Preparations for the Russian
CampaignOn the NiemenMurat Retreat towards
TilsitGeneral YorckIntense ColdAnxiety and
DoubtsAttitude of the PrussiansDefection of the Prussians.
WHEN I reached Paris I found all prepared for the famous,
albeit disastrous, Russian campaign. Notwithstanding the state of my health,
which, however, was improving, I was ordered to start during the month of
April, 1812. I had left my armchair in the fortress at Figueras; I left one
crutch in Paris and the other in Berlin.
I had command, on the left of the army, of the 10th corps,
made up of the Prussian contingent, and of a division formed of three Polish
regiments, one Bavarian, and one Westphalian ; my staff was French. The King of
Prussia wrote to me begging my attention for his men.
We marched to the Niemen, where we took up our position, and
on June 24 the entire army crossed it during the night, without the slightest
opposition. The Russians retreated before us; I did not fire a shot till we
came into Samogitia. My route lay towards the Dwina; I was ordered to garrison
the Baltic coasts and to lay siege to Dunaburg and Riga. The former of these
fortresses existed only on plans, but it possessed a good tete-de-pont.
A reconnaissance made beyond the Dwina, between the two
places, caused an alarm upon the right of the river, and determined the Russian
generals to set fire to the suburbs of Riga, which might have aided our
approach to the citadel, and to evacuate the tete-de-pont of Dunaburg, which I
It was then that we discovered that the fortifications of
this imaginary town only existed on paper, and not in reality. Here and there a
little earth had been turned, but there was not even a hut, consequently no
inhabitants, only an old Jesuit church in ruins.
I had orders to recall the siege-artillery from Magdeburg,
where it had been recast at enormous expense. Another train had left Dantzic
for Riga; it required no less than forty thousand horses to bring it. It was
placed at Grafenthal while waiting for the troops and material necessary to
convey it across the Dwina, and to invest Riga. I submitted several plans; but
as the army was going farther away towards Moscow, I was left in uncertainty
and indecision. During the interval a body of 10,000 Russians, coming from
Finland, attempted to possess themselves of the whole siege-train, but it was
valiantly defended by the Prussians. I had, in pursuance of orders, taken up my
headquarters in a windowless and unfurnished castle not far from Dunaburg, on
the extreme right of my line; I hastened up with some troops, but the affair
had already terminated to our advantage. From the account I sent in of this
incident it was realized that the season was too advanced, and this enormous
and valuable material too exposed, and I received orders to send it back to
The evil genius that impelled the army to Moscow had planned
out its misfortunes from the very opening of the campaign until it closed with
the forced retreat. The Emperor, should he fail to make a passage for himself,
had conceived the idea of making for my positionsan illusory idea, which
was scarcely more practicable than that of pre- serving this ill-fated army. I
was informed of the daily trials they had to meet with, and although I offered
my services, together with those of my inactive, well-fed, and warmly-clad
troops, I was left stationary.
I began, however, to draw in my posts, and to concentrate my
forces gradually. The enemy, who watched my every movement, fancied that I was
preparing to retreat, and attacked me at various points to harass me; I
encouraged and laid a trap for them, into which they fell head foremost. I
turned suddenly, attacked them vigorously, and broke their line. They fled,
leaving a large number of prisoners in our hands. This affair would have
produced much more important results had the Prussian General Yorck obeyed my
reiterated orders to proceed rapidly from Mittau in the direction of Riga, in
the rear of the Russians, as soon as I had broken their line. I had already
observed in his letters a marked increase of coldness on the part of this
General, which increased with the misfortunes of the Grand Army, but I was
still far from suspecting the catastrophe that occurred shortly afterwards.
The Emperor, having succeeded in forcing the passage of the
Beresina, and reopening communications with Wilna, started incognito for Paris,
leaving the command to Murat, King of Naples. This was an additional
misfortune, for this General, of the most distinguished bravery, was really
only fit to lead a cavalry-charge, or to harass the enemy by his activity. He
hoped to be able to rest and reorganize the debris of the army at Wilna, but
the Russians dislodged him four-and-twenty hours after his arrival. The last
remains of that immense army perished there.
On quitting Wilna, Murat at last ordered me to fall back
upon Tilsit. This order was dated December 10. It was confided to a Prussian
Major, who, instead of coming direct to me as he might have done in thirty
hours, followed the high-road from Konigsberg to Tilsit, Memel, and Mittau; he
was thus nine days in reaching me. I received it during the day of the 18th,
and as I had foreseen everything, and made all my preparations beforehand, all
my columns moved the next day, December 19. I was already aware that the
enemy's scouts were crossing Samogitia behind me. I fully expected to meet with
every sort of obstacle, and resolved to overcome them all. The most serious
matter was not the enemy, but the river Niemen. The bridge had been removed on
account of the ice, and if the thaw began all my efforts would be vain.
I threw out parties on every side, so as to mislead the
enemy as to my real destination. At a given point I sent off my advance-guard
towards Taurogen ; I led the centre by another route, and General Yorck had
command of the rear-guard, and occupied each day the bivouacs I had the
We had to push forward, and the troops had but very few
hours' rest out of the twenty-four; but to counterbalance that they were well
clad, and did not want for provisions, in consequence of the precautions I had
taken in July to establish depots everywhere. My experiences of the winter
campaigns of 1794-95 in Holland, and more especially of that of 1800 in the
Grisons, and when crossing the Alps, had made me requisition 30,000 sheepskin
pelisses from the Polish and Russian peasants, giving them in exchange the
skins of the sheep consumed by my troops. This wise precaution saved them from
hunger and cold, which was so severe that, during a portion of my march, the
thermometer went down to 21 or 28 degrees Reaumur. I lost only a few men, who,
in spite of the penalty of death with which I had threatened both sellers and
consumers of spirits, got drunk and perished, removed by the cold into eternal
The enemy had posted troops on either side of the Niemen to
dispute my passage. They were vigorously attacked by the Generals of my
advance-guard, Grandjean and Bachelu, who did well in not waiting for me. I had
made a detour in order to flank and turn the enemy. The affair had terminated,
after great slaughter, to the glory of the two Generals by the time I came up;
they had made some thousands of prisoners, and taken several pieces of cannon.
I established myself at Tilsit, and opened communications
with Konigsberg. I informed General Yorck of the happy issue, and desired him
to hasten his march; we had opened the way, and he might arrive the following
day. The weather was milder, and the thaw had begun. My troops had a day's
rest, of which they stood in some need. My intention was to continue the
retreat as soon as my rear-guard joined me; but I waited in vain. I knew that
the enemy, by forced marches, were crossing the Niemen above my position, and
that their principal body were following the course of the Pregel in my rear. I
was therefore exposed to be cut off a second time on the road to Konigsberg.
I sent in all directions after General Yorck. Two days
previously he ought to have arrived at Taurogen to support my advance-guard,
which had quitted it in the morning; they had no news of him. At that time this
General was preparing an act of treachery unparalleled in history.
Four days had already passed in uneasiness, impatience, and,
I may almost say, anguish. The news brought in by my emissariesthe
Prussian officerswas so uniform that it could only have been concerted ;
they had neither seen nor heard of General Yorck. I tried to keep back my
suspicions, to crush them; I thought that a feeling of honour ought to prevent
their existence; some obstacle, sudden panic, might have determined the General
to retrace his steps, and to make for Memel with a view to re-entering
Prussiaa direction that I meant to take myself if I failed to open a
passage across the Niemen. The thaw might at any moment destroy the ice; the
enemy were reinforcing themselves, manoeuvring, gaining upon me, and
approaching the only communication that, to tell the truth, I was still
Had I been less confident in other people's honour, the
attitude of the Prussians would have opened my eyes to what was going on around
me. Far from being uneasy at the fate of the rear-guard, they seemed not to
trouble about it, especially since the arrival of an officer of their nation,
who had come post-haste from Berlin. He was, I believe, a Count von
Brandenburg, a natural brother of the King. When they were in my presence they
appeared to share my uneasiness. Various signs, and the opinion of my Generals,
coincided with my suspicions. I argued in this manner, which seemed to me
common-sense, and to admit of no reply:
' If they have orders, or if they take upon themselves to
abandon our cause, what hinders or prevents them ? They are our principal
force17,000 or 18,000 men against 4,000 or 5,000; and, moreover, can I
count upon the two Bavarian and Westphalian regiments forming a division with
three Polish regiments ? As to the latter, no doubt can exist about their
fidelity; I was wrong to have conceived any about the others.'
"They will explain to us that the misfortunes
threatening their country compel them to separate themselves from us; but they
will not drive their cowardice to the extremity of giving us up. They would ask
nothing better than to see us leave here, so that they might charge us with
having abandoned the rear-guard,' as I was frequently begged to do.
I heard many stories, too, which were proofs of ill-will,
and even of insubordination and disobedience.
I ended by declaring positively that until the end, which
could not be long delayed, I would remain firm in my resolution; that my life
and career should never have to bear upon them the blot of having abandoned, on
account of fears which were perhaps imaginary, the troops committed to my care;
and that, under any circumstances, I was determined to risk everything, even to
recross the Niemen to go in search of the rear-guard, rather than voluntarily
separate myself from them by quitting the banks of the river.
On the last day of the year 1812 the enemy made
demonstrations all around me. During the night I feared an attack on the town
of Tilsit, which was open on all sides. I ordered the troops to concentrate on
all the roads, to send out patrols and reconnoitring parties, to keep a good
look- out, to barricade themselves well, and, finally, to be ready to take up
arms at the first signal.
The weather was very bad. The troops commanded by General
Bachelu, who was detached, refused to obey and to march ; his decision of
character carried the day; they formed up, but their disposition was far from
reassuring. A Prussian battalion was on duty at headquarters,
' They will carry you off!' someone said to me. ' Let us
' No,' I replied ; ' I prefer to risk it.'
Between eleven o'clock and midnight, the commander of this
battalion came and told me that he had received orders from General Massenbach,
his chief, to get under arms.
' That must be a mistake,' I said; ' I only gave orders that
the troops should be ready in case of an alarm. Go and say that to your
General, and say, further, that I do not wish to fatigue or wet the men
He came back no more; probably he had been let into the
Although they were on their own territory, the Prussians
applied to me for money to satisfy their wants. I had no authority to dispose
of the contributions levied in Courland ; however, as they had power to take
what I would have refused them, I caused a distribution of about half, or
perhaps a third, of the sum demanded, leaving it to the Governments concerned
to arrange about repayment.
The Prussians informed me with some haughtiness that they
had a right to a share of the contributions ; there was nothing for it but to
put a good face on the matter and dissimulate. The same Commander of the
headquarters battalion came and told me that the money given for his troop was
insufficient; that they were in want of shoes; that he had just discovered some
hundreds of pairs in a shop, but that they would not let him have them on
credit. He asked for 1,500 or 2,000 francs (£80) more.
' You are too late,' I answered ; 'the treasury is shut,'
However, as he insisted, I gave him the money out of my own
pocket, and never saw it again.
In great uneasiness about the thaw, I had the ice sounded
night and morning. While, wrapped in my cloak, I was trying to get the sleep
that had avoided me for four nights, Colonel Marion, of the Engineers, came to
me at dawn, and said:
' I congratulate you, Monsieur le Marechal, you have at last
received news of General Yorck.'
' No,' I replied quickly.
' I fancied you had; for as, in accordance with your orders,
I was testing the ice, I saw all the Prussians rapidly recrossing the Niemen. I
thought you had sent them to meet the rear-guard. General Massenbach, as he
passed by me, gave me these two letters for you.'
' Good heavens !' I exclaimed; ' we are
betrayedperhaps given up ; but we will sell our lives dearly.'
I hastily glanced at the letters, caused the assembly to be
sounded immediately, gathered our faithful Poles, Bavarians, and Westphalians
at the back of the town, and commenced a forced march in order to gain the
Forest of Bomwald, a sort of defile. I harangued the troops, not concealing our
difficulties, and promised them a month's extra pay if, as I trusted we should,
we succeeded in reaching Dantzic in safety.
The Prussians had displayed such haste in their desertion,
that they had omitted to warn the detachment that acted as my escort. The
officer commanding them came to me shortly after my orders had been issued,
and, from his unconscious appearance and manner, it was easy to see that he
suspected nothing of what had happened. He could not speak French, but I caused
an account of what had passed to be related to him; he turned pale, and shed
tears of indignation. He wished to remain with and follow us. I told him to
call his men to horse; thanked his detachment for their zeal, fidelity, and
attachment ; gave them 600 francs from my own pocket, and the same to the
officer for a. horse; and, despite their entreaties, sent them to join their