On 18 October, as Napoleon was setting out from Moscow, Marshal Gouvion St Cyr, who had taken over command of the 2nd Corps from the wounded Oudinot, was attacked outside Polotsk by overwhelming Russian forces under General Peter von Wittgenstein. In a fierce battle lasting two days his emaciated force of 27,000 French, Bavarian, Swiss, Italians, Poles and Croats held off Wittgenstein’s 50,000 Russians, inflicting heavy losses. But when the city was set alight by the Russian artillery bombardment, it became indefensible. ‘No battle has ever appeared more awful,’ wrote Captain Drujon de Bealieu of the 8th Lancers. ‘It made me think of the fall of Troy, as it is recounted in the Aeneid.’ Fearing encirclement, St Cyr abandoned Polotsk and fell back to the river Ula, along which he took up defensive positions.
Napoleon did not hear of this until he reached Viazma on 2 November, but he was confident that Victor, who was marching to St Cyr’s support, would assist him in retaking the city. He was more preoccupied with the slowness of Davout’s retreat, complaining that he was deploying for battle every time a few cossacks appeared on the horizon, and himself marched briskly on towards Smolensk. But when he heard of the fighting outside Viazma and realised that Kutuzov was hovering a couple of miles to the south, he decided to give battle himself.
As he began to muster his forces on 4 November, he became aware of just how disorganised they were. ‘You want to fight, yet you have no army!’ protested Ney, who had replaced Davout in the rearguard. Since Davout had now got free of Miloradovich and joined up with the preceding echelons, Napoleon decided to make for Smolensk and take winter quarters. He ordered Junot and Poniatowski to head for Smolensk itself, Davout to take up positions outside the city in the Yelnia area – ‘They say the country is rich and abundant in victuals,’ he assured him – and Prince Eugène to march to Vitebsk and take winter quarters there. He dictated these orders at Dorogobuzh on 5 and early on 6 November, before setting off towards Smolensk.
He soon found himself driving through a blizzard, and as the temperature dropped he was forced to accept that he had got his timing dangerously wrong. That was not the only disagreeable reality he had to face that day. When he reached Mikhailovka that afternoon, he found an estafette from Paris waiting for him with the astonishing news that a couple of obscure officers, headed by General Malet, had attempted to seize power in a coup d’état. Napoleon could hardly believe it. The plot had been far-fetched in the extreme, but the very fact that it had got off the ground at all raised alarming questions about the solidity of Napoleonic rule in France. ‘With the French,’ he quipped to Caulaincourt, ‘as with women, one should never stay away too long.’ But he was shaken by this revelation of the fragility of his authority.
The following morning he wrote to Victor, instructing him to join up with St Cyr and retake Polotsk. A note of real alarm is detectable in the letter. ‘Take the offensive, the salvation of the army depends on it,’ he wrote. ‘Every day of delay is a calamity. The army’s cavalry is on foot, the cold has killed all the horses. Advance, it is the order of the Emperor and of necessity.’4 He himself made for Smolensk with all possible speed.
The cold had become so intense that Napoleon abandoned the traditional grey overcoat and small tricorn which made him instantly recognisable to all at a distance, and from now on wore a Polish-style fur-lined green velvet frock-coat and cap. He had also taken to warming himself by getting out of his carriage at intervals and tramping alongside his grenadiers, with Berthier and Caulaincourt at his elbow. It was while he was walking unsteadily on the slippery ice at noon on 9 November, with a temperature of – 15°C (5°F) accentuated by a bitter north wind, that he caught sight of Smolensk. The thick blanket of snow that lay across the city, concealing the charred ruins, allowed him to forget what it had looked like when he had left it, and to entertain for a while the feeling that he had reached a safe haven.
As soon as he had set up quarters in the city he began dictating orders detailing the reorganisation of the cavalry into two divisions, one of light cavalry and one of cuirassiers and dragoons, each of which was to be divided up into picket regiments which were to cover the Grande Armée’s winter quarters. He then ordered every unit to concentrate at specified assembly points in order to allow stragglers and detached elements to rejoin. But within a few hours grim reality had begun to bring home to him the futility of his plans, with a succession of painful blows.
Napoleon had given orders for large stores of food and equipment to be built up at Smolensk. But those who tried to implement them found that obtaining food and forage from the surrounding countryside was an unrewarding struggle, while supplies coming up the road from Vilna had to be sent on to Mozhaisk and Moscow. There were some 15,000 sick and wounded soldiers left over from the storming of the city and from Valutina Gora who had to be fed, while a constant stream of reinforcement echelons moving through on their way to Moscow, as well as Marshal Victor’s 9th Corps which had been operating in the area, had been drawing on the stores as well.
At the beginning of October Napoleon had issued urgent orders for the magazines to be restocked. One of those entrusted with carrying out these orders was Stendhal. ‘They expect miracles,’ he complained to a colleague as he set about the business, adding that he wished he could be sent to Italy. Substantial stores were in fact built up, and there was certainly enough there to feed the Grande Armée for some time. But not enough to last through the winter for more than a division, and the idea of even a single corps taking winter quarters in the city was out of the question.
A more serious blow to Napoleon’s plans was the news brought by Amédée de Pastoret, whom he had named intendant of White Russia, based at Vitebsk. Pastoret had built up a magazine there which could have fed one corps through the winter, and Napoleon had already assigned it to Prince Eugène’s 4th Corps. But following the fall of Polotsk the Russians had moved down the Dvina and thrown Pastoret and his insignificant garrison out.
Another unwelcome piece of news waiting for him at Smolensk was that General Baraguay d’Hilliers, who had been sent out with his division to meet Napoleon’s intended retreat along the Medyn road at Yelnia, had met not Napoleon but Kutuzov’s main forces, and one of his brigades, General Augerau’s, 1650 strong, had been surrounded and forced to surrender.
As his own columns trudged into Smolensk from Viazma Napoleon could see how depleted they were. Estimates of the forces at his disposal in Smolensk vary wildly, but most sources agree that he had lost at least 60,000 men since leaving Moscow three weeks earlier, and that there were no more than about 40,000 left with their colours.7 And this included several thousand cavalrymen who were of no use without their mounts. ‘Horses, horses and more horses, whether for cuirassiers, dragoons, or light cavalry, or artillery or military caissons, that is the greatest of our present needs,’ Napoleon wrote to Maret in Vilna on 11 November. On the same day he heard of the disaster that had befallen his stepson.
He had ordered Prince Eugène to leave the main road at Dorogobuzh and make in a more or less straight line for Vitebsk. After a day’s march he came to the Vop, an insignificant river no more than fifteen or twenty metres wide at this point, and his sappers set about building a bridge across it. The best they could do with the materials to hand was not good enough, and the bridge collapsed. The entire 4th Corps had by now come up, and a two-mile-long tailback formed as the troops waited for it to be rebuilt. As they stood patiently in driving snow and freezing temperatures, Platov’s cossacks had time to come up and unlimber their guns, and began shelling the queuing Italians. With no possibility of rebuilding the bridge Prince Eugène decided to ford the river, which was nowhere deeper than a metre and a half. The Royal Guard led the way, and although the water came up to the chins of the shorter men, they got across without much difficulty.
Prince Eugène himself followed, and ordered the artillery to be brought over so it might deploy on the western bank and cover the crossing with its fire. But although it is not deep, the Vop flows between steep banks some three metres high, made slippery by the snow. After only two guns had been dragged across and up the opposite bank, a caisson got stuck and then overturned. The vehicle behind it also became wedged in the river’s bed, and the one behind that slammed into the back of it. Other guns and caissons trying to bypass the jam also got stuck in the softened ooze, and soon the riverbed was a mass of vehicles whose wheels had sunk into the mud, and of horses desperately thrashing about trying to free themselves from the freezing water. ‘I can still see those brave soldiers of the train, obliged to spend whole hours with their teams in the water and, after having managed to drag one cannon or caisson out, go back in and double the team on another vehicle and start the struggle all over again,’ wrote Colonel Griois, who spent the whole day trying to get the guns across.
He succeeded in dragging a dozen to the other side, but as night began to fall and the cossacks crept nearer, he realised that he would have to spike the rest. As soon as it became clear that the carriages and wagons would have to be abandoned, pandemonium broke out. Trunks were hauled down and broken open as men hurriedly transferred their most precious possessions and as much food as they could carry onto the backs of the unharnessed horses or their own before plunging into the river. Others seized the opportunity to rifle through the abandoned luggage of others before following. As they struggled to get across, many of the men and horses, gripped by the shock of the icy water, went under and drowned. Many more died of hypothermia as they huddled round bivouac fires in their wet clothes that night. ‘It is impossible to describe the situation of the men after this crossing, or the physical torments endured and the pain resulting from this icy bath,’ wrote one of them, and the Italians dubbed it ‘la notte d’orrore’.
Prince Eugène lost around 2500 men at the crossing, about a quarter of his force, as well as a large number of civilians and stragglers who had balked at the cold water. He also left behind fifty-eight spiked guns and his baggage train, which meant virtually all his rations and ammunition. He was now in no position to march as far as Vitebsk, and had to make a dash for Smolensk. This was just as well, since Vitebsk had fallen to the Russians. But the experience of the Vop crossing had demoralised many of his men and, notwithstanding his fine leadership qualities, there was not much he could do about it. ‘I ought not to hide from Your Highness,’ he reported to Berthier, ‘these three days of suffering have so crushed the spirit of the soldier that I believe him at this moment to be hardly capable of making an effort. Many men have died of hunger or of cold, and others, out of despair, have gone off to get themselves taken by the enemy.’
In Smolensk, Napoleon vented his frustration at the course events had taken by blaming all his marshals and accusing them of not carrying out his orders. ‘There’s not one of them to whom one can entrust anything; one always has to do everything oneself,’ he complained to Pastoret in a long diatribe which covered many subjects. Everything was somebody else’s fault, even his presence in Russia. ‘And they accuse me of ambition, as though it was my ambition that brought me here! This war is only a matter of politics. What have I got to gain from a climate like this, from coming to a wretched country like this one? The whole of it is not worth the meanest little piece of France. They, on the other hand, have a very real interest in conquest: Poland, Germany, anything goes for them. Just seeing the sun six months of the year is a new pleasure for them. It is they that should be stopped, not me. These Germans with all their philosophy don’t understand a thing.’
Rant as he might, the retreat would have to go on. And it would have to be rapid, for St Cyr and Victor would not be able to hold back Wittgenstein for much longer, while Kutuzov was already overtaking Napoleon on his other flank. And an altogether new threat was developing in the south, where Schwarzenberg and Reynier had been obliged to give ground before the combined forces of Tormasov and Chichagov: instead of falling back towards Minsk, where they would have joined forces with Napoleon, they had gone off westwards, back into Poland, leaving Napoleon’s line of retreat through Minsk dangerously exposed.
Napoleon’s disappointment on reaching Smolensk was as nothing compared to that of his troops. The last stages of the march had sapped not only the physical strength but also the spirits of the bravest soldiers. ‘Morale nevertheless held,’ according to Dedem de Gelder, ‘the majority of the army believing that Smolensk would be the term of their misfortunes.’ On 7 November the front echelons passed a substantial convoy of food moving the other way destined for Ney’s rearguard and this lifted their spirits, as it seemed to endorse the image of plenty at Smolensk. Soldiers hurriedly rejoined their units in the expectation of regular distributions of food. They somehow managed to forget that the last time they had seen the city it had been a smouldering ruin, and as they approached they had a picture of warmth and abundance in their minds. ‘The idea that the end of our travails was nigh lent us a kind of gaiety,’ wrote one, ‘and it was with many a joke about our prolonged slitherings and frequent falls that my comrades and I came down the hill and up to the city walls.’
But while the Guard, which entered the city with Napoleon, received a distribution of food and spirits, and settled into the ruins for a welcome rest, the units marching behind it were less fortunate. The Guard had been preceded by a rabble of fleeing deserters who had tried to storm the stores, with the result that those in charge of distributing them became even more fussy than normal in following procedure. After the Guard had entered, the gates of the city were shut, and the gendarmes manning them admitted only armed units marching under the command of an officer. But as well as excluding the stragglers, this measure punished those who had fallen behind through no fault of their own, the wounded, and the cavalrymen whose units had quite simply dissolved through the death of their mounts.
Even those who managed to regroup outside the town and present an organised appearance received a less than satisfactory distribution. As Napoleon did not want news of his setbacks to spread, he had not warned the authorities in places such as Smolensk of his impending arrival, let alone of the real state of affairs. With prior warning, the local administration could have baked bread and divided stores up into rations which could have been distributed quickly and easily. As it was, companies were simply issued with sacks of flour which, as they lacked the means of baking bread, they boiled up into a thin gruel, an ox which they had to set about slaughtering, and a barrel of spirits, half of which would be wasted as it was decanted.
All attempts at maintaining order were nullified by the deserters and stragglers who managed to infiltrate the city and set up dens of brigands in the cellars of burnt-out houses, from which they sallied forth to steal and raid the magazines. Fights kept breaking out in the stores, officials in charge of distributing them were beaten up, those carrying away rations for their units were waylaid by those who could not obtain food through regular channels, and a vast amount was wasted in the process.
The Guard was accused by other troops of having stolen the supplies, and there was much grumbling against it, but in effect most of those still with their colours did receive distributions of rice, flour, spirits and in some cases beef.15 The Guard also aroused envy and anger as it appeared to take control of the great bazaar which sprang up at one of the main crossroads in the town.
The conditions of the retreat had turned out to be very different from those envisaged as they left Moscow, and as a result everyone was trying to adapt their arrangements by trading one kind of booty for a more manageable or transportable variety. ‘Here a suttler-woman would be offering watches, rings, necklaces, silver vases and precious stones,’ recalled Amédée de Pastoret. ‘There a grenadier was selling brandy or furs. A little further on a soldier of the train was hawking the complete works of Voltaire or the letters to Émilie by Desmoustiers. A voltigeur had horses and carriages on offer, while a cuirassier had set up a stall with footwear and clothing.’ Those who had failed to get a regular distribution of food sold whatever they had in order to buy some.
The civilians, who did not qualify for military distributions, had no other way of obtaining it, and when they ran out of money or things to sell they were reduced to begging. In this, the women had an unenviable advantage, as Labaume records. ‘Mostly on foot, shod with cloth bottines and dressed in thin dresses of silk or percale, they wrapped themselves in pelisses or soldiers’ greatcoats taken from corpses along the way. Their predicament would have wrenched tears from the hardest of hearts, if the rigours of our position had not been such as to strangle every feeling of humanity. Among these victims of the horrors of war, there were some who were young, pretty, charming, witty, and who possessed all the qualities capable of seducing the most insensitive man, but most of them were reduced to begging for the slightest favour, and the piece of bread they were given often required the most abject form of gratitude. While they implored our help, they were cruelly abused, and every night belonged to those who had fed them that day.’
The misery was compounded by the fact that on 12 November the temperature fell sharply, with readings as low as – 23.75°C (–10.75°F). On the night of 14 November it was so cold that the men on picket duty around Ney’s bivouac had to be threatened with the direst consequences to keep them from coming in to find shelter. Marshal Mortier took a more relaxed view. Seeing a sentry standing outside his lodgings, he asked him what he was doing and received the reply that he was on guard. ‘Against whom and against what?’ Mortier asked. ‘You won’t prevent the cold from coming in or hardship from attacking us! So you may as well come in and find a place by the fireside.’
A large proportion of the army was camped out in the open outside the city, and they struggled desperately to escape the cold. ‘Around our bivouac there were some huts in which officers and men had sought shelter from the cold and in which they had lit fires,’ recalled Sergeant Bertrand of the 7th Light Infantry in Davout’s corps. ‘One of my good friends had gone inside as well. Foreseeing what was bound to happen, I begged him to come out. At my insistence, the officers and several soldiers, who were already numbed by the warmth and incapable of making a decision, did come out, but he would not hear of it and found his death there. As I had foreseen, crowds of other men soon began to assail these huts while those inside tried to defend their haven, a terrible struggle began and the weaker men were crushed mercilessly. I ran to the bivouac to get help, but I had barely reached it when flames engulfed the huts with all those inside them. In the morning there were only ruins and corpses.’ Sergeant Bourgogne, who had himself tried to get into one of the buildings, stood by helplessly as he watched screaming comrades being devoured by the flames.
What made the conditions so hard to bear was the blow morale had suffered from the disappointed hopes. ‘A bivouac set up in deep snow in the ruins and the courtyard of a burnt-out house, a few meagre victuals, for the possession of which we had to come to blows at the entrance to the stores with thousands of ghosts enraged by hunger, and one single day of rest, with a temperature of [– 22.5°C (– 8.5°F)]: that was all we found in Smolensk, in those much-vaunted winter quarters,’ recalled an artillery officer of Ney’s 25th Württemberg Division.
‘In an attempt to prevent the men from losing heart, the Emperor affected impassivity in the face of all this bad news, in order to make himself seem above all the adversity and ready to face any eventuality,’ noted Louis Lejeune. ‘But this was wrongly interpreted as indifference.’ The fatherly concern the troops used to sense in Napoleon was not in evidence. Auguste Bo net, a simple soldier, wrote to his mother from Smolensk on 10 November. ‘Ma chère maman, write to me often and at length, it is the only pleasure, the only consolation that remains to me in this wild country that the war has turned into a wilderness.’
Perhaps the most unfortunate were Prince Eugène’s Italians who, having lost all their possessions and supplies at the crossing of the Vop, survived their icy bath and finally struggled into Smolensk, only to find the gates closed. After three hours of pushing, shoving and arguing they were at last admitted, only to discover that the supplies had been thoroughly pillaged. They camped in the streets, and the few wounded they had managed to bring along on their remaining wagons died in the night without shelter. ‘Many of us lost what was left of our spirit, of that spirit that kept hope alive,’ wrote Cesare de Laugier, while Bartolomeo Bertolini felt that ‘every soldier had lost the hope of ever seeing his motherland again’.
The Italian Guardia d’Onore, a kind of cadet force made up of the scions of the nobility of northern Italy who held officer’s rank but served as simple soldiers, elicited general pity, for they lacked all the skills of the regular soldier. They had lost their mounts and tramped awkwardly in their ungainly top-boots instead of cutting them down, they had been too pampered to know how to fix their footwear or sew up a tear in their uniforms, let alone how to cook up a stew from whatever might be on offer; and they had been too well brought up to stoop to pillaging or even pilfering from dead men. Only eight of them survived out of a total of 350, which was low even by the standards of this campaign.
Cavalry were particularly vulnerable, as every time a horse died another man was left behind. They were gradually dispersed, and therefore denied any mutual support system. So even while they had plenty of able-bodied men, cavalry units tended to disintegrate. On 9 November General Thielmann wrote to the King of Saxony that he must regard the two cavalry regiments which had been under his command as completely lost. But there were exceptions, and the lancers Dr La Flise had teamed up with rode into Smolensk with unfurled colours and music, and managed to get food for themselves and fodder for their horses.
It required a strong hand to keep any regiment together, as the kindly but gruff Colonel Pelet of the 48th of the Line in Davout’s corps attested. Not without effort, he had managed to obtain a quantity of flour, a barrel of vodka and four live oxen from the stores, but before he could set about feeding his men he was ordered to turn them out on parade before Davout. He was determined not to let his precious victuals out of his sight, so he took them along to the parade. Luckily, Davout was late. ‘I kept an eye as constantly as I could on the regiment and the barrel,’ Pelet wrote, ‘and suddenly I noticed that it had been broken open. I ran over to it, but it was too late; nearly all the spirits had been pillaged, or at least distributed without measure or order. I hastened to overturn the barrel, but my men were already tipsy, and a number of them dead drunk. In order to hide this accident from the severe eye of Davout I tried to make the regiment manoeuvre, but this proved beyond them.’ He managed to lead them out of sight of the dreaded Davout’s quarters and then came back to clear up. ‘More than eighty knapsacks, muskets and shakos were strewn about as after a battle,’ he added.