Faber du Faur painted the scene on the bank of the Berezina where the army waited to cross.
Camp at Studianka,
by Faber du Faur
Note the building being dismantled in the background
Camp at Studianka, 26 November
“We left our camp at Nimanitschi before dawn on the 26th and marched for Borisov with the rest of the army; Borisov had fallen to Chichagov on the 23rd but had been recaptured by the Duke of Reggio [Nicolas Oudinot] on the 24th. Night had falled by the time we reached the town. We then followed the river for two leagues, the glow of the Russian campfires on the right bank helping us in our progress. When day broke our march was masked by a forest of pines. Firing could be heard but it seemed distant and muffled; however, it grew louder that afternoon. It was Oudinot, who, with II Corps, had crossed the river and was pushing Chichagov back towards Borisov.”
“We reached Studianka, which lies at the foot of some heights, that evening. The heights had guns positioned on them to defend the bridges that had been thrown across the river by General Eblé on the morning of the 26th. The bridge on the right was designed for infantry and cavalry whilst that a little further downstream was intended for artillery and all kinds of other vehicles.”
“The river itself is quite wide, with marshy banks, and is about six feet deep. There were ramps serving as approaches to the bridges, but these were partially flooded as the water level had risen recently. Wood from the village had been used to build the bridges, and what remained had largely been consumed in the campfires. What little was left served as our shelter that night whilst we waited to cross the river. The place was so crowded that we thought ourselves lucky to find shelter from the glacial winds against the walls of a hut and next to the headquarters of the French gendarmes.”
With Napoleon in Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Major Faber du Faur, 1812, edited by Jonathan North
The engineers worked through the night and into the next day building trestles, installing them in the water and then laying planks across stringers from trestle to trestle. What did the bridges look like when they were done? Alexander Mikaberidze‘s book The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, gives us an idea.
There were two bridges: one for infantry and another for the artillery. Effort was concentrated on the infantry bridge first which was completed at 1 pm on the 26th. The artillery bridge was completed at 4 pm.
The approaches to the bridges were marshy, but had begun to freeze as the weather turned colder during these days. The engineers laid out fascines(bundles of sticks) to walk across. The infantry bridge was about 100 metres long (109 yards) and 4 or 5 metres wide (13 or 16 feet). Stringers running from trestle to trestle supported the planks that were laid across the width of the bridge. Some of the wood used
Construction of the Tressles
by eyewitness François Pils
included roof slats that were ‘four or five lignes [1 -1.25cm or .39 – .49 inches] thick’ from nearby houses, and so had to place double and triple layers of planks, which were then covered with bark, hay or branches. Some of the trestles kept sinking into the mud of the river and the roadway was about a foot above the water.
One description of the bridge and the crossing is as follows. The roadway was “very close to the surface of the river” and “minor things, such as the breaking of individual surface planks, caused major delays and crowding, with people pressuring forward and to the side, which tripped many into the water…”
Only armed soldiers were allowed across, but masses of stragglers pushed to the entrance to the bridges. This meant great difficulty for armed units to work their way to the bridge and then across. The bridge was soon littered with debris and bodies which made crossing even harder. To add to the danger, large ice flows came downstream and crashed into the low bridge.
The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, Alexander Mikaberidze