The threatening barrier had been surmounted, and on went the march to Wilna, without any possibility of a day's rest, because the miserable remainder of the French army was still followed by light Russian troops.
During the first days after the crossing of the Beresina the supply of food had improved, it was better indeed than at any time during the retreat. They passed through villages which had not suffered from the war, in which the barns were well filled with grain and with feed for the horses, and there lived rich Jews who could sell whatever the soldiers needed. Unfortunately, however, this improved condition lasted only a few days, from November 30th. to December 4th., and before Wilna was reached the want was felt again and made itself felt the more on account of the most intense cold which had set in.
During the few good days the soldiers had eaten roast pork, and all kinds of vegetables, in consequence their weakened digestive tract had been overtaxed so that diarrhoea became prevalent, a most frightful condition during a march on the road, with a temperature of 25 deg. below zero, Reaumur (about 25 deg. below zero, Fahrenheit).
The 6th. of December was a frightful day, although the cold had not yet reached its climax which happened on the 7th. and 8th. of December, namely 28 deg. below zero, Reaumur (31 degrees below zero, Fahrenheit).
Holzhausen gives a graphic description of the supernatural silence which reigned and which reminded of the silence in the arctic regions. There was not the slightest breeze, the snowflakes fell vertically, crystal-clear, the snow blinded the eyes, the sun appeared like a red hot ball with a halo, the sign of greatest cold.
The details of the descriptions which Holzhausen has collected from old papers surpass by far all we have learned from von Scherer's and Beaupre's writings. And all that Holzhausen relates is verified by names of absolute reliability; it verifies the accounts of the two authors named.
General von Roeder, one of the noblest of the German officers in Napoleon's army - a facsimile of one of his letters is given in Holzhausen's book - says about the murderous 7th. of December: "Pilgrims of the Grand Army, who had withstood many a severe frost indeed, dropped like flies, and of those who were well nourished, well clothed - many of these being of the reserve corps having but recently come from Wilna to join the retreating army, - countless numbers fell exactly like the old exhausted warriors who had dragged themselves from Moscow to this place."
The reserve troops of which Roeder speaks were the division Loison, the last great body of men that had followed the army. They had been in Koenigsberg and had marched from there to Wilna during the month of November, had remained in the latter place until December 4th., when they were sent to protect the retreating soldiers and the Emperor himself, on leaving the wreck of his once grand army at Smorgoni on December 5th.
These troops who thus far had not sustained any hardships, came directly from the warm quarters of Wilna into the terrible cold.
It was quite frightful, says Roeder, to see these men, who a moment before had been talking quite lively, drop dead as if struck by lightning.
D. Geissler, a Weimaranian surgeon, renders a similar report and adds that in some cases these victims suffered untold agonies before they died.
Lieutenant Jacobs states that some said good bye to their comrades and laid down along the road to die, that others acted like maniacs, cursed their fate, fell down, rose again, and fell down once more, never to rise again. Cases like the latter have been described also by First Lieutenant von Schauroth.
Under these circumstances, says Holzhausen, it appears almost incomprehensible that there were men who withstood a misery which surpassed all human dimensions. And still there were such; who by manfully bearing these sufferings, set to others a good example; there were whole troops who, to protect others in pertinacious rear guard fights, opposed the on-pressing enemy.
Wonderful examples of courage and self-denial gave some women, the wife of a Sergeant-Major Martens, who had followed the army, and a Mrs. Basler, who was always active, preparing some food while her husband with others was lying exhausted at the camp fire, and who seldom spoke, never complained. This poor woman lost a son, a drummer boy, who had been wounded at Smolensk. She as well as her husband perished in Wilna.
Sergeant Toenges dragged a blind comrade along - I shall not leave him, he said. Grenadiers, sitting around a fire, had pity on him and tried to relieve his sufferings. Many such examples are enumerated in Holzhausen's book.
Our highest admiration is due to the conduct of the brave troops of the rear guard who fought the Russians, who sacrificed themselves for the sake of the whole, and, like at Krasnoe and at the Beresina, for their disbanded comrades.
The rearguard was at first commanded by Ney, then, after the 3rd. of December, by Marshal Victor; after the dissolution of Victor's corps at Smorgoni and Krapowna, by Loison and, finally, near Wilna, by Wrede with his Bavarians.
Count Hochberg has given a classical description of the life in the rear guard; it is the most elevating description of greatness, of human magnanimity, and it fills us with admiration for the noble, the brave soldier.
Interesting is the engagement at Malodeszno. A certain spell hangs over this fight; here perished two Saxon regiments that had gloriously fought at the Beresina.
The scene was a romantic park with the castle of Count Oginsky where Napoleon had had his headquarters on the preceding day, and from where he dated his for ever memorable 29th. bulletin in which he told the world the ruin of his army.