Tag Archives: Russia

The Last Frenchman out of Russia

In Antony Brett-James book, 1812 Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, is the account by Count Mathieu Dumas, the Intendant-General of December 14, 1812, the day the last Frenchman left Russia.  “At long last we were out of that cursed country – Russia.  The Cossacks no longer pursued us with such zeal.  As we advanced across Prussian territory we found better lodgings and resources.  The first place we could draw breath was Wilkowiski, and then Gumbinnen, where I stopped at a doctor’s house as I had done when I first passed through the town.  We had just been served with some excellent coffee when I saw a man wearing a brown coat come in.  He had a long beard.  His face was black and seemed to be burnt.  His eyes were red and glistening.  ‘Here I am at last!’ he said.  ‘What, General Dumas! Don’t your recognize me?'”

“‘No. who are you?'”

Marshal Ney with the Rearguard

Marshal Ney with the Rearguard

“‘I am the rearguard of the Grand Army, Marshal Ney.  I fired the last shot on the bridge at Kovno.  I threw the last of our weapons into the Niemen, and I have come as far as this through the woods.'”

“I leave to your imagination with what respectful eagerness we welcomed the hero of the retreat from Russia.”

Despite the heroics of Marshal Ney, many men suffered a different fate.  James Fisher provides the following account from the Russian point of view.

(14th December) Final, Hellish Retreat

Rafail Zotov, was just out of school when the war began and volunteered to join the St Petersburg opolchenye, part of Wittgenstein’s Corps.

The Retreat from RussiaFiring at Cossacks

The Retreat from Russia
Firing at Cossacks

“On 2 December [14 December]* we caught up with Chichagov’s men and let them ahead of us so they could claim all the laurels of the pursuit. This movement marked the start of the most severe frost, which even those of us who lived in St Petersburg had rarely experienced. Temperatures dropped every day and reached -23º to -25º Réaumur [-29º to -31º Celsius]. This was a final devastating blow to the French army, which completely lost its morale. Its every bivouac and encampment was like the terrifying sight of the battlefield, where thousands lay dying in great agony. And so the warriors who perhaps survived Austerlitz, Eylau and Borodino now easily fell into our hands. They were in a state of trance so that every Cossack captured and brought back dozens of them. They could not comprehend what was happening around them, could not remember or understand anything. The roads were littered with their corpses and they lay abandoned and without any attention inside every hut.”

*Dates according to Julian [and Gregorian] calendar

Mikaberidze, A (2012) Russian Eyewitness Accounts of the Campaign of 1812. Frontline Books (an imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd), Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. p. 246.

Sources:
1812 Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, Compiled, edited and translated by Antony Brett-James, 288

Russian Eyewitness Accounts of the Campaign of 1812, Alexander Mikaberidze, p 246

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Foraging

The swift moving Grande Armée quickly outran the supply train making it necessary for the army to forage.  This was part of the plan and the cavalry had even been issued scythes so they could harvest grain for their horses as they went along.  Each man carried four days of provisions as he crossed the Nieman River into Russia.

From The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier by Jakob Walter

Jakob Walter describes how he was part of a foraging party in late July along the Dvina River in the area of Polotsk.  (Polotsk was to the north-west of Vitebsk, also along the Dvina River, where the battle described in yesterday’s post took place).  Walter writes about his foraging expedition, “There were eight of us, and we came to a very distant village.  Here we searched all the houses.  There were no peasants left…  each [soldier] ran into a house alone, broke open everything that was covered, and searched all the floors and still nothing was found…  I once more inspected a little hut somewhat removed from the village.  Around it from top to bottom were heaped bundles of hemp and shives, which I tore down; and, as I worked my way to the ground, sacks full of flour appeared.”  They sifted the flour to remove the chaff and refilled the sacks.  Walter remembered seeing a horse somewhere in the village.  They found two colts, but one couldn’t be used.  Two sacks were placed on the remaining horse and they started back to camp.  “While we were marching there, the Russians saw us from a distance with this booty; and at the same moment we saw a troop of peasants in the valley, about fifty.  These ran toward us.  What could we do but shoot at them?  I, however, led the horse, and a second man held the sacks while the rest fired, one after another, so that the peasants divided in order not to be hit so easily; but they could not take the sacks away from us.”

They came to a deep stream with only a round tree trunk laid across as a bridge.  Walter volunteered to carry the sacks across and suggested they throw the horse into the water.  Walter made it across with his sacks, quite a feat he said, on a log without handrails.  The horse was driven across by throwing stones at it and then re-loaded on the far bank.

They made dough balls with the flour and roasted it in the fire.  The food lasted for a week.

About the same time, at Vitebsk, Sgt. Bourgogne had an easier time getting his provisions.  He was visited by twelve young men from his “country” (Conde in northern France on the border of Belgium).  Ten were drummers, one a drum-major and the other a voltigeur.  They invited him to “…come with us and share what we have, wine, gin, and other things very good for you.  We took them yesterday evening from the Russian General.  There was a little cart holding his kitchen and everything belonging to it.  We have put it all into the canteen cart, with Florencia our cantiniere – she is a pretty Spandiard.”

Sgt. Bourgogne ends this episode with a sad note, “The poor fellows little thought that in a few days eleven of them would not be alive.”  These events took place at the end of July.  The drummers were killed at the Battle of Borodino in September.

The 200th Anniversary of the Invasion of Russia Begins

200 years ago today, Napoleon’s Grande Armée crossed the Nieman river on pontoon bridges to launch the invasion.  Each man carried three days of

Napoleon Crossing the Nieman
June 1812

provisions and the expectation of a short, decisive campaign.  I doubt anyone had any idea how disastrously things would turn out.

This blog aims to capture the invasion through the eyes of the soldiers who lived it and to relate that experience as closely as possible to the 200th anniversary of its occurrence.   Having said that, I am about to leave on a trip to France and will be unable to make any posts until I return in the first week of July.

Napoleon Crossing the Niemen
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

In the meanwhile, I encourage you to look back to the posts I made one year ago, the 199th anniversary.  I also suggest you buy a copy of my work of historical fiction about the invasion: Russian Snows: Coming of Age in Napoleon’s Army.  The book aims to show what the conditions were like for the ordinary soldier on the campaign.  The book is available through the Russian Snows website and through Amazon (paperback and Kindle) as well as Barnes & Noble (Nook).

As always, I welcome contributors as guest bloggers who can blog about conditions on the campaign.  Contact me at ScottArmstrong@RussianSnows.com to make arrangements.

Thank you for reading ~ Scott Armstrong

Source:
Image and translation of Commemorative 1912 card provided by Alexey Temnikov

The Last Frenchman out of Russia

In Antony Brett-James book, 1812 Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, is the account by Count Mathieu Dumas, the Intendant-General of the day the last Frenchman left Russia.  “At long last we were out of that cursed country – Russia.  The Cossacks no longer pursued us with such zeal.  As we advanced across Prussian territory we found better lodgings and resources.  The first place we could draw breath was Wilkowiski, and then Gumbinnen, where I stopped at a doctor’s house as I had done when I first passed through the town.  We had just been served with some excellent coffee when I saw a man wearing a brown coat come in.  He had a long beard.  His face was black and seemed to be burnt.  His eyes were red and glistening.  ‘Here I am at last!’ he said.  ‘What, General Dumas! Don’t your recognize me?'”

“‘No. who are you?'”

“‘I am the rearguard of the Grand Army, Marshal Ney.  I fired the last shot on the bridge at Kovno.  I threw the last of our weapons into the Niemen, and I have come as far as this through the woods.'”

“I leave to your imagination with what respectful eagerness we welcomed the hero of the retreat from Russia.”

Russian Snows: Coming of Age in Napoleon’s Army

Russian Snows: Coming of Age in Napoleon's Army

Today is the official release date for Russian Snows: Coming of Age in Napoleon’s Army.  This work of historical fiction follows 14-year-old Henri Carle as he accompanies his older brother who enlists in the Grande Armée.  Henri is with the army on the invasion of Russia, first as a teamster and then in the ranks.

Along the way, he witnesses the battles of Smolensk, Borodino, Krasnoe and The Berezina.  Though just a boy, Henri needs to grow up fast as the army deteriorates around him when the Russian winter hits.

This book is written for readers 12 – 16 years old, but will be enjoyed by anyone who likes historical fiction.  Actual events and incidents from the campaign are woven into the story and paint a picture of the campaign through the eyes of the commons soldier.  Order a copy today!

For the story about the writing of Russian Snows, visit Jenny Milchman’s blog, Suspense Your Disbelief.

 

 

 

Foraging

The swift moving Grande Armée quickly outran the supply train making it necessary for the army to forage.  This was part of the plan and the cavalry had even been issued scythes so they could harvest grain for their horses as they went along.  Each man carried four days of provisions as he crossed the Nieman River into Russia.

From The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier by Jakob Walter

Jakob Walter describes how he was part of a foraging party in late July along the Dvina River in the area of Polotsk.  (Polotsk was to the north-west of Vitebsk, also along the Dvina River, where the battle described in yesterday’s post took place).  Walter writes about his foraging expedition, “There were eight of us, and we came to a very distant village.  Here we searched all the houses.  There were no peasants left…  each [soldier] ran into a house alone, broke open everything that was covered, and searched all the floors and still nothing was found…  I once more inspected a little hut somewhat removed from the village.  Around it from top to bottom were heaped bundles of hemp and shives, which I tore down; and, as I worked my way to the ground, sacks full of flour appeared.”  They sifted the flour to remove the chaff and refilled the sacks.  Walter remembered seeing a horse somewhere in the village.  They found two colts, but one couldn’t be used.  Two sacks were placed on the remaining horse and they started back to camp.  “While we were marching there, the Russians saw us from a distance with this booty; and at the same moment we saw a troop of peasants in the valley, about fifty.  These ran toward us.  What could we do but shoot at them?  I, however, led the horse, and a second man held the sacks while the rest fired, one after another, so that the peasants divided in order not to be hit so easily; but they could not take the sacks away from us.”

They came to a deep stream with only a round tree trunk laid across as a bridge.  Walter volunteered to carry the sacks across and suggested they throw the horse into the water.  Walter made it across with his sacks, quite a feat he said, on a log without handrails.  The horse was driven across by throwing stones at it and then re-loaded on the far bank.

They made dough balls with the flour and roasted it in the fire.  The food lasted for a week.

About the same time, at Vitebsk, Sgt. Bourgogne had an easier time getting his provisions.  He was visited by twelve young men from his “country” (Conde in northern France on the border of Belgium).  Ten were drummers, one a drum-major and the other a voltigeur.  They invited him to “…come with us and share what we have, wine, gin, and other things very good for you.  We took them yesterday evening from the Russian General.  There was a little cart holding his kitchen and everything belonging to it.  We have put it all into the canteen cart, with Florencia our cantiniere – she is a pretty Spandiard.”

Sgt. Bourgogne ends this episode with a sad note, “The poor fellows little thought that in a few days eleven of them would not be alive.”  These events took place at the end of July.  The drummers were killed at the Battle of Borodino in September.