Crossing of the Berezina
(from Robinson and Beard)

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Crossing of the Berezina

Source: Readings in Modern European History, edited by James Harvey Robinson and Charles Beard (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1906), vol. 2, p. 515-22, citing Constant, reflections of the Private Life of Napoleon, vol. 3, p. 111

Napoleon's final retreat from Russia involved the crossing of the Berezina River in the middle of winter, one of the most tragic retreats in military history.

On the 25th of November there had been thrown across the river temporary bridges made of beams taken from the cabins of the Poles . . . . At a little after five in the after noon the beams gave way, not being sufficiently strong ; and as it was necessary to wait until the next day, the army again abandoned itself to gloomy forebodings. It was evident that they would have to endure the fire of the enemy all the next day. But there was no longer any choice; for it was only at the end of this night of agony and suffering of every description that the first beams were secured in the river. It is hard to comprehend how men could submit to stand, up to their mouths in water filled with ice, rallying all the strength which nature had given them, added to all that the energy of devotion furnished, and drive piles several feet deep into a miry bed, struggling against the most horrible fatigue, pushing back with their hands enormous blocks of ice which threatened to submerge and sink them . . . .

The emperor awaited daylight in a poor hut, and in the morning said to Prince Berthier, " Well, Berthier, how can we get out of this?" He was seated in his room, great tears flowing down his cheeks, which were paler than usual; and the prince was seated near him. They exchanged few words, and the emperor appeared overcome by his grief. I leave to the imagination what was passing in his soul. . .

When the artillery and baggage wagons passed, the bridge was so overweighted that it fell in. Instantly a backward movement took place, which crowded together all the multitude of stragglers who were advancing in the rear of the artillery, like a flock being herded. Another bridge had been constructed, as if the sad thought had occurred that the first might give way, but the second was narrow and without a railing ; nevertheless it seemed at first a very valuable makeshift in such a calamity. But how disasters follow one upon another! The stragglers rushed to the second bridge in crowds. But the artillery, the baggage wagons, ‑‑ in a word, all the army supplies, ‑had been in front on the first bridge when it broke down .... Now, since it was urgent that the artillery should pass first, it rushed impetuously toward the only road to safety which remained. No pen can describe the scene of horror which ensued; for it was literally over a road of trampled human bodies that conveyances of all sorts reached the bridge. On this occasion one could see how much brutality and cold‑blooded ferocity can be produced in human minds by the instinct of self‑preservation . . . . As I have said, the bridge had no railing; and crowds of those who forced their way across fell into the river and were engulfed beneath the ice. Others, in their fall, tried to stop themselves by grasping the planks of the bridge, and remained suspended over the abyss until, their hands crushed by the wheels of the vehicles, they lost their grasp and went to join their comrades as the waves closed over them. Entire caissons with drivers and horses were precipitated into the water.

Officers harnessed themselves to sleds to carry some of their companions who were rendered helpless by their wounds. They wrapped these unfortunates as warmly as possible, cheered them from time to time with a glass of brandy when they could procure it, and lavished upon them the most touching attention. There were many who behaved in this unselfish manner, of whose names we are ignorant; and how few returned to enjoy in their own country the remembrance of the most heroic deeds of their lives!

On the 29th the emperor quitted the banks of the Beresina and we slept at Kamen, where his Majesty occupied a poor wooden building which the icy air penetrated from all sides through the windows, for nearly all the glass was broken. We closed the openings as well as we could with bundles of hay. A short distance from us, in a large lot, were penned up the wretched Russian prisoners whom the army drove before it. I had much difficulty in comprehending the delusion of victory which our poor soldiers still kept up by dragging after them this wretched luxury of prisoners, who could only be an added burden, as they required constant surveillance. When the conquerors are dying of famine, what becomes of the conquered ? These poor Russians, exhausted by marches and hunger, nearly all perished that night.

On the 3d of December we arrived at Malodeczno. During the whole day the emperor appeared thoughtful and anxious. He had frequent confidential conversations with the grand equerry, Monsieur de Coulaincourt, and I expected some extraordinary measure. I was not mistaken in my conjectures. At two leagues from Smorghoni the duke of Vicenza summoned me and told me to go on in front and give orders to have the six best horses harnessed to my carriage, which was the lightest of all, and keep them in constant readiness. I reached Smorghoni before the emperor, who did not arrive until the following night . . . . After supper the emperor ordered prince Eugene to read the twenty-ninth bulletin and spoke freely of his plans, saying that his departure was essential in order to send help to the army.

The emperor left in the night. By daybreak the army had learned the news, and the impression it made cannot be depicted. Discouragement was at its height, and many soldiers cursed the emperor and reproached him for abandoning them.

This night, the 6th, the cold increased greatly. Its severity may be imagined, as birds were found on the ground frozen stiff. Soldiers seated themselves with their heads in their hands and bodies bent forward in order thus to feel less the emptiness of their stomachs . . . . Everything had failed us. Long before reaching Wilna, the horses being dead, we received orders to burn our carriages and all their contents.