Tag Archives: faber du faur

“No, a thousand times no; never was there such a sight!”

When Napoleon left the army to return to Paris, he left Marshal Murat, King of Naples, in charge.    Captain Coignet of the Imperial Guard Grenadiers writes in his memoirs, “But it was a Wilna that we suffered most.  The weather was so severe that the men could no longer endure it; even the ravens froze.”

Retreat from RussiaNote the birds overhead

The Retreat
by Nicolas Charlet
Note the birds overhead

“We remained under the command of the King of Naples, and were not too happy in our minds, for, though he was always the first to draw a sabre or brave danger, he may truly be said to have been the executioner of our cavalry.  He kept his divisions constantly mounted all along the route, and they were more than enough to keep the Cossacks at bay; but our cavalry were dying of starvation, and when night came, the unfortunate soldiers were not able to use their horses to go for forage…  He was, indeed the handsomest horseman in Europe; but without foresight, for it was not a question of being an intrepid soldier, but of being able to economize his resources.  He lost us (I heard this said to Marshal Davout) forty thousand horses through his mismanagement.  It is always wrong to blame one’s officers; but the Emperor could have made a better selection.  There were among our leaders two warriors, rivals in glory, Marshal Ney and Prince Beauharnais, who saved us from the greatest perils by their coolness and courage.”

“The King of Naples went on to Wilna; he arrived there on the 8th of December, and we with the guard, on the 10th.  It was night when we came to the gates of the city, which were barricaded with pieces of wood.  We had the greatest difficulty in entering.  I and my comrade were lodged in a school, well warmed.”

“When I went to my general of orders, he said, ‘Be ready at four in the morning to leave the city, for the enemy is now arriving on the heights, and we shall be bombarded at daylight.  Do not lose any time.'”

“We had scarcely got ready to leave when the Russians forced the Witepsk gate; we had barely time to get out…  When we reached the mountain of Wilna the confusion was at its height.  All the material of the army and the Emperor’s carriages were on the ground.  The soldiers helped themselves to gold and silver plate.  All the chests and casks were burst open.  What a quantity of plunder was left on that spot!  No, a thousand times no; never was there such a sight!”

Louis Victor Léon Rochechouart, the French emigré officer serving on [Pavel] Chichagov’s [Russian] staff, describes the scene upon entering Vilna:

Retreat from Russia scene III“On 11 December, when the cold reached -29º Réaumur [-36º Celsius], I entered Vilna, crouching at the bottom of the carriage. We traveled forward amid human remains, frozen on the road, and hundreds of horses that had died of hunger and cold, or had broken their legs, for they were not roughshod; our servants walked in front thrusting the obstacles in the way to the right or left. It is impossible to imagine the state of Vilna during the four days after our arrival; we found sick or wounded prisoners—Frenchmen, Poles, Germans, Spaniards, Italians and Portuguese, crowded into the various convents and monasteries. It was necessary to house everybody. Happily, the French government had accumulated immense stores of provisions, which they had not been able to use, being so closely pursued by the Russians. They were distributed among all. The frozen snow which covered the streets deadened the sound of the vehicles that were constantly passing, but did not prevent hearing the cries of the wounded asking for food, or the drivers urging their horses on.“

Mikaberidze, A (2012) Russian Eyewitness Accounts of the Campaign of 1812. Frontline Books (an imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd), Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. p. 251.

Faber du Faur’s depiction of the 11th of December has the following description:

Near Eve, 11 Decemberby Faber du FaurNote the hands in the lower left

Near Eve, 11 December
by Faber du Faur
Note the hands in the lower left

Near Eve, 11 December
“We left Vilna on the 10th and abandoned thousands of dead, dying and prisoners.  We managed to avoid the chaos at Ponari, which cost the army most of the rest of its artillery and transport – and even the Imperial Treasury – and made our weary way towards Kovno, protected by a weak rearguard but sill suffering from the relentless cold.  A vast number of men died on this final forced march.”

“We finally reached Eve, a small town familiar to us from having passed through it that very summer.  How things had changed!  Eve was stripped of the charms of summer, abandoned and partially buried under the deep snow.  And the town, which in the summer had seen a brilliant army march through, was now obliged to see its ghostly streets play host to groups of miserable individuals, ruined by the Russian climate and by hunger and hoping for nothing more than to reach the banks of the Niemen at Kovno.”

Sources:
Captain Coignet: A Soldier of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard from the Italian Campaign to Waterloo, Jean-Roch Coignet, pp 233 – 234

Russian Eyewitness Accounts of the Campaign of 1812, Alexander Mikaberidze, p 251

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

Thank you to James Fisher for providing the quote from Alexander Mikaberidze’s book of Russian eyewitness accounts.

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“The Frightened Inhabitants Bolted Their Doors”

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

French Army in the Town Hall Square of Vilnius, Lithuania

French Army in the Town Hall Square of Vilnius, Lithuania

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

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

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

“That Hope was to be Cruelly Misplaced”

I will post Faber du Faur’s description that accompanies his painting of the Lichtenstein Café in two parts as some of the description pertains to the events of the 9th of December.

The Lichtenstein Cafe7 Decemberby Faber du Faur

The Lichtenstein Café
7 December
by Faber du Faur

The Lichtenstein Café, 7 December
“We finally reached Vilna, which, like Smolensk before it, was the goal of all those who had survived the disaster to date.  Vilna was inhabited, had well-stocked magazines, and could boast of food and other kinds of luxury – indeed, all the things we had done without since leaving Moscow.  Each and every soldier had been borne along by the hope of reaching Vilna, but that hope was to be cruelly misplaced.  Vilna was nothing more than the tomb of thousands, and those that survived were soon forced out, just as at Smolensk.”

“The most fortunate arrived before the bulk of the army reached the town.  They found themselves quarters, food and other essentials.  Some officers of the 25th Division were, luckily, numbered among this group, reached the town before the army and eagerly sought out the Lichtenstein Café.  This establishment became our headquarters, and all surviving officers of the Division made their way there, even those who only made it on the 9th.”

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

“The Strongest Pillaged the Weakest”

Faber du Faur’s painting depicting the scene on December 4 shows a small band defending itself from attack while stealing the blanket from a wounded man.  In the background, some troops are forming a line of skirmish.

Near Oschimany, 4 Decemberby Faber du Faur

Near Oschimany, 4 December
by Faber du Faur

Near Oschimany, 4 December
“The cold was getting worse and we were losing more and more men and horses. Many soldiers who had survived numerous campaigns and suffering of every description now succumbed to the cold.  As we headed for Vilna we were reinforced by depots and reserves.  But it was all for nothing: their support was transient and served only to augment our casualties.  Thrust from their comfortable quarters, most of these young troops, many of whom had only been in the army six months, perished during their first night in the open,”

StragglerCommemorative 1912 Russian Candy Box Card

Straggler
Commemorative 1912 Russian Candy Box Card

“The army dragged itself forward, littering the road with its dead, dying and deranged.  We were constantly harassed by bands of Cossacks, greedy for booty, who threw themselves on stragglers or small detachments.  In order to beat off such attacks, armed men gathered in bands and there were running battles in the snow with a few pieces of artillery, dragged all this way without horses, firing their final discharges in Russia.”

“Mixed in with such bravery was, however, as much cruelty and a revolting selfishness.  The strongest pillaged the weakest, the sick were stripped of their clothing and the dying were robbed of their clothes and left to die in the deep snow.  An instinct for self-preservation had snuffed out all traces of humanity in the human heart.”

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

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

“More Than Equal To The Russian Troops”

Faber du Faur arrived at Krasnoi on the night of the 15th and described the accommodations and the situation the army found itself in.

Camp at Krasnoi, 16 November
by Faber du Faur

Camp at Krasnoi, 16 November
“We had forced our way through the Russians and reached Krasnoi as night fell.  The Young Guard, under [Édouard Adolphe] Mortier, was stationed on the road to Korythnia whilst Imperial Headquarters and the Old Guard, which still counted some 5,000 men in its ranks, occupied the little town and filled every house.  Everyone else, including ourselves, had to make do with whatever shelter they could find in the streets and gardens and considered themselves lucky if they were able to warm themselves by a fire.  This is how we spent the night.  We awoke on the morning of the 16th and only then did we appreciate the losses of the day before – men were missing, equipment and matériellost – and the danger we were now in as Kutuzov’s 90,000 Russians had

Count Mikhail Miloradovich

cut all apparent means of escape.  Before us the road to Gadi was occupied by Russians, the bulk of their army lay on our left flank and Miloradovich was on the Krasnoi-Korythnia road, barring our retreat to Smolensk and preventing us from linking up with Eugène, Ney and Davout, whose troops still lay around that town.  However, we were not disheartened for we placed our confidence in Napoleon and were convinced that, however we might fare against the Russian climate, we were more than equal to the Russian troops.”

“We spent the whole of the 16th waiting for the three army corps to come up from Smolensk and making demonstrations against the Russians around Krasnoi.  The boom of cannon and the rattle of musketry resounded around this little town throughout the day.  During the night of 16/17 November the guard managed to extricate Eugène and the remains of his corps.  But as Ney and Davout had not appeared by noon on the 17th, and fearing that we had remained too long at Krasnoi, and that the defile to Orscha might be cut, we began to march off towards Lyadi.  Thus the Imperial Guard marched out of Krasnoi and attacked the Russians to our left; these quickly fell back.  All of a sudden all firing stopped and we were able to reach Lyadi without hindrance and without having seen or heard the enemy.”

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

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