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October 13, 2019

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Old Soldier's Story - Napoleon in the Aftermath of Wagram

In the mid-1820s Anne-Jean-Marie-Renť Savary, the Duke of Rovigo, effectively Napoleonís chief of security during most of the French Empire, published his memoirs. Surprisingly lively, and occasionally sensitive, they often give unique pictures of the Emperor and his entourage at notable moments, such as in this extract from the first English edition (Henry Colburn: London, 1828), dealing with the aftermath of the Battle of Wagram, July 5-6, 1809.

Nearly two months earlier, the Austrian Archduke Charles had given Napoleon a bloody nose at the Battle of Aspern-Essling (May 21-22). Napoleon had called in massive reinforcements, including the Army of Italy. One of the officers in that army was Jacques Etienne Joseph Alexandre Macdonald, the Duke of Taranto, with whom the Emperor had for some time been on the outs. Surprisingly, Napoleon had entrusted preparations for the principal attack at Wagram to Macdonald. The latter, forming a huge battering ram of 28 battalions, had overwhelmed the enemy in an extremely bloody battle, with some 37,000 French and 62,000 Austrian casualties, including killed, wounded, captured, and missing. It was a performance that won for Macdonald not only a renewal of Napoleonís friendship but also the baton of a marshal.

On the following day, the 7th of July, the Emperor rode over the field of battle according to his usual practice, to see if the hospital department had caused all the wounded to be removed: as this was harvest time, the corn was very high, and it was impossible to see the soldiers lying stretched upon the ground. Many of those unfortunate wounded had placed their handkerchiefs at the end of their muskets, and held them up as a signal for assistance. The Emperor repaired in person to every spot where he perceived such signals: he addressed words of consolation to the wounded, and would not move forward until the last of them had been carried off the field. He kept no one to attend him, and ordered Marshal Duroc to have all the men picked up, and to see that the movable hospitals did not slacken their exertions. General Duroc was known for his precision and severity; the Emperor therefore often selected him for commissions of that nature.

As he was going over the field of battle, he stopped on the ground which had been occupied by Macdonald's two divisions; it exhibited the picture of a loss fully commensurate with the valour they had displayed. The Emperor recognised amongst the slain a colonel who had given him some cause for displeasure. That officer, who had made the campaign of Egypt, had misbehaved after the departure of General Bonaparte, and proved ungrateful towards his benefactor, in hopes, no doubt, of insinuating himself in the good graces of the general who had succeeded him. On the return of the army of Egypt to France the Emperor, who had shown him many marks of kindness during the war in Italy, gave no signs of resentment, but granted him none of those favours which he heaped upon all those who had been in Egypt. The Emperor now said, on seeing him stretched upon the field of battle, "I regret not having been able to speak to him before the battle, in order to tell him that I had long forgotten every thing."

A few steps farther on, he discovered a young quartermaster of the regiment of carbineers still alive, although a shot had gone through his head ; but the heat and dust had almost immediately congealed the blood, so that the brains could not be affected by the air. The Emperor dismounted, felt his pulse, and, with his handkerchief, endeavoured to clear the nostrils, which were filled with earth. He then applied a little brandy to his lips; whereupon the wounded-man opened his eyes, though he appeared at first to be quite insensible to the act of humanity exercised towards him; but having again opened them, and fixed them on the Emperor, whom he now recognised, they immediately filled with tears, and he would have sobbed, had not his strength forsaken him. The wretched man could not escape death, according to the opinion of the surgeons who were called to his assistance.

After having gone over the ground where the army had fought, the Emperor went to place himself in the midst of the troops, which were beginning to move for the purpose of following the retreating enemy. On passing by Macdonald, he stopped, and held out his hand to him, saying, " Shake hands, Macdonald ! no more animosity between us: we must henceforward be friends ; and, as a pledge of my sincerity, I will send you your marshal's staff, which you so gloriously earned in yesterday's battle." Macdonald had been in a kind of disgrace for many years: it would be difficult to assign any reason for it, except the intrigue and jealousy to which an elevated mind is always exposed. Malevolence had succeeded in prevailing upon the Emperor to remove him from his presence; and his innate pride of heart had prevented his taking any step to be reconciled to a sovereign who did not treat him with that kindness to which he felt he had a claim.

 

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