Historical Tales: 8—Russian - Charles Morris

The Retreat of Napoleon's Grand Army

In the spring of 1812 Napoleon reached the frontiers of Russia at the head of the greatest army that had ever been under his command, it embracing half a million of men. It was not an army of Frenchmen, however, since much more than half the total force was made up of Germans and soldiers of other nationalities. In addition to the soldiery was a multitude of noncombatants and other incumbrances, which Napoleon, deviating from his usual custom, allowed to follow the troops. These were made up of useless aids to the pomp and luxury of the emperor and his officers, and an incredible number of private vehicles, women, servants, and others, who served but to create confusion, and to consume the army stores, of which provision had been made for only a short campaign.

Thus, dragging its slow length along, the army, on June 24, 1812, crossed the Niemen River and entered upon Russian soil. From emperor to private, all were inspired with exaggerated hopes of victory, and looked soon to see the mighty empire of the north prostrate before the genius of all-conquering France. Had the vision of that army, as it was to recross the Niemen within six months, risen upon their minds, it would have been dismissed as a nightmare of false and monstrous mien.

Onward into Russia wound the vast and hopeful mass, without a battle and without sight of a foe. The Russians were retreating and drawing their foes deeper and deeper into the heart of their desolate land. Battles were not necessary; the country itself fought for Russia. Food was not to be had from the land, which was devastated in their track. Burning cities and villages lit up their path. The carriages and wagons, even many of the cannon, had to be left behind. The forced marches which Napoleon made in the hope of overtaking the Russians forced him to abandon much of his supplies, while men and horses sank from fatigue and hunger. The decaying carcasses of ten thousand horses already poisoned the air.

At length Moscow was approached. Here the Russian leaders were forced by the sentiment of the army and the people to strike one blow in defence of their ancient capital. A desperate encounter took place at Borodino, two days' march from the city, in which Napoleon triumphed, but at a fearful price. Forty thousand men had fallen, of whom the wounded nearly all died, through want and neglect. When Moscow was reached, it proved to be deserted. Napoleon had won the empty shell of a city, and was as far as ever from the conquest of Russia.

It is not our purpose here to give the startling story of the burning of Moscow, the sacrifice of a city to the god of war. Though this is one of the most thrilling events in the history of Russia, it has already been told in this series. We are concerned at present solely with the retreat of the grand army from the ashes of the Muscovite capital, the most dreadful retreat in the annals of war.

Napoleon lingered amid the ruins of the ancient city until winter was near at band, hoping still that the emperor Alexander would sue for peace. No suit came. He offered terms himself, and they were not even honored with a reply. A deeply disappointed man, the autocrat of Europe marched out of Moscow on October 19 and began his frightful homeward march. He had waited much too long. The Russian armies, largely increased in numbers, shut him out from every path but the wasted one by which he had come, a highway marked by the ashes of burnt towns and the decaying corpses of men and animals.

On November 6, winter suddenly set in. The supplies had largely been consumed, the land was empty of food, famine alternated with cold to crush the retreating host, and death in frightful forms hovered over their path. The horses, half fed and worn out, died by thousands. Most of the cavalry had to go afoot; the booty brought from Moscow was abandoned as valueless; even much of the artillery was left behind. The cold grew more intense. A deep snow covered the plain, through whose white peril they had to drag their weary feet. Arms were flung away as useless weights, flight was the only thought, and but a tithe of the army remained in condition to defend the rest.

The retreat of the grand army became one of incredible distress and suffering. Over the seemingly endless Russian steppes, from whose snow-clad level only rose here and there the ruins of a deserted village, the freezing and starving soldiers made their miserable way. Wan, hollow-eyed, gaunt, clad in garments through which the biting cold pierced their flesh, they dragged wearily onward, fighting with one another for the flesh of a dead horse, ready to commit murder for the shadow of food, and finally sinking in death in the snows of that interminable plain. Each morning, some of those who had stretched their limbs round the bivouac fires failed to rise. The victims of the night were often revealed only by the small mounds of fallen snow which had buried them as they slept.

That this picture may not be thought overdrawn, we shall relate an anecdote told of Prince Emilius of Darmstadt. He had fallen asleep in the snow, and in order to protect him from the keen north wind four of his Hessian dragoons screened him during the night with their cloaks. The prince arose from his cold couch in the morning to find his faithful guardians still in the position they had occupied during the night,—frozen to death.

Maddened with famine and frost, men were seen to spring, with wildly exulting cries, into the flames of burning houses. Of those that fell into the hands of the Russian boors, many were stripped of their clothing and chased to death through the snow.

Smolensk, which the army had passed in its glory, it now reached in its gloom. The city was deserted and half burned. Most of the cannon had been abandoned, food and ammunition were lacking, and no halt was possible. The despairing army pushed on.

Death followed the fugitives in other forms than those of frost and hunger. The Russians, who had avoided the army in its advance, harassed it continually in its retreat. From all directions Russian troops marched upon the worn-out fugitives, grimly determined that not a man of them should leave Russia if they could prevent. The intrepid Ney, with the men still capable of fight, formed the rear-guard, and kept at bay their foes. This service was one of imminent peril. Cut off at Smolensk from the main body, only Ney's vigilance saved his men from destruction. During the night he led them rapidly along the banks of the Dnieper, repulsing the Russian corps that sought to cut off his retreat, and joined the army again.

The Beresina at length was reached. This river must be crossed. But the frightful chill, which hitherto had pursued the fleeing host, now inopportunely decreased, a thaw broke the frozen surface of the stream, and the fugitives gazed with horror on masses of floating ice where they had dreamed of a solid pathway for their feet. The slippery state of the banks added to the difficulty, while on the opposite side a Russian army commanded the passage with its artillery, and in the rear the roar of cannon signaled the approach of another army. All seemed lost, and only the good fortune which had so often befriended him now saved Napoleon and his host.

For at this critical moment a fresh army corps, which had been left behind in his advance, came to the emperor's aid, and the Russian general who disputed the passage, deceived by the French movements, withdrew to another point on the stream. Taking instant advantage of the opportunity, Napoleon threw two bridges across the river, over which the able-bodied men of the army safely made their way.

After them came the vast host of non-combatants that formed the rear, choking the bridges with their multitude. As they struggled to cross, the pursuing Russian army appeared and opened with artillery upon the helpless mass, ploughing long red lanes of carnage through its midst. One bridge broke down, and all rushed to the other. Multitudes were forced into the stream, while the Russian cannon played remorselessly upon the struggling and drowning mass. For two days the passage had continued, and on the morning of the third a considerable number of sick and wounded soldiers, sutlers, women, and children still remained behind, when word reached them that the bridges were to be burned. A fearful rush now took place. Some succeeded in crossing, but the fire ran rapidly along the timbers, and the despairing multitude leaped into the icy river or sought to plunge through the mounting flames. When the ice thawed in the spring twelve thousand dead bodies were found on the shores of the stream. Sixteen thousand of the fugitives remained prisoners in Russian hands.

This day of disaster was the climax of the frightful retreat. But as the army pressed onward the temperature again fell, until it reached twenty-seven degrees below zero, and the old story of "frozen to death" was resumed. Napoleon, fearing to be taken prisoner in Germany if the truth should become known, left his army on December 5, and hurried towards Paris with all speed, leaving the news of the disaster behind in his flight. Wilna was soon after reached by the army, but could not be held by the exhausted troops, and, with its crowded magazines and the wealth in its treasury, fell into the hands of the Russians.

During this season of disaster the Austrian and Prussian commanders left behind to guard the route contrived to spare their troops. Schwarzenberg, the Austrian commander, retreated towards Warsaw and left the Russian armies free to act against the French. The Prussians, who had been engaged in the siege of Riga, might have covered the fleeing host; but York, their commander, entered into a truce with the Russians and remained stationary. They had been forced to join the French, and took the first opportunity to abandon their hated allies.

A place of safety was at length reached, but the grand army was represented by a miserable fragment of its mighty host. Of the half-million who crossed the Russian frontier, but eighty thousand returned. Of those who had reached Moscow, the meagre remnant numbered scarcely twenty thousand in all.