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.”