Russian Guerrillas in 1812

Russian guerrillas in 1812 that fought against northern regions of Russia against the French Empire invasion. Anatoly Telenik


No hay or straw – Le Roy commands a marauding party – ‘every day the circle’s being drawn tighter’ – Césare de Laugier meets the locals – ‘I asked him politely in Latin’ – Paul de Bourgoing fights his way out – Ney’s reconnaissance in force

Nor is it only Murat’s men who are short of essentials. In a Moscow stuffed with tea and coffee, jams and liqueurs, bread and – above all – hay have quickly become rarities. Writing home around the turn of the month (but his letter will be captured by Cossacks) a French NCO tells his sister that ‘the horses are gnawing at their mangers for lack of it’. Even a general of brigade like Dedem, nursing his bruised chest in his mill on the outskirts, can’t

‘get a sack of oats without a permit from the Quartermaster-General, and that was hard to obtain. Only hay and straw were lacking. The Prince of Neuchâtel himself was sending out to the villages to get some.’

Where has it all gone to? Evidently Daru is doing his job of getting in stocks for the winter only too well. By no means all the villagers have fled,

‘probably because flight had presented greater difficulties, there being so many of them and the environs of Moscow being so densely populated. Perhaps also because some who’d meant to flee hadn’t been able to because the French army, as soon as it had taken possession of Moscow, had spread out in all directions. Finally, it’s possible that, being more affluent, they’d found it hard to abandon home and hearth.’

Whether the analysis of the artillery officer, the Marquis de Chambray, is right or not, when Dedem sends a sergeant and some men to get him some eggs, chickens, etc., with strict orders to pay for them, ‘taking’ only some hay, the peasants beg the soldiers to make haste, for fear of the Cossacks; who treat them as an inferior species.

These are everywhere in the town’s environs. The very first day after settling at Petrovskoï, Laugier had seen them hovering only a few hundred yards away, waiting to pounce on anyone who strayed from the Italian camp. At dawn on 21 September, notwithstanding Le Roy’s well-posted sentries,

‘the Guard Chasseurs who’d gone reconnoitring were driven back at the double by enemy cavalry as far as the houses where I’d stationed my two companies. Being under arms, they opened fire and shot down three Cossack regulars. But that didn’t mean a dozen of our men weren’t stabbed by these gentlemen’s lances.’

Dedem makes a pact with the local priest, allowing him to go on ringing his church bell provided his parishioners supply him with necessaries, but the men of the 4th Line, bivouacked with the rest of Ney’s III Corps to the west of the city, have all this time been

‘so short of almost everything, and only with difficulty managing to get hold of black bread and beer, that strong detachments were having to be sent out to seize cattle in the woods where the peasants had taken refuge, and yet often returning empty-handed. Such was the supposed abundance from the looting. Though the men were covering themselves with furs, they soon no longer had clothes or shoes. In short, with diamonds, precious stones and every imaginable luxury, we were on the verge of starving to death.’

This being the state of affairs, marauding parties are the only solution, not always a very successful one. Simple at first, they’ve soon become exceedingly problematic:

‘Our outposts extended hardly two days’ march beyond the town. The Emperor could get no certain information on the Russian army’s position. The Russians, on the contrary, were informed about every movement we made; and few days passed without our hearing painful news of their having carried off such or such a battalion, such or such a squadron, sent out to protect our marauders searching for food,’

writes Fezensac. At Davout’s headquarters in the monastery at the Doroghomilov Gate his reluctant chief-of-staff General Baron L-F. Lejeune – that future painter of elegant and colourful battle scenes – is daily having to organize ever stronger expeditions. On 17 September, while the fire had still been raging, one of his subordinates had sighted ‘a herd of cattle, hidden in a marsh between two forests ten miles away’. And instantly orders had come to Le Roy2 to take a mixed detachment from the 85th Line and go and grab it. At blush of dawn next day, with a soldier to guide his party, he’d set off:

‘At 9 a.m. we got to the edge of the marsh. I had it searched by two detachments of 50 men each and two officers who, each following his own side of it, were to join up at the other side. In the event of their seeing the herd or meeting with any resistance they were to warn me by firing shots or by beat of drum.’

While the remainder of his detachment rests, Le Roy goes up to a nearby isolated church, 200 yards to his right, between himself and the Moskova, and sees, about five miles away on the left bank, in the direction of the city, several foraging horsemen who’re returning at a brisk canter, apparently pursued. On his own thickly wooded and deeply ravined river bank he can see nothing. Yet the existence of a church seems to indicate a number of small communities. By and by a Russian peasant appears, but doesn‘t notice him; and at the same moment a drum roll tells him someone – or something – has been captured without resistance. Half an hour later the head of a very variegated herd of animals appears – oxen, cows, little ponies, sheep and pigs. ‘Having massed them together, we set out to our left and followed a track which the livestock seemed to follow of their own accord.’ Sure enough, it leads to a village by the river, and into the courtyard of a ‘pretty château no Frenchman from the Army had as yet visited’. Deciding to halt for a couple of hours to rest his men, he notes that he’s now about seven and a half miles from his camp. He’s just starting to count the captured herd when his son, a sergeant in the 85th, brings him one of the château’s inhabitants.

‘He’d arrested him just as I, together with three others, was getting out of a ferry. He tells the major he has evacuated his family to another of his properties and has come to see whether the invaders have any knowledge of it, and if not, to rescue some of his possessions. “Monsieur,” I told him, [says Le Roy pompously, stretching truth further than it was ever stretched before] ‘The French soldier only makes war on armed men. You have nothing to fear. And if all Russians had done as you have, the countryside our army has passed through wouldn’t have been ravaged.”’

With these words he sends off 50 men to explore the other part of the village on the far bank of the river, which laps the edge of the château’s garden. Muskets and lances have been found in the village – the former of Russian manufacture, the latter simply long rods with a long nail or knife blade at the end, the kind the Cossacks are using:

‘I assumed they belonged to peasants who were being incited to rise against us, and that the persons we’d just arrested were leading the insurrection. I tacitly decided to take these gentlemen to Moscow: and, what strengthened me in this resolution, two of them seemed to be disguised Russian officers. The elder was about forty, the youngest about twenty. They were wearing French-style tail-coats, hussar-style boots with spurs, had little moustaches and round hats. The other individual had a serious air, a malicious eye, and the muscles in his face never stopped twitching. He was dressed like the first ones, in French clothes, a furred cap, big and roomy trousers strapped underfoot. I was going to question them when the master arrived. I was astonished to hear him speak Russian to the fellow with the sinister face and to hold his cap in his hand, while the other didn’t take his hat off. His son said: ‘This gentleman has just had a meal prepared and we’ve stewed it up.”’

And in fact the Russian invites all the detachment’s officers to refreshment, ‘apologizing for not being able to treat us as we deserved. He’d also provided beer for the men.’ Le Roy – with his embonpoint, he’s a man who relishes his victuals – thanks him and orders an officer to follow him to the table of a pretty room which seems to have lost half its furniture.

There’s an old cooked ham, a quarter of cold mutton and sausages, two dishes of dessert, wine and liqueurs. At first, having decided to leave in good time, I was loath to depart. But unable to resist our host’s insistence I took my place at table opposite the eldest of them, and didn’t lose sight of a single one of his movements. I kept an eye on him like a cat watches a mouse, without his noticing it; because the main door of the dining-room, which was behind him, had been left open and to all appearances I was watching what was going on down in the courtyard. So I had one eye on him and the other on the château’s courtyard. Beside this man sat an old tippler of a captain of the 33rd Regiment, who got thoroughly tipsy. Next was the young man with the little moustaches, speaking German to his neighbour. Then another Russian, all of whose manners struck me as military. From time to time he looked at the man sitting opposite me and smiled.’

Le Roy also notices that the number of servants waiting on them is steadily growing. Some have moustaches, while others are bearded peasants. His neighbour tries to reassure him by saying they’ve come bringing more provisions in case the French would like to stay the night. At 4 p.m. Le Roy goes down into the courtyard and orders a captain of the 17th Light Infantry – his party, regrettably, has been taken from several regiments – to form an advance guard with the herd and not leave the road. Vodka in great bowls has been served to the men and by now many of them are drunk. Going back into the dining-room, Le Roy peremptorily asks the four Russians to be so good as to accompany him to Moscow. The poor devils seemed thunderstruck – and this confirmed me in my idea that they all spoke French.’ He threatens to use force if they resist. The first young man asked if he could go into the next room and get his clothes. I consented, ordering the drunken captain to go with them.’

Now Le Roy assembles his detachment, meaning to place his four prisoners in the middle of it, and calls up to the officers he’s left in the dining-room to bring these gentlemen, whether they like it or not.

‘I was just about to mount my horse, when the sergeant of the Moscow outpost came and told me he’d seen a couple of groups higher up river, which some horsemen were fording. He was sure they were Cossacks. I was just going to go and see, when the officers came out of the château and approached me, laughing. They told me the Russians, having gone through several rooms, had asked the old drunk to wait for them while they went into the little room – saying they’d only be long enough to fetch their coats. Of course they’d escaped by another passage that lead out of it into the garden.’

Le Roy, furious, decides to ask permission to return next day with a battalion of his own regiment – the 85th – to search the château and capture its occupants. Guided by the flames and smoke of Moscow ‘the detachment, having doubled its advance guard, returns to its encampment at 9 p.m. with its herd of cattle, sheep, pigs and ponies.’

But were those four Russians newcomers who’d come to fan the flames of an insurrection? Or were they in charge of one that’s already been organized? He can’t be sure. ‘In either case the hidden weapons would have justified my arresting them,’ he concludes. And the moral? ‘Always prefer a detachment made up of men from your own company or regiment to ones supplied from different units.’ But he’d accomplished his most important task: to get his lowing, mooing, bleating, neighing booty back to camp before nightfall. General Friedrichs comes and promises him a light cavalry escort and men from his own unit to return next day and wreak vengeance on the fugitives and their château,

‘not because they’d run off, but for having assembled a lot of men strange to the village, as well as some soldiers. If I’d let myself be lulled by their fine promises what happened two days later to a detachment of the 108th regiment would have happened to me.’

Luckily, next day (19 September) he’s suddenly ordered by Davout to take his battalion to the outskirts to support the Chasseurs of the Guard on the Kaluga road:

‘“I’m sorry, my dear Le Roy”, he said, “you can’t go back to look for what you left behind out there either on the road or in the marsh. Soon we shan’t have any meat, even for our sick and wounded. I’m going to send a detachment of 300 men from the 108th under a bright and efficient captain called Toubie.”’

Le Roy hands over the livestock to his general’s ADC, ‘keeping only two pretty little Russian horses to carry my baggage’. But Toubie and his party aren’t sufficiently on the qui vive, and are massacred.

As the days pass, then weeks, such marauding expeditions are having to range ever farther afield and be provided with ever heavier escorts. Far from responding to de Lesseps’ appeal to ‘come out from the woods where terror retains you’ and sell their ‘superfluous’ produce to market, the peasants are (as Le Roy had suspected) forming themselves into efficient guerrilla bands. Hardly a day goes by without at least 300 French or Allied soldiers being snapped up by the Cossacks or by bands of guerrillas. ‘The circle is daily being drawn tighter around us,’ a French officer writes home,’ – but his letter too is intercepted by the Cossacks:

‘We’ve having to put 10,000 men with artillery into the field outside Moscow to forage, and still can’t be sure of success unless we fight. The enemy is gaining the energy we’re losing. Now audacity and confidence are on his side.’

A despondent General Gelichet, posted at a point some forty miles from the city, writes that every order he gets is only making him

‘want to resign my command. As for the victuals you ask from me, the thing’s impossible. The 33rd would be helping us out if it still had the horses killed the day before yesterday. As it is, it has only two head of cattle left.’

Even on 30 September Césare de Laugier has written in his diary that ‘the colonels of the Royal Guard are taking turns with the Army of Italy’s generals of brigade to direct and command such flying columns. The good and intrepid Colonel Moroni, the vélites’ colonel, being more than once detailed off for this kind of job, I, by virtue of my rank, am having to go with him.’ And goes on:

‘So yesterday about 1,000 infantrymen, 200 troopers and two pieces of cannon were placed under Moroni’s orders, to attempt a reconnaissance along the Tver road, as well as to protect numerous Saccomans’ [Sacs-au-mains = bagmen] bringing with them carts and pack horses. The greater part of the villages we passed through were totally deserted, and had been searched from top to bottom by earlier reconnaissances. Between Czerraio-Griaz and Woskresensk, about 28 versts [20 miles] from Moscow, we’d reached the extreme limit of our earlier excursions. In the plain a few sparse villages and country houses which, albeit abandoned, were still completely intact and witnessed to the sudden flight of the inhabitants. There we camped for the night’

The Italian vélites realise that they’re in the presence of enemy troops. But at dawn they form two columns and pursue their way without troubling themselves:

‘And in fact the enemy withdrew as we advanced. We passed through more villages without trouble, guaranteed as they were by the chain of posts set up by cavalry and infantry. The heat was excessive, and a magnificent forest spread out beyond the advanced posts to the right, where I was. Accompanied by some NCOs, I wanted to push on that far.’

But then something surprising happens:

‘I’d only gone a few paces when I heard voices. Alone, I walked calmly over to the side the noise was coming from. There I saw through the trees, in the middle of the wood, a clearing where there was crowd of people, men and women of all ages and kinds. I came a few steps closer. They looked attentively at me, but without being either scared or surprised. Some men, whose manners and faces didn’t augur any good to me, came toward me.’

The vélites’ adjutant-major signs to them to keep their distance, but calls over

‘the one of them I’d recognized as one of their priests. Then, using Latin, I asked him politely to tell me whether this was the population of the villages just now occupied by our troops. “We are”, the pope replied gravely, after looking closely at me, “part of the unfortunate inhabitants of the Holy City whom you’ve reduced to the state of vagabonds, of paupers, of desperates, whom you’ve deprived of asylum and fatherland!” As he said this, tears ran down abundantly from his eyes. At that moment his companions began advancing with threatening gestures. The priest managed to calm them and ordered them back. Whereupon they remained at a certain distance, to hear what we were saying.’

The priest says he cannot conceive what ‘barbarous genius, what inhuman cruelty’ can have animated Napoleon to set fire to their venerable capital. Césare de Laugier says he’s got it all wrong… No, no, says the priest. It’s he who’s deceiving himself. There’s no question but that Napoleon was the author of the fire:

‘While we were talking I was able to examine at my leisure this crowd of unfortunates who were gradually coining closer to us. The men’s masculine, energetic, bearded faces bore the impress of a deep, ferocious, concentrated pain. The women’s air was more resigned, but it was easy to guess what anxieties they were going through. Untroubled by my paying so little heed to what he was saying, the pope went on with his sermon. Swept along in some line of reasoning, he happened to touch my horse and lay his hand on the pommel of its saddle. Seeing how moved I was, he redoubled the violence of his words. For my part I was lamenting the fate of so many unhappy families, women, old men, children, who, because of us, were in such a pitiful state. And this thought made me forget the danger I was so imprudently exposing myself to.’

Suddenly one of the Russians comes up to the ‘pope’ and, ‘with a look of sovereign scorn’ says something in his ear. Suspicious, the Italian officer begins to walk away:

‘But then the pope asked me whether I was a Christian, a question which only half surprised me, as I knew we’d been represented to the Russian people as a band of heretics. The moment everyone knew I’d said I was, I saw all the faces looking at me with greater interest, and the conversations grew more animated. Then the pope took my hand, pressed it affectionately, and said: “Get going as fast as you can. Ilowaiski, reinforced by the district’s militia and some completely fresh cavalry, is advancing to attack you. By staying here you’re exposing yourself to every danger. And do what you can to prevent the acts of impiety your leader and your comrades are making themselves guilty of!”’

Before going back to his men, de Laugier makes Before going back to his men, de Laugier makes a last effort to convince the kindly priest of his error; tells him that he and all his flock can come back to Moscow without the least risk. But his interlocutor accompanies him to the fringe of the forest, ‘and didn’t leave me until he saw the NCOs appear, who’d come to look for me’.

The priest’s warning turns out to be correct. ‘A long column of cavalry had appeared near the Liazma. Other Cossacks and armed peasants were coming up along the Dmitrovo road.’ Some foragers are running back to the Italian lines as fast as their legs can carry them. Many of the them, pursued by Russian scouts, have abandoned their carts or horses, already laden with plunder:

The Dragoons of the Royal Guard advanced. The Marienpol Hussars made ready to receive them but, disturbed by the artillery fire, beat a retreat, carrying away the Cossacks, who’d imprudently advanced and had exposed themselves, not without some rather serious losses.’

By now it’s 4 p.m., too late in the day to come to grips with this enemy. So Colonel Moroni, his foraging operation – apart from the few carts and horses the foragers had abandoned – being completed, gives the order to march off home:

‘But being followed closely by the enemy and forced to escort a numerous convoy, he thought it dangerous to make the whole movement en bloc. First the wagons and other impedimenta filed off as far as a wood to our rear, then the troops followed in the best order.’

This is the signal for the Russians’

‘best horsemen to attack, uttering shrill cries, and firing some shots, but without daring to come too close. Hardly was the convoy lined up properly along the road which passes through the forest and the sharpshooters had been placed on its flanks to protect it if attacked, than our columns abruptly faced about, and marched against the enemy. Seeing this, the many groups of armed peasants soon began to flee, throwing away their weapons as they crossed the fields. The cavalry followed their example. Night was already falling. Then two vélites rejoined the detachment. They’d got lost in the woods while looking for me, and the pope I’d spoken with had saved them from the hands of the Cossacks by hiding them until we’d come back.’

Not all foraging expeditions, the vélites’ adjutant-major adds sombrely, operating under the same conditions, are being so successful.

Young Lieutenant Paul de Bourgoing, he of the fancy fur, has to interrupt his struttings to and fro in front of the two actresses General Delaborde has taken under his wing, and sally out with some wagons and 50 men of his own regiment, the 5th Tirailleurs-Fusiliers of the Young Guard, to see what he can find in a village on the left bank of the Moskova – its right bank has already been occupied by the various Guard cavalry regiments. He’s just entering a village dangerously close to the Russian outposts when the tocsin sounds and a fusillade breaks out between his men and some peasants who ‘aided by some Russian soldiers lodging with them, defend their cows and sheep’. Seeing one of his officers and five men beat a hasty retreat, dragging a cow with them and followed by a compact mass of peasants, he orders his men to fire. The Russians reply with well-nourished musketry. A corporal falls wounded in his arms, spattering him with his blood. From all sides armed peasants and Cossacks come running or galloping across the plain. Now the whole detachment, carrying its badly wounded corporal on a cart, has to beat a hasty retreat. Already night is falling, and it’s necessary to find the bridge across the river. Which they do – receiving timely support from a company of voltigeurs. The corporal dies on the forage cart.

Altogether, such sorties are producing less and less. By the second week in October no escort under brigade strength, or stronger, has much chance of bringing in a convoy of foodstuffs. Baron Lejeune, struggling with all the paperwork needed to reorganize I Corps and set it to rights, is finding ‘

‘these last days very hard. Our foragers no longer brought us anything back, either for the men or the horses. Their accounts of the perils they’d run were scaring, and to listen to them it seemed we were surrounded by a network of Cossacks and armed peasants who were killing all isolated men and from whom we ourselves would only escape with difficulty. These perplexities made the task of restoring order as soon as possible in the army’s organisation extremely laborious, both for the corps commanders and their chiefs-of-staff. The days and nights were all too short to cope with so many difficulties and I hardly had time to see anything more of Moscow than the very long street leading from my suburb to the Kremlin.’

War Commissary Kergorre puts the matter in a nutshell:

‘Even if we had had enough provisions to spend the winter here, we should still have had to retreat, for absolute lack of forage. What would we have done without cavalry, without artillery, in winter quarters in the land we’d conquered, without communication with France?’

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