‘If I had been born on a throne, if I were a Bourbon, it would have been easy for me
not to make any mistakes!’1
Captain von Soden of the Frankfurt Regiment2 tells us of one of the oddest aspects of this island of apparent normality in the floods of the dissolution of the army:
On 22 November, the regiment climbed down the hollow way of the Ponary hill and onto the plain of Wilna. At this point, Wilna presented a peculiar scene. Seldom can splendour and need, pomp and misery, pride and despair have cohabited as at this point in this crowded town. With few exceptions, the entire diplomatic corps accredited to Napoleon’s court was present. Hugues-Bernard Maret, the Duke of Bassano, presided over it all.
As nothing was yet known (or supposed to be known) of Napoleon’s defeat, the glittering diplomats carried a carefree air and expressed the usual wonder at his deeds. Dazzling balls and receptions followed one another in rapid succession. The starving, freezing troops stared in amazement at the expensive coaches that trotted past, their richly dressed occupants wearing that air of pampered boredom, so peculiar to the diplomatic corps.
The governor of the city, General Thierry van Hogendorp, also kept an open house. The German officers were invited to balls and dinners, at which the luxury reminded them of Paris.
On 2 December Napoleon’s birthday was celebrated with a parade, gun salute, the ringing of church bells and an illumination. A great, crowned ‘N’ in hundreds of lanterns, had been set up over the city gate; suddenly, it fell and smashed to pieces. We regarded this as an omen. In fact there were immense magazines accumulated in Wilna. But even now, the slovenliness of the French officials was showing through. The German troops were refused the rations to which they were entitled, so that their commanders saw themselves forced to storm the bread and brandy storehouses with armed parties. There were then bloody clashes with French troops, which the officials called up to their aid.
Time passed, and Captain von Soden’s journal assumed a grimmer tone.
On the morning of 5 December, we found some frozen bodies, almost in a state of mummification. If one lifted a limb of one of these unfortunates and then let it fall back, it splintered apart, like glass.
On the afternoon of that same day, the division reached Ozmiana, a town of several hundred wooden houses. Most of the inhabitants - mainly Jews - had fled; the houses looked awful, but at least they offered some protection from the cold, even more so as the village lay in a shallow valley, under the biting east wind. During the march General Gratien formed us into column and had us fix bayonets. This precaution amazed us, for where should any enemy come from? For as far as we knew, the Grande Armée was holding them off at least twenty German miles away.
A grenadier of the Portuguese Legion. The infantry served in the 6th, 10th and 11th Divisions. A plate by Martinien. Author’s collection.
The atmosphere relaxed when we got into Ozmiana and no sentries were posted; everyone was sent off to find there own quarters, wherever they could. There was going to be an issue of rations - amazingly enough there was still food here - and even the pigsties were full; there were even some cattle. We were all busy lighting fires, when there were shots, the general alarm was beaten and, for the first time, we heard the dreaded shout of: ‘Cossacks, Cossacks!’
A band of about eighty of these riders of the steppes, with two small cannon, mounted on sledges and commanded by the tireless Hetman Seslawin, had entered the town through an unguarded side street. As chance would have it, the farmhouse that they first entered was that in which General Gratien had set up his headquarters. He only just managed to rush out of the door and take refuge in the square of the Ducal Saxon regiment, which was on duty there. This unit now opened up a rapid, if ragged, fire on the Cossacks. These calmly replied by firing their pistols back at a range of only a few paces, then rode off. Once out of the village, they fired two or three rounds of canister and killed or wounded some 60 men who had run after them.
The Cossacks left behind a few dead, but no wounded, that we might have been able to interrogate. The immediate result was that General Gratien got all the men out of the houses - totally needlessly - and had them bivouac in the gardens of the town.
There now came a rumour that Marshal Lefebvre, commander of the Old Guard, had arrived in Ozmiana. Then it was said the Emperor himself was following him on foot. This amazing news proved to be true.
Colonel von Egloffstein, commander of the 4th Regiment, Confederation of the Rhine (the Ducal Saxon contingent) led his men into Kowno on 18 November after a strenuous march through a blizzard. They spent the night in a deserted monastery, with no doors or windows, but at least were issued with bread and brandy. It was here that stragglers brought the first news of the evacuation of Moscow. The regimental band was sent back to Koenigsberg.
On 20 November, the 4th Regiment set off for Wilna in blustery snowstorms; they reached the town six days later, and were overjoyed to hear that they would be given billets. However, the billets were not issued until ten o’clock that night and they were found to be written in French or Polish, which most of the men could not read. Some unfortunates did not find their accommodation until the next morning.
The regiment had already lost 120 men through exhaustion and 640 of those in Wilna were sick with dysentery, scurvy, lung infections and bilious fever. The twenty hospitals in the town were full, so the sick of the regiment were looked after in the billets. In a letter of 27 November, von Egloffstein wrote: ‘I fear that we shall suffer the same fate here as was our lot in Spain3... Our young soldiers are very downhearted.... we can expect to perform no heroic deeds here.’
There was still no reliable news of the Grande Armée, but the Duke of Bassano issued a proclamation:
The Emperor left a strong garrison in Smolensk and, having set himself at the head of his army at the Beresina, and having beaten the Russians at all points and destroyed Tschitschagov’s army, will enter Wilna and take up winter quarters in Lithuania.
The 34th Division was now sent to Miedniky. Two ration wagons accompanied the 4th Regiment and the Light Battalion left three officers and sixty men sick in Wilna. The 4th Regiment now numbered 2,000 men. General Loison was now sick, so General Baron Pierre-Guillaume Gratien took command of the 34th Division. By 8 December the 4th Regiment’s strength had dropped to forty officers and 998 men, but of these, only twenty-six officers and 213 men were fit for duty.
Two days later, Captain von Grayen and one hundred men of the regiment were wounded or captured by Cossacks, and later the entire 2nd Battalion were cut off and captured. A further twenty-nine officers and 800 men were lost at the hill of Ponari on 10 December, and next day Colonel von Egloffstein could muster less than fifty men under arms. By 21 December, von Egloffstein had gathered some 163 men of his regiment in Koenigsberg; a week later this had risen to 550, half of them without weapons.
Napoleon had left the army at Smorgoni on the evening of 4 December, and handed over command to Murat. At 10 in the evening he arrived in Ozmiana, escorted by the very weak remnants of a squadron of Polish lancers. He was travelling in a coach lined with fur and drawn by six Lithuanian stallions. Caulaincourt was at his side; the Mameluke Rustan and the interpreter, Captain Vukasovitsch of the Guard, were on the driving seat. Duroc and Mouton were in a second sledge. Doctor Geissler recalled the moment:
Napoleon wore a green fur coat trimmed with golden tassels and a matching cap. He looked serious but healthy. We watched this mighty mortal from a few paces distance, while Generals Gratien and Vivier [sic], and the colonels of the regiments stood in a half circle around him. The talk was of the deep cold and the recent attack. This upset the Emperor, who thought it meant that the Russians already knew of his departure...
The Emperor was travelling under the unlikely name of ‘Monsieur de Rayneval’. The Cossack raid had alarmed the Emperor, and he took some squadrons of Neapolitan cavalry with him from Wilna to Kowno; the vast majority of these men died on the way.
The 6th Regiment of the Confederation of the Rhine was made up of the contingents of the mini-states of Schwarzburg (1st Battalion), Waldeck and Reuss (2nd). Colonel von Heringen, of Waldeck, commanded the regiment, which was part of the Princes’ (34th) Division, XI Corps and entered Russia in late November, as escort to a military treasury chest. On 2 December they staggered into Kowno in a snowstorm. Despite being relatively well-fed, they lost several men from exhaustion on the march.
Their accommodation was a deserted monastery outside the town; it had no doors, no windows, no ovens and even the floorboards had been torn out. To their general relief, they were ordered on 5 December to march on to Wilna. This was an eight-hour march, during which more men were lost; some just falling out of the ranks to slump down and sit in the snow until they froze to death. Those who could still march just stumbled on by. They ran into more and more isolated stragglers, heading back to the west. Then the entire diplomatic corps, the Duke of Bassano in the lead, swept past them. The unfortunate men staggered into the village of Riconti, two hours from Wilna, that evening. All they found was empty houses. Colonel von Heringen addressed his men:
Comrades. I have led you so far and looked after your needs as well as I could. But now my powers have ended. Find a place to sleep where you can. Try to find food where you can. Your commander is helpless himself and does not know where to lay his weary head.
Later that night, another contemporary account confirms this:
On 5 December, in the village of Riconti, just west of Wilna, on the road to Kowno, Napoleon met the 6th Regiment of the Confederation of the Rhine, in the Princes’ Division. The officers of the regiment were gathered together in a barn; a small man in a green fur coat came in, stepped up to the fire and asked, in authoritative manner: ‘Quelles sont ces troupe?’ Captain Wiedburg, who noted that this must be a senior officer, answered this and several other questions, and then suggested that he should waken Colonel von Heringen. The small man forbade this with the words: ‘Non, camerade, ne le derangez pas.’
The 6th Regiment of the Rhine re-entered Kowno on 8 December; since leaving it three days before, it had lost half its strength. By 6 December, the entire Princely Division, gathered in the town of Ozmiana, was 10,000 men strong; at the end of October it had been 14,000. That same day, at Miedniki, Napoleon burst out to Maret, the Duke of Bassano:
I have no army any more! For many days I have been marching in the midst of a mob of disbanded, disorganized men, who wander all over the countryside in search of food. We could still rally them by giving them bread, shoes, uniforms and arms; but my administrative personnel has not provided against anything of the sort, and my own orders have never been executed.4
More self-pity. Why had he not ensured that his orders had been properly carried out? This is, surely, the most basic principle of good management.
On the night of 6 December, the survivors of the Grande Armée began to shuffle through Ozmiana. Up to the crossing of the Beresina, there had been some semblance of order in many regiments; now this had all been swept away. The sight made the senses reel. There was now nothing more than a herd of half-crazed refugees, motivated only by the barest urge of self-preservation. As they flooded past the survivors of the Princely Division, the Germans gave them their own bread; without a word of thanks, it was snatched by filthy, skeletal hands and devoured at once.
As the corps of Oudinot and Victor had also been destroyed at the Beresina, the 600 men of the Princely Division, still under arms, were the last disciplined, armed formation between the Russians and Europe. At midnight that night, the order arrived for the ‘division’ to march back to Wilna. Ozmiana was set on fire and they trudged off in the bitter darkness. The Ducal Saxon Regiment and a battery of artillery formed the rearguard. The starving horses could no longer pull the guns; they collapsed on the icy road and the battery was left for the Russians. Long fuses were left smouldering into the ammunition wagons in the hope that they would take plenty of Russians with them when they went up.
The men of this vanishing division had been healthy and well fed up to now; but the shattering events of the last day seemed to have crushed their spirits. Silently, one man after another dropped out of the ranks and sat down in the snow; in a few minutes they had frozen to death. When the dwindling column reached a bivouac fire at Miednicki, scores of men fell out of the ranks and ran to it, and nothing could induce them to move on.
The terrible shock of being confronted with the truth about the state of the once-mighty Grande Armée had the same effects on the Bavarian VI Corps, when it rejoined them after coming down from Polotzk. General von Wrede recorded that after marching only three or four hours in the presence of the wretched survivors of the main body, and despite all his efforts and those of the senior officers, he had lost half his strength and six guns.
By the evening of 7 December, the remnants of the Princely Division (now down to 500 men) reached Wilna; there had been 10,000 of them in Ozmiana two days earlier. But the city had changed since they were last there. The expensive restaurants, where famous Parisian chefs had plied their trade for high prices were empty, the diplomatic corps gone. The streets were full, it was true, but there was a palpable air of fear, despair and confusion.
Murat, King of Naples and now commander of the shambling mobs flowing thought the city, was in Wilna, as were marshals Berthier, Bessières, Davout, Gouvion-Saint-Cyr, Mortier, Ney and Victor. Ney was the only one of them to make any attempt whatsoever to bring some order to the chaos that they witnessed.
In Wilna the magazines still included bread, biscuit and flour for 100,000 men for forty days; as well as meat for thirty-six days, much of it in the form of live animals. There were also large stocks of brandy, beer, vegetables, grain and forage, 42,000 pairs of shoes, large stocks of uniforms, greatcoats, saddlery and harness, 34,000 muskets, great stocks of ammunition and even a large herd of remounts under General Boercier. The vast majority of these supplies were abandoned without the surviving soldiers even knowing that they were there. But in some cases, the news got about and vast mobs of freezing, starving men besieged the stores.
At one, a French general appeared at an upper window and said: ‘Entendez-moi, je suis general!’ [Listen to me, I’m a general!] Back shot the answer: ‘Il n’y a plus des generaux, il n‘y a que des malheureux!’ [There are no more generals, there are only unfortunates!] The general quickly saw that there was nothing for it but to push out sacks of bread and flour through the hatches into the frenzied mob, which at once dissolved into a heaving sea of fighting, scrambling men as each sought his own share.
But this was not enough. The desperate mobs stormed the storehouses and sacked them, in which process, three-quarters of the stocks were destroyed or spoiled, and the storehouses themselves went up in flames. The worst scenes took place in the brandy stores. Many men knocked back as much spirit as they could, as fast as they could, then fell senseless to the floor, or in the street, and died.
For two days, the Princely Division rested in Wilna; at the end of that time, there were some 1,000 men back in the ranks of the Ducal Saxon Regiment and about 800 in the Frankfurt battalion. Only about a third of these were capable of performing duty; the rest were suffering from wounds or frostbite. The state of the other regiments was even worse. It was here that General Lioson joined his 34th Division from Koenigsberg, as replacement for General Joseph Morand, who had been retained as governor of Pomerania. His command now consisted of some 3,000 armed men. There was no cavalry, except some sixty Bavarian Chevau-legers with the Bavarian General von Wrede, the last remnants of the 40,000 horsemen with which Napoleon had started this disastrous adventure.
A drum major of French line infantry; his uniform and shako well adorned with gold lace. He wears red plume, epaulettes and sabre fist strap. A plate by Weiland. Author’s collection.
When the news of Napoleon’s departure spread among them, even those veteran warriors were unsettled, and soon fell into disorder. ‘Accustomed to being directly commanded by the conqueror of Europe, they scorned to serve another’, wrote Segur.
On 8 December Seslavin’s partisans mounted an assault on Wilna, which was beaten off and Seslavin was wounded.
On the evening of 9 December the rest of the Bavarian VI Corps, the rearguard of the army, which had been holding back Wittgenstein’s corps, stumbled into Wilna. They were closely followed by the Cossacks. Wilna was to be evacuated without a fight. The troops were ordered to draw bread for four days from the surviving storehouses. Again, the French storekeepers tried to deny all non-French units access to their stocks. Again there were violent scenes. In one instance, there was a gunfight between some of the Old Guard and some Germans, in which several were killed. The temperature was minus 27 degrees. Lieutenant Jacobs of the Frankfurt Regiment left this record:
Bread was distributed in the marketplace, but it was frozen solid and inedible. Some soldiers attempted to thaw the loaves out in the bivouac fires. This experiment usually went badly wrong and the loaves were burned. All around us lay dead and dying; many with gangrenous, frost-bitten limbs. From all sides we could hear the groans and curses of the unfortunates. It was a night of pure horror, but we were all so numbed by our circumstances, that we scarcely noticed the drama that was played out before our eyes. All feelings of sympathy and mercy had been driven out of us. If, as often happened, one dropped dead around the fires, the only reaction was that there would be a scramble among those still living to grab a seat on the corpse, which was warmer than sitting on the snow.
By the next morning, the strength of the men in the ranks of the Ducal Saxon Regiment had fallen to 700 men; that of the Frankfurters was down to 600. The 5th Regiment of the Rhine5 had been escorting a convoy of treasure wagons back to Koenigsberg; two of them lost their teams in Kowno and it was decided to let the men take what they wanted, rather than leave it to the Russians. There were scenes of wild conflict as hundreds fought for the coin. Some members of the Imperial Guard tramped past the scene and were invited to join in. ‘The Guard does not rob their Emperor!’ came the retort.
They were joined by the remnants of many regiments, which by now consisted only of a handful clustered around their eagles. The troops paraded at dawn, but only moved off an hour later. Behind them, in Wilna, they could hear shots and the sounds of sporadic combat as the Cossacks gradually spread into the city. For some inexplicable reason, Ney felt that he had to hang on to Wilna until 10 o’clock!
As the west gate of the place was blocked by a mass of abandoned vehicles of all sorts, the column had to defile through side streets and alleys to reach the road to Kowno. Some 15,000 prisoners were taken in the city.
But the refugees from Wilna then found this road blocked by crowds of refugees. The cause was the Cossack Pulks of Lanskoi, Seslawin, Tettenborn and others, some thousands, drawn up on a small hill to one side of the road, with four cannon mounted on sledges.
Fearing a cavalry assault, Loison ordered his division to march in a thick column. The Cossack gunners rubbed their hands with glee. This was a target that they just could not miss! Rapid salvoes of canister ripped through the column; one of the guns was driven off to the rear of the mass of fugitives and fired down the axis of the road into them. The Frankfurt Regiment was the rearguard and suffered very heavy casualties this day.
One hour’s march west from Wilna lay the village of Ponary - and a steep hill. This obstacle - minor in any other weather - was a major challenge at this point. The road surface was frozen solid and polished to a glass-like state. None of the divisional vehicles (which included a number of wagons loaded with gold and coin) could be brought up the slope.
General Loison now thought to have the division form into battalion squares and to retire in chequerboard formation, alternately firing and moving. Under better conditions, with troops with firmer spirit, this might have had a chance. On 10 December 1812, with the Cossacks in thousands swarming left and right, it didn’t. The 34th Division broke apart and dissolved; many of the squares were broken and cut down.
When Marshal Ney saw the chaotic mess on the hill, he gave orders for the cash wagons to be broken open and the money to be given to the troops. Even in this desperate predicament, greed caused many of the soldiers to stuff their pockets with gold coins and five franc pieces, so that they soon were so weighed down, that they could not run away from the ubiquitous Cossacks. Indeed, the extraordinary spectacle was seen of friend and foe, peacefully plundering the same wagons beside one another. Let us see how Segur reported this same incident.
On the most exposed spot of the hill a colonel of the Emperor’s staff, Count de Turenne, held the Cossacks at bay, disregarding their wild shouts and their shots, while he distributed Napoleon’s personal treasury among the guards who stood within sight and hearing. These brave men, fighting with one hand and holding the riches of their leader in the other, succeeded in saving all of it. Long afterwards, when we were out of danger, each one returned the amount that had been entrusted to him: not a single gold coin was lost.6
Pure fantasy. Who would have possibly accounted for the money issued under such circumstances? Did all the grateful recipients survive the trials of war to repay the coins? Did not one of them spend even one coin to buy himself food? Shelter? Clothing? Transport? ‘Fighting with one hand and holding the riches of their leader in the other.’ Stirring stuff! Penny dreadfuls would pay handsomely for such copy.
The only way for the men of Loison’s division to climb this notorious hill was to wade through the snow to the south of the road, where many of the vehicles were now ablaze. Once on the plateau, the survivors of the division were attacked by Cossacks and kuerassiers, but were able to beat them off. By evening they reached the village of Mikiti, next day Zizmory. Denis Davidov, the intrepid Russian partisan commander, was also at this dramatic scene; he left this account:
From Novi Troki to the village of Ponari the road was clear and smooth, but from Ponari, where the road branches off to Kowno, mountains of dead men and horses, a host of carts, gun carriages and caissons left barely enough room to get through. Piles of enemy soldiers, barely alive, lay in the snow or sought shelter in the carts, awaiting a cold and hungry end. My path was lit up by blazing wooden huts and hovels whose wretched occupants were being burned alive. My sledge kept bumping against heads, legs and arms of men who had frozen to death, or were close to dying. My journey from Ponari to Wilna was accompanied by a strange chorus of moans and cries of human suffering, which at times dissolved into something more akin to a joyous hymn of liberation.
In Zizmory on 11 December, the remnants of Loison’s division bumped into Berthier’s column. The ‘Major General of the Army’ accused Ney of losing his grip and retreating too quickly. Ney retorted that he would not withdraw again unless forced to do so by a superior force. Herewith the fate of the remaining Bavarians was sealed. They were to form the rearguard. They fought until their ammunition ran out. Only twenty men of the original 12,000 of the once-proud VI Corps lived to see Germany again, but they had secured the title ‘bravest of the brave’ for Marshal Ney.
On the evening of that same day, the remnants of the 34th Division reached the village of Rumszisky, near Kowno. There they were taken up by the Anhalt battalion of the 5th Regiment of the Rhine, which had been retained in Kowno as garrison. Next day they marched into the city. All the scenes of dissolution and chaos, which they had witnessed in Wilna, were played out before their eyes again.
Marshal Ney, with his uncrushable spirit, organised a new rearguard from the Princely Division, based on the Lippe Battalion, and occupied a weak, pallisaded redoubt just outside the Wilna gate. In it was a single gun, which did good service until it was dismounted by the Cossacks’ sledge-borne battery.
Now the redoubt was subjected to a veritable hail of shot, which killed and wounded dozens at a time. The German officers wanted to fall back, but Ney shouted: ‘Un bon grenadier doit se faire tuer sur son poste!’ (A good grenadier should be killed at his post!’); shortly after this, a cannon ball took off both the legs of Captain Barkhausen of the 5th Regiment. He pulled his pistol and shouted to Ney in a firm voice: ‘Marechal, voyez comme un grenadier allemande meurt à son poste!’ (Marshal, see how a German grenadier dies at his post!) and blew out his brains.
This event caused Ney to order a withdrawal. As they fell back, he shouted to another German officer (Captain Wiedburg): ‘Viens camarade - vous êtes tous brave garçons!’ (Let’s go comrade - you’re all brave boys!). Segur recounts a slightly different version:
Ney called upon his infantry: but only one of its weak battalions, the garrison of three hundred Germans, was armed. These he disposed, shouting words of encouragement, and was about to give the order to fire when a Russian cannon ball came crashing over the stockade and shattered the thigh of their commanding officer. This brave soldier fell to the ground and, knowing that he was lost, coolly seized his pistol and blew his brains out, in full sight of his troops. At this stroke of misfortune the soldiers lost their heads, and threw down their arms and fled in terror.
Still Ney, deserted by everyone, surrendered neither his person nor his post. After a vain attempt to check the flight of the Germans, he gathered up their muskets and faced the horde of Russians alone. His boldness halted them and shamed some of his own artillerymen who followed the example of their marshal.’7
As they fell back into the town, a fire broke out and spread rapidly. There was one incredible incident, in which a church, converted to a small arsenal to store 40,000 muskets, was set on fire by the Lippe Battalion on orders from General Antoine-Joseph Bertrand. Four hundred freezing soldiers stormed into the burning building to warm themselves and could not be moved to leave it. They died when the blazing roof fell in.
The 6th Regiment of the Rhine left the burning town of Kowno late on the night of 12 December; a member described the scene:
The road, lit by the flames, was covered all along by the dead and dying. Every step went over dead men and horses and everywhere lay those who had frozen to death in their sleep. The march was slow, but then we came to a hill upon which carts, wagons, guns and refugees had become so entwined, that no progress was possible. The chaos was indescribable. We had to spend the rest of the night here.
At last dawn came. The sky flashed with electricity and became a sea of blood-red flames, heaving and roiling back and forth. Great columns of fire rose, like funeral pyres out of Kowno, scattering clouds of sparks around.
Again and again ammunition wagons exploded, throwing shells in all directions, like a living volcano. Great balls of fire rose through the black smoke into the sky. A horrible, infernal light illuminated the scene, turning the snow pale pink.
The entire town was burning. It was a fascinating, terrible sight, which shattered the onlookers.
Kowno - or what was left of it - fell to the Russians on 13 December. They captured thousands of prisoners and a mass of vehicles. The retreat from Wilna to Kowno effectively destroyed the last, formed vestiges of the Grande Armée.
Three men of the 6th Regiment of the Confederation of the Rhine, who had fallen out of the march in these last days, were captured by the Cossacks. They entered the newly-formed Russo-German Legion under General von Tettenborn, fought in Saxony, the Netherlands and France and returned home in 1814.
Napoleon, in Smorgoni on 5 December 1812, according to Segur; was this imperial self-pity?
Loison’s 34th Division, XI Corps.
The 4th Regiment served in Catalonia from 1809 to 1811; of the 2,292 men who marched off to Spain, only 292 survived.
Segur, page 267.
The Lippe contingent was the 2nd Battalion, 5th Regiment of the Confederation of the Rhine.
Segur page 271. Dramatic fiction at its best.
Segur page 271.
A gunner of Polish foot artillery by C. Weiland. Dark green uniform, black facings piped red, yellow buttons and cap plate, red pompon, cords and epaulettes. The Poles served mainly in Poniatowski’s V Corps. Author’s collection.