“Winter 1812 – Retreat from Russia”

Michel Bernard is a senior civil servant and writer. He answers Pascal Boniface’s questions on the occasion of the publication of his book “Winter 1812 – Retreat from Russia”, published by Editions Perrin.

You write that Napoleon has never prepared a military expedition so meticulously and yet none has been so catastrophic…

Napoleon, during a long year of preparations, had seen that the main issue of the campaign would be supplies and that the relatively sparsely populated territories through which his gigantic coalition would pass would not allow it to be fed. Subsistence convoys and herds on foot in considerable quantities had been planned, carts with a reinforced gauge had been built especially for the operation. But the army corps advanced so quickly on the heels of the Russians sucking them inwards, that the intendancy did not follow and was exhausted in interminable stages. The material broke on bad roads, the animals died. The adversary’s scorched-earth strategy made matters worse. The troops were quickly reduced to marauding, looting, and violent extortion. Discipline collapsed, demoralization spread to the management and desertions were massive, especially among the allies. Unexpected consequence: the combative ardor was reinforced. The pursuit was so exhausting, the soldier’s daily life so miserable, that the fight was greeted with relief and in the hope that it would put an end to the ordeal. All the paradox of this extraordinary campaign is there: the more Napoleon beats his adversary, the more he gets stuck in the trap. “Wondered by his conquest”, Hugo summed up the case well. In reality, the technological capabilities of the time probably did not allow for success, but Napoleon had for some time lost his sense of proportion.

However, he was warned by relatives of the risk of failure…

From 1811, Caulaincourt was lucid and had the courage of his lucidity by directly and repeatedly objecting to Napoleon’s project, who did not listen to him. Alas, Caulaincourt, French ambassador to Russia from 1807 to 1811, had not shown the same lucidity at that time. While Napoleon knew that Alexander was playing a double game, applying Tilsitt’s terms very weakly, but actively preparing a military revenge, his representative in Saint Petersburg assured him of the goodwill of the Russian ally. The charm with which the Russians had enveloped their conqueror was dissipated on Napoleon, when he continued to act on Caulaincourt, who had become the Tsar’s friend. The word of the diplomat recalled to Paris a year before the start of the campaign was devalued when it spoke true and deserved to be heard. Another man had begged his boss not to make the mistake of invading Russia, Colonel Deponthon, engineer officer, member of the Emperor’s cabinet, former military attaché at the French Embassy in Russia, recalled in same time as Caulaincourt. Napoleon did not care, but kept the aide-de-camp who campaigned at his side, just like Caulaincourt. Curiously, it was to the prophet of his misfortune that Napoleon turned when the announced catastrophe took shape and it was he whom he chose to escort him and collect his confidences to Paris, in the sleigh crossing Europe. jelly at full throttle. It was no doubt his way of recognizing his mistake without admitting it.

The Berezina has remained in the collective memory as the symbol of a strategic bankruptcy. However, its crossing was rather a success…

The Berezina is a decisive victory and a humanitarian disaster at the same time. It is one of the successes of the genius of Napoleon who, in an execrable position, with coolness and a spirit of decision at its best level, managed to deceive the enemy, had two wooden bridges thrown over the flooding river and defended them vigorously with his last able-bodied troops, until his army had passed. 10,000 stragglers and civilians, chilled, starving, will not be able to follow and will be captured or killed. If the Russians had maneuvered skillfully, it is hard to see how Napoleon and his soldiers could have escaped capture. The Empire probably ended there, and the war in Europe would not have lasted for another sixteen months. The English observers close to Kutuzov were furious after the Berezina; they knew who had won. The following days, a long period of cold at -20, even -30 degrees, annihilated the Napoleonic army. But Napoleon, all his marshals and a significant part of the staff were able to leave Russia and prepare for the next campaign.

Were the French informed at the time of the sum of the suffering endured by the soldiers of the Grande Armée?

The disaster was revealed to the French by Napoleon himself in the 29th bulletin of the Grande Armée, dictated in Lithuania on December 2, 1812, during the final phase of the return. Even before its publication, the post office, which worked for a long time, including during the retreat and despite the interceptions of the Cossacks, had sent letters to France testifying to the extraordinary nature of this campaign and the suffering it caused. But it was with the gradual return of the survivors that the population measured the extent of the disaster. The hospitals between Strasbourg and Paris were filled with men in the last degree of exhaustion, with frozen feet and fingers, eaten away by vermin, some blind, many suffering from mental disorders. The typhus patients had remained in Germany. After twenty years of war across Europe, France discovered suffering of unprecedented intensity. Memoirs of the survivors were published very early. In February 1815, Captain Eugène Labaume, for example, published his account of the campaign and of the retreat in particular, without hiding anything of the horrors he had seen and damning their leader. For months, if not years, families hoped to find missing among the thousands of prisoners reluctantly returned by the Russians after the first and second abdications. More than the other Napoleonic campaigns, that of Russia, because of the apocalyptic nature of the retreat, of the fantastic image of the infinite frozen expanses, marked the family memories. When it snows in France, his memory is never far away.

“Winter 1812 – Retreat from Russia” – 4 questions to Michel Bernard