Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXI, 6

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXI, chapter 6
Smolensk – The Retreat continued

On the 9th of November, they finally reached Smolensk. An order from Bonaparte forbade anyone entering prior to the sentry-posts being occupied by the Imperial Guard. The soldiers outside gathered at the foot of the walls; the soldiers inside held the gates closed. The air was rent by the imprecations of the excluded and desperate, dressed in dirty Cossack smocks, patched greatcoats, ragged cloaks and uniforms, blankets and horsecloths, their heads covered by caps, knotted handkerchiefs, battered shakos, and twisted and dented helmets; all this spattered with blood and snow, riddled with bullets or slashed by sabre-cuts. With haggard, drawn faces, and sombre glittering eyes, they gnashed their teeth and gazed up at the ramparts, with the air of those mutilated prisoners, who, under Louis the Fat, carried their amputated left hand in their right: they might have been taken for frenzied mourners or demented patients escaped from the madhouse. The Young and Old Guards arrived; they entered a city ravaged by fire on our previous visit. Shouts rose, aimed at the privileged band: ‘Will the army never have aught but their leavings?’ The famished cohorts ran wildly towards the shops as if in spectral insurrection; they were driven off and began fighting: the dead were left in the streets, the women and children, and the dying, in the carts. The air stank with the corruption of a multitude of decomposed corpses; some soldiers were touched with imbecility or madness; some with hair tangled or on end, blaspheming or shaking with crazed laughter, fell dead. Bonaparte vented his anger on a wretched supplier not a single of whose orders had been fulfilled.

This army of a hundred thousand men, reduced to thirty thousand, was accompanied by a band of fifty thousand camp-followers: there were only eighteen hundred mounted cavalry left. Napoleon gave their command to Monsieur de Latour-Mauborg. This officer, leading the cuirassiers in the attack on the Great Redoubt at Borodino had his head split open by sabre blows; later he lost a leg at Wachau. Seeing his orderly weeping, he said to him: ‘What are you moaning about? You’ll only have one boot to polish now.’ This general, remaining loyal to the unfortunate, has become tutor to Henri V during the first years of the young prince’s exile: I raise my hat when I pass him, as if I were passing honour incarnate.

They stayed in strength in Smolensk until the 14th of November. Napoleon ordered Marshal Ney to confer with Davout and destroy the place by blowing it apart with mines: as for himself, he went to Krasnoy, where he took up quarters on the 15th, after the place had been looted by the Russians. The Muscovite encirclement contracted: the Grand Army of Moldavia so called was nearby; it prepared to surround us completely and drive us into the Berezina.

The remainder of our battalions diminished from day to day. Kutuzov, told of our misery, barely stirred: ‘Leave your headquarters for a moment, Wilson exclaimed, ‘climb the heights; and you will see that Napoleon’s final moment has arrived. Russia claims its victim: it only needs us to strike; one charge will suffice; in two hours the face of Europe will be transformed.’

It was true; but it would only have been Bonaparte who would have been stricken, and God wanted to set his seal more heavily on France.

Kutuzov replied: ‘I am going to rest my soldiers for three days; I would be ashamed, I would halt too, if they were short of bread for a single instant. I am escorting the French army as my prisoner; I punish them whenever they want to stop, or stray from the primary route. The outcome of Napoleon’s destiny is irrevocably set: it is in the marshes of the Berezina that the shooting star will be extinguished, in the presence of the whole Russian army. I shall have delivered Napoleon to them, weakened, disarmed, and dying: that is sufficient to ensure my glory.’

Bonaparte had spoken of old Kutuzov with that insulting disdain of which he was so prodigal: old Kutuzov in turn traded him contempt for contempt.

Kutuzov’s army was more impatient than its leader; the Cossacks themselves shouted: ‘Will you let these skeletons escape from their tomb?’

Meanwhile there was no sign of the fourth corps which ought to have left Smolensk on the 15th, and rejoined Napoleon on the 16th at Krasnoy; communications were cut; Prince Eugène, who led the retreat, tried in vain to re-establish them: all he could do, was to deflect the Russians and achieve a union with the Guard below Krasnoy, but still Marshals Davout and Ney did not appear.

Then, suddenly, Napoleon found his genius once more: he left Krasnoy on the 17th, baton in hand, at the head of his Guard, now reduced to thirteen thousand men, in order to confront his innumerable enemies, open the road to Smolensk, and clear a path for his Marshals. He only spoilt that action by recalling words inappropriate to his role: ‘I have played the Emperor long enough: it is time I played the general.’ Henry IV, leaving for the siege of Amiens, said: ‘I have played King of France long enough: it is time I played King of Navarre.’ The surrounding heights, at whose foot Napoleon marched, were full of artillery which could strike at any moment; he glanced at them and said: ‘Let a squadron of my chasseurs take them!’ The Russians had only to crush those below: their weight alone would have wiped them out; but, at the sight of the great man and the remnants of the Guard battalions formed up in squares, they remained motionless, in fascination; his gaze kept a hundred thousand men on the hilltops.

Kutuzov, on account of this encounter at Krasnoy, was honoured in Petersburg with the title of Smolenski: apparently for not having given up hope, with Napoleon as Marshal, of the Republic’s regard.