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Napoleon’s Campaign in Russia 1812

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Napoleon’s Campaign in Russia 1812
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Author(s): Achilles Rose
Date Published: 2013/01
Page Count: 148
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-991-7
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-990-0

A different perspective on the annihilation of an army

All students of the Napoleonic era know that the Emperor marched the ‘Grande Army’ of nearly 430,000 men across the Niemen and eastwards into Russia. After the pyrrhic victory of Borodino the French occupied Moscow in the expectation of wintering behind the comfort of its walls in readiness for the reopening of campaigning weather the following spring. The Russians were determined to deny them that luxury and set Moscow ablaze before retreating farther into the vastness of their land, adopting a scorched earth policy that stripped the countryside of anything useful to their enemy. Napoleon realised that his position was untenable and that retreat was inevitable. The Grande Army had already been reduced to 100,000 men simply to arrive a this hopeless position. As winter—the Russian’s best ally—closed in, the temperature plummeted to extremes even by Russian standards. Fatigue, hypothermia, starvation and disease added to the destruction of the invading army and silently aided the harrowing Cossacks to increase the death toll. By the time the French reached the River Berezina their numbers had been reduced to 50,000 men and after the disasters of its crossing to half that number. Only 10,000 French and allied soldiers arrived back at their starting point, where the army had seemed to be a conquering force of unstoppable size and capability. Very few of the survivors belonged to the column that had marched all the way to Moscow and back again. Achilles Rose’s book takes the reader on this terrible campaign and adds new insights to the already familiar story; usefully the author draws upon the experiences of soldiers from the smaller German allied states and this gives his narrative a different and interesting perspective. Rose has also studied the true causes of the total destruction of Napoleon’s Army which had little to do with bullets, bayonets or cannon-balls. In fact close examination of medical and logistical issues persuaded Rose that this was an ‘army of the doomed’ from the first day of its march. An absolutely essential account in every way—and highly recommended.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.

In the streets one met with none but sick and wounded men asking for hospitals, soldiers of every sort, of every nation, going and coming, some of them trying to find a place where provisions were sold or distributed; others taciturn, incapable of any effort, absorbed by grief, half dead with cold, awaiting their last hour. On all sides there were complaints and groans, dead and dying soldiers, all of which presented a picture that was still further darkened by the ruinous aspect of the city.<br>
At Smolensk Beaupré himself had a narrow escape from freezing to death; he narrates:<br>
During the frightful night when we left Smolensk I felt much harassed; toward 5 in the morning, a feeling of lassitude impelled me to stop and rest. I sat down on the trunk of a birch, beside eight frozen corpses, and soon experienced an inclination to sleep, to which I yielded the more willingly as at that moment it seemed delicious. Fortunately I was aroused from that incipient somnolency—which infallibly would have brought on torpor—by the cries and oaths of two soldiers who were violently striking a poor exhausted horse that had fallen down.<br>
I emerged from that state with a sort of shock.<br>
The sight of what was beside me strongly recalled to my mind the danger to which I exposed myself; I took a little brandy and started to run to remove the numbness of my legs, the coldness and insensibility of which were as if they had been immersed in an iced bath.<br>
He then describes his experience in similar cases:<br>
It happened three or four times that I assisted some of those unfortunates who had just fallen and began to doze, to rise again and endeavoured to keep them in motion after having given them a little sweetened brandy.<br>
It was in vain; they could neither advance nor support themselves, and they fell again in the same place, where of necessity they had to be abandoned to their unhappy lot. Their pulse was small and imperceptible. Respiration, infrequent and scarcely sensible in some, was attended in others by complaints and groans. Sometimes the eyes were open, fixed, dull, wild, and the brain was seized by a quiet delirium; in other instances the eyes were red and manifested a transient excitement of the brain; there was marked delirium in these cases. Some stammered incoherent words, others had a reserved and convulsive cough. In some blood flowed from the nose and ears; they agitated their limbs as if groping.<br>
(This description of Beaupré complements the account given by von Scherer.)<br>
Many had their hands, feet, and ears frozen. A great many were mortally stricken when obliged to stop to relieve nature; the arrival of that dreaded moment was in fact very embarrassing, on account of the danger of exposing oneself to the air as well as owing to the numbness of the fingers which rendered them unable to readjust the clothes. . . . And they travelled day and night, often without knowing where they were.<br>
Ultimately they were obliged to stop, and, complaining, shivering, forced to lie down in the woods, on the roads, in ditches, at the bottom of ravines, often without fire, because they had no wood at hand, nor strength enough to go and cut some in the vicinity; if they succeeded in lighting one, they warmed themselves as they could, and fell asleep without delay.<br>
The first hours of sleep were delightful, but, alas! they were merely the deceitful precursor of death that was waiting for them.<br>
The fire at length became extinct for want of attention or owing to the great blast. Instead of finding safety in the sweets of sleep, they were seized and benumbed by cold, and never saw daylight again. . . . <br>
I have seen them sad, pale, despairing, without arms, staggering, scarce able to sustain themselves, their heads hanging to the right or left, their extremities contracted, setting their feet on the coals, lying down on hot cinders, or falling into the fire, which they sought mechanically, as if by instinct.<br><br>************<br><br>About a mile and a half from Wiasma the enemy appeared to the left of the road, and his fire happened to strike the midst of the tail of the army, composed of disbanded soldiers without arms, with wounded and sick among them, and women and children. Every artillery discharge of the Russians caused frightful cries and a frightful commotion in the helpless mass.<br>
And the rear guard, in trying to make them advance, ill-treated them, the soldiers who had clung to the flag assumed the right to despise those who, either voluntarily or under compulsion, had abandoned it.<br>
Of the old generals of Davout some had been killed, Friant was so severely wounded that he could not be about, Compans had been wounded in the arm, Moraud in the head, but these two, the former with one arm in a sling, the other with a bandaged head, were on horseback, surrounding the marshal commanding the first corps which had been reduced to 15 thousand from 20 thousand at Moshaisk, from 28 thousand in Moscow, and from 72 thousand crossing the Niemen. The remaining 15 thousand were all old warriors whose iron constitution had triumphed.<br>
The Battle of Wiasma took place on the 2nd of November. The Russians under Miloradovitch had 100 cannon, whereas the French under Ney, Davout, and the wounded generals named above, had only forty. This day cost the French 1,500 to 1,800 men in killed and wounded, and, as mentioned, these were of the oldest and best; the loss of the Russians was twice that number, but their wounded were not lost, while it was impossible to save a single one of the French, for the latter had no attendance at all; the cold being very severe it killed them, and those who did not perish by the frost were put to death by the cruel, ferocious Russian peasants.<br>
Entering Wiasma at night, nothing in the way of provisions was found; the guard and the corps which had been there before the battle had devoured everything. No provisions were left of those taken along from Moscow. The army passed a sombre and bitter cold night in a forest; great fires were lighted, horse meat was roasted, and the soldiers of Prince Eugene and of Marshal Davout, especially the latter who had been on their feet for three days, slept profoundly around great camp-fires. During two weeks they had been on duty to cover the retreat and during this time had lost more than one half of their number.<br>
Napoleon arrived at Dorogobouge on November 5th, the Prince Eugene on the 6th, the other corps on the 7th and 8th.<br>
Until then the frost had been severe but not yet fatal. All of a sudden, on the 9th, the weather changed, and there was a terrible snow-storm.<br>
On their way to Moscow the regiments had traversed Poland during a suffocating heat and had left their warm clothing in the magazines.<br>
Some soldiers had taken furs with them from Moscow, but had sold them to their officers.<br>
Well nourished, they could have stood the frost, but living on a little flour diluted with water, on horse meat roasted at the camp fire, sleeping on the ground without shelter, they suffered frightfully. We shall later on speak more in detail of the miserable clothing.<br>
The first snow which had been falling after they had left Dorogobouge had seriously increased the general misery. Except among the soldiers of the rear guard which had been commanded with inflexible firmness by Davout, and which was now led by Ney, the sense of duty began to be lost by almost all soldiers.<br>
As we have learned, all the wounded had to be left to their fate, and soldiers who had been charged to escort Russian prisoners relieved themselves of their charge by shooting these prisoners dead.