Fire & Retire !

First hand accounts from
the Napoleonic Wars.

French Cavalry Sword.
The Memoirs of General the Baron de Marbot.
Translated by Oliver C. Colt.

Volume 1.
Chapter 1.

The Château de Larivière as it is today.
I was born on the 18th August 1782 at my father's Château of Larivière, in the beautiful valley of Beaulieu, on the borders of Limousin and Quercy - now the department of Corrèze - where my father owned a considerable property.

The family of Marbot was of noble origin, although for a long time they had not preceded their name by any title. To use a then current expression, they lived nobly, that is to say on the income from their estates, without engaging in any form of employment. They were allied to and joined in the society of several of the important families of the district.

I mention this because, at a time when the nobility were so haughty and powerful, it shows that the family had a social position of considerable standing.

My father was born in 1753. He had a rather fiery temperament, but he was so good-hearted that, after a first outburst, he always sought to make one forget any hasty words which he might have uttered. He was a fine figure of a man, very tall and well built, with handsome, manly features.

My grandfather had become a widower when my father was still at school. His house was run by one of his elderly cousins, the oldest of the demoiselles Oudinet of Beaulieu. She gave unstinting care to my grandfather, who, having become almost blind as a result of a flash of lightning, which had struck near him, no longer went out of his manor.

Thus my father, when he reached manhood, faced by an infirm old man and an aunt devoted to his least wishes, could have played fast and loose with the family fortune. He did not, however, abuse his position, but as he had a great fancy for a military career, he accepted a proposal which was made to him by colonel the Marquis d'Estresse, a neighbour and close friend of the family, which was to have him enrolled in the bodyguard of the king, Louis XV.

Being under the auspices of the Marquis d'Estresse, he was received in a number of houses; notably that of lieutenant-general the Comte de Schomberg, the inspector-general of cavalry, who, recognising my father's worth, had him posted to his regiment of dragoons as captain, and took him as his aide-de-camp.

On the death of my grandfather my father was still unmarried, and his fortune, as well as his place in the Royal Bodyguard, put him in a position to choose a wife, without the likelihood of being refused.

There lived at that time, in the Château de Laval de Cère, about a league from Larivière, a family of noble rank but without much money, named de Certain. The head of this house was stricken by gout and so his affairs were managed by Madame de Certain, an admirable woman, who came from the noble family of de Verdal, who claim to have Saint Roch amongst the kinsfolk of their ancestors on the distaff side, a Verdal, so they say, having married a sister of the Saint at Montpellier.

I do not know how much truth there is in this claim, but before the Revolution of 1789, there was, at the gateway of the old château of Gruniac, owned by the de Verdals, a stone bench, which was greatly venerated by the inhabitants of the nearby mountains, because, according to tradition, St. Roch, when he came to visit his sister, used to sit on this bench, from where one can view the countryside, which one cannot do from the château, which is a sort of fortress of the gloomiest kind.

The de Certains had three sons and a daughter, and as was the custom at that time they added to their family name that of some estate. Thus the eldest son was given the name Canrobert: this eldest son was, at the time of which I write, Chevalier de St. Louis and a captain in the infantry regiment of Penthièvre; the second son who was called de L'Isle was a lieutenant in the same regiment; the third son, who had the surname La Coste served, like my father, in the Royal Bodyguard; the daughter was called Mlle. Du Puy,and she was my mother.

My father became a close friend of M. Certain de La Coste, and it would have been difficult to do otherwise, for quite apart from the three months which they spent in quarters at Versailles during their period of duty, the journeys which they made together, twice a year, were bound to make a bond between them.

At that time public coaches were very few in number, dirty, uncomfortable, and travelled by very short stages; also it was considered not at all fashionable to ride in them. So, gentry who were old or in poor health travelled by carriage, while the young and officers in the armed forces went on horseback.

There was an established custom among the Bodyguard, which today would seem most peculiar. As these gentlemen did only three months on duty, and as in consequence the corps was split into four almost equal sections, those of them who lived in Brittany, the Auvergne, Limousin and other parts of the country where there were good small horses had bought a number of these at a price not exceeding 100 francs, which included the saddle and bridle. On a fixed day all the Bodyguards from the same province, who were called to go and take up their duties, would meet, on horseback, at an agreed spot and the cheerful caravanserai would take the road for Versailles.

They made twelve to fifteen leagues each day, sure of finding every evening, at an agreed and reasonable price, a good lodging and a good supper at the inns previously arranged as stopping places. They went happily on their way, talking, singing, putting up with bad weather or heat as they did with accidents and laughing at the stories which all, in turn, had to tell as they rode along.

The group grew in size by the arrival of Bodyguards from the provinces through which they passed until, at last, the various parties arrived from all parts of France to enter Versailles on the day on which their leave expired, and, in consequence, at the moment of departure of those guards whom they had come to relieve. Then each of these latter bought one of the ponies brought by the new arrivals, for which they paid 100 francs, and forming fresh groups they took to the road for their paternal châteaux, where they turned the horses out to grass for nine months, until they were taken back to Versailles and handed over to other comrades-in-arms.

My father, then, was a close friend of M. Certain de La Coste, who shared the same quarters and belonged, like him, to the company de Noailles. On their return to the country they saw much of each other, and he made the acquaintance of Mlle. Du Puy. Mlle. Du Puy was pretty and high spirited, and although she would have little in the way of dowry, and although several rich matches were offered to my father, he preferred Mlle. Du Puy, and he married her in 1776.

We were four brothers: the eldest Adolphe, myself the second, Théodore the third and Félix the last. There was a gap of about two years between our ages.

I was very sturdy and suffered only some minor illnesses, but when I was about three, I had an accident which I can still remember.

Because I had a rather turned-up nose and a round face, my father called me "pussy-cat". It needed no more than this to give a small child the desire to imitate a cat; so it was my greatest pleasure to go about on all fours, mewing. I was also in the habit of going up to the second floor of the château to join my father in a library, where he spent the hottest hours of the day. When he heard the "miaow" of his little cat, he came and opened the door and gave me a picture-book to look at while he continued his reading.

These little sessions gave me infinite pleasure. One day, however, my visit was not so well received as usual. My father, perhaps absorbed in his book, did not open the door for his little cat. In vain, I redoubled my "miaows" in the most appealing tone which I could produce. The door remained closed. Then I saw, at floor level, an opening called a cat-hole, which is present in all the châteaux of the Midi, at the bottom of the doors, to allow cats free access.

This route seemed, naturally, to be for me: I put my head through, but that was as far as I could go. I then tried to withdraw my head, but my head was stuck and I could go neither forward nor back, but I was so much identified with my role as a cat that instead of speaking, to let my father know my predicament, I "miaowed" at the top of my voice, like a cat that is angry, and it appears that I did so in such a natural tone that my father thought that I was playing, but suddenly the "miaows" became weaker, and turned into crying and you may imagine my father's concern when he realised what had happened. It was only with great difficulty that I was freed and carried, half unconscious, to my mother, who thinking I was injured was much distressed.

A surgeon was sent for, who proceeded to bleed me, and the sight of my own blood and the crowd of all the inhabitants of the château, gathered about my mother and me, made such a vivid impression on my young imagination that the event has remained for ever fixed in my memory.

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Researched & Compiled by Way-Mark.

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Updated: 15th June, 2011.
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