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.With thanks to Project Gutenberg for a really good text version of the translation.


Jean-Baptiste-Antoine-Marcelin. Baron de Marbot, (1782-1854).
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This is not a meticulously researched historical document, but the reminiscences of an old soldier, writing of events which took place many years earlier and I suspect that like most of us when we try to recall things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 indistinct.

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 popular rumour.

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 four.

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 long.

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

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Updated: 15th June, 2011.
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