ON TO MOSCOW
Arrived in Russia the French were soon disappointed; gloomy forests and sterile soil met the eye, all was sad and silent. After the army had passed the Niemen and entered into Poland the misery, instead of diminishing, increased, the hour had struck for these unfortunates. The enemy destroyed everything on retreating, the cattle were taken to distant provinces; the French saw the destruction of the fields, the villages were deserted, the peasants fled upon the appearance of the French army, all inhabitants had left except the Jews. When the army came to Lithuania everything seemed to be in league against the French. It was a rainy season, the soldiers marched through vast and gloomy forests, and all was melancholy. One could have imagined himself to be in a desert if it had not been for the vehicles, the cursing of the drivers, discontented on account of hunger and fatigue, the imprecations of the soldiers on every occasion; bad humor, due to privations, prevailed everywhere. It would seem as if the furies of hell were marching at the heels of the army. The roads were in a terrible condition, almost unpassable on account of the rain which had been continuous since the crossing of the Niemen; the artillery wagons especially gave great trouble in passing marshes, and, on account of the extreme exhaustion of the horses, a great many of these vehicles had to be abandoned. The horses receiving no nourishment but green herbs could resist even less than the men and they fell by the hundred.
The improper feeding of the animals caused gastric disturbances, alternately diarrhoea and constipation, enormous tympanitis, peritonitis. It is touching to read of the devotion of German cavalrymen to their poor horses. They would introduce the whole arm into the bowel to relieve the suffering creatures of the accumulated fecal masses.
As the army advanced over these roads the extreme want of provisions was bitterly felt. The warriors already reduced to such an excess of misery were exposed to rain without being able to dry themselves; to nourish themselves they were forced to resort to the most horrible marauding, and sometimes they had nothing to eat for twenty-four hours or even longer. They ran through the land in all directions, disregarding all dangers, sometimes many miles away from the route, to find provisions. Wherever they came they went through the houses from the foundation to the roof, and when they found animals they took them away; no attention was paid to the feeling of the poor peasants and nothing was considered as being too harsh for them; in most instances the latter had run away for fear of maltreatment. Nothing is so afflicting as to see the rapacity of pillaging soldiers, stealing and destroying everything coming under their hands. They took to excess vodka found in the magazines which the enemy had not destroyed, or in the castles off the main route. In consequence of this abuse of alcohol while in their feeble condition many perished. The enemy retreated behind the Dwina and fortified himself in camp. It was thought that he would give battle, and all enjoyed this prospect.
On July 20, at a time when the conditions of the army were already terrible, the heat became excessive. The rains ceased; there were no rainy days, except an occasional storm, until September 17. The poor infantrymen were to be pitied; they had to carry their arms, their effects, their cartridges, harassed by continuous fatigue, overpowered by hunger and a thousand sorrows, and were obliged to march 10, 12, 15, and sometimes even 16 and 17 miles a day over dusty roads under a burning sun, all the time tormented by a cruel thirst. But all this has been fully described in an earlier chapter.
On July 23 the Prince of Eckmuehl (Davout) had a very hot engagement with the Russian army corps under Prince Bagratian before Mohilew; on July 25, a bloody battle was fought near Ostrowno. The houses and other buildings of Ostrowno were filled with wounded, the battlefield covered with corpses of men and horses, and the hot weather caused quick putrefaction. Kerckhove visited the battlefield on June 28 and says: "I have no words to describe the horror of seeing the unburied cadavers, infesting the air, and among the dead many helpless wounded without a drop of water, exposed to the hot sun, crying in rage and despair."
Napoleon made preparations to attack on July 28, but the enemy had retreated. At Witepsk, hospitals were established for the wounded from Ostrowno, among them 800 Russians. However, the designation "hospital" is hardly applicable, for everything was wanting; the patients in infected air, crowded, and surrounded by uncleanliness, without food or medicines. These hospitals were in reality death-houses. The physicians did what they could. On August 18, the French army entered Smolensk which had been destroyed by projectiles and by fire; ruins filled with the dead and dying; and in the midst of this desolation the terror-stricken inhabitants running everywhere, looking for members of their families - many of whom had been killed by bullets or by flames - or sitting before their still smoking homes, tearing their hair, a picture of distress truly heartrending. The soldiers who were the first to enter Smolensk found flour, brandy and wine, but these things were devoured in an instant. There were 10 thousand wounded in the so-called hospitals, and among these unfortunates typhus and hospital gangraene developed rapidly; the sick lying on the floor without even straw.
Holzhausen gives the following description: