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