Marshal Victor was fighting the rearguard action on the eastern bank while the army crossed. On the night of the 28th, he received orders to evacuate the left bank by 5 a.m. [on the 29th] and to burn any vehicle that could not be moved across the bridges. Once across, he, along with General Jean Baptiste Eblé were ordered to burn the bridges so that they could not be used by the pursuing Russians.
In The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, Alexander Mikaberidze describes that the bridges were left open after all of the troops had crossed. Only the infantry bridge remained useable in the early hours of the 29th. The artillery bridge had collapsed.
At 7 am, Napoleon ordered the destruction of the bridges. Eblé delayed burning the bridges and personally urged the stragglers to cross while there was a chance. He and other officers tried to rally the stragglers, but could not rouse them. One witness wrote “No one stirred. Most had fallen into such apathy that they listened indifferently to the words being addressed to them.”
Eblé put Colonel Séruzier in charge of breaking up the bridges. Séruzier wrote “…I could not get the drivers of the baggage… to listen to reason. In vain I told them everyone would be saved if only there was a little order… Only a few crossed… The greater number lingered on the left bank…”
Between 8:30 and 9 am, Eblé gave the final order to destroy the bridges. As the stragglers saw the bridges catch fire, they roused themselves and made a desperate attempt to cross whether on the bridges or through the river. Louise Fusil was a few miles away when the bridges were burned, but years later would recall “… a scream, a single cry from the multitude. Indefinable, it still resounds in my ears every time I think of it. All the unfortunates who had been left on the other bank were falling, crushed by the Russian Army’s grapeshot.”
Colonel Séruzier wrote of what happened next. “The Cossacks flung themselves on these people who had been left behind. They pillaged everything on the opposite bank, where there was a huge quantity of vehicles laden with immense riches. Those who were not massacred in this first charge were taken prisoner and whatever they possessed fell to the Cossacks.”
Ten years later, a Prussian officer of Engineers, Major J.L.U. Blesson, visited the site of the crossing. “We required no one to show us round, and no explanations in order to find our way. The points where the two bridges had stood were visible from a great distance, and we could even pick out the track along which the wretches struggled forward… Half-way to Studyanka already we spotted — just think of it, ten years after the catastrophe — a mass of leatherware, strips of felt, scraps of cloth, shako covers, etc., strewn on the ground and fields. As one approached the river, these melancholy relics lay thicker and even in heaps, mingled with the bones of human beings and animals, skulls, tin fittings, bandoliers, bridles…”
In 1812, with the cries of the trapped and doomed stragglers ringing in their ears, the remains of the Grande Armée headed west as the weather took a turn for the worse.