Captaine Coignet's Escape (2)


1812 Invasion of Russia
French Command Structure
Russian Command Structure

On the Road with the Grande Armee
Map of the first stages of the Great Retreat

Map of the last stages of the Great Retreat
Jean-Roch Coignet's Description of the Retreat
Coignet's Brush With Cossacks

Smolensk and the environs were filled with the dead. I took every possible care of myself.

Our horses fell down upon the ice. As we were passing a camping place, I got hold of two axes, and took the shoes off my horses, and they did not slip any more.

I had furnished myself with a little pot for making tea. When we reached the place where the Emperor stopped, I built a good fire put my general in front of it to thaw himself, and then put the copper pan on the fire to melt some snow. What bad water snow makes when melted in the midst of smoke!

When my water was boiling, I put in a handful of tea. I broke some sugar, and then the pretty cups did service. We had our tea every day. All the way to Wilna I did not want for friends; they followed my boiler, and I had ten loaves of sugar. There were three captains, and only death separated us, which means that I alone am left alive.

I followed my general, always as near as possible to the Old Guard and the Emperor.

When we were attacked by the Russians it was necessary to concentrate as much as possible. Every day the Cossacks burst out with shouts on the road, but, as our men were armed, they dared not approach us; they merely stationed themselves along the road to see us pass. But they slept in good quarters, and we on the snow.

We left Smolensk with the Emperor on the 14th of November. On the 22nd he learned that the Cossacks had just seized upon the bridgehead at Borisow, and that we should have to effect the passage of the Beresina.

We came out past the great bridge which the Russians had half burned; they were on the other side waiting for us in the woods and in the snow. Though we had not exchanged fire once, we were already in great destitution.

At one o'clock in the afternoon of the 26th of November the right-hand bridge was finished and the Emperor immediately ordered the Duke of Reggio's corps and Marshal Ney with the cuirassiers to cross over before him.

The artillery of the Guard went over with their two corps, and crossed a marsh, which was fortunately frozen. In order to be able to reach a village, they drove the Russians back into the woods on the left and thus gave the army time to cross, on the 27th.

The Emperor crossed the Beresina at one o'clock in the afternoon and took up his headquarters in a little hamlet. The army continued to cross the river during the nights of the 27th and 28th.

The Emperor sent for Marshal Davout and I was appointed to guard the head of the bridge and allow only the artillery and munition to go over. The marshal was on the right side and I on the left. When all the munition had gone over, the marshal said to me, "Come on, my brave fellow; let us rejoin the Emperor."

We crossed the bridge and the frozen marsh; it was strong enough to bear our ammunition, without which all would have been lost.

During our wearisome watch, Marshal Ney had driven off the Russians, who came back again in order to cut off our route. Our troops had surprised them in the midst of the wood, and that battle cost them dear. Our brave cuirassiers brought them back all covered with blood; it was pitiful to see them.

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