Chapter 4

After Tinseltown – reality

Meanwhile the starving troops of the Grande Armée, lashed ever forward, ever faster by their master, had outrun the surviving, lumbering, wallowing supply vehicles. On 29 June, von Lossber reflected on the state of supplies:

Near Jastrzeben. We have had no magazine supplies since Pultusk. Each regiment has now equipped itself with herds of cattle, which march behind it. The Poles, who march in front of us, strip their own country bare in order to be able to feed themselves; the French in East Prussia are supposed to be much worse.

And on 3 July: ‘At Lipsk... the king has directed that the troops must limit their food consumption to their issued rations (If only they were issued!)...’

If the logistics of the Grande Armée had collapsed at the first fence, the Russians had established an extensive system of ration and forage magazines - and the system worked. At Riga and Duenaburg were stockpiled supplies for eight infantry and four cavalry divisions each for one month; at Drissa were four days’ rations, in Disna were thirteen days’ rations and ten days’ oats. Other depots were established as follows.

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In Grodno, Brest, Slonim, Sluzk, Pinsk and Mosir were each one month’s supplies for two infantry and one cavalry divisions, and in Lutzk were two month’s supplies for nine infantry and four cavalry divisions.

As events (and the adoption of Phull’s plan) proved, these magazines were too large and sited too far to the west, but most of them were eaten down before falling into enemy hands, or were burned. There were insufficient bakeries and, when requisitioning was introduced, it failed due to the rapid enemy advance and the scarcity of local produce. The Russian army suffered much hardship during the retreat along the upper reaches of the River Dwina (after abandoning the Drissa camp), as their strategic plans had not foreseen operations in this area and no magazines had been established there. The difficulties which faced the Grande Armée during their advance, through a devastated countryside and with no effective supply system of their own, have been graphically recorded by many of the unfortunates who survived the campaign.

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Artillery train wagons ford a stream. Albrecht Adam. Author’s collection.

French troops on the march; note the water wagon. Albrecht Adam. Author’s collection.

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The story of Napoleon’s logistics in Russia in 1812, encapsulated in one picture. About 10,000 horses died within a few days in July. Faber du Four. Author’s collection.

In August, the Czar introduced a Grocery Tax on the populace in the area of operations; it was paid in black bread, barley and oats and worked very well after Borodino. During the pursuit of the beaten invaders in November, the supply situation of the Russians was helped immensely by their capture of Napoleon’s great depot in Minsk, on 17 November, and of that in Wilna on 8 December.

The retreating Russians applied the scorched earth policy to the land that they left for the invaders; stocks of forage and food were eaten down, evacuated or burned, as were the towns and villages. Wells and streams were defiled with dead animals and refuse.

The 2nd Lancers of the Imperial Guard arrived at Wilna on the evening of 28 June in pouring rain, to find that all the Russian army magazines in the city were ablaze. Albert de Watteville of the regiment wrote to his parents:

Our reconnaissance tells us that the Russians are still withdrawing. Their main body has already crossed the Duena. A small part of Bagration’s corps has joined the corps which is falling back on Wilna after being defeated at Swenziani.1 We are told that Counts Orloff and Roumantzieff have already been sent to parley with us. All the information we are gathering and the reports which reach us seem to correspond: the Russians have suffered a disaster and their army has been dispersed. Napoleon is reorganizing Poland, appointing a prefect and sub-prefect at Wilna and setting up units of Gendarmes. Everyone is coming to General Colbert, asking him for passports to take up service at Wilna; Polish deserters from the Russian army are flooding in here every day. We have found some Russian magazines with provisions of all kinds and hospital stores, as well as a tax chest... the countryside is very good, but we are eaten up by insects of all kinds and overwhelmed by the extreme heat. Luckily storms come to refresh us every night.

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Supply wagons of the IV Corps, early in the advance. Albrecht Adam. Author’s collection.

Bavarian cavalry on the march in July 1812. Albrecht Adam. Author’s collection.

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Bavarian Captain Maillinger2 described the conditions of the Grande Armée on 5 July at Ganuschischki, just east of the River Niemen crossing:

The shortage of bread began as soon as we touched enemy soil. There was no forage either; we were forced to cut the half-ripened grain for the horses or to drive them into the fields and let them graze. This caused colic, bloat and often the death of the horses. By the bridge of Pilony and at each camp site, we saw hundreds of dead horses, many of them had burst open. On the right bank [of the Niemen] we found dozens of overturned and looted wagons, even from the French and Italian guards. The finest coaches and pack-wagons lay there, each surrounded by a group of dead horses. The impression was that of following a defeated army rather than an advancing one.

In every village and town that we passed through, we found all the houses burned down; the inhabitants had left and taken everything that they could with them, destroying all that they left behind.

On 14 July, at 10 o’clock, Napoleon mustered the Bavarian corps.3 Despite the difficult marches and the lack of bread, the corps still had over 25,000 men and was in good condition.

At this parade, some of those in the Emperor’s retinue said that the VI Corps was even finer than the Imperial Guard. The Westphalian von Lossberg recorded on 6 July:

Near Jesiory. We left bivouac at Grodno at 2 o’clock in the morning, marched for eight hours and were on the road until midday. We marched in double column with the Poles in the direction of Minsk. Latour-Moubourg is one day’s march ahead with eighteen cavalry regiments.

It was so hot that all regiments lost men through exhaustion. In our regiment one officer collapsed and died on the spot. Some hours after reaching the bivouac area, I was told by the officer in charge of the baggage train, that a wagon of the regiment, which had fallen out of the column due to a breakdown, had been attacked by Polish marauders and the NCO and the two drivers who were with the vehicle had been very badly mishandled. Among the items stolen were my best uniform, epaulettes and underwear.

9 July; near Bjeliza. Again, a heat today such as is unknown in our region. As we entered our bivouac site a number of Polish officers came to meet us with drinks to refresh us. Just as I dismissed the battalion, a mounted Polish officer rode up to me, presented me with a bottle of red wine and a glass and said: ‘Allow me comrade! Very hot! A glass of wine - do you good!’

He then took my servant with him to the sutleress where he could buy more such bottles.

In a manor nearby, which had already been plundered by the Poles, I found some ice, which enabled me to cool my drinks.

The Russian rearguard of the 1 st Army of the West was Hetman Platow’s Cossack Corps. Withdrawing in good order, defending their homeland with skill and determination, these light horse regiments laid some excellent ambushes for the vanguard cavalry of the Grande Armée. On three occasions within a week they gave their pursuers of King Jerome’s army (the V Corps and part of Latour-Maubourg’s IV Cavalry Corps) a bloody nose.

The clash at Korelitchi, 9 July

A village on the Minsk – Wolkowysk road; a Russian victory of Hetman Platow’s Don Cossacks of the 1st Army of the West over General Turno’s brigade of the 4th Light Cavalry Division, IV Cavalry Corps. This was the first action of any size in the invasion.

The Polish units involved were three squadrons each of the 3rd, 15th and 16th Lancers, some 900 men. Platow’s Cossacks were the Pulks of Grekow VIII, Ilovaiski V, Ilovaiski IX, Ilovaiski XI, Ilowaiski XII, Karpov II, Sysojev III and a battery of horse artillery. They totalled about 4,500 men.

Platow deployed most of his force in the wood of Jablonovitchina, south of Mir, with three Sotnia (squadrons) at the village of Piasotchna. The French held Korelitchi; then advanced with the 3rd Polish Lancers of Turno’s Light Cavalry Brigade in the lead. This regiment dashed past the Cossacks at Piasotchna and clashed with Sysoyew III’s Cossacks. During the mêlée more Cossacks took the 3rd Lancers in rear; only with great difficulty did any of that unfortunate regiment escape. Turno’s other regiments advanced on Piasotchna but were driven off.

The Poles lost 356 killed, wounded and captured in this very successful rearguard ambush; Russian losses are not known exactly, but were very light.

Mir, 10 July

The Polish units involved were three squadrons each of the 3rd, 15th and 16th Lancers, some 900 men. Platow’s Cossacks were the Pulk of Ilovaiski V, Achtyrski Hussars, Kiev Dragoons and the 2nd Battery of horse artillery of the Don Host. General Kuteinikov’s force included the Cossack Pulks of Balabin II, Grekow XVIII, Kharitonov VII, five Sotnias of the Ataman Pulk and the Simpheropolski Tartars. They totalled about 4,500 men and in part were hidden in an ambush trap on the road south from Mir. General Rozniecki, with the 4th Light Cavalry Division, IV Cavalry Corps, advanced recklessly out of the town and sent the 7th Polish Lancers cantering off ahead. They fell into the ambush and were thrown back to Simakowo. General Kaminski’s 16th Division, V Corps came up to Mir and there followed a combat which went on until 9 o’clock at night

The clash at Mir, 11 July

Again in the central sector. A village further east from Korelitchi, on the same road, about 180 km south west of Minsk. Almost the same participants as at Korelitchi; this time it was Rozniecki’s 4th Light Cavalry Division of the IV Cavalry Corps, the 3rd, 9th, 11th, 15th and 16th Lancers. A total of about 1,600 men, probing forward, eager to avenge their defeat of the previous day. Platow’s forces were three Cossack Pulks of the Ilovaiskis, the Kiev Dragoons, Achtyrski Hussars, a battery of horse artillery and General Kuteinikov’s infantry brigade of three battalions. Russian total was some 5,000 men. Polish losses were about 600 men; the Russians lost 180 killed and wounded. Following their tactical success, Platow continued his withdrawal as he was too weak to think of standing against the vastly superior forces that were bearing down on him.

The clash at Romanowo, 15 July

In the central sector, another village on the Minsk-Wolkowysk road. The Polish pursuit continued; this time the cavalry of the V Polish Corps (General Dziewanovski’s 19th Light Cavalry Brigade: 1st Chasseurs and 12th Lancers) some 700 men. Hetman Platow’s Cossacks were two Pulks of Ilowaiski, two of Karpov, three of Kuteinikov and that of the Ataman. There were also the Achtyrski Hussars, Kiev Dragoons, the Litowski Ulans, the 5th Jaegers and the 2nd horse artillery battery of the Don Host; some 12,000 men. Platow’s task was to slow down the allied advance. Again, the Poles drew the short straw; confronted with a larger Russian force, they began to withdraw. Latour-Maubourg indignantly ordered them to advance again. They were overwhelmed and lost 279 men killed, wounded and captured. Russian losses were light, but not exactly known. The next action would be at Saltanovka, on 23 July.

Four days before this latter action, von Lossberg’s fortunes seemed to have been looking up:

11 July; near Novogrodek. Novogrodek has been plundered by the Poles - and the Westphalian corps headquarters which followed them also did reasonably well! Our sutleress has also been able to buy supplies, especially beer and brandy, from the numerous marodeurs. This is important, as, in view of the very irregular supplies of food which we receive, the troops have to be self-reliant. Today, as an exception, we have been issued with bread and brandy, and, as our regiment has its own herd of cattle, everyone is eating and drinking at the moment.

On 14 July von Lossberg recorded how bending the army’s marching regulations, life could be made much easier:

Near Nieschwitz. We marched for eight hours and caught up with the Poles again. The king has set up his headquarters in a palace outside the town. This area is a rich grain growing area and one of the best regions of Lithuania for cattle-raising.

The herds of cattle and other domestic animals, which the regiments carry along with them, have grown considerably since the beginning of the campaign. In our regiment we even have two oxen. This herd, under a guard commanded by a reliable NCO, follows the corps and each evening it is turned out to graze near the regimental bivouac. The NCO in charge sends the cattle to be slaughtered to the bivouac and also informs the regiment of his location. The meat from the beasts is distributed to the men for use the next day, so that they can start cooking as soon as they reach their bivouac place.

Our colonel has also arranged that as soon as we get near to the bivouac area, men from each company are sent out to bring in water and wood. These fatigue parties usually rejoin the regiment before it is dismissed to set up camp, thus much time is saved and within two hours of reaching the camp, the men are eating, while in the other regiments, which stick to the rules, the cooking pots are only just being put over the fires. Our men can thus get to sleep two hours earlier and are better refreshed next morning.

Eight pm. I heard at five pm that the king has been ordered back to Kassel by the emperor for refusing to be ordered about by Davoust. [sic]

And so it was. The day after the clash at Romanowo, Marshal Davout (an old enemy of King Jerome) arrived in the king’s headquarters in Nieswitsch, carrying orders from the emperor handing Jerome’s command over to him. With no little glee, Davout presented his despatch. The much-humiliated King Jerome at once left the army and headed back to Westphalia, taking the entire guard with him. They were - quite naturally - overjoyed to turn their backs on Russia.

Davout reported this to Napoleon; as soon as Napoleon heard of this, he ordered Jerome to send all but his garde du corps back to Davout. The unhappy troops set off on 21 July, but did not catch up with their corps again until 1 August at Orscha. Jerome and his garde du corps reached Kassel in August - in a sorry state.

The VIII Corps marched for Minsk on 16 July. On 27 July their advanced guard under General Hammerstein reached Orscha on the River Dniester and it was here that General Junot finally caught up with them three days later and took command. The corps stayed in Orscha for fourteen days, allowing many stragglers to catch up. So far, they had not even seen any live enemy, but had already lost over 2,000 men.

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Marshal Mortier, Duke of Treviso, commander of the Young Guard in 1812.

Justice in Russia was rough and rapid. Von Lossberg noted:

25 July; near Toloschin. At the little village of Bobre on the River Drujek, we saw some French soldiers of Davoust’s [sic] corps shoot a commissary official who had been condemned to death for accepting a bribe of 200 Thalers, to allow food, which should have been collected for the troops, to go to the natives. The low fellow deserved the noose and not a bullet!

On 29 July the Westphalians reached the River Dniepr; on the opposite bank was the village of Kopys. Marshal Davout ordered that they cross the river and occupy the area and the nearby palace. General von Borstel gave the task to von Lossberg:

I took four companies and crossed to the right bank. The ferry, which I used, could hold two companies, and as soon as they landed on the far bank, the few Cossacks who were in the town left.

With a Polish field officer of Davoust’s [sic] staff, I rode through the river beside the ferry; in front of us was a lancer, testing the depth of the water with his lance. Our horses had to swim about six or eight paces. Although my horse had not swum before, it seemed to enjoy it; perhaps because it was in the company of other horses.

Kopys has about 500 houses and 1,500-1,600 inhabitants. The authorities are co-operative and thus I have seen to it that my soldiers will keep out all the stragglers who may come here in the hope of loot. I have already received bread, brandy and fruit for all the troops for one day and have ordered 12,000 rations of bread for tomorrow.

In the town hall here, I found six oxheads of brandy and two hundred flagons of vodka, that were destined for the Russian army. I will not issue this latter item, but take it with us and give it out gradually, so that they can use it to improve the quality of the brandy. The spirit is so strong that only Russian stomachs can take it.

Despite the checks suffered by the Poles, Napoleon was still in an aggressive mood. He was forced to allow the tired troops some rest however, as his generals were increasingly concerned at the rapidly dwindling numbers of men still able to keep up with their eagles.

On 4 August Junot held a review of his corps; eight days later they set off for Smolensk, together with the other corps of the main body of the army. The Westphalians formed the right wing, with I Corps to their left. A reinforcement draft of 300 cavalry and 1,200 infantry had joined the Westphalians in Orscha.

Notes

1

A minor skirmish.

2

Of the Infantry Regiment Koenig, 19th Division, VI Corps.

3

At Sakret, outside Wilna.

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Latvia.The marshy character of this region is clearly shown. Mitau is now Jelgava. The major rivers gave opportunities fro the Royal Navy’s gunboats to intervene in the conflict on the Russian side.

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