Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXI, 7

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXI, chapter 7
Smolensk – The Retreat continued



After this vain effort, Napoleon re-crossed the Dnieper on the 19th of November 1812 and made camp at Orcha: there he burnt the papers he been carrying for the purpose of writing his biography during the tedious days of winter, if an intact Moscow had permitted him to remain there. He found himself compelled to have the enormous cross of St John thrown into the lake of Semlovo: it was retrieved by Cossacks and replaced on Ivan the Great’s bell-tower.

At Orcha there was great anxiety: despite Napoleon’s attempt to rescue Marshal Ney, he was still missing. News of him was at last received at Baranni: Eugène had managed to rejoin him. General Gourgaud tells of the pleasure Napoleon experienced at this, though the bulletins and the narratives of the Emperor’s friends continue to express jealous reservations concerning all events in which he was not directly involved. The army’s joy was promptly stifled; it passed from peril to peril. Bonaparte went from Kokhanov to Tolozcim, where an aide-de-camp told him of the loss of the bridgehead at Borisov, captured from General Dabrowski by the Army of Moldavia. The Army of Moldavia, in turn taken by surprise by the Duke of Reggio in Borisov, withdrew beyond the Berezina having destroyed the bridge. Chichagov thus found himself facing us, on the far bank of the river.

General Corbineau, commanding a brigade of our light cavalry, given information by a peasant, had discovered the ford of Veselovo below Borisov. At the news, Napoleon, on the evening of the 24th of November, sent Éblé and Chasseloup from Bobre with the pontoneers and sappers: they arrived at Studianka, on the Berezina, at the ford indicated.

Two bridges were built: an army of forty thousand Russians were camped on the opposite shore. Imagine the surprise of the French, when at daybreak they saw the river-bank deserted and the rear-guard of Chaplits’ division in full retreat! They could not believe their eyes. A single cannonball, the heat from a Cossack’s pipe, would have sufficed to shatter or set fire to Éblé’s frail pontoons. Someone ran to alert Bonaparte; he rose in haste, went out, looked, and cried out: ‘I have deceived the Admiral!’ The exclamation was natural; the Russians failed to finish things and committed a mistake which may have prolonged the war by three years; but their leader had not been deceived. Admiral Chichagov was well aware; it was simply the casual nature of his character: though intelligent and spirited, he liked his comforts; he always feared the cold, stayed in the warmth, and thought he would have plenty of time to exterminate the French when he was thoroughly heated; he yielded to his temperament. Now retired to London, having relinquished his fortune and renounced Russia, Chichagov has provided several intriguing articles on the 1812 Campaign to the Quarterly Review: he seeks to excuse himself, his compatriots reply; it is a Russian quarrel. Alas! Though Bonaparte, by the construction of those two bridges and the incomprehensible retreat by Chaplits’ division, was saved, the French were not: two other Russian armies came together on the river-bank Napoleon was preparing to leave. Here, one who did not see it should be silent, to allow the witnesses to speak.

‘The devotion of the pontoneers, directed by Éblé,’ says Chambray, ‘will lived as long as the memory of the passage of the Berezina. Though weakened by the ills they had suffered for so long, though lacking proper food, and warming spirits, they could be seen, braving water sometimes up to their chests; it was a race towards almost certain death; but the army was watching; they sacrificed themselves for its regard.

‘Disorder reigned among the French,’ Monsieur de Ségur remarks in turn, ‘and materials were lacking for the two bridges; twice, on the nights of the 26th and 27th, that for vehicles was damaged, and the crossing was delayed for several hours: it broke for a third time on the 27th, towards four in the afternoon. On the other hand, the idlers scattered through the woods and surrounding villages had failed to take advantage on the first night, and on the 27th, when daylight returned, they all presented themselves at the same time to cross the bridges.

This was above all the moment when the Guard, on whom they modelled themselves, gave way. Its departure acted as a signal: they ran from all sides; they piled up on the river bank. In an instant one saw a dense mass of horses, carts and men, huge and confused, besieging the narrow entryway to the bridges which it overwhelmed. Those in front, urged on by those who followed, driven back by the Guards and the pontoneers, or halted by the presence of the river, were crushed, trodden underfoot, or precipitated onto the ice carried by the Berezina. From this vast, terrifying crowd rose, now a deafening buzz, now a mass clamour, a mixture of groans and dreadful imprecations….The disorder was so great, that, around two o’clock, when the Emperor presented himself in turn, he had to employ force to open a passage for himself. A corps of Grenadier Guards, and Latour-Maubourg, in pity, gave up trying to reach daylight over the heads of these unfortunate men……………………………………………………………………………

The immense multitude, crammed willy-nilly onto the bank with the horses and carts, formed an appalling obstacle. Towards noon the first enemy cannonballs fell into the midst of this chaos: it acted as the signal for universal despair.

Many of those who were first squeezed out of this crowd of desperate men, failing to reach the bridge, chose to clamber along its sides; but most were driven back into the river. It was there that one saw women, amongst the chunks of ice, their children in their arms, raising them up as they sank; already submerged their rigid arms still held them aloft.

In the midst of this terrible confusion, the artillery bridge caved in and broke. The column committed to this narrow passage wished in vain to turn back. The wave of men following, ignorant of this disaster, not understanding the shouts of those in front, pushed past them, and drove them into the gulf, into which they were precipitated in their turn.

All then turned towards the other bridge. A multitude of large wagons, heavy carts and artillery pieces flowed in from every side. Urged on by their drivers, and quickly out of control on the unyielding and uneven slope, in the midst of this mass of men, they crushed the wretches taken by surprise between them; then crashing together, the majority overturned violently, stunning those around them in their fall. Then whole ranks of distraught men, pushed up against these obstacles, were obstructed, fell, and were crushed by masses of other unfortunates who followed them without cease.

These waves of pitiful creatures thus broke one upon another; nothing could be heard but screams of pain and rage. In that fearful confusion, crushed and stifled, men struggled beneath the feet of their comrades, clutching at them tooth and nail. The latter thrust them off pitilessly like enemies. Amidst the fearful noise of this furious hurricane, of cannon fire, the howling storm, the whistle of bullets, exploding shells, shouts, groans, appalling oaths, this ragged crowd could no longer hear the cries of the victims it swallowed.’

The other testimonies are in accord with Monsieur de Ségur’s description: as evidence and in summary, I will only cite this passage from the Mémoires de Vaudoncourt:

‘The vast plain before Veselovo offers, this evening, a spectacle whose horror is difficult to convey. It is covered with wagons and carts, most of them overturned on one another and shattered. It is covered with the corpses of civilians, among whom can be seen all too many women and children drawn along in the wake of the army to Moscow, or fleeing that city to follow their compatriots, and whom death has taken in different ways. The fate of these wretches, caught in the confusion of two armies, was to be crushed by the cart-wheels or under the horses’ feet; struck by bullets or by cannonballs from both sides; drowned in trying to cross the bridges with the troops, or stripped by the enemy soldiers and thrown naked into the snow, where the cold soon ended their sufferings.’

What groans did Bonaparte utter at this same catastrophe, at this painful event, one of the most momentous in history; at this disaster which surpassed those of Cambyses’ army? What cry was wrested from his soul? These four words in his bulletin: ‘During the 26th and 27th the army crossed over.’ You have just seen how they did so! Napoleon was not even moved by the sight of those women lifting their infants above the waves in their arms. That other great man, who ruled over a world in the name of France, Charlemagne, a crude barbarian apparently, sang and wept (being also a poet) over a child swallowed by the Ebro while playing on the ice:

‘Trux puer adstricto glacie dum ludit in Hebro.’

The Duke of Belluno was tasked with defending the crossing. He had left General Partouneaux behind him, who was forced to surrender. The Duke of Reggio, wounded afresh, was replaced in command by Marshal Ney. The marshes of Gaina were crossed: the least foresight on the part of the Russians would have rendered the paths impassable. At Malodeczno, on the 3rd of December, all the couriers were found who had been halted there for three weeks. It was there that Napoleon considered abandoning the flag, ‘Can I remain,’ he said, ‘at the head of a rout?’ At Smorgoni, the King of Naples and Prince Eugène urged him to return to France. The Duke of Istria brought their message; at his first words Napoleon grew infuriated; he shouted: ‘Only my mortal enemy could propose that I quit the army in the position in which it finds itself.’ He made as if to hurl himself at the Marshal, his naked sword in his hand. That evening he recalled the Duke of Istria and said: ‘Since you all wish it, it is best for me to leave.’ The scene was pre-arranged; the plan for his departure was already in hand, as it was being played out. Indeed Monsieur Fain assures us that the Emperor had decided to quit the army during the march which took him on the 4th from Malodeczno to Biclitza. Such was the comedy with which the great actor brought his tragic drama to a close.

At Smorgoni, the Emperor wrote his twenty-ninth Bulletin. On the 5th of December he climbed into a sledge with Monsieur de Caulaincourt: it was ten at night. He crossed Germany under the assumed name of the companion of his flight. With his disappearance, everything collapsed: in a sandstorm, when a granite colossus buries itself beneath the desert of the Thebaid, not a shadow remains on the sands. A few soldiers, of whom nothing but their heads seemed alive, ended by eating each other in huts made of pine branches. Misfortunes that seemed incapable of growing any worse reached fruition: winter, which till then had merely been the autumn of those parts, descended. The Russians had no longer the heart to fire, in those icy wastes, at the frozen shadows that Bonaparte left wandering in his wake.

At Vilna they encountered only Jews who left the enemy to the sicknesses they had first incurred themselves in their avarice. A final defeat crushed the remaining French, on the hill of Ponary. At last they reached the Niemen: the three bridges over which our troops had filed, no longer existed; a single bridge, the work of the enemy, spanned the frozen waters. Of the five hundred thousand men, and countless guns, that in the month of June, had crossed the river, only a thousand regulars, a few cannon, and thirty thousand wretches covered with wounds were seen to re-cross it at Kowno. No more music, mo more songs of victory; blue in the face, the throng, whose frozen eyelashes held their eyelids apart, marched in silence onto the bridge or crawled from floe to floe to the Polish shore. Arriving in huts heated by stoves, the poor wretches expired: their lives melting away with the snow in which they were enveloped. General Gourgaud states that a hundred and twenty-seven thousand men re-passed the Niemen: even accepting this number it would still represent a loss of three hundred and thirty thousand men during the four month campaign.

Murat, reaching Gumbinnen, called his officers together and said: ‘It is no longer possible to serve a madman; there is no longer any merit in his cause; there is not a Prince of Europe who believes in his words or his treaties any more.’ From there he went to Poznan, and on the 16th of January 1813, vanished. Twenty-three days later, the Prince of Schwarzenberg left the army: it passed under the command of Prince Eugène. General Yorck, ostensibly reprimanded by Frederick-William but quickly reconciled to him again, withdrew taking the Prussians with him: the European defection had begun.