Tag Archives: Alan Palmer

The Bridge at Borisov

The next obstacle for the Grande Armée was the Berezina river.  Napoleon was counting on being able to cross the river on ice, but a recent thaw had made that

Marshal Nicolas Oudinot
Duke of Reggio

impossible.  Marshal Nicolas Oudinot was charged with the responsibility of capturing and holding the bridge at Borisov.  An advance unit of Poles managed to seize the bridge, but were driven off when the Russians arrived.  On November 23rd, Oudinot arrived with a larger force and charged into the town, routing the Russians, capturing 1,000 men and  300 supply wagons.  However, as they retreated across the bridge, the Russians set it on fire and destroyed it.  Now the two sides faced each other across the river without exchanging shots.

The bridge was gone.  Now the army would have to find another way to cross the river in the face of the enemy.  Oudinot sent reconnaissance parties north and south to find suitable fords where bridges could be constructed.  To keep the Russians guessing as to where the army would cross, Oudinot was ordered to show activity at all crossing points up and down the river.  Now it was a race to build the bridges and cross while facing Russians on both sides of the river.

Napoleon in Russia, Alan Palmer, pp 232 – 233

Ney’s Escape

As the rearguard of the Grande Armée, Ney‘s IIIrd Corps was the last to leave Smolensk.  They had orders to blow up the walls of the city as they left.  There

Marshal Michel Ney

was plenty of powder in the city for this task, but the effect was minimal.  Marshal Davout had sent back a messenger to warn Ney of the Russians across the road to Krasnoe, but Ney dismissed it saying something to the effect that all the Cossacks in the world wouldn’t bother him.

Davout’s corps had barely made it through to Krasnoe and now it was Ney’s turn to run the gauntlet.  Ney left Smolensk on the morning of the 17th with 6,000 soldiers and thousands of camp-followers and stragglers.  On the afternoon of the 18th, his lead troops came under fire through a heavy mist.  The Russians had placed artillery across the road and along each side.  To a request for surrender, Ney replied “A Marshal of France does not surrender.”

Le Marechal Ney Retraite de Russie
by Emile Boutigny

Accounts by Palmer, Nafziger and Ségur vary on the details, but in general, what followed is this:  Ney tried to force his way through for five hours.  Montesquiou Duc de Fezensac describes the fierce fighting as each cannon shot  is “carrying off whole files.  At each step death was becoming more inevitable.  Yet our march wasn’t slowed down for a single instant.”  The 18th Regiment of the line lost its Eagle when, as recorded by Captain Guillaume Bonnet, “The regiment impetuously continued its charge and, taking off to the right, threw back a line of infantry; but enveloped by numerous cavalry it was itself annihilated, except for two or three officers who’d been wounded early on…  The Eagle was left there.”

General Jean-David Freytag describes the worsening conditions, “While we were ranged in order of battle in the plain, all the time standing up to a terrible and continuous fire, our carriages, our horses, part of the artillery and all the unarmed men, the stragglers and the sick who’d remained on the road, fell into the power of a ‘hurrah’ of Cossacks.  All the food and the few resources still remaining to us were lost.  Marshal Ney gave the orders that if possible the fight should be sustained until dusk, in order to retreat by the Dnieper.”

Fezensac described Ney’s determination, “Ney’s self-confidence equaled his courage.  Without knowing what he meant to do nor what he could do, we knew he’d do something.  The greater the danger, the prompter his determination; and once having made up his mind, he never doubted he’d succeed. His face expressed neither indecision nor disquietude.”

Leaving his camp fires burning, his army slipped away to the north toward the Dnieper river.  Becoming disoriented in the dark, Ney had the ice of a stream broken so they could tell which direction the water flowed and follow it to the Dnieper.  They reached the river around midnight, but found that the ice was not strong enough to support the crossing.  Ney had the column sit and rest for three hours to allow the ice to harden.  Any remaining wagons and artillery along with the sick and wounded were left on the bank.  A fire was set on the far bank to guide any stragglers and the column moved on.

To be continued…

1812: The Great Retreat, Paul Britten Austin, pp 195 – 197

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur

Napoleon in Russia, Alan Palmer

Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, George F. Nafziger


Action Outside of Viasma and Panic in the Ranks

In Alan Palmer’s book, Napoleon in Russia, he describes the action that took place three miles to the east of Viasma as the French column headed west.  Since leaving Moscow, Davout’s Ist Corps had served as rearguard.

Platov Cossacks
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

During the day of November 3rd, 1812, Davout’s Corps was harassed by the Russian army and Cossacks.  As they neared Viasma, the Cossacks were able to cut off the column and capture parts of the baggage train which was travelling unguarded between corps as part of the column.

Colonel Lubin Griois is cut off from his guns and finds refuge in a hollow square formed by the Italian 92nd regiment.  The mass of stragglers among the ranks makes maneuvering and issuing orders difficult.  “This mass of isolated men, recognizing neither chiefs nor discipline and only heeding it thirst for pillage, was sorely tried.  At first the cannon shots it had halted, not knowing where to go in the fog that surrounded it.  Swollen by…  vivandières and a multitude of little carts laden with children and foodstuffs, it was throwing itself now to one side, now to the other, according to where the last projectile to strike in its midst had come from.  This flux and reflux of round shot, ploughing furrows in every direction and from which arose screams of despair, presented a horrible spectacle.  For very good reasons the units that were fighting repulsed these fugitives who were trying to take refuge in their midst, so that the poor wretches found themselves exposed to the enemy’s fire and sometimes to our squares’ too.  They floated in disorder over terrain littered with dead, wounded and shattered vehicles.”

In preparation for a general action, Ney’s 3rd Corps came back east to cover the column as it approached Viasma.  Near evening, Davout’s corps spotted some Russians and came under artillery fire.  The corps broke and ran for Viasma while Ney’s corps covered the retreat.  General Robert Wilson, watching from the Russian lines wrote that Ist Corps, “broke and rushed to the points of passage [through IIIrd Corps] in great confusion.  A regiment of Russian grenadiers charged his rearguard into the town, bayoneting all who resisted.”

Throughout the night there were artillery duels which caused the French to take up their arms, but no attacks came.  Viasma caught fire and burned.

Napoleon was 45 miles ahead to the west when he received word of the action.  Ney and his IIIrd Corps was ordered to assume the rearguard position.  Also, the baggage was to travel in the middle of the corps, not between two corps and an escort was to line both sides of the road as it traveled.

Davout’s corps had left Moscow with 30,000 men and was now down to 15,000.

Napoleon in Russia, Alan Palmer, pp 212 – 214

1812 The Great Retreat told by survivors, Paul Britten Austin, pp 69 & 71

Commemorative 1912 card images and translations provided by Alexey Temnikov

Murat is “Captured”

As discussed in earlier posts, not all of the Grande Armée spent the winter inside the Moscow city limits.  Marshal Murat and about 25,000 men were 35 miles to the south of Moscow at Winkovo and they were starving.  An informal truce had fallen into place here.  Marshal Murat would even ride up to the Russian pickets and re-position them if he felt they were encroaching on the limits of the French camp.

Phillipe-Paul de Ségur describes the situation: “That armistice was an unusual one.  All that was necessary to break it was a reciprocal three-hour notice, and it applied only to the fronts of the two camps, and not to their flanks. At least, that is the way the Russians interpreted it.  We could neither bring in a convoy nor send out a foraging party without a struggle, so that fighting continued on every hand, except where it might be favorable to us.”

Marshal Murat
The King of Naples
Also Brother-in-Law of Napoleon

“… Murat took great pleasure in showing himself at the enemy’s outposts, reveling in the flattering looks which his fine appearance, his reputation for bravery, and his high rank won for him; and the Russian generals were careful not to do anything that would put him out of conceit.  They showered him with proofs of deference likely to preserve his illusions.  He ordered their mounted sentries about as if they were French, and when the portion of the field they were occupying suited him, they immediately surrendered it to him.”

“Some of the Cossack officers went so far as to feign enthusiasm, and to declare that they no longer recognized any other emperor than the one reigning in Moscow.  For a time Murat foolishly believed that they would never fight him again…  Napoleon was heard to exclaim as he read one of his letters, ‘Murat, King of the Cossacks! What foolishness!'”

Major Victor Dupuy of the 7th Hussars was an eyewitness to Murat’s boldness where the outposts of the two armies were 50 yards apart: “The King  of Naples [Murat], finding the Cossacks too close to us, go among them, and make them withdraw their sentries and show them where they ought to be.  The Russians obeyed.  Their generals, even those of the advance guard, whom we’d often had a chance to see, made no difficulties about yielding to the King’s least requirements.  He really had an air of commanding the whole lot of them.”

While this jockeying of the sentries was going on, the men and horses were starving.  Lieutenant Maurice Tascher  wrote in his diary about the, “extreme poverty of the army, which is living off vegetables, horse meat and unground rye.  In the forests the peasants are defending themselves against the soldiers when they try to get some food and forage.”

Dupuy records how each time the 7th Hussars assemble there are, “Unfortunate horses which, lying down and worn out, could no longer struggle to their feet and died on the spot.  Though Moscow was stuffed with victuals, the men were in the greatest need.  The King [Murat] wrote to the Emperor to inform him of our truly calamitous situation.  The Emperor interrogated the ordnance officer carrying the despatch who, to play the courtier, replied that we lacked for nothing – and that was a word too much!  The Emperor even got angry with the King of Naples for sending him a pack of lies.  This became quickly bruited abroad and the officer received all the reproaches and all the curses he deserved.  I shall abstain from giving his name.”

Battle of Tarutino
by Piter von Hess

Jean-Roch Coignet of the Imperial Guard had been given dispatch duty at this time.  Assigned to one such mission he writes, “I was sent to a village, eighteen or twenty leagues from Moscow, to carry orders to Prince Murat.  I came upon a body of cavalry in retreat – our men, on bare-back horses.  They had been surprised while grooming their horses.  I could not find Prince Murat; he had run off in his shirt.  It was a bad sign to see those fine horsemen running for their lives.  I asked for the prince.”

“‘He is captured,’ they replied; ‘they took him in his bed.'”

“And I could learn nothing further.  The Emperor heard of it at once through [Étienne Marie Antoine Champion de] Nansouty‘s aides-de-camp, and on my return from this miserable mission, I found the army en route to aid Murat.  I was half-dead, and my horse could no longer walk…  The Emperor had ordered that his household and all his office staff should be sent from Moscow the 23rd of October, and join him at Mojaisk.  It is impossible to give any idea of the rapidity of the execution of his orders.”

“The preparations for this move were completed in three hours…   I got the provisions ready: about ten loaves of sugar, a good-sized box of tea, some elegant cups, and a copper to melt the sugar in.  We had a carriage-load of provisions.”

Murat, of course, had not been captured, but the French had been dealt an embarrassing blow at what was called the Battle of Tarutino.  An early morning attack had caught the French, complacent due to the informal truce and with many men out foraging, off guard.  Murat managed to stop the attack with a charge of curassiers which he personally led.  Losses for the French were 2,500 men, 38 cannon and baggage.

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Phillipe-Paul de Ségur, pp 123-124 1812: Napoleon in Moscow, Paul Britten Austin, pp 119, 121-123
Napoleon in Russia: The 1812 Campaign, Alan Palmer, p 181
Captain Coignet, Jean-Roch Coignet, pp 225-226

Moscow Burns

In Alan Palmer’s book: Napoleon in Russia, he recounts how General Philippe Paul de Ségur entered Moscow to prepare the Kremlin to receive Napoleon.  He tried to sleep in an armchair, but around midnight, got up and looked out a window and saw: “Some distance away, in whatever direction I looked, there were flames leaping up.”

Moscow Burning

Sergeant Bourgogne with the Imperial Guard was with some of the first troops to enter the city.  In order to prevent looting, they were not allowed to leave the Kremlin square when dismissed.  Bourgogne said: “We went to the houses in the square to ask for food and drink, but as we found nobody in them we helped ourselves.”  The same thing was going on all over Moscow.

Shooting Arsonists
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

The commander of the Guard sent Bourgogne and his men off in search of pumps and hoses to fight the flames (they had all been destroyed by the Russians).  Men with torches were passing them by, but they were allowed to pass unchallenged.  His patrol eventually did round up some incendiaries, but Bourgogne himself allowed three to escape.

Russian Incendiaries

One of the escapes happened in this way:  Bourgogne’s men had rounded up 32 prisoners and he was in command of the rear guard.  As they went, he noticed one crying like a child, and saying repeatedly “Mon Dieu! I have lost my wife and son in the fire!”

The man turned out to be from Switzerland and had been working as a French and German tutor in Moscow.  Bourgogne felt sorry for the man and offered to help him look for his family.  The man recognized his house by the large stove standing in the burned wreckage.  The column stopped at this time due to the street being blocked by flames.  The man soon found his wife and son, both dead in the cellar of the house.

Napoleon in Russia, Alan Palmer

Image and translation of commemorative 1912 Russian candy box card provided by Alexey Temnikov

Departing for Smolensk

In early August, Napoleon held a council with his generals at Vitebsk.  As described in Alan Palmer’s book, Napoleon in Russian: The 1812 Campaign, Napoleon wished to pursue a victory so he could bring the campaign to an end in 1812.  He was determined to go on to Smolensk and Moscow if necessary in order to force the issue with Alexander.

The generals were not comfortable with this plan, fearing they were too far into Russia already.  Napoleon dismissed them angrily saying “I have made my generals too rich.  They think only of their pleasures, of hunting, of rolling through Paris in brilliant carriages!  They have become sick of war!”

The following day, Chief of staff, Marshal Louis-Alexandre Berthier, and Count Bruno Daru, Minister Secretary of State, held an eight hour meeting with Napoleon.  Daru gave his reasons for halting the advance: 8,000 horses dead so far, no fodder within thirty miles of Vitebsk itself; no forges for shoeing the cavalry, no surgical lint for the medical service, no certainty that the supply train would get through.  Without fighting a battle, the Grande Armée had lost a third of its force through desertion, disease and hunger.

But Napoleon thought he detected signs of a Russian willingness to take a stand and give him the battle he wanted.  At two in the morning on August 13, he headed by carriage to Smolensk where the 1st and 2nd Russian armies had joined.

Meanwhile, Sgt. Bourgogne was staying in Vitebsk for a fortnight.  He wrote that his regiment was quartered in the suburbs with a family.  In the house, the family had a vat for making beer and some of the ingredients, but no hops.  He gave the husband some money to buy hops and held the wife and daughters hostage to insure his return.  One day later, the husband returned with the hops and one of the members of the regiment, who was a brewer, made “…five barrels of excellent beer.”

When they left town on August 13 to head for Smolensk, they still had two barrels of beer left.  “…we put them under the care of Mother Dubois, our cantiniere.  The happy idea then occurred to her of staying behind and of selling the beer for her own profit to the men who were following us, while we, in the sweltering heat, were nearly dead of thirst.”

The First Days of the Invasion

Jakob Walter writes the soliders believed that, once in Russia, the troops would only have to forage, but this proved to be an illusion.  He talks about one town, Poniemon, which was stripped bare by the time he entered as were all of the other villages.  He wrote “Here and there a hog ran around and then was beaten with clubs, chopped with sabers, and stabbed with bayonets; and, often still living, it would be cut and torn to pieces.”
Food for the horses was a problem from the start.  Brett-James’ book has an account from Lt. J.L.Henckens, a Dutchman with the 6th Regt. of Chasseurs a cheval.  “As a result of eating green rye, the horses foundered, and we lost hundreds in this way… Fortunately the depot sent us some remounts, otherwise we should very soon have presented a sorry picture.”
In Alan Palmer’s book Napoleon in Russia: The 1812 Campaign, he recounts how one of the junior officers of Napoleon’s staff counted the bodies of 1,240 horses as he rode twelve miles along the road to Vilna.
The weather was extemely hot, but the nights cold.  Heavy rains came within the week.  The expected battle with the Russians had not materialized and the army moved faster than planned, causing hardships and shortages.