General, later the Baron, Marbot, came from a family which might be
described as landed gentry. His father served in the bodyguard of
Louis XV and later in the Republican army. Marbot himself was a
soldier from the age of 17 and fought in the wars of the Republic and
the campaigns of Napoleon.
His memoirs were written for his family
and his intimate circle, without thought of publication, and it was
not until after his death in 1854 that his family were persuaded to
offer the manuscript to publishers.
This is not a meticulously researched historical document, but the
reminiscences of an old soldier, writing of events which took place
many years earlier and I suspect that like most of us when we try to
recall things that happened forty years ago his memory was a trifle
By far the greater part of his narrative has the ring of truth,
but in my opinion there are places where his imagination has
embroidered the facts. This is particularly so when it comes to some
of his personal adventures. He also,in my view, describes as real,
events in which he did not take part and which may be no more than
It has to be remembered that there were no inquisitive war
correspondents attached to the "Grande Armée" and news was what was
written in Napoleon's bulletins.
As an example of the kind of thing which raises a question in my
mind, in his opening chapter he says that he was a very sturdy infant
and that the only illness he ever suffered from was small-pox. This
does not seem probable; an outbreak of small-pox in the family would
be a disastrous occurrence, it is a disease with a high mortality and
could not be dismissed as a childish complaint.
He also goes on to
describe how his head got stuck in the cat-hole, but in the original
he claims that his face turned blue and that he was being strangled
when his father removed the door from its hinges to extricate him.
Anyone who has attempted to remove a door from its hinges knows that
you cannot do so without opening the door and using at least a
screwdriver. It is also an operation which is difficult to perform
single-handed and with a small child stuck in it even more so. He
says that he was about three or four at the time, and the long-term
memory does not start developing in a child until around the age of
I think it more than likely that that good Baron has a false
recollection derived from being told of these goings on by his mother
and truly believes that he remembers them. A misdiagnosis of
small-pox would not be surprising given the inadequate state of
medical knowledge and practice of the time.
I do not doubt that he ran great danger and was seriously injured
at Eylau, but there are elements in his recital which although they
enhance the drama and would pass muster with the lay reader, are open
to criticism by anyone with a medical training. He says that while he
was attempting to release the "Eagle" from its standard, a bullet
passed through his hat without touching his head. As a result of this
he claims that he found himself paralysed and unable to use his legs
to urge his horse forward, although he remained mentally perfectly
clear. He says that the passage of the bullet close to his head
caused bleeding from his nose and ears and even from his eyes, signs
which a clinician would regard as probably indicating a serious
fracture of the base of the skull.
I am not a neurologist, but I can think of no neurological injury
which would produce the type of paralysis which he describes except a
high lesion of the spinal cord. What is more, within a few moments he
is in the saddle of a galloping horse and I cannot imagine that
anyone suffering from a form of paralysis could remain there for very
The thoughtful reader may also wonder how the soldier who robbed
him as he lay unconscious could suppose that he was dead, an
unconscious person is quite plainly breathing.
Could it be that having been rendered unconscious as a result of
the fall from his horse, he has some degree of retrograde amnesia and
has invented details to fill the gaps in his memory, or could it be
that writing, as he was, for his family and friends, he was indulging
in a little pardonable exaggeration.
In spite of these reservations the story he tells is full of life
and interest, and gives a vivid impression of war as it was fought
then, including all its horrors and disasters.
In this translation I have not deviated from the gist of events,
but I have taken the liberty of making a variety of omissions and
emendations, with the aim of adding credibility to some of the
events, such as those noted above. I have also prefaced some of his
anecdotes, which he retails as fact, with the words "It is believed
that ..." or something to that effect.
The campaigns can be followed by the use of a good atlas, but
unfortunately the many upheavals which Europe has undergone since
those days has resulted in many of the names of places being changed.
The curious reader may well find maps dealing with the Napoleonic
wars in any well stocked public library.
All translation requires some degree of paraphrase. What sounds
well in one language may sound ridiculous if translated literally
into another. I have endeavoured to produce a version of these
memoirs acceptable to the English-speaking reader, whether I have
succeeded or not only the reader can say.
Oliver C. Colt
Researched & Compiled by Way-Mark.