LITTLE BIG MAN
“My motto has always been: A career open to all talents,
Jean-Roch Coignet was born at Druyes-les-Belles-Fontaines in Yonne in 1776. He very nearly shared the same day of birth as the seven year old future Emperor, for Coignet’s birthday was August 16 th, a day later than his more famous counterpart. He lived a very full life at an epoch making period in history and was destined to play a part at the epicentre of the Empire in the very presence of Napoleon. But all this was far-off in the future. Coignet’s beginnings could not have been humbler, while his early life was dire in the extreme.
Coignet’s initial years could have been a horror story penned by the Brothers Grimm or a dark tale told by Hans Christian Andersen. He was virtually abandoned by his wastrel father, nicknamed The Lover, for his siring of more than thirty illegitimate offspring as well as his issue by his three wives. Coignet’s mother was the second of these and, when she died, the orphaned Jean-Roch and his three siblings were plunged into a veritable nightmare of pain and want. His eighteen year old stepmother, formerly the family servant and now his father’s third wife, was called The Beauty on account of her looks, but she had a heart as cold and black as obsidian glass. She resolved to get rid of her unwanted charges as soon as possible. There is an old English saying that: ‘Many of the fairest without are the foulest within.’ And The Beauty was a wicked stepmother of proverbial proportions.
She so starved young Coignet and Pierre, his elder brother by a year, the two of them decided to run away from home. As Coignet put it: “We poor little orphans were beaten night and day. She choked us to give us a good colour.” 1 They headed for Étais, an hour’s walk away and arrived the day of a fair: “My brother put a bunch of oak leaves in my little hat, and hired me out as a shepherd.” 2 Years later, Coignet would find himself shepherding the Imperial baggage wagons in the heart of Russia.
Coignet at eight years old, found himself guarding a flock of sheep next to a forest by the village of Chamois. His job was to prevent the sheep from straying into the dark wood. Suddenly a huge wolf ran out of the trees and tried to pull down one of the finest specimens in the flock. Young Coignet was soon holding the sheep by its hind legs while the wolf was pulling at the other end in a bizarre life and death struggle. Fortunately, two trained dogs took the wolf down, but here is an early indication of the pluckiness and toughness of this peasant boy. 3
Later, at the fair at Entrains, he hired himself out for thirty francs a year to two farmers of Les Bardins. His job was to gather wood and take it to the wharves in three ox-drawn wagons: “I became covered with vermin, and was perfectly wretched.” 4 Every night, he slept alongside his oxen in a wood beneath the stars. Once, his charges wandered off whilst he slept and he had to look for them amidst the gloom. Soon his legs were torn to shreds by briers and blood was running into his wooden sabots: “Often, on my way, I used to encounter wolves, with eyes shining like sparks, but my courage never abandoned me.” 5 He was relieved to find his wayward teams. For three years the child who had once danced with a wolf, saw more of these predators than he did of other human beings. Verminous and dejected, he endured his torment with admirable fortitude and resolve.
At the age of twelve, Coignet returned to his home village, where even his father no longer knew him. At Sunday Mass: “I had at once recognized my father who sung among the choristers; little did he know that one of his children whom he had abandoned was so near him.” 6 Only now, did Coignet learn the fate of Alexander and Marianne, his little brother and sister. The Beauty had taken them to the forest of Druyes and left them there to die. Fortunately, after three days of tearful wandering they were found by a miller, Father Thibault, who took them into his care. Not surprisingly, Coignet could not stand the sight of his stepmother and he did his best to avoid her.
Hiring himself out to his half-sister, who had no idea they were related, he became a stableboy at an inn and a go-for – ‘go for this…go for that’. Red-headed Coignet felt bitter and must have cried himself to sleep on many an occasion: “so great was my mortification at the idea of being a servant in my sister’s house and that at my father’s door.” 7 But life for young Coignet was about to change.
“Chance makes a plaything of a man’s life,” Seneca wrote. 8 And so it was that by sheer chance, two gentlemen horse-traders stopped at the inn on their way to the fair at Entrains. Asked by them to be their guide, Coignet made the acquaintance of Monsieur Potier and Monsieur Huzé. Potier proved to be his saviour. Although short and ugly in Coignet’s eyes, Potier had a heart of gold. When he heard of the terrible treatment he had received at the hands of his own family, he decided to take the intelligent twelve-year-old boy under his wing. At a tearful denouement with his father, step-mother and half-sister, the whole village turned out to wish Coignet a safe journey. 9
His new home was at Coulommiers, only fifteen leagues from Paris. Coignet was full of praise for his new employer: “He did not seem like a master, he was a father to everyone. A disagreeable word never fell from his lips.” 10 After saving Potier’s prized pigs during a flood, Coignet became his acting ‘secretary’. For this bright but illiterate peasant boy this was like a dream come true.
Eventually, he accompanied Potier to the Reims fair to buy horses to sell to the new peers of the Republic. Suddenly, he found himself with fifty-five horses to train. It took him two months: “At the end of that time I was worn out; my lungs were affected, I spat blood, but I had acquitted myself with honour.” 11 Then the peers came to inspect the new horses in person. Coignet rode all the horses and was praised for his skill. One very special animal was reserved for the procureur of the Republic. He decided to present it to the president of the Assembly and so pleased was the procureur that he offered Coignet a job. Loyal to Potier, he refused, but what social circles young Ciognet was now moving in! 12
Accompanying Potier to the École Militaire in Paris, he again demonstrated his talents as a trainer and rider. As a result of Potier’s fair-dealing, there was a further order for 200 artillery horses with tight specifications as to the type of animals accepted by the Military. Potier found 300 and all were accepted. A decade later, it was the lack of such fine animals that cost Napoleon his Empire, after thousands of artillery and cavalry horses were lost in Russia. 13
Despite his abilities, the École Militaire did not give Coignet the customary personal fee and he was most disappointed. Potier, however, gave him a watch, two hundred francs for training the peers’ horses and two louis (forty francs), for the special mount: “What a fortune it was for me!” 14 Coignet wrote. Potier made 30,000 francs from the two deals. The quality of French cavalry depended upon such men.
Coignet could put his hand to anything. He learnt how to plough and to mill flour: “At sixteen I could lift a bag like a man. At eighteen I could lift a bag weighing three hundred and twenty-five pounds.” 15 Young Coignet was one of the very few Frenchmen who could have ‘lifted’ the future Louis XVIII – who spent most of his exile happily, if somewhat lessé majesté, in England. However, by now, “the position of being a servant began to be exceedingly distasteful to me. My thoughts turned towards a soldier’s life.” 16
His trips to the École Militaire, the sight of fine uniforms and the camaraderie of military men, had stirred his imagination. Nevertheless, knowing which side his bread was buttered on, he remained with Potier until he was conscripted. Even then, he was so prized that his master would have bought him a substitute if necessary. 17
Jean-Roch Coignet sensed that he had another destiny.
Coignet joined the Army shortly before Napoleon returned from Egypt in 1799. He had once told Potier: “If ever I am a soldier, I will do my best to get into the hussars; they are so splendid.” 18 In fact, he began his career as a grenadier. Sent to wretched barracks at Fontainebleau, he became part of a battalion of 1,800 men under General Lefebvre. After two months, they heard that Napoleon was on his way to Paris. This electrified them all: “Our officers were full of excitement, because the chief of our battalion knew him, and the whole battalion was delighted by the news.” 19
Soon, they heard that Napoleon was coming to Fontainebleau. Impressed by the battalion’s turn out, he gave orders for a march to Courbevoie as cries of “Vive Bonaparte” filled the air. Sent on to the École Militaire, which Coignet knew from his days as a horse-trader, a distribution of cartridges was made to the soldiers. Finally, they reached St. Cloud. Napoleon had decided on a little bill and coup with the discredited, corrupt representatives of the people – the Directory. 20
Coignet sets the scene: “The grenadiers of the Directory and the Five Hundred were in line in the front court; a half-brigade of infantry was stationed near the great gate, and four companies of grenadiers behind the guard of the Directory. Cries of “Vive Bonaparte” were heard on all sides…” 21
Napoleon saluted them all and spoke to their officers. Coignet saw him go up the steps alone. Then there were cries and Napoleon came out and climbed the steps again with a platoon of grenadiers: “Then the noise increased…We saw stout gentlemen jumping out of the windows…” 22 A new broom had swept the fetid hall of stale politicians. The coup of Brumaire had changed the destiny of France.
Frank McLynn states that: “the Guardsmen, who guarded the Chateau and officially owed their loyalty to the Assembly…had been considering their position. The deciding factor had been their conviction that if they did not obey Napoleon and his allies, he would unleash on them Murat’s irate troops slavering outside the Chateau and they would suffer the same fate as the unfortunate Swiss Guardsmen in the Tuileries on 10 August 1792.” 23
This rather emotional and sensational passage does not accord with what Coignet saw, an eyewitness to the events in question. The cries of “Vive Bonaparte” Coignet heard “on all sides” and Napoleon’s enthusiastic welcome generally by the soldiers, probably had far more to do with their compliance. It is worth adding, that Napoleon saved the life of one of those very Swiss Guards. As a young man, he himself had been an eyewitness to that catastrophe and had been traumatised by the callous bloodshed going on all around him. So McLynn must not be allowed to get away with
this crass attempt at guilt by association. 24
Coignet was soon ‘adopted’ by two old sweats when they discovered just how much money Potier had given him when he left Coulommiers. For the odd dozen drams, they trained him in drill for four hours a day and two hours a day of fencing during a winter spent in Paris. 25
In 1800 Napoleon returned to Italy and Coignet found himself at St. Pierre at the foot of the formidable St. Bernard pass. Cannons had to be placed in hollowed-out tree trunks and dragged up the slopes. Coignet was placed at the front of ten men on the right side of one cannon, next to the precipices. Slipping and sliding, they eventually reached the snow where the going was smoother. 26
Arriving at the famous monastery at the top, the monks gave the soldiers bread and cheese and a bucket of wine for every twelve men. Coignet wrote: “I cannot find words to express the veneration I feel for those men.” 27 The Army then had to by-pass the impregnable fort at Bard and they did so, at the dead of night, with shoes and wheels padded with straw. Then they descended into another world, a paradise with beautiful cities like Milan.
At Montebello, Coignet had his baptism of fire. After initial progress had been made, the Austrians retaliated. At the entrance to the village the French were met by grape-shot. His Captain, Merle, told the men to dive into trenches but Coignet did not hear him: “I rushed past our drummers, towards the gun, and fell upon the gunners…I bayoneted all five of them, then leaped upon the piece and my captain embraced me as he went by. He told me to guard my cannon…” 28
Shortly after, General Berthier galloped up and in his nasal tone he asked him what he was doing. Upon hearing of Coignet’s bravery, he took note of his name and told him
to visit the First Consul with his Captain at ten o’clock. He rejoined Merle just in time to save his life by shooting a Hungarian grenadier who had him in his sights. When a French sergeant was surrounded by three enemy grenadiers, Coignet killed two of them with his bayonet while the sergeant dealt with the third. So it was, that on his very first day of battle Jean-Roch Coignet accounted for no less than eight enemy soldiers. 29
Napoleon arrived in time to see the battle won. Later, a nervous Coignet was presented to him. He “took me by the ear. I thought he was going to scold me, but, on the contrary, he was very kind…” Napoleon said: “it is a good beginning,” 30 and instructed Berthier to put Coignet down for a musket of honour. He also promised him a place in the Guard when he had served in four campaigns. Coignet was embraced by the sergeant whose life he had saved and the whole company cheered him.
As well as being brave, Coignet was generous and he made friends easily. Despite the way he had been treated himself as a boy, he was always kind to friends and strangers alike. That day he had saved the lives of two of his comrades, later, in the freezing snows of Poland, he would save the lives of his starving regiment. It is no wonder that he was popular.
The Battle of Marengo that followed was as closely fought as Waterloo. Following the retreating Austrians, the French found nothing to eat as all the villages had been pillaged. After a night march the men were hungry and exhausted. A couple of days later on June 13 th, they were placed in line of battle. All night they stood to arms until attacked the following morning. Coignet was led into battle with a company of grenadiers only to find a column of Austrians deploying in front of him: “The balls came from every direction, and I was obliged to lie down…I believed myself lost.” 31 When his division advanced he was able to extricate himself, one of only 14 survivors out of a company of 170. All the rest had either been killed or wounded.
Blasted by Austrian artillery, the French had to give way: “no one came to our support. Our musket-barrels were so hot that it became impossible to load for fear of igniting the cartridges. There was nothing for it but to piss into the barrels to cool them…” 32 Austrian cavalry then drove in the platoons of Coignet’s half-brigade, sabring everyone within reach. Coignet took a savage blow that almost cut his queue off, causing him to tumble into a ditch. 33 Kellerman’s French dragoons retaliated and, on his back in the ditch, Coignet saw the huge horses jumping over it, first in one direction then the other as they pounded the ground within inches of him. Desperate now, he grabbed the tail of a retreating dragoon’s horse and was catapulted away, only to fall senseless soon after. Staggering back to his own lines he was ordered to the rear because of his wound but he insisted on remaining to fight on. But all the French had to withdraw for the enemy was far too strong. 34
Napoleon appeared: “Courage soldiers…the reserves are coming. Stand firm!” The men shouted “Vive Bonaparte!” 35
By two o’clock even the officers were saying that the battle was lost. Finally, the reserves arrived. They got into position behind a very tall hedge, which concealed even the cavalry. When the Austrians approached, thinking the battle won, they received a rude awakening. General Desaix’s division routed them. Four thousand prisoners were taken. Coignet got a scratch on his right eyelid parrying a bayonet thrust. His opponent was not so lucky - he became Coignet’s ninth victim. 36
That evening Merle invited Coignet to supper. Coignet used the opportunity to ask to go the headquarters to see some acquaintances in the Guard. With a companion he went to the chateau of Marengo and asked for a certain cavalry sergeant who had been in the guard of the Directory for nine years. When the man appeared, Coignet reminded him that he had trained his cavalry mounts. Presented to his captain, he was given bread and five francs to drink the health of the captain whose cavalry charges had saved the day at Marengo. A bottle of brandy was given to Coignet to present to Merle. 37
On the way back: “We saw the battlefield covered with Austrian and French soldiers who were picking up the dead and placing them in piles and dragging them along with their musket straps. Men and horse were laid pell-mell in the same heap, and set on fire in order to preserve us from pestilence.” 38 When he gave Merle the gift, his Captain said that Coignet must have been born under a lucky star. As if to make up for his hideous childhood, he did seem to have a charmed life as a soldier. He survived both Russia in 1812 and the Battle of Waterloo.
There was a closeness between officers and men in the French Army that did not exist in other countries at that time. There were many genuine friendships as epitomised by that between Coignet and Merle. The revolutionary spirit of equality had permeated all ranks. The common soldier was even allowed to approach his Emperor with a petition or request. Napoleon himself lived amongst his Guard when on campaign, sharing their food and chuckling at their antics. Coignet had a good sense of humour, like many of his comrades, and sometimes they even had their Emperor howling with laughter.
On June 26 th, the defeated Austrians filed by as they began their retreat. They greatly outnumbered the surviving French. It took three days for their columns to pass by. Half of their stores were left to the ravenous French and forty leagues of countryside were ceded as they retired behind the Mincio. Coignet and his comrades followed on behind the rear of the Austrian columns: “they marched on the left and we on the right side of the road. No one quarrelled, and we were the best friends in the world.” 39
The wars that Austria launched against Napoleon were usually fought in a ‘gentlemanly’ style and, aside from the heat of battle, the common soldiers of each army respected their opponents as fellow professionals. It was very different from the wars to the knife that the French faced in Spain and Russia – as Coignet was soon to discover.
During the three months of truce that followed, Coignet was based at Cremona, a pesthole where he faced extreme want. He wrote to his father and uncle hoping for a little money. They both responded with excuses, neither sent him a sou. He even had to find the three francs to pay for their replies! His comrades both wrote on his behalf and read their words to him. He would never write to his father again. 40
On September 15 th the truce ended and Coignet was very glad to get back into the field. After 25,000 men crossed the Mincio river: “There was a terrible battle; our troops, thoroughly beaten, were obliged to fall back…” 41 At another bridge three miles away, the French tried again. The hussars de la mort, wishing to avenge themselves for losses at Montebello: “fell upon the head of the Austrian column…sabred them and carried off six thousand prisoners and four colours. Our three battalions of grenadiers crossed immediately, under General Lebrun, a good soldier.” 42
The whole Army followed. After more carnage, the Austrians were forced to take the road to Verona. By-passing a fort where Austrian troops were bottled up, the French camped two miles beyond it. Coignet found himself on sentry duty a little after midnight in pitch-blackness. He was ordered to fire without warning at anything that moved. When the moon came out he saw a Hungarian in a fur cap approaching. He fired, alerting the whole Army and flashes of light stabbed from the mouths of many muskets into the darkness along the whole French line. There being no reply from the Austrians, when some of his comrades joined him, they went forward together. Coignet discovered that he had ‘killed’ a willow tree with a bushy top. His major said he had done his duty and that anyone could have been deceived. 43
Coignet was sent via Viacenza to the marshes on the Venetian coast. When Mantua surrendered he was ordered to Verona to celebrate peace. Learning that his half-brigade was going back to Paris he was ecstatic, but when he arrived at Lyons, orders were changed – his new destination was Portugal. 44
In tattered clothing, he started for Bayonne. Some French soldiers bought Malaga wine at three sous a bottle and became so drunk on account of its potency that they had to continue the journey on carts. After a week they had still not recovered: “Not a soldier could eat his ration, the wine had been so strong.” 45 They had to be spoon-fed. From Vittoria they went via Burgos to Valladolid. The straw they slept in was crawling with lice.
Coignet was delighted to be made a sapper, on account of his, by now, impressive beard. At night all Frenchmen were confined to their billets, because isolated soldiers were murdered by the Spaniards. While in Salamanca, where he spent his time at reviews, Coignet heard that peace had been made without a battle. When his quarter-master-sergeant was beaten to death with clubs by the local inhabitants, the grenadiers caught up with the killers and bayoneted them. This was but a foretaste of the horrors the French would later meet with in Spain. 46
Back in Bordeaux, Coignet was billeted upon a nervous old lady who did not like soldiers. It was not simply because his foot-long beard was intimidating. She told him what had happened to her during the Revolution:
“I have had terrible experiences. Robespierre sent fourteen
members of my family to the guillotine, and the monster only
spared me myself because I gave him thirty thousand francs’
worth of plate and jewels. Yes, and he made me lie with him
to save my husband’s life, and then had him beheaded next
morning. Such, sir, have been my family’s sufferings. The
scoundrel was punished in the end, but it was too late.” 47
If Robespierre was a child of the Revolution, he was illegitimate in every sense of the word. So much for liberty, equality and fraternity. Compared to him, Napoleon was reason incarnate. Well did Napoleon, the disparaged ‘Corsican Ogre’, rescue France from such Frenchmen. The Emperor even refused to execute his own worst enemies, Talleyrand, Fouché and Bernadotte, who were traitors to their country.
At Tours, Coignet met an old soldier of 102 who had served 84 years as a private in his half-brigade. Napoleon had given him the honour of eating at the general’s table. When he was posted to Le Mans, Coignet got a letter from Paris from his long lost sister, Marianne. For years he had been tormented by not knowing what had happened to her and his brothers. A very sensitive man, Coignet had kept all this worries to himself. Soon, he was nominated for the cross of honour by Merle and his Colonel. Better still, they made sure he was appointed to the Guard, as Napoleon had promised him after Montebello. Things were looking up for the peasant boy from Druyes. 48
Everyone came to see him off and he carried 200 francs in backpay in his pocket. But most importantly: “I was glad to set out for Paris, and to be able to go and embrace my good sister whom I had not seen since she was seven years old.” 49
When he got to the Capuchin barracks near the Place Vendome, he was messed with the third company of the First Battalion. Renard, his Captain, was a short man with a big voice. Ironically, he told Coignet that he was too small to be in the Guard. Pointing out that he had a musket of honour and a letter from General Hulin for the Colonel, Renard decided to keep him in the company – but first he had to get permission from the War Office. Coignet told him that it was Berthier himself who had found him on the captured cannon. 50
The next day, Berthier told Renard: “you will receive a letter for him tomorrow at ten o’clock; he is a soldier worth having, be sure to keep him in your company.” 51 From Berthier, Coignet was taken to the Iron Marshal, Davout. Despite his fearsome reputation, he greeted Coignet pleasantly: “You bring me a sapper with a fine beard,” he told Renard. The Captain repeated that Coignet was too small to be in the Guard. Davout stated: “We must cheat the measure,” 52 and personally advised them to place two packs of cards in his socks when Coignet was officially measured. So it was, with Berthier’s blessing and Davout’s connivance, Jean-Roch Coignet became the smallest ever member of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard.
Coignet shared a cot with the tallest man in the regiment, at six feet four inches. He was a cheerful soul and dubbed Jean-Roch his ‘dwarf’. He had burst out laughing as soon as he saw him. Coignet got off to a good start by giving ten francs to the Corporal of the mess – generous as always. 53 As soon as possible, he arranged to meet his sister in the Place du Pont-Neuf: “She came to me crying with joy.” 54 He felt even more elated when he heard the news that his elder brother Pierre was also in Paris.
Soon after, the three of them met, however, Pierre was sceptical until Jean-Roch reminded him how he had hired him out as a shepherd: “At this he rushed to me, and we were all three locked in one another’s arms, weeping with joy so loudly that every one in the house hastened to see the poor creatures who were now restored to one another after seventeen years of separation.” 55
Fate can be extremely cruel. The shock of the reunion was so great that Marianne took ill and died six weeks later. Pierre was utterly devastated and could not live without her. He was dead within three months: “I have never recovered from that trouble,” Coignet wrote. 56 It is impossible to imagine the anguish he must have suffered. He had gone through so much heartache before he found them, only to lose them both almost immediately. And he still had no idea of what had happened to his other brother, Alexander.
To be continued.
© John Tarttelin FINS