Napoleonic Literature
Memoirs of Baron Lejeune
Volume II, Chapter VII


VIASMA – KRASNOE – THE BERESINA DISASTER – THE EMPEROR LEAVES THE ARMY – WILNA


It became momentarily more difficult to reassure our soldiers on the subject of this loss of time and retrograde movement. On the second day of our retreat for the Mojaisk road, that is to say on October 26, a fine cold rain set in, which damped every one’s spirits yet more, and greatly increased the difficulties of the march. Once more we saw a fine castle, which looked as if it would provide us with a comfortable shelter, but we had no sooner entered it than fire broke out, and that before our people had lit a match. We found the incendiary apparatus, which had been left in position by the owner, but too late to extinguish the flames. Our troops were already beginning to suffer from dysentery through insufficient and badly cooked food, a few cakes and a little poor soup being all they had even now. The sick who were unable to march with the rest were abandoned on the road. Meanwhile Marshal Mortier rejoined us at Verea with the two divisions of the Young Guard; he had accomplished the melancholy task assigned to him of blowing up the Kremlin, against which his noble soul had revolted. Before leaving Moscow some of Mortier’s troops took prisoner one of our bitterest enemies, the Russian Lieutenant-General Vintzingerode, and he was being taken to the Emperor, when he had the good fortune to make his escape.

On the 27th the advanced guard of the army re-entered Mojaisk, still encumbered with the wounded left behind after the battle of Borodino, and on the 28th the rearguard arrived. How painful and touching was the meeting with our unfortunate wounded, to whom we now returned with none of the comforts or the cheering news which they expected us to bring them! All we could offer them was an exhortation to resignation; we dared not tell them that we were about to abandon them once more, this time finally, and we were ourselves slowly beginning to face the fact that their terrible lot would most probably soon be our own. Wherever we passed, every refuge still left standing was crowded with wounded, and at Kolinskoy alone there were more than 2,000. Hitherto we had only been pursued by a few Cossacks, but every day their numbers increased, and they became more aggressive. Just before we left Kolinskoy on the 30th, wishing to reconnoitre the enemy on the plain, I was walking along the terrace of a convent, when I suddenly found myself in the presence of about a hundred Cossacks, who were like myself approaching to reconnoitre. When they caught sight of me they at first took to flight; but seeing that I was alone, they returned, and I had only just time to mount and gallop off to rejoin our troops, who had started and were already some distance off. Here and there we passed carriages left on the road because the starved horses, exhausted with fatigue, had fallen down. The few which could be made to get up again were at once harnessed to the wagons containing some of the wounded, but they all died after dragging their new burdens for a few steps only. Then the wounded were in their turn abandoned, and as we rode away we turned aside our heads that we might not see their despairing gestures, whilst our hearts were torn by their terrible cries, to which we tried in vain to shut our ears. If our own condition was pitiable, how much more so was theirs with nothing before them but death from starvation, from cold, or from the weapons of the Russians! The 30th was a sad and terribly long day, for we had to march nearly all night in intense cold, the severest we had yet had to encounter, it being important that we should arrive at Giatz before the enemy, who were pushing on rapidly by cross roads in the hope of getting there first.

The first corps arrived at Giatz on the 31st, and a few hours afterwards the Russians appeared in great force. The next day, November 1, they tried to force a passage through our troops, and having failed they had to be content with hotly cannonading one of our big convoys which had been considerably delayed, and was defiling near the entrance to the town just in front of the enemy’s guns. The balls wrought terrible havoc in this convoy of ours, and amongst the carriages was that in which I had sent my sister on in advance. I was fortunate enough to be able to save her. The coachman assured me that the three horses were still fresh and in first-rate condition, so I said to my sister, ‘Dare you face the guns?’ She replied trembling, ‘I will do what you tell me.’ I at once turned to the coachman with the words, ‘Cross that meadow at a gallop; the balls will go over your head, and you will succeed in getting in front of the rest of the convoy. You will then be able to push on without stopping.’ He followed my advice and with the best results, for my sister got off unhurt. The convoy consisted of some hundreds of badly harnessed carriages, containing many wounded, with the wives and children of several French merchants of Moscow, who were flying the country after having been robbed of their all by the Russians. The company of the Théâtre Français of Moscow had also joined this party, the unlucky actors little dreaming of the terrible tragedy in which they were to play their part through placing themselves under our protection, so soon, alas! to avail them nothing.

On November 2 snow began to fall, and there were already eight or nine degrees of frost. The various divisions of the first corps took it in turns to act as rearguard, and on that day it was the turn of the Gérard division, with which we had passed the night in a wood beneath the snowflakes. The effects of the great cold were already disastrous; many men were so benumbed at the moment for departure as to be unable to rise, and we were obliged to abandon them.

We reached Viasma on November 3 at the same time as the Russians, whose advanced guard was checked by Marshal Ney’s troops drawn up in front of them. It was evident that a battle must take place here, and every preparation was made on both sides. The French troops in a position to take part in it numbered about 30,000 or 40,000, whilst the Russians had two corps consisting together of more than 60,000 men. Marshal Davout’s and the Viceroy’s corps, with the Poles under Prince Poniatowski, were successively engaged, and for a long time exposed to an overwhelming fire from a strong body of artillery with horses better harnessed and in far better condition than ours, which were too worn out for manœuvring. The first corps and that under Prince Eugène became separated from each other twice, and were both for a time in very critical positions. Fortunately Marshal Ney was able to send a regiment to the rear of the Russian army, which threw it into confusion, and Generals Kutusoff, Miloradowich, Platoff, and Suvoroff, who had hoped to make us lay down our arms, stopped the pursuit, though fifty pieces of cannon still poured out their fire upon our luckless convoys, which were defiling past during the battle. Many men were lost on both sides here as elsewhere, for our soldiers were still undaunted, and nearly every shot from us told in the Russian ranks, which were more numerous and more closely serried than ours.

Marshal Ney, whose turn it was to act as rearguard, now protected the Viasma pass, and the French army marched towards Dorogobouj. After having passed the night of the 3rd and the day of the 4th on the road, we halted in the evening in a pine forest on the borders of a frozen lake not far from the Castle of Czarkovo, where the Emperor had been for two days. On the 5th the first corps took up its position at Semlevo, so as to let that of Marshal Ney pass on, it being our turn now to be rearguard. The Cossacks harassed us greatly, and many of our stragglers, whose numbers increased every day, fell into their hands. We now also made out on our flanks numerous columns of Russian cavalry and artillery, which were trying to pass us so as to await us at the entrance to the pass on this side of Dorogobouj. Marshal Ney foresaw this danger, and instead of going through the pass he halted near it for us to come up. Thanks to his forethought and support, we only suffered from a slack cannonade and reached Dorogobouj safely.

Leaving that place on the 6th we made a long march, and at nightfall we camped in a large wood, where General Jouffroy had been obliged to halt with the badly harnessed and damaged artillery under his care. We spent the night in packing the wagons which were still in a fit state to proceed, blowing up those we had to abandon, and burning the gun-carriages we could not take with us. These explosions, which were now of very frequent occurrence, were signals of our misfortunes, and affected us much as the tolling of the bell at her child’s funeral would some bereaved mother.

General Jouffroy had had a tent pitched, and invited me to share its shelter and his supper. A supper! Good heavens! what a luxurious treat in the midst of our misery!

I had a new experience at that supper. Hitherto a few cows had still remained to the staff, and I had not been reduced to eating horseflesh. But now the General had nothing to offer me but a repast of horseflesh so highly spiced that in spite of its toughness and the coarse veins, which resisted the efforts of the sharpest teeth to masticate them, it really tasted not unlike what the French call bœuf à la mode. Generally horseflesh is so black, and its gravy is so yellow and insipid, so very like liquid sulphur, that it looks most repulsive, but we quite enjoyed our meal, washed down as it was by a flask of good wine which had belonged to some great man of Moscow.

For a long time the only meat our soldiers ever tasted had been horseflesh, and the poor fellows were so brutalised by misery and famine that they often did not wait till an animal was dead to cut it up and carry off the fleshy portions. When a horse stumbled and fell, no one tried to help it up, but numbers of soldiers at once flung themselves upon it, and cut open its side to get at the liver, which is the least repulsive part. They would not even put it out of its misery first, and I have actually seen them angry at the poor beast’s last struggles to escape its butchers, and heard them cry, ‘Keep quiet, will you, you rogue?’

The numbers of the stragglers increased in a perfectly appalling way; they stopped in crowds to roast a few shreds of horseflesh, and the French, who must always have their joke whatever their misery, called the tattered wretches the fricoteurs or revellers.

During the night of the 6th and the day of the 7th, a heavy fall of snow drifting before a strong wind rendered our march extremely arduous. We were often unable to see two paces before us, but all the time the balls from the enemy were ploughing up the ground, and every now and then a few victims fell. No one had the heart to stop to help those who were struck, for the most selfish egotism crushed all kindly feeling in almost every breast. It was in a state of bodily and mental torpor that we reached Pnevo on one of the tributaries of the Dnieper, a very difficult river to cross. To protect its passage during our occupation of the country, we had had a big log hut built surrounded by a weak earthwork. This little redoubt was the only shelter which had not been burnt on the long road we were traversing, and the first corps halted there to pass the night. It was built in the same way as the huts of the peasants, with big squared trunks of trees laid horizontally on each other, forming walls almost impervious to balls, but not more than fifty people could get inside, so that the rest of the troops had to camp around it. The heavy snow and the bitter wind prevented us from going to get fuel, for there were no trees near, and every one suffered terribly from cold during the night.

In our halts we always faced the north. The Viceroy, who was marching on our left, met with the greatest difficulties, for he had counted on finding a bridge over the Wop, but this bridge was broken, so that he had to cross by the ford, and the water was all frozen over. His artillery and baggage stuck fast in the mud on the banks, and he was compelled to abandon them.

General Rapp and several other officers came to share our small quarters, where we were all very closely packed together. At nine o’clock the next morning when we left our shelter we found the ground near the wretched little redoubt encumbered with poor fellows, who, after having with infinite trouble managed to light fires, had been overcome with the cold, and burnt by flying sparks though covered with snow. Many of them were never to rise again from the spot on which they had fallen. Before we left we had the log hut burnt down.

The coating of ice on the roads made them so slippery that men and horses could scarcely keep their feet. My horse fell with me, and I was so much hurt that I could not remount, and I went to share Marshal Davout’s wurst 1 or ambulance wagon, drawn by a very strong pair of cobs, which galloped along on the ice as easily as others would on turf.

1 The wurst was an open ambulance waggon, now no longer in use. – Trans.

Having burnt the bridge behind us, we imagined ourselves to be in security for the rest of the day. But when we halted for the first time about noon, we heard a brisk firing a short distance off, which evidently came from the twelve-pounders of our own park of artillery. This made the Marshal both uneasy and angry, and he sent for the officer in command of the artillery. He came hurrying up with a smile on his face, as if he were the bearer of good news. Davout, however, frowning at him from his wurst, accosted him roughly with the words, ‘So it’s you, you scoundrel, who have dared to fire my reserve guns without orders from me!’ Greatly surprised at this address, the officer had the presence of mind to pretend not to know to whom Davout was speaking, and after looking about him, he said as he set spurs to his horse to return to his post, ‘Surely that language cannot be addressed to me!’ A few minutes later we learnt that some 1,200 Cossacks had flung themselves upon the big park of artillery, but when the commanding officer halted he had prudently prepared his guns for action and formed squares to guard against a cavalry charge, so that when that charge was made a volley of grapeshot from thirty guns overthrew one half of the assailants and put the other half to flight. I now once more entreated the Marshal, as I had so often done before, to choose another chief of the staff, pointing out to him that half our aides-de-camp and commissaries were already killed or taken prisoners, and that I really could not do all the work he required alone. He, however, begged me to remain, with a politeness which was so truly remarkable from him, that General Haxo maliciously asked me, ‘Whatever have you done to the Marshal? He must be very fond of you, for I never saw him pet any one as he does you.’

On this same eventful 9th of November we re-entered Smolensk, where the Emperor received news of the Malet and Lahorie conspiracy at Paris,1 and of the check received by the corps which he had ordered to debouch on his flanks. The tidings from Spain were not of a kind to afford him any consolation, for there was no unity of purpose or of action amongst the French Generals there, a fact by which the enemy was not slow to profit. The Emperor, fearing lest discouragement should spread through the ranks of our retreating army, pretended to be quite unmoved by all this distressing news. He wanted to appear superior to every adversity and ready to face calmly every event, however untoward, but his assumed indifference was misinterpreted and had a bad effect.

1 This conspiracy all but succeeded in overthrowing the Imperial Government; Malet, who had escaped from prison, where he was confined for participation in the plot of 1801, having circulated the news of Napoleon’s death, and forged a decree of the Senate. He was, however, taken prisoner by Laborde, and shot, with Lahorie and other traitors to the Emperor, on October 29, 1812. – Trans.

We no longer had a smithy for rough-shoeing our horses, so that they nearly all fell and were too weak to get up again. Our cavalry was thus completely destroyed, and the dismounted men even flung away their weapons, which their fingers were too frozen to hold. Some 300 officers, who had lost all their men, then proposed forming themselves into a kind of picked corps, ready to fight together on every emergency; but with them, as with the common soldiers, strength and discipline soon gave way, and what might have been a noble band, bound together by misfortune, fell to pieces in a few days without having rendered the slightest service to any one.

We camped for the night of the 10th on the banks of the Dnieper, beside the bridge where General Gudin had been killed. Our bivouac fires were soon surrounded by those of the numerous stragglers who had met here. Their appearance would have torn our hearts if we had not already been reduced to the level of the brutes, without the power of feeling compassion. Many of the poor wretches, who were all without weapons, were wearing silk pelisses trimmed with fur, or women’s clothes of all manner of colours, which they had snatched from the flames of Moscow or taken from carriages abandoned by the way. These garments, which were fuller and looser than those of men, were a better protection from the cold. Some also wore the clothes of their comrades who had died on the road.

Numbed with cold and famishing with hunger, those who had been unable to make a fire would creep up to their more fortunate comrades and plead for a little share in the warmth, but no one dreamt of sacrificing any of the hardly won heat for the sake of another. The new arrivals would remain standing behind those seated for a little while, and then, too weak to support themselves longer, they would stagger and fall. Some would sink on to their knees, others into a sitting posture, and this was always the beginning of the end. The next moment they would stretch out their weary limbs, raise their dim and faded eyes to heaven, and as froth issued from their mouths their lips would quiver with a happy smile, as if some divine consolation had soothed their dying agony. Often before the last breath was drawn, and even as the failing limbs stretched themselves out with an appearance of heavenly calm, some other poor wretch, who had been standing by, would seat himself upon the still heaving breast of his dying comrade, to remain resting upon the corpse with his living weight until, generally very little later, his own turn should come, and he also, finding himself too weak to rise, should yield up his breath. The horror of it all was but slightly shrouded by the falling snow, and we had to witness this kind of thing for yet another thirty days!

The first corps entered Smolensk on the 11th, and remained there till the 16th. The interval was employed in distributing to the troops the few provisions and clothes which had been collected in the storehouses by order of the Emperor,1 and in seeing off for Wilna all the convoys which could still be supplied with horses.

1 Large quantities of food and clothing had been brought together at Smolensk, but there was some mistake about their distribution, and many men got too much, whilst others received nothing. – Trans.

The Imperial Guard, which was always held in reserve, had fought very little and lost fewer men than any of the other corps. The Emperor still owned in that Guard a force of from 3,000 to 4,000 men in good fighting condition, but these troops, though the discipline to which they had to submit was much less severe than that enforced in the rest of the army, really suffered quite as much as we did. The Emperor had their affection for him very much at heart, and in the friendly familiar way which he knew would please them he used sometimes to go amongst them, and pulling the long moustaches, all stiff with ice, of one or another, he would say, ‘Ah, old Grognards,2 you may count on me as I count on my Guard to fulfil the high destiny to which they are called.’ These few words would at once restore the confidence of the brave fellows in their chief, and to the end of the journey the Emperor was always surrounded by them.

2 The Grognards was the popular name given to the Old Guard of Napoleon I. – Trans.

We had still more than 120 leagues to cross between Smolensk and the Niemen. There were already from 12 to 15 degrees of frost, and the cold was still increasing. The roads grew worse every day, and there was too little of everything at Smolensk for the four days’ halt to have done much to recruit the exhausted strength of the troops, or to restore anything like order in the disorganised army. My chief, the Prince of Eckmühl (Marshal Davout), who, as the Emperor justly remarked, was a man of iron constitution, was very exacting, and expected the Staff accounts to be written up every day just as in times of peace. Now all my assistants but one had disappeared, and I therefore again tendered my resignation. Just as we were leaving Smolensk, the Emperor consented to my leaving Davout, and named Charpentier, a general of division just removed from the Government of Smolensk, to take my place. That general, however, being not at all anxious to take up a task of which he knew the difficulties, evaded appearing at his post for ten or twelve days, so that I had to go on doing the work of the chief of the Staff without the title or pay.

Before he left Smolensk the Emperor ordered Marshal Ney to remain there until the 17th, when he was to blow up the fortifications. He also told him that his corps was to act as rearguard after the departure of the 1st corps, which was to precede him by one day and await him at the Krasnoe ravine. This ravine, which was a very difficult pass, had been encumbered for nine days with carriages, many of which were being burnt to clear the way.

The Viceroy’s corps, now reduced to 1,200 or 1,500 men, which was marching in advance of ours, had been greatly harassed ever since leaving Smolensk by some 12,000 or 14,000 Russians, with a strong force of artillery mounted on sledges. The Emperor and his Guard had waited at the entrance to the terrible defile for the Viceroy to come up with his corps and protect his passage through it, and he now determined not to enter it until the arrival of the first corps also, which had not been able to leave Smolensk until two o’clock in the morning of Monday, the 16th. During this halt Napoleon learnt that the enemy was advancing in force upon Orcha to intercept the passage of the Dnieper, and had massed a large number of troops in the village of Kourkovo, not far from us. The Young Guard, commanded by General Roguet, whose gallant audacity was well known to the Emperor, had joined him during the day, and Napoleon now sent him to create a diversion in the night by attacking the enemy’s corps which was causing us so much uneasiness.

The 1st corps, which had been the 4th under the Viceroy, was terribly harassed all through the march on the 16th by numerous Cossacks with artillery. When darkness fell the attacks lessened, and we availed ourselves of the reprieve by marching all night towards the Krasnoe pass. With the first gleams of light on the 17th, however, we found ourselves threatened by great masses of Russian infantry and cavalry struggling to surround us and make us lay down our arms; and though they did not venture actually to attack us, the fire from their guns wrought great havoc amongst us. Again and again our little army, reduced to 4,000 men bearing arms, but hampered by numerous stragglers, halted to face the enemy and await Marshal Ney, who was to cover our retreat. On this occasion I had a fresh opportunity of admiring the courage and sang-froid of General Compans. Severely wounded in the shoulder, and suffering greatly, he was compelled, like most of us, to march on foot. This, however, did not prevent him from facing the enemy with a smiling face and as unruffled a calm as if he were walking about in his own garden at home. The sight of his happy face and composed demeanour had the best results on his soldiers, giving them a sense of security, and leading them to imitate their general’s stoicism.

Our position at Krasnoe was, however, anything but pleasant. Surrounded by enemies ten times as numerous as ourselves, we could not imagine how it was that Marshal Ney, whom we supposed to be just behind us, had not managed to beat off at least some of them. We fought steadily, hoping every moment to see him appear. But the enemy’s cannonade became hotter and hotter, making terrible gaps in our ranks, and the snow, which had been falling heavily ever since the evening before, added to our difficulties, rendering our situation all but desperate. The Emperor, who was becoming very anxious about our fate, generously turned back and came to meet us, cutting a passage through our assailants at the head of the Old Guard, and meeting Marshal Davout’s advanced guard beyond Krasnoe.

Meanwhile nothing had been heard of Ney and the rearguard with him, but it turned out afterwards that on leaving Smolensk the Marshal, with the few troops still remaining to him, had been immediately pursued by thousands of the enemy, who poured such a hot fire into his already diminished ranks from every side, that after three days’ continuous struggle he was compelled to abandon the attempt to cut through the enemy’s forces, and to deviate from the main road to Krasnoe, where we were so anxiously awaiting him. When darkness was beginning he found himself far away from us, with the Dnieper between him and safety. He took up a position parallel with the river, and allowed his troops to light their bivouac fires. Kutusoff, who had followed Ney, now looked upon him as his certain prey, for he could see no way of escape for him, and sent an officer with a flag of truce to summon him to surrender.

The envoy, who performed his mission with the greatest politeness, was received with assumed courtesy, and detained on various pretexts whilst the Marshal was having the depth of the river sounded, and the strength of the ice on it tested. He was told that several men had gone over to the other bank and returned safely. He then ordered the throwing of fresh fuel on the fires, as if he had decided to remain where he was, and telling the envoy that he would have to accompany him, he gave the signal for crossing the river, instructing his subordinates to make the men go over in single file, and to keep well away from each other. Everything – artillery, baggage, even wounded – which would have hindered the safe crossing or broken the ice, was abandoned on the banks.1 The transit was accomplished without accident, and at daybreak on the 18th the Marshal was several leagues from the further bank, but he was now attacked by a considerable body of Cossacks under Platoff, but he managed to fight his way through them,2 though he had none but infantry with him, and after three days’ march along the winding banks of the river, his rear harassed perpetually by Bashkirs and Tartars, who picked off and ill treated all stragglers, Ney at last rejoined the Emperor at Orcha.

1 This crossing of the Dnieper was one of the most brilliant feats achieved by the French in this or any campaign. The story of its accomplishment is variously told by eye-witnesses, but all agree that but for its successful performance the whole of the rearguard would have been cut to pieces or taken prisoners by the Russians. – Trans.

2 Marbot says that Platoff was in a drunken sleep when the French came up, and that, discipline in the Russian army being very strict, no one ventured to wake him or to stand to arms without his orders, and that it was to this circumstance that the Marshal owed the final escape of his little body of men. – Trans.

In the struggle at Krasnoe, which lasted the whole day and in which we were exposed to a terrible artillery fire, my servant was wounded by grapeshot, and the two saddle horses he was leading were killed, whilst that on which he was mounted was very badly hurt. I thought the poor animal would certainly die of his awful wound, but, strange to say, he was the only one of all my horses to live to reach the Vistula. He was, in fact, quite well again when he was taken by the enemy at the gates of Thorn, and my poor servant was killed. With the horses I lost the furs they were carrying for my use, and nothing was left to me to protect me from the cold but a silk waterproof cloak, which turned out much more useful than I could have imagined, for it kept out the cold, and prevented my own animal heat, little as it was, from escaping.

As the day wore on at Krasnoe, and Ney did not appear, the anxiety of the Emperor and the army became more and more intense. Napoleon, fearing that his own retreat to Orcha would be cut off, dared not linger longer at Krasnoe, and he and his Guard left us an hour before nightfall, ordering us to wait for Marshal Ney. When the Emperor abandoned Krasnoe, the little town was full of those who had been wounded during the day. Nothing could have been more heart-rending than the sight of all the rooms in every house crowded with fine young fellows, their ages ranging from twenty to twenty-five years, who had but recently joined the army and had been under fire for the first time that day, but who within one short hour were to be left to their fate. Some few, who were able to march after their wounds had been dressed, were eager to be off again, but all the rest to the number of about 3,000 were left without surgeons or any necessaries.

The whole of the Guard was already gone, our much reduced first corps could no longer defend the heights beyond Krasnoe, and General Compans, who had remained till the very last, went down towards the town and crossed the ravine as night fell. He had scarcely done so, when, anxious to find out what the enemy were doing, I managed to creep along behind a hedge at the borders of the pass. The ravine was not more than thirty paces wide, and I very soon found myself almost face to face with a body of Russian artillery, which was being hastily put in position so as to riddle us with grapeshot. Beyond the ten or twelve guns of this battery I could see several considerable infantry corps advancing in line in our direction, leaving me no longer in any doubt of our being completely cut off from Marshal Ney. I hurried back with this distressing news to Marshal Davout, and recognising the hopelessness of waiting for Ney any longer, he did at once all that was left to us under the circumstances, by having a few guns placed in position to prevent the enemy from crossing the ravine, whilst the infantry was ordered to withdraw towards Lidoni, where we arrived a little before daybreak, our retreat having been facilitated by a very dark night. The Russians, thinking that we were still in force at Krasnoe, did not enter it till the next morning.

The army was still deeply grieved at the supposed loss of Marshal Ney, for we were all certain that if he were alive he had been taken prisoner. The thought of his fate caused general discouragement, and all we hoped was to escape captivity ourselves. The numbers of the stragglers, ever on the increase, had now become immense; at every pass or difficult bit of road there was a block of wagons and carriages, and many vehicles broke through the ice on the marshes and remained embedded in the mud beneath. This was how I myself in our march from Lidoni to Koziani lost my baggage wagon and a barouche, which were still properly harnessed, for both of them with their drivers and horses were swallowed up by the mud. Hundreds of others met with similar misfortunes, and as I was going through Dombrowa the day after my loss, I came upon a carriage belonging to a M. De Servan, in which sat my sister. She had lost her carriage in the same marshes as I had mine, and De Servan, who had been more fortunate than either of us, had been good enough to take her on with him. A few hours later, just at the entrance to Orcha, De Servan’s carriage was smashed by a cannon-ball. M. Levasseur, however, whose carriage got through safely, was good enough to allow me to transfer my sister to it, and showed her every possible attention.

On the evening of the 20th, when the moon was shining brightly, our advanced posts on the right bank of the Dnieper saw an officer approaching, whom they at first mistook for a Russian. They soon saw, however, that he was French, and on questioning him they learnt to their great joy that Marshal Ney, who had miraculously escaped from the clutches of Kutusoff, was but a league away from us. It would be difficult to describe our delight at receiving this news, which did much to restore the tone of the army, so lowered by discouragement. The Viceroy and Marshal Mortier hurried off to meet Ney, and the next day he was welcomed by the Emperor, who received him with the greatest enthusiasm, greeting him with the words, ‘I would have given everything rather than lose you.’

The first corps continued to cover the retreat, and we were aroused before daybreak after our arrival at Orcha by the coming up of the Russians in great force, who hoped to shut us into that town. Like every other place we passed through in our retreat, Orcha was encumbered with carriages crowded, as were the houses, with sick and wounded. A young cousin of mine, Alexander Lejeune, had been left at Orcha as manager of a hospital. I saw him as I went through, and he stuffed my pockets full of sugar and coffee ready roasted and ground. I urged him to fly whilst he could, and advised him to start in advance of us. He said he would just go and fetch a cloak and his money, but I never saw him again. He was probably delayed, and perished in the crowd after we left. If blood shed in the service of one’s country is a patent of nobility, our family escutcheon ought to receive ten or twelve new chevrons of honour! for many of my nearest relations were wounded or killed in the Emperor’s service, including five first cousins, namely, one Gérard, killed in Egypt; one Vignaux, killed in Spain; one Lejeune, killed in Russia; my brother, wounded at Friedland; the husband of my eldest sister, Baron Plique (General), wounded several times, who died whilst on active service; the brave and witty General Clary, brother of my wife, also wounded several times; and her other brother, who died at the age of twenty-two, as colonel of a regiment he had himself got together in Spain, and who was mourned as a son by his uncle, King Joseph.

I feel very proud at leaving such memories as these behind for my son, and have already too long delayed recording them in my Memoirs.

At Orcha the Dnieper is very wide, and so rapid that the ice was not firm enough to allow of our crossing it easily, although there were twenty-five degrees of frost. The two bridges, which were all we had been able to construct, were very narrow and far from strong, whilst the approaches to them were so slippery as to be very dangerous. We had had a great many carriages burnt in the streets of Orcha, but we were still terribly encumbered with them; the enemy harassed our rear perpetually, and had already gained a position from which they could cannonade our bridges. As soon as our troops were across we were compelled to set fire to these bridges, leaving behind us all who were without arms, or were for any reason unable to follow our rapid march. It was a terrible moment for us when we had thus to abandon so many of our wounded.

We passed the night of Sunday the 22nd with the rearguard in a little wood on the road, and arrived in the evening of the 23rd at Kokonow, where we learnt, alas! that General Tchichakoff had taken possession with a large force of Borisow, so that we were cut off from that way of retreat. This news was distressing enough, but at three o’clock the next morning an event occurred which in its horror surpassed almost anything which had yet befallen us.

Opposite the house occupied by Marshal Davout and his officers, and not more than a couple of paces off, was a huge barn with four large doors, in which some five or six hundred persons, including officers, soldiers, stragglers, &c., had taken refuge as affording some shelter from the cold. Thirty or forty fires had been lighted, and the inmates of the barn, broken up into various groups, were all sleeping heavily in the warm air, which afforded such a contrast to the bitter cold of their usual bivouac, when the thatched roof caught fire, and in an instant the whole place was in flames. Suddenly, with a dull crash, the burning roof fell upon the sleepers, setting fire to the straw in which they lay, and to their clothes. Some few, who were near the doors, were able to escape; and with their clothes all singed they rushed to us screaming for help for their comrades. We were at the doors in a very few seconds; but what a terrible sight met our eyes! Masses of flames many yards thick rushed out from the doors to a distance of several yards, leaving only the narrow passage of exit some six feet high beneath a vault of fire which, fanned by the wind, spread with immense rapidity.

We could not, any of us, get near the poor creatures, whom we could see struggling wildly or flinging themselves face downwards on the ground so as to suffer a little less. W e hastily tied ropes, our handkerchiefs, anything we could get hold of, together, to fling to them, so as to be able to drag some of them out; but fresh shrieks soon stopped our efforts, for as we pulled they fell upon and were stabbed by each other’s bayonets. Captain d’Houdetot got nearer to them than any of the rest of us were able to, but his clothes caught fire and he had to draw back. The 500 or 600 victims made several last despairing efforts to rise, but their strength was soon all gone, and presently the building fell in upon them, their muskets became heated, the charges in there exploded, and their reports were the only funeral salute fired over the corpses of all the brave fellows. Very few escaped from the terrible conflagration, and those few had to tear off all their clothes. I saw one poor child of twelve or fourteen years old going about stark naked, but none of us could give him anything to put on, for we had lost our carriages, our horses, everything. There were now 13 degrees of frost, but we had to harden our hearts against the sufferers, for to help them was beyond our power.

On November 24 we passed the night at Tokotschin. The evening before Marshal Victor, pursued by Count von Wittgenstein, had joined the Emperor here, and would now protect his retreat. The Marshal had only just arrived from Germany, and had still 5,000 fresh troops in good order, whilst ours were thoroughly disorganised.

A singular episode occurred on the afternoon of the 24th, which had opened so tragically. I will just mention it here to give an idea of the vicissitudes we went through in our terrible retreat. Like the rest of us, I suffered very much from hunger, and for several days I had had nothing to eat but a little biscuit, whilst my only beverage was an occasional draught of cold coffee, which, however, kept me going somehow. I was marching sadly along, pondering on our woes, when an officer whom I scarcely knew by sight ran up to me, and with a pleasant smile asked me to do him a favour. ‘My position,’ I answered laughing, ‘is not such as to enable me to serve any one. But what do you want?’ His reply was to hand me a parcel carefully done up in paper, and about the size of my two fists, which he begged me to accept. ‘But tell me what is in it,’ I said. ‘I entreat you not to refuse it.’ ‘But at least say what it is,’ I urged, trying to push it away with my right hand; but he closed my fingers over it and ran off. A good deal puzzled by suddenly receiving a present from a stranger, and quite at a loss to imagine his motive, I smelt the packet to begin with, and the result encouraged me to open it, when lo! and behold! a delicious odour of truffles greeted my nostrils, and I found myself the happy possessor of a quarter of a pâté de foie gras from Toulouse or Strasburg. I never saw the officer again, but I think my fervent expressions of gratitude must have found an echo in his heart. May he have escaped the fate which overtook so many of us, and from which his timely gift preserved me for a few days!

Another bit of good fortune marked this same day. As I have already said, I had lost all my furs and winter clothes, and in these deserted districts money was of no avail to buy new ones. I was feeling the want of them dreadfully, when I came across Colonel L. shut up in his carriage, and quite ill from the excessive precautions he was taking against the cold. ‘What do you want with all those furs?’ I asked him. ‘You will be suffocated in them. Give me one.’ To which he replied, ‘Not for all the gold in the world!’ ‘Bah!’ I cried, ‘you will give me that bearskin, which really is in your way, and here are fifty gold napoleons for it.’ ‘Go to the devil! go to the devil with your napoleons! you bother me! – but there, General, I can’t refuse you anything.’ He took the napoleons, and I hastily seized the bearskin, for fear he should think better of it. I went off with my treasure with indescribable joy, but the unlucky owner of so many sables and other furs was frozen to death a few days later.

The first corps passed the night of the 24th at Toloczin, and at daybreak the next morning the Russian firing recommenced, and we were pursued during the whole day by them, their balls mowing down our ranks. It was throughout our disastrous retreat the custom of the enemy to harass us all day, and when night fell to withdraw to distant villages, where they had a good rest and plenty of food, neither of which we were able to obtain, returning the next morning stronger than ever to attack its again with fresh vigour, whilst we were ever growing fewer and weaker.

On the same day we went through Borv, and the first corps halted for the night at Kroupski. A newly formed brigade of light Polish cavalry had just arrived in this village, and were heating the ovens in the cottages. An inn with stabling for twenty horses was assigned to Marshal Davout. In putting the horses which had followed – for, as I have said, we all went on foot now – in the stable, we found three children in a manger, one about a year old, the other two apparently only just born. They were very poorly dressed, and were so numbed with the cold that they were not even crying. I made my men seek their parents for an hour, but they could not be found; all the inhabitants had fled, and the three poor little things were left to our tender mercies. I begged the Marshal’s cook to give them a little broth if he succeeded in making any, and thought no more about them. Presently, however, the warmth of the horses’ breath woke the little creatures up, and their plaintive cries resounded for a long time in the rooms in which we were all crowded together. Our desire to do something to help them kept us awake for a long time, but at last we were overcome with sleep. At two o’clock in the morning we were roused by the news that the village was on fire; the overheating of the ovens had led to flames breaking out nearly everywhere. Our house, standing somewhat apart, was the only one to escape, and our three children were still crying. At daybreak, however, when we were starting, I could hear them no longer, and I asked the cook what he had done for them. He had, of course, suffered as much as we had, and he answered, with the satisfied air of a man who has done a good action, ‘Their crying so tore my heart that I could not close an eye. I had no food to give them, so I took a hatchet, broke the ice in the horse trough, and drowned them, to put them out of their misery!’ Thus does misfortune harden the heart of man!

During the retreat many of the French were drowned. The wells in the village were all open and level with the ground, so that when troops arrived in the dark several men often fell into them, and rarely did any of their comrades try to save them. I saw more than ten wells, none of them very deep, on the surface of which the dead bodies of such victims were floating. Overcome with misery, other poor fellows committed suicide, and we often heard the discharge of a musket close by, telling of the end of some unfortunate wretch. On the other hand, some of the men who were simply covered with wounds kept up their courage and marched steadily on. One day, weary of walking, I sat down to rest on the trunk of a tree beside a fine young artilleryman who had just been wounded. Two doctors happened to pass us, and I called out to them to come and look at the wound. They did so, and at the first glance exclaimed, ‘The arm must be amputated!’ I asked the soldier if he felt he could bear it. ‘Anything you like,’ he answered stoutly. ‘But,’ said the doctors, ‘there are only two of us to do it; so you, General, will be good enough to help us perform the operation.’ Seeing that I was anything but pleased at the idea, they hastened to add that it would be enough if I just let the artilleryman lean against me. ‘Sit back to back with him, and you will see nothing of the operation.’ I agreed, and placed myself in the required position. I think the operation seemed longer to me than it did to the patient. The doctors opened their cases of instruments; the artilleryman did not even heave a single sigh. I heard the slight noise made by the saw as it cut through the bone, and in a few seconds, or rather minutes, they said to me, ‘It is over! it is a pity we have not a little wine to give him, to help him to rally.’ I happened still to have half a bottle of Malaga with me, which I was hoarding up, only taking a drop at a time, but I gave it to the poor man, who was very pale, though he said nothing. His eyes brightened up, and he swallowed all my wine at a single gulp. Then, on returning the empty bottle with the words, ‘It is still a long way to Carcassonne,’ he walked off with a firm step at a pace I found it difficult to emulate.

Marshal Oudinot, who had recovered from his wound, was now sent forward to Borisoff to try and take possession of the bridge over the Beresina, which had already been for several days in the hands of the Russian forces under Tchichakoff. This general had only just come from Moldavia, and on seeing the boldness with which Oudinot’s troops advanced he took it for granted that the whole of the French army was approaching, and thinking his own position with the river behind him a very disadvantageous one, he wished to avoid a regular battle. He therefore only made sufficient defence to cover the retreat of his army, and retired beyond the Beresina. Marshal Oudinot attacked Borisoff with his usual vigour, and entering it took 500 or 600 prisoners and all the baggage belonging to the Russian army. Tchichakoff had, however, burnt the bridge over the Beresina after crossing it, so that this victory gained us nothing.1

1 Large quantities of provisions and furs, however, fell into the hands of the French. – Trans.

The Emperor, who had no means of forcing the passage of the Beresina with an army of some 40,000 Russians opposing him, endeavoured to find a favourable point for throwing bridges across, and at the same time evading Wittgenstein, whom Marshal Victor was with infinite difficulty holding at bay, and Kutusoff, who was pursuing us. He was told that there was a ford at the village of Studzianka, which he could reach by ascending the left bank of the river, but though the water was at the most four or five feet deep the approaches were very marshy and would be difficult for our carriages and artillery. The river, which was very muddy, was covered with ice, but it broke beneath those who tried to walk across it.

The difficulties on the other side, if we succeeded in reaching it, would be even greater, for heights commanding the banks were occupied by a Russian division, and the approach to these heights was a marshy tract without any firm road whatever. The road from Borisoff to Molodetschno by way of Zembino, the only one we could hope to reach, was a very narrow causeway, with many bridges raised to a good height above the marsh, much of which was quite under water. If any one of these little bridges should break, the march of the whole army would be arrested; but the Emperor had really no choice, and was compelled to resign himself to attempting the passage at Studzianka.1

1 The Emperor had a choice, for there were two other fords below Borisoff, and he deceived the Russians into believing that he would use that near the village of Ukoloda. But for gross mismanagement on the part of many of the French generals, the whole army could have got over at Studzianka with very little loss. – Trans.

The engineers, pontonniers, and artillerymen therefore set to work at once, all the wood found in the village, even that of which the houses were built, being quickly converted into trestles, beams, planks, &c., and on the evening of the 26th, all appearing ready for the throwing across of the bridge, an attempt was made to place it in position. But the bed of the river was so muddy that the supports sank too deeply in it. It was, moreover, wider than had been supposed, and all the work had to be done over again. Two bridges instead of one were now made, and the army began its march for Studzianka. On the 27th the first corps, now forming the rear guard, passed through Borisoff, and arrived at night at the ford chosen, where there was already a terrible block of carriages, those belonging to the corps of Marshal Oudinot and Marshal Victor, who had but recently rejoined us, being added to the others which had escaped from previous accidents, and whose owners had evaded the orders for burning them.

When we arrived at Studzianka about nine o’clock in the evening, the Emperor had already sent over in small rafts several hundred skirmishers to protect the bridges and those making them, whilst the corps of Marshals Ney and Oudinot with 500 or 600 cuirassiers of the Guard had crossed the river and taken up a position on the right in a wood beyond Studzianka. We passed the night in trying to bring something like order into our arrangements for crossing, sending the ammunition wagons first, and repairing the bridges where they had given way under the weight of the artillery. It was a very dark night, and many French, Dutch, Spanish, and Saxon soldiers fell into the wells of the village and were drowned. Their cries of distress reached us, but we had no ropes or ladders with which to rescue them, and they were left to their fate.

At daybreak the crossing of the river by the bridges went on without too much confusion, and I was able to go backwards and forwards several times, seeing to the safety of all that was of the greatest importance for the army; but at about eight o’clock in the morning, when the light revealed the immense crowds which had still to be got over, every one began to hasten to the bridges at once, and everything was soon thrown into the greatest disorder. Things became even worse when an hour later a combined attack was made on us by all the Russian forces, and we found ourselves between two fires. Truly our misfortunes had now reached their height.

Marshal Victor, who had taken up a position on the heights above Studzianka, was trying to beat off Wittgenstein, who had attacked him about ten o’clock with a large force of artillery, and although he had but very few troops with him, he managed to keep the Russians at a distance, but their balls, falling amongst the masses of carriages blocking the approaches to the bridges, flung their occupants and drivers into the most indescribable disorder, killing many and smashing up the vehicles. Some balls even rolled on to the bridges.1

1 Marbot relates that Marshal victor’s rearguard took the wrong road on its way to Studzianka, ‘and walked straight into the middle of Wittgenstein’s army. The division was quickly surrounded and compelled to lay down its arms.’ – Trans.

On the right bank meanwhile Tchichakoff was attacking the French all along the line with some 25,000 or 30,000 Russians, whilst Marshals Ney and Oudinot had to oppose them only 9,000 or 10,000 men, with what was left of the Imperial Guard behind them as a reserve. Their front was but half a league in length, and the ground was very much broken up by woods. The Russians came to the fight well fed and warmed up by plenty of brandy; the French were debilitated by privations, and had moreover a cutting wind driving the snow in their faces. But with the enemy before them, they seemed to regain all their old energy, and Tchichakoff tried in vain to break their ranks, though he flung upon them in succession all the forces under his command. Marshal Oudinot, always in the front amongst the skirmishers, was wounded at the beginning of the action, and Marshal Ney took the command. Seizing a favourable moment he ordered General Doumerc, who had just brought up some 500 cuirassiers, to make a charge. This threw a Russian column into disorder, and won the French 1,500 prisoners. It was during this brilliant charge that a young officer, whom I loved for his many engaging qualities, met his death. Alfred de Noailles, only son of the Duc de Noailles, was struck in the heart by a ball,1 and his face and body were so disfigured by being trampled beneath the feet of the horses, that he was only recognised by his height and by the mark on his fine white linen.

1 Marbot says that De Noailles escaped in the actual charge, but was killed by Cossacks after the engagement, he having ventured too far ‘to see what the enemy were doing.’ – Trans.

It was a melancholy consolation to his mourning widow and family to find his portrait in my album, in which I had collected likenesses of many young officers whom I numbered amongst my friends, and all of whom had been cut off in the flower of their age, before they had had time to fulfil the lofty destiny to which their noble names and exalted courage would have called them.

Towards three o’clock in the afternoon, when it was already beginning to get dark, for night falls very early in the winter in these latitudes, Tchichakoff drew back, and we soon saw the fires of his bivouac, marking the position he had taken up about a league away from us.

Whilst all this was going on, the most awful scenes were being enacted at the entrance to the bridges on the right bank of the Beresina, and we could do absolutely nothing to prevent them.1 Wittgenstein’s artillery poured shells upon the struggling crowds, beneath whose weight the bridges were bending till they were under water. Those who could swim flung themselves into the river, trusting to their skill to save them, but they were overcome by the cold, and hardly any reached the further bank. On either side the hapless fugitives pressed on, driving others into the water, many clutching at the ropes of the bridges in the hope of being able to climb on to them. In the awful struggle none who fell ever rose again, for every one was immediately crushed to death by those behind, whilst all the while shells and balls rained upon the helpless masses. I was blessing God that my sister had escaped this terrible catastrophe, and had crossed some time before, when, to my horror, I saw M. Levasseurr carrying her in his arms and endeavouring to make his way up to me. He had managed to extricate her from the crowd, and now brought her to me. ‘In what an awful moment do we meet again!’ I exclaimed; ‘and what in the world can I do with you in your exhausted condition, now that you have found me? But courage,’ I added. ‘I got General Vasserot safely over in his carriage; I will find him, and put you under his care.’ This I managed to do, and two hours later my sister was kindly received by the General, to whom she said, ‘Oh, General, you have saved me; now I will take care of you.’

1 Many eye-witnesses of this awful disaster relate that the bridges were left almost empty on the night of the 27th, before the Russians came up, when all the non-combatants on the French side might quite easily have crossed. – Trans.

The Beresina disaster was the Pultava with which the Russians had threatened us; it was not our only defeat or the last, but it was by far the most bloody of any which befell us. It involved the loss of the greater part of Marshal Victor’s corps, which perished in defending our passage; and the loss of the whole of the Partouneaux 1 division, which had to surrender. In a word, it cost the French and their allies some 20,000 or 30,000 men, killed, wounded, drowned, or taken prisoners. General Eblé, charged with the painful duty of burning the bridges after Marshal Victor’s corps had passed over, had the greatest difficulty in cutting his way to them, and many of our own people were piteously struck down by the hatchets of his men before they were able to perform the task assigned to them. When at last the flames arose and the last hope of safety was cut off from those left on the other side, terrible were the cries of anguish which rent the air as thousands of poor wretches flung themselves into the water in a last despairing effort to escape. The ice broke beneath them; all was over, and the Cossacks swept down on the quarry, finding an immense amount of booty abandoned on the banks.2

1 This was Marshal Victor’s rearguard, which mistook the road to the river. – Trans.

2 General Eblé delayed the burning of the bridges till the last possible moment, but the Russians were advancing to fall upon the rear of the fugitives, and, had they been able to use the bridges, the French loss would have been even greater than it was. – Trans.

On the evening of this terrible November 28 we halted at Zembino, a little town which had already been pillaged by our predecessors.3 Marshal Davout and I took up our quarters in a little house crowded with others, which was heated by a stove. By dint of very close packing we managed to be able to lie down on the ground, and most of us slept profoundly till the time came to start again, which was before daybreak. I had been roused a few minutes before the clock struck the hour for departure by hearing stifled sobs, and by the dying light of a lamp I now made out the form of a tall and beautiful woman leaning against the stove, her face hidden by her hands, whilst the tears trickled through her fingers. It was a long time since I had seen any human creatures who had not lost all pretensions to good looks through their privations, and I was struck by the graceful attitude of this weeping figure, with the masses of light hair shading her ideal features. She reminded me of Canova’s ‘Muse leaning on a Sepulchral Urn, and lost in Meditation.’ Whilst every one, wrapped in selfish egotism, left the room without taking any notice of the lady in distress, I approached her and asked her in a gentle voice what she was weeping about. She turned to me, revealing her beautiful face, wet with tears, and pointing to a pretty child asleep at her feet, she said, ‘I am the wife of M. Lavaux, a Frenchman, who had a library at Moscow. The Governor Rostopschin has sent him to Siberia, and I took refuge with my boy in the French army. The Duc de Plaisance and two other generals let us share their carriages till they were destroyed, and I have carried my child from the Beresina here, but my strength is exhausted. I can go no further, and I am in despair.’ ‘Could you keep your seat on horseback?’ I asked at once. ‘I could try,’ she replied. ‘Well, do not lose courage; let us make haste. I will take your boy and place him on my sister’s knee; she is in General Vasserot’s carriage, and I will put you on a horse which a faithful servant shall lead. You will thus be able to follow your boy.’ A smile of hope lit up her expressive features. I fetched a wolf’s skin, which was on the horse I meant to give her, and wrapped it about her to protect her from the intense cold which had now set in, took off several silk handkerchiefs I had about me, and tied them together to make sashes to fasten her on to her steed. I then placed her on her horse, put her under the care of one of my mounted servants, and they started together. I never saw lady, servant, or horses again; but Vasserot and my sister took care of the child, and gave him back to his mother, who came to claim him in the evening. I shall refer again to what I was able to learn of the adventurous career of this lady, who two years later was found by the Emperor Alexander I. teaching the Demoiselles of the Légion d’Honneur at St. Denis.

3 Lejeune passes very lightly over the march from the Beresina to Zembino. but it was a terribly arduous one, owing to the fact that the marshes, generally frozen over at this time of year, were still quite soft, and had the enemy pursued vigorously scarcely a man would have escaped to tell the tale. – Trans.

Beyond Zembino we had to cross a number of little bridges which the enemy had neglected to burn, and we felt that God had not entirely deserted us when He left us this means of getting over the marshes. We had not a scrap of food to give the 2,000 or 1,000 prisoners we were taking with us, and I purposely shut my eyes when they availed themselves of every chance of escape in the woods through which we passed. I could not bring myself to enforce their remaining with us by the cruel measures which alone could have availed, and I knew well enough that at any moment our fate might be worse than theirs.

Sunday, the 29th, was occupied by a dreary march to Kamen, which we reached about midnight. Our men, as tired out as ourselves, and longing for sleep, took a few bits of meat from the one wagon we still retained, in which tobacco and everything else were mixed together helter skelter. They did not notice in the darkness that some tobacco was sticking to the meat, and put it all into the pot on the fire together. At four o’clock in the morning, just before we started, the soup was given out, but it tasted most horribly of tobacco, and nobody but myself would take any of it. I was so hungry that I was not so prudent as the others, and I swallowed the whole of my portion. I had not marched far before a terrible headache came on; I felt sick, and soon began to vomit. I fainted away, and it was easy to see that I was poisoned. The news spread; even the Emperor heard of it, and in his despatches for Paris of that day he mentioned the matter, so that every one there thought I was dead. When we halted during the day, General Haxo and others, who had still a little humanity left, made me some tea, and drinking it saved my life. I remained with Marshal Davout in his wurst, and we arrived at Kotovitchi in the evening, where we put up at the house of the priest, a good old man, who spoke French very well, and who had declined to leave with the rest of the inhabitants because, though he had nothing with which to supply our bodily needs, he hoped to be able to minister to our spiritual necessities. Under his affectionate care I completely recovered, and when we set off again at four o’clock the next morning we were full of real gratitude to him.

During the whole of December 1 we were marching through dense forests, in which at every turn we came to difficult passes. We lost nearly all our prisoners here.

On December 2 we crossed the Ilia before daybreak, and entered yet other vast forests with no well-defined roads, and the snow added to the difficulties of our march, so that it was late before we got to Molodetschno. Whilst arranging for the camping of our troops in the dark, I fell into a swamp, and was only with great difficulty extricated. The cold was so intense that the mud froze about me immediately, so that it was hard work to get me out. On the very same day and at the same hour seven years before I had been seated on the snow beneath a tree, but it was after the battle of Austerlitz, and I was in a very happy frame of mind. The Emperor arrived at Molodetschno the same day, but instead of celebrating the anniversary of the greatest victory of his life, he had to dictate that terrible twenty-ninth bulletin describing succinctly the disasters his army had met with, though he disguised their true extent.

At four o’clock on the morning of the 3rd we started once more, without daring to count those who were unable to rise. Our route was strewn with the dead, and the wheels of the carriages, which were scarcely able to turn, went over the ice-covered corpses, often dragging them along for a little distance.

Haxo and I walked arm in arm, so as to save each other from slipping, and a soldier and an officer were walking one on either side of us. Presently the soldier drew a hunk of black Russian bread about the size of a fist out of his pocket, and began to gnaw at it greedily. The officer, surprised to see such a thing as bread, offered the grenadier a five-franc piece for it. ‘No, no!’ said the man, tearing at his bread like a lion jealous of his prey. ‘Oh, do sell it to me,’ pleaded the officer; ‘here are ten francs.’ ‘No, no, no, no!’ and the bread rapidly disappeared, till quite half was gone. ‘I am dying! I entreat you to save my life! Here are twenty francs!’ Then with a savage look the grenadier bit off one more big mouthful, and, handing what was left to the officer, took the twenty francs, evidently feeling that he had made anything but a good bargain.

We were all covered with ice. Our breath, looking like thick smoke, froze as it left our mouths, and hung in icicles from our hair, eyebrows, moustaches, and beards, sometimes quite blinding us. Once Haxo, in breaking off the icicles which were bothering me, noticed that my cheeks and nose were discoloured. They looked like wax, and he informed me that they were frozen. He was right, for all sensation was gone from them. He at once began to rub them hard with snow, and a couple of minutes’ friction restored circulation, but the pain was terrible, and it needed all my resolution not to resist having the rubbing continued. Colonel Emi, of the engineers, was frozen in exactly the same way a few minutes later, and in his despair he flung himself down and rolled about on the ground. We did not want to abandon him to his fate, but we had to strike him again and again before we could make him get up. Dysentery also worked terrible ravages amongst us, and its victims, with their dry and livid skin and emaciated limbs, looked like living skeletons. The poor creatures had had nothing to eat but a little crushed corn made into a kind of mash, for they had no means of grinding or of cooking it properly, and this indigestible food passed through the intestines without nourishing the body. Truly the unhappy wretches, many of them stark naked, presented, as they fell out by the way, a picture of death in its most revolting aspect.

Providence, however, had still a few moments in reserve for some of us, in which we found consolation for our woes, and gathered up fresh strength for the further trials awaiting us.

This was the case on December 4, as I will now relate. We had started before daybreak to escape a cannonade from some Cossacks, and we were already some distance from our bivouac when a second troop of Cossacks, bolder and more numerous than the first, flung itself across our path, and carried off two carriages belonging to the Commissary-General. Fortunately he was on foot, and managed to escape. A few miles beyond our party the same horde of Tartars drew up at the entrance to a ravine through which a body of some 300 or 400 Polish cavalry was endeavouring to pass so as to rejoin us. The Cossacks seemed likely to completely crush the Poles, when the noise of the firing attracted our attention, and we realised the danger of the brave fellows. General Gérard, with his usual chivalry, at once offered his services to Marshal Davout, and asked for volunteers to go to the aid of our allies. Though his men were worn out with fatigue, they were still full of confidence in him, and they one and all shouted, ‘I am ready! I am ready!’ General Gérard dashed across the plain at their head, and when the Cossacks saw the little body of infantry approaching, they feared they were about to be caught between two fires and galloped off. The Poles thus rescued soon joined us, and a bit of really good fortune rewarded us all for our mutual help.

Some carriages belonging to a convoy from Germany had succeeded in reaching Markovo, a little village we were just about to enter. These carriages were packed full of fresh provisions of many different kinds, and the delight of our brave soldiers may be imagined when they found awaiting them a good meal of bread and cheese and butter, with plenty of wine to wash them down. What a feast it seemed after forty days of such scanty and miserable diet as theirs had been! We of the first corps shared in this rare good fortune.

General Guilleminot with his division had been the first to arrive at Markovo, and he had taken care that the precious carriages should not be pillaged. He was at the window of a little château when we were passing, and he called to us to join him. After having taken the necessary precaution of rubbing our faces with snow, but for which we should certainly have lost some of our features, we went into a warm room, where a very unexpected sight awaited us. Tea services of beautiful china were set out on handsome mahogany tables, whilst here and there were great piles of white bread and hampers of Brittany butter. At the sight of this wonderful spread, after our many weeks of privations, our eyes brightened and our nostrils became expanded like those of some Arab steed at the sound of the trumpet. Needless to say how eagerly and gladly we accepted the invitation to share in this delightful breakfast. We each did the part not of four, but of ten – our appetites were simply insatiable. Never did any breakfast party do greater justice to the fare provided than we did to the great bowls of tea poured out, and the thick slices of bread and butter cut for its by our host. It was hard work to tear ourselves away from this warm room with all its comforts to go and camp beneath the cold light of the stars near Smorgoni, where there were twenty-five degrees of frost.

The name of Smorgoni roused our curiosity, for we knew that the inhabitants of that village, situated as it was in the Heart of a vast forest, devoted themselves to the chase of bears, selling the furs of the older animals, and training the young ones as gymnastic performers, often taking them the round of Europe to show off their tricks. The people of Smorgoni had not expected us, and took flight at our approach, carrying their furs and young bears with them, but for all that we expected to find the village interesting.

It was at Smorgoni on December 5 that the Emperor, yielding to the earnest entreaties of his most faithful servants, decided to leave the army and return to France, where his presence was most urgently needed. Before leaving, he signed the order for the promotion and reward of many officers and generals, which had been drawn up by Major-General Prince Berthier. He called his marshals together, frankly expressed to them his great regret at having lingered too long at Moscow, and announced to them his approaching departure, appointing King Murat of Naples to the command of the army.

It was eleven o’clock at night, and there were twenty-five degrees of frost when the Emperor left Smorgoni, accompanied by the Dukes of Vicenza and Friuli (Marshal Duroc) and the Count of Lobau (Marshal Mouton), and made his way to Osmiana, miraculously escaping from the 1,200 Cossacks whom he had to pass, and who would certainly have taken him prisoner if they had known he was so near them with an escort of scarcely 100 men. A little before dark these same Cossacks had been beaten by General Loison, and driven out of 0smiana, where they had hoped to arrest our retreat. Whilst waiting for daylight the enemy were sleeping a little distance from the road, and the Emperor passed them unnoticed. Napoleon’s departure threw the whole army into the greatest discouragement.

General Charpentier still declined to take my place, and I was compelled as before to perform the duties of Chief of the Staff. Fortunately, Marshal Davout now seemed to understand my position better, and was no longer so exacting. This made me willing to remain with him a few days longer.

On December 6 we passed through the little village of Pletchinzy just as a very interesting scene was taking place in it. Marshal Oudinot and General Pino, both wounded, had passed the night there with twenty-five or thirty officers and men belonging to their suite. A Cossack officer had heard of their presence, and thinking to take a great prize, he with some 200 men had surrounded the house in which they were. Speaking in good French, he politely summoned them to surrender. ‘We never surrender,’ was the reply, and a few well-aimed shots struck down some of the Cossacks. The hovel, for it was little more, was now regularly besieged, the French firing at close quarters into the ranks of the assailants, which they thinned considerably. Marshal Oudinot himself, though suffering greatly from a ball in the loins and unable to rise from the pallet on which he lay, made some holes in the walls between the planks, and firing through them picked off a good many Cossacks, for he never once missed his aim. Meanwhile, however, the enemy received reinforcements, and a gun was brought up to their aid. Four balls had already made a breach in the hut, but no one had been hurt. The French, after the manner of the Spanish, at once turned the opening to account by firing through it at their besiegers. A fifth ball broke the pallet on which the Marshal lay, and at the same time brought down the side of an oven in which five or six little children belonging to the peasant who had owned the hut, were discovered huddled together. The poor little things rushed out into the smoke and confusion in a great state of terror, much to the surprise of our men. There was something very touching in the way the little creatures clung to each other in the midst of the struggle. Fortunately our party came up just when things were going hardly with the besieged, for we had quickened our pace when we heard the firing, and the Cossacks, who had lost some fifty men killed and wounded, took to flight at our approach. We escorted the Marshal to Osmiana, where we halted for the night.

Here we found a division, consisting of some 12,000 fine young recruits, who had just arrived from France as reserves, under General Loison. Alas! twenty-four hours of our temperature was enough to kill off half of them, for they were in summer clothing, and not yet acclimatised; and three days later, when we reached Wilna, not one survived of the poor fellows whose weeping mothers had watched them start so short a time ago. I have been told since by several Russians that if the wind had blown from the north with the temperature at from 25 to 30 degrees, not one of us would have escaped alive. When the murderous north wind is blowing, the Russians generally remain in doors all day and night in rooms heated by stoves, and if they ever do venture forth it is only after a good meal, cased in woollen garments and thick furs, with which in our inexperience few of us had provided ourselves. The French died off, but the Cossacks fared splendidly.

The nearer we got to Wilna the more intense was the cold, especially at night, and every morning those still capable of bearing arms became fewer and fewer. The first corps now numbered scarcely 300 men, and the colonels and generals had to carry the colours of their regiments themselves. The enemy continued to cannonade us without venturing to come to close quarters. At last on December 8 we arrived on the heights of Wilna, where the little remnant of General Loison’s corps perished of cold whilst a brisk cannonade from the Russians was going on. The approach to Wilna by the Minsk gate was so blocked with carriages piled up on each other and inextricably locked together, that I gave up trying to get in that way, but made my entrance through a garden by means of two ladders conveniently placed one on each side of a wall.

The first object I noticed in the street I entered, which was also much encumbered by broken vehicles, was the overturned carriage of the paymaster of the army; the cash boxes had been broken open, and most of the contents stolen, but some 200,000 to 300,000 francs were scattered about on the ground for the first comer to pick up. The frozen metal, however, blistered the fingers of those who tried to carry it off, and the emaciated passers-by, scarcely able to drag themselves along, had not the courage to stoop or to burden themselves with heavy money.

What was my surprise at meeting in this street Colonel Kobilinski, who, as related above, had had his thigh smashed at Malo-Jaroslavitz and had fallen against me! He had been found by some soldiers, who carried him on their shoulders to a hospital. He slipped from their hold some twenty times in his insensibility, but ,when his wound had been dressed for the first time, four Jews carried him to the house of a nobleman of Wilna, where he was kindly received. He had suffered greatly for no less than fifty days from cold, hunger, and dysentery, yet his iron constitution brought him safely through all, and he is now in the service of Russia as governor of a fortress.

As I hurried about the town trying to make arrangements for my return to France, I came upon General Vasserot’s carriage, which had safely arrived the evening before with its owner and my sister in it. They had escaped all the dangers of the road, and were just about to start for Danzig, where they were to wait for me. They had still perhaps the most difficult and dangerous part of the journey to perform, for between Wilna and Kovno were two very steep hills, now completely covered with ice. Always almost impassable, the presence of the enemy now added greatly to the difficulties of this part of the route, and here was left behind the last remnant of our war material. General Vasserot, however, who was a soldier to the backbone, managed to get safely over every obstacle, and was amongst the very few who did so.

I went back by way of my two ladders to tell Marshal Davout, Generals Haxo and Gérard, of this way of getting into the town, as they would probably not have discovered it for themselves. On my way to them I found a young artillery officer, who had had his arm amputated, exactly where I had left him some hours before. I had told him then that he had better follow me, as I could lend him a hand in climbing over impediments. He had thanked me, but said he had promised to wait at the entrance to the suburb for his servant. I said no more then, but when I came upon him again I represented to him the risk of remaining stationary in such murderous cold. ‘I know all about that,’ was his reply; ‘but my faithful soldier George is my foster brother, and he has given me a thousand proofs of his devotion ever since I joined the army. My own mother could not have taken better care of me since I was wounded. He is ill and suffering, and I would rather die than break my word to him.’ Touched by this devotion at a time when hardly any one had a thought but for his own preservation, I did not dare to suggest to him that his beloved foster brother might be dead of cold, or a prisoner in the hands of the Russians. I merely asked him his name, his age, and his country. ‘My name is Arthur de Birassaye, I am twenty-two years old, and I come from Bayonne,’ was the reply. I never saw the officer again, but when I was in Bayonne some years later, I made inquiries about him, and learnt that he had never returned thither.

The people of Wilna, who during our absence had received immense convoys of stores and provisions, which were collected in magazines, received us kindly, and were full of hospitality and pity for our sufferings; but gradually, as fresh crowds of starving, debilitated wretches arrived, and it became impossible to maintain order in the distribution of food, pillage set in, all discipline was at an end, and scarcely anybody profited by the supplies. Fortunately, however, when the town itself was about to be pillaged, a strong force of police was organised, and the destruction was arrested. Meanwhile Major-General Prince Berthier, the Duke of Bassano, and Count Daru, Commissary-General, did their best to restore order in the ranks of the army, but they could achieve little. King Murat recognised that the task the Emperor had left him was beyond his powers, and his efforts were restricted to escaping being taken alive by the Cossacks, whom he had so often defied and so many of whom he had cut down, or from falling into the hands of the dreaded Tchichakoff, of whom we all stood in great awe, though so far he had not done us very much harm.

The Emperor had left orders for us to hold Wilna, and General von Wrede, with the few troops remaining to him, had joined us there with a view to supporting us. He fought valiantly all day long under a ceaseless cannonade from the enemy, but it was hopeless to attempt to stop the movement of retreat now, and all idea of making a stand at Wilna was soon abandoned. King Murat was himself the first to leave for Kovno with the remainder of the Guard, for he was eager to place the Niemen between himself and the enemy, but that river was frozen hard, and could no longer be said to divide the districts on either side of its course.

I now held no post in the army, and had taken leave of Marshal Davout, so that I was free to get back to France as best I could. I bought a sledge, and as the Polish General Kovitzki offered to act as my guide and interpreter, we left Wilna together at three o’clock on the morning of December 10. We crossed the ice covering the Wilia, and took the least frequented route on the right bank of that river for Kovno. The next morning at Assanovo we met Prince Radzivil, said to be the richest nobleman in Poland. Several of his ancestors had been chosen to wear the crown, so long hereditary in the Jagellon family. The Prince joined us and was good enough to let us have some of the horses he had ordered for himself at every posting house, so that we reached Kovno at the same time as Marshal Davout, who had taken the shorter route.

The weather was very bad, and snow was falling so heavily on the day of our arrival that we could hardly see ten paces before us. Half of Kovno was on fire, whilst the other half had been given up to pillage, and the wagons containing the Imperial treasure had only with great difficulty been saved.

The King of Naples was preparing to leave, having heard that the Prince von Schwarzenberg, who had already withdrawn to Bialistock, was continuing his retreat towards Warsaw. Marshal Macdonald meanwhile, abandoned by the Prussian corps under General York, was retiring on Memel.1 Nothing could have exceeded the melancholy appearance presented by Kovno, with snow falling so thickly as to darken the air, and scarcely any light but that from the flames consuming the town. It was, indeed a gloomy augury for the future. The little remnant which had returned to Kovno represented to me the army whose fortunes I had shared so long; and when I turned my back on it, it was with feelings such as those of some brother abandoning the dead bodies of those belonging to him in a home smitten by the plague.

1 General York’s treachery to Napoleon ought to have been foreseen by him from the first, and it was the height of imprudence to employ the Prussian corps under him as the left wing of the Grand Army. – Trans.

As I cautiously made my way across the bridge in my sledge, I could not keep back the tears at the thought of the contrast between the scene I gazed on now, on this melancholy 12th of December, and that I had so proudly looked down upon on June 24. True, the storm which had broken upon us then might have warned us of what was in store for us. It had really been, though we did not realise it, premonitory of the disasters awaiting us, from which none but the strongest escaped, and I thanked God for having brought me safely through them all. I now took the shortest route to Königsberg, and was soon out of hearing of the cannonade from the Cossacks, and the yet more melancholy reports, so long of daily occurrence, of the blowing up of our ammunition wagons to save them from falling into the hands of the enemy. I did not stop at Königsberg, but pushed on for Danzig, where I arrived on December 10. My sister and General Vasserot joined me there the next day. The General still needed rest for his complete recovery from his wound, and we too were worn out, so we stopped quietly at Danzig for ten days, which we spent in providing ourselves with new clothes. As soon as I arrived I burnt the clothes I had travelled in, for they literally swarmed with vermin, and for the first time for two months and a half I enjoyed the luxury of a bath and a shave, for during our retreat I had never been able to give the slightest attention to my toilette, and my face was literally blackened with smoke and exposure. I now resumed my usual habits, and my spirits rose greatly.

On December 30 my sister and I took leave of our good friend General Vasserot, and we left Danzig together in my sledge. A tremendous storm overtook us by the way, and our vehicle was several times overturned. Each time we fell, we left the impression of our faces in the snow. If only that snow had been clay or some other enduring material, those impressions would have been preserved as curiosities by the people of the district, which is rich in fossils, many being embedded in the stones of which the houses are built. These small accidents, which were rather comic than tragic, only made us laugh, and restored to us the gaiety to which we had so long been strangers. The storm had melted the snow, and the sledge was no longer of any use, so we had to stop at Neustadt to buy a carriage. I got one of the little chars à bancs in Germany which are as light as they are pretty, and on the third day, the snow having disappeared, we were able to resume our route.

Nothing happened during the journey of 400 leagues between Danzig and Prussia of much importance to be related here; but one rather amusing episode is, perhaps, worth recording. I was sent at Labehn to the house of the Countess of Koëstoritz, who with her numerous family received us very kindly, and asked us to join them at the dinner just about to be served. During the meal she remarked that she was surprised to see us eat so little, adding that a General had been stopping in her house for three days who, though very ill, consumed such a quantity of food she could hardly keep pace with his needs. He was, moreover, particular in his choice of diet. ‘What is his name?’ I inquired. ‘His people told me, but I have forgotten it,’ was the reply. ‘He is so ill that he was carried from his carriage to his room.’

After dinner was over, I went to ask the General’s servants what his name was, and they replied haughtily, ‘He is Count Baraguey d’Hilliers, General of Division.’ ‘I know him well; I should like to see him.’ ‘He is very ill; he receives no one.’ I made a few further inquiries, but the replies were evasive, and suspecting mischief, I said I must see him. It was no good, the servants persisted in their refusal to let me in; so, feeling more sure than ever that something was wrong, I broke open the door, and passing through an antechamber found myself in a big, well-lighted room, in which was a table, where five or six people had evidently just dined. On four chairs behind the table lay what looked like a corpse wrapped up in its shroud. I asked angrily for the General, and was at once surrounded by a number of servants in his livery, who whispered an eager request that I would not denounce them. ‘What do you mean?’ I cried; and they answered in low voices, ‘We were ordered to take the General’s body back to France, and we have suffered so dreadfully from hunger all though the campaign, we thought we would pretend that the General was still alive, so as to get a good meal every day as if for him, and thus regain a little strength ourselves. Have pity on us, and do not betray us.’ At first I did not like to promise, but they persuaded me, and I was so sorry for them that I said I would say nothing if they promised to leave before daybreak the next morning. I did not examine the corpse to identify it, but the carriage and liveries were certainly those of General Baraguey d’Hilliers. When I went back to the drawing room, I was rather embarrassed as to what I should say, but the Countess said with a smile, ‘I suppose it really is his servants who eat all the food they ask for the General, if he himself is so ill?’ I told her she was right, adding that they would leave very early the next day. This news evidently gave her the greatest pleasure. My sister and I took leave the same evening, as we, too, meant to start before daybreak. My light carriage amused the postilions very much wherever we stopped to change horses, and they all said as we started, ‘You will never get to the next post;’  to which I replied, ‘We’ll hold on as long as the carriage lasts.’ The mischievous fellows would then try to keep the horses at a gallop so as to break my vehicle if they could; but all their efforts only cost me a little string to strengthen my wheels, and, thanks to their malice, I got to Paris two days sooner than I had hoped.

At St. Denis, near the gates of Paris, my sister left me to go to some old friends, and I gave my carriage to their children, whilst I took a cab for myself, and drove home, glad enough to have got back safe and sound. I tried to sleep, but was haunted by a long nightmare, in which one confused scene of the campaign succeeded another, whilst the noise of the cannonade still sounded in my ears, and the face of Tchichakoff as I imagined it – anything but a flattering likeness probably – continually stood out vividly from all others, even as the memory of the torments of hunger exceeded that of the various sufferings which disturbed my rest.

But after all I was in Paris at last! I hastened to let my friends know of my return, and was everywhere eagerly welcomed. I should soon have forgotten my woes, petted and made much of as I was in their society, but that they, of course, made me tell them all my adventures.


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