Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXI, 2

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XXI, 1 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXI, 3


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXI, chapter 2
The Russian retreat – The Borysthenes – Bonaparte’s obsession – Kutuzov succeeds Barclay in command of the Russian Army – The Battle of Moscow or Borodino – Bulletin – The appearance of the battlefield



Bonaparte wrote to France from Smolensk saying that he was owner of the Russian salt-works, and that his Minister of Finance could count on eighty millions more.

Russia fled towards the pole: the nobility, leaving their wooden châteaux, left with their families, their serfs and their herds. The Dnieper, the ancient Borysthenes, whose waters were once proclaimed as holy by Vladimir, was crossed: that river had brought the Barbarian invasions to the civilised nations; now it carried an invasion by the civilised nations. A savage disguised under a Greek name, it no longer brought to mind the first Slavic migrations; it continued to flow unnoticed, carrying among forests, in its small boats, instead of Odin’s children, perfumes and shawls for the ladies of St Petersburg and Warsaw. Its story for the world only commences at those eastern mountains where Alexander’s altars were raised.

From Smolensk an army could be led either towards St Petersburg or Moscow. Smolensk should have been a warning to the conqueror to halt; for a moment he felt urged to do so: ‘The Emperor,’ says Monsieur Fain, ‘greatly discouraged, spoke of the idea of stopping at Smolensk.’ Medical supplies were already beginning to run out. General Gourgaud records that General Lariboisière was obliged to hand over the wadding from his guns: in order to provide dressings for the wounded. But Bonaparte was driven on; he delighted in contemplating the twin dawns at the ends of Europe which lit his armies, one above scorching plains the other over frozen steppes.

Orlando, in his narrow circuit of chivalry, chased after Angelica; conquerors of the first rank pursue a nobler sovereign: no rest for them until they clasp in their arms that divinity crowned with towers, the bride of Time, daughter of Heaven and mother of the gods. Obsessed by his own being, Bonaparte reduced everything to the personal; Napoleon had taken possession of Napoleon; there was no longer anything in him but self. So far he had only explored famous regions; now he was travelling a nameless road along which Peter the Great had scarcely sketched out the future cities of an empire not yet a hundred years old. If precedents were instructive, Bonaparte might have been concerned by the memory of Charles XII who passed through Smolensk on his way to Moscow. At Kolodrina there was a murderous engagement: the French corpses were buried in haste, so that Napoleon could not judge the extent of his losses. At Dorogobouj, he encountered a Russian with a beard of dazzling whiteness covering his chest: too old to follow his family and left alone in his house, he had seen the marvels of the end of Peter the Great’s reign and now, filled with silent indignation, was present to witness the devastation of his country.

A succession of battles, offered and refused, brought the French to the field of Borodino. At every bivouac the Emperor discussed the situation with his generals, listening to their arguments while seated on a pine branch or toying with a Russian cannon ball which he rolled about with his foot.

Barclay, the Livonian pastor, become a general, was the originator of this series of retreats which gave autumn time to overtake him: an intrigue at Court toppled him. The ageing Kutuzov replaced Barclay, Kutuzov who was beaten at Austerlitz because his advice, to avoid battle until the arrival of Prince Charles, was ignored. The Russians saw Kutuzov as a general of their own, Suvorov’s pupil, conqueror of the Grand Vizier in 1811, and author of the peace treaty with the Porte, so necessary to Russia at that time. At this juncture, a Muscovite officer presented himself at Davout’s outpost; he had been charged with bringing vague proposals; his true mission seemed to be to inspect and examine: he was shown everything. The French with their carefree, fearless curiosity asked him what they would find between Vyazma and Moscow: ‘Pultava,’ he replied.

Reaching the heights of Borodino, Bonaparte saw the Russian Army at last, which had halted and was formidably entrenched. It consisted of a hundred and twenty thousand men and six hundred guns; the French had a similar force. After inspecting the Russian left, Marshal Davout advises Napoleon to turn the enemy flank. ‘That would lose me too much time’, the Emperor replies. Davout insists: he undertakes to complete his manoeuvre before six in the morning; Napoleon interrupts sharply: ‘Oh, you are always wanting to turn the enemy’s flank.’

A great stir could be seen in the Muscovite camp: the troops were under arms; Kutuzov, surrounded by priests and archimandrites and preceded by religious emblems and a holy icon rescued from the ruins of Smolensk was talking to his soldiers about Heaven and the motherland; he called Napoleon the universal despot.

In the midst of battle songs and triumphant choruses mingled with cries of grief, a Christian voice was heard from the French camp also; it could be distinguished from all the rest; it was the sacred hymn rising alone beneath the vaults of the church. The soldier, whose voice calm, yet full of emotion, lingered beyond the others, was the aide-de-camp of the Marshal in command of the Horse-Guards. This aide-de-camp had been involved in every battle of the Russian Campaign; he speaks of Napoleon, as one of his greatest admirers; but he recognised his weaknesses; he corrects false tales, and declares that the errors made were due to the leader’s pride and his officers’ neglect of God. ‘In the Russian camp,’ Lieutenant-Colonel Baudus says, ‘they sanctified that vigil on a day which would be the last for so many brave men……………………………………………………………………..

The spectacle offered to my eyes by the enemy’s piety, as well as the jests it suggested to too many of the officers in our ranks, reminded me that the greatest of our kings, Charlemagne, was also inclined to begin the most dangerous of his enterprises with religious ceremony.

Ah, doubtless, among those errant Christians, a large number were to be found whose sincere belief sanctified their prayers; for if the Russians were defeated at the Moskva, our complete annihilation, which can in no way be considered glorious, since it was the manifest work of Providence, would show several months later that their pleas had only been too favourably heard!’

But where was the Tsar? He happened to say modestly to the fugitive Madame de Staël that he regretted not being a great general. At that moment Monsieur de Bausset, an officer of the Palace, appeared in our bivouacs: come from the tranquil woods of Saint-Cloud, following the dreadful tracks of our army, he arrived on the eve of the funerals by the Moskva; he had been charged with a portrait of the King of Rome, which Marie-Louise had sent to the Emperor. Monsieur Fain and Monsieur de Ségur portray the feeling which seized Napoleon on seeing it; according to General Gourgaud, Bonaparte, having viewed the portrait, exclaimed: ‘Take it away; he is seeing the field of battle too soon.’

The day before the storm was extremely calm: ‘The kind of skill,’ says Monsieur Baudus, ‘which goes into preparing such cruel follies, is somewhat humiliating to human reason when one thinks about it cold-bloodedly at my age; since, in my youth, I found it quite fine.’

Towards evening on the 6th of September, Bonaparte dictated this proclamation; it was not known to most of his remaining troops until after the victory:

‘Soldiers, here is the battle you so longed for. Victory now depends on you; it is essential to us, it will bring us wealth and a quick return home. Conduct yourselves as you did at Austerlitz, Friedland, Vitebsk and Smolensk, and may the most remote posterity cite your conduct on this day; may they say of you: “He was at that great battle before the walls of Moscow.”’

Bonaparte spent an anxious night: at one moment believing the enemy was retreating, at another worrying about his soldiers’ destitute state, and his officers’ weariness. He knew what was being said all around him: ‘To what end have we been made to march two thousand miles only to find marsh-water, hunger, and a bivouac among smoking ruins? Every year the war is worse: fresh conquests force him to seek out fresh enemies. Soon Europe will no longer suffice; he must have Asia.’ Indeed Bonaparte had looked with no indifferent eye on the waters which flowed into the Volga; born for Babylon, he had already been tempted by a previous route. Halted at Jaffa, at the western gate of Asia, halted at Moscow, at the northern gateway to that very Asia, he departed to die among the waves at the edge of that region of the world where mankind and the sun were born.

In the middle of the night, Napoleon summoned one of his aides-de-camp; the latter found him with his head buried in his hands: ‘What is war?’ he asked; ‘a barbaric trade whose only art consists in being stronger at any given point.’ He complained of the inconstancy of fortune; he sent for reports on the enemy positions: he was told that the fires were burning as brightly and in the same numbers; he calmed down. At five in the morning, Ney sent a request for the order to attack; Bonaparte went outside and exclaimed: ‘Let us open the gates of Moscow.’ Day broke; Napoleon pointed to the eastern sky which was beginning to redden: ‘See, the sun of Austerlitz!’ he cried.