Chapter 10

THE FRENCH ARMY went on melting away at a regularly increasing rate. And the crossing of the Berezina, of which so much has been written, was only one of the intermediate stages of the destruction of the army, and by no means the decisive episode of the campaign. The reason that so much has been written about Berezina on the French side is that at the broken-down bridge of Berezina the woes, which had till then come upon them in a sort of regular succession, were suddenly concentrated there in a single moment—in one tragic catastrophe, which remained printed on the memory of all. On the Russian side, the reason that so much has been made of Berezina was simply that at Petersburg, far away from the theatre of war, a plan had been devised (again by Pfuhl of all people) for catching Napoleon in a strategic snare on the banks of the Berezina. Every one was convinced that the plan would come off exactly as arranged, and so they insisted that Berezina had in any case been the scene of the final ruin of the French. In reality the results of Berezina were less ruinous to the French in loss of cannons and prisoners than was the fighting at Krasnoe, as statistics prove.

The sole significance of the disaster of Berezina lies in the fact that it proved obviously and unmistakably how misleading were all plans for cutting off the enemy’s retreat; and the one possible course of action was that which was supported by Kutuzov and the mass of the Russian army—simply to follow on the enemy’s track. The crowd of French soldiers fled with continually accelerating velocity, with all their energies directed to the attainment of their goal. It was fleeing like a wounded beast and could not be stopped on the way. This was proved, not so much by the construction of the crossing, as by what happened at the bridges. When the bridges were broken down, unarmed soldiers, camp-followers from Moscow, women with children, who were with the French transport, all under the influence of vis inertiœ, dashed forward for the boats, or rushed into the frozen water, instead of surrendering.

Their impulse was a reasonable one. The position of fugitives and of pursuers was equally wretched. By remaining with his own men, each hoped for the help of comrades in misfortune, for a definite place of his own among them. By surrendering to the Russians, he found himself in the same wretched circumstances, but placed on a lower level than others as regards the satisfaction of his vital needs. The French had no need of authentic evidence that half of the prisoners—whom the Russians were unable to look after, however much they desired to save them— were dying of cold and hunger. They felt that it could not but be so. The most humane Russian officers, even those naturally warmly disposed to the French, Frenchmen in the Russian service, could do nothing for the prisoners. They perished from the wretched plight in which the Russians were themselves placed. Bread and clothing could not be taken from the starving, insistent soldiers to give it to Frenchmen—not hated, not obnoxious, nor in any way to blame—but simply superfluous. Some did even do this; but it was only an exception.

Behind them lay certain destruction; before them lay hope. Their ships were burnt; there was no hope of safety but in keeping together and in flight, and all the forces of the French were bent on this united flight.

The more precipitate the flight of the French, and the more wretched the plight of those left behind (especially after Berezina, on which great hopes had been set, owing to the Petersburg plan), the more violent were the attacks made by the Russian generals on one another, and still more on Kutuzov. Assuming that the failure of the Petersburg plan would be ascribed to him, the dissatisfaction with him, contempt of him, and jeering at him became more and more pronounced. This contempt and jeering was of course expressed in respectful form—in such a form that Kutuzov could not even ask what he was accused of. They did not talk to him seriously; they submitted their reports and asked for his decisions with an air of performing a melancholy ceremony, while they winked behind his back, and at every step tried to deceive him. It was accepted as a recognised thing by all those men that it was useless talking to the old man, simply because they could not understand him. They took it for granted that he could never comprehend the deep significance of their plans, that he would answer them with his phrases (they fancied they were only meaningless phrases) about a golden bridge, and about the impossibility of going beyond the frontier with a crowd of barefoot beggars. And everything he said—for instance, that they must wait for provisions, or that the men had no boots—all was so simple; while everything they proposed was so complicated and so clever, that it was obvious to them that he was stupid and in his dotage, while

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