Monthly Archives: October 2012

Divine Intervention

Jakob Walter records two  incidents early in the retreat in which he credits God for saving him.  As he headed north with the army to the Moscow-Smolensk road, the column was harassed by the cossacks and Russians.  Outside of the burned city of Borovsk, “One no sooner thought of resting than the Russians fell upon our army and cut off many as captives.  Everything was in confusion and during almost the whole night the throng had to retreat to Moshaisk everyone running so as not to fall into the hands of the enemy.  Because of these considerable losses, cannon, munition wagons, coaches, and baggage wagons by the hundreds had to be thrown into the water; and, where that was impossible, all wagons were burned…  The sutlers, even the cavalry, had to give up their horses so that these could be hitched to the cannon.  The fighting, the shrieking, the firing of large and small guns, hunger and thirst, and all conceivable torments increased the never-ending confusion.  Indeed, even the lice seemed to seek supremacy, for their number on both officers and privates was in the thousands.”

“In times when death was near, God sent me help again and again.  After midnight, when we pitched camp again following the above-mentioned pursuit by the Russians, a little village stood a quarter of an hour off the highway, and I crept with my master …  into a stable..  There I saw hanging on a cord… a smoked pig’s head.  As if received from the hand of God, I took it off from the cord with a prayer of thanks.  I, my master, and my fellow servant ate it with unbelievable appetite, and we felt life come to us again.”

Some nights later, Walter made another miraculous discovery, “As I sought to fetch water in the night… I drew my water with much effort…  On the way back, a round ball resembling a dead sheep was lying on the ground.  I picked it up and in astonished joy unwrapped a rolled-up Crimean fur that reached from my head down to my feet, besides having a peculiar collar which could be clapped over my head.  With my eyes turned to heaven I prayed again to God and gave thanks for the abundant mercy which I had received just when help was obviously most necessary.”

The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter, pp 61-063

“The Field of the Great Battle”

By heading back to the Smolensk-Moscow road, the army would have to pass by the field of Borodino where little had been done to bury the dead from the battle in early September.  Jakob Walter gives his account, “Finally we went over the battlefield at Moshaisk in the Holy Valley.  Here one saw again in what numbers the dead lay.  From the battle site on to this place the corpses were dragged from the highways, and entire hollows were filled with them.  Gun barrels lay one on top of another in many piles from fifteen to twenty feet in height and in width where we bivouacked for the night.”

After the Battle of Borodino
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

Philippe-Paul de Ségur records his recollection of passing the field, “Beyond the Kolocha we were plodding along, absorbed in thought, when some of the men, happening to look up, gave a cry of horrified surprise.  We all stared around us, and saw a field, trampled, devastated, with every tree shorn off a few feet above the earth.  In the background stood a number of hummocks with their tops blown off, the highest of which seemed the most misshapen.  The spot had the appearance of a flattened, extinct volcano. Everywhere the earth was littered with battered helmets and breastplates, broken drums, fragments of weapons, shreds of uniforms, and bloodstained flags.  Lying amid this desolation were thirty thousand half-devoured corpses.  The scene was dominated by a number of skeletons lying on the crumbled slope of one of the hills; death seemed to have established its throne up there.  This was the terrible redoubt which had been the victory and the grave of Caulaincourt.  Along our lines ran the sad murmur, ‘The field of the Great Battle!'”

The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter, p. 62

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, p. 159

“Without Aid of Any Kind”

From the journal of Colonel Montesquiou Duc de Fezensac with Ney’s III Corps, we learn about the army’s arrival at the Smolensk-Moscow road on the 29th.

“The roads were encumbered with carriages of all descriptions, which arrested our progress at every step; then we had to cross the swollen streams, sometimes on a rickety plank, sometimes by wading with the water up to our waist…  on the 29th, leaving to our right the ruins of Mojaisk, we reached the great road below that town.”

“The sufferings which we were doomed to undergo …  We had now nothing to look forward to before Smolensko, which was 80 leagues distant.  Until our arrival there, we should seek in vain for either flour, meat, or forage for our horses.  We were reduced to those provisions we had brought from Moscow, and these, trifling as they were, like all plunder, were most unequally distributed…Some companies had abundance, while others were starving…  Moreover, to preserve our provisions, the horses that drew them must also be preserved, but these perished in numbers every day also from the want of food.

Russian Uhlans on Exploration
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

The soldiers who strayed from their ranks to seek wherewith to relieve their hunger, fell into the hands of the Cossacks and armed peasants…  From the very first day, our retreat had the semblance of a rout…  A column of Russian prisoners marched immediately in our front, escorted by troops of the confederation of the Rhine.  They barely received a little horse-flesh for food, and their guards massacred those who could no longer march.  We came across some of their corpses, which, without exception, had their skulls knocked in.  I must do the soldiers of my regiment the justice to record their indignation on beholding these evidences of so dark a deed; moreover they were not insensible to the cruel reprisals which this conduct exposed them to, should they chance to fall into the hands of the enemy.”

After the Battle of Borodino
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

“As we passed through the village of Borodino, several officers revisited the field of the Moscowa [Borodino].  They found the ground still covered with the vestiges of the battle.  The dead of the two armies still lay on the spot where they had received their death wound.  It has been even said that some wounded were discovered who were still breathing.  I can scarcely credit this, and no proof of it has ever been furnished.”

“On the evening of the 29th October, we arrived at the Abbey Kolastskoé.  It had been converted into a  hospital, and was now one vast burying-ground.  A single  building…  had also served as a hospital for our sick.  Commanding officers received orders to identify here the men belonging to their respective regiments.  We found that the sick had been left without medicine, without provisions, without aid of any kind.  I could scarcely penetrate into the interior from the filth which obstructed the staircase, passages, and even the rooms themselves.  I came across three men of my regiment, whom I had the gratification of saving.”

A Journal of the Russian Campaign of 1812, Raymond Eymery P.J. Montesquiou-Fezensac, translated by W. Knollys, published in 1852, pp. 75 – 77

Commemorative 1912 card images and translations provided by Alexey Temnikov

The Army Changes Direction

After Malojaroslavets and Napoleon’s close encounter with the Cossacks,  fearing the army’s path was blocked by the enemy,  the army was ordered to reverse directions, then head north to rejoin the Smolensk-Moscow road.  This meant the army would now be travelling over country devastated earlier in the campaign by the retreating Russians and advancing Grande Armée.

Faber du Faur painted a scene from October 26, 1812 of a Cossack attack.  He begins his description with the night before, “After considerable effort, and constantly being hustled forward by out rearguard, we reached Borovsk on the 25th just as night was falling.  Here we made camp and found that most of the army had done likewise, but the town and a number of villages around were on fire; this, combined with the sea of campfires, transformed a mellow autumnal evening into a scene of awful grandeur.”

Before Borovsk, 26 October
by Faber du Faur

“On the morning of the 26th large bands of Cossacks attacked those villages that lined the Moscow road and killed, wounded or chased out those stragglers who had lodged there.  Next they attempted to attack the army’s camps, but a few discharges of cannon and a charge of Guard cavalry drove them off.  Nevertheless, they were visibly encouraged by our evident disorder, and these horsemen now grew far bolder than they had been at the beginning of the campaign.”

Scouts Plastuns
(Scouts crawling on their bellies)
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

“It was here, at Borovsk, that fortune seemed to turn her back on us.  Here we received news of Malojaroslavets and, shortly afterwards, the order that we should march on Mojaisk, via Vereya, and re-join the Moscow-Smolensk road.  This we began to do on the afternoon of the 26th, even though it took us away from a region untouched by the hand of war and brought us back on to a road which had been transformed into a desert strewn with the dead and the dying even during our first passage.  This was the start of the retreat proper, and the event that signaled the destruction of the entire army.  We were promised comfortable winter quarters in Smolensk, amongst its richly provisioned stores and magazines.  But we were eighteen days’ march away from those stores – eighteen days at the mercy of hunger, the climate and our enemies!”

With Napoleon in Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Faber du Faur, 1812, Jonathan North

Image and translation of Russian commemorative card provided by Alexey Temnikov

The Emperor’s Narrow Escape

George F. Nafziger in his book, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, describes the events surrounding a sudden attack by the Cossacks on the morning of the 25th that nearly caused Napoleon to be captured or killed.  Napoleon had set out in the early morning hours to reconnoiter the situation before deciding his next move.  He took two squadrons of the Chasseurs à Cheval de la Garde Imperiale as an escort.  A swarm of Cossacks appeared and charged at the group.  Napoleon’s staff officers joined in the fight and the enemy was beaten off.

Napoleon decided to back-track and head north to retrace the route of the advance rather than continue on the southerly route.  He did not realize Kutusov had abandoned his positions.  A more thorough reconnaissance would have revealed that Malo-Jaroslavets was abandoned.   This is one of the few cases where both armies retreated from the field of battle.

Sergeant Adrien Bourgogne, a member of the Imperial Guard, participated in this skirmish which he describes in his memoirs:  “On the 25th I had been on guard since the previous evening near a little house where the Emperor had spent the night.  There was a thick fog, as there often is in October.  All at once, without informing anyone, the Emperor mounted his horse, merely followed by some orderly officers.  He had scarcely gone, when we hear a great noise.  Just at first we supposed it to be cries of ‘Vive L’Empereur!‘ but then we heard the order ‘Aux armes!‘ — ‘To arms!’  Six thousand Cossacks, commanded by Platoff, had come to surprise us, favoured by the fog and the deep ravines.  The squadrons of the Guard on duty flew across the plain.  We followed them, crossing a ravine to make a short-cut.  We found ourselves directly in front of this host of savages, who howled like wolves as they drew back.  Our squadrons came up with them, recaptured what they had taken of our baggage and wagons, and inflicted heavy losses on them.”

“When we got to the plain, we saw that the Emperor was in the midst of the Cossacks, surrounded by Generals and by his orderly officers, one of whom was dangerously wounded through a fatal mistake.  Just as the squadrons arrived on the plain, many of the officers, for their own defense and that of the Emperor, who had nearly been taken in the midst of them, had been obliged to use their swords against the Cossacks.  One of the orderly officers dropped his hat and his sword after killing and wounding several of the Cossacks; so, finding himself defenseless, he threw himself on a Cossack, and took his lance from him.  Just at that moment a mounted Grenadier of the Guard caught sight of him, and, thinking from his green cloak and his lance that he was a Cossack, rushed at him, and ran him through the body.”

“The unhappy Grenadier, on seeing his mistake, endeavoured to get killed.  He flung himself amongst the enemy, striking to right and left, but everyone fled before him.  After killing several men, without being able to die himself, he returned, alone and covered with blood, to ask after the officer he had wounded.  Fortunately he [the wounded officer] recovered, and was taken back to France in a sledge.”

“I remember that, just after this incident, the Emperor was talking to Murat, laughing at the narrow escape he had had of being taken.”

The Battle of Malo-Jaroslavets

Sergeant Bourgogne gives an overview of the battle.  But, being a member of the Imperial Guard, he was not involved in the fighting: “On the 24th we found we were near Kalonga, and that same day, at Malo-Jaroslawetz, the army of Italy,

Battle of Maloyaroslavets
by Pitr Gess

commanded by Prince Eugène, engaged the Russian arm, which was endeavouring to prevent our passage.  In this bloody struggle 16,000 of our men met 70,000 Russians.  The Russians lost 8,000 men, and we 3,000.  Many of our superior officers were killed and wounded — amongst them General Delzous, struck on the forehead by a ball.  His brother, a Colonel, in trying to save him, was himself shot, and both died together on the same spot.”

Jakob Walter describes his experience that morning: “Then everyone packed up, and the enemy attacked us.  The decision was soon to the advantage of the Russians, and all ran in a crowded retreat, the army moving toward Kaluga with the Cossacks in front of and beside us.  The enemy army behind us shattered all the army corps, leaving each of us then without his commanding officer.  Those who were too weak to carry their weapons or knapsacks threw them away, and all looked like a crowd of gypsies.”

“Then we came to a second city, Borovsk.  Here the city was immediately ablaze; and, in order for us to get through, soldiers had to be used to quench the flames.  Camp was pitched by this city, and it became dark.  One no sooner thought of resting than the Russians fell upon our army and cut off many as captives.  Everything was in confusion, and during almost the whole night the throng had to retreat to Moshaisk, everyone running as not to fall into the hands of the enemy.  Because of these considerable losses, cannon, munition wagons, coaches, and baggage wagons by the hundreds had to be thrown into the water; and, where that was impossible, all wagons were burned, not one wheel being permitted to remain whole.  The sutlers, even the cavalry, had to give up their horses so that these could be hitched to the cannon.  The fighting, the shrieking, the firing of large and small guns, hunger and thirst, and all conceivable moments increased the never-ending confusion.  Indeed, even the lice seemed to seek supremacy, for their number on both officers and privates was in the thousands.”

The battle raged from 4 am to 11 pm on the 24th.  Most of the troops involved from the French side were Prince Eugène’s Italians and the two sides drove each other back and forth through the village which caught on fire during the battle.  George Nafziger writes that both armies committed about 24,000 troops to the battle with French losses at about 6,000 and Russian at about 8,000.  Neither side occupied the village that night.

Approaching Malo-Jaroslavets

General Sir Robert Wilson was at Kutuzov’s headquarters on October 23 when messengers began arriving with news that the French had left Moscow.  “It was clear Malo-Yaroslavets was the point on which the enemy was moving; and whilst the corps was getting under arms, advice was received that the enemy from Fominskoye was already on the march in that direction.  Not a moment was lost: by seven o’clock the corps of Dokhturov was straining every nerve to reach Malo-Yaroslavets before the enemy whose lights were frequently visible during the night, as the columns occasionally approached within a mile or two of each other.”

Inscription on the picture – Oh no,
Will They Eat Horse Meat as the Turks?
Inscription on the card –
I Said Will They Eat Horse Meat?
Kutuzov at Fili
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

“Malo-Yaroslavets is built upon the side and summit of a lofty hill, rising immediately above the Luzha, and over which river is a bridge distant about a hundred yards from the ravine.  The ground on both flanks of the town, ascending from the river, is woody and steep, and the ground on the left is intersected with very deep fissures and ravines, so as to be impracticable for artillery movements from the bank of the river.  The whole town is built of wood; near the summit of the hill there is an open space like a grande place; and near the ravine, at the bottom are a church and a couple or more of houses that command the approach.”

Meanwhile, on the French side, Jakob Walter was outside Malo-Yaroslavets on guard duty the night before the battle: “Near Jaroslavetz in the evening the Russian Moldavian army, which had come from Turkey, met us.  In this city I was ordered on guard at the headquarters of the general staff while the army encamped in front of the city.  Here the inhumanity of the commanders began to mount: the remaining troops’ weapons were inspected, and many who did not have their weapons fairly rust-free got 12-20 strokes with a club until they were near desperation.”

The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter, p. 59

1812: Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, Antony Brett-James, p. 213

Exhausted Horses and Muddy Roads

Faber du Faur was travelling near the end of the column and records the difficulties they experienced on October 23, 1812, “Overcoming a number of difficulties, in part caused by our horses dropping from exhaustion and in part from the disorder reigning in the marching columns, we finally pushce dthrough the Desna and Krasnaya-Pakra defiles and, on 24 October, reached Czirikovo.  We then left the old Kaluga road, turning off to the right in order to gain, via Rudnevo, the new road.  As we made this oblique march we found ourselves bogged down in clay soil churned up by the rain, and it was here that we began to lose wagons, horses and caissons.  We had been able to reach Czirikovo without any such loss, but it had only been after a supreme effort and now our horses were exhausted.  From now on we abandoned or destroyed what we could not haul with us.  We even had to leave behind some of the more exhausted horses.

On the Road from Moscow to Kaluga,
Near Bykassovo, 23 October
by Faber du Faur

The rearguard burnt any wagons it came across so that they would not fall into enemy hands.  Sometimes soldiers did not even wait for the rearguard to come up but attempted to destroy vehicles then and there, placing the troops marching past in extreme danger.  Here, for example, as some artillerymen attempt to rid themselves of a caisson, a mounted gendarme rides up and fires his pistol at it in order to set it ablaze.  It explodes, costing the gendarme his life and burning a number of men most horribly.  These would die a miserable death but a few days later as the march continued.”

With Napoleon’s Army in Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Faber du Faur, 1812, Edited by Jonathan North

“A Certain Feeling of Sadness is Hanging Over the Army”

October 22, 1812 was the fourth day of the march from Moscow.  Some had not yet begun to call it a “retreat,” but continued thinking of it as an “advance to winter quarters.”  I know I have posted a number of accounts about the appearance of the column, but I would like to add Philippe-Paul de Ségur’s account.

“Napoleon had entered Moscow with ninety thousand combatants and twenty thousand sick and wounded.  He went out of it with more than a hundred thousand combatants…”

“A sorry spectacle added to his gloomy foreboding.  Since the evening before, the army had been marching out of Moscow without interruption.  In this column of a hundred and forty thousand human beings and fifty thousand horses, a hundred thousand, marching at the head with their knapsacks and arms, with some five hundred cannon and two thousand artillery wagons, still bore some resemblance to the tremendous military organization which had conquered the world.  But the rest – a frightening proportion of the whole – looked like a horde of Tartars after a successful raid: a jumble of carriages, wagons, rich coaches, and carts of all sorts, four or five abreast, and seeming to stretch on forever.  Here were the trophies – Russian, Turkish, and Persian flags – and the gigantic cross of Ivan the Great; there, a flock of long-bearded Russian peasants driving or carrying our plunder, of which they were a part, and soldiers wheeling barrows loaded with everything they had been able to pile on them.  These foolish creatures would not be able to hold out to the end of the first day, but their senseless greed had closed their eyes to the fact that two thousand miles and many battles lay between them and their destination.”

“One could have taken it for a caravan, a nomadic horde, or one of those armies of antiquity laden with spoils and slaves, returning from some dreadful destruction.  It was inconceivable that the head of this column could drag along after them such a mass of vehicles and baggage for so long a distance.”

On October 22nd, it begins to rain and the thousands of vehicles and marching feet turn the roads into mud.  Alexandre Bellot de Kergorre of the Imperial Headquarters staff observes, “Making our way across ploughed land and not everyone being well harnessed up, some 1,500 vehicles had to be abandoned…  We set fire to at least 20,000 sutlers’ vehicles and others overloaded with sugar, coffee, etc., which were encumbering the road and hindering our passage.”

The sound of “artillery wagons being blown up, for lack of horses to pull them.  The further we advanced the more frequent these explosions became.”

“At each bridge there are blockages, of men, horses and baggage.  Most of these bridges are narrow, hardly solid.  Often they sag under the vehicles’ weight.”

Césare de Laugier records, “a certain feeling of sadness is hanging over the army.”

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Phillippe-Paul de Ségur, 135 -136

1812 Napoleon in Moscow, Paul Britten Austin, pp 196-197

“Enough to Drive One Mad”

There are many descriptions of the first days of the march from Moscow.  The weather was cooperating , but many were finding the mass of vehicles on the road to be frustrating.

Captain von Kurz wrote, “Most officers owned a cart, but the generals had half a dozen.  Supply officials and actors, women and children, cripples, wounded men, and the sick were driving in and out of the throng …  accompanied by countless servants and maids, sutlers and people of that sort.  The columns of horsemen and pedestrians broke out on either side.  Wherever the terrain permitted they crossed the fields flanking the road, so as to leave the paved highway free for those on foot.  But the enormous clutter of transport got jammed up, even so.”

Major Louis-Joseph Vionnet observed, “…[the] column… took up a space of eighteen miles.  It’s impossible to image what disorder this caused.  The soldiers fought to get ahead of one another; and when, sometimes, by chance, a bridge had to be crossed, they had to wait for twelve hours.  The vehicles had been well numbered, but even by the second day their order had been turned upside down, so that those whose rank entitled them to a carriage didn’t know where to find it and consequently couldn’t get at its contents.  From the first days of the retreat we already began to lack for everything.”

Colonel Montesquiou Duc de Fezensac noted, “Despite our foreboding of the mischief awaiting us, each of us was determined to carry off his own part of the trophies – there was no employee so insignificant he hadn’t taken a carriage and packed up some precious objects.  For my part I had furs, paintings by the great masters… and some jewelry.  One of my comrades had… a whole library of lovely books with gilded spines and bound in red morocco…”

Alexander Bellot de Kergorre, an administrative officer with the Imperial Headquarters had the following comment, “I was carrying away trophies from the Kremlin, including the cross of Ivan, several ornaments used at the coronation of the tsars, and a Madonna enriched with precious stones… The treasure comprised silver coins or bullion melted down from the large amount of silverware found in the ruins of Moscow.  For nearly 40 miles I had to pick my way through the army’s procession of horse-drawn vehicles.  Every one was laden with useless baggage.”

Travelling in the rear of the army, Sergeant Adrien Bourgogne could see all that the army was jettisoning in its wake, “Being at the very rear of the column I was in a position to see how the disorder was commencing.  The route was cluttered with precious objects, such as pictures, candelabras, and many books.  For more than an hour I picked up volumes which I leafed through for a moment and then threw away again, to be picked up by others, who in turn, threw them away.”

“This crowd of people, with their various costumes and languages, the canteen masters with their wives and crying children, were hurrying forward in the most unheard of noise, tumult and disorder.  Some had got their cards smashed, and in consequence yelled and swore enough to drive one mad.”

1812: Napoleon in Moscow, Paul Britten Austin, pp. 187 – 190