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.”

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