Time passed very quickly in the camp at Montreuil. Along with the manifold tasks of assembling, equipping, and training my battery – enough work for three men, right there – I needed to bridge certain gaps in my own knowledge. For example, I had never mastered map-reading. Nautical charts were old and familiar friends to me, but that was of little help in deciphering the squiggles and symbols of terrestrial topography. As a battery commander, I would need the keenest expertise in reading land-forms: Does this position offer a good field of fire? Is there dead ground my battery cannot hit? Is that road practicable for my guns and wagons? I would need to extract every particle of information from maps, and I would need to know when not to trust a map!
The greatest change in my life was my deepening romantic relationship with Mademoiselle Mélissande. We would dine and walk and talk about many things. The hours thus spent did not detract from my development as an officer; on the contrary, my moments with Mélissande inspired me with such joy, zest, and energy that I was three times the man I had been! Our relationship was not based solely on the passion of the flesh. She had keen intelligence, wisdom beyond her years, and the courage to debate me on any issue – and often, she proved me wrong!
The more we talked, the more we saw that we could be an aid to one another. Trust was developed through common interests; we shared our hopes and dreams, and each learned much from the other. Through our discussions and our love we became one, complementary halves of a single entity. As a couple, we were far stronger and wiser than either of us had been alone. That was well, for we knew that we would likely be tested by years of war in these changing times.
Were we prepared for these challenges? Time would tell. I had learned that the best way to overcome the many challenges in one's life was to be strong and to be brave. With training, faith, adaptability, humility, and a worthy partner at your side, you should be able to overcome any adversities.
On one occasion, I admitted to Mademoiselle Mélissande my difficulty in building my knowledge of map-reading and higher mathematics from books alone. She told me about a teacher who lived not far from the port, a very good friend of hers, who would be able to help me. We went to visit this young man, Jean Gérard, the schoolmaster in the village of St-Firmin. He was more than willing to help, and for a very particular reason: he was in love with one of our cantinières, Mademoiselle Sylvie by name!
His desire to be with her was overwhelming, and the thought of parting from her when the battery left the area was unbearable to him. He quickly agreed to enlist as a soldat; I put him in one of my gun crews. I had quickly taken a liking to Jean. He was physically rather small and slim for a gunner, but I saw that his versatile mind and wide range of knowledge would be of great service to us. Topography and mathematics he knew like the back of his hand. He was fluent in German. His family had moved about a great deal during his youth, and he had lived up and down the Rhine Valley, where he could pass for a native. Latin he knew as well, little use as we might have for that (unless he needed to pass for a priest?). Jean’s skills were to prove invaluable, as I will show in future tales of our company. It is vital to know one’s way around in foreign lands, as I had learned in Italy in 1799-1800.
After Jean Gérard had submitted his resignation to the maire of St-Firmin and packed his meager belongings (mostly books), we made to move on. As we passed the village tavern, we were accosted by a group of drunken Heavy Cavalry officers. They were very loud and unruly; the worst of the lot was one Monsieur Roland Léon, who rudely and coarsely, without provocation, insulted me to my face! For this outrageous conduct, unbecoming an officer in that élite branch of service, I was about to decisively silence his loud mouth, when, to my surprise, little Monsieur Gérard jumped up and thumped the blackguard dead in the face! I saw that Monsieur Gérard’s fighting style was very good and very quick, so quick that he had his sword’s point at that loudmouth’s throat before any of the cavalrymen could react. Roland’s friends stopped dead in their tracks. The schoolmaster forced the brutish Cuirassier to speak a full apology, like a bad pupil reciting a lesson. As Monsieur Léon picked himself up from the dust, his face scarlet with shame and rage, he said to Monsieur Gérard: "You haven’t seen the last of me!" Indeed, we were later to meet up with Roland Léon in battle. Alas, not always are those wearing the same uniform friendly!
It proved to be a busy afternoon. Shortly after we came into camp, my duty officer informed me that my presence was required at Division Headquarters without delay. As I hastened to make myself as presentable as I could, one of the Nubians came into my room; he asked me if his friend, Claude, could join the unit. The Nubians had never disappointed me yet, so I accepted this recommendation, sight unseen. I told him to see the duty officer, who would induct Claude into the Auxiliaries. This chap Claude was from Lower Egypt; he later would go on to the service of the King of Naples, in the 7th regiment of the line in that army.
The word must have been going around that I was getting a crack company together: a few minutes later another applicant arrived, a Maréchal des Logis by the name of Armand-Jean Bironand, winner of a Sabre d' Honneur, no less! Bironand came with papers from his commandant, Chef d’Escadron Francis Ouenette of the Guard Dragoons, warmly recommending him to me: Francis wrote that "he drinks like a fish, but he is very good with the point of a saber!"
I hurried off to Division Headquarters. Once there, I was referred to Major Vincent. The Provost Marshal, it seemed, had been asking questions about a recent prison break in Montreuil; did I have any statement to make about that matter? "Ah, yes, that frightful hue and cry that erupted while the battery was on a night maneuver some time back!" I told Major Vincent, in my steadiest voice and with my most open and innocent face, that all my men and guns were accounted for. Indeed, once I had learned of the incident, I had immediately set my men to work (tired as they were!) to try to catch the Royalist scum responsible for that dreadful affair. Vincent listened, with little reaction apart from the almost imperceptible raising of an eyebrow. He informed me that Chief of Police at Montreuil might wish to question me further. How suspicious these staff officers and gendarmes can be at times!
I was thinking about my men: I knew that the uniforms that we had been issued were far too small for many of them. You see, the average Frenchmen in service to the Emperor was five foot five, but my lads were mostly taller than that. Mademoiselle Mélissande knew of a resource that might serve: at the old Royal depot in St-Firmin there was a stock of unused Royal uniforms, white with red facings. The old Royal Guard had favored very large men, and the uniforms were proportioned to match. Such fellows now mostly gravitated to the Grenadiers, or to the Heavy Cavalry, like Monsieur Roland Léon. My guess is that Léon might once have been in the French Guards; he was arrogant enough.
Mademoiselle Mélissande knew just what to do. She used blue dye to change the color of the white; by adding India ink to the mixture, we obtained a nice shade of blue-black. She and her minions removed and then re-sewed the red facings. They also ran a strip of red fabric down the side of each overall. We got some fine shoeing from the quartermaster, Monsieur Feberger.
In the midst of this project, I was called to Headquarters. The duty officer informed me that a general inspection was planned, and that there would be also an enquiry about the prison break.
To keep my mind off the troublesome matter of the investigation, I focused intensely on the uniform situation. The men who were trained for guard duty and light-infantry duties were given Légère uniforms with the usual arms, plus Hussar boots. Our chapeaux were all regulation for year four. We all wore a red-green puff on our caps. The train drivers wore a green /brown uniform jacket and brown trousers, as did the other Auxiliaries; the cantinières had their old Republican uniforms of blue National Guard tunics, red/white striped skirts, and red liberty caps.
My standing order was for all men to wear the bonnet de police when not in action. The outriders wore a hussar-style jacket on duty and in combat. The color was regulation French blue with good white webbing. I wanted to have a strong detachment of these men to serve as our scouts or rearguard, our own small cavalry force. On the march, they would be in the rear of the guns, protecting the train. So, we began training the best riders in horsemanship, saber and carbine skills. Capitaine Miller, now my second-in-command, with his dragoon experience, supervised this training, together with Sergent Bironand. My reasoning was that the cavalry regiments would be reluctant to detach troopers for our protection; we had better rely on ourselves. We also started cross-training the Auxiliary and train personnel with the gunners: in the heat of action, if the gunners suffered casualties, these men would be ready to step into the breach. What with the improvements in our organization and our uniforms, I had hope that we would make a good impression in the upcoming inspection!
When standing for inspection, the Chasseurs were on the left of the company, the gunners to the right of them in three ranks, and the Dragoons behind them. All officers were standing to the front, and all NCOs behind the officers. The guns were in sections behind the company, with the train and the Auxiliaries behind them. The company now numbered 150 personnel in all.
The Chief of Artillery was well pleased with our formation, and the amount of spirit that we had. Colonel Vasseras liked our creative preparations for the many situations that we might encounter. I was pleased with this, and felt we were ready for the coming moments of glory. I now had a new Sous-Lieutenant: Monsieur Gérard’s evident talents had won him a commission, and he was now our company’s Adjutant and Engineer. Gérard quietly told me some interesting things about my company: most of the gunners were veterans of the Royal Artillery, and all of the officers came from the minor nobility. If it was not for Monsieur Gérard I would not have known this! Many former Royalists, it seems, were hiding in the confines of the new Army.
Speaking of Monsieur Jean, he seems to know a lot about these men, and he is amazingly talented with a sword, for a village schoolmaster…perhaps he is more than he appears. One has to wonder what some of these men are hiding!
The Revolution was a truly bloody affair; it produced good things for some people, horror and injustice for others. Many who had suffered were now thirsting for revenge. One such had been brought into the company by Monsieur Gérard: Sous-Lieutenant Rousse was, in fact (but secretly), the Vicomte de Montpellier, who at the age of four had been an eyewitness to the slaughter of his entire family by the National Guard; he had been spirited away by loyal servants. That long-ago raid had been led by Etienne de France, now a Capitaine serving on the Headquarters staff of Général Dupont, under Maréchal Bernadotte, here at Montreuil. Because the Artillery was a branch of service requiring more education than most, many sons of the nobility had quietly made it their career. The Heavy Cavalry also is a place where the mob and Madame Guillotine could not lay hands upon them. Many are their number in this the new Grande Armée!
In this company, Sous-Lieutenant Rousse, a quiet but competent young man, served as a section leader. His section consisted of three guns, with twenty-four men to work them. He was to play a vital role in our first engagement. However, before that came to pass, his blood-feud with Capitaine de France almost cost us his life.
As it happened, Sergent Bironand had also been present at that terrible slaughter near Montpellier. He had been the drummer-boy of the National Guard detachment. He told Monsieur Rousse that he had taken no part in the bloodshed; he had been revolted, but had been powerless to stop his comrades in their butchery. The memories had tormented him ever since; if there was a way to help Rousse punish the murderers, he would do all that he could to help! Sergent Bironand had recognized Capitaine de France, but the Capitaine had no idea that this strapping, mustachioed Dragoon had once been his skinny pre-adolescent drummer-boy. Bironand told Sous-Lieutenant Rousse that de France and his cronies went to a certain local pub every night, and that they could be recognized by the gold braid around the right shoulders of their Hussar uniforms.
Our young Sous-Lieutenant entered the pub along with Sergent Bironand and Lieutenant Gérard, and called out loudly, "Is there a cochon [pig] by the name of Etienne de France among you?!" Monsieur Etienne, sitting in his habitual corner with his friends, gave a start at this outburst; but, being the coward that he was, he had one of his companions go out the back to call the guard.
Etienne declared to the gendarmes that the Sous-Lieutenant was a Royalist spy, doubtless in the service of Austria. Young Rousse was quickly bound and jailed.
It was all that I could do to hold back Monsieur Gérard and a good many other former Blancs (Royalists) from jumping in and starting an uprising in the camp. I went to my commander to see what he could do for our young friend, but it was to no avail; there was nothing that he could do for us. The winds of war were in the air; even war might not save the poor Vicomte! The trial was to be in a fortnight. The only thing that could save our poor Sous-Lieutenant was if the star witness failed to appear. Knowing this, Monsieur Gérard stepped up with a plan to save his ami; he said that he would get that cochon to fight him in a duel, by insulting his honor.
The plan called for Mademoiselle Sylvie to bump into Monsieur Etienne. Once they got to the pub, Mademoiselle Sylvie went in by herself. Being unescorted, she looked like easy prey for de France and his gang of lecherous cochons. True to form, Monsieur Etienne brutally accosted our fair beauty. As she screamed and resisted his advances, Monsieur Jean came in with Sylvie’s brother-in-law, Monsieur Plaquer, a tall and strong Sergent. Monsieur Jean, being a very small person, appeared to be the last person that anyone would expect to rescue a damsel in distress; yet, he stepped in between them and slapped Monsieur Etienne in the face! This challenge by a pipsqueak made Etienne look ridiculous in front of his comrades; when Monsieur Jean challenged him to an immediate duel, Etienne had to accept, or he would have been forever a laughingstock. The parties assembled in the courtyard of the inn. Etienne de France, towering over this opponent who was barely half his weight, had regained his bullying swagger, and began the duel laughing. After a few strokes of Jean Gérard’s sword, Etienne laughed no more; in less time than Chef Pierre would need to prepare a boiled egg, Capitaine de France was dead. All this happened in front of many witness, one being Chef d’Escadron Guyot (who one day would command the Guard Heavy Cavalry).
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