The Memoirs of Baron de Marbot Volume II Chapter XXXVI
|On the 27th of August the Emperor commenced the attack by his right wing, where, as I have already observed, all the cavalry was stationed. He outflanked the extreme left of the Austrians; and, following the line of circumvallation formed by the enemy’s immense army, he engaged with superior forces each of its parts, without the enormous masses by which they might have been aided putting themselves in motion. The sky had been cloudy for some time; and, as good fortune ordained, a storm came on, during which the rain fell in torrents, so that the firing of the musketry was ineffectual. Taking advantage of this circumstance, we charged the enemy’s masses with our cavalry, which consisted almost entirely of very young troops. They broke the masses, and made as many prisoners as were ever taken in our most glorious battles.
In this engagement General Moreau, who followed the Emperor Alexander, had both his legs carried away by a cannon-ball. It has been alleged that this circumstance took place while the general was carrying an order from the Emperor of Russia ; but as far as I have heard every version of the story differs from another.<
It is not true that the death of General Moreau threw the enemy’s army into disorder; that event merely thwarted a part of the plans of the Emperor of Russia, who soon adopted another design in lieu of that which had caused General Moreau to be summoned to him.
We took advantage of the storm to extend our line and to take a position, which not only outflanked the enemy’s left, but moreover enabled us to bring the whole of our line round on his rear, so that he was obliged to change his position. His innumerable columns were thus thrown into disorder. They mistook the movement which we compelled them to make for a retreat, which certainly appeared unavoidable owing to the reverses they had sustained.
The roads, at all times bad in this country, had become impassable. The cross roads in particular had suffered dreadfully from the rain. The enemy’s different columns were too far distant from the defile of Peterswald, of which we were masters, and they were so closely pursued by our cavalry, that they had no way of re-entering Bohemia except by miserable defiles hitherto but little frequented. The allies lost an immense quantity of cannon and wagons, and a considerable number of troops. We calculated that we had made thirty-two or thirty-three thousand prisoners. Hitherto all went on admirably.
When the enemy’s army commenced its retreat, the corps composing its right were so distant from the defiles of Bohemia, that had they endeavoured to reach them, they must have fallen into the hands of our cavalry, which already spread along the whole of the enemy’s army, and extended behind his left. But they were near enough to the defile of Pirna, so that the general by whom they were commanded very reasonably directed them to retire on that point. However, only two of the corps reached their destination. The first was composed of Russians, under the command of General Osterman-Tolstoi, who occupied the enemy’s extreme right; the second was composed of Prussians under the command of General Kleist, and was on the left of the former corps. The Emperor, observing the retrograde movement of the enemy, rightly conjectured that a good portion of his force, that is to say his right, could not enter Bohemia except by Peterswald. He accordingly ordered the following move meet. His extreme left, as has already been mentioned, consisted of Vandamme’s corps. He had on his right Marshal Saint-Cyr, and the latter had on his right Marshal Marmont, who rested on Dresden. These three corps had the Elbe in their rear, and the road from Pirna to Dresden before them.
The Emperor ordered these three columns to march by their left, taking the Pirna road. By this means General Vandamme was in advance. He was followed by Marshal Saint-Cyr, and Marshal Marmont formed the rear.
It was penetrated, and he lost the whole of his artillery. The enemy made between seven and eight thousand prisoners, among whom was Vandamme himself. The rest of the corps being dispersed, gained the banks of the Elbe by passing through the woods, and rejoined the army.
The other corps marched as rapidly as possible in the direction of General Vandamme’s cannonade; but they did not arrive until after his defeat; and thus the Prussian corps of General Kleist, which ought to have been taken, completed the dispersion of Vandamme’s corps. This disaster would not have taken place if, instead of descending into Bohemia, General Vandamme had remained in the defile of Peterswald, where he might have intercepted the Prussians; or if, after having made his movement, General Saint-Cyr had come to take his place.
When this event was communicated to the Emperor he was at Dresden, suffering from a violent cholic, which had been brought on by the cold rain, to which he had been exposed during the whole of the battle of the 27th. The intelligence vexed him; but the misfortune was without remedy. He ordered his aide-de-camp, Count Lobau, to take the command of the wreck of Vandamme’s corps. Between fifteen and twenty thousand men were collected: they were rearmed and equipped; and in a short time the troops recovered from the depression of spirits which their disaster had occasioned. It would have produced but little effect on the rest of the campaign had it not been for two events which speedily followed it.
The battle of Dresden had been attended by such astonishing results, that the Emperor determined on following them up, as far as the vast plan on which the operations of the allies was founded would permit him. The enormous masses of the enemy’s troops returned to Bohemia by roads, naturally bad, and rendered almost impassable by the state of the weather. They must inevitably have been thrown into disorder; and while this immense multitude was being rallied and newly formed, the Emperor would have had the start in all his movements.
Previously to Vandamme’s disaster, the Emperor himself intended to have marched by the Pirna road with the corps of that general, together with those of Saint-Cyr and Marmont ; and the whole were to have been followed by the guard. By this means he would have arrived with the greater portion of the army at some point in the interior of Bohemia long before the junction of the enemy’s columns. Besides, he would naturally have come into communication with Marshal Macdonald’s corps, which had remained on the Bober. Had this movement succeeded it would soon have been followed by a victory, more brilliant than any the Emperor had hitherto gained ; and his enemies would have experienced a defeat, the more decisive in proportion as their numbers rendered them less movable. But the time which we lost in reorganising Vandamme’s corps was turned to good account by the enemy.
Fortune ceased to favour us. Marshal Macdonald, who had received orders to debouch from the Bober, and to pass that river, experienced a check still more serious than that of Vandamme. He was obliged to retire in disorder, after losing a considerable number of troops, and a vast quantity of artillery.
Marshal Oudinot was ordered to march on Berlin. That city was covered by the corps of General Bulow, which had just been rejoined by the Swedes, commanded by Bernadotte.
Marshal Oudinot had with him the corps of Generals Bertrand and Reynier (the latter commanded the Saxons): he had also some other troops ; and his corps altogether exceeded eighty thousand men. He marched nearly to Potsdam. General Reynier, who formed the head of a column, fell in with the enemy, and attacked him, it is said, rather precipitately, wishing to act independently of his general-in-chief, a practice which had become too common in the army. But, at all events, it is certain that Marshal Oudinot might and ought to have arrived sooner on the field of battle. It was his duty to have prevented General Reynier from engaging alone, or he ought to have supported him by his other corps when once he was engaged. Instead of that he remained passive, and Reynier fought alone with his Saxons against the whole of Bulow’s corps. His troops, finding themselves thus inhumanly sacrificed, without any efforts being made to support them, soon fell back, and took to flight. Their general tried to rally them, and an attempt was made to engage Bertrand’s troops; but the impulse was given, and utter confusion soon prevailed. Marshal Oudinot sustained considerable losses in every way, and hastily retreated on the Elbe, in the direction of Torgau. He did not halt until he came under the very guns of the fortress.
This fatal event, which occurred at the same time as Marshal Macdonald’s disaster, totally deranged the Emperor’s plans. Instead of endeavouring to profit by the victory of the 27th, he was obliged to think of defending the right bank of the Elbe.
The Emperor repaired the losses of Marshal Oudinot by adding to his remaining force some of the troops of Marshal Ney, who was in the vicinity of Wittemberg. Ney took the command of the whole corps thus newly organized. His army had not wholly recovered from its late stroke of ill-fortune. He made a movement in advance, which corresponded with that which the Emperor was making on the Bober, whither he had proceeded with the best portion of the army to repair the check sustained by Marshal Macdonald.
If these two movements had proved successful, the natural consequence would have been, that the chief part of the allied forces who were in Bohemia would have been obliged to return to Silesia, for the purpose of opposing the Emperor. But fate ordained otherwise.
Affairs were proceeding well on the Bober, where the Emperor himself was present, when a new misfortune, which befell Marshal Ney, once more occasioned a change of plan.
Marshal Ney, yielding to the ardour of his courage, marched straightforward to a considerable distance. In the course of his movement he was attacked in front, as well as on his left flank, which was charged by Bulow’s Prussians. Bulow broke Ney’s line of operations, and threw him into such disorder, that his whole army hastily came back upon the Elbe, which it had but just quitted. Ney’s loss was now considerably greater than before. This event brought the Emperor back upon Dresden, and obliged him to relinquish all his plans of operation on the right bank of the Elbe, in order to concentrate his troops on the left bank. He was still master of the fortresses along the course of that river, and he hoped to adopt some new method of ameliorating a state of things, which this succession of unfortunate accidents rendered most grievous. His situation was similar to that of Frederick the Great in his last campaign: but he was less fortunate than that great king; because, where Napoleon was not personally present, nothing but disasters ensued; while Frederick had some generals who knew how to gain battles.
The enemy’s army had now recovered its spirit, which improved at every partial reverse we sustained. The Emperor had no more troops than those who were now collected around him, and they began to suffer the want of provisions. The scarcity increased in proportion as the circle of ground occupied by the army became more and more contracted.
* This fact was attested to me by general officers in 1822.