Tag Archives: Napoleon

“But What a Battle!”

The purpose of this blog is to show the personal experiences of those on the Russian campaign.  As a result, I rarely talk about the strategy or overall picture.  Today, however, I wish to quote from Ségur’s memoirs about the actions of Napoleon and the Imperial Guard on this day, November 17, two hundred years ago.

But, first some background.  Napoleon had ordered his corps to leave Smolensk one at a time at one day intervals with Napoleon and the Imperial Guard leaving first.  As each corps advanced down the road to Krasnoe, they were attacked by Cossacks and the Russian army.  Napoleon and the Imperial Guard had fought their way into Krasnoe and now waited for the following corps to arrive.

Realizing his trailing corps would need help in getting through, in the early hours of the 17th, Napoleon ordered the Imperial Guard to head back east of Krasnoe to hold the road open.  On foot, at the head of the Old Guard, Napoleon himself marched out saying “I have played the Emperor long enough!  It is time to play the General!” Keep this scene in mind while reading Ségur’s account of the action:  “Then the battle began.  But what a battle!  Here the Emperor had no more of those sudden illuminations, no flashes of inspiration, none of those bold unexpected moves that had forced the hand of luck …  Here the enemy’s movements were free; ours, fettered; and this genius in the realm of attack was reduced to defending himself.”

3rd Regiment of Dutch Grenadiers
at Krasnoe

“But here it was borne in on us that Fame is not a mere shadow, but a real force, doubly powerful by the inflexible pride it lends its favorites and the timid precautions it suggests to such as would ensure to attack them.  The Russians that day had only to march forward without maneuvering, even without firing, and their mass would have crushed Napoleon and his wretched troops; but, overawed by the sight of the conqueror of Egypt and Europe, they did not dare to come to close quarters with him.  The Pyramids, Marengo, Austerlitz, and Friedland seemed to rise up and stand between him and their great army.  It was quite conceivable that in the eyes of those submissive, superstitious men there was something supernatural in such extraordinary renown; that they thought him beyond their reach and not to be attacked except from a distance; that men would be powerless against the Old Guard, the living fortress, the granite column (as Napoleon had called them), which cannon alone could demolish.”

“The young soldiers, half of whom were seeing action for the first time, stood up to the deadly fire for three solid hours without taking a step backwards or making a movement to get out of its way, and without being able to return it…”

“At that junction [Marshal Louis Nicolas] Davout was seen approaching through a swarm of Cossacks, whom he scattered by accelerating his march…”

“So the Ist Corps was saved; but at the same time we learned that … Ney had probably not left Smolensk yet, and that we ought to give up all idea of waiting for him.”

Source:
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 203 – 204

The Battle Continues by Firelight

Sgt. Bourgogne continues his story about the battle that took place in the early morning hours of November 16, 1812.  Surrounded in Krasnoe with the lead corps of the Grande Armée, Napoleon had sent the Old Guard back to break up the Russian threat on the road from Smolensk.  The Old Guard had just charged

Bayonet Charge Hurrah Hurrah
by Vasily Vereshchagin

into the Russian camp and had employed the bayonet:  “The men who were stationed further off now had time to arm themselves, and come to their comrades’ help.  This they did by setting fire to their camp and the two villages near.  We fought by the light of the fires.  The columns on the right and left had passed us, and entered the enemy’s camp at the two ends, whereas our column had taken the middle.  I have omitted to say that, as the head of our column charged into the Russian camp, we passed several hundred Russians stretched on the snow; we believed them to be dead or dangerously wounded.  These men now jumped up and fired on us from behind, so that we had to make a demi-tour to defend ourselves.  Unluckily for them, a battalion in the rear came up behind, so that they were taken between two fires,

The Last Salute, Krasnoi
by Keith Rocco

and in five minutes not one was left alive.  This was a stratagem the Russians often employed, but this time it was not successful.  Poor Beloque was the first man we lost; he had foretold of his death at Smolensk.  A ball struck his head, and killed him on the spot.  He was a great favourite with us all, and, in spite of the indifference we now felt about everything, we were really sorry to lose him.”

“We went through the Russian camp, and reached the village.  We forced the enemy to throw a part of their artillery into a lake there, and then found that a great number of foot soldiers had filled the houses, which were partly in flames.  We now fought desperately hand-to-hand.  The slaughter was terrible, and each man fought by himself for himself.  I found myself near our Colonel, the oldest in France, who had been through the campaign in Egypt.  A sapper was holding him up by the arm, and the Adjutant-Major Roustan was there too.  We were close to a farmyard filled with Russians, and blockaded by our men; they could retreat only by an entrance into a large courtyard close by a barrier.”

“While this desultory fighting was going on, I saw a Russian officer on a white horse striking with the flat of his sword any of his men who tried to get away by jumping over the barrier, and so effectually preventing his escape.  He got possession of the passage, but just as he was preparing to jump to the other side, his horse fell under him, struck by a ball.  The men were forced to defend themselves, and the fighting now grew desperate.  By the lurid light of the fire it was a dreadful scene of butchery, Russians and Frenchmen in utter confusion, shooting each other muzzle to muzzle.”

Campaigne de Moscou
by Leon Cogniet

The Russians in the burning building tried to negotiate a surrender, but the French were unable to get their men to stop firing.  The Russians, facing the choice of being burned alive or forcing their way out of the house, made a rush at the French, but were pushed back.  During a second attempt, the building collapsed killing those inside and those who had just made it outside as well.

Bourgogne and his comrades gathered round their exhausted Colonel and waited for daylight….”There is nothing more terrible than a battle at night, when often fatal mistakes take place.”

Retreat of the French Grand Army
from Moscow Intercepted by
Russian Cossacks
by John Augustus Atkinson

Jakob Walter arrived on the 16th at Krasnoe “amid a thousand kinds of danger… where the Russians received us, having in the meantime circled around to our front.  Here the French Guard, with the remaining armed forces that could still be brought together, took its position along the highway and kept up the firing against the enemy as well as possible. Although the enemy had to yield, any movements on our part drew vigorous firing upon us.  Unfortunately, all the time the greatest misery fell upon the poor sick, who usually had to be thrown from the wagons just to keep us from losing horses and wagons entirely and who were left to freeze among the enemies, for whoever remained lying behind could not hope to be rescued.”

Sources:
Sergeant Bourgogne: With Napoleon’s Imperial Guard in the Russian Campaign and on the Retreat from Moscow 1812-13, Adrien Bourgogne, pp 105 – 108

The Diary of a Napoloenic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter, p 70

“We Still Possessed Two Things – Courage and Honour”

On the morning of the 15th, Napoleon’s advance guard continued its march to Krasnoe.  Ségur describes how the column came across the Russian army which had passed the Grande Armée and was waiting across the road:  “… advancing without precaution, preceded by a crowd of marauders, all eager to reach Krasnoe, when at about five miles from that town a row of Cossacks, extending from the heights on the left and across the highroad, suddenly appeared before them.  Our soldiers halted, astounded.  They had not expected anything of the kind…”

Adrian Bourgogne of the Imperial Guard picks up the narrative:  “… the front of the Imperial columns was stopped by 25,000 Russians occupying the road.  Stragglers at the front caught sight of them first, and immediately turned back to join the first regiments advancing; the greater part of them, however, united and faced the enemy.  A few men, too careless or too wretched to care what they did, fell into the enemy’s hands.”

“The Grenadiers and Chasseurs, formed into close columns, advanced against the mass of Russians, who, not daring to wait for them, retired and left the passage free; they took up a position on the hills to the left of the road, and turned their artillery on us.  When we heard the cannon, we doubled our pace, as we were behind, and arrived just as our gunners were answering them.  The Russians disappeared behind the hills as our fire began, and we continued our way.”

Battle of Krasnoi
by Piter von Hess

“In two hours after the encounter with the Russians, the Emperor reached Krasnoe with the first regiments of the Guard — ours and the Fusiliers-Chasseurs.  We camped behind the town.  I was on guard with fifteen men at General Roguet’s quarters: a miserable house in the town, thatched with straw.  I put my men in a stable, thinking myself in luck to be under cover, and near a fire we had just lighted, but it turned out quite otherwise.”

“While we were in Krasnoe and the immediate neighborhood, the Russians, 90,000 strong, surrounded us – to right, to left, in front, and behind, nothing but Russians — thinking, no doubt, they could soon finish us off.  But the Emperor wished to show them it was not quite so easy a thing as they imagined; for although we were most wretched, and dying of cold and hunger, we still possessed two things – courage and honour.”

Old Guard Does Not Give Up
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

“On the evening of our arrival, General Roguet received orders to attack during the night…  at two o’clock [a.m.] we began to move forward.  We formed into three columns…  The cold was as intense as ever.  We had the greatest difficulty in walking across the fields, as the snow was up to our knees.  After half an hour of this, we found ourselves in the midst of the Russians.  On our right was a long line of infantry, opening a murderous fire on us, their heavy cavalry on our left… They howled like wolves to excite each other, but did not dare to attack.  The artillery was in the centre, pouring grape-shot on us.  All this did not stop our career in the least.  In spite of the firing, and the number of our men who fell, we charged on into their camp, where we made frightful havoc with our bayonets.”

Tomorrow, the battle continues.

Source:
Sergeant Bourgogne: With Napoleon’s Imperial Guard in the Russian Campaign and on the Retreat from Moscow 1812-13, Adrien Bourgogne, pp 102 – 105

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

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

The Twenty-Eighth Bulletin

Napoleon issued periodic progress reports in numbered bulletins.  Number 28 was issued on November 12, 1812 from Smolensk.  It began as follows: “The Imperial headquarters were, on 1 November, at Viasma, and on the 9th at Smolensk.  The weather was very fine up to the 6th, but on the 7th winter began; the ground is covered with snow.  The roads have become very slippery, and very difficult for carriage horses.  We have lost many men by cold and fatigue; night bivouacking is very injurious to them.”

“Since the battle of Maloyaroslavetz, the advanced guard has seen no other enemy than the Cossacks, who like the Arabs, prowl upon the flanks and fly about to annoy.”

The bulletin goes on to note that since the bad weather started on the 6th, more than 3,000 carriage horses and 100 caissons had been lost.

Philippe-Paul de Ségur described the scene when the stragglers were turned away from the store houses because they were not with their regiments:  “So these men scattered through the streets, their only hope now being in pillage.  But the carcasses of horses cleaned of meat down to the bone lying everywhere indicated the presence of famine.  The doors and windows had been torn out of all the houses as fuel for the campfires, so the men found no shelter there.  No winter quarters had been prepared, no wood provided.  The sick and wounded were left out in the streets on the carts that had brought them in.  Once again the deadly highroad was passing through an empty name!  Here was one more bivouac among deceptive ruins, colder even than the forests the men had just left.”

“Finally these disorganized troops sought out their regiments and rejoined them momentarily in order to obtain their rations.  But all the bread… had already been distributed, as had the biscuits and meat.  Rye flour, dry vegetables, and brandy were measured out to them.  The best efforts of the guards were needed to prevent the detachments of the different corps from killing each other around the doors of the storehouses.  When after interminable formalities the wretched fare was delivered to them, the soldiers refused to carry it back to their regiments.  They broke open the the sacks, snatched a few pounds of flour out of them, and went into hiding until they had devoured it.  It was the same with brandy.  The next day the houses were found full of the corpses of these unfortunate warriors.”

Source:
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, p 183

“That Day Will Be Remembered Forever” A Re-enactor’s Story of Borodino

Alexey Temnikov, a re-enactor with the French 5th Cuirassiers, recently participated in the 200th anniversary of the battle of Borodino.  I met Alexey through Facebook and he has been extremely generous with his time and talents in translating Russian for me, sharing photos and images depicting the period as well as providing the information for this blog post about the re-enactment at Borodino.

Alexey Temnikov at Borodino
2012

2012 is the 200th anniversary of the Patriotic War of 1812 when the Russians defeated Napoleon.  Many re-enactments of battles from that year have taken place (Smolensk, Pavlovsky Posad, Tarutino and Maloyaroslavets) and another yet to come (Berezina).  In addition there have been exhibitions, festivals and concerts.  New movies have been filmed and small battles have been staged even in places Napoleon did not go such as Krasnoyarsk.  But the biggest event of all was the re-construction of the battle of Borodino held in early September.

The 5th Regiment of Cuirassiers Salute
The Emperor

Alexey became interested in the Napoleonic period when his parents gave him a copy of In the Terrible Time by Mikhail Bragin as a birthday present.  He sought out and watched the movies War and Peace and Waterloo and was hooked.  An admirer of horses and a rider from a young age, only the hussars would do when Alexey decided to join a re-enactment regiment in 1992.  He remembers calculating how old he would be at the 200th of Borodino.  Originally, he joined the Russian cuirassiers wearing the uniforms of the Military Order of St. George.  In 2002, however, his career called and he left re-enacting.  After a visit to Borodino, Alexey returned to the hobby in 2010, this time as a member of the 5th Regiment of Cuirassiers of Napoleon’s army, a unit where he had many friends.  As an added benefit, he was able to do some re-enactments with his son, Andrew.

To stage a re-enactment of Borodino required much planning.  An event of this significance attracted thousands of re-enactors from around the world: The United States, Canada, Europe and all over Russia.  There were problems with visas and permission to bring weapons into the country.  Horses that used to rent for $100 per day now had a going rate of $170.  Tents had to be found for the participants from abroad.  Organizers bought firewood, straw and hay, and brought in toilets as well as bathing and drinking water.  Fellow re-enactors stepped forward to help provide what the organizers could not, such as warm clothes, hot food and beverages to keep their guests warm.  Some of these re-enactors arrived 10 – 15 days ahead of the anniversary.  Regiments cooked their own food leading up to the event when organizers fed them for the last two days.

President Vladimir Putin
Inspects a Soldier

On the day of the event, September 2, there were ceremonies to honor the fallen of 200 years ago.  The Russian ceremony was on the Rayevski battery at the Great Redoubt.  The French ceremony was held at the monument for the Fallen of the Grande Armée.  Russian President Vladimir Putin represented Russia while former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing represented France.  In the soldiers’ camp, Alexey’s 5th Regiment of Cuirassiers held their own ceremony honoring members who had passed away.  They made a display of photos of these fallen comrades who were unable to be there on that special day.

The logistics of accommodating the crowd and preparing for the visit of President Putin were enormous.  Security forces examined the entire area of the re-enactment and uncovered 32 kilograms of explosives from WWII.  Roads were blocked by the police and tourists had to walk as far as eight kilometers to the site.

It Began to Rain
Near the End of the Battle

The battle was re-enacted in three stages: the battle for the town of Borodino and the crossing of the Koloch river, the attack on the village of Semenovskaya, and the assault on the Great Redoubt.  Rain began to fall as the two hour re-enactment came to an end with many horses falling on the wet grass.

Mikhail Kutuzov at Borodino 2012
Portrayed by Pavel Timofeev

The crowd was ecstatic with the appearance of Mark Schneider and Pavel Timofeev portraying Emperor Napoleon and General Mikhail Kutuzov, respectively.  Alexey said having them there added beauty to the battle.

Alexey summed his experience up as follows: “Borodino has an extraordinary aura, a kind of energy.  It is hard to describe, but one can feel it.  In the evening fog as if the shadows of the fallen, one cannot help thinking – I am not a coward, but how can I go into battle and kill people with my sword and trample them with my horse?  I fall asleep to the sounds of the camp and the neighing of the horses.  For all of us, all of Russia and all of the visitors – that day will be remembered forever.”

Blogger’s Note –

I (Scott Armstrong) grew up doing American Revolutionary War re-enacting with my family so I have a particular interest in the re-enacting aspect.  Our Borodino was the siege of Yorktown, which led to the surrender of Lord Cornwallis’ army, and eventually, to the end of the war which gave America her independence.  I was fortunate enough to attend the 200th anniversary of that event with my father in 1981 and the 225th in 2006, this time with my own family as well as my father.

Re-enactment at Yorktown 1981
Scott Armstrong is on the very far right (1/2 cut off),
back to the camera, wearing a green coat.
His Father, Jack Armstrong, is third from the right
wearing a brown coat, back to the camera

As I look at the photos and hear the stories about re-enacting the Napoleonic period, I am reminded of how much it looks like American Revolutionary War re-enacting here in the United States (although the Napoleonic re-enactors have better uniforms and more horses).  During the US Bicentennial, my father and I spent many weekends traveling to re-enact on the various 200th anniversaries of battles of the American War for Independence.  Growing up outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, we were centrally located for events from Quebec, Canada to Savannah, Georgia.  We even did re-enacting in France and later in England.

We are both still members of the Ist Continental Regiment from Pennsylvania.  Growing up as a re-enactor gave me many unforgettable experiences: Parades in Philadelphia, New York City, and Paris (on the Champs Elysée), serving as an honor guard for a former US President (Ford), a battle at Dover castle in England, travelling in National Guard army trucks and, of course, participating in many battle re-enactments.

There were also other benefits to this hobby.  All of those hours spent in the car with my father gave us much time to talk and be together.  I also met my wife through re-enacting when she and her father joined our regiment.  We became engaged at a re-enactment in Colonial Williamsburg and have since attended many re-enactments with our own family. ~ Scott Armstrong

Was it the Horseshoes?

When studying the destruction of the Grande Armée in Russia, it is sometimes tempting to look for a single error, a surprisingly minor oversight that if corrected would have made an enormous change in the outcome of the event – What if…

Fellow blogger Alice Shepperson (Noon Observation) tackles the question: Was it really the lack of winter horseshoes that led to the destruction of the Grande Armée on the retreat from Russia?  Here’s Alice:

Winter Horseshoes
Note the Four Raised Points

In a recent BBC documentary, Bullets, Boots and Bandages, historian Saul David argued that a major reason for the disastrous nature of the retreat from Moscow was Napoleon’s failure to bring winter horseshoes or frost nails – spikes designed to give horses grip on ice. “This tiny logistical oversight,” argues David, “was to cost him dear.” He backs this up with statements from professional farriers about the effects this would have had on the horses: their shoes gave them no traction on up-hills and no brakes on down-hills. This was certainly a problem. Adolphe Thiers describes the plight

Frost Nails

of the French artillery horses after they left Moscow: “Flogged until they were covered with blood, and their knees torn with frequent falling, they were found incapable of overcoming ordinary obstacles, through loss of strength and want of means to prevent their slipping on the ice.” But was this really the cause of the army’s destruction?

French Horse-Drawn Artillery

It certainly destroyed some of it. Robert Wilson, who had been seconded to the Imperial Russian Army wrote on the November 5th that “some Cossacks … seeing a gun and several tumbrils at the bottom of a ravine, with the horses lying on the ground, dismounted, and taking up the feet of several, hallooed, ran, … danced, and made fantastic gestures like crazy men … they pointed to the horses’ shoes and said— ” God has made Napoleon forget that there was a winter in our country…” It was soon ascertained that all horses of the enemy’s army were in the same improperly-shod state, except those of the Polish corps, and the Emperor’s own.”

But in order to determine the importance of this, we should consider what these horses were actually pulling…

Artillery certainly required horsepower, and guns and ammunition were some of the first things that the army started discarding. Was artillery needed in the retreat? Yes, for defence against the enemy, but there is no particular incident in which the French were crippled by lack of guns or ammo. Cannon could certainly not prevent soldiers dying of hunger or cold, which were the major killers.

Wounded men were another burden, and to his credit, Napoleon tried to cram as many as possible onto the army’s wagons, often much to the annoyance of their drivers. There were also non-military personnel to be carried, such as the artists and musicians Napoleon brought with him, and some of the numerous women, and even children, who followed the army. The loss of wagons would have had a terrible effect on the prospects of the wounded and non-combatants, but these people (though it seems heartless) were not essential to the continued cohesion or existence of the Grand Armée.

Many of the 40,000 or so carts that left Moscow however, were filled with loot and officers’ baggage. Colonel Count Roguet reported that, “for nearly forty miles I had to pick my way through the army’s procession of horse-drawn vehicles. Every one was laden with useless baggage.” The plunder included paintings, chandeliers and entire libraries. All were gradually jettisoned, making a lot of pursuing Cossacks extremely rich, but not destroying the French.

Essentially, having adequate horse-drawn transport only makes a difference to the health and wellbeing of soldiers if there are useful stores to move. By the time the roads became icy in late October, an overabundance of supplies was not really a problem for the French. Captain Roeder said after the battle of Maloyaroslavets, “the whole army was now living almost entirely on horse flesh.” Others speak of foraging cabbage stalks or hempseed from abandoned farms or making soup using tallow (used to lubricate rifles). There were even instances of cannibalism. If there had been food in the carts, the chances are it would have been taken by force by the starving men, as happened when the first units reached the warehouses in Smolensk.

Horsepower did not in fact give out totally. When the Berezina was reached on the 26th November, General Jean Baptiste Eblé still had the crucial forges, charcoal and sapper tools needed to build two trestle bridges, and there was enough artillery to cover the rearguard action and protect the crossing. Even this late in the retreat there were horses and wagons enough to transport these essentials.

So if the demise of horse-powered transport was not to blame for the army’s privations, what was?

The Grande Armée was so ill-prepared for a winter retreat, that horseshoes were just a tiny drop in the ocean of its deficiencies. As well as lacking food and fodder, they lacked winter clothing. Boris Uxkull, a Russian cavalry officer, remarked in his journal on November 12th that among the French prisoners “you see the most peculiar clothes – cuirassiers with feet wrapped up in sheets and rags, cannoneers in women’s clothes and muffs”.  Some even blame the disaster on the tin buttons that Napoleon “foolishly” used, which may have turned to dust at around -30°C. Nor did the army have tents, Napoleon believing that, “tents are unfavourable to health. The soldier is best when he bivouacs… A few planks and a morsel of straw shelter him from the wind.” This was all very well in wooded, densely inhabited Europe where other shelter was available, but on the exposed Russian plains, soldiers needed more than a bit of straw to keep warm.

Scott’s Ponies

It’s important to remember that neither men nor horses do well in temperatures below -20°C, whether they’re wearing the right shoes or not. Look what happened to Captain Scott’s ponies exactly 100 years later, though they had been carefully selected from Siberian stock and supplied with the latest snowshoes and goggles. When constant Cossack attacks are added to the harsh conditions, it seems likely that these external factors had a far greater destructive effect than the want of winter horseshoes.

Pony Snowshoes

But isn’t the basic problem that Napoleon never intended to conduct a prolonged campaign through the Russian winter? His mistake, therefore, was to march his army all the way to Moscow, not packing the wrong food, uniforms, buttons or horseshoes.

The nail (tee-hee) in the coffin of the horseshoe theory is that the Russians often didn’t have the right ones either. Uxkull complains on October 24th that “our horses, which have no shoes, slip on the frozen ground and fall down, never to get up again. The artillery especially is suffering a lot.” The difference was that they weren’t a thousand miles into hostile enemy territory beyond the reach of supplies.

Source:
Alice Shepperson, the writer of today’s blog post, is also the writer of her own blog, Noon Observation, a humorous and informative look at various history topics.  I highly recommend a visit and signing up to follow her blog.

“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