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Wolf Hunt-Armand Cabasson.

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embers? Officers were giving signals to the survivors of Aspern to hasten their retreat.

      ‘I agree, let’s get on with it,’ fumed Lefine. ‘You don’t just hang about waiting to be killed, that makes no sense.’

      They barely had time to get into line formation. A general - was it Molitor? No, it was another general whom Margont did not know — drew his sword and pointed it at Aspern’s steeple, which was still standing but riddled with holes made by round shot, its roof caved in and smoking, a laughable spike.

      ‘Advance!’

      This counterattack, led by the Carra Saint-Cyr Division (which had just got across the river before the collapse of the bridge) and by the remains of the Legrand Division, was effective. The French drove back the white coats or trapped them in the gutted houses. The Austrians took their revenge by counterattacking in turn.

      Finally the sky began to darken. No reinforcements had arrived, but night would bring relief- surely the fighting was not going to continue in darkness? The French were now losing house after house. On the Danube, the repaired bridge, repeatedly damaged by the skiffs the Austrians sent downriver, collapsed once again, hurling the troops of the 2nd Regiment of Cuirassiers into the brine where they sank like stones.

      Finally the intensity of combat diminished. Margont, overjoyed at having survived, walked towards Lefine, to celebrate with him. He was so relieved and happy that, without thinking, he passed in front of the breach in a wall. A sharp report rang out. Instinctively

      Margont dived for cover. He was not sure he had been hit because he had strained his muscles so much that he hurt all over. Lefine’s face was distorted in terror. Margont followed his friend’s gaze and looked at his side. A dark stain was spreading there.

      ‘I can’t believe I did that,’ said Margont, as he lay carefully down.

      CHAPTER 3

      MARGONT spent an interminable amount of time lying by the Danube in the company of a mass of other wounded. Groans and entreaties mingled with the deep rumbling of cannon fire. Medical orderlies, far too few of them, ran from casualty to casualty. One very young orderly regarded Margont with disdain and, without even taking the time to examine his wound, announced: ‘It’s nothing.’ Another, however, looked horrified whenever he passed him. Finally a small boat brought a handful ofvoltigeurs overburdened with munitions, a pathetic reinforcement, and left with several lucky patients, one of whom was Margont.

      Napoleon had planned to cross the Danube very quickly. He had not believed that the Austrians could hold out against his army and had thought they would withdraw. The totally unexpected turn of events generated utter confusion. Lobau was acting as a stopping-off point for the divisions who found themselves stranded, and also as a temporary hospital. Soldiers accumulated on the

      island like grains of wheat in a granary. A hundred thousand Austrian soldiers still firmly held the east bank of the Danube, while Vienna, whose population was hostile to the French, lay on the west bank. Only yesterday Napoleon had controlled most of Europe, and now his empire appeared to have been reduced to the Isle of Lobau, two and a half miles long by two and a half miles wide.

      Margont was treated by an orderly who was well-intentioned but intimidated by the officer’s rank. He apologised as he clumsily pricked Margont’s skin again and again. The wound was superficial; the bullet had only grazed his side, biting into the flesh without piercing his abdomen. Gangrene was what Margont was worried about. Was it going to devour his body like rot in an apple? He spent the night in a terrible state of anxiety.

      The next day, at four in the morning, the battle resumed.

      The groaning multitude of casualties on Lobau increased, spreading like a tide of agony. Medical orderlies and volunteers offered them pails of water that they refilled from the Danube. Not the best drink, but there was nothing else. More French and Badois arrived, bleeding.

      One of the newly arrived sergeants, with as many slashes as an old patched shirt, propped himself up on one elbow and loudly proclaimed: ‘We’ve come from Aspern, troops! We recaptured that damned village! Long live Marshal Massena!’

      This news was greeted with cries of ‘Long live Massena!’ and ‘Long live the Emperor!’ Margont thought of Lefine, Saber and Piquebois. Were they still wandering around amongst the heaped ruins, suffocated by the smoke, and fighting the Austrians bullet for bullet? Or had the regiment been relieved, was it resting at the rear, in reserve? Perhaps his friends were lying broken, in a boat, their hands trailing in the water, drifting ...

      News and rumours continued to spread, and became more and more exaggerated. Aspern and Essling had been attacked again, and lost, or almost, then retaken, nearly ... And in the plains separating the two villages, the killing continued as ever. Meanwhile the bridges had been repaired again and soldiers swarmed over

      them. Boats continued to cross to and fro, so weighed down with casualties that they became dangerously flooded. A major from the 57th of the Line was brought in, along with some cuirassiers furious at having been stopped in the middle of a charge.

      ‘Silence for the major!’ shouted a quartermaster sergeant.

      ‘Yes, listen to the major!’ echoed the cavalrymen.

      The officer was placed in the shadow of a willow tree and the soldiers fell silent. His thigh was bleeding but he paid no attention to that and focused on his audience.

      ‘The Emperor is crushing the Austrian centre!’ he announced vigorously.

      An explosion of ‘Hurrah!’ and ‘Long live the Emperor!’ followed. In fact the major, intoxicated by finding himself propelled into the limelight, had made his declaration more convincing than the attack he had participated in warranted. While the casualties on Lobau rejoiced at the demise of the Austrian army, in reality that army’s artillery was destroying the ranks of their attackers, and even the French cavalry, called in to back up the ranks, could not defeat them decisively. But it was true that the extreme aggression of an adversary far inferior to them in number had shaken the Austrians’ confidence and had forced them to exercise caution and moderate their hotheadedness.

      Margont spotted Jean-Quenin Brémond, an old childhood friend. Brémond had reddish light brown hair and large side whiskers. Despite his boundless energy, he radiated calm. He indicated which of the wounded were to be operated on as soon as possible, teaching an orderly in passing how to tie bandages more securely and requisitioning the more able-bodied to help out the others ... His practised eye picked out Margont immediately. He turned pale and strode rapidly over to examine the wound.

      ‘It’s not serious.’

      Margont breathed a sigh of relief.

      ‘But even so, there is still the risk of gangrene.’

      ‘I know, Jean-Quenin. I’ll change my bandages when they’re dirty and I’ll make sure that I eat properly. Have you treated anyone we know?’

      ‘No. But that doesn’t mean anything. There are wounded all over the place.’

      ‘And here come even more!’ cried several soldiers.

      The Danube swept away the remains of the little bridge, which had just collapsed again. Pontoniers and infantry, carried away on the current, waved their arms frantically. While the thousands of soldiers of Marshal Davout’s III Corps found themselves trapped on the island, Napoleon fulminated on the east bank, searching for reinforcements to sustain his attack on the Austrian centre.

      ‘It’s going increasingly badly for the citizen emperor,’ said Brémond worriedly.

      He had been a revolutionary from the outset and did not approve of the transition from republic to empire, even though the Empire did respect several of the fundamental principles of the Revolution. So from time to time the medical officer referred to Napoleon as ‘the citizen emperor’ because he considered that all citizens were perfectly equal. To him, being emperor was a job like any other, and more important than ‘emperor’ was the word ‘citizen’. Nothing annoyed him as much as people who used the term in an ironic or pejorative fashion,

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