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The Retreat from Moscow page 2


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A surprise descent on the town was no longer possible, as Napoleon's troops had now to fight their way through ravine after dangerous ravine; and when the town was reached there was as much certainty of finding provisions there as if he returned to deserted Moscow.

Napoleon was enraged as well he might be. One incident of that time shows how deep were his feelings at being thus again baulked by fate. One of Napoleon's marshals brought to him Baron Winzingerode, a general in charge of a Russian division, who had been captured during the retreat. Napoleon addressed him with gross insolence, overwhelming him with abuse and contempt. He told him that he was a traitor, seeing that he was a German, and therefore subject to one of his vassals. Whether Napoleon was in earnest was never known, but he certainly condemned this captive general to death. His staff, however, remonstrated with him, and the captive was spared, and liberated by his comrades at a later stage of the retreat. It was said of Napoleon that, ordinarily he was kindly; but when exasperated he would be exceedingly brutal to anybody who offended him.

Seeing that his first plan had miscarried he now gave the order to retreat to the frontier roughly by the way they had come. All that day's valorous fighting, all those dead bodies about the ravine, represented useless effort. The Grand Army now turned half-right and struggled towards Smolensk. The Russians saw them go and knew that the end was coming. Companies of Cossacks detached themselves from the main force, and, outflanking the rearguard, began to swoop down on the retreating columns; after harrying the marchers on the wings and doing much mischief, they would wheel away. This procedure happened not once but thousands of times during the long weeks of the retreat. It was Napoleon's first experience of this barbarian style of warfare in Europe. It filled him with rage and he wrote bitterly:

"The situation has become worse. Ice and frost at near zero have killed off nearly all our horses. We have been compelled to burn nearly 300 pieces of artillery and an immense quantity of transport wagons. The Cossacks have turned to account our absolute want of cavalry and of artillery to harass us and to cut our communications."

In one of his bulletins he claimed that from October 18 to November 6, the weather for the retreat was perfect and the movements of his army were carried out with great success. But on November 7, the cold had set in and they lost hundreds of horses at each night's bivouac. The cold was intense; the roads were covered with ice; and the horses died every night, not in hundreds but in thousands, especially the French and German. Within a few days over 30,000 horses died from the weather, with the result that the artillery and transport were without teams to draw them. The Cossacks continued to surround the French columns and these, said Napoleon, "like the Arabs in the desert pick up every cart or wagon that lags behind." The horses that were left were reduced to eating the thatch of houses and autumn leaves.

When the ruins of the Grand Army reached Borodino, where the Russians had for a while made a stand during the French advance, the town presented a fearful spectacle. Everywhere were signs of the terrible struggle of two months ago. The ground was strewn with rotting French corpses and the hospitals were charnel houses. Here some 1,500 wounded lay unable to move, surrounded by heaps of dead; and pestilence was raging.

The delight of the wounded at the news of Napoleon's return was great, and also at his order that every private carriage and military vehicle must carry one or two of them back to the frontier. They did not suspect what the effect of that order would be, for the luckless invalids proved too great an additional encumbrance. Many died from the jolting over the snow and ice; others from cold and hunger; some from being pitched out by the persons they inconvenienced; and some were murdered outright. Not one of those wounded reached the next town.

Part of the provision-train was seized by the Cossacks soon after it left Moscow in the rear of the Grand Army. Thereupon the rest was sent on in front. Marching in three columns, the Grand Army kept fair order until Viazma was reached; here the ranks broke and disorder became general. Carcases of horses and straggling men dotted the roadside. In the terrible cold the Grand Army melted rapidly away. Those who, weary with the march, fell away through sheer exhaustion, had little hope for the future. They were either cut down by the Cossacks or caught by peasants who, waiting for them in hiding, suddenly leaped out and dispatched them. So maddened were the Russian peasants at the excesses committed by the invaders on their way to Moscow that they were prepared to treat any stragglers without mercy. Some soldiers, as they stumbled towards them in the snow, were taken and buried alive, the Russians jubilating over their graves. Other French soldiers were massacred by the Russian women, and that experience was worse still. Many whose lives were spared, were stripped of all their clothes and left naked to die in the snow.

One of Napoleon's sayings was that the first requisite of a soldier was not courage but endurance; and the truth of that saying was seen all along the hideous line of the French Retreat. Those who fell out were the sick and the dispirited, men who were unable to face up to the misery of the present and the threatening greater misery of the future. Many more were just vicious men who saw in the straggling retreat an opportunity to escape from the restraints of soldiering and to become bandits. They ravaged the countryside, robbing and murdering as they went.

Most awful of all was the lot of the Russian prisoners who were forced to accompany the army back towards the frontier. Some two thousand of these unfortunates were treated with the grossest cruelty and they died like flies. If they made an attempt to escape, they were immediately shot, some as they were burrowing through the snow. The survivors huddled every night on the bare ground with no hope of getting near to any one of the bivouac fires. Their only food was raw horseflesh, and soon this unappetising ration gave out. And each day they were driven along without mercy. Some of the prisoners, and in time the troops, became crazed with the perils and privations, for the march was now a pandemonium of horrors. Ill-clad, stricken with disease, frost-bitten, blinded by the glare of the snow by day and the smoke from the damp wood of the campfires by night, ceaselessly attacked by the well-mounted Cossacks, the remains of the Grand Army and their prisoners became more like savage beasts than human beings. The line of march presented the appearance of an extended battlefield. There was turmoil and fighting everywhere. The fords of the small rivers became choked with wagons and guns stuck fast in mud with the troops falling into the icy water. Arms were being continually thrown away; lives were no more precious.

At last Smolensk was reached and the town was ransacked by soldiers who behaved like madmen. When the stores were broken open there were frenzied scenes of violence. Half-starved, exhausted wretches fought each other for the pillaged food, much of which was destroyed. Scarcely any was left for the other marchers who, under Marshal Ney, were fighting a magnificent rearguard action in their defence. These poor fellows, having no food, had to depend on the dead horses. They were so ravenously hungry that they tore the raw flesh off the bones with their teeth. In doing so they covered themselves with blood and offal, making their appearance increasingly hideous. Because they were unable to bathe or to remove their clothes they became loathsome with disease. With their plight worsening every day the men became more selfish, even thrusting their wounded comrades from the fire, and leaving them to perish in the snow.

In the towns there was always danger. One Russian citizen, who kept a knife for the purpose, boasted that it had been buried in eleven Frenchmen. A French soldier hearing two babies crying in the house at which Marshal Davout was staying, begged the cook to spare the infants some broth to keep them quiet. None was forthcoming and so, unwilling to be disturbed any longer, the soldier seized the two squalling infants and drowned them!

Demoralised though it was, the French Army was nevertheless capable of turning at times on its enemies and, in ferocious encounters, scattering them like chaff. On November 16, Napoleon learned that Kutusoff's Army was in his neighbourhood, and he determined to make a bold attack in order to free the road for Davout and Ney who were following. Davout was enabled to get through, but the gallant Marshal Ney found his route intercepted by a tremendous force. Reluctantly Napoleon decided to resume his journey, confident that he would never again see his beloved marshal.

Yet Ney, by one of the most astonishing efforts in military history, managed to rejoin his Emperor. While Napoleon was hastening on to Orcha, Ney commanding less than 6,000 men, the last fragment of the rearguard, found himself suddenly confronted by Kutusoff with 80,000 men and scores of batteries. The Russian sent an envoy to Ney advising him to surrender, and offering a truce so that Ney could discover how strong were the forces opposed to him. Some guns went off by accident and Ney, thinking there was treachery, arrested the officer sent to negotiate with him, and ordered an immediate attack on the enemy. The attack went on till dusk, by which time the larger part of Ney's men had been slain. Then Ney ordered his troops to turn east, back towards Moscow. Having reached a tiny stream, Ney broke the ice to discover which direction the water flowed, for he assumed that by following its course he would be led back to the River Dnieper by a roundabout route, the direct crossing of which had been stopped by Kutusoff. Later a peasant guided them by a short-cut towards the river which, he warned, was no longer frozen over, and so could not be crossed. But when they reached it they found that the drift ice had made a jam, which was just passable. It took Ney three hours to get his men over that precarious crossing, after which an attempt was made to transfer the wounded. But this was impossible; they had to be left to their fate on the farther bank. Only 3,000 of the 6,000 who had been with Ney when the day dawned were able to cross that river; but these were over; and they had only to follow its course to arrive at Orcha and rejoin Napoleon.

The Emperor, a stag at bay, at first did not realise the significance of Ney's arrival. Presently the marvellous achievement of his marshal began to dawn on him. He wrote, "My anxiety about Ney has passed. He has joined us."

Previously, when convinced that Ney would never again join him, he wrote: "I have given Ney up. I have 200 millions in my cellars. I would give all of it to Ney!"

But the Emperor had other and graver affairs on his mind just then. All through the first month of the retreat the thought of the Beresina would continue to shoot into his anxious mind. He now wrote: "Send an aide to the Duke of Reggio to tell him that I am impatient to know that he controls the passage over the Beresina." But he received the crushing news that the bridge had not been saved and that the enemy was there before him. The Emperor ordered General Elbe, with his company of pontooniers, sappers and artificers, to hurry forward to improvise bridges. But Napoleon had himself to blame for the considerable difficulties experienced by these brave men, for a previous order had been to destroy all superfluous vehicles and baggage. Elbe had pleaded hard for 15 pontoons, though in vain. Luckily he had saved a few clamps and large nails - against orders - though an insufficiency for the purpose of bridging the wide Beresina. The majority of Elbe's men had to work without proper tools. While the pontooniers cut down trees and strove to make trestles, some of the troops went fifteen miles along the river and made a feint of preparing to cross there. The Russians encamped on the other side, stupidly followed them and took up a position awaiting the crossing. Not until the rough bridges that were being prepared fifteen miles away were in the water and ready for crossing, did the Russians realise that they had again been fooled.

The order was to make three bridges but the French had barely sufficient material for two. Before these were started 400 troopers were ferried across the river on a few small rafts to eject the Russian guards who had been left behind, while the main force was lured away on its wild-goose chase. The pontooniers were given a task which meant almost certain death. They had to stand up to their shoulders in ice-cold water and to be relieved every fifteen minutes. Elbe offered them special rewards for the work, and they responded bravely to his demands; but of what use were rewards to men who knew that they would never live to claim them?

One observer has left us a picture of Napoleon at the Beresina seated on a pile of logs and gloomily surveying the scene below him. When he urged Elbe to hasten, his general pointed to the valiant fellows labouring in the icy river, and shrugged his shoulders; nothing more could be done. But Napoleon himself stooped and handed brandy to the freezing men and personally directed their labours.

The right bridge was intended for the use of the troops and the left for the remaining guns and baggage. As there was no suitable wood for the roadways, brushwood had to be laid down. When Marshal Oudinot and his dejected skeletons arrived, and began to file over the right bridge, they caught sight of their Emperor, and paused in their misery to give him a cheer.

The advance guard went on ahead and speedily cleared the country of the enemy rearguards. The Russian general had now heard that the crossing of the Beresina was actually taking place, and he sent his soldiers in haste back to the scene. Meeting these Russians barring the road to Minsk, Napoleon decided to change his direction and head down the unobstructed road towards Vilna.

Meanwhile the left bridge had been completed and the French guns were struggling over. The crossing was difficult indeed. The bridges continually broke down and the pontooniers had to be frequently wakened and sent back into the water. While these delays were taking place, the Russians in the rear of the Grand Army began to take up positions all round the French. Gannon-balls flew through the air splashing into the river, among the troops and the camp-followers all congested on the bank. Though Napoleon does not appear to have greatly distinguished himself here - the choice of the crossing was made by one of his marshals - he was sufficiently astute to line the bridge at his back with his artillery, ready for the enemy whenever they came.

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