Tag Archives: cold

“Let Me See My Family Again For One Hour!”

December 8 and 9, 1812 were the coldest of the retreat.  Accounts of this time detail the misery of those who had struggled on so far as the cold reached new depths.  The goal was to reach Vilna with its supposed stocked warehouses and shelter from the cold.  But the men were wary, having experienced the disappointment of Smolensk when the stores and shelter there were inadequate.

Retreat Scene from Russian-French Warby Bogdan Willewalde

Retreat Scene from Russian-French War
by Bogdan Willewalde

Lieutenant Albrecht von Muraldt wrote about how his companions were reacting: “Some wept and whimpered.  Others, totally stupefied, didn’t utter a sound.  Many behaved like lunatics, especially at the sign of a rousing fire or when, after starving for several days, they got something to eat.  Only very few indeed were still themselves.”

Surgeon-General Dominique Jean Larrey wrote about the effects of the cold on the starving men: “The muscular action became noticeably weaker. Individuals staggered like drunken men.  Their weakness grew progressively until the subject fell – a sure sign that life was totally extinct.”  Men who couldn’t keep up had to get to the side of the road, where, lacking the support of their comrades, would fall.  “Instantly they were stricken by a painful stupor, from which they went into a state of lethargic stupor, and in a few moments they’d ended their painful existence.  Often, before death, there was an involuntary emission of urine.”

Alexander Bellot de Kergorre wrote: “The habit of seeing them grow weaker enabled us to predict the moment when an individual would fall down and die.  As soon as a man began to totter you could be sure he was lost.  Still he went on a little way, as if drunk, his body still leaning forward.  Then he fell on his face.  A few drops of blood oozed from his nose.  And he expired.  In the same instant his limbs became like bars of iron.”

Dead in the Snowby Ferdinand Boissard

Dead in the Snow
by Ferdinand Boissard

As the temperature only a few miles from Vilna drops to -28° Réaumur (-35° C, -31° F),  Major C.F.M. Le Roy says the following prayer: “My God, I who find such happiness in living and admiring your beautiful sun, accord me the mercy of once again being warmed by him and not leaving my wretched remains in this barbarous icy country!  Let me see my family again for one hour!  Only one hour!  I’ll die content.  I’ve never asked anything of you, God, as you know!  I’ve only thanked you in all circumstances, happy or unhappy, as they’ve befallen me.  But this one’s beyond my strength, and if you don’t come to my aid I’m going to succumb under its weight.”

Source:
1812: The Great Retreat, Paul Britten Austin, pp 361 – 364

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“The Most Terrible Day of my Life”

General Armand de Caulaincourt wrote about Napoleon’s arrival in Kovno on December 7, 1812: “I never remember such cold as we suffered from between

Lancers of the Guard Escorting Napoleon

Lancers of the Guard Escorting Napoleon

Vilna and Kovno.  The thermometer had passed twenty degrees.  Although the Emperor was wrapped in wool and covered with a good fur, with his legs in fur boots and then inside a bearskin bag, he complained so much that I had to cover him with half my bearskin rug.  Our breath froze on our lips, our eyebrows, and round our eyelids. All the cloth in the carriage, and particularly the hood where our breath rose, was white and hard.  When we reached Kovno, the Emperor was shivering; one would have thought he had an attack of the ague.”

Retreat - Snow - rider leaving his horse behindGeneral Count Wilhelm Hochberg, commander of a unit of IX Corps wrote of the 7th: “The most terrible day of my life.  There were 30 degrees of frost.  I could only assemble 50 of my men; the others, 200 to 300 of them, lay on the ground, frozen.  The last remains of IX Corps were annihilated.  Doumerc’s cavalry, which had made up the extreme rearguard, was destroyed, it too, during that unhappy night of 6/7 December.”

Sources:
1812 Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, Compiled, edited and translated by Antony Brett-James, p 267

1812: The Great Retreat, Paul Britten Austin, pp .55 – 356

“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

 

“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

“The Replacements Met the Same Fate”

In contrast to his upbeat account of December 2, Faber du Faur told about the fate of the replacement soldiers who were sent to join the retreating army.

Near Smorgoni, 3 Decemberby Faber du Faur

Near Smorgoni, 3 December
by Faber du Faur

Near Smorgoni, 3 December
During the first few days of December the cold increased tremendously and the dissolution of the army was almost completed.  Those few detachments that had crossed the Beresina in good order now dissolved, and the roads we moved on were, more and more, covered with the corpses of men and horses, victims of hunger, exhaustion and, above all, the deadly cold.  The sick and the dying were soon stripped of their clothing by those that followed behind and buried under the snow.  Smolensk had been our great hope but now it was Vilna.  There we hoped to find enough to satisfy our needs and protection afforded by the numerous troops of the garrison.  Vilna would be our winter quarters.  We were prepared to sacrifice our last drop of energy to reach Vilna.”

We arrived at Smorgoni at noon on the 3rd.  There we met 1,600 replacements for our division, waiting patiently for us in this small town.  But the division was no more and, before long, the replacements met the same fate.  Assigned to the rearguard, they soon vanished after a couple of nights in the cold.  Those few who survived were in a pitiful condition by the time we reached Vilna, and we now saw what would befall any such reserves attempting to join us.”

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

On the Right Bank of the Beresina

The crossing of the Berezina was such a tragic event, that Faber du Faur created four paintings and descriptions to record the drama.  Two of the paintings were dated for November 27, 1812.

On the Right Bank of the Beresina,
27 November
by Faber du Faur

On the Right Bank of the Beresina, 27 November
“At two in the morning of the 27th the Guard and III corps, including the 25th Division – which, from six regiments of infantry, four cavalry regiments and 1,000 artillerymen, could now scarcely muster 150 men and no guns – broke camp and crossed the bridges to the right bank.  All those officers who no longer had men to command followed this movement five hours later.  This was a signal for the masses of fugitives camped on the left bank to throw themselves towards the bridges.  Dawn saw a confused crowd of men, horses and vehicles pour down towards the bridges, almost as though they were attempting to carry them by assault.  Although the enemy was still some distance off, the situation was frightening and the horror of it all was augmented by orders given to the gendarmes and pontonniers not to let anyone pass but armed men or those in formation.  All others were pushed back into the crowd, most often by force, and hundreds were crushed underfoot or thrust into the water.  Even those who were granted permission to cross the bridges were not entirely out of danger.  If they managed to negotiate the slippery ramps they were lucky, but, from there onwards, if they chanced to slip they would certainly be trampled underfoot or pushed into the icy waters of the Beresina.”

“In the midst of the confusion stood the Emperor.  He was close by the riverbank, between the two bridges, and he sought to exert some measure of order over the chaos around him.  He oversaw the crossing until the evening when, with his suite, he himself made his way to the right bank and established his headquarters in the hamlet of Zaniviki.”

“The majority of our men camped as soon as they got to the right bank.  Ignoring everything around them, they thought of nothing but lighting a fire, cooking and warming themselves.  Cruel fate!  The gusts of snow were so violent that night that it was almost impossible to keep a fire burning.  We ourselves had just managed to melt a little snow for drinking water when IX Corps arrived, hustled us out of our camp and obliged us to seek shelter further on.”

Camp on the Right Bank of the Beresina,
27 November
by Faber du Faur

Camp on the Right Bank of the Beresina, 27 November
“Forced to abandon our fire, we wandered off in the direction of Zaniviki.  We arrived there in the pitch dark with thick snow everywhere.  Imperial Headquarters was based here, as was the Guard and a mass of troops and stragglers attracted by the glow of campfires.  All the houses were occupied, and it was only after considerable effort, and some hard searching, that we found a house occupied by our staff, officers and soldiers.  We had to obtain some wood at gunpoint to feed our fire, and we settled down for the night in the deep snow.  There was no food.  Soon fighting broke out – not, as one might expect, for room inside the houses but for the houses themselves: the soldiers, maddened by the cold, had clambered onto the roofs and started to demolish the houses for wood.  The occupiers fought vainly to prevent this but, by the following morning, Zaniviki had disappeared, consumed by countless campfires.”

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

“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