Tag Archives: Philippe-Paul de Segur

“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

“Everything that Could be of use Became a Hindrance.”

Philippe-Paul de Ségur described the abandonment of Vilna on the 10th of December.  He contended that Vilna cost the army twenty thousand men and many of these could have been saved had the city been held twenty-four hours longer.  But Marshal Murat panicked when the Cossacks appeared and the city was hastily abandoned.

Platov Cossacks

Platov Cossacks
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

Here is Ségur’s description of the events: “On the tenth of December, Ney, who had voluntarily taken command of the rear guard, left the city, and immediately Platov’s Cossacks overran it, massacring the unfortunate wretches whom [were thrown]… into the streets as they passed by…”

“This city contained a great part of the equipment and the treasury of the army, its supplies, a number of immense covered wagons with the Emperor’s possessions, much artillery, and a great many wounded men.  Our sudden appearance had fallen like a thunderbolt on those in charge of all this.  Some were galvanized into action by terror, others were paralyzed by consternation.  Out of it came orders and counterorders of all sorts, and men, horses, and vehicles became tangled in an inextricable jam.”

“In the midst of this chaos several officers succeeded in getting as much as could be set in motion, out if town and on the road to Kovno.  But when this bewildered, heavily loaded column had gone about two miles they were stopped by the hill and narrow pass of Ponari.”

Retreat - General disorder and fighting“In our conquering march eastward this wooded knoll had seemed to our hussars little more than a slight irregularity in the earth’s surface from the top of which the entire plain of Vilna could be seen, and the strength of the enemy estimated.  In truth, its steep but short slope had hardly been noticed.  In a regular retreat it would have been an excellent position for turning around and checking the enemy; but in a chaotic flight, where everything that could be of use became a hindrance, when in blind haste we turned everything against ourselves, this hill and defile were an unsurmountable obstacle, a wall of ice against which our best efforts were broken.  It stripped us of everything – supplies, treasury, booty, and wounded men.  This misfortune was serious enough to stand out above all our long succession of disasters; for it was here that the little money, honor, discipline, and strength remaining to us were irrevocably lost.”

“When, after fifteen hours of fruitless struggle, the drivers and soldiers forming the escort [of the wagons carrying the booty] saw Murat and the column of fugitives go past them on the hillside…  they no longer thought of saving anything, but only of forestalling the avidity of the foe by pillaging themselves.”

Retreat Scene from the Russian-French War of 1812by Bogdan Willewalde

Retreat Scene from the Russian-French War of 1812
by Bogdan Willewalde

“The bursting of a wagon carrying loot from Moscow acted as a signal.  Everybody fell upon the other wagons, broke them open, and seized the most valuable objects.  The soldiers of the rear guard coming upon this confusion, threw down their arms and loaded themselves with plunder.  So furiously intent were they on this that they failed to heed the whistling bullets or the shrieks of the Cossacks who were pursuing them.  It is said that the Cossacks mingled with them without being noticed.  For a few minutes Europeans and Tartars, friends and foes, were united in a common lust for gain.  Frenchmen and Russians were seen side by side, all war forgotten, plundering the same wagon. Ten million francs in gold and silver rapidly disappeared!”

“But along with these horrors, acts of noble devotion were noticed.  There were men that day who forsook everything to carry off the wounded on their backs; others, unable to get their half-frozen companions out of the struggle, perished in defending them from the brutality of their fellow soldiers and the blows of the enemy.”

“On the most exposed spot of the hill a colonel of the Emperor’s staff, Count de Turenne, held the Cossacks at bay, disregarding their wild shots, while he distributed Napoleon’s personal treasury among the guards who stood within sight and hearing.  These brave men, fighting with one hand and holding the riches of their leader in the other, succeeded in saving all of it.  Long afterward, when we were out of danger, each one returned the amount that had been entrusted to him: not a single gold coin was lost.”

“The catastrophe at Ponari was all the more shameful as it could have been easily foreseen, and even more easily avoided; for it was possible to pass around the hill on either side.  Our debris served at least one purpose – to stop the Cossacks.”

Source:
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 275 – 278

Commemorative 1912 Russian card image and translation provided by Alexey Temnikov

“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 Officers Distract Themselves from Their Suffering

While the army was crossing the Berezina, Ségur made observations of the behavior of the officers around Napoleon.  “Gathered around him were men of all conditions, ranks, and ages — ministers, generals, administrators.  Particularly conspicuous among them was an elderly nobleman, a remnant of those bygone days when grace and charm and brilliance had reigned supreme.  As soon as it was daylight this sixty-year-old general [possibly Count Louis deNarbonne-Lara, Minister of War in 1791] could be seen sitting on  snow-covered log performing his morning toilet with imperturbable gaiety.  In the midst of the tempest he would adjust his well-curled and powdered wig, scoffing at disaster and the unleashed elements that were buffeting him.”

“Near this gentleman, officers of the technical corps engaged in endless dissertations…  these men sought a reason for the constant direction of the north wind as it inflicted the sharpest pain on them.  Others would be attentively studying the regular hexagonal crystals of the snowflakes covering their clothing.  The phenomenon of the parhelia, or appearance of several simultaneous images of the sun, due to the presence of ice crystals in the air, was also the subject of frequent conversations, all of which served to distract the officers from their suffering.”

Armand Augustin de Caulaincourt

Armand Augustin de Caulaincourt

General Armand de Caulaincourt on Napoleon’s staff made some observations on the 30th about the size of the army after the crossing the Berezina.  “The Beresina had swept away a large number of our strays and stragglers, who had been looting everything and thus depriving the brave fellows who remained in the ranks of the supplies which they so badly needed.  However, that was no gain, for, after the crossing, bands of irregulars formed in full view of everyone, with the object of recruiting still more stragglers.  All that remained of the First Corps was its colour-guard and a few commissioned and non-commissioned officers surrounding their marshal.  The Fourth was worse than weakened, and the Third, which had fought so valiantly against the Moldavian army, had been reduced by more than half its strength after that affair.  The Poles were in no better case.  Our cavalry, apart from the Guard, no longer existed except in the

Marshal Claude Victor-PerrinDuke of Belluno

Marshal Claude Victor-Perrin
Duke of Belluno

form of parties of stragglers, which, although the Cossacks and peasants attacked them savagely, overran the villages on our flanks.  Hunger proved an irresistible force, and the need to live, to find shelter against the cold, made men indifferent to every sort of danger.  The evil spread also to the Duke of Reggio’s [Nicolas Oudinot] corps – now joined on to Marshal Elchingen’s [Ney] – and even to the Duke of Belluno’s [Marshal Claude Victor] divisions, which formed the rear-guard.”

“Cavalry officers, who had been mustered into a company under the command of generals, dispersed also in a few days, so wretched were they , and so tortured by hunger.  Those who had a horse to feed were forced, if they did not want to lose it, to keep some distance away, as there were no supplies at all along the road.  The [Imperial] Guard…  still made an excellent impression by virtue of their general appearance, their vigour and their martial air… and the battalion each day on guard-duty kept up an astonishing standard of smartness.”

Minard map

According to the Minard map, 28,000 men made it across the Berezina.  On the morning of the 28th, the temperature was -13 degrees Fahrenheit.

Source:
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 254 – 255

With Napoleon in Russia, General Armand de Caulaincourt, pp 254 -255

An Escape from the Cossacks

Philippe-Paul de Ségur wrote an interesting account of an incident that occurred on the road from Orsha to Borisov.

“The twenty-second of November found us toiling along the road from Orsha to Borisov, between a double line of giant birches, through melted snow and deep liquid mud in which the weak got drowned, and which trapped and held as prisoners for the Cossacks those of the wounded who, believing that the frost had definitely set in, had exchanged their carts for sledges or sleighs at Smolensk.”

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

“In the midst of this general decay and discouragement an action of antique grandeur stood out.  Two marines of the Guard had got separated from their column by a band of Cossacks who seemed bent on their destruction.  One of the marines lost heart and was about to give himself up, but the other shouted to him that if he committed this act of cowardice, he would kill him.  and he did: when he saw his companion throw his musket away and put up his hands, he shot him down in the very arms of the Cossacks.  Then, taking advantage of their surprise, he quickly reloaded his musket which he kept leveled on the bravest of the band as he walked backward, stealing from tree to tree, and so succeeded in rejoining his company.”

Sources:
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, p 228

Commemorative 1912 Russian candy box card image and translation provided by Alexey Temnikov

Ney’s Escape

As the rearguard of the Grande Armée, Ney‘s IIIrd Corps was the last to leave Smolensk.  They had orders to blow up the walls of the city as they left.  There

Marshal Michel Ney

was plenty of powder in the city for this task, but the effect was minimal.  Marshal Davout had sent back a messenger to warn Ney of the Russians across the road to Krasnoe, but Ney dismissed it saying something to the effect that all the Cossacks in the world wouldn’t bother him.

Davout’s corps had barely made it through to Krasnoe and now it was Ney’s turn to run the gauntlet.  Ney left Smolensk on the morning of the 17th with 6,000 soldiers and thousands of camp-followers and stragglers.  On the afternoon of the 18th, his lead troops came under fire through a heavy mist.  The Russians had placed artillery across the road and along each side.  To a request for surrender, Ney replied “A Marshal of France does not surrender.”

Le Marechal Ney Retraite de Russie
by Emile Boutigny

Accounts by Palmer, Nafziger and Ségur vary on the details, but in general, what followed is this:  Ney tried to force his way through for five hours.  Montesquiou Duc de Fezensac describes the fierce fighting as each cannon shot  is “carrying off whole files.  At each step death was becoming more inevitable.  Yet our march wasn’t slowed down for a single instant.”  The 18th Regiment of the line lost its Eagle when, as recorded by Captain Guillaume Bonnet, “The regiment impetuously continued its charge and, taking off to the right, threw back a line of infantry; but enveloped by numerous cavalry it was itself annihilated, except for two or three officers who’d been wounded early on…  The Eagle was left there.”

General Jean-David Freytag describes the worsening conditions, “While we were ranged in order of battle in the plain, all the time standing up to a terrible and continuous fire, our carriages, our horses, part of the artillery and all the unarmed men, the stragglers and the sick who’d remained on the road, fell into the power of a ‘hurrah’ of Cossacks.  All the food and the few resources still remaining to us were lost.  Marshal Ney gave the orders that if possible the fight should be sustained until dusk, in order to retreat by the Dnieper.”

Fezensac described Ney’s determination, “Ney’s self-confidence equaled his courage.  Without knowing what he meant to do nor what he could do, we knew he’d do something.  The greater the danger, the prompter his determination; and once having made up his mind, he never doubted he’d succeed. His face expressed neither indecision nor disquietude.”

Leaving his camp fires burning, his army slipped away to the north toward the Dnieper river.  Becoming disoriented in the dark, Ney had the ice of a stream broken so they could tell which direction the water flowed and follow it to the Dnieper.  They reached the river around midnight, but found that the ice was not strong enough to support the crossing.  Ney had the column sit and rest for three hours to allow the ice to harden.  Any remaining wagons and artillery along with the sick and wounded were left on the bank.  A fire was set on the far bank to guide any stragglers and the column moved on.

To be continued…

Sources:
1812: The Great Retreat, Paul Britten Austin, pp 195 – 197

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur

Napoleon in Russia, Alan Palmer

Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, George F. Nafziger