Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler

The Triumphal Entry into Moscow—and After


Grumbling was not confined to the French army in the campaign of 1812. The Russian troops said hard things of their generals which were not always justifiable, and the patriotic sentiments of the nobles suffered somewhat by the continued retreats, which were taken as evidence of weakness. As a concession to public opinion the much maligned Barclay was superseded by Kutusov, the Russian Commander-in-chief at Austerlitz, an old man approaching seventy years of age who had but recently returned from the war which his country had been waging with Turkey. He was to have an opportunity of showing his prowess within a few days of his joining the army, which now comprised nearly 104,000 men to the 125,000 or so of Napoleon. Severe fighting occurred on the 5th September, a redoubt near the village of Shevardino being taken and retaken three times by the advance guard before the Russians finally withdrew. So great was the bloodshed that when the Emperor afterwards asked where a certain battalion was, he received the reply, "In the redoubt, sire," every individual having lost his life in the desperate assault. Over 1000 men on either side perished in defending or storming this position.

The enemy had fallen back on Borodino, a name which will be always associated with one of the most terrible battles ever fought on European soil. As the sun rose on the 7th September Napoleon exclaimed, "It is the sun of Austerlitz!" and shortly afterwards issued the following proclamation, which aroused some of the old enthusiasm amongst his troops but failed to invoke the plaudits of all. It is short and shows that the Emperor attached more importance to the battles of Vitebsk and Smolensk than the facts warranted:

"Soldiers! The battle is at hand which you have so long desired. Henceforth the victory depends on yourselves. It has become necessary, and will give you abundance; good winter quarters, and a speedy return to your country! Conduct yourselves as you did at Austerlitz, Friedland, Vitebsk, and Smolensk. Let the remotest posterity recount your actions on this day. Let your countrymen say of you all, 'He was in that great battle under the walls of Moscow!'"

Firing began at six o'clock, and continued for twelve anxious hours. The contestants disputed the ground with such determination, each carrying and losing positions again and again, that at times it was difficult to say which army had the advantage. According to Labaume thirty of the Emperor's generals were wounded, including Davout and Rapp, the former by being thrown from his horse as it fell dead, the latter by a ball which struck him on the hip. General Augustus de Caulaincourt, brother of the more celebrated Armand de Caulaincourt, Duke of Vicenza, after performing prodigies of valour in the Russian entrenchments, where the hardest fighting was done, was killed, as was General Montbrun but a little time before, while leading a similar attack. Prince Bagration afterwards died of the injuries he received, and many other Russian generals were more or less seriously wounded.

The key of the position, the Russian entrenched battery, with its terrible heap of dead and dying, was at last captured by the French. The officer commanding it was about to throw himself on his sword rather than surrender, but was prevented in the nick of time by the victors, who took him prisoner.

As Napoleon and his staff were surveying the field after the battle his horse stepped on a wounded man, whose groans attracted the rider's attention. "It is only a Russian," one of his attendants said, probably to allay Napoleon's feelings rather than from want of sympathy. "After victory," the Emperor retorted, "there are no enemies, but only men." He was neither callous nor did he love war for its own sake. It was the result that pleased him, the humbling of the enemy, the addition of territory to the Empire, the driving of one more nail in England's coffin. The maimed were ever his first care after battle. His besetting sin was an abnormal, and consequently unhealthy, ambition—the vice at which he had railed so much in his early days.

Napoleon failed to use his 20,000 Guards at Borodino, why is still a matter of conjecture. Some writers maintain that it would have been foolish for him to use up his last reserves, others hold that had he flung them into the battle he might have annihilated the Russian army and saved himself the agonies which followed. The reason he gave was, "At 800 leagues from Paris one must not risk one's last reserve." on the invasion of Russia in 1812, states that Borodino was a butchery which cost the contestants not less than 70,000 men in killed and wounded. "No battle of modern times," he says in summing up, "no encounter since the days before gunpowder, when the beaten side could be cut down ad libitum  by the victors and quarter was seldom given, has witnessed such awful slaughter. . . . Whether it can be fairly called useless may be doubted, except to the nominal conqueror. Napoleon certainly deserves that title: the enemy had been dislodged from their position, and, as it proved, left the way open to Moscow. So much he might have attained by maneuvering; more he could not attain unless the courage of his enemies gave way. Without the brave men who fell at Borodino Napoleon could not possibly attempt any further offensive movement, when his occupation of Moscow led to no overtures for peace. Without them, he was substantially inferior in force when at length the inevitable retreat began. The Russian Te Deums, chanted for the victory that Kutusoff falsely claimed, were in truth only premature."

Holy Moscow was to be the city of abundance, its entry the herald of a happier order of things. On the 14th September, as Napoleon rode forward with his troops, its domes and minarets burst upon his view. Segur says that the soldiers shouted "Moscow! Moscow!" with the eagerness of sailors on sighting land after a long and tedious voyage. The city looked more like a mirage than the home of a quarter of a million people, more like the deserted city of an extinct race than a hive of humanity. General Sebastiani, who led the vanguard, knew the secret, and so did Murat. The Russians had arranged a hasty armistice in order to evacuate the place, leaving behind them only the riff-raff, the wounded, the aged, and the aliens.

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


No clang of bells greeted the Conqueror as he made his triumphal entry, no crowds of men and women craned their necks to get a glimpse of the mighty Emperor. Only undesirables welcomed him, the unrepentant prodigal son and the convict, released from prison by the governor before the last inhabitants fled in the wake of the retreating Russian army. There stood the mammoth Kremlin, the Acropolis of the ancient capital, surrounded by its massive walls; the gorgeous Cathedral of the Assumption in which the Czars were crowned; the Great Palace begun but six years before, and churches innumerable. Ikons but no worshippers, palaces but no courtiers! The Emperor took up his quarters in the Kremlin, appointing Mortier governor with strict instructions to prevent the troops from plundering. We shall see how the orders were obeyed later. Suddenly tongues of flame shot up from different quarters of the city, to be extinguished by the troops with great difficulty. Then a large public building was discovered to be alight. The flames began to spread with alarming and all-devouring rapidity. Soon a portion of the Kremlin itself was in imminent danger, and as there was much gunpowder stored in the fortress-palace the Emperor was forced to retire to a chateau some distance away, to return two days later when the work of destruction had somewhat abated. Labaume witnessed many terrible scenes, which he thus records with his usual vivacity:

"As I advanced towards the fire, the avenues were more obstructed by soldiers and beggars carrying off goods of every kind. The less precious articles were despised, and soon thrown away, and the streets were covered with merchandise of every description. I penetrated at length into the interior of the Exchange; but, alas! it was no more the building so renowned for its magnificence; it was rather a vast furnace, from every side of which the burning rafters were continually falling, and threatening us with instant destruction. I could still, however, proceed with some degree of safety under piazzas lined with warehouses which the soldiers had broken open; every chest was rifled, and the spoil exceeded their most sanguine expectations. No cry, no tumult was heard in this scene of horror; everyone found enough to satisfy his most ardent thirst for plunder. Nothing was heard but the crackling of flames, the noise of doors that were broken open, and occasionally a dreadful crash caused by the falling in of some vault. Cottons, muslins, and all the most costly productions of Europe and of Asia, were a prey to the flames. The cellars were filled with sugar, oil, and vitriol; these burning all at once in the subterraneous warehouses, sent forth torrents of flame through thick iron grates, and presented a dreadful spectacle. It was terrible and affecting; even the most hardened minds acknowledged the conviction that so great a calamity would, on some future day, call forth the vengeance of the Almighty upon the authors of such crimes."

The fire began on the 14th September, and on the 16th it was raging worse than ever. "The most heart-rending scene which my imagination had ever conceived," adds the narrator, "now presented itself to my eyes. A great part of the population of Moscow, terrified at our arrival, had concealed themselves in cellars or secret recesses of their houses. As the fire spread around, we saw them rushing in despair from their various asylums. They uttered no imprecation, they breathed no complaint; fear had rendered them dumb: and hastily snatching up their precious effects, they fled before the flames. Others, of greater sensibility, and actuated by the genuine feelings of nature, saved only their parents, or their infants, who were closely clasped in their arms. They were followed by their other children, running as fast as their little strength would permit, and with all the wildness of childish terror, vociferating the beloved name of mother. The old people, borne down by grief more than by age, had not sufficient power to follow their families, but expired near the houses in which they were born. The streets, the public places, and the churches were filled with these unhappy people, who, lying on the remains of their property, suffered even without a murmur. No cry, no complaint was heard. Both the conqueror and the conquered were equally hardened; the one by excess of fortune, the other by excess of misery."

Many contemporary writers, including Labaume, assert that the conflagration was the deliberate work of patriotic citizens headed by Count Rostopchin, governor of Moscow. The latter certainly spoke of such a project, and according to the twenty-fifth bulletin of the Grand Army three hundred incendiaries provided with appliances for setting fire to the wooden houses were arrested and shot. As the Count afterwards denied the story it is difficult to say whether he actually carried into practice what he preached; it is quite possible that some of those who were left behind had actually more to do with the affair than the supposed prime mover. Professor Eugen Stschepkin, of the Imperial University of Odessa, says that "Moscow was burnt neither by Napoleon nor by Count Rostopchin. Probably, the fire was in part accidental, and due to plunderers, both Russian and French; in part the deliberate work of patriotically-minded inhabitants." The conclusions of Mr Hereford B. George are: "On the face of the undoubted facts there is no adequate evidence that the burning of Moscow was deliberate, though there is of course no evidence that it was not."

Napoleon now hoped that Alexander would negotiate with him for peace. The unexpected happened; the Czar showed the most determined resolution. He realised that the entry into Moscow would have smaller effects upon the final results of the campaign than the twin evils of winter and famine which must necessarily follow unless what remained of the Grand Army beat a speedy retreat. As for his own troops, they were constantly reinforced, and had the additional advantage of being hardened to the severe climate and the peculiar nature of the country. Moreover many of the peasants, following the example of the Tyrolese and the Spaniards, waged a savage guerrilla warfare whenever they had an opportunity.