Daily Archives: June 29, 2012

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]”

Source:
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.”