"Hark! a thundering crash!
A cry of horror! down the broken bridge
Sinks; and the wretched multitude plunge deep
'Neath the devouring tide."
The retreat of Napoleon's great army from Moscow in the winter of 1812 is one of the most astounding chapters in modern history, and the story of the broken bridge over the river Beresina is perhaps one of the most pathetic incidents in the whole miserable march.
Napoleon and his army of nearly half a million men had reached Moscow—reached it on a September afternoon, after a march of untold hardships and severe losses. There lay the famous city at last—"Moscow with the golden cupolas; "Moscow, with its thousand towers and steeples crowned with golden balls all flashing and blazing in the light of the sun; Moscow which should now be the great Napoleon's city. No thought of defeat crossed their minds. Was not Napoleon's army invincible?
"Yes, there at last is the famous city," said the emperor confidently. He fully expected the people to surrender to him at once, as others had done before, backed as he was by such an army. Here were Austrians, Saxons, Poles, Italians, Prussians; here were crowned heads in command and tried generals,—such a host as had never been collected together before in the annals of history.
But Moscow had no intention of surrendering even to Napoleon and this mighty army. The Russians had deserted their capital; the streets were silent, the houses were closed; while to a few soldiers and officers of police left behind was entrusted the task of setting the city on fire on the arrival of the French.
For three days and three nights the fire lasted, despite all the efforts of the combined troops to extinguish it. Napoleon had escaped on the first night; he returned to find three-fourths of the city utterly and completely destroyed. Here he was, in the heart of Russia, master of the capital, and yet as far as ever from the conquest of the land. He still cherished the hope that the Tsar would submit and come to terms; but here again he was doomed to disappointment. The Tsar's triumphant address to his people left no room for further hope in this direction. It thus summed up his miserable position:—
"The enemy is in deserted Moscow as in a tomb, without means of existence. He entered Russia with three hundred thousand men of all countries, without union or any national bond; he has lost half of them by the sword, famine, and desertion. He has but the wreck of this army in Moscow. He is in the heart of Russia, and not a single Russian at his feet. Meanwhile, our forces are increasing and enclosing him. He is in the midst of a mighty population, surrounded by armies which are but waiting for him. To escape famine he will soon be obliged to direct his flight through the close ranks of our brave soldiers."
This was but prophetic of what soon happened. Still, Napoleon could not bring himself to decide on a retreat. He lingered on and on, hoping the Russians would yield. September had passed, October had begun. He was urged to winter in Moscow. A Russian winter would be bad enough to endure shut up in the blackened city, with nothing but salted horse-flesh to live on; it would be intolerable in the open country.
But Napoleon's thoughts were in Paris. He could not bear the idea of being so long away; he could not bear the idea of a retreat. An early fall of snow made the Russian peasants prophesy an early and hard winter. Nevertheless, reluctantly enough, he gave the order to march to the French troops on the eighteenth of October—just a month and four days after their triumphant entry into the capital. The French army which now filed through the gates of Moscow consisted of some one hundred and twenty thousand fighting men, with a number of sick. Following the army was a long line of attendants and baggage-bearers, a confused crowd of many thousands—stragglers, followers, prisoners—a mixture of chaises, ammunition wagons, carriages, and vehicles of every description, including wheelbarrows! There were men of all nations, without uniforms, without arms; servants speaking every language; there were numbers of French women and children, composing what had been a French colony in Moscow, now fleeing from the vengeance of the Russians. And all this motley crew followed in the rear of the great army. There were trophies, too, to be borne along—trophies of Russian, Turkish, and Persian colours, together with the gigantic cross of Ivan the Great.
On the twenty-third, the advanced part of the French army, under Prince Eugene, met—and, moreover, defeated—the whole Russian army, which blocked their road of retreat. It was a desperate battle, and it spoke well for Prince Eugene and his troops that, huddled together at the bottom of a ravine, they managed to defeat fifty thousand Russians on the heights above them. But it was a dearly-won victory, and on the twenty-fifth, when Napoleon entered the town where the fight had taken place, even he, so used to battlefields, was shocked at the awful number of dead and wounded that lay heaped up in the streets. It showed him the desperate position he was in, and made him more eager now to hasten on the retreat. He was particularly anxious to reach Smolensk before the winter set in severely. Here he hoped to find plenty of provisions and possibility of rest. After this point the retreat would be comparatively simple.
On marched the army. They left a track of ruin and devastation behind them; in front was a desert almost equally horrible. The earth was trodden down, the trees cut to stumps. With downcast eyes the army marched sullenly on.
The sufferings of the men were now increased by the severity of the weather, which, although the sky still continued clear, had become bitterly cold. Starvation, cold, and the attacks of the Russians—more especially of the Cossacks, who hovered round like birds of prey—thinned the ranks and disorganized the whole army.
Hope of finding rest at Smolensk kept up the men's spirits. "Smolensk, Smolensk"—this was the goal of all their hopes. Up till this time they had had the sun to cheer their gloom. On the sixth of November, while the most advanced were yet two or three days' march from the longed-for haven, the winter came on—came on like a true Russian winter. The clear blue sky disappeared, the sun was no longer seen; thick, cold fogs descended, rolling down as it were from the downcast heavens; bitter, sleety blasts of wind swept along the earth; and at length the snow came down in large flakes, darkening the whole air.
The troops marched on, unable to distinguish anything in the darkness, while they strove to force their way through whirlwinds of sleet. The snow drifted in the chasms and hollows where the tired men sought shelter or stumbled down, and the weakest of them rose no more. The wind drove in their faces not only the falling snow, but the snow that it raised in furious eddies from the earth. Too well they remembered the words spoken to them by the Russians when they were leaving Moscow. "Within a fortnight," they had said, "your nails will fall off and your weapons drop from your benumbed and lifeless hands."
Their wet clothes froze upon them; a covering of ice chilled their bodies and stiffened their weary limbs. The cutting wind stopped their breath, or converted it into icicles on their beards. The unhappy men crawled on, with trembling limbs and chattering teeth, till, when sense and feeling were almost extinct, they would trip over a stone or the branch of a tree, and falling to the ground they would lie there unable to rise. A few minutes later, and the snow had covered them for ever. Their cries and groans were in vain. All order was at an end. Muskets were dropped in the snow, or fell from the frozen fingers which carried them; soldiers left their ranks, officers their companies. Before and around them all was snow. Some would straggle off into bypaths, hoping to reach some shelter for the night; but they met only Cossacks or an armed population, who soon surrounded, wounded, and stripped them, leaving them to die in the snow. Night was before them—a night of sixteen long hours. But on this snow there seemed no place to stop, no place to sit or lie, no hope of finding roots for food or sticks to light a fire.
At length they halted. Wagons were broken up for fuel, and when at last fires were lit, crowds gathered round them —officers and soldiers alike—to thaw their garments, warm their limbs, and cook their wretched meal of horse-flesh. Hundreds, falling asleep by these great fires, never woke again. Such as survived the night had but the miseries of another day to look forward to—to stagger on through the snow, to see their comrades fall at every step; and this for day after day, night after night, till Smolensk was reached.
"Smolensk, Smolensk," they repeated to each other. This was to be the end of all their sufferings. They little knew that it was to be by no means an end; they had yet terrible troubles to go through.
Those who reached Smolensk first were a host of stragglers, without officers, without order. They were obliged to wait till the troops came up, and many died at the doors of the magazines where the flour was kept. Rye-flour and vegetables were simply scrambled for in the streets.
It was the fourteenth of November before all the army reached Smolensk. Those who came last—and, therefore, stood most in need of refreshment—fared worst. It was the fourteenth of November, at four o'clock in the morning, that Napoleon and his imperial division left the city to continue their miserable retreat.
The numbers had been counted at Smolensk. Already two-thirds of the army had perished in twenty-five days; already all the trophies from Moscow had been hurled into a great ice-bound lake; already the great cross of Ivan the Great had been cast aside, as the strength of the men had failed; and for very hunger they had to eat the beasts of burden, and discard their treasures.
The next stage was to Orsha, a distance of some five days' march. The whole country between the two towns was occupied by Russian armies, and through these the various divisions of the retreating army had to push their way.
Again Marshal Ney, commanding the rear-guard, had the worst of these encounters. Arrived at Orsha, Napoleon waited anxiously for the marshal's appearance; but day after day passed and no news of him arrived. At last, late on the twentieth, he reached Orsha with his brave little band, after untold hardships and difficulties. On one occasion, when surrounded by Russians, a single Russian officer had appeared and begged Ney to capitulate, further resistance being useless. "A marshal of France never surrenders," was Ney's proud answer.
When Napoleon heard that the marshal had arrived more dead than alive with hunger and fatigue, he shouted for very joy. "Bravest of the brave!" he cried. "I have then saved my eagles. I would have given three hundred millions from my treasury sooner than have lost such a man."
The position of the army was still one of great difficulty and danger, yet the firmness of Napoleon never left him. In the midst of the wildest waste of swamp or ice, in snowstorms and darkness, by night and by day, he never lost sight of the fact that this handful of hungry men was always the Grand Army, that he, their leader, was always the conqueror of Europe!
The army now started for Borisov, where they intended to cross the river Beresina. They were yet three days' march from that river, when on the main road an officer met Napoleon with the disastrous news that Borisov had fallen into the hands of the Russians, and that the bridge over the river had been destroyed. The emperor, striking the ground with his stick, raised his eyes to heaven. "Is it then written there," he cried impatiently—"is it then written there that henceforth every step shall be a fault?"
The situation was indeed desperate. Not only was the bridge over the river destroyed, but a Russian army occupied the opposite bank of the river, and that river was thirty-five fathoms wide and over six feet deep. So desperate seemed the state of affairs that Napoleon was strongly advised to leave the army and make his own way to Paris. This he refused to do, though he was heard to say, "We are indeed in a most lamentable condition."
It was at last decided that the river should be crossed above Borisov, though the landing-place was a marsh under fire of a commanding position occupied by the enemy. It was truly a desperate undertaking, but there seemed no choice.
Napoleon receiving news of the breaking down of the bridge.
The decision having been made, the army plunged into a dark and seemingly boundless forest, and made for the bridgeless river Beresina, hoping still to deceive the enemy as to the exact point they meant to cross it. Men, women, and children passed through the wood as fast as their weakness would allow. They were but a band of spectres at best, mostly in rags, many of them with bits of carpet tied round their frost-bitten feet. They marched on without arms and without order, hanging their heads and fixing their eyes on the ground in silence like a troop of captives.
And yet the unarmed, even the dying, though they knew they must make their way across a river in the face of their enemies, doubted not of victory. They were still the "Grand Army," though but a shadow. The very sight of Napoleon gave them courage; if they had but just strength to follow him, all would be right. He, who had raised his soldiers to such a height in old days, would save them yet, he who had conquered all before him could not fail now. In the midst of all their sufferings they never reproached their emperor. They would crawl to his feet to die, but never to murmur or complain, so rooted was their trust, so deep their faith in the man whose genius had always triumphed.
On they dragged themselves, on towards the river, towards the fatal Beresina.
It was the twenty-fifth of November when they arrived at the banks, and a detachment of the strongest was sent lower down to divert the attention of the Russians, while bridges were hastily constructed at a place called Studzianka, for the main body to pass. Then the building of the bridge began. Late in the evening the first pile was driven into the muddy bed of the river. The French worked all night, up to their necks in water, struggling with the pieces of ice carried down by the stream, and, moreover, lit up by the light from the enemy's fires as they gleamed from the heights on the opposite side of the river.
All night Napoleon watched, from time to time inspecting the bridge which was to decide his fate. Again his generals tried to persuade the emperor to escape, and thus save his own life; a band of devoted Poles were ready to act as guides.
"It is hardly possible we can escape," they said.
But Napoleon refused to desert his army in the midst of so great danger.
Day dawned on the twenty-sixth, and daylight showed the Russians in full retreat toward Borisov, their fires left, the banks opposite deserted, leaving a free passage.
The joy of the French army knew no bounds; the officers clapped their hands and shouted for joy. Napoleon, when he assured himself that the news was true, cried in a transport of joy, "I have deceived them."
Impatient to be across, and the bridge not being quite finished, Napoleon urged a body of men to swim over with their horses. In spite of the ice, which cut the chests and flanks of the animals, they gained the opposite bank.
In another hour the bridge for the infantry was ready; and amid shouts of "Long live the emperor!" some of the artillery crossed rapidly over.
"My star, then, still reigns!" cried Napoleon, as the contingent reached the bank in safety.
By two o'clock on the twenty-sixth Napoleon and some six thousand of the Guards had passed the Beresina in safety and taken up a position on the opposite heights.
During that day and the next the transport of the troops continued. But the Russians were no longer to be deceived. Throwing a bridge across the river lower down, they crossed over and attacked the French from both sides.
For two days the battle raged, while the stragglers, the wounded, the baggage, and the women were struggling over the bridges. Many seemed too paralyzed with fear to attempt it; thousands wandered desolately about the banks; to leave one spot of danger was but to hurl themselves into another yet more dangerous.
At last one of the bridges broke down in the middle. One only was left, and in the wildest confusion the crowd crushed along it. Night brought no relief. All through the cold, dark night of the twenty-eighth nothing was to be heard but groans and screams from victims trampled to death under the very feet of their comrades. When morning dawned, many thousands had not yet crossed the river. The Russians were approaching nearer and nearer to the bridge, so near that it became necessary to destroy it to prevent their crossing.
"With maniac haste
They throng the bridge, these fugitives of France,
Reckless of all, save that last desperate chance—
Rush, struggle, strive; the powerful thrust the weak,
And crush the dying."
At half-past eight, on the morning of the twenty-ninth, fire was set to the bridge, and those who had not crossed were abandoned to the Russians. As the flames burst forth, a heartrending wail of anguish and despair rose from the crowd who had not yet passed over. Some sprang forward on to the fiery platform; some dashed into the river, only to be crushed by the massive blocks of ice. It was a terrible crowd of men, women, and children—doing they knew not what, flying they knew not whither, and in their delirium adding to the calamity.
All was madness and indescribable woe.
At nine o'clock the Cossacks swooped down upon their prey, and the thousands who were not frozen, burned, or drowned found themselves cut off for ever from all hope of escape.
On the twenty-ninth the emperor left the banks of the Beresina and pushed on with what remained of the Grand Army. Their miseries were not over yet. The fierce cold of that dreadful winter, the want of food, the constant attacks of the Cossacks, who hovered on the skirts of the army, continued to thin their ranks and to strew their path with the bodies of their comrades. On the fifth of December, having arrived at the banks of the Vilna, Napoleon left the army and set out for Poland and France by the quickest possible route, leaving command of the retreating army to Murat. As soon as it was known that the emperor had left the army to its fate and pushed on himself, general discontent broke out; what little remained of generous or soldierly feeling in the army was lost; hunger, cold, and despair had reduced the heroes of the Grand Army to a horde of savages.
Three days and three nights, through an atmosphere of icy frost, brought them to Vilna. The sixth of December, the very day after Napoleon's departure, was one of the most fatal—birds fell stiff and frozen from the icy air. To stop and rest meant certain death. On they tramped; the only sound was the dull tread of their steps on the snow, the feeble groans of the dying. All had lost heart. Even the fires they lit failed to revive them. They had lived on nothing but broiled horse-flesh ever since leaving Smolensk, together with a little rye-meal kneaded into muffins with snow-water, and seasoned with the powder of their cartridges.
Exactly one-half perished in those three days and nights. And so they wandered on towards home, they, the shadowy remnant of the Grand Army, thought to be invincible under the command of Europe's conqueror. Napoleon's account of the retreat was somewhat light.
"All had gone well," he said. "Moscow was in his power, every obstacle was overcome, the conflagration of the city had made no great change in the condition of the French army; but the cold of the winter had caused a general calamity, by reason of which the army had sustained very great losses."
Very great losses indeed. The Grand Army started with nearly half a million of men; it returned only about twenty thousand strong.