The Berezina 1812 Part I

Napoleon’s crossing of the Berezina an 1866 painting by January Suchodolski
oil on canvas, National Museum in Poznań

On 22 November Napoleon reached Tolochin, where he took up quarters in a disused convent. He had not been there long when he heard, from a rider sent by Dabrowski, that Minsk had fallen to Chichagov six days before. ‘The Emperor, who by that one stroke lost his supplies and all the means he had been counting on since Smolensk in order to rally and reorganise his army, was momentarily struck with consternation,’ according to Caulaincourt.

He had been expecting Chichagov to manoeuvre himself into a position to be able to join up with Kutuzov so they could attack him with overwhelming force, not to move into his rear and attempt to cut him off. As it happens, Chichagov was operating in the dark. He had received only scanty orders from Kutuzov, who had instructed him to move into Napoleon’s rear and to prevent the French from linking up with Schwarzenberg. Wittgenstein was supposed to cross the Berezina further north and link up with him, so that between them they covered a long stretch of the western bank of the river.

That night Marshal Duroc and Intendant Daru were on duty at the Emperor’s bedside, and the three of them sat up late. They discussed the situation at length, and Napoleon allegedly reproached himself for his own ‘foolishness’. He dozed off for a while, and when he woke he asked them what they had been talking about, to which they answered that they had been wishing they had a balloon. ‘What on earth for?’ he asked. ‘To whisk Your Majesty away,’ one of them replied. ‘The situation is not an easy one, it is true,’ he admitted, and they discussed the possibility of his falling into Russian hands. General Grouchy was instructed to gather all the cavalry officers who still had good mounts into a ‘dedicated squadron’ whose purpose would be to spirit Napoleon to safety in an emergency. But the Emperor remained sanguine, and if he did order the burning of some state papers before they set off in the morning, that was more to lighten the load than anything else – he also ordered the burning of more non-essential carriages. He appeared confident that he would be able to fight his way through.

What he did not know was that while he was digesting the news of the fall of Minsk, Borisov had also fallen to Chichagov. The Admiral, who had a healthy respect for him, was apparently unaware that he was on a collision course with Napoleon, whose whereabouts he did not know, but whose forces he assumed to be at least 70,000. In the event, his advance guard had moved quickly, surprised and defeated the detachment of Dabrowski’s division holding the bridgehead on the western bank of the Berezina and swept into Borisov itself, which it occupied after a stubborn resistance. The Russians then made themselves at home, and their commander, Count Pahlen, sat down to a copious dinner. He had hardly swallowed a mouthful when the alarm was sounded. An advance unit of Oudinot’s corps, consisting of five hundred men of Colonel Marbot’s 23rd Chasseurs à Cheval, had burst into the town and fallen upon the unsuspecting Russians. No more than about a thousand of them managed to save themselves by fleeing back across the river, leaving behind up to nine thousand dead, wounded and prisoners, ten guns and all their luggage.

But the fleeing Russians had had the presence of mind to fire the long wooden bridge, the only crossing over the Berezina. Napoleon had reached Bobr when he heard of this, and he must have rued the decision to burn the pontoon bridge at Orsha three days before.

The boggy trough of the Berezina ran between him and freedom; cold as it was, a slight thaw had broken up the ice on it, and it represented a considerable obstacle. ‘Any other man would have been overwhelmed,’ wrote Caulaincourt. ‘The Emperor showed himself to be greater than his misfortune. Instead of discouraging him, these adversities brought out all the energy of this great character; he showed what a noble courage and a brave army can achieve against even the greatest adversity.’

Napoleon momentarily entertained a plan to gather up all his forces, march northwards, knock out Wittgenstein and then make for Vilna, bypassing the Berezina altogether. But he was advised that the terrain was unfavourable for such operations. Instead, he decided to fight his way across the river at Borisov. This would involve repairing the existing bridge and building new ones under enemy fire. In order to reduce the resistance, he decided to disperse Chichagov’s forces by giving him the impression that he was planning to cross elsewhere. He sent a small detachment southwards to make a demonstration of activity at a possible crossing point further downstream, and even managed to misinform some local Jewish traders that he was intending to cross there, expecting them to pass the news on.

Everything depended on speed: Wittgenstein and Kutuzov would be coming up behind him in a couple of days, and what would happen if he were caught in the rear by them while attempting to force a passage across the river did not bear thinking about. Napoleon seemed to be energised by the crisis, and did not appear downcast. ‘The Emperor seemed to have made his mind up with the calm resolve of a man about to embark on an act of last resort,’ noted his valet, Constant.

The forward units and large numbers of fugitives poured into Borisov on the night of 23 November. The town was strewn with dead bodies and debris from the previous night’s fighting. ‘This countless mass of wagons, with women, children, unarmed men had packed into Borisov in the conviction that the bridge would be repaired and that the crossing would be made there,’ wrote Józef Krasinski of Poniatowski’s 5th Corps, which had also entered the town. ‘The streets of Borisov were so jammed with this wagon train that it was impossible to pass through them without pushing and crushing people. As a result the streets were covered in mauled bodies, shattered wagons, smashed baggage, and all one could hear were shouts, calls, wails and lamentation … I remember that on one of the streets I pulled from beneath the horses’ hooves a baby lying in the middle of the road in its swaddling clothes, and further along I saw, by a small bridge, a cantinière’s wagon lying in the water into which it had been pushed by the French troops marching before us, and on that wagon the poor woman with a child in her arms was calling for help which none of us could give her.’

When General Eblé and his pontoneers reached Borisov and saw the state of the river they were discouraged. It was wider than they had anticipated, and the recent thaw meant that large blocks of ice were being swept down it by a slow but strong current. General Jomini, who was with Eblé, suggested that they cross further north, at Vesselovo, where there had been a bridge which might still be standing. But Oudinot had already identified a better place. One of his cavalry brigades, General Corbineau’s, which had been clearing the western bank of the Berezina of cossacks during the previous week, had just rejoined his corps having found a ford by the village of Studzienka, a dozen kilometres upstream from Borisov.

Oudinot had immediately informed Berthier of the existence of the ford, recommending it as the best place for a crossing. But Napoleon stuck to his intention of forcing a passage at Borisov, meaning to defeat Chichagov and then make a dash for Minsk, from where he hoped to be able to make contact with Schwarzenberg. From Loshnitsa at 1 a.m. on 25 November he repeated his orders to Oudinot, urging him to make haste so they could start crossing that very night. Oudinot, who had already ordered some of his units to Studzienka in anticipation, begged Napoleon to reconsider, and sent Corbineau to see him in person. It was only after he had discussed the matter with Corbineau that Napoleon accepted Oudinot’s suggestion, and he set off for Studzienka himself late that night.

A few hours earlier, Chichagov had moved off with his main forces in the opposite direction along the other bank of the river. He had been anxious about the possibility of Napoleon outflanking him to the south, and the combination of the reports of French activity to the south of Borisov and the information brought to him by three Jews from Borisov convinced him that this was indeed where the French were planning to cross. He left General Langeron with 1200 infantry and three hundred cossacks at Borisov, and General Czaplic with a few hundred men between there and Vesselovo, while he marched off southwards with the rest of his forces. When the first reports of French activity around Studzienka did reach him on the following day, he assumed this to be a feint meant to deceive him, and continued on his way. The course of the Berezina north of Borisov should in any case have been covered by Wittgenstein, and he had left orders with Czaplic to pull back his outlying units in the area.

But Wittgenstein had no intention of placing himself under Chichagov’s orders, which he would have had to do if he had linked up with him on the western bank. And he too was less than eager to take on Napoleon himself, preferring to spar with Victor, so he ignored Kutuzov’s orders to cross the river and cut the French line of retreat. In doing so he not only left the Berezina itself unguarded, he did not, as would have been the case if he had followed his orders, cover the other point at which Napoleon’s retreat could have been cut. A few kilometres west of the Berezina, at Ziembin, the road ran through a boggy area along a number of wooden bridges, and could effectively be cut by a platoon of cossacks with a tinderbox.

Oudinot had sent General Aubry with 750 sappers to Studzienka on 24 November to start making struts for a bridge, and followed with his main forces on the evening of the following day. They were joined there by General Eblé with four hundred pontoneers, mostly Dutchmen. Although Napoleon had ordered the pontoon bridge they were accompanying to be burnt at Orsha, Eblé had wisely hung on to six wagons of tools, two field smithies and two wagons of charcoal. The sappers dismantled the wooden houses of Studzienka, sawing the thick logs into appropriate lengths, while the pontoneers forged nails and braces, and turned the logs into trestles.

The riverbed itself, which at this point is less than two metres deep, is no more than about twenty metres across, but its banks are low and boggy, and cut by shallow arms of the main river, so any bridge would need to extend for some distance at either end. A major disadvantage of this as a crossing point was that the western bank, held by the Russians, rose steeply, and any troops occupying it would be in a position to rake the crossing with artillery fire.

Oudinot had placed his men behind a small rise, so they would be out of sight of the cossacks patrolling the western bank, and instructed them to work in silence. But Captain Arnoldi, commanding the Russian field battery of four light guns that had been positioned by General Czaplic to observe the possible crossing points near Studzienka, noticed the French activity on the opposite bank and sent urgent reports to his superior warning that they were preparing to cross the river there. He convinced Czaplic, who came to see for himself and then sent a messenger to Chichagov.

For his part, Oudinot stayed up all night, urging on the sappers and pontoneers, and nervously watching the other bank. ‘The aspect of the countryside was gripping; the moon lit up the ice floes of the Berezina and, beyond the river, a cossack picket made up of only four men,’ noted François Pils in his journal. He was a grenadier in Oudinot’s corps, but in civilian life he was a painter, which explains his sensitivity to the view. ‘In the distance beyond, one could see a few red-tinged clouds seemingly drift over the points of the fir trees; they reflected the campfires of the Russian army.’

The magnificent sight left Ney, for one, cold. ‘Our position is impossible,’ he said to Rapp. ‘If Napoleon succeeds in getting out of this today he is the very Devil.’ Murat and others were putting forward various plans to save the Emperor by sending him off with a small detachment of Polish cavalry while the rest of them made a heroic stand. ‘We shall all have to die,’ he affirmed. ‘There can be no question of surrender.’

In the early hours of the next morning, 26 November, the troops sitting around the Russian campfires began to withdraw, and Arnoldi’s four guns were limbered up and dragged away. Oudinot could hardly believe his eyes. Napoleon, who had reached Studzienka a little earlier, was jubilant: according to Rapp, his eyes sparkled with joy when he saw that his ploy had worked and Chichagov was off on his wild goose chase.

He ordered Colonel Jacqueminot to muster a squadron of Polish lancers and some Chasseurs, each of whom was to take a voltigeur riding pillion, and ford the river. Once across, the riders fanned out and, followed by the voltigeurs, chased off the few remaining cossacks and took possession of the west bank. Captain Arnoldi, who had clearly seen the French set up a battery of forty guns to cover both banks of the river, had sent a final despairing report to headquarters before withdrawing, expressing his conviction that this was the spot they had chosen for their crossing. But while Czaplic had delayed carrying out the order to withdraw, he did not dare defy it outright. Nor did he have the sense to send a troop of cavalry to hold and, if need be, burn the bridges at Ziembin.

Shortly after the withdrawal of the Russians, at eight o’clock, Captain Benthien and his Dutch pontoneers waded into the icy water and began installing the first trestles. They had stripped down to their pants, and struggled manfully in the strong current, which was carrying with it great blocks of ice up to two metres across. Every so often one of them would lose his foothold on the slimy riverbed and be swept away. They were only allowed to remain in the water for fifteen minutes at a time, but many nevertheless succumbed to hypothermia. They had been offered a bonus of fifty francs per man, but that was surely not the motive that drove them. ‘They went into the water up to their necks with a courage of which one can find no other example in history,’ recorded grenadier Pils. ‘Some fell dead, and disappeared with the current, but the sight of such a terrible end did nothing to weaken the energy of their comrades. The Emperor watched these heroes without leaving the riverbank, where he stood with the Marshal [Oudinot], Prince Murat and other generals, while the Prince de Neuchâtel [Berthier] sat on the snow expediting correspondence and writing out orders for the army.’

‘At this solemn moment Napoleon himself recovered all the elevation and energy that characterised him,’ recalled Lieutenant Colonel de Baudus. There are accounts of him looking dejected, and the story of his ordering the eagles of the Guard to be burnt in a fit of despair surfaces here and there. But most witnesses agree that he displayed remarkable self-possession throughout what continued to be a knife-edge situation, and far from ordering the eagles to be burnt, kept enjoining the men to cling to them in order to keep the semblance of a fighting force in existence. Some thought he actually appeared detached as he stood on the riverbank watching the pontoneers at their work.

Major Grünberg, a cavalryman from Württemberg, was struck by this as Napoleon caught sight of him marching past, carrying in the folds of his cloak his beloved greyhound bitch. The Emperor called him over and asked if he would sell the animal to him. Grünberg replied that she was an old companion whom he would never sell, but that if His Majesty so wished, he would give her to him. Napoleon was touched by this and replied that he would not dream of depriving him of such a close companion.

The bridge was completed around midday. It was just over a hundred metres long and about four metres wide, and rested on twenty-three trestles varying in height from one to three metres. There was not enough planking available, so the round logs laid across the top which made up the causeway were covered with flimsy roof slats taken from the houses of Studzienka topped with a dressing of bark, branches and straw. ‘As a work of craft, this bridge was certainly very deficient,’ noted Captain Brandt. ‘But when one considers in what conditions it was established, when one thinks that it salvaged the honour of France from the most terrible shipwreck, that each of the lives sacrificed in the building of it meant life and liberty to thousands, then one has to recognise that the construction of this bridge was the most admirable work of this war, perhaps of any war.’
Napoleon, who had hurriedly swallowed a cutlet for breakfast while standing on the bank, walked over to the head of the bridge, where Marshal Oudinot was preparing to march his corps across. ‘Do not cross yet, Oudinot, you might be taken,’ the Emperor called out to him, but Oudinot waved at the men drawn up behind him and answered: ‘I fear nothing in their midst, sire!’ He led his corps across, to shouts of ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ uttered with a conviction that had not resounded in the imperial presence very often of late. Turning left, he began to deploy his troops in a southerly direction in order to ward off any potential attack by Chichagov. They were quickly lost to sight in the snow that had begun to fall again.

Meanwhile Captain Busch and another team of Dutch pontoneers had been working on a second bridge, fifty metres downstream of the first. This one, built on sturdier trestles and with a causeway of plain round logs, was intended for the artillery and baggage, and it was ready by four o’clock in the afternoon. While troops continued to trudge across the lighter bridge in an orderly fashion, Oudinot’s artillery, followed by the artillery of the Guard and the main artillery park, trundled across the other. At eight o’clock that evening two of the trestles of the heavy bridge subsided into the muddy bed of the river, and the pontoneers had to abandon their firesides, strip off and wade into the water once again. The bridge was reopened at eleven o’clock, but at two in the morning of 27 November three more trestles, this time in the deepest part of the river, collapsed. Once again Benthien’s men abandoned whatever shelter they had found for the night and went into the water. After four hours, at six in the morning, the bridge was operational once more.

For the whole of that day the Grande Armée trudged across the Berezina in the lightly falling snow. The Guard began crossing at dawn, then came Napoleon with his staff and household, then Davout with the remainder of his corps, then Ney and Murat with theirs, then, in the evening, Prince Eugène, with the few hundred remaining Italians of the 4th Corps. The bridge was low, barely above the level of the water, and it swayed, so the men crossed on foot, leading their horses. The surface coating of branches and straw had to be firmed up by the sappers from time to time. Even so, the bridge subsided in places, and those crossing it sometimes had water up to their ankles. The sheer weight of numbers and the state of the bridge meant that there was some pushing and shoving, men fell over and horses collapsed, causing obstructions and leading to fights. It was not a pleasant crossing.

Meanwhile a steady flow of guns, caissons, supply wagons and carriages of every kind trundled across the other bridge, with a two-hour interruption while the pontoneers repaired two more broken trestles at four o’clock that afternoon. Here too there were jams and outbreaks of violence. The surface of the bridge was scattered with debris and corpses, and a number of horses broke their legs by getting them caught between the round logs making up the causeway. The next vehicles, themselves being pushed on from behind, would try to drive over the struggling and kicking horses rather than stop and wait for them and their vehicles to be heaved over the side. But most of the guns and materiel of the organised units, the treasury, the wagons carrying Napoleon’s booty from Moscow, and a surprising number of officers’ carriages made the crossing successfully. Madame Fusil, the actress from Moscow, drove across in the relative comfort of Marshal Bessières’ carriage.

The approaches to the bridges were guarded by gendarmes who only allowed active units onto them and ordered all stragglers and civilians, and even wounded officers travelling in various conveyances, to wait. A large number of these non-combatants had begun to arrive in the late afternoon of 27 November, cluttering the approaches to the bridge. As they could not cross immediately they settled down, built fires and began to cook whatever they had managed to pick up, scrounge or steal.

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