LITTLE BIG MAN
JEAN-ROCH COIGNET OF THE IMPERIAL GUARD
Cossacks – Detaille
Napoleon with Poniatowski
When Coignet left Schoenbrunn after Wagram, he was warmly received in the Confederation of the Rhine. Prior to Napoleon’s rule, the smaller German states that made up the Confederation had been little more than counters in the great game played by Prussia and Austria to dominate them. 1
When he returned to Paris, there was a great funeral ceremony for Marshal Lannes, including a cortège of 100,000 men. Jean-Roch was one of the sixteen men who carried his bier. Now a Sergeant on 43 sous a day, he continued with his drill practice and his education. However, Coignet felt self-conscious because his calves were not impressive in the silk stockings he now wore to go with his sword. So he bought a pair of false calves. 2
When Captain Renard invited him for a meal with his family, he accepted, but he felt uncomfortable with all the well-to-do people around him – it was a bit much for someone from his peasant stock. Seated between two beauties, he was their centre of attention. Unlike the officers at the party, he was too shy to brag of his exploits either on campaign or between the sheets. Renard sang his praises instead adding: “In fact ladies, I should have been dead but for him.” 3
The next day, he received a letter from one of his admirers asking him to visit her. He found her: “dressed in a most captivating negligee. I could hardly contain myself.” 4 So began one of Coignet’s most arduous campaigns, but the thrice weekly ‘skirmishes’ that followed exhausted him and he had a devil of a job hiding his false calves: “the task was too much for my strength; I had found my master, and should have been forced to surrender.” 5
He describes their costume: “Low behind, down to the middle of their backs, and low in front so that you could see half their breasts; their shoulders and arms bare… I had never before seen the ladies of Paris, half naked, so near. I did not like it.” 7
Some time later: “The Emperor gave a magnificent ball; he opened it himself with Marie Louise. There never was seen a better formed man. He really was a perfect model; his hands and feet were unequalled for beauty.” 8 Most people associate Napoleon’s name with the plump figure of Waterloo. When he was younger he was very thin, even skeletal in his impoverished youth. His smile was said to be captivating when he became Emperor, while his grey eyes could be both gentle and terrifying. Sometimes he reduced his grousers to tears, even with a minor rebuke, so highly did they rate his opinion of them.
When Napoleon invited all the princes of the Confederation of the Rhine to Paris, and Prince Charles was chosen to be a godfather to the baby, a huge review was held in front of the Tuileries Palace. Coignet was asked to relay Napoleon’s orders to the massed ranks of soldiers. He later admitted to his officers: “I heard him, but I could not look at him: he would have frightened me; I saw only his horse.” 10
In the early months of 1812, a hundred men began making 100,000 cartridges, manoeuvres took place on the plain of St. Denis, and reviews were held at the Tuileries. It was obvious to Coignet that war preparations were being made. He was made quartermaster of grenadiers and took charge of four wagons, two of which contained 28,000 francs. The Guard started for Meaux on May 1 st 1812. 11
Napoleon was in Dresden with the Empress and for ten days he entertained the other rulers of Europe – with the exception of the Tsar and the King of England. He was about to attack Russia because the Tsar, despite the Treaty of Tilsit, had failed to support him against his most implacable foe, the English. By June 23 rd, the Grand Army was at the Russian border. 12
On June 26 th, the Guard crossed the River Niemen. Murat led the way with his cavalry and Davout’s highly trained First Corps accompanied the guardsmen. Elting remarks that: “Undoubtedly the best-equipped infantry the Grand Armeé ever saw was Davout’s I Corps at the beginning of the 1812 campaign…” 13 This campaign is often castigated from the outset by historians, but Napoleon’s preparations had been extensive and meticulous.
Coignet had his own personal philosophy: “Providence and courage never abandon a good soldier.” 14 This belief was exemplified in his own actions and bravery during this campaign.
At first, it was Poland all over again – until it got even worse than Poland. On June 29 th the weather took a severe turn for the worse: “at three o’clock, a violent storm arose…The storm of sleet and snow was so terrible that we could scarcely keep our horses still; we had to fasten them to the wheels…” 15 Frozen to the marrow, Coignet crept beneath the cover of one of his wagons. The next day dead horse were strewn everywhere – 10,000 died in a single night. He had lost three of his own and had he not immediately harnessed the survivors they too would have perished. It was not an auspicious start to the campaign.
The Army plodded on through immense tracts of dark and gloomy forest. Many educated officers, well versed in history, must have been reminded of the annihilation of Varus’ three legions in the Teutoberg forest by Arminius in AD 9. No one would ever have dreamt that their own fate was going to be even worse.
On July 13 th Coignet was told by Major Belcourt that he was going to become a Lieutenant in the Line. With the ethos of the Guard fixed in his soldierly DNA, Coignet replied: “Thank you, but I do not wish to return to the line.” 16 Belcourt said he would get him transferred right back. When Napoleon inspected the twenty men due promotion, Coignet repeated that he wanted to remain a guardsman. As a consequence he was appointed to the Emperor’s minor staff.
He soon rued his decision for he was given command of three battalions of stragglers by Count Monthyon. He suddenly found himself in charge of 700 men he was supposed to escort back to Third Corps with just a drummer and a bugle-boy to help him. Amongst them were 133 Spaniards of the Joseph Napoleon Regiment. After they left Vilna, they were lost amongst the huge forests. The very first night there were deserters. The whole bunch were unmanageable, stopping whenever they saw fit and virtually ignoring him. 17
Far from any habitation, in a place where the trees had been burnt, the Spaniards took off into the blackened forest. When he galloped after them, they fired at him and he had to let them go. Later, he reported this to a cavalry Colonel who had the fugitives arrested. They were forced to draw lots and half - 62 of them - were summarily executed. In the days to come their fate would be envied. 18
At Vitebsk he went ahead expecting to give over his charges to Third Corps, but the corps had moved on. When he got back to where he had left his men all of them had vanished save for the drummer. He caught up with Monthyon’s staff with just the drummer and his servant, and they all laughed at him. The chief of staff asked him what had happened: “Ah, general, I sweated blood.” When he was told he was going to be presented to the Marshal he added: “I know him, and he knows me; he will not laugh at me as your officers did. They hurt me very much.” 19
The Marshal was none other than his old friend Davout who remembered him very well. When the young scoffers heard he was so well in with the Iron Marshal they looked at him with renewed respect. Then he set off with despatches from Davout to Napoleon. From Vitebsk the Emperor headed for Smolensk were a terrible battle ensued, the Russians trying to deny entry to the town to the Grand Army. Stores of salt and sugar caught fire and lurid rainbow hues swirled amongst the flames. Against this background, Napoleon sent for Coignet. He was to take two good horses and ride for Vitebsk yet again with orders. 20
Jean-Roch rode his first mount like an Apache, until it was almost driven into the ground, then he scrambled onto the back of the other. Delivering his despatches, he had a lie down for an hour and then set about on the return journey. In the woods that flew by on either side there was no sign of the French cavalry stations, only an ominous silence. He wisely slowed down for he almost rode into the midst of some Cossacks. A peasant warned him of the danger. Seizing him, Coignet demanded he show him a way around the obstacle, waving a pistol in one hand and holding out gold with the other. 21
After a diversion, the peasant took him back to the main road up ahead and got three napoleons as a reward. Even when he got back to the main French Army it took him a long time to find the Emperor, who asked him for an account of his adventures. Satisfied he said: “Monthyon, pay him for all the expenses of his journey: for his two horses, and the sixty francs which the peasant well deserved. Give my old grouser time to remount himself. For his two horses, sixteen hundred francs and expenses. I am well pleased with you.” 22
Moscow was 93 leagues away through dense forest. Many of his captains urged caution and, at first, Napoleon seemed to be considering staying at Smolensk for the winter. But then he changed his mind and decided to press on. That single change of mind was to cost him his Empire.
Battle of Smolensk – Langlois
A sharp action took place at Valutina where Ney fought the Russian rearguard. Napoleon heard that Davout had gone on ahead without searching the forest for Russian troops. Coignet was sent to warn him of the danger. Davout’s men turned back but as they were blocking Coignet’s way he veered off to the left and took a parallel road. Soon he found himself in the midst of retreating Russian soldiers crossing the road ahead of him. With great presence of mind he shouted “Forward!” and continued on his way. 23
Everywhere, there were signs of the panic that had afflicted Russian troops and clear evidence of the victims of the conflict: “If they did not have time to bury them, they left them in piles for us to see. It was a heart-rending sight.” 24 Then, berated by the Tsar for constantly retreating, Kutuzov decided to make a stand at the little village of Borodino.
Borodino, or the battle of the Moskwa as it is known in France, was like a preview of trench warfare during the Battle of the Somme. The carnage was even greater than at Waterloo. The Russians, stubborn and courageous in defence stood like a wall, in Napoleon’s own words, it wasn’t enough to kill them, they had to be pushed over afterwards. There was very little manoeuvre because the last thing that the Emperor wanted was for Kutuzov to retreat yet again. Hence he ‘fixed’ the front of their forces and the battle turned into a brutal slogging match. Davout urged him to send Poniatowski’s Poles far to the right along the Utitsa road to envelop the Russian left wing and get behind their prepared earthworks, while others begged him to throw in the Guard, but he rejected both suggestions. He was proved right about the Guard for without them, he would either have been killed or captured at Krasny during the retreat. But on the day of the battle he was also unwell: “his ill-health seems to have taken heavy toll of his efficiency on this occasion,” 25 Chandler remarks.
The key to the enemy’s defences were their prepared redoubts which resisted all the forces thrown at them. Finally, Napoleon sent for Coignet. He instructed him to go to Caulaincourt 26 and tell him to charge the redoubts with his cuirassiers. Caulaincourt told Coignet to follow him closely. In a joint operation, the ironclads and the grenadiers moved forward together. Coignet’s life hung by a thread and he knew it: “Cuirassiers and French grenadiers struggled pell-mell with the Russians. The brave Caulaincourt fell stone-dead beside me. I followed the old colonel who took the command, and never lost sight of him.” 27 With death and destruction all around him he must have expected his end would come at any moment.
With bodies piled high in the redoubts, and the French in possession of them, the Colonel sent him to tell Napoleon that victory was his. As he charged back, cannon balls ploughed up the ground all around him, like marbles thrown by a furious giant. It was Wagram all over again. When he took his hat off to give the Emperor the good news he noticed that the back of it had been blown away. ‘Coignet’s luck’ had held: “We passed the night on the battle-field, and the next day the Emperor had all the wounded taken up. This task made us shudder; the ground was covered with Russian muskets: near their field hospitals there were piles of dead bodies and heaps of limbs which had been amputated.” 28
During his pursuit, Murat came across charred skeletons. The retreating Russians had set fire to everything, including buildings housing their own helpless wounded: “That shows how much they valued their soldiers.” 29 Coignet was sent on ahead to join Murat and give him despatches. The King of Naples laughed when he saw Coignet’s battered hat. Napoleon had also given Coignet twenty gendarmes and told him to secure the Kremlin when Murat entered Moscow.
Many writers imply that Moscow was deserted when the French arrived, but Coignet says: “When we reached the bridge we found the city authorities there and a Russian general, who presented the keys to the prince.” Furthermore, once they entered the city: “all the people came to the widows to see us pass, and the ladies presented us with bottles of wine…” 30
While Murat continued through Moscow to the Kaluga road, Coignet took his gendarmes to the Kremlin. As if he had had a premonition, when off duty, he bought a fur robe and a bearskin for forty francs each from other soldiers. Then the great Moscow fire broke out. 31
Like Bourgogne, he saw the sheet-iron used in roofing flying like chaff through the scorched air. As all the 800 fire-engines had been removed on the Russian Rostopchin’s orders there was little the French could do. Although the order have been given not to loot, when the common soldiers realized the Russians were burning their own city discipline collapsed and men took whatever they fancied, especially food and valuables. 32
The toughness of the Russians was not restricted to the men. Coignet noticed that: “Two or three thousand women were there, with their children in their arms, looking upon the horrors of the fire, and I am sure I never saw one of them shed a tear.” 33
It is often said that the Great Fire meant that it was impossible for Napoleon’s troops to winter in Moscow. Although 10,000 houses and 500 palaces and churches were burnt out, a third of the city remained untouched and colossal stocks of foodstuffs were found by the Army buried in cellars and hiding places. Once the flames had died down, Coignet was lodged in the house of a princess. Of his own grandiose billet he states: “We had thousands of bottles of Bordeaux wine, champagne, and thousands of pounds of white and brown sugar.” 34
He certainly got his share of unpleasant duties to perform. One of which was to take the dead bodies from the hospitals and bury them in holes twenty feet deep. After that thankless task his General spared him and Coignet was able to join him at his table. He adds: “We had provisions enough for the winter, both for ourselves and our horses.” 35 Had the stocks of food been gathered together and used wisely, they would have lasted through the worst of the winter months. Politically, however, Napoleon could not afford to be bottled-up in Moscow for that long.
As early as September 20 th, anxious to disassociate himself from the ravages of the fire, Napoleon wrote to Alexander: “If your Majesty still conserves for me some remnant of your former feelings, you will take this letter in good part.” As Chandler remarks, this message is devoid of confidence and is “Almost the tone of a suppliant asking a favor.” 36 The Emperor had been stunned by the sight of a people destroying their own wonderful city, just to prevent him from occupying it. In his heart, he had hoped for a gentlemanly conflict, a quick campaign, a good battle, followed by victory and peace. As he waited in the Kremlin for an answer to his several letters to Alexander, it dawned on him that this was simply not going to happen. The silence said everything.
Utterly exhausted, Coignet had returned to the house of the princess. There, in the cellar, he found some horses which had been hidden throughout his stay. He took a carriage full of provisions but soon transferred these to horses as the hordes of retreating soldiers and camp-followers blocked the road. 38
At the ghastly battle-field of Borodino: “the Emperor… sighed when he saw the dead still unburied.” 39 Coignet says the worst of the winter weather began on November 6 th, three days before they reached the burnt-out shell of Smolensk.: “I took every possible care of myself.” 40 He describes how he made tea for his General and made sure he was put in front of a good fire – helping others as he had the whole of his military career. He was fortunate to have enough tea to last all the way to Vilna. Man died around him like flies: “There were three captains, and only death separated us, which means that I alone am left alive.” 41
Coignet kept as close to the Emperor and the Guard as possible. Stragglers were picked off by Cossacks or perhaps worse, captured and tortured by irate peasants. When he got to the Berezina river, he saw the half-burnt bridge that had been the Army’s only hope of salvation. Thanks to the Olympian heroics of General Eblé and his engineers, two trestle bridges were thrown across the freezing waters. The bulk of the Army crossed over on the nights of the 27 th and 28 th and Coignet found himself guarding the head of the artillery bridge to stop civilians trying to cross. On the far side of the same end of the bridge was none other than Davout – fate having brought them together yet again. 42
When the pursuing Russians fired their big guns at the crowds on the bridges Coignet, like Bourgogne, was a witness to the mayhem that resulted. It would be interesting to know if the two of them knew each other, they must have met or been close to each other on many occasions. After reviewing some Russian prisoners, Napoleon sent for Jean-Roch. He was given despatches to take along the Vilna road and a guide went with him. 43
At a village he does not name, Coignet met the mayor. He was instructed by the Emperor to gather a mass of provisions, an impossible task he told Coignet. But he was a Francophile and he made Jean-Roch welcome. He did much more, because he probably saved his life. As they were talking Cossacks approached and in an instant Coignet found himself bundled into a huge low oven by the mayor. 44
After what seemed like ages, he was let out – but his despatches had been taken by the Cossacks. Little did he know, but that was exactly what Napoleon wanted to happen. Retracing his steps, Coignet inched his way over the glass-like road, dead and dying soldiers all around him. It was so cold that musket barrels stuck to bare hands. It had reached twenty-eight degrees below zero. 45
When he finally saw the Emperor, he went to make his report. Napoleon seemed amazed: “What! They did not capture you? And your despatches, where are they?” He then ordered Coignet a week’s rest and the payment of twice his expenses. Not that he had much chance of taking a rest! Coignet adds the following: “(I learned afterwards that the Emperor had sacrificed me in order to have my despatches captured and deceive the enemy).” Yet he makes no criticism of him. 46
The Army was falling apart: “There was no longer any discipline or any human feeling for one another. Each man looked out for himself.” 47 Stronger men pushed weaker ones away from the fires, often to be pushed away in their turn. The weak oppressed the weaker – it seemed like the end.
At Smorgoni, Napoleon left for France. The Malet conspiracy had alerted him to the dangers of being away from Paris. He is often criticized for ‘deserting’ his Army yet, in 1814, his absence allowed the arch-traitor Talleyrand to deliver the capital over to the Allies. He can be blamed, however, for leaving Murat in charge. His brother-in-law was next in line in terms of Court precedence and it might have been perceived as an insult to have chosen someone else. But here political considerations were diametrically opposed to the good of the Army.
Coignet states: “We remained under the command of the King of Naples and were not too happy in out minds, for, though he was always the first to draw a sabre or brave danger, he may truly be said to have bee the executioner of our cavalry.” 48 He did not take care of his horses, keeping his men mounted for hours at a time and doing little or nothing to provide the men or animals with food. Coignet says that in Davout’s opinion, Murat lost them 40,000 horses through his incompetence. If so, then Murat, in effect, lost Napoleon his Empire as well, for it was the shortage of cavalry in 1813 that severely hampered Napoleon’s attempt to hold the Allies at bay. When Eugene took over – Murat thinking of only himself, yet again, had fled to Naples – the survivors breathed a sigh of relief. 49
When he got to Vilna, Coignet was lucky enough to find shelter with a comrade in a warm school. When he went to his General for orders, he returned to find his companion refusing to budge. He struck him several times with the flat of his sword to make him move. Had he remained there he would have surely died. The Russians broke into the Vilna soon after: “They committed the most horrible acts in the town. All the unfortunate men still asleep in their lodgings, were murdered, and the streets were strewn with the dead bodies of Frenchmen.” 50
Like his compatriot Bourgogne, Coignet had only admiration for Ney: “It may be said in praise of Marshal Ney that he kept the enemy at bay at Kowno by his own bravery. I saw him take a musket and five men and face the enemy. The country ought to be grateful for such men.” 51 Had other senior officers had the same mettle as Ney and Eugene, the Army might have been able to rally at Vilna. As it was, the retreat continued.
The writing was on the wall. When the starving, often defenceless remnants of Napoleon’s once proud Army reached Prussia, they were abused by Prussian sentries. Denied access to shelter, many of them died in the frozen streets. Coignet took two men to the town hall at Koenigsberg and through sheer persistence got them all shelter. The owners of the billet were indifferent until he offered them twenty francs a day for the privilege. A Prussian doctor was kind enough to treat Coignet’s frozen foot for free and added “Farewell, brave Frenchmen,” as he left them. 52
When he caught up with Count Montyhon, Coignet was put in charge of all the vehicles left with the Army. That was on December 28 th 1812. His first task was to get rid of those that were unnecessary. Soon the French forces retreated to Berlin and then Magdeburg. Eugene got the survivors into some sort of shape at the Elbe, taking up a good defensive position according to Coignet: “he looked after everything…” 53 Eugene had only 15,000 infantry, 800 cavalry and eight guns left.
Jean-Roch Coignet had demonstrated immense courage and resilience yet again. Even when nearly every one else turned their backs on their comrades, he continued to give other struggling fugitives a helping hand, be they generals or simple grenadiers. His indomitable spirit and resourceful nature kept his body and soul together, no matter what the hardships he had to endure. Coignet was fashioned in a mould all of his own. Soon he would face yet more danger and this time the very soil of France would be at stake.
©John Tarttelin, FINS
TO BE CONTINUED