In May 1812 Napoleon decided to declare war on Russia and march on Moscow. To defeat the Tsar would, he believed, complete his conquest of Europe and give him complete control of Continental Europe. On 24 June he crossed the river Niemen, which marked Russia’s western frontier, at the head of 600,000 men. The majority were French but the army also contained numerous contingents from nationalities that had been incorporated into the French Empire — Dutch and Italians — or from states that had been forced into alliance with it. They included many regiments from the small German princely states. One of them was the Lifeguard Regiment of the Grand Duke of Hesse, which, with the Prince’s Own Regiment, formed a brigade of four battalions. As household troops of high quality, they were attached to Napoleon’s own Imperial Guard.
Franz Roeder was thirty-eight in 1812, a professional soldier who had fought at the battles of Friedland (1807), Wagram (1809) and Aspern-Essling in the same year. He was also an educated man of considerable literary talent. In 1812 he commanded a company in the 1st Battalion of the Lifeguards, at the head of which he rode into Russia in July. Their road lay almost due eastward towards Moscow. At first the weather was unbearably hot. Roeder was taken ill with fever and so missed the battle at Smolensk on 17 August. He recovered enough to take part in the subsequent advance towards Viazma in September, but again missed the Battle of Borodino and the entry into Moscow. The Lifeguards were left behind to protect the line of communication and to convoy supplies forward. Before they could start the latter task, however, they met the Grand Army coming back. Almost as soon as Napoleon entered Moscow on 14 September, to find the city in flames, he decided that he could not bring the Tsar’s army to decisive battle before the onset of the Russian winter and that he must in consequence retreat the way he had come.
The retreat that followed turned into one of the greatest military disasters in history. In early November the snows began, slowing the army’s withdrawal. It was also harried by bands of Cossacks hanging about the edges of the long columns dragging their way back to Poland. Stragglers were cut off, robbed and killed. Those still strong enough to defend themselves stumbled on but were often killed by the cold at night, many having to sleep in the open without shelter. Others starved to death, the army’s supply system having broken down, leaving thousands without food. The worst ordeal came at the Beresina, the river blocking the Grand Army’s escape out of Russia. The winter had filled the waterway with ice, which was not hard enough to bear the fugitives’ weight. Many of those who tried to cross beside the only bridge drowned; others froze to death while waiting on the banks.
Franz Roeder, who suffered as much as any of the fugitives, survived, to make his way back to Hesse and to his wife and children. His journal of the campaign is not only one of the most important narratives of the Retreat from Moscow, but a dramatic record of the grandeurs and servitudes of the military life.
From the diary of an officer in the First Battalion of Hessian Lifeguards during the Russian campaign of 1812 — 13.
At three o’clock on the morning of [November] the 17th the Hessians prepared to march against the enemy. Captain Roeder’s company had been reduced to seven sergeants and twenty-seven men. The total strength of the Lifeguards, who had numbered 660 combatants when they left Viazma some ten days earlier, was now twenty-six officers, 442 men, while the Prince’s Own (Regiment) could only number twenty-three officers, 450 men. ‘What a brigade of Guards of four battalions! And yet we are much stronger than the French!’ The Captain wrote a little letter of farewell to his family, and then they marched for about two hours back along the road to Smolensk. They took their stand in battalions to the left of the road, and there they remained until about eight o’clock. ‘I found it terribly hard; cold and drowsiness.’ At eight o’clock a Russian corps approached towards the town, and by nine the Hessians stood facing the enemy. From half past nine until half past twelve they were ‘exposed to the fire of about ten cannon and two howitzers, and especially of a battery of about six pieces lying a little to the left, which fired at us unceasingly and with great violence, so that even in the great battles of Wagram and Aspern we had never had to stand up to such a cannonade of such long duration. I left my place for a moment to have a word with Captain Schwarzenau, and just before 1 returned to it a ball passed through prodigiously close to Lieutenant Succow, who had stepped in, killing outright the men who were standing in the second and third rank to the right. The first of these was my old cook, Heck, an honest fellow, who died a noble death. In all, from twenty-seven men including officers, for I had lost many more from weakness during the march, I lost one dead and three wounded. Yet another shot passing close to my eyes, tore through a gap in the rank without damage, but struck the hand off a drummer in the Fourth Company.
‘The Prince’s Own, which was close to the Russian cavalry, unfortunately had to form a square, and in a short time suffered a loss of ten officers and 119 men dead and wounded. All the wounded officers fell into the hands of the Russians.
‘The First Corps, like ourselves, were stationed in a wood filled with Russian sharpshooters, but several times they had to form closed columns and attack at the double. The Russians did not yield, and nothing was done to circumvent or dislodge them par force,for this fight only aimed to hold back a little the corps which was stationed there under General Orlov, or to see whether they were supported by their main army or by a strong corps. We withdrew therefore at one o’clock, and, covered by a weak division, retreated with all speed as far as the frontier of Old Russia five hours beyond the little town of Lodsi.’
The Captain, ‘fearfully weary and suffering from a total lack of any kind of food’, tried to find the recruit who had been supposed to hold his horse on the neighbouring hillside, but the boy had taken himself off to a place of safety with the horse and such meagre supplies as might be in the saddle-bags. It was a Russian pony commandeered to replace the big horse that had collapsed a few days before. The starving Captain looked round him hopelessly; already the looters were at their work, stripping the corpses almost before they were dead. One of these men approached him with a bloodstained fur coat ripped by the cannon ball which had killed its wearer, a French subaltern in the Voltigeurs. The Captain gave a gratuity to the corpse-stripper; the coat was torn but at least it was warm, and this was neither the time nor the place for feelings of refinement. There was no need to freeze even if one did have to starve. He put his frozen hand into the pocket and found there a piece ‘of the most excellent sugar’. So at least he had something to gnaw. Another soldier brought him a small bag of barley coffee, ‘which had been found in the pocket of the fallen Heck, and since nobody wanted it I put it in my pocket’. So even in death his old cook provided him with a meal, for he managed to nourish himself that day upon six cups of barley coffee with the sugar added, ‘ladled out so that the roasted grain could be eaten too’.
The bivouac was horrible. They spent the night without shelter and ‘marched on, fasting, at five o’clock’. The Captain’s feet were beginning to swell dangerously and his hands also were frost-bitten, for he had lost the gloves which Mina [his wife] had knitted for him. The recruit did not return, having allowed the saddle-bags to be pillaged by the French, so his small store of food was gone. ‘I begged a piece of bread from Prince Wittgenstein, and then gave it to Amman because I thought that his need was the greater. Also I gave Captain Hoffmann my reserve flask of brandy. He promised me bread in return but gave me none.’ He tried to take note of the country through which they were passing, but was no longer able to do so; all he could do was to stagger on somehow. ‘We went by Kazani, where there was only one bridge, and this blocked by vehicles, so that the greater part of the infantry had to go through the water and ice, which terribly retarded our march. We laid stakes across it and passed over very slowly, and still most of us fell into the water. Here I ate some horseflesh grilled on the cinders and found it excellent. We went on for about another hour and a half beyond Kazani and bivouacked on the road by a great church. I lodged in a house with a number of officers of the Sixth Tirailleur Battalion. I have no batman.’
The next day he woke shivering and streaming, with his feet so swollen that he was unable to draw on his boots, so that he was constrained to borrow shoes from a soldier and they were too big for him. ‘Before the march out I lost my blue handkerchief in the straw. I could not search for it in the room full of officers.’ It is difficult for us in the twentieth century to understand how they could in such circumstances have continued to observe the punctilio which was considered proper to officers in the Guards. And yet, if they survived at all it may have been in some part due to the observance of a rigid code. They had no boots, sometimes no feet, but they knew how to die with dignity.
‘At half past four this morning between our encampment and the town of Dubrovna we were harassed by Cossacks, but we are not being pursued as we should be.
‘I was shivering from riding and from my indisposition, so I asked Prince Emil for a drop of the schnapps which he had offered me yesterday, and I also had to accept from him a slice of the Göttingen sausage which Mother had sent me and I had presented to him. It was excellent.
‘We occupied an odious bivouac to the right of the road towards Orsza, where it was impossible to make even a decent fire. I had nothing to eat, but managed to purchase three platefuls of groats [crushed grain, usually oats] for three francs from one of my soldiers. Amman was still my guest and slept by my fire. Coffee I still had, but the sugar of the dead French officer was all the solid nourishment I had taken until then, and even that I had shared too liberally. My lad Dietrich with all my best effects has not yet put in an appearance. Musketeer Alt with the furs, fodder and cooking pots may well be utterly lost.
‘20th.Very ill. After one and a quarter hours we reached Orsza, where I rode straight over the Dnieper Bridge 125 paces long. On the opposite side I found Colonel Follenius on a hill with a number of officers, who had mustered all those of our men who had gone ahead. Their number was equal to that of the regiments we had with us. Upon this hill we were informed that the army was to take three different routes via Minsk, Vilna and Vitebsk respectively. We were to take the first route with the Emperor.
‘There was to have been a great seizure of flour and brandy here, and the men were each given a schoppen of brandy to empty the magazine, but those who were to have removed the stores immediately became so sozzled that the twenty sacks of flour could not be brought away. So in spite of the superfluity, the soldiers in general received nothing, for only very starving men could wrest some of it from the universal pillaging and bring it over the bridge. I bought a little schnapps extremely dear.
‘My batman Dietrich has arrived safely with my best effects. I have just learned that my groom, Gottfried Köppinghof, died at the first night station after Smolensk, after I myself had left him quite cheerful and well provided and able to make the march on foot. I had thought that the hope of soon being back in his native land would have helped him to a complete recovery. The news came to me as a great shock and I was very sorry to hear it. Colonel Follenius has invited me to take a place in his chaise, so that I shall procure him night quarters and bring him through the French.
‘Riding back over the Dnieper my horse slipped on the bridge and lay with both back legs over the side. I had to fling myself quickly over its head into the throng of wagons and horses. But being an intelligent pony, he knew so well how to balance himself and remained so quiet that it was possible to help him up.
‘In the evening, after standing about in mud and darkness for a distribution at which there was nothing to distribute, we went on for about three quarters of an hour to a village to the right of the road, where we bivouacked.
‘21st. While we were on the march today about twenty Cossacks approached and carried off a wagon and two horses under the noses of our brigade and the cavalry, which rode on instead of letting fly at them. Our Schützen [light infantry] and the brigade thereupon opened fire, but naturally they made off with all speed. We marched for about seven hours, crossed a river and bivouacked at Kochanovo. I reported sick.’
They were approaching the Beresina and the worst of their ordeal was yet to come. [A Russian officer, a major, who also left an account of the retreat] gives a strange picture of their plight between Krasnoi and the terrible crossing:
‘The second period of the retreat began at Krasnoi and continued to the Beresina; a distance of about twenty-six leagues. At first things appeared to be more favourable for the French army, for, once across the Dnieper, they expected to link up with the corps of Victor and Oudinot and Dombrowski’s division, which together were over 30,000 men strong. Also the pursuit had been somewhat retarded by the fight with the Ney Corps on the 18th. Thirdly the army had now entered the area of its magazines and was in a country which it could regard as its ally, and fourthly the weather had grown somewhat milder. All these ameliorations collapsed before the fact that Admiral Tschitschagov with the Army of the Danube had pressed on via Minsk to catch the French army at the Beresina, and Count Wittgenstein was approaching from Tschasnik with his corps reinforced by General Steinheil, in order to link up with the Army of the Danube. By the movements of these armies the French were placed in great peril, and the least they could expect was a repetition of Krasnoi. Napoleon, perfectly well aware of the danger of his position, hurried to the Beresina by swift marches. When he came through Orsza he found the deputies of the Province of Mohilev waiting to receive the Emperor’s orders. The Emperor, usually so ready to avail himself of this kind of attention, sent them packing without seeing them. He had every reason for not wishing to exhibit his army, which had certainly lost some of its demeanour in the course of the march and was somewhat fantastically attired in priestly vestments and even women’s gowns as a protection against the cold.
‘As soon as Napoleon had taken on his reinforcements, he sent the Poles to the left against Borisov, which town had been occupied by Admiral Tschitschagov, and threw the Victor Corps to the right against Count Wittgenstein. Under cover of these detachments he reached the Beresina with the remainder of the army on the 25th, flung a bridge across it fifteen versts [a verst is approximately 1,000 metres, or two-thirds of a mile] above Borisov at Semlin, and crossed without losing time. Because of its horrors the crossing of the Beresina will live long in the memory of soldiers. For two days the crossing continued. Right from the beginning the troops surged over in disorder, for in the French army order had long been abandoned, and already many found a watery grave. Then, as the Russians forced back the corps of Victor and Dombrowski and everyone surged across the bridge in wild flight, terror and confusion reached their summit. Artillery and baggage, cavalry and infantry all wanted to get over first; the stronger threw the weaker into the water or struck him to the ground, whether he were officer or no. Many hundreds were crushed under the wheels of the cannon; many sought a little room to swim, and froze; many tried to cross the ice and were drowned. Everywhere there were cries for help, and help there was none. When at last the Russians began to fire on the bridge and both banks, the crossing was interrupted. A whole division of 7,500 men from the Victor Corps surrendered together with their general. Many thousands were drowned, as many more crushed and a mass of cannon and baggage was abandoned on the left bank. This was the end of the second period. To the Russians it brought over 20,000 prisoners, 200 cannon and immeasurable booty.’
The Captain did not travel long in the Colonel’s chaise. On the 23rd, when the cold weather set in once more, he marched on foot for seven hours to Bobr. ‘I did not think I should come through today. Asked the Colonel for his chaise, but it was already occupied. Rode. My horse, searching for water, broke the ice, stumbled into a water hole and I fell in up to the stomach.’ The horse was drowned; the Captain, with dysentery, violent coughing and with frost-bitten feet, dragged himself out somehow. ‘Now I saw that I must go on stoutly or perish. I pulled myself together with all the strength of my body and soul and covered seven or eight hours on swollen feet. Strecker is suffering from some sort of stroke. Hoffmann is feigning illness to get preferential treatment. He behaves with considerable animosity towards myself. Dietrich remains absent; consequent privation.
‘24th.The Emperor has stopped on the way at Losznita, in a great church to the right of the road, perhaps because a violent cannonade can be heard, which means that a battle is in progress. He has also received despatches.
‘Cadet Becker has died. All of us officers are lying together in a barn with Prince Emil. Extremely wretched and fearfully crowded. Today I should have remained lying had not Prince Emil sent back his own saddle-horse for me. I feel very ill.’
On the 25 th they reached the first bend of the winding Beresina at a market town called Njemonica. The whole division could now only form one weak battalion; the Lifeguards had seventy-five men, the Prince’s Own, twenty-five. The Captain was once more travelling in the Colonel’s chaise, for the Colonel set great store upon bringing it through the ever-increasing throng of men and vehicles.
The French army must still have had some fight in them for ‘the day before yesterday the Second Corps beat the Russian Lambert Division. Six cannon were taken and the Russians flung back over the Beresina.
‘26th. This morning at nine a violent fight began to the left; the Second Corps with the Russians on the other side of the river. They must have been victorious because the noise died away in the direction of Borisov. The Third Corps of Guards in reserve were on the right of the road along which we travelled.
‘At Borisov the long bridge crosses over lake and swamp and at the entrance of the town there are two marshy rivers. After this had been crossed the column changed its course from the direct road to Minsk, because this led close to a Russian entrenchment upon a hillside only a quarter of an hour away. According to my map I thought that the road must lead to Semlin, where we should be under necessity to repair and cross the great bridge leading over lake and swamp.’
After waiting his turn for four hours, the Captain, who was fortunate enough to be in the Colonel’s chaise, managed to cross this bridge ‘with indescribable difficulty, struggling through with the Colonel’s excellent coachman, Jacob. The battle went on all round us to the left, reminding me vividly of my own first battle in the Schorlmberge terrain, with almost the same violent fusillades. It lasted until eight in the evening.’
He rejoined his company at the small town of Vesselevo; ‘the bulletins say it was Studianka.’ Although they had meat and flour from Borisov, they were unable to cook them, for there was only-one iron cooking pot. ‘My turn never came. My irritability with my servants increases as my strength fails. When we broke camp in the darkness my overcoat was stolen by one of my batmen, my jar of honey pilfered by another, and my coffee left behind. I am in no state to think or notice anything. Physically I am suffering extremely, especially from violent coughing. The rent in my fur coat has not yet been repaired, so that I cannot put it on or take it off without a long struggle, especially in the darkness with my swollen hands, although it is a great comfort.’
The next day, November 27th, they reached the long, fatal bridge over the Beresina. The Captain, desperately ill and faint with starvation, hoped to be able to travel once more in the Colonel’s chaise, but found it already occupied by Captain Schwarzenau. His nerves, already at breaking point, snapped in a violent rage and he stumbled off to mount his wretched pony, only to find it ‘without a bridle and with one stirrup two spans too long’. They were early at the bridge, but already the press was terrible; what hope could there be for a sick man on a starving pony with no bridle and one stirrup? Imagine him, the gaunt, fainting figure in a torn fur coat and tall cockaded hat; the medals still on his chest, the sword with its porte-épée [sword knot] slapping the swollen leg in a torn blue stocking; the frost-bitten foot in a soldier’s shoe two sizes too big for it groping for the dangling stirrup. And thus he was to cross the Beresina! Then, through the struggling mass of men and horses a big man came pushing his way and shouting:
‘Cap’n Roeder! Cap’n Roeder, sir! Don’t you worry, Cap’n. Leave it to me, sir. Just you lean on me, sir.’
It was Sergeant-Major Vogel. ‘He led my horse by the mane and forced his way through, while I, like a poor sinner, clung to its neck.’
Somehow they got over. ‘I do not know which way we came; I could not notice it. We have taken up our position half an hour beyond the long bridge, and here we are to stay the night. I feel very wretched, but fortunately I have some good hay in which to bed myself. My right breast gives me great pain with coughing.’
The next day the regiment took part in a battle, but the Captain ‘could not even put in an appearance’, for his horse was so weak from hunger and thirst that it was unable to climb the hill, and he himself ‘for sheer misery’ was hardly conscious of what was going on around him. That night he wrote: ‘I am bivouacking in the open air with the brigade flag (under which we have no more protection), suffering prodigiously by a strange night fire (or mostly no fire at all). I am trying to sleep huddled in the most wretched camp. A terrible night. Violent cold and cutting wind.
‘29th.My horse stolen, I thought it would have perished. Now I had to march and, supported by my Sergeant-Major, to cross another long bridge. I think it was Zembin. I could hardly go for the pain in my right breast. Found a wretched pony by the roadside, which had been allowed to run loose. Was lifted on to it, and so went on for about an hour and a half on the beast’s sharp back. My Sergeant-Major makes himself of indescribable service to me.’
That night they took up their quarters in a village. ‘The room was full to overflowing with people. Finally they burned the house down, and after I had lain for a short while under a rafter, I had to bivouack outside without sleep. What a sum of misery! Shall I get to Vilna?’
To know just how horrible that night must have been, we must turn once more to the account of the Russian major:
‘About 40,000 men with a still significant amount of artillery had managed to cross the Beresina, but how tragic was the situation of these troops! A new and violent frost finished the business completely. Now almost everyone threw away his weapons, most of them had neither shoes nor boots, but blankets, knapsacks or old hats bound around their feet. Each had hung whatever he could find around his head and shoulders in order to have at least some protection against the cold; old sacks, tattered straw matting, newlv flayed hides. Happy the men who had managed to find a shred of fur somewhere! With arms hanging and heads bowed low, officers and men plodded on side by side in sullen stupefaction; the Guard was no longer distinguishable from the rest, all were ragged, starving and disarmed. All resistance was at an end; the mere cry of “Cossacks!” brought the whole column to a shambling trot. The route which the army had taken was littered with corpses, every bivouac looked like a battlefield the next morning. No sooner had a man collapsed from exhaustion than the next fell upon him and stripped him naked before he was dead. Every house and barn was burned, and among the ashes lay a heap of dead men, who had gathered round to warm themselves and had been too weak to flee from the fire. All the country roads were swarming with prisoners, of whom no one took the least notice, and here one saw scenes of horror beyond all experience. Black with smoke and filth, they flitted like ghosts among their dead comrades in the burning houses until they too fell in and died. On bare feet covered with burns some went limping onwards down the road, no longer conscious, others had lost the power of speech and many had fallen into a kind of frenzy from cold and hunger, in which they roasted corpses and gorged upon them, or gnawed their own arms and hands. Some were too weak to drag wood to the fires; they merely sat on their dead companions huddled round some small fire which they had chanced to find, and died there as these had already done. Some in a state of frenzy would of their own free will stagger into the fires and burn themselves in the illusion that they were getting warm, and others following them would meet with the same death.’
Now the Captain speaks, and his quiet voice is very terrible:
‘My Sergeant, Jost, went blind tonight. I had to leave him in the most wretched circumstances. The poor soldiers meet with horrible misfortunes: blinded by smoke, fire and lack of sleep, dazed, crazed ... My own life was twice endangered by falling with the pony among the wagons.’
On December ist they reached their division and he bivouacked once more with Dr Amman. The bivouac was horrible, but at least they were able to roast a chicken. In the midst of all this he still remembered Mina. ‘It was a year ago today that they told me she had to die. The memory has cost me many tears.’ He told Amman about it; he had to tell someone.
The next day there was a small amelioration of their sufferings, for the sun shone. Also they had a little to eat, for ‘Vogel and I pilfered a loaf of bread yesterday evening and this morning a copper saucepan. Overmastering need! We had to do as all the rest did!’
Somehow they had managed to concoct themselves a pea soup, and he tells how he wrapped some slices of fat pork in paper and took them with him, but the sudden surfeit of food upset his starving stomach. However, ‘I made a good seven or eight hours and reached a village to the left of the road without knowing that the Division was in it. Only Vogel was with me. I had to cling for support to several Poles, who were lodged with me in the barn, of which, however, the French broke up the greater part for firewood. They made such a tumult that I was heartily glad when we could go upon our way again at four o’cloch in the morning after another sleepless night.’
Just before the town of Moldzieczno, where the division was bivouacked, although they did not know it, they took shelter in a small copse by the roadside, where a party of ‘uncouth Württembergers’ lost no time in stealing his horse and two saddle-bags. ‘Now I shall have to get to Vilna poor and like a beggar, with my sack of bread on my back. We wandered on, for we could find no place to sleep.’
They entered Moldzieczno, and once again deliverance came when all seemed lost: ‘Plodding on with Vogel at one o’clock in the morning, behold’ In one of the streets we came upon Dietrich! What joy that the honest fellow is still alive! He had my second writing case with him too, and had managed to get my valise over the long bridge!’
Cheered by this meeting, they quartered themselves once more ‘at an inn by the roadside, and slept well enough until daylight’. Two days later they lost Dietrich once more in the crowd. Only Vogel never left the Captain’s side. ‘He always kept an eye on me; it was for him that I shouted through the crowds. How often I fell upon the icy roads; how often I could not walk at all without clinging to him, for mv legs were weak and stiff and my shoes studded with nails after the fashion of soldiers. This man has endured all things for me.’
But even Vogel could not find food where no food was to be found, nor could he cook without a pot. On December 8th the Captain wrote: ‘We were unable to prepare any food and walked on until the afternoon, when we came upon some barrels of biscuits, which were being rifled by those who passed by. Naturally we helped ourselves and took a supply for eight days. I ate without reflection and another biscuit pottage was made that evening. It was too nourishing for me and resulted in terrible diarrhoea, which made it very hard for me to go on.’
But go on he must, for ‘the Russian advance guard is forever at the heels of our insignificant rearguard, and our stragglers fall into their hands. The Cossacks, however, have now taken to plundering them completely and letting them go.’ There was no need to kill a destitute man in that cold. Eventually the Cossacks caught up with the Captain himself and once more he had a miraculous escape. They came upon him in a somewhat undignified situation for, owing to his indisposition, he had retired to the bushes by the roadside, when the troop of horsemen rode up. A Guards officer was something of a prize, and they lost no time in stripping him of his fur coat. Then, to his boundless astonishment, the Cossack stopped short, staring at one of the decorations on his chest. He summoned the others, who gathered round looking closely at the ribbon. ‘They treated me with moderation,’ he wrote afterwards, and this was true, for after they had relieved him of a little money and some pages of his diary which they found in his pockets, they mounted their horses and rode off. Somewhat dazed, the Captain stepped forth from the bushes to shout for the trembling Vogel:
‘Lord love us, sir,’ said that worthy, emerging from his hiding place, ‘I thought they had you that time, sir! Why did they let you go?’
The Knight of the Hessian Order of Merit swayed unsteadily against the shoulder of his Sergeant-Major:
‘They thought it was the Order of Vladimir,’ he said, ‘It has the same ribbon. They thought I had been decorated by their own Czar! Now, Vogel, now I really begin to believe that it must be God’s will that we should get to Vilna!’
That night he records a curiously trivial incident in a scene of horror. ‘The cords and rosettes were stolen from mv hat, when a sudden cry of “Fire!” flung into activity all the men who were packed like herrings into a single room. Our cooking pot was stolen at the same time. By turning aside from the main street of a little village I had been so fortunate as to get shelter in a room, but the usual story was repeated. The house was set alight, either because a fire had been made on the deal floor of the outhouse, or those who had not been able to get into the room had bivouacked outside and lit their fire too close. The room, in which the bake oven had been heated up, instantly became so full of smoke that anyone remaining there for a moment would have been suffocated. There was nothing left for night quarters but to fling oneself on the ground as soon as one came upon a vacant space. At least one had earth to sleep on and air to breathe.’
And there in that merciless carnage he knew what he had never known before, that somewhere there was God, and God was merciful.