Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow to Smolensk III

The misery of having no shelter for the night was compounded by lack of food. Most of the rations brought from Moscow had been consumed by the time the army reached Mozhaisk, and they were now condemned to retreat along a road which had been devastated by the retreating Russians and then bled dry by themselves on the way to Moscow. It was not possible to send foraging parties out on either side of the road, for these would naturally fall behind the main body of the army, and become easy prey for the pursuing enemy.

As supplies ran out and materiel was left behind in abandoned wagons, organised feeding of the troops became impossible. There might be a sack of corn, but there would be no way of grinding it (a large supply of small grinders had been distributed at Dorogobuzh, but most had been left by the roadside as the horses died). There might be some groats or buckwheat, cabbage or scraps of meat, but no pot in which to make a stew.

Conscientious and resourceful officers who managed to keep their companies together ensured that essentials were not discarded, and organised the fairly shared consumption of whatever was available, so soldiers belonging to a disciplined unit had a better chance of survival. When they stopped for the night, one detail went in search of firewood, another built shelters, another prepared food, and so on; others were detailed to feed the pack animals; others still kept the fires burning and stood watch while their comrades slept.

Some units took care of themselves remarkably well. Dr La Flise, who had become separated from his regiment, fell in with a squadron of Polish lancers who would leave the road in the evening, find an inhabited village, surround it, and then strike a bargain with the peasants, promising not to harm them if they would just give them a little food and shelter for the night. They and their horses were thus able to keep in good shape, and as they had a couple of women with them, the officers would even spend the evenings entertainingly.

Another who made sure he lacked for nothing was Colonel Chopin, commander of the 1st Cavalry Corps artillery. ‘A happy-go-lucky man who believed that the important thing in life was to think of oneself first, Colonel Chopin had, as soon as the retreat began, gathered about him a dozen of his most alert and resourceful gunners,’ recalled one of his comrades. ‘A fourgon with a good team of horses followed him and every evening this was the rallying point for all the gunners, each of whom brought in what he had managed to procure, either in the villages along the way or from isolated stragglers, from whom they took by guile or by force whatever they might have. In this way the Colonel’s band (and one cannot call it otherwise) lacked for nothing, the fourgon was amply stocked, and watching and listening to his purveyors, one sensed it would never be empty.’

‘It was rare for those who had stayed with their unit not to be able to share some kind of stew,’ wrote Colonel Boulart. ‘But woe betide those who had become separated, for they found no help anywhere.’ The only exception was if they had something to offer. Colonel Pelet watched a singular trade taking place around a large fire. ‘Who’s got some coffee? I’ve got sugar. Who’ll exchange some salt for flour? Who’s got a pot? We could cook up a popote between us. Who’s got a coffee pot?’ and so on. ‘The man who had a small bag of salt could count on several days’ food, as he could trade it everywhere,’ he wrote. Albert de Muralt owed his life to the possession of a small iron cooking pot, which he would lend to people who had food to prepare in return for being allowed to share their meal.41 The only hope for those who had nothing was to team up with others in the same situation, and as a result corporations of eight or a dozen men sprang up, usually owning a horse or a wagon, which operated in much the same way as Colonel Chopin’s gunners.

A particularly vulnerable group were the servants of officers. As they were not soldiers, they could not claim rations, and if their master were killed or wounded, or found them surplus to requirements, they were left without resource. By the same token, a good master was, for many, the only hope of salvation. In Moscow, General Dedem de Gelder had been prevailed upon to take on an extra servant, a bright young boy who drove his carriage and cared for his horses, and it was only much later, in the chaos of the retreat, that he realised the boy was a fifteen-year-old French girl who had fallen in love and run away from home to follow an artillery officer, only to see him killed at Borodino.

Reading the accounts of survivors, one is struck by how little food was required to stay alive. But it was essential, for psychological as well as physical reasons, to have a regular supply. Lieutenant Combe had received a packet from home just before the army left Moscow. ‘What joy! News from Paris, from my father, my beloved mother, my whole family, my friends!’ he wrote. ‘Nothing in the world could compare with what I felt then.’ It was only later that he would come to realise that this packet saved his life, for it contained little tablets for making hot chocolate and stock cubes to make bouillon. This meant that he could brew up a cup of something nourishing whenever all else failed. Others had the intelligence to load their pockets with tea and sugar, and quite a few claim to have survived for up to two weeks on nothing but tea.

On the retreat as on the advance, thoughts of food never left the soldiers’ minds. They would try to distract themselves by imagining that they were sitting down to dinner in one of the best restaurants in Paris. ‘Each of us would order his favourite dish, we would discuss their relative merits against other dishes, and in this way would distract ourselves for a while from the hunger which devoured us,’ recalled Victor Dupuy of the 7th Hussars, ‘but all too soon the horrible reality would assail us in all its power.’

The reality was indeed repellent, the principal source of meat being dead horses, but even that was not easy to come by. When a horse fell and could not find the strength to get up, soldiers would rush up and start cutting it up. The most experienced would slit open its stomach in order to get the heart and liver. They would not bother to kill the horse first, and would swear at it for making their job more difficult as it struggled and kicked. Captain von Kurz noted that after the men had finished, the carcase looked as though veterinary surgeons had been carrying out an anatomical investigation.

Many were disgusted by the idea, as well as the taste, of horsemeat, but the taste could be smothered by tearing open a cartridge and sprinkling a liberal dose of gunpowder on it, and most of them soon got used to it. Jacques Laurencin, a geographer attached to Napoleon’s headquarters, wrote to his mother explaining that horsemeat was really quite pleasant if sliced thinly and fried. General Roguet of the Young Guard thought it worth recording that the meat of the local cognats had a more delicate taste than that of French or German horses.

Horses were not the only source of meat. ‘At Viazma we treated ourselves to a very good fricassée of cats,’ Laurencin assured his mother in a letter which would never reach her. ‘Five of us devoured three fine cats which were excellent.’ On the evening of 30 October, at Gzhatsk, Christian Septimus von Martens and his comrades cooked their first cat. ‘In order to allay the disgust which was welling up in us,’ he wrote, ‘I assured them that the gondoliers of Venice, who were by no means as miserable as we were at that moment, regarded a ragoût of cat as a treat.’ The marching column was accompanied by dogs from the villages they had burnt, howling and disputing the carcases of horses with the famished men, and these too found their way into the pot if they were not careful. The pet hunting dogs or poodles various officers had brought along with them also began to disappear into cooking pots or onto the straight swords of cuirassiers and dragoons, which made good spits.

Bread was almost impossible to get hold of, but flour and groats of one sort or another could be obtained here and there, so the men would make a paste of these using water and chopped-up straw for binding, and bake it into flat biscuits in a peasant stove or in the ashes of a campfire. But usually they would throw anything they could find into a pot and boil up a pottage, often adding the stump of a tallow candle to provide nourishing fat. Jakob Walter from Stuttgart, who had found it so difficult to adapt to campaign conditions at first, had grown quite resourceful, learning to pick hemp seeds and dig up cabbage stalks, which could be turned into nourishment if boiled for long enough.

‘We made our gruel with all kinds of flour mixed with melted snow,’ explained Captain François. ‘We would then throw in the powder from a cartridge, as the powder had the virtue of salting or at least of enhancing the bland taste of food prepared in this way.’ Duverger, the paymaster of the Compans division, wrote down the recipe for what he called ‘The Spartans’ Gruel’: ‘First melt some snow, of which you need a large quantity in order to produce a little water; then mix in the flour; then, in the absence of fat, put in some axle grease, and, in the absence of salt, some powder. Serve hot and eat when you are very hungry.’

The conditions under which they had to take their meals did not help. The men were often so hungry that they scoffed the food raw, and even if they did cook it they would swallow it hurriedly, in fear of the enemy. Among the consequences were vomiting, indigestion, colic and diarrhoea. Another reason for wolfing down any food they might come across was that it might otherwise be stolen. ‘Thieving and bad faith spread through the army, reaching such a degree of brazenness, that one was no more secure in the midst of one’s own than one would have been surrounded by the enemy,’ noted Eugène Labaume. ‘All day long one heard only: “Oh God! somebody’s stolen my portmanteau; or knapsack, or bread, or horse,”’ recalled Louise Fusil.

For many, particularly those who were on their own, stealing had become the only possible means of survival other than pilfering abandoned wagons, trunks and the pockets of those who had died along the way. Everyone despised these disbanded men, referring to them as fricoteurs, from the word fricoter, to cook something up, as they were often to be seen pathetically trying to concoct something to eat by the roadside. If they came up to a campfire looking for a little warmth they would be brutally pushed away. Sometimes they would stand just behind those sitting round the fire, hoping to glean at least some warmth from it.

Many of these unattached men walked over to the Russian bivouac fires to give themselves up, in their thousands on particularly cold nights. But their hopes that this would put a term to their sufferings were soon dashed, and their fate was not to be envied. Although they officially subscribed to the code accepted throughout Europe, the Russian attitude to prisoners was generally one of contempt.

There were some shining examples of consideration. When the much-loved young Colonel Casabianca, commander of the part-Corsican, part-Valaisain 11th of the Line, was captured outside Polotsk, his captors spared no effort to keep him alive. When he died of his wounds a few days later they returned his body, escorted by a guard of honour whose officer handed over a note from General Wittgenstein. ‘I am returning the body of the valorous Colonel of the 11th regiment, whom we mourn as much as you, for a brave man must always be honoured,’ it ran.

Some officers treated their captured counterparts with courtesy. The partisan leader Denis Davidov went to great pains to trace and return the lover’s ring, locket and love letters taken from a young Westphalian Hussar lieutenant who had been stripped of them on being taken by the cossacks. But his colleague Alexandr Samoilovich Figner took sadistic pleasure in slaughtering his prisoners, often when they least expected it. General Yermolov also ill-treated prisoners, particularly Poles, whom he despised as traitors to the Slav cause. After Vinkovo he spat in Count Plater’s face and instructed the cossack escorting him to feed him only with lashes of his whip. Yermolov’s attitude was not unusual. ‘Our soldiers took some prisoners among the French,’ noted a young Russian officer after the fighting at Smolensk, ‘but all the Poles fell victim to vengefulness and contempt.’ When one officer reported in after a patrol in the course of which he had taken some French soldiers who were looting a church, he was told by his senior officer that he should not have bothered to bring them back. So he went out and told his men to bayonet them to death.

The Tsar himself wrote to Kutuzov complaining of reports of ill-treatment of prisoners and insisting that all captured men must be treated humanely, fed and clothed. But the example set by his own brother undermined any chance of his complaints being heeded. General Wilson was riding along with other senior officers behind Grand Duke Constantine when they passed a column of prisoners. Their attention was attracted by one of them, a distinguished-looking young officer, and Constantine asked him if he would not rather be dead. ‘I would, if I cannot be rescued, for I know I must in a few hours perish by inanition, or by the cossack lance, as I have seen so many hundred comrades do, on being unable from cold, hunger, and fatigue to keep up,’ he answered. ‘There are those in France who will lament my fate – for their sake I should wish to return; but if that be impossible, the sooner the ignominy and suffering are over the better.’ To Wilson’s horror, the Grand Duke drew his sabre and killed the man.

There was a set of regulations in existence which laid down not only where prisoners should be held, but how much they were to receive for their sustenance. But it was a dead letter in the reality of this campaign. Sergeant Bartolomeo Bertolini, who had been taken while foraging on the eve of Borodino, could hardly believe the treatment he and his companions were subjected to. They were forcibly relieved of everything, even their uniforms and their boots. ‘Our misery was so great that I could never adequately convey it in words,’ he wrote. ‘They gave us no pay, as happens normally with prisoners among civilised nations, nor did they give us any rations to keep us alive.’ They were marched quickly, beaten, and killed if they strayed off the path to pick up a rotten potato or scrap of food.

Dr Raymond Faure was taken at Vinkovo. He and other captured officers were brought before Kutuzov, who treated them with chivalry, giving them clothes and some money. The same treatment was not accorded to rank-and-file prisoners, who were robbed, stripped and beaten. And as soon as the convoy of prisoners left the Tarutino camp, under the escort of militia levies, the officers began to suffer the same fate, being robbed by the militia officers of everything Kutuzov had given them.

By the time the retreat started the war had grown more vicious, and captives had become an unwelcome encumbrance: with food and clothing scarce on both sides, there was none to spare for them. As the Russian prisoners being goaded down the road by the French weakened and fell behind, they would be despatched with a bullet to the head. The Russians were no less brutal. Most of the prisoners were taken by cossacks, whose first action was invariably to strip them and take not only all valuables but also all serviceable items of clothing. They would then hand them over, or preferably sell them, to local peasants, who would massacre them with varying degrees of sadism.

Some would be buried alive, others would be tied to trees and used for target practice, others would have their ears, noses, tongues and genitalia cut off, and so on. General Wilson saw ‘sixty dying naked men, whose necks were laid upon a felled tree, while Russian men and women with large faggot-sticks, singing in chorus and hopping around, with repeated blows struck out their brains in succession’. In one village the priest told his flock to be humane and drown the thirty prisoners under the ice of a lake rather than torture them. At Dorogobuzh, Woldemar von Löwenstern was horrified to see Russian troops stand by while the locals massacred unarmed camp followers with axes, pitchforks and clubs. ‘It was a ghastly spectacle,’ he wrote, ‘they looked like cannibals and a fierce joy lit up their faces.’

Common humanity did occasionally triumph in the midst of all this savagery, as in the case of Lieutenant Wachsmuth, a Westphalian wounded in the hip at Borodino. He was in the process of relieving himself by the roadside when some cossacks overran the group he was travelling in. Seeing him squatting helplessly with his trousers around his ankles, they burst out laughing and subsequently treated him well. Julien Combe had strayed off the main road with five other officers in search of fodder for their starving mounts, and got lost. After spending a cheerless night during which they were nearly buried under the snow, they found a hamlet where the peasants gave them shelter and food. ‘The snow was falling in thick flakes, and the aspect of this miserable countryside, seen through the small panes of dull yellow glass, the danger of our position, the uncertainty of our future, all seemed to conspire to plunge us into the most sombre reflections,’ he wrote. ‘But I was suddenly awakened from my musings by an exclamation of Mama! Mama! distinctly uttered by a child, whose cradle, suspended like a hammock by four ropes from the roof beams and hanging in a dark corner, had escaped our notice.

‘Nothing could convey the impression that this word, almost a French one, made on us,’ he continued. ‘It brought everything back to us; it seemed to contain in itself all our memories of family, of happiness and of home.’ He took the child in his arms and wept. The mother was so touched that she looked after them and alerted them when cossacks were signalled in the area, giving them directions on how to escape and food for the journey.

At Viazma, Lieutenant Radozhitsky, who was following the retreating French, came across a Russian woman who had been hired by a French colonel and his wife as a wetnurse for their baby. They had been killed in the fighting, but she had saved herself and the child. ‘He’s only a little Frenchman, why bother with him?’ the Lieutenant asked. ‘Oh, if you only knew how good and kind these masters were,’ she replied. ‘I lived with them as with my own family. How can I not love their poor orphan? I will not abandon him, and only death can separate us!’