Tag Archives: Prisoners

The Peasants Take Revenge

As the Grande Armée sent foraging parties out from Moscow, the villagers were returning to their homes and in no mood to tolerate more abuse at the hands of the marauders.

From a 1912 commemorative
candy box card
The caption reads:
“French Heist in Moscow”

This account is from a woman, Maria Stepanova, the wife of a pope, in Bogorodsic, renamed Noginsk, 27miles/45 kilometers east of Moscow:  “The enemy appeared nearly every day in our village and as soon as they were perceived all men took up arms; our cossacks charged them with their long sabers or shot them with their pistols, and behind the cossacks were running the peasants, some with axes, some with pitchforks.  After every excursion they brought ten or more prisoners which they drowned in the Protka which runs near the village, or they fusilladed them in the prairie.  The unfortunates passed our windows, my mother and I did not know where to hide ourselves in order not to hear their cries and the report of the firearms.  My poor husband, Ivan Demitovitch, became quite pale, the fever took him, his teeth chattered, he was so compassionate!  One day the cossacks brought some prisoners and locked them up in a cart-house built of stone.  They are too few, they said, it is not worth while to take any trouble about them now; with the next lot which we shall take we will shoot or drown them together.  This cart-house had a window with bars.  Peasants came to look at the prisoners and gave them bread and boiled eggs; they did not want to see them starving while awaiting death.  One day when I brought them eatables I saw a the window a young soldier — so young!  His forehead was pressed against the bars, tears in his eyes, and tears running down his cheeks.  I myself began to cry, and even to-day my heart aches when I think of him.  I passed lepecheks through the bars and went away without looking behind me.  At that time came an order from the government that no more prisoners should be killed but sent to Kalouga.  How we were contented!”

These are the instructions a Russian partisan leader, Colonel Denis Davidov, gave to a group of villagers about how to handle bands of French marauders:

“‘Receive them,’ I told them, ‘in a friendly fashion, offer them with bows (since in their ignorance of the Russian language they understand bows better than words) all you have in the way of eatables and especially drink,  put them to bed drunk, and when you perceive that they are really asleep, all of you pounce on their weapons which are usually to be found in a heap in a corner of the cottage or piled in the street.  When you have exterminated them, bury their bodies in the pigsty, in the forest or in some impenetrable place.  Take care at all costs that the spots where the bodies are buried are not given away by freshly dug earth; for this purpose scatter a pile of stones or logs over the spot.  All military booty such as uniforms, helmets, straps, etc., you must either burn or bury in the same places as the bodies of the Frenchmen.  This precaution is necessary because another band of infidels will very likely dig in the fresh earth, thinking to find money or your possessions there; but when instead they unearth the bodies of their comrades and objects belonging to them, they will kill you all and burn down the village.  And you, friend headman, must supervise the carrying-out of all my instructions and give orders for three or four lads to be always ready in your yard, so that the moment they catch sight of a very large number of Frenchmen they can mount their horses and gallop in different directions in search of me — I shall come to to your aid.'”

Thank you to Alexey Temnikov for providing information on the location and name of the village Bogorodsic which has since been renamed Noginsk.  Also for providing the image of the 1912 card and the translation.


Napoleon’s Campaign in Russia Anno 1812, Achilles Rose, 1913, p. 34

1812: Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia; Antony Brett-James, p. 203

Taken Prisoner by the Cossacks

Lance-corporal Wilhelm Heinemann, the survivor of the massacre at Valutina was charged with the task of escorting a wounded sergeant to the rear.  The sergeant developed gangrene and urged his companion to leave him to die.  Heinemann now found himself alone amongst the stragglers and looters who clung to the Grande Armée’s flanks and rear.

He came across a few bands, but was treated poorly and soon found himself alone and starving.  About to end his own misery with a musket shot, he instead spotted a running pig and shot it instead.  It turned out a fellow German was chasing the pig and they ended up travelling together for a few days.  The two approached a village, unsure of who they would find.  Cossacks charged forth and the companion fled, leaving Heinemann alone once more.

Surrounded, he recalled hearing that the Russians treat the Germans better than the French.  When asked in French to surrender, he pretended not to understand and said “I’m not French, I’m German.”

Now a prisoner, we pick up his narrative: “To begin with he [the Cossack] drove me before him at a run, his horse’s hoofs at my heels…  So far I hadn’t been maltreated.  But we halted at a distance from the village and the Cossacks begin visiting me, plundering me in the crude open-hearted way so typical of them…  They took all my money, and the one who got it patted me amiably on my cheek, calling me Patruschka, little father.  But a second Cossack let me understand that if I didn’t produce some more I’d have a taste of the knout.  A third greedily grabbed my tchapska, while a fourth went through my wallet, which was inside it, looking for any rouble notes.  To me my wallet was endlessly valuable.  It contained no money, but everything I held holy, letters from my mother and other personal papers.”

Soon enraged villagers arrived and began to abuse him by throwing stones and dirt , pushing him around and beating him about the head.  “… the women are worst of all.  Blood was running down my face.  One moment I was lying on the ground, being trampled under their feet; the next, they’d grabbed me up by my clothes and hoisted me high in the air, to rip off my shiny buttons.  In this way my uniform was torn to shreds.”

Eventually, he was placed among other Westphalian prisoners, all from his own, reconstituted regiment.  They had been captured while out on a foraging party.  The group was herded along at lance-point.  Soaked and starving, they were forced into pigstyes for the night where they were watched over by peasants and Coassacks.  Fearing this might be his end, the prisoners were instead called out where they were thrown bread: “A bit was flung to each of us, and we were allowed to drink out of a well used by the cattle.  Such was the beginning of a chain of efforts and sufferings no pen can describe.”

They arrived at the headquarters of General [Ferdinand von] Winzingerode, a German in Russian service.  The General sympathized with his fellow countrymen and made arrangements for their better treatment, but once away from the camp, their suffering renewed.

Forced to travel day after day at a brisk trot, they were herded like cattle and watched over by peasants with clubs.  “Anyone who has ever marched in a column knows how wearisome it is to march close behind the man in front of you.  But unable to move on without tramping on his heels, after only an hour’s marching the strongest man was powerless.”

The peasants’ treatment of prisoners: “bore witness to a low bestiality without a trace of humanity in it.”

On January 5th, they reach Archangel on the White Sea.

Source: 1812: Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia by Paul Britten Austin, pp. 221-229.