|Soldiers of Fortitude: The Grande
Armee of 1812 in Russia
by Major James T. McGhee
Author and historian David G. Chandler identifies Napoleon Bonaparte as "one of
the greatest military minds that has ever existed." Indeed Napoleon's
exploits as a military commander and his subsequent rise to the position of
Emperor of France and much of Europe has produced an enormous amount of
scholarly interest. Historians, political scientists, military theorists and
others have published volumes on Napoleon and his times.
Napoleon's rise to power was achieved in a large part by his many military
successes. His remarkable victories over the combined armies of Europe won him
recognition and glory as a general and finally Emperor. However, through the
many challenging and bloody campaigns it was the soldiers serving under
Napoleon and in the Grand Army and their sacrifices that provided Napoleon with
his power over Europe. Napoleon expected nothing less from his troops. He
pushed them beyond human endurance to achieve total victory over his enemies.
According to Napoleon, "The first qualification of a soldier is fortitude under
fatigue and privation. Courage is only the second; hardship, poverty, and want
are the best school for a soldier." In 1812, Napoleon embarked on a campaign
that would test the limits of these qualifications in his soldiers. Those who
endured the brutal march of Napoleon's Russian Campaign of 1812 and survived
may be considered, most certainly by Napoleon's standards, some of the most
qualified soldiers in the history of warfare.
On 31 December 1810, the Czar of Russia issued a ukase, which broke
Russia's alliance with France and threatened to destroy Napoleon's Continental
System and his strategy of economic warfare against England. Napoleon
immediately began organizing a new Grande Armee large enough to ensure
an overwhelming victory over the army of the Czar. Napoleon had immense
resources at his disposal. His influence collected men and materiel from across
Europe, including France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Italy, Prussia,
Austria, Denmark, Switzerland, and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. Although sources
differ, Connelly declares that, "by June 1812, Napoleon had a field army of
611,000 men with 2000 guns and 250,000 horses."
To defeat the Czar, Napoleon intended to use his proven strategy of forcing his
opponents to engage in a decisive battle of annihilation designed to shatter
the enemy's capacity and will to resist and therefore avoiding the need to
capture geographical objectives or the Russian capital. He did not intend on
having to march too far into the interior of Russia to accomplish his
objectives. Nonetheless, Napoleon ordered that extensive logistical
preparations be made in Prussia to support his advance. In Danzig alone,
Napoleon had concentrated rations to support 400,000 men and fodder to support
50,000 horses for 50 days. This consisted of millions of pounds of rice, wheat
and oats. As many as 1500 wagons and 50,000 draft horses were required to
transport the supplies. Meat rations were to be provided by beef on the hoof
driven along behind the advancing army.
Napoleon's main forces, dressed magnificently and singing glorious marching
songs, crossed the bridges over the Niemen River on 24-25 June and moved
immediately towards the city of Kovno. The oppressive heat characterized the
Russian weather in June. The effects of the heat were exacerbated by the
uniforms and equipment carried by the soldiers. Although uniforms within
Napoleons "army of twenty nations" varied widely, the uniforms of the time were
generally a dark color of blue or gray and were made of wool. These uniforms
absorbed the intense heat making it all the more unbearable for the soldiers.
The heavy weight carried by the individual soldier could also drain a man's
strength and test his endurance. A fully supplied French infantryman carried an
average load of 60 pounds. This typically consisted of his basic uniform, his
rifle, equipment including a bayonet, canteen (if available), a cartridge pouch
with 60 rounds of ammunition, a blanket, and a knapsack containing two spare
shirts, two pair of shoes, a spare pair of pants and half-gaiters, eating
utensils, personal items and four days of rations (if available). There were
however numerous shortages or variations in equipment across the different
national armies within the Grande Armee . The Imperial Guard for
example, carried their full dress uniform, adding another five pounds to their
load. Additional equipment such as hand axes and small cooking pots were also
issued to select individuals. Individual tents however were no longer issued to
the troops. According to Napoleon, "Tents are unfavorable to health. The
soldier is best when he bivouacs, because he sleeps with his feet to the fire,
which speedily dries the ground on which he lies. A few planks and a morsel of
straw shelter him from the wind." The lack of shelter in Russia would prove
critical over the coming months.
The considerable heat created very dry conditions along roads that were
supporting the passage of hundreds of thousands of men, horses, wagons and
carriages. Enormous clouds of dust arose from the dry roads of Russia,
enveloping all who traveled them. The dust and the heat were oppressive and
torturous. Lieutenant Karl von Suckow describes the march, "Of all the
unpleasant things we had to endure, one of the most unbearable was the thick
dust which enveloped us on the march, much of the way in very dry weather.... I
recall that at one stage, so as to prevent anyone taking a wrong turning, a
drummer was stationed at the head of each battalion, and his job was to beat
the drum all the time. This fact alone will indicate just how dense the clouds
of dust were." An officer and veteran of the Peninsula Campaign in Spain
reported, "I must admit that I had never been so troubled by the heat or the
dust in the Peninsula as was so often the case on these marches during the
summer of 1812 in Russia. The air along the wide sandy tracks was really like
an oven, oppressively hot was it and so unrelieved by the slightest puff of
wind. If one was unfortunate enough to be caught between the innumerable
wagons, which ploughed along in deep sand ruts at the slowest pace of the
draught animals, and have to remain among them for hours on end without being
able to escape, then one would suffocate. Eyes, nose, mouth, and ears were
often so clogged with grains of sand that one seemed to have lost the use of
all one's senses. The dust lay so thick on my dark-gray dolman, which was faced
with red that it was no longer possible to make out the slightest trace of this
Through the unbearable heat and suffocating dust, the army marched routinely
10-12 miles a day. Increases in the rate of march could double the distances
traveled. Captain Roeder reports in his memoir of marching from six in the
morning to seven in the evening. The French routinely provided only for very
short breaks during the march. The soldiers traditionally received only five
minutes every hour and thirty minutes only after marching 30 kilometers (18.6
miles). After five days of marching a day of rest might be given.
For many, the dust combined with the heat, the weight of their pack and the
speed and distances of the march was too exhausting to allow them to
continue. Soldiers and horses by the hundreds began dying almost
immediately of exhaustion and dehydration due to dysentery.
Relief from the extreme conditions of heat and dust came on 28 June in the form
of severe thundershowers. However, the relief of the showers found in cooler
temperatures and fresh water soon brought even more despair. The soldiers
lacked any clothing or shelter to protect them from the drenching rain. Their
uniforms became soaking wet, adding additional discomfort, and weight to their
already heavy loads. The rain also brought with it chillingly cool temperatures
for which many were unprepared. Those men like Lieutenant Suckow, suffering
from the heat of the previous days were now suffering in the cold, many having
discarded excess clothing including their underwear. Sergeant Jean-Roch Coignet
of the Imperial Guard was present when the weather changed, "On 29 June a
violent storm broke. The hailstorm was so bad that we had great trouble in
controlling our horses, and it became necessary to tether them to the wheels. I
was half dead with cold, and unable to stand any longer. I opened one of my
wagons and took refuge inside. The next morning a heart-rending sight met my
eyes. The ground was covered with horses, which had died of cold. On reaching
the road I found some dead soldiers who had not been able to withstand this
appalling storm, and this demoralized a large number of our troops."
The storms also turned the dry, dusty roads into a sea of mud and the fertile
fields established as campsites were quickly turned into mucky bogs. Men
slipped and fell or became stuck in the viscous mud. Uniforms previously
covered in dust and washed by the drenching rains were now covered in the
sticky mire of Russia. Captain Roeder remembers such a night, "The night was
black as pitch. We were soaked to the skin and unable to see whether we were
lying in a clean place or in the filth left by our predecessors. I myself first
lay down in the proximity of a dead horse." "I rolled myself in my rug with my
wet cloak under me." The muddy roads impeded travel as wagons and guns
became foundered in the ruts created by hundreds of wagons before them.
Provision trains began to lag behind and many wagons were discarded because of
the loss of horses. The cattle following the army could not maintain the pace
of the march and fell behind. Food became more difficult to obtain and hunger
spread throughout the Army.
To combat the breakdown of the supply system soldiers began to forage the
countryside in search of food, horses, and perhaps a bottle of wine. Foraging
was not discouraged. Despite the immense logistical preparations, foraging by
the army was expected. Jacob Walker encouragingly wrote that, "We now believed
that, once in Russia we need do nothing but forage." Napoleonic expert and
author Gunther Rothenberg explains, "Despite his often-quoted pronouncement
that 'an army marches on its stomach,' Napoleon remained essentially an
improviser. He could never free himself from the experience of his first
Italian campaign when a small, highly motivated army, moving rapidly in a rich
countryside had sustained itself from local resources and captured
The soldiers became experts at foraging. These expeditions could prove quite
successful depending on the expedition's location within the column of march
and their persistence. Those located in the front of the march column tended to
fair better than those in the middle while the supply trains trailing the army
better supported those in the rear. The Russian countryside was not as rich as
other countries in Europe but it could help sustain an army. Unfortunately for
Napoleons men, it was sustaining the Russian army who retreated steadily in
front of Napoleon's advance. "It was custom with the Russian rear-guard to burn
every village as they abandoned it. What they contained in forage and
subsistence was rapidly used, and nothing therefore remained. This became a
deliberate practice, which extended itself widely to the towns, great as well
as small." This destruction forced the Russian peasants to fear the Russian
soldiers as much as the French, forcing them to hide their livestock in the
woods or bury their food in the earth for safekeeping. French soldiers entering
a town usually found very little initially. But persistent and thorough
searches more often than not turned up something of value. A thorough search by
Jakob Walter's foraging parties uncovered such caches, "It was necessary to
raise the floors and the beams in order to find anything and to turn upside
down everything that was covered. Under one such floor, which had large beams
resting side by side, we found pots full of sausage stuffed into casings four
to five feet long and filled with pieces of bacon and meat an inch thick. Here
we also found hidden pots filled with lumps of cheese. In another
well-plundered village nothing could be found in the houses; and so, urged on
by our hunger, we dug in the ground. Here I with several others removed a large
pile of wood, which had probably just been put there. We removed this, dug in
to the ground, and found covered roof of planks. Under the planks, there was an
opening twelve feet deep. Inside there were honey jars and wheat covered with
straw." Successes of this type helped to sustain many in Napoleon's army
but they did not relieve the great misery of the masses of men and horses.
Following a two-week stay in Vilna, Napoleon on 16 July ordered his troops to
march towards Vitebsk. The welcome rest in Vilna had provided the supply system
an opportunity to provide some rations to the soldiers. The men of Captain
Roeder's company were each issued sixteen loaves of bread. However, many sold
the bread being "less afraid of collapsing from hunger than from fatigue."
The blistering heat of July, combined with the miserable dust, biting insects
and the exhausting pace of the march, continued to devastate the ranks of
Napoleon's army. Those soldiers marching in the middle or rear of the column
often had to march past the corpses of those men and horses who had fallen. The
sights seen along the road are remembered once again by Captain Reoder, "We saw
a good 3,000 horses lying by the roadside, overcome by fatigue or bad feeding,
mostly from being overfed with green corn, and more rotting human corpses,
which at this season of the year make a hideous stench. On some stretches of
the road I had to hold my breath in order not to bring up liver and lungs, and
even to lie down until the need to vomit had subsided."
The shortage of water affected thousands. Wells found along the route were
often drunk dry to quench the thirst of those who arrived first, leaving
nothing for those who followed. Very often the Russians had polluted the wells
before their retreat. Many soldiers drank from putrid wells only to discover
afterwards human corpses or the remains of a dead horse left behind as a
surprise by the Russians. For many, water could only be found in the low areas
or swamps. According to Walter, "In order to obtain water for drinking and
cooking, holes were dug into the swamps three feet deep in which the water
collected. The water was very warm, however, and was reddish-brown with
millions of little red worms so that it had to be bound in linen and sucked
through with the mouth. This was, of course, a hard necessity of our ways."
Thousands became ill from drinking the water and developed severe dysentery.
Others marched without water until they were overcome by either heat exhaustion
Napoleon assured his army they would get a break at Vitebsk but this did little
to relieve the sufferings of his men. An unnamed civilian traveling with the
army as a painter wrote of the condition of the army in July, "The weary horses
often stumbled and fell. Whole columns of hundreds of these poor beasts had to
be led in the most pitiful conditions, with sores on their withers and
discharging a stream of pus. They had all lost weight till their ribs stood
out, and looked a picture of abject misery. Already in the middle of July the
army was in this state! I am beginning to lose heart. Two whole months on the
march and for what purpose? And through what country? It distresses me to be
compelled to waste God-given time so wretchedly." Many men had reached the
end of their physical and mental endurance and could withstand no more. Suicide
became a common escape chosen by many. Lieutenant Suckow remembers, "Hundreds
killed themselves, feeling no longer able to endure such hardship. Every day
one heard isolated shots ring out in the woods near the road."
Napoleon entered Vitebsk unopposed on 29 July, the Russians retreating and once
again denying Napoleon the decisive battle he so urgently sought. The
destruction of the enemy's main field force, rather than the mere occupation of
territory or the capture of the enemy's capital remained Napoleon's main
objective. However, if the enemy continued to elude destruction and if he was
able to fall back into endless depths of Mother Russia, then Napoleon faced
severe problems. Every mile that Napoleon advanced weakened his army while it
allowed the Russians to fall back on their reserves of men and supplies.
The Russians had retreated back to the ancient, walled city of Smolensk were
they intended to make a stand against Napoleon. Napoleon, seeing an opportunity
to engage the Russians in a decisive battle ordered his army to march onward to
Smolensk. He needed his victory, as the state of his army continued to
deteriorate. His officers began doubting the fruitfulness of continuing the
campaign. On 11 August as the army approached Smolensk, General Erasmus Deroy
commanding the 19th Division sent a report back the King of Bavaria announcing,
"The food is bad, and the shoes, shirts, pants, and gaiters are now so torn
that most of the men are marching in rags or barefoot. Furthermore, I regret to
have to tell Your Majesty that this state of affairs has produced a serious
relaxation of discipline, and there is such a widespread spirit of depression,
discouragement, discontent, disobedience, and insubordination that one cannot
forecast what will happen."
On 16 August, French troops began to position themselves in a semi circle
around the city in preparation for their attack. The main battle took place on
the 17th. The Russians put up a fierce resistance on many fronts but were
steadily forced to withdraw in the face of advancing infantry and devastating
artillery fire. The French discovered on the morning of the 18th that the
entire Russian army had vacated the city during the night and formed positions
on the other side of the Dnieper River. Napoleon achieved a costly victory at
Smolensk but failed to destroy the Russian army. He lost between eight and nine
thousand men during the battle and three fourths of the city had been burned
and destroyed. Russian losses were also high with as many as 7,000 bodies found
on the field.
The battle at Smolensk had not provided Napoleon with the decisive victory he
so desperately needed. He had to decide to pursue the Russians to Moscow, if
necessary, or remain in the already devastated city of Smolensk. The combatant
strength of his Army was down to 150,000 soldiers, having lost a great portion
of his army during the march. A Wurttenburger Major described to Captain Roeder
the effects thus far of the march and the battle of Smolensk on his Regiment,
"When we left home we had 7,200 infantry, but although we have fought no battle
other then that at Smolensk, we cannot muster more than about 1,500 men, as a
result of the battle a third of these were lost, so that now we are scarcely
more than 1,000 or 900 strong." The urge to continue on and defeat the
enemy proved too great for Napoleon to overcome. In the past he had never
failed to defeat his opponents in a single campaign and this one would be no
different. He decided to continue the march to Moscow, another 310 miles away.
The Road to Moscow led through the cities of Dorogobush, Semlevo, Viasma, and
Gzatsk. The absolute misery and poverty of the army continued, as best
described by Walter,
"The march up to there, as far as it was a march is indescribable and
inconceivable for people who have not seen anything of it. The very great heat,
the dust which is like a thick fog, the closed line of march in columns, and
the putrid water from holes filled with dead people, and cattle brought
everyone close to death; and eye pains, fatigue, thirst, and hunger tormented
everybody. God! How often I remembered the bread and beer, which I had enjoyed
at home with such an indifferent pleasure! Now, however, I must struggle, half
wild, with the dead and living. How gladly would I renounce for my whole life
the warm food so common at home if I only did not lack good bread and beer now!
I would not wish for all my life. But these were empty helpless thoughts. Yes,
the thought of my brothers and sisters so far away added to my pain! Wherever I
looked, I saw the soldiers with dead, half-desperate faces. Many cried out in
despair, 'If only my mother had not borne me!' Some demoralized men even cursed
their parents and their birth." Napoleon reached the city of Gzatsk on 1
September. There, the number of 150,000 soldiers who had left Smolensk was now
down to 133,000. None-the-less, upon arrival at Gzatsk, Napoleon's mood was
joyous. Scouts had returned to report that the Russian's were preparing battle
positions near the town of Borodino.
Napoleon allowed three days for his supply trains to move forward, and to plan
his attack. On September 4th his Army marched to Borodino and by the evening of
the sixth the two armies faced one another. Orders were given by Napoleon to
attack on the morning of September 7th. At 2:00 a.m. a proclamation from
Napoleon was read to the troops, "This is the battle you have longed for! Now
the victory depends on you: you need it. It will give you abundance, good
winter quarters, and an early return home." At 6:00 a.m. over 500 guns
began to roar.
The battle of Borodino was one of violence and confusion. It was fought
bitterly by both sides. The fighting was often hand-to-hand and the number of
casualties was severe. Captain Charles Francios served in the 1st Division and
took part in the battle, "Our regiment was ordered to advance. We were riddled
with grapeshot from this battery and several others flanking it, but nothing
stopped us. Whole files, half-platoons even, went down under the enemy's fire,
and left huge gaps. A Russian line tried to stop us, but at thirty yards range
we fired a volley and passed through. Then we dashed through the redoubt and
clambered through the embrasures. The Russian gunners received us with
handspikes and rammers, and we fought them hand to hand. They were redoubtable
opponents. I had been through more than one campaign, but I had never found
myself in such a bloody melee and up against such tenacious soldiers as the
Russians." Arguably, total victory was in Napoleons grasp but he hesitated
and failed to commit his prized Guard. The Russians began to fall back but it
was too late in the day for Napoleon to prevent their withdrawal. That night
the Russians made a hasty retreat from the battlefield. Napoleon was the victor
but at a horrible cost. French casualties ranged from 28,000 to 31,000 men
including 47 generals. Russian casualties were even greater, numbering at
least 45,000. The road to Moscow was open but the Russian army was intact
and Napoleon was no closer to victory.
Those men who were killed at Borodino were perhaps the more fortunate, for the
survivors could not possibly know the hardships and misery that awaited them in
the future. Those who suffered the most at present however were the wounded.
Medical services during this time were archaic. Many wounded were left on the
field for days. Others managed to make it back to a hospital on their own.
Those removed from the field often had to endure an agonizing ride on a jolting
wagon. At the hospitals there was little knowledge of hygiene, antibiotics did
not exist and the most often used treatment for severe battle wounds was
amputation. Patients lay in the hospitals enduring not only the pain of their
wounds but also, thirst, flies, the cries of the living and the stench of the
dead. A vivid description of conditions comes from the recollections of a young
commissary, Alexandre Bellot de Kergorre, "When I took up my duties I had to
look after the needs of the hospitals. These contained three thousand patients
lying in two stone-built houses. Our poor, unfortunate wounded were dying of
hunger and thirst. They were bandaged with hay for lack of lint and linen, and
they groaned dreadfully. For the first few days they lived on the few grains
they could find in the straw they lay on, and on the little flour I was able to
give them. The absence of candles was a terrible privation. A shocking thing
was the impossibility of removing the dead from among the living. I had neither
medical orderlies nor stretchers. Not only was the hospital full of corpses,
but so were the streets and a number of houses. After attending to the most
pressing needs of the living, I used some carts I had found to remove corpses
from the hospital. On my own I took away 128, which had been serving as pillows
to the sick and were several days old."
The Russian's retreated back to Moscow were they considered once again to make
a stand against Napoleon in defense of the ancient capital. However, the
Russian commander, Kutuzov, arguing that the survival of the army was more
important than the defense of the city, decided not to defend Moscow. "You are
afraid of falling back through Moscow, but I consider it the only way of saving
the army. Napoleon is a torrent, which we are as yet unable to stem. Moscow
will be the sponge that will suck him dry."
On 14 September Napoleon entered Moscow, finding a city completely undefended
and nearly deserted. The army had strict orders not to pillage but the men
could not be controlled as they forced themselves into the palaces and houses.
Two days later fires swept through Moscow for three days, burning down four
fifths of the city. Despite the immense destruction of the fires, the soldiers
were able to find an abundance of vegetables, preserves, sugar and spirits.
Shortages of meat and bread remained. Walter remembers, "Here one could find
and buy provisions; for each soldier was now a citizen, merchant, innkeeper,
and baker of Moscow. Silks, muslins and red Morocco leather were all abundant.
Things to eat were not wanting either. Whoever could not find something could
buy something and vegetables in sufficient quantity stood in the fields. It was
still good weather, and one could sleep warm enough under a coat at night"
Napoleon worked feverishly to sign a treaty with the Czar who he was certain
was ready to negotiate a peace. For four weeks Napoleon hesitated in Moscow
while his attempts failed. Ignoring warnings about the coming winter, Napoleon
considered his options. He could not safely winter his troops in Moscow and his
marshals adamantly opposed a march to St. Petersburg. The weather began to turn
colder. Freezing rain and snow began to fall. The Russian winter was fast
approaching. The army once again began to deteriorate as the effects of
exposure to the cold, wet weather, and disease killed hundreds of men and
thousands of badly needed horses. The Emperor Alexander refused to sign a
peace, leaving Napoleon no choice but to retreat. The goals of his campaign
were unachievable and a failure as everything had been calculated on the
destruction of the Russian Army and a negotiated peace.
Napoleon decided to make a strategic withdrawal from Moscow and move south
towards Kaluga. By taking this route, Napoleon hoped to travel through cities
that had not already been pillaged or devastated. The army began leaving Moscow
on 19 October 1812. The great retreat from Moscow had begun.
Preparations were made, and 100,000 soldiers departed Moscow trailing some
40,000 carriages and wagons, many filled with the riches of Moscow rather than
the provision necessary for the march. "For nearly forty miles I had to pick my
way through the army's procession of horse-drawn vehicles," noted Colonel Count
Roguet. "Every one was laden with useless baggage." Some soldiers
such as Jacob Walter made better preparations for the march. Walter says, "I
put on a round hat, wrapped my head with silk and muslin cloths and my feet
with thick wool cloth. I had on two shirts and two vests and over my doublet a
thick large Russian coat, which I had taken from a Russian in exchange for my
own at Smolensk on my trip into Russia. Over this I wore a thick fur."
The Russian army moved to cut off Napoleon's route and stood firm at the key
town of Maloyaroslavets. A fierce battle was waged and both sides suffered
heavy losses with the Russians losing about 7,000 soldiers and the French
losing 4,000. Napoleon realized that if he continued to move to the south his
army would meet further resistance. He made the fateful decision to trace his
return route along the same road on which he had advanced to Moscow. The
retreating Russians had already burned down this route and the French had
already exhausted what was left behind. On 25 October, the French army departed
Maloyaroslavets with 96,000 soldiers.
The Russian winter arrived with all its severity on the 6th of November.
Unimaginable suffering overtook the army. Ice and snow covered the roads,
making transport nearly impossible. Horses slipped on the ice and could not be
lifted back to their feet. Men began dying of exposure, freezing to death where
they fell as the temperature dropped to 17 degrees below zero. Starvation once
again began to devastate the ranks. Foraging parties left the main column of
march in search of food only to be driven away, killed or captured by the
Russian Cossacks. "The soldiers knew there was plenty to be had if they could
move to the left or right, but they were hemmed in on either side by the
Cossack horsemen, who knew that all they had to do was ride, as for killing,
they could leave that to General Winter. Confined to the great road the whole
army was now living almost entirely on horse flesh."
Many faced the risks of leaving the road to forage. Those soldiers captured by
the Russians received little mercy. Very often they pleaded to their captures
to kill them and end their misery. But vengeance demands suffering and few had
their desires of a quick death satisfied. Prisoners were routinely stripped
naked and marched through the sub zero temperatures. Others were either
tortured or killed by the peasantry whose methods of revenge were most
horrific. Prisoners were reported has having been burned or buried alive. One
observer witnessed "Sixty dying naked men, whose necks were laid upon a felled
tree, while Russian men and women with large faggot-sticks, singing in chorus
and hopping round, with repeated blows struck out their brains in
Those who were able to continue would retain the haunting memories of suffering
masses during this march to Smolensk. Of the 96,000 who left Maloyaroslavets,
nine days later only 50,000 would enter the city. The temperature had dropped
to 28 degrees below zero. The barrels of the muskets were so cold that they
stuck to the hands of those carrying them. Only those who witnessed the events
are able to accurately describe the horrors of those nine days. Sir Robert
Wilson witnessed, "The naked masses of dead and dying men; the mangled
carcasses of 10,000 horses which had in some cases been cut for food before
life had ceased; the craving of famine at other points, of forming groups of
cannibals; the air enveloped in flame and smoke; the prayers of hundreds of
naked wretches flying from peasantry, whose shouts of vengeance echoed
incessantly through the woods; the wrecks of cannon, powder-wagons, all stores
of every description: it formed such a scene as probably was never witnessed in
the history of all the world." General Count de Langeron, commander of a
Russian infantry division, "saw a dead man, his teeth deep in the haunch of a
horse which was still quivering. I saw a dead man inside a horse, which he had
disemboweled and emptied in order to crawl inside and get warm. I saw another
man tearing with his teeth at the entrails of a dead horse."
Smolensk contained warehouses full of supplies unable to be moved to support
the army due to inadequate transportation. The first soldiers to enter the city
looted the depots for themselves leaving almost nothing for the poor wretches
who followed. Discipline within the army had completely broken down. It had
become a world of every man for himself as if all humanity had vanished for
anyone who would stop to help his fellow man would be the next to fall. The
soldiers had seen so much suffering and death that they had become numb to the
sufferings and deaths of others. In a rare act of compassion Sir Robert Wilson
attempted in vain to help a suffering soldier, "I was just putting a bit of
biscuit into my own mouth, when I turned my eye upon a French grenadier's gaze.
It was too expressive to be resisted; I gave him what I designed for myself.
The tears burst from his eyes, he seemed to bless the morsel, and then, amidst
sobs of gratitude, expressed his hope that an Englishman might never want a
benefactor in his need. He lived but a few moments afterwards."
The march immediately proceeded through Smolensk in the direction of Vilna.
Leaving Smolensk, Captain Roeder remembers, "What a frozen multitude are lying
in the streets! Many have laid themselves there in order to freeze. One steps
over them almost unmoved because the daily scenes of horrible misery of this
accursed war have dulled all feeling for the suffering of others."
The road to Vilna required the army to cross the Berezina River in order to
prevent his dwindling army from being completed surrounded and annihilated by
Russian forces concentrating there. At this time of year, the river was usually
frozen over but the weather suddenly turned unusually warm making the ice too
thin and the river impassable without a bridge. Napoleon decided to make a
feint attack at the Russians near Borizov while his engineers built bridges
across the river at Studenka. On 26 November, Napoleon executed his plan. "At
eight o'clock in the morning the bridge-builders began placing their trestles
at equal distances in the river, which was thick with large floes. The men went
into the water up to their shoulders, displaying superb courage. Some dropped
dead and disappeared with the current, but the sight of this tragic end did not
diminish their comrades' efforts. The Emperor watched these heroes and did not
leave the river bank." The construction of the first bridge was completed
by 11:00 o'clock that morning. Oudinot's Corps was across the river and had
established a bridgehead by dark. The following morning, Napoleon ordered the
corps of Ney, Davout, Junot, and Eugene with the reserve and Guard across the
river. A mad rush ensued to cross the bridges to safety. The scene was a
continuance of the misery and chaos plaguing the army. As the army fought a
defensive action, the Russians rained fire and shell down upon those who were
attempting to cross the river. Captain Francois Dumonceau records, "The crowd
of disbanded troops had arrived and created a block by flocking from all sides,
infiltrating everywhere, congesting the ground over a considerable area and
refusing to give way or let us through. This disordered multitude persisted in
moving forward, and formed a confused tangle of men, horses and vehicles which
increased in numbers all the time almost to suffocation-point, pushing up to
the river where several were drowned-thus renewing in all their horror the
appalling scenes of the various earlier passages, but this time on a much
larger scale in relation to the extent of ground." Hundreds of corpses
covered the ground within two hundred yards of the bridges. Russian cannon
balls tore through the ranks of people each killing three to five people
crossing or pushing their way onto the bridges in the hope of saving
themselves. One shot struck a powder magazine in a wagon causing a great
explosion, which killed hundreds.
At 9:00 a.m. on the 29th the French rear guard could no longer hold back the
Russians and was forced to cross the river and burn the bridges behind them.
Ten thousand stragglers were left behind to fall into the hands of the
Russians. The army had been saved and Napoleon could claim another "victory"
but only at the high cost of 25,000 battle casualties. The road to Vilna with
its large stores of supplies was now open.
The next day Count De Rochechouart found himself at the bridge site, "Nothing
in the world more saddening, more distressing! One saw heaped bodies of men,
women, and even children; soldiers of all arms, all nations, choked by the
fugitives or hit by Russian grapeshot; horses, carriages, guns, ammunition
wagons, abandoned carts. One cannot imagine a more terrifying sight. Both sides
of the road were piled with dead in all positions, or with men dying of cold,
hunger, exhaustion, their uniforms in tatters, and beseeching us to take them
prisoner. However much we might have wished to help, unfortunately we could do
The suffering of the survivors was far from over. A Russian major describes the
soldiers as they marched toward Vilna, "Most of them had neither boots nor
shoes, but blankets, knapsacks or old hats around their feet. No sooner had a
man collapsed from exhaustion than the next fell upon him and stripped him
naked before he was dead." However, with the road open, Napoleon hastily
left his army for Paris to raise a new army and protect his government from any
What remained of the Grande Armee was turned over the command of
Murat. He led them into Vilna on 8 December. A repeat of Smolensk ensued; the
soldiers immediately looted the supply depots, discipline once again being
non-existent. The weather turned according to Coignet, "so severe that the men
could no longer endure it; even the ravens froze." Not wanting to become
trapped in Vilna, Murat ordered the army to march onto to Kovno and then onto
Posen. "There in mid-January 1813, he could count 40,000 organized troops, if
demoralized, troops (including some from garrisons along the way) and perhaps
20,000 stragglers-many pitiful scarecrows, some stark mad from their
Napoleon's splendid Grande Armee had been completely decimated in the
Russian campaign under his generalship. The immense sufferings and the enormous
loss of life caused by his actions hardly affected the Emperor. Important
matters had to be attended. He still had to attempt to hold together his
coalition and build a new army. He would remark, "Those men whom Nature had not
hardened against all chances of fate and fortune seemed shaken; they lost their
cheerfulness and good humor, and saw ahead of them nothing but disaster and
catastrophe. Those on whom she had bestowed superior powers kept up their
spirits and normal dispositions, seeing in the various ordeals a challenge to
win new glory."
Napoleon's maxim of hardship and want was tested to the limits of human
endurance during the catastrophic campaign in Russia. The soldiers who survived
most certainly endured hardships unsurpassed by those who have never seen the
horrors of war. They would emerge from their trials victorious as survivors and
as perhaps, the most "qualified" soldiers in the world by Napoleon's standards.
Show Footnotes and
. Frank A. Kafker, and James M. Laux, Napoleon and His Times: Selected
Interpretations (Florida: Krieger Publishing Company, 1991), 236.
. David G. Chandler, The Military Maxims of Napoleon (London: Da Capo Press,
. A ukase was in imperial Russia, a proclamation of the czar that was
. Owen Connelly, Blundering to Glory: Napoleon's Military Campaigns
(Delaware: Scholarly Resources Inc. 1987), 159.
. Martin Van Creveld, Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton
(New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 63.
. Chandler, 75.
. Antony Brett-James, 1812: Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon's Defeat in
Russia (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1966), 51.
. Ibid, 52.
. Hellen Roeder, The Ordeal of Captain Roeder (New York: St. Martin's Press,
. Brett-James, 49.
. Roeder, 108.
. Jakob Walter, The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier (New York:
Doubleday, 1991), 41.
. Frank A. Kafker, and James M. Laux, Napoleon and His Times: Selected
Interpretations (Florida: Krieger Publishing Company, 1991), 236.
. Carl Von, Clausewitz, The Campaign of 1812 in Russia (California:
Presidio Press, 1991), 181.
. Walter, 48.
. Roeder, 99.
. Ibid, 95.
. Walter, 43.
. Brett-James, 49.
. Brett-James, 51.
. Ibid, 56.
. Roeder, 138.
. Walter, 53.
. Connelly, 167.
. Brett-James, 127-128.
. Connelly, 171.
. Brett-James, 141-142.
. Emin Saglamar, "1812: Napoleon's March to Russian" [Article on-line],
Accessed 24 June 2002; available from
. Walter, 57.
. Brett-James, 209.
. Walter, 71.
. Roeder, 170.
. Brett-James, 222.
. Emin Saglamar, "1812: Napoleon's March to Russian" [Article on-line],
Accessed 24 June 2002; available from
. Brett-James, 227.
. Ibid, 223.
. Roeder, 172.
. Brett-James, 255.
. Ibid, 257.
. Walter, 72.
. Brett-James, 261.
. Roader, 185.
. Jean-Roch Coignet, "Eyewitness account of French Retreat from Moscow"
[article on-line], Accessed 25 June 2002, available from
. Connelly, 181.
. Saglamar, Emin. "1812: Napoleon's March to Russian" [Article on-line].
Accessed 24 June 2002; available from
Brett-James, Antony. 1812: Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia
. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1966.
Chandler, David G. The Military Maxims of Napoleon . London: Da Capo
Connelly, Owen. Blundering to Glory: Napoleon’s Military Campaigns .
Delaware: Scholarly Resources Inc. 1987.
Clausewitz, Carl Von. The Campaign of 1812 in Russia . California:
Presidio Press, 1991.
Coignet, Jean-Roch. “Eyewitness account of French Retreat from Moscow” [article
on-line]. Accessed 25 June 2002, available from
Creveld, Martin Van. Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton
. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
Jones, Archer. The Art of War in the Western World . Chicago:
University of Illinois Press, 1987.
Kafker, Frank A. and James M. Laux. Napoleon and His Times: Selected
Interpretations . Florida: Krieger Publishing Company, 1991.
Roeder, Hellen. The Ordeal of Captain Roeder . New York: St. Martin’s
Rothenberg, Gunther E. The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon .
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.
Saglamar, Emin. “1812: Napoleon’s March to Russian” [Article on-line]. Accessed
24 June 2002, available from
Walter, Jakob. The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier . New York:
Copyright © 2006 Major James T. McGhee
Written by James T. McGhee. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact James T. McGhee at:
About the author:
Major James T. McGhee is a native of Dexter, Missouri, and now serves in the
active Army as an Operations Officer assigned to the 101st Sustainment Brigade,
Ft. Campbell, KY. He studied history at Southeast Missouri State University, is
a graduate of the Army Command and General Staff College, and holds a Maters
Degree in Military Studies from American Military University. In his spare
time, Todd enjoys researching and writing military history with emphasis on
World War II on the Eastern Front.
Published online: 01/28/2006.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.