Napoleon's 29th Bulletin
(December 3, 1812)
Provided by: Veron Rodieck,
Nearly three weeks had passed since the last bulletin (the Twenty-Eight Bulletin was dated November 11th from Smolensk) was issued. Little, if any, information of the true state of the army had been disclosed. "To lie like a bulletin" was commonly known. Suddenly the curtain was pulled aside and the truth (but not the complete truth) exposed. The situation was very grave and could not be hidden forever. Napoleon knew this and tried to put the best spin on affairs as possible. The last sentence was added due to the Malet affair in which the Emperor had been declared dead.
To the 6th of November the weather was fine, and the movement of the army executed with the greatest success. The cold weather began on the 7th; from that moment every night we lost several hundred horses, in consequence of bivouacking. Arrived at Smolensk, we had already lost many cavalry and artillery horses.
The Russian army, from Volhynia, was opposed to our right: our right left the Minsk line of operations, and took for the pivot of its operations the Warsaw line. On the 9th, the Emperor was informed, at Smolensk, of this change in the line of operations, and conceived what the enemy would do. However hard it appeared to him to put himself in movement during so cruel a season, the new state of things demanded it. He expected to arrive at Minsk, or at least upon the Beresina, before the enemy; on the 13th, he quitted Smolensk; on the 16th, he slept at Krasnoi.
The cold, which began on the 7th, suddenly increased; and on the 14th, 15th, and 16th, the thermometer was sixteen and eighteen degrees below the freezing point.
The roads were covered with ice; the cavalry, artillery, and baggage horses, perished every night, not only by hundreds, but by thousands, particularly the German and French horses.
In a few days, more than 30,000 horses perished; our cavalry was on foot; our artillery and our baggage were without conveyance. It was necessary to abandon and destroy a good part of our cannon, ammunition, and provisions.
This army, so fine on the 6th, was very different on the 14th, almost without cavalry, without artillery, and without transports. Without cavalry, we could not reconnoiter a quarter of a league's distance; without artillery, we could not risk a battle, and firmly await it: it was requisite to march, in order not to be constrained to a battle, which the want of ammunition prevented us from desiring; it was requisite to occupy a certain space, not to be turned, and that too without cavalry, which led and connected the columns. This difficulty, joined to a cold that suddenly came on, rendered our situation miserable. Those men, whom nature had not sufficiently steeled to be above all the chances of fate and fortune, appeared shook, lost their gaiety - their good humor, and dreamed but of misfortunes and catastrophes; those whom she has created superior to everything, preserved their gaiety, and their ordinary manners, and saw fresh glory in the different difficulties to be surmounted.
The enemy, whom saw upon the roads traces of that frightful calamity which had overtaken the French army, endeavored to take advantage of it. He surrounded all the columns with his Cossacks, who carried off, like the Arabs of the desert, the trains and carriages that separated. This contemptible cavalry, that only make noise, and are not capable of penetrating through a company of voltigeurs, rendered themselves formidable by favor of circumstances. Nevertheless, the enemy had to repent of all the serious attempts which he wished to undertake: they were overthrown by the Viceroy, before whom they were placed, and lost many men.
The Duke of Elchingen (Marshal Ney), with 3,000 men, had blown up the ramparts of Smolensk: he was surrounded, and found himself in a critical position, but he extricated himself from it with that intrepidity by which he is distinguished. After having kept the enemy at a distance from him during the whole of the 18th, and constantly repulsed him, at night, he made a movement on the right, passed the Borysthenes, and deceived all the calculations of the enemy.
On the 19th, the army passed the Borysthenes at Orza; and the Russian army being fatigued, and having lost a great number of men, ceased from its attempts.
The army of Volhynia had inclined on the 16th, upon Minsk, and marched upon Borisow. General Dombrowski defended the bridgehead of Borisow with 3,000 men. On the 23rd, he was forced, and obliged to evacuate this position.
The enemy then passed the Beresina, marching upon Bobr; the Division Lambert formed the advance guard.
The 2nd Corps, commanded by the Duke of Reggio (Marshal Oudinot), which was at Tacherein, had received orders to march upon Borisow, to secure to the army the passage of the Beresina.
On the 24th, the Duke of Reggio met the Division Lambert, four leagues from Borisow, attacked and defeated it, took 2,000 prisoners, six pieces of cannon, 500 baggage wagons of the army of Volhynia, and threw the enemy on the right bank of the Beresina.
General Berkeim, with the 4th Cuirassiers, distinguished himself by a fine charge. The enemy could only secure his safety by burning the bridge, which is more than 300 toises in length. Nevertheless, they occupied all the passages of the Beresina: this river is forty toises wide, and had much floating ice on it, but its banks are covered with marshes 300 toises long, which present great obstacles in clearing it. The enemy's General had placed his four divisions at the different debouches, where he presumed the French army would pass.
On the 26th, at break of day, the Emperor, after having deceived the enemy by different movements made during the day of the 25th, marched upon the village of Studzeanea, and caused, in spite of the enemy's division, and in its presence, two bridges to be thrown over the river. The Duke of Reggio passed, attacked the enemy, and led him, fighting two hours. The enemy retired upon the tête-du-pont of Borisow. General Legrand, an officer of the first rate merit, was badly, but not dangerously, wounded. During the whole of the 26th and 27th, the army passed.
The Duke of Belluno (Marshal Victor), commanding the 9th Corps, had received orders to follow the movement of the Duke of Reggio, to form the rear-guard, and keep in check the Russian army from the Dwina, which followed him. Partonneaux's division formed the rear-guard of this corps.
On the 27th, at noon, the Duke of Belluno arrived with two divisions at the bridge of Studzeanea.
Partonneaux's division set out at night from Borisow. A brigade of this division, formed the rear-guard and charged with burning the bridge, marched at seven in the evening and arrived between ten and eleven o'clock; it sought its first brigade and its General, who had departed two hours before, and which it had not met with in its route. Its efforts were in vain. Some uneasiness was then conceived. All we have since been able to learn is, that the first brigade set out at five o'clock, lost its way at six, went to the right instead of proceeding to the left, and marched two or three leagues in this direction; that, during the night, the benumbed with cold, it rallied at seeing the enemy's fires, that it mistook for those of the French army. Thus surrounded, it was taken. This cruel mistake must have caused us a loss of 2,000 infantry, 300 cavalry, and three pieces of artillery. Reports state, that the General of Division was not with his column, and had marched alone.
All the army having passed, on the morning of the 28th the Duke of Belluno guarded the tête-du-pont upon the left bank: the Duke of Reggio, and behind him all the army, was upon the right bank. Borisow having been evacuated, the armies of the Dwina and Volhynia communicated; they planned an attack on the 28th, at break of day. The Duke of Reggio caused the Emperor to be informed that he was on the left bank. The Duke of Elchingen immediately followed the Duke of Reggio, and the Duke of Treviso the Duke of Elchingen. General Doumere, commanding the Fifth Division of Cuirassiers, that made part of the Second Corps that remained on the Dwina, ordered a charge by the Fourth and Fifth Regiments of Cuirassiers, at the moment when the Legion of the Vistula was engaged in the woods, to pierce the enemy's center. The enemy was defeated and put to the rout, together with his cavalry, that came to the assistance of his infantry. Six thousand prisoners, two standards, and six pieces of cannon fell into our hands.
On his side, the Duke of Belluno vigorously charged the enemy, defeated him, took from five to six hundred prisoners, and did not suffer him to advance within reach of the cannon of the bridge. General Fournier made a fine cavalry charge.
In the battle of the Beresina, the army of Volhynia suffered much. The Duke of Reggio was wounded, but his wound is not dangerous. He received a ball in his side.
The next day (the 29th) we remained on the field of battle. We had to make our choice between two routes - that of Minsk, and that to Wilna. The road to Minsk led through the middle of a forest, and of uncultivated marshes, where it was impossible for the army to feed itself. On the other hand the road to Wilna led through a very fine country. The army being without cavalry, deficient in ammunition, and horribly fatigued by fifty days' march, carrying in its train all the sick and wounded of so many battles, stood greatly in need of getting to its magazines.
On the 30th, the headquarters was at Plechnitsi; on the 1st of December at Slaike; on the 3rd at Molodetschino, where the army received the first convoys from Wilna.
All the wounded officers and soldiers, and whatever else could be of embarrassment, with the baggage, etc., were sent off to Wilna.
To say that the army stands in need of re-establishing its discipline, of refreshing itself, of remounting its cavalry, completing its artillery, and its materiel, - this is the result of the exposé that has just been made. Its repose is of the first necessity. The materiel and the horses are coming in; General Boureier has already more than 20,000 remount horses in different depots.
The artillery has already repaired its losses. The Generals, officers, and soldiers, have suffered greatly from want. Numbers have lost their baggage by the loss of their horses, and several by the effect of the Cossacks' ambushes. The Cossacks have taken numbers of isolated persons, of geographical engineers who were taking positions, and of wounded officers who were marching without precaution, preferring running the risk, to marching slowly, and going with the convoy.
The reports of the General Officers, commanding the different corps, will make known what officers and soldiers have chiefly distinguished themselves, and the details of these memorable events.
In all movements the Emperor has been continually marching in the middle of his guards - the cavalry commanded by the Duke of Istria (Marshal Bessieres), and the infantry commanded by the Duke of Dantzic (Marshal Lefebvre).
His majesty has been well pleased with the fine spirit shown by his guards. They have always been ready to show themselves wherever their presence was needful; but circumstances have always been such that their appearance alone was sufficient, and that they never were in a situation which required them to charge.
The Prince of Neuchatel (Marshal Berthier), the Grand Marshal (Duroc), the Grand Equerry (Caulaincourt), and all the aides-de-camp and military officers of the household, have always accompanied his Majesty.
Our cavalry was dismounted to such a degree, that it was necessary to collect the officers who had still a horse remaining, in order to form four companies of 150 men each.
The Generals there performed the functions of captains, and the colonels of subalterns. This sacred squadron, commanded by General Grouchy, and under the orders of the King of Naples (Murat), did not lose sight of the Emperor in all these movements. The health of his Majesty was never better.
Official Narratives of the Campaigns of the Napoleon London; 1816.