Tag Archives: General Robert Wilson

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.

Mistreatment of French Prisoners

General Wilson continues his observations about the retreat after the first snow fall of early November.  “At Viazma, fifty French, by a savage order, were burned alive.  In another village fifty men had been buried alive; but these terrible acts of ferocity were minor features – they ended in death with comparitively little protracted suffering.  Here death, so much invited, so solicited as a friend, came with dilatory step; but still he came without interval of torturing pause.”

“I will cite three or four of the most painful indcidents that I witnessed.

1. A number of naked men, whose backs had been frozen while they warmed the front of their bodies, sat round the burning embers of a hut.  Sensible at last to the chill of the air, they had succeeded in turning themselves, when the fire caught the congealed flesh, and a hard burnt crust covered the whole of their backs.  The wretches were still living as I passed.

2.  Sixty dying naked men, whose necks were laid upon a felled tree, while Russian men and women with large faggot-sticks, singing in chorus and hopping round, with repeated blows struck out their brains in succession.

3.  A group of wounded men, at the ashes of another cottage, sitting and lying over the body of a comrade which they had roasted, and the flesh of which they had begun to eat.

4.  A French woman, naked to her chemise, with black, long, dishevelled hair, sitting on the snow, where she had remained the whole day and in that situation had been delivered of a child, which had afterwards been stolen from her.  This was the extreme of mental anguish and bodily suffering.

I could cite a variety of other sad and sorry calamities, but the very recollection is loathsome.”

Source:
1812: Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, Antony Brett-James, p 222

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

Action Outside of Viasma and Panic in the Ranks

In Alan Palmer’s book, Napoleon in Russia, he describes the action that took place three miles to the east of Viasma as the French column headed west.  Since leaving Moscow, Davout’s Ist Corps had served as rearguard.

Platov Cossacks
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

During the day of November 3rd, 1812, Davout’s Corps was harassed by the Russian army and Cossacks.  As they neared Viasma, the Cossacks were able to cut off the column and capture parts of the baggage train which was travelling unguarded between corps as part of the column.

Colonel Lubin Griois is cut off from his guns and finds refuge in a hollow square formed by the Italian 92nd regiment.  The mass of stragglers among the ranks makes maneuvering and issuing orders difficult.  “This mass of isolated men, recognizing neither chiefs nor discipline and only heeding it thirst for pillage, was sorely tried.  At first the cannon shots it had halted, not knowing where to go in the fog that surrounded it.  Swollen by…  vivandières and a multitude of little carts laden with children and foodstuffs, it was throwing itself now to one side, now to the other, according to where the last projectile to strike in its midst had come from.  This flux and reflux of round shot, ploughing furrows in every direction and from which arose screams of despair, presented a horrible spectacle.  For very good reasons the units that were fighting repulsed these fugitives who were trying to take refuge in their midst, so that the poor wretches found themselves exposed to the enemy’s fire and sometimes to our squares’ too.  They floated in disorder over terrain littered with dead, wounded and shattered vehicles.”

In preparation for a general action, Ney’s 3rd Corps came back east to cover the column as it approached Viasma.  Near evening, Davout’s corps spotted some Russians and came under artillery fire.  The corps broke and ran for Viasma while Ney’s corps covered the retreat.  General Robert Wilson, watching from the Russian lines wrote that Ist Corps, “broke and rushed to the points of passage [through IIIrd Corps] in great confusion.  A regiment of Russian grenadiers charged his rearguard into the town, bayoneting all who resisted.”

Throughout the night there were artillery duels which caused the French to take up their arms, but no attacks came.  Viasma caught fire and burned.

Napoleon was 45 miles ahead to the west when he received word of the action.  Ney and his IIIrd Corps was ordered to assume the rearguard position.  Also, the baggage was to travel in the middle of the corps, not between two corps and an escort was to line both sides of the road as it traveled.

Davout’s corps had left Moscow with 30,000 men and was now down to 15,000.

Sources:
Napoleon in Russia, Alan Palmer, pp 212 – 214

1812 The Great Retreat told by survivors, Paul Britten Austin, pp 69 & 71

Commemorative 1912 card images and translations provided by Alexey Temnikov

Approaching Malo-Jaroslavets

General Sir Robert Wilson was at Kutuzov’s headquarters on October 23 when messengers began arriving with news that the French had left Moscow.  “It was clear Malo-Yaroslavets was the point on which the enemy was moving; and whilst the corps was getting under arms, advice was received that the enemy from Fominskoye was already on the march in that direction.  Not a moment was lost: by seven o’clock the corps of Dokhturov was straining every nerve to reach Malo-Yaroslavets before the enemy whose lights were frequently visible during the night, as the columns occasionally approached within a mile or two of each other.”

Inscription on the picture – Oh no,
Will They Eat Horse Meat as the Turks?
Inscription on the card –
I Said Will They Eat Horse Meat?
Kutuzov at Fili
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

“Malo-Yaroslavets is built upon the side and summit of a lofty hill, rising immediately above the Luzha, and over which river is a bridge distant about a hundred yards from the ravine.  The ground on both flanks of the town, ascending from the river, is woody and steep, and the ground on the left is intersected with very deep fissures and ravines, so as to be impracticable for artillery movements from the bank of the river.  The whole town is built of wood; near the summit of the hill there is an open space like a grande place; and near the ravine, at the bottom are a church and a couple or more of houses that command the approach.”

Meanwhile, on the French side, Jakob Walter was outside Malo-Yaroslavets on guard duty the night before the battle: “Near Jaroslavetz in the evening the Russian Moldavian army, which had come from Turkey, met us.  In this city I was ordered on guard at the headquarters of the general staff while the army encamped in front of the city.  Here the inhumanity of the commanders began to mount: the remaining troops’ weapons were inspected, and many who did not have their weapons fairly rust-free got 12-20 strokes with a club until they were near desperation.”

Sources:
The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter, p. 59

1812: Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, Antony Brett-James, p. 213

Alexander appoints Kutusov

The withdrawal from Smolensk caused a further deterioration in the relations between the Russian generals and increased anti-Barclay sentiment. According to Sir Robert Wilson:

“The spirit of the Army was affected by a sense of mortification and all ranks loudly and boldly complained; discontent was general and discipline relaxing. The removal [of Barclay de Tolly]… had become a universal demand.”

On the 17th of August, in a letter to Alexander, General Count Shuvalov, one of the Czar’s advisors, presented his master with a stark decision:

“The Army has not the least confidence in the present Commander. … A new commander is necessary, one with authority over both armies and Your Majesty should appoint him immediately; otherwise Russia is lost.”

General Prince Mikhail Golnishchev-Kutusov was recommended as the new

Portrait of
Field Marshal Kutuzov
By George Dawe,
painted in 1829
Hermitage Museum,
St. Petersburg

Russian army commander by the committee of senior officers whom Alexander had charged with the task. Alexander was reluctant to appoint Kutusov, whom he had disliked since the disastrous Battle of Austerlitz, but, on 20th August, he signed the decree. Lord George Cathcart noted:

“in appointing Koutousof [sic.], it was considered that his long-standing in the Army, his recent able conduct of the Turkish campaign, and his former military reputation, would place him above rivalry, and that in consequence he might be a kind of head to unite all parties.”

Source: From Mikaberdize, A (2007) The Battle of Borodino: Napoleon versus Kutuzov. Campaign Chronicles (Ed. C Summerville). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, England. pp. 19–21.

Thank you to James Fisher for providing the information for this blog post.

The Russian withdrawal from Smolensk

Ilya Radozhitskii was a Russian artillery officer who served during the campaign of 1812 and wrote his memoirs after the war.  He describes the Russian withdrawal after Smolensk:

During the night of 7 [19] August the 1st Army moved from Smolensk in two columns: the left, consisting of the 5th and 6th Infantry Corps and two cavalry corps, moved on a safer road through the village of Prudische while the right, consisting of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Corps with a rearguard under General [Fedor] Korf, was ordered to proceed across a hilly countryside, following the road through Krakhotkino and Zhabino to Bredikhino in order to get to the main [Moscow] road, which was protected by General Tuchkov III’s detachment in front of the village of Lubino.

At 9 p.m. on 6 [18] August my unit set off with the right column from Smolensk, marching through the night of 7 [19] August across hills and ravines covered with dense shrubs. The night was dark and damp. At dawn, sleep overcame me so I sat on a gun carriage and, leaning my head against the carriage, gave myself away to sweet dreams. Just as my cannon descended on a slope, English Lord Wilson happened to be passing by and saw how the gunners held me so I did not fall off the carriage, and upon seeing the General, began to wake me up. The venerable Lord saw all of it and admiring the gunners’ care for their officer. He gave them a sign with his hand to let me sleep. When I woke, they told me about the kind “red” general who, as I learned later, was an Englishman assigned to our Commander-in-Chief and tasked by the [British] envoy to serve as an observer [to the Russian army].

At dawn on 7 [19] August we approached the main road, where General Tuchkov’s detachment waited for us, and heard a cannonade coming from behind us. It was Prince of Wurttemberg’s division from the 2nd Corps, engaging the French at the village of Gorbunovo, which the French had captured, thereby cutting off the rearguard of General Korf. The French then turned to the main road and advanced towards General Tuchkov’s detachment, which held positions between the villages of Toporovshina and Latynina on the Stragan’ Rivulet. The enemy engaged this detachment before the 2nd Corps, which was delayed at Gorbunovo, managed to get to the main road. Meanwhile we were moving with the 4th Corps, ahead of the 2nd Corps, and had already passed the village of Lubino when we were turned back to reinforce General Tuchkov’s detachment, which the French engaged so vigorously that it was forced to retreat across the Stragan’ Rivulet.

By 3 o’clock in the afternoon the battle intensified. A ferocious firefight was being waged in the brush all along the line. Because of the smoke that rose incessantly from musket fire, the brush seemed to be on fire. For several hours the French had tried in vain to break through our center. A murderous rain of lead claimed many victims. Skirmishers could hardly see each other and Death stealthily claimed the brave souls. The attacking enemy columns were annihilated by the canister rounds fired by our batteries as well as the bayonets of our grenadiers. Meanwhile, the French [VIII] Corps of General Junot, accompanied by numerous cavalry, appeared on the hill against our left flank. Our 4th Corps was immediately moved to face this new threat.

Staff-Captain [Alexander] Figner, as the commander of 3rd Light Artillery Company, was still in reserve when the regiments of our corps moved left and up the hill. However, he understood that we would be soon committed to the battle and ordered the available wine rations to be given to his artillery crews. He borrowed this method of maintaining soldiers’ courage from the French, who, upon falling into our hands, usually carried rum or vodka instead of water, in the canister behind their knapsacks… After wishing his gun crews success in victory, Figner went ahead, out of ordinary curiosity, to observe the battle but soon returned and ordered everyone to mount the gun carriages and caissons at once. We quickly rode to the left flank but had to pass through swamp that delayed our movement. Having moved through the marsh, our guns began to ascend a steep hill, where a cavalry melee was taking place. We could hear a rumbling noise, shouting and occasional cannon fire. Suddenly to the left of us, the Cossacks descended the hill; some of them quickly turned back but three Cossacks kept descending, accompanying a fat Württemberg trumpeter who was unhorsed. He wore a blue uniform with red lapels and big boots, which occasionally tripped him. The poor lad had probably blown his trumpet too much since he was bathed in sweat and red-faced as usually happens after a lot of work. But he seemed to be proud of the fact that three Cossacks were assigned to escort him.

Climbing up the hill, we observed a rather curious spectacle. The Pernovskii Regiment stood in line on the top of hill, with six of our cannon on its right flank while the remaining guns had to remain on the slope because of a lack of space. In front of the Pernovskii Regiment, we could see blue, red, gray and green hussars deployed, by squadrons and with horse artillery guns, in the brush. The cavalry melee unfolded before our eyes. It was fascinating to see how a few squadrons of French hussars charged at our horsemen, who fled at full gallop before receiving reinforcements, turned around and drove the French back. Only shrapnel and bullets stopped their charges but as they recalled, they were again attacked and pursued by the French. Such fighting resembled the knightly tournaments: some cavalrymen fell from their horses; some, finding themselves amidst the enemy, were waving their sabers; one shot his pistol, the other hacked [with his saber] at the enemy; horses crashed into each other, became frenzied and rushed away… To the right of the hill Prince Gurielov was with the Polotskii Infantry Regiment, deployed in woods that covered the hill slopes. At one point he moved forward from the woods to attack the enemy cavalry’s flank but quickly faced a similar threat and was forced to stop.

Figner’s cannon remained idle because they had to shoot through our own men. Meanwhile, as I observed the overall course of the battle, I noticed French infantry on our right flank, which was moving through the brush at the bottom of the hill. The French drove our jagers back. I rushed to inform Figner about this, emphasizing the consequences if the French managed to get behind us. He told me to take six guns, descend from the hill and move to the main road while he followed me with the remaining guns. I was delayed by the swamp at the bottom of the hill and managed to move five guns before the sixth got stuck in the swamp. As they came out of the brush, the [French] skirmishers stumbled

Re-enactors portray a Russian Artillery crew

directly upon my guns. Upon seeing my cannon so close to them, the French rushed towards me. Their bullets began to buzz sharply above us and the tight space and difficult terrain prevented me from deploying for action so I decided to hasten towards the main road. The crackling of musket fire and smoke kept approaching us; bullets began to pierce our gunners, horses and strike at gun carriages…. Our jagers, with muskets in arms and leaning, hurried to hide from the deadly lead behind my guns. Their officer shouted to them, “Where are you going, lads? Come back, please, you should be ashamed!” But nobody listened to him. Suddenly Generals – Commander-in-Chief Barclay de Tolly, accompanied by Lord [Robert] Wilson, Count [Alexander] Kutaisov, Osterman, Orlov, Korf and others – appeared in front of us. They all shouted at the fleeing men, “Where are you going! Stop! Turn back!” The soldiers stopped and turned back. The Commander-in-Chief rode up to me and asked sternly, “Where did you come from?” – “From there” I replied, pointing to the hill on the left. And he went onwards. The generals were followed by dense columns of grenadiers from Count Arakcheyev’s Leib-Grenadier and Yekaterinoslavskiii Grenadier Regiments: these were tall fellows with pale faces, holding their muskets at the ready and marching at a brisk pace to meet death. With the cry of “Hurrah!” they charged into the brush and restored order with bayonets. Five minutes later, many of them, bloodied and half dead, returned leaning on the shoulders of their comrades … It was impossible not to shudder as one witnessed the withering of the finest colors of the Russian might.

The fast approaching darkness failed to end the ferocious battle. Despite our persistence, the French continued to fight until midnight ignoring the heavy casualties they suffered. They lost a general of division [Charles Etienne Gudin] who was killed, but in return captured General [Pavel] Tuchkov,[1] which caused our skirmishers to flee. General Konovnitsyn and his grenadiers, however, managed to save the day and hold the ground.

After my departure, Staff Captain Figner remained behind with six guns, with the Pernovskii Regiment on the left flank. His personal courage saved my cannon which had been mired in the swamp. We witnessed his gallantry. Upon observing from the hill top that the French had driven our skirmishers out of the brush and could capture the mired gun, he descended from the hill with a saber and pistol in hand. His commanding voice rallied the fleeing soldiers. Figner managed to gather about 15 men whom he hid in the woods. As the crowd [tolpa] of French, shouting incessantly “Avance! Avance!,” approached the ambush, Figner ordered his men to fire a volley and then rushed with a naked saber and pistol towards the officer who led the French, grabbed him and threatened to kill him [if he did not surrender]. This surprise attack completely stopped the French – the officer surrendered while his men showed their backs to us. As Figner dragged the officer, the chevalier of the Legion of Honour, by the collar, he came across the Commander-in-Chief who, having learned of Figner’s feat, immediately congratulated him with a promotion to captain. We were all thrilled by the feat and congratulated Figner. He unexpectedly became unusually contemplative and withdrawn and did not want to do anything in the company, leaving it to me as the next senior officer.

The gun and musket fire of this combat had such an effect on me. As well the fleeing skirmishers and the proximity of danger so frightened me that I kept hearing gunfire throughout the night even though there was none, and still envisioned the blackened skinny French skirmishers who pursued our jagers. The recently experienced fever and continued exposure to the horrors of war affected my mind. Besides, having marched for over thirty verstas [20 miles] on very poor roads in darkness since yesterday evening, we spent the entire day on our feet and in the midst of battle only to continue retreating throughout the night. I was not the only one exhausted by such exertion and both men and horses barely trudged along.

After the battle, we stopped for about two hours at our main headquarters, crossed the Brovenka River at night and joined the rest of the army at Lubino before resuming our retreat. On 8 [20] August, we crossed the Dnieper at the Solovyevo crossing. This location was very important to us and if they had anticipated our move, the French would have caused us plenty of harm. The riverbanks here are low lying, sandy and covered on both sides with small woods that are quite disadvantageous for defending against an enemy. We stopped for the night four verstas [2.5 miles] from the crossing.

From there on, the French pursuit eased off as the most recent fights had cooled their ardor. Besides, it was said that Napoleon was still at Smolensk, pondering [what to do next.]

At dawn of the following day, 1st Army’s entire artillery concentrated into a general park before moving to the Moscow River. We marched by companies where possible and passed each other by as we moved. The dust and heat were intolerable. Artillery spanned six rows on the wide road, which was so ploughed over [by carriages] that in some places we walked knee-deep in finely ground dirt that felt like powder; while the wheels rolled without making any noise. The entire artillery park was commanded by Colonel Voyeikov. For several verstas back and forth one could not see anything but artillery and baggage trains, moving in dense clouds of dust that kept rising to the sky. We walked as if shrouded in fog; the sun seemed purple and neither the greenery by the side of the road nor the paint on gun carriages could be discerned. Soldiers were covered from head to toe in gray dust, and our faces and hands were black from dust and sweat. We swallowed and breathed the dust. As the heat tormented us with thirst, we could not find any refreshments. In such miserable conditions we happened to pass by a crowd of French prisoners, who had been captured in the last battle and were happy to see us hastily retreating. They mockingly told us that we would not get away from Napoleon because they now made up the vanguard of his army.

I must admit that our soldiers became very disheartened after the battle at Smolensk. The blood that had been shed in the ruins of Smolensk, all the effort made to resist the enemy as well as retreating on the Moscow road into the depths of Russia itself had made each and every one of us feel powerless against our terrible conqueror. Each of us witnessed heartrending visions of perishing Fatherland. Residents from nearby villages ran to us, leaving the greater part of their positions to their friends and enemies. Burning villages were behind and all around us, announcing the approaching French troops. The Cossacks destroyed everything that was left behind following the passage of our troops so that the enemy found only barren and desolate land everywhere. Thus, desperate Russia tormented her own womb.


[1] General Pavel Tuchkov commanded a brigade in the 17th Division of the 2nd Corps and was tasked with defending a road junction at Lubino/Valutina Gora. During the battle, he led a counterattack with the Ekaterinoslavskii Grenadier Regiment but was captured after receiving a bayonet wound to the abdomen and several saber cuts to the head. He was well treated by Marshal Alexander Berthier and eventually met Napoleon, who had him transported to Metz, where Tuchkov remained until early 1814

The above account is from Alexander Mikaberidze’s translation of Ilya Radozhitskii’s Campaign Memoirs.  Tolstoy consulted Radozhitskii’s memoirs when writing War and Peace.  Many thanks to Alex for generously providing this blog post.

Bloggers Note:  This is the 100th post of this blog (including 13 re-posts from 2011).  Thank you to everyone reading out there and to James Fisher and Alex Mikaberidze for providing material for blog posts ˜ Scott Armstrong

Mistreatment of French Prisoners

General Wilson continues his observations about the retreat after the first snow fall of early November.  “At Viazma, fifty French, by a savage order, were burned alive.  In another village fifty men had been buried alive; but these terrible acts of ferocity were minor features – they ended in death with comparitively little protracted suffering.  Here death, so much invited, so solicited as a friend, came with dilatory step; but still he came without interval of torturing pause.”

“I will cite three or four of the most painful indcidents that I witnessed.

1. A number of naked men, whose backs had been frozen while they warmed the front of their bodies, sat round the burning embers of a hut.  Sensible at last to the chill of the air, they had succeeded in turning themselves, when the fire caught the congealed flesh, and a hard burnt crust covered the whole of their backs.  The wretches were still living as I passed.

2.  Sixty dying naked men, whose necks were laid upon a felled tree, while Russian men and women with large faggot-sticks, singing in chorus and hopping round, with repeated blows struck out their brains in succession.

3.  A group of wounded men, at the ashes of another cottage, sitting and lying over the body of a comrade which they had roasted, and the flesh of which they had begun to eat.

4.  A French woman, naked to her chemise, with black, long, dishevelled hair, sitting on the snow, where she had remained the whole day and in that situation had been delivered of a child, which had afterwards been stolen from her.  This was the extreme of mental anguish and bodily suffering.

I could cite a variety of other sad and sorry calamities, but the very recollection is loathsome.”

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.”

Approaching Malo-Jaroslavets

General Sir Robert Wilson was a Kutuzov’s headquarters on October 23 when messengers began arriving with news that the French had left Moscow.  “It was clear Malo-Yaroslavets was the point on which the enemy was moving; and whilst the corps was getting under arms, advice was received that the enemy from Fominskoye was already on the march in that direction.  Not a moment was lost: by seven o’clock the corps of Dokhturov was straining every nerve to reach Malo-Yaroslavets before the enemy who lights were frequently visible during the night, as the columns occasionally approached within a mile or two of each other.”

“Malo-Yaroslavets is built upon the side and summit of a lofty hill, rising immediately above the Luzha, and over which river is a bridge distant about a hundred yards from the ravine.  The ground on both flanks of the town, ascending from the river, is woody and steep, and the ground on the left is intersected with very deep fissures and ravines, so as to be impracticable for artillery movements from the bank of the river.  The whole town is built of wood; near the summit of the hill there is an open space like a grande place; and near the ravine, at the bottom are a church and a couple or more of houses that command the approach.”

Meanwhile, on the French side, Jakob Walter was outside Malo-Yaroslavets on guard duty the night before the battle: “Near Jaroslavetz in the evening the Russian Moldavian army, which had come from Turkey, met us.  In this city I was ordered on guard at the headquarters of the general staff while the army encamped in front of the city.  Here the inhumanity of the commanders began to mount: the remaining troops’ weapons were inspected, and many who did not have their weapons fairly rust-free got 12-20 strokes with a club until they were near desperation.”