The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N./Chapter 21

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The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N. by Ernest Scott
Chapter 21. General Decaen

Chapter XXI.

GENERAL DECAEN.

Charles Mathieu Isidore Decaen was born at Caen, the ancient and picturesque capital of Normandy, on April 13th, 1769. Left an orphan at the age of twelve, his education was superintended by a friend of his father, who had been a public official. At the end of his schooldays he studied law under an advocate of local celebrity, M. Lasseret. Though his juristic training was not prolonged, the discipline of the office gave a certain bent to his mind, a certain lawyer-like strictness and method to his mode of handling affairs, that remained characteristic during his military career, and was exceedingly useful to him while he governed Ile-de-France. Very often in perusing his Mémoires* the reader perceives traces of the lawyer in the language of the soldier.[1]

Thus, when during the campaign of the Rhine he found that his superior officer, General Jourdan, was taking about with him as his aide-de-camp a lady in military attire, Decaen, with a solemnity that seems a little un-French under the circumstances, condemned the breach of the regulations as conduct "which was not that of a father of a family, a legislator and a general-in-chief." As for the lady, "les charmes de
Page 398 portrait (The Life of Matthew Flinders).jpg

GENERAL DECAEN.

cette maussade creéature" merely evoked his scorn. It does not appear that Jourdan's escapade produced any ill effects in a military sense, but it was against the regulations, and Decaen was as yet as much lawyer as soldier.

When the revolutionary wars broke out, and France was ringed round by a coalition of enemies, the voice of "la patrie en danger" rang in the ears of the young student like a call from the skies. He was twenty-two years of age when two deputies of the Legislative Assembly came down to Caen and made an appeal to the manhood of the country to fly to arms. Decaen, fuming with patriotic indignation, threw down his quill, pitched his calf-bound tomes on to their shelf, and was the first to inscribe his name upon the register of the fourth battalion of the regiment of Calvados, an artillery corps. He was almost immediately despatched to Mayence on the Rhine, where Kleber (who was afterwards to serve with distinction under Bonaparte in Egypt) hard pressed by the Prussians, withdrew the French troops into the city (March, 1793) and prepared to sustain a siege.

Decaen rose rapidly, by reason not merely of his bull-dog courage and stubborn tenacity, but also of his intelligence and integrity. He received his "baptism of fire" in an engagement in April, when Kleber sent a detachment to chase a Prussian outpost from a neighbouring village and to collect whatever forage and provisions might be obtained. He was honest enough to confess—and his own oft-proved bravery enabled him to do so unashamed—that, when he first found the bullets falling about him, he was for a moment afraid. "I believe," he wrote, "that there are few men, however courageous they may be, who do not experience a chill, and even a feeling of fear, when for the first time they hear around them the whistling of shot, and above all when they first see the field strewn with killed and wounded comrades."[2] But he was a sergeant-major by this time, and remembered that it was his duty to set an example; so, screwing up his courage to the sticking-place by an effort of will, and saying to himself that it was not for a soldier of France to quail before a ball, he deliberately wheeled his horse to the front of a position where a regiment was being shaken by the enemy's artillery fire, and by his very audacity stiffened the wavering troops and saved the situation.

After the capitulation of Mayence in July, 1793, Decaen fought with distinction in the war in La Vendee. In this cruel campaign he displayed unusual qualities as a soldier, and attained the rank of adjutant-general. Kleber gave him a command calling for exceptional nerve, with the comment, "It is the most dangerous position, and I thought it worthy of your courage." It was Decaen, according to his own account, who devised the plan of sending out a number of mobile columns to strike at the rebels swiftly and unexpectedly. But though he was succeeding in a military sense, these operations against Frenchmen, while there were foreign foes to fight beyond the frontiers, were thoroughly distasteful to him. The more he saw of the war in La Vendee, and the more terribly the thumb of the national power pressed upon the throat of the rebellion, the more he hated the service. It was at his own solicitation, therefore, that he was transferred to the army of the Rhine in January, 1795.

Here he served under the ablest general, saving only Bonaparte himself, whom the wars of the Revolution produced to win glory for French arms, Jean Victor Moreau. His bravery and capacity continued to win him advancement. Moreau promoted him to the command of a brigade, and presented him with a sword of honour for his masterly conduct of a retreat through the Black Forest, when, in command of the rear-guard, he fought the Austrians every mile of the road to the Rhine.

He became a general of division in 1800. At the battle of Hohenlinden, where Moreau concentrated his troops to give battle to the Austrians under the Archduke John, Decaen performed splendid service; indeed it was he who chose the position, and recommended it as a favourable place for taking a stand.[3] Moreau knew him well by now, and on the eve of the fight (December 2nd) when he brought up his division to the plateau in the forest of Ebersberg, where the village of Hohenlinden stands, and presented himself at headquarters to ask for orders, the commander-in-chief rose to greet him with the welcome, "Ah, there is Decaen, the battle will be ours to-morrow." It was intended for a personal compliment, we cannot doubt, though Decaen in his Mémoires (II., 136) interpreted it to mean that the general was thinking of the 10,000 troops whose arrival he had come to announce.

Moreau's plan was this. He had posted his main force strongly fronting the Austrian line of advance, on the open Hohenlinden plateau. The enemy had to march through thickly timbered country to the attack. The French general instructed Decaen and Richepance to manoeuvre their two divisions, each consisting of 10,000 men, through the forest, round the Austrian rear, and to attack them there, as soon as they delivered their attack upon the French front. The Archduke John believed Moreau to be in full retreat, and hurried his army forward from Haag, east of Hohenlinden, amid falling snow.

"By torch and trumpet fast array'd
Each horseman drew his battle-blade,
And furious every charger neigh'd
  To join the dreadful revelry.
Then shook the hills with thunder riven;
Then rush'd the steed, to battle driven,
And louder than the bolts of Heaven
  Far flashed the red artillery."

Decaen's division marched at five o'clock on the morning of December 3rd, and shortly before eight the boom of the Austrian cannon was heard. His troops pressed forward in a blinding snowstorm. An officer said that the guns seemed to show that the Austrians were turning the French position. "Ah, well," said Decaen, "if they turn ours, we will turn theirs in our turn." It was one of the few jokes he made in his whole life, and it exactly expressed the situation. The Austrian army was caught like a nut in a nut-cracker. Battered from front and rear, their ranks broke, and fugitives streamed away east and west, like the crumbled kernel of a filbert. Decaen threw his battalions upon their rear with a furious vigour, and crumpled it up; and almost at the very moment of victory the snow ceased to fall, the leaden clouds broke, and a brilliant sun shone down upon the scene of carnage and triumph. Ten thousand Austrians were killed, wounded, or taken prisoners, whilst 80 guns and about two hundred baggage waggons fell as spoils to the French. In this brilliant victory Decaen's skill and valour, rapidity and verve, had been of inestimable value, as Moreau was prompt to acknowledge.

The quick soldier's eye of Bonaparte recognised him at once as a man of outstanding worth. The Consultate had been established in December, 1799, and the First Consul was anxious to attach to him strong, able men. In 1802 Decaen ventured to use his influence with the Government regarding an appointment to the court of appeal at Caen, for which Lasseret, his old master in law, was a candidate; and we find Bonaparte writing to Cambacérès, who had charge of the law department, that "if the citizen possesses the requisite qualifications I should like to defer to the wishes of General Decaen, who is an officer of great merit."[4] He saw much of Bonaparte in Paris during 1801 and 1802, when the part he had to play was an extremely difficult one, demanding the exercise of tact and moral courage in an unusual measure. The Mémoires throw a vivid light on the famous quarrel between Moreau and Napoleon, which in the end led to the exile of the victor of Hohenlinden.

Moreau was Decaen's particular friend, the commander who had given him opportunities for distinction, one whom he loved and honoured as a man and a patriot. But he was jealous of Napoleon's success, was disaffected towards the consular government, and was believed to be concerned in plots for its overthrow. On the other hand, Napoleon was not only the head of the State, but was the greatest soldier of his age. Decaen's admiration of him was unbounded, and Napoleon's attitude towards Decaen was cordial. He tried to reconcile these two men whom he regarded with such warm affection, but failed. One day, when business was being discussed, Napoleon said abruptly, "Decaen, General Moreau is conducting himself badly; I shall have to denounce him." Decaen was moved to tears, and insisted that Napoleon was ill informed. "You are good yourself," said the First Consul, "and you think everybody everybody else is like you. Moreau is corresponding with Pichegru," whose conspiracy was known to the Government. "It is not possible." "But I have a letter which proves it." Moreover, Moreau was openly disrespectful to the Government. He had presented himself out of uniform on occasions when courtesy demanded that he should wear it. If Moreau had anything to complain about, he did not make it better by associating with malcontents. "He has occupied a high position, which gives him influence, and a bad influence upon public opinion hampers the work of the Government. I have not fallen here out of the sky, you know; I follow my glory. France wants repose, not more disturbance." Decaen manfully championed his friend, "I am persuaded," he said, "that if you made overtures to Moreau you would easily draw him towards you." "No," said Napoleon "he is a shifting sand." Moreau said to Decaen, "I am too old to bend my back"; but the latter was of opinion that the real source of the mischief was that Moreau had married a young wife, and that she and his mother-in-law considered they were entitled to as much attention as Madame Bonaparte received. Pride, jealousy and vanity, he declared, were the real source of the quarrel. Decaen, indeed, has a story that when Madame Moreau once called upon Josephine at Malmaison, she returned in an angry state of mind because she was not at once admitted, bidding a servant tell her mistress that the wife of General Moreau was not accustomed to be kept waiting. The simple explanation was that Josephine was in her bath!

Decaen came to be appointed Governor of Ile-de-France in this way. One day, after dining with Napoleon at Malmaison, the First Consul took a stroll with him, and in the course of conversation asked him what he wanted to do. "I have my sword for the service of my country," said Decaen. "Very good," answered Napoleon, "but what would you like to do now?" Decaen then mentioned that he had been reading the history of the exploits of La Bourdonnaye and Dupleix in India, and was much attracted by the possibilities for the expansion of French power there. "Have you ever been to India?" enquired Napoleon. "No, but I am young, and, desiring to do something useful, I should like to undertake a mission which I believe would not be likely to be coveted by many, having regard to the distance between France and that part of the world. And even if it were necessary to spend ten years of my life awaiting a favourable opportunity of acting against the English, whom I detest because of the injury they have done to our country, I should undertake the task with the utmost satisfaction." Napoleon merely observed that what he desired might perhaps be arranged.

A few months later Decaen was invited to breakfast with Napoleon at Malmaison. He was asked whether he was still inclined to go to India, and replied that he was. "Very well, then, you shall go." "In what capacity?" "As Captain-General. Go and see the Minister of Marine, and tell him to show you all the papers relative to the expedition that is in course of being fitted out."

Under the treaty of Amiens, negotiated in 1801, Great Britain agreed to restore to the French Republic and its allies all conquests made during the recent wars except Trinidad and Ceylon. From the British point of view it was an inglorious peace. Possessions which had been won in fair fight, by the ceaseless activity and unparalleled efficiency of the Navy, and by the blood and valour of British manhood, were signed away with a stroke of the pen. The surrender of the Cape was especially lamentable, because upon security at that point depended the safety of India and Australia. But the Addington ministry was weak and temporising, and was alarmed about the internal condition of England, where dear food, scarcity of employment and popular discontent, consequent upon prolonged warfare, made the King's advisers nervously anxious to put an end to the struggle. The worst feature of the situation was that everybody thoroughly well understood that it was a mere parchment peace. Cornwallis called it "an experimental peace." It was also termed "an armistice" and "a frail and deceptive truce"; and though Addington declared it to be "no ordinary peace but a genuine reconciliation between the two first nations of the world," his flash of rhetoric dazzled nobody but himself. He was the Mr. Perker of politics, an accommodating attorney rubbing his hands and exclaiming "My dear sir!" while he bartered the interests of his client for the delusive terms of a brittle expediency.

Decaen was to go to India to take charge of the former French possessions there, under the terms of the treaty, and from Pondicherry was also to control Ile-de-France (Mauritius) which the English had not taken during the war. Napoleon's instructions to him clearly indicated that he did not expect the peace to endure. Decaen was "to dissimulate the views of the Government as much as possible"; "the English are the tyrants of India, they are uneasy and jealous, it is necessary to behave towards them with suavity, dissimulation and simplicity." He was to regard his mission primarily as one of observation upon the policy and military dispositions of the English. But Napoleon informed him in so many words that he intended some day to strike a blow for "that glory which perpetuates the memory of men throughout the centuries." For that, however, it was first necessary "that we should become masters of the sea."[5]

Decaen sailed from Brest in February, 1803. Lord Whitworth, the British ambassador to Paris, watched the proceedings with much care, and promptly directed the attention of his Government to the disproportionate number of officers the new Captain-General was taking with him. The Government passed the information on to the Governor-General of India, Lord Wellesley, who was already determined that, unless absolutely ordered so to do, he would not permit a French military force to land. Before Decaen arrived at Pondicherry, indeed, in June, 1803, Wellesley had received a despatch from Lord Hobart, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, warning him that, notwithstanding the treaty of Amiens, "certain circumstances render desirable a delay in the restitution of their possessions in India" to the French, and directing that territory occupied by British troops was not to be evacuated by them without fresh orders. Great Britain already perceived the fragility of the peace, and, in fact, was expediting preparations for a renewal of war, which was declared in May, 1803.

When, therefore, the French frigate Marengo, with Decaen on board, arrived at Pondicherry, the British flag still flew over the Government buildings, and he soon learnt that there was no disposition to lower it. Moreover, La Belle Poule, which had been sent in advance from the Cape to herald the Captain-General's coming, was anchored between two British ships of war, which had carefully ranged themselves alongside her. Decaen grasped the situation rapidly. A few hours after his arrival, the French brig Bélier appeared. She had left France on March 25th, carrying a despatch informing the Captain-General that war was anticipated, and directing him to land his troops at Ile-de-France, where he was to assume the governorship.

Rear-Admiral Linois, who commanded the French division, wanted to sail at once. Decaen insisted on taking aboard some of the French who were ashore, but Linois pointed to the strong British squadron in sight, and protested that he ought not to compromise the safety of his ships by delaying departure. Linois was always a very nervous officer. Decaen stormed, and Linois proposed to call a council of his captains. "A council!" exclaimed Decaen, "I am the council!" It was worthy of what Voltaire attributed to Louis XIV: "l'état, c'est mois." After sunset Decaen visited the ships of the division in a boat, and warned their captains to get ready to follow the Marengo out of the roadstead of Pondicherry in the darkness. He considered that it would be extremely embarrassing if the British squadron, suspecting their intentions, endeavoured to frustrate them. At an appointed hour the Marengo quietly dropped out of the harbour, cutting the cable of one of her anchors rather than permit any delay.

On August 15th Decaen landed at Port Louis, Ile-de-France, and on the following day he took over the government. He had therefore been in command exactly four months when Matthew Flinders, in the Cumberland, put into Baye du Cap on December 15th.

For his conduct in the Flinders affair Decaen has been plentifully denounced. "A brute," "a malignant tyrant," "vindictive, cruel and unscrupulous"—such are a few shots from the heavy artillery of language that have been fired at his reputation. The author knows of one admirer of Flinders who had a portrait of Decaen framed and hung with its face to the wall of his study. It is, unfortunately, much easier to denounce than to understand; and where resonant terms have been flung in freest profusion, it does not appear that an endeavour has been made to study what occurred from the several points of view, and to examine Decaen's character and actions in the light of full information. A postponement of epithets until we have ascertained the facts is in this, as in so many other cases, extremely desirable.

No candid reader of Decaen's Mémoires, and of Prentout's elaborate investigation of his administration, can fail to recognise that he was a conspicuously honest man. During his governorship he handled millions of francs. Privateers from Ile-de-France captured British merchant ships, to a value, including their cargo, of over £3,000,000 sterling,[6] a share of which it would have been easy for Decaen to secure. But his financial reputation is above suspicion. His management was economical and efficient. He ended his days in honourable poverty.

He was blunt and plainspoken; and though he could be pleasant, was when ruffled by no means what Mrs. Malaprop called "the very pineapple of politeness." His quick temper brought him into continual conflict with superiors and subordinates. He quarrelled repeatedly with generals and ministers; with Admiral Linois, with Soult, with Decres, with Barras, with Jourdan, and with many others. When General Lecourbe handed him a written command during the Rhine campaign, he says himself that, "when I received the order I tightened my lips and turned my back upon him." He speaks of himself in one place as being "of a petulant character and too free with my tongue." That concurs with Flinders' remark, after bitter experience of Decaen, that he possessed "the character of having a good heart, though too hasty and violent."

Decaen's military capacity was much higher than his historical reputation might lead one to suppose. During the fierce wars of the Napoleonic empire, whilst Ney, Oudinot, Murat, Junot, Augereau, Soult, St. Cyr, Davoust, Lannes, Marmont, Massena and Suchet, were rendering brilliant service under the eye of the great captain, and were being converted into dukes and princes, Decaen was shut up in a far-off isle in the Indian Ocean, where there was nothing to do but hold on under difficulties, and wait in vain for the turn of a tide that never floated a French fleet towards the coveted India. Colonel Picard, than whom there is hardly a better judge, is of opinion that had Decaen fought with the Grand Army in Europe, his military talents would have designated him for the dignity of a marshal of the Empire. On his return he did become a Comte, but then the Napoleonic regime was tottering to its fall.

Such then was the man—stubborn, strong-willed, brusque, honest, irritable, ill-tempered, but by no means a bad man at heart—with whom Matthew Flinders had to do. We may now follow what occurred.

  1. The Mémoires et Journaux du Général Decaen were prepared for publication by himself, and the portion up to the commencement of his governorship has been printed, with notes and maps, by Colonel Ernest Picard, Chief of the Historical Section of the Staff of the French Army (2 volumes Paris 1910). Colonel Picard informed me that he did not intend to print the remainder, thinking that the ground was sufficiently covered by Professor Henri Prentout's admirable book ''L'Ile de France sous Decaen. I have, therefore, had the section relating to Flinders transcribed from the manuscript, and used it freely for this book.
  2. Memoires I., 13.
  3. Mémoires II., 89.
  4. Napoleon's Correspondance Document 5596.
  5. Mémoires II., 310.
  6. "Prentout, page 509, estimates the value of captures at £2,000,000, but Mr. H. Hope informed Flinders in 1811, that insurance offices in Calcutta had actually paid £3,000,000 sterling on account of ships captured by the French at Mauritius. Flinders, writing with exceptional opportunities for forming an opinion, calculated that during the first sixteen months of the war the French captures of British merchant ships brought to Ile-de-France were worth £1,948,000 (Voyage II., 416).