THE SACRED SQUADRON*
After having passed Smolensk and having fought at Orscha, the remains of the Guard moved on Wilna, tightly near to the Russians, so that the bayonets of the rear-guard stopped them only by enormous efforts. The disorganization made alarming progress, in the cavalry especially; because the horses died of hunger and cold, or broke their legs by continual falls, which thus put the best riders out of combat. The Old Guard who tried to march with more order and unity than the remainder of the army, because it more particularly had the mission of unceasingly surrounding and protecting Napoleon, suffered more than the other corps and decimated itself more quickly. Bérésina was approached: the army of the Admiral Tschitschagow threatened to prevent our crossing on the edges of this river; an effort of our cavalry could only open a passage for the sovereign, and this mass did not exist any more.
In this critical moment, a happy inspiration came to the Prince of Neufchâtel. By his care, placards written by hand and fixed on dwellings in ruin, the posts of the roads and even tree trunks, entreated any officer, having a saber and a horse, to go to the headquarters, to take rank in a special squadron intended to escort the Emperor, and to which the title of Sacred Squadron was given.
Success proved that the Prince had judged well. In less than two days, four to five hundred men were joined together and organized in companies commanded by major generals having for lieutenants, non commissioned officers and corporals (brigadiers), the brigadier generals, the colonels and the squadron heads.
It was at the same time an odd, noble and touching spectacle, that these ranks of senior officers of all the arms and all the nations were formed in platoons and squadrons. One saw there shining, confused, the Greek helmet of the carabiniers, the zhapska of the Pole, the bearskin bonnet of horse grenadier, the shako of the chasseur and the hat of the staff officer. All Napoleonic Europe was represented there. In the middle of the cavalry sabers, there were drawn the swords of some officers of infantry; because devotion to the Emperor had urged those who felt able to lead a horse, to sacrifice their last resources to get one of them. More than one head was surrounded by bloody bindings, more than one arm rested on a sling while waiting for the moment of combat.
This troop, whose no man’s power could sustain the shock, was pressed around Napoleon up to Molodelschno, where he decided to try the adventurous race which was to bring him back to France, because his presence was necessary there, even in the interest of the army which he left behind him. The occasion of this fight of the giants was not carried out, and the sacred squadron did not have to make a whole to clear a crossing for the Emperor. Once Napoleon left, the sacred squadron met with the staff of King of Naples. Then the hunger, which was concealed in front of the sovereign, voiced its terrible language. If those who went individually found hardly a piece of horse to roast at the end of their saber, those who went in order and took a military position were literally without resource. Therefore, without entirely breaking, the sacred squadron was divided into several groups, with the intention to be allocated to the headquarters of Murat, as soon as one could have gotten some handfuls of flour or of grain. It is one of these detachments, which we will follow.
Where did it go? It didn’t know itself. It had been thrown on the right of the road in sight of a remote bell-tower, which was an already devastated village, but still standing and occupied by a horde of Cossacks who had beat a retreat. Something was found, and one could, during the night, manage some wafers filled with straw… As for bread, our unhappy soldiers had not eaten any in more than fifteen days.
They left the next morning; and, after a few hours of marching regained the road. It was then three o’clock in the evening, and the redoubling of cold that accompanies sunset was harshly felt. The type of moistness that the march of columns had created on the broad roadway bordered with birch, was taken by the breeze of the twilight; the ground itself becoming set with diamonds, the iron horseshoes of the horses could not get a grip. The poor animal lacking four legs at the same time, fell on their neighbors whom they knocked over, and the riders, who could not use their stirrups because of the cold feet, rolled in the middle of the horses without being able to release their hands hidden in a piece of fur or wool fabric; because a hand that held too long on the reins of the horse was a hand lost.
The night soon added to the embarrassments of march; one of these solemn nights of the north, where the azure of the sky is as deep a color as at the summit of the Pyrenees; where one discovers myriads of stars, because of the absence of any clouds, appearing sparkling and silver plated; where the ear would seek in vain for any other noise but the cracking of snow that packs itself; finally, the same phenomenon of a mirage as that of the desert. It was thus necessary to stop at the first place where trees would be found that would yield to an axe.
A weak column of infantry passed them by one half-league perhaps which had established its bivouacs, when one saw at some distance from the road, a planting of young trees, close to a brook at the edge of which were piled ice floes leading them to suppose, that with some efforts, one could manage to release the water from the sound envelope of crystal. They established themselves there as they could. The trees fell under chopping, and fires soon shone. Some handfuls of straw were given to the famished horses, and each one lay down while calculating up to what point he could approach the fire without burning himself.
The unconcerned, that the safe French soldier often was, tested some merry refrains; but, to sing, and especially to make oneself heard, at least required them to expose their lips from their coats, and the breath of the hell, about which Dante speaks, was there which soon deprived them of movement. Thus they fell asleep. Due to the inclemency of the sky, in the middle of these old officers, who neglected the most urgent precautions of war and the continual pressing commands for soldiers for strict discipline, only one that sad thoughts held waked up, understood that it was more than imprudent to be without a sentinel; consequently, he proposed, if somebody agreed to accompany him, to be the first to be take care for all. It was not without sorrow that he heard their reply. It was pointed out that the infantry covered the position; but the voice of the chief of the detachment, who offered to take part in this vedette, shamed them all, and it was agreed that only three men would successively ride a horse to patrol the camp.
This rather irregular service, lasted part of the night because of the temperature that made it necessary for one to leave only once the others returned. The most trustful murmured under their coats that this duty was useless, when the noise of a horse, launched through the train, was suddenly heard, and a spectrum in a white cape (manteau) appeared, shouting in a choked voice: “To the eagles! … here are the Cossacks! …” and he fell. Everyone was on foot in one moment, and a good thing too; because two minutes after furious hurrahs were heard: shadows appeared from the East… They were, indeed, the Cossacks! An appalling disorder was put in the small French troop. Each one jumped on his weapons and ran to his horse. Everyone spoke at the same time: “Do not waste time to mount, said of one. —That they see us only with a horse, they will not dare to attack us! The other said.— Put out the fire, shouted the chief; so that they cannot see how many we are and fire your guns!” In the middle of this confusion, some men were fortunately on horse at the time when the best mounted Cossacks arrived in front of fires, and as still fortunately, the command of the chief had been followed, these barbarians could not see whether they dealt with simple grand' Garde or a whole troop; they fired some shots from their gun without daring to approach.
The enemy was ten times their number. If it had been able to appreciate its advantage, it would have been completely massacred or completely captured. But the commands did their trick, as if platoons had been in reserve, and a desperate charge by half of the troop, that the remainder followed at a trot, to protect it at the time when it would be brought back, changed this surprise into a combat. However the sides were too unequal; eight or ten French were already wounded or seriously knocked down; could one hold or was it necessary to try a retirement, which could become a rout? So unfortunately the day had arrived when all was lost. One made these sad reflections when a circumstance easy to envisage, but which however nobody foresaw, changed the whole the face of the circumstances. The infantry, who had passed the day before, heard the shots; and as these shots had been made in rather great number it led them to believe that it was a serious engagement, which took place behind them, the drums beat the charge.
The effect of this march was magic. The Cossacks stopped short in the middle of their dirty work. “Ah! the infantry! the infantry! one exclaimed; ahead! Onto that band of Cossacks, and don’t let one escape! … At a gallop! Vive l’Empereur!.” And they sprang like the furies on the Cossacks, that were soon lost from sight after some of them had been sobered.
A detachment of some men went to warn the infantry what had taken place before their arrival then it returned to the bivouac, where each one had undoubtedly something to collect. First aid was given the casualties. The day started to come up; all the glances were fixed on a horse stopped in front of a corpse, with the head lowered on him. This horse was covered with wounds, and the corpse was that of the man who had given the alarm. Its white cloak was covered with blood, he had received several lance blows to the face. A point of a blow had pierced his cloak and had marked his cuirass. He was the chief of the last patrol. How had he been surrounded? How was it he escaped? What had become of his two companions? God only knew! His comrades judged that only a superhuman effort had been able to allow him to arrive alive just in time to save them. Who was he? An old non commissioned officer lately promoted officer, because a new epaulette decorated his soldier’s coat. He had arrived the day before the Emperor departed, and nobody knew him.
The circumstance of the wounds, accumulated on the neck and the face, was easy to explain, since his chest was covered with a cuirass. This circumstance, we say, struck an officer, who exclaimed with fury: “They butchered him!” A prisoner Cossack who was there became the victim of this fit of indignation; because he who had made the remark held in his hand a gun that he discharged on him at almost point blank range; but the ball made only grazed his head by taking off its bonnet. A unanimous cry of protested against this act of anger arose, which, finally, turned to the advantage of the Cossack, by allowing him to run away, which he did at once and without being made to ask.
COMPOSITION AND NUMERICAL STRENGTH OF THE GUARD IN 1812.
*The men that composed this battalion were part of the regiments of fusilier grenadiers and chasseurs, of tirailleurs and voltigeurs of the Guard, and wore the uniform of their respective regiment. The cadre of this battalion were considered Old Guard, the soldiers wore the uniform and equipment of this corps, all according to his grade and his regiment, none the less they all wore shakos as headdress.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: July 2006
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