On the evening of 2 November Miloradovich, who was full of fight and keen to get at the French, tried to cut the road in front of Davout’s corps, which was bringing up the rear, at a defile near Gzhatsk. His guns wreaked havoc in the pile-up of field guns, caissons, private carriages and stragglers. A convoy of civilians and wounded was caught up in this chaos, and many of those who were not able to abandon their vehicles and make a dash for it perished. But Miloradovich did not have enough infantry to attack the French, and had to back off when Davout deployed troops against him.
Two days later, with a full complement of some 25,000 men, he made a second attempt to cut off Davout, just east of Viazma. This time he came between Davout’s 14,000 or so exhausted men and the preceding echelons, while Platov attacked Davout from the back and Figner’s and Seslavin’s irregulars harried his flanks. The French rearguard was thus caught between two fires and found itself in a perilous situation.
Prince Eugène and Poniatowski heard the guns and promptly turned about. Mustering about 13,000 and 3500 men respectively, they mounted a determined attack which repulsed Miloradovich and opened the road, while Ney, who had also turned about, covered the approaches to Viazma. The Russians were reinforced by the arrival of Uvarov’s cavalry, but Davout was nevertheless able to beat an orderly retreat and, when the Russians tried to harry him too closely, he even sallied out and captured three guns. In the late afternoon two fresh Russian divisions, Paskievich’s and Choglokov’s, attacked the outskirts of Viazma, and Ney withdrew across the river, burning the bridges.
Losses on the French side were about six thousand dead and wounded, and two thousand taken prisoner, while Russian casualties were no higher than 1845, and possibly less. Poniatowski’s horse fell while he was jumping a ditch, crushing his knee and shoulder and causing severe internal injuries, which put him out of action. But the most depressing aspect of the battle for the French was that two standards had been lost, and that at one point towards the end of the day some of Davout’s men had broken into a panicked flight.
The Russians, however, had nothing to rejoice over. If Miloradovich and Platov had squandered an opportunity to destroy Davout’s corps, Kutuzov had missed an even greater one. The Field Marshal with his 65,000-odd men had spent the day a couple of miles to the south of Viazma in a position from which he could, without any trouble at all, have taken Ney’s corps in the rear, thus nullifying Prince Eugène’s and Poniatowski’s efforts, and wiping all four of the enemy corps off the chessboard, leaving Napoleon with little more than his Guard. Although he did despatch some reinforcements to Miloradovich, the old man had resolutely opposed any and every suggestion to make an offensive move. He was not even on speaking terms with Bennigsen by now, having suspended him from his duties and told a staff officer he had sent to him: ‘Tell your General that I do not know him and do not wish to know him, and that if he sends me one more report I shall hang his messenger.’ Bennigsen, Toll, Konovnitsin, Wilson and others were beside themselves. That night Wilson wrote to Lord Cathcart, British Ambassador in St Petersburg, asking him to use all his influence to get Kutuzov sacked. On 6 November he wrote to the Tsar himself, saying that Kutuzov was a tired old man who should be replaced with Bennigsen. In the event it hardly mattered who was in command of the Russian army, as on that very day a new element had come into play.
Accounts of the retreat vary a great deal, depending on who the memoirist was, which part of the army he was with, and what befell him. The distance between the head of the column and the rearguard was rarely less than thirty kilometres, and at times stretched to a hundred, which meant that various units often marched through different weather on the same day. By the same token, the one who writes that the retreat was an orderly one up to Smolensk and the one who paints a picture of chaos on the first day can both be right.
Captain Hubert Biot, a Chasseur incapacitated by a shell at Borodino, left Moscow on 18 October in a carriage with two other wounded officers, and the three of them rolled without mishap all the way to Paris, because they were always ahead of the army. Madame Fusil, one of the French actresses in Moscow who decided to return to Paris with the Grande Armée, was perfectly comfortable in an officer’s carriage until 7 November, when his horses died. She then had a very difficult time, but eventually managed to find a place in a marshal’s carriage and rolled on comfortably enough in the first echelon. The aristocratic young Adrien de Mailly and his friend Charles de Beauveau, both of them wounded, shared a comfortable carriage and sang songs or read to each other as they drove. ‘To support the misfortunes of war with courage and gaiety, there is nothing like being French, being young, and also, perhaps, being a nobleman,’ he wrote. Those who trudged further back had a rather different picture of events.
But most were still in relatively good spirits in the last days of October, glad to be heading for home. ‘It was the 29th or the 30th, the weather was magnificent, and in the course of the morning a regiment which was marching by me was singing joyfully and continually,’ recalled Lubin Griois, Colonel of artillery in Grouchy’s corps. ‘I was struck by this: there had been no singing at our bivouacs for a long time, and this was the last I was going to hear.’ Colonel Jean Baptiste Materre who was on Ney’s staff, marching in the middle echelon, noted signs of a general flagging of spirits on 31 October. The process gained over the next couple of days. ‘The position of the army is beginning to look rather unfortunate,’ noted Cesare de Laugier on 2 November.
The weather had something to do with it. On 31 October, at Viazma, Napoleon again compared it favourably with that at Fontainebleau at the same season, and derided those who had been attempting to scare him with stories of the Russian winter. The nightly frosts did not bother anyone unduly. Colonel Boulart, writing on 1 November to his wife from a camp outside Viazma, summed up the mood. ‘I am writing to you, my darling, on the most beautiful day with the most beautiful frost, sitting on the most beautiful hummock, feeling cold all over, which also means at the tips of my fingers, in order to tell you that you should not be anxious on my account.’ The army’s postal service still functioned, erratically it is true, and even when the probability of their letters getting through had diminished, the men still wrote, clinging to that tenuous link with home.
The weather remained fine during the first days of November. ‘The days are as warm as in summer, and the nights are cold,’ noted Boniface de Castellane on 3 November. ‘I can remember seeing fields carpeted with pansies of every hue, which I amused myself by making into bouquets,’ wrote the bluff Colonel Pelet of the 48th of the Line. But 3 November was to be the last warm day. The new moon on the night of 4–5 November brought with it a sharp drop in temperature, and on 6 November the retreat entered a new phase. ‘That day has remained deeply engraved on my memory,’ continued Pelet. ‘After we had passed through Dorogobuzh it started raining quite hard, and it began to get cold; the rain turned to snow, and in a very short time it lay two feet thick on the ground.’
Sergeant Bourgogne, two days’ march further west, would not forget that day either. It had already started getting cold on the eve, which unfortunately for her was the moment their cantinière Madame Dubois went into labour. The grenadiers built her a shelter out of branches and the Colonel himself lent his cloak to lay over it, but the poor woman nevertheless had to give birth in sub-zero temperatures.
Another who could not forget that first cold night of 6 November was François Dumonceau. ‘Our campfires, which we could only keep going with difficulty, did not succeed in warming us,’ he wrote. ‘The biting north wind came and found me even under the bearskin rug I was covered with. Frozen on one side, scorched on the other, suffocated by the smoke, alarmed by the roar of the wind as it tore at the trees of the dense wood, I could not bear it and, like the others, ran this way and that in order to warm myself, spending a night without rest and experiencing suffering the like of which we had never known.’
While he stamped his feet in the wood, further east, at Dorogobuzh, a group of Italian officers huddled together in the ruins of a roofless hovel watching their comrade, Lieutenant Bendai, die from his wounds, malnutrition and cold. ‘I only regret two things,’ the Lieutenant murmured before breathing his last. ‘Not to be dying for the freedom and independence of our Italy … and not to be able to see my family again before I go.’
The following night Colonel Pelet gallantly invited the actress Madame Fleury, who was sitting in her carriage while her coachman had gone in search of fodder for the horses, to share his dinner and his fireside. But when morning came it turned out that her horses had died of cold in the shafts. The day after that he saw for the first time a man who had frozen to death.
It was not just the wounded, lying still on the top of some wagon and unable to seek the warmth of a fireside, who died. On the morning of 7 November, Faber du Faur, a Württemberger serving in Ney’s 3rd Corps, caught up with some fellow countrymen who had been a day’s march ahead of him. He approached the camp of makeshift huts constructed out of pine branches in which, to his surprise, they seemed to be still fast asleep. In actual fact, they were frozen stiff. Colonel von Kerner, chief of staff to the Württemberg division, came out of the barn in which he and his companions had spent the night in order to muster the troops, but came running back after a while. ‘I have just seen the most appalling sight of my life,’ he said. ‘Our men are there, sitting around their campfires just as we left them last night, but they are all dead and frozen.’ This sight became commonplace until the men learned to keep their fires going and to sleep only for short periods. ‘When we got up in order to move out,’ recalled Marie Henry de Lignières, ‘many would remain seated; we would shake them to wake them up, thinking they were asleep; they were dead.’
The drop in temperature had not been that great – certainly not more than – 10°C (14°F). But the French army was not dressed for cold weather. There was no such thing as a winter uniform, since in those days armies did not fight in winter. Most of the uniforms were cut away and did not even cover the stomach, which was protected only by a waistcoat, and while the infantry had proper greatcoats, the officers had only tailored overcoats which ended well above the knee. The cavalry had cloaks, but these were not lined, so they provided little shelter from the weather. While the bearskin bonnets of the grenadiers and the fur kolpaks of Chasseurs afforded some protection, most of the headgear, and the helmets of cuirassiers and dragoons in particular, had quite the opposite effect. To this has to be added the fact, easily verifiable by a visit to the Musée de l’Armée or any other repository of surviving uniforms, that the quality of the cloth and other materials used was generally poor, and the uniforms were flimsy. ‘The greatcoats of our infantry are probably the worst in Europe,’ observed Henri-Joseph Paixhans.
As it grew colder, the men began to supplement their kit in various ways. Scarves were wrapped around the head under the regulation shako, knitted shawls worn around midriffs, and muffs and mittens brought into play to protect the hands. Those who had furnished themselves with sheepskins or fur coats donned these over their regimentals. Those who had not thought of acquiring such winter clothing were forced to put to use the furs (usually lined with feminine shades of silk or satin), shawls, bonnets and other items of clothing they had laid hands on meaning to sell them in Paris or give them to sweethearts.
As falling temperatures vanquished self-consciousness, even ladies’ dresses and richly embroidered liturgical vestments came into use. Women’s voluminous garments had the advantage of creating a kind of tent, thereby insulating the wearer from the cold. Cavalrymen whose horses died turned their shabracque, the sheepskin or embroidered cloth that went under the saddle, into a poncho by cutting a hole in the middle. All sorts of ingenious stratagems were thought up to cover every extremity – some even passed their legs through the sleeves of sheepskin coats and strapped them round their waist in order to keep their legs warm.
‘One could see all the provisions and loot of Moscow being gradually brought out; the most elegant dresses and the crudest clothes, headgear of every kind, round caps, some trimmed with silver or gold, the jerkins and fur-lined blouses of the peasant women, the silk pelisses of ladies, dressing gowns; in a word, everyone appeared in whatever he had brought,’ recalled Colonel Pelet. ‘It was a hilarious sight to see these tanned faces, these moustaches, these fearsome miens enveloped in the most tender colours, these huge bodies barely covered by the most frivolous raiments. It was a continuous masquerade, which I found highly entertaining, and ribbed them about it as they passed.’ Amusing as it may have been, this kind of get-up did not facilitate movement, and often impeded the men in wielding their weapons.
Many agree that the first serious snowfall on 6 November, accompanied as it was by a sharp drop in temperature, had a profound effect on the cohesiveness of the army. ‘It is from that point that our misery began,’ wrote Colonel Boulart, ‘and that misery was to grow and to last for another six weeks! Luckily, we could not see into the future; the present sufferings absorbed all our faculties, we thought only of ways of attenuating them and we thought little of the sufferings of the morrow; each day held quite enough affliction.’
The snow was soon compacted by the tramp of tens of thousands of feet into a rock-hard and slippery surface. As the horses were having difficulty in pulling wheeled vehicles, many coachmen and wagoners took the wheels off their vehicles and improvised runners. On 8 November there was a thaw and the roadway turned boggy. Those who had thrown away their wheels could do nothing but abandon their vehicles. But on the following day there was a hard frost, and the roadway now turned into a sheet of ice.
It was difficult to stay upright even while walking along the level, and Lieutenant Marie Henry de Lignières counted that he made over twenty falls a day. ‘Whenever we came across steep slopes we had to descend, which happened frequently, we would sit down and allow ourselves to slide down to the bottom; which meant that those behind would fall on top of one with their arms and luggage,’ he wrote. Carts and gun teams had to be secured by men pulling on ropes from behind to stop them sliding down inclines, but if those holding the ropes slipped, the whole lot, gun, limber, horses, men and all, would go crashing down, taking with it anyone and anything in its path. As it became more difficult to walk, many more soldiers fell behind.
The cold made it painful to touch the muskets, and below a certain temperature the skin would stick to the frozen steel and come away from the hand. Those who had no gloves and could not improvise some form of protection for their hands were obliged to throw away their arms, and many more took the cold as an excuse to do so.
The cold also proved the last straw as far as many of the horses were concerned. Tens of thousands of the undernourished and exhausted beasts died in the space of three days, partly from the cold and partly because they were improperly shod. The ordinary shoes with which they were for the most part shod gave no purchase on compacted snow or ice, and acted rather like skates. Some French units did have studded shoes, and the artillery began fitting these after the first snows fell, but they wore down quickly to a smooth surface. What was required was shoes with sharp crampons, and these had only been fitted by the Poles, by Caulaincourt to the horses of the imperial household, and by a few sensible officers. The rest of the Grande Armée’s bloodstock did not stand a chance once the snow fell and the cold set in. They would slip and fall, often breaking a leg in the process, and the terrible thrashing efforts involved in getting them to their feet again exhausted and distressed them further.
Some people tried wrapping rags round the horses’ hooves, others realised that it was better for the horses to have no shoes at all than the standard ones, and prised theirs off. The little local cognats with their broad hooves and their low centre of gravity were at a premium, as they could still trot without shoes. Jacob Walter acquired one that even knew how to sit down on its hindquarters at the top of an icy incline and slide down without his having to dismount.
But there was no substitute for proper sharp-shoeing. ‘As we Poles mounted on sharp-shod horses passed French generals at a gallop, they looked at us with surprise and envy, while at every hillock their guns got into difficulty and could only be pulled to the top thanks to the shoulders of infantrymen,’ wrote Józef Załuski of the Polish Chevau-Légers.
Prince Eugène’s 4th Corps lost 1200 horses in two days. Albert de Muralt, a Swiss lieutenant serving in the Bavarian Chevau-Légers, recorded that his brigade, numbering two hundred horsemen when it reached Viazma, was down to about thirty to fifty the following day, and ceased to be a fighting unit on the next. The same story was repeated throughout the army. The loss of the cavalry and a large part of the artillery radically reduced the fighting potential of the Grande Armée and made it vulnerable to the ubiquitous cossacks, who circled the retreating columns like blowflies.
But it was the loss of thousands of draught animals that had the greatest impact on the army and its chances of survival. Hundreds of vehicles had to be abandoned, some with much-needed supplies and equipment, as well as the personal effects and booty of the troops. Many threw away their arms in order to carry their belongings. ‘The road was strewn with precious objects, such as paintings, candlesticks and many books,’ recalled Sergeant Bourgogne, ‘and for the best part of an hour I would pick up books which I would look through, and which I threw away in turn, to be picked up by others who, in their turn, threw them away.’ Prince Józef Poniatowski, who trundled past, his mangled body laid out in his carriage, asked a passing soldier to hand him something to read from the selection at the roadside, and this book, which absorbed him, was to be his only booty of the campaign.
On 8 November Commandant Vionnet de Maringoné of the Grenadiers of the Guard realised that his horses would be unable to draw his carriage much further. He therefore transferred all the most essential items, beginning with vital rations of food and some spare clothes, into one portmanteau and left all unnecessary luxuries in the carriage, which he abandoned. By not overloading it, he was able to keep one horse alive to carry this portmanteau. Major Claude- François Le Roy of the 85th of the Line in Davout’s corps sat down with needle and thread at Viazma and sewed two huge pockets onto the inside of his coat, into which he stuffed all his most vital possessions, thereby ridding himself of the need to carry a bag. Others were not as prescient and, when forced to make the choice, ditched the sack of grain or the bag of rice and kept the gold and silver vessels. It is easy to condemn them, but it must have been difficult to part with a lifetime’s chance – of being able to afford to marry, to buy a house, to start a business. And they did not realise what lay ahead. They struggled on as best they could, hoping that things would improve.
As often as not, they had to bed down for the night in open countryside, with no cover of any kind, too exhausted to think even of building shelters out of branches. They would use their sabres to cut down saplings to burn. But the green, resinous wood produced clouds of acrid smoke before giving off any warmth, and quickly burnt out, so the fire had to be fed regularly all night. Even when they did get a good fire going it could only provide warmth for the hands and face, while their backs remained exposed to the temperature of the night. They would lay down branches around the fire to sit or lie down on, and huddle round the flames in tight groups of eight or ten men, hoping to create a small circle of warmth. But the fire would melt the snow, and they would soon find themselves sitting or lying in wet mud.
If they were lucky, they might find a half-ruined deserted village, but it usually contained unwelcome relicts. ‘Under its still-warm cinders, which the wind drove into our faces, would be the bodies of several soldiers or peasants,’ wrote Eugène Labaume, ‘and sometimes one could also see murdered children and young girls who had been slaughtered in the very place they had been raped.’ The generals and senior officers would usually take possession of the best of the remaining huts, but disagreements about precedence sometimes led to duels. The men would crowd into whatever huts, barns, sheds, styes or other shelter they could find. If there were large numbers of them they would trample each other in the process, on some occasions even suffocating those who had got in first and were pressed harder and harder by an incessant flow of new arrivals desperate to get out of the cold.
Once a group occupied a hut, it would defend the entrance by force. But the thatch would soon be stripped off the roof by others eager to feed their horses. Those who could find no shelter would settle down in the lee of the hut and start tearing slats off the roof, shutters and any other accessible elements in order to build fires, with the result that those inside would find their shelter gradually dismantled around them. All too often those outside would build their campfires too close to the walls, and the huts would catch fire. If they were very crowded or those inside were asleep, they might be burnt alive.
Even without outside intervention, soldiers who found a hut for the night ran the risk of finding their death in it. The Russian huts were heated by stoves, about two metres square, made of wood rendered with clay, which had to be heated up gradually, but the frozen soldiers would stoke them up with every piece of wood they could lay their hands on, and as often as not the stove would catch fire and the hut would go up in flames as they slept.