannes was ordered to lead the men across the river and take Essling, seconded by Marshal Bessières. When the French opened fire, 100,000 Austrians turned to face Lannes’ single corps. Leaving Schoenbrunn with the Guard, Napoleon raced to his aid. At eleven o’clock Coignet was in the front line as were the rest of the bearskins. Rushing across Lobau island they stormed over the bridge at the far end: “As soon as the fight began a cannon-ball struck the Emperor’s horse on the hip. At once all shouted, “We will lay down our arms, if the Emperor does not go to the rear instantly.” 55
To the left of Essling, fifty enemy guns were pointed at the Guard. At this somewhat inconvenient time, Coignet felt an urgent call of nature. The orders were that no one was allowed to retreat. So, with his usual sang-froid, Jean-Roch moved forward, turned his back to the enemy and dropped his trousers. A cannon ball ricocheted close by, bombarding his backside with stones. When he resumed his post Captain Renard said: “that was a near thing,” to which Coignet replied: “It was sir; their paper’s too hard, I couldn’t use it.” 56
When a shell burst near the General, knocking him over and covering him with dust, Dorsenne got up and said: “Your general is not hurt. You may depend upon him, he will know how to die at his post.” 57 Coignet felt a pain in his arm and he thought it had been blown off. Then, he noticed a piece of flesh from one of his comrades sticking to his uniform. The cost of this battle was enormous for Lannes himself was hit by a cannon ball. Jean Lannes, the equal to Ney in audacity and bravery, had been at the spearhead of many a French victory. His own courage had often rallied his more nervous companions. Had he been at Waterloo, along with Davout, history would have been very different. 58
Lannes battered leg was amputated, he seemed to be recovering, but gangrene set in. In 1809 and for many years afterwards, that meant only one thing. Napoleon was distraught at the loss of his friend and he wept bitterly. This is another reflection upon Napoleon’s character that is hardly ever mentioned in English history books. Once he had made a friend, he found it impossible to lose them. Coignet says: “We were all filled with dismay at our great loss.” 59
Lannes’ corps panicked and retreated. By now, the Guard was stretched out in a single line and they rallied behind that inviolable wall. Bessières gave them a pep talk and even took them forward as sharp-shooters. At this stage of the fighting a quarter of the Guard had fallen to the withering cannon fire without being able to fire a musket in reply. Behind them the bridges had been carried away by the fast flowing Danube. Had the Austrians realized this, it would have been an even worse day for the Grand Army. 60
Coignet says that: “The battle was neither lost nor won,” 61 but in the Courts of Europe and to Napoleon’s enemies, it was viewed as Austrian victory. What with the persistent troubles in Spain and a torrent of English gold ready to flow towards any enemy of France, the Empire itself was under siege. Archduke Charles asked for a three months’ truce and this was quickly agreed to. 62
The French withdrew to the island of Lobau and were stuck there for three days without bread. The Austrians had let loose their floating mills and these had smashed into the bridges linking Lobau to the mainland. Horses were eaten while in the background the screechings of amputees rent the air. As always, Larrey was doing his best to save men’s lives. 63
In the hiatus between battles, Napoleon fortified Lobau and prepared for the renewal of hostilities. A 100,000 men prepared earthworks and redoubts. This time, nothing was to be left to chance. On July 5 th the Army got ready. Eugene arrived with his Italians’ in time for the river crossing the next day, when the truce expired. Seven hundred French cannons waited. 64
The barrage began on both sides. The noise was tremendous, it was like the Ragnarok 65 or the Day of Judgment, men were scattered like chaff, stilled in an instant by the projectiles fired by the devouring cannon. When his main Guard battery had lost so many men that they needed replacements, Napoleon was anxious lest the Austrians perceive how great was the damage they were doing to his centre. So he called for volunteers from the grenadiers. Everyone wanted to go. 66
Fifty pieces were served by willing hands. They were like the hammers of Thor, such was the destruction they wrought. Napoleon paced up and down, taking snuff while, off to the right Davout was seizing the heights held by the enemy and driving them back upon the Olmütz road. 67
At the critical moment, the Emperor sent forward his cuirassiers in one tumultuous body, the ground shaking as if in awe of their passing. They returned with fifty Austrian cannon. Eugene galloped up to tell Napoleon he had the victory. So ended the battle of Wagram. Such was the ‘interest’ returned to Emperor Francis for his investment in English gold. 68
That night the Guard formed a square and Napoleon slept in the middle of it. The wounded were sent to Vienna: “The next day we found thirty cannon-balls which had fallen in one spot. It is impossible to give any idea of such a battle.” 69 The hilt of Coignet’s sword had been blown away, his arm was numbed, and he had seen many of his comrades die – but Jean-Roch Coignet was lucky, he had survived.
©John Tarttelin FINS
TO BE CONTINUED