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Day of Defeat
There's nothing impossible to him who will try.
Alexander the Great
Outside the village of Lono
The battle was a disaster for the French army under the command of General Dugomier. French battalions, with their banners flying and singing the revolutionary hymn La Marseillaise, were met by six regiments of Austrian General Wilhelm Schroeder. The Austrians allowed the French to get into range of their cannons and muskets while their skirmishers skillfully picked off enemy officers and flag bearers. The French bayonet charge was met with withering fire, but before the thinning French ranks managed to close with the Austrian lines, Austrian heavy cavalry, hidden in the nearby forest, delivered a devastating flanking attack. Austrian hussars attacked the French supply wagons and artillery batteries while heavy cuirassiers moved like a scythe through the French ranks hacking and slicing with their heavy sabers.
Vidocq had never seen such show of force, and despite his training and skill, he nearly succumbed to the primal fear of death that gripped his heart. The surviving French officers tried to organize their men as best as they could into defensive squares to repel the cavalry. But the decimated French ranks were unable to respond in time. Those who did managed to hold off the cuirassiers until the Austrian infantry followed the cavalry attack, driving the French off the field and killing or bayoneting anyone who resisted. Vidocq managed to reload three times before an Austrian horseman nearly ran him over with his horse. The cuirassier would have killed Vidocq if not for the bravery of Dash Pegot, whose musket shot blew the Austrian off his sadde.
"We are retreating!" Pegot shouted over the noise of the battle as he helped Vidocq to his feet. Vidocq nodded, then swore when an Austrian musket volley dropped a dozen French soldiers trying to regroup into a firing line. The Austrian artillery finally went silent, allowing infantry and cavalry to finish the job. A stray bullet knocked off Vidocq's hat, and a second painfully grazed his thigh.
"Move!" he shouted at Pegot as both of them ran toward the reforming French rear ranks. When they reached the line of bloodied grenadiers, they ran straight into Sergeant Deladier. The sergeant looked like he had just returned from hell. His uniform was torn and bloody, his left eye swollen shut, his left arm wrapped in a crude bloody bandage. In his right hand, Deladier held his officer's sword, whose steel was coated in crimson.
"Hold the line!" Deladier bellowed. "Anyone runs away, I will find you in hell and kill you a second time with my bare hands! Shoulder to shoulder, first line kneel, second line aim and fire!" Over a hundred French muskets responded to command, spewing forth fire, smoke, and a deadly storm of lead. Gaps appeared in the first line of the advancing Austrian soldiers but were quickly replaced by fresh enemy musketeers. Vidocq pushed Pegot into line and saw Deladier give him a feral grin.
"You still alive?" Deladier shouted. "I am surprised!"
"Where's Lieutenant Gerard?" Vidocq shouted back.
"Dead," Deladier barked back. "We have lost most of our officers! If we can't stop them here, we are done for! Get in line, and reload your musket!"
Vidocq obeyed but he didn't have the time to reload. An Austrian musket volley tore into the French line, and Sergeant Deladier fell on the ground with a bullet in his chest. Panic seized the remaining men, and before he dropped his rifle and ran, Vidocq saw Pegot clutch at his eye. An Austrian bullet had hit him in the head, tearing off part of his skull. Vidocq ran for dear life as the retreat of the French forces turned into a rout. Explosions, the thundering passage of the heavily armed horsemen, the smoke and screams of the wounded and dying, and the whistle of bullets made Vidocq truly afraid for his life. He did the best he could, and he had fought bravely for the cause he didn't really believe in. Survival instinct overcame any other sense that still remained inside his heart and mind. He dropped his ammunition belt and his cartridge box, along with his soldier's backpack, to put as much distance as he could between himself and the bloody symphony that was approaching its devastating finale.
Many French soldiers tried to find refuge in the forest, while many chose to take the road back to the French border. The village of Lono was set on fire by the Austrian artillery after a stubborn French platoon made their last stand inside the local church and house attics. Vidocq no longer cared about the doomed soldiers and the terrified villagers, who ran from their burning homes, watching everything they owned being consumed by the raging flames. He ran like he never ran before, turning off the main road and heading in a completely opposite direction and toward the Austrian lines. No one would expect a French soldier to run toward the enemy. Soon he was alone and surrounded by centuries-old trees. He ran until he was out of breath, and his feet could no longer support him.
Vidocq slipped on a root and fell but did not bother to get up. He collapsed onto soft green moss that cushioned his fall. He lay there recovering his breath, dimly aware of the distant sounds of the battle that finally ran its course. He lay for nearly an hour until he could no longer hear the sounds of war. When the shock wore off, he felt pain and sat up to examine his injuries. Considering what he just been through, he was lucky indeed. The bullet that scratched his thigh only took some of the cloth and skin with it. He applied a crude bandage around his thigh and found shelter inside a pile of fallen leaves near a thick oak. He managed to sleep for an hour regaining his strength and wondered what to do next.
General Dugomier's forces were in full retreat, and the Austrian patrols were scouting the area for stragglers. The fall nights were growing colder, and Vidocq did not relish the thought of spending a night in the forest. The violence of the battle had opened his eyes to many things, and as he recalled the deaths of Sergeant Deladier and his friend Dash Pegot, he shook his head to clear it from the painful memory. Pegot was a good friend, and he mourned his death far more deeply than Deladier's. A soldier's pay, hot food, and clothes were all good, but he did not intend to dedicate his life to a military career. He had become a soldier by accident, and now he had to decide whether to continue serving France on the field of battle.
He considered his options carefully. Winter was coming, and there would be no military operations conducted in cold weather and deep snow. Logic dictated that both French and Austrian armies would go to their respective winter quarters to resume operations in the spring. As far as anyone was concerned, Vidocq's regiment was destroyed, and he was dead to everyone who knew him. Getting back to the French lines would be hazardous, and who knew what the Austrians would do to him if they caught him? It was important to get away from the war altogether. He would make it to the French border, and once in France he would steal money and clothes, make himself a weapon, and wander the countryside until the war was over. There was another option, of course; join the French army again under an assumed name and then desert to join another regiment. Soldiers who did that were known to make small fortunes, but if they were caught the punishment was swift and merciless.
* * *
He never made it to the French border. An Austrian patrol spotted him as he was about to cross one of the narrow roads leading to the French town of Metz. Four mounted Austrian dragoons galloped toward him, drawing their pistols and surrounding him. He had anticipated such a possibility and prepared a story to go with it. The Austrian horsemen looked well fed and well equipped. Their horses were strong and must have enjoyed a diet of fresh hay every day. The proud postures of the dragoons and their bright new uniforms meant more reserves were joining the enemy formations. These dragoons were young and clean-shaven, but their commander had a gray moustache and deep wrinkles around his eyes. Vidocq judged him to be about forty, and his ramrod-straight back signified a professional military bearing.
"Another French bastard," the Austrian officer said and pointed his pistol at Vidocq.
Vidocq raised both hands and hoped the man would not put a bullet through his heart. He had no weapons on him but that didn't matter. He wore a French uniform coat, and if they shot him no one would care or bother to investigate. He swallowed hard and heard his heart drumming. Damn it, he thought, as he looked into the barrel of the officer's pistol. I survived a bloody massacre only to be shot in the forest like a dog where wild animals will eat my remains and gnaw on my bones!
"Who are you?" the officer demanded.
"I don't understand," Vidocq replied. "I don't speak German."
The officer repeated the question in French but with a heavy German accent.
"My name is Eugene Sans Gene. I am a Belgian forced into the French army. You are not going to believe this, gentlemen, but I am very glad to see you."
His comment produced a crooked grin from the officer and a short laugh from other horsemen. The officer looked down on him from the height of his horse, his pistol still aimed at Vidocq. He examined him from head to toe.
"Belgian? You are far from home, my friend. And why should I spare your miserable life?"
"Gentlemen, I am telling you the truth. I am not a Frenchman, but I have been to France. If you have never been there, you don't know what France has become since they executed their king. When I heard that the king was executed, I could not believe my ears. I was visiting my relatives in France, and these dirty bastards, I mean all that Jacobin scum, turned everything upside down! They execute people on the streets with a guillotine. Do you know what it is? It's a machine that cuts off heads as if they were carrots. They dragged my family to court accusing us of being royalists. And they forced me to join the army. They said either you join the army or we execute your family. I had no choice."
"An interesting story," the officer said. He seemed to consider the information volunteered by this strange captive, and Vidocq noted with relief that the officer's gloved hand lowered the pistol, then returned it to the gun bandolier slung across his chest. He nodded to one of the horsemen.
"Schmidt, tie him up. We will take him with us."
The dragoon swiftly dismounted and approached Vidocq. Before Vidocq could say anything, his hands were tied behind his back with a strong leather thong. The dragoon patted him for any hidden weapons and finding none nodded to his commander.
"No weapons on him, sir."
"Good," the officer replied in German, then addressed Vidocq.
"For your sake, I hope you are telling the truth. But if you are a liar and a spy, we will string you up on a tree to feed the crows. Now march!"
The trip back to the Austrian camp took no more than half an hour, down the road that snaked between the trees and all the way to the battlefield where General Dugomier's forces received a sound trashing by their Austrian enemy. Arriving at the Austrian camp under his vigilant escort, Vidocq was not surprised to see captured French supply wagons lined up in a row and guarded by proud Austrian grenadiers. The camp itself was huge and fortified with fences and bags of sand surrounding powerful cannons that protected it from all sides. Rows of white tents were lined up on the fading green grass, and the smoke from the cooking fires delivered a mouthwatering aroma of wheat porridge and roasting game. The dragoons dismounted and passed Vidocq into the hands of two grenadiers carrying rifles with fixed bayonets. A one-eyed Austrian sergeant, with facial scars that made him look like a scarecrow, walked Vidocq over to a small stone-walled house where he was locked in for the night.
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