Research Subjects: Miscellaneous

A Cursory View of Prussia from the Death of Frederick II to the Peace of Tilsit

LETTER XXVIII: The Russian Army at Königsberg


THOUGH the friends of both parties may have boasted the honor of victory, yet I am of opinion the commanders were pretty well convinced to whom the palm properly belonged.  Even amongst the unprejudiced well wishers of the allies, there must be many who will readily acknowledge the same grievance to have attended the Russian armies, as we have lamented so unfortunately to have prevailed amongst those of Frederick William; I mean the want of sufficiently able officers.—With such troops as the Russians, under the care and guidance of Bonapartè and his generals, how much farther progress would he not have made in his subverting conquests, than he has even already done?  It is indeed a melancholy consideration that so vast an empire as Russia should produce so few men of military genius; though abounding throughout with so much natural ability.  It must, therefore, be this notorious defect alone, which can be offered as an apology, for appointing Baron Bennigsen commander in chief, and though his conduct at Preusch Eylau does not seem to throw any imputation on his military character, yet it is the general opinion of professional men, that he still by no means is the person to fill the post intrusted to him.  His enervated body is at present incapable, of long exertion, and, though he may occasionally be animated with a momentary glow of ardor, yet he soon returns into such a state of apathy as is the least consistent with the duties of a commander of chief.

Soon after the arrival of Bennigsen at Königsberg I received a letter from a friend there, of which I send you an extract, to give you, who in your happy island, know nothing of the horrors of War, some little idea of the miseries attending these dreadful scenes.—

“As soon as the roads were safe, my curiosity prompted me to visit this memorable scene of action.  Most terribly indeed had the iron had of war stamped it’s baleful traces upon these unfortunate districts.  Here the peaceful peasant, who reads no newspapers, nor knows even the name of Bonapartè, is scared from his quiet abode: both friend and foe seem to have united to make him feel, to it’s full extent, his woeful lot.—The Russians, who were encamped to the extent of five or six miles about Königsberg, had, to make them fires in this cold weather, unroofed and broken up the huts of all the neighbouring villages.—Every kind of provision was swept away; and what made it’s loss more mortifying was, that five times as much was wasted as was made proper use of.  This naturally enraged all the peasants against the Russians, not considering that these poor soldiers themselves were half dying from hunger.  Nor were those peasants near the French quarters more fortunate; for they also, without considering the wretched situation of those miserable people, took whatever they could find; and in passing Jessau, the rector of which place had fled to Königsberg, they employed his whole pious library to boil their kettles.—The rector’s sister, confined by the rheumatism, could not escape:  she lay in a little garret; some oatmeal, mixed with melted snow, was before her, and this, for eight days, had been her only sustenance.  We gave her a small portion of our travelling stock, and joy and gratitude beamed through her tears.  The nearer we came to Eylau, the fewer marks of devastation we found; and though there were no provisions to be had any were, yet we saw at least human faces; for the other villages we passed through were all deserted; nor had the houses here been so much damaged, which gave us some relief, after the various scenes of misery we had gone through.  In the totally desolated village of Kleinsaugarten we once more found the terrific picture of war; but misery, indigence, and distress, I first saw in their extreme at Eylau itself.  Parents were there already so far reduced as to be forced to bury their literally starved babes in their gardens.  Bread, meat, wine, brandy, salt, or tobacco, were no where to be found.  Poor emaciated hollow-eyed spectres were crawling about the streets, covered with rags like the most pitiable beggars.  To enter their houses, on account of the stench of dead bodies, was scarcely possible; and even my essence of vinegar was not sufficient to defend me in their church.—I never should have believed without seeing it myself, that human nature could have borne such an excessive degree of misery.  Bonapartè had cruelly given up the place to plunder; in short, every thing was ruined, destroyed, and laid waste; not a door, nor a window, nor a cupboard was remaining.  This is, indeed, the less extraordinary, when we consider that the town had been twice in the possession both of the French and the Russians, and thus, twice were the streets streaming with blood.  The combatants even followed each other into the very houses.  From the highest to the lowest of the inhabitants, they were all robbed of every thing they possessed, and simple water, with a scanty pittance of mouldy bread, was all they now had to keep life together.  To form an idea of the situation of these miserable beings, one must have seen them, for words are not sufficient to describe their excess of wretchedness.  Many died through fear, many from ill-treatment, and many were yet sick from the painful recollection of the past.”

“Overpowered by such dreadful scenes of calamity, I deemed it even a relief to go and contemplate the horrors of the field.  Howsoever mangled I there found many of my fellow creatures, yet these lifeless bodies had at least surmounted their sufferings; but the unfortunate inhabitants of Eylau were yet languishing on towards the more excruciating death of hunger.  This certainly would have been their dismal lot, as the whole surrounding district was equally bereft of every mean of sustenance, had they not soon received from Königsberg the most desirable relief and refreshment, besides cloathing, linen, and every necessary article to repair and make their dwellings tolerably comfortable.  Had I first visited the field of battle, this hideous, unusual sight, which I hope never to see again, would have undoubtedly shocked me more than it now did: for after having my mind so deeply harrowed up with the late dreadful scene, I must repeat that the sight of the field, frightful as it was, with from twelve to fifteen thousand slaughtered victims strewed before me, was yet a relief.—A slight snow had just fallen, my foot slipped, and, in sinking, my hand caught a ghastly human face!—Here were fragments of drums, carts, horses, saddles, cloaks, hats, harness, broken muskets, pistols, and other arms innumerable, all, in confusion, scattered about.  Russians, French, and Prussians, here all lay together.  It was in truth a woeful sight, but still they had all ended their miseries, whilst so many around them were yet trembling from the recollection of what had happened, from the vicinity of the combatants, and the apprehension of what might happen again.”

“I returned home with my heart full of anguish at the scenes before me; and, like the good people of Eylau, full of anxiety for the future.”

And now, my good friend, enjoy the more your safe little island, where, though at war with all the world, you never see or feel any of it’s horror.


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