Tag Archives: Alexander Bellot de Kergorre

“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.”

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

“Enough to Drive One Mad”

There are many descriptions of the first days of the march from Moscow.  The weather was cooperating , but many were finding the mass of vehicles on the road to be frustrating.

Captain von Kurz wrote, “Most officers owned a cart, but the generals had half a dozen.  Supply officials and actors, women and children, cripples, wounded men, and the sick were driving in and out of the throng …  accompanied by countless servants and maids, sutlers and people of that sort.  The columns of horsemen and pedestrians broke out on either side.  Wherever the terrain permitted they crossed the fields flanking the road, so as to leave the paved highway free for those on foot.  But the enormous clutter of transport got jammed up, even so.”

Major Louis-Joseph Vionnet observed, “…[the] column… took up a space of eighteen miles.  It’s impossible to image what disorder this caused.  The soldiers fought to get ahead of one another; and when, sometimes, by chance, a bridge had to be crossed, they had to wait for twelve hours.  The vehicles had been well numbered, but even by the second day their order had been turned upside down, so that those whose rank entitled them to a carriage didn’t know where to find it and consequently couldn’t get at its contents.  From the first days of the retreat we already began to lack for everything.”

Colonel Montesquiou Duc de Fezensac noted, “Despite our foreboding of the mischief awaiting us, each of us was determined to carry off his own part of the trophies – there was no employee so insignificant he hadn’t taken a carriage and packed up some precious objects.  For my part I had furs, paintings by the great masters… and some jewelry.  One of my comrades had… a whole library of lovely books with gilded spines and bound in red morocco…”

Alexander Bellot de Kergorre, an administrative officer with the Imperial Headquarters had the following comment, “I was carrying away trophies from the Kremlin, including the cross of Ivan, several ornaments used at the coronation of the tsars, and a Madonna enriched with precious stones… The treasure comprised silver coins or bullion melted down from the large amount of silverware found in the ruins of Moscow.  For nearly 40 miles I had to pick my way through the army’s procession of horse-drawn vehicles.  Every one was laden with useless baggage.”

Travelling in the rear of the army, Sergeant Adrien Bourgogne could see all that the army was jettisoning in its wake, “Being at the very rear of the column I was in a position to see how the disorder was commencing.  The route was cluttered with precious objects, such as pictures, candelabras, and many books.  For more than an hour I picked up volumes which I leafed through for a moment and then threw away again, to be picked up by others, who in turn, threw them away.”

“This crowd of people, with their various costumes and languages, the canteen masters with their wives and crying children, were hurrying forward in the most unheard of noise, tumult and disorder.  Some had got their cards smashed, and in consequence yelled and swore enough to drive one mad.”

1812: Napoleon in Moscow, Paul Britten Austin, pp. 187 – 190