LITTLE BIG MAN
JEAN-ROCH COIGNET OF THE IMPERIAL GUARD
THE FIGHT FOR FRANCE
THE LAST GRENADIER AT WATERLOO – VERNET 1
“ I can still see the long dark columns of the Old Guard with their proud eagles, tall bearskins, and martial faces hovering like gloomy dream pictures; first the warlike sound of drums and pipes, then the ghostly figures of the pioneers with glinting axes and long black beards, and behind them the endless columns of transport.” 2
So said Wilhelm von Kügelgen as he recalled being a young boy when the Grand Army passed through Dresden on its way to the Russian border in 1812. The vast majority of those soldiers died in the snows of a bitter winter. But the spirit of the Guard, the soul of the Immortals, did not die, it lived on in the memories of the survivors and in the cadres at the depots back in France. It imbued the men that flocked to the ranks with enthusiasm and resolve when Père Violet returned along with the flowers of a wondrous Spring. A whole new adventure was about to begin and Jean-Roch Coignet, who had served in Italy, Spain, Austria and Russia was one of the men who enthusiatically greeted the Emperor upon his return.
But then came the Battle of Waterloo and as darkness fell on the night of June 18th 1815, it also seemed to be the twilight of the idol.
The unbelievable cry of “La Garde recule!” was still ringing in their ears, as thousands of men ran for their lives down the road towards Genappe. For hours they had endured the cannons spitting death from hungry maws, the volleys of musket fire and the whine of Congreve rockets. Fear had mixed with sweat and anguish as they bravely fought for Le Tondu between the ever-tightening pincers of the forces of Wellington and Blucher. It was an impossible task that they had almost made possible.
As the sun set on that forlorn day, not just upon the vanquished soldiers, but upon a whole Empire, the thunderous roar of the cannon abated, the stuttering crackle of musketry subsided and the chaotic whirl of dragoons and cuirassiers, around the British squares became just a memory. Soon even the screams and shouts of the wounded and dying faded as the fugitives were cloaked in darkness.
That darkness still lingers in France. In the minds of many, the battle has become an embarrassment, like a cenotaph to lost glory, a tomb for Napoleon’s greatness and a cross that France has had to bear ever since. A battle had been lost but France had not been conquered. Defeatists who lost their nerve allowed the country to sleepwalk into the arms of the Bourbons. Ever since, Waterloo has been a perpetual stain upon French honour. But things could have been different. It need not have been that way.
The events of that frenetic summer have certainly overshadowed the campaign of 1814. Napoleon’s achievements with a small army against overwhelming odds were incredible. When the Emperor was allowed to be just a soldier there was no contemporary military leader who came anyway near him in terms of inspiration and ability - in his day he was nonpareil.
Jean-Roch Coignet was there, and in his memoirs he vividly recreates the highs and lows of this illustrious chapter in Napoleon’s life.
We left Coignet on the Elbe with Eugene’s meagre forces. In 1813, before Napoleon could join his stepson, the Russians and Prussians attacked. On May 2 nd the ‘Marie-Louises’ 3 were blooded at the battle of Lutzen: “the success of which was due to the French infantry, and chiefly to the valour of our young conscripts, entirely unsupported by cavalry. It is impossible to give an idea of the desperate valour of our troops.” 4 The wounded were rescued by thirty young local couples that repeatedly returned to the battlefield on their mercy mission. This again belies the oft-quoted assertion that Napoleon and the French were by now hated by the Germans. 5
“Intelligence is the essence of warfare – it is what the armies depend upon in their every move.” 7 Coignet became notorious for his strict adherence to orders. Berthier remarked to General Monython: “That old grouser is making everyone go on foot.” 8 Supported by his General, Berthier must also have agreed with Coignet’s methods because he made him a Captain on Napoleon’s General Staff. 9
“You will always be near the Emperor,” Monython said to Coignet when he told him the good news. 10 It cost him 250 francs to buy epaulets and the tassels for his hat. No wonder scavengers rifled the bodies of the dead and dying on the battlefields of the period. There was more than just money for the taking.
At Bautzen on May 20 th, the French were again victorious and two days later Latour-Maubourg’s cavalry mauled the Russians. Coignet was with the Emperor, following the retreating Russians, when some cannon were fired nearby. Napoleon asked Duroc to go and investigate. Seconds later, Duroc was dying, struck by a cannonball. The Guard was ordered to halt and Napoleon sat for hours in front of his tent with his head bowed and his hands clasped. 11
Napoleon went to embrace his old friend for the last time: “When he returned to camp he walked up and down in front of his tent. No one dared go near him; we all stood around with bowed heads.” 12 First it was Lannes and now Duroc. Napoleon’s greatest and best friends were being taken from him and lesser men were starting to question his authority and to look to their own futures. As if that wasn’t enough, traitors like Talleyrand and Fouché were causing trouble in Paris, turncoats like Bernadotte and Moreau were actively helping the enemy, and his own Marshals upon whom he had lavished wealth and high position would soon desert him.
Peace was declared on June 4 th and Napoleon headed for Dresden. He no longer had the Army seen by young Kügelgen only a year before. When the armistice ended on August 10 th he was badly outnumbered – the Allies had 800,000 men while he had little more than 300,000. Even Papa Francis, his vacillating father-in-law, had gone over to the other side. Despite achieving another victory at Dresden where he returned to help Marshal St. Cyr, the French forces were badly over-stretched. 13
A contemporary battle scene in Spain
Even the news that Moreau had fallen failed to raise the spirits of some of the French officers. Coignet was stunned by their reaction: ‘This was a memorable victory; but our generals had had enough of it. I had my place among the staff, and I heard all sorts of things said in conversation. They cursed the Emperor: ‘He is a ---,’ they said, ‘who will have us all killed.’ I was dumb with astonishment. I said to myself, ‘We are lost.’ ” 14
The next day Coignet himself ventured the opinion that they would be better off at the Rhine. His General agreed and said: “but the Emperor is obstinate: no one can make him listen to reason.” 15
One wonders what these men expected from the Allies. When Napoleon went they got the White Terror in his place. If thy avoided D’Artois’ and Lord Liverpool’s purges they were sent out to pasture on half-pay, their places taken by the dilettantes returning in Louis XVIII’s baggage-train. Large parts of France, were ransacked by the invading armies. It was a strange sort of ‘liberation’.
Napoleon did his best, pushing himself to the limit. At Pirna he became sick and ill, overtaken by exhaustion. Defeats followed in quick succession as his Marshals failed to emulate his brilliance - Vandamme, Macdonald and Oudinot were beaten in the field. On September 14 th Bavaria defected to the Allies. At Leipzig Napoleon hoped to turn back the tide. 16
On the second day of this epic three-day battle, Coignet was sent for. The Emperor instructed him to get the seventeen wagons of the Imperial household clear of the city. They contained the treasure and all his maps. The following morning, as Coignet was preparing to leave, the Allies attacked again. The Saxon contingent of Napoleon’s forces took the opportunity to change sides, making the Army’s position untenable. 17
As cannonballs fell amongst the wagons, Coignet got them moving towards the long bridge that led to safety. That evening he learnt that the French had repulsed the combined forces of four armies but their ammunition was running out. A retreat was imminent. Tragedy occurred when the sappers, instructed to blow the bridge when the Army had crossed, blew it up too soon, stranding thousands on the far bank. Marshal Poniatowski drowned trying to swim his horse across. 18
Death of Poniatowski
The shattered remains of the Army crossed the Saale on October 20 th. Murat left soon after for Naples. It did not take him long to start secret negotiations with the Austrians. From Erfurt Napoleon headed for Hanau where the Bavarians had the temerity to bar his path. 19
In a forest just in front of the town he spoke to the Guard. Some 40,000 Bavarians, greatly outnumbering the two battalions Napoleon was sending against them, were waiting in a strong position. Coignet rode up to his Emperor: “Would your Majesty permit me to follow the horse-grenadiers?” Napoleon answered: “Go, there will be one good man the more.” 20
With mud up to their knees the grousers pressed on and managed to turn the position of the enemy. The Bavarians wavered: “unable to resist them for a moment, and were cut to pieces…the most fearful carnage ensued that I ever saw in my life.” 21 Coignet, on a small horse, struggled to keep up. On the extreme left by the city wall, he found himself faced by an enemy platoon. Their mounted officer charged him with a long sword. Coignet parried the stroke and then cut his head off with his sabre, returning to his own side with a captured Arab horse. 22
The Bavarians thought they would be Napoleon’s last straw, but it was they that turned out to be but a broken Wrede. 23
From Frankfort the remnants of the Army retired to Mayence where yellow fever struck. Coignet again had the unenviable task of managing the burial parties. Then the minor headquarters stayed in Metz for two months, awaiting events. 24
The campaign of 1814 was about to begin. Napoleon’s attitude can de summed up in the words of Charles Ist of England when a prisoner: “Dum spiro spero” – ‘While I breathe, I hope’. 25 His Army might have been weak in numbers, but he used them in a tour de force.
On January 27th at St. Dizier there was a sharp battle and after losing badly the Allies were forced to fall back on Brienne. St. Dizier was a shattered ruin and the inhabitants had to flee the town. Here was a stark warning of what an invasion and occupation would really mean. 26
From the heights of Brienne the enemy rained down shot and shell upon the French forces, struggling through the muddy landscape. The Emperor was determined to take the town where he had studied as a boy. Riding out in front of his men he said: “Soldiers, I am your colonel; I shall lead you. Brienne must be taken.” 27 Coignet writes of the electric response that surged through the listeners: “each soldier became equal to four. Our troops were so transported that the Emperor could not control them; they rushed past the staff.” 28 When historians try to pretend that the ‘individual’ is unimportant in the scheme of things, they forget human nature and the immense effect that impassioned words can have upon the human psyche. Brienne duly fell.
On the pursuit to Mézières, in virtual darkness, Napoleon was attacked by a Cossack. Colonel Gourgaud shot him at point-blank range with his pistol. After twenty-four hours in the saddle it was clearly time to rest. The small Army then went to Troyes and on February 1st pushed back the Allies at Chaumpaubert. At La Rothière , although he retained the battlefield, Napoleon could only manage a draw. The battles now came thick and fast: Château-Thierry on the 12th; Gennevilliers on the 15th; Montereau on the 18 th. A French corps had failed to arrive in time to support the Emperor so he sent Marshal Lefebvre to seize the bridge at Montereau, Coignet along with him. He was on his Arab mount captured at Hanau. Lefebvre’s blood was up and Coignet saw him foaming at the mouth as he hacked at the enemy. 29
On the road to St. Dizier, Allied cavalry counter-attacked. They were rescued by a battalion of chasseurs who had cast of their knapsacks in order to help all the more quickly. In the meantime Napoleon and the Old Guard were setting up the artillery on a hill before Montereau. The Emperor himself sighted the pieces despite the soldiers pleading for him to go to the rear: “No,” he said, “the bullet which is to kill me is not yet moulded.” 30 Coignet laments that he ought to have met a glorious death there rather than be betrayed later by those he had raised to prominence.
The furious pace continued, there was a battle at Méry-sur-Seine on the 21th; Sézanne on the 28th; Berryau-Bac on 5th of March and a terrible clash at Craonne on the 7th. On March 13 th Coignet was at the gates of Reims. The Russians held the city. A surprise sortie by them literally caught Napoleon napping, he had been exhausted by the struggle at Craonne. With alacrity and choice expletives, he urged his staff to bring up the siege artillery. After a bombardment the cuirassiers stormed into the place and wreaked havoc: “The Emperor, at the head of his staff, was in Reims by midnight, and the Russians utterly routed.” 31 Coignet’s regret was that these amazing achievements were not echoed elsewhere in France. At Fontainebleau: “We wanted to make a last effort, and march upon Paris; but it was too late…Paris had surrendered without resistance.” 32
Coignet hoped to follow Napoleon to Elba but, as he was no longer a member of the Guard, he could not be taken. After he chose the 600 he was allowed to have as his bodyguard, Napoleon ordered General Drout to take the rest to Louis XVIII in Paris. Those men stepped from the sublime to the ridiculous. Coignet wept as the Emperor took his last farewell. 33
He says: “If Paris had held out twenty-four hours, France would have been saved.” 34 Instead, the forces of reaction plunged the nation into heartbreak and sorrow, returning émigrés landing like vultures on what they thought was Napoleon’s political corpse.
Coignet was sent home on half-pay of 73 francs a month and made to plant cabbages. At Auxerre in the spring of 1815, he heard some incredible news from a drinking companion, the return of the grey coat: “I withdrew, overwhelmed with joy…I felt as if my Emperor was already back again.” 35 Ney arrived with the 14th Regiment, determined to arrest Napoleon. The thought that he intended to lay his hand upon the Emperor made Coignet tremble.
Depressed when he heard shouts of ‘Down with Bonaparte’ and ‘Long live the King’, his hopes revived when the soldiers of the 14th put their shakos on their bayonets and cried “Long live the Emperor!’ The same commissioner of police came out for the King in the morning and the Emperor in the evening. Coignet laughed his head off. 36
On June 1st there was a gathering at the Champ de Mars. Napoleon distributed eagles to the Army. He cried: “Swear to defend your eagles! Do you swear it?” 39 Coignet noticed that the vows were made without warmth and Napoleon himself was well aware of it. The morale of the men was fragile – it was one of the reasons for defeat two weeks later. The soldiers had not forgotten the betrayal of Marmont, Ney and other Marshals the year before. When Bourmont went over to the Allies on the eve of the Waterloo campaign, taking Napoleon’s plan of attack, it confirmed their worst fears about traitors in their midst. 40
During Napoleon’s march on Paris, Bourmont: “had been appointed by the Comte d”Artois to supervise Ney’s operations in attempting to stop his former master. Bourmont was a dyed-in-the-wool royalist…” 41 who Napoleon had taken in only after Ney had sworn to his loyalty. Davout, the most perceptive of men, had warned the Emperor in a letter about him: “Who would trust such a man”. 42 Even though the regimental commanders of the 14 th detested Bourmont, Gérard spoke in his favour as well, so Napoleon acquiesced. Bourmont deliberately ‘held back’ the right wing of the Army at the outset of the campaign – treason apparent from the very beginning. He followed that up by taking the plan of attack to Blücher’s headquarters. 43
So why did Napoleon employ such men? The main reason was undoubtedly political, his wish to show that all men could serve under him, if they were prepared to loyally serve France. He had allowed hundreds of émigrés to return in the past and he wanted to show he would tolerate former enemies, if they had mended their ways. Even the likes of Cadoudal had been given a chance to reform. He could not be just a General, Napoleon had to play the role of Emperor as well. And part of his role he saw as healing the nation, not just defending it.
He was obviously upset by this treachery because Coignet heard him say to Ney: “your favorite has gone over to the enemy with all his officers.” 44 It was far worse than that – it meant that the common soldiers was expecting betrayal from then on and were constantly looking over their shoulders.
On the plain of Fleurus, the Emperor spied some dismounted cavalry in the distance. Coignet was sent to investigate: “Do not get caught,” 45 Napoleon added. At the foot of a steep hill Coignet saw three English officers mount their horses and move towards him. Saluting the enemy, he turned to leave as others were trying to get behind him. Urging Coco, his charger on, he noticed one of the officers following him. When he shouted ‘surrender’ Coignet demanded the same of him. Then he wheeled left and in a lightning stroke pierced him with his sabre. This was one Englishman who was not ‘sharp’ enough. 46
The captured horse revealed the regimental number. When an officer begged Coignet for the animal, he sold it - fifteen napoleons went to his servant and twenty francs to the grenadiers. The Emperor said: “Make a note of this old grouser. After the campaign, we will see him.” 47
The Orientation – Detaille
On June 16th, having taken command of the Army in person, Napoleon sent Gerard’s corps and the Old Guard against the Prussians. Coignet was later sent to Gerard to see how the battle was progressing. He found the General covered in mud amid hand-to-hand fighting. With re inforcements victory was assured he told Coignet who states that Ligny was: “Not a battle, it was butchery.” 48 When he returned to Napoleon, despite the Emperor having earlier upbraided Gerard about Bourmont, he said generously: “Ah! If I had four men like Gerard to rely on the Prussians would be lost.” 49
After Coignet’s report, Napoleon rubbed his hands. Things were going well. But, for a twist of fate, it could have been all over. Blücher had been unhorsed during the conflict and several times as he lay trapped under his mount, French cavalry had ridden by. Had they picked him up, or finished him off, there would have been no Waterloo. It was Blücher’s pathalogical hatred of Napoleon that ensured the Prussians rallied in time to march to Wellington’s aid at Mont St. Jean. Gneisenau, his deputy, despised his English ally and felt that Wellington had done nothing to assist the Prussians at Ligny. He was all for heading back to Prussia tout de suite. Then Alte Vorwarts returned to the Prussian headquarters, bruised but not bowed. 50
That night, according to Coignet: “he sent out officers in every direction…We were all on duty that night; no one had any rest.” 51 This contradicts the view that Napoleon felt lethargic after Ligny as many have said. At 3am on June 17th came the order to advance. By 7am the French columns had come up and only the English were left ahead of them. When Ney arrived he was rebuked for not pursuing Wellington’s men then told: “Go, marshal, and take possession of those heights; the enemy are drawn up in front of the woods. When I hear from Grouchy, I will give you the order for a general attack.” 52
Coignet was ordered to find the position of the English left wing: “I must mention that we were drenched with rain and very muddy; our artillery could not manoeuvre.” 53 This was to delay the start of battle for a critical few hours. Ney was finally given the order to attack. Coignet describes how he repeatedly asked Napoleon for re inforcements. News also came from the right wing that French soldiers were withdrawing. The Prussians had started to arrive in force. 54
Napoleon had to weaken his centre to re inforce that sector and this allowed Wellington to breathe: “The Prussian army moved into line, and the junction was complete; there were two or even three of the enemy to one of us; there was no means of holding out.” 55 Taking the Guard, the Emperor marched it forward and spurred his horse towards Cambronne’s square, but the staff officers forced him to retire. Then suddenly, it was every man for himself.
At Jemappes, Napoleon tried to re-establish order but Coignet: “found myself taking part in another rout as complete as that of Moscow. ‘We are betrayed,’ they cried.” 56 He adds that it was when the right wing was broken that the panic started. In other words, because of the Prussians. The impression is often given that the Prussians arrived at Waterloo late in the evening, when Wellington had virtually won the battle. The truth is different: “in view of Napoleon’s heavy attack on the Anglo-Allied centre and fearing that Wellington might break before his men could cut off the line of retreat of the French army, Blücher had decided to attack with his IV Corps cavalry and two brigades. At some time between 4 and 4.30pm Nostitz brought Bülow the order to attack.” 57/span> And it was the Prussian cavalry that harassed the retreating French, the English were exhausted.
Wellington’s men had fought magnificently and the Dutch-Belgians deserve more credit than they are usually given but as Chandler states: “Wellington’s army had hardly any chance of ultimate victory on its own, and the opportune arrival of a growing flood of Prussian troops on the French right flank undoubtedly swung the fortunes of the day.” 58
John Keegan, however, in ‘The Face of Battle’ says that “the most perceptive of all the comments about Waterloo is the best known and apparently the most banal; that it was ‘won on the playing fields of Eton’…He (Wellington) was proposing a much more subtle idea: that the French had been beaten…by the coolness and endurance, the pursuit of excellence…which are learnt in game-playing - that game-playing which was already becoming the most important activity of the English gentleman’s life.” 59 What utter tosh.
Perhaps all those thousands of Prussians were ‘foreign boarders’ at Eton? In his own badly written book, its introduction as glutinous as the field of Waterloo itself after the rain, he describes the dense smoke from musket and cannon that reduced visibility to a matter of yards. Wellington literally did not see what was happening far off to his left and, after the battle, he took most of the credit for the victory.
So, a battle had been lost but France had not fallen – “The path is not a ‘given’, but it is made in the treading of it. Thus one’s own actions are always a significant factor in the shaping of one’s world.” 60 Everything now depended on Napoleon.
ON THE ROAD FROM WATERLOO TO PARIS - MARCUS STONE (1840-1921)
The Emperor rode to Charleroi and then to Laon. Grouchy was ordered to report there. At a meeting with his Generals, Napoleon found that some wanted him to go to Paris and others to stay with the Army. He replied: “How can you advise such a thing. My place is here.” 61 Soon after the Old Guard arrived: “returning in good order from the battlefield.” 62 There was no ‘last stand’ at Waterloo as many assume.
Coignet says Napoleon was compelled to go to Paris by his Generals: “We were never to see him again.” 63 By then, the National Guard were flocking to Laon. They were expecting to fight, not to arrive just in time to surrender like thousands of Australians at Singapore in WWII. Coignet travelled on with Monthyon and other demoralised men. The Prussians caught up with them at Villers-Cotterets. They escaped with minutes to spare: “Desolation reigned everywhere…Everyone was on the way to Paris with his valuables.” 64 But in Paris there remained a man of iron – Davout.
Both sides had lost heavily during the Waterloo campaign, the French 60,000 and the Allies 55,000. Yet: “the Emperor’s military position was not necessarily hopeless, providing he continued to enjoy the support of the army, the French populace and government.” 65 By the end of June there were 117,000 troops to defend Paris. Blücher had only 66,000 men and Wellington a mere 52,000 troops to take the capital. Davout urged Napoleon to seize control of the Government – but the Emperor hesitated. Physically and mentally exhausted, Napoleon failed to act. Meanwhile, Fouché persuaded the Chambers to declare themselves indissoluble and called for Napoleon’s abdication. Ney had not helped by giving a long and rambling speech and insisting that there was no Army left. 66
When Blücher got to the gates of Paris on June 30 th he was repulsed. The Allies were strung-out like Varus in the Teutoburg forest. Napoleon offered his services as a mere General, but the politicians turned him down. 67 Had he ignored them, and joined forces with Davout, Blücher and Wellington could have been chased ignominiously out of the country.
When he had failed to move earlier, Davout, his most able and loyal officer, looked to his own future and even he deserted Napoleon. 68 The Emperor had no wish to bring civil war to his adopted country and so he naively turned for succour to ‘the greatest of his enemies’ – England. Louis XVIII had claimed asylum there, Napoleon convinced himself he could retire to the same place. He had a chance to sail for the United States, but he waited too long and Fouché alerted the British navy to his presence on the coast. Had he arrested Fouché before the campaign: “the Chambers would have remained passive and Waterloo, although still a disaster, would not then have been a decisive battle in providing ammunition for Fouché to use against him.” 69
Even now, France could have been spared the blight of the Bourbons and the White Terror. On July 1st Coignet received orders to move to the south of Paris: “where the army was reunited and entrenched…When I reached the Barrière d’Enfer, where the army had collected, I found Marshal Davout on foot, his arms folded. Gazing at that splendid army, who were shouting, “Forward.”…The troops wanted to move against the enemy force which had crossed the Seine…Marshal
Davout was doubtful what to do…” 70 Davout was a very able lieutenant, but he was no Napoleon.
Little Big Man, Jean-Roch Coignet, knew how to defend his country. When everyone else was running away, ingratiating themselves with the invaders or the Bourbons, or vacillating with indecision, he alone knew how to uphold the honour of France.
©John Tarttelin, FINS