Chapter 15

Moscow — waiting for Godot

‘All that is left of Moscow must be burned...’

‘Oh, I know that from a purely military point of view Moscow
is worthless. But Moscow is not a military position, it is a political position.
You think I am a general, while I am really an Emperor.’

Napoleon’s stay in Moscow has something of the surreal about it. For the last three years he had been the undisputed master of mainland Europe, or so it appeared. He had invaded Russia to swat the last, annoying fly that disturbed his peace - and now, suddenly, he was waiting in Moscow. Waiting for his now-implacable enemy, the Czar, to save his failed gamble for him. He exhibited no initiative, made no plans for the coming winter, gave no orders for clothing, food or forage to be manufactured or collected. He was intellectually bankrupt; clutching at straws.

The rear zone of Napoleon’s army became increasingly insecure as the partisans became ever bolder. The Red Lancers of the Guard were on the road from Moscow south to Kaluga on 25 September, when a patrol of twenty-five men of the regiment was ambushed and killed by the Cossacks near the village of Rakitki on the River Desna.

On 14 September (26 September) Denis Davidov’s guerrilla group ambushed marauding soldiers in the countryside south of Wiasma.

By 10 o’clock we had taken 70 men and two officers, one of whom had his pockets filled with looted seals, penknives and other stuff. It has to be said, however, that this officer was not French, but from Westphalia.

On the morning of the 15th, around 8 o’clock, our sentries on duty spotted a large number of carriages with white covers on their way from a village of Tarbeyev. Some of us jumped on horseback and saw them as they moved along like a sailing fleet. In the blink of an eye, hussars and Cossacks galloped to cut them off. The first in line attacked those escorting the convoy, and after a few pistol shots they scattered in flight; then, when cornered by the Bug regiment, they laid down their arms. Two hundred and sixty men from different regiments with their horses, two officers and twenty carriages filled with bread and oats and harnesses fell into our hands.

General Preysing-Moos, near Moscow, throws some light on conditions for the troops on the front line, even in late September:

On 28th the entire light cavalry of the IV Corps mounted a reconnaissance to the village of Fedosino without making contact with the enemy. We bivouaced in misery in a small wood near Broussier’s division. This night and the next were so cold, the weather so wet and windy and no food or forage available, that we were forced to seek better shelter in the devastated village of Judina. There we were at least able to find a church that could be heated in which to put the wounded and sick. On 30th we sent back to Moscow Major Gaddum, an ensign and 10 men who were seriously ill; 7 officers, 46 men, 59 sick horses, 88 unmounted men and 57 gunners were sent to the hospital in Rusa.

Back in Moscow, by 3 October, with his peace initiatives to Czar Alexander unanswered, Napoleon had another mood swing, as Segur recorded: ‘We shall march on St Petersburg, where Macdonald will join us. Murat and Davout will be the rearguard!’ declared the Emperor. Then, becoming aware of the stunned expressions of his staff, he said:


King Friedrich August of Saxony; hapless hostage to Napoleon in 1813 as his kingdom was extensively ruined by the fighting. Author’s collection.

What! You are not inflamed by this idea! Has there ever been a greater military exploit? Henceforth, nothing short of that conquest will be worthy of us. We shall be overwhelmed with praise! What will the world say when it learns in three months’ time that we have conquered the two greatest capitals in the north?

Not too much later, reality again asserted itself; the St Petersburg excursion was forgotten.

Just before this outburst, Russian partisans had become very active. Denis Davidov’s raids had been very successful, for minimal loss:

On the morning of the 20th September we moved to Gorodistche where we could rest and also inspect the levies of the new militia formed at Znamensky. Besides, I was now laden with spoils. I found I had 908 men, 15 officers, 36 gun carriages, 40 supply wagons, 144 draught oxen, which I distributed, and about 200 horses, from which I chose the best to replace the poor mounts of the Cossacks. The rest I apportioned out among the peasants.

Davidov had also freed 400 Russian prisoners.

On 26th September we reached Andreyani, and I sent two peasants into Pokrovskoe to get information on the enemy detachment there. Within four hours two lads galloped over from Losmino with the news that the French were on their way from Wiasma, marching in the direction of Gzhatsk. My wishes were being granted.

Our party immediately headed for Monin. Towards evening we reached this village and captured 42 wagons loaded with food, 10 artillery carriages under the protection of 126 light infantrymen and one officer. This group was part of the detachment sent at the double to overtake us.

Just after this raid, Davidov’s force was swelled by the 13th Cossack Pulk of the Don Host under Colonel Popov; together with the 1st Cossack Pulk of the Bug. Davidov now had some 700 men under his command.

On the evening of 10 October another group of Russian partisans under General Dorokhov attacked the small town of Vereja (16 km south of Mozhaisk) and overwhelmed the 450 men of the 1st Battalion, 6th Westphalian Infantry Regiment, capturing both the battalion commander, von Conrady, and the regimental commander, Colonel Ruella. The battalion’s colour was taken, as was a large stock of bread and grain.

The next action of Davidov’s group was to be north of the main road, near the River Wiasma.

On 4th October... we halted in some woods, a few yards from a bridge over the River Wiasma. Hardly an hour had gone by when my scouts gave a whistled signal, having spotted an officer on foot with a musket and a dog. Ten men jumped on horseback to intercept him, surround him and brought him back. This was Regimental Commander Goethal, from the 4th Illyrian Regiment,1 a keen hunter... Each time he noticed his dog, lying on a Cossack’s coat, he assumed that stance of the famous actor Talma in the play Oedipus, and exclaimed aloud, ‘Fatal Passion!’

At this point we caught sight of his battalion. We got ready and when it came within range the whole party pounced on it – the first Cossacks in loose formation and the reserve in a column six horses abreast. Resistance did not last long. Most of the soldiers on foot threw down their weapons, but many, taking advantage of the nearby woods, scattered and saved themselves by fleeing. We captured two officers and 200 men.

Next day, a raiding party of the 1st Bug Cossacks captured a convoy of replacement uniforms and footwear for the 1st Westphalian Hussars2 commanded by a Lieutenant Tiling, who was wounded and captured. The day’s work had yielded 496 soldiers, four lieutenants and one staff officer captured, as well as the convoy of forty-one wagons. They were sent to Ukhnov. Lieutenant Tiling had been robbed of all valuables; he accepted this, but asked Davidov to return to him the ring his sweetheart had given him. Not only was the ring returned, but also a miniature portrait of the girl and a lock of her hair.

Davidov sent them on to Tiling (who lived in Orlov until 1814) together with a note in French:

Receive, Sir, the effects which are so dear to you; may they help you remember your beloved and prove to you that courage and adversity are respected in Russia as everywhere else.

During his increasingly frustrating stay in Moscow (according to Segur) on 6 October, Napoleon revived the St Petersburg plan again. He wrote to the Marquis Louis de Caulaincourt, Duc de Vicenza, ex-ambassador to the Russian court, in October 1812.

I’m going to march on St Petersburg. I know that the destruction of that city will distress you; but then Russia will rise up against Alexander, there will be a conspiracy, and he will be assassinated – which will be a great calamity. I esteem this sovereign highly, and will regret him, as much for my own sake as for France. His nature suits our interests, and no other prince could replace him advantageously for us. Therefore, in order to prevent this catastrophe, I have thought of sending you to him.

Caulaincourt refused to go. Napoleon then picked Marshal Jacques Lauriston for the task. According to Segur, the Emperor said to the latter: ‘I want peace! I must have peace! I want it absolutely. Only preserve our honour.’

Lauriston dutifully went to the Russian headquarters, but was seen only by General Count Levin Bennigsen and Prince Wolkonski; they refused at first to allow him to speak to Marshal Kutusov. Later, when they relented, Kutuzov would not let Lauriston go to the Czar, but sent Napoleon’s letter on with Prince Wolkonski and proposed a truce until the response come. Lauriston agreed and returned to the Kremlin.

Napoleon was very pleased to hear that the letter had been sent on, but ordered that the proposed truce was to be broken. In fact, it was observed. Shortly after this, the Emperor gave orders that all churches in Moscow were to be looted. ‘It required all our efforts to remove the gigantic cross from the tower of Ivan the Great.’ This tower was 320 feet high; the wooden cross was 32 feet long and covered with gilded silver plates.

To quote Segur, during October in Moscow, Napoleon, with astoundingly accurate foresight, said:

Oh, I know that from a purely military point of view Moscow is worthless. But Moscow is not a military position, it is a political position. You think I am a general, while I am really an Emperor.

Those hearing this must have felt that his grasp of affairs was slipping. But then, as if to justify his inaction, he said:

In affairs of state one must never retreat, never retrace one’s steps, never admit an error - that brings disrepute When one makes a mistake, one must stick to it - that makes it right!

Those hearing this now knew that their suspicions were confirmed!

And still the ritual of imperial power was performed in the Kremlin, as Segur recorded:

However, the rewards that the Emperor distributed so generously in his daily reviews were now received with a more restrained joy, even with a shade of sadness. The vacant posts he had to offer were still bloody; his were dangerous favours.

Just before leaving Moscow, it was discovered that there were not enough horses to pull all the artillery pieces; it was proposed that some should be left behind. ‘Oh no,’ responded Napoleon, ‘the enemy would make a trophy out of it!’

Now Segur has an observation on Alexandre Berthier’s effectiveness as Chief of the Imperial General Staff while in Moscow:

The Chief of Staff was of little assistance to his superior in this critical situation. Though in a strange land, with an unfamiliar climate, he took no unusual precautions; and he expected the most insignificant details to be dictated to him by the Emperor, then they were forgotten. This negligence or lack of foresight had fatal consequences... Berthier of himself gave no orders, but was satisfied with faithfully repeating the letter of the Emperor’s wishes. As for the spirit, he was constantly confusing the positive part of his instructions with the purely conjectural.

The French were becoming increasingly concerned at the frequency and severity of Russian retribution to the ravages of the ‘foraging parties’ sent out by the Grande Armée. On 19 October, Berthier wrote to Kutuzov:

We urge you to regulate hostilities so that they will not force the Muscovite empire to bear more hardships than those which are indispensable in a state of war. The devastation of Russia is as harmful to the people as it is painful to Napoleon.

Kutuzov replied: ‘It is impossible for me to suppress Russian patriotism.’

On 10 October, Murat wrote from Wiskowo to his chief of staff, General Auguste-Danielle Belliard, sick in Moscow:

My dear Belliard, my situation is terrible; the whole enemy army is ranged against me. The troops of my advanced guard are reduced to nil. They suffer from hunger and it is no longer possible to collect forage, without being sure that they will be captured. Not a day passes without I lose 200 men in this way. How will this end? I fear to tell the Emperor the truth, it will cause him concerns.

Send us some flour or we will starve to death. Give me news, I know nothing.

You will know that the Emperor has forbidden me to send out parliamentaries, and this is extremely unpleasant for me; as these were the only way that I could be sure that I was not going to be attacked; and in this manner foraging was easier.

I am unhappy, farewell!

When will the Emperor finally make a decision? What will happen to his army in the coming winter?

The Russians are charming to me.

Russian charm had its aims...

The clash at Winkowo (Tarutino, Tschernischna), 18 October. A village in the central sector, 67km south west of Moscow. A Russian victory by Field Marshal Prince Kutuzov, with the II, III and IV Corps and the I and IV Cavalry Corps. They surprised and beat Marshal Murat with what was left of the I, II and III Cavalry Corps and the V (Polish) Corps.

The large-scale ambush at Winkowo on 18 October finally caused the penny to drop in Napoleon’s mind. There would be no peace in 1812. No-one would be throwing him a life-line this time, as had been the case at Austerlitz. He had carefully manoeuvered himself out onto this limb and into this critical situation and must now fight his way out as best he could. He had embarked on the greatest game of poker in his career to date and his younger opponent (Alexander was 34 to Napoleon’s 43 at this point) had outwitted him; had led him by the nose up the Russian garden path and into the fatal cul-de-sac of Moscow. Napoleon had made two major errors in this game: he had greatly underestimated his opponent and he had begun to believe his own propaganda of invincibility. The stakes in the game had been incredibly high; with his bluff called, he had to pay the price.


Winkowo. Battle of Tarutino, 18 October 1812. Murat, in an isolated position, south-west of Moscow, had been lulled by the Russians into a false sense of security. When the Russians pounced here, they signalled the end of the phoney war. Murat lost some 3,500 precious cavalry and thirty-six guns. The Russians lost just 1,500 men; General Baggowut was killed. This map is after Bogdanovich.

Preysing-Moos recorded how the retreat began for his cavalry brigade:

Finally, on 19th October, we began our withdrawal. My 3rd and 6th Regiments were detached to General Ornano.3 With the rest, and the battery, I joined Broussier’s division and we set off on the road to Kaluga to bivouac in the village of Scharapowo. After a march of four hours, we heard cannon and small arms fire from ahead. We sent out a patrol who reported that Ornano’s baggage train had been ambushed by several hundred Cossacks due to the lax conduct of the escort. Many people had been cut down and killed or wounded and part of the convoy plundered. We hurried to reach the scene but could only capture a single Cossack. We marched on to Fominskija where the infantry halted. I took my cavalry and a battalion of Spaniards and took post half an hour ahead at the village of Malkowo.

This extract from General Preysing-Moos’ account of the march from Moscow is extremely revealing as to the state of the cavalry of Napoleon’s army.

On the information of a peasant that we had captured, that 10 Wersts4 [a Werst was about two-thirds of a mile] to our left hand side was an enemy force of 4 infantry and 2 cavalry regiments, I received the task on the 18th of taking two cavalry regiments, 300 infantry and one gun to reconnoitre in their direction. Just before we moved off however, the Chasseur outposts were attacked and driven back into the village. General alarm was sounded and we all rushed to our predetermined posts. Mine was on the left flank with the 5th and 6th Regiments. Several regiments of enemy cavalry were advancing against us and I was forced to form a hook by refusing my flank. This move was scarcely completed when we were attacked on three sides by a force of dragoons, lancers and Cossacks to the number of about 1,500 men, who charged at us whooping wildly. As my two regiments together numbered only about 400 men, and as it was impossible to goad our exhausted horses into a trot, I was forced to receive this charge standing. With admirable cold-bloodedness, my men took aim with their carbines and let the enemy charge up to within 15 paces of them. This steady conduct, and the shell and canister fire of two of our guns which had come up in our support, caused the enemy to break off the charge and retire into a nearby wood; taking some wounded with him and leaving some dead men and horses on the field. In the meantime, the 9e Chasseurs a Cheval had been overthrown and driven back with heavy loss. As this exposed my rear, I was forced to order the second rank of the 6th Regiment to turn about; this made my situation, in such close proximity to the enemy, even more perilous. Thus we remained until dark. The spare horses and the baggage were sent back to Fominskija where the wagons were formed into a circle.

The Emperor himself left Moscow before daybreak on 19 October. ‘Forward to Kaluga!’ he cried, ‘and woe to all who cross my path!’

But, as Segur noted, which confirmed Preysing-Moos’ account:

Still, that very first day on the road, he could not help noticing that both the artillery and the cavalry were crawling rather than marching... One could have taken it for a caravan, a nomadic horde, or one of those armies of antiquity, laden with spoils and slaves. How had it happened that in Moscow everything had been forgotten? Why was there so much useless baggage; why did so many soldiers die so soon of hunger and cold under the weight of their knapsacks which were full of gold instead of with food and clothing? Above all, why, in the thirty-three days had not efforts been made to make snow-shoes for the men and the horses? If these things had been done, we would not have lost our best men at the Wop, the Dniepr and along the whole road. But why, in the absence of orders from Napoleon, had not these precautions been taken by by his commanders, all of them kings, princes and marshals? Had not the winter in Russia been foreseen?

And indeed, there was little resemblance of that loose mob to a conventional European army. It was a collection of motley individuals, many unarmed, including non-Russian male and female citizens of Moscow now too scared to stay and face the wrath of their ex-hosts when they came to view the ruins of their homes, lives and businesses. All were clad in a great variety of clothing, all were heavily laden down with all sorts of items precious to them, most of which would be discarded within hours or days as being not worth the effort of carrying. Carts and coaches, wagons of all kinds were mingled with the marchers. These too were piled high with treasured belongings, groaning under the weight, their teams staggering to move them.

But the fate of the sick and wounded moved Napoleon to action. He ordered each vehicle to be stopped and forced to accept a casualty as a passenger. As he wrote on 21 October to Marshal Mortier, still back in the Kremlin at this point:

The Romans conferred civic crowns upon those who saved citizens’ lives; you will be rewarded in a like manner, if you save soldiers. Have them carried on your horse and on those of your men. That is what I myself did at St Jean d’Acre.

Segur again confirmed the catastrophic state of the army:

Men were already falling along the way. On 15th October, the first day of the retreat, we had burned wagon loads of provisions that the horses could no longer pull. Now the order to burn everything behind us was given and unharnessed powder wagons were blown up inside the houses.

In the early hours of 6 October, Davidov’s partisans struck again at a French regiment in the village of Krutoy, near Wiasma. Again they were successful, taking an officer, a sergeant and 376 men prisoner. The Russians then went on to attack a French cavalry regiment in Losmino, about 20 km south of Wiasma. Again they were successful, taking 403 officers and men for the loss of only four Cossacks killed, fifteen wounded and fifty horses.



This is an error by Davidov; Goethal was in the Regiment d’Illyrie, which was in the 11th Division, III Corps. Martinien records him as being wounded this day.


With the 24th Infantry Division, VIII Corps.


Commander, 12th Light Cavalry Brigade, IV Corps.


1 Werst = 1.1 km.


2nd Polotzk 18—20 October. Wittgenstein had now been joined by Steinheil’s Finland Corps and some newly-raised militia; he had 40,000 men and assaulted the 23,000 weakened Franco-Bavarians. Gouvion Saint-Cyr could hold on no longer and withdrew southwards, having lost 9,000 men. The Russians lost 8,000 casualties. This map is after Bogdanovich.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!