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The Reign of George III. - (Continued.) page 14

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At Vereiva, where Buonaparte halted on the 27th of October, Mortier arrived from Moscow, having blown up the Kremlin with gunpowder, and with it a crowd of Russians who had rushed in at the moment of his evacuation. Mortier on his march had also surprised and captured general Winzengerode. From this place Buonaparte issued a bulletin, announcing that not only Moscow, but the Kremlin was destroyed; that the two hundred thousand inhabitants of Moscow were wandering in the woods existing on roots; and that the French army was advancing towards St. Petersburg with every means of success. Such was the audacity of lying by which lie hoped to conceal the real truth from Paris. At this moment he was exasperated almost to frenzy by his prospects, and since the defeat of Malo-Jarowslavitz he was gloomy and unapproachable from the violence of his temper. On the march the army passed with horror the field of Borodino. "The ground," says Segur, " was covered with fragments of helmets and cuirasses, broken drums, gun-stocks, tatters of uniforms, and standards steeped in blood. On this desolate spot lay thirty thousand half devoured corses. A number of skeletons, left on the summit of one of the hills, overlooked the whole. It seemed as if here death had fixed his empire. The cry ' It is the field of the great battle!' found a long and doleful murmur. Napoleon passed quickly; no one stopped; cold, hunger, and the enemy urged us on. We merely turned our faces as we proceeded to take a last melancholy look at our late companions in arms."

At the convent of Kolotzkoi, where the French had left the thousands who were wounded at Borodino, they found most of them dead for want of food and nursing. The miserable survivors entreated to be taken along with them, and some of them were put in sutlers carts, but were soon murdered by the drivers in solitary places, and the Russian prisoners were murdered too to get rid of them. On arriving at Gjatsk, the weary French found it burnt to the ground. On the 1st of November they were at Viasma, but pursued by the Cossacks, worn down by famine, and reduced from one hundred and twenty thousand to sixty thousand men. At Semelin, tired of dragging the spoils of Moscow and its great cross after them, Buonaparte ordered them to fling them into the Lake of Semelin, and all the artillery they could not manage to draw. Before the French were clear of the river and town of Viasma, Miloradowitch fell on them with the cavalry and vanguard of Koutousoff, and in a battle lasting all the 2nd of November, defeated them with a loss of four thousand men. Sir Robert Wilson, who was present, asserts that, had Koutousoff wished, he could have exterminated the whole of the French host; but he preferred that it should be done by the elements, rather than at the cost of the lives of his men.

On the 6th of November came down that fierce Russian winter of which Buonaparte had been so long vainly warned. A thick fog obscured everything, and snow falling in heavy flakes, blinded and chilled the soldiers. Then commenced wild winds, driving the snow around their heads in whirls, and even dashing them to the earth in their fury. The. hollows and ravines were speedily drifted full, and the Soldiers by thousands disappeared in the deceitful depths, to reappear no more till the next summer revealed their corpses. Numbers of others fell exhausted by the way, and could only be discovered by their following comrades by the slight hillocks that their bodies made under the snow. Thus the wretched army struggled and stumbled to Smolensk, only to find famine and desolation, seeming to forget, in the mere name of a town, that it was now but a name, having been burnt by the Russians. On commencing this terrible march of the 6th of November, Buonaparte received the ill news that there was insurrection in Paris - that produced by Mallet, but soon put down; and also that Witgenstein had driven St. Cyr from Polotsk and Vitebsk, and reoccupied the whole course of the Düna. To clear his retreat of this obstruction, Buonaparte dispatched Victor to repulse Witgenstein and support St. Cyr. But this was only part of the evil tidings which came in simultaneously with winter. Two thousand recruits from France, under Baraguay d'Hilliers, had been surprised and taken prisoners on the road to Kaluga, and other detachments in other quarters. On arriving at Smolensk, Buonaparte's troops had acquired such a wild, haggard, and ragged appearance, that the garrison at first refused to admit them; and many perished before they could be relieved from the stores. They had no shelter amid the terrible frost but wretched sheds, reared from half-burnt timber, against the fire-blackened walls.

Meantime, the second and rear divisions of the army under Davoust and Ney were labouring hard to reach Smolensk, assailed by all the horrors of the season, and of the myriad Russians collected around them, who killed all who straggled or fell behind from fatigue and starvation. The rear-guard of Ney suffered most of all, for it was not only more completely exposed to the raids of the Cossacks and of the enraged peasants, bat they found every house on their way burnt, and nothing around them but treeless, naked plains, over which the freezing winds and the hurrahing Cossacks careered in deadly glee. At the passage of the Dnieper, it was only by stupendous exertions that Ney saved any part of his army. He lost many men, and much of his artillery. On the 13th of November, as he approached Smolensk, he was appalled by the apparition of the remains of the army of Italy pursued by a cloud of Cossacks, who were hewing them down by thousands. Eugene, the viceroy of Italy, had been sent with this division on a northward route, by Dowkhowchina and Poreczie, to support Oudinot, who was retreating before Witgenstein; but he had found it impossible to reach Oudinot, and had-again made for Smolensk. His passage of the river Vop had been no less destructive than the passage of the Dnieper by Ney. He had lost all his baggage and twenty-three pieces of cannon, and was only saved by the appearance of Ney.

Buonaparte allowed his army, now reunited in Smolensk, five days' rest, and enjoyment of the stores there, and on the 14th of November he again marched out to force his way into Poland. The second division, under Davoust, followed on the 16th, and the rear, still under Ney, on the 17th. The worn-down Italians of prince Eugene could not move till the 15th, and did not overtake Buonaparte and assume their proper position till the 17th. The way which Buonaparte was taking was by Wilna, Krasnoi, and Borissov to Minsk, where, and at Borissov he had his stores. But his way was now hemmed in on all sides by Russian armies. Witgenstein was already at Vitebsk, and thence advanced on Borissov on the Beresina, where Buonaparte hoped to cross; whilst Tchitchigoff, who had joined Tormasoff, and thus raised their force to sixty thousand men, had driven the Austrians, under Schwarzenberg, back on the Bug, and had taken Minsk on the very day that Napoleon marched out of Smolensk. At the same time Koutousoff, with the grand army of Russia, was marching in a parallel line on the left flank of the French, ready to fall on him whenever he was reduced to extremities by the other converging Russian forces. Now was coming the grand crisis. The elements were fighting fearfully against him; his men were wearied, half-starved, and disheartened; his enemies on all sides were alert with hope and revenge. Had Koutousoff used more alertness, and secured the passage of the Beresina as it ought to have been secured, the event which Bernadotte had planned must have taken place, and Buonaparte, with the remainder of his army, must have remained a prisoner there.

As it was, the extreme caution of Koutousoff saved Buonaparte and the little remnant of his army that ever reached France again. Buonaparte left Smolensk with only forty thousand, instead of four hundred and seventy thousand men, which he had on entering Russia, and a great part of the Italian division of Eugene was cut off by the Russians before the viceroy could come up with Buonaparte. Napoleon, therefore, halted at Krasnoi, to allow of the two succeeding divisions coming up; but Koutousoff took this opportunity to fall on Buonaparte's division, which consisted of only fifteen thousand men, and attacked it in the rear by cannon placed on sledges, which could be brought rapidly up, and, if necessary, as rapidly made to fall back.

Sir Robert Wilson, the English commissioner, urged Koutousoff, indeed, to make one general and determined attack on Buonaparte and this small body before the other divisions could come up; and there can be no doubt that, had he done so, he would have destroyed the division utterly, and made himself master of Napoleon's person. But though Koutousoff had fought the battle of Borodino, he had now grown over-cautious, and did not do that which it was the plan of Barclay de Tolly, whom he superseded, to do when the right moment came. Whilst Koutousoff was thus timidly cannonading, the division of Davoust carne up, and he retired, allowing both Buonaparte and Davoust to secure themselves in Krasnoi. As for Ney, he was left behind wholly surrounded by the Russians who had harassed the rear of Davoust, and were thus interposed betwixt Davoust and himself, as well as swarming on his own flanks and rear. Napoleon could not wait for him, even, at Krasnoi. He learned that the Russians were drawing fast towards his crossing places at the Dnieper and the Beresina; that prince Galitzen with a strong force was about to occupy Krasnoi; that the Dneiper at Liady would be immediately in the hands of the energy. He therefore called Mortier, and, squeezing his hand sorrowfully, told him that he had not a moment to lose; that the enemy were overwhelming him in ail directions; that Koutousoff might have already reached Liady, perhaps Orcha, and the last winding of the Dnieper before him. Then, with his heart full of Ney's misfortunes, he withdrew, in despair at being forced to abandon him, towards Liady. He marched on foot at the head of his guard, and often talked of Ney. He called to mind his coup-d'œil, so accurate and true, his courage, proof against everything - in short, all the qualities which made him so brilliant on the field of battle. " He is lost! Well! I have three hundred millions in the Tuileries; I would give them ail were he restored to me! "

And, in truth, Ney was in the most terrible of situations* When he left Smolensk he was at the head of eight thou- sand men, but followed by an army of stragglers, whom the cannon of Platoff caused to evacuate Smolensk instantly, leaving behind him five thousand sick and wounded. When they reached the battle field of Krasnoi, they saw the carcases of their late comrades lying in heaps on the ground, and, a little beyond, the Russians in full force occupying the banks of the Losmina, and crowding ail the hills around. In spite of this, Ney endeavoured to cut his way through, but failed, after a dreadful slaughter, and only saved one thousand five hundred men of his whole force by retreating and taking another route to the river, where he lost all his baggage, and such sick as he brought with him, for the ice broke with their weight. Pursued by the Cossacks, he came up with Davoust's division on the 20th of November. " When Napoleon," says Segur, " heard that Ney had re- appeared, he leaped and shouted for joy, saying, ' Then I have saved my eagles! I would have given three hundred millions sooner than have lost him." The losses which troubled Napoleon were those which endangered his own safety or reputation; he thought little of the hundreds of thousands who had perished through this his mad expedition; but he rejoiced over the safety of Ney, because he deemed it a pledge that his own escape was also assured.

Napoleon's grand army had now dwindled down to twelve thousand men, with about thirty thousand stragglers, who added little to his strength. They were in Poland, and provisions were now more abundant; but they had still to cross the Beresina, and at this moment he heard of the fall of Minsk, and that Victor and Oudinot, instead of attacking Witgenstein, had quarrelled about the manner of doing it, and so had not done it at ail. Witgenstein and Koutousoff were thus at liberty to attack his flanks, and Tchitchagoff to occupy the Beresina before him. On this, he turned from the route to Minsk, and made for Borissov. At Borissov was a bridge of three hundred fathoms in length, and this he had sent Dombrouski to secure and hold; but now he heard of Dombrouski's defeat, that the bridge was in the hands of the Russians, and that they had broken it down. In his agony, he stamped his cane on the ground, and exclaimed, looking upwards - " Is it, then, written that we shall commit nothing but errors? "

Here he heard his faithful servants, Duroc and Daru whispering, as they thought he slept, of their critical situation, and caught the words " prisoner of state." On this, he started up, and demanded whether the reports of his ministers were yet burnt, and, being answered in the negative, he had both them and ail documents which could give information of his affaire to the enemy put into the fire. Segur says that amongst these were materials for writing his life, for, like Caesar, he had determined to be his own historian. In tracing the map for a passage over the Beresina, his eye caught the word Pultowa, and he Said, " Ah! Charles XII. - Pultowa! "

The crossing of the Beresina, under the circumstances, was a desperate design, but there was no alternative but surrender. Tchitchagoff was posted with his army on the opposite or left bank; Witgenstein and Platoff were pressed down to join them; and Koutousoff, with the grand army of Russia, was in the rear, able if he could have been induced to do it, to drive Buonaparte and his twelve thousand men into the Beresina, and destroy them. After reconnoitring the river, Napoleon determined to deceive Tchitchagoff by a feint at passing at Borissov, but really to make the attempt at Studienka, above Borissov. He therefore kept up a show of preparations to cross at Borissov, but prepared two bridges at Studienka, one for the artillery and baggage, the other for the troops and miscellaneous multitude. At this juncture, to his great joy, he was joined by Victor and Oudinot with their fifty thousand men well provided with everything. Thus he had once more seventy-two thousand men besides stragglers; and his design of deceiving Tchitchagoff succeeding so completely that he withdrew his whole force from opposite to Studienka and concentrated it at Borissov, he began on the 26th of November to cross the river, and had a strong force already across before Tchitchagoff discovered his error, and came back to attack him. So far all went so well that Buonaparte again boasted of his star.

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