Sunday, 10 May 2015

10 May: Antoine-Charles-Louis de Lasalle (1775-1809)

Lasalle's last charge, by Edouard Detaille.
Lasalle (Antoine-Charles-Louis, Count), born on 10 May 1775 in Metz, where his father served as a commissaire-ordonnateur des guerres, entered the Alsace regiment — then led by Prince Maximilien, the current King of Bavaria — with a commissioned rank. His birth privileges had opened the door to a military career; the Revolution opened him the door of glory. Renouncing the epaulettes that he had had no time to earn, he enlisted as a private in the 23rd regiment of horse chasseurs, and he learnt obedience in order to be able to command. The young Lasalle soon fulfilled the hopes that sprang from such honourable beginnings. As a fourier in the Army of the North, he captured a cannon battery at the head of a small platoon. The commander-in-chief rewarded this feat with the offer of a commission; Lasalle did not believe he had done enough to deserve this promotion, thus he refused and went on to earn it. He was nineteen years old and already a veteran by the time he accepted the honour and responsibilities of a rank that he had already held eight years earlier. Several feats in the first Italian campaign drew his chiefs’ and the whole army’s eyes to him. Once, among other things, he attacked and routed 100 Austrian hussars with only 18 men. Carried away by his ardour, he found himself alone, surrounded by four enemy soldiers; he fought and wounded them, then he ran to the banks of the Bachiglione, swam to the other side and reunited with his detachment. At the battle of Rivoli, in a bout of boldness that would prove decisive, he took a plateau overlooking the plain and came back with his arms full of enemy flags. Rest on these flags, Lasalle, you have deserved them, said the commander-in-chief. Later, he entered Valrozone at the head of 16 guides, attacked an enemy squadron garrisoned there and chased them beyond the Tagliamento, forcing them to cross it again. The boundaries of this article are much too small to relate all of Lasalle’s feats of bravery during this campaign. He was then a squadron leader. However, we will note that his frankness and presence of mind were equal to his courage. He was briefly a prisoner in Wurmser’s hands; “How old is Bonaparte?” the Austrian asked. “As old as Scipio was when he defeated Hannibal”, the young Frenchman replied. After the Italian campaign, Lasalle went to Egypt along with this army of citizens marching under French flags to restore the Roman eagle at the foot of the Pyramids. “Soldiers, from atop these monuments, 40 centuries are watching you,” the victor of Italy exclaimed, and soon Egypt was conquered. These electric words set every heart aflame. The success of the battle of the Pyramids was crucial and remained long uncertain. Desaix and Reynier’s divisions, which made up the army’s right wing, took position between Giza and Embabeh. From the moment Murad-Bey spotted this move, he sent an elite corps to charge them; but a hail of shot and shell greeted them at 50 paces, forcing them to retreat hastily towards a village behind the division’s lines. In a skilful move, Lasalle had taken this village; he surprised the Mameluks with a fusillade that sealed their defeat and the French victory. Lasalle was made a colonel after this fight. At Salahyeh, the last village in Egypt before the Syrian border, Lasalle dropped his sabre as he charged with the 22nd Chasseurs; but with remarkable skill and sangfroid, he managed to pick it back up and fought hand-to-hand with one of the most intrepid Mameluks. Salahyeh was the first battle that the French cavalry fought alone against the Mameluks, with no infantry support. At the fights of Souagy, in Upper Egypt, Soheidja and Rahtah, Lasalle, leading the vanguard of General Davout’s cavalry, performed brilliant charges and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. At the battle of Samhoud, Lasalle was still at the vanguard. At Thebes, he charged the Mameluks and routed them after a long melee, where his sabre was broken to the hilt. Desaix’s and Bonaparte’s praise was the reward for his bravery: it is difficult to obtain greater tokens of military glory. At the fight of Thémé, Lasalle led a column made of the 22nd Chasseurs, one battalion of the 88th Line and one cannon. He sent his infantry to attack the Arabs entrenched in Thémé, drove them out from their position after a long resistance and cut them to pieces at the head of his cavalry, placed between the village and the Desert. Lasalle and his regiment kept following every move of General Davout’s cavalry corps; and he soon faced Murad-Bey, whom he drove back towards the Oases. Back in Cairo, the 22nd Chasseurs was placed in Belbeis. Colonel Lasalle commanded a camp gathering infantry and cavalry. He was tasked with maintaining peace in the country, sending reconnaissance parties to Suez, then occupied by a French garrison and threatened by the enemy, and lastly, ensuring communications between Salahyeh and Cairo. Having left Egypt after General Desaix and the Turkish plenipotentiaries signed the convention of El-Arich, Lasalle came back to reap more glory in Italy. On 27 Nivôse Year IX, he had three horses killed under him and broke seven sabres in a melee. A brigade general after Austerlitz, he soon earned a reputation in higher commands that never stopped growing along with his military fortune. On 29 October 1806, at the head of two cavalry regiments, he attacked the fortified town of Stettin and captured it. A garrison of 6,000 men, 100 cannons and a considerable amount of supplies fell into his hands. Such feats, so close and yet so distant from us, would seem incredible if not for the defeated parties’ testimony. At the battle of Heilsberg, Lasalle fought with his usual intrepidity. Twelve Russian dragoons surrounded the Grand Duke of Berg and future King of Naples. Lasalle rode to save him, killed the officer leading the detachment and sent the eleven dragoons fleeing. He could hardly imagine that a few years later, this warrior who seemed invulnerable on the battlefield would die like a criminal by Calabrian fire. Anyway, when Lasalle found himself in an equally perilous situation a few hours later, the Grand Duke rode to free his saviour and said as they shook hands: General, we are even. An Imperial order of the day mentions Lasalle, who became a divisional general in this campaign, as being one of those who contributed the most to the capture of several generals, among them Prince Hohenlohe, Prince August of Prussia and Prince Schwerin, and of 16,000 infantrymen, 6 cavalry regiments, 45 flags and 64 cannons. Throughout this glorious campaign, Lasalle led the vanguard, and the intrepid divisions that followed him spared no effort in facing every danger and participating in every victory. Among a thousand feats that we could quote, there is this one: one morning, Lasalle fought the Prussians under the walls of Königsberg, drove them into the city, reached Friedland in the evening and distinguished himself, on the same day, on two battlefields more than 14 leagues apart. Lasalle’s brilliant career continued in Spain. Sent by the Duke of Istria to crush the uprisings of Leon and Asturias with 800 cavalrymen and 6,000 infantrymen, he attacked a Spanish army numbering 27,000 men in Torquemada, captured all of its artillery, and sent it fleeing in the mountains; but not content with merely winning, he could exploit his victories. Giving chase to the Spaniards, he reached them in Cabeson, between Valladolid and Palencia, winning another battle near this town, defended by a river and a numerous garrison. Valladolid and Palencia fell to him. Lasalle, now master of the country he had just conquered, proved to be as talented in administration as he was in war; and to earn the love of those he defeated was like a second triumph. Meanwhile, Cuesta and Blake gathered an army of 40,000 men; the Duke of Istria, with 12,000 Frenchmen, attacked them in Medina-del-Rio-Seco. The fight was bitter and uncertain; Lasalle charged at the head of the 10th and 22nd Chasseurs; the Spanish line broke, leaving 6,000 men on the battlefield, and the French were victorious. A few days after this fight, Lasalle, already decorated with numerous orders, received the Grand Cordon of the Legion of Honour. The army had to move backwards towards Victoria; Lasalle, commanding the rear-guard, held the enemy off with his well-advised and skilful manoeuvres. When Napoleon’s presence turned the tables, Lasalle forced his way into Burgos with his two regiments; an enemy division had found shelter there, and lost 17 flags and 12 cannons to Lasalle. At Villaviejo, 17 cannons and 4 flags were the spoils of another engagement. At Medellin, Lasalle, followed by the 4th Cuirassiers, broke through the enemy ranks; it is mostly to him that France owes the honour of this memorable fight. Having been recalled to Germany at the time of the glorious campaign of 1809, he added new titles to his reputation every day. At the head of two divisions, he marched on Presburg, pushed his outposts as far as Altemburg, besieged Raab, and thanks to him, this key stronghold was soon in French hands. Lasalle, a cavalry officer, had proven able to lead a corps as soon as his rank put him in line for higher commands; at the siege of Rabb, he proved that he was not ignorant of Coehorn and Vauban’s art. We owe him the bridges and the breastworks that have so greatly contributed to the surrender of this place. Lasalle fought in Essling with his usual boldness and luck; Wagram was to be the last theatre of his feats. At barely thirty-four, his active years, with campaign years counting double, far exceeded his age; his reputation was made at a time many others only began to build theirs, and it seemed that his services would soon be rewarded with the same baton as Fabert’s, a distant relative of his; but a bullet to the forehead ended his brilliant career just as the battle of Wagram was being won. This news cast the whole army into deep mourning, and even the enemy honoured his memory; but Lasalle, whose whole life was a model of bravery and honour, is not as unlucky now as many of those who outlived him. He expired on the evening of a battle, amidst the triumphs of his homeland and on a field of victory. Lasalle had a citizen’s soul in addition to a soldier’s heart; he loved the emperor, but he idolised the homeland. A kind man as well as a brave one, he only had enemies on the battlefield and quickly won over even those who feared him. He was not made for life in society; he preferred private life, where he had the gift of always being amiable. Full of noble selflessness, he had no fortune beyond the endowments he had received from the emperor. A good father, a good husband, a good friend, he was no less mourned as a private man than as a famous person. The city of Metz is proud of having seen his birth; a street was given his name, and his portrait hangs in the audience room of the town hall. In that, he was luckier than the ex-Republican general who was fatally struck by a cannonball in Dresden, among the ranks of the enemies of France, and whose statue was refused by the city of Rennes in 1818. Lasalle had earned his soldiers’ love; he sustained their courage and shared their miseries. In the African desert, he would refuse his share of water and distribute it among his soldiers. The grievously wounded Colonel d’Estrées was being carried by Arabs through the desert; Lasalle, his close friend, did not want to leave him alone and escorted him. He walked away for a moment, looking for water. The Arabs, thinking that he was gone for good, started to bury the dying man. They ran away when Lasalle came back; but he chased them, brought them back one after the other, held them in check on his own, despite their number, and saved his friend. In an odd twist of the human heart, Lasalle and d’Estrées were inseparable and drew their swords ten times a day against each other; they could not love each other without fighting. Lasalle left behind three adopted sons, born from his wife’s first marriage with Léopold Berthier, and a lovely daughter, who has inherited one of the finest names consecrated by the annals of our national glory.

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