Chapter 18

FROM THAT TIME up to the end of the campaign, all Kutuzov’s activity was limited to trying by the exercise of authority, by guile and by entreaties, to hold his army back from useless attacks, manœuvres, and skirmishes with the perishing enemy. Dohturov marched to Maley Yaroslavets, but Kutuzov lingered with the main army, and gave orders for the clearing of the Kaluga, retreat beyond which seemed to Kutuzov quite possible.

Everywhere Kutuzov retreated, but the enemy, without waiting for him to retire, fled back in the opposite direction.

Napoleon’s historians describe to us his skilful manœuvres at Tarutino, and at Maley Yaroslavets, and discuss what would have happened if Napoleon had succeeded in making his way to the wealthy provinces of the south.

But to say nothing of the fact that nothing hindered Napoleon from marching into these southern provinces (since the Russian army left the road open), the historians forget that nothing could have saved Napoleon’s army, because it carried within itself at that time the inevitable germs of ruin. Why should that army, which found abundant provisions in Moscow and could not keep them, but trampled them underfoot, that army which could not store supplies on entering Smolensk, but plundered at random, why should that army have mended its ways in the Kaluga province, where the inhabitants were of the same Russian race as in Moscow, and where fire had the same aptitude for destroying whatever they set fire to.

The army could not have recovered itself any way. From the battle of Borodino and the sacking of Moscow it bore within itself, as it were, the chemical elements of dissolution.

The men of what had been an army fled with their leaders, not knowing whither they went, Napoleon and every soldier with him filled with one desire: to make his own escape as quickly as might be from the hopeless position of which all were dimly aware.

At the council in Maley Yaroslavets, when the French generals, affecting to be deliberating, gave various opinions as to what was to be done, the opinion of the blunt soldier, Mouton, who said what all were thinking, that the only thing to do was to get away as quickly as possible, closed every one’s mouth; and no one, not even Napoleon, could say anything in opposition to this truth that all recognised.

But though everybody knew that they must go, there was still a feeling of shame left at acknowledging they must fly. And some external shock was necessary to overcome that shame. And that shock came when it was needed. It was le Hourra de l’Empereur, as the French called it.

On the day after the council, Napoleon, on the pretext of inspecting the troops and the field of a past and of a future battle, rode out early in the morning in the midst of the lines of his army with a suite of marshals and an escort. The Cossacks, who were in search of booty, swept down on the Emperor, and all but took him prisoner. What saved Napoleon from the Cossacks that day was just what was the ruin of the French army, the booty, which here as well as at Tarutino tempted the Cossacks to let their prey slip. Without taking any notice of Napoleon, they dashed at the booty, and Napoleon succeeded in getting away.

When les enfants du Don might positively capture the Emperor himself in the middle of his army, it was evident that there was nothing else to do but to fly with all possible haste by the nearest and the familiar road. Napoleon, with his forty years and his corpulence, had not all his old resourcefulness and courage, and he quite took the hint; and under the influence of the fright the Cossacks had given him, he agreed at once with Mouton, and gave, as the historians tell us, the order to retreat along the Smolensk road.

The fact that Napoleon agreed with Mouton, and that the army did not retreat in that direction, does not prove that his command decided that retreat, but that the forces acting on the whole army and driving it along the Mozhaisk road were simultaneously acting upon Napoleon too.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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