Tag Archives: Marshal Michel Ney

The Bravest of the Brave!

At 1 am on the morning of November 20, 1812, Ney’s re-united Corps burned the village where they had spent the night and resumed their march.  Ney sent ahead a Polish officer towards Orsha to let the army know of his position and situation.  We continue with Colonel Fezensac’s narrative, “The fatigue of the preceding day, joined with the circumstance of my boots being filled with water, brought back all the sufferings I had before experienced.”

Marshal Ney Supporting the Rear Guard
During the Retreat from Moscow
by Adolphe Yvon

Leaning on the arm of a young officer, Fezensac and the others marched without opposition until daylight when the Cossacks arrived with the sun.  “Platov, profiting by the ground directed his field pieces, mounted on sledges, to advance against us; and when this artillery, which we could neither get at nor avoid, had carried disorder into our ranks, he ordered a charge by his whole body.  Marshal Ney formed each of his two divisions rapidly into square…  We obliged by main force every straggler who still carried a musket to fall into the ranks.  The Cossacks, who were held feebly in check by our skirmishers, and who drove before them a crowd of unarmed stragglers, endeavored to come up with our square…  Twenty times I saw them [the square] on the point of disbanding, and leaving us to the mercy of the Cossacks, but the presence of Marshal Ney, the confidence which he inspired, the calmness of his attitude in the moment of danger, still retained them in their duty.”

Before noon, the two divisions occupied the village of Teolino and Ney decided he would defend it until “nine in the evening.  Twenty times did General Platoff endeavor to wrest it from us; twenty times was he repulsed…”

“At nine in the evening we stood to our arms, and continued our march in the greatest silence.  The several parties of Cossacks posted on our road fell back at our approach, and our march was performed in the greatest order.  At a league from Orsha our advanced guard challenged an outpost, and was answered in French…  A man should be three days between life and death, to understand all the joy we experienced at meeting them.”

Napoleon had ordered Davout and Prince Eugène to wait for Ney at Orsha.  They sent scouts back along the Smolensk road.  Colonel Lubin Griois was enjoying a rare night with provisions and shelter when word came back that Ney was in danger, “Nothing less than this motive, was needed to make us, without regret, turn back in the middle of the night and in a very sharp cold mount the Dnieper again without even knowing how far we’d have to go.”

Cesare de Laugier wrote that, “Ney and Eugène were the first to meet, and threw themselves into each other’s arms.  At this sight everyone broke ranks.  Without recognizing each other, everyone embraced everyone else.”  Of the 6,000 armed men who left Smolensk with IIIrd Corps, only 900 remain.

News of Ney’s escape spread quickly.  Napoleon bestowed the title “Bravest of the Brave” on Ney.  Armand de Caulaincourt wrote, “Now officers, soldiers, everyone was sure we could snap our fingers at misfortune, that Frenchmen were invincible!”

Sources:
A Journal of the Russian Campaign of 1812, Translated from the French of Lt. General De Fezensac by Colonel W. Knollys, pp 119 – 122

1812: The Great Retreat, Paul Britten Austin, pp 203 – 204

Napoleon in Russia, Alan Palmer, p 229

“Take My Knapsack, I Am A Lost Man”

Today we continue the story of IIIrd Corps escape from the trap at Krasnoe.  After leaving camp fires burning in the night and slipping away to the north to cross the ice of the Dnieper, dawn of the 19th arrived to show that Ney’s  IIIrd Corps was alone, for now.

Platov Cossacks
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

Some Cossack outposts were captured and by midday, two villages were also captured, their inhabitants fleeing and leaving provisions behind.  But the plundering is soon brought to an end by the appearance of swarms of Cossacks led by General Matvei Platov.  But Ney’s troops are well formed and the Cossacks dare not attack.  IIIrd Corps continues its march, but now finds the Cossacks have cannon mounted on sledges.

Montesquiou Duc de Fezensac and about 100 of his men became separated from the main body when they were ordered to clear the woods along the river of Cossacks.  Having accomplished their task, they became lost in the fading light.  Hurrying to catch up, they are again harassed by Cossacks who “Kept shouting at us to surrender and firing point-blank into our midst.  Those who were hit were abandoned.  A sergeant had his leg shattered by a shot from a carbine.  He fell at my side, and said coolly to his comrades: ‘Here, take my knapsack, I am a lost man, and you will be the better for it.’  Someone took his pack, and we left him in silence.  Two wounded officers suffered the same fate.  Yet I noticed uneasily the impression this state of affairs was making on my regiment’s men, and even on its officers.  Then so-and-so, a hero on the battlefield, seemed worried and troubled  – so true it is that the circumstances of danger are often more frightening than the danger itself.  A very small number preserved the presence of mind we were in such need of.  I needed all my authority to keep order as we marched and to prevent each man leaving his rank.  One officer even dared give it to be understood we’d perhaps be forced to surrender.  I reprimanded him aloud, so much the more sharply as he was an officer of merit, which made the lesson more striking.”

Don’t Hurry, Let Them Approach
Vasily Vereschagin

At last, they found their way back to  the Dneiper so now knew where they were, but still had to catch up to Ney.  Marching with the river to their left to avoid a flanking attack by the Cossacks, they continued at a quickened pace.  “The Cossacks, from time to time, advanced towards us with loud cries.  On these occasions we halted a minute to give our fire, and immediately resumed our march.  For two leagues we traversed the most impracticable ground, crossed ravines, whose sides we ascended with the utmost difficulty, and waded through streams, the half-frozen water of which reached to the knee, — but nothing could daunt the perseverance of our soldiers; the greatest order was maintained, and not a man quitted the ranks.”

“The enemy at length relaxed in his pursuit, and the fires which we descried on the heights in front of us proved to be those of Marshal Ney’s rear-guard: they had halted, and were now preparing to resume their march.  We joined them, and learned that the Marshal had, on the preceding evening, marched direct on the enemy’s artillery and forced a passage through them.”

“We were still eight leagues [24 miles] from Orsha, and entertained little doubt of General Platoff’s redoubling his exertions to overtake us, — moments became precious.”

To be continued.

Sources:
1812: The Great Retreat, Paul Britten Austin, pp 198 – 200

A Journal of the Russian Campaign of 1812, Translated from the French of Lt. General De Fezensac by Colonel W. Knollys, pp 117 – 119

Commemorative 1912 Russian Candy Box Card image and translation provided by Alexey Temnikov

Ney’s Escape

As the rearguard of the Grande Armée, Ney‘s IIIrd Corps was the last to leave Smolensk.  They had orders to blow up the walls of the city as they left.  There

Marshal Michel Ney

was plenty of powder in the city for this task, but the effect was minimal.  Marshal Davout had sent back a messenger to warn Ney of the Russians across the road to Krasnoe, but Ney dismissed it saying something to the effect that all the Cossacks in the world wouldn’t bother him.

Davout’s corps had barely made it through to Krasnoe and now it was Ney’s turn to run the gauntlet.  Ney left Smolensk on the morning of the 17th with 6,000 soldiers and thousands of camp-followers and stragglers.  On the afternoon of the 18th, his lead troops came under fire through a heavy mist.  The Russians had placed artillery across the road and along each side.  To a request for surrender, Ney replied “A Marshal of France does not surrender.”

Le Marechal Ney Retraite de Russie
by Emile Boutigny

Accounts by Palmer, Nafziger and Ségur vary on the details, but in general, what followed is this:  Ney tried to force his way through for five hours.  Montesquiou Duc de Fezensac describes the fierce fighting as each cannon shot  is “carrying off whole files.  At each step death was becoming more inevitable.  Yet our march wasn’t slowed down for a single instant.”  The 18th Regiment of the line lost its Eagle when, as recorded by Captain Guillaume Bonnet, “The regiment impetuously continued its charge and, taking off to the right, threw back a line of infantry; but enveloped by numerous cavalry it was itself annihilated, except for two or three officers who’d been wounded early on…  The Eagle was left there.”

General Jean-David Freytag describes the worsening conditions, “While we were ranged in order of battle in the plain, all the time standing up to a terrible and continuous fire, our carriages, our horses, part of the artillery and all the unarmed men, the stragglers and the sick who’d remained on the road, fell into the power of a ‘hurrah’ of Cossacks.  All the food and the few resources still remaining to us were lost.  Marshal Ney gave the orders that if possible the fight should be sustained until dusk, in order to retreat by the Dnieper.”

Fezensac described Ney’s determination, “Ney’s self-confidence equaled his courage.  Without knowing what he meant to do nor what he could do, we knew he’d do something.  The greater the danger, the prompter his determination; and once having made up his mind, he never doubted he’d succeed. His face expressed neither indecision nor disquietude.”

Leaving his camp fires burning, his army slipped away to the north toward the Dnieper river.  Becoming disoriented in the dark, Ney had the ice of a stream broken so they could tell which direction the water flowed and follow it to the Dnieper.  They reached the river around midnight, but found that the ice was not strong enough to support the crossing.  Ney had the column sit and rest for three hours to allow the ice to harden.  Any remaining wagons and artillery along with the sick and wounded were left on the bank.  A fire was set on the far bank to guide any stragglers and the column moved on.

To be continued…

Sources:
1812: The Great Retreat, Paul Britten Austin, pp 195 – 197

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur

Napoleon in Russia, Alan Palmer

Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, George F. Nafziger

 

“More Than Equal To The Russian Troops”

Faber du Faur arrived at Krasnoi on the night of the 15th and described the accommodations and the situation the army found itself in.

Camp at Krasnoi, 16 November
by Faber du Faur

Camp at Krasnoi, 16 November
“We had forced our way through the Russians and reached Krasnoi as night fell.  The Young Guard, under [Édouard Adolphe] Mortier, was stationed on the road to Korythnia whilst Imperial Headquarters and the Old Guard, which still counted some 5,000 men in its ranks, occupied the little town and filled every house.  Everyone else, including ourselves, had to make do with whatever shelter they could find in the streets and gardens and considered themselves lucky if they were able to warm themselves by a fire.  This is how we spent the night.  We awoke on the morning of the 16th and only then did we appreciate the losses of the day before – men were missing, equipment and matériellost – and the danger we were now in as Kutuzov’s 90,000 Russians had

Count Mikhail Miloradovich

cut all apparent means of escape.  Before us the road to Gadi was occupied by Russians, the bulk of their army lay on our left flank and Miloradovich was on the Krasnoi-Korythnia road, barring our retreat to Smolensk and preventing us from linking up with Eugène, Ney and Davout, whose troops still lay around that town.  However, we were not disheartened for we placed our confidence in Napoleon and were convinced that, however we might fare against the Russian climate, we were more than equal to the Russian troops.”

“We spent the whole of the 16th waiting for the three army corps to come up from Smolensk and making demonstrations against the Russians around Krasnoi.  The boom of cannon and the rattle of musketry resounded around this little town throughout the day.  During the night of 16/17 November the guard managed to extricate Eugène and the remains of his corps.  But as Ney and Davout had not appeared by noon on the 17th, and fearing that we had remained too long at Krasnoi, and that the defile to Orscha might be cut, we began to march off towards Lyadi.  Thus the Imperial Guard marched out of Krasnoi and attacked the Russians to our left; these quickly fell back.  All of a sudden all firing stopped and we were able to reach Lyadi without hindrance and without having seen or heard the enemy.”

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

Blogger’s Note: This is the 200th post on this blog (including re-posts from 2011).  Thank you for reading!

Guest bloggers are welcome.  Contact me at ScottArmstrong@RussianSnows.com

~ Scott Armstrong

Napoleon at Borodino 2012

Today we have the ultimate guest blog post.  While Napoleon himself has long since passed on, he is ably represented in our time by Mark Schneider who has portrayed Napoleon at events around the world since 2005.  As you can tell from the photos and the story below, Napoleon is fortunate to have Mark carry on his legacy.

Because this blog is about the experiences of the soldiers on the Russian campaign, I asked Mark if he would be willing to write about his thoughts and experiences during the re-enactment marking the 200th anniversary of the battle of Borodino (la Moskova).  He readily agreed and here is the result.

Mark Schneider as Napoleon
Borodino 2012

When I look back at the great experiences that I have had portraying Napoleon since 2005, one of the great highlights will certainly have to be “La Bataille de la Moskova.” My name is Mark Schneider and I have had the great honor and pleasure to portray Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte in Europe since 2005. My first event was Waterloo and the experience has changed my life forever. Since that fateful afternoon in June, 2005, I have also had the honor to portray Napoleon at the 200th anniversary of Austerlitz (2005,), Jena (2006,) Berlin (2006,) Erfurt (2008,) and many other anniversary events such as Hollabrunn (2006-7,) Mormant (2007,) Borodino (2007,) Waterloo (2008,) Austerlitz (2007,8,11,) Sarzana (2011,) Jena (2011,) and now the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Borodino!

Appearing as Napoleon at the 195th anniversary of Borodino gave me a taste of what it was going to be like in 2012. The battlefield was truly amazing to behold. The museum of Borodino was also quite magnificent with such items as Kutuzov’s carriage, uniforms and sadly even a French Eagle as well as many cannons. I was given a tour of many portions of the battlefield that I had read about since I was a child in David Chandler’s “Campaigns Of Napoleon” as well as de Ségur’s “Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Paul Britten Austin’s “1812-Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia,” and Caulaincourt’s “With Napoleon in Russia.” It was one thing to read about this battlefield and quite another to walk or ride upon it! All of this was a great introduction to the huge anniversary event that would take place 5 years later.

I was asked to attend the 200th anniversary event of Borodino over a year before it took place. My host was Alexander Valkovitch, a great historian and friend who has participated in many events with me to include Hollabrunn and Erfurt as Czar Alexander I. When all of the planning and organizing was complete, I received the official invitation. I was most excited to attend this great event that would commemorate the bloodiest single day in the Napoleonic Wars. Well, just as Napoleon had a long way to go in the campaign before Borodino was fought, so I too had a long way to go before I finally received my VISA! Once in my hand I was off to Moscow! It was a long journey, just as it was a long journey for the Grande Armee. Upon arrival, I then had to drive the 150KM south-west to the battlefield, and though I was not harassed by cossacks, there was a tremendous amount of Russian vehicle traffic on the highway. Upon arrival, I discovered that it was all worth it because I was about to participate in one of the most amazing events in re-enacting history.

Preparing the Meal

I arrived just as the sun was going down and our driver was kind enough to point out some of the monuments on the way. When we finally pulled into the camp site it was quite a sight to behold. The hundreds of tents and horses and cannons and soldiers walking about certainly made me feel as if I had returned back to September of 1812. I met my host Alexander Valkovitch and some other old friends from past events, and we enjoyed a late dinner and spoke of the battle and the days to come. I would turn in at a rather early hour of 11 pm and my accommodations would not be a tent but rather a former Soviet school! Just for one night though for the next night would be in the field.

Re-enactors’ Camp at Borodino 2012

After a restful night’s sleep, I donned my Chasseur a Cheval de la Garde Imperiale habit, and began the event. A quick Russian breakfast, a few press interviews and I was off to the cavalry camp where I would find my horse and my escort of the Chasseurs a Cheval commanded by my friend Capitaine Jean-Francois Remy Neris. At the cavalry camp there were many of my old friends waiting and it was truly a delight to see them. The sun was shining and all was well. I mounted my gray horse “Tauris” and went to the battlefield to review the Army. It was truly amazing to see so many beautiful units in attendance! Infantry, artillery and so many cavalry! Cuirassiers, Carabiniers, hussars, lancers, Chasseurs, Grenadiers a cheval and more! Truly a sight to see.

The Saturday event was basically a rehearsal for the main event on Sunday. We spent many hours in the saddle upon the battlefield watching the two great armies maneuver, fire, charge, get used to their mounts and prepare for the big day. As the day began to end, we marched back to the cavalry camp where we would rest for the night.

Mark Schneider as Napoleon and
former French President
Valéry Giscard d’Estaing

The next morning found the weather cloudy, cool and rainy. The Grande Armee was to participate in a ceremony by the one monument on the Borodino battlefield that honored the Grande Armee. In attendance was former President of the French Republic, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. He gave a very moving speech honoring all the soldiers that had died, and then I had the honor to meet with him and shake his hand.

When the ceremony was over, the rain was falling, but the battle had to go on! 200,000 people were expected to attend, rain or shine. We had time for a quick lunch and then it was back in the saddle and on to the battlefield.

Mark Schneider as Napoleon
Acknowledges the Crowd

To say that it was amazing is an understatement! At the head of the Etat-Major and the cavalry we marched out of the woods on to the field. What a spectacle! Thousands of soldiers and 200,000 people! We took up our positions and the battle began. Though there was a drizzle, I think it added to the atmosphere. When the cannons and the muskets began firing it obscured portions of the battlefield so at certain moments you could not see the crowd

The Semenovskaya phase
of the re-enactment

and only the soldiers on the field. It was as if September 7th 1812 had returned! From my position on the hill I could observe the entire field. I rode past the army to give them some encouragement, and then the onslaught began. The Great Redoubt had to be taken! The cannons roared, the cavalry charged, occasionally with riders tumbling off their mounts! Fortunately there were no serious injuries. As all this was going on, a narrator was giving a play by play of what was happening. As the battle continued, I left the safety of my ridge, with the Imperial Guard close at

Marshal Michel Ney
Portrayed by Franky Simon

hand and decided to take a closer look at the action. Marshal Ney rode up to me and said that the victory was ours if we would only commit the Guard, but I simply could not commit my last reserves so far from home. Victory would have to come with the men already engaged. I sent him back into the fray. The commander of my escort cautioned me that it was dangerous for the Emperor to be so close to the action, and he was right! Soon a Regiment of Cossacks was on us, galloping straight for me! My Chasseurs jumped into action and saved me, giving me time to place myself behind my beloved Guard. The battle began to come to an end. Just as the brave soldiers of the Grande Armée as well as the Russian Army fought to exhaustion that fateful day, so did the brave re-enactors. The time had come to end this great spectacle. The armies formed up in front of the thousands of spectators who had weathered the rain and cold . We galloped past them half a dozen times saluting them as well as the brave combatants. It was a moment I will never forget.

Traffic at the Re-enactment
of Borodino 2012

The armies then began to march off, and I, still escorted by my faithful Chasseurs a cheval, began my ride back to the cavalry camp. Upon arrival I thanked my horse for bringing me safely through this weekend spectacular. I had a brief rest with my comrades, but soon it was time for me to go. After one last goodbye and thank you to my host Alexander Valkovitch, I had to get back on the road to the airport in Moscow. 200,000 people would be joining me, so a trip that would normally take one and half hours, now took five! It was worth it!

Vive l’Empereur!

I will never forget this amazing event at Borodino. It was truly a dream come true for me. I have been interested in Napoleon and his times since I was a little boy and dreamed of fighting in his battles. Well now that dream has come true. More than all of that, it was an honor to take part in an event that honored all of the soldiers that fought and died that day. I hope that by remembering and reenacting such a great event in history and all the sacrifices that were made, no one will ever forget.

Mark Schneider
“NAPOLEON”

Blogger’s Note:  Thank you Mark for this terrific post!  ~ Scott Armstrong

The Army Begins to Leave Smolensk

On the 14th, Napoleon left Smolensk.  The corps of Eugene, Davout and Ney were to follow at one day intervals.  Sgt. Adrian Bourgogne who was a member of the Imperial Guard followed a short time after Napoleon acting as rearguard of the men accompanying the Emperor.  We pick up Bourgogne’s narration while he was waiting for the artillery to cross a ravine:  “When we were at the other side, I saw three men round a dead horse; two of them staggered about as if they were drunk.  The third, a German, lay on the horse; the poor wretch was dying of hunger, and, not being able to cut the flesh, was trying to bite it.  He soon afterwards died where he was of cold and hunger.  The two others, Hussars, were covered with blood about the hands and mouth.”

“…walking by the side of the highroad to come up with the right of the column, and then wait for our regiment near a fire, if we were lucky enough to find one…. all along our way we were forced to step over the dead and dying…  we saw a man of the line sitting against a tree near a little fire; he was busy melting snow in a saucepan to cook the liver and heart of a horse he had just killed with his bayonet.”

“As we had rice and oatmeal with us, we asked him to lend us the saucepan to cook them, so that we could all eat together.  He was so delighted; so with the rice and straw-oatmeal we made some soup, seasoning it with a little sugar… as we had no salt.  While our soup was cooking, we roasted some bits of liver and kidneys from a horse, and enjoyed it greatly.”

Meanwhile, 90,000 Russian troops under General Mikhail Kutuzov, who were marching on a parallel road, finally caught up to and passed the Grande Armée.

Source:
Sergeant Bourgogne: With Napoleon’s Imperial Guard in the Russian Campaign and on the Retreat from Moscow 1812-13, Adrien Bourgogne, pp 101 – 102

The Toll so Far

Napoleon himself stayed in Smolensk until the 14th.  The last unit to leave was Ney’s IIIrd Corps on the 17th.  According to author George F. Nafziger, of the 100,000 men who had left Moscow in October, only about 41,500 remained.  The Imperial Guard was 14,000 of this number.  Eugène’s IVth Corps had 5,000 left while Davout’s Ist Corps had 10,000.  The V and VIII Corps (Poles and Westphalians) were merged and totaled 1,500.  The Minard map puts the total reaching Smolensk at 37,000, Ségur at 36,000.

Philippe-Paul de Ségur,  Napoleon’s aide-de-camp, describes how Napoleon “… had counted on finding fifteen days’ provisions and forage for an army of a hundred thousand men; there was not more than half that quantity of rice, flour, and spirits, and no meat at all.  We heard him shouting in great fury at one of the men who had been entrusted with the responsibility of providing those supplies. This commissary, it is said, saved his life only by crawling on his knees at Napoleon’s feet.  The reasons he gave probably did more for him than his supplications.”

The man explained “When I reached Smolensk, the bands of deserters the army had left behind in its advance on Moscow had already invested the city with horror and destruction.  Men were dying there as they had died on the road.  When we had succeeded in establishing some sort of order, the Jews were the first to furnish some provisions.  Some Lithuanian noblemen followed their example, inspired perhaps by a nobler motive.  Then the long convoys of supplies collected in Germany began to appear…  Several hundred head of German and Italian cattle were driven in at the same time.”

Dead in the Snow
by Ferdinand Boissard

“A horrible, death-dealing stench from the piles of corpses … was poisoning the air.  The dead were killing the living.  The civil employees and many of the soldiers were stricken, some of them to all appearances becoming idiots, weeping or fixing their hollow eyes steadily on the ground.  There were some whose hair stiffened, stood on end, all twisted into strings; then, in the midst of a torrent of blasphemy, or even more ghastly laughter, they dropped dead.”

The cattle were slaughtered “…. immediately.  These beasts would neither eat nor walk…. several convoys were intercepted, some supply depots taken, and a drove of eight hundred oxen were recently seized at Krasnoye.”

In short, the reserves were gone, drawn down by other units that had spent time in the city.  Other provisions had been sent east to meet the army as it retreated. Napoleon’s plans for spending the winter in Smolensk, if that was his intention, were gone.

Sources:
Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, George F. Nafziger, p 305

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, p 184 – 185