On October 28, 1812, Napoleon's Grande Armée, retreating, marches again on old battlefield of Borodino. The historian, Adam Zamoyski, writes:
The spirits of the army were further lowered when, shortly after, rejoining the Moscow-Smolensk road at Mozhaisk on 28 October, they found themselves marching across the battlefield of Borodino. It had never been cleared, and the dead had been left where they lay, to be pecked at and chewed by carrion crows, wolves, feral dogs and other creatures. The corpses were nevertheless surprisingly well preserved, presumably by the nightly frosts. "Many of them had kept up with one might call a physiognomy," recorded Adrien de Mailly. "Almost all of them have large open staring eyes, their beards seem to have grown, and the brick-red Prussian blue which marble their cheeks made them look as though they had been horribly sullied or luridly daubed, which made on wonder if this were not some grotesque travesty making fun of misery and death- it was odious!" The stink was indescribable, and the sight cast a pall over the passing.Philippe-Paul de Segur describe the day further:
On the 28th of October we again beheld Mojaisk. That town was still full of wounded; some were carried away and the rest collected together and left, as at Moscow, to the generosity of the Russians. Napoleon had proceeded but a few wersts from that place, when the winter began. Thus, after an obstinate combat, and ten days' marching and countermarching, the army, which had brought from Moscow only fifteen rations of flour per man, had advanced but three days' march in its retreat. It was in want of provisions and overtaken by the winter.
Some men had already sunk under these hardships. In the first days of the retreat, on the 26th of October, carriages, laden with provisions, which the horses could no longer draw, were burned. The order for setting fire to all behind the army then followed; in obedience to it, powder-waggons, the horses of which were already worn out, were blown up together with the houses. But at length, as the enemy had not again shown himself, we seemed to be but once more setting out on a toilsome journey; and Napoleon, on again seeing the well-known road, was recovering his confidence, when, towards evening, a Russian chasseur, who had been made prisoner, was sent to him by Davoust.
At first he questioned him carelessly; but as chance would have it, this Russian had some knowledge of roads, names, and distances. He answered, that "the whole Russian army was marching by Medyn upon Wiazma." The Emperor then became attentive. Did Kutusoff mean to forestall him there, as at Malo-Yaroslawetz, to cut off his retreat upon Smolensk, as he had done that upon Kalouga, and to coop him up in this desert without provisions, without shelter, and in the midst of a general insurrection? His first impulse, however, inclined him to reject this notion; for, whether owing to pride or experience, he was accustomed not to give his adversaries credit for that ability which he should have displayed in their place.
In this instance, however, he had another motive. His security was but affected: for it was evident that the Russian army was taking the Medyn road, the very one which Davoust had recommended for the French army: and Davoust, either from vanity or inadvertence, had not confided this alarming intelligence to his dispatch alone. Napoleon feared its effects on his troops, and therefore affected to disbelieve and to despise it; but at the same time he gave orders that his guard should march next day in all haste, and so long as it should be light, as far as Gjatz. Here he proposed to afford rest and provisions to this flower of his army, to ascertain, so much nearer, the direction of Kutusoff's march, and to be beforehand with him at that point.
But he had not consulted the season, which seemed to avenge the slight. Winter was so near at hand, that a blast of a few minutes was sufficient to bring it on, sharp, biting, intense. We were immediately sensible that it was indigenous to this country, and that we were strangers in it. Every thing was altered: roads, faces, courage: the army became sullen, the march toilsome, and consternation began.
Some leagues from Mojaisk, we had to cross the Kologa. It was but a large rivulet; two trees, the same number of props, and a few planks were sufficient to ensure the passage: but such was the confusion and inattention, that the Emperor was detained there. Several pieces of cannon, which it was attempted to get across by fording, were lost. It seemed as if each corps d'armée was marching separately as if there was no staff, no general order, no common tie, nothing that bound these corps together. In reality the elevation of each of their chiefs rendered them too independent of one another. The Emperor himself had become so exceedingly great, that he was at an immeasurable distance from the details of his army; and Berthier, holding an intermediate place between him and officers, who were all kings, princes, or marshals, was obliged to act with a great deal of caution. He was besides wholly incompetent to the situation.
The Emperor, stopped by the trifling obstacle of a broken bridge, confined himself to a gesture expressive of dissatisfaction and contempt; to which Berthier replied only by a look of resignation. On this particular point he had received no orders from the Emperor: he therefore conceived that he was not to blame; for Berthier was a faithful echo, a mirror, and nothing more. Always ready, clear and distinct, he reflected, he repeated the Emperor, but added nothing, and what Napoleon forgot was forgotten without retrieve.
After passing the Kologa, we marched on, absorbed in thought, when some of us, raising our eyes, uttered an exclamation of horror. Each instantly looked around him, and beheld a plain trampled, bare and devastated, all the trees cut down within a few feet from the surface, and farther off craggy hills, the highest of which appeared to be the most misshapen. It had all the appearance of an extinguished and destroyed volcano. The ground was covered all around with fragments of helmets and cuirasses, broken drums, gun-stocks, tatters of uniforms, and standards dyed with blood.
On this desolate spot lay thirty thousand half-devoured corpses. A number of skeletons, left on the summit of one of the hills, overlooked the whole. It seemed as if death had here fixed his empire; it was that terrible redoubt, the conquest and the grave of Caulaincourt. Presently the cry, "It is the field of the great battle!" formed a long and doleful murmur. The Emperor passed quickly. Nobody stopped. Cold, hunger, and the enemy urged us on: we merely turned our faces as we proceeded to take a last melancholy look at the vast grave of so many companions in arms, uselessly sacrificed, and whom we were obliged to leave behind.
It was here that we had inscribed with the sword and blood one of the most memorable pages of our history. A few relics yet recorded it, and they would soon be swept away. Some day the traveller will pass with indifference over this plain, undistinguished from any other; but when he shall learn that it was the theatre of the great battle, he will turn back, long survey it with inquisitive looks, impress its minutest features on his greedy memory, and doubtless exclaim, What men! what a commander! what a destiny! These were the soldiers, who thirteen years before in the south attempted a passage to the East, through Egypt, and were dashed against its gates. They afterwards conquered Europe, and hither they came by the north to present themselves again before that same Asia, to be again foiled. What then urged them into this roving and adventurous life? They were not barbarians, seeking a more genial climate, more commodious habitations, more enchanting spectacles, greater wealth: on the contrary, they possessed all these advantages, and all possible pleasures; and yet they forsook them, to live without shelter, and without food, to fall daily and in succession, either slain or mutilated. What necessity drove them to this?—Why, what but confidence in a leader hitherto infallible! the ambition to complete a great work gloriously begun! the intoxication of victory, and above all, that insatiable thirst of fame, that powerful instinct, which impels man to seek death, in order to obtain immortality.
While the army was passing this fatal field in grave and silent meditation, one of the victims of that sanguinary day was perceived, it is said, still living, and piercing the air with his groans. It was found by those who ran up to him that he was a French soldier. Both his legs had been broken in the engagement; he had fallen among the dead, where he remained unnoticed. The body of a horse, gutted by a shell, was at first his asylum; afterwards, for fifty days, the muddy water of a ravine, into which he had rolled, and the putrified flesh of the dead, had served for dressing for his wounds and food for the support of his languishing existence. Those who say that they discovered this man affirm that they saved him.
Farther on, we again beheld the great abbey or hospital of Kolotskoi, a sight still more hideous than that of the field of battle. At Borodino all was death, but not without its quiet; there at least the battle was over; at Kolotskoi it was still raging. Death here seemed to be pursuing his victims, who had escaped from the engagement, with the utmost malignity; he penetrated into them by all their senses at once. They were destitute of every thing for repelling his attacks, excepting orders, which it was impossible to execute in these deserts, and which, moreover, issuing from too high and too distant a quarter, passed through too many hands to be executed.
Still, in spite of famine, cold, and the most complete destitution, the devotedness of a few surgeons and a remnant of hope, still supported a great number of wounded in this pestiferous abode. But when they saw the army repass, and that they were about to be left behind, the least infirm crawled to the threshold of the door, lined the way, and extended towards us their supplicating hands.
The Emperor had just given orders that each carriage, of whatever kind it might be, should take up one of these unfortunate creatures, that the weakest should be left, as at Moscow, under the protection of such of the wounded and captive Russian officers as had been recovered by our attentions. He halted to see this order carried into execution, and it was at a fire kindled with his forsaken waggons that he and most of his attendants warmed themselves. Ever since morning a multitude of explosions proclaimed the numerous sacrifices of this kind which it already had been found necessary to make.
During this halt, an atrocious action was witnessed. Several of the wounded had just been placed in the suttlers' carts. These wretches, whose vehicles were overloaded with the plunder of Moscow, murmured at the new burden imposed upon them; but being compelled to admit it, they held their peace. No sooner, however, had the army recommenced its march, than they slackened their pace, dropped behind their columns, and taking advantage of a lonely situation, they threw all the unfortunate men committed to their care into the ditches. One only lived long enough to be picked up by the next carriages that passed: he was a general, and through him this atrocious procedure became known. A shudder of horror spread throughout the column; it reached the Emperor; for the sufferings of the army were not yet so severe and so universal as to stifle pity, and to concentrate all his affections within the bosom of each individual.
In the evening of this long day, as the imperial column approached Gjatz, it was surprised to find Russians quite recently killed on the way. It was remarked, that each of them had his head shattered in the same manner, and that his bloody brains were scattered near him. It was known that two thousand Russian prisoners were marching on before, and that their guard consisted of Spaniards, Portuguese, and Poles. On this discovery, each, according to his disposition, was indignant, approved, or remained indifferent. Around the Emperor these various feelings were mute. Caulaincourt broke out into the exclamation, that "it was an atrocious cruelty. Here was a pretty specimen of the civilization which we were introducing into Russia! What would be the effect of this barbarity on the enemy? Were we not leaving our wounded and a multitude of prisoners at his mercy? Did he want the means of wreaking the most horrible retaliation?"
Napoleon preserved a gloomy silence, but on the ensuing day these murders had ceased. These unfortunate people were then merely left to die of hunger in the enclosures where, at night, they were confined like cattle. This was no doubt a barbarity too; but what could we do? Exchange them? the enemy rejected the proposal. Release them? they would have gone and published the general distress, and, soon joined by others, they would have returned to pursue us. In this mortal warfare, to give them their lives would have been sacrificing our own. We were cruel from necessity. The mischief arose from our having involved ourselves in so dreadful an alternative.
Besides, in their march to the interior of Russia, our soldiers, who had been made prisoners, were not more humanely treated, and there, certainly, imperious necessity was not an excuse.
At length the troops arrived with the night at Gjatz; but this first day of winter had been cruelly occupied. The sight of the field of battle, and of the two forsaken hospitals, the multitude of waggons consigned to the flames, the Russians with their brains blown out, the excessive length of the march, the first severities of winter, all concurred to render it horrible: the retreat became a flight; and
Napoleon, compelled to yield and run away, was a spectacle perfectly novel.
Several of our allies enjoyed it with that inward satisfaction which is felt by inferiors, when they see their chiefs at length thwarted, and obliged in their turn to give way. They indulged that miserable envy that is excited by extraordinary success, which rarely occurs without being abused, and which shocks that equality which is the first want of man. But this malicious joy was soon extinguished and lost in the universal distress.
The wounded pride of Napoleon justified the supposition of such reflections. This was perceived in one of the halts of that day: there, on the rough furrows of a frozen field, strewed with wrecks both Russian and French, he attempted, by the energy of his words, to relieve himself from the weight of the insupportable responsibility of so many disasters. "He had in fact dreaded this war, and he devoted its author to the execration of the whole world. It was —— whom he accused of this; it was that Russian minister, sold to the English, who had fomented it, and the traitor had drawn into it both Alexander and himself."
These words, uttered before two of his generals, were heard with that silence enjoined by old respect, added to that which is due to misfortune. But the Duke of Vicenza, perhaps too impatient, betrayed his indignation by a gesture of anger and incredulity, and, abruptly retiring, put an end to this painful conversation.
Adam Zamoyski, Moscow 1812. Napoleon’s Fatal March, (New York 2004) at pages 379.
Defeat: Napoleon's Russian Campaign (New York Review Books Classics) by Philippe-Paul de Segur (Author), J. David Townsend (Translator), Rk Danner (Introduction). The account of De Segur above is from the Gutenberg translation is reproduced below because it available on line here. The original French can be found here.
The photograph is from an re-enactment in Russia of the Battle and can be found here.