Tag Archives: Provisions

The Day of Departure

We pick up Jakob Walters’ narrative about the day he marches out of Moscow:

Withdrawal of Napoleon from Moscow
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

“When we assembled in the morning, my company was 25 privates strong, and all companies were more or less of this size.  The march went forth to the right from behind the eastern side of the city, and we moved past the city on the south.  There were two bridges thrown across the river below us, and the smoke from the flames surged up behind us.  Up on the heights past the bridge to the left of the road stood a cloister in which there was a flour storeroom where everyone fetched as much as he could carry.  Beyond the bridge there was a cabbage patch where millions of cabbage heads were still standing; it pained me not to be able to take along even one of these heads, since I fully expected the utmost famine.”

The suffering on the retreat is so well known that we tend to overlook the recent suffering on the advance: heat, hunger, exhaustion.   We also hear about the plunder the army carried off from Moscow and that image overshadows what the men must have been thinking: ‘This march is going to be worse.’  Walter knows he will regret leaving those cabbage behind.

At the Kaluga Gate
Moscow, 19 October
by Faber du Faur

Faber du Faur wrote the following description to accompany his painting, “The Emperor had busied himself with preparations for our departure for a good number of days  The sick and wounded were dispatched towards Mojaisk and Smolensk, those too ill to make the journey being place in the Foundling Hospital to be cared for by the army’s medical personnel.  Dismounted cavalry, to the number of 4,000 men, were organized into four battalions.  Army corps were passed in review by the Emperor; it was the turn of the Imperial Guard and, on the 18th, that of Ney’s divisions [IIIrd Corps].  As these latter were being reviewed, news arrived that Murat had been surprised and had sustained heavy losses around Vinkovo.  The review was, it is true, completed, but, as we filed out of the Kremlin heading for our quarters in the German Quarter, we received orders to quit Moscow the following day.  Thus it was that on the 19th we set out on the march that would result in the annihilation of the entire army.  The troops were set in motion before dawn and, keeping the Young Guard and the four battalions of dismounted cavalry in the Kremlin as a rearguard under [Édouard Adolphe Casimir Joseph] Mortier, filed out of the city through the Kaluga Gate.  The streets were crowded – in fact stuffed fit to burst – as corps ran into corps.  Time after time the way was blocked by disorganized convoys, for 500 guns, 2,000 wagons, drawn by exhausted horses, and countless carts and vehicles of all types and from all nations, loaded with booty or supplies, accompanied the army and slowed it down.”

“The sun was high in the sky on this fine autumnal day when, after considerable effort, we finally reached the Kaluga Gate.  We halted here, waiting in vain for two of our guns.  These guns had got lost in the crowded streets and only re-joined us a few hours later.”

Source:

The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter, p 59

With Napoleon in Russia, The Illustrated Memoirs of Major Faber du Faur, 1812, Jonathan North

Things are comfortable in Moscow, but it’s time to leave

Jakob Walter’s account of his stay in Moscow is short, but he did write about how provisions could be bought in the “German suburb” where the Württemberg corps stayed for three weeks.

“Here one could find and buy provisions; for each soldier was now citizen, merchant, innkeeper, and baker of Moscow.  Everyone tried to dress as much as possible with silks and materials of all colors.  Only tailors were lacking; silks, muslins, and red Morocco leather were all abundant.  Things to eat were not wanting either.  Whoever could find nothing could buy something and vegetables in sufficient quantity stood in the fields.  Particularly was there an abundance of beets, which were as round and large as bowling balls and fiery red throughout.  There were masses of cabbage three and four times as large in size as cabbage heads that we would consider large.  The district called Muscovy is more favored in agriculture and climate, and more civilized than the regions toward St. Petersburg than those through which we had come.  It was still good weather, and one could steep warm enough under a coat at night.”

Negotiations for a Russian surrender had not gone according to plan and Napoleon decided to leave Moscow and head west in search of winter quarters.  Walter describes the evacuation: “After we had been citizens of Moscow for four weeks, we lost our burgher rights again.  Napoleon refused the peace treaty proposed to him, and the army which had advanced some thirty hours’ farther on had to retreat, because the Russian army stationed in Moldavia was approaching.  Now it was October 17, and Napoleon held an army review and announced the departure for October 18, early in the morning at 3 o’clock, with the warning that whoever should delay one hour would fall into the hands of the enemies.  All beer, brandy, etc., was abandoned and whatever was still intact was ordered to be burned.  Napoleon himself had the Kremlin undermined and blown up. [Note: The Kremlin was not blown up]  The morning came, and each took his privilege of citizenship upon his shoulders and covered it with his coat cape of strong woolen cloth, and everybody had bread pouches of red Morocco leather at his side, all had an odd appearance as they set out; they filled, as far as it was possible, everything with sugar and the so-called Moscow tea in order to withstand the future misery.”

The Grande Armée did not actually leave Moscow until the 19th.  Perhaps Walter had his dates wrong or merely remembered the original plan for departure.

Source:

The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter, pp 57 – 59

French vs. German Foragers

In yesterday’s post, we read about the animosity between the French and German troops in Ney’s IIIrd Corps.  Today’s post is an interesting observation about the differences between French and German foragers.  The observer states that the French were much better foragers than the Germans.  The interesting thing is that the observer was German, a Württemberger, General graf von Scheler.  Von Scheler was also in Ney’s Corps, the same Corps as yesterday’s eyewitness.

In a report to the King of Bavaria, von Scheler discussed why the German troops suffered more than the French from lack of rations:  “The principle cause by far lies in the different natures of the German and French soldier.  Already when we crossed the Vistula all regular food supply and orderly distribution ceased, and from there as far as Moscow not a pound of meat or bread, not a glass of brandy was taken through legal distribution or regular requisition.  Beyond the Vistula, as soon as the few stocks of food had been exhausted, the order of the day was at once issued: ‘Let each man take wherever he can find it, and live as well or as badly as he can manage.’ ”

“At this point the difference between the German and French soldier became very apparent, and to the serious disadvantage of the former.  In this repect the French soldier revealed an extraordinary knack and on these exhausting detachments lived only for the good of his comrades, almost ignoring his own welfare…”

“The Germans were quite different…  Too many detachments were required for each to be led by an officer … And so the soldier, left to his own devices, thought first of filling his own belly when he found anything to eat.  In the actual hunt for food he was much too slow…  Instead of being content with a quick refreshment, he wanted first to cook everything properly…  As a result he was late, could not overtake the regiment, which had received orders to march in the meantime; and he either turned marauder and stayed in the rear, or else threw his booty away to lighten his load, and rejoined the regiment with little or nothing.”

“…there remained no other method, unfortunately, except to leave most of the supplies to chance or to the zeal of individuals, because the sending-out of detachments had to be abandoned, seeing that a number of men vanished to no purpose, whereas the French foraging parties returned well-laden to camp.”

“… the temperament of the German soldier was not suited to conducting this foraging with the same cunning, speed, self-sacrifice, and camaraderie as were required when swift marches and few halts were customary.”

Faber du Faur, an artillery officer and artist, also served with the Württemberg contingent in the IIIrd Corps.  He did a painting showing troops foraging Near Eve on June 29.  The following description accompanies the painting:  “There has never been a campaign in which tropps have relied so much on living off the land, but it was the way it was done in Russia that caused such universal suffering – for the soldiers of the army as well as for the inhabitants.  Because of its rapid marches and its enormous size, the army faced a dearth of everything and it was impossible to procure event the barest necessity.”

“It was around this time that we reached Eve that one can date the start of this

Near Eve, 9 June
By Faber du Faur

fatal requisitioning and the destruction of the surrounding countryside, which, naturally, had devastating consequences.  Every day, as we broke camp, we could see clouds of marauders and isolated bodies of troops make off in all directions, setting off to find the barest of essentials.  They would return to camp in the evening, laden with their booty.”

“Inevitably, this kind of behavior made an unfortunate impression on Lithuania, which had so long been under the yoke of Russia and, instead of any benefit from its new alliance, saw only the pillaging and oppression wrought by its new allies.  In addition, discipline was sapped, and tolerating or turning a blind eye to these misdemeanors, whether or not they really benefited the troops, only speeded up the destruction of this potentially formidable army.”

Sources: 1812: Naplolen’s Defeat in Russia Antony Brett-James

With Napoleon in Russa: The Illustrated Memoirs of Major Faber du Faur Edited and Translated by Jonathan North

 

The First Days of the Invasion

Jakob Walter writes the soliders believed that, once in Russia, the troops would only have to forage, but this proved to be an illusion.  He talks about one town, Poniemon, which was stripped bare by the time he entered as were all of the other villages.  He wrote “Here and there a hog ran around and then was beaten with clubs, chopped with sabers, and stabbed with bayonets; and, often still living, it would be cut and torn to pieces.”
Food for the horses was a problem from the start.  Brett-James’ book has an account from Lt. J.L.Henckens, a Dutchman with the 6th Regt. of Chasseurs a cheval.  “As a result of eating green rye, the horses foundered, and we lost hundreds in this way… Fortunately the depot sent us some remounts, otherwise we should very soon have presented a sorry picture.”
In Alan Palmer’s book Napoleon in Russia: The 1812 Campaign, he recounts how one of the junior officers of Napoleon’s staff counted the bodies of 1,240 horses as he rode twelve miles along the road to Vilna.
The weather was extemely hot, but the nights cold.  Heavy rains came within the week.  The expected battle with the Russians had not materialized and the army moved faster than planned, causing hardships and shortages.

Life is Good for this General

Not everyone, however, was suffering.  It often took many wagons to move an officer’s belongings on campaign.  General Jean-Dominique Compans described the first few days of the invasion in a letter to his wife dated June 29, 1812.  His letter was written “Four leagues from Vilna, on the Kovno road.”

General Jean-Dominique Compans

Perhaps the letter was colored so as not to worry his wife.  It does sound, however, that he was spared many of the discomfort of the soldiers in the ranks.

“…  When the weather is fine, I sleep on straw under a shelter of branches and manage very well.  When the weather is bad, I sleep in a carriage, but when morning comes I feel the effects of not being able to stretch my legs.  However, none of this prevents me from enjoying excellent health, strength, and vigour.”

“I eat in the open air four or five times a day and my digestion works admirably: indeed, my stomach and I are in perfect harmony, and it couldn’t function better.  Every day I drink my bottle of Bordeaux wine, a little glass of rum, and several glasses of beer when I have any that is good, which does happen occasionally.  Now and then I take a cup of coffee.  We are not short of beef and mutton.  Duval [Compans’ valet de chambre, who was to die in Russia] is still at his post, and produces quite good campaign cooking.  From time to time we get a chicken or a goose, but unfortunately in this country these stupid creatures would rather be captured than purchased, and the takers are far more numerous than the buyers.  Before leaving Elbing I laid in a store of hams, smoked tongues, sausage, and rice.  These help to vary the menu, but of all this food my favourite dish is rice cooked in a good tablet soup à la Duval.  No green vegetables in this country; they take flight whenever our soldiers appear.  Nevertheless, we have found a few which had been hidden in their knapsacks.  I have had occasion to punish soldiers in my division who have been caught in this way: in my view one should be more on one’s guard than this in war-time.”

General Compans commanded the 5th Infantry Division of Davout’s I Corps.

Source: 1812: Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia edited by Antony Brett-James

The Day of Departure

We pick up Jakob Walters’ narrative about the day he marches out of Moscow:

“When we assembled in the morning, my company was 25 privates strong, and all companies were more or less of this size.  The march went forth to the right from behind the eastern side of the city, and we moved past the city on the south.  There were two bridges thrown across the river below us, and the smoke from the flames surged up behind us.  Up on the heights past the bridge to the left of the road stood a cloister in which there was a flour storeroom where everyone fetched as much as he could carry.  Beyond the bridge there was a cabbage patch where millions of cabbage heads were still standing; it pained me not to be able to take along even one of these heads, since I fully expected the utmost famine.”

The suffering on the retreat is so well known that we tend to overlook the recent suffering on the advance: heat, hunger, exhaustion.   We also hear about the plunder the army carried off from Moscow and that image overshadows what the men must have been thinking: ‘This march is going to be worse.’  Walter knows he will regret leaving those cabbage behind.

Things are comfortable in Moscow, but it’s time to leave

Jakob Walter’s account of his stay in Moscow is short, but he did write about how provisions could be bought in the “German suburb” where the Württemberg corps stayed for three weeks.

“Here one could find and buy provisions; for each soldier was now citizen, merchant, innkeeper, and baker of Moscow.  Everyone tried to dress as much as possible with silks and materials of all colors.  Only tailors were lacking; silks, muslins, and red Morocco leather were all abundant.  Things to eat were not wanting either.  Whoever could find nothing could buy something and vegetables in sufficient quantity stood in the fields.  Particularly was there an abundance of beets, which were as round and large as bowling balls and fiery red throughout.  There were masses of cabbage three and four times as large in size as cabbage heads that we would consider large.  The district called Muscovy is more favored in agriculture and climate, and more civilized than the regions toward St. Petersburg than those through which we had come.  It was still good weather, and one could steep warm enough under a coat at night.”

Negotiations for a Russian surrender had not gone according to plan and Napoleon decided to leave Moscow and head west in search of winter quarters.  Walter describes the evacuation: “After we had been citizens of Moscow for four weeks, we lost our burgher rights again.  Napoleon refused the peace treaty proposed to him, and the army which had advanced some thirty hours’ farther on had to retreat, because the Russian army stationed in Moldavia was approaching.  Now it was October 17, and Napoleon held an army review and announced the departure for October 18, early in the morning at 3 o’clock, with the warning that whoever should delay one hour would fall into the hands of the enemies.  All beer, brandy, etc., was abandoned and whatever was still intact was ordered to be burned.  Napoleon himself had the Kremlin undermined and blown up. [Note: The Kremlin was not blown up]  The morning came, and each took his privilege of citizenship upon his shoulders and covered it with his coat cape of strong woolen cloth, and everybody had bread pouches of red Morocco leather at his side, all had an odd appearance as they set out; they filled, as far as it was possible, everything with sugar and the so-called Moscow tea in order to withstand the future misery.”

The Grande Armée did not actually leave Moscow until the 19th.  Perhaps Walter had his dates wrong or merely remembered the original plan for departure.