I’ve had my fill of heroics! We’ve done far too much already for glory.
–Napoleon, following the Battle of Maloyaroslavets
Immediately south of Moscow the road to Kaluga split, with an eastern branch (known as the Old Road) passing through Tarutino, and a western (the New Road) passing through Maloyaroslavets. Seeking to avenge the attack on his vanguard, Napoleon originally chose the Old Road with plans to defeat Kutusov on the same field from which Murat had been driven at Tarutino. Some thirty miles from Moscow, however, he suddenly changed his mind and, dividing the army into three columns, started across country for the New Road. No sooner had the heads of the columns left the highway than the sky clouded over and loosed torrents of rain, turning the otherwise passable fields into a quagmire and slowing the army’s progress to a crawl. Even so, the French maneuver thoroughly baffled Kutusov, who was unable to discover the enemy’s whereabouts for the next two days.
Meanwhile, the Grand Army’s vanguard had reached the village of Maloyaroslavets, where a single bridge spanned the steep banks of the Luzha River. Early on the morning of 24 October a Russian force under Doctorov arrived at Maloyaroslavets to find the bulk of Eugène’s force north of the river and the town itself defended by only two battalions. Quickly moving to the attack, the Russians drove the enemy out of the town but were soon driven back when Eugène counterattacked across the bridge. With the arrival of Russian reinforcements, the contest quickly escalated, and after changing hands four more times the town finally fell to the French in fighting that set a new standard for savagery in a campaign already grown desperate. Having set out to exact revenge for the attack on Murat, Napoleon was about to discover something of the enemy’s own deep vengefulness, and it would come as a nasty surprise.
The shock of recognition arrived early the next morning on the way to the scene of the recent battle. Attended by only a few of his staff, the Emperor was suddenly set upon by a large force of Cossacks raiding deep in the unprotected French rear. Forced to turn at bay against impossible odds, Napoleon escaped capture only by reason of the Cossack’s greater greed for plunder. Later, the crisis passed, he rode on to Maloyaroslavets, where the previous day’s fighting had left the town a smoldering ruin in which screaming wounded were still being dragged from the rubble. Coming hard upon his near-capture by the Cossacks, the scene left him badly shaken, and that afternoon he returned to his headquarters near Borovsk and took the unusual step of consulting his marshals. He was not the same man who had left Moscow six days earlier spoiling for a fight, and his behavior during the meeting showed it. Predictably, Murat argued for an immediate advance upon Kutusov, whose defeat would leave the French free to return to Poland unimpeded, to which Napoleon responded with a most un-Napoleonic rebuke: “I’ve had my fill of heroics! We’ve done far too much already for glory. The time has come now for us to turn all our thoughts to saving the remains of the army.” The statement clearly endorsed a second argument, put forward by Bessières, for a rapid withdrawal in the direction of Mozhaisk, through which ran the main road from Moscow to Smolensk. In defending this course of action, Bessieres spoke the word all seemed to be trying to avoid, and which even Napoleon now approved by his silence: retreat.
To this plan, however, Marshal Davout was deeply opposed. The army’s initial advance had left the main road to Smolensk a virtual desert, he argued, barren of all that might sustain it on the return march, whereas some two miles south of Maloyaroslavets lay a road running west through untrammeled, fertile country to Medyn and thence to Elnya and Smolensk. By seizing the road and following it west, he urged, the army might better sustain itself and maintain the psychological advantage. Once again, as at Borodino, Davout offered wise and promising advice (as it happened, Kutusov’s withdrawal following the encounter with Eugène had already uncovered the road in question.) Yet once again Napoleon rejected the counsel of his ablest lieutenant, starting the army north toward Mozhaisk.
Meanwhile, giving in to mounting anxiety over the existence of a narrow defile in his rear, Kutusov had also decided to retreat, sending his troops south toward Kaluga along a highly precarious route. Ironically, had Napoleon chosen to advance as far as the Medyn Road as Davout had urged, he would have discovered the entire Russian army straddling a lone bridge across a deep ravine, and utterly vulnerable to attack. As it happened, however, both commanders despaired of success, and instead of converging, the two armies turned their backs on each other and marched away. For the French, the chance to deal the enemy a crippling blow would not come again, and the lost opportunity at Maloyaroslavets would mark a dramatic turning point in French fortunes. For the previous fifteen years, Napoleon’s instincts for offensive warfare had led to unprecedented success on the battlefield, and with a gambler’s superstition, he had come to attribute his long string of victories to a lucky star. Now, when that star might have shined once more, he chose to retreat, thereby calling down upon himself the series of reverses whose onset he had foreseen with such paralyzing dread during the long delay in Moscow.
From Mozhaisk, the Grand Army raced westward, reaching Vyazma on the last day of October. By this time, emboldened by the enemy’s headlong flight, Kutusov had wheeled his army about in pursuit, advancing on Vyazma from the south while his cavalry hounded the French rearguard and sowed panic in the hordes of stragglers that trailed along in the army’s wake. Thus began a long, deadly struggle in which the Russian infantry posed a constant danger, threatening to isolate and destroy individual French corps as they advanced in single file along the main road, while Cossacks and regular cavalry swarmed about on all sides. At Vyazma the quick defensive actions of the marshals dissuaded Kutusov from risking a major engagement, and throughout the weeks to come the aging Russian commander would miss many opportunities for a decisive battle. But in the end, the tactic of dogged pursuit and constant, opportunistic skirmishing would prove devastating, making the French pay in retreat for every mile they had conquered so brazenly during their advance. And an even greater terror than the Russian army was yet to come.
On 4 November a heavy snowfall transformed the landscape, compounding the difficulties of the march and bringing a new dimension of desperation and suffering to the retreating hordes. Now the full horrors of the French predicament began to take shape as hundreds of heavily-laden wagons bogged down and had to be abandoned because their smooth-shod teams could no longer pull them on ice-covered roads. With the disintegration of its supply train, the army’s organization and discipline began to fall apart, as growing numbers of combatants left the ranks to join hordes of stragglers in a desperate scramble to retrieve whatever supplies could be had from the abandoned wagons. Horses too weak or injured to be of further service were quickly and crudely butchered, to be roasted over fires made out of the wagons themselves. Thus the army fed upon itself and with every passing mile grew leaner and more desperate. Increasingly driven by hunger to scour the surrounding countryside in search of food, growing numbers of foragers fell victim to Cossacks and Russian guerillas, who wreaked terrible vengeance.
The dangers of separation from the main army were revealed on a large scale some fifty miles east of Smolensk at the village of Dorogobuzh, where Prince Eugène’s Army of Italy was ordered north in the direction of Vitebsk. No sooner had they left the main road, however, than Eugène’s isolated troops found themselves assailed on all sides by enemy horsemen and, coming upon the half-frozen Vop River, were forced to cross in water up to their chests, losing a large part of their train in the process. That night, seeking shelter in a small village, many froze to death while others were burned alive when the houses in which they slept were indiscriminately set afire by their own comrades in search of warmth. Even so, the detachment pressed forward, eventually fighting its way into the town of Dukhovschina, where it found supplies and a moment’s respite. With another eighty miles of open country to go before reaching Vitebsk, however, Eugène abandoned the mission, and instead of pressing forward to the Dwina, led his much-depleted forces south to regain the relative safety of the main road at Smolensk.
Smolensk, with its promise of large stores of supplies, likewise beckoned the rest of the army. Yet when at last the first hordes of survivors reached the city, they found the gates closed against them, and the hope that had sustained them on their terrible march quickly gave way to new depths of despair and outrage. Eventually allowed to enter, they rushed to the army storehouses only to be denied food until they rejoined their regiments, many of which had ceased to exist as recognizable units. Fighting broke out and in the end, hundreds died needlessly, victims of hunger, exhaustion, and the murderous rage of their brothers-in-arms. Already greatly depleted by large numbers of deserters following in the wake of the advance upon Moscow, the stores quickly ran out altogether, and by the time Napoleon reached the city on 9 November the masses of stragglers had overwhelmed all efforts to shelter and supply them. Setting up headquarters in a large house in a central square, the Emperor shut himself inside and did not come out for the next five days.
Once again, as in Moscow, Napoleon seems to have fallen into a strange state of despondency, though in fairness to his leadership, there was little he could do at this stage. Throughout his career, his organizational skills and tireless planning had been predicated on victory and the tendency of victorious armies to sustain themselves at the expense of the conquered. Having little experience of defeat, he had not accounted for its deleterious effects, and in the general erosion of discipline that had accompanied the army’s increasingly dire circumstances, many of the arrangements he had made had not been properly carried out. Now he could only wait as the army closed up and gathered its strength for the next stage of its harrowing journey. On 15 November the march was resumed westward from Smolensk under much the same conditions under which it had arrived, the individual corps–now much reduced in strength–strung out single-file and vulnerable to the enemy’s efforts to isolate and destroy them in detail. At this point, however, renewed contact with the enemy seemed to restore something of Napoleon’s fighting spirit, and in a series of sharp encounters at Krasny, he drove the Russians off and pulled his leading corps together in anticipation of a larger battle. Kutusov once again declined, allowing the bulk of the enemy to pass while he concentrated on trapping the French rearguard under Marshal Ney.
Ney, meanwhile, had originally sought to follow close upon the heels of the rest of the army but was obliged to wait in Smolensk for Davout, who insisted that they depart according to Napoleon’s orders on the 16th. The two marshals quarreled violently on the subject, and in a fit of pique, Ney remained in Smolensk throughout the 16th despite urgent warnings from Davout to close up or be cut off. Not until the next morning did Ney set out, and the following day he approached Krasny to find Kutusov’s entire army squarely across his route. Attempting to break through in a frontal assault, he was thrown back in fierce fighting and withdrew eastward, hopelessly separated from the rest of the army, and seemingly doomed. That night he led his force along a small stream to the banks of the Dnieper, where a thin neck of ice stretched to the opposite shore. It was his only hope. Too thin to sustain guns or wagons, the ice was scarcely sufficient to hold men walking in single file, and during the crossing, many broke through and were drowned. Now without horses, vehicles, or supplies of any kind, Ney’s beleaguered force struggled up the river’s far bank and groped their way through the darkness. Fortunately, the north bank of the river had not yet been despoiled, and a number of villages yielded food and shelter for the night. The next morning, however, the widely scattered French troops awoke to find themselves surrounded by Cossacks. Soon under constant attack, they fought a running battle along the riverbank, falling back in small groups through woods and villages, using large bodies of stragglers as protective shields.
Meanwhile, the rest of the army reached Orsha, where a garrison force awaited them with large stores of provisions. For several days the hordes of gaunt, thickly-bearded figures that had once been the Grand Army received regular food and shelter, and a semblance of military order was reestablished. Anxiety over the fate of the rear guard clouded any sense of solace, however, and when Marshal Ney and his men failed to appear after three days, they were given up for lost. Then, on the evening of the fourth day, a Polish officer who had managed to slip through the Russian lines arrived with news of the escape and the near approach of Ney’s force. Quickly assembling a contingent of troops, Eugène marched out to meet and bring them in, finding the battered survivors several miles to the east. Of a total of some 6,000 (half of which were unarmed stragglers), only 900 remained, yet word of the miraculous escape swept through the army with electric effect; the hero of Elchingen and nearly every major battle since, fiery, red-headed Marshal Ney had survived!
With this much-needed boost in morale, the army left Orsha in considerably better shape than when it arrived. By this time, however, Russian armies under Wittgenstein and Tshitshagov had assailed both French flanks and were moving to seal off the enemy’s escape. Pressing Schwarzenberg’s Austrians back beyond Brest, Tshitshagov occupied Minsk on 16 November, seizing an immense store of supplies. Upon learning of the loss, Napoleon moved quickly to protect his escape route, ordering Oudinot–who had spent much of the campaign guarding the army’s flank on the Dwina–to secure a key bridge across the Beresina River at Borisov. Meanwhile, Tshitshagov–partly in fear of Schwarzenberg’s advance upon his rear–was already en route to Borisov, which he captured on the 21st. The next day, leaving the bulk of his troops on the west bank of the Beresina, the Russian commander sent his vanguard eastward toward the village of Loshnitsa, where it was surprised and routed by Oudinot’s cavalry. Chased back through Borisov and across the Beresina, the Russians lost valuable supplies and over a thousand prisoners, but managed to cross the bridge and burn it behind them before the French could seize it. The loss would be critical.
Ironically, only a few days earlier, confident that he no longer needed it, Napoleon had ordered his bridging train burned to lessen the army’s load. There was scarcely time to contemplate such cruel twists of fate, however, for he was soon preoccupied with the arrival of Wittgenstein’s army on his right flank. Now, with Kutusov in his rear, Wittgenstein on his flank, and Tshitshagov in front of him, he was faced with the daunting prospect of fighting his way across a major river without pontons in bitter cold and under the very noses of the enemy. As on so many other occasions, however, the presence of danger tended to focus his mind and leave him calm. With his old thoroughness, he set about finding a way out of his predicament. The most immediate challenge devolved upon Oudinot, who was ordered to find a ford north of Borisov, secure a crossing, and build two bridges. To say the least, this would not be easy. In the first place, the river north of Borisov formed a long lake over a hundred yards wide with swampland on both shores. Furthermore, Tshitshagov had spread his forces over a long stretch of the river, ensuring that any effort to establish a bridgehead would be hotly contested. After a careful survey, Oudinot chose a site at Studenka, where the river, though wide, was relatively shallow. Even as he prepared to secure a foothold on the opposite shore, however, a brief thaw sent the river higher and turned the surrounding marshes into a sucking bog of organic muck.
Meanwhile, the army’s leading elements were approaching Borisov, where the relatively fresh troops of the French flank guard–as yet largely unaware of the horrors of the retreat–rushed out to greet their comrades-in-arms. The shock of the encounter nearly unmanned them. Gaunt, hollow-eyed, dressed in all manner of rags, the conquerors of Moscow staggered past like so many ghosts, filling their onlookers with a strange mixture of pity and dread. There were generals and colonels marching alongside common soldiers and scarcely distinguishable from them, all evidence of rank and military order a distant memory. Many of the men who watched them pass were momentarily seized by panic; some of the officers wept upon recognizing old friends and companions. All seemed to realize that they too were about to be swept up in the disaster.
On 25 November French engineers arrived in Studenka on the banks of the ice-choked Beresina and began dismantling much of the village for use in the construction of two bridges. A forge was erected nearby for the production of iron fasteners, and late in the day, efforts to construct a series of trestles was begun under the watchful eyes of a large force of Russians on the opposite shore. At any time the enemy might easily have destroyed the emerging bridge site with a number of well-aimed salvos, yet the Russian commander on the scene held his fire. Unaccustomed to making decisions on his own, he reported the activity in his front and awaited orders from headquarters. With French bridging demonstrations going on at various fords as far south as Ucholodi, Tshitshagov himself was not particularly concerned by such reports, and when both Wittgenstein and Kutusov indicated that Napoleon was preparing to move on Bobruisk, he began shifting his forces southward.
Thus, at first light on the 26th, Oudinot peered across the river to discover the Russian position largely abandoned and the enemy’s dark columns marching away to the south. For the past several days he had been preparing to send his troops across the river and establish a bridgehead against very long odds. Now, just when the Russians were poised to bottle up the army and destroy its one avenue of escape, they were simply marching away. When informed of the news, Napoleon initially refused to believe it, rushing forth in time to see part of the enemy’s rear guard disappearing into the woods. If ever he had reason to believe in a lucky star, it was now.
Shortly after dawn, French engineers waded into the ice-choked stream to begin assembling the first of the bridges, working in shifts against the killing cold. Even so, many grew numb and were carried away in the current. Meanwhile, some fifty Polish lancers, each with a light-infantryman riding behind him, forded the river and made their way across the marsh on the opposite shore (now largely refrozen as a result of falling temperatures). Rafts carried another 300 across, and under cover of artillery, the assault force made its way to dry ground, driving the remaining force of Russians before them. By 1 p.m. the first bridge was completed and Oudinot’s troops began streaming across. Moving quickly to secure the bridgehead, they formed battle lines and advanced southward, where the Russian division that had moved off during the night had since returned and was forming for an attack. Oudinot’s advance caught them before they could complete their formations, however, driving them back upon Bolshoi-Stakhov. Shortly thereafter Napoleon crossed, having yet to decide whether to proceed through Minsk or take a northerly route through Vilna. When it was discovered that the Russians had failed to burn a number of bridges across the Gaina, his choice became clear; he would continue the retreat by way of Vilna.
Soon a second, vehicular bridge was completed at Studenka, and the artillery train started across. Up to this point, everything had been proceeding with remarkable efficiency. By nightfall, however, several trestles of the second bridge had broken under the strain of the traffic, forcing the builders to resume their life-threatening work amid the added danger of darkness. Indeed, for the next twenty-four hours, the exhausted engineers would be continually busy as the bridge broke repeatedly, causing bouts of panic and confusion. Now commanding the army’s rearguard, Marshal Victor moved north from Borisov, leaving a single division under Partenoux to fend off the enemy’s cavalry, clear the town of stragglers, and then proceed to the crossing place. The effort kept Partenoux there until late in the day, at which point Napoleon–hoping to decoy Wittgenstein away from the bridges–sent orders for the isolated division to remain until the next morning. For Partenoux’s men, the orders were to be a virtual death sentence, for by this time Wittgenstein had learned of the crossing at Studenka, and, seeking to cut off the French rearguard, was already marching overland from Kostritsa to Stary-Borisov. Partenoux first received reports that the Russians were across his line of retreat late on the 27th, and immediately formed his troops and attempted to cut his way through. Encumbered by thousands of stragglers and with darkness falling fast, he led his division against the thick of Wittgenstein’s army and was hammered at every turn. Finally, after falling through the ice of a pond, he surrendered (the first and only commander to do so during the entire campaign), leaving the rest of his force to carry on the struggle through the night. Though a single battalion managed to slip past the enemy along a path leading through the swamps at the river’s edge, the rest of the division would be lost.
Meanwhile, having been badly suckered by reports that the enemy was planning to cross well south of Borisov, Tshitshagov moved to redeem his error, sending his divisions forward against the thin lines of Oudinot and Ney at Bolshoi-Stakhov. By this time, however, the bulk of the Grand Army was across the river and the opportunity to catch the enemy in mid-stream had passed. In the ensuing engagement, Oudinot was wounded, but by the end of the day, the Russians were falling back in confusion, their superior numbers having proved unequal to Marshal Ney’s aggressive rearguard tactics. Now the Grand Army’s remaining corps made their way across the bridges under cover of Victor’s troops, who repeatedly fought off Wittgenstein’s efforts to drive them from the bluffs above Studenka.
In the village itself, however, many thousands of stragglers remained. Incapable of orderly movement, the mass of starving wretches could not be made to understand the importance of crossing during lulls in the regular traffic of infantry and cavalry. Thus they clung to the relative safety of Studenka until the sound of Wittgenstein’s guns sent them racing in a collective rush for the bridges, where hundreds were trampled into the mud along the shore. Repelled by the horrors of the stampede, large numbers fell back toward the village and once again could not be moved. At this point, time was running out for them. During the night of the 28th-29th, Victor’s troops descended the heights above the village and made their way across, and by morning the predicament of the remaining stragglers had reached its inevitable crisis. With the passing of the army’s rearguard, the hordes of panicked refugees–women and children among them–once again stormed the approaches to the bridges and in the desperate melee that followed hundreds more were trampled to death or pushed into the frigid water. Ordered to burn the bridges at 7 a.m., the chief of engineers waited until 8:30. Then, with Wittgenstein’s troops pressing hard against the eastern bridgehead, the fires were lit, sealing the fate of as many as 10,000 remaining stragglers, who quickly fell victim to the predations of the enemy.
Despite these horrific losses and the larger calamity of the army’s long retreat from Moscow, the crossing of the Beresina deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest feats in military history. With a force of some 30,000 ill-fed, ill-equipped, and exhausted combatants, the French managed to outmarch, outface, and outwit an opponent whose combined numbers totaled over 100,000. Well-served by his lieutenants (notably Oudinot, Ney, Victor, and the chief of engineers, Eble), Napoleon managed to pull the army together in an all-but-miraculous effort. During the crossing, he had been a ubiquitous presence on both sides of the river, directing the troops, restoring a sense of purpose and order, and inspiring all by his example. And when the Russian commanders might have moved decisively to seal off his escape, the power of his reputation alone made them tentative. In the end, however, there was little he could do against the greater enemy, winter. Though the army’s progress toward Vilna would outpace the Russian pursuit, there was no escaping the deep snows and killing cold that closed down around the ragged French columns. And if the enemy’s regular troops had been left behind, the Cossacks and Russian guerillas had not. Thus, the last leg of its long, harrowing journey would see the army disintegrate still further, as men who had prevailed in battle after battle lost the larger war against hunger, exposure, fatigue, disease, and the constant threat of a hostile population. The Grand Army was dying on its feet.
By 5 December Napoleon had reached Smorgonie, at which point he gathered his marshals together and announced his intention to return to Paris by the fastest means possible. The idea was not a new one; at Studenka, holding out little hope for the crossing, Murat had urged the emperor to slip through the enemy’s trap and escape with the help of a cavalry escort. Napoleon had refused, unwilling to abandon his troops at the moment of their greatest peril. The crisis now passed, however, he determined to return to the capital, where the first indications of the campaign’s larger failure had already spawned a coup attempt. If his regime were to survive the political fallout to come, it was necessary that he be back in the Tuileries before the full extent of the disaster became known. Thus, placing Murat in command in his absence, he left the army and raced westward, speeding across the frozen landscape in an open sledge to Warsaw, where he stopped briefly to arrange for a levy of 10,000 Polish Cossacks and promised to return in the spring with another massive army. From Warsaw, he traveled incognito to Dresden, thence to Mayence, and finally slipped unannounced into the Tuileries on the 18th.
Meanwhile, the remains of the Grand Army staggered on through deep snows and sub-zero temperatures. Reaching Vilna, the survivors of the march quickly pillaged its plentiful supplies, their organization collapsing in a brief spree of drunkenness. In the Emperor’s absence, the marshals showed little inclination to cooperate with each other, and whatever discipline remained was largely confined to the corps level. Clearly not the best choice for army command, Murat–who had been ordered to rally the army in the Lithuanian capital–scarcely paused before pressing on to Kovno, leaving Ney to burn what was left of Vilna’s stores and drive the inevitable stragglers on before him. Kovno would be quickly abandoned as well, for with the Niemen frozen there was little hope of preventing the enemy from crossing the river wherever he liked. In fairness, it is difficult to imagine how Napoleon himself might have halted the retreat, which continued of its own momentum to Konigsberg. From there, Murat led what was left of the army to Danzig before abandoning it and returning to Naples, leaving Eugène with little means to defend the line of the Vistula.
Thus, in a period of fewer than six months an army of over half a million men had been virtually used up and destroyed (to say nothing of the horrific losses on the Russian side), and the campaign that was to extend French power to the threshold of Asia had instead opened the way to an enemy countermarch deep within the French Empire’s former frontier. In the end, of course, responsibility for the disaster lay with Napoleon, who had misread the larger strategic and logistical implications of the campaign. For all of his brilliance as a commander, he had clearly overreached himself, failing to recognize the limits imposed by vast distances and a merciless climate. Even so, once safely back in Paris, he set about enlisting fresh troops in anticipation of another campaign against the Russians and Prussians, seemingly unaffected by the horrors of the retreat. Before him lay a daunting prospect, for the failed campaign had shattered forever his reputation for invincibility, and instead of leading him to India, the long road to Moscow was leading hostile armies toward the heart of his empire.