Daily Archives: December 14, 2012

The Final Post

Well, maybe not the final post, but close to it.  With the end of the 200th anniversary of the Russian campaign, I will no longer be making regular posts.  Starting in May of 2011, I’ve been attempting to bring the stories of the participants in this disastrous campaign to life.  This is post number 238 during that period.  In 2012, the bicentennial of the campaign, there have been posts on 117 days of the 175 day campaign (67%)(some of the posts are enhanced re-posts from 2011 – the 199th anniversary).

Wherever possible, I matched the date of the eyewitness account to its 200th anniversary to give the reader as much of a connection with the participants as possible.  The goal was to make the reader feel a part of the event.  As a result, I’ve mostly ignored the strategy and concentrated on the human aspect.  My favorite post was about a lost glove.  Something so simple could have tragic consequences.

Russian Snows cover for AmazonThis blog is the result of research I did to write a work of historical fiction for middle school readers.  While the hero of my book, Henri Carle,  is only 14, many adults have read the story and found it entertaining.  If reading this blog has put you in the mood for a good Russian campaign adventure story, order yourself a copy of Russian Snows: Coming of Age in Napoleon’s Army and enjoy it some night this winter in front of a warm fire.  You’ll probably recognize a few of the scenes in the book as they were inspired by eyewitness accounts.

Another interesting thing that came out of the writing of Russian Snows, was that  a fellow re-enactor pointed out that a veteran of Napoleon’s Russian campaign is buried at a local church, only a few miles from where I live in southeastern Pennsylvania, USA.  While I have made no attempt to verify the validity of the veteran’s claim, here is the little bit of the story that we know according to a pastor who was giving his recollections many years later.

“Among the interesting reminiscences is the life and character of Father Knapp.  He was quite up in years when I became pastor in 1865.  He died about thirty years ago, aged eighty-four.  In character he was sturdy and pronounced. 0301121348Outspoken candor marked all his doings.  Between opinions he never halted.  He was in Napoleon’s Russian campaign.  Often he was near that august personality; had brought him dispatches; taken orders from him to others, thus had business acquaintance and conversation with him.  To hear him talk seemed like a dream.  It seemed so strange to speak with a man who had personally spoken with Napoleon.  About the horrible campaign he could talk by the hour.  Incident and general movements he remembered well and stated them vividly.  I delighted to listen to him.  His frequent nearness to the great emperor gave him opportunities of knowing things.  His statements came with authority.”

Thank you to Lee Wessner for providing the text and photo about John Knapp.

Thank you to everyone who has read this blog.  I hope it serves as a reference for years to come.

Scott Armstrong

The Last Frenchman out of Russia

In Antony Brett-James book, 1812 Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, is the account by Count Mathieu Dumas, the Intendant-General of December 14, 1812, the day the last Frenchman left Russia.  “At long last we were out of that cursed country – Russia.  The Cossacks no longer pursued us with such zeal.  As we advanced across Prussian territory we found better lodgings and resources.  The first place we could draw breath was Wilkowiski, and then Gumbinnen, where I stopped at a doctor’s house as I had done when I first passed through the town.  We had just been served with some excellent coffee when I saw a man wearing a brown coat come in.  He had a long beard.  His face was black and seemed to be burnt.  His eyes were red and glistening.  ‘Here I am at last!’ he said.  ‘What, General Dumas! Don’t your recognize me?'”

“‘No. who are you?'”

Marshal Ney with the Rearguard

Marshal Ney with the Rearguard

“‘I am the rearguard of the Grand Army, Marshal Ney.  I fired the last shot on the bridge at Kovno.  I threw the last of our weapons into the Niemen, and I have come as far as this through the woods.'”

“I leave to your imagination with what respectful eagerness we welcomed the hero of the retreat from Russia.”

Despite the heroics of Marshal Ney, many men suffered a different fate.  James Fisher provides the following account from the Russian point of view.

(14th December) Final, Hellish Retreat

Rafail Zotov, was just out of school when the war began and volunteered to join the St Petersburg opolchenye, part of Wittgenstein’s Corps.

The Retreat from RussiaFiring at Cossacks

The Retreat from Russia
Firing at Cossacks

“On 2 December [14 December]* we caught up with Chichagov’s men and let them ahead of us so they could claim all the laurels of the pursuit. This movement marked the start of the most severe frost, which even those of us who lived in St Petersburg had rarely experienced. Temperatures dropped every day and reached -23º to -25º Réaumur [-29º to -31º Celsius]. This was a final devastating blow to the French army, which completely lost its morale. Its every bivouac and encampment was like the terrifying sight of the battlefield, where thousands lay dying in great agony. And so the warriors who perhaps survived Austerlitz, Eylau and Borodino now easily fell into our hands. They were in a state of trance so that every Cossack captured and brought back dozens of them. They could not comprehend what was happening around them, could not remember or understand anything. The roads were littered with their corpses and they lay abandoned and without any attention inside every hut.”

*Dates according to Julian [and Gregorian] calendar

Mikaberidze, A (2012) Russian Eyewitness Accounts of the Campaign of 1812. Frontline Books (an imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd), Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. p. 246.

1812 Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, Compiled, edited and translated by Antony Brett-James, 288

Russian Eyewitness Accounts of the Campaign of 1812, Alexander Mikaberidze, p 246