Tag Archives: Alexander Mikaberidze

“No, a thousand times no; never was there such a sight!”

When Napoleon left the army to return to Paris, he left Marshal Murat, King of Naples, in charge.    Captain Coignet of the Imperial Guard Grenadiers writes in his memoirs, “But it was a Wilna that we suffered most.  The weather was so severe that the men could no longer endure it; even the ravens froze.”

Retreat from RussiaNote the birds overhead

The Retreat
by Nicolas Charlet
Note the birds overhead

“We remained under the command of the King of Naples, and were not too happy in our minds, for, though he was always the first to draw a sabre or brave danger, he may truly be said to have been the executioner of our cavalry.  He kept his divisions constantly mounted all along the route, and they were more than enough to keep the Cossacks at bay; but our cavalry were dying of starvation, and when night came, the unfortunate soldiers were not able to use their horses to go for forage…  He was, indeed the handsomest horseman in Europe; but without foresight, for it was not a question of being an intrepid soldier, but of being able to economize his resources.  He lost us (I heard this said to Marshal Davout) forty thousand horses through his mismanagement.  It is always wrong to blame one’s officers; but the Emperor could have made a better selection.  There were among our leaders two warriors, rivals in glory, Marshal Ney and Prince Beauharnais, who saved us from the greatest perils by their coolness and courage.”

“The King of Naples went on to Wilna; he arrived there on the 8th of December, and we with the guard, on the 10th.  It was night when we came to the gates of the city, which were barricaded with pieces of wood.  We had the greatest difficulty in entering.  I and my comrade were lodged in a school, well warmed.”

“When I went to my general of orders, he said, ‘Be ready at four in the morning to leave the city, for the enemy is now arriving on the heights, and we shall be bombarded at daylight.  Do not lose any time.'”

“We had scarcely got ready to leave when the Russians forced the Witepsk gate; we had barely time to get out…  When we reached the mountain of Wilna the confusion was at its height.  All the material of the army and the Emperor’s carriages were on the ground.  The soldiers helped themselves to gold and silver plate.  All the chests and casks were burst open.  What a quantity of plunder was left on that spot!  No, a thousand times no; never was there such a sight!”

Louis Victor Léon Rochechouart, the French emigré officer serving on [Pavel] Chichagov’s [Russian] staff, describes the scene upon entering Vilna:

Retreat from Russia scene III“On 11 December, when the cold reached -29º Réaumur [-36º Celsius], I entered Vilna, crouching at the bottom of the carriage. We traveled forward amid human remains, frozen on the road, and hundreds of horses that had died of hunger and cold, or had broken their legs, for they were not roughshod; our servants walked in front thrusting the obstacles in the way to the right or left. It is impossible to imagine the state of Vilna during the four days after our arrival; we found sick or wounded prisoners—Frenchmen, Poles, Germans, Spaniards, Italians and Portuguese, crowded into the various convents and monasteries. It was necessary to house everybody. Happily, the French government had accumulated immense stores of provisions, which they had not been able to use, being so closely pursued by the Russians. They were distributed among all. The frozen snow which covered the streets deadened the sound of the vehicles that were constantly passing, but did not prevent hearing the cries of the wounded asking for food, or the drivers urging their horses on.“

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. 251.

Faber du Faur’s depiction of the 11th of December has the following description:

Near Eve, 11 Decemberby Faber du FaurNote the hands in the lower left

Near Eve, 11 December
by Faber du Faur
Note the hands in the lower left

Near Eve, 11 December
“We left Vilna on the 10th and abandoned thousands of dead, dying and prisoners.  We managed to avoid the chaos at Ponari, which cost the army most of the rest of its artillery and transport – and even the Imperial Treasury – and made our weary way towards Kovno, protected by a weak rearguard but sill suffering from the relentless cold.  A vast number of men died on this final forced march.”

“We finally reached Eve, a small town familiar to us from having passed through it that very summer.  How things had changed!  Eve was stripped of the charms of summer, abandoned and partially buried under the deep snow.  And the town, which in the summer had seen a brilliant army march through, was now obliged to see its ghostly streets play host to groups of miserable individuals, ruined by the Russian climate and by hunger and hoping for nothing more than to reach the banks of the Niemen at Kovno.”

Captain Coignet: A Soldier of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard from the Italian Campaign to Waterloo, Jean-Roch Coignet, pp 233 – 234

Russian Eyewitness Accounts of the Campaign of 1812, Alexander Mikaberidze, p 251

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

Thank you to James Fisher for providing the quote from Alexander Mikaberidze’s book of Russian eyewitness accounts.

“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.

“Only the Voice of Honor and Country had any Meaning”

Thank you to James Fisher for today’s post.  James has been a great supporter of this blog with both information and encouragement.  He has compiled a series of eyewitness accounts showing the condition of the army and the condition of the bridges at the Berezina.

(24th November) Condition of the ‘Grande Armée’

Sergeant Bourgogne of the French Imperial Guard related the condition of the ‘Grande Armée’

Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow
by Adolf Northern

“…the days were short—it was not light till eight o’clock, and it was dark by four in the afternoon. This was the reason why so many unfortunate men lost their way, for it was always night when we arrived at the bivouac, and all the remains of the different corps were in terrible confusion. At all hours of the night we heard the weak, worn-out voices of new arrivals calling out ‘Fourth Corps!’ ‘First Corps!’ ‘Third Corps!’ ‘Imperial Guard!’ and then the voices of others lying down with no strength left, forcing themselves to answer, ‘Here comrades!’ They were not trying any longer to find their regiments, but simply the corps d’armée to which they had belonged, and which now included the strength of two regiments at most, where a fortnight earlier there had been thirty. No one knew anything about himself, or could mention which regiment he belonged to.”

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. p. 110

(25th November) Victor’s IX Corps is United With the ‘Grande Armée’

On the March from Moscow
by Laslett John Pott

Having been unaware of the plight of the retreating ‘Grande Armée’, Marshal Victor and his troops were stunned to see, not soldiers but “a mob of tattered ghosts draped in women’s cloaks, odd pieces of carpet, or greatcoats burned full of holes, their feet wrapped in all sorts of rags… [we] stared in horror as those skeletons of soldiers went by, their gaunt, grey faces covered with disfiguring beards, without weapons, shameless, marching out of step, with lowered heads, eyes on the ground, in absolute silence, like a gang of convicts.“

General Hochberg, future Margrave of Baden added:

“I will never forget that day. I ordered my brigade to stop to observe the scene, the likes of which none of us had ever witnessed. We first saw twenty non-commissioned officers carrying flags, followed by generals, some on foot, others mounted, many of them in women’s silk-lined fur coats… The weather that day and the sun brightly shone on the scene, so painful for us to watch.”

Joseph Steinmüller observed an army “without any semblance of order or discipline… Only around the flags and eagles one could see armed men marching; the rest had no arms and covered themselves in furs and rags.“

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. p.95

(26th November) Constructing The Bridges and First Crossing

General Eblé and his pontonniers [often incorrectly termed as engineers] performed amazing and heroic feats in constructing three bridges, using whatever materials were available. Several perished while undertaking the work.

Ségur relates “the rising of the waters had made the traces of the ford entirely disappear. It required the most incredible efforts on the part of our unfortunate sappers [i.e. pontonniers], who worked in the water up to their mouths, struggling against the ice carried down by the current. Some of them died of the cold or were forced under by the great blocks of ice.”

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. 125.

“In order to supplement the boats or skiffs missing, three small rafts were built, but the wood used for want of anything better was of such small dimensions that each raft could carry no more than ten men.

On the 26th, at eight in the morning, Napoleon gave an order that the bridges be built up. Two of them were started immediately at a distance of about six hundred feet. Meanwhile, a few horsemen swam across the river each with a voltigeur riding behind him, and some three to four thousand infantry crossed it on the rafts.

… The number of trestles being insufficient for the two bridges, and for repair, in case of accidents, their construction was continued all day. At one o’clock in the afternoon, the bridge on the right was finished; it was set apart for the infantry and cavalry only, because the boards, used to cover it, were of very poor quality, four or five layers thick.”

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.

While waiting his turn to cross, Fezensac of the 4th Line counted his effectives to compare them with the list that he had brought from Moscow:

“Alas! What changes had take place since then! Out of seventy officers scarcely forty remained, and of these the greater part were inefficient from either sickness or fatigue… Almost all the company cadres had been destroyed at Krasnyi, which rendered the maintenance of discipline a still more difficult matter. Of the remaining soldiers I formed two peletons, the first consisting of grenadiers and voltigeurs while the second was from the centre companies. I selected the officers to command them and ordered each of the others to take a musket and always march with me at the head of the regiment.”

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. 142

Having completed the bridges, one can only imagine what it would have been like to be dragged from the relative comfort of a fire to enter the freezing water once more to undertake repairs. This eyewitness account, from an anonymous source, gives us some idea.

“Instead of thick planks which were absolutely wanting, round logs fifteen to sixteen feet long, and three to four ins. diameter had to be used for flooring. The carriages crossing on this uneven and rough flooring caused the bridge to jerk all the more violently that all warnings to carriage drivers to prevent their horses from going at a trot, were mostly unheeded…

General Eblé Inspiring his Men

At eight o’clock, three trestles of the left bridge collapsed. This fatal accident distressed General Eblé. He knew how tired the bridge hands were, and he despaired of being able to gather instantly the number of men to carry out these urgent repairs rapidly enough. Fortunately, they had kept in good order. The officers and their troops and settled in their bivouacs. Only half the men were requested; but pulling away harassed, sleeping men, from around the fire, did not go without trouble.

Threats would have been fruitless, only the voice of honour and country had any meaning for these honest men. They were also stimulated by their attachment and respect for General Eblé. After working three hours, the bridge was finally repaired, and the carriages resumed their march at 11 o’clock.”

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.

The Bridges Over the Berezina

The engineers worked through the night and into the next day building trestles, installing them in the water and then laying planks across stringers from trestle to trestle.  What did the bridges look like when they were done?  Alexander Mikaberidze‘s book The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, gives us an idea.

There were two bridges: one for infantry and another for the artillery.  Effort was concentrated on the infantry bridge first which was completed at 1 pm on the 26th.  The artillery bridge was completed at 4 pm.

The approaches to the bridges were marshy, but had begun to freeze as the weather turned colder during these days.  The engineers laid out fascines(bundles of sticks) to walk across.  The infantry bridge was about 100 metres long (109 yards) and 4 or 5 metres wide (13 or 16 feet).  Stringers running from trestle to trestle supported the planks that were laid across the width of the bridge.  Some of the wood used

Construction of  the Tressles
by eyewitness François Pils

included roof slats that were ‘four or five lignes [1 -1.25cm or .39 – .49 inches] thick’ from nearby houses, and so had to place double and triple layers of planks, which were then covered with bark, hay or branches.  Some of the trestles kept sinking into the mud of the river and the roadway was about a foot above the water.

One description of the bridge and the crossing is as follows.  The roadway was “very close to the surface of the river” and “minor things, such as the breaking of individual surface planks, caused major delays and crowding, with people pressuring forward and to the side, which tripped many into the water…”

Only armed soldiers were allowed across, but masses of stragglers pushed to the entrance to the bridges.  This meant great difficulty for armed units to work their way to the bridge and then across.  The bridge was soon littered with debris and bodies which made crossing even harder.  To add to the danger, large ice flows came downstream and crashed into the low bridge.

The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, Alexander Mikaberidze

The Engineers Work to Save the Army

In order to speed the progress of the army, some days earlier, Napoleon had ordered the burning of the bridge train (the wagons hauling the pontoons used

General Jean-Baptiste Eblé

for building temporary bridges).  With great foresight, General Jean Baptiste Eblé saved some wagons holding the forges, some bridge building equipment and  coal.  On the evening of the 25th, his engineers arrived in Studenka and began to work.  The town was dismantled and the wood used to build trestles for the two bridges.  This proved to be insufficient and another, nearby town was dismantled.

The following descriptions come from Alexander Mikaberidze’s book The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape.  Around 500 men may have been involved in the bridge construction.  These men consisted of Dutch and Poles with some from France.  Sgt. Bourgogne describes that they “worked, standing up to their shoulders in ice-cold water, encouraged by their General.”

Pontooniers in the Water

Jean Baptiste Antoine Marbot wrote these brave men “leapt into the cold water of the Berezina and worked there for six or seven hours, though there was not a drop of spirits to give them, and they had no bed to look forward to for the following night, but a field covered with snow.”

Capt. George Diederich Benthiendescribed that his men came out of the water “stiff and half-dead from cold and, to find volunteers for the work, he had to offer a reward of fifty francs.”

General Eblé of the Engineers inspires his men on the banks of the Berezina

Captain Louis Bégos of the 2nd Swiss saw Napoleon on the bank of the river watching the work of the engineers.  “Having dismounted, he was leaning against some beams and planks that were used in construction.  He was looking down at the ground.  Then with a preoccupied impatient air, he lifted his head and addressed General Eblé, ‘ it is taking a very long time, General!  A very long time!’ ‘You can see, Sire,’ [replied Eblé] ‘that my men are

Napoleon at the Passage
of the Berezina

up to their necks in water, and the ice is delaying their work.  I have no food or alcohol to warm them with.’ ‘That will do,’ the Emperor replied.  He stared at the ground but, a few moments later, he began complaining again, seemingly forgetting what the General had just told him.”

Of the 200 Dutchmen led by Captain Benthien who helped build the bridges, only 40 were alive three days later.

The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, Alexander Mikaberidze

Sergeant Bourgogne: With Napoleon’s Imperial Guard in the Russian Campaign and on the Retreat from Moscow 1812-13, Adrien Bourgogne

The Battle of Borodino

Antony Brett-James has an account by General Jean Rapp, aide-de-camp to the Emperor, who was on duty the night before the battle and slept in Napoleon’s tent: “The place where he rested was usually separated by a canvas partition from the room reserved for the duty aide-de-camp.  The Emperor slept very little.  I woke him several times to give him reports from the outposts which all proved that the Russians were expecting an attack.  At three o’clock in the morning he summoned the valet de chambre and had some punch brought in.  I had the honour of drinking some with him.  He asked if I had slept well.  I replied that the nights were already cool and that I had frequently been woken.”

Napoleon at Borodino

“He said to me: ‘Today we shall have to deal with this celebrated Kutuzov.  No doubt you remember that it was he who commanded at Braunau during the Austerlitz campaign.  He stayed in that place for three weeks without leaving his room once.  He did not even mount his horse to go and inspect the fortifications.  General Bennigsen, although as old, is a much more energetic fellow.  I cannot understand why Alexander did not send this Hanoverian to replace Barclay.’  He took a glass of punch, read several reports, and then added:

‘Well, Rapp!  Do you think that we shall have a successful day?’

‘There is no doubt about it, Sire.  We have used up all our resources, and have simply got to win.’  Napoleon went on reading and then said: ‘Fortune is a shameless courtesan.  I have often said it, and I am beginning to experience it.’ …

Napoleon Writes the Dispositions for Borodino
Commemorative 1912 Russian Candy Box Card

“Napoleon sent for Prince Berthier, and worked until half past five.  Then we mounted.  The trumpets sounded, the drums beat, and as soon as the troops spotted us, there were acclamations all the way.  ‘It is the Austerlitz enthusiasm again.’ ”

Who fired first?  Alexander Mikaberidze in The Battle of Borodino writes that it is generally agreed that the French fired first.  But some Russian accounts disagree.  D. Danilov of the 2nd Artillery Brigade claimed one of his guns fired first and the French replied.  He wrote “At dawn, the first Russian cannon shot was fired by our battery and this round was made by me personally… Everything fell silent but several minutes hardly passed when a long line of French guns, deployed in front of Shevardino, erupted in response.”

Levin August, count von Bennigsen, one of the Russian generals, believed Raevsky’s battery fired the first shot.  Kutuzov’s adjutant, Mikhailovsky-

Kutuzov at Borodino

Danilevsky noted “the first cannon-ball, fired by the enemy batteries, was directed towards the house occupied by Prince Kutuzov.”  Kutuzov’s ordinance officer Dreyling confirmed: “It barely dawned when the enemy fired his first round.  One of the very first cannon-balls flew above our heads and shattered the roof of the house where Kutuzov was billeted.”

Jakob Walter, a Westphalian soldier on the French side,  describes the battle: “On September 7, every corps was assigned its place, and the signal to attack was given.  Like thunderbolts the firing began both against and from the enemy.  The earth was trembling because of the cannon fire, and the rain of cannon balls crossed confusedly.  Several entrenchments were stormed and taken with terrible sacrifices, but the enemy did not move from their place…  Now the two armies moved more vigorously against one another, and the death cries and shattering gunfire seemed a hell…”

The Battle of Borodino has Ended

“This beautiful grain region without woods and villages could now be compared to a cleared forest, a few trunks here and there looking gray… Within a space an hour and a half long and wide, the ground was covered with people and animals.  There were groans and whines on all sides.  The stream separated the battlefield into two parts… Over the river there was a wooden bridge that had been burned… the banks on both sides of the bridge were filled with dead piled three and four deep.  Particularly the wounded who could still move hurried to the river to quench their thirst or to wash their wounds; but the suffering brothers had no help, no hope of rescue: hunger, thirst, and fire were their death…”

“We moved forward and camped by a forest on a height facing Moscow; it was a wood of green trees.  Here we not only had nothing to eat but also no water to drink, because of the high camp site; and the road through the fields was still covered with dead Russians.”

1812: Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, Antony Brett-James

Image and translation of the Commemorative 1912 Russian Card was provided by Alexey Temnikov

The Eve of Battle on the Russian Side

I’ve been reading Alexander Mikaberidze’s book The Battle of Borodino: Napoleon Against Kutuzov.  He describes the scene that took place in the Russian camp the day before the battle:  “The eve of the battle was a Sunday, and many participants commented on an unusual calmness that descended on their camp that day.  To uplift the morale of his troops, [General Mikhail] Kutuzov  had the icon of the Black Virgin of Smolensk paraded through the ranks of the army.”

Parading of the Icon of Smolensk
on the eve of the Battle of Borodino

“Suddenly, as participants recounted, shouts of ‘[an] eagle is soaring!’ were heard, and thousands of soldiers looked up to see the bird gliding through the sky.  Kutuzov took off his cap as ‘The men around him shouted ‘hurrah’ and the yell was carried by the entire Army.  The eagle was still in the sky and the seventy-year-old commander, taking it as a good omen, stood with his head bared.  It was a remarkable sight!… A hundred thousand Russians were yelling ‘hurrah!'”

Antony Brett-James includes an account from a Russian captain with the grenadiers of the Fanagoria Regiment in his book 1812: Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia.   “The soldiers were in fairly good order, and as they had had a rest during the last few days, they now sat, wrapped in their long grey coats, round the fires – and often joined in chorus to sing the … national songs which the Russian people are fond of.  This singing before the battle had a strange effect on me, and I listened to it for several hours until eventually I fell asleep, exhausted… 7 September was just dawning when I was woken by the roar of cannon from our right flank by the village of Borodino, and the battle began.”

Alexander appoints Kutusov

The withdrawal from Smolensk caused a further deterioration in the relations between the Russian generals and increased anti-Barclay sentiment. According to Sir Robert Wilson:

“The spirit of the Army was affected by a sense of mortification and all ranks loudly and boldly complained; discontent was general and discipline relaxing. The removal [of Barclay de Tolly]… had become a universal demand.”

On the 17th of August, in a letter to Alexander, General Count Shuvalov, one of the Czar’s advisors, presented his master with a stark decision:

“The Army has not the least confidence in the present Commander. … A new commander is necessary, one with authority over both armies and Your Majesty should appoint him immediately; otherwise Russia is lost.”

General Prince Mikhail Golnishchev-Kutusov was recommended as the new

Portrait of
Field Marshal Kutuzov
By George Dawe,
painted in 1829
Hermitage Museum,
St. Petersburg

Russian army commander by the committee of senior officers whom Alexander had charged with the task. Alexander was reluctant to appoint Kutusov, whom he had disliked since the disastrous Battle of Austerlitz, but, on 20th August, he signed the decree. Lord George Cathcart noted:

“in appointing Koutousof [sic.], it was considered that his long-standing in the Army, his recent able conduct of the Turkish campaign, and his former military reputation, would place him above rivalry, and that in consequence he might be a kind of head to unite all parties.”

Source: From Mikaberdize, A (2007) The Battle of Borodino: Napoleon versus Kutuzov. Campaign Chronicles (Ed. C Summerville). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, England. pp. 19–21.

Thank you to James Fisher for providing the information for this blog post.

The Russian withdrawal from Smolensk

Ilya Radozhitskii was a Russian artillery officer who served during the campaign of 1812 and wrote his memoirs after the war.  He describes the Russian withdrawal after Smolensk:

During the night of 7 [19] August the 1st Army moved from Smolensk in two columns: the left, consisting of the 5th and 6th Infantry Corps and two cavalry corps, moved on a safer road through the village of Prudische while the right, consisting of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Corps with a rearguard under General [Fedor] Korf, was ordered to proceed across a hilly countryside, following the road through Krakhotkino and Zhabino to Bredikhino in order to get to the main [Moscow] road, which was protected by General Tuchkov III’s detachment in front of the village of Lubino.

At 9 p.m. on 6 [18] August my unit set off with the right column from Smolensk, marching through the night of 7 [19] August across hills and ravines covered with dense shrubs. The night was dark and damp. At dawn, sleep overcame me so I sat on a gun carriage and, leaning my head against the carriage, gave myself away to sweet dreams. Just as my cannon descended on a slope, English Lord Wilson happened to be passing by and saw how the gunners held me so I did not fall off the carriage, and upon seeing the General, began to wake me up. The venerable Lord saw all of it and admiring the gunners’ care for their officer. He gave them a sign with his hand to let me sleep. When I woke, they told me about the kind “red” general who, as I learned later, was an Englishman assigned to our Commander-in-Chief and tasked by the [British] envoy to serve as an observer [to the Russian army].

At dawn on 7 [19] August we approached the main road, where General Tuchkov’s detachment waited for us, and heard a cannonade coming from behind us. It was Prince of Wurttemberg’s division from the 2nd Corps, engaging the French at the village of Gorbunovo, which the French had captured, thereby cutting off the rearguard of General Korf. The French then turned to the main road and advanced towards General Tuchkov’s detachment, which held positions between the villages of Toporovshina and Latynina on the Stragan’ Rivulet. The enemy engaged this detachment before the 2nd Corps, which was delayed at Gorbunovo, managed to get to the main road. Meanwhile we were moving with the 4th Corps, ahead of the 2nd Corps, and had already passed the village of Lubino when we were turned back to reinforce General Tuchkov’s detachment, which the French engaged so vigorously that it was forced to retreat across the Stragan’ Rivulet.

By 3 o’clock in the afternoon the battle intensified. A ferocious firefight was being waged in the brush all along the line. Because of the smoke that rose incessantly from musket fire, the brush seemed to be on fire. For several hours the French had tried in vain to break through our center. A murderous rain of lead claimed many victims. Skirmishers could hardly see each other and Death stealthily claimed the brave souls. The attacking enemy columns were annihilated by the canister rounds fired by our batteries as well as the bayonets of our grenadiers. Meanwhile, the French [VIII] Corps of General Junot, accompanied by numerous cavalry, appeared on the hill against our left flank. Our 4th Corps was immediately moved to face this new threat.

Staff-Captain [Alexander] Figner, as the commander of 3rd Light Artillery Company, was still in reserve when the regiments of our corps moved left and up the hill. However, he understood that we would be soon committed to the battle and ordered the available wine rations to be given to his artillery crews. He borrowed this method of maintaining soldiers’ courage from the French, who, upon falling into our hands, usually carried rum or vodka instead of water, in the canister behind their knapsacks… After wishing his gun crews success in victory, Figner went ahead, out of ordinary curiosity, to observe the battle but soon returned and ordered everyone to mount the gun carriages and caissons at once. We quickly rode to the left flank but had to pass through swamp that delayed our movement. Having moved through the marsh, our guns began to ascend a steep hill, where a cavalry melee was taking place. We could hear a rumbling noise, shouting and occasional cannon fire. Suddenly to the left of us, the Cossacks descended the hill; some of them quickly turned back but three Cossacks kept descending, accompanying a fat Württemberg trumpeter who was unhorsed. He wore a blue uniform with red lapels and big boots, which occasionally tripped him. The poor lad had probably blown his trumpet too much since he was bathed in sweat and red-faced as usually happens after a lot of work. But he seemed to be proud of the fact that three Cossacks were assigned to escort him.

Climbing up the hill, we observed a rather curious spectacle. The Pernovskii Regiment stood in line on the top of hill, with six of our cannon on its right flank while the remaining guns had to remain on the slope because of a lack of space. In front of the Pernovskii Regiment, we could see blue, red, gray and green hussars deployed, by squadrons and with horse artillery guns, in the brush. The cavalry melee unfolded before our eyes. It was fascinating to see how a few squadrons of French hussars charged at our horsemen, who fled at full gallop before receiving reinforcements, turned around and drove the French back. Only shrapnel and bullets stopped their charges but as they recalled, they were again attacked and pursued by the French. Such fighting resembled the knightly tournaments: some cavalrymen fell from their horses; some, finding themselves amidst the enemy, were waving their sabers; one shot his pistol, the other hacked [with his saber] at the enemy; horses crashed into each other, became frenzied and rushed away… To the right of the hill Prince Gurielov was with the Polotskii Infantry Regiment, deployed in woods that covered the hill slopes. At one point he moved forward from the woods to attack the enemy cavalry’s flank but quickly faced a similar threat and was forced to stop.

Figner’s cannon remained idle because they had to shoot through our own men. Meanwhile, as I observed the overall course of the battle, I noticed French infantry on our right flank, which was moving through the brush at the bottom of the hill. The French drove our jagers back. I rushed to inform Figner about this, emphasizing the consequences if the French managed to get behind us. He told me to take six guns, descend from the hill and move to the main road while he followed me with the remaining guns. I was delayed by the swamp at the bottom of the hill and managed to move five guns before the sixth got stuck in the swamp. As they came out of the brush, the [French] skirmishers stumbled

Re-enactors portray a Russian Artillery crew

directly upon my guns. Upon seeing my cannon so close to them, the French rushed towards me. Their bullets began to buzz sharply above us and the tight space and difficult terrain prevented me from deploying for action so I decided to hasten towards the main road. The crackling of musket fire and smoke kept approaching us; bullets began to pierce our gunners, horses and strike at gun carriages…. Our jagers, with muskets in arms and leaning, hurried to hide from the deadly lead behind my guns. Their officer shouted to them, “Where are you going, lads? Come back, please, you should be ashamed!” But nobody listened to him. Suddenly Generals – Commander-in-Chief Barclay de Tolly, accompanied by Lord [Robert] Wilson, Count [Alexander] Kutaisov, Osterman, Orlov, Korf and others – appeared in front of us. They all shouted at the fleeing men, “Where are you going! Stop! Turn back!” The soldiers stopped and turned back. The Commander-in-Chief rode up to me and asked sternly, “Where did you come from?” – “From there” I replied, pointing to the hill on the left. And he went onwards. The generals were followed by dense columns of grenadiers from Count Arakcheyev’s Leib-Grenadier and Yekaterinoslavskiii Grenadier Regiments: these were tall fellows with pale faces, holding their muskets at the ready and marching at a brisk pace to meet death. With the cry of “Hurrah!” they charged into the brush and restored order with bayonets. Five minutes later, many of them, bloodied and half dead, returned leaning on the shoulders of their comrades … It was impossible not to shudder as one witnessed the withering of the finest colors of the Russian might.

The fast approaching darkness failed to end the ferocious battle. Despite our persistence, the French continued to fight until midnight ignoring the heavy casualties they suffered. They lost a general of division [Charles Etienne Gudin] who was killed, but in return captured General [Pavel] Tuchkov,[1] which caused our skirmishers to flee. General Konovnitsyn and his grenadiers, however, managed to save the day and hold the ground.

After my departure, Staff Captain Figner remained behind with six guns, with the Pernovskii Regiment on the left flank. His personal courage saved my cannon which had been mired in the swamp. We witnessed his gallantry. Upon observing from the hill top that the French had driven our skirmishers out of the brush and could capture the mired gun, he descended from the hill with a saber and pistol in hand. His commanding voice rallied the fleeing soldiers. Figner managed to gather about 15 men whom he hid in the woods. As the crowd [tolpa] of French, shouting incessantly “Avance! Avance!,” approached the ambush, Figner ordered his men to fire a volley and then rushed with a naked saber and pistol towards the officer who led the French, grabbed him and threatened to kill him [if he did not surrender]. This surprise attack completely stopped the French – the officer surrendered while his men showed their backs to us. As Figner dragged the officer, the chevalier of the Legion of Honour, by the collar, he came across the Commander-in-Chief who, having learned of Figner’s feat, immediately congratulated him with a promotion to captain. We were all thrilled by the feat and congratulated Figner. He unexpectedly became unusually contemplative and withdrawn and did not want to do anything in the company, leaving it to me as the next senior officer.

The gun and musket fire of this combat had such an effect on me. As well the fleeing skirmishers and the proximity of danger so frightened me that I kept hearing gunfire throughout the night even though there was none, and still envisioned the blackened skinny French skirmishers who pursued our jagers. The recently experienced fever and continued exposure to the horrors of war affected my mind. Besides, having marched for over thirty verstas [20 miles] on very poor roads in darkness since yesterday evening, we spent the entire day on our feet and in the midst of battle only to continue retreating throughout the night. I was not the only one exhausted by such exertion and both men and horses barely trudged along.

After the battle, we stopped for about two hours at our main headquarters, crossed the Brovenka River at night and joined the rest of the army at Lubino before resuming our retreat. On 8 [20] August, we crossed the Dnieper at the Solovyevo crossing. This location was very important to us and if they had anticipated our move, the French would have caused us plenty of harm. The riverbanks here are low lying, sandy and covered on both sides with small woods that are quite disadvantageous for defending against an enemy. We stopped for the night four verstas [2.5 miles] from the crossing.

From there on, the French pursuit eased off as the most recent fights had cooled their ardor. Besides, it was said that Napoleon was still at Smolensk, pondering [what to do next.]

At dawn of the following day, 1st Army’s entire artillery concentrated into a general park before moving to the Moscow River. We marched by companies where possible and passed each other by as we moved. The dust and heat were intolerable. Artillery spanned six rows on the wide road, which was so ploughed over [by carriages] that in some places we walked knee-deep in finely ground dirt that felt like powder; while the wheels rolled without making any noise. The entire artillery park was commanded by Colonel Voyeikov. For several verstas back and forth one could not see anything but artillery and baggage trains, moving in dense clouds of dust that kept rising to the sky. We walked as if shrouded in fog; the sun seemed purple and neither the greenery by the side of the road nor the paint on gun carriages could be discerned. Soldiers were covered from head to toe in gray dust, and our faces and hands were black from dust and sweat. We swallowed and breathed the dust. As the heat tormented us with thirst, we could not find any refreshments. In such miserable conditions we happened to pass by a crowd of French prisoners, who had been captured in the last battle and were happy to see us hastily retreating. They mockingly told us that we would not get away from Napoleon because they now made up the vanguard of his army.

I must admit that our soldiers became very disheartened after the battle at Smolensk. The blood that had been shed in the ruins of Smolensk, all the effort made to resist the enemy as well as retreating on the Moscow road into the depths of Russia itself had made each and every one of us feel powerless against our terrible conqueror. Each of us witnessed heartrending visions of perishing Fatherland. Residents from nearby villages ran to us, leaving the greater part of their positions to their friends and enemies. Burning villages were behind and all around us, announcing the approaching French troops. The Cossacks destroyed everything that was left behind following the passage of our troops so that the enemy found only barren and desolate land everywhere. Thus, desperate Russia tormented her own womb.

[1] General Pavel Tuchkov commanded a brigade in the 17th Division of the 2nd Corps and was tasked with defending a road junction at Lubino/Valutina Gora. During the battle, he led a counterattack with the Ekaterinoslavskii Grenadier Regiment but was captured after receiving a bayonet wound to the abdomen and several saber cuts to the head. He was well treated by Marshal Alexander Berthier and eventually met Napoleon, who had him transported to Metz, where Tuchkov remained until early 1814

The above account is from Alexander Mikaberidze’s translation of Ilya Radozhitskii’s Campaign Memoirs.  Tolstoy consulted Radozhitskii’s memoirs when writing War and Peace.  Many thanks to Alex for generously providing this blog post.

Bloggers Note:  This is the 100th post of this blog (including 13 re-posts from 2011).  Thank you to everyone reading out there and to James Fisher and Alex Mikaberidze for providing material for blog posts ˜ Scott Armstrong