An Ordinary Soldier’s Account (1806)
The “French” armies included units from many allied states. Excerpted below is the memoir of an ordinary foot soldier in Napoleon’s army. Jakob Walter came from Württemburg, one of the medium-size German states allied with Napoleon. He fought against other German states, in this instance Prussia.
This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.
In the year 1806, I was drafted with many of my comrades into military service was assigned to the regiment of Romig, which afterward was given the name of Franquemont and of Number 4 and which was in the Ludwigsburg garrison. In the fall I traveled with the regiment to Prussia in the campaign which Emperor Napoleon with the princes who were then his allies, was conducting against Prussia. In the fall we marched through Ellwangen, Nuremberg, Ansbach, Bayreuth, Plauen, Dresden in Saxony, then through Bunzlau into Grossglogau in Silesia, where we remained in garrison for about three weeks.
During a period from January to March, I had to go with half of the regiment to accompany several convoys of captured Prussians from Glogau back through Crossen, Frankfurt-on-the-Oder, and Dresden, where we were relieved. We were given good quarters everywhere, which kept me always healthy and cheerful in spite of the continuous marching. Furthermore, I was only nineteen years old, a fact which caused me frequently to participate in thoughtless and dangerous enterprises. . . .
On this journey from Thorn to Colberg I saw a lake which lay in a forest by a monastery. In this lake were multitudes of frogs which were of a very beautiful bright blue color, and no soldier would quit until he had caught one of these beautiful frogs. Beyond this region we came to a little town in which the largest part of the inhabitants were Jews. The same day we had had to walk several miles through swamps and snow water up to our knees; and, when quarters were taken there for the evening, I and four other men came into a Jew's house. The room was full of straw and goats. Since neither fire nor wood was to be had, we went into the next room to lodge, looked for the Jew, and took him into custody; for only by applying such stern treatment could we induce the wife to bring us food on her husband's account.
While we were besieging the fortress of Colberg, we were assigned a camp in a swampy place. Since wood and even straw were rarely to be had, the barracks were built from earth and sod, and ditches were dug around them.
As some sickness was arising because of the continual fog, I also became sick and had to go to the hospital in the fortress of Stettin, which is also a fortress on the sea. When I arrived with several from the regiment, we were placed three bunks high under the roof in the hospital. Here twelve to fifteen of the men about me died every day, which made me sick to my stomach and would have caused my death in the end if I and four comrades had not reported ourselves as being well on the second day and escaped. This hospital and three others, according to rumor, had six thousand sick people; and that was the reason also why everyone with an appetite had to suffer great hunger, which was one of the things that moved me to leave. The third day we five men were allowed to go, and we traveled without delay to our regiment.
When we five men came again without delay to the fortress of Colberg, we had the honor of enduring the siege in good health for another three weeks. Pentecost Night is especially fixed in my memory, since the fortress was stormed then.
When we had to leave camp after midnight, all the regiments marched forward through the swamp; and finally, when light firing began upon the outposts, we were commanded to attack by wading through the rampart ditches and to scramble up the outworks by chopping and shoveling. When I stood in the ditch, each first soldier had to pull up the next one with his rifle. The ramparts were of sand, and everyone frequently fell back again because of the attack of the enemy, or just because of the sliding sand; yet in that place huge cannonballs flew by above us, thundering so violently that we would have believed the earth would burst to pieces. When everyone was almost on top of the earthwork, the Prussians were slaughtered with great vigor, and the rest took flight into the gate. Then we, too, wanted to gain possession of the gateway in order to enter the city, but at this critical time many of these Prussians were shot along with our men by small and large guns, and the gate was closed.
Since all sorts of shells and rockets broke out of the fortress like a cloudburst, we had to take to flight. Those who meanwhile were scrambling up the outworks had to jump from the fortress into the moat along with their prisoners, and all the rest had to do likewise. During this retreat, many fell on bayonets, many drowned, and many of us were also brought into the fortress as prisoners and sent away to Danzig by sea.
When we reached camp, we saw many who had lost their helmet, rifle, saber, knapsack, etc. Because of various falls and pains, many looked for wounds and had none; many, however, did not become aware of the wounds which they had until they reached camp.
In this camp there were Poles, Westphalians, French, and, as mentioned before, only two regiments of us from Württemberg. One morning the Prussians surprised the Polish camp from the sea with their ships, as had happened before at Easter. The cannon fire on the Poles was so heavy that they could not withdraw fast enough. Their cannonballs also traveled more than half again as far toward our camp as our balls did across the water, since the surrounding swamps were frozen and the balls could roll along on the ice so fast that one ball often took off the feet and legs of ten or twelve men, frequently both feet of the same man. During this blockade the Prussians frequently made attacks, although every time with great losses.
Marc Raeff, ed., The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier: Jakob Walter (New York: Doubleday, 1991), pp. 3, 10-13.