AFTER THE SECOND CROSSING OF THE NIEMEN
Out of the enemy's country, on their way home, the soldiers had by no means reached the limit of their sufferings. Instead of being able now to take the much longed for and so much needed rest they were compelled to keep on marching in order to reach the meeting places designated to them, the principal one of which was Koenigsberg.
Before entering Prussia they had to pass through a district which was inhabited by Lithuanians who had suffered very much from the army passing on the march to Moscow, and who now took revenge on the retreating soldiers.
Most happy were the Germans of the army breathing again the air of their native country, and they could not restrain their feelings when they found themselves in clean dwellings.
Their first occupation was to restore themselves in regard to cleanliness, to free their faces from a thick covering of dirt intensified by smoke which could be compared with a mask. All these unfortunate men wore this mask, but, as they said while in Moscow, without any desire to dance. Especially the better educated ones among them felt ashamed to present themselves in this condition in which they had dragged themselves through Russia and Poland.
On December 16th, von Borcke and his General, von Ochs, came to Schirwind, for the first time again in a Prussian city. Quarters were assigned to them in one of the best houses, the house of the widow of a Prussian officer. The lady, on seeing the two entering the house, was astonished to learn that they were a general with his adjutant, and that they should be her guests. Nothing about them indicated their rank, they were wrapped in sheepskins and rags full of dirt, blackened by the smoke from the camp fires, with long beards, frozen hands and feet.
On January 2nd., 1813, these two officers arrived at Thorn. They considered themselves saved from the great catastrophe, when there, like in all places to which the wrecks of the grand army had come, typhus broke out. General von Ochs was stricken down with this disease, and his condition did not warrant any hopes for recovery. His son, however, who had gone through the whole retreat wounded and sick with typhus, whom the general and his adjutant had brought from Borodino in a wagon under incredible difficulties, had recovered and was able to nurse his father.
And General von Ochs came home with his Adjutant, von Borcke, on February 20th., 1813.
Good people took pains to give their guests an opportunity to clean themselves thoroughly; the well-to-do had their servants attend to this process; in houses of the working class man and wife would give a helping hand.
Sergeant Schoebel, together with a comrade, was quartered in the house of an honest tailor who, seeing how the soldiers were covered with lice, made them undress and, while the wife boiled the undergarments, the tailor ironed the outer clothing with a hot iron.
Generous people tried to ameliorate in every manner possible the need which presented itself in such a pitiful form.
Lieutenant Schauroth was sitting in despair at a table in an inn when one nobleman pressed a double Louisd'or into his hand and another placed his sleigh at the lieutenant's disposal to continue his journey.
In Tapiau a carpenter's helper, himself a very poor man, begged among his friends to obtain a suit of clothes for Sergeant Steinmueller, whom he had never known before.
But cases of this kind were the exception; in general the Prussian peasants remembered the many excesses which, notwithstanding Napoleon's strict orders, the soldiers had committed on their march through East Prussia; they remembered the requisitions, they felt the plight of Prussia since the battle of Jena, and they revenged themselves on the French especially, but even the Germans of Napoleon's soldiers had to suffer from the infuriated, pitiless peasantry. Holzhausen describes scenes which were not less atrocious than those enacted by Russian peasants.
And those who were treated kindly had the most serious difficulties: the sudden change from misery to regular life caused many serious disorders of the organs of digestion, ennervation and circulation. All who have been in the field during our civil war know how long it took before they were able again to sleep in a bed. The Napoleonic soldiery describe how the warmth of the bed brought on the most frightful mental pictures; they saw burnt, frozen, and mutilated comrades and had to try to find rest on the floor, their nervous and their circulatory systems were excited to an intolerable degree. After eating they vomited, and only gradually the ruined stomach became accustomed again, first, to thin soups and, later on, to a more substantial diet.
How much they had suffered manifested itself in many ways after the thick crust had been removed from their body and, above all, after what had taken the place of shoes had been taken off. When Sergeant Toenges removed the rags from his feet the flesh of both big toes came off. Captain Gravenreuth's boots had been penetrated by matter and ichor. Painful operations had to be performed to separate gangraenous parts. In Marienwerder Hochberg found all the attendants of Marshal Victor on the floor while a surgeon was amputating their limbs.
But these were comparatively minor affairs, amputated limbs played no roll when hundreds of thousands of mutilated corpses rested on the fields of Russia.
An enemy more vicious than the one that had decimated the beautiful army was lying in wait for the last remainder which tried to rally again.
It was the typhus that on the road from Moscow all through Germany and through France did its destructive work.
This disease had been observed, as Dr. Geissler reports, first in Moscow, ravaged most terribly in Wilna and held a second great harvest in Koenigsberg, where the first troops arrived on December 20th.