Tag Archives: Jakob Walter

Crossing the Bridge Pursued by a Thousand Curses

The crossing of the bridge continued on November 27.  Armed troops were given priority, but the stragglers had pressed in on the entrances making it hard to gain access to the bridges.

Captain François Dumonceau of the 2nd Regiment of the Chevau-légers Lanciers of the Imperial Guard describes his unit’s crossing on the afternoon of the 27th:  “Most of our army corps had already crossed, and all the Imperial Guard, of which we were the last to turn up.  Only part of their parks and horse teams still remained to follow with us, but the crowd of disbanded troops had arrived and created a block by flocking from all sides, infiltrating everywhere, congesting the ground over a considerable area and refusing to give way to us …  Detachments of pontoniers and gendarerie, posted at the various bridgeheads, struggled hard with the crowd to contain it and control its flow.”

“We had to open a way through by brute force.  In the end we drew our swords and behaved like madmen, using the flat of the blade to knock aside those who, pushed back by the crowd, hemmed us in as if in a press.  In this way we managed to clear a path, and were pursued by a thousand curses.”

Berezina
Musée de l’Armée

“On reaching the bridge to which we had been directed, we began to dismount and cross one by one, leading our horses so as not to shake the bridge.  It had no guard-rail, was almost at water-level, covered by a layer of manure, and was already seriously damaged, dislocated, sagging in places, and unsteady everywhere.  Some pontoniers, up to their armpits in the water, were busy repairing it.  Among them were a number of Dutchmen who welcomed us and did their best to facilitate our passage by throwing a broken cart into the river, several dead horses, and other debris of all kinds which blocked the bridge.”

“Once across, we went over the flat marshy ground beside the river, and found it so cut up in several places that we sank into the mud despite the ice.”

The two bridges over the Berezina

Jakob Walter describes his passage: “These bridges had the structure of sloping saw-horses suspended like trestles on shallow-sunk piles; on these lay long stringers and across them only bridge ties, which were not fastened down.  However, one could not see the bridges because of the crowd of people, horses, and wagons.  Everyone crowded together into a solid mass, and nowhere could one see a way out or a means of rescue.  From morning till night we stood

Russian Artillery at the Berezina

unprotected from cannonballs and grenades which the Russians hurled at us from two sides.  At each blow from three to five men were struck to the ground, and yet no one was able to move a step to get our of the path of the cannonballs.  Only by filling up of the space where the cannonball made room could one make a little progress forward.  All the powder wagons also stood in the crowd; many of these were ignited by the grenades, killing hundreds of people and horses standing about them.”

Lancer on Horse
One of the More Dramatic
Images of the Crossing

“I had a horse to ride and one to lead.  The horse I led I was soon forced to let go, and I had to kneel on the one which I rode in order not to have my feet crushed off, for everything was so closely packed that in a quarter of an hour one could move only four or five steps forward.  To be on foot was to lose all hope of rescue.  Indeed, whoever did not have a good horse could not help falling over the horses and people lying about in masses.  Everyone was screaming under the feet of the horses, and everywhere was the cry, “Shoot me or stab me to death!”  The fallen horses struck off their feet many of those still standing.  It was only by a miracle that anyone was saved.”

“… I frequently caused my horse to rear up, whereby he came down again about one step further forward.  I marveled at the intelligence with which this animal sought to save us.  Then evening came, and despair steadily increased.  Thousands swam into the river with horses, but no one ever came out again; thousands of others who were near the water were pushed in, and the stream was like a sheep dip where the heads of men and horses bobbed up and down and disappeared.”

Passage de la Berezina
by January Suchodolski

“Finally, toward four o’clock in the evening, when it was almost dark, I came to the bridge.  Here I saw only one bridge, the second having been shot away.  …masses of horses and people which lay dead, piled high upon the bridge….  Now I kept myself constantly in the middle…   not a plank was visible because of the dead men and horses… ”

“The fact that the bridge was covered with horses and men was not due to shooting and falling alone but also to the bridge ties, which were not fastened on this structure.  The horses stepped through between them with their feet and so could not help falling, until no plank was left movable on account of the weight of the bodies.  For where such a timber still could move, it was torn out of place by the falling horses, and a sort of trap was prepared for the following horse.  Indeed, one must say that the weight of the dead bodies was the salvation of those riding across; for, without their load, the cannon would have caused the destruction of the bridge too soon.”

Sources:
1812: Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, compiled, edited and translated by Antony Brett-James

The Diary of a Napoloenic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter

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The Battle Continues by Firelight

Sgt. Bourgogne continues his story about the battle that took place in the early morning hours of November 16, 1812.  Surrounded in Krasnoe with the lead corps of the Grande Armée, Napoleon had sent the Old Guard back to break up the Russian threat on the road from Smolensk.  The Old Guard had just charged

Bayonet Charge Hurrah Hurrah
by Vasily Vereshchagin

into the Russian camp and had employed the bayonet:  “The men who were stationed further off now had time to arm themselves, and come to their comrades’ help.  This they did by setting fire to their camp and the two villages near.  We fought by the light of the fires.  The columns on the right and left had passed us, and entered the enemy’s camp at the two ends, whereas our column had taken the middle.  I have omitted to say that, as the head of our column charged into the Russian camp, we passed several hundred Russians stretched on the snow; we believed them to be dead or dangerously wounded.  These men now jumped up and fired on us from behind, so that we had to make a demi-tour to defend ourselves.  Unluckily for them, a battalion in the rear came up behind, so that they were taken between two fires,

The Last Salute, Krasnoi
by Keith Rocco

and in five minutes not one was left alive.  This was a stratagem the Russians often employed, but this time it was not successful.  Poor Beloque was the first man we lost; he had foretold of his death at Smolensk.  A ball struck his head, and killed him on the spot.  He was a great favourite with us all, and, in spite of the indifference we now felt about everything, we were really sorry to lose him.”

“We went through the Russian camp, and reached the village.  We forced the enemy to throw a part of their artillery into a lake there, and then found that a great number of foot soldiers had filled the houses, which were partly in flames.  We now fought desperately hand-to-hand.  The slaughter was terrible, and each man fought by himself for himself.  I found myself near our Colonel, the oldest in France, who had been through the campaign in Egypt.  A sapper was holding him up by the arm, and the Adjutant-Major Roustan was there too.  We were close to a farmyard filled with Russians, and blockaded by our men; they could retreat only by an entrance into a large courtyard close by a barrier.”

“While this desultory fighting was going on, I saw a Russian officer on a white horse striking with the flat of his sword any of his men who tried to get away by jumping over the barrier, and so effectually preventing his escape.  He got possession of the passage, but just as he was preparing to jump to the other side, his horse fell under him, struck by a ball.  The men were forced to defend themselves, and the fighting now grew desperate.  By the lurid light of the fire it was a dreadful scene of butchery, Russians and Frenchmen in utter confusion, shooting each other muzzle to muzzle.”

Campaigne de Moscou
by Leon Cogniet

The Russians in the burning building tried to negotiate a surrender, but the French were unable to get their men to stop firing.  The Russians, facing the choice of being burned alive or forcing their way out of the house, made a rush at the French, but were pushed back.  During a second attempt, the building collapsed killing those inside and those who had just made it outside as well.

Bourgogne and his comrades gathered round their exhausted Colonel and waited for daylight….”There is nothing more terrible than a battle at night, when often fatal mistakes take place.”

Retreat of the French Grand Army
from Moscow Intercepted by
Russian Cossacks
by John Augustus Atkinson

Jakob Walter arrived on the 16th at Krasnoe “amid a thousand kinds of danger… where the Russians received us, having in the meantime circled around to our front.  Here the French Guard, with the remaining armed forces that could still be brought together, took its position along the highway and kept up the firing against the enemy as well as possible. Although the enemy had to yield, any movements on our part drew vigorous firing upon us.  Unfortunately, all the time the greatest misery fell upon the poor sick, who usually had to be thrown from the wagons just to keep us from losing horses and wagons entirely and who were left to freeze among the enemies, for whoever remained lying behind could not hope to be rescued.”

Sources:
Sergeant Bourgogne: With Napoleon’s Imperial Guard in the Russian Campaign and on the Retreat from Moscow 1812-13, Adrien Bourgogne, pp 105 – 108

The Diary of a Napoloenic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter, p 70

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

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

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

Divine Intervention

Jakob Walter records two  incidents early in the retreat in which he credits God for saving him.  As he headed north with the army to the Moscow-Smolensk road, the column was harassed by the cossacks and Russians.  Outside of the burned city of Borovsk, “One no sooner thought of resting than the Russians fell upon our army and cut off many as captives.  Everything was in confusion and during almost the whole night the throng had to retreat to Moshaisk everyone running so as not to fall into the hands of the enemy.  Because of these considerable losses, cannon, munition wagons, coaches, and baggage wagons by the hundreds had to be thrown into the water; and, where that was impossible, all wagons were burned…  The sutlers, even the cavalry, had to give up their horses so that these could be hitched to the cannon.  The fighting, the shrieking, the firing of large and small guns, hunger and thirst, and all conceivable torments increased the never-ending confusion.  Indeed, even the lice seemed to seek supremacy, for their number on both officers and privates was in the thousands.”

“In times when death was near, God sent me help again and again.  After midnight, when we pitched camp again following the above-mentioned pursuit by the Russians, a little village stood a quarter of an hour off the highway, and I crept with my master …  into a stable..  There I saw hanging on a cord… a smoked pig’s head.  As if received from the hand of God, I took it off from the cord with a prayer of thanks.  I, my master, and my fellow servant ate it with unbelievable appetite, and we felt life come to us again.”

Some nights later, Walter made another miraculous discovery, “As I sought to fetch water in the night… I drew my water with much effort…  On the way back, a round ball resembling a dead sheep was lying on the ground.  I picked it up and in astonished joy unwrapped a rolled-up Crimean fur that reached from my head down to my feet, besides having a peculiar collar which could be clapped over my head.  With my eyes turned to heaven I prayed again to God and gave thanks for the abundant mercy which I had received just when help was obviously most necessary.”

Source:
The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter, pp 61-063

“The Field of the Great Battle”

By heading back to the Smolensk-Moscow road, the army would have to pass by the field of Borodino where little had been done to bury the dead from the battle in early September.  Jakob Walter gives his account, “Finally we went over the battlefield at Moshaisk in the Holy Valley.  Here one saw again in what numbers the dead lay.  From the battle site on to this place the corpses were dragged from the highways, and entire hollows were filled with them.  Gun barrels lay one on top of another in many piles from fifteen to twenty feet in height and in width where we bivouacked for the night.”

After the Battle of Borodino
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

Philippe-Paul de Ségur records his recollection of passing the field, “Beyond the Kolocha we were plodding along, absorbed in thought, when some of the men, happening to look up, gave a cry of horrified surprise.  We all stared around us, and saw a field, trampled, devastated, with every tree shorn off a few feet above the earth.  In the background stood a number of hummocks with their tops blown off, the highest of which seemed the most misshapen.  The spot had the appearance of a flattened, extinct volcano. Everywhere the earth was littered with battered helmets and breastplates, broken drums, fragments of weapons, shreds of uniforms, and bloodstained flags.  Lying amid this desolation were thirty thousand half-devoured corpses.  The scene was dominated by a number of skeletons lying on the crumbled slope of one of the hills; death seemed to have established its throne up there.  This was the terrible redoubt which had been the victory and the grave of Caulaincourt.  Along our lines ran the sad murmur, ‘The field of the Great Battle!'”

Sources:
The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter, p. 62

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, p. 159