The Russian Campaign as Seen by an Ordinary Soldier
Adrien-Jean-Baptiste-François Bourgogne (1785–1867) was the son of a cloth merchant from northern France. He fought in Poland in 1806; in Austria, Spain, and Portugal in 1809–11; and in Russia in 1812–13. His memoirs were first published in 1857. In his accounts of the Russian campaign, he tells how the snow and cold hampered French progress almost as much as Russian ferocity on the battlefield.
This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.
In two hours after the encounter with the Russians, the Emperor reached Krasnoë with the first regiments of the Guard—ours and the Fusiliers-Chasseurs. We camped behind the town. I was on guard with fifteen men at General Roguet's quarters: a miserable house in the town, thatched with straw. I put my men in a stable, thinking myself to be in luck to be under cover, and near a fire we had just lighted, but it turned out quite otherwise.
While were were in Krasnoë and the immediate neighborhood, the Russians, 90,000 strong, surrounded us—to right, to left, in front, and behind, nothing but Russians—thinking, no doubt, they could soon finish us off. But the Emperor wished to show them it was not quite so easy a thing as they imagined; for although we were most wretched, and dying of cold and hunger, we still possessed two things—courage and honor. The Emperor, therefore, annoyed at seeing himself followed by this horde of barbarians and savages, decided to rid himself of them.
On the evening of our arrival, General Roguet received orders to attack during the night, taking with him part of the Guard, the Fusiliers-Chasseurs, the Grenadiers, the light companies, and skirmishers. At eleven o'clock a few detachments were sent on first to reconnoiter, and find out exactly where the Russians lay; we could see their campfires in the two villages they held. They seem to have expected us, for some were already prepared to receive us.
At about one o'clock in the morning, the General came to me, and said, with his Gasçon accent:
“Sergeant, leave a corporal and four men here in charge of my quarters, and the few things I have left. Go back to the camp yourself, and rejoin the regiment with you guard. We shall have our work cut out for us presently.”
To tell the truth, I was very much disgusted by this order. I do not mean that I was afraid of fighting, but I grudged the time lost for sleep terribly.
When we got [to] the camp, preparations were already going on; evidently serious things were expected. I heard several men say that they hoped an end would at last be put to their sufferings, as they could struggle no longer.
At two o'clock we began to move forward. We formed into three columns—the Fusiliers-Grenadiers (I was amongst them) and the Fusiliers-Chasseurs in the center, the skirmishers and light companies on the right and left. The cold was as intense as ever. We had the greatest difficulty in walking across the fields, as the snow was up to our knees. After half an hour of this, we found ourselves in the midst of the Russians. On our right was a long line of infantry, opening a murderous fire on us, their heavy cavalry on our left made up of Cuirassiers in white uniform with black cuirasses. They howled like wolves to excite each other, but did not dare to attack. The artillery was in the center, pouring grape-shot on us. All this did not stop our career in the least. In spite of the firing, and the number of our men who fell, we charged on into their camp, where we made frightful havoc with our bayonets.
The men who were stationed further off had now had time to arm themselves, and come to their comrades' help. This they did by setting fire to their camp and the two villages near. We fought by the light of the fires. The columns on the right and left had passed us, and entered the enemy's camp at the two ends, whereas our column had taken the middle.
I have omitted to say that, as the head of our column charged into the Russian camp, we passed several hundred Russians stretched on the snow; we believed them to be dead or dangerously wounded. These men now jumped up and fired on us from behind, so that we had to make a demi-tour to defend ourselves. Unluckily for them, a battalion in the rear came up behind, so that they were taken between two fires, and in five minutes not one was left alive. This was a stratagem the Russians often employed, but this time it was not successful.
Poor Béloque was the first man we lost; he had foretold his death at Smolensk. A ball struck his head, and killed him on the spot. He was a great favorite with us all, and, in spite of the indifference we now felt about everything, we were really sorry to lose him.
We went through the Russian camp, and reached the village. We forced the enemy to throw a part of their artillery into a lake there, and then found that a great number of foot soldiers had filled the houses, which were partly in flames. We now fought desperately hand-to-hand. The slaughter was terrible, and each man fought by himself for himself. I found myself near our Colonel, the oldest in France, who had been through the campaign in Egypt. A sapper was holding him up by the arm, and the Adjutant-Major Roustan was there too. We were close to a farmyard filled with Russians, and blockaded by our men; they could retreat only by an entrance into a large courtyard close by a barrier.
While this desultory fighting was going on, I saw a Russian officer on a white horse striking with the flat of his sword any of his men who tried to get away by jumping over the barrier, and so effectually preventing his escape. He got possession of the passage, but just as he was preparing to jump to the other side, his horse fell under him, struck by a ball. The men were forced to defend themselves, and the fighting now grew desperate. By the lurid light of the fire it was a dreadful scene of butchery, Russians and Frenchmen in utter confusion, shooting each other muzzle to muzzle.
I tried to get at the Russian officer, who had now extricated himself from his horse, and was trying to save himself by getting over the barrier, but a Russian soldier got in the way and fired at me. Probably only the priming caught fire, otherwise there would have been an end of me; but the man who had fired reloaded his musket calmly, thinking, no doubt, that I was dangerously wounded. The Adjutant-Major, Roustan, ran to me and, seizing me by the arm, said:
“My poor Bourgogne, are you wounded?”
“No,” I answered.
“Then,” he said, “don't miss him.”
That was what I meant also, and before the Russian had time to reload, I shot him through. Mortally wounded, he did not, however, fall at once, but reeled back, and, glaring at me, fell over the officer's horse at the barrier. The Adjutant-Major gave him a thrust with his sword. Just then I found myself near the Colonel, who was completely worn out and fit for nothing more. He was alone except for his sapper. The Adjutant-Major came up, his sword covered with blood, saying that, to get back to the Colonel, he had been forced to cut his way with the sword, and that he had a bayonet wound in his thigh. As he spoke, the sapper, who was supporting the Colonel, was struck in the chest by a ball. The Colonel instantly said:
“Sapper, you are wounded?”
“Yes, sir,” said the sapper, and, taking the Colonel's hand, he made him feel the hole the ball had made.
“Then go back.”
The sapper replied that he was strong enough to stay and die with him if necessary.
“And, after all,” said the Adjutant-Major, “where could he go, in the midst of the enemy? We do not know where we are, and I can see that we shall have to wait here, fighting, till daylight.”
We had indeed lost all idea of our locality, blinded by the glare from the fires.
Five minutes after the sapper had been wounded, the Russians, whom we had held blockaded in the farm, seeing that they ran a chance of being burnt alive, offered to surrender. They sent a non-commissioned officer through a perfect storm of balls to make the proposal. The Adjutant-Major therefore sent me with the order to stop firing.
“Stop firing!” said one of our wounded men; “the others may stop if they please, but as I am wounded, and very likely dying, I shall go on as long as I have cartridges to fire with.”
He went on, therefore, sitting in the snow all stained with his blood, and even asked for more cartridges when he had fired his own. The Adjutant-Major, seeing that his orders were disregarded, came himself with a message from the Colonel. But our men, now perfectly desperate, took no notice, and still continued to fire. The Russians, seeing that there was no hope for them, and probably having no more ammunition, tried to rush out all together from the building, where they were fast getting roasted; but our men forced them back. They made a second attempt, not being able to endure their position, but scarcely had a few of their number reached the yard, when the building collapsed on the rest, more than forty of them perishing in the flames, and those in the yard being crushed as well.
When this was over, we collected our wounded together, and gathered round the Colonel with loaded weapons, waiting for daybreak. All this time the rattle of musket shots was going on continually round us, mingled with the groans of the wounded and the dying. There is nothing more terrible than a battle at night, when often fatal mistakes take place.
In this way we waited for the light. As soon as it appeared, we looked about us, and could see the result of the night's fighting. The whole ground we had been over was strewn with the wounded and dying. I saw the man who had tried to kill me, and who was not yet dead, so I placed him more comfortably away from the white horse near which he had fallen. All the houses in the village (either Kircove or Malierva) and the whole of the Russian camp were covered with half-burnt corpses. M. Gilet had his leg broken by a ball, and died a few days afterwards. The sharp-shooters (skirmishers) and the light companies lost more men than we.
Paul Cottin, ed., Memoirs of Sergeant Bourgogne: 1812-1813 (New York: Doubleday & McClure Co., 1899), pp. 107-112.