In the Legions of Napoleon

VLIn the Legions of Napoleon

The Memoirs of a Polish Officer in Spain and Russia, 1808-1812

by Heinrich von Brandt

Translated by Jonathan North

In this excerpt from the book, Brandt, an officer in the Polish Vistula Legion attached to Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, enters Moscow in September 1812. It came after an exhausting advance through Russia and first impressions of the Russian city were decidedly mixed:

On 14 September, at one in the afternoon, Claparède’s division formed up outside Moscow’s Drogomilov Gate where the Smolensk road enters the city. The King of Naples had entered the city before us with a large body of cavalry which included the regiment of Polish Hussars and one of Prussian Lancers. Up to that point we felt sure that the Russians would not abandon their holy city without one more fight. It seems that they too had held this belief for we found, as we advanced towards the city, that numerous defensive positions had been prepared for our reception.

As we were approaching Moscow, the Emperor had ridden up, dismounted and studied the city through a telescope. Seen from the height that dominates it, Moscow seemed oriental, fantastic even, in appearance. With 500 golden and multicoloured domes shimmering above a sea of rooftops it was a stupendous sight; and yet the French officers seemed troubled. There was consternation that no deputation had come forth to surrender the town. ‘They’ll be kept waiting,’ grumbled one of our old soldiers, ‘these Russians would rather emigrate to Siberia than surrender.’

We passed through the city’s defences at around two o’clock, following in the wake of the cavalry’s vanguard. We entered the suburbs and marched along a wide and unsurfaced street which was flanked on either side by wooden houses, all of which were, very wisely, boarded up.

The rest of the city, from there to the bridge of the Moskva, consisted of similar-looking streets but with larger and more elegant houses, all of which were, again, hermetically sealed. Absolute silence reigned supreme.brandt

Our march was slow and frequently interrupted; so much so that it took us six hours to cover 8,000 yards. Throughout that time we came across just one inhabitant, a gigantic Russian who, as we were filing by, dashed out of one house and made for another over the road. As he crossed the street he knocked into some of our soldiers and an officer who drew his sword. The man, who seemed rather wild, opened his coat and shouted, ‘Plunge your steel into this Russian bosom!’ As we had been ordered to treat the inhabitants with courtesy we let him be and he disappeared into the house, slamming the door shut behind him. ‘If they are all like that,’ a sergeant said, ‘our troubles have only just begun.’


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