The swift moving Grande Armée quickly outran the supply train making it necessary for the army to forage. This was part of the plan and the cavalry had even been issued scythes so they could harvest grain for their horses as they went along. Each man carried four days of provisions as he crossed the Nieman River into Russia.
Jakob Walter describes how he was part of a foraging party in late July along the Dvina River in the area of Polotsk. (Polotsk was to the north-west of Vitebsk, also along the Dvina River, where the battle described in yesterday’s post took place). Walter writes about his foraging expedition, “There were eight of us, and we came to a very distant village. Here we searched all the houses. There were no peasants left… each [soldier] ran into a house alone, broke open everything that was covered, and searched all the floors and still nothing was found… I once more inspected a little hut somewhat removed from the village. Around it from top to bottom were heaped bundles of hemp and shives, which I tore down; and, as I worked my way to the ground, sacks full of flour appeared.” They sifted the flour to remove the chaff and refilled the sacks. Walter remembered seeing a horse somewhere in the village. They found two colts, but one couldn’t be used. Two sacks were placed on the remaining horse and they started back to camp. “While we were marching there, the Russians saw us from a distance with this booty; and at the same moment we saw a troop of peasants in the valley, about fifty. These ran toward us. What could we do but shoot at them? I, however, led the horse, and a second man held the sacks while the rest fired, one after another, so that the peasants divided in order not to be hit so easily; but they could not take the sacks away from us.”
They came to a deep stream with only a round tree trunk laid across as a bridge. Walter volunteered to carry the sacks across and suggested they throw the horse into the water. Walter made it across with his sacks, quite a feat he said, on a log without handrails. The horse was driven across by throwing stones at it and then re-loaded on the far bank.
They made dough balls with the flour and roasted it in the fire. The food lasted for a week.
About the same time, at Vitebsk, Sgt. Bourgogne had an easier time getting his provisions. He was visited by twelve young men from his “country” (Conde in northern France on the border of Belgium). Ten were drummers, one a drum-major and the other a voltigeur. They invited him to “…come with us and share what we have, wine, gin, and other things very good for you. We took them yesterday evening from the Russian General. There was a little cart holding his kitchen and everything belonging to it. We have put it all into the canteen cart, with Florencia our cantiniere – she is a pretty Spandiard.”
Sgt. Bourgogne ends this episode with a sad note, “The poor fellows little thought that in a few days eleven of them would not be alive.” These events took place at the end of July. The drummers were killed at the Battle of Borodino in September.