Army of France.—Military Display.—Fête of the Trocadero.—Royal Review.
—Royal Ordinance.—Dissatisfaction.—Hostile Demonstration.—Dispersion
of Rioters.—French Cavalry.—Learned Coachman.—Use of Cavalry.—Cavalry
Operations.—The Conscription.—National Defence.—Napoleon's Marshals.
—Marshal Soult—Disaffection of the Army.
To COL. BANKHEAD, U.S. ARTILLERY.
The army of France obtained so high a reputation, during the wars of the revolution and the empire, that you may feel some curiosity to know its actual condition. As the Bourbons understand that they have been restored to the throne, by the great powers of Europe, if not in opposition to the wishes of a majority of Frenchmen, certainly in opposition to the wishes of the active portion of the population, and consequently to that part of the nation which would be most likely to oppose their interests, they have been accused of endeavouring to keep the establishments of France so low as to put her at the mercy of any new combination of the allies. I should think this accusation, in a great degree, certainly unmerited; for France, at this moment, has a large and, so far as I can judge, a well-appointed army, and one that is charged by the liberal party with being a heavy expense to the nation, and that, too, chiefly with the intention of keeping the people in subjection to tyranny. But these contradictions are common in party politics. It is not easy here to get at statistical facts accurately, especially those which are connected with expenditure. Nominally, the army is about 200,000 men, but it is whispered that numerous congés are given, in order to divert the funds that are thus saved to other objects. Admitting all this to be true, and it probably is so in part, I should think France must have fully 150,000 men embodied, without including the National Guards. Paris is pretty well garrisoned, and the casernes in the vicinity of the capital are always occupied. It appears to me there cannot be less than 20,000 men within a day's march of the Tuileries, and there may be half as many more.
[Footnote 8: The sudden disbandment of the guards and other troops in 1830 greatly diminished the actual force of the country.]
Since our arrival there have been several great military displays, and I have made it a point to be present at them all. The first was a petite guerre, on the plains of Issy, or within a mile of the walls of the town. There may have been 15,000 men assembled for the occasion, including troops of all arms.
[Footnote 9: Sham-fight.]
One of the first things that struck me at Paris was the careless militia-like manner in which the French troops marched about the streets. The disorder, irregularity, careless and indifferent style of moving, were all exactly such as I have heard laughed at a thousand times in our own great body of national defenders. But this is only one of many similar instances, in which I have discovered that what has been deemed a peculiarity in ourselves, arising from the institutions perhaps, is a very general quality belonging rather to man than to any particular set of men. Our notions, you will excuse the freedom of the remark, are apt to be a little provincial, and every one knows that fashion, opinions and tastes only become the more exaggerated the farther we remove from the centre of light. In this way, we come to think of things in an exaggerated sense, until, like the boy who is disappointed at finding a king a man, we form notions of life that are anything but natural and true.
I was still so new to all this, however, that I confess I went to the plain of Issy expecting to see a new style of manoeuvring, or, at least, one very different from that which I had so often witnessed at home, nor can I say that in this instance there was so much disappointment. The plan of the day did not embrace two parties, but was merely an attack on an imaginary position, against which the assailants were regularly and scientifically brought up, the victory being a matter of convention. The movements were very beautiful, and were made with astonishing spirit and accuracy. All idea of disorder or the want of regularity was lost here, for entire battalions advanced to the charges without the slightest apparent deviation from perfectly mathematical lines.
When we reached the acclivity that overlooked the field, a new line was forming directly beneath us, it being supposed that the advance of the enemy had already been driven in upon his main body, and the great attack was just on the point of commencing.
A long line of infantry of the French guards formed the centre of the assailants. Several batteries of artillery were at hand, and divers strong columns of horse and foot were held in reserve. A regiment of lancers was on the nearest flank, and another of cuirassiers was stationed at the opposite. All the men of the royal family were in the field, surrounded by a brilliant staff. A gun was fired near them, by way of signal, I suppose, when two brigades of artillery galloped through the intervals of the line, unlimbered, and went to work as if they were in downright earnest. The cannonade continued a short time, when the infantry advanced in line, and delivered its fire by companies, or battalions, I could not discern which, in the smoke. This lasted some ten minutes, when I observed a strong column of troops, dressed in scarlet, moving up with great steadiness and regularity from the rear. These were the Swiss Guards, and there might have been fifteen hundred or two thousand of them. The column divided into two, as it approached the rear of the line, which broke into column in turn, and for a minute there was a confused crowd of red and blue coats, in the smoke, that quite set my nautical instinct at defiance. The cuirassiers chose this moment to make a rapid and menacing movement in advance, but without opening their column, and some of the artillery reappeared and commenced firing at the unoccupied intervals. This lasted a very little while for the Swiss deployed into line like clock-work, and then made a quick charge, with beautiful precision. Halting, they threw in a heavy fire, by battalions; the French guard rallied and formed upon their flanks; the whole reserve came up; the cuirassiers and lancers charged, by turning the position assailed, and for ten or fifteen minutes there was a succession of quick evolutions, which like the finale of a grand piece of music, appeared confused even while it was the most scientific, and then there was a sudden pause. The position, whose centre was a copse, had been carried, and we soon saw the guards formed on the ground that was supposed to have been held by the enemy. The artillery still fired occasionally, as on a retreating foe, and the lancers and cuirassiers were charging and manoeuvring, half a mile farther in advance, as if following up their advantage.
Altogether, this was much the prettiest field exercise I ever witnessed. There was a unity of plan, a perfection of evolution, and a division of matériel about it, that rendered it to my eyes as nearly perfect as might be. The troops were the best of France, and the management of the whole had been confided to some one accustomed to the field. It contained all the poetry, without any of the horrors of a battle. It could not possess the heart-stirring interest of a real conflict, and yet it was not without great excitement.
Some time after the petite guerre of Issy, the capital celebrated the fête of the Trocadero. The Trocadero, you may remember, was the fortress of Cadix, carried by assault, under the order of the Dauphin, in the war of the late Spanish revolution. This government, which has destroyed all the statues of the Emperor, proscribed his family, and obliterated every visible mark of his reign in their power, has had the unaccountable folly of endeavouring to supplant the military glory acquired under Napoleon by that of Louis Antoine, Dauphin of France! A necessary consequence of the attempt, is a concentration of all the military souvenirs of the day in this affair of the Trocadero. Bold as all this will appear to one who has not the advantage of taking a near view of what is going on here, it has even been exceeded, through the abject spirit of subserviency in those who have the care of public instruction, by an attempt to exclude even the name of the Bonaparte from French history. My girls have shown me an abridgment of the history of France, that has been officially prepared for the ordinary schools, in which there is no sort of allusion to him. The wags here say, that a work has been especially prepared for the heir presumptive, however, in which the Emperor is a little better treated; being spoken of as "a certain Marquis de Bonaparte, who commanded the armies of the king."
The mimic attack on the Trocadero, like its great original, was at night. The troops assembled in the Champs de Mars, and the assault was made, across the beautiful bridge of Jena, on a sharp acclivity near Passy, which was the imaginary fortress. The result was a pretty good effect of night-firing, some smoke, not a little noise, with a very pretty movement of masses. I could make nothing of it, of much interest, for the obscurity prevented the eyes from helping the imagination.
Not long since, the king held a great review of regular troops, and of the entire body of the National Guards of Paris and its environs. This review also took place in the Champs de Mars, and it was said that nearly a hundred thousand men were under arms for the occasion. I think there might have been quite seventy thousand. These mere reviews have little interest, the evolutions being limited to marching by regiments on and off the ground. In doing the latter, the troops defile before the king. Previously to this, the royal cortege passed along the several lines, receiving the usual honours.
On this occasion the Dauphine and the Duchesse de Berri followed the king in open carriages, accompanied by the little Duc de Bordeaux and his sister. I happened to be at an angle of the field as the royal party, surrounded by a showy group of marshals and generals, passed, and when there seemed to be a little confusion. As a matter of course, the cry of "Vive le roi!" had passed along with the procession; for, popular or not, it is always easy for a sovereign to procure this sign of affection, or for others to procure it for him. You will readily understand that employés of the government are especially directed to betray the proper enthusiasm on such occasions. There was however, a cry at this corner of the area that did not seem so unequivocally loyal, and, on inquiry, I was told that some of the National Guards had cried "A bas les ministres!" The affair passed off without much notice, however; and I believe it was generally forgotten by the population within an hour. The desire to get rid of M. de Villèle and his set was so general in Paris, that most people considered the interruption quite as a matter of course.
The next day the capital was electrified by a royal ordinance, disbanding all the National Guards of Paris! A more infatuated, or, if it were intended to punish the disaffected, a more unjust decree, could not easily have been issued. It was telling the great majority of the very class which forms the true force of every government that their rulers could not confide in them. As confidence, by awakening pride, begets a spirit in favour of those who depend on it, so does obvious distrust engender disaffection. But the certainty that Louis XVI. lost his throne and his life for the want of decision, has created one of those sweeping opinions here of the virtue of energy, that constantly leads the rulers into false measures. An act that might have restrained the France of 1792, would be certain to throw the France of 1827 into open revolt. The present generation of Frenchmen, in a political sense, have little in common with even the French of 1814, and measures must be suited to the times in which we live. As well might one think of using the birch on the man, that had been found profitable with the boy, as to suppose these people can be treated like their ancestors.
As might have been expected, a deep, and what is likely to prove a lasting discontent, has been the consequence of the blunder. It is pretended that the shopkeepers of Paris are glad to be rid of the trouble of occasionally mounting guard, and that the affair will be forgotten in a short time. All this may be true enough, in part, and it would also be true in the whole, were there not a press to keep disaffection alive, and to inflame the feelings of those who have been treated so cavalierly; for he knows little of human nature who does not understand that, while bodies of men commit flagrant wrongs without the responsibility being kept in view by their individual members, an affront to the whole is pretty certain to be received as an affront to each of those who make an integral part.
The immediate demonstrations of dissatisfaction have not amounted to much, though the law and medical students paraded the streets, and shouted beneath the windows of the ministers the very cry that gave rise to the disbandment of the guards. But, if no other consequence has followed this exercise of arbitrary power, I, at least, have learned how to disperse a crowd. As you may have occasion some days, in your military capacity, to perform this unpleasant duty, it may be worth while to give you a hint concerning the modus operandi.
Happening to pass through the Place Vendôme, I found the foot of the celebrated column which stands directly in the centre of the square surrounded by several hundred students. They were clustered together like bees, close to the iron railing which encloses the base of the pillar, or around an area of some fifty or sixty feet square. From time to time they raised a shout, evidently directed against the ministers, of whom one resided at no great distance from the column. As the hotel of the État-Major of Paris is in this square, and there is always a post at it, it soon became apparent there was no intention quietly to submit to this insult. I was attracted by a demonstration on the part of the corps de garde, and, taking a station at no greet distance from the students, I awaited the issue.
The guard, some thirty foot soldiers, came swiftly out of the court of the hotel, and drew up in a line before its gate. This happened as I reached their own side of the square, which I had just crossed. Presently, a party of fifteen or twenty gendarmes à cheval came up, and wheeled into line. The students raised another shout, as it might be, in defiance. The infantry shouldered arms, and, filing off singly, headed by an officer, they marched in what we call Indian file, towards the crowd. All this was done in the most quiet manner possible, but promptly, and with an air of great decision and determination. On reaching the crowd, they penetrated it, in the same order, quite up to the railing. Nothing was said, nor was anything done; for it would have been going farther than the students were prepared to proceed, had they attempted to seize and disarm the soldiers. This appeared to be understood, and, instead of wasting the moments and exasperating his enemies by a parley, the officer, as has just been said, went directly through them until he reached the railing. Once there, he began to encircle it, followed in the same order by his men. The first turn loosened the crowd, necessarily, and then I observed that the muskets, which hitherto had been kept at a "carry," were inclined a little outwards. Two turns enabled the men to throw their pieces to a charge, and, by this time, they had opened their order so far as to occupy the four sides of the area. Facing outwards, they advanced very slowly, but giving time for the crowd to recede. This manoeuvre rendered the throng less and less dense, when, watching their time, the mounted gendarmes rode into it in a body, and, making a circuit, on a trot, without the line of infantry, they got the mass so loosened and scattered, that, unarmed as the students were, had they been disposed to resist, they would now have been completely at the mercy of the troops. Every step that was gained of course weakened the crowd, and, in ten minutes, the square was empty; some being driven out of it in one direction, and some in another, without a blow being struck, or even an angry word used. The force of the old saying, "that the king's name is a tower of strength," or, the law being on the side of the troops, probably was of some avail; but a mob of fiery young Frenchmen is not too apt to look at the law with reverence.
I stood near the hotels, but still in the square, when a gendarme, sweeping his sabre as one would use a stick in driving sheep, came near me. He told me to go away. I smiled, and said I was a stranger, who was looking at the scene purely from curiosity. "I see you are, sir," he answered, "but you had better fall back into the Rue de la Paix." We exchanged friendly nods, and I did as he told me, without further hesitation. In truth, there remained no more to be seen.
Certainly, nothing could have been done in better temper, more effectually, nor more steadily, than this dispersion of the students. There is no want of spirit in these young men, you must know, but the reverse is rather the case. The troops were under fifty in number, and the mob was between six hundred and a thousand, resolute, active, sturdy young fellows, who had plenty of fight in them, but who wanted the unity of purpose that a single leader can give to soldiers. I thought this little campaign of the column of the Place Vendôme quite as good, in its way, as the petite guerre of the plains of Issy.
I do not know whether you have fallen into the same error as myself in relation to the comparative merits of the cavalry of this part of the world, though I think it is one common to most Americans. From the excellence of their horses, as well as from that general deference for the character and prowess of the nation which exists at home, I had been led to believe that the superior qualities of the British cavalry were admitted in Europe. This is anything but true; military men, so far as I can learn, giving the palm to the Austrian artillery, the British infantry, and the French cavalry. The Russians are said to be generally good for the purposes of defence, and in the same degree deficient for those of attack. Some shrewd observers, however, think the Prussian army, once more, the best in Europe.
The French cavalry is usually mounted on small, clumsy, but sturdy beasts, that do not show a particle of blood. Their movement is awkward, and their powers, for a short effort, certainly are very much inferior to those of either England or America. Their superiority must consist in their powers of endurance; for the blooded animal soon falls off, on scanty fare and bad grooming. I have heard the moral qualities of the men given as a reason why the French cavalry should be superior to that of England. The system of conscription secures to an army the best materials, while that of enlistment necessarily includes the worst. In this fact is to be found the real moral superiority of the French and Prussian armies. Here, service, even in the ranks, is deemed honourable; whereas with us, or in England, it would be certain degradation to a man of the smallest pretension to enlist as a soldier, except in moments that made stronger appeals than usual to patriotism. In short, it is primâ facie evidence of a degraded condition for a man to carry a musket in a regular battalion. Not so here. I have frequently seen common soldiers copying in the gallery of the Louvre, or otherwise engaged in examining works of science or of taste; not ignorantly, and with vulgar wonder, but like men who had been regularly instructed. I have been told that a work on artillery practice lately appeared in France, which excited so much surprise by its cleverness, that an inquiry was set on foot for its author. He was found seated in a cabriolet in the streets, his vocation being that of a driver. What renders his knowledge more surprising is the fact, that the man was never a soldier at all; but, having a great deal of leisure, while waiting for his fares, he had turned his attention to this subject, and had obtained all he knew by means of books. Nothing is more common than to see the drivers of cabriolets and fiacres reading in their seats; and I have even seen market-women, under their umbrellas, à la Robinson, with books in their hands. You are not, however, to be misled by these facts, which merely show the influence of the peculiar literature of the country, so attractive and amusing; for a very great majority of the French can neither read nor write. It is only in the north that such things are seen at all, except among the soldiers, and a large proportion of even the French army are entirely without schooling.
To return to the cavalry, I have heard the superiority of the French ascribed also to their dexterity in the use of the sabre, or, as it is termed here, l'arme blanche. After all, this is rather a poetical conclusion; for charges of cavalry rarely result in regular hand-to-hand conflicts. Like the bayonet, the sabre is seldom used except on an unresisting enemy. Still, the consciousness of such a manual superiority might induce a squadron less expert to wheel away, or to break, without waiting for orders.
I have made the acquaintance, here, of an old English general, who has passed all his life in the dragoons, and who commanded brigades of cavalry in Spain and at Waterloo. As he is a sensible old man, of great frankness and simplicity of character, perfect good breeding and good nature, and moreover, so far as I can discover, absolutely without prejudice against America, he has quite won my heart, and I have availed myself of his kindness to see a good deal of him. We walk together frequently, and chat of all things in heaven and earth, just as they come uppermost. The other day I asked him to explain the details of a charge of his own particular arm to me, of which I confessed a proper ignorance. "This is soon done," said the old gentleman, taking my arm with a sort of sly humour, as if he were about to relate something facetious: "against foot, a charge is a menace; if they break, we profit by it; if they stand, we get out of the scrape as well as we can. When foot are in disorder, cavalry does the most, and it is always active in securing a victory, usually taking most of the prisoners. But as against cavalry, there is much misconception. When two regiments assault each other, it is in compact line—" "How," I interrupted him, "do not you open, so as to leave room to swing a sabre?" "Not at all. The theory is knee to knee; but this is easier said than done, in actual service. I will suppose an unsuccessful charge. We start, knee to knee, on a trot. This loosens the ranks, and, as we increase the speed, they become still looser. We are under the fire of artillery, or, perhaps, of infantry, all the time, and the enemy won't run. At this moment, a clever officer will command a retreat to be sounded. If he should not, some officer is opportunely killed, or some leading man loses command of his horse, which is wounded and wheels, the squadron follows, and we get away as well as we can. The enemy follows, and if he catches us, we are cut up. Other charges do occur; but this is the common history of cavalry against cavalry, and, in unsuccessful attacks of cavalry, against infantry too. A knowledge of the use of the sword is necessary; for did your enemy believe you ignorant of it, he would not fly; but the weapon itself is rarely used on such occasions. Very few men are slain in their ranks by the bayonet or the sabre."
I was once told, though not directly by an officer, that the English dragoon neglected his horse in the field, selling the provender for liquor, and that, as a consequence, the corps became inefficient; whereas the French dragoon, being usually a sober man, was less exposed to this temptation. This may, or may not, be true; but drunkenness is now quite common in the French army, though I think much less so in the cavalry than in the foot. The former are generally selected with some care, and the common regiments of the line, as a matter of course, receive the refuse of the conscription.
This conscription is after all, extremely oppressive and unjust, though it has the appearance of an equal tax. Napoleon had made it so unpopular, by the inordinate nature of his demands for men, that Louis XVIII. caused an article to be inserted in the charter, by which it was to be altogether abolished. But a law being necessary to carry out this constitutional provision, the clause remains a perfect dead letter, it being no uncommon thing for the law to be stronger than the constitution even in America, and quite a common thing here. I will give you an instance of the injustice of the system. An old servant of mine has been drafted for the cavalry. I paid this man seven hundred francs a year, gave him coffee, butter, and wine, with his food, and he fell heir to a good portion of my old clothes. The other day he came to see me, and I inquired into his present situation. His arms and clothes were found him. He got neither coffee, wine, nor butter; and his other food, as a matter of course, was much inferior to that he had been accustomed to receive with me. His pay, after deducting the necessary demands on it in the shape of regular contributions, amounts to about two sous a day, instead of the two francs he got in my service.
Now, necessity, in such matters, is clearly the primary law. If a country cannot exist without a large standing army, and the men are not to be had by voluntary enlistments, a draft is probably the wisest and best regulation for its security. But, taking this principle as the basis of the national defence, a just and a paternal government would occupy itself in equalizing the effects of the burden, as far as circumstances would in any manner admit. The most obvious and efficient means would be by raising the rate of pay to the level, at least, of a scale that should admit of substitutes being obtained at reasonable rates. This is done with us, where a soldier receives a full ration, all his clothes, and sixty dollars a year. It is true, that this would make an army very costly, and, to bear the charge, it might be necessary to curtail some of the useless magnificence and prodigality of the other branches of the government; and herein is just the point of difference between the expenditures of America and those of France. It must be remembered, too, that a really free government, by enlisting the popular feeling in its behalf through its justice, escapes all the charges that are incident to the necessity of maintaining power by force, wanting soldiers for its enemies without, and not for its enemies within. We have no need of a large standing army, on account of our geographical position, it is true; but had we the government of France, we should not find that our geographical position exempted us from the charge.
[Footnote 10: He now receives seventy-two.]
You have heard a great deal of the celebrated soldiers who surrounded Napoleon, and whose names have become almost as familiar to us as his own. I do not find that the French consider the marshals men of singular talents. Most of them reached their high stations on account of their cleverness in some particular branch of their duties, and by their strong devotion, in the earlier parts of their career, to their master. Maréchal Soult has a reputation for skill in managing the civil detail of service. As a soldier, he is also distinguished for manoeuvring in the face of his enemy, and under fire. Some such excitement appears necessary to arouse his dormant talents. Suchet is said to have had capacity; but, I think, to Massena, and to the present King of Sweden, the French usually yield the palm in this respect. Davoust was a man of terrible military energy, and suited to certain circumstances, but scarcely a man of talents. It was to him Napoleon said, "remember, you have but a single friend in France—myself; take care you do not lose him." Lannes seems to have stood better than most of them as a soldier, and Macdonald as a man. But, on the whole, I think it quite apparent there was scarcely one among them all calculated to have carried out a very high fortune for himself, without the aid of the directing genius of his master. Many of them had ambition enough for anything; but it was an ambition stimulated by example, rather than by a consciousness of superiority.
In nothing have I been more disappointed than in the appearance of these men. There is more or less of character about the exterior and physiognomy of them all, it is true; but scarcely one has what we are accustomed to think the carriage of a soldier. It may be known to you that Moreau had very little of this, and really one is apt to fancy he can see the civic origin in nearly all of them. While the common French soldiers have a good deal of military coquetry, the higher officers appear to be nearly destitute of it. Maréchal Molitor is a fine man; Maréchal Marmont, neat, compact, and soldierly-looking; Maréchal Mortier, a grenadier without grace; Maréchal Oudinot, much the same; and so on to the end of the chapter. Lamarque is a little swarthy man, with good features and a keen eye; but he is military in neither carriage nor mien.
Crossing the Pont Royal, shortly after my arrival, in company with a friend, the latter pointed out to me a stranger, on the opposite side-walk, and desired me to guess who and what he might be. The subject of my examination was a compact, solidly-built man, with a plodding rustic air, and who walked a little lame. After looking at him a minute, I guessed he was some substantial grazier, who had come to Paris on business connected with the supplies of the town. My friend laughed, and told me it was Marshal Soult. To my inexperienced eye, he had not a bit of the exterior of a soldier, and was as unlike the engravings we see of the French heroes as possible. But here, art is art; and like the man who was accused of betraying another into a profitless speculation by drawing streams on his map, when the land was without any, and who defended himself by declaring no one ever saw a map without streams, the French artists appear to think every one should be represented in his ideal character, let him be as bourgeois as he may in truth. I have seen Marshal Soult in company, and his face has much character. The head is good, and the eye searching, the whole physiognomy possessing those latent fires that one would be apt to think would require the noise and excitement of a battle to awaken. La Fayette looks more like an old soldier than any of them. Gérard, however, is both a handsome man and of a military mien.
Now and then we see a vieux moustache in the guards; but, on the whole, I have been much surprised at finding how completely the army of this country is composed of young soldiers. The campaigns of Russia, of 1813, 1814, and of 1815, left few besides conscripts beneath the eagles of Napoleon. My old servant Charles tells me that the guardhouse is obliged to listen to tales of the campaign of Spain, and of the Trocadero!
The army of France is understood to be very generally disaffected. The restoration has introduced into it, in the capacity of general officers, many who followed the fortunes of the Bourbons into exile, and some, I believe, who actually fought against this country in the ranks of her enemies. This may be, in some measure, necessary, but it is singularly unfortunate.
I have been told, on good authority, that, since the restoration of 1815, several occasions have occurred, when the court thought itself menaced with a revolution. On all these occasions the army, as a matter of course, has been looked to with hope or with distrust. Investigation is said to have always discovered so bad a spirit, that little reliance is placed on its support.
The traditions of the service are all against the Bourbons. It is true, that very few of the men who fought at Marengo and Austerlitz still remain; but then the recollection of their deeds forms the great delight of most Frenchmen. There is but one power that can counteract this feeling, and it is the power of money. By throwing itself into the arms of the industrious classes, the court might possibly obtain an ally, sufficiently strong to quell the martial spirit of the nation; but, so far from pursuing such a policy, it has all the commercial and manufacturing interests marshalled against it, because it wishes to return to the bon vieux tems of the old system.
After all, I much question if any government in France will have the army cordially with it, that does not find it better employment than mock-fights on the plain of Issy, and night attacks on the mimic Trocadero.