Tag Archives: Westphalia

Taken Prisoner by the Cossacks

Lance-corporal Wilhelm Heinemann, the survivor of the massacre at Valutina was charged with the task of escorting a wounded sergeant to the rear.  The sergeant developed gangrene and urged his companion to leave him to die.  Heinemann now found himself alone amongst the stragglers and looters who clung to the Grande Armée’s flanks and rear.

He came across a few bands, but was treated poorly and soon found himself alone and starving.  About to end his own misery with a musket shot, he instead spotted a running pig and shot it instead.  It turned out a fellow German was chasing the pig and they ended up travelling together for a few days.  The two approached a village, unsure of who they would find.  Cossacks charged forth and the companion fled, leaving Heinemann alone once more.

Surrounded, he recalled hearing that the Russians treat the Germans better than the French.  When asked in French to surrender, he pretended not to understand and said “I’m not French, I’m German.”

Now a prisoner, we pick up his narrative: “To begin with he [the Cossack] drove me before him at a run, his horse’s hoofs at my heels…  So far I hadn’t been maltreated.  But we halted at a distance from the village and the Cossacks begin visiting me, plundering me in the crude open-hearted way so typical of them…  They took all my money, and the one who got it patted me amiably on my cheek, calling me Patruschka, little father.  But a second Cossack let me understand that if I didn’t produce some more I’d have a taste of the knout.  A third greedily grabbed my tchapska, while a fourth went through my wallet, which was inside it, looking for any rouble notes.  To me my wallet was endlessly valuable.  It contained no money, but everything I held holy, letters from my mother and other personal papers.”

Soon enraged villagers arrived and began to abuse him by throwing stones and dirt , pushing him around and beating him about the head.  “… the women are worst of all.  Blood was running down my face.  One moment I was lying on the ground, being trampled under their feet; the next, they’d grabbed me up by my clothes and hoisted me high in the air, to rip off my shiny buttons.  In this way my uniform was torn to shreds.”

Eventually, he was placed among other Westphalian prisoners, all from his own, reconstituted regiment.  They had been captured while out on a foraging party.  The group was herded along at lance-point.  Soaked and starving, they were forced into pigstyes for the night where they were watched over by peasants and Coassacks.  Fearing this might be his end, the prisoners were instead called out where they were thrown bread: “A bit was flung to each of us, and we were allowed to drink out of a well used by the cattle.  Such was the beginning of a chain of efforts and sufferings no pen can describe.”

They arrived at the headquarters of General [Ferdinand von] Winzingerode, a German in Russian service.  The General sympathized with his fellow countrymen and made arrangements for their better treatment, but once away from the camp, their suffering renewed.

Forced to travel day after day at a brisk trot, they were herded like cattle and watched over by peasants with clubs.  “Anyone who has ever marched in a column knows how wearisome it is to march close behind the man in front of you.  But unable to move on without tramping on his heels, after only an hour’s marching the strongest man was powerless.”

The peasants’ treatment of prisoners: “bore witness to a low bestiality without a trace of humanity in it.”

On January 5th, they reach Archangel on the White Sea.

Source: 1812: Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia by Paul Britten Austin, pp. 221-229.

Massacre at Valutina

Lance-corporal Heinemann was a member of the voltigeur company of the Brunswick Chasseurs.  He writes a terrifying account of how his company (which had already lost 77 of their original 150 men so far on the campaign) was overrun and slaughtered.

Heinemann’s company was out ahead of the main French force when Marshal Murat road up shouting “What are you doing here?  Forward!  Through those thickets, in line of skirmishers, against the enemy!  The army’ll come up behind you!”

Murat departed and the company began the advance.  Heinemann continues, “Beyond us lay an open field.  We waited for our regiments to come up in support.  First we caught brief glimpses of groups of Cossacks; then of Russian hussars; and, soon afterwards, whole lines of enemies, swathed in dust clouds…  We looked behind us, to see if any of our own are coming up.  Not a chance!… And at each moment our danger is growing.”

“The coronet is calling in our skirmishers, spread out to right and left, and the Cossacks are cutting off our retreat…  Our little force forms a double square, six ranks deep – an insignificant little troop amidst countless enemies!  Sabre in hand, our captain steps out boldly from the square, baring his chest to the Cossack skirmishers.  He’ll be the first to fall, going on ahead to prepare night quarters for 65 comrades in eternity…”

“With a thousandfold hurrah the galloping Cossacks break into our defenseless group from all sides.  After a mere couple of minutes our front ranks are lying on the ground, stabbed through by a thousand lances.  Our muskets’ smoke disperses to reveal a horrible bloodbath.  None of us sees the least chance of escaping the slaughter now beginning.  The Cossacks are making such easy work of us, our inability to resist seems to stir their blood-lust to madness.  Surrender is out of the question.  As if driven by some obscure instinct, anyone who’s still alive throws himself down on the ground and plays dead.  Comes a moment of horrible waiting.  Happy he who finds himself lying under heaps of corpses!  Even if the blood of those of our comrades who’ve been stabbed through seeps down over our bodies, if their limbs twitch and jerk on top of ours, if the dying breathe their last sighs into our ears and their corpses press upon us – at least there’s still a chance of surviving underneath this terrible rampart.  In such lethal need it’s every man for himself!”

“… I was one of the few still alive.  Blood was seeping through my uniform, soaking me to the skin and gluing my eyelids together.  Though still not wounded, I could hear the clash of the lances and sabres, mingled with our assassins’ dull oaths, muttering between their teeth their terrible ‘Pascholl!  Sabacki Franzusky!‘ [Die, dog of a Frenchman!] as they exerted all their strength to probe the bodies of the dead with their lances and sabres, to see whether beneath them there mightn’t be something still alive.  Finally my turn comes.  A lance-thrust passing through the chest and back of a comrade who was lying on top of me, strikes my skull a glancing blow and rips open the skin.  Yet I feel no pain.  Lying there half-conscious, all I long for is an end to the slaughter.”

The Cossacks dismount and throw the dead aside, looking for anyone who might still be alive.  “… In this terrible moment I can’t help opening my eyes to see what’s going on.  Suddenly I’m aware of a bearded face with white teeth, bending closely down over me, and hear the Cossack’s savage scornful laugh as he finds another victim to slaughter.  A hundred arms drag me out from amidst the mangled corpses.  And above me I see innumerable lances raised, ready to stab me – when, all of a sudden, familiar sounds suddenly ring out.  Orders shouted in German!  The clash of weapons! Heavenly music… The blue Westphalian hussars are fighting the Cossacks and Russian green hussars hand to hand, and after them come our chasseurs.  The Cossacks depart, cursing.  Only a few still go on eagerly searching for plunder; then even these gallop off, and all is quiet around our square’s burial place.”

Only thirteen of the company survived the battle.

Source: 1812: Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, Paul Britten Austin

The Army Crosses Germany

To get an army of 600,000 into place was a logistical undertaking itself.  François Dumonceau, a captain in the 2nd Regiment of Chevau-légers lanciers of the Imperial Guard wrote the following account:  “At this time [April] the whole of Germany was covered with columns on the march towards the north, and although these were carefully echelonned so as to avoid any congestion, the countryside was nevertheless trampled down by reiterated and often excessive demands.  All these troops, whether allies (from Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden, Westphalia, and elsewhere) or the French, were imbued with a fighting spirit which, now that they found themselves once more on a war footing, made them frequently too imperious in their relations with the owners of military billets.  As a result many abuses occurred.  However, Marshals Davout [Ist Corps] and Oudinot [IInd Corps], whose corps were ahead of us, tried to remedy the situation by a regulation which fixed the composition of each meal, for officers as well as for other ranks; among other things, this regulation allowed the officers half a bottle of wine a day.  We found this regulation printed, posted, and strictly observed everywhere.  At the slightest dispute, the local inhabitants took advantage of the regulation; and this helped to guarantee a measure of justice or moderation in our mutual relationships.”

Dumonceau makes an interesting observation about how the troops were regarded by the locals: “Our hosts received us with urbanity, without too much apparent resentment, despite all of the inconveniences we caused them…  They considered us less as accomplices than as victims of these ceaseless wars…”

One eyewitness to the army’s passing was nine-year-old Wilhelm von Kügelgen in Dresden: “I can still see the long dark columns of the Old Guard with their proud eagles, tall bearskins, and martial faces hovering like gloomy dream pictures; first the warlike sound of drums and pipes, then the ghostly figures of the pioneers with glinting axes and long black beards, and behind them the endless columns of transport.”

Letters Home from the Campaign (Never Received)

Jakob Walter’s book, The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier,  includes six letters home from soldiers (none from Walter).  The letters were included by the editor of the book.  They are from fellow Württembergers or Westphalians and ended up in an archive in Leningrad.

In order to keep news from individual soldiers from contradicting Napoleon’s positively worded Bulletins de la Grande Armée during the campaign, letters to home were read and confiscated if they contained news contrary to the Bulletins.  Six of these confiscated letters were eventually sent to the Kingdom of Westphalia government where they eventually came into the possession of a Russian General who turned them over to his government.

Most of the letters were asking for something, usually money, but one was asking for shirts.  The writer, George Bormann, wrote his letter on Christmas Eve 1812.  There are a few interesting things about his letter.  One is that he describes the burning of Moscow, but makes it sound like it burned from a battle:  “Unfortunately we were there [Moscow] only twenty-four hours as the Russian troops pushed forward again and put fire to this city, with grenades and incendiary bombs was this beautiful city destroyed and turned into an ash heap.”  Since there wasn’t an attack on Moscow, I can only assume he was looking at the situation from his point of view and perhaps the burning of the city appeared to be from an attack.

After the city was destroyed “And so we retreated, when many died and I lost my health.  We retreated Twenty-four miles when Emperor Alexander endcircled us with 200,000 in our back and captured us…..they [Russians] did not leave a shirt on our skin.  So you can well imagine, dear parents, in what condition I am in.”   At this point he asks his parents to “… help me out with some shirts.”

The final thing that struck me was his line “More I don’t know what to write than that you will soon get foreign troops.”

Reading the letters I thought about the mail system in those days and the length of time it must have taken for a letter to travel hundreds of miles and then for a return letter to find a soldier in a moving army (in this case, a prisoner of war).  These letters asking for money and shirts were never received and I can imagine the sender waiting day after day for their requests to be answered.  Hopefully, they wrote other letters that made it through.