This isn’t usual for self…

But I shall try it anyway.

The thing is, in the last few days I’ve done an interview, which if I’m honest I actually truly enjoyed!  And I kind of wished to share that.

And not only but also, I’ve done another thing on the state of the country–at war– during that era we’d like to think was uber-friv, parties, pretty dresses, aristos in high cravats and Beau Brummell–the early 19th century.  And I kind of wanted to put that out here too.

So, do you mind if I just give you two charming links to these bits and say, Thanks jolly much for reading…?

A glimpse of Austen’s England. 

Bennetts and that little white pony, a salutary tale for authors.  Or parents.




Equine issues III (that’s the poncy title for it)

Recently I read a book.  (I know, shocker!)  A work of historical fiction, it was.

stubbs bayAnd in this book which was set at a time when horses were the only means of transportation, we had our hero, who was meant to be a tall lanky fellow over 6′ tall, riding a little mare who, according to the author, was just over 14 hands.  And our hero was so entranced by her that he hoped the dragoons wouldn’t steal her for their own.


Well, when I stopped laughing, I mentioned this to another horsey friend of mine…and when she stopped laughing like a drain, she said, “Obviously the bloke was wearing roller skates so his feet could run smoothly alongside…”

It was an image, I will confess, I had not thought of myself.

So let’s talk hands, shall we?  Because that’s how one measures a horse’s height.

For a start, a horse’s height is measured at the withers–think the tallest bit of his shoulder.  A hand is the linear measurement of a horse’s height which is equal to four inches.

dragoon1812So according to our aforementioned novelist, his 6′ hero was riding a horse which stood 4’10” or so at the withers.  So in fact our hero was towering over this poor little pony is what he was actually doing.  And if you think that it would be good for a little ponio’s back to have a great lug of 6 foot on his back–no matter how lightly the chap rode–you should think again.

Now, yes, when one is talking about some of the  hardier breeds of pony–the New Forest ponies, here, or some of the Russian ponies that the Cossacks rode, for example…the Connemaras and those sure-footed little lads that go up and down the mountains in Spain, yes, they’re sturdy as all get out.   They’re hearty, they’re fast, they’re smart.  I love them to bits!  And I love riding them.  But I am NOT 6′ tall.  I’m nowhere near that.

Moreoever, dragoon regiments of the Napoleonic era all had height requirements.  Some of Napoleon’s were required to be no smaller than 6′ tall.  And they weren’t shrinky dinks on the British side either.  Not to mention the weight of their kit…which would mean they weren’t looking for neat little ponies–no matter how clever or quick–they were looking for the big lads of 16, 17 or even 18 hands.  (That’s 5’4″, 5’8″ or 6′ tall at the withers…)

And finally, whinnying.  A word of advice to those who haven’t met a horse–do not get your information from cowboy movies.  For in this very charming novel to which I referred earlier, every time the author mentioned horses, he had them whinnying.

dragoon2Now, whinnying is a bit of an individual thing with horses.  Some do.  Others almost never do.  But for the most part, they don’t do it much.  They’re actually very quiet animals.  They don’t draw attention to themselves for the benefit of prey animals by saying, “Hey Lion-face, here I am…aren’t you hungry?”

They may do it occasionally/rarely to say to another horse, “Oi!  Here I am, matey.  Boy, this grass looks good.  Pity you’re not here…”  And sometimes when their friends are missing–as in the other horses from their herd are off doing stuff and they’re left at home–they whinny.  But they’re not talkative toddlers.

As for whickering?  I’ve only heard it once in my entire life–and that was when a mare was in season and her boyfriend du jour was getting a little resty at not being as up close and personal as he would have liked (I was on his back, so this wasn’t possible…)  So don’t even use the phrase.  Please, oh, please, don’t use it.

They do snort.  A lot.  And I know a few horses who have this nifty little trick of wheezing heavily when they’re on the uphill, so that the novice on their back thinks they’re about to croak and doesn’t make them canter.  Clever, very clever.

Also, they do this shakey thing, rather like a Labrador just out of the river, shaking off the water–and when you’re on their back, this jiggles you something chronic.

But finally, if you have questions when you’re writing, if you must write about horses without having any experience of them, for heaven’s sake have an editor or beta reader who is horsey read over your glib and golden phrases…otherwise you end up looking like a…like a…6’2″ chappie on a diddy little ponio…daft.  Completely daft.  (For more on writing horses, there’s here, here and here…)


200 Years Ago ~ the Theatre of War was in Saxony…

I feel as though I’ve abandoned my many faithful readers, recently.  Treating you all to silence where there should have been erudition and wisdom or all sorts of exciting knowledge.  Or something.

I also feel I should be writing.  Seriously writing.  But I’ve not been doing that either.

All I can offer in my defense is fine weather–the likes of which we’ve not experienced for a year.  Hence I’ve been in the garden, removing the jungle of weeds from the flowerbeds…and after all the rain and foul weather, finding numerous gaps where charming perennials used to flourish.  I think it’s safe to say they drowned, bless ’em.  Ay, me.

So, what I shall I tell you about now?  Hmn.

Well, it’s something I should have perhaps mentioned last week, which marked the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Lutzen.

Where, you say?  Lutzen.

It’s in what would now be southern Germany.  But 200 years ago, it was in the kingdom of Saxony.

Also, it wasn’t the first time that Lutzen had been the site of a great battle either.  The first time for that was 1632…but let’s focus on the events of 200 years ago, shall we?

Let me start by bringing you up to date with the action in central Europe.

Europe 1812You’ll recall that following his calamitous invasion of Russia in 1812, Napoleon, having lost some 90% of his army of 500,000 plus men, and all their accoutrements, had scarpered home ahead of the few desperate survivors, and had said, when he reached Paris on December 18th, “I know!  Let’s build a new Grande Armee of 350,000 men!  Isn’t that a clever idea?  It’ll be just the ticket!”

(I’m paraphrasing…)

Napoleon also demanded that the lost equine element of his Grande Armee be replaced, and thus ordered some 175,000 horses be found for it.  However, even with the requisitioning of private horses and farm animals, only 29,000 horses could be found–and this lack would cost the French dear.

But what of the Russians, whose lands he and his armies had defiled?

Well, they had lost a raft of men at Borodino, make no mistake about that.  But they did have the benefit of a home court advantage, so they had withdrawn beyond Moscow and to the south and there, had spent the time recuperating, rebuilding, restoring…

alexander 1814Meanwhile, the Tsar, rather than accept–as Napoleon expected him to–that he had lost (because Napoleon said so, it must be true…), mobilised more forces, used the time for military training, and requisitioning vast quantities of fodder, of wheat, bought muskets and uniforms from Britain, etc.

And, keeping the French rearguard perpetually busy and in a state of some terror as they retreated, the Cossack bands harassed and plagued them across the plains of Russia as they staggered home, across Poland, and into Prussia.

Also, initially behind the Kaiser’s back, the Prussians had broken with France and entered into an alliance with Russia, and had begun to re-arm and on the 17th March, the Prussians declared war on France.  By late April of 1813, the Prussians had an army (not all of the them the greatest thing ever, but what they lacked in military science, they more than made up for in fervour) of some 110,000 men under the command of the fierce General Blucher.

Meanwhile, the Cossacks had kept up their drive to push the French back and back.  And it was they, under the leadership of General Prince Chernyshev, who had pushed the Frogs back across the Oder and then out of the Prussian capital, Berlin, (they were also chucked out of Hamburg) abandoning territory and fortresses like mad and they fled west and south across the Elbe, eventually holing up in and round the city of Magdeburg.

Nor was the main body of  the Russian army idle.  By April 1813, the Tsar had called up even more troops, and had mobilised the army (and their many, many horses) to move west across Lithuania and Poland in order to meet up with their Prussian allies.  Initially, they were still under the command of the veteran Field Marshall Kutuzov, but he died in Bunzlau on the 28th April.  Alexander appointed General Wittgenstein to take his place.

Moreover, the Russians and Prussians were engaged in secret negotiations with the Austrians, urging them to join abandon Napoleon and join them in a new coalition against him.

As the end of April approached, Napoleon was advancing from Erfurt toward Leipzig… (Saxony had been avoided in the past by his armies, therefore to an army which fed off the land, Saxony was an ideal place to be stationed–it was rich and the girls were buxom and pretty…)

Now, you’ll recall what I said about the French army’s lack of horses?  Yes, well, this is where that paucity began to show as it meant that among other things, Napoleon’s forces didn’t have enough mounted men to send them out to either forage or to bring back intelligence about enemy’s troop numbers or positions.  (Awkward, very awkward.)

napo-creepOn the evening of the 1st May, then, Napoleon instructed Marechal Ney to move in and take Lutzen and the villages to the south…his plan was that Ney and his troops would provide cover for the full French advance.  Obviously, he ordered Ney to send out patrols and check out the lay of the land.  Ehem.  Well, that just didn’t happen.

Therefore on the 2nd May, the Allies observed said detachment of French troops under Marechal Ney approaching Lutzen–just north of where the allied line was deployed–and this, to the allies, seemed an ideal opportunity for an ambush and a quick victory over the French.

It would prove a harder fought battle than either side anticipated.  Initially, the strength lay with the allies, who mightily outnumbered the French troops:  the combined Allied forces were some 57,000 troops facing Ney’s 8ooo and the remainder of Ney’s III’d corps.

battle of lutzen2

So…by midmorning, the Russian-Prussian command had those 57,000 troops led by Blucher in place.  And at 11.30:  “Surprise!”

By 12.30, Blucher was ordering the guns to begin pounding the French positions.  The sound of the guns carried to old Ney, who had the shock of his life, one understands.  Napoleon (who was some way off) also heard the guns roaring…

At perhaps half past two, Napoleon therefore arrived on the battlefield with the Young Guard, amidst many shouted “Vivat’s!”  And it was his presence which steadied Ney’s somewhat wobbley III’d division.

His presence does something else too, it shakes Wittgenstein’s nerve–so he doesn’t press home the advantages he has.

Anyway.  It’s a day long hard slog, with French troops fighting the determined Prussians to take, to fall back, to storm and retake and to re-lose the various villages around the place–Klein Gorschen, Rahna, Kaja and Gross Gorschen–in fierce hand to hand fighting, over the stone garden walls…until the bodies were stacked against them.

By four in the afternoon, the main Allied Army complete with the Russian Guard led by Tsar Alexander had arrived on the scene.   But Napoleon was throwing his troops into the fray like mad…

blucherField Marshall Blucher was wounded in the back and had to be removed from the field–he was bleeding so heavily he thought he was dying.  General Scharnhorst also was wounded–fatally as it turned out.  Hence local command fell to Yorck…

By 6.00 in the early evening, Napoleon had got some 80 guns into place to fire at close range into the Allied line, and once that was underway, he himself led the final attack of the Young Guard, giving the order, “La Garde au Feu!”  And at that point, the entire Allied line dissolved and fell back in great disorder.

Now we get to the tricksy part though.  The French had 20,000 casualties.  The Allies, 18,000.  Or according to a separate source, the French lost 19,655, while the Prussians lost some 8500 and the Russians 3500.  But, because the Allies left the field at the end of the day, leaving the French in possession of it, the French claimed Lutzen as a victory–even though they had a greater number of casualties.

Then something else happened, which really shook the French up.  They were, let us say, unprepared for the efficiency and orderliness of the Russian army’s method of retreat.  So, in the morning of the 3rd, when they rose to go pick over the field, foraging for uniforms, teeth from fallen soldiers, saddles on dead horses, boots, muskets, valuables, jewelry…they found nothing.

There were no Allied corpses, no abandoned guns, no forgotten flags, no lost rucksacks full of rations, nothing.  The Russian rearguard had collected everything and had withdrawn with it in perfect order.  And it completely and totally freaked out the French soldiers.  I mean, it gave them the full-on heebie-jeebies.  They didn’t know what to make of it–and in a way, more effectively than anything else that might have happened, it threw them off their stride.  For let’s face it, these guys lived for plunder!

The Allies withdrew further east, to a place called Bautzen, and regrouped.

100_1536Old Papa Blucher didn’t die, but he was kept off a horse for several weeks and made to ride in a carriage, which he didn’t much like.  And even then, he kept, to his surgeon’s dismay, breaking open his wound because he wouldn’t stay still…

And all the while, more Russian troops kept arriving from the east…and more Prussian troops–especially those of the Landwehr–kept at their military training and were sent to the front…

He didn’t know it, still less would he admit it, but it was the beginning of the end for Napoleon…

Gaining a sense of proportion…

Statistics.  A lot of people don’t like them.  A lot of people start to squirm when you bring them up.

Mostly, I think, because stats have his unseemly way of disproving our most favourite and cherished theories about our past.

But I do like statistics.  I like the fact that they don’t have feelings.  They’re not telling us stuff to make us look stupid or to be superior.  Statistics just are.

We’re the ones who put the negative or positive spin on things and therefore either accept that maybe we’d got it a little bit wrong or else, as is more often is the case, someone stomps off in a hissy fit…Indeed, statistics are a prime illustration of Shakespeare’s statement, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

Anyway, ever since I read Andrew Lambert’s fine examination of the War of 1812 in The Challenge, I’ve been weighing up the statistical evidence about that conflict and its relative importance to the rest of the world circa 1812.

(I mean, I’ve heard it called the Second War of American Independence–and this alongside of claims that the Americans won it.  Ehem.)

And  it seems to me that at least part of the problem with understanding the Anglo-American conflict of 1812-1814 or even properly evaluating it, or indeed appreciating why it merits so little attention on the world stage, derives from a failure to appreciate the size and scale of the thing or a lack of context, if you will.

And the only way I know how to clear up this confusion is through a study of the stats.

napo-creepAnd this is where my liking of stats turns to love.  Because, you see, they tell me all sorts of things I want to know.  Scale, for example.  For in this examination of the stats or facts, scale is most important.

Because if one weighs the colonial cousins’ claims of battles won, or casualties, or costs against what else was happening at the same time..well, there’s only one way to describe the situation…they’re utterly dwarfed by the Napoleonic conflict which was raging on the Continent and to which the contretemps with America was only a side-show.  And a tiny one at that.

But I don’t want you to take my word for it.

Let me illustrate what I mean.

Napoleon fought many great battles:  Austerlitz, Jena, Wagram, Borodino, Leipzig, Waterloo.  To name but a handful of the hundreds…(that’s right, hundreds…)

At Austerlitz on 2 December 1806, he and his 50,000 infantry and 15,000 cavalry took on the combined Russian and Austrian armies consisting of some 69,460 infantry and 16,565 cavalry.

Despite the odds against him, he won the day, losing in the neighbourhood of 10,000 troops to the Allies’ 16,000 dead and wounded and 20,000 captured.  (Though some believe the numbers of Russian dead to have been in excess of 21,000.)

Do you see what I mean about the scale of the conflict?  And that’s just one battle, one day’s action.

But let’s look at the year of 1812 itself.

When Napoleon crossed the River Niemen to invade Russia at the end of June 1812, he had some 550,000 troops (perhaps more), over 150,000 horses, and his private baggage train alone contained more than 100 vehicles with all the accoutrements of emperorship he thought he might need–silver, wines, books, posh outfits and uniforms, furniture, cooks with their saucepans, servants, china and crystal…

borodino4At the Battle of Borodino on the 7 September, between the Grand Armee and the Russian forces which faced them, there were some 200,000 men on the field that day.

By evening, the French casualties stood somewhere between 28,000 and 35,000, and the Russians had lost between 38,500 to 58,000 casualties.  (A year later, the corpses of 35, 478 horses were found and buried…)

So many lost and all on one day!  And yes, those numbers are shocking!  Horrifying even.

AlbrechtAdam20Sept1812When he scurried back over the border in December 1812, Napoleon had lost all but some 30,000 survivors, plus all the booty he’d tried to pillage, plus that rather splendid baggage train full of imperial geegaws and only 500 horses or so made it back–and they, bless ’em, were as you will imagine no longer fit for service.

And despite his casual, criminal loss of so many of the finest troops and horses the world had ever seen–some half a million men–despite that, upon his return to Paris in December 1812, he set about raising a new Grand Armee of 350,000 troops.

The number, honestly, beggars belief!  Can you imagine that many troops being marched all over the relatively small area of eastern France on their way to the front which would open up in Saxony in the spring of 1813?

sabres2Now remind me, how many troops did the Americans send up to take Canada during the conflict of 1812?  After an artillery bombardment, General Hull surrendered his 2500 American troops to the British General Brock and his 1300 Anglo-Canadian troops…

I hate to put it this way, but in terms of numbers, those stats put this in the realm of what in the European conflict of the day would be called ‘a skirmish’.  Nothing more.

(Wellington lost 4500 men at the Siege of Badajoz in April 1812, in a space of just over 200 yards and in less than two hours fighting…)

Likewise, the naval battles of this 1812 sideshow (because that’s what it was) tell a similar story.

We think of the great battles of the age:  the Battle of the Nile, the Battle of Copenhagen, the Battle of Trafalgar and what do we see?  Fleets of ships fighting it out, blowing each other to smithereens for the supremacy of the seas.

aboukirbay2The Battle of the Nile saw 13 British ships of the line plus 2 other smaller vessels take on 13 French ships of the line, plus 4 frigates of which, by the battle’s end, only 2 ships of the line and 2 others escaped.

The Battle of Copenhagen saw the British fleet of 12 ships of the line plus six others take on a combined fleet of 24 ships of the line, plus over 11 others.

And the greatest victory, the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson’s signature battle, saw 33 British ships (27 ships of the line plus 6 others) facing and defeating the combined French and Spanish fleets comprised of 41 vessels.

These are victories.  Victories in what was an existential struggle against Napoleonic terror and despotism.

And against the kind of stakes for which the British and their allies were fighting against this Napoleonic military empire, a one-off battle between ill-matched opponents, such as the USS Hornet against the smaller British sloop Peacock just doesn’t merit a look-in.

And if you doubt me, just look at those numbers again.  In all, some 5 to 6 million souls died in Napoleon’s wars of conquest and loss–and that’s not counting the refugee crisis, nor the overall loss of life due to starvation or disease which the presence of such vast armies living off the land caused.  (Frankly, it’s impossible to know how many thousands and thousands of peasants died during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, for example…)

And that’s nearly the entire American population in 1812…

leipzig2So before anyone comes after me to insist on the awesomeness of the firewall at New Orleans, or the brilliance of American ship-building at the time (the French were also building very sea-worthy vessels at the time…) remember I’m going to cite the torching of Smolensk, the bombardment of Vienna, the sieges of Acre, Badajoz and Ciudad Rodrigo, the conflagration of Moscow, the three-day battle of Leipzig…and all those friendly stats that I love so much.

An award of sorts…

Greetings earthlings.

I appear to have won an award of sorts.  Or have been nominated for one.  Or something.

(Yes, yes, as usual, interaction with the rest of the human race is leaving me bemused and slightly dysfunctional…)

Anyway, the deal is this.  I display this logo-ey-thing and tell you some rivetingly interesting stuff about self.  (No, there will be no pictures, not of me anyway…) And then do some other bits and bobs.

very-inspiring-awardSo.  Here we go.  Award logo:

And now the list of things I must do:

1. Display the logo on your blog.  Check.

2. Link back to the person who nominated you.  That kind (and possibly delusional) soul is Anna Belfrage.  (I should add that she’s offered me cake, Red Velvet cake, so I’m kind of partial to her…I’m sure you can see that…)

3. State 7 things about yourself.

4. Nominate 15 other bloggers for the award.

5. Notify your nominees.

So here’s the stating seven things about self.  (Are these meant to be intimate details, I ask myself?  Or things like, “I like broccoli”?  Hmn, tough decision.)

One–The greatest thing I’ve achieved is living and learning to walk again.  Two years ago, I was in hospital with a cornucopia of dread diseases and had no hope of survival.  By late March, I was back home and determined to live and walk again.  And I remember reading on FB people crowing about they’d written 200-million billion words that day, and I’d think, “Yes, but I took ten steps today.  By myself.”

Two–I subsequently learned to ride again.  Which was as hard or harder than the walking bit.  But I have the dearest most wonderful friends, who insisted that I could do this.  One got me on a dear and beloved horse I’ve known for years, and he walked me round and round the paddock.  I didn’t tell him–perhaps I didn’t need to–that my greatest fear was that I couldn’t dismount, having lost all the muscles in my back and shoulders.  It didn’t matter though, he lifted me off as though I weighed nothing and insisted I come again soon.  I owe him and that horse my life.  Without horses, I am nothing.

Other–so wonderful–friends insisted that I could and would hack out again.  So once I’d mastered the rising trot again (took a few months) and the dismounting issue, they took me out on the Downs.  And then there’s Tomtom, (he’s a horse, in case you hadn’t guessed.)  He has, throughout this fight back to life, been my brother, my friend, my greatest supporter, the one who’s said when my body says no, “It’s okay, I’ll carry you…we’ll get there.  Lean on me.”

Three–I don’t read German as well as I wish I did.

Four–I played the Pathetique Sonata by Beethoven when I was 13.

Five–I’m currently playing a lot of music by Einaudi.  It was his Una Mattina (on my iPod) that kept me dreaming, hoping, praying, breathing, and plotting during the months of being in hospital…it kept me praying that I would write another novel with Boy Tirrell in it; every time I hear it, he is conjured up.  So in so many ways, I owe Maestro Einaudi for, if not my life, then the return of my imagination and my literary ambitions.

Six–I really do like broccoli.  And carrots.  (Tomtom likes them more…)  And peas.  And cauliflower.  Love ’em. But I hate, hate, hate broad beans.  And hate more than anything asparagus!

Seven–Coming back to life is a very lonely place.  You lose lots of friends.  And the world you wake up to, the world you’ve fought like stink to be a part of again is rarely as you imagined it was.  But I have had the great gift, the great pleasure, the great kindness of those who have loved my books encouraging me, supporting me (though they didn’t know it) and cherishing me.  Thank you all so very, very much.  Bless you.

Item 4.  I don’t know 15 other bloggers.  Honestly.  But I’ll have a go listing those four I do know and admire–great friends and interesting authors.

Jonathan Hopkins.

Jenni James.

Terry Kroenung.

Piotr Mierzejewski.

5…I’ll just go do that now, shall I?



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.

200 Years Ago Today ~ The Retreat from Moscow

Righto.  So where were we? 

Ah yes.  That’s right.  About a month ago, after traipsing with his Grande Armee of some 500,000 plus men across Europe to Moscow–having lost more than half of them already to famine, dehydration, dysentery and just about anything else you can think of–he’d fought the Battle of Borodino and then, taken the capital of Russia, Moscow

Only that hadn’t worked out quite as planned.  Because the Governor of Moscow, one Count Rostopchin, had made plans to set the place alight if the Frenchies too it.  Which plans had been carried out.  And the place had burned to the ground over a period of four days. 


Right.  So here we are, back in burnt-out Moscow, Napoleon installed at the Kremlin (kinda suits him, don’t you think–he would have loved the KGB!), his remaining troops–some 90,000 of them–reduced to living in the burnt out shells of buildings, scrabbling for food, abusing the remaining Muscovites, stealing, fighting among themselves…and all of them waiting. 

For what?

Well, that’s unclear.  Sort of. 

Napoleon had sent a letter to the Tsar’s mother, burbling about how much he valued his friendship with the Tsar and how he believed that this little contretemps of him being forced to invade Russia was caused by the Tsar having bad advisors and how he really, really, really hadn’t meant for his men to act so savagely in Moscow–that was all Rostopchin’s fault…

So apparently, what he was waiting for was a peace envoy from the Tsar in St. Petersburg saying something along the lines of, “Oh!  Oh!  Changed my mind again.  I really do love you best, Nappy old thing, and I’ll do anything you want so we can be friends again…”

(Ya, like that was going to happen…)

But by the 3rd October, Napoleon was getting a little fractious.  So he insisted his sidekick, Caulaincourt, go on a peace mission to Alexander. 

Caulaincourt refused.  Point blank. 

Plan B was to send another chappie, Lauriston, to see the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian army, General Kutuzov, with a letter to be delivered to the Tsar…

Lauriston went.  Kutuzov played the wily old fox–as ever–and when Lauriston returned to Napoleon on the 6th October, he had good news–Kutuzov would see the Tsar got the letter.  Napoleon (sad, befuddled twit) was jubilant. 

(The letter has never been found…)

So, what sort of jolly larks and japes were the rump (did I say rump? I mean to say remnant…) of the Grande Armee getting up to while they awaited confirmation from the Tsar that they’d won and Russia had lost and they could all be friends again? 


They held a number of spectacular military reviews, with the lines of buffed and polished troops marching perfectly in the great piazza before the Kremlin:  the Infantry of the Old Guard, Roguet’s Division, Compan’s Division, the next day, Gerard’s…on and on and on. 

Napoleon visited the Kremlin churches…The Italian singer, Tarquinio, gave two concerts for the Emperor…there were piano recitals.  The Emperor spent his evenings rewriting the constitution of le Comedie Francaise–the state theatre of France–while on Wednesday, 7 October, the “French Theatre in Moscow” gave its first performance, opening their Moscow run with a three-act comedy called, Le Jeu de l’Amour et de l’Hasard…[the Game of Love and of Risk].

Yet meanwhile, winter threatened. 

(Napoleon believed that the climate of Moscow was like that of Paris.  [Do not say anything!])

By the second week of October, there were frequent snow flurries, though none settled in the street.  The common soldiers (and many of their officers) had lost all sense of discipline and been reduced to lives of savage desperation…stealing, fighting, whoring, raping, pillaging, always in want, always hungry, always cold…and nothing but ashes and rubble about them. 

Daily, detachments of cavalry were sent out of the city to forage for food, only to be harassed by bands of Cossacks and locals.  When (if) they returned late at night, often they would have found nothing for themselves or their horses.  (This according to one officer destroyed the cavalry and artillery horses…)

Eventually, Napoleon caught on though–the Tsar wasn’t playing.  And by the 13th, he was heard to say, “We must hurry.  In eight days we should be in winter quarters.” 

By the 14th, the evacuation of the wounded was being hurried along.  The rank and file still believed they were heading for India.  Reinforcements of cavalry and artillery were sent messages to halt at Smolensk.  Napoleon gave the orders that he would depart the city on Sunday, the 18th.

A flurry, a rage of pillage–pillage on an industrial scale–and at every level, began.  The soldiers stripped the city of anything and all they could find, with Napoleon leading from the front. 

He had robbed Venice and Rome and Malta of their treasures.  Now, he arranged for the great iron cross that graced the tower of the church of Ivan Veliki in the Kremlin to be removed–he planned to carry it back to Paris and mount it atop the dome of Les Invalides where he thought it would look just spiffing…

However…when the cables were fastened to the cross and the engineers began to lower it down, the cable snapped, the scaffolding collapsed, the Sappers fled, and the cross fell–breaking into three pieces as it hit the ground. 

Still…Napoleon had the bits packed up along with all the other holy relics he’d filched and added to his baggage train.

He ordered the remaining buildings–those like the Kremlin and the Arsenal which were still standing and might prove useful to the Russians upon their return–to be mined. 

(What he did not include in those orders was a provision for the horses to be shod with spiked winter-shoes, which would allow them to safely travel uphill and down in snow, sludge and sleet.  His neglect in this is one of the single-greatest contributions to the cataclysm which would overcome his army over the next months.)

Though everything was ostensibly ready for departure on the 18th, Napoleon decided to defer his departure for one more day, determined to spend one more night in the Kremlin.

Finally, on the morning on the 19th October 1812, the vast stream of human beings began to pour out of the city gates in a procession of carriages, carts, pedestrians, horsemen, waggons…hordes of refugees, camp followers…all of them flowing out of the city onto the roads to Kaluga, weighed down by packs stuffed with booty, dragging sledges piled high with pillage, wearing layers and layers of clothing they had stolen from the Muscovite houses or stripped from off the Muscovites themselves… 

It was a bright day, and clear.  And by noon, the Emperor of the French has crossed the Moskva river… 

As Eugene Labaume wrote:  “Those who did not witness the departure of the French army from Moscow, can form but a faint idea of what the Greek and Roman armies, were, when they abandoned the ruins of Troy or of Carthage…The long files of carriages, in three or four ranks, extended for several leagues, loaded with the immense booty, which the soldiers had snatched from the flames, and the Moscovite peasants who were now become our servants resembled the slaves which the ancients dragged in their train.  Others carrying with them their wives and children, or the prostitutes whom they had found at Moscow, represented the warriors amongst the captives had been divided. 

“Afterwards came numerous wagons filled with trophies, among which were Turkish or Persian standards, torn from the vaulted roofs of the palaces of the czars, and, last of all, the celebrated cross of Saint Iwan gloriously closed the rear…

Out of Moscow via the savage scorched-earth Russian landscape and into the brutal jaws of cruellest winter…

Can anyone say Pyrrhic victory?