Tag Archives: Cossacks

“Tears Ran Down Their Cheeks”

Partizans in Ambush

Partizans in Ambush
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

Sergeant Adrien Bourgogne‘s memoirs tell of his narrow escape from some Cossacks around this time [Approximately December 13, his narrative doesn’t use many dates](He was alone in the woods and three Cossacks were closing in on him when nearby gunfire frightened their tethered horses and they had to rush off to retrieve them).  Now alone in the woods, “… I felt it would be impossible to walk further without changing my clothes.  It may be remembered that in a portmanteau found on the mountain of Ponari I had some shirts and white cotton breeches – clothes belonging to an army commissary.  Having opened my knapsack, I drew out a shirt, and hung it on my musket; then the breeches, which I placed beside me on the tree.  I took off my jacket, an overcoat, and my waistcoat with the quilted yellow silk sleeves that I had made out of a Russian lady’s skirt at Moscow.  I untied the shawl which was wrapped round my body, and my trousers fell about my heels.  As for my shirt, I had not the trouble of taking it off, for it had neither back nor front; I pulled it off in shreds.  And there I was, naked, except for a pair of wretched boots, in the midst of a wild forest at four o’clock in the afternoon, with eighteen to twenty degrees of cold, for the north wind had begun to blow hard again.”

“On looking at my emaciated body, dirty, and consumed with vermin, I could not restrain my tears.  At last, summoning the little strength that remained, I set about my toilet.  With snow and the rags of my old shirt I washed myself to the best of my power.  Then I drew on my new shirt of fine longcloth, embroidered down the front.  I got into the little calico breeches as quickly as I could, but I found them so short that even my knees were not covered, and my boots only reaching half-way up my leg, all this part was bare.  Finally, I put on my yellow silk waistcoat, my riding-jacket, my overcoat, over this my belts and collar; and there I was, completely attired, except for my legs.”

On the 13th of December, 1812, the Grande Armée reached Kovno at the edge of the Russian empire.  Philippe-Paul de Ségur described the scene: “After a final crucifying march of forty-six hours, they found themselves again on friendly soil.  Immediately, without pausing, without casting a glance behind them, the majority of the men dispersed and plunged into the forests of Polish Russia.  But some did turn around when they reached the other side of the river, and look back on the land of suffering from which they were escaping.  It is said that when they found themselves on the very spot from which, five months before, their innumerable eagles had victoriously set out, tears ran down their cheeks and groans broke from their chests.”

“Here were the same valleys down which had poured those three long columns… [Now] The Niemen was just a long mass of blocks of ice piled up and welded together by a breath of winter.  In place of the three French bridges brought fifteen hundred miles and erected with such daring speed, there was only one Russian bridge.  Instead of the four hundred thousand companions…  [the only ones left were] one thousand foot soldiers and troopers still armed, nine cannon, and twenty thousand beings clothed in rags, with bowed heads, dull eyes, ashy, cadaverous faces, and long ice-stiffened beards.  Some of them were fighting in silence for the right to cross the bridge which, despite their reduced number, was still too narrow to accommodate their precipitous flight.  Others had rushed down the bank and were struggling across the river, crawling from one jagged cake of ice to another.  And this was the Grand Army!”

Marshal Ney in Action

Marshal Ney in Action

“Two kings, one prince, eight marshals, followed by several generals afoot and unattended, then a few hundred of the Old Guard still bearing arms, were all that remained of the original host.  It might be said, though, that it lived on incarnate in the person of Marshal Ney.  Friends, allies, enemies – I call on you to witness! Let us render the homage that is due to the memory of this unfortunate hero … In Kovno he found a company of artillery, three hundred Germans belonging to

Jean Gabriel Marchand

Jean Gabriel Marchand

the garrison, and General [Jean Gabriel] Marchand with four hundred armed men, of whom he took command.  His first act was to scour the city looking for possible reinforcements.  All he found were the wounded who were making a pitiful attempt to keep up with our wild flight.  For the eighth time since leaving Moscow he had to abandon them in a body in the hospitals, as he had abandoned them individually along the road, on the battlefields, and around all the campfires.”

“Several thousand French soldiers were crowded together in the great square… but these were stretched out cold and stiff in front of the brandy shops which they had broken open, and in which they had imbibed death, instead of the life they had hoped to find.  Here was the only relief that Murat had left him!  So Ney found himself alone in Russia at the head of seven hundred foreign recruits.  At Kovno, as at Vilna, the honor of our arms and the dangers of the last retreat were committed to his care, and he accepted them.”

Sources:
Sergeant Bourgogne: With Napoleon’s Imperial Guard in the Russian Campaign and on the Retreat from Moscow 1812-13, Adrien Bourgogne, pp 251 – 252

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 280 – 282

Commemorative 1912 Russian Candy Box Card image and translation provided by Alexey Temnikov

“Everything that Could be of use Became a Hindrance.”

Philippe-Paul de Ségur described the abandonment of Vilna on the 10th of December.  He contended that Vilna cost the army twenty thousand men and many of these could have been saved had the city been held twenty-four hours longer.  But Marshal Murat panicked when the Cossacks appeared and the city was hastily abandoned.

Platov Cossacks

Platov Cossacks
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

Here is Ségur’s description of the events: “On the tenth of December, Ney, who had voluntarily taken command of the rear guard, left the city, and immediately Platov’s Cossacks overran it, massacring the unfortunate wretches whom [were thrown]… into the streets as they passed by…”

“This city contained a great part of the equipment and the treasury of the army, its supplies, a number of immense covered wagons with the Emperor’s possessions, much artillery, and a great many wounded men.  Our sudden appearance had fallen like a thunderbolt on those in charge of all this.  Some were galvanized into action by terror, others were paralyzed by consternation.  Out of it came orders and counterorders of all sorts, and men, horses, and vehicles became tangled in an inextricable jam.”

“In the midst of this chaos several officers succeeded in getting as much as could be set in motion, out if town and on the road to Kovno.  But when this bewildered, heavily loaded column had gone about two miles they were stopped by the hill and narrow pass of Ponari.”

Retreat - General disorder and fighting“In our conquering march eastward this wooded knoll had seemed to our hussars little more than a slight irregularity in the earth’s surface from the top of which the entire plain of Vilna could be seen, and the strength of the enemy estimated.  In truth, its steep but short slope had hardly been noticed.  In a regular retreat it would have been an excellent position for turning around and checking the enemy; but in a chaotic flight, where everything that could be of use became a hindrance, when in blind haste we turned everything against ourselves, this hill and defile were an unsurmountable obstacle, a wall of ice against which our best efforts were broken.  It stripped us of everything – supplies, treasury, booty, and wounded men.  This misfortune was serious enough to stand out above all our long succession of disasters; for it was here that the little money, honor, discipline, and strength remaining to us were irrevocably lost.”

“When, after fifteen hours of fruitless struggle, the drivers and soldiers forming the escort [of the wagons carrying the booty] saw Murat and the column of fugitives go past them on the hillside…  they no longer thought of saving anything, but only of forestalling the avidity of the foe by pillaging themselves.”

Retreat Scene from the Russian-French War of 1812by Bogdan Willewalde

Retreat Scene from the Russian-French War of 1812
by Bogdan Willewalde

“The bursting of a wagon carrying loot from Moscow acted as a signal.  Everybody fell upon the other wagons, broke them open, and seized the most valuable objects.  The soldiers of the rear guard coming upon this confusion, threw down their arms and loaded themselves with plunder.  So furiously intent were they on this that they failed to heed the whistling bullets or the shrieks of the Cossacks who were pursuing them.  It is said that the Cossacks mingled with them without being noticed.  For a few minutes Europeans and Tartars, friends and foes, were united in a common lust for gain.  Frenchmen and Russians were seen side by side, all war forgotten, plundering the same wagon. Ten million francs in gold and silver rapidly disappeared!”

“But along with these horrors, acts of noble devotion were noticed.  There were men that day who forsook everything to carry off the wounded on their backs; others, unable to get their half-frozen companions out of the struggle, perished in defending them from the brutality of their fellow soldiers and the blows of the enemy.”

“On the most exposed spot of the hill a colonel of the Emperor’s staff, Count de Turenne, held the Cossacks at bay, disregarding their wild shots, while he distributed Napoleon’s personal treasury among the guards who stood within sight and hearing.  These brave men, fighting with one hand and holding the riches of their leader in the other, succeeded in saving all of it.  Long afterward, when we were out of danger, each one returned the amount that had been entrusted to him: not a single gold coin was lost.”

“The catastrophe at Ponari was all the more shameful as it could have been easily foreseen, and even more easily avoided; for it was possible to pass around the hill on either side.  Our debris served at least one purpose – to stop the Cossacks.”

Source:
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 275 – 278

Commemorative 1912 Russian card image and translation provided by Alexey Temnikov

“The Frightened Inhabitants Bolted Their Doors”

Faber du Faur continues with his narrative of the arrival of the army at Vilna: “On the 9th the bulk of the army, some 40,000 desperate men, arrived before Vilna in a state of the most abject confusion.  Pursued by Russian columns, they threw themselves into the town, although thousands were crushed to death at the gates.  Just as at the Beresina, a crowd of deranged, desperate individuals, trampling the dying underfoot, stormed forward in an attempt to get into the safety of the town’s streets.  The frightened inhabitants bolted their doors and refused entry to anyone.  It was a heart-rending sight to see the crowd of unfortunates  covered in rags, supplicating in the streets as the temperature dropped to 28 degrees.  In vain did they seek shelter; even the magazines were closed to them as written permission was required to enter therein.  Nor was there any room in the hospitals and barracks: these had long been filled to the brim, their long corridors and fire-less rooms choked with the dead and dying and presenting a picture of utter horror.”

French Army in the Town Hall Square of Vilnius, Lithuania

French Army in the Town Hall Square of Vilnius, Lithuania

“The Jews behaved badly towards us.  Whilst the Allied army had still been present in force, they came and offered their services and goods and even invited individuals into their houses.  However, as soon as news of the Russian approach was received they threw Allied troops out into the cold streets, thereby seeking to ingratiate themselves in the eyes of the victors.”

“Amidst all the scenes of horror and destruction, the rumble of cannon was a timely reminder that we had to quit the town at once.  The Russians were attacking our rearguard, and no sooner had we left from one side of the town, on the 10th, than the Cossacks entered the other.  The Grande Armée resumed its march, heading towards Kovno.”

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

“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

“To Sleep is to Die”

General Armand de Caulaincourt with Napoleon’s staff wrote about the suffers of the stragglers on December 2nd.

Retreat from Russia

Retreat from Russia

“One constantly found men who, overcome by the cold, had been forced to drop out and had fallen to the ground, too weak or too numb to stand.  Ought one to help them along – which practically meant carrying them?  They begged one to let them alone.  There were bivouacs all along the road – ought one to take them to a camp-fire?  Once these poor wretches fell asleep, they were dead.  If they resisted the craving for sleep, another passer-by would help them along a little farther, thus prolonging their agony for a short

Night Bivouac

Night Bivouac

while but not saving them; for in this condition the drowsiness engendered by cold is irresistibly strong.  Sleep comes inevitably; and to sleep is to die.  I tried in vain to save a number of these unfortunates.  The only words they uttered were to beg me, for the love of God, to go away and let them sleep.  To hear them, one would have thought this sleep was their salvation. Unhappily, it was a poor wretch’s last wish; but at least he ceased to suffer, without pain or agony.  Gratitude, and even a smile, was imprinted on his discoloured lips.  What I have related about the effects of extreme cold, and of this kind of death by freezing, is based on what I saw happen to thousands of individuals.  The road was covered with their corpses.”

“The Emperor stopped for a little while at the crossing of the Villia, in the midst of a bodyguard and on an eminence overlooking a fairly wide reach of the road. I stood apart to watch the débris of our army file past.  It was from here that I saw what stragglers had reported for several days past, and what we had refused to believe.  Cossacks, tired of killing our stragglers, or of taking prisoners whom they were obliged to march to the rear, thus depriving themselves for a time of the chance of daily booty, were robbing everyone they came across.  They were taking their clothes, if they had decent ones, and sending them away practically naked.  I have seen cases in which they gave in exchange inferior clothing which they had taken from someone else, or from some poor wretch dead by the roadside.  Every one of these Cossacks had a pile of old clothes – some under their saddles like pads, others over them like cushions.  They never had ridden such high horses before.  I spoke with some of the unfortunate stragglers whom I had seen robbed quite near the bridge, and with others who had been stripped farther away.  They confirmed the particulars I have given, and added that the Cossacks, when no superior officers were about, drove them along in front of them like a herd of cattle.”

Source:
With Napoleon in Russia, General Armand de Caulaincourt, pp 259 – 260

Commemorative 1912 image and translation provided by Alexey Temnikov

“If the Rearguard Does Not Take Pity on Them…”

The further the army marched, the more it broke down.  More than ever, the survivors needed the help of others.  Faber du Faur records one example of a dire situation.  A scene that was repeated many times.

Near Bobr, 23 November
by Faber du Faur

Near Bobr, 23 November
“Although there had been something of a thaw over the last couple of days, this was soon replaced by heavy snow – something that impeded our march.  Russian columns shadowed us, but at a distance as they too were suffering from the intemperate climate.  However, we were still surrounded by clouds of Cossacks and bands of armed peasants, and this made it very dangerous to stray from the main road or lag behind.”

“Here we see a typical scene – something that happened every day.  A wounded officer and his wife, after considerable efforts to get this far, have just seen the horse pulling their sledge collapse and die.  The bulk of the army has already passed by but there is still some hope that the rearguard might be able to assist them. But night is approaching and the rearguard is some way off – the smoke in the distance is a sign that it has just left a village and has set it on fire.  The Cossacks appear.  The compassion and bravery of a handful of soldiers serves as some encouragement for the unlucky pair but they are now without transport and if the rearguard does not take pity on them they will be abandoned and captivity will follow.  Either that or they will perish, victims of the murderous climate.”

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

An Escape from the Cossacks

Philippe-Paul de Ségur wrote an interesting account of an incident that occurred on the road from Orsha to Borisov.

“The twenty-second of November found us toiling along the road from Orsha to Borisov, between a double line of giant birches, through melted snow and deep liquid mud in which the weak got drowned, and which trapped and held as prisoners for the Cossacks those of the wounded who, believing that the frost had definitely set in, had exchanged their carts for sledges or sleighs at Smolensk.”

Old Guard Does Not Give Up
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

“In the midst of this general decay and discouragement an action of antique grandeur stood out.  Two marines of the Guard had got separated from their column by a band of Cossacks who seemed bent on their destruction.  One of the marines lost heart and was about to give himself up, but the other shouted to him that if he committed this act of cowardice, he would kill him.  and he did: when he saw his companion throw his musket away and put up his hands, he shot him down in the very arms of the Cossacks.  Then, taking advantage of their surprise, he quickly reloaded his musket which he kept leveled on the bravest of the band as he walked backward, stealing from tree to tree, and so succeeded in rejoining his company.”

Sources:
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, p 228

Commemorative 1912 Russian candy box card image and translation provided by Alexey Temnikov