On the night of 25 November, Napoleon ordered him to build two 300-foot bridges across the Berezina to connect with the causeway across the extensive marshes on the other side.
Oudinot embarked upon a brilliant piece of deception, sending stragglers to other fords down the river to give the illusion that the French would attempt to cross there. Fortunately, General Eble had refused to carry out Napoleon’s order to destroy all heavy equipment, and he had saved six wagons’ worth of bridging equipment. On the night of 25 November, Napoleon ordered him to build two 300-foot bridges across the Berezina to connect with the causeway across the extensive marshes on the other side.
It was a fantastically risky and arduous operation, made possible only because the bulk of the Russian forces had left the west bank to face what they believed would be the main crossing place further south. The bridges were erected some 200 yards apart, supported by twenty-three trestles. They were connected by sappers doing fifteen-minute shifts during the freezing night in the icy waters, which was all they could sustain; many were swept away and drowned or died of exposure. Only forty of the 400 ‘pontonniers’ who built the bridge survived. Sergeant Bourgogne described the scene: ‘We saw the brave pontonniers working hard at the bridges for us to cross. They had worked all night, standing up to their shoulders in ice-cold waters, encouraged by their general. These brave men sacrificed their lives to save the army. One of my friends told me as a fact that he had seen the Emperor himself handing wine to them.’
In spite of these valiant efforts, Napoleon believed the end was imminent. With the Russian artillery across the river, it would take only a few lucky artillery shots to destroy the bridges: the causeway across the marshes was equally vulnerable. The big Russian armies were anyway closing in from all sides – the east, the north and the south. Kutuzov to the east had 80,000 men, Wittgenstein to the north 30,000 and across the river Tchaplitz had 35,000. To the south Chichagov had 27,000. Even reinforced by Oudinot and Victor, the French had just 40,000 and 40,000 stragglers. Yet Kutuzov was still some thirty kilometres away, involved in the hunt for Ney’s small force, while both Wittgenstein and Chichagov hesitated, the latter deflected by reports that the French would cross to the south. Astonishingly, on 26 November, Tchaplitz’s division withdrew to the south, making possible a crossing of the river.
Napoleon seized his chance. Using rafts, he had 400 men transported across the river to seize the opposite bank as a bridgehead and clear it of the few remaining Cossacks. At 1 p.m. the infantry bridge was completed and at 4 p.m. the artillery and wagon bridge was finished. The following day Napoleon crossed over with the Guard. The stragglers were told to cross at night, but many instead preferred to take shelter in the village of Studzianka on the east bank. It proved a fatal mistake. That same night a French division blundered in a blizzard into the Russian lines and 4,000 men were killed or captured.
By the night of the 28th the three Russian armies had converged on the east bank in force, launching a ferocious artillery barrage against the French rearguard commanded by Victor, Ney and Oudinot. Ney, fearless as ever, led a charge and inflicted some 2,000 casualties on the Russians. But there were far too many even for him – a total of 60,000 men already, being supported by Kutuzov’s 80,000-strong army, compared with the remaining 18,000 French soldiers and the 40,000 stragglers and civilians.
While this desperate rearguard action was taking place, pandemonium broke out on the bridges: the artillery bridge broke and those in front were pushed into the freezing river, while those behind fought to get back against the press of refugees and on to the other bridge. Many of the civilians scrambled down the banks of the river and tried to swim across, grasping at the sides of the pontoons before being swept away. Ségur wrote:
There was also, at the exit of the bridge, on the other side, a bog into which many horses and carriages had sunk, a circumstances which again embarrassed and slowed the clearance. Then it was, that in that column of desperadoes, crowded together on that single plank of safety, there arose a wicked struggle, in which those in weakest and worst situation were thrown in to the river by the strongest. The latter, without turning their heads and hurried away by the instinct of self-preservation, pushed on towards the goal with fury, regardless of the cries of rage and despair uttered by their companions or their officers, whom they had thus sacrificed . . . Above the first passage, while the young Lauriston threw himself into the river in order to execute the orders of his sovereign more promptly, a little boat, carrying a mother and her two children, was upset and sank under the ice. An artilleryman, who was struggling like the others on the bridge to open a passage for himself, saw the accident. All at once, forgetting himself, he threw himself into the river and, by great exertion, succeeded in saving one of the three victims: it was the youngest of the two children. The poor little thing kept calling for his mother with cries of despair and the brave artilleryman was heard telling him not to cry, that he had not saved him from the water merely to desert him on the bank; that he should want for nothing; that he would be his father and his family.
At half past eight in the morning the French set fire to the bridge to prevent the Russians crossing:
The disaster had reached its utmost bounds. A multitude of carriages and of cannon, several thousand men, women and children, were abandoned on the hostile bank. They were seen wandering in desolate groups on the bank of the river. Some threw themselves into it in order to swim across; others ventured themselves on the pieces of ice which were floating along; some there were also who threw themselves headlong into the flames of the burning bridge, which sank under them: burnt and frozen at one and the same time, they perished under two opposite punishments. Shortly after, the bodies of all sorts were seen collecting together against the trestles of the bridge. The rest awaited the Russians.
Some 20,000 French soldiers had perished along with around 35,000 civilians. Some 10,000 Russians had also been killed.
In what had been one of the most terrible scenes in history, the French army escaped a seemingly complete destruction and survived with around half its previous strength. French pride had been saved by those heroic bridgebuilders, nine-tenths of whom had perished, just as the skippers of small boats would rescue British pride at Dunkirk more than a century later.
Oudinot, one of the heroes of the battle, who had been wounded, was evacuated to a village at Plechenitzi; there he and his small force were surprised by some 500 Cossacks: the marshal, his wound dressed, ran out of the house brandishing two pistols to join the Italian General Pino. With seven or eight men they fought off their Russian attackers, including cannonfire, before being rescued.
The following week’s march by the rump of the Grande Armée was eased by far fewer Russian attacks: Kutuzov seemed to draw back on the eastern side of the Berezina, preferring not to pursue. But the cold weather now returned in all its ferocity. Thousands more died in the cold, falling in the snow or simply not rising in the morning. By 2 December, as Napoleon limped into Moldechno, there were only 13,000 men remaining – around a thirteenth of the original army.