Daily Archives: September 5, 2012

Finishing what the Russians Started

Faber du Faur painted a series of three scenes from September 5, 1812 as he was heading toward Borodino.

Gjatsk, 5 September
by Faber du Faur

“This peaceful interlude was of but brief duration.  Two-thirds of this temporary population scarcely had time to settle in before being obliged to quit their lodgements.  Fire took hold in the western portion of the town and, fanned by a stiff westerly wind, it made frightening progress and, in too short a space of time, had ravaged both the town’s stone and wooden buildings.  Carelessness, on the part of soldiers inexperienced in the art of heating and lighting houses constructed out of wood, was largely to blame.  Nevertheless it was ironic that we had managed to extinguish a fire started by the Russians upon first entering the town:  now, despite ourselves, we had managed to accomplish their task.”

Gjatsk, 5 September
by Faber du Faur

“The road leading out of Gjatsk was closed off by a most singular looking barrier – a barrier painted in garish and outlandish colours.  The sentry box was painted in a chequered pattern, the barrier’s palisade in zigzags, in Russia’s national colours.  The barrier consisted of two mobile chevaux-de-frise, hinged so that they could swing open or remain closed according to the circumstance.  The barrier witnessed the movement of massive numbers of troops as it was through this gate, on the 4th and 5th, that the army’s columns marched toward Borodino.  It was an almost continual procession of soldiers of all kinds, and you could see men drawn from every nation of Europe jostling each other in their hurry to get to the fore.”

Near Gjatsk, 5 September
by Faber du Faur

“Not far from this gate, in the direction of Mojaisk, we came across some elegant windmills, these reminded us of a Dutch or north German landscape rather than a Russian one.  The area round about, however, was completely devoid of life as the army had swept on towards Kolotskoi and Borodino, steeling itself for the oncoming clash with Kutuzov.  Only a few signs marked the passing of the great mass – dead horses, stragglers and cautious inhabitants emerging from their hideaways.”


With Napoleon in Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Major Faber du Faur, 1812, Edited and Translated by Jonathan North, plates 46, 47 and 48



The Road to Borodino

The march from Smolensk to Borodino proved just as miserable as the first part of the invasion.  Captain Heinrich von Brandt had the following to say:  “The heat was extreme.  Furious gusts of wind swirled up such dense clouds of dust that often we could no longer see the great trees which lined the road…

“This constant burning dust was a real torment.  So as to protect at least their eyes, many soldiers improvised dark spectacles out of bits of window glass.  Others carried their shakos under their arms and wrapped a handkerchief round their heads, tearing only a hole large enough for seeing the way and breathing.  Others made garlands of foliage…. but at the least shower of rain all this masquerade vanished.”

Major Friedrich Wilhelm von Lossberg of Westphalia served with Junot’s corps described the march to his wife.  One morning he was not feeling well and got a later start.  This gave him the opportunity to see the disorder left in the wake of the army:  “And even if I had not seen the high road to Moscow, I should only have needed to follow the smell, while every hundred yards at least I stumbled upon a fallen horse or a bullock which had been slaughtered and whose intestines lay on the road.  At every village or isolated house I found dead, unburied soldiers, both friend and foe: nobody had taken the trouble to dig a grave for them.

So as to rest in the shade and drink some coffee – my servant had with him everything necessary for making it – I dismounted by a building which I then discovered was so damaged, so filthy, and so full of stragglers from every corps that I sat down some way off on a green beside a naked corpse, and was so insensible to every other emotion that I was able to give myself up to the single thought: how good it was that the dead men had not yet putrefied, because otherwise I should have been obliged to drink my coffee out in the burning sun.”

Captain Girod de l’Ain wrote about the advance at the end of August: “The heat was excessive: I had never experienced worse in Spain; but there is this difference that in Russia it does not last long.  The main Moscow road we were on is sandy, and the army, marching in several serried columns abreast, raised such clouds of dust that we could not see on another two yards away and our eyes, ears, and nostrils were full of it, and our faces encrusted.  This heat and dust made us extremely thirsty, as can well be imagined, and water was scarce.  Will you believe me when I say that I saw men lying on their bellies to drink horses’ urine in the gutter!”