RETREAT FROM MOSCOW
During the night from October 18th. to October 19th., all soldiers were busy loading vehicles with provisions and baggage. On October 19th., the first day of the retreat, forever memorable on account of the misfortune and heroism which characterized it, the grand army presented a strange spectacle. The soldiers were in a fair condition, the horses lean and exhausted. But, above all, the masses following the army were extraordinary. After an immense train of artillery of 600 cannon, with all its supplies, came a train of baggage the like of which had never been seen since the centuries of migration when whole barbarous nations went in search of new territories for settlement.
The fear that they might run short of rations had caused every regiment, every battalion, to carry on country wagons all they had been able to procure of bread and flour; but these wagons carrying provisions were not the heaviest loaded, not loaded as much as those which were packed with booty from the conflagration of Moscow; in addition, many soldiers overtaxing their strength and endurance had filled their knapsacks with provisions and booty. Most officers had secured light Russian country wagons to carry provisions and warm clothing. The French, Italian, and German families, who lived in Moscow and now feared the returning Russians when again entering their capital, had asked to accompany the retreating army and formed a kind of a colony among the soldiers; with these families were also theatrical people and unfortunate women who had lived in Moscow on prostitution.
The almost endless number, the peculiarity of vehicles of all description, drawn by miserable horses, loaded with sacks of flour, clothing and furniture, with sick women and children, constituted a great danger, for the question was, how could the army maneuvre with such an impediment and, above all, defend itself against the Cossacks?
Napoleon, surprised and almost alarmed, thought at first to establish order, but, after some reflection, came to the conclusion that the accidents of the road would soon reduce the quantity of this baggage, that it would be useless to be severe with the poor creatures, that, after all, the wagons would serve to transport the wounded. He consented therefore to let all go along the best they could, he only gave orders that the column of these people with their baggage should keep at a distance from the column of the soldiers in order that the army would be able to maneuvre.
On October 24th. was the battle of Jaroslawetz in which the Russians, numbering 24 thousand, fought furiously against 10 thousand or 11 thousand French, to cut off the latter from Kalouga, and the French, on their part, fought with despair.
The center of the battle was the burning city taken and retaken seven times; many of the wounded perished in the flames, their cadavers incinerated, and 10 thousand dead covered the battlefield.
Many of the wounded, who could not be transported had to be left to their fate at the theater of their glorious devotion, to the great sorrow of everybody, and many who had been taken along on the march during the first days after the battle had also to be abandoned for want of means of transportation. The road was already covered with wagons for which there were no horses.
The cries of the wounded left on the road were heartrending, in vain did they implore their comrades not to let them die on the way, deprived of all aid, at the mercy of the Cossacks.
The artillery was rapidly declining on account of the exhausted condition of the horses. Notwithstanding all cursing and whipping, the jaded animals were not able to drag the heavy pieces. Cavalry horses were taken to overcome the difficulty and this caused a reduction of the strength of the cavalry regiments without being of much service to the artillery. The riders parted with their horses, they had tears in their eyes looking for the last time on their animals, but they did not utter a word.
Cavalrymen, with admirable perseverance and superhuman efforts, dragged the cannon as far as Krasnoe. All men had dismounted and aided the exhausted animals only two of which were attached to each piece.
Notwithstanding all the misery of a three-days-march to Moshaisk all were hopeful. The distance from Moshaisk to Smolensk was covered in seven or eight days; the weather, although cold during the night, was good during the day, and the soldiers gladly anticipated to find, after some more hardship, rest, abundance, and warm winter quarters in Smolensk.
On the march the army camped on the battlefield of Borodino when they saw 50 thousand cadavers lying still unburied, broken wagons, demolished cannons, helmets, cuirasses, guns spread all over - a horrid sight! Wherever the victims had fallen in large numbers one could see clouds of birds of prey rending the air with their sinister cries. The reflections which this sight excited were profoundly painful. How many victims, and what result! The army had marched from Wilna to Witebsk, from Witebsk to Smolensk, hoping for a decisive battle, seeking this battle at Wiasma, then at Ghjat, and had found it at last at Borodino, a bloody, terrible battle. The army had marched to Moscow in order to earn the fruit of all that sacrifice, and at this place nothing had been found but an immense conflagration. The army returned without magazines, reduced to a comparatively small number, with the prospect of a severe winter in Poland, and with a far away prospect of peace, - for peace could not be the price of a forced retreat, - and for such a result the field of Borodino was covered with 50 thousand dead. Here, as we have learned, were found the Westphalians, not more than 3 thousand, the remainder of 10 thousand at Smolensk, of 23 thousand who crossed the Niemen.