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Alexey Yermolov

Excerpts from the memoirs on the 1812 Campaign 

Translated By Alexander Mikaberidze, FINS

Note: The complete version of Yermolov's memoirs was published as The Czar's General: The Memoirs of a Russian General in the Napoleonic Wars. Translated and edited by Alexander Mikaberidze. Welwyn Garden City, Eng.: Ravenhall, 2005.

Excerpts

I left Tilsit for Russia and passed through Vilna, where I met General Bennigsen. He received me with his habitual kindness, a kindness he had shown me since my adolescence. Discussing the war, he told me that the summer campaign in Prussia had not been conducted as he would have liked. He had been promised reinforcements of some 30,000 men and with these he had planned to open the campaign in early spring while Napoleon’s troops were still occupied with the siege of Danzig. However, reinforcements were first delayed and then promised for the first of May but in the end not a single soldier reached the army by the time peace was concluded. These reinforcements should have comprised two divisions of recruits who received weapons just as they were leaving for the front and therefore had no idea how to use them. As they marched through the provinces of Minsk and Vilna, at least half of the recruits were left behind in hospitals.

General Bennigsen told me that after Preussisch Eylau he suggested to the Emperor [Alexander] that he should send an experienced and cunning envoy to Napoleon, who could have offered an exchange of prisoners and also looked for ways of inducing Napoleon to discuss peace and conclude a favorable peace treaty.[1]

At the town of Shklov, I joined a division (whose designation I cannot recall) deployed there. In late August, the Inspector of All Artillery Count Arakcheyev arrived to review the artillery; he reorganized it and, never liking me, he ordered me to remain in camp until 1 October while all remaining artillery brigades were ordered to return to their quarters on 1 September. In addition, he bluntly remarked that I should have come to see him at Vitebsk in order to explain some deficiencies. I replied that his dislike of me should not prevent the impartial consideration of my reports. I was insulted by his rudeness and did not conceal my intention to quit military service. Hearing about my decision, Count Arakcheyev called for me, offered me leave to see my relatives and ordered me to visit him in St. Petersburg so that he could become better acquainted with me.

I was assigned to the 9th Division of Lieutenant General Suvorov, Count of Rimnic, Prince of Italy, the son of great Suvorov; my quarters were at the town of Lubari in Volhynia.

1808. I soon received an Imperial decree and money to award those lower ranks who had distinguished themselves on campaign. It was the first time that such an award had been given out! At the same time, Count Arakcheyev told me that, to prove his respect for my superb service, he would recommend me for an award.

I reached St. Petersburg, when Count Arakcheyev had been appointed Minister of War. He received me with distinct benevolence and told me about my new award. The Emperor had awarded my and Prince Yashvil’s horse artillery companies with special embroidered insignia on our uniforms. Arakcheyev personally introduced me to the Emperor and I could see that he recommended me.

Having spent three days in St. Petersburg, I wrote a letter to Count Arakcheyev telling him that during my exile under late Emperor Paul I, many officers had been promoted above me and that I was virtually the last colonel of artillery. I explained to him that even if I would not receive seniority in rank, I would still consider it beneficial that he, as the Minister of War, should be aware that I had been treated unfairly and not because of any incompetence. Without waiting for his reply, I left St. Petersburg the same day. Staying with my relatives in Orel, I later received a message that, during general promotions in artillery, I had been promoted to major general and appointed inspector of some horse artillery companies, with a salary increase of 2,000 rubles.

1809. In this new position, I departed to review the horse artillery of the Army of Moldavia, then commanded by the aged Field Marshal Prince Prozorovsky, whose headquarters was at Jassy. Military operations against the Turks were temporarily halted. I watched our troops moving into the camp at Kateni, which later became notorious for horrible diseases that took countless lives. No argument succeeded in persuading Prozorovsky to refrain from moving his troops into this lethal camp. Our troops made marches for some fifteen versts but rarely accomplished them in less than ten hours because they were deployed in huge squares (carrés) with heavy transports in the middle and moved very slowly, frequently without any roads. Field Marshal Prozorovsky constantly declared that he was exercising troops in maneuvers. Suffering under unbearable heat, the troops were completely exhausted. The field marshal soon passed on to eternal life but not after dispatching ahead of him an army as large as the one he left behind. Lieutenant General Miloradovich commanded in Wallachia and there was rarely a day without celebrations that Miloradovich loved to organize or forced others to arrange to entertain him. So I led a joyous life, attended celebrations, visited parties, listened to his stories about victories, including the one at Obilesti. “Hearing about an enemy movement,” – he told me – “I advanced at once; rumour had it that the Turks were 16,000 men strong; in my report, I wrote about defeating 12,000 men, but in reality there were only 4,000 men.” His ingenuity indeed did him great credit!

Leaving the army, I travelled through Bender and Odessa to the Crimea. I visited ancient ruins, saw the beautiful afternoon coast and spent some time at Karasu-Bazaar, where one of the artillery companies from my inspection was deployed. Returning through Kharkov, I saw most of the southern regions of Russia.

A division, to which I was assigned, was soon attached to General Prince (Sergey Feodorovich) Golitsyn’s army as it moved against Austria. I was left commanding a reserve detachment of some 14,000 men in the Volhynia and Podolsk provinces.[2]

The Minister of War ordered the deployment of our troops along the borders of these two provinces because many local Polish nobles fled with large number of their people and horses into the Duchy of Warsaw, where a Polish army was organizing. Under this order, I reported directly to the Minister of War Count Arakcheyev and he confirmed my decisions. To subdue any unrest, I was given authority to arrest anyone, despite their ranks, crossing the borders and to send them to Kiev for further exile to Orenburg and Siberia. I decided to severely punish those crossing borders with weapons and my superiors were satisfied with my decisiveness. I applied severe measures but no one was exiled.

At the end of the war against the Austrians, our army returned from Galicia and part of it deployed in the Volhynia provinces, forcing my detachment to move to the Kiev, Poltava and Chernigov provinces. My headquarters was transferred from Dubno to Kiev. With my departure from Volhynia, I had to abandon a most pleasant life. I would briefly say that I was passionately in love with W., a beautiful young woman, who shared my feelings. For the first time in my life, I entertained the idea of marriage but both of us had economic shortcomings that turned out to be a major obstacle; besides, I had already passed that age when one believes that affection can be a substitute for food. In addition, military service was my primary passion and I knew for certain that I could only live a satisfactory life in military service. So, I had to overcome love itself! With great difficulty, but I still managed.

1810. My division, soon after returning from Galicia, was moved into Moldavia, but I was again left commanding reserves. I wrote to Count Arakcheyev requesting a different assignment, but he was soon replaced as the Minister of War by General Barclay de Tolly, who barely knew me. My activities in Kiev were limited to overseeing my troops as they constructed a new fortress on the Zverina Hill. To escape dreadful boredom, I reviewed regularly my troops at their quarters and occupied myself with organization of the Evpatoria and Simferopol Horse Tatar Regiments. So it was that, under new disposition of cavalry, artillery general was inexplicably ordered to raise two units of irregular cavalry.

I spent approximately two years in Kiev but such miserable and ignominious service thoroughly depressed me. On the one hand, a sympathetic opinion of my superiors flattered me and General Prince Bagration, being appointed commander-in-chief of the Army of Moldavia, requested my appointment to command artillery in his army, but his request was denied. His successor, General Count Kamenski, passing through Kiev, also offered me to serve with him. I considered it as a great honor and anticipated that as a brigade commander I would have two regiments; I would have taken this command enthusiastically since my current detachment of some 14,000 soldiers had been turned into diggers (lopatniki). Having joined the army, Count Kamenski wrote to the Emperor nominating me his duty general. This nomination far exceeded my expectations and I anxiously awaited permission to join the army. The Commander-in-chief enjoyed Emperor’s especial confidence and all his nominations were usually confirmed. However, his recommendation on my behalf was rejected and he was told that I was still needed in my current position.

Later a recommendation was made to appoint me to replace the late Major General Count [Yegor] Zuccato who commanded a special detachment and cooperated with the Serbs against the pasha of Viddin. But this proposal was also rejected on the grounds that I was too young. This probably meant seniority in rank since other younger officers were never disapproved of because of their youth. Lady Luck could not have given me opportunities more flattering to my pride, especially considering that I served without any patronage. But these refusals also saddened me because I had no battle experience at my current rank and I wanted to test myself first in the war against the Turks, where mistakes could easily be corrected and were less damaging. I needed experience and a chance to prove my abilities; serving as an artillery officer, I could only become famous for my gallantry, but, as a major general, I was not satisfied with this.  Yet, I had to remain in Kiev and endure my prolonged appointment.

1811. Receiving a short leave, I traveled to St. Petersburg. I was introduced to the Emperor in his office, an honour bestowed only on a division commander. There were rumours about increasing disgruntlement with Napoleon and problems with him could be solved with nothing but weapons in hand. So many considered this as a reason for the Emperor’s benevolent reception of officers. Deep down, I feared that in case if a new war began I might again be left in reserve. The Inspector of All Artillery Baron Müller-Zakomelsky wanted to transfer me to the Guard Artillery Brigade but I declined because I was worried I would be occupied with parade service and returned to Kiev. I soon received a letter from the Minister of War that the Emperor was inquiring whether I might agree to command an artillery brigade in the Guard. I replied that I hoped to attract the Emperor’s attention through my service in the field army, could not support myself in St. Petersburg and did not want to ask for anything without having seen appropriate service. An Imperial order transferring me to the Guard was a response to my letter! However, I could not depart for my new appointment in time because I had fractured my hand in two places and was unwell for quite some time. After reporting this to the Emperor, a courier was sent to inquire about my health and the local military governor was ordered to report about me every two weeks. I was surprised by such attention and decided to take care of my hand, now belonging to the Guard. Before, I cared much less about my head that belonged to the army!

Two months before the new year, I arrived to St. Petersburg and assumed command of a brigade. I did not interfere with the administrative section of my unit to show that I did not seek any profit. The Emperor received me with his usual kindness and this was sufficient for me not to feel a stranger in the capital. The Grand Duke [Constantine] was benevolent to me following our last campaign. My fractured hand prevented me from participating in all training and maneuvers that consumed most of time of anyone serving in St. Petersburg, so I had enough free time. The Life Guard Lithuanian Regiment was soon organized and assigned with the Izmailovsk Regiment to a brigade that the Emperor appointed me to command, in addition to the artillery brigade I already had. My salary was increased by 6,000 rubles a year.

1812. Thus, my life of a poor army officer was suddenly transformed and I could serve as an example for anyone who shared my difficulties. In my youth, I began service under strong patronage but later lost it completely. During the reign of Emperor Paul I, I was imprisoned and sent into exile for life. All junior officers quickly became my superiors and, under the current Emperor, I had to resume my service without any support, endured numerous troubles from my superiors and achieved everything in turn through my best efforts; I often had equal claims with others to rewards but had unequal success in getting them. To illustrate my point, I will describe an example. Artillery Major Generals Prince Yashvili and Ignatiev also commanded reserve troops, however my detachment was on the state border and I was entrusted with protecting it, so with my greater authority came greater responsibility. Yet, both of these officers were decorated with the Order of St. Anna of the first class, while I was not shown any gratitude for my service.

I explained my disappointment to the Minister of War Barclay de Tolly, who coldly responded with his German burgomaster’s self-importance, “It is true that I failed to notice your service.” I tried to see a noble man in him and sense some politeness in his rejection. Equally upsetting was the rejection of the Inspector of All Artillery’s request to transfer me as an artillery commander to the Army of Moldavia commanded by General Kutuzov, who was well disposed towards me. Following this, I wrote to the Minister of War that I required treatment at mineral resorts in the Caucasus and asked for a brigade command on the Caucasian Line. He bluntly told me that I simply wanted to exploit the Emperor’s benevolence to get a reward for myself and that I requested dismissal knowing full well that it would not be granted. Thus, to everyone’s surprise, I incensed this icy [ledovitogo] German, who made himself colourfully clear.  I soon learned how difficult it was to change my appointment. With my consent, the Inspector of All Artillery requested my appointment to review and maintain the fortress of Riga and a bridgehead at Dunaburg.[3] However, the Emperor rejected it and informed me that, from now on, my appointments would depend only on him and that I did not need anyone’s assistance to get them. When he later met me, he asked whether I was told about his order and added, “Why are you driven out of St. Petersburg? However, I already interfered and you will have enough business to attend.” I did not dare to admit that it was me who wanted transfer to another branch of service and I was pleased that the Minister of War did not report about my earlier letter.

Meanwhile, it was already March and the Guard marched to Lithuania. His Majesty Grand Duke Constantine led a column of the Guard cavalry and I commanded a separate column of Guard infantry.

Quo fata trahunt retrahunque, sequamur

[We move where fate directs us].

Virgilius.


Notes:

[1] Yermolov’s note: He offered Major General Khitrovo (Nikolai Feodorivhc) for this mission, who stayed in Paris and enjoyed Napoleon’s favor.

[2] Yermolov’s note: It was the first time that reserve was created by detaching two battalions from infantry regiments, one or two squadrons from cavalry units and entire companies from artillery.

[3] Yermolov’s note: Inspetor of All Artillery wanted to give me an opportunity to earn a reward that was earlier given to Major Generals Prince Yashvil and Ignatiev.

 


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