Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler

The March of Humiliation


For several weeks the Emperor remained in Moscow anxiously awaiting what he hoped would be a favourable answer to his proposals to Alexander. "I am blamed," he said, according to Segur, "for not retreating; but those who censure me do not consider that it requires a month to reorganize the army and evacuate the hospitals; that, if we abandon the wounded, the Cossacks will daily triumph over the sick and the isolated men. A retreat will appear a flight; and Europe will re-echo with the news. What a frightful course of perilous wars will date from my first retrograde step! I knew well that Moscow, as a military position, is worth nothing; but as a political point its preservation is of inestimable value. The world regards me only as a general, forgetting that I am an Emperor. In politics, you must never retrace your steps: if you have committed a fault, you must never show that you are conscious of it; error, steadily adhered to, becomes a virtue in the eyes of posterity."

The Czar refusing to treat with the enemy at Moscow, Napoleon offered in his desperation to withdraw his opposition to Russian plans regarding Constantinople, hitherto the cause of so much bitterness—all to no purpose. Alexander remained as adamant, and having previously told Sir Robert Wilson, the British commissioner, that he would sooner dig potatoes in Siberia than negotiate while a French soldier remained in Russian territory, neither went back on his word nor regretted it. European affairs were far too unsettled for Napoleon to take up winter quarters. There was no alternative but to order a retreat, to "pocket his pride," as schoolboys say. So the march which he knew must humiliate him in the sight of both his allies and his enemies was begun with what speed was possible in the circumstances.

Gallant and gay they marched along,

Fair Russia to subdue.

Sneaking and sad they back return,

While brave Cossacks pursue.

Cossacks in clouds, and crows and kites,

Surround them as they go,

And when they fall and sink in death,

Their winding sheet is snow.

Thus run two stanzas of a poem written in the manner of the famous John Gilpin  and published in London. If it is not particularly good poetry it is true history. At first Napoleon hoped by marching southward to find territory less devastated and poverty-stricken than that through which he had passed. In this he was frustrated by a conflict which took place between Eugene's corps and the army under Kutusoff. The Viceroy of Italy captured Malojaroslavetz only to find that he had won a barren victory at extreme cost, leaving the Russians posted securely on the hills at the back of the ruined town. The Emperor had wished to push on; the enemy's position prevented it. Had he known that Kutusoff had previously arranged to retreat if he were attacked, Napoleon would not have hesitated. He weighed the matter in his own mind and discussed it with his Marshals, finally coming to the conclusion that his army must of necessity retire by the road along which it had advanced, or in the expressive terms of Labaume, via "the desert which we ourselves had made."

[Illustration] from Story of Napoleon by H. F. B. Wheeler


Werestchagin's picture of the retreat conveys some idea of the tragedy. There is the stern and unbending Emperor wearing the crown of fir cones which he wore at this time, and followed by his dejected staff and the empty carriage. We can almost hear the crunch of the snow as it powders under foot, catch the low murmurings of the disillusioned men as they trudge along the uneven roadway, and feel the icy grip and stinging smart of the cruel wind. And yet the artist's conception, vivid beyond question, cannot bring home to us a tithe of the terrors and misery of that awful march. Horses stumbled and perished, men fell by the wayside and died of hunger and cold, some flung away their arms in sheer despair, others tramped on like machines, cognizant only of the bitter blast which froze their moustaches and whistled through their tattered garments.

According to Labaume, the first snow fell on the 6th November, when the army was tramping towards Smolensk comforted by the thought that in three days they would reach their destination and secure some kind of rude shelter, "when suddenly the atmosphere, which had hitherto been brilliant, was clouded by cold and dense vapours. The sun, enveloped by the thickest mists, disappeared from our sight, and the snow falling in large flakes, in an instant obscured the day, and confounded the earth with the sky. The wind, furiously blowing, howled dreadfully through the forests, and overwhelmed the firs already bent down with the ice; while the country around, as far as the eye could reach, presented unbroken one white and savage appearance.

"The soldiers, vainly struggling with the snow and the wind, that rushed upon them with tempestuous violence, could no longer distinguish the road; and falling into the ditches which bordered it, there found a grave. Others pressed on their journey, though scarcely able to drag themselves along. They were badly mounted, badly clothed, with nothing to eat, nothing to drink, shivering with cold, and groaning with pain. Becoming selfish through despair, they afforded neither succour nor even one glance of pity to those who, exhausted by fatigue and disease, expired around them. On that dreadful day, how many unfortunate beings, perishing by cold and famine, struggled hard with the agonies of death! We heard some of them faintly bidding adieu to their friends and comrades. Others, as they drew their last breath, pronounced the name of their mothers, their wives, their native country, which they were never more to see; the rigour of the frost seized on their benumbed limbs, and penetrated through their whole frame. Stretched on the road, we could distinguish only the heaps of snow that covered them, and which, at almost every step, formed little undulations, like so many graves. At the same time vast flights of ravens, abandoning the plain to take refuge in the neighbouring forests, croaked ominously as they passed over our heads; and troops of dogs, which had followed us from Moscow, and lived solely on our mangled remains, howled around us, as if they would hasten the period when we were to become their prey.

"From that day the army lost its courage and its military attitude. The soldier no longer obeyed his officer; the officer separated himself from his general; the disbanded regiments marched in disorder; searching for food, they spread themselves over the plain, pillaging whatever fell in their way. No sooner had the soldiers separated from the ranks, than they were assailed by a population eager to avenge the horrors of which it had been the victim. The Cossacks came to the succour of the peasants, and drove back to the great road, already filled with the dying and the dead, those of the followers who escaped from the carnage made among them."

At the little town of Dorogobul, previously burnt by the Emperor's orders, practically no comfort could be obtained. "The few houses that remained," says Labaume, "were occupied exclusively by a small number of generals and staff-officers. The soldiers who yet dared to face the enemy, had little shelter from the rigors of the season, while the others, who had wandered from their proper corps, were repulsed on every side, and found no asylum in any part of the camp. How deplorable was then the situation of these poor wretches! Tormented by hunger, we saw them run after every horse the moment it fell. They devoured it raw, like dogs, and fought among themselves for the mangled limbs. Worn out by want of sleep and long marches, they saw nothing around them but snow; not one spot appeared on which they could sit or lie. Penetrated with the cold, they wandered on every side to find wood, but the snow had caused it entirely to disappear; if perchance they found a little, they knew not where to light it. Did they discover a spot less exposed than others, it afforded them but a momentary shelter, for scarcely had their fire kindled, when the violence of the wind extinguished it, and deprived them of the only consolation which remained in their extreme distress. We saw crowds of them huddled together like beasts at the root of a beech or pine, or under a waggon. Others were employed in tearing huge branches from the trees, or pulling down by main force, and burning the houses at which the officers lodged. Although they were exhausted by fatigue, they stood erect; they wandered like spectres through the livelong night, or stood immovable around some enormous fire."

Smolensk was reached on the 9th November. During the few days that were spent there the soldiers lost all idea of discipline and pillaged the rations, with the result that while some had plenty others starved. After having made his way to Krasnoi, largely owing to the slow advance of the enemy, Napoleon was joined by Eugene and Davout, and on the 19th the ice-bound Dnieper was crossed. Ney and the rear-guard, unable to come up with the Emperor in time, sustained a heavy loss. But they fought on, and when they rejoined the main army the corps had dwindled to such an extent that it numbered but 900 men.

Marching towards the Beresina river, Napoleon gave orders for bridges to be hastily constructed. Although there were frequent delays owing to breakdowns, many of the troops and some of the artillery passed over in safety. Consequently, when the Russians appeared they found the French on both banks. Victor, Oudinot, and Ney, recognising the extremely serious predicament in which they were placed, fought so determinedly that the remaining troops, excepting only Victor's rear-guard and some thousands of undesirable camp followers, were enabled to cross the river. The undertaking was attended by a frightful loss of life, variously estimated at from 20,000 to 25,000 men. At Smorgoni the Emperor, filled with anxiety for the future of his throne and of France, took leave of his Marshals after telling them that he would raise another powerful army, entered his travelling-carriage and was whirled away to Paris as fast as the horses could draw the lumbering vehicle. Twice he narrowly escaped assassination, and the knowledge of a conspiracy engineered by Malet to shatter the Napoleonic dynasty, as well as of continued disasters in the Peninsula, did not tend to sooth his overwrought nerves. The mighty edifice he had erected seemed to be crumbling away at the very moment when he had hoped to complete it.

The remnants of the Grand Army dragged their flagging footsteps to Vilna, commanded, if that word may properly be used, by Murat. Disaster still dogged them, their strength grew feebler and feebler. Only 100,000 troops, chiefly consisting of those under Schwarzenberg and Macdonald, returned to their native land. Doubtless the survivors thought sadly of the fate of half a million comrades, some of whom still lived as prisoners or wanderers, while the majority lay stiff and gaunt on the plains and in the forests of victorious Russia, their winding-sheet the snow. At least 150,000 of the enemy kept them company in death. No priest gave them holy sepulture, but the crows cawed a funeral requiem.