Category Archives: The Retreat from Moscow

Napoleon’s 1812 retreat from Moscow

“That Hope was to be Cruelly Misplaced”

I will post Faber du Faur’s description that accompanies his painting of the Lichtenstein Café in two parts as some of the description pertains to the events of the 9th of December.

The Lichtenstein Cafe7 Decemberby Faber du Faur

The Lichtenstein Café
7 December
by Faber du Faur

The Lichtenstein Café, 7 December
“We finally reached Vilna, which, like Smolensk before it, was the goal of all those who had survived the disaster to date.  Vilna was inhabited, had well-stocked magazines, and could boast of food and other kinds of luxury – indeed, all the things we had done without since leaving Moscow.  Each and every soldier had been borne along by the hope of reaching Vilna, but that hope was to be cruelly misplaced.  Vilna was nothing more than the tomb of thousands, and those that survived were soon forced out, just as at Smolensk.”

“The most fortunate arrived before the bulk of the army reached the town.  They found themselves quarters, food and other essentials.  Some officers of the 25th Division were, luckily, numbered among this group, reached the town before the army and eagerly sought out the Lichtenstein Café.  This establishment became our headquarters, and all surviving officers of the Division made their way there, even those who only made it on the 9th.”

Source:
With Napoleon in Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Major Faber du Faur, 1812, edited by Jonathan North

“The Most Terrible Day of my Life”

General Armand de Caulaincourt wrote about Napoleon’s arrival in Kovno on December 7, 1812: “I never remember such cold as we suffered from between

Lancers of the Guard Escorting Napoleon

Lancers of the Guard Escorting Napoleon

Vilna and Kovno.  The thermometer had passed twenty degrees.  Although the Emperor was wrapped in wool and covered with a good fur, with his legs in fur boots and then inside a bearskin bag, he complained so much that I had to cover him with half my bearskin rug.  Our breath froze on our lips, our eyebrows, and round our eyelids. All the cloth in the carriage, and particularly the hood where our breath rose, was white and hard.  When we reached Kovno, the Emperor was shivering; one would have thought he had an attack of the ague.”

Retreat - Snow - rider leaving his horse behindGeneral Count Wilhelm Hochberg, commander of a unit of IX Corps wrote of the 7th: “The most terrible day of my life.  There were 30 degrees of frost.  I could only assemble 50 of my men; the others, 200 to 300 of them, lay on the ground, frozen.  The last remains of IX Corps were annihilated.  Doumerc’s cavalry, which had made up the extreme rearguard, was destroyed, it too, during that unhappy night of 6/7 December.”

Sources:
1812 Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, Compiled, edited and translated by Antony Brett-James, p 267

1812: The Great Retreat, Paul Britten Austin, pp .55 – 356

“We Had Hardly Enough Strength Left to Pray”

On December 5, 1812, Napoleon left his army to race ahead to Paris to shore up his government and begin rebuilding the army.  Philippe-Paul de Ségur, Napoleon’s Aide-de-Camp, was transferred to the headquarters of Marshal Murat who was now in command of the army.

The Minard map shows that the temperature dropped to -35.5 degrees Fahrenheit on the 6th and the army was now down to 12,000 men.

Usar on the Snowby Wojciech Kossak

Usar on the Snow
by Wojciech Kossak

In Antony Brett-James book, Ségur gives his account of what happened to him the next day [December 6, 1812]:  “… either because of disorder around Murat or of personal preoccupation, I lost all trace of the King’s [Murat] lodging.  As this fatal day was drawing to a close, I felt exhausted by the effort of walking a dozen leagues on glistening ice and weighted down by the seventy-five pounds weight of my weapons, my uniform, and two enormous furs; so I tried to hoist myself back into the saddle.  But almost immediately my horse collapsed on top of me so heavily that I was trapped underneath.  Several hundred men passed by without my being able to persuade one of them to set me free.   The most compassionate moved a little to one side, others stepped over my head, but most of them trampled me underfoot.  Eventually a gendarme d’élite picked me up.”

“I had gone all day with nothing to eat, and I spent that night – the coldest of any – without food, in a hut open to the wind, surrounded by corpses and huddled near a dying fire.”

“… An elderly engineer general came and shared this melancholy shelter.  Right in front of me he devoured some remnants of food without offering me any and I could not bring myself to ask him for a small share of the paltry meal to which he was reduced.”

“This room abutted on to a huge barn which was still standing, and during that bitterly cold night between four and five hundred men took refuge inside.  At least three quarters of them froze to death, even though they had lain one on top of another round several fires.  The dying had clambered over the dead in their efforts to approach a fire, and so it went on.”

“When, before daybreak, I tried to grope my way out of this dark tomb, my feet kicked into the first comers.  Astonished by their taciturn impassivity, I stopped, but having tripped over another obstacle on my hands, I felt the stiff limbs and frozen faces and these explained the silence.  After looking in vain for a way out, I had to climb painfully over these various heaps of corpses.  The highest was near the door, and was so high that it entirely hid the exit from the barn.”

In his own book, Ségur describes the sixth as follows: “… the sky became still more terrible.  The air was filled with infinitesimal ice crystals; birds fell to the earth frozen stiff.  The atmosphere was absolutely still.  It seemed as if everything in nature…  had been bound and congealed in a universal death.  Now not a word, not a murmur broke the dismal silence, silence of despair and unshed tears.”

“We drifted along in this empire of death like accursed phantoms.  Only the monotonous beat of our steps, the crunch of the snow, and the feeble groans of the dying broke the vast mournful stillness.  Among us was heard neither raging nor cursing, nothing that would imply a trace of warmth: we had hardly enough strength left to pray.  Most of the men fell without a word of complaint, silent either from weakness or resignation; or perhaps because men only complain when they have hopes of moving someone to pity.”

“The soldiers who had been most resolute until then lost heart completely.  At times the snow opened up under their feet.  Even where it was solid, its ice-coated surface gave them no support, and they slipped and fell, and got up to fall again.  It was as if this hostile earth refused to carry them any longer, laid snares for them in order to hamper them and retard their flight, and so deliver them up to the Russians, who were still on their trail, or to their terrible climate.”

On the March from Moscowby Laslett John Pott

On the March from Moscow
by Laslett John Pott

“When exhaustion compelled them to halt a moment, the icy hand of winter fell heavily on its prey.  In vain the miserable victims, feeling themselves grow numb, staggered to their feet, already without voice or feeling, and took a few steps, like automatons, their blood was freezing in their veins, like water in a brook, and showing up their hearts.  Then it rushed to their heads, and the dying men reeled along as if they were drunk.  Actual tears of blood oozed from their eyes, horribly inflamed and festered by loss of sleep and the smoke of campfires…  They stared at the sky, at us, at the earth with a wild, frightened look in their eyes; this was their farewell to a merciless nature that was torturing them…  Before long they fell to their knees, then forward on their hands.  Their heads wagged stupidly from side to side for a little while, and a gasping rattle issued from their lips.  Then they collapsed in the snow, on which appeared the slow-spreading stain of blackish blood – and their suffering was at an end.”

Retreat - The retreat from Russia“Their comrades passed them without taking a single step out of their way, lest they should lengthen their journey by a few feet…  They did not even feel pity for those who fell; for what had they lost by dying?  What were they leaving?  We were suffering so much!”

Source:
1812: The Great Retreat, Paul Britten Austin, pp 269-270

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, p 268 – 269

 

Napoleon Heads for France

With the recent news of an attempted coup in France, Napoleon summoned General Armand de Caulaincourt to him and said, “In the existing state of affairs, I can only hold my grip on Europe from the Tuileries.”  Napoleon had decided that he should leave his army and return to France to regain control of his empire and begin to raise an army to replace the one destroyed in Russia.

Napoleon's Flight from Russia

Napoleon’s Flight from Russia
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

Caulaincourt wrote that Napoleon, “…spoke to me again about the persons he would take with him…  He was to have an escort only as far as Vilna… Beyond Vilna he would travel under the name of the Duke of Vicenza.”

Caulaincourt had, “…kept under lock and key a sack of coal for the purpose of forging shoes for the horses which were to pull us.”

Napoleon in sled“We could do our smithing only at night because the supply wagons were on the move for twelve or fifteen hours each day.  The cold was so severe, even by the forge fire, that the farriers could only work in gloves – and then they had to rub their hands every minute or so to keep them from freezing.  These particulars,quite insignificant in any other circumstances, give some idea of the causes of our failure, and of all that would have had to been foreseen in order to avoid it.  Our failure, for the most part, was due rather to such unconsidered trifles than to exhaustion or the enemy’s attacks.”

Philippe-Paul de Ségur wrote about Napoleon’s last day with the army.  On the evening of the 5th , “He summoned all the marshals, and as they entered spoke to each one privately…”

Napoleon and Marshals meet

Napoleon and Marshals meet

“He was affectionate with them all.  Having seated them around his table, he praised them warmly for their splendid conduct during the campaign.”

Addressing them, “I leave the King of Naples [Murat] in command of the army.  I trust you will obey him, as you have obeyed me, and that perfect harmony will reign among you.”

Marshal Murat

Marshal Murat

“By now it was ten o’clock [in the night of December 5, 1812].  The Emperor rose, pressed their hands affectionately, embraced them, and withdrew… Outside he found a crowd of officers drawn up on either side of his path.  His farewell to them was expressed by a sad forced smile, while their wishes for his success were confined to respectful gestures.  He and Caulaincourt entered a closed carriage…”

 

 

Sources:
With Napoleon in Russia, General Armand de Caulaincourt, pp 263 – 264

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 259 – 260

Commemorative 1912 Russian card image and translation provided by Alexey Temnikov

“The Strongest Pillaged the Weakest”

Faber du Faur’s painting depicting the scene on December 4 shows a small band defending itself from attack while stealing the blanket from a wounded man.  In the background, some troops are forming a line of skirmish.

Near Oschimany, 4 Decemberby Faber du Faur

Near Oschimany, 4 December
by Faber du Faur

Near Oschimany, 4 December
“The cold was getting worse and we were losing more and more men and horses. Many soldiers who had survived numerous campaigns and suffering of every description now succumbed to the cold.  As we headed for Vilna we were reinforced by depots and reserves.  But it was all for nothing: their support was transient and served only to augment our casualties.  Thrust from their comfortable quarters, most of these young troops, many of whom had only been in the army six months, perished during their first night in the open,”

StragglerCommemorative 1912 Russian Candy Box Card

Straggler
Commemorative 1912 Russian Candy Box Card

“The army dragged itself forward, littering the road with its dead, dying and deranged.  We were constantly harassed by bands of Cossacks, greedy for booty, who threw themselves on stragglers or small detachments.  In order to beat off such attacks, armed men gathered in bands and there were running battles in the snow with a few pieces of artillery, dragged all this way without horses, firing their final discharges in Russia.”

“Mixed in with such bravery was, however, as much cruelty and a revolting selfishness.  The strongest pillaged the weakest, the sick were stripped of their clothing and the dying were robbed of their clothes and left to die in the deep snow.  An instinct for self-preservation had snuffed out all traces of humanity in the human heart.”

Source:
With Napoleon in Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Major Faber du Faur, 1812, edited by Jonathan North

Commemorative 1912 candy box card image and translation provided by Alexey Temnikov

“The Replacements Met the Same Fate”

In contrast to his upbeat account of December 2, Faber du Faur told about the fate of the replacement soldiers who were sent to join the retreating army.

Near Smorgoni, 3 Decemberby Faber du Faur

Near Smorgoni, 3 December
by Faber du Faur

Near Smorgoni, 3 December
During the first few days of December the cold increased tremendously and the dissolution of the army was almost completed.  Those few detachments that had crossed the Beresina in good order now dissolved, and the roads we moved on were, more and more, covered with the corpses of men and horses, victims of hunger, exhaustion and, above all, the deadly cold.  The sick and the dying were soon stripped of their clothing by those that followed behind and buried under the snow.  Smolensk had been our great hope but now it was Vilna.  There we hoped to find enough to satisfy our needs and protection afforded by the numerous troops of the garrison.  Vilna would be our winter quarters.  We were prepared to sacrifice our last drop of energy to reach Vilna.”

We arrived at Smorgoni at noon on the 3rd.  There we met 1,600 replacements for our division, waiting patiently for us in this small town.  But the division was no more and, before long, the replacements met the same fate.  Assigned to the rearguard, they soon vanished after a couple of nights in the cold.  Those few who survived were in a pitiful condition by the time we reached Vilna, and we now saw what would befall any such reserves attempting to join us.”

Source:
With Napoleon in Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Major Faber du Faur, 1812, edited by Jonathan North

The 29th Bulletin

The 29th Bulletin is famous because it is the first time Napoleon admitted to the French people the disaster that had befallen his army.  He soon left his army in Russia to head back to Paris to begin building a new army for the spring campaign that was surely to come.  Napoleon departed the following day (4th), leaving Marshal Murat in command of the Grande Armée.

Dodge reproduced this Bulletin, “penned by the emperor himself on the eve of leaving the army,” with the following preface, “whatever its prevarications, in view of the fact that those were not the days of special war correspondents and telegraphs, and compared with the reports of other unsuccessful campaigns by the commanding generals, it will hold its own.”

“Molodechno, December 3, 1812. Up to the 6th of November the weather had been perfect, and the movement of the army was executed with the greatest success. The cold had commenced the 7th. From this moment, each night we lost several hundred horses, which died in the bivouac. Arrived at Smolensk, we had already lost many cavalry and artillery horses. The Russian army of Volhynia was opposed to our right. Our right left the line of operation of Minsk, and took for pivot of its operation the line of Warsaw. The emperor learned at Smolensk, the 9th, this change of line of operations and guessed what the enemy would do. However hard it seemed to him to undertake a movement in such a cruel season, the new state of things necessitated it. He hoped to reach Minsk, or at least the Berezina, before the enemy; he left Smolensk the 13th; he slept at Krasnoi the 16th. The cold, which had commenced the 7th, gained sharply, and from the 14th to the 15th, and to the 16th, the thermometer marked 16 and 18 below freezing [-16º to -18º Réaumur, -20º to -23º C]. The roads were covered with sheet ice. The cavalry, artillery and train horses perished every night, not by hundreds but by thousands, especially the horses of France and Germany. More than thirty thousand horses perished in a few days; our cavalry was all afoot; our artillery and our transports were without teams. We had to abandon and destroy a great number of our guns and all our munitions of war and mouth.

This army, so fine the 6th, was very different dating from the 14th, almost without cavalry, without artillery, without train. Without cavalry we could not reconnoitre a quarter of a league; still, without artillery we could not risk a battle and stand with firm foot; we had to march as as not to be forced to a battle which the want of munitions prevented our desiring; we had to occupy a certain space so as not to be turned, and this without cavalry; which would reconnoitre and tie together the columns. This difficulty, joined to an excessive cold suddenly arrived, made our situation a sorry one. Men whom nature had not fashioned stoutly enough to be above all the chances of fate and of fortune seemed overcome, lost their gaiety, their good humour, and dreamed of nothing but misfortune and catastrophe; those who it had created superior to all things kept their gaiety and their ordinary manners, and saw a new glory in the different difficulties to be surmounted.

The enemy who saw on the roads the traces of this horrible calamity which had struck the French army sought to profit by it. He enveloped all the columns with his Cossacks, who carried off, like the Arabs in the deserts, the trains and the carriages which lost their way. This contemptible cavalry, which only makes a noise and is not capable of driving in a company of voltigeurs, was made redoubtable by the favour of circumstances. However, the enemy was made to repent all of the serious attempts which he undertook; he was broken by the viceroy before whom he placed himself, and he lost large numbers.

Napoleon 2nd portraitThe Duke of Elchingen (Ney), who with three thousand men formed the rearguard, had blown up the ramparts of Smolensk. He was surrounded and found himself in a critical position; he escaped it with the intrepidity which distinguishes him. Having held the enemy off from him the whole day of the 18th, and having constantly repulsed him, at night he made a movement by the right bank, crossed the Borysthenes, and upset the calculations of the enemy. The 19th the army passed the Borystheenes at Orsha, and the Russian army, tired, having lost many men, there stopped its attacks.

The army of Volhynia moved by the 16th on Minsk and was marching on Borisov. Dombrovski defended the bridge-head of Borisov with three thousand men. The 23rd he was driven in and obliged to evacuate the position. The enemy thus passed the Berezina, marching on Bobr; Lambert’s division was the vanguard. The 2nd Corps, commanded by the Duke of Reggio (Oudinot), which was at Chereia, had received the order to move on Borisov, to assure to the army the passage of the Berezina. The 24th, the Duke of Reggio met Lamber’s divsion four leagues from Borisov, attacked it, beat it, made two thousand prisoners, took six guns, five hundred wagons of the baggage of the army of Volhynia, and threw back the enemy to the right bank of the Berezina. General Berkheim, with the 4th cuirassiers, distinguished himself by a fine charge. The enemy found  safety only in burning the bridge, which is more than three hundred fathoms long.

Still the enemy occupied all the crossings of the Berezina. This river is forty fathoms wide. It was floating a great deal of ice, and its banks were covered with marshes three hundred fathoms long, which made it difficult to cross. The enemy’s general had placed his four divisions at different outlets, where he guessed the French army would want to pass.

The 26th, at the point of the day, the Emperor, after having deceived the enemy by different movements made during the day of the 25th, moved on the village of Studianka, and at once, despite a division of the enemy and in it presence, had two bridges thrown over the river. The Duke of Reggio crossed, attacked the enemy, and followed him fighting two hours; the enemy retired on the bridge-head of Borisov. General Legrand, officer of first merit, was seriously wounded, but not dangerously. During the whole day of the 26th and 27th the army crossed.

Marshal Victor

Marshal Victor

The Duke of Bellune [Victor], commanding the 9th Corps, had received orders to follow the movements of the Duke of Reggio to form the rearguard, and to contain the Russian army of the Dvina, which followed him. Partouneaux’s division was the rearguard of the corps. The 27th, at midday, the Duke of Bellune arrived with two divisions at the bridge of Studianka.

Partouneaux’s division left Borisov at night. A brigade of this division which formed the rearguard was charged to burn the bridges, left at 7 o’clock in the evening; it arrived between 10 and 11; it sought its first brigade and its division general, who had left two hours before, and which it had not met on the route. Its search was in vain: it became anxious. All that has been since ascertained is that this first brigade, leaving at 5 o’clock, lost its way at 6, turned to the right instead of turning to the left, and marched two leagues in this direction; that at night and nearly frozen it rallied on the fires of the enemy, which it took for those of the French army; thus surrounded it was captured. This cruel mistake made us lose two thousand infantry, three hundred horses and three guns. The rumour runs that the division general was not with his column, and had marched alone.

The whole army passed by the morning of 28th, the Duke of Bellune held the bridge-head on the left bank; the Duke of Reggio, and behind him all the army, were on the right bank.

Marshal OudinotDuke of Reggio

Marshal Oudinot
Duke of Reggio

Borisov having been evacuated, the Armies of the Dvina and of Volhynia got into communication; they concerted an attack. The 28th, at the point of day, The Duke of Reggio notified the Emperor that he was attacked; a half an hour afterwards, the Duke of Bellune was attacked on the left bank. The army took arms. The Duke of Elchingen moved in the rear of the Duke of Reggio and Duke of Trévise behind the Duke of Elchingen. The fighting became lively: the enemy wished to turn our right. Doumerc, commanding the 5th division of cuirassiers, and who made part of the second corps remaining on the Dvina, ordered a charge of cavalry to the 4th and 5th regiments of cuirassiers at the moment when the legions of the Vistula were engaging in the woods to pierce the centre of the enemy, who were beaten and put to rout. These brave cuirassiers broke in, one after another, six infantry squares, and routed the enemy’s cavalry, which came to the relief of his infantry: six thousand prisoners, two flags and six guns fell into our hands. On his side, the Duke of Bellune charged the enemy vigorously, beat him, made five or six hundred prisoners, and held him beyond cannon-shot from the bridge. General Fournier made a fine charge with cavalry. In the combat of the Berezina the army of Volhynia suffered much. The Duke of Reggio was wounded; his wound is not dangerous: it is a ball he received in the side.

The next day, the 29th, we remained on the battlefield. We had to choose between two routes, that of Minsk and that of Vilna. The route of Minsk passes through the middle of a forest, and uncultivated marshes, where it would have been impossible for the army to subsist. The route to Vilna, on the contrary, passes through very good country. The army, without cavalry, feeble in munitions, horribly fatigued with fifty days’ march, carrying along its sick and the wounded of so many combats, needed to reach its magazines. On the 30th headquarters was at Plechtchennitsy; the 1st December, at Staïki ; and the 3, at Molodetchna, where the army corps received its first convoys from Vilna.

All the wounded officers and soldiers and all which was in the way, baggage, etc. were moved towards Vilna.

To say that the army needs to re-establish its discipline, to repair itself, to remount its cavalry, its artillery and its material, is the result of the statement just made. Rest is its first need. Matériel and horses have arrived. Bourchier has already more than twenty thousand remount horses in the different depots. The artillery has already repaired its losses. The generals, the officers and the soldiers have suffered much with fatigue and want. Many have lost their baggage on account of losing their horses, a few by the ambushes of the Cossacks. The Cossacks took a number of isolated men, geographical engineers who were sketching positions, and wounded officers who marched without precaution, preferring to run risk rather that to march in order and in the column.

The reports of general officers commanding corps will make known the officers and soldiers who most distinguished themselves, and the details of all these memorable events.

In these movements the Emperor always marched in the middle of his Guard, the cavalry commanded by the marshal Duke of Istria [Bessières], and the infantry commanded by the Duke of Danzig [Lefebvre]. HIs Majesty was satisfied with the good spirit that his Guard showed; it has always been ready to move wherever the circumstances demanded; but the circumstances have always been such that its simple presence sufficed, and it was never necessary to put it into action.

The Prince of Neuchâtel [Berthier], the grand Marshal [Duroc], the grand Squire [Caulaincourt], and all the aides-de-camp and the military officers of the house of the Emperor always accompanied His Majesty.

Our cavalry was dismounted to the degree that we had to reunite the officers who had kept their horses so as to form four companies of a hundred and fifty men each. The generals performed the functions of captains, and the colonels those of subordinates. This sacred squadron, commanded by general Grouchy, and under the orders of the King of Naples [Murat], did not lose sight of the Emperor in all its movements.

The health of His Majesty has never been better.

Dodge, TA (2008) Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia. First Published 1904-07. Frontline Books (an imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd), Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. p 281–286.

Thank you to James Fisher for providing this information.