Daily Archives: November 10, 2012

“Courage – The Only Good Thing We Had Left”

Ségur continues his account of the Army of Italy after it crossed the Vop river, leaving stragglers, baggage and artillery on the far side of the river to be swarmed by the Cossacks: “The Army of Italy, divested of everything, dripping with the waters of the Vop, without food or shelter, spent the night in the snow near a village in which the generals tried in vain to find lodgings for themselves.  The soldiers attacked the frame houses, falling in desperate swarms on every dwelling, taking advantage of the darkness that prevented them from recognizing their own officers or being recognized by them.  They tore off the doors and windows, even the woodwork of the roof, caring little whether they forced others, regardless of their rank, to bivouac like themselves.”

“Their generals tried in vain to drive them off.  The soldiers, even those of the royal and imperial Guards, bore their blows without complaining, without offering any opposition, but without desisting.  Throughout the army similar scenes were repeated every evening.”

“They spent that night drying themselves around the fires they had lit, listening to the cries, curses, and moans of those who were still crossing the torrent, or who rolled from the top of the steep bank to their death in the ice-filled waters.”

Platov Cossacks
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

“It is a fact that reflects disgrace on the enemy, that in the midst of this chaos, within sight of so rich a prize, a few hundred men left a mile or so from the Viceroy, on the other side of the river, held both the courage and the cupidity of Platov’s Cossacks in check for twenty-four hours.  It is possible that the Hetman believed he had made sure of the destruction of the Viceroy on the following day.  Indeed, all his plans were so well laid that at the instant when the army of Italy, at the end of a troubled and disorganized day’s march, caught sight of Dukhovshchina, one of the few towns as yet uninjured [this town was not in the line of march on the advance to Moscow], and were joyfully hurrying forward to seek shelter in it, they saw swarming out of it several thousand Cossacks… At the same time, [Matvei Ivanovich] Platov with the rest of his hordes galloped up and attacked their rear and both flanks.”

“According to several eyewitnesses, the most terrible confusion ensued.  The disbanded men, women, and attendants rushed wildly on one another, stampeding through the ranks  For a moment this unfortunate army was little more than a form–less mob, an ignoble rabble milling blindly round and round.  All seemed lost; but the coolness of the Prince  [Eugéne] and the efforts of his officers saved the day.  The crack troops disengaged themselves from the confusion, ranks were re-established.  The army advanced under the protection of a volley of shots, and the enemy who had everything on their side, except courage — the only good thing we had left — broke ranks and scattered, content with a useless demonstration.”

“We immediately took their place in the town, while they pitched their camps outside and laid their plans for further surprise attacks which were to last up to the very gates of Smolensk; for the disaster at the Vop had made Eugène give up the idea of remaining separated from the Emperor.  The Cossacks, emboldened by success, surrounded the 14th Division.  When the Prince tried to rescue them, the soldiers and officers, benumbed and stiffened by sub-zero cold and a cutting north wind, refused to budge from the warm ashes of their fires.  In vain he pointed out to them their surrounded companions, the approaching enemy and the shells and bullets already falling around them.  They still refused to rise, protesting that they would rather perish there than bear such cruel suffering any longer.  Even the sentinels had abandoned their posts.  Nevertheless, Prince Eugène succeeded in saving his rear guard.”

The remains of the Army of Italy arrived at Smolensk on November 12, 1812.

Sources:
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 179 – 181

Commemorative 1912 card image and translation provided by Alexey Temnikov

Treasures and Tragedy on the Riverbank

Philippe-Paul de Ségur writes of the disaster encountered by the Army of Italy commanded by Prince Eugène, Napoleon’s step/adopted son.  Eugène had been ordered to leave the main route of the march and head from Dorogobuzh to Vitebsk to assist Marshal Oudinot.  In their path lay the river Vop which had been a small stream months before, but had now become a flooded river.

Ségur writes: “[The Vop] was a river, flowing on a wide bed of mud, with very steep banks on either side.  These ice-coated banks had to be cut through, and the order was given to tear down the houses in the neighborhood during the night to obtain lumber for a bridge.  But the Viceroy [Eugène], who was more loved than feared, was not obeyed.  The pontoon corps worked only halfheartedly, and when dawn brought the Cossacks back, the bridge which had collapsed twice was abandoned.”

“Five or six thousand soldiers still in orderly formation, twice as many disbanded men, and the sick or wounded, over a hundred guns with their caissons, and innumerable vehicles lined the riverbank over an area of several square miles.  They tried to ford the river through the blocks of ice swept along by the current.  The first cannon that made the attempt reached the opposite bank safely; but the water was rising higher minute by minute, and the wheels and the horses’ struggles were digging a constantly deepening path at the point from which they crossed.  One heavy ammunition wagon became hopelessly stuck in the mud, others piled up on it, and everything came to a stop.”

“But day was drawing to a close, and they were wearing themselves out in fruitless efforts.  Pressed by the hunger, cold, and the Cossacks, the Viceroy had no choice but to order the abandonment of his artillery and all his supplies.  It was a sorrowful sight.  The owners of this wealth had scarcely time to part company with their possessions.  While they were selecting the most indispensable objects and loading them onto their horses, a mob of soldiers fell upon the magnificent carriages and broke everything to pieces, avenging themselves for their poverty and suffering on this wealth, and keeping it from the Cossacks who were watching from a distance.”

“Most of the soldiers, interested chiefly in food, rejected embroidered garments, pictures, gilded bronzes, valuable ornaments in favor of a few handfuls of flour.  That evening the riverbank presented a strange sight, with the riches of Paris and Moscow, the luxuries of two of the world’s great cities, lying scattered and despised on the snowy waste.”

“Meanwhile the artillerymen, knowing there was no hope, were spiking their guns and scattering their powder…”

“A few hundred men, still bearing the name of the 14th Division, were left to oppose these barbarians [Cossacks], and they were able to keep them at a respectful distance till the next morning.  All the others, soldiers, administrators, women and children, sick and wounded, pursued by the enemy’s fire, crowded to the edge of the torrent  But at the sight of the swollen waters and the enormous, jagged sheets of ice, they drew back, dreading to increase the already unbearable cold by plunging into the icy stream.”

“It was an Italian, Colonel Delfanti, who made the first move.  Then the soldiers pressed forward, and the crowd followed.  Only the weakest, the most cowardly, or the greediest remained on the bank.  Such as could not bring themselves to part with their plunder, to abandon their fortunes, were punished for their hesitation.  the next day, the savage Cossacks were seen in the midst of all this wealth, still covetous of the dirty, tattered garments of the unfortunate creatures who had become their prisoners.  After taking all their clothes they collected them in bands and drove them naked through the snow, beating them cruelly with the shafts of their spears.”

NOTE: Ségur calls the river the Wop while George F. Nafziger calls it the Vop.    The proper name is Vop.

Source:
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 177 – 179