In 1835 an Autobiography of an Irish Traveller was published anonymously, although the author reveals his identity during the course of the book as Walter Brabazon, from Cork. He met many interesting people during his travels, but one of his most fascinating anecdotes concerns an old soldier he met in France. He was a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, and offered a valuable insight into the character of the Emperor. Napoleon broke with tradition by promoting soldiers to the officer class on basis of merit rather than just background, and the following is a good example of how he made the best of the people he had to work with. It is quite a lengthy quote due to its anecdotal nature, but it is well worth the effort, because it is a lovely little story!
On arriving near the town, we saw a diligence, full of passengers, sticking fast in the mire. It had got into a large slough; and, although the driver procured the assistance of some peasants, with ropes and a couple of horses, all their efforts were fruitless. The passengers became impatient, desiring to be freed from their prison; which was at length accomplished by laying boards upon the mud for them to walk on, the slough being so deep and soft that the horses could not use their strength to draw the carriage out, although aided by a dozen men. Indeed, the driver made no further efforts to extricate it, but ordered the peasants to bring him a half a dozen oxen. Whilst we were looking at the diligence, one of the passengers, a genteelly dressed middle aged man, expressed his sorrow at being detained on the road, when his mother, whom he had not seen for several years, lived only a little more than a day’s journey from Bordeaux. Our cabriolet being commodious, we offered him a place in it. He had been a conscript, and served several years in the army, in which he attained the rank of major. The constant solicitations of an aged mother and his sister, who had no other male relation to protect them, made him resign his commission and return to live at home.
“I have listened to the voice of nature and filial duty,” said he, “and have sacrificed my ambition to those I love; yet, I confess, it was not without a struggle, for I had reason to expect a rapid advancement to the higher grades of my profession.”
He related some entertaining anecdotes of the late Emperor of France; one of which will, perhaps, not be deemed uninteresting to my readers. Napoleon would, sometimes, put on an old surtout, without epaulets, and stroll about amongst the bivouacs of the soldiers, to hear their opinions of his plans. One evening, after a long and tiresome march, he walked forth in his usual disguise; his intention being to make another rapid advance the next morning, and, coming suddenly upon the enemy, to attack them unawares. Drawing near to a company of old grenadiers, of his favourite regiment, he heard his name pronounced, and immediately stopped to learn what was said concerning him. A veteran, who was seated before the fire, smoking his pipe, was listening to a young man, standing near, who said, —
“Our emperor is the devil, and he thinks we are devils like himself, insensible to the feelings of hunger or fatigue.”
“Why, what’s the matter now?” said the veteran, as he blew a large whiff of smoke from his pipe.
“We have been marching hard,” retorted the young soldier, “for the last week, and almost always on a scanty allowance : to-day we have finished a forced march; and I overheard the colonel tell the captain of our company that we shall have another to-morrow, to bring us up unexpectedly with the enemy, whom we are to attack the moment we overtake them.”
“What!” exclaimed the other, “without giving us a moment to rest our weary limbs?”
“So said the officer,” replied the young man.
“Don’t you believe a word of it,” replied old Firelock : “listen to me. I have heard, the enemy have only a few light pieces of artillery, and no cavalry. What do you suppose our cunning general is going to do with his cavalry and flying artillery, who are many miles ahead of us?”
“Why, they will await us, I suppose,” said the other.
“Not a bit of it,” said the grenadier. “I know the little hero better than you. By this time they have their orders to make a circuitous march, and arrive in the rear of the enemy the day after to-morrow. We shall not be hurried, and shall move only about two thirds of the distance to-morrow, when we shall halt early, get our suppers, a good night’s rest, and, on the morning following, a nourishing cup of chocolate, with an exhilarating glass of brandy. This will be early, say between three and four o’clock in the morning; and then, my young cock, you will be ordered to whet your spurs, and be pushed on, for four hours, with all your speed. About eight o’clock we shall attack the enemy, charge them at the point of the bayonet, route them from their position, and then our flying artillery and cavalry falling on will complete their defeat. I have served many campaigns with this little end of a man: leave me, then, to know how he means to act.”
Napoleon had no intention of employing his flying artillery and cavalry in the manner indicated by the veteran grenadier; but he lost no lime in profiting by his scheme. He dispatched one of his aides-de-camp to give the necessary orders, and followed the soldier’s plan to the letter. The moment this was done, he took the captain of the company with him to the bivouac, and, pointing out the grenadier, obtained his name and term of service : he was a corporal. The marching orders of the next day corresponded exactly with what the grenadier had told his comrades, and they were all astonished at his foresight. In short, they got their night’s rest, the chocolate and the dram, exactly as it had been predicted; and before eight o’clock they were at the enemy’s outposts, whom they soon routed, and drove from the field with great slaughter.
No sooner was the battle ended, than Napoleon sent for the grenadier, who had greatly distinguished himself during the combat. The moment he made his appearance, he embraced him, and presented him with an order and a lieutenant’s commission.
“There,” said he: “I have learnt how much you have distinguished yourself to-day, and congratulate you on your advancement.”
The soldier was overpowered by his unexpected good fortune; but, after a few seconds, made his acknowledgements in such a gentlemanly one that the emperor was delighted with him. On further inquiry, he found he belonged to a very respectable family in reduced circumstances, and that he had received a good education.
“How,” said Napoleon, “did you like my plan to-day?”
“It was admirable,” replied the soldier; “but, to tell you the truth, general, I have served so long under your orders, I almost guessed what you were about.”
Napoleon took him aside, and said, —
“I profited by your advice. I overheard what you said to your comrades, and lost no time in putting your scheme into execution.” Then, grasping his hand, he added, “Keep this to yourself: we must be friends: I shall take care of you.” The man afterwards distinguished himself in several battles, and was finally promoted to the rank of a general.
This anecdote proves the truth of what I had often heard of Napoleon’s character, namely, that he never missed an opportunity of bringing forward men of worth and talents. He was consequently surrounded by officers of genius and merit, who, owing their advancement entirely to him, served him with zeal and fidelity.
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