Chapter 19

WHEN A MAN finds himself in movement, he always invents a goal of that movement. In order to walk a thousand versts, a man must believe that there is some good beyond those thousand versts. He needs a vision of a promised land to have the strength to go on moving. The promised land for the French on their march into Russia was Moscow; on their retreat it was their own country. But their country was too far; and a man walking a thousand versts must inevitably put aside his final goal and say to himself every day that he is going to walk forty versts to a resting-place where he can sleep; and before the first halt that resting-place has eclipsed the image of the final goal, and all his hopes and desires are concentrated on it. All impulses manifest in the individual are always greatly exaggerated in a crowd.

For the French, marching back along the old Smolensk road, the final goal, their own country, was too remote, and the nearer goal on which all hopes and desires, enormously intensified by the influence of the crowd, were concentrated was Smolensk.

It was not because the soldiers knew that there were plentiful supplies in Smolensk and reinforcements, nor because they were told so (on the contrary, the generals and Napoleon himself knew that the supplies there were scanty), but because this was the only thing that could give them the strength to move and to bear their present hardships, that they—those that knew better and those that did not alike—deceived themselves, and rushed to Smolensk as to a land of promise.

When they got out on the high road, the French fled to their imagined goal with extraordinary energy and unheard-of rapidity. Apart from the common impulse that bound the crowds of Frenchmen together into one whole and gave them a certain momentum, there was another cause that held them together, that cause was their immense number. As in the physical law of gravitation, the immense mass of them drew the separate atoms to itself. They moved in their mass of hundreds of thousands like a whole state.

Every man among them longed for one thing only—to surrender and be taken prisoner, to escape from all the horrors and miseries of his actual position. But on one hand the momentum of the common impulse toward Smolensk drew each individual in the same direction. On the other hand, it was out of the question for a corps to surrender to a squadron; and although the French took advantage of every convenient opportunity to straggle away from one another, and on the smallest decent pretext to be taken prisoners, those opportunities did not always occur. Their very number, and their rapid movement in such a closely- packed mass, deprived them of such possibilities, and made it not only difficult but impossible for the Russians to stop that movement into which the whole energy of that great mass was thrown. No mechanical splitting up of the body could accelerate beyond certain limits the process of dissolution that was going on within it.

A snowball cannot be melted instantaneously. There is a certain limit of time within which no application of heat can thaw the snow. On the contrary, the greater the heat, the harder the snow that is left.

Of the Russian generals no one but Kutuzov understood this. When the flight of the French army took its final direction along the Smolensk road, then what Kutuzov had foreseen on the night of the 11th of October began to come to pass. All the generals and officers of the Russian army were eager to distinguish themselves, to cut off the enemy’s retreat, to overtake, to capture, to fall upon the French, and all clamoured for action.

Kutuzov alone used all his powers (and the powers of any commander-in-chief are far from great) to resist this clamour for attack.

He could not tell them what we can say now: he could not ask them what was the object of fighting and obstructing the road and losing our men, and inhumanly persecuting the poor wretches, when one-third of that army melted away of itself without a battle between Moscow and Vyazma. But drawing from the stores of his aged wisdom what they could understand, he told them of the golden bridge, and they laughed at him, slandered him, pushed on and dashed forward, exulting over the wounded beast.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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