The First Grenadier of France

’TWAS in a certain regiment of French Grenadiers,
A touching and beautiful custom was observed many years;
Which was meant to commemorate the heroism of a departed comrade,
And when the companies assembled for parade,
There was one name at roll call to which no answer was made

It was that of the noble La Tour d’Auvergne,
The first Grenadier of France, heroic and stern;
And always at roll call the oldest sergeant stepped forward a pace,
And loudly cried, “Died on the field of battle,” then fell back into his place.

He always refused offers of high promotion,
Because to be promoted from the ranks he had no notion;
But at last he was in command of eight thousand men,
Hence he was called the first Grenadier of France, La Tour d’Auvergne.

When forty years of age he went on a visit to a friend,
Never thinking he would have a French garrison to defend,
And while there he made himself acquainted with the country.
But the war had shifted to that quarter unfortunately.

But although the war was there he felt undaunted,
Because to fight on behalf of France was all he wanted;
And the thought thereof did his mind harass,
When he knew a regiment of Austrians was pushing on to occupy a narrow pass.

They were pushing on in hot haste and no delaying,
And only two hours distant from where the Grenadier was staying,
But when he knew he set off at once for the pass,
Determined if ’twere possible the enemy to harass.

He knew that the pass was defended by a stout tower,
And to destroy the garrison the enemy would exert all their power;
But he hoped to be able to warn the French of their danger,
But to the thirty men garrisoned there he was quite a stranger.

Still the brave hero hastened on, and when he came there,
He found the thirty men had fled in wild despair;
Leaving their thirty muskets behind,
But to defend the garrison to the last he made up his mind.

And in searching he found several boxes of ammunition not destroyed,
And for a moment he felt a little annoyed;
Then he fastened the main door, with the articles he did find,
And when he had done so he felt satisfied in mind.

Then he ate heartily of the provisions he had brought,
And waited patiently for the enemy, absorbed in thought;
And formed the heroic resolution to defend the tower,
Alone, against the enemy, while he had the power.

There the brave hero sat alone quite content,
Resolved to hold the garrison, or die in the attempt;
And about midnight his practised ear caught the tramp of feet,
But he had everything ready for the attack and complete.

There he sat and his mind absorbed in deep distress,
But he discharged a couple of muskets into the darkness;
To warn the enemy that he knew they were there,
Then he heard the Austrian officers telling their men to beware.

So until morning he was left unmolested,
And quietly till daylight the brave Grenadier rested;
But at sunrise the Austrian commander called on the garrison to surrender,
But the Grenadier replied, “Never, I am its sole defender.”

Then a piece of artillery was brought to bear upon the tower,
But the Grenadier from his big gun rapid fire on it did shower;
He kept up a rapid fire, and most accurate,
And when the Austrian commander noticed it he felt irate.

And at sunset the last assault was made,
Still the noble Grenadier felt not the least afraid;
But the Austrian commander sent a second summons of surrender,
Hoping that the garrison would his injunctions remember.

Then the next day at sunrise the tower door was opened wide,
And a bronzed and scarred Grenadier forth did glide;
Literally laden with muskets, and passed along the line of troops,
While in utter astonishment the Austrian Colonel upon him looks.

Behold! Colonel, I am the garrison, said the soldier proudly,
What! exclaimed the Colonel, do you mean to tell me —
That you alone have held that tower against so many men,
Yes, Colonel, I have indeed, replied La Tour d’Auvergne.

Then the Colonel raised his cap and said, you are the bravest of the brave,
Grenadier, I salute you, and I hope you will find an honourable grave;
And you’re at liberty to carry the muskets along with you,
So my brave Grenadier I must bid thee adieu.

At last in action the brave soldier fell in June 1800,
And the Emperor Napoleon felt sorry when he heard he was dead;
And he commanded his regiment to remember one thing above all,
To cry out always the brave Grenadier’s name at the roll call.

Notes

Théophile-Malo Corret de la Tour D’Auvergne (1743-1800) was an unlikely hero of revolutionary France. Son of a breton lawyer and descended from the illegitimate half-brother of the great Marshal Turenne, he was commissioned in 1767 and began to style himself with Turenne’s ancient La Tour d’Auvergne title four years later.

Despite his aristocratic connections, he declined to emigrate with the coming of the French Revolution, serving as a captain of Grenadiers when the revolutionary war broke out in 1792. His courage and charisma earned him a great reputation, though he refused all offers of promotion – probably a wise move, since senior officers (especially aristocratic ones) could answer with their heads for battlefield reverses. After three years of fighting he was forced to retire due to ill health. Unfortunately the troop ship carrying him home was captured by the British and he spent two years in captivity.

In 1799 he returned to the colours, taking the place of a friend’s last remaining son who had just been called up. After further gallant service on the Rhine and in Switzerland he was awarded the title “First Grenadier of France” by Napoleon (who by now had taken over from the revolutionary regime). Sadly he was killed in action soon afterwards, at the battle of Oberhausen on 27th June 1800.

Such was the respect in which La Tour d’Auvergne was held that his enbalmed heart was carried by a sergeant of his regiment (the 46th) and his name called out at roll call, to which the sergeant would reply “Mort au champ d’honneur!” (dead on the field of honour).

McGonagall’s tale of the single-handed defence of a tower is pure invention (well perhaps not all that pure…). McGonagall was writing during a period when the entente cordiale was being established between those traditional enemies Britain and France. Presumably tales of French valour were appearing in magazines of the time, one of which provided the source for this poem.

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