Tag Archives: Vilna

“No, a thousand times no; never was there such a sight!”

When Napoleon left the army to return to Paris, he left Marshal Murat, King of Naples, in charge.    Captain Coignet of the Imperial Guard Grenadiers writes in his memoirs, “But it was a Wilna that we suffered most.  The weather was so severe that the men could no longer endure it; even the ravens froze.”

Retreat from RussiaNote the birds overhead

The Retreat
by Nicolas Charlet
Note the birds overhead

“We remained under the command of the King of Naples, and were not too happy in our minds, for, though he was always the first to draw a sabre or brave danger, he may truly be said to have been the executioner of our cavalry.  He kept his divisions constantly mounted all along the route, and they were more than enough to keep the Cossacks at bay; but our cavalry were dying of starvation, and when night came, the unfortunate soldiers were not able to use their horses to go for forage…  He was, indeed the handsomest horseman in Europe; but without foresight, for it was not a question of being an intrepid soldier, but of being able to economize his resources.  He lost us (I heard this said to Marshal Davout) forty thousand horses through his mismanagement.  It is always wrong to blame one’s officers; but the Emperor could have made a better selection.  There were among our leaders two warriors, rivals in glory, Marshal Ney and Prince Beauharnais, who saved us from the greatest perils by their coolness and courage.”

“The King of Naples went on to Wilna; he arrived there on the 8th of December, and we with the guard, on the 10th.  It was night when we came to the gates of the city, which were barricaded with pieces of wood.  We had the greatest difficulty in entering.  I and my comrade were lodged in a school, well warmed.”

“When I went to my general of orders, he said, ‘Be ready at four in the morning to leave the city, for the enemy is now arriving on the heights, and we shall be bombarded at daylight.  Do not lose any time.'”

“We had scarcely got ready to leave when the Russians forced the Witepsk gate; we had barely time to get out…  When we reached the mountain of Wilna the confusion was at its height.  All the material of the army and the Emperor’s carriages were on the ground.  The soldiers helped themselves to gold and silver plate.  All the chests and casks were burst open.  What a quantity of plunder was left on that spot!  No, a thousand times no; never was there such a sight!”

Louis Victor Léon Rochechouart, the French emigré officer serving on [Pavel] Chichagov’s [Russian] staff, describes the scene upon entering Vilna:

Retreat from Russia scene III“On 11 December, when the cold reached -29º Réaumur [-36º Celsius], I entered Vilna, crouching at the bottom of the carriage. We traveled forward amid human remains, frozen on the road, and hundreds of horses that had died of hunger and cold, or had broken their legs, for they were not roughshod; our servants walked in front thrusting the obstacles in the way to the right or left. It is impossible to imagine the state of Vilna during the four days after our arrival; we found sick or wounded prisoners—Frenchmen, Poles, Germans, Spaniards, Italians and Portuguese, crowded into the various convents and monasteries. It was necessary to house everybody. Happily, the French government had accumulated immense stores of provisions, which they had not been able to use, being so closely pursued by the Russians. They were distributed among all. The frozen snow which covered the streets deadened the sound of the vehicles that were constantly passing, but did not prevent hearing the cries of the wounded asking for food, or the drivers urging their horses on.“

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. 251.

Faber du Faur’s depiction of the 11th of December has the following description:

Near Eve, 11 Decemberby Faber du FaurNote the hands in the lower left

Near Eve, 11 December
by Faber du Faur
Note the hands in the lower left

Near Eve, 11 December
“We left Vilna on the 10th and abandoned thousands of dead, dying and prisoners.  We managed to avoid the chaos at Ponari, which cost the army most of the rest of its artillery and transport – and even the Imperial Treasury – and made our weary way towards Kovno, protected by a weak rearguard but sill suffering from the relentless cold.  A vast number of men died on this final forced march.”

“We finally reached Eve, a small town familiar to us from having passed through it that very summer.  How things had changed!  Eve was stripped of the charms of summer, abandoned and partially buried under the deep snow.  And the town, which in the summer had seen a brilliant army march through, was now obliged to see its ghostly streets play host to groups of miserable individuals, ruined by the Russian climate and by hunger and hoping for nothing more than to reach the banks of the Niemen at Kovno.”

Sources:
Captain Coignet: A Soldier of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard from the Italian Campaign to Waterloo, Jean-Roch Coignet, pp 233 – 234

Russian Eyewitness Accounts of the Campaign of 1812, Alexander Mikaberidze, p 251

With Napoleon in Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Major Faber du Faur, 1812, edited by Jonathan North

Thank you to James Fisher for providing the quote from Alexander Mikaberidze’s book of Russian eyewitness accounts.

“Everything that Could be of use Became a Hindrance.”

Philippe-Paul de Ségur described the abandonment of Vilna on the 10th of December.  He contended that Vilna cost the army twenty thousand men and many of these could have been saved had the city been held twenty-four hours longer.  But Marshal Murat panicked when the Cossacks appeared and the city was hastily abandoned.

Platov Cossacks

Platov Cossacks
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

Here is Ségur’s description of the events: “On the tenth of December, Ney, who had voluntarily taken command of the rear guard, left the city, and immediately Platov’s Cossacks overran it, massacring the unfortunate wretches whom [were thrown]… into the streets as they passed by…”

“This city contained a great part of the equipment and the treasury of the army, its supplies, a number of immense covered wagons with the Emperor’s possessions, much artillery, and a great many wounded men.  Our sudden appearance had fallen like a thunderbolt on those in charge of all this.  Some were galvanized into action by terror, others were paralyzed by consternation.  Out of it came orders and counterorders of all sorts, and men, horses, and vehicles became tangled in an inextricable jam.”

“In the midst of this chaos several officers succeeded in getting as much as could be set in motion, out if town and on the road to Kovno.  But when this bewildered, heavily loaded column had gone about two miles they were stopped by the hill and narrow pass of Ponari.”

Retreat - General disorder and fighting“In our conquering march eastward this wooded knoll had seemed to our hussars little more than a slight irregularity in the earth’s surface from the top of which the entire plain of Vilna could be seen, and the strength of the enemy estimated.  In truth, its steep but short slope had hardly been noticed.  In a regular retreat it would have been an excellent position for turning around and checking the enemy; but in a chaotic flight, where everything that could be of use became a hindrance, when in blind haste we turned everything against ourselves, this hill and defile were an unsurmountable obstacle, a wall of ice against which our best efforts were broken.  It stripped us of everything – supplies, treasury, booty, and wounded men.  This misfortune was serious enough to stand out above all our long succession of disasters; for it was here that the little money, honor, discipline, and strength remaining to us were irrevocably lost.”

“When, after fifteen hours of fruitless struggle, the drivers and soldiers forming the escort [of the wagons carrying the booty] saw Murat and the column of fugitives go past them on the hillside…  they no longer thought of saving anything, but only of forestalling the avidity of the foe by pillaging themselves.”

Retreat Scene from the Russian-French War of 1812by Bogdan Willewalde

Retreat Scene from the Russian-French War of 1812
by Bogdan Willewalde

“The bursting of a wagon carrying loot from Moscow acted as a signal.  Everybody fell upon the other wagons, broke them open, and seized the most valuable objects.  The soldiers of the rear guard coming upon this confusion, threw down their arms and loaded themselves with plunder.  So furiously intent were they on this that they failed to heed the whistling bullets or the shrieks of the Cossacks who were pursuing them.  It is said that the Cossacks mingled with them without being noticed.  For a few minutes Europeans and Tartars, friends and foes, were united in a common lust for gain.  Frenchmen and Russians were seen side by side, all war forgotten, plundering the same wagon. Ten million francs in gold and silver rapidly disappeared!”

“But along with these horrors, acts of noble devotion were noticed.  There were men that day who forsook everything to carry off the wounded on their backs; others, unable to get their half-frozen companions out of the struggle, perished in defending them from the brutality of their fellow soldiers and the blows of the enemy.”

“On the most exposed spot of the hill a colonel of the Emperor’s staff, Count de Turenne, held the Cossacks at bay, disregarding their wild shots, while he distributed Napoleon’s personal treasury among the guards who stood within sight and hearing.  These brave men, fighting with one hand and holding the riches of their leader in the other, succeeded in saving all of it.  Long afterward, when we were out of danger, each one returned the amount that had been entrusted to him: not a single gold coin was lost.”

“The catastrophe at Ponari was all the more shameful as it could have been easily foreseen, and even more easily avoided; for it was possible to pass around the hill on either side.  Our debris served at least one purpose – to stop the Cossacks.”

Source:
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 275 – 278

Commemorative 1912 Russian card image and translation provided by Alexey Temnikov

“The Frightened Inhabitants Bolted Their Doors”

Faber du Faur continues with his narrative of the arrival of the army at Vilna: “On the 9th the bulk of the army, some 40,000 desperate men, arrived before Vilna in a state of the most abject confusion.  Pursued by Russian columns, they threw themselves into the town, although thousands were crushed to death at the gates.  Just as at the Beresina, a crowd of deranged, desperate individuals, trampling the dying underfoot, stormed forward in an attempt to get into the safety of the town’s streets.  The frightened inhabitants bolted their doors and refused entry to anyone.  It was a heart-rending sight to see the crowd of unfortunates  covered in rags, supplicating in the streets as the temperature dropped to 28 degrees.  In vain did they seek shelter; even the magazines were closed to them as written permission was required to enter therein.  Nor was there any room in the hospitals and barracks: these had long been filled to the brim, their long corridors and fire-less rooms choked with the dead and dying and presenting a picture of utter horror.”

French Army in the Town Hall Square of Vilnius, Lithuania

French Army in the Town Hall Square of Vilnius, Lithuania

“The Jews behaved badly towards us.  Whilst the Allied army had still been present in force, they came and offered their services and goods and even invited individuals into their houses.  However, as soon as news of the Russian approach was received they threw Allied troops out into the cold streets, thereby seeking to ingratiate themselves in the eyes of the victors.”

“Amidst all the scenes of horror and destruction, the rumble of cannon was a timely reminder that we had to quit the town at once.  The Russians were attacking our rearguard, and no sooner had we left from one side of the town, on the 10th, than the Cossacks entered the other.  The Grande Armée resumed its march, heading towards Kovno.”

Source:
With Napoleon in Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Major Faber du Faur, 1812, edited by Jonathan North

“Let Me See My Family Again For One Hour!”

December 8 and 9, 1812 were the coldest of the retreat.  Accounts of this time detail the misery of those who had struggled on so far as the cold reached new depths.  The goal was to reach Vilna with its supposed stocked warehouses and shelter from the cold.  But the men were wary, having experienced the disappointment of Smolensk when the stores and shelter there were inadequate.

Retreat Scene from Russian-French Warby Bogdan Willewalde

Retreat Scene from Russian-French War
by Bogdan Willewalde

Lieutenant Albrecht von Muraldt wrote about how his companions were reacting: “Some wept and whimpered.  Others, totally stupefied, didn’t utter a sound.  Many behaved like lunatics, especially at the sign of a rousing fire or when, after starving for several days, they got something to eat.  Only very few indeed were still themselves.”

Surgeon-General Dominique Jean Larrey wrote about the effects of the cold on the starving men: “The muscular action became noticeably weaker. Individuals staggered like drunken men.  Their weakness grew progressively until the subject fell – a sure sign that life was totally extinct.”  Men who couldn’t keep up had to get to the side of the road, where, lacking the support of their comrades, would fall.  “Instantly they were stricken by a painful stupor, from which they went into a state of lethargic stupor, and in a few moments they’d ended their painful existence.  Often, before death, there was an involuntary emission of urine.”

Alexander Bellot de Kergorre wrote: “The habit of seeing them grow weaker enabled us to predict the moment when an individual would fall down and die.  As soon as a man began to totter you could be sure he was lost.  Still he went on a little way, as if drunk, his body still leaning forward.  Then he fell on his face.  A few drops of blood oozed from his nose.  And he expired.  In the same instant his limbs became like bars of iron.”

Dead in the Snowby Ferdinand Boissard

Dead in the Snow
by Ferdinand Boissard

As the temperature only a few miles from Vilna drops to -28° Réaumur (-35° C, -31° F),  Major C.F.M. Le Roy says the following prayer: “My God, I who find such happiness in living and admiring your beautiful sun, accord me the mercy of once again being warmed by him and not leaving my wretched remains in this barbarous icy country!  Let me see my family again for one hour!  Only one hour!  I’ll die content.  I’ve never asked anything of you, God, as you know!  I’ve only thanked you in all circumstances, happy or unhappy, as they’ve befallen me.  But this one’s beyond my strength, and if you don’t come to my aid I’m going to succumb under its weight.”

Source:
1812: The Great Retreat, Paul Britten Austin, pp 361 – 364

“That Hope was to be Cruelly Misplaced”

I will post Faber du Faur’s description that accompanies his painting of the Lichtenstein Café in two parts as some of the description pertains to the events of the 9th of December.

The Lichtenstein Cafe7 Decemberby Faber du Faur

The Lichtenstein Café
7 December
by Faber du Faur

The Lichtenstein Café, 7 December
“We finally reached Vilna, which, like Smolensk before it, was the goal of all those who had survived the disaster to date.  Vilna was inhabited, had well-stocked magazines, and could boast of food and other kinds of luxury – indeed, all the things we had done without since leaving Moscow.  Each and every soldier had been borne along by the hope of reaching Vilna, but that hope was to be cruelly misplaced.  Vilna was nothing more than the tomb of thousands, and those that survived were soon forced out, just as at Smolensk.”

“The most fortunate arrived before the bulk of the army reached the town.  They found themselves quarters, food and other essentials.  Some officers of the 25th Division were, luckily, numbered among this group, reached the town before the army and eagerly sought out the Lichtenstein Café.  This establishment became our headquarters, and all surviving officers of the Division made their way there, even those who only made it on the 9th.”

Source:
With Napoleon in Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Major Faber du Faur, 1812, edited by Jonathan North

“The Strongest Pillaged the Weakest”

Faber du Faur’s painting depicting the scene on December 4 shows a small band defending itself from attack while stealing the blanket from a wounded man.  In the background, some troops are forming a line of skirmish.

Near Oschimany, 4 Decemberby Faber du Faur

Near Oschimany, 4 December
by Faber du Faur

Near Oschimany, 4 December
“The cold was getting worse and we were losing more and more men and horses. Many soldiers who had survived numerous campaigns and suffering of every description now succumbed to the cold.  As we headed for Vilna we were reinforced by depots and reserves.  But it was all for nothing: their support was transient and served only to augment our casualties.  Thrust from their comfortable quarters, most of these young troops, many of whom had only been in the army six months, perished during their first night in the open,”

StragglerCommemorative 1912 Russian Candy Box Card

Straggler
Commemorative 1912 Russian Candy Box Card

“The army dragged itself forward, littering the road with its dead, dying and deranged.  We were constantly harassed by bands of Cossacks, greedy for booty, who threw themselves on stragglers or small detachments.  In order to beat off such attacks, armed men gathered in bands and there were running battles in the snow with a few pieces of artillery, dragged all this way without horses, firing their final discharges in Russia.”

“Mixed in with such bravery was, however, as much cruelty and a revolting selfishness.  The strongest pillaged the weakest, the sick were stripped of their clothing and the dying were robbed of their clothes and left to die in the deep snow.  An instinct for self-preservation had snuffed out all traces of humanity in the human heart.”

Source:
With Napoleon in Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Major Faber du Faur, 1812, edited by Jonathan North

Commemorative 1912 candy box card image and translation provided by Alexey Temnikov

“The Replacements Met the Same Fate”

In contrast to his upbeat account of December 2, Faber du Faur told about the fate of the replacement soldiers who were sent to join the retreating army.

Near Smorgoni, 3 Decemberby Faber du Faur

Near Smorgoni, 3 December
by Faber du Faur

Near Smorgoni, 3 December
During the first few days of December the cold increased tremendously and the dissolution of the army was almost completed.  Those few detachments that had crossed the Beresina in good order now dissolved, and the roads we moved on were, more and more, covered with the corpses of men and horses, victims of hunger, exhaustion and, above all, the deadly cold.  The sick and the dying were soon stripped of their clothing by those that followed behind and buried under the snow.  Smolensk had been our great hope but now it was Vilna.  There we hoped to find enough to satisfy our needs and protection afforded by the numerous troops of the garrison.  Vilna would be our winter quarters.  We were prepared to sacrifice our last drop of energy to reach Vilna.”

We arrived at Smorgoni at noon on the 3rd.  There we met 1,600 replacements for our division, waiting patiently for us in this small town.  But the division was no more and, before long, the replacements met the same fate.  Assigned to the rearguard, they soon vanished after a couple of nights in the cold.  Those few who survived were in a pitiful condition by the time we reached Vilna, and we now saw what would befall any such reserves attempting to join us.”

Source:
With Napoleon in Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Major Faber du Faur, 1812, edited by Jonathan North