Tag Archives: Antony Brett-James

The Last Frenchman out of Russia

In Antony Brett-James book, 1812 Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, is the account by Count Mathieu Dumas, the Intendant-General of December 14, 1812, the day the last Frenchman left Russia.  “At long last we were out of that cursed country – Russia.  The Cossacks no longer pursued us with such zeal.  As we advanced across Prussian territory we found better lodgings and resources.  The first place we could draw breath was Wilkowiski, and then Gumbinnen, where I stopped at a doctor’s house as I had done when I first passed through the town.  We had just been served with some excellent coffee when I saw a man wearing a brown coat come in.  He had a long beard.  His face was black and seemed to be burnt.  His eyes were red and glistening.  ‘Here I am at last!’ he said.  ‘What, General Dumas! Don’t your recognize me?'”

“‘No. who are you?'”

Marshal Ney with the Rearguard

Marshal Ney with the Rearguard

“‘I am the rearguard of the Grand Army, Marshal Ney.  I fired the last shot on the bridge at Kovno.  I threw the last of our weapons into the Niemen, and I have come as far as this through the woods.'”

“I leave to your imagination with what respectful eagerness we welcomed the hero of the retreat from Russia.”

Despite the heroics of Marshal Ney, many men suffered a different fate.  James Fisher provides the following account from the Russian point of view.

(14th December) Final, Hellish Retreat

Rafail Zotov, was just out of school when the war began and volunteered to join the St Petersburg opolchenye, part of Wittgenstein’s Corps.

The Retreat from RussiaFiring at Cossacks

The Retreat from Russia
Firing at Cossacks

“On 2 December [14 December]* we caught up with Chichagov’s men and let them ahead of us so they could claim all the laurels of the pursuit. This movement marked the start of the most severe frost, which even those of us who lived in St Petersburg had rarely experienced. Temperatures dropped every day and reached -23º to -25º Réaumur [-29º to -31º Celsius]. This was a final devastating blow to the French army, which completely lost its morale. Its every bivouac and encampment was like the terrifying sight of the battlefield, where thousands lay dying in great agony. And so the warriors who perhaps survived Austerlitz, Eylau and Borodino now easily fell into our hands. They were in a state of trance so that every Cossack captured and brought back dozens of them. They could not comprehend what was happening around them, could not remember or understand anything. The roads were littered with their corpses and they lay abandoned and without any attention inside every hut.”

*Dates according to Julian [and Gregorian] calendar

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. 246.

Sources:
1812 Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, Compiled, edited and translated by Antony Brett-James, 288

Russian Eyewitness Accounts of the Campaign of 1812, Alexander Mikaberidze, p 246

“We Had Hardly Enough Strength Left to Pray”

On December 5, 1812, Napoleon left his army to race ahead to Paris to shore up his government and begin rebuilding the army.  Philippe-Paul de Ségur, Napoleon’s Aide-de-Camp, was transferred to the headquarters of Marshal Murat who was now in command of the army.

The Minard map shows that the temperature dropped to -35.5 degrees Fahrenheit on the 6th and the army was now down to 12,000 men.

Usar on the Snowby Wojciech Kossak

Usar on the Snow
by Wojciech Kossak

In Antony Brett-James book, Ségur gives his account of what happened to him the next day [December 6, 1812]:  “… either because of disorder around Murat or of personal preoccupation, I lost all trace of the King’s [Murat] lodging.  As this fatal day was drawing to a close, I felt exhausted by the effort of walking a dozen leagues on glistening ice and weighted down by the seventy-five pounds weight of my weapons, my uniform, and two enormous furs; so I tried to hoist myself back into the saddle.  But almost immediately my horse collapsed on top of me so heavily that I was trapped underneath.  Several hundred men passed by without my being able to persuade one of them to set me free.   The most compassionate moved a little to one side, others stepped over my head, but most of them trampled me underfoot.  Eventually a gendarme d’élite picked me up.”

“I had gone all day with nothing to eat, and I spent that night – the coldest of any – without food, in a hut open to the wind, surrounded by corpses and huddled near a dying fire.”

“… An elderly engineer general came and shared this melancholy shelter.  Right in front of me he devoured some remnants of food without offering me any and I could not bring myself to ask him for a small share of the paltry meal to which he was reduced.”

“This room abutted on to a huge barn which was still standing, and during that bitterly cold night between four and five hundred men took refuge inside.  At least three quarters of them froze to death, even though they had lain one on top of another round several fires.  The dying had clambered over the dead in their efforts to approach a fire, and so it went on.”

“When, before daybreak, I tried to grope my way out of this dark tomb, my feet kicked into the first comers.  Astonished by their taciturn impassivity, I stopped, but having tripped over another obstacle on my hands, I felt the stiff limbs and frozen faces and these explained the silence.  After looking in vain for a way out, I had to climb painfully over these various heaps of corpses.  The highest was near the door, and was so high that it entirely hid the exit from the barn.”

In his own book, Ségur describes the sixth as follows: “… the sky became still more terrible.  The air was filled with infinitesimal ice crystals; birds fell to the earth frozen stiff.  The atmosphere was absolutely still.  It seemed as if everything in nature…  had been bound and congealed in a universal death.  Now not a word, not a murmur broke the dismal silence, silence of despair and unshed tears.”

“We drifted along in this empire of death like accursed phantoms.  Only the monotonous beat of our steps, the crunch of the snow, and the feeble groans of the dying broke the vast mournful stillness.  Among us was heard neither raging nor cursing, nothing that would imply a trace of warmth: we had hardly enough strength left to pray.  Most of the men fell without a word of complaint, silent either from weakness or resignation; or perhaps because men only complain when they have hopes of moving someone to pity.”

“The soldiers who had been most resolute until then lost heart completely.  At times the snow opened up under their feet.  Even where it was solid, its ice-coated surface gave them no support, and they slipped and fell, and got up to fall again.  It was as if this hostile earth refused to carry them any longer, laid snares for them in order to hamper them and retard their flight, and so deliver them up to the Russians, who were still on their trail, or to their terrible climate.”

On the March from Moscowby Laslett John Pott

On the March from Moscow
by Laslett John Pott

“When exhaustion compelled them to halt a moment, the icy hand of winter fell heavily on its prey.  In vain the miserable victims, feeling themselves grow numb, staggered to their feet, already without voice or feeling, and took a few steps, like automatons, their blood was freezing in their veins, like water in a brook, and showing up their hearts.  Then it rushed to their heads, and the dying men reeled along as if they were drunk.  Actual tears of blood oozed from their eyes, horribly inflamed and festered by loss of sleep and the smoke of campfires…  They stared at the sky, at us, at the earth with a wild, frightened look in their eyes; this was their farewell to a merciless nature that was torturing them…  Before long they fell to their knees, then forward on their hands.  Their heads wagged stupidly from side to side for a little while, and a gasping rattle issued from their lips.  Then they collapsed in the snow, on which appeared the slow-spreading stain of blackish blood – and their suffering was at an end.”

Retreat - The retreat from Russia“Their comrades passed them without taking a single step out of their way, lest they should lengthen their journey by a few feet…  They did not even feel pity for those who fell; for what had they lost by dying?  What were they leaving?  We were suffering so much!”

Source:
1812: The Great Retreat, Paul Britten Austin, pp 269-270

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, p 268 – 269

 

“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.

Crossing the Bridge Pursued by a Thousand Curses

The crossing of the bridge continued on November 27.  Armed troops were given priority, but the stragglers had pressed in on the entrances making it hard to gain access to the bridges.

Captain François Dumonceau of the 2nd Regiment of the Chevau-légers Lanciers of the Imperial Guard describes his unit’s crossing on the afternoon of the 27th:  “Most of our army corps had already crossed, and all the Imperial Guard, of which we were the last to turn up.  Only part of their parks and horse teams still remained to follow with us, but the crowd of disbanded troops had arrived and created a block by flocking from all sides, infiltrating everywhere, congesting the ground over a considerable area and refusing to give way to us …  Detachments of pontoniers and gendarerie, posted at the various bridgeheads, struggled hard with the crowd to contain it and control its flow.”

“We had to open a way through by brute force.  In the end we drew our swords and behaved like madmen, using the flat of the blade to knock aside those who, pushed back by the crowd, hemmed us in as if in a press.  In this way we managed to clear a path, and were pursued by a thousand curses.”

Berezina
Musée de l’Armée

“On reaching the bridge to which we had been directed, we began to dismount and cross one by one, leading our horses so as not to shake the bridge.  It had no guard-rail, was almost at water-level, covered by a layer of manure, and was already seriously damaged, dislocated, sagging in places, and unsteady everywhere.  Some pontoniers, up to their armpits in the water, were busy repairing it.  Among them were a number of Dutchmen who welcomed us and did their best to facilitate our passage by throwing a broken cart into the river, several dead horses, and other debris of all kinds which blocked the bridge.”

“Once across, we went over the flat marshy ground beside the river, and found it so cut up in several places that we sank into the mud despite the ice.”

The two bridges over the Berezina

Jakob Walter describes his passage: “These bridges had the structure of sloping saw-horses suspended like trestles on shallow-sunk piles; on these lay long stringers and across them only bridge ties, which were not fastened down.  However, one could not see the bridges because of the crowd of people, horses, and wagons.  Everyone crowded together into a solid mass, and nowhere could one see a way out or a means of rescue.  From morning till night we stood

Russian Artillery at the Berezina

unprotected from cannonballs and grenades which the Russians hurled at us from two sides.  At each blow from three to five men were struck to the ground, and yet no one was able to move a step to get our of the path of the cannonballs.  Only by filling up of the space where the cannonball made room could one make a little progress forward.  All the powder wagons also stood in the crowd; many of these were ignited by the grenades, killing hundreds of people and horses standing about them.”

Lancer on Horse
One of the More Dramatic
Images of the Crossing

“I had a horse to ride and one to lead.  The horse I led I was soon forced to let go, and I had to kneel on the one which I rode in order not to have my feet crushed off, for everything was so closely packed that in a quarter of an hour one could move only four or five steps forward.  To be on foot was to lose all hope of rescue.  Indeed, whoever did not have a good horse could not help falling over the horses and people lying about in masses.  Everyone was screaming under the feet of the horses, and everywhere was the cry, “Shoot me or stab me to death!”  The fallen horses struck off their feet many of those still standing.  It was only by a miracle that anyone was saved.”

“… I frequently caused my horse to rear up, whereby he came down again about one step further forward.  I marveled at the intelligence with which this animal sought to save us.  Then evening came, and despair steadily increased.  Thousands swam into the river with horses, but no one ever came out again; thousands of others who were near the water were pushed in, and the stream was like a sheep dip where the heads of men and horses bobbed up and down and disappeared.”

Passage de la Berezina
by January Suchodolski

“Finally, toward four o’clock in the evening, when it was almost dark, I came to the bridge.  Here I saw only one bridge, the second having been shot away.  …masses of horses and people which lay dead, piled high upon the bridge….  Now I kept myself constantly in the middle…   not a plank was visible because of the dead men and horses… ”

“The fact that the bridge was covered with horses and men was not due to shooting and falling alone but also to the bridge ties, which were not fastened on this structure.  The horses stepped through between them with their feet and so could not help falling, until no plank was left movable on account of the weight of the bodies.  For where such a timber still could move, it was torn out of place by the falling horses, and a sort of trap was prepared for the following horse.  Indeed, one must say that the weight of the dead bodies was the salvation of those riding across; for, without their load, the cannon would have caused the destruction of the bridge too soon.”

Sources:
1812: Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, compiled, edited and translated by Antony Brett-James

The Diary of a Napoloenic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter

The Honor of Carrying the Colors

With the loss of so many horses, much of what was going to be saved had to be carried by someone.  Such was the case with the colors of the 2nd Cuirassiers.  Sergeant Auguste Thirion was entrusted with the care of the colors.  He describes how his horse gave out after “… two nights with nothing to eat except the bark of trees… ”  He ended his horse’s misery and shouldered the standard and a double-barreled gun which had been purchased in Moscow [double barreled = heavy].

“I must confess that I found the standard extremely heavy.  At the end of a fairly

French Eagle by P. Grenar

long staff was a bronze eagle with open wings.  Under the eagle, and nailed to the staff, was a square flag of white satin surrounded on three sides by a gold fringe made out of bullion the length and thickness of one’s finger.”

“On this flag had been embroidered in large letters of gold: The Emperor to his 2nd Regiment of Cuirassiers….  The whole thing was furled in a morocco sheath.”

“This enormous weight, to which was added that of my double-barreled gun, was crushing my shoulder, and I looked for some way of getting rid of it, because quite apart from the fatigue, I felt a large burden of responsibility, if one bears in mind the dishonour attached to losing a standard.”

“Eventually, by dint of representing to my colonel first the state of exhaustion I was in, secondly the danger that, during the constant Cossack raids to which we were subjected, the standard might find itself undefended and be captured as a result, and thirdly the fact that my death would not save the standard, because my duty was to defend it as long as I had a spark of life in me – all these considerations decided the colonel to conceal it.”

“I unscrewed the eagle, which was placed in the portmanteau belonging to Millot, the adjutant; the flag and cravat were folded and put in the colonel’s portmanteau; and the staff was burnt.  Once this had been done, I felt very relieved, both morally and physically.”

Source:
1812: Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, compiled, edited and translated by Antony Brett-James, p 238 – 239

Disorder in Smolensk

As the army straggled west, the men set their sights on Smolensk as their salvation.  They believed they would find food, shelter and safety.  Smolensk was the city the Grande Armée had assaulted back in August with the end result that it had burned during the night.  On the retreat, the army arrived from November 9th through the 12th.

Major von Lossberg of Westphalia described the scenes in Smolensk to his wife in a letter dated November 12: “Had order prevailed in Smolensk when all the corps were allowed into the town, the Army, as I saw to my own satisfaction in several magazines, would have found enough flour and fodder for a fortnight; but the right of the strongest often dislocated the distribution queue and anyone who failed to stand firm received nothing.  If proper measures had been taken there should have been no shortage of meat either, since 1,000 cattle fell into the hands of the Cossacks not far from the town, and these could well have been protected.”

“…I cannot leave Smolensk without mentioning a regular fair which I found in the square where stood the magazines that issued rations.  Hundreds of soldiers, most o them from the French Guard, were dealing in plunder they had obtained during the campaign, particularly in Moscow, and this largely comprised clothing, women’s shawls, and scarves of all kinds, as well as articles stolen from churches. A non-commissioned officer in a green uniform – from his looks and manner of talking French he was probably Italian – asked 2,000 francs of me for a church ornament which, if he was speaking the truth (he talked with great knowledge about diamonds and explained the value of the different stones), was worth at least ten times that price.  The throng of soldiers of all nationalities – they included many buyers too – was so great that one had difficulty in making one’s way forward.  For twenty francs I bought a yellow-brown beaver cloak with a double collar, and this I put on straight away…  I bought half a pound of coffee for a five-franc piece.”

Source:
1812: Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, Antony Brett-James, p 232

Mistreatment of French Prisoners

General Wilson continues his observations about the retreat after the first snow fall of early November.  “At Viazma, fifty French, by a savage order, were burned alive.  In another village fifty men had been buried alive; but these terrible acts of ferocity were minor features – they ended in death with comparitively little protracted suffering.  Here death, so much invited, so solicited as a friend, came with dilatory step; but still he came without interval of torturing pause.”

“I will cite three or four of the most painful indcidents that I witnessed.

1. A number of naked men, whose backs had been frozen while they warmed the front of their bodies, sat round the burning embers of a hut.  Sensible at last to the chill of the air, they had succeeded in turning themselves, when the fire caught the congealed flesh, and a hard burnt crust covered the whole of their backs.  The wretches were still living as I passed.

2.  Sixty dying naked men, whose necks were laid upon a felled tree, while Russian men and women with large faggot-sticks, singing in chorus and hopping round, with repeated blows struck out their brains in succession.

3.  A group of wounded men, at the ashes of another cottage, sitting and lying over the body of a comrade which they had roasted, and the flesh of which they had begun to eat.

4.  A French woman, naked to her chemise, with black, long, dishevelled hair, sitting on the snow, where she had remained the whole day and in that situation had been delivered of a child, which had afterwards been stolen from her.  This was the extreme of mental anguish and bodily suffering.

I could cite a variety of other sad and sorry calamities, but the very recollection is loathsome.”

Source:
1812: Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, Antony Brett-James, p 222