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Worlds Best Histories - France Vol 7 by M. Guizot and Madame Guizot De Witt

Part 9 out of 9

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still intending to make an attack upon Admiral Tchitchakoff, and
entrusting the leaders of his left wing with the duty of at last defeating
Wittgenstein. But by one of those blunders which seemed to indicate some
failure in his genius and foresight, he ordered the marshals to follow him
one after another; and taking no account of Kutuzoff's army, he left
Smolensk on the 14th November. Prince Eugène, Davout, and Ney were to
evacuate their cantonments on the 15th, 16th, and 17th respectively, and
the gallant leader of the rear-guard was to bury the cannon, destroy the
ammunition, and blow up the walls surrounding the town. The great army by
this time scarcely amounted to 36,000 fighting men; and the cavalry,
entirely under the orders of General Latour-Maubourg, only counted 1800
horse. Napoleon followed on the left bank the road from Smolensk to
Orscha, without taking the precaution to place between him and General
Kutuzoff the rapid current of the Dnieper. He was soon to pay dearly for
this fault. Scarcely had he reached Krasnoe than he found General
Sebastiani, who had preceded him, blockaded in a church by a body of the
enemy. Kutuzoff was approaching with 50,000 soldiers, and making ready,
with the assistance of several bands of Cossacks, to cut our long columns.
On his march Napoleon found at every step ambulance-wagons, and those of
runaways, half buried in the snow, and still containing frozen corpses.
The emperor halted to wait for those corps which were to rejoin him, and
were seriously exposed by their isolation. Prince Eugène had already
forced a passage before Krasnoe upon the Lossmina, being therefore
compelled to sacrifice Broussier's division, which remained in battle
order, threatening the Russian army with a renewal of the attack upon the
heights which had been vainly attempted on the evening before. All the
rest of the main army succeeded in escaping, with the assistance of the
darkness, and the snow, which deadened the noise of the footsteps. The
troops left in the rear could only be saved by the approach of Davout and

On this occasion, once more, Napoleon recovered that unconquerable
resolution which had carried him to the summit of power. Determined not to
leave his army and lieutenants, he marched before them on the Smolensk
road with his guards, who were henceforward subjected to all the hazards
of battle. The village Koutkowo, occupied by the Russians, was retaken,
the emperor himself being on foot, because the icy ground made riding
impossible. The Russian batteries ploughed up the ground held by the
French, and the noise of the battle was heard. Davout was at hand, after
rallying the poor remainder of the Broussier division, and the artillery
with Generals Lariboisière and Eblé; and dashing in dense columns with his
four divisions upon General Miloradowitch, who defended the valley of the
Lossmina, he soon opened a bloody passage, and rejoined the guard grouped
round Napoleon. Krasnoe was thus surrounded by a semicircle of our troops,
disputing the enemy's positions step by step; but Admiral Tormazoff was
now on our rear, in order to hold the Orscha road. The emperor saw that he
should be speedily hemmed in, and resolved to resume his march, without
waiting for Ney's regiments. He thus devoted him to certain loss; but in
the stern necessity which compelled him, Napoleon had not the courage to
accept the responsibility of the act which he was about to accomplish.
Ordering Mortier to start with the guards, he imposed on Davout the double
duty of waiting for Ney and not separating himself from Mortier. In
presence of these contradictory instructions, and with an overwhelming
sense of their responsibility, Davout made an effort to hold his ground,
his divisions having replaced on the plateau of Krasnoe the regiments of
the young guard, which had now begun defiling towards Orscha. Napoleon
marched in front with the old guard, undergoing as they went a deadly fire
from the Russians. Tormazoff's columns seemed to wait for the final orders
to cut the passage of what were left of the great army. Kutuzoff resisted
the urgent advice of Tormazoff as well as the arguments and excitement of
General Wilson, who had been sent to him by the English Government. "You
think the old man is a fool," he said repeatedly, "that he is timid, and
without energy: you are young, and don't understand. If Napoleon turned
back, none of us dare meet him; he is still terrible. If I bring him back
to the Berezina, ruined and without an army, I shall have accomplished my
task." Thus protected by the terrible renown of his name, the emperor
advanced to Liady.

Davout resisted to the last moment; but Marshal Mortier, who was hurrying
to leave Krasnoe, urged him to start. The roads were about to be barred;
the bullets were falling in showers on the little town; the marshal's
three divisions only amounted to 5000 men, and all the rest of the army
were being withdrawn. As he left the plateau of Krasnoe, Mortier ordered
the guard to keep step. "You hear, soldiers?" cried General Laborde; "the
general orders the ordinary step. Slow time, soldiers. March!" It was in
the same way that Davout's troops defiled, constantly turning round to
fire at the squadrons of the enemy's cavalry, closely pursuing them. When
the exhausted corps were again brought together at Liady, the faces of all
were still more gloomy than on the previous evening. Besides their
physical sufferings, there was now added the burden of a bitter regret.
Their desertion of Marshal Ney weighed on the consciences of all.

Ney had been warned neither of the danger which threatened him nor of the
isolation in which he was to be left, because a courier sent by Davout was
taken by the enemy. When he came face to face with Kutuzoff's army, before
Krasnoe, he still felt sure of passing there, where his comrades had gone
before him. A determined attack under a rain of shot having been
unsuccessful, the marshal saw the uselessness of the attempt, and without
for an instant losing his presence of mind or his courage, he resolved to
effect a movement during the night towards the Dnieper, cross the river,
and escape by the right bank, in order to regain the main army. "But if
the Dnieper is not frozen, what shall we do?" said some of the officers.
"It will be frozen!" retorted the general, curtly; "besides, frozen or
not, we shall do as we can--but we shall cross."

They did cross, to the profound astonishment of the Russians, who believed
the general and his soldiers were at last caught, and to the unspeakable
delight of the forces collected at Orscha. Prince Eugène and Marshal
Mortier took up their positions in front of their companions-in-arms,
saved by a determination and courage really marvellous. Only 1200 men
rejoined the army, out of 7000 forming the third corps when they left
Smolensk. On the plateau of Krasnoe, in the skirmishes against the
Cossacks of Platow, and by the sides of the ice-covered roads, Ney had
everywhere left dead bodies, wounded and dying men, besides men
overpowered by the hardships and incapable of any effort.

Even at Orscha the disorder was so great that it threatened to infect the
regiments of the old guard. The emperor harangued them energetically.
"Grenadiers," said he, "we are retiring without being conquered by the
enemy; let us not be so by ourselves; let us give the example to the army!
Several from amongst you have already deserted their eagles, and even
their arms. It is to you alone that I address myself to have this disorder
stopped. Act justly towards each other. It is to yourselves that I entrust
your discipline!" An appearance of order was restored; but the regular
distributions were impossible. Famishing wretches, soldiers, and those of
the camp-followers who still remained, all rushed upon the provision-
stores. Panics also continually increased the tumult. "The Cossacks! There
are the Cossacks!" was frequently shouted.

At Orscha, moreover, as well as at Smolensk and Dorogoubouge, ominous news
reached the emperor. Tchitchakoff, who had not been pursued by
Schwartzenberg, had carried Minsk, one of the most important rallying-
points on the Vilna road, and the centre of our principal supplies. The
Polish general Bronikowski being unable with 3000 men to defend the place,
had joined Dombrowski, who was covering the Dnieper, and both guarded the
bridge of Borisow on the Berezina with insufficient forces. Should the
bridge fall into the hands of Admiral Tchitchakoff, the army would be
blockaded behind the Berezina, or compelled to ascend to its source at the
risk of being attacked by Count Wittgenstein. Marshals Victor and Oudinot,
with their weak and decimated regiments, could not succeed in dislodging
the enemies from their position near Smoliantzy on the Oula. Thus marching
a second time over the roads which he had recently trod full of hope,
Napoleon found himself threatened on his left by Tchitchakoff holding
Minsk, on his right by Wittgenstein and Steinghel; behind him Kutuzoff was
advancing; before him it was now doubtful if the Berezina could be
crossed. The conception of a last and powerful combination arose in that
inexhaustibly fertile mind. He sent to Oudinot the order to march towards
the Berezina to support the Poles at Borisow. Victor was to check
Wittgenstein, so as to give the great army time to cross the river.
Napoleon could then rally the two marshals, whose forces still amounted to
25,000 men; he should attack and recover Minsk, send for Schwartzenberg,
and when thus master of all the scattered remnants of his army, make a
crushing attack upon the Russian troops, and gain a victory before
returning to Poland. With this hope, Orscha was evacuated on the 20th
November, under a cold rain, which penetrated the soldiers' clothes, and
then froze on their bodies. The emperor ordered the greater part of the
convoys to be sacrificed. The leaders of divisions alone kept carriages.
The wounded and several fugitive families still followed with great
difficulty on carts and wagons.

On the 22nd, at Tolocsin, the emperor learned that, after a keenly-fought
battle, the Russians had taken Borisow and the bridge over the Berezina.
He dismounted, and showing more uneasiness than he had yet done, called to
his side General Dode de la Brunerie, an officer of the engineers, whom he
had already distinguished. "They are there!" said he, without further
explanation. The general easily divined the emperor's meaning. They both
entered a hut, and Napoleon, spreading out his maps on a rickety table,
discussed with Dode the resources still at his command. The general's plan
was to ascend the course of the Berezina, declaring that he knew several
fords, and that they could then advance quickly upon Wilna by Gloubokoi.
They might indeed be met by Wittgenstein, but Tchitchakoff covered
Borisow, and would be certain to burn the bridge over the Berezina if he
saw it threatened.

The emperor listened as he kept looking at his maps. At last something
arrested his attention, the sight of a name of ill-omen: "Poltava!
Poltava!" he repeated. Then, as if more conscious than ever of the
superiority of his glory and destiny over the heroic adventures of King
Charles XII., he went up to General Jomini, who had just entered, and
said, "When one has never met with defeats, he ought to have them great in
proportion to his success." At the same time, while considering vaster
plans, now chimerical by reason of the exhaustion and dejection of his
troops, he resolved to push on to the Berezina, retake the bridge of
Borisow, and throw another over the river in spite of the Russians, and
thus, at any cost, recover Wilna by the shortest road. Scarcely was his
mind made up, when the means of effecting it were presented. General
Corbineau, formerly despatched by General St. Cyr to assist the Bavarians,
found himself at liberty on account of their inactivity; and conceiving
the idea of rejoining the great army, he crossed the Berezina by a ford
which he had long known, and brought Napoleon 700 horse, a valuable
reinforcement at such a moment of extreme distress. He learned at the same
time, that Marshal Oudinot had driven the Russians from Borisow without
being able to prevent them from burning the bridge. He could there check
Tchitchakoff, and leave Napoleon time to throw over the ford at Studianka
a simple bridge of tressels, which was the only apparatus General Eblé had
been able to preserve during their rout. The engineers were secretly and
expeditiously ordered to go to this place.

The attempt was one of difficulty and danger, but it was still possible,
and offered several chances of success. General Eblé, still indomitable in
spite of his age and the fatigues of the campaign, collected his workmen,
and made them understand that the fate of the army depended upon their
exertions. Exhausted by marching and want of food, the soldiers bravely
went into the icy water, and worked incessantly during the 25th and night
of the 26th, in the midst of frozen blocks perpetually dashing against
them, without time to eat, without rest, without even a dram of spirits.
The houses of Studianka having been demolished, their beams were utilized
as buttresses and tressels for the bridge; and on the 26th, at daybreak,
preparations were made for crossing. The Russians, deceived by a pretended
attempt near Borisow, had not moved far from that quarter; General
Corbineau had already crossed the ford with his cavalry, to protect the
right bank. The hopes and looks of all were concentrated upon the
exertions of the bridge-makers, who worked incessantly, and seemed to be
unconscious of fatigue. On the right, one of the bridges was at last
opened for infantry and cavalry, and they began to defile across; the
passage was to occupy two days. When the second bridge was completed, Eblé
said to the engineers, "Let half of you lie down on the heaps of straw;
the others will watch the passage, and sleep in their turn"--he himself
not having had a moment's rest by day or night. The imperfect construction
of the bridges caused serious danger; the tressels shaking under the
weight of the wagons and cannon; and during the night the bridge intended
for the artillery suddenly gave way. The soldiers again went into the
water, several times assisted by the general himself, who bravely exposed
himself to every hardship and danger. The cold had now become extreme, and
the bridge-engineers worked in the midst of large masses of ice; yet the
work went on, and the passage was again begun. The emperor was one of the
last to reach the right bank; a disorderly crowd of camp-followers and
fugitives were huddled together on the left bank, encamped on the frozen
marshes, and no authority was sufficient to hasten their movements. Every
day the number of soldiers faithful to their colors became smaller and
smaller, on account of the general discouragement and relaxation of
discipline. Davout himself had not more than 4000 men in his divisions. On
Marshal Victor rejoining the remains of the great army between Studianka
and Borisow, his troops, though themselves weak and fatigued, were amazed
at the pitiful state of their comrades, whom they had not seen for so many
months. "Your turn will come," said those who were coming back from
Moscow, marching in any order, officers and soldiers mixed together, all
equally dejected, even though suffering did not bring all minds to one
level. Human nature, often a miserable sight under disaster, then also
displays its greatness. Along with a selfishness sometimes brutal, the
more noble characteristics of courage and devotion raised their dejected
minds. Some of the women saved their children through a thousand
hardships; others remained close beside their husbands; soldiers continued
loyal to their chiefs; and one officer for a long time carried on his
shoulders his _half-frozen_ servant, who in his turn did him the same
friendly turn.

The battle which was preparing promised to be a terrible one as Napoleon
knew; yet he insisted on leaving at Borisow the Partouneaux division,
which belonged to Marshal Victor, hoping at this expense to continue the
mistake of Tchitchakoff. The enemy's circle was now closing round that
handful of brave men, condemned beforehand. Wittgenstein and Miloradowitch
had intercepted the Studianka road. On the evening of the 27th, the
Partouneaux division was attacked on both sides, and defended its
positions heroically, but without being able to break through. On the
morning of the 28th, after being twice summoned by the Russians, the
general, in despair, gave himself up a prisoner. Almost at the same moment
the second corps, under Oudinot, was attacked by part of Tchitchakoff's
army, which had collected at Pahlen, on the left bank of the Berezina.
Being soon wounded, as usual, the marshal was replaced in command by Ney,
who made a vigorous charge upon the enemy, and drove them back to half-way
between Brill and Borisow, and placed over a pass a battery of artillery,
which kept the Russians at a distance. Marshal Victor had since morning
kept up on the left bank a vigorous fight against Wittgenstein, to cover
the passage over the bridges; on the other bank the guards used their
cannon against the enemy, who were perpetually driven back by the charges
of our cavalry, and perpetually returning to the charge. At nightfall they
were still fighting. The Russians, however, withdrew, beaten, but carrying
off their wounded, and certain of returning next day, as numerous and
daring, against an expiring army, which was sustained only by despair and
the tradition of an heroic past.

The soldiers fought and died with courage. The confused mob crowding on
the bank of the river also died, but in all the agonies of terror and
helplessness. After having for a long time refused to take advantage of
the bridges, which lay open, the multitude, terrified by the noise of the
cannon and the approach of the enemy, rushed in a body towards the river,
heedless of discipline, or the necessity for reserving one road for those
on foot and the other for carriages. The throng was so dense that they
could not advance; cries were succeeded by cries, and exertions by
exertions. Occasionally the hissing of a bullet was heard, as it came to
open a horrible gap in the compact mass, who shrank in terror. The weak,
drawn into the confused crowd, succumbed, and were trodden under foot,
without those that crushed them even observing their fall Night and
darkness brought back a moment of calm. Many of the wretches perished in
the river when endeavoring to escape. The reaction of unreasonable panic
kept from the bridges those who, shortly before, entreated General Eblé
with tears to let them pass; nobody would venture in the darkness--the
engineers, assisted by their officers, urging those who stayed behind; but
they had again lighted their fires on the bank. During that long night of
winter the bridges remained deserted and useless, and General Eblé, who
had orders to blow them up at daybreak, delayed till eight o'clock,
grieved to his very soul by the despair of the crowd, which had again
begun to throng the entrances. When at last the fire appeared, with its
ominous gleam, both bridges were crowded with carriages, horses, men,
women, and children. The wretches plunged into the waters, and struggled
vainly against the current. Their cries were mingled with those of the
crowd who remained on the bank, now without defence. The Cossacks soon
arriving, galloped round this human herd, and pushed them forward with
their lances. When they withdrew, loaded with booty, the remains of the
army took the road for Smorgoni. At every step Ney and General Maison
protected the retreat, and again met the Russians at Molodeczno, after
burning the bridges of Zembin. From league to league the march of the army
was indicated by a long series of corpses--soldiers who had fallen in the
snow without rising again, runaways who had at last succumbed under the
weight of their hardships. The emperor was still surrounded by officers,
some without soldiers, and generals without officers. The forces who
recently rejoined him had in their turn undergone the terrible
disorganization by which the whole army was infected. Napoleon saw that
every chance was lost, and felt in danger of being hemmed in by the enemy,
and falling alive into their hands. He was now in haste to escape finally
from the overwhelming realities which urged him on every side. For several
days he secretly matured a plan to set out for France alone with several
faithfull companions, resolving to leave to his lieutenants the glory and
pain of bringing back to Germany, on a hostile though allied land, the
shapeless remnant of the great army. In spite of the objections of Daru
and the Duke of Bassano, to whom he had spoken and written about it, he
held a council at Smorgoni of his marshals--who arrived one after another,
wounded, ill, exhausted by fighting, sleepless nights, and constant
vigilance, followed only by a few thousands of men. He announced his
departure, saying that he handed over the command to the King of Naples,
and whom he trusted they would obey the same as himself. Then, shaking
hands with some, embracing others, and talking kindly to all, even those
whom he had often badly used, he stepped into a sledge during the night of
the 5th December, with Caulaincourt, Duroc, Mouton, and Lefebvre-
Desnouettes. His lieutenants still looked, as if to see the last trace of
him in the darkness: he had disappeared, taking with him the last remnants
of hope, and leaving in each of those brave hearts a deep and bitter sense
of being cruelly deserted.

The Emperor Napoleon had fled--selfishly fled. He had escaped from the
frightful sight of, and contact with, unlimited pain, incessantly renewed,
without respite or issue, the responsibility of which rested entirely upon
himself. Secondary faults had been committed by his generals, but he was
really, blamable for them all; for he had asked from men more than they
could accomplish, without any earnest intention or proper pretext. For the
first time in his life he took care, as he left Smorgoni, to address
Europe in explanation of his retreat and route. The twenty-ninth bulletin
of the great army no longer resounded with the report of brilliant
victory. One could read in it the secret humiliation of a pride which
admitted of no conqueror but winter, and did not yet confess its
lamentable errors. It appeared that the Russians had in no way assisted
towards this defeat, which had to be recognized, and that the French army
were everywhere victorious. "The army was in good condition on the 6th
November," wrote Napoleon, "and till then the weather had been perfect.
The cold began on the 7th, and from that time we lost every night several
hundred horses, which died during bivouac. Soon 30,000 had succumbed, and
our cavalry were all on foot. On the 14th we were almost without cavalry,
artillery, and transports. Without cavalry we could gain no information
beyond a quarter of a league. Without artillery we could not fight battle,
or keep positions steadily. It was necessary to march, to avoid a battle,
which the want of supplies made undesirable. It was necessary to occupy a
certain space, to avoid being taken in flank, and that without cavalry to
gain information and unite the columns. This difficulty, together with the
excessive and sudden cold, rendered our position difficult. Some men, whom
nature had tempered strongly enough to be above all vicissitudes of fate
and fortune, seemed staggered, lost their cheerfulness and good humor, and
thought of nothing but disaster and destruction; those whom she has
created superior to everything, preserved their cheerfulness and usual
disposition, and saw a new glory in the various difficulties to be

"The enemy, seeing on the roads traces of the frightful calamity which
struck the French army, tried to take advantage of it. Our columns were
all surrounded by Cossacks, who, like Arabs in the desert, carried off the
trains and carriages which had separated from the army. That despicable
cavalry, which comes silently, and could not repulse a company of light-
horse soldiers, became formidable under those circumstances. The enemy,
however, had reason to repent of every attempt of importance which he
made, and after the French army crossed the Borysthenes, at Orscha, the
Russian army, being fatigued, and having lost many men, ceased from their
attempts. Nevertheless, the enemy held all the passages over the Beresina,
a river eighty yards wide, and carrying much ice, with its banks covered
with marshes 600 yards long, all rendering it very difficult to cross. The
enemy's general placed his four divisions at different points, where he
concluded the French army would pass. On the 25th, at daybreak, the
emperor, after deceiving the enemy by several feint movements made on the
25th, advanced to the village of Studianka, and, in spite of the presence
of one of the enemy's divisions, had two bridges thrown over the river.
The Duke of Reggio crossing, attacked the enemy in a battle lasting for
two hours; the Russians withdrew to the head of the Borisow bridge. During
the whole of the 26th and 27th the army crossed. To say that the army has
need of being redisciplined and reformed, and of being re-equipped in
cavalry, artillery, and supplies, is to be inferred from the statement
just made. Rest is its principal want. Supplies and horses are arriving.
General Bourcier has already more than 20,000 new horses in the different
depots. The artillery has already repaired its losses. The generals,
officers, and soldiers have greatly suffered from fatigue and scarcity.
Many have lost their baggage on account of their horses being lost, and
several by the Cossacks in ambush. The Cossacks took a number of isolated
men--engineers who were surveying, and wounded officers who marched
imprudently, preferring to run risks rather than march regularly in the

"Throughout all those operations, the emperor has always marched in the
midst of his guard; the cavalry under the Duke of Istria, and the infantry
under the Duke of Dantzig. Our cavalry was deprived of horses to such an
extent that the officers who were still mounted had to be collected, to
form four companies of 150 men each. Their generals acted as captains; the
colonels as under-officers. This sacred squadron, commanded by General
Grouchy, and under the orders of the King of Naples, did not lose sight of
the emperor in all his movements. The health of his Majesty has never been

It was always a part of Napoleon's cunning to mix truth with falsehood,
and conceal his lies with an appearance of honor. The "twenty-ninth
bulletin of the great army" contained facts which were partly true. He
admitted the hardships, and palliated the faults; but he neither gave, nor
wished to give, a true idea of the disasters, or a candid statement of the
frightful miseries which had ravaged the French battalions, and reduced
our army as snow is melted under the sun of summer. There were still too
many who had seen those catastrophes, and undertaken to establish the
truth of the facts. In Napoleon's mind the evils he had seen, and that he
himself had caused, were to leave less permanent impressions. He regretted
the destruction of his armies, without wishing to state all their losses.
"We left 300,000 men in Russia," said Marshal St. Cyr, in Germany. "No,
no!" replied Napoleon; "not so many as that." Then, after a moment's
reflection, "Ah! 30,000 at the Moskwa; 7000 here, 10,000 there; and all
those who strayed on the marches and have not returned. Possibly you are
not far wrong. But then there were so many Germans!" The Germans did not
forget it!

The solitary consolation left to the army was that which the emperor had
himself presented to Europe--the presence of Napoleon; his physical and
mental energy and vigor. His flight from Smorgoni deprived the soldiers of
this last resource of their confidence; from that day, as soon as the
report spread, despair seized upon the strongest hearts. Nothing is more
enduring than the instinctive courage which resists pain and death,
because it becomes a man to strive to the last. All the ties of
discipline, military fraternity, and ordinary humanity were broken
together. I borrow from the recollections of the Duke Fezensac, then
colonel of the 4th of the line, the following picture of the horrors which
he saw, and of which he has given the story with a touching and manly
simplicity:--"It is useless at the present day to tell the details of
every day's march; it would merely be a repetition of the same
misfortunes. The cold, which seemed to have become milder only to make the
passage of the Dnieper and the Berezina more difficult, again set in more
keenly than ever. The thermometer sank, first, to from 15 to 18 degrees,
then from 20 to 25 degrees (Réaumur), and the severity of the season
completed the exhaustion of men who were already half dead with hunger and
fatigue. I shall not undertake to depict the spectacle which we looked
upon. You must imagine plains as far as the horizon covered with snow,
long forests of pines, villages half-burnt and deserted; and through those
pitiful districts an endless column of wretches, nearly all without arms,
marching in disorder, and falling at every step on the ice, near the
carcasses of horses and the bodies of their companions. Their faces bore
the impress of utter exhaustion or despair, their eyes were lifeless,
their features convulsed, and quite black with dirt and smoke. Sheepskins
and pieces of cloth served them for shoes; their heads were wrapped with
rags; their shoulders covered with horse-cloths, women's petticoats, and
half-burnt skins. Also, when one fell from fatigue, his comrades stripped
him before he was dead, in order to clothe themselves with his rags. Each
bivouac seemed next day like a battle-field, and men found dead at their
side those beside whom they had gone to sleep the night before. An officer
of the Russian advance-guard, who was a witness of those scenes of horror
--which the rapidity of our flight prevented us from carefully observing--
has given a description of them to which nothing need be added: 'The road
which we followed,' says he, 'was covered with prisoners who required no
watching, and who underwent hardships till then unheard of. Several still
dragged themselves mechanically along the road, with their feet naked and
half frozen; some had lost the power of speech, others had fallen into a
kind of savage stupidity, and wished, in spite of us, to roast dead bodies
in order to eat them. Those who were too weak to go to fetch wood stopped
near the first fire which they found, and sitting upon one another they
crowded closely round the fire, the feeble heat of which still sustained
them, the little life left in them going out at the same time as it did.
The houses and farms which the wretches had set on fire were surrounded
with dead bodies, for those who went near had not the power to escape the
flames which reached them; and soon others were seen, with a convulsive
laugh rushing voluntarily into the midst of the burning, so that they were
consumed also.'"

I hasten to avoid the spectacle of so many sufferings. Yet it is right and
proper that children should know what was endured by their fathers. In
proportion as the last survivors of the generations who saw and suffered
so many evils disappear; we who have in our turn undergone other disasters
owe it to them to recount both their glory and their misery. The time will
soon come when our descendants in their turn will include in the annals of
history the great epochs through which we have lived, struggled, and

Napoleon crossed Germany like an unknown fugitive, and his generals also
made haste to escape. They had at last reached Wilna, alarming Lithuania
by their rout, and themselves terror-struck during the halt on
ascertaining the actual numbers of their losses, and the state of the
disorderly battalions which were being again formed in the streets of the
hospitable town. For a long time the crowd of disbanded soldiers,
deserters, and those who had fallen behind, were collected together at the
gates of Wilna in so dense a throng that they could not enter. Scarcely
had the hungry wretches begun to take some food and taste a moment's rest,
when the Russian cannon was heard, and Platow's Cossacks appeared at the
gates. The King of Naples, heroic on the battle-field, but incapable of
efficient command in a rout, took refuge in a suburb, in order to set out
from it at break of day. Marshal Ney, the old Marshal Lefebvre, and
General Loyson, with the remains of the division which he recently brought
back from Poland, kept back the Cossacks for some time, and left the army
time to resume its deplorable flight. A large number of exhausted men fell
into the hands of the enemy; the fragments of our ruined regiments
disappeared piecemeal. At Ponare, where the road between Wilna and Kowno
rises, the baggage which they had with great difficulty dragged so far,
the flags taken from the enemy, the army-chest, the trophies carried off
from Moscow, all remained scattered at the foot of the icy hill, neither
horses nor men being able to take them further. The pillagers quarrelled
over the gold and silver in the broken coffers, on the snow, in the
ditches. Then the Cossacks coming upon them, some of the French fired in
defence of treasures which they were no longer able to carry.

When the ruins of the main army at last reached Kowno, where they found
supplies of food and ammunition, they were no longer able to make use of
it, or to resist the pursuit of the Russians, still keenly determined to
drive us from their territory. The generals held a council. In their
weariness and despair some gave vent to complaints against Napoleon, and
Murat's words were susceptible of a more sinister meaning. Marshal Davout,
honorable and unconquerable though still strongly prejudiced against the
King of Naples, boldly expressed his indignation against the falling off
of the lieutenants whom the emperor had made kings. All with one accord
handed over to Ney the command of the rear-guard, and that defence of
Kowno which was for a few minutes longer to protect the retreat. General
Gerard alone remained faithful to this last despairing effort. When at
last he crossed the Niemen with General Ney, on the 114th December, 1812,
they were abandoned by all: their soldiers had fled, either scattering
before the enemy or stealing away during the night from a useless
resistance. When, in Koenigsberg, he overtook the remnant of the staff,
Marshal Ney, with haggard looks and clad in rags, entered alone into their
room. "Here comes the rear-guard of the great army!" said he bitterly.

The Prussian General York had abandoned Marshal Macdonald, making a
capitulation with his forces in presence of the Russians, whose friendly
intentions he had been long conscious of. Being disarmed by this
neutrality of York's, Macdonald in his turn fell back upon Koenigsberg,
pursued by the Russians. The hospitals were ravaged by disease: men who
had resisted all fatigues and hardships, such as Generals Lariboisière and
Eblé, at last succumbing. Murat withdrew to Elbing, to start soon after
for Naples, leaving Prince Eugène in command of the remains of the army.
From Paris, where he was already preparing for other battles, the Emperor
Napoleon sought for his army in vain. The old guard itself only amounted
at Koenigsberg to 1500 men, of whom not more than 500 could carry a
musket. When the scattered fragments of the regiments left this last place
of refuge, 10,000 sick men were still left in the hospitals.

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