The column leaving Moscow: “ 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.”

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