Tag Archives: Studenka

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.

Sources:
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 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 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.”

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 Eble 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 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 Bridge at Borisov

The next obstacle for the Grande Armée was the Berezina river.  Napoleon was counting on being able to cross the river on ice, but a recent thaw had made that impossible.  Marshal Nicolas Oudinot was charged with the responsibility of capturing and holding the bridge at Borisov.  An advance unit of Poles managed to seize the bridge, but were driven off when the Russians arrived.  On November 23rd, Oudinot arrived with a larger force and charged into the town, routing the Russians, capturing 1,000 men and  300 supply wagons.  However, as they retreated across the bridge, the Russians set it on fire and destroyed it.  Now the two sides faced each other across the river without exchanging shots.

Oudinot sent reconnaissance parties north and south to find suitable fords where bridges could be constructed.  One of the places to be checked was Studenka about six miles north of Borisov.  Meanwhile, Napoleon was deciding between heading for Minsk and re-capturing his recently lost supply depot there or going to Vilna.  Minsk involved too much of a risk and Vilna was chosen.  Napoleon ordered the building of bridges at Studenka.

To keep the Russians guessing, Oudinot was ordered to show activity at all crossing points up and down the river.  Now it was a race to build the bridges and cross while facing Russians on both sides of the river.