Tag Archives: Vilna

And then it Began to Rain

I’ve written a number of times that the suffering began almost as soon as the Grande Armée crossed the Nieman.  In his book Napoleon in Russia: The 1812 Campaign,Alan Palmer writes, “… [the troops] moving forward in a heat that none of them had ever known before, except the veterans of Egypt…  rations

Commemorative Russian card from 1912, the 100th anniversary of the invasion. The cards were part of a package of candy.

were not getting through to the weary men and horses, and there was little enough for them to gather from the fields as they went.  Some of the cavalry tried feeding their horses on green corn and many, in consequence, died.  Count Anatole de Montesquiou, one of the junior officers on Napoleon’s staff, counted the bodies of 1,240 horses as he rode twelve miles down the road towards Vilna.”

Jakob Walter adds his description of the misery when it began to rain a few days into the campaign, “The march proceeded day and night toward Vilkomirz and Eve.  Meanwhile it rained ceaselessly for several days, and the rain was cold.  It was all the more disagreeable because nothing could be dried.  Bodily warmth was our only salvation from freezing to death.  I had on only one pair of blue linen trousers, which I had bought at Thorn, since I had thrown away my underwear because of the former heat.  Thus I was constantly wet for two days and two nights, so that not a spot on my body was dry.”

“During the third night a halt was made in a field which was trampled into a swamp.  Here we were ordered to camp and to make fires, since neither village nor forest could be seen and the rain continued without end.  You can imagine in what a half-numbed condition everyone stood here.  What could we do?  There was noting that we could do but stack the rifles in pyramids and keep moving in order not to freeze.”

Another account comes from Jean-Roch Coignet in his book Captain Coignet: A Soldier of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard from the Italian Campaign to Waterloo.  “On the 29th of June, at three o’clock, a violent storm arose, just before we came to a village, which I had had the greatest possible difficulty in reaching.  When we reached the shelter of this village, we could not unharness our horses; we had to take off their bridles, cut grass for them, and light our fires.  The storm of sleet and snow was so terrible that we could scarcely keep our horses still; we had to fasten them to the wheels.  I was half dead with the cold; not being able to stand it any longer, I opened one of my wagons, and crept inside.  Next morning a heartrending sight met our gaze: in the cavalry camp nearby, the ground was covered with horses frozen to death; more than ten thousands died during that dreadful night.  When I got out of my wagon, all numbed with the cold, I saw that three of my horses were dead…”

“When we reached the highway, we saw the dead bodies of a number of soldiers who had succumbed before the terrible storm.  This demoralized a great many of our men.”

Pleased To See Her Countrymen… Initially

On 28th June, the Countess de Choiseul-Gouffier, who had recently been at the ball held in honour of General Levin-Bennigsen that was attended by the Czar, witnessed the entry of the lead elements of la Grande Armée into Vilna:

“I can find no words to describe my emotions when I saw some Polish troops! Poles who were galloping at full speed, sabres drawn and laughing, waving their lance pennants, which were in the national colours. I was wearing these for the first time! I stood at an open window, and they saluted me as they passed. The sight of these real compatriots set my heart racing. I felt that I was Polish by birth, that I was going to to become Polish again. Tears of joy and enthusiasm streamed down my face. This was a delicious moment , but it was not to last long.”

She continued:

“The French army who entered Vilna had not had bread for three days… The country through which the Grande Armée had passed had been ravaged and pillaged and its corn had been cut green for cavalry; it could not, therefore, supply the needs of the capital, and the people dared not even expose their convoys on the roads which were infested by marauders.

Besides, the disorderly behaviour of the army was a consequence of the sentiment of the chief, for after having crossed the Nieman Napoleon in an order of the day declared to the troops that they were about to set foot on Russian territory. It was like this that the liberator of Poland, so much desired, announced himself to the Lithuanians. In consequence of this Proclamation Lithuania was considered and treated as a hostile country, while its inhabitants, animated by patriotic enthusiasm flew to welcome the French. They were soon to be desported and outraged by those who they regarded as the instruments of the deliverance of their country and compelled to abandon their homes and their property to pillage. Many took refuge in the depths of the forest, carrying with them that which they hold the most dear—honour of their wives and children.

Each day brought the recital of new excesses committed by the French soldier in the country. Vilna seemed to have become a seat of war, soldiers bivouacked in the streets, which resounded with the clash of arms, the blare of trumpets, the neighing of horses and the confusion of many languages.”

Taken from Spring, L (2009) 1812: Russia’s Patriotic War. The History Press, Stroud Gloucestershire, UK. pp. 26 & 27.  Thank  you to James Fisher for providing this post.

“No, a thousand times no; never was there such a sight!”

When Napoleon left the army to return to Paris, he left Marshal Murat, King of Naples, in charge.    Captain Coignet of the Imperial Guard Grenadiers writes in his memoirs, “But it was a Wilna tht we suffered most.  The weather was so severe that the men could no longer endure it; even the ravens froze.”

“We remained under the command of the King of Naples, and were not too happy in our minds, for, though he was always the first to draw a sabre or brave danger, he may truly be said to have been the executioner of our cavalry.  He kept his divisions constantly mounted all along the route, and they were more than enough to keep the Cossacks at bay; but our cavalry were dying of starvation, and when night came, the unfortunate soldiers were not able to use their horses to go for forage…  He was, indeed the handsomest horseman in Europe; but without foresight, for it was not a question of being an intrepid soldier, but of being able to economize his resources.  He lost us (I heard this said to Marshal Davoust) forty thousand horses through his mismanagement.  It is always wrong to blame one’s officers; but the Emperor could have made a better selection.  There were among our leaders two warriors, rivals in glory, Marshal Ney and Prince Beauharnais, who saved us from the greatest perils by their coolness and courage.”

“The King of Naples went on to Wilna; he arrived there on the 8th of December, and we with the guard, on the 10th.  It was night when we came to the gates of the city, which were barricaded with pieces of wood.  We had the greatest difficulty in entering.  I and my comrade were lodged in a school, well warmed.”

“When I went to my general of orders, he said, ‘Be ready at four in the morning to leave the city, for the enemy is now arriving on the heights, and we shall be bombarded at daylight.  Do not lose any time.'”

“We had scarcely got ready to leave when the Russians forced the Witepsk gate; we had barely time to get out…  When we reached the mountain of Wilna the confusion was at its height.  All the material of the army and the Emperor’s carriages were on the ground.  The soldiers helped themselves to gold and silver plate.  All the chests and casks were burst open.  What a quantity of plunder was left on that spot!  No, a thousand times no; never was there such a sight!”