Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

The Retreat!

On the day after the invading army marched into Moscow, while they were planning to settle there in winter quarters to recruit their strength, fire suddenly broke out in several parts of the city at the same time. At first this conflagration was thought to be accidental, but when no fire apparatus could be discovered (the Russians had destroyed or removed everything of the kind), and when the flames began to spread with lightning-like rapidity, Napoleon suddenly realized that this was the work of the enemy, who to foil him had sacrificed their Holy City!

Fed by trains of powder and hidden stores of inflammable materials, the fire raged madly, the furious and changing gales of the autumn helping it on, until nearly the whole city was a seething furnace. At the end of three awful days and nights, nine tenths of the houses there were in ashes.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


With difficulty, Napoleon and his men escaped from the burning capital, and after some further delay in hopes of reaching an understanding with the Russian emperor, or Czar, they set out to return home. But the early Russian winter had already set in, so the retreat was conducted much of the way in the midst of driving snow, by troops unaccustomed to a severe climate, and neither clothed nor otherwise equipped to bear cold properly. Besides, all supplies were so scanty, that even the starving horses had to be killed for food! For eight weeks, therefore, the army trudged wearily on, discipline and order being soon forgotten by most of them, each man trying only to get over the frozen plain as best he could. The men were, besides, continually harassed by the pursuing Russians, and had to keep up a continuous running fight. Forced to bivouac at night by insufficient fires, with no other covering than the snow, thousands simply froze to death in their sleep, their stripped bodies being left by their companions a prey to the wolves.

As supplies along the route had been destroyed, and as the horses died of starvation, even the emperor trudged many weary miles on foot, living on the scantiest fare, yet encouraging his men by sharing all their hardships. It would be impossible to tell you of the despair caused by the cold, the deep snow, the sudden thaw and thick mud, then the colder and colder weather; the long road strewn with corpses and abandoned munitions of war; and the constant terror caused by bands of Cossacks attacking the sides and rear, slaying or capturing all those who tarried or straggled off in search of provisions. But during those eight weeks, countless deeds of heroism were performed, and Marshal Ney, who had charge of the rear guard, covered the retreat, step by step, actually using a musket like any of his men, and thus earning his proudest title, that of Bravest of the Brave."

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


Several times the host was in great danger, and once the emperor in person had to charge at the head of his guard. But the climax of this tragic retreat was reached on the banks of the Beresina River, where the ice proved too thin to serve as a bridge. Those who ventured on it were lost, and the bridge builders, standing for hours in the icy waters, perished in scores. Scarcely were the bridges ready when people began to hurry across, crowding so that even the emperor owed his safety only to his coachman's skill and daring. Part of the army got across in safety, but then came the mob of fugitives, crushing each other ruthlessly in their mad haste. Finally, when Russian grapeshot began to pour down upon this spot, the bridges, unable to support the stampeding multitude, suddenly collapsed, hurling their human freight into the icy waters. It is said that the Russians afterwards picked up and burned no less than twenty-four thousand dead bodies on the banks of this fatal stream.

Early in December, the emperor learned that in the absence of tidings from the snowbound army, a rumor of his death had arisen, and that a conspiracy had been formed, which had nearly overthrown his carefully established government! Feeling that he must reach Paris, and hold the reins of government in his own firm hand when the news of the Russian disaster became known there, Napoleon left Murat, Ney, and his other generals to direct the remainder of the retreat as best they could, and, by posting on night and day, reached his capital before any one even suspected he was coming. But it was only little by little that he allowed the full extent of the loss of life caused by the Russian campaign to become known, for out of the half million men who started, less than 100,000—some say only 20,000—ever returned. And of the 150,000 Frenchmen in that proud host which had set out only a few months before, there were left only a handful of tattered, emaciated, crippled survivors.

The story of the awful suffering during the retreat sorely wrung the hearts of mothers, widows, and orphans, kindling deep indignation against a sovereign who could expose his subjects to such suffering solely to satisfy his tremendous ambition. Even the soldiers, not comprehending the claims of politics, resented Napoleon's desertion of them, saying: What! is it thus that he abandons those of whom he calls himself the father? Where, then, is the genius who in the height of prosperity exhorted us to bear our sufferings patiently? He who lavished our blood, is he afraid to die with us? Will he treat us like the army of Egypt, to whom he became indifferent when by a shameful flight he found himself free from danger?" That desertion, which so rankled in the hearts of the soldiers, proved, besides, a bad example, for several officers also forsook their troops, leaving Ney and a few kindred spirits to bear the full brunt of the sufferings caused by the retreat. But Ney proved a real hero, for he stood by his men to the very end, throwing away his gun only after discharging it a last time at the pursuing foe, and plunging last of all into the icy Niemen, across which he swam to safety.