Tag Archives: George F. Nafziger

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

 

The Toll so Far

Napoleon himself stayed in Smolensk until the 14th.  The last unit to leave was Ney’s IIIrd Corps on the 17th.  According to author George F. Nafziger, of the 100,000 men who had left Moscow in October, only about 41,500 remained.  The Imperial Guard was 14,000 of this number.  Eugène’s IVth Corps had 5,000 left while Davout’s Ist Corps had 10,000.  The V and VIII Corps (Poles and Westphalians) were merged and totaled 1,500.  The Minard map puts the total reaching Smolensk at 37,000, Ségur at 36,000.

Philippe-Paul de Ségur,  Napoleon’s aide-de-camp, describes how Napoleon “… had counted on finding fifteen days’ provisions and forage for an army of a hundred thousand men; there was not more than half that quantity of rice, flour, and spirits, and no meat at all.  We heard him shouting in great fury at one of the men who had been entrusted with the responsibility of providing those supplies. This commissary, it is said, saved his life only by crawling on his knees at Napoleon’s feet.  The reasons he gave probably did more for him than his supplications.”

The man explained “When I reached Smolensk, the bands of deserters the army had left behind in its advance on Moscow had already invested the city with horror and destruction.  Men were dying there as they had died on the road.  When we had succeeded in establishing some sort of order, the Jews were the first to furnish some provisions.  Some Lithuanian noblemen followed their example, inspired perhaps by a nobler motive.  Then the long convoys of supplies collected in Germany began to appear…  Several hundred head of German and Italian cattle were driven in at the same time.”

Dead in the Snow
by Ferdinand Boissard

“A horrible, death-dealing stench from the piles of corpses … was poisoning the air.  The dead were killing the living.  The civil employees and many of the soldiers were stricken, some of them to all appearances becoming idiots, weeping or fixing their hollow eyes steadily on the ground.  There were some whose hair stiffened, stood on end, all twisted into strings; then, in the midst of a torrent of blasphemy, or even more ghastly laughter, they dropped dead.”

The cattle were slaughtered “…. immediately.  These beasts would neither eat nor walk…. several convoys were intercepted, some supply depots taken, and a drove of eight hundred oxen were recently seized at Krasnoye.”

In short, the reserves were gone, drawn down by other units that had spent time in the city.  Other provisions had been sent east to meet the army as it retreated. Napoleon’s plans for spending the winter in Smolensk, if that was his intention, were gone.

Sources:
Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, George F. Nafziger, p 305

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, p 184 – 185

The Emperor’s Narrow Escape

George F. Nafziger in his book, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, describes the events surrounding a sudden attack by the Cossacks on the morning of the 25th that nearly caused Napoleon to be captured or killed.  Napoleon had set out in the early morning hours to reconnoiter the situation before deciding his next move.  He took two squadrons of the Chasseurs à Cheval de la Garde Imperiale as an escort.  A swarm of Cossacks appeared and charged at the group.  Napoleon’s staff officers joined in the fight and the enemy was beaten off.

Napoleon decided to back-track and head north to retrace the route of the advance rather than continue on the southerly route.  He did not realize Kutusov had abandoned his positions.  A more thorough reconnaissance would have revealed that Malo-Jaroslavets was abandoned.   This is one of the few cases where both armies retreated from the field of battle.

Sergeant Adrien Bourgogne, a member of the Imperial Guard, participated in this skirmish which he describes in his memoirs:  “On the 25th I had been on guard since the previous evening near a little house where the Emperor had spent the night.  There was a thick fog, as there often is in October.  All at once, without informing anyone, the Emperor mounted his horse, merely followed by some orderly officers.  He had scarcely gone, when we hear a great noise.  Just at first we supposed it to be cries of ‘Vive L’Empereur!‘ but then we heard the order ‘Aux armes!‘ — ‘To arms!’  Six thousand Cossacks, commanded by Platoff, had come to surprise us, favoured by the fog and the deep ravines.  The squadrons of the Guard on duty flew across the plain.  We followed them, crossing a ravine to make a short-cut.  We found ourselves directly in front of this host of savages, who howled like wolves as they drew back.  Our squadrons came up with them, recaptured what they had taken of our baggage and wagons, and inflicted heavy losses on them.”

“When we got to the plain, we saw that the Emperor was in the midst of the Cossacks, surrounded by Generals and by his orderly officers, one of whom was dangerously wounded through a fatal mistake.  Just as the squadrons arrived on the plain, many of the officers, for their own defense and that of the Emperor, who had nearly been taken in the midst of them, had been obliged to use their swords against the Cossacks.  One of the orderly officers dropped his hat and his sword after killing and wounding several of the Cossacks; so, finding himself defenseless, he threw himself on a Cossack, and took his lance from him.  Just at that moment a mounted Grenadier of the Guard caught sight of him, and, thinking from his green cloak and his lance that he was a Cossack, rushed at him, and ran him through the body.”

“The unhappy Grenadier, on seeing his mistake, endeavoured to get killed.  He flung himself amongst the enemy, striking to right and left, but everyone fled before him.  After killing several men, without being able to die himself, he returned, alone and covered with blood, to ask after the officer he had wounded.  Fortunately he [the wounded officer] recovered, and was taken back to France in a sledge.”

“I remember that, just after this incident, the Emperor was talking to Murat, laughing at the narrow escape he had had of being taken.”

The Battle of Malo-Jaroslavets

Sergeant Bourgogne gives an overview of the battle.  But, being a member of the Imperial Guard, he was not involved in the fighting: “On the 24th we found we were near Kalonga, and that same day, at Malo-Jaroslawetz, the army of Italy,

Battle of Maloyaroslavets
by Pitr Gess

commanded by Prince Eugène, engaged the Russian arm, which was endeavouring to prevent our passage.  In this bloody struggle 16,000 of our men met 70,000 Russians.  The Russians lost 8,000 men, and we 3,000.  Many of our superior officers were killed and wounded — amongst them General Delzous, struck on the forehead by a ball.  His brother, a Colonel, in trying to save him, was himself shot, and both died together on the same spot.”

Jakob Walter describes his experience that morning: “Then everyone packed up, and the enemy attacked us.  The decision was soon to the advantage of the Russians, and all ran in a crowded retreat, the army moving toward Kaluga with the Cossacks in front of and beside us.  The enemy army behind us shattered all the army corps, leaving each of us then without his commanding officer.  Those who were too weak to carry their weapons or knapsacks threw them away, and all looked like a crowd of gypsies.”

“Then we came to a second city, Borovsk.  Here the city was immediately ablaze; and, in order for us to get through, soldiers had to be used to quench the flames.  Camp was pitched by this city, and it became dark.  One no sooner thought of resting than the Russians fell upon our army and cut off many as captives.  Everything was in confusion, and during almost the whole night the throng had to retreat to Moshaisk, everyone running as not to fall into the hands of the enemy.  Because of these considerable losses, cannon, munition wagons, coaches, and baggage wagons by the hundreds had to be thrown into the water; and, where that was impossible, all wagons were burned, not one wheel being permitted to remain whole.  The sutlers, even the cavalry, had to give up their horses so that these could be hitched to the cannon.  The fighting, the shrieking, the firing of large and small guns, hunger and thirst, and all conceivable moments increased the never-ending confusion.  Indeed, even the lice seemed to seek supremacy, for their number on both officers and privates was in the thousands.”

The battle raged from 4 am to 11 pm on the 24th.  Most of the troops involved from the French side were Prince Eugène’s Italians and the two sides drove each other back and forth through the village which caught on fire during the battle.  George Nafziger writes that both armies committed about 24,000 troops to the battle with French losses at about 6,000 and Russian at about 8,000.  Neither side occupied the village that night.

Feeding the Army on the March

In George F. Nafziger’s book, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, he writes that Napoleon is unfairly criticized for the lack of provisions for the army during the Russian campaign.
Foraging on the move rather than relying on a supply train had worked for the French army’s advantage for many years.  Napoleon was aware of the poor foraging situation he would find in Russia.  The French studied the Russian campaign of Sweden’s Charles the XII and knew about the Russian’s scorched earth tactic.
Napoleon began accumulating supplies in depots a year prior to the invasion.  To move the provisions, Napoleon planned on using wagons and increasing their capacity by adding two more horses to the usual four.  This reduced the need for wagons.  When rains hit, however, the wagons sank in the poor Russian roads and could not keep up with the advancing army.
Napoleon’s plan was to engage the enemy quickly and not advance as far as Moscow, making a long supply train unnecessary.  The Russians, however, refused to stand and fight and Napoleon continued to advance, stretching his supply train.

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.”

The Toll so Far

Napoleon himself stayed in Smolensk until the 14th.  The last unit to leave was Ney’s IIIrd Corps on the 17th.  According to author George F. Nafziger, of the 100,000 men who had left Moscow in October, only about 41,500 remained.  The Imperial Guard was 14,000 of this number.  Eugène’s IVth Corps had 5,000 left while Davout’s Ist Corps had 10,000.  The V and VIII Corps (Poles and Westphalians) were merged and totaled 1,500.  The Minard map puts the total reaching Smolensk at 37,000, de Ségur at 36,000.

Philippe-Paul de Ségur,  Napoleon’s aide-de-camp, describes how Napoleon “… had counted on finding fifteen days’ provisions and forage for an army of a hundred thousand men; there was not more than half that quantity of rice, flour, and spirits, and no meat at all.  We heard him shouting in great fury at one of the men who had been entrusted with the responsibility of providing those supplies. This commissary, it is said, saved his life only by crawling on his knees at Napoleon’s feet.  The reasons he gave probably did more for him than his supplications.”

The man explained “When I reached Smolensk, the bands of deserters the army had left behind in its advance on Moscow had already invested the city with horror and destruction.  Men were dying there as they had died on the road.  When we had succeeded in establishing some sort of order, the Jews were the first to forunish some provisions.  Some Lithuanian noblemen followed their example, inspired perhaps by a nobler motive.  Then the long convoys of supplies collected in Germany began to appear…  Several hundred head of German and Italian cattle were driven in at the same time.”

“A horrible, death-dealing stench from the piles of corpses … was poisoning the air.  The dead were killing the living.  The civil employees and many of the soldiers were stricken, some of them to all appearances becoming idiots, weeping or fixing their hollow eyes steadily on the ground.  There were some whose hair stiffened, stood on end, all twisted into strings; then, in the midst of a torrent of blasphemy, or even more ghastly laughter, they dropped dead.”

The cattle were slaughtered “…. immediately.  These beasts would neither eat nor walk…. several convoys were intercepted, some supply depots taken, and a drove of eight hundred oxen were recently seized at Krasnoye.”

In short, the reserves were gone, drawn down by other units that had spent time in the city.  Other provisions had been sent east to meet the army as it retreated. Napoleon’s plans for spending the winter in Smolensk, if that was his intention, were gone.