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.

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