Monthly Archives: August 2012

In Camp

Faber du Faur painted a scene of the encampment of Ney’s III Corps on August 31, 1812.  The scene seems in contrast to many of the descriptions of the destruction of the countryside leading up to Borodino.  Faur’s painting shows a standing field of grain and houses and buildings untouched upon the arrival of the French.  Unfortunately, what had been spared by the Russians, was soon destroyed by the French.  The following description accompanies the painting.

In Camp, 31 August
by Faber du Faur

“From Viasma onwards the land became more and more fertile, and our march through Gjatsk took us through rolling countryside and well-constructed villages.  Most of these villages, which the Russians had not destroyed as they fell back before us, would soon be submerged under the torrent of the retreating French army and would disappear without a trace.”

“Here we find III Corps, camped in the fields to the left of the main road, close by a stately country seat soon to become Marshal Ney’s headquarters.  The fields, cultivated with so much care, the houses, so clean and tidy, and the château, so charming and fine, all bore testament to the affluence and comfort of the inhabitants, all of whom had fled.  Within one day of our arrival, all this prosperity had vanished, destroyed and trampled by out troops.  By 1 September the charming scene depicted here had been entirely erased.”

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

The French Let Down Their Guard

The account of Philippe-Paul de Ségur tells about a “minor” incident that happened around this time.  Napoleon had received word that Emperor Alexander had ordered Kutuzov to stand and fight before Moscow.  A Russian envoy entered the French camp with a flag of truce.  Ségur picks up the story, “This Russian officer had so little to say that it was at once evident that he had come as an observer.  His bearing displeased Davout in particular, who found him overconfident.  One of our generals, having thoughtlessly asked him what we should find between Viazma and Moscow, got the arrogant replay, ‘Poltava!’ [Battle in which Peter the Great defeated Charles XII of Sweden in 1709 during Charles’ invasion of Russia].  This answer promised a battle and pleased our generals, who appreciated a ready rejoinder and were always happy to encounter opponents worthy of them.”

“This envoy was escorted away without precaution, as he had been admitted and saw that anyone could get into the imperial headquarters without any difficulty.  He passed our outposts without being challenged by a single sentry.  Everywhere he found the same carelessness, that boldness natural to the French, and to victors.  Everybody was asleep, there was no password, no patrol.  Our soldiers seemed to neglect these precautions as being beneath their notice.  Why worry about security?  They were attacking, they were victorious.  Let the Russians be on the defensive.  This same officer said later that he was tempted to take advantage of our imprudence that night, but there was no Russian force at hand.”

Source: Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, by Philippe-Paul de Ségur, p 48.

The Destruction of the French Cavalry

Captain Victor Dupuy of the 7th Hussars, describes the daily routine of the pursuit and the wearing effect it had on the cavalry.

“Every day from five o’clock in the morning we skirmished with the Cossacks,


and sometimes this lasted until ten or eleven at night.  They carried away everything they could from the villages, and drove out the inhabitants who took refuge in the forests. Then they set fire to the villages.  If, by a bold maneuver or a sharp attack we did not allow them time for this, their artillery would fire incendiary shells, which produced the same result, setting alight the thatched roofs.”

“This method of waging war we found very prejudicial.  After days spent entirely in fights and fatigues, we could scarcely find enough to eat and often had nothing to give the horses, whose number dwindled every day in alarming fashion.”

“The chief cause of the destruction of our cavalry was the little care taken.  After fighting all day we were made to bivouac in windmills on parched heights denuded of all resources.  Only with the utmost difficulty did we manage to procure a little bad forage; and often, in the middle of of the day, the horses dropped with fatigue and hunger.”

“Though hard to credit, it is nevertheless true that at the battle of Borodino our division, which had numbered 7,500 horsemen at the crossing of the Niemen, had not even one thousand, and this immense gap was certainly not caused by the enemy’s fire!  But the King of Naples [Marshal Murat], who in face of the enemy knew so well how to make use of the cavalry, did not know how to preserve it by ensuring supplies or at least by placing it within reach of subsistence.”

Source: 1812: Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia by Antony Brett-James, p. 99



All Struggling Forward in the Same Direction

Faber du Faur’s unit was given three days rest after the battle of Valutino-Gora.  But once camp was broken, conditions became harsh and du Faur’s description of them is almost the same as Jakob Walter’s during the same period.

Here is du Faur’s description which accompanies his painting: “After our three-day halt at Valutina-Gora, we broke camp on the 23rd and followed the Russian army, making arduous marches along the main road and braving the heat and enormous clouds of dust, and being jostled by swarms of other troops all struggling forward in the same direction.”

Between Dorogobouye and Slavkovo, 27 August
by Faber du Faur
Note the weary expressions on the men around the fire and the oriental look of the building in the background

“Thus it was that, in the afternoon of the 26th, we reached Dorogobouye on the left bank of the Dnepr; this town was, like Smolensk and so many others, the victim of flames and was soon reduced to ashes.  We only remained here a few hours, and camped a few miles further on, continuing our march, on the 27th, towards Viasma.  Swarms of stragglers, who either could not keep up or who were charged with obtaining food, milled about and bore stark witness to the disorder besetting the army.  The disappearance of the Jews and the oriental appearance of the architecture indicated that we were now gracing the soil of ancient Muscovy.”

Taken Prisoner by the Cossacks

Lance-corporal Wilhelm Heinemann, the survivor of the massacre at Valutina was charged with the task of escorting a wounded sergeant to the rear.  The sergeant developed gangrene and urged his companion to leave him to die.  Heinemann now found himself alone amongst the stragglers and looters who clung to the Grande Armée’s flanks and rear.

He came across a few bands, but was treated poorly and soon found himself alone and starving.  About to end his own misery with a musket shot, he instead spotted a running pig and shot it instead.  It turned out a fellow German was chasing the pig and they ended up travelling together for a few days.  The two approached a village, unsure of who they would find.  Cossacks charged forth and the companion fled, leaving Heinemann alone once more.

Surrounded, he recalled hearing that the Russians treat the Germans better than the French.  When asked in French to surrender, he pretended not to understand and said “I’m not French, I’m German.”

Now a prisoner, we pick up his narrative: “To begin with he [the Cossack] drove me before him at a run, his horse’s hoofs at my heels…  So far I hadn’t been maltreated.  But we halted at a distance from the village and the Cossacks begin visiting me, plundering me in the crude open-hearted way so typical of them…  They took all my money, and the one who got it patted me amiably on my cheek, calling me Patruschka, little father.  But a second Cossack let me understand that if I didn’t produce some more I’d have a taste of the knout.  A third greedily grabbed my tchapska, while a fourth went through my wallet, which was inside it, looking for any rouble notes.  To me my wallet was endlessly valuable.  It contained no money, but everything I held holy, letters from my mother and other personal papers.”

Soon enraged villagers arrived and began to abuse him by throwing stones and dirt , pushing him around and beating him about the head.  “… the women are worst of all.  Blood was running down my face.  One moment I was lying on the ground, being trampled under their feet; the next, they’d grabbed me up by my clothes and hoisted me high in the air, to rip off my shiny buttons.  In this way my uniform was torn to shreds.”

Eventually, he was placed among other Westphalian prisoners, all from his own, reconstituted regiment.  They had been captured while out on a foraging party.  The group was herded along at lance-point.  Soaked and starving, they were forced into pigstyes for the night where they were watched over by peasants and Coassacks.  Fearing this might be his end, the prisoners were instead called out where they were thrown bread: “A bit was flung to each of us, and we were allowed to drink out of a well used by the cattle.  Such was the beginning of a chain of efforts and sufferings no pen can describe.”

They arrived at the headquarters of General [Ferdinand von] Winzingerode, a German in Russian service.  The General sympathized with his fellow countrymen and made arrangements for their better treatment, but once away from the camp, their suffering renewed.

Forced to travel day after day at a brisk trot, they were herded like cattle and watched over by peasants with clubs.  “Anyone who has ever marched in a column knows how wearisome it is to march close behind the man in front of you.  But unable to move on without tramping on his heels, after only an hour’s marching the strongest man was powerless.”

The peasants’ treatment of prisoners: “bore witness to a low bestiality without a trace of humanity in it.”

On January 5th, they reach Archangel on the White Sea.

Source: 1812: Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia by Paul Britten Austin, pp. 221-229.

In Camp Before Valuntina-Gora

In contrast to Jakob Walter’s description of a swift pursuit of the Russians after Smolensk, Faber du Faur writes about three days of rest.  While they were both in Ney’s IIIrd Corps, it appears that du Faur was involved in the action at Valutina-Gora while Walter was not.  This most likely explains the rest given to du Faur’s unit.

du Faur provides the following description for his painting:  “On the 20th, the day after the battle, we quitted the battlefield and made camp on the plateau, just to the right of the main road.  Three days of rest followed, drawing to a close a bloody period of fighting.”

In Camp Before Valutina-Gora, 22 August
by Faber du Faur

“We heard that we were to be reviewed by the Emperor, who had, the day after the fighting at Valutina, already reviewed Ney’s other divisions and that of [General Charles-Étienne] Gudin.  Our days of rest were marked by the occasional return of a few inhabitants who had fled during the fighting.  Some of them came over to our camp, meeting our curious troops who, by means of signs, gestures and a little Russian they had picked up, attempted to communicate with them.”

“If Only My Mother Had Not Borne Me!” – The pursuit of the Russians after Smolensk

Jakob Walter describes the conditions endured as the French pursued the retreating Russians after Smolensk:  “On August 19, the entire army moved forward, and pursued the Russians with all speed.  Four or five hours farther up the river another battle started, but the enemy did not hold out long, and the march now led to Moshaisk, the so-called ‘Holy Valley.’  From Smolensk to Moshaisk the war displayed its horrible work of destruction:  all the roads,

fields, and woods lay as though sown with people, horses, wagons, burned villages and cities; everything looked like the complete ruin of all that lived.  In particular, we saw ten dead Russians to one of our men, although every day our numbers fell off considerably.  In order to pass through woods, swamps, and narrow trails, trees which formed barriers in the woods had to be removed, and wagon barricades of the enemy had to be cleared away.  In such numbers were the Russians lying around that it seemed as if they were all dead.  The cities in the meantime were Dorogobush, Semlevo, Viasma, and Gshatsk.  The march up to there, as far as it was a march, is indescribable and inconceivable for people who have not seen anything of it.  The very great heat, the dust which was like a thick fog, the closed line of march in columns, and the putrid water from holes filled with dead people, and cattle brought everyone close to death; and eye pains, fatigue, thirst, and hunger tormented everybody.  God!  how often I remembered the bread and beer which I had enjoyed at home with such an indifferent pleasure!  Now, however, I must struggle, half wild, with the dead and living.  How gladly would I renounce for my whole life the warm food so common at home if I only did not lack good bread and beer now!  I would not wish for more all my life.  But these were empty, helpless thoughts.  Yes, the thought of my brothers and sisters so far away added to my pain!  Wherever I looked, I saw the soldiers with dead, half-desperate faces.  Many cried out in despair, ‘If only my mother had not borne me!’  Some demoralized men even cursed their parents and their birth.”

“These voices, however, raised my soul to God, and I often spoke in quietude, ‘God, Thou canst save me; but, if it is not Thy will, I hope that my sins will be forgiven because of my sufferings and pains and that my soul will ascend to Thee.’  With such thoughts I went on trustingly to meet my fate.’


The Debut of the 1812 Overture

This blog is about the experiences of the soldiers during the Russian campaign.  Whenever possible, I post the accounts on the 200th anniversary of the actual event.  Today, however, a friend pointed out to me that it is the 130th anniversary of the public debut of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture in Moscow.

The music is best known to American audiences as the soundtrack to Fourth of July fireworks grand finales.  However, it was written to commemorate the  victory of the Russians over the French in 1812.  The listener is taken through the stages of the invasion:  The advance and victories of the French, the battle at Borodino, the retreat of the French and the victory of the Russians.  The piece is over 16 minutes long and includes the firing of cannon and the ringing of church bells (for those performances that go all out).

This recording (Antal Dorati) includes the ringing of carrillon bells and the firing of cannon at West Point

You can listen to the Overture here if you scroll down to the bottom.  (Note: The recording on the website referenced above is not the same as the one pictured to the left which was a Christmas present to me last year).

Thank you to Lizzie Ross for giving me the “heads up” on this significant anniversary.

Alexander appoints Kutusov

The withdrawal from Smolensk caused a further deterioration in the relations between the Russian generals and increased anti-Barclay sentiment. According to Sir Robert Wilson:

“The spirit of the Army was affected by a sense of mortification and all ranks loudly and boldly complained; discontent was general and discipline relaxing. The removal [of Barclay de Tolly]… had become a universal demand.”

On the 17th of August, in a letter to Alexander, General Count Shuvalov, one of the Czar’s advisors, presented his master with a stark decision:

“The Army has not the least confidence in the present Commander. … A new commander is necessary, one with authority over both armies and Your Majesty should appoint him immediately; otherwise Russia is lost.”

General Prince Mikhail Golnishchev-Kutusov was recommended as the new

Portrait of
Field Marshal Kutuzov
By George Dawe,
painted in 1829
Hermitage Museum,
St. Petersburg

Russian army commander by the committee of senior officers whom Alexander had charged with the task. Alexander was reluctant to appoint Kutusov, whom he had disliked since the disastrous Battle of Austerlitz, but, on 20th August, he signed the decree. Lord George Cathcart noted:

“in appointing Koutousof [sic.], it was considered that his long-standing in the Army, his recent able conduct of the Turkish campaign, and his former military reputation, would place him above rivalry, and that in consequence he might be a kind of head to unite all parties.”

Source: From Mikaberdize, A (2007) The Battle of Borodino: Napoleon versus Kutuzov. Campaign Chronicles (Ed. C Summerville). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, England. pp. 19–21.

Thank you to James Fisher for providing the information for this blog post.

Massacre at Valutina

Lance-corporal Heinemann was a member of the voltigeur company of the Brunswick Chasseurs.  He writes a terrifying account of how his company (which had already lost 77 of their original 150 men so far on the campaign) was overrun and slaughtered.

Heinemann’s company was out ahead of the main French force when Marshal Murat road up shouting “What are you doing here?  Forward!  Through those thickets, in line of skirmishers, against the enemy!  The army’ll come up behind you!”

Murat departed and the company began the advance.  Heinemann continues, “Beyond us lay an open field.  We waited for our regiments to come up in support.  First we caught brief glimpses of groups of Cossacks; then of Russian hussars; and, soon afterwards, whole lines of enemies, swathed in dust clouds…  We looked behind us, to see if any of our own are coming up.  Not a chance!… And at each moment our danger is growing.”

“The coronet is calling in our skirmishers, spread out to right and left, and the Cossacks are cutting off our retreat…  Our little force forms a double square, six ranks deep – an insignificant little troop amidst countless enemies!  Sabre in hand, our captain steps out boldly from the square, baring his chest to the Cossack skirmishers.  He’ll be the first to fall, going on ahead to prepare night quarters for 65 comrades in eternity…”

“With a thousandfold hurrah the galloping Cossacks break into our defenseless group from all sides.  After a mere couple of minutes our front ranks are lying on the ground, stabbed through by a thousand lances.  Our muskets’ smoke disperses to reveal a horrible bloodbath.  None of us sees the least chance of escaping the slaughter now beginning.  The Cossacks are making such easy work of us, our inability to resist seems to stir their blood-lust to madness.  Surrender is out of the question.  As if driven by some obscure instinct, anyone who’s still alive throws himself down on the ground and plays dead.  Comes a moment of horrible waiting.  Happy he who finds himself lying under heaps of corpses!  Even if the blood of those of our comrades who’ve been stabbed through seeps down over our bodies, if their limbs twitch and jerk on top of ours, if the dying breathe their last sighs into our ears and their corpses press upon us – at least there’s still a chance of surviving underneath this terrible rampart.  In such lethal need it’s every man for himself!”

“… I was one of the few still alive.  Blood was seeping through my uniform, soaking me to the skin and gluing my eyelids together.  Though still not wounded, I could hear the clash of the lances and sabres, mingled with our assassins’ dull oaths, muttering between their teeth their terrible ‘Pascholl!  Sabacki Franzusky!‘ [Die, dog of a Frenchman!] as they exerted all their strength to probe the bodies of the dead with their lances and sabres, to see whether beneath them there mightn’t be something still alive.  Finally my turn comes.  A lance-thrust passing through the chest and back of a comrade who was lying on top of me, strikes my skull a glancing blow and rips open the skin.  Yet I feel no pain.  Lying there half-conscious, all I long for is an end to the slaughter.”

The Cossacks dismount and throw the dead aside, looking for anyone who might still be alive.  “… In this terrible moment I can’t help opening my eyes to see what’s going on.  Suddenly I’m aware of a bearded face with white teeth, bending closely down over me, and hear the Cossack’s savage scornful laugh as he finds another victim to slaughter.  A hundred arms drag me out from amidst the mangled corpses.  And above me I see innumerable lances raised, ready to stab me – when, all of a sudden, familiar sounds suddenly ring out.  Orders shouted in German!  The clash of weapons! Heavenly music… The blue Westphalian hussars are fighting the Cossacks and Russian green hussars hand to hand, and after them come our chasseurs.  The Cossacks depart, cursing.  Only a few still go on eagerly searching for plunder; then even these gallop off, and all is quiet around our square’s burial place.”

Only thirteen of the company survived the battle.

Source: 1812: Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, Paul Britten Austin