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.”
“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.”
“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