Tag Archives: Philippe-Paul de Segur

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.”

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

Treasures and Tragedy on the Riverbank

Philippe-Paul de Ségur writes of the disaster encountered by the Army of Italy commanded by Prince Eugène, Napoleon’s step/adopted son.  Eugène had been ordered to leave the main route of the march and head from Dorogobuzh to Vitebsk to assist Marshal Oudinot.  In their path lay the river Vop which had been a small stream months before, but had now become a flooded river.

Ségur writes: “[The Vop] was a river, flowing on a wide bed of mud, with very steep banks on either side.  These ice-coated banks had to be cut through, and the order was given to tear down the houses in the neighborhood during the night to obtain lumber for a bridge.  But the Viceroy [Eugène], who was more loved than feared, was not obeyed.  The pontoon corps worked only halfheartedly, and when dawn brought the Cossacks back, the bridge which had collapsed twice was abandoned.”

“Five or six thousand soldiers still in orderly formation, twice as many disbanded men, and the sick or wounded, over a hundred guns with their caissons, and innumerable vehicles lined the riverbank over an area of several square miles.  They tried to ford the river through the blocks of ice swept along by the current.  The first cannon that made the attempt reached the opposite bank safely; but the water was rising higher minute by minute, and the wheels and the horses’ struggles were digging a constantly deepening path at the point from which they crossed.  One heavy ammunition wagon became hopelessly stuck in the mud, others piled up on it, and everything came to a stop.”

“But day was drawing to a close, and they were wearing themselves out in fruitless efforts.  Pressed by the hunger, cold, and the Cossacks, the Viceroy had no choice but to order the abandonment of his artillery and all his supplies.  It was a sorrowful sight.  The owners of this wealth had scarcely time to part company with their possessions.  While they were selecting the most indispensable objects and loading them onto their horses, a mob of soldiers fell upon the magnificent carriages and broke everything to pieces, avenging themselves for their poverty and suffering on this wealth, and keeping it from the Cossacks who were watching from a distance.”

“Most of the soldiers, interested chiefly in food, rejected embroidered garments, pictures, gilded bronzes, valuable ornaments in favor of a few handfuls of flour.  That evening the riverbank presented a strange sight, with the riches of Paris and Moscow, the luxuries of two of the world’s great cities, lying scattered and despised on the snowy waste.”

“Meanwhile the artillerymen, knowing there was no hope, were spiking their guns and scattering their powder…”

“A few hundred men, still bearing the name of the 14th Division, were left to oppose these barbarians [Cossacks], and they were able to keep them at a respectful distance till the next morning.  All the others, soldiers, administrators, women and children, sick and wounded, pursued by the enemy’s fire, crowded to the edge of the torrent  But at the sight of the swollen waters and the enormous, jagged sheets of ice, they drew back, dreading to increase the already unbearable cold by plunging into the icy stream.”

“It was an Italian, Colonel Delfanti, who made the first move.  Then the soldiers pressed forward, and the crowd followed.  Only the weakest, the most cowardly, or the greediest remained on the bank.  Such as could not bring themselves to part with their plunder, to abandon their fortunes, were punished for their hesitation.  the next day, the savage Cossacks were seen in the midst of all this wealth, still covetous of the dirty, tattered garments of the unfortunate creatures who had become their prisoners.  After taking all their clothes they collected them in bands and drove them naked through the snow, beating them cruelly with the shafts of their spears.”

NOTE: Ségur calls the river the Wop while George F. Nafziger calls it the Vop.    The proper name is Vop.

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 177 – 179

“The Gates Were Closed Against Them”

Philippe-Paul de Ségur describes the arrival of the army at Smolensk on the 9th of November, 1812.  After marching for weeks, they had finally arrived at the place where they thought food and shelter would be found.  Readers will recall that Smolensk was the walled city the French had captured in August after the city burned in a raging inferno.

“At length the army came within sight of Smolensk again. The soldiers pointed it out to each other. Here was the end of their suffering, here was the land of promise where famine would be changed to abundance, and weariness would find rest.  In well-heated houses they would forget the bivouacs in sub-zero cold. Here they would enjoy refreshing sleep, and mend their clothes, here shoes and uniforms adapted to the Russian climate would be distributed among them.”

“At the sight of the city only the corps d’elite, reduced to a few soldiers and the required officers, kept their ranks. All the others dashed madly ahead.  Thousands of men, mostly unarmed, covered both the steep banks of the Dnieper, crowding together in a black mass against the high walls and gates of the city.  But the unruly mob, their haggard faces blackened with dirt and smoke, their tattered uniforms or the grotesque costumes that were doing the duty of uniforms – in short, their frenzied impatience and hideous appearance frightened those inside. They believed that if they did not check this multitude of hunger-maddened men, the entire city would be given over to lawless plunder.  Therefore, the gates were closed against them.”

“It was hoped also that by such rigorous treatment these men would be forced to rally.  Then, in this poor remnant of our unfortunate army, a horrible conflict between order and disorder took place.  In vain did the men pray, weep, implore, threaten, try to batter down the gates, or drop dying at the feet of their comrades who had been ordered to drive them back; they found them inexorable.  They were forced to await the arrival of the first troops still officered and in order.  These were the Young and Old guard; the disbanded men were allowed to follow them in.  They believed that their entrance had been delayed in order to provide better quarters and more provisions for these picked troops.  Their suffering made them unfair, and they cursed the Guard…  The only answer that could be given them was that it was necessary to keep at least one corps intact, and that preference must be given to those who would be able to make the most powerful effort when the occasion required it.”

Napoloen’s Russian Campaign, Philippe -Paul de Ségur, pp 181 – 182

“Soldiers Fell Upon the Fallen Horses”

Philippe-Paul de Ségur served as Napoleon’s Aide-de-Camp and witnessed almost everything Napoleon did.  In his words, “less an actor than a witness, never leaving the Emperor’s side for more than a few feet, and then only to deliver several of his orders and see that they were carried out.”

Philippe de Ségur
by François Gérard

In his book Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, de Ségur has some observations of the difficulties of moving artillery and wagons in early November.  It also shows the desperation of the men, even at this early stage of the retreat.  “The road was constantly running through swampy hollows.  The wagons would slide down their ice-covered slopes and stick in the deep mud at the bottom.  To get out they had to climb the opposite incline, thickly coated with ice on which the horses’ hoofs, with their smooth, worn-out shoes, could find no hold.  One after another they slipped back exhausted — horse and drivers on top of each other.  Then the famished soldiers fell upon the fallen horses, killed them and cut them in pieces.  They roasted the meat over fires made from the wrecked wagons, and devoured it half cooked and bloody.”

“Our crack troops, the artillerymen and their officers, all of whom were products of the world’s finest military school, drove these poor fellows out of their way and unhitched the teams from their own carriages and baggage wagons, which they sacrificed willingly to save the cannon.  They harnessed their horses to the guns — they even harnessed themselves and pulled with the horses.  The Cossacks did not dare to approach but watched our difficulties from a safe distance.  However, using field pieces mounted on sleds, they dropped solid-shot into our midst, greatly increasing the disorder.”

“By the second of November the 1st Corps had already lost ten thousand men….”

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 164 – 165

Snow Comes to Stay

While it had snowed a few times since the occupation of Moscow, it had always melted away.  November 6, 1812 is the first snowfall that stays.

A Scene of the Retreat from Russia

Philippe-Paul de Ségur describes the first snowstorm, “On the sixth of November the sky became terrible; its blue disappeared.  The army marched along wrapped in a cold mist.  Then the mist thickened, and presently from this immense cloud great snowflakes began to sift down on us.  It seemed as if the sky had come down and joined with the earth and our enemies to complete our ruin.  Everything in sight became vague, unrecognizable.  Objects changed their shape; we walked without knowing where we were or what lay ahead, and anything became an obstacle.  While the men were struggling to make headway against the icy, cutting blast, the snow driven by the wind was piling up and filling the hollows along the way.  Their smooth surfaces hid unsuspected depths which opened up treacherously under our feet.  The men were swallowed up, and the weak, unable to struggle out, were buried forever.”

“Russian winter in this new guise attacked [the soldiers] on all sides; it cut through their thin uniforms and worn shoes, their wet clothing froze on them, and this icy shroud molded their bodies and stiffened their limbs.  The sharp wind made them gasp for breath, and froze the moisture from their mouths and nostrils into icicles on their beards.”

Colonel Lubin Griois, commander of the artillery in the 3rd cavalry corps recorded how he spent the night of the first snow: “The only shelter near the place I had halted in was a sort of barn open to all the winds and its roof supported by four posts.  This lodging seemed to me excellent by comparison with those I had had for a long time past.  I had a large fire built in the centre and lay down to sleep beside it, surrounded by my horses.  But during the night snow began to fall heavily, and the wind blew it under the roof with such force that when I woke up at daybreak I was covered in snow, as was the whole landscape. The snow had hardened and was all frozen.  Winter had fallen on us with full severity and was not going to leave us.”

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 169-170

1812: Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, Antony Brett-James, p 220

“The Field of the Great Battle”

By heading back to the Smolensk-Moscow road, the army would have to pass by the field of Borodino where little had been done to bury the dead from the battle in early September.  Jakob Walter gives his account, “Finally we went over the battlefield at Moshaisk in the Holy Valley.  Here one saw again in what numbers the dead lay.  From the battle site on to this place the corpses were dragged from the highways, and entire hollows were filled with them.  Gun barrels lay one on top of another in many piles from fifteen to twenty feet in height and in width where we bivouacked for the night.”

After the Battle of Borodino
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

Philippe-Paul de Ségur records his recollection of passing the field, “Beyond the Kolocha we were plodding along, absorbed in thought, when some of the men, happening to look up, gave a cry of horrified surprise.  We all stared around us, and saw a field, trampled, devastated, with every tree shorn off a few feet above the earth.  In the background stood a number of hummocks with their tops blown off, the highest of which seemed the most misshapen.  The spot had the appearance of a flattened, extinct volcano. Everywhere the earth was littered with battered helmets and breastplates, broken drums, fragments of weapons, shreds of uniforms, and bloodstained flags.  Lying amid this desolation were thirty thousand half-devoured corpses.  The scene was dominated by a number of skeletons lying on the crumbled slope of one of the hills; death seemed to have established its throne up there.  This was the terrible redoubt which had been the victory and the grave of Caulaincourt.  Along our lines ran the sad murmur, ‘The field of the Great Battle!'”

The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter, p. 62

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, p. 159

“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

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

Pillaging the Burnt City

Philippe-Paul de Ségur describes the scene as Napoleon returns to Moscow after having fled the flames, “The Emperor saw that his entire army was scattered over the city.  His progress was impeded by long lines of marauders going for plunder or returning with it…”

Napoleon in Burning Moscow

“He stumbled over the debris of all sorts of furniture which had been thrown out of the windows to save it from the flames, or over heaps of rich plunder that had been abandoned in favor of other loot; for soldiers are like that, snatching up anything they can lay their hands on, greedily loading themselves with more than they can hope to carry, then after a few steps finding their strength unequal to the load, dropping , piece by piece, the greater part of their booty.”

“The thoroughfares were blocked with it, and the public squares, like the camps, had become markets where the superfluous was being exchanged for the necessary.  The most precious of articles, not appreciated by their possessors, were sold for next to nothing, while other things having a deceptively rich appearance brought more than they were worth.  Gold, being easier to carry, was bought at a great loss for silver, which the knapsacks would not hold.  Soldiers were seated everywhere on bundles of merchandise on heaps of coffee and sugar, in the midst of the finest wines and liquors that they were trying to trade for bread.”

Horses in a Church

“It was through such disorder that Napoleon rode back into Moscow.  He willingly gave it over to pillage, trusting that his soldiers, scattered everywhere over the ruins, would not search them fruitlessly.  But when he saw that the disorder was increasing, that even the Old Guard was involved in it, that the Russian peasants, attracted by the prices they were able to get for their wares, were being robbed by our famished soldiers of the food they were bringing us, when he realized that all the still existing resources were being squandered by this lawless pillage — then he reined in the Guard and issued severe orders.  The churches in which our cavalry had taken shelter were evacuated and reopened for worship…”

“But it was too late!  The soldiers had disappeared, the terrified peasants never returned, and many, many supplies had been wasted.  The French army had been guilty of similar mistakes before, but in this case the fire was their excuse, as they had been compelled to act in haste to get ahead of the flames.  It is remarkable enough that order was restored at the Emperor’s first command.”


Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp. 114 – 116

Leo Tolstoy’s Birthday

Today, September 9, is the birthday of Russian author Leo Tolstoy.  He was born in 1828 (died 1910) into a family of nobility.  He lived a life of leisure until enlisting in the army in 1851 and fought in the Crimean War.  It was during this time that he began to write.  He also gained first-hand experience of what it was like in the Russian military.  Experience that he would draw on later while writing War and Peace.

Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy

War and Peace is a combination of fiction and history.  Tolstoy did consult many accounts of those who had participated in the campaign of 1812.  One of the sources I use frequently in this blog, Philippe-Paul de Ségur‘s Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, contains, according to the editor’s preface, four incidents that appear in War and Peace: The Uhlans drowning in the Viliya River and saluting the spot on the shore where the Emperor had been standing; the scene in which the portrait of Napoleon’s son is shown to the troops on the eve of the battle of Borodino (Blogger’s note: I used this scene in my book, Russian Snows, as well); ailing Napoleon at Borodino postponing his orders; and the moment Napoleon stands on the Poklonny Hill gazing at Moscow.

Tolstoy’s book begins in 1805 and was originally published between 1865-1869 as a serial story in a magazine.  While writing the novel, Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia, ( August 22, 1844 – November 4, 1919) copied the manuscript seven times!  This is quite a feat considering one of the

Sophia Tolstoy at age 17
One year before her marriage

things that makes War and Peace such a famous book is its great length.  One of my copies has 1,442 pages.

What makes War and Peace of interest to those who follow a blog about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia is that a good deal of the book covers the year 1812 and the invasion.  Tolstoy did not, however, consider War and Peace his best novel, that honor he gave to Anna Karenina.

Here is a link to a website that has an online, version of War and Peace.  This link has film footage of Tolstoy including his funeral procession.

I have two copies of War and Peace, including one from 1889, but have never read it.  Instead, I listened to a free audio version (64+ hours).  It helped to have a copy of the book handy while listening so that I could consult the list of characters that is included in the more recent version.  Whether you read or listen, the book is well worth the time.