Daily Archives: October 19, 2012

The column leaving Moscow: “..no pen can describe it adequately”

Many accounts describe the army as it left Moscow on October 19, 1812. Captain von Kurz on the evacuating army: “Although the march-out of the army had been going on since two o’clock, at midday crowds were still pushing their way out through the gateways of this half-ruined city; and in countless columns they moved along the broad high-road.”

“It was not only the number of fighting men who made up the endless procession, but the innumerable wagons, carts, droshkys, chaises, often laden with booty.  And the number of guns, ammunition wagons, vans, and the like, moving in eight or ten parallel columns, took up an incalculable stretch of road.  Beside the artillery, powder-wagons, and carts, the rest of the many vehicles were loaded with provisions of all sorts: wine, brandy, sugar, coffee, tea, tobacco, salt meat, dried fish, etc… Other wagons contained booty in the form of gold, silver, precious stones, and valuable furs.  Whereas most officers owned a cart, the generals had a half a dozen.  Supply officials and actors, women and children, cripples, wounded men, and the sick drove in and out of the throng of kibitkas and droshkys; countless servants and maids, sutlers and people of that sort accompanied this march.  In short, the whole thing presented such a peculiar and astonishing appearance that no pen can describe it adequately.  From both sides the columns of horsemen and pedestrians broke out and went wherever the ground allowed, across the fields beside the road, so as to leave the paved road free for those on foot.  Nevertheless the enourmous clutter of transport became jammed, and it was impossible for individuals to find room.  The great crowd had become so intermingled that to make one’s way forward required a tremendous effort…  Inexhaustibly they seemed to press out from the ruins of Moscow, and the heads of these columns vanished far away on the horizon.”

Colonel Louis-François Lejeune was upset at how all of the carts and carriages slowed the progress of the column:  “All these vehicles, laden with the food and booty which were to sustain us against cold and hunger, still assumed enormous proportions, and I am going to give you an idea of my own position in this respect — I who was one of the officers most interested in travelling without impedimenta.  I still had: (1) five riding horses; (2) a carriage drawn by three horses and carrying my belongings, as well as furs to wrap round me in camp; (3) the wagon laden with staff documents, maps, and the kitchen utensils for the officers and clerks — this was pulled by four horses; (4) three small carts, each drawn by three little Russian horses and weighted down by the clerks, the cook, the oats, sugar, coffee, four, and some scarce bales of hay; (5) the secretary’s horse; (6) lastly, the three horses which I had harnessed to my sister’s carriage: she had gone ahead.  All this made a clutter of six vehicles and twenty-five horses, which scarcely carried the essentials.”

“The Emperor was very upset by these delays, and ordered that every vehicle not essential for transporting the few provisions we carried should be burnt and the horses used to pull the guns.  This very wise step was feebly put into force, such was the number of people who had an interest in evading this severe measure…  the army…  took six days to cover eighty miles.”

The Day of Departure

We pick up Jakob Walters’ narrative about the day he marches out of Moscow:

Withdrawal of Napoleon from Moscow
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

“When we assembled in the morning, my company was 25 privates strong, and all companies were more or less of this size.  The march went forth to the right from behind the eastern side of the city, and we moved past the city on the south.  There were two bridges thrown across the river below us, and the smoke from the flames surged up behind us.  Up on the heights past the bridge to the left of the road stood a cloister in which there was a flour storeroom where everyone fetched as much as he could carry.  Beyond the bridge there was a cabbage patch where millions of cabbage heads were still standing; it pained me not to be able to take along even one of these heads, since I fully expected the utmost famine.”

The suffering on the retreat is so well known that we tend to overlook the recent suffering on the advance: heat, hunger, exhaustion.   We also hear about the plunder the army carried off from Moscow and that image overshadows what the men must have been thinking: ‘This march is going to be worse.’  Walter knows he will regret leaving those cabbage behind.

At the Kaluga Gate
Moscow, 19 October
by Faber du Faur

Faber du Faur wrote the following description to accompany his painting, “The Emperor had busied himself with preparations for our departure for a good number of days  The sick and wounded were dispatched towards Mojaisk and Smolensk, those too ill to make the journey being place in the Foundling Hospital to be cared for by the army’s medical personnel.  Dismounted cavalry, to the number of 4,000 men, were organized into four battalions.  Army corps were passed in review by the Emperor; it was the turn of the Imperial Guard and, on the 18th, that of Ney’s divisions [IIIrd Corps].  As these latter were being reviewed, news arrived that Murat had been surprised and had sustained heavy losses around Vinkovo.  The review was, it is true, completed, but, as we filed out of the Kremlin heading for our quarters in the German Quarter, we received orders to quit Moscow the following day.  Thus it was that on the 19th we set out on the march that would result in the annihilation of the entire army.  The troops were set in motion before dawn and, keeping the Young Guard and the four battalions of dismounted cavalry in the Kremlin as a rearguard under [Édouard Adolphe Casimir Joseph] Mortier, filed out of the city through the Kaluga Gate.  The streets were crowded – in fact stuffed fit to burst – as corps ran into corps.  Time after time the way was blocked by disorganized convoys, for 500 guns, 2,000 wagons, drawn by exhausted horses, and countless carts and vehicles of all types and from all nations, loaded with booty or supplies, accompanied the army and slowed it down.”

“The sun was high in the sky on this fine autumnal day when, after considerable effort, we finally reached the Kaluga Gate.  We halted here, waiting in vain for two of our guns.  These guns had got lost in the crowded streets and only re-joined us a few hours later.”


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

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