Marshal Ney Supporting the Rear Guard during the retreat from Moscow” 1856 by artist Aldolphe Yvon.
Michel Ney was a man of striking appearance with fiery red hair, possessed of utter fearlessness, if limited intelligence. He obeyed Napoleon’s order almost too long, staying on in Smolensk with his 6,000-strong rearguard and twelve guns to delay the Russian advance and protect the main French force with its moving township of stragglers. He found himself cut off by Kutuzov’s main army of 80,000 men.
An officer was sent by the Russians to negotiate the seemingly inevitable surrender but even as this happened the ill-disciplined Russian troops opened fire on the French. Ney declared furiously to the officer: ‘A marshal never surrenders. There is no parleying under fire. You are my prisoner.’ Ney ordered his vanguard to attack down a ravine and up the other side against the tens of thousands of astonished Russians: and was repulsed.
Ney took charge himself, personally leading three thousand men into a frontal assault. This time they reached the Russian front line but were blocked by a second massed rank of Russian troops and forced back across the ravine, which the Russians did not dare cross to attack them. His remaining men now faced the Russian army along the road which similarly held back from attacking, believing the French to be stronger than they were. Instead a huge artillery barrage opened up on the French position, to which Ney’s six remaining guns bravely if feebly responded.
To the consternation of his men, Ney ordered a return to Smolensk: the last thing they wanted was to withdraw back further into Russia. On the way Ney saw a ravine with a stream at the bottom: concluding that this must lead to the Dnieper, he decided to follow it, with the help of a peasant guide, reasoning that his men would be safe if they could cross the great river. Ségur described the subsequent appalling, heroic story:
At last, about eight o’clock, after passing through a village, the ravine ended and the peasant, who walked first, halted and pointed to the river. They imagined that this must have been between Syrokorenia and Gusinoë. Ney and those immediately behind him ran up to it. They found the river sufficiently frozen to bear their weight; the course of the ice which it bore along being thwarted by a sudden turn in its banks, the winter had completely frozen it over at that spot: both above and below, its surface was still moving.
This observation was enough to make their first sensation of joy give way to uneasiness. This hostile river might only offer a deceitful appearance. One officer committed himself for the rest: he crossed to the other side with great difficulty, returned, and reported that the men and perhaps some of the horses might pass over; but that the rest must be abandoned; and there was no time to lose, as the ice was beginning to give way because of the thaw.
But in this nocturnal and silent march across fields, of a column composed of weakened and wounded men and women with their children, they had been unable to keep close enough to prevent their separating in the darkness. Ney realized that only a part of his people had come up. Nevertheless, he might have surmounted the obstacle, thereby securing his own safety, and waited on the other side. The idea never entered his mind. Someone proposed it to him but he rejected it instantly. He allowed three hours for the rallying, and without suffering himself to be disturbed by impatience or the danger of waiting so long, he wrapped himself up in his cloak and passed the time in a deep sleep on the bank of the river.
At last, about midnight, the passage began. But the first persons who ventured on the ice called out that it was bending under them; that it was sinking; that they were up to their knees in water: immediately after which that frail support was heard splitting with frightful cracks, as in the breaking up of a frost. All halted in alarm.
Ney ordered them to pass one at a time. They advanced with caution, not knowing in the darkness if they were putting their feet on the ice or into a chasm: for there were places where they were obliged to clear large cracks and jump from one piece of ice to another, at the risk of falling between them and disappearing for ever. The first hesitated but those who were behind kept calling to them to make haste.
When at last, after several of these dreadful panics, they reached the opposite bank and fancied themselves saved, a vertical slope, entirely covered with rime, again opposed their landing. Many were thrown back upon the ice, which they broke in their fall or which bruised them. By their account, this Russian river appeared only to have contributed with regret to their escape.
But what seemed to affect them with the greatest horror was the distraction of the females and the sick, when it became necessary to abandon, along with all the baggage, the remains of their fortune, their provisions, and, in short, their whole resources against the present and the future. They saw them stripping themselves, selecting, throwing away, taking up again and falling with exhaustion and grief upon the frozen bank of the river. They seemed to shudder again at the recollection of the horrible sight of so many men scattered over that abyss, the continual noise of persons falling, the cries of such as sank in, and, above all, the wailing and despair of the wounded who, from their carts, stretched out their hands to their companions and begged not to be left behind.
Their leader then determined to attempt the passage of several wagons loaded with these poor creatures; but in the middle of the river the ice sank down and separated. Then were heard, proceeding from the abyss, cries of anguish long and piercing; then stifled, feeble groans and at last an awful silence. All had disappeared!
Only 3,000 soldiers and some 3,000 stragglers made it across: as many again had been lost on the march and in the crossing.
The survivors trooped through the night to a village called Gusinoë which, astonishingly, was well-provisioned and whose wooden houses provided a desperately needed respite. But even as they rested, a force of some 6,000 Cossacks under General Platov appeared from the woods, threatening them. Ney ordered his men to pull out of their shelters and ruthlessly placed the stragglers between his soldiers and the enemy, which now opened up with light artillery.
For two days the two forces marched in parallel along the banks of the Dnieper, the 1,500 remaining Frenchmen being shadowed by the 6,000 Cossacks. Suddenly a blaze of musketry and artillery opened up on the French from a wood; but Ney ordered his men to charge directly into the fire and the Cossacks withdrew. The French crossed another smaller river in single file under Cossack fire: but Ney again attacked the enemy. They moved further south the following day. De Beauharnais at last came out of Orsha to give them a safe escort for the last few miles. Napoleon jumped for joy when he heard Ney had been saved. ‘I have then saved my eyes. I would have given 300 million from my treasury sooner than have lost such a man.’
In spite of this good news and the rest being obtained by the French at Orsha, a deadly trap was now being set. Admiral Chichagov, who had taken Minsk, was now determined finally to annihilate the French: he intended to seize and destroy the single bridge across the Berezina at Borisov ahead of the French forces. The French had already burnt the bridges across the Dnieper behind them. Napoleon’s vanguard from Minsk had travelled to Borisov in an attempt to secure the bridge, meeting up with other French, Polish and German troops.
On 21 November, 1812 these forces faced an overwhelming Russian army. Although fighting furiously, they were finally forced to retreat back down towards the remnants of the Grande Armée at Orsha. From there Napoleon had set out through blinding snow which had turned the roads into a quagmire. When he learnt of the capture of Borisov, Napoleon exclaimed loudly, looking upward: ‘Is it then written above that he would now commit nothing but faults?’ He ordered his remaining cavalry forward on the few horses that had not been eaten or died, in a ‘sacred squadron’ which was to act as a personal bodyguard. It seems clear that he believed the end was near, both for his army and for himself, and he intended to die fighting.
Oudinot, without Napoleon’s knowledge, was out with a foraging party and surprised the Russians at Borisov, driving them over the bridge across the Berezina; but Oudinot was powerless to prevent the town being burnt down. The French were trapped. Then came a glimmer of hope: a ford had been discovered across the huge river, which was normally at this time of year frozen over but was now a vast flowing stream bearing huge blocks of ice. This was at Studzianka, where the river was only six feet deep; the ford was some 100 yards across.
Both Oudinot’s men and Marshal Victor, who had been driven back by the Russian General Wittgenstein in the north, arrived to reinforce Napoleon: these relatively fresh troops were appalled to witness the pitiable state of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. Ségur wrote:
When instead of that grand column which had conquered Moscow, its soldiers saw behind Napoleon only a train of spectres covered with rags, female pelisses, pieces of carpet or dirty cloaks – half burnt and riddled by fire – and with nothing on their feet but rags of all sorts, their consternation was extreme. They looked terrified at the sight of those unfortunate soldiers, as they filed before them with lean carcasses, faces black with dirt and hideous bristly beards, unarmed, shameless, marching confusedly with their heads bent, their eyes fixed on the ground and silent, like a troop of captives. But what astonished them more than all was to see the number of colonels and generals scattered about and isolated, who seemed only occupied about themselves, thinking of nothing but saving the wrecks of their property or their persons. They were marching pellmell with the soldiers, who did not notice them, to whom they no longer had any commands to give, and of whom they had nothing to expect: all ties between them being broken and all distinction of ranks obliterated by the common misery.
Napoleon was grateful to be reinforced by the two small flanking armies: his own had been reduced from 100,000 to 7,000 men, perhaps one of the most terrible rates of attrition in history, without suffering a single defeat. Victor had 15,000 men and Oudinot 5,000. But there were still 40,000 stragglers, refugees, women, children and wounded following behind.