An essential first hand account of a French officer of the First Empire
Napoleon, at the height of his unstoppable hubris, attacked Russia and marched his Grande Armee thousands of miles towards its capital, fighting the costly Battle of Borodino before achieving his ambition, only to find it nothing but a hollow and barren victory. Moscow was deliberately set ablaze and the Russians, well aware of the huge strategic advantage the massive size of their homeland was, adopted a scorched earth policy, retreated and waited for their greatest ally—winter—to join the fray. Napoleon’s position was untenable, and so began the slow, agonising nightmare of the retreat which would only be completed by a small number of those who had marched eastwards. In the account of Sergeant Bourgogne (also available as a Leonaur edition) we have a brilliant and graphic account of that terrible time recounted by one who experienced it. In fact, it would be fair to say that Bourgogne’s has became ‘the’ account of the retreat, but it is not the only one. This first hand account by Raymond Fezensac also takes the reader through those events in the most memorable way. Fezensac began the campaign as an aide de camp, but as able officers fell, he was required to take up the command of the 4th Regiment of Infantry of the Line as its Colonel. It was clearly a post he relished and his descriptions of his men and the manner in which he led them through action after action speak of his pride, affection and courage. The march of the 4th soon became one of survival and Fezensac worked tirelessly to meet every challenge—the pursuing Russians, the weather, starvation and fatigue—to bring as many of them home as possible. In the end it was to be, of course, pitifully few of them, but this book nonetheless remains an incredible inspirational account of endeavour under adversity. This book has previously appeared under this title in English appended to a substantial work of history of the campaign written by W. Knollys—clearly a work of distinct parts, but one where the history overshadowed the first hand account. By publishing Fezensac’s words in their own right we trust will bring them the focus they properly warrant.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
Two pieces of cannon were placed in battery at the entrance of the lower street, and were protected by a party of the 4th regiment; on the left was a company of the 18th regiment, posted on a bridge of the Dnieper; on a height to the right, and in front of a church, were 100 men of the 4th, commanded by a major; the remainder of the division was in the court of the “château,” situated on the same height; the first division was in reserve in rear of the town. Soon after these dispositions were made the enemy’s infantry arrived and commenced their attack; the bridge was taken, and the post of the church driven in. General Razout, enclosed with the rest of his division within the court of the château and acting with his usual indecision, was on the point of being surrounded, when he at last gave us the order to advance; there was not a moment to lose.<br>
I led on my regiment at the charge, and we rushed on our enemy, who was occupying the heights of the town. The affair was sharp; the nature of the ground, and the snow, into which we sunk above our knees, obliged the entire regiment to extend in skirmishing order, and to engage in detached parties. The progress of the Russians was arrested, but the enemy soon penetrated anew into the lower town; and General Razout, fearing lest he should be cut off, ordered a retreat I fell back slowly, forming my men up from time to time, and showing a front towards the enemy. The 18th regiment, who supported us, conformed to our movement, and the two regiments, leaving the enemy master of the town, finally effected their formation in rear of the 1st division.<br>
Marshal Ney, dissatisfied with the bad success of his plan, vented his anger on General Razout, General Joubert, and all the world. He maintained that the enemy was not in sufficient strength to have thus driven us out of Dorogobuje, and questioned me respecting the amount of their force. I was satisfied with replying that we were too close to be able to count. Before deciding or leaving his ground, he ordered General d’Hénin again to enter the lower town with the 93rd regiment, and recapture some ammunition wagons.<br>
The regiment was scarcely put in motion when the Russian artillery carried disorder into its ranks and obliged it to retire. Marshal Ney, compelled to abandon further endeavours, took the route to Smolensko.<br>
In the meantime, the privations to which we had been exposed from the commencement of retreat, were daily becoming more severe. The small remains of provisions which we still possessed were on the point of being exhausted. The horses which had drawn them were dying of fatigue and hunger, and were themselves devoured by the famishing soldiers. From the time that we had commenced the duties of the rear-guard, every man who had ventured to stray from the line of march in search of provisions had fallen into the hands of the enemy, whose pursuit had daily become more active. The severity of the cold had increased our difficulties and our sufferings. Many soldiers, overcome by their fatigues, threw away their arms and quitted their ranks to march independently.<br>
They halted wherever they found a bit of wood wherewith to cook a morsel of horseflesh or a little flour, if, indeed, their comrades did not carry off from them this last resource—for our soldiers, famishing, hesitated not to seize by force the provisions of every isolated man they came across, and the latter considered themselves lucky if their clothes also were not torn from off their backs. After having ravaged the whole country, we were thus reduced to destroy ourselves. Necessity had brought this last extremity upon us. At all costs we were bound to preserve those soldiers who had remained faithful to their colours, and who, performing their duty on the rear-guard, bore the brunt of the enemy’s attacks, and still resisted his efforts.<br>
On the other hand, those stragglers who had quitted the ranks and their regiments, and who had put it out of their own power to be any longer of use, had certainly no claim on our pity. Thus our route resembled a field of battle. Those who had resisted cold and fatigue fell beneath the extremity of hunger. Those who had preserved a little food had not the strength left to march, and fell into the enemy’s hand. Some had their limbs frostbitten, and died stretched on the snow. Others fell asleep in the villages, and perished in the flames lighted by their own companions. At Dorogobuje, I witnessed the effect which hunger had produced on a soldier of my own regiment. It was like that of drunkenness. He was among us without recognising us; he was seeking his regiment; he named the men of his own company, and addressed them as strangers; his step was tottering, his look wild; he disappeared at the beginning of the action, and I never saw him afterwards.