Category Archives: The Retreat from Moscow

Napoleon’s 1812 retreat from Moscow

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.

“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

Between Pleszenitzy and Smorgoni

Faber du Faur’s description seems almost buoyant as he talks about the events depicted in the painting of December 2nd, 1812.

Between Pleszenitzy and Smorgoniby Faber du Faur

Between Pleszenitzy and Smorgoni
by Faber du Faur

Between Pleszenitzy and Smorgoni,
2 December

The Beresina was behind us and we were happy to have marched over the series of bridges over the Zembin marshes.  Vilna, with its magazines and stores, was now the object of our attention   Those who could outstrip the army were sometimes lucky enough to find shelter in inhabited places.  Here we see some officers of the 25th Division in the room of a farmhouse; they probably still remember their pretty hostess who went by the name of The Carpenter’s Wife.

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

The Officers Distract Themselves from Their Suffering

While the army was crossing the Berezina, Ségur made observations of the behavior of the officers around Napoleon.  “Gathered around him were men of all conditions, ranks, and ages — ministers, generals, administrators.  Particularly conspicuous among them was an elderly nobleman, a remnant of those bygone days when grace and charm and brilliance had reigned supreme.  As soon as it was daylight this sixty-year-old general [possibly Count Louis deNarbonne-Lara, Minister of War in 1791] could be seen sitting on  snow-covered log performing his morning toilet with imperturbable gaiety.  In the midst of the tempest he would adjust his well-curled and powdered wig, scoffing at disaster and the unleashed elements that were buffeting him.”

“Near this gentleman, officers of the technical corps engaged in endless dissertations…  these men sought a reason for the constant direction of the north wind as it inflicted the sharpest pain on them.  Others would be attentively studying the regular hexagonal crystals of the snowflakes covering their clothing.  The phenomenon of the parhelia, or appearance of several simultaneous images of the sun, due to the presence of ice crystals in the air, was also the subject of frequent conversations, all of which served to distract the officers from their suffering.”

Armand Augustin de Caulaincourt

Armand Augustin de Caulaincourt

General Armand de Caulaincourt on Napoleon’s staff made some observations on the 30th about the size of the army after the crossing the Berezina.  “The Beresina had swept away a large number of our strays and stragglers, who had been looting everything and thus depriving the brave fellows who remained in the ranks of the supplies which they so badly needed.  However, that was no gain, for, after the crossing, bands of irregulars formed in full view of everyone, with the object of recruiting still more stragglers.  All that remained of the First Corps was its colour-guard and a few commissioned and non-commissioned officers surrounding their marshal.  The Fourth was worse than weakened, and the Third, which had fought so valiantly against the Moldavian army, had been reduced by more than half its strength after that affair.  The Poles were in no better case.  Our cavalry, apart from the Guard, no longer existed except in the

Marshal Claude Victor-PerrinDuke of Belluno

Marshal Claude Victor-Perrin
Duke of Belluno

form of parties of stragglers, which, although the Cossacks and peasants attacked them savagely, overran the villages on our flanks.  Hunger proved an irresistible force, and the need to live, to find shelter against the cold, made men indifferent to every sort of danger.  The evil spread also to the Duke of Reggio’s [Nicolas Oudinot] corps – now joined on to Marshal Elchingen’s [Ney] – and even to the Duke of Belluno’s [Marshal Claude Victor] divisions, which formed the rear-guard.”

“Cavalry officers, who had been mustered into a company under the command of generals, dispersed also in a few days, so wretched were they , and so tortured by hunger.  Those who had a horse to feed were forced, if they did not want to lose it, to keep some distance away, as there were no supplies at all along the road.  The [Imperial] Guard…  still made an excellent impression by virtue of their general appearance, their vigour and their martial air… and the battalion each day on guard-duty kept up an astonishing standard of smartness.”

Minard map

According to the Minard map, 28,000 men made it across the Berezina.  On the morning of the 28th, the temperature was -13 degrees Fahrenheit.

Source:
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 254 – 255

With Napoleon in Russia, General Armand de Caulaincourt, pp 254 -255

“It is impossible to imagine a more appalling scene”

James Fisher has again compiled a series of accounts depicting the crossing of the Berezina.  These are for November 29, 1812.  We also have a new contributor, Pierre Toussaint, who provided the contemporary photos of the site of the Berezina.  Thank you to James and Pierre!

Contributors and Commentors are always welcome.

(Night of 28th/29th November) Missed opportunity by the stragglers

Site of the Cavalry and Artillery Bridge
The downstream bridge
This is the view from the right (west) bank
Photo taken November 24, 2012
Courtesy of Centre d’Etude Napoléonienne

“The IX Corps left its position at about nine o’clock in the evening, after having placed posts and a rear guard to observe the enemy. They crossed the bridge in very good order, taking with them all their artillery. On the 29th, at one in the morning, the whole of the IX Corps, except a small rear-guard, had reached the right bank, and nobody was now passing on the bridges.

… However, there still remained on the left bank, some officers and soldiers either wounded or sick, servants, women, children, paying officers with their wagons, food or drink sellers, a few armed but tired men, and a crowd of isolated men with their provisions and horses. Everyone, except the wounded and sick could easily have crossed the bridges during the night, leaving behind their horses and carriages, but as soon as the enemy stopped firing the bivouac assembled in the most incredible security. General Eblé often sent word round to them, to warn them that the bridges were going to be burnt, but officers, servants, soldiers lent a deaf ear to these pressing appeals, and waited for daylight near the fires or lying in the carriages, without concern about preparing to leave.

Marshal Victor, Duke of Bellune, stayed most of the night in General Eblé’s bivouac, and failed to make this indifferent and obstinate crowd move out.”

Anon (2010) Passage de la Beresina 26, 27, 28 et 29e Novembre 1812. First Published 1812. The Naval & Military Press Ltd., Uckfield, East Sussex. 32 pp.

(29th November) Firing the Bridges

A warning to readers: this is harrowing reading.

Site of the Upstream Infantry Bridge
The Wooden Post in the center marks the location of the foot of the bridge
Photo taken November 24, 2012
Courtesy of Centre d’Etude Napoléonienne

“At five in the morning, General Eblé had several carriages set on fire, so as to prevail on the men around them; this measure seemed to be effective. At about half past six, Marshal Victor withdrew his advanced guard to cross the bridges; this action awoke the heedless. Conscious at last that they were going to fall into the hands of the enemy, they hurled themselves on to the bridges with their carriages and horses, causing a new and last obstruction.”

This was only partially successful and General Eblé and Colonel Séruzier tried to encourage more to cross the bridges before they were destroyed. Mikaberidze (2010) cites Colonel Séruzier:

View from the Right (West) bank looking East toward the Berezina and Studianka on the far bank
Photo taken November 24, 2012
Courtesy of Centre d’Etude Napoléonienne

“We knew the Russians were getting close, but I could not get the drivers of the baggage, cantinières or the vivandières to listen to reason.  In vain I told them everyone would be saved if only there was a little order; that their safety depended on crossing at once, and that our troops’ salvation would depend on the bridges being broken. Only a few crossed with their light vehicles. The greater number lingered on the left bank…”

General Eblé’s dilemma at having to fire the bridges was recorded by Anon.

Monument created by Fernand Beaucour in Hommage to the French Soldiers
The Crossing Site is in the background
Photo taken November 24, 2012
Courtesy of Centre d’Etude Napoléonienne

“General Eblé having received an order to destroy the bridges at seven in the morning, he waited as long as he could to begin an operation the success of which he made secure by working out careful preparations during the night. His sensitive disposition struggled long before resolving to abandon such a large number of Frenchmen to the enemy. He waited until half-past eight before giving the orders to destroy the bridges and set them on fire.

The left bank of the Berezina became the scene of the most painful sight: men, women, children were shrieking in despair; several tried to rush across the burning bridges or threw themselves into the river in which large blocks of ice were drifting. Others ventured on the ice between the two bridges, but it gave in and engulfed them. At last, at about nine o’clock, the Cossacks arrived and captured the multitude, victim of it’s blindness.”

Mikaberidze (2010) presents Séruzier’s harrowing description of the fate of the remaining stragglers on the left bank of the Berezina:

“The Cossacks flung themselves on these people who had been left behind.  They pillaged everything on the opposite bank, where there was a huge quantity of vehicles laden with immense riches. Those who were not massacred in this first charge were taken prisoner and whatever they possessed fell to the Cossacks.”

Anon (2010) Passage de la Beresina 26, 27, 28 et 29e Novembre 1812. First Published 1812. The Naval & Military Press Ltd., Uckfield, East Sussex. 32 pp.

Mikaberidze, A (2010) The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape. Campaign Chronicles (Ed. C Summerville). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. pp. 198–212

Tribute to the Pontonniers and General Eblé

“The pontonniers and sappers worked at the construction of the bridges with a zeal and courage beyond all praise. The pontonniers alone worked in the water; in spite of the drifting ice, they often went down to the armpits to place and hold the trestles until the beams were fixed on the caps.

Encouraged and supported by the presence of General Eblé, the pontonniers showed unlimited self sacrifice in the painful repairing of the bridges for which they were responsible. From over one hundred who went down into the water either to build of maintain the bridges, only a small number survived; the remainder died on the banks of the Berezina, or were unable to follow the Army two days after the crossing. They were never seen again.”

And General Eblé…

General Jean-Baptiste Eblé

“As I had seen things for myself, and as the nature of my functions kept me close to the late General Eblé, I thought it my duty to supplement as much as I could the account that the General would have given of an operation he directed alone, from the beginning to the end of the crossing. The success of the construction and maintenance of the bridges was due to his active foresight, coolness and most remarkable genius of organisation. General Chasseloup paid full tribute to General Eblé. Before beginning construction of the bridges, he thus addressed his staff:-

‘I realise that the artillery has to be responsible for bridges in wartime, because its resources in staff, horses and material will still hold when other services have been exhausted. The engineers and battalion of the Danube (naval military staff) have started the campaign with a considerable artillery park of tools of all kinds, but we arrived here without a forge, nail, hammer… If the operation is successful, we will owe it to General Eblé, because he alone had the means of undertaking it. I have already told him, and I am telling you so that you might repeat to him, whatever happens.’

General Eblé placed the construction of the Berezina bridges in the forefront of the numerous services he had rendered, in the course of his long and glorious military career; during and after the crossing he repeated this declaration which carried great weight, coming from a general both modest and lucid.

When General Count de la Ribossière fell dangerously ill, General Eblé, being sick himself, was called upon to succeed him in command of the artillery at Vilna, on 9th December at a very critical time, with the energy and activity which never forsook him. He died at Königsberg on 30th December, a few days only after General La Riboissière. The great talents the virtues and integrity of the late General Eblé are well known to the French Army and to France; his name is held in great respect abroad.”

Anon (2010) Passage de la Beresina 26, 27, 28 et 29e Novembre 1812. First Published 1812. The Naval & Military Press Ltd., Uckfield, East Sussex. 32 pp.

In defense of Admiral Chichagov

Admiral Chichagov became the scapegoat for the failure of the Russian army to entrap the ‘Grande Armée’ at the Berezina, but Ivan Arnoldi of the 14th Horse Artillery Company though otherwise:

Admiral Pavel Chichagov

“If anyone decides to condemn Chichagov for letting the French cross the Berezina, such a charge would be misplaced since, as an eyewitness, I can testify that it was impossible to prevent it. [Chichagov] has some twenty-two thousand men under arms on the Berezina and had to defend the river over an area of over a hundred verstas (sixty-six miles), while as many enemy combatant were trying to cross it. Besides, are there any examples in history where one army desired to cross a river and someone prevented it? And it would have been even less feasible against Napoleon. Besides, we all know that Chichagov acted based on instructions received from Prince Kutusov and intelligence supplied by Count Wittgenstein, both of whom focussed their attention on the enemy crossing below Borisov and advised [Chichagov] to guard the river in the direction of Bobruisk…”

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. 237–238.

(28th–29th November) Berezina Aftermath

A warning to readers: this is harrowing reading.

Alexey Martos an engineer in Chichagov’s Army of the Danube (Third Western Army) describes the scene around the Berezina:

“Imagine a wide sinuous river covered as far as our eyes could see with human corpses; some were just beginning to freeze. Here was the empire of death in all its horror… The first thing that caught our eye was a woman who had fallen through the ice and had frozen in; one of her arms was cut off and hung loosely, with her other arm she held a suckling baby. The little thing had wound itself around its mother’s neck; the woman was still alive, she was staring at a man who had fallen through the ice but was frozen to death; between them on the ice, another dead child was lying…“

From Rochechouart, a French emigré officer serving as Chichagov’s aide de camp:

“…we saw the heaped up dead bodies of men, women and even children, soldiers of all arms, and of all nationalities, frozen, suffocated by the crush of fugitives, or mown down by Russian grapeshot; horses, carriages, cannon, caissons, wagons, abandoned. It is impossible to imagine a more appalling scene that the two broken bridges with the river frozen to its lowest depth. Immense treasures lay scattered over the region of death; peasants and Cossacks prowled around these fragments of bodies, carrying off whatever was most precious…. Both sides of the road were strewn with bodies, frozen in every attitude, or with men dying of cold, hunger, and fatigue, with their clothing in rags; they begged us to take them prisoners, and enumerated all the things they could do. We were assailed with cries: ‘Monsieur, take me with you, I can cook,’ or ‘I am a valet,’ or ‘a hairdresser,’ ‘for the love of God give me a morsel of bread, and any rags to cover me.’

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. 248 & 251.

“A Scream, a Single Cry from the Multitude”

Marshal Victor was fighting the rearguard action on the eastern bank while the army crossed.  On the night of the 28th, he received orders to evacuate the left bank by 5 a.m. [on the 29th] and to burn any vehicle that could not be moved across the bridges.  Once across, he, along with General Jean Baptiste Eblé were ordered to burn the bridges so that they could not be used by the pursuing Russians.

Berezina at the turn of the 19th century

In The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, Alexander Mikaberidze describes that the bridges were left open after all of the troops had crossed.  Only the infantry bridge remained useable in the early hours of the 29th.  The artillery bridge had collapsed.

At 7 am, Napoleon ordered the destruction of the bridges.  Eblé delayed burning the bridges and personally urged the stragglers to cross while there was a chance.  He and other officers tried to rally the stragglers, but could not rouse them.  One witness wrote “No one stirred.  Most had fallen into such apathy that they listened indifferently to the words being addressed to them.”

Crossing the Berezina

Eblé put Colonel Séruzier in charge of breaking up the bridges.  Séruzier wrote “…I could not get the drivers of the baggage… to listen to reason.  In vain I told them everyone would be saved if only there was a little order…  Only a few crossed… The greater number lingered on the left bank…”

Between 8:30 and 9 am, Eblé gave the final order to destroy the bridges.  As the stragglers saw the bridges catch fire, they roused themselves and made a desperate attempt to cross whether on the bridges or through the river.  Louise Fusil was a few miles away when the bridges were burned, but years later would recall “… a scream, a single cry from the multitude.  Indefinable, it still resounds in my ears every time I think of it.  All the unfortunates who had been left on the other bank were falling, crushed by the Russian Army’s grapeshot.”

Colonel Séruzier wrote  of what happened next.  “The Cossacks flung themselves on these people who had been left behind.  They pillaged everything on the opposite bank, where there was a huge quantity of vehicles laden with immense riches. Those who were not massacred in this first charge were taken prisoner and whatever they possessed fell to the Cossacks.”

Berezena – November 25, 2012
Source: Centre d’etudes Napoléoniennes –
Berezina 2012

Ten years later, a Prussian officer of Engineers, Major J.L.U. Blesson, visited the site of the crossing.  “We required no one to show us round, and no explanations in order to find our way.  The points where the two bridges had stood were visible from a great distance, and we could even pick out the track along which the wretches struggled forward… Half-way to Studyanka already we spotted — just think of it, ten years after the catastrophe — a mass of leatherware, strips of felt, scraps of cloth, shako covers, etc., strewn on the ground and fields.  As one approached the river, these melancholy relics lay thicker and even in heaps, mingled with the bones of human beings and animals, skulls, tin fittings, bandoliers, bridles…”

In 1812, with the cries of the trapped and doomed stragglers ringing in their ears, the remains of the Grande Armée headed west as the weather took a turn for the worse.

“A Single Idea Took Hold of the Crowd… To Reach the Bridge”

Faber du Faur wrote extensively on the events of the 28th which accompanied his painting of the same date.

Crossing of the Beresina, 28 November
by Faber du Faur

Crossing of the Beresina, 28 November
“Meanwhile, as night fell, the crowds of people who had not crossed on the 27th grew silent.  They settled down among the ruins of Studianka, along the heights or in amongst the mass of wagons and vehicles now forming an immense and virtually impenetrable ring around the bridges.  Campfires illuminated the entire area.  The majority of these unfortunates, worn down by their privations, had grown insensible to suffering or believed themselves protected by [Marshal Claude] Victor‘s corps, the left flank of which had taken up position on the Studianka heights.”

Count Peter Wittgenstein

“Thus it was that the night of the 27th passed by.  Artillery fire, which broke out on both banks simultaneously, heralded the dawn of the 28th.  [Count Peter ] Wittgenstein, with 40,000 Russians, was bearing down upon us from the direction of Borisov, whilst [Pavel] Chichagov, with 27,000 men, was attempting to attack the bridges on the right bank  For most of the unfortunates on the left bank the final hour had come.  They rose up and threw themselves towards the bridges.  The bridge on the left, intended for guns and wagons, collapsed for the third time under the weight of the fugitives, and any attempt to repair it was frustrated by the subsequent disorder and confusion.”

“A single idea took hold of the crowd, a single objective: to reach the bridge.  And in order to do so the fugitives were prepared to crush every obstacle and force their way past anyone, be it friend, commander, woman or child.  People were thrust into the freezing waters of the Beresina or pushed into the flames of the burning house between the two bridges.”

De Overtocht van de Berexina
by Aquarel van Fournier, an eyewitness

“Victor, his corps now reduced to 6,000 men, made heroic efforts to stem Wittgenstein’s advance, whilst [Marshal Nicolas] Oudinot, [Marshal Michel] Ney and [Jean Henri] Dombrowski managed to push Chichagov back on Stakova.  Even so, Wittgenstein, with vastly superior numbers, was gradually pushing Victor back towards the bridges, so much so that he was able to bring artillery fire to bear on the crowds of fugitives struggling to reach the crossing.  The desperation of this mass reached fever pitch.  Each Russian shell or round shot found a target, and swathese of unfortunates were cut down.  The cries of the multitude muffled the sound of the artillery as they made a supreme effort.  In a convulsed wave they surged forward, crushing the dead and dying underfoot.  Finally night fell and the Russian artillery fire first grew sporadic before ceasing altogether.  Towards nine in the evening Victor’s corps forced a passage through a scene of desolation and passed over to the right bank, leaving a rearguard in Studianka.”

Pavel Chichagov
Later disgraced for his actions
at the Berezina

“A good number of unfortunates failed to take the opportunity of crossing with relative ease and on the morning of the 29th woke to find the Russians advancing and a vast crowd milling around the bridges.  It was all for nothing as, at 8:30, the bridges were set on fire and all means of crossing the river went up in flames.  The same fate would have befallen all those who had crossed over to the right bank had Chichagov destroyed the series of bridges which spanned the marshes between Zaniviki and Zembin.  Fortunately, he failed to realise the importance of this defile and we arrived at Zembin having ourselves destroyed the bridges and placed the marsh between ourselves and the pursuing enemy.”

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