Tag Archives: Viazma

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

Jakob Walter is Robbed of his Bread

Early in the retreat, Jakob Walter was invited to attach himself to a major as an attendant.  Somehow he became separated from the major after a few days.  Walter managed to secure a horse and then took a small sled from a peasant.  After fashioning a harness from a sack and two ropes, he rode the sled “…through the burned cities of Viasma, Semlevo, and Dorogobush without finding my master.  Once, while I was eating some of my aforementioned bread, several Frenchmen saw me.  These inhuman men surrounded me with the pretext of buying bread; and, when the word ‘bread’ was mentioned, everyone bolted at me, so that I thought my death was near; but through an extraordinary chance there came along some Germans, whom I now called to my aid.  They struck at my horse so that most of the Frenchmen fell back from me and then were entirely beaten off.”

“Among these Germans were two sergeants from my regiment called N. and N.  After I was free, they took my bread and walked away.  Not they, I could see now, but rather their hunger and my bread were both my redeemers and, at the same time, my robbers.  Although I had already given them a loaf, they robbed me!  But this, my dear readers, is to be judged otherwise than you think.  There are stories in which people have murdered and eaten each other on account of hunger, but certainly this incident was still a long way from murder.  Since starvation had risen to a high degree, why could not such a thing happen?  And, besides that, much of the humanity of man had already vanished because of hunger.”

Source:
The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter, pp 65 – 66

Mistreatment of French Prisoners

General Wilson continues his observations about the retreat after the first snow fall of early November.  “At Viazma, fifty French, by a savage order, were burned alive.  In another village fifty men had been buried alive; but these terrible acts of ferocity were minor features – they ended in death with comparitively little protracted suffering.  Here death, so much invited, so solicited as a friend, came with dilatory step; but still he came without interval of torturing pause.”

“I will cite three or four of the most painful indcidents that I witnessed.

1. A number of naked men, whose backs had been frozen while they warmed the front of their bodies, sat round the burning embers of a hut.  Sensible at last to the chill of the air, they had succeeded in turning themselves, when the fire caught the congealed flesh, and a hard burnt crust covered the whole of their backs.  The wretches were still living as I passed.

2.  Sixty dying naked men, whose necks were laid upon a felled tree, while Russian men and women with large faggot-sticks, singing in chorus and hopping round, with repeated blows struck out their brains in succession.

3.  A group of wounded men, at the ashes of another cottage, sitting and lying over the body of a comrade which they had roasted, and the flesh of which they had begun to eat.

4.  A French woman, naked to her chemise, with black, long, dishevelled hair, sitting on the snow, where she had remained the whole day and in that situation had been delivered of a child, which had afterwards been stolen from her.  This was the extreme of mental anguish and bodily suffering.

I could cite a variety of other sad and sorry calamities, but the very recollection is loathsome.”

Source:
1812: Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, Antony Brett-James, p 222

Aftermath in Viazma

Sir Robert Wilson, an English General attached as an observer to the Russians, wrote about what he found after the French had left Viazma.  “The shells that the enemy [the French] had buried in the different houses then burning were continually exploding, and the passage through the streets was very dangerous.  This thoughtless conduct of the enemy was the death-warrant of many an unfortunate wretch.  I had the satisfaction, however, of seeing a very interesting Swiss family saved.  The two daughters were as beautiful young women as I ever saw in my life.  The first day I proceeded forty versts, the next seventeen, the next twenty-five, when we entered Dorogobuzh by force, the enemy having two divisions in the town who attempted some resistance.  The marches were very severe, as the weather was of the most desperate character; but the scene for the whole route represented such a spectacle that every personal consideration was absorbed by the feelings that the sight of so much woe excited.”

“The naked masses of dead and dying men; the mangled carcasses of ten thousand horses, which had, in some cases, been cut for food before life had ceased, the craving of famine at other points forming groups of cannibals; the air enveloped in flame and smoke; the prayers of hundreds of naked wretches, flying from the peasantry whose shouts of vengeance echoed incessantly through the woods; the wrecks of cannon, powder-wagons, military stores of all descriptions, and every ordinary as well as extraordinary ill of war combined with the asperity of the climate, formed such a scene as probably was never witnessed to such an extent in the history of the world.”

1812: Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, Antony Brett-James, pp 221 – 222

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.”

Jakob Walter is Robbed of his Bread

Early in the retreat, Jakob Walter was invited to attach himself to a major as the major’s attendant.  Somehow he became separated from the major after a few days.  Walter managed to secure a horse and then took a small sled from a peasant.  After fashioning a harness from a sack and two ropes, he rode the sled “…through the burned cities of Viasma, Semlevo, and Dorogobush without finding my master.  Once, while I was eating some of my aforementioned bread, several Frenchmen saw me.  These inhuman men surrounded me with the pretext of buying bread; and, when the word ‘bread’ was mentioned, everyone bolted at me, so that I thought my death was near; but through an extraordinary chance there came along some Germans, whom I now called to my aid.  They struck at my horse so that most of the Frenchmen fell back from me and then were entirely beaten off.”

“Among these Germans were two sergeants from my regiment called N. and N.  After I was free, they took my bread and walked away.  Not they, I could see now, but rather their hunger and my bread were both my redeemers and, at the same time, my robbers.  Although I had already given them a loaf, they robbed me!  But this, my dear readers, is to be judged otherwise than you think.  There are stories in which people have murdered and eaten each other on account of hunger, but certainly this incident was still a long way from murder.  Since starvation had risen to a high degree, why could not such a thing happen?  And, besides that, much of the humanity of man had already vanished because of hunger.”

Mistreatment of French Prisoners

General Wilson continues his observations about the retreat after the first snow fall of early November.  “At Viazma, fifty French, by a savage order, were burned alive.  In another village fifty men had been buried alive; but these terrible acts of ferocity were minor features – they ended in death with comparitively little protracted suffering.  Here death, so much invited, so solicited as a friend, came with dilatory step; but still he came without interval of torturing pause.”

“I will cite three or four of the most painful indcidents that I witnessed.

1. A number of naked men, whose backs had been frozen while they warmed the front of their bodies, sat round the burning embers of a hut.  Sensible at last to the chill of the air, they had succeeded in turning themselves, when the fire caught the congealed flesh, and a hard burnt crust covered the whole of their backs.  The wretches were still living as I passed.

2.  Sixty dying naked men, whose necks were laid upon a felled tree, while Russian men and women with large faggot-sticks, singing in chorus and hopping round, with repeated blows struck out their brains in succession.

3.  A group of wounded men, at the ashes of another cottage, sitting and lying over the body of a comrade which they had roasted, and the flesh of which they had begun to eat.

4.  A French woman, naked to her chemise, with black, long, dishevelled hair, sitting on the snow, where she had remained the whole day and in that situation had been delivered of a child, which had afterwards been stolen from her.  This was the extreme of mental anguish and bodily suffering.

I could cite a variety of other sad and sorry calamities, but the very recollection is loathsome.”

Aftermath in Viazma

Sir Robert Wilson, an English General attached as an observer to the Russians, wrote about what he found after the French had left Viazma.  “The shells that the enemy [the French] had buried in the different houses then burning were continually exploding, and the passage through the streets was very dangerous.  This thoughtless conduct of the enemy was the death-warrant of many an unfortunate wretch.  I had the satisfaction, however, of seeing a very interesting Swiss family saved.  The two daughters were as beautiful young women as I ever saw in my life.  The first day I proceeded forty versts, the next seventeen, the next twenty-five, when we entered Dorogobuzh by force, the enemy having two divisions in the town who attempted some resistance.  The marches were very severe, as the weather was of the most desperate character; but the scene for the whole route represented such a spectacle that every personal consideration was absorbed by the feelings that the sight of so much woe excited.”

“The naked masses of dead and dying men; the mangled carcasses of ten thousand horses, which had, in some cases, been cut for food before life had ceased, the craving of famine at other points forming groups of cannibals; the air enveloped in flame and smoke; the prayers of hundreds of naked wretches, flying from the peasantry whose shouts of vengeance echoed incessantly through the woods; the wrecks of cannon, powder-wagons, military stores of all descriptions, and every ordinary as well as extraordinary ill of war combined with the asperity of the climate, formed such a scene as probably was never witnessed to such an extent in the history of the world.”

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.”