FROM WILNA TO KOWNO
While the prisoners of Wilna were suffering these nameless cruelties, the unfortunate army marched to reach the border of Russia at Kowno, the same Kowno where the Grand Army six months before had been seen in all its military splendor, crossing the Niemen.
They had now to march 75 miles, a three days' march to arrive there.
The conditions were about the same as those on the march from the Beresina to Wilna. Still the same misery, frost, and hunger, scenes of murder, fire. The description of the details would in general be a repetition, with little variation.
The following is an account of the last days of the retreat taken from a letter of Berthier to the Emperor.
When the army entered Wilna on December 8th., almost all the men were chilled by cold, and despite the commands of Murat and Berthier, despite the fact that the Russians were at the gates, both officers and soldiers kept to their quarters and refused to march.
However, on the 10th, the march upon Kowno was begun. But the extreme cold and the excess of snow completed the rout of the army. The final disbanding occurred on the 10th, and 11th., only a struggling column remained, extending along the road, strewn with corpses, setting out at daybreak to halt at night in utter confusion. In fact, there was no army left. How could it have subsisted with 25 degrees of cold? The onslaught, alas, was not of the foe, but of the harshest and severest of seasons fraught with crippling effect and untold suffering.
Berthier, as well as Murat, would have wished to remain in Kowno through the 12th., but the disorder was extreme. Houses were pillaged and sacked, half the town was burned down, the Niemen was being crossed at all points, and it was impossible to stem the tide of fugitives. An escort was barely available for the protection of the King of Naples, the generals, and the Imperial eagles. And all amidst the cold, the intense cold, stupefying and benumbing!
Four fifths of the army - or what bore the name of such, though reduced to a mere conglomeration and bereft of fighting men - had frozen limbs; and when Koenigsberg was reached, in a state of complete disorganisation, the surgeons were constantly employed in amputating fingers and toes.
Dr. W. Zelle, a German military surgeon, in his book "1812" describes the last days of the army. Kowno was occupied by a considerable force of artillery, with two German battalions, and it contained also very large supplies, a great deal of ammunition, provisions, clothing, and arms of various kinds. About an hour's march from Wilna the retreating masses encountered the hill and defile of Ponary and it was at this point where the imperial treasure, so far conscientiously guarded by German troops from Baden and Wuerttemberg, was lost. When the leaders of the treasure became convinced of the impossibility to save it, the jaded horses not being able after 15 hours' effort to climb the ice covered hill, they had the wagons opened, the money chests broken, and the coin surrendered to the soldiers.
The sight of the gold brought new life even to the half frozen ones; they threw away their arms and were so greedy in loading themselves down with the mammon that many of them did not notice the approaching Cossacks until it was too late. Friend and foe, Frenchmen and Russians pillaged the wagons. Honor, money, and what little had remained of discipline, all was lost at this point.
However, side by side with these outrages, noble deeds could also be recorded. Numerous wagons with wounded officers had to be abandoned, the horses being too weak to take another step, and many of the soldiers disregarded everything to save these unfortunates, carrying them away on their shoulders. An adjutant of the emperor, Count Turenne, distributed the private treasure of the emperor among the soldiers of the Old Guard, and not one of these faithful men kept any of the money for himself. All was honestly returned later on, and more than 6 millions of francs reached Danzig safely.
The retreat during these scenes and the following days, when the terrible cold caused more victims from hour to hour, was still covered by Ney whose iron constitution defied all hardships. From five until ten at night he personally checked the advance of the enemy, during the night he marched, driving all stragglers before him. From seven in the morning until ten the rear guard rested, after which time they continued the daily fight.
His Bavarians numbered 260 on December 11th., 150 on the 17th. and on the 13th. the last 20 were taken prisoners. The corps had disappeared. The remainder of Loison's division and the garrison of Wilna diminished in the same manner until, finally, the rear guard consisted of only 60 men.