Monday, 29 February 2016

III. For the fallen

( 9 April. ) – I had heard about the bridge of Kell, and I could not imagine its beauty: it has thirty arches, on a length of a hundred and eighty toises, and I was told that it can be disassembled and replaced in one or two days. It is admirably large, regular, solid and elegant. A nice bridgehead is being built to defend it; the fortifications are at an advanced stage already. Sixty unfortunate deserters and réfractaires sentenced to the ball and chain, tied two by two at the neck and belt, are forced to drain the water from the foundations of the fort that is being built. When I approached them, they were slowly working to turn the hydraulic chainwheels; but as soon as they saw embroideries on my coat, they redoubled their efforts in order to prove their zeal to the one they mistook for a general. I gave them some money while their foreman was otherwise occupied, which sustained their activity. The gendarmes guarding them told me that they hoped many of them would be pardoned if the Emperor visited the works1.
The emotion I had felt when I visited Marshal de Saxe’s mausoleum did not change anything to the feelings that took hold of me when I saw the tomb of General Desaix, which is found near the road from Strasbourg to Kell. A colossal Greek sword and helmet lay on a square-shaped cenotaph made of local pink stone. Four bas-reliefs represent Desaix’s defence of the bridge of Kell, the battle of Cairo and that of Marengo, where he died. His portrait in a medallion and the emblems of victory make up the front bas-relief; but nothing is written on his tomb... What a great and beautiful idea! The hero’s last abode must be known to all those who know anything of glory. If the Abbé de M... was here, he would say in his usual bourgeois fashion: Good wine needs no bush. A few paces behind the tomb, surrounded by a small grove, there is a single-storied house, adorned with columns, probably that of the monument’s caretaker... This tomb must give such ideas to the soldiers who will carry our flags to the heart of Germany! … The memory of Desaix’s feats... his ashes put at our borders2, the honours given to his bravery... the gigantic proportion of his glory!!!....
On the bridge of Kell, I met a military surgeon who was quite busy looking at a town some distance below the bridge. I asked him this town’s name.
“It is Diersheim,” he said, “the place where Moreau crossed the river. I was then serving with General Duhesme’s corps. This brave officer went first; having reached the opposite bank, he was attacked by an Austrian regiment just as he put some troops in line to defend the bridgehead. Duhesme beat the charge; his drummer fell dead; he grabbed the drum, hit it with his sword’s pommel and marched ahead of his soldiers, shouting: Children! draw your bayonets! This fine action sealed the victory.”
Before leaving for Donawert, the Emperor reviewed the troops that had been coming in for a few days; they paraded in the courtyard of the palace. His Majesty was at the foot of the steps. When the first corps of grenadiers marched past him, he halted them, gave the soldiers a few encouraging words, and affectionately put his hand on the oldest grenadier’s cheek. This caress was noticed and quoted, and it fired up the troops’ enthusiasm. They are yearning for a fight. A single gesture from a great man is often more influential than the most eloquent speech.
A rumour has spread through the headquarters, that I have trouble believing. They say that after a secret conference, the commanders-in-chief gathered in the Emperor’s house just as he was about to leave, and that they bluntly declared that they would only follow him in this campaign if he shared all the profits with them; that until then, the honours and the majorats they had received had added nothing to their happiness, since they were always in the camps, always under fire, with no time to enjoy the rewards for their feats; that in consequence, they would only fight if they were certain that the end of the campaign would earn them high ranks, considerable wealth and time to rest. They add that the Emperor embraced them and promised them everything... This deal is not French. Such vileness is not in our generals’ character, such weakness is not in Napoleon’s... Videbimus infra.
10 April. – Few cities are as hospitable as Strasbourg. If the inhabitants were not divided in three groups by their religious beliefs, their company would be even more pleasant; but the sects somewhat cool the discussions; however, one cannot help but admire the Lutherans’ reserve and the Calvinists’ tolerance, just like one always acknowledges the Catholics’ honeyed hypocrisy. The priests are not held in very high regard in the towns; they cause much harm in the countryside. I toured the churches on Sunday; I found them filled with as many men as they are with women in Paris; this rather surprised me.
The city is badly lit, badly paved, badly cleaned; most of the streets lack an indication of their name. There are few paupers in Strasbourg: the inhabitants have earned so much since the prohibition of English goods that everyone lives at their ease. At least half of the town dabbles in contraband. Almost all the merchants have their own carriage. More than one girl will have a million francs in dowry, whereas she could not have hoped for ten thousand francs six years ago.
13 April. – They say that the Austrians have crossed the Inn and attacked our outposts, who repelled them with losses. So the war has begun! We3 were ordered to go wait the Emperor in the capital of Wurtemberg. – Our army is marching towards Ratisbon.

1This hope came true.
2Desaix does not rest in that tomb. His remains were taken to the hospice of Saint-Bernard. The Emperor ordered a white marble mausoleum to be raised in the church’s choir. It depicts the general breathing his last in the arms of Colonel Le Brun, his aide-de-camp. These two figures are finely drawn and have a handsome expression. But a hussar holding Desaix’s mount has his back turned and looks like he does not belong in this scene. Nothing in this monument recalls Desaix’s brilliant campaign in Egypt, which had earned him the nickname of the just Sultan from the Arabs.
It is quite natural that a great man should have several monuments to his name; but why several cenotaphs? His mortal remains could only be put in a single tomb. The others are lies that denature history.
3The imperial ambulance.

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