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MARCH OR DIE
By JOHN TARTTELIN, FINS



Dedicated to JEAN-CLAUDE DAMAMME
Author of « Les Aigles en Hiver »

 

Sergeant Bourgogne’s epic struggle
to escape from Russia in 1812

“ We left behind us an enormous number of dead and dying. Further on it was worse still, as we had to stride over the dead bodies left on the road by the regiments going before us.”*

 

Few events in the whole of human history can compare with the retreat of the Grand Army from Moscow in 1812. To the brutal horrors of war were added the cruelties of what Marshal Ney called ‘General Winter’. 1 Bourgogne recalls these events with a stark, bare prose, for what actually happened to him and his comrades needed no embellishment. Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ is like a fairy tale in comparison, and his Napoleon little more than a caricature of the real French Emperor.

There were military disasters before and after this campaign, for example: Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg in 1863; the defeat of the Swedish King Charles XII at Poltava in 1709 - an earlier ill-fated invasion of Russia; and the loss of the French paratroopers at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. But none of these had such elements of Greek tragedy about them. Clausewitz said that: “in war the simplest thing is difficult”, 2 and Napoleon himself made the remark that from the sublime to the ridiculous is only one step.

That the Emperor over-reached himself there can be no question. Those hastily constructed trestle bridges at the Berezina really did prove to be ‘bridges too far’, but before the campaign began, young French soldiers and others anxious to gain a commission, had been enthusiastic to join what they feared might be Napoleon’s last military venture. He had put all his amazing resourcefulness into preparing for this conflict and every contingency had been provided for. All except the weather.

It very nearly was Napoleon’s last campaign for, after the battle of Malojaroslavetz – which led him to make the fateful decision to return over the same burnt-out desert his man had traversed on their way to Moscow – he decided to go on a reconnaissance in the very early hours of a dank and foggy morning. He was almost immediately surrounded by 6,000 of Platoff’s Cossacks and, but for the immense bravery of his personal staff and the timely arrival of Bourgogne and a contingent of the Imperial Guard, he would either have been killed or captured. 3

Napoleon – Vereshchagin

At Dresden in May 1812, he had been at the apogee of imperial power. As his Army died of cold and starvation amidst the Russian wastes, did Napoleon realize that his days were numbered? He literally left his cavalry behind – for 60,000 horses died in Russia. Some 10,000 died in one night in a freezing downpour in July! Many more of the unfortunate animals were eaten by their former riders, or by the snow-blind infantry stumbling along behind the cavalry and artillery. And that was before the cannibalism began.

Of all the memoirs of this period, Bourgogne’s is the best.

Sergeant Bourgogne had a soul of iron, not just a constitution made from it. He had his own conception of la gloire: “I felt that the greater the danger and suffering, the greater the glory and honour…” 4 Here is what it meant to be a member of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard. These were men forged by hardship, tempered with courage and tested by fire: Napoleon could not have achieved the things he did without them. And the campaign of 1812 tested their mettle to breaking point. In agonizing and harrowing detail, Bourgogne tells how the whole Grand Army was tested to destruction.

Bourgogne’s story touches the common humanity amongst us all. It shows a modern world, where people wallow in physical laziness and vapid conspicuous consumption, just what it takes to make a real hero. When a man’s in a tight spot his greatest need is to be able to draw on his own inner well of strength and fortitude. Bourgogne’s well was very deep. When he had absolutely nothing and was freezing and starving to death – he had himself. The pride and honour of France were encapsulated in his indomitable spirit and physical toughness. Admiration for such qualities extends across continents and through time. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle states: “There is no better writing and no easier reading, than the records of these men of action.” 5 And as an Englishman, he speculated on ‘what might have been’, had Napoleon’s army managed to cross La Manche and tuck Britain up its sleeve.

“A Briton cannot help asking himself, as he realizes what men these were, what would have happened if 150,000 Coignets and Bourgognes, with Marbots to lead them, and the great captain of all time in the prime of his vigour at their head, had made their landing in Kent.” 6

The answer is elementary my dear Doyle.

Murat, who was not as bright as the buttons on his uniform, was in charge of the advance guard of the Grand Army that was based at Winkovo to the south of Moscow. Lulled into a false sense of security by the Russians, his forces were suddenly attacked, sustaining a large number of casualties. When Napoleon heard of this he realized that the game was up. Tsar Alexander was never going to make peace. And the retreat began.

Bourgogne says that: “I cannot possibly describe all the sufferings, anguish, and scenes of desolation I had seen and passed through, nor those which I was fated still to see and endure; they left deep and terrible memories, which I have never forgotten.” 7 His descent into the valley of the shadow of death was a passage into abject terror, a living nightmare that lasted weeks. On many occasions he thought his time had come.

Adrien-Jean-Baptiste-François Bourgogne never expected to see his home at Condé again. Born in 1785, he was already a veteran of Eylau and Essling, having fought Austrians, Prussians, Spaniards and Russians before in the service of his Emperor. His attitude is summed up in the third verse of Roland’s song:

Moscow in flames (Anon. German artist 1820s)

‘Eh! demande où sont les perils
C’est là qu’est aussi la victoire!’

‘Eh! Ask where the dangers are,
That is where victory is too!” 8

When he arrived in Moscow he was proud of the fact that “we of the Imperial Guard had marched more than twelve hundred leagues without resting.” 9 Having survived the firestorms that had greeted the French Army, he rather enjoyed his stay: “On the days off duty we drank, smoked, and laughed, talking of France and the distance separating it from us, and the possibility of being sent still further off.” 10

Those rumours of a possible march to India were premature. In clement weather, from Paris to Moscow by fast horseback courier took around fourteen days. Long before the Army left Moscow, those couriers had been failing to appear. The journey had become fraught with dangers and presaged the Pony Express of America in the 1860s. Instead of Indians, there were Cossacks and furious peasants. The fact that the mail no longer got through was, in effect, the writing on the wall. The summer was long since over and all the Emperor’s horses would soon be falling like autumn leaves.

Napoleon at the Battle of Borodino -Vereshchagin

One of the first gruesome sights that met the retreating warriors was the battlefield at Borodino, with its hundreds of rotting corpses. 11 This did not do wonders for morale. Many arms and legs had been eaten away by wild animals. An incredible story came to Bourgogne’s attention. A French Grenadier, whose legs had been blown off during the battle, had kept himself alive by sheltering inside a dead horse. The flesh of the poor beast had sustained him along with blood-stained water from a nearby stream. 12

The very next night of October 29 th-30 th, the first snow fell. Bourgogne’s star must have been shining, because he acquired a bearskin coat that was to save his life on many future occasions when other unfortunates froze to death all around him. There were many far worse off than he. 13

That same day a Portuguese officer sidled up to the fire at which Bourgogne was warming himself. He was escorting several hundred Russian prisoners: “They had no food, and were reduced to eating each other. Literally, when one of them died, he was cut up and divided between them, and afterwards eaten.” 14

For several days Bourgogne himself had had only horseflesh to eat. The food carted from Moscow by the fleeing troops had all been used up. He adds: “with the cold weather, our real miseries began.” 15 It distressed even the veterans when they had to start leaving their sick and wounded behind to the tender mercies of their Russian pursuers. As the snow deepened, the going got ever harder.

By November 5th soldiers were constantly falling by the wayside. Bourgogne tells of the superhuman efforts they had made thus far in the hope of reaching Smolensk. That day a baby was born to the cantinière Madame Dubois: “in the midst of the falling snow, with twenty degrees of frost, i.e., about ten below zero, she was delivered of a fine boy…” 16 The poor child lasted only a few days. “That same night our men killed a white bear, which was eaten at once. After spending a miserable night, on account of the fearful cold, we set out again.” 17

November 6 th brought dense fog and a punishing frost: “Our lips were frozen, our brains too; the whole atmosphere was icy. There was a fearful wind, and the snow fell in enormous flakes.” 18 A passing horseman turned out to be a General searching for Napoleon to tell him of the Malet conspiracy in distant Paris. 19

With the Cossacks picking off the stragglers, the shattered Grand Army had to be constantly on the march. There was not even time to light a fire and cook a proper meal. The menu was simple – horsemeat. Many men made do with bleeding the horses. It was so cold that the animals barely noticed. Soon Bourgogne and his comrades resembled vampires: “The blood was caught in a saucepan, cooked, and eaten…The saucepan was carried with us, and each man, as he marched, dipped his hands in and took what he wanted; his face in consequence became smeared with blood.” 20

Haggard soldiers with hollow eyes and sunken cheeks, their uniforms in tatters, dressed in anything they could lay their hands on in a futile effort to stay warm, dragged themselves along, their beards bristling with icicles of blood. The conditions became so dreadful that even the bond of friendship between old comrades broke down. Men began killing each other for morsels of food. Frosts became so hard that even with an axe it was impossible to chop up the carcass of a horse for meat. Not having slept properly for days, the refugees grew ever weaker.

Cossacks – Repin (a romanticized view)

If things weren’t bad enough, they got even worse at the posting station in Gara. Over seven hundred men had crammed themselves inside the long barn-like building when fire broke out in two places within. Fortunately for Bourgogne there had been no room for him inside. Instead, he bore witness to the tragedy that followed: “Then cries and shrieks of rage were heard, the fire became a vast tossing mass, through the convulsive efforts of the poor wretches to escape. It was the picture of hell.” 21

Bourgogne managed to save a handful of men, but other outsiders, half-crazed with cold and starvation, rushed towards the building crying “What a beautiful fire!” 22 He later heard that roasted bodies were dragged out and eaten by Croats. Bourgogne added ruefully: “failing a man to eat, we would have demolished the devil himself, if he were only cooked.” 23 Nevertheless, he personally eschewed such horrific human sustenance.

Despite all the misery, Bourgogne also relates a tale of extreme devotion. Just before he got to Smolensk there was a terrible snowstorm with twenty-seven degrees of frost. Anyone caught in the open stood no chance of survival. Yet that was the situation faced by the twenty-year-old prince Émile of Hesse-Cassel. With him were several hundred of his men. All night, blasted by a screaming wind, they surrounded him, protecting him from the arctic cold. As the hours went by, they died off like the rings of an onion: “The next morning three-quarters of them were dead and buried beneath the snow, along with ten thousand others from different corps.” 24

When Bourgogne staggered into Smolensk he was met by utter chaos. At one stage, Napoleon had considered staying there for the winter, but the few food stores left in the burnt-out city were soon devoured by desperate men. An old Chasseur said to Bourgogne: “I have been in Egypt, and, by God! it was nothing compared with this.” 25 He was lucky enough to find his friend Grangier who gave him a piece of cooked beef – his first proper meal in twenty-three days.

Beyond Smolensk, 90,000 Russians were barring the path at Krasnoi. It looked like the Grand Army was doomed: “But the Emperor wished to show them it was not quite so easy as they imagined: for although we were most wretched, and dying of cold and hunger, we still preserved two things – courage and honour.” 26

Battle commenced at two o’clock in the morning. The French moved forward through deep snow in three columns and charged with their bayonets at the ready. Passing through the Russian camp, making great slaughter, they reached the village of Krasnoi itself. A murderous hand-to-hand conflict ensued with spectral shadows flickering in the lurid flames cast by burning huts. 27

A second fight occurred on November 17 th. As the French got into order of battle, Bourgogne was detailed to be the guide général at the right of the line. He stood for over an hour holding the butt-end of his musket in the air as the bullets whistled all around him. 28 A few thousand men of the Grand Army faced 50,000 Russians and they had to withdraw. Passing Krasnoi by another route, the survivors were mortified when they had to leave the wounded behind: “to a savage and brutal enemy, who stripped and robbed these unfortunates without pity for their wounds or their condition.” 29

On the way to Orsha, Bourgogne saw Napoleon himself on foot, walking with the aid of a stick. Once there, he noticed the boats of a pontoon train being burnt so that the extra horses could be used to pull the remaining guns. This calamitous decision almost sealed the fate of the Army. By now, of some thirty-five thousand former men of the Guard, barely seven thousand were left with the colours. 30

Fighting in the snow - Vereshchagin


Napoleon on the Retreat - Vereshshagin

Spirits lifted however, when news came that Marshal Ney had arrived with the remnants of the rearguard. He had long since been given up for dead: “The Emperor’s joy was unbounded when he heard that the Marshal was safe.” 31 Napoleon had said that he would have given all the gold in the Tuileries vaults just to see him again. Strange it is to relate then, that less than two years later, Ney would betray his Emperor when the Allies closed in on Paris.

The power of Napoleon’s own magnetism was undimmed. He had heard that the Russians were waiting at the Berezina. Gathering the Grenadiers and Chasseurs around him, he drew his sword and raised his voice: “Let us all swear to die fighting than not see our country again!” Cries of ‘Vive l’Empereur’ rose majestically into the frozen air: “It was a splendid moment, and for a time made us forget our miseries.” 32

At that time of the year, it was dark by four o’clock in the afternoon and the exhausted men were reduced to calling out for their corps to bivouac alongside at the day’s end, not for their once proud regiments. The thought of his dead friends plagued Bourgogne and his depression deepened. Then he got left behind. 33

The North wind was howling and all his comrades had disappeared: “Soon I was alone, with only the dead bodies along the road to guide me.” 34 A sixth sense made him pause and turn his bearskin coat inside out so that the fur was closest to his skin. This helped him survive but, even so, he stumbled as sleep threatened to overwhelm him. To sleep was certain death.

He had been through so much and his physical weakness meant that he was close to collapse. Now came his noche triste, what the Spanish call a night of tears: “In this immense country and the awful silence I was alone, a prey to the most gloomy thoughts – of my comrades from whom I was separated, my country, my relations – and I began to cry like a child. The tears relieved me, and gradually my courage came back.” 35

Then, as if by a miracle, he fell down a steep embankment and he found, sheltering in a wagon at the bottom, his old friend Picart. He had not seen him since Napoleon reviewed the Imperial Guard on the eve of the departure from Moscow. Picart had been sent on ahead on escort duty and was in reasonable physical shape. He was also one of the best marksmen in the whole Army. For Bourgogne, came the hour, came the man. 36

Cossack horsemen – Kozacy

Bourgogne told Picart the appalling news. Of 40,000 cavalry, only 1,000 were left, formed into a Doomed Squadron led by a General in which the ‘private’ soldiers were all officers, itself part of a similar Doomed Battalion. Picart was stunned and berated Napoleon: “He is a regular fool of a conscript to have waited so long in Moscow…to stay there thirty-four days just waiting for winter to come on! I call that folly.” 37

Picart had a treasure beyond compare – a saucepan, and he gave Bourgogne a cooked meal: “I do not think I ever enjoyed, or ever shall enjoy, anything so much.” 38 Together, the comrades headed for the Berezina, Russian cavalry all around them. In an encounter with Cossacks they came off best and captured a horse into the bargain. Picart became the ‘advance guard’ sitting at the front of the horse and Bourgogne, facing backwards, was the ‘rearguard’. They dismounted and hid in the trees when 200 half-naked French prisoners and their escort approached. 39

The ‘Russian’ officer turned out to be a Frenchman who, after twenty years in Russia, longed to return to France. They overheard him talk to a prisoner: “I know quite well you have not been conquered by force of arms, but by this unendurable Russian climate.” 40 The ‘Russian’ also said that Napoleon had been captured along with all his Guard. This devastating news upset Picart but, in the end, he refused to believe it and said to Bourgogne: “Cheer up, mon pays… if we are lucky enough to find the Emperor, it will be all right.” 41 Bourgogne adds: “Picart, along with all the veterans, who idolised the Emperor, thought that once with him everything was bound to succeed, and that, in fact, nothing was impossible.” 42

Saint Peter might have denied his lord, but now he was ready to die for him again.

They were hopelessly lost in dense forest when Picart noticed two women in the distance, so they decided to follow them. One must have been lady luck, for they were led to the door of a very welcoming Polish family. When they told an old peasant man they were members of Napoleon’s Guard: “At that name the Pole bowed, and would have kissed our feet.” Great care and attention was lavished on the pair, food was brought to them and their wounds were bathed. 43

Wanting to reward their host, Bourgogne recalled a portmanteau that was attached to the captured Cossack horse. Amongst the contents was a commander’s cross with Napoleon’s portrait upon it. The old peasant eyed it greedily and duly received it as a gift: “I cannot describe his pleasure. He pressed it several times to his lips and heart,” and obviously, only death would subsequently part him from it. 44

So it was that, in the depths of the Lithuanian forest, miles from anywhere, and hundreds of miles from France, they came across a simple peasant whose adoration for the Emperor equalled their own. This demonstrates vividly, the colossal impact Napoleon had upon the whole of Europe, including the most distant, far-flung, and isolated parts.

A Jewish guide, known to the family, then took them towards the Berezina, where the sound of cannon fire could already be heard. Ironically, they were now ahead of the remnants of the main Army and, waiting by the high road, they saw Napoleon himself approaching. The state of the survivors shocked Picart, who had not seen the Grand Army for a month, and he shed tears openly: “It breaks my heart to see our Emperor on foot, a stick in his hand. He, so great, who made us all so proud of him!” Picart added: “Did you see the way he looked at us?” 45

Bourgogne wrote: “The Emperor had turned his head towards us as he passed. He looked at us as he always looked at the men of his Guard when he met them alone. He seemed, in this hour of misfortune, to inspire us by his glance with confidence.” 46

Many of the refugees stumbling along the road had lost fingers and toes to the frosts. Their eyes were red, their faces blackened, from having been too close to the windblown campfires. Dressed in rags and tatters, they had burnt cloaks and coats and only sheepskin wrapped around their frozen feet.

Having rejoined his regiment, Bourgogne saw the pontonniers up to their necks in the icy waters of the Berezina, valiantly building two trestle bridges. 47 He had developed a fever and, but for the help of his comrades, he would probably have been left behind and taken prisoner. As Oudinot’s men crossed to the far side to secure the bridgehead, Victor’s corps kept the Russians at bay to the rear. At seven o’clock on the morning of November 28 th, although still ill, Bourgogne slipped across the river alone. Thousands of others, exhausted and reluctant to abandon their fires, stayed behind only to fall into the clutches of the enemy. 48

It might be assumed that by now everyone would be cursing Napoleon for being responsible for all this misery. Yet, when some Grenadiers went around the bivouacs asking for wood for him: “Everyone willingly gave the best they had. Even dying men raised their heads to say, ‘Take what you can for the Emperor.’ ” Was there ever such devotion as this? 49

When the Russians shelled the bridges, pandemonium broke loose amongst the hundreds of stragglers. As a body, they rushed towards the bridges and chaos ensued. Men, woman and children, fought each other as they clawed their way to the opposite bank. When Marshal Victor retreated: “He and his men had to cross the bridge over a perfect mountain of corpses.” 50

Crossing the Berezina – Suchodolski (1866)

Still in a fever, Bourgogne continued on his way, the Russians following the fleeing Army on either side of the road. Meeting some officers in charge of a hundred men of all nationalities up ahead, he soon realized that no one knew the right route to take. When this became known amongst the ranks, many men wept like children. Soon after, his shelter blown away by a ferocious gale, Bourgogne had to walk around all night to stop himself from freezing. 51

He then reached Molodechno on the way to Vilna: “I heard later that it was from this place that the Emperor despatched his twenty-ninth bulletin (*), which caused such a sensation in France, announcing the destruction of our army.” 52

Anyone who was unable to walk faced certain death, but even those well enough to travel had no idea where they were going. Bourgogne followed 10,000 men who were plodding along, many so close to death that they no longer cared about anything.

When Bourgogne arrived at Smorgoni on December 6 th, he heard that Napoleon had left for Paris the evening before. He states that many foreigners then began criticizing the Emperor, but: “owing to Malet’s conspiracy, his presence was necessary in France, not only for the administration, but to organize a new army.” 53 He put the trouble down to surprisingly well-dressed and hearty men who suddenly appeared amongst the stragglers. Bourgogne even wondered if they were English agents sent to cause trouble. 54

General Wilson, the English officer, was attached to Kutusov’s army at that time, and English gold had certainly been behind many of the earlier wars between Russia and France. Even today, many so-called ‘historians’ from Britain continue to castigate Napoleon for ‘abandoning’ his Army in 1812, seeking to blacken his reputation in any way they can. In fact, all the senior French officers supported his decision to return to Paris and, on Bourgogne’s testimony, even the rank and file understood the reasons behind it.

Although it seems hard to believe, for poor Bourgogne, the weather got even worse. On the road to Vilna he says: “I should call the efforts we made superhuman. This terrible cold was more than I had ever felt before. I was almost fainting, and we seemed to walk through an atmosphere of ice.” 55 The anarchy in Vilna was virtually indescribable as some 50,000 famished wraiths descended upon the place, banging on every door in the hope of finding food. 56

To Bourgogne’s immense joy, he bumped into Picart again, better still, his old comrade had some freshly baked bread: “For fifty days I had not tasted any, and it seemed that if only I could eat a little I should forget all my miseries.” 57 An alarm sounded and, after driving off some Cossacks from the outskirts of town, they became separated again.

King Murat was supposed to have held Vilna and reorganised the troops there, but he lacked what Napoleon called two o’clock in the morning courage. When he left for Kowno with his bodyguard, Picart amongst them, everyone else tried to follow his example. By now Bourgogne was in a desperate state. Not only was his right foot frozen, he had an open wound, the middle fingertip of his right hand was at the point of dropping off, and he had colic, having been poisoned by a Jew who coveted his possessions. 58

A crowd of 10,000 fought to get out of Vilna, Bourgogne amongst them. Soon, he found himself being left behind. Only Marshal Ney’s rearguard of 300 men prevented everyone from being captured by Cossacks. Bourgogne pays him tribute: “I shall never forget the Marshal’s commanding air at this moment, his splendid attitude towards the enemy, and the confidence with which he inspired the unhappy sick and wounded around him. In this moment he was like one of the heroes of old times. In these last days of this disastrous retreat he was the saviour of the remnants of the army.” 59

Ney on the Retreat – Yvon

Almost killed by a Cossack, Bourgogne climbed Ponari hill where abandoned wagons full of Army gold, were being ransacked by Cossack and Frenchman alike. 60 Had he not rejoined Grangier and his comrades, he would have been just another body in the snow. Every road now resembled a battlefield.

“At last we reached Kowno,” he says, and “we heard at intervals the sound of artillery, which seemed to us like the expiring sigh of our army.” 61 In one night, 1,500 men froze to death after getting drunk. They were so weak that just a small amount of brandy caused intoxication. When he got to the Niemen and the Russian border, Bourgogne found himself to be one of only 60 survivors in his regiment – some 2,000 men had marched into Russia five months before. 62

Further hardship awaited him in Prussia, yet he had already been marching for sixty days. In temperatures way below zero, with little food, never more than two or three hours’ sleep a night, and under constant pressure and attack from Cossacks and the Russian army, he had doggedly kept going. His achievement was incredible, his will to survive inviolable and his fortitude indomitable.

“One day, perhaps – who knows? - my memoirs, although badly written, will interest those who read them. The great genius is no more, but his name will live for ever.” 63

So will yours Bourgogne, so will yours. En avant, marche!

 

©John Tarttelin, FINS

 


Notes

* SERGEANT BOURGOGNE: THE RETREAT FROM MOSCOW The Folio Society (1985) p.57
1. FELIX MARKHAM: NAPOLEON (1963) p.197 Marshal Ney in a letter to his wife Aglae.
2. KEVIN.J. DOUGHERTY et al, BATTLES OF THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR 1861-1865 P.143
3. Markham op.cit., p.195. “On October 24 he found the way barred by the Russians at Malojaroslavets, and in a desperate day’s fighting, in which Eugene’s Italian corps distinguished themselves, he lost five thousand casualties.” Bourgogne op.cit., p.49. “I remember that, just after this incident, the Emperor was talking to Murat, laughing at his narrow escape from being captured.”
4. Bourgogne Ibid., p.98
5 SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE; THROUGH THE MAGIC DOOR See: books.google.com/books?isbn=1426415796 (2007) p.80
6. Ibid., as above.
7. Bourgogne op.cit., p.141
8. Ibid., p.13. Third verse of Roland à Roncevaux Words and music by Rouget de L’Isle.
9. Ibid., p.18. One league equals three miles.
10. Ibid., p.45
11. Markham op.cit., p.193 “The main French attack started at dawn on September 7, and by the end of the day the Russian positions had been captured, but the Russian Army had not been broken; only seven hundred prisoners were taken. On the same page he quotes Clausewitz, who, in his 1812 account wrote, ‘Kutuzov, it is certain, would not have fought at Borodino when he obviously did not expect to win. But the voice of the Court, of the Army, of all Russia forced his hand.’
12. Bourgogne op.cit., p.50. He heard this story on October 28 th 1812.
13. Markham op.cit., p. 196 states that: “The first snow did not fall until November 5…” In this he is mistaken. He obviously did not read Bourgogne p.50 closely enough!
14. Bourgogne op.cit., p.51
15. Ibid., p.51
16. Ibid., p.54
17. Ibid., p.54. This could not have been a polar bear, of course, but ‘brown’ bears can be any colour from yellow or tan through to black. This does show however, just how wild the forest was through which they were passing. Wolves and bears were very common in Lithuania and Russia. When they were with the Polish family, a pack of wolves repeatedly came up to the door and began howling, even after Picart chased them off with a firebrand.
18. Ibid., p.54
19. Malet was an unbalanced former General who briefly seized power in Paris after declaring that Napoleon had died in Russia. The fact that no one thought to proclaim the King of Rome, Napoleon II, greatly concerned the Emperor.
20. Ibid., p.55
21. Ibid., p.61
22. Ibid., p.61
23. Ibid., p.62
24. Ibid., p.65
25. Ibid., p.70
26. Ibid., p.84
27. Ibid., pp.83-86
28. Ibid., pp.89-90
29. Ibid., p.91
30. Ibid., p.96
31. Ibid., p.96. When Napoleon heard the news, he said Ney was not a man, he was a lion. Bourgogne and his comrades had the pride of lions, an inflexible sense of honour and duty that saw them through this disaster.
32. Ibid., p.98
33. Ibid., pp.98-99
34. Ibid., p.101
35. Ibid., p.103
36. Ibid., pp.108-110. Picart must have been a real character. pp.108-143 deal with Bourgogne and Picarts’ adventures together. A great film could be made of just this small section of Bourgogne’s epic journey.
37. Ibid., p.113
38. Ibid., p.117
39. Ibid., pp.125-126
40. Ibid., p.126
41. Ibid., p.128
42. Ibid., p.128
43. Ibid., p.130
44. Ibid., p.132
45. Ibid., p.142
46. Ibid., p.142
47. Ibid., p.145. The first bridge was finished at two o’clock in the afternoon of November 26 th. The second, for the artillery and cavalry, at four o’clock. “These brave men sacrificed their lives to save the army. One of my friends told me as a fact that he had seen the Emperor himself handing wine to them.” General Eblé was in charge of this operation.
48. Ibid., pp.148-151. The scene at the crossing was so awful that even Bourgogne, despite all the horrors he had so far witnessed, had to turn away.
49. Ibid., p.150
50. Ibid., p.151
51. Ibid., p.158
52. Ibid., p.158
53. Ibid., p.159
54. Ibid., p.159
55. Ibid., p.161
56. Ibid., p.162
57. Ibid., p.162
58. Ibid., p.163. Earlier, a Jew saved Bourgogne and Picarts’ lives. Here, and later, other Jews tried to poison and steal from the weakened remnants of the Army. As Picart could pass himself off as a Jew and knew their ceremonies, they usually treated him very well.
59. Ibid., p.173
60. Ibid., pp.174-176
61. Ibid., p.189
62. Ibid., p.195
63 Ibid., p.200

 

FINAL NOTE

I have read Bourgogne’s retreat at least six times and on every occasion I have found it utterly absorbing. Why a big film studio hasn’t bought up the rights and filmed this epic yet I have no idea.
We need a modern Abel Gance to do it justice.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • ALBRECT ADAM : NAPOLEON’S ARMY IN RUSSIA (2005)
  • PAUL BRITTEN AUSTIN : 1812 THE MARCH ON MOSCOW (1993)
  • PAUL BRITTEN AUSTIN : 1812 NAPOLEON IN MOSCOW (1995)
  • PAUL BRITTEN AUSTIN : 1812 THE GREAT RETREAT (1996)
  • Ed. JEREMY BLACK : GREAT MILITARY LEADERS AND THEIR CAMPAIGNS (2008)
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