“Everything that Could be of use Became a Hindrance.”

Philippe-Paul de Ségur described the abandonment of Vilna on the 10th of December.  He contended that Vilna cost the army twenty thousand men and many of these could have been saved had the city been held twenty-four hours longer.  But Marshal Murat panicked when the Cossacks appeared and the city was hastily abandoned.

Platov Cossacks

Platov Cossacks
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

Here is Ségur’s description of the events: “On the tenth of December, Ney, who had voluntarily taken command of the rear guard, left the city, and immediately Platov’s Cossacks overran it, massacring the unfortunate wretches whom [were thrown]… into the streets as they passed by…”

“This city contained a great part of the equipment and the treasury of the army, its supplies, a number of immense covered wagons with the Emperor’s possessions, much artillery, and a great many wounded men.  Our sudden appearance had fallen like a thunderbolt on those in charge of all this.  Some were galvanized into action by terror, others were paralyzed by consternation.  Out of it came orders and counterorders of all sorts, and men, horses, and vehicles became tangled in an inextricable jam.”

“In the midst of this chaos several officers succeeded in getting as much as could be set in motion, out if town and on the road to Kovno.  But when this bewildered, heavily loaded column had gone about two miles they were stopped by the hill and narrow pass of Ponari.”

Retreat - General disorder and fighting“In our conquering march eastward this wooded knoll had seemed to our hussars little more than a slight irregularity in the earth’s surface from the top of which the entire plain of Vilna could be seen, and the strength of the enemy estimated.  In truth, its steep but short slope had hardly been noticed.  In a regular retreat it would have been an excellent position for turning around and checking the enemy; but in a chaotic flight, where everything that could be of use became a hindrance, when in blind haste we turned everything against ourselves, this hill and defile were an unsurmountable obstacle, a wall of ice against which our best efforts were broken.  It stripped us of everything – supplies, treasury, booty, and wounded men.  This misfortune was serious enough to stand out above all our long succession of disasters; for it was here that the little money, honor, discipline, and strength remaining to us were irrevocably lost.”

“When, after fifteen hours of fruitless struggle, the drivers and soldiers forming the escort [of the wagons carrying the booty] saw Murat and the column of fugitives go past them on the hillside…  they no longer thought of saving anything, but only of forestalling the avidity of the foe by pillaging themselves.”

Retreat Scene from the Russian-French War of 1812by Bogdan Willewalde

Retreat Scene from the Russian-French War of 1812
by Bogdan Willewalde

“The bursting of a wagon carrying loot from Moscow acted as a signal.  Everybody fell upon the other wagons, broke them open, and seized the most valuable objects.  The soldiers of the rear guard coming upon this confusion, threw down their arms and loaded themselves with plunder.  So furiously intent were they on this that they failed to heed the whistling bullets or the shrieks of the Cossacks who were pursuing them.  It is said that the Cossacks mingled with them without being noticed.  For a few minutes Europeans and Tartars, friends and foes, were united in a common lust for gain.  Frenchmen and Russians were seen side by side, all war forgotten, plundering the same wagon. Ten million francs in gold and silver rapidly disappeared!”

“But along with these horrors, acts of noble devotion were noticed.  There were men that day who forsook everything to carry off the wounded on their backs; others, unable to get their half-frozen companions out of the struggle, perished in defending them from the brutality of their fellow soldiers and the blows of the enemy.”

“On the most exposed spot of the hill a colonel of the Emperor’s staff, Count de Turenne, held the Cossacks at bay, disregarding their wild shots, while he distributed Napoleon’s personal treasury among the guards who stood within sight and hearing.  These brave men, fighting with one hand and holding the riches of their leader in the other, succeeded in saving all of it.  Long afterward, when we were out of danger, each one returned the amount that had been entrusted to him: not a single gold coin was lost.”

“The catastrophe at Ponari was all the more shameful as it could have been easily foreseen, and even more easily avoided; for it was possible to pass around the hill on either side.  Our debris served at least one purpose – to stop the Cossacks.”

Source:
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 275 – 278

Commemorative 1912 Russian card image and translation provided by Alexey Temnikov

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