sabre sabre

A Cuirassier for Napoleon

A miniseries for the NWC Newsletter

By Lt. Col. Judson M. Titchen
IVème Corps de Réserve de Cavalerie
Armée du Rhin

Installment One:
The Sergeant and the Lieutenant

Cuirasse and Helmet

3:00 PM, the afternoon of 1 December 1805, somewhere to the west of the town of Austerlitz, and not too far from a peculiar hilly terrain feature the old-timers had nicknamed "The Santon". The air is cold and crisp. Now and again, a shout can be heard, or a burst of laughter; a single shot in the distance. A senior sergeant of French Cuirassiers stands at attention in front of his unit's formation, and salutes a young lieutenant, announcing to the officer that his unit is prepared for inspection. The lieutenant returns the salute, and the two proceed to inspect the soldiers, their weapons, equipment and horses for battle readiness.

French Cuirassiers at Austerlitz, by Meissonier

The two move slowly through the ranks, carefully inspecting everything from the fit of a shoulder belt, to the polished surface of each saber blade and cuirass, to the hooves of the horses. In truth, the inspection is more a confidence ritual for the men, and a lesson in leadership for the young officer, than anything else. The sergeant is fully aware of the readiness of his men, and had inspected and made his own corrections the day before – ensuring all was complete before the lieutenant's arrival. Sloppy maintenance and indifferent turnout were, at the least, a bad omen – often they were the death warrant for any group of men who permitted them. The senior sergeant had seen it all too many times, as had the other sergeants in the unit. The remains of this cuirassier squadron, the cadre who would train a new influx of recruits which arrived after the pursuit past Vienna, were survivors. They were soldiers who had been lucky enough to survive and learn from the fatal mistakes of others, or those who were smart enough to listen to the wisdom of experience and follow its example.

The unit had a sort of unofficial reputation amongst the rank and file troopers. The sergeants were all professional soldiers, who lived for the military life, the action, the campaigning – they would have been as a fish out of water in any other life. Somehow the reputation of this senior sergeant had grown – not so much as a hero, though tales of some of his exploits did circulate – but as a professional. In appearance, he looked the part of a hundred other sergeants – tall, dark hair, large features, mustachioed, well-cut. Those who were introduced to him were surprised by his calm demeanor and quiet nature – the least perceptive could at first mistake this for timidity. The eyes were intelligent, and sometimes betrayed the emotions his face was adept at hiding – satisfaction with a brave trooper; a world-weary "here we go again" while listening to the ramblings of an incompetent officer; the sadness he felt when things went bad in a fight and he lost some of his men. He had an air about him – a look he could focus on another man – which he himself was not even aware of. This air, this look seemed to say, "We have a certain way of doing things here – will you fit in?" Gradually, certain sergeants and troopers began to gravitate to the unit, one by one – and certain others, who seemed to better enjoy other pursuits, found a way to move elsewhere. To attempt to deliberately arrange this sort of a grouping, of men of like mind, had been almost always futile – in this case it had happened quite on its own. It had started with the senior sergeant, and had taken on a life of its own as others came. Such a situation was rare. It was in some ways incredibly strong, and yet in other ways it was very fragile. The senior sergeant watched the lieutenant as they inspected the men together. While he gained confidence from the aura of readiness which radiated from the men, he wondered about the young officer. What is this young man made of? Why is he here? He has only joined us a few days ago. Is he the one-in-a-hundred that understands men, that can understand our ways? Or will he be like so many others, and squander us through incompetence or his own self- interest? I must sound him out now. He is so young – but he has the look of intelligence, of perception, in his eyes. Perhaps we are in luck.

Yes, by now these thoughts would make anyone who could hear them aware that this senior sergeant was a very different sort of man. He had the knowledge of men, of leadership and combat, gained through experience, which would have enabled him to become a fine officer in his own right. Indeed, he had been offered a commission by Marshal Murat, in person. He had considered silently for a few moments, and then answered. "Sir, if you please, I politely decline your offer. May it not be seen as a sign of disrespect to you, but I feel I can best serve France in my current capacity, Sir." And the Marshal, recognizing as he did the subtle power this man had over others, felt disappointment at the loss of the chance to see him influence a larger number of men with his ways. But Murat too understood the fragility of this power – he wielded a variation of it himself, in his own way, in his own sphere - and knew that the man must decide for himself.

No, the sergeant would remain as he was. Beneath all the other reasons he voiced to others, down deep inside, he preferred what he was doing now to anything else. Compared to this, neither a lofty rank, nor the rewards of power and money had any particular allure for him. He had thought on that conversation with Murat many times. And, finally, he had been able to put more accurate words to the feelings. The importance of a man is not his rank, or status, or wealth, but what he is inside, what he does. Where he is happy – what he does best. For the sergeant, the unit was his home. The men were his children. He was doing what he did best.

And, he felt, he was one half of a whole. The other half was a young officer.

So many sergeants held disdain for officers – any officer. Enough of them were politically appointed, showing little if any military knowledge, consumed with self-interest, self-importance, or willing to spend lives for their own advancement, to cause some soldiers to suppose that all were this way. All it took was once to see the effects of such "leaders", to turn some men away forever. But the senior sergeant kept perspective. He knew that most officers, if not a Lannes, a Davout, a Murat, were at least competent – and worthy of respect.

And, there were a few who were again different somehow, special in a way that it was hard to find words to describe.

He looked for these special ones, the few who could be like a Captain he had known, killed at Marengo leading the late-day charge against the flank of the Austrian advance guard there. What was it about the man? His uniform was immaculate, even flashy - decked out with the trappings of his rank and the awards he had won – but the appearance was not one of vanity. He made no effort to demonstrate it, but all could see that the officer was a top horseman and cavalryman, an example for the soldiers. He did not seem to have to demand attention – his orders were brief, clear, and easily understood. Most importantly, the words always seemed to reflect that the officer had a solid grasp of the real situation, and that he knew a way to proceed that would accomplish the mission while losing as few men as possible. The sergeants were under no illusions – they knew that the officer's first priority was the accomplishment of the mission, and they knew that that goal would usually cost lives. But this officer – the men somehow knew that he would never give an order that he would not himself carry out. He would not spend their lives cheaply – they sensed that he believed in them, trusted them with his life too, and that each one of their lives was just as important as his own. So, in the crucial moments when the men all stood at the ready, mounted, in formation, and in position - while the battle raged, when the fear was worst; when they waited motionless, and felt that in the inactivity they each had lost complete control over their own destinies - they would glance at the officer, and derive some comfort from his facial expression. Strangely, though they could see the intensity on his face too, they perceived, from his eyes somehow, that he was still in control of himself and the situation – knew what to do – and, though their fear was just as strong, each seemed to know again, or to believe, that he would get them through. At that moment, they somehow each willingly gave their lives, their futures, to him, for safekeeping. And, suddenly, an aide-de-camp rode up to the captain – a few brief words exchanged – the AdC rode off at a gallop. The captain gave his orders to the lieutenants, but all could clearly hear - "This is our moment – the enemy flank – they do not know we are here – we must break them – EN AVANT! AT THEM!" The buglers sounded the charge – and the spell was broken. With motion, each man regained personal control, put aside the fear. Within the fight, each man's life was again his own, dependent upon skill with horse and saber. The objective was clear. And the captain was in the front, setting the pace. From a walk to a trot. They emerged, in formation, over the crest of a hillock. Close enough now to see the faces of the enemy infantry. And as their heads turned, one could see the unmistakable fear in their eyes – the charge was a surprise. The enemy officer turned, spotted them too, and could be seen shouting and gesticulating frantically, ordering his men to form square. The enemy soldiers glanced at their officer – could see with a glance that he knew it was too late – and they panicked, suddenly breaking formation, and tried to get away somehow. The captain turned to his men, waved his saber, shouted something – the words lost in the rush, and the noise of combat – but the men understood, spurred their horses, and charged.

The senior sergeant returned from memory to the present. The inspection finished, the sergeant and officer return to the head of the formation. An exchange of salutes -

"Sergeant Rainier, the unit is clearly completely ready for action. I strongly commend you and the men on your fine work. I must go now to receive the formal orders for the morrow. Please see to the feeding of the men, and preparation for the evening rest. Cooking fires are permitted until sundown. Upon my return, I will summon you for a conference."
"At your orders, Sir!"
Another exchange of salutes, and the formation is dismissed.

The captain had been the unit's only casualty in the charge. Somehow, in the chaos of the melee, no one had seen it happen. Only after they had completely driven through the mass of panicked infantry, and finished their work, did they ride back and find his body.

It was not until days later that the men heard the situation of the army, and realized that the name "Marengo" would have a place in history. Years from that day, the men – the survivors on both sides - would not remember the name so much for a victory or a defeat. The recollections would be intense, and very personal. They would be kept inside, and shared, if at all, only with other soldiers, or with a special young son or grandson who begged to hear more about the wars, and spent all his time learning to ride a donkey or to fence with a wooden saber.

The battle on the morrow would be the first action for the lieutenant. He had been assigned to the unit only a week before, to replace a lieutenant killed in the fighting outside Vienna. As he rode to the orders meeting, his mind was racing with a thousand different thoughts, his heart pounding. I have spent my whole life preparing for this – what will it be like?


He reflected back on his life, and how he had arrived at this point. For as far back as he could recall, he had wanted to be in the Army. He had always played at soldier, and when he was a child had, without his mother's knowing, often sneaked over to Monsieur Nivelle's house to have cookies, to hear the old man's stories, and, if he were very good, to see the well-worn musket and saber the man had somehow kept for his own, from his war. Now a graduate of the Ecole Militaire and recipient of cavalry training, he had received his first posting. I've had luck to have more preparation than most. Yet . . . . He was going through what all soldiers who have not seen their first action go through. It was not that he was afraid of dying – he realized it was possible, but was in fact too inexperienced to realize how likely it actually was that he would be killed or wounded. His real fear was of not measuring up, somehow, to something – his own expectations?

No man knows when the critical moment will come. It may never come. When it does, it is always an overwhelming surprise. A moment when, - suddenly - everyone is waiting for an answer, the right answer, from you. And there is no time – the answer, the right one, must be there. Or, a moment when the enemy is upon you, before you know it, his saber pointed at your heart, the cold stare in his eyes. Will I have the answer on my lips? Will I make a mistake? When we meet, who will already be dead, and who will live? Strange – it is so close now, and yet everything seems so calm. His thoughts were interrupted as the horse came to a halt, seemingly on its own, in front of General Hautpoul's tent. Most of the division's officers were already there, quietly conversing, making notes on hastily-drawn maps, enjoying a smoke, while waiting for the briefing to start.

He dismounted, and looked around, but saw no one he recognized. Just as he had turned to check his horse, a gloved hand fell on his shoulder. He turned quickly, surprised, and recognized the face of his captain.

"Lieutenant Gιrard! It is good that you are on time. Have you seen any of the other lieutenants?"
"No, mon Capitaine."
"Very well – I'm off to see if I can round them up. Let us meet over there" – he indicated a spot – "when the briefing begins. As for yourself, how do you feel? Are you ready for the morrow? We have had time to discuss how will operate, and to do some training and rehearsals together. Do you have any questions?"
A thousand – but none that you can answer, Sir. "No, mon Capitaine. I feel fit and ready. I have inspected my unit this afternoon, and feel certain we are prepared. I will spend more time this evening with Sergeant Rainier."
"Excellent. Your tasks now are as follows: Carefully listen to the operations order tonight, and understand it fully. That way, if we should be separated tomorrow, you can understand the overall plan, and, if necessary, act independently with confidence. Maintain your men in a state of readiness tonight – they must eat well and rest well, but you must be ready to move immediately when required. Finally, of course, is our operation tomorrow. Whatever happens, maintain control of your unit, and act in accordance with my orders. Stay close, and remember how we have trained. Understood?"
"Yes, Sir!"

At that moment, General Hautpoul, the division commander, emerged from his tent with his aides. The officers gathered, and the orders briefing commenced. For the lieutenant, everything suddenly seemed to be moving too quickly. The words came fast - familiar words, but, somehow, in the atmosphere of stress it was more difficult to gather it all in.

Suddenly, a realization came. He began to understand a little more about everything then. If this is how I feel, now, even before combat, I must make absolutely sure that the orders I issue to my men are clear and easily understood. I must find ways to ensure they are so, for my men. This is something I must do well.

He began to feel better, a little more confident. The briefing went on: "Heavy cavalry . . . operational reserve . . . as the battle develops, move to the area of decision . . . remain out of sight . . . no dispersal of effort . . . critical moment . . . ." And another wave of emotion swept over him – a rush of adrenaline, as the words of the orders that were being issued were transformed by his mind into visualizations of their execution. And other realizations came to him.

"Surprise achieved . . . enemy in disorder . . . decisive . . . break . . . pursuit . . . ." More thoughts, more realizations. The enemy should be, could be, every bit as prepared as we. Are we overconfident? Even to a newcomer to war, logic dictates that both armies are composed of men – capable of the same bravery, subject to the same failings and foibles. What, then, really are the deciding factors? "If attack fails, recover . . . counterattack . . . rearguard . . . foil pursuit, cover retreat . . . ."

"Gentlemen, what are your questions?" And the briefing was over. The lieutenant felt exhausted. Everything was so familiar, and yet was so new, so intense. The officers began to disperse, to mount and ride back to their units.

"Lieutenant, what are your questions?" His captain looked into his eyes. I know how he feels – he seems to be handling it well. Good.
"I have none, sir. I am ready to take the orders to the men."
"Very well! Check in with me one more time this evening, before you turn in. Dismissed!"

The captain watched him as he mounted and rode off. A brief moment of feeling, of empathy – and he closed the feeling off. He looks alright now, but of course I'll have to watch him. If he can make it through tomorrow alive, and not do anything foolish, we may make something of him.
Next Installment Entitled: Evening before Austerlitz

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