Fighting for Napoleon

Posted on Wednesday 13th January 2016

Fighting the Battle of Austerlitz
For the first time in European history, soldiers of all ranks left a substantial body of letters that described not only extraordinary events but also their daily lives. The rise of mass-communication was a significant break with the past. Officers had recounted their military experience since antiquity but low-ranking men had usually been voiceless entities. More educated than previous armies, the citizen-soldiers of the French Republic, later the Imperial Army, changed the relationship between the military and the civilian world. Despite their interest, historians must not always take these letters at face value. Soldiers exaggerated or even lied for various reasons as they might have been bragging to impress someone or even been afraid of censorship. The men kept silent about a range of topics, like rape or theft, to avoid shocking deeply Catholic communities. Soldiers had troubles remembering the names of battles, made up confrontations with the enemy and always exaggerated the number of casualties inflicted by the French army. They had no sense of chronology and sometimes wrote a single letter over a period of six months. However, lies, omissions and imprecision tell us as much about the psychology of the French soldier as the truth.
A number of letters of soldiers having fought at the Battle of Austerlitz have been preserved to this day. The first one was written by Toussaint Walthéry, who fought in the 13th Dragoon regiment from 1803 until 1814. He survived the Napoleonic wars.
Brenne 5 nivosse year 14 [26 December 1805]

My very dear father

[…] Since the last time I wrote to you, I left Calais to join the army of the Rhine. We did not give a moment of rest to the Austrian army, which we chased from all of its strongholds and even from its capital. We have fought hard since the crossing of the Danud [Danube] where twenty thousand people died and at Oumes [Ulm, Baden-Württemberg, Germany] where another thirty to thirty-five thousand soldiers were killed. I will not give you details about the battles of Bath, Bille, Branaux and Passeaux and also Linzes, Lixze, which were all very hard. They did not want to leave their capital and as a result forty-five to fifty thousand men died on both sides. At the battle of Bonne, we lost so many people because of the river. But I want to talk about the battle of Desterlix [Austerlitz], the biggest fight ever heard of. The three Emperors were there: the Emperor of Russia, the Emperor of Vienna [Austria] and the Emperor of the French. We began firing at six in the morning. The Russians and the Austrians answered five minutes after. The fire was so intense that it was impossible to see anything six feet in front of you. We retreated three times but the fourth time we managed to route the Russians and the Austrians. We fought against the Imperial Guard of Russia; they were very strong but we beat them. My horse was killed during the battle of Desterlix [Austerlitz] and I almost died but I fortunately took the horse of another dragoon who had just been cut in two by a cannonball. Forty thousand French, seventy thousand Russian and thirty-five thousand Austrians were killed at Desterlix [Austerlitz]. For Bresse, I do not know the losses. Dead bodies were buried for fifteen days but it is such a glory for me to have fought in so many battles and to have my horse killed without being killed. I have not received the postal order of 12 frans [francs] but I hope to have it soon so we do not worry. I end this letter by kissing you one thousand times with all my heart. I am forever your son Toussain Waltery.

From Sividal, Venise [Venice] 9 May 1806
The second letter was written by Pierre-Joseph Seronval, who served in the 92nd line infantry regiment. He also survived the Napoleonic wars and came home in 1814.

My dear father and mother

[…] I am sorry for not giving news for such a long time but we were constantly on the move. We left Nimegue [Nijmegen, Netherlands] and embarked on a boat. We stayed a month on the boat when we heard that war had been declared against Austria. We left immediately for the army of the Rhine. When we faced the enemy we fought different important battles. God has always preserved me and I thank him. So, we fought several important battles, as you must have heard. Our first battle was the blockade of Houlme [Ulm]. We did good as we captured 25 thousand men and killed another five thousand. The weather was not in our favour because it was raining a lot. We stayed for six days in the field without being able to shelter from the rain. After we had defeated the Austrian armies, we carried our march to Vienna. We fought different battles but it is not useful to write how many men we killed or captured. Let us just say that when we took Vienna, there were one hundred sixty thousand men either killed or taken prisoners. After Vienna, we continued toward Moravia, where we fought the biggest battle of the campaign [Austerlitz], and where the war finished. I cannot exactly tell how many men were killed on the battlefield but it looks like we put out of action more than fifty thousand men, killed, wounded, or captured. I cannot tell you how many canons and how much ammunition we took but there were convoys leaving for France for two months. Believe me when I tell you that the battle was cruel. Three Emperors were commanding; there was the French one, the Austrian one and the one from Russia. The Emperors of Russia and Austria were almost captured but they took opportunity of the night to flee. After these events, we stayed for a month in Stirie [Styria, southeast Austria] where we rested. Then we left for Venisse [Venice] where it was excessively hot. There are mountains and therefore snow in all weathers. We walked on a mountain where we saw clouds below us and we walked 560 leagues without stopping.

The Battle of Austerlitz
Bernard Wilkin is a Belgian historian who works as a lecturer at the University of Exeter, where he specialises in the history of the French army and the French people at war, from Napoleon to the end of the Third Republic. He has published on various subjects such as propaganda in France during the two world wars, morale in the French army and on the home front during the Great War. René Wilkin, the father of Bernard, studied and taught history in the city of Liège where he was born. He is now retired but continues to work on Napoleonic history from a French perspective.
Letter from a French soldier
Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz

Further Reading

Fighting For Napoleon
(Hardback - 192 pages)
ISBN: 9781473833739

by Bernard Wilkin
Only £19.99

The French side of the Napoleonic Wars is often seen from a strategic point of view, or in terms of military organization and battlefield tactics, or through officers' memoirs. It is rarely seen from the perspective of the lowest ranks of the army, and the experience of the ordinary soldiers is less well known and is often misunderstood. That is why this account, based on more than 1,600 letters written by French soldiers of the Napoleonic armies, is of such value. It adds to the existing literature by exploring every…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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