The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot

Author: Jean Baptiste Antoine Marcellin de Marbot

Chap. 10.

Deeply moved by this unhappy event,I was meditating with much sadness, when I was awakened from my reveries by the distant sound of a sustained cannonade. The two armies were once more in action. Marshal Oudinot, after passing the inn at Kliastitsoui where I had been wounded the day before, had contacted the Russian rear-guard at the beginning of the marsh, the exit from which had been so disastrous for us on the previous day. He was determined to drive the enemy back, but they were not prepared to pass through this dangerous defile, and mounted a counter-offensive against the French troops who after suffering considerable losses retreated, followed by the Russians. One might have thought that Oudinot and Wittgenstein were playing a game of prisoner’s base, advancing and retreating by turn. The news of this fresh retreat by Oudinot was given to us on the battlefield of Sivotschina by an aide-de-camp, who brought to General Albert the order to take his brigade together with the 23rd Chasseurs, two leagues to the rear, in the direction of Polotsk.

When it came to leaving, I was unwilling to part with the fourteen artillery pieces captured that morning by my regiment, and as the horses which pulled them had also fallen into our hands, they were harnessed up and we took the guns to our next bivouac, and on the night following to Polotsk, where it was not long before they played an effective part in the defence of that town.

Oudinot withdrew that same day to the ford at Sivotschina, which he had crossed in the morning in pursuit of Wittgenstein who bearing in mind the disaster which had overwhelmed his advance-guard at this place on the occasion, did not risk sending any isolated unit across to the bank which we occupied. So the two armies, separated by the Drissa, settled themselves for the night.

On the following day, the 2nd August, Oudinot having joined his units at Polotsk, hostilities ceased for a few days, as both sides were in need of a rest. We were rejoined by the good General Castex and also by the 24th Chasseurs, who were very angry with their Colonel for leading them away when it was their turn to attack the Russian camp. On their trip up the Drissa they had seen no sign of the enemy nor had they found any trace of the supposed ford.

After several days rest Wittgenstein led part of his troops towards the lower Dvina, from where Macdonald was threatening his right. When Marshal Oudinot followed the Russian army in that direction it turned to face him, and for a week or ten days there was a series of marches and countermarches, and several minor engagements which it would be too long and wearisome to describe, and which resulted only in the useless killing of men and the demonstration of the indecision of both commanders.

The most serious engagement during this short period took place on the 13th August near the magnificent monastery of Valensoui, built on the bank of the Svolna. This little river which has very muddy banks separated the French and the Russians, and it was obvious that whichever general attempted to force a crossing on such unfavourable terrain would come to grief. Neither Oudinot nor Wittgenstein had any intention of crossing the Svolna at this point; but instead of going to look for some other place where they could meet in combat, they took up positions on either side of this watercourse, as it were in mutual despite. Soon there was from both banks a lively cannonade which was totally useless as the troops on neither side could attack their adversaries and was no credit to either party.

However Wittgenstein, to protect the lives of his men, had restricted himself to posting some battalions of unmounted Chasseurs among the willows and reeds which bordered the stream, and had kept the bulk of his force out of the range of the French guns, whose brisk fire hit only some of his sharpshooters, while Oudinot, who had insisted, in spite of the sensible advice of several generals, on bringing his first line up to the Svolna suffered losses which he could have and should have avoided. The Russian artillery is nowhere as good as ours, but they used pieces called licornes, which had a range exceeding that of the French guns of the period, and it was these licornes which did the most damage among our troops.

Marshal Oudinot, in his belief that the enemy were going to cross the river, not only kept a division of infantry in position to repel them, but supported them with General Castex’s cavalry, an unnecessary precaution, since a crossing of even a small river takes more time than is needed for the defenders to hurry into a position to oppose it. Nonetheless my regiment was exposed for twenty-four hours to the Russian fire, which killed or wounded several of my men.

During this confrontation in which the troops remained stationary for a long period, there arrived the aide-de-camp whom Oudinet had sent to Witepsk to report to the Emperor the result of the battles at Kliastitsoui and at Sivotschina. Napoleon who wanted to make it clear to the troops that he did not blame them for the lack of success in our operations, loaded 2nd Corps with rewards in the way of decorations and promotions, and then, turning to the cavalry, he awarded four Crosses of the Legion of Honour to each of the cavalry regiments. In the despatch announcing this news, Major-general the Prince Berthier added that in order to show his satisfaction with the conduct of the 23rd Chasseurs at Wilkomir, the bridge of Dvinaburg, the night battle at Drouia, Kliastitsoui and above all in the attack on the Russian camp at Sivotschina, the Emperor was awarding them, in addition to the four decorations given to the other regiments, fourteen decorations, one for each of the guns captured by them from Koulnieff’s advance-guard, so that I had now eighteen crosses to distribute among my brave soldiers. The aide-de-camp had not brought the awards themselves, but the Major-general had added to his letter the request that the regimental commanders should draw up a list of recipients and forward it to him.

I assembled all the captains, and after taking their advice, I drew up my list, and presented it to Marshal Oudinot, asking at the same time if I might be allowed to announce the awards immediately to my regiment: "What, here, under fire?" "Yes, marshal, under fire. That enhances their value."

General Lorencez, who as chief of staff had written the report of the various actions, in which he had highly praised the 23rd, agreed with my suggestion and so the Marshal consented. The decorations would not arrive until later, but I had my servant look in my baggage for a piece of ribbon which I had in my portmanteau, and when it was found, and after it had been cut into eighteen pieces, I announced to the regiment the awards which the Emperor had presented, and calling out of the ranks each of the recipients in turn, I gave them a piece of the red ribbon, then so keenly wished for and so proudly worn, and which has since then been so diminished in value, almost prostituted, by handing it out indiscriminately to all and sundry.

This ceremony, conducted in the field and under fire, had a great effect, and the enthusiasm of the regiment was at its height when I announced the name of Sergeant Prud’homme, reputed justly to be the most intrepid and unassuming of the warriors of the 23rd. This brave survivor of many a fierce encounter, accepted with modesty his piece of ribbon, to the sound of loud acclamation from all the squadrons. A moment of well earned triumph. I shall never forget this moving scene which took place, as you know, within range of the enemy guns.

Sadly, there is no rose without its thorn. Two of the men who were included in my list had just been severely wounded. Sergeant Legendre, who had killed General Koulnieff, had an arm carried away, and Corporal Griffon had a leg smashed. The injured limbs were being amputated when I went to the dressing station to give them their decorations. At the sight of the ribbons they forgot for a moment their pain, but unhappily, Sergeant Legendre did not long survive his injury, though Griffon recovered and was sent back to France, where I saw him some years later in Les Invalides.

The 24th Chasseurs, who received only four decorations as opposed to the eighteen awarded to the 23rd, conceded that this was fair, but nevertheless they regretted that they had been deprived of the honour of taking the fourteen Russian guns at Sivotschina, even at the cost of suffering such casualties as ours, "We are soldiers" they said, "and must take our chances for better or worse." They blamed their colonel for providing them with what they called this let-out. Here was an army whose men actually clamoured for action.

You will doubtless wonder what I got out of all this, and the answer is nothing. The Emperor, before he removed Colonel de La Nougarède from the command of the regiment and either made him a general or head of a legion of gendarmes, wanted to know if his health would permit him to carry out the duties of either of these two ranks. As a consequence Marshal Oudinot was ordered to bring Colonel de La Nougarède before a medical board, whose conclusion was that he would never be able to mount a horse. In view of this, the Marshal authorised the Colonel’s return to France, where he was given the command of a minor fortress. The unfortunate Colonel, before leaving Polotsk, where his infirmities had forced him to remain, wrote me a very touching letter in which he took his leave of the 23rd, and although he had never led the regiment into action, an event which increases the men’s regard for their commander, his departure was justifiably regretted.

The regiment now being without a colonel, the Marshal expected to receive at any moment the order for my promotion to that rank, and quite frankly so did I. The Emperor had however moved away, and had left Witepsk to take Smolensk and from there to march on Moscow, and the work of his cabinet had been slowed by their preoccupation with military operations to such an extent that I was not gazetted Colonel until three months later.

Let us now return to the banks of the Svolna, which the French left hurriedly, after depositing some of their wounded in the monastery of Valensoui. Amongst those whom we lost was M. Casabianca, Colonel of the 11th light infantry regiment, who had served with me as aide-de-camp to Masséna. He was a very fine officer whose promotion had been rapid; but his career was ended by a head injury received when he was visiting some of his men on the bank of the Svolna. He was dying when I saw him on a stretcher carried by some sappers. He recognised me and shaking my hand he observed that he was sorry to see our army corps so poorly managed. The poor fellow died that evening.

His last words were only too well founded, for our leader seemed to proceed without method or plan. After a success, he pursued Wittgenstein regardless of any obstacles and spoke of nothing less than driving him back as far as St.Petersburg, but at the least check he retreated swiftly and started seeing enemies everywhere. It was in this last state that he took his troops back to Polotsk, although they were displeased at being made to fall back before the Russians whom they had recently defeated in almost every encounter.

On the 15th of August, the Emperor’s birthday, 2nd Corps arrived dejectedly at Polotsk, where we met with 6th Corps, formed of the two fine Bavarian divisions of General Wrède, which had a French general, Gouvion Saint-Cyr in overall command. The Emperor had sent this reinforcement of 8 to 10,000 men to Marshal Oudinot, who would have received it with more pleasure if he had not been afraid of the man in command.

Saint-Cyr was one of the most competent soldiers in Europe. A contemporary and rival of Moreau, Hoche, Kleber and Desaix, he had successfully commanded one wing of the French army of the Rhine at a time when Oudinot was scarcely a colonel or a brigade commander. I do not know anyone who could command troops in the field better than Saint-Cyr.

The son of a small landowner in Toul, he had studied to be a civil engineer, but he gave this up to become an actor in Paris, where he created the well-known role of "Robert,the Brigand Chief" In the City Theatre, where he was when the revolution of ’89 broke out. Saint-Cyr joined a volunteer battalion, where he showed great courage and military talent. He soon became a divisional general and gained a number of victories. He was a tall man but looked more like a schoolmaster than a soldier, due in part perhaps to the habit adopted by the generals of the army of the Rhine of wearing neither uniform nor epaulets, but only a plain blue greatcoat.

One could not imagine anyone more self-controlled. The greatest dangers, setbacks, successes, or defeats, failed to rouse him to any show of emotion. He maintained an icy calm in all situations. It is obvious how useful such a temperament coupled with a taste for study and meditation, might be to a general officer, but Saint-Cyr had also some serious faults. Jealous of his comrades, he had been known to hold his troops back while, close to him, other divisions were decimated in a desperate struggle. He would then advance and profiting from the exhaustion of the enemy he would overcome them, and thus appear to have won the victory single-handed. Secondly, if Saint-Cyr was one of the best officers in the employment of troops in the field, he was without doubt the one who took the least interest in their welfare. He never inquired if the men had food, clothing or footwear, or if their arms were in proper repair. He never held an inspection, nor visited the hospitals, nor even asked if there were any. In his opinion it was the duty of the colonels to see to all that. In short he wanted to be presented on the field of battle with regiments in fighting order, without troubling himself to see that they were kept in that condition. This sort of behaviour had not done Saint-Cyr any good. Wherever he served the soldiers, although acknowledging his military talents, regarded him without affection. His fellow officers dreaded working with him and the various governments which had taken power in France had employed him only out of necessity. The Emperor did the same, but he so much disliked Saint-Cyr that when he created the rank of marshal he left his name off the list of promotions, even though he had seen more service and shown more skill than most of those to whom Napoleon awarded the baton. Such was the man whom the Emperor had just placed under Oudinet’s orders, to the great regret of the latter, who feared that he would be shown up by comparison with Saint-Cyr’s superior talents.

On the 16th of August, the day on which my eldest son Alfred was born, the Russian army of some sixty thousand men attacked Oudinot, who, including the Bavarian unit led by Saint-Cyr, had fifty two thousand men under his command. In any other circumstances an engagement between one hundred and twelve thousand men would have been called a battle; but in 1812 the when the total number of combatants amounted to some six or seven hundred thousand, a fight involving one hundred thousand men was no more than an action, and it is this description which is given to the struggle at Polotsk between the Russian troops and those of Marshal Oudinot.

The town of Polotsk, built on the right bank of the Dvina, is surrounded by old earthen ramparts. Before the main frontage of the town the fields are divided by a large number of little ditches between which vegetables are grown. Although these obstacles are not impassable for artillery and cavalry, they hinder their movement. These gardens extend for less than half a league in front of the town, but on their left, on the bank of the Divna there is a large area of level ground. It is here that the Russian general should have attacked Polotsk, for it would have given him command of the frail and only pontoon bridge, which was our communication with the left bank from which we drew our ammunition and food supply. But Wittgenstein chose to make a frontal attack and directed his main force towards the gardens from where he hoped to scale the ramparts which, to tell the truth, were no more than easily climbed embankments, whose height, however, allowed them to dominate the ground in front of them. The attack was pressed home vigourously, but our infantry put up a stout defence among the gardens, while from the height of the ramparts the guns, among which were the fourteen captured by the 23rd at Sivotschina, ravaged the enemy ranks. The Russians fell back in disorder to reform themselves on the plain. Oudinot, instead of staying sensibly where he was, went after them and was in turn driven off with casualties. The greater part of the day was spent in this way, the Russians returning repeatedly to the attack, only to be driven back beyond the gardens by the French.

During these blood-stained comings and goings, what was General Saint-Cyr doing? He was following Oudinot about in silence, and when asked for his opinion he merely bowed and said "Monseigneur le Marachal" as if meaning since you have been made marshal, you must know more than me, a simple general. So you can sort this out for yourself.

Wittgenstein, having lost a great many men and despairing of gaining victory by continued attacks in the area of the gardens, ended up where he should have begun, by marching his troops towards the meadows which bordered the Dvina. Up until this time Oudinot had kept his twelve pounders and all his cavalry at this spot, as if they had nothing to do with the fighting; but the artillery general, Dulauloy, anxious about his guns, suggested to the Marshal that he should send not only the large calibre guns but also all the cavalry over to the left bank, on the pretext that they got in the way of the infantry. When Oudinot asked Saint-Cyr what he thought, instead of offering the sound advice that the artillery and the cavalry should stay where they were, on ground which allowed them to manoeuvre with ease and support the infantry, he only repeated his endless "Monseigneur le Marachal". In the end, Oudinot, in spite of the opinion of General Lorencez, his chief-of-staff, ordered the artillery and the cavalry to withdraw to the other side of the river. This ill-advised movement which looked like the prelude to a retreat and the total abandonment of Polotsk and the right bank, greatly displeased the troops who were involved, and lowered the morale of the infantry whose job it was to defend that part of the town which faced the open ground. The spirits of the Russians were, on the contrary, raised when they saw ten regiments of cavalry and several batteries of guns leaving the field of battle. In an effort to create confusion in this huge mass as it departed they brought forward and fired their licornes, the hollow ammunition of which acts first as a cannon-ball and then explodes like a mortar bomb. The regiments next to mine had several men killed or wounded. I was lucky enough to have none of my men hit though I lost some horses. My own horse was hit in the head and as it fell I went down with it and my injured shoulder struck hard on the ground, which was very painful. If the Russian gun had been elevated a bit more, it would have been I who was hit, fair and square, and my son would have been an orphan a few hours after first seeing the light of day.

The enemy now resumed their attack, and when, after crossing the bridge, we looked back to see what was happening on the bank which we had just left, we saw a disturbing spectacle. The French, Bavarian and Croatian infantry were fighting bravely and holding their own, but the Portuguese legion and the two Swiss regiments fled before the Russians, and did not stop until, having been driven into the river, they were in the water up to their knees. Then, forced to face the enemy or drown, they at last struck back, and by a constant barrage of fire they compelled the Russians to draw back a little. The commander of the French artillery, who had just crossed the Dvina with the cavalry, skillfully made use of the opportunity to be useful by bringing his guns to the river bank and directing a heavy fire across the stream at the enemy battalions drawn up on the opposite bank.

This powerful intervention having stopped Wittgenstein’s men at this point, while the French, Bavarians and Croats drove them back elsewhere, the fighting eased up and an hour before the end of the day had degenerated into random firing. The Marshal, however could not escape the fact that he would have to continue fighting the next day; and so, preoccupied by a situation the outcome of which he could not predict, and ruffled by the obstinate silence of Saint-Cyr, he was walking his horse slowly, followed by only one aide-de-camp, among musketeers of his infantry, when enemy marksmen, seeing a rider with a plumed hat, took aim and put a ball through his arm.

The Marshal at once informed Saint-Cyr of the injury and handing to him the command of the army left him to sort matters out. He himself left the field, crossed the bridge, stopped for a few moments at the cavalry bivouac and quitting the army went to Lithuania in our rear, to have his wound cared for. We did not see him again for two months.


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Chicago: Jean Baptiste Antoine Marcellin de Marbot, "Chap. 10.," The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot, ed. Iles, George, 1852-1942 and trans. Colt, Oliver C. in The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1909), Original Sources, accessed July 21, 2024,

MLA: de Marbot, Jean Baptiste Antoine Marcellin. "Chap. 10." The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot, edited by Iles, George, 1852-1942, and translated by Colt, Oliver C., in The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot, Vol. 36, New York, Doubleday, Page, 1909, Original Sources. 21 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: de Marbot, J, 'Chap. 10.' in The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot, ed. and trans. . cited in 1909, The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot, Doubleday, Page, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 21 July 2024, from