August 21 1812: Smolensk and Vodka

On August 21 1812, Napoleon is at Smolensk. De Segur writes of wounded soldiers being everywhere and Smolensk being "one vast hospital." He also writes of a new problem that the French doctors are finding. Soldiers are becoming sick and dying from drinking Russian Vodka.  De Segur [1] writes:
The surgeons' reports were terrifying. In that country a brandy made of grain, containing narcotic plants supplemented wine and grape brandy. Our young soldiers, weakened by hunger and fatigue, had an idea that this drink would restore their energy, but its deceptive heat, made them spend all their remaining vitality in one burst, after which they fell completely exhausted, and were too sick to rise.
There were others, even more intoxicated, or weaker, who were overcome by dizziness, stupor or drowsiness and sank down in ditches or on the road. Their eyes, dim, half closed, watery, seemed to look on with indifference as death finally took control of all of their being, and they died dully, without even a whimper.   
Napoleon's Thirteenth Bulletin De La Grande Armée dated August 21 1812, reproduced below, does not mention any of this.

Smolenzk, August 21, 1812.

It appears that in the battle of Mohiloff, gained over Prince Bragation, on the 23d of July, the loss of the enemy was considerable.

The Duke of Tarentum found twenty pieces of cannon in Dinabourg, in place of eight, as had been announced. He obliged several ships, laden with more than 40,000 bombs, and other projectiles, to retire. An immense quantity of ammunition was destroyed by the enemy. The ignorance of the Russians in constructing fortifications is apparent in the works of Dinabourg and Drissa.

His Majesty gave the command of his right to the Prince of Schwartzenburg, by placing under his orders the 2d corps. This Prince marched against General Tormozoff, met and defeated him on the 12th; he pays the highest compliments to the Saxon and Austrian troops; the Prince of Schwartzenburg shewed in these circumstances equal activity. The Emperor has requested promotion and rewards for the officers of his d'armee who have distinguished themselves.

On the 8th, the Grand Army was placed in the following manner:—The Prince Viceroy was at Souria, with the 4th corps, his advanced guard occupying Vilegs,Ousvrath, and Porulsch. The King of Naples was at Inkovo; his cavalry occupied Lukovo. Marshal the Prince of Elchingen, commanding the 3d corps, was at Loozno. Marshal the Prince of Eckmuhl, commanding the 1st corps, was at Dubrowna. The 5th corps, commanded by Prince Poniatowski, was at Mohiloff. The head-quarters were at Vitepsk. The second corps, commanded by the Duke of Reggio, was upon the Drissa. The 10th corps, commanded by the Duke of Taren-. turn, was upon'JDinabourg and Riga.

On the 8th, 12,000 of the enemy's cavalry marched upon Inkovo, and attacked General Count Sebastiani's division, which for half a league was, obliged to fight, retreating all the way, suffering and causing equal loss to the enemy. A company of voltigeurs, of the 24th regiment of light infantry, forming a part of that regiment, which had been confided to the cavalry, to maintain a position in a wood, was taken. We had about 200 killed and wounded; the enemy may have lost the same number of men.

On the 12th, the enemy's army having united at Smolenzk", marched by different points, with equal slowness and hesitation, upon Boreitch and Nadra.—The Prince of Eckmuhl collected all his troops to march against the enemy, and take possession of Smolenzk, by proceeding thither by the other side of the Boristhenes. The King of Naples and the Prince of Eckmuhl set out from Liozno, and marched upon the Boristhenes, near to the mouth of the Berezina, opposite Klomins, where, on the night between the 13th and 14th, they threw two bridges over the Boristhenes. The Viceroy set out from Souria, and marched by Janovetsche to Rasasna, where he arrived on the 14th.—General Coun: Grouchy collected the 3d corps of cavalry at Rasasna on the 12th. The Prince of Eckmuhl collected all his corps at Dubrowna on the 13th. General Count Eble threw three bridges over the Rasasna on the 13th. The head-quarters set out on the 13th from Vitepsk, and arrived at Rasasna on the 14th. Prince Poniatowski set out from Mohiloff, and on the 13th arrived at Romanoff.

On the 14th, at break of day, General Grouchymarched upon Leacbri, chased two regiments of Cossacks from it, and there found the corps of General Count Nansouty. The same day the King of Naples, supported by the Duke of Elchingen, arrived at Krasnoy. The 27th enemy's division, consisting of 5000 infantry, supported by 2000 cavalry, and 12 pieces of cannon, was in a position before that town: it was attacked and forced in an instant, by the Duke of Elchingen. The 24th regiment of light infantr}' attacked the small town of Krasnoy with the bayonet, with great intrepidity; the cavalry executed some admirable charges. Baron Borde Soult, General of Division, and the 3d regiment of chasseurs, distinguished themselves. The taking of 8 pieces of cannon, 14 caissons, 1400 prisoners, with a field covered with more than 1000 Russian corpses, were the advantages of the battle of Krasnoy, in which the Russian division, consisting of 5000 men, suffered a loss of half its number.

His Majesty, on the 15th, had his head-quarters at Konovnitzen. On the 16th, in the morning, the heights of Smolenzk were commanded. The town presented to our view an enclosure of walls of 4000 toises, ten feet thick, and twentyfive feet high, intersected with towers, several of which were armed with cannon of heavy ralibre. Upon the right of the Boristhenes we perceived and knew that the enemy faced about, and hastily retraced their steps to defend Smolenzk. We knew that the enemy's Generals had received reiterated orders to give battle, and save Smofenzk. The Emperor reconnoitred the town, and placed his army in its position on the day of the 16th. Marshal the Duke of Elchingen had the left leaning on the Boristhenes, the Prince of Eckmuhi the centre, Prince Poniatowski the right; the Guards were placed in reserve fn the centre, the Viceroy in reserve on the right, and the cavalry under the orders of the King of Naples, at the extremity of the right; the Duke of Abrantes, with the 8th corps, lost his way and made a false movement.

The 16th, and half of the 17th, was passed in observation. A fire of musketry was kept up along the line. The enemy occupied Smolenzk with 30,000 men, and the remainder of their army was formed upon the fine positions upon the right bank of the river, opposite to the town, and communicating by three bridges. Smolenzk is considered as a strong town by the Russians, and the bulwark of Moscow.

On the 17th, at two in the afternoon, seeing that the enemy had not debouched, that they were fortifying themselves in Smolenzk, and that they refused battle, notwithstanding the orders they had received, and the fine position they might have occupied, their right upon Smolenzk, and their left upon the banks of the Boristhenes—the enemy's General wanting resolution—the Emperor marched upon the right, and ordered Prince Poniatowski to change his front, the right in advance, and to place his right to the Boristhenes, occupying one of the suburbs by posts and batteries, to destroy the bridge, and intercept the communication of the town with the right bank.

During this time, the Prince of Eckmuhl received orders to attack two of the suburbs which the enemy had intrenched, 200 toises distant from the town; and which were each defended by 7 or 8000 men, and heavy cannon. General Count Friant had orders to complete the investment, by leaning his right towards Prince Poniatowski's corps, and his left to the right of the attack made by the Prince of Eckmuhl. At two in the afternoon, Count Bruyeres' division of cavalry, having driven away the Cossacks and enemy's cavalry, and approached the bridge highest up the river—a battery of 10 pieces of artillery was established on this ground, opened a fire of grape-shot upon that part of the enemy's army which was upon the right bank of the river, and quickly obliged the Russian masses of infantry to evacuate that position.
The enemy then placed two batteries of twenty pieces of cannon in a convent, to annoy the battery which played upon the bridge. The Prince of Eckmuhl intrusted the attack of the suburbs on the right to Count Morand, and that of those on the left to General Count Gudin.

At three, the cannonade commenced. At half-past four a very brisk fire of musketry began; and at five, the divisions of Morand and Gudin carried the enemy's entrenched suburbs, with a cool and rare intrepidity, and pursued them to the covered way, which was covered with Russian dead. Upon our left, the Duke of Elchingen attacked the position which the enemy had without the town, seized upon it, and pursued the enemy to the glacis.

At five o'clock, the communication of the town with the right bank became difficult, and could only be accomplished by isolated men. Three batteries of breaching 12-pounders were placed against the walls at six in the evening; one by Friant's division, and the two others by Morand's and Gudin's divisions. We drove the enemy from all the towers by howitzers, which played upon them.

The General of artillery, Count Sorbier, rendered the occupation of the covered-way by the enemy impossible, by two enfilading batteries. Nevertheless the enemy, who, from two in the afternoon, perceived we had serious intentions against the town, sent two divisions, and two regiments of infantry of the Guards, to reinforce the four divisions which were in the town. These united forces composed half of the Russian army. The battle continued the whole night; three breaching batteries played with the utmost activity: two companies of miners were attached to the ramparts.

The town was now on fire in the middle of a fine August night. Smolenzk offered the French a spectacle similar to that which an eruption of Vesuvius presents to the inhabitants of Naples.
An hour after midnight, the enemy abandoned the town, and retired across the river. At two o'clock, the grenadiers who first led to the attack, no longer found resistance, the place was evacuated; 200 pieces of cannon, and one of the first towns in Russia were in our power, and that too in sight of the whole Russian army.

The combat of Smolenzk, which we might justly term a battle, an hundred thousand men having been engaged on the different sides, caused the Russians a loss of 4700 men, left dead on the field; of 2000 prisoners, the greater part of whom are wounded; and of 7 to 8000 wounded. Amongst the dead were found five Russian Generals. Our loss amounts to 700 killed, and 3100 or 3200 wounded. The General of Brigade, Grabouski, was killed, and the Generals of Brigade, Grandeau and Dalton, wounded. All the troops have rivalled each other in intrepidity. The field of battle has offered to the view of 200,000 persons who can attest it, the sight of one French corpse lying upon the dead bodies of seven or eight Russians: meanwhile, the Russians were protected by the musketry fire from their trenches during a part of the days of the 16th and 17th.

On the 18th, we established the bridges over the Boristhenes which the enemy had burnt; but did not succeed in quenching the fire which consumed the town, until the 19th, the French sappers having worked with great activity. The houses in the city were filled with Russians dead and dying.

Of twelve divisions, which composed the Grand Russian army, two divisions have been broken and defeated in the combats of Ostrovno, two met with the same fate in the battle of Mohiloff, and six in the battle of Smolenzk. They have only two divisions of the Guards which remain entire. The deeds of bravery which redound to the honour of the army, and which distinguished such numbers of soldiers in the battle of Smolenzk, shall be the subject of a particular report. Never has the French army shown greater intrepidity than in this campaign.


1. Defeat: Napoleon's Russian Campaign (New York Review Books Classics) by Philippe-Paul de Segur (Author), J. David Townsend (Translator), Rk Danner (Introduction), Pages, 37-38

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