Daily Archives: November 27, 2012

“Only the Voice of Honor and Country had any Meaning”

Thank you to James Fisher for today’s post.  James has been a great supporter of this blog with both information and encouragement.  He has compiled a series of eyewitness accounts showing the condition of the army and the condition of the bridges at the Berezina.

(24th November) Condition of the ‘Grande Armée’

Sergeant Bourgogne of the French Imperial Guard related the condition of the ‘Grande Armée’

Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow
by Adolf Northern

“…the days were short—it was not light till eight o’clock, and it was dark by four in the afternoon. This was the reason why so many unfortunate men lost their way, for it was always night when we arrived at the bivouac, and all the remains of the different corps were in terrible confusion. At all hours of the night we heard the weak, worn-out voices of new arrivals calling out ‘Fourth Corps!’ ‘First Corps!’ ‘Third Corps!’ ‘Imperial Guard!’ and then the voices of others lying down with no strength left, forcing themselves to answer, ‘Here comrades!’ They were not trying any longer to find their regiments, but simply the corps d’armée to which they had belonged, and which now included the strength of two regiments at most, where a fortnight earlier there had been thirty. No one knew anything about himself, or could mention which regiment he belonged to.”

Mikaberidze, A (2010) The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, Campaign Chronicles (Ed. C Summerville). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. p. 110

(25th November) Victor’s IX Corps is United With the ‘Grande Armée’

On the March from Moscow
by Laslett John Pott

Having been unaware of the plight of the retreating ‘Grande Armée’, Marshal Victor and his troops were stunned to see, not soldiers but “a mob of tattered ghosts draped in women’s cloaks, odd pieces of carpet, or greatcoats burned full of holes, their feet wrapped in all sorts of rags… [we] stared in horror as those skeletons of soldiers went by, their gaunt, grey faces covered with disfiguring beards, without weapons, shameless, marching out of step, with lowered heads, eyes on the ground, in absolute silence, like a gang of convicts.“

General Hochberg, future Margrave of Baden added:

“I will never forget that day. I ordered my brigade to stop to observe the scene, the likes of which none of us had ever witnessed. We first saw twenty non-commissioned officers carrying flags, followed by generals, some on foot, others mounted, many of them in women’s silk-lined fur coats… The weather that day and the sun brightly shone on the scene, so painful for us to watch.”

Joseph Steinmüller observed an army “without any semblance of order or discipline… Only around the flags and eagles one could see armed men marching; the rest had no arms and covered themselves in furs and rags.“

Mikaberidze, A (2010) The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, Campaign Chronicles (Ed. C Summerville). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. p.95

(26th November) Constructing The Bridges and First Crossing

General Eblé and his pontonniers [often incorrectly termed as engineers] performed amazing and heroic feats in constructing three bridges, using whatever materials were available. Several perished while undertaking the work.

Ségur relates “the rising of the waters had made the traces of the ford entirely disappear. It required the most incredible efforts on the part of our unfortunate sappers [i.e. pontonniers], who worked in the water up to their mouths, struggling against the ice carried down by the current. Some of them died of the cold or were forced under by the great blocks of ice.”

Mikaberidze, A (2010) The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, Campaign Chronicles (Ed. C Summerville). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. pp. 125.

“In order to supplement the boats or skiffs missing, three small rafts were built, but the wood used for want of anything better was of such small dimensions that each raft could carry no more than ten men.

On the 26th, at eight in the morning, Napoleon gave an order that the bridges be built up. Two of them were started immediately at a distance of about six hundred feet. Meanwhile, a few horsemen swam across the river each with a voltigeur riding behind him, and some three to four thousand infantry crossed it on the rafts.

… The number of trestles being insufficient for the two bridges, and for repair, in case of accidents, their construction was continued all day. At one o’clock in the afternoon, the bridge on the right was finished; it was set apart for the infantry and cavalry only, because the boards, used to cover it, were of very poor quality, four or five layers thick.”

Anon (2010) Passage de la Beresina 26, 27, 28 et 29e Novembre 1812. First Published 1812. The Naval & Military Press Ltd., Uckfield, East Sussex. 32 pp.

While waiting his turn to cross, Fezensac of the 4th Line counted his effectives to compare them with the list that he had brought from Moscow:

“Alas! What changes had take place since then! Out of seventy officers scarcely forty remained, and of these the greater part were inefficient from either sickness or fatigue… Almost all the company cadres had been destroyed at Krasnyi, which rendered the maintenance of discipline a still more difficult matter. Of the remaining soldiers I formed two peletons, the first consisting of grenadiers and voltigeurs while the second was from the centre companies. I selected the officers to command them and ordered each of the others to take a musket and always march with me at the head of the regiment.”

Mikaberidze, A (2010) The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, Campaign Chronicles (Ed. C Summerville). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. pp. 142

Having completed the bridges, one can only imagine what it would have been like to be dragged from the relative comfort of a fire to enter the freezing water once more to undertake repairs. This eyewitness account, from an anonymous source, gives us some idea.

“Instead of thick planks which were absolutely wanting, round logs fifteen to sixteen feet long, and three to four ins. diameter had to be used for flooring. The carriages crossing on this uneven and rough flooring caused the bridge to jerk all the more violently that all warnings to carriage drivers to prevent their horses from going at a trot, were mostly unheeded…

General Eblé Inspiring his Men

At eight o’clock, three trestles of the left bridge collapsed. This fatal accident distressed General Eblé. He knew how tired the bridge hands were, and he despaired of being able to gather instantly the number of men to carry out these urgent repairs rapidly enough. Fortunately, they had kept in good order. The officers and their troops and settled in their bivouacs. Only half the men were requested; but pulling away harassed, sleeping men, from around the fire, did not go without trouble.

Threats would have been fruitless, only the voice of honour and country had any meaning for these honest men. They were also stimulated by their attachment and respect for General Eblé. After working three hours, the bridge was finally repaired, and the carriages resumed their march at 11 o’clock.”

Anon (2010) Passage de la Beresina 26, 27, 28 et 29e Novembre 1812. First Published 1812. The Naval & Military Press Ltd., Uckfield, East Sussex. 32 pp.

A Baby is Born on the Banks of the Berezina

Again, we have more accounts contributed by James Fisher.  He has done an excellent job of painting the picture of the problems with the bridges and the difficulty in organizing the crossing.  But there is also an unexpected event:  Amid the chaos, a baby is born and who actually survives the retreat.

(Early morning 27th November) More running repairs

General Jacques Alexandre Bernard Law Lauriston

“At two in the morning, on the 27th, the three trestles of the same bridge [as the previous evening] broke down, in the deepest part of the river. General [Jean Baptiste] Eblé had been wise and prudent enough to ensure that the second half of the pontonniers had some rest. They were now employed in repairing this further mishap. The work was being carried out with great eagerness, when General [Jacques] Lauriston appeared on the bridge and showed natural impatience; he complained of the slowness of the work. This, however, could not have been done more actively. He described vividly how worried Napoleon was.

As they were busy clearing the wood débris on the breaking spot, General Eblé himself stood watching the construction of the trestles with wood of his own choice. General Lauriston asked to be conducted to him and he remained with him until the three trestles were ready, and both together went on their way, forcing the mounting crowd to stand by. After four hours of intense activity, communication was restored at six in the morning.”

Anon (2010) Passage de la Beresina 26, 27, 28 et 29e Novembre 1812. First Published 1812. The Naval & Military Press Ltd., Uckfield, East Sussex. 32 pp.

(27th November) Main crossing of French-Allied Army

Most of what remained of the Grande Armée crossed to the western (right) bank of the river on 27th November. The crossing was reasonable orderly at first, but became increasingly clogged and disordered as the day went on, particularly as the stragglers began to arrive. Captain François Dumonceau of the 2nd Regiment of Chevau-légers lanciers (Red (Dutch) Lancers) noted:

Part of the Berezina Panorama
by Wojciech Kossak

“Most of our army corps had already crossed, and all the Imperial Guard, of which we were the last to turn up. Only part of their parks and horse teams still remained to follow with us, but the crowd of disbanded troops had arrived and created a block by flocking from all sides, infiltrating everywhere, congesting the ground over a considerable area and refusing to give way to us or to move aside to let us through. Detachments of pontonniers and gendarmerie, posted at various bridgeheads, struggled hard with the crowd to contain it and control its flow. This disordered multitude persisted in moving forward, and formed a confused tangle of men, horses and vehicles which increased in numbers all the time almost to suffocation-point, pushing up to the river where several were drowned—thus renewing in all their horror the appalling scenes of the various earlier passages, but this time on a much larger scale in relation to the extent of the ground…

On reaching the bridge to which we had been directed, we began to dismount and cross one by one, leading our horses so as not to shake the bridge. It had no guard-rail, was almost at water-level, covered by a layer of manure, and was already seriously damaged, dislocated, sagging in places, and unsteady everywhere. Some pontonniers, up to their armpits in the water, were busy repairing it. Among them were a number of Dutchmen who welcomed us and did their best to facilitate our passage by throwing a broken cart into the river, several dead horses, and other debris of all kinds which blocked the bridge.”

Brett-James, A (1966) 1812: Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, MacMillan and Company Limited, London. pp. 257–258.

(Night of 27th/28th November) Arrival of the stragglers

Berezina
by Peter Gess

“Until the 27th in the evening, there had been no overcrowding, because isolated men had come up in small numbers only. They arrived in crowds during the night between the 27th and 28th, bringing with them a large number of carriages and horses. Their disorderly march caused such congestion that the bridges could only be reached with endless difficulty and grave danger. General Eblé, as well as other generals and officers tried again and again, but in vain, to re-establish order. Their troops having freed themselves from the yoke of discipline could not be mustered. They were thoroughly depressed and dominated by selfishness.”

Anon (2010) Passage de la Beresina 26, 27, 28 et 29e Novembre 1812. First Published 1812. The Naval & Military Press Ltd., Uckfield, East Sussex. 32 pp.

Arriving at the bridges, this mass of stragglers settled itself at bivouac on the left bank of the river. Marbot was appalled at the lack of action by generals and staff in effecting a crossing on the night of 27th November.

At the Berezina
an unfinished painting
by Vasily Vereshagin

“…much has been said of the disasters which took place at the Berezina but what has never yet been said is, that the greater part of them might have been saved if the headquarters staff had understood its duties better, and taken advantage of the night of 28th November [27th-28th November] to get all the baggage and, still more, the thousands of straggles who next day blocked the way across the bridges.”

Mikaberidze, A (2010) The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape. Campaign Chronicles (Ed. C Summerville). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. pp. 156–157

(Night of 27th November) New life

New life was coming into the world, amidst all the death and suffering. Louise, a pregnant cantinière gave birth that night. Sergeant Bertrand describes:

“The entire regiment was deeply moved and did what it could to assist this unfortunate woman who was without food and without shelter under this sky of ice. Our Colonel Romme set the example. Our surgeons, who had none of their ambulance  equipment, abandoned in Smolensk for lack of horses, were given shirts, kerchiefs and anything people could come up with. I had noticed Marshal Victor’s artillery park not far away and ran over to it, purloining a blanket thrown over the back of one of the horses. I rushed back as fast as I could to bring it to Louise. I had committed a sin, but I knew God would forgive me on account of my motive. I got there just at the moment when our cantinière was bringing into the world, under an old oak tree, a healthy male child, whom I was to encounter in 1818 as a child soldier in the Legion of Aube.”

Mikaberidze, A (2010) The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape. Campaign Chronicles (Ed. C Summerville). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. pp. 157–158

Sources:
Anon (2010) Passage de la Beresina 26, 27, 28 et 29e Novembre 1812. First Published 1812. The Naval & Military Press Ltd., Uckfield, East Sussex. 32 pp.

Brett-James, A (1966) 1812: Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia. MacMillan and Company Limited, London. 312 pp.

Mikaberidze, A (2010) The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape. Campaign Chronicles (Ed. C Summerville). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. 284 pp.

Mikaberidze, A (2012) Russian Eyewitness Accounts of the Campaign of 1812. Frontline Books (an imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd), Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. 261 pp.

On the Right Bank of the Beresina

The crossing of the Berezina was such a tragic event, that Faber du Faur created four paintings and descriptions to record the drama.  Two of the paintings were dated for November 27, 1812.

On the Right Bank of the Beresina,
27 November
by Faber du Faur

On the Right Bank of the Beresina, 27 November
“At two in the morning of the 27th the Guard and III corps, including the 25th Division – which, from six regiments of infantry, four cavalry regiments and 1,000 artillerymen, could now scarcely muster 150 men and no guns – broke camp and crossed the bridges to the right bank.  All those officers who no longer had men to command followed this movement five hours later.  This was a signal for the masses of fugitives camped on the left bank to throw themselves towards the bridges.  Dawn saw a confused crowd of men, horses and vehicles pour down towards the bridges, almost as though they were attempting to carry them by assault.  Although the enemy was still some distance off, the situation was frightening and the horror of it all was augmented by orders given to the gendarmes and pontonniers not to let anyone pass but armed men or those in formation.  All others were pushed back into the crowd, most often by force, and hundreds were crushed underfoot or thrust into the water.  Even those who were granted permission to cross the bridges were not entirely out of danger.  If they managed to negotiate the slippery ramps they were lucky, but, from there onwards, if they chanced to slip they would certainly be trampled underfoot or pushed into the icy waters of the Beresina.”

“In the midst of the confusion stood the Emperor.  He was close by the riverbank, between the two bridges, and he sought to exert some measure of order over the chaos around him.  He oversaw the crossing until the evening when, with his suite, he himself made his way to the right bank and established his headquarters in the hamlet of Zaniviki.”

“The majority of our men camped as soon as they got to the right bank.  Ignoring everything around them, they thought of nothing but lighting a fire, cooking and warming themselves.  Cruel fate!  The gusts of snow were so violent that night that it was almost impossible to keep a fire burning.  We ourselves had just managed to melt a little snow for drinking water when IX Corps arrived, hustled us out of our camp and obliged us to seek shelter further on.”

Camp on the Right Bank of the Beresina,
27 November
by Faber du Faur

Camp on the Right Bank of the Beresina, 27 November
“Forced to abandon our fire, we wandered off in the direction of Zaniviki.  We arrived there in the pitch dark with thick snow everywhere.  Imperial Headquarters was based here, as was the Guard and a mass of troops and stragglers attracted by the glow of campfires.  All the houses were occupied, and it was only after considerable effort, and some hard searching, that we found a house occupied by our staff, officers and soldiers.  We had to obtain some wood at gunpoint to feed our fire, and we settled down for the night in the deep snow.  There was no food.  Soon fighting broke out – not, as one might expect, for room inside the houses but for the houses themselves: the soldiers, maddened by the cold, had clambered onto the roofs and started to demolish the houses for wood.  The occupiers fought vainly to prevent this but, by the following morning, Zaniviki had disappeared, consumed by countless campfires.”

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

Crossing the Bridge Pursued by a Thousand Curses

The crossing of the bridge continued on November 27.  Armed troops were given priority, but the stragglers had pressed in on the entrances making it hard to gain access to the bridges.

Captain François Dumonceau of the 2nd Regiment of the Chevau-légers Lanciers of the Imperial Guard describes his unit’s crossing on the afternoon of the 27th:  “Most of our army corps had already crossed, and all the Imperial Guard, of which we were the last to turn up.  Only part of their parks and horse teams still remained to follow with us, but the crowd of disbanded troops had arrived and created a block by flocking from all sides, infiltrating everywhere, congesting the ground over a considerable area and refusing to give way to us …  Detachments of pontoniers and gendarerie, posted at the various bridgeheads, struggled hard with the crowd to contain it and control its flow.”

“We had to open a way through by brute force.  In the end we drew our swords and behaved like madmen, using the flat of the blade to knock aside those who, pushed back by the crowd, hemmed us in as if in a press.  In this way we managed to clear a path, and were pursued by a thousand curses.”

Berezina
Musée de l’Armée

“On reaching the bridge to which we had been directed, we began to dismount and cross one by one, leading our horses so as not to shake the bridge.  It had no guard-rail, was almost at water-level, covered by a layer of manure, and was already seriously damaged, dislocated, sagging in places, and unsteady everywhere.  Some pontoniers, up to their armpits in the water, were busy repairing it.  Among them were a number of Dutchmen who welcomed us and did their best to facilitate our passage by throwing a broken cart into the river, several dead horses, and other debris of all kinds which blocked the bridge.”

“Once across, we went over the flat marshy ground beside the river, and found it so cut up in several places that we sank into the mud despite the ice.”

The two bridges over the Berezina

Jakob Walter describes his passage: “These bridges had the structure of sloping saw-horses suspended like trestles on shallow-sunk piles; on these lay long stringers and across them only bridge ties, which were not fastened down.  However, one could not see the bridges because of the crowd of people, horses, and wagons.  Everyone crowded together into a solid mass, and nowhere could one see a way out or a means of rescue.  From morning till night we stood

Russian Artillery at the Berezina

unprotected from cannonballs and grenades which the Russians hurled at us from two sides.  At each blow from three to five men were struck to the ground, and yet no one was able to move a step to get our of the path of the cannonballs.  Only by filling up of the space where the cannonball made room could one make a little progress forward.  All the powder wagons also stood in the crowd; many of these were ignited by the grenades, killing hundreds of people and horses standing about them.”

Lancer on Horse
One of the More Dramatic
Images of the Crossing

“I had a horse to ride and one to lead.  The horse I led I was soon forced to let go, and I had to kneel on the one which I rode in order not to have my feet crushed off, for everything was so closely packed that in a quarter of an hour one could move only four or five steps forward.  To be on foot was to lose all hope of rescue.  Indeed, whoever did not have a good horse could not help falling over the horses and people lying about in masses.  Everyone was screaming under the feet of the horses, and everywhere was the cry, “Shoot me or stab me to death!”  The fallen horses struck off their feet many of those still standing.  It was only by a miracle that anyone was saved.”

“… I frequently caused my horse to rear up, whereby he came down again about one step further forward.  I marveled at the intelligence with which this animal sought to save us.  Then evening came, and despair steadily increased.  Thousands swam into the river with horses, but no one ever came out again; thousands of others who were near the water were pushed in, and the stream was like a sheep dip where the heads of men and horses bobbed up and down and disappeared.”

Passage de la Berezina
by January Suchodolski

“Finally, toward four o’clock in the evening, when it was almost dark, I came to the bridge.  Here I saw only one bridge, the second having been shot away.  …masses of horses and people which lay dead, piled high upon the bridge….  Now I kept myself constantly in the middle…   not a plank was visible because of the dead men and horses… ”

“The fact that the bridge was covered with horses and men was not due to shooting and falling alone but also to the bridge ties, which were not fastened on this structure.  The horses stepped through between them with their feet and so could not help falling, until no plank was left movable on account of the weight of the bodies.  For where such a timber still could move, it was torn out of place by the falling horses, and a sort of trap was prepared for the following horse.  Indeed, one must say that the weight of the dead bodies was the salvation of those riding across; for, without their load, the cannon would have caused the destruction of the bridge too soon.”

Sources:
1812: Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, compiled, edited and translated by Antony Brett-James

The Diary of a Napoloenic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter