200 Years Ago Today ~ The Temperature Plummeted and…

Righto…where were we? 

Ah yes. 

With Napoleon and his French troops–the remaining French troops I should have said–leaving Moscow on the 19th October.   Weighed down with all sorts of goodies–there were carts and waggons filled with essentials like brandy and rum, coffee and tea, sugar accompanying each regiment.  And every officer who could manage it had his own little private store of trophies of war in his own little private cart–gold and silver objects, books, furs, holy icons, iron bedsteads…

The trouble was, of course, that within miles of the city gates, the cart wheels and the horses pulling them began to sink into the soft soil of the steppes…and hence were abandoned.  It’s said that the road–dirt tracks–that lead from Borowsk to Mozhaik was covered with discarded treasures, with icons, books, candlesticks, trinkets…

The inventory kept by one NCO, Sergeant Bourgogne provides a rather vivid picture.  In his knapsack he had “several pounds of sugar; half a bottle of liqueur; a woman’s Chinese silk dress; a woman’s riding cloak; several gold and silver ornaments; some lockets; two silver-mounted crosses; a Russian prince’s spittoon; a piece of the cross of Ivan the Great…”  And he was wearing “a yellow waistcoat of padded silk and a cape lined with ermine, beneath which he worse a pouch into which he had stuffed more stuff includinga crucifix in gold and silver and a little Chinese porcelein vase…” 

So this cavalcade of slow carts laden with booty and trudging men slowly made its way from Moscow to Troitskoe and onto Forminskoie and from there to Maloyaroslavets…(no, you don’t have to try to pronounce that–there is no pop quiz on the schedule…)

And it was at Maloyaroslavets, on 24 October, that the Russian army–having marched all the previous couple of days in the pissing rain (which washed out the roads such as they were and flooded the streams, making crossing with artillery hazardous to say the least)–fought the French to a stand-off…The town itself, of 10,000 souls, was destroyed and held by the French under Napoleon’s step-son, Eugene Beauharnais.  The Russians, as they had before, retreated. 

And Napoleon–because of so many reasons–decided to continue his retreat west, initially by retracing the army’s steps back up to  Borowsk and from thence, westward to Mozhaisk…

(In Maloyaroslavets, when it was subsequently rebuilt, they added a small plaque which reads:  “End of offensive, beginning of rout and ruin of the enemy”.)

By the 30 October, the Russians were once again in full pursuit.  Moreover, there were raiding bands of Cossacks and partisans, eager to avenge themselves on the French invaders, ready to harass the retreating troops at every opportunity, frequently capturing foraging parties or stragglers and either killing them on the spot, or bringing the home to their hamlets to be tortured to death…

Both the French and Russian sources cite this, so there can be little doubt that it happened and is not just anti-Russian propaganda.

Napoleon headed for Viasma, where he stayed for more than a day…(possibly not the wisest decision…)  The weather was growing steadily colder, there were ice floes beginning to form in the rivers… And following Napoleon’s departure, the Russians launched an attack on the French rearguard on 3 November…

It should have gone in the French troops’ favour…but by the end of the day, the French fearing that a new troop of infantry was about to mount another attack and the entire French army broke rank and panicked, running for the bridges and for anything that might afford them safety…

Snow flurries threatened…

The night of the 4th November saw the temperature dropping sharply, probably down to minus 10 C (14F), yet the remnants of this once great army were dressed in what we would today consider a summer uniform. 

(Winter uniforms didn’t exist at that time–troops didn’t fight in winter, so the need had never before arisen…)

On 6 November, Napoleon finally reached the Dnieper at Mikhailewska, with his remaining troops straggling out like a string of over-boiled spaghetti across the wintry plains–those plains which had been stripped of all food and fodder by the Russians earlier in the year. 

That night, as the temperature plummeted, the snow truly began to fall.  By morning, there would be two feet of it covering the ground in every direction…

Various accounts write of this period of the retreat thusly:  “I have just seen the most appalling sight of my life…Our men are there, sitting around their campfires just as we left them last night, but they are all dead and frozen.”

“When we got up in order to move out, many would remain seated; we would shake them to wake them up, thinking they were asleep; they were dead.” 

“It is from that point that our misery began [the cold and snow of the 6th November], and that misery was to grow and to last for another six weeks…”

Within hours, the snow was compacted into a slippery, rock-hard surface by the footfalls of the thousands of men passing over it.  The horses, without winter horseshoes, had no hope of pulling the carts and waggons…

A brief thaw on 8 November turned the road into a bog, and the following day there was a hard frost, which turned the whole plain into a sheet of ice…

Tens of thousands of the remaining horses–those which had survived the months of malnourishment and exhaustion–died over those three days.  One corps of cavalry lost 1200 horses in two days.  Some cavalry officers now took out their remaining two bullets–the first for their horse and the second for themselves–and used them. 

Equally, the loss of the draught-horses severely reduced the army’s best hope of survival.  Waggons with supplies were abandoned in their hundreds…

Writing of the terrible events that began on the 6th, one survivor recorded: 

“The sun, enveloped by the thickest mists, disappeared from sight, and the snow falling in large flakes, in an instant obscured the day, and confounded the earth with the sky.  The wind, furiously blowing, howled dreadfully through the forests and overwhelmed the firs, already bent down with the ice; while the country around, as far as the eye could reach, presented, unbroken, one white and savage appearance.

“The soldiers, vainly struggling with the snow and the wind, which rushed upon them with the violence of a whirlwind, could no longer distinguish the road; and falling into the ditches which bordered it, there found a grave.  Others pressed on towards the end of the journey, scarcely able to drag themselves along, badly mounted, badly clothed, with nothing to eat, nothing to drink, shivering with the cold, and groaning with pain…

“How many unfortunate beings, on that dreadful day, dying of cold and famine, struggled hard with the agonies of death…Stretched on the road, we could distinguish only the heaps of snow which covered them, and which, at almost every step formed little undulations, like so many graves…”

Alle Seelen ruhn in Frieden.

5 comments on “200 Years Ago Today ~ The Temperature Plummeted and…

  1. russiansnows says:

    Excellent post! You’ve really captured the misery of the situation.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Thank you. I actually, as you’ll know, have left out the truly gruesome details…Although I may put some of those in on the next blog in the series…We’ll see how brave I’m feeling.

  2. J.A. Beard says:

    This part I found particularly fascinating:

    (Winter uniforms didn’t exist at that time–troops didn’t fight in winter, so the need had never before arisen).

    Always those practial and easily mistaken considerations…

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Ya, curious isn’t it? The armies of the day only had one uniform–and generally speaking, anyway, the cloth which went into making it was of inferior quality. Only officers could afford the good stuff–the heavier wools, etc. Many of the regiments’ uniforms were especially poorly designed for winter too–with coats that cutaway over the midriff area and just a canvas waiscoat underneath. Also, the infantry’s breeches buttons were made of tin–which turns to powder in extreme temperatures…(I’ll leave you with that image, shall I?)

  3. A ghastly event, vividly described. Looking at snow falling here and can imagine what it was like…

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