In Antony Brett-James book, 1812 Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, is the account by Count Mathieu Dumas, the Intendant-General of December 14, 1812, the day the last Frenchman left Russia. ”At long last we were out of that cursed country – Russia. The Cossacks no longer pursued us with such zeal. As we advanced across Prussian territory we found better lodgings and resources. The first place we could draw breath was Wilkowiski, and then Gumbinnen, where I stopped at a doctor’s house as I had done when I first passed through the town. We had just been served with some excellent coffee when I saw a man wearing a brown coat come in. He had a long beard. His face was black and seemed to be burnt. His eyes were red and glistening. ’Here I am at last!’ he said. ’What, General Dumas! Don’t your recognize me?’”
“‘No. who are you?’”
“‘I am the rearguard of the Grand Army, Marshal Ney. I fired the last shot on the bridge at Kovno. I threw the last of our weapons into the Niemen, and I have come as far as this through the woods.’”
“I leave to your imagination with what respectful eagerness we welcomed the hero of the retreat from Russia.”
Despite the heroics of Marshal Ney, many men suffered a different fate. James Fisher provides the following account from the Russian point of view.
(14th December) Final, Hellish Retreat
Rafail Zotov, was just out of school when the war began and volunteered to join the St Petersburg opolchenye, part of Wittgenstein’s Corps.
“On 2 December [14 December]* we caught up with Chichagov’s men and let them ahead of us so they could claim all the laurels of the pursuit. This movement marked the start of the most severe frost, which even those of us who lived in St Petersburg had rarely experienced. Temperatures dropped every day and reached -23º to -25º Réaumur [-29º to -31º Celsius]. This was a final devastating blow to the French army, which completely lost its morale. Its every bivouac and encampment was like the terrifying sight of the battlefield, where thousands lay dying in great agony. And so the warriors who perhaps survived Austerlitz, Eylau and Borodino now easily fell into our hands. They were in a state of trance so that every Cossack captured and brought back dozens of them. They could not comprehend what was happening around them, could not remember or understand anything. The roads were littered with their corpses and they lay abandoned and without any attention inside every hut.”
*Dates according to Julian [and Gregorian] calendar
Mikaberidze, A (2012) Russian Eyewitness Accounts of the Campaign of 1812. Frontline Books (an imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd), Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. p. 246.
1812 Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, Compiled, edited and translated by Antony Brett-James, 288
Russian Eyewitness Accounts of the Campaign of 1812, Alexander Mikaberidze, p 246