Tag Archives: hunger

“No, a thousand times no; never was there such a sight!”

When Napoleon left the army to return to Paris, he left Marshal Murat, King of Naples, in charge.    Captain Coignet of the Imperial Guard Grenadiers writes in his memoirs, “But it was a Wilna that we suffered most.  The weather was so severe that the men could no longer endure it; even the ravens froze.”

Retreat from RussiaNote the birds overhead

The Retreat
by Nicolas Charlet
Note the birds overhead

“We remained under the command of the King of Naples, and were not too happy in our minds, for, though he was always the first to draw a sabre or brave danger, he may truly be said to have been the executioner of our cavalry.  He kept his divisions constantly mounted all along the route, and they were more than enough to keep the Cossacks at bay; but our cavalry were dying of starvation, and when night came, the unfortunate soldiers were not able to use their horses to go for forage…  He was, indeed the handsomest horseman in Europe; but without foresight, for it was not a question of being an intrepid soldier, but of being able to economize his resources.  He lost us (I heard this said to Marshal Davout) forty thousand horses through his mismanagement.  It is always wrong to blame one’s officers; but the Emperor could have made a better selection.  There were among our leaders two warriors, rivals in glory, Marshal Ney and Prince Beauharnais, who saved us from the greatest perils by their coolness and courage.”

“The King of Naples went on to Wilna; he arrived there on the 8th of December, and we with the guard, on the 10th.  It was night when we came to the gates of the city, which were barricaded with pieces of wood.  We had the greatest difficulty in entering.  I and my comrade were lodged in a school, well warmed.”

“When I went to my general of orders, he said, ‘Be ready at four in the morning to leave the city, for the enemy is now arriving on the heights, and we shall be bombarded at daylight.  Do not lose any time.'”

“We had scarcely got ready to leave when the Russians forced the Witepsk gate; we had barely time to get out…  When we reached the mountain of Wilna the confusion was at its height.  All the material of the army and the Emperor’s carriages were on the ground.  The soldiers helped themselves to gold and silver plate.  All the chests and casks were burst open.  What a quantity of plunder was left on that spot!  No, a thousand times no; never was there such a sight!”

Louis Victor Léon Rochechouart, the French emigré officer serving on [Pavel] Chichagov’s [Russian] staff, describes the scene upon entering Vilna:

Retreat from Russia scene III“On 11 December, when the cold reached -29º Réaumur [-36º Celsius], I entered Vilna, crouching at the bottom of the carriage. We traveled forward amid human remains, frozen on the road, and hundreds of horses that had died of hunger and cold, or had broken their legs, for they were not roughshod; our servants walked in front thrusting the obstacles in the way to the right or left. It is impossible to imagine the state of Vilna during the four days after our arrival; we found sick or wounded prisoners—Frenchmen, Poles, Germans, Spaniards, Italians and Portuguese, crowded into the various convents and monasteries. It was necessary to house everybody. Happily, the French government had accumulated immense stores of provisions, which they had not been able to use, being so closely pursued by the Russians. They were distributed among all. The frozen snow which covered the streets deadened the sound of the vehicles that were constantly passing, but did not prevent hearing the cries of the wounded asking for food, or the drivers urging their horses on.“

Mikaberidze, A (2012) Russian Eyewitness Accounts of the Campaign of 1812. Frontline Books (an imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd), Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. p. 251.

Faber du Faur’s depiction of the 11th of December has the following description:

Near Eve, 11 Decemberby Faber du FaurNote the hands in the lower left

Near Eve, 11 December
by Faber du Faur
Note the hands in the lower left

Near Eve, 11 December
“We left Vilna on the 10th and abandoned thousands of dead, dying and prisoners.  We managed to avoid the chaos at Ponari, which cost the army most of the rest of its artillery and transport – and even the Imperial Treasury – and made our weary way towards Kovno, protected by a weak rearguard but sill suffering from the relentless cold.  A vast number of men died on this final forced march.”

“We finally reached Eve, a small town familiar to us from having passed through it that very summer.  How things had changed!  Eve was stripped of the charms of summer, abandoned and partially buried under the deep snow.  And the town, which in the summer had seen a brilliant army march through, was now obliged to see its ghostly streets play host to groups of miserable individuals, ruined by the Russian climate and by hunger and hoping for nothing more than to reach the banks of the Niemen at Kovno.”

Sources:
Captain Coignet: A Soldier of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard from the Italian Campaign to Waterloo, Jean-Roch Coignet, pp 233 – 234

Russian Eyewitness Accounts of the Campaign of 1812, Alexander Mikaberidze, p 251

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

Thank you to James Fisher for providing the quote from Alexander Mikaberidze’s book of Russian eyewitness accounts.

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“Let Me See My Family Again For One Hour!”

December 8 and 9, 1812 were the coldest of the retreat.  Accounts of this time detail the misery of those who had struggled on so far as the cold reached new depths.  The goal was to reach Vilna with its supposed stocked warehouses and shelter from the cold.  But the men were wary, having experienced the disappointment of Smolensk when the stores and shelter there were inadequate.

Retreat Scene from Russian-French Warby Bogdan Willewalde

Retreat Scene from Russian-French War
by Bogdan Willewalde

Lieutenant Albrecht von Muraldt wrote about how his companions were reacting: “Some wept and whimpered.  Others, totally stupefied, didn’t utter a sound.  Many behaved like lunatics, especially at the sign of a rousing fire or when, after starving for several days, they got something to eat.  Only very few indeed were still themselves.”

Surgeon-General Dominique Jean Larrey wrote about the effects of the cold on the starving men: “The muscular action became noticeably weaker. Individuals staggered like drunken men.  Their weakness grew progressively until the subject fell – a sure sign that life was totally extinct.”  Men who couldn’t keep up had to get to the side of the road, where, lacking the support of their comrades, would fall.  “Instantly they were stricken by a painful stupor, from which they went into a state of lethargic stupor, and in a few moments they’d ended their painful existence.  Often, before death, there was an involuntary emission of urine.”

Alexander Bellot de Kergorre wrote: “The habit of seeing them grow weaker enabled us to predict the moment when an individual would fall down and die.  As soon as a man began to totter you could be sure he was lost.  Still he went on a little way, as if drunk, his body still leaning forward.  Then he fell on his face.  A few drops of blood oozed from his nose.  And he expired.  In the same instant his limbs became like bars of iron.”

Dead in the Snowby Ferdinand Boissard

Dead in the Snow
by Ferdinand Boissard

As the temperature only a few miles from Vilna drops to -28° Réaumur (-35° C, -31° F),  Major C.F.M. Le Roy says the following prayer: “My God, I who find such happiness in living and admiring your beautiful sun, accord me the mercy of once again being warmed by him and not leaving my wretched remains in this barbarous icy country!  Let me see my family again for one hour!  Only one hour!  I’ll die content.  I’ve never asked anything of you, God, as you know!  I’ve only thanked you in all circumstances, happy or unhappy, as they’ve befallen me.  But this one’s beyond my strength, and if you don’t come to my aid I’m going to succumb under its weight.”

Source:
1812: The Great Retreat, Paul Britten Austin, pp 361 – 364

“The Replacements Met the Same Fate”

In contrast to his upbeat account of December 2, Faber du Faur told about the fate of the replacement soldiers who were sent to join the retreating army.

Near Smorgoni, 3 Decemberby Faber du Faur

Near Smorgoni, 3 December
by Faber du Faur

Near Smorgoni, 3 December
During the first few days of December the cold increased tremendously and the dissolution of the army was almost completed.  Those few detachments that had crossed the Beresina in good order now dissolved, and the roads we moved on were, more and more, covered with the corpses of men and horses, victims of hunger, exhaustion and, above all, the deadly cold.  The sick and the dying were soon stripped of their clothing by those that followed behind and buried under the snow.  Smolensk had been our great hope but now it was Vilna.  There we hoped to find enough to satisfy our needs and protection afforded by the numerous troops of the garrison.  Vilna would be our winter quarters.  We were prepared to sacrifice our last drop of energy to reach Vilna.”

We arrived at Smorgoni at noon on the 3rd.  There we met 1,600 replacements for our division, waiting patiently for us in this small town.  But the division was no more and, before long, the replacements met the same fate.  Assigned to the rearguard, they soon vanished after a couple of nights in the cold.  Those few who survived were in a pitiful condition by the time we reached Vilna, and we now saw what would befall any such reserves attempting to join us.”

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

The Officers Distract Themselves from Their Suffering

While the army was crossing the Berezina, Ségur made observations of the behavior of the officers around Napoleon.  “Gathered around him were men of all conditions, ranks, and ages — ministers, generals, administrators.  Particularly conspicuous among them was an elderly nobleman, a remnant of those bygone days when grace and charm and brilliance had reigned supreme.  As soon as it was daylight this sixty-year-old general [possibly Count Louis deNarbonne-Lara, Minister of War in 1791] could be seen sitting on  snow-covered log performing his morning toilet with imperturbable gaiety.  In the midst of the tempest he would adjust his well-curled and powdered wig, scoffing at disaster and the unleashed elements that were buffeting him.”

“Near this gentleman, officers of the technical corps engaged in endless dissertations…  these men sought a reason for the constant direction of the north wind as it inflicted the sharpest pain on them.  Others would be attentively studying the regular hexagonal crystals of the snowflakes covering their clothing.  The phenomenon of the parhelia, or appearance of several simultaneous images of the sun, due to the presence of ice crystals in the air, was also the subject of frequent conversations, all of which served to distract the officers from their suffering.”

Armand Augustin de Caulaincourt

Armand Augustin de Caulaincourt

General Armand de Caulaincourt on Napoleon’s staff made some observations on the 30th about the size of the army after the crossing the Berezina.  “The Beresina had swept away a large number of our strays and stragglers, who had been looting everything and thus depriving the brave fellows who remained in the ranks of the supplies which they so badly needed.  However, that was no gain, for, after the crossing, bands of irregulars formed in full view of everyone, with the object of recruiting still more stragglers.  All that remained of the First Corps was its colour-guard and a few commissioned and non-commissioned officers surrounding their marshal.  The Fourth was worse than weakened, and the Third, which had fought so valiantly against the Moldavian army, had been reduced by more than half its strength after that affair.  The Poles were in no better case.  Our cavalry, apart from the Guard, no longer existed except in the

Marshal Claude Victor-PerrinDuke of Belluno

Marshal Claude Victor-Perrin
Duke of Belluno

form of parties of stragglers, which, although the Cossacks and peasants attacked them savagely, overran the villages on our flanks.  Hunger proved an irresistible force, and the need to live, to find shelter against the cold, made men indifferent to every sort of danger.  The evil spread also to the Duke of Reggio’s [Nicolas Oudinot] corps – now joined on to Marshal Elchingen’s [Ney] – and even to the Duke of Belluno’s [Marshal Claude Victor] divisions, which formed the rear-guard.”

“Cavalry officers, who had been mustered into a company under the command of generals, dispersed also in a few days, so wretched were they , and so tortured by hunger.  Those who had a horse to feed were forced, if they did not want to lose it, to keep some distance away, as there were no supplies at all along the road.  The [Imperial] Guard…  still made an excellent impression by virtue of their general appearance, their vigour and their martial air… and the battalion each day on guard-duty kept up an astonishing standard of smartness.”

Minard map

According to the Minard map, 28,000 men made it across the Berezina.  On the morning of the 28th, the temperature was -13 degrees Fahrenheit.

Source:
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 254 – 255

With Napoleon in Russia, General Armand de Caulaincourt, pp 254 -255

On the Right Bank of the Beresina

The crossing of the Berezina was such a tragic event, that Faber du Faur created four paintings and descriptions to record the drama.  Two of the paintings were dated for November 27, 1812.

On the Right Bank of the Beresina,
27 November
by Faber du Faur

On the Right Bank of the Beresina, 27 November
“At two in the morning of the 27th the Guard and III corps, including the 25th Division – which, from six regiments of infantry, four cavalry regiments and 1,000 artillerymen, could now scarcely muster 150 men and no guns – broke camp and crossed the bridges to the right bank.  All those officers who no longer had men to command followed this movement five hours later.  This was a signal for the masses of fugitives camped on the left bank to throw themselves towards the bridges.  Dawn saw a confused crowd of men, horses and vehicles pour down towards the bridges, almost as though they were attempting to carry them by assault.  Although the enemy was still some distance off, the situation was frightening and the horror of it all was augmented by orders given to the gendarmes and pontonniers not to let anyone pass but armed men or those in formation.  All others were pushed back into the crowd, most often by force, and hundreds were crushed underfoot or thrust into the water.  Even those who were granted permission to cross the bridges were not entirely out of danger.  If they managed to negotiate the slippery ramps they were lucky, but, from there onwards, if they chanced to slip they would certainly be trampled underfoot or pushed into the icy waters of the Beresina.”

“In the midst of the confusion stood the Emperor.  He was close by the riverbank, between the two bridges, and he sought to exert some measure of order over the chaos around him.  He oversaw the crossing until the evening when, with his suite, he himself made his way to the right bank and established his headquarters in the hamlet of Zaniviki.”

“The majority of our men camped as soon as they got to the right bank.  Ignoring everything around them, they thought of nothing but lighting a fire, cooking and warming themselves.  Cruel fate!  The gusts of snow were so violent that night that it was almost impossible to keep a fire burning.  We ourselves had just managed to melt a little snow for drinking water when IX Corps arrived, hustled us out of our camp and obliged us to seek shelter further on.”

Camp on the Right Bank of the Beresina,
27 November
by Faber du Faur

Camp on the Right Bank of the Beresina, 27 November
“Forced to abandon our fire, we wandered off in the direction of Zaniviki.  We arrived there in the pitch dark with thick snow everywhere.  Imperial Headquarters was based here, as was the Guard and a mass of troops and stragglers attracted by the glow of campfires.  All the houses were occupied, and it was only after considerable effort, and some hard searching, that we found a house occupied by our staff, officers and soldiers.  We had to obtain some wood at gunpoint to feed our fire, and we settled down for the night in the deep snow.  There was no food.  Soon fighting broke out – not, as one might expect, for room inside the houses but for the houses themselves: the soldiers, maddened by the cold, had clambered onto the roofs and started to demolish the houses for wood.  The occupiers fought vainly to prevent this but, by the following morning, Zaniviki had disappeared, consumed by countless campfires.”

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

“We Could Not Help But Wonder How the French… Managed to Survive”

The weather leading up to the 24th was not as cold.  Slush and mud were a problem to those travelling by sledge.  But on the night of November 23, the temperature dropped and a blizzard struck.

So far, this blog has focused almost exclusively on the Grande Armée, but what were conditions like in the Russian army at this time?  Boris Uxkull wrote that “Men and horses are dying of hunger and exhaustion.  Only Cossacks, always lively and cheerful, manage to keep their spirits up.  The rest of us have a very hard time dragging on after the fleeing enemy, and our horses, which have no shoes, slip on the frozen ground and fall down, never to get up…  My undergarments consist of three shirts and a few pairs of long socks.  I am afraid to change them because of the freezing cold and so am eaten up with fleas and encased in filth since my sheepskin never leaves me.”

Partizans In Ambush
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

Ilia Radozhistky described the condition of the Russian army as follows: “Our soldiers were blackened and wrapped in rags, some in half-coats, others in greatcoats; some in kengi [special winter books lined with fur], others in felt boots and fur caps so that once they put away their weapons, they no longer resembled soldiers…  I myself barely survived the cold wearing a coat and double felt boots with my head wrapped in a large shawl.  The cloth was so heavy it was difficult to walk for long but severe cold did not allow for sitting…  almost everyone had some part of the body exposed to the frost and I personally had my heels frostbitten.  In such a condition, we could not but wonder how the French, lacking all means of supply, managed to survive…”

N. Muravyev wrote, “My clothes were replete with lice who constantly bothered me; sitting by the fire, I killed them by hundreds.  I often took off my shirt and steamed it over the fire, taking pleasure in the cracking sound of the burning lice.”

Source:
The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, Alexander Mikaberidze, pp 113 – 114

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