“To Sleep is to Die”

General Armand de Caulaincourt with Napoleon’s staff wrote about the suffers of the stragglers on December 2nd.

Retreat from Russia

Retreat from Russia

“One constantly found men who, overcome by the cold, had been forced to drop out and had fallen to the ground, too weak or too numb to stand.  Ought one to help them along – which practically meant carrying them?  They begged one to let them alone.  There were bivouacs all along the road – ought one to take them to a camp-fire?  Once these poor wretches fell asleep, they were dead.  If they resisted the craving for sleep, another passer-by would help them along a little farther, thus prolonging their agony for a short

Night Bivouac

Night Bivouac

while but not saving them; for in this condition the drowsiness engendered by cold is irresistibly strong.  Sleep comes inevitably; and to sleep is to die.  I tried in vain to save a number of these unfortunates.  The only words they uttered were to beg me, for the love of God, to go away and let them sleep.  To hear them, one would have thought this sleep was their salvation. Unhappily, it was a poor wretch’s last wish; but at least he ceased to suffer, without pain or agony.  Gratitude, and even a smile, was imprinted on his discoloured lips.  What I have related about the effects of extreme cold, and of this kind of death by freezing, is based on what I saw happen to thousands of individuals.  The road was covered with their corpses.”

“The Emperor stopped for a little while at the crossing of the Villia, in the midst of a bodyguard and on an eminence overlooking a fairly wide reach of the road. I stood apart to watch the débris of our army file past.  It was from here that I saw what stragglers had reported for several days past, and what we had refused to believe.  Cossacks, tired of killing our stragglers, or of taking prisoners whom they were obliged to march to the rear, thus depriving themselves for a time of the chance of daily booty, were robbing everyone they came across.  They were taking their clothes, if they had decent ones, and sending them away practically naked.  I have seen cases in which they gave in exchange inferior clothing which they had taken from someone else, or from some poor wretch dead by the roadside.  Every one of these Cossacks had a pile of old clothes – some under their saddles like pads, others over them like cushions.  They never had ridden such high horses before.  I spoke with some of the unfortunate stragglers whom I had seen robbed quite near the bridge, and with others who had been stripped farther away.  They confirmed the particulars I have given, and added that the Cossacks, when no superior officers were about, drove them along in front of them like a herd of cattle.”

Source:
With Napoleon in Russia, General Armand de Caulaincourt, pp 259 – 260

Commemorative 1912 image and translation provided by Alexey Temnikov

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