Chapter 16

FROM THE 28TH of October, when the frosts began, the flight of the French assumed a more tragic aspect, from the men being frozen or roasted to death by the camp-fires, while the Emperor, and kings, and dukes, still drove on with their stolen booty in fur cloaks and closed carriages. But in its essentials, the process of the flight and disintegration of the French army went on unchanged.

From Moscow to Vyazma of the seventy-three thousands of the French army (not reckoning the Guards, who had done nothing but pillage all through the war), only thirty-six thousand were left, though only five thousand had been killed in battle. Here we have the first term of a progression, by which the remaining terms are determined with mathematical exactness. The French army went on melting away and disappearing in the same ratio from Moscow to Vyazma, from Vyazma to Smolensk, from Smolensk to the Berezina, from the Berezina to Vilna, apart from the greater or less degree of cold, the pursuit and barring of the way, and all other conditions taken separately. After Vyazma, instead of three columns, the French troops formed a single mass, and so they marched on to the end. This is how Berthier wrote to the Emperor (and we know that generals feel it permissible to depart rather widely from the truth in describing the condition of their armies):—

“I think it my duty to report to your majesty the condition of the various corps under my observation on the march the last two or three days. They are almost disbanded. Hardly a quarter of the men remain with the flags of their regiments; the rest wander off on their own account in different directions, trying to seek food and to escape discipline. All think only of Smolensk, where they hope to recover. During the last few days many soldiers have been observed to throw away their cartridges and muskets. In such a condition of affairs, whatever your further plans may be, the interests of your majesty’s service make it essential to muster the army at Smolensk, and to rid them of ineffectives, such as cavalry men without horses, as well as of superfluous baggage and a part of the artillery, which is now out of proportion with the numbers of the effective army. Supplies and some days’ rest are essential: the soldiers are exhausted by hunger and fatigue; during the last few days many have died by the roadside or in the bivouacs. This state of things is growing continually worse, and if steps are not quickly taken for averting the danger, we shall be exposed to the risk of being unable to control the army in the event of a battle.

“November 9. Thirty versts from Smolensk.”

After struggling into Smolensk, the promised land of their dreams, the French killed one another fighting over the food there, sacked their own stores, and when everything had been pillaged, they ran on further. All hastened on, not knowing whither or for what end they were going; least of all knew that great genius, Napoleon, since there was no one to give him orders. But still he and those about him clung to their old habits: wrote commands, letters, reports, orders of the day; called each other your majesty, mon frère, Prince d’Eckmühl, roi de Naples, and so on. But the orders and reports were all on paper: no attempt was made to carry them out, because they could not be carried out. And although they addressed each other as “majesty,” “highness,” and “mon cousin,” they all felt that they were pitiful and loathsome creatures, who had done a great wrong, for which they had now to pay the penalty. And in spite of their pretence of caring for the army, each was thinking only of himself, and how to make his escape as quickly as possible to safety.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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