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"Finally, toward four o'clock in the evening, when it was almost dark, I came to the bridge. Here I saw only one bridge, the second having been shot away. Now it is with horror, but at that time it was with a dull, indifferent feeling, that I looked at the masses of horses and people which lay dead, piled high upon the bridge. Only "Straight ahead and in the middle!" must be the resolution. "Here in the water is your grave; beyond the bridge is the continuation of a wretched life. The decision will be made on the bridge!" Now I kept myself constantly in the middle. The major and I could aid one another; and so amid a hundred blows of sabers we came to the bridge, where not a plank was visible because of the dead men and horses; and, although on reaching the bridge the people fell in masses thirty paces to the right and to the left, we came through to the firm land." - Jakob Walter.

by James Burbeck
When the retreating French Army and its allies reached the banks of the ice-filled Berezina River on the 23rd of November, 1812, they discovered their sole means of escape blocked by the smoldering ruins of the Borisov bridge. On the opposite bank lay a Russian force under Admiral Pavel Vasil'evich Chichagov, who had been ordered there specifically to cut off the French Army's retreat from Russia. But with ingenuity born of desperation, French General of Engineers Jean-Baptiste Éblé and four hundred pontonniers managed to quietly build two new bridges using materials taken from nearby villages. Only days before the French Commander-in-Chief, Napoleon Bonaparte, had ordered all sixty boats of the army bridging train to be burned along with all other gear he had deemed nonessential. General Éblé protested the decision at the time and discretely ordered two wagons of charcoal and six wagons of tools to be spared. He also assigned each of his men to carry a tool and some cramp irons.1 The Berezina bridges would be built using only these hand-tools, during the winter, for an army on the verge of disintegration.

"This is what happens when one heaps one mistake upon another!"

Napoleon at Toloczina

Even before reaching the Berezina River, there had been much debate among the French command as to their next course of action. So when French Marshal Nicolas Oudinot's men fought their way into Borisov on the 23rd and were unable to prevent the Russians from burning its 600 yard long bridge, the situation for the French turned darker than before. Repairing the bridge was out of the question because Admiral Chichagov's Russian troops overlooked the west river bank. There were some fords to the south where the army might cross, but it was the ford at Studianka several miles to the north which seemed to offer the best chance. Most of the engineers were sent to the Studianka ford (Probably General Chasseloup and his sappers) 2, while others were sent to the southern ford at Oukoholda. The later had orders to make as much noise as possible gathering and assembling what would appear to be materials for a bridge. It was important that the Russians not know exactly where the real crossing would occur. Another layer of deception was added when the French chief of staff General Lorencé gathered some local "guides" who were allowed to advise that the French cross at Oukoholda. Half of these men were then released with orders to return with as much information as possible regarding the approaching Russian columns. Lorencé certainly hoped that some of these men would inform the Russians of these false latest developments.

The first French engineers – probably sappers – arrived at the Studianka ford on November 24th and started assembling bridge trestles using timbers from the nearby town of Studianka. It was important to work quietly because a force under Russian General Chaplits was bivouacked on the opposite bank. At one point they even had a four man outpost staring right across the stream at the French. At five o'clock in the evening of the 25th, General Éblé and his pontonniers arrived on schedule with their wagons. It was then decided that the trestles built so far were too weak, and that only two bridges could be built instead of the three originally planned. The trestles already assembled were apparently rebuilt, and at dawn on the 26th the first ones were placed. This work continued until the first bridge, which was for infantry, was completed at one o'clock in the afternoon. The second bridge, which was built for wagons and cannon, was completed at four o'clock that afternoon, probably by the second work crew described in Éblé's orders. An account by General Comte de Ségur gives a rather bleak view of the conditions:

"But, to complete our misfortune, the swollen waters had blotted out all traces of the ford. This necessitated herculean efforts on the parts of our poor engineers, who worked up to their mouths, struggling against the ice carried down by the current. Some of them died of the cold or were forced under by the great cakes of ice"

According to Caulaincourt though; "the river had subsided through freezing, and so there was no great depth except for a stretch of twenty or thirty feet, across which the horses had to swim... On our side, the water only came up to the horses bellies." This contrast between the two accounts for the same day may be due to the fact that Caulaincourt was not one of those trying to lay a bridge out in that twenty or thirty foot stretch of freezing deep water!

François Pils Sketch
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An eyewitness sketch by Grenadier François Pils. This priceless drawing shows the size and configuration of the Berezina bridge trestles, the tallest of which had to remain above water level even after sinking several feet into the mud bottom in the middle of the river channel.

As for the bridges themselves, each one was between 100 and 150 meters in length, approximately 5 meters wide, and constructed of twenty-three supporting trestles. Longitudinal stringers running between the peaks of the trestles supported planks laid down across the width of each bridge. In describing the bridge trestles, Baron Fain and Jakob Walter both used the word sawhorse, which in french is chevalet. François Pils' eyewitness sketch shown here does indeed depict tall sawhorse-like trestles. Several eyewitnesses mention a problem with the trestles sinking too far into the mud, but the pontonniers apparently circumvented this problem by making the trestles tall enough to be pounded all the way into the mud bottom without excessive settling. The fact that they did not have time to use pilings to further support the trestles may also have contributed to the later frequent collapse of the bridges.
Berezina Map 1
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The planks which were laid down across the top of the bridges were certainly not nailed down, and given the shortage of nails and cramp irons it is unsure that even the supporting stringers which ran between the trestles were secured. No wonder the bridges proved treacherous after several thousand men, horses and wagons had passed over them. The stronger wagon bridge had a layer of moss and straw to help insulate it from the stress of the passing wagons, yet despite the efforts to keep this bridge together, it eventually collapsed.

Foot Bridge : Graphic
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A computer simulation of the Berezina foot bridge, which gives a good view of its finished appearance. The roughly five meter long top planks were not nailed down, and tended to flip if stepped on carelessly. In many points on the bridge, horses were trapped in this manner, with their legs dangling between the shifted planks. Eventually the bridge was so choked with bodies that people crossing it were no longer walking on wood.

Foot Bridge : Painting
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A magnified view of an anonymous painting thought to be executed by an eyewitness to the Berezina crossing. It does closely match verbal accounts from known eyewitnesses, although it shows stabilizing stringers on top of the bridge planks. Eyewitness accounts are very clear that the planks were not secured.

Ultimately the bridges were completed and men began passing onto the west bank. This operation was made easier by the fact that General Chaplits, who was certain that the French troops opposing him were up to something, had been ordered by Chichagov to move south where it was believed the French would cross. This bolt of luck assured the peaceful assembly of the bridges on the crucial morning of May 26th. All through the construction phase of the bridges, General Éblé regularly reported to Napoleon on their progress, each time courteously doffing his hat in spite of the dreadful conditions.

The first troops to cross the infantry bridge were the men of General Legrand's Division, who also wheeled two cannon across with them. These were followed by the rest of Oudinot's Corps, the Young Guard and Marshal Ney's Corps, the later of which totalled a paltry six hundred men left over from their previous week's service as army rearguard. Victor's Corps, Davout's Corps and the Old Guard remained in positions east of the crossing to prevent an unopposed attack by the approaching Russians. The 250 cannon still disposed by the army slowly crossed to the west bank in spite of the repeated breakdown of the wagon bridge. Sections of this bridge collapsed twice during the night of the 26th and again at four o'clock in the afternoon of the 27th. Each time this happened, Éblé's pontonniers got up from their fires and waded back into the river to repair it. One of these collapses took seven hours to repair. Initially there was a semi-circle of Gendarmes posted around the entrance to each bridge. They were still dressed in their regulation uniforms, and they blocked passage to any units not still bearing their weapons. Both bridges became eerily deserted as the sixteen hours of winter darkness settled in each evening, and during those times they were wide open for any who cared to cross. On each of those evenings, the men crowding the eastern bank always moved back toward Studianka to build fires for the night. Under these dreadful conditions, the army units still bearing arms on the west bank had become hotly engaged with Chichagov's Russians pushing up from the south.

Berezina Map 2
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Now began the final phase of the crossing. In the late morning of the 28th, Davout's Corps and the Old Guard crossed the bridges to the west bank, an act which galvanized the tens of thousands of stragglers crowding the approaches. Until then, only active army units and some stragglers had been allowed to cross the river, leaving the east bank increasingly populated by the growing balance of stragglers. Now a howling mob descended to the river bank and tried to push across the bridges. The press of men was so great that when Napoleon decided to cross back to the west bank at two o'clock in the afternoon, his escort had to use force to clear a path. The efforts by available senior officers to restore order were useless. All during the rest of the day, the terror stricken mob crowded the bridge crossing; wagons, horses, men, women, children, all trying to push their way onto the bridges. On both banks, the sound of battle could clearly be heard as Victor's Corps tried to fight off the Russians to the east and the main army fought more Russians pushing up the west bank from the south. Ségur's account of things at this point are poignant:

"At the height of this ghastly scene the artillery bridge parted in the middle. The column that was crossing the narrow thoroughfare at the time tried in vain to turn back, but the stream of men in the rear, unaware of the disaster, heedless of the cries of those in front, kept pushing on and forced them over the edge; only to be themselves forced over a second later. Then everybody rushed towards the other bridge. An enormous number of heavy caissons, supply wagons, and pieces of artillery were also flowing in towards it from all sides. In spite of their driver's efforts to guide them, they dashed down the steep rough bank into the mob of human beings, crushing all who were unable to get out of their way, then colliding with each other and killing everybody around them as they overturned... In the unspeakable chaos, men who had been thrown down and were being smothered attacked with nails and teeth the legs of their comrades who were trampling on them, only to be pitilessly kicked aside, as if they were enemies."

General Eble
French Chief of Pontonniers General Jean-Baptiste Éblé
Throughout this pandemonium, women were screaming for their husbands and children, young girls stood on the bank watching their parents struggling for passage and the strongest simply smashed their way through at the cost of those around them. It was this press of humanity through which Jakob Walter pushed. By late afternoon, the condition of the bridge had apparently worsened as it became clogged with bodies . People continued to be crushed, trampled and pushed off the outer edges of the bridge as more people packed in from behind. One eyewitness noted that he moved only a few feet in an hour. This was made worse by the abandoned wagons which had become stranded in the muddy exit to the bridge. Yet at nightfall the mob returned to their fires on the east bank and again left the bridges empty, free for any to cross who would brave the darkness and cold, which was indeed severe. At nine o'clock that evening, Victor's surviving troops crossed to the west bank. The stragglers now had nothing between them and the Russian Army.

At half past eight o'clock on the morning of November 29th, General Éblé gave the order to burn the remaining bridge when he saw Russian troops approaching it. An enormous number of wagons were left on the east bank as well as several thousand men, women and children who could still be seen wandering around. Some tried to rush across the flaming bridge only to have it crumble, dumping them into the freezing water, simultaneously burnt and freezing. A mother was seen to have built a small raft out of birch bark for her and her children, but it promptly sank among the ice flows. Finally the Russians arrived in force and rounded up the survivors. The surviving French troops – who had finally beat aside General Chichagov's attempt to interfere with their retreat – made their way across the high road leading to Zembin and on to Vilna.

The popular account of General Éblé's pontonniers is that none of them survived the next few days of sub-zero weather, which killed up to half of the sixty thousand men who had managed to cross the Berezina. General Éblé traveled as far as Königsberg, where he died of exhaustion. The two hundred cannon painstakingly saved at the Berezina were eventually abandoned at the base of a steep icy hill west of Vilna. The following Spring it was recorded that 32,000 bodies were rounded up and burned on the river banks near Studianka.

° ° °

1 — Cramp iron [noun] : a strip of metal with ends bent at right angles; used to hold masonry or wood together [syn: cramp]

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2 — Original orders relating to the Berezina crossing :
From Chief of Staff Berthier to General Éblé, ordering the move to Borisov. (French and English)

Lettre du major général Au général Éblé.
Bobr, le 24 Novembre 1812, a quatre heures et demie du matin
Monsieur le général Éblé, l'empereur ordonne que vous partiez avant six heures du matin, pour vous rendre en toute diligence au quartier-général du duc du Reggio, à Borisow, et travailler a établir plusieurs ponts sur la Bérézina pour le passage de l'armée. Vous vous diviserez en deux. Si tout votre monde ne peut pas aller assez promptement, vous prendrez avec vous ce qui peut le mieux marcher, de manière à ce que vous arriviez dans la nuit, et que vous soyez au travail demain à la pointe du jour, et que l'autre partie puisse être au travail demain avant midi. Ayez soin de laisser en route des ateliers pour réparer les ponts et les plus mauvais passages. Je donne le même ordre au général Chasseloup; vous vous entendrez avec lui et avec M. le duc de Reggio, pour les travaux à faire sur la Bérézina, où il est indispensable que l'armée puisse passer au plus tard demain.

Letter from the Major General to General Éblé.
Bobr, 24 November 1812, 0430 hours
General Éblé, the emperor orders that you will have left before 0600 with all possible speed to the Duke of Reggio's headquarters at Borisov, and to work to establish several bridges on the Berezina for the passage of the army. You will divide in two. If all your command can not go promptly enough, you will take with you those who can better walk, in such a way you will arrive in the night, start working tomorrow at dawn, and the other party start working tomorrow before midday. Take care to assign work for repairing of the bridges and the most severe passages. I am giving the same order to General Chasseloup; you will come to an understanding with him and with the Duke of Reggio for the work to be done on the Berezina, where it is essential that the army can pass tomorrow at the latest.
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Recommended Reading
primary sources
Caulaincourt, Armand-Augustin-Louis de, Duc de Vicence, 1773 - 1827. With Napoleon in Russia. Grosset & Dunlap, 1959
Fain, Agathon Jean François, Baron, 1778 - 1837. Manuscrit de mil huit cent douze. Delaunay, 1827.
Marbot, Marcellis de, Baron, . Memoires Vol 2. Greenhill books
Pils, François. Journal de Marche 1804 - 1814. Ollendorff, 1895
Ségur, Philippe-Paul, Comte de, 1780 - 1873. Napoleon's Russian Campaign. Time Inc., 1965.
Walter, Jakob. Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier. Doubleday, 1991

secondary sources
Austin, Paul B. 1812 The Great Retreat. Greenhill Press, 1996
Nicolson, Nigel. Napoleon 1812. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1985
  Copyright © 1996-2003 by The War Times Journal at www.wtj.com. All rights reserved.
Jakob Walter quote courtesy of Doubleday Publishers. Caulaincourt quote courtesy of Grosset & Dunlap.
Ségur quotes courtesy of Time Life Books. Paintings of General Éblé and the Berezina crossing courtesy of The French Army Museum, Paris.