November 18 1812: Ney Bravest of the Brave

"That bastard has abandoned us; he sacrificed us in order to save himself," Marshall Ney was angry,"what can we do? What will become of us? Everything is fucked?" [1] It is November 18, 1812, Ney learns that Napoleon has left Krasnoi. He is furious. Napoleon had been forced to leave so as not to be destroyed. Ney does not know this. He only knows that he alone and surrounded my Russian forces. Kutuzof sends an emissary to offer an honorable surrender.  

Philippe-Paul de Segur [2] writes:  

Their disbanded men were already retrograding, pointing to the snowy plains completely black with the enemy's troops, when a Russian, detaching himself from their army, descended the hill; he presented himself alone to their marshal, and either from an affectation of extreme politeness, respect for the misfortune of their leader, or dread of the effects of his despair, covered with honied words the summons to surrender.

It was Kutusoff who had sent him. "That field-marshal would not have presumed to make so cruel a proposal to so great a general, to a warrior so renowned, if there remained a single chance of safety for him. But there were eighty thousand Russians before and around him, and if he had any doubt of it, Kutusoff offered to let him send a person to go through his ranks, and count his forces."

The Russian had not finished his speech, when suddenly forty discharges of grape shot, proceeding from the right of his army, and cutting our ranks to pieces, struck him with amazement, and interrupted what he had to say. At the same moment a French officer darted forward, seized, and was about to kill him as a traitor, when Ney, checking this fury, called to him angrily, "A marshal never surrenders; there is no parleying under an enemy's fire; you are my prisoner." The unfortunate officer was disarmed, and placed in a situation of exposure to the fire of his own army. He was not released until we reached Kowno, after twenty-six days captivity, sharing all our miseries, at liberty to escape, but restrained by his parole.

At the same time the enemy's fire became still hotter, and, as they said, all the hills, which but an instant before looked cold and silent, became like so many volcanoes in eruption, but that Ney became still more elevated at it: then with a burst of enthusiasm that seemed to return every time they had occasion to mention his name in their narrative, they added, that in the midst of all this fire that ardent man seemed to breathe an element exclusively his own.

Kutusoff had not deceived him. On the one side, there were eighty thousand men in complete ranks, full, deep, well-fed, and in double lines, a numerous cavalry, an immense artillery occupying a formidable position, in short, every thing, and fortune to boot, which alone is equal to all the rest. On the other side, five thousand soldiers, a straggling and dismembered column, a wavering and languishing march, arms defective and dirty, the greatest part mute and tottering in enfeebled hands.

And yet the French leader had no thought of yielding, nor even of dying, but of penetrating and cutting his way through the enemy; and that without the least idea that he was attempting a sublime effort. Alone, and looking no where for support, while all were supported by him, he followed the impulse of a strong natural temperament, and the pride of a conqueror, whom the habit of gaining improbable victories had impressed with the belief that every thing was possible.

But what most astonished them, was, that they had been all so docile; for all had shown themselves worthy of him, and they added, that it was there they clearly saw that it is not merely great obstinacy, great designs, or great temerity which constitute the great man, but principally the power of influencing and supporting others.

Ricard and his fifteen hundred soldiers were in front. Ney impelled them against the enemy, and prepared the rest of his army to follow them. That division descended with the road into the ravine, but in ascending, was driven back into it, overwhelmed by the first Russian line.

The marshal, without being intimidated, or allowing others to be so, collected the survivors, placed them in reserve, and proceeded forward in their place; Ledru, Razont, and Marchand seconded him. He ordered four hundred Illyrians to take the enemy on their left flank, and with three thousand men, he himself mounted in front to the assault. He made no harangue; he marched at their head, setting the example, which, in a hero, is the most eloquent of all oratorical movements, and the most imperious of all orders. All followed him. They attacked, penetrated, and overturned the first Russian line, and without halting were precipitating themselves upon the second; but before they could reach it, a volley of artillery and grape shot poured down upon them. In an instant Ney saw all his generals wounded, the greatest part of his soldiers killed; their ranks were empty, their shapeless column whirled round, tottered, fell back, and drew him along with it.

Ney found that he had attempted an impossibility, and he waited until the flight of his men had once more placed the ravine between them and the enemy, that ravine which was now his sole resource; there, equally hopeless and fearless, he halted and rallied them. He drew up two thousand men against eighty thousand; he returned the fire of two hundred cannon with six pieces, and made fortune blush that she should ever betray such courage.

She it was, doubtless, who then struck Kutusoff with the palsy of inertness. To their infinite surprise, they saw this Russian Fabius running into extremes like all imitators, persisting in what he called his humanity and prudence, remaining upon his heights with his pompous virtues, without allowing himself, or daring to conquer, as if he was astonished at his own superiority. Seeing that Napoleon had been conquered by his rashness, he pushed his horror of that fault to the very extreme of the opposite vice.

It required, however, but a transport of indignation in any one of the Russian corps to have completely extinguished them; but all were afraid to make a decisive movement; they remained clinging to their soil with the immobility of slaves, as if they had no boldness but in their watchword, or energy but in their obedience. This discipline, which formed their glory in their retreat, was their disgrace in ours.

They were for a long time uncertain, not knowing which enemy they were fighting with; for they had imagined that Ney had retreated from Smolensk by the right bank of the Dnieper; they were mistaken, as is frequently the case, from supposing that their enemy had done what he ought to have done.

At the same time, the Illyrians had returned completely in disorder; they had had a most singular adventure. In their advance to the left flank of the enemy's position, these four hundred men had met with five thousand Russians returning from a partial engagement, with a French eagle, and several of our soldiers prisoners.

These two hostile troops, the one returning to its position, the other going to attack it, advanced in the same direction, side by side, measuring each other with their eyes, but neither of them venturing to commence the engagement. They marched so close to each other, that from the middle of the Russian ranks the French prisoners stretched out their arms towards their friends, conjuring them to come and deliver them. The latter called out to them to come to them, and they would receive and defend them; but no one moved on either side. Just then Ney was overthrown, and they retreated along with him.

Kutusoff, however, relying more on his artillery than his soldiers, sought only to conquer at a distance. His fire so completely commanded all the ground occupied by the French, that the same bullet which prostrated a man in the first rank proceeded to deal destruction in the last of the train of carriages, among the women who had fled from Moscow.

Under this murderous hail, Ney's soldiers remained astonished, motionless, looking at their chief, waiting his decision to be satisfied that they were lost, hoping they knew not why, or rather, according to the remark of one of their officers, because in the midst of this extreme peril they saw his spirit calm and tranquil, like any thing in its place. His countenance became silent and devout; he was watching the enemy's army, which, becoming more suspicious since the successful artifice of Prince Eugene, extended itself to a great distance on his flanks, in order to shut him out from all means of preservation.

The approach of night began to render objects indistinct; winter, which in that sole point was favourable to our retreat, brought it on quickly. Ney had been waiting for it, but the advantage he took of the respite was to order his men to return to Smolensk. They all said that at these words they remained frozen with astonishment. Even his aide-de-camp could not believe his ears; he remained silent like one who did not understand what he heard, and looked at his general with amazement. But the marshal repeated the same order; in his brief and imperious tone, they recognized a resolution taken, a resource discovered, that self-confidence which inspires others with the same quality, and a spirit which commands his position, however strong that may be. They immediately obeyed, and without hesitation turned their backs on their own army, on Napoleon, and on France! They returned once more into that fatal Russia. Their retrograde march lasted an hour; they passed again over the field of battle marked by the remains of the army of Italy; there they halted, and their marshal, who had remained alone in the rear-guard, then rejoined them.

Their eyes followed his every movement. What was he going to do; and whatever might be his plan, whither would he direct his steps, without a guide, in an unknown country? But he, with his warlike instinct, halted on the edge of a ravine of such depth, as to make it probable that a rivulet ran through it. He made them clear away the snow and break the ice; then consulting his map, he exclaimed "That this was one of the streams which flowed into the Dnieper! this must be our guide, and we must follow it; that it would lead us to that river, which we must cross, and that on the other side we should be safe!" He immediately proceeded in that direction.

However at a little distance from the high road which he had abandoned, he again halted in a village, the name of which they knew not, but believed that it was either Fomina, or Danikowa. There he rallied his troops, and made them light their fires, as if he intended to take up his quarters in it for the night. Some Cossacks who followed him took it for granted, and no doubt sent immediately to apprise Kutusoff of the spot where, next day, a French marshal would surrender his arms to him; for shortly after the noise of their cannon was heard.

Ney listened: "Is this Davoust at last," he exclaimed, "who has recollected me?" and he listened a second time. But there were regular intervals between the firing; it was a salvo. Being then fully satisfied that the Russian army was triumphing by anticipation over his captivity, he swore he would give the lie to their joy, and immediately resumed his march.

At the same time his Poles ransacked the country. A lame peasant was the only inhabitant they had discovered; this was an unlooked-for piece of good fortune. He informed them that they were within the distance of a league from the Dnieper, but that it was not fordable there, and could not yet be frozen over. "It will be so," was the marshal's remark; but when it was observed to him that the thaw had just commenced, he added "that it did not signify, we must pass, as there was no other resource."

At last, about eight o'clock, after passing through a village, the ravine terminated, and the lame Russian, who walked first, halted and pointed to the river. They imagined that this must have been between Syrokorenia and GusinoƩ. Ney, and those immediately behind him, ran up to it. They found the river sufficiently frozen to bear their weight, the course of the flakes which it bore along to that point, being counteracted by a sudden turn in its banks, was there suspended; the winter had completely frozen it over only in that single spot; both above and below it, its surface was still moveable.

This observation was sufficient to make their first sensation of joy give way to uneasiness. This hostile river might only offer them a treacherous appearance. One officer devoted himself for the rest; he crossed to the other side with great difficulty. He returned and reported, that the men, and perhaps some of the horses might pass over, but that the rest must be abandoned, and there was no time to lose, as the ice was beginning to give way in consequence of the thaw.

But in this nocturnal and silent march across fields, of a column composed of weakened and wounded men, and women with their children, they had been unable to keep close enough, to prevent their extending, separating, and losing the traces of each other in the darkness. Ney perceived that only a part of his people had come up; nevertheless, he might have always surmounted the obstacle, thereby secured his own safety, and waited on the other side. The idea never once entered his mind; some one proposed it to him, but he rejected it instantly. He allowed three hours for the rallying; and without suffering himself to be agitated by impatience, or the danger of waiting so long, he wrapped himself up in his cloak, and passed these three dangerous hours in a profound sleep on the bank of the river. So much did he possess of the temperament of great men, a strong mind in a robust body, and that vigorous health, without which no man can ever expect to be a hero.


1  Adam Zamoyski, Moscow 1812. Napoleon’s Fatal March, (New York 2004) at page 390. 

2. Defeat: Napoleon's Russian Campaign (New York Review Books Classics) by Philippe-Paul de Segur (Author), J. David Townsend (Translator), Rk Danner (Introduction). The account of De Segur above is from the Gutenberg translation is reproduced below because it available on line here. The original French can be found here.  

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