In order to speed the progress of the army, some days earlier, Napoleon had ordered the burning of the bridge train (the wagons hauling the pontoons used
for building temporary bridges). With great foresight, General Jean Baptiste Eblé saved some wagons holding the forges, some bridge building equipment and coal. On the evening of the 25th, his engineers arrived in Studenka and began to work. The town was dismantled and the wood used to build trestles for the two bridges. This proved to be insufficient and another, nearby town was dismantled.
The following descriptions come from Alexander Mikaberidze’s book The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape. Around 500 men may have been involved in the bridge construction. These men consisted of Dutch and Poles with some from France. Sgt. Bourgogne describes that they “worked, standing up to their shoulders in ice-cold water, encouraged by their General.”
Jean Baptiste Antoine Marbot wrote these brave men “leapt into the cold water of the Berezina and worked there for six or seven hours, though there was not a drop of spirits to give them, and they had no bed to look forward to for the following night, but a field covered with snow.”
Capt. George Diederich Benthiendescribed that his men came out of the water “stiff and half-dead from cold and, to find volunteers for the work, he had to offer a reward of fifty francs.”
Captain Louis Bégos of the 2nd Swiss saw Napoleon on the bank of the river watching the work of the engineers. ”Having dismounted, he was leaning against some beams and planks that were used in construction. He was looking down at the ground. Then with a preoccupied impatient air, he lifted his head and addressed General Eblé, ‘ it is taking a very long time, General! A very long time!’ ‘You can see, Sire,’ [replied Eblé] ‘that my men are
up to their necks in water, and the ice is delaying their work. I have no food or alcohol to warm them with.’ ‘That will do,’ the Emperor replied. He stared at the ground but, a few moments later, he began complaining again, seemingly forgetting what the General had just told him.”
Of the 200 Dutchmen led by Captain Benthien who helped build the bridges, only 40 were alive three days later.
The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, Alexander Mikaberidze