“Let Me See My Family Again For One Hour!”

December 8 and 9, 1812 were the coldest of the retreat.  Accounts of this time detail the misery of those who had struggled on so far as the cold reached new depths.  The goal was to reach Vilna with its supposed stocked warehouses and shelter from the cold.  But the men were wary, having experienced the disappointment of Smolensk when the stores and shelter there were inadequate.

Retreat Scene from Russian-French Warby Bogdan Willewalde

Retreat Scene from Russian-French War
by Bogdan Willewalde

Lieutenant Albrecht von Muraldt wrote about how his companions were reacting: “Some wept and whimpered.  Others, totally stupefied, didn’t utter a sound.  Many behaved like lunatics, especially at the sign of a rousing fire or when, after starving for several days, they got something to eat.  Only very few indeed were still themselves.”

Surgeon-General Dominique Jean Larrey wrote about the effects of the cold on the starving men: “The muscular action became noticeably weaker. Individuals staggered like drunken men.  Their weakness grew progressively until the subject fell – a sure sign that life was totally extinct.”  Men who couldn’t keep up had to get to the side of the road, where, lacking the support of their comrades, would fall.  “Instantly they were stricken by a painful stupor, from which they went into a state of lethargic stupor, and in a few moments they’d ended their painful existence.  Often, before death, there was an involuntary emission of urine.”

Alexander Bellot de Kergorre wrote: “The habit of seeing them grow weaker enabled us to predict the moment when an individual would fall down and die.  As soon as a man began to totter you could be sure he was lost.  Still he went on a little way, as if drunk, his body still leaning forward.  Then he fell on his face.  A few drops of blood oozed from his nose.  And he expired.  In the same instant his limbs became like bars of iron.”

Dead in the Snowby Ferdinand Boissard

Dead in the Snow
by Ferdinand Boissard

As the temperature only a few miles from Vilna drops to -28° Réaumur (-35° C, -31° F),  Major C.F.M. Le Roy says the following prayer: “My God, I who find such happiness in living and admiring your beautiful sun, accord me the mercy of once again being warmed by him and not leaving my wretched remains in this barbarous icy country!  Let me see my family again for one hour!  Only one hour!  I’ll die content.  I’ve never asked anything of you, God, as you know!  I’ve only thanked you in all circumstances, happy or unhappy, as they’ve befallen me.  But this one’s beyond my strength, and if you don’t come to my aid I’m going to succumb under its weight.”

Source:
1812: The Great Retreat, Paul Britten Austin, pp 361 – 364

“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