Tag Archives: hunger

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

Sergeant Bourgogne is Robbed of his Bread too

Sergeant Bourgogne also had a run-in where he had bread stolen right out of his hand: “There was a dense fog that day, November 6th, and more than twenty-two degrees of frost [10 degrees Fahrenheit).  Our lips were frozen, our brains too; the whole atmosphere was icy.  There was a fearful wind, and the snow fell in enormous flakes.”

“We lost sight not only of the sky, but of the men in front of us.  As we approached a wretched village [Mickalowka], a horseman came at full speed, asking for the Emperor.  We heard afterwards that it was a general bringing news of Malet’s conspiracy in Paris.”

“We were just then packed very closely together near a wood, and had a long time to wait before we could resume our march, as the road was narrow.  As several of us sat together beating with our feet to keep warm, and talking of the fearful hunger we felt, all at once I became aware of the smell of warm bread.  I turned round and behind me saw a man wrapped in a great fur cape, from which came the smell I had noticed.  I spoke to him at once, saying, ‘Sir, you have some bread; you must sell it to me.’  As he moved away, I caught him by the arm, and, seeing that he could not get rid of me, he drew out from under his cloak a cake still warm.  With one hand I seized the cake, while with the other I gave him five francs.  But hardly had I the cake in my hand, when my companions threw themselves on it like madmen, and tore it from me.  I only had the little bit I held between my thumb and two first fingers.”

“While this was going on, the Surgeon-Major (for it was he) went off, and well for him he did so, as he might have been killed for the sake of the rest of the cake.  He had probably found some flour in the village, and had had time to make the cake while waiting for us.”

“During this half-hour several men had lain down and died; many more had fallen in the column while marching.  Our ranks were getting thinned already, and this was only the very beginning of our troubles.”

Source:
Sergeant Bourgogne: With Napoleon’s Imperial Guard in the Russian Campaign and on the Retreat from Moscow 1812 – 1813, Adrien Bourgogne

Jakob Walter is Robbed of his Bread

Early in the retreat, Jakob Walter was invited to attach himself to a major as an attendant.  Somehow he became separated from the major after a few days.  Walter managed to secure a horse and then took a small sled from a peasant.  After fashioning a harness from a sack and two ropes, he rode the sled “…through the burned cities of Viasma, Semlevo, and Dorogobush without finding my master.  Once, while I was eating some of my aforementioned bread, several Frenchmen saw me.  These inhuman men surrounded me with the pretext of buying bread; and, when the word ‘bread’ was mentioned, everyone bolted at me, so that I thought my death was near; but through an extraordinary chance there came along some Germans, whom I now called to my aid.  They struck at my horse so that most of the Frenchmen fell back from me and then were entirely beaten off.”

“Among these Germans were two sergeants from my regiment called N. and N.  After I was free, they took my bread and walked away.  Not they, I could see now, but rather their hunger and my bread were both my redeemers and, at the same time, my robbers.  Although I had already given them a loaf, they robbed me!  But this, my dear readers, is to be judged otherwise than you think.  There are stories in which people have murdered and eaten each other on account of hunger, but certainly this incident was still a long way from murder.  Since starvation had risen to a high degree, why could not such a thing happen?  And, besides that, much of the humanity of man had already vanished because of hunger.”

Source:
The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter, pp 65 – 66

“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

An Encounter with Vermin

Sergeant Bourgogne writes about the march to Dorogoboui, about half way between Viazma and Smolensk.  “On the 3rd [of November] we stayed at Slawkowo, and saw Russians to the right of us all the day.  The other regiments of the Guard, who had remained behind, now joined us.  We made a force march on the 4th to reach Dorogoboui, the ‘cabbage town.’  We gave it this name on account of the vast number of cabbages we found there on going to Moscow.  This was also the place where the Emperor settled the number of artillery and rifle-shots to be fired in the great battle.  By seven in the evening we were still two leagues from the town, but the depth of the snow made marching exceedingly difficult.  It was with infinite labour we got so far, and for a short time we lost our way.”

“It was quite eleven o’clock before we made our bivouac.  Amongst the debris from the houses (for this town had been almost burned down, like so many others), we found wood enough to make fires and get thoroughly warm.”

“But we had nothing to eat, and we were so horribly tired that we had not the strength to go and look for a horse, so we lay down to rest instead.  One of the men in the company brought me some rush matting to make a bed, and with my head on my knapsack, my feet to the fire, I went to sleep.”

“I had slept for about an hour, when I felt an unbearable tingling over the whole of my body.  Mechanically I passed my hand over my chest and other parts of my body, and to my horror discovered that I was covered with vermin.  I jumped up, and in less than two minutes was as naked as a new-born babe, having thrown my shirt and trousers into the fire.  The crackling they made was like a brisk firing, and my mind was so full of what I was doing that I never noticed the large flakes of snow falling all over me.  I shook the rest of my clothes over the fire, and put on my only remaining shirt and pair of trousers; and, feeling miserable almost to the point of tears, I sat on my knapsack, covered with my bearskin, and, my head in my hands, spent the rest of the night as far as possible from the cursed rush matting on which I had slept.  The men who took my place caught nothing, so I suppose I monopolized them all.”

Source:
Sergeant Bourgogne: With Napoloen’s Imperial Guard in the Russian Campaign and on the Retreat from Moscow 1812-13, Adrien Bourgogne, pp 68 – 69

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

“If Only My Mother Had Not Borne Me!” – The pursuit of the Russians after Smolensk

Jakob Walter describes the conditions endured as the French pursued the retreating Russians after Smolensk:  “On August 19, the entire army moved forward, and pursued the Russians with all speed.  Four or five hours farther up the river another battle started, but the enemy did not hold out long, and the march now led to Moshaisk, the so-called ‘Holy Valley.’  From Smolensk to Moshaisk the war displayed its horrible work of destruction:  all the roads,

fields, and woods lay as though sown with people, horses, wagons, burned villages and cities; everything looked like the complete ruin of all that lived.  In particular, we saw ten dead Russians to one of our men, although every day our numbers fell off considerably.  In order to pass through woods, swamps, and narrow trails, trees which formed barriers in the woods had to be removed, and wagon barricades of the enemy had to be cleared away.  In such numbers were the Russians lying around that it seemed as if they were all dead.  The cities in the meantime were Dorogobush, Semlevo, Viasma, and Gshatsk.  The march up to there, as far as it was a march, is indescribable and inconceivable for people who have not seen anything of it.  The very great heat, the dust which was like a thick fog, the closed line of march in columns, and the putrid water from holes filled with dead people, and cattle brought everyone close to death; and eye pains, fatigue, thirst, and hunger tormented everybody.  God!  how often I remembered the bread and beer which I had enjoyed at home with such an indifferent pleasure!  Now, however, I must struggle, half wild, with the dead and living.  How gladly would I renounce for my whole life the warm food so common at home if I only did not lack good bread and beer now!  I would not wish for more all my life.  But these were empty, helpless thoughts.  Yes, the thought of my brothers and sisters so far away added to my pain!  Wherever I looked, I saw the soldiers with dead, half-desperate faces.  Many cried out in despair, ‘If only my mother had not borne me!’  Some demoralized men even cursed their parents and their birth.”

“These voices, however, raised my soul to God, and I often spoke in quietude, ‘God, Thou canst save me; but, if it is not Thy will, I hope that my sins will be forgiven because of my sufferings and pains and that my soul will ascend to Thee.’  With such thoughts I went on trustingly to meet my fate.’