Tag Archives: Alexey Temnikov

“Tears Ran Down Their Cheeks”

Partizans in Ambush

Partizans in Ambush
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

Sergeant Adrien Bourgogne‘s memoirs tell of his narrow escape from some Cossacks around this time [Approximately December 13, his narrative doesn’t use many dates](He was alone in the woods and three Cossacks were closing in on him when nearby gunfire frightened their tethered horses and they had to rush off to retrieve them).  Now alone in the woods, “… I felt it would be impossible to walk further without changing my clothes.  It may be remembered that in a portmanteau found on the mountain of Ponari I had some shirts and white cotton breeches – clothes belonging to an army commissary.  Having opened my knapsack, I drew out a shirt, and hung it on my musket; then the breeches, which I placed beside me on the tree.  I took off my jacket, an overcoat, and my waistcoat with the quilted yellow silk sleeves that I had made out of a Russian lady’s skirt at Moscow.  I untied the shawl which was wrapped round my body, and my trousers fell about my heels.  As for my shirt, I had not the trouble of taking it off, for it had neither back nor front; I pulled it off in shreds.  And there I was, naked, except for a pair of wretched boots, in the midst of a wild forest at four o’clock in the afternoon, with eighteen to twenty degrees of cold, for the north wind had begun to blow hard again.”

“On looking at my emaciated body, dirty, and consumed with vermin, I could not restrain my tears.  At last, summoning the little strength that remained, I set about my toilet.  With snow and the rags of my old shirt I washed myself to the best of my power.  Then I drew on my new shirt of fine longcloth, embroidered down the front.  I got into the little calico breeches as quickly as I could, but I found them so short that even my knees were not covered, and my boots only reaching half-way up my leg, all this part was bare.  Finally, I put on my yellow silk waistcoat, my riding-jacket, my overcoat, over this my belts and collar; and there I was, completely attired, except for my legs.”

On the 13th of December, 1812, the Grande Armée reached Kovno at the edge of the Russian empire.  Philippe-Paul de Ségur described the scene: “After a final crucifying march of forty-six hours, they found themselves again on friendly soil.  Immediately, without pausing, without casting a glance behind them, the majority of the men dispersed and plunged into the forests of Polish Russia.  But some did turn around when they reached the other side of the river, and look back on the land of suffering from which they were escaping.  It is said that when they found themselves on the very spot from which, five months before, their innumerable eagles had victoriously set out, tears ran down their cheeks and groans broke from their chests.”

“Here were the same valleys down which had poured those three long columns… [Now] The Niemen was just a long mass of blocks of ice piled up and welded together by a breath of winter.  In place of the three French bridges brought fifteen hundred miles and erected with such daring speed, there was only one Russian bridge.  Instead of the four hundred thousand companions…  [the only ones left were] one thousand foot soldiers and troopers still armed, nine cannon, and twenty thousand beings clothed in rags, with bowed heads, dull eyes, ashy, cadaverous faces, and long ice-stiffened beards.  Some of them were fighting in silence for the right to cross the bridge which, despite their reduced number, was still too narrow to accommodate their precipitous flight.  Others had rushed down the bank and were struggling across the river, crawling from one jagged cake of ice to another.  And this was the Grand Army!”

Marshal Ney in Action

Marshal Ney in Action

“Two kings, one prince, eight marshals, followed by several generals afoot and unattended, then a few hundred of the Old Guard still bearing arms, were all that remained of the original host.  It might be said, though, that it lived on incarnate in the person of Marshal Ney.  Friends, allies, enemies – I call on you to witness! Let us render the homage that is due to the memory of this unfortunate hero … In Kovno he found a company of artillery, three hundred Germans belonging to

Jean Gabriel Marchand

Jean Gabriel Marchand

the garrison, and General [Jean Gabriel] Marchand with four hundred armed men, of whom he took command.  His first act was to scour the city looking for possible reinforcements.  All he found were the wounded who were making a pitiful attempt to keep up with our wild flight.  For the eighth time since leaving Moscow he had to abandon them in a body in the hospitals, as he had abandoned them individually along the road, on the battlefields, and around all the campfires.”

“Several thousand French soldiers were crowded together in the great square… but these were stretched out cold and stiff in front of the brandy shops which they had broken open, and in which they had imbibed death, instead of the life they had hoped to find.  Here was the only relief that Murat had left him!  So Ney found himself alone in Russia at the head of seven hundred foreign recruits.  At Kovno, as at Vilna, the honor of our arms and the dangers of the last retreat were committed to his care, and he accepted them.”

Sources:
Sergeant Bourgogne: With Napoleon’s Imperial Guard in the Russian Campaign and on the Retreat from Moscow 1812-13, Adrien Bourgogne, pp 251 – 252

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 280 – 282

Commemorative 1912 Russian Candy Box Card image and translation provided by Alexey Temnikov

“Everything that Could be of use Became a Hindrance.”

Philippe-Paul de Ségur described the abandonment of Vilna on the 10th of December.  He contended that Vilna cost the army twenty thousand men and many of these could have been saved had the city been held twenty-four hours longer.  But Marshal Murat panicked when the Cossacks appeared and the city was hastily abandoned.

Platov Cossacks

Platov Cossacks
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

Here is Ségur’s description of the events: “On the tenth of December, Ney, who had voluntarily taken command of the rear guard, left the city, and immediately Platov’s Cossacks overran it, massacring the unfortunate wretches whom [were thrown]… into the streets as they passed by…”

“This city contained a great part of the equipment and the treasury of the army, its supplies, a number of immense covered wagons with the Emperor’s possessions, much artillery, and a great many wounded men.  Our sudden appearance had fallen like a thunderbolt on those in charge of all this.  Some were galvanized into action by terror, others were paralyzed by consternation.  Out of it came orders and counterorders of all sorts, and men, horses, and vehicles became tangled in an inextricable jam.”

“In the midst of this chaos several officers succeeded in getting as much as could be set in motion, out if town and on the road to Kovno.  But when this bewildered, heavily loaded column had gone about two miles they were stopped by the hill and narrow pass of Ponari.”

Retreat - General disorder and fighting“In our conquering march eastward this wooded knoll had seemed to our hussars little more than a slight irregularity in the earth’s surface from the top of which the entire plain of Vilna could be seen, and the strength of the enemy estimated.  In truth, its steep but short slope had hardly been noticed.  In a regular retreat it would have been an excellent position for turning around and checking the enemy; but in a chaotic flight, where everything that could be of use became a hindrance, when in blind haste we turned everything against ourselves, this hill and defile were an unsurmountable obstacle, a wall of ice against which our best efforts were broken.  It stripped us of everything – supplies, treasury, booty, and wounded men.  This misfortune was serious enough to stand out above all our long succession of disasters; for it was here that the little money, honor, discipline, and strength remaining to us were irrevocably lost.”

“When, after fifteen hours of fruitless struggle, the drivers and soldiers forming the escort [of the wagons carrying the booty] saw Murat and the column of fugitives go past them on the hillside…  they no longer thought of saving anything, but only of forestalling the avidity of the foe by pillaging themselves.”

Retreat Scene from the Russian-French War of 1812by Bogdan Willewalde

Retreat Scene from the Russian-French War of 1812
by Bogdan Willewalde

“The bursting of a wagon carrying loot from Moscow acted as a signal.  Everybody fell upon the other wagons, broke them open, and seized the most valuable objects.  The soldiers of the rear guard coming upon this confusion, threw down their arms and loaded themselves with plunder.  So furiously intent were they on this that they failed to heed the whistling bullets or the shrieks of the Cossacks who were pursuing them.  It is said that the Cossacks mingled with them without being noticed.  For a few minutes Europeans and Tartars, friends and foes, were united in a common lust for gain.  Frenchmen and Russians were seen side by side, all war forgotten, plundering the same wagon. Ten million francs in gold and silver rapidly disappeared!”

“But along with these horrors, acts of noble devotion were noticed.  There were men that day who forsook everything to carry off the wounded on their backs; others, unable to get their half-frozen companions out of the struggle, perished in defending them from the brutality of their fellow soldiers and the blows of the enemy.”

“On the most exposed spot of the hill a colonel of the Emperor’s staff, Count de Turenne, held the Cossacks at bay, disregarding their wild shots, while he distributed Napoleon’s personal treasury among the guards who stood within sight and hearing.  These brave men, fighting with one hand and holding the riches of their leader in the other, succeeded in saving all of it.  Long afterward, when we were out of danger, each one returned the amount that had been entrusted to him: not a single gold coin was lost.”

“The catastrophe at Ponari was all the more shameful as it could have been easily foreseen, and even more easily avoided; for it was possible to pass around the hill on either side.  Our debris served at least one purpose – to stop the Cossacks.”

Source:
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 275 – 278

Commemorative 1912 Russian card image and translation provided by Alexey Temnikov

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

“To Sleep is to Die”

General Armand de Caulaincourt with Napoleon’s staff wrote about the suffers of the stragglers on December 2nd.

Retreat from Russia

Retreat from Russia

“One constantly found men who, overcome by the cold, had been forced to drop out and had fallen to the ground, too weak or too numb to stand.  Ought one to help them along – which practically meant carrying them?  They begged one to let them alone.  There were bivouacs all along the road – ought one to take them to a camp-fire?  Once these poor wretches fell asleep, they were dead.  If they resisted the craving for sleep, another passer-by would help them along a little farther, thus prolonging their agony for a short

Night Bivouac

Night Bivouac

while but not saving them; for in this condition the drowsiness engendered by cold is irresistibly strong.  Sleep comes inevitably; and to sleep is to die.  I tried in vain to save a number of these unfortunates.  The only words they uttered were to beg me, for the love of God, to go away and let them sleep.  To hear them, one would have thought this sleep was their salvation. Unhappily, it was a poor wretch’s last wish; but at least he ceased to suffer, without pain or agony.  Gratitude, and even a smile, was imprinted on his discoloured lips.  What I have related about the effects of extreme cold, and of this kind of death by freezing, is based on what I saw happen to thousands of individuals.  The road was covered with their corpses.”

“The Emperor stopped for a little while at the crossing of the Villia, in the midst of a bodyguard and on an eminence overlooking a fairly wide reach of the road. I stood apart to watch the débris of our army file past.  It was from here that I saw what stragglers had reported for several days past, and what we had refused to believe.  Cossacks, tired of killing our stragglers, or of taking prisoners whom they were obliged to march to the rear, thus depriving themselves for a time of the chance of daily booty, were robbing everyone they came across.  They were taking their clothes, if they had decent ones, and sending them away practically naked.  I have seen cases in which they gave in exchange inferior clothing which they had taken from someone else, or from some poor wretch dead by the roadside.  Every one of these Cossacks had a pile of old clothes – some under their saddles like pads, others over them like cushions.  They never had ridden such high horses before.  I spoke with some of the unfortunate stragglers whom I had seen robbed quite near the bridge, and with others who had been stripped farther away.  They confirmed the particulars I have given, and added that the Cossacks, when no superior officers were about, drove them along in front of them like a herd of cattle.”

Source:
With Napoleon in Russia, General Armand de Caulaincourt, pp 259 – 260

Commemorative 1912 image and translation provided by Alexey Temnikov

An Escape from the Cossacks

Philippe-Paul de Ségur wrote an interesting account of an incident that occurred on the road from Orsha to Borisov.

“The twenty-second of November found us toiling along the road from Orsha to Borisov, between a double line of giant birches, through melted snow and deep liquid mud in which the weak got drowned, and which trapped and held as prisoners for the Cossacks those of the wounded who, believing that the frost had definitely set in, had exchanged their carts for sledges or sleighs at Smolensk.”

Old Guard Does Not Give Up
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

“In the midst of this general decay and discouragement an action of antique grandeur stood out.  Two marines of the Guard had got separated from their column by a band of Cossacks who seemed bent on their destruction.  One of the marines lost heart and was about to give himself up, but the other shouted to him that if he committed this act of cowardice, he would kill him.  and he did: when he saw his companion throw his musket away and put up his hands, he shot him down in the very arms of the Cossacks.  Then, taking advantage of their surprise, he quickly reloaded his musket which he kept leveled on the bravest of the band as he walked backward, stealing from tree to tree, and so succeeded in rejoining his company.”

Sources:
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, p 228

Commemorative 1912 Russian candy box card image and translation provided by Alexey Temnikov

“Take My Knapsack, I Am A Lost Man”

Today we continue the story of IIIrd Corps escape from the trap at Krasnoe.  After leaving camp fires burning in the night and slipping away to the north to cross the ice of the Dnieper, dawn of the 19th arrived to show that Ney’s  IIIrd Corps was alone, for now.

Platov Cossacks
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

Some Cossack outposts were captured and by midday, two villages were also captured, their inhabitants fleeing and leaving provisions behind.  But the plundering is soon brought to an end by the appearance of swarms of Cossacks led by General Matvei Platov.  But Ney’s troops are well formed and the Cossacks dare not attack.  IIIrd Corps continues its march, but now finds the Cossacks have cannon mounted on sledges.

Montesquiou Duc de Fezensac and about 100 of his men became separated from the main body when they were ordered to clear the woods along the river of Cossacks.  Having accomplished their task, they became lost in the fading light.  Hurrying to catch up, they are again harassed by Cossacks who “Kept shouting at us to surrender and firing point-blank into our midst.  Those who were hit were abandoned.  A sergeant had his leg shattered by a shot from a carbine.  He fell at my side, and said coolly to his comrades: ‘Here, take my knapsack, I am a lost man, and you will be the better for it.’  Someone took his pack, and we left him in silence.  Two wounded officers suffered the same fate.  Yet I noticed uneasily the impression this state of affairs was making on my regiment’s men, and even on its officers.  Then so-and-so, a hero on the battlefield, seemed worried and troubled  – so true it is that the circumstances of danger are often more frightening than the danger itself.  A very small number preserved the presence of mind we were in such need of.  I needed all my authority to keep order as we marched and to prevent each man leaving his rank.  One officer even dared give it to be understood we’d perhaps be forced to surrender.  I reprimanded him aloud, so much the more sharply as he was an officer of merit, which made the lesson more striking.”

Don’t Hurry, Let Them Approach
Vasily Vereschagin

At last, they found their way back to  the Dneiper so now knew where they were, but still had to catch up to Ney.  Marching with the river to their left to avoid a flanking attack by the Cossacks, they continued at a quickened pace.  “The Cossacks, from time to time, advanced towards us with loud cries.  On these occasions we halted a minute to give our fire, and immediately resumed our march.  For two leagues we traversed the most impracticable ground, crossed ravines, whose sides we ascended with the utmost difficulty, and waded through streams, the half-frozen water of which reached to the knee, — but nothing could daunt the perseverance of our soldiers; the greatest order was maintained, and not a man quitted the ranks.”

“The enemy at length relaxed in his pursuit, and the fires which we descried on the heights in front of us proved to be those of Marshal Ney’s rear-guard: they had halted, and were now preparing to resume their march.  We joined them, and learned that the Marshal had, on the preceding evening, marched direct on the enemy’s artillery and forced a passage through them.”

“We were still eight leagues [24 miles] from Orsha, and entertained little doubt of General Platoff’s redoubling his exertions to overtake us, — moments became precious.”

To be continued.

Sources:
1812: The Great Retreat, Paul Britten Austin, pp 198 – 200

A Journal of the Russian Campaign of 1812, Translated from the French of Lt. General De Fezensac by Colonel W. Knollys, pp 117 – 119

Commemorative 1912 Russian Candy Box Card image and translation provided by Alexey Temnikov

“We Still Possessed Two Things – Courage and Honour”

On the morning of the 15th, Napoleon’s advance guard continued its march to Krasnoe.  Ségur describes how the column came across the Russian army which had passed the Grande Armée and was waiting across the road:  “… advancing without precaution, preceded by a crowd of marauders, all eager to reach Krasnoe, when at about five miles from that town a row of Cossacks, extending from the heights on the left and across the highroad, suddenly appeared before them.  Our soldiers halted, astounded.  They had not expected anything of the kind…”

Adrian Bourgogne of the Imperial Guard picks up the narrative:  “… the front of the Imperial columns was stopped by 25,000 Russians occupying the road.  Stragglers at the front caught sight of them first, and immediately turned back to join the first regiments advancing; the greater part of them, however, united and faced the enemy.  A few men, too careless or too wretched to care what they did, fell into the enemy’s hands.”

“The Grenadiers and Chasseurs, formed into close columns, advanced against the mass of Russians, who, not daring to wait for them, retired and left the passage free; they took up a position on the hills to the left of the road, and turned their artillery on us.  When we heard the cannon, we doubled our pace, as we were behind, and arrived just as our gunners were answering them.  The Russians disappeared behind the hills as our fire began, and we continued our way.”

Battle of Krasnoi
by Piter von Hess

“In two hours after the encounter with the Russians, the Emperor reached Krasnoe with the first regiments of the Guard — ours and the Fusiliers-Chasseurs.  We camped behind the town.  I was on guard with fifteen men at General Roguet’s quarters: a miserable house in the town, thatched with straw.  I put my men in a stable, thinking myself in luck to be under cover, and near a fire we had just lighted, but it turned out quite otherwise.”

“While we were in Krasnoe and the immediate neighborhood, the Russians, 90,000 strong, surrounded us – to right, to left, in front, and behind, nothing but Russians — thinking, no doubt, they could soon finish us off.  But the Emperor wished to show them it was not quite so easy a thing as they imagined; for although we were most wretched, and dying of cold and hunger, we still possessed two things – courage and honour.”

Old Guard Does Not Give Up
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

“On the evening of our arrival, General Roguet received orders to attack during the night…  at two o’clock [a.m.] we began to move forward.  We formed into three columns…  The cold was as intense as ever.  We had the greatest difficulty in walking across the fields, as the snow was up to our knees.  After half an hour of this, we found ourselves in the midst of the Russians.  On our right was a long line of infantry, opening a murderous fire on us, their heavy cavalry on our left… They howled like wolves to excite each other, but did not dare to attack.  The artillery was in the centre, pouring grape-shot on us.  All this did not stop our career in the least.  In spite of the firing, and the number of our men who fell, we charged on into their camp, where we made frightful havoc with our bayonets.”

Tomorrow, the battle continues.

Source:
Sergeant Bourgogne: With Napoleon’s Imperial Guard in the Russian Campaign and on the Retreat from Moscow 1812-13, Adrien Bourgogne, pp 102 – 105

Commemorative 1912 Russian Candy Box Card image and translation provided by Alexey Temnikov

“Courage – The Only Good Thing We Had Left”

Ségur continues his account of the Army of Italy after it crossed the Vop river, leaving stragglers, baggage and artillery on the far side of the river to be swarmed by the Cossacks: “The Army of Italy, divested of everything, dripping with the waters of the Vop, without food or shelter, spent the night in the snow near a village in which the generals tried in vain to find lodgings for themselves.  The soldiers attacked the frame houses, falling in desperate swarms on every dwelling, taking advantage of the darkness that prevented them from recognizing their own officers or being recognized by them.  They tore off the doors and windows, even the woodwork of the roof, caring little whether they forced others, regardless of their rank, to bivouac like themselves.”

“Their generals tried in vain to drive them off.  The soldiers, even those of the royal and imperial Guards, bore their blows without complaining, without offering any opposition, but without desisting.  Throughout the army similar scenes were repeated every evening.”

“They spent that night drying themselves around the fires they had lit, listening to the cries, curses, and moans of those who were still crossing the torrent, or who rolled from the top of the steep bank to their death in the ice-filled waters.”

Platov Cossacks
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

“It is a fact that reflects disgrace on the enemy, that in the midst of this chaos, within sight of so rich a prize, a few hundred men left a mile or so from the Viceroy, on the other side of the river, held both the courage and the cupidity of Platov’s Cossacks in check for twenty-four hours.  It is possible that the Hetman believed he had made sure of the destruction of the Viceroy on the following day.  Indeed, all his plans were so well laid that at the instant when the army of Italy, at the end of a troubled and disorganized day’s march, caught sight of Dukhovshchina, one of the few towns as yet uninjured [this town was not in the line of march on the advance to Moscow], and were joyfully hurrying forward to seek shelter in it, they saw swarming out of it several thousand Cossacks… At the same time, [Matvei Ivanovich] Platov with the rest of his hordes galloped up and attacked their rear and both flanks.”

“According to several eyewitnesses, the most terrible confusion ensued.  The disbanded men, women, and attendants rushed wildly on one another, stampeding through the ranks  For a moment this unfortunate army was little more than a form–less mob, an ignoble rabble milling blindly round and round.  All seemed lost; but the coolness of the Prince  [Eugéne] and the efforts of his officers saved the day.  The crack troops disengaged themselves from the confusion, ranks were re-established.  The army advanced under the protection of a volley of shots, and the enemy who had everything on their side, except courage — the only good thing we had left — broke ranks and scattered, content with a useless demonstration.”

“We immediately took their place in the town, while they pitched their camps outside and laid their plans for further surprise attacks which were to last up to the very gates of Smolensk; for the disaster at the Vop had made Eugène give up the idea of remaining separated from the Emperor.  The Cossacks, emboldened by success, surrounded the 14th Division.  When the Prince tried to rescue them, the soldiers and officers, benumbed and stiffened by sub-zero cold and a cutting north wind, refused to budge from the warm ashes of their fires.  In vain he pointed out to them their surrounded companions, the approaching enemy and the shells and bullets already falling around them.  They still refused to rise, protesting that they would rather perish there than bear such cruel suffering any longer.  Even the sentinels had abandoned their posts.  Nevertheless, Prince Eugène succeeded in saving his rear guard.”

The remains of the Army of Italy arrived at Smolensk on November 12, 1812.

Sources:
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 179 – 181

Commemorative 1912 card image and translation provided by Alexey Temnikov

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.

Sources:
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