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The Retreat from Moscow


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Napoleon paused in his stride.

"Is it my fault," he demanded, "that the height of power to which I have attained compels me to ascend to the dictatorship of the world?"

Already he had planted his standards in Central and Southern Europe; he would now go to Moscow. Then he would return and conquer England; perfidious Albion should not escape him as she had escaped the Armada.

This accomplished, the States of Europe would be melted into one nation, with Paris as the capital. There would be one code, one coinage, one court of appeal for all.

But Napoleon had an uncle, a Cardinal, who had advised him not to make war on the Pope. The Cardinal now warned him that his treatment of the Holy See might bring down upon him the wrath of Heaven in the shape of Tartar fury as he marched into the City of the Snows. Napoleon scoffed. He led his uncle to the window and pointed to the sky.

"Do you see that star?"

"No, sir."

"But I see it."

The star of Napoleon had guided him from the days when he was "the Little Corporal," through victory after bloody victory until now he was not only Dictator of France but Emperor of the greater part of Europe, the Sovereign of Sovereigns.

Napoleon trusted in his star to guide him through Russia and he did not trust it in vain. Had any other general been so trusting, his star would have left him either a prisoner in Russia or a corpse in her bloodstained snows. For Napoleon rashly attempted to achieve in one year what no general could have done in less than two, seeing that for three-quarters of the year Russia is unsuited to warlike operations.

For his impetuosity and his astounding blunders, this man, who thought himself an unconquerable superman, paid the greatest price; he fell and great indeed was his fall. Napoleon was subsequently defeated at Leipsic and at Waterloo, but he lost those battles in the snows of Russia.

Had Wellington or Marlborough commanded the Russian armies, or had the advice given by the English Commissioner who was present been taken, and the attack pressed home against Napoleon as he retreated in confusion, there would have been no recovery from the Russian venture, no Elba, no Hundred Days, no Waterloo, no St. Helena.

When it was all over and Napoleon had escaped to Warsaw, he said one thing that all the world remembers, though it may not know that he said it. "The Retreat was absurd. It showed it is only a step from the sublime to the ridiculous."

Napoleon had waited at Dresden for a reply from Czar Alexander to his terms of peace. The reply came - meek, pacific but firm.

"I know that I am no such captain as the Emperor Napoleon, and that I have no general to match against him. I know it, and that alone should convince you that I desire to avoid war. But," warned the Czar, "peace will not be signed on my soil."

Next morning Napoleon rode eastwards into the eye of the rising sun.

Many a soldier in Europe, as he saw Napoleon's Grand Army, half a million strong, marching towards Russia, wondered whether this would be the last of the Napoleonic triumphs or the first of his defeats. The omens were not good. Having changed his uniform so that he looked like a Pole, Napoleon rode ahead to reconnoitre the Niemcn; his horse stumbled and fell. His followers said that a Roman general would have immediately turned back. Not so Napoleon for in the sky above him his star was riding triumphantly as ever.

At the frontier the Grand Army was met by a single Cossack, one of that great irregular army of rough-riders that was to harry Napoleon's retreat and to make the Emperor more furious than he had ever been with any class of soldier. He called the Cossacks "this contemptible cavalry that only knows how to shout and could not so much as ride down a company of light infantry!" Just one solitary Cossack met the Grand Army and demanded to know why it had come.

He was told that Napoleon intended to take Vilna and to defeat the Russians. The last thing that the Emperor intended to disclose was his real intention; for he was a master at fooling the enemy. The Cossack galloped away; the Russians prepared to bar the roads to Moscow, to St. Petersburg and the south; and so they divided their smaller army just as Napoleon intended they should do.

Two armies of the Czar were at that moment engaged in war with Russia's neighbours, at either end of the empire. Napoleon's ambassador was doing his best to prevent peace being signed with Turkey, while his Emperor was busy destroying the main army of the Czar. But there must have been some power stronger than either opponent at work in Russia in 1812. Holding in check one of the two Russian armies, Napoleon planned to drive the other Russian force, defending Moscow, into a gap between his own two armies, there to destroy it. The manoeuvre was cleverly planned, but it miscarried through the tardy obedience of Napoleon's brother Jerome, who was incapable of the command of an army and who, when he failed, should have been deprived of his command earlier than was done. Too late! The Russian Army escaped the trap, and continued to escape for the rest of the memorable campaign.

But nothing could resist the onrush of the Grand Army. After long marches over devasted areas, made worse by the fire and sword of the invaders, as yet happily unconscious that they must return by this terrible route, and would need the crops they so wantonly destroyed, the Grand Army paused at the top of a little rise known as the Hill of Salvation. From here they could see a dull white line on the horizon, which was the capital of all the Russias.

Through the invaders' ranks ran the exultant cry: "Moscow! Moscow!"

Napoleon reined in his horse and beheld the Gothic steeples and oriental domes of Mother Moscow. "Behold at last the celebrated city!" he cried. And then, half to himself, "It was time."

But as the vulture paused, viewing his prey from afar, the real prey was again escaping. And none knew better than Napoleon that until the Russian Army was destroyed, there was neither safety for him in Moscow nor elsewhere in the domain of the Czar.

Retreating right through the city, the Russian Army had come to the gate on the farther side, where its commander Kutusoff, held a hurried conversation with the ruler of the city; then on again, ever in retreat. For days before this there had been proceeding a general evacuation of the capital; and the peculiarity of this exodus was its spontaneity. No order had been given; none had intimated that the city would not be defended; the people, moved by some vague instinct, had decided that they would best injure the invader by handing over to him an empty capital. That decision and its counterpart, the destruction of the city by fire, immediately the French entered, did more to unnerve the Conqueror than any other reception that could have been devised. Nothing would have given him greater pleasure than to have attempted to carry the city by storm. But to ride into a silent capital, to wait vainly for a message from some official, who was not here to give it, was too eerie an experience for Napoleon's peace of mind. Now was the time to dictate terms of peace; but even the Emperor of Emperors could not make peace with a city of ghosts.

Soon the silence changed to something more ominous. Those incendiaries who had remained behind, hidden in silent houses, crept stealthily from one great building to another. Flames began to shoot out into the night sky. Silent Moscow soon became a roaring furnace. While his troops turned their energies towards quelling the flames Napoleon and his staff left the city and took up temporary quarters in the Palace outside. Here was the chance for which the Russians had been waiting! Nineteen out of every twenty Frenchmen were now unarmed. If the Russians had only attacked, the Grand Army must have died in the glare of that ocean of fire.

Even Napoleon did not escape untouched by that appalling conflagration. His hands and his hair and his green coat were singed. He wrote to the Czar and complained of the conduct of the incendiaries, and told him that he had had them shot. But what advantage was gained by making an example of these men? Those who were firing the city continued their work until all Moscow roared. For three days the fire raged; it was still burning when, at the end of that time, Napoleon re-entered the capital, took up his quarters in the Kremlin, and prepared to review his sadly depleted troops. But discipline in the charred and smoking city was gravely impaired; it is even recorded that some of the Guard had dared to pass the Emperor without saluting.

The end of September drew on; winter was approaching; Napoleon's Army had been reduced to no more than 100,000 effectives; to conclude peace was now imperative! The frontiers of Russia lay nearly a thousand miles away, and between them and the Grand Army was that devastated track which had been made in the furious progress to the capital. Not a mile of that long line of communications was secure from being raided. Provisions and ammunition were getting short. It was time to be going while the going was good.

Napoleon regretted that he did not halt his advance at Smolensk some 150 miles back, where he could have dug himself into winter quarters, awaited reinforcements, consolidated the territory won, and prepared himself for a still grander offensive in the Spring of 1813.

The Conqueror sent messages to Czar Alexander. So concerned was Napoleon to get this peace treaty signed swiftly that he rose in the night to draft the terms. That morning, his valet noted, an army of carrion crows was circling above the Kremlin.

Though he had not compelled his generals to make a stand against Napoleon at any point, Czar Alexander was no fool in matters of military science. At the moment he received Napoleon's message he saw quite clearly, perhaps clearer than did Napoleon, the grave danger of the Grand Army of France. He had made peace with Turkey, despite Napoleon's intrigues, and his two armies were now on their way back from both wings of the Empire. Moreover, his army of defence, still hovering round Moscow, was being enlarged with new levies drawn from the youth of the country. The Czar remembered his threat that peace with Napoleon would never be signed on Russian soil; and he made no reply.

Napoleon waited and waited and his troops became more and more disordered. Having looted the city, his men exchanged their uniforms for Russian fur coats and caps, and looked more like Esquimaux than Soldiers of the Revolution. So long as they remained in the charred capital there was little hope of their recovering the old discipline. Only one daily exercise served to keep alive their military ardour, the inevitable fight for provisions. Those who got little food had to be content with the plentiful supplies of wine with which they drowned their hunger. Foraging parties were sent to the villages outside the city to seek food for horses and men; they brought back little or no supplies. The Russians might give plenty of ground, but they were determined to give no food to the enemy. The first snowflakes fell!

While waiting for the reply that never came, Napoleon considered many impracticable plans for the escape of his army. In the first week of October he decided to march to St. Petersburg, there to conquer the second capital of Russia. His marshals objected, and Davout, the man to whom he had transferred his brother's command, opposed the scheme tooth and nail. This "conquest of the second capital," he scorned, would be nothing more than a retreat. If they must go back they should go by the route they knew, and upon the shortest existing line of communications; otherwise they would be separated from their frontiers by an impossibly long elbow.

One of Napoleon's maxims was that he did not mind being contradicted, for in that way he became educated to the truth. He knew already that his plan to march north was wrong; but for the unconquered and unconquerable Napoleon to retreat from Russia, away from an army that neither could nor would fight, was idiotic and unthinkable.

He sent yet another pleader to the Czar who now read into the request more than Napoleon wished him to do. It was the middle of October; the chill winds blowing over from the desolate Steppes would soon teach Napoleon his greatest lesson. No wonder the "conqueror" was so anxious to be at peace.

"The true character of a man," wrote Napoleon, "displays itself in great events. He who fears being conquered is certain of defeat." None knew better than he that a march back by the way he came, pursued by the armies he had pursued, would be disastrous; and yet there was no escape. Had he been in possession of a well-stocked capital, he could have turned out the inhabitants, and defended it against the Russians until Spring, when reinforcements would have arrived.

Napoleon wrote: "Moscow, now that it is burned down, is no use to us. It cannot even accommodate the sick and wounded."

Then, on the 18th of October, after wasting six precious weeks in the capital, he made up his mind. He wrote: "Tell the King of Naples that the whole army is moving. I shall start in person to-night." It was the turning point of his astounding career. The next day he said hopefully, "We shall arrive before severe weather sets in and get into winter quarters. All is going well."

But Napoleon, still the great general, had no intention of disclosing his immediate purpose to the enemy, or to allow his troops to straggle back over devasted areas with no provisions. Southwards to Kaluga ran two roads, an old one and a new. In Kaluga was ample food wherewith to reprovision the French Army, and Napoleon determined to secure it. Across the old road, which happily was twenty miles farther from the way home to France than the new road, lay the Russian Army, watched by Murat and the French cavalry. It was Napoleon's intention to make a feint of attacking this army by proceeding towards him down the old road, and then in the night, marching his main force past him down the new road and thence into Kaluga. And he nearly did it!

The Russian General Kutusoff, usually badly-informed as to his opponents' movements, got wind of the plan in time to send a force across to the new road, choosing an excellent spot to defend, overlooking a ravine which carried the road, and a tiny river. It was a beautifully clear morning and Napoleon was confident that his troops would capture Kaluga that day. As he ate his breakfast he was disturbed by the sound of cannonading which told him bitter news. His enemy had discovered the plot and was barring the way. Yet that battle of the ravine was a victory for Napoleon. The greater part of the work was given to the Italian soldiers, who distinguished themselves. All through the day the battle raged and the victorious Grand Army even pursued the Russians in an endeavour to capture their guns. In that battle, during charge after charge up steep ascents, Napoleon lost more than 4,000 killed and wounded. They lay heaped at the doors and windows of the houses in the streets of the town, on the bridge over the river and on the slopes of the ravine. The position conquered gave the French a view of vast numbers of the enemy outlined against the distant woods, preparing to intercept any further advance on Kaluga.

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