Daily Archives: November 6, 2012

Mistreatment of French Prisoners

General Wilson continues his observations about the retreat after the first snow fall of early November.  “At Viazma, fifty French, by a savage order, were burned alive.  In another village fifty men had been buried alive; but these terrible acts of ferocity were minor features – they ended in death with comparitively little protracted suffering.  Here death, so much invited, so solicited as a friend, came with dilatory step; but still he came without interval of torturing pause.”

“I will cite three or four of the most painful indcidents that I witnessed.

1. A number of naked men, whose backs had been frozen while they warmed the front of their bodies, sat round the burning embers of a hut.  Sensible at last to the chill of the air, they had succeeded in turning themselves, when the fire caught the congealed flesh, and a hard burnt crust covered the whole of their backs.  The wretches were still living as I passed.

2.  Sixty dying naked men, whose necks were laid upon a felled tree, while Russian men and women with large faggot-sticks, singing in chorus and hopping round, with repeated blows struck out their brains in succession.

3.  A group of wounded men, at the ashes of another cottage, sitting and lying over the body of a comrade which they had roasted, and the flesh of which they had begun to eat.

4.  A French woman, naked to her chemise, with black, long, dishevelled hair, sitting on the snow, where she had remained the whole day and in that situation had been delivered of a child, which had afterwards been stolen from her.  This was the extreme of mental anguish and bodily suffering.

I could cite a variety of other sad and sorry calamities, but the very recollection is loathsome.”

1812: Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, Antony Brett-James, p 222

Snow Comes to Stay

While it had snowed a few times since the occupation of Moscow, it had always melted away.  November 6, 1812 is the first snowfall that stays.

A Scene of the Retreat from Russia

Philippe-Paul de Ségur describes the first snowstorm, “On the sixth of November the sky became terrible; its blue disappeared.  The army marched along wrapped in a cold mist.  Then the mist thickened, and presently from this immense cloud great snowflakes began to sift down on us.  It seemed as if the sky had come down and joined with the earth and our enemies to complete our ruin.  Everything in sight became vague, unrecognizable.  Objects changed their shape; we walked without knowing where we were or what lay ahead, and anything became an obstacle.  While the men were struggling to make headway against the icy, cutting blast, the snow driven by the wind was piling up and filling the hollows along the way.  Their smooth surfaces hid unsuspected depths which opened up treacherously under our feet.  The men were swallowed up, and the weak, unable to struggle out, were buried forever.”

“Russian winter in this new guise attacked [the soldiers] on all sides; it cut through their thin uniforms and worn shoes, their wet clothing froze on them, and this icy shroud molded their bodies and stiffened their limbs.  The sharp wind made them gasp for breath, and froze the moisture from their mouths and nostrils into icicles on their beards.”

Colonel Lubin Griois, commander of the artillery in the 3rd cavalry corps recorded how he spent the night of the first snow: “The only shelter near the place I had halted in was a sort of barn open to all the winds and its roof supported by four posts.  This lodging seemed to me excellent by comparison with those I had had for a long time past.  I had a large fire built in the centre and lay down to sleep beside it, surrounded by my horses.  But during the night snow began to fall heavily, and the wind blew it under the roof with such force that when I woke up at daybreak I was covered in snow, as was the whole landscape. The snow had hardened and was all frozen.  Winter had fallen on us with full severity and was not going to leave us.”

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 169-170

1812: Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, Antony Brett-James, p 220