Tag Archives: dnieper river

“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

 

“We Thought of Ourselves Alone”

Faber du Faur with the IIIrd Corps arrived in Smolensk on the 12th of November.  He writes about the effect of the disappointment at the lack of supplies to be found there.

In the Suburbs of Smolensk,
On the Right Bank of the Borysthene,
12 November
by Faber du Faur

In the Suburbs of Smolensk, On the Right Bank of the Borysthene
“We arrived at Smolensk after twenty days’ marching.  We had marched through this town in triumph only two and a half months before, but now we entered it covered in rags.  We had redoubled our efforts to reach this place, bourne by hope of rest and succor   But our illusions were soon shattered.  There was no food, no clothing – not even a shelter from the rigors of the cold.  Here the final binds of order and discipline were cast aside; from now on we thought of ourselves alone and sought to prolong our own existence.”

“At Smolensk we broke up the last of our gun carriages, dragged there with so much effort.  We threw the barrels into the Dnieper.  Imagine the despair of the poor gunner who, having sworn to remain true to his gun, now has to cast it aside having survived together through so many hazards of war.”

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

An Unusual Hazard in Smolensk

As a member of the Imperial Guard, Sergeant Bourgogne’s unit was still organized by the time he reached Smolensk on November 9.  This was to be critical for gaining entrance to the city: “Thousands of men were there already, from every corps and of every nation.  They were there waiting at the gates and ramparts till they could gain admission, and this had been refused them on the ground that, marching as they were without officers or order, and already dying of hunger, they might pillage the town for provisions.  Many hundreds of these men were already dead or dying.  When we arrived there with the rest of the Guard in an orderly fashion, and taking the utmost precaution for our sick and wounded, the gates were opened, and we entered.  The greater number broke the ranks, and spread on all sides, anxious to find some roof under which to spend the night, and eat the food promised to us.”

“To obtain any sort of order, it was announced that men isolated from the rest would get nothing; so after this the men were careful to rejoin their regiments, and choose a head to represent them, as several of the old regiments existed no longer.  We of the Imperial Guard crossed the town with extreme difficulty, worn but with fatigue as we were.  We had to climb the steep slope which separates the Boristhene [Dnieper river] from the other gate; this was covered with ice, and at every step the weakest of our men fell and had to be lifted up; other could not walk at all.”

“In this way we came to the side of the faubourg which had been burnt at the bombardment last August.  We settled down as well as we could, in the ruins of those houses the fire had not quite destroyed.  The sick and wounded who had had strength and courage enough to come with us were made as comfortable as possible.  We were obliged to leave some of them, however, in a hut in a wood, near the entrance of the town, being much too ill to go any farther.  Amongst them was a friend of mine, in a dying condition.  He had dragged himself so far, hoping to find a hospital, for we had all hoped to stay in this town and the neighbourhood until the spring.  Our hopes were disappointed, however, as most of the villages were burnt and in ruins, and the town of Smolensk existed only in name.  Nothing was to be seen but the walls of houses built of stone; the greater part of the town had been built of wood and had disappeared.  The town, in fact, was a mere skeleton.  If we went any distance in the dark, we came on pitfalls — that is, the cellars belonging to the wooden houses, now completely gone.  These cellars were covered with snow, and if any man was so unfortunate as to step on one, he disappeared, and we saw him no more.  A great many men were lost in this manner.  Their bodies were dragged out again the next day, not for burial, but for the sake of their clothes, or anything else they might have about them.  All those who died, whether on the march or while we stopped, were treated in the same way.  The living men despoiled the dead, very often, in their turn, dying a few hours afterwards, and being subjected to the same fate.”

Source:
Sergeant Bourgogne: With Napoleon’s Imperial Guard in the Russian Campaign and on the Retreat From Moscow 1812-13, Adrien Bourgogne, pp 84 – 85

All Struggling Forward in the Same Direction

Faber du Faur’s unit was given three days rest after the battle of Valutino-Gora.  But once camp was broken, conditions became harsh and du Faur’s description of them is almost the same as Jakob Walter’s during the same period.

Here is du Faur’s description which accompanies his painting: “After our three-day halt at Valutina-Gora, we broke camp on the 23rd and followed the Russian army, making arduous marches along the main road and braving the heat and enormous clouds of dust, and being jostled by swarms of other troops all struggling forward in the same direction.”

Between Dorogobouye and Slavkovo, 27 August
by Faber du Faur
Note the weary expressions on the men around the fire and the oriental look of the building in the background

“Thus it was that, in the afternoon of the 26th, we reached Dorogobouye on the left bank of the Dnepr; this town was, like Smolensk and so many others, the victim of flames and was soon reduced to ashes.  We only remained here a few hours, and camped a few miles further on, continuing our march, on the 27th, towards Viasma.  Swarms of stragglers, who either could not keep up or who were charged with obtaining food, milled about and bore stark witness to the disorder besetting the army.  The disappearance of the Jews and the oriental appearance of the architecture indicated that we were now gracing the soil of ancient Muscovy.”

Battle of Mogliev (Saltanovka)

Davout’s I Corps out-marched Bagration, reaching Mogilev on 20th July. Thus astride the road to Orsha and Smolensk and flanked by the Dnieper River he blocked the retreat of the Second Western Army. Bagration ordered Raevski’s VII Corps to launch a diversionary attack, while he sought to find a crossing of the Dnieper at Stari Bikhov.

General Ivan Paskevitch, commander of the 26th Division of Raevski’s VII Corps, describes the action:

“…Therefore the Prince ordered me to attack them [Davout’s troops] and after it to occupy the town [Mogilev]… Early in the morning of 11th [by Russian, Gregorian calendar, i.e. 23rd] we began to advance. Between us and the enemy was a distance of 5 km. In one and quarter kilometres we encountered his infantry of the advance guard and ousted them from the wood…

Marshal Davout himself expecting an attack, had beforehand prepared the defence. The bridge at Saltanovska had been demolished and the walls of the tavern were cut through with gun loopholes, situated on the left side of the ravine covering all the line of the French. The bridge at the Fatovoy Mill had been demolished and in the neighbouring houses loopholes were also made. Three battalions had been placed near Saltanovka; one battalion at Fatovoy, having for themselves in reserve another five battalions, four battalions were between Fatovoy and the village of Seltsen and near the ravine and in front of the last village had been placed two more battalions. …

The infantry of Marshal Davoust consisted of two regiments of Compans’ Division, in which were 25 battalions, the cavalry consisted of 48 squadrons, moreover the enemy expected to be reinforced by a detachment of General Pazholya’s and the Polish Legion of the Vistula, but these troops joined him only after the battle… [Against these, the] 26th Division had only eight battalions and the 12th ten battalions. All the [VII] Corps consisted of five regiments of the 26th Division and three regiments of the 12th Division, twenty squadrons of cavalry, three Cossack regiments and 72 guns. …

In the middle of the wood I met our engaged skirmishers, withdrawing from the French skirmishers. The enemy on this road outflanked our left. The firing of my first battalion had stopped and had overrun the enemy. I ordered [them] to drive them to the edge of the woods and followed with the rest of the troops. …leaving the woods… skirmished with the enemy, lying behind a small rising, in front of the town of Fatovoy. Behind them I caught sight of the glittering bayonets of two French columns. The distance between them was no more than 130 metres. The dense wood did not allow me to turn the troops in column, I was forced to move to the right by sections, to leave the wood and form them in front of the edge. The firing continued. …I ordered Colonel Ladizhenski to attack with a shout of ‘Ura!’ on the enemy as far as the stream, to overthrow [those] on the bridge, and having occupied the first houses on that side, to wait for my orders. The enemy was immediately overthrown and ran… as far as the bridge. Seeing that the battalion passed the bridge I brought forward 12 guns onto the height and ordered the Poltava Regiment, under the cover of the battery, to go also on that side. … Having moved up to the battery six more guns and having placed the Ladoga Regiment on the left flank, I set off to the right flank. To my astonishment I found that the enemy skirmishers were ensconced there in the ravine… our artillery, losing men and horses, drew off from the position. I stopped them. … Having ordered the [Poltava] Regiment to halt, riding farther and expecting to meet the Orlov and Nishki Novogorod battalions and seeing two battalions departing from the wood to the rear of my position, I galloped towards them, but to my surprise I saw at 30 paces French grenadiers. Colonel Ashar ordered about. The French charged our battalion… ‘Lads, forward!’ I shouted to the Poltava Regiment. They hesitated, ‘Ura! Charge! … From the men I heard a voice, ‘even the artillery is with us.’ ‘Well’, I said ‘hold there.’ Riding down towards the artillery arranged behind my position was a battery of four guns returning towards the Poltava Regiment … The enemy having seen their retreat, began with shouts of ‘Forward!’ The regiment made way and caseshot struck into the French battalions. They stopped, confused. I drew up to the Poltava Regiment, ordered ‘Forward!’ They charged and drove the enemy up to the bridge. …

The Nishki Novgorod and Orlov battalions at first overthrew the enemy and crossed the bridge, occupied an inn and the little village of several peasant huts on that side of the ravine. Barely had they been deployed, when from this small village four French battalions appeared; lying in the rye, they rose up at a distance of 60 metres, volleyed and charged with the bayonet. The fighting was entered into hand-to-hand. The French rushed on the white ensign of the Orlov Regiment and captured it by killing the ensign. [One of] our NCOs snatch it away from the Frenchman, but he was killed. The ensign was again lost. Once again it was seized up, and in the fight the staff was broken. At this time the adjutant of the Orlov Regiment rushed into the middle, took away the ensign and bore it from the fight. Colonel Ladizhenski was wounded in the jaw… Half of our two battalions were killed or wounded. They were forced to retreat and thrown back onto the wood. They were pursued by two battalions. Setting the battery, we fired for more than one and a half hours. …

At the time I heard on the right side a severe firefight. This was General Raevski attacking the front of the enemy’s position. The woods, surrounding the village of Saltanovka did not allow any other approach. On the main road was an enemy battery. At the end of the road… was a bridge. The Smolensk Regiment of the 12th Division moved forward with astonishing firmness, but could not seize the bridge. Generals Raevski and Vasilchikov dismounted to walk in front of the columns*, but the advantage of the [enemy] situation destroyed all the exertions of courage of our soldiers. They could not burst into the village and on the road endured all the fire of the enemy’s battery.” …

(*This was immortalised in Mykola Samokysh’s famous painting of Raevski, accompanied by his sons aged 11 and 17, at the head of the Smolenski Infantry Regiment).

“I sent a report to General Raevski that I had encountered on the left flank, not 6 000 but maybe 20 000. Therefore it was necessary to dislodge them, [he must] dispatch to me reinforcements of several battalions. General Raevski answered that the attacks on him were beaten off, but that he had lost many men and consequently could not send any more than one battalion.

It was about 4 pm, my troops were already tired, only the cavalry not being in the fighting and that only because the woodland position did not allow the use of them. I obtained the despatch of a battalion of the 41st Jäger Regiment and went into the woods in a wide enveloping movement on the right flank of the enemy. The elderly Colonel Savoini was ordered to appear from the woods and descend on the enemy, in order that he… [could] cross the bridge at Fatovoy and attack the French at bayonet point. On the left I found Colonel Ladizhenski with the Nizhegorod battalion, who directed a vigorous skirmish across the ravine… General Raevski’s adjutant arrived with orders to retire. …

To provide time for the troops to organise, I ordered the artillery to move off, two guns from the flank being left at the entrance to the wood… The others passed through the wood at a trot. The skirmishers were told that when the last two guns were removed, they could rush back on the flanks of the artillery. This was all carried out precisely. The enemy, seeing this apparent retreat, rushed headlong on us, but here, being met by caseshot from the two guns and the battalion fire of the two regiments, they stopped and we passed the wood so successfully that I did not lose any guns. …

We continued to retreat, covering the horse on the flanks and occupied the heights behind us. … The cannonade did not stop.”

Raevski’s reported to Bagration that 2 458 officers and men had been killed, wounded or missing. French casualties were of a similar proportion. An officer of the Poltava Infantry Regiment, who had lost an arm from a cannonball,

“calmly picked it [his arm] up and left the battlefield. As he was passing Bagration, he saluted him with the remaining hand.”

The rearguard action at Mogilev allowed Bagration’s engineers to build a bridge over the Dnieper at Stary Bikhov by which his Second Western Army crossed, and continued its retreat to Smolensk, via Mtsislav.

Taken from Spring, L (2009) 1812: Russia’s Patriotic War. The History Press, Stroud Gloucestershire, UK. p. 44–48.

Writing to Poniatowski on 26th July, Davout stated, “I see that the battle of the 23rd put great confusion into their projects, but they will follow them in part, and my first manoeuvre is not to let myself be separated from the emperor, who to-day must be in Vitebsk. Raevski’s two divisions must be looked on as hors de combat.”

Taken from Dodge, TA (2008) Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia. First Published 1904-07. Frontline Books (and imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd), Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. p. 82

This post was contributed by James Fisher.

Ney’s Escape

As the rearguard for 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 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, 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.”

Accounts by Palmer, Nafziger and de Ségur vary on the details, but in general, what followed is this:  Ney tried to force his way through for five hours before taking a different approach.  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.

In the morning, Cossacks found the survivors and a running battle ensued.  At nightfall, the IIIrd Corps occupied a town and set it on fire for warmth before slipping away again.  In the meanwhile, an officer had been sent ahead on horseback to Orsha to alert the army of Ney’s situation.  All that day they fought their way forward.  Anyone who could not keep up was lost.  As night approached on the 21st, Ney’s men could hear a signal gun being fired by Eugène’s corps and responded with volley fire.  The two groups advanced toward each other and had a joyous reunion.

While Ney only had 900 men under arms remaining and had lost all of the stragglers, news of his safe return to the army lifted the spirits of everyone.  Napoleon was overjoyed and bestowed on Ney the title “Bravest of the Brave.”