Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler

The Russian Campaign


Poland was the point of concentration, and thither the Grand Army was marching. On the 11th June 1812, the Emperor arrived at Dantzig, which had been turned into a vast military depot, and on the following morning proceeded to Konigsberg, where further supplies were stored. He spent the whole day and night dictating despatches. Having twice communicated with the Czar to no effect, he was now irrevocably committed to the campaign. At Vilkowyski Napoleon took the opportunity to issue a bulletin to his troops couched in the old style which had proved so effectual in former campaigns. It is as follows:

"Soldiers! The second Polish war is begun. The first terminated at Friedland and at Tilsit. At Tilsit, Russia vowed an eternal alliance with France, and war with England. She now breaks her vows, and refuses to give any explanation of her strange conduct until the French eagles have repassed the Rhine and left our allies at her mercy.

"Fate drags her on—let her destinies be fulfilled. Does she imagine we are degenerated? Are we no longer the soldiers who fought at Austerlitz? We are placed between dishonour and war; our choice cannot be doubtful. Let us then march forward. Let us cross the Niemen, and carry the war into her own territory. This second Polish war will be as glorious for the French arms as the first; but the peace we shall conclude will carry with it its own guarantee, and will terminate the fatal influence which Russia, for fifty years past, has exercised in the affairs of Europe."

Alexander's proclamation to his troops, while less forceful than Napoleon's, is more dignified and restrained. It was issued from his headquarters at Vilna, the capital of Lithuania, on the 25th June 1812, two days later than the one given above.

"We had long observed," it runs, "on the part of the Emperor of the French, the most hostile proceedings towards Russia; but we always hoped to avert them by conciliatory and pacific measures. At length, experiencing a continued renewal of direct and evident aggression, notwithstanding our earnest desire to maintain peace, we were compelled to complete and to assemble our armies. But even then, we flattered ourselves that a reconciliation might take place while we remained on the frontiers of our empire, and, without violating one principle of peace, were prepared only to act in our own defence. . . . The Emperor of the French, by suddenly attacking our army at Kovno, has been the first to declare war. As nothing, therefore, can inspire him with those friendly sentiments which possessed our bosoms, we have no choice but to oppose our forces to those of the enemy, invoking the aid of the Almighty, the Witness and Defender of the truth. It is unnecessary for me to remind the generals, officers, and soldiers of their duty, to excite their valour; the blood of the brave Slavonians flows in their veins. Warriors! you defend your religion, your country, and your liberty. I am with you: God is against the aggressor." Alexander promised the Governor of St Petersburg that he would not sheath his sword "so long as a single enemy remains in Russian territory."

Practically the whole of the Grand Army—an effective force at the beginning of the campaign of 400,000 troops—crossed the river Niemen at different points, the troops with the Emperor near Kovno, those of Eugene and King Jerome at Pilony and Grodno respectively, the remainder under Macdonald at Tilsit. Prince Schwarzenberg with the Austrians crossed by the River Bug. Davout's corps secured the honour of being first to enter Russian territory, and without much trouble they secured possession of the little town of Kovno, the point of concentration, reference to which is made in the Czar's proclamation.

Alison has painted the scene for us in glowing colours. "The tent of the Emperor," he writes, "was placed on an eminence three hundred paces from the bank, and as the sun rose he beheld the resplendent mass slowly descending to the bridges. The world had never seen so magnificent an array as lay before him; horse, foot, and cannon in the finest order, and in the highest state of equipment, incessantly issued from the forest, and wound down the paths which led to the river: the glittering of the arms, the splendour of the dress, the loud shouts of the men as they passed the Imperial station, inspired universal enthusiasm and seemed to afford a certain presage of success. The burning impatience of the conscripts; the calm assurance of the veteran soldiers; the confident ardour of the younger officers; the dubious presentiments of the older generals, filled every breast with thrilling emotion. The former were impatient for the campaign as the commencement of glory and fortune; the latter dreaded it as the termination of ease and opulence. None entered on it without anxiety and interest. No sinister presentiments were now visible on the countenance of the Emperor; the joy which he felt at the recommencement of war communicated a universal degree of animation. Two hundred thousand men, including forty thousand horse, of whom twelve thousand were cuirassiers, cased in glittering steel, passed the river that day in presence of the Emperor. Could the eye of prophecy have foreseen the thin and shattered remains of this immense host, which a few months afterwards were alone destined to regain the shore of the Niemen, the change would have appeared too dreadful for any human powers of destruction to have accomplished."

The passage of the fourth Army Corps was not made under such happy auspices, but the men were cheered by the news that on the 28th June Napoleon had entered Vilna. This enabled them to shake off to some extent the depressing effects of the wet weather, and the presence of Eugene, Viceroy of Italy, and the dauntless Junot, both of whom personally superintended the construction of the bridge, did much to inspire enthusiasm. There was no enemy to contest them, and the crossing was effected in good order.

"Scarcely had we reached the opposite shore," says Captain Eugene Labaume, who was with the expedition, "when we seemed to breathe a new air. However, the roads were dreadfully bad, the forests gloomy, and the villages completely deserted; but imagination, inflamed by a spirit of conquest, was enchanted with everything, and cherished illusions which were but too soon destroyed.

"In fact, our short stay at Pilony, in the midst of a tempestuous rain, was marked by such extraordinary disasters, that any man, without being superstitious, would have regarded them as the presage of future misfortunes. In this wretched village, the Viceroy himself had no house to shelter him; and we were heaped upon one another under wretched sheds, or else exposed to all the inclemencies of the weather. An extreme scarcity made us anticipate the horrors of famine. The rain fell in torrents, and overwhelmed both men and horses; the former escaped, but the badness of the roads completed the destruction of the latter. They were seen dropping by hundreds in the environs of Pilony; the road was covered with dead horses, overturned waggons and scattered baggage. It was in the month of July that we suffered thus from cold, and rain, and hunger. So many calamities excited within us sad forebodings of the future, and everyone began to dread the event of an enterprise, the commencement of which was so disastrous; but the sun reappeared on the horizon, the clouds dispersed, our fears were scattered with them, and at that moment we thought that the fine season would last for ever."

The captain's narrative is replete with similar instances, showing the almost complete failure of the commissariat on which so much care and anxiety had been bestowed, the treacherous nature of the weather, and the impossibility in so barren a country of putting into effect Napoleon's maxim that war should support itself. Indeed, the truth was shown of another of the Emperor's principles, that "an army marches on its stomach." In the paragraph immediately following the one quoted above, Labaume says that on entering Kroni the soldiers again found the houses deserted, "which convinced us that the enemy, in order to ruin the country through which we were to pass, and deprive us of all the means of subsistence, had carried along with them the inhabitants and the cattle." In a march of fifty miles no fewer than 10,000 horses succumbed.

But a greater difficulty than those we have enumerated soon presented itself. The Russian army, like a will-o'-the-wisp, enticed the French further and further from their base by a series of retreats which made it impossible for Napoleon to fall on the enemy with the fierce rapidity characteristic of his method of warfare. Alexander was playing a waiting game. When the ranks of the enemy were thinned by death, sickness, and desertion, when want and privation stalked hand in hand with the French armies as they painfully made their way along the snow-covered ruts—then would be the time to strike. The Czar could afford to wait, his antagonist could not; one was on the defensive, the other on the offensive, and many hundreds of miles from the capital of his unwieldly Empire. There was little or no opportunity for the soldiers to pay unwelcome attentions to the inhabitants of the villages through which they passed. The peasants had forsaken their wretched wooden shanties, the furniture of the houses of many of the nobles had been removed, making the places almost as cheerless as the frowning forests where their former owners had sought refuge.

At Vilna, which the Russians had evacuated, Napoleon experienced none of these troubles. The Poles, longing to restore the independence of their beloved country, regarded him as their potential liberator, delivering to him the keys of the town, donning their national costumes, and indulging in merry-making. The ancient capital of Lithuania awoke from her long sleep. Deputation after deputation waited on the Emperor, hungering to hear the words which would give them back their lost freedom. They were never uttered; he dare not break faith with his allies at this juncture. He made vague promises in order to stimulate their enthusiasm, set up a provisional government, and began to reorganize the provinces with his usual insight, but further than this he would not go. The Poles repaid him well by immediately ordering some 12,000 men to be placed at the Emperor's disposal, and from first to last they furnished no fewer than 85,000 troops. To the Diet (Parliament) of Warsaw he admitted that he could sanction no movement which might endanger the peaceable possession of Austria's Polish provinces, but he issued a fiery proclamation to those who were serving with the Russian colours. It runs:

"Poles! You are under Russian banners. It was permitted you to serve that Power while you had no longer a country of your own; but all that is now changed; Poland is created anew. You must fight for her complete re-establishment, and compel the Russians to acknowledge those rights of which you have been despoiled by injustice and usurpation. The General Confederation of Poland and Lithuania recalls every Pole from the Russian service. Generals of Poland, officers and soldiers, listen to the voice of your country; abandon the standard of your oppressors; hasten to range yourselves under the eagles of the Jagellons, the Casimirs, and the Sobieskis! [Former kings of Poland] Your country requires it of you; honour and religion equally command it."

Note the subtle phrase, "Poland is created anew." It is delightfully vague, meaning little, yet conveying much, and probably understood by many to promise the longed-for restoration.

Napoleon did not leave Vilna, where he had stopped much too long, until the 16th July, but the troops under King Jerome and Davout had been busy in an endeavour to cut off Prince Bagration from the main army under Barclay de Tolly. This measure was far from successful. Jerome was too slow in his movements, two combats ensued in which the Russians were successful, and Bagration made good his retreat to Bobruisk, Barclay falling back on Drissa, where a strongly entrenched camp was in course of construction, and later to Vitebsk. Napoleon was furious at his brother's failure, saying, "It is impossible to manoeuvre worse than he has done," and superseding him by the more energetic Davout. With the intention of fighting Barclay, Napoleon pushed on to Glubokoie, only to find that the enemy had proceeded to Vitebsk, which in turn had been evacuated for Smolensk, where Bagration joined hands with Barclay on the 2nd August. Some advantages had been gained by Murat, Macdonald, and Oudinot, but the great opportunity of defeating the two armies separately had been lost, and the combined forces now numbered some 120,000 troops. The Emperor had again wasted time from various causes at Vitebsk, which centre several of his officers wished to make the winter-quarters of the army. He had already lost 100,000 men without accomplishing anything of importance, and as he himself admitted, "Russia is too powerful to yield without fighting: Alexander will not treat till a great battle has been fought." The Emperor was for pushing on, and would brook no interference. "Why should we remain here eight months," he asked his generals when the subject was under discussion, "when twenty days are sufficient to accomplish our purpose? Let us anticipate Winter and its reflections. We must strike soon and strongly, or we shall be in danger. We must be in Moscow in a month, or we shall never be there. Peace awaits us under its walls. Should Alexander still persist, I will treat with his nobles: Moscow hates St Petersburg; the effects of that jealousy are incalculable."

Spurred on by the defeat of the advanced guard under Murat, the Emperor now decided to attack Smolensk with practically his entire army. According to Chambray this was now reduced, excluding various detachments, to some 194,000 men. On the 16th August Ney, with all his old fire and vigour, attempted to storm the citadel and was repulsed. Following their former plan, and fearing to be cut off from Moscow, part of the Russian army under Bagration began to retreat in the early hours of the following morning, Barclay remaining to defend the town with about 30,000 troops. After much heavy fighting the Emperor was in possession of the suburbs, but the losses on either side had been severe. Very soon the dense masses of smoke which arose from the walled city made it evident that to the terrors of shot and shell had been added that of fire. Flames burst out in all directions, the wooden roofs of the smaller houses quickly fell in, larger buildings caught alight and blazed away, fanned by the breeze. Within a few hours Smolensk was little more than a smouldering charnel-house. The conclusion of this dreadful incident is best told by an eye witness, an officer in the French army.

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


"At one o'clock the ruins of the town were abandoned," he says. "Our first grenadiers prepared to mount the breach at two o'clock in the morning, when, approaching without opposition, they discovered that the place was entirely evacuated. We took possession of it, and found on the walls many pieces of cannon which the enemy could not take away.

"Never," the narrator adds, "can you form an adequate idea of the dreadful scene which the interior of Smolensk presented to my view, and never during the whole course of my life can I forget it. Every street, every square, was covered with the bodies of the Russians, dead and dying, while the flames shed over them a horrible glare."

Labaume thus continues the dreadful story begun by his friend:

"The next day (August 19th) we entered Smolensk by the suburb built along the river. In every direction we marched over scattered ruins and dead bodies. Palaces yet burning offered to our sight only walls half destroyed by the flames, and, thick among the fragments were the blackened carcases of the wretched inhabitants whom the fire had consumed. The few houses that remained were completely filled by the soldiery, while at the doors stood the miserable proprietors without an asylum, deploring the death of their children, and the loss of their property. The churches alone afforded some consolation to the unhappy victims who had no other shelter. The cathedral, celebrated through Europe, and held in great veneration by the Russians, became the refuge of the unfortunate beings who had escaped the flames. In this church and round its altars, were to be seen whole families extended on the ground; in one place was an old man just expiring, and casting a look on the image of the saint whom he had all his life invoked; in another an infant whose feeble cry the mother, worn down with grief, was endeavouring to hush. . . . In the midst of this desolation, the passage of the army into the interior of the town formed a striking contrast. On one side was seen the abject submission of the conquered—on the other, the pride attendant upon victory; the former had lost their all—the latter, rich with spoil, and ignorant of defeat, marched proudly to the sound of warlike music, inspiring the unhappy remains of a vanquished population with mingled fear and admiration."

Again the Emperor pondered, apparently undecided as to his next movement. Should he take up his winter quarters at Smolensk, as he had originally intended, or push on to Moscow? A great battle had been fought and yet the situation remained unchanged. He had merely taken a ruined city! Ney, Grouchy, and Murat, who had followed the retreating Russians, had but sorry tales to tell on the 19th, and the action near Valutino on that day was indecisive largely owing to the hesitation of Junot in coming to the aid of Ney. Defeat and disaster alone seemed to attend the efforts of the Grand Army. Still Napoleon hesitated. How could he, the virtual Master of Europe, the Conqueror who never failed, quietly lay aside his sword and by so doing tacitly admit failure? No, ten thousand times no; he would push towards Moscow though the heavens fall!