Daily Archives: November 23, 2012

“If the Rearguard Does Not Take Pity on Them…”

The further the army marched, the more it broke down.  More than ever, the survivors needed the help of others.  Faber du Faur records one example of a dire situation.  A scene that was repeated many times.

Near Bobr, 23 November
by Faber du Faur

Near Bobr, 23 November
“Although there had been something of a thaw over the last couple of days, this was soon replaced by heavy snow – something that impeded our march.  Russian columns shadowed us, but at a distance as they too were suffering from the intemperate climate.  However, we were still surrounded by clouds of Cossacks and bands of armed peasants, and this made it very dangerous to stray from the main road or lag behind.”

“Here we see a typical scene – something that happened every day.  A wounded officer and his wife, after considerable efforts to get this far, have just seen the horse pulling their sledge collapse and die.  The bulk of the army has already passed by but there is still some hope that the rearguard might be able to assist them. But night is approaching and the rearguard is some way off – the smoke in the distance is a sign that it has just left a village and has set it on fire.  The Cossacks appear.  The compassion and bravery of a handful of soldiers serves as some encouragement for the unlucky pair but they are now without transport and if the rearguard does not take pity on them they will be abandoned and captivity will follow.  Either that or they will perish, victims of the murderous climate.”

With Napoleon in Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Major Faber du Faur, 1812, edited by Jonathan North

The Bridge at Borisov

The next obstacle for the Grande Armée was the Berezina river.  Napoleon was counting on being able to cross the river on ice, but a recent thaw had made that

Marshal Nicolas Oudinot
Duke of Reggio

impossible.  Marshal Nicolas Oudinot was charged with the responsibility of capturing and holding the bridge at Borisov.  An advance unit of Poles managed to seize the bridge, but were driven off when the Russians arrived.  On November 23rd, Oudinot arrived with a larger force and charged into the town, routing the Russians, capturing 1,000 men and  300 supply wagons.  However, as they retreated across the bridge, the Russians set it on fire and destroyed it.  Now the two sides faced each other across the river without exchanging shots.

The bridge was gone.  Now the army would have to find another way to cross the river in the face of the enemy.  Oudinot sent reconnaissance parties north and south to find suitable fords where bridges could be constructed.  To keep the Russians guessing as to where the army would cross, Oudinot was ordered to show activity at all crossing points up and down the river.  Now it was a race to build the bridges and cross while facing Russians on both sides of the river.

Napoleon in Russia, Alan Palmer, pp 232 – 233