I begin this narrative of my adventures in 1804, when Napoleon was about to be crowned Empereur des Français, Emperor of all the French. It was then that I first reported to the camp of the IIème Corps d’Armée, at Montreuil in Northwestern France. There were many such camps along the coast of the Pas-de-Calais, housing the finest army that France had ever assembled: l’Armée d’Angleterre, the "Army of England." An ambitious notion our prospective Emperor had, this invasion and conquest of perfidious Albion. As a man with some experience at sea, I knew that the Royal Navy truly "rules the waves" (as the Rosbifs are so fond of singing); train as we might, we would have difficulty ever transporting this "Army of England" to England! But, for all that, I was proud to be part of it.
After some years in the Cavalry, I was transferred to the II Corps at my own request, thanks to the help of an ami (friend) of mine in the Ministry of War. I have cultivated many friendships in my time; you would be surprised at how often the unlikeliest fellow can do you a good turn.
As I entered the II Corps camp, I was greeted by a lieutenant-colonel of the V Division; a plain, honest veteran who seemed to me to be a republican of the old order. He directed me to the VI Division bivouac. There I reported to the Officer of the Day. He showed me to the Artillery Park and to the company that was to be mine. Even at the first glance, I noticed some things about the condition of the guns and equipment; I began to compile a mental inventory of the work ahead of me. My ambition was straightforward: first, to remedy any deficiencies in the company; then, to improve my company, both equipment and personnel, until we were truly a compagnie d’élite, a crack unit, efficient and deadly, an example for the entire Army.
Some Background Facts:
For many years, the drivers responsible for the movement of guns and ammunition were civilian contractors, not noted for either efficiency or courage. They had been known, all too often, to cut and run in the midst of battle, leaving the guns to be captured by the enemy. Napoleon fixed this upon becoming First Consul in 1800. The Artillery train was militarized, becoming the excellent Train d’Artillerie, with its own distinctive uniform, organized into battalions.
The companies of the Train d’Artillerie were parceled out in wartime; matching up to Artillery companies. Through long service together, these drivers and gunners became crack, battle-tested units. He also gave trumpeters to the foot-artillery companies. The battery commanders undoubtedly found this to be very helpful, especially as their drummers might not always be available as they were on foot like the gunners. Horse teams were harnessed two abreast and then hitched in tandem. The train drivers rode the left-hand horse of each pair, controlling both paired horses. It was difficult work; definitely not for lightweights. Four horses per gun, so we would have twenty-four horses to pull our six guns. An Artillery Company consisted of élite gunners, about eight men per gun; on the average the gunners were bigger and more muscular than their infantry and cavalry comrades. Serving the guns was grueling, hard work, not just in combat, but before and after. Just cleaning the guns, following hours of firing, was a major task, as was maintaining the tubes, carriages and vehicles. The vehicles and carriages might appear strong and sturdy, but prolonged firing and travel over execrable roads could quite literally shake the vehicles apart. Being a gunner also meant long hours at crew drill. Our guns were lights, 4-pounders, then considered to the standard for a Horse-Artillery Company. The loss of a gun was considered as serious a breach of honor as losing an Eagle (military standard).
A horse artillery company consisted of six crews, each of eight men, so I would have a minimum of 48 gunners in the company, with about as many more ouvriers (laborers) and other specialists. Each crew was commanded by a Brigadier (corporal), and each section, which was three guns, was commanded by a Sous-Lieutenant (2nd Lieutenant), assisted by a Sergent. The company was led by a Capitaine (myself), assisted by my Lieutenant.
As I have said, I had worked the sea; one thing I had learned was that seamen were often far better gunners than landsmen. A number of matelots (sailors) that I had served with before were in the nearby port of Le Touquet, most of them were experienced gunners, and I knew that they were in need of work. I felt that I could make good use of them here. So, I did some recruiting in the port. I got twelve sturdy matelots to enlist with me, all good, reliable lads; I knew them from the old days on the Italian coast in 1800. It was almost too easy; they were desperate for employment, as the English had our ports in total blockade. I offered them a chance to serve rather than starve, to go and share in the bounty that the Empire was about to reap ashore, rather than risk rotting in the local jail if they were caught smuggling. There was one among them that I didn't know personally; his name was Victor, a Polish chap – I could never pronounce his family name to save my life, it was something like Prznblglwsk – a young fellow of good height and frame, who later was to become an aide to Prince Murat.
As we were leaving the docks I noticed a group of African laborers – about twenty of them. Many of the French seaports have long been the places were east meets west and north meet south. It amazes me that so many people have no knowledge of the many Africans in this country, or know of their service in our Army and Navy! As a former seaman I know that there is a bigger world outside of France, and many kinds of people. Because of the British blockade, many of these newcomers had fallen into dire straits. Many were unable to find work or buy food, and unable to return to their own countries.
As I approached them, I noticed that one of these lads (a rather large fellow) was treated by the others with deference. I asked him if he was the crew leader, and if they needed employment. (Since there is no slavery here in France, I knew that they were "freemen".) They answered enthusiastically, "Dire répondre oui!" Yes! For they were in no better state than the seaman; you see, not all is well in France.
From my years at sea, and having also worked as an engineer, I knew that men such as these could be excellent workers, strong and tireless, with a natural talent for building and repairing. As I conversed with them, I found that many of them even had military experience, having served with General Kléber's 21e Légère in Egypt; all of them were from Northeast Africa. As a group, we called them our "Nubians."
One of them, a fellow known as La Montagne, was to become legendary for his great strength, not unlike General Alexandre "Davy" Dumas (the son of a French nobleman and an African slave, father and grandfather of literary giants). We enlisted one of the seamen and some of the Africans as our band. They were to do double duty: gunners first, then musicians. The most valuable man in the whole company was our Nubian trumpeter, Jami; he had to learn all the calls and play loudly enough to be heard over the guns, and had to learn to ride a Dragoon mount. Jami was about 5'11’’ or maybe a little under 6 feet, but being very thin he could rise up in the saddle to make his calls. We gave him a red Dragoon trumpeter's uniform and the regulation Artillerie à Cheval shako with white cords. Jami was a fine fellow, as proud of his accomplishments as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, another Franco-African musician-soldier who had died in 1799.
Another one of the Nubians was also a good trumpeter, by the name of Michel; without him, we would not be here to tell this tale. I now had thirty-two new men to add to my existing company of fifty-four. The group was now eighty-six in number. They would follow me not only because they were ordered, but because of the personal bonds of trust and respect that gradually grew between us, and for love of France.
Later that same month I was lucky enough to make the acquaintance a charming demoiselle by the name of Mélissande; she was working as a Cantinière then at the Division headquarters. I took a fancy to this sweet young person; she would prove to be my life-saver in the future. She and her friends came willingly to work for our company. They, the Cantinières, were to be a great comfort to the men. Any extra food and wine that they received in barter for their laundry service to the Corps was shared. One for all and all for one!
I was also looking for a skilled chasseur to train my men in light infantry combat. Although the Nubians had served in the 21e Légère, they were not thoroughly trained. You see there is the trained and the untrained; I prefer the trained! So I called on my acquaintance, the old republican lieutenant-colonel in the 5th Division, to see if he could help me. He said that he had a good Brigadier that I could have, and he gave me him to train these men. He was from the 9e Légère (light infantry), a fellow by the name of Charles Salle.
Next, there was need in the camp to acquire a good cook. So with the aid of ma mie (my lover) Mélissande and my new Brigadier, I began to ask around where we might find such a one. We were told that there was a former Royal Chef de Cuisine of great talent being held in the local prison. His gastronomic masterpieces were now, hélas, being wasted in fattening the chief of Police in Montreuil; this well-fed gendarme was an unworthy person by all accounts, corrupt and venal, demanding payoffs from the citizens to keep their names out his books. The people paid, for no-one dared to offend this miserable disciple of Fouché.
This incarcerated and exploited artist of the cook-pot was just the man we needed. I had to come up with a good plan to get this fellow into our service. I discussed this challenge with René, the cleverest of my seamen. René has been in any number of scrapes in his life, and from these has gained much familiarity with the inside of prisons - a real con man, René, if there ever was one - and a joker, as well! His plan was to get himself arrested and placed in that prison. Once he was there, he would get to know this cook; René has a way about him, such that people just seem to love being around him, and he can talk anybody into anything. René would fill the cook’s head with tales of the fine fellowship and excellent treatment a man gets in our Company, until the cook wanted nothing in the world but to become one of us. Of course, there would then be the small matter of extracting René and the cook from their stony cage. A challenge, indeed! I decided that the best way was to have some of the ex-royals in the Company help us; what better way to get the different personalities together and build esprit de corps than a good Adventure!
Monsieur René was duly thrown in jail for trying to sell counterfeit jewelry to a local woman, who also happened to be the paramour of the chief gendarme. René worked his charm on the cook, and soon passed us a message that all was ready on the inside. As our next step, one of our most ravishing cantinières, Mademoiselle Anne, took to visiting the prison, flirting with the guards, under the guise of a laundress. She soon had the run of the place, and was able to signal René that the break was for that night.
The first element of our strategy was Anne; with this delightful person visiting the salle de garde, teasing and flirting her best, the guards would be much inclined to neglect their boring duties of watch and ward. Meanwhile, we were going to blow open the front gate of the prison with one of our cannon. I had a number of the ex-royalists dress up in their old uniforms; this band of supposed émigrés loomed suddenly out of the darkness, nearly frightening the goggle-eyed sentry out of his wits, and shouted: "Open in the name of the King! We come to free the Duc du Touquet!" (The Duc was the only prisoner of note held at the Montreuil Prison). I was with a group of the Africans, leading them over the back wall of that Prison, while this spectacular distraction riveted the attention of the guards at the front. We found our way to the place where I had arranged to meet with the cantinière Anne, who then led us to the cell shared by the cook and René. The Africans rendered the turnkey unconscious, and we soon had our men free! Returning back over the wall with them all, we made our escape at the same time as the gunners were blowing open the gate with the cannon, sending the terrified guards scurrying for cover.
The tocsin was sounding, and the village was in an uproar; we knew that we didn't have long before reinforcements of mounted gendarmes and the National Guard would be on us. We made a quick escape though the nearby woods to a prearranged place, where we changed into our regular uniforms, then headed back for the town, to appear like we were there to help. Once we reached the Prison, the chief gendarme asked me, "What is a large detail of mounted Artillerymen doing this far from the camp?" I solemnly explained to the policier that we were out on night maneuvers, and showed him an order from my commanding officer for us to do it in this area. The prison guards, now freed from their earlier terror, were puffing out their chests and claiming they had beaten off an attack by a whole battalion, no, a regiment of the émigré army, with a battery of enormous siege-guns, and prevented the royalist devils from freeing the Duc du Touquet; surely they should all receive medals and commendations?
We now had our cook; he was to prove that he had well deserved his prestigious former employment in the Royal kitchens. (One can tell, looking at the portraits of Louis XVI, that our late monarch had appreciated good food.) One of the best cooks around! Perhaps you are wondering why we went to so much trouble just to get a cook? You see, the second most important thing in an Army, after ammunition, is the science of cooking!
The next couple of days we spent working on cleaning up the guns, polishing the metal parts and renewing the chains that pulled the guns. On some of the guns, one gun per section, I used only heavy rope, that the sailors had made into strong rope chains.
We were indeed lucky to get a former ship's doctor, a Monsieur Marc du Berry, who was a brother of one of the sailors, together with his assistant; they, too, had been out of work for some time due to the blockade. An ironsmith and farrier also signed on.
I had the human material for a fine company of Artillerie à Cheval (horse artillery). Now, we needed some good animals. An officer that I knew from my time in the 1st Reserve Cavalry, who is now Colonel of a Dragoon regiment, is the one I approached to arrange a deal. We were in need of some good horses, as the officer in command before me had not been a good judge of horses and knew nothing about them. As long as the horses could move the guns, this ignoramus had been content.
The Colonel (his name is Javier) gave me some draft-horses smaller and faster then the ones we had, in place of the big slow ones, more suited for the plow or for heavy guns. Javier was a talented horse-broker, with contacts all over the Army; he soon had me matched up with animals that perfectly suited our needs, for gun-teams, wagons, and outriders. As a friend, he did not drive as hard a bargain as he did for most other commanders (I told you that friends are good to have!). Javier did demand some special compensations; he acquired the loan of my cook, the Africans, and some of the cantinières for a few days. You see, the word does gets around when there is something working well in your camp! He was rebuilding his depot, but his Dragoons weren’t known for their skill in building, and the upkeep of their uniforms was deplorable. With our help, his regiment soon had fine new barracks and stables, presentable uniforms, and well-fed officers.
I also requested the aid of one of his Lieutenants, for training my men in horsemanship. He loaned me Lieutenant Miller, and a maréchal des logis whose name is Jacques Beausoleil. He said that I could use their services for as long as I needed them. Monsieur Miller is an Irishman, in the service of France since the days of the old Royal regiments.
We now have twenty-four ex-Dragoon mounts for our outriders. To care for our horses we have taken on a young lad by the name of Philippe; Philippe was once a Royal stablehand. He came to us though Chef Pierre (many Ex-Royal servants will come to the Grande Armée through such connections). This young lad will train the drivers and the horse teams personally in how to handle the extra mounts, and how to replace the wounded ones in battle. He will one day go on to be one of the aides to General Marmont.
We are now calling ourselves Les Soeurs Volantes de l’Artillerie à Cheval, 6e/3e (The Flying Sisters of the Horse Artillery, 6th Company, 3rd Regiment).
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