A Tragic Silence

Philippe-Paul de Ségur describes Napoleon’s tour of the battlefield the next day.  “The army was motionless until noon – or rather, one might have said there was no army, but only an advance guard.  The rest of the troops were scattered over the battlefield picking up the wounded, of whom there were more than twenty thousand.  These were carried five miles in the rear, to the great abbey of Kolotskoi.”

“Napoleon rode over the battlefield; there was never such a ghastly sight.  Everything contributed to the horror of it: the gloomy sky, the cold rain, the violent gale, the houses in ashes, the plain torn up, littered with ruins and debris. On the horizon the melancholy foliage of the northern trees; soldiers wandering among the corpses, looking for food in the very knapsacks of their fallen comrades; dreadful wounds (Russian bullets were larger than ours); cold campfires without song or tale; a tragic silence.”

“The dead and dying were particularly numerous at the bottom of the ravines, where so many of our troops had been hurled and others had draggged themselves to seek shelter from the enemy or the storm.  The youngest of them moaned out the name of their country or their mother.  The older men awaited death with either an impassive or a sardonic air, without condescending to beg or complain.  Some of the men asked to be killed at once, but we quickly passed these poor wretches by, knowing that they were beyond all hope, yet not having the heart to put them out of their misery.  One man, the most horribly mutilated of all (he had only his trunk and one arm left), looked so lively, so full of hope, even gaiety, that we undertook to save his life.  As he was being carried off the field he complained of pain in his missing limbs, a common occurrence among people who have had arms or legs amputated.  This seems to be a fresh proof that the spirit remains whole, and that feeling belongs to it alone, and not to the body which can no more feel than think.”

Even those unscathed in the battle are suffering.  Lieutenant Maurice de Tascher notes in his diary, “In the evening, a charge by the Prussians.  Pajol wounded.  Sept 10; Same circus as yesterday. But at least at 4 pm they halt and stand firm.  We get lost and trot until 9 pm.  Bivouac in a wood, without water, or bread, or forage.  Ate horsemeat, extreme misery.  The regiment reduced to six troops.  The Russians are burning everything, even the villages with their wounded in them. My spyglass is stolen.  Did twelve miles.”

Sources:

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp. 79-81

1812: Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, Paul Austin Britten, p. 329

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