Tag Archives: Cossacks

“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.

Treasures and Tragedy on the Riverbank

Philippe-Paul de Ségur writes of the disaster encountered by the Army of Italy commanded by Prince Eugène, Napoleon’s step/adopted son.  Eugène had been ordered to leave the main route of the march and head from Dorogobuzh to Vitebsk to assist Marshal Oudinot.  In their path lay the river Vop which had been a small stream months before, but had now become a flooded river.

Ségur writes: “[The Vop] was a river, flowing on a wide bed of mud, with very steep banks on either side.  These ice-coated banks had to be cut through, and the order was given to tear down the houses in the neighborhood during the night to obtain lumber for a bridge.  But the Viceroy [Eugène], who was more loved than feared, was not obeyed.  The pontoon corps worked only halfheartedly, and when dawn brought the Cossacks back, the bridge which had collapsed twice was abandoned.”

“Five or six thousand soldiers still in orderly formation, twice as many disbanded men, and the sick or wounded, over a hundred guns with their caissons, and innumerable vehicles lined the riverbank over an area of several square miles.  They tried to ford the river through the blocks of ice swept along by the current.  The first cannon that made the attempt reached the opposite bank safely; but the water was rising higher minute by minute, and the wheels and the horses’ struggles were digging a constantly deepening path at the point from which they crossed.  One heavy ammunition wagon became hopelessly stuck in the mud, others piled up on it, and everything came to a stop.”

“But day was drawing to a close, and they were wearing themselves out in fruitless efforts.  Pressed by the hunger, cold, and the Cossacks, the Viceroy had no choice but to order the abandonment of his artillery and all his supplies.  It was a sorrowful sight.  The owners of this wealth had scarcely time to part company with their possessions.  While they were selecting the most indispensable objects and loading them onto their horses, a mob of soldiers fell upon the magnificent carriages and broke everything to pieces, avenging themselves for their poverty and suffering on this wealth, and keeping it from the Cossacks who were watching from a distance.”

“Most of the soldiers, interested chiefly in food, rejected embroidered garments, pictures, gilded bronzes, valuable ornaments in favor of a few handfuls of flour.  That evening the riverbank presented a strange sight, with the riches of Paris and Moscow, the luxuries of two of the world’s great cities, lying scattered and despised on the snowy waste.”

“Meanwhile the artillerymen, knowing there was no hope, were spiking their guns and scattering their powder…”

“A few hundred men, still bearing the name of the 14th Division, were left to oppose these barbarians [Cossacks], and they were able to keep them at a respectful distance till the next morning.  All the others, soldiers, administrators, women and children, sick and wounded, pursued by the enemy’s fire, crowded to the edge of the torrent  But at the sight of the swollen waters and the enormous, jagged sheets of ice, they drew back, dreading to increase the already unbearable cold by plunging into the icy stream.”

“It was an Italian, Colonel Delfanti, who made the first move.  Then the soldiers pressed forward, and the crowd followed.  Only the weakest, the most cowardly, or the greediest remained on the bank.  Such as could not bring themselves to part with their plunder, to abandon their fortunes, were punished for their hesitation.  the next day, the savage Cossacks were seen in the midst of all this wealth, still covetous of the dirty, tattered garments of the unfortunate creatures who had become their prisoners.  After taking all their clothes they collected them in bands and drove them naked through the snow, beating them cruelly with the shafts of their spears.”

NOTE: Ségur calls the river the Wop while George F. Nafziger calls it the Vop.    The proper name is Vop.

Source:
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 177 – 179

The Army Changes Direction

After Malojaroslavets and Napoleon’s close encounter with the Cossacks,  fearing the army’s path was blocked by the enemy,  the army was ordered to reverse directions, then head north to rejoin the Smolensk-Moscow road.  This meant the army would now be travelling over country devastated earlier in the campaign by the retreating Russians and advancing Grande Armée.

Faber du Faur painted a scene from October 26, 1812 of a Cossack attack.  He begins his description with the night before, “After considerable effort, and constantly being hustled forward by out rearguard, we reached Borovsk on the 25th just as night was falling.  Here we made camp and found that most of the army had done likewise, but the town and a number of villages around were on fire; this, combined with the sea of campfires, transformed a mellow autumnal evening into a scene of awful grandeur.”

Before Borovsk, 26 October
by Faber du Faur

“On the morning of the 26th large bands of Cossacks attacked those villages that lined the Moscow road and killed, wounded or chased out those stragglers who had lodged there.  Next they attempted to attack the army’s camps, but a few discharges of cannon and a charge of Guard cavalry drove them off.  Nevertheless, they were visibly encouraged by our evident disorder, and these horsemen now grew far bolder than they had been at the beginning of the campaign.”

Scouts Plastuns
(Scouts crawling on their bellies)
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

“It was here, at Borovsk, that fortune seemed to turn her back on us.  Here we received news of Malojaroslavets and, shortly afterwards, the order that we should march on Mojaisk, via Vereya, and re-join the Moscow-Smolensk road.  This we began to do on the afternoon of the 26th, even though it took us away from a region untouched by the hand of war and brought us back on to a road which had been transformed into a desert strewn with the dead and the dying even during our first passage.  This was the start of the retreat proper, and the event that signaled the destruction of the entire army.  We were promised comfortable winter quarters in Smolensk, amongst its richly provisioned stores and magazines.  But we were eighteen days’ march away from those stores – eighteen days at the mercy of hunger, the climate and our enemies!”

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

Image and translation of Russian commemorative card provided by Alexey Temnikov

The Emperor’s Narrow Escape

George F. Nafziger in his book, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, describes the events surrounding a sudden attack by the Cossacks on the morning of the 25th that nearly caused Napoleon to be captured or killed.  Napoleon had set out in the early morning hours to reconnoiter the situation before deciding his next move.  He took two squadrons of the Chasseurs à Cheval de la Garde Imperiale as an escort.  A swarm of Cossacks appeared and charged at the group.  Napoleon’s staff officers joined in the fight and the enemy was beaten off.

Napoleon decided to back-track and head north to retrace the route of the advance rather than continue on the southerly route.  He did not realize Kutusov had abandoned his positions.  A more thorough reconnaissance would have revealed that Malo-Jaroslavets was abandoned.   This is one of the few cases where both armies retreated from the field of battle.

Sergeant Adrien Bourgogne, a member of the Imperial Guard, participated in this skirmish which he describes in his memoirs:  “On the 25th I had been on guard since the previous evening near a little house where the Emperor had spent the night.  There was a thick fog, as there often is in October.  All at once, without informing anyone, the Emperor mounted his horse, merely followed by some orderly officers.  He had scarcely gone, when we hear a great noise.  Just at first we supposed it to be cries of ‘Vive L’Empereur!‘ but then we heard the order ‘Aux armes!‘ — ‘To arms!’  Six thousand Cossacks, commanded by Platoff, had come to surprise us, favoured by the fog and the deep ravines.  The squadrons of the Guard on duty flew across the plain.  We followed them, crossing a ravine to make a short-cut.  We found ourselves directly in front of this host of savages, who howled like wolves as they drew back.  Our squadrons came up with them, recaptured what they had taken of our baggage and wagons, and inflicted heavy losses on them.”

“When we got to the plain, we saw that the Emperor was in the midst of the Cossacks, surrounded by Generals and by his orderly officers, one of whom was dangerously wounded through a fatal mistake.  Just as the squadrons arrived on the plain, many of the officers, for their own defense and that of the Emperor, who had nearly been taken in the midst of them, had been obliged to use their swords against the Cossacks.  One of the orderly officers dropped his hat and his sword after killing and wounding several of the Cossacks; so, finding himself defenseless, he threw himself on a Cossack, and took his lance from him.  Just at that moment a mounted Grenadier of the Guard caught sight of him, and, thinking from his green cloak and his lance that he was a Cossack, rushed at him, and ran him through the body.”

“The unhappy Grenadier, on seeing his mistake, endeavoured to get killed.  He flung himself amongst the enemy, striking to right and left, but everyone fled before him.  After killing several men, without being able to die himself, he returned, alone and covered with blood, to ask after the officer he had wounded.  Fortunately he [the wounded officer] recovered, and was taken back to France in a sledge.”

“I remember that, just after this incident, the Emperor was talking to Murat, laughing at the narrow escape he had had of being taken.”

The Battle of Malo-Jaroslavets

Sergeant Bourgogne gives an overview of the battle.  But, being a member of the Imperial Guard, he was not involved in the fighting: “On the 24th we found we were near Kalonga, and that same day, at Malo-Jaroslawetz, the army of Italy,

Battle of Maloyaroslavets
by Pitr Gess

commanded by Prince Eugène, engaged the Russian arm, which was endeavouring to prevent our passage.  In this bloody struggle 16,000 of our men met 70,000 Russians.  The Russians lost 8,000 men, and we 3,000.  Many of our superior officers were killed and wounded — amongst them General Delzous, struck on the forehead by a ball.  His brother, a Colonel, in trying to save him, was himself shot, and both died together on the same spot.”

Jakob Walter describes his experience that morning: “Then everyone packed up, and the enemy attacked us.  The decision was soon to the advantage of the Russians, and all ran in a crowded retreat, the army moving toward Kaluga with the Cossacks in front of and beside us.  The enemy army behind us shattered all the army corps, leaving each of us then without his commanding officer.  Those who were too weak to carry their weapons or knapsacks threw them away, and all looked like a crowd of gypsies.”

“Then we came to a second city, Borovsk.  Here the city was immediately ablaze; and, in order for us to get through, soldiers had to be used to quench the flames.  Camp was pitched by this city, and it became dark.  One no sooner thought of resting than the Russians fell upon our army and cut off many as captives.  Everything was in confusion, and during almost the whole night the throng had to retreat to Moshaisk, everyone running as not to fall into the hands of the enemy.  Because of these considerable losses, cannon, munition wagons, coaches, and baggage wagons by the hundreds had to be thrown into the water; and, where that was impossible, all wagons were burned, not one wheel being permitted to remain whole.  The sutlers, even the cavalry, had to give up their horses so that these could be hitched to the cannon.  The fighting, the shrieking, the firing of large and small guns, hunger and thirst, and all conceivable moments increased the never-ending confusion.  Indeed, even the lice seemed to seek supremacy, for their number on both officers and privates was in the thousands.”

The battle raged from 4 am to 11 pm on the 24th.  Most of the troops involved from the French side were Prince Eugène’s Italians and the two sides drove each other back and forth through the village which caught on fire during the battle.  George Nafziger writes that both armies committed about 24,000 troops to the battle with French losses at about 6,000 and Russian at about 8,000.  Neither side occupied the village that night.

Murat is “Captured”

As discussed in earlier posts, not all of the Grande Armée spent the winter inside the Moscow city limits.  Marshal Murat and about 25,000 men were 35 miles to the south of Moscow at Winkovo and they were starving.  An informal truce had fallen into place here.  Marshal Murat would even ride up to the Russian pickets and re-position them if he felt they were encroaching on the limits of the French camp.

Phillipe-Paul de Ségur describes the situation: “That armistice was an unusual one.  All that was necessary to break it was a reciprocal three-hour notice, and it applied only to the fronts of the two camps, and not to their flanks. At least, that is the way the Russians interpreted it.  We could neither bring in a convoy nor send out a foraging party without a struggle, so that fighting continued on every hand, except where it might be favorable to us.”

Marshal Murat
The King of Naples
Also Brother-in-Law of Napoleon

“… Murat took great pleasure in showing himself at the enemy’s outposts, reveling in the flattering looks which his fine appearance, his reputation for bravery, and his high rank won for him; and the Russian generals were careful not to do anything that would put him out of conceit.  They showered him with proofs of deference likely to preserve his illusions.  He ordered their mounted sentries about as if they were French, and when the portion of the field they were occupying suited him, they immediately surrendered it to him.”

“Some of the Cossack officers went so far as to feign enthusiasm, and to declare that they no longer recognized any other emperor than the one reigning in Moscow.  For a time Murat foolishly believed that they would never fight him again…  Napoleon was heard to exclaim as he read one of his letters, ‘Murat, King of the Cossacks! What foolishness!'”

Major Victor Dupuy of the 7th Hussars was an eyewitness to Murat’s boldness where the outposts of the two armies were 50 yards apart: “The King  of Naples [Murat], finding the Cossacks too close to us, go among them, and make them withdraw their sentries and show them where they ought to be.  The Russians obeyed.  Their generals, even those of the advance guard, whom we’d often had a chance to see, made no difficulties about yielding to the King’s least requirements.  He really had an air of commanding the whole lot of them.”

While this jockeying of the sentries was going on, the men and horses were starving.  Lieutenant Maurice Tascher  wrote in his diary about the, “extreme poverty of the army, which is living off vegetables, horse meat and unground rye.  In the forests the peasants are defending themselves against the soldiers when they try to get some food and forage.”

Dupuy records how each time the 7th Hussars assemble there are, “Unfortunate horses which, lying down and worn out, could no longer struggle to their feet and died on the spot.  Though Moscow was stuffed with victuals, the men were in the greatest need.  The King [Murat] wrote to the Emperor to inform him of our truly calamitous situation.  The Emperor interrogated the ordnance officer carrying the despatch who, to play the courtier, replied that we lacked for nothing – and that was a word too much!  The Emperor even got angry with the King of Naples for sending him a pack of lies.  This became quickly bruited abroad and the officer received all the reproaches and all the curses he deserved.  I shall abstain from giving his name.”

Battle of Tarutino
by Piter von Hess

Jean-Roch Coignet of the Imperial Guard had been given dispatch duty at this time.  Assigned to one such mission he writes, “I was sent to a village, eighteen or twenty leagues from Moscow, to carry orders to Prince Murat.  I came upon a body of cavalry in retreat – our men, on bare-back horses.  They had been surprised while grooming their horses.  I could not find Prince Murat; he had run off in his shirt.  It was a bad sign to see those fine horsemen running for their lives.  I asked for the prince.”

“‘He is captured,’ they replied; ‘they took him in his bed.'”

“And I could learn nothing further.  The Emperor heard of it at once through [Étienne Marie Antoine Champion de] Nansouty‘s aides-de-camp, and on my return from this miserable mission, I found the army en route to aid Murat.  I was half-dead, and my horse could no longer walk…  The Emperor had ordered that his household and all his office staff should be sent from Moscow the 23rd of October, and join him at Mojaisk.  It is impossible to give any idea of the rapidity of the execution of his orders.”

“The preparations for this move were completed in three hours…   I got the provisions ready: about ten loaves of sugar, a good-sized box of tea, some elegant cups, and a copper to melt the sugar in.  We had a carriage-load of provisions.”

Murat, of course, had not been captured, but the French had been dealt an embarrassing blow at what was called the Battle of Tarutino.  An early morning attack had caught the French, complacent due to the informal truce and with many men out foraging, off guard.  Murat managed to stop the attack with a charge of curassiers which he personally led.  Losses for the French were 2,500 men, 38 cannon and baggage.

Sources:
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Phillipe-Paul de Ségur, pp 123-124 1812: Napoleon in Moscow, Paul Britten Austin, pp 119, 121-123
Napoleon in Russia: The 1812 Campaign, Alan Palmer, p 181
Captain Coignet, Jean-Roch Coignet, pp 225-226

The Peasants Take Revenge

As the Grande Armée sent foraging parties out from Moscow, the villagers were returning to their homes and in no mood to tolerate more abuse at the hands of the marauders.

From a 1912 commemorative
candy box card
The caption reads:
“French Heist in Moscow”

This account is from a woman, Maria Stepanova, the wife of a pope, in Bogorodsic, renamed Noginsk, 27miles/45 kilometers east of Moscow:  “The enemy appeared nearly every day in our village and as soon as they were perceived all men took up arms; our cossacks charged them with their long sabers or shot them with their pistols, and behind the cossacks were running the peasants, some with axes, some with pitchforks.  After every excursion they brought ten or more prisoners which they drowned in the Protka which runs near the village, or they fusilladed them in the prairie.  The unfortunates passed our windows, my mother and I did not know where to hide ourselves in order not to hear their cries and the report of the firearms.  My poor husband, Ivan Demitovitch, became quite pale, the fever took him, his teeth chattered, he was so compassionate!  One day the cossacks brought some prisoners and locked them up in a cart-house built of stone.  They are too few, they said, it is not worth while to take any trouble about them now; with the next lot which we shall take we will shoot or drown them together.  This cart-house had a window with bars.  Peasants came to look at the prisoners and gave them bread and boiled eggs; they did not want to see them starving while awaiting death.  One day when I brought them eatables I saw a the window a young soldier — so young!  His forehead was pressed against the bars, tears in his eyes, and tears running down his cheeks.  I myself began to cry, and even to-day my heart aches when I think of him.  I passed lepecheks through the bars and went away without looking behind me.  At that time came an order from the government that no more prisoners should be killed but sent to Kalouga.  How we were contented!”

These are the instructions a Russian partisan leader, Colonel Denis Davidov, gave to a group of villagers about how to handle bands of French marauders:

“‘Receive them,’ I told them, ‘in a friendly fashion, offer them with bows (since in their ignorance of the Russian language they understand bows better than words) all you have in the way of eatables and especially drink,  put them to bed drunk, and when you perceive that they are really asleep, all of you pounce on their weapons which are usually to be found in a heap in a corner of the cottage or piled in the street.  When you have exterminated them, bury their bodies in the pigsty, in the forest or in some impenetrable place.  Take care at all costs that the spots where the bodies are buried are not given away by freshly dug earth; for this purpose scatter a pile of stones or logs over the spot.  All military booty such as uniforms, helmets, straps, etc., you must either burn or bury in the same places as the bodies of the Frenchmen.  This precaution is necessary because another band of infidels will very likely dig in the fresh earth, thinking to find money or your possessions there; but when instead they unearth the bodies of their comrades and objects belonging to them, they will kill you all and burn down the village.  And you, friend headman, must supervise the carrying-out of all my instructions and give orders for three or four lads to be always ready in your yard, so that the moment they catch sight of a very large number of Frenchmen they can mount their horses and gallop in different directions in search of me — I shall come to to your aid.'”

Thank you to Alexey Temnikov for providing information on the location and name of the village Bogorodsic which has since been renamed Noginsk.  Also for providing the image of the 1912 card and the translation.

Sources:

Napoleon’s Campaign in Russia Anno 1812, Achilles Rose, 1913, p. 34

1812: Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia; Antony Brett-James, p. 203