28 February–1 June 1807: The Siege of Danzig I

General Chasseloup-Laubat (1754–1833). The celebrated engineer who directed French operations at Danzig, Kolberg and Stralsund. At Danzig he was opposed by fellow Frenchman, Bousmard, an engineer whose methods he had studied and absorbed.

The Siege of Danzig. A French map of the siege, indicating the siting of French batteries. Please note the left-hand side of the map is north.

An 800-year-old port at the mouth of the Vistula, Danzig is of major strategical importance. A fortified city of great wealth, crammed with bursting storehouses and magazines, it is a bastion on the Baltic: constituting, in Napoleon’s mind – as Petre notes – ‘a standing menace, whilst in the enemy’s hands.’ In fact, Napoleon is obsessed with Danzig, considering its capture vital for a variety of reasons: first, to deny the port’s facilities to the Russians, who – with the help of the British Royal Navy – might attempt a landing in his rear; second, to remove the threat posed to his left flank by the Prussian garrison; third, to exploit the city’s great strategical and material resources himself. And last – but perhaps not least – to divert attention away from his failure to crush Bennigsen at Eylau. Thus, as Petre states: ‘Scarcely was the battlefield of Eylau cleared when, on 18 February, Napoleon commenced his arrangements for the siege, which had been interrupted by Bennigsen’s advance, necessitating the recall of Lefebvre to guard Thorn.’

Marshal François-Joseph Lefebvre – former commander of the infantry of Napoleon’s Old Guard – is, according to Foord, ‘merely a rough, honest old soldier of little strategic or tactical ability.’ Of humble background (his father was a miller), this tough 52-year-old veteran is a replacement for the unfortunate General Claude Victor, captured while changing horses near Stettin by a party of Prussian soldiers disguised as peasants. Lefebvre knows nothing of siege warfare, but will be aided in his task by Napoleon’s top engineer, General Chasseloup-Laubat. As for Lefebvre’s command, it consists of the 26,000 troops of X Corps. Only some 10,000 of these soldiers are French, the rest being an assortment of foreigners, largely Poles and Saxons. But Lefebvre’s force will continue to grow over the coming months, strengthened by a steady stream of captured Prussian ordnance from the fallen fortresses of Silesia.

Opposing X Corps is a complement of some 16,000 men, augmented by 450 guns, howitzers and mortars. The bulk of the manpower – around 11,000 men and 300 guns – is concentrated in Danzig itself, the remainder strung out in detachments north of the city, tasked with maintaining communications with the Baltic. Despite later claims (from both sides), these garrison troops are not of the first class: but they are well-supplied and ably led by General Count Friedrich Adolf von Kalkreuth (also spelt ‘Kalreuth’, ‘Kalckreuth’ or ‘Kalkruth’ in contemporary sources), a veteran of the Seven Years War. Like Lefebvre, Kalkreuth is no expert when it comes to sieges, and will rely, in his turn, on an experienced advisor. But this guru is none other than the celebrated French émigré, Henri Jean-Baptiste Bousmard, whose treatise on the science of siege warfare, General Essay on Fortification (published in the 1790s and dedicated to the king of Prussia) is Chasseloup’s bible. Thus, the commanding generals will preside over a game of cat-and-mouse between the 58-year-old Bousmard and the 53-year-old Chasseloup: two clever and resourceful men, seemingly sharing the same textbook. But the game will be a lethal one, and only one of the two Frenchmen will survive.

The venue for the Bousmard v. Chasseloup match is a walled city protected by nineteen bastions. Danzig – an old Hanseatic town – was bagged by Prussia in 1793 during the Second Partition of Poland. The city’s inhabitants – Germans and Poles – had enjoyed hundreds of years of municipal autonomy: consequently, Prussian rule was despised. In 1797 a rebellion broke out but was soon crushed, Danzig remaining in Prussian hands.

In 1807, as Petre states: ‘the civil population of Danzig numbered about 45,000. The city had somewhat declined in importance of late years, yet was still a very important port and market. Its fortifications had, in 1806, been much neglected, and were in very bad repair. It was only when the Prussian power collapsed, in the autumn of that year, that a siege began to seem probable. Then every effort was made to repair and strengthen the fortress.’

In fact, Danzig’s fortifications are formidable, its storehouses full, and its approaches covered by boggy ground and several waterways. It will be a difficult nut for Chasseloup to crack. Above the city, the Vistula – flowing from east to west – hugs the northern flank of the fortress. Then, once past Danzig, the river sweeps north in a wide arc, through a vast swampy plain, known as the Nehrung, before emptying into the Baltic a few miles beyond. The navigable Laake Canal cuts through the eastern Nehrung, connecting Danzig with the estuary, thus creating the garrisoned island of Holm, the southern tip of which gazes across the Vistula at Danzig’s northern walls. The mouth of the Vistula is guarded by a small fort at Weichselmunde, opposite the tiny port of Neufahrwasser. Meanwhile, to the east and south of Danzig lies more marshland, intersected by several streams, including the River Mottlau: a tributary of the Vistula, which, running through the centre of the city, bisects it on a north–south axis. To the west – the only practicable line of attack for a hostile army – stand the fortified bastions of the Hagelsberg and the Bischofsberg (armed with forty guns apiece): the first dominating the main approaches to the city; the second forming its south-west corner.

Dabrowski’s victory at Dirschau on 23 February has effectively confined Kalkreuth’s troops to the precincts of Danzig, leaving Lefebvre free to make his advance on 9 March. The next day, having driven in the Prussian outposts, the marshal occupies villages south and south-west of the city. Several days later, the western suburb of Schidlitz is successfully stormed.

But Napoleon wants Danzig’s communications with Weichselmunde and the Baltic cut and orders Lefebvre to encircle the city. Consequently, on 20 March, General Jean-Adam Schramm – operating on Danzig’s eastern flank – leads 2,000 French troops onto the northern bank of the Vistula, and marches west on Weichselmunde. The small French task force succeeds in pushing the Prussian outposts back along the eastern Nehrung and into the fortress of Weichselmunde itself. Speedily reinforced by Lefebvre, Schramm then beats off a sortie from Danzig, and secures a position on the Nehrung north of Danzig: his right anchored on the Baltic, his left on the Vistula. The French stranglehold on the port is tightening. Now Lefebvre feels himself strong enough to open a regular siege.

By 1807 the basic method for beleaguering a city is well-established. The engineers on both sides know what to expect. First, the attackers will attempt to isolate the garrison by enforcing a blockade. Then, at a safe distance, an initial trench or ‘first parallel’ will be dug opposite a section of the city walls. Once completed, saps will advance from this trench until a ‘second parallel’ is completed, and then a third, and so on, until the walls are almost reached. Meanwhile, well-sited batteries will batter the walls facing the trenches, and when a breach is made, the city will be invited to surrender. If the invitation is refused, the attackers will issue from the trenches and storm the breach. Should the fortress fall, a time-honoured tradition – dating back to the Middle Ages – grants victors the ‘right’ to murder the garrison and plunder the town as ‘punishment’ for obliging them to suffer casualties by mounting an assault. So much for the theory.

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28 February–1 June 1807: The Siege of Danzig II

Panoramic view of the Siege of Gdańsk by French forces in 1807.

In practice, Chasseloup – aided by his assistant, François Joseph Kirgener – is faced with a difficult task. Danzig is well-stocked, and as long as ships can reach it from the Baltic, the garrison will never starve or run short of ammunition. The city’s fortifications are sound, and its approaches covered by both natural and artificial obstacles on three sides. Left with little choice but to attack from the west, Chasseloup bites on granite, selecting the great bastion of the Hagelsberg as the focal point of his campaign. But to keep Kalkreuth and Bousmard off balance, a diversionary operation against the Bischofsberg will also be mounted. It will be dangerous work, especially as the trenches creep closer to the city and come within range of shot and shell hurled from the walls above.

On 2 April the ground has thawed enough for Chasseloup’s sappers to start digging opposite the Hagelsberg. This first trench or ‘parallel’ will eventually run for some 1,300 yards (1,200m). The following day sees a see-saw battle for possession of redoubts west of the city. After a bloody hand-to-hand contest, the garrison keeps control. Meanwhile, the digging continues, hampered by collapsing trenches and Kalkreuth’s decision to release dammed floodwaters onto the plain. By 8 April, a second parallel is opened and the sappers are exposed to enemy fire, as well as repeated sorties by the Danzig garrison. In fact, Kalkreuth is conducting a vigorous defence, mounting spoiling attacks on the siege works and disputing every inch of ground. Nevertheless, Chasseloup is determined the trenches must be pushed forward and siege works opposite the Bischofsberg begin. Lefebvre is uneasy about the campaign against the Bischofsberg, which slows the pace of the siege and uses up valuable men and materièl. But Chasseloup is insistent that both forts must be approached, to keep Kalkreuth guessing which one will be assaulted.

On 11 April, the Silesian fortress of Schweidnitz falls to Vandamme and its heavy guns sent north to the besiegers before Danzig. Two days later, Lefebvre receives reinforcements and repulses another sortie by the garrison. By 15 April the second parallel is completed west of Danzig: the besiegers are creeping closer to the city. And to the north, on the Nehrung, French troops under General Gardanne successfully advance along the Laake Canal to cut Kalkreuth’s communication with the sea. Meanwhile, staff officer, Louis Lejeune arrives at Lefebvre’s camp. Although technically an aide-de-camp to Marshal Berthier, Lejeune – a trained engineer – is acting as both a courier and an observer for an impatient Napoleon:

All the best engineer officers of the French Army were collected together under General Chasseloup at the Siege of Danzig, and the operations were conducted with great rapidity, though not fast enough to please the emperor, who, at a distance from the scene of action, did not realize that fresh obstacles were thrown in our way every day by the skill of the directors of the defence.’

On 20 April high winds and snowstorms halt operations before Danzig. But next day, the first big guns arrive at Lefebvre’s camp. Two days later, General Jean-Ambrose Lariboisière – commanding the French artillery – orders a twelve-hour bombardment of the city. Fifty-eight heavy guns open up, smashing buildings and igniting fires. Public morale crashes in a storm of panic, as the cannonades continue over successive days. Meanwhile, during the night of 25 April, Chasseloup’s engineers complete the third parallel before Danzig’s western defences. The besiegers are within musket-shot of the walls and sappers are smashing the palisades of redoubts protecting the city’s approaches. Kalkreuth launches a major counter-attack, and when it is repulsed, the Prussian general is invited to surrender. Kalkreuth refuses to capitulate and the bombardments continue. A few days later, General Gardanne takes the island of Holm on Danzig’s northern flank, killing or capturing the entire garrison. According to Petre: ‘The island was a most valuable prize; it was promptly fortified, and its guns turned against Danzig, the defences of which they took in reverse … The flying bridge connecting Danzig with the island was gallantly cut adrift by a miner named Jacquemart, under a heavy fire.’

But on 10 May, with Danzig encircled and an all-out assault imminent, a fleet of fifty-seven transports appears at the mouth of the Vistula, carrying some 7,000 Russian troops under General Kamenski (spelt ‘Kamenskoi’ in some sources, but no relation to the ex-commander-in-chief). Kamenski has been sent to save Kalkreuth’s skin, his task force sailing from Pillau, near Königsberg, in British ships. Kamenski, so Petre tells us, ‘disembarked on the 11th at Neufahrwasser. He was, till he landed, unaware of the loss of the island of Holm, which seriously compromised his plans.’ So much so, the Russian general resolves to stay-put and dig-in. This passivity plays into Lefebvre’s hands, giving the marshal time to call up Lannes (recovered from his Pultusk wound), at the head of a 15,000-strong ‘Reserve Army’, which includes Oudinot’s élite Grenadier Division.

At 4.00 a.m. on 15 May, Kamenski bestirs himself at last, marching south from Weichselmunde to meet Schramm and Gardanne on the plain north of Danzig. Advancing in four great columns led by Cossacks, Kamenski’s troops are in action within the hour, pushing back Frenchmen, Saxons and Poles. Soon after 5.00 a.m. Schramm is hotly engaged and giving ground. Kamenski pushes on, making repeated attacks, the fury of the fight increasing each minute. But just when a Russian breakthrough seems likely, Lannes’ leading column arrives to rescue the situation. Outnumbered, Kamenski’s force is driven back to the fort of Weichselmunde, leaving some 1,500 dead and wounded on the plain. Kalkreuth’s Prussians remain passive spectators, Kamenski’s offensive collapsing before effective support can be organized.

And so, with Kamenski’s survivors botded up at Weichselmunde, the siege resumes. Louis Lejeune survives the battle on the Nehrung, but brushes with death on his return to Lefebvre’s camp:

During the battle I rode a horse lent to me by Marshal Lefebvre, and on my way back to headquarters in the evening a ball from Bischofsberg shattered a rock beneath me, and the fragments killed my horse on the spot. I remained flat on my face on the ground for some time before I could get up. The effects of the shock and the pain of my bruises soon went off; I was not really wounded, and I was able to drag myself to headquarters, where the rejoicings over the victory soon quite restored me.’

Several days later, Lejeune describes the scene when a British corvette, the Dauntless, enters the Vistula, and sailing past Weichselmunde, attempts to deliver supplies to Kalkreuth’s incarcerated garrison:

on 19 May an English sloop of war with twenty-four guns tried to run the blockade and get into the town by way of an arm of the Vistula which winds through the meadows round Danzig. The bold commander of the vessel hoped to break down every obstacle with discharges of grape shot from his cannon. He had actually got within range of the town, having met with no more formidable obstacles than a few simple booms, which were easily broken through. He was not, however, prepared for the sudden attack opened upon him by several companies of our sharpshooters, who rushed across the meadows and fired a volley into the ship from both sides of the stream, mowing down the sailors and bringing the sloop to a standstill. Without helmsmen, and with sails flapping helplessly, the vessel drifted to the side of the stream and grounded; the soldiers sprang on board and took 150 prisoners as well as the valuable cargo of weapons, ammunition, and provisions which the commander had intended for the use of the garrison of the beleaguered city.’

Cut off from the sea, the Danzig garrison is doomed, and on 20 May Kalkreuth opens tentative peace negotiations. He is offered honourable, even generous, terms by Lefebvre – a sign, perhaps, of Napoleon’s need to close the siege quickly – including the right to march his garrison out of the city, ‘with arms and bag-gage, drums beating, colours flying, matches lighted, with two pieces of light artillery, six pounders, and their ammunition waggons, each drawn by six horses.’ Furthermore, a safe passage is guaranteed to Kalkreuth’s officers, on condition they swear not to bear arms against France for twelve months from the date of surrender. Kalkreuth signs, but inserts a clause stipulating that capitulation will only come into effect if the city is not relieved by noon on 26 May.

But Lefebvre – running out of patience and fearful of another Allied attempt to relieve the city – decides to storm Danzig as soon as possible, as described by Louis Lejeune:

Marshal Lefebvre was as impatient as we were to get into the town and to put an end to the tedious operations … One day the marshal, angry at all the delays, took me by the arm and began banging with his fist at the base of a wall, pierced by the sap, shouting in his Alsatian brogue, “Make a hole here, and I’ll be the first to go through it.” Meanwhile the walls were falling under our bombardment, and a practicable breach had at last just been made. Troops were ready for the assault, and the decisive blow was to be struck the next morning …’

On 23 May, however, events take an unexpected turn: Kamenski’s Russians re-embark at Weichselmunde and sail back to Pillau, while the ethnic Poles among the Prussian garrison start to desert. Then, Danzig’s shopkeepers appear at the city gates, setting up stalls and selling wine to Lefebvre’s troops at thirty-two sous a bottle. It is clear everyone is sick of the siege. Soon the soldiers of both sides are fraternizing, merrily getting drunk together. Finally, the arrival of Marshal Mortier with a further 12,000 French troops decides the issue and Kalkreuth announces his desire to quit. Thus, Danzig is spared the trauma of a bloody assault, and on 27 May the defenders march out and the besiegers march in, led by Chasseloup’s sappers.

In his official report to Frederick William, Kalkreuth blames mass desertion for the fall of Danzig: though it is only after the capitulation that large numbers – some 2,000 Pomeranian Poles forced to fight for Prussia – go over to the French. But it is reasonable to assume that falling morale – rather than dwindling numbers or supplies – is a factor in the Prussian surrender, as Petre notes:

From famine or shortness of supplies or ammunition the garrison had never suffered. Enormous quantities of stores of every description remained in the place, and were of the utmost service to the French. Whether Kalkreuth should not have held out longer is a moot point. The Hagelsberg would probably have been stormed with great slaughter on both sides …’

And so, despite orders from Frederick William to defend Danzig to the last, Kalkreuth opts to save lives by capitulating in the face of lengthening odds. He has lost some 3,000 men during the siege from sickness and enemy action. Among the dead is engineer Bousmard, killed by his own countrymen. But Kalkreuth is not disgraced, the Prussian king quickly promoting him to field marshal. Equally gratifying – perhaps more so – is public praise from Napoleon, who considers Kalkreuth’s defence of Danzig masterly.

But then, Napoleon could afford to be generous to his enemies. In fact, with Danzig’s coffers at his mercy, he could afford to be generous to everyone, each soldier of X Corps being awarded a bonus of 10 francs. Lefebvre, meanwhile, is sent a box of chocolates. The gruff marshal – perhaps baffled at first – is delighted to find 300 banknotes inside, each of 1,000 francs denomination (according to Blond, soldiers will refer to cash as ‘Danzig chocolate’ for years to come). A year later, Napoleon will make Lefevbre duke of Danzig, with a gratuity of two and a half millions. Meanwhile, having scored a major military, political and financial coup at the cost of some 6,000 men (1,500 of them Poles), a gleeful Napoleon announces the fall of Danzig in his 67th Bulletin of 29 May 1807:

Danzig has capitulated. That fine city is in our possession. Eight hundred pieces of artillery, magazines of every kind, more than 500,000 quintals of grain, well-stored cellars, immense collections of clothing and spices; great resources of every kind for the army … Marshal Lefebvre has braved all; he has animated with the same spirit the Saxons, the Poles, the troops of Baden, and has made them all conduce to his end.’

The Berezina 1812 Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Berezina 1812 Part II

JEAN BAPTISTE EBLÉ

Victor’s 9th Corps also arrived in the late afternoon and took up defensive positions covering the approaches to the bridges. It had left one division, about four thousand men under General Partouneaux, outside Borisov to mislead the Russians, and this was to follow on under the cover of night.

As most of the army was across by that evening, the gendarmes opened the bridges to the stragglers, cantinières, wounded and civilians. But having settled down by their fires, and seeing that their encampment was defended by Victor’s men, most did not avail themselves of the opportunity, preferring to spend a peaceful night where they were. Some, like the cantinière of the 7th Light Infantry who had gone into labour that evening, had no choice. ‘The entire regiment was deeply moved and did what it could to assist this unfortunate woman who was without food and without shelter under this sky of ice,’ wrote Sergeant Bertrand. ‘Our Colonel [Romme] set the example. Our surgeons, who had none of their ambulance equipment, abandoned in Smolensk for lack of horses, were given shirts, kerchiefs and anything people could come up with. I had noticed not far away an artillery park belonging to the corps of the Marshal Duc de Bellune [Victor]. I ran over to it and, purloining a blanket thrown over the back of one of the horses, I rushed back as fast as I could to bring it to Louise. I had committed a sin, but I knew that God would forgive me on account of my motive. I got there just at the moment when our cantinière was bringing into the world, under an old oak tree, a healthy male child, whom I was to encounter in 1818 as a child soldier in the Legion of the Aube.’

A remarkable degree of order and even normality reigned over the Grande Armée as it settled down for the night on both sides of the river. A key factor was undoubtedly the presence of the Emperor and the fact that he had visibly taken the initiative, which led everyone to expect great things and kept spirits high. ‘We are still capable of fun and a good laugh,’ noted Jean Marc Bussy, a Swiss voltigeur sitting around a campfire with his comrades on the western bank of the river. One cannot but admire him. ‘When night fell, each soldier took his knapsack for a pillow and the snow as a mattress, with his musket in his hand,’ wrote his comrade Louis Begos of the 2nd Swiss Regiment. ‘An icy wind was blowing hard, and the men pressed up against each other for warmth.’

All that day Napoleon had anxiously listened for the sound of cannon announcing the approach of the Russians. But there was still no sign that Chichagov had realised his mistake. The note he penned to Marie-Louise that evening shows no trace of anxiety.
What he might have heard, had it not been over ten kilometres away, was the end of one of Partouneaux’s brigades, which had been holding Borisov. The Partouneaux division, which had only entered Russia recently, had suffered the depressing effects of the conditions in rapid order. The men had been in fine spirits when they had reached Borisov a few days before. At one point they were charged by some Russian cavalry and formed squares. One of the Russian officers, unable to control his wounded mount, had crashed into the middle of the square, where he was pinned to the snow under the thrashing animal. A couple of French soldiers pulled him clear, dusted the snow off his uniform and then went back to their posts in the firing line. The officer bided his time until the French were occupied by another Russian charge and, slipping between them, ran, hopping through the deep snow, to rejoin his own men, at which the entire French square burst into laughter.

But a couple of days later, as they camped out in a windswept spot without fires or food, their mood was very different. ‘Some wept, crying out plaintively to their parents; some went raving mad; some died under our eyes after a horrible agony,’ according to one of them. Having held Borisov as long as was necessary, the division had begun to withdraw on the afternoon of 27 November. But one of its brigades lost its way and walked straight into the midst of Wittgenstein’s army. After a running battle in which it lost half its number, it was forced to surrender. The men were stripped, beaten and marched off into captivity. One of its regiments, the 29th of the Line, was made up largely of men who had only recently been released from prison hulks in England, having been captured in Saint-Domingue in 1801. ‘Luck, one has to admit, seems to have abandoned these poor fellows,’ remarked Boniface de Castellane.

Chichagov had by now realised that he had been duped. Most of his men were still at Borisov and points further south, but he ordered Czaplic to attack the French forces which had already got across the Berezina, promising to send reinforcements. But his men, who had been force-marched some fifty kilometres south and were now ordered to hurry back, made slow progress through the heavy snow. There was much grumbling and even the threat of mutiny. ‘One of the regiments I had ordered to go and reinforce Czaplic hesitated and then refused outright to move,’ Chichagov recorded. ‘My exhortations having produced no effect, I was obliged to have recourse to the threat of firing on it. I had cannon unlimbered and levelled at it from behind.’ Some of Chichagov’s units did however come up to reinforce Czaplic that night, and more were on the way.

Before dawn on 28 November, as Oudinot finished gulping down the warming soupe à l’oignon his staff had cooked up at their campfire, the first shots resounded on the western bank of the Berezina as a reinforced Czaplic pushed northward under a strong artillery barrage. Oudinot organised a defence, and led his men out under murderous fire from the Russian guns, but he was hit by a shell splinter – his twenty-second wound. Napoleon, who was on the scene, put Ney in command with orders to hold the Russians back at all costs in order to cover the retreat of the remainder of the Grande Armée, the stragglers and, finally, Victor’s men.

It was a tall order. Czaplic and Chichagov had over 30,000 fresh troops who had not suffered any serious military losses, and all Ney could put up against them were 12 to 14,000 emaciated and half-frozen remnants: all that was left of Oudinot’s 2nd Corps, the Dabrowski division and a few survivors from Poniatowski’s 5th Corps, the Legion of the Vistula, and a handful of other units (his own 3rd Corps had all but ceased to exist, with one regiment numbering forty-two men, another only eleven, and the 25th Württemberg Division’s six regiments of infantry, four of cavalry and divisional artillery park down to a grand total of 150 men). Three-quarters of them were not even French. Almost half were Poles, there were four regiments of Swiss, a few hundred Croats of the 3rd Illyrian Infantry, some Italians, a handful of Dutch Grenadiers and Colonel de Castro’s 3rd Portuguese Regiment. This motley bunch rose to the occasion magnificently.

The Russians under General Czaplic, a Pole in Russian service, advanced in force through the wooded terrain, but Ney sent in Dabrowski’s Poles, who forced them back to their starting positions. Two more divisions sent by Chichagov then arrived on the scene, Voinov’s and Shcherbatov’s. They launched a massed attack, supported by an artillery bombardment which sent splinters of pine and fir shooting murderously through the ranks of the Poles. Dabrowski was wounded and handed over command to General Zajaczek, who was soon carried off the field himself with a shattered leg, leaving General Kniaziewicz in command, but he too was put out of action. As the Poles fell back in hand-to-hand fighting among the trees, Ney reinforced them with whatever units came to hand.

Although these were numerically weak, they displayed barely believable spirit. The 123rd Dutch Light Infantry regiment, down to eighty men and five officers, cheered as it went into action. At one point a cannonball shattered the trunk of a huge tree heavy with snow, which came crashing down and buried a dozen men of the French 5th Tirailleurs, but they all clambered out from under the snow laughing like children amidst the bursting shells. When, a few moments later, a shell killed their Colonel’s horse, throwing him to the ground, they rushed forward to his aid, but he sprang up and shouted at them: ‘I am still at my post, so let everyone remain at theirs!’

In order to relieve the pressure on them, Ney sent in General Doumerc with his cuirassiers and three regiments of Polish lancers. They charged the Russians, sowing panic and driving them back. Czaplic was wounded and General Shcherbatov was captured, along with two thousand others and a couple of standards. A countercharge by Russian hussars and dragoons steadied the situation, but the Swiss regiments, which had now taken over the French front line, supported by the Dutch, the Croats and the Portuguese, held their ground.

The battle raged all day, with the Swiss making no fewer than seven bayonet charges when they ran out of cartridges. ‘It was worse than a butchery,’ noted Jean Marc Bussy. ‘There was blood everywhere on the snow, which had been trampled as hard as a beaten earth floor by all the advancing and retreating … One hardly dared to look to right or left, out of fear of seeing that a comrade was no longer there.’ The fighting was so hot that they forgot about the freezing temperatures, and they kept their spirits up with shouts of ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ As death closed in around them in the icy wood, the Swiss broke into the strains of the old mountain lied ‘Unser Leben Gleicht der Reise’. The fighting did not stop until eleven o’clock that night, when the Russians, having failed to push the defenders back one step from their morning positions, finally gave up.

It was a magnificent victory for the French, but a bitter one. As they made fires and dragged in their wounded to dress them as best they could, they knew that they would have to leave them behind the following day. The four Swiss regiments had lost a thousand men, and mustered no more than three hundred between them. ‘We hardly dare speak to each other, for fear of hearing of the death of another of our comrades,’ recalled Bussy. Of the eighty-seven voltigeurs in his company who had laughed around their campfires the previous night, just seven were left alive. The 123rd Dutch Light Infantry had ceased to exist. The Dutch Grenadiers were down to eighteen officers and seven other ranks.

Their heroics were honourably matched by Victor’s men defending the crossings on the other bank. They numbered no more than eight thousand men, mostly Badenese, Hessians, Saxons and Poles, and were facing an army over four times that. But here too morale was unaccountably high. They were attacked at nine o’clock in the morning and held their positions until nine that evening against overwhelming odds.

Wittgenstein’s first attacks were concentrated on the Baden brigade, commanded by the twenty-year-old Prince Wilhelm of Baden, which was holding the right wing of the French defence perimeter. Prince Wilhelm’s men had been greatly cheered when, three days before, they had come across a convoy from Karlsrühe with food and supplies of every sort. The men were able to exchange worn-out uniforms, overcoats and boots for new ones, and to help themselves to food and delicacies. ‘Every officer had received something from home and everyone jumped on the packages destined for them,’ wrote Prince Wilhelm. ‘Thus it was that I saw Colonel Brucker, standing on one of the wagons, open up a large box which I assumed to be full of victuals, and from it he drew a wig and, quick as a flash, he removed the old one he had on his bald head and donned the new one, trying to mould it to his head with his hands.’ Prince Wilhelm himself was in a good mood that morning as his greyhounds had caught a hare, which he had eaten and washed down with wine that had come in the convoy. Although they were now attacked by overwhelming forces, he and his men stood firm, at the cost of terrible losses.

Hoping no doubt to break the determination of the defenders, Wittgenstein established a strong battery beyond the left wing of Victor’s line, and began shelling the area behind it. This was by now occupied by a dense mass of thousands of people, horses and vehicles, up to four hundred metres deep, stretching for over a kilometre along the riverbank. Shortly after midday, Russian shells began to rain down on this vast encampment, bringing hideous destruction as they exploded among the mêlée, killing and maiming people and horses, sending splinters of wood and glass from shattered carriages flying through the air. It was the end of the road for many of the civilians. Captain von Kurz watched in horror as a beautiful young woman with a four-year-old daughter had the horse she was riding killed and her thigh shattered by a Russian shell; realising that she could go no further, she untied the blood-soaked garter from her leg and, after kissing her tenderly, strangled her child and, clutching her in her arms, lay down to await death. Seeing her wagon stuck, Baska, the cantinière of the Polish Chevau-Légers, cut her horse free and, taking her small son in her arms, rode into the Berezina on it. She got more than halfway across before the horse began to drown and sank beneath the surface, throwing her and her son into the water, from which only she was able to wade ashore.

Panic broke out, and a mad rush for the bridges ensued, with people driving their wagons and horses over the corpses of men and beasts, over the wreckage of carriages and abandoned luggage. This merely served to compact the mass pressing around the bridge-ends like a flock of frightened sheep, and now every Russian shell found a target. The massacre continued until Victor managed to mount an attack on the Russian batteries which forced them to pull back out of range.

Although the shelling had stopped, that did not relieve the pressure on the crossings. A mass of people, horses and vehicles converged on the bridges, with those behind pushing forward continuously, so that it was not possible to avoid trampling those who stumbled and fell. ‘Anyone who weakened and fell would never rise again, as he was walked over and crushed. In this dense mass even the horses were so hard-pressed that they fell over, and, like the men, they too could not get up again,’ remembered Sergeant Thirion. ‘By the efforts they made to do so they brought down men who, being pushed from behind, could not avoid the obstacle, and neither men nor horses ever rose again.’

Lieutenant Carl von Suckow had become separated from his fellow Württembergers and was caught in the crush. ‘I found myself being dragged along, jostled and even borne along at some moments – and I do not exaggerate,’ he wrote. ‘Several times I felt myself being lifted off the ground by the mass of people around me, which gripped me as though I had been caught in a vice. The ground was covered in animals and men, alive and dead … At every moment I could feel myself stumbling on dead bodies; I did not fall, it is true, but that was because I could not. It was only because I was held up on every side by the crowd which pressed in on me. I have never known a more horrible sensation than that I felt as I walked over living beings who tried to hold on to my legs and paralysed my movements as they attempted to raise themselves. I can still remember today what I felt on that day as I placed my foot on a woman who was still alive. I could feel the movements of her body, and I could hear her scream and moan: “Oh! take pity on me!” She was clinging to my legs when, suddenly, as a result of a strong thrust from behind, I was lifted off the ground and wrenched from her embrace.’ As he found himself being forced back and forth near the entrance to the bridge, he experienced ‘the first and only real moment of despair I had felt during the entire campaign’. He finally grabbed the collar of a tall cuirassier who was clearing a path for himself with a mighty stick, and was dragged onto the bridge and over the river.

As those caught in the throng could not see in front of them, many found that they came to the river not at the head of one of the bridges, but on the bank. Since they were still being pushed from behind by others they were forced into the water, through which they tried to wade over to the bridges and clamber on from the side. The crush on the bridges themselves was just as great, and those walking in the middle were pressed from both sides as those at the sides moved along facing outwards and pushing inwards with their backs in order not to be thrown into the water.

Those who could not stand up for themselves did not have much of a chance, and many who had somehow managed to make it thus far perished here. A Saxon under-officer named Bankenberg, who had had both legs amputated above the knee after Borodino, had been rescued from Kolotskoie by his comrades. He had been tied onto a horse, and survived all the tribulations of the retreat with courage, but they lost sight of him at the Berezina, and he was never seen again.

In the afternoon Wittgenstein mounted a second assault on Victor’s defences, and the Baden brigade was finally forced to give ground. But Victor sent in the Brigade of Berg, made up of Germans and Belgians, and then his remaining cavalry. This, consisting of Hessian chevau-légers and Badenese hussars as well as French chasseurs, no more than 350 men in all, was led into the charge by Colonel von Laroche with such dash that it routed the Russians. A countercharge by Russian cavalry virtually annihilated the Germans, but the French defences had been saved, and as night fell Victor’s men were occupying the same positions as they had that morning.

Many of those still hoping to cross found themselves blocked by the barricades of abandoned vehicles, dead horses and human corpses which impeded access to the bridges, and as night began to fall and the fighting died down, they too began to settle down for the night, in the hope that crossing might be easier in the morning.
Victor received the order to withdraw, but seeing the numbers of non-combatants still on the eastern bank, he decided to hold it until daybreak, thus giving them a chance to cross. General Eblé and 150 of his pontoneers cleared the bridges of the corpses, carcases and vehicles that had accumulated on them in the afternoon rush. In order to clear the approaches they dragged many of the abandoned vehicles onto the bridges and then pushed them into the water, and unharnessed and led to the west bank as many of the abandoned horses as they could. They had to drag away or push over carriages and wagons that could not be wheeled away, heaving the carcases of horses and human corpses to the side to create a kind of trench between two banks of dead men and beasts.
At nine o’clock that evening Victor began sending some of his units, his supply wagons and his wounded across, and by one o’clock in the morning of 29 November he had only a screen of pickets and a couple of companies of infantry left with him on the east bank. He and Eblé urged the remaining stragglers to cross, warning them that the bridges would be burnt at first light, but most of them were either too tired or too apathetic. ‘We no longer knew how to appreciate danger and we did not even have enough energy to fear it,’ wrote Colonel Griois, who remained by his fireside along with other comrades from Grouchy’s corps. Others were apparently too absorbed by other preoccupations, and the surgeon Raymond Pontier swore that he saw two officers fighting a duel instead of crossing.

At about five o’clock in the morning, Eblé ordered his men to start setting fire to wagons and carriages still littering the eastern bank in order to wake up the non-combatants, and to shout loudly that the bridges would only be open for a couple of hours. A few availed themselves of this, but at six o’clock, when Victor withdrew his pickets and marched across, the remainder began to realise that their last chance had come. A mass of them swarmed onto the bridges, pushing and shoving to get over. Sergeant Bourgogne, who had come back to see if he could pick up any stragglers from his regiment, watched as a cantinière, holding onto her husband who had their child on his shoulders, was pushed into the icy water, dragging her family with her, and as a wagon with a wounded officer was tipped over, horse and all, to disappear instantly beneath the ice floes.

Eblé had orders from Napoleon to burn the bridges at seven o’clock, as soon as Victor’s last man was across, but he could not bear to leave so many of his countrymen stranded, so he delayed the execution of the order until 8.30. By then Wittgenstein’s men could be seen advancing towards the bridges on the opposite bank, and groups of cossacks were already picking over the booty left behind in the wagons and carriages littering the approaches. As Eblé fired the bridges, some of those still on them tried to struggle through the flames, others threw themselves into the water in order to swim the last stretch, while hundreds of others were pushed into it by the pressure of those behind who did not know the bridges now led nowhere.

The morning after the French had marched off, Chichagov rode up to the scene of the crossings. He and his entourage would never forget the grim spectacle. ‘The first thing we saw was a woman who had collapsed and was gripped by the ice,’ recalled Captain Martos of the engineers, who was at his side. ‘One of her arms had been hacked off and hung only by a vein, while the other held a baby which had wrapped its arms around its mother’s neck. The woman was still alive and her expressive eyes were fixed on a man who had fallen beside her, and who had already frozen to death. Between them, on the ice, lay their dead child.’

Lieutenant Louis de Rochechouart, a French officer on Chichagov’s staff, was deeply shaken. ‘There could be nothing sadder, more distressing! One could see heaps of bodies, of dead men, women and even children, of soldiers of every formation, of every nation, frozen, crushed by the fugitives or struck down by Russian grapeshot; abandoned horses, carriages, cannons, caissons, wagons. One would not be able to imagine a more terrifying sight than that of the two broken bridges and the frozen river.’ Peasants and cossacks were rummaging through the wreckage and stripping the corpses. ‘I saw an unfortunate woman sitting on the edge of the bridge, with her legs, which dangled over the side, caught in the ice. She held to her breast a child which had been frozen for twenty-four hours. She begged me to save the child, not realising that she was offering me a corpse! She herself seemed unable to die, despite her sufferings. A cossack rendered her the service of firing a pistol at her ear in order to put an end to this heartbreaking agony!’ Everywhere there were survivors on their last legs, begging to be taken prisoner. ‘“Monsieur, please take me on, I can cook, or I am a valet, or a hairdresser; for the love of God give me a piece of bread and a shred of cloth to cover myself with.”’

Estimates of the numbers left behind on the eastern bank of the river vary wildly, from Gourgaud’s dismissive assertion that only two thousand stragglers and three guns failed to get across, Chapelle’s estimate of four to five thousand along with three to four thousand horses and six to seven hundred vehicles, to Labaume’s of 20,000 and two hundred guns, which is certainly too high. Chichagov recorded that nine thousand were killed and seven thousand taken prisoner, which seems closer to the mark. Most are now agreed that during the three days the French lost up to 25,000 (including as many as 10,000 non-combatant stragglers) on both banks, of which between a third and a half were killed in action. Russian losses, all inflicted in the fighting, were around 15,000.

The crossing of the Berezina was, by any standards, a magnificent feat of arms. Napoleon had risen to the occasion and proved himself worthy of his reputation, extricating himself from what Clausewitz called ‘one of the worst situations in which a general ever found himself’. His soldiers had fought like lions. But it was above all a triumph for Napoleonic France, and its ability to create out of the rabble of a score of nations armies which were in every way superior to their opponents, which fought intelligently as well as loyally, and which in this instance did so as though they had been defending their own wives and children. ‘The strength of his intellect, and the military virtues of his army, which not even its calamities could quite subdue, were destined here to show themselves once more in their full lustre,’ as Clausewitz put it.

 

BATTLE OF BAUGÉ, 21 MARCH 1421

1. FAILED RECONNAISSANCE The English army marches inland from the coast, conquering Maine and settling in the castle of Beaufort. French scouts track the English advance but are captured and interrogated. Now Clarence knows for sure that a rival army is close by.

2. FRENCH AND SCOTTISH MOVEMENTS The Franco-Scot forces march west from Tours and cut off the English escape route north that leads to the safety of Normandy. The two armies are now only 12.9 kilometres (eight miles) apart.

3. CLARENCE’S HURRIED MARCH Eager to engage the French, Clarence and 1,500 men-at-arms dash towards the French camp after sightings are confirmed by the English forward foraging parties. As second in command, the Earl of Salisbury Thomas Montgau is told to assemble archers and then follow his superior into battle.

4. CROSSING THE RIVER The French and Scottish forces congregate on the other side of the river Couesnon. The only bridge is heavily garrisoned, so the English knights dismount and wade across the river in full armour. Outflanked, the French and Scots retreat into a church.

5. ATTACK ON THE CHURCH Bursting out from the river bank, the English men-at-arms assault the church. The river crossing leaves the English troops scattered and disorganised and very few troops are now under effective command, as many are still on the road behind.

6. CLARENCE PRESSES ON A lull in the fighting gives Clarence the opportunity to wait for reinforcements. Foolishly, he declines and advances towards the village of Baugé. Hidden over the ridge lies the main force of Franco-Scots, who vastly outnumber the English.

7. THE FINAL CHARGE The Scottish and French forces are now back in line, but once again ignoring the advice of his commanders, Clarence presses on. A charge up the hill to the waiting Franco-Scots is ordered despite Salisbury and the archers still not arriving.

8. MELEE AND ENGLISH DEFEAT After a desperate assault, the English are routed by the larger French and Scottish army as Clarence and all of his commanders are killed. Without the support of the longbowmen, the English lose more than a thousand men, while the French and Scottish casualties only number in the hundreds.

9. SALISBURY’S LATE ARRIVAL The French and Scottish leave the battlefield, along with the mountain of English bodies behind to rot. Salisbury arrives the next day with reinforcements but he is too late to even glimpse the opposing army, and to his horror, finds only the dead.

10. MOMENTUM WITH THE FRENCH Clarence’s body is recovered and shipped back to England, where an angered Henry V prepares to return to France with a new army. After the battle, and with the confidence of their victory, the French begin planning a conquest of Normandy.

The English aura of invincibility was finally lost as a reckless advance saw their forces obliterated by a French and Scottish coalition Nearly six years had passed since Agincourt and Henry V was still the master of northern France. The dauphin, the future Charles VII, desperately appealed to the Scots for help, and soldiers arrived shortly after, ready for battle against the English. By March 1421, Henry was back in England, so the heir to the throne, Thomas of Clarence, led the army in his stead. Utilising chevauchée raiding tactics, Clarence swept inland, plundering his way through the countryside. Meeting little to no resistance, it wasn’t until the end of the month that the French would finally muster a force to fight back.

The Battle of Baugé was the zenith of Scottish support in France in the Hundred Years’ War. The Scots had been at war on and off with the English for decades and had actively assisted the French since 1382, when they were asked to join with Charles VI in return for equipment and supplies. The French had supported Scotland during Edward I’s invasion of the country, so both had a history of common interest. The agreement was known as the `Auld Alliance’ and was a constant thorn in the side of the English, as the French and Scots tried to force a war on two fronts. The Truce of Leulinghem was signed with the English in 1389, but it wasn’t long until the Scots were back in the fold. After Baugé, the Scots were involved in the losses at the battles of Cravant and Herrings and their role in the war was effectively at an end after a major defeat at the battle of Verneuil. Taking place 80 kilometres (50 miles) west of Paris, the Franco-Scots’ charge was decimated by the English longbowmen, who killed half of the opposing forces.

 

The 33rd Waffen-Grenadier-Division of the SS Charlemagne (French No.1)

Henri Kreis. Former head of the PAK section of the Sturmbrigade in Galicia and Kriegkommandant of Radomyśl village, where he was seriously injured when fighting a T34 tank. Once recovered, he became an instructor at the SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Schule at Kienschlag. In March 1945 he commanded a reinforcement battalion at Wildflecken, as the division itself had already left for Pomerania. Attached to the 38th Nibelungen Division, he fought against the Americans in Bavaria with the rank of an Obersturmführer, although in this photograph he is still only an Unterscharführer. (DR)

Prisoners of the Charlemagne Division who were executed on 8 May 1945 at Karlstein by their fellow Frenchmen from the 2nd Armoured Division, commanded by General Leclerc, in American uniform and under orders from Paris. In the foreground from left to right are Waffen-Unterscharführer Jean Robert, then Waffen-Obersturmführer Serge Krotoff (of 2nd Bataillon, 57th Regiment), Paul Briffaut in army uniform and Waffen-Untersturmführer Raymond Daffas. The divisional archives had previously been piled onto trucks and destroyed in late April by the Bavarian peasant with whom they had been hidden, as a result of the American advance.

In the spring of 1944 a command was issued from the OKW to transfer all foreigners serving in the German Army to the Waffen SS. The attack against Hitler on 20 July accelerated this movement, particularly concerning the French. German high command decided to regroup the volunteers into a new SS French brigade, under the command of Colonel Edgard Puaud. The SS-Hauptamt [the administrative office of the SS] decided to bring the 638 French infantry regiment back from Russia. It was disbanded on 10 August 1944 and its members transferred to the Waffen SS. The LVF headquarters at Greifenberg now became the new brigade’s headquarters as well as the Französische SS-Grenadier Ausbildungs und Ersatz-Bataillon (French SS Grenadier training and reserve Battalion), commanded by SS-Obersturmbannführer Heinrich Hersche who had arrived from Sennheim. The Sturmbrigade, whose 1st Battalion had proved itself so valiantly in Galicia, arrived on 5 September and joined 2nd Battalion for training at the ‘West-Prussian’ SS-Trüppenbüngsplatz. Alongside them, 2,000-2,100 political soldiers were finishing their basic training there, under the command of SS-Oberstumbannführer Paul Gamory-Dubourdeau. In addition there were also men from the SS-Französische Flakbaterrie, who had not joined the Sturmbrigade in the fighting in Poland, 1,000-1,200 sailors from the Kriegsmarine and Kriegsmarinewerftpolizei who had landed at Greifenberg in mid-September, and around 2,000 men who were involved in the Schutzcommando and Todt Organisation, the NSKK, the Speer Legion and the Technische Nothilfe, which was part of the German Police. There were also other general German paramilitary units, although some had remained at their original training grounds with the permission of their leaders.

Two regiments were formed, with two battalions each comprised of four companies. The 57th Regiment was predominantly composed of former members of the Sturmbrigade, on the orders of Paul Gamory-Dubourdeau. The 58th Regiment was headed by Commander Eugéne Bridoux and contained the ex-Legionnaires. Either for religious reasons (the perceived paganism of the SS), years of combat fatigue, or because they felt the war was definitively lost, a few dozen men categorically refused to be transferred. Taking advantage of this opportunity to start on a clean slate, a purge took place removing 180 of these ‘undesirables’. In order to learn the fighting methods of the SS, a number of LVF officers and soldiers were sent on training courses. During their absence, the brigade left its quarters and headed for the SS-Truppenübungsplatz at Wildflecken. On 5 November, part of the French state militia had to withdraw from Germany and found itself also being incorporated into the brigade. During the winter of 1944-45, the Waffen-Grenadier (no longer the SS-Grenadier as those of the Sturmbrigade had been called) had to endure particularly harsh training as a result of the snow, the freezing temperatures, lack of equipment and clothes and poor diet. Desertions among the prestigious SS units, such as the Walloon or the Wiking divisions were very common, because their members wanted to join the fighting as soon as possible.

Given the title of ‘Division’, despite its reduced capacity (more than 7,300 men), the orders to depart for the East by train arrived on 16 February. Integrated with the 11th Army, the first men arrived on 22 February at Hammerstein in Pomerania and gathered in a nearby camp. Sent to the frontlines without any armoured support, heavy weaponry or radio equipment, and with all their assault rifles having been hijacked by another unit, the division’s casualties began to pile up. Different companies broke off to fight in isolated groups, with no communication with the rear lines as they were pushed backwards. The survivors retreated to Szczecinek and after this initial engagement, the division had lost around one third of its troops, most of whom were either wounded or evacuated. Five hundred were dead. After regrouping at Białogard, the units were merged together to form a frontline regiment with the freshest and most experienced soldiers, and a reserve regiment with a reduced combat role, due to the fatigue amongst the men. They were sent to protect the retreat of the German troops at the port of Kolberg. Once more the French faced fierce fighting trying to defend the city, forcing them to consider pulling back towards Białogard, which was still held by the Germans. Trapped on a plain south-west of the city, the 3,000 men of the reserve regiment were massacred by Soviet tanks. A few survivors were captured, while others took refuge in the nearby woods. Surrounded for days, the exhausted soldiers now had to finish their war as prisoners, having failed to cross the River Oder. Arriving in Międzyrzecz, in western Poland after a long and painful march, the men of 1st Battalion, who were the only ones left unscathed, managed to succeed in breaking the encirclement of Pomerania. The French regrouped on the outskirts of Anklam and waited for other survivors of the Division.

Stationed at Carpin, the combat units were once more reorganised and resumed their training. On 24 April SS-Brigadeführer Krukenberg, who was now in charge of the French, received a telegram from Hitler’s bunker announcing that he was to take up a new position in Berlin and must get there with a French assault battalion as quickly as possible. Having lost three vehicles en route, a French detachment arrived in Berlin, which by now was virtually surrounded by the Red Army. They were attached to the SS Nordland Division, commanded by Waffen-Haupsturmführer Henri Fenet. This division had distinguished itself in urban combat, repulsing many large-scale armoured vehicle attacks using the Panzerfaüst [German anti-tank weapon]. The very experienced French soldiers managed to officially take out sixty-two tanks as they gradually retreated to the ever-decreasing German-held zones. On the morning of 2 May, Fenet and his men finally reached Hitler’s bunker. They were hoping to find the last kernel of resistance, but instead realised that the battle was all but over. More fighting now commenced in order to avoid being taken prisoner, but one by one the men were arrested by the victorious Soviets, before resistance finally ceased at 3pm.

The remaining men who were still at the barracks at Greifenberg left and joined those at Wildflecken. Here they were divided into various units and separately retreated westwards, where some were subordinated into the 38th SS-Grenadier-Division Nibelungen. In the end, four members of the division were awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.

The Fighting for Shevardino Redoubt

What Kutuzov got was a position near the village of Borodino, 124 kilometres from Moscow. For the Russian staff officers who initially viewed this position from the main highway – the so-called New Smolensk Road – first impressions were very good. Troops standing on either side of the highway would have their right flank secured by the river Moskva and their front protected by the steep banks of the river Kolocha. Problems became much greater when one looked carefully at the left flank of this position, south of the main road. Initially the Russian army took up position on a line which ran from Maslovo north of the road, through Borodino on the highroad itself and down to the hill at Shevardino on the left flank. The centre of the position could be strengthened by the mound just to the south-east of Borodino which became the famous Raevsky Redoubt. Meanwhile the left could be anchored at Shevardino, which Bagration began to fortify.

Closer inspection soon revealed to Bagration that the position on the left assigned to his army was very vulnerable. A ravine in his rear impeded communications. More important, another road – the so-called Old Smolensk Road – cut in sharply behind his line from the west, joining with the main highway to the rear of the Russian position. An enemy pushing down this road could easily roll up Bagration’s flank and block the army’s line of retreat to Moscow. Faced by this danger, Bagration’s army began to withdraw to a new position which abandoned Shevardino and turned sharply southwards from Borodino in a straight line to the village of Utitsa on the Old Smolensk Road. On 5 September Bagration’s troops at Shevardino fought off fierce French attacks in order to cover the redeployment to this new line, losing 5,000–6,000 men and inflicting perhaps slightly fewer casualties on the enemy.

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Having defeated the retreating Russians at Smolensk and capturing that city in August, Napoleon closely pursued the 1st and 2nd Armies of the West, under Kutuzov, who succeeded General Barclay de Tolly as commander in chief on 20 August. While Barclay urged immediate confrontation with the French, then steadily advancing east, Kutuzov decided instead to withdraw to Borodino, there to make a stand, a decision made as a result of political pressure urging the defense of Moscow. The main part of the Grande Armée duly followed, with an Austrian auxiliary corps under Karl Philipp Fürst zu Schwarzenberg and French general Jean Reynier observing Alexander Tormasov’s 3rd Army of Observation and Pavel Chichagov’s Army of the Danube far to the south, while Marshal Macdonald’s corps kept watch on the Russians situated far to the north.

Although the French had left the vicinity of Smolensk with 156,000 men as recently as 19 August, by the time they reached the outskirts of Borodino on 5 September they were down to 133,000 fit for action (86,000 infantry, 28,000 cavalry, and 16,000 artillerists) and 587 guns, all units depleted by disease and generally wearied by the laborious march deep into Russia that had begun on 22 June. The Russians mustered about 155,000 men, of whom 115,000 were regulars (the remainder were Cossacks and militia) plus they were more rested and enjoyed a numerical superiority in artillery, with 640 guns. Nevertheless, the Russian total included a proportion of virtually untrained militia known as Opelchenie, about the same number of new recruits in the regular army, and a large body of Cossacks who could not be relied upon to execute orthodox charges against formed troops. Thus, the two armies stood on approximately equal terms.

The French advance guard made contact with the Russians on 5 September when they came in sight of the Shevardino redoubt, a forward earthwork manned by General Dmitry Neverovsky’s division, supported by light infantry and cavalry, which the Russians had constructed about 3 miles southwest of Borodino. Afternoon was passing, and Napoleon needed to take the position so that he could deploy his men to face the rest of the Russian army waiting for him a mile-and-a-half beyond the redoubt. He ordered in Compans’ 5th division of Davout’s 1st Corps, supported by two cavalry corps. At the same time the Emperor ordered Poniatowski’s Polish Corps to circle to the south and take the position from the flank.

The French came on in skirmish formation and poured a terrific fire into the Russians. The latter responded as best they could, with most damage coming from their cannon. The time had come to take the redoubt, and Compans sent in his best troops. At the point of the bayonet, the Terrible 57th Line swept the flanking defenders away and entered the redoubt.

They found not a single man standing left to oppose them. The sun was setting and Prince Bagration mounted an attempt to retake the bloody position. His cavalry had a terrific clash with the French and got the best of it, but could not follow up in the darkness. Bagration claimed to have taken the redoubt and then withdrawn, but their relatively small losses suggest they did little more than skirmishing. What is clear is that the Russians had a stiff fight over a relatively useless position.