All the corps marched to Smolensk where they expected to reach the end of all their misery and to find repose, food, shelter; in fact, all they were longing for.
Napoleon entered the city with his guards and kept the rest of the army, including the stragglers, out of doors until arrangements could have been made for the regular distribution of rations and quarters. But together with the stragglers the mass of the army became unmanageable and resorted to violence.
Seeing that the guards were given the preference they broke out in revolt, entered by force and pillaged the magazines. "The magazines are pillaged!" was the general cry of terror and despair. Every one was running to grasp something to eat.
Finally, something like order was established to save some of the provisions for the corps of Prince Eugene and Marshal Ney who arrived after fighting constantly to protect the city from the troops of the enemy. They received in their turn eatables and a little rest, not under shelter but in the streets, where they were protected, not from the frost, but from the enemy.
There were no longer any illusions. The army having hoped to find shelter and protection, subsistence, clothes and, above all, shoes, at Smolensk, they found nothing of all this and learned that they had to leave, perhaps the next day, to recommence the interminable march without abode for the night, without bread to eat and constantly righting while exhausted, with the cruel certainty that if wounded they would be the prey of wolves and vultures.
This prospect made them all desperate; they saw the abyss, and still the worst was yet in store for them: Beresina and Wilna!
Napoleon left Smolensk on November 14th. The cold had become more intense - 21 deg. Reaumur (16 deg. below zero Fahrenheit) - this is the observation of Larrey who had a thermometer attached to his coat; he was the only one who kept a record of the temperature.
The cold killed a great many, and the road became covered with dead soldiers resting under the snow.
To the eternal honor of the most glorious of all armies be it said that it was only at the time when the misery had surpassed all boundaries, when the soldiers had to camp on the icy ground with an empty stomach, their limbs paralyzed in mortal rigor, that the dissolution began.
It was even after the heroic battle of Wiasma that they fought day for day.
It was not the cold which caused the proud army to disband, but hunger.
Provisions could nowhere be found; all horses perished, and with them the possibility of transporting food and ammunition.
And it is one thing to suffer cold and hunger, traveling under ordinary circumstances, and another to suffer thus and at the same time being followed by the enemy.
In order to understand the disaster of the Beresina it is necessary to cast a glance at the condition of Napoleon's army at that time.
After the battle at Krasnoe, Napoleon at Orscha, on November 19th., happy to have found a place of safety at last, with well furnished magazines, made a new attempt to rally the army by means of a regular distribution of rations. A detachment of excellent gendarmes had come from France and was employed to do police duty, to engage everybody, either by persuasion or by force, to join his corps. These brave men, accustomed to suppress disorder in the rear of the army, had never witnessed anything like the condition with which they were obliged to deal at this time. They were dismayed. All their efforts were in vain. Threats, promises of rations if the soldiers would fall in line, were of no avail whatever. The men, whether armed or not, thought it more convenient, above all more safe, to care for themselves instead of again taking up the yoke of honor, thereby taking the risk of being killed, or wounded, - which amounted to the same thing - they would not think of sacrificing their individual self for the sake of the whole. Some of the disbanded soldiers had retained their arms, but only to defend themselves against the Cossacks and to be better able to maraud. They lived from pillaging, taking advantage of the escort of the army, without rendering any service. In order to warm themselves they would put fire to houses occupied by wounded soldiers, many of whom perished in the flames in consequence. They had become real ferocious beasts. Among these marauders were only very few old soldiers, for most of the veterans remained with the flag until death.
Napoleon addressed the guards, appealing to their sense of duty, saying that they were the last to uphold military honor, that they, above all, had to set the example to save the remainder of the army which was in danger of complete dissolution; that if they, the guards, would become guilty, they would be more guilty than any of the other corps, because they had no excuse to complain of neglect, for what few supplies had been at the disposal of the army, their wants had always been considered ahead of the rest of the army, that he could resort to punishments, could have shot the first of the old grenadiers who would leave the ranks, but that he preferred to rely on their virtue as warriors to assure their devotedness. The grenadiers expressed their assent and gave promises of good conduct. All surviving old grenadiers remained in the ranks, not one of them had disbanded. Of the 6 thousand who had crossed the Niemen, about 3,500 survived, the others had succumbed to fatigue or frost, very few had fallen in battle.