Swiss at the Beresina

This is the account of Louis Begos, a Swiss soldier who marched into Russia in 1812. He didn’t make it as far as the rest of Napoleon’s army, avoiding Borodino, but he and his fellow Swiss were caught up in the bitter retreat from Moscow. This translation of his memoirs looks in particular at the Swiss role in defending the Beresina crossings as the remnants of Napoleon’s exhausted army tries to make its escape:

On the 17th October the Russians advanced against our positions and firing broke out all along the line. The cossacks were everywhere and I remember a rather unfortunate episode concerning these horsemen. Because of my rank I had a horse. On the 17th I had left it with the regimental drummers and the one who was supposed to be looking after it had unfortunately let it escape. Much to my consternation the horse had bolted in the direction of the Russian lines. We were about to be drawn into battle and there was I, horseless. So I chased after the equine deserter, caught him and saddled him; no sooner had I mounted than a group of cossacks, howling dreadful cries, appeared in pursuit. Fortunately, I knew the country well, having hunted there over the summer, and I made good use of the streambeds and gullies. I was soon clear of my pursuers but was glad to regain the regiment. Numerous officers and soldiers congratulated me on my escape, laughing out loud at my misadventure.

We passed most of the night on alert and, on the morning of the 18th, cannonfire could be heard. We formed up close by the Polotska and the Russians seemed to come at us from all sides. I was positioned in the centre right from the opening shots; my horse was hit by a Russian roundshot, killing it outright and simultaneously killing the horse of the officer behind me. I seemed to have served as some kind of target for the enemy artillery, making life rather difficult. Service on foot was just as exacting, however.

The action was intense right from the start. Russian shot and shell swept through our ranks. The colonel decided that a bayonet charge would be the best means to regain the initiative. The charge was sounded. I found myself at the head of one of our battalions; we advanced impetuously and won back all that we had seemed to have lost. The Russians had little stomach for a bayonet charge; they seemed surprised and discouraged by hand-to-hand fighting. We reformed a few hundred yards to the rear and once more deployed. It was then that I saw that the standard-bearer had been wounded and was trembling under the weight of the Eagle. I took the Eagle from him and looked about for my brother so that he might take charge of it, being a man who knew his duty. But, to my utter astonishment, Captain Muller – with whom I had fought a duel a few days earlier – ran right up to me: ‘Give it to me, Captain! I’ll prove that you are wrong about me and can do my duty.’ I took the Eagle, held it aloft, ran forwards fifty yards and cried out ‘Forwards, the 2nd!’ But Muller quickly drew the Russian fire and was struck down never to rise again. I knew my duty too. The Eagle was in grave danger of falling into the hands of the Russians so I had to act. I heard the bullets whistling over my head as I dashed forwards. It proved difficult to retrieve the standard from under the captain’s body. He was a large man and his weight proved impossible to shift. Finally, all the while on my knees, I dislodged the flag and crawled back to our ranks. I was welcomed back by all who had witnessed the deed; something which took more time to relate than it took to perform.

I took command of the battalion. Officer casualties were mounting, the colonel had been hit and was out of action and the ground was littered with our dead and wounded. Despite our heavy losses, I resolved to order a second charge. It was as successful as the first but did not drive the Russians away for long; they soon came back, reinforced and firing in an even more deadly fashion. After stubbornly defending our position, along with the 1st Swiss on our right, we received the order to withdraw through Polotsk.

Polotsk resembles Lausanne in as much as it is dominated by a forest and positioned in a kind of amphitheatre. Our hospitals, stores, artillery parks and such were along the river Dvina. The town was burnt but we had time to carry off our stores, particularly a herd of fine beef cattle. The Russian general pushed troops across the Dvina and skirmished with our rearguard. Our regiment had suffered heavily during the battle. A hole had indeed been blown in our ranks: thirty-seven officers were either killed or wounded. Nearly six hundred NCOs and soldiers remained on the battlefield, witness to our sacrifice and cruel loss.

Only 16,000 men remained in our army, hardly sufficient to confront the combined armies of Stentgell and Wittgenstein. True, the Russians had lost considerably, and our artillery and bayonets had destroyed their best troops, and so it was that we were able to withdraw in good order. Marshal St Cyr had been wounded during the battle and Marshal Oudinot, wounded when we first entered the town, now took over command of II Corps.

This second battle of Polotsk cost the Swiss dearly. The 1st Regiment lost twelve officers killed and seventeen wounded; the 3rd Swiss lost four officers killed and three wounded; the 4th lost ten killed and twenty-seven wounded and Begos’ unit, the 2nd Regiment, lost most heavily of all suffering fourteen officers killed and twenty-eight wounded. In the three days of battle the French lost some 238 officers in all, suggesting a loss of 5,000 men, and the Russians also captured 1,000 prisoners. Yet, despite heavy casualties, Napoleon’s troops showed exemplary courage and fell back in good order, perhaps assuming that they would now link up with the main body of the French army to continue operations in the spring. Nothing could be further from the truth. The II and VI Corps fell back, pursued by the Russians, and now found themselves required to defend the famished, emaciated remnants of Napoleon’s Grand Army as it staggered back from Moscow.

Towards the end of October we began to march in the direction of Borisov, frequently being obliged to beat off repeated attacks by the Russians under Wittgenstein. We crossed over the canal which links the Dvina and Beresina and, three days march from Borisov, ran into more Russians so that both our vanguard and rearguard were in action at the same time.

We were soon in action and, as was our custom, attacked with the bayonet. The troops which, however, made the most impression was a magnificent cuirassier regiment – I think it was the 14th. It was impossible to be braver or to fight with such discipline. The charges this regiment carried out were sublime, and whether fighting in the vanguard or rearguard, dominated the battlefield.

Finally Borisov drew into sight and we now expected to come across the enemy in force. The town’s bridge, which spanned the Beresina, had been burnt we could see the enemy’s outposts on the far bank. We established our camp close by the river but, due to the proximity of the main body of the Grande Armee, we had a very difficult time.

It was indeed pitiful to see the remains of this once powerful army staggering back from Moscow, to all intents destroyed by battle, want and cold. I could not help but call to memory the fine troops who had left France, marched across Prussia and Poland and had been full of energy and buoyed by hope. We ourselves had suffered but we had arrived at the Beresina confident and full of fight. We had also managed to maintain some discipline and organisation and consequently were surrounded by the remnants of the army, oppressed by hunger, milling about seeking some solace for their woe. We gave them some food to prevent them from dying of hunger. From that day on we began to understand the full scale of our predicament for, up until then, we had wanted for nothing. We wore warm clothing and kept it in good repair, and we had new shoes on our feet. Our division had come across a huge convoy of clothes destined for a Polish corps which had since moved on and, for my part, a day’s march from Polotsk, my dog had discovered, stashed away close by a chateau, clothes, food and drink of all kinds. My hunting dog was indeed a precious animal.

The Borisov bridge had been destroyed, effectively cutting the French army’s retreat and threatening Napoleon’s troops with complete destruction between Wittgenstein’s Russian’s marching down from the north-east, Kutuzov’s main army, following closely on the heels of Napoleon’s main body, and Chichagov’s Russians waiting patiently on the far bank of the Beresina opposite Borisov. However, Oudinot’s light cavalry had discovered a ford near Studianka and Napoleon despatched General Eblé and Chasseloup to aid Oudinot in constructing bridges. Chichagov, beset by false information and rumours, assumed Napoleon would attempt a crossing further downstream and the bulk of his troops headed south along the Beresina, leaving a handful of cossack scouts. The cossacks were soon cleared away by Corbineau’s cavalry, which swam across the river, and work on the bridges began in earnest on the night of 25–26 November. The gallant pontonniers worked shoulder deep in freezing water but, before long, two 100-metre-long bridges, one for infantry and cavalry and the other for vehicles and artillery had been constructed. Oudinot’s troops were the first to cross and they prepared to defend the bridges from the Russians who, learning their mistake, were now hurrying northwards intent on pushing the French back across the freezing river.

The emperor was not far off and was attempting to rescue what little remained of his army. The army had left Smolensk, pursued by the Russians and Platov’s cossacks, and, by means of forced marches, had headed for the Beresina. The bridge at Borisov had been burnt and could not be repaired and, as Napoleon had ordered the bridging train to be burnt, we received the order to march for Studianka. Here, two bridges had almost been completed by pontonniers under the command of General Eble; these brave men were working in the freezing water. One of the bridges was for infantry, whilst the other was for cavalry and artillery. As we were about to cross the infantry bridge the emperor came over towards us and barked a question at our colonel. ‘How many men in your regiment?’ The colonel, taken aback by the abrupt tone, hesitated. The emperor made an impatient gesture and assumed an irritated expression. He turned to me, as I was just a few paces away, and asked me the same question. I replied, telling him so many officers, so many men; he didn’t seem to me to be the same emperor I had seen in Paris, he looked tired and preoccupied. He was, however, still wearing the famous grey riding-coat. He galloped off passing along II Corps in its entirety. I followed him with my eyes, seeing him halt before the 1st Swiss Regiment, which was in our brigade. My friend, Captain Rey, was able to study the emperor at length and he too was struck by the emperor’s unease. He dismounted and leaned against some of the planks, intended for the bridge but stacked by the river. He lowered his head then looked up and impatiently spoke to General Eble:

‘It’s taking too long general.’

‘Sire, as you can see, my men are up to their necks in the water, the ice impairs their work and I have no food or brandy to revive them.’

‘That will do,’ said the emperor.

He again looked at the ground and then, a few moments later, began to grumble again having now seemingly forgotten the general’s words. He knew what the enemy was doing and greatly feared being cut off, before the bridges being completed, by an enemy converging upon us from three different directions. I’m possibly not mistaken in thinking that this was one of the most difficult times in his entire life. Even so, he showed no emotion – merely impatience.

We crossed over the Beresina by means of the rather rickety bridge, along with a regiment of cuirassiers and three other Swiss regiments – some 8,000 elite soldiers. It was the evening of the 27th November. When we reached the far bank we encountered some Russian light infantry and pushed them back. We made camp and prepared to spend the night sheltering in the woods about a cannon’s shot from the bridge.

For those of you who are not familiar with the delights of camping outdoors I will now furnish some details. If the enemy is far off, things aren’t too bad – fires are lit, meals are prepared and the night passes without too much discomfort. It is a different story when the enemy is close by; it is expressly forbidden to do anything that might attract his attention.

As we hadn’t eaten for some time this camp was miserable, a fact exacerbated by the proximity of the Russians. Night had fallen and each soldier used his knapsack as a pillow and the snow for his mattress; muskets were kept close to hand. An icy wind swept down upon us and the soldiers huddled up to each other in an attempt to keep warm. The tree branches were covered in snow, furnishing us with a little shelter. We placed our outposts carefully and the officers, leaning against trees, fearing a surprise, kept their eyes open. We were far from cheerful, hunger and thirst tormented us and we knew that, come morning, we would have to fight a bitter battle. This latter didn’t discourage us, indeed it made us impatient for dawn.

The night, cold and sad, ended and as dawn broke we caught sight of massive columns of Russians bearing down upon us in an attempt to throw us back into the Beresina.

The 28th November resounds to the glory of the Swiss. Our commander, Vonderweid de Seedorf, had us charge the enemy and then repeat the attack. I sent my adjutant back for cartridges but he was killed at once. I gave the same order to Scherzenecker but he was wounded. I was about to send a third officer when I caught sight of the advancing Russians streaming forwards and protected by clouds of skirmishers.

There were 800 men in our regiment at most but we knew the importance of the position entrusted to us. The noise of artillery and the shouts of the Russians filled the air. From our position on the edge of the forest we could see very little but knew that the 1st and 4th Swiss were to our right. As for the rest of the army, we knew nothing of its whereabouts. In such cases it is vital to be at your post and, knowing that it was crucial to prevent the Russians from advancing, we knew we would be required to make a heroic stand.

We were in action throughout the day. Clouds of Russians maintained a withering fire against our regiment and we began to give ground. I knew what we had to do – it had been the same at Polotsk – and I ordered the drummers to beat the charge and we prepared to advance with the bayonet.

This time we pushed the Russians some way back and forced them to evacuate the forest. However, they were far more of them and they kept up a deadly fire. We traded a few vollies but, after some twenty minutes, they had regained all they had lost and seemed on the verge of throwing us into the river. We sounded the charge again and again pushed them back. Seven times we attacked and seven times repelled them, littering the field with their dead and wounded.

Even so, I began to fear for the safety of our flag. Two officers had been made hors de combat protecting it and I now decided to send it back to the comparative safety of headquarters.

Despite being exhausted by these repeated attacks, and famished from not having eaten a morsel in two days, not a single soldier complained and they always pressed their attacks with the utmost vigour.

The fighting was literally hand-to-hand: a Russian lunged at me with his bayonet, I parried the blow and struck him with the edge of my sword – the point having broken off sometime before we crossed the Beresina.

We were about to launch an eighth attack when I had the misfortune to be wounded in the arm. I stayed at my post despite the pain. The Russians advanced again and I was again wounded – this time just below the knee. I had lost my horse at Polotsk and the colonel, seeing me wounded, cried out ‘My brave Begos, take my horse!’ I’ll never forget this mark of affection from my brave colonel. I was losing a lot of blood and set out accompanied by my servant Dupuis. We would have to run the gauntlet of Russian fire before reaching safety. I turned to look at my gallant regiment – I had seen so many of them fall victim to the enemy’s fire that I questioned whether I would see any of them again. I made it to the main road but there were so many Russian cannon-balls falling on it that I felt my final moments had arrived. Shot rained down from every direction and some of the massive trees in the forest came crashing down. This, added to the cries of the wounded made a dreadful impression – one which had to be seen to be believed.

Finally I made it to the field hospital where I was treated by our regimental surgeon, David. That done, I set off again accompanied by Dupuis. I hoped to reach imperial headquarters at Minski, nine miles from where I had been wounded. There I vainly sought out our marshal’s chief of staff before stumbling across a pitiful barn. In that building, amonst soldiers of all nations, I found some Swiss and they made room for me by the fire. Throughout the disaster the Swiss and the soldiers of the Guard mantained their respect for their officers. Things were different with the other troops.

As I hadn’t eaten and had a little butter in my cooking pot, my servant set about making some broth as best he could; I was hungry and it tasted good. My wounds, however, caused me considerable pain and the cold was so extreme that I was at a loss to know how I might survive. Sleep finally took hold and I slept until dawn when we once more took to the road.

Towards noon my soldier and I hid ourselves behind a copse and consumed a lowly soup. That done, we sought to regain the main road but it was so choked with humanity that it was impossible to move. We camped amongst the unfortunates who surrounded us. The night was cruel and I suffered from hunger, cold and my wound. It was not until the next day that we started to make some progress – we had gone a little distance when my horse slipped and toppled over onto my wounded leg. The agony was terrible and it was only with considerable difficulty that I was able to remount and continue for another two hours. However, the cold had grown so intense that, spying a huge fire surrounded by cuirassiers, I made my way over towards them and they consented to let me have a place by the fire. These good men gave me some tea and I spent an hour resting with them. Refreshed, I continued my march and, towards noon, entered a village. I sought out a barn, hoping to perhaps come across a sledge as my wounds were now agonising. As I searched, my colonel, Vonderweid de Seedorf entered the building. He had been wounded but a short time before me and was accompanied by two other wounded officers – Captain Hopf and Adjutant Tschudy. They had horses and sledges and so it was that the Swiss officers now set off in convoy, happy to have, for the moment, cheated death.

Our mournful convoy was accompanied by lieutenants Feer and Monney and by what remained of our troops. That evening we reached Nassibov and spent a reasonable night in a barn. It was here, however, that we realised how seriously our good colonel had been wounded. He seemed resigned, and suffered with uttering a complaint, but was indignant at the ingratitude he had met with from certain French senior officers. Overcome by these doleful thoughts, and prey to the torments of a stomach wound, the colonel’s fate seemed decided.

The following morning, after having attempted to partake of the modest soup, he made every effort to accompany us. But we hadn’t gone far when he collapsed into our arms and so it was that we buried him under a tree close by a humble barn. For me it was a sad and pitiful moment and I would never forget what he did for me when I was wounded at the Beresina.

On the following day we reached Vilna and it was there that we lost Hopf. You had to be a man of steel to resist the cold. We had nothing more than watery soup to sustain us when what we desired most of all was rest, food and warmth. At Vilna we lodged with a Swiss baker from Grisons along with a number of our unfortunate compatriots, many of whom were also wounded. We had hoped to stay until the next day but, during the night, word swept through the town that the cossacks were coming. Tschudy, Feer, Monney and myself made haste to leave. We had marched for one and a half hours when we found ourselves at the foot of a steep incline. The road was fringed on either side with pine trees and enormous boulders and this depressing scene was further augmented by a mass of artillery, wagons, miserable sledges packed with wounded officers, and countless unarmed cavalry and infantry. Some intrepid fellows were burning vehicles which blocked the road and thus it was that we were finally able to make headway and drag ourselves out of this impasse. Just as we succeeded we heard the terrible shouts of the cossacks behind us and the noise of Russian artillery opening fire. The scene was transformed to one of carnage and destruction – on a scale perhaps impossible to imagine.

We continued on, camped, prepared some soup and then carried on for a further eighteen miles. There I had the wonderful good fortune to be reunited with my brother whom I hadn’t seen since the Beresina.

At dawn the next day we had the shock of discovering that our sledges had been stolen. My brother and I hunted high and low for another, finally coming across one driven by a Bavarian servant. I offered him a generous amount of money if he would allow us to make use of the sledge and my brother and I climbed in and prepared to set off. Just as we were about to get going, I caught sight of my poor soldier Dupuis, staggering along behind us. He cried out ‘I won’t come with you, captain, I can’t carry on. My hands and feet are frozen!’ I am overcome with emotion each time I remember this faithful soldier, cut down in his prime.

Our driver was in a hurry as the cossacks were not far behind and we had almost reached Kovno when he swerved too sharply and I fell into the ditch. My brother and the driver were unable to pull me out and it was only after several hours of begging passers by for assistance that we managed to persuade a grenadier of the Imperial Guard to help. I gave him five francs and he made it clear that, without his kindness, I probably would have been stuck there a considerable time. He was quite right.

We finally resumed our march along the main road but I could distinctly felt my hands and feet begin to freeze. I handed my brother all the money I had, some forty francs, and sent him into a village to look for water – fevers were making me hellishly thirsty. The road was so encumbered that my driver then decided to drive down onto the frozen Niemen. We did this and, before long, came across an abandoned sledge. Despite my protests, my driver simply placed me in the abandoned sledge, gave me my cloak and deserted me, leaving me alone in the middle of a frozen river and at the mercy of the freezing cold, and drove off, deaf to my supplications. It was a terrible position to be in. Passers by ignored me and my brother, thinking that we would have made some progress along the road had evidently hurried off to catch up with us. I spent sometime in this unhappy situation; officers and soldiers passed me by, self-preservation had hardened every heart. Night drew on, I was tormented by thirst and my right hand and left foot had frozen. Then fate intervened – a Polish lancer on horseback came down to the river’s edge and made me promise a large reward for rescuing me. He picked me out of the sledge and placed me on his horse. We were making our way slowly along the main road when I had the good fortune to encounter Strasser, a brave voltigeur sergeant in our regiment. I pleaded with him to accompany me to Kovno, and he graciously accepted. The way there was pitiful. The horse I was riding was badly shod and frequently slipped on the ice, usually, and unfortunately, falling onto my wounded leg and causing me excessive pain. Finally, thanks be to God, and thanks to my brave sergeant, I made it to Kovno and set about trying to discover the whereabouts of my brother and of my wounded comrades. I did not succeed. Desperate, I contemplated seeking out the hospital and awaiting the arrival of the Russians. It was a sad state of mind, it is true, but I wouldn’t have had to wait long for the arrival of the cossacks. Just as I had resolved upon this course of action, I stumbled across a wagon loaded with supplies and with a rather feeble-looking cavalry horse harnessed to it. I didn’t waste time trying to find out who the owner was, climbed up and resolutely prepared to defend my new piece of property. Fortunately, nobody challenged my new found rights.

After considerable effort, we crossed the frozen Niemen and, once on the other side, set off in the direction of Koenigsberg. On the way we came across a voltigeur in our regiment called Fuchs and he consented to ride with us. At eleven at night we reached a large village and I sent for the local surgeon. He was young, and newly married, and he set about examining my wound with absolute diligence and care, carefully extracting part of a musket ball. I asked him if he wouldn’t mind exchanging his sledge for my wagon and he gracefully accepted, filling the sledge with straw and wrapping my feet in sheepskin. His wife, as generous as her husband, presented me with a large handkerchief, to wrap around my head, and a pair of fine gloves. I paid the surgeon hansomely and presented his wife with a gold pin. We took leave of our hosts and sped off reaching Intersburg as night fell.

We reached Koenigsberg two days later and hoped, finally, to have some peace and rest. As my two companions were carrying me up to my room, however, our sledge was stolen. Yet more anguish! Fortunately, we came across Dorrer, an officer in our regiment, and he consented to allow us to accompany him. My sergeant bought me some new clothes as by now lice were making my life a misery.

I spent two days in hospital, but was poorly cared for, and then, with Fuchs and Strasser, we set off in Dorrer’s slow and uncomfortable sledge for Marienbourg. Here we came across Captain Rusca, who commanded the remnants of our magnificent regiment, and my brother, who was quite ill with fever. Although exhausted by the tribulations I had undergone, I now felt, at last, optimistic about the future.

Begos survived the morale-sapping treck across Prussia and a Germany aghast at the spectacle of the exhausted, emaciated and grim survivors of Napoleon’s great army, and arrived at the 2nd Regiment’s depot, blabla, on blabla. The magnificent Swiss regiments of June 1812 were no more. Begos’ own unit had numbered 1,787 officers and men in August 1812; in January 1813 it counted but 93 officers and men.