Tag Archives: jonathan north

“The Strongest Pillaged the Weakest”

Faber du Faur’s painting depicting the scene on December 4 shows a small band defending itself from attack while stealing the blanket from a wounded man.  In the background, some troops are forming a line of skirmish.

Near Oschimany, 4 Decemberby Faber du Faur

Near Oschimany, 4 December
by Faber du Faur

Near Oschimany, 4 December
“The cold was getting worse and we were losing more and more men and horses. Many soldiers who had survived numerous campaigns and suffering of every description now succumbed to the cold.  As we headed for Vilna we were reinforced by depots and reserves.  But it was all for nothing: their support was transient and served only to augment our casualties.  Thrust from their comfortable quarters, most of these young troops, many of whom had only been in the army six months, perished during their first night in the open,”

StragglerCommemorative 1912 Russian Candy Box Card

Straggler
Commemorative 1912 Russian Candy Box Card

“The army dragged itself forward, littering the road with its dead, dying and deranged.  We were constantly harassed by bands of Cossacks, greedy for booty, who threw themselves on stragglers or small detachments.  In order to beat off such attacks, armed men gathered in bands and there were running battles in the snow with a few pieces of artillery, dragged all this way without horses, firing their final discharges in Russia.”

“Mixed in with such bravery was, however, as much cruelty and a revolting selfishness.  The strongest pillaged the weakest, the sick were stripped of their clothing and the dying were robbed of their clothes and left to die in the deep snow.  An instinct for self-preservation had snuffed out all traces of humanity in the human heart.”

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

Commemorative 1912 candy box card image and translation provided by Alexey Temnikov

“We Thought of Ourselves Alone”

Faber du Faur with the IIIrd Corps arrived in Smolensk on the 12th of November.  He writes about the effect of the disappointment at the lack of supplies to be found there.

In the Suburbs of Smolensk,
On the Right Bank of the Borysthene,
12 November
by Faber du Faur

In the Suburbs of Smolensk, On the Right Bank of the Borysthene
“We arrived at Smolensk after twenty days’ marching.  We had marched through this town in triumph only two and a half months before, but now we entered it covered in rags.  We had redoubled our efforts to reach this place, bourne by hope of rest and succor   But our illusions were soon shattered.  There was no food, no clothing – not even a shelter from the rigors of the cold.  Here the final binds of order and discipline were cast aside; from now on we thought of ourselves alone and sought to prolong our own existence.”

“At Smolensk we broke up the last of our gun carriages, dragged there with so much effort.  We threw the barrels into the Dnieper.  Imagine the despair of the poor gunner who, having sworn to remain true to his gun, now has to cast it aside having survived together through so many hazards of war.”

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

“A Terrible Effort Every Single Day”

Faber du Faur painted two scenes dated November 7.  Both dedicated to showing the effects the recent snow had upon the army.

Between Dorogobouye and Mikalevka,
7 November
by Faber du Faur

Between Dorogobouye and Mikalevka, 7 November
“The order had been given for us to turn off the Kaluga road and make our way to the Smolensk-Moscow road.  Until that point, despite the numerous difficulties we had encountered along near impassable roads – difficulties that often led to losses of men, horses and caissons – we had, at least, always managed to find some food.  We had, too, always marched as a disciplined body and had not lost a gun, despite fighting in some particularly bloody engagements.  But now we found ourselves in a land already stripped by both ourselves and our enemies.”

“Even so, we still hoped to reach Smolensk before the furies of winter fell upon us – Smolensk, where we would find well-stocked magazines and shelter, where Victor and his corps, placed in reserve, would bid us a warm welcome.  Therefore, led by our hope, we traversed the field of Borodino, marched through Gjatsk and, on the 3rd, pushed through the Russians at Viasma.  However, on the 5th and 6th the sky grew overcast and there were occasional flurries of snow.  On the 7th a massive snowstorm robbed us of the day and announced the true arrival of the Russian winter.  We struggled forward, unsure of where we were or who surrounded us.  The furious storm blew huge flakes of ice into our faces – flakes which soon settled and sought to obstruct our march.  The horses found the going difficult on the icy surface and gave up  Convoys and, for the first time, cannon were abandoned.  The road began to be littered with frozen bodies, and these, soon covered with a snowy winding sheet, formed small mounds.  This was all that was to remain of so many of our comrades-in-arms.”

“The Russian winter finished off what the starvation, exhaustion and retreat had been unable to accomplish.  The army disbanded and melted away.  Now it resembled a rabble – men of all arms, of all army corps, marching in small bands or alone.  They had not deliberately abandoned their flags, but cold and an instinct for self-preservation made men quit their units.  Continuing the march was a terrible effort every single day; for the gunners it was especially tough as they tried to look after their horses and save their guns.  The most terrible part, though, was the night – sixteen hours of darkness, camped in the snow, without food, without a fire.  The first such winter camp was that at Mikalevka, on the night of the 7th.”

Camp Near Mikalevka,
7 November
by Faber du Faur

Camp Near Mikalevka, 7 November
The fatal retreat had begun.  The ancient city of the Czars was nothing but a heap of smouldering rubble and eyes had turned westwards towards far-off homelands.  Whilst the sky had been serene and our feet trod upon firm earth, all had gone well.  Our thin garments had protected us from autumnal breezes, we found food in villages, and the soldiers, even when suffering, had hope of better things to come.  But the sky clouded over, the snow fell and the icy North came down upon us with all its attendant furies.  The road disappeared and, for as far as one could see, a sheet of white stretched to the horizon.  The faithful gunners made incredible efforts to save their pieces; they buried  those they could no longer drag with them.”

“After a day in which we had suffered as never before, we reached a village and came across some snow-covered huts.  Some of our comrades had preceded us and sought out shelter for us.  But all was quiet and we assumed they had now abandoned the huts and resumed their march.  As we drew nearer, however, we came across corpses frozen stiff and saw in their fate our own destiny.  We sought to brace ourselves for all the future could hurl against us, but the sinister end to the first day of winter marked but the start of our woe.”

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

The Army Changes Direction

After Malojaroslavets and Napoleon’s close encounter with the Cossacks,  fearing the army’s path was blocked by the enemy,  the army was ordered to reverse directions, then head north to rejoin the Smolensk-Moscow road.  This meant the army would now be travelling over country devastated earlier in the campaign by the retreating Russians and advancing Grande Armée.

Faber du Faur painted a scene from October 26, 1812 of a Cossack attack.  He begins his description with the night before, “After considerable effort, and constantly being hustled forward by out rearguard, we reached Borovsk on the 25th just as night was falling.  Here we made camp and found that most of the army had done likewise, but the town and a number of villages around were on fire; this, combined with the sea of campfires, transformed a mellow autumnal evening into a scene of awful grandeur.”

Before Borovsk, 26 October
by Faber du Faur

“On the morning of the 26th large bands of Cossacks attacked those villages that lined the Moscow road and killed, wounded or chased out those stragglers who had lodged there.  Next they attempted to attack the army’s camps, but a few discharges of cannon and a charge of Guard cavalry drove them off.  Nevertheless, they were visibly encouraged by our evident disorder, and these horsemen now grew far bolder than they had been at the beginning of the campaign.”

Scouts Plastuns
(Scouts crawling on their bellies)
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

“It was here, at Borovsk, that fortune seemed to turn her back on us.  Here we received news of Malojaroslavets and, shortly afterwards, the order that we should march on Mojaisk, via Vereya, and re-join the Moscow-Smolensk road.  This we began to do on the afternoon of the 26th, even though it took us away from a region untouched by the hand of war and brought us back on to a road which had been transformed into a desert strewn with the dead and the dying even during our first passage.  This was the start of the retreat proper, and the event that signaled the destruction of the entire army.  We were promised comfortable winter quarters in Smolensk, amongst its richly provisioned stores and magazines.  But we were eighteen days’ march away from those stores – eighteen days at the mercy of hunger, the climate and our enemies!”

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

Image and translation of Russian commemorative card provided by Alexey Temnikov

Exhausted Horses and Muddy Roads

Faber du Faur was travelling near the end of the column and records the difficulties they experienced on October 23, 1812, “Overcoming a number of difficulties, in part caused by our horses dropping from exhaustion and in part from the disorder reigning in the marching columns, we finally pushce dthrough the Desna and Krasnaya-Pakra defiles and, on 24 October, reached Czirikovo.  We then left the old Kaluga road, turning off to the right in order to gain, via Rudnevo, the new road.  As we made this oblique march we found ourselves bogged down in clay soil churned up by the rain, and it was here that we began to lose wagons, horses and caissons.  We had been able to reach Czirikovo without any such loss, but it had only been after a supreme effort and now our horses were exhausted.  From now on we abandoned or destroyed what we could not haul with us.  We even had to leave behind some of the more exhausted horses.

On the Road from Moscow to Kaluga,
Near Bykassovo, 23 October
by Faber du Faur

The rearguard burnt any wagons it came across so that they would not fall into enemy hands.  Sometimes soldiers did not even wait for the rearguard to come up but attempted to destroy vehicles then and there, placing the troops marching past in extreme danger.  Here, for example, as some artillerymen attempt to rid themselves of a caisson, a mounted gendarme rides up and fires his pistol at it in order to set it ablaze.  It explodes, costing the gendarme his life and burning a number of men most horribly.  These would die a miserable death but a few days later as the march continued.”

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

The Day of Departure

We pick up Jakob Walters’ narrative about the day he marches out of Moscow:

Withdrawal of Napoleon from Moscow
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

“When we assembled in the morning, my company was 25 privates strong, and all companies were more or less of this size.  The march went forth to the right from behind the eastern side of the city, and we moved past the city on the south.  There were two bridges thrown across the river below us, and the smoke from the flames surged up behind us.  Up on the heights past the bridge to the left of the road stood a cloister in which there was a flour storeroom where everyone fetched as much as he could carry.  Beyond the bridge there was a cabbage patch where millions of cabbage heads were still standing; it pained me not to be able to take along even one of these heads, since I fully expected the utmost famine.”

The suffering on the retreat is so well known that we tend to overlook the recent suffering on the advance: heat, hunger, exhaustion.   We also hear about the plunder the army carried off from Moscow and that image overshadows what the men must have been thinking: ‘This march is going to be worse.’  Walter knows he will regret leaving those cabbage behind.

At the Kaluga Gate
Moscow, 19 October
by Faber du Faur

Faber du Faur wrote the following description to accompany his painting, “The Emperor had busied himself with preparations for our departure for a good number of days  The sick and wounded were dispatched towards Mojaisk and Smolensk, those too ill to make the journey being place in the Foundling Hospital to be cared for by the army’s medical personnel.  Dismounted cavalry, to the number of 4,000 men, were organized into four battalions.  Army corps were passed in review by the Emperor; it was the turn of the Imperial Guard and, on the 18th, that of Ney’s divisions [IIIrd Corps].  As these latter were being reviewed, news arrived that Murat had been surprised and had sustained heavy losses around Vinkovo.  The review was, it is true, completed, but, as we filed out of the Kremlin heading for our quarters in the German Quarter, we received orders to quit Moscow the following day.  Thus it was that on the 19th we set out on the march that would result in the annihilation of the entire army.  The troops were set in motion before dawn and, keeping the Young Guard and the four battalions of dismounted cavalry in the Kremlin as a rearguard under [Édouard Adolphe Casimir Joseph] Mortier, filed out of the city through the Kaluga Gate.  The streets were crowded – in fact stuffed fit to burst – as corps ran into corps.  Time after time the way was blocked by disorganized convoys, for 500 guns, 2,000 wagons, drawn by exhausted horses, and countless carts and vehicles of all types and from all nations, loaded with booty or supplies, accompanied the army and slowed it down.”

“The sun was high in the sky on this fine autumnal day when, after considerable effort, we finally reached the Kaluga Gate.  We halted here, waiting in vain for two of our guns.  These guns had got lost in the crowded streets and only re-joined us a few hours later.”

Source:

The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter, p 59

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

The Kremlin

Faber du Faur captured an image from one of his last days in Moscow as preparations for departure were being made.

In the Kremlin, Moscow
17 October
by Faber du Faur

In the Kremlin, Moscow, 17 October
“Moscow boasts hundreds of churches, resplendent with gold, silver and brightly coloured, shimmering domes, earning for its city, the ancient capital of the Czars, the title of the City of the Golden Cupolas.  It is an astonishing sight, the only one of its kind, perhaps, in the entire world.  The city is a wonder to behold in the sunlight, particularly as you emerge from the forests to the west of Moscow, on the Mojaisk road.”

“In October 1812 the square to the east of the church was covered with hundreds of French and Allied caissons which, owing to the lack of draught horses, had been deposited within the Kremlin’s walls.  The square was so congested that it was in fact rather difficult to find a suitable position from which to draw.”

“The caissons were abandoned when we commenced our retreat and gunpowder from them was later used for blasting mine galleries beneath the Kremlin.”

Horses in the Assumption Cathedral

The cathedral on the right in the above painting with the silver domes is the Cathedral of the Assumption.  Faur included the following description giving the hundreds of years worth of history (even in 1812).  Contrast that with the images on the left.  “The Cathedral of the Assumption was founded in 1325 by Peter, Metropolitan of Kiev,

French in the
Assumption Cathedral
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

and was completed in 1327.  Struck by lightning in 1492, it was rebuilt in 1519 by Grand Duke Ivan Ivanovitch.  The interior was decorated by gold-leaf frescos commissioned by Czar Ivan Feodorovitch in 1692, and Catherine II restored the Church in 1773.”

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

Commemorative card image and translation provided by Alexey Temnikov