End of Empire (1814)

In January 1814 massive Allied armies invaded France. Napoleon, fighting for the survival of his empire, resisted and conducted one of his most brilliant campaigns. He inflicted defeat after defeat on the Allied columns but still they pressed on, converging on Paris. Eventually sheer weight of numbers would prevail and Napoleon was forced to abdicate in April 1814.

            A key reason for the defeat was that France was tired of war. The 1813 campaign in Germany had been a disaster. Many of Napoleon’s line regiments were reduced to handfuls of exhausted conscripts, he lacked cavalry and effective artillery. But he still retained the loyalty of the Imperial Guard and in 1814 he used these veterans, more than ever before, as shock troops who might pluck victory from the jaws of defeat.

            Corporal Simeon Lamon, a native of Geneva, was one such veteran. Born in 1788 he volunteered to serve in the French armies in 1806. Sent to Italy he joined the 18th Light and fought in the 1809 campaign at Raab and Wagram. Then, packed off to Spain, he fought for four years in Catalonia until in early 1813 he, along with nine others from his regiment, was selected to join the Guard as part of a scheme to rebuild it after heavy losses in Russia.

            Lamon joined the 2nd Chasseurs of the Imperial Guard before transferring to the 1st in August 1813. He only just survived the 1813 campaign – remarking ‘who would be a soldier after that?’ – but participated in the defence of France in 1814.

            Here is his account. It gives a sense of the superiority the Guard felt and of the respect it enjoyed. But it also gives a wonderful insight into how Napoleonic armies treated their soldiers and how they might expect to be treated if they fell into the hands of the enemy.

We took up our position whilst coming under fire from the enemy’s artillery. Our superb sergeant, called Daflon, and Sergeant Bonguiol, known as ‘Bon Dieu’ [Good God], were hit. A number of soldiers started laughing saying that ‘Even the Good God has been killed!’. A roundshot knocked my bearskin off and another broke my musket. I had to be helped up. I picked up another musket up but my arm suffered a terrible contusion as a result of this shot. Nevertheless, I did not quit the ranks.

The ground around was marshy but it was cold and had snowed. Battle had begun in the afternoon and whilst charges went this way and that neither side gained any particular advantage. Even so the artillery only fell silent around midnight. We’d lost heavily and the Emperor ordered us to retreat. We marched off as silently as possible towards Troyes. We spent the rest of that night marching, and rested the next day at Vandouevre. I was billeted in a nice house and said to the owner:

‘We’ve just come from Bar. Make us a soup as quick as you can because we are cold and hungry’.

‘I don’t owe you anything but lodging; you are not getting anything else’.

‘Is that how you treat these the children of your country sacrificing themselves to defend your hearth? You are not French. And if you won’t give us anything to eat we’ll just help ourselves. So make the soup and give us some bread and wine!’

‘I don’t have any. And if I did I’d rather save it for the Russians!’

‘Right, comrades, help yourselves!’

The man left but we found that the door to the cellar was in the kitchen. We broke in and found ham, two barrels of wine, bread and other eatables. We made our own soup but the man came back, just as we had finished, accompanied by a party of gendarmes. The corporal in charge demanded to speak to the platoon’s commander.

‘That’s me’, I said, ‘Corporal Lamon’.

‘What’, he demanded, taking a particularly insolent tone, ‘you’d pillage the locals would you. You are not French (a popular phrase at the time)’.

‘Who is not French? Men like you who never leave their barracks except to make war on unfortunate conscripts, dragging them back in chains, or men who shed their blood on the battlefield so you can live in comfort? Get out!’

He left, taking his men with him.

‘I’m going to report you to the commandant’ he shouted as he went.

‘And I’m going to report you to the emperor’ I shouted back.

I never saw him again. Meanwhile I had the wine barrels set up in front of the house and the wine itself dished out to those troops passing by. We took the best of the pork with us and moved off without spending the night in that house. Instead we camped in the snowy fields around Troyes. We woke up covered in snow and had to shake ourselves, like wet dogs, to get ourselves warm.

We didn’t take part in the battle of Brienne but we could easily hear the boom of cannon. Instead we, the 2nd Division of the Imperial Guard, arrived too late to take part. The emperor looked gloomy. We followed the Russians and Prussians as they marched on Soissons. Arriving there we were showered with roundshot. The French general who should have been holding the place had treacherously surrendered it and now it had an Allied garrison. We continued to Craonne were the enemy was waiting for us. When we arrived the battle was already being hotly contested. We were most impatient to get involved. We moved forwards, passing through what remained of a horse artillery battery. Only two guns remained serviceable. We rested little that night and in the morning  I complained to my captain. He laughed, ‘we’ll be acting as skirmishers today, you can get as much rest as you want!’

So off we went after the enemy. We entered some woods and soon came up against Russian skirmishers, exchanging shots, pushing forwards from tree to tree as they fell back. Skirmishing isn’t easy but it is especially difficult in a wood. It’s hard not to become isolated and, truth be told, that’s exactly what became of me. There I was alone at the edge of the wood when, all of a sudden, I saw a Russian column marching out of the wood and making off to the right. They were going at quite a pace and although they saw me they didn’t do anything about it. I waited impatiently for our troops to catch up but nobody came. Soon the Russians disappeared. It had probably been their rearguard.

Shortly afterwards I saw our own column come up. I told them the direction the Russians had gone and off we went in pursuit. A little later we came across them drawn up by a village. They had a battery in position and a cloud of dirty Cossacks barred the road. We chasseurs, still in skirmish formation, opened up on them but we were out of range. They replied with roundshot and canister and we could hear them jeering and shouting ‘Hourrah!’ A piece of canister hit one of my spare shoes tied to the side of my haversack. It was freezing, the ground was marshy and we didn’t have much food. That’s how we spent the night.

The following morning we found that the enemy had retreated and so we advanced heading for Laon. It’s on a plateau and its approach is protected by the river Aisne. The Allies had placed clouds of skirmishers along the river banks to delay our advance and these sheltered behind a kind of earthwork as we came towards them. We of the Imperial Guard had nothing to shelter behind but even though the river was frozen we couldn’t make much progress. Using that time the Allied army, commanded by Alexander and Blucher, had formed up on the plateau and was now awaiting us.

On our side we had the Imperial Guard, much reduced; line regiments diminished to half their usual strength through desertion and loses; and virtually no artillery. Well the equipment of the artillery was all new but there was hardly anyone to man the guns. There were a few old coastguards, too old and infirm to keep up with the guns, and a few sailors. These latter weren’t too bad. They at least were young, brave and energetic.

We would be required to push the Allies off the plateau and then hold it against more Allied troops heading this way. Excuse a personal reflection, but this position had originally been held by us and we were now being asked to seize it at enormous sacrifice. But let’s see what happens.

On the first day, subjected to terrible artillery fire, we attacked uphill. Our regiments came rolling back, decimated. We tried again but with the same result. And so on until nightfall. That night, gathered around our fires, there was a sudden commotion, shouts of ‘To Arms!’ and the, suddenly, a gaggle of terrified conscripts shouting ‘Cossacks! Cossacks!’ Some of them had even thrown their weapons down to get away faster. The Cossacks, finding that there was no resistance, had pursued but now, seeing our bearskins and our bayonets, saw that they were up against the Old Guard, turned bridle and cantered off. This amused us know end, ‘That’s Cossacks for you!’ we said to each other.

The next day was similar to the one before. Our assaults achieved no success and only resulted in countless deaths. Even the third day saw a continuation of these fruitless assaults. Only then did the Emperor seem to concede that the position was impregnable and ordered us to retreat towards Paris. So off we went, marching towards Reims. We arrived there at night fall but were amazed to see that the Russians had got there before us. We fought in the streets, our horse artillery showering them with canister as they sheltered behind barricades made from overturned wagons. Our cavalry made a wide detour and came at them from behind whilst we seized a good number of prisoners. But such low key victories didn’t amount to much – the Allies were drawing nearer the capital.

From Reims we marched on Villers-Cotterets, a small town surrounded by woods. It was snowing and I was lodged in a modest house where at least they gave us something to eat and drink. The next day as we continued our march we were suddenly disturbed by the sound of huge detonations some way off. It was artillery fire and it was drawing nearer. We remained where we were as we were expecting Pacthod’s division to arrive with supplies. Finally two or three wagons did show up loaded with bread but the drivers shouted down to us ‘That’s your lot. The Russians have taken the rest and captured the division’. The artillery fire we’d heard had been the Russians forcing the division to surrender. No food for us.

Just half an hour later we caught sight of some strong Russian columns, preceded by cavalry and probably dragging their prisoners with them. As soon as they came into range they opened up with their artillery. We were in no condition to seriously resist as we could only call upon one division of the Old Guard – the 2nd – along with eight guns and a few much-reduced battalions of Young Guard. Our general therefore made his dispositions for a retreat, forming regimental squares and setting us in motion. The enemy pursued sending forward horse artillery which raked us as we marched. We soon came up to a rather wide canal and in order to protect our passage two of our guns were detailed off and ordered to open fire. To protect the guns, twenty-five chasseurs, including myself, were selected.

The Russian cavalry, however, came on so suddenly that they overwhelmed the guns and sabred the gunners. We scurried off taking up a second position in a little hollow by the canal’s bank. We fired on the Russian guns but they continued firing, their roundshot passing over our heads and falling into our squares on the other bank. We saw their effect very well from where we were.

We consulted amongst ourselves and finally resolved to try and make it over the canal and rejoin our comrades. But some Russian lancers had predicted our every move and were already circling round at the gallop to cut off our retreat. They caught us when we were in the open, shouting out ‘Basho Coudy Franzouski!’ (which I took to mean ‘throw your weapons down’). This we did. A young officer addressed me in perfect French saying ‘Ah, my Frenchmen, how we made you run today!’

Replying I said ‘We all have our turn’ and he laughed out loud.

The lancers themselves soon began to help themselves to anything they fancied. Some knocked off our bearskins and catching them on the tip of their lances threw them into the water. They took our watches and money and some also took our silk cravats. Then they turned us around and made us march without, however, mistreating us. When they got back to their division they handed us over to some infantry. These looked into our haversacks taking whatever they fancied. Some took greatcoats, some took shoes. What could we do? We were prisoners.

Then we heard some artillery up ahead and we were given a little hope, saying to ourselves ‘They’ve come up against our troops who’ll doubtless give them a good hiding. If only we were there to help!’ Such were our thoughts when suddenly we came across our wagons smashed and our ambulance and its contents scattered over the road. Whilst we studied the scene a Russian officer galloped up, reined in his horse and spoke to us in French:

‘Soldiers, gather what you can from the bandages to help treat your own wounded; you’ll see them before too long’.

There was no question about it, these words disheartened us and each said to himself ‘we have been beaten, it’s all over’. Shortly afterwards we came upon the field were the action had taken place. There lay the corpses of our comrades who had died the death of the brave; Russian dead were intermingled. There had evidently been a bayonet charge but a little further on we came across an even more bloody scene. A mass of National Guards from Calvados in Normandy lay strewn about. These men were mostly between twenty-five and thirty years old and had been called up in the last few weeks. They wore their peasant smocks but carried muskets and cartridge boxes as well as wearing shakos on their heads. That’s all the uniform they had been issued with. These unfortunates had been charged by cavalry and had been horribly massacred. Those still alive suffered from horrible wounds. Many of them were married or were fathers and they wept openly, crying out ‘Oh my wife, my children!’ It was enough to melt even the hardest of hearts.

When night fell we camped in an open field, surrounded by infantry. They didn’t give us anything to eat. The next day we continued our march, making frequent halts. As we did so the Russian infantry set about mending their shoes whilst the Cossacks patched their clothes. It was the evening of the second day of our captivity when we were issued with some Russian biscuit which tasted like peat. All the time we were heading for Paris. This might seem somewhat surprising. Why were the Allies dragging along 500 prisoners when normally they would have sent them back over the Rhine?

As I said there were about 500 of us. Aside from the remnants of Pacthod’s division  there were twenty-five chasseurs and a number of men from other line regiments. We marched along escorted by their infantry and by the dirty Cossacks. One day we found ourselves in amongst a convoy of Russian supplies. Those who were caught stealing were punished but I managed to swipe a cooking pot that was hanging off the back of a wagon. Reaching in I grabbed a handful of its contents. It was boullion made with butter and red-wine vinegar. Despite my hunger I just couldn’t bring myself to eat it and throw the pot and its contents away.

That night we camped close to Paris, near the Chaumont hill. We could distinctly hear the sound of cannon. It was the Allied attack on the capital. We were forced to stand and watch, unable to take part in the final battle – the battle which would decide the fate of the empire!

When the firing died down we were made to advance, passing through a mass of Allied troops delirious with their easy victory. There hadn’t really been a battle. It had been more like a show to amuse the inhabitants, not even the National Guard had been armed. In truth the city had been delivered up to the Allies by the defection of Marmont and the cowardice of Joseph Bonaparte. History will pass judgement, I cannot.

The next day we were taken back to the Chaumont hill. It had been defended by students from the Military School as well as by a company of veterans. They had defended their post heroically, their corpses lay scattered about among wrecked cannon and dead horses. We spent the night there, among the wreckage, watching the Russian infantry kicking the debris about. Soon word got round that there were French prisoners near by and the good people of Paris, carrying bread and wine, flocked out to help us. Our guards kept them back and then pushed them away. The Parisians threw what they could to us but Talmann, my compatriot, and myself received precious little. So we cut open one of the dead horses and cooked some of its meat on a measly little fire made from broken muskets.

The next day we were marched into Paris. We were lined up along one of the main thoroughfares with our guards in ranks behind us, bayonets fixed. It was sunny enough but the street was covered in thick mud. We were cold and miserable. I had no shoes left, my trousers had gone missing and my coat was ragged. I had nothing on my head. What a sight! Just about all of the prisoners were in the same circumstances.

We spent a long time in the street without knowing what was going on. Some of the inhabitants were leaning out of their windows but didn’t dare speak to us. Some threw bread at us but it all ended up in the mud and I didn’t see anyone get any. Then, finally, we heard the rolling of masses of drums and the blare of martial music. It was the triumphal entry of the Allied sovereigns into Paris. They passed between the two files of prisoners, it was their triumph just like in Roman times. First came mounted Kalmuks. Hideously ugly they carried bows and had quivers suspended from their belts. They wore tiger skins and turbans. Then came a company of enormously tall musketeers (Russians generally aren’t very tall). Then the Allied sovereigns themselves passed along. There was the Emperor Alexander with, to his left, Frederick William, king of Prussia. Francis of Austria was absent. Finally a horde of German princes rode by. Of all these only Alexander raised his hat to us, the poor prisoners, as he passed by. The rest of the procession took two and a half hours.

Afterwards we were taken to Place de la Madeleine and guarded by some more Russian infantry. Shortly afterwards Colonel Guinet, a Genevan in Russian service appeared, to harangue us:

‘Soldiers’, he said, ‘you are no longer subject to the tyranny of your former master; now you will serve your legitimate monarch. Long live the king!’

This appeal on behalf of the old dynasty was greeted with silence.

‘Each of you will be returned to his respective regiment and you will be given your back pay. Long live the king!’

Again, silence greeted the colonel. Seeing that his words were wasted on us, he said ‘you’ll be taken to some barracks and issued with bread.’

We ended up in the Mont Blanc barracks near the Clichy gate and were indeed given bread. We also drew water from one of the wells in the courtyard. We slept on straw and were guarded by National Guards. These didn’t interfere with us and the next morning they marched off saying they didn’t want to keep Frenchmen in custody. We were free!

Lamon left Paris and headed for Fontainbleau where he came across the survivors of his old regiment. He didn’t stay there long. Foreign nationals – Lamon was from Geneva – were dismissed from service and he had to return to his native land. Bitter that he had been so ungratefully treated the ex-chasseur, accompanied by twenty-four Belgians, marched on Paris to demand his back pay. For three days they besieged the Ministry of war before being awarded with the money they needed in order to make their way home. Lamon turned his back on glory, returned to a Geneva despoiled by Austrian occupation and slowly began to adjust to a new life in a new, peaceful Europe.