Tag Archives: Cavalry

Scenes of Moscow by Albrecht Adam

Albrecht Adam was a civilian attached to the topographical staff of Prince Eugène, commander of IV Corps and Napoleon’s step/adopted son.  Today’s post shows three paintings he dated 20 September 1812 along with their accompanying description.

The French Army Before Moscow
20 September 1812
by Albrecht Adam

The French Army Before Moscow
“Here was the army camped a few miles before Moscow, so hopeful that the trials and tribulations were now at an end and that respite awaited them in the capital.  This camp was perhaps the last one the French army would enjoy and it is characterised by its military bearing.  Despite being exhausted, weakened by forced marches and reduced to half of its effectives by combat, it was still a great army commanded by a great captain and one which had braved all the obstacles the Russian terrain and climate could present.  But once it reached Moscow its fate was sealed.  Looking at this scene, which of us cannot prevent the sad reflection from escaping his lips that ‘those legions of heroes no longer exist'”

Moscow
20 September 1812
by Albrecht Adam

Moscow
“On this day large parts of Moscow were nothing more than smouldering ruins.  The dye was cast, fortune was reversed and here it was that providence put an end to the glories hitherto enjoyed by the French army.”

“The soldiers were depressed having to deal with nothing but woe and were prey to dark presentiments.  Having been exhausted by forced marches, afflicted by all manner of privation and particularly by the lack of food, and deprived of clothing which might resist the rigours of bad weather, very few of them were in any condition to even consider what lay in store for them.  Soon they would succumb, unfortunates, to the terrible storm which would be unleashed upon them.”

“On 20 and 21 September elements of the army began to move into the city from Peterskoi where Napoleon had stayed whilst the fire ravaged the city.  A few sentries were posted here and there among the smoking cinders, all that remained of this fine imperial city, whilst bands of unfortunate men sought shelter in vain.  Others, motivated by abject want, searched high and low for food but there were also others, inspired by greed, who sought to acquire booty even though it could little benefit them in such desperate circumstances.  Everyone was in a state of confused desperation and none really knew what they were looking for.”

Moscow
20 September 1812
by Albrecht Adam

Moscow
“The effect the destruction of Moscow had on individual soldiers was, of course, diverse, and it offered an attentive observer a rich variety of subjects to study.  On the whole, the vast majority were overcome by discouragement, partly induced by the long ordeal they had been through and by the fact that they had seen all their hopes for a better future, and for an end to their sufferings, go up in smoke.”

“Some of the more reflective soldiers were absorbed by sombre contemplation of what might now come to pass.  Those of a more insensitive nature allowed themselves the liberty to do as they pleased and to profit from the opportunity.  Discipline, so vital for the working of such a vast host, was gone and violence and selfishness overcame order.  True, a mass of provisions had been found in Moscow but the disorder which reigned in the city put paid to any attempt to distribute such supplies fairly.  Everyone, by guile or by force, sought to get his hands on anything which might prove useful.”

“So it was that one day, whilst passing through the ruins, I came across a body of drunken cavalrymen dragging along with them whatever they could carry and shouting at teach other to hurry up.  One of them was riding a horse carrying a basket loaded with bottles and supplies.  He was so completely drunk that he tottered this way and that until his horse made a sharp movement, sending the man sprawling on the floor along with his booty.  His comrades laughed heartily, drunk as they were, at the scene.”

Source:

Napoleon’s Army in Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Albrecht Adam, 1812, edited by Jonathan North

Foraging

The swift moving Grande Armée quickly outran the supply train making it necessary for the army to forage.  This was part of the plan and the cavalry had even been issued scythes so they could harvest grain for their horses as they went along.  Each man carried four days of provisions as he crossed the Nieman River into Russia.

From The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier by Jakob Walter

Jakob Walter describes how he was part of a foraging party in late July along the Dvina River in the area of Polotsk.  (Polotsk was to the north-west of Vitebsk, also along the Dvina River, where the battle described in yesterday’s post took place).  Walter writes about his foraging expedition, “There were eight of us, and we came to a very distant village.  Here we searched all the houses.  There were no peasants left…  each [soldier] ran into a house alone, broke open everything that was covered, and searched all the floors and still nothing was found…  I once more inspected a little hut somewhat removed from the village.  Around it from top to bottom were heaped bundles of hemp and shives, which I tore down; and, as I worked my way to the ground, sacks full of flour appeared.”  They sifted the flour to remove the chaff and refilled the sacks.  Walter remembered seeing a horse somewhere in the village.  They found two colts, but one couldn’t be used.  Two sacks were placed on the remaining horse and they started back to camp.  “While we were marching there, the Russians saw us from a distance with this booty; and at the same moment we saw a troop of peasants in the valley, about fifty.  These ran toward us.  What could we do but shoot at them?  I, however, led the horse, and a second man held the sacks while the rest fired, one after another, so that the peasants divided in order not to be hit so easily; but they could not take the sacks away from us.”

They came to a deep stream with only a round tree trunk laid across as a bridge.  Walter volunteered to carry the sacks across and suggested they throw the horse into the water.  Walter made it across with his sacks, quite a feat he said, on a log without handrails.  The horse was driven across by throwing stones at it and then re-loaded on the far bank.

They made dough balls with the flour and roasted it in the fire.  The food lasted for a week.

About the same time, at Vitebsk, Sgt. Bourgogne had an easier time getting his provisions.  He was visited by twelve young men from his “country” (Conde in northern France on the border of Belgium).  Ten were drummers, one a drum-major and the other a voltigeur.  They invited him to “…come with us and share what we have, wine, gin, and other things very good for you.  We took them yesterday evening from the Russian General.  There was a little cart holding his kitchen and everything belonging to it.  We have put it all into the canteen cart, with Florencia our cantiniere – she is a pretty Spandiard.”

Sgt. Bourgogne ends this episode with a sad note, “The poor fellows little thought that in a few days eleven of them would not be alive.”  These events took place at the end of July.  The drummers were killed at the Battle of Borodino in September.

Sergeant Bourgogne’s Eyewitness Account

Adrien Bourgogne, a sergeant with the Imperial Guard, wrote an account of his experiences in the Russian Campaign.  Compared to his memoirs as a whole, the advance into Russia is a very small part of the book.  He does, however, describe in detail an encounter soon after his unit arrived in Vitebsk on July 27, 1812.

“We took up our position on a height above the town.  The enemy occupied hills to right and left.

The cavalry, commanded by Murat, had already made several charges.  Just as we arrived we saw 200 Voltigeurs of the 9th Regiment, who had ventured too far, met by a portion of the Russian cavalry, which had just been repulsed. Unless help arrived speedily to our men, they were lost, as the river and some deep gullies made access to them very difficult  But they were commanded by gallant officers, who swore, as did also the men, to kill themselves rather than not come honoroubly out of it.  Fighting as they went, they reached a piece of favourable ground.  They formed a square, and having been under fire before, their nerves were not shaken by the number of the enemy.  They were quite surrounded, however, by a regiment of lancers and other horse trying in vain to cut through them, and soon they had a rampart of killed and wounded all around them, both of men and horses.  This formed another obstacle for the Russians, who, terrified, fled in disorder, amid cries of joy from the whole army.”

After this engagement, “The Emperor at once sent for the most distinguised, and decorated them with the order of the Legion of Honour.”

Foraging

The swift moving Grande Armée quickly outran the supply train making it necessary for the army to forage.  This was part of the plan and the cavalry had even been issued scythes so they could harvest grain for their horses as they went along.  Each man carried four days of provisions as he crossed the Nieman River into Russia.

From The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier by Jakob Walter

Jakob Walter describes how he was part of a foraging party in late July along the Dvina River in the area of Polotsk.  (Polotsk was to the north-west of Vitebsk, also along the Dvina River, where the battle described in yesterday’s post took place).  Walter writes about his foraging expedition, “There were eight of us, and we came to a very distant village.  Here we searched all the houses.  There were no peasants left…  each [soldier] ran into a house alone, broke open everything that was covered, and searched all the floors and still nothing was found…  I once more inspected a little hut somewhat removed from the village.  Around it from top to bottom were heaped bundles of hemp and shives, which I tore down; and, as I worked my way to the ground, sacks full of flour appeared.”  They sifted the flour to remove the chaff and refilled the sacks.  Walter remembered seeing a horse somewhere in the village.  They found two colts, but one couldn’t be used.  Two sacks were placed on the remaining horse and they started back to camp.  “While we were marching there, the Russians saw us from a distance with this booty; and at the same moment we saw a troop of peasants in the valley, about fifty.  These ran toward us.  What could we do but shoot at them?  I, however, led the horse, and a second man held the sacks while the rest fired, one after another, so that the peasants divided in order not to be hit so easily; but they could not take the sacks away from us.”

They came to a deep stream with only a round tree trunk laid across as a bridge.  Walter volunteered to carry the sacks across and suggested they throw the horse into the water.  Walter made it across with his sacks, quite a feat he said, on a log without handrails.  The horse was driven across by throwing stones at it and then re-loaded on the far bank.

They made dough balls with the flour and roasted it in the fire.  The food lasted for a week.

About the same time, at Vitebsk, Sgt. Bourgogne had an easier time getting his provisions.  He was visited by twelve young men from his “country” (Conde in northern France on the border of Belgium).  Ten were drummers, one a drum-major and the other a voltigeur.  They invited him to “…come with us and share what we have, wine, gin, and other things very good for you.  We took them yesterday evening from the Russian General.  There was a little cart holding his kitchen and everything belonging to it.  We have put it all into the canteen cart, with Florencia our cantiniere – she is a pretty Spandiard.”

Sgt. Bourgogne ends this episode with a sad note, “The poor fellows little thought that in a few days eleven of them would not be alive.”  These events took place at the end of July.  The drummers were killed at the Battle of Borodino in September.

Sergeant Bourgogne’s Eyewitness Account

Adrien Bourgogne, a sergeant with the Imperial Guard, wrote an account of his experiences in the Russian Campaign.  Compared to his memoirs as a whole, the advance into Russia is a very small part of the book.  He does, however, describe in detail an encounter soon after his unit arrived in Vitebsk on July 27, 1812.

“We took up our position on a height above the town.  The enemy occupied hills to right and left.

The cavalry, commanded by Murat, had already made several charges.  Just as we arrived we saw 200 Voltigeurs of the 9th Regiment, who had ventured too far, met by a portion of the Russian cavalry, which had just been repulsed. Unless help arrived speedily to our men, they were lost, as the river and some deep gullies made access to them very difficult  But they were commanded by gallant officers, who swore, as did also the men, to kill themselves rather than not come honoroubly out of it.  Fighting as they went, they reached a piece of favourable ground.  They formed a square, and having been under fire before, their nerves were not shaken by the number of the enemy.  They were quite surrounded, however, by a regiment of lancers and other horse trying in vain to cut through them, and soon they had a rampart of killed and wounded all around them, both of men and horses.  This formed another obstacle for the Russians, who, terrified, fled in disorder, amid cries of joy from the whole army.”

After this engagement, “The Emperor at once sent for the most distinguised, and decorated them with the order of the Legion of Honour.”