Tag Archives: horses

The Army Begins to Leave Smolensk

On the 14th, Napoleon left Smolensk.  The corps of Eugene, Davout and Ney were to follow at one day intervals.  Sgt. Adrian Bourgogne who was a member of the Imperial Guard followed a short time after Napoleon acting as rearguard of the men accompanying the Emperor.  We pick up Bourgogne’s narration while he was waiting for the artillery to cross a ravine:  “When we were at the other side, I saw three men round a dead horse; two of them staggered about as if they were drunk.  The third, a German, lay on the horse; the poor wretch was dying of hunger, and, not being able to cut the flesh, was trying to bite it.  He soon afterwards died where he was of cold and hunger.  The two others, Hussars, were covered with blood about the hands and mouth.”

“…walking by the side of the highroad to come up with the right of the column, and then wait for our regiment near a fire, if we were lucky enough to find one…. all along our way we were forced to step over the dead and dying…  we saw a man of the line sitting against a tree near a little fire; he was busy melting snow in a saucepan to cook the liver and heart of a horse he had just killed with his bayonet.”

“As we had rice and oatmeal with us, we asked him to lend us the saucepan to cook them, so that we could all eat together.  He was so delighted; so with the rice and straw-oatmeal we made some soup, seasoning it with a little sugar… as we had no salt.  While our soup was cooking, we roasted some bits of liver and kidneys from a horse, and enjoyed it greatly.”

Meanwhile, 90,000 Russian troops under General Mikhail Kutuzov, who were marching on a parallel road, finally caught up to and passed the Grande Armée.

Source:
Sergeant Bourgogne: With Napoleon’s Imperial Guard in the Russian Campaign and on the Retreat from Moscow 1812-13, Adrien Bourgogne, pp 101 – 102

The Twenty-Eighth Bulletin

Napoleon issued periodic progress reports in numbered bulletins.  Number 28 was issued on November 12, 1812 from Smolensk.  It began as follows: “The Imperial headquarters were, on 1 November, at Viasma, and on the 9th at Smolensk.  The weather was very fine up to the 6th, but on the 7th winter began; the ground is covered with snow.  The roads have become very slippery, and very difficult for carriage horses.  We have lost many men by cold and fatigue; night bivouacking is very injurious to them.”

“Since the battle of Maloyaroslavetz, the advanced guard has seen no other enemy than the Cossacks, who like the Arabs, prowl upon the flanks and fly about to annoy.”

The bulletin goes on to note that since the bad weather started on the 6th, more than 3,000 carriage horses and 100 caissons had been lost.

Philippe-Paul de Ségur described the scene when the stragglers were turned away from the store houses because they were not with their regiments:  “So these men scattered through the streets, their only hope now being in pillage.  But the carcasses of horses cleaned of meat down to the bone lying everywhere indicated the presence of famine.  The doors and windows had been torn out of all the houses as fuel for the campfires, so the men found no shelter there.  No winter quarters had been prepared, no wood provided.  The sick and wounded were left out in the streets on the carts that had brought them in.  Once again the deadly highroad was passing through an empty name!  Here was one more bivouac among deceptive ruins, colder even than the forests the men had just left.”

“Finally these disorganized troops sought out their regiments and rejoined them momentarily in order to obtain their rations.  But all the bread… had already been distributed, as had the biscuits and meat.  Rye flour, dry vegetables, and brandy were measured out to them.  The best efforts of the guards were needed to prevent the detachments of the different corps from killing each other around the doors of the storehouses.  When after interminable formalities the wretched fare was delivered to them, the soldiers refused to carry it back to their regiments.  They broke open the the sacks, snatched a few pounds of flour out of them, and went into hiding until they had devoured it.  It was the same with brandy.  The next day the houses were found full of the corpses of these unfortunate warriors.”

Source:
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, p 183

Jakob Walter tries to enter Smolensk

Jakob Walter‘s regiment  had difficulty gaining entrance to the city as described in Sgt. Bourgogne’s account.  Walter arrived on November 12 still riding his horse drawn sled.

“When I arrived at Smolensk, it was raining rather heavily, and my sled could be pulled only with great effort.  When I came toward the city, the crowd was so dense that for hours I could not penetrate into the column, for the guard [i.e., Imperial Guard] and the artillery with the help of the gendarmes knocked everyone out of the way, right and left.  With effort I finally pressed through, holding my horse by the head, and accompanied by sword blows I passed over the bridge.  In front of the city gate I and my regiment, now disorganized, moved to the right toward the city wall beside the Dnieper River.  Here we settled down and had to camp for two days.  As had been reported to us beforehand, we were to engage in battle with the enemy here and also to get bread and flour from the warehouses.  Neither of the two reports, however, proved to be true. The distress mounted higher and higher, and horses were shot and eaten.  Because I could not get even a piece of meat and my hunger became too violent, I took along the pot I carried, stationed myself beside a horse that was being shot, and caught up the blood from its breast.  I set this blood on the fire, let it coagulate, and ate the lumps without salt.”

Source:
The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter, p 67

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.

“A Terrible Effort Every Single Day”

Faber du Faur painted two scenes dated November 7.  Both dedicated to showing the effects the recent snow had upon the army.

Between Dorogobouye and Mikalevka,
7 November
by Faber du Faur

Between Dorogobouye and Mikalevka, 7 November
“The order had been given for us to turn off the Kaluga road and make our way to the Smolensk-Moscow road.  Until that point, despite the numerous difficulties we had encountered along near impassable roads – difficulties that often led to losses of men, horses and caissons – we had, at least, always managed to find some food.  We had, too, always marched as a disciplined body and had not lost a gun, despite fighting in some particularly bloody engagements.  But now we found ourselves in a land already stripped by both ourselves and our enemies.”

“Even so, we still hoped to reach Smolensk before the furies of winter fell upon us – Smolensk, where we would find well-stocked magazines and shelter, where Victor and his corps, placed in reserve, would bid us a warm welcome.  Therefore, led by our hope, we traversed the field of Borodino, marched through Gjatsk and, on the 3rd, pushed through the Russians at Viasma.  However, on the 5th and 6th the sky grew overcast and there were occasional flurries of snow.  On the 7th a massive snowstorm robbed us of the day and announced the true arrival of the Russian winter.  We struggled forward, unsure of where we were or who surrounded us.  The furious storm blew huge flakes of ice into our faces – flakes which soon settled and sought to obstruct our march.  The horses found the going difficult on the icy surface and gave up  Convoys and, for the first time, cannon were abandoned.  The road began to be littered with frozen bodies, and these, soon covered with a snowy winding sheet, formed small mounds.  This was all that was to remain of so many of our comrades-in-arms.”

“The Russian winter finished off what the starvation, exhaustion and retreat had been unable to accomplish.  The army disbanded and melted away.  Now it resembled a rabble – men of all arms, of all army corps, marching in small bands or alone.  They had not deliberately abandoned their flags, but cold and an instinct for self-preservation made men quit their units.  Continuing the march was a terrible effort every single day; for the gunners it was especially tough as they tried to look after their horses and save their guns.  The most terrible part, though, was the night – sixteen hours of darkness, camped in the snow, without food, without a fire.  The first such winter camp was that at Mikalevka, on the night of the 7th.”

Camp Near Mikalevka,
7 November
by Faber du Faur

Camp Near Mikalevka, 7 November
The fatal retreat had begun.  The ancient city of the Czars was nothing but a heap of smouldering rubble and eyes had turned westwards towards far-off homelands.  Whilst the sky had been serene and our feet trod upon firm earth, all had gone well.  Our thin garments had protected us from autumnal breezes, we found food in villages, and the soldiers, even when suffering, had hope of better things to come.  But the sky clouded over, the snow fell and the icy North came down upon us with all its attendant furies.  The road disappeared and, for as far as one could see, a sheet of white stretched to the horizon.  The faithful gunners made incredible efforts to save their pieces; they buried  those they could no longer drag with them.”

“After a day in which we had suffered as never before, we reached a village and came across some snow-covered huts.  Some of our comrades had preceded us and sought out shelter for us.  But all was quiet and we assumed they had now abandoned the huts and resumed their march.  As we drew nearer, however, we came across corpses frozen stiff and saw in their fate our own destiny.  We sought to brace ourselves for all the future could hurl against us, but the sinister end to the first day of winter marked but the start of our woe.”

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

“Soldiers Fell Upon the Fallen Horses”

Philippe-Paul de Ségur served as Napoleon’s Aide-de-Camp and witnessed almost everything Napoleon did.  In his words, “less an actor than a witness, never leaving the Emperor’s side for more than a few feet, and then only to deliver several of his orders and see that they were carried out.”

Philippe de Ségur
by François Gérard

In his book Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, de Ségur has some observations of the difficulties of moving artillery and wagons in early November.  It also shows the desperation of the men, even at this early stage of the retreat.  “The road was constantly running through swampy hollows.  The wagons would slide down their ice-covered slopes and stick in the deep mud at the bottom.  To get out they had to climb the opposite incline, thickly coated with ice on which the horses’ hoofs, with their smooth, worn-out shoes, could find no hold.  One after another they slipped back exhausted — horse and drivers on top of each other.  Then the famished soldiers fell upon the fallen horses, killed them and cut them in pieces.  They roasted the meat over fires made from the wrecked wagons, and devoured it half cooked and bloody.”

“Our crack troops, the artillerymen and their officers, all of whom were products of the world’s finest military school, drove these poor fellows out of their way and unhitched the teams from their own carriages and baggage wagons, which they sacrificed willingly to save the cannon.  They harnessed their horses to the guns — they even harnessed themselves and pulled with the horses.  The Cossacks did not dare to approach but watched our difficulties from a safe distance.  However, using field pieces mounted on sleds, they dropped solid-shot into our midst, greatly increasing the disorder.”

“By the second of November the 1st Corps had already lost ten thousand men….”

Source:
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 164 – 165

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