Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Campaign in Pictures

Major Christian Wilhelm von Faber du Faur was part of Ney’s IIIrd Corps during the Russian Campaign as a 32-year-old lieutenant.  What makes him special, in addition to surviving the campaign, is that he was also an artist who made sketches of what he saw.  He later turned those sketches into color paintings and gave us a visual record of the advance and the retreat accompanied by a narrative.

“On 29 June III Corps left Eve and, around noon, marched into Kirgalizky on the Vilia – a river considerably swollen by incessant rain.  The bridge had been burnt and we halted on the banks of the river whilst a pontoon bridge was thrown across.  On the 30th, early in the afternoon, the bridge was deemed ready and III Corps filed across to the far bank.  The rain continued to fall in torrents and, as well as turning our camp into a  bog, had soaked the ground, making it almost impossible to march.”

Between Kirgaliczky and Suderva, 30 June

“On the far bank we had to climb some rather steep heights in order to get to Suderva, and it was extremely difficult getting the limbers forward.  After a few guns and caissons had struggled to the crest of the heights – but then only by using double teams of horses – those that followed found the ground so churned up that guns and limbers sank up to their axles.  It was therefore necessary to find an alternative route but, for the reasons already mentioned, this new route was similarly rendered impassable.  Hundreds of horses expired and, half-submerged in the mire, marked the course of III Corps.  This particular march cost us so many horses that we had to leave a battery of 12-pounder guns, and the bulk of our reserve, at Vilna for want of draught animals to pull them.”

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

The Death of the Horses

Soon after crossing he Niemen, a storm hit which caused the death of many of the horses which the Grande Armée counted on so heavily.  One officer counted 1,200 dead horses on the road leading to Vilna before he stopped counting.  Albrecht Adam, who was attached to Prince Eugène‘s IV Corps as a civilian, painted the scene and wrote the following account:

Near Pilony, by the Niemen
29 June 1812
by Albrecht Adam

Near Pilony, by the Niemen
“The Viceroy’s [Eugène] quarters were located in this appalling village.  We were all lodged in horrible huts, barely sheltered from the insults of the weather.  Food was now scarce and the rain fell in torrents, drenching the men and the horses.  Deprived of adequate shelter, the former made the best of the situation but the latter, weakened by their exertions on the impassable roads, succumbed in droves.  They collapsed in their hundreds by our camp.  Alongside the roads, in the fields, there were piles of dead horses and hundreds of abandoned carts and the scattered contents of the baggage trains.”

“In July we felt the cold, the rain and the pangs of want.  Because of the lack of forage the horses were being fed on green corn, trampled down by the rain.  The poor creatures ate their fill but, shortly afterwards, collapsed dead.”

“I have tried to capture this morbid scene in the plate [above]”

With Napoleon in Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Albrecht Adam, 1812; Edited by Jonathan North


Life is Good for this General

Not everyone, however, was suffering.  It often took many wagons to move an officer’s belongings on campaign.  General Jean-Dominique Compans described the first few days of the invasion in a letter to his wife dated June 29, 1812.  His letter was written “Four leagues from Vilna, on the Kovno road.”

General Jean-Dominique Compans

Perhaps the letter was colored so as not to worry his wife.  It does sound, however, that he was spared many of the discomfort of the soldiers in the ranks.

“…  When the weather is fine, I sleep on straw under a shelter of branches and manage very well.  When the weather is bad, I sleep in a carriage, but when morning comes I feel the effects of not being able to stretch my legs.  However, none of this prevents me from enjoying excellent health, strength, and vigour.”

“I eat in the open air four or five times a day and my digestion works admirably: indeed, my stomach and I are in perfect harmony, and it couldn’t function better.  Every day I drink my bottle of Bordeaux wine, a little glass of rum, and several glasses of beer when I have any that is good, which does happen occasionally.  Now and then I take a cup of coffee.  We are not short of beef and mutton.  Duval [Compans’ valet de chambre, who was to die in Russia] is still at his post, and produces quite good campaign cooking.  From time to time we get a chicken or a goose, but unfortunately in this country these stupid creatures would rather be captured than purchased, and the takers are far more numerous than the buyers.  Before leaving Elbing I laid in a store of hams, smoked tongues, sausage, and rice.  These help to vary the menu, but of all this food my favourite dish is rice cooked in a good tablet soup à la Duval.  No green vegetables in this country; they take flight whenever our soldiers appear.  Nevertheless, we have found a few which had been hidden in their knapsacks.  I have had occasion to punish soldiers in my division who have been caught in this way: in my view one should be more on one’s guard than this in war-time.”

General Compans commanded the 5th Infantry Division of Davout’s I Corps.

Source: 1812: Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia edited by Antony Brett-James

And then it Began to Rain

I’ve written a number of times that the suffering began almost as soon as the Grande Armée crossed the Nieman.  In his book Napoleon in Russia: The 1812 Campaign,Alan Palmer writes, “… [the troops] moving forward in a heat that none of them had ever known before, except the veterans of Egypt…  rations

Commemorative Russian card from 1912, the 100th anniversary of the invasion. The cards were part of a package of candy.

were not getting through to the weary men and horses, and there was little enough for them to gather from the fields as they went.  Some of the cavalry tried feeding their horses on green corn and many, in consequence, died.  Count Anatole de Montesquiou, one of the junior officers on Napoleon’s staff, counted the bodies of 1,240 horses as he rode twelve miles down the road towards Vilna.”

Jakob Walter adds his description of the misery when it began to rain a few days into the campaign, “The march proceeded day and night toward Vilkomirz and Eve.  Meanwhile it rained ceaselessly for several days, and the rain was cold.  It was all the more disagreeable because nothing could be dried.  Bodily warmth was our only salvation from freezing to death.  I had on only one pair of blue linen trousers, which I had bought at Thorn, since I had thrown away my underwear because of the former heat.  Thus I was constantly wet for two days and two nights, so that not a spot on my body was dry.”

“During the third night a halt was made in a field which was trampled into a swamp.  Here we were ordered to camp and to make fires, since neither village nor forest could be seen and the rain continued without end.  You can imagine in what a half-numbed condition everyone stood here.  What could we do?  There was noting that we could do but stack the rifles in pyramids and keep moving in order not to freeze.”

Another account comes from Jean-Roch Coignet in his book Captain Coignet: A Soldier of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard from the Italian Campaign to Waterloo.  “On the 29th of June, at three o’clock, a violent storm arose, just before we came to a village, which I had had the greatest possible difficulty in reaching.  When we reached the shelter of this village, we could not unharness our horses; we had to take off their bridles, cut grass for them, and light our fires.  The storm of sleet and snow was so terrible that we could scarcely keep our horses still; we had to fasten them to the wheels.  I was half dead with the cold; not being able to stand it any longer, I opened one of my wagons, and crept inside.  Next morning a heartrending sight met our gaze: in the cavalry camp nearby, the ground was covered with horses frozen to death; more than ten thousands died during that dreadful night.  When I got out of my wagon, all numbed with the cold, I saw that three of my horses were dead…”

“When we reached the highway, we saw the dead bodies of a number of soldiers who had succumbed before the terrible storm.  This demoralized a great many of our men.”

Pleased To See Her Countrymen… Initially

On 28th June, the Countess de Choiseul-Gouffier, who had recently been at the ball held in honour of General Levin-Bennigsen that was attended by the Czar, witnessed the entry of the lead elements of la Grande Armée into Vilna:

“I can find no words to describe my emotions when I saw some Polish troops! Poles who were galloping at full speed, sabres drawn and laughing, waving their lance pennants, which were in the national colours. I was wearing these for the first time! I stood at an open window, and they saluted me as they passed. The sight of these real compatriots set my heart racing. I felt that I was Polish by birth, that I was going to to become Polish again. Tears of joy and enthusiasm streamed down my face. This was a delicious moment , but it was not to last long.”

She continued:

“The French army who entered Vilna had not had bread for three days… The country through which the Grande Armée had passed had been ravaged and pillaged and its corn had been cut green for cavalry; it could not, therefore, supply the needs of the capital, and the people dared not even expose their convoys on the roads which were infested by marauders.

Besides, the disorderly behaviour of the army was a consequence of the sentiment of the chief, for after having crossed the Nieman Napoleon in an order of the day declared to the troops that they were about to set foot on Russian territory. It was like this that the liberator of Poland, so much desired, announced himself to the Lithuanians. In consequence of this Proclamation Lithuania was considered and treated as a hostile country, while its inhabitants, animated by patriotic enthusiasm flew to welcome the French. They were soon to be desported and outraged by those who they regarded as the instruments of the deliverance of their country and compelled to abandon their homes and their property to pillage. Many took refuge in the depths of the forest, carrying with them that which they hold the most dear—honour of their wives and children.

Each day brought the recital of new excesses committed by the French soldier in the country. Vilna seemed to have become a seat of war, soldiers bivouacked in the streets, which resounded with the clash of arms, the blare of trumpets, the neighing of horses and the confusion of many languages.”

Taken from Spring, L (2009) 1812: Russia’s Patriotic War. The History Press, Stroud Gloucestershire, UK. pp. 26 & 27.  Thank  you to James Fisher for providing this post.

Jakob Walter writes about the first few days of the Invasion

In the book Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter describes the first few days of the advance into Russian.  What strikes me is the misery of the beginning of what turns out to be a six month campaign.  From the beginning, the soldiers are encountering hunger and severe conditions. Walter writes, “On June 25 the army went over the bridges.  We now believed that, once in Russia, we need to nothing but forage — which, however, proved to be an illusion.  The town of Poniemon was already stripped before we could enter, and so were all the villages.  Here and there a hog ran around and then was beaten with clubs, chopped with sabers, and stabbed with bayonets; and, often still living, it would be cut and torn to pieces.  Several times I succeeded in cutting off something; but I had to chew it and eat it uncooked, since my hunger could not wait for a chance to boil the meat.  The worst torture was the march, because the closed ranks forced all to go in columns; the heat and the dust flared up into our eyes as if from smoking coal heaps.  The hardship was doubled by the continual halting of the troops whenever we came to a swamp or a narrow road.  Often one had to stand for half an hour; then another such period was spent catching up and drudging away without water or food.”

The 200th Anniversary of the Invasion of Russia Begins

200 years ago today, Napoleon’s Grande Armée crossed the Nieman river on pontoon bridges to launch the invasion.  Each man carried three days of

Napoleon Crossing the Nieman
June 1812

provisions and the expectation of a short, decisive campaign.  I doubt anyone had any idea how disastrously things would turn out.

This blog aims to capture the invasion through the eyes of the soldiers who lived it and to relate that experience as closely as possible to the 200th anniversary of its occurrence.   Having said that, I am about to leave on a trip to France and will be unable to make any posts until I return in the first week of July.

Napoleon Crossing the Niemen
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

In the meanwhile, I encourage you to look back to the posts I made one year ago, the 199th anniversary.  I also suggest you buy a copy of my work of historical fiction about the invasion: Russian Snows: Coming of Age in Napoleon’s Army.  The book aims to show what the conditions were like for the ordinary soldier on the campaign.  The book is available through the Russian Snows website and through Amazon (paperback and Kindle) as well as Barnes & Noble (Nook).

As always, I welcome contributors as guest bloggers who can blog about conditions on the campaign.  Contact me at to make arrangements.

Thank you for reading ~ Scott Armstrong

Image and translation of Commemorative 1912 card provided by Alexey Temnikov

The Grande Armée Crosses the Nieman

On the night of June 23, 1812, Napoleon ordered three pontoon bridges to be built across the Nieman river.  The following morning, the men began to cross and enter Russian territory (Lithuania).  Philippe-Paul de Ségur describes the scene as the first soldiers approached the bridge: “Enthusiasm ran to high that

Crossing the three bridges over the Nieman

two divisions of the vanguard, contending for the honor of crossing first, almost came to blows, and were restrained with difficulty.  Napoleon was impatient to set foot on Russian territory.  Without faltering he took that first step toward his ruin.  He stood for a time at the head of the bridge, encouraging the soldiers with his look.  All saluted him with their usual Vive l’Empereur! They seemed more excited than he …”

Source: Napoleon’s Russian Campaign by Philippe-Paul de Ségur

Napoleon Reviews the Troops

One of Napoleon’s strengths was his connection to the soldiers who fought for him.  Philippe-Paul de Ségur, aide-de-camp to Napoleon, recorded his experiences in the Russian campaign.  His book opens with an account of Napoleon reviewing the men.  It is an interesting account of Napoleon’s knowledge of his army and the level to which he interacted with the men.

“According to his custom, Napoleon walked along in front of the ranks.  He knew what wars each regiment had fought with him.  He halted before the oldest soldiers, mentioning to one the battle of the Pyramids; to another, Marengo; to another, Austerlitz, Iena, or Friedland, accompanying his words with a familiar tap on the shoulder; and the veteran who believed he had been recognized by his Emperor felt himself grow in stature and glory before his envious, less experienced companions.”

“As Napoleon went down the line he did not overlook the younger soldiers.  It seemed that everything about them interested him, and that their slightest wants were known to him.  He questioned them: did their captains take proper care of them?  Were they getting their pay?  Did they need any equipment?  He even asked to see their knapsacks.”

“He halted at the center of the regiment.  There he inquired what officers’ billets were vacant, and in a voice which could be clearly heard asked who most deserved promotion.  He called those whose names were mentioned and questioned them: How many years of service? What campaigns? Any wounds? Any meritorious actions? Then he appointed them officers and had them installed immediately, all of which delighted the soldiers.  They told themselves that this great emperor who judged the nations in the mass still troubled himself about their well-being – down to the meanest detail.  They felt that they were his eldest, his true family.  In this manner Napoleon instilled in them the love of war, of glory, and of himself.”

Source: Napoleon’s Russian Campaign by Philippe-Paul de Ségur

An Unfortunate Comment

Lieutenant Karl von Suckow serving in the Chasseurs á pied of the Württemberg Guard recalled a dinner given to brigade commander General Ernst von Hügel near Stuttgart before the start of the Russian campaign: “The General warned us to have no illusions on the matter and to prepare ourselves resolutely to meet every eventuality.  One young lieutenant did not share this point of view.  He believed that verything would go well, and he was even thoughtless enough to exclaim:

‘Pooh!  A war against Russia!  The prospect worries me no more than eating a slice of bread and butter!’

At these words the General replied in a grave tone of voice:

‘All right, Lieutenant.  When the occasion arises, I shall not fail to remind you of the slice of bread and butter.’

He kept his promise.”

Source: 1812, Antony Brett-James