After Berezina 1812

At one level the crossing of the Berezina was a disaster for Napoleon. He had lost somewhere between 25,000 and 40,000 men, and almost all his artillery and baggage. Even his Old Guard was now down to 2,000 men. His last viable corps, commanded by marshals Victor and Oudinot, were now barely capable of further action. Had Napoleon held the bridge at Borisov or had the Berezina been firmly frozen the great majority of these casualties would have been avoided.

Nevertheless he had every reason for satisfaction on 29 November. Outnumbered, surrounded and faced with the threat of total destruction, he had escaped. Above all, this was thanks to the splendid courage of his remaining troops and the resolution of their commanders. It is also true that even at the Berezina Napoleon possessed some advantages. His forces were concentrated, they were in the middle of the Russians and they were directed by a single will. Nature as well as human failures made coordination between the Russian armies difficult. When one looks at the perceptions and actions of the individual Russian commanders, it is almost always possible to see some logic to their behaviour and to sympathize with their dilemmas. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, the miscalculations, lack of resolution and the selfishness of the Russian senior generals had allowed more of Napoleon’s army to escape than should have been the case.

For many Russians, and above all for Alexander, the chief cause of discontent was that Napoleon himself had escaped. This feeling, though natural, was misplaced. It was always in Napoleon’s power to ride up the east bank of the Berezina and then cut across country towards Vilna. At Studenka he still had more than sufficient well-horsed cavalry to provide him with a strong escort. On his route to Vilna he would have had to be very unlucky to encounter a Cossack detachment sufficiently large and determined to challenge such an escort.

Much less probable and more annoying was the escape of many thousands of Napoleon’s troops. At first blush this might not seem a serious matter. More than half the men who escaped over the Berezina died or were taken prisoner amidst the fearful cold of the next three weeks. Fewer than 20,000 men survived to serve again in Napoleon’s armies. But 2,500 officers just from the Guards and the corps of Davout, Ney and Eugène escaped back over the Russian frontier. They included most of the senior commanders and many of their staff officers. Had they been captured at the Berezina it would have been very difficult for Napoleon to rebuild a new Grande Armée in time to defend Germany in the spring of 1813. The huge Russian sacrifices of the next year’s campaign might thereby have been avoided. Moreover, had Napoleon’s army been captured at the Berezina, the Russians could have gone into winter quarters, without the heavy losses incurred in the pursuit of the enemy across Lithuania in December 1812.

After the drama on the Berezina, the last weeks of the 1812 campaign are an anticlimax, though this is a poor word to describe seventeen days of immense suffering. Everything that French apologists say about the weather in December 1812 is true. Even by the standards of a Russian December, it was exceptionally cold. This caused the final disintegration of most French units. On 5 December Napoleon himself left the army and headed for Paris, leaving Murat in charge. By then nothing and no one could have rallied the French army east of the Russian border and Napoleon was right to depart. On 11 December Vilna fell to the Russians. Three days later Matvei Platov’s Cossacks captured Kovno, Michel Ney led his indomitable rearguard back across the river Neman and the 1812 campaign was over.

During these weeks the Russian army also suffered grievously. On 19 December Kutuzov reported to Alexander that the army’s losses had been so enormous that he was obliged to hide them not just from the enemy but even from his own officers. Of the 97,000 men whom Kutuzov had commanded at Tarutino before the beginning of the campaign, 48,000 – in other words almost half – were in hospital. Only 42,000 soldiers were still in the ranks. The position of Chichagov and Wittgenstein’s armies was better but not good. The admiral had 17,000 men in the ranks, plus 7,000 more who had finally arrived from Oertel’s corps. Peter Wittgenstein still commanded 35,000 men, which reflected the fact that his men had been better fed and clothed than the rest of the army and had also marched less far. But most Russian regiments by now were hungry and exhausted, with their uniforms in tatters and dressed in any clothes they could find to keep out the cold. One young staff officer described himself as wearing a soldier’s overcoat, with sleeves badly charred by bivouac fires, boots whose soles were coming off, headgear which combined a soldier’s forage cap and a woollen civilian hood, and a tunic with no buttons but held together by a French sword-belt.

As they advanced into freezing, barren and devastated Lithuania cold and hunger hit Kutuzov’s troops hard. So too did another enemy: typhus. The disease was rampant among the prisoners of war whom the Russians were capturing in droves and it spread quickly. ‘Its distinguishing features were: exhaustion, loss of appetite, nausea, total weakening of the muscular system, dry heat of the skin and an unbearable thirst.’ Against the disease the regimental doctors used quinine, camphor and emetics so long as their medicines lasted. As the intendant-general, Georg Kankrin, subsequently admitted, however, of all the backup services provided by the Russian commissariat medical help was the weakest. That owed something to the new and confused administration of hospitals, and more to the shortage of trained doctors and hospital administrators. So long as the army was operating in the Great Russian provinces it could hand over care of its sick and wounded to the governors, but once it moved into Belorussian and Lithuanian districts formerly occupied by Napoleon no civilian institutions existed. Many Russian doctors and officials themselves fell ill. The rest were scattered along the army’s line of advance, desperately trying to establish hospitals in a wilderness.

Kankrin wrote that his officials,

themselves barely alive, were forced almost every other day to establish hospitals in ruined areas, in the midst of extreme cold and deprived of almost any help. There was a complete shortage of experienced officials. We took anyone who fell into our hands, grateful for being able to find any officials for this job. The man chosen was given the regulations, some money, open orders to the local administration requiring them to assist him, and a small staff. This was all the help one got in setting up a hospital, together whenever possible with some biscuit and groats, a few beef-cattle and some spirits.

Nevertheless, wrote Kankrin, the majority of the men in hospital did recover and rejoin the army, ‘which on the one hand shows the toughness of Russian soldiers but also shows that they were given some care’.

On 13 December Kutuzov reported to Alexander that unless his army got a rest it might disappear entirely and have to be rebuilt from scratch. Any commander would dread such a possibility, but a Russian general had more reason than most to protect the professional and veteran cadre around which the army was built. Men with the education and willingness to serve as officers were not that plentiful. Highly skilled cadres who could serve in the engineers, artillery or staffs were much rarer still. Above all, the emperor’s army was not the nation in arms. Its strength lay in the great loyalty of its veterans to their comrades and regiments. Destroy these men and these loyalties, and the army would become worse than a mere militia. The inner force which made this army so formidable and resilient would be undermined. In the winter of 1812 this came too close to happening for Kutuzov’s comfort. In fact the army’s core survived, large numbers of veterans subsequently returned from hospital, and around this cadre a fine new army was rebuilt in 1813. But it was not really until the summer of 1813 that it recovered from the awful strains of the 1812 campaign and regained its full potential.