The Bravest of the Brave!

At 1 am on the morning of November 20, 1812, Ney’s re-united Corps burned the village where they had spent the night and resumed their march.  Ney sent ahead a Polish officer towards Orsha to let the army know of his position and situation.  We continue with Colonel Fezensac’s narrative, “The fatigue of the preceding day, joined with the circumstance of my boots being filled with water, brought back all the sufferings I had before experienced.”

Marshal Ney Supporting the Rear Guard
During the Retreat from Moscow
by Adolphe Yvon

Leaning on the arm of a young officer, Fezensac and the others marched without opposition until daylight when the Cossacks arrived with the sun.  “Platov, profiting by the ground directed his field pieces, mounted on sledges, to advance against us; and when this artillery, which we could neither get at nor avoid, had carried disorder into our ranks, he ordered a charge by his whole body.  Marshal Ney formed each of his two divisions rapidly into square…  We obliged by main force every straggler who still carried a musket to fall into the ranks.  The Cossacks, who were held feebly in check by our skirmishers, and who drove before them a crowd of unarmed stragglers, endeavored to come up with our square…  Twenty times I saw them [the square] on the point of disbanding, and leaving us to the mercy of the Cossacks, but the presence of Marshal Ney, the confidence which he inspired, the calmness of his attitude in the moment of danger, still retained them in their duty.”

Before noon, the two divisions occupied the village of Teolino and Ney decided he would defend it until “nine in the evening.  Twenty times did General Platoff endeavor to wrest it from us; twenty times was he repulsed…”

“At nine in the evening we stood to our arms, and continued our march in the greatest silence.  The several parties of Cossacks posted on our road fell back at our approach, and our march was performed in the greatest order.  At a league from Orsha our advanced guard challenged an outpost, and was answered in French…  A man should be three days between life and death, to understand all the joy we experienced at meeting them.”

Napoleon had ordered Davout and Prince Eugène to wait for Ney at Orsha.  They sent scouts back along the Smolensk road.  Colonel Lubin Griois was enjoying a rare night with provisions and shelter when word came back that Ney was in danger, “Nothing less than this motive, was needed to make us, without regret, turn back in the middle of the night and in a very sharp cold mount the Dnieper again without even knowing how far we’d have to go.”

Cesare de Laugier wrote that, “Ney and Eugène were the first to meet, and threw themselves into each other’s arms.  At this sight everyone broke ranks.  Without recognizing each other, everyone embraced everyone else.”  Of the 6,000 armed men who left Smolensk with IIIrd Corps, only 900 remain.

News of Ney’s escape spread quickly.  Napoleon bestowed the title “Bravest of the Brave” on Ney.  Armand de Caulaincourt wrote, “Now officers, soldiers, everyone was sure we could snap our fingers at misfortune, that Frenchmen were invincible!”

Sources:
A Journal of the Russian Campaign of 1812, Translated from the French of Lt. General De Fezensac by Colonel W. Knollys, pp 119 – 122

1812: The Great Retreat, Paul Britten Austin, pp 203 – 204

Napoleon in Russia, Alan Palmer, p 229

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