The painful retreat was resumed. The enemy, whose strength increased continually, cut off the corps of Prince Eugne, Davout and Ney from the rest of the army. The first two managed to fight their way through to join the Emperor, who was very distressed at the absence of Ney, of whom he had had no news for several days.
On the 19th of November Napoleon reached Orscha. It was now a month since he had left Moscow and there was still a hundred and twenty leagues to cover before reaching the Nieman. The cold was intense.
While the Emperor worried unhappily about the fate of his rear-guard and the gallant Marshal Ney, the latter was engaged in one of the finest feats of arms recorded in history. Leaving Smolensk on the morning of the 17th, after blowing up the ramparts, the Marshal had hardly begun his march when he was assailed by a myriad of the enemy, who attacked both flanks and the front and rear of his column.
Driving them off continually, Ney marched, surrounded by them for three days, to halt eventually before the dangerous pass of the Krasnoe ravine, beyond which could be seen a great mass of Russian troops and an array of guns which opened a lively and sustained fire.
Without being cast down by this unforeseen obstacle the Marshal took the bold decision to force a passage, and ordered the 48th of line, commanded by Colonel Pelet, to attack with the bayonet. At Ney's command, the French soldiers, although tired, hungry and numb with cold, rushed the Russian batteries and captured them. They were regained by the enemy and captured once more by our men but in the end they had to yield to the superiority in numbers. The 48th, shattered by grape-shot, was largely destroyed. Of the six hundred and fifty men who entered the ravine only about a hundred emerged. Colonel Pelet, gravely wounded was among them.
Night fell, and for the rearguard, all hope of rejoining the Emperor and the rest of the army seemed to be lost; but Ney had confidence in his men, and above all in himself. He ordered lines of fires to be lit, in order to keep the enemy in their camp, in the expectation of a renewed attack the next day, but he had decided to put the Dnieper between himself and the Russians and to entrust his fate and that of his troops to the strength of the ice covering the river. It was while he was trying to decide which was the shortest route to the river that a Russian colonel from Krasnoe arrived, as an envoy, and demanded that Ney should surrender. Ney was indignant, and as the officer was carrying no written instructions, he replied that he did not regard him as an envoy but as a spy who would be executed if he did not guide them to the nearest spot on the bank of the Dnieper. The Russian Colonel was forced to obey.
Ney immediately gave the order to quit the camp in silence, leaving behind the guns, wagons, baggage and those wounded unable to march with him; and helped by the darkness, he reached, after four hours, the banks of the Dnieper. The river was frozen over, but the ice was not everywhere thick enough to bear the weight of a number of men, so the Marshal sent his troops across one by one. Once over the river the troops thought they had reached safety, but dawn revealed an encampment of Cossacks. This was commanded by Hetman Platov who, as was his custom, had spent the evening drinking and was still asleep.
Discipline is so rigid in the Russian army that no one dared wake him nor take up arms without his orders, so the remains of Ney's Corps were able to pass within a league of the camp without being attacked. The Cossacks did not appear until the next day.
Under constant attack, the Marshal marched for three days along the winding bank of the Dnieper, which would lead him to Orscha, and on the 20th he at last saw this town where he hoped to find the Emperor and the army. He was, however, still separated from Orscha by a large area of open ground in which were many enemy troops, while the Cossacks were preparing to attack him from the rear. Taking up a good defensive position, he sent of a succession of officers to find out if the French were still in Orscha, failing which resistance would no longer be possible. One of these officers reached Orscha where the general headquarters still was. The Emperor was delighted to hear of the return of Marshal Ney, and to rescue him from his dangerous position he sent Prince Eugne and Marshal Mortier who drove off the enemy and brought back Ney and what remained of his unit.
The next day the Emperor continued the retreat. He was joined by troops under the command of Marshal Victor who had recently arrived from Germany, and he made contact with 2nd Corps, where Saint-Cyr had just returned the command to Marshal Oudinot.
As it is important to understand the events which led to the reunion of 2nd Corps with the army from which it had been separated since the start of the campaign, I must describe briefly what happened after the month of August, when, having defeated the Russians at Polotsk, Saint-Cyr set up near there an immense entrenched camp, protected by a part of his force, the remainder of which he spread out on both banks of the Dvina. The light cavalry provided cover for these cantonments and so, as I have already said, Castex's brigade, to which my regiment belonged, was stationed at Louchonski, on a little river named the Polota, from where we could keep an eye on the main roads leading from Sebej and Newel.
Wittgenstein's army, after its defeat, had retired beyond those towns, so that there was between the French and the Russians a space of more than twenty-five leagues of no-mans-land, into which both sides sent reconnaissance parties of cavalry, giving rise to unimportant skirmishes. For the rest, as the area round Polotsk was well supplied with forage and standing crops of grain, and as it seemed plain that we were in for a long stay, the French soldiers started to reap and thresh the corn, and grind it in the small hand-mills which are to be found in every peasant dwelling.
This process seemed to me to be too slow, so we repaired, with much difficulty, two water-mills, which stood by the Polota near Louchonski, and from that time on, a supply of bread for my regiment was assured. As for meat, the neighbouring woods were full of abandoned cattle; but as it was necessary to track them down every day, I had the idea of doing what I had seen done in Portugal, and that was to form a regimental herd. In a short time I had rounded up 7 or 8 hundred beasts which I put in the charge of some unmounted Chasseurs, to whom I gave local ponies, too small for military use. This herd, which I increased by frequent searches, lasted for several months and allowed me to make regular distributions of meat to the regiment, which maintained the men's health and earned me their gratitude for the care I took of them. I extended my care to the horses, for which we made big shelters, thatched with straw, and placed behind the men's huts, so that our bivouac was almost as comfortable as a regular camp in peacetime. The other unit commanders did the same sort of thing, but none of them had a regimental herd: their men lived from day to day.
While the French, Swiss, Croat and Portuguese regiments worked unceasingly to improve their conditions, the Bavarians alone made no effort to escape from want and sickness. It was in vain that General the Comte de Wrde tried to rouse them by pointing out how the French soldiers were building huts, reaping and threshing grain, milling it into flour, making ovens and baking bread, the wretched Bavarians, totally demoralised since they no longer were issued with regular rations, admired the work done by our men without attempting to imitate them. So they were dying like flies and there would have been none left if Marshal Saint-Cyr, shaking off for a moment his habitual indifference, had not persuaded the colonels of the other divisions to provide a daily supply of bread for the Bavarians. The light cavalry, stationed out in the country and near the woods, sent them some cattle.
However, these Germans, so feeble when it came to work, were brave enough in action against the enemy, but the moment the danger was over they relapsed into complete apathy. Nostalgia or home-sickness took them; they dragged themselves to Polotsk, and entering the hospitals established by their commanders, they asked for somewhere to die, and laying themselves on the straw, they never rose again. A great many died in this way and General de Wrde had to take into his wagon the flags of a number of regiments who had not sufficient men to defend them. And yet it was only September, the cold weather had not begun and on the contrary it was very mild. The other troops were in good heart and awaited cheerfully the outcome of events.
The men of my regiment were noted everywhere for their good health, which I attribute firstly to the quantity of bread and meat which I was able to give them and secondly to the liquor which I was able to obtain by an arrangement with the Jesuits of Polotsk. These good Fathers, all of them French, had a big farm at Louchonski, where there was a distillery for making grain spirit, but on the approach of war all the workers had fled back to the monastery, taking with them the stills and utensils, so that production had stopped, thus depriving the monastery of part of its revenue. The arrival of so many soldiers in the region had made alcoholic drinks so scarce and expensive that the owners of the canteens were undertaking a journey of several days to Wilna to obtain supplies. It occurred to me that I might be able to reach an agreement with the Jesuits whereby I would protect their distillery and have my men reap and thresh the necessary grain, in return for which my regiment would receive a daily share of the resulting product. My proposition was accepted by the monks, who benefitted greatly by being able to sell alcohol in the camps, while I had the advantage of being able to distribute a daily ration to my men who, since crossing the Nieman, had drunk nothing but water.
At first glance these details may seem pointless, but I am happy to recall them because the care I took of my men saved many of their lives and maintained the strength of the 23rd far above that of the other cavalry regiments in the corps, which earned me a token of his satisfaction from the Emperor which I shall refer to later.
Among the measures which I took are two which protected the lives of many of my troopers. The first of these was to insist that from the 15th of September they should each equip themselves with a sheepskin coat, many of which were to be found in abandoned peasant dwellings. Soldiers are like great children, for whom one must care sometimes against their will. Mine complained that these heavy pelisses were useless and overburdened their horses, but come October they were happy to put them on under their capes, and when it grew really cold they thanked me for having made them keep them.
The second step which I took was to send to the rear all those troopers who were without a mount, either because of enemy fire or because their horse had died for some other reason. A standing order required that these men should be sent to Lepel in Lithuania, to await horses which were to be sent from Warsaw. I was preparing to do this when I learned that Lepel was crammed with dismounted troopers, who were short of all supplies and had nothing to do because not a single remount had arrived there. So I took it on myself to send my dismounted men directly to Warsaw under the command of Captain Poitevin, who had been wounded. I knew that this was in breach of the regulations, but in a huge army, so far from its base and under such abnormal conditions, it was not possible for the general staff to attend to all the needs of the troops. Occasions therefore arose when a unit commander had to use his own judgement. General Castex, who could not give me official authorisation, having told me that he would close his eyes to what I was doing, I continued in this manner for as long as it was possible, so that in the end I had sent 250 men to Warsaw. After the campaign I found them once more on the Vistula, all in new uniforms, well equipped and well mounted and a welcome reinforcement for the regiment. The dismounted men from other regiments, amounting to some 9000, who had been sent to Lepel, caught unaware by the great retreat from Moscow, were almost all taken prisoner or died of cold on the roads. Yet it would have been so easy to have sent them during the summer and autumn to the remount depot at Warsaw, where there were plenty of horses but a shortage of riders.
I remained for a whole month resting at Louchonski, which helped to heal the wound I had received at Jakoubowo. We were very comfortable in our camp from the material point of view, but very worried about the events at Moscow, and it was only on rare occasions that we had news from France. At last I had a letter in which my dearest Angelique told me she had given birth to a boy. My joy at this was mixed with sadness, for I was a long way from my family, and although I could not foresee all the dangers to which I would soon be exposed, I could not pretend that there were not many obstacles to be overcome before our reunion.
About the middle of September, Marshal Saint-Cyr sent me on a rather delicate mission. It had two objectives: first to find out what the enemy were up to in the region round Newel and then to return via Lake Ozerichtchi in order to get in touch with Count Lubenski, one of the few Poles who were willing to do anything to shake off the Russian yoke. The Emperor who, although unwilling to proclaim the re-establishment of the former Poland, wanted to organise the areas already conquered into departments, had received many refusals from the noblemen to whom he had proposed to confide the administration; but having been assured of Count Lubenski's patriotism, His Majesty had nominated him Prefect of Witepsk. As this nobleman lived in an isolated spot outside the area under French control, it was difficult to inform him of his nomination and to ensure his safe arrival. Napoleon had therefore ordered that a body of light cavalry should be sent to the Count.
Detailed to undertake this mission, with three hundred men of my regiment, I picked the boldest and best-mounted men and having provided them with bread, cooked meat and vodka, as well as other necessities, I left the camp on the 14th of September, taking with me Lorentz to act as interpreter.
The life of a partisan is perilous and very tiring. One avoids the main roads and hides by day in the forest without daring to make a fire. One takes from a hamlet food and fodder to be eaten several leagues away to confuse enemy spies; one marches all night, sometimes arriving at different point from that intended, and one is constantly on the look-out. Such was the life I led when I found myself with no more than three hundred men, in a huge area which I did not know, out of touch with the French army and approaching that of the Russians, a numerous detachment of whom I might encounter at any time. It was a difficult situation, but I had confidence in myself and in the men who followed me, so I went forward resolutely, skirting by two or three leagues the road which runs from Polotsk to Newel.
Nothing much of interest happened to us. It is sufficient to say that thanks to the information given to us by the peasants, who hated the Russians, we made a tour round Newel, avoiding all the enemy positions, and after eight days, or rather eight nights, of marching we came to the shore of Lake Ozerichtchi, where there is the magnificent chteau which at that time belonged to Count Lubenski. I shall never forget the scene which greeted us on our arrival before this ancient and vast manor. It was a splendid autumn evening. The family of the Count had gathered to celebrate his birthday and to rejoice in the capture of Moscow by Napoleon, when some servants ran to announce that the chteau was surrounded by soldiers on horseback, who had posted sentries and guards and were now entering the courtyards. It was thought that these were the Russian police who had come to arrest the Count, and he, a man of great courage, was waiting calmly to be taken to the prison of St.Petersburg, when his son, who out of curiosity had opened a window, came to say that the troopers were speaking French.
On hearing this, the Count and his family followed by a crowd of servants rushed out of the chteau and gathered on an immense peristyle. When I mounted the steps, he advanced towards me with arms outstretched to embrace me, and declaimed in theatrical tones a most fulsome welcome. Not only did the Count embrace me, but his wife and daughters did the same, then the almoner, the tutors and governesses came to kiss my hand, and the domestic staff touched my knee with their lips. I was greatly astonished at these various honours, and accepted them with all the gravity I could muster. I had thought the whole performance was over when, at a word from the Count, they all knelt down and commenced to pray.
When we re-entered the chteau, I handed the Count his appointment as Prefect of Witepsk, adorned with the signature of the French Emperor, and asked him if he accepted it. "Yes". He cried, "and I am ready to go with you." The Countess was equally enthusiastic, and it was agreed that the Count with his eldest son and two servants would leave with me. I gave them an hour to get ready, which time was employed in giving my men a good supper, which they had to eat on horseback because of my fear of a surprise attack. Having said our farewells, we left to go and sleep in a forest four leagues from there, where we stayed hidden all the next day. At night we continued our march, but to put off our trail any of the enemy who might have been warned of our presence in the area, I took a different route to that by which I had come, and going by paths and at times across country, after five days I reached Polotsk. It was as well that I had taken a different route, because I learned later from some merchants who lived in Newel that the Russians had sent a regiment of Dragoons and 600 Cossacks to wait for me at the source of the Drissa, near a village I had passed on my way in.
After reporting to Marshal Saint-Cyr and presenting to him Count Lubenski, I went back to the camp at Louchonski, where I rejoined General Castex and the rest of my unit. My expedition had lasted for thirteen days, during which time we had suffered fatigue and privation; but I was bringing my men back in good shape. We had not been obliged to fight since any small bands of the enemy we did encounter fled when they saw us.
The journey which Count Lubenski had taken with us had allowed me to assess his character. He was a well educated man, capable and patriotic, but one whose enthusiasm was inclined to cloud his judgement when it came to considering how best to re-build Poland. Nevertheless, if all his compatriots had shown his vigour, and had taken up arms on the arrival of the French, Poland might have regained its freedom in 1812; but, with few exceptions, they remained profoundly apathetic.
After leaving Polotsk, the Count went to take up his post as prefect. He did not keep the position for long, for a month had hardly passed before the French army, having left Moscow passed through Witepsk on its retreat. Compelled by this disaster to abandon his prefecture and to shelter from the vengeance of the Russians, he took refuge in Galicia in Austrian Poland, where he had large landholdings. He lived there peacefully until 1830 when he returned to Russian Poland to take up arms against the Czar. I do not know what happened to him after this uprising, but I have been told by some of his countrymen that he went back to Galicia. He was a good patriot and a fine man.
A few days after our return to Louchonski, I was greatly surprised by the arrival of a detachment of thirty troopers belonging to my regiment. They had come from Mons and had in consequence travelled through Belgium, the Rhenish provinces, all of Germany and part of Prussia and Poland, and had come more than 400 leagues under the command of a simple N.C.O. However not a man had fallen out and not a horse was injured. That shows the sort of stuff of which the troopers of the 23rd were made.
On about the 12th of October, 2nd Corps which, since the 18th of August had been living in peace and plenty in and around Polotsk, had to prepare itself to run once more the dangers of war. We learned that Admiral Tchitchakoff, commander-in-chief of the Russian army in Walachia, having made peace with the Turks through the intervention of the English, was heading for Moghilew with the intention of getting in the rear of Napoleon who, still nursing the hope of concluding a treaty with Alexander, had not yet left Moscow. One might be astonished that Prince Schwartzenberg, who with thirty thousand Austrians, our allies, was supposed to be watching over the Russian forces in Walachia, had allowed them to pass, but that is what happened. Not only had the Austrians failed to block the road taken by the Russians, which they could have done, but instead of following behind them, they had stayed comfortably in their cantonments.
Napoleon had trusted too much in the good faith of the generals and ministers of his father-in-law, the Emperor of Austria, in giving them the responsibility of covering the right flank of the Grande Arme. Whatever excuses are offered, there can be, in my opinion, no escaping the fact that this was flagrant treachery on their part, and history will condemn them for it.
While on our right the Austrians were allowing passage to the Russian troops coming from Turkey, the Prussians who had so unwisely been placed on our left wing, were preparing to do a deal with the enemy, and that almost openly, without concealment from Marshal Macdonald, whom the Emperor had put at their head to ensure their fidelity. As soon as these foreigners learned that the occupation of Moscow had not led to a peace, they foresaw the disasters which would befall the French army, and all their enmity towards us was rekindled. They did not break out in open revolt, but Marshal Macdonald's orders were obeyed with reluctance, and the Prussians encamped near Riga could at any moment join Wittgenstein's Russians to crush 2nd Corps camped round Polotsk.
Plainly, Marshal Saint-Cyr's position was becoming difficult. He, however, did not seem perturbed, and as impassive as ever, he issued calmly and clearly the orders for an obstinate defence. All the infantry was concentrated in the town and the entrenched camp. Several bridges were added to those already uniting the two banks of the Dvina. The sick and the non-combatants were sent to Old Polotsk and Ekimania, which were fortified posts on the left bank. The Marshal did not consider he had enough troops to dispute the open ground with Wittgenstein, who had received powerful reinforcements from St.Petersburg, so he did not keep more than five squadrons with him, of which he took one from each regiment of light cavalry. The rest went over to the other bank.
On the 16th of October the enemy scouts appeared before Polotsk, the aspect of which had greatly changed, partly because of the huge, newly established, entrenched camp and partly because of the numerous fortifications which covered the open country. The biggest and strongest of these was a redoubt called the Bavarian. The unhappy remnant of General de Wrde's force asked if they might defend this redoubt, which they did with much courage.
The fighting began on the 17th and went on all day without Marshal Saint-Cyr being forced out of his position. This angered General Wittgenstein, who attributed the hold-up to his officers not having distinguished between the stronger and weaker of our defence works, and wishing to inspect them himself, he boldly approached them. This devotion to duty nearly cost him his life, for Major Curly, one of the finest officers in the army, having spotted the General, dashed forward leading a squadron of the 20th Chasseurs, who sabred some of the escort while he, forcing his way to General Wittgenstein, put the point of his sword to his throat and forced him to surrender.
Having effected the capture of the enemy commander, Major Curly should have retired swiftly, between two redoubts, and taken his prisoner into the entrenched camp; but the Major was too keen, and seeing that the General's escort was about to attempt his rescue, he thought it would be more creditable if he could keep his prisoner in spite of all their efforts. Wittgenstein then found himself in the middle of a group fighting for the possession of his person. In the course of the struggle Curly's horse was killed, several of our Chasseurs dismounted in order to pick up their leader, and in the confusion this created Wittgenstein made off at the gallop, calling for his men to follow.
When this event became generally known throughout the army, it gave rise to much debate. Some maintained that Major Curly should have killed Wittgenstein as soon as his escort returned to fight for his rescue, others thought that having accepted his surrender, Curly was not entitled to do so. Others again, thought that, having once surrendered, Wittgenstein should not have tried to escape. Whatever the rights or wrongs of these arguments may be, when Curly was presented to the Emperor during the crossing of the Beresina, where General Wittgenstein caused us many losses, Napoleon said to him, "This would probably not have happened if you had used your right to kill Wittgenstein at Polotsk, when the Russians were trying to take him from you." In spite of this reproach, merited or not, Curly became a colonel shortly after, and a general in 1814.
To return now to Polotsk where the enemy, repelled on the 17th, returned to the attack on the 18th in so much greater numbers that, after suffering very heavy losses, Wittgenstein's men captured the entrenched camp. Saint-Cyr, at the head of Legrand's and Maison's divisions drove them out at bayonet point. Seven times the Russians returned to the attack, and seven times the French and the Croats drove them off, to remain finally in control of all their positions.
Although now wounded, Saint-Cyr continued to direct his troops. His efforts were crowned with success, for the enemy left the field and retired into the nearby forest. 50,000 Russians had been defeated by 15,000 of our men. There was rejoicing in the French camp, but on the morning of the 19th we heard that General Steinghel with 14,000 Russians had just crossed the Dvina above Disna and was moving up the left bank to get behind Polotsk, seize the bridges and trap Saint-Cyr's force between his own and Wittgenstein's. Indeed it was not long before Steinghel's advance-guard appeared, heading for Ekimania, where there were the division of Cuirassiers and the regiments of Light Cavalry from each of which the Marshal had retained only one squadron at Polotsk.
At once we were all on horseback and we drove off the enemy who would in the end have gained the upper hand, for they were being strongly reinforced, while we had no infantry support until Saint-Cyr sent us three regiments taken from the divisions who were protecting Polotsk. However at this point Steinghel, who had only to make a little effort to reach the bridges, stopped short, while on the other side of the river Wittgenstein did the same. It seemed that the two Russian generals, after combining to draw up an excellent plan of attack, were unwilling to put it into operation. Each one leaving it to the other to overcome the French.
The French position was now highly critical, for on the right bank they were pressed back by an army three time their strength towards a town built entirely of wood and a sizeable river, with no means of retreat except the bridges which were threatened by Steinghel's troops on the left bank.
All the generals urged Saint-Cyr to order the evacuation of Polotsk, but he wanted to wait for nightfall, because he felt sure that the 50,000 Russians who faced him were waiting only for his first backward move to throw themselves on his weakened army and create a state of disorder in the ranks. So he stayed where he was and took advantage of the extraordinary inactivity of the enemy generals to wait for the onset of the dark, which was hastened, luckily, by a thick fog which prevented the three armies from seeing one another. The Marshal seized this favourable opportunity to effect his withdrawal.
The large number of guns and some cavalry squadrons who had remained on the right bank, had already crossed the bridges in silence, and the infantry were about to follow, their movement invisible to the enemy, when the men of Legrand's division, unwilling to leave their huts for the benefit of the Russians, set them on fire. The two other divisions, believing that this was an agreed signal, did the same and in an instant the whole line was aflame. This great conflagration having alerted the Russians to our retreat, all their guns opened up. Their mortars set fire to the suburbs and the town itself, toward which their columns charged. However, the French, mainly Maison's division, disputed every foot of ground, for the fires lit the place as if it were day.
Polotsk was burned to the ground. The losses on both sides were considerable. Nevertheless our retreat was carried out in an orderly fashion. We took with us those of our wounded whom it was possible to carry; the rest, together with a great many Russians, perished in the flames.
It seemed that there was a complete lack of co-operation between the leaders of the two enemy armies, for during this night of fighting Steinghel stayed peacefully in his camp, and made no more effort to support Wittgenstein than the latter had made to support him on the previous day. It was only when Saint-Cyr, after evacuating the place, had put himself beyond the reach of Wittgenstein by burning the bridges, that Steinghel, on the morning of the 20th, deployed his troops to attack us; but the French force was now united on the left bank, and Saint-Cyr mounted an assault against Steinghel, who was overcome with the loss of more than 2000 men killed or captured.
In the course of these fierce engagements, over four days and a night, the Russians had six generals and 10,000 men killed or wounded, while the losses of the French and their allies did not amount to more than 5,000, a huge difference which can be attributed to the superior firepower of our troops, particularly the artillery. The advantage which we had in respect of numbers was in part compensated for by the fact that the wounds which Marshal Saint-Cyr had suffered would deprive the army of a leader in whom it had entire confidence. It was necessary to replace him. The Comte de Wrde claimed that his position as commander in chief of the Bavarian Corps entitled him to command the French divisional generals, but they refused to obey a foreigner, so Saint-Cyr, although in much pain, agreed to remain in control of the two army corps and ordered a retreat towards Oula, in order to reach Smoliany and thus protect on one side the road from Orscha to Borisoff, by which the Emperor was returning from Moscow.
This retreat was so well organised that Wittgenstein and Steinghel who, after repairing the bridges across the Dvina, were following our trail with 50,000 men, did not dare to attack us, although we had no more than 12,000 combatants; and they advanced only fifteen leagues in eight days. As for the Comte de Wrde, his injured pride led him to refuse to accept instructions, so he marched off on his own with the thousand Bavarians which he had left and a brigade of French cavalry which he had acquired by subterfuge, having told General Corbineau that he had received orders to take it, which was not the case. His presumption was soon punished: he was attacked and defeated by a Russian division. He then retired without authorisation to Wilna, from where he reached the Nieman. The Corbineau brigade refused to go with him and returned to join the French army, for whom its return was a piece of good fortune, as you will see when we come to the crossing of the Beresena.
Ordered by the Emperor, Marshal Victor, Duc de Bellune, at the head of the 9th Army Corps consisting of 25,000 men, half of whom came from the Confederation of the Rhine, hurried from Smolensk to join Saint-Cyr for the purpose of driving Wittgenstein back across the Dvina. This project would have certainly been carried out if Saint-Cyr had been in overall command; but Victor was the more senior of the two marshals and Saint-Cyr was unwilling to serve under his orders, so the evening before their union which took place at Smoliany on the 31st of October, he declared that he could no longer continue the campaign and handing over the command to General Legrand, he set off to return to France. The departure of Saint-Cyr was regretted by the troops who, although they disliked him personally, gave him credit for his courage and his outstanding military talent. Saint-Cyr could have been a first class army commander if he had been less egoistic and if he had taken the trouble to gain the affection of officers and men by caring for their welfare. No man, however, is perfect.
Marshal Victor had no sooner gathered 9th and 2nd Corps under his command than chance offered him the opportunity of achieving a major victory. Wittgenstein, who was unaware of this union, relying on his superiority in numbers, had decided to attack us at a place where his line of retreat would be through some narrow defiles. It would only have required a combined effort from the two corps to destroy him, for our troops were now as numerous as his, were inspired by a better spirit and were keen for action; but Victor, doubtful perhaps of success on terrain which he was seeing for the first time, retreated during the night, and having reached Sienno he put the two units into cantonment in the district. The Russians also withdrew leaving only some Cossacks to keep an eye on us. This state of affairs which lasted for the first fortnight of November did the troops much good, for they lived well as the country offered many resources.
One day, Marshal Victor having been told that there was a considerable enemy force in the area of a certain village, ordered General Castex to send one of his units to reconnoitre the place. It was for me to go. We left at dusk and reached the village without any difficulty. It was situated in a hollow, in the middle of a huge dried marshland and was entirely peaceful, the inhabitants whom I interrogated with the aid of Lorentz said that they had not seen a Russian soldier in the past month, so I prepared to return to my base. However our return was not as trouble-free as our journey there had been.
Although there was no mist, the night was extremely dark and I was afraid of leading the regiment astray on the many embankments of the marsh, which I had to cross once more; so I took as a guide one of the villagers who seemed to me to be the least stupid. My column had been going along in good order for half an hour, when suddenly I saw camp fires on the slopes overlooking the marsh. I halted the column and sent two sous-officiers to have a look. They reported that there was a large force barring our advance and another in our rear. I could now see fires between me and the village which I had just left and it appeared that I had landed, without knowing it, in the middle of an army corps which was making ready to bivouac for the night. The number of fires grew, and I estimated that there was a force of about 50,000 men present and I was in the middle of it, with 700 troopers. The odds were too great, and there seemed only one thing to do, and that was to gallop along the main embankment, on which we were, and taking the enemy by surprise, cut a path for ourselves with our sabres. Once free from the light of the fires, the darkness would prevent the enemy from following us. I made sure that all my troops knew what I proposed to do, and I have to admit that I was very uneasy, for the enemy infantry could take up their arms at the first cry of warning, and cause us many casualties.
I was in this state of anxiety when the peasant who was our guide burst into loud laughter, seconded by Lorentz. I asked them what they were about, but they did not know enough French to explain fully. Eventually, however, we understood that these were not camp fires but marsh fires, or will-of-the-wisp; something none of us had ever seen before; and so, relieved of one of the nastiest frights I have ever had, I returned to my camp.
After several days I was given a new mission, in which we would face not marsh fires but the muskets of the Russian dragoons. It happened that General Castex had gone to visit Marshal Victor, and the 24th was out on patrol, so that my regiment was alone in the camp when there arrived two peasants, one of whom I recognised as Captain Bourgoing, Oudinot's aide-de-camp.
The Marshal, who had gone to Wilna after he had been wounded at Polotsk on the 18th of August, having heard that Saint-Cyr had been wounded in his turn on the 18th of October, and had left the army, decided to rejoin 2nd Corps and take up its command.
Oudinot knew that his troops were somewhere in the region of Sienno and was heading for that town when, on arriving at Rasna, he was warned by a Polish priest that a body of Russian Dragoons and some Cossacks was roaming the area. The Marshal knew that there was a French cavalry unit at Zapol, so he wrote to the commander of this unit to request a strong escort, and sent the letter by Captain Bourgoing, who for additional safety disguised himself as a peasant. It was as well that he did so, for he had scarcely covered a league when he encountered a large detachment of enemy cavalry who, thinking that he was a local inhabitant, took no notice of him. Soon after this, Captain Bourgoing heard the sound of gunfire, and increased his pace towards Zapol.
As soon as I heard of the serious position in which the Marshal found himself, I left with my regiment at the trot to bring him help. It was a good thing that we arrived when we did, for although the Marshal, joined by his aides-de-camp and some dozen French soldiers, was barricaded in a stone house, he was on the point of being captured by the Dragoons when we arrived. When they saw us, the enemy mounted their horses and fled. My troopers went after them and managed to kill about twenty of them and take some prisoners. I had two men wounded. The marshal, glad to have escaped from the Russians, expressed his thanks, and I escorted him back to the French cantonments where he was out of danger.
At this period in time, it seemed that none of the marshals was prepared to recognise the right of seniority amongst themselves, for not one of them was willing to serve under the orders of his comrade, no matter how serious the situation. So as soon as Oudinot took command of the 2nd Corps, Victor, rather than remaining under his authority to join in combating Wittgenstein, took himself off with his 25,000 men to Kokhanov. Marshal Oudinot, left on his own, marched his men for several days round various parts of the province before setting up his headquarters at Tschereia, with his advance-guard at Loucoulm. It was here, during a minor action involving Castex's brigade that I received my promotion to colonel. If you recall that I had suffered, in the rank of major, a wound at Znaim in Moravia, two at Miranda de Corvo in Portugal, one at Jakoubowo, that I had fought in four campaigns in the same rank and that finally I had been in command of a regiment since the French entry into Russia, you may think that I had earned my new epaulets. I was grateful to the Emperor when I learned that he intended to keep me with the 23rd Chasseurs for whom I had great affection, and where I was liked and valued. In fact this decision was welcomed by all ranks, and the troops whom I had so often led into battle came, both officers and men, to tell me of their satisfaction at my remaining their commander. The good General Castex, who had always treated me as a brother, welcomed me in front of the regiment, and even the Colonel of the 24th, with whom I had few dealings, came to congratulate me with all his officers, whose respect I had acquired.
However, the situation of the French army grew worse by the day. General Schwartzenberg, the Austrian commander-in-chief whom Napoleon had placed on the right wing of his army, had, by an act of low treachery, allowed the troops belonging to Admiral Tchitchakoff to pass, and they had seized control of Minsk, from where they threatened our rear. The Emperor must now have much regretted that he had given the command of Lithuania to the Dutchman Hogendorf, his aide-de-camp who, having never been in action did not know what to do to save Minsk, where he could have easily have combined the 30,000 men of the Durette, Loison and Dombrowski divisions which had been placed at his disposal. The fall of Minsk, although a serious matter, was one to which the Emperor attached little importance, for he relied on crossing the Beresina at Borisoff, where there was a bridge, protected by a fort in good condition and manned by a Polish regiment. The Emperor was so confident about this that, in order to speed the march of his army he burned all his bridging equipment at Orscha. This was a disastrous mistake, for these pontoons would have assured us a quick crossing of the Beresina which, in the event, we had to effect at the cost of so much blood.
Despite his confidence in relation to the crossing, Napoleon, when he heard of the Russian occupation of Minsk, ordered Oudinot to proceed by forced marches to Borisoff; but we arrived there too late, because General Bronikovski who was in command of the fort, seeing himself surrounded by a numerous enemy, thought it would be a praiseworthy act to save his garrison. So instead of putting up a determined resistance, which would have given Oudinot the time to come to his help, he abandoned the fort, crossed the bridge to the left bank with all his men, and set out for Orscha to join Oudinot's corps, which he met on the road. The Marshal gave him a very rough reception and ordered him to return with us to Borisoff.
Not only were the town, the bridge across the Beresina and the fort which dominates it in the hands of Tchitchakoff, but the Admiral, carried away by this success and anxious to challenge the French, had marched from the town with the bulk of his army, the vanguard of which, consisting of a strong cavalry division, was led by General Lambert, the most competent of his lieutenants.
As the country was open Oudinot put ahead of his infantry the division of Cuirassiers, and ahead of them Castex's brigade of light cavalry.
It was about three leagues from Borisoff that the Russian advance-guard, going in the opposite direction to us, came up against our Cuirassiers, who having done little fighting during the campaign, had asked to be in the front line. At the sight of this fine regiment, still strong in numbers and well mounted, with their cuirasses gleaming in the sunlight, the Russian cavalry pulled up short; then, gathering their courage, they moved forward again, at which point our Cuirassiers, in a furious charge, overran them, killing or capturing about a thousand. Tchitchakoff, who had been assured that Napoleon's army was no more than a disorganised mass of men without arms, had not expected this display of vitality, and he beat a hurried retreat towards Berisoff.
It is well known that after putting in a charge, the big horses of the heavy cavalry, and above all those of the Cuirassiers, cannot continue to gallop for very long. So it was the 23rd and the 24th Chasseurs who took up the pursuit of the enemy, while the Cuirassiers followed in the second line, at a slower pace.
Tchitchakoff had not only made a mistake in attacking Oudinot but he had also brought with him all the baggage of his army, which filled more than fifteen hundred vehicles, so that the rapid retreat of the Russians caused such confusion that the two regiments of Castex's brigade often found themselves hindered by the carts which had been abandoned by the enemy. This confusion became even worse when we entered the town, where the streets were cluttered with baggage and draught horses, through which obstructions Russian soldiers, who had thrown away their arms, wove their way as they sought to rejoin their units. We managed to reach the centre of the town, but only after losing precious time, which allowed the Russians to cross the river.
Our orders were to reach the bridge and try to cross it at the same time as the fleeing Russians; but to do this one had to know where the bridge was, and none of us knew the town. My troopers brought me a Jew whom I questioned in German, but he either did not know, or pretended not to know the language, and I could get no information from him. I would have given a great deal to have had with me my Polish servant Lorentz to act as interpreter, but the coward had remained behind as soon as there was any fighting. So we had to comb the town until we eventually came to the Beresina. The river was not yet sufficiently frozen to permit one to cross on the ice, so it was necessary to use the bridge, but to take the bridge would require infantry, and our infantry was still three leagues from Borisoff. To take their place, Marshal Oudinot, who had arrived on the scene, ordered General Castex to dismount three quarters of the troopers of the two regiments, who armed with muskets could attack the bridge on foot. We left the horses in the nearby streets guarded by one or two men, and headed for the river behind General Castex who, on this perilous enterprise, wished to be at the head of his brigade.
The defeat suffered by the advance-guard had produced consternation in Tchitchakoff's army, the utmost disorder ruled on the side of the river which it occupied, where we could see a mass of fugitives disappearing into the distance; so although it had at first seemed to me that it would be extremely difficult for dismounted troopers, without bayonets, to force a passage over the bridge, and keep possession of it, I began to hope for a successful outcome, for the opposition was no more than a few musket shots. I therefore ordered that as soon as the first platoon reached the right bank it should occupy houses adjoining the bridge so that being in control of both ends we could defend it until the arrival of our infantry. Suddenly, however, the cannons of the fort thundered into action, covering the bridge with a hail of grape-shot, which forced our little group to fall back. A body of Russian sappers used this breathing space to set fire to the bridge, but as their presence prevented the gunners from firing, we took the opportunity to attack them, killing or throwing into the river the greater part of them. Our Chasseurs had already extinguished the fire when they were charged by a battalion of Russian Grenadiers, and driven at bayonet point off the bridge, which was soon set alight in many places and became a huge bonfire whose intense heat made both sides move away.
The French had now to give up hope of crossing the Beresina at this point, and their line of retreat was cut...This was for us a fatal calamity, and contributed largely to changing the face of Europe, by shaking the Emperor on his throne. Marshal Oudinot, once he saw that it was impossible to force a passage over the river at Borisoff, considered that it would be dangerous to have the town choked by the rest of his troops, so he ordered them to halt and set up camp while they were still some distance away. Castex's brigade stayed on its own in Borisoff and was forbidden to communicate with the other units, from which it was hoped to conceal for as long as possible the disastrous news of the burning of the bridge, which they did not hear about until forty-eight hours later.
Under the conventions of war, the enemy's baggage belongs to the captors. General Castex therefore authorised the troopers of my regiment and those of the 24th to help themselves to the booty contained in the 1500 wagons and carts abandoned by the Russians in their flight to the other side of the bridge. The quantity of goods was immense, but as it was a hundred times more than the brigade could carry, I called together all the men of my regiment and told them that as we were to make a long retreat, during which I would probably be unable to make the distributions of rations which I had done during all the campaign, I would advise them to provide themselves mainly with foodstuff, and think also about protection from the cold, I reminded them that an overloaded horse will not last for long, and that they should not weigh theirs down with articles of no use in war. "What is more", I told them, "I shall hold an inspection, and anything which is not food, clothing, or footwear will be rejected without exception". General Castex, to avoid all argument, had planted markers which divided the mass of vehicles into two parts, so that each regiment had its own area.
Oudinot's forces surrounded the town on three sides, the fourth was bounded by the Beresina, and there were a number of observation posts, so that our soldiers could examine the contents of the Russian carts in safety. It appeared that the officers of Tchitchakoff's army treated themselves well, for there was a profusion of hams, pastries, sausages, dried fish, smoked meat and wines of all sorts, plus an immense quantity of ships biscuits, rice, cheese, etc. Our men also took furs and strong footwear, which saved the lives of many of them. The Russian drivers had fled without taking their horses, almost all of which were of good quality. We took the best to replace those of which the troopers complained, and officers used some as pack-horses to carry the foodstuff which they had acquired.
The brigade spent another day in Borisoff, and as in spite of the precautions which had been taken, the news of the destruction of the bridge had spread throughout 2nd Corps, Marshal Oudinot, in order to allow all his troops to take advantage of the goods contained in the enemy vehicles, arranged that successive detachments from all the regiments might enter the town to take their share of the plunder. Notwithstanding the quantity of goods of all kinds taken by Oudinot's men, there remained enough for the numerous stragglers returning from Moscow on the following day.
The supreme command and indeed all officers who were able to appreciate the situation were extremely worried. We had before us the Beresina, on the opposite bank of which were gathered Tchitchakoff's forces, our flanks were threatened by Wittgenstein, Koutousoff was on our tail, and except for the debris of the Guard and Oudinot's and Victor's corps, reduced now to a few thousand combatants, the rest of the Grande Arme, recently so splendid, was composed of sick men and soldiers without weapons, whom starvation had deprived of their former energy. Everything conspired against us; for although, owing to a drop in the temperature, Ney had been able, a few days previously, to escape across the frozen Nieman, we found the Beresina unfrozen, despite the bitter cold, and we had no pontoons with which to make a bridge.
On the 25th of November, the Emperor entered Borisoff, where Marshal Oudinot awaited him with the 6000 men he had left. Napoleon, and the officers of his staff were astonished at the good order and discipline which obtained in 2nd Corps, whose bearing contrasted so markedly with that of the wretched groups of men whom they were leading back from Moscow. Our troops were certainly not so smart as they would have been in barracks, but every man had his weapons and was quite prepared to use them. The Emperor was so impressed by their turn-out that he summoned all the colonels and told them to inform their regiments of his satisfaction with the way they had conducted themselves in the many savage actions which had been fought in the province of Polotsk.
You will recall that when the Bavarian General Comte de Wrde made his unauthorised departure from 2nd Corps, he took with him Corbineau's cavalry brigade, after assuring General Corbineau that he had orders to do so, which was not true. Well, this piece of trickery resulted in the saving of the Emperor and the remains of his Grande Arme.
General Corbineau, dragged unwillingly away from 2nd Corps, of which he was a part, had followed General Wrde as far as Gloubokoye, but there he had declared that he would go no further unless the Bavarian general showed him the order, which he claimed to have, instructing him to keep Corbineau with him. General Wrde was unable to do this, so Corbineau left him and headed for Dokshitsy and the headwater of the Beresina, then, going down the right bank of the river, he intended to reach Borisoff, cross the bridge and take the road to Orscha to look for Oudinot's Corps, which he thought was in the region of Bobr.
The Emperor, who had available the services of several thousand Poles belonging to the Duchy of Warsaw, has been blamed for not attaching, from the beginning of the campaign, some of them to every general or even every colonel to act as interpreters, for this would have avoided many mistakes. This was proved during the dangerous journey of several days which the Corbineau brigade had to undertake through unknown country, the language of whose inhabitants none of the Frenchmen could understand, for it so happened that among the three regiments which the General commanded was the 8th Polish Lancers, whose officers extracted from the local people all the necessary information. This was a tremendous help to Corbineau.
When he was about half a day's journey from Borisoff, some peasants told the Polish Lancers that Tchitchakoff's troops were occupying the town, information which dashed his hopes of crossing the Beresina; however these same peasants having persuaded him to turn round, led him to the village of Studianka, not far from Weselovo, four leagues above Borisoff, where there is a ford. The three regiments crossed the ford without loss and the General , going across country and avoiding some of Wittgenstein's troops who were moving towards Borisoff, eventually rejoined Oudinot on the 23rd of November at a place called Natscha.
This daring march undertaken by Corbineau was much to his credit, but more than that, it was a stroke of remarkable good fortune for the army, for the Emperor, realising the impossibility of re-building the bridge at Borisoff in the near future, resolved, after discussing the matter with Corbineau, to cross the Beresina at Studianka. Tchitchakoff, who had been told of the crossing at this point effected by Corbineau's brigade, had placed a strong division and many guns opposite Studianka, so Napoleon, to deceive him, employed a stratagem, which although very old, is almost always successful. He pretended that he was not interested in Studianka and that he intended to use one of two other fords which were below Borisoff, the most practicable of which was at the village of Oukolada. To this end he sent ostentatiously to the spot one of the still armed battalions, followed by a horde of stragglers, which the enemy might take for a full-strength division of infantry. At the tail of this column were numerous wagons, a few guns and the division of Cuirassiers. When they arrived at Oukolada these troops placed the guns in position, and did all they could to look as if they were about to build a bridge.
Told of these preparations, Tchitchakoff had no doubt that it was Napoleon's intention to cross the river at this point so as to reach the road to Minsk, which ran nearby. He therefore hurriedly sent down the right bank, to face Oukoloda, the entire garrison of Borisoff. Not only that, for some extraordinary reason, the Russian General, who had sufficient troops to protect both the upper and lower parts of the river, removed all of those which he had placed previously in a position to oppose a crossing at Studianka and sent them too down to Oukoloda. He had now abandoned the place where the Emperor intended to build a bridge, and had concentrated his force, uselessly, six leagues downstream.
In addition to the error of massing all his army below Borisoff, Tchitchakoff made a mistake which a sergeant would not have made, and one for which his government never forgave him. The town of Zembin, which is opposite to the ford at Studianka, is built on a vast marsh, through which runs the road to Wilna. The road goes over twenty-two wooden bridges which the Russian general could have easily reduced to cinders before leaving the district, as they were surrounded by many stacks of dry reeds. If Tchitchakoff had done this, the French army would have been left without hope. It would have served it nothing to have crossed the river, for it would have been halted by the deep marshland surrounding Zembin; but the Russian general left the bridges intact, and foolishly went down the Beresina with all his men, leaving only about fifty Cossacks to keep an eye on the ford.
While the Russians, taken in by Napoleon's subterfuge, were deserting the real point of attack, Napoleon gave his orders. Oudinot and his army Corps were to go by night to Studianka, and there arrange for the building of two bridges, before crossing to the right bank and occupying the area between the town of Zembin and the river. Marshal Victor, leaving Natscha, was to form the rear-guard. He was to drive before him all the stragglers, and was to try to hold Borisoff for a few hours before going to Studianka and crossing the bridges. Those were the Emperor's orders, the execution of which in detail was frustrated by events.
On the evening of the 25th, Corbineau's brigade, whose commander knew the area well, proceeded up the left bank of the Beresina towards Studianka, followed by Castex's brigade and several battalions of light infantry; after which came the bulk of 2nd Corps. We were sorry to leave Borisoff where we had spent two happy days. We had perhaps a presentiment of the bad times which were to come.
At daybreak on the 26th of November we arrived at Studianka, where there were no signs of any preparation for defence on the opposite bank, so that, had the Emperor not burned the bridging equipment a few days previously at Orscha, the army could have crossed immediately. The river, which some have described as huge, is more or less as wide as the Rue Royale in Paris where it passes the Ministry of Marine. As for its depth, it is enough to say that the three regiments of Corbineau's brigade had forded it seventy-two hours previously without accident, and did so again on the day of which I write. Their horses never lost their footing and had to swim only at two or three places. At this time the crossing presented only a few minor inconveniences to the cavalry the artillery and the carts, one of which was that the riders and carters were wet up to their knees, which was not insupportable because, regrettably the cold was not sufficiently severe to freeze the river, which would have been better for us. The second inconvenience which arose from the lack of frost was that the marshy ground which bordered the opposite bank of the river was so muddy that the saddle-horses had difficulty in crossing it and the carts could sink in to their axles.
Esprit de corps is certainly very praiseworthy, but it should be moderated or forgotten in difficult circumstances. This did not happen at the Beresina, where the commanders of the artillery and the engineers both demanded sole responsibility for building the bridges, and as neither would give way, nothing was being done. When the Emperor arrived on the 26th, he ended this quarrel by ordering that two bridges should be built, one by the artillery and one by the engineers. Immediately beams and battens were seized from the hovels of the village and the sappers and the gunners got to work. Those gallant men showed a devotion to duty which has not been sufficiently recognised. They went naked into the freezing water and worked for six or seven hours at a stretch, although there was not a drop of "eau de vie" to offer them, and they would be sleeping in a field covered by snow. Almost all of them died later, when the severe frosts came.
While the bridges were being built and while my regiment and all the troops of 2nd Corps were waiting on the left bank for the order to cross the river, the Emperor, walking rapidly, went from regiment to regiment, speaking to the men and officers. He was accompanied by Murat. This brave and dashing officer who had so distinguished himself as the victorious French were advancing on Moscow, the proud Murat had been, so to speak, eclipsed since we had left that city, and during the retreat he had taken part in none of the fighting. One saw him following the Emperor in silence, as if he had nothing to do with what was going on in the army. He seemed to shed some of his torpor at the Beresina at the sight of the only troops who were still in good order, and who constituted the last hope of safety.
As Murat was very fond of the cavalry, and as of the many squadrons which had crossed the Nieman there remained none except those in Oudinot's corps, he urged the Emperor's footsteps in their direction.
Napoleon was delighted with the state of these units and of my regiment in particular, for it was now stronger than several of the brigades. I had more than 500 men on horseback, whereas the other colonels in the corps had scarcely 200, so I received some flattering comments from the Emperor, a great share of which was due to my officers and men.
It was at this time that I had the good fortune to be joined by Jean Dupont my brother's servant, a man of exemplary loyalty, devotion and courage. Left on his own after the capture of my brother early in the campaign, he had followed the 16th Chasseurs to Moscow and taken part in the retreat, while caring for my brother Adolphe's three horses, of which he had refused to sell a single one in spite of many offers. He reached me after five months of hunger and hardship, still carrying all my brother's effects, though he told me, with tears in his eyes, that having worn out his shoes and been reduced to walking barefoot in the snow, he had dared to take a pair of boots belonging to his master. I kept this admirable man in my service, and he was a great help to me when, some time later, I was wounded once more, in the midst of the most horrible days of the great retreat.
To return to the crossing of the Beresina. Not only did our horses cross the river without difficulty, but our "cantiniers" or sutlers, drove their carts across. This made me think that it might be possible, if one unharnessed some of the many carts which followed the army, to fix them in the river in a line, one after the other, to make a sort of causeway for the infantrymen, something which would greatly ease the flow of the mass of stragglers who the next day would be crowding round the entries to the bridges. This seemed to me to be such a good idea, that although I was wet to the waist, I recrossed the ford to offer it to the generals of the Imperial staff.
They accepted my suggestion, but made no attempt to pass it on to the Emperor. Eventually, General Lauristan, one of his aides-de-camp, said to me "I suggest that you yourself undertake the building of this footbridge, the usefulness of which you have so well explained". I replied to this wholly unacceptable proposition that I had at my disposal neither sappers nor infantrymen, nor tools, nor stakes, nor rope, and that in any case I could not leave my regiment, which being on the right bank, could be attacked at any time. I had offered him an idea which I thought was a good one, I could do no more and would now go back to my normal duties. Having said this I went back into the water and returned to the 23rd.
When the sappers and the gunners had finally completed the trestle bridges, they were crossed by the infantry and the artillery of Oudinot's corps, who, having reached the right bank, went to set up their bivouacs in a large wood, where the cavalry were ordered to join them. We could from there watch the main road from Minsk, down which Admiral Tchitchakoff had led his troops to the lower Beresina, and up which he would have to come to reach us, once he heard that we had crossed the river at Studianka.
On the evening of the 27th, the Emperor crossed the bridge with his guard and went to settle at a hamlet named Zawniski, where the cavalry were ordered to join him. The enemy had not appeared.
There has been much discussion about the disasters which occurred at the Beresina; but what no one has yet said is that the greater part of them could have been avoided if the general staff had paid more attention to their duty and had made use of the night 27th-28th to send over the bridge not only the baggage, but the thousands of stragglers who would be obstructing the passage the next day. It so happened that, after seeing my regiment well settled in their bivouac, I noticed the absence of the pack horse, which, as it carried the strong-box and the accounts of the regiment, could not be risked in the ford. I expected that its leader and the troopers of its escort had waited until the bridges were ready, but they had been so for some hours and yet these men had not arrived. Being somewhat worried about them, and the precious burden committed to their charge, I thought I would go in person and expedite their crossing, for I imagined that the bridges would be crowded. I hurried to the river where, to my great surprise, I found the bridges completely deserted. There was no one crossing them, although, by the bright moonlight, I could see not a hundred paces away, more than 50,000 stragglers or men cut off from their regiments, whom we called "rotisseurs". These men, seated calmly before huge fires, were grilling pieces of horse-flesh, little thinking that they were beside a river, the passage of which would, the next day, cost many of them their lives, whereas at present they could cross it unhindered in a few minutes, and prepare their supper on the other side. Furthermore, not one officer of the imperial household, not an aide-de-camp of the army general staff or that of a marshal was there to warn these unfortunate men and to drive them, if need be, to the bridges.
It was in this disorganised camp that I saw for the first time the soldiers returning from Moscow. It was a most distressing spectacle. All ranks were mixed together, no weapons, no military bearing! Soldiers, officers and even generals clad only in rags and having on their feet strips of leather or cloth roughly bound together with string. An immense throng in which were thrown together thousands of men of different nationalities gabbling all the languages of the European continent without any mutual understanding.
However, if one had used one of the regiments from Oudinot's corps or the Guard, which were still in good order, it would have been easy to herd this mass of men across the bridges, for, as I was returning to Zawniski, having with me only a few orderlies, I was able by persuasion and a bit of force to make several thousand of these wretched men cross to the right bank; but I had other duties to perform, and had to return to the regiment.
When I was passing by the general staff, and that of Marshal Oudinot, I reported the deserted state of the bridges and pointed out how easy it would be to bring the unarmed men across while there was no enemy opposition; all I got were evasive answers, each one claiming that it was a colleague's responsibility to see to such an operation.
On returning to the regimental bivouac, I was pleasantly surprised to see the corporal and the eight troopers who during the campaign had been in charge of our herd of cattle. These good fellows were desolate that the crowd of "rotisseurs" had set on their cattle, butchered and eaten them before their eyes without their being able to stop them. It was some consolation to the regiment that each trooper had taken from Borisoff enough food to last for twenty-five days.
My adjutant, M.Verdier, thought it his duty to go across the bridge to try to find the guardians of our accounts, but he got swallowed up in the crowd and was unable to get back. He was taken prisoner during the struggle on the next day , and I did not see him again for two years.
We now come to the most terrible event in the disastrous Russian campaign...to the crossing of the Beresina; which took place mainly on the 28th of November.
At dawn on this ill-fated day, the position of the two belligerents was as follows. On the left bank, Marshal Victor, having evacuated Borisoff during the night, had arrived at Studianka with 9th Corps, driving in front of him a mass of stragglers. He had left, to form his rear-guard, the infantry division of General Partouneaux, who had been told not to leave the town until two hours after him, and who should, in consequence, have sent out a small detachment of men, who could follow the main body and leave guides to signpost the route. He should also have sent an aide-de-camp to Studianka to reconnoitre the road and return to the division: but Partouneaux neglected all these precautions and simply marched off at the prescribed time. He came to a fork in the road, and he did not know which way to go. He must have been aware, since he had come from Borisoff, that the Beresina was on his left, and he should have concluded that to reach Studianka, at the side of this watercourse, it was the road on the left which he should take... but he did not do so, and following blindly some light infantry which had been ahead of him, he took the right hand road and landed in the middle of a large force of Wittgenstein's Russian troops.
Soon Partouneaux's division, completely surrounded, was forced, after a brave defence, to surrender. Meanwhile a simple battalion commander who was in charge of the divisional rear-guard, had the good sense to take the road to the left, by means of which he joined Marshal Victor at Studianka. The Marshal was greatly surprised to see the arrival of this battalion instead of the division of which it was the rear-guard, but his astonishment turned to dismay when he was attacked by Wittgenstein's Russians, whom he thought had been intercepted by Partouneaux. He could not then doubt that the General and all his regiments had been defeated and taken prisoner.
Fresh misfortunes awaited him, for the Russian General Koutousoff, who had been following Partouneaux from Borisoff with a strong body of troops, once he heard of his defeat, speeded up his march and came to join Wittgenstein in his attack on Marshal Victor. The Marshal, whose army corps had been reduced to 10,000 men, put up a stout resistance. His troops, even the Germans who were included among them, fought heroically though they were attacked by two armies, had their backs to the Beresina and had their movements hampered by the swarm of carts driven by undisciplined stragglers who were endeavouring, in a mob, to reach the river. Regardless of these circumstances they held off Koutousoff and Wittgenstein for the whole day.
While this confusion and fighting were going on at Studianka, the enemy, who aimed to gain control of both ends of the bridges, attacked Oudinet's Corps, which was in position before Zawniski, on the right bank. Some thirty thousand Russians, shouting loudly, advanced towards 2nd Corps, which was by now reduced to no more than eight thousand combatants. However, our men had not yet been in contact with those returning from Moscow, and had no idea of the disorder which ruled amongst them, so that their morale was excellent and Tchitchakoff was driven back before the very eyes of the Emperor, who arrived at that moment with a reserve of 3000 infantry and 1000 cavalry from the Old and the Young Guard . The Russians renewed their attack, and overran the Poles of the Legion of the Vistula. Marshal Oudinot was seriously wounded, and Napoleon sent Ney to replace him. General Condras, one of our best infantry officers, was killed. The gallant General Legrand received a dangerous wound.
The action took place in a wood of enormous pine trees. The enemy artillery could not therefore see our troops clearly, so that, although they kept up a vigourous bombardment, their cannon-balls did not hit us, but going over our heads, they broke off branches, some as thick as a man's body, which in their fall killed or injured a good number of our men and horses. As the trees were widely spaced, mounted men could move through them, although with some difficulty, despite which, Marshal Ney, on the approach of a strong Russian column, launched a charge against it with what remained of our division of Cuirassiers. This charge, carried out under such unusual conditions, was nevertheless one of the most brilliant which I have seen. Colonel Dubois, at the head of the 7th Cuirassiers, split the enemy column in two and took 2000 prisoners. The Russians, thrown into disarray, were pursued by the Light Cavalry and driven back to the village of Stakovo with great loss.
I was re-forming the ranks of my regiment, which had taken part in this engagement, when M. Alfred de Noailles, with whom I was friendly, arrived. He was returning from carrying an order from Prince Berthier, whose aide-de-camp he was; but instead of going back to the Marshal, he said as he left me, that he was going as far as the first houses of Stakovo to see what the enemy was doing. This curiosity proved fatal, for as he approached the village, he was surrounded by a group of Cossacks who knocked him off his horse and dragged him away by his collar while raining blows on him. I immediately sent a squadron to his aid, but this effort at rescue did not succeed, because a volley of fire from the houses prevented the troopers from getting into the village. Since that day nothing has been heard of M. de Noailles. It is likely that his superb furs and his uniform covered in gold braid having roused the cupidity of the Cossacks, he was murdered by these barbarians. M. de Noailles' family, knowing that I was the last person to speak to him, asked me for news about his disappearance, but I could tell them no more than what I have described. Alfred de Noailles was an excellent officer and a good friend.
This digression has diverted me from Tchitchakoff, who, after his defeat by Ney, did not dare to attack us again nor to leave the village of Stakovo for the rest of the day.
Having described briefly the position of the armies on the two banks of the Beresina, I shall tell you, in a few words what happened at the river itself during the fighting. The mass of unattached men who had had two nights and two days in which to cross the bridges, and who had, apathetically, failed to do so because they were not compelled, when Wittgenstein's cannon-balls began to fall among them, rushed in a body to get across. This huge multitude of men horses and carts piled up at the entrance to the bridges, trying to force their way on to them.... Many of those who missed the entrance were pushed by the crowd into the Beresina where most of them were drowned.
To add to the disaster, one of the bridges broke under the weight of the guns and the heavy ammunition wagons which followed them. Everyone then headed for the second bridge, where the crowd was so thick that strong men were unable to withstand the pressure and a large number were stifled to death. When they saw that it was impossible to cross the overcrowded bridges, many of the cart drivers urged their horses into the river, but this method of crossing which would have been very successful if it had been carried out in an orderly manner on the two preceding days, failed in the great majority of instances, because driving their carts in a tumultuous mob, they crashed into one another and turned over. Some, however reached the opposite side, but as no one had prepared an exit by smoothing the slope of the river bank, which the general staff should have seen to, few vehicles could climb out, and many more people perished there.
During the night of 28th 29th November, the Russian cannons added to these scenes of horror by bombarding the wretched men who were trying to cross the river, and finally at about nine in the evening there was a crowning disaster, when Marshal Victor began his withdrawal, and when his divisions, in battle order, arrived at the bridge, which they could cross only by dispersing the crowds which blocked their way ...We should perhaps draw a veil over these dreadful events.
At dawn on the 29th, all the vehicles remaining on the left bank were set on fire, and when finally General bl saw the Russians nearing the bridge, he set that on fire also. Several thousand unfortunates left at Studianka fell into the hands of Wittgenstein.
So ended the most terrible episode of the Russian campaign, an episode which would have been a great deal less terrible if we had made proper use of the time which the Russians allowed us after we had reached the Beresina. The army lost in this crossing 20 to 25,000 men.
Once this major obstacle had been crossed, the disorganised mass of men who had escaped from the disaster was still huge. They were directed to go along the road to Zembin. The Emperor and the Guard followed. Then came the remains of several regiments, and finally 2nd Corps, for whom Castex's brigade formed the last rear-guard.
I have already explained that the Zembin road, the only way left open for us, goes through an immense marsh by means of a great number of bridges which Tchitchakoff neglected to burn when he occupied this position a few days previously. We did not make the same mistake, for after the army had passed, the 24th Chasseurs and my regiment easily set them on fire by means of the stacks of dry reeds heaped up in the neighbourhood.
By ordering the burning of the bridges, the Emperor had hoped to rid himself for a long time of pursuit by the Russians, but fate was against us. The cold which at this time of year could have frozen the waters of the Beresina to give us a pathway across, had left the river running; but we had scarcely crossed over when there was sharp frost which froze it to the point where it would bear the weight of a cannon...and as it did the same to the marsh of Zembin, the burning of the bridges was of no value to us. The three Russian armies which we had left behind, could now pursue us without meeting any obstacle; but fortunately the pursuit was not very energetic, and Marshal Ney, who commanded the rear-guard and who had gathered together all the troops still capable of fighting, made frequent sallies against the enemy if they dared to approach too near.
Since Marshal Oudinot and General Legrand had been wounded, General Maison commanded 2nd Corps, which being, in spite of many losses, now numerically the strongest in the army, was always given the task of holding off the Russians. We kept them at a distance during the 30th of November and the 1st of December; but on the 2nd of December they pressed us so hard, in considerable numbers, that a serious engagement took place in which I received a wound, made even more dangerous because the temperature on that day registered 25 degrees of frost. I should perhaps limit myself to telling you that I was injured by a lance without going into further details, for they are so unpleasant that I still do not like to remember them. However, I said I would tell the story of my life, and so this is what happened at Plechtchenitsoui.
It so happened that a Dutch banker named Van Berchem, with whom I had been a close friend at the college of Sorze, had sent to me at the start of the campaign his only son, who having become French by the incorporation of his country into the Empire, had enlisted in the 23rd, although he was barely sixteen years old...He was a fine and intelligent young man, and I made him my secretary, so that he went everywhere fifteen paces behind me with my orderlies. That is where he was on the day in question, when 2nd Corps, for whom my regiment was acting as rear-guard while crossing a vast open plain, saw coming towards them a mass of Russian cavalry, who quickly surrounded them and attacked them on all sides. General Maison deployed his troops with such skill that our squares repelled all the charges made by the enemy regular cavalry.
The Russians then sent in a swarm of Cossacks, who came impudently to attack with their lances the French officers who stood before their troops. Seeing this, Marshal Ney ordered general Maison to chase them off, using what remained of the division of Cuirassiers and also Corbineau's and Castex's brigades. My regiment, which was still numerically strong, was confronted by a tribe of Cossacks from the Black Sea, wearing tall astrakhan hats, and much better clad and mounted than the usual run of Cossacks. We engaged them, but as it is not their custom to stand and fight in line, they turned round and made off at the gallop. However, not knowing the locality they headed for an obstacle which is very unusual in these enormous plains, a large, deep gully, which owing to the perfect flatness of the surrounding country could not be distinguished from any distance. This pulled them up short, and seeing that they could not get across with their horses, they bunched together and turned to present to us their lances.
The ground, covered by frost, was very slippery, and our over-tired horses could not gallop without falling. There was, therefore, no question of a charge, and my line advanced at a trot towards the massed enemy, who remained motionless. Our sabres could touch their lances, but as they are thirteen or fourteen feet long, we could not reach our foes, who could not retreat for fear of falling into the gulch, and could not advance without encountering our swords. We were thus face to face, regarding one another when, in less time than it takes to tell, this is what happened.
Anxious to get to grips with the enemy, I shouted to my troops to grab some of the lances with their left hands and pushing them to one sided get into the middle of this crowd of men, where our short weapons would give us an enormous advantage over their long spears. To encourage them to obey, I wanted to set an example, so dodging several lances, I managed to reach the front rank of the enemy...My warrant officers and my orderlies followed me, and soon the whole regiment. There then ensued a general mle; but at the moment when it started, an old white-bearded Cossack, who was in the rear rank and separated from me by some of his comrades, lent forward and thrusting his lance skillfully between the horses he drove the sharp steel into my right knee, which it pierced, passing through beneath the kneecap.
Enraged by the pain of this injury, I was pushing my way towards the man to take my revenge, when I was confronted by two handsome youths of about eighteen to twenty, wearing a brilliant costume, covered with rich embroidery, who were the sons of the chieftain of this clan. They were accompanied by an elderly man who was some sort of tutor, but who was unarmed. The younger of his two pupils did not draw his sword, but elder did and attacked me furiously...I found him so immature and lacking strength that I did no more than disarm him, and taking his arm pushed him behind me, telling Van Berchem to look after him. I had hardly done this when a double explosion rang in my ears and the collar of my cape was torn by a ball. I turned round quickly, to see the young Cossack officer holding a pair of double-barrelled pistols with which he had treacherously tried to shoot me in the back and had blown out the brains of the unfortunate Van Berchem!
In a transport of rage I hurled myself at this rash stripling, who was already aiming his second pistol at me. Seeing death in my face, he seemed momentarily paralysed. He cried out some words in French. But I killed him.
Blood calls for blood. The sight of young Van Berchem lying dead at my feet, the act I had just carried out, the excitement of battle and the pain of my wound, combined to induce a sort of frenzy. I rushed at the younger of the Cossack officers and grabbing him by the throat I had already raised my sabre when his elderly mentor, to protect his charge, laid the length of his body on my horses neck in a manner which prevented me from striking a blow and called out, "Mercy! In the name of your mother, have mercy! He has done nothing!"
On hearing this appeal, in spite of the scenes around me, I seemed to see the white hand I knew so well, laid on the young man's breast and to hear my mother's gentle voice saying,"Be merciful". I lowered my sabre and sent the youth and his guardian to the rear.
I was so disturbed by what had happened that I would have been unable to give any further orders to the regiment if the fighting had continued for any length of time, but it was soon finished. Many of the Cossacks had been killed and the remainder, abandoning their horses, slid into the depths of the ravine, where a number died in the huge snow-drift which the wind had created.
In the evening following this affair, I questioned my prisoner and his guardian. I learned that the two youngsters were the sons of a powerful chieftain, who, having lost a leg at Austerlitz, hated the French so much that being unable to fight them himself, he had sent his two sons to do so. I thought it likely that, as a prisoner, the cold and misery would be fatal to the one survivor. I took pity on him and set both him and his venerable mentor at liberty. On taking his leave of me the latter said, "When she thinks of her eldest son, the mother of my two pupils will curse you, but when she sees the return of her youngest, she will bless you and the mother in whose name you spared him".
The vigour with which the Russian troops had been repulsed in this last contact having cooled their ardour, we did not see them again for two days, which allowed us to reach Molodechno; but if the enemy allowed us a momentary truce the cold increased its attack. The temperature fell to 27 degrees of frost. Men and horses were falling at every stride, frequently not to rise again. Notwithstanding, I remained with the debris of my regiment, in the midst of which I made my nightly bivouac in the snow. There was nowhere I could go to be better off. My gallant officers and men regarded their commanding officer as a living flag. They endeavoured to preserve me and offered me all the care which our appalling situation permitted. The wound to my knee prevented me from sitting astride my horse, and I had to rest my leg on my horse's neck to keep it straight, which made me get even colder. I was in great pain but there was nothing that could be done.
The road was lined with the dead and dying, our march was slow and silent. What remained of the guard formed a little square, in which travelled the Emperor's carriage, in which was also King Murat.
On the fifth of December, after dictating his twenty-ninth bulletin, which created stupefaction throughout all of France, the Emperor left the army at Smorgoni to return to Paris. He was nearly captured at Ochmiana by some Cossacks. The Emperor's departure greatly affected the morale of the troops. Some blamed him and accused him of abandoning them. Others approved saying that it was the only way to preserve France from civil war and invasion by our so-called allies, the majority of whom were waiting only for a favourable opportunity to turn against us, but who would not dare to make a move if they heard that Napoleon had returned to France, and was organising fresh military forces.
On his departure, the Emperor handed the command of the remains of the army to Murat, who in the circumstances proved unequal to the task, which it must be admitted was extremely difficult. The cold paralysed the mental and physical activity of everyone; all organisation had broken down. Marshal Victor refused to relieve 2nd Corps, who had formed the rear-guard since the Beresina, and Marshal Ney had, unwillingly, to keep it there. Each morning a multitude of dead were left in the bivouac where we had spent the night. I congratulated myself on having, in September, made my men equip themselves with sheepskin coats, a precaution which saved the lives of many of them. The same applied to the supplies of food which we had taken from Borisoff, for without these it would have been necessary to dispute with the starving hordes over the dead bodies of horses.
I may mention here that M. de Sgur claims that there were instances of cannibalism. I have to say that there were so many dead horses lying along the route that there was no need for anyone to resort to this. What is more, it would be a great mistake to think that the countryside was completely bare. There was shortage in localities close to the road, which had been stripped by the army on its march to Moscow but the army had passed in a torrent, without spreading out to the sides. Since then the harvest had been gathered and the country had recovered somewhat, so that it was only necessary to go for one or two leagues from the road to find plenty. It is true, however, that only a well organised detachment could do this without being picked off by the parties of Cossacks which prowled around us.
I arranged, with some other colonels, the formation of foraging parties, who came back not only with bread and a few cattle, but with sledges loaded with salted meat, flour and oatmeal taken from villages which had not been abandoned by the peasantry. This proves that if the Duc de Bassano and General Hogendorp, to whom the Emperor had confided, in June, the administration of Lithuania, had done their job properly during the long period which they spent at Wilna, they could have created large storage depots; but they were interested only in supplying the town, without bothering about the troops.
On the 6th of December, the cold increased and the temperature fell to nearly minus thirty; so that this day was even more deadly than its predecessors, particularly for troops who had not been conditioned gradually to the climate. Amongst this number was the Gratien division, consisting of 12,000 conscripts, who left Wilna on the 4th to come in front of us. The sudden transition from warm barracks to a bivouac in twenty-nine and a half degrees of frost, within forty-eight hours was fatal to nearly all of them. The rigour of the season had an even more terrible effect on the 200 Neapolitan cavalrymen who formed King Murat's bodyguard. They also came to join us after a long stay in Wilna but they all died on the first night which they spent on the snow.
The remnants of the Germans, Italians, Spaniards, Croats and other foreigners whom we had led into Russia, saved their lives by means which the French found repugnant: they deserted, went to villages adjoining the road and awaited, in the warmth of their houses, the arrival of the enemy. This often took some time, for, surprisingly, the Russian soldiers, used to spending the winter in draught-free houses, warmed by continuously burning stoves, are more susceptible to the cold than the inhabitants of other parts of Europe, and their army suffered heavy losses; which explains the slowness of the pursuit.
We did not understand why Koutousoff and his generals did no more than follow us with a weak advance-guard, instead of attacking our flanks and going to the head of our column to cut off all means of retreat, but they were unable to carry out this manoeuvre, which would have finished us, because their soldiers suffered as much from the cold as we did, many of them dying as a result. The cold was so intense that one could see a sort of steam coming from one's eyes and ears, which froze on contact with the air and fell like grains of millet onto one's chest, and one had to stop frequently to rid the horses of huge icicles which were formed by their breath freezing on the bits of their bridles.
There were, however, thousands of Cossacks, attracted by the hope of plunder, who braved the seasonal bad weather and hung around our columns, even attacking places where they saw baggage, though a few shots would drive them off. Eventually, in order to harass us without running any danger, for we had been forced to abandon our artillery, they mounted light cannons on sledges, and used them to fire on our men, until they saw an armed detachment advancing towards them, when they took to their heels. These sneak attacks did little real damage, but they became very unpleasant because of their constant repetition. Many of the sick and wounded were taken and despoiled by these raiders, some of whom had acquired an immense amount of booty, and the greed for enrichment attracted new enemies, who came from the ranks of our allies: these were the Poles.
Marshal de Saxe, the son of one of their kings, said rightly that the Poles were the biggest thieves in the world, and would rob even their own parents, so, not surprisingly, those in our ranks showed little respect for the property of their allies. On the march or in bivouac, they stole anything they saw; but as no one trusted them, petty thieving became more difficult, so they decided to operate on a grand scale. They organised themselves into bands, and at night they would don peasant headgear and slip out of the bivouac to meet at an agreed spot, then they would return to the camp shouting the Cossack war-cry of "Hourra! Hourra!" which so frightened men whose morale had been broken, that many of them fled abandoning their possessions and food. The false Cossacks, after stealing all they could would return to the camp before daylight and become once more Poles, ready to become Cossacks again on the next night.