Adrien Bourgogne was a seasoned veteran before the campaign of 1812, but nothing in his experience prepared him for the horrors of the infamous retreat from Moscow. Believing he was settling into comfortable winter quarters, Bourgogne found himself together with his comrades of the Vélite Fusilier - Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard - on the road to the west. Bourgogne’s account of the agonies of the Russian Winter exacerbated by hunger, brigands and the Russian enemy is graphic and without parallel. This is a story far beyond the common military memoir. It is almost surreal in its portrayal of the nightmarish scenes of the straggling column and the hellish infernos of burning towns. A memoir of war in the raw and an utterly unforgettable classic Napoleonic experience of conflict.
A corporal of our company named Gros-Jean, who came from Paris, asked me with tears in his eyes if I had seen his brother. I said no. Then he told me that he had been with him ever since the Battle of Krasnoe, as he was ill with fever; but just now, by some dreadful fatality, they had been separated. Thinking he had gone on in front, he had been inquiring of his comrades on all sides, and not finding him, he was going back over the bridge, for if he did not find him he would die. Wishing to dissuade him from such a fatal resolution, I begged him to stay with me at the head of the bridge, where we should very likely see his brother as he passed. But the poor fellow stripped off his arms and knapsack, saying that, as I had lost my own, he would make me a present of them if he did not return, and that there were plenty of muskets over at the other side. He then made as if he would go, but I stopped him. I pointed out to him the number of dead and dying already on the bridge, these last preventing others passing over by catching hold of their legs, and all rolling together in the Berezina. They appeared for a moment amongst bits of ice, only to disappear altogether and make way for others. Gros-Jean did not even hear me. Fixing his eyes on this scene of horror, he thought he perceived his brother on the bridge, struggling to clear a pathway for himself through the crowd. So, listening only to the voice of despair, he climbed over the dead bodies of men and horses which blocked up the way from the bridge,* and rushed on. Those he first met tried to thrust him back, but he was strong, and did not give way. He succeeded in reaching the unfortunate man whom he had taken for his brother; but, alas ! it was not he. I followed all his movements with my eyes. Seeing his mistake, he redoubled his efforts to reach the further end; but he was knocked over on to his back, on the edge of the bridge, and nearly thrown into the water. They walked over his body, his head, but nothing vanquished him. He collected all his strength for a new effort to rise, and seized hold of a Cuirassier’s leg, who, in his turn, got hold of another man’s arm. The Cuirassier, however, was hindered by a cloak over his shoulder; he staggered, fell, and rolled into the Berezina, dragging after him Gros-Jean and the man whose arm he held. They sank then, adding to the number of men underneath the bridge and on each side of it.
The Cuirassier and his companion disappeared under the ice; but Gros-Jean, more fortunate, had seized one of the supports of the bridge, against which he found a horse. Climbing on to the horse by his knees, he begged for help, for a long time speaking to deaf ears. Finally some engineers threw him a rope, which he was clever enough to catch and tie round his body; and thus from one support to another, over dead bodies and lumps of ice, he was drawn over to the further side. I did
not see him again; but I heard the next day that he had found his brother, a little distance off, but in a dying condition. Thus perished these two poor brothers, and also a third in the 2nd Lancers. When I got back to Paris I saw their parents, who begged me for news of their children.I left them one ray
of hope by saying that their sons had been taken prisoners, but I felt certain they died.
While these sad events were taking place, the Grenadiers of the Guard, accompanied by an officer, went round the bivouacs, asking for dry wood to warm the Emperor. Everyone willingly gave the best they had. Even dying men raised their heads to say,’Take what you can for the Emperor.’By this time it might be ten o’clock, and the second bridge, built for the cavalry and artillery, had just broken in under the weight of the latter; a number of men sank with it, and most of them perished. The disorder and confusion were thus doubly increased, for, as everyone rushed to the other bridge, it became an absolute impossibility to get across. Men, horses, carts, canteen men, with their wives and children, were all mingled in frightful disorder, crushed against each other; and in spite of the shouts of Marshal Lefebvre, who stood at the end of the bridge to keep all the order possible, he
could not remain there. He was swept on with the others and forced to cross, to avoid being suffocated or crushed to death. I had managed to get together five men of our regiment, three of whom had lost their firearms in the confusion, and I had ordered them to make a fire. I kept my eyes fixed all the time on the bridge, and saw a man in a white cloak; he was pushed by those behind him, and fell over the body of a horse stretched on the ground. With extreme difficulty he got up, staggered a few steps, fell again, rose a second time, only to fall again by our fire. He remained thus for a little while, and, thinking that he was dead, we were about to lay him on
one side and remove his cloak, when he raised his head and looked at me. It was the gunsmith of our regiment. He said sadly:
‘Ah, sergeant, what misfortunes I have had! I have lost everything—horses, carts—all I had! I have only one mule left which I brought from Spain, and I have just been forced to leave him. I was carried across the bridge, but I nearly died.’
I told him that he would be very fortunate, and ought to thank Heaven, if he got back to France alive.
So many men now crowded round our fire that we were obliged to leave it and make another some little way back. The confusion and disorder went on increasing, and reached their full height when Marshal Victor was attacked by the Russians, and shells and bullets showered thickly upon us. To complete our misery, snow began to fall and a cold wind blew. This dreadful state of things lasted all day and through the next night, and all this time the Berezina became gradually filled with ice, dead bodies of men and horses, while the bridge got blocked up with carts full of wounded men, some of which rolled over the edge into the water. Between eight and nine o’clock that evening Marshal Victor began his retreat. He and his men had to cross the bridge over a perfect mountain of corpses. On the night of the 28th-29th it was possible for all the unfortunate wretches on the opposite bank to get across, but, paralysed by the cold, they stayed behind to warm themselves by the warmth of the burning waggons, which had been set on fire on purpose to make the men go across.
I remained in the rear with seventeen men and a sergeant named Rossiere, led by one of the men, as he had become almost blind, and was shivering with fever.* I was sorry for him, and offered to lend him my bearskin to cover him, but so much snow had fallen during the night that it had saturated
the cloak. The snow then melted with the heat of the fire and dried up again. When I took hold of the skin in the morning, it was as hard as iron and useless for wearing, and I had to leave it behind. Wishing, however, to make it useful to the last, I laid it over a dying man. We had passed a wretched night. Many of the men in the Imperial Guard had died. At about seven o’clock on the morning of the 29th I went towards the bridge, hoping to find some more of our men. The unfortunate men who had not taken advantage of the night to get away had at the first appearance of dawn rushed on to the bridge, but now it was too late. Preparations were already made to
burn it down. Numbers jumped into the water, hoping to swim through the floating bits of ice, but not one reached the shore. I saw them all there in water up to their shoulders, and, overcome by the terrible cold, they all miserably perished. On the bridge was a canteen man carrying a child on his head. His wife was in front of him, crying bitterly. I could not stay any longer, it was more than I could bear. Just as I turned away, a cart containing a wounded officer fell from the bridge, with the horse also.* They next set fire to the bridge, and I have been told that scenes impossible to describe for horror then took place. The details I had witnessed were merely slight sketches of the horrible picture that followed.At this report, we expected to see half the troopers fall but, to our astonishment, not one did so, and the officer who was in advance, and who ought to have been shot in pieces, seemed to be whole and sound. His horse simply leapt to one side. He turned round again instantly towards his men; they all
thundered upon the Hessians, and in less than two minutes they were sabred. Several took to flight, but the cavalry pursued them.
At the same time Daubenton, wishing to rid himself of Mouton, called out to me to help him, but three of the men in pursuit of the Hessians passed close by him. So as to defend himself better, Daubenton thought of retiring under the waggon, where I had taken refuge, suffering terribly from colic and cold; but he had not time, for one of the three horsemen was on the point of charging him. Daubenton was fortunate enough to see the man in time, and get ready for him, but not so well as he could wish, for Mouton, barking like a good dog, hampered him in his movements. Meanwhile,
although nearly dying of cold, I felt rather better, and had arranged my right hand to make use of my weapon the best way possible, having hardly any strength left, to speak of. The man wheeled continually round Daubenton, but at a certain distance, fearing a musket-shot. Seeing that neither of
us attempted to fire, he no doubt thought that we were without powder, for he advanced upon Daubenton and hit him a blow with his sword, which the latter parried with the barrel of his musket. Instantly the man crossed to the right, and gave him a second blow upon the left shoulder, which struck Mouton on the head. The poor dog howled enough to break one’s heart. Although wounded and with frozen paws, he leapt off his master’s back to run after the man; but being fastened to
the straps of the knapsack, he pulled Daubenton down, and I thought all was over with him.
I dragged myself on my knees about two steps ahead and took aim, but the priming of my gun did not burn. Then the man, shouting savagely, threw himself on me, but I had had time to get under the waggon and present my bayonet at him.Seeing that he could do nothing to me, he returned to Daubenton, who had not yet been able to rise on account of Mouton, who all the time dragged him sideways, howling and barking after the cavalry. Daubenton was dragged against the shafts of the waggon, so that his enemy on horseback could not get near him. This man faced Daubenton, his sword raised as if to split him in two, appearing all the while to mock at him.
Daubenton, although half dead with cold and hunger, his face thin, pale, and blackened by the bivouac fires, still seemed full of energy; but he looked odd and really comical, as that devil
of a dog was barking all the time, and dragging him sideways. His eyes were shining, his mouth foamed with rage at being at the mercy of such an enemy, who in any other circumstances
would not have dared stand up one minute before him. To quench his thirst, I saw him fill his hand with snow and carry it to his mouth, and instantly seize his weapon again; now in his turn he threatened his enemy.
By the man’s shouts and gestures, one could see that he had no command over himself, and seemed to have drunk a great deal of brandy. We saw the others passing, repassing, and shouting round some men who had not been able to reach the side where the rear-guard would come; we saw them thrown into the snow and trampled under the horses feet, for almost all who followed were without arms, wounded, or with frozen feet and hands. Others, who were stronger, as well as some Hessians escaped from the first charge, were able to withstand them for a little, but that could not last, either—they must be relieved or captured. The cavalryman with whom my old comrade was doing
business had just passed to the left, when Daubentos shouted out tome:’Don’t be frightened! don’t stir! I’ll finish him off.’Scarcely had he said these words, when he fired. He was luckier than I. The Cuirassier was struck by a ball which entered under the right arm first, and passed out again on the
left side. He uttered a savage cry, moved convulsively, and at the same moment his sword fell with the arm that held it. Then a stream of blood came from his mouth, his body fell forward over his horse’s head, and in this position he remained as if dead. Hardly was Daubenton rid of his enemy and free from Mouton so as to seize the horse, when we heard behind us a great noise, then cries of ‘Forward! Fix bayonets!’ I came out of my waggon, looked towards the side from which the cries came, and saw Marshal Ney, musket in hand, running up at the head of a party of the rear-guard.