The purpose of this blog is to show the personal experiences of those on the Russian campaign. As a result, I rarely talk about the strategy or overall picture. Today, however, I wish to quote from Ségur’s memoirs about the actions of Napoleon and the Imperial Guard on this day, November 17, two hundred years ago.
But, first some background. Napoleon had ordered his corps to leave Smolensk one at a time at one day intervals with Napoleon and the Imperial Guard leaving first. As each corps advanced down the road to Krasnoe, they were attacked by Cossacks and the Russian army. Napoleon and the Imperial Guard had fought their way into Krasnoe and now waited for the following corps to arrive.
Realizing his trailing corps would need help in getting through, in the early hours of the 17th, Napoleon ordered the Imperial Guard to head back east of Krasnoe to hold the road open. On foot, at the head of the Old Guard, Napoleon himself marched out saying “I have played the Emperor long enough! It is time to play the General!” Keep this scene in mind while reading Ségur’s account of the action: “Then the battle began. But what a battle! Here the Emperor had no more of those sudden illuminations, no flashes of inspiration, none of those bold unexpected moves that had forced the hand of luck … Here the enemy’s movements were free; ours, fettered; and this genius in the realm of attack was reduced to defending himself.”
“But here it was borne in on us that Fame is not a mere shadow, but a real force, doubly powerful by the inflexible pride it lends its favorites and the timid precautions it suggests to such as would ensure to attack them. The Russians that day had only to march forward without maneuvering, even without firing, and their mass would have crushed Napoleon and his wretched troops; but, overawed by the sight of the conqueror of Egypt and Europe, they did not dare to come to close quarters with him. The Pyramids, Marengo, Austerlitz, and Friedland seemed to rise up and stand between him and their great army. It was quite conceivable that in the eyes of those submissive, superstitious men there was something supernatural in such extraordinary renown; that they thought him beyond their reach and not to be attacked except from a distance; that men would be powerless against the Old Guard, the living fortress, the granite column (as Napoleon had called them), which cannon alone could demolish.”
“The young soldiers, half of whom were seeing action for the first time, stood up to the deadly fire for three solid hours without taking a step backwards or making a movement to get out of its way, and without being able to return it…”
“At that junction [Marshal Louis Nicolas] Davout was seen approaching through a swarm of Cossacks, whom he scattered by accelerating his march…”
“So the Ist Corps was saved; but at the same time we learned that … Ney had probably not left Smolensk yet, and that we ought to give up all idea of waiting for him.”
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 203 – 204