Memoirs Illustrating the History of Napoleon from 1802 to 1815

Author: Louis Constant Wairy  | Date: 1894

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Wairy Louis Constant, op. cit. Baron Claude F. de Meneval 3 London 1894

Retreat from Moscow

[1812]

The day before the passage of the Beresina was one of dreadful solemnity. The Emperor seemed to have come to his decision with the cold resolve of a man who attempts a despairing deed; nevertheless, a council was held. It was decided that the army should despoil itself of all useless burdens which might impede its march. Never was there more unity in its opinions; never was deliberation more calm; it was indeed the calm of men who commit themselves for the last time to the will of God and their own courage. The Emperor ordered the eagles of all the corps brought together and they were burned. He thought there was nothing else for fighters to do. It was a sad spectacle, these men stepping from the ranks one by one, and throwing down what they loved more than life itself. I have never seen more profound dejection, nor shame more bitterly felt.

By five o’clock of the evening of November 25th temporary trestles, made of beams from the cabins of the Poles, were fixed above the stream. Not being strong enough, the beams gave way shortly after five. It was now necessary to wait until the next day, and the army once more relapsed into gloomly conjectures. It was plain that it would have to sustain the fire of the enemy the next day, but there was no room for choice.

It was only at the end of that night of anguish and sufferings of every kind that the first trestles were driven down into the river. It is difficult to understand how the men could stand up to their mouths in water full of floating ice, summoning all the strength with which nature endowed them and all the remaining courage born of energy and devotion in order to drive piles several feet deep into the miry river bed; struggling against the most horrible fatigues; pushing away with their hands enormous masses of ice which would have knocked them down and submerged them by their weight; fighting, in a word, and fighting unto death with cold—the greatest enemy of life.

Well, that is what our French pontonniers did. Several of them were either dragged down by the currents or suffocated by the cold. That is a glory, it seems to me, which outweighs many another.

The emperor awaited daylight in a poor hut. Great tears flowed down his cheeks which were paler than usual. He appeared to be overwhelmed by his grief.

Before the bridge was finished, some four hundred men were partially transported from the other side of the river and two miserable rafts which they could with difficulty steer against the current. From the shore we were able to see them greatly shaken by the huge chunks of ice which clogged the river. These masses would come to the very edges of the raft; meeting an obstacle, they would stop for a while and then be drawn underneath those feeble planks and produce horrible shocks. Our soldiers would stop the largest ones with their bayonets and make them deviate insensibly beyond the rafts.

The impotence of the army was at its highest point. The current forced the poor horses to swim obliquely across, which doubled the length of the passage. Then came the masses of ice which, striking against their chests and sides, inflicted piteous wounds.

When the artillery and baggage wagons were crossing, the bridge was so thronged that it collapsed. Instantly a backward movement began, which thrust together in horrible confusion all the stragglers who were shuffling along, like driven cattle, in the rear of the artillery. Another bridge had been hastily constructed, perhaps with the belief that the first might give away, but the second was narrow and unprotected by railings at the sides. However, at first it seemed to be a very useful makeshift in such an appalling calamity.

But how disasters follow one upon the other! The stragglers rushed to the second bridge in droves. The artillery and baggage wagons, in a word all the army supplies, had been in advance on the first bridge when it broke. By the sudden recoil which took place, the catastrophe became known. Then those behind were the first to gain the other bridge. It was necessary that the artillery should cross first. It rushed impetuously toward the only road to safety which remained.

It would be difficult for any pen to describe the scene of horror which then took place. Conveyances of all kinds reached the bridge only over a road of trampled human bodies. One could see for himself how much brutality and cold-blooded ferocity are produced in human minds by the instinct of self-preservation. There were some stragglers, the craziest of all, who wounded and even killed with bayonet thrusts their unfortunate horses who did not obey the whips of their drivers. Several wagons had to be abandoned in consequence of this odious proceeding.

The bridge, as I have said, had no ledges at the sides. Many of those who forced their way across fell into the river and were sucked down beneath masses of ice. Others sought to save themselves by grasping the miserable planks of the bridge; they remained suspended above the abyss until their hands, crushed by the wheels of the carriages, would lose their hold; then they dropped to rejoin their com-fades and were engulfed by the waves. Entire caissons with drivers and horses were catapulted into the water.

Poor women were seen holding their children out of the water, as if to retard their death by a few moments, and the most frightful of deaths. A truly admirable maternal scene . . . of which we have seen the touching reality.

Some officers harnessed themselves to sleds to pull their comrades who were rendered helpless by their wounds. They wrapped the unfortunate ones as warmly as possible, cheered them up from time to time with a glass of brandy when they could get it, and gave them the most touching attention.

On the 29th the Emperor left the banks of the Beresina, and we went to pass the night at Kemen. His Majesty occupied a wretched wooden building. A freezing wind penetrated it from all sides through the windows, nearly every pane of which was broken. We dosed the openings as well as we could with hay.

On the 3rd of December we arrived at Malodeczno.

The Emperor left in the night. By daybreak the army had learned the news. The impression it made cannot be described. Discouragement was rampant. Many soldiers cursed the Emperor and reproached him for abandoning them. There was a universal cry of malediction.

On the night of the 6th the cold increased greatly. Its severity may be imagined: birds were found on the ground frozen stiff. Soldiers seated themselves with their heads in their hands and their bodies bent forward in order to relieve the emptiness in their stomachs. Some were found dead in that position. When we breathed, the vapor of our breath congealed in our eyebrows. Tiny white icicles formed in the beards and mustaches of our soldiers; to get rid of them they would warm their chins at the bivouac fires, and as one may fancy, a good many did not do so with impunity. The artillerymen held their hands on the noses of their horses, seeking a little warmth from the powerful breath of their horses.

How disastrous was that retreat!

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Chicago: Louis Constant Wairy, Memoirs Illustrating the History of Napoleon from 1802 to 1815, ed. Baron Claude F. De Meneval in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1951), Original Sources, accessed July 3, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=Y9SXIK565NIQETN.

MLA: Wairy, Louis Constant. Memoirs Illustrating the History of Napoleon from 1802 to 1815, edited by Baron Claude F. De Meneval, Vol. 3, in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, edited by Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris, Harrisburg, Pa., Stackpole Co., 1951, Original Sources. 3 Jul. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=Y9SXIK565NIQETN.

Harvard: Wairy, LC, Memoirs Illustrating the History of Napoleon from 1802 to 1815, ed. . cited in 1951, History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. , Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, Pa.. Original Sources, retrieved 3 July 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=Y9SXIK565NIQETN.