Tag Archives: Smolensk

“The Replacements Met the Same Fate”

In contrast to his upbeat account of December 2, Faber du Faur told about the fate of the replacement soldiers who were sent to join the retreating army.

Near Smorgoni, 3 Decemberby Faber du Faur

Near Smorgoni, 3 December
by Faber du Faur

Near Smorgoni, 3 December
During the first few days of December the cold increased tremendously and the dissolution of the army was almost completed.  Those few detachments that had crossed the Beresina in good order now dissolved, and the roads we moved on were, more and more, covered with the corpses of men and horses, victims of hunger, exhaustion and, above all, the deadly cold.  The sick and the dying were soon stripped of their clothing by those that followed behind and buried under the snow.  Smolensk had been our great hope but now it was Vilna.  There we hoped to find enough to satisfy our needs and protection afforded by the numerous troops of the garrison.  Vilna would be our winter quarters.  We were prepared to sacrifice our last drop of energy to reach Vilna.”

We arrived at Smorgoni at noon on the 3rd.  There we met 1,600 replacements for our division, waiting patiently for us in this small town.  But the division was no more and, before long, the replacements met the same fate.  Assigned to the rearguard, they soon vanished after a couple of nights in the cold.  Those few who survived were in a pitiful condition by the time we reached Vilna, and we now saw what would befall any such reserves attempting to join us.”

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

Ney’s Escape

As the rearguard of the Grande Armée, Ney‘s IIIrd Corps was the last to leave Smolensk.  They had orders to blow up the walls of the city as they left.  There

Marshal Michel Ney

was plenty of powder in the city for this task, but the effect was minimal.  Marshal Davout had sent back a messenger to warn Ney of the Russians across the road to Krasnoe, but Ney dismissed it saying something to the effect that all the Cossacks in the world wouldn’t bother him.

Davout’s corps had barely made it through to Krasnoe and now it was Ney’s turn to run the gauntlet.  Ney left Smolensk on the morning of the 17th with 6,000 soldiers and thousands of camp-followers and stragglers.  On the afternoon of the 18th, his lead troops came under fire through a heavy mist.  The Russians had placed artillery across the road and along each side.  To a request for surrender, Ney replied “A Marshal of France does not surrender.”

Le Marechal Ney Retraite de Russie
by Emile Boutigny

Accounts by Palmer, Nafziger and Ségur vary on the details, but in general, what followed is this:  Ney tried to force his way through for five hours.  Montesquiou Duc de Fezensac describes the fierce fighting as each cannon shot  is “carrying off whole files.  At each step death was becoming more inevitable.  Yet our march wasn’t slowed down for a single instant.”  The 18th Regiment of the line lost its Eagle when, as recorded by Captain Guillaume Bonnet, “The regiment impetuously continued its charge and, taking off to the right, threw back a line of infantry; but enveloped by numerous cavalry it was itself annihilated, except for two or three officers who’d been wounded early on…  The Eagle was left there.”

General Jean-David Freytag describes the worsening conditions, “While we were ranged in order of battle in the plain, all the time standing up to a terrible and continuous fire, our carriages, our horses, part of the artillery and all the unarmed men, the stragglers and the sick who’d remained on the road, fell into the power of a ‘hurrah’ of Cossacks.  All the food and the few resources still remaining to us were lost.  Marshal Ney gave the orders that if possible the fight should be sustained until dusk, in order to retreat by the Dnieper.”

Fezensac described Ney’s determination, “Ney’s self-confidence equaled his courage.  Without knowing what he meant to do nor what he could do, we knew he’d do something.  The greater the danger, the prompter his determination; and once having made up his mind, he never doubted he’d succeed. His face expressed neither indecision nor disquietude.”

Leaving his camp fires burning, his army slipped away to the north toward the Dnieper river.  Becoming disoriented in the dark, Ney had the ice of a stream broken so they could tell which direction the water flowed and follow it to the Dnieper.  They reached the river around midnight, but found that the ice was not strong enough to support the crossing.  Ney had the column sit and rest for three hours to allow the ice to harden.  Any remaining wagons and artillery along with the sick and wounded were left on the bank.  A fire was set on the far bank to guide any stragglers and the column moved on.

To be continued…

Sources:
1812: The Great Retreat, Paul Britten Austin, pp 195 – 197

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur

Napoleon in Russia, Alan Palmer

Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, George F. Nafziger

 

“But What a Battle!”

The purpose of this blog is to show the personal experiences of those on the Russian campaign.  As a result, I rarely talk about the strategy or overall picture.  Today, however, I wish to quote from Ségur’s memoirs about the actions of Napoleon and the Imperial Guard on this day, November 17, two hundred years ago.

But, first some background.  Napoleon had ordered his corps to leave Smolensk one at a time at one day intervals with Napoleon and the Imperial Guard leaving first.  As each corps advanced down the road to Krasnoe, they were attacked by Cossacks and the Russian army.  Napoleon and the Imperial Guard had fought their way into Krasnoe and now waited for the following corps to arrive.

Realizing his trailing corps would need help in getting through, in the early hours of the 17th, Napoleon ordered the Imperial Guard to head back east of Krasnoe to hold the road open.  On foot, at the head of the Old Guard, Napoleon himself marched out saying “I have played the Emperor long enough!  It is time to play the General!” Keep this scene in mind while reading Ségur’s account of the action:  “Then the battle began.  But what a battle!  Here the Emperor had no more of those sudden illuminations, no flashes of inspiration, none of those bold unexpected moves that had forced the hand of luck …  Here the enemy’s movements were free; ours, fettered; and this genius in the realm of attack was reduced to defending himself.”

3rd Regiment of Dutch Grenadiers
at Krasnoe

“But here it was borne in on us that Fame is not a mere shadow, but a real force, doubly powerful by the inflexible pride it lends its favorites and the timid precautions it suggests to such as would ensure to attack them.  The Russians that day had only to march forward without maneuvering, even without firing, and their mass would have crushed Napoleon and his wretched troops; but, overawed by the sight of the conqueror of Egypt and Europe, they did not dare to come to close quarters with him.  The Pyramids, Marengo, Austerlitz, and Friedland seemed to rise up and stand between him and their great army.  It was quite conceivable that in the eyes of those submissive, superstitious men there was something supernatural in such extraordinary renown; that they thought him beyond their reach and not to be attacked except from a distance; that men would be powerless against the Old Guard, the living fortress, the granite column (as Napoleon had called them), which cannon alone could demolish.”

“The young soldiers, half of whom were seeing action for the first time, stood up to the deadly fire for three solid hours without taking a step backwards or making a movement to get out of its way, and without being able to return it…”

“At that junction [Marshal Louis Nicolas] Davout was seen approaching through a swarm of Cossacks, whom he scattered by accelerating his march…”

“So the Ist Corps was saved; but at the same time we learned that … Ney had probably not left Smolensk yet, and that we ought to give up all idea of waiting for him.”

Source:
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, pp 203 – 204

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.”

Sources:
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

“Don’t Leave us to the Cossacks”

On the morning of November 14, 1812, Napoleon and the Imperial Guard left Smolensk to resume the march west.  Faber du Faur painted scenes from the next day and included the following narratives.

Between Korythnia and Krasnoi, 15 November
by Faber du Faur

Between Korythnia and Krasnoi, 15 November
“At five o’clock in the morning of 14 November, Imperial Headquarters and the Imperial Guard left Smolensk. Four hours later what remained of the 25th Division followed.  there were just a couple of hundred combatants left in its ranks, although a brigade of 200 men remained behind to form part of the rearguard under Marshal Ney.  We also had four guns and a confused crowd of thousands of unarmed and strangely dressed fugitives, numbers of horses and all kinds of transport.  No sooner had we passed through the city’s gates than our losses began to mount; one of our gun carriages collapsed and we had to abandon the piece.”

“We dragged ourselves through deep snow, leaving traces of our passage in our wake.  We made our way painfully as far as Korythnia, which we reached at nightfall, and we spent the night there.  On the 15th we resumed our march towards Krasnoi.  Towards noon we heard the noise of explosions; at first we took this to be the noise of caissons being destroyed, but it soon became apparent that it was the noise of cannon.  We soon learned that it was the Russians attacking the Imperial Guard, for, now, we too suffered the same fate.  Suddenly, through the snow, we saw a huge cloud of Cossacks flood on to the road ahead.  Simultaneously, masses of infantry, cavalry and artillery appeared on our left.  When they were no more than 4,500 paces from us they opened fire, sending a murderous discharge of round shot and grape against us.  These were [Mikhail] Miloradovich‘s 20,000 Russians, and they had occupied Krasnoi in order to cut our retreat.”

Faur’s next entry has the same name and date as the first:

Between Korythnia and Krasoi, 15 November
by Faber du Faur

Between Korythnia and Krasnoi, 15 November
“We advanced, benefiting from the cover afforded by some pine trees that lined the road, and, despite our enfeebled state, fired back with our three guns.  We were only able to get off a couple of shots before our pieces were silenced by the overwhelming fire of the enemy artillery.  Now we prepared ourselves to fight our way through the enemy barring our way and link up with the Imperial Guard.  We buried our guns so that they would not fall into the hands of the Cossacks, formed ourselves up into a column, with the armed men to the fore, and advanced.  The Russians did not wait to resist our attack but moved out of the way, whilst Miloradovich’s men were content to shadow us on our left and bring their artillery to bear against us. Of course, Miloradovich could have captured every last one of us with even a tenth of his troops.  Eventually we arrived at Krasnoi, having sustained some loss but having come through the enemy.”

Napoleon had ordered his Corps to leave Smolensk at one day intervals and on the 15th, Prince Eugène’s IV Corps was scheduled to leave.  The non-walking wounded of the Corps were gathered into one area and given some food, but then it was time for the rest of the Corps to leave.  Adjutant-Major Césare de Laugier of the Italian Guardia d’Ornore described the scene that followed.  “[Those being left behind] clenched their fists in despair, flung their arms round our legs, sobbed, screamed, clung to us, begged us to find them some means of transport: ‘For pity sake don’t leave us to the Cossacks, to be burnt alive, be butchered as soon as they come in.  Comrades, comrades, friends, for pity sake take us with you!’  We go off with heavy hearts.  Whereupon these unfortunates roll on the ground, lashing about as if possessed.”

Back on the road, things are not any better as Laugier continues, “Here and there, dying horses, weapons, all kinds of effects, pillaged trunks, eviscerated packs are showing us the road followed by those ahead of us.  We also see trees at whose foot men have tried to light a fire; and around their trunks, transformed into funerary monuments, the victims have expired after futile efforts to get warm.  The wagoners are using the corpses, numerous at every step, to pave the road by filling in ditches and ruts.  At first we shudder at the sight; then we get used to it.  Anyone who hasn’t good horses and faithful servants with him will almost certainly never see his own country again.  Far from exciting our sensibility, such horrors just harden our hearts.”

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

1812: The Great Retreat Told by the Survivors, Paul Britten Austin, pp 148-149

“Nothing More than a Miserable Pit”

When the army arrived at Smolensk, instead of the hoped for relief, they only found disappointment.  The shell of a city offered nothing they had hoped for.  Faber du Faur described the conditions.

Camp in Smolensk,
13 November
by Faber du Faur

Camp in Smolensk, 13 November
“So here we were in the promised land of Smolensk, a place where we thought to put an end to our suffering, the goal of our every effort.  We had imagined abundance in the city’s depots, warm houses to accommodate us and secure winter quarters to end our woe  All this had maintained our courage and kept the soldiers in the ranks.  But it was all a lie.  It was nothing more than a miserable pit, and Smolensk, instead of putting an end to the destruction, merely hastened the end of the entire army.”

“We established our camp in eighteen degrees of frost, in the midst of the burnt ruins of a house.  We had but little food, and that had had to be snatched from magazines surrounded by spectres maddened by hunger.  This is all Smolensk , that great city, had to offer.”

“We had to continue the march through the cold and horror.  And the frontier of Russia was another thirty days’ march away!  We destroyed a number of guns here and, pooling our resources, found the means to drag with us four 6-pounders – all that remained of our artillery.  We placed our sick and dying in houses in the New Square, for these had been converted into hospitals.  These hospitals could not deal with such a scale of suffering and they presented a horrifying spectacle.  The unfortunate sick were scattered here and there, in amongst the columns of the arcades or still slumbering in the wagons that had brought them here.  Abandoned by everyone, deprived of all care, the vast majority fell victim to the cold of the first night.”

“Whilst in Smolensk we heard the rumble of guns – a noise that announced the arrival of Kutuzov’s Russians.”

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

The Twenty-Eighth Bulletin

Napoleon issued periodic progress reports in numbered bulletins.  Number 28 was issued on November 12, 1812 from Smolensk.  It began as follows: “The Imperial headquarters were, on 1 November, at Viasma, and on the 9th at Smolensk.  The weather was very fine up to the 6th, but on the 7th winter began; the ground is covered with snow.  The roads have become very slippery, and very difficult for carriage horses.  We have lost many men by cold and fatigue; night bivouacking is very injurious to them.”

“Since the battle of Maloyaroslavetz, the advanced guard has seen no other enemy than the Cossacks, who like the Arabs, prowl upon the flanks and fly about to annoy.”

The bulletin goes on to note that since the bad weather started on the 6th, more than 3,000 carriage horses and 100 caissons had been lost.

Philippe-Paul de Ségur described the scene when the stragglers were turned away from the store houses because they were not with their regiments:  “So these men scattered through the streets, their only hope now being in pillage.  But the carcasses of horses cleaned of meat down to the bone lying everywhere indicated the presence of famine.  The doors and windows had been torn out of all the houses as fuel for the campfires, so the men found no shelter there.  No winter quarters had been prepared, no wood provided.  The sick and wounded were left out in the streets on the carts that had brought them in.  Once again the deadly highroad was passing through an empty name!  Here was one more bivouac among deceptive ruins, colder even than the forests the men had just left.”

“Finally these disorganized troops sought out their regiments and rejoined them momentarily in order to obtain their rations.  But all the bread… had already been distributed, as had the biscuits and meat.  Rye flour, dry vegetables, and brandy were measured out to them.  The best efforts of the guards were needed to prevent the detachments of the different corps from killing each other around the doors of the storehouses.  When after interminable formalities the wretched fare was delivered to them, the soldiers refused to carry it back to their regiments.  They broke open the the sacks, snatched a few pounds of flour out of them, and went into hiding until they had devoured it.  It was the same with brandy.  The next day the houses were found full of the corpses of these unfortunate warriors.”

Source:
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, p 183