In Alan Palmer’s book, Napoleon in Russia, he describes the action that took place three miles to the east of Viasma as the French column headed west. Since leaving Moscow, Davout’s Ist Corps had served as rearguard.
During the day of November 3rd, 1812, Davout’s Corps was harassed by the Russian army and Cossacks. As they neared Viasma, the Cossacks were able to cut off the column and capture parts of the baggage train which was travelling unguarded between corps as part of the column.
Colonel Lubin Griois is cut off from his guns and finds refuge in a hollow square formed by the Italian 92nd regiment. The mass of stragglers among the ranks makes maneuvering and issuing orders difficult. “This mass of isolated men, recognizing neither chiefs nor discipline and only heeding it thirst for pillage, was sorely tried. At first the cannon shots it had halted, not knowing where to go in the fog that surrounded it. Swollen by… vivandières and a multitude of little carts laden with children and foodstuffs, it was throwing itself now to one side, now to the other, according to where the last projectile to strike in its midst had come from. This flux and reflux of round shot, ploughing furrows in every direction and from which arose screams of despair, presented a horrible spectacle. For very good reasons the units that were fighting repulsed these fugitives who were trying to take refuge in their midst, so that the poor wretches found themselves exposed to the enemy’s fire and sometimes to our squares’ too. They floated in disorder over terrain littered with dead, wounded and shattered vehicles.”
In preparation for a general action, Ney’s 3rd Corps came back east to cover the column as it approached Viasma. Near evening, Davout’s corps spotted some Russians and came under artillery fire. The corps broke and ran for Viasma while Ney’s corps covered the retreat. General Robert Wilson, watching from the Russian lines wrote that Ist Corps, “broke and rushed to the points of passage [through IIIrd Corps] in great confusion. A regiment of Russian grenadiers charged his rearguard into the town, bayoneting all who resisted.”
Throughout the night there were artillery duels which caused the French to take up their arms, but no attacks came. Viasma caught fire and burned.
Napoleon was 45 miles ahead to the west when he received word of the action. Ney and his IIIrd Corps was ordered to assume the rearguard position. Also, the baggage was to travel in the middle of the corps, not between two corps and an escort was to line both sides of the road as it traveled.
Davout’s corps had left Moscow with 30,000 men and was now down to 15,000.
Napoleon in Russia, Alan Palmer, pp 212 – 214
1812 The Great Retreat told by survivors, Paul Britten Austin, pp 69 & 71
Commemorative 1912 card images and translations provided by Alexey Temnikov