Tag Archives: Major Faber du Faur

Between Pleszenitzy and Smorgoni

Faber du Faur’s description seems almost buoyant as he talks about the events depicted in the painting of December 2nd, 1812.

Between Pleszenitzy and Smorgoniby Faber du Faur

Between Pleszenitzy and Smorgoni
by Faber du Faur

Between Pleszenitzy and Smorgoni,
2 December

The Beresina was behind us and we were happy to have marched over the series of bridges over the Zembin marshes.  Vilna, with its magazines and stores, was now the object of our attention   Those who could outstrip the army were sometimes lucky enough to find shelter in inhabited places.  Here we see some officers of the 25th Division in the room of a farmhouse; they probably still remember their pretty hostess who went by the name of The Carpenter’s Wife.

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

“A Single Idea Took Hold of the Crowd… To Reach the Bridge”

Faber du Faur wrote extensively on the events of the 28th which accompanied his painting of the same date.

Crossing of the Beresina, 28 November
by Faber du Faur

Crossing of the Beresina, 28 November
“Meanwhile, as night fell, the crowds of people who had not crossed on the 27th grew silent.  They settled down among the ruins of Studianka, along the heights or in amongst the mass of wagons and vehicles now forming an immense and virtually impenetrable ring around the bridges.  Campfires illuminated the entire area.  The majority of these unfortunates, worn down by their privations, had grown insensible to suffering or believed themselves protected by [Marshal Claude] Victor‘s corps, the left flank of which had taken up position on the Studianka heights.”

Count Peter Wittgenstein

“Thus it was that the night of the 27th passed by.  Artillery fire, which broke out on both banks simultaneously, heralded the dawn of the 28th.  [Count Peter ] Wittgenstein, with 40,000 Russians, was bearing down upon us from the direction of Borisov, whilst [Pavel] Chichagov, with 27,000 men, was attempting to attack the bridges on the right bank  For most of the unfortunates on the left bank the final hour had come.  They rose up and threw themselves towards the bridges.  The bridge on the left, intended for guns and wagons, collapsed for the third time under the weight of the fugitives, and any attempt to repair it was frustrated by the subsequent disorder and confusion.”

“A single idea took hold of the crowd, a single objective: to reach the bridge.  And in order to do so the fugitives were prepared to crush every obstacle and force their way past anyone, be it friend, commander, woman or child.  People were thrust into the freezing waters of the Beresina or pushed into the flames of the burning house between the two bridges.”

De Overtocht van de Berexina
by Aquarel van Fournier, an eyewitness

“Victor, his corps now reduced to 6,000 men, made heroic efforts to stem Wittgenstein’s advance, whilst [Marshal Nicolas] Oudinot, [Marshal Michel] Ney and [Jean Henri] Dombrowski managed to push Chichagov back on Stakova.  Even so, Wittgenstein, with vastly superior numbers, was gradually pushing Victor back towards the bridges, so much so that he was able to bring artillery fire to bear on the crowds of fugitives struggling to reach the crossing.  The desperation of this mass reached fever pitch.  Each Russian shell or round shot found a target, and swathese of unfortunates were cut down.  The cries of the multitude muffled the sound of the artillery as they made a supreme effort.  In a convulsed wave they surged forward, crushing the dead and dying underfoot.  Finally night fell and the Russian artillery fire first grew sporadic before ceasing altogether.  Towards nine in the evening Victor’s corps forced a passage through a scene of desolation and passed over to the right bank, leaving a rearguard in Studianka.”

Pavel Chichagov
Later disgraced for his actions
at the Berezina

“A good number of unfortunates failed to take the opportunity of crossing with relative ease and on the morning of the 29th woke to find the Russians advancing and a vast crowd milling around the bridges.  It was all for nothing as, at 8:30, the bridges were set on fire and all means of crossing the river went up in flames.  The same fate would have befallen all those who had crossed over to the right bank had Chichagov destroyed the series of bridges which spanned the marshes between Zaniviki and Zembin.  Fortunately, he failed to realise the importance of this defile and we arrived at Zembin having ourselves destroyed the bridges and placed the marsh between ourselves and the pursuing enemy.”

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

On the Right Bank of the Beresina

The crossing of the Berezina was such a tragic event, that Faber du Faur created four paintings and descriptions to record the drama.  Two of the paintings were dated for November 27, 1812.

On the Right Bank of the Beresina,
27 November
by Faber du Faur

On the Right Bank of the Beresina, 27 November
“At two in the morning of the 27th the Guard and III corps, including the 25th Division – which, from six regiments of infantry, four cavalry regiments and 1,000 artillerymen, could now scarcely muster 150 men and no guns – broke camp and crossed the bridges to the right bank.  All those officers who no longer had men to command followed this movement five hours later.  This was a signal for the masses of fugitives camped on the left bank to throw themselves towards the bridges.  Dawn saw a confused crowd of men, horses and vehicles pour down towards the bridges, almost as though they were attempting to carry them by assault.  Although the enemy was still some distance off, the situation was frightening and the horror of it all was augmented by orders given to the gendarmes and pontonniers not to let anyone pass but armed men or those in formation.  All others were pushed back into the crowd, most often by force, and hundreds were crushed underfoot or thrust into the water.  Even those who were granted permission to cross the bridges were not entirely out of danger.  If they managed to negotiate the slippery ramps they were lucky, but, from there onwards, if they chanced to slip they would certainly be trampled underfoot or pushed into the icy waters of the Beresina.”

“In the midst of the confusion stood the Emperor.  He was close by the riverbank, between the two bridges, and he sought to exert some measure of order over the chaos around him.  He oversaw the crossing until the evening when, with his suite, he himself made his way to the right bank and established his headquarters in the hamlet of Zaniviki.”

“The majority of our men camped as soon as they got to the right bank.  Ignoring everything around them, they thought of nothing but lighting a fire, cooking and warming themselves.  Cruel fate!  The gusts of snow were so violent that night that it was almost impossible to keep a fire burning.  We ourselves had just managed to melt a little snow for drinking water when IX Corps arrived, hustled us out of our camp and obliged us to seek shelter further on.”

Camp on the Right Bank of the Beresina,
27 November
by Faber du Faur

Camp on the Right Bank of the Beresina, 27 November
“Forced to abandon our fire, we wandered off in the direction of Zaniviki.  We arrived there in the pitch dark with thick snow everywhere.  Imperial Headquarters was based here, as was the Guard and a mass of troops and stragglers attracted by the glow of campfires.  All the houses were occupied, and it was only after considerable effort, and some hard searching, that we found a house occupied by our staff, officers and soldiers.  We had to obtain some wood at gunpoint to feed our fire, and we settled down for the night in the deep snow.  There was no food.  Soon fighting broke out – not, as one might expect, for room inside the houses but for the houses themselves: the soldiers, maddened by the cold, had clambered onto the roofs and started to demolish the houses for wood.  The occupiers fought vainly to prevent this but, by the following morning, Zaniviki had disappeared, consumed by countless campfires.”

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

Camp at Studianka

Faber du Faur painted the scene on the bank of the Berezina where the army waited to cross.

Camp at Studianka,
26 November
by Faber du Faur
Note the building being dismantled in the background

Camp at Studianka, 26 November
“We left our camp at Nimanitschi before dawn on the 26th and marched for Borisov with the rest of the army; Borisov had fallen to Chichagov on the 23rd but had been recaptured by the Duke of Reggio [Nicolas Oudinot] on the 24th.  Night had falled by the time we reached the town.  We then followed the river for two leagues, the glow of the Russian campfires on the right bank helping us in our progress.  When day broke our march was masked by a forest of pines.  Firing could be heard but it seemed distant and muffled; however, it grew louder that afternoon.  It was Oudinot, who, with II Corps, had crossed the river and was pushing Chichagov back towards Borisov.”

“We reached Studianka, which lies at the foot of some heights, that evening.  The heights had guns positioned on them to defend the bridges that had been thrown across the river by General Eblé on the morning of the 26th.  The bridge on the right was designed for infantry and cavalry whilst that a little further downstream was intended for artillery and all kinds of other vehicles.”

“The river itself is quite wide, with marshy banks, and is about six feet deep.  There were ramps serving as approaches to the bridges, but these were partially flooded as the water level had risen recently.  Wood from the village had been used to build the bridges, and what remained had largely been consumed in the campfires.  What little was left served as our shelter that night whilst we waited to cross the river.  The place was so crowded that we thought ourselves lucky to find shelter from the glacial winds against the walls of a hut and next to the headquarters of the French gendarmes.”

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

“If the Rearguard Does Not Take Pity on Them…”

The further the army marched, the more it broke down.  More than ever, the survivors needed the help of others.  Faber du Faur records one example of a dire situation.  A scene that was repeated many times.

Near Bobr, 23 November
by Faber du Faur

Near Bobr, 23 November
“Although there had been something of a thaw over the last couple of days, this was soon replaced by heavy snow – something that impeded our march.  Russian columns shadowed us, but at a distance as they too were suffering from the intemperate climate.  However, we were still surrounded by clouds of Cossacks and bands of armed peasants, and this made it very dangerous to stray from the main road or lag behind.”

“Here we see a typical scene – something that happened every day.  A wounded officer and his wife, after considerable efforts to get this far, have just seen the horse pulling their sledge collapse and die.  The bulk of the army has already passed by but there is still some hope that the rearguard might be able to assist them. But night is approaching and the rearguard is some way off – the smoke in the distance is a sign that it has just left a village and has set it on fire.  The Cossacks appear.  The compassion and bravery of a handful of soldiers serves as some encouragement for the unlucky pair but they are now without transport and if the rearguard does not take pity on them they will be abandoned and captivity will follow.  Either that or they will perish, victims of the murderous climate.”

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

“Don’t Leave us to the Cossacks”

On the morning of November 14, 1812, Napoleon and the Imperial Guard left Smolensk to resume the march west.  Faber du Faur painted scenes from the next day and included the following narratives.

Between Korythnia and Krasnoi, 15 November
by Faber du Faur

Between Korythnia and Krasnoi, 15 November
“At five o’clock in the morning of 14 November, Imperial Headquarters and the Imperial Guard left Smolensk. Four hours later what remained of the 25th Division followed.  there were just a couple of hundred combatants left in its ranks, although a brigade of 200 men remained behind to form part of the rearguard under Marshal Ney.  We also had four guns and a confused crowd of thousands of unarmed and strangely dressed fugitives, numbers of horses and all kinds of transport.  No sooner had we passed through the city’s gates than our losses began to mount; one of our gun carriages collapsed and we had to abandon the piece.”

“We dragged ourselves through deep snow, leaving traces of our passage in our wake.  We made our way painfully as far as Korythnia, which we reached at nightfall, and we spent the night there.  On the 15th we resumed our march towards Krasnoi.  Towards noon we heard the noise of explosions; at first we took this to be the noise of caissons being destroyed, but it soon became apparent that it was the noise of cannon.  We soon learned that it was the Russians attacking the Imperial Guard, for, now, we too suffered the same fate.  Suddenly, through the snow, we saw a huge cloud of Cossacks flood on to the road ahead.  Simultaneously, masses of infantry, cavalry and artillery appeared on our left.  When they were no more than 4,500 paces from us they opened fire, sending a murderous discharge of round shot and grape against us.  These were [Mikhail] Miloradovich‘s 20,000 Russians, and they had occupied Krasnoi in order to cut our retreat.”

Faur’s next entry has the same name and date as the first:

Between Korythnia and Krasoi, 15 November
by Faber du Faur

Between Korythnia and Krasnoi, 15 November
“We advanced, benefiting from the cover afforded by some pine trees that lined the road, and, despite our enfeebled state, fired back with our three guns.  We were only able to get off a couple of shots before our pieces were silenced by the overwhelming fire of the enemy artillery.  Now we prepared ourselves to fight our way through the enemy barring our way and link up with the Imperial Guard.  We buried our guns so that they would not fall into the hands of the Cossacks, formed ourselves up into a column, with the armed men to the fore, and advanced.  The Russians did not wait to resist our attack but moved out of the way, whilst Miloradovich’s men were content to shadow us on our left and bring their artillery to bear against us. Of course, Miloradovich could have captured every last one of us with even a tenth of his troops.  Eventually we arrived at Krasnoi, having sustained some loss but having come through the enemy.”

Napoleon had ordered his Corps to leave Smolensk at one day intervals and on the 15th, Prince Eugène’s IV Corps was scheduled to leave.  The non-walking wounded of the Corps were gathered into one area and given some food, but then it was time for the rest of the Corps to leave.  Adjutant-Major Césare de Laugier of the Italian Guardia d’Ornore described the scene that followed.  “[Those being left behind] clenched their fists in despair, flung their arms round our legs, sobbed, screamed, clung to us, begged us to find them some means of transport: ‘For pity sake don’t leave us to the Cossacks, to be burnt alive, be butchered as soon as they come in.  Comrades, comrades, friends, for pity sake take us with you!’  We go off with heavy hearts.  Whereupon these unfortunates roll on the ground, lashing about as if possessed.”

Back on the road, things are not any better as Laugier continues, “Here and there, dying horses, weapons, all kinds of effects, pillaged trunks, eviscerated packs are showing us the road followed by those ahead of us.  We also see trees at whose foot men have tried to light a fire; and around their trunks, transformed into funerary monuments, the victims have expired after futile efforts to get warm.  The wagoners are using the corpses, numerous at every step, to pave the road by filling in ditches and ruts.  At first we shudder at the sight; then we get used to it.  Anyone who hasn’t good horses and faithful servants with him will almost certainly never see his own country again.  Far from exciting our sensibility, such horrors just harden our hearts.”

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

1812: The Great Retreat Told by the Survivors, Paul Britten Austin, pp 148-149

“Nothing More than a Miserable Pit”

When the army arrived at Smolensk, instead of the hoped for relief, they only found disappointment.  The shell of a city offered nothing they had hoped for.  Faber du Faur described the conditions.

Camp in Smolensk,
13 November
by Faber du Faur

Camp in Smolensk, 13 November
“So here we were in the promised land of Smolensk, a place where we thought to put an end to our suffering, the goal of our every effort.  We had imagined abundance in the city’s depots, warm houses to accommodate us and secure winter quarters to end our woe  All this had maintained our courage and kept the soldiers in the ranks.  But it was all a lie.  It was nothing more than a miserable pit, and Smolensk, instead of putting an end to the destruction, merely hastened the end of the entire army.”

“We established our camp in eighteen degrees of frost, in the midst of the burnt ruins of a house.  We had but little food, and that had had to be snatched from magazines surrounded by spectres maddened by hunger.  This is all Smolensk , that great city, had to offer.”

“We had to continue the march through the cold and horror.  And the frontier of Russia was another thirty days’ march away!  We destroyed a number of guns here and, pooling our resources, found the means to drag with us four 6-pounders – all that remained of our artillery.  We placed our sick and dying in houses in the New Square, for these had been converted into hospitals.  These hospitals could not deal with such a scale of suffering and they presented a horrifying spectacle.  The unfortunate sick were scattered here and there, in amongst the columns of the arcades or still slumbering in the wagons that had brought them here.  Abandoned by everyone, deprived of all care, the vast majority fell victim to the cold of the first night.”

“Whilst in Smolensk we heard the rumble of guns – a noise that announced the arrival of Kutuzov’s Russians.”

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