Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The song of the Beresina

"The day now beginning is likely to be a tough one"
Agathon-Jean-Francois, Baron Fain
28th Novemeber 1812

Oudinot is up by 5 a.m., Tchitchakov's attack is expected at dawn and sure enough at 7 a.m. the sound of guns is heard in the direction of Borissow. Merle's division is ordered to advance, led by the 2nd Swiss Line, a single shell kills eleven of its men as it moves off.

Lieutenant Thomas Legler of the 1st Swiss is noticing that 'a little snow was falling', and at about 7.30 a.m. he and his Commandant Blattmann are strolling to and fro on the road and Blattmann reminds him of 'a favorite song of mine, "Our Life is like a Journey"' and asks him to sing it for him.

Our life is like a journey
Of a wanderer through the night;
Everybody carries something on his way
That causes him to grieve.
But then unexpectedly do fade
Night and darkness before us,
And the sorely troubled find
Solace to their sorrow.
Fearless, fearless, dear brothers,
Abandon the anxious worries;
Tomorrow the sun will rise again
Friendly in the sky.
Therefore let us move on;
Do not retreat disheartenedly!
Beyond those far heights
A new happiness awaits us.

'I started to at once, and when I'd finished it, he heaved a deep sigh. "Yes, Legler, that's how it is. What splendid words!"'.

Other officers joined them and spend 'the morning's early hours singing and chatting'.

Evidently Tschaplitz's attack is taking some time too materialise. Becuase it's already '9 a.m. when suddenly a roundshot passes overhead with a horrible loud noise' startling Legler's colleagues.

'We couldn't understand how we could have been standing so near the enemy without outposts. Now we heard heavy cannon fire in the distance; and to our right musketry seemed to be coming closer. An orderly officer came galloping up from that direction: "Our line's have been attacked!"'

Hardly have the group of Swiss infantry officers taken 100 paces to their right than 'to our great astonishment an enemy came forward'. The swiss scouts 'quickly spread out backward and sideways', keeping the enemy at a distance by a well nourished fire, on the road both sides' artillery were facing each other, 'but the enemy's so aslant it we could now and again trace the damage their roundshot was doing'.

The Croat Regiment having been stationed elsewhere, Merle's four Swiss infantry regiments, 'these four units together perhaps amounting to at most 2,500 men', only have the French 123rd Line to support them.

'Behind us a few small Polish infantry units, a squadron of chasseurs and one of lancers formed a second line.'

By now it's growing light and the 3rd Swiss, with the 4th Swiss to their right, are firing volley after volley, 'fighting without budging'.

'it seems the enemy's being reinforced. His firing's becoming livlier. Suddenly we're thrown back, we retreat some 50 paces. The chiefs shout: "Forward!" Everywhere the "Charge" is beaten. We're flung at the enemy, cross bayonets at point-blank range. Slowly, the Russians retire, still firing.'

Soon the Swiss are held up by cavalry.

'which makes a charge through the sparse snow-laden pines. But all this has been no more than a passade. In no time our battery and the 4th's dismount the Russian battery, which is abandoned on the road.'

But the Swiss are suffering heavy casualties. The 2nd Regiment, only a few yards away, is 'the most advanced of all. After a first, very sucessful charge, our commandant Vonderweid, from Seedorf, was following up vigorously', Capitan Begons orders his adjutant,

'an NCO named Barbey, to go and get some cartridges. He was obeying when he was hit mortally. I gave the same order to a certain Scherzenecker. He too was hit, in the right arm. I was just going to send a third officer when I saw the Russians, protected by numerous light infantry, were still coming on ever more thickly. Although our regiment scarecely had 800 men, it was well equipped and aware of the importance of the position entrusted us. We hear a formidable noise of gunfire and hurrahs. It was the Rusian army which, knowing our army corps had crossed the river and to dispute the passage with us, was coming on in ever greater numbers.'

Now the Swiss - the 1st Regiment had spread out en tirralleurs - are beginning to run out of ammunition:

'On both sides the firing was murderous . It wasn't long before General Amey and several staff officers had been wounded and several killed, among them our commandant Blatmann. A bullet went through his brain. General De Brigade Canderas and his adjutant had fallen too; a roundshot had taken off the latter's head.'

By now Legler - he's taken cover behind a tree - is estimating the number of men - it was growing every minute' - standing idle for lack of cartridges to be at least 300. 'All these were coming and placing themselves calmly behind the line of officers.' When he asks them what they are doing there, they simply reply "give us cartridges". What can he reply to that? At that moment he sees Merle 200 yards away. Runs over to him. Asks leave to attack the advancing Russians at bayonet point. Merle tells him to run back and, in his name, order the firing to cease and to charge with the bayonet. Legler insists that the drummers 'since we'd ceased fire' shall take the lead:

'But this they all refused. So in the heat of the moment I seized the first one to hand by his collar and threatened to run my sword through him if he didn't follow me. After which I, at the run, dragged him behind me to the front line, while he beat the attack with one hand. However, just as I let go of him a bullet hit him in the right jawbone.'

All his long life the 23-year old volunteer Louis de Bourmann will remember and celebrate the 2nd Regiment's homeric struggles, he sees Vonderweid fall:

'He'd just given his horse to his adjutant, who'd been wounded in the leg, and was fighting on foot at the head of his braves when a Russian musket ball went through his throat. He gave a cry, stifled by blood, and fell backwards into my arms. After the first moment had passed, he, without losing consciousness, said these simple words to his fellow citizen "Bourmann, I've died here as a Christian."'

He is carried to the rear by his men, 'hardly to survive for forty-eight hours'.

At last cartridges have arrived and been distributed by Legler's men. Not enough to keep up the heavy fire however. So a second bayonet charge is launched. 'Twice at a hundred paces' distance we forced him to retire.' With some grenadiers Legler goes to the rear to get more ammunition, 'but had to search about for a powder wagon for a good half hour before we found one'. Just as they're going back to the firing line with as many cartridges as they can carry, they see Commandant Zingg, who insists on taking over now that Blatmann is dead. But as they approach the regiment they see, 'about 300 paces to the left of the road', another Russian column advancing and outflanking them. 'Already it could take us in the rear.'

Being only a cannon-shot from the bridge on the forest fringe, the Swiss can't see very far ahead, Begos assumes the 3rd and 4th Regiment must be somewhere to his right.

'almost opposite the bridge. For the rest, it was hard to grasp the army's overall movements. In such moments each man feels how important it is to stay at his post. It was a question of preventing the Russians from approaching, so what was needed was a heroic defence, no more, no less! Not for a single moment had we nothing to do. Swarms of Russians were aiming such well-nourished fire at out regiment that after an hour of combat we'd lost quite a lot of ground.'

Legler's men, however, have been following up their bayonet attack 'for the best part of half an hour', and the Russians have turned and fled - as troops almost always do when seriously threatened with a bayonet charge -

'when we were swept up in the flight of the lancer squadron on our right flank. Looking back as we ran, we saw Russian Dragoons at our heels, and also enemy infantry advancing with them. Again I yelled out to halt and form up. Those who heard me did as I'd ordered, and our well aimed shots at the nearest dragoons, felling them from their horses, had such a good effect that the others galloped back, leaving the infantry standing.'

By now, through thickly falling snow, the Russian artillery's enfilading the road at short range. It's causing such slaughter among the Swiss that Oudinot, sitting on his horse amidst the swirling snowflakes, orders Merle's division to move off to its left. Thus placing it under cover of the forest, he brings up two of his own guns. Pils, in the saddle beside the Marshal, and clasping his first-aid box, sees how, 'before they've had time to be ranged in battery, one of them is carried off by the Russians, whom we hadn't realised were so close. We couldn't see farther than 30 paces for the snow.'

For all their staunchness the Swiss, Fezensac realises, are losing a lot of ground:

'Only three weak batttalions placed on the road - all that was left of I, III and VIII Corps - served as their reserve. For a while the fight was sustained; under pressure from superior forces II Corps was beginning to sag. Our reserves, hit by roundshot at ever closer range, were moving towards our rear. This movement put to flight all the isolated men who filled the wood, and in their terror they ran as far as the bridge. Even the Young Guard was wavering.'

Oudinot, 'indignant at such audacity' on the Russians part, 'remains in the middle of the road without bothering about the bullets whistling by on all sides.' The moment has come, he decides, to send in his heavy cavalry; and send his ADC, M. de la Chaise, to General Doumerc, ordering him to advance his curassiers' - the 4th, 7th and 14th Curassiers.

So impatient is Oudinot 'while waiting for his order to be carried out that he stamps his foot', asking Pils as he does whether he hasn't got a drop of brandy to warm him:

'I'm just searching for it in my bag, paying no more heed to what's going on, when, having found some dregs of brandy, I offer them to him. In the same instant I see M. le Marechal put his hand to his side and fall from his horse, which instantly bolts.'

Dragging with it its rider (according to another eye-witness) hanging upside down. Pils, 'alone beside him' struggles to dismount,

'but couldn't extract my right shoe from the stirupp. The illustrious wounded man gave no more sign of life. But then a young voltigeur whose right fist had been carried away and who was holding his musket in his left hand came to my assistance, frees me and helped to lift M. le Marechal. We raised him to a sitting position.'

At this moment Captian de la Chaise comes back to report his mission accomplished, as Pils continues;

'Between the three of us we placed him on the voltigeur's musket and took him away from this spot where musket balls were still whistling. Then Lieutentant-Colonel Jacqueminot appeared, bringing back a Russian officer, whom he was grasping by the collar. Finally General de Lorencz, chief-of-staff, and some other officers had rejoined us. We got busy making a stretcher out of pine branches.'

Napoleon, meanwhile, has returned to his headquarters at Ziniwki hamlet, and is standing 'on foot at the forest fringe on the right of the road, surrounded by his staff. Behind him the Imperial Guard, drawn up in battle order,' amounts in all to some 5,500 men - Mortier's Young Guard (2,000), Lefebvre's Old Guard Infantry (3,500), and Bessieres' 500 Chasseurs and a handful of Horse Grenadiers:

'Informed of the Duke of Reggio's condition, the Emperor immediately sent his own carriage, escorted by some Horse Grenadiers, but M. le Marechal, who'd recovered consciousness, declared he couldn't stand the jolting, and so we went on carrying him.' Bonneval, sent with a dispatch to Ney to take over command of the II Corps as well as his own, sees 'Jacqueminot following after, all in tears.'

As the men carrying Oudinot pass before him, Pils goes on,

'The Horse Grenadiers of the Guard were drawn up to the left of the road. Captain Victor Oudinot, the Marshal's son, sees the convoy passing, has recognised the face of his farther, jumped the ditch and come to him. We laid M. le Marechal on a mattress in the Emperor's hut. There he was given first aid.'

Bonneval, coming with the order to Ney to take over, has found him

'on a little white horse, surrounded by his whole staff. There he was in the midst of a very well nourished fire, as calm as at the Tuileries.'

The Brill wood's pine trees, though heavily snow-laden, are 'very sparse'. And upon Doumerc's 3rd Heavy Cavalry Division coming up, Ney orders Colonel Ordener of the 7th Curassiers, supported by the 4th, '200 Curassiers at most', to charge through it. Within sight of Thomas Legler and his men - they're about to be taken in the rear again by yet another Russian column which - 'advancing with loud shouts' - has just forced some French or Swiss infantry to give ground', the cuirassiers are ordered to charge:

'The brave cuirassiers of the 4th and 7th Regiments, who were standing only 1,000 paces away from us, had seen the enemy too. We clearly heard the word of command: "Squadrons, by the left flank march!" As soon as the cuirassiers crossed the road they went into the attack.'

In front of them is a huge Russian square. Nearby is Rochechcaouart, who's 'marched for the Studianka ford with everything we could collect'. Langeron has invited him to come with him

'into the forest with the grenadier battalion and a good regiment of Don Cossacks. No sooner have we got into said forest than we're vigorously charged by a regiment of cuirassiers, such as we certainly didn't expect to meet with on that kind of battlefield. Our grenadiers, taken by surprise, were sabred and routed, while our Cossacks made a show of resisting, which thanks to our horses gave us time to escape.'

The great Russian infantry square is shattered and dissolves.

Legler sees only:

'four shots fired; then the enemy fled, we threw our ammunition to the ground and all ran forward with a single shout: "the cuirassiers are attacking the enemy in the woord to our left! Forward at the bayonet!" Some were shouting "Vive l'Empereur" and I myself. "Long live the brave men from Polotsk!" The assault was general and this time succeeded so well that we took 2,500 prisoners, two-thirds of them wounded. Many dead and badly wounded men were lying on the ground.'

After this catch, says the breathless Legler;

'followed a calm that lasted for a quarter of an hour at least. Now at long last, our other column, the Poles advanced, ad we were issued cartridges, which had finally arrived in sufficient quantity. The oddest thing about his bayonet attack was that though we'd lost many dead and wounded during the firing, we ourselves hardly lost anyone at all. The enemy's second line, which now engaged us, hadn't been firing at us for half an hour before the Poles were forced back on top of us. We absorbed them into our line and resumed firing. We were amazed how accurate the enemy shot's were; if it had been sharpshooters we'd had in front of us they couldn't have done us worse damage.'

But Tschaplitz's men are falling back head over heels into Stavkowo. Rochechouart the emigre is half shattered by his compatriots achievements, half proud of it 'the French and Polish infantry seconded the cuirassiers efforts. The prize of their victory was 4,000 prisoners and five guns.'
As the come back driving before them long columns of prisoners, most of them slashed by sabre cuts', Doumerc's victorious cuirassier are welcomed by Fezensac's men 'with transports of joy'. Rapp sees them ride past in front of the Guard, 'still beautiful and to be feared, in battle array at the forests edge.' And Fain hears how the Russian square has consisted of no fewer than 7,000 infantrymen. From a Russian officer he interrogates through his Polish interpreter napoleon hears that all 'are from the Army of Moldavia'

Swiss Memorial at Beresina

It has been the battle's turning point, at least on the right bank. Tchitchakov, who hadn't expected to come upon such redoubtable enemies, didn't renew the attack, though by nightfall fewer than 300 of the 2,500 Swiss remained, the 2eme has been virtually destroyed and in the 3eme Jean-Marc Bussy notes that his Voltigeur company can only muster 7 effectives out of the 87 that started they day.

"Brave Swiss! You have fought like lions.
Each of you deserves the cross of the Légion d'honneur."

General Merle, commander of the Swiss Division.

(Largely taken from '1812 The Great Retreat' by Paul Britten Austin - edited for brevity)

So here we have a fitting action for our 3ème Régiment d'Infanterie de Ligne Suisse, only a small force is needed, perfect for the tabletop. If you prefer something a little different, then look in the archives for this blog as you will also find an account of the first Battle of Bruc in Spain, which once again involves the Swiss saving the day.

1 comment:

kingsleypark said...

That is one of the great things about the Napoleonic Wars, the number of vivid accounts of these incredible battles which should provide any wargamer with inspiration for thousands of different re-fights on the gaming table.