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