An Unusual Hazard in Smolensk

As a member of the Imperial Guard, Sergeant Bourgogne’s unit was still organized by the time he reached Smolensk on November 9.  This was to be critical for gaining entrance to the city: “Thousands of men were there already, from every corps and of every nation.  They were there waiting at the gates and ramparts till they could gain admission, and this had been refused them on the ground that, marching as they were without officers or order, and already dying of hunger, they might pillage the town for provisions.  Many hundreds of these men were already dead or dying.  When we arrived there with the rest of the Guard in an orderly fashion, and taking the utmost precaution for our sick and wounded, the gates were opened, and we entered.  The greater number broke the ranks, and spread on all sides, anxious to find some roof under which to spend the night, and eat the food promised to us.”

“To obtain any sort of order, it was announced that men isolated from the rest would get nothing; so after this the men were careful to rejoin their regiments, and choose a head to represent them, as several of the old regiments existed no longer.  We of the Imperial Guard crossed the town with extreme difficulty, worn but with fatigue as we were.  We had to climb the steep slope which separates the Boristhene [Dnieper river] from the other gate; this was covered with ice, and at every step the weakest of our men fell and had to be lifted up; other could not walk at all.”

“In this way we came to the side of the faubourg which had been burnt at the bombardment last August.  We settled down as well as we could, in the ruins of those houses the fire had not quite destroyed.  The sick and wounded who had had strength and courage enough to come with us were made as comfortable as possible.  We were obliged to leave some of them, however, in a hut in a wood, near the entrance of the town, being much too ill to go any farther.  Amongst them was a friend of mine, in a dying condition.  He had dragged himself so far, hoping to find a hospital, for we had all hoped to stay in this town and the neighbourhood until the spring.  Our hopes were disappointed, however, as most of the villages were burnt and in ruins, and the town of Smolensk existed only in name.  Nothing was to be seen but the walls of houses built of stone; the greater part of the town had been built of wood and had disappeared.  The town, in fact, was a mere skeleton.  If we went any distance in the dark, we came on pitfalls — that is, the cellars belonging to the wooden houses, now completely gone.  These cellars were covered with snow, and if any man was so unfortunate as to step on one, he disappeared, and we saw him no more.  A great many men were lost in this manner.  Their bodies were dragged out again the next day, not for burial, but for the sake of their clothes, or anything else they might have about them.  All those who died, whether on the march or while we stopped, were treated in the same way.  The living men despoiled the dead, very often, in their turn, dying a few hours afterwards, and being subjected to the same fate.”

Sergeant Bourgogne: With Napoleon’s Imperial Guard in the Russian Campaign and on the Retreat From Moscow 1812-13, Adrien Bourgogne, pp 84 – 85

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