My name is Jean-Marie Laval and for many months I did not know where I was.
I fought for my Emperor, beating the Austrians at Ulm and Marengo and the Prussians at Jena but the Emperor was not with us when we lost to the British at Rolica and as a prisoner I rotted with my countrymen in their hulk. The year was 1808 and I was not sure any more just who I was or why I was there.
Since the glorious revolution my family had prospered. My father, at first a humble baker in Marseille, had risen to prosperity. He had become a magistrate and an owner of property, extensive property. My elder brother worked with him but when I came of age at 16 I was sent to war and Napoleon. I was a Captain in the Blue Dragoons and at Rolica I fought with General Delaborde. My men held the centre as the British attacked again and again but in the end we were forced to retreat. I took the hindmost to protect my precious charges but a stray bullet brought down my beloved horse and I was trapped underneath her. The British took me prisoner and I was marched to their ship. We sailed for days across the ocean, the storms battering us as we were shackled on the deck. When we arrived we were put on the hulk.
It was a place of depravity. One thousand of us were crammed on to the floating monster. There was no room for us to sleep and we were taken ashore three times a week to work the fields, chained in lines. Food was scarce and water precious. Many of our number died each day, others jumped overboard and were soon lost to the current. We could see a small town on the shore which we were told is called Whee-stable. I was none the wiser for this information. After nine months I was not sure I could last much longer.
Then I was detached from my colleagues as we worked and taken over by the slyest and most cunning of our jailers to a strange man. He spoke my language and told me that my family had paid him to secure my release. He said that he has paid my captor and the next time we are brought out to the field I will be allowed to escape. I will go with this man who calls himself Harman and he will get me back to France. I thought he would just shoot me but I had no choice. I did not care if I lived or died. Life was hell and at least this way there was a small chance I would get away.
The next time we were on shore I was detached from my line and the man Harman was there, seated upon his horse. They walked away from me as I approached and he told me to follow him, in the cover of the ditches. I was wet, I was caked in mud and I was starving. After half an hour of scrambling along he stopped and handed me down some cake and water. I crammed the food in my mouth and sucked in the water. It gave me some sustenance, enough to carry on. Further on he stopped again and told me to follow the path up into the woods. I would find other Frenchmen there, he said, and he would come for me soon and put me on a boat. Again, I had little choice but to trust him. It was night and I stumbled between high banks up the path. Just over the brow of the hill there was a wood and as I entered I heard a French voice saying ‘Who goes there?’
It was not days I stayed there but weeks. We did not know if the man Harman would return. By day we crept down to the roadside and stayed hidden in the bushes. People came and left food. It was barely enough but we survived. We caught rabbits and we ate leaves and berries as well. Our numbers swelled from the seven when I arrived to nineteen. Each day we expected to be caught and taken back to that wretched ship. From the top of the hill we could see up the channel and there we spotted hulk after hulk after hulk. Each one was full of starving and wretched Frenchmen. We made little boxes for our benefactors and left them by the roadside. They were constructed of twigs and leaves and decorated with the nuts and cones from the floor of the wood. I think they were appreciated as each one went very quickly once we put it out.
Finally Harman came back. There were complications he told us, but it was all arranged now. We were led down to the seashore and five rowing boats took out us out to a ship anchored in the shallows. The tide was strong out to sea and we started way up stream, allowing the current to pull us down to our boat. We clambered aboard and were swiftly on our way. Eight hours later we were landed in a bay near the town of Boulogne. Harman went ashore first and when he returned, with a smile on his face, we were let ashore. My brother was there to greet me. He took me to the Massif Central where I lived for the next seven years, until the defeat of the Emperor at Waterloo. I had done my time and I wanted to do no more. My colleagues who survived the wars in Portugal and Spain died at the hands of the Cossacks and the cold on the retreat from Moscow. I am the only one of my regiment that I know of to live on.
My wife will have no children. She will not breed fodder for the cannons.