Japanese Army Crossing – The Yalu River


The first major land engagement between Russian and Japanese forces during the Russo-Japanese War. It was fought 1-5 May 1904 and resulted in the first serious defeat of the Imperial Russian Army. The setting of the battle was decided following Japanese landing operations in Korea. At this stage the Russian Eastern Detachment under the command of Lieutenant General Mikhail Zasulich was deployed along the western bank of the Yalu River in an attempt to prevent the Japanese forces from crossing the river and invading Manchuria. On the eastern bank of the river, the Japanese First Army, under General Kuroki Tametomo, was deployed. On 15 April, General Aleksei Kuropatkin issued a memorandum stressing the importance of not allowing the Japanese a decisive victory in the first battle so as not to raise their morale. In the same spirit, however, Kuropatkin warned Zasulich to avoid a decisive battle and instructed him to determine the enemy’s strength, disposition, and marching lines, and “to retreat as slowly as possible to the mountains.”

The Eastern Detachment consisted of the Third Siberian Army Corps supported by the Trans-Baikal Cossack Brigade under Major General Pavel Mishchenko. The combined Russian fighting force amounted to 16,000 riflemen, 2,350 cavalry, 640 mounted scouts, 48 field guns, eight mountain guns, and six horse artillery guns. Based on military intelligence reports, Kuroki concluded prior to the battle that the Russian forces could be outnumbered at any point along the elongated front of about 275 kilometers [170 miles]. His First Army was stronger by far than its opponents, consisting of the 2nd, 12th, and Imperial Guards Divisions, over 40,000 strong. The Japanese troops marched for six weeks before arriving at the Korean border town of Wiju [Sinuiju, Uiju; Gishu], where they prepared for the battle and carefully monitored the enemy positions. Zasulich did not exert much effort to learn more about the Japanese dispositions, nor did he do much to conceal his own.

Kuroki decided to attack on 1 May 1904, three days after his forces finally succeeded in emplacing at the front 20 120-millimeter [4.7- inch] converted naval howitzers. On the night of 25 April and during the following day, Japanese troops took the islands of Kintei and Kyuri, located between the Yalu and the Ai Rivers. Their movement forced the Russians to evacuate also a stronghold known as Tiger Hill, which commanded the adjacent points of passage. The next day Japanese engineers threw 10 bridges across the relatively narrow Ai River, with much opposition from the Russian side. Early on 29 April, Lieutenant General Inoue Hikaru’s 12th Division accomplished its task of clearing the high ground up to the Ai River. Aware of the size of the force facing him, Zasulich neither retired nor concentrated his forces at this point, still convinced that it was a feint. That afternoon he dispatched a battalion to recapture Tiger Hill, and its success in doing so was one of the few reverses the Japanese experienced. It did not affect their tactical plans.

The next day Japanese howitzers redeployed on Kintei island battered the Russian artillery batteries and rendered them ineffective in the ensuing battle. Having lost his artillery, Lieutenant General Nikolai Kashtalinskii, commander of the 3rd East Siberian Rifle Division, who took command of the sector two days earlier, requested permission to withdraw. Zasulich declined, and during the night the entire Japanese First Army crossed the Yalu River and its channels. On the morning of 1 May, Kuroki began a full-scale attack, committing his three divisions. While crossing the narrow waters of the Ai, they suffered heavy causalities, but the attack continued. Broken up by superior numbers, the Russian line formed groups, each of which, after resisting for a while, was driven back. In this situation Zasulich ordered the retreat. By 10:00 the Russians had abandoned Chuliencheng, the Manchurian town facing Wiju on the western bank of the Ai River, where their headquarters were located.

Russian attempts to stem the rout farther to the west, near the little settlement of Hamatang, failed; under the growing pressure of the Japanese 12th Division, the smaller force under Colonel Gromov succumbed and began to retreat. For his decision, Gromov was later court-martialed. He was exonerated but later committed suicide. Further desperate attempts by Russian forces to form rear guards collapsed under local Japanese superiority, whereas the hesitant Zasulich made no stand even at the strategically important town of Fenghwangcheng [hoojo]. The Japanese occupied the site unopposed on 5 May 1904, although they did not pursue their demoralized opponents, who retreated northwest toward Liaoyang, thereby allowing the Japanese Second Army to begin landing in Pitzuwo on 5 May. Russian casualties numbered about 2,700 men, including 500 prisoners of war, whereas the Japanese lost 1,036 killed and wounded. The Russians lost also 21 guns and eight machine guns. Altogether, the battle of the Yalu marked the onset of the Russian defeat against the Japanese and would be remembered as such for decades to come. It was the first time in the modern age that an Asian force crushed a European force in a full-scale clash. The contemporary psychological impact of the debacle on the Imperial Russian Army was so immense that in retrospect some writers have treated this medium-scale confrontation as the decisive battle of the war.

Army of the Levant


1er Régiment Etranger de Cavalerie, 1er REC. The only cavalry regiment in the French Foreign Legion, since the 2nd Foreign Cavalry Regiment (2e REC) has been disbanded. 1er REC has been stationed at Quartier Labouche in Orange, France since it moved from Mers-el-Kébir, Algeria in October 1967.

The regiment was created in Tunisia in 1921 around a cadre of Russian White movement veterans with extensive light cavalry experience from the Russian Civil War. It subsequently served in Syria and Morocco in 1920′s and 1930′s.

Uniforms of the Troupes Speciales varied according to arm of service but showed a mixture of French and Levantine influences. Indigenous personnel wore either the keffiyeh headdress (red for Druze and white for other units), fezzes or turbans. The Circassian mounted troops wore a black full dress that closely resembled that of the Caucasian Cossacks, complete with astrakhan hats. A common feature across the Troupes Speciales was the use of “violette” (purple-red) as a facing colour on tunic collar patches, belts and kepis. Squadron or branch insignia often included regional landmarks such as the cedars of Lebanon or the main mosque of Damascus.

In 1920, the French were given a mandate over Syria and Lebanon by the League of Nations. During this period Syria was known as the French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon was known as the French Mandate of Lebanon.

From 19 April to 26 April 1920 the San Remo Conference was held in Sanremo, Italy. After this conference was concluded, the short-lived monarchy of King Faisal’s was defeated at the Battle of Maysalun during the Franco-Syrian War. The French army under General Henri Gouraud then occupied the Mandate of Syria and the Mandate of Lebanon.

A force called the Syrian Legion was raised by the French authorities shortly after the establishment of the two mandates. This comprised both cavalry and infantry units and was drawn mainly from minority groups within Syria itself.

Following the Druse revolt of 1925 to 1927, the Syrian Legion was reorganised into the “Special Troops of the Levant” (Troupes Speciales du Levant) augmented by North African infantry (tirailleurs) and cavalry (spahis), Foreign Legion (Légion étrangère), and Colonial Infantry/Artillery units (both French and Senegalese). The whole force constituted the Army of the Levant and was responsible for keeping order in both French mandates during the interwar period.

The French Mandate Administration followed a principle of divide and rule in organising the Troupes Speciales. As far as possible the Sunni Muslim Arabs, who made up about 65% of the population of Syria, were excluded from service with the Troupes Speciales, who were drawn mainly from Druze, Christian, Circassian and ‘Alawi minorities. During the period from 1926 to 1939, the Army of the Levant included between 10,000 and 12,000 locally engaged troops organised into: ten battalions of infantry (mostly ‘Alawis), four squadrons of cavalry (Druze, Circassian and mixed Syrian), three companies of camel corps (méharistes), engineer, armoured car, and support units. In addition, there were 9 companies of Lebanese light infantry (chasseurs libanais) and 22 squadrons of Druze, Circassian, and Kurdish mounted infantry forming the auxiliary troops (Troupes Supplementaires). This latter force provided a form of military police (gendarmerie) for internal security purposes and were primarily deployed in the areas of their recruitment. Some of the Lebanese units were trained as ski troops for mountain service and wore the berets of the French elite mountain infantry (Chasseurs Alpins).

By 1938, the Troupes Speciales numbered 10,000, with 306 officers of whom only 88 were French. A military academy (École Militaire) was established at Homs to train Syrian and Lebanese officers and specialist non-commissioned officers (NCOs).

During the 1930s the French Army experimented with integrating mounted and mechanised cavalry units into larger formations. Dragoon regiments were converted to motorised infantry (trucks and motor cycles), and cuirassiers to armoured units; while light cavalry (Chasseurs a’ Cheval, Hussars and Spahis) remained as mounted sabre squadrons. The theory was that mixed forces comprising these diverse units could utilise the strengths of each according to circumstances. In practice mounted troops proved unable to keep up with fast moving mechanised units over any distance.

Dresden: Another Victory Without a Future

Slag bij Dresden 26 augustus 1813


The false Congress of Prague afforded the new members of the Coalition time to rebuild their militaries to create a crushing superiority. The 300,000 men of the French army and its allies now faced 600,000 enemy combatants.

Their initial dispositions were in the form of a pincers, reflecting a strategy to encircle the Grand Armeé between Dresden and Leipzig. In the north, Bernadotte commanded a Swedish-Prussian army of 150,000 men. East of the Katzbach, a tributary of the Oder in Silesia, Blücher controlled 100,000 Russo-Prussians. To the south in Bohemia, Schwarzenberg commanded the most important army, composed of 200,000 Austrians and 50,000 Russians. A further 100,000 Russians were en route with Barclay de Tolly. Arguing that Austria had furnished the most important contingent, Metternich had imposed Schwarzenberg as commander-in-chief, or more correctly coordinator-general. To their pincers strategy, the Coalition members added a tactic that was flattering to the military renown of Napoleon: refuse battle wherever he was located, and act offensively only against his lieutenants.

Of course, Napoleon had profited equally from the suspension of arms to increase as much as possible the Grand Armeé effectives and artillery (1,200 cannon). He had paid special attention to the cavalry, increased to 40,000 but unfortunately without experience. At their head stood the best of them, Murat, who had repented and decided to rejoin Napoleon. But he no longer had the dash and enthusiasm of yesteryear. Moreover, Napoleon was aware that Murat had not completely severed his contacts with the Austrians.

At the renewal of hostilities, the French army was in a waiting posture between Leipzig and Dresden, holding off three enemy armies: in the north, Oudinot (70,000 men) opposite Bernadotte; in the east, Ney (100,000) opposite Blücher, including Marmont’s, Macdonald’s, and Lauriston’s corps; to the south, Gouvion Saint-Cyr (100,000), opposite Schwartzenberg. Napoleon remained in the center with the Guard (30,000 men).

Napoleon’s strategy was imposed on him by the disposition of forces on the terrain. Once again, he had to compensate for his overall numerical inferiority by a succession of local superiorities, accomplished by lightning concentrations, permitting him to defeat the enemy armies in detail. The disposition of opposing forces helped him in this task. His unsurpassed rapidity of execution and his legendary coup d’oeil would do the rest.

To this general concept of maneuver, Napoleon added a diversion toward Berlin by Davout’s corps, advancing from Hamburg in liaison with Oudinot’s offensive. This deception story was meant to distract Bernadotte, who constituted the northern arm of the enemy pincer.

To the diplomatic infamy of a false armistice, the Coalition now added military dishonor. On August 12, Blücher violated the ceasefire that had not yet expired. He surprised Ney’s units in bivouac on the Katbach, threatening to destroy them. Napoleon marched the Guard with all speed from Goerlitz to the Neisse River. As soon as he became aware of the emperor’s presence, however, Blücher withdrew.

The inspiration of this violation of the law of war was none other than Jomini. This former Swiss clerk who had become Ney’s chief of staff by his favor and that of Napoleon had recently passed to the enemy side. In so doing, he took a quantity of valuable intelligence concerning the French army. He succeeded in persuading the Coalition monarchs to initiate hostilities before the expiration of the armistice, so as to surprise the French in the midst of their preparations. The anticipated results were supposed to eclipse the dishonor of the proceeding. These noble monarchs did not hesitate to thus sacrifice their honor and violate their oaths! Later, this criminal would push into military literature, where he obtained more success than on the battlefield, without ever convincing the true specialists in the art of war. Determined in his desire to justify his treason, his account of the Napoleonic Wars failed to conceal his bitterness at not being rewarded for his alleged merits when he was still loyal to Napoleon.

In time, Napoleon was able to detect the trap that had been prepared for him. Blücher’s abortive attack was in reality only a lure to distract Napoleon’s army eastward while Schwarzenberg was to seize Dresden in his rear, cutting all his communications. The infamous violation of the armistice did not achieve its purpose because of Napoleon’s lightning return to Dresden, outrunning Schwarzenberg by covering 140 kilometers in three days.

The Battle of Dresden took place on August 26-27, 1813. The first day, Napoleon contained the general Coalition assault to the west of the city. The next day, he counterattacked the Austrian left in force, overthrowing it. Then he exploited the resulting penetration in a southerly direction, threatening the rear of Schwarzenberg, who rightly ordered a general retreat on Bohemia in mid-afternoon.

Thus Napoleon seized his last great victory. The Coalition left on the field 15,000 killed or wounded, 25,000 prisoners, 40 cannon, and 30 regimental colors. The French army suffered 10,000 killed or wounded.

The fruits of this victory were lost, unfortunately. Given the dispersion of the Coalition partners, the resolute pursuit of the enemy to complete his defeat could only be conducted in a decentralized manner. Left to their own devices, in several days Napoleon’s lieutenants squandered the benefits of victory. To the east, Blücher severely thrashed Macdonald on the River Katzbach. In the south, Vandamme missed the opportunity for a great victory over Schwarzenberg at Kulm, and found himself a prisoner instead. To the north, Ney allowed Bernadotte to defeat him at Dennewitz.

A new and more serious period manifested itself. Allied troops began to desert en masse and turn against the French army. On August 23, 10,000 Bavarians and Saxons abandoned the ranks of Oudinot’s corps, defeated by Bernadotte at Grossbeeren. This was the first tangible sign of the surge of German nationalism in European affairs, a fatal blow to the Grand Armeé.

The appearance of national sentiment in Germany dated from the uprising in Spain. Elated ideologues were its champions, including Gentz, Schlegel, and Stein, excited by French turncoats at work in European courts. The dominant idea was to oppose the French democratic revolution with a stronger patriotic counter-revolution.

Having been hostile to this movement out of fear that it might turn against them, the German monarchs embraced it once they became aware of the enormous benefits they could draw from nationalism. Napoleon’s great power resided in his charismatic image as a liberator of peoples. If one could succeed in substituting an exalted nationalistic sentiment for menacing class consciousness, one could change radically the correlation of forces. What could be easier than to indirectly mobilize support to defend the monarchical classes by those who would otherwise threaten those classes? Deprived of his democratic striking force, Napoleon could not resist the rising patriotic tide. These sorcerer’s apprentices risked nothing in the short run. Unpolished and unorganized, in 1813 the popular masses could not suspect this diabolical twist of consciousness. Yet, in 1848, the monarchies belatedly realized that they had played with fire.

After several years of development, German nationalism erupted sharply and helped defeat Napoleon militarily. It was too late for him to regret his failure to arouse the conquered peoples against their oppressive sovereigns.

The first defections began to spread. The German alliances weakened and then reversed themselves in a fatal sequence. On October 8, Bavaria passed to the Coalition camp. This reversal gravely threatened the communications of the Grand Armeé.

The turmoil in Westphalia caused its king, Jerome, to quit the capital, Kassel, on September 30. At Bremen, a popular uprising forced its garrison to surrender to the Cossacks on October 15. Württemberg quit the French alliance on November 2. In short, the rats departed the sinking ship.

As an added burden, on November 8 Murat offered to ally himself with the Coalition, with Rome as the price of his treason.

In these dramatic circumstances, Napoleon had only one concern: to save his army, which was surrounded on all sides and threatened with destruction.

The balance of forces having become too unfavorable, for the first time Napoleon’s war aim was no longer the destruction of enemy armies, but the neutralization of them by a skillful blow, permitting him to withdraw behind the Rhine under the best conditions possible. This was the objective he chose after entrenching at Leipzig.


Napoleon out of Russia 1812


The Russian campaign was the decisive turning-point of the Napoleonic Wars that ultimately led to Napoleon’s defeat and exile on the island of Elba

In Napoleon’s Memoirs, as recorded by his private secretary, we have a curious disjuncture. On one hand, the hideous retreat of Napoleon’s army was almost a good thing in that it allowed the French soldier-other nationalities are not mentioned-to display all of those sterling qualities that emerge under adversity. On the other hand, however, “It was no longer possible to preserve even the shadow of discipline, and each man left to himself tried to reach Vilna as best he could.” Some years after the fact, the balance of cheeky defiance and unhappy inward recognition of reality that produced indecisiveness was still operative.

On November 28, the main body of Napoleon’s army passed over the Berezina River. Desperate rear-guard actions succeeded in keeping the Russian army from destroying this pitiful remnant altogether. Nevertheless, Russian artillery ¤re was intense and thousands, including women and children who had accompanied the army, were slaughtered. There was, of course, bitter cold, and virtually no food. General Eblé, the Swiss officer who had accomplished engineering miracles in constructing bridges across the river, said he attempted to persuade the emperor to show more celerity in getting his army to the relative safety west of the Berezina. Napoleon, who had been complaining about various matters up to that point, snapped, “`That will do.’ He looked at the ground. A few moments later he began complaining again and seemed to have forgotten what the general had said.”

Napoleon’s success in bringing most of his army over the Berezina was due in no small degree to the timidity and, at times, incompetence of the Russian generals. They were overawed to some extent by Napoleon’s reputation, while at other times they were raw and overconfident. In any case, it cannot be maintained that the Russian army “won” a battle at the Berezina. It is perhaps a measure of the cheekiness inspired by the Napoleonic legend (or perhaps of simple French nationalism) that contemporary commentators have referred to the Berezina episode as constituting a French “victory.”

Yet, it is true that Napoleon had succeeded in saving at least a crucial remnant of the Grand Armée from annihilation. Part of this, as suggested above, was no doubt due to the incompetence of his pursuers. There is another factor that was certainly of crucial importance, however. Paris was now his goal and it was charged with a valence even more positive than Moscow had been. Malet’s conspiracy had to be dealt with, where the emperor could act with the certainty characteristic of one who finds himself back in a familiar setting. The Russian army, of course, was still a negatively charged barrier, but in a pursuit characterized by a mixture of timidity and tactical sloppiness, it was, paradoxically, less of a threat-at least to Napoleon personally-than it had been when he first led his six-hundred-thousand-man host into Russia in the first place.

As inflexible as he had once been during the advance, he now was frantic in his effort to return to Paris. Just as during the advance, this necessitated that he occasionally not allow himself to see fully what was going on around him. Napoleon also was assailed by doubts, and patterns of avoidance could not continuously prevent him from knowing of the suffering of his remaining troops. Ahead, however, were Paris, safety, and the possibility of raising a new army. Behind him was a gutted city, the taking of which had at one point been the inflexibly held goal that had compensated for original uncertainties about a campaign undertaken with reluctance. More immediately behind him was an army whose badly coordinated pursuit allowed Napoleon to avoid it or, on occasion, to defeat it in detail. His men might still die by the thousands, but the life region of Paris, even more positively charged than Moscow had been, had become a second “sun of Austerlitz” for a man to whom negative valence was no longer of paralyzing significance.

After crossing the Berezina, a river now choked with the debris, human and otherwise, left behind by a disaster unparalleled in military history up to that time, Napoleon dashed off his famous Grand Armée Bulletin Number 29. Dated December 3, 1812, it contained an admission that things were not well. Napoleon blamed everything on the weather, the “cruel season” as he called it, and dwelled lovingly upon the military incompetence of the Russians and the cowardice of the Cossacks. The latter, he declared, attacked only wagons and supplies and were miserable as cavalry. A group of Cossacks, he said, “makes only noise and is not capable of beating a company of voltigeurs.” Only the peculiar circumstances surrounding recent events allowed them to succeed. After further self-serving ramblings, Napoleon ended his message with the well-known phrase, “His majesty’s health has never been better.” Napoleon’s apologists have maintained that the last sentence was necessary, at least in his own mind, because he was still worried about Malet’s conspiracy. At the very least, however, one can bring up the question of taste.

Originally uncertain as to his goal(s), Napoleon-perhaps out of fear of, if not necessarily respect for, the unpredictable Russian army-decided rather early on that he would conquer space, this achievement to be crowned by the taking of Moscow. The taking of territory in general and Moscow in particular thus became a life region charged with positive valence. The Russian army, on the other hand, became a barrier which, even if it had to be dealt with in order to attain the positive goal, was a region charged with negative valence and thus aroused intense anxiety in the emperor. He was not eager to confront it personally, and his delays along the way and his sloppy performance in battle can be explained by this uncertainty. Yet, having decided on taking territory, he drove his army forward with inflexible determination, just about ruining it in the process. This inflexibility masked a variety of uncertainties about the campaign, as did periodic exhibitions of noxious bravado. A statement Napoleon made while in retirement on Saint Helena revealed this uncertainty: “The most terrible of all my battles was the one before Moscow. The French showed themselves worthy of victory, and the Russians worthy of being invincible.” In a word, Napoleon’s army had defeated a foe that had not lost. Even on Saint Helena, albeit only for a moment, the conqueror of Moscow revealed himself to be the individual who, as the campaign was about to begin, had no goal- a condition for which an unwonted rigidity would have to compensate. Concern over possible defeat at the hands of a foe that was in so many ways a mystery to him would be overcome through territorial conquest. What in fact would function, much as Alexander had supposed it would, as a lifesaving barrier for him and his army, Napoleon was able to turn into something of positive value.

Of course, those geographic distances-which were not a conscious psychological barrier during the advance (indeed confirming that more territory had been conquered)-haunted Napoleon throughout the retreat, aided and abetted by the weather. Yet, wanting only to get “home” as quickly as possible, there was no longer any spiritual confusion and, except for delays at Smolensk and at the Berezina River-which for obvious reasons must have had strong symbolic significance-he was able to right off an army whose pursuit was less than wholehearted. With clarity and purpose restored, and all ambivalences and hesitations a memory (if that), the emperor could go about his task of raising a new army with cold-blooded energy.

Napoleon’s Russian adventure perhaps can best be explained by recognizing that since he had no clear goals originally, he had allowed his opponent to delude him into accepting the one that would most benefit his foe. The tsar was right when he remarked while riding into Paris, “and they thought I was the fool.”




First Battalion of Hessian Lifeguards Part I


The Ordeal of Captain Roeder: from the Diary of an Officer in the First Battalion of Hessian Lifeguards During the Moscow Campaign of 1812-13 / Translated and Edited from the Original Manuscript by Helen Roeder

At three o’clock on the morning of [November] the 17th the Hessians prepared to march against the enemy. Captain Roeder’s company had been reduced to seven sergeants and twenty-seven men. The total strength of the Lifeguards, who had numbered 660 combatants when they left Viazma some ten days earlier, was now twenty-six officers, 442 men, while the Prince’s Own (Regiment) could only number twenty-three officers, 450 men. ‘What a brigade of Guards of four battalions! And yet we are much stronger than the French!’ The Captain wrote a little letter of farewell to his family, and then they marched for about two hours back along the road to Smolensk. They took their stand in battalions to the left of the road, and there they remained until about eight o’clock. ‘I found it terribly hard; cold and drowsiness.’ At eight o’clock a Russian corps approached towards the town, and by nine the Hessians stood facing the enemy. From half past nine until half past twelve they were ‘exposed to the fire of about ten cannon and two howitzers, and especially of a battery of about six pieces lying a little to the left, which fired at us unceasingly and with great violence, so that even in the great battles of Wagram and Aspern we had never had to stand up to such a cannonade of such long duration. I left my place for a moment to have a word with Captain Schwarzenau, and just before 1 returned to it a ball passed through prodigiously close to Lieutenant Succow, who had stepped in, killing outright the men who were standing in the second and third rank to the right. The first of these was my old cook, Heck, an honest fellow, who died a noble death. In all, from twenty-seven men including officers, for I had lost many more from weakness during the march, I lost one dead and three wounded. Yet another shot passing close to my eyes, tore through a gap in the rank without damage, but struck the hand off a drummer in the Fourth Company.

‘The Prince’s Own, which was close to the Russian cavalry, unfortunately had to form a square, and in a short time suffered a loss of ten officers and 119 men dead and wounded. All the wounded officers fell into the hands of the Russians.

‘The First Corps, like ourselves, were stationed in a wood filled with Russian sharpshooters, but several times they had to form closed columns and attack at the double. The Russians did not yield, and nothing was done to circumvent or dislodge them par force, for this fight only aimed to hold back a little the corps which was stationed there under General Orlov, or to see whether they were supported by their main army or by a strong corps. We withdrew therefore at one o’clock, and, covered by a weak division, retreated with all speed as far as the frontier of Old Russia five hours beyond the little town of Lodsi.’

The Captain, ‘fearfully weary and suffering from a total lack of any kind of food’, tried to find the recruit who had been supposed to hold his horse on the neighbouring hillside, but the boy had taken himself off to a place of safety with the horse and such meagre supplies as might be in the saddle-bags. It was a Russian pony commandeered to replace the big horse that had collapsed a few days before. The starving Captain looked round him hopelessly; already the looters were at their work, stripping the corpses almost before they were dead. One of these men approached him with a bloodstained fur coat ripped by the cannon ball which had killed its wearer, a French subaltern in the Voltigeurs. The Captain gave a gratuity to the corpse-stripper; the coat was torn but at least it was warm, and this was neither the time nor the place for feelings of refinement. There was no need to freeze even if one did have to starve. He put his frozen hand into the pocket and found there a piece ‘of the most excellent sugar’. So at least he had something to gnaw. Another soldier brought him a small bag of barley coffee, ‘which had been found in the pocket of the fallen Heck, and since nobody wanted it I put it in my pocket’. So even in death his old cook provided him with a meal, for he managed to nourish himself that day upon six cups of barley coffee with the sugar added, ‘ladled out so that the roasted grain could be eaten too’.

The bivouac was horrible. They spent the night without shelter and ‘marched on, fasting, at five o’clock’. The Captain’s feet were beginning to swell dangerously and his hands also were frost-bitten, for he had lost the gloves which Mina [his wife] had knitted for him. The recruit did not return, having allowed the saddle-bags to be pillaged by the French, so his small store of food was gone. ‘I begged a piece of bread from Prince Wittgenstein, and then gave it to Amman because I thought that his need was the greater. Also I gave Captain Hoffmann my reserve flask of brandy. He promised me bread in return but gave me none.’ He tried to take note of the country through which they were passing, but was no longer able to do so; all he could do was to stagger on somehow. ‘We went by Kazani, where there was only one bridge, and this blocked by vehicles, so that the greater part of the infantry had to go through the water and ice, which terribly retarded our march. We laid stakes across it and passed over very slowly, and still most of us fell into the water. Here I ate some horseflesh grilled on the cinders and found it excellent. We went on for about another hour and a half beyond Kazani and bivouacked on the road by a great church. I lodged in a house with a number of officers of the Sixth Tirailleur Battalion. I have no batman.’

The next day he woke shivering and streaming, with his feet so swollen that he was unable to draw on his boots, so that he was constrained to borrow shoes from a soldier and they were too big for him. ‘Before the march out I lost my blue handkerchief in the straw. I could not search for it in the room full of officers.’ It is difficult for us in the twentieth century to understand how they could in such circumstances have continued to observe the punctilio which was considered proper to officers in the Guards. And yet, if they survived at all it may have been in some part due to the observance of a rigid code. They had no boots, sometimes no feet, but they knew how to die with dignity.

‘At half past four this morning between our encampment and the town of Dubrovna we were harassed by Cossacks, but we are not being pursued as we should be.

‘I was shivering from riding and from my indisposition, so I asked Prince Emil for a drop of the schnapps which he had offered me yesterday, and I also had to accept from him a slice of the Göttingen sausage which Mother had sent me and I had presented to him. It was excellent.

‘We occupied an odious bivouac to the right of the road towards Orsza, where it was impossible to make even a decent fire. I had nothing to eat, but managed to purchase three platefuls of groats [crushed grain, usually oats] for three francs from one of my soldiers. Amman was still my guest and slept by my fire. Coffee I still had, but the sugar of the dead French officer was all the solid nourishment I had taken until then, and even that I had shared too liberally. My lad Dietrich with all my best effects has not yet put in an appearance. Musketeer Alt with the furs, fodder and cooking pots may well be utterly lost.

‘20th.Very ill. After one and a quarter hours we reached Orsza, where I rode straight over the Dnieper Bridge 125 paces long. On the opposite side I found Colonel Follenius on a hill with a number of officers, who had mustered all those of our men who had gone ahead. Their number was equal to that of the regiments we had with us. Upon this hill we were informed that the army was to take three different routes via Minsk, Vilna and Vitebsk respectively. We were to take the first route with the Emperor.

‘There was to have been a great seizure of flour and brandy here, and the men were each given a schoppen of brandy to empty the magazine, but those who were to have removed the stores immediately became so sozzled that the twenty sacks of flour could not be brought away. So in spite of the superfluity, the soldiers in general received nothing, for only very starving men could wrest some of it from the universal pillaging and bring it over the bridge. I bought a little schnapps extremely dear.

‘My batman Dietrich has arrived safely with my best effects. I have just learned that my groom, Gottfried Köppinghof, died at the first night station after Smolensk, after I myself had left him quite cheerful and well provided and able to make the march on foot. I had thought that the hope of soon being back in his native land would have helped him to a complete recovery. The news came to me as a great shock and I was very sorry to hear it. Colonel Follenius has invited me to take a place in his chaise, so that I shall procure him night quarters and bring him through the French.

‘Riding back over the Dnieper my horse slipped on the bridge and lay with both back legs over the side. I had to fling myself quickly over its head into the throng of wagons and horses. But being an intelligent pony, he knew so well how to balance himself and remained so quiet that it was possible to help him up.

‘In the evening, after standing about in mud and darkness for a distribution at which there was nothing to distribute, we went on for about three quarters of an hour to a village to the right of the road, where we bivouacked.

‘21st. While we were on the march today about twenty Cossacks approached and carried off a wagon and two horses under the noses of our brigade and the cavalry, which rode on instead of letting fly at them. Our Schützen [light infantry] and the brigade thereupon opened fire, but naturally they made off with all speed. We marched for about seven hours, crossed a river and bivouacked at Kochanovo. I reported sick.’

They were approaching the Beresina and the worst of their ordeal was yet to come. [A Russian officer, a major, who also left an account of the retreat] gives a strange picture of their plight between Krasnoi and the terrible crossing:

‘The second period of the retreat began at Krasnoi and continued to the Beresina; a distance of about twenty-six leagues. At first things appeared to be more favourable for the French army, for, once across the Dnieper, they expected to link up with the corps of Victor and Oudinot and Dombrowski’s division, which together were over 30,000 men strong. Also the pursuit had been somewhat retarded by the fight with the Ney Corps on the 18th. Thirdly the army had now entered the area of its magazines and was in a country which it could regard as its ally, and fourthly the weather had grown somewhat milder. All these ameliorations collapsed before the fact that Admiral Tschitschagov with the Army of the Danube had pressed on via Minsk to catch the French army at the Beresina, and Count Wittgenstein was approaching from Tschasnik with his corps reinforced by General Steinheil, in order to link up with the Army of the Danube. By the movements of these armies the French were placed in great peril, and the least they could expect was a repetition of Krasnoi. Napoleon, perfectly well aware of the danger of his position, hurried to the Beresina by swift marches. When he came through Orsza he found the deputies of the Province of Mohilev waiting to receive the Emperor’s orders. The Emperor, usually so ready to avail himself of this kind of attention, sent them packing without seeing them. He had every reason for not wishing to exhibit his army, which had certainly lost some of its demeanour in the course of the march and was somewhat fantastically attired in priestly vestments and even women’s gowns as a protection against the cold.

‘As soon as Napoleon had taken on his reinforcements, he sent the Poles to the left against Borisov, which town had been occupied by Admiral Tschitschagov, and threw the Victor Corps to the right against Count Wittgenstein. Under cover of these detachments he reached the Beresina with the remainder of the army on the 25th, flung a bridge across it fifteen versts [a verst is approximately 1,000 metres, or two-thirds of a mile] above Borisov at Semlin, and crossed without losing time. Because of its horrors the crossing of the Beresina will live long in the memory of soldiers. For two days the crossing continued. Right from the beginning the troops surged over in disorder, for in the French army order had long been abandoned, and already many found a watery grave. Then, as the Russians forced back the corps of Victor and Dombrowski and everyone surged across the bridge in wild flight, terror and confusion reached their summit. Artillery and baggage, cavalry and infantry all wanted to get over first; the stronger threw the weaker into the water or struck him to the ground, whether he were officer or no. Many hundreds were crushed under the wheels of the cannon; many sought a little room to swim, and froze; many tried to cross the ice and were drowned. Everywhere there were cries for help, and help there was none. When at last the Russians began to fire on the bridge and both banks, the crossing was interrupted. A whole division of 7,500 men from the Victor Corps surrendered together with their general. Many thousands were drowned, as many more crushed and a mass of cannon and baggage was abandoned on the left bank. This was the end of the second period. To the Russians it brought over 20,000 prisoners, 200 cannon and immeasurable booty.’

First Battalion of Hessian Lifeguards Part II


The Captain did not travel long in the Colonel’s chaise. On the 23rd, when the cold weather set in once more, he marched on foot for seven hours to Bobr. ‘I did not think I should come through today. Asked the Colonel for his chaise, but it was already occupied. Rode. My horse, searching for water, broke the ice, stumbled into a water hole and I fell in up to the stomach.’ The horse was drowned; the Captain, with dysentery, violent coughing and with frost-bitten feet, dragged himself out somehow. ‘Now I saw that I must go on stoutly or perish. I pulled myself together with all the strength of my body and soul and covered seven or eight hours on swollen feet. Strecker is suffering from some sort of stroke. Hoffmann is feigning illness to get preferential treatment. He behaves with considerable animosity towards myself. Dietrich remains absent; consequent privation.

‘24th.The Emperor has stopped on the way at Losznita, in a great church to the right of the road, perhaps because a violent cannonade can be heard, which means that a battle is in progress. He has also received despatches.

‘Cadet Becker has died. All of us officers are lying together in a barn with Prince Emil. Extremely wretched and fearfully crowded. Today I should have remained lying had not Prince Emil sent back his own saddle-horse for me. I feel very ill.’

On the 25th they reached the first bend of the winding Beresina at a market town called Njemonica. The whole division could now only form one weak battalion; the Lifeguards had seventy-five men, the Prince’s Own, twenty-five. The Captain was once more travelling in the Colonel’s chaise, for the Colonel set great store upon bringing it through the ever-increasing throng of men and vehicles.

The French army must still have had some fight in them for ‘the day before yesterday the Second Corps beat the Russian Lambert Division. Six cannon were taken and the Russians flung back over the Beresina.

‘26th. This morning at nine a violent fight began to the left; the Second Corps with the Russians on the other side of the river. They must have been victorious because the noise died away in the direction of Borisov. The Third Corps of Guards in reserve were on the right of the road along which we travelled.

‘At Borisov the long bridge crosses over lake and swamp and at the entrance of the town there are two marshy rivers. After this had been crossed the column changed its course from the direct road to Minsk, because this led close to a Russian entrenchment upon a hillside only a quarter of an hour away. According to my map I thought that the road must lead to Semlin, where we should be under necessity to repair and cross the great bridge leading over lake and swamp.’

After waiting his turn for four hours, the Captain, who was fortunate enough to be in the Colonel’s chaise, managed to cross this bridge ‘with indescribable difficulty, struggling through with the Colonel’s excellent coachman, Jacob. The battle went on all round us to the left, reminding me vividly of my own first battle in the Schorlmberge terrain, with almost the same violent fusillades. It lasted until eight in the evening.’

He rejoined his company at the small town of Vesselevo; ‘the bulletins say it was Studianka.’ Although they had meat and flour from Borisov, they were unable to cook them, for there was only-one iron cooking pot. ‘My turn never came. My irritability with my servants increases as my strength fails. When we broke camp in the darkness my overcoat was stolen by one of my batmen, my jar of honey pilfered by another, and my coffee left behind. I am in no state to think or notice anything. Physically I am suffering extremely, especially from violent coughing. The rent in my fur coat has not yet been repaired, so that I cannot put it on or take it off without a long struggle, especially in the darkness with my swollen hands, although it is a great comfort.’

The next day, November 27th, they reached the long, fatal bridge over the Beresina. The Captain, desperately ill and faint with starvation, hoped to be able to travel once more in the Colonel’s chaise, but found it already occupied by Captain Schwarzenau. His nerves, already at breaking point, snapped in a violent rage and he stumbled off to mount his wretched pony, only to find it ‘without a bridle and with one stirrup two spans too long’. They were early at the bridge, but already the press was terrible; what hope could there be for a sick man on a starving pony with no bridle and one stirrup? Imagine him, the gaunt, fainting figure in a torn fur coat and tall cockaded hat; the medals still on his chest, the sword with its porte-épée [sword knot] slapping the swollen leg in a torn blue stocking; the frost-bitten foot in a soldier’s shoe two sizes too big for it groping for the dangling stirrup. And thus he was to cross the Beresina! Then, through the struggling mass of men and horses a big man came pushing his way and shouting:

‘Cap’n Roeder! Cap’n Roeder, sir! Don’t you worry, Cap’n. Leave it to me, sir. Just you lean on me, sir.’

It was Sergeant-Major Vogel. ‘He led my horse by the mane and forced his way through, while I, like a poor sinner, clung to its neck.’

Somehow they got over. ‘I do not know which way we came; I could not notice it. We have taken up our position half an hour beyond the long bridge, and here we are to stay the night. I feel very wretched, but fortunately I have some good hay in which to bed myself. My right breast gives me great pain with coughing.’

The next day the regiment took part in a battle, but the Captain ‘could not even put in an appearance’, for his horse was so weak from hunger and thirst that it was unable to climb the hill, and he himself ‘for sheer misery’ was hardly conscious of what was going on around him. That night he wrote: ‘I am bivouacking in the open air with the brigade flag (under which we have no more protection), suffering prodigiously by a strange night fire (or mostly no fire at all). I am trying to sleep huddled in the most wretched camp. A terrible night. Violent cold and cutting wind.

‘29th.My horse stolen, I thought it would have perished. Now I had to march and, supported by my Sergeant-Major, to cross another long bridge. I think it was Zembin. I could hardly go for the pain in my right breast. Found a wretched pony by the roadside, which had been allowed to run loose. Was lifted on to it, and so went on for about an hour and a half on the beast’s sharp back. My Sergeant-Major makes himself of indescribable service to me.’

That night they took up their quarters in a village. ‘The room was full to overflowing with people. Finally they burned the house down, and after I had lain for a short while under a rafter, I had to bivouack outside without sleep. What a sum of misery! Shall I get to Vilna?’

To know just how horrible that night must have been, we must turn once more to the account of the Russian major:

‘About 40,000 men with a still significant amount of artillery had managed to cross the Beresina, but how tragic was the situation of these troops! A new and violent frost finished the business completely. Now almost everyone threw away his weapons, most of them had neither shoes nor boots, but blankets, knapsacks or old hats bound around their feet. Each had hung whatever he could find around his head and shoulders in order to have at least some protection against the cold; old sacks, tattered straw matting, newlv flayed hides. Happy the men who had managed to find a shred of fur somewhere! With arms hanging and heads bowed low, officers and men plodded on side by side in sullen stupefaction; the Guard was no longer distinguishable from the rest, all were ragged, starving and disarmed. All resistance was at an end; the mere cry of “Cossacks!” brought the whole column to a shambling trot. The route which the army had taken was littered with corpses, every bivouac looked like a battlefield the next morning. No sooner had a man collapsed from exhaustion than the next fell upon him and stripped him naked before he was dead. Every house and barn was burned, and among the ashes lay a heap of dead men, who had gathered round to warm themselves and had been too weak to flee from the fire. All the country roads were swarming with prisoners, of whom no one took the least notice, and here one saw scenes of horror beyond all experience. Black with smoke and filth, they flitted like ghosts among their dead comrades in the burning houses until they too fell in and died. On bare feet covered with burns some went limping onwards down the road, no longer conscious, others had lost the power of speech and many had fallen into a kind of frenzy from cold and hunger, in which they roasted corpses and gorged upon them, or gnawed their own arms and hands. Some were too weak to drag wood to the fires; they merely sat on their dead companions huddled round some small fire which they had chanced to find, and died there as these had already done. Some in a state of frenzy would of their own free will stagger into the fires and burn themselves in the illusion that they were getting warm, and others following them would meet with the same death.’

Now the Captain speaks, and his quiet voice is very terrible:

‘My Sergeant, Jost, went blind tonight. I had to leave him in the most wretched circumstances. The poor soldiers meet with horrible misfortunes: blinded by smoke, fire and lack of sleep, dazed, crazed … My own life was twice endangered by falling with the pony among the wagons.’

On December ist they reached their division and he bivouacked once more with Dr Amman. The bivouac was horrible, but at least they were able to roast a chicken. In the midst of all this he still remembered Mina. ‘It was a year ago today that they told me she had to die. The memory has cost me many tears.’ He told Amman about it; he had to tell someone.

The next day there was a small amelioration of their sufferings, for the sun shone. Also they had a little to eat, for ‘Vogel and I pilfered a loaf of bread yesterday evening and this morning a copper saucepan. Overmastering need! We had to do as all the rest did!’

Somehow they had managed to concoct themselves a pea soup, and he tells how he wrapped some slices of fat pork in paper and took them with him, but the sudden surfeit of food upset his starving stomach. However, ‘I made a good seven or eight hours and reached a village to the left of the road without knowing that the Division was in it. Only Vogel was with me. I had to cling for support to several Poles, who were lodged with me in the barn, of which, however, the French broke up the greater part for firewood. They made such a tumult that I was heartily glad when we could go upon our way again at four o’cloch in the morning after another sleepless night.’

Just before the town of Moldzieczno, where the division was bivouacked, although they did not know it, they took shelter in a small copse by the roadside, where a party of ‘uncouth Württembergers’ lost no time in stealing his horse and two saddle-bags. ‘Now I shall have to get to Vilna poor and like a beggar, with my sack of bread on my back. We wandered on, for we could find no place to sleep.’

They entered Moldzieczno, and once again deliverance came when all seemed lost: ‘Plodding on with Vogel at one o’clock in the morning, behold’ In one of the streets we came upon Dietrich! What joy that the honest fellow is still alive! He had my second writing case with him too, and had managed to get my valise over the long bridge!’

Cheered by this meeting, they quartered themselves once more ‘at an inn by the roadside, and slept well enough until daylight’. Two days later they lost Dietrich once more in the crowd. Only Vogel never left the Captain’s side. ‘He always kept an eye on me; it was for him that I shouted through the crowds. How often I fell upon the icy roads; how often I could not walk at all without clinging to him, for mv legs were weak and stiff and my shoes studded with nails after the fashion of soldiers. This man has endured all things for me.’

But even Vogel could not find food where no food was to be found, nor could he cook without a pot. On December 8th the Captain wrote: ‘We were unable to prepare any food and walked on until the afternoon, when we came upon some barrels of biscuits, which were being rifled by those who passed by. Naturally we helped ourselves and took a supply for eight days. I ate without reflection and another biscuit pottage was made that evening. It was too nourishing for me and resulted in terrible diarrhoea, which made it very hard for me to go on.’

But go on he must, for ‘the Russian advance guard is forever at the heels of our insignificant rearguard, and our stragglers fall into their hands. The Cossacks, however, have now taken to plundering them completely and letting them go.’ There was no need to kill a destitute man in that cold. Eventually the Cossacks caught up with the Captain himself and once more he had a miraculous escape. They came upon him in a somewhat undignified situation for, owing to his indisposition, he had retired to the bushes by the roadside, when the troop of horsemen rode up. A Guards officer was something of a prize, and they lost no time in stripping him of his fur coat. Then, to his boundless astonishment, the Cossack stopped short, staring at one of the decorations on his chest. He summoned the others, who gathered round looking closely at the ribbon. ‘They treated me with moderation,’ he wrote afterwards, and this was true, for after they had relieved him of a little money and some pages of his diary which they found in his pockets, they mounted their horses and rode off. Somewhat dazed, the Captain stepped forth from the bushes to shout for the trembling Vogel:

‘Lord love us, sir,’ said that worthy, emerging from his hiding place, ‘I thought they had you that time, sir! Why did they let you go?’

The Knight of the Hessian Order of Merit swayed unsteadily against the shoulder of his Sergeant-Major:

‘They thought it was the Order of Vladimir,’ he said, ‘It has the same ribbon. They thought I had been decorated by their own Czar! Now, Vogel, now I really begin to believe that it must be God’s will that we should get to Vilna!’

That night he records a curiously trivial incident in a scene of horror. ‘The cords and rosettes were stolen from mv hat, when a sudden cry of “Fire!” flung into activity all the men who were packed like herrings into a single room. Our cooking pot was stolen at the same time. By turning aside from the main street of a little village I had been so fortunate as to get shelter in a room, but the usual story was repeated. The house was set alight, either because a fire had been made on the deal floor of the outhouse, or those who had not been able to get into the room had bivouacked outside and lit their fire too close. The room, in which the bake oven had been heated up, instantly became so full of smoke that anyone remaining there for a moment would have been suffocated. There was nothing left for night quarters but to fling oneself on the ground as soon as one came upon a vacant space. At least one had earth to sleep on and air to breathe.’

And there in that merciless carnage he knew what he had never known before, that somewhere there was God, and God was merciful.

Soviet advance on Warsaw II



The panic of the 13th had also brought forward the day for starting the great encircling sweep from the Wieprz. Pilsudski had left the capital to take charge of the Strike Force on the 12th. He was horrified at the state of his men’s equipment. He described the men of 21st Division as being ‘practically naked’, but felt that morale was not too low. His anxiety was heightened by the bad news from Warsaw and he decided to launch his attack on the 16th. On 15 August tension mounted as news came through that Budenny was having things all his own way in the south and was approaching Lvov. On the 16th only the beginning of three days dawn to dusk strafing and bombing by up to 19 Polish aircraft (200 sorties) restricted his progress. Ammunition exhausted, the planes literally attempted to plough through the Red Cavalry formations.

On 16 August the pent-up Strike Force sliced through the Mozyr Group. To their amazement they encountered practically no resistance. All day Pilsudski drove them on, motoring among the forward units, but they seemed to be chasing a phantom enemy. The advance covered 45 miles in 36 hours but Pilsudski was far from reassured. He took precautions: ‘I ordered the 2nd Division of the Legion to form a reserve to my advance troops, for I felt that we were menaced by mysteries and traps on all sides.’ Perhaps the Soviet armies were waiting to encircle his puny Strike Force. It is to Pilsudski’s credit that he kept his nerve and ordered his spearhead onwards over the empty uplands. On 17 August his forward troops met 15th Division, leading a sortie of the Warsaw garrison, at Minsk Mazowiecki. So, when Pilsudski returned to Warsaw on the 18th, he was beginning to gain some confidence in the success of his daring maneuver, which had covered 70 miles in three days.

In Warsaw itself the mood was still one of anxiety. It was hard to believe in success while there were still so few prisoners and captured guns and before there had been much hard fighting. Besides this, Sikorski was still heavily outnumbered and in a difficult position. For the Fifth Army had kept on advancing during 17-18 August, almost in­viting the Soviets to crush is by sheer weight of numbers. But before the Bolsheviks could assemble their strength to deal with Sikorski, the effect of Pilsudski’s dramatic advance began to be felt. The Soviet commanders became aware that they would have to withdraw or be encircled.

Soviet armies run for home

‘Withdrawal’ is too orderly e description of the Soviet retreat. The swift Polish advance produced panic and near collapse. On the night of the 18th, Tukhachevski, at his Minsk HQ 300 miles from Warsaw, knew that he would have to save what he could and ordered a general retreat. The 3rd and 15th Armies cut and ran for the ever-closing gap between the Strike Force and the East Prussian border. They left 4th Army and Kavkor embroiled with Sikorski and too far committed to reach safety. The 3rd and 15th Armies covered 15 miles a day and, brushing off the pursuing Poles, managed to break out before the ring was closed. The more southerly 16th Army and the Mozyr Group fragments did not get through so easily and the siege artillery destined for Warsaw was lost. Moving through Wegrow, Bielsk and Bialystok they were heavily engaged by the Polish Fourth Army and 1st Legionary Division of the Strike Force (19­22 August). Still recognisable formations, they emerged on the eastern side of the ring after heavy losses.

The Soviet 4th Army and Kavkor at least seemed fairly ‘in the bag’ but the latter tried to carve a way out. Ghai marched his men by night hoping to slip by the Poles through the forests and lakelands. In the early hours of 21 August he evaded a strong force of Polish cavalry which would not engage in the darkness. On the 22nd he was cornered by four divisions at Mlawa but broke out after a fierce night attack. On the 23rd he was faced with Sikorski’s Volunteer Division. In the fighting on the Wkra its student soldiers had earned the title ‘la terreur de la Russie’ but it was no match for Kavkor at Grabow. The Red Cavalry broke through but were mauled by the Polish Siberian Brigade at Chorzele. On 24 August they caught up with the Soviet 53rd Infantry Division and fought on for another two days. But ammuni­tion gave out and the Red Cavalry were bundled across the frontier into East Prussia where they were disarmed and interned. Still escorting 2,000 prisoners and 11 guns they crossed the frontier singing the ‘Internationale’ which proved that it took a lot to break morale in ‘the Golden Horde of Gay-Khan’. The 4th Army did not reach East Prussia and surrendered, unit by unit, in Poland.

The Battle of Warsaw was described by Viscount D’Abernon as the 18th decisive battle in the history of the world. It certainly worked a remarkable change in the fortunes of the combatants. When it started the Polish cause was despaired of all over Europe. When it ended Tukhachevski’s five armies had lost two-thirds of their strength (Polish figures were 231 guns, 1,023 MGs, 10,000 vehicles and 66,000 prisoners with 44,000 interned) and the boot was firmly on the Polish foot. The Poles made no mistake in applying that boot. Pilsudski ordered Sikorski south for the long-awaited reckoning with Budenny and the loathed Konarmiya. It was caught in the Zamosc ring at Komarow and, in one of the most extraordinary battles of the twentieth century; lines of Polish lancers rode, at the charge, into a mass of Cossack cavalry­men on 31 August. The lancers had the better of it and, together with other units, made Budenny exercise every ounce of his fierce courage and determination before he was able to save the battered Konarmiya from complete annihilation.

In the north Pilsudski prevented Tukhachevski from rallying long and turned him out of Poland as fast as he came in. Poland regained her former border territories—even Lithuanian-occupied Vilna. This defeat had a lasting effect on the development of Soviet Russia. The attempt to ex­port revolution on the bayonets of the Red Army was abandoned and the international flavor of the revolution was replaced by a concern more for its success in Russia. So the Battle of Warsaw protected Europe from the advance of Communism for 20 years and made the Soviet leaders put away their hopes for the immediate spreading of the revolution. The war was followed by an October armistice and then the Treaty of Riga (March 1921) which secured Poland’s eastern frontier until 1939.

Breaking of Soviet ciphers

According to documents found in 2005 at Poland’s Central Military Archives, Polish cryptologists broke intercepted Russian ciphers as early as September 1919. At least some of the Polish victories, not only the Battle of Warsaw but throughout the campaign are attributable to this. Lieutenant Jan Kowalewski, credited with the original breakthrough, received the order of Virtuti Militari in 1921.

The war’s misleading lessons

Although it had such momentous results the Polish-Soviet War was fought in an unusual and even outdated fashion. It has been suggested that the great mobility of both sides showed that the power of defense was waning, that static trench warfare had already given way to the war of maneuver. Indeed Sikorski is credited with carrying out the first Blitzkreig-style attack using mobile columns with lorries and armored cars. In fact, the freedom to maneuver which both sides enjoyed in Poland was more the result of inadequate equipment and training than a major change in the character of warfare. Neither side possessed weapons in such quantity that they wielded the firepower of Western Armies. Hurried training and poor equipment meant that neither side had the firepower to stop a cavalry charge unless it was occupying a prepared position.

Both sides had unusual and amateur methods of warfare. An Allied observer with experience of the Western Front described a Polish divisional attack as ‘like nothing on earth’—he was amazed that the division concerned started two hours late on a front of only one company and had been given an objective as much as 7 ½ miles distant (he was even more surprised that it actually got there). This makes Pilsudski’s ability to plan and execute a daring counter­attack even more impressive. One must give a little credit too to Weygand, who insisted on written orders and urged the bringing up of reinforcements from the south. With Polish generosity Pilsudski said that he had learned more about war from Weygand in a fortnight than he had acquired in six years campaigning, but the Frenchman modestly disclaimed any credit for the success of a plan which was peculiarly Pilsudski’s own.

List of battles of the Polish-Soviet War by chronology:

  1. Soviet “Target Vistula” offensive (January-February 1919)
  2. Battle of Bereza Kartuska (February 9, 1919: the first battle of the conflict)
  3. Operation Wilno: Polish offensive to Wilno (April 1919)
  4. First Battle of Lida (April 1919)
  5. Operation Minsk: Polish offensive to Minsk (July-August 1919)
  6. Battles of Chorupań and Dubno (July 19, 1919)
  7. Battle of Daugavpils: joint Polish-Latvian operation (January 3, 1920)
  8. Kiev Offensive (May-June 1920)
  9. Battle of Wołodarka (May 29, 1920)
  10. Battle of Brody (29 July – 2 August 1920)
  11. Battle of Lwów (July-September 1920)
  12. Battle of Tarnopol (July 31-August 6, 1920)
  13. Battle of Warsaw (August 15 1920)
  14. Battle of Raszyn, Battle of Nasielsk, Battle of Radzymin (August 14-August 15, 1920)
  15. Battle of Zadwórze: the “Polish Thermopylæ” (August 17, 1920)
  16. Battle of Sarnowa Góra (August 21-August 22, 1920)
  17. Battle of Zamość (August 29, 1920) – Budyonny’s attempt to take Zamość
  18. Battle of Komarów: great cavalry battle, ending in Budyonny’s defeat (August 31, 1920)
  19. Battle of Hrubieszów (September 1, 1920)
  20. Battle of Kobryń (1920) (September 14-September 15, 1920)
  21. Battle of Dytiatyn (September 16, 1920)
  22. Battle of Brzostowica (September 20, 1920)
  23. Battle of the Niemen River (September 26-28 1920)
  24. Battles of Obuchowe and Krwawy Bór (September 27-September 28, 1920)
  25. Battle of Zboiska
  26. Battle of Minsk (October 18, 1920)

The standard text on the 1920 Russo-Polish War is White Eagle, Red Star: the Polish-Soviet War 1919-1920 by Norman Davies, although I prefer The Battle for the Marchlands by Adam Zamoyski for the military detail.

The various commanders wrote on the campaign, but The march beyond the Vistula by M. Tuchachevski is more by way of protracted excuse and Year 1920 and its climax: Battle of Warsaw during the Polish-Soviet war, 1919 – 1920 by Jozef Pilsudski is a spirited rebuttal of Tuchachevski rather than a history of the campaign itself. My English copy has nice maps and the French version has some detailed notes from the Polish Military History Bureau as well.

Flight of Eagles: a story of the American Kosciuszko Squadron in the Polish-Russian War 1919-1920 by Robert Karolevitz and Ross Fern is a nice tale and there are several other books on this famous unit.

City fights for freedom: the rising of Lwów in 1918-1919 by Rosa Bailly is a look at the fighting around L’viv/L’vov/Lwów entirely from a Polish perspective.

Coverage of this war is better in French than English. The Pilsudski, Tuchachevski and Bailly works are all in French, but there is also La Campagne polono-russe de 1920 by Wladyslaw Sikorski, which covers the 1920 campaign as a whole only in general terms but has wonderful detail for the fighting in perhaps the most vital spot in the Battle of Warsaw (where the author commanded). La Pologne en lutte pour ses frontières: 1918-1920 by Adam Przybylski is a small book, but is unusual in giving details of the fighting against the Soviets prior to 1920. L’Aigle blanc contre l’etoile rouge by Saint-Dizier is OK, but La Manoeuvre libératrice du maréchal Pilsudski contre les bolchéviks, août 1920: étude stratégique by Général Camon and L’Offensive militaire de l’etoile rouge contre la Pologne by Capt Charles Kuntz are very old and not terribly useful. La Guerre polono-soviétique: 1919-1920 collected by Céline Gervais is a series of academic papers which I found mostly quite dull. Finally, the journals Revue de Paris and Revue de cavalerie both contain a number of eye-witness accounts of the fighting, unfortunately concentrating almost exclusively on the cavalry (which is hardly surprising for the second).

The Race to Meet -1945


Infantrymen of the U.S. First Army (left) extended welcome hands to Russian troops on a broken bridge over the Elbe River at Torgau, Germany on April 25, 1945. The meeting of the soldiers of both nations cut the German Reich in two.



War correspondents had begun offering odds on which American unit would be first to encounter the Russians as the Allied armies drew ever closer in eastern Germany. Men in the 84th Division painted welcome signs with Cyrillic lettering, and the appearance in a 69th Division command post of two brigands in Cossack attire caused great excitement until their accents unmasked them as British reporters playing a practical joke. An American order suspended artillery fire beyond the Elbe for fear of hitting the Russians; it was rescinded after cheeky Wehrmacht troops exploited the lull to sunbathe along the east bank. SHAEF and Moscow adopted recognition signals to prevent fratricide: red flares and a single white stripe around tank turrets for Soviet forces, green flares and a double stripe for the Yanks. GI scouts with field glasses scanned the fens along the Mulde River in search of the counterparts they now called “GIvans.” A giddy report on April 23 identified a Russian tank, which closer scrutiny revealed as a grassy hummock with a clothesline strung across it.

East of Leipzig on the foggy morning of Wednesday, April 25, three patrols from First Army’s 69th Division ventured into the uplands beyond the Mulde, ignoring orders from the U.S. high command to remain within five miles of the river. At 11:30 A.M., in the farm hamlet of Leckwitz, one group of three dozen GIs encountered a solitary Soviet horseman with Asian features mounted on a small pony; the rider swiftly galloped away. Continuing two miles to the Elbe, near Strehla—some twenty-five miles beyond the Mulde—the men spied soldiers milling along the east bank, medals glinting on their chests. After commandeering a sailboat and using hands and rifle butts to paddle across, the Americans shook hands with their Russian comrades from the 175th Rifle Regiment, exchanging smiles and extravagant gestures. But a message radioed to the regimental command post confused Strehla with Groba, four miles south; when an Army reconnaissance plane took ground fire without spotting any Soviets, the report was discounted as erroneous.

Twenty miles north and two hours later, Second Lieutenant William D. Robertson, a slender young intelligence officer, drove into the tenth-century river town of Torgau with three enlisted men in his jeep. Black smoke curled from a burning glass factory. The streets, lined with chestnuts and hawthorns, stood empty except for a few freed slave laborers and two sedans of German soldiers blind drunk on champagne. Gunfire could be heard from the Elbe, just east.

Lacking either green flares or a radio, Robertson smashed the glass door of an apothecary shop on Mackensenplatz, where his men scavenged enough tempera paint to convert a bedsheet into a crude flag with five horizontal red stripes, and blue stars daubed onto a white field. Climbing to the battlements of the hulking Hartenfels Castle above the river, they unfurled their colors, bellowing, “Cease fire! American. Amerikanski. Russia. America.… We have no flares!”

After a brief, unnerving riposte of Soviet machine-gun fire that chewed at the castle walls, two Red Army soldiers could be seen creeping across the twisted girders of the demolished Elbe bridge. Robertson and his men pounded down the stairs to meet them halfway before crossing to the far bank for a shared meal of sardines and canteen cups filled with cognac. When afternoon shadows grew long, Robertson drove back to his battalion encampment in Wurzen, carrying four soldiers from the 173rd Rifle Regiment wedged into his jeep as proof of the rendezvous.

Thursday morning brought the full, overwrought merger of east and west. A flying column of fifteen jeeps packed with photographers and correspondents arrived in Torgau to find a scene “like an Iowa picnic,” in one lieutenant colonel’s description, albeit with promiscuous celebratory gunfire. Soviet soldiers had looted a nearby accordion factory and “Song of the Steppes” carried down the river. Half a dozen varnished shells from the Torgau Racing Club—the only river craft to be found—shuttled GIs and reporters to the east bank for black bread and apples washed down with vodka.

“The Russians all looked as if they hadn’t had time for a bath since Stalingrad,” Martha Gellhorn would later write, but their tunics were upholstered with “handsome enamel decorations for killing Germans.” Red Army teamsters “handled the horses … rather like the chariot races in Ben-Hur. The pack trains had everything on them: bedding [and] pots and pans and ammunition, and also women.” Above it all rose a “splendid Slavic roar and the clang of wheels on cobbles.” GIs traded cigarette lighters and nail clippers for the lacquered red stars on Soviet caps. Hundreds of freed Russian slave laborers, mostly women in colorful kerchiefs, waited along the west bank for a seat on a makeshift ferry to begin their long journey home.

At three P.M. the 69th Division commander, Major General Emil F. Reinhardt, stepped uneasily into a wobbly shell. A stout Russian mother sat in the bow with her baby in a carriage balanced across the gunwales. “Get that woman off the boat,” an Army officer shouted. “The general needs that boat.” Unwilling to budge, the woman sat as rigid as a ship’s figurehead until the coxswain swung out into the river with mother, child, and the squatting general as passengers. “Reinhardt’s still lucky,” a reporter quipped. “Washington had to stand.” On the far shore a Soviet general advanced to greet him with an outstretched hand.

* * *

An unbroken Allied line now stretched from the North Sea to the Urals, cutting Germany in half and reducing the Reich to shards of a state. So little was left to wreck that Eighth Air Force flew its last bombing raid on April 25, almost at the same hour as the Torgau junction. Fifteenth Air Force, flying from Italy, quit a day later. In the north, a German rump still hugged the North Sea and the Baltic, through Schleswig-Holstein and portions of Mecklenburg and Brandenburg. But this territory was no longer contiguous with Berlin: Soviet armies encircling the city from north and south had met at Ketzin, twenty miles west of the capital. This too occurred on April 25.

Nothing now could thwart the Soviet juggernaut of two and a half million troops and six thousand tanks, although in destroying some ninety German divisions a trio of Soviet army groups in just the three weeks after April 16 would suffer more than three hundred thousand casualties, a bloodletting that made Eisenhower’s aversion to Berlin seem prudent. The city’s final agony had begun, and with it the rape of at least ninety thousand German women. Many smeared themselves with mud or dotted their skin with red spots to simulate typhus. Russian soldiers defiled them anyway, then ripped out water faucets and unscrewed lightbulbs to carry home as plunder. German strangers shook hands in the dying capital and urged one another, “Bleib übrig”: Survive. A diarist described the city as “a hilly landscape of bricks, human beings buried beneath it, the stars above; the last moving things are the rats.”

In the south, the Reich had been reduced to swatches of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, plus a narrowing belt that stretched from the Black Forest through lower Bavaria to the Austrian Tirol and Salzburg. Patton crossed the Czech border and each day ticked off fifteen or twenty miles toward Linz; on April 23, the entire Third Army reported fewer than fifty casualties while capturing nine thousand German soldiers. Patch’s Seventh Army raced south from Nuremberg to seize intact a bridge over the Danube at Dillingen. Fleets of Sherman tanks led the breakneck pursuit, past grazing cows and farmers agape at their plows. The 10th Armored Division alone captured twenty-eight towns in a single day. Few signs of a National Redoubt could be detected.

“We are constantly suffering from misunderstandings with the French,” a recent SHAEF memo had lamented, and perhaps inevitably these final battles would be marred by another snarling brouhaha of the sort that had characterized the Franco-American confederation since the North African campaign. In southwest Germany, General Devers had meticulously choreographed the capture of Stuttgart with three goals in mind: to prevent the escape of the enemy’s Nineteenth Army; to expedite the U.S. attack into western Austria; and, secretly, to capture German atomic scientists at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in remote Hechingen. On Devers’s order, French troops were to seize Stuttgart, but not until the U.S. VI Corps had outflanked the city to block escape routes south. Other American forces would then barrel through, sweeping into Austria before Nazi bitter-enders could cohere for a last stand.

General de Gaulle had other ideas. Washington and London had yet to specify a postwar French zone of occupation in Germany, and General de Lattre’s French First Army seemed relegated to a minor role in the coup de grâce about to befall the Third Reich. Stuttgart offered a wide door to the Danube, Bavaria, and Austria, which, in De Gaulle’s calculation, would “support our intentions as to the French zone of occupation.” Holding a large tract of Roman Catholic southern Germany could enhance French prestige and perhaps provide a French client state abutting Alsace.

With Deux Mètres urging him on, De Lattre deftly used one French corps to surround the southern half of the Black Forest and another to envelop Stuttgart from the south and east. French tanks rumbled into the city on April 21—“like a merry-go-round,” De Lattre reported—and two days later the occupation was complete. When Devers on April 24 ordered his French subordinate to stand clear, De Gaulle stepped in. “I order you to keep a French garrison in Stuttgart … until the French zone of occupation has been settled,” he told De Lattre. Moreover, French field commanders were to ignore both Devers and Eisenhower. “French forces,” De Gaulle said, “should be employed in accordance with the national interest of France, which is the only interest that they should serve.” De Lattre apologized to Devers, but declared that he could “answer only to the French government.” Seventh Army’s chief of staff complained in his diary, “Penny politics by penny people.”

“The good and upright Devers was angrier than I have ever seen him,” De Lattre’s chief of staff reported, particularly after much of the German Nineteenth Army—though reduced to just seventeen thousand men—scampered off. Insult soon followed injury. The U.S. VI Corps approached the Danube city of Ulm to find that De Lattre’s tanks had arrived ten hours earlier, forty-four miles outside the designated French sector. When Devers again protested—“This is an absurdity which cannot exist and must not exist”—De Lattre pleaded that the city held special significance for France as the battlefield where Napoléon had routed the Austrian army in 1805. Again ignoring orders to decamp, the French general pressed his attack until a tricolor flew above Ulm. “De Lattre,” Devers later concluded, “was trying to be Napoleon.”

This opéra bouffe now grew sinister. German civilians fled Stuttgart to seek American protection from predatory French colonial troops. An English woman married to a German claimed that “every female between twelve and eighty” in her village had been assaulted. “Hens and women,” she added, “were the main thing they were after.” The U.S. 100th Division warned General Patch, “Situation in Stuttgart worst imaginable.… Rape, pillage and plunder have been rampant.” A reporter asserted that thousands of women were herded into a tunnel and raped; a French commander was said to have responded, with a shrug: “What can you do with the Moroccans?”

After advising De Lattre that “Stuttgart is chaotic,” Devers drove into the city at nine A.M. on Friday, April 27, to see for himself. He found the dire reports to be “greatly exaggerated”—rather than fifty thousand women raped, the figure was “fewer than two thousand,” some of whom had been violated by rampaging foreign workers or renegade Germans. Seventh Army noted dryly, “French procedure in occupying a German city is traditionally different from that of American forces.”

Eisenhower now intervened. In a tart cable to De Gaulle on April 28, he promised to inform London and Washington that “I can no longer count with certainty upon the operational use of any French forces they may contemplate equipping in the future.” The new U.S. president, Harry S. Truman, added his own rebuke in a note to De Gaulle.

But with a war to finish, neither Devers nor the supreme commander wanted to prolong this Gallic distraction. French troops for the moment would remain in Stuttgart, where the execution of a few rapists apparently persuaded Devers that “conditions were very much better.” Patch’s legions meanwhile pressed south. American intelligence agents outflanked the French to arrest some of the German scientists they sought in Hechingen, although the top prize, the Nobel physicist Werner Heisenberg, had pedaled off to Bavaria on his bicycle the previous day and would not be snared for another week.

Bickering over the French occupation zone would continue until a formal settlement was signed in late June. In addition to a sector in Berlin, Paris received a stretch of the Rhineland as far north as Remagen, but not Karlsruhe, Wiesbaden, or Stuttgart, as De Gaulle desired. France and the United States, whose blood camaraderie dated to the American Revolution, would emerge from the war as wary allies, their mutual mistrust destined to shape postwar geopolitics for decades.

Devers coined the perfect epigraph. “For many months we have fought together,” he wrote De Lattre, “often on the same side.”