Tag Archives: Philippe-Paul de Segur

“But What a Battle!”

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

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

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

3rd Regiment of Dutch Grenadiers
at Krasnoe

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

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

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

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

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

“We Still Possessed Two Things – Courage and Honour”

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

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

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

Battle of Krasnoi
by Piter von Hess

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow, the battle continues.

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

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

The Toll so Far

Napoleon himself stayed in Smolensk until the 14th.  The last unit to leave was Ney’s IIIrd Corps on the 17th.  According to author George F. Nafziger, of the 100,000 men who had left Moscow in October, only about 41,500 remained.  The Imperial Guard was 14,000 of this number.  Eugène’s IVth Corps had 5,000 left while Davout’s Ist Corps had 10,000.  The V and VIII Corps (Poles and Westphalians) were merged and totaled 1,500.  The Minard map puts the total reaching Smolensk at 37,000, Ségur at 36,000.

Philippe-Paul de Ségur,  Napoleon’s aide-de-camp, describes how Napoleon “… had counted on finding fifteen days’ provisions and forage for an army of a hundred thousand men; there was not more than half that quantity of rice, flour, and spirits, and no meat at all.  We heard him shouting in great fury at one of the men who had been entrusted with the responsibility of providing those supplies. This commissary, it is said, saved his life only by crawling on his knees at Napoleon’s feet.  The reasons he gave probably did more for him than his supplications.”

The man explained “When I reached Smolensk, the bands of deserters the army had left behind in its advance on Moscow had already invested the city with horror and destruction.  Men were dying there as they had died on the road.  When we had succeeded in establishing some sort of order, the Jews were the first to furnish some provisions.  Some Lithuanian noblemen followed their example, inspired perhaps by a nobler motive.  Then the long convoys of supplies collected in Germany began to appear…  Several hundred head of German and Italian cattle were driven in at the same time.”

Dead in the Snow
by Ferdinand Boissard

“A horrible, death-dealing stench from the piles of corpses … was poisoning the air.  The dead were killing the living.  The civil employees and many of the soldiers were stricken, some of them to all appearances becoming idiots, weeping or fixing their hollow eyes steadily on the ground.  There were some whose hair stiffened, stood on end, all twisted into strings; then, in the midst of a torrent of blasphemy, or even more ghastly laughter, they dropped dead.”

The cattle were slaughtered “…. immediately.  These beasts would neither eat nor walk…. several convoys were intercepted, some supply depots taken, and a drove of eight hundred oxen were recently seized at Krasnoye.”

In short, the reserves were gone, drawn down by other units that had spent time in the city.  Other provisions had been sent east to meet the army as it retreated. Napoleon’s plans for spending the winter in Smolensk, if that was his intention, were gone.

Sources:
Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, George F. Nafziger, p 305

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, p 184 – 185

The Twenty-Eighth Bulletin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Source:
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.”

Source:
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….”

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