“Tears Ran Down Their Cheeks”

Partizans in Ambush

Partizans in Ambush
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

Sergeant Adrien Bourgogne‘s memoirs tell of his narrow escape from some Cossacks around this time [Approximately December 13, his narrative doesn’t use many dates](He was alone in the woods and three Cossacks were closing in on him when nearby gunfire frightened their tethered horses and they had to rush off to retrieve them).  Now alone in the woods, “… I felt it would be impossible to walk further without changing my clothes.  It may be remembered that in a portmanteau found on the mountain of Ponari I had some shirts and white cotton breeches – clothes belonging to an army commissary.  Having opened my knapsack, I drew out a shirt, and hung it on my musket; then the breeches, which I placed beside me on the tree.  I took off my jacket, an overcoat, and my waistcoat with the quilted yellow silk sleeves that I had made out of a Russian lady’s skirt at Moscow.  I untied the shawl which was wrapped round my body, and my trousers fell about my heels.  As for my shirt, I had not the trouble of taking it off, for it had neither back nor front; I pulled it off in shreds.  And there I was, naked, except for a pair of wretched boots, in the midst of a wild forest at four o’clock in the afternoon, with eighteen to twenty degrees of cold, for the north wind had begun to blow hard again.”

“On looking at my emaciated body, dirty, and consumed with vermin, I could not restrain my tears.  At last, summoning the little strength that remained, I set about my toilet.  With snow and the rags of my old shirt I washed myself to the best of my power.  Then I drew on my new shirt of fine longcloth, embroidered down the front.  I got into the little calico breeches as quickly as I could, but I found them so short that even my knees were not covered, and my boots only reaching half-way up my leg, all this part was bare.  Finally, I put on my yellow silk waistcoat, my riding-jacket, my overcoat, over this my belts and collar; and there I was, completely attired, except for my legs.”

On the 13th of December, 1812, the Grande Armée reached Kovno at the edge of the Russian empire.  Philippe-Paul de Ségur described the scene: “After a final crucifying march of forty-six hours, they found themselves again on friendly soil.  Immediately, without pausing, without casting a glance behind them, the majority of the men dispersed and plunged into the forests of Polish Russia.  But some did turn around when they reached the other side of the river, and look back on the land of suffering from which they were escaping.  It is said that when they found themselves on the very spot from which, five months before, their innumerable eagles had victoriously set out, tears ran down their cheeks and groans broke from their chests.”

“Here were the same valleys down which had poured those three long columns… [Now] The Niemen was just a long mass of blocks of ice piled up and welded together by a breath of winter.  In place of the three French bridges brought fifteen hundred miles and erected with such daring speed, there was only one Russian bridge.  Instead of the four hundred thousand companions…  [the only ones left were] one thousand foot soldiers and troopers still armed, nine cannon, and twenty thousand beings clothed in rags, with bowed heads, dull eyes, ashy, cadaverous faces, and long ice-stiffened beards.  Some of them were fighting in silence for the right to cross the bridge which, despite their reduced number, was still too narrow to accommodate their precipitous flight.  Others had rushed down the bank and were struggling across the river, crawling from one jagged cake of ice to another.  And this was the Grand Army!”

Marshal Ney in Action

Marshal Ney in Action

“Two kings, one prince, eight marshals, followed by several generals afoot and unattended, then a few hundred of the Old Guard still bearing arms, were all that remained of the original host.  It might be said, though, that it lived on incarnate in the person of Marshal Ney.  Friends, allies, enemies – I call on you to witness! Let us render the homage that is due to the memory of this unfortunate hero … In Kovno he found a company of artillery, three hundred Germans belonging to

Jean Gabriel Marchand

Jean Gabriel Marchand

the garrison, and General [Jean Gabriel] Marchand with four hundred armed men, of whom he took command.  His first act was to scour the city looking for possible reinforcements.  All he found were the wounded who were making a pitiful attempt to keep up with our wild flight.  For the eighth time since leaving Moscow he had to abandon them in a body in the hospitals, as he had abandoned them individually along the road, on the battlefields, and around all the campfires.”

“Several thousand French soldiers were crowded together in the great square… but these were stretched out cold and stiff in front of the brandy shops which they had broken open, and in which they had imbibed death, instead of the life they had hoped to find.  Here was the only relief that Murat had left him!  So Ney found himself alone in Russia at the head of seven hundred foreign recruits.  At Kovno, as at Vilna, the honor of our arms and the dangers of the last retreat were committed to his care, and he accepted them.”

Sources:
Sergeant Bourgogne: With Napoleon’s Imperial Guard in the Russian Campaign and on the Retreat from Moscow 1812-13, Adrien Bourgogne, pp 251 – 252

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 280 – 282

Commemorative 1912 Russian Candy Box Card image and translation provided by Alexey Temnikov

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