The Bridges Over the Berezina

The engineers worked through the night and into the next day building trestles, installing them in the water and then laying planks across stringers from trestle to trestle.  What did the bridges look like when they were done?  Alexander Mikaberidze‘s book The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, gives us an idea.

There were two bridges: one for infantry and another for the artillery.  Effort was concentrated on the infantry bridge first which was completed at 1 pm on the 26th.  The artillery bridge was completed at 4 pm.

The construction of the Trestles by Grenadier Francois Pils

The approaches to the bridges were marshy, but had begun to freeze as the weather turned colder during these days.  The engineers laid out fascines (bundles of sticks) to walk across.  The infantry bridge was about 100 metres long (109 yards) and 4 or 5 metres wide (13 or 16 feet).  Stringers running from trestle to trestle supported the planks that were laid across the width of the bridge.  Some of the wood used included roof slats that were ‘four or five lignes [1 -1.25cm or .39 – .49 inches] thick’ from nearby houses, and so had to place double and triple layers of planks, which were then covered with bark, hay or branches.  Some of the trestles kept sinking into the mud of the river and the roadway was about a foot above the water.

One description of the bridge and the crossing is as follows.  The roadway was “very close to the surface of the river” and “minor things, such as the breaking of individual surface planks, caused major delays and crowding, with people pressuring forward and to the side, which tripped many into the water…”

Only armed soldiers were allowed across, but masses of stragglers pushed to the entrance to the bridges.  This meant great difficulty for armed units to work their way to the bridge and then across.  The bridge was soon littered with debris and bodies which made crossing even harder.  To add to the danger, large ice flows came downstream and crashed into the low bridge.

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