Tag Archives: Moscow

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.”


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

Things are comfortable in Moscow, but it’s time to leave

Jakob Walter’s account of his stay in Moscow is short, but he did write about how provisions could be bought in the “German suburb” where the Württemberg corps stayed for three weeks.

“Here one could find and buy provisions; for each soldier was now citizen, merchant, innkeeper, and baker of Moscow.  Everyone tried to dress as much as possible with silks and materials of all colors.  Only tailors were lacking; silks, muslins, and red Morocco leather were all abundant.  Things to eat were not wanting either.  Whoever could find nothing could buy something and vegetables in sufficient quantity stood in the fields.  Particularly was there an abundance of beets, which were as round and large as bowling balls and fiery red throughout.  There were masses of cabbage three and four times as large in size as cabbage heads that we would consider large.  The district called Muscovy is more favored in agriculture and climate, and more civilized than the regions toward St. Petersburg than those through which we had come.  It was still good weather, and one could steep warm enough under a coat at night.”

Negotiations for a Russian surrender had not gone according to plan and Napoleon decided to leave Moscow and head west in search of winter quarters.  Walter describes the evacuation: “After we had been citizens of Moscow for four weeks, we lost our burgher rights again.  Napoleon refused the peace treaty proposed to him, and the army which had advanced some thirty hours’ farther on had to retreat, because the Russian army stationed in Moldavia was approaching.  Now it was October 17, and Napoleon held an army review and announced the departure for October 18, early in the morning at 3 o’clock, with the warning that whoever should delay one hour would fall into the hands of the enemies.  All beer, brandy, etc., was abandoned and whatever was still intact was ordered to be burned.  Napoleon himself had the Kremlin undermined and blown up. [Note: The Kremlin was not blown up]  The morning came, and each took his privilege of citizenship upon his shoulders and covered it with his coat cape of strong woolen cloth, and everybody had bread pouches of red Morocco leather at his side, all had an odd appearance as they set out; they filled, as far as it was possible, everything with sugar and the so-called Moscow tea in order to withstand the future misery.”

The Grande Armée did not actually leave Moscow until the 19th.  Perhaps Walter had his dates wrong or merely remembered the original plan for departure.


The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter, pp 57 – 59

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.”

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

Contrasting Views in Moscow

In reading the eyewitness accounts of the occupation of Moscow, it is sometimes a study in contrast.  Compare the two paintings of peaceful scenes with well dressed soldiers to the description at the end by an author of a book published in 1914.  First, two paintings by Faber du Faur, both dated 11 October, with his accompanying descriptions:

In the Vicinity of Lafertovskaja Sloboda, Moscow, 11 October

In the Vicinity of
Lafertovskaja Sloboda
by Faber du Faur

“If you stand on the left bank of the Jausa, between the Military Academy and the Church of the Old Believers, with your back to the latter, you look out towards the Soltikov bridge and the road which runs between the German Quarter and the Vladimir Gate.  The banks of the river are tree-lined, and these trees partially obscure the Military Hospital and the Lafertovskaja suburb.  To the left can be seen a group of buildings occupied by Imperial Quarters and a number of the 25th Division’s officers.”

Moscow, 11 October

Moscow, 11 October
by Faber du Faur

“There was a particularly beautiful church, a little distance from the German Quarter, in the direction of the Kremlin.  It was remarkable chiefly on account of its multitude of bell-towers and had, by and large, escaped the flames, standing out from the desolation that surrounded it.  It took us some time to learn the name of the street, and the identity of the saint to whom this richly coloured church was consecrated.  There were too few inhabitants around to ask, and those that remained would flee as soon as they caught sight of us.  The street itself was so littered with debris that it was impossible to get from one end to the other.”

“Finally, by dint of persistence, I learned that the street was called Basmannaya and that the church was under the protection of Saint Nicetas.”

Here is a passage from Napoleon’s Campaign in Russia Anno 1812 by Dr. Achilles Rose:  “All eye-witnesses speak of the extreme destitution of the soldiers in regard to clothing after one month’s stay in Moscow.  Already at this time, even before the most terrible and final trials of the retreat which awaited them, one had to consider them lost.  When they first took to woman’s clothes or shoes or hats it was considered an amusement, a joke, but very soon a mantilla, a soutane, a veil became a precious object…”

“At first Napoleon reviewed the regiments near the ponds of the Kremlin, and at first reviews the troops marched proudly, briskly, with firm step, but soon they began to fail with astonishing rapidity.  They answered the roll of the drums calling them together, clad in dirty rags and with torn shoes, in fast diminishing numbers.  During the last weeks of their stay in Moscow many had reached the last stage of misery, after having wandered through the streets looking for a little bit of nourishment, dressed up as for a carnival, but without desire to dance, as one remarked in grim humor.”

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

Napoleon’s Campaign in Russia Anno 1812, by Achilles Rose, p. 34



An Idyllic Scene of Moscow

Faber du Faur managed to find a number of peaceful scenes to record as we shall see in today’s post and in the days to come.

The Church of the Old Believers,
Moscow, 3 October
by Faber du Faur

“III Corps’ artillery were quartered in the Military Academy, a building in the Laftertovskaja district on the left bank of the Jausa by the Soltikov bridge, throughout our stay in Moscow.”

“The surrounding area was magnificent, covered in trees and presenting a delightful appearance.  Exploring the area, we came across a beautiful church, hidden in a charming clump of trees.  It was a most dazzling sight: its cupolas were blue and speckled with golden stars and towered forth over the brilliant masses of autumnal leaves.  This was the Church of the Old Believers, although I was unable to discover whether it was actually frequented by Old Believers or whether it was just named after them.”


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

Scenes of Moscow

Faber du Faur’s scene dated October 2nd reflects for the first time that the weather is getting colder as evidenced by the great coat on the sentry and the accompanying description.

Guarding III Corps’ Artillery Park,
By the Vladimir Gate, Moscow, 2 October
by Faber du Faur

“III Corps’ artillery park was situated by the Vladimir Gate and was guarded by Württemberg, French and Dutch troops.  Soon, however, the position was deemed vulnerable and the park was relocated in a square, with sentries being lodged in a merchant’s house close by.  The rest of III Corps’ artillery were quartered a short distance from the park.”

“Here we see the park’s sentries a their posts.  Cold nights and mornings had already led to the troops’ adopting some strange costumes: one of the sentries, a Dutch gunner, keeps out the cold with a fur cap, warms his hands in a muff and, under his greatcoat, sports a nightgown.  Such precautions were but the prelude to the universal adoption of attempts to keep out the cold.”


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

Captain Coignet’s Purchase

These events took place in the first days of the occupation of Moscow.  Captain Jean-Roch Coignet of the Imperial Guard describes how he came to purchase some furs, and later was forced to give up the best one:  “When I had fulfilled the duty which had been assigned me, I waited for the Emperor, but in vain; he did not come…  As I was crossing the square of the Kremlin, I met some soldiers loaded with fur robes and bear-skins; I stopped them, and offered to buy their furs.”

“How much is this one?”

“Forty francs.” I took it immediately, and paid him the price he asked “And this bear-skin?”

“Forty Francs.”

Frenchmen in Moscow

“Here they are.” It was a piece of luck to obtain these two things of such inestimable value to me…  The Emperor was obliged to leave his headquarters in the Faubourg during the night, and establish himself in the Kremlin, in consequence of a fire which broke out in both of the lower towns.  It must have required a great many persons to set fire to all parts of the town at the same time.  It was said that all the criminals from the prisons took part in it; each man had a street, and went from house to house, setting them on fire.  We had to escape into the squares and large gardens. Seven hundred of the incendiaries were arrested, tinder in hand, and taken to the vaults of the Kremlin.”

“The fire was made more frightful by the wind which blew the roofing of sheet-iron off the palaces and churches; all the people, as well as the troops, found themselves in the midst of the fire.  The wind was terrible; the sheets of iron were blown immense distances through the air.  There were eight hundred fire-engines in Moscow, but they had all been removed.”

“About eleven o’clock in the night we heard screams in the gardens, and, going to investigate, found that our soldiers were robbing the women of their shawls and ear-rings.  We hastened to put a stop to the pillage.  Two or three thousand women were there, with their children in their arms, looking upon the horrors of the fire, and I am sure I never saw one of them shed a tear.”

“…We were lodged in the house of a princess…  [Coignet’s] colonel had three servants of his own, and he kept them well employed…  He would go out in the evening with three servants furnished with wax tapers; he knew that the pictures in the churches were all in relief on plaques of silver, so he took them down, in order to get this silver plate; he put the saints into a crucible, and reduced them to ingots, which he sold…  He was a hard man with a face to match…”

“One evening the colonel showed us his purchases, or, rather, his stolen goods, for he was always going round with his three servants.  He showed us some beautiful fur robes made of the skins of the Siberian fox.  I had the imprudence to show him mine, and he compelled me to exchange it with him for one of the Siberian fox.  Mine was of sable, but I had to submit.  I feared his vengeance   He was rascal enough to take it from me, and sell it to Prince Murat for three thousand francs.  This robber of churches was a disgrace to the name of Frenchmen.  I saw him afterwards at Wilna, frozen to death.  God punished him.  His servants robbed his body.”


Captain Coignet: A Soldier of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard from the Italian Campaign to Waterloo, Jean-Roch Coignet, pp. 222 – 224