Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Officers Distract Themselves from Their Suffering

While the army was crossing the Berezina, Ségur made observations of the behavior of the officers around Napoleon.  “Gathered around him were men of all conditions, ranks, and ages — ministers, generals, administrators.  Particularly conspicuous among them was an elderly nobleman, a remnant of those bygone days when grace and charm and brilliance had reigned supreme.  As soon as it was daylight this sixty-year-old general [possibly Count Louis deNarbonne-Lara, Minister of War in 1791] could be seen sitting on  snow-covered log performing his morning toilet with imperturbable gaiety.  In the midst of the tempest he would adjust his well-curled and powdered wig, scoffing at disaster and the unleashed elements that were buffeting him.”

“Near this gentleman, officers of the technical corps engaged in endless dissertations…  these men sought a reason for the constant direction of the north wind as it inflicted the sharpest pain on them.  Others would be attentively studying the regular hexagonal crystals of the snowflakes covering their clothing.  The phenomenon of the parhelia, or appearance of several simultaneous images of the sun, due to the presence of ice crystals in the air, was also the subject of frequent conversations, all of which served to distract the officers from their suffering.”

Armand Augustin de Caulaincourt

Armand Augustin de Caulaincourt

General Armand de Caulaincourt on Napoleon’s staff made some observations on the 30th about the size of the army after the crossing the Berezina.  “The Beresina had swept away a large number of our strays and stragglers, who had been looting everything and thus depriving the brave fellows who remained in the ranks of the supplies which they so badly needed.  However, that was no gain, for, after the crossing, bands of irregulars formed in full view of everyone, with the object of recruiting still more stragglers.  All that remained of the First Corps was its colour-guard and a few commissioned and non-commissioned officers surrounding their marshal.  The Fourth was worse than weakened, and the Third, which had fought so valiantly against the Moldavian army, had been reduced by more than half its strength after that affair.  The Poles were in no better case.  Our cavalry, apart from the Guard, no longer existed except in the

Marshal Claude Victor-PerrinDuke of Belluno

Marshal Claude Victor-Perrin
Duke of Belluno

form of parties of stragglers, which, although the Cossacks and peasants attacked them savagely, overran the villages on our flanks.  Hunger proved an irresistible force, and the need to live, to find shelter against the cold, made men indifferent to every sort of danger.  The evil spread also to the Duke of Reggio’s [Nicolas Oudinot] corps – now joined on to Marshal Elchingen’s [Ney] – and even to the Duke of Belluno’s [Marshal Claude Victor] divisions, which formed the rear-guard.”

“Cavalry officers, who had been mustered into a company under the command of generals, dispersed also in a few days, so wretched were they , and so tortured by hunger.  Those who had a horse to feed were forced, if they did not want to lose it, to keep some distance away, as there were no supplies at all along the road.  The [Imperial] Guard…  still made an excellent impression by virtue of their general appearance, their vigour and their martial air… and the battalion each day on guard-duty kept up an astonishing standard of smartness.”

Minard map

According to the Minard map, 28,000 men made it across the Berezina.  On the morning of the 28th, the temperature was -13 degrees Fahrenheit.

Source:
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 254 – 255

With Napoleon in Russia, General Armand de Caulaincourt, pp 254 -255

“It is impossible to imagine a more appalling scene”

James Fisher has again compiled a series of accounts depicting the crossing of the Berezina.  These are for November 29, 1812.  We also have a new contributor, Pierre Toussaint, who provided the contemporary photos of the site of the Berezina.  Thank you to James and Pierre!

Contributors and Commentors are always welcome.

(Night of 28th/29th November) Missed opportunity by the stragglers

Site of the Cavalry and Artillery Bridge
The downstream bridge
This is the view from the right (west) bank
Photo taken November 24, 2012
Courtesy of Centre d’Etude Napoléonienne

“The IX Corps left its position at about nine o’clock in the evening, after having placed posts and a rear guard to observe the enemy. They crossed the bridge in very good order, taking with them all their artillery. On the 29th, at one in the morning, the whole of the IX Corps, except a small rear-guard, had reached the right bank, and nobody was now passing on the bridges.

… However, there still remained on the left bank, some officers and soldiers either wounded or sick, servants, women, children, paying officers with their wagons, food or drink sellers, a few armed but tired men, and a crowd of isolated men with their provisions and horses. Everyone, except the wounded and sick could easily have crossed the bridges during the night, leaving behind their horses and carriages, but as soon as the enemy stopped firing the bivouac assembled in the most incredible security. General Eblé often sent word round to them, to warn them that the bridges were going to be burnt, but officers, servants, soldiers lent a deaf ear to these pressing appeals, and waited for daylight near the fires or lying in the carriages, without concern about preparing to leave.

Marshal Victor, Duke of Bellune, stayed most of the night in General Eblé’s bivouac, and failed to make this indifferent and obstinate crowd move out.”

Anon (2010) Passage de la Beresina 26, 27, 28 et 29e Novembre 1812. First Published 1812. The Naval & Military Press Ltd., Uckfield, East Sussex. 32 pp.

(29th November) Firing the Bridges

A warning to readers: this is harrowing reading.

Site of the Upstream Infantry Bridge
The Wooden Post in the center marks the location of the foot of the bridge
Photo taken November 24, 2012
Courtesy of Centre d’Etude Napoléonienne

“At five in the morning, General Eblé had several carriages set on fire, so as to prevail on the men around them; this measure seemed to be effective. At about half past six, Marshal Victor withdrew his advanced guard to cross the bridges; this action awoke the heedless. Conscious at last that they were going to fall into the hands of the enemy, they hurled themselves on to the bridges with their carriages and horses, causing a new and last obstruction.”

This was only partially successful and General Eblé and Colonel Séruzier tried to encourage more to cross the bridges before they were destroyed. Mikaberidze (2010) cites Colonel Séruzier:

View from the Right (West) bank looking East toward the Berezina and Studianka on the far bank
Photo taken November 24, 2012
Courtesy of Centre d’Etude Napoléonienne

“We knew the Russians were getting close, but I could not get the drivers of the baggage, cantinières or the vivandières to listen to reason.  In vain I told them everyone would be saved if only there was a little order; that their safety depended on crossing at once, and that our troops’ salvation would depend on the bridges being broken. Only a few crossed with their light vehicles. The greater number lingered on the left bank…”

General Eblé’s dilemma at having to fire the bridges was recorded by Anon.

Monument created by Fernand Beaucour in Hommage to the French Soldiers
The Crossing Site is in the background
Photo taken November 24, 2012
Courtesy of Centre d’Etude Napoléonienne

“General Eblé having received an order to destroy the bridges at seven in the morning, he waited as long as he could to begin an operation the success of which he made secure by working out careful preparations during the night. His sensitive disposition struggled long before resolving to abandon such a large number of Frenchmen to the enemy. He waited until half-past eight before giving the orders to destroy the bridges and set them on fire.

The left bank of the Berezina became the scene of the most painful sight: men, women, children were shrieking in despair; several tried to rush across the burning bridges or threw themselves into the river in which large blocks of ice were drifting. Others ventured on the ice between the two bridges, but it gave in and engulfed them. At last, at about nine o’clock, the Cossacks arrived and captured the multitude, victim of it’s blindness.”

Mikaberidze (2010) presents Séruzier’s harrowing description of the fate of the remaining stragglers on the left bank of the Berezina:

“The Cossacks flung themselves on these people who had been left behind.  They pillaged everything on the opposite bank, where there was a huge quantity of vehicles laden with immense riches. Those who were not massacred in this first charge were taken prisoner and whatever they possessed fell to the Cossacks.”

Anon (2010) Passage de la Beresina 26, 27, 28 et 29e Novembre 1812. First Published 1812. The Naval & Military Press Ltd., Uckfield, East Sussex. 32 pp.

Mikaberidze, A (2010) The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape. Campaign Chronicles (Ed. C Summerville). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. pp. 198–212

Tribute to the Pontonniers and General Eblé

“The pontonniers and sappers worked at the construction of the bridges with a zeal and courage beyond all praise. The pontonniers alone worked in the water; in spite of the drifting ice, they often went down to the armpits to place and hold the trestles until the beams were fixed on the caps.

Encouraged and supported by the presence of General Eblé, the pontonniers showed unlimited self sacrifice in the painful repairing of the bridges for which they were responsible. From over one hundred who went down into the water either to build of maintain the bridges, only a small number survived; the remainder died on the banks of the Berezina, or were unable to follow the Army two days after the crossing. They were never seen again.”

And General Eblé…

General Jean-Baptiste Eblé

“As I had seen things for myself, and as the nature of my functions kept me close to the late General Eblé, I thought it my duty to supplement as much as I could the account that the General would have given of an operation he directed alone, from the beginning to the end of the crossing. The success of the construction and maintenance of the bridges was due to his active foresight, coolness and most remarkable genius of organisation. General Chasseloup paid full tribute to General Eblé. Before beginning construction of the bridges, he thus addressed his staff:-

‘I realise that the artillery has to be responsible for bridges in wartime, because its resources in staff, horses and material will still hold when other services have been exhausted. The engineers and battalion of the Danube (naval military staff) have started the campaign with a considerable artillery park of tools of all kinds, but we arrived here without a forge, nail, hammer… If the operation is successful, we will owe it to General Eblé, because he alone had the means of undertaking it. I have already told him, and I am telling you so that you might repeat to him, whatever happens.’

General Eblé placed the construction of the Berezina bridges in the forefront of the numerous services he had rendered, in the course of his long and glorious military career; during and after the crossing he repeated this declaration which carried great weight, coming from a general both modest and lucid.

When General Count de la Ribossière fell dangerously ill, General Eblé, being sick himself, was called upon to succeed him in command of the artillery at Vilna, on 9th December at a very critical time, with the energy and activity which never forsook him. He died at Königsberg on 30th December, a few days only after General La Riboissière. The great talents the virtues and integrity of the late General Eblé are well known to the French Army and to France; his name is held in great respect abroad.”

Anon (2010) Passage de la Beresina 26, 27, 28 et 29e Novembre 1812. First Published 1812. The Naval & Military Press Ltd., Uckfield, East Sussex. 32 pp.

In defense of Admiral Chichagov

Admiral Chichagov became the scapegoat for the failure of the Russian army to entrap the ‘Grande Armée’ at the Berezina, but Ivan Arnoldi of the 14th Horse Artillery Company though otherwise:

Admiral Pavel Chichagov

“If anyone decides to condemn Chichagov for letting the French cross the Berezina, such a charge would be misplaced since, as an eyewitness, I can testify that it was impossible to prevent it. [Chichagov] has some twenty-two thousand men under arms on the Berezina and had to defend the river over an area of over a hundred verstas (sixty-six miles), while as many enemy combatant were trying to cross it. Besides, are there any examples in history where one army desired to cross a river and someone prevented it? And it would have been even less feasible against Napoleon. Besides, we all know that Chichagov acted based on instructions received from Prince Kutusov and intelligence supplied by Count Wittgenstein, both of whom focussed their attention on the enemy crossing below Borisov and advised [Chichagov] to guard the river in the direction of Bobruisk…”

Mikaberidze, A (2012) Russian Eyewitness Accounts of the Campaign of 1812. Frontline Books (an imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd), Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. p. 237–238.

(28th–29th November) Berezina Aftermath

A warning to readers: this is harrowing reading.

Alexey Martos an engineer in Chichagov’s Army of the Danube (Third Western Army) describes the scene around the Berezina:

“Imagine a wide sinuous river covered as far as our eyes could see with human corpses; some were just beginning to freeze. Here was the empire of death in all its horror… The first thing that caught our eye was a woman who had fallen through the ice and had frozen in; one of her arms was cut off and hung loosely, with her other arm she held a suckling baby. The little thing had wound itself around its mother’s neck; the woman was still alive, she was staring at a man who had fallen through the ice but was frozen to death; between them on the ice, another dead child was lying…“

From Rochechouart, a French emigré officer serving as Chichagov’s aide de camp:

“…we saw the heaped up dead bodies of men, women and even children, soldiers of all arms, and of all nationalities, frozen, suffocated by the crush of fugitives, or mown down by Russian grapeshot; horses, carriages, cannon, caissons, wagons, abandoned. It is impossible to imagine a more appalling scene that the two broken bridges with the river frozen to its lowest depth. Immense treasures lay scattered over the region of death; peasants and Cossacks prowled around these fragments of bodies, carrying off whatever was most precious…. Both sides of the road were strewn with bodies, frozen in every attitude, or with men dying of cold, hunger, and fatigue, with their clothing in rags; they begged us to take them prisoners, and enumerated all the things they could do. We were assailed with cries: ‘Monsieur, take me with you, I can cook,’ or ‘I am a valet,’ or ‘a hairdresser,’ ‘for the love of God give me a morsel of bread, and any rags to cover me.’

Mikaberidze, A (2012) Russian Eyewitness Accounts of the Campaign of 1812. Frontline Books (an imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd), Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. p. 248 & 251.

“A Scream, a Single Cry from the Multitude”

Marshal Victor was fighting the rearguard action on the eastern bank while the army crossed.  On the night of the 28th, he received orders to evacuate the left bank by 5 a.m. [on the 29th] and to burn any vehicle that could not be moved across the bridges.  Once across, he, along with General Jean Baptiste Eblé were ordered to burn the bridges so that they could not be used by the pursuing Russians.

Berezina at the turn of the 19th century

In The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, Alexander Mikaberidze describes that the bridges were left open after all of the troops had crossed.  Only the infantry bridge remained useable in the early hours of the 29th.  The artillery bridge had collapsed.

At 7 am, Napoleon ordered the destruction of the bridges.  Eblé delayed burning the bridges and personally urged the stragglers to cross while there was a chance.  He and other officers tried to rally the stragglers, but could not rouse them.  One witness wrote “No one stirred.  Most had fallen into such apathy that they listened indifferently to the words being addressed to them.”

Crossing the Berezina

Eblé put Colonel Séruzier in charge of breaking up the bridges.  Séruzier wrote “…I could not get the drivers of the baggage… to listen to reason.  In vain I told them everyone would be saved if only there was a little order…  Only a few crossed… The greater number lingered on the left bank…”

Between 8:30 and 9 am, Eblé gave the final order to destroy the bridges.  As the stragglers saw the bridges catch fire, they roused themselves and made a desperate attempt to cross whether on the bridges or through the river.  Louise Fusil was a few miles away when the bridges were burned, but years later would recall “… a scream, a single cry from the multitude.  Indefinable, it still resounds in my ears every time I think of it.  All the unfortunates who had been left on the other bank were falling, crushed by the Russian Army’s grapeshot.”

Colonel Séruzier wrote  of what happened next.  “The Cossacks flung themselves on these people who had been left behind.  They pillaged everything on the opposite bank, where there was a huge quantity of vehicles laden with immense riches. Those who were not massacred in this first charge were taken prisoner and whatever they possessed fell to the Cossacks.”

Berezena – November 25, 2012
Source: Centre d’etudes Napoléoniennes –
Berezina 2012

Ten years later, a Prussian officer of Engineers, Major J.L.U. Blesson, visited the site of the crossing.  “We required no one to show us round, and no explanations in order to find our way.  The points where the two bridges had stood were visible from a great distance, and we could even pick out the track along which the wretches struggled forward… Half-way to Studyanka already we spotted — just think of it, ten years after the catastrophe — a mass of leatherware, strips of felt, scraps of cloth, shako covers, etc., strewn on the ground and fields.  As one approached the river, these melancholy relics lay thicker and even in heaps, mingled with the bones of human beings and animals, skulls, tin fittings, bandoliers, bridles…”

In 1812, with the cries of the trapped and doomed stragglers ringing in their ears, the remains of the Grande Armée headed west as the weather took a turn for the worse.

“A Single Idea Took Hold of the Crowd… To Reach the Bridge”

Faber du Faur wrote extensively on the events of the 28th which accompanied his painting of the same date.

Crossing of the Beresina, 28 November
by Faber du Faur

Crossing of the Beresina, 28 November
“Meanwhile, as night fell, the crowds of people who had not crossed on the 27th grew silent.  They settled down among the ruins of Studianka, along the heights or in amongst the mass of wagons and vehicles now forming an immense and virtually impenetrable ring around the bridges.  Campfires illuminated the entire area.  The majority of these unfortunates, worn down by their privations, had grown insensible to suffering or believed themselves protected by [Marshal Claude] Victor‘s corps, the left flank of which had taken up position on the Studianka heights.”

Count Peter Wittgenstein

“Thus it was that the night of the 27th passed by.  Artillery fire, which broke out on both banks simultaneously, heralded the dawn of the 28th.  [Count Peter ] Wittgenstein, with 40,000 Russians, was bearing down upon us from the direction of Borisov, whilst [Pavel] Chichagov, with 27,000 men, was attempting to attack the bridges on the right bank  For most of the unfortunates on the left bank the final hour had come.  They rose up and threw themselves towards the bridges.  The bridge on the left, intended for guns and wagons, collapsed for the third time under the weight of the fugitives, and any attempt to repair it was frustrated by the subsequent disorder and confusion.”

“A single idea took hold of the crowd, a single objective: to reach the bridge.  And in order to do so the fugitives were prepared to crush every obstacle and force their way past anyone, be it friend, commander, woman or child.  People were thrust into the freezing waters of the Beresina or pushed into the flames of the burning house between the two bridges.”

De Overtocht van de Berexina
by Aquarel van Fournier, an eyewitness

“Victor, his corps now reduced to 6,000 men, made heroic efforts to stem Wittgenstein’s advance, whilst [Marshal Nicolas] Oudinot, [Marshal Michel] Ney and [Jean Henri] Dombrowski managed to push Chichagov back on Stakova.  Even so, Wittgenstein, with vastly superior numbers, was gradually pushing Victor back towards the bridges, so much so that he was able to bring artillery fire to bear on the crowds of fugitives struggling to reach the crossing.  The desperation of this mass reached fever pitch.  Each Russian shell or round shot found a target, and swathese of unfortunates were cut down.  The cries of the multitude muffled the sound of the artillery as they made a supreme effort.  In a convulsed wave they surged forward, crushing the dead and dying underfoot.  Finally night fell and the Russian artillery fire first grew sporadic before ceasing altogether.  Towards nine in the evening Victor’s corps forced a passage through a scene of desolation and passed over to the right bank, leaving a rearguard in Studianka.”

Pavel Chichagov
Later disgraced for his actions
at the Berezina

“A good number of unfortunates failed to take the opportunity of crossing with relative ease and on the morning of the 29th woke to find the Russians advancing and a vast crowd milling around the bridges.  It was all for nothing as, at 8:30, the bridges were set on fire and all means of crossing the river went up in flames.  The same fate would have befallen all those who had crossed over to the right bank had Chichagov destroyed the series of bridges which spanned the marshes between Zaniviki and Zembin.  Fortunately, he failed to realise the importance of this defile and we arrived at Zembin having ourselves destroyed the bridges and placed the marsh between ourselves and the pursuing enemy.”

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

“Only the Voice of Honor and Country had any Meaning”

Thank you to James Fisher for today’s post.  James has been a great supporter of this blog with both information and encouragement.  He has compiled a series of eyewitness accounts showing the condition of the army and the condition of the bridges at the Berezina.

(24th November) Condition of the ‘Grande Armée’

Sergeant Bourgogne of the French Imperial Guard related the condition of the ‘Grande Armée’

Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow
by Adolf Northern

“…the days were short—it was not light till eight o’clock, and it was dark by four in the afternoon. This was the reason why so many unfortunate men lost their way, for it was always night when we arrived at the bivouac, and all the remains of the different corps were in terrible confusion. At all hours of the night we heard the weak, worn-out voices of new arrivals calling out ‘Fourth Corps!’ ‘First Corps!’ ‘Third Corps!’ ‘Imperial Guard!’ and then the voices of others lying down with no strength left, forcing themselves to answer, ‘Here comrades!’ They were not trying any longer to find their regiments, but simply the corps d’armée to which they had belonged, and which now included the strength of two regiments at most, where a fortnight earlier there had been thirty. No one knew anything about himself, or could mention which regiment he belonged to.”

Mikaberidze, A (2010) The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, Campaign Chronicles (Ed. C Summerville). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. p. 110

(25th November) Victor’s IX Corps is United With the ‘Grande Armée’

On the March from Moscow
by Laslett John Pott

Having been unaware of the plight of the retreating ‘Grande Armée’, Marshal Victor and his troops were stunned to see, not soldiers but “a mob of tattered ghosts draped in women’s cloaks, odd pieces of carpet, or greatcoats burned full of holes, their feet wrapped in all sorts of rags… [we] stared in horror as those skeletons of soldiers went by, their gaunt, grey faces covered with disfiguring beards, without weapons, shameless, marching out of step, with lowered heads, eyes on the ground, in absolute silence, like a gang of convicts.“

General Hochberg, future Margrave of Baden added:

“I will never forget that day. I ordered my brigade to stop to observe the scene, the likes of which none of us had ever witnessed. We first saw twenty non-commissioned officers carrying flags, followed by generals, some on foot, others mounted, many of them in women’s silk-lined fur coats… The weather that day and the sun brightly shone on the scene, so painful for us to watch.”

Joseph Steinmüller observed an army “without any semblance of order or discipline… Only around the flags and eagles one could see armed men marching; the rest had no arms and covered themselves in furs and rags.“

Mikaberidze, A (2010) The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, Campaign Chronicles (Ed. C Summerville). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. p.95

(26th November) Constructing The Bridges and First Crossing

General Eblé and his pontonniers [often incorrectly termed as engineers] performed amazing and heroic feats in constructing three bridges, using whatever materials were available. Several perished while undertaking the work.

Ségur relates “the rising of the waters had made the traces of the ford entirely disappear. It required the most incredible efforts on the part of our unfortunate sappers [i.e. pontonniers], who worked in the water up to their mouths, struggling against the ice carried down by the current. Some of them died of the cold or were forced under by the great blocks of ice.”

Mikaberidze, A (2010) The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, Campaign Chronicles (Ed. C Summerville). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. pp. 125.

“In order to supplement the boats or skiffs missing, three small rafts were built, but the wood used for want of anything better was of such small dimensions that each raft could carry no more than ten men.

On the 26th, at eight in the morning, Napoleon gave an order that the bridges be built up. Two of them were started immediately at a distance of about six hundred feet. Meanwhile, a few horsemen swam across the river each with a voltigeur riding behind him, and some three to four thousand infantry crossed it on the rafts.

… The number of trestles being insufficient for the two bridges, and for repair, in case of accidents, their construction was continued all day. At one o’clock in the afternoon, the bridge on the right was finished; it was set apart for the infantry and cavalry only, because the boards, used to cover it, were of very poor quality, four or five layers thick.”

Anon (2010) Passage de la Beresina 26, 27, 28 et 29e Novembre 1812. First Published 1812. The Naval & Military Press Ltd., Uckfield, East Sussex. 32 pp.

While waiting his turn to cross, Fezensac of the 4th Line counted his effectives to compare them with the list that he had brought from Moscow:

“Alas! What changes had take place since then! Out of seventy officers scarcely forty remained, and of these the greater part were inefficient from either sickness or fatigue… Almost all the company cadres had been destroyed at Krasnyi, which rendered the maintenance of discipline a still more difficult matter. Of the remaining soldiers I formed two peletons, the first consisting of grenadiers and voltigeurs while the second was from the centre companies. I selected the officers to command them and ordered each of the others to take a musket and always march with me at the head of the regiment.”

Mikaberidze, A (2010) The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, Campaign Chronicles (Ed. C Summerville). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. pp. 142

Having completed the bridges, one can only imagine what it would have been like to be dragged from the relative comfort of a fire to enter the freezing water once more to undertake repairs. This eyewitness account, from an anonymous source, gives us some idea.

“Instead of thick planks which were absolutely wanting, round logs fifteen to sixteen feet long, and three to four ins. diameter had to be used for flooring. The carriages crossing on this uneven and rough flooring caused the bridge to jerk all the more violently that all warnings to carriage drivers to prevent their horses from going at a trot, were mostly unheeded…

General Eblé Inspiring his Men

At eight o’clock, three trestles of the left bridge collapsed. This fatal accident distressed General Eblé. He knew how tired the bridge hands were, and he despaired of being able to gather instantly the number of men to carry out these urgent repairs rapidly enough. Fortunately, they had kept in good order. The officers and their troops and settled in their bivouacs. Only half the men were requested; but pulling away harassed, sleeping men, from around the fire, did not go without trouble.

Threats would have been fruitless, only the voice of honour and country had any meaning for these honest men. They were also stimulated by their attachment and respect for General Eblé. After working three hours, the bridge was finally repaired, and the carriages resumed their march at 11 o’clock.”

Anon (2010) Passage de la Beresina 26, 27, 28 et 29e Novembre 1812. First Published 1812. The Naval & Military Press Ltd., Uckfield, East Sussex. 32 pp.

A Baby is Born on the Banks of the Berezina

Again, we have more accounts contributed by James Fisher.  He has done an excellent job of painting the picture of the problems with the bridges and the difficulty in organizing the crossing.  But there is also an unexpected event:  Amid the chaos, a baby is born and who actually survives the retreat.

(Early morning 27th November) More running repairs

General Jacques Alexandre Bernard Law Lauriston

“At two in the morning, on the 27th, the three trestles of the same bridge [as the previous evening] broke down, in the deepest part of the river. General [Jean Baptiste] Eblé had been wise and prudent enough to ensure that the second half of the pontonniers had some rest. They were now employed in repairing this further mishap. The work was being carried out with great eagerness, when General [Jacques] Lauriston appeared on the bridge and showed natural impatience; he complained of the slowness of the work. This, however, could not have been done more actively. He described vividly how worried Napoleon was.

As they were busy clearing the wood débris on the breaking spot, General Eblé himself stood watching the construction of the trestles with wood of his own choice. General Lauriston asked to be conducted to him and he remained with him until the three trestles were ready, and both together went on their way, forcing the mounting crowd to stand by. After four hours of intense activity, communication was restored at six in the morning.”

Anon (2010) Passage de la Beresina 26, 27, 28 et 29e Novembre 1812. First Published 1812. The Naval & Military Press Ltd., Uckfield, East Sussex. 32 pp.

(27th November) Main crossing of French-Allied Army

Most of what remained of the Grande Armée crossed to the western (right) bank of the river on 27th November. The crossing was reasonable orderly at first, but became increasingly clogged and disordered as the day went on, particularly as the stragglers began to arrive. Captain François Dumonceau of the 2nd Regiment of Chevau-légers lanciers (Red (Dutch) Lancers) noted:

Part of the Berezina Panorama
by Wojciech Kossak

“Most of our army corps had already crossed, and all the Imperial Guard, of which we were the last to turn up. Only part of their parks and horse teams still remained to follow with us, but the crowd of disbanded troops had arrived and created a block by flocking from all sides, infiltrating everywhere, congesting the ground over a considerable area and refusing to give way to us or to move aside to let us through. Detachments of pontonniers and gendarmerie, posted at various bridgeheads, struggled hard with the crowd to contain it and control its flow. This disordered multitude persisted in moving forward, and formed a confused tangle of men, horses and vehicles which increased in numbers all the time almost to suffocation-point, pushing up to the river where several were drowned—thus renewing in all their horror the appalling scenes of the various earlier passages, but this time on a much larger scale in relation to the extent of the ground…

On reaching the bridge to which we had been directed, we began to dismount and cross one by one, leading our horses so as not to shake the bridge. It had no guard-rail, was almost at water-level, covered by a layer of manure, and was already seriously damaged, dislocated, sagging in places, and unsteady everywhere. Some pontonniers, up to their armpits in the water, were busy repairing it. Among them were a number of Dutchmen who welcomed us and did their best to facilitate our passage by throwing a broken cart into the river, several dead horses, and other debris of all kinds which blocked the bridge.”

Brett-James, A (1966) 1812: Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, MacMillan and Company Limited, London. pp. 257–258.

(Night of 27th/28th November) Arrival of the stragglers

Berezina
by Peter Gess

“Until the 27th in the evening, there had been no overcrowding, because isolated men had come up in small numbers only. They arrived in crowds during the night between the 27th and 28th, bringing with them a large number of carriages and horses. Their disorderly march caused such congestion that the bridges could only be reached with endless difficulty and grave danger. General Eblé, as well as other generals and officers tried again and again, but in vain, to re-establish order. Their troops having freed themselves from the yoke of discipline could not be mustered. They were thoroughly depressed and dominated by selfishness.”

Anon (2010) Passage de la Beresina 26, 27, 28 et 29e Novembre 1812. First Published 1812. The Naval & Military Press Ltd., Uckfield, East Sussex. 32 pp.

Arriving at the bridges, this mass of stragglers settled itself at bivouac on the left bank of the river. Marbot was appalled at the lack of action by generals and staff in effecting a crossing on the night of 27th November.

At the Berezina
an unfinished painting
by Vasily Vereshagin

“…much has been said of the disasters which took place at the Berezina but what has never yet been said is, that the greater part of them might have been saved if the headquarters staff had understood its duties better, and taken advantage of the night of 28th November [27th-28th November] to get all the baggage and, still more, the thousands of straggles who next day blocked the way across the bridges.”

Mikaberidze, A (2010) The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape. Campaign Chronicles (Ed. C Summerville). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. pp. 156–157

(Night of 27th November) New life

New life was coming into the world, amidst all the death and suffering. Louise, a pregnant cantinière gave birth that night. Sergeant Bertrand describes:

“The entire regiment was deeply moved and did what it could to assist this unfortunate woman who was without food and without shelter under this sky of ice. Our Colonel Romme set the example. Our surgeons, who had none of their ambulance  equipment, abandoned in Smolensk for lack of horses, were given shirts, kerchiefs and anything people could come up with. I had noticed Marshal Victor’s artillery park not far away and ran over to it, purloining a blanket thrown over the back of one of the horses. I rushed back as fast as I could to bring it to Louise. I had committed a sin, but I knew God would forgive me on account of my motive. I got there just at the moment when our cantinière was bringing into the world, under an old oak tree, a healthy male child, whom I was to encounter in 1818 as a child soldier in the Legion of Aube.”

Mikaberidze, A (2010) The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape. Campaign Chronicles (Ed. C Summerville). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. pp. 157–158

Sources:
Anon (2010) Passage de la Beresina 26, 27, 28 et 29e Novembre 1812. First Published 1812. The Naval & Military Press Ltd., Uckfield, East Sussex. 32 pp.

Brett-James, A (1966) 1812: Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia. MacMillan and Company Limited, London. 312 pp.

Mikaberidze, A (2010) The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape. Campaign Chronicles (Ed. C Summerville). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. 284 pp.

Mikaberidze, A (2012) Russian Eyewitness Accounts of the Campaign of 1812. Frontline Books (an imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd), Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. 261 pp.

On the Right Bank of the Beresina

The crossing of the Berezina was such a tragic event, that Faber du Faur created four paintings and descriptions to record the drama.  Two of the paintings were dated for November 27, 1812.

On the Right Bank of the Beresina,
27 November
by Faber du Faur

On the Right Bank of the Beresina, 27 November
“At two in the morning of the 27th the Guard and III corps, including the 25th Division – which, from six regiments of infantry, four cavalry regiments and 1,000 artillerymen, could now scarcely muster 150 men and no guns – broke camp and crossed the bridges to the right bank.  All those officers who no longer had men to command followed this movement five hours later.  This was a signal for the masses of fugitives camped on the left bank to throw themselves towards the bridges.  Dawn saw a confused crowd of men, horses and vehicles pour down towards the bridges, almost as though they were attempting to carry them by assault.  Although the enemy was still some distance off, the situation was frightening and the horror of it all was augmented by orders given to the gendarmes and pontonniers not to let anyone pass but armed men or those in formation.  All others were pushed back into the crowd, most often by force, and hundreds were crushed underfoot or thrust into the water.  Even those who were granted permission to cross the bridges were not entirely out of danger.  If they managed to negotiate the slippery ramps they were lucky, but, from there onwards, if they chanced to slip they would certainly be trampled underfoot or pushed into the icy waters of the Beresina.”

“In the midst of the confusion stood the Emperor.  He was close by the riverbank, between the two bridges, and he sought to exert some measure of order over the chaos around him.  He oversaw the crossing until the evening when, with his suite, he himself made his way to the right bank and established his headquarters in the hamlet of Zaniviki.”

“The majority of our men camped as soon as they got to the right bank.  Ignoring everything around them, they thought of nothing but lighting a fire, cooking and warming themselves.  Cruel fate!  The gusts of snow were so violent that night that it was almost impossible to keep a fire burning.  We ourselves had just managed to melt a little snow for drinking water when IX Corps arrived, hustled us out of our camp and obliged us to seek shelter further on.”

Camp on the Right Bank of the Beresina,
27 November
by Faber du Faur

Camp on the Right Bank of the Beresina, 27 November
“Forced to abandon our fire, we wandered off in the direction of Zaniviki.  We arrived there in the pitch dark with thick snow everywhere.  Imperial Headquarters was based here, as was the Guard and a mass of troops and stragglers attracted by the glow of campfires.  All the houses were occupied, and it was only after considerable effort, and some hard searching, that we found a house occupied by our staff, officers and soldiers.  We had to obtain some wood at gunpoint to feed our fire, and we settled down for the night in the deep snow.  There was no food.  Soon fighting broke out – not, as one might expect, for room inside the houses but for the houses themselves: the soldiers, maddened by the cold, had clambered onto the roofs and started to demolish the houses for wood.  The occupiers fought vainly to prevent this but, by the following morning, Zaniviki had disappeared, consumed by countless campfires.”

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

Crossing the Bridge Pursued by a Thousand Curses

The crossing of the bridge continued on November 27.  Armed troops were given priority, but the stragglers had pressed in on the entrances making it hard to gain access to the bridges.

Captain François Dumonceau of the 2nd Regiment of the Chevau-légers Lanciers of the Imperial Guard describes his unit’s crossing on the afternoon of the 27th:  “Most of our army corps had already crossed, and all the Imperial Guard, of which we were the last to turn up.  Only part of their parks and horse teams still remained to follow with us, but the crowd of disbanded troops had arrived and created a block by flocking from all sides, infiltrating everywhere, congesting the ground over a considerable area and refusing to give way to us …  Detachments of pontoniers and gendarerie, posted at the various bridgeheads, struggled hard with the crowd to contain it and control its flow.”

“We had to open a way through by brute force.  In the end we drew our swords and behaved like madmen, using the flat of the blade to knock aside those who, pushed back by the crowd, hemmed us in as if in a press.  In this way we managed to clear a path, and were pursued by a thousand curses.”

Berezina
Musée de l’Armée

“On reaching the bridge to which we had been directed, we began to dismount and cross one by one, leading our horses so as not to shake the bridge.  It had no guard-rail, was almost at water-level, covered by a layer of manure, and was already seriously damaged, dislocated, sagging in places, and unsteady everywhere.  Some pontoniers, up to their armpits in the water, were busy repairing it.  Among them were a number of Dutchmen who welcomed us and did their best to facilitate our passage by throwing a broken cart into the river, several dead horses, and other debris of all kinds which blocked the bridge.”

“Once across, we went over the flat marshy ground beside the river, and found it so cut up in several places that we sank into the mud despite the ice.”

The two bridges over the Berezina

Jakob Walter describes his passage: “These bridges had the structure of sloping saw-horses suspended like trestles on shallow-sunk piles; on these lay long stringers and across them only bridge ties, which were not fastened down.  However, one could not see the bridges because of the crowd of people, horses, and wagons.  Everyone crowded together into a solid mass, and nowhere could one see a way out or a means of rescue.  From morning till night we stood

Russian Artillery at the Berezina

unprotected from cannonballs and grenades which the Russians hurled at us from two sides.  At each blow from three to five men were struck to the ground, and yet no one was able to move a step to get our of the path of the cannonballs.  Only by filling up of the space where the cannonball made room could one make a little progress forward.  All the powder wagons also stood in the crowd; many of these were ignited by the grenades, killing hundreds of people and horses standing about them.”

Lancer on Horse
One of the More Dramatic
Images of the Crossing

“I had a horse to ride and one to lead.  The horse I led I was soon forced to let go, and I had to kneel on the one which I rode in order not to have my feet crushed off, for everything was so closely packed that in a quarter of an hour one could move only four or five steps forward.  To be on foot was to lose all hope of rescue.  Indeed, whoever did not have a good horse could not help falling over the horses and people lying about in masses.  Everyone was screaming under the feet of the horses, and everywhere was the cry, “Shoot me or stab me to death!”  The fallen horses struck off their feet many of those still standing.  It was only by a miracle that anyone was saved.”

“… I frequently caused my horse to rear up, whereby he came down again about one step further forward.  I marveled at the intelligence with which this animal sought to save us.  Then evening came, and despair steadily increased.  Thousands swam into the river with horses, but no one ever came out again; thousands of others who were near the water were pushed in, and the stream was like a sheep dip where the heads of men and horses bobbed up and down and disappeared.”

Passage de la Berezina
by January Suchodolski

“Finally, toward four o’clock in the evening, when it was almost dark, I came to the bridge.  Here I saw only one bridge, the second having been shot away.  …masses of horses and people which lay dead, piled high upon the bridge….  Now I kept myself constantly in the middle…   not a plank was visible because of the dead men and horses… ”

“The fact that the bridge was covered with horses and men was not due to shooting and falling alone but also to the bridge ties, which were not fastened on this structure.  The horses stepped through between them with their feet and so could not help falling, until no plank was left movable on account of the weight of the bodies.  For where such a timber still could move, it was torn out of place by the falling horses, and a sort of trap was prepared for the following horse.  Indeed, one must say that the weight of the dead bodies was the salvation of those riding across; for, without their load, the cannon would have caused the destruction of the bridge too soon.”

Sources:
1812: Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, compiled, edited and translated by Antony Brett-James

The Diary of a Napoloenic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter

Camp at Studianka

Faber du Faur painted the scene on the bank of the Berezina where the army waited to cross.

Camp at Studianka,
26 November
by Faber du Faur
Note the building being dismantled in the background

Camp at Studianka, 26 November
“We left our camp at Nimanitschi before dawn on the 26th and marched for Borisov with the rest of the army; Borisov had fallen to Chichagov on the 23rd but had been recaptured by the Duke of Reggio [Nicolas Oudinot] on the 24th.  Night had falled by the time we reached the town.  We then followed the river for two leagues, the glow of the Russian campfires on the right bank helping us in our progress.  When day broke our march was masked by a forest of pines.  Firing could be heard but it seemed distant and muffled; however, it grew louder that afternoon.  It was Oudinot, who, with II Corps, had crossed the river and was pushing Chichagov back towards Borisov.”

“We reached Studianka, which lies at the foot of some heights, that evening.  The heights had guns positioned on them to defend the bridges that had been thrown across the river by General Eblé on the morning of the 26th.  The bridge on the right was designed for infantry and cavalry whilst that a little further downstream was intended for artillery and all kinds of other vehicles.”

“The river itself is quite wide, with marshy banks, and is about six feet deep.  There were ramps serving as approaches to the bridges, but these were partially flooded as the water level had risen recently.  Wood from the village had been used to build the bridges, and what remained had largely been consumed in the campfires.  What little was left served as our shelter that night whilst we waited to cross the river.  The place was so crowded that we thought ourselves lucky to find shelter from the glacial winds against the walls of a hut and next to the headquarters of the French gendarmes.”

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

The Bridges Over the Berezina

The engineers worked through the night and into the next day building trestles, installing them in the water and then laying planks across stringers from trestle to trestle.  What did the bridges look like when they were done?  Alexander Mikaberidze‘s book The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, gives us an idea.

There were two bridges: one for infantry and another for the artillery.  Effort was concentrated on the infantry bridge first which was completed at 1 pm on the 26th.  The artillery bridge was completed at 4 pm.

The approaches to the bridges were marshy, but had begun to freeze as the weather turned colder during these days.  The engineers laid out fascines(bundles of sticks) to walk across.  The infantry bridge was about 100 metres long (109 yards) and 4 or 5 metres wide (13 or 16 feet).  Stringers running from trestle to trestle supported the planks that were laid across the width of the bridge.  Some of the wood used

Construction of  the Tressles
by eyewitness François Pils

included roof slats that were ‘four or five lignes [1 -1.25cm or .39 – .49 inches] thick’ from nearby houses, and so had to place double and triple layers of planks, which were then covered with bark, hay or branches.  Some of the trestles kept sinking into the mud of the river and the roadway was about a foot above the water.

One description of the bridge and the crossing is as follows.  The roadway was “very close to the surface of the river” and “minor things, such as the breaking of individual surface planks, caused major delays and crowding, with people pressuring forward and to the side, which tripped many into the water…”

Only armed soldiers were allowed across, but masses of stragglers pushed to the entrance to the bridges.  This meant great difficulty for armed units to work their way to the bridge and then across.  The bridge was soon littered with debris and bodies which made crossing even harder.  To add to the danger, large ice flows came downstream and crashed into the low bridge.

Source:
The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, Alexander Mikaberidze