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Introduction

1812

January 1813

February 1813

March 1813

July 1813

August 1813

September 1813

October 1813

November 1813

 

Mikhail Vorontsov

Diary Excerpts on the 1812 Campaign

Translated By Alexander Mikaberidze, FINS

I left Bucharest in April 1812[1] and on arriving at headquarters at Lutzk, I found that I had been appointed to the command of a division of grenadiers.

In the beginning of June, the memorable campaign of 1812 began by the French army passing the Niemen and Prince [Peter] Bagration received orders, first to march northwards towards Brest-Litovsk and then to begin his retreat towards Smolensk, where out two great armies, the first under general Barclay de Tolly and the other under prince Bagration, were to unite. During the whole of this march I was appointed to support our rearguard of cavalry including the Cossacks under the hetman Platov and general Vasilchikov, several engagements took place in which our rearguard had always the advantage and the French, Polisg and Westphalian cavalry suffered great losses in men, in reputation and in confidence. The first encounter we had with the French was at Moghilev on the Dnieper. The corps of general Rayevsky had there a very serious engagement, in which Paskevich, commanding the 26th division, very much distinguished himself. My division was left to cover the retreat, but the French did not follow.

It is useless to enter into other details of this memorable campaign.

When we took up our position at Borodino, I was appointed to support our left flank, where we had a very serious engagement on the 24th of August. The troops that were on the 1st line having suffered very much, my division took their place and on the following day, preparatory to the great battles, I received orders to occupy and defend three fleches, which were constructed to cover our left flank, the weaker part of our line.

On the 26th early began the battle or rather the butchery of Borodino. The whole of the French force was directed against our left flank, consequently on the fleches (defended by my division); more than a hundred pieces of artillery played some time upon us and the greatest part of the best French infantry, under Marshals Davoust and Ney, marched straight upon us. Our fleches were stormed after a stout resistance, were retaken by us, stormed again by the French, retaken once more and were at last soon lost again, from the overpowering force employed against them. I was wounded by a musket ball in the thigh, as we were in the act of retaking the fleches the first time, my brave division was entirely destroyed, and out of near 5,000 men, not more than about 300, with one field officer of the name of … [name not indicated] remained untouched or slightly wounded;[2] 4 of 5 of our divisions met with very nearly the same fate ion the same ground.

The loss of the French was also frightful; one may say that 4/5ths of the battle took place on our left flank, and though in the result we were unable to keep that position, the French had lost too much to retain during the night what they had gained during the day.

I do not mean here to give any more details of this battle, which has no parallel in modern history. Our loss in killed and wounded was about 30 generals, 1,600 officers and 42,000 men. The French loss, as I saw myself in the reports taken at Vilna in Marshal Berthier’s papers, was no less than 40 generals, 1,800 officers and about 52,000 men.

My wound was dressed on the field, the bullet extracted and for the first 3 or 4 versts I was transported in a little peasant’s carriage, of which one wheel was knocked off by a cannon ball and we managed to go upon the remaining three. I thus managed to reach my own calash which was with the baggage of the army, and there I very soon saw a great number of generals and officers, more or less severely wounded, some of them my intimate friends.

It was there I saw for the last time Lieut.-General [Nikolay] Tuchkov and my brave chief, Prince Bagration, who both soon after died of their wounds. These two men had been in their early life companions in arms, afterwards rivals and at length enemies; they had saluted one another coolly the very day before the battle and then met again in this place to meet soon after in another world. Most of the wounded passed the time at the small town at Mozhaisk, where every house became an hospital; before daybreak, we heard that Kutuzov had decided upon a retreat, and we went on that day to a village about half-way to Moscow. By this time I was joined by two intimate friends – general [Emmanuel] St. Priest[3] and [Nikolay] Kretov,[4] both wounded; the first in the breast, but not dangerously, the other in the hand.

Colonel [Andrey] Bogdanovsky,[5] whom you saw afterwards at Maubeuge, severely wounded in the leg, and several others of my friends and comrades, both of my division, and of my old regiment of Narva, some of whom were indeed wounded mortally, joined our separate procession and we agreed to go together wherever it should be found best, and luckily for us, the chief surgeon of my division, who had also got a slight musket shot in his hand, agreed to accompany us. The 3rd day we arrived at Moscow, and rested there for two days; my wound, which had been very painful during the first 24 hours, ceased to be so afterwards, and though totally unable to stand upon my legs, I was comparatively comfortable, and would have wished that all my companions could be in the same state. I had a good long calash and bore the journey very well.

It may appear extraordinary that even in those serious circumstances and perhaps partly on account of their exciting importance, we were mostly content, merry and even enjoying our repasts with great appetite. In fact the crisis was coming on and we all felt that this crisis would be favorable to the cause of our country; we felt that we had fought in such a manner that the French could not boast of a victory except by the circumstance of our retreat and the abandonment of the ancient capital. Our army was terribly weakened by the battle; but fresh troops were joining us every day; we were in the middle of our resources, and we had plenty of every thing, we knew very well that the French army on the contrary equally, if not more weakened by the battle was getting farther everyday from reinforcements and reserves, was in want of every thing and would be soon in a starving condition.

The sacrifice of Moscow alone had banished every idea or fear of peace, and there could be no longer higher object or pretext for concluding one. On Monday the 1st of September, the day before our army left Moscow and the French entered it, we left Moscow by the Vladimir road. I resolved to got to Andreyevsky, an old family seat about 120 miles from Moscow, and where I had been twice with my uncle Count Alexander [Romanovich Vorontsov], who died there in 1805, and where my grandfather [Roman Illarionovich Vorontsov] also died some 30 years before. A good number of my friends and fellow sufferers agreed to go with me, and we arrived there with our own horses on the 3rd day.

On our arrival, we were informed of all that had passed at Moscow, of the melancholy entry of Napoleon into that ancient city, where the French army had hoped to find population and resources and to conclude peace. You know that they found a desert, that all hopes of peace and even of success were blasted, and that two days after their arrival, 4/5ths of the city were burnt to the ground. I shall say nothing about the manner in which this was done, but I shall only say that so early as when we joined the first army at Smolensk, we heard of the resolution to burn Moscow, rather than leave it as a resource for the enemy, and that we all heard this with joy and triumph.

At Andreyevsky a few of my companions died of their wounds. Some of the more slightly wounded left us as soon as they could rejoin the army, but before I was in a condition for moving, we received the joyful intelligence that our principal army under Kutuzov had succeeded in making a flank movement on the right and almost on the rear of the French, establishing itself in a good position south-west of Moscow, on the road to Kaluga. This made us quite secure at Andreyevsky; for the first 10 days of our stay we were very much on the alert and had all our means of transport ready at a moment’s notice.

Marshal Ney had established his headquarters at Bogorodsk in the Vladimir road, and if he had had any available light troops of cavalry our situation would have been severely dangerous, for there were not amongst us all 12 men capable of defending themselves; bust most of the French cavalry was in fact already destroyed, and the greatest part of the remainder together with the whole of the Polish cavalry was with Murat observing marshal Kutuzov’s position. Very soon after we heard of the brilliant affair at Taroutino, where Murat was surprised and beaten by our army, and that this had forced Napoleon to assemble all his troops, abandon Moscow and march against Kutuzov.

It is not my business to say what followed; how then came the battle of Maloyaroslavets which the French claimed as a victory; but after which they were obliged to retreat, not by a fresh and rich country as they had intended, but by their old and completely exhausted route of Smolensk, how they were harassed and partially destroyed at Vyasma, at Krasnyi and on the Berezina, how after the passage of this last river, and not before as the French pretend, in order to palliate their disgrace, severe frost came on to accomplish the destruction of their unfortunate army, and how before reaching Vilna, Napoleon though it more prudent and safe to leave the miserable remnants  of his gigantic force in the charge of the distracted Murat and himself went off with 2 or 3 companions, and a chosen band as convoy through the rest of Lithuania to the frontier, then to Warsaw, where he had his well-known interview with the abbè [Dominic] Pradt,[6] and so on to Paris.

All these important events are described in 50 different books and in as many different ways. You have wished to have the private and unmeaning adventures of your uncle; consequently not without a full sense of the complete inferiority of such a tale, I must go on with what regards my own poor self.

On the 29th of October, I was well enough to leave my crutches and to walk about tolerably with the support of a cane and quitting about a dozen of my companions, who were not yet in a state to move, I left Andreyevsky to join the army. From Andreyevsky to Moscow, I got post-horses; but after Moscow, it was difficult to find any on the route that had been followed by the army so that I had at first to buy my own horses in 2 or 3 instances, for distances of 100 or 200 miles, when post-horses failed, and in the Polish provinces, I obtained horses from the Jews for 2 or 3 days at a time from town to town.

 

Notes

[1] Vorontsov left Bucharest on 31 March 1812 and arrived to Lutsk on 11 April. He became commander of the Combined Grenadier Division on 13 April 1812.

[2] According to “Report on the killed, wounded and missing soldiers of the 8th Corps”, the Combined Grenadier Division listed 4,059 men at Borodino and lost 2,500 killed, wounded and missing in action. Borodino: Dokumenty, pisma, vospominania (Moscow, 1962), 193.

[3] St. Priest was the Chief of Staff of the 2nd Western Army.

[4] Kretov commanded a cuirassier brigade of the 7th Corps of the 2nd Western Army. In 1813-1814, he led the 1st Cuirassier Division.

[5] During the 1812 Campaign, Bogdanovsky commanded the Narva Infantry Regiment attached to the 1st Brigade of the 12th Division of the 7th Corp of the 2nd Western Army. He participated in Bagration’s retreat and fought at Smolensk and Borodino. Promoted to colonel on 28 March 1813, he took part in the siege of Modlin and the battle of Leipzig. In 1814, he fought at Craonne and was promoted to major general on 13 December 1814 with seniority dating from 7 March 1814.

[6] During this meeting, Napoleon told Pradt, “there is only one step from greatness to ridicule.”


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