In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
In 1812 France ruled Europe, from Spain to the Russian frontier, from Sicily to Denmark. The Emperor Napoleon’s word was law. Only Great Britain among the nations of Europe opposed her, as she had done, more or less continuously since 1792. Britain, had a population of 15,000,000 less than half of France’s 31,000,000, but was an immensely powerful trading nation. In the Iberian Peninsula, the Duke of Wellington, with his Allied Army of never more that 80,000, and their guerrilla friends, kept 300,000 French soldiers engaged. Wellington added the acid of defeat to Napoleon’s Spanish ulcer.
In 1941, Hitler’s Germany ruled Europe from the Atlantic coast to the plains of Russia, with a ferocity and evil unknown even to Napoleon. Again, at that time, only the British and their Empire opposed him.
Both Napoleon and Hitler had concluded treaties with Russia, and both were to breach them, but for different reasons. Napoleon, hamstrung by the power of the Royal Navy, had attempted to impose a Continental blockade on British trade with Europe. Russia needed trade with Britain to live, and tore up her agreement with France. Hitler believed he needed ‘lebensraum’ to enable Germans to achieve their God given place of pre-eminence in the world.
On 22nd June 1812, Napoleon declared war on Russia, and his troops crossed the border two days later. On 22nd June 1941, German troops, without a declaration of war, crossed into Soviet territory.
Napoleon had an Army of some 600,000 men, drawn from not only France but also from the conquered nations and states, like Holland, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Poland, Austria and the various German States. The Emperor led this huge host in person, with many of the heroes of the Empire with him, Murat, Ney, Macdonald, Bernadotte and Prince Eugene, Napoleon’s stepson by Josephine.
The French streamed across the rolling Russian plains, the blues, scarlets, greens and whites of their uniforms contrasting with the waving yellow wheat fields, the leathers of their horses creaking, the men grunting as they heaved the guns along the few primitive tracks which existed. Napoleon was anxious to bring Barclay de Tolly, and Kutuzov, the Russian commanders to battle. The Russians were not so minded, and retreated eastwards, leaving the scorched and blackened earth of their homeland in their wake
On 7th September, over six weeks after the invasion had begun, Tsar Alexander ordered his forces to stand and fight, and for two bloody days they did just that, at the small village of Borodino, about 70 miles west of Moscow. The battle was indecisive, the Russians taking some 40,000 casualties, the French between 30 and 50,000. The Russians recommenced their retreat.
The French entered Moscow, Russia’s second city and religious capital on 14th September, the Russians withdrawing as the enemy took the city. On the following day, those citizens remaining set fire to the town, destroying three quarters of it. Napoleon sat in the blackened ruins, the wood smoke in his nostrils and composed an ultimatum to Alexander. There was no reply, and some five weeks after their entry, the dirty, hungry and dispirited French began the long withdrawal to the Polish frontier.
The retreat was over much of the same ground that the advance had followed, past the putrefying remains of the French dead. The Army was laden down with plunder from Moscow; furniture, paintings, silks, icons and just about everything that could be transported. The Russian armies came back, spearheaded by the much feared Cossacks, to snipe at the French flanks and to eliminate without mercy the stragglers, who included many women and children.
It rained, and rained, turning the fields into muddy troughs, trapping the artillery and wagons filled with looted booty. Early in November the snows started and the French, in summer uniforms, tried to warm themselves with furs, curtains and even women’s gowns. The soldiers’ boots disintegrated. Food had all but disappeared and the horses were killed to feed the men. Sometimes the hungry tore at the flanks of the unfortunate beasts even as they lay dying in the snow.
The temperatures plunged to their lowest levels in living memories and hundreds, then thousands of French troops fell asleep on the icy ground, never to waken. The wolves prowled all around the long straggle of the rout, tearing at the bodies of the living and the dead. The peasants, accustomed to the cold, preyed on the French, horribly mutilating them. Here and there women lay frozen to death, sometimes with a dead child clinging to the breast.
The towns the French had garrisoned en route to Moscow were now attacked and sometimes over run by the Russians and the remnants of the defenders joined the long retreat. At the end of November at the River Berisina the French Army and civilians tried desperately to cross over the one remaining bridge, attacked by three Russian Armies. In four days some 30,000 French were killed at this one point, the river being blocked for weeks by bloated bodies. Marshal Ney commanded a fighting rearguard, reputedly being the last man out of Russia. Napoleon made him the Prince of Moscow.
The Emperor Napoleon took 600,000 men into Russia. Only 50,000 came out. These losses take no account of the huge numbers of civilians who died perhaps 30,000. In 1943/4 Hitler fared even worse. In 1812 the Tsar remarked, “Of all my generals, General Winter is the best.” Stalin might have made the same remark in the following century.
In winter quarters in Portugal, Wellington read of Napoleon’s defeat, and handed the report to his Spanish liaison officer, General Miguel Alava, “That must have been a bit of a disappointment for Boney.”
Written by my Father B.M