June 30 1812: Death of the Horses

On June 30, 1812, the rain continued to fall near Vilna but the full force of the storm had passed. Colonel Boulart of the Artillery of the Guard had passed the night under a gun carriage. He would recall [1]: 
By daybreak, the storm had passed but it was still raining. What a sight offered to my eyes! A quarter of my horses were lying on the ground some dead or dying, others shivering. I quickly ordered as many as possible to be harnessed, hoping to get my wagons away, and to set this sad crew in motion so that the poor creatures might generate some of the heat they so badly needed, and thereby prevent a good number of them dying. 
The storm was devastating on the horses of the Grande Armée. Boulart lost ninety draft-horses and seventy of the little ponies of the country by the time he reached Vilna on the June 30. The historian Adam Zamoyski writes:"...the losses for the horses were horrific. Most of the artillery units lost 25 per cent of theirs that night, and the situation in the cavalry was not much better... It is generally estimated that the combat units lots over 10,000 in a period of less than twenty-four hours." [2] Armand de Caulaicourt recalled: "Exhaustion, added to want and the piercing cold rains at night, killed off ten thousand horses."[3] The weather had gone from extremes. The heat of the first days was replaced by the freezing rain of the night of June 29. The loss of the horses meant that the army was to be hampered in moving much needed supplies. The effect on the morale of the troops was also significant. Men spoke of the storm as an omen that foretold of disasters to come.
The fourth Bulletin De La Grande Armée dated June 30, 1812 says nothing of the deteorating situation and is reproduced below.

Wilna, June 30, 1812.

On the 27th the Emperor arrived at the advanced posts at two in the afternoon, and put the army in motion for the purpose of approaching Wilna, and attacking the Russian army at day-break of the 28th, should it wish to defend Wilna, or retard its capture, in order to save the immense magazines which it had there. One Russian division occupied Troki, and another division was on the heights of Traka.

At day-break of the 28th, the King of Naples put himself in motion with the advanced-guard, and the light cavalry of General Count Bruyeres. The Marshal Prince of Eckmuhl supported him with his corps. The Russians every where retired. After exchanging some cannon-shot, they crossed the Vilia in great haste, burned thewooden bridge of Wilna, and set fire to immense magazines, valued at many millions of roubles: more than 150,000 quintals of flour, an immense supply of forage and of oats, and a great mass of articles of clothing were burned. A great quantity of arms, in which Russia is in general deficient, and of-warlike stores, was destroyed and thrown into the Vilia.

At raid-day the Emperor entered Wilna. At three o'clock the bridge over the Vilia was reestablished. All the carpenters of the city repaired to it with zeal, and constructed a bridge, while the pontoneers at the same time constructed another.

The division Bruyeres followed the enemy by the left bank. In a slight affair with their rear, about eighty carriages were taken from the Russians. There were some men killed and wounded; among the latter is the Captain of Hussars, Segur. The Polish light-horse of the Guard made a charge on the right bank of the Vilia, put to rout, pursued, and made prisoners a considerable number of Cossacks.

On the 25th, the Duke of Reggio had crossed the Vilia, by a bridge thrown over near Kowna. 

On the 26th he marched upon Javou, and on the 27th on Chatoni. This movement obliged the Prince of Witgenstein, Commandant of the first corps of the Russian army, to evacuate all Samogitia, and the country lying between Kowna and the sea; and to retire upon Wilkomir, after obtaining a reinforcement of two regiments of the guards.

On the 28th a rencounter took place. The Marshal Duke of Reggio found the enemy drawn up opposite Develtovo. A cannonading commenced; the enemy was driven from one position to another; and passed the bridge with so much precipitation, that he could not set fire to it. He lost 300 prisoners, among whom are several officers, and about 100 killed or wounded. Our loss amounts to about 50 men.

The Duke of Reggio praises the brigade of light cavalry, commanded by General Baron Castex, and the 11th regiment of light infantry, composed entirely of Frenchmen from the departments beyond the Alps. The young Roman conscripts have shewn a great deal of intrepidity.

The enemy set fire to his grand magazine at Wilkomir. Up to the last moment the inhabitants were pillaging some barrels of flour: we succeeded in recovering a part.

On the 29th, the Duke of Elchingen threw a bridge over the Vilia opposite Souderva. Some columns received a direction to march by the roads of Grodno and Volhynia, for the purpose of coming up with various Russian corps that were cut off and scattered.

Wilna is a city containing from 25 to 30,000 souls, with a great number of convents, fine public buildings, and inhabitants full of patriotism. Four or five hundred young men of the University, above eighteen, and belonging to the best families, have requested to form a regiment.

The enemy is retiring upon the Dwina. A great number of Officers of the Staff and of estafettes are daily falling into our hands. We are obtaining proofs of the exaggeration of all that Russia has published with regard to the immensity of her means. Only two battalions to each regiment are with the army: the third battalions, the statements of the situation of many of which have been found in the intercepted correspondence of the officers of the regimental depots, do not in general amount to more than 120 or 200 men.

The Court set off from Wilna 24 hours after being apprised of our passage at Kowna. Samogitia, and Lithuania, are almost entirely liberated. The centralization of Bragation towards the North, has very much weakened the troops which were to defend Volhynia.

The King of Westphalia, with the corps of Prince Poniatowski, and the 7th and 8th corps, must have entered Grodno on the 29th.

Different columns have set out to fall upon the flanks of the corps of Bragation, which, on the 20th, received orders to proceed by forced marches from Proujany towards Wilna, and the head of which had already arrived within four days' march of the latter city; but events have forced it to retreat, and it is now pursued.

Hitherto the campaign has not been sanguinary; there have been only manoeuvres: we have made in all 1000 prisoners. But the enemy has already lost the capital, and the greater part of the Polish provinces, which are in a state of insurrection. All the magazines of the first, second, and third lines, the result of two years care, and valued at more than 20 millions of rubles, are consumed by the flames, or fallen into our power. In fine, the headquarters of the French army are in the place where the Court was for six weeks.


1. Adam Zamoyski, Moscow 1812. Napoleon’s Fatal March, New York 2004, page 156
2. Adam Zamoyski, Moscow 1812. Napoleon’s Fatal March, New York 2004, page 157
3. Armand de Caulaicourt, At Napoleon's Side in Russia, The Memoirs of General de Caulaincourt, Duke of Vicenza, (Enigma Books), page 43

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