Chapter 19

The central sector – build-up to the Beresina crossing

‘In that case, there is no choice left to us but to cut our way
through with our bayonets!’

In Dombrowna, in mid-November 1812, Segur tells us:

The Emperor knew that his army was destroyed... That night we heard groaning and muttering, ‘The misery of my poor soldiers breaks my heart! Yet I cannot help them, unless I establish a permanent base... But where can we rest without ammunition, food or artillery? I am not strong enough to stay here; we must reach Minsk as soon as possible.’

While he was speaking a Polish officer rushed in with the news that Minsk - Minsk, his storehouse, his retreat, his only hope - had just fallen into the hands of the Russians! Napoleon said coolly: ‘In that case, there is no choice left to us but to cut our way through with our bayonets!’. Minsk fell on 17 November.

Napoleon stayed four days in Smolensk, mainly to allow the wreck of his army to close up. But in doing this, he allowed Kutuzov to gain much ground; in fact, the Russians overtook the allies in that city, passing to the south to take up position at Krasnoi ahead of them.

Up to Smolensk, Davout had formed the rearguard; now Ney’s much-reduced III Corps took over this thankless task and the stage was set for one of the most famous acts of the entire tragic farce of 1812. Ney left Smolensk only on the morning of 17 November, although it is thought that he might have left the day before. This delay proved fatal for his unfortunate corps, as we shall see.

The raid on Minsk, 17 November. Capital city of Bielo Russia, in the central sector. A victory for Count Lambert’s advance guard of the Army of the Danube, 3,600 men, which captured most of the 2,000 strong Polish garrison under General Bronikowski, 2,000 sick and wounded and a huge magazine of two million rations. Lambert’s losses were light. This was a major blow to Napoleon’s hopes.

The 2nd clash at Krasnoi, 14 – 18 November. A village in the central sector, 40 km south west of Smolensk. A victory for the Russians under General Miloradovitch (III, V, VI, VII and VIII Corps of Kutuzov’s army), over the remnants of the Grande Arméeunder Napoleon. This four-day action saw the remnants of the Grande Armée, some 50,000 men in all, strung out over a column four days long, hurry their way past the 90,000 Russians. The Russians claimed 13,000 killed, 26,500 captured, 133 guns and fifteen colours, standards and eagles taken, as well as Marshal Davout’s baton. Kutuzov reported his losses as 700 killed and wounded. No serious effort was made to try to stop the fugitives; Kutuzov could have annihilated Napoleon here. For some reason he let most of them go.

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Krasnoi 147-18 November. By this point, most regiments were reduced to handfuls of men. The well-fed Imperial Guard were the exception. Over these four days, Napoleon’s fugitive army ran the gauntlet of the Russians who adopted a flanking position and bombarded the enemy as they staggered past. Napoleon lost 39,000 men , 123 guns and fifteen eagles and colours. Marshal Davout’s was also taken. The Russian losses are not clear. This is a Blackwood map.

The Russians recorded the losses of their enemy day by day as they hurried past through the artillery fire:

14 November. Advanced guard of the Imperial Guard and the 3e Leger - 400 killed, 3 generals, 24 officers and 1,220 soldiers captured.

15 November. Imperial Guard - 800 killed, 1 general, 20 officers and 1,100 soldiers captured.

16 November. The Viceroy of Italy - 1,800 killed, 1 general, 53 officers, 2,700 soldiers, 5 eagles, 24 cannon and 30 caissons captured.

17 November. The Prince of Eckmühl – 4,000 killed, 2 generals, 58 officers, 9,160 men, 6 eagles, 60 cannon and 30 caissons and one marshal’s baton (M. Davout) captured.

18 November. The Duke of Elchingen – 6,000 killed, 100 officers, 12,000 soldiers, 4 eagles, 27 cannon and 18 caissons captured.

Totals – 30,000 killed, 7 generals, 2,052 officers, 26,180 men, 15 eagles, 133 cannon and 98 caissons.

Russian losses at Krasnoi were given as 2,000, which may be an understatement.

The entry for 18 November marked the effective end of Ney’s III Corps. He assaulted the Russian army, but failed to make any impression on it and lost most of his corps for his troubles. Fate saved him by allowing him to slip off with his survivors into the dusk, back to the east. Setting up camp that night, he then abandoned his fires and marched north, seeking a way to cross the frozen River Dnieper, 16 km away. The ice on the river was too thin to bear horses or artillery, so all were abandoned. Next morning Ney’s group of survivors were attacked by some of Platov’s Cossacks, but beat them off.

A Polish officer had managed to slip through the Russian lines and brought the news of Ney’s desperate plight to Prince Eugene and his IV Corps. Eugene turned back and miraculously met up with Ney, armed with a musket, and the 900 men that now represented the III Corps. The legend of the ‘bravest of the brave’ had been born.

Napoleon meanwhile, had decided to abandon his rearguard to save what was left of the main body of his army; a hard but correct decision. The Emperor’s joy at the reappearance of Marshal Ney at Orscha on the evening of 21 November was great and genuine.

On 3 November, Davidov’s group raided the main road between Anosov and Merlin and took Generals Almeras1 and Burthe2, 200 men, four guns and a number of supply wagons. That same day, they saw Napoleon in the midst of the Old Guard and skirmished, unsuccessfully, with them.

Three days later (18 November according to Six), Davidov’s men captured General Martushewich3 at Krasnoi, together with 700 prisoners and countless vehicles. Having only Cossacks with him, Davidov was unable to offer serious resistance to the Imperial Guard, who, with the Emperor in their midst, ‘ploughed through [them] like a 100-gun ship [of the line] through fishing skiffs.’

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Beresina Crossing 26-28 November. This was the last clash of any serious degree of the campaign. The four days of fighting have been compressed onto one sheet. Kutuzov had a chance to crush Napoleon here, but failed to risk it. Victor’s IX Corps bore the brunt of the fighting and was largely destroyed. Blame for this failure to catch Napoleon was placed on Admiral Tschitschagoff, but there was plenty to go around all the senior Russian commanders. This is a Blackwood map.

Acording to Segur, Napoleon entered Orscha on 18 November with 6,000 Guards – all that were left of the original 35,000. By now Eugene’s 42,000 had been reduced to 1,800; Davout’s 70,000 to 4,000... As Davout said: ‘Only men of iron could bear such hardships! It is physically impossible to hold out any longer! Human strength has its limits, and we have gone beyond them!’

But worse was to come. The Beresina had yet to be crossed.

And now the weather turned against Napoleon. The bitter cold, which had convinced him to order his bridging train to be abandoned and burned, now gave way to a relatively warm spell. The Beresina, a lazy river, meandering through swampy banks, thawed; the ice would no longer support even a man. It became a serious obstacle again.

Luckily for Napoleon, the true state of his army was not known to Kutuzov, who was following slowly, some distance behind him. Even more luckily for the Emperor, his Commander of Pontonniers, General Count Jean-Baptiste Eble, had disobeyed his orders to destroy all the bridging equipment. He had kept two field forges, two wagons of coal and six wagons loaded with beams, nails, clamps and tools. Also, each pontonnier still carried his tools and a quantity of nails. In the coming days, these, and the dedication of the French pontonniers, would provide the golden escape route for Napoleon and his men.

General Count Poitr Pavlovich Pahlen, of the Army of the Moldau, had learned from French prisoners on 22 November that Napoleon was close by and would try to cross the Beresina at Borisov very soon. He sent news of this to Tchitschagoff and to Kutuzov. Neither believed him. Neither moved in for the inevitable kill with any semblance of urgency.

Bavarian General von Preysing-Moos’ cavalry brigade had vanished by now. The surviving officers received permission to march with the Imperial Guard. His account continues:

On 18 and 19 November we went on to Orscha and crossed the Dniepr there; as there was no room in the town, I went on for half-an-hour on the road to Minsk, where I found a barn to sleep in. From all those officers who still had horses, the Emperor formed a single squadron – ‘The Sacred Squadron’ – under his personal command and headed by the King of Naples.

From 21st to 26th, the march (or more correctly the headlong flight) went on under constant enemy attack and pursuit. Colonel von Rassler and Major Gaddum, who were sick, were stabbed by Cossacks.

The first clash at Borisov, 21 November. A town in the central sector, on the left bank of the Beresina River, 58 km north east of Minsk. A Russian victory for Count Lambert’s advanced guard of the Army of the Danube over General Dombrowski’s 17th (Polish) Infantry Division. Most of Dobrowski’s 5,000-strong division was captured. The Russians had now seized the vital bridge over the river at the cost of 2,000 killed and wounded. Next day, Tschitschagoff’s Army of the Moldau closed up to the town.

On 9 November Denis Davidov’s partisans raided Kopys on the River Dniepr, east of Orscha, taking some 600 prisoners. They now moved on towards the Beresina crossing points - the crisis of the entire 1812 fiasco was about to be played out. On 14 November, they raided an enemy outpost in the village of Belynichi, together with Lieutenant-Colonels Khrapovitsky and Chechensky. There was a sharp fight, but eventually the enemy decided to evacuate the place and set off in column towards the bridge over the River Oslik to Esmony. Once they were in the open, one determined Cossack charge, supported by several discharges of canister, broke them up; the rearguard was cut off, yielding three officers and 96 men captured.

The bridge over the Oslik had by now been demolished and the relatively warm weather had melted the ice covering. A party of Cossacks lay in ambush; the rest of the column was killed or taken. The day also yielded a field hospital with 290 sick and fifteen medical orderlies, a supply depot with considerable grain stocks and a collection of wagons.

The second clash at Borisov, 23 November. A victory for the French General Castex’s 5th Light Cavalry Brigade of Oudinot’s II Corps, which retook Borisov from General Count Pahlen’s brigade of the Army of the Danube.

Castex’s determined raid scattered the Russian garrison, inflicting 2,000 casualties on the 3,000-strong garrison for the loss of 1,000. The Russians still held the bridgehead on the western bank of the river, so Napoleon was forced to find a new site.

On 23 November, Napoleon sent for General Colbert and asked him to show him the ford across the Beresina, which he had discovered on 13 July4. The Grande Armée recrossed the Beresina at the same spot at which the Red Lancers had crossed in their advance. The general was certainly possessed of an incredibly retentive memory.

The clash at Cholopenitsche, 23 November. A village in the central sector, near Borisov. A victory for the Russians of Colonel Gerngross’s brigade of Wittgenstein’s I Corps, which overran Partouneaux’s 12th Division, IX Corps four days later. The Russians claimed to have broken the square of the 126e Ligne here and destroyed the regiment.

The clash at Baturi, 24 November. A village in the central sector, near Borisov. A victory for the Russian General Harpe’s division of Wittgenstein’s I Corps over General Daendel’s 26th Division. Exact losses are not known.

Three Russian armies were now closing in on the Grande Armée as it stumbled towards the fateful Beresina River. They included Kutuzov’s main army, Wittgenstein’s I Corps, Steinheil’s Finland Corps and Admiral Tschitschagoff’s Army of the Moldau, coming up from Minsk to the south west. But this last army had detached 27,000 men to observe the Austrian corps under Schwarzenberg and brought only 31,000 to the Beresina. Bavarian General von Preysing-Moos recalled the events:

On 26th we crossed the Disna and passed through the little town of Beresino in order to leave the Minsk road. The whole day we could hear heavy artillery and musket fire to all sides. It was clear to us all that we were approaching another catastrophe.

On 27th November we passed through Borisow and reached the site where they had just thrown two bridges over the Beresina, at exactly the spot used by Charles XII [of Sweden].

The scene was dominated by the pathetic hordes of stragglers, huddling in the snow and ice, waiting for a miracle to save them. For Preysing-Moos and a couple of other Bavarian officers, that miracle arrived and they crossed the river that afternoon, even though they lost most of their remaining possessions.

The battle of the Beresina crossing, 26-28 November. Including the following clashes: first Brili (26 November), Staroi-Borisov (27 November), Studianka (28 November), second Brili (28 November). The dramatic escape of the remnants of the Grande Armée from the clutches of the three converging Russian forces.

General Claude-Juste-Alexandre Legrand, commanding the 6th Division in Oudinot’s II Corps, was to be instrumental in enabling Napoleon to slip out of the trap. Wittgenstein led the chase from the east with his I Corps; he clashed with Legrand’s division and the stiff resistance that he encountered caused him to stagger back a little, as he overestimated the strength and determination of the force opposing him. Kutuzov was some way behind Wittgenstein, off to the east, and Tschitschagoff was on the west bank of the river, around Borisov, south of the vital bridging site.

Meanwhile, the desperation of the situation had galvanised Napoleon’s great mind into action. Learning that certain bridging tools and materials still existed, he planned to build two bridges over the river between the villages of Studianka on the east side and Brilowa on the west. The houses in the former village would provide the materials needed. As Napoleon now said: ‘I have been emperor long enough; it is time now to be a general.’

Michel Ney, Duc d’Elchingen, Prince de la Moskwa

Born on 10 January 1769 in Saarlouis as the son of a cooper, Ney entered the 4e Hussars ‘Colonel General’ (later the 5e, then the 4e) in February 1787 as a trooper and worked his way up to captain by the time he left in December 1794.

He was involved in many military campaigns and actions and in March 1799 he was promoted General de Division after having distinguished himself at the capture of Mannheim by the Armée du Bas-Rhin under Bernadotte. Ney then served as a cavalry commander in the army dHelvetie-et-du Danube in Switzerland under Oudinot. He was wounded at Winterthur and had to quit his field command. In October 1802 he was appointed minister plenipotentiary to Switzerland, where he occupied Zurich and signed the Act of Mediation with the Swiss government on 19 February 1803.

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Michel Ney, Marshal of France, ‘bravest of the brave’. Author’s collection.

Despite having associations with Moreau, Kleber and Hoche - all Napoleon’s rivals - he was well trusted by Napoleon. Ney had been a committed republican but was an ardent supporter of the emperor. In 1803 he commanded the VI Corps in the camp at Boulogne and he was created Marshal of the Empire in 1804. In 1805 he was created Grande Aigle of the Legion d’Honneur and fought at Austerlitz.

In the 1806 campaign he received several annuities paid from the governments of various conquered states for his deeds, although he was defeated at Guttstadt and Deppen by Bennigsen and was lucky to escape complete destruction. In June 1808 he was ennobled as the Duc d’Elchingen.

After extensive action in Spain, including an episode in which Ney burned and destroyed 27 towns as he withdrew from La Romana thinking he had been betrayed by Soult, a fellow commander, and a dispute with Massena that led to Ney being relieved of his command for insubordination, he took command of the III Corps for the 1812 campaign in Russia.

He fought at Krasnoi in August, where Neverovski’s 27th Division escaped destruction due to Murat’s stupidity, and at Smolensk, Valutina Gora, Borodino and Wiasma on the retreat. From Smolensk Ney formed the rearguard and was cut off at Krasnoi on 18 November. Then began his epic trek to escape and rejoin the rest of the army. When he at last cut his way through to Napoleon’s side, the Emperor said: ‘I would have given anything rather than lose you.’ For this campaign he was dubbed ‘the bravest of the brave’.

He again commanded the III Corps in 1813 and after the retreat he returned to France to recover from his wounds, but he served throughout the 1814 campaign. By now his loyalty to Napoleon had largely evaporated and he was in the forefront of these advocating his abdication. He accepted service under the Bourbons and was created Peer of France and appointed to command the 3rd Military Division. He was sent by them to stop Napoleon’s return to Paris in 1815. Ney promised to bring Napoleon ‘back in an iron cage’, but at their first meeting the old magic worked once more and Ney changed sides again.

He was rewarded with a vital command, but failed badly at Quatre-Bras on 16 June. His poorly coordinated assaults at Waterloo contributed to the French defeat there two days later. Ney was arrested by the enraged Bourbons, court-martialled, tried by a jury of his peers, convicted of treason and shot on 7 December 1815 in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris.

The Grande Armée owed its salvation to the foresight of General Eble, and to the dedication of his 150 pontonniers, many of whom died in the icy waters of the Beresina as they built these two bridges across it. To mask his plans from the immediate enemy, on both sides of the river to the south, Napoleon staged a diversion. On 26 November he sent General Junot, with the remnants of his VIII (Westfalian) Corps, to the area of Borisov to make loud and obvious bridging attempts. Local Russian peasants were leaked the information that this was the Emperor’s chosen bridging point. This information was passed quickly on to Wittgenstein and was regarded as credible. The main Russian forces thus remained in this area and only light Cossack patrols were left to observe the Studianka site.

It was at Staroi-Borisov, on 27 November, that General Count Louis Partouneaux’s 12th Division of Victor’s IX Corps was surrounded by the Russians of Wittgenstein’s corps and surrendered. He was personally blamed for this by Napoleon and not re-employed by him. His career flourished under the Bourbons and he died in 1835.

Some idea of the state of this once-great army may be gleaned from the fact that the entire VIII Westfalian Corps spent the night in one house in Borisov during this operation. That same day, Napoleon had some rafts built; he also sent a detachment of cavalry wading through a shallow spot in the Beresina, each with a Voltigeur behind his saddle. Some 300 infantry ferried themselves over the river on the rafts and together, these men drove off the Cossack patrols. The construction of the two bridges began with feverish haste at eight o’clock in the morning; the river was about 100 metres wide at this point.

The bridges were sited about 200 metres apart. The northern one was to be for artillery and cavalry, the other for infantry. The infantry bridge was finished at one o‘clock in the afternoon; that for the artillery was ready by four o’clock. The two structures were fragile; their surfaces often dipped under the level of the water under their loads and each had to be repaired on several occasions.

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Victor Perrin, Marshal of France, Commander, IX Corps. Author’s collection.

Oudinot’s II Corps (5,600 infantry, 1,400 cavalry and two guns) was rushed across and took post on the west bank, facing south. Their aim: to fend off any Russian attack and to keep the vital withdrawal route to Sembin open. Soon, Tschaplitz’s 5,000-strong advanced guard of Tchitschagoff’s army came up from Borisov; but Oudinot’s men held firm, supported by the fire of a fifty-gun battery that Napoleon had set up on some high ground east of Studianka. As fast as possible, Ney’s III Corps and the Imperial Guard doubled over the river to join Oudinot. The Russian assault was beaten back; the way to the west was now open.

By midnight on 27-28 November, all formed units of the Grande Armée had crossed the Beresina using these two flimsy bridges. Only then was the great mass of stragglers and fugitives allowed to cross. The regimental history of the Baden Hussars recounts events on 28 November as follows:

Colonel von Laroche charged the Russian infantry, which had formed square and had their artillery with them. He also commanded the Hessian Chevau-legers and these followed his regiment at a trot. The battalion of the 34th Russian Inf.-Rgt [sic]5 fired a volley only when the hussars were very close. Despite this, the square was broken, the infantry either cut down or captured. After the hussars had handed over 500 prisoners to the Chevaulegers, they went after a string of enemy infantry in extended skirmishing order. They then fell on the Nizhoff and Voronesch Infantry Regiments and the Depot Battalion of the Pavlov Grenadier Regiment. Soon after this, two squadrons of enemy Kuerassiers [a provisional regiment made up of depot troops] appeared; Laroche gathered in his hussars and charged them.

In the wild mêlée, Sergeant-Major Martin Springer6 of the hussars, although wounded already by sabre cuts and bullets, went to the aid of Colonel von Laroche7 and cut down his opponents, thus freeing the colonel.

As the Germans were fighting the Kuerassiers, they were taken in flank by a Russian hussar regiment,8 which sealed their fate.’ The official report by General Wilhelm Graf Hochberg9 recorded the events as follows:

The Hussar Regiment was almost destroyed in this honourable combat. Only 50 horses out of 350 returned over the Beresina. The brave Chevau-legers shared the same fate. It was a stroke of destiny that these two fine regiments were able to close their battlefield careers with such a fine action which saved the lives of so many of their comrades by their sacrifice, in this campaign, where the deprived cavalry, in the bitter climate, were facing their end.

The fight went on for five hours until darkness fell, after which the Russians ceased their assaults. The cost had been heavy. The Baden Hussars and the Hessians had effectively been destroyed. Only fifty hussars were still present. The Baden infantry brigade now consisted of twenty-eight officers and 900 men. The Berg infantry brigade had only Colonel Genty and sixty men. The 28th Polish Division counted just 300 men. But they had bought the time required of them. Of the two Saxon regiments, 109 men remained.

Marshal Victor, and Generals Damas, Gauthier, Girard and Fournier were wounded. In the dreadful scramble to get back over the bridges to safety, Colonel von Dalwigk, commander of the Hessian Garde-Chevau-legers, became separated from his men and was pushed into the icy river by the crush. A Hessian driver recognized the colonel by his white greatcoat and pulled him out. Lieutenant Lippert, of the same regiment, was unable to reach the bridge, so he and one of his troopers swam their horses across.

At midnight, the IX Corps began to withdraw over the river. General Wilhelm Graf Hochberg of Baden was one of the last to cross on the morning of 29 November; the bridges were then fired. About 10,000 unarmed refugees on the eastern bank, men, women and children, fell into Russian hands, to say nothing of the vast collection of booty, including the imperial treasure chests. The surviving German cavalry of IX Corps was detailed for orderly duties in Victor’s headquarters because, as of this day, they were too weak to be of further tactical use.

The infamous 29th Bulletin contained not one word of praise for the efforts of the Poles and Germans of IX Corps. In mid-December 1812, the IX Corps returned through Kowno 3,500 strong; in four months they had lost almost ninety percent of their strength.

The good General Daendels survived to become governor of the fortress of Modlin, where he capitulated on 25 December 1812. In the Waterloo campaign he served in the Anglo-Dutch army.

Russian losses on 27 and 28 November here are estimated at 4,000. French losses are generally put at 13,000 men, four guns and two colours. On 29 November the Russians took a further 5,000 prisoners, twelve guns and hundreds of vehicles.

Thus ended one of the most tragic and dramatic rearguard actions in military history. The survivors of the Grande Armée were now allowed to drag themselves out of Russia with little further interference. On the Russian side, once full realisation dawned of the chance that had been missed, recriminations began to fly. The upshot was that Admiral Tschitschagoff was blamed for the fiasco. It should be remembered, however, that Tschitschagoff was not the only Russian commander to ignore Count Pahlen’s information.

On 16 November, Denis Davidov received the following note from Colonel von Toll, an officer on Kutuzov’s staff, in the village of Somry:

The whole French army is on the march towards Borisov. You will do well to occupy Ozyatichi quickly and open the road leading to Borisov through the woods. It is desirable that this point be occupied completely and that patrols be sent out along the Borisov highway. Orlov has been dispatched with 150 Cossacks towards Tchitchagov; try to open communications with him. You will thereby earn the favour of the field marshal. All your brave men will be rewarded.

Having made his own tactical assessment of the situation, Davidov decided to ignore von Toll’s advice and to march to occupy Smolevich, between Igumen and Minsk, to try to block any attempt by Napoleon to march north west to retake that depot city. In the event, Napoleon passed north of Minsk and made for Wilna.

Having arrived in Borisov, Wittgenstein was overcautious in tackling the remains of Victor’s IX Corps on 28 November, as they defended the two vital bridges over which the viable wreckage of the Grande Armée escaped. For his own part, Kutuzov, not believing the real degree of destruction of Napoleon’s army and having a healthy respect for his opponent, hung back at Kopys, some distance upstream from Borisov and on the eastern bank, and let events take their course. Tschitschagoff, isolated from the other Russian formations on the western bank of the Beresina, was blamed for allowing Napoleon to escape, but it seems that there was enough guilt to allow everyone to have a share. Kutuzov’s tardy pursuit of Napoleon in 1812 has been a perennial subject for discussion ever since.

Davidov’s partisan group were now (1 December) redirected to pursue the enemy army through Borisov, Logoisk, Ilya and Molodechno. These Russians were now in Poland and the natives were very hostile to them. Our Bavarian commentator, General Preysing-Moos, continued his adventure:

At 7 o’clock in the morning of 2 December, accompanied by just a few officers, I reached a bridge near the village of Ilija. By the bridge was a mill, burning fiercely. I had to make a detour and - without knowing it - walked across a pond, hidden under the snow. My companions, and a large number of soldiers with small Russian ponies, were all safely across, when the ice broke under me and the horse I was leading.

Up to my waist in water, frozen to the marrow and weighed down by my wet fur coat, I could not help myself. This went on for about half an hour; I saw my horse and my companions dead in the water. Then a shout went up that a general was in the water and my ADC, von Flotow, and my servant rode back and dragged me out. They took me to a nearby hut and were busy exchanging my wet things for other rags, when the cry: ‘Cossacks!’ went up.

My companions hoisted me onto a horse, but then I found myself surrounded by about 20 Cossacks who shouted ‘Pardon’ to me. A few paces away was a whole regiment of Cossacks. An officer who spoke some German came up and asked me, very politely, to accompany him to General Martinow, Platow’s son-in-law and commander of the advanced guard of the Cossack corps. Martinow had a fire lit for me and gave me some brandy, which revived me.

Meanwhile, several regiments of Ulans and Cossacks, with infantry and artillery, passed by. The general gave me a demonstration of their discipline, in that he had several miscreants beaten with small rods. Many officers from the passing column came up to see a Bavarian general; all were polite and sympathetic to my plight, especially a Lieutenant-Colonel Baron Igelstrom, commander of a regiment of Ulans10 and a Courlander, who gave me a piece of bread, some meat and his only pair of gloves. He also insisted on giving me - despite my protests - eight ducats.

After two hours an order came that I should be taken to General Platow; I met him at the edge of the village. Due to sickness, he was in a troika; after talking with me for some minutes, he ordered one up for me.

We passed by some 300 of our prisoners and a lot of wounded who had been stripped and were dying. After midnight we reached a village, where I was shown into a hut with two Cossacks and some straw.

As soon as day dawned, on 3 December, my two Cossacks beckoned me to follow them into the garden; here I found my whole escort, eating soup, of which they offered me a bowl in friendly fashion. It was a ‘Cossack soup’ with various types of meat; I found it very tasty. They gave me sun-dried Tuna fish, but I couldn’t eat it. Soon I was called to Platow, where they gave me tea and some bread and butter; it was the only food that they had.

We then marched to the village of Latiga; on the way, we passed a very fine horse artillery battery commanded by Captain Bracke, a Courlander, who gave us some saugages and a package of biscuits. He also wanted to give me money, as we wouldn’t get any for eight days.

On 4 December we again met a large convoy of prisoners; despite their obvious poverty, the infantry escorts searched them roughly and took what little they had left. I noticed that the infantry were much more brutal to the prisoners than the Cossacks.

At midday an order arrived that I was to be taken to General Kutuzov. Platow gave me as escort a Cossack officer, Strabusch, who had studied in Leipzig and spoke German and seemed to be a fine fellow. Seven or eight Cossacks came along as well. I mounted Flotow’s horse and he and Auditor Ries were given small Cossack ponies.

We rode back to Latiga and met Admiral Tschitschagow’s army corps; he and General Langeron each spoke with me for some time. The troops were very well dressed and held themselves well. The horse batteries were astoundingly well equipped; their teams were superb.

On 7 December, in bitter cold, we came to the headquarters in Radomirskowitschi at three o‘clock in the afternoon. I was taken to the General of the Day, Kanawitzow, who took me to the commander, who was dining with all his staff. Many generals and ADCs were there; all were very kind, especially Prince Dolgoruki. At 7 o’clock I was taken to Kutuzov, who spoke with me for an hour. I found an oldish man, full of spirit and benevolence, to whom I owe thanks for my good treatment during my captivity. He had us paid 500 rubels. He allowed me to write not only to General GrafWrede and my family, but sent these letters off by a special messenger.

As a special concession he designated Jaroslawl11 as my place of captivity and gave me a letter of introduction to the governor there. The town was so full of troops, that it was impossible to find quarters, so General Oppermann gave us his own room...

On 9 December the temperature dropped to 26 degrees and the wind was fierce. We would have frozen to death in our rags, had we not come upon a castle at Nowidwor, where Count Udoladkowitz received us very kindly. Here were Kutuzov’s cabinet, including Chief Secretary Fuchs, who had been in Bavaria with Suworow and wore the Order of Saint Hubertus12...

On 10 December we reached Minsk, where I was quartered on the Catholic Bishop, Dredenkow.

So much for the adventures of this Bavarian general and the condition of the Russian troops. Preysing-Moos returned to Bavaria in February 1814, commanded the 2nd Light Cavalry Division in 1815 and died in Moos on 25 November 1834.

On 3 December, at Molodeczno, Napoleon - according to Segur - said:

I no longer feel strong enough to leave all Prussia between myself and France. And why should I remain at the head of a retreat? Murat and Eugene are well able to lead it and Ney to protect it. It is absolutely necessary that I return to France, to reassure and arm the people and to ensure the alliegance of all the Germans.

He actually left two days later at Smorgoni. Berthier was also to stay with the army; this shocked him. Segur attributes this to it being the first time in sixteen years that he would be separated from Napoleon. Napoleon informed France of the success of his 1812 adventure with the notorious ‘29th Bulletin’:

29th Bulletin, 3rd December, at our Headquarters at Molodetchna.

Until the 6th of November the weather was perfect and the movement of the army was carried out with complete success. On the 7th the cold set in; from that moment we lost several hundred horses at each night’s bivouac. On reaching Smolensk we had already lost an immense quantity of cavalry and artillery horses. The cold became more intense, and between the 14th and the 16th the thermometer fell to zero. The roads were covered with ice, the horses were dying every night, not in hundreds but in thousands. More than 30,000 horses died in a few days; our cavalry was dismounted, our artillery and transport had no teams. Without cavalry we could not risk a battle; we were compelled to march so as not to be forced into a battle, which we wished to avoid because of our shortness of ammunition.

The enemy, marching in our footsteps of the frightful calamity that had overtaken the French army, tried to profit by it. All our columns were surrounded by Cossacks who, like the Arabs in the desert, picked up every cart or wagon that lagged behind. This contemptible cavalry, which only knows how to shout and couldn’t ride down so much as a company of light infantry, became formidable from the force of circumstances!

But the enemy held the passage of the Beresina, a river 80 yards wide; the water was full of floating ice, and the banks are marshy for a distance of 600 yards, which made it a difficult obstacle to overcome. The enemy had placed four divisions at four points where they supposed the French army would attempt to pass. After having deceived the enemy by various manoeuvres on the 25th, the Emperor marched on the village of Studienka at break of day on the 26th, and, in the face of a division of the enemy, had two bridges thrown across the river. The army was crossing all through the 26th and the 27th.

It may be concluded from what has been said that the army needs to reestablish its discipline, to be re-equipped, to remount its cavalry, its artillery, and its transport. During all these events the Emperor constantly marched in the midst of the Guard, the cavalry commanded by the Duke of Istria, the infantry by the Duke of Danzig. Our cavalry was so reduced that it became necessary to form all the officers who were still mounted into dour companies of 150 men each. Generals acted as captains, and colonels as corporals. This Sacred Squadron, commanded by General Grouchy, and under the orders of the King of Naples, kept the closest watch over the Emperor.

His majesty’s health has never been better.

NAPOLEON.

That put matters into the correct perspective.

Notes

1

Commander 14th Division (vice Broussière), IV Corps.

2

7th Light Cavalry Brigade, II Cavalry Corps.

3

Chief of Artillery of Ney’s III Corps.

4

Pawly, p48.

5

This should be ‘Jaeger Regiment’; Russian infantry regiments bore titles, not numbers. The 34th Jaegers were originally in the 4th Infantry Division, II Corps, of the 1st Army of the West.

6

The brave Sergeant-Major Springer was rewarded with a commission and retired as a lieutenant of artillery in 1829.

7

Colonel von Laroche, badly wounded, was saved by some men of his regiment and returned safely to Baden.

8

The only Russian hussar regiment to be recorded as being in action at the Beresina this day is the Alexandria Regiment. This regiment was in General Tormassoff’s 3rd Army of the West, attached to the 15th Division.

9

General Wilhem Graf Hochberg of Baden, as the only general officer left fit for duty, took command of the ‘IX Corps’.

10

The Wolhynian Ulans.

11

Jaroslawl lies 248 km east of Moscow; many unfortunate prisoners ended up deep in Siberia.

12

The Order of Saint Hubertus was a Bavarian order.

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