Tag Archives: Paul Britten Austin

“Let Me See My Family Again For One Hour!”

December 8 and 9, 1812 were the coldest of the retreat.  Accounts of this time detail the misery of those who had struggled on so far as the cold reached new depths.  The goal was to reach Vilna with its supposed stocked warehouses and shelter from the cold.  But the men were wary, having experienced the disappointment of Smolensk when the stores and shelter there were inadequate.

Retreat Scene from Russian-French Warby Bogdan Willewalde

Retreat Scene from Russian-French War
by Bogdan Willewalde

Lieutenant Albrecht von Muraldt wrote about how his companions were reacting: “Some wept and whimpered.  Others, totally stupefied, didn’t utter a sound.  Many behaved like lunatics, especially at the sign of a rousing fire or when, after starving for several days, they got something to eat.  Only very few indeed were still themselves.”

Surgeon-General Dominique Jean Larrey wrote about the effects of the cold on the starving men: “The muscular action became noticeably weaker. Individuals staggered like drunken men.  Their weakness grew progressively until the subject fell – a sure sign that life was totally extinct.”  Men who couldn’t keep up had to get to the side of the road, where, lacking the support of their comrades, would fall.  “Instantly they were stricken by a painful stupor, from which they went into a state of lethargic stupor, and in a few moments they’d ended their painful existence.  Often, before death, there was an involuntary emission of urine.”

Alexander Bellot de Kergorre wrote: “The habit of seeing them grow weaker enabled us to predict the moment when an individual would fall down and die.  As soon as a man began to totter you could be sure he was lost.  Still he went on a little way, as if drunk, his body still leaning forward.  Then he fell on his face.  A few drops of blood oozed from his nose.  And he expired.  In the same instant his limbs became like bars of iron.”

Dead in the Snowby Ferdinand Boissard

Dead in the Snow
by Ferdinand Boissard

As the temperature only a few miles from Vilna drops to -28° Réaumur (-35° C, -31° F),  Major C.F.M. Le Roy says the following prayer: “My God, I who find such happiness in living and admiring your beautiful sun, accord me the mercy of once again being warmed by him and not leaving my wretched remains in this barbarous icy country!  Let me see my family again for one hour!  Only one hour!  I’ll die content.  I’ve never asked anything of you, God, as you know!  I’ve only thanked you in all circumstances, happy or unhappy, as they’ve befallen me.  But this one’s beyond my strength, and if you don’t come to my aid I’m going to succumb under its weight.”

1812: The Great Retreat, Paul Britten Austin, pp 361 – 364

“A Certain Feeling of Sadness is Hanging Over the Army”

October 22, 1812 was the fourth day of the march from Moscow.  Some had not yet begun to call it a “retreat,” but continued thinking of it as an “advance to winter quarters.”  I know I have posted a number of accounts about the appearance of the column, but I would like to add Philippe-Paul de Ségur’s account.

“Napoleon had entered Moscow with ninety thousand combatants and twenty thousand sick and wounded.  He went out of it with more than a hundred thousand combatants…”

“A sorry spectacle added to his gloomy foreboding.  Since the evening before, the army had been marching out of Moscow without interruption.  In this column of a hundred and forty thousand human beings and fifty thousand horses, a hundred thousand, marching at the head with their knapsacks and arms, with some five hundred cannon and two thousand artillery wagons, still bore some resemblance to the tremendous military organization which had conquered the world.  But the rest – a frightening proportion of the whole – looked like a horde of Tartars after a successful raid: a jumble of carriages, wagons, rich coaches, and carts of all sorts, four or five abreast, and seeming to stretch on forever.  Here were the trophies – Russian, Turkish, and Persian flags – and the gigantic cross of Ivan the Great; there, a flock of long-bearded Russian peasants driving or carrying our plunder, of which they were a part, and soldiers wheeling barrows loaded with everything they had been able to pile on them.  These foolish creatures would not be able to hold out to the end of the first day, but their senseless greed had closed their eyes to the fact that two thousand miles and many battles lay between them and their destination.”

“One could have taken it for a caravan, a nomadic horde, or one of those armies of antiquity laden with spoils and slaves, returning from some dreadful destruction.  It was inconceivable that the head of this column could drag along after them such a mass of vehicles and baggage for so long a distance.”

On October 22nd, it begins to rain and the thousands of vehicles and marching feet turn the roads into mud.  Alexandre Bellot de Kergorre of the Imperial Headquarters staff observes, “Making our way across ploughed land and not everyone being well harnessed up, some 1,500 vehicles had to be abandoned…  We set fire to at least 20,000 sutlers’ vehicles and others overloaded with sugar, coffee, etc., which were encumbering the road and hindering our passage.”

The sound of “artillery wagons being blown up, for lack of horses to pull them.  The further we advanced the more frequent these explosions became.”

“At each bridge there are blockages, of men, horses and baggage.  Most of these bridges are narrow, hardly solid.  Often they sag under the vehicles’ weight.”

Césare de Laugier records, “a certain feeling of sadness is hanging over the army.”

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Phillippe-Paul de Ségur, 135 -136

1812 Napoleon in Moscow, Paul Britten Austin, pp 196-197

“Enough to Drive One Mad”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murat is “Captured”

As discussed in earlier posts, not all of the Grande Armée spent the winter inside the Moscow city limits.  Marshal Murat and about 25,000 men were 35 miles to the south of Moscow at Winkovo and they were starving.  An informal truce had fallen into place here.  Marshal Murat would even ride up to the Russian pickets and re-position them if he felt they were encroaching on the limits of the French camp.

Phillipe-Paul de Ségur describes the situation: “That armistice was an unusual one.  All that was necessary to break it was a reciprocal three-hour notice, and it applied only to the fronts of the two camps, and not to their flanks. At least, that is the way the Russians interpreted it.  We could neither bring in a convoy nor send out a foraging party without a struggle, so that fighting continued on every hand, except where it might be favorable to us.”

Marshal Murat
The King of Naples
Also Brother-in-Law of Napoleon

“… Murat took great pleasure in showing himself at the enemy’s outposts, reveling in the flattering looks which his fine appearance, his reputation for bravery, and his high rank won for him; and the Russian generals were careful not to do anything that would put him out of conceit.  They showered him with proofs of deference likely to preserve his illusions.  He ordered their mounted sentries about as if they were French, and when the portion of the field they were occupying suited him, they immediately surrendered it to him.”

“Some of the Cossack officers went so far as to feign enthusiasm, and to declare that they no longer recognized any other emperor than the one reigning in Moscow.  For a time Murat foolishly believed that they would never fight him again…  Napoleon was heard to exclaim as he read one of his letters, ‘Murat, King of the Cossacks! What foolishness!'”

Major Victor Dupuy of the 7th Hussars was an eyewitness to Murat’s boldness where the outposts of the two armies were 50 yards apart: “The King  of Naples [Murat], finding the Cossacks too close to us, go among them, and make them withdraw their sentries and show them where they ought to be.  The Russians obeyed.  Their generals, even those of the advance guard, whom we’d often had a chance to see, made no difficulties about yielding to the King’s least requirements.  He really had an air of commanding the whole lot of them.”

While this jockeying of the sentries was going on, the men and horses were starving.  Lieutenant Maurice Tascher  wrote in his diary about the, “extreme poverty of the army, which is living off vegetables, horse meat and unground rye.  In the forests the peasants are defending themselves against the soldiers when they try to get some food and forage.”

Dupuy records how each time the 7th Hussars assemble there are, “Unfortunate horses which, lying down and worn out, could no longer struggle to their feet and died on the spot.  Though Moscow was stuffed with victuals, the men were in the greatest need.  The King [Murat] wrote to the Emperor to inform him of our truly calamitous situation.  The Emperor interrogated the ordnance officer carrying the despatch who, to play the courtier, replied that we lacked for nothing – and that was a word too much!  The Emperor even got angry with the King of Naples for sending him a pack of lies.  This became quickly bruited abroad and the officer received all the reproaches and all the curses he deserved.  I shall abstain from giving his name.”

Battle of Tarutino
by Piter von Hess

Jean-Roch Coignet of the Imperial Guard had been given dispatch duty at this time.  Assigned to one such mission he writes, “I was sent to a village, eighteen or twenty leagues from Moscow, to carry orders to Prince Murat.  I came upon a body of cavalry in retreat – our men, on bare-back horses.  They had been surprised while grooming their horses.  I could not find Prince Murat; he had run off in his shirt.  It was a bad sign to see those fine horsemen running for their lives.  I asked for the prince.”

“‘He is captured,’ they replied; ‘they took him in his bed.'”

“And I could learn nothing further.  The Emperor heard of it at once through [Étienne Marie Antoine Champion de] Nansouty‘s aides-de-camp, and on my return from this miserable mission, I found the army en route to aid Murat.  I was half-dead, and my horse could no longer walk…  The Emperor had ordered that his household and all his office staff should be sent from Moscow the 23rd of October, and join him at Mojaisk.  It is impossible to give any idea of the rapidity of the execution of his orders.”

“The preparations for this move were completed in three hours…   I got the provisions ready: about ten loaves of sugar, a good-sized box of tea, some elegant cups, and a copper to melt the sugar in.  We had a carriage-load of provisions.”

Murat, of course, had not been captured, but the French had been dealt an embarrassing blow at what was called the Battle of Tarutino.  An early morning attack had caught the French, complacent due to the informal truce and with many men out foraging, off guard.  Murat managed to stop the attack with a charge of curassiers which he personally led.  Losses for the French were 2,500 men, 38 cannon and baggage.

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Phillipe-Paul de Ségur, pp 123-124 1812: Napoleon in Moscow, Paul Britten Austin, pp 119, 121-123
Napoleon in Russia: The 1812 Campaign, Alan Palmer, p 181
Captain Coignet, Jean-Roch Coignet, pp 225-226

The French are Coming! Hide the Furniture!

This account is from a woman who worked in a prince’s house in Moscow.  Just prior to the arrival of the French, they had the idea of dividing a “…store-room with a stone wall, seeing that we had our own stove-makers and that bricks for the alteration were lying in the yard.  The wall was begun, and all the family’s trunks, boxes of crockery, linen, and different things – everything imaginable! – were dragged there.  All our belongings were put on tip, and the wall rose higher and higher.  From above they had already started to throw feather beds and pillows from the whole house.  when the wall was finished, all but the last two feet, a man we knew suddenly looked into our store-room from the neighbouring yard and began to entreat us to let him hide his property there as well.  All kinds of trash was brought.  It wouldn’t have been worth hiding, but you know nobody wants to part with his own, and you have to help people in trouble.”

“The wall was built up to its full height and partly plastered, otherwise it would have been as clear as daylight to anybody that it was new.  They dragged all the shabbier stuff to the front of the store-room and crammed it full.  ‘Smash it, carry it off, if you like.  You won’t get very rich on it, you cursed Frenchmen.'”

Major Jean-François Boulart, Major of the Guard Artillery,  had this discovery at the house he occupied in Moscow: “We had no linen and very little crockery, but at the servant’s suggestion I had a hole made in a freshly plastered wall and behind it we found prodigious quantities of china, glasses, kitchen utensils, vinegar and mustard, the best China tea and some table linen.  In another corner, also walled up, I found a fine library.  I shared my riches with my comrades and even some generals.  My house became the meeting place for those less fortunate than ourselves who loved good meat and wine.  Yet the days passed drearily.  We had no other sources of distraction then our libraries, and no one is really tempted to read books who has such reasons for disquietude as we had.”

1812: Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia; Antony Brett-James, p. 151

1812: Napoleon in Moscow; Paul Britten Austin, p. 81


Our Only Salvation Lay in a Battle We Must Win!

On the French side on the eve of battle, we see men distracting themselves with routine in order to keep their minds off the impending clash.

Sergeant Adrien Bourgogne with the Imperial Guard observed, “We got ready on the 6th for the great battle on the next day; some cleaned muskets and other weapons, others made bandages for the wounded, some made their wills, and others, again, sang or slept in perfect indifference.  The whole of the Imperial Guard received orders to appear in full uniform.”

Captain Girod de l’Ain learned to play chess on the eve of battle, “After a longish walk to reconnoitre the respective positions of the opposing armies, I returned to our bivouac and spent the time in having my first lesson in how to play chess from Major Fanfette [an aides-de-camp of General Dessaix], who adored the game and always carried with him a little cardboard chess set which folded into eight pieces and which he had himself constructed with great ingenuity.  I was obliged to mount my horse before the end of the lesson, and leave Fanfette there with his chessboard.  But when I got back he showed me our game written down, as far as we had played it, and three or four months later we finished it in Berlin.”

Lieutenant Heinrich August Vossler was just rejoining the army in time for the battle and wrote in a letter home, that the army was in “good and sanguine spirits.  We were congratulated on all sides upon our timely arrival.  If one discounted our men’s pale worn faces, the whole army seemed alive with a cheerful bustle.  Most of the troops were busy polishing and preparing weapons for the morrow, and the order reached us to make an early night of it, so as to be ready for the morning’s work.  Many a soldier stretched himself out carefree and contented, little thinking that this would be his last night on earth.  But the thought was common to us all:  things couldn’t go on much longer as they were.  Though the army’s numerical strength had shrunk alarmingly, the very considerable forces that remained consisted of the strongest and most experienced troops, and the bold and fiery eyes peering out from haggard faces promised certain victory.”

For dinner, Vossler ate “…a miserable plateful of bread soup boiled with the stump of a tallow candle.  But in my famished condition even this revolting dish seemed quite appetizing.  I lay down and slept as peacefully as if the coming day was to have resembled its fellow as one egg does another.”

A Westphalian captain named von Linsingen wrote that he couldn’t “…escape a feeling of something immense, destructive, hanging over us all.  This mood led me to look at my men.  There they were, sleeping all around me on the cold, hard soil.  I knew them all very well, and knew that many of these brave troops couldn’t survive until tomorrow evening, but would be lying torn and bloody on the battlefield.  For a moment it was all too easy to wish the Russians would just steal away again during the night.  But then I remembered our sufferings of the past weeks. Better a horrific end than a horror without end!  Our only salvation lay in a battle we must win!”

Source: Sergeant Bourgogne: With Napoleon’s Imperial Guard in the Russian Campaign and on the Retreat from Moscow 1812-13, Adrien Bourgogne, p. 20

1812: Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, Antony Brett-James, p. 123

1812: Napoloen’s Invasion of Russia, Paul Bretten Austin, p. 264 & 269

Massacre at Valutina

Lance-corporal Heinemann was a member of the voltigeur company of the Brunswick Chasseurs.  He writes a terrifying account of how his company (which had already lost 77 of their original 150 men so far on the campaign) was overrun and slaughtered.

Heinemann’s company was out ahead of the main French force when Marshal Murat road up shouting “What are you doing here?  Forward!  Through those thickets, in line of skirmishers, against the enemy!  The army’ll come up behind you!”

Murat departed and the company began the advance.  Heinemann continues, “Beyond us lay an open field.  We waited for our regiments to come up in support.  First we caught brief glimpses of groups of Cossacks; then of Russian hussars; and, soon afterwards, whole lines of enemies, swathed in dust clouds…  We looked behind us, to see if any of our own are coming up.  Not a chance!… And at each moment our danger is growing.”

“The coronet is calling in our skirmishers, spread out to right and left, and the Cossacks are cutting off our retreat…  Our little force forms a double square, six ranks deep – an insignificant little troop amidst countless enemies!  Sabre in hand, our captain steps out boldly from the square, baring his chest to the Cossack skirmishers.  He’ll be the first to fall, going on ahead to prepare night quarters for 65 comrades in eternity…”

“With a thousandfold hurrah the galloping Cossacks break into our defenseless group from all sides.  After a mere couple of minutes our front ranks are lying on the ground, stabbed through by a thousand lances.  Our muskets’ smoke disperses to reveal a horrible bloodbath.  None of us sees the least chance of escaping the slaughter now beginning.  The Cossacks are making such easy work of us, our inability to resist seems to stir their blood-lust to madness.  Surrender is out of the question.  As if driven by some obscure instinct, anyone who’s still alive throws himself down on the ground and plays dead.  Comes a moment of horrible waiting.  Happy he who finds himself lying under heaps of corpses!  Even if the blood of those of our comrades who’ve been stabbed through seeps down over our bodies, if their limbs twitch and jerk on top of ours, if the dying breathe their last sighs into our ears and their corpses press upon us – at least there’s still a chance of surviving underneath this terrible rampart.  In such lethal need it’s every man for himself!”

“… I was one of the few still alive.  Blood was seeping through my uniform, soaking me to the skin and gluing my eyelids together.  Though still not wounded, I could hear the clash of the lances and sabres, mingled with our assassins’ dull oaths, muttering between their teeth their terrible ‘Pascholl!  Sabacki Franzusky!‘ [Die, dog of a Frenchman!] as they exerted all their strength to probe the bodies of the dead with their lances and sabres, to see whether beneath them there mightn’t be something still alive.  Finally my turn comes.  A lance-thrust passing through the chest and back of a comrade who was lying on top of me, strikes my skull a glancing blow and rips open the skin.  Yet I feel no pain.  Lying there half-conscious, all I long for is an end to the slaughter.”

The Cossacks dismount and throw the dead aside, looking for anyone who might still be alive.  “… In this terrible moment I can’t help opening my eyes to see what’s going on.  Suddenly I’m aware of a bearded face with white teeth, bending closely down over me, and hear the Cossack’s savage scornful laugh as he finds another victim to slaughter.  A hundred arms drag me out from amidst the mangled corpses.  And above me I see innumerable lances raised, ready to stab me – when, all of a sudden, familiar sounds suddenly ring out.  Orders shouted in German!  The clash of weapons! Heavenly music… The blue Westphalian hussars are fighting the Cossacks and Russian green hussars hand to hand, and after them come our chasseurs.  The Cossacks depart, cursing.  Only a few still go on eagerly searching for plunder; then even these gallop off, and all is quiet around our square’s burial place.”

Only thirteen of the company survived the battle.

Source: 1812: Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, Paul Britten Austin