Tag Archives: Jakob Walter

Things are comfortable in Moscow, but it’s time to leave

Jakob Walter’s account of his stay in Moscow is short, but he did write about how provisions could be bought in the “German suburb” where the Württemberg corps stayed for three weeks.

“Here one could find and buy provisions; for each soldier was now citizen, merchant, innkeeper, and baker of Moscow.  Everyone tried to dress as much as possible with silks and materials of all colors.  Only tailors were lacking; silks, muslins, and red Morocco leather were all abundant.  Things to eat were not wanting either.  Whoever could find nothing could buy something and vegetables in sufficient quantity stood in the fields.  Particularly was there an abundance of beets, which were as round and large as bowling balls and fiery red throughout.  There were masses of cabbage three and four times as large in size as cabbage heads that we would consider large.  The district called Muscovy is more favored in agriculture and climate, and more civilized than the regions toward St. Petersburg than those through which we had come.  It was still good weather, and one could steep warm enough under a coat at night.”

Negotiations for a Russian surrender had not gone according to plan and Napoleon decided to leave Moscow and head west in search of winter quarters.  Walter describes the evacuation: “After we had been citizens of Moscow for four weeks, we lost our burgher rights again.  Napoleon refused the peace treaty proposed to him, and the army which had advanced some thirty hours’ farther on had to retreat, because the Russian army stationed in Moldavia was approaching.  Now it was October 17, and Napoleon held an army review and announced the departure for October 18, early in the morning at 3 o’clock, with the warning that whoever should delay one hour would fall into the hands of the enemies.  All beer, brandy, etc., was abandoned and whatever was still intact was ordered to be burned.  Napoleon himself had the Kremlin undermined and blown up. [Note: The Kremlin was not blown up]  The morning came, and each took his privilege of citizenship upon his shoulders and covered it with his coat cape of strong woolen cloth, and everybody had bread pouches of red Morocco leather at his side, all had an odd appearance as they set out; they filled, as far as it was possible, everything with sugar and the so-called Moscow tea in order to withstand the future misery.”

The Grande Armée did not actually leave Moscow until the 19th.  Perhaps Walter had his dates wrong or merely remembered the original plan for departure.


The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter, pp 57 – 59

Arriving at the Walls of Moscow

Napoleon Near Moscow
by Valili Vereshchagin

On the 14th of September, 1812, Napoleon’s army arrived at the gates of their destination: Moscow.  Sergeant Bourgogne of the Imperial Guard recorded his impressions in his memoirs: “At one o’clock in the afternoon of September 14th, after passing through a great forest, we saw a hill some way off, and half an hour afterwards part of the army reached the highest point, signaling to us who were behind, and shouting ‘Moscow! Moscow!’  It was indeed the great city; there we should rest after all our labours, for we of the Imperial Guard had marched more than twelve hundred leagues without resting.”
It was a beautiful summer’s day; the sun was reflected on all the domes, spires, and gilded palaces.  Many capitals I have seen – such as Paris, Berlin, Warsaw, Vienna, and Madrid – had only produced an ordinary impression on me.  But this was quite different; the effect was to me – in fact, to everyone – magical.”

The Arrival at Moscow
by Laslett John Pott

Jakob Walter describes his approach and entry into the city (probably on the 15th): “On the march into the city or rather on the march toward it, from a hill in a forest an hour and a half away, we saw the huge city lying before us.  Clouds of fire, red smoke, great gilded crosses of the church towers glittered, shimmered, and billowed up toward us from the city.  This holy city was like the desecration of the city of Jerusalem… Farther inward toward the city was a wide plain… As we marched through, I observed as much as I could: there were broad streets, long straight alleys, tall buildings massively built of brick, church towers with burned roofs and half-melted bells, and copper roofs which had rolled from the buildings; everything was uninhabited and uninhabitable.”

The Battle of Borodino

Antony Brett-James has an account by General Jean Rapp, aide-de-camp to the Emperor, who was on duty the night before the battle and slept in Napoleon’s tent: “The place where he rested was usually separated by a canvas partition from the room reserved for the duty aide-de-camp.  The Emperor slept very little.  I woke him several times to give him reports from the outposts which all proved that the Russians were expecting an attack.  At three o’clock in the morning he summoned the valet de chambre and had some punch brought in.  I had the honour of drinking some with him.  He asked if I had slept well.  I replied that the nights were already cool and that I had frequently been woken.”

Napoleon at Borodino

“He said to me: ‘Today we shall have to deal with this celebrated Kutuzov.  No doubt you remember that it was he who commanded at Braunau during the Austerlitz campaign.  He stayed in that place for three weeks without leaving his room once.  He did not even mount his horse to go and inspect the fortifications.  General Bennigsen, although as old, is a much more energetic fellow.  I cannot understand why Alexander did not send this Hanoverian to replace Barclay.’  He took a glass of punch, read several reports, and then added:

‘Well, Rapp!  Do you think that we shall have a successful day?’

‘There is no doubt about it, Sire.  We have used up all our resources, and have simply got to win.’  Napoleon went on reading and then said: ‘Fortune is a shameless courtesan.  I have often said it, and I am beginning to experience it.’ …

Napoleon Writes the Dispositions for Borodino
Commemorative 1912 Russian Candy Box Card

“Napoleon sent for Prince Berthier, and worked until half past five.  Then we mounted.  The trumpets sounded, the drums beat, and as soon as the troops spotted us, there were acclamations all the way.  ‘It is the Austerlitz enthusiasm again.’ ”

Who fired first?  Alexander Mikaberidze in The Battle of Borodino writes that it is generally agreed that the French fired first.  But some Russian accounts disagree.  D. Danilov of the 2nd Artillery Brigade claimed one of his guns fired first and the French replied.  He wrote “At dawn, the first Russian cannon shot was fired by our battery and this round was made by me personally… Everything fell silent but several minutes hardly passed when a long line of French guns, deployed in front of Shevardino, erupted in response.”

Levin August, count von Bennigsen, one of the Russian generals, believed Raevsky’s battery fired the first shot.  Kutuzov’s adjutant, Mikhailovsky-

Kutuzov at Borodino

Danilevsky noted “the first cannon-ball, fired by the enemy batteries, was directed towards the house occupied by Prince Kutuzov.”  Kutuzov’s ordinance officer Dreyling confirmed: “It barely dawned when the enemy fired his first round.  One of the very first cannon-balls flew above our heads and shattered the roof of the house where Kutuzov was billeted.”

Jakob Walter, a Westphalian soldier on the French side,  describes the battle: “On September 7, every corps was assigned its place, and the signal to attack was given.  Like thunderbolts the firing began both against and from the enemy.  The earth was trembling because of the cannon fire, and the rain of cannon balls crossed confusedly.  Several entrenchments were stormed and taken with terrible sacrifices, but the enemy did not move from their place…  Now the two armies moved more vigorously against one another, and the death cries and shattering gunfire seemed a hell…”

The Battle of Borodino has Ended

“This beautiful grain region without woods and villages could now be compared to a cleared forest, a few trunks here and there looking gray… Within a space an hour and a half long and wide, the ground was covered with people and animals.  There were groans and whines on all sides.  The stream separated the battlefield into two parts… Over the river there was a wooden bridge that had been burned… the banks on both sides of the bridge were filled with dead piled three and four deep.  Particularly the wounded who could still move hurried to the river to quench their thirst or to wash their wounds; but the suffering brothers had no help, no hope of rescue: hunger, thirst, and fire were their death…”

“We moved forward and camped by a forest on a height facing Moscow; it was a wood of green trees.  Here we not only had nothing to eat but also no water to drink, because of the high camp site; and the road through the fields was still covered with dead Russians.”

1812: Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, Antony Brett-James

Image and translation of the Commemorative 1912 Russian Card was provided by Alexey Temnikov

In Camp Before Valuntina-Gora

In contrast to Jakob Walter’s description of a swift pursuit of the Russians after Smolensk, Faber du Faur writes about three days of rest.  While they were both in Ney’s IIIrd Corps, it appears that du Faur was involved in the action at Valutina-Gora while Walter was not.  This most likely explains the rest given to du Faur’s unit.

du Faur provides the following description for his painting:  “On the 20th, the day after the battle, we quitted the battlefield and made camp on the plateau, just to the right of the main road.  Three days of rest followed, drawing to a close a bloody period of fighting.”

In Camp Before Valutina-Gora, 22 August
by Faber du Faur

“We heard that we were to be reviewed by the Emperor, who had, the day after the fighting at Valutina, already reviewed Ney’s other divisions and that of [General Charles-Étienne] Gudin.  Our days of rest were marked by the occasional return of a few inhabitants who had fled during the fighting.  Some of them came over to our camp, meeting our curious troops who, by means of signs, gestures and a little Russian they had picked up, attempted to communicate with them.”

“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.’



The swift moving Grande Armée quickly outran the supply train making it necessary for the army to forage.  This was part of the plan and the cavalry had even been issued scythes so they could harvest grain for their horses as they went along.  Each man carried four days of provisions as he crossed the Nieman River into Russia.

From The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier by Jakob Walter

Jakob Walter describes how he was part of a foraging party in late July along the Dvina River in the area of Polotsk.  (Polotsk was to the north-west of Vitebsk, also along the Dvina River, where the battle described in yesterday’s post took place).  Walter writes about his foraging expedition, “There were eight of us, and we came to a very distant village.  Here we searched all the houses.  There were no peasants left…  each [soldier] ran into a house alone, broke open everything that was covered, and searched all the floors and still nothing was found…  I once more inspected a little hut somewhat removed from the village.  Around it from top to bottom were heaped bundles of hemp and shives, which I tore down; and, as I worked my way to the ground, sacks full of flour appeared.”  They sifted the flour to remove the chaff and refilled the sacks.  Walter remembered seeing a horse somewhere in the village.  They found two colts, but one couldn’t be used.  Two sacks were placed on the remaining horse and they started back to camp.  “While we were marching there, the Russians saw us from a distance with this booty; and at the same moment we saw a troop of peasants in the valley, about fifty.  These ran toward us.  What could we do but shoot at them?  I, however, led the horse, and a second man held the sacks while the rest fired, one after another, so that the peasants divided in order not to be hit so easily; but they could not take the sacks away from us.”

They came to a deep stream with only a round tree trunk laid across as a bridge.  Walter volunteered to carry the sacks across and suggested they throw the horse into the water.  Walter made it across with his sacks, quite a feat he said, on a log without handrails.  The horse was driven across by throwing stones at it and then re-loaded on the far bank.

They made dough balls with the flour and roasted it in the fire.  The food lasted for a week.

About the same time, at Vitebsk, Sgt. Bourgogne had an easier time getting his provisions.  He was visited by twelve young men from his “country” (Conde in northern France on the border of Belgium).  Ten were drummers, one a drum-major and the other a voltigeur.  They invited him to “…come with us and share what we have, wine, gin, and other things very good for you.  We took them yesterday evening from the Russian General.  There was a little cart holding his kitchen and everything belonging to it.  We have put it all into the canteen cart, with Florencia our cantiniere – she is a pretty Spandiard.”

Sgt. Bourgogne ends this episode with a sad note, “The poor fellows little thought that in a few days eleven of them would not be alive.”  These events took place at the end of July.  The drummers were killed at the Battle of Borodino in September.

The First Days of the Invasion

Jakob Walter writes the soliders believed that, once in Russia, the troops would only have to forage, but this proved to be an illusion.  He talks about one town, Poniemon, which was stripped bare by the time he entered as were all of the other villages.  He wrote “Here and there a hog ran around and then was beaten with clubs, chopped with sabers, and stabbed with bayonets; and, often still living, it would be cut and torn to pieces.”
Food for the horses was a problem from the start.  Brett-James’ book has an account from Lt. J.L.Henckens, a Dutchman with the 6th Regt. of Chasseurs a cheval.  “As a result of eating green rye, the horses foundered, and we lost hundreds in this way… Fortunately the depot sent us some remounts, otherwise we should very soon have presented a sorry picture.”
In Alan Palmer’s book Napoleon in Russia: The 1812 Campaign, he recounts how one of the junior officers of Napoleon’s staff counted the bodies of 1,240 horses as he rode twelve miles along the road to Vilna.
The weather was extemely hot, but the nights cold.  Heavy rains came within the week.  The expected battle with the Russians had not materialized and the army moved faster than planned, causing hardships and shortages.

And then it Began to Rain

I’ve written a number of times that the suffering began almost as soon as the Grande Armée crossed the Nieman.  In his book Napoleon in Russia: The 1812 Campaign,Alan Palmer writes, “… [the troops] moving forward in a heat that none of them had ever known before, except the veterans of Egypt…  rations

Commemorative Russian card from 1912, the 100th anniversary of the invasion. The cards were part of a package of candy.

were not getting through to the weary men and horses, and there was little enough for them to gather from the fields as they went.  Some of the cavalry tried feeding their horses on green corn and many, in consequence, died.  Count Anatole de Montesquiou, one of the junior officers on Napoleon’s staff, counted the bodies of 1,240 horses as he rode twelve miles down the road towards Vilna.”

Jakob Walter adds his description of the misery when it began to rain a few days into the campaign, “The march proceeded day and night toward Vilkomirz and Eve.  Meanwhile it rained ceaselessly for several days, and the rain was cold.  It was all the more disagreeable because nothing could be dried.  Bodily warmth was our only salvation from freezing to death.  I had on only one pair of blue linen trousers, which I had bought at Thorn, since I had thrown away my underwear because of the former heat.  Thus I was constantly wet for two days and two nights, so that not a spot on my body was dry.”

“During the third night a halt was made in a field which was trampled into a swamp.  Here we were ordered to camp and to make fires, since neither village nor forest could be seen and the rain continued without end.  You can imagine in what a half-numbed condition everyone stood here.  What could we do?  There was noting that we could do but stack the rifles in pyramids and keep moving in order not to freeze.”

Another account comes from Jean-Roch Coignet in his book Captain Coignet: A Soldier of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard from the Italian Campaign to Waterloo.  “On the 29th of June, at three o’clock, a violent storm arose, just before we came to a village, which I had had the greatest possible difficulty in reaching.  When we reached the shelter of this village, we could not unharness our horses; we had to take off their bridles, cut grass for them, and light our fires.  The storm of sleet and snow was so terrible that we could scarcely keep our horses still; we had to fasten them to the wheels.  I was half dead with the cold; not being able to stand it any longer, I opened one of my wagons, and crept inside.  Next morning a heartrending sight met our gaze: in the cavalry camp nearby, the ground was covered with horses frozen to death; more than ten thousands died during that dreadful night.  When I got out of my wagon, all numbed with the cold, I saw that three of my horses were dead…”

“When we reached the highway, we saw the dead bodies of a number of soldiers who had succumbed before the terrible storm.  This demoralized a great many of our men.”

Jakob Walter writes about the first few days of the Invasion

In the book Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter describes the first few days of the advance into Russian.  What strikes me is the misery of the beginning of what turns out to be a six month campaign.  From the beginning, the soldiers are encountering hunger and severe conditions. Walter writes, “On June 25 the army went over the bridges.  We now believed that, once in Russia, we need to nothing but forage — which, however, proved to be an illusion.  The town of Poniemon was already stripped before we could enter, and so were all the villages.  Here and there a hog ran around and then was beaten with clubs, chopped with sabers, and stabbed with bayonets; and, often still living, it would be cut and torn to pieces.  Several times I succeeded in cutting off something; but I had to chew it and eat it uncooked, since my hunger could not wait for a chance to boil the meat.  The worst torture was the march, because the closed ranks forced all to go in columns; the heat and the dust flared up into our eyes as if from smoking coal heaps.  The hardship was doubled by the continual halting of the troops whenever we came to a swamp or a narrow road.  Often one had to stand for half an hour; then another such period was spent catching up and drudging away without water or food.”

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.”

“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 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.”

“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.”

“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.”