In the autumn of 1812 Napoleon, having again quarrelled with the Czar, marched into Russia with his grand army. At the beginning of the campaign he had four hundred thousand troops at his disposal.
As he advanced the Russian army fell back, destroying the towns through which they passed and burning the villages, so that the French might find neither shelter nor food awaiting them on their march.
At length, in the month of September, after many skirmishes had taken place and Smolensk had been reduced to ashes, the French found their enemy near a village named Borodino. Here a great battle, lasting twelve hours, was fought, both sides suffering enormous losses. Not fewer than seventy thousand men were killed or wounded.
But the Russian generals were not discouraged. They knew that winter was drawing near, and that erelong snow and frost would fight for them against the invaders. The army was therefore ordered to withdraw and leave Napoleon free to march on to Moscow.
When at length the French entered the capital they found it strangely deserted. They had toiled along in hope of food and shelter in the Holy City, and when it came in sight they had shouted for joy, "Moscow! Moscow!" But when they entered it, it was silent as a city of the dead. Only the wounded, the aged, the prisoners, had remained to receive the enemy.
Before the French had been in the city more than an hour or two, fire broke out in different parts of the town. The Russians had destroyed the fire-engines before they left, so that the French found it wellnigh impossible to put out the flames.
In spite of disappointment and discomfort the French troops found that the forsaken houses held much that they might plunder.
They spread themselves over the city, ransacking ward-robes and cupboards. Little food was to be found, but there were plenty of gay garments in which the excited soldiers clad themselves.
In the cellars, too, there was a plentiful supply of wine, and so they feasted and drank until at length they were worn out and fell fast asleep.
As they slept the cry of fire arose once more. A strong wind was now blowing, and as most of the buildings were of wood the flames soon spread in every direction, and it was plain that the city was doomed.
For two days Napoleon watched the flames, and only when urged by his officers to forsake so dangerous a place would he leave his quarters.
The Russian campaign had as yet brought little glory to Napoleon. He had, it is true, won some victories, but he had paid for them dearly in the loss of men.
And now, as he watched Moscow being burned to the ground, the great general began to feel that his plans were going awry.
Winter was coming on, the Russian army refused to fight, so Napoleon wrote to the Czar to propose terms of peace favourable to Russia.
The Emperor Alexander refused to listen. He believed that he had but to wait, and soon snow and frost would drive the invader out of his land, and with heavier loss than the French deemed possible.
It was already October when Napoleon determined to order the retreat from Moscow.
For Russia the winter was meanwhile unusually mild, and at first the French army struggled along bravely, although the country through which it had to march was utterly desolate and little or no food was anywhere to be found.
The army had set out laden with the spoils that it had gathered at Moscow, but as the weather grew colder and colder, and as it grew weak for want of food, the road was strewn with the treasures the soldiers dropped by the way.
By November the army was within three days' march of Smolensk, where it hoped to find shelter and provisions.
But now the snow began to fall in great blinding flakes, while the wind rose whirling them hither and thither, so that soon the soldiers' eyes grew dazzled. Before them stretched naught save an endless desert of snow.
Shivering with cold, without so much as a crust of black bread, many of the men fell by the way. Nor did their comrades dare to linger by their side, lest they too should share their fate and perish in the storm.
To add to the horror of the march, the enemy now began to hang upon the rear of the French army, or to fall upon those who had wandered from the road.
Fierce dogs, too, prowled about, feeding on the bodies of those who had fallen, yelping hungrily for more victims when their horrid meal was ended.
Onward, still onward, pressed the miserable army. Reaching Smolensk, it rested for a few days before pushing on toward the river Dnieper, which at length loomed into sight. Across its frozen waters the soldiers marched, those who crossed last, however, being attacked by the Russians.
Encouraged by General Ney, one of Napoleon's bravest officers, the rearguard, in spite of its weakness, fought its way through the enemy's ranks and succeeded in rejoining Napoleon, who was with the main body of the army.
Before the French reached the next river, the ice had begun to thaw. The Beresina was usually a small, harmless stream, but now it was in flood, blocked, too, with half-thawed ice.
When Napoleon reached the bank, it was to find that the bridge by which he had counted on crossing the river was in the hands of the Russians.
Despair gripped the hearts of the wretched soldiers and showed upon their faces, but the emperor's face was immovable, his will as iron.
Orders were given that two light bridges should be built and thrown across the Beresina. The men worked desperately, the bridges being their one hope of escape, and soon they were ready and safely placed in position.
On 26th November a large number of soldiers crossed the hastily made bridges in safety. But on the following day the Russian army arrived at the bank of the river and placed its cannon so as to command the bridges.
In despair, those miserable soldiers who were still on the farther side of the river, hampered now by desperate stragglers and camp-followers, attempted to cross the bridges, only to be slain by the fast-flying shot and shell of the enemy.
So great was the rush for the bridges that at length one of them gave way. Then terrible cries arose from those who were plunged into the icy waters beneath, to be drowned or shot by the enemy.
When it was seen that one bridge was gone, a general stampede was made for the other.
Many finding it impossible to reach the bridge, threw themselves into the water to try to swim to the other side. But there were few who were not crushed to death by the ice-floes or frozen to death by the cold.
On the 29th, while still many of the French remained on the farther bank, the order was given to set fire to the bridge, that the enemy might not be able to cross the river.
Then those French folk who were left helpless on the other side, uttering piercing cries, threw themselves into the river, while the Russians from the banks shot, without ceasing, at the struggling mass. It was a miserable remnant of Napoleon's grand army that at length reached a town in Poland, where it could have food and shelter. From twenty to twenty-five thousand had lost their lives at the river of Beresina. Thus ended the terrible retreat from Moscow.