It is 1807, late spring. The fields are green with new wheat and the first crop of hay is already in the mows. Cattle are fattening nicely, and the new foals are starting to gambol about in the great estates of Poland. However, war is afoot. Napoleon and his legions of veteran French troops are driving into the heart of Poland and the Tsar’s armies seem unable to even slow them down. On a prominent hill near the manor od Count Politnotski and the market village of Snotaratnik, the Seventh Corps of Count Raevsky, tired from marching and short on rations, has set up a defensive perimeter. Generals Vandamme and Gerard, with the French III and IV Corps respectively swing in a wide arc to snap up this juicy target. But Hetman Platov spies out the advance and Baron Scherbatov and his reinforced Third Corps marches hard to his fellow’s aid.
While Vandamme deploys carefully and Raevsky waits his doom with classical Russian patience, Gerard and the cavalry corps of Milhaud find that instead of sweeping in and engulfing the hopeless Raevsky they are faced with the hard-marching Cuirassier of Von Pahlen and the infantry of Scherbatov.
Vandamme, faced by only two sotnias of Cossacks on the plain (there was no chance Raevsky would detach a single jager from the hilltop), deployed casually and the Hetman pounced. 3rd Sotnia struck two batteries as they approached. The guns, stunned by the audacity of the irregulars, failed to unlimber before being overrun. The Cossacks cut the traces, lanced man and horse, destroying half of Vandamme’s artillery in a single strike. Maurin’s light cavalry brigade failed to react in time, the brigadier having called his colonels to a council of war.
A Russian horse battery, commanded by Captain Rashashellsky, dashed out with the Cossacks and confronted Vandamme’s entire corps of infantry, alone. An aide from General Paskevitch raced out and recalled the gunner after he had fired a few rounds into the leftmost French regiment.
His honor smeared Maurin now launches his brigade at a gallop into the offending plainsmen. Perhaps it is the elan of a French sabre-wielder with his honor on the line, perhaps only an irregular’s desire to avoid personal unpleasantness, but the sotnia is forced back with over a hundred lancers deciding they needed to be somewhere else.
On the other side of the field Gerard and Milhaud, unimpressed with Scherbatov, boldly sidestep across the Russian’s front to press forward in their planned attack on Raevsky. Vandamme now has his infantry in motion toward the hill as well.
The battle is now joined in earnest. Milhaud throws Berruyer’s light cavalry brigade at the massed Russian 12-pounders at the point of the hill. The cavalry general knows if he can sabre the guns there will be nothing to stop his cuirassiers from decimating, if not annihilating, the Russian infantry. However, the Russian gunners are up to the task. Their rapid and accurate canister blasts empty hundreds of saddles and Berruyer, struck by three balls himself, is forced to retreat.
Maurin, his blood now fully up, leads his brigade with a flourish into the Hetman himself and the 4th Sotnia. Perhaps because they were under the eye of the great man himself, these raiders and plunderers retain their cohesion and only give way a short distance before reforming, glaring at the French horsemen over the snorting snouts of their mounts.
On the far Russian left, the Kurland Dragoons do their best to keep Gerard’s interest away from the hill. They engage Domon’s light cavalry and manage to push them back and overrun a horse battery. Gerard, knowing a gnat when he sees one, ignores the turn of his right.
Von Pahlen sees his opportunity, launching four regiments of cuirassier over the wreckage of Berruyer’s brigade. They strike a weak screen of horse artillery and brush it aside though Astrakhan does take a measured dose of double canister that carries away a chef d’escadron, a major, and the first trumpeter. However, Gerard’s leftmost regiment, the famous 57th Ligne, having been campaigning since Napoleon was in Italy, formed square and Farine’s brigade of cuirassier rushed forward and Von Pahlen recoiled. The heavies found themselves in the same situation as Platov and Maurin!
Vandamme, while the cavalry thundered to and fro, marched steadily forward, his serried ranks glinting in the sun as the drums beat the cadence. Raevsky, fearing the veteran infantry most of all, stands like the rocks from which his infantry are descended, and braces for the inevitable impact.
Now we come to the great climax, the point at which the fate of the day hangs, the coup de main.
Vandamme launches his infantry forward, up the slopes of the hill and into the waiting muskets and bayonets of the stoic peasant infantry. Rome’s brigade, Schaeffer’s brigade, and Capitaine’s brigade in a wave, forward for France, forward for l’Empereur! Rome is up amongst the guns that did so much damage to Berruyer, this canister not so devastating, perhaps aimed more for a saddled armored cavalryman than a sweating, crouching, grognard. He is through! At the jager, boys! But the jagers have seen the elephant too and they have not raced up a hill and bayonetted and clubbed their way through a hail of grape. Rome’s men recede, like the wave they were, back down the hill.
Schaeffer never makes it up, rolling volleys of musketry and the determined point of a battalion bayonet charge force him, too, to recede like a wave upon the sands. But Capitaine, yes Capitaine sweeps forward and takes the volley but presses on. Here it is French bayonets that are sharper and Russians who stumble back. But it is a lonely triumph and the 47th Jager levels its muskets for the next round.
Milhaud too launches a final push. All eyes are on Farine’s brigade of veteran cuirassiers. Over the debris of previous struggles, broken caissons, dismounted guns, broken horses, and bloodied comrades, they surge. They first meet the survivors of Astrakhan and push them aside to crash headlong into the Military Order Regiment. Here, under the hot Polish sun, they duel like the champions of Greek mythology, hacking, slashing, twisting, turning, neither giving nor expecting quarter. In the end, they separate, as if by mutual exhaustion, each having lost half their number, staring numbly at the destruction they had wrought.
Gerard, assessing the situation critically, issues the order to withdraw. Raevsky will live another day. Vandamme will curse the Cossacks at the campfire this evening. Honors of audacity and valor to General de Brigade Farine and his troopers, and to the 57th Ligne, to the Military Order and to Hetman Platov.
Diatribes are simply often humorous recountings of the games played by the Long Island Irregulars. We play with toy soldiers and are unabashedly happy to have never lost this part of our childhoods..