The Ney Trilogy: the 6th Corps at Friedland
A group of riders spurred their horses on along a narrow forest road galloping in a blur of dark-blue uniforms and tarnished braid, swords jingling by their sides. There was sweat and anger, there was the buzz of fear and excitement. They thumped in their saddles weaving left and right as clouds of dust and leaves kicked up behind the hooves lingering in a breeze which swirled catching scattered rays of sunshine.
Summer was at its height across the countryside and although in the depths of the forest's shade the heat of the afternoon could still be felt as could a distant thudding which penetrated from outside. Animals dashed in terror from the undergrowth, darting crazily while overhead birds rose from the trees and circled squawking in the air which was heavy with gunpowder smoke. The riders saw gathering crowds ahead of them and knew they were being watched. They straightened their backs and cleared the fear from their faces. They would have to give orders and they would have to be obeyed.
Soldiers in tattered uniforms of blue and white with plumed shakos of black leather stood aside and glared as the riders galloped past kicking dust up into their faces. The men spat away the grit and cursed them as they glared with envy, with suspicion and grudging respect. It had been a long march, and the knapsacks on their backs had only grown heavier, the straps cutting deeper with each day each month of this war. Their feet were blistered their boots worn through, they could barely lift their muskets yet they were about to be thrown into a battle none of them wanted. Why did it have to be so? Who was to blame?
They were like the crew of a ship lost in the middle of the ocean. They knew this country was Poland but exactly where they didn't know and what they were about to do was even more of a mystery. They had no alternative but to follow. So they gathered up their packs, their muskets their bayonets. Some emerged from behind trees buttoning up soiled breeches their faces pale with fear. They were all afraid and they had good reason to wonder, would they ever see their families again? Suddenly the mundane seemed precious, the chatter, which had rippled through the forest, faded and the thought of what was about to happen confronted them starkly, unavoidably. The ranks began to form. The soldiers bit the ends off cartridges and emptied gunpowder into the muzzle of their muskets then checked their flints again and again. Their mouths were dry and with sweaty shaking hands they fixed bayonets. But there were others who disappeared into the forest looking back as if a pack of wolves were snapping at their heels. They dropped their weapons and ran with the tingling of terror in their spine. Where would they go in this country where no one understood their language? How would they survive? All they knew was that they could not face what was about to happen.
But thousands remained and they gathered into long lines forming companies, battalions, regiments and divisions, which stretched deep into the forest. The faces were stony or distant or betraying a nervous twitch as they stood shoulder to shoulder more scared than they had ever been in their life.
At the front of each regiment colour parties carried flag staffs on which golden eagles glistened every now and then in the shafts of sunlight. Officers with gleaming swords strode along the forming lines shouting commands. They were on edge, their tempers short, there could be no delay no sign of weakness, not now. As they looked at the faces of the recruits they could understand the fear but they could do no less than demand their obedience.
Amidst a swirl of dust the riders reached the front of the divisions where the soldiers in their tightly packed ranks watched and waited for the word to come. Who knew the time, who knew the objective they were about to risk their lives for? Ney? Where was he? There! On the grey stallion! A veteran squinted, bared his browning teeth and pointed him out to a teenage conscript who scratched his arse and peered. A few months before the boy had been gathering potatoes and watching the rumps of the young girls as they worked nearby. If only he was back there now...
“There!” Grunted the veteran as the boy snapped from the day dream his eyes fixing on Ney. It was true. The Marshal’s face was flushed with red as they said it always was when the time for battle had come. The boy sniffed back the dusty phlegm in his nose then stood to attention as Ney rode along the ranks. What did he have in store for them? They were all tired of war, tired of being away from home. Ney had a wife and children, glory, fame and riches. He had more to lose than they. Was he hoping this was this their chance to end this war, so they could all return to the lives they had lived before?
They said he was quick-tempered, impetuous, larger than life. Would he bring them through this in one piece or was he about to take them charging into the midst of some maelstrom in which they would all be annihilated by musket balls, grape shot, bayonets and sabres? That was his reputation. It had happened before at Jena, yes. Would they be sacrificed for the 'glory' of the Empire in which he apparently believed? At thirty-eight he was a veteran of many battles and wounds but how could he have faced this more than once? What was it that drove him on that separated him from those who had no choice but to follow? Was he going to talk of 'victory or death', those words that read so well in history books.
The ground shook with three great salvos of artillery fire. Ney and the generals drew their swords and spurred their horses on at a walk as the drummers tapped out the beat and ten thousand weary soldiers moved forward to the sound of the drums. To think, a few days or minutes ago they were cursing the man who had brought them here. Not the Marshal, he was just the loyal Lieutenant, no it was Bonaparte, the Emperor himself. He could have chosen the bed of the Empress or one of his many mistresses but instead he had chosen war. Somewhere he was watching high on a hill well out of harms way. His days of braving bayonets and bullets had passed, now he expected it of them and though they had their doubts they had to believe in him because they had no choice. They looked around at the thousands who marched with them, they heard the thunder of the cannon and wondered-who could stop them now?
The forest had muted the distant thumping of artillery but as they marched the roar began to grow. Ney cantered forward into the sunlight where the forest gave way to a broad grassy field which stretched across rolling hills to the village of Friedland. He squinted as he took in the light of the late afternoon sun. He could see the spire of the village church and thousands of green uniformed Russians gathered there with their backs to a river across which they knew they could not flee. It was too late for that. For them it would be 'victory or death'.
Ney spun his horse around and watched as his divisions emerged from the shadows into the heat of the Polish summer. As skirmishers spread like a cloud ahead of them battalion after battalion marched forward densely packed the Colonels on horseback the junior officers on foot their swords drawn as tricolours flapped in the breeze and the eagles shone even more brightly. The thumping of the cannon became a roar as on nearby hills battery after battery of French artillery fired into the heart of Friedland and the densely packed Russians around it. Plumes of flame erupted into the air. Gunners moved frantically ramming in cartridges heaving the guns back into position between shots as clouds of smoke billowed across the fields. Without them the Russian cannon would blast Ney's troops to pieces. Would the Russian guns find them before they raced across the open ground to the town?
There was a roaring of voices above the gunfire shouts of “Long live the Emperor!”. Ney spurred his horse on as they moved at the double across the hills where the village herds had grazed in peace not long before. Men stumbled and fell some threw their knapsacks to the ground cursing the heat, the neat lines wavered, parade grounds were not like this! Shots whistled through the air soldiers fell to the ground clutching at wounds, they saw the faces of those who marched behind them as they stepped grimly over their bodies. Then there was just the clouds and the rustling of the grass by their ears as the sound of battle faded away. The officers pushed the soldiers with the flat of their swords screaming above the din as they ordered the ranks to close up. Already they were soaked with sweat. Ahead of them, lines of green clad Russians could be seen in the distance.
To the right ten French battalions followed one after the other, a dense block of five thousand men to the left another five thousand in two great columns. Ney rose up on his stirrups and watched. His heart raced, adrenaline surged through his body. Was there ever a more magnificent sight in the history of war? This what he lived for. This was why he risked his life. He wheeled his horse around and watched smoke rise black, swirling and dense from the town.
“Go in at the double take the town and bridges!”
They were the Emperor's orders. But then he always expected the impossible. The dice had always fallen in his favour. Would the gambler's luck run out today? If Ney took the town the Russians were as good as dead their army cut in half denied any escape to the far side of the river. But thousands of desperate Russians fighting for their lives meant that orders would be easier said than done. So there was no time for parade ground precision for fancy manoeuvres and deployments.
Where was the Russian artillery?
Ahead he could see the lines of their infantry falling in rows as the French cannon found their range and cut through them. They fell back towards the town as dozens maybe hundreds at a time, tumbled to the ground and screamed for help or lay in stunned silence as their lives trickled away. Ney’s soldiers levelled their weapons, there was a thunderous roar as a hail of musket balls cut through the air. But cannon fire exploded punching holes through the smoke of Friedland from the other side of the river. Ney heard the familiar whoosh of round shot, thumping into flesh as in a fraction of a second arms, legs and heads were sent flying in a bloody spray too horrible to contemplate to awful to recall. So in the years to come the witnesses would sit in silence as their families wondered why they couldn’t speak, why couldn’t share what they had seen and done.
A Captain waved his sword, ordered his men to close ranks stepping over those who had stumbled, his soldiers blinked as something sprayed into their eyes. The Captain's head tumbled through the grass. A drummer marched with one arm torn away beating the charge with the other until he fell clutching the bleeding stump. Did he know what he was doing? Lines of broken bodies lay scattered on the ground there was a smell of blood and shit, screams filled the air. If they lived they would be in the hands of the butchers they called 'Doctors' with hacking saws and gouging knives to do their work of 'saving lives' with only a few sips of brandy to ease the pain. Maybe it was better to be dead? But while the wounded endured their pain others pushed on leaving them behind as if their lives mattered not a scrap. Perhaps if they had stopped and looked at what the bullets and cannon balls had done they would all have run from the battlefield in terror and given up this worthless Empire to live the lives they once had taken for granted! So it was better not to look. Better not to think. The survivors closed ranks and pushed on huddled together. They shielded their heads with open hands because a wound to the face was what they feared most. To live like that, disfigured crippled without hope of love. They wanted to curl up and hide. But there was no escape, and a hundred yards away the Russians seemed to be standing in solid lines and blocks of green. Were they scared too? Surely? But who would break first? They fired at them again and again until their ears rang and their lungs gasped for air in a cloud of gunpowder smoke that turned day into night. With shaking hands they reloaded as they advanced fumbling for cartridges and ramrods. They didn’t want to die. Not here. Not now. There was so much more they had to live for.
How long before the Russians fired back?
Musket balls fizzed through the air, noses eyes ears teeth and hands were shot away. The pain was unbearable the shock beyond imagination. When would the nightmare end? On the left the battalions tried to deploy to open up a broader front to bring more muskets to bear. Who had given the order? Bisson? On the parade ground it had worked so well but here amidst the smoke and confusion they stumbled changing from column to line as they had been drilled to do. From somewhere beyond the smoke Russian cavalry appeared slashing with their sabres like grey giants. Bisson’s battalions shook then crumbled away their spines tingling with fear as they waited for the terrible swords to cut through their flesh. But then a wave of French horseman swept in and the clashing of sabres drove the Russians back. To the right Ney’s artillery had stunned the Russian gunners beyond the river. And to the left beyond Bisson’s dead and wounded Dupont’s division and Senarnmont’s artillery were blitzing the Russian centre. Would they take his glory? Ney cantered along the front of the battalions that remained screaming something they couldn’t hear waving his sword like he was mad as if he didn’t he know that life or death was only a matter of luck of a throw of the dice, of a few centimetres this way or that. But from somewhere, perhaps from him perhaps from within them all came the momentum that pushed them forward. Was it the others who followed who couldn’t see what lay ahead? Whatever it was, Ney spun around and cantered towards the flames in the midst of his battalions. He could see the defenders were in chaos. More French troops were pushing in from the other side of the town catching the Russians in a crossfire that threatened to slaughter every last one of them. To the left he could see Senarnmont’s guns being galloped forward unlimbering firing cutting down swathes of bodies advancing reloading firing again like some murderous machine.
The river was at the Russian's backs. Who had made such a terrible error and delivered them into Napoleon’s hands? Why hadn't they withdrawn to the far side of the river while there was still time? Now all they had fought for was in jeopardy.
Into the inferno which was engulfing Friedland, Ney’s troops crashed, their front bristling with bayonets as they surged through the town climbing walls and barricades firing, stabbing, bludgeoning with rifle butts stumbling through the mess. The front ranks fell grabbing at wounds disappearing beneath the trampling feet of thousands more who were pushing in from behind. The noise and crush was unbearable, the sights unforgettable. Could they ever forgive themselves for what they had done or would they wake in far away nights with vivid sweaty nightmares? But now there was only the thought of staying alive of doing whatever it took to live through this hell. As ash and cinders rained down Ney’s troops smashed doors and hunted for snipers dodging debris which fell from burning rooftops as they went while from the rear fresh troops marched forward at the double through the fragments of bodies uniforms and equipment which littered the approach to Friedland. The wounded grabbed at their legs and begged for help or at least a mouthful of water to quench their unbearable thirst. But they would have to wait for the stretcher-bearers who were too few and the 'Doctors' who had already begun their grizzly work of hacking away arms and legs. From far away, the inhabitants of Friedland watched as their homes went up in flames and the sun nearing the horizon shone bright red. What would become of them now that history had chosen their quiet corner of the world to turn into hell? Who would dare return to survey the horrors that now carpeted the tranquil countryside they had known?
In the midst of the remains of Friedland Ney looked around calmly with his sword drawn his horse picking its way through the dead and dying who covered the streets their blood gathering in pools. Musket balls and artillery rounds still cut through the air, but it seemed he didn’t care. On a hillside overlooking Friedland Napoleon could see that the job was done. The bridges out of Friedland were in ruins. The Russian survivors were taking their chances in the river in a desperate attempt to escape the slaughter. Their generals had already ridden away and the news of the disaster was on its way to the Tsar.
Napoleon looked to his suite of generals with a grin.
“That Ney is like a lion in battle!”
Somewhere in the long grass of the hillsides the potato gatherer lay as the terrible roar of battle began to fade.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: April 2005
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