Tag Archives: Matvei Platov

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

“Courage – The Only Good Thing We Had Left”

Ségur continues his account of the Army of Italy after it crossed the Vop river, leaving stragglers, baggage and artillery on the far side of the river to be swarmed by the Cossacks: “The Army of Italy, divested of everything, dripping with the waters of the Vop, without food or shelter, spent the night in the snow near a village in which the generals tried in vain to find lodgings for themselves.  The soldiers attacked the frame houses, falling in desperate swarms on every dwelling, taking advantage of the darkness that prevented them from recognizing their own officers or being recognized by them.  They tore off the doors and windows, even the woodwork of the roof, caring little whether they forced others, regardless of their rank, to bivouac like themselves.”

“Their generals tried in vain to drive them off.  The soldiers, even those of the royal and imperial Guards, bore their blows without complaining, without offering any opposition, but without desisting.  Throughout the army similar scenes were repeated every evening.”

“They spent that night drying themselves around the fires they had lit, listening to the cries, curses, and moans of those who were still crossing the torrent, or who rolled from the top of the steep bank to their death in the ice-filled waters.”

Platov Cossacks
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

“It is a fact that reflects disgrace on the enemy, that in the midst of this chaos, within sight of so rich a prize, a few hundred men left a mile or so from the Viceroy, on the other side of the river, held both the courage and the cupidity of Platov’s Cossacks in check for twenty-four hours.  It is possible that the Hetman believed he had made sure of the destruction of the Viceroy on the following day.  Indeed, all his plans were so well laid that at the instant when the army of Italy, at the end of a troubled and disorganized day’s march, caught sight of Dukhovshchina, one of the few towns as yet uninjured [this town was not in the line of march on the advance to Moscow], and were joyfully hurrying forward to seek shelter in it, they saw swarming out of it several thousand Cossacks… At the same time, [Matvei Ivanovich] Platov with the rest of his hordes galloped up and attacked their rear and both flanks.”

“According to several eyewitnesses, the most terrible confusion ensued.  The disbanded men, women, and attendants rushed wildly on one another, stampeding through the ranks  For a moment this unfortunate army was little more than a form–less mob, an ignoble rabble milling blindly round and round.  All seemed lost; but the coolness of the Prince  [Eugéne] and the efforts of his officers saved the day.  The crack troops disengaged themselves from the confusion, ranks were re-established.  The army advanced under the protection of a volley of shots, and the enemy who had everything on their side, except courage — the only good thing we had left — broke ranks and scattered, content with a useless demonstration.”

“We immediately took their place in the town, while they pitched their camps outside and laid their plans for further surprise attacks which were to last up to the very gates of Smolensk; for the disaster at the Vop had made Eugène give up the idea of remaining separated from the Emperor.  The Cossacks, emboldened by success, surrounded the 14th Division.  When the Prince tried to rescue them, the soldiers and officers, benumbed and stiffened by sub-zero cold and a cutting north wind, refused to budge from the warm ashes of their fires.  In vain he pointed out to them their surrounded companions, the approaching enemy and the shells and bullets already falling around them.  They still refused to rise, protesting that they would rather perish there than bear such cruel suffering any longer.  Even the sentinels had abandoned their posts.  Nevertheless, Prince Eugène succeeded in saving his rear guard.”

The remains of the Army of Italy arrived at Smolensk on November 12, 1812.

Sources:
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 179 – 181

Commemorative 1912 card image and translation provided by Alexey Temnikov

The Army of Italy Heads to Smolensk

de Ségur continues his account of the Army of Italy after it crossed the Vop river, leaving stragglers, baggage and artillery on the far side of the river to be swarmed by the Cossacks: “The Army of Italy, divested of everything, dripping with the waters of the Vop, without food or shelter, spent the night in the snow near a village in which the generals tried in vain to find lodgings for themselves.  The soldiers attacked the frame houses, falling in desperate swarms on every dwelling, taking advantage of the darkness that prevented them from recognizing their own officers or being recognized by them.  They tore off the doors and windows, even the woodwork of the roof, caring little whether they forced others, regardless of their rank, to bivouac like themselves.”

“Their generals tried in vain to drive them off.  The soldiers, even those of the royal and imperial Guards, bore their blows without complaingin, without offering any oppostiion, but without desisting.  Throughout the army similar scenes were repeated every evening.”

“They spent that night drying themselves around the fires they had lit, listening to the cries, curses, and moans of those who were still crossing the torrent, or who rolled from the top of the steep bank to their death in the ice-filled waters.”

“It is a fact that reflects disgrace on the enemy, that in the midst of this chaos, within sight of so rich a prize, a few hundred men left a mile or so from the Viceroy, on the other side of the river, held both the courage and the cupidity of Platov’s Cossacks in check for twenty-four hours.  It is possible that the Hetman believed he had made sure of the destruction of the Viceroy on the following day.  Indeed, all his plans were so well laid that at the instant when the army of Italy, at the end of a troubled and disorganized day’s march, caught sight of Dukhovshchina, one of the few towns as yet uninjured [this town was not in the line of march on the advance to Moscow], and were joyfully hurrying forward to seek shelter in it, they saw swarming out of it several thousand Cossacks… At the same time, [Matvei Ivanovich] Platov with the rest of his hordes galloped up and attacked their rear and both flanks.”

“According to several eyewitnesses, the most terrible confusion ensued.  The disbanded men, women, and attendants rushed wildly on one another, stampeding through the ranks  For a moment this unfortunate army was little more than a formmless mob, an ignoble rabble milling blindly round and round.  All seemed lost; but the coolness of the Prince  [Eugéne] and the efforts of his officers saved the day.  The crack troops disengaged themselves from the confusion, ranks were re-established.  The army advanced under the protection of a volley of shots, and the enemy who had everything on their side, except courage — the only good thing we had left — broke ranks and scattered, content with a useless demonstration.”

“We immediately took their place in the town, while they pitched their camps outside and laid their plans for further surprise attacks which were to last up to the very gates of Smolensk; for the disaster at the Vop had made Eugène give up the idea of remaining separated from the Emperor.  The Cossacks, emboldened by success, surrounded the 14th Division.  When the Prince tried to rescue them, the soldiers and officers, benumbed and stiffened by sub-zero cold and a cutting north wind, refused to budge from the warm ashes of their fires.  In vain he pointed out to them their surrounded companions, the approaching enemy and the shells and bullets already falling around them.  They still refused to rise, protesting that they would rather perish there than bear such cruel suffering any longer.  Even the sentinels had abandoned their posts.  Nevertheless, Prince Eugène succeeded in saving his rear guard.”

The remains of the Army of Italy arrived at Smolensk on December 12, 1812.