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Napoleon's Nail (Part 3)

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For All Nails #243C: Napoleon's Nail (Part 3)

By Raymond A. Speer


December 12, 1795, Saturday.


The flecks of ice that fell from the sky in drifts stuck to metal and clung to roads as ice. Horses and men walked carefully or fell: I heard the whinny of injured horses as I looked through my telescope to the enemy arriving in two heavy columns from the east.

Field Marshal Beauharnais sent me to the right flank so that my guns might firm up Pichegru's division FN1. As my men pulled and pushed the artillery into position, and their supporting infantry companies moved with them, I saw immediately that the foe was bringing a major blow against our line.

Were those images of the Virgin and child flapping in the cruel wind? I doubt that Protestant Prussians would have such banners -- but the Russians would. Versailles had been confident that Russia would remain neutral while France and Austria consumed Prussia. The experts around the Queen Regent would make excuses for the new Czar's affinity for the Anglo-Prussians. But we soldiers on the spot -- we had to turn them back.

I rode back to where I had left Pichegru, and he and his staff riders were gone. Only the snow churned from their horses' hooves indicated their destination -- away from combat.

I announced that I was taking charge of the right wing in Pichegru's absence. When one lieutenat dashed off to Beauharnais, I ordered Hugo's Regiment to swing wide and attack the oncoming Russians through woods to their left.

"I cannot march infantry through those trees and deliver any sort of concentrated attack in this weather," whined Hugo.

"You're to pin the Russians momentarily, before they get to that farm fence there," I told Hugo pointing to a fence half a mile away. "I'm getting Berlioz and Orgeres to support my men. We'll charge directly ahead a hour from now -- so you have forty-five minutes to get into position for your charge if they're to be simultaneous."

"If there are Russians in those woods?" Hugo began.

"There aren't," I said with a confidence I did not feel. I turned to issue other orders and thankfully Hugo was galloping to his soldiers when I turned around again.

My cannon served us well as the Russians crested the hill. Their columns dissolved and they wandered around just behind the crest, making an impromtu line.

The message from Hoche telling me to withdraw and save my cannon arrived as I gave the order for my men to go forward and attack the Russians. Had they competently sited artillery, or stood firm to give me volley fire -- well, my charge would have been less than fortunate. But as it was we went up the gentle slope of the hill. I was afoot, carrying the Gold and White banner of France.

Two ragged volleys that sailed over our heads and we were on the Russians with bullets and bayonets. The Russian left past the crest of the hill was shrouded in smoke -- fortune had been with Hugo and a good trail through those trees must have been found.

The Russians were in retreat and if I had cavalry or reserves, I could have cut them off and crushed them. But what I had was all of my men in combat and a message from the French left that a British force was rolling up our lines there.

My victory here would be meaningless if all friendly forces to my left were in retreat. I gave orders to continue to press the Russians to the east, and went north in search of Sombreuil, who commanded our center reserve. Forty-five minutes later, I found Sombreuil.

"Redcoat cavalry enveloped our left flank," Sambreuil told me. "The Army is in retreat."

"We need the Army to advance forward to victory," I replied. If he continued to the northwest, his division would hopelessly jam the traffic of the corps that was retreating on our left. "We have pushed back the Russians on the right. The enemy center is going to wait until they see their Russian ally go forward, and if we punch them back now, the day is won."

Bravely or foolishly, Sambreuil turned his division around, and followed my orders. Our men hit overconfident Prussian infantry advancing slowly across level ground. Sambreuil was killed that day, leading his men on horseback, foolishly presenting a target to the Prussian sharpshooters. I was there too, but modestly walked instead of being in the saddle. By nightfall, France was left in possession of the field, and easily two and one half times our losses were inflicted on the foe. The Battle of Dottwald had been won despite the loss of our left flank.


December 21, 1795, Monday.

The message was unequivocal. I was to retreat immediately, abandoning Hanover to the enemy. Dumouriez and Ney to our south had likewise been hit by a Prusso-Russian onslaught and both of those commanders had gone back to the Rhine. Thanks to me, our army alone had kept its conquests, and was now dangerously subject to a riposte into our supply line from the south.

How the Russians could have made it so far to the west without the Austrians noticing their transportation was a mystery. Likewise mysterious was the activity of our Austrian allies -- were they doing nothing or fighting hard in the east? Officers and men of the Army of the Rhine had no knowledge of our ally's recent activity.


January 8, 1796, Friday.

"Your recklessness could have lost us the better part of the Army of the Rhine," Beauharnais complained to me back at Cologne on the River Rhine. "If the enemy had gone north, your fraction of the army would have been defeated in detail."

"If the Army of the Rhine had halted its retreat, and been prepared for enemy incursions from the south," I responded, "we would still hold Hanover, instead of losing the fruits of a whole year's worth of victories in two weeks."

Lazare Hoche shook his head with irritation. "I've had enough of your arrogance, General Bonaparte. You ridicule better officers than yourself because they respond appropriately to emergencies while you risk everything."

"War is risk," I answered. "To avoid risk is to avoid the possibility of winning. You spend so much effort preserving your own forces that the enemy can do as they choose without you interfering with their plans."

The Field Marshal was grim. "Save your rationalizations for Paris, Bonaparte. You are relieved of your duties in the Army of the Rhine and sent back home for interogation at the highest levels."


(Proceed to Napoleon's Nail (Part 4).)


(Return to For All Nails.)

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