Tag Archives: Colonel Griois

The Bravest of the Brave!

At 1 am on the morning of November 20, 1812, Ney’s re-united Corps burned the village where they had spent the night and resumed their march.  Ney sent ahead a Polish officer towards Orsha to let the army know of his position and situation.  We continue with Colonel Fezensac’s narrative, “The fatigue of the preceding day, joined with the circumstance of my boots being filled with water, brought back all the sufferings I had before experienced.”

Marshal Ney Supporting the Rear Guard
During the Retreat from Moscow
by Adolphe Yvon

Leaning on the arm of a young officer, Fezensac and the others marched without opposition until daylight when the Cossacks arrived with the sun.  “Platov, profiting by the ground directed his field pieces, mounted on sledges, to advance against us; and when this artillery, which we could neither get at nor avoid, had carried disorder into our ranks, he ordered a charge by his whole body.  Marshal Ney formed each of his two divisions rapidly into square…  We obliged by main force every straggler who still carried a musket to fall into the ranks.  The Cossacks, who were held feebly in check by our skirmishers, and who drove before them a crowd of unarmed stragglers, endeavored to come up with our square…  Twenty times I saw them [the square] on the point of disbanding, and leaving us to the mercy of the Cossacks, but the presence of Marshal Ney, the confidence which he inspired, the calmness of his attitude in the moment of danger, still retained them in their duty.”

Before noon, the two divisions occupied the village of Teolino and Ney decided he would defend it until “nine in the evening.  Twenty times did General Platoff endeavor to wrest it from us; twenty times was he repulsed…”

“At nine in the evening we stood to our arms, and continued our march in the greatest silence.  The several parties of Cossacks posted on our road fell back at our approach, and our march was performed in the greatest order.  At a league from Orsha our advanced guard challenged an outpost, and was answered in French…  A man should be three days between life and death, to understand all the joy we experienced at meeting them.”

Napoleon had ordered Davout and Prince Eugène to wait for Ney at Orsha.  They sent scouts back along the Smolensk road.  Colonel Lubin Griois was enjoying a rare night with provisions and shelter when word came back that Ney was in danger, “Nothing less than this motive, was needed to make us, without regret, turn back in the middle of the night and in a very sharp cold mount the Dnieper again without even knowing how far we’d have to go.”

Cesare de Laugier wrote that, “Ney and Eugène were the first to meet, and threw themselves into each other’s arms.  At this sight everyone broke ranks.  Without recognizing each other, everyone embraced everyone else.”  Of the 6,000 armed men who left Smolensk with IIIrd Corps, only 900 remain.

News of Ney’s escape spread quickly.  Napoleon bestowed the title “Bravest of the Brave” on Ney.  Armand de Caulaincourt wrote, “Now officers, soldiers, everyone was sure we could snap our fingers at misfortune, that Frenchmen were invincible!”

Sources:
A Journal of the Russian Campaign of 1812, Translated from the French of Lt. General De Fezensac by Colonel W. Knollys, pp 119 – 122

1812: The Great Retreat, Paul Britten Austin, pp 203 – 204

Napoleon in Russia, Alan Palmer, p 229

Snow Comes to Stay

While it had snowed a few times since the occupation of Moscow, it had always melted away.  November 6, 1812 is the first snowfall that stays.

A Scene of the Retreat from Russia

Philippe-Paul de Ségur describes the first snowstorm, “On the sixth of November the sky became terrible; its blue disappeared.  The army marched along wrapped in a cold mist.  Then the mist thickened, and presently from this immense cloud great snowflakes began to sift down on us.  It seemed as if the sky had come down and joined with the earth and our enemies to complete our ruin.  Everything in sight became vague, unrecognizable.  Objects changed their shape; we walked without knowing where we were or what lay ahead, and anything became an obstacle.  While the men were struggling to make headway against the icy, cutting blast, the snow driven by the wind was piling up and filling the hollows along the way.  Their smooth surfaces hid unsuspected depths which opened up treacherously under our feet.  The men were swallowed up, and the weak, unable to struggle out, were buried forever.”

“Russian winter in this new guise attacked [the soldiers] on all sides; it cut through their thin uniforms and worn shoes, their wet clothing froze on them, and this icy shroud molded their bodies and stiffened their limbs.  The sharp wind made them gasp for breath, and froze the moisture from their mouths and nostrils into icicles on their beards.”

Colonel Lubin Griois, commander of the artillery in the 3rd cavalry corps recorded how he spent the night of the first snow: “The only shelter near the place I had halted in was a sort of barn open to all the winds and its roof supported by four posts.  This lodging seemed to me excellent by comparison with those I had had for a long time past.  I had a large fire built in the centre and lay down to sleep beside it, surrounded by my horses.  But during the night snow began to fall heavily, and the wind blew it under the roof with such force that when I woke up at daybreak I was covered in snow, as was the whole landscape. The snow had hardened and was all frozen.  Winter had fallen on us with full severity and was not going to leave us.”

Source:
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 169-170

1812: Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, Antony Brett-James, p 220

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

A Lost Glove and the Essence of this Blog

While reading Paul Britten Austin’s 1812: Napoleon in Moscow, I came across an eyewitness account that is the epitome of what this blog is about.  Each person who was an eyewitness to the invasion has his own story.  Each had to deal with the weather, the food situation, his clothing, personal injuries or illnesses, where he would sleep, the lack of sleep and so on.  Sometimes, it is easy to overlook these mundane, yet critical situations everyone had to confront while participating in the grand strategy.  This blog talks very little about the big picture, but instead focuses on the human element and what it was like to be on the campaign of 1812 regardless of rank.

Episode of the war of 1812
by Illarion Pryanishnikov, 1874

Without further ado, here is the account of Colonel Lubin Griois, colonel of the horse artillery, 3rd Cavalry Corps.  Not all members of the Grande Armée spent the occupation inside of Moscow.  Griois was southwest of the city, near Winkovo when he dropped his glove “… and neither I nor my orderly had been able to get it back out of the mud my horse’s foot had trampled it into.  This loss, so light in any other circumstance, was for me a very cruel one.  I would have no chance to make it good, and throughout the retreat I’d only have one glove.  I remember, too, that by a sort of superstitious presentiment I regarded being unable to find this object I’d just seen fall at my horse’s feet as a nasty augury of what was to come.”

While he was digging through the mud for his lost glove, the Colonel wasn’t thinking about his command or how Napoleon’s attempts to make peace with Alexander were going – he was worried about how he was going to keep his hand warm in the coming months.

Source:
1812: Napoleon in Moscow, Paul Britten Austin, pp. 79-80.

Action Outside of Viasma and Winter Arrives

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.

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.

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.  Throughout the night there were artillery duels which caused the French take up their arms, but no attacks came.  Viasma, however, caught fire and burned.

Napoleon was 45 miles ahead to the west when he received word of the action.  Ney and his 3rd 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 travelled.

Davout’s corps had left Moscow with 30,000 men and was now down to 15,000.  That night, the first snow fell.

Colonel Griois, commander of the artillery in the 3rd cavalry corps recorded how he spent the night of the first snow: “The only shelter near the place I had halted in was a sort of barn open to all the winds and its roof supported by four posts.  This lodging seemed to me excellent by comparison with those I had had for a long time past.  I had a large fire built in the centre and lay down to sleep beside it, surrounded by my horses.  But during the night snow began to fall heavily, and the wind blew it under the roof with such force that when I woke up at daybreak I was covered in snow, as was the whole landscape. The snow had hardened and was all frozen.  Winter had fallen on us with full severity and was not going to leave us.”