“We Could Not Help But Wonder How the French… Managed to Survive”

The weather leading up to the 24th was not as cold.  Slush and mud were a problem to those travelling by sledge.  But on the night of November 23, the temperature dropped and a blizzard struck.

So far, this blog has focused almost exclusively on the Grande Armée, but what were conditions like in the Russian army at this time?  Boris Uxkull wrote that “Men and horses are dying of hunger and exhaustion.  Only Cossacks, always lively and cheerful, manage to keep their spirits up.  The rest of us have a very hard time dragging on after the fleeing enemy, and our horses, which have no shoes, slip on the frozen ground and fall down, never to get up…  My undergarments consist of three shirts and a few pairs of long socks.  I am afraid to change them because of the freezing cold and so am eaten up with fleas and encased in filth since my sheepskin never leaves me.”

Partizans In Ambush
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

Ilia Radozhistky described the condition of the Russian army as follows: “Our soldiers were blackened and wrapped in rags, some in half-coats, others in greatcoats; some in kengi [special winter books lined with fur], others in felt boots and fur caps so that once they put away their weapons, they no longer resembled soldiers…  I myself barely survived the cold wearing a coat and double felt boots with my head wrapped in a large shawl.  The cloth was so heavy it was difficult to walk for long but severe cold did not allow for sitting…  almost everyone had some part of the body exposed to the frost and I personally had my heels frostbitten.  In such a condition, we could not but wonder how the French, lacking all means of supply, managed to survive…”

N. Muravyev wrote, “My clothes were replete with lice who constantly bothered me; sitting by the fire, I killed them by hundreds.  I often took off my shirt and steamed it over the fire, taking pleasure in the cracking sound of the burning lice.”

The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, Alexander Mikaberidze, pp 113 – 114

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