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 téte-de-pont.
A reconnaissance made
beyond the J)wina, 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 tête-de-pont of 1)unaburg, which I occupied.
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 1)antzic for Riga; it required no less
than forty thousand horses to bring it. It was placed at Grafenthai
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 Dantzic.
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 positions—an illusory idea, which was scarcely
more practicable than that of preserving 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 1 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
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 inc as he might have done in thiTty hours, followed the high
road from Königsberg to Tilsit, Memel, and Mittau he was thus nine days
in reaching me. I received it during the day of the i8th, 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 previous one.
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 27 or 28 degrees Réaumur. 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 sleep.
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
I established myself at
Tilsit, and opened communications with Kbnigsberg. I informed General
Vorck 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
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 emissaries—the Prussian officers—was so uniform
that it could only have been concerted; they had neither seen nor heard
of General Vorck. 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 Prussia—a
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-baste 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 force-17,000 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
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
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 lookout, to barricade
themselves well, and, finally, to be ready to take UI) arms at the first
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 go!'
'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
'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 unnecessarily.'
He came hack no more;
probably he had been let into the secret.
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
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 Maréchal, you have at Iast 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 betrayed—perhaps given up; but we will sell our lives
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 Bömwald, 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