Four Men and a Woman: Remarkable Dutch Experiences during the Russian Campaign of Napoleon in 1812

By: Mariska Pool and Mark van Hattem of the Royal Netherlands Army and Arms Museum

Editor's Note: This paper was presented to the Consortium on the Revolutionary Era in February 2007.

When Napoleon’s army invaded Russia in 1812, it represented all the nations of his short living empire, stretching all across Europe. Alongside with the French, Italians, Portuguese, Spaniards, Swiss, Austrians, Prussians, Croats, Hungarians, Bavarians, Saxons, Westphalians and soldiers of many more nationalities were crossing the border. Among the French even, there were those who were not so French at all – most numerous among them the Dutch regiments, numbering some 25,000 men. And, what was true for the combatants, was true for the non-combatants as well: every flock of men brought along its own followers of woman and children, sometimes only a few, sometimes many.

In the most recent decades, historians have tried to get some clarity on the question of  what the basic motivations, loyalties and experiences of all these people involved in the wars were. Since Napoleon was emperor of the French, most of the efforts have been directed towards the French soldiers. This has been done for example by Alan Forrest with his book Napoleon’s Men (2002) in a analytic style, or by Paul Britten Austin with 1812 Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia (1993) in a more narrative style.  However, research on the allies of Napoleon is scarce, although after John Gill’s  With Eagles to Glory (1992) some people realize the Germans were important to the effectiveness of Napoleon’s army also.  But what about the Dutch?

As far as the Russian campaign and the Dutch is concerned, no comprehensive study is available as far as we know. By chance, our museum got a unique opportunity. While doing research on uniform coats from the Napoleonic period, we discovered very interesting facts about the people that had worn these coats in Napoleon’s days – when it turned out that we were able to find memoirs too, things really got going. In the end, we were able to make an interesting exhibition out of it, staged in 2005 with the title: ‘In the Wake of Napoleon: the Dutch in times of war 1792- 1815’. In it, we were able to discuss and present the motivations, experiences and surviving artefacts of eighteen men, a woman, and a horse. Altogether, this did give an interesting overview of the mental dispositions of the common officer, the gunmaker, the quartermaster, the maîtresses as well as the generals, and horses. By the way, the horse concerned was Wexy, the horse ridden by the Prince of Orange during the battle of Waterloo in 1815.  However, this horse was used as an exemplary example of the tens of thousands of horses used by the army, as it was with the others. It was very, very hard to get some interesting material on conscripts, although we succeeded in one case. For this reason, the subject of our study mainly lied with the officers and non-combatants. There is some justification for this. The officer corps represented continuity, since most of them were in the military as well in the days of old as in Napoleon’s days. Their position was different from those of the new conscripts, in matters of social background, motivations and experiences alike.

In this paper, we would like to make you familiar with five of our heroes from the exhibition, because we think that they represent some interesting different archetypes. We introduce here Wagner, the professional middle-aged colonel, in the army since 1793; Ninaber, the young professional lieutenant, since the Republican days in the army; Calkoen, the cavalry officer of noble origins; Verhoef, the young medical student from the bourgeoisie and last but not least Ida St. Elme, a Dutch woman who would turn into a symbol for the women in Napoleon’s army in general.

During our research, we used memoirs and documents, but we had as much results with our study of the materialistic culture of the period. For this reason, we start with arguing why studying artefacts is important, even in the field of mental history.

Historical Textiles as a Historical Source

F.H. Wagner 1770-1812

'Here I go...either to find honour or glory, or to die on the field of honour...'

Colonel Wagner
Portrait of Frederik Hendrik Wagner, colonel du 125e, 1810-1812
(lithograph; collection inv no 00101190)

When Napoleon's army marched into Russia in 1812, the majority of the officer corps of his huge army of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of soldiers that swept across the border were on their way to die. For most even the field of honour was not their reward: they would die in the most miserable circumstances of hunger, deprivation, exhaustion and illness. The officers had seen many years of campaigning and were hardened soldiers - after all, Europe had been in almost constant war for twenty years. This was true for the French army, but for their allies as well.

It certainly was true for Frederik Hendrik Wagner (1770-1813), colonel and commanding officer of the 125th Infatnry Regiment  of the French Empire général de division Partonneaux’s division, part of the Duke of Bellune's (Victor's) IXth Corps. The 125th Regiment was a regiment wholly composed of soldiers of the former Kingdom of Holland. It was made up - among others - by the old battalions of the former Dutch 4th Regiment, the regiment Wagner had been commanding for years. It is very likely from different sources that his regiment, when it marched into Russia , was still dressed in the old Dutch uniform (white with different facing colours).[1] It is clear from letters he wrote home to his wife, his beloved Dientje, that he was very happy to have retained the command of his 'own' regiment.[2] Wagner was a man who took his profession very seriously and who not only was proud off his regiment, but also regarded the well-being and effectiveness of its soldiers his personal responsibility. He was the only colonel of a Dutch infantry regiment who took the trouble to organize reading and writing lessons for his common soldiers. Ever during the march towards and into Russia , it was this pride in his regiment which kept Wagner going. Above all, he wanted to show his superiors that his regiment was among the finest. On their way through Germany , they reached Tilsit on August 29th, and Wagner wrote to his wife:

“The general of brigade (...) and our general of division (...)  both have given me very much compliments, because of everything they have seen, heard and observed about my fine regiment, and so is the Duke Marshal de Bellune, with whom I’ve dined today (...) in the regiment things are going very well, everybody obeys  my every command, and I do think I enjoy the respect and love of my men....”[3]

In his letters, no common soldier or NCO is ever named by name as being an individual. With the officers, this is quite different. Wagner looked after his junior officers, and sent their fathers reports on how they were performing and their personal well-being. There is even one young officer who takes the liberty of writing a letter to Mrs Wagner-Albers on his own, complimenting her on delivering a baby, and reporting his own promotion:

“I take the liberty to write you about this, hoping that you will share my happiness, while I still remember with much gratitude, how good you have been for me in Groningen, especially when I was ill.”[4]

It is very likely that Colonel Wagner identified himself with young professional officers in his regiment, and he knew their fathers – being former comrades in arms of himself or of his own father. Wagner also took the trouble to visit former colleagues of the Dutch army of the Kingdom of Holland, when they passed by, whether they were Dutch by birth or Frenchmen having served for ‘the good King Louis’.

New uniform models of the army of King Louis Bonaparte of Holland, 1806
(Grey brushwork, watercolours and opaque paint, inv no 00012868)

Click on image for a larger picture.

His loyalty clearly lied with his unit more than with a certain state or cause. As far as Napoleon is concerned, the Emperor appears only in his letters as a military mascot – in a letter to his wife when telling about the upcoming winter, he wrote that he trusts the season will not be too hard on Napoleon’s army, since the man is always so lucky.[5]

Where did Wagner get this attitude from? One answer is clear: his upbringing. Being a son of a professional soldier, he was destined to become one himself. When he marched into Russia , he had been an officer in the army for nineteen years. In 1793, when he became a cadet in the Dutch infantry and marched to Flanders to fight the revolutionary French, he wrote about the campaign to a friend, and stated 'Here I go...either to find honour or glory, or to die on the field of honour...' [6] This hadn’t changed over the years. How to be a good officer was a thing Wagner had learned in the old Dutch army of the Republic of the United Provinces. And in this institution of the so-called ‘ancièn régime’ things weren’t that different from those in Napoleon’s regiments in 1812. Undergoing his baptism of fire on May 17, 1793, Wagner was inspired by his commanding officer, who addressed his troops just before the fight as follows:

“People of the Netherlands who marched against (...) the French murderers, show that you want to revenge the insult they have given the honour of your country (...)  I’m here to go with you as a father with his children, and expect anyone to do his duty (...) he who retreats without strict orders shall learn to know my pistols...”[7]

Now, some interesting elements appear: the task ahead of the officers is described here as being to phold the pride of the country, by being a good soldier; the officer has to be like a father to his men, but discipline is a thing which is also being upheld by rather strict measures – after all, he wasn’t suggesting just waving his pistol when someone disobeyed.

However, in 1812, Wagner would find the end of his road to glory. When he arrived in gloomy Smolensk, this slowly began to dawn on him. He didn’t write about visits to other officers anymore, but about officers being reported wounded or dead; with regret and shame, he heard about the bad performance of the former Dutch 33rd Regiment of Light Infantry, and mingled it with his personal sadness, because his wife had delivered a baby in his absence:

“my regiment performed well (...) it is told the (Dutch) chasseurs didn’t, they were too roughly handled; our good lieutenant-colonel Grevenstein died ill in a city somewhere in Poland, this grieved me; I’m doing well, as I’m so tough...give a thousand kisses from me to your youngest born son, write me when he gives his first innocent smile, that one must be for me, kiss him when he does, and tell him that this kiss is his father’s...[8]

Partonneaux’ division, it is known, was especially ill-fated and one feels sorry for the symphatetic Wagner.

Grenadier of the 125th Regiment of the Line of the French Empire, c. 1811
(Watercolour and ink, inv no 00141511)

Click on the image for a larger picture.

The IXth Corps to which the 125th Regiment belonged, was late in following behind the main force. In the autumn and winter, they had the difficult task of protecting the flank of the retreating main force, which was at risk of being surrounded when crossing the Berezina. The relatively fresh units of the IXth corps were deployed to hold up the enemy as long as they could. On 28 November, Partonneaux’ division brought up the rear of the French army near the village of Borissov. While the Russian pursuers were kept at bay during the day, the regiments had to retreat at night, under the cover of darkness. Visibility was poor because of snowfall and in pitch darkness, Partonneaux’ soldiers marched as quietly as they could, hoping to meet friendly soldiers soon. But before long, they had become completely lost. When dawn broke on the morning of 29 November, it turned out they had made a mistake – most of the division was surrounded by a large Russian army. Surrender was inevitable.[9] Some accounts tell of soldiers being beaten, robbed of their possessions and finally stripped of their clothes. Many of them died during the first few days. It must have been a bitter pill to swallow for Wagner, who was wounded during the fighting.

The circumstances in most hospitals were degrading, but Wagner was lucky and ended up in the monastery of the Catholic Friars Minor in Vitebsk, where he would eventually die. He will most likely have been treated humanely. At any rate, the monks took the trouble of giving this professional soldier with his sensitive soul a decent burial in March 1813. [10]

Joan Derk Ninaber (1782-1812)

‘You may use my old uniform as a blanket for your horse...’

The old ‘Dutch’[11] line infantry regiments, sacrificed in either Victor’s IXth or Oudinot’s IInd Corps in order to protect the Grande Armée’s flight over the Berenzina, were not the only units of Dutch origin that had to put up a hopeless fight in order to rescue Napoleon. This also happened to the 3rd Regiment of Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard – the former guard infantry of King Louis. They were the ones having to hold off a great majority of Russians during the battle of Krasnoë, 17 November 1812.  For hours, an overwhelming number of Russian guns were having free play in firing at the guard. In the end, Russian cavalry charged and broke the weakened squares of the grenadiers.  Dying were mostly the rank and file, but one lieutenant was shot through the breast at very close quarters: Joan Derk Ninaber (1782-1812). Wagner would have been happy with Napoleon’s comment at the occasion, who called the regiment 'le gloire Hollandais'.[12] Some years before, Ninaber would have welcomed the comment too; but in 1812, he had grown tired of soldiering and would rather have been among the fleeing but living survivors.

Ninaber joined the army of the Batavian Republic; as a cadet in 1799, at age seventeen. He came from a reasonable well-to-do family, with some military tradition. However, his brother was the one inheriting the family business; so Joan Derk became an officer. He served in the Batavian and later Royal Dutch line infantry in Germany as a second and later 1st lieutenant, hoping for more. Ninaber didn’t have many opportunities to distinguish himself, but at last, while on campaign in Germany in 1807, promotion came. It was a comrade of his sending him the good news of his posting in the guard.

But being promoted to the guard was the only exciting thing happening to Ninaber, who had spent quite a miserable time in Germany , besieging fortresses in very bad weather conditions. He grew more and more bored with military life, until in 1810 the next big event came: the incorporation of the Dutch guard into Napoleon’s. At first, Ninaber was excited, but he was disappointed pretty soon, when it turned out that they retained the old uniform and – more important – their pay remained the same.[13]

On June 11th, 1811, Ninaber was so sick of the military life, that he wrote to his mother that he truly hoped to return to his homestead forever, and could undo himself of his ‘white frock’. On January 19, 1812, he wrote home that the uniform coat that was left in Utrecht, might be used by his brother to make it into a nice suit to wear on Sundays. He clearly supposed that this gift would do his brother much pleasure. Furthermore, he told his home front that he sincerely hoped that war with Russia or Turkey would break out, since in that case there might be the possibility to earn a 500 francs extra.[14]

J. Hoynck van Papendrecht, The last fight of the Dutch 3rd Regiment of Grenadiers of the Guard at Krasnoë in 1812, ca. 1912
(oil on canvas, inv no 050707)


However, in Russia things turned out differently. The sceptical Ninaber was one of the first sensing the disaster and he also saw that the Dutch weren’t comparable to the French soldiers – which did hurt his feelings, but anyway:

We had so much hope, that this campaign would bring us an extra one way or the other, but we are quite desperate right now, because our Dutch soldiers are too young and too weak, they can’t march like the French, despite all the trouble we take. They say the 33rd Light Infantry, which is an old Dutch regiment, has been sent to the back, because it had lost half it’s number straggling...I hope the Emperor will be more kind to us, and reward us for our exertions.”

So, being hurt in his pride as a Dutch soldier, seeing no chance for any reward, Ninaber grew impatient with the war. He seemed to have received a note from his brother, with some complaints about the old uniform coat he had given him; he was so disgusted by this ingratitude, that our disappointed soldier writes the brother that he can use the uniform as a horse blanket, or a cloth for the baby to piss on....[15] Anyone wanting any idea how disgusted he must have been, must have a look at the only one surviving dress coat of the Old Dutch Guard of King Louis, to see how splendid such a coat looked like and ridiculous the remark of Ninaber was.[16] It's clear the one Dutch grenadier officer that fell on the field of honour at Krasnoë was rather disgusted by military life - one can hardly speak of  'motivation' anymore: he simply had no choice.

Abraham Calkoen (1770-1830)

'The natural style for the heir of the Lord of Kortenhoef'

J. Hari, Portrait of captain baron Abraham Calkoen in the uniform of the Cuirassiers of the Guard of King Louis of Holland, 1810
(oil on canvas, inv no 053967)

Click on image for a larger picture.

Now it must be noted that Wagner and Ninaber were both professional soldiers, coming from a typical military background. They were hard working, professional men, making a career in the usual way. It's quite understandable their focus was on their regiment and the possibilities for advancement. Their loyalty, as we have seen, was with their regimental unit.

How about the officers of noble birth?[17] A nice example is Abraham Calkoen, son to the Lord of Kortenhoef, an influential patrician. Abraham was destined for a military career. However, the family had no political affliction with the Dutch Batavian Republic, so in 1798 Abraham became a cadet (later lieutenant) in the Danish Guard Infantry and spent some years in Copenhagen. It's interesting to note Abraham was appointed in the Danish Guard through his family connections and because of his birth, not because of his qualities. Calkoen decided to come back to his home country after 1806, since it now had become a decent Kingdom at last - the Napoleonic Kingdom of Holland. Louis Napoleon, King of Holland, rewarded the homecoming of the important nobleman's son with a posting in his guard. Calkoen spent a comfortable time at Louis' court, his main reason for worries being the costly uniforms he had to purchase every time he was transferred. Calkoen lived with some servants attending to his needs and in constant touch with his father as well as the court; he lived, as the Belgian historian Pawly puts it, in the 'natural style to the heir of the Lord of Kortenhoef'. [18]

By 1812, Calkoen found himself in Napoleon's guard cavalry, to be more precise, as a captain in the "2émè régiment de cheveau légers lanciers de la garde imperiale", better known as the Red Lancers. Quite a prestigious regiment. In the years before the Russian campaign, Calkoen and his father seemed to have regarded themselves as now being tied to the French Empire. They corresponded about going to live near Paris and their allegiance towards the French throne. One gets the impression that as noblemen, they felt they had to be loyal towards their sovereign, whoever this might be. [19]

Although Calkoen - judging by his letters - must have been a very agreeable person, there was certainly some nonchalance and arrogance about him. Not unlike Ninaber, he hoped that the guard would give him a fair chance for promotion. The ever retiring Russians made him and his fellow officers growingly impatient: they were eager to fight, to be able to prove themselves. Calkoen was impressed by the gathering of soldiers of so many nations in the Grande Armée and clearly thought himself lucky to be part of so great an event:

"I think that we are going to Warsaw and that the entire Guard will be assembled there', wrote Captain Calkoen on 28 April  1812. 'The number of troops and different nations represented is incredible - Swiss, Corsicans, Croats, Dutch, French, Prussians, Hessians, Bavarians, Austrians, etc....all are coming together".

However, the campaign brought no opportunities to distinguish themselves, other than skirmishing with cossacks - who often had the better of these fights - and, in the end, escorting Napoleon's sled carriage on its way out of Russia , when lancers dropped dead from their horses simply because of the cold. In January  1813, barely returned alive, he wrote home to his father that "I'm completely deprived, I posses neither horses nor linen. (...) My (...) servant vanished with my last two horses near Königsberg..." Quiet a state to be in, when your natural style is that of the heir of the Lord of Kortenhoef!

W.C. Staring,  Dutch Officers of the Red Lancers of the French Imperial Guard in full dress, ca. 1900
(pen and ink, inv no 00019175)


It is remarkable that Calkoen kept alive his eagerness to win a clean fight and earn some promotion. In April  1813, he was promoted to chef d'escadron in the 3rd Regiment of Lancers of the line and just one day after he reached his regiment, on August 28th, 1813, he charged home a majority of Austrian cuirassiers during the battle of Dresden - while Joachim Murat was looking, he completely routed the enemy and took a large number of prisoners. Murat rewarded him with the Legion d'Honneur as well as his own Order of the Two Sicilies. So at last, Calkoen had found what he was looking for.

Calkoen remained in French service until the abdication of Napoleon in 1814. After the abdication, Calkoen raised a unit of volunteer horsemen on his own and offered his services to the Prince of Orange, who had become King of the Netherlands . By doing this, Calkoen emphasised that his loyalty lay with the sovereign, he was a Dutch nobleman after all, and by offering his own unit he almost behaved like a medieval chevalier - and in this respect, he can hardly be called 'modern' in our sense. For those being curious: Calkoen missed the battle of Waterloo, but participated in the occupation of France in 1815. He died in the rank of a colonel of Dutch cuirassiers in 1830.

Hendricus Theodorus Verhoef (1790-1865)

Portrait of H.T. Verhoef in the uniform of an assistant surgeon, ca. 1814
(pencil, inv no 00101180)

Click on image for a larger picture.

Hendrik Verhoef was an eager young doctor, who had his very own reasons to join the French rmy. Our museum owns the uniform jacket, in which he tramped through Europe and Russia for no less than three years. In his latter years Verhoef wrote his memoirs and therefore we know precisely the story behind the man and his coat.

We learn that Verhoef, who came from a middle class family in Utrecht, took his doctor’s exam in March 1811. He saw Napoleon when the Emperor visited his hometown in September  1811, an event that filled the twenty-one year old with pride and awe. Verhoef must have become excited by the approaching war with Russia and the gigantic expedition expected throughout Europe. Immediately he reported to the Dutch Professor Brugmans, Inspector General of the Medical Corps, with the request to be put forward as candidate for the post of medical officer in the French army. On 20 February 1812, Verhoef was given his commission as chirurgien sous aide at the general quarters in Mainz, signed personally by Larrey. 

Nowadays one can only wonder: Why was Verhoef so keen to join Napoleon’s army? Why would he voluntary place himself in a position where he might be killed? Nor he, nor his family had a military background or a strong opinion about the political situation in the Netherlands , an opinion they would fight for. As a doctor, Verhoef also would not have a problem earning his keep. So, why did he sign up? No few young men would have heaved a sigh of relief at being rejected! Well, he had several reasons. Like a lot of other sous-aides Verhoef  probably wanted to escape the conscription. After he wrote Brugmans he had to draw his lot. But Verhoef wanted to be doctor, not a soldier with a gun in his hand. Compared to other sous-aides who often got a crash course in medicine, and of which Napoleon said in 1812 that they did the Grand Armée more harm than the Russian artillery, Verhoef was a real doctor, who had sworn the Hippocratic oath. He wanted to cure, not to kill. And he wanted to learn a great deal, proof to the fact that he wrote Brugmans before he draw his lot. And where could he do that better than in the army and get the same training as his shining example?

In addition, it was the distant horizons – adventure – the craving for the unknown,  that drew him on

“And there I am, from being a quiet citizen, appointed to be a member of that great army which, under Napoleon, Emperor of the French and, at that time, of our country too, consisted of men from most European countries. I had a mere four days to equip myself for a journey whose consequences at the time could absolutely not have been dreamed of….”

On April 11th, Verhoef reached Berlin, after a short stay in Mainz. He spent a pleasant time there, visiting sites and friends, but also gathered medical knowledge. In the Museum of Anatomy he was amazed at the skeleton of the giant Frederik the Great, and he attended the lectures given by Larrey. Verhoef attended the lectures in civilian clothes. He made a special note of the fact that he mostly dressed as a civilian so that he could go anywhere he pleased. Being a soldier clearly wasn’t his first priority. He would have to wear a uniform often enough in the coming months. Now he simple enjoyed the pleasures of the city and increased his medical knowledge.

But on 30th April  it became serious business. Verhoef was appointed to a ‘marching division’ heading east. The journey took the young, inexperienced medic, to the borders of the Niemen at July 30th. It is unnecessary to state that crossing the river made a deep impression.

“We were in enemy territory, and none of us had much – indeed I had none at all – experience or knowledge of how we should behave. We were there merely to cure friend and foe as best we could.”

Verhoef was directed to the field hospital in Glubokoje, near Polotzk in the south of Russia . The journey there took him through Lithuania and Northern Russia, and he gave his eyes free rein, describing in his Memorabiliën the dwellings, the people, the habits and the local food. But he also saw traces of the war: advancing armies leave smoking ruins behind them.

“Abandoned houses and farms, ransacked estates along the road, all scattered with dead, emaciated horses, that gave off an unbearable stench, which was sometimes reduced by innumerable gangs of crows that preyed on the remains. These birds began their operations in the area around the bottom of the dead animals.”

‘The House of Death in 1812’, illustration from Verhoefs memoires,
ca 1814-1863
(pencil, collection Municipal Archives of Schiedam)

Click on image for a larger picture.

Finally, on 18th August , Verhoef arrived in Glubokoje. On that day a two-day battle was wound up in Polotsk, with the French and their allies beating the Russian Northern Army. In the first few days this must have led to a flood of wounded men, but shortly after that a lull occurred at the front and it was mainly sick men who reported in. “Many of the wounded were infested with worms, many suffering from typhus, few dead, many cured.” Verhoef also was responsible for a transport of 300 wounded men to Vilnius were the main hospital was. The journey back and forth caused Verhoef to be extremely exhausted. The route followed bad roads, with carts that screeched and cracked, and Verhoef had to check the wounds of all 300 men in the evening. In the end Verhoef himself was a sick man, but he did not complain. Realising that losing faith was the worst he could do in this situation, he took care of his patients and of himself. He didn’t waste too much words on how bad the situation was. After the battle of Polotzk at 20th October , when the troops suffered under the fighting, a shortage of forage, dysentery and exhaustion, Verhoef uses only two words to describe the situation in the hospital:  “worry and sorrow”, but he describes in detail the trade by the Jews, women- and men’s clothing. Today it makes you wonder whether Verhoef was in denial or shock or not?  A Bavarian officer remembered the hospital as less rosy than Verhoef:

“The hospital in Poltozk filled up daily with more men, the essential medications were unavailable and every day we lost (it sounds horrific, and now I can only think back on it with sadness, but it is the honest truth) between forty and fifty men to this terrible sickness.”[20]

But things were to be making a greater impression on the young doctor. When the army was so decimated by disease that they could not offer resistance to the Russians anymore, the decision was taken to evacuate the hospital in Globukoje. Everything and everyone was to be transported back to Vilnius. Verhoef was put in charge of transporting sick and wounded men on carts. In Vilnius however, he was like all other healthy soldiers sent back to Russia , for Napoleon’s retreat had to be covered. Verhoef’s journey on foot to Glubokoje was terrible: practically all armed soldiers deserted him, leaving him feeling under constant threat. At times he marched alone in companionship of a tiny dog, but even the dog left him, scared away by a wolf. When he wanted to drink something in a  'kabakka' - a kind of bar - he had a shocking experience:

“Who can imagine, how  in that house, at that time on a 400 hours distance from my homeland, in such a grinding cold, and all alone, how I felt, when I opened the door and instead of the landlord and his family, saw 25 dead people in a circle, around burned and extinct pieces of wood, resting against and on each other, robbed […] of most of their clothings […] Quickly I withdrew myself from this  terrifying cavern, and closed the door in anger for the sole purpose of leaving this house of death immediately. But my eyes where automattically drawn to a barn - and there I saw again the same heartbreaking scene, because again there lay the same amount of victims of the disastrous war. For me it was clear that these unfortunate ones probably were my patients in Glubukoje that because of the 'sauve qui peut' of the 28th of October […], [had] dragged themselves as far [as] here, and finally after fighting the cold, their wounds and their illnesses, on the run for the enemy, in this season, this extremely harsh winter, this inhospitable Lithuania, by a dying fire in the utmost miserable cicumstances, devoid of everything they had loved,  were perished, in the anxious certainty, that their sad faith will be unknown forever by their parents and friends.”

It was an event that broke Verhoefs heart and the whole idea of driving the sick and wounded to Vilnius, but also to a sure death, was in controversy with his opinions as a doctor. It is the first time he speaks about the disasters of war.

Back in Glubokoje, Verhoef found the hospital and the sick and wounded abandoned by the medical staff. Verhoef  single handed decided to prepare a transport back to Vilnius, where the patients would be better off. Unfortunately,  the procession fell into the hands of Cossacks. On 6th December 1812 they were transported “to a region that was anyone’s guess… [in] cold weather that was really unbearable.” The travel ended on November 2, 1813 in Archangelsk in Siberia. Verhoef was treated well and he realised  that he had his profession to thank for. He had all the time cured friend and foe, as he already stated when he crossed the Niemen at the beginning of his trip, and that paid off. During this captivity he was scarcely subject to supervision and that part of his memoirs read more like a travel novel than a war report. Slowly but surely it became clear to him how lucky he had been. From other prisoners he learned how many had died on the march from exhaustion and cold. Verhoef became deeply embittered, because as a medic he saw no need to have the prisoners march so far to the north; personally however, he enjoyed his journey. He literally writes: “Their doings have never bothered me, since now I see free of charge people and regions where other Dutch will never roam.” His imprisonment finally ended in the summer of 1814. On 25t October 1814, more than two-and-a-half years after leaving, he again set foot in Amsterdam. Normal life took over, Verhoef established himself as doctor. But for the rest of his life he took pride in having been part of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. In lectures on medical topics he used his   Russia gained knowledge as well as his travel stories to spice things up. He explicitly mentions the dead corpses he saw in the abandoned house in Danaliwitsch, but also the cheerful sleigh ride of 300 hours with the Cossacks. His tombstone bears the following inscription:

“Henricus Theodorus Verhoef. born in Utrecht 24th July 1790 died in Beusichem 12th September  1865. From February 1812 to October 1814 medical  officer in the great French army in Russia .”

Ida Saint Elme

My life is like that of no other. The life of a loose woman, a vagabond, passionate, extravagant, intrepid, mocking, and with no care for the future. Addicted to pleasure and with a fervour only few lovers are worthy of. A life that seems hardly proper for a woman, whatever period she lives in; a life made so singular by the emotions of war.’

The display dedicated to Ida St. Elme in the Royal Army Museum 2005-2006
(photograph Jos Stoopman)

Click on image for a larger picture.

These are the memorable words of writer Ida Saint-Elme, an exceptional woman. She was bsessed by powerful  military men, even following them as far as the battlefield dressed in men’s clothes, for one sole reason: LOVE, and perhaps a tiny bit opportunism as well!  In the end, she was loyal only to herself. There are no surviving stories known about Dutch women following the drum, Ida is the only one. And we have to keep in mind that it was once said of Ida that ‘even those who knew her best…[could] scarcely distinguish her boundless imaginings from the meagre truths’ .

Born, at least in her imagination, on the pastoral shores of the Italian river Arno, Ida Saint-Elme went through life as a descendant of the noble Russian family Tolstoy. It was not until after her death that it became known that she was, in actual fact, called Maria Elselina Johanna Versfelt, born in Lith, a village along the rather more prosaic banks of the river Meuse, as a daughter of a true Dutch preacher. Blessed with exceptional beauty and a middling talent for acting, Ida managed, even in these turbulent revolutionary times, to trade stuffy, bourgeois Brabant for frivolous France . Mighty military men were her pull. In fashionable salons and on breathtaking campaigns, she captured soldiers’ hearts. Her Mémoires d’une Contemporaine, which she published in no less than eight parts in 1827, was an instant success probably because she had no scruples about recounting her infamous memories of amorous and intimate escapades with the nation’s heroes. During and her marriage,  she had affairs or at least ‘amitiés amoureuses’ with an engineer officer Marescot, General Grouzy, Colonel Meynier, Talleyrand, and even Napoleon flirted with her. Most of her time, ‘La Contemporaine’, the Contemporary, as Ida liked to call herself, divided her attentions between Jean Victor Moreau and Michel Ney. Moreau was her admission ticket to the top echelons of society. She gave him the best years of her life, though her motives were not entirely altruistic. He offered her a glamorous life full of finery, and Ida enjoyed it to the full. All the same, Ida did share with him the discomforts of military life and war, following him to France , Germany , and Italy ­– ‘The adventurous life excited my imagination, and the journey, though it could be dangerous, was not much more than a minor excursion.’ She cut off her blonde locks, dressed in a blue coat with black tie, a pair of trousers and boots.

Impassioned, Ida wrote in her memoirs that her experiences with Moreau were no more than a poor substitute for the true passion she felt for Michel Ney. The first time she saw him was in Kehl in 1796. Bowled over with love, she decided to write and tell him of ‘the compelling cry of her heart, the feelings that shatter her peace, his image engraved in her soul,’:

‘With you always in my thoughts, I trembled if you were near to danger, I rejoiced in all your triumphs and wholeheartedly applauded each report of your good deeds. My position in the world is magnificent… I would forsake all to share with you the perils.’ 

In her boundless enthusiasm, Ida accidentally put this passionate letter to Ney in an envelope addressed to Moreau. Ney, on the other hand, received  a perplexing one filled with domestic humdrum. Moreau did not know for whom the letter was intended, – although obviously not himself – and promptly dumped the wayward lady.

While the offending letter was on its way, Michel Ney was already involved with another mistress and – how could it be otherwise – was not really interested.  From 1800, however, he did send Ida reports. Ida was of course delighted with these splendid stories in his letters, but above all, it was Ney’s character, so full of brilliance, vivacity and patriotism, that impressed her so much. She soon struck up a warm friendship with him, turning into a love affair, remarking about him that ‘had he been ordinary, he would be ugly’.   

Portrait of Ida St. Elme, taken from her ‘Mémoires…’, ca. 1820

After 1805, with her hair cropped and wearing those legendary men’s clothes, Ida pursued himwherever he went: Tirol, Germany , Spain , Russia . For her, nothing was too much. That was how she acquired her nickname ‘la Courtisane de la Grande Armée’. Ney considered the army no place for a woman and wished to spare his ‘siren’ the dangers of war.

But she followed her heart, and her true love, to the disastrous campaign in Russia . Ida told nobody she went, not even Ney, since he would have interposed his formal veto. ‘I set out with scarcely a hope that I should so much as gain his approbation by exposing myself to all these fresh dangers for his sake.’ Disguised as a man she followed the rear of the army. As far as Poland she travelled in a post chaise, but from there on things grew more hazardous. She was, as she said, liable to the worst perils that a woman has to fear. Her only safeguards were letters to a few of the generals she had to deliver at the headquarters in Wilna. There she saw a gigantic army assembled, who’s acclaim “Long live Napoleon!” in six different languages was but the prelude to a disaster without precedent in the history of man.

In Wilna were a lot of women accompanying the troops. Ida found a friend in the Lithuanian Nidia, a girl with a passion for the French and an intense passionate love for the valiant General Montbrun. The girls travelled by carriage, in a sledge, on foot, and on horseback, through almost impracticable swamps, ever braving fatigues which only love and patriotism can render supportable. Ida saw Moscow burn and had to flee the city, she prevented a Russian women from being raped by the French; Nidia was fighting off a Cossack, who - after discovering she was woman, ‘redoubled his effort prompted by desire’. Ida ate nauseating horsemeat, was also molested by the Cossacks.

‘The accounts of this campaign have truly depicted the painful side of it, the sufferings and the hunger […] I have known unfortunate women to pay for the privilege  of warming themselves at a camp fire, or for a day’s filthy rations, with the most humiliating favours. And I have known them to be left to perish by the roadside, abandoned by the men who in the miseries of the morrow forgot their victims of the day before.

Ida crossed the Berezina with Gérard’s division - , and heard or saw nothing of her hero until she was on Polish territory. At Marienweder she learned Ney was around and she posted herself in a tumbledown hut nearby. ‘My men’s clothes were in a lamentably ragged condition, and it seemed unlikely that anyone could recognize me for a woman.’ But at the first glance Ney knew her and instead of hugs and kisses he bursted out into vigorous language and gave her blunt reprimands of her rashness and mania for following him whatever the dangers. All and all he was not pleased to see her. His outburst cooled down Ida’s ardour, but  she would always go on protecting him for the rest of his live.

Denis-Auguste-Marie Raffet (1804-1860), Marshal Ney in the redoubt of Kovno, 12 december 1812
(oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre)

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Her extravagant and glamorous life stands in shrill contrast to the lives of other women who ollowed the armies. Ordinary women had an even more difficult time of it in wartime. Women always followed the armies, whenever and wherever war raged. In addition to craftsmen and traders, soldiers’ wives, prostitutes, servants, tradeswomen and washerwomen also used to follow in the army’s wake. As a rule, these women were from the lower social classes and were often cut of the same cloth as the fighting men they accompanied. There was one cantinière for every regiment, with her own tent, a canteen as it were, where she could sell her wares. Vivandières, who had no tents, sold everything, often also their souls. No wonder then that some of these ladies were much loved among the soldiers, although one French officer called the army ’a travelling brothel’ and the women ’mothers of all vices’. But the soldiers had no problems with the ladies. Not only because they were so generous with their favours but also because many of them fought like men, showing great courage. Though the numbers of women who followed armies must have been considerable, only few emerged from the anonymity of the Grande Armée in Russia . We know of Marie from Namur, a woman with quiet a reputation, who after losing her husband in Spain, married a sergeant of the Young Guard and became cantinière.  She took part in the Russian campaign, got wounded at Lützen, while carrying ammunition in one arm, and a barrel jenever in the other. Madame Dubois, cantinière of the Guard, was the wife of the company’s barber. She give birth to a child during the retreat of Moscow at a temperature of minus 20 degrees Celsius. The child did not survive the cold…. We know of the vivandière Cathérine Rohmer, married to the drumming-major of the 62nd  Regiment. She crossed the Berezina. It is a question whom she really loved: her husband, Napoleon or both? She devotedly followed Napoleon to Elba, returned with him after the Hundred Days. And in between she delivered 8 babies, of which 4 died on the battlefield.

These women barely escaped oblivion yet they deserve far more prominence than all those well-known noble and elegant ladies who found a place in the history books purely by reason of their family connections or because they were known by such euphemisms as ‘grande horizontale’ or ‘scandaleuse’ as Ida. But Ida gave all the women a monument, the brave ones, the unfortunate ones, the ones with no choice, the ones who really loved, the opportunists, the mistresses, the wives and all those others who had their own private reasons to sign up for the Russian invasion.


Colours of the 126th infantry regiment of the French Empire, 1804 model, 1810
(silk, painted, metal thread; Musée de l‘Armée-Hôtel National des Invalides collection, Paris)

After 1810, the 126th Regiment consisted mainly of Dutch soldiers. During the Russian campaign, the regiment lost countless men defending the bridges over the Berezina, and the last men were taken prisoner of war. At the time, they were fighting under the model 1812 colours, which is why this set of colours, a model 1804 issued to them in 1810, survived the campaign.

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The general impression of the motivations for the Dutch officers and non-combatants who participated in the Russian campaign that arise out of our study and the five stories here presented, is not one of patriotism, national élan, political ideals or enthusiasm for the Napoleonic cause. Although this might be different for the conscripts, it is clear that for others their relatively new civic rights or the new constitution of their country was not one of their causes to fight and march for. On the other hand, they also don’t seem to have bothered about their country being annexed by Napoleon. On the contrary, if Napoleon was their new sovereign, then they would be loyal to him – professional honour demanded this, it is as simple as that. They did, however, carry with them some national pride in that sense, that they went to great lengths to do honour to the Dutch reputation as soldiers – and there is certainly something nationalistic in this feeling. It did not seem to be such a problem that their regiments were called ‘French’: as noted, it is important to remember most of them still wore their old uniforms of the Kingdom of Holland.

Foremost in their mind was the awareness to be part of a social system: they truly regarded their regiment as their second families (maybe even their first).  This is stronger, when – like Wagner – the officer concerned was from a humble, professional origin: a man of noble origins like Calkoen was more strongly tied to his family. But all in all, the ‘ésprit de corps’ was certainly one of the most important feelings motivating the Dutch in battle.

It is true that there are elements to be found of a more positive nature, like the thrill to be part of a great historical event, the lure of distant horizons and love. As the cases of Verhoef and Ida show, these elements tend to be more important for the non-combatants, men and women alike. This is not  strange: after all, pride in being a soldier, belonging to a regiment or military professional honour, was not to be expected of civilians. But their presence on such a campaign can be seen as a statement, that most of the soldiers and officers crossing the Niemen were driven by some of the most universal and basic instincts of mankind – professional honour and friendship and deeply felt love: these joined in the realization that they were part of a large military community.

An army is a socially motivated community just the same, notwithstanding the uniforms.



[1] Those interested in this matter, see our argument in: Mark van Hattem, Mariska Pool, Mathieu Willemsen e.o., In the Wake of Napoleon. The Dutch in time of war 1792-1815 (Bussum 2005)

[2] Wagner to his wife, D. Wagner-Albers, October 7th, 1810: Royal Netherlands Army and Arms Museum, collection of Vanity Documents, collection F.H. Wagner

[3] Wagner to his wife, D. Wagner-Albers, August 29th, 1812

[4] J.L. Keuchenier to Mrs Wagner-Albers, Smolensk October 11th 1812

[5] Wagner to his wife D. Wagner-Albers, Smolensk October 11th, 1812

[6] Wagner to ‘a friend’, Dorselen, May 5th 1793

[7] Wagner to ‘a friend’, May 16th, 1793

[8] Wagner to his wife Wagner-Albers, Smolensk, september 16th 1812

[9] See: Austin, P.B., 1812. Napoleon's invasion of Russia , (London 2000),  p. 282-283, and Zamoyski, A., 1812. Napoleons fatale veldtocht naar Moskou (Napoleon’s ill-fated campaign to Moscow) (Amsterdam 2005), p. 412-413.

[10] J. van Eyck, Klokken luidden voor Dientje, in: Armamentaria (Yearbook of the Royal Netherlands Army and Arms Museum) Leiden 1972, 63

[11] ‘Dutch’ here means: old units of the Kingdom of King Louis Napoleon. Please keep in mind that approx. 30% of the soldiers and NCO’s of these units were of non-Dutch, mostly German, origin; Louis’ Kingdom didn’t have national conscription.

[12] in Dutch this is a proverb, 'Hollands Glorie'; Zamoyski, 375

[13] This was because the pay in the old Kingdom of Hollands army was better than in the French; Napoleon lowered the pay for the Dutch soldiers, but Ninaber got more because he was in the guard; in the end, his financial situation didn’t improve.

[14] J.D. Ninaber to his mother, Versailles January  19th, 1812, letters in family collection

[15] J.D. Ninaber to his mother and brother (2 letters), Witebsk, August 4th 1812

[16] Dress coat of the Chasseurs of the Infantry of the Guard of the Kingdom of Holland, ca. 1809, collection Royal Netherlands Army and Arms Museum, Delft, Netherlands.

[17] In the context for Dutch society, it is important to note that 'noble' includes the many patrician families.

[18] Ronald Pawly, The Red Lancers.  Anatomy of a Napoleonic regiment (Wiltshire 1998) 13

[19] National Archives, Netherlands , Archive of the Calkoen family,; letters of Abraham Calkoen to his father, 1810-1813

[20] Eckart Kleβmann, Napoleons Ruβlandfeldzug in Augenzeugen Berichten (Düsseldorf 1964) 296


Placed on the Napoleon Series: February 2007

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