First Battalion of Hessian Lifeguards Part II

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The Captain did not travel long in the Colonel’s chaise. On the 23rd, when the cold weather set in once more, he marched on foot for seven hours to Bobr. ‘I did not think I should come through today. Asked the Colonel for his chaise, but it was already occupied. Rode. My horse, searching for water, broke the ice, stumbled into a water hole and I fell in up to the stomach.’ The horse was drowned; the Captain, with dysentery, violent coughing and with frost-bitten feet, dragged himself out somehow. ‘Now I saw that I must go on stoutly or perish. I pulled myself together with all the strength of my body and soul and covered seven or eight hours on swollen feet. Strecker is suffering from some sort of stroke. Hoffmann is feigning illness to get preferential treatment. He behaves with considerable animosity towards myself. Dietrich remains absent; consequent privation.

‘24th.The Emperor has stopped on the way at Losznita, in a great church to the right of the road, perhaps because a violent cannonade can be heard, which means that a battle is in progress. He has also received despatches.

‘Cadet Becker has died. All of us officers are lying together in a barn with Prince Emil. Extremely wretched and fearfully crowded. Today I should have remained lying had not Prince Emil sent back his own saddle-horse for me. I feel very ill.’

On the 25th they reached the first bend of the winding Beresina at a market town called Njemonica. The whole division could now only form one weak battalion; the Lifeguards had seventy-five men, the Prince’s Own, twenty-five. The Captain was once more travelling in the Colonel’s chaise, for the Colonel set great store upon bringing it through the ever-increasing throng of men and vehicles.

The French army must still have had some fight in them for ‘the day before yesterday the Second Corps beat the Russian Lambert Division. Six cannon were taken and the Russians flung back over the Beresina.

‘26th. This morning at nine a violent fight began to the left; the Second Corps with the Russians on the other side of the river. They must have been victorious because the noise died away in the direction of Borisov. The Third Corps of Guards in reserve were on the right of the road along which we travelled.

‘At Borisov the long bridge crosses over lake and swamp and at the entrance of the town there are two marshy rivers. After this had been crossed the column changed its course from the direct road to Minsk, because this led close to a Russian entrenchment upon a hillside only a quarter of an hour away. According to my map I thought that the road must lead to Semlin, where we should be under necessity to repair and cross the great bridge leading over lake and swamp.’

After waiting his turn for four hours, the Captain, who was fortunate enough to be in the Colonel’s chaise, managed to cross this bridge ‘with indescribable difficulty, struggling through with the Colonel’s excellent coachman, Jacob. The battle went on all round us to the left, reminding me vividly of my own first battle in the Schorlmberge terrain, with almost the same violent fusillades. It lasted until eight in the evening.’

He rejoined his company at the small town of Vesselevo; ‘the bulletins say it was Studianka.’ Although they had meat and flour from Borisov, they were unable to cook them, for there was only-one iron cooking pot. ‘My turn never came. My irritability with my servants increases as my strength fails. When we broke camp in the darkness my overcoat was stolen by one of my batmen, my jar of honey pilfered by another, and my coffee left behind. I am in no state to think or notice anything. Physically I am suffering extremely, especially from violent coughing. The rent in my fur coat has not yet been repaired, so that I cannot put it on or take it off without a long struggle, especially in the darkness with my swollen hands, although it is a great comfort.’

The next day, November 27th, they reached the long, fatal bridge over the Beresina. The Captain, desperately ill and faint with starvation, hoped to be able to travel once more in the Colonel’s chaise, but found it already occupied by Captain Schwarzenau. His nerves, already at breaking point, snapped in a violent rage and he stumbled off to mount his wretched pony, only to find it ‘without a bridle and with one stirrup two spans too long’. They were early at the bridge, but already the press was terrible; what hope could there be for a sick man on a starving pony with no bridle and one stirrup? Imagine him, the gaunt, fainting figure in a torn fur coat and tall cockaded hat; the medals still on his chest, the sword with its porte-épée [sword knot] slapping the swollen leg in a torn blue stocking; the frost-bitten foot in a soldier’s shoe two sizes too big for it groping for the dangling stirrup. And thus he was to cross the Beresina! Then, through the struggling mass of men and horses a big man came pushing his way and shouting:

‘Cap’n Roeder! Cap’n Roeder, sir! Don’t you worry, Cap’n. Leave it to me, sir. Just you lean on me, sir.’

It was Sergeant-Major Vogel. ‘He led my horse by the mane and forced his way through, while I, like a poor sinner, clung to its neck.’

Somehow they got over. ‘I do not know which way we came; I could not notice it. We have taken up our position half an hour beyond the long bridge, and here we are to stay the night. I feel very wretched, but fortunately I have some good hay in which to bed myself. My right breast gives me great pain with coughing.’

The next day the regiment took part in a battle, but the Captain ‘could not even put in an appearance’, for his horse was so weak from hunger and thirst that it was unable to climb the hill, and he himself ‘for sheer misery’ was hardly conscious of what was going on around him. That night he wrote: ‘I am bivouacking in the open air with the brigade flag (under which we have no more protection), suffering prodigiously by a strange night fire (or mostly no fire at all). I am trying to sleep huddled in the most wretched camp. A terrible night. Violent cold and cutting wind.

‘29th.My horse stolen, I thought it would have perished. Now I had to march and, supported by my Sergeant-Major, to cross another long bridge. I think it was Zembin. I could hardly go for the pain in my right breast. Found a wretched pony by the roadside, which had been allowed to run loose. Was lifted on to it, and so went on for about an hour and a half on the beast’s sharp back. My Sergeant-Major makes himself of indescribable service to me.’

That night they took up their quarters in a village. ‘The room was full to overflowing with people. Finally they burned the house down, and after I had lain for a short while under a rafter, I had to bivouack outside without sleep. What a sum of misery! Shall I get to Vilna?’

To know just how horrible that night must have been, we must turn once more to the account of the Russian major:

‘About 40,000 men with a still significant amount of artillery had managed to cross the Beresina, but how tragic was the situation of these troops! A new and violent frost finished the business completely. Now almost everyone threw away his weapons, most of them had neither shoes nor boots, but blankets, knapsacks or old hats bound around their feet. Each had hung whatever he could find around his head and shoulders in order to have at least some protection against the cold; old sacks, tattered straw matting, newlv flayed hides. Happy the men who had managed to find a shred of fur somewhere! With arms hanging and heads bowed low, officers and men plodded on side by side in sullen stupefaction; the Guard was no longer distinguishable from the rest, all were ragged, starving and disarmed. All resistance was at an end; the mere cry of “Cossacks!” brought the whole column to a shambling trot. The route which the army had taken was littered with corpses, every bivouac looked like a battlefield the next morning. No sooner had a man collapsed from exhaustion than the next fell upon him and stripped him naked before he was dead. Every house and barn was burned, and among the ashes lay a heap of dead men, who had gathered round to warm themselves and had been too weak to flee from the fire. All the country roads were swarming with prisoners, of whom no one took the least notice, and here one saw scenes of horror beyond all experience. Black with smoke and filth, they flitted like ghosts among their dead comrades in the burning houses until they too fell in and died. On bare feet covered with burns some went limping onwards down the road, no longer conscious, others had lost the power of speech and many had fallen into a kind of frenzy from cold and hunger, in which they roasted corpses and gorged upon them, or gnawed their own arms and hands. Some were too weak to drag wood to the fires; they merely sat on their dead companions huddled round some small fire which they had chanced to find, and died there as these had already done. Some in a state of frenzy would of their own free will stagger into the fires and burn themselves in the illusion that they were getting warm, and others following them would meet with the same death.’

Now the Captain speaks, and his quiet voice is very terrible:

‘My Sergeant, Jost, went blind tonight. I had to leave him in the most wretched circumstances. The poor soldiers meet with horrible misfortunes: blinded by smoke, fire and lack of sleep, dazed, crazed … My own life was twice endangered by falling with the pony among the wagons.’

On December ist they reached their division and he bivouacked once more with Dr Amman. The bivouac was horrible, but at least they were able to roast a chicken. In the midst of all this he still remembered Mina. ‘It was a year ago today that they told me she had to die. The memory has cost me many tears.’ He told Amman about it; he had to tell someone.

The next day there was a small amelioration of their sufferings, for the sun shone. Also they had a little to eat, for ‘Vogel and I pilfered a loaf of bread yesterday evening and this morning a copper saucepan. Overmastering need! We had to do as all the rest did!’

Somehow they had managed to concoct themselves a pea soup, and he tells how he wrapped some slices of fat pork in paper and took them with him, but the sudden surfeit of food upset his starving stomach. However, ‘I made a good seven or eight hours and reached a village to the left of the road without knowing that the Division was in it. Only Vogel was with me. I had to cling for support to several Poles, who were lodged with me in the barn, of which, however, the French broke up the greater part for firewood. They made such a tumult that I was heartily glad when we could go upon our way again at four o’cloch in the morning after another sleepless night.’

Just before the town of Moldzieczno, where the division was bivouacked, although they did not know it, they took shelter in a small copse by the roadside, where a party of ‘uncouth Württembergers’ lost no time in stealing his horse and two saddle-bags. ‘Now I shall have to get to Vilna poor and like a beggar, with my sack of bread on my back. We wandered on, for we could find no place to sleep.’

They entered Moldzieczno, and once again deliverance came when all seemed lost: ‘Plodding on with Vogel at one o’clock in the morning, behold’ In one of the streets we came upon Dietrich! What joy that the honest fellow is still alive! He had my second writing case with him too, and had managed to get my valise over the long bridge!’

Cheered by this meeting, they quartered themselves once more ‘at an inn by the roadside, and slept well enough until daylight’. Two days later they lost Dietrich once more in the crowd. Only Vogel never left the Captain’s side. ‘He always kept an eye on me; it was for him that I shouted through the crowds. How often I fell upon the icy roads; how often I could not walk at all without clinging to him, for mv legs were weak and stiff and my shoes studded with nails after the fashion of soldiers. This man has endured all things for me.’

But even Vogel could not find food where no food was to be found, nor could he cook without a pot. On December 8th the Captain wrote: ‘We were unable to prepare any food and walked on until the afternoon, when we came upon some barrels of biscuits, which were being rifled by those who passed by. Naturally we helped ourselves and took a supply for eight days. I ate without reflection and another biscuit pottage was made that evening. It was too nourishing for me and resulted in terrible diarrhoea, which made it very hard for me to go on.’

But go on he must, for ‘the Russian advance guard is forever at the heels of our insignificant rearguard, and our stragglers fall into their hands. The Cossacks, however, have now taken to plundering them completely and letting them go.’ There was no need to kill a destitute man in that cold. Eventually the Cossacks caught up with the Captain himself and once more he had a miraculous escape. They came upon him in a somewhat undignified situation for, owing to his indisposition, he had retired to the bushes by the roadside, when the troop of horsemen rode up. A Guards officer was something of a prize, and they lost no time in stripping him of his fur coat. Then, to his boundless astonishment, the Cossack stopped short, staring at one of the decorations on his chest. He summoned the others, who gathered round looking closely at the ribbon. ‘They treated me with moderation,’ he wrote afterwards, and this was true, for after they had relieved him of a little money and some pages of his diary which they found in his pockets, they mounted their horses and rode off. Somewhat dazed, the Captain stepped forth from the bushes to shout for the trembling Vogel:

‘Lord love us, sir,’ said that worthy, emerging from his hiding place, ‘I thought they had you that time, sir! Why did they let you go?’

The Knight of the Hessian Order of Merit swayed unsteadily against the shoulder of his Sergeant-Major:

‘They thought it was the Order of Vladimir,’ he said, ‘It has the same ribbon. They thought I had been decorated by their own Czar! Now, Vogel, now I really begin to believe that it must be God’s will that we should get to Vilna!’

That night he records a curiously trivial incident in a scene of horror. ‘The cords and rosettes were stolen from mv hat, when a sudden cry of “Fire!” flung into activity all the men who were packed like herrings into a single room. Our cooking pot was stolen at the same time. By turning aside from the main street of a little village I had been so fortunate as to get shelter in a room, but the usual story was repeated. The house was set alight, either because a fire had been made on the deal floor of the outhouse, or those who had not been able to get into the room had bivouacked outside and lit their fire too close. The room, in which the bake oven had been heated up, instantly became so full of smoke that anyone remaining there for a moment would have been suffocated. There was nothing left for night quarters but to fling oneself on the ground as soon as one came upon a vacant space. At least one had earth to sleep on and air to breathe.’

And there in that merciless carnage he knew what he had never known before, that somewhere there was God, and God was merciful.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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