Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXI, 5

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXI, chapter 5
Retreat



Bonaparte, deceiving himself or wishing to deceive others, wrote a letter to the Duc de Bassano, on the 18th of October, reproduced by Monsieur Fain: ‘By the end of the first few weeks of November,’ he writes, ‘I will have brought my troops back to the square bounded by Smolensk, Mohilov, Minsk and Vitebsk. I am decided on this manoeuvre, since Moscow is no longer a position of military value; I am about to locate another, more favourable to the start of the next campaign. Operations will then be directed towards Petersburg and Kiev.’ A pitiful boast, if it were merely a question of gaining acceptance for a lie; but with Bonaparte, the idea of conquest, despite being contrary to all logic, always offered the possibility of being honest.

They retreated towards Maloyaroslavets: due to the volume of baggage and badly-harnessed vehicles, after three days march they were still only thirty miles from Moscow. They intended to outpace Kutuzov: indeed Prince Eugène’s vanguard reached Fominskoe before him. There were still a hundred thousand infantrymen left when the retreat began. The cavalry was almost non-existent apart from the three thousand five hundred Horse-guards. Our troops, having reached the new road to Kaluga on the 21st of October, entered Borowsk on the 22nd, and on the 23rd Delzons’ division occupied Maloyaroslavets. Napoleon was delighted; he thought they had escaped.

On the 23rd of October at half-past one in the morning, the earth shook: a hundred and eighty three thousand pounds of gunpowder, placed beneath the Kremlin, tore apart the palace of the Tsars. Mortier, who blew up the Kremlin, was destined to meet Fieschi’s infernal machine. What worlds passed between those two explosions, in time and among men!

After this deafening roar, a loud cannonade sounded through the silence, from the direction of Maloyaroslavets: to the same degree that Napoleon had longed to hear this noise on entering Russia, he dreaded hearing it on leaving. An aide-de-camp to the Viceroy announced a Russian general attack: during the night Compans and Gérard arrived to assist Prince Eugène. Many men perished on both sides; the enemy managed to ride along the Kaluga Road and completely shut off access to the route we had hoped to follow. There was no option but to fall back on the road to Mojaïsk and re-enter Smolensk along the track of our previous misfortune.

Napoleon stayed that night at Gorodnia, in a humble house where the officers attached to various generals were unable to find shelter. They gathered under Bonaparte’s window; it lacked curtains or shutters; light could be seen escaping, while the officers who remained outside were plunged in darkness. Napoleon was sitting in his little room, his head bowed on his hands; Murat, Berthier, and Bessières stood near him, silent and motionless. He gave no orders, and mounted his horse on the morning of the 25th of October, in order to inspect the Russian army’s positions.

He had barely left when a cascade of Cossacks swept almost to his feet. The living avalanche had crossed the Luzh, and had been hidden from sight, at the edge of a wood. Everyone drew his sword, including the Emperor. If these marauders had been possessed of greater courage, Bonaparte would have been captured. In the burning town of Maloyaroslavets, the streets were strewn with bodies, half-charred, slashed, crushed; mutilated by the wheels of the guns, which had passed over them. In order to continue the push towards Kaluga, it had been necessary to fight a second battle; the Emperor considered it inappropriate. There amounts to a disagreement in this regard between the supporters of Bonaparte and the friends of the Marshals. Who gave the advice to pursue once more the original route taken by the French? Evidently it was Napoleon: it cost him little to pronounce great and fatal judgements; he was used to it.

Returning to Borowsk next day, on the 26th, near to Vereia, General Wintzingerode and his aide-de-camp Count Nariskin were brought before the leader of our armies: they had been caught entering Moscow prematurely. Bonaparte lost his temper: ‘Let them shoot this general!’ he shouted, beside himself: ‘he is a deserter from the Kingdom of Wurtemberg; it belongs to the Confederation of the Rhine.’ He poured out invective against the Russian nobility and ended with these words: ‘I will go to St Petersburg, I will hurl that city into the Neva.’, and suddenly he ordered the burning of a castle that could be seen on the heights: the wounded lion lashing out, foaming, at everything around him.

Nevertheless, in the midst of his wild anger, while he was giving Mortier the order to destroy the Kremlin, he obeyed, at the same moment, his double nature; he wrote to that same Duke of Treviso in sentimental phrases; aware that his missives would become known, he urged him with paternal tenderness to save the hospitals; ‘since that is how,’ he added, ‘I treated Saint-Jean-d’Acre.’ Now, in Palestine, he had the Turkish prisoners shot, and with no opposition from Desgenettes, he poisoned the sick! Berthier and Murat saved Prince Wintzingerode.

Kutuzov however pursued us sluggishly. When Wilson urged the Russian general to act, the general replied: ‘Let the snows come.’ On the 29th of October, they reached the Moskva’s fatal heights: a shout of grief and surprise escaped our army. A vast slaughterhouse was revealed, displaying forty thousand corpses in varying stages of decay. The orderly rows of bodies still seemed to maintain military discipline; detached skeletons in front, on levelled hillocks, indicated the officers and dominated the ranks of dead. Everywhere were broken weapons, shattered drums, fragments of cuirasses and uniforms, and torn standards, scattered among the trunks of trees cut down by cannonballs a few feet from the ground; it was the Grand Redoubt of Borodino.

At the heart of this motionless destruction something was seen moving: a French soldier who had lost both legs made his way through this cemetery which seemed to have disgorged its entrails. The body of a horse brought down by a shell had served to nourish this soldier: he lived there, gnawing away at his cave of flesh; the putrefying flesh of the dead nearby served him in place of bandages to dress his wounds and ointment to soothe his stumps. The terrifying remorse that glory brings dragged itself towards Napoleon: Napoleon did not linger.

The silence of the soldiers, hurrying away from cold, hunger and the enemy, was profound; they thought they might soon resemble those comrades whose remains they could see. Amongst the remnant nothing could be heard but heaving breath and the involuntary tremor of noise from battalions in retreat.

Further on was the Abbey of Kotloskoy which had been turned into a hospital; all medical assistance was lacking: there was only enough life left there to witness death. Bonaparte, reaching the place, burnt the wood of his shattered wagons. When the army took to the road again, those in mortal agony rose in order to reach the threshold of their last sanctuary, allowing themselves to collapse on the roadway, holding out their failing arms to their comrades who were departing: they seemed at the same time to entreat them and seek to delay them.

At every instant the sound of explosions rang out from the ammunition boxes they had been forced to abandon. The camp-followers flung the dying into the ditches. The Russian prisoners, who were being escorted by foreigners in the French service, were dispatched by their guards: executed in a regular manner, their brains were spilled from their skulls. Bonaparte had led all Europe all along with him; every language was spoken in his army; every manner of cockade and flag could be seen there. Italians, forced to fight, were defeated with the French; Spaniards had maintained their reputation for courage: Naples and Andalusia were for them no more than the regret for a sweet dream. It is said that Bonaparte was only defeated by Europe in its entirety, and that is fair; but the fact is forgotten that Bonaparte only conquered with Europe’s aid, with force or willingness as his allies.

Russia alone resisted a Europe led by Napoleon; France, alone and defended by Napoleon, fell to a Europe in a different mode; but it should be said that Russia was defended by her climate, and that Europe marched regretfully behind its master. France, on the contrary, was defended neither by its climate nor its decimated population; it had only courage and the remembrance of glory.

Indifferent to his soldiers’ miseries, Bonaparte was only concerned with his own interests: in camp, his conversation turned to those ministers who had sold themselves, he said, to the English, ministers who had fomented this war; unwilling to confess that this war was his responsibility alone. The Duke of Vicenza who persisted in bringing trouble upon himself by his noble conduct, indulged in an outburst, faced with the flattery prevalent in their bivouac. He shouted: ‘What atrocious cruelty! So this is the civilisation we have brought Russia!’ To Bonaparte’s amazed retort, he made a gesture of anger and incredulity and withdrew. That man whom the least contradiction sent into fits of fury tolerated Caulaincourt’s rudeness in expiation of the letter he had once made him carry to Ettenheim. When you have committed an action deserving of reproach, heaven in punishment imposes witnesses on you: it was vain for the tyrants of the ancient world to make them vanish; descending to the underworld, those witnesses entered the bodies of Furies and returned.

Passing through Gjatsk, Napoleon pressed forward to Viasma; he carried on beyond, not having met with the enemy he feared he might encounter there. On the 3rd of November he reached Slavkovo: there he learnt that a battle had been fought at Viasma against Miloradovich’s troops, fatal to us: our soldiers, our officers, wounded, arms in slings, heads swathed in bandages, in a miracle of valour, threw themselves at the enemy cannon.

These successive actions in familiar places, these layers of dead upon dead, these battles echoed by other battles, would have doubly immortalised these fatal fields, if oblivion had not swiftly cloaked our dust. Who thinks of those countrymen left behind in Russia? Are those rustics content to have been at the great battle beneath the walls of Moscow? Perhaps only I on autumn evenings, watching birds from the North flying high in the sky, recall having seen the grave of our compatriots. Industrial companies have transported their cauldrons and furnaces into the wilderness; the bones have been converted into animal-black: whether from dog or man, varnish fetches the same price, and gleams no less brightly for being produced from the obscure or the glorious. There you see the respect we have for the dead these days! Behold the sacred rites of the new religion! Diis Manibus: to the gods of the shades. Fortunate companions of Charles XII, you were not visited by these sacrilegious hyenas! In winter the ermine appears among your virginal snows and in summer the flowering mosses of Pultava.

On the 6th of November 1812 the thermometer fell to eighteen degrees (Réamur) below zero: everything vanished under a blanket of snow. The soldiers lacking boots felt their feet dying; their muskets, whose very touch burnt, fell from their stiff purple fingers; their hair bristled with hoar-frost, their beards with their frozen breath; their wretched clothes turned into frosty cassocks. They fell, and the snow covered them; they formed little ridges of graves on the ground. No one knew which way the rivers flowed; they had to break the ice to discover the direction to take. Lost in the wilderness, the various army corps lit fires to signal to and recognise one another, as ships in peril fire cannon in their distress. The fir-trees were transformed into motionless crystal, rising up here and there, candelabra at these obsequies. Crows, and packs of master-less white dogs, followed this procession of corpses, at a distance.

It was galling, after each day’s march, to be obliged, at some deserted halt, to take the precautions suited to a strong, well-equipped host, to post sentries; occupy key positions, and station pickets. During the sixteen hour nights, battered by gusts from the north, our troops did not know where to sit or lie down; the trees chopped down with all their alabaster coating, refused to catch fire; to melt a little snow was as much as they could manage, and then mix a spoonful of rye-flour into it. They were no sooner stretched out on the frozen ground than Cossack howls echoed through the woods; the enemy’s light artillery rumbled; our soldiers’ fast was saluted like a banquet at which kings sit down to dine; cannon-balls rolled among the famished guests like loaves of iron. At dawn, which was barely followed by daybreak, the beat of a frost-coated drum, or a hoarse note from a trumpet could be heard: nothing could have been sadder than this mournful reveille, calling to arms warriors whom it could no longer rouse. The growing light revealed circles of infantrymen dead and frozen around extinguished fires.

A few survivors remained; they advanced, towards unknown horizons which, ever-receding, vanished into the fog at every step. Under a shivering sky, as if weary of last night’s storms, our thinning ranks crossed region after region, forest on forest, in which an Ocean seemed to have left its foam among the dishevelled branches of the birch-trees. Among these woods there was not even a sign of that sad little bird of winter who sings, like me, among the leafless bushes. If I suddenly find myself again, by analogy, in the presence of former days, oh my comrades (soldiers are all brothers), your sufferings too recall my youth, when, retreating in advance of your track, I, so wretched and abandoned, journeyed over the heath-land of the Ardennes.

The Russian Grand Army followed ours: the latter was organised in several divisions sub-divided into columns: Prince Eugène commanded the vanguard, Napoleon the centre, Marshal Ney the rear-guard. Hindered by various obstacles and skirmishes, these corps failed to keep a distance between them: sometimes they overtook one another; sometimes they marched on a parallel course, often without seeing each other or being able to communicate, through lack of cavalry. The Tartars, riding small ponies whose manes swept the ground, gave our soldiers harassed by these gadflies of the snow no rest, day or night. The landscape was changing: where a river had been visible, one found a torrent suspended by bonds of ice from the steep sides of its ravine. ‘In a single night,’ Bonaparte writes (Records of St Helena), ‘we lost thirty thousand horses: we were forced to abandon almost all the artillery, still five hundred pieces strong; we could take neither munitions nor provisions. For lack of horses, we could not carry out any reconnaissance, nor send cavalry forward to reconnoitre the route. The soldiers lost their courage and their wits, and fell, in the confusion. The slightest set-back alarmed them. Four or five men were enough to fill a whole battalion with dread. Instead of keeping together, they wandered off separately seeking the nearest fire. Those who were sent ahead, as scouts, abandoned their task, and went to some house, in order to find the means to warm themselves. They spread out on all sides, estranged from their corps, and easily fell prey to the enemy. Others fell asleep, lying on the ground: a little blood flowed from their nostrils, and they died while sleeping. Thousands of soldiers perished. The Poles saved some of their horses, and a small amount of artillery; but the French and the soldiers of other nations were not the same men. The cavalry suffered most particularly. Of forty thousand men I do not believe three thousand were allowed to escape.’

And you, who recounted this under the glittering sun of another hemisphere, were you merely a witness to all this wretchedness?

On that very day (the 6th of November) when the thermometer fell so low, the first courier seen for many a long day arrived like a lost screech-owl: he carried evil tidings of Malet’s conspiracy. This conspiracy revealed something profound about Napoleon’s fortunes. According to General Gourgaud, what made the most impression on the Emperor was the over-abundant proof ‘that monarchical principles as applied to his monarchy had flung out such shallow roots that the great functionaries, at the news of the Emperor’s death, had already forgotten that, the sovereign being dead, there was another left to succeed him.’

Bonaparte on St Helena (Las Cases’ Mémorial) remarked that he had said to his Court at the Tuileries, in speaking of Malet’s conspiracy: ‘Well, Gentlemen, you considered your revolution over; you thought me dead: but what of the King of Rome, your oaths, your principles, your doctrines? You make me shudder for the future!’ Bonaparte reasoned logically; it was a question of his dynasty: would he have found the reasoning as correct if it had been a question concerning Saint Louis’ race?

Bonaparte learned of the Paris incident in the midst of the wilderness, among the ruins of an all but vanished army, whose blood the snow drank; Napoleon’s rule rooted in force was annihilated in Russia along with his force, while a single man sufficed to cast it in doubt in the capital: without religion, justice, and liberty, there is no rule.

At almost the very moment that Bonaparte learned of what had happened in Paris, he received a letter from Marshal Ney. This letter informed him that: ‘the best of the army were asking why they alone were fighting to protect the flight of the rest; why the eagle continued to protect and kill; why it was necessary to die in battalions, since there was nothing left to do but flee?’

When Ney’s aide-de-camp tried to go into the specific grievances, Bonaparte interrupted him: ‘Colonel, I did not ask you for details.’ – This expedition to Russia was a foolish extravagance which all civil and military authorities within the Empire condemned: the victories and sufferings marked out by the route of their retreat discouraged and embittered the soldiers: in that path of ascent and descent, Napoleon might equally have found a symbol of the two segments of his life.