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The Memoirs of General the Baron de Marbot

Part 8 out of 11

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by the firing of a cannon, followed by a volley from all the
French artillery, which landed numerous projectiles on the enemy
outposts and on the camp itself. At once our two first infantry
divisions, led by the 23rd Light, fell on the Russian regiments
positioned in the gardens, killing or capturing all whom they
encountered and chasing the rest back to the camp, where they
took many prisoners and captured several guns. This surprise
attack, although carried out in broad daylight, was so successful
that General Wittgenstein was dining peacefully in a little
country house near his camp when he was warned that French
skirmishers were in the court-yard. He jumped out of a window
and, mounting a Cossack horse which happened to be there, he
galloped away to join his troops. Our skirmishers took some fine
horses, documents, baggage wagons and wines belonging to the
General, also the silverware and some of the dinner laid on the
table. An immense quantity of booty was seized in the camp by
other units.

At the sound of this wholly unforeseen attack by the French,
panic spread amongst our enemies, the majority of whom took to
their heels without even picking up their weapons. The disorder
was complete; no one was giving orders, even though the approach
of our infantry was heralded by a fusillade of shots and the
sound of the drums beating the charge. The scene seemed set for a
resounding victory by the French troops, at whose head marched
Saint-Cyr with his customary calm. However, in war an unexpected,
and often unimportant, event can change a situation.

A large number of the enemy soldiers had reached in their flight
the rear area of the camp, where was encamped the squadron of
horse-guards which had arrived a few hours previously. This elite
unit was made up of young men selected from the best of the
nobility, and was led by a major of proven courage, whose elan,
it was said, was increased by generous draughts of liquor. When
he saw what was happening, this officer leapt on his horse and,
followed by some hundred and twenty cuirassed riders, he rushed
towards the French, whom he soon encountered. The first of our
battalions which he attacked belonged to the 26th Light. They put
up a vigourous resistance. The cavalry were repelled with
casualties, and were rallying to prepare for a second charge when
their Major, impatient at the time taken for the scattered
horsemen to regain their ranks, abandoned the unsuccessful attack
on the French battalion, and ordering his men to follow he led
them at the gallop in open order through the camp, which was full
of infantry, Portuguese, Swiss and even Bavarians, our allies,
some of whom, dispersed by the victory itself, were trying to
regroup while others were collecting the booty left by the

The cavalrymen killed or wounded many of these soldiers and threw
the crowd into disarray. A disorderly withdrawal began which
degenerated into a mass panic. Now in a situation like this,
soldiers can mistake for the enemy their own troops who are
running to join them, so that, in a cloud of dust, it seems that
they are being attacked by a large force, when in most cases it
is only a handful of men. This is what happened here; the
horse-guards, scattered widely over the plain and pressing on
without a backward look, seemed to the fugitives to be a massive
force of cavalry, and so the confusion grew until it enveloped
the Swiss battalion in the middle of which General Saint-Cyr had
taken refuge. He was so much jostled by the mob that his horse
fell into a ditch.

The General, who was clad in a simple blue greatcoat, without any
badges of rank, lay motionless on the ground as the cavalry drew
near, and they thinking he was either dead or only a humble
civilian employee, passed by and continued their pursuit of the
fugitives. One does not know how matters would have ended had not
the gallant and quick-witted General Berckheim, at the head of
the 4th Cuirassiers, charged down upon the Russian cavalry, who
in spite of bravely defending themselves, were almost all killed
or made prisoner. Their valiant Major was among the dead. The
charge carried out by this handful of men could have had a
dramatic result if it had been followed up, and this fine feat of
arms goes to show once more that it is unexpected attacks by
cavalry that have the best chance of success.

General Saint-Cyr, having been picked up by our Cuirassiers,
ordered all the infantry divisions to advance immediately and
attack the Russians before they could recover from their
confusion. In this they were successful and the enemy were
decisively beaten, losing many men and a number of guns.

While this infantry battle was taking place before Polotsk,
another action was under way on their left, in the open plain
which bordered the Dvina. As soon as the cannon shot gave the
signal to engage, our cavalry regiments, led by Castex's brigade,
advanced rapidly towards the enemy who, for their part, advanced
towards us.

A major encounter seemed imminent, and the good General Castex
said that although in spite of my recent injury, I had been able
to command the regiment during the fighting round Sivotschina and
Svolna, where it had been solely a matter of facing the fire of
the infantry and the guns, it would not be the same today when in
action against cavalry. During a charge I would be unable to
defend myself since, with my one arm, I could not hold my horse's
bridle and at the same time use my sabre. He therefore urged me
to remain behind on this occasion, with the reserve division of
infantry. I did not think that I should accept this well-meaning
advice, and I expressed so vehemently my wish not to be removed
from the regiment that the General gave way, but he arranged for
me to have behind me six of the best cavalrymen, led by Sergeant
Prud'homme, while at my side were four warrant officers, a
trumpeter and my orderly Fousse, one of the finest soldiers in
the regiment. Surrounded in this way, and placed in front of the
centre of a squadron, I was sufficiently protected; besides, in
an emergency, I would have dropped the reins to wield my sabre,
which hung by its sword-knot from my right wrist.

The meadow was large enough to hold two regiments in battle
order, so the 23rd and the 24th advanced in line. General
Corbineau's brigade, consisting of three regiments was in the
second line and the Cuirassiers followed, in reserve. The 24th,
which was on my left, faced a body of Russian dragoons, while I
was opposed to the Cossacks of the Guard, recognisable by the red
colour of their jackets and the fine quality of their horses
which, although they had arrived only a few hours ago, did not
appear in the least tired. We moved forward at the gallop, and
when we were at a suitable distance from the enemy, General
Castex ordered the charge and his whole brigade fell in one line
on the Russians. By the violence of this attack, the 24th
overwhelmed the dragoons who opposed them, but my regiment
experienced more resistance from the Cossacks, a chosen band of
men of superior stature and each armed with a 14 foot lance which
he well knew how to use. Some of my Chasseurs were killed and
many wounded, but once my gallant troopers had broken through
this line bristling with steel, they had the advantage, for the
long lances are ineffective against cavalry when those carrying
them are disorganised and closely engaged by adversaries who are
armed with sabres which they can use with ease, while the lancers
have great difficulty in presenting the point of their weapons.
Thus the Cossacks were forced to turn their backs, whereupon my
men slaughtered many of them and captured a large number of
splendid horses.

We were about to follow up this success when our attention was
drawn to a great tumult on our right, where we saw the plain
covered with fugitives, for this was the moment when the Russian
Chevalier-Gardes made their desperate attack. General Castex,
thinking it would be unwise to advance any further when our
centre appeared to be retreating in disorder, called for the
rally to be sounded and the brigade came to a halt.

We had,however, scarcely re-formed our ranks when the Cossacks,
emboldened by what was going on in the centre and burning to
avenge their previous defeat, charged back on the attack and
hurled themselves furiously on my squadrons, while the Grodno
Hussars attacked the 24th. The Russians, driven back at every
point by Castex's brigade, brought up successively their second
and third line, whereupon General Corbineau came to our
assistance with the 7th and 20th Chasseurs and the 8th Lancers,
and there ensued a great cavalry battle, the outcome of which
hung in the balance. Both our own and the Russian Cuirassiers
were advancing to join in when Wittgenstein, seeing his infantry
beaten and hard pressed by ours, sent word to his cavalry to
retire. They, however, were too hotly engaged for this command to
be easily executed. In the event, Generals Castex and Corbineau,
knowing that they would be supported by the Cuirassiers who were
close behind them, committed in turn both their brigades against
the Russians who were thrown into the greatest disorder and
suffered heavy casualties.

On arriving at the other side of the wood where our victorious
infantry and cavalry divisions were regrouping, General
Saint-Cyr, seeing that night was approaching, called off the
pursuit, and the troops returned to their bivouacs at Polotsk,
which they had quitted a few hours earlier. During the fighting
my wound had given me much pain, particularly when I had to
gallop my horse. My inability to defend myself often put me in a
difficult situation in which I might not have survived had I not
been surrounded by a group of stalwarts who never let me out of
their sight.

On one occasion, amongst others, I was pushed by the mob of
combatants into a group of Cossacks, where to save myself I had
to let go of the bridle and take up my sabre. I had, however, no
need to use it, for seeing their commanding officer in danger,
all ranks of my escort furiously attacked the Cossacks who were
now surrounding me, laid several of them in the dust and put the
rest to flight. My orderly Fousse, the finest of Chasseurs,
killed three of them and Warrant Officer Joly two. So I came back
safe and sound from this action, in which I had been determined
to take part in order to encourage the regiment, and to show them
afresh that as long as I could mount a horse it would be my
honour to lead them when danger threatened. Both the officers and
men of the regiment appreciated this, and the affection with
which I was already regarded by them was increased, as you will
see later, when I speak of the misfortunes of the great retreat.

Combat between cavalry units is infinitely less murderous than
that involving the infantry, also the Russians are as a rule
maladroit in the handling of their weapons, and their incompetent
leaders do not always know how to employ their cavalry to best
advantage. So that although my regiment was fighting the Cossacks
of the Guard, considered one of the finest units in the Russian
army, we did not suffer a great many casualties. I had eight or
nine men killed and some thirty wounded; but amongst those last
was Major Fontaine. This very fine officer was in the thick of
the fighting when his horse was killed; his feet were entangled
in the stirrups and he was trying to free himself with the help
of some Chasseurs who had gone to help him when a Cossack
officer, bursting through the group at the gallop, leaned
dexterously from his saddle and dealt Fontaine a terrible sabre
slash which blinded his left eye, damaged the other and split
open his nose. However, as the Russian officer, proud of this
exploit, was leaving the scene, one of our Chasseurs shot him in
the back at six paces, so avenging his squadron commander. As
soon as possible M. Fontaine's injury was dressed and he was
taken to Polotsk to the Jesuit monastery, where I visited him
that same evening. I admired the resignation with which this
courageous soldier bore the pain and disability of becoming
almost completely blind, since which time he has not been able to
continue in active service. This was a great loss for the 23rd,
in which he had been since its creation, liked and respected by
all; I was much moved by his misfortune.

I was now the only senior officer in the regiment and I had to
see to all the requirements of the service, which was a major

You may think that I have gone into too much detail about the
various actions in which 2nd Corps was involved, but as I have
said, I enjoy recalling the great conflicts in which I have taken
part, and speak of these times with pleasure, for it then seems
to me that I am once more in the field, surrounded by my brave
companions, almost all of whom have now, alas, quitted this life.

To return to the present campaign: anyone but Saint-Cyr, after
such a hard-fought action would have reviewed his troops to
congratulate them on their success and enquire into their needs.
Scarcely, however, had the last shot been fired, when Saint-Cyr
shut himself up in the Jesuit monastery and spent all his days
and part of the night playing his violin...a ruling passion from
which only marching to attack the enemy could distract him.
Generals Lorencez and Wrede, given the task of deploying the
troops, sent two divisions of infantry and the Cuirassiers to the
left bank of the Dvina. The third French division and the
Bavarians stayed in Polotsk, where they were employed to build
the fortifications of a vast entrenched camp, before acting as a
support to the troops which from this important point were
covering the left and rear of the "Grande Armee" on its march to
Smolensk and on to Moscow. The light cavalry brigades of Castex
and Corbineau were positioned two leagues in front of this camp,
on the left bank of the Polota, a little river which joins the
Dvina at Polotsk. My regiment went into bivouac near a village
called Louchonski. The colonel of the 24th set up his a quarter
of a league to the rear, covered by the 23rd. We stayed there for
two months, during the first of which we did not go very far.
When he heard of the victory won at Polotsk by Saint-Cyr, the
Emperor sent him the baton of Imperial Marshal. Instead of using
the occasion to visit his troops, the new Marshal retired into
even deeper seclusion, if that were possible. No one could
approach the head of the army, which earned him the nick-name
amongst the soldiers of the "Owl." More than this, although the
huge monastery had more than a hundred rooms which would have
been most useful for the wounded, he lived there alone, and
considered it a great concession that he allowed senior officers
who were wounded to be received in the outhouses. They were
allowed to remain there for forty-eight hours, after which their
comrades had to take them to the town. The cellars and granaries
of the monastery were bursting with provisions amassed by the
Jesuits; wine, beer oil, flour, etc., all were there in
abundance; but the Marshal had taken charge of the keys of the
store-rooms and nothing came from them, even for the hospitals.
It was with the greatest difficulty that I obtained two bottles
of wine for the injured Fontaine. The extraordinary thing was
that the Marshal used hardly any of these provisions for himself,
for he was a man of extreme sobriety, but also highly eccentric.
The army complained loudly about his behaviour,and those same
provisions which he refused to distribute to his troops were, two
months later, consumed by flames and the Russians, when the
French were forced to abandon the burning monastery and town.

Chap. 12.

While all this was going on at Polotsk and on the banks of the
Drissa, the Emperor remained at Witepsk, from where he exercised
overall control of the operations of the numerous units of the
army. There are those who have reproached Napoleon with wasting
too much time, first at Wilna, where he stayed for nineteen days,
and then at Witepsk where he stayed for seventeen. They claim
that these thirty-six days could have been better employed,
particularly in a country where the summer is very short, and the
rigours of winter begin to be felt about the end of September.
This claim has some justice up to a point, but it should be
remembered, firstly that the Emperor hoped that the Russians
would request some compromise, and in the second place that it
was necessary to concentrate once more all the units which had
been scattered in the pursuit of Bagration. In addition, it was
essential to give some rest to the troops, who as well as their
regular marches had to scour the countryside each evening, far
from their bivouacs, in a search for food; because the Russians
having burned all the stores as they retreated, it was impossible
to make any daily distribution of rations. There was, however,
for a long time a happy exception to this state of affairs, in
the case of Davout's Corps. Davout was as good an administrator
as he was a fighting soldier, and well before the crossing of the
Nieman he had organised an immense convoy of little carts which
followed his army. These carts carried biscuits, salted meat and
vegetables and were drawn by oxen, a number of which could be
slaughtered daily to provide food. This arrangement contributed
greatly to keeping his men from straying from their ranks.

The Emperor left Witepsk on the 13th August, and moving further
and further away from 2nd and 6th Corps, which he left at Polotsk
under the command of Saint-Cyr, he went to Krasnoe, where a part
of the Grande Armee faced the enemy. It was hoped that there
would be a battle, but all that took place was a minor action
against the Russian rear-guard, which was defeated and promptly
withdrew. On the 15th of August, his birthday, the Emperor
reviewed his troops, who welcomed him with enthusiasm. On the
16th the army reached Smolensk, a fortified town which the
Russians call the holy of holies because they consider it to be
the key to Moscow and the palladium of their empire. Ancient
prophecies foretold disaster to Russia the day Smolensk was
taken. This superstition, carefully nurtured by the government,
dates from the time when Smolensk, situated on the Dnieper, was
the furthest Muscovite frontier, from where they issued to make
enormous conquests.

Murat and Ney, who were the first two to arrive before Smolensk,
both thought, for some unknown reason, that the Russians had
abandoned the place. The reports given to the Emperor having
convinced him that this was the case, he ordered that the
advance-guard should be sent into the town. The impatient Ney was
waiting only for this command. He advanced toward the town gate
escorted by a small body of Hussars, but suddenly a regiment of
Cossacks, hidden by a fold in the ground covered by scrub, fell
on our riders, drew them off, and surrounded Marshal Ney, who was
so hard pressed that a pistol shot fired at point blank range
tore the collar of his coat. Fortunately the Domanget brigade
hurried to the spot and freed the Marshal. The arrival of General
Razout's infantry enabled Ney to get close enough to the town to
convince himself that the Russians intended to defend it.

Seeing the ramparts armed with a great number of cannon, the
artillery general, Eble, a highly competent officer, advised the
Emperor to by-pass the place by sending the Polish Corps
commanded by Prince Poniatowski to cross the Dnieper two leagues
further upstream; but Napoleon, accepting the advice of Ney, who
assured him that Smolensk would be easily captured, gave the
order to attack. Three army Corps, those of Davout, Ney and
Poniatowski, launched an assault on the town from different
directions. A murderous fire was poured down on them from the
ramparts, and one even more deadly came from the batteries which
the Russians had established on the opposite bank of the river. A
most bloody struggle ensued; bullets, grape-shot and bombs
decimated our troops, without the artillery being able to breach
the walls. At last, as night was approaching, the enemy, who had
bravely disputed every foot of ground, were driven back into the
town itself, which they now prepared to abandon. Before they did
so, however, they set all of it on fire. The Emperor thus saw an
end to his hopes of capturing a town which was rightly supposed
to be full of supplies. It was not until dawn the next day that
the French entered the place, the streets of which were strewn
with the dead bodies of Russians and smoking debris. The taking
of Smolensk had cost us 12,000 men killed or wounded, an enormous
loss which could have been avoided by crossing the Dnieper
upstream, as had been proposed by General Eble; for, seeing
himself at risk of being cut off, General Barclay de Tolly, the
enemy commander, would have evacuated the place and retired
towards Moscow.

The Russians, after burning the bridge, halted for a short time
on the heights of the right bank and then resumed their retreat
on the road to Moscow. Marshal Ney followed them with his army
corps reinforced by Gudin's division, which was detached from
Davout's corps.

Not far from Smolensk, Marshal Ney caught up with the Russians as
they passed, with all their baggage, through a narrow defile. A
major engagement took place which could have been disasterous for
the enemy if General Junot, who commanded 8th Corps, and who had
been slow in crossing the Dnieper, two leagues above Smolensk,
and who had then halted for forty-eight hours, had hastened to
the sound of Ney's guns, which were no more than a league away.
Although informed of the situation by Ney, Junot did not budge.
He was then ordered in the name of the Emperor to come to the
assistance of Ney, but still he did not move.

Ney, facing greatly superior numbers, having engaged successively
all the troops of his Corps, ordered Gudin's division to take
some strong positions held by the Russians. This order was
executed with the greatest alacrity, but in the first wave the
brave general fell mortally wounded. However, retaining his usual
calm, and wishing to assure the success of the troops which he
had so often led to victory, he appointed General Gerard to take
over the command, although he was the most junior brigade
commander in the division.

Gerard, at the head of the division attacked the enemy, and by
ten in the evening, after losing 1800 men and killing some six
thousand, he was master of the field of battle, from which the
Russians made a hasty departure.

The next day the Emperor came to visit the troops who had fought
so bravely; he rewarded them generously and promoted Gerard to
the rank of divisional general. Gudin died a few hours later.

If Junot had taken part in the action, he could have trapped the
Russians in a narrow defile when, caught between two fires, they
would have been forced to surrender, and thus brought the war to
an end. One regretted the departure of King Jerome, whom Junot
had replaced, for although a mediocre general, he would probably
have gone to help Ney, and we expected to see Junot severely
punished; but he was one of Napoleon's earliest adherents and had
supported him in all his campaigns, from the siege of Toulon in
'93 to the present. The Emperor was fond of him and he forgave
him. This was a pity, for it was becoming necessary to make an

When the Russian people heard of the fall of Smolensk, there was
a general outcry against Barclay de Tolly. He was a German; the
nation accused him of not putting enough effort into the war, and
for the defence of ancient Muscovy they demanded a Muscovite
general. Compelled to give way, Alexander handed the command of
all the Russian armies to General Koutousoff, an elderly man of
little ability, renowned only for his defeat at Austerlitz, but
having the great merit, in the circumstances, of being an out and
out Russian, which gave him a considerable influence in the eyes
of the troops and the populace at large.

The French advance-guard, driving the enemy before it, had
already passed Dorogobouje when, on the 24th of August, the
Emperor decided to leave Smolensk. The heat was stifling; we
marched on loose sand; there was insufficient food for such a
large body of men and horses, for the Russians left nothing
behind them but burning farms and villages. When the army entered
Vyazma, this pretty town was in flames, and it was the same at
Gzhatzk. The nearer we got to Moscow the fewer resources the
countryside had to offer. Several men died and many horses. A few
days later, the intolerable heat was succeeded by a cold rain
which lasted until the 4th of September; autumn was approaching.
The army was no more than six leagues from Mojaisk, the last town
we had to take before reaching Moscow, when it was noticed that
the strength of the enemy rear-guard had been considerably
increased; an indication that a major battle was at last in

On the 5th, our advance-guard was briefly held up by a large
Russian column, well entrenched on a small hill, garnished with a
dozen guns. The 57th line regiment, which in the Italian campaign
the Emperor had named the "Terrible", worthily upheld its
reputation in capturing the redout and the enemy guns. We were
already on the terrain upon which, forty-eight hours later, would
be fought the battle which the Russians call Borodino and the
French Moscow.

On the 6th, the Emperor announced in an order of the day that
there would be a battle on the day following. The army welcomed
this announcement with pleasure in the hope that it would mean an
end to their privations, for there had been no supply of rations
for a month, and everyone had lived from hand to mouth. On both
sides the evening was employed in taking up positions of

On the Russian side, Bagration, commanding 62,000 men was on the
left wing; in the centre was the Hetman Platov with his Cossacks
and 30,000 infantry in reserve; the right was made up of 70,000
men under the command of Barclay de Tolly, who was now the second
in command, while the elderly General Koutousoff was the overall
commander of all these troops, amounting to 162,000 men. The
Emperor Napoleon had no more than 140,000, who were disposed as
follows: Prince Eugene commanded the left wing, Marshal Davout
the right, Marshal Ney the centre, King Murat the cavalry, while
the Imperial Guard was in reserve.

The battle took place on the 7th of September; the weather was
overcast and a cold wind raised clouds of dust. The Emperor, who
was suffering from severe migraine, went down into a sort of
ravine, where he spent the greater part of the day walking on
foot. From this spot he could see only part of the battlefield,
and to see its entirety he had to climb a nearby hillock, which
he did only twice during the action. The Emperor has been blamed
for his lack of activity, but it should be borne in mind that in
the central position which he occupied with his reserves, he was
able to receive frequent reports of events occurring at all
points of the line, whereas if he had been on one wing or the
other, the aides-de-camp, hurrying with urgent information over
such broken ground, might not have been able to see him or known
where to look for him. And it must not be forgotten that the
Emperor was ill and a strong and glacial wind prevented him from
remaining on horseback.

I took no part in the battle of Moscow, so I shall refrain from
going into any detail about the various manoeuvres carried out
during this memorable action. I shall say only that after almost
unheard of efforts the French succeeded in overcoming the most
obstinate resistance of the Russians, and that the battle was one
of the most bloody fought during the century. The two armies
suffered casualties to a total of 50,000 dead or wounded. The
French had 49 generals killed or wounded and 20,000 men put out
of action. The Russian losses were a third greater. General
Bagration, the best of their officers was killed, and by a
bizarre turn of fate he happened to be the owner of the land on
which the battle was fought. Twelve thousand horses were left on
the field. The French took few prisoners, an indication of the
courage and determination of the Russian resistance.

During the action there were several interesting episodes. When
the Russian left had been twice driven back by the supreme
efforts of Murat, Davout and Ney and had yet rallied for the
third time and returned to the charge, Murat asked General
Belliard to beg the Emperor to send part of his guard to secure a
victory, failing which it would be necessary to fight another
battle to beat the Russians. Napoleon was inclined to comply
with this request, but Marshal Bessieres, commandant of the Guard
said to him "I shall permit myself to remind your majesty that
you are at this moment some seven hundred leagues from France."
Whether it was this observation or whether the Emperor thought
that the battle had not reached the stage when he should commit
his reserve, he refused the request. Two other demands of this
kind met the same fate.

There was another remarkable incident which occurred in this
battle so full of gallant deeds. The enemy front was covered by
some high ground on which were redouts and redans and in
particular, a crenelated fort armed with 80 guns. The French,
after considerable losses, had gained control of these field
works but had not been able to retain the fort, and to regain it
would be a very difficult task even for infantry. General
Montbrun, who commanded the 2nd Cavalry Corps, had noticed, with
the help of his field-glass, that the gate of the fort was not
closed and that platoons of Russian soldiers were going through
it. He also noticed that if one went round the side of the high
ground, one could avoid the ramparts, ravines and rocks and lead
a cavalry unit to the gate up a gentle slope, suited to horses.
General Montbrun proposed to get into the fort with his cavalry
from the rear, while the infantry attacked the front. This
hazardous operation having been approved by Murat and the
Emperor, Montbrun was entrusted with its execution; but while the
intrepid general was finalising his plan, he was killed by a
cannon-ball. This was a great loss for the army, but it did not
put an end to the project he had conceived, and the Emperor sent
General Coulincourt to replace him.

One now saw something unheard of in the annals of war: a huge
fort defended by numerous guns and several battalions of infantry
attacked and taken by a column of cavalry. Coulincourt pressing
ahead with a division of Cuirassiers, headed by their 5th
regiment commanded by Colonel Christophe, broke through all those
defending the approach to the fort, reached the gate, entered the
interior and fell dead with a bullet through his head. Colonel
Christophe and his troopers avenged their general by putting part
of the garrison to the sword. The fort remained in their hands,
which helped to assure a French victory.

Today, when the thirst for promotion has become insatiable, one
would be astonished if, after such a feat, a colonel was not
promoted; but during the Empire ambition was more modest.
Christophe did not become a general until some years later, and
never showed any discontent with this delay.

The Poles, usually so courageous, particularly those from the
Grand Duchy of Warsaw commanded by Prince Poniatovski, fought so
badly that the Emperor sent his major general to upbraid them. In
this battle of Moscow, General Rapp was wounded for the
twenty-first time.

Although the Russians had been defeated and forced to leave the
field of battle, their generalissimo, Koutousoff, had the
impudence to write to the Emperor Alexander, claiming that he had
just won a great victory over the French. This falsehood, which
arrived in St. Petersburg on Alexander's birthday, gave rise to
much rejoicing. A Te Deum was sung and Koutousoff was promoted to
field-marshal. However it was not long before the truth was known
and the joy turned to grief; but Koutousoff was now a
field-marshal, which was what he wanted. Anyone but the timid
Alexander would have severely punished the new field-marshal for
this outrageous lie; but Koutousoff was needed, and so he
remained head of the army.

Chap. 13.

The Russians, retreating towards Moscow, were contacted on the
morning of the eighth, when there was a sharp cavalry engagement
in which General Belliard was wounded. Napoleon spent three days
at Mojaisk, partly to draw up the orders necessary in the
circumstances and partly to reply to the back-log of despatches.
One of these, which had arrived on the eve of the battle, had
affected him greatly and had contributed to making him ill, for
it announced that the so-called army of Portugal, commanded by
Marshal Marmont, had suffered a severe defeat at Arpiles, near
Salamanca, in Spain.

Marmont was one of Napoleon's mistakes. He had been one of
Napoleon's companions at the college of Brienne and later in the
artillery, and Napoleon took an interest in him. Misled by some
success achieved by Marmont at school, the Emperor had a belief
in the Marshal's military talents which his performance in the
field never justified. In 1811, Marmont had replaced Massena as
commander of the army of Portugal, proclaiming that he would
defeat Wellington, but the contrary proved to be the case.
Marmont, defeated, wounded, with his army in disarray and obliged
to abandon several provinces, would have suffered even worse
reverses if General Clausel had not come to his aid.

When he learned of this disaster, the Emperor must have reflected
deeply on the present operation, for while he was about to enter
Moscow at the head of his largest army, a thousand leagues away
another army had just been defeated. By invading Russia was he
about to lose Spain? Major Fabvier, who brought this despatch,
volunteered to join in the battle for Moscow and was wounded in
the assault on the great redout. It was a long way to come to be
hit by a bullet.

On the 12th of September Napoleon left Mojaisk, and on the 15th
he entered Moscow. This enormous city was deserted. General
Rostopschine, its governor, had forced all the inhabitants to
leave. This Rostopschine, whom some have described as a hero,
was a barbarian, who would shrink from nothing to achieve his
aims. He had allowed the populace to strangle a number of foreign
merchants, mainly the French, who were living in Moscow, on the
sole grounds that they were suspected of hoping for the arrival
of Napoleon's troops. Some days before the battle of Moscow, the
Cossacks having captured about a hundred sick Frenchmen,
Koutousoff sent them by a roundabout road to the governor of
Moscow, who, regardless of their condition, left them for
forty-eight hours without food and then paraded them triumphantly
through the streets, where a number of these unfortunates
collapsed and died of starvation. As this was happening,
policemen read to the populace a proclamation by Rostopschine in
which, to encourage them to take up arms, he declared that all
the French were in a similar feeble state and would be easily
overcome. When this disgusting performance was over, the majority
of the soldiers still alive were killed by the mob, without
Rostopschine doing anything to protect them.

The defeated Russian troops had only passed through Moscow, and
had gone to re-group some thirty leagues from there, around
Kalouga. Murat followed them with all his cavalry and several
infantry corps. The Imperial Guard stayed in the town and
Napoleon took up residence in the Kremlin, the ancient fortified
palace of the Czars. Everything seemed peaceful, when, during
the night 15th-16th September, some French and German merchants
who had escaped the governor's attentions came to warn Napoleon's
staff that the city was to be set on fire. This information was
confirmed by a Russian policeman, who refused to carry out the
orders of his superiors: he stated that before leaving Moscow,
Rostopschine had thrown open all the prisons and released the
prisoners and convicts, to whom he had given torches said to have
been supplied by the British, and that these persons were lying
hidden in the abandoned houses waiting for the signal. When the
Emperor heard of this he instituted the strictest precautionary
measures. Patrols went about the streets and killed a number of
those caught setting fires alight, but it was too late; fire
broke out in various parts of the city and spread rapidly owing
to the fact that Rostopschine had taken away all the
fire-fighting equipment. It was not long before the whole of
Moscow was ablaze. The Emperor left the Kremlin and went to the
chateau of Peterskoe. He did not return until three days later,
when the fire was beginning to subside for lack of fuel. I shall
not go into any details about the fire itself, as there are
several eye-witness accounts, but later I shall examine the
consequences of this catastrophic conflagration.

Napoleon, who did not understand the position in which Alexander
found himself, hoped always for some accommodation and
eventually, tired of waiting, he decided to write to him
personally. In the meantime the Russian army was being
reorganised in the area of Kalouga, from where agents were sent
to direct stray soldiers back to their units. It was estimated
that there were about 15,000 of them concealed in the suburbs and
able to wander about our bivouacs without being challenged. They
sat round the fires with our men and ate with them, yet no one
thought of making them prisoners. This was a great mistake, for
they gradually returned to the Russian army, while our strength
diminished daily owing to sickness and the increasing cold. We
lost an enormous number of horses, which was thought due to the
extraordinary efforts demanded by Murat from the cavalry, of
which he was the commander. Murat, recalling the brilliant
successes obtained against the Prussians in 1806 and 1807 by
pursuing them closely, thought that the cavalry should be equal
to any demands and should march twelve to fifteen leagues a day
without worrying about the fatigue of the horses, the essential
being to reach the enemy with at least some of the columns.
However the climate, the shortage of rations and fodder, the long
duration of the campaign and above all the tenacious resistance
of the Russians had greatly changed the situation, so that by the
time we reached Moscow, half our cavalrymen had no horses, and
Murat managed to finish off the rest at Kalouga. Prince Murat was
proud of his tall stature and his bravery; and being always
decked out in strange but brilliant uniforms, he had attracted
the notice of the enemy, with whom he was pleased to parley, even
exchanging gifts with the Cossack officers. Koutousoff took
advantage of these meetings to encourage in the French the false
hopes of a peace, hopes which Murat passed on to the Emperor. One
day, however, this enemy who claimed to be so weakened, arose,
slipped into our cantonments and captured some supplies, a
squadron of dragoons and a battalion of troops. After this
Napoleon forbade, under pain of death, any communication with the
Russians which he had not authorised.

The Emperor never entirely lost hope of concluding a peace, on
the 4th of October he sent General Lauriston, his aide-de-camp,
to General Koutousoff's headquarters. The cunning Russian showed
General Lauriston a letter which he had addressed to the Emperor
Alexander, urging him to agree to the French proposals, seeing
that, as he alleged, the Russian army was in no state to continue
the war. The officer carrying this despatch had hardly left for
St. Petersburg, armed with a pass from Lauriston which would
preserve him from attack by any of our men who were in the area
between the two armies, when Koutousoff sent off a second
aide-de-camp to his Emperor. This officer, having no French
laissez-passer, was stopped by one of our patrols, taken prisoner
and his despatches sent to Napoleon. The contents were the exact
opposite to what had been shown to Lauriston. After imploring his
sovereign not to treat with the French, he informed him that
Admiral Tchitchakoff's army, freed from its duties on the
frontier by the peace with Turkey, was moving towards Minsk in
order to cut the French line of retreat. He also told Alexander
of the discussions he had conducted freely with Murat, with the
aim of encouraging the false sense of security entertained by the
French in remaining in Moscow so late in the year.

When he saw this letter, Napoleon, realising that he had been
tricked, fell into a furious rage, and is said to have
contemplated marching on St. Petersburg; but beyond the
diminished strength of the army and the rigours of the winter,
which militated against such an undertaking, there were pressing
reasons for the Emperor to get closer to Germany, in order to
watch over that country and to see what was going on in France,
where there had been a conspiracy whose leaders had been, for one
day, in control of the capital. A fanatic, General Malet, had
tossed a spark into Paris which could have started a fire, which,
had he not encountered a man as far-seeing and energetic as
Adjutant-major Laborde, might have put an end to the imperial

This was not heartening, and one can imagine the anxiety of
Napoleon when he learned of the danger which had threatened his
family and his government.

Chap. 14.

In Moscow, Napoleon's position grew worse daily. The cold was
already bitter and only the French-born soldiers maintained their
morale, but they composed no more than half the force which
Napoleon had led into Russia. The remainder was made up of
Germans, Swiss, Croats, Lombards, Romanians, Piedmontais,
Spaniards, and Portuguese. All these foreigners, who stayed
loyal as long as the army was successful, now began to complain
and, led astray by the leaflets in various languages which the
Russians spread widely through our camps, they deserted in droves
to the enemy, who promised to repatriate them.

Added to this, the two wings of the Grande Armee, which consisted
entirely of Austrians and Prussians, were now no longer in line
with the centre as they had been at the beginning of the
campaign, but were in our rear, ready to bar our way on the first
command of their sovereigns, ancient and irreconcilable enemies
of France. The position was critical, and although it would
greatly hurt Napoleon's pride to display to the whole world that
he had failed in his objective of imposing a peace on Alexander,
the word "retreat" was at last uttered. But neither the Emperor
nor the marshals nor anyone else thought of abandoning Russia and
recrossing the Nieman; the idea was to go into winter quarters in
the least unpleasant of the Polish provinces.

The evacuation of Moscow was agreed on in principle, but before
taking this step, Napoleon, in a last endeavour to obtain a
settlement, sent an emissary to Marshal Koutousoff, who did not
make any response.

During these delays our army was melting away, day by day, and in
blind overconfidence our outposts remained at risk in the
province of Kalouga in untactical positions, when suddenly a
wholly unforeseen event occurred which opened the eyes of the
most incredulous and destroyed any illusions which the Emperor
still had of achieving peace.

General Sebastiani, whom we saw allowing himself to be surprised
at Drouia, had replaced General Montbrun as commander of the 2nd
Cavalry Corps and, although close to the enemy, he spent his days
in his slippers, reading Italian poetry and carrying out no
reconnaissance. Taking advantage of this negligence, Koutousoff
attacked Sebastiani on the 18th of October, surrounded him and
overwhelmed him by numbers, forcing him to abandon part of his
artillery. Sebastiani's three divisions of cavalry, separated
from the rest of Murat's troops, were able to rejoin them only
after fighting their way through several enemy battalions who
stood in their way. In the course of this savage combat,
Sebastiani displayed his valour, for he was a brave man, if a
noticeably mediocre general, something which will be demonstrated
anew when we come to the campaign of 1813.

At the same time as he surprised Sebastiani, Koutousoff ordered
an attack on Murat's lines, in which the Prince was slightly
wounded. Having learned of this unsatisfactory affair, and on
the same day been told of the arrival in the enemy camp of a
reinforcement of ten thousand cavalry from the Russian army in
Wallachia (The Russian border with the Turks, in southern
Romania. Ed.) which the Austrians, our allies, had allowed to
pass, the Emperor gave the order for the departure to begin on
the following day.

In the morning of the 19th of October, the Emperor left Moscow,
which he had entered on the 15th of September. His Majesty, the
old guard and the bulk of the army took the road to Kalouga;
Marshal Mortier and two divisions of the Young Guard remained
behind for twenty-four hours to complete the destruction of the
city and blow up the Kremlin, after which they brought up the
rear of the march.

The army trailed behind it more than forty thousand carriages,
which caused an obstruction whenever the road narrowed. When this
was remarked on to the Emperor, he replied that each of these
coaches could carry two wounded men and food for several, and
that their number would gradually diminish. The employment of
this philanthropic system could, I think, be objected to, on the
grounds that the need to speed the march of a retreating army
seems to me to outweigh all other considerations.

During the French occupation of Moscow, Murat and the cavalry
corps had been stationed in part of the fertile province of
Kalouga, but without seizing the town of that name. The Emperor
wished to avoid passing through the area of the battle of Moscow
(Borodino) and down the road to Mojaisk, which had been stripped
of resources by the army on its approach to Moscow; and for this
reason he took the road to Kalouga, from where he counted on
getting to Smolensk through fertile and, as it were, unspoiled
country. But at the end of several day's march, the army, which
after joining with Murat's force amounted, still, to more than
100,000 men, found itself confronting the Russian army which
occupied the little town of Malo-Iaroslawetz. The enemy was in
an exceedingly strong position; nevertheless the Emperor sent
into the attack Prince Eugene, at the head of the Italian Corps
and the French divisions of Morand and Gerard. Nothing could
stand in the way of these men and they took the town after a long
and murderous fight which cost us 4000 killed or wounded. Among
the dead was General Delzons, a very fine officer.

The next day, the 24th of October, the Emperor, surprised at the
degree of resistance he had encountered, and knowing that the
whole Russian army barred his way, halted the march and spent
three days considering what course he should follow.

On one occasion, during a reconnaissance of the enemy line, the
Emperor nearly fell into their hands. There was a very thick fog,
and suddenly shouts of "Hourra! Hourra!" were heard. It was a
group of Cossacks who were emerging from a wood bordering the
road, which they had been going through not twenty paces from the
Emperor, knocking down and spearing anyone that they came across:
but General Rapp rushed forward with the two squadrons of
Chasseurs and mounted Grenadiers which went everywhere with the
Emperor who, wielding their sabres, put the enemies to flight. It
was during this encounter that M. Le Couteulx, my former
companion on the staff of Marshal Lannes, and now an aide-de-camp
to Prince Berthier, having armed himself with the lance belonging
to a Cossack whom he had killed, was unwise enough to come back
brandishing this weapon, and, furthermore, dressed in a pelisse
and a fur hat, which concealed the French uniform. A mounted
Grenadier of the Guard mistook him for a Cossack officer, and
seeing him heading towards the Emperor, went after him and
slashed him across the body with his heavy sabre. In spite of
this serious wound, M. Le Couteulx, placed in one of the
Emperor's carriages, survived the cold and the exhaustion of the
retreat, and managed to reach France.

The reconnaissance carried out by the Emperor had convinced him
that it would be impossible to continue his march towards Kalouga
without fighting a sanguinary battle against the large force
commanded by Koutousoff. He decided, therefore, to reach Smolensk
by taking the road leading through Mojaisk. The army then left
the fertile countryside to take once more the now devastated
route along which, marking their passage with fires and dead
bodies, they had travelled in September. This movement by the
Emperor left him, after ten weary days, no more than twelve
leagues from Moscow, and caused the troops to feel increasing
anxiety about the future. The weather turned much worse; Marshal
Mortier rejoined the Emperor after having blown up the Kremlin.

The army saw once more Mojaisk and the battlefield of Borodino.
The ground, furrowed by cannon-balls, was covered with the debris
of helmets, cuirasses, wheels, weapons, fragments of uniform and
thirty thousand bodies, partly eaten by wolves. The Emperor and
the troops passed by quickly, casting a sad look at this immense

After they had reached Vyazma the snow began to fall and a bitter
wind to blow, which slowed their progress. Many of the vehicles
were abandoned, and some thousands of men and horses perished of
cold by the roadside. The flesh of the horses provided some
nourishment for the men and also for the officers. The command of
the rearguard passed successively from Davout to Prince Eugene
and finally to Marshal Ney, who kept this unpleasant job for the
rest of the campaign.

Smolensk was reached on the 1st of November. The Emperor had
arranged for a great quantity of food clothing and footwear to be
collected there, but those in charge of these supplies did not
realise the state of disorganisation into which the army had
fallen, and insisted on the paperwork and formalities of a normal
distribution. This delay so exasperated the men, who were dying
of cold and hunger, that they broke into the stores and took,
forcibly, whatever they could. With the result that some had too
much, some enough and some nothing.

As long as the troops had maintained a proper order of march, the
mixture of nationalities had given rise to no more than minor
inconveniences, but once fatigue and privation had broken the
ranks, discipline was lost. There was no way in which it could be
maintained in a vast body of isolated individuals, lacking every
necessity, walking on their own, without understanding why; for
in this disorderly mass there ruled a veritable babel of tongues.
A few regiments, mainly those in the Guard, held together. Almost
all the troopers of the cavalry, having lost their horses, were
formed into infantry battalions, and those of their officers who
still were mounted were made into special squadrons, commanded by
Generals Latour-Mauberg, Grouchy and Sebastiani, who acted as
ordinary captains, while brigade commanders and colonels filled
the post of sergeant and corporal. This resort alone, shows to
what extremity the army was reduced.

In this critical position, the Emperor had counted on a strong
division of troops of all arms, which General Baraguey d'Hilliers
was supposed to bring to Smolensk; but, as we neared the town, we
heard the General had laid down his arms before a Russian column,
with the provision that he alone would not be made prisoner and
would be allowed to rejoin the French army in order to explain
his actions. The Emperor, however, refused to see Baraguey
d'Hilliers and ordered him to return to France and to consider
himself under arrest until he was brought before a court-martial.
Baraguey d'Hilliers avoided court-martial by dying in Berlin, it
was said, of despair.

This General was another of Napoleon's mistakes. He had been
impressed by him at the time of the encampments at Boulogne when
he had promised that he could train dragoons to serve either as
cavalry or infantry. However, when this system was tried out in
1805, during the Austrian campaign, the Dragoons, now on foot and
commanded by Baraguey d'Hilliers in person, were defeated at
Wertingen before the eyes of the Emperor, and when placed once
more on horseback, they once more suffered the same fate. It was
several years before the unit recovered from the effects of this
experiment. The originator of the system, having fallen from
favour and hoping to re-establish himself by asking to come to
Russia, had completed his downfall by capitulating without a
struggle, and violating a decree stating that a commander forced
to surrender should accompany his men into captivity, and
forbidding him from negotiating terms favourable only to himself.

After spending several days at Smolensk to allow stragglers to
catch up with him, the Emperor went to Krasnoe, from where he
despatched an officer to 2nd Corps, which was still by the Dvina
and was now his only hope of safety.

The regiments of this corps, although they had not suffered the
hardship and privation of those who had gone to Moscow, had
however been more often in action against the enemy. Napoleon,
wishing to reward them by appointments to vacant positions, had
brought to him for his approval a number of proposals for
promotions, several of which related to me. One of these
recommended me for the rank only of lieutenant-colonel and it was
this that was put before the Emperor for his signature. I have it
from General Grundler who, having been detailed to carry the
despatch, found himself in the Emperor's office during the
signing, that the Emperor scratched out with his own hand the
words Lieutenant-colonel and wrote in the word Colonel, saying "I
am paying off an old debt." So, on the 15th of November, I at
last became Colonel of the 23rd Chasseurs, although I did not
know it until some time later.

The painful retreat was resumed. The enemy, whose strength
increased continually, cut off from the rest of the army the
Corps of Prince Eugene, Davout and Ney. The first two managed to
fight their way through to join the Emperor, who was very
distressed at the absence of Ney, of whom he had had no news for
several days.

On the 19th of November Napoleon reached Orscha. It was now a
month since he had left Moscow and there was still a hundred and
twenty leagues to cover before reaching the Nieman. The cold was

While the Emperor worried unhappily about the fate of his
rear-guard and the gallant Marshal Ney, the latter was engaged in
one of the finest feats of arms recorded in history. Leaving
Smolensk on the morning of the 17th, after blowing up the
ramparts, the Marshal had hardly begun his march when he was
assailed by a myriad of the enemy, who attacked both flanks and
the front and rear of his column.

Driving them off continually, Ney marched, surrounded by them for
three days, to halt eventually before the dangerous pass of the
Krasnoe ravine, beyond which could be seen a great mass of
Russian troops and an array of guns which opened a lively and
sustained fire.

Without being cast down by this unforeseen obstacle the Marshal
took the bold decision to force a passage, and ordered the 48th
of line, commanded by Colonel Pelet, to attack with the bayonet.
At Ney's command, the French soldiers, although tired, hungry and
numb with cold, rushed the Russian batteries and captured them.
They were regained by the enemy and captured once more by our men
but in the end they had to yield to the superiority in numbers.
The 48th, shattered by grape-shot, was largely destroyed. Of the
six hundred and fifty men who entered the ravine only about a
hundred emerged. Colonel Pelet, gravely wounded was among them.

Night fell, and for the rearguard, all hope of rejoining the
Emperor and the rest of the army seemed to be lost; but Ney had
confidence in his men, and above all in himself. He ordered lines
of fires to be lit, in order to keep the enemy in their camp, in
the expectation of a renewed attack the next day, but he had
decided to put the Dnieper between himself and the Russians and
to entrust his fate and that of his troops to the strength of the
ice covering the river. It was while he was trying to decide
which was the shortest route to the river that a Russian colonel
from Krasnoe arrived as an envoy, and demanded that Ney should
surrender. Ney was indignant, and as the officer was carrying no
written instructions, he replied that he did not regard him as an
envoy but as a spy who would be executed if he did not guide them
to the nearest spot on the bank of the Dnieper. The Russian
Colonel was forced to obey.

Ney immediately gave the order to quit the camp in silence,
leaving behind the guns, wagons, baggage and those wounded unable
to march with him; and helped by the darkness, he reached, after
four hours, the banks of the Dnieper. The river was frozen over,
but the ice was not everywhere thick enough to bear the weight of
a number of men, so the Marshal sent his troops across one by
one. Once over the river, the troops thought they had reached
safety, but dawn revealed an encampment of Cossacks. This was
commanded by Hetman Platov who, as was his custom, had spent the
evening drinking and was still asleep.

Discipline is so rigid in the Russian army that no one dared wake
him nor take up arms without his orders, so the remains of Ney's
Corps were able to pass within a league of the camp without being
attacked. The Cossacks did not appear until the next day.

Under constant attack, the Marshal marched for three days along
the winding bank of the Dnieper, which would lead him to Orscha,
and on the 20th he at last saw this town where he hoped to find
the Emperor and the army. He was, however, still separated from
Orscha by a large area of open ground in which were many enemy
troops, while the Cossacks were preparing to attack him from the
rear. Taking up a good defensive position, he sent of a
succession of officers to find out if the French were still in
Orscha, failing which resistance would no longer be possible. One
of these officers reached Orscha where the general headquarters
still was. The Emperor was delighted to hear of the return of
Marshal Ney, and to rescue him from his dangerous position he
sent Prince Eugene and Marshal Mortier who drove off the enemy
and brought back Ney and what remained of his unit.

The next day the Emperor continued the retreat. He was joined by
troops under the command of Marshal Victor who had recently
arrived from Germany, and he made contact with 2nd Corps, where
Saint-Cyr had just returned the command to Marshal Oudinot.

Chap. 15.

As it is important to understand the events which led to the
reunion of 2nd Corps with the army from which it had been
separated since the start of the campaign, I must describe
briefly what happened after the month of August, when, having
defeated the Russians at Polotsk, Saint-Cyr set up near there an
immense entrenched camp protected by a part of his force, the
remainder of which he spread out on both banks of the Dvina. The
light cavalry provided cover for these cantonments and so, as I
have already said, Castex's brigade, to which my regiment
belonged, was stationed at Louchonski, on a little river named
the Polota, from where we could keep an eye on the main roads
leading from Sebej and Newel.

Wittgenstein's army, after its defeat, had retired beyond those
towns, so that there was between the French and the Russians a
space of more than twenty-five leagues of no-man's-land, into
which both sides sent reconnaissance parties of cavalry, giving
rise to unimportant skirmishes. For the rest, as the area round
Polotsk was well supplied with forage and standing crops of
grain, and as it seemed plain that we were in for a long stay,
the French soldiers started to reap and thresh the corn, and
grind it in the small hand-mills which are to be found in every
peasant dwelling.

This process seemed to me to be too slow, so we repaired, with
much difficulty, two water-mills, which stood by the Polota near
Louchonski, and from that time on, a supply of bread for my
regiment was assured. As for meat, the neighbouring woods were
full of abandoned cattle; but as it was necessary to track them
down every day, I had the idea of doing what I had seen done in
Portugal, and that was to form a regimental herd. In a short time
I had rounded up 7 or 8 hundred beasts which I put in the charge
of some unmounted Chasseurs, to whom I gave local ponies, too
small for military use. This herd, which I increased by frequent
searches, lasted for several months and allowed me to make
regular distributions of meat to the regiment, which maintained
the men's health and earned me their gratitude for the care I
took of them. I extended my care to the horses, for which we made
big shelters, thatched with straw, and placed behind the men's
huts, so that our bivouac was almost as comfortable as a regular
camp in peacetime. The other unit commanders did the same sort of
thing, but none of them had a regimental herd: their men lived
from day to day.

While the French, Swiss, Croat, and Portuguese regiments worked
unceasingly to improve their conditions, the Bavarians alone made
no effort to escape from want and sickness. It was in vain that
General the Comte de Wrede tried to rouse them by pointing out
how the French soldiers were building huts, reaping and threshing
grain, milling it into flour, making ovens and baking bread, the
wretched Bavarians, totally demoralised since they no longer were
issued with regular rations, admired the work done by our men
without attempting to imitate them. So they were dying like flies
and there would have been none left if Marshal Saint-Cyr, shaking
off for a moment his habitual indifference, had not persuaded the
colonels of the other divisions to provide a daily supply of
bread for the Bavarians. The light cavalry, stationed out in the
country and near the woods, sent them some cattle.

However, these Germans, so feeble when it came to work, were
brave enough in action against the enemy, but the moment the
danger was over they relapsed into complete apathy. Nostalgia or
home-sickness took them; they dragged themselves to Polotsk, and
entering the hospitals established by their commanders, they
asked for somewhere to die, and laying themselves on the straw,
they never rose again. A great many died in this way and General
de Wrede had to take into his wagon the flags of a number of
regiments who had not sufficient men to defend them. And yet it
was only September, the cold weather had not begun and on the
contrary it was very mild. The other troops were in good heart
and awaited cheerfully the outcome of events.

The men of my regiment were noted everywhere for their good
health, which I attribute firstly to the quantity of bread and
meat which I was able to give them and secondly to the liquor
which I was able to obtain by an arrangement with the Jesuits of
Polotsk. These good Fathers, all of them French, had a big farm
at Louchonski, where there was a distillery for making grain
spirit, but on the approach of war all the workers had fled back
to the monastery, taking with them the stills and utensils, so
that production had stopped, thus depriving the monastery of part
of its revenue. The arrival of so many soldiers in the region had
made alcoholic drinks so scarce and expensive that the owners of
the canteens were undertaking a journey of several days to Wilna
to obtain supplies. It occurred to me that I might be able to
reach an agreement with the Jesuits whereby I would protect their
distillery and have my men reap and thresh the necessary grain,
in return for which my regiment would receive a daily share of
the resulting product. My proposition was accepted by the monks,
who benefitted greatly by being able to sell alcohol in the
camps, while I had the advantage of being able to distribute a
daily ration to my men who, since crossing the Nieman, had drunk
nothing but water.

At first glance these details may seem pointless, but I am happy
to recall them because the care I took of my men saved many of
their lives and maintained the strength of the 23rd far above
that of the other cavalry regiments in the Corps, which earned me
a token of his satisfaction from the Emperor which I shall refer
to later.

Among the measures which I took are two which protected the lives
of many of my troopers. The first of these was to insist that
from the 15th of September they should each equip themselves with
a sheepskin coat, many of which were to be found in abandoned
peasant dwellings. Soldiers are like great children, for whom one
must care sometimes against their will. Mine complained that
these heavy pelisses were useless and overburdened their horses,
but come October they were happy to put them on under their
capes, and when it grew really cold they thanked me for having
made them keep them.

The second step which I took was to send to the rear all those
troopers who were without a mount, either because of enemy fire
or because their horse had died for some other reason. A standing
order required that these men should be sent to Lepel, in
Lithuania, to await horses which were to be sent from Warsaw. I
was preparing to do this when I learned that Lepel was crammed
with dismounted troopers, who were short of all supplies and had
nothing to do because not a single remount had arrived there, so
I took it on myself to send my dismounted men directly to Warsaw
under the command of Captain Poitevin, who had been wounded. I
knew that this was in breach of the regulations, but in a huge
army, so far from its base and under such abnormal conditions, it
was not possible for the general staff to attend to all the needs
of the troops. Occasions therefore arose when a unit commander
had to use his own judgement. Thus, General Castex, who could not
give me official authorisation and having told me that he would
close his eyes to what I was doing, I continued in this manner
for as long as it was possible, so that in the end I had sent 250
men to Warsaw. After the campaign I found them once more on the
Vistula, all in new uniforms, well-equipped and well-mounted and
a welcome reinforcement for the regiment. The dismounted men from
other regiments, amounting to some 9000, who had been sent to
Lepel, caught unaware by the great retreat from Moscow, were
almost all taken prisoner or died of cold on the roads. Yet it
would have been so easy to have sent them during the summer and
autumn to the remount depot at Warsaw, where there were plenty of
horses but a shortage of riders.

I remained for a whole month resting at Louchonski, which helped
to heal the wound I had received at Jakoubowo. We were very
comfortable in our camp from the material point of view, but very
worried about the events at Moscow, and it was only on rare
occasions that we had news from France. At last I had a letter in
which my dearest Angelique told me she had given birth to a boy.
My joy at this was mixed with sadness, for I was a long way from
my family, and although I could not foresee all the dangers to
which I would soon be exposed, I could not pretend that there
were not many obstacles to be overcome before our reunion.

About the middle of September, Marshal Saint-Cyr sent me on a
rather delicate mission. It had two objectives: first to find out
what the enemy were up to in the region round Newel and then to
return via Lake Ozerichtchi in order to get in touch with Count
Lubenski, one of the few Poles who were willing to do anything to
shake off the Russian yoke. The Emperor who, although unwilling
to proclaim the re-establishment of the former Poland, wanted to
organise the areas already conquered into departments, had
received many refusals from the noblemen to whom he had proposed
to confide the administration; but having been assured of Count
Lubenski's patriotism, His Majesty had nominated him Prefect of
Witepsk. As this nobleman lived in an isolated spot outside the
area under French control, it was difficult to inform him of his
nomination and to ensure his safe arrival. Napoleon had therefore
ordered that a body of light cavalry should be sent to the Count.

Detailed to undertake this mission, with three hundred men of my
regiment, I picked the boldest and best-mounted men and having
provided them with bread, cooked meat and vodka, as well as other
necessities, I left the camp on the 14th of September, taking
with me Lorentz to act as interpreter.

The life of a partisan is perilous and very tiring. One avoids
the main roads and hides by day in the forest without daring to
make a fire. One takes from a hamlet food and fodder to be eaten
several leagues away to confuse enemy spies; one marches all
night, sometimes arriving at different point from that intended
and one is constantly on the look-out. Such was the life I led
when I found myself with no more than three hundred men, in a
huge area which I did not know, out of touch with the French army
and approaching that of the Russians, a numerous detachment of
whom I might encounter at any time. It was a difficult situation,
but I had confidence in myself and in the men who followed me, so
I went forward resolutely, skirting by two or three leagues the
road which runs from Polotsk to Newel.

Nothing much of interest happened to us. It is sufficient to say
that thanks to the information given to us by the peasants, who
hated the Russians, we made a tour round Newel, avoiding all the
enemy positions, and after eight days, or rather eight nights, of
marching we came to the shore of Lake Ozerichtchi, where there is
the magnificent chateau which at that time belonged to Count
Lubenski. I shall never forget the scene which greeted us on our
arrival before this ancient and vast manor. It was a splendid
autumn evening. The family of the Count had gathered to celebrate
his birthday and to rejoice in the capture of Moscow by Napoleon,
when some servants ran to announce that the chateau was
surrounded by soldiers on horseback, who had posted sentries and
guards and were now entering the courtyards. It was thought that
these were the Russian police who had come to arrest the Count,
and he, a man of great courage, was waiting calmly to be taken to
the prison of St. Petersburg, when his son, who out of curiosity
had opened a window, came to say that the troopers were speaking

On hearing this, the Count and his family followed by a crowd of
servants rushed out of the chateau and gathered on an immense
peristyle. When I mounted the steps, he advanced towards me with
arms outstretched to embrace me, and declaimed in theatrical
tones a most fulsome welcome. Not only did the Count embrace me,
but his wife and daughters did the same, then the almoner, the
tutors and governesses came to kiss my hand, and the domestic
staff touched my knee with their lips. I was greatly astonished
at these various honours, and accepted them with all the gravity
I could muster. I had thought the whole performance was over
when, at a word from the Count, they all knelt down and commenced
to pray.

When we re-entered the chateau, I handed the Count his
appointment as Prefect of Witepsk, adorned with the signature of
the French Emperor, and asked him if he accepted it. "Yes!" he
cried "and I am ready to go with you." The Countess was equally
enthusiastic, and it was agreed that the Count with his eldest
son and two servants would leave with me. I gave them an hour to
get ready, which time was employed in giving my men a good
supper, which they had to eat on horseback because of my fear of
a surprise attack. Having said our farewells, we left to go and
sleep in a forest four leagues from there, where we stayed hidden
all the next day. At night we continued our march, but to put off
our trail any of the enemy who might have been warned of our
presence in the area, I took a different route to that by which I
had come, and going by paths and at times across country, after
five days I reached Polotsk. It was as well that I had taken a
different route, because I learned later from some merchants who
lived in Newel that the Russians had sent a regiment of Dragoons
and 600 Cossacks to wait for me at the source of the Drissa, near
a village I had passed on my way in.

After reporting to Marshal Saint-Cyr and presenting to him Count
Lubenski, I went back to the camp at Louchonski, where I rejoined
General Castex and the rest of my unit. My expedition had lasted
for thirteen days, during which time we had suffered fatigue and
privation; but I was bringing my men back in good shape. We had
not been obliged to fight since any small bands of the enemy we
did encounter fled when they saw us.

The journey which Count Lubenski had taken with us had allowed me
to assess his character. He was a well educated man, capable and
patriotic, but one whose enthusiasm was inclined to cloud his
judgement when it came to considering how best to re-build
Poland. Nevertheless, if all his compatriots had shown his
vigour, and had taken up arms on the arrival of the French,
Poland might have regained its freedom in 1812; but, with few
exceptions, they remained profoundly apathetic.

After leaving Polotsk, the Count went to take up his post as
prefect. He did not keep the position for long, for a month had
hardly passed before the French army, having left Moscow passed
through Witepsk on its retreat. Compelled by this disaster to
abandon his prefecture and to shelter from the vengeance of the
Russians, he took refuge in Galicia, in Austrian Poland, where he
had large landholdings. He lived there peacefully until 1830 when
he returned to Russian Poland to take up arms against the Czar. I
do not know what happened to him after this uprising, but I have
been told by some of his countrymen that he went back to Galicia.
He was a good patriot and a fine man.

A few days after our return to Louchonski, I was greatly
surprised by the arrival of a detachment of thirty troopers
belonging to my regiment. They had come from Mons and had, in
consequence, travelled through Belgium, the Rhenish provinces,
all of Germany and part of Prussia and Poland, and had come more
than 400 leagues under the command of a simple N.C.O. However not
a man had fallen out and not a horse was injured. That shows the
sort of stuff of which the troopers of the 23rd were made.

Chap. 16.

On about the 12th of October, 2nd Corps, which since the 18th of
August had been living in peace and plenty in and around Polotsk,
had to prepare itself to run once more the dangers of war. We
learned that Admiral Tchitchakoff, commander-in-chief of the
Russian army in Walachia, having made peace with the Turks
through the intervention of the English, was heading for Moghilew
with the intention of getting in the rear of Napoleon who, still
nursing the hope of concluding a treaty with Alexander, had not
yet left Moscow. One might be astonished that Prince
Schwartzenberg, who with thirty thousand Austrians, our allies,
was supposed to be watching over the Russian forces in Walachia,
had allowed them to pass, but that is what happened. Not only had
the Austrians failed to block the road taken by the Russians,
which they could have done, but instead of following behind them,
they had stayed comfortably in their cantonments.

Napoleon had trusted too much in the good faith of the generals
and ministers of his father-in-law, the Emperor of Austria, in
giving them the responsibility of covering the right flank of the
Grande Armee. Whatever excuses are offered, there can be, in my
opinion, no escaping the fact that this was flagrant treachery on
their part, and history will condemn them for it.

While on our right the Austrians were allowing passage to the
Russian troops coming from Turkey, the Prussians, who had so
unwisely been placed on our left wing, were preparing to do a
deal with the enemy, and that almost openly, without concealment
from Marshal Macdonald, whom the Emperor had put at their head to
ensure their fidelity. As soon as these foreigners learned that
the occupation of Moscow had not led to a peace, they foresaw the
disasters which would befall the French army, and all their
enmity towards us was rekindled. They did not break out in open
revolt, but Marshal Macdonald's orders were obeyed with
reluctance, and the Prussians encamped near Riga could at any
moment join Wittgenstein's Russians to crush 2nd Corps camped
round Polotsk.

Plainly, Marshal Saint-Cyr's position was becoming difficult. He,
however, did not seem perturbed, and as impassive as ever, he
issued calmly and clearly the orders for an obstinate defence.
All the infantry was concentrated in the town and the entrenched
camp. Several bridges were added to those already uniting the two
banks of the Dvina. The sick and the non-combatants were sent to
Old Polotsk and Ekimania, fortified posts on the left bank. The
Marshal did not consider he had enough troops to dispute the open
ground with Wittgenstein, who had received powerful
reinforcements from St. Petersburg, so he did not keep more than
five squadrons with him, of which he took one from each regiment
of light cavalry. The rest went over to the other bank.

On the 16th of October the enemy scouts appeared before Polotsk,
the aspect of which had greatly changed, partly because of the
huge, newly established, entrenched camp and partly because of
the numerous fortifications which covered the open country. The
biggest and strongest of these was a redoubt called the Bavarian.
The unhappy remnant of General de Wrede's force asked if they
might defend this redoubt, which they did with much courage.

The fighting began on the 17th and went on all day without
Marshal Saint-Cyr being forced out of his position. This angered
General Wittgenstein, who attributed the hold-up to his officers
not having distinguished between the stronger and weaker of our
defence works, and wishing to inspect them himself, he boldly
approached them. This devotion to duty nearly cost him his life,
for Major Curely, one of the finest officers in the army, having
spotted the General, dashed forward leading a squadron of the
20th Chasseurs, who sabred some of the escort while he, forcing
his way to General Wittgenstein, put the point of his sword to
his throat and forced him to surrender.

Having effected the capture of the enemy commander, Major Curely
should have retired swiftly, between two redoubts, and taken his
prisoner into the entrenched camp; but the Major was too keen,
and seeing that the General's escort was about to attempt his
rescue, he thought it would be more creditable if he could keep
his prisoner in spite of all their efforts. Wittgenstein then
found himself in the middle of a group fighting for the
possession of his person. In the course of the struggle Curely's
horse was killed, several of our Chasseurs dismounted in order to
pick up their leader, and, in the confusion this created,
Wittgenstein made off at the gallop, calling for his men to

When this event became generally known throughout the army, it
gave rise to much debate. Some maintained that Major Curely
should have killed Wittgenstein as soon as his escort returned to
fight for his rescue, others thought that having accepted his
surrender, Curely was not entitled to do so. Others again,
thought that, having once surrendered, Wittgenstein should not
have tried to escape. Whatever the rights or wrongs of these
arguments may be, when Curely was presented to the Emperor during
the crossing of the Beresina, where General Wittgenstein caused
us many losses, Napoleon said to him, "This would probably not
have happened if you had used your right to kill Wittgenstein at
Polotsk, when the Russians were trying to take him from you." In
spite of this reproach, merited or not, Curely became a colonel
shortly after, and a general in 1814.

To return now to Polotsk where the enemy, repelled on the 17th,
returned to the attack on the 18th, in so much greater numbers
that, after suffering very heavy losses, Wittgenstein's men
captured the entrenched camp. Saint-Cyr, at the head of Legrand's
and Maison's divisions, drove them out at bayonet point. Seven
times the Russians returned to the attack, and seven times the
French and the Croats drove them off, to remain finally in
control of all their positions.

Although now wounded, Saint-Cyr continued to direct his troops.
His efforts were crowned with success, for the enemy left the
field and retired into the nearby forest. 50,000 Russians had
been defeated by 15,000 of our men. There was rejoicing in the
French camp, but on the morning of the 19th we heard that General
Steinghel with 14,000 Russians had just crossed the Dvina above
Disna and was moving up the left bank to get behind Polotsk,
seize the bridges and trap Saint-Cyr's force between his own and
Wittgenstein's. And indeed it was not long before Steinghel's
advance-guard appeared, heading for Ekimania, where there were
the division of Cuirassiers and the regiments of Light Cavalry
from each of which the Marshal had retained only one squadron at

At once we were all on horseback and we drove off the enemy, who
would in the end have gained the upper hand, for they were being
strongly reinforced, while we had no infantry support until
Saint-Cyr sent us three regiments taken from the divisions who
were protecting Polotsk. However, at this point Steinghel, who
had only to make a little effort to reach the bridges, stopped
short, while on the other side of the river, Wittgenstein did the
same. It seemed that the two Russian generals, after combining to
draw up an excellent plan of attack, were unwilling to put it
into operation, each one leaving it to the other to overcome the

The French position was now highly critical, for on the right
bank they were pressed back by an army three time their strength
towards a town built entirely of wood and a sizeable river, with
no means of retreat except the bridges which were threatened by
Steinghel's troops on the left bank.

All the generals urged Saint-Cyr to order the evacuation of
Polotsk, but he wanted to wait for nightfall, because he felt
sure that the 50,000 Russians who faced him were waiting only for
his first backward move to throw themselves on his weakened army
and create a state of disorder in the ranks. So he stayed where
he was, and took advantage of the extraordinary inactivity of the
enemy generals to wait for the onset of the dark, which was
hastened, luckily, by a thick fog which prevented the three
armies from seeing one another. The Marshal seized this
favourable opportunity to effect his withdrawal.

The large number of guns and some cavalry squadrons who had
remained on the right bank, had already crossed the bridges in
silence, and the infantry were about to follow, their movement
invisible to the enemy, when the men of Legrand's division,
unwilling to leave their huts for the benefit of the Russians,
set them on fire. The two other divisions, believing that this
was an agreed signal, did the same and in an instant the whole
line was aflame. This great conflagration having alerted the
Russians to our retreat, all their guns opened up; their mortars
set fire to the suburbs and the town itself, toward which their
columns charged. However, the French, mainly Maison's division,
disputed every foot of ground, for the fires lit the place as if
it were day.

Polotsk was burned to the ground. The losses on both sides were
considerable. Nevertheless our retreat was carried out in an
orderly fashion: we took with us those of our wounded whom it was
possible to carry; the rest, together with a great many Russians,
perished in the flames.

It seemed that there was a complete lack of co-operation between
the leaders of the two enemy armies, for during this night of
fighting Steinghel stayed peacefully in his camp, and made no
more effort to support Wittgenstein than the latter had made to
support him on the previous day. It was only when Saint-Cyr,
after evacuating the place, had put himself beyond the reach of
Wittgenstein by burning the bridges, that Steinghel, on the
morning of the 20th, deployed his troops to attack us. But the
French force was now united on the left bank, and Saint-Cyr
mounted an assault against Steinghel, who was overcome with the
loss of more than 2000 men killed or captured.

In the course of these fierce engagements, over four days and a
night, the Russians had six generals and 10,000 men killed or
wounded, while the losses of the French and their allies did not
amount to more than 5,000, a huge difference which can be
attributed to the superior firepower of our troops, particularly
the artillery. The advantage which we had in respect of numbers
was in part compensated for by the fact that the wounds which
Marshal Saint-Cyr had suffered would deprive the army of a leader
in whom it had entire confidence. It was necessary to replace
him. The Comte de Wrede claimed that his position as commander in
chief of the Bavarian Corps entitled him to command the French
divisional generals, but they refused to obey a foreigner. So
Saint-Cyr, although in much pain, agreed to remain in control of
the two army corps, and ordered a retreat towards Oula, in order
to reach Smoliany and thus protect on one side the road from
Orscha to Borisoff by which the Emperor was returning from

This retreat was so well organised that Wittgenstein and
Steinghel, who, after repairing the bridges across the Dvina,
were following our trail with 50,000 men, did not dare to attack
us, although we had no more than 12,000 combatants; and they
advanced only fifteen leagues in eight days. As for the Comte de
Wrede, his injured pride led him to refuse to accept
instructions, so he marched off on his own, with the thousand
Bavarians which he had left and a brigade of French cavalry which
he had acquired by subterfuge, having told General Corbineau that
he had received orders to this effect, which was not the case.
His presumption was soon punished: he was attacked and defeated
by a Russian division. He then retired without authorisation to
Wilna, from where he reached the Nieman. The Corbineau brigade
refused to go with him and returned to join the French army, for
whom its return was a piece of good fortune, as you will see when
we come to the crossing of the Beresena.

Ordered by the Emperor, Marshal Victor, Duc de Bellune, at the
head of the 9th Army Corps consisting of 25,000 men, half of whom
came from the Confederation of the Rhine, hurried from Smolensk
to join Saint-Cyr for the purpose of driving Wittgenstein back
across the Dvina. This project would have certainly been carried
out if Saint-Cyr had been in overall command; but Victor was the
more senior of the two marshals and Saint-Cyr was unwilling to
serve under his orders, so the evening before their union which
took place at Smoliany on the 31st of October, he declared that
he could no longer continue the campaign and handing over the
command to General Legrand, he set off to return to France. The
departure of Saint-Cyr was regretted by the troops who, although
they disliked him personally, gave him credit for his courage and
his outstanding military talent. Saint-Cyr could have been a
first class army commander if he had been less egoistic and if he
had taken the trouble to gain the affection of officers and men
by caring for their welfare. No man, however, is perfect.

Marshal Victor had no sooner gathered 9th and 2nd Corps under his
command than chance offered him the opportunity of achieving a
major victory. Wittgenstein, who was unaware of this union,
relying on his superiority in numbers, had decided to attack us
at a place where his line of retreat would be through some narrow
defiles. It would only have required a combined effort from the
two corps to destroy him, for our troops were now as numerous as
his, were inspired by a better spirit and were keen for action;
but Victor, doubtful perhaps of success on terrain which he was
seeing for the first time, retreated during the night, and having
reached Sienno he put the two units into cantonment in the
district. The Russians also withdrew leaving only some Cossacks
to keep an eye on us. This state of affairs which lasted for the
first fortnight of November did the troops much good, for they
lived well, as the country offered many resources.

One day, Marshal Victor having been told that there was a
considerable enemy force in the area of a certain village,
ordered General Castex to send one of his units to reconnoitre
the place. It was for me to go. We left at dusk and reached the
village without any difficulty. It was situated in a hollow, in
the middle of a huge dried marshland and was entirely peaceful,
the inhabitants whom I interrogated with the aid of Lorentz said
that they had not seen a Russian soldier in the past month, so I
prepared to return to my base. However our return was not as
trouble-free as our journey there had been.

Although there was no mist, the night was extremely dark and I
was afraid of leading the regiment astray on the many embankments
of the marsh, which I had to cross once more; so I took as a
guide one of the villagers who seemed to me to be the least
stupid. My column had been going along in good order for half an
hour, when suddenly I saw camp fires on the slopes overlooking
the marsh. I halted the column and sent two sous-officiers to
have a look. They reported that there was a large force barring
our advance and another in our rear. I could now see fires
between me and the village which I had just left and it appeared
that I had landed, without knowing it, in the middle of an army
corps which was making ready to bivouac for the night. The
number of fires grew, and I estimated that there was a force of
about 50,000 men present and I was in the middle of it, with 700
troopers. The odds were too great, and there seemed only one
thing to do, and that was to gallop along the main embankment, on
which we were, and taking the enemy by surprise, cut a path for
ourselves with our sabres. Once free from the light of the fires,
the darkness would prevent the enemy from following us. I made
sure that all my troops knew what I proposed to do, and I have to
admit that I was very uneasy, for the enemy infantry could take
up their arms at the first cry of warning, and cause us many

I was in this state of anxiety when the peasant who was our guide
burst into loud laughter, seconded by Lorentz. I asked them what
they were about, but they did not know enough French to explain
fully. Eventually, however, we understood that these were not
camp fires but marsh fires, or will-of-the-wisp; something none
of us had ever seen before; and so, relieved of one of the
nastiest frights I have ever had, I returned to my camp.

Chap. 17.

After several days I was given a new mission, in which we would
face not marsh fires but the muskets of the Russian dragoons. It
happened that General Castex had gone to visit Marshal Victor,
and the 24th was out on patrol, so that my regiment was alone in
the camp when there arrived two peasants, one of whom I
recognised as Captain Bourgoing, Oudinot's aide-de-camp.

The Marshal, who had gone to Wilna after he had been wounded at
Polotsk on the 18th of August, having heard that Saint-Cyr had
been wounded in his turn on the 18th of October, and had left the
army, decided to rejoin 2nd Corps and take up its command.

Oudinot knew that his troops were somewhere in the region of
Sienno and was heading for that town when, on arriving at Rasna,
he was warned by a Polish priest that a body of Russian dragoons
and some Cossacks was roaming the area. The Marshal knew that
there was a French cavalry unit at Zapole, so he wrote to the
commander of this unit to request a strong escort, and sent the
letter by Captain Bourgoing, who for additional safety disguised
himself as a peasant. It was as well that he did so, for he had
scarcely covered a league when he encountered a large detachment
of enemy cavalry, who, thinking that he was a local inhabitant,
took no notice of him. Soon after this, Captain Bourgoing heard
the sound of gunfire, and increased his pace towards Zapole.

As soon as I heard of the serious position in which the Marshal
found himself, I left with my regiment at the trot to bring him
help. It was a good thing that we arrived when we did, for
although the Marshal, joined by his aides-de-camp and some dozen
French soldiers, was barricaded in a stone house, he was on the
point of being captured by the dragoons when we arrived. When
they saw us, the enemy mounted their horses and fled. My troopers
went after them and managed to kill about twenty of them and take
some prisoners; I had two men wounded. The marshal, glad to have
escaped from the Russians, expressed his thanks, and I escorted
him back to the French cantonments where he was out of danger.

At this period in time, it seemed that none of the marshals was
prepared to recognise the right of seniority amongst themselves,
for not one of them was willing to serve under the orders of his
comrade, no matter how serious the situation. So as soon as
Oudinot took command of the 2nd Corps, Victor, rather than
remaining under his authority to join in combating Wittgenstein,
took himself off with his 25,000 men to Kokhanov. Marshal
Oudinot, left on his own, marched his men for several days round
various parts of the province before setting up his headquarters
at Tschereia, with his advance-guard at Loucoulm. It was here,
during a minor action involving Castex's brigade that I received
my promotion to colonel. If you recall that I had suffered, in
the rank of major, a wound at Znaim in Moravia, two at Miranda de
Corvo in Portugal, one at Jakoubowo, that I had fought in four
campaigns in the same rank and that finally I had been in command
of a regiment since the French entry into Russia, you may think
that I had earned my new epaulets. I was grateful to the Emperor
when I learned that he intended to keep me with the 23rd
Chasseurs, for whom I had great affection, and where I was liked
and valued. In fact this decision was welcomed by all ranks, and
the troops whom I had so often led into battle came, both
officers and men, to tell me of their satisfaction at my
remaining their commander. The good General Castex, who had
always treated me as a brother, welcomed me in front of the
regiment, and even the Colonel of the 24th, with whom I had few
dealings, came to congratulate me with all his officers, whose
respect I had acquired.

However, the situation of the French army grew worse by the day.
General Schwartzenberg, the Austrian commander-in-chief whom
Napoleon had placed on the right wing of his army, had, by an act
of low treachery, allowed the troops belonging to Admiral
Tchitchakoff to pass, and they had seized control of Minsk, from
where they threatened our rear. The Emperor must now have much
regretted that he had given the command of Lithuania to the
Dutchman Hogendorf, his aide-de-camp, who, having never been in
action, did not know what to do to save Minsk, where he could
have easily have combined the 30,000 men of the Durette, Loison,
and Dombrowski divisions which had been placed at his disposal.
The fall of Minsk, although a serious matter, was one to which
the Emperor attached little importance, for he relied on crossing
the Beresina at Borisoff, where there was a bridge protected by a
fort, in good condition and manned by a Polish regiment. The
Emperor was so confident about this that, in order to speed the
march of his army he burned all his bridging equipment at Orscha.
This was a disastrous mistake, for these pontoons would have
assured us a quick crossing of the Beresina which, in the event,
we had to effect at the cost of so much blood.

Despite his confidence in relation to the crossing, Napoleon,
when he heard of the Russian occupation of Minsk, ordered Oudinot
to proceed by forced marches to Borisoff. But we arrived there
too late, because General Bronikovski, who was in command of the
fort, seeing himself surrounded by a numerous enemy, thought it
would be a praiseworthy act to save his garrison. So instead of
putting up a determined resistance, which would have given
Oudinot the time to come to his help, he abandoned the fort,
crossed the bridge to the left bank with all his men, and set out
for Orscha to join Oudinot's corps, which he met on the road. The
Marshal gave him a very rough reception and ordered him to return
with us to Borisoff.

Not only were the town, the bridge across the Beresina, and the
fort which dominates it in the hands of Tchitchakoff, but the
Admiral, carried away by this success and anxious to challenge
the French, had marched from the town with the bulk of his army,
the vanguard of which, consisting of a strong cavalry division,
was led by General Lambert, the most competent of his

As the country was open, Oudinot put ahead of his infantry the
division of Cuirassiers, and ahead of them Castex's brigade of
light cavalry.

It was about three leagues from Borisoff that the Russian
advance-guard, going in the opposite direction to us, came up
against our Cuirassiers, who having done little fighting during
the campaign, had asked to be in the front line. At the sight of
this fine regiment, still strong in numbers and well-mounted,
with their cuirasses gleaming in the sunlight, the Russian
cavalry pulled up short; then, gathering their courage, they
moved forward again, at which point our Cuirassiers, in a furious
charge, overran them, killing or capturing about a thousand.
Tchitchakoff, who had been assured that Napoleon's army was no
more than a disorganised mass of men without arms, had not
expected this display of vitality, and he beat a hurried retreat
towards Berisoff.

It is well known that after putting in a charge, the big horses
of the heavy cavalry, and above all those of the Cuirassiers,
cannot continue to gallop for very long. So it was the 23rd and
the 24th Chasseurs who took up the pursuit of the enemy, while
the Cuirassiers followed in the second line, at a slower pace.

Tchitchakoff had not only made a mistake in attacking Oudinot but
he had also brought with him all the baggage of his army, which
filled more than fifteen hundred vehicles, so that the rapid
retreat of the Russians caused such confusion that the two
regiments of Castex's brigade often found themselves hindered by
the carts which had been abandoned by the enemy. This confusion
became even worse when we entered the town, where the streets
were cluttered with baggage and draught horses, through which
obstructions Russian soldiers, who had thrown away their arms,
wove their way as they sought to rejoin their units. We managed
to reach the centre of the town, but only after losing precious
time, which allowed the Russians to cross the river.

Our orders were to reach the bridge and try to cross it at the
same time as the fleeing Russians; but to do this one had to know
where the bridge was, and none of us knew the town. My troopers
brought me a Jew whom I questioned in German, but he either did
not know, or pretended not to know the language, and I could get
no information from him. I would have given a great deal to have
had with me my Polish servant, Lorentz, to act as interpreter,
but the coward had remained behind as soon as there was any
fighting. So we had to comb the town until we eventually came to
the Beresina. The river was not yet sufficiently frozen to permit
one to cross on the ice, so it was necessary to use the bridge,
but to take the bridge would require infantry, and our infantry
was still three leagues from Borisoff. To take their place,
Marshal Oudinot, who had arrived on the scene, ordered General
Castex to dismount three quarters of the troopers of the two
regiments, who armed with muskets could attack the bridge on
foot. We left the horses in the nearby streets guarded by one or
two men, and headed for the river behind General Castex, who on
this perilous enterprise wished to be at the head of his brigade.

The defeat suffered by the advance-guard had produced
consternation in Tchitchakoff's army, the utmost disorder ruled
on the side of the river which it occupied, where we could see a
mass of fugitives disappearing into the distance; so although it
had at first seemed to me that it would be extremely difficult
for dismounted troopers, without bayonets, to force a passage
over the bridge, and keep possession of it, I began to hope for a
successful outcome, for the opposition was no more than a few
musket shots. I therefore ordered that as soon as the first
platoon reached the right bank it should occupy houses adjoining
the bridge so that being in control of both ends we could defend
it until the arrival of our infantry. Suddenly, however, the
cannons of the fort thundered into action, covering the bridge
with a hail of grape-shot, which forced our little group to fall
back. A body of Russian sappers used this breathing space to set
fire to the bridge, but as their presence prevented the gunners
from firing, we took the opportunity to attack them, killing or
throwing into the river the greater part of them. Our Chasseurs
had already extinguished the fire when they were charged by a
battalion of Russian Grenadiers, and driven at bayonet point off
the bridge, which was soon set alight in many places and became a
huge bonfire whose intense heat made both sides move away.

The French had now to give up hope of crossing the Beresina at
this point, and their line of retreat was cut!...This was for us
a fatal calamity, and contributed largely to changing the face of
Europe, by shaking the Emperor on his throne.

Marshal Oudinot, once he saw that it was impossible to force a
passage over the river at Borisoff, considered that it would be
dangerous to have the town choked by the rest of his troops, so
he ordered them to halt and set up camp while they were still
some distance away. Castex's brigade stayed on its own in
Borisoff and was forbidden to communicate with the other units,
from which it was hoped to conceal for as long as possible the
disastrous news of the burning of the bridge, which they did not
hear about until forty-eight hours later.

Under the conventions of war, the enemy's baggage belongs to the
captors. General Castex therefore authorised the troopers of my
regiment and those of the 24th to help themselves to the booty
contained in the 1500 wagons and carts abandoned by the Russians
in their flight to the other side of the bridge. The quantity of
goods was immense, but as it was a hundred times more than the
brigade could carry, I called together all the men of my regiment
and told them that as we were to make a long retreat, during
which I would probably be unable to make the distributions of
rations which I had done during all the campaign, I would advise
them to provide themselves mainly with foodstuff, and think also
about protection from the cold, I reminded them that an
overloaded horse will not last for long, and that they should not
weigh theirs down with articles of no use in war. "What is more,"
I told them, "I shall hold an inspection, and anything which is
not food, clothing, or footwear will be rejected without
exception." General Castex, to avoid all argument, had planted
markers, which divided the mass of vehicles into two parts, so
that each regiment had its own area.

Oudinot's forces surrounded the town on three sides, the fourth
was bounded by the Beresina, and there were a number of
observation posts, so that our soldiers could examine the
contents of the Russian carts in safety. It appeared that the
officers of Tchitchakoff's army treated themselves well, for
there was a profusion of hams, pastries, sausages, dried fish,
smoked meat and wines of all sorts, plus an immense quantity of
ships' biscuits, rice, cheese, etc. Our men also took furs and
strong footwear, which saved the lives of many of them. The
Russian drivers had fled without taking their horses, almost all
of which were of good quality. We took the best to replace those
of which the troopers complained, and officers used some as
pack-horses to carry the foodstuff which they had acquired.

The brigade spent another day in Borisoff, and as in spite of the
precautions which had been taken, the news of the destruction of
the bridge had spread throughout 2nd Corps, Marshal Oudinot, in
order to allow all his troops to take advantage of the goods
contained in the enemy vehicles, arranged that successive
detachments from all the regiments might enter the town, to take
their share of the plunder. Notwithstanding the quantity of
goods of all kinds taken by Oudinot's men, there remained enough
for the numerous stragglers returning from Moscow on the
following day.

The supreme command ,and indeed all officers who were able to
appreciate the situation, were extremely worried. We had before
us the Beresina, on the opposite bank of which were gathered
Tchitchakoff's forces, our flanks were threatened by
Wittgenstein, Koutousoff was on our tail, and except for the
debris of the Guard and Oudinot's and Victors' corps, reduced now
to a few thousand combatants, the rest of the Grande Armee,
recently so splendid, was composed of sick men and soldiers
without weapons, whom starvation had deprived of their former
energy. Everything conspired against us; for although, owing to a
drop in the temperature, Ney had been able, a few days
previously, to escape across the frozen Nieman, we found the
Beresina unfrozen, despite the bitter cold, and we had no
pontoons with which to make a bridge.

On the 25th of November, the Emperor entered Borisoff, where
Marshal Oudinot awaited him with the 6000 men he had left.
Napoleon, and the officers of his staff were astonished at the
good order and discipline which obtained in 2nd Corps, whose
bearing contrasted so markedly with that of the wretched groups
of men whom they were leading back from Moscow. Our troops were
certainly not so smart as they would have been in barracks, but
every man had his weapons and was quite prepared to use them. The
Emperor was so impressed by their turn-out that he summoned all
the colonels and told them to inform their regiments of his
satisfaction with the way they had conducted themselves in the
many savage actions which had been fought in the province of

Chap. 18.

You will recall that when the Bavarian General Comte de Wrede
made his unauthorised departure from 2nd Corps, he took with him
Corbineau's cavalry brigade, after assuring General Corbineau
that he had orders to do so, which was not true. Well, this piece
of trickery resulted in the saving of the Emperor and the remains
of his Grande Armee.

General Corbineau, dragged unwillingly away from 2nd Corps, of
which he was a part, had followed General Wrede as far as
Gloubokoye, but there he had declared that he would go no further
unless the Bavarian general showed him the order, which he
claimed to have, instructing him to keep Corbineau with him.
General Wrede was unable to do this, so Corbineau left him and
headed for Dokshitsy and the headwater of the Beresina, then,
going down the right bank of the river, he intended to reach
Borisoff, cross the bridge and take the road to Orscha to look
for Oudinot's Corps, which he thought was in the region of Bobr.

The Emperor, who had available the services of several thousand
Poles belonging to the Duchy of Warsaw, has been blamed for not
attaching, from the beginning of the campaign, some of them to
every general or even every colonel to act as interpreters, for
this would have avoided many mistakes. This was proved during the
dangerous journey of several days which the Corbineau brigade had
to undertake through unknown country, the language of whose
inhabitants none of the Frenchmen could understand, for it so
happened that among the three regiments which the General
commanded was the 8th Polish Lancers, whose officers extracted
from the local people all the necessary information. This was a
tremendous help to Corbineau.

When he was about half a day's journey from Borisoff, some
peasants told the Polish Lancers that Tchitchakoff's troops were
occupying the town, information which dashed his hopes of
crossing the Beresina; however these same peasants having
persuaded him to turn round, led him to the village of Studianka,
not far from Weselovo, four leagues above Borisoff, where there
is a ford. The three regiments crossed the ford without loss and
the General, going across country and avoiding some of
Wittgenstein's troops who were moving towards Borisoff,
eventually rejoined Oudinot on the 23rd of November at a place
called Natscha.

This daring march undertaken by Corbineau was much to his credit,
but more than that, it was a stroke of remarkable good fortune
for the army, for the Emperor, realising the impossibility of
re-building the bridge at Borisoff in the near future, resolved,
after discussing the matter with Corbineau, to cross the Beresina
at Studianka. Tchitchakoff, who had been told of the crossing at
this point effected by Corbineau's brigade, had placed a strong
division and many guns opposite Studianka, so Napoleon, to
deceive him, employed a stratagem, which although very old, is
almost always successful. He pretended that he was not interested
in Studianka and that he intended to use one of two other fords
which were below Borisoff, the most practicable of which was at
the village of Oukolada. To this end he sent ostentatiously to
the spot one of the still armed battalions, followed by a horde
of stragglers, which the enemy might take for a full-strength
division of infantry. At the tail of this column were numerous
wagons, a few guns and the division of Cuirassiers. Having
arrived at Oukolada these troops placed the guns in position, and
did all they could to look as if they were about to build a

Told of these preparations, Tchitchakoff had no doubt that it was
Napoleon's intention to cross the river at this point so as to
reach the road to Minsk, which ran nearby. He therefore hurriedly
sent down the right bank, to face Oukoloda, the entire garrison
of Borisoff. Not only that, for some extraordinary reason, the
Russian general, who had sufficient troops to protect both the
upper and lower parts of the river, removed all of those which he
had placed previously in a position to oppose a crossing at
Studianka and sent them too down to Oukoloda. He had now
abandoned the place where the Emperor intended to build a bridge,
and had concentrated his force, uselessly, six leagues

In addition to the error of massing all his army below Borisoff,
Tchitchakoff made a mistake which a sergeant would not have made,
and one for which his government never forgave him. The town of
Zembin, which is opposite to the ford at Studianka, is built on a
vast marsh, through which runs the road to Wilna. The road goes
over twenty-two wooden bridges which the Russian general could
have easily reduced to cinders before leaving the district, as
they were surrounded by many stacks of dry reeds. If Tchitchakoff
had done this, the French army would have been left without hope.
It would have served it nothing to have crossed the river, for it
would have been halted by the deep marshland surrounding Zembin;
but the Russian general left the bridges intact, and foolishly
went down the Beresina with all his men, leaving only about fifty
Cossacks to keep an eye on the ford.

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