Chapter 17

THE ACTIONS of the Russian and French armies during the retreat from Moscow to the Niemen resemble a game of Russian blindman’s buff, in which there are two players, both with their eyes bandaged, and one rings a bell at intervals to let the other know of his whereabouts. At first he rings his bell with no fear of his opponent; but when he begins to find himself in a difficult position, he runs away as noiselessly as he can from his opponent, and often supposing he is running away from him, walks straight into his arms.

At first Napoleon’s army made its whereabouts known—that was in the early period of the retreat along the Kaluga road—but afterwards, when they had taken to the Smolensk road, they ran holding the tongue of the bell; and often supposing they were running away, ran straight towards the Russians.

Owing to the rapidity of the flight of the French, and of the Russians after them, and the consequent exhaustion of the horses, the chief means of keeping a close watch on the enemy’s position—by means of charges of cavalry—was out of the question. Moreover, in consequence of the frequent and rapid changes of position of both armies, what news did come always came too late. If information arrived on the second that the army of the enemy had been in a certain place on the first, by the third, when the information could be acted upon, the army was already two days’ march further, and in quite a different position.

One army fled, the other pursued. From Smolensk, there were a number of different roads for the French to choose from; and one would have thought that, as they stayed there four days, the French might have found out where the enemy was, have thought out some advantageous plan, and undertaken something new. Yet, after a halt of four days, the crowds of them ran back; again not to right or to left, but, with no manœuvres or plans, along their old road—the worst one—by Krasnoe and Orsha, along their beaten track.

Expecting the enemy in their rear and not in front, the French ran, straggling out, and getting separated as far as twenty-four hours’ march from one another. In front of all fled the Emperor, then the kings, then the dukes. The Russian army, supposing Napoleon would take the road to the right beyond the Dnieper—the only sensible course—turned also to the right, and came out on the high road at Krasnoe. And here, just as in the game of blindman, the French came bearing straight down on our vanguard. Seeing the enemy unexpectedly, the French were thrown into confusion, stopped short from the suddenness of the fright, but then ran on again, abandoning their own comrades in their rear. Then for three days, the separate parts of the French army passed, as it were, through the lines of the Russian army: first the viceroy’s troops, then Davoust’s, and then Ney’s. They all abandoned one another, abandoned their heavy baggage, their artillery, and half their men, and fled, making semicircles to the right to get round the Russians by night.

Ney was the last, because in spite, or perhaps in consequence, of their miserable position, with a child’s impulse to beat the floor that has bruised it, he lingered to demolish the walls of Smolensk, which had done nobody any harm. Ney, who was the last to pass with his corps of ten thousand, reached Napoleon at Orsha with only a thousand men, having abandoned all the rest, and all his cannons, and made his way by stealth at night, under cover of the woods, across the Dnieper.

From Orsha they fled on along the road to Vilna, still playing the same game of blindman with the pursuing army. At Berezina again, they were thrown into confusion, many were drowned, many surrendered, but those that got across the river, fled on.

Their chief commander wrapped himself in a fur cloak, and getting into a sledge, galloped off alone, deserting his companions. Whoever could, ran away too, and those who could not—surrendered or died.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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