Daily Archives: October 21, 2012

“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