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 2.

The French Revolution - 1787-1799.
While my childhood was rolling by peacefully, the storm of revolution which had been growling in the distance, drew ever nearer, and it was not long before it broke. We were in 1789.

The assembly of the States General stirred up all manner of passions, destroyed the tranquillity enjoyed by the province in which we lived and introduced divisions into all families, particularly into ours; for my father, who for a long time had railed against the abuses to which France was subjected, accepted, in principle, the improvements which were mooted, without foreseeing the atrocities to which these changes were going to lead; while his three brothers-in-law and all his friends rejected any innovation.

This gave rise to animated discussions, of which I understood nothing, but which distressed me because I saw my mother in tears as she tried to keep the peace between her brothers and her husband. For my part, although I did not understand what was going on, I naturally took sides with my father.

The Constituent Assembly had revoked all feudal rents. My father possessed some of these which his father had purchased. He was the first to conform to the law. The peasantry who had been waiting to make up their minds until my father gave them a lead, refused to continue paying these rents once they knew what he had done.

Shortly after this, France having been divided into departments, my father was named administrator for the Corrèze and then a member of the Legislative Assembly.

My mother's three brothers, and nearly all the nobility of the county had hurriedly emigrated. War seemed to be imminent, so, to persuade all citizens to take up arms, and also, perhaps, to find out up to what point they could count on the populace, the government arranged for the rumour to be spread throughout all the communes of France, that the "Brigands" led by the émigrés, were coming to destroy all the new institutions.

The tocsin was rung by all the churches; everyone armed themselves with whatever they could lay hands upon; a National Guard was organised; the country turned into an armed camp while it waited for these imaginary "Brigands" who, in every commune, were said to be in the one next door. Nothing ever appeared, but the effect remained: France found herself in arms and had shown that she was prepared to defend herself.

We children were then alone in the country with our mother. This alert, which was called "The day of fear" surprised me and would probably have alarmed me, had I not seen my mother remain so calm. I have always thought that my father had discreetly warned her of what was about to happen.

All went well at first, without any excess on the part of the peasants, who, in our part of the country, retained much respect for the ancient families; but soon, stirred up by demagogues from the towns, the country-dwellers invaded the houses of the nobles, under the pretext of looking for hidden émigrés, but in fact to exact money and to seize the title deeds of feudal rents, which they burned in a big bonfire.

From the height of our terrace, we saw these ruffians, torches in their hands, running towards the Château d'Estresse, from which all the men had emigrated and which was occupied only by women. These were my mother's best friends, and so she was greatly upset by this spectacle. Her anxiety was redoubled by the arrival of her own aged mother, who had been driven out of her château, which was declared national property because of the emigration of her three sons !

Up until then, my father's property had been respected; largely because his patriotism was known, and because, to give further proof of it, he had taken service in the army of the Pyrenees as captain in the Chasseurs des Montagnes, at the end of his term in the legislative assembly.

But the revolutionary torrent swept over everyone; the house at St. Céré, which my father had bought ten years before, was confiscated and declared national property because the deed of sale had been signed privately and the seller had emigrated before ratifying the deal before a notary. My mother was given a few days to remove her linen, then the house was put up for auction and was bought by the president of the district who had himself arranged for its confiscation !

At last, the peasants, stirred up by some agitators from Beaulieu, came in a body to my father's château and insisted, though with some politeness, that they had to burn the deeds of feudal rents which we still had, and make sure that émigrés were not concealed in the château.

My mother received them with fortitude, handed over the deeds and pointed out to them that, knowing her brothers to be sensible people, they should not suppose that they would emigrate only then to come back to France and hide in her château.

They accepted the correctness of this line of reasoning, ate and drank and having burned the deeds in the centre of the courtyard, they left without doing any further damage, shouting "Long live France and citizen Marbot !" And charging my mother to write to him to say that they liked him very much and that his family was quite safe among them.

In spite of this assurance, my mother felt that her position as the sister of émigrés might expose her to a great deal of unpleasantness from which even her position as the wife of a defender of the country would not protect her. She decided to go away for the time being. She told me later that she took this step because she was convinced that the revolutionary storm would last only for some months. There were many people who thought this !

My grandmother had had seven brothers, all of whom, as was usual in the Verdal family had been soldiers and knights of St. Louis. One of them, a former battalion commander in the infantry regiment of Penthièvre, had married, on retirement, the rich widow of counsellor of the parliament of Rennes.

My mother decided to go and stay with her and was counting on taking me with her, when I was smitten by a number of large and very painful boils. It was impossible to travel with a child of eight in such a state, and my mother was in great perplexity. She was extricated by a worthy lady, Mlle. Mongalvi, who was much devoted to her and whose memory will always be dear to me. Mlle.

Mongalvi lived at Turenne and ran boarding establishment for young ladies of which my mother had been one of the first occupants. She offered to take me into her house for the few months of my mother's absence. My father's agreement having been obtained, I left and was installed there. "What !" you may say, "A boy amongst young ladies?" Well yes, but do not forget that I was a quiet, peaceable, obedient child, and I was only eight years old.

The boarders who stayed with Mlle. Mongalvi, where my mother had once been one of them, were young persons of some sixteen to twenty years of age; the youngest being at least fourteen, and were sensible enough to let me mingle with them.

On my arrival, all this little feminine flock gathered about me and received me with such cries of pleasure and warm caresses that, from the first instant, I thought myself lucky to have made this trip. I figured that it would not last long and I believe that, secretly, I even regretted that I would have only a short time to spend with these nice young ladies, who did everything to please me and argued as to who was to hold my hand.

However, my mother left and went to stay with my uncle. Events moved forward rapidly. The terror bathed France in blood. Civil war broke, out in the Vendée and in Brittany. Travel there became absolutely impossible, so that my mother, who had thought to spend two or three months at Rennes, found herself stuck there for several years.

My father continued on active service in the Pyrenees and in Spain, where his ability and courage had raised him to the rank of divisional general; while I, having gone as a boarder for a few months, stayed for some four years, which were for me years of much happiness, clouded only, from time to time, by the memory of my parents; but the good Mlles. Mongalvi and their boarders would then redouble their kindness, to dispel those thoughts which now and then saddened me.

I was spoiled beyond belief by the mistresses and the boarders; I had only to wish for something to obtain it. There was nothing too good or too fine for me. My health recovered completely. I was clean and fresh, so they vied with one another to cuddle me. During recreation, which took place in a vast enclosure, where there was a fine garden, with paddocks, vines and arbours, the young ladies would crown me and garland me with flowers, then placing me on a little litter covered with roses, they would take it in turns to carry me while they sang.

At other times I would play prisoners base with them, having the privilege of always catching but never being caught. They would read stories to me and sing songs. They competed to do something for me.

I recall, that on hearing of the horrible execution of Louis XVI, Mlle. Mongalvi had all the boarders on their knees, to recite prayers for the repose of the soul of the unfortunate king. The indiscretion of any one of us could have brought down disaster on her head, but all the pupils were of an age to understand, and I felt that it was something I should not talk about; so no one knew anything about it. I stayed in this pleasant retreat until November 1793.

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Researched & Compiled by Way-Mark.

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Updated: 15th June, 2011.
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