Part 2 out of 4
peace,--for peace could not be the price of a forced retreat,--and for such
a result the field of Borodino was covered with 50 thousand dead. Here, as
we have learned, were found the Westphalians, not more than 3 thousand, the
remainder of 10 thousand at Smolensk, of 23 thousand who crossed the
Napoleon gave orders to take the wounded at Borodino into the baggage
wagons and forced every officer, every refugee from Moscow who had a
vehicle, to take the wounded as the most precious load.
The rear guard under Davout left the fearful place on October 31st., and
camped over night half-way to the little town of Ghjat. The night was
bitter cold, and the soldiers began to suffer very much from the low
From this time on, every day made the retreat more difficult, for the cold
became more and more severe from day to day, and the enemy more pressing.
The Russian general, Kutusof, might now have marched ahead of Napoleon's
army, which was retarded by so many impediments, and annihilated it by a
decisive battle, but he did not take this risk, preferring a certain and
safe tactic, by constantly harassing the French, surprising one or the
other of the rear columns by a sudden attack. He had a strong force of
cavalry and artillery, and, above all, good horses, while the rearguard of
the French, for want of horses, consisted of infantry; there was, for
instance, nothing left of General Grouchy's cavalry. The infantry of
Marshal Davout, who commanded the rearguard, had to do the service of all
arms, often being compelled to face the artillery of the enemy which had
good horses, while their own was dragged along by exhausted animals
scarcely able to move.
Davout's men fought the Russians with the bayonet and took cannons from
them, but being without horses they were compelled to leave them on the
road, content rearguarding themselves to remain undisturbed for some hours.
Gradually the French had to part with their own cannons and ammunition;
sinister explosions told the soldiers of increasing distress.
As it is in all great calamities of great masses: increasing misery also
increases egotism and heroism. Miserable drivers of wagons to whom the
wounded had been entrusted took advantage of the night and threw the
helpless wounded on the road where the rearguard found them dead or dying.
The guilty drivers, when discovered, were punished; but it was difficult to
detect them, with the general confusion of the retreat making its first
Wounded soldiers who had been abandoned could be seen at every step. The
tail of the army, composed of stragglers, of tired, discouraged or sick
soldiers, all marching without arms and without discipline, continually
increased in number, to the mortification of the rearguard which had to
deal with these men who would not subordinate their own selves to the
welfare of the whole.
It is tempting to describe the terrible engagements, the almost superhuman,
admirable bravery of Napoleon's soldiers, who often, after having had the
hardest task imaginable and constantly in danger of being annihilated, were
forced to pass the bitter cold nights without eating, without rest, and
although all details bear on the medical history I am obliged to confine
myself to a few sketches between the description of purely medical matters.
* * * * *
I happened to find in the surgeon-general's library a rare book: Moricheau
Beaupre, A Treatise on the Effects and Properties of Cold, with a Sketch,
Historical and Medical, of the Russian Campaign. Translated by John
Clendining, with appendix, xviii, 375 pp. 8vo., Edinburgh, Maclachnan and
This most valuable book is not mentioned in any of the numerous
publications on the medical history of the Russian campaign of Napoleon
which I examined, and I shall now give an extract of what Beaupre writes on
the Effects of Cold in General:
Distant expeditions, immaterial whether in cold or warm countries, with
extremes of temperature, are always disadvantageous and must cause great
sacrifice of life, not only on account of the untried influence of extreme
temperatures on individuals born in other climates, but also on account of
the fatigues inseparable from traversing long distances, of an irregular
life, of a multiplicity of events and circumstances impossible to foresee,
or which at least had not been foreseen, and which operate very
unfavorably, morally and physically, on military persons. The expedition of
the French army into Russia offers a sad proof of this truth, but history
has recorded similar experiences. The army of Alexander the Great suffered
frightfully from cold on two occasions: first, when that ambitious
conqueror involved himself amid snows, in savage and barbarous regions of
northern Asia before reaching the Caucasus; the second time, when, after
having crossed these mountains, he passed the Tanais to subdue the
Scythians, and the soldiers were oppressed with thirst, hunger, fatigue,
and despair, so that a great number died on the road, or lost their feet
from congelation; the cold seizing them, it benumbed their hands, and they
fell at full length on the snow to rise no more. The best means they knew,
says Q. Curtius, to escape that mortal numbness, was not to stop, but to
force themselves to keep marching, or else to light great fires at
intervals. Charles XII, a great warrior alike rash and unreflecting, in
1707 penetrated into Russia and persisted in his determination of marching
to Moscow despite the wise advice given him to retire into Poland. The
winter was so severe and the cold so intense that the Swedes and Russians
could scarcely hold their arms. He saw part of his army perish before his
eyes, of cold, hunger, and misery, amid the desert and icy steppes of the
Ukraine. If he had reached Moscow, it is probable that the Russians would
have set him at bay, and that his army, forced to retire, would have
experienced the same fate as the French.
In the retreat of Prague in 1742 the French army, commanded
by Marshal Belle-Isle, little accustomed to a winter campaign,
was forced to traverse impracticable defiles across mountains and ravines
covered with snow. In ten days 4 thousand men perished of cold and misery;
food and clothing were deficient, the soldiers died in anguish and despair,
and a great many of the officers and soldiers had their noses, feet and
hands frozen. The Russians regard the winter of 1812 as one of the most
rigorous of which they have any record; it was intensely felt through all
Russia, even in the most southerly parts. As a proof of this fact the
Tartars of the Crimea mentioned to Beaupre the behavior of the great and
little bustard, which annually at that season of the year quit the plain
for protection against the cold and migrate to the southern part of that
peninsula toward the coasts. But during that winter they were benumbed by
the cold and dropped on the snow, so that a great many of them were caught.
In the low hills, in the spring of 1813, the ground in some places was
covered with the remains of those birds entire.
Of the effects of cold in general Beaupre says that soldiers who are rarely
provided with certain articles of dress suitable for winter, whose caps do
not entirely protect the lateral and superior parts of the head, and who
often suffer from cold in bivouacs, are very liable to have ears and
fingers seized on by asphyxia and mortification. Troopers who remain
several days without taking off their boots, and whose usual posture on
horseback contributes to benumb the extremities, often have their toes and
feet frozen without suspecting it.
Cold produces fatal effects above as well as below the freezing point. A
continued moderate cold has the same consequences as a severe cold of short
duration. When very intense, as in the north, it sometimes acts on the
organism so briskly as to depress and destroy its powers with astonishing
rapidity. As the action of cold is most frequently slow and death does not
take place until after several hours' exposure, the contraction that
diminishes the caliber of the vessels more and more deeply, repels the
blood toward the cavities of the head, chest, and abdomen; it causes, in
the circulation of the lungs, and in that of the venous system of the head,
an embarrassment that disturbs the function of the brain and concurs to
produce somnolence. The probability of this explanation is strengthened by
the flowing of the blood from the nose to the ears, spontaneous
haemoptysis, also by preternatural redness of the viscera, engorgements of
the cerebral vessel, and bloody effusion, all of which conditions have been
found after death.
It is certain that in spite of every possible means of congestion or
effusion within the cranium, constant and forced motion is necessary for
the foot soldier to save him from surprise. The horseman must dismount as
quickly as possible and constrain himself to walk. Commanders of divisions
should not order halts in winter, and they should take care that the men do
not lag behind on the march. Necessary above all are gaiety, courage, and
perseverance of the mind; these qualities are the surest means of escaping
danger. He who has the misfortune of being alone, inevitably perishes.
In Siberia, the Russian soldiers, to protect themselves from the action of
the cold, cover their noses and ears with greased paper. Fatty matters seem
to have the power of protecting from cold, or at least of greatly
diminishing its action. The Laplander and the Samoiede anoint their skin
with rancid fish oil, and thus expose themselves in the mountains to a
temperature of -36 deg. Reaumur, or 50 deg. below zero Fahrenheit.
Xenophon, during the retreat of the 10 thousand, ordered all his soldiers
to grease those parts that were exposed to the air. If this remedy could
have been employed, says Beaupre, on the retreat from Moscow, it is
probable that it would have prevented more than one accident.
Most of those who escaped the danger of the cold ultimately fell sick. In
1813 a number of soldiers, more or less seriously injured by cold, filled
the hospitals of Poland, Prussia, and other parts of Germany. From the
shores of the Niemen to the banks of the Rhine it was easy to recognize
those persons who constituted the remainder of an army immolated by cold
and misery the most appalling. Many, not yet arrived at the limit of their
sufferings, distributed themselves in the hospitals on this side of the
Rhine, and even as far as the south of France, where they came to undergo
various extirpations, incisions, and amputations, necessitated by the
physical disorder so often inseparable from profound gangraene.
Mutilation of hands and feet, loss of the nose, of an ear, weakness of
sight, deafness, complete or incomplete, neuralgy, rheumatism, palsies,
chronic diarrhoea, pectoral affections, recall still more strongly the
horrors of this campaign to those who bear such painful mementos.
* * * * *
But now let us return to the dissertation of von Scherer which gives the
most graphic and complete description of the effect of cold.
After the battle of Borodino, on September 5th. and 7th., the army marched
to Moscow and arrived there on September 11th., exhausted to the highest
degree from hunger and misery. The number of Wuerttembergians suffering
from dysentery was very large. A hospital was organized for them in a sugar
refinery outside of Moscow. Many died here, but the greater number was left
to its fate during the retreat of the army.
The quarters at Moscow until October 19th. improved the condition of the
army very little. Devoured by hunger, in want of all necessities, the army
had arrived. The terrible fire of the immense city had greatly reduced the
hope for comfortable winter quarters. Although the eatables which had been
saved from the fire were distributed among the soldiers who, during the
weeks of their sojourn, had wine, tea, coffee, meat, and bread, all
wholesome and plentiful, yet dysentery continued and in most patients had
assumed a typhoid character. [Footnote: The word typhoid means "resembling
typhus," and in Europe this term is correctly employed to designate a
somnolent or other general condition in all kinds of feverish diseases
which remind one of typhus symptoms. What English and American physicians
call typhus or typhus fever is known to European physicians under the name
of exanthematic or petechial typhus, indicating a symptom by which it is
distinguished from abdominal typhus.]
Besides, real typhus had now made its appearance in the army and, spreading
rapidly through infection, caused great loss of life and brought the misery
to a climax. The great number of the sick, crowded together in unfit
quarters; the stench of the innumerable unburied and putrefying cadavers of
men and animals in the streets of Moscow, among them the corpses of several
thousand Russians who had been taken prisoners and then massacred, not to
speak of the putrefying cadavers on the battlefields and roads over which
the army had marched, all this had finally developed into a pest-like
After the retreat from Moscow had been decided upon, many thousands of the
sick were sent ahead on wagons under strong guards. These wagons took the
shortest road to Borodino, while the army took the road to Kaluga. Several
thousand typhus patients were left in Moscow, all of whom died, with the
exception of a few, according to later information. Many of those who,
although suffering from typhus, had retained strength enough to have
themselves transported on the wagons, recovered on the way, later to become
victims of the cold.
Weakened in body and mind, the army left Moscow on October 18th. and 19th.
The weather was clear, the nights were cold, when they proceeded in forced
marches on the road to Kaluga. Near Maloijorolawez the enemy attempted to
bar the way, and an obstinate engagement developed during which the French
cavalry suffered severely.
It is true, the Russian battle line was broken, and the way was open, but
the French army had received its death-blow.
The order which thus far had kept the army was shaken, and disorder of all
The retreat now continued in the direction of Borodino, Ghjat, and Wiasma,
the same road which had been followed on the march toward Moscow, a road
which was laid waste and entirely deserted.
The soldiers, in view of the helplessness which manifested itself, gave up
all hope and with dismay looked into a terrible future.
Everywhere surrounded by the enemy who attacked vehemently, the soldiers
were forced to remain in their ranks on the highway; whoever straggled was
lost--either killed or made prisoner of war.
On the immense tract of land extending from Moscow to Wilna during a march
of several days, not a single inhabitant, not a head of cattle, was to be
seen, only cities and villages burnt and in ruins. The misery increased
from day to day. What little of provisions had been taken along from Moscow
was lost, together with the wagons, on the flight after the engagement of
Maloijorolawez, and this happened, as we have seen, before the army reached
Borodino; the rations which the individual soldier had with him were
consumed during the first few days, and thus a complete want made itself
felt. The horses, receiving no food, fell in great numbers from exhaustion
and starvation; cannon and innumerable wagons, for want of means to
transport them, had to be destroyed and left behind.
From the last days of October until mid-December, at which time the army
arrived at Wilna, horse meat was the only food of the soldiers; many could
not obtain even this, and they died from starvation before the intense cold
weather set in. The meat which the soldiers ate was either that of
exhausted and sick horses which had not been able to walk any further, or
of such as had been lying dead on the road for some time. With the greatest
greed and a beastly rage the men threw themselves on the dead animals; they
fought without distinction of rank and with a disregard of all military
discipline--officers and privates alike--for the possession of the best
liked parts of the dead animal--the brain, the heart, and the liver. The
weakest had to be contented with any part. Many devoured the meat raw,
others pierced it with the bayonet, roasted it at the camp fire and ate it
without anything else, often with great relish.
Such was the sad condition when the setting in of extreme cold weather
brought the misery--the horrors--to a climax.
During the last days of October, when the army had scarcely reached
Borodino, cold winds blew from the North.
The first snowfall was on October 26th., and the snow made the march of the
enfeebled army difficult in the extreme.
From that date on the cold increased daily, and the camping over night was
terrible; the extremities of those who had no chance to protect themselves
with clothes nor to come near the campfire became frozen.
During the first days of November the thermometer had fallen to -12 Reaumur
Derangements of mind were the first pernicious effects of the low
temperature that were noticed.
The first effect on the brain in the strong and healthy ones, as well as in
the others, was loss of memory.
Von Scherer noticed that, with the beginning of the cold weather, many
could not remember the names of the best known, the everyday things, not
even the eagerly longed for eatables could they name, or name correctly;
many forgot their own names and were no longer able to recognize their
nearest comrades and friends. Others had become completely feebleminded,
their whole expression was that of stupidity. And those of a stronger
constitution, who had resisted the effects of cold on body and mind, became
deeply horrified on observing, in addition to their own sufferings, how the
mental faculties of the best men, hitherto of strong will power, had become
impaired, and how these unfortunates sooner or later, yet gradually, with
lucid intervals of a few moments' duration, invariably became completely
The intense cold enfeebled, first of all, the brain of those whose health
had already suffered, especially of those who had had dysentery, but soon,
while the cold increased daily, its pernicious effect was noticed in all.
The internal vessels, especially those of the brain and the lungs, in many
became congested to such a degree that all vital activity was paralyzed.
On necropsy, these vessels of the brain and lungs and the right heart were
found to be bloated and stretched; in one case the different vessels of the
brain were torn and quite an amount of blood was effused between the
meninges and the brain, in most cases more or less serum had collected in
The corpses were white as snow, while the central organs in every case were
At the beginning, while the cold was still tolerable, the effect of the
humors from the surface of the body to the central organs had caused only a
slight derangement of the functions of these organs, like dyspnoea, mental
weakness, in some more or less indifference, a disregard of their
surroundings; in short, all those symptoms of what was called at that time
Now all actions of the afflicted manifested mental paralysis and the
highest degree of apathy.
This condition resembles that of extreme old age, when mind and body return
to the state of childhood.
The bodies of those suffering from intense cold were shriveled and
wrinkled. Men formerly models of bodily and mental strength, hardened in
war, now staggered along, leaning on a stick, wailing and lamenting
childlike, begging for a piece of bread, and if something to eat was given
to them they burst out in really childish joy, not seldom shedding tears.
The faces of these unfortunates were deadly pale, the features strangely
distorted. Lads resembled men of 80 years of age and presented a
cretin-like appearance; the lips were bluish, the eyes dull, without
luster, and constantly lachrymal; the veins very small, scarcely visible;
the extremities cold; the pulse could not be felt, neither at the radius
nor at the temple bone, somnolency was general.
Often it happened that the moment they sank to the ground the lower
extremities became paralyzed; soon after that, a few drops of blood from
the nose indicated the moribund condition.
Severed were all bonds of brotherly love, extinguished all human feeling
toward those who, from exhaustion, had fallen on the road.
Many men, among them his former best comrades and even relatives, would
fall upon such an unfortunate one to divest him of his clothing and other
belongings, to leave him naked on the snow, inevitably to die.
The impulse of self-preservation overmastered everything in them.
During the second half of November, and more so during the first days of
December, especially on the 8th., 9th., and 10th., when the army arrived at
Wilna, the cold had reached the lowest degree; during the night from
December 9th. to December 10th. the thermometer showed -32 R (-40 F.). The
cold air caused severe pain in the eyes, resembling that of strong
pressure. The eyes, weakened by the constant sight of snow, suffered
greatly under these circumstances.
Many were blinded to such an extent that they could not see one step
forward, could recognize nothing and had to find their way, like the blind
in general, with the aid of a stick. Many of these fell during the march
and became stiffened at once.
During this period von Scherer noticed that those who had been suffering
very much from cold would die quickly when they had fallen to the frozen,
ice-covered ground; the shaking due to the fall probably causing injury to
the spinal cord, resulting in sudden general paralysis of the lower
extremities, the bladder and the intestinal tract being affected to the
extent of an involuntary voiding of urine and feces.
Surgeon-major von Keller stated to von Scherer the following case: "I was
lying near Wilna, it was during the first days of December, during one of
the coldest nights, together with several German officers, on the road
close to a camp fire, when a military servant approached us asking
permission to bring his master, a French officer of the guards, to our
"This permission was willingly granted, and two soldiers of the guard
brought a tall and strong man of about thirty years of age whom they placed
on the ground between themselves.
"When the Frenchman learned of the presence of a surgeon he narrated that
something quite extraordinary had happened to him.
"Notwithstanding the great general misery, he had thus far been cheerful and
well, but half an hour previous his feet had stiffened and he had been
unable to walk, and now he had no longer any sensation from the toes up the
"I examined him and found that his feet were completely stiff, white like
marble, and ice cold.
"The officer was well dressed and, notwithstanding his pitiful condition,
more cheerful than myself and my comrades.
"Soon he felt a strong desire to urinate, but was unable to do so.
"With great relish he ate a large piece of horse flesh which had been
roasted at the fire, but soon complained of great illness.
"His cheerfulness changed suddenly to a sensation of great distress.
Ischuria persisted for several hours and caused him great pain; later on
during the night, he involuntarily voided feces and a large amount of
urine. He slept a great deal, the breathing was free, but at dawn he fell
into a helpless condition, and, at daybreak, before we had left the fire,
this strong man, who eight to ten hours before had been in good health,
Most excellent and ingenious men in the prime of manhood all suffered more
or less from the cold; with the exception of a few cases, the senses of all
were, if not entirely deranged, at least weakened. The longest and
sometimes complete resistance to the cold was offered by those who had
always been of a cheerful disposition, especially those who had not become
discouraged by the great privations and hardships, who ate horse flesh with
relish and who in general had adapted themselves to circumstances.
One of the Wuerttembergian officers, a man of considerable military
knowledge and experience, was attacked, a few days before reaching Wilna,
with so pronounced a loss of sensation that he only vegetated, moving along
in the column like a machine.
He had no bodily sickness, no fever, was fairly well in strength, had never
or rarely been in want, but his whole sensory system was seriously affected
by the cold.
Von Scherer saw him, after he arrived at an inn in Wilna, somewhat
recovered by warmth and food, but acting childishly.
While he ate the food placed before him he would make terrible grimaces,
crying or laughing for minutes at a time.
His constitution badly shaken, but gradually improving, he returned home,
and it took a long time before he recovered completely.
All traces of his sickness disappeared finally, and as active as ever he
attended his former duties.
Another officer, with whom von Scherer traveled a few days between Krasnoe
and Orscha, had not until then suffered any real want.
He rode in a well-closed carriage drawn by strong horses, had two soldiers
as servants, was well dressed and suffered, therefore, much less than
others. Especially was he well protected from the cold, yet this had a
severe effect on him. His mind became deranged, he did not recognize von
Scherer with whom he had been on intimate terms for years, nor could he
call either of his servants by name; he would constantly run alongside the
carriage, insisting that it belonged to the French emperor and that he was
entrusted to guard his majesty.
Only when he had fallen asleep, or by force, was von Scherer able, with the
aid of the two servants, to place him in the carriage.
His mental condition became worse every day; von Scherer had to leave him.
This officer reached Wilna, where he was made a prisoner and soon died in
Many more cases resembling these two were observed by von Scherer, and
other army surgeons reported instances of the like effect of cold.
Surgeon General von Schmetter had remained with the Crown Prince of
Wuerttemberg in Wilna, while the army marched to Moscow.
He reported many cases of unfortunates whom he had received in the hospital
in Wilna, who by cold and misery of all kinds had been reduced to a pitiful
state--men formerly of a vigorous constitution presented a puerile
appearance and had become demented.
A cavalryman of the regiment Duke Louis, who, during February, 1813, had
been admitted into the hospital of Wilna, suffering from quiet mania
without being feverish, was constantly searching for something.
Hands and feet had been frozen. He became ill with typhus and was more or
less delirious for two weeks.
After the severity of the sickness had abated he again began to search
anxiously for something, and after the fever had left him he explained that
thirty thousand florins, which he had brought with him to the hospital, had
been taken away.
It was learned that this cavalryman had been sent, together with other
comrades, with dispatches to Murat; that these men had defended Murat with
great bravery when he was in danger in the battle of Borodino.
Murat, in recognition of their bravery, which had saved him, had given them
a wagon with gold, which they were to divide among themselves.
The share of each of these cavalrymen amounted to over thirty thousand
florins, and the gold was transported on four horses, but these horses, for
want of food, had broken down under the load, and the gold had fallen into
the hands of the Cossacks.
The patient became quite ecstatic when, during his convalescence, he was
told that he had brought no gold with him into the hospital; only gradually
could he be made to understand that he had been mistaken.
He said, however, that he could not recollect having been robbed during the
retreat, although this fact had been testified to by two witnesses.
Two years after he had left the hospital and quitted the military service,
when he was perfectly well and vigorous again, he recollected that on a
very cold day he had been taken prisoner by Cossacks, who had left him,
naked and unconscious, in the snow.
He could not remember how and when he had come into the hospital.
Notwithstanding all these later recollections, he still imagined from time
to time that he had brought the gold with him into the hospital.
Surgeon General von Schmetter reported further the case of a cavalryman of
the King's regiment who, like many others, had returned from Russia in an
He spoke alternately, or mixed up, Polish, Russian, and German; he had to
be fed like a child, could not remember his name or the name of his native
place, and died from exhaustion eight days after admittance into the
On necropsy of the quite wrinkled body, the cerebral vessels were found
full of blood, the ventricles full of serum. On the surface of the brain
between the latter and the meninges were found several larger and smaller
sacs filled with lymph, the spinal canal full of serum; in the spinal cord
plain traces of inflammation. In the lungs there was much dark coagulated
blood, and likewise in the vena cava; in the stomach and intestines, many
cicatrices; the mesenteric glands and pancreas were much degenerated and
filled with pus; the rectum showed many cicatrices and several ulcers.
In the hospital of Mergentheim eight necropsies were held on corpses of
soldiers who had returned mentally affected in consequence of exposure to
extreme cold. Similar conditions had presented themselves in all these
Surgeon General von Kohlreuter attended an infantry officer who had arrived
at Inorawlow, in Poland, where the remainder of the Wuerttembergian corps
had rallied. He showed no special sickness, had no fever, but fell into
complete apathy. For a long time he had great weakness of mind, but
recovered completely in the end.
Of another patient of this kind, an officer of the general staff, who had
been treated after that fatal retreat from Moscow, von Kohlreuter reports
that later on he recovered completely from the mental derangement, but died
on his return, near the borders of Saxony, from exhaustion.
An infantry officer became mentally deranged sometime after he had returned
to his home; it took a long time, but finally he recovered without special
Recovery of such cases was accomplished by time, a mild climate, by social
intercourse, and good nourishment; many of them, on the way through Germany
and before they reached their own home, had completely regained their
mental faculties, and only in a small number of cases did it take a long
period of time and medication before recovery was assured.
The effect of intense cold on wounds was very severe: Violent inflammation,
enormous swelling, gangraene--the latter often due to the impossibility of
proper care. Larger wounds sometimes could not be dressed on the retreat,
and while the cold weather lasted gangraene and death followed in quick
succession. The effect of cold was noticed also on wounds which had healed
Von Happrecht, an officer of the regiment Duke Louis, had been wounded in
the foot by a cannon ball in the battle of Borodino on September 7th., and
Surgeon-General von Kohlreuter had amputated it. Fairly strong and
cheerful, this officer arrived safely at the Beresina. The passage over
this river was, as is well known, very dangerous, and von Happrecht had to
wait, exposed to cold, for some time before he could cross. Soon after
traversing on horseback he felt as if he had lost the stump; he had no
sensation in the leg the foot of which had been amputated. Unfortunately,
he approached a fire to warm himself and felt a severe pain in the stump;
extensive inflammation, with swelling, set in; gangraene followed and,
notwithstanding most skillful attendance, he died soon after his arrival at
So far von Scherer. Beaupre, speaking of his own observations of the
effects of extreme cold, gives the following account:
Soldiers unable to go further fell and resigned themselves to death, in
that frightful state of despair which is caused by the total loss of moral
and physical force, which was aggravated to the utmost by the sight of
their comrades stretched lifeless on the snow. During a retreat so
precipitate and fatal, in a country deprived of its resources, amid
disorder and confusion, the sad physician was forced to remain an
astonished spectator of evils he could not arrest, to which he could apply
no remedy. The state of matters remarkably affected the moral powers. The
consternation was general. Fear of not escaping the danger was very
naturally allied with the desperate idea of seeing one's country no more.
None could flatter himself that his courage and strength would suffice so
that he would be able to withstand privations and sufferings beyond human
endurance. Italians, Portuguese, Spaniards, those from the temperate and
southern parts of France, obliged to brave an austere climate unknown to
them, directed their thoughts toward their country and with good reasons
regretted the beauty of the heaven, the softness of the air of the
regions of their birth.
Nostalgia was common.... The army was but three days from Smolensk when the
heavens became dark, and snow began to fall in great flakes, in such a
quantity that the air was obscured. The cold was then felt with extreme
severity; the northern wind blew impetuously into the faces of the soldiers
and incommoded many who were no longer able to see. They strayed, fell into
the snow--above all, when night surprised them--and thus miserably
Disbanded regiments were reduced to almost nothing by the loss of men
continually left behind either on the roads or in the bivouacs.
Of the days of Smolensk he writes: In the streets one met with none but
sick and wounded men asking for hospitals, soldiers of every sort, of every
nation, going and coming, some of them trying to find a place where
provisions were sold or distributed; others taciturn, incapable of any
effort, absorbed by grief, half dead with cold, awaiting their last hour.
On all sides there were complaints and groans, dead and dying soldiers, all
of which presented a picture that was still further darkened by the ruinous
aspect of the city.... At Smolensk Beaupre himself had a narrow escape from
freezing to death; he narrates: During the frightful night when we left
Smolensk I felt much harassed; toward 5 in the morning, a feeling of
lassitude impelled me to stop and rest. I sat down on the trunk of a birch,
beside eight frozen corpses, and soon experienced an inclination to sleep,
to which I yielded the more willingly as at that moment it seemed
delicious. Fortunately I was aroused from that incipient somnolency--which
infallibly would have brought on torpor--by the cries and oaths of two
soldiers who were violently striking a poor exhausted horse that had fallen
I emerged from that state with a sort of shock.
The sight of what was beside me strongly recalled to my mind the danger to
which I exposed myself; I took a little brandy and started to run to remove
the numbness of my legs, the coldness and insensibility of which were as if
they had been immersed in an iced bath.
He then describes his experience in similar cases: It happened three or
four times that I assisted some of those unfortunates who had just fallen
and began to doze, to rise again and endeavored to keep them in motion
after having given them a little sweetened brandy.
It was in vain; they could neither advance nor support themselves, and they
fell again in the same place, where of necessity they had to be abandoned
to their unhappy lot. Their pulse was small and imperceptible. Respiration,
infrequent and scarcely sensible in some, was attended in others by
complaints and groans. Sometimes the eyes were open, fixed, dull, wild, and
the brain was seized by a quiet delirium; in other instances the eyes were
red and manifested a transient excitement of the brain; there was marked
delirium in these cases. Some stammered incoherent words, others had a
reserved and convulsive cough. In some blood flowed from the nose and ears;
they agitated their limbs as if groping. (This description of Beaupre
complements the account given by von Scherer.)
Many had their hands, feet, and ears frozen. A great many were mortally
stricken when obliged to stop to relieve nature; the arrival of that
dreaded moment was in fact very embarrassing, on account of the danger of
exposing oneself to the air as well as owing to the numbness of the fingers
which rendered them unable to readjust the clothes....
And they traveled day and night, often without knowing where they were.
Ultimately they were obliged to stop, and, complaining, shivering, forced
to lie down in the woods, on the roads, in ditches, at the bottom of
ravines, often without fire, because they had no wood at hand, nor strength
enough to go and cut some in the vicinity; if they succeeded in lighting
one, they warmed themselves as they could, and fell asleep without delay.
The first hours of sleep were delightful, but, alas! they were merely the
deceitful precursor of death that was waiting for them.
The fire at length became extinct for want of attention or owing to the
great blast. Instead of finding safety in the sweets of sleep, they were
seized and benumbed by cold, and never saw daylight again....
I have seen them sad, pale, despairing, without arms, staggering, scarce
able to sustain themselves, their heads hanging to the right or left, their
extremities contracted, setting their feet on the coals, lying down on hot
cinders, or falling into the fire, which they sought mechanically, as if by
Others apparently less feeble, and resolved not to allow themselves to be
depressed by misfortune, rallied their powers to avoid sinking; but often
they quitted one place only to perish in another.
Along the road, in the adjacent ditches and fields, were perceived human
carcasses, heaped up and lying at random in fives, tens, fifteens and
twenties, of such as had perished during the night, which was always more
murderous than the day.
When no longer able to continue walking, having neither strength nor will
power, they fell on their knees.
The muscles of the trunk were the last to lose the power of contraction.
[Illustration: "And never saw daylight again."]
Many of those unfortunates remained for some time in that posture
contending with death.
Once fallen it was impossible for them, even with their utmost efforts, to
rise again. The danger of stopping had been universally observed; but,
alas! presence of mind and firm determination did not always suffice to
ward off mortal attacks made from all directions upon one miserable life!
About a mile and a half from Wiasma the enemy appeared to the left of the
road, and his fire happened to strike the midst of the tail of the army,
composed of disbanded soldiers without arms, with wounded and sick among
them, and women and children. Every artillery discharge of the Russians
caused frightful cries and a frightful commotion in the helpless mass.
And the rear guard, in trying to make them advance, ill-treated them, the
soldiers who had clung to the flag assumed the right to despise those who,
either voluntarily or under compulsion, had abandoned it.
Of the old generals of Davout some had been killed, Friant was so severely
wounded that he could not be about, Compans had been wounded in the arm,
Moraud in the head, but these two, the former with one arm in a sling, the
other with a bandaged head, were on horseback, surrounding the marshal
commanding the first corps which had been reduced to 15 thousand from 20
thousand at Moshaisk, from 28 thousand in Moscow, and from 72 thousand
crossing the Niemen. The remaining 15 thousand were all old warriors whose
iron constitution had triumphed.
The battle of Wiasma took place on the 2d. of November. The Russians under
Miloradovitch had 100 cannon, whereas the French under Ney, Davout,
and the wounded generals named above, had only 40. This day cost the French
1,500 to 1,800 men in killed and wounded, and, as mentioned, these were of
the oldest and best; the loss of the Russians was twice that number, but
their wounded were not lost, while it was impossible to save a single one
of the French, for the latter had no attendance at all; the cold being very
severe it killed them, and those who did not perish by the frost were put
to death by the cruel, ferocious Russian peasants.
Entering Wiasma at night, nothing in the way of provisions was found; the
guard and the corps which had been there before the battle had devoured
everything. No provisions were left of those taken along from Moscow. The
army passed a sombre and bitter cold night in a forest; great fires were
lighted, horse meat was roasted, and the soldiers of Prince Eugene and of
Marshal Davout, especially the latter who had been on their feet for three
days, slept profoundly around great camp-fires. During two weeks they had
been on duty to cover the retreat and during this time had lost more than
one half of their number.
Napoleon arrived at Dorogobouge on November 5th., the Prince Eugene on the
6th., the other corps on the 7th. and 8th.
Until then the frost had been severe but not yet fatal. All of a sudden, on
the 9th., the weather changed, and there was a terrible snow-storm.
On their way to Moscow the regiments had traversed Poland during a
suffocating heat and had left their warm clothing in the magazines.
Some soldiers had taken furs with them from Moscow, but had sold them to
Well nourished, they could have stood the frost, but living on a little
flour diluted with water, on horse meat roasted at the camp fire, sleeping
on the ground without shelter, they suffered frightfully. We shall later
on speak more in detail of the miserable clothing.
The first snow which had been falling after they had left Dorogobouge had
seriously increased the general misery. Except among the soldiers of the
rear guard which had been commanded with inflexible firmness by Davout, and
which was now led by Ney, the sense of duty began to be lost by almost all
As we have learned, all the wounded had to be left to their fate, and
soldiers who had been charged to escort Russian prisoners relieved
themselves of their charge by shooting these prisoners dead.
The horses had not been shod in Russian fashion for traveling on the ice.
The army had come during the summer without any idea of returning during
the winter; the horses slipped on the ice, those of the artillery were too
feeble to draw cannon even of small calibre, they were beaten unmercifully
until they perished; not only cannons and ammunition had to be left, but
the number of vehicles carrying necessities of life diminished from day to
day. The soldiers lived on the fallen horses; when night came the dead
animals were cut to pieces by means of the sabre, huge portions were
roasted at immense fires, the men devoured them and went to sleep around
the fires. If the Cossacks did not disturb their dearly bought sleep the
men would awake; some half burnt, others finding themselves lying in the
mud which had formed around them, and many would not rise any more. General
von Kerner, of the Wuerttembergian troops had slept in a barn during the
night from November 7th. to November 8th. Coming out at daybreak he saw his
men in the plain as they had lain down around a fire the evening before,
frozen and dead. The survivors would depart, hardly glancing at the
unfortunates who had died or were dying, and for whom they could do
The snow would soon cover them, and small eminences marked the places where
these brave soldiers had been sacrificed for a foolish enterprise.
It was under these circumstances that Ney, the man of the greatest energy
and of a courage which could not be shaken by any kind of suffering, took
command of the rear guard, relieving Davout whose inflexible firmness and
sense of honor and duty were not less admirable than the excellent
qualities of Ney. The bravest of the brave, as Napoleon had called Ney, had
an iron constitution, he never seemed to be tired nor suffering from any
ailment; he passed the night without shelter, slept or did not sleep, ate
or did not eat, without ever being discouraged; most of the time he was on
his feet in the midst of his soldiers; he did not find it beneath the
dignity of a Marshal of France, when necessary, to gather 50 or 100 men
about him and lead them, like a simple captain of infantry, against the
enemy under fire of musketry, calm, serene, believing himself invulnerable
and being apparently so indeed; he did not find it incompatible with his
rank to take up the musket of a soldier who had fallen and to fire at the
enemy like a private. There is a great painting in the gallery of
Versailles representing him in such an action. He had never been wounded in
battle. And this great hero was executed in the morning of December 7th.,
1815, in the garden of the Luxembourg.
Louis XVIII, this miserable and insignificant man of legitimate royal blood
who had never rendered any service to France, wanted revenge--Ney was
arrested and condemned by the Chamber of Peers after the marshals had
refused to condemn him. His wife pleaded in vain for his life, the king
remained inflexible. Ney was simply shot by 12 poor soldiers commanded for
the execution. After the marshal had sunk down, an Englishman suddenly rode
up at a gallop and leaped over the fallen hero, to express the triumph of
the victors. It was in as bad taste as everything that England contrived
against Napoleon and his men. [Footnote: Brave men were condemned to
deportation or were executed; derision and mocking of Napoleon's generals
was the order of the day.]
Among the spectators there was also a Russian general in full uniform and
on horseback. Tzar Alexander expelled him from the army after he had heard
The Bourbons commenced a tromocraty which was called, in contrast to the
terrorisms of the revolution, the white terror.
Much has been written about the fantastic costume of Murat, but I do not
recollect having read the true explanation of it. All writers agree that he
was the bravest, the greatest cavalry general. As such he meant to be
distinguished from far and near in the midst of the battle where danger was
greatest, so that the sight of his person, his exposure to the enemy,
should encourage and inspire his soldiers. He rode a very noble white horse
and wore a Polish kurtka of light blue velvet which reached down to the
knees, embroidered with golden lace, dark red mameluke pantaloons with
golden galloons, white gauntlets and a three-cornered general's hat with
white plumes; the saddle was of red velvet and a caparison of the same
stuff, all embroidered with gold. The neck of the king was bare, a large
white scalloped collar fell over the collar of the kurtka. A strong black
full beard gave a martial expression to his face with the fiery eyes and
regular features. Sometimes he wore a biretta with a diamond agraffe and a
high plume of heron feathers. Very seldom he appeared in the uniform of a
And this other great hero, who, like Ney, had never been wounded in battle,
was executed by order of the court of Naples on October 13th., 1815, in the
hall of castle Pizzo.
In order to give an idea of the great difficulties the soldiers had to
face, and examples of their heroic behavior under trying circumstances, let
us relate the disaster of Vop.
While Napoleon, with the imperial guard, the corps of Marshal Davout and a
mass of stragglers, all escorted by Marshal Ney, was marching on the road
to Smolensk, Prince Eugene had taken the road to Doukhowtchina. The prince
had with him 6 or 7 thousand men under arms, including the Italian guard,
some Bavarian cavalry which still had their horses and their artillery
mounted, and also many stragglers, with these a number of families who had
been following the Italian division.
At the end of the first day's journey--it was on November 8th.--near the
castle Zazale, they hoped to find at this castle some provisions and an
abode for the night. A great cold had set in, and when they came to a hill
the road was so slippery that it was almost impossible to negotiate the
elevation with even the lightest load. Detaching horses from the pieces in
order to double and treble the teams they succeeded in scaling the height
with cannons of small calibre, but they were forced to abandon the larger
The men being exhausted as well as the horses they felt humiliated at being
obliged to leave their best pieces. While they had exerted themselves with
such sad results, Platow had followed them with his Cossacks and light
cannons mounted on sleighs and incessantly fired into the French. The
commander of the Italian artillery, General Anthouard, was severely wounded
and was compelled to give up his command.
A gloomy night was passed at the castle Zazale.
On the morning of the 9th. they left at an early hour to cross the Vop, a
little rivulet during the summer but now quite a river, at least four feet
deep and full of mud and ice.
The pontooneers of Prince Eugene had gone ahead, working during the night
to construct a bridge, but frozen and hungry they had suspended their work
for a few hours, to finish it after a short rest.
At daybreak those most anxious to cross went on the unfinished bridge which
they thought was completed.
A heavy mist prevented them from recognizing their error until the first
ones fell into the icy water emitting piercing cries. Finally horses and
men waded through the water--some succeeded, other succumbed.
It would lead too far to give here a full description of the distressing
scenes, the difficulty of passing with artillery and the mostly vain
attempts to bring over the baggage wagons. But, to cap the climax, there
arrived 3 or 4 thousand Cossacks shouting savagely. With the greatest
difficulty only was the rear guard able to keep them at a distance so that
they could not come near enough to make use of their lances. Their
artillery, however, caused veritable desolation.
Among the poor fugitives from Moscow there were a number of Italian and
French women; these unfortunates stood at the border of the river, crying
and embracing their children, but not daring to wade through it. Brave
soldiers, full of humanity, took the little ones in their arms and passed
with them, some repeating this two and three times, in order to bring all
the children safely over. These desolate families, not being able to save
their vehicles, lost with them the means of subsistence brought from
Moscow. All the baggage, the entire artillery with the exception of seven
or eight pieces, had been lost, and a thousand men had been killed by the
fire of the Cossacks.
This dreadful event on the retreat from Moscow is called the disaster of
Vop and was the precursor of another disaster of the same nature, but a
hundred times more frightful, the disaster of the Beresina.
* * * * *
There was another cause of death of which we have not spoken yet: this was
the action of the heat at the campfires. Anxious to warm themselves, most
of the soldiers hastened to bring their limbs near the flame; but this
sudden exposure to extreme heat, after having suffered from the other
extreme--cold--was acting on the feeble circulation in the tissues and
produced gangraene of the feet, the hands, even of the face, causing
paralysis either partial, of the extremities, or general, of the whole
Only those were saved who had been able to keep up their circulation by
means of hot drinks or other stimulants and who, noticing numbness, had
rubbed the affected parts with snow. Those who did not or could not resort
to these precautions found themselves paralyzed, or stricken with sudden
gangraene, in the morning when the camp broke up.
The hospitals of Koenigsberg admitted about 10 thousand soldiers of
Napoleon's army, only a small number of whom had been wounded, most of
them with frozen extremities, who had, as the physicians of that time
called it, a pest, the fever of congelation which was terribly contagious.
The heroic Larrey although exhausted from fatigue had come to these
hospitals to take care of the sick, but he became infected with the
contagion himself and was taken sick.
A great calamity was the want of shoes; we have seen that this was already
felt in Moscow, before they set out on the endless march over ice and snow.
The soldiers had their feet wrapped in rags, pieces of felt or leather, and
when a man had fallen on the road some of his comrades would cut off his
feet and carry them to the next camp fire to remover the rags--for their
But the general appearance of the emaciated soldiers with long beards, and
faces blackened by the smoke of camp-fires, the body wrapped in dirty rags
of wearing apparel brought from Moscow, was such that it was difficult to
recognize them as soldiers.
And the vermin! Carpon, a surgeon-major of the grand army, in describing
the days of Wilna which were almost as frightful as the disaster of the
Beresina, speaks on this subject. It is revolting. Strange to say, it is
hardly ever mentioned in the medical history of wars, although every one
who has been in the field is quite familiar with it.
At last I have found--in Holzhausen's book--a description of the most
revolting lice plague (phtheiriasis) from which, according to his valet,
Constant, even the emperor was not exempted. As a matter of course under
the circumstances--impossibility of bodily cleanliness--this vermin
developed in a way which baffles description. Suckow, a Wuerttembergian
first lieutenant, speaks of it as causing intolerable distress, disturbing
the sleep at the campfire. Johann von Borcke became alarmed when he
discovered that his whole body was eaten up by these insects. A French
colonel relates that in scratching himself he tore a piece of flesh from
the neck, but that the pain caused by this wound produced a sensation of
All the corps marched to Smolensk where they expected to reach the end of
all their misery and to find repose, food, shelter; in fact, all they were
Napoleon entered the city with his guards and kept the rest of the army,
including the stragglers, out of doors until arrangements could have been
made for the regular distribution of rations and quarters. But together
with the stragglers the mass of the army became unmanageable and resorted
Seeing that the guards were given the preference they broke out in revolt,
entered by force and pillaged the magazines. "The magazines are pillaged!"
was the general cry of terror and despair. Every one was running to grasp
something to eat.
Finally, something like order was established to save some of the
provisions for the corps of Prince Eugene and Marshal Ney who arrived after
fighting constantly to protect the city from the troops of the enemy. They
received in their turn eatables and a little rest, not under shelter but in
the streets, where they were protected, not from the frost, but from the
There were no longer any illusions. The army having hoped to find shelter
and protection, subsistence, clothes and, above all, shoes, at Smolensk,
they found nothing of all this and learned that they had to leave, perhaps
the next day, to recommence the interminable march without abode for the
night, without bread to eat and constantly righting while exhausted, with
the cruel certainty that if wounded they would be the prey of wolves and
This prospect made them all desperate; they saw the abyss, and still the
worst was yet in store for them: Beresina and Wilna!
Napoleon left Smolensk on November 14th. The cold had become more
intense--21 deg. Reaumur (16 deg. below zero Fahrenheit)--this is the
observation of Larrey who had a thermometer attached to his coat; he was
the only one who kept a record of the temperature.
The cold killed a great many, and the road became covered with dead
soldiers resting under the snow.
To the eternal honor of the most glorious of all armies be it said that it
was only at the time when the misery had surpassed all boundaries, when the
soldiers had to camp on the icy ground with an empty stomach, their limbs
paralyzed in mortal rigor, that the dissolution began.
It was even after the heroic battle of Wiasma that they fought day for day.
It was not the cold which caused the proud army to disband, but hunger.
Provisions could nowhere be found; all horses perished, and with them the
possibility of transporting food and ammunition.
And it is one thing to suffer cold and hunger, traveling under ordinary
circumstances, and another to suffer thus and at the same time being
followed by the enemy.
In order to understand the disaster of the Beresina it is necessary to cast
a glance at the condition of Napoleon's army at that time.
After the battle at Krasnoe, Napoleon at Orscha, on November 19th., happy
to have found a place of safety at last, with well furnished magazines,
made a new attempt to rally the army by means of a regular distribution of
rations. A detachment of excellent gendarmes had come from France and was
employed to do police duty, to engage everybody, either by persuasion or by
force, to join his corps. These brave men, accustomed to suppress disorder
in the rear of the army, had never witnessed anything like the condition
with which they were obliged to deal at this time. They were dismayed. All
their efforts were in vain. Threats, promises of rations if the soldiers
would fall in line, were of no avail whatever. The men, whether armed or
not, thought it more convenient, above all more safe, to care for
themselves instead of again taking up the yoke of honor, thereby taking the
risk of being killed, or wounded,--which amounted to the same thing--they
would not think of sacrificing their individual self for the sake of the
whole. Some of the disbanded soldiers had retained their arms, but only to
defend themselves against the Cossacks and to be better able to maraud.
They lived from pillaging, taking advantage of the escort of the army,
without rendering any service. [Illustration] In order to warm themselves
they would put fire to houses occupied by wounded soldiers, many of whom
perished in the flames in consequence. They had become real ferocious
beasts. Among these marauders were only very few old soldiers, for most of
the veterans remained with the flag until death.
Napoleon addressed the guards, appealing to their sense of duty, saying
that they were the last to uphold military honor, that they, above all, had
to set the example to save the remainder of the army which was in danger of
complete dissolution; that if they, the guards, would become guilty, they
would be more guilty than any of the other corps, because they had no
excuse to complain of neglect, for what few supplies had been at the
disposal of the army, their wants had always been considered ahead of the
rest of the army, that he could resort to punishments, could have shot the
first of the old grenadiers who would leave the ranks, but that he
preferred to rely on their virtue as warriors to assure their devotedness.
The grenadiers expressed their assent and gave promises of good conduct.
All surviving old grenadiers remained in the ranks, not one of them had
disbanded. Of the 6 thousand who had crossed the Niemen, about 3,500
survived, the others had succumbed to fatigue or frost, very few had fallen
The disbanded soldiers of the rest of the army, having in view another long
march, with great sufferings to endure, were not disposed to change their
ways. They now needed a long rest, safety, and abundance, to make them
recognize military discipline again. The order to distribute rations among
those who had rallied around the flag could not be kept up for more than a
few hours. The magazines were pillaged, as they had been pillaged at
Smolensk. The forty-eight hours' stay at Orscha was utilized for rest and
to nourish a few men and the horses.
In these days Napoleon was as indefatigable as he ever had been as young
Bonaparte. His proclamation of the 19th. did not remain quite unheeded even
among the disbanded, but, on the march again, the nearer they came to the
Beresina the more pronounced became the lack of discipline. In the
following description I avail myself of the classical work of Thiers'
"Histoire du Consulat et de I'Empire."
The only bridge over the Beresina, at Borisow, had been burned by the
Russians. It was as by miracle that General Corbineau met a Polish peasant
who indicated a place--near the village Studianka--where the Beresina could
be forded by horses. Napoleon, informed of this fact on November 28th., at
once ordered General Eble to construct the bridge and on November 25th., at
1 o'clock in the morning, he issued orders to Oudinot to have his corps
ready for crossing the river. The moment had arrived when the great
engineer, the venerable General Eble, was to crown his career by an
He had saved six cases containing tools, nails, clamps, and all kinds of
iron pieces needed for the construction of trestle bridges. In his profound
foresight he had also taken along two wagon-loads of charcoal, and he had
under his command 400 excellent pontooneers upon whom he could reply
General Eble has been described as the model of an officer, on account of
his imposing figure and his character.
Eble and Larrey were the two men whom the whole army never ceased to
respect and to obey, even when they demanded things which were almost
impossible. General Eble then with his 400 men departed in the evening of
November 24th. for Borisow, followed by the clever General Chasseloup who
had some sappers with him, but without their tools. General Chasseloup was
a worthy associate of the illustrious chief of the pontooneers. They
marched all night, arriving at Borisow on the 25th., at 5 o'clock in the
morning. There they left some soldiers in order to deceive the Russians by
making them believe that the bridge was to be constructed below Borisow.
Eble with his pontooneers, however, marched through swamps and woods along
the river as far as Studianka, arriving there during the afternoon of the
25th. Napoleon in his impatience wanted the bridges finished on that day,
an absolute impossibility; it could not be done until the 26th., by working
all night, and not to rest until this was accomplished was the firm
resolution of these men who by that time had marched two days and two
nights. General Eble spoke to his pontooneers, telling them that the fate
of the army was in their hands. He inspired them with noble sentiments and
received the promise of the most absolute devotedness. They had to work in
the bitter cold weather--severe frost having suddenly set in--all night and
during the next day, in the water, in the midst of floating ice, probably
under fire of the enemy, without rest, almost without time to swallow some
boiled meat; they had not even bread or salt or brandy. This was the price
at which the army could be saved. Each and every one of the pontooneers
pledged himself to their general, and we shall see how they kept their
Not having time to fell trees and to cut them into planks, they demolished
the houses of the unfortunate village Studianka and took all the wood which
could serve for the construction of bridges; they forged the iron needed to
fasten the planks and in this way they made the trestles. At daybreak of
the 26th. they plunged these trestles into the Beresina. Napoleon, together
with some of his generals, Murat, Berthier, Eugene, Caulaincourt, Duroc,
and others, had hastened to Studianka on this morning to witness the
progress of Eble's work. Their faces expressed the greatest anxiety, for at
this moment the question was whether or not the master of the world would
be taken prisoner by the Russians. He watched the men working, exerting all
their might in strength and intelligence. But it was by no means sufficient
to plunge bravely into the icy water and to fasten the trestles, the almost
superhuman work had to be accomplished in spite of the enemy whose outposts
were visible on the other side of the river. Were there merely some
Cossacks, or was there a whole army corps? This was an important question
to solve. One of the officers, Jacqueminot, who was as brave as he was
intelligent, rode into the water, traversed the Beresina, the horse
swimming part of the way, and reached the other shore. On account of the
ice the landing was very difficult. In a little wood he found some
Cossacks, but altogether only very few enemies could be seen. Jacqueminot
then turned back to bring the good news to the emperor. As it was of the
greatest importance to secure a prisoner to obtain exact information about
what was to be feared or to be hoped, the brave Jacqueminot once more
crossed the Beresina, this time accompanied by some determined cavalry men.
They overpowered a Russian outpost, the men sitting around a fire, took a
corporal with them, and brought this prisoner before Napoleon
who learned to his great satisfaction that Tchitchakoff with his main force
was before Borisow to prevent the passage of the French, and that at
Studianka there was only a small detachment of light troops.
It was necessary to take advantage of these fortunate circumstances. But
the bridges were not ready. The brave General Corbineau with his cavalry
brigade crossed the river under the above-described difficulties, and
established himself in the woods. Napoleon mounted a battery of 40 cannons
on the left shore, and now the French could flatter themselves to be
masters of the right shore while the bridges were made, and that their
whole army would be able to cross. Napoleon's star seemed to brighten
again, the officers grouped around him, saluting with expressions of joy,
such as they had not shown for a long time.
All was now depending on the completion of the bridges, for there were two
to be constructed, each 600 feet in length; one on the left for wagons, the
other, on the right, for infantry and cavalry. A hundred pontooneers had
gone into the water and with the aid of little floats built for this
purpose, had commenced the fixation of the trestles. The water was freezing
and formed ice crusts around their shoulders, arms, and legs, ice crusts
which adhered to the flesh and caused great pain. They suffered without
complaining, without appearing to be affected, so great was their ardor.
The river at that point was 300 feet wide and with 23 trestles for each
bridge the two shores could be united. In order to transport first the
troops, all efforts were concentrated on the construction of the bridge to
the right--that is, the one for infantry and cavalry--and at 1 o'clock in
the afternoon it was ready.
About 9 thousand men of the corps of Marshal Oudinot passed over the first
bridge and under great precautions took two cannons along. Arrived on the
other side, Oudinot faced some troops of infantry which General Tschaplitz,
the commander of the advance guard of Tchitchakoff, had brought there. The
engagement was very lively but of short duration. The French killed 200 men
of the enemy and were able to establish themselves in a good position, from
where they could cover the passage. Time was given now for the passage of
enough troops to meet Tchitchakoff, during the rest of the day, the 26th.
and the succeeding night. Concerning many details I have to refer to
At 4 o'clock in the afternoon the second bridge was completed. Napoleon, on
the Studianka side, yet supervised everything; he wanted to remain among
the last to cross the bridge. General Eble, without himself taking a moment
of rest, had one-half the number of his pontooneers rest on straw while the
other half took up the painful task of guarding the bridges, of doing
police duty, and of making repairs in case of accidents, until they were
relieved by the others. On this day the infantry guards and what remained
of cavalry guards marched over the bridge, followed by the artillery train.
Unfortunately, the left bridge, intended for vehicles, shook too much under
the enormous weight of wagons following one another without interruption.
Pressed as they were, the pontooneers had not had time to shape the timber
forming the path, they had to use wood as they found it, and in order to
deaden the rumbling of the wagons they had put moss, hemp, straw--in fact,
everything they could gather in Studianka--into the crevices. But the
horses removed this kind of litter with their feet, rendering the surface
of the path very rough, so that it had formed undulations, and at
8 o'clock in the evening three trestles gave way and fell, together with
the wagons which they carried, into the Beresina. The heroic pontooneers
went to work again, going into the water which was so cold that ice
immediately formed anew where it had been broken. With their axes they had
to cut holes into the ice to place new trestles six, seven and even eight
feet deep into the river were the bridge had given way. At 11 o'clock the
bridge was secure again.
General Eble, who had always one relief at work while the other was asleep,
took no rest himself. He had extra trestles made in case of another
accident. At 2 o'clock in the morning three trestles of the left bridge,
that is the one for the vehicles, gave way, unfortunately in the middle of
the current, where the water had a depth of seven or eight feet. This time
the pontooneers had to accomplish their difficult task in the darkness. The
men, shaking from cold and starving, could not work any more. The venerable
General Eble, who was not young as they were and had not taken rest as they
had, suffered more than they did, but he had the moral superiority and
spoke to them, appealing to their devotedness, told them of the certain
disaster which would annihilate the whole army if they did not repair the
bridges; and his address made a deep impression. With supreme self-denial
they went to work again. General Lauriston, who had been sent by the
emperor to learn the cause of the new accident, pressed Eble's hand and,
shedding tears, said to him: For God's sake, hasten! Without showing
impatience, Eble, who generally had the roughness of a strong and
proud soul, answered with kindness: You see what we are doing, and he
turned to his men to encourage, to direct them, and notwithstanding his
age--he was 54 years old--he plunged into that icy water, which those young
men were hardly able to endure (and this fact is stated by all the
historians whose works I have read). At 6 o'clock in the morning (November
27th.) this second accident had been repaired, the artillery train could
The bridge to the right--for infantry--did not have to endure the same kind
of shaking up as the other bridge, and did not for one moment get out of
order. If the stragglers and fugitives had obeyed all could have crossed
during the night from November 26th. to November 27th. But the attraction
of some barns, some straw to lie on, some eatables found at Studianka, had
retained a good many on this side of the river. The swamps surrounding the
Beresina were frozen, which was a great advantage, enabling the people to
walk over them. On these frozen swamps had been lighted thousands of fires,
and 10 thousand or 15 thousand individuals had established themselves
around them and did not want to leave. Soon they should bitterly regret the
loss of a precious opportunity.
In the morning, on November 27th., Napoleon crossed the Beresina, together
with all who were attached to his headquarters, and selected for his new
headquarters the little village Zawnicky, on the other side of the
Beresina. In front of him was the corps of Oudinot. All day long he was on
horseback personally to hasten the passage of detachments of the army,
somewhat over 5 thousand men under arms. Toward the end of the day the
first corps arrived, under Davout, who since Krasnoe had again commanded
the rear guard. This was the only corps which still had some military
The day of November 27th. was occupied to cross the Beresina and to prepare
for a desperate resistance, for the Russians could no longer be deceived as
to the location of the bridges. At 2 o'clock in the afternoon a third
accident happened, again on the bridge to the left. It was soon repaired,
but the vehicles arrived in great numbers, and all were pressing forward in
such a way that the gendarmes had extraordinary difficulties to enforce
The 9th. corps, that of Marshal Victor, had taken a position between
Borisow and Studianka, in order to protect the army at the latter place. It
had been foreseen that the crossing would be little interfered with during
the first two days, the 26th. and 27th., because Tchitchakoff was as yet
ignorant of the real points elected for the bridges, expecting to find the
French army below Borisow on the other side of the Beresina. Wittgenstein
and Kutusoff had not yet had time to unite and did not sufficiently press
Napoleon had good reasons to expect that the 28th. would be the decisive
day. He was resolved to save the army or to perish with it. Taking the
greatest pains to deceive Tchitchakoff as long as possible he ordered
Marchal Victor to leave the division Partouneaux, which had been reduced by
marches and fights from 12 thousand to 4 thousand combatants, at Borisow.
Victor with 9 thousand men and 700 to 800 horses was to cover Studianka.
These 9 thousand were the survivors of 24 thousand with whom Victor had
left Smolensk to join Oudinot on the Oula. During one month's marching and
in various engagements 10 thousand to 11 thousand had been lost. The
bearing, however, of those who survived was excellent, and seeing what was
left of the grand army, the glory of which had, not long ago, been the
object of their jealousy, in its present condition, they were stricken with
pity and asked their oppressed comrades who had almost lost their pride as
a result of the misery, what calamity could have befallen them? You will
soon be the same as we are, sadly answered the victors of Smolensk and
The hour of the supreme crisis had come. The enemy, having now learned the
truth, came to attack the French when many of them had not yet crossed the
Beresina and were divided between the two sides of the river. Wittgenstein,
who with 3 thousand men had followed the corps of Victor, was behind the
latter between Borisow and Studianka, and ready with all his might to throw
Victor into the Beresina. Altogether, including the forces of Tchitchakoff,
there were about 72 thousand Russians, without counting 30 thousand men of
Kutusoff in the rear, ready to fall on Victor's 12 thousand to 13 thousand
and Oudinot's 7 thousand or 8 thousand of the guards; 28 thousand to
30 thousand French were divided between the two shores of the Beresina
hampered by 40 thousand stragglers, to fight, during the difficult
operation of crossing the Beresina, with 72 thousand partly in front,
partly in the rear.
This terrible struggle began in the evening of the 27th. The unfortunate
French division of Partouneaux, the best of the three of Victor's corps,
had received orders from Napoleon to remain before Borisow during the
27th., in order to deceive, as long as possible, and to detain
Tchitchakoff. In this position Partouneaux was separated from his corps
which, as we have seen, was concentrated around Studianka, by three
miles of wood and swamps. As could be easily foreseen, Partouneaux was
cut off by the arrival of the troops of Platow, Miloradovitch, and
Yermaloff, who had followed the French on the road from Orscha to
Borisow. In the evening of the 27th. Partouneaux recognized his desperate
position. With the immense dangers threatening him were combined the
hideous embarrassment of several thousand stragglers who, believing in
the passage below Borisow, had massed at that point, with their baggage,
awaiting the construction of the bridge. The better to deceive the
enemy they had been left in their error, and now they were destined
to be sacrificed, together with the division of Partouneaux, on account
of the terrible necessity to deceive Tchitchakoff.
When the bullets came from all sides, the confusion soon reached the
climax; the three little brigades of Partouneaux forming for defense found
themselves entangled with several thousand stragglers and fugitives who
clamorously threw themselves into their ranks; the women of the mass, with
baggage, especially with their frightful, piercing cries, characterized
this scene of desolation. General Partouneaux decided to extricate himself,
to open a way or to perish. He was with a thousand men against 40 thousand.
Several challenges to surrender he refused, and kept on fighting. The
enemy, likewise exhausted, suspended firing toward midnight, being certain
to take the last of this handful of braves who resisted so heroically in
the morning. With daybreak the Russian generals again challenged General
Partouneaux, who was standing upright in the snow with the 400 or 500 of
his brigade, remonstrating with him, and he, with desperation in his soul,
surrendered. The other two brigades of his division that had been separated
from him also laid down their arms. The Russians took about 2 thousand
prisoners, that is, the survivors of Partouneaux's division of 4 thousand,
only one battalion of 300 men had succeeded, during the darkness of the
night, in making its escape and reaching Studianka.
The army at Studianka had heard, during this cruel night, the sound of the
cannonade and fusillade from the direction of Borisow. Napoleon and Victor
were in great anxiety; the latter thought that the measure taken, i.e., the
sacrifice of his best division, of 4 thousand men who would have been of
great value, had been unjustifiable, because after the crossing had begun
on the 26th. it was no longer possible to deceive the enemy.
The night was passed in cruel suspense, but being the prey of sorrows of so
many kinds the French could hardly pay due attention to the many new ones
which presented themselves at every moment. The silence which reigned on
the morning of the 28th. indicated the catastrophe of the division
The firing now began on the two sides of the Beresina, on the right shore
against the troops that had crossed, on the left against those covering the
passage of the rear of the army. From this moment on nothing was thought of
but fight. The cannonade and fusillade soon became extremely violent, and
Napoleon, on horseback, incessantly riding from one point to another,
assumed that Oudinot resisted Tchitchakoff while Eble continued to care for
the bridges, and that Victor, who was fighting Wittgenstein, was not thrown
into the icy floods of the Beresina together with the masses which had not
Although the firing was terrible on all sides and thousands were killed on
this lugubrious field; the French resisted on both banks of the river.
For the description of this battle I desire to refer to Thiers' great work.
Taking all circumstances into consideration, it did the greatest honor to
Napoleon's guns, to the valor of his generals and of his soldiers.
The confusion was frightful among the masses that had neglected to cross in
time, and those who had arrived too late for the opportunity. Many,
ignoring that the first bridge was reserved for pedestrians and horsemen,
the second for wagons, crowded with delirious impatience upon the second
bridge. The pontooneers on guard at the entrance of the bridge to the right
were ordering the vehicles to the one on the left, which was 600 feet
farther down. This precaution was an absolute necessity, because the bridge
to the right could not endure the weight of the wagons. Those who were
directed by the pontooneers to go to the other bridge had the greatest
difficulty to pass through the compact masses pressing and pushing to enter
the structure. A terrible struggle! Opposing currents of people paralyzed
all progress. The bullets of the enemy, striking into this dense crowd,
produced fearful furrows and cries of terror from the fugitives; women with
children, many on wagons, added to the horror. All pressed, all pushed; the
stronger ones trampled on those who had lost their foothold, and killed
many of the latter. Men on horseback were crushed, together with their
horses, many of the animals becoming unmanageable, shot forward, kicked,
reared, turned into the crowd and gained a little space by throwing people
down into the river; but soon the space filled up again, and the mass of
people was as dense as before.
This pressing forward and backward, the cries, the bullets striking into
the helpless crowd, presented an atrocious scene--the climax of that
forever odious and senseless expedition of Napoleon.
The excellent General Eble, whose heart broke at this spectacle, tried in
vain to establish a little order. Placing himself at the head of the bridge
he addressed the multitude; but it was only by means of the bayonet that at
last some improvement was brought about, and some women, children, and
wounded were saved. Some historians have stated that the French themselves
fired cannon shots into the crowd, but this is not mentioned by Thiers.
This panic was the cause that more than half the number of those perished
who otherwise could have crossed. Many threw themselves, or were pushed,
into the water and drowned. And this terrible conflict among the masses
having lasted all day, far from diminishing, it became more horrible with
the progress of the battle between Victor and Wittgenstein. The description
of this battle I omit, referring again to Thiers, confining myself to give
some figures. Of 700 to 800 men of General Fournier's cavalry hardly 300
survived; of Marshal Victor's infantry, hardy 5 thousand. Of all these
brave men, mostly Dutchmen, Germans, and Polanders, who had been sacrificed
there was quite a number of wounded who might have been saved, but who had
perished for want of all means of transportation. The Russians lost 10
thousand to 11 thousand.
This double battle on the two shores of the Beresina is one of the most
glorious in the history of France; 28 thousand against 72 thousand
Russians. These 28 thousand could have been taken or annihilated to the
last man, and it was almost a miracle that even a part of the army escaped
With nightfall some calm came over this place of carnage and confusion.
On the next morning Napoleon had to recommence, this time not to retreat,
but to flee; he had to wrest from the enemy the 5 thousand men of Marshal
Victor's corps, Victor's artillery and as many as possible of those
unfortunates who had not employed the two days by crossing. Napoleon
ordered Marshal Victor to cross during the night with his corps and with
all his artillery, and to take with him as many as possible of the
disbanded and of the refugees who were still on that other side of the
Here we now learn of a singular flux and reflux of the frightened masses.
While the cannon had roared, every one wanted to cross but could not, now
when with nightfall the firing had ceased they did not think any more of
the danger of hesitation, not of the cruel lesson which they had learned
during the day. They only wanted to keep away from the scene of horror
which the crossing of the bridge had presented. It was a great task to
force these unfortunates to cross the bridges before they were set on fire,
a measure which was an absolute necessity and which was to be executed on
the next morning.
The first work for Eble's pontooneers was now to clear the avenues of the
bridges from the mass of the dead, men and horses, of demolished wagons,
and of all sorts of impediments. This task could be accomplished only in
part; the mass of cadavers was too great for the time given for the removal
of all of them, and those who crossed had to walk over flesh and blood.
In the night, from 9 o'clock to midnight, Marshal Victor crossed the
Beresina, thereby exposing himself to the enemy, who, however, was too
tired to think of fighting. He brought his artillery over the left bridge,
his infantry over the right one, and with the exception of the wounded and
two pieces of artillery, all his men and all his material safely reached
the other side. The crossing accomplished, he erected a battery to hold the
Russians in check and to prevent them from crossing the bridges.
There remained several thousand stragglers and fugitives on this side of
the Beresina who could have crossed during the night but had refused to do
so. Napoleon had given orders to destroy the bridges at daybreak and had
sent word to General Eble and Marshal Victor to employ all means in order
to hasten the passage of those unfortunates. General Eble, accompanied by
some officers, himself went to their bivouacs and implored them to flee,
emphasizing that he was going to destroy the bridges. But it was in vain;
lying comfortably on straw or branches around great fires, devouring horse
meat, they were afraid of the crowding on the bridge during the night, they
hesitated to give up a sure bivouac for an uncertain one, they feared that
the frost, which was very severe, would kill them in their enfeebled
Napoleon's orders to General Eble was to destroy the bridges at 7 o'clock
in the morning of November 29th., but this noble man, as humane as he was
brave, hesitated. He had been awake that night, the sixth of these vigils
in succession, incessantly trying to accelerate the passing of the bridge;
with daybreak, however, there was no need any more to stimulate the
unfortunates, they all were only too anxious now. They all ran when the
enemy became visible on the heights.
Eble had waited till 8 o'clock when the order for the destruction of the
bridges was repeated to him, and in sight of the approaching enemy it was
his duty not to lose one moment. However, trusting to the artillery of
Victor, he still tried to save some people. His soul suffered cruelly
during this time of hesitation to execute an order the necessity of which
he knew only too well. Finally, having waited until almost 9 o'clock when
the enemy approached on the double quick, he decided with broken heart,
turning his eyes away from the frightful scene, to set fire to the
structures. Those unfortunates who were on the bridges threw themselves
into the water, every one made a supreme effort to escape the Cossacks or
captivity, which latter they feared more than death.
The Cossacks came up galloping, thrusting their lances into the midst of
the crowd; they killed some, gathered the others, and drove them forward,
like a herd of sheep, toward the Russian army. It is not exactly known if
there were 6 thousand, 7 thousand or 8 thousand individuals, men, women,
and children, who were taken by the Cossacks.
The army was profoundly affected by this spectacle and nobody more so than
General Eble who, in devoting himself to the salvation of all, could well
say that he was the savior of all who had not perished or been taken
prisoner in the days of the Beresina. Of the 50 thousand, armed or unarmed,
who had crossed there was not a single one who did not owe his life and
liberty to him and his pontooneers. But the 400 pontooneers who had worked
in the water, paid with their lives for this noblest deed in the history
of wars; they all died within a short time. General Eble survived his act
of bravery only three weeks; he died in Koenigsberg on the 21st. day of
This is an incomplete sketch of the immortal event of the Beresina, full of
psychological interest and therefore fit to be inserted in the medical
history of Napoleon's campaign in Russia.
To a miraculous accident, the arrival of Corbineau, the noble devotedness
of Eble, the desperate resistance of Victor and his soldiers, to the energy
of Oudinot, Ney, Legrand, Maison, Zayonchek, Doumerc, and, finally, to his
own sure and profound decision, his recognition of the true steps to be
taken, Napoleon owed the possibility that he could escape after a bloody
scene, the most humiliating, the most crushing disaster.
Surgeon Huber of the Wuerttembergians, writes to his friend, Surgeon Henri
de Roos, who settled in Russia after the campaign of 1812, how he crossed
the Beresina, and in this connection he describes the following dreadful
"A young woman of twenty-five, the wife of a French colonel killed a few
days before in one of the engagements, was near me, within a short distance
of the bridge we were to cross. Oblivious of all that went on about her,
she seemed wholly engrossed in her daughter, a beautiful child of four,
that she held in the saddle before her. She made several unsuccessful
attempts to cross the bridge and was driven back every time, at which she
seemed overwhelmed with blank despair. She did not weep; she would gaze
heavenward, then fix her eyes upon her daughter, and once I heard her say:
'O God, how wretched I am, I cannot even pray!' Almost at the same moment a
bullet struck her horse and another one penetrated her left thigh above the
knee. With the deliberation of mute despair she took up the child that was
crying, kissed it again and again; then, using the blood-stained garter
removed from her fractured limb, she strangled the poor little thing and
sat down with it, wrapped in her arms and hugged close to her bosom, beside
her fallen horse. Thus she awaited her end, without uttering a single word,
and before long she was trampled down by the riders making for the bridge."
The great surgeon Larrey tells how he nearly perished at the crossing of
the Beresina, how he went over the bridge twice to save his equipment and
surgical instruments, and how he was vainly attempting to break through the
crowd on the third trip, when, at the mention of his name, every one
proffered assistance, and he was carried along by soldier after soldier to
the end of the bridge.
He has related the incident in a letter to his wife, dated from Leipzig,
March 11th., 1813. "Ribes," says he--Ribes was one of Napoleon's
physicians--"was right when he said that in the midst of the army, and
especially of the Imperial guard, I could not lose my life. Indeed, I owe
my life to the soldiers. Some of them flew to my rescue when the Cossacks
surrounded me and would have killed or taken me prisoner. Others hastened
to lift me and help me on when I sank in the snow from physical exhaustion.
Others, again, seeing me suffer from hunger, gave me such provisions as
they had; while as soon as I joined their bivouac they would all make room
and cover me with straw or with their own clothes."
At Larrey's name, all the soldiers would rise and cheer with a friendly
"Any one else in my place," writes Larrey further, "would have perished on
the bridge of the Beresina, crossing it as I was doing, for the third time
and at the most dangerous moment. But no sooner did they recognize me than
they grasped me with a vigorous hold, and sent me along from hand to hand,
like a bundle of clothes, to the end of the bridge."
The threatening barrier had been surmounted, and on went the march to
Wilna, without any possibility of a day's rest, because the miserable
remainder of the French army was still followed by light Russian troops.
During the first days after the crossing of the Beresina the supply of food
had improved, it was better indeed than at any time during the retreat.
They passed through villages which had not suffered from the war, in which
the barns were well filled with grain and with feed for the horses, and
there lived rich Jews who could sell whatever the soldiers needed.
Unfortunately, however, this improved condition lasted only a few days,
from November 30th. to December 4th., and before Wilna was reached the want
was felt again and made itself felt the more on account of the most intense
cold which had set in.
During the few good days the soldiers had eaten roast pork, and all kinds
of vegetables, in consequence their weakened digestive tract had been
overtaxed so that diarrhoea became prevalent, a most frightful condition
during a march on the road, with a temperature of 25 deg. below zero,
Reaumur (about 25 deg. below zero, Fahrenheit).
The 6th. of December was a frightful day, although the cold had not yet
reached its climax which happened on the 7th. and 8th. of December, namely
28 deg. below zero, Reaumur (31 degrees below zero, Fahrenheit).
[Illustration: "The Gate of Wilna."]
Holzhausen gives a graphic description of the supernatural silence which
reigned and which reminded of the silence in the arctic regions. There was
not the slightest breeze, the snowflakes fell vertically, crystal-clear,
the snow blinded the eyes, the sun appeared like a red hot ball with a
halo, the sign of greatest cold.
The details of the descriptions which Holzhausen has collected from old
papers surpass by far all we have learned from von Scherer's and Beaupre's
writings. And all that Holzhausen relates is verified by names of absolute
reliability; it verifies the accounts of the two authors named.
General von Roeder, one of the noblest of the German officers in Napoleon's
army--a facsimile of one of his letters is given in Holzhausen's book--says
about the murderous 7th. of December: "Pilgrims of the Grand Army, who had
withstood many a severe frost indeed, dropped like flies, and of those who
were well nourished, well clothed--many of these being of the reserve corps
having but recently come from Wilna to join the retreating army,--countless
numbers fell exactly like the old exhausted warriors who had dragged
themselves from Moscow to this place."
The reserve troops of which Roeder speaks were the division Loison, the
last great body of men that had followed the army. They had been in
Koenigsberg and had marched from there to Wilna during the month of
November, had remained in the latter place until December 4th., when they
were sent to protect the retreating soldiers and the Emperor himself, on
leaving the wreck of his once grand army at Smorgoni on December 5th.
These troops who thus far had not sustained any hardships, came directly
from the warm quarters of Wilna into the terrible cold.
It was quite frightful, says Roeder, to see these men, who a moment before
had been talking quite lively, drop dead as if struck by lightning.
D. Geissler, a Weimaranian surgeon, renders a similar report and adds that
in some cases these victims suffered untold agonies before they died.
Lieutenant Jacobs states that some said good bye to their comrades and laid
down along the road to die, that others acted like maniacs, cursed their
fate, fell down, rose again, and fell down once more, never to rise again.
Cases like the latter have been described also by First Lieutenant von
Under these circumstances, says Holzhausen, it appears almost
incomprehensible that there were men who withstood a misery which surpassed
all human dimensions. And still there were such; who by manfully bearing
these sufferings, set to others a good example; there were whole troops
who, to protect others in pertinacious rear guard fights, opposed the
Wonderful examples of courage and self-denial gave some women, the wife of
a Sergeant-Major Martens, who had followed the army, and a Mrs. Basler, who
was always active, preparing some food while her husband with others was
lying exhausted at the camp fire, and who seldom spoke, never complained.
This poor woman lost a son, a drummer boy, who had been wounded at
Smolensk. She as well as her husband perished in Wilna.
Sergeant Toenges dragged a blind comrade along--I shall not leave him, he
said. Grenadiers, sitting around a fire, had pity on him and tried to
relieve his sufferings. Many such examples are enumerated in Holzhausen's
Our highest admiration is due to the conduct of the brave troops of the
rear guard who fought the Russians, who sacrificed themselves for the sake
of the whole, and, like at Krasnoe and at the Beresina, for their disbanded
The rearguard was at first commanded by Ney, then, after the 3rd. of
December, by Marshal Victor; after the dissolution of Victor's corps at
Smorgoni and Krapowna, by Loison and, finally, near Wilna, by Wrede with
Count Hochberg has given a classical description of the life in the rear
guard; it is the most elevating description of greatness, of human
magnanimity, and it fills us with admiration for the noble, the brave
Interesting is the engagement at Malodeszno. A certain spell hangs over
this fight; here perished two Saxon regiments that had gloriously fought at
The scene was a romantic park with the castle of Count Oginsky where
Napoleon had had his headquarters on the preceding day, and from where he
dated his for ever memorable 29th. bulletin in which he told the world the
ruin of his army.
Toward 2 o'clock in the afternoon the enemy attacked the division of Girard
who was supported by Count Hochberg. Then the Russians attacked the park
itself. The situation was very serious, because the Badensian troops under
Hochberg had only a few cartridges and could not properly answer the fire
of the enemy. Night came, and the darkness, writes a Badensian sergeant,
was of great advantage to us, for the Russians stood against a very small
number, the proportion being one battalion to 100 men. Count Hochberg led
his brigade, attacking with the bayonet, and nearly became a victim of his
courage. The Badensian troops drove the enemy away, but they themselves
received the death blow. Count Hochberg said he had no soldiers left whom
he could command.
And now it was the division Loison which formed the rear guard.
On the 5th. of December this division had come to Smorgoni where Napoleon
took leave from his marshals and from his army, after he had entrusted
Murat with the command.
The division Loison, during the eventful night from December 5th. to 6th.,
had rendered great services. Without the presence of Loison's soldiers
Napoleon would have fallen into the hands of his enemies, and the wheel of
the history of the world would have taken a different turn.
Dr. Geissler describes Napoleon, whom he saw at a few paces' distance on
the day of his departure, and he writes "the personality of this
extraordinary man, his physiognomy with the stamp of supreme originality,
the remembrance of his powerful deeds by which he moved the world during
his time, carried us away in involuntary admiration. Was not the voice
which we heard the same which resounded all over Europe, which declared
wars, decided battles, regulated the fate of empires, elevated or
extinguished the glory of so many."
It may appear strange that in a medical history I record these details, but
I give them because they show how the personality of Napoleon had retained
its magic influence even in that critical moment.
The soldiers wanted to salute him with their _Vive l'Empereur_! but, in
consideration of the assumed incognito of the Imperator without an army, it
Up to this day Napoleon has been blamed for his step, to leave the army. At
the Beresina he had refused with pride the offer of some Poles to take him
over the river and to bring him safely to Wilna. Now there was nothing more
to save of the army, and other duties called him peremptorily away. If we
study well the situation, the complications which had arisen from the
catastrophe and which were to arise in the following year, we must in
justice to him admit that he was obliged to go in order to create another
It is not a complete history which I am writing; otherwise it would be my
duty to speak of the deep impression, the dramatic effect, which Napoleon's
departure had made on his soldiers. In presenting somewhat extensively some
details of those days I simply wished to show who they were and how many
brave men there were who had been spared for the atrocities of Wilna.
If I were to do justice to the voluminous material before me of the bravery
of the soldiers on their march from the Beresina to Wilna I would have to
write a whole book on this part of the history alone.
* * * * *
Once more the hope of the unfortunates should be disappointed in a most
cruel way. They knew of fresh troops and of rich magazines in Wilna. But
only 2 thousand men were left of the Loison division, not enough to defend
the place against the enemy whose coming was to be expected.
The provisions, however, were stored in the magazines, and there were,
according to French accounts, forty day rations of bread, flour and
crackers for 100 thousand men, cattle for 36 days, 9 million rations of
wine and brandy; in addition, vegetables and food for horses, as well as
clothing in abundance.
Unfortunately, the governor of Wilna, the Duke of Bassano, was only a
diplomat, entirely incompetent to handle the situation, which required
Unfortunate had also been Napoleon's choice of Murat. On August 31st, 1817,
he said in conversation with _Gourgaud, "I have made a great mistake in
entrusting Murat with the highest command of the army, because he was the
most incompetent man to act successfully under such circumstances."
No preparations were made for the entering troops, no quarters had been
assigned for them when they came.
And they came on the 9th; most horrible details have been recorded of this
day when the disbanded mass crowded the gate.
Wilna was not only not in ruins, but it was the only large city which had
not been abandoned by its inhabitants. But these inhabitants shut their
doors before the entering soldiers. Only some officers and some Germans,
the latter among the families of German mechanics, found an abode in the
houses. Some Poles were hospitable, also some Lithuanians, and even the
All writers complain of the avidity and cruelty of the latter; they mixed
among the soldiers to obtain whatever they had saved from the pillage of
Moscow. These Jews had everything the soldier was in need of, bread and
brandy, delicacies and even horses and sleighs; in their restaurants all
who had money or valuables could be accommodated. And these places were
crowded with soldiers who feasted at the well supplied tables, and even
hilarity developed among these men saved from the ice fields of Russia.
During the night every space was occupied as a resting place.
While those who could afford it enjoyed all the good things of which they
had been deprived so long, the poor soldiers in the streets were in great
misery. The doors being shut, they entered the houses by force and
illtreated the inhabitants who on the next day took a bitter revenge.
Even the rich magazines had remained closed, tedious formalities had to be
observed, the carrying out of which was an impossibility since the whole
army was disbanded. No regiment had kept together, no detachment could be
selected to present vouchers for receiving rations.
Lieutenant Jacobs gives an illustration of the condition: "Orders had been
given to receive rations for four days. Colonel von Egloffstein in the
evening of the 9th sent Lieutenant Jacobs with 100 men to the bread
magazine to secure as much as possible, and as this magazine was at some
distance, and as Cossacks had already entered the city, he ordered 25 armed
men to accompany the hundred, who, naturally enough, were not armed. The
commissary of the magazine refused to hand out bread without a written
order of the commissaire-ordonateur; the lieutenant therefore notified him
that he would take by force what he needed for his regiment. And with his
25 carabiniers he had to fight for the bread."
Finally the pressing need led to violence. During the night of the 10th.
the desperate soldiers, aided by inhabitants, broke into the magazines, at
first into those containing clothing, then they opened the provision
stores, throwing flour bags and loaves of bread into the street where the
masses fought for these missiles. And when the liquor depots were broken
into, the crowd forced its way in with howls. They broke the barrels, and
wild orgies took place until the building took fire and many of the
revelers became the victims of the flames.
While this pillaging went on the market place of Wilna was the scene of
events not less frightful. A detachment of Loison's division, obedient to
their duty, had congregated there, stacked arms and, in order to warm
themselves to the best of their ability--the temperature was 30 deg. below
zero R. (37 deg. below zero F.)--and to thaw the frozen bread, had lighted
a fire. I cannot describe the fight among these soldiers for single pieces
of bread; they were too horrid.
This night ended, and in the morning the cannon was heard again.
An early attack had been expected, and perspicacious officers had taken
advantage of the few hours of rest to urge their men to prepare for the
last march to the near frontier. Count Hochberg implored his officers to
follow this advice, but the fatigues and sickness they had undergone, their
frozen limbs and the threat of greater misery, made most of them refuse to
heed his entreaties. Thus Hochberg lost 74 of his best and most useful
officers who remained in Wilna and died there. Similar attempts were made
in other quarters. Many of those addressed laughed sneeringly. This
sneering I shall never forget, says Lieutenant von Hailbronner, who escaped
while the enemy was entering. Death on the road to Kowno was easier, after
all, than dying slowly in the hospitals of Wilna.
On the 10th., in the morning, the Russians entered, and the Cossacks ran
their lances through every one in their way.
There were fights in the streets, the troops of the division Loison fought
Old Sergeant Picart, of the old guard, on hearing the drum, struck his
comrade Bourgogne, the writer of some memoirs of the campaign, on the
shoulder, saying: "Forward, comrade, we are of the old guard, we must be
the first under arms." And Bourgogne went along, although sick and wounded.
German and French bravery vied with each other on the 10th. of December.
Ney and Loison along with Wrede. The latter, on the day previous, had come
to the house of the marshal to offer him a small escort of cavalry if he
would leave Wilna. Ney pointing to the mass of soldiers who had to be
protected, answered: "All the Cossacks in the world shall not bring me out
of this city to-night."
Ney and Wrede left with their troops.
Woe to those who had remained, their number was about 10 thousand, besides
5 thousand sick in the hospitals.
According to Roeder, 500 were murdered in the streets on this day, partly
by Cossacks, partly by Jews, the latter revenging themselves for ill
All reports, and they are numerous, of Germans, French and also Russians,
speak of the cruelty of the Jews of Wilna. We must not forget, however, the
provocations under which they had to suffer, nor how they, in supplying
soldiers with eatables and clothing, saved many who otherwise would have
Von Lossberg says that Christian people of Wilna have also taken part in
the massacre, and only the Poles did not participate.
The Cossacks began their bloody work early in the morning.
Awful cries of the tortured were heard in the Wuerttembergian hospital,
telling the sick who were lying there what they themselves had to expect
from the entering enemies.
Those who had remained in Smolensk and Moscow after the armed soldiers had
departed were at once massacred. In Wilna likewise many were murdered, but
the greater number--many thousands--(other circumstances did not permit to
do away with all these prisoners in the same way) perished after days or
weeks of sickness and privations of all kind.
Wilna's convents could tell of it if their walls could speak.
Dr. Geissler narrates that the prisoners in the Basilius monastery into
which soldiers of all nationalities had been driven, during 13 days
received only a little hardtack, but neither wood nor a drop of water; they
had to quench their thirst with the snow which covered the corpses in the
The Englishman Wilson, of whom I have spoken already, who had come to Wilna
with Kutusow's army, says: "The Basilius monastery, transformed into
a prison, offered a terrible sight--7,500 corpses were piled up in the
corridors, and corpses were also in other parts of the building, the broken
windows and the holes in the walls were plugged with feet, legs, hands,
heads, trunks, just as they would fit in the openings to keep out the cold
air. The putrefying flesh spread a terrible stench."
(Carpon, a French Surgeon-Major who was with the army in Wilna, has
described the events in a paper "_Les Morts de Wilna_". I cannot quote from
his writings because he gives impossible statistics and contradicts himself
in his narrations.)
Yelin speaks of a hospital in which all the inmates had been murdered by
the Cossacks. He himself was in a Wuerttembergian hospital and describes
his experience: "Terrible was the moment when the door was burst open. The
monsters came in and distributed themselves all over the house. We gave
them all we had and implored them on our knees to have pity, but all in
vain. 'Schelma Franzuski,' they answered, at the same time they beat us
with their kantchous, kicked us unmercifully with their feet, and as new
Cossacks came in all the time, we were finally deprived of all our clothing
and beaten like dogs. Even the bandages of the poor wounded were torn off
in search of hidden money or valuables. Lieutenant Kuhn (a piece of his
cranium had been torn away at Borodino) was searched; he fell down like
dead and it took a long time and much pain to bring him to life again."
Lieutenant von Soden was beaten with hellish cruelty on his sore feet and
gangraenous toes so that they bled. When nothing more could be found on the
sick and wounded they were left lying on the stone floor.
There was no idea of medicine.
The cold in the rooms was so great that hands and feet of many were frozen.
Sometimes prisoners shaking with frost would sneak out at night to find a
little wood. Some Westphalians who had tried this were beaten to death.
Some of the prisoners were literally eaten up by lice.
Those who did not die of their wounds, of filth, and of misery, were
carried away by petechial typhus which had developed into a violent
epidemic in Wilna, and several thousand of the citizens, among them many
Jews, succumbed to the ravages of this disease.
One witness writes: "Little ceremony was observed in disposing of the dead;
every morning I heard how those who had died during the night were thrown
down the stairs or over the balcony into the yard, and by counting these
sinister sounds of falling bodies we knew how many had died during the