Tag Archives: Grande Armee

A Crowded Road

The purpose of this blog is to tell about what daily life on the campaign was like for the soldiers who experienced it.  Two things that are often overlooked are the fact that the French made up only about half of the 500,000 strong Grandé Armée.  The rest was made up of countries that had been conquered by France and its allies.

The other is that Russia didn’t have a lot of roads.  Marching a few hundred thousand soldiers (with wagons, artillery, cavalry, etc….) down the same narrow, unpaved road and there are bound to be disputes that break down among national lines.  Following is an account from an unnamed artillery lieutenant serving with troops from Würtemberg [Confederation of the Rhine, now part of Germany] in Ney’s IIIrd Corps:

Wurttemberg artillery piece

“Not only the 3rd Corps was on the march, but often the Imperial Guard as well and sometimes several other corps, all on the same road which, on top of all this, was frequently almost impassable for artillery.  As a result serious disagreements were caused every day by the extreme difficulty in observing a regular order of march.  The artillery was particularly bad in this respect, because if anything broke on a wagon or a gun, or if a horse had to be unharnessed on account of exhaustion, the vehicle in question would be cut off by the troops behind, and it was perhaps evening before it reached the bivouac and could rejoin its battery.  Under these circumstances the French infantry were so unpleasant and brutal that their officers, so as to prevent an unfortunate, godforsaken gun from travelling near, let alone in front of them, would more often than not have bayonets leveled at the leading horses and strike the soldiers of the train.  On our side this behavior aroused intense hatred and bitterest resentment…”

The officer wrote that his brigade often marched on the flank of the corps and sometimes, the artillery would not be able to follow them the whole way and would be obliged to return to the main road.

“…When we did this, nobody wanted to let us into the column, and we had to try and secure a tiny place on the road by dint of asking pleasantly, sometimes with insults and oaths, often at sword-point.  I can honestly say that none of the hardships and dangers of this campaign irked me half as much as this daily bickering and squabbling on the march.  As I was the only officer in the battery who spoke French, it always fell to me to conduct these wrangles.”

Source: 1812: Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia by Antony Brett-James

Pleased To See Her Countrymen… Initially

On 28th June, the Countess de Choiseul-Gouffier, who had recently been at the ball held in honour of General Levin-Bennigsen that was attended by the Czar, witnessed the entry of the lead elements of la Grande Armée into Vilna:

“I can find no words to describe my emotions when I saw some Polish troops! Poles who were galloping at full speed, sabres drawn and laughing, waving their lance pennants, which were in the national colours. I was wearing these for the first time! I stood at an open window, and they saluted me as they passed. The sight of these real compatriots set my heart racing. I felt that I was Polish by birth, that I was going to to become Polish again. Tears of joy and enthusiasm streamed down my face. This was a delicious moment , but it was not to last long.”

She continued:

“The French army who entered Vilna had not had bread for three days… The country through which the Grande Armée had passed had been ravaged and pillaged and its corn had been cut green for cavalry; it could not, therefore, supply the needs of the capital, and the people dared not even expose their convoys on the roads which were infested by marauders.

Besides, the disorderly behaviour of the army was a consequence of the sentiment of the chief, for after having crossed the Nieman Napoleon in an order of the day declared to the troops that they were about to set foot on Russian territory. It was like this that the liberator of Poland, so much desired, announced himself to the Lithuanians. In consequence of this Proclamation Lithuania was considered and treated as a hostile country, while its inhabitants, animated by patriotic enthusiasm flew to welcome the French. They were soon to be desported and outraged by those who they regarded as the instruments of the deliverance of their country and compelled to abandon their homes and their property to pillage. Many took refuge in the depths of the forest, carrying with them that which they hold the most dear—honour of their wives and children.

Each day brought the recital of new excesses committed by the French soldier in the country. Vilna seemed to have become a seat of war, soldiers bivouacked in the streets, which resounded with the clash of arms, the blare of trumpets, the neighing of horses and the confusion of many languages.”

Taken from Spring, L (2009) 1812: Russia’s Patriotic War. The History Press, Stroud Gloucestershire, UK. pp. 26 & 27.  Thank  you to James Fisher for providing this post.