Tag Archives: James Fisher

The Last Frenchman out of Russia

In Antony Brett-James book, 1812 Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, is the account by Count Mathieu Dumas, the Intendant-General of December 14, 1812, the day the last Frenchman left Russia.  “At long last we were out of that cursed country – Russia.  The Cossacks no longer pursued us with such zeal.  As we advanced across Prussian territory we found better lodgings and resources.  The first place we could draw breath was Wilkowiski, and then Gumbinnen, where I stopped at a doctor’s house as I had done when I first passed through the town.  We had just been served with some excellent coffee when I saw a man wearing a brown coat come in.  He had a long beard.  His face was black and seemed to be burnt.  His eyes were red and glistening.  ‘Here I am at last!’ he said.  ‘What, General Dumas! Don’t your recognize me?'”

“‘No. who are you?'”

Marshal Ney with the Rearguard

Marshal Ney with the Rearguard

“‘I am the rearguard of the Grand Army, Marshal Ney.  I fired the last shot on the bridge at Kovno.  I threw the last of our weapons into the Niemen, and I have come as far as this through the woods.'”

“I leave to your imagination with what respectful eagerness we welcomed the hero of the retreat from Russia.”

Despite the heroics of Marshal Ney, many men suffered a different fate.  James Fisher provides the following account from the Russian point of view.

(14th December) Final, Hellish Retreat

Rafail Zotov, was just out of school when the war began and volunteered to join the St Petersburg opolchenye, part of Wittgenstein’s Corps.

The Retreat from RussiaFiring at Cossacks

The Retreat from Russia
Firing at Cossacks

“On 2 December [14 December]* we caught up with Chichagov’s men and let them ahead of us so they could claim all the laurels of the pursuit. This movement marked the start of the most severe frost, which even those of us who lived in St Petersburg had rarely experienced. Temperatures dropped every day and reached -23º to -25º Réaumur [-29º to -31º Celsius]. This was a final devastating blow to the French army, which completely lost its morale. Its every bivouac and encampment was like the terrifying sight of the battlefield, where thousands lay dying in great agony. And so the warriors who perhaps survived Austerlitz, Eylau and Borodino now easily fell into our hands. They were in a state of trance so that every Cossack captured and brought back dozens of them. They could not comprehend what was happening around them, could not remember or understand anything. The roads were littered with their corpses and they lay abandoned and without any attention inside every hut.”

*Dates according to Julian [and Gregorian] calendar

Mikaberidze, A (2012) Russian Eyewitness Accounts of the Campaign of 1812. Frontline Books (an imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd), Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. p. 246.

Sources:
1812 Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, Compiled, edited and translated by Antony Brett-James, 288

Russian Eyewitness Accounts of the Campaign of 1812, Alexander Mikaberidze, p 246

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

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

Retreat from RussiaNote the birds overhead

The Retreat
by Nicolas Charlet
Note the birds overhead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 29th Bulletin

The 29th Bulletin is famous because it is the first time Napoleon admitted to the French people the disaster that had befallen his army.  He soon left his army in Russia to head back to Paris to begin building a new army for the spring campaign that was surely to come.  Napoleon departed the following day (4th), leaving Marshal Murat in command of the Grande Armée.

Dodge reproduced this Bulletin, “penned by the emperor himself on the eve of leaving the army,” with the following preface, “whatever its prevarications, in view of the fact that those were not the days of special war correspondents and telegraphs, and compared with the reports of other unsuccessful campaigns by the commanding generals, it will hold its own.”

“Molodechno, December 3, 1812. Up to the 6th of November the weather had been perfect, and the movement of the army was executed with the greatest success. The cold had commenced the 7th. From this moment, each night we lost several hundred horses, which died in the bivouac. Arrived at Smolensk, we had already lost many cavalry and artillery horses. The Russian army of Volhynia was opposed to our right. Our right left the line of operation of Minsk, and took for pivot of its operation the line of Warsaw. The emperor learned at Smolensk, the 9th, this change of line of operations and guessed what the enemy would do. However hard it seemed to him to undertake a movement in such a cruel season, the new state of things necessitated it. He hoped to reach Minsk, or at least the Berezina, before the enemy; he left Smolensk the 13th; he slept at Krasnoi the 16th. The cold, which had commenced the 7th, gained sharply, and from the 14th to the 15th, and to the 16th, the thermometer marked 16 and 18 below freezing [-16º to -18º Réaumur, -20º to -23º C]. The roads were covered with sheet ice. The cavalry, artillery and train horses perished every night, not by hundreds but by thousands, especially the horses of France and Germany. More than thirty thousand horses perished in a few days; our cavalry was all afoot; our artillery and our transports were without teams. We had to abandon and destroy a great number of our guns and all our munitions of war and mouth.

This army, so fine the 6th, was very different dating from the 14th, almost without cavalry, without artillery, without train. Without cavalry we could not reconnoitre a quarter of a league; still, without artillery we could not risk a battle and stand with firm foot; we had to march as as not to be forced to a battle which the want of munitions prevented our desiring; we had to occupy a certain space so as not to be turned, and this without cavalry; which would reconnoitre and tie together the columns. This difficulty, joined to an excessive cold suddenly arrived, made our situation a sorry one. Men whom nature had not fashioned stoutly enough to be above all the chances of fate and of fortune seemed overcome, lost their gaiety, their good humour, and dreamed of nothing but misfortune and catastrophe; those who it had created superior to all things kept their gaiety and their ordinary manners, and saw a new glory in the different difficulties to be surmounted.

The enemy who saw on the roads the traces of this horrible calamity which had struck the French army sought to profit by it. He enveloped all the columns with his Cossacks, who carried off, like the Arabs in the deserts, the trains and the carriages which lost their way. This contemptible cavalry, which only makes a noise and is not capable of driving in a company of voltigeurs, was made redoubtable by the favour of circumstances. However, the enemy was made to repent all of the serious attempts which he undertook; he was broken by the viceroy before whom he placed himself, and he lost large numbers.

Napoleon 2nd portraitThe Duke of Elchingen (Ney), who with three thousand men formed the rearguard, had blown up the ramparts of Smolensk. He was surrounded and found himself in a critical position; he escaped it with the intrepidity which distinguishes him. Having held the enemy off from him the whole day of the 18th, and having constantly repulsed him, at night he made a movement by the right bank, crossed the Borysthenes, and upset the calculations of the enemy. The 19th the army passed the Borystheenes at Orsha, and the Russian army, tired, having lost many men, there stopped its attacks.

The army of Volhynia moved by the 16th on Minsk and was marching on Borisov. Dombrovski defended the bridge-head of Borisov with three thousand men. The 23rd he was driven in and obliged to evacuate the position. The enemy thus passed the Berezina, marching on Bobr; Lambert’s division was the vanguard. The 2nd Corps, commanded by the Duke of Reggio (Oudinot), which was at Chereia, had received the order to move on Borisov, to assure to the army the passage of the Berezina. The 24th, the Duke of Reggio met Lamber’s divsion four leagues from Borisov, attacked it, beat it, made two thousand prisoners, took six guns, five hundred wagons of the baggage of the army of Volhynia, and threw back the enemy to the right bank of the Berezina. General Berkheim, with the 4th cuirassiers, distinguished himself by a fine charge. The enemy found  safety only in burning the bridge, which is more than three hundred fathoms long.

Still the enemy occupied all the crossings of the Berezina. This river is forty fathoms wide. It was floating a great deal of ice, and its banks were covered with marshes three hundred fathoms long, which made it difficult to cross. The enemy’s general had placed his four divisions at different outlets, where he guessed the French army would want to pass.

The 26th, at the point of the day, the Emperor, after having deceived the enemy by different movements made during the day of the 25th, moved on the village of Studianka, and at once, despite a division of the enemy and in it presence, had two bridges thrown over the river. The Duke of Reggio crossed, attacked the enemy, and followed him fighting two hours; the enemy retired on the bridge-head of Borisov. General Legrand, officer of first merit, was seriously wounded, but not dangerously. During the whole day of the 26th and 27th the army crossed.

Marshal Victor

Marshal Victor

The Duke of Bellune [Victor], commanding the 9th Corps, had received orders to follow the movements of the Duke of Reggio to form the rearguard, and to contain the Russian army of the Dvina, which followed him. Partouneaux’s division was the rearguard of the corps. The 27th, at midday, the Duke of Bellune arrived with two divisions at the bridge of Studianka.

Partouneaux’s division left Borisov at night. A brigade of this division which formed the rearguard was charged to burn the bridges, left at 7 o’clock in the evening; it arrived between 10 and 11; it sought its first brigade and its division general, who had left two hours before, and which it had not met on the route. Its search was in vain: it became anxious. All that has been since ascertained is that this first brigade, leaving at 5 o’clock, lost its way at 6, turned to the right instead of turning to the left, and marched two leagues in this direction; that at night and nearly frozen it rallied on the fires of the enemy, which it took for those of the French army; thus surrounded it was captured. This cruel mistake made us lose two thousand infantry, three hundred horses and three guns. The rumour runs that the division general was not with his column, and had marched alone.

The whole army passed by the morning of 28th, the Duke of Bellune held the bridge-head on the left bank; the Duke of Reggio, and behind him all the army, were on the right bank.

Marshal OudinotDuke of Reggio

Marshal Oudinot
Duke of Reggio

Borisov having been evacuated, the Armies of the Dvina and of Volhynia got into communication; they concerted an attack. The 28th, at the point of day, The Duke of Reggio notified the Emperor that he was attacked; a half an hour afterwards, the Duke of Bellune was attacked on the left bank. The army took arms. The Duke of Elchingen moved in the rear of the Duke of Reggio and Duke of Trévise behind the Duke of Elchingen. The fighting became lively: the enemy wished to turn our right. Doumerc, commanding the 5th division of cuirassiers, and who made part of the second corps remaining on the Dvina, ordered a charge of cavalry to the 4th and 5th regiments of cuirassiers at the moment when the legions of the Vistula were engaging in the woods to pierce the centre of the enemy, who were beaten and put to rout. These brave cuirassiers broke in, one after another, six infantry squares, and routed the enemy’s cavalry, which came to the relief of his infantry: six thousand prisoners, two flags and six guns fell into our hands. On his side, the Duke of Bellune charged the enemy vigorously, beat him, made five or six hundred prisoners, and held him beyond cannon-shot from the bridge. General Fournier made a fine charge with cavalry. In the combat of the Berezina the army of Volhynia suffered much. The Duke of Reggio was wounded; his wound is not dangerous: it is a ball he received in the side.

The next day, the 29th, we remained on the battlefield. We had to choose between two routes, that of Minsk and that of Vilna. The route of Minsk passes through the middle of a forest, and uncultivated marshes, where it would have been impossible for the army to subsist. The route to Vilna, on the contrary, passes through very good country. The army, without cavalry, feeble in munitions, horribly fatigued with fifty days’ march, carrying along its sick and the wounded of so many combats, needed to reach its magazines. On the 30th headquarters was at Plechtchennitsy; the 1st December, at Staïki ; and the 3, at Molodetchna, where the army corps received its first convoys from Vilna.

All the wounded officers and soldiers and all which was in the way, baggage, etc. were moved towards Vilna.

To say that the army needs to re-establish its discipline, to repair itself, to remount its cavalry, its artillery and its material, is the result of the statement just made. Rest is its first need. Matériel and horses have arrived. Bourchier has already more than twenty thousand remount horses in the different depots. The artillery has already repaired its losses. The generals, the officers and the soldiers have suffered much with fatigue and want. Many have lost their baggage on account of losing their horses, a few by the ambushes of the Cossacks. The Cossacks took a number of isolated men, geographical engineers who were sketching positions, and wounded officers who marched without precaution, preferring to run risk rather that to march in order and in the column.

The reports of general officers commanding corps will make known the officers and soldiers who most distinguished themselves, and the details of all these memorable events.

In these movements the Emperor always marched in the middle of his Guard, the cavalry commanded by the marshal Duke of Istria [Bessières], and the infantry commanded by the Duke of Danzig [Lefebvre]. HIs Majesty was satisfied with the good spirit that his Guard showed; it has always been ready to move wherever the circumstances demanded; but the circumstances have always been such that its simple presence sufficed, and it was never necessary to put it into action.

The Prince of Neuchâtel [Berthier], the grand Marshal [Duroc], the grand Squire [Caulaincourt], and all the aides-de-camp and the military officers of the house of the Emperor always accompanied His Majesty.

Our cavalry was dismounted to the degree that we had to reunite the officers who had kept their horses so as to form four companies of a hundred and fifty men each. The generals performed the functions of captains, and the colonels those of subordinates. This sacred squadron, commanded by general Grouchy, and under the orders of the King of Naples [Murat], did not lose sight of the Emperor in all its movements.

The health of His Majesty has never been better.

Dodge, TA (2008) Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia. First Published 1904-07. Frontline Books (an imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd), Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. p 281–286.

Thank you to James Fisher for providing this information.

“It is impossible to imagine a more appalling scene”

James Fisher has again compiled a series of accounts depicting the crossing of the Berezina.  These are for November 29, 1812.  We also have a new contributor, Pierre Toussaint, who provided the contemporary photos of the site of the Berezina.  Thank you to James and Pierre!

Contributors and Commentors are always welcome.

(Night of 28th/29th November) Missed opportunity by the stragglers

Site of the Cavalry and Artillery Bridge
The downstream bridge
This is the view from the right (west) bank
Photo taken November 24, 2012
Courtesy of Centre d’Etude Napoléonienne

“The IX Corps left its position at about nine o’clock in the evening, after having placed posts and a rear guard to observe the enemy. They crossed the bridge in very good order, taking with them all their artillery. On the 29th, at one in the morning, the whole of the IX Corps, except a small rear-guard, had reached the right bank, and nobody was now passing on the bridges.

… However, there still remained on the left bank, some officers and soldiers either wounded or sick, servants, women, children, paying officers with their wagons, food or drink sellers, a few armed but tired men, and a crowd of isolated men with their provisions and horses. Everyone, except the wounded and sick could easily have crossed the bridges during the night, leaving behind their horses and carriages, but as soon as the enemy stopped firing the bivouac assembled in the most incredible security. General Eblé often sent word round to them, to warn them that the bridges were going to be burnt, but officers, servants, soldiers lent a deaf ear to these pressing appeals, and waited for daylight near the fires or lying in the carriages, without concern about preparing to leave.

Marshal Victor, Duke of Bellune, stayed most of the night in General Eblé’s bivouac, and failed to make this indifferent and obstinate crowd move out.”

Anon (2010) Passage de la Beresina 26, 27, 28 et 29e Novembre 1812. First Published 1812. The Naval & Military Press Ltd., Uckfield, East Sussex. 32 pp.

(29th November) Firing the Bridges

A warning to readers: this is harrowing reading.

Site of the Upstream Infantry Bridge
The Wooden Post in the center marks the location of the foot of the bridge
Photo taken November 24, 2012
Courtesy of Centre d’Etude Napoléonienne

“At five in the morning, General Eblé had several carriages set on fire, so as to prevail on the men around them; this measure seemed to be effective. At about half past six, Marshal Victor withdrew his advanced guard to cross the bridges; this action awoke the heedless. Conscious at last that they were going to fall into the hands of the enemy, they hurled themselves on to the bridges with their carriages and horses, causing a new and last obstruction.”

This was only partially successful and General Eblé and Colonel Séruzier tried to encourage more to cross the bridges before they were destroyed. Mikaberidze (2010) cites Colonel Séruzier:

View from the Right (West) bank looking East toward the Berezina and Studianka on the far bank
Photo taken November 24, 2012
Courtesy of Centre d’Etude Napoléonienne

“We knew the Russians were getting close, but I could not get the drivers of the baggage, cantinières or the vivandières to listen to reason.  In vain I told them everyone would be saved if only there was a little order; that their safety depended on crossing at once, and that our troops’ salvation would depend on the bridges being broken. Only a few crossed with their light vehicles. The greater number lingered on the left bank…”

General Eblé’s dilemma at having to fire the bridges was recorded by Anon.

Monument created by Fernand Beaucour in Hommage to the French Soldiers
The Crossing Site is in the background
Photo taken November 24, 2012
Courtesy of Centre d’Etude Napoléonienne

“General Eblé having received an order to destroy the bridges at seven in the morning, he waited as long as he could to begin an operation the success of which he made secure by working out careful preparations during the night. His sensitive disposition struggled long before resolving to abandon such a large number of Frenchmen to the enemy. He waited until half-past eight before giving the orders to destroy the bridges and set them on fire.

The left bank of the Berezina became the scene of the most painful sight: men, women, children were shrieking in despair; several tried to rush across the burning bridges or threw themselves into the river in which large blocks of ice were drifting. Others ventured on the ice between the two bridges, but it gave in and engulfed them. At last, at about nine o’clock, the Cossacks arrived and captured the multitude, victim of it’s blindness.”

Mikaberidze (2010) presents Séruzier’s harrowing description of the fate of the remaining stragglers on the left bank of the Berezina:

“The Cossacks flung themselves on these people who had been left behind.  They pillaged everything on the opposite bank, where there was a huge quantity of vehicles laden with immense riches. Those who were not massacred in this first charge were taken prisoner and whatever they possessed fell to the Cossacks.”

Anon (2010) Passage de la Beresina 26, 27, 28 et 29e Novembre 1812. First Published 1812. The Naval & Military Press Ltd., Uckfield, East Sussex. 32 pp.

Mikaberidze, A (2010) The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape. Campaign Chronicles (Ed. C Summerville). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. pp. 198–212

Tribute to the Pontonniers and General Eblé

“The pontonniers and sappers worked at the construction of the bridges with a zeal and courage beyond all praise. The pontonniers alone worked in the water; in spite of the drifting ice, they often went down to the armpits to place and hold the trestles until the beams were fixed on the caps.

Encouraged and supported by the presence of General Eblé, the pontonniers showed unlimited self sacrifice in the painful repairing of the bridges for which they were responsible. From over one hundred who went down into the water either to build of maintain the bridges, only a small number survived; the remainder died on the banks of the Berezina, or were unable to follow the Army two days after the crossing. They were never seen again.”

And General Eblé…

General Jean-Baptiste Eblé

“As I had seen things for myself, and as the nature of my functions kept me close to the late General Eblé, I thought it my duty to supplement as much as I could the account that the General would have given of an operation he directed alone, from the beginning to the end of the crossing. The success of the construction and maintenance of the bridges was due to his active foresight, coolness and most remarkable genius of organisation. General Chasseloup paid full tribute to General Eblé. Before beginning construction of the bridges, he thus addressed his staff:-

‘I realise that the artillery has to be responsible for bridges in wartime, because its resources in staff, horses and material will still hold when other services have been exhausted. The engineers and battalion of the Danube (naval military staff) have started the campaign with a considerable artillery park of tools of all kinds, but we arrived here without a forge, nail, hammer… If the operation is successful, we will owe it to General Eblé, because he alone had the means of undertaking it. I have already told him, and I am telling you so that you might repeat to him, whatever happens.’

General Eblé placed the construction of the Berezina bridges in the forefront of the numerous services he had rendered, in the course of his long and glorious military career; during and after the crossing he repeated this declaration which carried great weight, coming from a general both modest and lucid.

When General Count de la Ribossière fell dangerously ill, General Eblé, being sick himself, was called upon to succeed him in command of the artillery at Vilna, on 9th December at a very critical time, with the energy and activity which never forsook him. He died at Königsberg on 30th December, a few days only after General La Riboissière. The great talents the virtues and integrity of the late General Eblé are well known to the French Army and to France; his name is held in great respect abroad.”

Anon (2010) Passage de la Beresina 26, 27, 28 et 29e Novembre 1812. First Published 1812. The Naval & Military Press Ltd., Uckfield, East Sussex. 32 pp.

In defense of Admiral Chichagov

Admiral Chichagov became the scapegoat for the failure of the Russian army to entrap the ‘Grande Armée’ at the Berezina, but Ivan Arnoldi of the 14th Horse Artillery Company though otherwise:

Admiral Pavel Chichagov

“If anyone decides to condemn Chichagov for letting the French cross the Berezina, such a charge would be misplaced since, as an eyewitness, I can testify that it was impossible to prevent it. [Chichagov] has some twenty-two thousand men under arms on the Berezina and had to defend the river over an area of over a hundred verstas (sixty-six miles), while as many enemy combatant were trying to cross it. Besides, are there any examples in history where one army desired to cross a river and someone prevented it? And it would have been even less feasible against Napoleon. Besides, we all know that Chichagov acted based on instructions received from Prince Kutusov and intelligence supplied by Count Wittgenstein, both of whom focussed their attention on the enemy crossing below Borisov and advised [Chichagov] to guard the river in the direction of Bobruisk…”

Mikaberidze, A (2012) Russian Eyewitness Accounts of the Campaign of 1812. Frontline Books (an imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd), Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. p. 237–238.

(28th–29th November) Berezina Aftermath

A warning to readers: this is harrowing reading.

Alexey Martos an engineer in Chichagov’s Army of the Danube (Third Western Army) describes the scene around the Berezina:

“Imagine a wide sinuous river covered as far as our eyes could see with human corpses; some were just beginning to freeze. Here was the empire of death in all its horror… The first thing that caught our eye was a woman who had fallen through the ice and had frozen in; one of her arms was cut off and hung loosely, with her other arm she held a suckling baby. The little thing had wound itself around its mother’s neck; the woman was still alive, she was staring at a man who had fallen through the ice but was frozen to death; between them on the ice, another dead child was lying…“

From Rochechouart, a French emigré officer serving as Chichagov’s aide de camp:

“…we saw the heaped up dead bodies of men, women and even children, soldiers of all arms, and of all nationalities, frozen, suffocated by the crush of fugitives, or mown down by Russian grapeshot; horses, carriages, cannon, caissons, wagons, abandoned. It is impossible to imagine a more appalling scene that the two broken bridges with the river frozen to its lowest depth. Immense treasures lay scattered over the region of death; peasants and Cossacks prowled around these fragments of bodies, carrying off whatever was most precious…. Both sides of the road were strewn with bodies, frozen in every attitude, or with men dying of cold, hunger, and fatigue, with their clothing in rags; they begged us to take them prisoners, and enumerated all the things they could do. We were assailed with cries: ‘Monsieur, take me with you, I can cook,’ or ‘I am a valet,’ or ‘a hairdresser,’ ‘for the love of God give me a morsel of bread, and any rags to cover me.’

Mikaberidze, A (2012) Russian Eyewitness Accounts of the Campaign of 1812. Frontline Books (an imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd), Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. p. 248 & 251.

“Only the Voice of Honor and Country had any Meaning”

Thank you to James Fisher for today’s post.  James has been a great supporter of this blog with both information and encouragement.  He has compiled a series of eyewitness accounts showing the condition of the army and the condition of the bridges at the Berezina.

(24th November) Condition of the ‘Grande Armée’

Sergeant Bourgogne of the French Imperial Guard related the condition of the ‘Grande Armée’

Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow
by Adolf Northern

“…the days were short—it was not light till eight o’clock, and it was dark by four in the afternoon. This was the reason why so many unfortunate men lost their way, for it was always night when we arrived at the bivouac, and all the remains of the different corps were in terrible confusion. At all hours of the night we heard the weak, worn-out voices of new arrivals calling out ‘Fourth Corps!’ ‘First Corps!’ ‘Third Corps!’ ‘Imperial Guard!’ and then the voices of others lying down with no strength left, forcing themselves to answer, ‘Here comrades!’ They were not trying any longer to find their regiments, but simply the corps d’armée to which they had belonged, and which now included the strength of two regiments at most, where a fortnight earlier there had been thirty. No one knew anything about himself, or could mention which regiment he belonged to.”

Mikaberidze, A (2010) The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, Campaign Chronicles (Ed. C Summerville). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. p. 110

(25th November) Victor’s IX Corps is United With the ‘Grande Armée’

On the March from Moscow
by Laslett John Pott

Having been unaware of the plight of the retreating ‘Grande Armée’, Marshal Victor and his troops were stunned to see, not soldiers but “a mob of tattered ghosts draped in women’s cloaks, odd pieces of carpet, or greatcoats burned full of holes, their feet wrapped in all sorts of rags… [we] stared in horror as those skeletons of soldiers went by, their gaunt, grey faces covered with disfiguring beards, without weapons, shameless, marching out of step, with lowered heads, eyes on the ground, in absolute silence, like a gang of convicts.“

General Hochberg, future Margrave of Baden added:

“I will never forget that day. I ordered my brigade to stop to observe the scene, the likes of which none of us had ever witnessed. We first saw twenty non-commissioned officers carrying flags, followed by generals, some on foot, others mounted, many of them in women’s silk-lined fur coats… The weather that day and the sun brightly shone on the scene, so painful for us to watch.”

Joseph Steinmüller observed an army “without any semblance of order or discipline… Only around the flags and eagles one could see armed men marching; the rest had no arms and covered themselves in furs and rags.“

Mikaberidze, A (2010) The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, Campaign Chronicles (Ed. C Summerville). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. p.95

(26th November) Constructing The Bridges and First Crossing

General Eblé and his pontonniers [often incorrectly termed as engineers] performed amazing and heroic feats in constructing three bridges, using whatever materials were available. Several perished while undertaking the work.

Ségur relates “the rising of the waters had made the traces of the ford entirely disappear. It required the most incredible efforts on the part of our unfortunate sappers [i.e. pontonniers], who worked in the water up to their mouths, struggling against the ice carried down by the current. Some of them died of the cold or were forced under by the great blocks of ice.”

Mikaberidze, A (2010) The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, Campaign Chronicles (Ed. C Summerville). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. pp. 125.

“In order to supplement the boats or skiffs missing, three small rafts were built, but the wood used for want of anything better was of such small dimensions that each raft could carry no more than ten men.

On the 26th, at eight in the morning, Napoleon gave an order that the bridges be built up. Two of them were started immediately at a distance of about six hundred feet. Meanwhile, a few horsemen swam across the river each with a voltigeur riding behind him, and some three to four thousand infantry crossed it on the rafts.

… The number of trestles being insufficient for the two bridges, and for repair, in case of accidents, their construction was continued all day. At one o’clock in the afternoon, the bridge on the right was finished; it was set apart for the infantry and cavalry only, because the boards, used to cover it, were of very poor quality, four or five layers thick.”

Anon (2010) Passage de la Beresina 26, 27, 28 et 29e Novembre 1812. First Published 1812. The Naval & Military Press Ltd., Uckfield, East Sussex. 32 pp.

While waiting his turn to cross, Fezensac of the 4th Line counted his effectives to compare them with the list that he had brought from Moscow:

“Alas! What changes had take place since then! Out of seventy officers scarcely forty remained, and of these the greater part were inefficient from either sickness or fatigue… Almost all the company cadres had been destroyed at Krasnyi, which rendered the maintenance of discipline a still more difficult matter. Of the remaining soldiers I formed two peletons, the first consisting of grenadiers and voltigeurs while the second was from the centre companies. I selected the officers to command them and ordered each of the others to take a musket and always march with me at the head of the regiment.”

Mikaberidze, A (2010) The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, Campaign Chronicles (Ed. C Summerville). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. pp. 142

Having completed the bridges, one can only imagine what it would have been like to be dragged from the relative comfort of a fire to enter the freezing water once more to undertake repairs. This eyewitness account, from an anonymous source, gives us some idea.

“Instead of thick planks which were absolutely wanting, round logs fifteen to sixteen feet long, and three to four ins. diameter had to be used for flooring. The carriages crossing on this uneven and rough flooring caused the bridge to jerk all the more violently that all warnings to carriage drivers to prevent their horses from going at a trot, were mostly unheeded…

General Eblé Inspiring his Men

At eight o’clock, three trestles of the left bridge collapsed. This fatal accident distressed General Eblé. He knew how tired the bridge hands were, and he despaired of being able to gather instantly the number of men to carry out these urgent repairs rapidly enough. Fortunately, they had kept in good order. The officers and their troops and settled in their bivouacs. Only half the men were requested; but pulling away harassed, sleeping men, from around the fire, did not go without trouble.

Threats would have been fruitless, only the voice of honour and country had any meaning for these honest men. They were also stimulated by their attachment and respect for General Eblé. After working three hours, the bridge was finally repaired, and the carriages resumed their march at 11 o’clock.”

Anon (2010) Passage de la Beresina 26, 27, 28 et 29e Novembre 1812. First Published 1812. The Naval & Military Press Ltd., Uckfield, East Sussex. 32 pp.