Tag Archives: Nieman river

“Tears Ran Down Their Cheeks”

Partizans in Ambush

Partizans in Ambush
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

Sergeant Adrien Bourgogne‘s memoirs tell of his narrow escape from some Cossacks around this time [Approximately December 13, his narrative doesn’t use many dates](He was alone in the woods and three Cossacks were closing in on him when nearby gunfire frightened their tethered horses and they had to rush off to retrieve them).  Now alone in the woods, “… I felt it would be impossible to walk further without changing my clothes.  It may be remembered that in a portmanteau found on the mountain of Ponari I had some shirts and white cotton breeches – clothes belonging to an army commissary.  Having opened my knapsack, I drew out a shirt, and hung it on my musket; then the breeches, which I placed beside me on the tree.  I took off my jacket, an overcoat, and my waistcoat with the quilted yellow silk sleeves that I had made out of a Russian lady’s skirt at Moscow.  I untied the shawl which was wrapped round my body, and my trousers fell about my heels.  As for my shirt, I had not the trouble of taking it off, for it had neither back nor front; I pulled it off in shreds.  And there I was, naked, except for a pair of wretched boots, in the midst of a wild forest at four o’clock in the afternoon, with eighteen to twenty degrees of cold, for the north wind had begun to blow hard again.”

“On looking at my emaciated body, dirty, and consumed with vermin, I could not restrain my tears.  At last, summoning the little strength that remained, I set about my toilet.  With snow and the rags of my old shirt I washed myself to the best of my power.  Then I drew on my new shirt of fine longcloth, embroidered down the front.  I got into the little calico breeches as quickly as I could, but I found them so short that even my knees were not covered, and my boots only reaching half-way up my leg, all this part was bare.  Finally, I put on my yellow silk waistcoat, my riding-jacket, my overcoat, over this my belts and collar; and there I was, completely attired, except for my legs.”

On the 13th of December, 1812, the Grande Armée reached Kovno at the edge of the Russian empire.  Philippe-Paul de Ségur described the scene: “After a final crucifying march of forty-six hours, they found themselves again on friendly soil.  Immediately, without pausing, without casting a glance behind them, the majority of the men dispersed and plunged into the forests of Polish Russia.  But some did turn around when they reached the other side of the river, and look back on the land of suffering from which they were escaping.  It is said that when they found themselves on the very spot from which, five months before, their innumerable eagles had victoriously set out, tears ran down their cheeks and groans broke from their chests.”

“Here were the same valleys down which had poured those three long columns… [Now] The Niemen was just a long mass of blocks of ice piled up and welded together by a breath of winter.  In place of the three French bridges brought fifteen hundred miles and erected with such daring speed, there was only one Russian bridge.  Instead of the four hundred thousand companions…  [the only ones left were] one thousand foot soldiers and troopers still armed, nine cannon, and twenty thousand beings clothed in rags, with bowed heads, dull eyes, ashy, cadaverous faces, and long ice-stiffened beards.  Some of them were fighting in silence for the right to cross the bridge which, despite their reduced number, was still too narrow to accommodate their precipitous flight.  Others had rushed down the bank and were struggling across the river, crawling from one jagged cake of ice to another.  And this was the Grand Army!”

Marshal Ney in Action

Marshal Ney in Action

“Two kings, one prince, eight marshals, followed by several generals afoot and unattended, then a few hundred of the Old Guard still bearing arms, were all that remained of the original host.  It might be said, though, that it lived on incarnate in the person of Marshal Ney.  Friends, allies, enemies – I call on you to witness! Let us render the homage that is due to the memory of this unfortunate hero … In Kovno he found a company of artillery, three hundred Germans belonging to

Jean Gabriel Marchand

Jean Gabriel Marchand

the garrison, and General [Jean Gabriel] Marchand with four hundred armed men, of whom he took command.  His first act was to scour the city looking for possible reinforcements.  All he found were the wounded who were making a pitiful attempt to keep up with our wild flight.  For the eighth time since leaving Moscow he had to abandon them in a body in the hospitals, as he had abandoned them individually along the road, on the battlefields, and around all the campfires.”

“Several thousand French soldiers were crowded together in the great square… but these were stretched out cold and stiff in front of the brandy shops which they had broken open, and in which they had imbibed death, instead of the life they had hoped to find.  Here was the only relief that Murat had left him!  So Ney found himself alone in Russia at the head of seven hundred foreign recruits.  At Kovno, as at Vilna, the honor of our arms and the dangers of the last retreat were committed to his care, and he accepted them.”

Sources:
Sergeant Bourgogne: With Napoleon’s Imperial Guard in the Russian Campaign and on the Retreat from Moscow 1812-13, Adrien Bourgogne, pp 251 – 252

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 280 – 282

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

“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.

And then it Began to Rain

I’ve written a number of times that the suffering began almost as soon as the Grande Armée crossed the Nieman.  In his book Napoleon in Russia: The 1812 Campaign,Alan Palmer writes, “… [the troops] moving forward in a heat that none of them had ever known before, except the veterans of Egypt…  rations

Commemorative Russian card from 1912, the 100th anniversary of the invasion. The cards were part of a package of candy.

were not getting through to the weary men and horses, and there was little enough for them to gather from the fields as they went.  Some of the cavalry tried feeding their horses on green corn and many, in consequence, died.  Count Anatole de Montesquiou, one of the junior officers on Napoleon’s staff, counted the bodies of 1,240 horses as he rode twelve miles down the road towards Vilna.”

Jakob Walter adds his description of the misery when it began to rain a few days into the campaign, “The march proceeded day and night toward Vilkomirz and Eve.  Meanwhile it rained ceaselessly for several days, and the rain was cold.  It was all the more disagreeable because nothing could be dried.  Bodily warmth was our only salvation from freezing to death.  I had on only one pair of blue linen trousers, which I had bought at Thorn, since I had thrown away my underwear because of the former heat.  Thus I was constantly wet for two days and two nights, so that not a spot on my body was dry.”

“During the third night a halt was made in a field which was trampled into a swamp.  Here we were ordered to camp and to make fires, since neither village nor forest could be seen and the rain continued without end.  You can imagine in what a half-numbed condition everyone stood here.  What could we do?  There was noting that we could do but stack the rifles in pyramids and keep moving in order not to freeze.”

Another account comes from Jean-Roch Coignet in his book Captain Coignet: A Soldier of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard from the Italian Campaign to Waterloo.  “On the 29th of June, at three o’clock, a violent storm arose, just before we came to a village, which I had had the greatest possible difficulty in reaching.  When we reached the shelter of this village, we could not unharness our horses; we had to take off their bridles, cut grass for them, and light our fires.  The storm of sleet and snow was so terrible that we could scarcely keep our horses still; we had to fasten them to the wheels.  I was half dead with the cold; not being able to stand it any longer, I opened one of my wagons, and crept inside.  Next morning a heartrending sight met our gaze: in the cavalry camp nearby, the ground was covered with horses frozen to death; more than ten thousands died during that dreadful night.  When I got out of my wagon, all numbed with the cold, I saw that three of my horses were dead…”

“When we reached the highway, we saw the dead bodies of a number of soldiers who had succumbed before the terrible storm.  This demoralized a great many of our men.”

Pleased To See Her Countrymen… Initially

On 28th June, the Countess de Choiseul-Gouffier, who had recently been at the ball held in honour of General Levin-Bennigsen that was attended by the Czar, witnessed the entry of the lead elements of la Grande Armée into Vilna:

“I can find no words to describe my emotions when I saw some Polish troops! Poles who were galloping at full speed, sabres drawn and laughing, waving their lance pennants, which were in the national colours. I was wearing these for the first time! I stood at an open window, and they saluted me as they passed. The sight of these real compatriots set my heart racing. I felt that I was Polish by birth, that I was going to to become Polish again. Tears of joy and enthusiasm streamed down my face. This was a delicious moment , but it was not to last long.”

She continued:

“The French army who entered Vilna had not had bread for three days… The country through which the Grande Armée had passed had been ravaged and pillaged and its corn had been cut green for cavalry; it could not, therefore, supply the needs of the capital, and the people dared not even expose their convoys on the roads which were infested by marauders.

Besides, the disorderly behaviour of the army was a consequence of the sentiment of the chief, for after having crossed the Nieman Napoleon in an order of the day declared to the troops that they were about to set foot on Russian territory. It was like this that the liberator of Poland, so much desired, announced himself to the Lithuanians. In consequence of this Proclamation Lithuania was considered and treated as a hostile country, while its inhabitants, animated by patriotic enthusiasm flew to welcome the French. They were soon to be desported and outraged by those who they regarded as the instruments of the deliverance of their country and compelled to abandon their homes and their property to pillage. Many took refuge in the depths of the forest, carrying with them that which they hold the most dear—honour of their wives and children.

Each day brought the recital of new excesses committed by the French soldier in the country. Vilna seemed to have become a seat of war, soldiers bivouacked in the streets, which resounded with the clash of arms, the blare of trumpets, the neighing of horses and the confusion of many languages.”

Taken from Spring, L (2009) 1812: Russia’s Patriotic War. The History Press, Stroud Gloucestershire, UK. pp. 26 & 27.  Thank  you to James Fisher for providing this post.

The 200th Anniversary of the Invasion of Russia Begins

200 years ago today, Napoleon’s Grande Armée crossed the Nieman river on pontoon bridges to launch the invasion.  Each man carried three days of

Napoleon Crossing the Nieman
June 1812

provisions and the expectation of a short, decisive campaign.  I doubt anyone had any idea how disastrously things would turn out.

This blog aims to capture the invasion through the eyes of the soldiers who lived it and to relate that experience as closely as possible to the 200th anniversary of its occurrence.   Having said that, I am about to leave on a trip to France and will be unable to make any posts until I return in the first week of July.

Napoleon Crossing the Niemen
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

In the meanwhile, I encourage you to look back to the posts I made one year ago, the 199th anniversary.  I also suggest you buy a copy of my work of historical fiction about the invasion: Russian Snows: Coming of Age in Napoleon’s Army.  The book aims to show what the conditions were like for the ordinary soldier on the campaign.  The book is available through the Russian Snows website and through Amazon (paperback and Kindle) as well as Barnes & Noble (Nook).

As always, I welcome contributors as guest bloggers who can blog about conditions on the campaign.  Contact me at ScottArmstrong@RussianSnows.com to make arrangements.

Thank you for reading ~ Scott Armstrong

Source:
Image and translation of Commemorative 1912 card provided by Alexey Temnikov

The Grande Armée Crosses the Nieman

On the night of June 23, 1812, Napoleon ordered three pontoon bridges to be built across the Nieman river.  The following morning, the men began to cross and enter Russian territory (Lithuania).  Philippe-Paul de Ségur describes the scene as the first soldiers approached the bridge: “Enthusiasm ran to high that

Crossing the three bridges over the Nieman

two divisions of the vanguard, contending for the honor of crossing first, almost came to blows, and were restrained with difficulty.  Napoleon was impatient to set foot on Russian territory.  Without faltering he took that first step toward his ruin.  He stood for a time at the head of the bridge, encouraging the soldiers with his look.  All saluted him with their usual Vive l’Empereur! They seemed more excited than he …”

Source: Napoleon’s Russian Campaign by Philippe-Paul de Ségur