Tag Archives: Sgt. Adrien Bourgogne

“Tears Ran Down Their Cheeks”

Partizans in Ambush

Partizans in Ambush
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

Sergeant Adrien Bourgogne‘s memoirs tell of his narrow escape from some Cossacks around this time [Approximately December 13, his narrative doesn’t use many dates](He was alone in the woods and three Cossacks were closing in on him when nearby gunfire frightened their tethered horses and they had to rush off to retrieve them).  Now alone in the woods, “… I felt it would be impossible to walk further without changing my clothes.  It may be remembered that in a portmanteau found on the mountain of Ponari I had some shirts and white cotton breeches – clothes belonging to an army commissary.  Having opened my knapsack, I drew out a shirt, and hung it on my musket; then the breeches, which I placed beside me on the tree.  I took off my jacket, an overcoat, and my waistcoat with the quilted yellow silk sleeves that I had made out of a Russian lady’s skirt at Moscow.  I untied the shawl which was wrapped round my body, and my trousers fell about my heels.  As for my shirt, I had not the trouble of taking it off, for it had neither back nor front; I pulled it off in shreds.  And there I was, naked, except for a pair of wretched boots, in the midst of a wild forest at four o’clock in the afternoon, with eighteen to twenty degrees of cold, for the north wind had begun to blow hard again.”

“On looking at my emaciated body, dirty, and consumed with vermin, I could not restrain my tears.  At last, summoning the little strength that remained, I set about my toilet.  With snow and the rags of my old shirt I washed myself to the best of my power.  Then I drew on my new shirt of fine longcloth, embroidered down the front.  I got into the little calico breeches as quickly as I could, but I found them so short that even my knees were not covered, and my boots only reaching half-way up my leg, all this part was bare.  Finally, I put on my yellow silk waistcoat, my riding-jacket, my overcoat, over this my belts and collar; and there I was, completely attired, except for my legs.”

On the 13th of December, 1812, the Grande Armée reached Kovno at the edge of the Russian empire.  Philippe-Paul de Ségur described the scene: “After a final crucifying march of forty-six hours, they found themselves again on friendly soil.  Immediately, without pausing, without casting a glance behind them, the majority of the men dispersed and plunged into the forests of Polish Russia.  But some did turn around when they reached the other side of the river, and look back on the land of suffering from which they were escaping.  It is said that when they found themselves on the very spot from which, five months before, their innumerable eagles had victoriously set out, tears ran down their cheeks and groans broke from their chests.”

“Here were the same valleys down which had poured those three long columns… [Now] The Niemen was just a long mass of blocks of ice piled up and welded together by a breath of winter.  In place of the three French bridges brought fifteen hundred miles and erected with such daring speed, there was only one Russian bridge.  Instead of the four hundred thousand companions…  [the only ones left were] one thousand foot soldiers and troopers still armed, nine cannon, and twenty thousand beings clothed in rags, with bowed heads, dull eyes, ashy, cadaverous faces, and long ice-stiffened beards.  Some of them were fighting in silence for the right to cross the bridge which, despite their reduced number, was still too narrow to accommodate their precipitous flight.  Others had rushed down the bank and were struggling across the river, crawling from one jagged cake of ice to another.  And this was the Grand Army!”

Marshal Ney in Action

Marshal Ney in Action

“Two kings, one prince, eight marshals, followed by several generals afoot and unattended, then a few hundred of the Old Guard still bearing arms, were all that remained of the original host.  It might be said, though, that it lived on incarnate in the person of Marshal Ney.  Friends, allies, enemies – I call on you to witness! Let us render the homage that is due to the memory of this unfortunate hero … In Kovno he found a company of artillery, three hundred Germans belonging to

Jean Gabriel Marchand

Jean Gabriel Marchand

the garrison, and General [Jean Gabriel] Marchand with four hundred armed men, of whom he took command.  His first act was to scour the city looking for possible reinforcements.  All he found were the wounded who were making a pitiful attempt to keep up with our wild flight.  For the eighth time since leaving Moscow he had to abandon them in a body in the hospitals, as he had abandoned them individually along the road, on the battlefields, and around all the campfires.”

“Several thousand French soldiers were crowded together in the great square… but these were stretched out cold and stiff in front of the brandy shops which they had broken open, and in which they had imbibed death, instead of the life they had hoped to find.  Here was the only relief that Murat had left him!  So Ney found himself alone in Russia at the head of seven hundred foreign recruits.  At Kovno, as at Vilna, the honor of our arms and the dangers of the last retreat were committed to his care, and he accepted them.”

Sergeant Bourgogne: With Napoleon’s Imperial Guard in the Russian Campaign and on the Retreat from Moscow 1812-13, Adrien Bourgogne, pp 251 – 252

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 280 – 282

Commemorative 1912 Russian Candy Box Card image and translation provided by Alexey Temnikov

“Only the Voice of Honor and Country had any Meaning”

Thank you to James Fisher for today’s post.  James has been a great supporter of this blog with both information and encouragement.  He has compiled a series of eyewitness accounts showing the condition of the army and the condition of the bridges at the Berezina.

(24th November) Condition of the ‘Grande Armée’

Sergeant Bourgogne of the French Imperial Guard related the condition of the ‘Grande Armée’

Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow
by Adolf Northern

“…the days were short—it was not light till eight o’clock, and it was dark by four in the afternoon. This was the reason why so many unfortunate men lost their way, for it was always night when we arrived at the bivouac, and all the remains of the different corps were in terrible confusion. At all hours of the night we heard the weak, worn-out voices of new arrivals calling out ‘Fourth Corps!’ ‘First Corps!’ ‘Third Corps!’ ‘Imperial Guard!’ and then the voices of others lying down with no strength left, forcing themselves to answer, ‘Here comrades!’ They were not trying any longer to find their regiments, but simply the corps d’armée to which they had belonged, and which now included the strength of two regiments at most, where a fortnight earlier there had been thirty. No one knew anything about himself, or could mention which regiment he belonged to.”

Mikaberidze, A (2010) The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, Campaign Chronicles (Ed. C Summerville). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. p. 110

(25th November) Victor’s IX Corps is United With the ‘Grande Armée’

On the March from Moscow
by Laslett John Pott

Having been unaware of the plight of the retreating ‘Grande Armée’, Marshal Victor and his troops were stunned to see, not soldiers but “a mob of tattered ghosts draped in women’s cloaks, odd pieces of carpet, or greatcoats burned full of holes, their feet wrapped in all sorts of rags… [we] stared in horror as those skeletons of soldiers went by, their gaunt, grey faces covered with disfiguring beards, without weapons, shameless, marching out of step, with lowered heads, eyes on the ground, in absolute silence, like a gang of convicts.“

General Hochberg, future Margrave of Baden added:

“I will never forget that day. I ordered my brigade to stop to observe the scene, the likes of which none of us had ever witnessed. We first saw twenty non-commissioned officers carrying flags, followed by generals, some on foot, others mounted, many of them in women’s silk-lined fur coats… The weather that day and the sun brightly shone on the scene, so painful for us to watch.”

Joseph Steinmüller observed an army “without any semblance of order or discipline… Only around the flags and eagles one could see armed men marching; the rest had no arms and covered themselves in furs and rags.“

Mikaberidze, A (2010) The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, Campaign Chronicles (Ed. C Summerville). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. p.95

(26th November) Constructing The Bridges and First Crossing

General Eblé and his pontonniers [often incorrectly termed as engineers] performed amazing and heroic feats in constructing three bridges, using whatever materials were available. Several perished while undertaking the work.

Ségur relates “the rising of the waters had made the traces of the ford entirely disappear. It required the most incredible efforts on the part of our unfortunate sappers [i.e. pontonniers], who worked in the water up to their mouths, struggling against the ice carried down by the current. Some of them died of the cold or were forced under by the great blocks of ice.”

Mikaberidze, A (2010) The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, Campaign Chronicles (Ed. C Summerville). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. pp. 125.

“In order to supplement the boats or skiffs missing, three small rafts were built, but the wood used for want of anything better was of such small dimensions that each raft could carry no more than ten men.

On the 26th, at eight in the morning, Napoleon gave an order that the bridges be built up. Two of them were started immediately at a distance of about six hundred feet. Meanwhile, a few horsemen swam across the river each with a voltigeur riding behind him, and some three to four thousand infantry crossed it on the rafts.

… The number of trestles being insufficient for the two bridges, and for repair, in case of accidents, their construction was continued all day. At one o’clock in the afternoon, the bridge on the right was finished; it was set apart for the infantry and cavalry only, because the boards, used to cover it, were of very poor quality, four or five layers thick.”

Anon (2010) Passage de la Beresina 26, 27, 28 et 29e Novembre 1812. First Published 1812. The Naval & Military Press Ltd., Uckfield, East Sussex. 32 pp.

While waiting his turn to cross, Fezensac of the 4th Line counted his effectives to compare them with the list that he had brought from Moscow:

“Alas! What changes had take place since then! Out of seventy officers scarcely forty remained, and of these the greater part were inefficient from either sickness or fatigue… Almost all the company cadres had been destroyed at Krasnyi, which rendered the maintenance of discipline a still more difficult matter. Of the remaining soldiers I formed two peletons, the first consisting of grenadiers and voltigeurs while the second was from the centre companies. I selected the officers to command them and ordered each of the others to take a musket and always march with me at the head of the regiment.”

Mikaberidze, A (2010) The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, Campaign Chronicles (Ed. C Summerville). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. pp. 142

Having completed the bridges, one can only imagine what it would have been like to be dragged from the relative comfort of a fire to enter the freezing water once more to undertake repairs. This eyewitness account, from an anonymous source, gives us some idea.

“Instead of thick planks which were absolutely wanting, round logs fifteen to sixteen feet long, and three to four ins. diameter had to be used for flooring. The carriages crossing on this uneven and rough flooring caused the bridge to jerk all the more violently that all warnings to carriage drivers to prevent their horses from going at a trot, were mostly unheeded…

General Eblé Inspiring his Men

At eight o’clock, three trestles of the left bridge collapsed. This fatal accident distressed General Eblé. He knew how tired the bridge hands were, and he despaired of being able to gather instantly the number of men to carry out these urgent repairs rapidly enough. Fortunately, they had kept in good order. The officers and their troops and settled in their bivouacs. Only half the men were requested; but pulling away harassed, sleeping men, from around the fire, did not go without trouble.

Threats would have been fruitless, only the voice of honour and country had any meaning for these honest men. They were also stimulated by their attachment and respect for General Eblé. After working three hours, the bridge was finally repaired, and the carriages resumed their march at 11 o’clock.”

Anon (2010) Passage de la Beresina 26, 27, 28 et 29e Novembre 1812. First Published 1812. The Naval & Military Press Ltd., Uckfield, East Sussex. 32 pp.

The Engineers Work to Save the Army

In order to speed the progress of the army, some days earlier, Napoleon had ordered the burning of the bridge train (the wagons hauling the pontoons used

General Jean-Baptiste Eblé

for building temporary bridges).  With great foresight, General Jean Baptiste Eblé saved some wagons holding the forges, some bridge building equipment and  coal.  On the evening of the 25th, his engineers arrived in Studenka and began to work.  The town was dismantled and the wood used to build trestles for the two bridges.  This proved to be insufficient and another, nearby town was dismantled.

The following descriptions come from Alexander Mikaberidze’s book The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape.  Around 500 men may have been involved in the bridge construction.  These men consisted of Dutch and Poles with some from France.  Sgt. Bourgogne describes that they “worked, standing up to their shoulders in ice-cold water, encouraged by their General.”

Pontooniers in the Water

Jean Baptiste Antoine Marbot wrote these brave men “leapt into the cold water of the Berezina and worked there for six or seven hours, though there was not a drop of spirits to give them, and they had no bed to look forward to for the following night, but a field covered with snow.”

Capt. George Diederich Benthiendescribed that his men came out of the water “stiff and half-dead from cold and, to find volunteers for the work, he had to offer a reward of fifty francs.”

General Eblé of the Engineers inspires his men on the banks of the Berezina

Captain Louis Bégos of the 2nd Swiss saw Napoleon on the bank of the river watching the work of the engineers.  “Having dismounted, he was leaning against some beams and planks that were used in construction.  He was looking down at the ground.  Then with a preoccupied impatient air, he lifted his head and addressed General Eblé, ‘ it is taking a very long time, General!  A very long time!’ ‘You can see, Sire,’ [replied Eblé] ‘that my men are

Napoleon at the Passage
of the Berezina

up to their necks in water, and the ice is delaying their work.  I have no food or alcohol to warm them with.’ ‘That will do,’ the Emperor replied.  He stared at the ground but, a few moments later, he began complaining again, seemingly forgetting what the General had just told him.”

Of the 200 Dutchmen led by Captain Benthien who helped build the bridges, only 40 were alive three days later.

The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon’s Great Escape, Alexander Mikaberidze

Sergeant Bourgogne: With Napoleon’s Imperial Guard in the Russian Campaign and on the Retreat from Moscow 1812-13, Adrien Bourgogne

The Battle Continues by Firelight

Sgt. Bourgogne continues his story about the battle that took place in the early morning hours of November 16, 1812.  Surrounded in Krasnoe with the lead corps of the Grande Armée, Napoleon had sent the Old Guard back to break up the Russian threat on the road from Smolensk.  The Old Guard had just charged

Bayonet Charge Hurrah Hurrah
by Vasily Vereshchagin

into the Russian camp and had employed the bayonet:  “The men who were stationed further off now had time to arm themselves, and come to their comrades’ help.  This they did by setting fire to their camp and the two villages near.  We fought by the light of the fires.  The columns on the right and left had passed us, and entered the enemy’s camp at the two ends, whereas our column had taken the middle.  I have omitted to say that, as the head of our column charged into the Russian camp, we passed several hundred Russians stretched on the snow; we believed them to be dead or dangerously wounded.  These men now jumped up and fired on us from behind, so that we had to make a demi-tour to defend ourselves.  Unluckily for them, a battalion in the rear came up behind, so that they were taken between two fires,

The Last Salute, Krasnoi
by Keith Rocco

and in five minutes not one was left alive.  This was a stratagem the Russians often employed, but this time it was not successful.  Poor Beloque was the first man we lost; he had foretold of his death at Smolensk.  A ball struck his head, and killed him on the spot.  He was a great favourite with us all, and, in spite of the indifference we now felt about everything, we were really sorry to lose him.”

“We went through the Russian camp, and reached the village.  We forced the enemy to throw a part of their artillery into a lake there, and then found that a great number of foot soldiers had filled the houses, which were partly in flames.  We now fought desperately hand-to-hand.  The slaughter was terrible, and each man fought by himself for himself.  I found myself near our Colonel, the oldest in France, who had been through the campaign in Egypt.  A sapper was holding him up by the arm, and the Adjutant-Major Roustan was there too.  We were close to a farmyard filled with Russians, and blockaded by our men; they could retreat only by an entrance into a large courtyard close by a barrier.”

“While this desultory fighting was going on, I saw a Russian officer on a white horse striking with the flat of his sword any of his men who tried to get away by jumping over the barrier, and so effectually preventing his escape.  He got possession of the passage, but just as he was preparing to jump to the other side, his horse fell under him, struck by a ball.  The men were forced to defend themselves, and the fighting now grew desperate.  By the lurid light of the fire it was a dreadful scene of butchery, Russians and Frenchmen in utter confusion, shooting each other muzzle to muzzle.”

Campaigne de Moscou
by Leon Cogniet

The Russians in the burning building tried to negotiate a surrender, but the French were unable to get their men to stop firing.  The Russians, facing the choice of being burned alive or forcing their way out of the house, made a rush at the French, but were pushed back.  During a second attempt, the building collapsed killing those inside and those who had just made it outside as well.

Bourgogne and his comrades gathered round their exhausted Colonel and waited for daylight….”There is nothing more terrible than a battle at night, when often fatal mistakes take place.”

Retreat of the French Grand Army
from Moscow Intercepted by
Russian Cossacks
by John Augustus Atkinson

Jakob Walter arrived on the 16th at Krasnoe “amid a thousand kinds of danger… where the Russians received us, having in the meantime circled around to our front.  Here the French Guard, with the remaining armed forces that could still be brought together, took its position along the highway and kept up the firing against the enemy as well as possible. Although the enemy had to yield, any movements on our part drew vigorous firing upon us.  Unfortunately, all the time the greatest misery fell upon the poor sick, who usually had to be thrown from the wagons just to keep us from losing horses and wagons entirely and who were left to freeze among the enemies, for whoever remained lying behind could not hope to be rescued.”

Sergeant Bourgogne: With Napoleon’s Imperial Guard in the Russian Campaign and on the Retreat from Moscow 1812-13, Adrien Bourgogne, pp 105 – 108

The Diary of a Napoloenic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter, p 70

“We Still Possessed Two Things – Courage and Honour”

On the morning of the 15th, Napoleon’s advance guard continued its march to Krasnoe.  Ségur describes how the column came across the Russian army which had passed the Grande Armée and was waiting across the road:  “… advancing without precaution, preceded by a crowd of marauders, all eager to reach Krasnoe, when at about five miles from that town a row of Cossacks, extending from the heights on the left and across the highroad, suddenly appeared before them.  Our soldiers halted, astounded.  They had not expected anything of the kind…”

Adrian Bourgogne of the Imperial Guard picks up the narrative:  “… the front of the Imperial columns was stopped by 25,000 Russians occupying the road.  Stragglers at the front caught sight of them first, and immediately turned back to join the first regiments advancing; the greater part of them, however, united and faced the enemy.  A few men, too careless or too wretched to care what they did, fell into the enemy’s hands.”

“The Grenadiers and Chasseurs, formed into close columns, advanced against the mass of Russians, who, not daring to wait for them, retired and left the passage free; they took up a position on the hills to the left of the road, and turned their artillery on us.  When we heard the cannon, we doubled our pace, as we were behind, and arrived just as our gunners were answering them.  The Russians disappeared behind the hills as our fire began, and we continued our way.”

Battle of Krasnoi
by Piter von Hess

“In two hours after the encounter with the Russians, the Emperor reached Krasnoe with the first regiments of the Guard — ours and the Fusiliers-Chasseurs.  We camped behind the town.  I was on guard with fifteen men at General Roguet’s quarters: a miserable house in the town, thatched with straw.  I put my men in a stable, thinking myself in luck to be under cover, and near a fire we had just lighted, but it turned out quite otherwise.”

“While we were in Krasnoe and the immediate neighborhood, the Russians, 90,000 strong, surrounded us – to right, to left, in front, and behind, nothing but Russians — thinking, no doubt, they could soon finish us off.  But the Emperor wished to show them it was not quite so easy a thing as they imagined; for although we were most wretched, and dying of cold and hunger, we still possessed two things – courage and honour.”

Old Guard Does Not Give Up
Commemorative 1912 Russian
Candy Box Card

“On the evening of our arrival, General Roguet received orders to attack during the night…  at two o’clock [a.m.] we began to move forward.  We formed into three columns…  The cold was as intense as ever.  We had the greatest difficulty in walking across the fields, as the snow was up to our knees.  After half an hour of this, we found ourselves in the midst of the Russians.  On our right was a long line of infantry, opening a murderous fire on us, their heavy cavalry on our left… They howled like wolves to excite each other, but did not dare to attack.  The artillery was in the centre, pouring grape-shot on us.  All this did not stop our career in the least.  In spite of the firing, and the number of our men who fell, we charged on into their camp, where we made frightful havoc with our bayonets.”

Tomorrow, the battle continues.

Sergeant Bourgogne: With Napoleon’s Imperial Guard in the Russian Campaign and on the Retreat from Moscow 1812-13, Adrien Bourgogne, pp 102 – 105

Commemorative 1912 Russian Candy Box Card image and translation provided by Alexey Temnikov

The Army Begins to Leave Smolensk

On the 14th, Napoleon left Smolensk.  The corps of Eugene, Davout and Ney were to follow at one day intervals.  Sgt. Adrian Bourgogne who was a member of the Imperial Guard followed a short time after Napoleon acting as rearguard of the men accompanying the Emperor.  We pick up Bourgogne’s narration while he was waiting for the artillery to cross a ravine:  “When we were at the other side, I saw three men round a dead horse; two of them staggered about as if they were drunk.  The third, a German, lay on the horse; the poor wretch was dying of hunger, and, not being able to cut the flesh, was trying to bite it.  He soon afterwards died where he was of cold and hunger.  The two others, Hussars, were covered with blood about the hands and mouth.”

“…walking by the side of the highroad to come up with the right of the column, and then wait for our regiment near a fire, if we were lucky enough to find one…. all along our way we were forced to step over the dead and dying…  we saw a man of the line sitting against a tree near a little fire; he was busy melting snow in a saucepan to cook the liver and heart of a horse he had just killed with his bayonet.”

“As we had rice and oatmeal with us, we asked him to lend us the saucepan to cook them, so that we could all eat together.  He was so delighted; so with the rice and straw-oatmeal we made some soup, seasoning it with a little sugar… as we had no salt.  While our soup was cooking, we roasted some bits of liver and kidneys from a horse, and enjoyed it greatly.”

Meanwhile, 90,000 Russian troops under General Mikhail Kutuzov, who were marching on a parallel road, finally caught up to and passed the Grande Armée.

Sergeant Bourgogne: With Napoleon’s Imperial Guard in the Russian Campaign and on the Retreat from Moscow 1812-13, Adrien Bourgogne, pp 101 – 102

An Unusual Hazard in Smolensk

As a member of the Imperial Guard, Sergeant Bourgogne’s unit was still organized by the time he reached Smolensk on November 9.  This was to be critical for gaining entrance to the city: “Thousands of men were there already, from every corps and of every nation.  They were there waiting at the gates and ramparts till they could gain admission, and this had been refused them on the ground that, marching as they were without officers or order, and already dying of hunger, they might pillage the town for provisions.  Many hundreds of these men were already dead or dying.  When we arrived there with the rest of the Guard in an orderly fashion, and taking the utmost precaution for our sick and wounded, the gates were opened, and we entered.  The greater number broke the ranks, and spread on all sides, anxious to find some roof under which to spend the night, and eat the food promised to us.”

“To obtain any sort of order, it was announced that men isolated from the rest would get nothing; so after this the men were careful to rejoin their regiments, and choose a head to represent them, as several of the old regiments existed no longer.  We of the Imperial Guard crossed the town with extreme difficulty, worn but with fatigue as we were.  We had to climb the steep slope which separates the Boristhene [Dnieper river] from the other gate; this was covered with ice, and at every step the weakest of our men fell and had to be lifted up; other could not walk at all.”

“In this way we came to the side of the faubourg which had been burnt at the bombardment last August.  We settled down as well as we could, in the ruins of those houses the fire had not quite destroyed.  The sick and wounded who had had strength and courage enough to come with us were made as comfortable as possible.  We were obliged to leave some of them, however, in a hut in a wood, near the entrance of the town, being much too ill to go any farther.  Amongst them was a friend of mine, in a dying condition.  He had dragged himself so far, hoping to find a hospital, for we had all hoped to stay in this town and the neighbourhood until the spring.  Our hopes were disappointed, however, as most of the villages were burnt and in ruins, and the town of Smolensk existed only in name.  Nothing was to be seen but the walls of houses built of stone; the greater part of the town had been built of wood and had disappeared.  The town, in fact, was a mere skeleton.  If we went any distance in the dark, we came on pitfalls — that is, the cellars belonging to the wooden houses, now completely gone.  These cellars were covered with snow, and if any man was so unfortunate as to step on one, he disappeared, and we saw him no more.  A great many men were lost in this manner.  Their bodies were dragged out again the next day, not for burial, but for the sake of their clothes, or anything else they might have about them.  All those who died, whether on the march or while we stopped, were treated in the same way.  The living men despoiled the dead, very often, in their turn, dying a few hours afterwards, and being subjected to the same fate.”

Sergeant Bourgogne: With Napoleon’s Imperial Guard in the Russian Campaign and on the Retreat From Moscow 1812-13, Adrien Bourgogne, pp 84 – 85

Sergeant Bourgogne is Robbed of his Bread too

Sergeant Bourgogne also had a run-in where he had bread stolen right out of his hand: “There was a dense fog that day, November 6th, and more than twenty-two degrees of frost [10 degrees Fahrenheit).  Our lips were frozen, our brains too; the whole atmosphere was icy.  There was a fearful wind, and the snow fell in enormous flakes.”

“We lost sight not only of the sky, but of the men in front of us.  As we approached a wretched village [Mickalowka], a horseman came at full speed, asking for the Emperor.  We heard afterwards that it was a general bringing news of Malet’s conspiracy in Paris.”

“We were just then packed very closely together near a wood, and had a long time to wait before we could resume our march, as the road was narrow.  As several of us sat together beating with our feet to keep warm, and talking of the fearful hunger we felt, all at once I became aware of the smell of warm bread.  I turned round and behind me saw a man wrapped in a great fur cape, from which came the smell I had noticed.  I spoke to him at once, saying, ‘Sir, you have some bread; you must sell it to me.’  As he moved away, I caught him by the arm, and, seeing that he could not get rid of me, he drew out from under his cloak a cake still warm.  With one hand I seized the cake, while with the other I gave him five francs.  But hardly had I the cake in my hand, when my companions threw themselves on it like madmen, and tore it from me.  I only had the little bit I held between my thumb and two first fingers.”

“While this was going on, the Surgeon-Major (for it was he) went off, and well for him he did so, as he might have been killed for the sake of the rest of the cake.  He had probably found some flour in the village, and had had time to make the cake while waiting for us.”

“During this half-hour several men had lain down and died; many more had fallen in the column while marching.  Our ranks were getting thinned already, and this was only the very beginning of our troubles.”

Sergeant Bourgogne: With Napoleon’s Imperial Guard in the Russian Campaign and on the Retreat from Moscow 1812 – 1813, Adrien Bourgogne

An Encounter with Vermin

Sergeant Bourgogne writes about the march to Dorogoboui, about half way between Viazma and Smolensk.  “On the 3rd [of November] we stayed at Slawkowo, and saw Russians to the right of us all the day.  The other regiments of the Guard, who had remained behind, now joined us.  We made a force march on the 4th to reach Dorogoboui, the ‘cabbage town.’  We gave it this name on account of the vast number of cabbages we found there on going to Moscow.  This was also the place where the Emperor settled the number of artillery and rifle-shots to be fired in the great battle.  By seven in the evening we were still two leagues from the town, but the depth of the snow made marching exceedingly difficult.  It was with infinite labour we got so far, and for a short time we lost our way.”

“It was quite eleven o’clock before we made our bivouac.  Amongst the debris from the houses (for this town had been almost burned down, like so many others), we found wood enough to make fires and get thoroughly warm.”

“But we had nothing to eat, and we were so horribly tired that we had not the strength to go and look for a horse, so we lay down to rest instead.  One of the men in the company brought me some rush matting to make a bed, and with my head on my knapsack, my feet to the fire, I went to sleep.”

“I had slept for about an hour, when I felt an unbearable tingling over the whole of my body.  Mechanically I passed my hand over my chest and other parts of my body, and to my horror discovered that I was covered with vermin.  I jumped up, and in less than two minutes was as naked as a new-born babe, having thrown my shirt and trousers into the fire.  The crackling they made was like a brisk firing, and my mind was so full of what I was doing that I never noticed the large flakes of snow falling all over me.  I shook the rest of my clothes over the fire, and put on my only remaining shirt and pair of trousers; and, feeling miserable almost to the point of tears, I sat on my knapsack, covered with my bearskin, and, my head in my hands, spent the rest of the night as far as possible from the cursed rush matting on which I had slept.  The men who took my place caught nothing, so I suppose I monopolized them all.”

Sergeant Bourgogne: With Napoloen’s Imperial Guard in the Russian Campaign and on the Retreat from Moscow 1812-13, Adrien Bourgogne, pp 68 – 69

Jakob Walter Goes Foraging

Jakob Walter had attached himself to his regimental major as an orderly.  In the burning town of Gzhatsk, they became separated, “Here again many cannon were thrown into the water and part of them buried.  The pressure was so frightful that I and my major lost each other.  Now I had the second horse to myself, and we could not find each other again that day, nor even for another ten days.”

“Thus in the evening I rode apart from the army to find in the outlying district some straw for the horse and rye for myself.  I was not alone, for over a strip ten hours wide soldiers sought provisions because of their hunger; and, when there was nothing to be found, they could hunt up cabbage stalks here and there from under the snow, cut off some of the pulp from these, and let the core slowly thaw out in their mouths.    Nevertheless, this time I had a second considerable piece of luck.  I came to a village not yet burned where there were still sheaves of grain.  I laid these before the horse and plucked off several heads of grain.  I hulled them, laid the kernels mixed with chaff into a hand grinder which had been left in a house, and, taking turns with several other soldiers, ground some flour.  Then we laid the dough, which we rolled into only fist-sized little loaves, on a bed of coals.  Although the outside of the loaves burned to charcoal, the bread inside could be eaten.  I got as many as fifteen such balls.”

“For further supply, whenever I came upon sheaves of grain, I picked the heads, rubbed off the kernels, and ate them from my bread sack during the course of the day.  Several times I also found hempseed, which I likewise ate raw out of my pocket; and cooked hempseed was a delicacy for me because the grains burst open and produced an oily sauce; yet since I could not get salt for cooking, it did not have its full strength.”

Sergeant Bourgogne came across some of the wounded, “On the 2nd, before getting to Slawkowo, we saw close to the road a blockhaus, or military station — a kind of large fortified shed, filled with men from different regiments, and many wounded.  All those who could follow us did so, and the slightly wounded were placed, as many as possible, in our carts.  Those more seriously wounded were left, with their surgeons and doctors, to the mercy of the enemy.”

The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter, pp 63 – 64

Sergeant Bourgogne, Adrien Bourgogne, p 67