Chapter 2

The preparations

‘I have decided on a great expedition. I shall need horses and
transport on a large scale. The men I shall get easily enough; but
the difficulty is to prepare transport facilities. I shall need an
immense amount of transport because I shall be starting from
the [River] Niemen [Russia’s border with the Grand Duchy
of Warsaw] and I intend to operate over large distances and in
different directions ... do not let the question of expense check you.’

The Emperor to Lacuée Cessac, head of the imperial
ordnance department in June 1811.

Napoleon said to a representative from Marshal Marmont from Spain in 1811:

Marmont complains that he is short of many resources - food, money, means etc. Well, here I am, about to plunge with an immense army into the heart of a great country which produces absolutely nothing!

Then he fell silent for some minutes, before asking the nonplussed colonel: ‘How will it all end?’

Segur tells us of the contents of some of the Emperor’s orders: in one missive he wrote ‘For masses like these, if precautions be not taken, the grain of no country can suffice.’ In another:

...it will be requisite for all the provision wagons to be loaded with flour, bread, rice, pulse and brandy, besides what is necessary for the hospital service. There will be nothing for them to expect from the country and it will be necessary to have everything within ourselves.

Again, all that he wrote was true.

The entire French empire and her satellites were cranked into action for the invasion; Europe buzzed with activity from one end to the other. As Bernays tells us in his account of the fate of the Frankfurt contingent:

...other convoys carried tools of all sorts and apart from furniture, namely ovens, also building materials, prefabricated sections of wooden houses with windows, collapsible windmills - in addition there were whole battalions of artisans, not only bakers, butchers, tailors, cobblers, but also masons, carpenters, gardeners... also numerous fire engines, as if one had foreseen the burning of Moscow.

Also trekking eastwards from France were ‘disproportionally large numbers of beardless novices, the bad horses of the national French cavalry and the wagonloads of young lads clapped into irons for desertion.’

In December 1810 some 80,000 young Frenchmen were called up for military service; one year later Napoleon withdrew all the cavalry and artillery of the Imperial Guard that were in Spain. In January 1812 he further pulled out the two Young Guard divisions and all the units of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. Thus 27,000 veteran soldiers were withdrawn from Spain, which still left an amazing 232,500 French and allied troops in that country, struggling to hold their own and getting nowhere.

In the spring of 1812 the Grande Armée began to form up within the borders of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. The government there was, of course, called upon by Napoleon to provide massive amounts of food and fodder and the troops were billeted upon the townspeople.

The Regiment Frankfurt, later to form part of the 34th Division, XI Corps, was in Hamburg in April 1812. Bernays gives us this example of the degree of smuggling that then existed:

Every day the regiment marched out of the city, to drill on the Heiligengeistfelde, which lay outside the customs zone. Before they returned to the city, Danish merchants1 would fill the barrels of their muskets with coffee beans, cinnamon and the like. When this ruse was finally discovered, the soldiers resorted to hiding the goods in clay busts of the emperor. The Continental System was so detested, that no-one thought to report them.

For the supply of some of the troops marching eastwards that spring on what for most of them would be a one-way trip, great magazines had been established with supplies and equipment gathered in from all over the empire. Segur tells us of the great magazines which were formed in major strategic cities such as Danzig, Koenigsberg and Thorn. Supplies from here were sent by boat up the Baltic coast, then into the Pregel river to Vehlau and Insterburg, then by land again to Labiau on the River Niemen. From here the supplies were to be shipped eastwards along that river and the Vilia to Kowno and Vilna. Unfortunately, due to the drought of early 1812, the Vilia was no longer navigable. Another problem was that the wagons used by the French in the invasion of 1812 were far heavier than the local Lithuanian and Russian carts - this was to be a major factor in the disaster which was to come so very soon.

On the diplomatic front, Napoleon gave orders that the Ottoman empire should be encouraged to step up the war with Russia on their common borders. Unfortunately for him, Alexander’s diplomats were more effective and concluded the Peace of Bucharest on 28 May 1812 with Turkey, thus freeing up Admiral Paul Vasilievich Tschitschagoff’s 25,000 strong Army of the Moldau, which was sent north to attack the French later in the year.

Napoleon’s proclamation to the German contingents went as follows:

Soldiers, Russia has broken her oath. An inescapable fate drags her along. Let the will of fate be done. Forward then over the Niemen. The second Polish war will be as glorious for our arms as the first, and the following peace will put an end to Russia’s meddling in European affairs.

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Early in the campaign; foraging in the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. Albrecht Adam.

After reading this out to the Westphalians on 26 June, General Vandamme added his own little codicil:

Napoleon crossed the Niemen on the 24th of this month and has pushed the Russians back. We will now advance and conquer; in two to three months this will all be over.

He who lacks the heart and courage to fight with us can hang up his sword in his billet before evening and fly to where he will!

Czar Alexander also issued a proclamation to his people:

The enemy, with unequalled perfidy, threatens the destruction of our country. Our brave soldiers want to throw themselves on his battalions and destroy them; but we will not sacrifice them on the altar of this Moloch. There must be a general uprising against this universal tyrant... He has come with treachery in his heart and loyalty on his lips to enslave us with the help of his legions of slaves. Let us drive this plague of locusts out! Let us carry the Cross in our hearts and steel in our hands! Let us pluck the fangs out of this lion’s mouth, and overthrow the tyrant who would destroy the world!

At a dinner in Danzig, prior to crossing the Niemen, Berthier, Murat and Rapp were with him. The Emperor suddenly asked Rapp: ‘How far is it from Danzig to Cadiz?’ ‘Too far, Sire!’ Rapp replied. The Emperor retorted:

I can see, gentlemen, that you no longer have any taste for fighting. The King of Naples would rather be back in his pretty kingdom; Berthier would like to be playing the sportsman in Grosbois; Rapp would fain be enjoying the sweets of Parisian life!

There was silence - Napoleon had put his finger on the spot; war weariness was infecting even his most senior commanders. He was a giant alone among mere mortals. Or a megalomaniac detached from reality?

Napoleon’s plan for 1812 was to leap across the Russian border and fall upon the two enemy armies, before they could unite, and to defeat them in detail. It was the same plan that had worked so well in 1805, 1806 and 1809; success against the bumbling Russians seemed a foregone conclusion. Peace would then be dictated, the Continental System re-imposed and Britain strangled. But success depended upon the Russian armies obliging by staying put, divided and up against their western border.

There certainly was confusion and a lack of unity in the Czar’s high command at this point. General of Infantry Prince Michael Andreas Barclay de Tolly, commanding the 1st Army of the West (100,000 men), wanted to adopt a strategy of falling back before the superior invaders, buying time with space, until campaign attrition reduced the Grande Armée to a suitable size for a successful battle to be fought. The commander of the smaller 2nd Army of the West (30,000 men), General of Infantry Prince Piotr Ivanovich Bagration, an aggressive and very competent general, hated Barclay and wished to dispute every inch of Mother Russia’s holy soil. The Czar was bombarded by plans from his numerous advisers, many of them foreigners and unpopular with the native Russian officers. Luckily for him, Barclay won the day. The rest is history.

The supplies in the magazines, created by Napoleon’s orders, were only available for the Imperial Guard and other guard troops during the invasion. All other formations were told to collect rations and forage from the countryside. The population of the Grand Duchy was about 3,600,000, and the state had been sucked dry financially since its creation in 1807. The harvest of 1811 had been far below average, and the extra supplies demanded by Napoleon for his ‘Golden Horde’ of over half a million extra mouths were just not to be had. So the unfortunate line troops, barred from the magazines, were faced with the stark choice: take what was needed by force - for the peasantry would not willingly surrender their few supplies, cows, sheep and poultry - or starve.

Bavarian cavalry with the IV Corps cross the Niemen watched by Prince Eugene.

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The resultant chaos was indescribable. Farms, villages and towns were repeatedly looted, houses were torn down to provide building materials for bivouacs and fuel for the fires. Anything that would burn went into the fires. The foraging parties from the leading regiments in the immense column of invaders returned loaded to excess with everything that they could find; perishables that were not rapidly consumed rotted and were thrown away. The following regiments found nothing near the line of march and were forced to send foragers ever further away to find enough to survive. The unfortunate inhabitants of the Grand Duchy were transformed into starving vagrants.

Apologists for Napoleon have accused only the foreigners of having looted; this was far from the truth. The German contingents were used to being supplied with rations and forage from magazines; they were now forced, at his explicit orders, to steal to survive. And they were still in ‘friendly’ territory. The cavalry were reduced to feeding their starving horses on green grain crops or even thatching straw; colic swept through the horse lines. And this was before the invasion had even begun.

The Westphalian, Giesse, tells us that:

On 13 April King Jerome held a review of his troops in Kalisck; he was more concerned with their smart appearance than with their welfare... Morale was already very low and suicides were not unknown.

In the Saxon Palace in Warsaw, in mid-May, Jerome held daily reviews and inspections of his army in the gardens of his palace. He concentrated on the rapid formation of battalion squares as a defence against the notorious Cossacks.

Jerome’s odd attitude to military priorities will surface again.

The Württemberg Cavalry General Wilhelm von Woellwarth was caught up in this disaster and had to justify his contingent’s actions in the following report to his monarch:

On entry into Poland the magazines established there were closed to our cavalry; even in the remote staging posts no provision had been made for troops moving through. Also, our advancing army corps had already consumed most of the supplies that they had brought with them and to my cavalry division fell the unhappy lot of having to shift for themselves in a Poland already hostile to Germans.

As is well known, the Polish peasants have little enough for themselves and that which they had they were forced to give to the French magazines long before our entry into their country. Here [in Pagosz] the French magazines in the area were closed to our troops. I sent Commissary Crais to the magazines many times which helped not a bit as he was told that these supplies were for the use of passing Guard and French troops only. Thus here also, supply on a self-help basis was necessary.

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Officers of the Italian guard in bivouac. Faber du Four. Author’s collection.

On 30 May I recieved a personal order from the Duke of Elchingen [Marshal Ney] in Thorn: on command of the French Emperor I was to collect enough slaughter cattle for the whole Wirtemberg army corps for 20 days and to arrange this with the Polish government. This requisition had to be completed by 2 July i.e. within 48 hours. I sent Commissary Crais to visit the Prefects of the districts to liaise with them as to the manner and execution of the requisition. Crais could find no Prefects as they had all gone to attend a reception of the French Emperor who was to pass through the area on his way to Thorn this day. Prior to this, the Over Prefect had informed Commissar Crais that he was not in a position to assist with the supply of food for the men and would have to give his district over to the discretion of the troops. The regiments now despatched whole squadrons with their Regimental Quartermasters and the necessary requisition orders to collect the 800 oxen in 48 hours. Apart from this, the regiments were instructed by me to maintain the strictest discipline. The unpleasant circumstances of this enforced requisition of cattle gave rise to a great lament by all the nobility and peasants of the area. None of them came to me however; they all ran to the Polish General Krasinski - who advised them to wait just a couple of hours when the Emperor would arrive and he would present their complaints to him. In a few hours the Emperor came to Iznoraslau, two posts before Thorn, where all the noblemen who had had their cattle taken were presented by General Krasinski with the explanation that the Wirtembergers were robbing and plundering the area which was in fact, nothing other than the execution of the order of the Emperor himself and Marshal Ney to collect 800 oxen within 48 hours, which certainly must have appeared as plundering if the cooperation of the civil authorities was withheld. Krasinski troubled himself to increase this impression to the Emperor...

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July; the French cavalry wade through the grain crops that were to prove so fatal to their horses. Albrecht Adam.

During the Emperor’s stay in Thorn, the requisition detachments of Lieutenant Colonels Palm and Harditsch... arrived with the necessary oxen to complete the requisition; they were no sooner sighted by the Guard than all the oxen and supplies which they collected were taken from them by force... We reached the area of Insterburg on 15 June and found the whole countryside full of Davout’s corps and the entire Imperial Guard. As the II Corps had previously marched through the area, it had been so plundered that the colonels had the most extreme difficulty in providing for their regiments on the 16th which was a rest day.

I sent Commissar Crais into Insterburg, where a great magazine had been established, in order to get at least bread for us, which we had not seen since the Vistula, but even this was denied to us... No Wirtemberg soldiers went into Insterburg ; no reports of excesses (by our troops) in the whole area came to me... Prinz Neufchatel [Alexander Berthier, Napoleon’s Chief of Staff] was supposed to have exclaimed: ‘que la cavallerie wirtembergoise avait portée le désastre dans Insterburg’. That this was brought into the area before our arrival by French troops is the truth; but that the Wirtembergers brought disaster into this area is not true.

Koenigsberg, 10 August 1812.

Woellwarth, Generallieutenant.

Up until the crossing of the Niemen on 23 June, the weather in the region had been extremely hot and dry. Streams and wells had run dry, and there was a serious shortage of clean, safe drinking water for the men and horses of the Grande Armée. This rapidly became so severe that many men were reduced to drinking their own urine; many cases of suicide among the troops were reported and the proportion of stragglers grew to frightening levels. Napoleon, faced with a huge logistical problem, which would destroy his plan if he did not solve it quickly and effectively, just turned his back on it - and it ceased to exist. ‘They have no bread. Let them requisition cake!’

So was the Grand Duchy of Warsaw ruined: thousands of civilians and soldiers were dead. Yet no-one dared to tell the Emperor that he had committed a series of cardinal errors. On rolled the endless columns of troops, recalcitrant conscripts, guns, equipment, supplies, camp followers, remounts and workshops, eastwards across Europe towards the River Niemen. The weather was fine and warm, the columns were shrouded in great, choking clouds of dust from the light soil, and many of the young conscripts, unused to prolonged heavy physical strain, fell out to the sides of the roads. The regiments and the overworked horses and oxen began to dwindle away.

On 23 June, under strict security as to its intentions, the vanguard of the Grande Armée reached the bank of the fateful River Niemen a short distance above the town of Kowno; the construction of three bridges was ordered. Napoleon was at one of the sites and Chambray reports hearing him hum the then-popular tune, ‘Marlborough’. ‘S’en va-t-en guerre,’ run the words, then repeat, more than once, the line: ‘Ne sait quand reviendra.’ (He went to war, I don’t know when he’ll be back)

Next day Napoleon, with the first of the fighting troops of Davout’s I Corps, crossed the river and trod the soil of Holy Mother Russia. A lone Cossack asked what they wanted and then galloped off into the woods. This was going to be a piece of cake. The II and III Corps followed. There was only one of Barclay de Tolly’s divisions in the area; the surprise had been complete and a major river obstacle had been overcome without (combat) loss.

So the vast horde poured into Lithuania in extreme confusion, dying, shaking itself to pieces as it went, and the Russian armies fell back before them in very good order. Kowno was abandoned to the invaders without resistance, as was Wilna, which the Emperor entered on 28 June. Lithuania had fallen.

The Imperial headquarters and the Guard drew their rations as before, while the rest of the army pressed on with their sufferings, their requisitions, their looting and their outrages - as before.

A sudden change of weather took place on 29 June; a period of unseasonal cold began, coupled with violent rainstorms, which lasted until 4 July. The roads of the area were not metalled; the soil was light and sandy. In hot weather the marching columns were permanently shrouded in clouds of dust. But as soon as it rained, these same ‘roads’ were quickly turned into knee-deep quagmires, which stalled progress, trapped all vehicles up to their axles in mud and exhausted men and horses. The heavy wagons from western Europe just sank into this morass. Some 10,000 of Napoleon’s precious horses died in this brief wet spell. More were reduced to such a weakened state that they were non-effective as cavalry chargers of draught animals - and died some days or weeks later. The logistical theory of the invasion was that the supplies in the wagons would be eaten down, then the draught animals would be slaughtered and cooked on fires built from the vehicles. As it was, the horses died, the food rotted and the wagons remained mired, blocking the ‘roads’ of the advance.

How had the Russians managed to evade Napoleon’s great leap forward at the start of the campaign? The Grande Armée was divided into three groups and confronted the weaker Russian defence forces as shown below:

The X Corps was at Tilsit to the north east, with the task of guarding the far northern flank of the main body.

TOTAL 32,500 men, 100 guns.

They were opposed initially by the Riga garrison.

TOTAL 10,000 men, 28 guns.

These would later be joined by the Army of Finland of Lieutenant-General Count F.F. Steinheil.

TOTAL 28,000 men and 78 guns.

The Emperor commanded the main body, which concentrated between Danzig and Thorn and consisted of the Imperial Guard, I, II and III Corps and the I and II Cavalry Corps.

TOTAL 180,986 men, 528 guns.

Prince Eugene commanded the IV and VI Corps and the III Cavalry Corps around Plock, to the south of Napoleon’s main body.

TOTAL 85,850 men, 150 guns.

These two groups were opposed by Barclay’s 1st Army of the West, between Grodno and Vilna, with Wittgenstein’s independent corps to the north.

TOTAL 104,290 men, 488 guns

King Jerome of Westphalia was to the south east again around Warsaw and Lublin with the V, VII and VIII Corps and the IV Cavalry Corps.

TOTAL 75,155 men, 232 guns.

They were opposed by Bagration’s 2nd Army of the West between Bialystock and Brest Litovsk.

TOTAL 47,910 men, 180 guns.

Far to the south, around the Pripet marshes, was Schwarzenberg with the Austrian corps (and the VII Corps) at Lemberg.

TOTAL 49,313 men, 130 guns.

They were facing General of Cavalry A. P. Tormasov’s 3rd Army of the West at Lutsk.

TOTAL 45,850 men, 164 guns.

Readers will have noticed that the third largest of Napoleon’s armies was commanded by his brother, Jerome, whose performance as a military commander of a much smaller force had been so clearly recognised and condemned by the Emperor as pathetic in 1809. Once again the question arises: why did the Emperor continue to tolerate the antics of his siblings, who distracted him so frequently and failed him so utterly? Not only was Jerome given four corps to toy with, he was also given the key role to play in the crucial initial phase of the invasion; his aim was to catch and destroy Bagration’s 2nd Army.

For some reason, the position of Jerome’s group, spread out from Warsaw in the north west to the area of the River Bug - 160 km to the south east - in order to facilitate foraging prior to advancing eastwards, was wrongly assessed by Napoleon in relation to the speed of the ‘lunge’ that they would have to make in order to catch and destroy Bagration’s 2nd Army.

As the Westphalian General von Ochs’s biographer, Leopold, Freiherr von Holzhausen, recorded on page 220 of his work:

On 14 June the king received orders to cross the River Niemen at Grodno. As the right wing of the Grande Armée had previously been designated to operate against Wolhynia [the present-day Ukraine], most of the troops were located in this direction and needed several marches in order to reach their new line of operations.

By 17/18 June the Westphalian Corps was concentrated around Pultusk [50 km north of Warsaw] and set off by forced marches behind V [Polish] Corps via Ostrolenka [on the River Narew], Sczyczyn and Augustowo towards Grodno.2

Napoleon and the main body of the army crossed the River Niemen at Kowno on 23/24 June and the advanced guard entered Wilna on 28 June. Napoleon’s aim was to prevent the unification of the 1st and 2nd Russian Armies - this gave the king of Westphalia the task of catching up with Bagration’s 2nd Army and bringing him to battle while Davout, with 40,000 men, raced for Minsk, to turn Bagration’s northern flank and cut him off from Barclay de Tolly’s 1st Army.

Jerome tried to fulfill the Emperor’s wishes by pushing on at full speed by more forced marches but, despite all the efforts of his men, his advanced guard reached Grodno only on 28 June. The Russians had broken the bridges; General Allix had them rapidly rebuilt and the VIII Corps entered Grodno that same day. There was a minor brush with some of Platow’s cossacks who lost about 100 men.

King Jerome entered the town with his guard cavalry and a Polish division on 28 June; the Westfalian infantry [those that had not fallen out with exhaustion or died of fatigue] came in on 2 July.

Napoleon made Jerome entirely responsible for Bagration’s escape, forgetting that on 14 June his V and VIII Corps were still in cantonements on the Vistula and the Bug. Jerome now allowed his shattered troops two days’ rest so that the stragglers could catch up.

If Napoleon’s judgement of Jerome’s martial skills in 1809 was correct - and it is quite clear that it was - then why on earth did he let him loose again in such a senior position only three years later? And why did he allocate such a key role to his bungling brother’s command? Was he subconsciously ensuring that a suitable whipping boy would be available when he needed one?

Another Westphalian participant who left records of the epic disaster was von Lossberg, a battalion commander with the 3rd Line Infantry Regiment. His account of Jerome’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ seems to throw some doubt on the king’s comprehension of ‘speed’. He wrote:

20 June. Near Sielun. The king’s army is moving on Grodno; the VIII Corps marched for eight hours today. We lost a lot of time due to having to halt and present arms each time the king passed, and we had to wait from 2 o‘clock in the morning to 7 o’clock, in order to draw six days’ rations of flour. We only reached our bivouac at 7 o’clock at night and were very tired.

21 June. The same nonsense with presenting arms all day. Many officers try to make names for themselves in this manner. I do not know why Vandamme and Tharreau3 permit it. If the king knew that each man was carrying 50-60 pounds and that they are so exhausted by this continual parading, I am sure he would also forbid it.

There were violent rows and recriminations between General Dominique-Joseph Vandamme (commander, VIII Corps) and King Jerome in Grodno on 30 June; Jerome removed Vandamme from command. Both men wrote passionate letters of self-justification to the Emperor. Napoleon appointed General Junot, probably mentally unstable at this point, to take Vandamme’s place as corps commander. Vandamme’s going was deeply regretted by all members of his corps; they were less worried that the Merry Monarch would soon depart. Junot’s erratic actions at the critical battles of Smolensk and Valutina Gora were to cost his men dear.

Already, in this early stage of the campaign, the Emperor was becoming very uneasy at the military conduct of his brother - and others.

To Jerome Napoleon, King of Westphalia

Wilna, 4th July 1812.

I have received your packet sent from Grodno, at four o’clock yesterday afternoon. I was exceedingly glad of its arrival, as I hoped you would have sent the Major-General4 news of Bagration’s Corps, of the direction in which Prince Poniatowski had pursued it, and of the movements of troops in Volhynia. What was my astonishment at learning that all the Major-General received, was a complaint of a General!

I can only express my dissatisfaction at the small amount of information I have from you. I neither know the number of Bagration’s divisions, nor their names, nor where he was, nor what information you obtained at Grodno, nor what you are doing. I have five or six columns in motion, to intercept Bagration’s march. I cannot think you have so neglected your duty, as not to have pursued him, the very next morning. I hope, at all events, that Prince Poniatowski has followed him, with the whole of the 5th Corps. My operations are stopped for want of information from Grodno. I have had none since the 30th. The Chief of your staff does not write; Prince Poniatowski does not write. It is impossible to make war in this fashion! You never think to speak of anything but trifles, and I am distressed to see how thoroughly small-minded you are. If General Vandamme has committed acts of brigandage, you did well to send him to the rear, but in present circumstances the question is such a secondary one, that I regret you have not sent me information which might have been of service to me, nor explained your position by your courier.

I do not know why Prince Poniatowski does not correspond with the Major-General twice a day. I certainly ordered him to do so.

Postscript. You are jeopardising the whole success of the campaign, on the right; it is not possible to carry on the war in this way.

Correspondence CCCCI.

About this time, General Vandamme was removed from command of the VIII Corps. Von Lossberg had this to say on the event:

Something about which I as a soldier am very sorry, is that Vandamme is leaving the army due to disagreements with the king. It is said that he meddled in the internal affairs of the Westphalian army. I cannot confirm this, but if he complained about the general staff and the commissary officials, he certainly had just grounds for unease. Especially the commissary officials, whose qualifications are limited, it seems, only to a knowledge of the French language. Thus only Frenchmen and French-speaking Germans are found in this branch, and many of these ex-patriate Frenchmen have often been openly condemned by Vandamme as being totally incompetent. We shall only realise the full effects of his loss when we enter our first combat; this is his element, I believe.

So what was happening on the Russian side of the hill? We know that Prince Bagration chafed at being under the command of Barclay de Tolly and hated surrendering even a foot of Russian soil. This letter from Bagration to Araktchejev, received by the latter on 15 August, gives us some insight into his agony:

...It’s not my fault; initially we stretched ourselves out like a piece of catgut until the enemy fell upon us. Without firing a shot we began to withdraw, I don’t know why. In the army - as in all Russia - all think we have been betrayed. I cannot defend Russia alone. The 1st Army ought to advance to Wilna at once; what do we fear? I am completely surrounded and cannot yet say where I will break out. I am not inactive but my state of health has changed and I have been feeling unwell for some days. I ask you as a friend - ADVANCE! Russians must not flee. We are starting worse than the Prussians.

I will find a point where I can break through, even with loss. For you it is insulting. You have a fortified camp in your rear, there are no enemy forces on your flanks and only a weak corps to your front. You must attack. The queue of my army has been fighting hand-to-hand for a whole day now... I cannot fall back on Minsk and Wilieka due to the forests, swamps and bad roads. I have no peace. As God is my witness, I am glad to do anything, but one must act with certainty and according to circumstances. You have withdrawn and I have to fight my way out. If I am not strong enough to carry out this task, it is better to relieve me of this burden and give the command to another; why sacrifice the troops to no purpose and without satisfaction? I advise you, attack at once. Don’t listen to anyone. The bullet is a cowardly poltroon, the bayonet is bold. That’s how I think. The wisdom of Phull!

Lament for the Czar and for Russia! Why let the enemy dictate to us when we can beat him? It is very easy to give the order to advance; make strong reconnaissances with the cavalry and attack with the whole army. That is honour and fame! Also, I assure you, do not stay in the armed camp. The enemy won’t attack you but outflank you. Attack for God’s sake! The troops are brave! Orders were given for us to fight but now we always run away. Here you have my openness and dedication to the Czar and to my Fatherland. If you do not agree with me then let me go. I do not want to witness the destructive results. You can fall back 500 Wersts if our destruction threatens. Now excuse me! I have spoken to you as one Russian to another. If you don’t share my opinion then forgive me!

Between us, I have been extremely insulted by the ‘Minister’ [Bagration always referred to Barclay in this derogatory fashion] but he has considered things and asked me in writing for forgiveness. I have forgiven him too and treated him as a senior and not a junior commander. I do this - and will continue to do it out of dedication to my monarch.

Prince Peter Bagration, on the march at Katan village, 7 August.

Another letter from Bagration to Araktchejev was written on 10 August:

For heaven’s sake, you may send me where you wish - even as a regimental commander - to Moldavia or the Caucasus, but I cannot stay here; the whole headquarters is so filled with Germans that it is impossible for a Russian to survive. You may send me on leave if only for a month. By God, I’m being driven mad by all this to-ing and fro-ing! The army has scarcely 40,000 men but it is stretched out like a thread and drags itself to flank and rear. You can split my army into two corps; give one to Rajewsky, the other to Gorchakov, but send me on leave! I thought I was serving the Czar and the Fatherland, but it seems that I’m serving Barclay. I confess, I don’t want to.

On 16 July Marshal Davout arrived at Jerome’s headquarters in Nieschwitz and, with great satisfaction, handed him a letter from the Emperor; it was to tell Jerome that he was sacked and should return to his seraglio in Kassel. Davout took command of the right wing of the Grande Armée. But this failure in the southern sector of the central front was not the only thing that went wrong in this Great Plan. Napoleon’s personally-led main group of the Grande Armée, to the north of Jerome’s, was also unable to bring its prey (Barclay) to battle when they rushed across the Niemen on 23 and 24 June 1812.

Jerome had failed his brother again, but so had all the other commanders in the Grande Armée in 1812. Perhaps the goals that the Emperor set them were simply unattainable given the weather, the distances to be covered, the state of the roads and the tactical agility of the Russian armies. The cost of the pursuit to Jerome’s group had been high (and would continue to be so), despite the almost total lack of contact with the enemy, as can be seen from the parade statistics shown below:

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So, in less than a month, Jerome’s army had lost one third of its strength, and the only action it had fought was on 9 July at Korelitchi, where their advanced guard had lost 356 casualties to Hetman Platov’s Cossacks. These losses were reflected in the other French armies of the central group as they straggled forwards. If the chase was to extend for any distance, it did not need a genius to calculate that the Grande Armée would evaporate from a raging torrent to a pathetic trickle, even without fighting any battles.

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The crossing of the River Niemen at Pilony on 30 June, with grenadiers and a pontoon vehicle. Faber du Four.

If Jerome was late at Grodno on 28 June, Prince Eugene’s central group was even further behind. They reached the Niemen at the village of Preni (about 30 km south of Kowno) on 2 July, had advanced as far as Novi Troki by 12 July and were reviewed by Napoleon at Wilna two days later.

Even in early June, Captain Abraham Calkoen, a member of the 2nd (Dutch) Chevau-Leger-Lanciers of the Guard, had written to his father:

You cannot imagine these countries, especially northern Poland. They are real deserts. You can march ten leagues over sandy heathland without even seeing a house. The villages that you find at the end of the day are just miserable little hamlets of ‘Noah’s Arks’, where the host, his guests, his oxen, his pigs, his lice and his chickens all live in the same room. The pigs eat under the table, just like dogs. You can imagine what the beds are like – one is absolutely devoured by fleas. The food is of a similar standard; there is no wine, just a miserable, sour, black beer, and the high point is a disgusting sort of brandy. The crowning misfortune is a language that was invented by the devil, and a nation so stupid that they cannot even understand sign language. All this applies only to the country bumpkins – the inhabitants of Warsaw and Posen are very friendly and speak French very well.

The Emperor is in the neighbourhood and we await his arrival from Danzig. Tomorrow we are going to Braunsberg, and from there to Koenigsberg... We march 10 to 15 hours a day in suffocating heat, but then yesterday we had the first rain and hail, and it was very cold. I hope we have some decent weather at the bivouac, which cannot be far away.

Notes

1

The border between Hamburg and Denmark then ran close up to the city.

2

From Pultusk to Grodno was a distance of about 250 km; marching at a rate of 20 km per day – as in the Nijmegen Marches today – this would take about 12 days on good roads with healthy, well-nourished men. In Lithuania in 1812, none of these criteria applied, but despite this, his men – some of them – covered the distance in just ten days. It was not good enough for the Emperor.

3

Commander, 23rd Infantry Division.

4

Alexandre Berthier, Napoleon’s invaluable Chief of Staff.

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