December 14 1812: Marshall Ney Leaves Russia

On December 14 1812, the last of the Grande Armée re-cross the Niemen, with Ney in the rearguard being one of the last to leave Russia. "Finally, he was the last of the grand army," Philippe-Paul de Segur writes of Ney, "who quitted that fatal Russia, exhibiting to the world the impotence of fortune against great courage, and proving that with heroes every thing turns to glory, even the greatest disasters". Historians, such as Adam Zamoyski, are just as admiring of Ney's bravery. "In the end Ney was left with only a handful of French infantry," Zamyoski writes, "so he began falling back, carrying out a fighting withdrawal through the town and over the bridge. A soldier's musket in his hand, he remained in the front rank of his diminishing force, commanding them and encouraging them to the last. As he reached the western end of the bridge he discharged one last shot at the Russians and then flung his musket into the frozen bed of the Niemen before turning and trudging off".  

The full excerpt from Segur reads as follows: 
On the 14th, at daybreak, the Russians commenced their attack. One of their columns made a hasty advance from the Wilna road, while another crossed the Niemen on the ice above the town, landed on the Prussian territory, and, proud of being the first to cross its frontier, marched to the bridge of Kowno, to close that outlet upon Ney, and completely cut off his retreat.
The first firing was heard at the Wilna gate; Ney ran thither, with a view to drive away Platof's artillery with his own; but he found his cannon had been already spiked, and that his artillerymen had fled! Enraged, he darted forward, and elevating his sword, would have killed the officer who commanded them, had it not been for his aide-de-camp, who warded off the blow, and enabled this miserable fellow to make his escape.
Ney then summoned his infantry, but only one of the two feeble battalions of which it was composed had taken up arms; it consisted of the three hundred Germans of the garrison. He drew them up, encouraged them, and as the enemy was approaching, was just about to give them the order to fire, when a Russian cannon ball, grazing the palisade, came and broke the thigh of their commanding officer. He fell, and without the least hesitation, finding that his wound was mortal, he coolly drew out his pistols and blew out his brains before his troop. Terrified at this act of despair, his soldiers were completely scared, all of them at once threw down their arms, and fled in disorder.
Ney, abandoned by all, neither deserted himself nor his post. After vain efforts to detain these fugitives, he collected their muskets, which were still loaded, became once more a common soldier, and with only four others, kept facing thousands of the Russians. His audacity stopped them; it made some of his artillerymen ashamed, who imitated their marshal; it gave time to his aide-de-camp Heymès, and to General Gérard to embody thirty soldiers, bring forward two or three light pieces, and to Generals Ledru and Marchand to collect the only battalion which remained.
But at that moment the second attack of the Russians commenced on the other side of the Niemen, and near the bridge of Kowno; it was then half-past two o'clock. Ney sent Ludru, Marchand, and their four hundred men forward to retake and secure that passage. As to himself, without giving way, or disquieting himself farther as to what was passing in his rear, he kept on fighting at the head of his thirty men, and maintained himself until night at the Wilna gate. He then traversed the town and crossed the Niemen, constantly fighting, retreating but never flying, marching after all the others, supporting to the last moment the honour of our arms, and for the hundredth time during the last forty days and forty nights, putting his life and liberty in jeopardy to save a few more Frenchmen. Finally, he was the last of the grand army who quitted that fatal Russia, exhibiting to the world the impotence of fortune against great courage, and proving that with heroes every thing turns to glory, even the greatest disasters.
It was eight o'clock at night when he reached the allied bank. Then it was, that seeing the completion of the catastrophe, Marchand repulsed to the entrance of the bridge, and the road of Wilkowiski which Murat had taken, completely covered with the enemy's troops, he darted off to the right, plunged into the woods, and disappeared.
1. Adam Zamoyski, Moscow 1812. Napoleon’s Fatal March, (New York 2004) at page 518-519 
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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