Our Only Salvation Lay in a Battle We Must Win!

On the French side on the eve of battle, we see men distracting themselves with routine in order to keep their minds off the impending clash.

Sergeant Adrien Bourgogne with the Imperial Guard observed, “We got ready on the 6th for the great battle on the next day; some cleaned muskets and other weapons, others made bandages for the wounded, some made their wills, and others, again, sang or slept in perfect indifference.  The whole of the Imperial Guard received orders to appear in full uniform.”

Captain Girod de l’Ain learned to play chess on the eve of battle, “After a longish walk to reconnoitre the respective positions of the opposing armies, I returned to our bivouac and spent the time in having my first lesson in how to play chess from Major Fanfette [an aides-de-camp of General Dessaix], who adored the game and always carried with him a little cardboard chess set which folded into eight pieces and which he had himself constructed with great ingenuity.  I was obliged to mount my horse before the end of the lesson, and leave Fanfette there with his chessboard.  But when I got back he showed me our game written down, as far as we had played it, and three or four months later we finished it in Berlin.”

Lieutenant Heinrich August Vossler was just rejoining the army in time for the battle and wrote in a letter home, that the army was in “good and sanguine spirits.  We were congratulated on all sides upon our timely arrival.  If one discounted our men’s pale worn faces, the whole army seemed alive with a cheerful bustle.  Most of the troops were busy polishing and preparing weapons for the morrow, and the order reached us to make an early night of it, so as to be ready for the morning’s work.  Many a soldier stretched himself out carefree and contented, little thinking that this would be his last night on earth.  But the thought was common to us all:  things couldn’t go on much longer as they were.  Though the army’s numerical strength had shrunk alarmingly, the very considerable forces that remained consisted of the strongest and most experienced troops, and the bold and fiery eyes peering out from haggard faces promised certain victory.”

For dinner, Vossler ate “…a miserable plateful of bread soup boiled with the stump of a tallow candle.  But in my famished condition even this revolting dish seemed quite appetizing.  I lay down and slept as peacefully as if the coming day was to have resembled its fellow as one egg does another.”

A Westphalian captain named von Linsingen wrote that he couldn’t “…escape a feeling of something immense, destructive, hanging over us all.  This mood led me to look at my men.  There they were, sleeping all around me on the cold, hard soil.  I knew them all very well, and knew that many of these brave troops couldn’t survive until tomorrow evening, but would be lying torn and bloody on the battlefield.  For a moment it was all too easy to wish the Russians would just steal away again during the night.  But then I remembered our sufferings of the past weeks. Better a horrific end than a horror without end!  Our only salvation lay in a battle we must win!”

Source: Sergeant Bourgogne: With Napoleon’s Imperial Guard in the Russian Campaign and on the Retreat from Moscow 1812-13, Adrien Bourgogne, p. 20

1812: Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, Antony Brett-James, p. 123

1812: Napoloen’s Invasion of Russia, Paul Bretten Austin, p. 264 & 269

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