Tag Archives: Dorogobuzh

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

Jakob Walter is Robbed of his Bread

Early in the retreat, Jakob Walter was invited to attach himself to a major as an attendant.  Somehow he became separated from the major after a few days.  Walter managed to secure a horse and then took a small sled from a peasant.  After fashioning a harness from a sack and two ropes, he rode the sled “…through the burned cities of Viasma, Semlevo, and Dorogobush without finding my master.  Once, while I was eating some of my aforementioned bread, several Frenchmen saw me.  These inhuman men surrounded me with the pretext of buying bread; and, when the word ‘bread’ was mentioned, everyone bolted at me, so that I thought my death was near; but through an extraordinary chance there came along some Germans, whom I now called to my aid.  They struck at my horse so that most of the Frenchmen fell back from me and then were entirely beaten off.”

“Among these Germans were two sergeants from my regiment called N. and N.  After I was free, they took my bread and walked away.  Not they, I could see now, but rather their hunger and my bread were both my redeemers and, at the same time, my robbers.  Although I had already given them a loaf, they robbed me!  But this, my dear readers, is to be judged otherwise than you think.  There are stories in which people have murdered and eaten each other on account of hunger, but certainly this incident was still a long way from murder.  Since starvation had risen to a high degree, why could not such a thing happen?  And, besides that, much of the humanity of man had already vanished because of hunger.”

Source:
The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter, pp 65 – 66

Aftermath in Viazma

Sir Robert Wilson, an English General attached as an observer to the Russians, wrote about what he found after the French had left Viazma.  “The shells that the enemy [the French] had buried in the different houses then burning were continually exploding, and the passage through the streets was very dangerous.  This thoughtless conduct of the enemy was the death-warrant of many an unfortunate wretch.  I had the satisfaction, however, of seeing a very interesting Swiss family saved.  The two daughters were as beautiful young women as I ever saw in my life.  The first day I proceeded forty versts, the next seventeen, the next twenty-five, when we entered Dorogobuzh by force, the enemy having two divisions in the town who attempted some resistance.  The marches were very severe, as the weather was of the most desperate character; but the scene for the whole route represented such a spectacle that every personal consideration was absorbed by the feelings that the sight of so much woe excited.”

“The naked masses of dead and dying men; the mangled carcasses of ten thousand horses, which had, in some cases, been cut for food before life had ceased, the craving of famine at other points forming groups of cannibals; the air enveloped in flame and smoke; the prayers of hundreds of naked wretches, flying from the peasantry whose shouts of vengeance echoed incessantly through the woods; the wrecks of cannon, powder-wagons, military stores of all descriptions, and every ordinary as well as extraordinary ill of war combined with the asperity of the climate, formed such a scene as probably was never witnessed to such an extent in the history of the world.”

1812: Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, Antony Brett-James, pp 221 – 222

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 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.

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

Jakob Walter is Robbed of his Bread

Early in the retreat, Jakob Walter was invited to attach himself to a major as the major’s attendant.  Somehow he became separated from the major after a few days.  Walter managed to secure a horse and then took a small sled from a peasant.  After fashioning a harness from a sack and two ropes, he rode the sled “…through the burned cities of Viasma, Semlevo, and Dorogobush without finding my master.  Once, while I was eating some of my aforementioned bread, several Frenchmen saw me.  These inhuman men surrounded me with the pretext of buying bread; and, when the word ‘bread’ was mentioned, everyone bolted at me, so that I thought my death was near; but through an extraordinary chance there came along some Germans, whom I now called to my aid.  They struck at my horse so that most of the Frenchmen fell back from me and then were entirely beaten off.”

“Among these Germans were two sergeants from my regiment called N. and N.  After I was free, they took my bread and walked away.  Not they, I could see now, but rather their hunger and my bread were both my redeemers and, at the same time, my robbers.  Although I had already given them a loaf, they robbed me!  But this, my dear readers, is to be judged otherwise than you think.  There are stories in which people have murdered and eaten each other on account of hunger, but certainly this incident was still a long way from murder.  Since starvation had risen to a high degree, why could not such a thing happen?  And, besides that, much of the humanity of man had already vanished because of hunger.”

Aftermath in Viazma

Sir Robert Wilson, an English General attached as an observer to the Russians, wrote about what he found after the French had left Viazma.  “The shells that the enemy [the French] had buried in the different houses then burning were continually exploding, and the passage through the streets was very dangerous.  This thoughtless conduct of the enemy was the death-warrant of many an unfortunate wretch.  I had the satisfaction, however, of seeing a very interesting Swiss family saved.  The two daughters were as beautiful young women as I ever saw in my life.  The first day I proceeded forty versts, the next seventeen, the next twenty-five, when we entered Dorogobuzh by force, the enemy having two divisions in the town who attempted some resistance.  The marches were very severe, as the weather was of the most desperate character; but the scene for the whole route represented such a spectacle that every personal consideration was absorbed by the feelings that the sight of so much woe excited.”

“The naked masses of dead and dying men; the mangled carcasses of ten thousand horses, which had, in some cases, been cut for food before life had ceased, the craving of famine at other points forming groups of cannibals; the air enveloped in flame and smoke; the prayers of hundreds of naked wretches, flying from the peasantry whose shouts of vengeance echoed incessantly through the woods; the wrecks of cannon, powder-wagons, military stores of all descriptions, and every ordinary as well as extraordinary ill of war combined with the asperity of the climate, formed such a scene as probably was never witnessed to such an extent in the history of the world.”