Tag Archives: hunger

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

“Nothing More than a Miserable Pit”

When the army arrived at Smolensk, instead of the hoped for relief, they only found disappointment.  The shell of a city offered nothing they had hoped for.  Faber du Faur described the conditions.

Camp in Smolensk,
13 November
by Faber du Faur

Camp in Smolensk, 13 November
“So here we were in the promised land of Smolensk, a place where we thought to put an end to our suffering, the goal of our every effort.  We had imagined abundance in the city’s depots, warm houses to accommodate us and secure winter quarters to end our woe  All this had maintained our courage and kept the soldiers in the ranks.  But it was all a lie.  It was nothing more than a miserable pit, and Smolensk, instead of putting an end to the destruction, merely hastened the end of the entire army.”

“We established our camp in eighteen degrees of frost, in the midst of the burnt ruins of a house.  We had but little food, and that had had to be snatched from magazines surrounded by spectres maddened by hunger.  This is all Smolensk , that great city, had to offer.”

“We had to continue the march through the cold and horror.  And the frontier of Russia was another thirty days’ march away!  We destroyed a number of guns here and, pooling our resources, found the means to drag with us four 6-pounders – all that remained of our artillery.  We placed our sick and dying in houses in the New Square, for these had been converted into hospitals.  These hospitals could not deal with such a scale of suffering and they presented a horrifying spectacle.  The unfortunate sick were scattered here and there, in amongst the columns of the arcades or still slumbering in the wagons that had brought them here.  Abandoned by everyone, deprived of all care, the vast majority fell victim to the cold of the first night.”

“Whilst in Smolensk we heard the rumble of guns – a noise that announced the arrival of Kutuzov’s Russians.”

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

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.

Treasures and Tragedy on the Riverbank

Philippe-Paul de Ségur writes of the disaster encountered by the Army of Italy commanded by Prince Eugène, Napoleon’s step/adopted son.  Eugène had been ordered to leave the main route of the march and head from Dorogobuzh to Vitebsk to assist Marshal Oudinot.  In their path lay the river Vop which had been a small stream months before, but had now become a flooded river.

Ségur writes: “[The Vop] was a river, flowing on a wide bed of mud, with very steep banks on either side.  These ice-coated banks had to be cut through, and the order was given to tear down the houses in the neighborhood during the night to obtain lumber for a bridge.  But the Viceroy [Eugène], who was more loved than feared, was not obeyed.  The pontoon corps worked only halfheartedly, and when dawn brought the Cossacks back, the bridge which had collapsed twice was abandoned.”

“Five or six thousand soldiers still in orderly formation, twice as many disbanded men, and the sick or wounded, over a hundred guns with their caissons, and innumerable vehicles lined the riverbank over an area of several square miles.  They tried to ford the river through the blocks of ice swept along by the current.  The first cannon that made the attempt reached the opposite bank safely; but the water was rising higher minute by minute, and the wheels and the horses’ struggles were digging a constantly deepening path at the point from which they crossed.  One heavy ammunition wagon became hopelessly stuck in the mud, others piled up on it, and everything came to a stop.”

“But day was drawing to a close, and they were wearing themselves out in fruitless efforts.  Pressed by the hunger, cold, and the Cossacks, the Viceroy had no choice but to order the abandonment of his artillery and all his supplies.  It was a sorrowful sight.  The owners of this wealth had scarcely time to part company with their possessions.  While they were selecting the most indispensable objects and loading them onto their horses, a mob of soldiers fell upon the magnificent carriages and broke everything to pieces, avenging themselves for their poverty and suffering on this wealth, and keeping it from the Cossacks who were watching from a distance.”

“Most of the soldiers, interested chiefly in food, rejected embroidered garments, pictures, gilded bronzes, valuable ornaments in favor of a few handfuls of flour.  That evening the riverbank presented a strange sight, with the riches of Paris and Moscow, the luxuries of two of the world’s great cities, lying scattered and despised on the snowy waste.”

“Meanwhile the artillerymen, knowing there was no hope, were spiking their guns and scattering their powder…”

“A few hundred men, still bearing the name of the 14th Division, were left to oppose these barbarians [Cossacks], and they were able to keep them at a respectful distance till the next morning.  All the others, soldiers, administrators, women and children, sick and wounded, pursued by the enemy’s fire, crowded to the edge of the torrent  But at the sight of the swollen waters and the enormous, jagged sheets of ice, they drew back, dreading to increase the already unbearable cold by plunging into the icy stream.”

“It was an Italian, Colonel Delfanti, who made the first move.  Then the soldiers pressed forward, and the crowd followed.  Only the weakest, the most cowardly, or the greediest remained on the bank.  Such as could not bring themselves to part with their plunder, to abandon their fortunes, were punished for their hesitation.  the next day, the savage Cossacks were seen in the midst of all this wealth, still covetous of the dirty, tattered garments of the unfortunate creatures who had become their prisoners.  After taking all their clothes they collected them in bands and drove them naked through the snow, beating them cruelly with the shafts of their spears.”

NOTE: Ségur calls the river the Wop while George F. Nafziger calls it the Vop.    The proper name is Vop.

Source:
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 177 – 179

“The Gates Were Closed Against Them”

Philippe-Paul de Ségur describes the arrival of the army at Smolensk on the 9th of November, 1812.  After marching for weeks, they had finally arrived at the place where they thought food and shelter would be found.  Readers will recall that Smolensk was the walled city the French had captured in August after the city burned in a raging inferno.

“At length the army came within sight of Smolensk again. The soldiers pointed it out to each other. Here was the end of their suffering, here was the land of promise where famine would be changed to abundance, and weariness would find rest.  In well-heated houses they would forget the bivouacs in sub-zero cold. Here they would enjoy refreshing sleep, and mend their clothes, here shoes and uniforms adapted to the Russian climate would be distributed among them.”

“At the sight of the city only the corps d’elite, reduced to a few soldiers and the required officers, kept their ranks. All the others dashed madly ahead.  Thousands of men, mostly unarmed, covered both the steep banks of the Dnieper, crowding together in a black mass against the high walls and gates of the city.  But the unruly mob, their haggard faces blackened with dirt and smoke, their tattered uniforms or the grotesque costumes that were doing the duty of uniforms – in short, their frenzied impatience and hideous appearance frightened those inside. They believed that if they did not check this multitude of hunger-maddened men, the entire city would be given over to lawless plunder.  Therefore, the gates were closed against them.”

“It was hoped also that by such rigorous treatment these men would be forced to rally.  Then, in this poor remnant of our unfortunate army, a horrible conflict between order and disorder took place.  In vain did the men pray, weep, implore, threaten, try to batter down the gates, or drop dying at the feet of their comrades who had been ordered to drive them back; they found them inexorable.  They were forced to await the arrival of the first troops still officered and in order.  These were the Young and Old guard; the disbanded men were allowed to follow them in.  They believed that their entrance had been delayed in order to provide better quarters and more provisions for these picked troops.  Their suffering made them unfair, and they cursed the Guard…  The only answer that could be given them was that it was necessary to keep at least one corps intact, and that preference must be given to those who would be able to make the most powerful effort when the occasion required it.”

Source:
Napoloen’s Russian Campaign, Philippe -Paul de Ségur, pp 181 – 182