On the night of November 18 to 19, Marshall Ney crosses the Dnieper near Variski, over barely formed ice. He has with him the survivors of his own army corps. "We slithered carefully one behind the other, fearful of being engulfed by the ice, which made cracking sounds at every step we took; we were moving between life and death," General Freytag was to recall later.
At last, about midnight, the passage began; but the first persons who ventured on the ice, called out that the ice was bending under them, that it was sinking, that they were up to their knees in water; immediately after which that frail support was heard splitting with frightful cracks, which were prolonged in the distance, as in the breaking up of a frost. All halted in consternation.
Ney ordered them to pass only one at a time; they proceeded with caution, not knowing sometimes in the darkness if they were putting their feet on the flakes or into a chasm; for there were places where they were obliged to clear large crevices, and jump from one piece of ice to another, at the risk of falling between them and disappearing for ever. The first hesitated, but those who were behind kept calling to them to make haste.
When at last, after several of these dreadful panics, they reached the opposite bank and fancied themselves saved, a perpendicular steep, entirely covered with rime, again opposed their landing. Many were thrown back upon the ice which they broke in their fall, or which bruised them. By their account, this Russian river and its banks appeared only to have contributed with regret, by surprise, and as it were by compulsion, to their escape.
But what seemed to affect them with the greatest horror in their relation, was the trouble and distraction of the females and the sick, when it became necessary to abandon, along with the baggage, the remains of their fortune, their provisions, and in short, their whole resources against the present and the future. They saw them stripping themselves, selecting, throwing away, taking up again, and falling with exhaustion and grief upon the frozen bank of the river. They seemed to shudder again at the recollection of the horrible sight of so many men scattered over that abyss, the continual noise of persons falling, the cries of such as sunk in, and, above all, of the wailing and despair of the wounded, who, from their carts, which durst not venture on this weak support, stretched out their hands to their companions, and intreated not to be left behind.
Their leader then determined to attempt the passage of several waggons, loaded with these poor creatures; but in the middle of the river, the ice sunk down and separated. Then were heard, on the opposite bank, proceeding from the gulf, first, cries of anguish long and piercing, then stifled and feeble groans, and last of all an awful silence. All had disappeared!
Ney was looking stedfastly at the abyss with an air of consternation, when through the darkness, he imagined he saw an object still moving; it turned out to be one of those unfortunate persons, an officer, named Briqueville, whom a deep wound in the groin had disabled from standing upright. A large piece of ice had borne him up. He was soon distinctly seen, dragging himself from one piece to another on his knees and hands, and on his getting near enough to the side, the marshal himself caught hold of, and saved him.
The losses since the preceding day amounted to four thousand stragglers and three thousand soldiers, either killed, dead, or missing; the cannon and the whole of the baggage were lost; there remained to Ney scarcely three thousand soldiers, and about as many disbanded men. Finally, when all these sacrifices were consummated, and all that had been able to cross the river were collected, they resumed their march, and the vanquished river became once more their friend and their guide.
They proceeded at random and uncertain, when one of them happening to fall, recognised a beaten road; it was but too much so, for those who were marching first, stooping and using their hands, as well as their eyes, halted in alarm, exclaiming, "that they saw the marks quite fresh of a great quantity of cannon and horses." They had, therefore, only avoided one hostile army to fall into the midst of another; at a time when they could scarcely walk, they must be again obliged to fight! The war was therefore everywhere! But Ney made them push on, and without disturbing himself, continued to follow these menacing traces.
They brought them to a village called Gusinoé, into which they entered suddenly, and seized every thing; they found in it all that they had been in want of since they left Moscow, inhabitants, provisions, repose, warm dwellings, and a hundred Cossacks, who awoke to find themselves prisoners. Their reports, and the necessity of taking some refreshment to enable him to proceed, detained the marshal there a few minutes.
About ten o'clock, they reached two other villages, and were resting themselves there, when suddenly they saw the surrounding forests filled with movements. They had scarcely time to call to each other, to look about, and to concentrate themselves in the village which was nearest to the Boristhenes, when thousands of Cossacks came pouring out from between the trees, and surrounded the unfortunate troop with their lances and their cannon.
These were Platof, and his hordes, who were following the right bank of the Dnieper. They might have burnt the village, discovered the weakness of Ney's force, and exterminated it; but for three hours they remained motionless, without even firing; for what reason, is not known. The account since given by themselves is, that they had no orders; that at that moment their leader was not in a state to give any: and that in Russia no one dares to take upon himself a responsibility that does not belong to him.
The bold countenance of Ney kept them in check. He himself and a few soldiers were sufficient; he even ordered the rest of his people to continue their repast till night came on. He then caused the order to be circulated to decamp in silence, to give notice to each other in a low tone of voice, and to march as compact as possible. Afterwards, they all began their march together; but their very first step was like a signal given to the enemy, who immediately discharged the whole of his artillery at them: all his squadrons also put themselves in movement at once.
At the noise occasioned by this, the disarmed stragglers, of whom there were yet between three and four thousand, took the alarm. This flock of men wandered here and there; the great mass of them kept reeling about in uncertainty, sometimes attempting to throw themselves into the ranks of the soldiers, who drove them back. Ney contrived to keep them between him and the Russians, whose fire was principally absorbed by these useless beings. The most timid, therefore, in this instance, served as a covering to the bravest.
At the same time that the marshal made a rampart of these poor wretches to cover his right flank, he regained the banks of the Dnieper, and by that covered his left flank; he marched on thus between the two, proceeding from wood to wood, from one turning to another, taking advantage of all the windings, and of the least accidents of the soil. Whenever he ventured to any distance from the river, which he was frequently obliged to do, Platof then surrounded him on all sides.
In this manner, for two days and a distance of twenty leagues, did six thousand Cossacks keep constantly buzzing about the flanks of their column, now reduced to fifteen hundred men in arms, keeping it in a state of siege, disappearing before its sallies, and returning again instantly, like their Scythian ancestors; but with this fatal difference, that they managed their cannon mounted on sledges, and discharged their bullets in their flight, with the same agility which their forefathers exhibited in the management of their bows and the discharge of their arrows.
The night brought some relief, and at first they plunged into the darkness with a degree of joy; but then, if any one halted for a moment to bid a last adieu to some worn out or wounded comrade, who sunk to rise no more, he ran the risk of losing the traces of his column. Under such circumstances there were many cruel moments, and not a few instances of despair. At last, however, the enemy slackened his pursuit.
This unfortunate column was proceeding more tranquilly, groping its way through a thick wood, when all at once, a few paces before it, a brilliant light and several discharges of cannon flashed in the faces of the men in the first rank. Seized with terror, they fancied that there was an end of them, that they were cut off, that their end was now come, and they fell down terrified; those who were behind, got entangled among them, and were brought to the ground. Ney, who saw that all was lost, rushed forward, ordered the charge to be beat, and, as if he had foreseen the attack, called out, "Comrades, now is your time: forward! They are our prisoners!" At these words, his soldiers, who but a minute before were in consternation, and fancied themselves surprised, believed they were about to surprise their foes; from being vanquished, they rose up conquerors; they rushed upon the enemy, who had already disappeared, and whose precipitate flight through the forest they heard at a distance.
They passed quickly through this wood; but about ten o'clock at night, they met with a small river embanked in a deep ravine, which they were obliged to cross one by one, as they had done the Dnieper. Intent on the pursuit of these poor fellows, the Cossacks again got sight of them, and tried to take advantage of that moment: but Ney, by a few discharges of his musketry, again repulsed them. They surmounted this obstacle with difficulty, and in an hour after reached a large village, where hunger and exhaustion compelled them to halt for two hours longer.
The next day, the 19th of Nov., from midnight till ten o'clock in the morning, they kept marching on, without meeting any other enemy than a hilly country; about that time Platof's columns again made their appearance, and Ney halted and faced them, under the protection of the skirts of a wood. As long as the day lasted, his soldiers were obliged to resign themselves to see the enemy's bullets overturning the trees which served to shelter them, and furrowing their bivouacs; for they had now nothing but small arms, which could not keep the Cossack artillery at a sufficient distance.
On the return of night, the marshal gave the usual signal, and they proceeded on their march to Orcha. During the preceding day, he had already despatched thither Pchébendowski with fifty horse, to require assistance; they must already have arrived there, unless the enemy had already gained possession of that town.
Ney's officers concluded their narrative by saying, that during the rest of their march, they had met with several formidable obstacles, but that they did not think them worth relating. They continued, however, speaking enthusiastically of their marshal, and making us sharers of their admiration of him; for even his equals had no idea of being jealous of him. He had been too much regretted, and his preservation had excited too agreeable emotions, to allow envy to have any part in them; besides, Ney had placed himself completely beyond its reach. As to himself, in all this heroism, he had gone so little beyond his natural disposition, that had it not been for the éclat of his glory in the eyes, the gestures, and the acclamations of every one, he would never have imagined that he had done a sublime action.
And this was not an enthusiasm of surprise. Each of the latter days had had its remarkable men; amongst others, that of the 16th had Eugene, that of the 17th Mortier; but from this time, Ney was universally proclaimed the hero of the retreat.
The distance between Smolensk and Orcha is hardly five days' march. In that short passage, what a harvest of glory had been reaped! how little space and time are required to establish an immortal renown! Of what nature then are these great inspirations, that invisible and impalpable germ of great devotion, produced in a few moments, issuing from a single heart, and which must fill time and eternity?
When Napoleon, who was two leagues farther on, heard that Ney had just re-appeared, he leaped and shouted for joy, and exclaimed, "I have then saved my eagles! I would have given three hundred millions from my treasury, sooner than have lost such a man."
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.