The Russian Campaign of 1812 (Below: The Battle of Berezina)
NOTE: The following text is from the following source. I have also provided a link to that source. I found this narrative one of the best discussions of the Russian Campaign of 1812 and wanted to include Major McGhee’s text in its entirety. The images I have added are mostly from The Battle of Berezina.
Soldiers of Fortitude: The Grande Armee of 1812 in Russia
by Major James T. McGhee [SOURCE]
Author and historian David G. Chandler identifies Napoleon Bonaparte as “one of the greatest military minds that has ever existed.” Indeed Napoleon’s exploits as a military commander and his subsequent rise to the position of Emperor of France and much of Europe has produced an enormous amount of scholarly interest. Historians, political scientists, military theorists and others have published volumes on Napoleon and his times.
Napoleon’s rise to power was achieved in a large part by his many military successes. His remarkable victories over the combined armies of Europe won him recognition and glory as a general and finally Emperor. However, through the many challenging and bloody campaigns it was the soldiers serving under Napoleon and in the Grand Army and their sacrifices that provided Napoleon with his power over Europe. Napoleon expected nothing less from his troops. He pushed them beyond human endurance to achieve total victory over his enemies. According to Napoleon, “The first qualification of a soldier is fortitude under fatigue and privation. Courage is only the second; hardship, poverty, and want are the best school for a soldier.” In 1812, Napoleon embarked on a campaign that would test the limits of these qualifications in his soldiers. Those who endured the brutal march of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812 and survived may be considered, most certainly by Napoleon’s standards, some of the most qualified soldiers in the history of warfare.
On 31 December 1810, the Czar of Russia issued a ukase, which broke Russia’s alliance with France and threatened to destroy Napoleon’s Continental System and his strategy of economic warfare against England. Napoleon immediately began organizing a new Grande Armee large enough to ensure an overwhelming victory over the army of the Czar. Napoleon had immense resources at his disposal. His influence collected men and material from across Europe, including France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Italy, Prussia, Austria, Denmark, Switzerland, and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. Although sources differ, Connelly declares that, “by June 1812, Napoleon had a field army of 611,000 men with 2000 guns and 250,000 horses.”
To defeat the Czar, Napoleon intended to use his proven strategy of forcing his opponents to engage in a decisive battle of annihilation designed to shatter the enemy’s capacity and will to resist and therefore avoiding the need to capture geographical objectives or the Russian capital. He did not intend on having to march too far into the interior of Russia to accomplish his objectives. Nonetheless, Napoleon ordered that extensive logistical preparations be made in Prussia to support his advance. In Danzig alone, Napoleon had concentrated rations to support 400,000 men and fodder to support 50,000 horses for 50 days. This consisted of millions of pounds of rice, wheat and oats. As many as 1500 wagons and 50,000 draft horses were required to transport the supplies. Meat rations were to be provided by beef on the hoof driven along behind the advancing army.
Napoleon’s main forces, dressed magnificently and singing glorious marching songs, crossed the bridges over the Niemen River on 24-25 June and moved immediately towards the city of Kovno. The oppressive heat characterized the Russian weather in June. The effects of the heat were exacerbated by the uniforms and equipment carried by the soldiers. Although uniforms within Napoleons “army of twenty nations” varied widely, the uniforms of the time were generally a dark color of blue or gray and were made of wool. These uniforms absorbed the intense heat making it all the more unbearable for the soldiers. The heavy weight carried by the individual soldier could also drain a man’s strength and test his endurance. A fully supplied French infantryman carried an average load of 60 pounds. This typically consisted of his basic uniform, his rifle, equipment including a bayonet, canteen (if available), a cartridge pouch with 60 rounds of ammunition, a blanket, and a knapsack containing two spare shirts, two pair of shoes, a spare pair of pants and half-gaiters, eating utensils, personal items and four days of rations (if available). There were however numerous shortages or variations in equipment across the different national armies within the Grande Armee . The Imperial Guard for example, carried their full dress uniform, adding another five pounds to their load. Additional equipment such as hand axes and small cooking pots were also issued to select individuals. Individual tents however were no longer issued to the troops. According to Napoleon, “Tents are unfavorable to health. The soldier is best when he bivouacs, because he sleeps with his feet to the fire, which speedily dries the ground on which he lies. A few planks and a morsel of straw shelter him from the wind.” The lack of shelter in Russia would prove critical over the coming months.
The considerable heat created very dry conditions along roads that were supporting the passage of hundreds of thousands of men, horses, wagons and carriages. Enormous clouds of dust arose from the dry roads of Russia, enveloping all who traveled them. The dust and the heat were oppressive and torturous. Lieutenant Karl von Suckow describes the march, “Of all the unpleasant things we had to endure, one of the most unbearable was the thick dust which enveloped us on the march, much of the way in very dry weather…. I recall that at one stage, so as to prevent anyone taking a wrong turning, a drummer was stationed at the head of each battalion, and his job was to beat the drum all the time. This fact alone will indicate just how dense the clouds of dust were.” An officer and veteran of the Peninsula Campaign in Spain reported, “I must admit that I had never been so troubled by the heat or the dust in the Peninsula as was so often the case on these marches during the summer of 1812 in Russia. The air along the wide sandy tracks was really like an oven, oppressively hot was it and so unrelieved by the slightest puff of wind. If one was unfortunate enough to be caught between the innumerable wagons, which ploughed along in deep sand ruts at the slowest pace of the draught animals, and have to remain among them for hours on end without being able to escape, then one would suffocate. Eyes, nose, mouth, and ears were often so clogged with grains of sand that one seemed to have lost the use of all one’s senses. The dust lay so thick on my dark-gray dolman, which was faced with red that it was no longer possible to make out the slightest trace of this color.”
Through the unbearable heat and suffocating dust, the army marched routinely 10-12 miles a day. Increases in the rate of march could double the distances traveled. Captain Roeder reports in his memoir of marching from six in the morning to seven in the evening. The French routinely provided only for very short breaks during the march. The soldiers traditionally received only five minutes every hour and thirty minutes only after marching 30 kilometers (18.6 miles). After five days of marching a day of rest might be given.
For many, the dust combined with the heat, the weight of their pack and the speed and distances of the march was too exhausting to allow them to continue. Soldiers and horses by the hundreds began dying almost immediately of exhaustion and dehydration due to dysentery.
Relief from the extreme conditions of heat and dust came on 28 June in the form of severe thundershowers. However, the relief of the showers found in cooler temperatures and fresh water soon brought even more despair. The soldiers lacked any clothing or shelter to protect them from the drenching rain. Their uniforms became soaking wet, adding additional discomfort, and weight to their already heavy loads. The rain also brought with it chillingly cool temperatures for which many were unprepared. Those men like Lieutenant Suckow, suffering from the heat of the previous days were now suffering in the cold, many having discarded excess clothing including their underwear. Sergeant Jean-Roch Coignet of the Imperial Guard was present when the weather changed, “On 29 June a violent storm broke. The hailstorm was so bad that we had great trouble in controlling our horses, and it became necessary to tether them to the wheels. I was half dead with cold, and unable to stand any longer. I opened one of my wagons and took refuge inside. The next morning a heart-rending sight met my eyes. The ground was covered with horses, which had died of cold. On reaching the road I found some dead soldiers who had not been able to withstand this appalling storm, and this demoralized a large number of our troops.”
The storms also turned the dry, dusty roads into a sea of mud and the fertile fields established as campsites were quickly turned into mucky bogs. Men slipped and fell or became stuck in the viscous mud. Uniforms previously covered in dust and washed by the drenching rains were now covered in the sticky mire of Russia. Captain Roeder remembers such a night, “The night was black as pitch. We were soaked to the skin and unable to see whether we were lying in a clean place or in the filth left by our predecessors. I myself first lay down in the proximity of a dead horse.” “I rolled myself in my rug with my wet cloak under me.” The muddy roads impeded travel as wagons and guns became foundered in the ruts created by hundreds of wagons before them. Provision trains began to lag behind and many wagons were discarded because of the loss of horses. The cattle following the army could not maintain the pace of the march and fell behind. Food became more difficult to obtain and hunger spread throughout the Army.
To combat the breakdown of the supply system soldiers began to forage the countryside in search of food, horses, and perhaps a bottle of wine. Foraging was not discouraged. Despite the immense logistical preparations, foraging by the army was expected. Jacob Walker encouragingly wrote that, “We now believed that, once in Russia we need do nothing but forage.” Napoleonic expert and author Gunther Rothenberg explains, “Despite his often-quoted pronouncement that ‘an army marches on its stomach,’ Napoleon remained essentially an improviser. He could never free himself from the experience of his first Italian campaign when a small, highly motivated army, moving rapidly in a rich countryside had sustained itself from local resources and captured supplies.”
The soldiers became experts at foraging. These expeditions could prove quite successful depending on the expedition’s location within the column of march and their persistence. Those located in the front of the march column tended to fair better than those in the middle while the supply trains trailing the army better supported those in the rear. The Russian countryside was not as rich as other countries in Europe but it could help sustain an army. Unfortunately for Napoleons men, it was sustaining the Russian army who retreated steadily in front of Napoleon’s advance. “It was custom with the Russian rear-guard to burn every village as they abandoned it. What they contained in forage and subsistence was rapidly used, and nothing therefore remained. This became a deliberate practice, which extended itself widely to the towns, great as well as small.” This destruction forced the Russian peasants to fear the Russian soldiers as much as the French, forcing them to hide their livestock in the woods or bury their food in the earth for safekeeping. French soldiers entering a town usually found very little initially. But persistent and thorough searches more often than not turned up something of value. A thorough search by Jakob Walter’s foraging parties uncovered such caches, “It was necessary to raise the floors and the beams in order to find anything and to turn upside down everything that was covered. Under one such floor, which had large beams resting side by side, we found pots full of sausage stuffed into casings four to five feet long and filled with pieces of bacon and meat an inch thick. Here we also found hidden pots filled with lumps of cheese. In another well-plundered village nothing could be found in the houses; and so, urged on by our hunger, we dug in the ground. Here I with several others removed a large pile of wood, which had probably just been put there. We removed this, dug in to the ground, and found covered roof of planks. Under the planks, there was an opening twelve feet deep. Inside there were honey jars and wheat covered with straw.” Successes of this type helped to sustain many in Napoleon’s army but they did not relieve the great misery of the masses of men and horses.
Following a two-week stay in Vilna, Napoleon on 16 July ordered his troops to march towards Vitebsk. The welcome rest in Vilna had provided the supply system an opportunity to provide some rations to the soldiers. The men of Captain Roeder’s company were each issued sixteen loaves of bread. However, many sold the bread being “less afraid of collapsing from hunger than from fatigue.” The blistering heat of July, combined with the miserable dust, biting insects and the exhausting pace of the march, continued to devastate the ranks of Napoleon’s army. Those soldiers marching in the middle or rear of the column often had to march past the corpses of those men and horses who had fallen. The sights seen along the road are remembered once again by Captain Reoder, “We saw a good 3,000 horses lying by the roadside, overcome by fatigue or bad feeding, mostly from being overfed with green corn, and more rotting human corpses, which at this season of the year make a hideous stench. On some stretches of the road I had to hold my breath in order not to bring up liver and lungs, and even to lie down until the need to vomit had subsided.”
The shortage of water affected thousands. Wells found along the route were often drunk dry to quench the thirst of those who arrived first, leaving nothing for those who followed. Very often the Russians had polluted the wells before their retreat. Many soldiers drank from putrid wells only to discover afterwards human corpses or the remains of a dead horse left behind as a surprise by the Russians. For many, water could only be found in the low areas or swamps. According to Walter, “In order to obtain water for drinking and cooking, holes were dug into the swamps three feet deep in which the water collected. The water was very warm, however, and was reddish-brown with millions of little red worms so that it had to be bound in linen and sucked through with the mouth. This was, of course, a hard necessity of our ways.” Thousands became ill from drinking the water and developed severe dysentery. Others marched without water until they were overcome by either heat exhaustion or dehydration.
Napoleon assured his army they would get a break at Vitebsk but this did little to relieve the sufferings of his men. An unnamed civilian traveling with the army as a painter wrote of the condition of the army in July, “The weary horses often stumbled and fell. Whole columns of hundreds of these poor beasts had to be led in the most pitiful conditions, with sores on their withers and discharging a stream of pus. They had all lost weight till their ribs stood out, and looked a picture of abject misery. Already in the middle of July the army was in this state! I am beginning to lose heart. Two whole months on the march and for what purpose? And through what country? It distresses me to be compelled to waste God-given time so wretchedly.” Many men had reached the end of their physical and mental endurance and could withstand no more. Suicide became a common escape chosen by many. Lieutenant Suckow remembers, “Hundreds killed themselves, feeling no longer able to endure such hardship. Every day one heard isolated shots ring out in the woods near the road.”
Napoleon entered Vitebsk unopposed on 29 July, the Russians retreating and once again denying Napoleon the decisive battle he so urgently sought. The destruction of the enemy’s main field force, rather than the mere occupation of territory or the capture of the enemy’s capital remained Napoleon’s main objective. However, if the enemy continued to elude destruction and if he was able to fall back into endless depths of Mother Russia, then Napoleon faced severe problems. Every mile that Napoleon advanced weakened his army while it allowed the Russians to fall back on their reserves of men and supplies.
The Russians had retreated back to the ancient, walled city of Smolensk were they intended to make a stand against Napoleon. Napoleon, seeing an opportunity to engage the Russians in a decisive battle ordered his army to march onward to Smolensk. He needed his victory, as the state of his army continued to deteriorate. His officers began doubting the fruitfulness of continuing the campaign. On 11 August as the army approached Smolensk, General Erasmus Deroy commanding the 19th Division sent a report back the King of Bavaria announcing, “The food is bad, and the shoes, shirts, pants, and gaiters are now so torn that most of the men are marching in rags or barefoot. Furthermore, I regret to have to tell Your Majesty that this state of affairs has produced a serious relaxation of discipline, and there is such a widespread spirit of depression, discouragement, discontent, disobedience, and insubordination that one cannot forecast what will happen.”
On 16 August, French troops began to position themselves in a semi circle around the city in preparation for their attack. The main battle took place on the 17th. The Russians put up a fierce resistance on many fronts but were steadily forced to withdraw in the face of advancing infantry and devastating artillery fire. The French discovered on the morning of the 18th that the entire Russian army had vacated the city during the night and formed positions on the other side of the Dnieper River. Napoleon achieved a costly victory at Smolensk but failed to destroy the Russian army. He lost between eight and nine thousand men during the battle and three fourths of the city had been burned and destroyed. Russian losses were also high with as many as 7,000 bodies found on the field.
The battle at Smolensk had not provided Napoleon with the decisive victory he so desperately needed. He had to decide to pursue the Russians to Moscow, if necessary, or remain in the already devastated city of Smolensk. The combatant strength of his Army was down to 150,000 soldiers, having lost a great portion of his army during the march. A Wurttenburger Major described to Captain Roeder the effects thus far of the march and the battle of Smolensk on his Regiment, “When we left home we had 7,200 infantry, but although we have fought no battle other than that at Smolensk, we cannot muster more than about 1,500 men, as a result of the battle a third of these were lost, so that now we are scarcely more than 1,000 or 900 strong.” The urge to continue on and defeat the enemy proved too great for Napoleon to overcome. In the past he had never failed to defeat his opponents in a single campaign and this one would be no different. He decided to continue the march to Moscow, another 310 miles away.
The Road to Moscow led through the cities of Dorogobush, Semlevo, Viasma, and Gzatsk. The absolute misery and poverty of the army continued, as best described by Walter,
“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 is 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 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.” Napoleon reached the city of Gzatsk on 1 September. There, the number of 150,000 soldiers who had left Smolensk was now down to 133,000. None-the-less, upon arrival at Gzatsk, Napoleon’s mood was joyous. Scouts had returned to report that the Russian’s were preparing battle positions near the town of Borodino.
Napoleon allowed three days for his supply trains to move forward, and to plan his attack. On September 4th his Army marched to Borodino and by the evening of the sixth the two armies faced one another. Orders were given by Napoleon to attack on the morning of September 7th. At 2:00 a.m. a proclamation from Napoleon was read to the troops, “This is the battle you have longed for! Now the victory depends on you: you need it. It will give you abundance, good winter quarters, and an early return home.” At 6:00 a.m. over 500 guns began to roar.
The battle of Borodino was one of violence and confusion. It was fought bitterly by both sides. The fighting was often hand-to-hand and the number of casualties was severe. Captain Charles Francios served in the 1st Division and took part in the battle, “Our regiment was ordered to advance. We were riddled with grapeshot from this battery and several others flanking it, but nothing stopped us. Whole files, half-platoons even, went down under the enemy’s fire, and left huge gaps. A Russian line tried to stop us, but at thirty yards range we fired a volley and passed through. Then we dashed through the redoubt and clambered through the embrasures. The Russian gunners received us with handspikes and rammers, and we fought them hand to hand. They were redoubtable opponents. I had been through more than one campaign, but I had never found myself in such a bloody melee and up against such tenacious soldiers as the Russians.” Arguably, total victory was in Napoleons grasp but he hesitated and failed to commit his prized Guard. The Russians began to fall back but it was too late in the day for Napoleon to prevent their withdrawal. That night the Russians made a hasty retreat from the battlefield. Napoleon was the victor but at a horrible cost. French casualties ranged from 28,000 to 31,000 men including 47 generals. Russian casualties were even greater, numbering at least 45,000. The road to Moscow was open but the Russian army was intact and Napoleon was no closer to victory.
Those men who were killed at Borodino were perhaps the more fortunate, for the survivors could not possibly know the hardships and misery that awaited them in the future. Those who suffered the most at present however were the wounded. Medical services during this time were archaic. Many wounded were left on the field for days. Others managed to make it back to a hospital on their own. Those removed from the field often had to endure an agonizing ride on a jolting wagon. At the hospitals there was little knowledge of hygiene, antibiotics did not exist and the most often used treatment for severe battle wounds was amputation. Patients lay in the hospitals enduring not only the pain of their wounds but also, thirst, flies, the cries of the living and the stench of the dead. A vivid description of conditions comes from the recollections of a young commissary, Alexandre Bellot de Kergorre, “When I took up my duties I had to look after the needs of the hospitals. These contained three thousand patients lying in two stone-built houses. Our poor, unfortunate wounded were dying of hunger and thirst. They were bandaged with hay for lack of lint and linen, and they groaned dreadfully. For the first few days they lived on the few grains they could find in the straw they lay on, and on the little flour I was able to give them. The absence of candles was a terrible privation. A shocking thing was the impossibility of removing the dead from among the living. I had neither medical orderlies nor stretchers. Not only was the hospital full of corpses, but so were the streets and a number of houses. After attending to the most pressing needs of the living, I used some carts I had found to remove corpses from the hospital. On my own I took away 128, which had been serving as pillows to the sick and were several days old.”
The Russian’s retreated back to Moscow were they considered once again to make a stand against Napoleon in defense of the ancient capital. However, the Russian commander, Kutuzov, arguing that the survival of the army was more important than the defense of the city, decided not to defend Moscow. “You are afraid of falling back through Moscow, but I consider it the only way of saving the army. Napoleon is a torrent, which we are as yet unable to stem. Moscow will be the sponge that will suck him dry.”
On 14 September Napoleon entered Moscow, finding a city completely undefended and nearly deserted. The army had strict orders not to pillage but the men could not be controlled as they forced themselves into the palaces and houses. Two days later fires swept through Moscow for three days, burning down four fifths of the city. Despite the immense destruction of the fires, the soldiers were able to find an abundance of vegetables, preserves, sugar and spirits. Shortages of meat and bread remained. Walter remembers, “Here one could find and buy provisions; for each soldier was now a citizen, merchant, innkeeper, and baker of Moscow. Silks, muslins and red Morocco leather were all abundant. Things to eat were not wanting either. Whoever could not find something could buy something and vegetables in sufficient quantity stood in the fields. It was still good weather, and one could sleep warm enough under a coat at night”
Napoleon worked feverishly to sign a treaty with the Czar who he was certain was ready to negotiate a peace. For four weeks Napoleon hesitated in Moscow while his attempts failed. Ignoring warnings about the coming winter, Napoleon considered his options. He could not safely winter his troops in Moscow and his marshals adamantly opposed a march to St. Petersburg. The weather began to turn colder. Freezing rain and snow began to fall. The Russian winter was fast approaching. The army once again began to deteriorate as the effects of exposure to the cold, wet weather, and disease killed hundreds of men and thousands of badly needed horses. The Emperor Alexander refused to sign a peace, leaving Napoleon no choice but to retreat. The goals of his campaign were unachievable and a failure as everything had been calculated on the destruction of the Russian Army and a negotiated peace.
Napoleon decided to make a strategic withdrawal from Moscow and move south towards Kaluga. By taking this route, Napoleon hoped to travel through cities that had not already been pillaged or devastated. The army began leaving Moscow on 19 October 1812. The great retreat from Moscow had begun.
Preparations were made, and 100,000 soldiers departed Moscow trailing some 40,000 carriages and wagons, many filled with the riches of Moscow rather than the provision necessary for the march. “For nearly forty miles I had to pick my way through the army’s procession of horse-drawn vehicles,” noted Colonel Count Roguet. “Every one was laden with useless baggage.” Some soldiers such as Jacob Walter made better preparations for the march. Walter says, “I put on a round hat, wrapped my head with silk and muslin cloths and my feet with thick wool cloth. I had on two shirts and two vests and over my doublet a thick large Russian coat, which I had taken from a Russian in exchange for my own at Smolensk on my trip into Russia. Over this I wore a thick fur.”
The Russian army moved to cut off Napoleon’s route and stood firm at the key town of Maloyaroslavets. A fierce battle was waged and both sides suffered heavy losses with the Russians losing about 7,000 soldiers and the French losing 4,000. Napoleon realized that if he continued to move to the south his army would meet further resistance. He made the fateful decision to trace his return route along the same road on which he had advanced to Moscow. The retreating Russians had already burned down this route and the French had already exhausted what was left behind. On 25 October, the French army departed Maloyaroslavets with 96,000 soldiers.
The Russian winter arrived with all its severity on the 6th of November. Unimaginable suffering overtook the army. Ice and snow covered the roads, making transport nearly impossible. Horses slipped on the ice and could not be lifted back to their feet. Men began dying of exposure, freezing to death where they fell as the temperature dropped to 17 degrees below zero. Starvation once again began to devastate the ranks. Foraging parties left the main column of march in search of food only to be driven away, killed or captured by the Russian Cossacks. “The soldiers knew there was plenty to be had if they could move to the left or right, but they were hemmed in on either side by the Cossack horsemen, who knew that all they had to do was ride, as for killing, they could leave that to General Winter. Confined to the great road the whole army was now living almost entirely on horse flesh.”
Many faced the risks of leaving the road to forage. Those soldiers captured by the Russians received little mercy. Very often they pleaded to their captures to kill them and end their misery. But vengeance demands suffering and few had their desires of a quick death satisfied. Prisoners were routinely stripped naked and marched through the sub zero temperatures. Others were either tortured or killed by the peasantry whose methods of revenge were most horrific. Prisoners were reported has having been burned or buried alive. One observer witnessed “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.”
Those who were able to continue would retain the haunting memories of suffering masses during this march to Smolensk. Of the 96,000 who left Maloyaroslavets, nine days later only 50,000 would enter the city. The temperature had dropped to 28 degrees below zero. The barrels of the muskets were so cold that they stuck to the hands of those carrying them. Only those who witnessed the events are able to accurately describe the horrors of those nine days. Sir Robert Wilson witnessed, “The naked masses of dead and dying men; the mangled carcasses of 10,000 horses which had in some cases been cut for food before life had ceased; the craving of famine at other points, of forming groups of cannibals; the air enveloped in flame and smoke; the prayers of hundreds of naked wretches flying from peasantry, whose shouts of vengeance echoed incessantly through the woods; the wrecks of cannon, powder-wagons, all stores of every description: it formed such a scene as probably was never witnessed in the history of all the world.” General Count de Langeron, commander of a Russian infantry division, “saw a dead man, his teeth deep in the haunch of a horse which was still quivering. I saw a dead man inside a horse, which he had disemboweled and emptied in order to crawl inside and get warm. I saw another man tearing with his teeth at the entrails of a dead horse.”
Smolensk contained warehouses full of supplies unable to be moved to support the army due to inadequate transportation. The first soldiers to enter the city looted the depots for themselves leaving almost nothing for the poor wretches who followed. Discipline within the army had completely broken down. It had become a world of every man for himself as if all humanity had vanished for anyone who would stop to help his fellow man would be the next to fall. The soldiers had seen so much suffering and death that they had become numb to the sufferings and deaths of others. In a rare act of compassion Sir Robert Wilson attempted in vain to help a suffering soldier, “I was just putting a bit of biscuit into my own mouth, when I turned my eye upon a French grenadier’s gaze. It was too expressive to be resisted; I gave him what I designed for myself. The tears burst from his eyes, he seemed to bless the morsel, and then, amidst sobs of gratitude, expressed his hope that an Englishman might never want a benefactor in his need. He lived but a few moments afterwards.”
The march immediately proceeded through Smolensk in the direction of Vilna. Leaving Smolensk, Captain Roeder remembers, “What a frozen multitude are lying in the streets! Many have laid themselves there in order to freeze. One steps over them almost unmoved because the daily scenes of horrible misery of this accursed war have dulled all feeling for the suffering of others.”
The road to Vilna required the army to cross the Berezina River in order to prevent his dwindling army from being completed surrounded and annihilated by Russian forces concentrating there. At this time of year, the river was usually frozen over but the weather suddenly turned unusually warm making the ice too thin and the river impassable without a bridge. Napoleon decided to make a feint attack at the Russians near Borizov while his engineers built bridges across the river at Studenka. On 26 November, Napoleon executed his plan. “At eight o’clock in the morning the bridge-builders began placing their trestles at equal distances in the river, which was thick with large floes. The men went into the water up to their shoulders, displaying superb courage. Some dropped dead and disappeared with the current, but the sight of this tragic end did not diminish their comrades’ efforts. The Emperor watched these heroes and did not leave the river bank.” The construction of the first bridge was completed by 11:00 o’clock that morning. Oudinot’s Corps was across the river and had established a bridgehead by dark. The following morning, Napoleon ordered the corps of Ney, Davout, Junot, and Eugene with the reserve and Guard across the river. A mad rush ensued to cross the bridges to safety. The scene was a continuance of the misery and chaos plaguing the army. As the army fought a defensive action, the Russians rained fire and shell down upon those who were attempting to cross the river. Captain Francois Dumonceau records, “The crowd of disbanded troops had arrived and created a block by flocking from all sides, infiltrating everywhere, congesting the ground over a considerable area and refusing to give way or let us through. This disordered multitude persisted in moving forward, and formed a confused tangle of men, horses and vehicles which increased in numbers all the time almost to suffocation-point, pushing up to the river where several were drowned-thus renewing in all their horror the appalling scenes of the various earlier passages, but this time on a much larger scale in relation to the extent of ground.” Hundreds of corpses covered the ground within two hundred yards of the bridges. Russian cannon balls tore through the ranks of people each killing three to five people crossing or pushing their way onto the bridges in the hope of saving themselves. One shot struck a powder magazine in a wagon causing a great explosion, which killed hundreds.
At 9:00 a.m. on the 29th the French rear guard could no longer hold back the Russians and was forced to cross the river and burn the bridges behind them. Ten thousand stragglers were left behind to fall into the hands of the Russians. The army had been saved and Napoleon could claim another “victory” but only at the high cost of 25,000 battle casualties. The road to Vilna with its large stores of supplies was now open.
The next day Count De Rochechouart found himself at the bridge site, “Nothing in the world more saddening, more distressing! One saw heaped bodies of men, women, and even children; soldiers of all arms, all nations, choked by the fugitives or hit by Russian grapeshot; horses, carriages, guns, ammunition wagons, abandoned carts. One cannot imagine a more terrifying sight. Both sides of the road were piled with dead in all positions, or with men dying of cold, hunger, exhaustion, their uniforms in tatters, and beseeching us to take them prisoner. However much we might have wished to help, unfortunately we could do nothing.”
The suffering of the survivors was far from over. A Russian major describes the soldiers as they marched toward Vilna, “Most of them had neither boots nor shoes, but blankets, knapsacks or old hats around their feet. No sooner had a man collapsed from exhaustion than the next fell upon him and stripped him naked before he was dead.” However, with the road open, Napoleon hastily left his army for Paris to raise a new army and protect his government from any attempted coup.
What remained of the Grande Armee was turned over the command of Murat. He led them into Vilna on 8 December. A repeat of Smolensk ensued; the soldiers immediately looted the supply depots, discipline once again being non-existent. The weather turned according to Coignet, “so severe that the men could no longer endure it; even the ravens froze.” Not wanting to become trapped in Vilna, Murat ordered the army to march onto to Kovno and then onto Posen. “There in mid-January 1813, he could count 40,000 organized troops, if demoralized, troops (including some from garrisons along the way) and perhaps 20,000 stragglers-many pitiful scarecrows, some stark mad from their experiences.”
Napoleon’s splendid Grande Armee had been completely decimated in the Russian campaign under his generalship. The immense sufferings and the enormous loss of life caused by his actions hardly affected the Emperor. Important matters had to be attended. He still had to attempt to hold together his coalition and build a new army. He would remark, “Those men whom Nature had not hardened against all chances of fate and fortune seemed shaken; they lost their cheerfulness and good humor, and saw ahead of them nothing but disaster and catastrophe. Those on whom she had bestowed superior powers kept up their spirits and normal dispositions, seeing in the various ordeals a challenge to win new glory.”
Napoleon’s maxim of hardship and want was tested to the limits of human endurance during the catastrophic campaign in Russia. The soldiers who survived most certainly endured hardships unsurpassed by those who have never seen the horrors of war. They would emerge from their trials victorious as survivors and as perhaps, the most “qualified” soldiers in the world by Napoleon’s standards.
Next: Charles Joseph Minard’s Now Famous Map