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Memoirs of General Baron de Marbot

by Baron de Marbot

Terms

Contents

Introduction

Volume 1
Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Volume 2
Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

 

 

Chapter 21

Let us now cast an eye rapidly over the reasons for the failure of the Russian campaign.

Undoubtedly the principal one of these was Napoleon's error in believing that he could make war in the north of Europe, before ending that which had been going on for a long time in Spain, where his armies were suffering serious reverses, at a time when he was preparing to invade Russian territory. The soldiers of French nationality, being thus spread from north to south, were in insufficient numbers everywhere. Napoleon thought he could supplement them by joining to their battalions those of his allies, but this was to dilute a good wine with muddy water. The quality of the French divisions was lowered, the allied troops were never better than mediocre, and it was they, who, during the retreat, sowed disorder in the Grande Armée.

A no less fatal cause of our defeat was the inadequacy, or indeed the total lack of organisation in the occupied countries. Instead of doing as we had done during the campaigns of Austerlitz, Jena and Friedland, and leaving behind the advancing army small bodies of troops which, stretching back in echelon, could keep in regular touch with one another to ensure tranquillity in our rear, to expedite the forwarding of munitions and individual soldiers and the departure of convoys of wounded, we unwisely pushed all our available forces towards Moscow, so that between that city and the Nieman, if one excepts Wilna and Smolensk, there was not one garrison, nor storage depot, nor hospital. Two hundred leagues of countryside were left to roving bands of Cossacks. The result of this was that men who had recovered from illness were unable to rejoin their units, and as there was no system of evacuation, we had to keep all the wounded from the battle for Moscow in the monastery of Kolotskoi for more than two months. They were still there at the time of the retreat and were nearly all taken prisoner, while those who felt able to follow the army died of exhaustion and cold on the roads. Finally, the retreating troops had no supply of stored food in a country which produces vast amounts of grain.

This lack of small garrisons in our rear was the reason why of the more than 100,000 prisoners taken by the French during the campaign, not a single one left Russia, because there was no way in which they could be passed back from hand to hand. All these prisoners escaped with ease and made their way back to the Russian army, which thus recovered some of its losses, while ours increased from day to day.

The absence of interpreters also contributed to our disasters, more than you might think. How, for example can one obtain information about an unknown country, if one cannot exchange a single word with the inhabitants? When, on the bank of the Beresina, General Partouneaux mistook the road, and instead of taking that leading to Studianka, took the one leading to General Wittgenstein's position, he had with him a peasant from Borisoff who, not knowing a word of French, tried to indicate by signs that the encampment was Russian, but, as he was not understood, through lack of an interpreter we lost a fine division of 7 or 8000 men.

In very similar circumstances, during October, the 3rd Lancers, taken by surprise, in spite of the advice of their guide, whom they did not understand, lost two hundred men. Now the Emperor had in his army some bodies of Polish cavalry, nearly all of whose officers and most of their N.C.O.s. spoke fluent Russian; but they were left in their regiments whereas some should have been taken, from each unit, and attached to generals and colonels, where they would have been extremely useful. I consider the provision of interpreters an important but often neglected element in military operations.

I have already commented on the major mistake that was made in forming the two wings of the army from the Prussian and Austrian contingents. The Emperor must have greatly regretted this, firstly on learning that the Austrians had given passage to the Russian army of Tchitchakoff, who then cut our line of retreat on the banks of the Beresina, and secondly when told of the treachery of General York, the head of the Prussian Corps. His regret must have increased further during and after the retreat, for if he had formed the two wings from French troops and had taken to Moscow the Austrians and Prussians, the two latter, having suffered their share of the hardships and the casualties would have been as much enfeebled as all the other corps, while Napoleon would have kept intact the French troops he had left on the two wings. I would go even further and say that to weaken Prussia and Austria Napoleon should have required from them contingents triple or quadruple the size of those which they contributed. It has been said with hindsight that neither of the two states would have complied with such a demand, but I disagree. The King of Prussia who had come to Dresden to beg the Emperor to accept his son as an aide-de-camp would not have dared to refuse, while Austria, in the hope of recovering some of the rich provinces which Napoleon had snatched from her would have done everything to satisfy him. The overconfidence which Napoleon had, in 1812, in the fidelity of those two states was his undoing.

It is often claimed that the fire of Moscow, for which praise is given to the courage and resolve of the Russian government and General Rostopschine, was the principal cause of the failure of the 1812 campaign. This assertion seems to me to be contestable. To begin with the destruction of Moscow was not so complete that there did not remain enough houses, palaces, churches and barracks to accommodate the entire army, and there is evidence of this in a report which I have seen in the hands of my friend General Gourgaud, who was then principal aide-de-camp to the Emperor. It was not therefore lack of shelter which forced the French to quit Moscow. Many people think that it was the fear of food shortage, but this is also erroneous, for reports made to the Emperor by M. le Comte Daru, the quartermaster-general of the army, show that even after the fire there was in the city an immense quantity of provisions, which would have supplied the army for six months, so it was not the prospect of starvation which decided the Emperor to retreat. These facts would appear to indicate that the Russian government had failed to achieve its aim, if this was indeed the aim it was pursuing; but in reality, its aim was quite different.

The court wished in fact to deliver a mortal blow to the ancient aristocracy of the Boyars by destroying the city which was the centre for their continual opposition. The Russian government, although entirely despotic, has to pay much attention to the great nobles, whose displeasure has cost several emperors their lives. The richest and most powerful of these noblemen made Moscow the backdrop for their intrigues, so the government, more and more alarmed at the growth of the city, saw in the French invasion an opportunity for its destruction. General Rostopschine, who was one of the authors of this plan, was entrusted with its execution, the blame for which he later laid on the French. The aristocracy was not taken in, it accused the government so loudly and manifested so much discontent at the useless burning of its palaces that the Emperor Alexander, to avoid a personal catastrophe, was obliged not only to permit the rebuilding of the city, but to banish Rostopschine who, in spite of his protestations of patriotism, died in Paris, hated by the Russian nobility.

Whatever the motives may have been for the fire of Moscow, I think that its preservation would have been more harmful than useful to the French, for in order to control a city inhabited by some 300,000 citizens always ready to revolt, it would have been necessary to take from the army, and place as a garrison in Moscow, 50,000 men, who, when the time came to retreat, would have been assailed by the inhabitants, whereas the fire having driven out almost all the populace, a few patrols were enough to ensure tranquillity.

The only influence which Moscow had on the events of 1812 was due to the fact that Napoleon was unable to understand that Alexander could not sue for peace without being assassinated by his subjects, and believed that to leave the city without a treaty would be to admit that he was not able to hold on to it. The French Emperor insisted, therefore, on staying as long as possible in Moscow, where he wasted more than a month waiting in vain for a proposal of peace. This delay was fatal for it allowed the winter to become established before the French army could go into cantonments in Poland. Even if Moscow had been preserved intact it would not have made any difference; the disaster arose because the retreat was not prepared in advance and was carried out at the wrong time. It was not difficult to forecast that it would be very cold in Russia during the winter, but I repeat, the hope of a peace misled Napoleon and was the sole cause of his long stay in Moscow.

The losses suffered by the Grande Armée were enormous, but they have been exaggerated. I have already said that I have seen a situation report, covered with notes in Napoleon's hand, which gives the figure of those who crossed the Nieman as 325,000, of whom 155,000 were French. Reports issued in February 1813 gave the number of French who returned across the Nieman as 60,000, added to this figure can be that of 30,000 prisoners returned by the Russians after the peace of 1814. Giving a total loss of French lives of 65,000.

The loss inflicted on my regiment was in proportion much smaller. At the beginning of the campaign we had 1018 men in the ranks and we received 30 reinforcements at Polotsk, so that I took into Russia 1048 troopers. Of this number I had 109 killed, 77 taken prisoner, 65 injured and 104 missing. This amounted to a loss of 355 men, so that after the return of the men whom I had sent to Warsaw, the regiment, which from the bank of the Vistula had been sent beyond the Elbe to the principality of Dessau, had in the saddle 693 men, all of whom had fought in the Russian campaign.

When he saw this figure, the Emperor, who from Paris was supervising the reorganising of his army, thought it was a mistake, and sent the report back to me with an order to produce a corrected version. When I returned the same figure once more, he ordered General Sébastiani to go and inspect my regiment and give him a nominal roll of the men present. This operation having removed all doubt, and confirmed my report, I received a few days later a letter from the Major-general couched in the most flattering terms and addressed to all officers and N.C.O.s and particularly to me, in which Prince Berthier stated that he had been directed by the Emperor to express his Majesty's satisfaction at the care we had taken of our men's lives, and his praise for the conduct of all our officers and N.C.O.s.

After having had this letter read out before all the squadrons, I had intended to keep it as a precious memento for my family, but on further consideration, I decided that it would not be right to deprive the regiment of a document in which was expressed the Emperor's satisfaction with all its members, so I sent it to be included in the regimental archive. I have frequently repented of this, for scarcely a year had passed before the government of Louis XVIII was substituted for that of the Emperor, and the 23rd Chasseurs was combined with the 3rd. The archives of the two regiments were collected together, badly cared for, and after the total disbanding of the army in 1815, they disappeared into the yawning gulf of the war office. I tried in vain, after the revolution of 1830, to recover this letter, which was so flattering to my old regiment and to me, but it could not be found.

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