Tag Archives: Montesquiou Duc de Fezensac

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

 

“Without Aid of Any Kind”

From the journal of Colonel Montesquiou Duc de Fezensac with Ney’s III Corps, we learn about the army’s arrival at the Smolensk-Moscow road on the 29th.

“The roads were encumbered with carriages of all descriptions, which arrested our progress at every step; then we had to cross the swollen streams, sometimes on a rickety plank, sometimes by wading with the water up to our waist…  on the 29th, leaving to our right the ruins of Mojaisk, we reached the great road below that town.”

“The sufferings which we were doomed to undergo …  We had now nothing to look forward to before Smolensko, which was 80 leagues distant.  Until our arrival there, we should seek in vain for either flour, meat, or forage for our horses.  We were reduced to those provisions we had brought from Moscow, and these, trifling as they were, like all plunder, were most unequally distributed…Some companies had abundance, while others were starving…  Moreover, to preserve our provisions, the horses that drew them must also be preserved, but these perished in numbers every day also from the want of food.

Russian Uhlans on Exploration
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

The soldiers who strayed from their ranks to seek wherewith to relieve their hunger, fell into the hands of the Cossacks and armed peasants…  From the very first day, our retreat had the semblance of a rout…  A column of Russian prisoners marched immediately in our front, escorted by troops of the confederation of the Rhine.  They barely received a little horse-flesh for food, and their guards massacred those who could no longer march.  We came across some of their corpses, which, without exception, had their skulls knocked in.  I must do the soldiers of my regiment the justice to record their indignation on beholding these evidences of so dark a deed; moreover they were not insensible to the cruel reprisals which this conduct exposed them to, should they chance to fall into the hands of the enemy.”

After the Battle of Borodino
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

“As we passed through the village of Borodino, several officers revisited the field of the Moscowa [Borodino].  They found the ground still covered with the vestiges of the battle.  The dead of the two armies still lay on the spot where they had received their death wound.  It has been even said that some wounded were discovered who were still breathing.  I can scarcely credit this, and no proof of it has ever been furnished.”

“On the evening of the 29th October, we arrived at the Abbey Kolastskoé.  It had been converted into a  hospital, and was now one vast burying-ground.  A single  building…  had also served as a hospital for our sick.  Commanding officers received orders to identify here the men belonging to their respective regiments.  We found that the sick had been left without medicine, without provisions, without aid of any kind.  I could scarcely penetrate into the interior from the filth which obstructed the staircase, passages, and even the rooms themselves.  I came across three men of my regiment, whom I had the gratification of saving.”

Sources:
A Journal of the Russian Campaign of 1812, Raymond Eymery P.J. Montesquiou-Fezensac, translated by W. Knollys, published in 1852, pp. 75 – 77

Commemorative 1912 card images and translations provided by Alexey Temnikov

“Enough to Drive One Mad”

There are many descriptions of the first days of the march from Moscow.  The weather was cooperating , but many were finding the mass of vehicles on the road to be frustrating.

Captain von Kurz wrote, “Most officers owned a cart, but the generals had half a dozen.  Supply officials and actors, women and children, cripples, wounded men, and the sick were driving in and out of the throng …  accompanied by countless servants and maids, sutlers and people of that sort.  The columns of horsemen and pedestrians broke out on either side.  Wherever the terrain permitted they crossed the fields flanking the road, so as to leave the paved highway free for those on foot.  But the enormous clutter of transport got jammed up, even so.”

Major Louis-Joseph Vionnet observed, “…[the] column… took up a space of eighteen miles.  It’s impossible to image what disorder this caused.  The soldiers fought to get ahead of one another; and when, sometimes, by chance, a bridge had to be crossed, they had to wait for twelve hours.  The vehicles had been well numbered, but even by the second day their order had been turned upside down, so that those whose rank entitled them to a carriage didn’t know where to find it and consequently couldn’t get at its contents.  From the first days of the retreat we already began to lack for everything.”

Colonel Montesquiou Duc de Fezensac noted, “Despite our foreboding of the mischief awaiting us, each of us was determined to carry off his own part of the trophies – there was no employee so insignificant he hadn’t taken a carriage and packed up some precious objects.  For my part I had furs, paintings by the great masters… and some jewelry.  One of my comrades had… a whole library of lovely books with gilded spines and bound in red morocco…”

Alexander Bellot de Kergorre, an administrative officer with the Imperial Headquarters had the following comment, “I was carrying away trophies from the Kremlin, including the cross of Ivan, several ornaments used at the coronation of the tsars, and a Madonna enriched with precious stones… The treasure comprised silver coins or bullion melted down from the large amount of silverware found in the ruins of Moscow.  For nearly 40 miles I had to pick my way through the army’s procession of horse-drawn vehicles.  Every one was laden with useless baggage.”

Travelling in the rear of the army, Sergeant Adrien Bourgogne could see all that the army was jettisoning in its wake, “Being at the very rear of the column I was in a position to see how the disorder was commencing.  The route was cluttered with precious objects, such as pictures, candelabras, and many books.  For more than an hour I picked up volumes which I leafed through for a moment and then threw away again, to be picked up by others, who in turn, threw them away.”

“This crowd of people, with their various costumes and languages, the canteen masters with their wives and crying children, were hurrying forward in the most unheard of noise, tumult and disorder.  Some had got their cards smashed, and in consequence yelled and swore enough to drive one mad.”

Source:
1812: Napoleon in Moscow, Paul Britten Austin, pp. 187 – 190