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The Retreat from Moscow page 3


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There must have been 120,000 men in the three Russian armies that were at this time converging on the Beresina; they were well-armed and well-equipped; and it is a military marvel that Napoleon eluded them.

The frightful scenes that occurred in the later stages of the crossing have been recalled in picture and story by artists and writers innumerable. While the French rearguard threw back the advance guard of the Russian main army until the larger force became confused, the French straggled over the ramshackle bridges. Some reports say that Napoleon crossed on horseback; others that he walked over leaning on his staff.

Segur, one of the most vivid of the witnesses, describes the chaos among the camp-followers. Base acts and deeds of lowest infamy occurred side by side with acts of the sublimest heroism. Some, sword in hand, cut their way with relentless fury through the struggling mass, cleaving for themselves a dreadful passage. Others, in the midst of a hail of Russian bullets, drove their carriages at the mob, their wheels running over the bodies of the fallen. Some even sacrificed their comrades to preserve their baggage. To complete the confusion and horror, the bridge broke and precipitated many into the water who were carried away, their cries going unheeded by the people on the banks. Before the stream of traffic could be diverted to the other bridge many more had been thrust into the water by the onsurging crowd. Soldiers, driven desperate by past sufferings, seeing their way again blocked, thrust the camp-followers recklessly over the sides. Thousands were swept down the frozen bank, some caught by the overturned cannon, and crushed to death, others carried away in the stream.

"Amid the fearful din made by the roar of the hurricane, the thunder of artillery, the hissing of the bullets, the shouts, the groans and frightful imprecations, none heeded the wailings of the unfortunates trampled underfoot," wrote Segur.

That night the bulk of the non-combatants, now kept back from the bridges by a trench which had been hurriedly dug to hold them in check, lined the hither bank and remained there huddled together in a state of torpor. They comprised the usual camp-followers and French people who had elected to follow the Army away from Moscow. Their actual numbers can only be guessed, but they extended for three-quarters of a mile along the bank of the Beresina and to a depth of 200 feet. As they stood there helplessly, with the cannon balls and rifle shots falling among them, men, women and children were continually falling and being trampled under foot. Many of them, driven to desperation by their lot, committed suicide by jumping into the river or by shooting themselves; one mother, mortally wounded, gathered up her remaining energies and slew her child before she too fell back dead.

Yet carriages, laden with helpless women and children, were still rolling across the rickety bridges. And now Napoleon established a battery on the other side of the river, and cannon balls began to come towards the camp-followers from there, aimed to catch the Russians in the flank.

As the night passed on all energy seemed to ebb from this mass of camp-followers on the bank; they stood silent, dazed, inert, surrounded by the dead and dying, yet careless of the fate of any one, themselves included. One by one they fell down in the blood-stained snow forming such large heaps of dead and dazed that the engineers had to cut their way through them to make a passage for the retiring rearguard. When these were safely past the soldiers tried to persuade the civilians to follow them; but in their then state of torpor few could be stirred to any movement.

Next morning, at 8.30 there was a last scene of horror. The troops were over and the bridges could no longer be left standing in case they were captured by the Russians. Napoleon gave the order for them to be fired. The flames leapt upwards and shrill screams rose from the other banks, as the massed civilians realised that they had been left to their fate. Some of them, now it was too late, rushed on to the bridges and tried to race across, only to perish in the flames. Presently the Cossacks came, and though there was no general massacre, the fate of those who remained was terrible indeed.

When the Spring came 36,000 dead bodies were taken from the river's bed.

Here at the Beresina, if anywhere, Napoleon should have been prevented from returning to Europe; but he effected the crossing and the achievement must be counted to him as a victory, though he probably lost hereabouts 25,000 of his remaining troops, taking the same number - all that remained of the Grand Army - across with him. That the Russians allowed him to break through here is inexcusable. It was said they did not wish to destroy Napoleon for it would leave the way open for the British to take his place as the Dictator of Europe.

After that frightful crossing, Napoleon wrote saying that his army was still numerous but in a terrible state of disbandment. "We need two weeks to reform the men; but where can we get two weeks? Cold and privation have broken up the army. We shall soon reach Vilna. Food! Food! Food! Otherwise there are no horrors which this undisciplined mob is not capable of wreaking on the city.... Possibly the Army cannot be rallied short of the Niemen."

Nor could it. Delivered by the magic of his name, which kept the Russians back in fear, Napoleon hurried back to Warsaw and thence to Paris. The Cossacks continued to harry his remnants of an army until the frontier was reached by just a handful of survivors.

As he looked back on the country which had defeated him, Napoleon vowed that he would return next year with another army. He raised a force of 300,000 men but it never reached Russia. Napoleon had turned his back on Moscow for ever.

Yet the Emperor, who had aspired to the dictatorship of the world, could take refuge in his philosophy. "After all," said he, "what is a throne? Only a piece of wood covered with velvet."

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