Letter of a brigadier serving in the Chasseurs à Cheval of the Imperial Guard addressed to his parents, concerning the battle of Austerlitz …
At the headquarters of I Corps of the Grande Armée.
Budweiss in Bohemia, 24 December 1805.
At last, my dear father and mother, I’m able to provide you with some news.
Since our departure from Hanover, today is the second day that we have been at ease, and I will use this time to write to you. If I wanted to enter the details of everything that has happened to us, it would take me more than eight days to describe everything. When I have the pleasure of seeing you again, I will tell you everything, and I am sure that you will be amused for a long time, although I will be content to report the most remarkable events such as the renowned battle of Austerlitz.
It was on 27 Fructidor that we left Hanover and the countryside, and on the 30th we crossed the territory of Hesse-Cassel and of Amstat, through forced marches until Frankfurt; then, following the [river] Main, we entered Prussia, and while keeping up the pace of our advance, we arrived at Ingolstadt, to the great astonishment of the Austrians who were not informed of our arrival. We thus prevented the junction of the Russian army with the Austrians. From Ulm to Ingolstadt, we pursued the enemy until Munich when they evacuated on 20 Vendémiaire at 6 o’clock in the morning. Our company entered there with Mr. the Marshal at 9 o’clock, to the acclamations of the whole city.
It was at Munich that we lost the title of Army of Hanover in lieu of the pompous designation of I Corps of the Grande Armée. The Bavarian army was entrusted to our corps under the orders of Marshal Bernadotte. The Emperor arrived a few days later, he had then destroyed the enemy army near Ulm. Finally, after a few days of rest, all the corps of our formidable army set out on the march. Encompassing all the land from Prussia to Italy, our corps then occupied the right wing, and our Bavarians swept the Tyrol alongside Marshal Ney’s corps.
The combined Russian and Austrian armies fled before us, severing and burning all the bridges to prevent the impetuosity of our progress. It was then that we experienced much suffering; the enemy burned and ravaged their own country to prevent us from sustaining ourselves. The first troops which arrived finished destroying the little that was to be had. Therefore from Salzburg to Vienna, I did not see any inhabitants in the dwellings. All the peasants had fled into the woods, abandoning everything they owned. This country is ruined forever, not a single piece of furniture was left in the houses; it was horrifying.
When the cold set in, I myself along with my squad, took refuge in one of these abandoned houses when suddenly these women appeared and begged us on their knees for a piece of bread. At Lembach, where I was lodged, this household used to be very wealthy before the looting [started]; we had absolutely nothing to eat but a little, poor bread. Towards midnight, I heard something in the cellar. I took my saber and a candle to go down there, and I found on the staircase the owner of the house looking all pale, begging me to let him take a dozen potatoes which they still had in the cellar. I tried to console this unfortunate man and persuade him to return to his house. He was a seventy-year-old man; he went back to the woods to look for his family and they arrived the next morning before we left. As bread and meat were distributed to us, I left them a few pounds; they thanked me a thousand times over. The same desolation prevailed wherever we went.
At long last, we arrived at the Danube ten leagues from Vienna, when the marshal received the order to cross this river and enter Moravia. It was there that we had the Russian army ahead of us, and in the small battles which were fought against them, we noticed that they fought better than the Austrians. We traveled through Moravia in all directions while awaiting the great battle which was being prepared. The Emperor seized the town of Brunn, and the enemy army took up positions two leagues from there. The enemy had another column of 40,000 Russians joining them, their army amounting to 115,000 men commanded by the Russian and Austrian emperors. Our corps stood at Iglau, twenty-four leagues from Brunn. In one day and a half, we covered this distance and we assembled on 1 December (or 10 Frimaire) around two o’clock in the afternoon.
– The battle of Austerlitz –
As this battle is the most memorable we have experienced, I will relate to you all that took place.
It was thus on 10 Frimaire that we combined forces with the Grande Armée. As it had formed up for battle, we immediately assumed our positions. It was a splendid spectacle to behold a hundred thousand Frenchmen aligned for battle on the heights and in the valleys, on a stretch of land of about two leagues. Towards nightfall, the bivouac fires were lit, and it was at this time that I remained ecstatic to observe more than twenty thousand fires being lighted. At nine o’clock, the whole army lit straw torches and then fanned them out. The whole army shouted all together ‘Long live the Emperor’: it was the eve of the anniversary of his coronation. The night passed by peacefully.
I was on guard duty that day and therefore had to escort Mr. le Maréchal. He mounted his horse at 6 o’clock, took me with him along with two other guardsmen, and ordered me not to leave him for an instant. You can imagine how pleased I was, I would not even have given this day away for a hundred Louis. At length, the four of us galloped towards the Emperor’s bivouac; we noticed that the Emperor slept on the campsite, on straw as the soldiers did. We arrived at 7 o’clock. We found him near his fire, his feet in the mud wearing the following costume: a long coat made of thick grey cloth, scorched and burnt in several places; small holes at the elbows and under the arms, a hat re-cut like my father’s to wear on Sunday, trousers similar to his coat, large boots all fouled and a small cravat which could be worth fifteen sols. Such Emperor Napoleon was dressed, on the most beautiful day of his life. I had the pleasure of admiring him for a whole hour and of escorting him for a portion of the day. He inspected our corps; and after having given his final orders, he mounted his horse at eight o’clock sharp.
The assault began, not by skirmishers [tirailleurs], but the whole army moved forward. At the same moment, the most terrific fire opened on all sections of the battlefield, which was about four leagues long from one wing to the other. We occupied the center, and the Russian Imperial Guard stood before us, both on foot and on horseback. At about eleven o’clock, the Russians, perceiving that we lacked cavalry, charged the 4th Line Regiment and the 24th Légère. Like lions, they overwhelmed and trapped these two regiments, and the fire of twelve 8-pounder guns completed the route. We found ourselves in the very midst of this regiment, Mr. the Marshal and the three of us. Loads of cannonballs, shells, and bullets were raining down on us. A colonel of dragoons, aide-de-camp to the marshal, was killed there; another was hit in the thigh due to a biscayen.
The marshal then had the regiments, belonging to the [former] Army of Hanover, advance at the double. The Russians thought they were going to break through them like the others, but these brave regiments met them with fearlessness. This formidable Russian Imperial cavalry charged for the third time moved through the intervals of our battalions and tried again to penetrate them. The 27th Light Infantry Regiment, the 94th, and the 95th Line Regiments formed battalion squares and delivered a fire so well sustained that the Russians could never break through. At the same time, our company, the Grenadiers and the Mounted Chasseurs of our Imperial Guard charged the enemy in turn with such fury that in ten minutes’ time, the Russians were overwhelmed, driven back, and compelled to flee. It must be mentioned that during the pursuit, our artillery completed the destruction of the Russians. The battlefield appeared horrific; almost all the Russians who were killed [here] suffered saber blows. We seized ten guns and all the baggage of the Russian Imperial Guard.
Their emperor found himself at the castle of Austerlitz, half a league from the battlefield, and [from there] could witness the defeat of his Guard. Nevertheless, the most terrific fire continued on the right and left wings until four o’clock in the evening. At last, after incredible efforts of valor on both sides, the right wing succeeded in turning the enemy’s left wing and captured twenty thousand men and [illegible portion of text]. It was incredible; the Russians resisted for eight hours with the bayonet and those who were not captured or killed, were drowned in the lake. The left wing prolonged the engagement until eight o’clock in the evening, it achieved the same success as the center and the right wing. This famous battle resulted in 30,000 prisoners, 120 guns, twenty generals, the colors of the Russian Guard, and almost all their baggage. The entire army slept on the battlefield, I have never spent such a dreadful night. We were obliged to remove the dead and wounded in order to have space for ourselves and our horses. I slept in a small spot between Russians who appeared frightening. In addition, the weather, which had been fine during the day, changed and it rained all night. We could not take a step without slipping and falling on top of the dead; and to complete the picture, we had nothing to eat, not even water to drink. The next morning, we finally left this ‘fine accommodation’ and set off in pursuit of the enemy.
We entered Austerlitz at nine in the morning. The Russians wanted to withdraw via the road to Hungary, but we reached them at the onset of the night. We bivouacked in the mud, and the next day at the very moment of attacking them, the emperor of Austria sent a representative to the marshal to implore him not to advance and stated that he desired peace. The marshal informed our emperor of this matter at once. They agreed on a meeting, which took place near a mill in between the two armies. The emperor Napoleon arrived wearing his grey coat, but he took it off when Francis II reached him. After half an hour’s talk, they parted. Two days later, we returned from Iglau, and we were at last quartered in Bohemia, where we are fairly well off. The news has just arrived that peace has been concluded, thus I believe that our army will return to Hanover, at least that is what the marshal promised us. If by chance we should pass through Prague, I will go and visit our old uncle. We appear to be thirty leagues further back, so it would be possible for us to pass through there.
At present, I have no other preoccupation than your health and that of my sisters. As far as I am concerned, I am well and have not been ill for a minute. I have not yet finished my business with the company commander; as soon as I am done, I will send you what I promised.
My little trunk must have arrived by now. The person who was in charge of it wrote to his father to send it to you; please acknowledge that you received it.
Farewell, my dear parents. I embrace you and all my sisters and am always
Your devoted son,
My address: to Mr. Pérot, a brigadier in the Guard of Mr. Marshal Bernadotte, at the headquarters of I Corps of the Grande Armée, at Budweiss in Bohemia.
Note: Pérot was killed at the battle of Smolensk.
Source: La Giberne – Publication mensuelle illustrée … , 2nd serie, n° 2, 1 August 1900, Paris, pp. 197-202.