Recollections of the Private Life of Napoleon— Complete

Author: Louis Constant Wairy

Chapter XVIII.

At Boulogne, as everywhere else, the Emperor well knew how to win all hearts by his moderation, his justice, and the generous grace with which he acknowledged the least service. All the inhabitants of Boulogne, even all the peasants of the suburbs, would have died for him, and the smallest particulars relating to him were constantly repeated. One day, however, his conduct gave rise to serious complaints, and he was unanimously blamed; for his injustice was the cause of a terrible tragedy. I will now relate this sad event, an authentic account of which I have never seen in print.

One morning, as he mounted his horse, the Emperor announced that he would that day review the naval forces, and gave orders that the boats which occupied the line of defense should leave their position, as he intended to hold the review in the open sea. He set out with Roustan for his morning ride, and expressed a wish that all should be ready on his return, the hour of which he designated. Every one knew that the slightest wish of the Emperor was law; and the order was transmitted, during his absence, to Admiral Bruix, who replied with imperturbable ’sang froid’, that he much regretted it, but the review would not take place that day, and in consequence no boat stirred.

On his return from his ride, the Emperor asked if everything was ready, and the admiral’s answer was reported to him. Astonished by its tone, so different from what he was accustomed to, he had it repeated to him twice, and then, with a violent stamp of his foot, ordered the admiral to be summoned. He obeyed instantly; but the Emperor, thinking he did not come quickly enough, met him half-way from his barracks. The staff followed his Majesty, and placed themselves silently around him, while his eyes shot lightning.

"Admiral Bruix," said the Emperor in a tone showing great excitement, "why have you not obeyed my orders?"

"Sire," responded Bruix with respectful firmness, "a terrible storm is gathering. Your Majesty can see this as well as I; are you willing to uselessly risk the lives of so many brave men?" In truth, the heaviness of the atmosphere, and the low rumbling which could be heard in the distance, justified only too well the admiral’s fears. "Monsieur," replied the Emperor, more and more irritated, "I gave the orders; once again, why have you not executed them? The consequences concern me alone. Obey!"—"Sire, I will not obey!"—"Monsieur, you are insolent!" And the Emperor, who still held his riding-whip in his hand, advanced on the admiral, making a threatening gesture. Admiral Bruix retreated a step, and placed his hand on the hilt of his sword: "Sire," said he, growing pale, "take care!" All those present were paralyzed with terror. The Emperor remained for some time immovable, with his hand raised, and his eyes fixed on the admiral, who still maintained his defiant attitude. At last the Emperor threw his whip on the ground. Admiral Bruix relaxed his hold on his sword, and, with uncovered head, awaited in silence the result of this terrible scene.

"Rear-admiral Magon!" said the Emperor, "you will see that the orders which I have given are executed instantly. As for you, sir," continued he, turning to Admiral Bruix, "you will leave Boulogne within. twentyfour hours, and retire to Holland. Go!" His Majesty returned at once to headquarters; some of the officers, only a small number, however, pressed in parting the hand that the admiral held out to them.

Rear-admiral Magon immediately ordered the fatal movement commanded by the Emperor; but hardly had the first dispositions been made when the sea became frightful to behold, the sky, covered with black clouds, was furrowed with lightning, the thunder roared incessantly, and the wind increased to a gale. In fact, what Admiral Bruix had foreseen occurred; a frightful tempest scattered the boats in every direction, and rendered their condition desperate. The Emperor, anxious and uneasy, with lowered head and crossed arms, was striding up and down the shore, when suddenly terrible cries were heard. More than twenty gunboats, filled with soldiers and sailors, had just been driven on the shore; and the poor unfortunates who manned them, struggling against furious waves, were imploring help which none could venture to render. The Emperor was deeply touched by this sight, while his heart was torn by the lamentations of an immense crowd which the tempest had collected on the shore and the adjoining cliffs. He beheld his generals and officers stand in shuddering horror around him, and wishing to set an example of self-sacrifice, in spite of all efforts made to restrain him, threw himself into a lifeboat, saying, "Let me alone; let me alone! They must be gotten out of there." In an instant the boat filled with water, the waves dashed over it, and the Emperor was submerged, one wave stronger than the others threw his Majesty on the shore, and his hat was swept off.

Electrified by such courage, officers, soldiers, sailors, and citizens now began to lend their aid, some swimming, others in boats; but, alas! they succeeded in saving—only a very small number of the unfortunate men who composed the crews of the gunboats, and the next day the sea cast upon the shore more than two hundred men, and with them the hat of the conqueror of Marengo.

The next was a day of mourning and of grief, both in Boulogne and the camp. The inhabitants and soldiers covered the beach, searching anxiously among the bodies which the waves incessantly cast upon the shore; and the Emperor groaned over this terrible calamity, which in his inmost heart he could not fail to attribute to his own obstinacy. By his orders agents entrusted with gold went through the city and camp, stopping the murmurs which were ready to break forth.

That day I saw a drummer, who had been among the crew of the shipwrecked vessels, washed upon the shore upon his drum, which lie had used as a raft. The poor fellow had his thigh broken, and had remained more than twenty hours in that horrible condition.

In order to complete in this place my recollections of the camp of Boulogne, I will relate the following, which did not take place, however, until the month of August, 1805, after the return of the Emperor from his journey to Italy, where he had been crowned.

Soldiers and sailors were burning with impatience to embark for England, but the moment so ardently desired was still delayed. Every evening they said to themselves, "Tomorrow there will be a good wind, there will also be a fog, and we shall start," and lay down with that hope, but arose each day to find either an unclouded sky or rain.

One evening, however, when a favorable wind was blowing, I heard two sailors conversing together on the wharf, and making conjectures as to the future. "The Emperor would do well to start tomorrow morning," said one; "he will never have better weather, and there will surely be a fog." —"Bah!" said the other, "only he does not think so. We have now waited more than fifteen days, and the fleet has not budged; however, all the ammunition is on board, and with one blast of the whistle we can put to sea."

The night sentinels came on, and the conversation of the old sea-wolves stopped there; but I soon had to acknowledge that their nautical experience had not deceived them. In fact, by three o’clock in the morning, a light fog was spread over the sea, which was somewhat stormy, the wind of the evening before began to, blow again, and at daylight the fog was so thick as to conceal the fleet from the English, while the most profound silence reigned everywhere. No hostile sails had been signaled through the night, and, as the sailors had predicted, everything favored the descent.

At five o’clock in the morning, signals were made from the semaphore; and in the twinkling of an eye all the sailors were in motion, and the port resounded with cries of joy, for the order to depart had just been received. While the sails were being hoisted, the long roll was beaten in the four camps, and the order was given for the entire army to take arms; and they marched rapidly into the town, hardly believing what they had just heard. "We are really going to start,," said all the soldiers; "we are actually going to say a few words to those Englishmen," and the joy which animated them burst forth in acclamations, which were silenced by a roll of the drums. The embarkation then took place amid profound silence, and in such perfect order that I can hardly give an idea of it. At seven o’clock two hundred thousand soldiers were on board the fleet; and when a little after midday this fine army was on the point of starting amidst the adieus and good wishes of the whole city, assembled upon the walls and upon the surrounding cliffs, and at the very moment when all the soldiers standing with uncovered heads were about to bid farewell to the soil of France, crying, "Vive l’Empereur!" a message arrived from the imperial barrack, ordering the troops to disembark, and return to camp. A telegraphic dispatch just then received by his Majesty had made it necessary that he should move his troops in another direction; and the soldiers returned sadly to their quarters, some expressing in a loud tone, and in a very energetic manner, the disappointment which this species of mystification caused them.

They had always regarded the success of the enterprise against England as assured, and to find themselves stopped on the eve of departure was, in their eyes, the greatest misfortune which could happen to them.

When order had again been restored, the Emperor repaired to the camp of the right wing, and made a proclamation to the troops, which was sent into the other camps, and posted everywhere. This was very nearly the tenor of it: "Brave soldiers of the camp of Boulogne! you will not go to England. English gold has seduced the Emperor of Austria, who has just declared war against France. His army has passed the line which he should have respected, and Bavaria is invaded. Soldiers! new laurels await you beyond the Rhine. Let us hasten to defeat once more enemies whom you have already conquered." This proclamation called forth unanimous acclamations of joy, and every face brightened, for it mattered little to these intrepid men whether they were to be led against Austria or England; they simply thirsted for the fray, and now that war had been declared, every desire was gratified.

Thus vanished all those grand projects of descent upon England, which had been so long matured, so wisely planned. There is no doubt now that with favorable weather and perseverance the enterprise would have been crowned with the greatest success; but this was not to be.

A few regiments remained at Boulogne; and while their brethren crushed the Austrians, they erected upon the seashore a column destined to recall for all time the memory of Napoleon and his immortal army.

Immediately after the proclamation of which I have just spoken, his Majesty gave orders that all should prepare for immediate departure; and the grand marshal of the palace was charged to audit and pay all the expenses which the Emperor had made, or which he had ordered to be made, during his several visits, not without cautioning him, according to custom, to be careful not to pay for too much of anything, nor too high a price. I believe that I have already stated that the Emperor was extremely economical in everything which concerned him personally, and that he was afraid of spending twenty francs unless for some directly useful purpose. Among many other accounts to be audited, the grand marshal of the palace received that of Sordi, engineer of military roads, whom he had ordered to decorate his Majesty’s barrack, both inside and out. The account amounted to fifty thousand francs. The grand marshal exclaimed aloud at this frightful sum. He was not willing to approve the account of Sordi, and sent it back to him, saying that he could not authorize the payment without first receiving the orders of the Emperor. The engineer assured the grand marshal that he had overcharged nothing, and that he had closely followed his instructions, and added, that being the case, it was impossible for him to make the slightest reduction. The next day Sordi received instructions to attend his Majesty. The Emperor was in his barrack, which was the subject under discussion, and spread out before him was, not the account of the engineer, but a map, upon which he was tracing the intended march of his army. Sordi came, and was admitted by General Caffarelli. The half-open door permitted the general, as well as myself, to hear the conversation which followed. "Monsieur," said his Majesty, "you have spent far too much money in decorating this miserable barrack. Yes; certainly far too much. Fifty thousand francs! Just think of it, monsieur! That is frightful; I will not pay you!" The engineer, silenced by this abrupt entrance upon business, did not at first know how to reply. Happily the Emperor, again casting his eyes on the map which lay unrolled before him, gave him time to recover himself; and he replied, "Sire, the golden clouds which ornament this ceiling " (for all this took place in the council-chamber), "and which surround the guardian star of your Majesty, cost twenty thousand francs in truth; but if I had consulted the hearts of your subjects, the imperial eagle which is again about to strike with a thunderbolt the enemies of France and of your throne, would have spread its wings amid the rarest diamonds."—"That is very good," replied the Emperor, laughing, "very good; but I will not have you paid at present, and since you tell me that this eagle which costs so dear will strike the Austrians with a thunderbolt, wait until he has done so, and I will then pay your account in rix dollars of the Emperor of Germany, and the gold frederics of the King of Prussia." His Majesty, resuming his compass, began to move his armies upon the map; and truth to tell, the account of the engineer was not paid until after the battle of Austerlitz, and then, as the Emperor had said, in rix dollars and frederics.

About the end of July (1804), the Emperor left Boulogne in order to make a tour through Belgium before rejoining the Empress, who had gone direct to Aix-la-Chapelle. Everywhere on this tour he was welcomed, not only with the honors reserved for crowned heads, but with hearty acclamations, addressed to him personally rather than to his official position. I will say nothing of the fetes which were given in his honor during this journey, nor of the remarkable things which occurred. Descriptions of these can easily be found elsewhere; and it is my purpose to relate only what came peculiarly under my own observation, or at least details not known to the general public. Let it suffice, then, to say that our journey through Arras, Valenciennes, Mons, Brussels, etc., resembled a triumphal progress. At the gate of each town the municipal council presented to his Majesty the wine of honor and the keys of the place. We stopped a few days at Lacken; and being only five leagues from Alost, a little town where my relatives lived, I requested the Emperor’s permission to leave him for twenty-four hours, and it was granted, though reluctantly. Alost, like the remainder of Belgium at this time, professed the greatest attachment for the Emperor, and consequently I had hardly a moment to myself. I visited at the house of Monsieur D----, one of my friends, whose family had long held positions of honor in the government of Belgium. There I think all the town must have come to meet me; but I was not vain enough to appropriate to myself all the honor of this attention, for each one who came was anxious to learn even the most insignificant details concerning the great man near whom I was placed. On this account I was extraordinarily feted, and my twenty-four hours passed only too quickly. On my return, his Majesty deigned to ask innumerable questions regarding the town of Alost and its inhabitants, and as to what was thought there of his government and of himself. I was glad to be able to answer without flattery, that he was adored. He appeared gratified, and spoke to me most kindly of my family and of my own small interests.

We left the next day for Lacken, and passed through Alost; and had I known this the evening before, I might perhaps have rested a few hours longer. However, the Emperor found so much difficulty in granting me even one day, that I would not probably have dared to lose more, even had I known that the household was to pass by this town.

The Emperor was much pleased with Lacken; he ordered considerable repairs and improvements to be made there, and the palace, owing to this preference, became a charming place of sojourn.

This journey of their Majesties lasted nearly three months; and we did not return to Paris, or rather to Saint-Cloud, until November. The Emperor received at Cologne and at Coblentz the visits of several German princes and princesses; but as I know only from hearsay what passed in these interviews, I shall not undertake to describe them.


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Chicago: Louis Constant Wairy, "Chapter XVIII.," Recollections of the Private Life of Napoleon— Complete, ed. Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853 and trans. Clark, Walter, 1846-1924 in Recollections of the Private Life of Napoleon—Complete (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1909), Original Sources, accessed September 25, 2023,

MLA: Wairy, Louis Constant. "Chapter XVIII." Recollections of the Private Life of Napoleon— Complete, edited by Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853, and translated by Clark, Walter, 1846-1924, in Recollections of the Private Life of Napoleon—Complete, Vol. 36, New York, Doubleday, Page, 1909, Original Sources. 25 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: Wairy, LC, 'Chapter XVIII.' in Recollections of the Private Life of Napoleon— Complete, ed. and trans. . cited in 1909, Recollections of the Private Life of Napoleon—Complete, Doubleday, Page, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 25 September 2023, from