In order to give an idea of the great difficulties the soldiers had to face, and examples of their heroic behavior under trying circumstances, let us relate the disaster of Vop.
While Napoleon, with the imperial guard, the corps of Marshal Davout and a mass of stragglers, all escorted by Marshal Ney, was marching on the road to Smolensk, Prince Eugene had taken the road to Doukhowtchina. The prince had with him 6 or 7 thousand men under arms, including the Italian guard, some Bavarian cavalry which still had their horses and their artillery mounted, and also many stragglers, with these a number of families who had been following the Italian division.
At the end of the first day's journey - it was on November 8th. - near the castle Zazale, they hoped to find at this castle some provisions and an abode for the night. A great cold had set in, and when they came to a hill the road was so slippery that it was almost impossible to negotiate the elevation with even the lightest load. Detaching horses from the pieces in order to double and treble the teams they succeeded in scaling the height with cannons of small calibre, but they were forced to abandon the larger ones.
The men being exhausted as well as the horses they felt humiliated at being obliged to leave their best pieces. While they had exerted themselves with such sad results, Platow had followed them with his Cossacks and light cannons mounted on sleighs and incessantly fired into the French. The commander of the Italian artillery, General Anthouard, was severely wounded and was compelled to give up his command.
A gloomy night was passed at the castle Zazale.
On the morning of the 9th. they left at an early hour to cross the Vop, a little rivulet during the summer but now quite a river, at least four feet deep and full of mud and ice.
The pontooneers of Prince Eugene had gone ahead, working during the night to construct a bridge, but frozen and hungry they had suspended their work for a few hours, to finish it after a short rest.
At daybreak those most anxious to cross went on the unfinished bridge which they thought was completed.
A heavy mist prevented them from recognizing their error until the first ones fell into the icy water emitting piercing cries. Finally horses and men waded through the water - some succeeded, other succumbed.
It would lead too far to give here a full description of the distressing scenes, the difficulty of passing with artillery and the mostly vain attempts to bring over the baggage wagons. But, to cap the climax, there arrived 3 or 4 thousand Cossacks shouting savagely. With the greatest difficulty only was the rear guard able to keep them at a distance so that they could not come near enough to make use of their lances. Their artillery, however, caused veritable desolation.
Among the poor fugitives from Moscow there were a number of Italian and French women; these unfortunates stood at the border of the river, crying and embracing their children, but not daring to wade through it. Brave soldiers, full of humanity, took the little ones in their arms and passed with them, some repeating this two and three times, in order to bring all the children safely over. These desolate families, not being able to save their vehicles, lost with them the means of subsistence brought from Moscow. All the baggage, the entire artillery with the exception of seven or eight pieces, had been lost, and a thousand men had been killed by the fire of the Cossacks.
This dreadful event on the retreat from Moscow is called the disaster of Vop and was the precursor of another disaster of the same nature, but a hundred times more frightful, the disaster of the Beresina.
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There was another cause of death of which we have not spoken yet: this was the action of the heat at the campfires. Anxious to warm themselves, most of the soldiers hastened to bring their limbs near the flame; but this sudden exposure to extreme heat, after having suffered from the other extreme - cold - was acting on the feeble circulation in the tissues and produced gangraene of the feet, the hands, even of the face, causing paralysis either partial, of the extremities, or general, of the whole body.
Only those were saved who had been able to keep up their circulation by means of hot drinks or other stimulants and who, noticing numbness, had rubbed the affected parts with snow. Those who did not or could not resort to these precautions found themselves paralyzed, or stricken with sudden gangraene, in the morning when the camp broke up.
The hospitals of Koenigsberg admitted about 10 thousand soldiers of Napoleon's army, only a small number of whom had been wounded, most of them with frozen extremities, who had, as the physicians of that time called it, a pest, the fever of congelation which was terribly contagious.
The heroic Larrey although exhausted from fatigue had come to these hospitals to take care of the sick, but he became infected with the contagion himself and was taken sick.
A great calamity was the want of shoes; we have seen that this was already felt in Moscow, before they set out on the endless march over ice and snow.
The soldiers had their feet wrapped in rags, pieces of felt or leather, and when a man had fallen on the road some of his comrades would cut off his feet and carry them to the next camp fire to remover the rags - for their own use.
But the general appearance of the emaciated soldiers with long beards, and faces blackened by the smoke of camp-fires, the body wrapped in dirty rags of wearing apparel brought from Moscow, was such that it was difficult to recognize them as soldiers.