Tag Archives: Bridge

“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.

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“A Single Idea Took Hold of the Crowd… To Reach the Bridge”

Faber du Faur wrote extensively on the events of the 28th which accompanied his painting of the same date.

Crossing of the Beresina, 28 November
by Faber du Faur

Crossing of the Beresina, 28 November
“Meanwhile, as night fell, the crowds of people who had not crossed on the 27th grew silent.  They settled down among the ruins of Studianka, along the heights or in amongst the mass of wagons and vehicles now forming an immense and virtually impenetrable ring around the bridges.  Campfires illuminated the entire area.  The majority of these unfortunates, worn down by their privations, had grown insensible to suffering or believed themselves protected by [Marshal Claude] Victor‘s corps, the left flank of which had taken up position on the Studianka heights.”

Count Peter Wittgenstein

“Thus it was that the night of the 27th passed by.  Artillery fire, which broke out on both banks simultaneously, heralded the dawn of the 28th.  [Count Peter ] Wittgenstein, with 40,000 Russians, was bearing down upon us from the direction of Borisov, whilst [Pavel] Chichagov, with 27,000 men, was attempting to attack the bridges on the right bank  For most of the unfortunates on the left bank the final hour had come.  They rose up and threw themselves towards the bridges.  The bridge on the left, intended for guns and wagons, collapsed for the third time under the weight of the fugitives, and any attempt to repair it was frustrated by the subsequent disorder and confusion.”

“A single idea took hold of the crowd, a single objective: to reach the bridge.  And in order to do so the fugitives were prepared to crush every obstacle and force their way past anyone, be it friend, commander, woman or child.  People were thrust into the freezing waters of the Beresina or pushed into the flames of the burning house between the two bridges.”

De Overtocht van de Berexina
by Aquarel van Fournier, an eyewitness

“Victor, his corps now reduced to 6,000 men, made heroic efforts to stem Wittgenstein’s advance, whilst [Marshal Nicolas] Oudinot, [Marshal Michel] Ney and [Jean Henri] Dombrowski managed to push Chichagov back on Stakova.  Even so, Wittgenstein, with vastly superior numbers, was gradually pushing Victor back towards the bridges, so much so that he was able to bring artillery fire to bear on the crowds of fugitives struggling to reach the crossing.  The desperation of this mass reached fever pitch.  Each Russian shell or round shot found a target, and swathese of unfortunates were cut down.  The cries of the multitude muffled the sound of the artillery as they made a supreme effort.  In a convulsed wave they surged forward, crushing the dead and dying underfoot.  Finally night fell and the Russian artillery fire first grew sporadic before ceasing altogether.  Towards nine in the evening Victor’s corps forced a passage through a scene of desolation and passed over to the right bank, leaving a rearguard in Studianka.”

Pavel Chichagov
Later disgraced for his actions
at the Berezina

“A good number of unfortunates failed to take the opportunity of crossing with relative ease and on the morning of the 29th woke to find the Russians advancing and a vast crowd milling around the bridges.  It was all for nothing as, at 8:30, the bridges were set on fire and all means of crossing the river went up in flames.  The same fate would have befallen all those who had crossed over to the right bank had Chichagov destroyed the series of bridges which spanned the marshes between Zaniviki and Zembin.  Fortunately, he failed to realise the importance of this defile and we arrived at Zembin having ourselves destroyed the bridges and placed the marsh between ourselves and the pursuing enemy.”

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

“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.

A Baby is Born on the Banks of the Berezina

Again, we have more accounts contributed by James Fisher.  He has done an excellent job of painting the picture of the problems with the bridges and the difficulty in organizing the crossing.  But there is also an unexpected event:  Amid the chaos, a baby is born and who actually survives the retreat.

(Early morning 27th November) More running repairs

General Jacques Alexandre Bernard Law Lauriston

“At two in the morning, on the 27th, the three trestles of the same bridge [as the previous evening] broke down, in the deepest part of the river. General [Jean Baptiste] Eblé had been wise and prudent enough to ensure that the second half of the pontonniers had some rest. They were now employed in repairing this further mishap. The work was being carried out with great eagerness, when General [Jacques] Lauriston appeared on the bridge and showed natural impatience; he complained of the slowness of the work. This, however, could not have been done more actively. He described vividly how worried Napoleon was.

As they were busy clearing the wood débris on the breaking spot, General Eblé himself stood watching the construction of the trestles with wood of his own choice. General Lauriston asked to be conducted to him and he remained with him until the three trestles were ready, and both together went on their way, forcing the mounting crowd to stand by. After four hours of intense activity, communication was restored at six in the morning.”

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.

(27th November) Main crossing of French-Allied Army

Most of what remained of the Grande Armée crossed to the western (right) bank of the river on 27th November. The crossing was reasonable orderly at first, but became increasingly clogged and disordered as the day went on, particularly as the stragglers began to arrive. Captain François Dumonceau of the 2nd Regiment of Chevau-légers lanciers (Red (Dutch) Lancers) noted:

Part of the Berezina Panorama
by Wojciech Kossak

“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 or to move aside to let us through. Detachments of pontonniers and gendarmerie, posted at various bridgeheads, struggled hard with the crowd to contain it and control its flow. This disordered multitude persisted in moving forward, and formed a confused tangle of men, horses and vehicles which increased in numbers all the time almost to suffocation-point, pushing up to the river where several were drowned—thus renewing in all their horror the appalling scenes of the various earlier passages, but this time on a much larger scale in relation to the extent of the ground…

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 pontonniers, 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.”

Brett-James, A (1966) 1812: Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, MacMillan and Company Limited, London. pp. 257–258.

(Night of 27th/28th November) Arrival of the stragglers

Berezina
by Peter Gess

“Until the 27th in the evening, there had been no overcrowding, because isolated men had come up in small numbers only. They arrived in crowds during the night between the 27th and 28th, bringing with them a large number of carriages and horses. Their disorderly march caused such congestion that the bridges could only be reached with endless difficulty and grave danger. General Eblé, as well as other generals and officers tried again and again, but in vain, to re-establish order. Their troops having freed themselves from the yoke of discipline could not be mustered. They were thoroughly depressed and dominated by selfishness.”

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.

Arriving at the bridges, this mass of stragglers settled itself at bivouac on the left bank of the river. Marbot was appalled at the lack of action by generals and staff in effecting a crossing on the night of 27th November.

At the Berezina
an unfinished painting
by Vasily Vereshagin

“…much has been said of the disasters which took place at the Berezina but what has never yet been said is, that the greater part of them might have been saved if the headquarters staff had understood its duties better, and taken advantage of the night of 28th November [27th-28th November] to get all the baggage and, still more, the thousands of straggles who next day blocked the way across the bridges.”

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. 156–157

(Night of 27th November) New life

New life was coming into the world, amidst all the death and suffering. Louise, a pregnant cantinière gave birth that night. Sergeant Bertrand describes:

“The entire regiment was deeply moved and did what it could to assist this unfortunate woman who was without food and without shelter under this sky of ice. Our Colonel Romme set the example. Our surgeons, who had none of their ambulance  equipment, abandoned in Smolensk for lack of horses, were given shirts, kerchiefs and anything people could come up with. I had noticed Marshal Victor’s artillery park not far away and ran over to it, purloining a blanket thrown over the back of one of the horses. I rushed back as fast as I could to bring it to Louise. I had committed a sin, but I knew God would forgive me on account of my motive. I got there just at the moment when our cantinière was bringing into the world, under an old oak tree, a healthy male child, whom I was to encounter in 1818 as a child soldier in the Legion of Aube.”

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. 157–158

Sources:
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.

Brett-James, A (1966) 1812: Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia. MacMillan and Company Limited, London. 312 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. 284 pp.

Mikaberidze, A (2012) Russian Eyewitness Accounts of the Campaign of 1812. Frontline Books (an imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd), Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. 261 pp.

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

Camp at Studianka

Faber du Faur painted the scene on the bank of the Berezina where the army waited to cross.

Camp at Studianka,
26 November
by Faber du Faur
Note the building being dismantled in the background

Camp at Studianka, 26 November
“We left our camp at Nimanitschi before dawn on the 26th and marched for Borisov with the rest of the army; Borisov had fallen to Chichagov on the 23rd but had been recaptured by the Duke of Reggio [Nicolas Oudinot] on the 24th.  Night had falled by the time we reached the town.  We then followed the river for two leagues, the glow of the Russian campfires on the right bank helping us in our progress.  When day broke our march was masked by a forest of pines.  Firing could be heard but it seemed distant and muffled; however, it grew louder that afternoon.  It was Oudinot, who, with II Corps, had crossed the river and was pushing Chichagov back towards Borisov.”

“We reached Studianka, which lies at the foot of some heights, that evening.  The heights had guns positioned on them to defend the bridges that had been thrown across the river by General Eblé on the morning of the 26th.  The bridge on the right was designed for infantry and cavalry whilst that a little further downstream was intended for artillery and all kinds of other vehicles.”

“The river itself is quite wide, with marshy banks, and is about six feet deep.  There were ramps serving as approaches to the bridges, but these were partially flooded as the water level had risen recently.  Wood from the village had been used to build the bridges, and what remained had largely been consumed in the campfires.  What little was left served as our shelter that night whilst we waited to cross the river.  The place was so crowded that we thought ourselves lucky to find shelter from the glacial winds against the walls of a hut and next to the headquarters of the French gendarmes.”

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

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.

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