Tag Archives: Cossacks

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

“Take My Knapsack, I Am A Lost Man”

Today we continue the story of IIIrd Corps escape from the trap at Krasnoe.  After leaving camp fires burning in the night and slipping away to the north to cross the ice of the Dnieper, dawn of the 19th arrived to show that Ney’s  IIIrd Corps was alone, for now.

Platov Cossacks
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

Some Cossack outposts were captured and by midday, two villages were also captured, their inhabitants fleeing and leaving provisions behind.  But the plundering is soon brought to an end by the appearance of swarms of Cossacks led by General Matvei Platov.  But Ney’s troops are well formed and the Cossacks dare not attack.  IIIrd Corps continues its march, but now finds the Cossacks have cannon mounted on sledges.

Montesquiou Duc de Fezensac and about 100 of his men became separated from the main body when they were ordered to clear the woods along the river of Cossacks.  Having accomplished their task, they became lost in the fading light.  Hurrying to catch up, they are again harassed by Cossacks who “Kept shouting at us to surrender and firing point-blank into our midst.  Those who were hit were abandoned.  A sergeant had his leg shattered by a shot from a carbine.  He fell at my side, and said coolly to his comrades: ‘Here, take my knapsack, I am a lost man, and you will be the better for it.’  Someone took his pack, and we left him in silence.  Two wounded officers suffered the same fate.  Yet I noticed uneasily the impression this state of affairs was making on my regiment’s men, and even on its officers.  Then so-and-so, a hero on the battlefield, seemed worried and troubled  – so true it is that the circumstances of danger are often more frightening than the danger itself.  A very small number preserved the presence of mind we were in such need of.  I needed all my authority to keep order as we marched and to prevent each man leaving his rank.  One officer even dared give it to be understood we’d perhaps be forced to surrender.  I reprimanded him aloud, so much the more sharply as he was an officer of merit, which made the lesson more striking.”

Don’t Hurry, Let Them Approach
Vasily Vereschagin

At last, they found their way back to  the Dneiper so now knew where they were, but still had to catch up to Ney.  Marching with the river to their left to avoid a flanking attack by the Cossacks, they continued at a quickened pace.  “The Cossacks, from time to time, advanced towards us with loud cries.  On these occasions we halted a minute to give our fire, and immediately resumed our march.  For two leagues we traversed the most impracticable ground, crossed ravines, whose sides we ascended with the utmost difficulty, and waded through streams, the half-frozen water of which reached to the knee, — but nothing could daunt the perseverance of our soldiers; the greatest order was maintained, and not a man quitted the ranks.”

“The enemy at length relaxed in his pursuit, and the fires which we descried on the heights in front of us proved to be those of Marshal Ney’s rear-guard: they had halted, and were now preparing to resume their march.  We joined them, and learned that the Marshal had, on the preceding evening, marched direct on the enemy’s artillery and forced a passage through them.”

“We were still eight leagues [24 miles] from Orsha, and entertained little doubt of General Platoff’s redoubling his exertions to overtake us, — moments became precious.”

To be continued.

Sources:
1812: The Great Retreat, Paul Britten Austin, pp 198 – 200

A Journal of the Russian Campaign of 1812, Translated from the French of Lt. General De Fezensac by Colonel W. Knollys, pp 117 – 119

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

Ney’s Escape

As the rearguard of the Grande Armée, Ney‘s IIIrd Corps was the last to leave Smolensk.  They had orders to blow up the walls of the city as they left.  There

Marshal Michel Ney

was plenty of powder in the city for this task, but the effect was minimal.  Marshal Davout had sent back a messenger to warn Ney of the Russians across the road to Krasnoe, but Ney dismissed it saying something to the effect that all the Cossacks in the world wouldn’t bother him.

Davout’s corps had barely made it through to Krasnoe and now it was Ney’s turn to run the gauntlet.  Ney left Smolensk on the morning of the 17th with 6,000 soldiers and thousands of camp-followers and stragglers.  On the afternoon of the 18th, his lead troops came under fire through a heavy mist.  The Russians had placed artillery across the road and along each side.  To a request for surrender, Ney replied “A Marshal of France does not surrender.”

Le Marechal Ney Retraite de Russie
by Emile Boutigny

Accounts by Palmer, Nafziger and Ségur vary on the details, but in general, what followed is this:  Ney tried to force his way through for five hours.  Montesquiou Duc de Fezensac describes the fierce fighting as each cannon shot  is “carrying off whole files.  At each step death was becoming more inevitable.  Yet our march wasn’t slowed down for a single instant.”  The 18th Regiment of the line lost its Eagle when, as recorded by Captain Guillaume Bonnet, “The regiment impetuously continued its charge and, taking off to the right, threw back a line of infantry; but enveloped by numerous cavalry it was itself annihilated, except for two or three officers who’d been wounded early on…  The Eagle was left there.”

General Jean-David Freytag describes the worsening conditions, “While we were ranged in order of battle in the plain, all the time standing up to a terrible and continuous fire, our carriages, our horses, part of the artillery and all the unarmed men, the stragglers and the sick who’d remained on the road, fell into the power of a ‘hurrah’ of Cossacks.  All the food and the few resources still remaining to us were lost.  Marshal Ney gave the orders that if possible the fight should be sustained until dusk, in order to retreat by the Dnieper.”

Fezensac described Ney’s determination, “Ney’s self-confidence equaled his courage.  Without knowing what he meant to do nor what he could do, we knew he’d do something.  The greater the danger, the prompter his determination; and once having made up his mind, he never doubted he’d succeed. His face expressed neither indecision nor disquietude.”

Leaving his camp fires burning, his army slipped away to the north toward the Dnieper river.  Becoming disoriented in the dark, Ney had the ice of a stream broken so they could tell which direction the water flowed and follow it to the Dnieper.  They reached the river around midnight, but found that the ice was not strong enough to support the crossing.  Ney had the column sit and rest for three hours to allow the ice to harden.  Any remaining wagons and artillery along with the sick and wounded were left on the bank.  A fire was set on the far bank to guide any stragglers and the column moved on.

To be continued…

Sources:
1812: The Great Retreat, Paul Britten Austin, pp 195 – 197

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur

Napoleon in Russia, Alan Palmer

Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, George F. Nafziger

 

“But What a Battle!”

The purpose of this blog is to show the personal experiences of those on the Russian campaign.  As a result, I rarely talk about the strategy or overall picture.  Today, however, I wish to quote from Ségur’s memoirs about the actions of Napoleon and the Imperial Guard on this day, November 17, two hundred years ago.

But, first some background.  Napoleon had ordered his corps to leave Smolensk one at a time at one day intervals with Napoleon and the Imperial Guard leaving first.  As each corps advanced down the road to Krasnoe, they were attacked by Cossacks and the Russian army.  Napoleon and the Imperial Guard had fought their way into Krasnoe and now waited for the following corps to arrive.

Realizing his trailing corps would need help in getting through, in the early hours of the 17th, Napoleon ordered the Imperial Guard to head back east of Krasnoe to hold the road open.  On foot, at the head of the Old Guard, Napoleon himself marched out saying “I have played the Emperor long enough!  It is time to play the General!” Keep this scene in mind while reading Ségur’s account of the action:  “Then the battle began.  But what a battle!  Here the Emperor had no more of those sudden illuminations, no flashes of inspiration, none of those bold unexpected moves that had forced the hand of luck …  Here the enemy’s movements were free; ours, fettered; and this genius in the realm of attack was reduced to defending himself.”

3rd Regiment of Dutch Grenadiers
at Krasnoe

“But here it was borne in on us that Fame is not a mere shadow, but a real force, doubly powerful by the inflexible pride it lends its favorites and the timid precautions it suggests to such as would ensure to attack them.  The Russians that day had only to march forward without maneuvering, even without firing, and their mass would have crushed Napoleon and his wretched troops; but, overawed by the sight of the conqueror of Egypt and Europe, they did not dare to come to close quarters with him.  The Pyramids, Marengo, Austerlitz, and Friedland seemed to rise up and stand between him and their great army.  It was quite conceivable that in the eyes of those submissive, superstitious men there was something supernatural in such extraordinary renown; that they thought him beyond their reach and not to be attacked except from a distance; that men would be powerless against the Old Guard, the living fortress, the granite column (as Napoleon had called them), which cannon alone could demolish.”

“The young soldiers, half of whom were seeing action for the first time, stood up to the deadly fire for three solid hours without taking a step backwards or making a movement to get out of its way, and without being able to return it…”

“At that junction [Marshal Louis Nicolas] Davout was seen approaching through a swarm of Cossacks, whom he scattered by accelerating his march…”

“So the Ist Corps was saved; but at the same time we learned that … Ney had probably not left Smolensk yet, and that we ought to give up all idea of waiting for him.”

Source:
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 203 – 204

“Don’t Leave us to the Cossacks”

On the morning of November 14, 1812, Napoleon and the Imperial Guard left Smolensk to resume the march west.  Faber du Faur painted scenes from the next day and included the following narratives.

Between Korythnia and Krasnoi, 15 November
by Faber du Faur

Between Korythnia and Krasnoi, 15 November
“At five o’clock in the morning of 14 November, Imperial Headquarters and the Imperial Guard left Smolensk. Four hours later what remained of the 25th Division followed.  there were just a couple of hundred combatants left in its ranks, although a brigade of 200 men remained behind to form part of the rearguard under Marshal Ney.  We also had four guns and a confused crowd of thousands of unarmed and strangely dressed fugitives, numbers of horses and all kinds of transport.  No sooner had we passed through the city’s gates than our losses began to mount; one of our gun carriages collapsed and we had to abandon the piece.”

“We dragged ourselves through deep snow, leaving traces of our passage in our wake.  We made our way painfully as far as Korythnia, which we reached at nightfall, and we spent the night there.  On the 15th we resumed our march towards Krasnoi.  Towards noon we heard the noise of explosions; at first we took this to be the noise of caissons being destroyed, but it soon became apparent that it was the noise of cannon.  We soon learned that it was the Russians attacking the Imperial Guard, for, now, we too suffered the same fate.  Suddenly, through the snow, we saw a huge cloud of Cossacks flood on to the road ahead.  Simultaneously, masses of infantry, cavalry and artillery appeared on our left.  When they were no more than 4,500 paces from us they opened fire, sending a murderous discharge of round shot and grape against us.  These were [Mikhail] Miloradovich‘s 20,000 Russians, and they had occupied Krasnoi in order to cut our retreat.”

Faur’s next entry has the same name and date as the first:

Between Korythnia and Krasoi, 15 November
by Faber du Faur

Between Korythnia and Krasnoi, 15 November
“We advanced, benefiting from the cover afforded by some pine trees that lined the road, and, despite our enfeebled state, fired back with our three guns.  We were only able to get off a couple of shots before our pieces were silenced by the overwhelming fire of the enemy artillery.  Now we prepared ourselves to fight our way through the enemy barring our way and link up with the Imperial Guard.  We buried our guns so that they would not fall into the hands of the Cossacks, formed ourselves up into a column, with the armed men to the fore, and advanced.  The Russians did not wait to resist our attack but moved out of the way, whilst Miloradovich’s men were content to shadow us on our left and bring their artillery to bear against us. Of course, Miloradovich could have captured every last one of us with even a tenth of his troops.  Eventually we arrived at Krasnoi, having sustained some loss but having come through the enemy.”

Napoleon had ordered his Corps to leave Smolensk at one day intervals and on the 15th, Prince Eugène’s IV Corps was scheduled to leave.  The non-walking wounded of the Corps were gathered into one area and given some food, but then it was time for the rest of the Corps to leave.  Adjutant-Major Césare de Laugier of the Italian Guardia d’Ornore described the scene that followed.  “[Those being left behind] clenched their fists in despair, flung their arms round our legs, sobbed, screamed, clung to us, begged us to find them some means of transport: ‘For pity sake don’t leave us to the Cossacks, to be burnt alive, be butchered as soon as they come in.  Comrades, comrades, friends, for pity sake take us with you!’  We go off with heavy hearts.  Whereupon these unfortunates roll on the ground, lashing about as if possessed.”

Back on the road, things are not any better as Laugier continues, “Here and there, dying horses, weapons, all kinds of effects, pillaged trunks, eviscerated packs are showing us the road followed by those ahead of us.  We also see trees at whose foot men have tried to light a fire; and around their trunks, transformed into funerary monuments, the victims have expired after futile efforts to get warm.  The wagoners are using the corpses, numerous at every step, to pave the road by filling in ditches and ruts.  At first we shudder at the sight; then we get used to it.  Anyone who hasn’t good horses and faithful servants with him will almost certainly never see his own country again.  Far from exciting our sensibility, such horrors just harden our hearts.”

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

1812: The Great Retreat Told by the Survivors, Paul Britten Austin, pp 148-149

The Twenty-Eighth Bulletin

Napoleon issued periodic progress reports in numbered bulletins.  Number 28 was issued on November 12, 1812 from Smolensk.  It began as follows: “The Imperial headquarters were, on 1 November, at Viasma, and on the 9th at Smolensk.  The weather was very fine up to the 6th, but on the 7th winter began; the ground is covered with snow.  The roads have become very slippery, and very difficult for carriage horses.  We have lost many men by cold and fatigue; night bivouacking is very injurious to them.”

“Since the battle of Maloyaroslavetz, the advanced guard has seen no other enemy than the Cossacks, who like the Arabs, prowl upon the flanks and fly about to annoy.”

The bulletin goes on to note that since the bad weather started on the 6th, more than 3,000 carriage horses and 100 caissons had been lost.

Philippe-Paul de Ségur described the scene when the stragglers were turned away from the store houses because they were not with their regiments:  “So these men scattered through the streets, their only hope now being in pillage.  But the carcasses of horses cleaned of meat down to the bone lying everywhere indicated the presence of famine.  The doors and windows had been torn out of all the houses as fuel for the campfires, so the men found no shelter there.  No winter quarters had been prepared, no wood provided.  The sick and wounded were left out in the streets on the carts that had brought them in.  Once again the deadly highroad was passing through an empty name!  Here was one more bivouac among deceptive ruins, colder even than the forests the men had just left.”

“Finally these disorganized troops sought out their regiments and rejoined them momentarily in order to obtain their rations.  But all the bread… had already been distributed, as had the biscuits and meat.  Rye flour, dry vegetables, and brandy were measured out to them.  The best efforts of the guards were needed to prevent the detachments of the different corps from killing each other around the doors of the storehouses.  When after interminable formalities the wretched fare was delivered to them, the soldiers refused to carry it back to their regiments.  They broke open the the sacks, snatched a few pounds of flour out of them, and went into hiding until they had devoured it.  It was the same with brandy.  The next day the houses were found full of the corpses of these unfortunate warriors.”

Source:
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, p 183

Was it the Horseshoes?

When studying the destruction of the Grande Armée in Russia, it is sometimes tempting to look for a single error, a surprisingly minor oversight that if corrected would have made an enormous change in the outcome of the event – What if…

Fellow blogger Alice Shepperson (Noon Observation) tackles the question: Was it really the lack of winter horseshoes that led to the destruction of the Grande Armée on the retreat from Russia?  Here’s Alice:

Winter Horseshoes
Note the Four Raised Points

In a recent BBC documentary, Bullets, Boots and Bandages, historian Saul David argued that a major reason for the disastrous nature of the retreat from Moscow was Napoleon’s failure to bring winter horseshoes or frost nails – spikes designed to give horses grip on ice. “This tiny logistical oversight,” argues David, “was to cost him dear.” He backs this up with statements from professional farriers about the effects this would have had on the horses: their shoes gave them no traction on up-hills and no brakes on down-hills. This was certainly a problem. Adolphe Thiers describes the plight

Frost Nails

of the French artillery horses after they left Moscow: “Flogged until they were covered with blood, and their knees torn with frequent falling, they were found incapable of overcoming ordinary obstacles, through loss of strength and want of means to prevent their slipping on the ice.” But was this really the cause of the army’s destruction?

French Horse-Drawn Artillery

It certainly destroyed some of it. Robert Wilson, who had been seconded to the Imperial Russian Army wrote on the November 5th that “some Cossacks … seeing a gun and several tumbrils at the bottom of a ravine, with the horses lying on the ground, dismounted, and taking up the feet of several, hallooed, ran, … danced, and made fantastic gestures like crazy men … they pointed to the horses’ shoes and said— ” God has made Napoleon forget that there was a winter in our country…” It was soon ascertained that all horses of the enemy’s army were in the same improperly-shod state, except those of the Polish corps, and the Emperor’s own.”

But in order to determine the importance of this, we should consider what these horses were actually pulling…

Artillery certainly required horsepower, and guns and ammunition were some of the first things that the army started discarding. Was artillery needed in the retreat? Yes, for defence against the enemy, but there is no particular incident in which the French were crippled by lack of guns or ammo. Cannon could certainly not prevent soldiers dying of hunger or cold, which were the major killers.

Wounded men were another burden, and to his credit, Napoleon tried to cram as many as possible onto the army’s wagons, often much to the annoyance of their drivers. There were also non-military personnel to be carried, such as the artists and musicians Napoleon brought with him, and some of the numerous women, and even children, who followed the army. The loss of wagons would have had a terrible effect on the prospects of the wounded and non-combatants, but these people (though it seems heartless) were not essential to the continued cohesion or existence of the Grand Armée.

Many of the 40,000 or so carts that left Moscow however, were filled with loot and officers’ baggage. Colonel Count Roguet reported that, “for nearly forty miles I had to pick my way through the army’s procession of horse-drawn vehicles. Every one was laden with useless baggage.” The plunder included paintings, chandeliers and entire libraries. All were gradually jettisoned, making a lot of pursuing Cossacks extremely rich, but not destroying the French.

Essentially, having adequate horse-drawn transport only makes a difference to the health and wellbeing of soldiers if there are useful stores to move. By the time the roads became icy in late October, an overabundance of supplies was not really a problem for the French. Captain Roeder said after the battle of Maloyaroslavets, “the whole army was now living almost entirely on horse flesh.” Others speak of foraging cabbage stalks or hempseed from abandoned farms or making soup using tallow (used to lubricate rifles). There were even instances of cannibalism. If there had been food in the carts, the chances are it would have been taken by force by the starving men, as happened when the first units reached the warehouses in Smolensk.

Horsepower did not in fact give out totally. When the Berezina was reached on the 26th November, General Jean Baptiste Eblé still had the crucial forges, charcoal and sapper tools needed to build two trestle bridges, and there was enough artillery to cover the rearguard action and protect the crossing. Even this late in the retreat there were horses and wagons enough to transport these essentials.

So if the demise of horse-powered transport was not to blame for the army’s privations, what was?

The Grande Armée was so ill-prepared for a winter retreat, that horseshoes were just a tiny drop in the ocean of its deficiencies. As well as lacking food and fodder, they lacked winter clothing. Boris Uxkull, a Russian cavalry officer, remarked in his journal on November 12th that among the French prisoners “you see the most peculiar clothes – cuirassiers with feet wrapped up in sheets and rags, cannoneers in women’s clothes and muffs”.  Some even blame the disaster on the tin buttons that Napoleon “foolishly” used, which may have turned to dust at around -30°C. Nor did the army have tents, Napoleon believing that, “tents are unfavourable to health. The soldier is best when he bivouacs… A few planks and a morsel of straw shelter him from the wind.” This was all very well in wooded, densely inhabited Europe where other shelter was available, but on the exposed Russian plains, soldiers needed more than a bit of straw to keep warm.

Scott’s Ponies

It’s important to remember that neither men nor horses do well in temperatures below -20°C, whether they’re wearing the right shoes or not. Look what happened to Captain Scott’s ponies exactly 100 years later, though they had been carefully selected from Siberian stock and supplied with the latest snowshoes and goggles. When constant Cossack attacks are added to the harsh conditions, it seems likely that these external factors had a far greater destructive effect than the want of winter horseshoes.

Pony Snowshoes

But isn’t the basic problem that Napoleon never intended to conduct a prolonged campaign through the Russian winter? His mistake, therefore, was to march his army all the way to Moscow, not packing the wrong food, uniforms, buttons or horseshoes.

The nail (tee-hee) in the coffin of the horseshoe theory is that the Russians often didn’t have the right ones either. Uxkull complains on October 24th that “our horses, which have no shoes, slip on the frozen ground and fall down, never to get up again. The artillery especially is suffering a lot.” The difference was that they weren’t a thousand miles into hostile enemy territory beyond the reach of supplies.

Source:
Alice Shepperson, the writer of today’s blog post, is also the writer of her own blog, Noon Observation, a humorous and informative look at various history topics.  I highly recommend a visit and signing up to follow her blog.