Monday, 7 April 2014

An amazing life

Book ReviewSoldier of the Empire: The Note-Books of Captain Coignet, edited by Bob Carruthers.
(Book cover art kindly provided by the publishers. Please do not reproduce without obtaining permission)
Coignet’s memoirs were first published in sections, between 1851 and 1853, when he was in his mid-70s. He sold them to customers of the tobacconist shop that he ran at the time. The complete set of his memoirs incorporate his nine note-books which cover his amazing life from childhood until the end of the French First Empire.
Coignet was conscripted as a private in the grenadier company of the 96th demi-brigade. His exploits soon had him recognised by the First Consul and, in time, transferred to the consular guard. He was included in the first ever awarding of the legion of honour in 1802 and was the first to be given his award. His lack of education limited his promotion until, in 1807 he was promoted to corporal and taught to read and write by educated recruits. He was awarded his sergeancy in 1809 and in 1812 was made quartermaster of the two regiments of grenadiers, before being promoted to lieutenant. Wishing to remain in the guard, he accepted appointment, to Napoleon’s minor staff as a lieutenant instead of as an officer in the line. Serving well in this role, he was taken on by Napoleon as an aide/courier in July. Coignet remained with the staff for the remainder of his career, as a transport officer in 1813–14 and then baggage-master general of Napoleon’s headquarters in 1815.
As one would expect from someone whose amazing career included service in all of the major battles from Marengo to Waterloo, with experience from private to junior officer, line regiment to the guard, and eventually Napoleon’s staff, Coignet’s memoir is full of amazing observations, experiences and anecdotes that provide a remarkable insight into Napoleon’s army and its campaigns.
What follows is a summary of the immense detail covered in Coignet’s note-books, illustrated with quotes from the text. This is a long review (so get comfortable with a drop of your favourite tipple) but it represents but a scratching of surface of what is in this fabulous memoir.
Early Life
The first note-book is about Coignet’s early life; and what a testing childhood it was! His father had three wives and 32 children. Jean-Roch Coignet was born on 16th August 1776 to the second wife who died when he was eight. His father married for the third time, to his servant, “the beauty” as Coignet tells us she was known, “was eighteen years old… she was with child in a fortnight” (p. 6). Beaten by their step-mother, Coignet left home with his older brother. He served as a ‘watch dog’ for a shepherdess for a year and then in an oxen team for a further three years.
Returning to his home village, where he was not recognised, he lived and worked for his half-sister (a child of his father’s first marriage). This most bizarre tale becomes ‘stranger than fiction’ when he meets and has a long conversation with his father who, not recognising him, asks Jean about his father!
Coignet eventually entered the service of M. Potier, a horse trader (including to the army), initially as stable-boy and general help and eventually as a horse trainer, and farm hand. At the age of 21 he was identified as being eligible to be conscripted. M. Potier offered to buy a replacement, but Coignet declined the offer. He concludes this first note-book of the early years of his amazing life with the salutary comment, “I am about to begin the history of my military career. Compared with that, my sorrowful early life was a bed of roses” (p. 54).
Coignet was conscripted on sixth Fructidor year VII (23rd August 1799). He joined the 96th demi-brigade (which became the 96th Regiment of Infantry of the Line in 1803) and was chosen to join the grenadier company. He was close-by at Saint Cloud during the coup d’etat of 9–10th November 1799. 
The 96th along with the 24th légère and the 43rd demi-brigade “...formed a division [Chambarlhac’s] of fifteen thousand men” (p. 60) which was one of those in the Army of the Reserve. Coignet describes in some detail how he and a group of grenadiers dragged one of the cannon over the Alps. At one point he lost his ration of biscuits as the string to which they were attached broke. His comrades responded “…let each of us give a biscuit to our lead horse!”(p. 63). Eventually they descended into Piedmont, only to be blocked by Fort Bard. Once more the grenadiers became limber teams, “…the wheels and every part of which could make any noise, even the soldier’s shoes, padded with straw… he put me at the head of the first piece… not a breath was heard. We got by without being noticed” (p. 66).
The second note-book concludes with Coignet’s first interview with the First Consul following the Battle of Montebello, which was his first time in action. This came on the recommendation of General Berthier after he single-handedly captured an Austrian cannon and later saved his Captain, Merle (the future general), and a sergeant of his regiment from Austrian grenadiers (pp. 68–71). Coignet recalls Napoleon’s remark “ shall one day be one of my guards”, to which Captain Merle later added (after asking if Coignet could write) “Oh, that is a pity; if you did, your fortune would be made. But never mind, you will be specially remembered” (p. 72).
The Battle of Marengo dominates the third note-book. From 10th to 13th June the French army marched “to bid the Austrians good morning. […] We advanced only to find villages completely pillaged. […] All the houses were deserted. […] We… turned to the left, into a village surrounded by orchards and gardens. Here we found some flour, a little bread, and a few animals. It was time for we were dying of hunger” (p. 73).
On the 13th, the 24th half-brigade “…was detached and sent forward unsupported. It… had a serious encounter, in which it lost heavily. […] Bonaparte abandoned it in this terrible position. It was said that he desired to leave it to be destroyed. The reason was this. At the time of the Battle of Montebello, this half-brigade, having been ordered to advance by General Lannes, began firing upon its officers. […] About five or six o’clock in the evening we were sent to extricate the 24th. […] I suppose they had lost half their men, but this did not prevent their fighting still better the next day” (p. 74).
Coignet was in the heat of it at Marengo.
“…at three o’clock in the morning, they [the Austrians] surprised two of our small posts… This was the signal for the morning reveille.  […] Our drums beat to arms… and the aides-de-camp came and ordered us to form our lines of battle. […] A shell burst in the first company and killed seven men; a bullet killed the orderly near General Chambarlhac, who galloped off at full speed. We saw him no more all day [!!]” (p. 75).
A general whom Coignet describes as having ‘fine moustaches’ took command and led them to attack.
“We opened fire. […] …the column of Austrians… fired by battalions and riddled us with small shot. […] I ran behind a big willow tree, and fired into the column, but I could not stand it. […] I was obliged to lie down with my head on the ground in order to shield myself from the small shot. […] I believed myself lost. […] I got up and found myself in a musket company; I continued in it all the rest of the day, for not more than fourteen of our one hundred and seventy grenadiers remained; all the rest were killed or wounded” p. 75).
We are left in no doubt as to the closeness of the battle.
“Everything fell upon us who held the left wing of the army, opposite the high road to Alexandria… They constantly endeavoured to outflank us… The guns set the wheat-field on fire, and this caused a general commotion in the ranks. […] we were obliged to fall back and form again as quickly as possible. This weakened our position, but the situation was restored by the intrepidity of our chiefs, who looked out for everything. …a regiment of Austrian dragoons had concealed themselves, they burst upon a battalion of the 43rd brigade and surrounded it; […] Fortunately General Kellermann came up with his dragoons and restored order. His charges silenced the Austrian cavalry. Nevertheless, their numerous artillery overwhelmed us and we could hold out no longer. […] We had to yield ground.[…] Our musket barrels were so hot that it became impossible to load for fear of igniting the cartridges. There was nothing for it but to piss into the barrels to cool them, and dry them by pouring in loose powder and setting it alight unrammed. …the consular guard arrived with eight hundred men having their linen overalls filled with cartridges; they passed along our rear and gave us the cartridges. This saved our lives. Then our fire redoubled and the Consul appeared; we felt ourselves strong again” (pp. 76–77).
“He placed his guard in line in the centre of the army and sent it forward. They immediately held the enemy, forming square and marching in battle order. The splendid horse-grenadiers came up at a gallop, charged the enemy at once and cut their cavalry to pieces. Ah! That gave us a moment to breathe, it gave us confidence for an hour. But not being able to hold out against the consular horse-grenadiers, they turned upon our half-brigade and drove in the first platoons, sabring them. I received such a blow from a sabre on my neck that my queue was almost cut off … I fell head over heels into a ditch. […] I took hold of the tail of a retreating dragoon’s horse […] I made a few strides behind that horse which carried me away […] I resumed my place in the second company of grenadiers, who received me with cordiality” (p. 77). The captain suggested that he go to the rear, but Coignet replied, “… I have plenty of cartridges, and I am going to revenge myself upon such troopers as I meet; they have done me too much harm; they shall pay for it” (p. 77).
As most readers will know, the French retreat was turned to a victory by the timely arrival of General Desaix.
“We retreated in good order, but the battalions were visibly reduced, and quite ready to give up but for the encouragement of their officers. We held out till noon without being disordered. Looking behind, we saw the Consul […] When we came near him he mounted his horse and set off at a gallop behind our ranks. “Courage, soldiers,” said he, “the reserves are coming. Stand firm!’ […] The soldiers were shouting, “Vive Bonaparte!”[…] Meanwhile, do all we could, we were beginning to fail. It was two o’clock. “The battle is lost,” said our officers. He cried, “Where is the First Consul? The reserves are up. Courage! You will be reinforced at once, within half an hour. […] Finally came the joyful cry, “Here they are, here they are!” That splendid division came up, carrying arms. […] Meanwhile we continued our withdrawal. The Consul gave his orders, and the Austrians came along as though they were on their way home, with sloped arms; they paid no attention to us; they believed us to be utterly routed. We had gone three hundred paces past the division of General Desaix, and the Austrians were also about to pass the line, when the thunderbolt descended upon the head of their column. […] Their whole army was routed” (pp. 77–79).
After Marengo, during the three-month truce, Coignet was part of the garrison of Cremona, where he first became acquainted with lice “…a beautiful city […] But it is the worst garrison in Italy; we slept on the ground, on straw filled with vermin […] we passed three months in utter misery. […] How we longed for the 15th September when we should leave this wretched garrison and enter the field again” (pp. 84–85).
They marched out “… to join the line at a strong town called Viédane, where we began to breathe freely and found provisions” (p. 85). Coignet relates how they found a store of wine and wished to take it. The quartermaster conceived a ruse to do so, signing an order for five hundred rations “…”the pen” gave us five hundred rations of good wine” (p. 85).
Peace finally came but instead of heading to France, Coignet was sent to Portugal. He got as far as Salamanca, while vanguards reached the border with Portugal, but there was no fighting. Coignet once again became acquainted with lice, “we reached Vittoria, a lovely town; from there we went to Burgos, and from Burgos to Valladolid, a fine large city, where we remained a long time among the vermin. The soldiers practically slept on lice… It is the custom among the Spaniards to take these lice up between their fingers and throw them on the ground, saying “Let him who created thee nourish thee.” A dirty race” (p. 90). Even at this stage of the Napoleonic wars troops were attacked by civilians. “As we were leaving the city [Valladolid], the Spaniards killed our quarter-master-sergeants with clubs, and had the audacity to come and take our colours from the colonel’s guardhouse in a village near Burgos. […] They were caught by our grenadiers, who bayoneted them without mercy” (pp. 90–91).
The third note-book ends with Coignet’s promotion to the grenadiers of the consular guard (cheating the height measurement by putting straw in his shoes!). He was re-uninted with his sister and brother for the last time, as each of them died within three months of that meeting. Coignet tells of a review of the guard grenadiers by the First Consul,  during which “…he walked slowly and received many petitions; he took them himself and handed them to General Lannes […] The petitions were almost all granted, and the contentment was general” (p.99). Here we see an example of his building of their devotion to him.
Boulogne and Austerlitz
Coignet’s fourth note-book begins with the awarding of legions of honour. Coignet was first to receive his. He was fêted by his fellow soldiers and citizens alike. One citizen offered to buy him coffee, but it was poisoned and Coignet was sick for forty days. Napoleon heard of it and sent M. Larrey and M. Suze to attend him. “The faithful care of the physicians and nurses saved me from the revenge which had been attempted on me by one who could not wreak it upon the First Consul himself; for it was one of the spies of Cadoual [royalist who fought against the revolution and Bonaparte by both armed and clandestine means] had watched his opportunity to kill me” (p. 106). After his recovery, Coignet returned to his village, where he was celebrated by the villagers. He confronted his father and step-mother, taking his remaining brother with him to Paris.
Coignet describes several incidents at camp of Boulogne. An old friend of his, the “tallest of all the grenadiers” came to visit him. His friend had been promoted to drum major one night at the Tuileries. On that occasion Bonaparte had asked him to fetch his captain while he himself, Bonaparte, stood guard in his place. Now visited by his old friend Coignet had dined with him and then left to return to camp. “I was alone; as I was going along I met two grenadiers of the line who wanted to arrest me. At that time the soldiers of the guard were exposed to frequent attacks. […] the “company of the moon”, which was composed of brigands and wild fellows who took advantage of the night hours to plunder those of us whom they found alone… I got out of my difficulty by a piece of audacity. I had my sabre of my seven years in the fencing school. I drew my sabre and defied my assailants. They thought it prudent to let me pass” (pp. 113-114).
They did not, of course, only fight amongst themselves.
“One day Messrs, the English came in a large squadron to pay us a visit. A seventy-four gunner was insolent enough to come near the shore. She brought her broadside to bear, and sent a volley of balls into our camp. … a sergeant of grenadiers asked permission to fire on this ship, saying that he would guarantee to put a leak in her the first or second shot. “Go to work then. What is your name?” said the Consul. “Despienne.” […] The first shell passed over it. “A miss,” said our little corporal. “All right,” said the sergeant. “Watch this one.” He took aim, and sent a shell into the middle of the ship. […] “I will make you a lieutenant in my artillery,” said he to Despienne. Then the English fired blank cartridges calling for aid, for their ship was on fire. They leaped into our boats as well as their own. Our little flotilla pursued their big ships. It was a sight to see our little terriers after their great hounds. The English tried to return to the charge, but they were roughly received. […] We were ordered to return to port so as to make a general demonstration all along the line. Never had there been seen such a sight as a hundred and fifty thousand men firing by battalions; the whole shore shook” (p. 114).
Leaving the camp at Boulogne, the army marched to Arras, “never was there such a terrible march. We had not a moment for sleep. Marching by platoons all day and all night, and at last holding onto each other to prevent falling. Those who fell could not be wakened. Some fell into the ditches. Blows with the flat of the sabre had no effect upon them” (pp. 114–115). The men were standing in the rain at the crossing of the Rhine, water in their muskets and up to their knees. “The guard had to paddle about like ducks” (p. 115).
Coignet was present at the Battle of Elchingen, the surrounding of Ulm and capitulation of Mack. One particularly interesting incident that he relates was regarding a house that was burned down at Ulm. Napoleon said that it had to be paid for and gave six hundred francs insisting that the soldiers give a day’s pay. “The proprietor did a good day’s work, for he received a considerable sum” (p. 116). It is interesting to compare this with later campaigns.
Coignet’s description of the Battle of Austerlitz includes a fine description of the combat between the Russian and French guard cavalry.
“The whole of the guard of the Russian Emperor was massed on this height. But we were strongly supported on the right. Their cavalry charged upon a battalion of the 4th, and strewed the field with their dead bodies. The Emperor perceived this, and ordered General Rapp to charge. Rapp dashed forward with is horsemen and the Mamelukes, extricated the battalion, but was driven back by the Russian guard. The Emperor ordered us to halt, and sent forward first the Mamelukes and light cavalry. These Mamelukes were marvellous riders; they could do anything they chose with their horses. With their curved satires [sic.], they would take a man’s head off with one blow, and their sharp stirrups tore the loins of the men they encountered. One of them came three different times up to the Emperor bringing a Russian standard. The third time, the Emperor wished to stop him, but he dashed in again, and returned no more. He rested on the field of battle.
The light horse were no less effective than the Mamelukes, but they had to contend with a force too strong for them. The Russian imperial guard was composed of gigantic men who fought with desperation. Our cavalry was at last driven back. Then the Emperor let loose his “black horses,” that is, his mounted grenadiers, commanded by General Bessières. They passed by us like a streak of lightening, and fell upon the enemy. For a quarter of an hour there was a desperate struggle. […] but our grenadiers came off conquerors, and returned to their position behind the Emperor. General Rapp came back covered with blood, bringing a prince with him.
We had been sent forward at the double to assist in this struggle … and we thought that our turn had come, but they beat a retreat into the valley of the ponds. … they were obliged to cross over the pond to the left, in front of us; and the Emperor, perceiving their awkward situation, sent down his artillery and the 2nd regiment of grenadiers. […] It was a total rout” (pp. 121–122).
Jena to Wagram
The fifth note-book begins with the Battle of Jena, after which “we were lodged in private houses and fed at the expense of the inhabitants, with orders to give us a bottle of wine every day. This was hard upon the citizens, for the wine costs three francs a bottle. Not being able to procure wine, they begged us to take instead, beer, in little jugs. At roll-call, all the grenadiers spoke about it to their officers, who told us not to force them to give us wine, as the beer was excellent. This was a great comfort to all the people in the town, and the beer in jugs was unsparingly bestowed” (p. 131).
As they moved into Poland supplies became more scarce as the Russians had destroyed all. “The older men began to lose heart; some of them committed suicide rather than face such privations any longer. We lost about sixty of them in the two days previous to our arrival at Pultusk, a miserable thatched village. […] No man could give any idea of our suffering. All our artillery stuck fast in the mud/ the heavy guns sank deep into the ground. The Emperor’s carriage, with him inside, could not be extricated. We were obliged to lead a horse up to the door of the carriage, so that he could get over this terrible place, and go on to Pultusk. And here he saw the desolation among the ranks of his old soldiers, some of whom had blown their brains out. It was here that he called us grognards, or grousers, which name has clung to us ever since, and is now a term of honour” (p. 134). 
As always, supplies were forefront of mind. The horse-grenadiers had found an enormous hog in Pultusk, which they chased into the camp of the grenadiers. Coignet was the one to catch and kill it, so “…it was decided that as I had captured him, a quarter and two kidneys belonged to me” (p. 135). Coignet went to the Emperor’s house for some salt, only to discover that they had captured his pig, so he told the lieutenant of the household that he’d bring back some broiled pork!
To their delight, the Emperor ordered the foot guard back to Warsaw. “The inhabitants of Warsaw received us with open arms, on January 1 1807: the people could not do too much for us, and the Emperor allowed us to rest in this beautiful city. But this short campaign of fourteen days had aged us ten years” (p. 136).
The respite was brief and they were soon on the march again, to Eylau.
“Early in the morning, on 8th of February, the Russians greeted us with volleys from their cannon. […] The shells passed over the houses, and made great havoc in our ranks. There is no possible suffering greater than to expect to be killed without being allowed to defend one’s self. […] the Emperor now brought us forward on the height, our left wing resting on the church. … the carnage was fearful and continuous. […] We held on to the position. But to the right, in front of us, the 14th of the line was cut to pieces; the Russians penetrated their square, and the carnage was terrible. The 43rd of the line lost half its men. […] A bullet cut off the staff of our eagle, passing between the legs of our sergeant-major as he held it, and made a hole through the front and back of his coat. Fortunately he was not wounded. […] As the peril was great, he [Napoleon] decided to send forward the 2nd regiment of grenadiers and the chasseurs, commanded by General Dorsenne. The cuirassiers had broken through the squares, and made terrible slaughter. Our grenadiers fell upon the Russian guard with their bayonets without firing a single shot, and at the same moment the Emperor charged them with two squadrons of horse-grenadiers and two of chasseurs. They… broke through all the Russian lines, and made a circuit of their whole army. […] The ardour of the Russians abated after these repulses, and they were not anxious to recommence the fighting. It was well, for our troops were completely exhausted, and our ranks visibly thinned. But for our guard our infantry would have been overcome. We did not lose the battle, but neither did we win it” (pp. 138–139).
Following Eylau, the armies went back to winter quarters and the problems of foraging in Poland returned. “We came to a large deserted village, called Osterode. It was a poverty-stricken place; but we did find a few potatoes” (p. 140). Eventually the troops realised that the inhabitants had buried or hidden food and, after some searching, or luck, they found the hiding places. One such instance was, when out hunting for game in the forest. “I saw a hare start up not very far off, and as there were small pine-trees there, about five feet high, which stood thick, near by, I bent some of them over to see if I could find his form. To my astonishment one of the pines came up out of the ground. (p. 141). By Coignet’s actions they had found the villagers’ stores, both below and above ground and they procured “twenty-five four-horse wagon loads”.
“On our return… we made a big fire to cook hams, and regale ourselves, at the expense of the Poles, who wanted to starve us… They had all left their houses. If any remained, it was to watch over their hiding places. When we asked them for food, they always refused. They are a people destitute of human feeling; they are willing that men should starve at their doors. Give me the Germans, who are always resigned to fate, and never desert their homes! […] This discovery let to further searching; taking soundings became our sport. All the barns were ransacked, and the floors of the houses and barns torn up. There were hiding-places everywhere, and provisions in every place. The Russians were starving, too, and they came to beg some potatoes from our soldiers. They no longer thought of fighting, and left us undisturbed in our quarters. This terrible winter was the cause of great suffering to us” (p. 143).
Coignet had noticed that a peasant would “go every morning and look over his garden…”. He and his comrades investigated and found a buried store of casks filled with rice, bacon, ham and the tools and utensils from the village, but it was beneath the rotting bodies of two cows. This haul they kept secret from their officers.
In this manner they survived the long winter and by “May we had an easy time of it, and were as fresh and be-powdered as if we had been in Paris. But on the 5th June, our bold Marshal Ney was attacked and pursued by a strong force of the Russians. […] The camp was at once broken up, and we got ready to start. At six o’clock on the morning of the 6th we set to join the army. …we were sent to the right and forward to meet the Russians in the lovely plain of Friedland, at the ford of a river. […] These two great soldiers [Lannes and Napoleon] found themselves opposed by forces more than double as strong as their own. They held out till noon. […] The Emperor went galloping by ad [sic.] the troops who were marching up. As he went through a wood where Oudinot’s wounded men were passing, they called out to him, “Hurry to the aid of our comrades. The Russians have the upper hand just now.” […] He gave this task to the intrepid Ney… The Russians fought like lions; they preferred to be drowned rather than to surrender” pp. 144–145). This victory at Friedland brought the long-awaited peace conference at Tilsit.
The two emperors “…were to hold a conference, and make peace. God only knows how glad we were to hear this! We were all mad with delight” (p. 146). The guards of the two emperors also met. “They [the Russian Guards] were so tall they might have used us as walking canes. As for me, the smallest of all, I had one of them all to myself. I was obliged to look up to see his face. I looked like a little boy beside him. […] Brandy was served… The contents of the goblet would instantly disappear. […] They seemed to become very uncomfortable. We made signs to them to unbutton their coats, doing the same thing ourselves. This made them easier. They had rags stuffed inside their uniforms to give them big chests, and is it was disgusting to see these rags come tumbling out. […] After the Emperors were gone, the Russians, who were now at their ease, began to eat again, as hard as they could. We stuffed them with meat and drink, and when they found they could not eat all that was on the table, what do you suppose they did? They poked their fingers down their throats, threw up their dinner in a heap between their legs, and began all over again. It was a disgusting orgie” (pp. 148–149).
It was at Tilsit that he was finally promoted to corporal. Coignet relates the discussion with his company officer, Captain Renard and the adjutant-major, a monsieur Belcourt,
“You shall be corporal today, and if the general asks you if you can read and write, you must answer, ‘Yes, general,’ and I will undertake to have you taught. I have some well-educated young soldiers, who will be very glad to teach you” (p 151).
In October 1808 Coignet went to Spain along with the grande armée and Napoleon. Once more the imperial troops were not well received. Coignet relates the story of how, in Burgos, “…a little boy of eleven or twelve years old, who seemed to wish to attract the attention of our [horse] grenadiers. As soon as one of them saw him, he ran back up the stairway; but the grenadier followed him, and caught up with him at the top of the steps. As soon as he reached the landing, the little boy opened a door, and the grenadier entered with him. The door closed, and the monks cut off his head” (p. 158). This happened once more, before several of the grenadiers pursued the boy, fired their carbines at the door, burst in and “…found their comrades lying there with their heads cut off and bathed in their own blood. Our old soldiers became perfectly enraged. They slaughtered those scoundrels of monks… We threw the Capuchins and the little boy out of the dormer windows down into the garden.”
Coignet describes the Battle of Somosierra, entry of the French army into Madrid and pursuit of the British army priory to Napoleon’s departure for France in reaction to Austria moving to a war footing. “We were ordered to return to France by forced marches, and the Emperor set out for Paris. He had a little surprise prepared for us… The whole guard will go to Paris in wagons. […] We travelled twenty-five leagues a day. It was as though a streak of lightening passed from south to north” (pp. 161–162). They reached Versailles, were reviewed by the Emperor, then marched to Courbevoie (Paris) where they set off again, “four grenadiers in a cab…” (p. 162). We travelled twenty-five to six leagues every day. […] On the road to Augsburg we had a roll call at nine o’clock at night. No more carriages after that;… we had to rub up our legs, and march all night. […] We were obliged to march twenty-one leagues the first day with our heavy loads on our backs. […] we still had twenty miles to make before reaching Schoenbrünn. […] We reached the village of Schoenbrünn at midnight. Our officers had the imprudence to allow us to rest about a quarter of an hour’s march from the castle, awaiting orders from the Emperor, who, when he heard of our arrival, was furious. “What,” said he, “have you marched my veterans more than forty leagues in two days?” […] We were ordered to rise, but our limbs were as stiff as the barrel of a gun. […] When the Emperor saw us coming, all bent over on the butt-ends of our guns,… he became a raging lion. “Can these be my veterans in such a state? Suppose I needed them at this moment! You are…” […] “Have large fires made immediately in the courtyard, and fetch straw for them to lie down on; have some pots of sweetened wine heated” […] That night lodgings were found for us in that beautiful and wealthy village, and the whole guard arrived and was comfortably quartered” (pp. 163–166).
Such was the favoured treatment that Napoleon metered to his guard, which was returned with devotion to him. On the first day of Aspern-Essling “…a cannon-ball struck the Emperor’s horse in the hip. At once we all shouted, “We will lay down our arms, if the Emperor does not go to the rear instantly.” He was compelled to recross the small bridge…” (p. 167).
Just prior to the Battle of Aspern-Essling, Coignet was promoted to sergeant. He describes that battle, in which the guard was much involved, along with that of Wagram, in great detail (eight pages). As usual he mixes his description with some insightful and humorous anecdotes. One of the more amusing of these relates to the ‘asides of glory’. “I felt an urgent call to relieve nature, but it was strictly against orders to move a step towards the rear. There was no alternative but to go forward in advance of the line, which I did; and, having put down my musket, I began operations with my behind to the enemy. All at once a cannon-ball came along, ricochetted within a yard of me, and threw a hail of earth and stones all over my back. Luckily for me I still had my pack on, or I should have perished. Picking up my musket with one hand and my trousers with the other, black and blue behind, I was on my way back to my post when the major, seeing the state I was in, came galloping up. “What’s this?” said he; “are you wounded?” “It’s nothing, major, they wanted to wipe my breech for me, but they didn’t succeed” (pp. 167–168).
On a different tack, is Coignet’s story regarding a change to the guard’s uniform. “At eleven o’clock he ordered us to cross-over, and to put on our bear-skins. There was no time to lose, and as we crossed the bridge, three abreast, we unpacked one another’s bear-skins without halting. The operation was complete by the time we reached the further bank, and we threw all our undress caps into the Danube, and have never worn them since. That was the end of caps for the guard” (p. 167).
1810 to the Crossing of the Niemen
Not being sent back to the Peninsula, Coignet was able to enjoy the ‘peace’, focussing on non-military matters. Perhaps his most humorous story occurred during this period and related to a most bizarre (to our ears) form of male vanity.
“I was very proud of my rank of sergeant and my forty-three sous a day. Having some visits which I was obliged to make, I proceeded to smarten myself up. I had to have silk stockings, to go with my sword. I have already said that I had no calves to my legs, so I had to get some false ones. […] I made my visits, and was overwhelmed with compliments upon my appearance. I returned to the barracks at nine o’clock in the evening, delighted with my day, and found a letter from my captain, Renard, inviting me to dine with him on Sunday, without fail, at five o’clock sharp…” (p. 176).
Coignet “felt uncomfortable among my superiors in rank, with all their decorations, and the ladies, with their plumes.” He need not have worried “…I was seated between two beautiful ladies, and they paid me much attention, and soon put me at my ease” (pp. 176–177). When the officers were called upon to tell stories of their campaigns they obliged. Coignet did not join in, but his captain said “I will tell it for him; you will see that he is a good soldier” and he proceeded to relate tales about Coignet’s bravery and exploits. The dinner concluded, Coignet took his leave and “..returned to the Capucins barracks, off the Place Vendôme; next morning I had a letter from Mme asking me to wait on her at eleven o’clock. This too ‘went well’ and Coignet “…only left her to answer roll call. I was a little unsteady on my legs as a result of the stormy day I had passed, but was delighted with my conquest, and did not fail to keep my appointment on the day arranged” (p. 179).
On this occasion he was told by the lady’s chambermaid, “…Madame is delighted with you; she is coming early to take coffee, and will spend the evening with you. […] She gave the chambermaid her orders, and dismissed her till next morning… As for me, I felt mighty awkward about undressing, and particularly about how I was to hide my wretched false calves and my three pairs of stockings. […] Fortunately my beauty got up first to make things easy for me, and went to the next room with her maid to dress. I lost no time, and at once set about pulling my three pairs of stockings on under the bedclothes; the difficulty was to avoid twisting them awry, and I only succeeded with one leg, but madame never noticed. […] I returned to barracks in no little disorder. “One of your stockings is twisted, it looks like a false calf,” said one of my comrades. “So it does,” I answered in confusion, “I must go and put it straight.” When I reached my quarters, I undressed and took off the infernal calves that had so tortured me for twenty four hours; nor have I ever worn false calves since” (pp. 179–180).
The liaison continued for some time, but “the task was too much for my strength.” Coignet was afforded “the chance of beating a retreat” when his “beauteous and witty dame” asked to see a specimen of his writing. “Your letter disappointed me,” she said: “the spelling is wretched and you have no style.” He did not see her again and “all her powers of persuasion were exerted in vain” (pp. 180–181).
The marriage of Napoleon to Marie Louise produced great fêtes and hunts, but these were interrupted by preparations for war. Coignet was made quartermaster of the two regiments of grenadiers of the guard. After marching across Europe, “…we began construction of three bridges over the Niemen. The work was completed at twenty-five minutes before midnight, and the army began to enter Russian territory. It was wonderful to see such bodies of men moving over those barren plains. Often they were without shelter and without bread; often in the wildest places, where we knew not where to turn to find necessary food. But Providence and courage never abandon a good soldier” (p. 194).
Coignet’s description of the early stages of the Russian campaign is similar to that told in the memoirs of others; the spectacle of the advancing army, losses of men and animals with the change in weather (rain and cold). Along the way he was promoted to Lieutenant, but opted to remain in the guard, taking a position in Napoleon’s minor staff, rather than become an officer in the line. In this role, Coignet’s first duty was to escort deserters back to the ranks. “When we reached the enclosure, we found them all under arms in three battalions. […] I went to the enclosure to call them out, regiment by regiment. I first found a hundred and thirty-three Spaniards belonging to the regiment of Joseph Napoleon, and so on with the others. […] After leaving Vilna, we found ourselves surrounded by great forests. I left the head of my battalion, and went to the rear, making the stragglers keep up by placing my little bandsmen on the right to mark the time. Night came on, and I saw some deserters steal away into the depths of the forest without being able to bring them back to the ranks, on account of the darkness. I could do nothing but curse. What was to be done with such soldiers? I said to myself, “They will all desert.” […] At last we came to a forest, very far away from the towns, a considerable portion of which had been destroyed by fire. This burnt forest extended along the way on my right, and I saw a part of my troops turn on the right into these charred woods. I galloped off after them, to make them come back to the road. To my surprise, these soldiers faced about and fired at me. I was obliged to let them go. This was a plot got up among the soldiers of Joseph Napoleon, who were all Spaniards. There were a hundred and thirty-three of them, and not one single Frenchmen had joined the brigands. […] That same evening we… came to a village where there was some cavalry stationed, with a colonel who was guarding the forks of the road, and showing the troops which to take. I went to him, and made my report, he sent for some Jews and his interpreter. He… sent off fifty chasseurs, with the Jews to guide them. About half-way they met some peasants who had been unjustly treated, and were coming to ask for protection. They reached the village at midnight, surrounded it, and surprised the Spaniards while they were asleep; seized them, disarmed them, and put their muskets in a wagon. […] The colonel ordered them into line and said to them, “Your conduct has been disgraceful. I am going to form you into sections. Are there any sergeants or corporals among you to form your sections? […] You have run away, you have acted as incendiaries, you have fired upon your officer; the law condemns you to death, and you must submit to your punishment. I could have you all shot, but I will spare half of you.” […] They shot sixty-two of them. My God! what a scene it was. I left the spot immediately with a bursting heart, but the Jews were highly delighted. Such was my first experience as lieutenant” (pp. 199–202).
His next tasks were as an aide/courier taking orders firstly from Smolensk to Vitebsk and then to Marshal Davout to halt his advance ahead of Ney and Murat who were engaged at Valutino. He describes the system of post-haste and his close call with Cossacks.
At Borodino, Coignet conveyed a crucial order. “Our troops made every possible effort to take the redoubts which were thundering upon our infantry on the right; they were always repulsed, and the victory depended upon this position. The general led me to the Emperor. “Are you well mounted?” “Yes Sire.” “Go at once and carry this order to Caulaincourt; you will find him on the right by the side of the wood. You will see the cuirassiers; it is he who commands them. Do not return till after the end.” I went to the general, and presented the order. He read it and said to his aide-de-camp, “Here is the order which I have been expecting. Sound to horse! Send the colonels up for orders.” Caulaincourt read them the order to take the redoubts, and appointed to each the redoubt he was to attack. […] The cuirassiers went along the edge of the wood and fell upon the redoubts directly in front, while the grenadiers attacked the barriers. Cuirassiers and French grenadiers struggled pell-mell with the Russians. The brave Caulaincourt fell stone-dead beside me. […] When the carnage was over and the redoubts in our possession, the old colonel said to me “Go and tell the Emperor that the victory is ours. I shall send him the staff-officers taken in the redoubts”” (p. 211).
Being with Murat and the first troops into Moscow, Coignet expressed his wonder at the city. “At the end of this immense street we came to the foot of the Kremlin. The ascent to it is very steep. It is a strong castle overlooking the city, which is divided into two parts, and consequently, two immense cities seem lying below it. On the summit to the right is the splendid palace of the Emperors. […] A beautiful street leading from the Kremlin opens upon a fine boulevard surrounded by handsome palaces. This part of the city was not burned, and became our place of refuge” (p. 214–215).
“It must have required a great many persons to set fire to all parts of the town at the same time. It was said that all the criminals from the prisons took part in it; each man had a street., and went from house to house, setting them on fire.[…] The fire was made more frightful by the wind which blew the roofing of sheet-iron off the palaces and churches; all the people, as well as the troops, found themselves in the midst of the fire. […] About eleven o’clock in the night we heard screams in the gardens, and, going to investigate, found that our soldiers were robbing women of their shawls and ear-rings. We hastened to stop the pillage” (pp. 215–216). Coignet was appalled about the general pillaging and lack of anyone stopping it, “It was dreadful to see it” (p. 218).
“At three o’clock we left Moscow. It was scarcely possible to make our way, for the road was blocked up with carriages, and all the army plunderers where there in great numbers” (p. 219). As he was with the guard, Coignet had some provisions (such as tea every day), but “the Russian winter set in with all its severity on the 6th November” (p. 219). He describes the cold and dispirited march to Smolensk, “the cold was already intense... This occasioned great losses to the army.”
As with the memoirs of others who witnessed it, Coignet describes the terrible drama of the passage of the Berezina and associated battles. His description of the fate of the stragglers is most evocative “... a frightful scene was being enacted. ... From our position we could see unfortunate creatures rush for the bridges; then the wagons overturned, and all were swallowed up under the ice. No one could give any idea of this sight” (p. 221).
Coignet survived the horrors of the retreat, including escaping capture by Cossacks when he was hidden in an oven by the mayor of Vilna. The Cossacks took the dispatches that he was carrying, which he later discovered were a deliberate ruse to confuse the enemy. He expresses no emotion at being so used. Napoleon was pleased and surprised at his return. On December 28th 1812, Coignet was appointed transport officer at headquarters. “I was no longer afraid of being posted to the line” (p. 229).
Germany and France
Coignet continued in his role as transport officer in the 1813 campaign in Saxony. After Lützen he requisitioned horses from officers and sergeant-majors to be used for the artillery. Prince Berthier was made aware of this: “Very well, I appoint him captain on the general staff of the Emperor, and he will continue his duties” (p. 232).
The impact of the death of Duroc on Napoleon after Bautzen is remarkable. “The Emperor ordered the guard to halt. The tents of the imperial headquarters were set up in a field on the right side of the road. Napoleon went inside of the square of the guard, and spent the rest of the evening seated on a stool in front of his tent, his hands clasped and his head bent down” (p. 234).
Coignet describes the Battle of Dresden in some detail, but it is his famous quote attributed to some of the generals that is most worthy of mention. “I had my place among the staff, and I heard all sorts of things said in conversation. They cursed the Emperor: “He is a –“ they said, “who will have us all killed.” I was dumb with astonishment. I said to myself, “We are lost.” The next day after this conversation, I made bold to say to my general, “I think our place is no longer here; we ought to to go on to the Rhine by forced marches.” “I agree with you; but the Emperor is obstinate: no one can make him listen to reason”” (p. 237).
This eighth note-book ends with the Battle of Leipzig, after which Coignet, as master of baggage, had a run-in with a colonel commanding an ambulance regarding who had right of way over the bridge leading west from the city. The followed the Battle of Hanau and the campaign in France. “Our misfortunes ended at Fontainbleau. We wanted to make a last effort, and march upon Paris; but it was too late. […] The Emperor was let down by all the men whom he had raised to prominent positions; they forced him to abdicate. I wanted to follow him. Count Monthyon sent to him, and spoke on my behalf. “I cannot take him; he is not one of my guard”” (p. 251).
Hundred Days and Retirement
Coignet was not happy to be unemployed. “It was reported on the streets of Auxerre, that the Emperor had landed at Cannes, and was marching on to Grenoble and Lyons. […] That evening the advanced guard returned to the town hall, but not as they had left it: white cockades in the morning and tricoloured ones in the evening. They took possession of the town-hall, and by torchlight the same commissioner [who had posted an order from the government that Bonaparte should be arrested] went through the town to publish another proclamation, and shout at the top of his voice, “Long live the Emperor!” I must say I split my sides with laughing” (p. 254).
“A demonstration took place on the 1st June in the Champ de Mars in front of the façade of the École Militaire. The Emperor, in full dress, surrounded by his staff, came out to receive the deputies and peers of France. […] He had the eagles brought to him to distribute to the army and the national guard. With that stentorian voice of his, he cried to them, “Swear to defend your eagles! Do you swear it?” he repeated. But the vows were made without warmth; there was but little enthusiasm: the shouts were not like those of Austerlitz and Wagram, and the Emperor perceived it” (p. 267).
So on to Ligny and Waterloo, ending in rout. “The confusion lasted a considerable length of time. Nothing could calm them; they would listen to no one; the mounted men blew out their horses’ brains; the foot-soldiers blew out their own to avoid falling into the hands of the enemy; everything went pell-mell. I found myself taking part in another rout as complete as that of Moscow. “We are betrayed,” they cried. This great blow came upon us on account of our right wing being broken in. The Emperor did not know the extent of the disaster till he reached Jemmapes” (p. 264)
Coignet formed with the rest of the army before Paris, even having a duel with a Prussian officer, as he was “taking on great airs; I should like to take him down a peg (pp. 267–268) between the lines of the two armies. Paris fell to the allies, so the army re-formed at the Barrière d’Enfer, marching on to Orléans and then the Loire. Slowly the army “was disbanded and new regiments formed which bore the names of the several departments” (p. 272). On 16th January 1816, Coignet was advised by Marshal MacDonald that he was “…obliged to send you home on half-pay.” Coignet ends his book by explaining how he came to write it and with a plea for fathers to “… use every effort to have their children taught to read and write, and to educate them well” (p. 273–274).
Like a good novel one feels a sense of loss on reaching the end and leaving Coignet’s amazing world and personal history. May he rest in peace.
This publication is another from Pen and Sword’s “Military History From Primary Sources” series of budget-priced paperbacks. As such it is a text-only paperback, produced on standard paperback quality paper and does not include additions such as maps and pictures. The printing is clear, ‘clean’ and in a largish font size (think around 14–16 or so in most fonts)—they know the demographic of their principle readership.
The ‘budget’ version cuts two ways: the price makes it accessible to most people, but results in a ‘no frills’ publication which will not be to everyone’s tastes. Importantly though, it is not merely a facsimile of an earlier publication, as many such books are (an out-of-copyright 1909 French edition and 1890 English translation are available as free, legitimate pdf downloads from, but is a direct translation from the French by Bob Carruthers.
Unfortunately, there are some errors in the text. Chief amongst these is the confusion created by listing Coignet’s original regiment as the 96th on some occasions and the 86th on others. This error is a new one in this text (it does not occur in the other versions mentioned above), so is due either to poor translation or poor editing. There are also a few typos, the main one being a tendency for exclamation marks to be printed as a capital ‘I’, but these are not sufficient to confuse the reader.
In the end it is the words of Coignet that are most important, but I have taken the format of the publication and the errors into account in my overall rating.
These criticisms aside, I really enjoyed reading this book and recommend it to anyone interested in the Napoleonic era.


  1. Coignet's book is a fabulous yarn and a real inspiration. Great choice and a superb review, James.


  2. Thanks Mark and Jim, pleased that you both got through it! It's a long read, especially in this forum, but hopefully the quotes break it up and add colour and detail. I enjoyed Coignet's memoir so much that I wanted to do a 'full' review—you have hit the nail squarely on the head calling it a fabulous yarn and inspiration Jim! The review was written, off and on, over months, so I wasn't gonna edit it down! :)

  3. Sounds like an excellent read!!!