Tag Archives: Rain

Napoleon Reaches Kamen

On July 24, 1812, Napoleon reached the city of Kamen, about 200 miles from the Niemen river crossing.  He wrote to the Empress, “We are having much rain, the weather is stifling, always we keep marching… I have marched too far.”

Meanwhile, the cavalry under Marshal Joachim Murat was riding through the countryside ahead of the main army, looking for the Russians.  Major Heinrich von Roos was a doctor with the 3rd Wurttemberg Regiment in Montbrun’s cavalry corps.  He wrote that “On 23 July we came in pouring rain to the River Dvina, which we had orders to cross.  There was no bridge.  For several days we had not been dry, and now such a cold bath was pleasant for nobody, all the more so because we were in a sickly condition.”  He rode his swimming horse across the river between two N.C.O.s and made it safely to the other side although soaked up to his ribs.  He noted “Everyone who swam was drenched likewise.  None of our men was drowned, but the next regiment did not get over without loss.”

On the far bank, they built fires, but could not get dry because of the rain.  “We exchanged greetings, filled our pipes, and everyone who had some schnaps in his bottle offered it round to his friends.”

It is interesting to note that there were women along with the scouting cavalry.  von Roos wrote that they pitied two wives of the regiment who rode smaller horses and as a result they and their baggage were even more soaked than the men.  He mentions them by name and was very complimentary about their abilities, “The first, Frau Worth, was able to fend for herself so well under all circumstances that she was highly esteemed by the officers and respected by the soldiers.  The other woman, the careful Frau Weiler, had already proved extremely useful to us, and did so again when we advanced further into Russia, through her knowledge of the Polish language.”

Another source is the artist Albrecht Adam.  He wrote on the 24th that Prince Eugene de Beauharnais‘s corps was next to the River Dvina.  Napoleon and the main army joined them there.  He tells an amusing story about how he could observe Napoleon and his party on the high bank of the river.  He “noticed a striking person wearing a light-blue coat trimmed all over in gold braid, red trousers edged with gold, a strange hat lavishly decked with plumes – in short, a person of whom I could make nothing.  What struck me most forcibly was that he had so much to do near the Emperor…”  Adam finally asks an officer “Perhaps you can solve a riddle.  How is it that the Emperor has so many dealings with that drum-major?”  The officer exclaimed “…that is Murat, the King of Naples.”

The Campaign in Pictures

Major Christian Wilhelm von Faber du Faur was part of Ney’s IIIrd Corps during the Russian Campaign as a 32-year-old lieutenant.  What makes him special, in addition to surviving the campaign, is that he was also an artist who made sketches of what he saw.  He later turned those sketches into color paintings and gave us a visual record of the advance and the retreat accompanied by a narrative.

“On 29 June III Corps left Eve and, around noon, marched into Kirgalizky on the Vilia – a river considerably swollen by incessant rain.  The bridge had been burnt and we halted on the banks of the river whilst a pontoon bridge was thrown across.  On the 30th, early in the afternoon, the bridge was deemed ready and III Corps filed across to the far bank.  The rain continued to fall in torrents and, as well as turning our camp into a  bog, had soaked the ground, making it almost impossible to march.”

Between Kirgaliczky and Suderva, 30 June

“On the far bank we had to climb some rather steep heights in order to get to Suderva, and it was extremely difficult getting the limbers forward.  After a few guns and caissons had struggled to the crest of the heights – but then only by using double teams of horses – those that followed found the ground so churned up that guns and limbers sank up to their axles.  It was therefore necessary to find an alternative route but, for the reasons already mentioned, this new route was similarly rendered impassable.  Hundreds of horses expired and, half-submerged in the mire, marked the course of III Corps.  This particular march cost us so many horses that we had to leave a battery of 12-pounder guns, and the bulk of our reserve, at Vilna for want of draught animals to pull them.”

Source: With Napoleon in Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Major Faber du Faur, 1812, Edited and Translated by Jonathan North

And then it Began to Rain

I’ve written a number of times that the suffering began almost as soon as the Grande Armée crossed the Nieman.  In his book Napoleon in Russia: The 1812 Campaign,Alan Palmer writes, “… [the troops] moving forward in a heat that none of them had ever known before, except the veterans of Egypt…  rations

Commemorative Russian card from 1912, the 100th anniversary of the invasion. The cards were part of a package of candy.

were not getting through to the weary men and horses, and there was little enough for them to gather from the fields as they went.  Some of the cavalry tried feeding their horses on green corn and many, in consequence, died.  Count Anatole de Montesquiou, one of the junior officers on Napoleon’s staff, counted the bodies of 1,240 horses as he rode twelve miles down the road towards Vilna.”

Jakob Walter adds his description of the misery when it began to rain a few days into the campaign, “The march proceeded day and night toward Vilkomirz and Eve.  Meanwhile it rained ceaselessly for several days, and the rain was cold.  It was all the more disagreeable because nothing could be dried.  Bodily warmth was our only salvation from freezing to death.  I had on only one pair of blue linen trousers, which I had bought at Thorn, since I had thrown away my underwear because of the former heat.  Thus I was constantly wet for two days and two nights, so that not a spot on my body was dry.”

“During the third night a halt was made in a field which was trampled into a swamp.  Here we were ordered to camp and to make fires, since neither village nor forest could be seen and the rain continued without end.  You can imagine in what a half-numbed condition everyone stood here.  What could we do?  There was noting that we could do but stack the rifles in pyramids and keep moving in order not to freeze.”

Another account comes from Jean-Roch Coignet in his book Captain Coignet: A Soldier of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard from the Italian Campaign to Waterloo.  “On the 29th of June, at three o’clock, a violent storm arose, just before we came to a village, which I had had the greatest possible difficulty in reaching.  When we reached the shelter of this village, we could not unharness our horses; we had to take off their bridles, cut grass for them, and light our fires.  The storm of sleet and snow was so terrible that we could scarcely keep our horses still; we had to fasten them to the wheels.  I was half dead with the cold; not being able to stand it any longer, I opened one of my wagons, and crept inside.  Next morning a heartrending sight met our gaze: in the cavalry camp nearby, the ground was covered with horses frozen to death; more than ten thousands died during that dreadful night.  When I got out of my wagon, all numbed with the cold, I saw that three of my horses were dead…”

“When we reached the highway, we saw the dead bodies of a number of soldiers who had succumbed before the terrible storm.  This demoralized a great many of our men.”

Napoleon Reaches Kamen

On July 24, 1812, Napoleon reached the city of Kamen, about 200 miles from the Niemen river crossing.  He wrote to the Empress, “We are having much rain, the weather is stifling, always we keep marching… I have marched too far.”

Meanwhile, the cavalry under Marshal Joachim Murat was riding through the countryside ahead of the main army, looking for the Russians.  Major Heinrich von Roos was a doctor with the 3rd Wurttemberg Regiment in Montbrun’s cavalry corps.  He wrote that “On 23 July we came in pouring rain to the River Dvina, which we had orders to cross.  There was no bridge.  For several days we had not been dry, and now such a cold bath was pleasant for nobody, all the more so because we were in a sickly condition.”  He rode his swimming horse across the river between two N.C.O.s and made it safely to the other side although soaked up to his ribs.  He noted “Everyone who swam was drenched likewise.  None of our men was drowned, but the next regiment did not get over without loss.”

On the far bank, they built fires, but could not get dry because of the rain.  “We exchanged greetings, filled our pipes, and everyone who had some schnaps in his bottle offered it round to his friends.”

It is interesting to note that there were women along with the scouting cavalry.  von Roos wrote that they pitied two wives of the regiment who rode smaller horses and as a result they and their baggage were even more soaked than the men.  He mentions them by name and was very complimentary about their abilities, “The first, Frau Worth, was able to fend for herself so well under all circumstances that she was highly esteemed by the officers and respected by the soldiers.  The other woman, the careful Frau Weiler, had already proved extremely useful to us, and did so again when we advanced further into Russia, through her knowledge of the Polish language.”

Another source is the artist Albrecht Adam.  He wrote on the 24th that Prince Eugene de Beauharnais‘s corps was next to the River Dvina.  Napoleon and the main army joined them there.  He tells an amusing story about how he could observe Napoleon and his party on the high bank of the river.  He “noticed a striking person wearing a light-blue coat trimmed all over in gold braid, red trousers edged with gold, a strange hat lavishly decked with plumes – in short, a person of whom I could make nothing.  What struck me most forcibly was that he had so much to do near the Emperor…”  Adam finally asks an officer “Perhaps you can solve a riddle.  How is it that the Emperor has so many dealings with that drum-major?”  The officer exclaimed “…that is Murat, the King of Naples.”

A Letter Home from the Beginning of the Campaign

Another letter from the Jakob Walter book was written by Her[mann?] Kunkel of Marburg, Kingdom of Westphalia.  He wrote 199 years ago today: July 16, 1812 from Grodno, Russian Poland.
Three weeks into the campaign, things are going badly,  “Here there is a lack of all foodstuffs.  The bread that is delivered is so bad that one can’t eat it, yet very dear to buy, one bread is paid eight pennies, it is baked from chaff and at that it is not baked through, it lies like lead on the stomach.  Hunger drives it down though.  Meat is also very bad, half smelly, and yet it has to be eaten.  What else can one eat?”
The weather wasn’ t cooperating either, “…we quartered under the free sky, God was our host.  Thunderstorm rains have at times drenched us thoroughly.  For four days I did not have a single dry thread on me and then nothing in the belly but a gulp of wutki [vodka] and a piece of dark bread.”
He talks about the capture of 100 Cossacks and remarks, “The captured Cossacks were all pitifully dressed, poorly armed.  They must have been irregulars.”  But they were still a threat, “One can’t go far from the town, there is always some of this riffraff around.”

Before closing with an explanation of what he has done to try to borrow money and asks his parents speak to the parents of a fellow soldier to tell their son to loan him money, he says, “Our good life has ended since we left Warsaw.  Now one has to learn to suffer hunger and thirst.”