CROSSING THE NIEMEN
Among different publications on the medical history of Napoleon's campaign in 1812, which I happened to find, was a dissertation of Marin Bunoust, "Considerations generales sur la congelation pendant l'ivresse observee en Russie en 1812." Paris, 1817 (published, therefore, three years before publication of von Scherer's dissertation), in which the author wishes to show that the physiological effect of drunkenness on the organism is identical with that of extreme cold.
Von Scherer, after the hospital of Strizzowan had been evacuated, again joined his regiment. The French army in forced marches pursued the enemy on the road to Moscow over Ostrowno, Witepsk and Smolensk. Dysentery did not abate. In the hospitals of Smolensk, Wiasma and Ghiat, von Scherer found, besides the wounded from the battles of Krasnoe, Smolensk and Borodino, a great number of dysentery patients; many died on the march. The whole presented a pitiful sight, and the soldiers' contempt of life excited horror.
We shall return to von Scherer's dissertation when describing the retreat from Moscow.
While the dissertation of von Scherer treats on the fate of the Wuerttembergian corps of Napoleon's grand army, a memoir of First Lieutenant von Borcke who served as adjutant of General von Ochs in the Westphalian corps relates the fate of the Westphalians in the grand army of 1812.
The Westphalians, 23,747 men strong, left Cassel in the month of March, 1812, to unite with the French army. One of the regiments was sent later and joined the corps while the army was on the retreat from Moscow at Moshaisk. This regiment, like another, which followed still later and joined the army on the retreat at Wilna, was annihilated. Of the 23,747 men a few hundred finally returned. On March 24th., the Westphalians crossed the Elbe, von Borcke (it is a common error in American literature to spell the predicate of nobility von with a capital V when at the beginning of a period, while neither von nor the corresponding French de as predicate of nobility should ever be spelled with a capital) at that time suffered from intermittent fever, but was cured by the use of calisaya bark. I mention this to call attention to the fact that quinine was not known in the year 1812. When the corps marched into Poland the abundance of provisions which the soldiers had enjoyed, came to an end.
There were no magazines from which rations could have been distributed, and the poor Polish peasants, upon whom requisitions should have been made, had nothing for the soldiers. Disorder among the troops who thus far distinguished themselves by strictest discipline, made its appearance. How the army was harassed by the plague of dysentery, how the soldiers were marching during great heat, insufficiently supplied in every way, and how they suffered from manifold hardships, has been described in von Scherer's dissertation. The Westphalian corps was in as precarious a condition as the Wuerttembergian, as in fact the whole army and the Westphalian battalions were already reduced to one-half their former number. Many soldiers had remained behind on account of sickness or exhaustion, and officers were sent back to bring them to the ranks again.
The whole army would have dissolved if the march had not been interrupted. Napoleon ordered a stay. An order from him called for a rally of the troops, for the completion of war material, ammunition, and horses and provisions; but where to take all these things from? The war had not yet begun, and the troops were already in danger of starvation. Only with sadness and fear could the soldiers, under these circumstances, look into the future.
In what way, says Ebstein, can this great want, this insufficient supply of provisions, which made itself felt even at the beginning of the campaign, be explained? It has been shown how Napoleon exerted himself to meet the extraordinary difficulty of supplying the grand army of half a million of men and 100,000 horses with provisions, how well he was aware of the great danger in this regard, how he superintended and hastened the work of providing for men and horses by every possible means, that he understood all the circumstances surrounding the march of the grand army through a vast country populated by few, and these mostly serfs who had barely sufficient food for themselves and no means to replenish their stock in case it should have been exhausted by Napoleon's system of requisition, not to speak of the marauding to which the French soldiers were soon forced to resort. Ebstein says that the cause of the sad, the wretched condition concerning supplies was due to the fact that incompetent officers had been appointed as commissaries of the army; they held high military rank, were independent and could not be easily reached for their faults. It happened that soldiers were starving near well filled magazines, such magazines at Kowno, Wilna, Minsk, Orcha being not only well, but over, filled, while the passing troops were in dire need. We shall later on come to frightful details of this kind.