O N the 10th of March 1811 a little son was born to Napoleon, who at once gave him the title of King of Rome. With a son to follow him upon the throne, Napoleon seemed to be at the very height of his glory. "Now begins the finest epoch of my reign," he said. At forty-one he seemed to have the world at his feet. Really his downfall had begun.
The people of Russia had found Napoleon's orders not to trade with Britain very hard, and the Czar became less and less inclined to make his people keep them. As more and more British goods were allowed to pass into Russia, Napoleon grew more and more angry. There were other reasons for quarrelling, and at last war broke out between the two rival Emperors, who at Tilsit had sworn to be friends.
Napoleon decided utterly to crush his great rival, and to force all Europe over which he had control to help him.
So he gathered a mighty army, six hundred thousand strong. From all the states of Germany, from Prussia, Austria, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Poland, Switzerland, even from Spain and Portugal, soldiers came to swell the host which poured across the Niemen in three great bodies.
But it was a barren, empty country into which they passed. No enemy even awaited them; only a few horsemen watched as they came. "Why do you come into Russia?" they asked.
"To conquer you," was the reply, and the horsemen galloped silently away, and disappeared into the forests beyond.
With the French army came an enormous baggage train. But Napoleon had so long used his armies to believe that they would find all they needed in the countries they invaded, that this part of the army was very badly managed. Almost at once the soldiers began to suffer from hunger.
As Napoleon advanced into the country, the Russians retreated.
Day after day along dusty, sandy roads, past burned and deserted villages and towns, through dreary, silent, barren plains, the retreat and chase went on. The air was hot and close, the sun shone pitilessly. The men marched wearily, for they were parched with thirst and always hungry. They had little to eat, except what they could find by scouring the country far and wide.
There was much fierce fighting by the way. One of these fights, called the battle of Borodino, is the deadliest battle of all Napoleon's wars, and it is known as "the generals' battle," for twenty-two Russian and eighteen French generals were among the slain.
At last one beautiful autumn morning, about a week after the battle of Borodino, Napoleon and his army caught the first sight of Moscow, from the top of a little hill called the Hill of Salvation, which overlooks it.
"Moscow! Moscow!" The cry ran down the lines. To the weary men Moscow was the haven of rest towards which they had been struggling those hundreds and hundreds of dreary miles. Now it lay before them, glittering white in the sunshine, with its many-coloured roofs, gilded domes, spires, and turrets. "The Asiatic town of countless churches, Moscow the Holy," cried Napoleon, reining in his horse. "There at last is the famous town. It was time!"
But when Napoleon and his army marched through the streets, they were silent and deserted. Here and there a timid or scowling face might be seen. But the streets echoed with a hollow sound, and the empty houses stared down upon the soldiers with closed shutters, like sightless eyes.
For days every one who could leave the city had been hurrying away, and the roads had been full of a constant stream of clattering carriages and rumbling carts laden with people and their goods. The night before Napoleon had entered, the troops also had gone. All night long the steady tramp, tramp, had sounded through the streets. The great military stores had been burned or destroyed, the prisons opened, and the prisoners set free, the fire-engines made useless, and the great city, mostly built of wood, left to the mercy of the rabble and the foe.
Scarcely two hours after the last soldier had gone, the French arrived. And when they found the city silent and empty, they broke into the deserted houses, robbing and wrecking them, decking themselves in ridiculous finery, drinking wildly, until the army became a drunken mob.
But at last the noise of laughter and carouse ceased, and the city sank to rest. The weary soldiers, who for many weeks had slept under the open sky and on the bare ground, slept this night in splendid palaces, on soft couches, and wrapped in silken covers.
But in the middle of the night the cry of fire arose. Soon the city was bright with flames, and morning dawned before they were put out.
But again, when night came, the fire broke out, and not in one place only, but in many. From every quarter, north, south, east, and west, fire burst, until the city was a blazing sea of flame. A strong wind arose, blowing the flames, now here, now there, till palaces and churches, shops and houses, were wrapped in fire, and sank together in piles of charred and blackened ashes.
For two days Napoleon gloomily watched the fearful destruction. Then yielding to the entreaties of his officers, he rode from the burning town, through a whirlwind of flame, a raging hail of sparks, and rolling clouds of smoke.
He took refuge in a palace belonging to the Czar which was beyond the city. But even there the heat of the flames was so great that the stones were hot to touch. Whenever the fire seemed to die down in one place, it kindled again in another. But at last, when four-fifths of the city was a blackened ruin, when there was little left to burn, the flames ceased.
Napoleon then returned and among the ruins he awaited an answer to a letter which he had written to the Czar by the light of the burning city. It was a letter proposing terms of peace. But no answer to it ever came.
Day after day passed. At first there had been food enough for the great army—splendid wines and dainty fare, such as they were little accustomed to, but these soon gave out. Now of bread there was none, and only horseflesh for meat The Russians had swept the country bare. It was in vain that the French soldiers scoured it in search of food. It was in vain that Napoleon issued proclamations to the peasants, telling them that they would be well paid for anything that they might bring. Their hatred of the French was such that not all the gold in the country could tempt them to Moscow. They would rather have cut off their right hands than have helped Napoleon in the slightest.
The autumn had been unusually warm, the sunny weather had lasted late, but at length it came to an end. A slight snow fell as a warning that the fearful Russian winter was about to begin. It is a winter of keen cold, such as the French had no knowledge of. They were, ill-fed and worse clothed, and in no way fit to endure it.
Again Napoleon wrote to Alexander. Again no answer was returned.
Then, seeing the uselessness and danger of trying to spend the winter in a barren country, hundreds and hundreds of miles from his own kingdom, Napoleon gave the order to march back.
Napoleon had to face defeat. Yet even to himself he would not own it.
"Moscow has been found not to be a good military post," he writes. "It is necessary for the army to breathe in a wider space."
The sick and wounded were left behind, so as not to burden the army. But every soldier was laden with booty. Gold and silver plate, silk and gems were piled in wheelbarrows, beautiful carriages were laden with all kinds of spoil, and a train of Russian prisoners marched bowed beneath heavy loads.
So the march began. But soon the road was strewn with these splendid spoils. Hunger, fearful, gnawing hunger, took hold upon the men. There was nothing to eat but horseflesh. When a horse died, the men fell upon it like hungry wolves, tearing it to pieces. They were ready to kill each other for a few potatoes or a handful of rye. All order and discipline was lost. Many broke from the ranks, and wandering about, seeking vainly for food, perished on the barren steppes.
Harassed by Cossacks, the wretched army still pressed forward. Then came the snow, and with it bitter cold. The snow fell and fell, blotting out the road, blotting out every landmark. Blinded by the whirling flakes, chilled to the bone by cutting winds, the men wandered on, hardly knowing whither. Numbed and frozen, unable to crawl farther, many fell, and the white snow became their winding-sheet. At night perhaps they bivouacked, and in the morning a circle of white mounds alone told where they had lain down to sleep their last sleep.
Retreat from Moscow.
Pursuing Russians killed those who straggled behind. Often they had no strength to resist. Sometimes even they had no arms, for their muskets would drop from their frozen fingers and be left in the snow.
Yet, through all the misery and cold and famine, a few lived and struggled on. "Smolensk! Smolensk!" they said. That was their goal, the paradise of rest and plenty to which they pressed.
But when Smolensk was at last reached, they found neither rest nor plenty there. The town was as much a ruin as Moscow had been. The stores of food and clothes were exhausted.
After a few days' halt the retreat continued. Near the town of Borisoff the river Beresina had to be crossed by two frail bridges. And here one of the most terrible scenes of the war took place.
While the French crossed they were attacked by the Russians. As men frantic with terror crushed on to the bridges, one of them gave way, and all upon it were thrown into the half-frozen river below. Over the second bridge the French now rushed madly, trampling and killing each other in their haste, shot down in crowds by the Russian bullets. Shrieks of terror and pain filled the air, mingling with the crash and thunder of the Russian guns and the savage cheers of the Russian soldiers. Twelve thousand at least perished at this fearful crossing. The rest continued their march of agony towards Vilna.
Ten days later a miserable, ragged, limping crowd crept into that town. "Remove all strangers from Vilna," Napoleon had written. "The army is not beautiful to look upon just now." But ere the ragged remnant of the once Grand Army had reached Vilna, Napoleon had deserted it. He had heard that there was a rising in Paris. So leaving his soldiers to their misery, wrapped in furs, he hurried as fast as horses could carry him, homeward.
Meanwhile the miserable spectre of an army staggered on, chased by the pitiless Cossacks. At last, in the middle of December, they crossed the Niemen, and found a refuge for a time in and near Königsberg. Of all the magnificent army that had set out to conquer Russia, not twenty thousand famine-stricken men returned.