The Memoirs of Baron de Marbot
Volume II Chapter XXXVI
AFTER beating the Prussian corps under Field-Marshal Blucher, who had retired behind the Katzbach river, the Emperor gave orders to pursue on the following day, but on learning that the Grand Army of the Coalition, 200,000 strong, under Prince Schwarzenberg, had debauched on August 22 from the mountains of Bohemia and was marching on Saxony, Napoleon took his whole guard, Latour-Maubourg's cavalry, and several divisions of infantry, and made his way by forced marches back to Dresden, into which Marshal Saint-Cyr had thrown himself with his troops, hastily withdrawn from the camp of Pirna. On leaving Silesia the Emperor had ordered Marshal Ney to follow him and left Macdonald in command of the army on the Bober, consisting of the 3rd, 5th, and 11th corps of infantry, and the 2nd of cavalry, which, with the artillery, formed an effective force of 75,000 men. As events showed, the command of such a mass of combatants was a task too heavy for Macdonald.
As you will have observed, the larger the number of troops engaged the less I describe their movements in detail. The work would be so great that I fear I should not be capable of performing it satisfactorily, and it would render the reading of these Memoirs too wearisome. I shall, therefore, relate the events of the war of 1813 more concisely than I have done in the case of my previous campaigns.
On August 28, 200,000 of the allies invested the town of Dresden, the fortifications of which were hardly able to resist a coup-de-main, and Marshal Saint-Cyr's situation with only 17,000 French became extremely critical. The enemy was sadly served by his spies, so that he did not know that Napoleon was close at hand, and, confiding in his numbers, put off the attack till next day. His confidence was increased by seeing two Westphalian regiments arrive, who having deserted Jerome joined the Austrians. Marshal Saint-Cyrxiously awaiting an attack on the morning of the 25th, but he was reassured by the arrival of the Emperor, who entered Dresden early that day. A few moments later, the enemy, expecting to have to deal with Saint-Cyr's corps only, marched on the town so impetuously that they carried several redoubts. The Russians and Prussians having occupied the suburb of Pirna, tried to drive in the Freiberg gate, when, by an order from the Emperor, the gate suddenly opened and out marched a column of infantry from the imperial guard, its leading brigade commanded by General Cambronne. It was like the appearance of the head of Medusa; the enemy recoiled in terror, their guns were captured, and the gunners killed on their carriages. Similar sorties were made from all the gates of Dresden with a like result; the enemy evacuated the captured redoubts and fled into the surrounding country, charged by Napoleon's cavalry. They lost 5,000 men disabled and 3,000 prisoners. The French had 2,500 killed or wounded, among the latter five generals.
Next day the French army attacked first, though its strength was less than that of its opponents by 87,000 men. There was at first a brisk and bloody engagement; but the rain falling in torrents on a heavy soil soon turned the battlefield into pools of muddy water, in which our troops moved with great difficulty. Nevertheless, they continued to advance, and the Young Guard was making the enemy's left give ground, when the Emperor, perceiving that Prince Schwarzenberg had made the mistake of insufficiently supporting his left wing, crushed it with Victor's infantry and Latour- Maubourg's cavalry. Murat, who commanded this part of the French line, showed himself more brilliant than ever; for after forcing the defile of Cotta, he turned and cut off from the Austrian army Klenau's corps, hurling himself upon it at the head of the carabineers and cuirassiers. His movement was decisive; Klenau could not resist that terrible charge. Nearly all his battalions were compelled to lay down their arms, and two other divisions of infantry shared their fate.
While Murat was thus beating the enemy on their left their right was being routed by the Young Guard, so that by three o'clock the victory was secured and the Coalition forces in retreat towards Bohemia! They left that day on the field eighteen stands of colours, twenty-six guns, and 40,000 men, half of whom were prisoners. The heaviest loss fell on the Austrian infantry. Percussion muskets were, of course, hardly known at that time, and the infantry used flint-locks, which became almost useless when the priming had got wet. Now as the rain had never stopped all day this had much to do with the defeat of the infantry by our cavalry. In regard to this a curious thing happened. A cuirassier division under General Bordesoulle, finding itself in front of a strong division of Austrian infantry formed in square, summoned it to surrender. The Austrian general refused; and Bordesoulle, going forward, pointed out to him that not one of his muskets could be fired. The Austrian general replied that his men could defend themselves with the bayonet, and would be all the better able to do so that the French horses were up to their hocks in mud, and could not meet them with the breast-to-breast shock in which the strength of cavalry lies. 'I will break up your square with artillery.' 'But you have none; it has stuck in the mud.' 'Well, if I show you the guns behind my leading regiment, will you surrender?' 'I shall have no choice, for I shall have no means left of defense. ' Thereupon the French general brought up a battery of six guns to within thirty paces, and the gunners stood with lighted matches ready to fire. Then the Austrian division laid down its arms. It was indeed the artillery that played the principal part in this battle. Napoleon doubled the teams by taking horses from his commissariat wagons to enable the guns to move, and our field pieces did great execution. It was a ball from one of them which struck Moreau.
Public rumour had some time back announced the return to Europe of their once famous French general, and added that he had taken service among his country's foes; but few people believed the report. It was, however, confirmed in a curious way on the evening of the battle of Dresden. Our advance-guard was pursuing the routed enemy, when one of our hussars observed at the entrance of the village of Notnitz a magnificent Danish hound. The dog seeming to be looking uneasily for its master, the soldier called it and took hold of it. On its collar were the words 'I am General Moreau's dog.' Then they heard from the village priest that General Moreau had just had both his legs amputated in his house. A French cannon-ball had dropped among the Emperor of Russia's staff and broken both the famous deserter's legs, going through his horse's body. This happened just as the allied armies were defeated; and the Emperor Alexander, fearing lest Moreau should fall into the hands of the French, made some grenadiers carry him in their arms until the pursuit slackened, and it was possible to dress his wound and take both legs off at the thigh. The Saxon clergyman witnessed this terrible operation, and said that Moreau, knowing his danger, cursed himself, and incessantly repeated: 'What ? I, Moreau, I to die among the enemies of France, struck down by a French ball!' No man in the French army regretted him when it was known that he had borne arms against his country. A Russian flag of truce came to claim the dog on behalf of his aide-de-camp, Colonel Rapatel, and the animal was sent back, but without his collar. This was sent to the King of Saxony, and now is among the curiosities in the Dresden Gallery.
Meanwhile Prince Schwarzenberg had given orders to his beaten troops to rendezvous at Teplitz. The Austrians effected their retreat by the Dippoldiswalde valley, the Russians and Russians by the Telnitz road, and the remains of Klenau's corps by that to Freiberg. Napoleon accompanied the pursuing corps as far as Pirna; but just before reaching that town he was attacked by sudden illness, with slight vomiting, the result of the fatigue caused by five days in the saddle under incessant rain. One of the inconveniences to which sovereigns are exposed is that there are always persons about them who, to show their attachment, profess to be alarmed at their smallest ailments, and must take exaggerated precautions. This was what happened in the present case. The grand equerry, Caulaincourt, advised Napoleon to return to Dresden, and the other high officials did not venture to give him the far better advice to go on to Pirna, only a league further. The Young Guard was there already, and the Emperor would have not only found there the rest which he needed, but have been in a position to direct the movements of the pursuing forces, for which at Dresden he was too far off. He left to Marshals Mortier and Saint-Cyr the task of supporting Vandamme, who, with the 1st corps, had been detached three days ago from the Grand Army. He had beaten a Russian corps and now was threatening the enemy's rear, blocking the road from Dresden to Prague, and occupying Peterswald; whence he could command the basin of Kulm and the town of Teplitz. But Napoleon's return to Dresden cancelled his recent success and led to a great disaster, which contributed powerfully to the fall of the Empire. I will give a brief account of that famous overthrow.
General Vandamme was a brave and good officer. He had acquired fame in the first Revolutionary wars, and under the Empire had constantly been in chief command of army corps, so that people were surprised that he had not got his marshals baton; but this was due to his rough and overbearing manner. After his defeat his detractors said that it was the hope of earning that honour which had led him to throw himself so madly at the head of 20,000 men across the road of 200,000, and try to stop their passage. The truth, however, is that the chief of the staff had told him that he would be supported by Mortier and Saint-Cyr, and had given him a distinct order to capture Teplitz and cut off the enemy's retreat; so that he was bound to obey. Believing himself sure of support, he descended boldly towards Kulm on August 29, and thence, pushing the enemy before him, tried to reach Teplitz. It is certain that if Mortier and Saint-Cyr had carried out their instructions, the Coalition forces engaged in horrible roads and cut off from Bohemia, would have been attacked in front and rear and forced to surrender. Then the very persons who afterwards found fault with Vandamme would have been loud in his praise.
However this may be, when Vandamme arrived before Teplitz on the morning of the 30th, and found himself in front of Ostermann's Russian division, he attacked it vigorously; all the more so that he saw an army corps descending from Peterswald by the route which he had taken the day before, and had reason to believe that the promised aid from Mortier and Saint-Cyr was coming. But the newcomers were no friends, but two strong Prussian divisions under General Kleist. Marching on Kulm, by Jomini's advice, they had passed unperceived between Mortier's and Saint-Cyr's armies; owing largely to Saint-Cyr's indisposition to back up one of his colleagues, and its influence in the present case on Mortier. Neither stirred, though by co-operating with the brave effort of Vandamme they would infallibly have brought about the total defeat of the enemy. As it was, their columns, infantry, cavalry, artillery, baggage wagons, were huddled pell-mell in the narrow gorges of the mountains separating Silesia and Bohemia. Thus, instead of the expected aid, General Vandamme saw General Kleist's two divisions, which straightway attacked him. Continuing to make head against Ostermann's Russians, he faced about with his rear-guard and attacked Kleist furiously. The enemy was giving way at all points when immense reinforcements brought their total numbers above 60,000; and Vandamme's 15,000 were so hopelessly out-numbered that he was compelled to take steps for retiring on the corps of Saint-Cyr and Mortier which, according to the information he had received from Berthier, he still believed to be at hand. But on reaching the Telnitz defile, the French found it occupied by Kleist's army, and their passage entirely barred. Our battalion, however, led by General Corbineau's cavalry, which even in this rough country had claimed their right to act as advance-guard, dashed on the Prussians so impetuously that they overthrew them and made their way through the defile, first capturing the whole of the enemy's artillery. They were, however, owing to the bad state of the roads, only able to take away the horses.
Soldiers who have seen service will understand that such a success can only be obtained at the cost of much bloodshed and that after so terrible a fight the 1st corps was greatly reduced. Yet Vandamme, surrounded by forces ten times his own, refused to surrender; and placing himself at the head of his only two available battalions, charged into the midst of the enemy, in the hope of finding his death there. But his horse was killed, a strong body of Russians flung themselves on him, and he was taken prisoner. On the other side, generals, officers, and privates admired Vandamme's courage, and felt the greatest esteem for him; but, incredible as it may seem, the kind treatment ceased and was replaced by insults when the prisoner was taken to Prague. The Emperor of Russia and his brother, the Grand Duke Constantine, addressed him in insulting terms; and the Grand Duke actually snatched away his sword. Vandamme indignantly exclaimed, 'My sword is easy to take here; it would have been nobler to come and fetch it on the battle-field. But you seem to like your trophies to be cheap.' Thereupon the Emperor Alexander, in a rage, ordered the arrest of Vandamme, calling him 'plunderer' and 'brigand.' Vandamme replied, looking Alexander proudly in the face: 'I am no plunderer or brigand; and, anyhow, history will not reproach me with having murdered my own father!' Alexander turned pale at this allusion to the assassination of his father, Paul I., to which he had been accused by rumour of having assented from fear of sharing the same fate, and quickly left the room. The French general, strictly watched, was taken to Wintka, on the Siberian frontier, and did not return home till after the peace of 1814.
The battle of Kulm cost the French army 2,000 killed and 8,000 prisoners, including their general. The remainder of Vandamme's troops, to the number of 10,000, cut their way through and rejoined Saint-Cyr and Mortier. Those two marshals had been grievously wanting in their duty when they failed to pursue the enemy, and halted, the first at Reinhardsgrimme, and the other at Pirna, whence they could hear the sound of the battle which the brave and unfortunate Vandamme was maintaining. It may seem surprising that Napoleon had not sent an aide-de-camp from Dresden to make sure that Saint-Cyr and Mortier had started, according to his instructions, to succour Vandamme. As those two marshals did not carry out their orders, they deserved to be tried by court-martial. But the French army was by this time so exhausted that if the Emperor had wished to punish all those who showed lack of energy he must have dispensed with the services of nearly all his marshals. For this reason, and because it was more than ever necessary to conceal his disasters, he confined himself to reprimanding Saint-Cyr and Mortier. Indeed, it was not only at Kulm that his troops had suffered defeat, but at every point of the long line which they held.