Tag Archives: Foraging

Jakob Walter Goes Foraging

Jakob Walter had attached himself to his regimental major as an orderly.  In the burning town of Gzhatsk, they became separated, “Here again many cannon were thrown into the water and part of them buried.  The pressure was so frightful that I and my major lost each other.  Now I had the second horse to myself, and we could not find each other again that day, nor even for another ten days.”

“Thus in the evening I rode apart from the army to find in the outlying district some straw for the horse and rye for myself.  I was not alone, for over a strip ten hours wide soldiers sought provisions because of their hunger; and, when there was nothing to be found, they could hunt up cabbage stalks here and there from under the snow, cut off some of the pulp from these, and let the core slowly thaw out in their mouths.    Nevertheless, this time I had a second considerable piece of luck.  I came to a village not yet burned where there were still sheaves of grain.  I laid these before the horse and plucked off several heads of grain.  I hulled them, laid the kernels mixed with chaff into a hand grinder which had been left in a house, and, taking turns with several other soldiers, ground some flour.  Then we laid the dough, which we rolled into only fist-sized little loaves, on a bed of coals.  Although the outside of the loaves burned to charcoal, the bread inside could be eaten.  I got as many as fifteen such balls.”

“For further supply, whenever I came upon sheaves of grain, I picked the heads, rubbed off the kernels, and ate them from my bread sack during the course of the day.  Several times I also found hempseed, which I likewise ate raw out of my pocket; and cooked hempseed was a delicacy for me because the grains burst open and produced an oily sauce; yet since I could not get salt for cooking, it did not have its full strength.”

Sergeant Bourgogne came across some of the wounded, “On the 2nd, before getting to Slawkowo, we saw close to the road a blockhaus, or military station — a kind of large fortified shed, filled with men from different regiments, and many wounded.  All those who could follow us did so, and the slightly wounded were placed, as many as possible, in our carts.  Those more seriously wounded were left, with their surgeons and doctors, to the mercy of the enemy.”

Sources:
The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter, pp 63 – 64

Sergeant Bourgogne, Adrien Bourgogne, p 67

Pillaging the Burnt City

Philippe-Paul de Ségur describes the scene as Napoleon returns to Moscow after having fled the flames, “The Emperor saw that his entire army was scattered over the city.  His progress was impeded by long lines of marauders going for plunder or returning with it…”

Napoleon in Burning Moscow

“He stumbled over the debris of all sorts of furniture which had been thrown out of the windows to save it from the flames, or over heaps of rich plunder that had been abandoned in favor of other loot; for soldiers are like that, snatching up anything they can lay their hands on, greedily loading themselves with more than they can hope to carry, then after a few steps finding their strength unequal to the load, dropping , piece by piece, the greater part of their booty.”

“The thoroughfares were blocked with it, and the public squares, like the camps, had become markets where the superfluous was being exchanged for the necessary.  The most precious of articles, not appreciated by their possessors, were sold for next to nothing, while other things having a deceptively rich appearance brought more than they were worth.  Gold, being easier to carry, was bought at a great loss for silver, which the knapsacks would not hold.  Soldiers were seated everywhere on bundles of merchandise on heaps of coffee and sugar, in the midst of the finest wines and liquors that they were trying to trade for bread.”

Horses in a Church

“It was through such disorder that Napoleon rode back into Moscow.  He willingly gave it over to pillage, trusting that his soldiers, scattered everywhere over the ruins, would not search them fruitlessly.  But when he saw that the disorder was increasing, that even the Old Guard was involved in it, that the Russian peasants, attracted by the prices they were able to get for their wares, were being robbed by our famished soldiers of the food they were bringing us, when he realized that all the still existing resources were being squandered by this lawless pillage — then he reined in the Guard and issued severe orders.  The churches in which our cavalry had taken shelter were evacuated and reopened for worship…”

“But it was too late!  The soldiers had disappeared, the terrified peasants never returned, and many, many supplies had been wasted.  The French army had been guilty of similar mistakes before, but in this case the fire was their excuse, as they had been compelled to act in haste to get ahead of the flames.  It is remarkable enough that order was restored at the Emperor’s first command.”

Source:

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp. 114 – 116

Foraging

The swift moving Grande Armée quickly outran the supply train making it necessary for the army to forage.  This was part of the plan and the cavalry had even been issued scythes so they could harvest grain for their horses as they went along.  Each man carried four days of provisions as he crossed the Nieman River into Russia.

From The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier by Jakob Walter

Jakob Walter describes how he was part of a foraging party in late July along the Dvina River in the area of Polotsk.  (Polotsk was to the north-west of Vitebsk, also along the Dvina River, where the battle described in yesterday’s post took place).  Walter writes about his foraging expedition, “There were eight of us, and we came to a very distant village.  Here we searched all the houses.  There were no peasants left…  each [soldier] ran into a house alone, broke open everything that was covered, and searched all the floors and still nothing was found…  I once more inspected a little hut somewhat removed from the village.  Around it from top to bottom were heaped bundles of hemp and shives, which I tore down; and, as I worked my way to the ground, sacks full of flour appeared.”  They sifted the flour to remove the chaff and refilled the sacks.  Walter remembered seeing a horse somewhere in the village.  They found two colts, but one couldn’t be used.  Two sacks were placed on the remaining horse and they started back to camp.  “While we were marching there, the Russians saw us from a distance with this booty; and at the same moment we saw a troop of peasants in the valley, about fifty.  These ran toward us.  What could we do but shoot at them?  I, however, led the horse, and a second man held the sacks while the rest fired, one after another, so that the peasants divided in order not to be hit so easily; but they could not take the sacks away from us.”

They came to a deep stream with only a round tree trunk laid across as a bridge.  Walter volunteered to carry the sacks across and suggested they throw the horse into the water.  Walter made it across with his sacks, quite a feat he said, on a log without handrails.  The horse was driven across by throwing stones at it and then re-loaded on the far bank.

They made dough balls with the flour and roasted it in the fire.  The food lasted for a week.

About the same time, at Vitebsk, Sgt. Bourgogne had an easier time getting his provisions.  He was visited by twelve young men from his “country” (Conde in northern France on the border of Belgium).  Ten were drummers, one a drum-major and the other a voltigeur.  They invited him to “…come with us and share what we have, wine, gin, and other things very good for you.  We took them yesterday evening from the Russian General.  There was a little cart holding his kitchen and everything belonging to it.  We have put it all into the canteen cart, with Florencia our cantiniere – she is a pretty Spandiard.”

Sgt. Bourgogne ends this episode with a sad note, “The poor fellows little thought that in a few days eleven of them would not be alive.”  These events took place at the end of July.  The drummers were killed at the Battle of Borodino in September.

French vs. German Foragers

In yesterday’s post, we read about the animosity between the French and German troops in Ney’s IIIrd Corps.  Today’s post is an interesting observation about the differences between French and German foragers.  The observer states that the French were much better foragers than the Germans.  The interesting thing is that the observer was German, a Württemberger, General graf von Scheler.  Von Scheler was also in Ney’s Corps, the same Corps as yesterday’s eyewitness.

In a report to the King of Bavaria, von Scheler discussed why the German troops suffered more than the French from lack of rations:  “The principle cause by far lies in the different natures of the German and French soldier.  Already when we crossed the Vistula all regular food supply and orderly distribution ceased, and from there as far as Moscow not a pound of meat or bread, not a glass of brandy was taken through legal distribution or regular requisition.  Beyond the Vistula, as soon as the few stocks of food had been exhausted, the order of the day was at once issued: ‘Let each man take wherever he can find it, and live as well or as badly as he can manage.’ ”

“At this point the difference between the German and French soldier became very apparent, and to the serious disadvantage of the former.  In this repect the French soldier revealed an extraordinary knack and on these exhausting detachments lived only for the good of his comrades, almost ignoring his own welfare…”

“The Germans were quite different…  Too many detachments were required for each to be led by an officer … And so the soldier, left to his own devices, thought first of filling his own belly when he found anything to eat.  In the actual hunt for food he was much too slow…  Instead of being content with a quick refreshment, he wanted first to cook everything properly…  As a result he was late, could not overtake the regiment, which had received orders to march in the meantime; and he either turned marauder and stayed in the rear, or else threw his booty away to lighten his load, and rejoined the regiment with little or nothing.”

“…there remained no other method, unfortunately, except to leave most of the supplies to chance or to the zeal of individuals, because the sending-out of detachments had to be abandoned, seeing that a number of men vanished to no purpose, whereas the French foraging parties returned well-laden to camp.”

“… the temperament of the German soldier was not suited to conducting this foraging with the same cunning, speed, self-sacrifice, and camaraderie as were required when swift marches and few halts were customary.”

Faber du Faur, an artillery officer and artist, also served with the Württemberg contingent in the IIIrd Corps.  He did a painting showing troops foraging Near Eve on June 29.  The following description accompanies the painting:  “There has never been a campaign in which tropps have relied so much on living off the land, but it was the way it was done in Russia that caused such universal suffering – for the soldiers of the army as well as for the inhabitants.  Because of its rapid marches and its enormous size, the army faced a dearth of everything and it was impossible to procure event the barest necessity.”

“It was around this time that we reached Eve that one can date the start of this

Near Eve, 9 June
By Faber du Faur

fatal requisitioning and the destruction of the surrounding countryside, which, naturally, had devastating consequences.  Every day, as we broke camp, we could see clouds of marauders and isolated bodies of troops make off in all directions, setting off to find the barest of essentials.  They would return to camp in the evening, laden with their booty.”

“Inevitably, this kind of behavior made an unfortunate impression on Lithuania, which had so long been under the yoke of Russia and, instead of any benefit from its new alliance, saw only the pillaging and oppression wrought by its new allies.  In addition, discipline was sapped, and tolerating or turning a blind eye to these misdemeanors, whether or not they really benefited the troops, only speeded up the destruction of this potentially formidable army.”

Sources: 1812: Naplolen’s Defeat in Russia Antony Brett-James

With Napoleon in Russa: The Illustrated Memoirs of Major Faber du Faur Edited and Translated by Jonathan North

 

Foraging

The swift moving Grande Armée quickly outran the supply train making it necessary for the army to forage.  This was part of the plan and the cavalry had even been issued scythes so they could harvest grain for their horses as they went along.  Each man carried four days of provisions as he crossed the Nieman River into Russia.

From The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier by Jakob Walter

Jakob Walter describes how he was part of a foraging party in late July along the Dvina River in the area of Polotsk.  (Polotsk was to the north-west of Vitebsk, also along the Dvina River, where the battle described in yesterday’s post took place).  Walter writes about his foraging expedition, “There were eight of us, and we came to a very distant village.  Here we searched all the houses.  There were no peasants left…  each [soldier] ran into a house alone, broke open everything that was covered, and searched all the floors and still nothing was found…  I once more inspected a little hut somewhat removed from the village.  Around it from top to bottom were heaped bundles of hemp and shives, which I tore down; and, as I worked my way to the ground, sacks full of flour appeared.”  They sifted the flour to remove the chaff and refilled the sacks.  Walter remembered seeing a horse somewhere in the village.  They found two colts, but one couldn’t be used.  Two sacks were placed on the remaining horse and they started back to camp.  “While we were marching there, the Russians saw us from a distance with this booty; and at the same moment we saw a troop of peasants in the valley, about fifty.  These ran toward us.  What could we do but shoot at them?  I, however, led the horse, and a second man held the sacks while the rest fired, one after another, so that the peasants divided in order not to be hit so easily; but they could not take the sacks away from us.”

They came to a deep stream with only a round tree trunk laid across as a bridge.  Walter volunteered to carry the sacks across and suggested they throw the horse into the water.  Walter made it across with his sacks, quite a feat he said, on a log without handrails.  The horse was driven across by throwing stones at it and then re-loaded on the far bank.

They made dough balls with the flour and roasted it in the fire.  The food lasted for a week.

About the same time, at Vitebsk, Sgt. Bourgogne had an easier time getting his provisions.  He was visited by twelve young men from his “country” (Conde in northern France on the border of Belgium).  Ten were drummers, one a drum-major and the other a voltigeur.  They invited him to “…come with us and share what we have, wine, gin, and other things very good for you.  We took them yesterday evening from the Russian General.  There was a little cart holding his kitchen and everything belonging to it.  We have put it all into the canteen cart, with Florencia our cantiniere – she is a pretty Spandiard.”

Sgt. Bourgogne ends this episode with a sad note, “The poor fellows little thought that in a few days eleven of them would not be alive.”  These events took place at the end of July.  The drummers were killed at the Battle of Borodino in September.