Tag Archives: Napoleon

The King of Naples

As the 200th anniversary of the campaign comes to a close, we have one last guest post by Alice Shepperson.  Alice has summed up the career of Marshal Murat, paying particular attention to the attributes that made him a good (or not so good) choice to take over command of the destroyed Grande Armée when Napoleon left it to return to France in December of 1812.

On leaving the Grande Armée in December 1812, Napoleon appointed his brother-in-law, Joachim Murat as commander-in-chief. The King of Naples would desert just six weeks later, leaving Prince Eugène to attempt to rescue the army’s desperate situation. How was Napoleon so mistaken?

Joachim Murat

Joachim Murat

Joachim Murat was the son of a country innkeeper. His family intended him for the church and sent him to study theology in Toulouse. Given his flamboyant, energetic nature, extreme vanity and powerful, athletic build, Joachim’s relations should not have been surprised when at the age of twenty he ran off with a passing cavalry regiment. Joachim enlisted as a private, but with the coming of the Revolution, officer rank came within the grasp of commoners – especially well educated, loudly republican commoners like Murat.

Lieutenant Murat came to Napoleon’s attention on 13 of Vendemiaire 1795. He happened to be in temporary command of the 21st Chasseurs when Bonaparte ordered them to seize the 40 guns of the National Guard on the Place de Sablons. Thus it was Murat who provided Napoleon with the “whiff of grapeshot”, that saved the Convention and made him a national hero. Murat was rewarded with an appointment as Napoleon’s aide-de-camp.

Murat at Aboukir

Murat at Aboukir

In Italy, Egypt and soon throughout Europe, Murat proved himself a fearless and effective cavalry commander, renowned for his reckless bravery and desire to lead every charge in person. His tactics involved quick movement and rapid strikes, exploiting any mistakes by the enemy. At the battle of Aboukir, his attack was so swift that he overtook the Turkish commander, who in resisting capture, shot Murat through the jaw. Refusing to go to hospital, he bandaged up his face and carried on with the battle.

Caroline Murat and Family

Caroline Murat and Family

Murat’s relationship with Napoleon was complex. He was instrumental in Napoleon’s rise to power, securing the cavalry’s support for his coup of Brumaire 1799. Soon after, Murat secured Napoleon’s consent to marry his favourite sister, Caroline. Now part of the family, Murat took an active part in the squabbling, intrigues and backstabbing habitual to the Bonapartes, mostly aimed at ensuring each sibling got their fair share of the palaces, titles and territories dispensed by Napoleon. Josephine complained to Madame de Remusat that the Murats “…kept up their own influence by exciting the Consul to passing fancies and promoting his secret intrigues.” Though, Napoleon often found his family excessively grasping, Murat remained indispensible as both a commander and an ally.

However, when Napoleon gave Murat the crown of Naples in 1808, their relationship began to sour. Murat was a proud man and felt that like any monarch he should have free rein in his own kingdom, while Napoleon treated him as a mere French military governor, constantly questioning his domestic policy, dictating the movements of French troops in Naples and generally interfering. This caused constant chaffing between the two men.

Murat's Best Uniform

Murat’s Best Uniform

Being crowned also inflated the dandy in Murat. His personally designed battle costume for the Russian campaign consisted of long yellow leather boots, crimson and gold fur-lined breeches, blue tunic with gold lace, red velvet pelisse and a tricorn hat decorated with ostrich feathers and diamonds. This was set off by a diamond encrusted sabre and gold spurs. A less conspicuously brave man would have been ridiculed.

By 1812, Murat and Napoleon appeared to have buried their differences and the “First Horseman of Europe” once again served with distinction, taking a leading role at Borodino and almost every other engagement. As commander of the cavalry, his responsibilities were especially onerous. On the advance, the cavalry were employed in chasing the Russian rearguard, and throughout the campaign Cossack raids made constant patrols necessary, which Napoleon insisted should be large enough to prevent detachments being isolated and killed. In addition, the cavalry were expected to forage for the rest of the army and do reconnaissance. There was simply no time to feed and rest tired mounts. By the crossing of the Beresina there were only 1,800 mounted cavalrymen left.

On the 5th of December, Napoleon left the Grande Armée in the care of Murat. For several reasons, he was the natural choice: he was a king and therefore highest ranking; he was family, implying loyalty to the Empire; he was an experienced commander-in-chief who had held independent commands since 1801.

For several other reasons, Murat was a terrible choice:

Murat’s elevation to kingship, rather than binding him more tightly to the Emperor, had in fact made him less reliable. Obsessed with maintaining his new dignity, his chief concerns were now not with the army, but in Naples with Caroline, their children and his crown. When Devout reminded him that he owed his kingdom to Napoleon and to French blood, he replied, “I am as much King of Naples as Francis is Emperor of Austria and I may do as I please.”

Napoleon and Murat in Russia

Napoleon and Murat in Russia

Murat was also intrinsically ill-suited to the enormous task. As Berthier wrote, “The King of Naples is the first of men for executing the orders given by a commander-in-chief on the battlefield. The King of Naples is in every way the most incapable of acting as commander-in-chief himself.” Almost as soon as he took command, Murat asked to hand it over to Eugène, who he said was more experienced in administration. This was not strictly true, as Murat had been organising whole armies for longer, and administering his own kingdom since 1808. Napoleon put it well when he later said to Caroline, “He is a brave man on the battlefield, but feebler than a woman or a monk when the enemy is not in sight. He has no moral courage.” Murat was perfectly capable of detailed administration when the goal was victory. Without the prospect of new glories to spur him on however, he lost motivation, and lacked the inner resources to find it again.

MuratThe Russian campaign had also affected Murat deeply. He was physically and mentally exhausted, and though a veteran of many battles, was at least sick at heart, if not actually shaken. Berthier wrote in a dispatch to the Emperor in December, “The King of Naples is very unsettled in his ideas”, and recommended again that he be replaced.

By January 15th, Murat was pleading that he must leave the army on the grounds of ill-health, though when he did leave on the 17th, he managed to travel straight to Naples without stopping. “Not bad for a sick man!” was Eugène’s assessment.

Marshal Murat

Marshal Murat

Most importantly though, Murat had lost faith in Napoleon. After Leipzig, he abandoned the French cause to save his kingdom, only to take it up again during the Hundred Days when the allied powers looked to dethrone him. Following Waterloo he fled to Corsica, from where he tried to organise an insurrection to regain Naples. Neapolitan forces eventually captured him and he was executed by firing squad. Vane and defiant to the last, he faced his death standing and without a blindfold, shouting, “Soldiers! Do your duty! Straight to the heart but spare the face. Fire!”

 —

Advertisements

“No, a thousand times no; never was there such a sight!”

When Napoleon left the army to return to Paris, he left Marshal Murat, King of Naples, in charge.    Captain Coignet of the Imperial Guard Grenadiers writes in his memoirs, “But it was a Wilna that we suffered most.  The weather was so severe that the men could no longer endure it; even the ravens froze.”

Retreat from RussiaNote the birds overhead

The Retreat
by Nicolas Charlet
Note the birds overhead

“We remained under the command of the King of Naples, and were not too happy in our minds, for, though he was always the first to draw a sabre or brave danger, he may truly be said to have been the executioner of our cavalry.  He kept his divisions constantly mounted all along the route, and they were more than enough to keep the Cossacks at bay; but our cavalry were dying of starvation, and when night came, the unfortunate soldiers were not able to use their horses to go for forage…  He was, indeed the handsomest horseman in Europe; but without foresight, for it was not a question of being an intrepid soldier, but of being able to economize his resources.  He lost us (I heard this said to Marshal Davout) forty thousand horses through his mismanagement.  It is always wrong to blame one’s officers; but the Emperor could have made a better selection.  There were among our leaders two warriors, rivals in glory, Marshal Ney and Prince Beauharnais, who saved us from the greatest perils by their coolness and courage.”

“The King of Naples went on to Wilna; he arrived there on the 8th of December, and we with the guard, on the 10th.  It was night when we came to the gates of the city, which were barricaded with pieces of wood.  We had the greatest difficulty in entering.  I and my comrade were lodged in a school, well warmed.”

“When I went to my general of orders, he said, ‘Be ready at four in the morning to leave the city, for the enemy is now arriving on the heights, and we shall be bombarded at daylight.  Do not lose any time.'”

“We had scarcely got ready to leave when the Russians forced the Witepsk gate; we had barely time to get out…  When we reached the mountain of Wilna the confusion was at its height.  All the material of the army and the Emperor’s carriages were on the ground.  The soldiers helped themselves to gold and silver plate.  All the chests and casks were burst open.  What a quantity of plunder was left on that spot!  No, a thousand times no; never was there such a sight!”

Louis Victor Léon Rochechouart, the French emigré officer serving on [Pavel] Chichagov’s [Russian] staff, describes the scene upon entering Vilna:

Retreat from Russia scene III“On 11 December, when the cold reached -29º Réaumur [-36º Celsius], I entered Vilna, crouching at the bottom of the carriage. We traveled forward amid human remains, frozen on the road, and hundreds of horses that had died of hunger and cold, or had broken their legs, for they were not roughshod; our servants walked in front thrusting the obstacles in the way to the right or left. It is impossible to imagine the state of Vilna during the four days after our arrival; we found sick or wounded prisoners—Frenchmen, Poles, Germans, Spaniards, Italians and Portuguese, crowded into the various convents and monasteries. It was necessary to house everybody. Happily, the French government had accumulated immense stores of provisions, which they had not been able to use, being so closely pursued by the Russians. They were distributed among all. The frozen snow which covered the streets deadened the sound of the vehicles that were constantly passing, but did not prevent hearing the cries of the wounded asking for food, or the drivers urging their horses on.“

Mikaberidze, A (2012) Russian Eyewitness Accounts of the Campaign of 1812. Frontline Books (an imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd), Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. p. 251.

Faber du Faur’s depiction of the 11th of December has the following description:

Near Eve, 11 Decemberby Faber du FaurNote the hands in the lower left

Near Eve, 11 December
by Faber du Faur
Note the hands in the lower left

Near Eve, 11 December
“We left Vilna on the 10th and abandoned thousands of dead, dying and prisoners.  We managed to avoid the chaos at Ponari, which cost the army most of the rest of its artillery and transport – and even the Imperial Treasury – and made our weary way towards Kovno, protected by a weak rearguard but sill suffering from the relentless cold.  A vast number of men died on this final forced march.”

“We finally reached Eve, a small town familiar to us from having passed through it that very summer.  How things had changed!  Eve was stripped of the charms of summer, abandoned and partially buried under the deep snow.  And the town, which in the summer had seen a brilliant army march through, was now obliged to see its ghostly streets play host to groups of miserable individuals, ruined by the Russian climate and by hunger and hoping for nothing more than to reach the banks of the Niemen at Kovno.”

Sources:
Captain Coignet: A Soldier of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard from the Italian Campaign to Waterloo, Jean-Roch Coignet, pp 233 – 234

Russian Eyewitness Accounts of the Campaign of 1812, Alexander Mikaberidze, p 251

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

Thank you to James Fisher for providing the quote from Alexander Mikaberidze’s book of Russian eyewitness accounts.

“The Most Terrible Day of my Life”

General Armand de Caulaincourt wrote about Napoleon’s arrival in Kovno on December 7, 1812: “I never remember such cold as we suffered from between

Lancers of the Guard Escorting Napoleon

Lancers of the Guard Escorting Napoleon

Vilna and Kovno.  The thermometer had passed twenty degrees.  Although the Emperor was wrapped in wool and covered with a good fur, with his legs in fur boots and then inside a bearskin bag, he complained so much that I had to cover him with half my bearskin rug.  Our breath froze on our lips, our eyebrows, and round our eyelids. All the cloth in the carriage, and particularly the hood where our breath rose, was white and hard.  When we reached Kovno, the Emperor was shivering; one would have thought he had an attack of the ague.”

Retreat - Snow - rider leaving his horse behindGeneral Count Wilhelm Hochberg, commander of a unit of IX Corps wrote of the 7th: “The most terrible day of my life.  There were 30 degrees of frost.  I could only assemble 50 of my men; the others, 200 to 300 of them, lay on the ground, frozen.  The last remains of IX Corps were annihilated.  Doumerc’s cavalry, which had made up the extreme rearguard, was destroyed, it too, during that unhappy night of 6/7 December.”

Sources:
1812 Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, Compiled, edited and translated by Antony Brett-James, p 267

1812: The Great Retreat, Paul Britten Austin, pp .55 – 356

“We Had Hardly Enough Strength Left to Pray”

On December 5, 1812, Napoleon left his army to race ahead to Paris to shore up his government and begin rebuilding the army.  Philippe-Paul de Ségur, Napoleon’s Aide-de-Camp, was transferred to the headquarters of Marshal Murat who was now in command of the army.

The Minard map shows that the temperature dropped to -35.5 degrees Fahrenheit on the 6th and the army was now down to 12,000 men.

Usar on the Snowby Wojciech Kossak

Usar on the Snow
by Wojciech Kossak

In Antony Brett-James book, Ségur gives his account of what happened to him the next day [December 6, 1812]:  “… either because of disorder around Murat or of personal preoccupation, I lost all trace of the King’s [Murat] lodging.  As this fatal day was drawing to a close, I felt exhausted by the effort of walking a dozen leagues on glistening ice and weighted down by the seventy-five pounds weight of my weapons, my uniform, and two enormous furs; so I tried to hoist myself back into the saddle.  But almost immediately my horse collapsed on top of me so heavily that I was trapped underneath.  Several hundred men passed by without my being able to persuade one of them to set me free.   The most compassionate moved a little to one side, others stepped over my head, but most of them trampled me underfoot.  Eventually a gendarme d’élite picked me up.”

“I had gone all day with nothing to eat, and I spent that night – the coldest of any – without food, in a hut open to the wind, surrounded by corpses and huddled near a dying fire.”

“… An elderly engineer general came and shared this melancholy shelter.  Right in front of me he devoured some remnants of food without offering me any and I could not bring myself to ask him for a small share of the paltry meal to which he was reduced.”

“This room abutted on to a huge barn which was still standing, and during that bitterly cold night between four and five hundred men took refuge inside.  At least three quarters of them froze to death, even though they had lain one on top of another round several fires.  The dying had clambered over the dead in their efforts to approach a fire, and so it went on.”

“When, before daybreak, I tried to grope my way out of this dark tomb, my feet kicked into the first comers.  Astonished by their taciturn impassivity, I stopped, but having tripped over another obstacle on my hands, I felt the stiff limbs and frozen faces and these explained the silence.  After looking in vain for a way out, I had to climb painfully over these various heaps of corpses.  The highest was near the door, and was so high that it entirely hid the exit from the barn.”

In his own book, Ségur describes the sixth as follows: “… the sky became still more terrible.  The air was filled with infinitesimal ice crystals; birds fell to the earth frozen stiff.  The atmosphere was absolutely still.  It seemed as if everything in nature…  had been bound and congealed in a universal death.  Now not a word, not a murmur broke the dismal silence, silence of despair and unshed tears.”

“We drifted along in this empire of death like accursed phantoms.  Only the monotonous beat of our steps, the crunch of the snow, and the feeble groans of the dying broke the vast mournful stillness.  Among us was heard neither raging nor cursing, nothing that would imply a trace of warmth: we had hardly enough strength left to pray.  Most of the men fell without a word of complaint, silent either from weakness or resignation; or perhaps because men only complain when they have hopes of moving someone to pity.”

“The soldiers who had been most resolute until then lost heart completely.  At times the snow opened up under their feet.  Even where it was solid, its ice-coated surface gave them no support, and they slipped and fell, and got up to fall again.  It was as if this hostile earth refused to carry them any longer, laid snares for them in order to hamper them and retard their flight, and so deliver them up to the Russians, who were still on their trail, or to their terrible climate.”

On the March from Moscowby Laslett John Pott

On the March from Moscow
by Laslett John Pott

“When exhaustion compelled them to halt a moment, the icy hand of winter fell heavily on its prey.  In vain the miserable victims, feeling themselves grow numb, staggered to their feet, already without voice or feeling, and took a few steps, like automatons, their blood was freezing in their veins, like water in a brook, and showing up their hearts.  Then it rushed to their heads, and the dying men reeled along as if they were drunk.  Actual tears of blood oozed from their eyes, horribly inflamed and festered by loss of sleep and the smoke of campfires…  They stared at the sky, at us, at the earth with a wild, frightened look in their eyes; this was their farewell to a merciless nature that was torturing them…  Before long they fell to their knees, then forward on their hands.  Their heads wagged stupidly from side to side for a little while, and a gasping rattle issued from their lips.  Then they collapsed in the snow, on which appeared the slow-spreading stain of blackish blood – and their suffering was at an end.”

Retreat - The retreat from Russia“Their comrades passed them without taking a single step out of their way, lest they should lengthen their journey by a few feet…  They did not even feel pity for those who fell; for what had they lost by dying?  What were they leaving?  We were suffering so much!”

Source:
1812: The Great Retreat, Paul Britten Austin, pp 269-270

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, p 268 – 269

 

Napoleon Heads for France

With the recent news of an attempted coup in France, Napoleon summoned General Armand de Caulaincourt to him and said, “In the existing state of affairs, I can only hold my grip on Europe from the Tuileries.”  Napoleon had decided that he should leave his army and return to France to regain control of his empire and begin to raise an army to replace the one destroyed in Russia.

Napoleon's Flight from Russia

Napoleon’s Flight from Russia
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

Caulaincourt wrote that Napoleon, “…spoke to me again about the persons he would take with him…  He was to have an escort only as far as Vilna… Beyond Vilna he would travel under the name of the Duke of Vicenza.”

Caulaincourt had, “…kept under lock and key a sack of coal for the purpose of forging shoes for the horses which were to pull us.”

Napoleon in sled“We could do our smithing only at night because the supply wagons were on the move for twelve or fifteen hours each day.  The cold was so severe, even by the forge fire, that the farriers could only work in gloves – and then they had to rub their hands every minute or so to keep them from freezing.  These particulars,quite insignificant in any other circumstances, give some idea of the causes of our failure, and of all that would have had to been foreseen in order to avoid it.  Our failure, for the most part, was due rather to such unconsidered trifles than to exhaustion or the enemy’s attacks.”

Philippe-Paul de Ségur wrote about Napoleon’s last day with the army.  On the evening of the 5th , “He summoned all the marshals, and as they entered spoke to each one privately…”

Napoleon and Marshals meet

Napoleon and Marshals meet

“He was affectionate with them all.  Having seated them around his table, he praised them warmly for their splendid conduct during the campaign.”

Addressing them, “I leave the King of Naples [Murat] in command of the army.  I trust you will obey him, as you have obeyed me, and that perfect harmony will reign among you.”

Marshal Murat

Marshal Murat

“By now it was ten o’clock [in the night of December 5, 1812].  The Emperor rose, pressed their hands affectionately, embraced them, and withdrew… Outside he found a crowd of officers drawn up on either side of his path.  His farewell to them was expressed by a sad forced smile, while their wishes for his success were confined to respectful gestures.  He and Caulaincourt entered a closed carriage…”

 

 

Sources:
With Napoleon in Russia, General Armand de Caulaincourt, pp 263 – 264

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 259 – 260

Commemorative 1912 Russian card image and translation provided by Alexey Temnikov

The 29th Bulletin

The 29th Bulletin is famous because it is the first time Napoleon admitted to the French people the disaster that had befallen his army.  He soon left his army in Russia to head back to Paris to begin building a new army for the spring campaign that was surely to come.  Napoleon departed the following day (4th), leaving Marshal Murat in command of the Grande Armée.

Dodge reproduced this Bulletin, “penned by the emperor himself on the eve of leaving the army,” with the following preface, “whatever its prevarications, in view of the fact that those were not the days of special war correspondents and telegraphs, and compared with the reports of other unsuccessful campaigns by the commanding generals, it will hold its own.”

“Molodechno, December 3, 1812. Up to the 6th of November the weather had been perfect, and the movement of the army was executed with the greatest success. The cold had commenced the 7th. From this moment, each night we lost several hundred horses, which died in the bivouac. Arrived at Smolensk, we had already lost many cavalry and artillery horses. The Russian army of Volhynia was opposed to our right. Our right left the line of operation of Minsk, and took for pivot of its operation the line of Warsaw. The emperor learned at Smolensk, the 9th, this change of line of operations and guessed what the enemy would do. However hard it seemed to him to undertake a movement in such a cruel season, the new state of things necessitated it. He hoped to reach Minsk, or at least the Berezina, before the enemy; he left Smolensk the 13th; he slept at Krasnoi the 16th. The cold, which had commenced the 7th, gained sharply, and from the 14th to the 15th, and to the 16th, the thermometer marked 16 and 18 below freezing [-16º to -18º Réaumur, -20º to -23º C]. The roads were covered with sheet ice. The cavalry, artillery and train horses perished every night, not by hundreds but by thousands, especially the horses of France and Germany. More than thirty thousand horses perished in a few days; our cavalry was all afoot; our artillery and our transports were without teams. We had to abandon and destroy a great number of our guns and all our munitions of war and mouth.

This army, so fine the 6th, was very different dating from the 14th, almost without cavalry, without artillery, without train. Without cavalry we could not reconnoitre a quarter of a league; still, without artillery we could not risk a battle and stand with firm foot; we had to march as as not to be forced to a battle which the want of munitions prevented our desiring; we had to occupy a certain space so as not to be turned, and this without cavalry; which would reconnoitre and tie together the columns. This difficulty, joined to an excessive cold suddenly arrived, made our situation a sorry one. Men whom nature had not fashioned stoutly enough to be above all the chances of fate and of fortune seemed overcome, lost their gaiety, their good humour, and dreamed of nothing but misfortune and catastrophe; those who it had created superior to all things kept their gaiety and their ordinary manners, and saw a new glory in the different difficulties to be surmounted.

The enemy who saw on the roads the traces of this horrible calamity which had struck the French army sought to profit by it. He enveloped all the columns with his Cossacks, who carried off, like the Arabs in the deserts, the trains and the carriages which lost their way. This contemptible cavalry, which only makes a noise and is not capable of driving in a company of voltigeurs, was made redoubtable by the favour of circumstances. However, the enemy was made to repent all of the serious attempts which he undertook; he was broken by the viceroy before whom he placed himself, and he lost large numbers.

Napoleon 2nd portraitThe Duke of Elchingen (Ney), who with three thousand men formed the rearguard, had blown up the ramparts of Smolensk. He was surrounded and found himself in a critical position; he escaped it with the intrepidity which distinguishes him. Having held the enemy off from him the whole day of the 18th, and having constantly repulsed him, at night he made a movement by the right bank, crossed the Borysthenes, and upset the calculations of the enemy. The 19th the army passed the Borystheenes at Orsha, and the Russian army, tired, having lost many men, there stopped its attacks.

The army of Volhynia moved by the 16th on Minsk and was marching on Borisov. Dombrovski defended the bridge-head of Borisov with three thousand men. The 23rd he was driven in and obliged to evacuate the position. The enemy thus passed the Berezina, marching on Bobr; Lambert’s division was the vanguard. The 2nd Corps, commanded by the Duke of Reggio (Oudinot), which was at Chereia, had received the order to move on Borisov, to assure to the army the passage of the Berezina. The 24th, the Duke of Reggio met Lamber’s divsion four leagues from Borisov, attacked it, beat it, made two thousand prisoners, took six guns, five hundred wagons of the baggage of the army of Volhynia, and threw back the enemy to the right bank of the Berezina. General Berkheim, with the 4th cuirassiers, distinguished himself by a fine charge. The enemy found  safety only in burning the bridge, which is more than three hundred fathoms long.

Still the enemy occupied all the crossings of the Berezina. This river is forty fathoms wide. It was floating a great deal of ice, and its banks were covered with marshes three hundred fathoms long, which made it difficult to cross. The enemy’s general had placed his four divisions at different outlets, where he guessed the French army would want to pass.

The 26th, at the point of the day, the Emperor, after having deceived the enemy by different movements made during the day of the 25th, moved on the village of Studianka, and at once, despite a division of the enemy and in it presence, had two bridges thrown over the river. The Duke of Reggio crossed, attacked the enemy, and followed him fighting two hours; the enemy retired on the bridge-head of Borisov. General Legrand, officer of first merit, was seriously wounded, but not dangerously. During the whole day of the 26th and 27th the army crossed.

Marshal Victor

Marshal Victor

The Duke of Bellune [Victor], commanding the 9th Corps, had received orders to follow the movements of the Duke of Reggio to form the rearguard, and to contain the Russian army of the Dvina, which followed him. Partouneaux’s division was the rearguard of the corps. The 27th, at midday, the Duke of Bellune arrived with two divisions at the bridge of Studianka.

Partouneaux’s division left Borisov at night. A brigade of this division which formed the rearguard was charged to burn the bridges, left at 7 o’clock in the evening; it arrived between 10 and 11; it sought its first brigade and its division general, who had left two hours before, and which it had not met on the route. Its search was in vain: it became anxious. All that has been since ascertained is that this first brigade, leaving at 5 o’clock, lost its way at 6, turned to the right instead of turning to the left, and marched two leagues in this direction; that at night and nearly frozen it rallied on the fires of the enemy, which it took for those of the French army; thus surrounded it was captured. This cruel mistake made us lose two thousand infantry, three hundred horses and three guns. The rumour runs that the division general was not with his column, and had marched alone.

The whole army passed by the morning of 28th, the Duke of Bellune held the bridge-head on the left bank; the Duke of Reggio, and behind him all the army, were on the right bank.

Marshal OudinotDuke of Reggio

Marshal Oudinot
Duke of Reggio

Borisov having been evacuated, the Armies of the Dvina and of Volhynia got into communication; they concerted an attack. The 28th, at the point of day, The Duke of Reggio notified the Emperor that he was attacked; a half an hour afterwards, the Duke of Bellune was attacked on the left bank. The army took arms. The Duke of Elchingen moved in the rear of the Duke of Reggio and Duke of Trévise behind the Duke of Elchingen. The fighting became lively: the enemy wished to turn our right. Doumerc, commanding the 5th division of cuirassiers, and who made part of the second corps remaining on the Dvina, ordered a charge of cavalry to the 4th and 5th regiments of cuirassiers at the moment when the legions of the Vistula were engaging in the woods to pierce the centre of the enemy, who were beaten and put to rout. These brave cuirassiers broke in, one after another, six infantry squares, and routed the enemy’s cavalry, which came to the relief of his infantry: six thousand prisoners, two flags and six guns fell into our hands. On his side, the Duke of Bellune charged the enemy vigorously, beat him, made five or six hundred prisoners, and held him beyond cannon-shot from the bridge. General Fournier made a fine charge with cavalry. In the combat of the Berezina the army of Volhynia suffered much. The Duke of Reggio was wounded; his wound is not dangerous: it is a ball he received in the side.

The next day, the 29th, we remained on the battlefield. We had to choose between two routes, that of Minsk and that of Vilna. The route of Minsk passes through the middle of a forest, and uncultivated marshes, where it would have been impossible for the army to subsist. The route to Vilna, on the contrary, passes through very good country. The army, without cavalry, feeble in munitions, horribly fatigued with fifty days’ march, carrying along its sick and the wounded of so many combats, needed to reach its magazines. On the 30th headquarters was at Plechtchennitsy; the 1st December, at Staïki ; and the 3, at Molodetchna, where the army corps received its first convoys from Vilna.

All the wounded officers and soldiers and all which was in the way, baggage, etc. were moved towards Vilna.

To say that the army needs to re-establish its discipline, to repair itself, to remount its cavalry, its artillery and its material, is the result of the statement just made. Rest is its first need. Matériel and horses have arrived. Bourchier has already more than twenty thousand remount horses in the different depots. The artillery has already repaired its losses. The generals, the officers and the soldiers have suffered much with fatigue and want. Many have lost their baggage on account of losing their horses, a few by the ambushes of the Cossacks. The Cossacks took a number of isolated men, geographical engineers who were sketching positions, and wounded officers who marched without precaution, preferring to run risk rather that to march in order and in the column.

The reports of general officers commanding corps will make known the officers and soldiers who most distinguished themselves, and the details of all these memorable events.

In these movements the Emperor always marched in the middle of his Guard, the cavalry commanded by the marshal Duke of Istria [Bessières], and the infantry commanded by the Duke of Danzig [Lefebvre]. HIs Majesty was satisfied with the good spirit that his Guard showed; it has always been ready to move wherever the circumstances demanded; but the circumstances have always been such that its simple presence sufficed, and it was never necessary to put it into action.

The Prince of Neuchâtel [Berthier], the grand Marshal [Duroc], the grand Squire [Caulaincourt], and all the aides-de-camp and the military officers of the house of the Emperor always accompanied His Majesty.

Our cavalry was dismounted to the degree that we had to reunite the officers who had kept their horses so as to form four companies of a hundred and fifty men each. The generals performed the functions of captains, and the colonels those of subordinates. This sacred squadron, commanded by general Grouchy, and under the orders of the King of Naples [Murat], did not lose sight of the Emperor in all its movements.

The health of His Majesty has never been better.

Dodge, TA (2008) Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia. First Published 1904-07. Frontline Books (an imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd), Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. p 281–286.

Thank you to James Fisher for providing this information.

“A Scream, a Single Cry from the Multitude”

Marshal Victor was fighting the rearguard action on the eastern bank while the army crossed.  On the night of the 28th, he received orders to evacuate the left bank by 5 a.m. [on the 29th] and to burn any vehicle that could not be moved across the bridges.  Once across, he, along with General Jean Baptiste Eblé were ordered to burn the bridges so that they could not be used by the pursuing Russians.

Berezina at the turn of the 19th century

In The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, Alexander Mikaberidze describes that the bridges were left open after all of the troops had crossed.  Only the infantry bridge remained useable in the early hours of the 29th.  The artillery bridge had collapsed.

At 7 am, Napoleon ordered the destruction of the bridges.  Eblé delayed burning the bridges and personally urged the stragglers to cross while there was a chance.  He and other officers tried to rally the stragglers, but could not rouse them.  One witness wrote “No one stirred.  Most had fallen into such apathy that they listened indifferently to the words being addressed to them.”

Crossing the Berezina

Eblé put Colonel Séruzier in charge of breaking up the bridges.  Séruzier wrote “…I could not get the drivers of the baggage… to listen to reason.  In vain I told them everyone would be saved if only there was a little order…  Only a few crossed… The greater number lingered on the left bank…”

Between 8:30 and 9 am, Eblé gave the final order to destroy the bridges.  As the stragglers saw the bridges catch fire, they roused themselves and made a desperate attempt to cross whether on the bridges or through the river.  Louise Fusil was a few miles away when the bridges were burned, but years later would recall “… a scream, a single cry from the multitude.  Indefinable, it still resounds in my ears every time I think of it.  All the unfortunates who had been left on the other bank were falling, crushed by the Russian Army’s grapeshot.”

Colonel Séruzier wrote  of what happened next.  “The Cossacks flung themselves on these people who had been left behind.  They pillaged everything on the opposite bank, where there was a huge quantity of vehicles laden with immense riches. Those who were not massacred in this first charge were taken prisoner and whatever they possessed fell to the Cossacks.”

Berezena – November 25, 2012
Source: Centre d’etudes Napoléoniennes –
Berezina 2012

Ten years later, a Prussian officer of Engineers, Major J.L.U. Blesson, visited the site of the crossing.  “We required no one to show us round, and no explanations in order to find our way.  The points where the two bridges had stood were visible from a great distance, and we could even pick out the track along which the wretches struggled forward… Half-way to Studyanka already we spotted — just think of it, ten years after the catastrophe — a mass of leatherware, strips of felt, scraps of cloth, shako covers, etc., strewn on the ground and fields.  As one approached the river, these melancholy relics lay thicker and even in heaps, mingled with the bones of human beings and animals, skulls, tin fittings, bandoliers, bridles…”

In 1812, with the cries of the trapped and doomed stragglers ringing in their ears, the remains of the Grande Armée headed west as the weather took a turn for the worse.