The Book Lover

Histoire d’un conscrit de 1813 by Émile Erckmann

Histoire d'un conscrit de 1813 by Émile Erckmann.jpg


Those who have not seen the glory of the Emperor Napoleon, during the years 1810, 1811, and 1812, can never conceive what a pitch of power one man may reach.

When he passed through Champagne, or Lorraine, or Alsace, people gathering the harvest or the vintage would leave everything to run and see him; women, children, and old men would come a distance of eight or ten leagues to line his route, and cheer and cry, “Vive l’Empereur! Vive l’Empereur!” One would think that he was a god, that mankind owed its life to him, and that, if he died, the world would crumble and be no more. A few old Republicans would shake their heads and mutter over their wine that the Emperor might yet fall, but they passed for fools. Such an event appeared contrary to nature, and no one even gave it a thought.

I was in my apprenticeship since 1804, with an old watchmaker, Melchior Goulden, at Phalsbourg. As I seemed weak and was a little lame, my mother wished me to learn an easier trade than those of our village, for at Dagsberg there were only wood-cutters and charcoal-burners. Monsieur Goulden liked me very much. We lived on the first story of a large house opposite the “Red Ox” inn, and near the French gate.

That was the place to see princes, ambassadors, and generals come and go, some on horseback and some in carriages drawn by two or four horses; there they passed in embroidered uniforms, with waving plumes and decorations from every country under the sun. And in the highway what couriers, what baggage-wagons, what powder-trains, cannon, caissons, cavalry, and infantry did we see! Those were stirring times!

In five or six years the innkeeper, George, had made a fortune. He had fields, orchards, houses, and money in abundance; for all these people, coming from Germany, Switzerland, Russia, Poland, or elsewhere, cared little for a few handfuls of gold scattered upon their road; they were all nobles, who took a pride in showing their prodigality.

From morning until night, and even during the night, the “Red Ox” kept its tables in readiness. Through the long windows on the first story nothing was to be seen but great white table-cloths, glittering with silver and covered with game, fish, and other rare viands, around which the travellers sat side by side. In the yard behind, horses neighed, postilions shouted, maid-servants laughed, coaches rattled. Ah! the hotel of the “Red Ox” will never see such prosperous times again.

Sometimes, too, people of the city stopped there, who in other times were known to gather sticks in the forest or to work on the highway. But now they were commandants, colonels, generals, and had won their grades by fighting in every land on earth. Old Melchior, with his black silk cap pulled over his ears, his weak eyelids, his nose pinched between great horn spectacles, and his lips tightly pressed together, could not sometimes avoid putting aside his magnifying-glass and punch upon the workbench, and throwing a glance toward the inn, especially when the cracking of the whips of the postilions, with their heavy boots, little jackets, and perukes of twisted hemp, awoke the echoes of the ramparts and announced a new arrival. Then he became all attention, and from time to time would exclaim:

“Hold! It is the son of Jacob, the slater,” or of “the old scold, Mary Ann,” or of “the cooper, Frantz Sepel! He has made his way in the world; there he is, colonel and baron of the empire into the bargain. Why don’t he stop at the house of his father, who lives yonder in the Rue des Capucins?”

But when he saw them shaking hands right and left in the street with those who recognized them, his tone changed; he wiped his eyes with his great spotted handkerchief, and murmured:

“How pleased poor old Annette will be! Good! good! He is not proud; he is a man. God preserve him from cannon-balls!”

Others passed as if ashamed to recognize their birth-place; others went gayly to see their sisters or cousins, and everybody spoke of them. One would imagine that all Phalsbourg wore their crosses and their epaulettes; while the arrogant were despised even more than when they swept the roads.

Nearly every month Te Deums were chanted, and the cannon at the arsenal fired their salutes of twenty-one rounds for some new victory, making one’s heart flutter. During the week following every family was uneasy; poor mothers especially waited for letters, and the first that came all the city knew of; “such an one had received a letter from Jacques or Claude,” and all ran to see if it spoke of their Joseph or their Jean-Baptiste. I do not speak of promotions or the official reports of deaths; as for the first, every one knew that the killed must be replaced; and as for the reports of deaths, parents awaited them weeping, for they did not come immediately; sometimes indeed they never came, and the poor father and mother hoped on, saying, “Perhaps our boy is a prisoner. When they make peace he will return. How many have returned whom we thought dead!”

But they never made peace. When one war was finished, another was begun. We always needed something, either from Russia or from Spain, or some other country. The Emperor was never satisfied.

Often when regiments passed through the city, with their great coats pulled back, their knapsacks on their backs, their great gaiters reaching to the knee, and muskets carried at will; often when they passed covered with mud or white with dust, would Father Melchior, after gazing upon them, ask me dreamily:

“How many, Joseph, think you we have seen pass since 1804?”

“I cannot say, Monsieur Goulden,” I would reply, “at least four or five hundred thousand.”

“Yes, at least!” he said, “and how many have returned?”

Then I understood his meaning, and answered:

“Perhaps they returned by Mayence or some other route. It cannot be possible otherwise!”

But he only shook his head, and said:

“Those whom you have not seen return are dead, as hundreds and hundreds of thousands more will die, if the good God does not take pity upon us, for the Emperor loves only war. He has already spilt more blood to give his brothers crowns than our great Revolution cost to win the rights of man.”

Then we set about our work again; but the reflections of Monsieur Goulden gave me some terrible subjects for thought.

It was true that I was a little lame in the left leg; but how many others with defects of body had received their orders to march notwithstanding!

These ideas kept running through my head, and when I thought long over them, I grew very melancholy. They seemed terrible to me, not only because I had no love for war, but because I was going to marry Catharine of Quatre-Vents. We had been in some sort reared together. Nowhere could be found a girl so fresh and laughing. She was fair-haired, with beautiful blue eyes, rosy cheeks, and teeth as white as milk. She was approaching eighteen; I was nineteen, and Aunt Margrédel seemed pleased to see me coming early every Sunday morning to breakfast and dine with them.

Catharine and I often went into the orchard behind the house; there we bit the same apples and the same pears; we were the happiest creatures in the world. It was I who took her to high mass and vespers; and on holidays she never left my side, and refused to dance with the other youths of the village. Everybody knew that we would some day be married; but, if I should be so unfortunate as to be drawn in the conscription, there was an end of matters. I wished that I was a thousand times more lame; for at the time of which I speak they had first taken the unmarried men, then the married men who had no children, then those with one child; and I constantly asked myself, “Are lame fellows of more consequence than fathers of families? Could they not put me in the cavalry?” The idea made me so unhappy that I already thought of fleeing.

But in 1812, at the beginning of the Russian war, my fear increased. From February until the end of May, every day we saw pass regiments after regiments—dragoons, cuirassiers, carbineers, hussars, lancers of all colors, artillery, caissons, ambulances, wagons, provisions, rolling on forever, like a river which runs on and on, and of which one can never see the end.

I still remember that this began with soldiers driving large wagons drawn by oxen. These oxen were in the place of horses, and were to be used for food later on, when they should have used up their provisions. Everybody said, “What a fine idea! When the soldiers can no longer feed the oxen, the oxen will feed the soldiers.” Unhappily those who said this did not know that the oxen could only make seven or eight leagues a day, and that for every eight days of marching, they must have at least one day’s rest; so that indeed, the poor animals’ hoofs were already dry and worn out, their lips drooping, their eyes standing out of their heads, and little but skin and bone left of them. For three weeks they kept passing in this way, all torn with thrusts of the bayonet. Meat became cheap, for they killed many of the oxen; but few wanted their flesh, the diseased meat being unhealthy. They never went more than twenty leagues beyond the Rhine.

After that, we saw more lancers, sabres, and helmets file past. All flowed through the French gate, crossed the Place d’Armes, and streamed out at the German gate.

At last, on the 10th of May, in the year 1812, in the early morning, the guns of the arsenal announced the coming of the master of all. I was yet sleeping when the first shot shook the little panes of my window till they rattled like a drum, and Monsieur Goulden, with a lighted candle, opened my door, saying, “Get up, he is here!”

We opened the window. Through the night I saw a hundred dragoons, of whom many bore torches, enter at a gallop under the French gate; they shook the earth as they passed; their lights glanced along the house-fronts like dancing flames, and from every window we heard ceaseless shouts of “Vive l’Empereur!

I was gazing at the carriage, when a horse crashed against the post to which the butcher Klein was accustomed to fasten his cattle. The dragoon fell heavily, his helmet rolled in the gutter, and immediately a head leaned out of the carriage to see what had happened—a large head, pale and fat, with a tuft of hair on the forehead: it was Napoleon; he held his hand up as if about taking a pinch of snuff, and said a few words roughly. The officer galloping by the side of the coach bent down to reply; and his master took his snuff and turned the corner, while the shouts redoubled and the cannons roared louder than ever.This was all that I saw.

The Emperor did not stop at Phalsbourg, and, when he was on the road to Saverne, the guns fired their last shot, and silence reigned once more. The guards at the French gate raised the drawbridge, and the old watchmaker said:

“You have seen him?”

“I have, Monsieur Goulden.”

“Well,” he continued, “that man holds all our lives in his hand; he need but breathe upon us and we are gone. Let us bless Heaven that he is not evil-minded; for if he were, the world would see again the horrors of the days of the barbarian kings and the Turks.”

He seemed lost in thought, but in a moment he added:

“You can go to bed again. The clock is striking three.”

He returned to his room, and I to my bed. The deep silence without seemed strange after such a tumult, and until daybreak I never ceased dreaming of the Emperor. I dreamed, too, of the dragoon, and wanted to know if he were killed. The next day we learned that he was carried to the hospital and would recover.

From that day until the month of September they often sang the Te Deum, and fired twenty-one guns for new victories. It was nearly always in the morning, and Monsieur Goulden cried:

“Eh, Joseph! Another battle won! Fifty thousand men lost! Twenty-five standards, a hundred guns won. All goes well, all goes well. It only remains now to order a new levy to replace the dead!”

He pushed open my door, and I saw him, bald, in his shirt-sleeves, with his neck bare, washing his face in the wash-bowl.

“Do you think, Monsieur Goulden,” I asked, in great trouble, “that they will also take the lame?”

“No, no,” he said kindly; “fear nothing, my child, you could not serve. We will fix that. Only work well, and never mind the rest.”

He saw my anxiety, and it pained him. I never met a better man. Then he dressed himself to go to wind up the city clocks—those of Monsieur the Commandant of the place, of Monsieur the Mayor, and other notable personages. I remained at home. Monsieur Goulden did not return until after the Te Deum. He took off his great brown coat, put his peruke back in its box, and again pulling his silk cap over his ears, said:

“The army is at Wilna or at Smolensk, as I learn from Monsieur the Commandant. God grant that we may succeed this time and make peace, and the sooner the better, for war is a terrible thing.”

I thought, too, that, if we had peace, so many men would not be needed, and that I could marry Catharine. Any one can imagine the wishes I formed for the Emperor’s glory.


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