An Encounter with Vermin

Sergeant Bourgogne writes about the march to Dorogoboui, about half way between Viazma and Smolensk.  “On the 3rd [of November] we stayed at Slawkowo, and saw Russians to the right of us all the day.  The other regiments of the Guard, who had remained behind, now joined us.  We made a force march on the 4th to reach Dorogoboui, the ‘cabbage town.’  We gave it this name on account of the vast number of cabbages we found there on going to Moscow.  This was also the place where the Emperor settled the number of artillery and rifle-shots to be fired in the great battle.  By seven in the evening we were still two leagues from the town, but the depth of the snow made marching exceedingly difficult.  It was with infinite labour we got so far, and for a short time we lost our way.”

“It was quite eleven o’clock before we made our bivouac.  Amongst the debris from the houses (for this town had been almost burned down, like so many others), we found wood enough to make fires and get thoroughly warm.”

“But we had nothing to eat, and we were so horribly tired that we had not the strength to go and look for a horse, so we lay down to rest instead.  One of the men in the company brought me some rush matting to make a bed, and with my head on my knapsack, my feet to the fire, I went to sleep.”

“I had slept for about an hour, when I felt an unbearable tingling over the whole of my body.  Mechanically I passed my hand over my chest and other parts of my body, and to my horror discovered that I was covered with vermin.  I jumped up, and in less than two minutes was as naked as a new-born babe, having thrown my shirt and trousers into the fire.  The crackling they made was like a brisk firing, and my mind was so full of what I was doing that I never noticed the large flakes of snow falling all over me.  I shook the rest of my clothes over the fire, and put on my only remaining shirt and pair of trousers; and, feeling miserable almost to the point of tears, I sat on my knapsack, covered with my bearskin, and, my head in my hands, spent the rest of the night as far as possible from the cursed rush matting on which I had slept.  The men who took my place caught nothing, so I suppose I monopolized them all.”

Sergeant Bourgogne: With Napoloen’s Imperial Guard in the Russian Campaign and on the Retreat from Moscow 1812-13, Adrien Bourgogne, pp 68 – 69

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