Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow to Smolensk I

Had Napoleon known what was going on in Kutuzov’s mind, he could have advanced boldly and made for Medyn, where he would have found victuals and forage, and from there to Yelnia, where he had a division under General Baraguay d’Hilliers waiting to meet him, and on to Smolensk, which he would have reached in fairly good shape on 3 or 4 November. But taking into account the strong positions the Russians had taken up, he decided otherwise. That evening, he ordered the retreat, through Borovsk and Vereia to Mozhaisk, and from there along the main road to Smolensk. In one of the more bizarre episodes in military history, the two armies were now moving away from each other.

Two days later, as he reached Mozhaisk, Napoleon met Mortier coming from Moscow with the Young Guard. He also had with him two prisoners, General Ferdinand von Wintzingerode and his aide-de-camp Prince Lev Naryshkin, who had unwisely ridden into Moscow to verify reports that the French had left, only to be captured by a patrol. On seeing Wintzingerode, a native of Württemberg in Russian service who seemed at that moment to epitomise the internationale that was forming against him, Napoleon erupted into a violent rage, the like of which none of his entourage had ever witnessed. ‘It is you and a few dozen rogues who have sold themselves to England who are whipping up Europe against me,’ he ranted. ‘I don’t know why I don’t have you shot; you were captured as a spy.’ He took out all his frustration and mortification on the unfortunate General, accusing him of being a renegade. ‘You are my personal enemy: you have borne arms against me everywhere – in Austria, in Prussia, in Russia. I shall have you court martialled.’

Even this tirade did not succeed in venting all his pent-up anger, and on seeing a pretty country house that had somehow escaped destruction, Napoleon ordered it to be torched, along with every village they passed through. ‘Since Messieurs les Barbares are so keen on burning their own towns, we must help them,’ he raged. He soon countermanded the order, but that hardly made much difference. As they stopped for the night the troops would dismantle houses to feed their campfires or crowd into them for warmth. They would light fires inside or overheat the mud stoves, which often led to them catching fire, and in villages or small towns in which every building was of wood, this usually led to a general conflagration.

The order to retreat had a depressing effect on the army, which instinctively felt that something had gone wrong with the infallible Emperor’s calculations. But, ironically, it was when they began to feel threatened that the troops rallied to him and took comfort in his perceived greatness. On the day the retreat began, General Dedem de Gelder reported to the Emperor for orders. ‘Napoleon was warming his hands behind his back at a small bivouac fire which had been laid for him on the edge of a village one league beyond Borovsk on the road to Vereia,’ he recalled. The General disliked Napoleon, partly because of the way he had treated his native Holland, but he could not help being impressed by him now. ‘I have to do justice to this man hitherto so spoilt by fortune, who had never yet known serious setbacks; he was calm, without anger, but without resignation; I believed he would be great in adversity, and that idea reconciled me to him … I saw then the man who contemplates disaster and recognises all the difficulties of his position, but whose soul is in no way crushed and who says to himself: “This is a failure, I have to quit, but I shall be back.”’

The spirits of the army were further lowered when, shortly after rejoining the Moscow – Smolensk road at Mozhaisk on 28 October, they found themselves marching across the battlefield of Borodino. It had never been cleared, and the dead had been left where they lay, to be pecked at and chewed by carrion crows, wolves, feral dogs and other creatures. The corpses were nevertheless surprisingly well preserved, presumably by the nightly frosts. ‘Many of them had kept what one might call a physiognomy,’ recorded Adrien de Mailly. ‘Almost all of them had large open staring eyes, their beards seemed to have grown, and the brick-red and Prussian blue which marbled their cheeks made them look as though they had been horribly sullied or luridly daubed, which made one wonder if this were not some grotesque travesty making fun of misery and death – it was odious!’ The stink was indescribable, and the sight cast a pall over the passing troops.

At Mozhaisk and at Kolotskoie they saw thousands of emaciated wounded, barely surviving in dreadful conditions. Colonel de Fezensac went into the Kolotsky monastery to see if there were any men from his regiment. ‘They had left the men there without medicines, without rations, without any form of succour,’ he wrote. ‘I was barely able to get in, so encumbered were the stairs, corridors and the middle of the rooms with ordure of every kind.’

Napoleon was annoyed to find so many wounded still there, and grandly determined that they should all be taken along. Against the advice of Larrey and other doctors, who had left medical teams to care for them, he gave instructions for them to be placed in carriages, on fourgons, on the wagons of the cantinières, gun carriages and every other possible conveyance. The result was predictable. ‘The healthiest people would not have stood up to such a method of transport, or been able to remain for long on the vehicles, given the way they had been loaded on,’ wrote Caulaincourt. ‘One can therefore judge the state these unfortunates were in after a few leagues. The jolting, the exertion and the cold all assailed them at the same time. I have never seen a more heart-rending sight.’ The owners of the carriages in question were far from happy to have extra weight laid on vehicles which their horses could barely draw as it was, and faced with trepidation the prospect of having to feed their new charges. Realising that they were unlikely to survive anyway, they mostly decided to precipitate the inevitable. ‘I still shudder as I relate that I saw drivers purposely drive their horses across the roughest ground in order to rid themselves of the unfortunates with whom they had been saddled and smile, as one would at a piece of luck, when a jolt would rid them of one of these unfortunates, whom they knew would be crushed under a wheel if a horse did not step on him first.’

After giving the orders for the evacuation of the wounded on the afternoon of 28 October, Napoleon rode on to Uspenskoie, where he stopped for the night in a devastated country house. But he could not sleep. At two o’clock in the morning he called Caulaincourt to his bedside and asked him what he thought of the situation. Caulaincourt replied that it was much graver than Napoleon thought, and that it was unlikely that he would be able to take up winter quarters at Smolensk, Vitebsk or Orsha, as he still hoped. Napoleon then said that it might be necessary for him to leave the army and go to Paris, and asked him what he thought of such a plan and what he thought the army would make of it. Caulaincourt replied that going back to Paris was the best course of action, though he would have to choose his moment well, and that what the army thought was of no consequence.

Napoleon’s position was indeed very bad. Ten days after leaving Moscow, he was only three days’ march down the Smolensk road. This not only represented a dangerous delay, it also meant that his army had used up ten days’ rations. At the rate it was now moving, Smolensk was still over ten days’ march away, and the only sustenance to be found before that was a small magazine at Viazma. And, with no intelligence and not enough cavalry to send out scouting parties, Napoleon had no idea of what the Russians were up to.

When Volkonsky had reached St Petersburg and handed Alexander the letter Napoleon had sent through Lauriston, the Tsar had hardly bothered to read it. ‘Peace?’ he said. ‘But as yet we have not made war. My campaign is only just beginning.’ In fact it would be some time before it began.

It was only after a couple of days’ hurried retreat that Kutuzov turned about and began gingerly to follow the retiring French. He sent Miloradovich on ahead, and himself followed at a more leisurely pace. Having marched north to Mozhaisk, the French were now marching west along the Moscow road in a wide arc that curved southwards. Kutuzov was therefore excellently placed to cut across their line of retreat. But while he could not resist writing to his wife that he was the first general who had ever made Napoleon run, he made no attempt to intercept him.

The only enemy the French saw were cossacks, who followed them at a respectful distance, like hyenas stalking a wounded animal. The regular cossack regiments they had met hitherto were now outnumbered by irregulars from the Don and the Kuban. ‘Dressed and hatted in a variety of styles, without any appearance of uniformity, dirty-looking and scruffy, mounted on mean raw-boned little horses with unkempt manes which kept their necks stuck out and hung their heads, harnessed with no more than a simple snaffle, armed with a crude long pole with a sort of nail at its point, milling around in apparent disorder, these cossacks made me think of teeming vermin,’ remembered François Dumonceau. The cossacks were supplemented by bands of Bashkir horsemen armed with bows, who amazed the French by firing arrows at them.

These wild horsemen were of no military value in themselves. Their principal tactic was to rush forward yelling ‘Hurrah!’, hoping to terrify the enemy into flight, at which point they would catch a few fugitives and pick through whatever booty the others had left behind. If a soldier stood his ground and levelled a musket at them they would invariably run, but he was wise not to fire it, as they would return and get him while he was reloading. The cossack pike had a thin round point which could only prick and not sever tendons or muscles, so unless it found a vital organ its wound was not serious.

On the advance, the French had ignored the cossacks, making fun of their shameless unwillingness to expose themselves to the slightest danger. ‘If one were to raise a regiment of French girls they would, I believe, show more courage than these famous cossacks with their long pikes and their long beards,’ commented one soldier. But in the conditions of a retreat, and in the absence of adequate numbers of cavalry on the French side, they were to exert an influence quite beyond their potential. ‘The French soldier is easily demoralised,’ remarked Lieutenant Blaze de Bury. ‘Four Hussars on his flank terrify him more than a thousand in front.’

On 2 November Marshal Lefèbvre harangued the Old Guard on the subject with his usual directness. ‘Grenadiers and Chasseurs, the cossacks are there, there, there and there,’ he said, gesturing to the four points of the compass. ‘If you do not follow me, you are f—d. I am no ordinary general, and it is with good reason that in the army of the Moselle I was known as the Eternal Father. Grenadiers and Chasseurs, I say to you again: if you do not stay with me you are f—d. And anyway, I don’t care a f—k. You can all go and f—k yourselves.’ The Guard did not disappoint, and the ranks remained steady throughout; but the same could not be said of other troops. Once morale began to crack on the retreat, an irrational fear took over, and the mere shout of ‘Cossacks!’ would send old soldiers scurrying for cover.

The French were retreating in echelons, with Napoleon leading the way accompanied by the Old Guard, the Young Guard, the remains of Murat’s cavalry and Junot’s corps, and reaching Viazma on 31 October. Next came Ney, followed by Prince Eugène’s Italians and what was left of Poniatowski’s Poles. Bringing up the rear was Davout with his 1st Corps.

Progress was slow, mainly due to lack of horsepower. Shortage of fodder had debilitated the horses, which were growing too weak to pull the guns and caissons. Guns normally drawn by three pairs were now having teams of twelve or fifteen horses hitched to them, and even these could not manage to pull the heavy pieces over the muddy rivulets and up the many inclines in the road. Passing infantry would be enlisted to help push the guns, but the exhausted footsloggers did not relish this task and did everything to avoid it. Powder wagons were blown up and surplus shells jettisoned to lighten the load. The private carriages and booty-laden wagons of individuals were seized and burnt by the artillery, who commandeered the horses. At Gzhatsk on 30 October Henri-Joseph Paixhans, an aide-de-camp to General Lariboisière, passed a column of wagons laden with wounded men whose horses had been taken. ‘These poor unfortunates implored our pity with their hands joined in prayer,’ he recalled. ‘They called out to us in heart-rending tones that they too were Frenchmen, that they had been wounded fighting at our side, and they begged us tearfully not to abandon them.’

Part of the problem was that Napoleon saw himself as carrying out a tactical withdrawal rather than a retreat. Several of the corps commanders wanted to abandon a proportion of their guns, which were of no use to them. This would have liberated horses with which to draw the rest and saved much time, but Napoleon would not hear of it, maintaining that the Russians would claim the abandoned guns as trophies. This determination not to lose face would cost him dear.

Along with other unnecessary impedimenta, the French had with them some three thousand Russian prisoners. Even though their presence cost nothing in terms of supplies – the unfortunate wretches were given no food at all, so they fed off the dead horses they found by the wayside and ended up, by some accounts, eating their own dead – they were an aggravating encumbrance to the Portuguese infantry detailed to escort them, and took up valuable space on the road. And space was at a premium.

A major drawback of retreating in echelons down the same road, as Napoleon had elected to do, was that only the leading unit had a clear field of march, while all the others had to move through the mess left behind by the preceding ones. Their path was laboured by tens of thousands of feet, hooves and wheels – into a stormy sea of mud if it was wet, and into a skating rink of compacted snow and ice when it began snowing. Such supplies as there might have been along the way were devoured, and even the available shelter was dismantled for firewood by those who had gone before. The road was littered with abandoned carriages and wagons, dead horses and jettisoned baggage; and, worst of all, the following columns kept coming up against a slow-moving mass of traffic.

Apart from the tens of thousands of civilians following the army there were commissaires and other functionaries attached to it, and officers’ servants. They were mixed up in a throng of booty-laden deserters, some on foot, some in wagons; cantinières with their laden vehicles; and wounded officers travelling in carriages, tended by their servants. There were also some lightly wounded from the transports which had left Moscow in the days before the evacuation who were caught up and eventually overtaken by the retreating army. Their numbers were swelled daily by those wounded in the fighting along the way.

There were a large number of soldiers who had fallen behind and become separated from their units, which they sought, and occasionally managed, to rejoin. But it was difficult for them to catch up, as they had to push their way through a compact mass of people, horses and vehicles. There were others who, having fallen behind, threw away their weapons and were absorbed into the mass of stragglers, demoralised and guided more and more by herd instinct.

This swelling throng of people moved along the same road as the army, using up whatever resources were left and cluttering its path. It encumbered the approaches to every bridge and defile, as the absence of discipline coupled with a desperation verging on panic invariably produced chaos at such places. ‘Men, horses and vehicles would press forward pell-mell, pushing and shoving without any mutual consideration,’ wrote Dumonceau. ‘Woe betide those who allowed themselves to be knocked over! They could not get up, were trodden underfoot and caused others to trip and fall on top of them. In this manner mounds of men and horses, dead and dying, gradually piled up, blocking the way. But the crowd kept coming, banking up and cluttering the approaches to the obstacle. Impatience and anger would come into play. People quarrelled, pushed each other away, knocked each other over, and then one could hear the cries of the unfortunates who, knocked over, trampled, were caught and crushed beneath the wheels of carriages or other vehicles.’ And if a cry of ‘Cossacks!’ went up, the ensuing panic would multiply the number of those crushed to death.

As well as slowing their progress, all this had a demoralising effect on the following troops, who marched down a devastated road and saw only abandoned equipment, human and equine corpses, and men who had thrown away their weapons. The situation was worst for the rearguard, which not only had to march over a veritable obstacle course, but also to roll before it a snowballing mass of stragglers who impeded its movements and even impaired its ability to fight. Colonel Raymond de Fezensac, who found himself in the rearguard with his 4th of the Line between Viazma and Smolensk, would have his bivouacs crowded by cadging or thieving stragglers, who refused to make use of the night to move ahead but would try to march with his force when it set off in the morning. He would chase them off with rifle butts and warn them that he would not let them take refuge inside his squares if he was attacked. But still they hung about his regiment, getting in his way and making it easier for his men to desert.

The constant sight of disbanded men thinking only of themselves weakened the resolve of those who were still trying to do their duty. ‘The soldier who remained with the colours found himself in the role of a booby,’ explained Stendhal. ‘And as that is something the Frenchman abhors above all, there were soon only soldiers of heroic character and simpletons left under arms.’