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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

Thank You!

As the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s Russian campaign draws to a close, I want to make sure I thank those who have helped me along the way.  My goal for this blog is to bring the experiences of the soldiers to life through eyewitness accounts on the 200th anniversary of the event.  In other words, I want(ed) readers to be able to feel what the men, women and children of the Grande Armée were experiencing exactly 200 years ago.  Now that the bulk of campaign’s bicentennial is in the past, this blog can become a historical record.

I wish to send out a big THANK YOU to the following people for helping me with this blog:

James Fisher – James was one of the first people to comment on one of my posts.  We began a correspondence and he ended up sending me numerous collections of eyewitness accounts which were posted on this blog.  This was a big help as it was sometimes difficult to keep up with the research and writing on  daily basis.  I should also add that James had many kind words to say about this blog and I appreciate that.  You can follow his war gaming blog at Avon Napoleonic Fellowship.

Alexey Temnikov – I met Alexey through Facebook and he has been extremely generous with his time and talents.  As a bi-lingual Russian citizen, Alexey did much translating and answering of my questions about geography, town names, etc…  He also provided some of the images I used, including the commemorative 1912 Russian candy box cards I have used throughout the blog.  He is also an excellent artist and dedicated re-enactor.  He provided a number of the re-enactment photographs and even did a turn as a guest blogger to tell about his experience at the recent 200th anniversary of Borodino.

Alice Shepperson – Alice commented on one of my posts a few months ago and that began an exchange about the relationship between Prince Eugène and Napoleon.  Well, that led to Alice doing two guest posts: one on Eugène and Napoleon and the other on whether it was the horseshoes that led to the downfall of the Grande Armée on the retreat (it wasn’t).  She is currently putting her Oxford history degree to use on a post about Marshal Murat.  Stay tuned.  When she isn’t guest blogging about the Grande Armée, she is writing her own blog: Noon Observation.  I insist that everyone reading this post immediately sign up to follow Noon Observation.  Alice’s razor sharp wit is evident in every line as she blogs about whatever history topics happen to strike her fancy.  Check out her blog and then tell all of your friends and neighbors.

Mark Schneider – I met Mark through Facebook although we do have a mutual friend in real life and I have re-enacted at Colonial Williamsburg, where he works, many times.  Many of you know Mark as Napoleon.  As I once saw someone comment about a photo of Mark in front of a portrait of Napoleon: “You look more like Napoleon than he does.”  Mark has been attending re-enactments portraying the Emperor Napoleon since 2005.  Napoleon should consider himself fortunate to have a person such as Mark as care taker of his image and legacy.  Mark’s contribution to this blog was through a post in which he shared his experience portraying Napoleon at the 200th anniversary of the battle of Borodino.  Vive l’Empereur!

Alexander Mikaberidze – Alex is the author of many books on the Russian campaign.  As a native of Georgia (the one near Russia), he is able to bring much material to life in English that normally would not be accessible to those of us who are not multi-lingual.  Alex has been generous with his time in answering my questions and in providing guest posts as well.  You can see his guest posts here and here.

Pierre Toussaint – Another friend through the wonder of Facebook.  Pierre is a member of Centre d’Etudes Napoléoniennes and has been generous in sharing contemporary photos of Smolensk and the Berezina.  Particularly with the Berezina, he selected and described the views of various photos showing the actual location of the bridges.  You can see those photos on this blog post as well as this one and this one.

Elena Khonineva – Elena took a tour of the Borodino battlefield this summer and posted her photos on Facebook.  She graciously allowed me to use them in a post.

Armchair General website – Alexey Temnikov told me about this site and it has been the source for many of the images that have appeared with the posts.  Thank you to all of the unnamed contributors who took the time to scan and share images of the retreat on the Armchair General website.

The Readers of This Blog – I began this blog on the 199th anniversary of the campaign in 2011 as an experiment to see if I could sustain the effort it would take to blog on a near daily basis.  In 2011, I averaged two visits per day.  Over the last seven days, I have averaged over 200 visits per day.  To date, the blog has received 14,000 visits.  Thank you for reading.

The readership of this blog certainly has an international flavor.  I live in southeastern Pennsylvania in the USA.  One night, I was exchanging emails with someone in Australia and also someone in Holland.

Share the link to this blog wherever possible, comment and/or volunteer to contribute.  I can be reached at

Russian Snows cover for AmazonThis blog is an off-shoot of the research I did for a work of historical fiction about the campaign: Russian Snows: Coming of Age in Napoleon’s Army.  I wanted the readers to feel as if they were right there with my main character on the invasion.  I read many eyewitness accounts to get this feel and didn’t want my research to go to waste.  The result was this blog.

If you know a middle school student who would be interested in reading historical (accurate) fiction about the Russian Campaign or want to read about it yourself, please order a copy of my book either on Amazon or the Russian Snows website. Christmas is coming….   put a little Napoleonic history under your tree this year.

Presentation on Napoleon’s 1812 Invasion of Russia

On October 23, I’ll be giving a presentation as part of the Life Long Learning series in East Greenville, Pennsylvania.  My topic will be Napoleon’s 1812 Invasion of Russia which is, of course, the backdrop for my book, Russian Snows: Coming of Age in Napoleon’s Army.
I won’t be speaking about my book, however.  Rather I’ll be talking about the campaign and working in some of the eyewitness accounts I have been blogging about.
If anyone is local to the East Greenville area (southeastern Pennsylvania, USA) and is willing to pay $15 to register for the series, you are invited to come out to my 9:30 am presentation on Tuesday, October 23, 2012.
Additional information and registration information for LLL is available by following this link.  Attendees must register in advance.

Leo Tolstoy’s Birthday

Today, September 9, is the birthday of Russian author Leo Tolstoy.  He was born in 1828 (died 1910) into a family of nobility.  He lived a life of leisure until enlisting in the army in 1851 and fought in the Crimean War.  It was during this time that he began to write.  He also gained first-hand experience of what it was like in the Russian military.  Experience that he would draw on later while writing War and Peace.

Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy

War and Peace is a combination of fiction and history.  Tolstoy did consult many accounts of those who had participated in the campaign of 1812.  One of the sources I use frequently in this blog, Philippe-Paul de Ségur‘s Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, contains, according to the editor’s preface, four incidents that appear in War and Peace: The Uhlans drowning in the Viliya River and saluting the spot on the shore where the Emperor had been standing; the scene in which the portrait of Napoleon’s son is shown to the troops on the eve of the battle of Borodino (Blogger’s note: I used this scene in my book, Russian Snows, as well); ailing Napoleon at Borodino postponing his orders; and the moment Napoleon stands on the Poklonny Hill gazing at Moscow.

Tolstoy’s book begins in 1805 and was originally published between 1865-1869 as a serial story in a magazine.  While writing the novel, Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia, ( August 22, 1844 – November 4, 1919) copied the manuscript seven times!  This is quite a feat considering one of the

Sophia Tolstoy at age 17
One year before her marriage

things that makes War and Peace such a famous book is its great length.  One of my copies has 1,442 pages.

What makes War and Peace of interest to those who follow a blog about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia is that a good deal of the book covers the year 1812 and the invasion.  Tolstoy did not, however, consider War and Peace his best novel, that honor he gave to Anna Karenina.

Here is a link to a website that has an online, version of War and Peace.  This link has film footage of Tolstoy including his funeral procession.

I have two copies of War and Peace, including one from 1889, but have never read it.  Instead, I listened to a free audio version (64+ hours).  It helped to have a copy of the book handy while listening so that I could consult the list of characters that is included in the more recent version.  Whether you read or listen, the book is well worth the time.

The Debut of the 1812 Overture

This blog is about the experiences of the soldiers during the Russian campaign.  Whenever possible, I post the accounts on the 200th anniversary of the actual event.  Today, however, a friend pointed out to me that it is the 130th anniversary of the public debut of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture in Moscow.

The music is best known to American audiences as the soundtrack to Fourth of July fireworks grand finales.  However, it was written to commemorate the  victory of the Russians over the French in 1812.  The listener is taken through the stages of the invasion:  The advance and victories of the French, the battle at Borodino, the retreat of the French and the victory of the Russians.  The piece is over 16 minutes long and includes the firing of cannon and the ringing of church bells (for those performances that go all out).

This recording (Antal Dorati) includes the ringing of carrillon bells and the firing of cannon at West Point

You can listen to the Overture here if you scroll down to the bottom.  (Note: The recording on the website referenced above is not the same as the one pictured to the left which was a Christmas present to me last year).

Thank you to Lizzie Ross for giving me the “heads up” on this significant anniversary.

“The Wealth and Comfort of the Landowner”

On the night of July 11, 1812, Albrecht Adam with IV Corps, spent the night near the headquarters of the Corps commander, Prince Eugène.  Adam thought the courtyard of the castle there would make a “…fitting subject for a painting… as such buildings are relatively rare in this region.”

In the Courtyard of Holzany Castle,
Headquarters of the Viceroy of Italy
11 July 1812
by Albrecht Adam

In the Courtyard of Holzany Castle,
Headquarters of the Viceroy of Italy
“The castle walls ring living quarters inhabited by an old landowner.  The grounds boast a pretty garden, laid out in the English style, and the castle’s estates are fertile and lush.  There was also a stud farm, boasting excellent Polish stock, and all of this announced to the world the wealth and comfort of the landowner.”

With Napoleon in Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Albrecht Adam, 1812; Edited by Jonathan North

Russian Snows at Napoleon’s tomb

I’m back now from a trip to France with my daughter and step-son.  It was a school trip so it was a whirlwind experience without time to see anything in-depth.  Due to a fortunately timed, but unplanned, bathroom break during a bus tour of Paris on the first day, I was able to have myself photographed with a copy of Russian Snows: Coming of Age in Napoleon’s Army at Napoleon’s tomb.

Scott Armstrong with copy of Russian Snows:Coming of Age in Napoleon’s Army at Napoleon’s tomb.
June 26, 2012.

Thank you to my charming and patient daughter, Helen,  for making the hurried tour of the tomb with me and taking the picture before we had to be back on the tour bus.

The book I am holding is the copy I gave to my son, Nathaniel, who did not accompany us on the trip.  He’ll be able to say he has a copy of a book that was in the presence of the Emperor.

Now that I’m back, I’ll begin posting more 200th anniversary accounts of the invasion of Russia.

Life is Good for this General

Not everyone, however, was suffering.  It often took many wagons to move an officer’s belongings on campaign.  General Jean-Dominique Compans described the first few days of the invasion in a letter to his wife dated June 29, 1812.  His letter was written “Four leagues from Vilna, on the Kovno road.”

General Jean-Dominique Compans

Perhaps the letter was colored so as not to worry his wife.  It does sound, however, that he was spared many of the discomfort of the soldiers in the ranks.

“…  When the weather is fine, I sleep on straw under a shelter of branches and manage very well.  When the weather is bad, I sleep in a carriage, but when morning comes I feel the effects of not being able to stretch my legs.  However, none of this prevents me from enjoying excellent health, strength, and vigour.”

“I eat in the open air four or five times a day and my digestion works admirably: indeed, my stomach and I are in perfect harmony, and it couldn’t function better.  Every day I drink my bottle of Bordeaux wine, a little glass of rum, and several glasses of beer when I have any that is good, which does happen occasionally.  Now and then I take a cup of coffee.  We are not short of beef and mutton.  Duval [Compans’ valet de chambre, who was to die in Russia] is still at his post, and produces quite good campaign cooking.  From time to time we get a chicken or a goose, but unfortunately in this country these stupid creatures would rather be captured than purchased, and the takers are far more numerous than the buyers.  Before leaving Elbing I laid in a store of hams, smoked tongues, sausage, and rice.  These help to vary the menu, but of all this food my favourite dish is rice cooked in a good tablet soup à la Duval.  No green vegetables in this country; they take flight whenever our soldiers appear.  Nevertheless, we have found a few which had been hidden in their knapsacks.  I have had occasion to punish soldiers in my division who have been caught in this way: in my view one should be more on one’s guard than this in war-time.”

General Compans commanded the 5th Infantry Division of Davout’s I Corps.

Source: 1812: Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia edited by Antony Brett-James

The 200th Anniversary of Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia

This is a blog about Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia using eyewitness accounts to describe the experience of those who were there.  As closely as possible, I will match the accounts with the date that they happened, 200 years ago.  I’ll put in some of the strategy to give context, but mostly, this blog focuses on the dust, heat, lack of food, poor medical care, disease, illness, foraging, the cold, improper uniforms, snow, terror of the enemy and countless other concerns that make up the lives of a soldier on campaign.  In this case, Napoleon’s 1812 Russian campaign.

Crossing of the Nieman, June 1812

As a start, I began this blog a year ago and made posts on the 199th anniversary of the campaign.  My source material is limited so I’m looking for guest posters who can fill in the gaps with descriptions of what it was like for the soldiers during the campaign.  If you have obscure source material or perhaps a diary that has been passed down through the family (and you can translate it into English), please let me know so the story can be incorporated into this blog.

If there is enough participation, we’ll have a resource where people can go to see what the soldiers were experiencing on this date in history on the Russian campaign.

I can be reached at

The Purpose of this Blog

199 years ago tomorrow (June 24, 2011), Napoleon launched his invasion of Russia.  The campaign ended in disaster and an army 500,000 strong was reduced to 20,000.

This blog is to follow the progress of the campaign on the various anniversaries.  For this year, the 199th anniversary, I will mostly concentrate on the retreat which started from Moscow in October.  In 2012, I plan to cover the whole campaign.

The focus will be on the common soldier.