On 28 June Napoleon had entered Wilna, capital of Lithuania, in triumph just after the Czar’s headquarters had evacuated it. The town was decorated with the badges of Poland and Lithuania (the white eagle and the mounted warrior) and that evening a delegation of the local nobility approached him to beg for the confederation of the two states, which Napoleon was only too pleased to agree to. On 1 July, a solemn proclamation to this effect was read out in Wilna cathedral and two days later an imperial decree was published nominating a provisional government with Bignon as imperial commissaire. One of the first acts of this new government was to order the raising of five infantry and four cavalry regiments, which were integrated into the army of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw as the 18th-22nd Infantry and 17th-20th Lancer Regiments. Prince Ronauld Giedroyc was appointed Commander-in-Chief of this embryonic army and one of Napoleon’s aides, the Dutch General Hogendorp, was given the task of supervising the raising and organization of the new troops. Fine words and titles indeed, but the tiny state had absolutely no funds with which to realise the scheme and its economy was in ruins due to the effects of the war so far. A large loan had to be granted from the imperial treasury for the purpose but men, weapons and equipment were extremely hard to find and many of the new units were never brought up to full establishment. His failure to galvanise the entire Lithuanian nation for his own purposes was a deep disappointment to Napoleon; only the upper aristocracy and the students rallied to his colours, while the mass of the populace remained passive. Another anticlimax was how few Lithuanians in Russian and Austrian service left their posts to return home and join these new regiments.
From the various accounts that have been consulted, there emerges a picture of Wilna in July of 1812 as being an island of sanity, order and plenty, worlds away from the grim, bitter struggle for existence that was consuming everyone else in the central sector of the Russian front. It was Hollywood in 1812.
Here was Napoleon, his Imperial court, etiquette, the splendid Imperial Guard, the glittering diplomatic corps, receptions, balls and parties, plays, dinners, grand parades and troop reviews. Outside the gates was a sea of desolation that stretched for scores of miles in every direction. Inside was civilisation on the Parisian level; outside were horror, hopelessness, destruction, starvation and want on a scale not seen since the worst days of the Thirty Years’ War. And the invasion had only just begun.
So both main Russian armies escaped intact to the east to fight another day. True, their initial attempts to join up were frustrated at Mir on 10 July and at Saltanovka (Mogilev) on 23 July, but their critically important junction took place at Smolensk on 16 August.
Napoleon’s plan had been over-ambitious and had misfired; once again, he had underestimated his enemy. What was he now to do? Even before the invasion he had been - not surprisingly - confused in his own mind about how to tackle the challenge of the immense Russian empire. At one point he explained that his initial aim was only to liberate Poland. But Poland had once been a vast kingdom, stretching down into south western Russia; so what did he mean?
On another occasion, he said that he would only go as far as Smolensk. ‘There or in Minsk’, he told a member of his entourage, ‘the campaign will end. I shall winter in Wilna, organise Lithuania, and live at Russia’s expense. If then peace cannot be secured, I shall, next year, advance into the centre of the enemy’s land, and stay there until the Czar becomes pliable.’
When he was in Wilna, with the Russians still fleeing before his armies, he again appraised the strategic situation:
If Monsieur Barclay imagines that I am going to run after him to the Volga, he is making a great mistake. We will follow him to Smolensk and the Dwina, where a good battle will provide us with quarters... It would certainly be destruction, were we to cross the Dwina this year. I shall go back to Vilna, spend the winter there, send for a troupe from the Theatre Francais, and another to play opera. We shall finish off the affair next May, unless peace is made during the winter.
He then wrote a conciliatory letter to Alexander, proposing negotiations; it was delivered, but never answered.
Prince Schwarzenberg was the commander of the Austrian corps operating together with the Saxons on the right flank of Napoleon’s main thrust at Moscow. They started off from Bialystock and reached Lublin on 20 June. On 2 July his advanced guard under General Frehlich crossed the Bug river.
The young Austrian captain of Ulans, Joseph von Boehm, ADC to Schwarzenberg, described the state of the Austrian corps at that point:
These were select troops; if they were not totally enthusiastic about this operation, they were full of the best military spirit and discipline. We were well supplied with everything and in the best condition. The enemy troops facing us had withdrawn and seemed to wish to avoid combat.
Austrian headquarters were now (4 July) in Pruzany and Prince Schwarzenberg decided to inform Napoleon of these facts and selected von Boehm to carry the despatches to Imperial HQ, which they knew to be in Wilna at this point. ‘I knew the contents of the despatches,’ wrote von Boehm, ‘and I had been briefed to answer any questions the Emperor might ask. I also had some verbal messages for Marshal Berthier and the Foreign Minister, the Duke of Bassano, who was also in Wilna, where he had set up diplomatic headquarters.’ Von Boehm set off on the night of 4/5 July and arrived in Grodno at King Jerome’s headquarters from the south. He described Jerome’s field headquarters:
I arrived in Grodno on the morning of the 6th and found King Jerome just about to set off to Minsk (to support Davout) with his guards and Prince Poniatowsky’s corps. The guards and most of the infantry were in Grodno and its suburbs, and the V Corps (mostly Polish cavalry) were placed in echelon, by regiments, along the road to Minsk and ready to march off. It would be hard to find finer, or better mounted troops.
The King of Westphalia received me in his quarters; it was a formal court, everyone was in full dress uniforms. My audience was brief and I set off again in a Russian post chase for Lida.
Lida was supposed to have been full of Cossacks the day before, but as the road along the Niemen via Kowno seemed too long for me, and as an Italian cavalry division had already set off in that direction, I took the chance. Arriving in Lida at midday, I found it to be empty of friend or foe, although the townsfolk told me at the post office that 300 Cossacks had left only that morning and were supposed to be in the woods near the town. After a brief pause for thought, I decided to push on for Wilna by the most direct route.
Much to my relief, I met the first of the Chasseurs à cheval of General Claude-Raymond Guyot’s division1, cursing their way through the huge Bialowiczer Forest, in which they had lost their way from Lida. Generals Guyot and Ornano and their staff were sitting disconsolately in a little muddy clearing by the road, roundly cursing the country and everything in it.
As the chasseurs said that they had seen some Cossacks, I asked to be allowed to exchange my post chase for a horse, which the general graciously agreed to; he also gave me a small escort. I distributed my small store of rations among the escort and we set off. We rode through the night and arrived on the outskirts of Wilna at 7 o’clock on the morning of 7 July.
The entire area was devastated, every village thoroughly plundered; there was nothing to be found anywhere. Even some gensdarmes, usually held by the soldiery to be superior beings, had been wounded by a gang of maurauders and were cursing the total breakdown of discipline.
Many regiments of IV Corps had absolutely nothing to eat. ‘Nous sommes donc venus dans ce sacre pays pour manger des herbes commes les bêtes,’ [We have come to this bloody country to eat grass like the animals] they groaned.
Some regiments - luckier than others - drove entire herds of cattle, sheep and pigs, under heavy guard, with their rearguard.
The cavalry and artillery trains had been foolish enough to let their horses eat green grain; this, combined with the heavy rains and the violent swings in the temperature, meant that the roads and the camp sites were covered with the cadavers of thousands of horses, which no sooner collapsed and died than they began to rot. The air was full of the pestilential stench for miles.
The town and the extensive suburbs were packed with troops of the infantry and cavalry of the Imperial Guard. Imperial headquarters was in the Governor’s palace, which Alexander had occupied shortly before. I dismounted, thanked my weary chasseurs and delivered my despatches.
Marshal Berthier, Colonel Count Flahaut (then an ADC to Berthier), Generals Lagrange, Girardin and others greeted me in friendly fashion; my long residence in Paris now paid off well.
Marshal Berthier took my despatches to the Emperor; I immediately fell fast asleep in a chair. Berthier had trouble waking me. ‘Reveillez-vous, jeune homme, et suivez-moi; l’empereur desire vous parler a l‘instant même; il avait de la peine à croire, que vous etiez par la route de Lida.’ [Wake up young man and follow me; the Emperor wants to know what you saw on the road from Lida.]
We crossed the courtyard to the Emperor’s quarters in the palace proper. The reception rooms were full of generals, secretaries busily writing and other civil administrators.
The generals seemed to be quite happy to see an Austrian officer among them. No sooner were we announced than I was ushered in to the Emperor by the duty ADC - General Narbonne if I am not mistaken.
Von Boehm found the emperor in a room that opened onto the garden, and he described him in some detail, noting his uniform, medals (he wore the small crosses of the Order2 of the Iron Crown and the Legion d’Honneur), and the fact that his famous hat was close by on a side table. He contined his report:
In the centre of the room, several large tables had been pushed together and were covered with Rizzi Zanone’s3 map of Russia and several despatches, including mine. All the latest known positions of the army corps were marked on the map in different coloured pins, that of our Austrian and Saxon corps as well.
When he saw me enter, Napoleon took some steps towards me; his usually piercing glare was somewhat friendlier than usual; he smiled slightly. Speaking quickly, he said: ‘Eh bien, vous êtes donc, à ce que Berthier me dit, venu par Lida?’ [Well, you are here, Berthier tells me that you came via Lida?] I answered: ‘Yes Sire, via Grodno and Lida.’
‘Et les cosaques,’ he continued, ‘on pretend, qu’ils étaient avant-hier à Lida, et n’avez-vous pas recontré de cavalerie italienne?’ [And the cossacks, they tell me that they are between here and Lida, and didn’t you meet the Italian cavalry?]
‘There were about 300 horses, but they left at dawn on the day of my arrival and I never saw any of them. As for the Italian cavalry, I found them in bivouac in the forest of Bialowicz, three leagues from Lida.’
‘Quand êtes-vous parti votre quartier-general? Et comment va le Prince de Schwarzenberg? N’a-t-il pas souffert de son erespiele jusqu’à présent?’ [When did you leave your headquarters? And how is Prince Schwarzenberg? Is he still suffering from erysipelas?4
‘The prince is very well, Sire, since he left Paris he is always on horseback.’
‘Avez-vous trouvé de l’avoine dans le pays? Et peut-il fournier ce qu’il vous faut? Ici on n’en trouve qu’avec peine; nous sommes déjà depuis huit jours au vert et j’ai perdu de trois mille chevaux.’ [Have you found oats in this country? Have you been able to make up supplies? We have none here; we have been feeding green corn for eight days and I have lost over three thousand horses.]5
‘Up to now, your majesty, we want for nothing and have found plenty of forage for the subsistence of the cavalry and the train everywhere.’
‘Qu’est ce qui commande votre cavalerie?’ [Who is commanding your cavalry?]
I had to think quickly here, for our cavalry was not concentrated under a specific general as was the French. So I named the most senior cavalry general: ‘Feldmarschall-Lieutenant Baron Frimont.’
‘Ah! C’est donc Frimont, du reste il s’appelle Fremont, et non pas Frimont, la famille est française. Et le general Wrede qui sert dans votre cavalerie, est-il parent du general bavarois?’ [Ah! So it is Frimont; there are some who say he should be called Fremont and not Frimont, it is a French family. And General Wrede, is that a relative of the Bavarian general?]6
I was not sure, but I said that it was; in fact it was his brother. Napoleon now switched subjects: ‘Combien de pontoons vous a-t il fallu, pour passer le Bug? Et comment appelez-vous l’endroit on vous l’avez passé?’ [How many pontoons did you need to cross the Bug? And what do you call the place at which you crossed?]
‘We crossed at three or four spots around Drohyczin and we put twenty pontoons into the river.’ I answered, but I was wrong, we used far fewer pontoons.
‘Le Bug doit donc être bien large où vous l’avez passé.’ [The Bug must be very wide where you crossed.’] responded the Emperor; I said nothing. He came back to Grodno: ‘C’est donc le 6 de grand matin, que vous avez passé a Grodno? Il y avait encore des troupes du 5ème corps?’ [You passed through Grodno on the morning of the 6th? There must have been troops of the V Corps there?]
‘I passed through Grodno on the morning of the 6th and I found there the king of Westphalia with his general headquarters and the Westphalian guard, and before Grodno all the cavalry of V Corps, echeloned along the road to Minsk, but all were waiting to march with general headquarters.’
‘Bah!’ interrupted the Emperor, ‘Le roi de Westphalie le 6 encore à Grodno, mais çela n’est guère possible! En êtes-vous bien sur?’ [Bah! The King of Westphalia still in Grodno on the 6th! It’s scarcely possible! Are you sure?]
I answered that I was certain; he uttered some words of displeasure and muttered to himself. I understood only: ‘habits brodés’ [embroidered coats]. He walked up and down and then became friendly again: ‘Vous disez au Prince, que je viens de faire écrire a Vienne, pour vous avoir auprès de moi. Vous allez marcher au centre. Vous êtes de braves gens et nous ferons la campagne ensemble.’ [Tell the Prince that I have written to Vienna, because I want you close to me. You will march in the centre. You are fine fellows and we will fight this campaign together.]
Somewhat surprised, I bowed deeply.
‘Vous lui direz,’ continued Napoleon, mixing up the names of the places, ‘que le roi de Naples a enfin vu l’ennemi près de Pilwiskey vers Drissa,7 il n’y avait que de la cavalerie legère et peu de canons, le roi de Naples les a fait charger, mais les Russes se sont assez mal battus – en general çela n’a pas été de longue durée. Les Russes ont comme d’ordinaire pris le systeme d’exagérer excessivement leurs forces et vous aurez de la peine, d’avoir de bons renseignements. Du reste, s’ils veulent tenir on tachera de les entamer sur la Duena.’ [You will say to him that the king of Naples finally caught the enemy at Pilwisky on the Drissa, they had only some light cavalry and a few cannon, the king of Naples charged them, but the Russians were easily beaten - in general these actions do not last long. The Russians adopt the system of exaggerating their forces and you will have trouble getting good intelligence. For the rest, we will cut the line of the Duena.
A short pause and then: ‘C’est donc d Riasna où vous avez quitté le Prince Schwarzenberg?’ [It was at Riasna that you left Prince Schwarzenberg?]
‘The Prince’s general headquarters are at Pruzany.’8
‘Mais c’est Riasna d’après la carte.’ [But it is at Riasna according to the map] said the Emperor, leaning over the table. I pointed silently at Pruzany; he said nothing.
There followed some small talk about how many lancer regiments the Austrians had and whether they were organized by battalions or squadrons and how many. Boehm recalls that he had had the identical conversation with Napoleon in the Tuileries. The Foreign Minister, the Duke of Bassano (Maret) was the conduit through which all correspondence between Napoleon and Schwarzenberg passed - and was filtered. He loved to play the Great Commander and often ‘advised’ the generals. Boehm’s report continued:
Marshal Berthier invited me to attend the review at 6 o’clock that evening and to dine at his table. The marshal’s table was wonderfully supplied; all the nobility of the court were there. The problem was that it all went at a great pace, because Napoleon did not like to spend much time eating, and we were in his presence, for he sat at a table in an adjoining room with Berthier, Bassano, Daru and the General of the Day.
Near my quarters was a recruitment stand for the new Lithuanian regiments; brandy flowed in rivers and the patriots made an infernal din, without much enrolling being done. General Krasinski9 of the French lancers went to an awful lot of trouble for nothing.
The central area of operations and Polotzk.
At 6 o’clock that evening, the review took place; there were about 35,000 men of all arms (mainly from the Imperial Guard), all in full dress, arranged in many ranks. I was included in the Emperor’s suite, which consisted of only a few people. I had been given a fine Limosine grey to ride, richly harnessed and with gilt stirrups and a red velvet saddle.
Napoleon was in an extremely bad mood and spoke sharply and briefly to Berthier and Caulaincourt. Many complaints were made to him by the local civil authorities about robbery and plundering; most of the corps commanders complained of the utter lack of supplies and of the difficulties of the march; things that he hated to hear about.
On the ride to the parade ground we met scores of looters that had been rounded up by the flying columns; they were threatened with death by shooting by the Emperor. ‘Qu’est-ce-que c’est, que ces marauds là; je les mettrai a l’ordre, je les ferai fusiller par douzaines!’ [Who are these, they are maurauders; I will give orders that dozens are to be shot!] he shouted in great rage.
Finally he rode along the front of the parade; utter silence in the ranks. Every now and then a soldier stepped forward, his musket at the present in his left hand, and handed him a note with his right hand. The Emperor spoke to them in a friendly and confidential manner to them. Then he would hand the note to Berthier; once or twice he ripped the supplicants off a strip.
Finally the review was over and the Emperor positioned himself in the centre of the front of the troops... they began to march past him with bands playing. A heavy storm was blowing up fast in the oppressive heat, but none dared to mention it to the Emperor.
Right at the end of the parade Napoleon criticised the commander of a newly-raised battalion of Chasseurs (the men were all the sons of foresters10) for the sloppy stance of his men. The unfortunate tried to excuse himself; this enraged the Emperor. ‘Laissez-vous, Monsieur, point d’excuses, si vous aviez fait en route, ce que vous auriez dû faire, le bataillon aurait meilleure tenue et il vous serait rester encore assez de temps pour dormir.’ [Quiet Sir, no more excuses. If you had done on the way here what you should have done, your men would have looked much better, and you would have had an opportunity for some sleep.]
The march past was concluded in the pouring rain, and then we all raced back to the palace in Wilna through the mud. Napoleon was sopping wet - as were we all - and the points of his hat were drooping down to his shoulders.
It was now night and several of the staff had gathered around Marshal Berthier. There was bad news from Marshal Davout;11 it did not remain a secret very long. The Marshal reported that due to the absolute absence of food in the devastated country, and the exhaustion of the troops, who had lost touch with the pitifully few supplies crawling along behind them, that he had been unable to reach Minsk in time to head off Russian Prince Bagration in his attempt to join up with Barclay de Tolly.
Davout’s advanced guard had tried, at cost of great losses, to push them off the road from Borisow and into the marshes of Bobruisk, but had failed.
The ingenious plan of the Emperor’s had been foiled by local difficulties, and Prince Bagration’s march on Smolensk was now unstoppable. His junction with Barclay took place there a few days later.
Next day more bad news arrived by courier; Sebastiani’s [2nd Cavalry Division, II Cavalry Corps] cavalry division, in an advanced position near Drissa, was attacked in the night of 6/7 [July] by the Russians. The French sentries were sloppy - it often happened - and 6,000 of the enemy had burst into their camp and taken many prisoners. The 8e Dragoons had been utterly destroyed and some guns had been lost.
This report is a mystery: von Boehm must have misunderstood something. According to Six, Sebastiani was beaten by Wittgenstein at Drissa on 15 July and surprised by Platow at Inkowo on 8 August. For these blunders, he was replaced by Pajol next day. Also, there was no 8e Dragoons in 1812; that regiment had been converted to the 3e Chevau-legers on 18 June 1811. Talleyrand-Perigord was colonel of the 8e Chasseurs à cheval, which was in the 3rd Light Cavalry Division, III Cavalry Corps. Von Boehm continues:
The colonel of this regiment, Talleyrand-Perigord, a nephew of the minister, appeared shortly afterwards in Wilna with more details of the action.
The poor colonel was one of the first dandys and Beaus of Paris and now he had only that which he stood up in. His horses, his baggage - all had been lost. His many friends chipped in and soon re-equipped him, but the robust military humour (which the French are never short of) was in plentiful supply and there was much to laugh over.
On the morning of 10 July the regiments of the Guard started to move out in the direction of Drissa and Witebsk; these troops were well-supplied with everything, except forage, of which there was none. Some of the Old Guard remained at Wilna.
They were keen to meet the enemy and all hopes were fixed on their leader [Napoleon] who would be able to solve any difficulties.
For my part, judging by what I had seen here, I could not suppress an ominous feeling of impending doom as I saw them march off. With very few exceptions, they were all dead men! Eight months later, in the headquarters of the Viceroy of Italy (who was in command of the remnants of the army after the great catastrophe) in Frankfurt on the Oder, there were scarcely 500 men fit for duty!
On that same day, the deputations of the councils of the Duchy of Warsaw - and some from Lithuania - went to see the Emperor; the exact content of his speech became known only later, but they all came away with long faces. These delegates had been ambushed and even their leader, Senator Wibicki, and many others, had been robbed by French maurauders.
On 11 July the Reserve Artillery Park was reviewed; some 90 guns and over 300 ammunition wagons had to be abandoned in Wilna due to lack of horses.
There was talk that the great Imperial headquarters would soon move; I thus tried to organize my return trip, but had no luck until the next day.
Post horses were just not available, either in Wilna or the surrounding area. At the Emperor’s order, I was issued with a courier’s pass by the Major-General [Berthier]. This document required all military and civil authorities to support my journey and to supply me with post horses. I was also able to commandeer ADC’s mounts.
The Major-General handed me my despatches, which contained our new orders. He embraced me and asked me to carry his warmest regards to the Prince, whom he hoped to see again soon and to tell him some new secrets.
Under this term, I understood him to mean the general advance of the central army against Barclay’s army and the advance against Drissa. [Which failed to materialise, as the Russians abandoned the place.]
Most of Berthier’s officers were sent off with despatches that day; the few that were left pitched in to make the best of my farewell party.
The eternal problem was horses; it was impossible to dream of finding any replacements for 20 Meils [150 km] around.
The horses that I took would have to be good for days. I was given a veteran Gensdarme, who led me to a walled enclosure in one of the suburbs, where, under heavy guard, some hundred horses were held, exclusively for use by Imperial Headquarters. They had mainly been requisitioned from Jews and no-one else was allowed to use them.
When Napoleon left Wilna on the night of 16/17 July, Hogendorp was appointed Governer General of Lithuania. Shortly after this, as von Boehm mentioned above, a deputation from the Polish parliament arrived at imperial headquarters to ask Napoleon to declare that Poland had been reconstituted as a political entity; this he refused to do as it might have precipitated a rupture with Austria, and this created a profoundly bad impression among the Poles.
We shall meet young von Boehm again later on in the campaign.
In fact, the 12th Light Cavalry Brigade, IV Corps.
Napoleon founded this Order on 5 June 1805, following his coronation as King of Italy on the previous 20 May. The badge of the Order was the ancient crown of old Langobard kings, with the imperial eagle in the centre. The obverse showed Napoleon’s bust. The Order ended with the fall of the Kingdom of Italy, but Kaiser Franz I re-established it in its current form  on 12 February 1816.
Rizzi Zanone was a member of Goettingen’s Academy of Sciences and cartographer to the French navy.
A red rash.
He was to lose over 10,000.
General of Cavalry Karl Philipp von Wrede commanded the 2nd Bavarian Division, VI Corps at Polotzk. In 1813 he would be defeated by Napoleon at the battle of Hanau.
On the River Duena.
Pruzany is about 45 km further south west from Slonim than Riasna (now Ruzany).
General Count Vincent Krasinski commanded the 1st Polish Lancers of the Imperial Guard. After Napoleon’s first abdication, he entered the army of the new Kingdom of Poland and later became viceroy of that state.
This unit may have been the Polish Jaegers of the Bug.
Commander, I Corps.