Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics



YEAR 1812.





It is stated today with little proof: that the fall of Napoleon was due to one principal cause: the deplorable result of the campaign of Moscow.

If the Empire collapsed, it is that the Kremlin buried under its debris the fortune of the Emperor, it is that the most beautiful army of modern times was lost under the ice of Russia.  And why? … because in front of Moscow, at Borodino, Napoleon could have entirely destroyed the Russian army and that he did not do it.  He persisted in his resolve to preserve his Guard intact, while by making it fight, he would completed the day, and fulfilled the conditions of the admirable plan which he had so long and so skillfully brought together.  Eh well! we repeat it, the whole Guard in its entirety remained motionless, its old grenadiers stood by, impatient and weapons in hand, through all the movements of the battle.  The Young Guard, avid for glory, was reduced to mark time, to distract itself.  While, if Napoleon had launched this torrent on the Russians, it would have finished it; it would have thrown them back everywhere, destroyed everything, and he would have also obtained at Borodino a complete success, as decisive as at Austerlitz; unfortunately none of this happened.  The horse grenadiers, the chasseurs, the dragoons, murmured of this weakness of their Emperor, while he, remained mute and impassive.  What were thus his thoughts? … It is undoubtedly that he had a presentiment of the help and the service, which the Guard could repay him later, if far from the borders of his empire.  The idea of the return absorbed him already; however, the Guard was his right arm, his heart, his destiny, he wanted to compromise neither one nor the other: here is the whole secret.

Long negotiations preceded the war by Russia: they were without result.  This war, for reasons of high policy, which the limited space prohibits one from entering into prescribing in detail here, had become inevitable.  We will say only that Russia had ceased observing the continental blockade, and that, at the time even as a State as powerful as that of the Czar was parted from the great European coalition, which it had so painfully given birth to.

The reasons for Russia were no less pressing.  Without speaking about the alliance of family contracted by Napoleon with Austria, of the increase in territory to France, reasons for a badly dissimulated dissatisfaction, it was seen threatened with the re-establishment of Poland, in the creation of the Grand-Duchy of Warsaw that Napoleon never neglected to increase in power.

The year that the negotiations lasted was devoted, among other things, with the preparations for the war.  While all the forces of Emperor Alexander were put in motion in the north of Prussia, Napoleon went on a journey to Dresden, in company of Empress Marie-Louise, and there, in a type of congress, where all the sovereigns of Germany met, he tightened the alliances which already attached them to him.

On his side, the Czar was more strongly bound with England, and worked to detach the royal prince of Sweden from the French cause.  Before deciding to act hostile against his former brothers in arms, Bernadotte did not fear to send an ultimatum to Napoleon, to require Norway from him, which belonged to Denmark.  The answer of the Emperor was full of dignity and wisdom. “I will never purchase, he said, a doubtful ally at the expense of a faithful friend!”

Russia, moreover, had with the good offices of England the advantage of concluding with Turkey a peace which enabled them to have its Army of Moldavia; finally, arrived in the middle of his army, joined together on the Russian border, Napoleon announced to his troops that the decision of the quarrel raised between him and Emperor Alexander, would be given to the fate of combat.

“Soldiers, he said to them in his proclamation, the second war of Poland is started.  The first finished in Friedland and Tilsit.  Russia had sworn eternal alliance to France and war on England; it violates everyday its oaths: it does not want to give any explanation of this strange conduct so that the French eagles do not cross the Rhine again, thereby leaving our allies to its discretion.  Russia is entranced by fate; its destinies must be achieved.  Would it thus believe us degenerate?  Are we no longer the soldiers of Austerlitz? It places us between dishonor and war: the choice cannot be in doubt.  Thus let us go ahead, cross the Niémen, carry the war onto his territory.  The second war of Poland will be as glorious for the French Armies as was the first; but the peace which we will conclude, will carry with it its guarantee, and will put an end to the disastrous influence that Russia has exerted for fifty years on the businesses of Europe!”

The quotas provided by Austria, Prussia and the other States of Germany, as well as the Italian and Neapolitan troops, took up ranks in the French Army.  This army was made up of the Imperial Guard, then more than fifty six thousand men strong, and nine corps of infantry; the first, commanded by Marshal Davoust; the second by Marshal Oudinot; the third by Marshal Ney; the fourth by Prince Eugene; the fifth formed of Polish troops, by Prince Poniatowski; the sixth which included the Bavarians, by General Gouvion-Saint-Cyr; the seventh formed of Saxons, by General Régnier; the eighth composed of Westphalians, by the King of Westphalia, Jerome Bonaparte, brother of the Emperor; and the ninth, where the Prussian troops were joined together by two divisions of Poles and Westphalians, by Marshal Macdonald.  The Austrians, commanded by the Prince of Swartzenberg, formed a separate corps.  The troops of the various allied princes of France, the Swiss, the Baden, the Hessians, and just a regiment of Portuguese, were distributed among the various corps of the French Army.

The cavalry, under the command of King of Naples (Murat), was divided into four corps, and was commanded by the Generals Nansouty, Montbrun, Grouchy and Latour-Maubourg.  The total of these forces joined together, rose to three hundred and fifty thousand infantrymen and sixty thousand horsemen; the artillery presented a stength of nine hundred pieces of ordnance.

The Russian forces, partitioned into three large armies, exceeded two hundred and forty thousand infantrymen and ninety thousand cavalry, which was to meet with the Army of Moldavia, of fifty thousand men strong, and the levies “en masse”.  Barclay de Tolly commanded the army of the center, of one hundred fifty thousand men; Bagration, the army of left, and Tormasoff, the army of right wing.

On June 23, 1812, the crews of bridge layers having arrived near the Niémen, Napoleon took the bonnet and the hood of a Polish lancer, and followed only of the engineer general Haxo, reconnoitered the river banks.  He indicated the point of passage at some distance above Kowno.  Three parallel bridges were thrown across during the night there, and, at one o'clock in the morning, the Pajol division crossed first to opposite bank and occupied Kowno, driving out in front of it some detachments of Cossacks who were at this point.  The following day, with the rising sun, two hundred and twenty thousand men, infantry, cavalry and artillery, were joined together in mass on a narrow plateau, from where the eye could easily embrace the course of the river.  The tent of Napoleon, surrounded by eight service squadrons of the Guard, rose on a hillock close to the bridges on which the army started to defile.  The glare of the sun, reflected by the weapons, the proud attitude of these large armies, the warlike songs, the music of the regiments, playing the Chant du Départ (Song of the Departure) and the Cantante de Roland (Cantata of Roland), presented an admirable spectacle, and carried to all the hearts the sharpest ardor and the hope of an unquestionable success.

The passage of the Niémen lasted two days.  The enemy put up no obstruction, and withdrew in front of the army, which advanced on Wilna, the old capital of Lithuania.

Napoleon accepted in Wilna the Lithuanian deputies, who announced to him that the Polish people en masse were going to reform its great national confederation.  He remained several days in this city to give the army time to regulate its movements, and for the military administration to ensure various services.

Each time the French Army met the Russians, it attacked them, and each combat brought a triumph for it: Mohilow, Ostwno, Witepsle, Oboiarzina, Krasnoe, were successive witness to its courage and its success; but all these engagements were only partial engagements.  Barclay de Tolly preferred to unceasingly move back than to venture a general affair.  However, Napoleon hoped for that one quick decisive battle, because he wished so highly, for it to be done with.

Our advanced guard, commanded by the marshal Ney, arrived on August 16 in the morning in front of Smolensk.  This place, surrounded by notched embattlements, moreover was flanked with enormous towers furnished with (artillery) pieces of large caliber.  The enemy had left forty thousand men to protect his passage to other bank of the Borysthène.  The first day ended without any other events than a shooting from tirailleurs, and some cannon blows on our divisions, which emerged by the road of Kramoo.  Napoleon believed, according to the movements of the enemy, that the intention of the Russian general was to deliver, as Alexander had ordered, a great battle in front of Smolensk.  This resolution of the Czar was too advantageous to the French Army so that Napoleon wanted to delay a little from too precipitated an attack; but finally, observing that the Russians, were irresolute, not moving from their positions, he decided to attack them itself.

The observations on behalf of the chiefs of the corps and the maneuvers filled the morning of August 17.  Around two o’clock after midday, Napoleon ordered Poniatowski to over the Borysthène, to attack the eastern side of Smolensk, and to establish batteries, in order to destroy the bridges and to thus interrupt the communications between the two banks.  This order was carried out, and soon the Russian troops, closed to opposed bank, were obliged to move away, to put itself in safe range from grapeshot.  Ney and Davoust attacked at the same time the corps of the town.  The cannonade and a very-sharp fire of musketes began all along the line.  Around five o’clock, the suburbs, in spite of the entrenchments which covered them, were taken, and the Russian troops driven out in the covered way.

 Barclay de Tolly, seeing the suburbs taken, wanted to try one last effort to preserve the city.  He threw in two divisions of infantry and a brigade of the Russian Imperial Guard.  Consequently all the attacks of the French were directed against the covered way, which, in spite of the fire of the enemy, was cleared.  The night arrived, but it did not slow down the fire, and two companies of miners were attached to the ramparts.  Then Barclay de Tolly, judging that it would be impossible for him to resist longer, benefited from the darkness to carry out his retirement; only one division was charged to man the walls while the others would cross the Borysthène.  Around one o’clock in the morning, the Russians directed their fire on the city, and when the fire had gained on all sides, they crossed the river on a wood bridge, which they destroyed at once afterwards.

Napoleon, being unaware of the evacuation of Smolensk, laid out all the plans to carry it in a sharp attack, when at the break of day one of our detachments, having been sent to reconnoiter the point by which we would penetrate the city, climbed the rampart without obstacle, and reported that Smolensk was deserted.  The army entered there at once to extinguish the fire, and Napoleon established there his headquarters with his Guard.

The following day, the French Army, impatient to reach the Russian army, crossed the Borysthène.  Barclay de Tolly and Bagration fled by two different roads: one to Saint Petersburg, the other to Moscow; but it was only a ruse of war to better mislead the pursuit of the winner.

But soon the Russian Army changed its chief.  The Czar, yielding to the public opinion, which allotted the misfortunes of war to the bad choice of the Generals, had submitted the supreme command to General Kutusoff, victor of the Turks.  Barclay was reproached for his foreign origin: his handling of the retirement had appeared suspicious to pure Muscovites.  The general cry required a Russian to save the fatherland.  The conqueror of Bucharest appeared able to retrieve it from danger.  The new generalissimo, persuaded that, to preserve his popularity with the nation, he could not let the French reach Moscow without fighting a battle, had decided to accept it in the strong position which he occupied close to Borodino, in front of the Mojaisk, where he stopped the retirement of all the Russian army.

On September 5, the two armies found themselves in each other’s presence.  The Russian Army was on line behind the Moscowa, the right anchored on Borodino, the left on Kologa.  At twelve hundred toises ahead, the enemy had raised on a beautiful mound, between two woods, a redoubt that ten thousand men held.

Napoleon resolved at once to remove this advanced redoubt.  Around three o’clock, while the corps of Prince Eugene cannonaded the right of the enemy, and Poniatowski tried to turn the redoubt by the left, Murat accepted the order to cross the Kologa and to tackle the face.  Compan’s division formed the head column; it drove the enemy out of the village of Aloxina, and pushed it to the foot of the redoubt.  There, two regiments, the 57th and 61st, assaulted the entrenchment; the combat was decided; the redoubt taken and lost three times by our troops, remained finally in our hands.

Napoleon, with all the Imperial Guard, established his bivouac not far from the theatre of this keen fight.

The 61st, by removing the redoubt, had suffered so much that the following day, the Emperor passing it in review, and finding it considerably diminished, said to its head:

—What have you done with your 3rd battalion?

—Sire, it remained in the redoubt! The colonel answered.

It was on the battlefield that was going to be portrayed as one of the most disputed victories and most memorable to those men who still hold it in their memory, that Napoleon accepted, for the first time, the portrait of this son on whom rested such an amount of love and hope.  Mr. Beausset, Prefect of the Imperial Palace, brought it to him; we will leave to this officer of the civil house of the Emperor, the task of recalling this interesting scene:

“I arrived, he said*, on September 6 at nine o'clock in the morning, at the tent of H.I.M giving to him the dispatches which the Empress had condescended to entrust to me, and I asked him for his orders, relative to the portrait of his son.  I thought that being on the day before fighting the great battle, for which he had so much wished, he would differ for a few days the command to the open the case, which contained this portrait.  I was mistaken: pressed to enjoy such a cherished sight in his heart, he ordered me to bring this case at once to his tent.  I cannot express the pleasure with which this sight caused in him.  The regret in not being able to embrace his child against his heart was the only thought, which disturbed so soft a pleasure.  His eyes expressed the truest tenderness.  He called to him all the officers of his house and all the generals of his Guard who, by respect, were held aback at some distance, in order to make them share the feelings with which his heart was filled!

*In his Memories, Volume II, page 76.

—“Sirs, he said to them, if the King of Rome…if my son, he began again, were fifteen years old, I believe that he would be here, in the midst of you as well as the of brave men, rather than in a painting.  Then, one moment afterwards, he added: This portrait is admirable!”

“He had it placed apart from his tent, on a chair, so that the officers and the soldiers of his Guard could see it and draw from it a new courage.  This portrait remained thus in the same place all day.”

According to the order of Napoleon, the French Army took, the 6th in the evening, its position of battle for the following day.  On September 7, at two o'clock in the morning, the marshals, commanding the various corps, came to the tent of Emperor to receive his last orders.  At five thirty, the sun was up, and, being released from a thick fog, shone radiantly in the vastness of the sky.  By seeing it going up on the horizon, Napoleon exclaimed with joy.

—It is the sun of Austerlitz!

This exclamation, repeated from mouth to mouth, quickly circulated through all the ranks filling them with a confidence that the reading of the plan of the day did nothing but increase:

“Soldiers! (it said there), here is the battle that you wished so much for.  From now on the victory depends on you; it is necessary for you; it will give you abundance, good winter quarters and a prompt return to the fatherland.  Conduct yourselves as at Austerlitz, Wagram, Witepsk, in Smolensk, and that the posterity will most recall in quotes of pride of your conduct on this day, so that you will say: He was in this great battle under the walls of Moscow!

The acclamations of the soldiers answered this call to their courage, and soon all the corps shook.

Three batteries of sixty pieces of cannon had been established on the heights, in front of the center of the French Army.  That line, formed of artillery of the Guard Reserve, began to fire, which extended at once all along the line.

Then Poniatowski moved up the old road of Smolensk, to turn the wood on which the enemy pressed his left.  Davoust, with the three divisions Compans, Dessaix and Friant, formed in columns, and preceded by thirty pieces of artillery, went onto the redoubt that this wood defended.  Prince Eugene attacked Borodino, where the Russians had aimed their fire, with Delzons’ division, while divisions, Morand, Gerard, Broussier, the cavalry of Grouchy and the Royal Italian Guard crossed the Kologa.  The marshal Ney, with the Third Corps in column, having behind him the Eighth en bataille, led to the right of the enemy.  The King of Naples had divided his cavalry to support each one of these three corps.

At six thirty, Compans’ division, forming the column heading of the corps of Davoust, arrived at the enemy: the fusillade engaged them strongly, General Compans was wounded.  The Prince of Eckmuhl had his horse killed under him and received a strong contusion, which did not prevent him from remaining at the head of his army corps.  Soon the redoubt, placed at the left of the enemy, was attacked and taken.  Kutusoff began to vainly try to retake it; after a more deadly combat, it remained in our possession.  It was fortunately the same for the second redoubt which, initially taken, was retaken again by the Russians, and, in spite of an impetuous charge of their cuirassiers, recovered again by Razout’s division.

At eight o’clock, the King of Naples benefiting from these first advantages carried beyond the redoubt the cavalry corps of the Generals Nansouty and Latour-Maubourg, which threw the first enemy line over the second, and swept the plain to the village of Seminekoï.  At once, and by the order of Napoleon, the generals Friant and Dufour attacked this village, and, in spite of the resistance of Russian grenadiers of Prince Charles of Mecklembourg, who was wounded there, they attacked the redoubt and the barricades, which covered it.  While these successes were obtained in the center, the Viceroy of Italy, on the left, attacked Borodino.  The 106th Regiment, of Delzons’ division, in charge of this attack, threw back with a foot charge all the troops, which it found in front of them, crossed the village, and listening to only its ardor, crossed the Kologa and advanced alone onto the plain on Gorka.  General Plauzonne, who commanded it, was killed at the time when he sought to moderate the imprudent courage of his soldiers.  The 106th, being thus insolated, was attacked by the Russians who defended Gorka, and even by the grapeshot of the Bavarian artillery which was ours, because they could not believe that the French had had the audacity to venture so far and in so small a number; this artillery took the 161st Regiment (sic) for an enemy regiment; this honest regiment was thus about to be destroyed, when the 92nd, yielding to its intrepidity, crossed in its turn the bridge of Kologa, and covered the retirement of the 161st.  The two regiments returned to Borodino.  However Morand had attacked, at eight o'clock in the morning, the redoubt of the enemy, the largest and strongest of all the line.  The 30th, led by the brigade of General Bonomy, had entered there with bayonet; but attacked in its turn by imposing forces; it had been forced to give up its conquest, by leaving its general seriously wounded there.

The left of the French Army was hard pressed; its divisions, attacking forcefully to the front, fought in place, without advancing or moving back.  It was carnage without result.  Morand, Gerard and Broussier supported the courage of their soldiers whom the presence of Prince Eugene animated.  The enemy, bringing many corps to this point, fought with eagerness; but all its efforts were unproductive in pushing back our divisions which preserved their positions, when, at the time when the Viceroy was on the point of renewing the attack on the redoubt, eight regiments of Russian cavalry and a few thousands Cossacks, coming out to our extreme left, turned the cavalry brigade of General Ornano forcing it back, and arose in front of the plateau of Borodino.  General Delzons, forming the regiments in square at once, stopped the first charge, but it was impossible from keeping it being overrun.  The Viceroy, after having ordered the Italian Royal Guard to quickly march to this dangerously threatened point, went there at a gallop, and seeing a square, which was going to be charged, he entered there.

—Who do I have here? Eugene asked the commander of this regiment which had hastened to join the prince.

—Monsignor, answered Jean Pégot, colonel of this regiment, you are in the middle of the 84th, and Your Highness will be as safe here as in the walls of his palace in Milan.

This honest officer kept his word: the square formed by the 84th alone withstood the shock of all the enemy cavalry, which could not the pierce it.

The arrival of the Italian Guard changed the face of things; it was formed, also, in square, then moved on the enemy and pushed it back.  The Viceroy, then leaving to General Ornano the task to follow and contain the Russians, returned with his Royal Guard towards the large redoubt, that he was prepared to attack.

At this moment, the King of Naples ordered General Caulincourt, who had just replaced General Montbrun who had been killed by a ball, as the head of the second cavalry corps, to cross the ravine, to charge the Russians and to push into this formidable redoubt.  Caulincourt, with the cuirassier division of Vathier, pushed back all that was in front of him, went beyond the redoubt, turned left and entered there.  He found a glorious death there; but crippled by the fire of the batteries and the infantry Russian, his cuirassiers were obliged to give it up.  However the troops of the Viceroy advanced on this terrible redoubt; but they hesitated due to the violent fire of grapeshot.  The Prince placed himself at their head, called to beat the charge, and with sword in hand, sprang ahead!  The soldiers, electrified by his example, were shaken into action and marched on with fixed bayonet.  Our infantry carried the redoubt, attacking from the front and side, at the moment the cuirassiers of Caulincourt left.  The Viceroy, pushing his advantage, had the cavalry of General Grouchy cross the ravine behind which he found the corps of General Doctoroff, who, charged by this cavalry and pressed by our infantry, withdrew itself in disorder, after having lost two thirds of its troops.  General Kutusoff, seeing his center pulled by the seizure of Seminskoë, had moved considerable reinforcements there, including, the Russian Imperial Guard.  Covered by much artillery, Bagration advanced again to take Seminskoë, and, after having remained two hours under the fire of our batteries which leveled whole platoons at a time, Bagration, mortally wounded, perceiving that his troops could not gain any ground towards Seminskoë, and realizing finally that the corps of Marshal Ney threatened to turn his left, ordered a retirement.

“All fled, said General Rapp, aide-de-camp of Napoléon*; firing ceased, carnage halted! … General Beillard went to reconnoiter a wood sitting at some distance; saw the road which converged on us, was covered with Russian troops and convoys, which moved away; if this road were cut off, the whole right of the enemy army would be taken in the segment where it had been placed.

*In his Memories, page 250.

—On the way to tell of this to the Emperor, he told the King of Naples, and he asked for him to request some battalions of Young Guard to finish them.

Beillard was there, but Napoleon did not believe it the proper time to give his Guard, and answered the general:

I do not yet rather clearly see my chess-board; I await news of Poniatowski; return, examine and return to tell me how he is.

Beillard returned near Murat… but there was no longer any time.  The Russian Guard advanced; infantry, cavalry, artillery, all were able to renew an attack.  Beillard only had time to gather some artillery pieces.

Grapeshot, grapeshot, and always more the grapeshot! He with the commander of this battery shouted.   

Opening fire at once, the effect was terrible; in one moment the ground was covered with dead and wounded; the Russian column, crushed as by magic, was dissipated like a shadow! … It had not been able to fire a single musket shot, and when its artillery arrived, we seized some of it.

The battle was so to speak gained, but fire continued on both sides.  The cannon balls, the shells, the musket balls, the grapeshot rained down on my sides.  In the one hour interval, I was touched four times, initially slightly, by two ball, shots then to the left arm which did nothing but remove the sleeve of my coat.  I was then at the head of the 61st Regiment; it was there that I received the fourth wound; I was reached by grapeshot which struck me in the left hip and threw me to the rear of my horse*; I was obliged to leave the battle field.  General Desaix, the only one of this division who was not wounded, replaced me: one moment after, a ball broke his arm.

*It was the twenty-second wound, which General Rapp received.

I was bandaged by the surgeon of the Emperor who visited me himself.

—It is always your turn to be wounded thusly? Napoleon said to me, this is becoming ridiculous!

—For me, yes, Sire, I answered him; but I believe that you will be obliged to deploy your Guard to finish this.

—I will keep mine well, Napoleon answered me; I do not want to demolish them.  I am sure to win the battle without it taking part in it.

He did not deploy them, indeed, except for about thirty light pieces of artillery which did wonders.”

At all points on the line, the Russian army, at five o'clock in the evening, was in full retirement on the road of Mozaïsk to Moscow, Kutusoff benefited from the night to entirely evacuate the battle field.

The force of the action, the eagerness of the combat had been such, that eighty thousand men of the two parties had been put out of combat; thirty thousand corpses covered this field of carnage.

Seven days after the Battle of Moscow, the French Army arrived at Moscow.

Peace, after a victory, was always the cherished wish of Napoleon; the resolution to go from Smolensk onto Moscow had been founded on the thought that the enemy, to save the ancient capital of the Russian Empire, would fight a general battle, that it would be beaten, that Moscow would be taken, and that Alexander, to recover it, would make peace, and that finally if he still hesitated to ask for peace, one would find in the immense city the resources and a point of support to restart a new campaign next spring; because the Emperor had decided, if the events forced him, to spend the winter in Moscow.

Built like Rome, on seven hills, Moscow, with its many churches, its spires of all forms, offered a most picturesque aspect.  Large and splendid city, the capital of the Muscovites, the Holy City of the Russian Empire was the commercial warehouse of Europe and Asia.  The Kremlin, a triangular formed fortress, containing the palace of the czars, built by the Tartars, inhabited by the merchants, and filled by the bazaars or markets; it was in Beloye-Gorod, or white city, new construction of the Russian nobility, where the most beautiful palaces were found, finally, in Zemleroye-Gorod, or town of ground, were the dwellings of base people.

The advanced-guard, commanded by Murat, had penetrated Moscow as of September 14; the army entered there the 15th, and the same day, Napoleon established his headquarters in the Kremlin.

Moscow, as Napoleon had hoped for, presented great resources.  In spite of the abandonment of the city by the major part of the inhabitants, the army found there abundance.  The storehouses were filled with provisions of all types.  The furnishings had not even been removed from the five hundred palaces of the nobility.  Servants left intentionally by the rich people that the government had constrained to leave the city, awaited the Generals who were to occupy these dwellings, to give to them instructions from their Masters, announcing that, in future days, once the first disorder passed, they would return, and recommended their properties to French generosity; but all the hopes of Napoleon, all calculations of his genius, were to be destroyed by an unexpected event, the fire of Moscow! … The Governor Rostopchin had not requested this sacrifice from the doubtful patriotism of the inhabitants, he had entrusted the work of destruction to the blind fury of the criminals, freed on this condition.  This event, which caused the ruin of a large population, was variously judged.  Pushed on by the hatred of his compatriots, Rostopchin was cleared from his guilt.  The fire of Moscow, the destruction of this rich city, actually obliged Napoleon and all his Guard to the retreat, which was so fatal to the French Army; but the retirement from Russia would not have had any annoying result if the winter had not occurred, more rigorous than it had ever been.  The army, after having taken its winter quarters on the Dniéper or Niémen, would have continued, the next spring, to beat the enemy, and allowed the effort of Napoleon to move on to Saint-Petersburg.  A constant cold from twenty to thirty degrees was the only victor of our brave soldiers.

 When our troops were spread through Moscow, the city appeared almost deserted, forty thousand inhabitants only, almost all of meager conditions, and a few hundred foreign merchants, had remained in their houses; but struck with terror, they were held within them.  Rostopchin, in his proclamation, had introduced the French as a gang of brigands.  A sinister peace reigned in all streets not long before so populated and so noisy.  Soon the fire started.  The whistle of the flames, the cracking of the blazing beams, the multiple explosions, disturbed this silence of bad omens.  The first fires burst instantaneously, around five o’clock in the evening, at three different points, at the Hospital of Foundling Children, the Bank and the Grand-Bazaar; our soldiers succeeded in restraining the fire at the hospital and the Bank themselves; but at the Grand-Bazaar, the violence of the fire triumphed over their efforts; it was impossible to save this immense building which, built like those of the great towns of Asia, i.e. out of wood, contained a great number of shops filled with invaluable goods; the merchants, by quitting the city, by order of the Russian governor, had had no time to remove anything.

Bouvier-Destouches, first lieutenant of the horse grenadiers of the Guard, had gone, with some grenadiers of his squadron, to the palace of Prince Gagarin, where, by his example and his activity, had managed to stop the fire which spread through the whole building, and thus saved part of the riches that this splendid dwelling contained.  The Russian prince, in recognition of this service, came himself to offer to the grenadier Guard lieutenant a gold plated tray, while saying to him.

—Sir, condescend to accept this little present that you will be able to hide, in order to find it when the fire is completely extinguished.

—Prince, this one answered, I thank you more for your intention than for your gift; but I cannot accept it.  When one has, like me, the honor to belong to the Imperial Old Guard, the only reward, which can please me, is the conviction that I have done my duty.

Prince Gagrin having insisted, Bouvier-Destouches took the plate and launched it through one of the windows of the palace into the Moscow (river), while saying with gaiety:   

Eh well!  Prince, notice the place where this plate fell, and when order is restored in the city, make your people fish it out.

The prince tightened the hand of this honest officer, and all was said and done.

The day of the 15th ended without new disasters, but near evening, fire shone at more than fifty various and opposite points.  One vainly sought to extinguish it.  Rostopchin, in his cruel precaution, had removed the pumps, and the fire extended with too much speed to stop it by ordinary means.  During the night, the blazing hearths were multiplied.  The 16th, in the morning, a violent wind started to blow; the flamers organized by Rostopchin, wanting to benefit from it, carried combustible materials in the houses best exposed to the wind.  In a few hours, Moscow presented the image of an ocean of fire.  Our soldiers saw with pain the food and the ammunition being consumed which were, for them, a necessary and desired abundance for the return; but as soon as they were convinced of the uselessness of their efforts to stop the  progress of the firestorm, they ceased fighting it, and with a precaution of self interest, but quite natural, they entered into the houses that the fire had not reached, to seek out various essential items, which soon were going to become the prey of the flames.

The 16th in the evening, the Emperor, threatened by fire was to move his apartment at the Kremlin, establishing it one mile from Moscow, with the castle of Pétrowskoïe.  The army also left the city, which remained delivered, without defense, to plundering and incendiaries*.

*“The rabble of Moscow played the principal part in this plundering; it was they who discovered the most secret cellars; and the French soldiers, who had been initially only simple spectators, soon became active parties.”(Letter of Mr. Sarrugues, priest of Saint-Louis of Moscow.)

Napoleon remained four days at Pétrowskoïe to await there the end of the firestorm of Moscow.  The ruin of this large city and its consequences, which he already had a presentiment, had inspired the bold project of his to push on to the Baltic, and to even go on to conquer peace at St-Petersburg.  The army of Kutusoff, beaten and demoralized, was not in a state to oppose a movement, which perhaps would have reversed the wholes state of affairs.  Accommodated with enthusiasm by Prince Eugene, this project that Napoleon submitted to the other chiefs of his army, became the object of their criticisms and their remonstrations.  The need for rest had already overtaken his most brave lieutenants, they feared to be penetrating further North, to seek winter, as if it were not to come rather early.  They represented to the Emperor that the army was harassed with tiredness, and that it had many casualties that staying in the hospitals of Moscow could only restore.  “The district occupied by the Imperial Guard, they said to him, was preserved.  Fire did not get into the cellars where one finds rice, brandies, saltings, fur skins, and about all which the soldier could need for the winter.” Napoleon let himself be persuaded and yielded.  He returned the 18th to Moscow, and again went to live in the Kremlin.

His first care was to distribute help to the unhappy inhabitants whom the fire had deprived of all resources.  This unexpected benevolence gave place to the first occasion of negotiation with Saint-Petersburg.  The Russian General Toutelmine, while returning an account to the Empress Mother of kindness of Napoleon for the establishment of the foundling children, of which she was a director, made known to her the peaceful provisions of the Emperor of the French.  Alexander was animated with same feelings, but he was not Master to follow his will; the Russian nobility, directed by the inspirations of England, regulated the march of the business.  It had already obliged the Emperor of Russia to remove a minister who had his confidence, and the choice of Kutusoff for general in chief had been imposed on him.  That explains how successively all the steps failed which were made to this end, and why the letter that Napoleon himself wrote to Alexander, offering peace to him, as well as the mission of General Lauriston in Saint-Petersburg, remained without result: Kutusoff did not even let Lauriston arrive to the Emperor of Russia.

The weather was beautiful and dry.  No threatening signs announcing an earlier or more rigorous winter than usual; Napoleon resolved only to return in Smolensk by Kolouga, a new road that had not been exhausted by the march of the armies.

During this time, Kutusoff had received reinforcements. The Army of Moldavia had made its junction with the reserve army, and the old general had established a camp at Taroutina, to the south of Moscow, in order to cover at the same time Kolouga and Toula.

The evacuation of Moscow began on October 15, by the departure of a first convoy of casualties, which was directed on Smolensk; other convoys followed in the days of 16, 17 and 18 October.  The main army left the city and took the road of Kolouga the 19th, the day when Napoleon, accompanied by his Guard, started himself.  Marshal Mortier, with a few hundred men, remained the last in the city: he withdrew himself while making ready to blow up the Kremlin, the moment when the Russians attacked it.

A fortuitous incident changed the line of retreat.  Kutusoff, who was quiet with a hundred and fifty thousand men in his camp of Taroutina, was informed by his scouts that a French army corps was moving on Kalouga.  Though far from believing that it was a retirement that had started, he wanted to wipe out this corps that he supposed being only one strong detachment, and, raising his camp, he went at once on Malo-Jaroslawetz.  There, he met the French advanced-guard, commanded by the Viceroy of Italy.  A stubborn combat took place that lasted all the day.  Prince Eugene withstood gloriously all the attacks of the enemy, attacks unceasingly renewed and supported by fresh troops.  The city, on fire, was taken and taken again up to seven times; but it remained definitively within the French possession, and witnessed regrettably the death of the honest General Delzons, killed as a combatant valiantly at the head of his division.

“The battle of Malo-Jaroslawetz is a day that the Army of Italy must be inscribed in its annals, General Rapp* again lets us know.  Napoleon bivouacked one half-league from there; the following day, we mounted horses at seven o'clock in the morning, to visit the ground where the combat had been fought the day before.  The Emperor was placed between the Duke of Vicence (Caulincourt, his grand-écuyer), the Prince of Neufchâtel (Berthier) and me.  We hardly left the thatched cottage where we had spent the last night, when we saw a cloud of Cossacks; they left a wood, ahead, on the right; they were rather well formed up, so that originally we took them for French cavalry.  The Duke of Vicence was the first who recognized this troop for what it was.

*In his Memories, page 226.

—Sire, he said, they are Cossacks!

—That is not possible, answered Napoleon, they would not dare!

But they pounced on us while shouting as loud as they could.  I seized the horse of the Emperor by the rein, and I turned it myself, while saying:

—But, lord, they are the Cossacks!

—Without any doubt! added the Count of Lobau (Mouton), I think they’ve recognized us!

Napoleon moved away.  I advanced at the head of the service squadron of the Guard, but we were overrun; my horse took a lance blow six inches deep, it fell back on me; these barbarians chased us on foot.  They fortunately saw at some distance an artillery park, they ran there; Marshal Bessières had time to arrive with horse grenadiers of the Guard, it charged them and retook the wagons and the artillery pieces from them, which they already began to move.”

Napoleon persisted in his movement toward Kalouga; but the remonstrations of the Generals and fear increased, of a great battle, the number of his casualties was already so considerable, so gave the order, instead of going ahead, to fall back on the right to gain the road to Smolensk by Wiasma, which the army had followed to come in Moscow.

Wiasma was still a theatre of a combat whose exit was glorious for the French Army.  The cold started to be felt highly after this combat.

The two sons of Prince Beauvau, who gloriously began in this campaign, followed the army in its retirement.  Ainé, lieutenant of carabiniers, was seriously wounded; he had the thigh broken by a shot.  He had his conservation with the Emperor who had him place in one of his special carriages, by expressly recommending him to the grand-écuyer.

The transportable casualties, with the remainder, were taken into all the carriages without distinction, those of the Emperor and in those of the army; the proper horses of Napoleon had been employed for these; his solicitude for these honorable victims of the war, and his indefatigable activity was exercised in this circumstance, as in all his campaigns of Italy, of Egypt, of Germany and Spain.  He had written on this occasion to Marshal Mortier, the last remaining in Moscow, with some battalions of the Old and the Young Guard:

“I cannot recommend too highly to you what must be done still for the remaining casualties; at the end place them on all the wagons of the Young Guard which you can find.  The Romans gave civic crowns to those who saved its citizens; nobody deserves this more in the world than you: I did the same at Saint-Jean d' Acre.  One must start with the officers, then to the non-commissioned officers, and preferably the French.  Assemble the Generals and the officers under your orders; make them all feel what humanity requires in this circumstance, etc.”

Napoleon arrived on November 9th at Smolensk.  He hoped to stop and put order in the retirement there; but the stores had been exhausted by the troops and the casualties who had remained in this city before; it was necessary, for military considerations that it would take too long a time for us to explain, to decide to move back as far as Wilna, from where the same causes and with greater disasters were to still drive us out.  Smolensk was evacuated, and, the same day, the thermometer went down to 19 and 20 degrees below zero.

Before arriving at Smolensk, the Emperor had received the news of the singular conspiracy of General Malet, who, alone, without troops, without support, prisoner of the State, unknown to the crowd, had succeeded, using his audacity and several false orders, but skillfully conceived, to seize, during a few hours, of the government of the capital.  This conspiracy, that the same day was seen being born, succeeding and repressed, and whose temporary success was only possible with the absence of Head of the State, did not astonish the Emperor.  He was struck by only one thing:  “It was, the Baron Fain explained in his manuscript of 1812, that after ten years of government, his marriage, the birth of his son, so many oaths, his death could still become a means for revolution:  And Napoleon II, he said, one could not think of it! … This train of thought, which he felt acutely, was a painful discovery.”

Up to that point, time, except for the intensity of the cold, it had been bearable, the sun, which sometimes still shone, kept up the courage of our soldiers; but suddenly wrapped in clouds it darkened; blacks clouds accumulated and covered with a thick snow the ground and the sad remains with which it was strewn.  All then became unrecognizable: the ways, the ditches, the fields disappeared.  Snowflakes, pushed by a frozen and impetuous wind, filled in all the cavities whose surfaces hid deep traps.  There, our soldiers found themselves engulfed, and the weakest remained there entombed, they could only distinguish the road on which they were to hold by the mounds formed, under the snow, by the trail of corpses.  The number of isolated increased with an alarming speed.  They had thrown away their weapons, which their numbed hands could handle no longer.  The discouragement and indiscipline had been spread to the remainder of the army, and it was at this point that Napoleon believed himself obliged to recall to his soldiers, in severe terms, that they violated their duties.

One morning, he formed the infantry of the Old Guard in a square, in the midst of which he placed himself, and harangued them in these terms:

“Grenadiers of my Guard, he told them, you are witnessing the disorganization of the army.  The majority of your brothers, by a deplorable fate, threw down their weapons.  If you imitate this disastrous example, any hope will be lost; the safety of the army is entrusted to you, you will justify the good opinion that I have you.  It is necessary, not only that the officers among you maintain a severe discipline, but also that the soldiers exert, among themselves, a rigorous monitoring, and punish those who would try to desert their ranks themselves.”

This call to the honor of the flag was heard in silence.  The Imperial Guard was molded with such discipline, that from this day, it tightened its ranks around its Emperor whom it did not leave again; but forced to be held in a continual alert to push back the ceaseless clouds of Cossacks, overcome by long marches and the deprivation of sleep, our old grenadiers, stiff with cold, not knowing how to get wood, and tightly massed against one another like cattle, lay down around the fire of the carriages or the wagons which they set ablaze in the absence of other fuels.

“A horse grenadier came, one evening, to warm himself at one of these fires occupied by soldiers various arms.  This brave man was covered with rags of all colors, and had preserved from his beautiful uniform only his saber and some scraps of fur from his bonnet, with which he protected his head, his ears and part of his face; the cold, which froze, so to speak, as the breath left the lips, made many icicles hanging from his beautiful whiskers… He had been able to keep only one boot, the other foot was wrapped with remains of shabraques and of cloth, bound around his leg by an old leather thin straps.  He was of a elevated stature, elegant even, and all the features of his figure breathed serenity, calm and resignation.  He deployed a piece of fabric, which he used as handkerchief, and said merrily while approaching the fire to dry it:

—Let me do my laundry.

When this makeshift handkerchief was dry, he thoroughly scraped the tobacco which it had contained, preciously pressed it into a piece of extremely clean paper which he used as snuffbox, by still saying grievous tone:

—Let us be fricasseed (squandered); but it is even, vive l’Empereur! We always soundly beat these Russians who are school children compared to us*.”

*M. of Bausset, Memories, volume 2, page 160.

This feature must be enough to give an idea of miseries to which the Imperial Guard, like the other army corps, was condemned.

Bulletins had made it known in France about the fire of Moscow, and the start of the retreat, and the victories of Malo-Jaroslawetz and that of Wiasma.  One did not despair yet of the war of Russia, though for a long time France was secluded from news from the headquarters.  Publication of the Twenty-ninth Bulletin created a universal shock.  We have reproduced here some passages of this memorable document of the contemporary history.  Napoleon, who had up to this time offered to his people only triumphs, tells of his disasters with a dignity whose impression is profound.

“Until November 6th, the Twenty-ninth Bulletin tells us, the weather was perfect, and the movement of the army was carried out with the greatest order.  The cold began the 7th; as of this moment, each night several hundred horses died in the camp.  Arriving in Smolensk, we had lost many horses of the cavalry and artillery.

The Emperor hoped to arrive at Minsk, or at least on Bérésina, before the enemy.  He left Smolenks the 13th, the 16th he slept in Krasnoï.  The cold, which had begun the 7th, increased suddenly, and, from the 14th to the 16th, the thermometer marked sixteen and eighteen degrees below freezing.  The ways were covered with ice; the horses of the cavalry, the artillery, the train perished every night, not by hundreds, but by thousands, especially those from France and Germany.  Our cavalry was completely on foot, our artillery and our transport were without horse teams.  It was necessary to give up and destroy most of our artillery pieces and our ammunition of war.  It was necessary to proceed so as not to be constrained by battle, that the lack of ammunition prevented us from engaging in; it was necessary to occupy certain places so as not to be outflanked, and, without cavalry to flank and protect our columns.  This difficulty, combined with a sudden onset of excessive cold, made our situation annoying.  Men who nature had not tempered rather strongly to be above all the chances of the fate and fortune lost their gaiety, their good mood, and dreamed only of misfortunes and catastrophes; those which it had created better than others, preserved their serenity, their ordinary manners, and assumed a new glory with each new difficulty to surmount.

The enemy, finding in the tracks of our route this dreadful calamity which struck the French Army, sought to benefit from it.  He enveloped all the columns with his Cossacks, who stole, like the Arabs in the desert, the horse teams and wagons, which strayed.  This contemptible cavalry had only noise, and is not able to break a company of voltigeurs; but it was frightening in the right circumstances.  However the enemy regretted all the serious attempts, which he wanted to undertake.  He was crushed by the Viceroy, in front of whom they placed themselves, and he lost many people.

The Duke of Elchlingen (Marshal Ney), who, with three thousand men, made up the rear-guard, had blown up the ramparts of Smolensk.  He was encircled and was in a critical position and drawing from some of this intrepidity, which distinguishes him.  After having held the Russians at a distance from him during all the day of the 18th, after having constantly pushed them back, at night, he moved by the right flank, passed Borystène (Dniéper), and thwarted all the calculations of the enemy*.  The 19th, the army passed Borystène to Orcha, and the Russian Army, tired, having lost every chance, ceased its attempts there.

*The beautiful resistance of Marshal Ney at Krasnoï, saved the French Army: his skilful march on the right bank of the Dniéper ensured the safety of his small army corps.  Napoleon was unaware for several days the fate of his worthy lieutenant, and he testified to his high concern of him, when Colonel Gourgaud announced to him that Ney had escaped from the enemy.  Napoleon, who was dining at that moment at Baranoni, rose precipitately from the table, and taking his aide-de-camp by the arm: “Is this quite true?” he said emotionally to him; then he added: “I have two hundred million in my cellars of the Tuileries, I would have given them to save Marshal Ney!”

The enemy crossed the Bérésina, and moved on Bohr: Lambert’s division making up the advanced guard.  The second corps, commanded by the Duke of Reggio, had received the order to move on to Borisow to ensure the army the passage of the Bérésina.  The 24th, the Duke of Reggio met Lambert’s division at four miles from Borisow, attacked it, beat it, made two thousand prisoners, took six pieces of cannon from him, five hundred wagons of luggage, and threw him on to the right bank of the river.  The enemy found his safety only by burning the bridge which has more than three hundred toises long*.

*The destruction of this bridge, which the Emperor hoped to save by the movement of Marshal Oudinot, was one of the principal causes of the disasters of the French Army on banks of Bérésina.

However the Russian army occupied all the crossings of the Bérésina: this river is forty toises (about 240 ft.) wide; it carried many ice floes; but its borders were covered with marshes five hundred toises wide, which created a difficult obstacle to cross.

The enemy general had placed her four divisions at various outlets, where it supposed that the French Army would like to cross.

The 26th, at the break of day the Emperor, after having misled the enemy by various movements made in the day of the 25th, went on to the village of Studzianka, and at once, in spite of a Russian division and in his presence, threw two bridges over the river.  The Duke of Reggio crossed, attacked the enemy and pushed it back up to head of the bridge of Borisow.  During the days of the 26th and the 27th, the army continued to cross.

All the wounded officers and soldiers, and all that was a hindrance, luggage, etc., was directed to Wilna.   

It must be said that the army needs to restore its discipline, to regroup, remount its cavalry, its artillery and its material, is the result of the exposure, which has been just made.  Rest is its first need.  The Generals, the officers and the soldiers suffered much from tiredness and food shortage.  Many lost their luggage in consequence of the loss of their horses, some by the fact of the ambushes of the Cossacks.

In all the movements, the Emperor always marched in the middle of his Guard.  H. M. was satisfied with the good spirit that this elite corps showed; it was always ready to go with him everywhere where the circumstances required it; but the circumstances always were such, that its simple presence was enough and that it was not in that case used…

The health of H. M. has never been better.”

This last sentence of the bulletin was placed to counter sharp recriminations on behalf of the enemies of the imperial government, as it was a natural and necessary concern to calm them to know how the Emperor had weathered the exhaustion of the campaign.  Didn't France, while learning of such disasters, need to be reassured on the health of the only man able to produce a remedy there?

The very same day of the publication of the fatal Twenty-ninth Bulletin in the capital, the Emperor arrived in Paris.  His return calmed all the anguish and returned confidence to the moved populations.  As soon as Napoleon had seen his army through the attack of an enemy too protected by the rigor of the season, he had thought of his duties as Head of the State; and, giving to King of Naples the task to establish the troops in good winter quarters, he had crossed incognito through all Germany, in order to revive, by his presence in the capital of France, the patriotism of his people and all the resources of the great empire.



Placed on the Napoleon Series: July 2006


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