A Journal of the Russian Campaign of 1812. by Général Raymond-Aymerie-Philippe-Joseph, Duc de Montesquiou-Fézensac - Read Online
A Journal of the Russian Campaign of 1812.
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An acclaimed classic of the many memoirs to have survived from the epic, tragic and disastrous Russian Campaign of 1812. This translation is taken from chapters of Fézensac’s larger memoir - Souvenirs Militaires de 1804 a 1815 par le duc de Fezensac, Paris, 1863. The author starts the campaign as an aide-de-camp attached to the General Staff, and is slightly more insulated to the horrors of the march to Moscow, although glimpses of the hardships reach even the higher reaches of command. Later, after the fire and sack of Moscow, he takes command of regiment of infantry and it is then that the truly epic struggles the men undertook against their principal nature on the retreat from Moscow. His regiment forms part of Maréchal Ney’s dwindling, over-worked, staving rearguard, and is witness to its trials and Homeric travails including the crossings of the Dneiper and Berezina.
This edition is introduced by a withy summation of the campaign by General Knollys, who without impinging on the narrative, gives a good overall account of the campaign leaving the details of Fézensac’s experiences to be brought out in his own words.
Raymond-Aymerie-Philippe-Joseph de Montesquiou-Fézensac, born in Paris in 1784 into an ancient noble family, a cadet branch of the House of Gascony, he volunteered as a private soldier in 1803. He achieved rapid promotion in the campaigns of 1805 and 1806, and later serving as Maréchal Ney’s aide-de-camp. His promotion would not have been hampered by his marriage to Mademoiselle Clarke, daughter of the Minister of War, General Clarke who held this post the majority of the Empire, also played a pivotal role in the fall of Paris and Napoleon’s abdication in 1814. Created a baron of the empire by Napoleon, he had been promoted to the rank of chef d’escadron by the time of the 1812 Russian campaign. He was promoted to général de brigade in 1813 during the German campaign of 1813 but did not rally to Napoleon during the Hundred Days. He was elevated to the title of comte in 1817 and duc in 1821.
Author: Raymond-Aymerie-Philippe-Joseph de Montesquiou-Fézensac 1784-1867
Translator and Introduction: General Sir William Thomas Knollys 1797-1883
Published: Wagram Press on
ISBN: 9781908692443
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A Journal of the Russian Campaign of 1812. - Général Raymond-Aymerie-Philippe-Joseph, Duc de Montesquiou-Fézensac

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This edition is published by PICKLE PARTNERS PUBLISHING

Text originally published in 1852 under the same title.

© Pickle Partners Publishing 2011, all rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted by any means, electrical, mechanical or otherwise without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Publisher’s Note

Although in most cases we have retained the Author’s original spelling and grammar to authentically reproduce the work of the Author and the original intent of such material, some additional notes and clarifications have been added for the modern reader’s benefit.




I presume to lay before your Royal Highness, as Colonel of Her Majesty’s Scots Fusilier Regiment of Guards, the translation of a work undertaken with the sole view of giving it a place in the non-commissioned officers and privates’ libraries of your Royal Highness’s Regiment.

The Journal of the Campaign in Russia of 1812 appeared to the translator the record of a good soldier’s duties and a good man’s feelings. As such, he thought it might not unprofitably beguile a vacant hour in the barrack-room, and it is possible that he may have extended the circle of his readers by the Introduction which he has been led by the interest of the subject to prefix.

In the honourable post of Lieutenant-Colonel of your Royal Highness’s Regiment, the translator has had opportunities of becoming acquainted with the unceasing interest your Royal Highness takes in the instruction and amusement of all ranks composing it. Should either be in any degree afforded by the work as it now stands, he persuades himself that it will meet with the gracious approbation of your Royal Highness.

With the greatest respect,

Your Royal Highness’s

Most dutiful and obedient servant, W. KNOLLYS, Col.,

Lieut.-Col. Com. Scots Fus. Guards


To others fatal, for him immortal Such are the words applied by the Count Philip de Segur[2], author of the History of Napoleon and the Grand Army, to the commander of the 3rd corps, on the occasion of its memorable retreat from Moscow. The military reader needs scarcely be told that the commander was Marshal Ney, and the corps that which formed the rear-guard of the French army during the most critical portion of the retreat. Even now, forty years from the event, who can fail to have his interest re-awakened, his sympathies reenlisted, by an additional version—another perusal of sufferings, losses, and, let us add, courage, which have never been surpassed military annals? We shall find instances of endurance and despair, heroism and timidity, self-devotion and selfishness, that will point the moral of a tale, drawing upon the liveliest feelings of our nature. Our imagination recoils at the fearful reality of the relation: we fancy ourselves wandering in the regions of romance; and it is not until some stubborn row of figures recalls us to facts, that we can persuade ourselves that we are reading an ower true tale. To the soldier, however, more than to any other class, must this tale come home.

While yet in his barrack-room he may study a lesson he knows not how soon he may be called on to practise in the field; may read a page which will excite his ambition—the ambition of emulating qualities such as procured the leader of the 3rd corps the admiration of all who followed him.

And let not our military friend, if of humble rank, imagine that the lesson concerns him not, that it is only one for those above his degree. Courage and energy in encountering difficulties, cheerfulness and firmness in enduring hardships, are common properties with the general and private soldier—their common bond of union and strength, equally necessary in carrying both creditably through their common profession. The instance before us will have an additional attraction, in consequence of Marshal Ney having commenced his career as a private soldier; he ended it as Prince de la Moskowa—a title his prowess gained for him at the battle thus distinguished by the French—by the Russians and English as the battle of Borodino. But on all occasions, wherever the fire was hottest, there was Marshal Ney to be found. Napoleon described him as having a soul tempered with steel, and he was designated by his fellow-soldiers as the bravest of the brave The confidence of those under his command in him was unbounded, At Lutzen, in 1813, where a large proportion of the French soldiers consisted of conscripts, Ney thus addressed Napoleon:— Only let me have, Sire, some of these gallant young conscripts, and I will lead them wherever you may think proper. Our old hands are getting too knowing, and pretend to form an opinion of difficulties and positions, but these brave lads can be deterred by no obstacle—they look neither to the right nor left, but only to their front, It is glory alone they seek M. de Fezensac tells us that death on the field of battle was, in the Marshal’s opinion, all that was worth a soldier’s living for. Alas for his memory, that he had not himself met this fate where he had so often courted it, and thus avoided the ignominious end which awaited him in the gardens of the Luxembourg[3]—the doom of treason—that he had not fallen at the passage of the Beresina, the battle of Borodino, or in one of those brilliant passages of arms when in command of the rear-guard on the retreat from Moscow—that he had not been the survivor spared to announce to General Dumas[4], at Gumbinnen, that he, Ney, then constituted the rear-guard of the French army. The Marshal had entered the General’s apartments with such haggard looks, and with features so begrimed with mud and gunpowder, as not to be recognised. Do you not know me! he continued; I am Marshal Ney; I have fired the last shot at Kowno, and thrown into the Niemen the last of the French army But the interest attending the campaign of Moscow will not be confined to military readers; although its operations and details are open to a more searching criticism from this class, a picture presenting such strong lights and shades of human character, such dark and bright sides of human nature, cannot be passed by with indifference by the general reader. He will in these days have the advantage of seeing it discussed and criticized with a moderation and temper which the personal and national hostility of the time was fatal to. As English we claim to be admitted as impartial umpires. In the progress or issue of the campaign we have no wounded feelings to smart under, no mortified pride to be soothed. At its most critical juncture we were fighting with success our own battles in another region; and at any time in 1812 that Napoleon had chosen to make peace with Russia, we should again have had to contend with him single-handed.

We may regard it then, solely as a military professional question, calculated to afford us instruction, and therefore worthy of a close investigation. The considerations which led Napoleon to undertake this gigantic enterprise, when he had nearly the whole of Europe at his feet ----his preliminary intrigues with Russia—the infatuation of the Emperor Alexander for the French ruler, and subsequent recovery from his fascination—the tortuous conduct of Austria and Prussia—their defection from Napoleon’s cause—their struggles to escape the toils which his policy had woven round them,—on these points our reader will seek for information from some political historian, the Macaulay or Alison of the day. But there are other subjects to be elucidated of a military nature, involving doubts and difficulties which he will be unable satisfactorily to resolve without the aid of a military writer. For these he will probably prefer turning to some contemporaneous narrator; one who formed part of the expedition, and was an eye-witness, was present himself at the great battle under the walls of Moscow, and therefore better authority than he who had gathered his information second-hand. He will endeavour to clear, with this guide, the still debatable ground, and the field of interest will widen upon him as he pursues his inquiry.

The comparative numbers with which Napoleon crossed and re-crossed the Russian frontier—his losses in the country he invaded—were they caused by the sword or famine? Did the elements combine to crush the presumptuous invader, or did he perish the artificer of his own destruction?

And the operations of so great an army under so great a commander—the strategical movements on which he has been the subject of so much keen criticism—his plans of the campaign—his bold advance, so successful in its primary object, so shortcoming in its main purpose—his movement from Witespk on Smolensko, the finest he made in the campaign, if we take the text of a Russian military writer, but severely animadverted on by more than one English officer[5]—his dispositions for Borodino, and his disinclination to strike the decisive blow when urged by Murat, Ney, and Berthier —his protracted stay at Moscow—his victory at Malo-Jaroslavets, and the subsequent eventful hour in the cabin at Gorodnia, when Berthier, Murat, and Bessières awaited in silent expectation the result of the Emperor’s reverie, but were dismissed unsatisfied—his critical position at the passage of the Berezina, when Rapp whispered to Ney, that if Napoleon could extricate them from this unparalleled situation, he must have the devil in him, he will find these operations extolled by some as the highest proofs of military talent, by others depreciated as successful only through the courage of his soldiers, whose blood never weighed one moment in their general’s consideration. And these questions, and many assertions time has disproved, and many suppositions, probable at first, discountenanced afterwards, and finally established, have all served to maintain the interest. A new writer keeps up the ball; if an actor as well, we are justified in expecting from him some additional information towards solving our doubts. Decidedly such a testimony will carry more weight than that of the several writers who filled only civil posts around Napoleon: secretaries, employed the whole day in copying despatches, prefects of the palace, whose sole employment was that of catering for the stomachs and amusement of the imperial party, and maréchaux de logis, who took up their quarters.

A distinguished English general of our day has well put the case of a shoemaker who should attempt to write the life of a great surgeon; he might, perhaps, give a tolerable account of the gossip held in the patients’ rooms by the servants, but he assuredly would give but a lame account of surgical operations. Just so, he subjoins, " with the Life of Napoleon by Sir Walter Scott, and all the lives of military men which are written by non-military writers." Cæsar’s Commentaries and Xenophon’s Retreat of the Ten Thousand derive additional value from being written by the same hand which directed the movements. The Duke of Wellington’s Dispatches and Letters will be the one great authority appealed to in any future history of the Peninsular war[6], and the Memoirs dictated by Napoleon to his Generals at St. Helena, short as they fall of what they might have been, command our interest from the fact of their being written by one who was himself the great actor of what he describes. The author of the Fall of Napoleon, the late talented Colonel Mitchell, has stigmatized these Memoirs as a farrago of falsehood and nonsense. False they may be. We have known men that could not tell a lie. Napoleon could neither speak nor write truth: let his writings decide. His bulletins were false to a proverb. His life was one great lie from the day of his starting into notice. The fatal habit —stronger by indulgence — accompanied him to the end. Never was it exhibited in more pitiable colours than in the scenes attending his abdication at Fontainebleau. Every word he there uttered was an attempt on the credulity of those around him; and in his after-exile at St. Helena, every phrase he then dictated was a continuation of his efforts to impose on the understanding of the world. Yet Napoleon’s writings are not all nonsense. His first dispatches as general-in-chief of the army of Italy, detailing the progress of his troops from insubordination, want, and inaction, to discipline, plenty, and victory, with their clear and soldier-like style, stand out in agreeable relief to the bombast and tinsel of his later bulletins. The St. Helena Memoirs, viewed as professional essays, may be consulted with advantage for some of his earlier campaigns. What says the eloquent historian of the Restoration? Far superior in the recital of his campaigns to Caesar, Napoleon’s style is not simply written words, but action itself. Every word in his pages is the reflexion, the impress, of the fact. That is, as he would have us accept it. There is not the difference of a shade, nor a letter, nor a sound, between the thing and the word—and the word, it is himself. The concise and rough-hewn phrase recalls those times when Bajazet and Charlemagne, unable to write their names at the foot of the acts of the empire, dipped their hand in blood or ink, and impressed it on the parchments. It was not the signature, it was the very hand of the hero which they thus had ever before their eyes. So is it with the pages of his campaigns dictated by Napoleon"[7] Reader! these are not our words; but the words of one who has otherwise painted him in no flattering colours. Neither can we quite reconcile their tenour with the exposure of Napoleon’s passion for dissimulation, so unrelentingly dwelt on by the same author in his preceding pages. They, however, corroborate our opinion of the value of these Memoirs in a professional point of view. We prefer the commentary of Napoleon to that of hostile and ignorant criticism on operations none can be so competent to explain as the general who projected them.

Few things surprise a military man more than the liberties which civilians are accustomed to take with numbers. In computing the strength of large bodies in the field, the most practised military eye mistrusts itself. The civilian has no such misgiving. He announces the result of his guess-work with off-hand confidence, however beside the mark. His inaccuracy follows him into his closet. He finds round numbers convenient for the expression of his totals, and takes little heed of the various and heavy deductions to be made from an army on paper, before arriving at its strength in the field. Our young friend,—we are now supposing ourselves addressing a subaltern studying his profession, — must guard himself against being led away by erroneous estimates of what can be done, and what has been done, by bodies of men in no measure corresponding with the numbers represented. He will find it of the most practical utility to accustom himself early to that exactitude, without which, all in his profession must be confusion and error; to familiarize his mind, not only with the movements, but with the numerical details of large as well as small bodies. Let him only take up an effective or duty state of his own regiment, and he will become immediately sensible of the different appearance it makes upon paper and under arms. We do not pretend that the mighty hosts Napoleon brought into the field could be reduced to such a fine test,—to attempt it would be the mere pedantry of the staff-officer; we would only warn our young reader against forming conclusions from the round numbers and loose computations of non-military writers, like Segur or Sir Walter Scott. As regards the Russian campaign, whether the writer be civil or military, we will not conceal from him that he will have figures to grapple with of the most conflicting nature; and that on several occasions he will experience an equal difficulty in acquiring from one or the other a correct notion of the numbers employed. Nor is such inexactitude peculiar to the campaign of 1812. We can hardly refer to a great battle in which our own nation has been engaged, that we shall not find it exemplified. At Creci and Agincourt, the French force has been estimated by different writers at every intermediate number between 60,000 and 120,000 men. The body of Genoese archers, who were expressly engaged at Creci to cope with the English of the same arm, are indifferently put at 6000 or 15,000. In no instance is discrepancy more remarkable than at Agincourt. The English force is stated by our own writers in various figures from 59,000 to 10,000. But if to the mean of these numbers we add the non-combatants who attended the men-at-arms, we may reconcile the statement of 10,000 with that given by S. Remy, who is quoted by Sir Harris Nicolas, as the most satisfactory authority from having been present with the English army in the field. But, the historian adds, all hopes of forming a correct judgment on the question is at an and if the least regard be paid to the assertions of the French chroniclers, who rate the English force at from 20,000 to 30,000 men, for on no occasion do chroniclers differ from each other as in the account of forces brought into the field.[8]

When we come to the losses at Agincourt, on either side the numbers given defy all scrutiny.[9] We have no intention of examining the details here; but when we return to our own times, and find the French force which crossed the Niemen, in the invasion of Russia, variously stated from 325,000 to 680,000, we are in despair at reconciling so great a discrepancy, and are plunged into that whirlpool of embarrassment from which we are told by the historian of Agincourt we shall not very easily emerge.

After every allowance has been made for the different periods at which the numbers are taken, and for detachments, troops on their march to join the grand army, corps in reserve, auxiliaries on the wings, artisans and mechanics, and civilians of every grade (and they were many), some of the totals may be brought nearer each other, but no effort will make the extremes meet.

Chambray has given the following summary from the French Imperial Muster-rolls;—

Infantry 491 953

Cavalry 96 579

Artillery-Engineers 21,526

 Total 610,058

Joined afterwards 37,100

Total who penetrated into Russia. 647,158

This number has relation only to the military force, and does not include Napoleon’s suite, his generals, staffs, servants, bakers, masons, &c. Of this number the Austrians were 26,830, and the Prussians 25,000.

Baron Fain, in his Manuscrit de 1812, makes the total of the French army, including Macdonald’s corps with the Prussians, 360,000 men who crossed the Niemen.

General Gourgaud estimates it at 325,000, of which 150,000 only were French.

Segur tells us that 480,000 men first crossed the Niemen, of which 220,000 were French.

Labaume, who was attached to the 4th corps, and wrote a history of the campaign, in his summary of the different corps, garrisons, and auxiliaries, who made part of the grand army, gives a total of 680,500; of this number, he says, 243,712 corpses were burnt by order of the Russian government at Moscow, Kaluga, Smolensko, the Berezina, Minsk, and Wilna.

Plotho, a Prussian writer, gives the same total at 580,000.

Boutourlin, aid-de-camp to the Emperor of Russia, and whose account may be considered as the semi-official Russian: reduces the number to 480,000.

In his Commentaries of the Russian Campaign, Major-General Cathcart gives the following numbers from returns found among the French baggage taken during the retreat, and now in possession of the Russian Etat Major:

Guard 47,000

Davoust 72,000

Oudinot 37 000

Ney 39,000

Beauharnais 44,800

Poniatowski 36, 300

St. Cyr 24,200

Three corps reserve cavalry 38,200

Junot 17,800

Regnier 17,100

Austrians 32 200

Macdonald 32,500

Victor 33 500


Lastly, General de Fezensac, our author, quotes the official field-state of the French army at the passage of the Niemen at 414,000, but calculates that this number may be increased to 500,000 by computing the successive arrivals of different detachments, including the non-combatants of all kinds.

Perhaps the number of 600,000 fighting men of the French army who made all, or some part, of the Moscow campaign, will be as near an approximation to the truth as we can attain.

With regard to the artillery, General de Fezensac allows 1200 pieces of ordnance. The Marquis de Chambray, still quoting from official returns 1372, of which 60 were Austrian, and 130 pieces formed the park destined for the siege of Riga.

Opposed to these forces, M. Boutourlin states that the Russian troops numbered 217,000 in the first line, and 35,000 in the second. Chambray, whose details are very minute, after deducting the men in hospital, gives the number of those present under arms as 235,095 of the regular army, without reckoning the garrisons of Riga, &c., which number exceeds that of Boutourlin, under the same conditions, by 17,000. M. de Fezensac allows 230,000 for the total of the two armies of Barclay de Tolly and Bagration, but adds the army under Tormassof, on their extreme left, 68,000, and that defending Courland, on their extreme right, 34,000, for making up the Russian total of 330,000 men.

On the subject of the French losses, considerable discussion has been carried on, as to the cause to which they were to be assigned. It was the fashion in France, for some time after the Russian campaign to attribute them entirely to the unusual and early severity of the cold. This opinion has been long given up; for, as successive accounts appeared, it became established, by French authority, that a great proportion of Napoleon’s loss had taken place before the cold set in. In fact, the cold does not appear to have been premature, or even severe in the earlier period