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“If Only My Mother Had Not Borne Me!” – The pursuit of the Russians after Smolensk

Jakob Walter describes the conditions endured as the French pursued the retreating Russians after Smolensk:  “On August 19, the entire army moved forward, and pursued the Russians with all speed.  Four or five hours farther up the river another battle started, but the enemy did not hold out long, and the march now led to Moshaisk, the so-called ‘Holy Valley.’  From Smolensk to Moshaisk the war displayed its horrible work of destruction:  all the roads,

fields, and woods lay as though sown with people, horses, wagons, burned villages and cities; everything looked like the complete ruin of all that lived.  In particular, we saw ten dead Russians to one of our men, although every day our numbers fell off considerably.  In order to pass through woods, swamps, and narrow trails, trees which formed barriers in the woods had to be removed, and wagon barricades of the enemy had to be cleared away.  In such numbers were the Russians lying around that it seemed as if they were all dead.  The cities in the meantime were Dorogobush, Semlevo, Viasma, and Gshatsk.  The march up to there, as far as it was a march, is indescribable and inconceivable for people who have not seen anything of it.  The very great heat, the dust which was like a thick fog, the closed line of march in columns, and the putrid water from holes filled with dead people, and cattle brought everyone close to death; and eye pains, fatigue, thirst, and hunger tormented everybody.  God!  how often I remembered the bread and beer which I had enjoyed at home with such an indifferent pleasure!  Now, however, I must struggle, half wild, with the dead and living.  How gladly would I renounce for my whole life the warm food so common at home if I only did not lack good bread and beer now!  I would not wish for more all my life.  But these were empty, helpless thoughts.  Yes, the thought of my brothers and sisters so far away added to my pain!  Wherever I looked, I saw the soldiers with dead, half-desperate faces.  Many cried out in despair, ‘If only my mother had not borne me!’  Some demoralized men even cursed their parents and their birth.”

“These voices, however, raised my soul to God, and I often spoke in quietude, ‘God, Thou canst save me; but, if it is not Thy will, I hope that my sins will be forgiven because of my sufferings and pains and that my soul will ascend to Thee.’  With such thoughts I went on trustingly to meet my fate.’


The Russian withdrawal from Smolensk

Ilya Radozhitskii was a Russian artillery officer who served during the campaign of 1812 and wrote his memoirs after the war.  He describes the Russian withdrawal after Smolensk:

During the night of 7 [19] August the 1st Army moved from Smolensk in two columns: the left, consisting of the 5th and 6th Infantry Corps and two cavalry corps, moved on a safer road through the village of Prudische while the right, consisting of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Corps with a rearguard under General [Fedor] Korf, was ordered to proceed across a hilly countryside, following the road through Krakhotkino and Zhabino to Bredikhino in order to get to the main [Moscow] road, which was protected by General Tuchkov III’s detachment in front of the village of Lubino.

At 9 p.m. on 6 [18] August my unit set off with the right column from Smolensk, marching through the night of 7 [19] August across hills and ravines covered with dense shrubs. The night was dark and damp. At dawn, sleep overcame me so I sat on a gun carriage and, leaning my head against the carriage, gave myself away to sweet dreams. Just as my cannon descended on a slope, English Lord Wilson happened to be passing by and saw how the gunners held me so I did not fall off the carriage, and upon seeing the General, began to wake me up. The venerable Lord saw all of it and admiring the gunners’ care for their officer. He gave them a sign with his hand to let me sleep. When I woke, they told me about the kind “red” general who, as I learned later, was an Englishman assigned to our Commander-in-Chief and tasked by the [British] envoy to serve as an observer [to the Russian army].

At dawn on 7 [19] August we approached the main road, where General Tuchkov’s detachment waited for us, and heard a cannonade coming from behind us. It was Prince of Wurttemberg’s division from the 2nd Corps, engaging the French at the village of Gorbunovo, which the French had captured, thereby cutting off the rearguard of General Korf. The French then turned to the main road and advanced towards General Tuchkov’s detachment, which held positions between the villages of Toporovshina and Latynina on the Stragan’ Rivulet. The enemy engaged this detachment before the 2nd Corps, which was delayed at Gorbunovo, managed to get to the main road. Meanwhile we were moving with the 4th Corps, ahead of the 2nd Corps, and had already passed the village of Lubino when we were turned back to reinforce General Tuchkov’s detachment, which the French engaged so vigorously that it was forced to retreat across the Stragan’ Rivulet.

By 3 o’clock in the afternoon the battle intensified. A ferocious firefight was being waged in the brush all along the line. Because of the smoke that rose incessantly from musket fire, the brush seemed to be on fire. For several hours the French had tried in vain to break through our center. A murderous rain of lead claimed many victims. Skirmishers could hardly see each other and Death stealthily claimed the brave souls. The attacking enemy columns were annihilated by the canister rounds fired by our batteries as well as the bayonets of our grenadiers. Meanwhile, the French [VIII] Corps of General Junot, accompanied by numerous cavalry, appeared on the hill against our left flank. Our 4th Corps was immediately moved to face this new threat.

Staff-Captain [Alexander] Figner, as the commander of 3rd Light Artillery Company, was still in reserve when the regiments of our corps moved left and up the hill. However, he understood that we would be soon committed to the battle and ordered the available wine rations to be given to his artillery crews. He borrowed this method of maintaining soldiers’ courage from the French, who, upon falling into our hands, usually carried rum or vodka instead of water, in the canister behind their knapsacks… After wishing his gun crews success in victory, Figner went ahead, out of ordinary curiosity, to observe the battle but soon returned and ordered everyone to mount the gun carriages and caissons at once. We quickly rode to the left flank but had to pass through swamp that delayed our movement. Having moved through the marsh, our guns began to ascend a steep hill, where a cavalry melee was taking place. We could hear a rumbling noise, shouting and occasional cannon fire. Suddenly to the left of us, the Cossacks descended the hill; some of them quickly turned back but three Cossacks kept descending, accompanying a fat Württemberg trumpeter who was unhorsed. He wore a blue uniform with red lapels and big boots, which occasionally tripped him. The poor lad had probably blown his trumpet too much since he was bathed in sweat and red-faced as usually happens after a lot of work. But he seemed to be proud of the fact that three Cossacks were assigned to escort him.

Climbing up the hill, we observed a rather curious spectacle. The Pernovskii Regiment stood in line on the top of hill, with six of our cannon on its right flank while the remaining guns had to remain on the slope because of a lack of space. In front of the Pernovskii Regiment, we could see blue, red, gray and green hussars deployed, by squadrons and with horse artillery guns, in the brush. The cavalry melee unfolded before our eyes. It was fascinating to see how a few squadrons of French hussars charged at our horsemen, who fled at full gallop before receiving reinforcements, turned around and drove the French back. Only shrapnel and bullets stopped their charges but as they recalled, they were again attacked and pursued by the French. Such fighting resembled the knightly tournaments: some cavalrymen fell from their horses; some, finding themselves amidst the enemy, were waving their sabers; one shot his pistol, the other hacked [with his saber] at the enemy; horses crashed into each other, became frenzied and rushed away… To the right of the hill Prince Gurielov was with the Polotskii Infantry Regiment, deployed in woods that covered the hill slopes. At one point he moved forward from the woods to attack the enemy cavalry’s flank but quickly faced a similar threat and was forced to stop.

Figner’s cannon remained idle because they had to shoot through our own men. Meanwhile, as I observed the overall course of the battle, I noticed French infantry on our right flank, which was moving through the brush at the bottom of the hill. The French drove our jagers back. I rushed to inform Figner about this, emphasizing the consequences if the French managed to get behind us. He told me to take six guns, descend from the hill and move to the main road while he followed me with the remaining guns. I was delayed by the swamp at the bottom of the hill and managed to move five guns before the sixth got stuck in the swamp. As they came out of the brush, the [French] skirmishers stumbled

Re-enactors portray a Russian Artillery crew

directly upon my guns. Upon seeing my cannon so close to them, the French rushed towards me. Their bullets began to buzz sharply above us and the tight space and difficult terrain prevented me from deploying for action so I decided to hasten towards the main road. The crackling of musket fire and smoke kept approaching us; bullets began to pierce our gunners, horses and strike at gun carriages…. Our jagers, with muskets in arms and leaning, hurried to hide from the deadly lead behind my guns. Their officer shouted to them, “Where are you going, lads? Come back, please, you should be ashamed!” But nobody listened to him. Suddenly Generals – Commander-in-Chief Barclay de Tolly, accompanied by Lord [Robert] Wilson, Count [Alexander] Kutaisov, Osterman, Orlov, Korf and others – appeared in front of us. They all shouted at the fleeing men, “Where are you going! Stop! Turn back!” The soldiers stopped and turned back. The Commander-in-Chief rode up to me and asked sternly, “Where did you come from?” – “From there” I replied, pointing to the hill on the left. And he went onwards. The generals were followed by dense columns of grenadiers from Count Arakcheyev’s Leib-Grenadier and Yekaterinoslavskiii Grenadier Regiments: these were tall fellows with pale faces, holding their muskets at the ready and marching at a brisk pace to meet death. With the cry of “Hurrah!” they charged into the brush and restored order with bayonets. Five minutes later, many of them, bloodied and half dead, returned leaning on the shoulders of their comrades … It was impossible not to shudder as one witnessed the withering of the finest colors of the Russian might.

The fast approaching darkness failed to end the ferocious battle. Despite our persistence, the French continued to fight until midnight ignoring the heavy casualties they suffered. They lost a general of division [Charles Etienne Gudin] who was killed, but in return captured General [Pavel] Tuchkov,[1] which caused our skirmishers to flee. General Konovnitsyn and his grenadiers, however, managed to save the day and hold the ground.

After my departure, Staff Captain Figner remained behind with six guns, with the Pernovskii Regiment on the left flank. His personal courage saved my cannon which had been mired in the swamp. We witnessed his gallantry. Upon observing from the hill top that the French had driven our skirmishers out of the brush and could capture the mired gun, he descended from the hill with a saber and pistol in hand. His commanding voice rallied the fleeing soldiers. Figner managed to gather about 15 men whom he hid in the woods. As the crowd [tolpa] of French, shouting incessantly “Avance! Avance!,” approached the ambush, Figner ordered his men to fire a volley and then rushed with a naked saber and pistol towards the officer who led the French, grabbed him and threatened to kill him [if he did not surrender]. This surprise attack completely stopped the French – the officer surrendered while his men showed their backs to us. As Figner dragged the officer, the chevalier of the Legion of Honour, by the collar, he came across the Commander-in-Chief who, having learned of Figner’s feat, immediately congratulated him with a promotion to captain. We were all thrilled by the feat and congratulated Figner. He unexpectedly became unusually contemplative and withdrawn and did not want to do anything in the company, leaving it to me as the next senior officer.

The gun and musket fire of this combat had such an effect on me. As well the fleeing skirmishers and the proximity of danger so frightened me that I kept hearing gunfire throughout the night even though there was none, and still envisioned the blackened skinny French skirmishers who pursued our jagers. The recently experienced fever and continued exposure to the horrors of war affected my mind. Besides, having marched for over thirty verstas [20 miles] on very poor roads in darkness since yesterday evening, we spent the entire day on our feet and in the midst of battle only to continue retreating throughout the night. I was not the only one exhausted by such exertion and both men and horses barely trudged along.

After the battle, we stopped for about two hours at our main headquarters, crossed the Brovenka River at night and joined the rest of the army at Lubino before resuming our retreat. On 8 [20] August, we crossed the Dnieper at the Solovyevo crossing. This location was very important to us and if they had anticipated our move, the French would have caused us plenty of harm. The riverbanks here are low lying, sandy and covered on both sides with small woods that are quite disadvantageous for defending against an enemy. We stopped for the night four verstas [2.5 miles] from the crossing.

From there on, the French pursuit eased off as the most recent fights had cooled their ardor. Besides, it was said that Napoleon was still at Smolensk, pondering [what to do next.]

At dawn of the following day, 1st Army’s entire artillery concentrated into a general park before moving to the Moscow River. We marched by companies where possible and passed each other by as we moved. The dust and heat were intolerable. Artillery spanned six rows on the wide road, which was so ploughed over [by carriages] that in some places we walked knee-deep in finely ground dirt that felt like powder; while the wheels rolled without making any noise. The entire artillery park was commanded by Colonel Voyeikov. For several verstas back and forth one could not see anything but artillery and baggage trains, moving in dense clouds of dust that kept rising to the sky. We walked as if shrouded in fog; the sun seemed purple and neither the greenery by the side of the road nor the paint on gun carriages could be discerned. Soldiers were covered from head to toe in gray dust, and our faces and hands were black from dust and sweat. We swallowed and breathed the dust. As the heat tormented us with thirst, we could not find any refreshments. In such miserable conditions we happened to pass by a crowd of French prisoners, who had been captured in the last battle and were happy to see us hastily retreating. They mockingly told us that we would not get away from Napoleon because they now made up the vanguard of his army.

I must admit that our soldiers became very disheartened after the battle at Smolensk. The blood that had been shed in the ruins of Smolensk, all the effort made to resist the enemy as well as retreating on the Moscow road into the depths of Russia itself had made each and every one of us feel powerless against our terrible conqueror. Each of us witnessed heartrending visions of perishing Fatherland. Residents from nearby villages ran to us, leaving the greater part of their positions to their friends and enemies. Burning villages were behind and all around us, announcing the approaching French troops. The Cossacks destroyed everything that was left behind following the passage of our troops so that the enemy found only barren and desolate land everywhere. Thus, desperate Russia tormented her own womb.

[1] General Pavel Tuchkov commanded a brigade in the 17th Division of the 2nd Corps and was tasked with defending a road junction at Lubino/Valutina Gora. During the battle, he led a counterattack with the Ekaterinoslavskii Grenadier Regiment but was captured after receiving a bayonet wound to the abdomen and several saber cuts to the head. He was well treated by Marshal Alexander Berthier and eventually met Napoleon, who had him transported to Metz, where Tuchkov remained until early 1814

The above account is from Alexander Mikaberidze’s translation of Ilya Radozhitskii’s Campaign Memoirs.  Tolstoy consulted Radozhitskii’s memoirs when writing War and Peace.  Many thanks to Alex for generously providing this blog post.

Bloggers Note:  This is the 100th post of this blog (including 13 re-posts from 2011).  Thank you to everyone reading out there and to James Fisher and Alex Mikaberidze for providing material for blog posts ˜ Scott Armstrong

Jakob Walter writes about the first few days of the Invasion

In the book Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter describes the first few days of the advance into Russian.  What strikes me is the misery of the beginning of what turns out to be a six month campaign.  From the beginning, the soldiers are encountering hunger and severe conditions. Walter writes, “On June 25 the army went over the bridges.  We now believed that, once in Russia, we need to nothing but forage — which, however, proved to be an illusion.  The town of Poniemon was already stripped before we could enter, and so were all the villages.  Here and there a hog ran around and then was beaten with clubs, chopped with sabers, and stabbed with bayonets; and, often still living, it would be cut and torn to pieces.  Several times I succeeded in cutting off something; but I had to chew it and eat it uncooked, since my hunger could not wait for a chance to boil the meat.  The worst torture was the march, because the closed ranks forced all to go in columns; the heat and the dust flared up into our eyes as if from smoking coal heaps.  The hardship was doubled by the continual halting of the troops whenever we came to a swamp or a narrow road.  Often one had to stand for half an hour; then another such period was spent catching up and drudging away without water or food.”