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

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