Polish Eyewitnesses to Napoleon’s 1812 Campaign

This is a collection of Polish accounts of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and is another collaboration between myself and Marek Tadeusz Łałowski. Marek has unrivalled expertise on the Poles of the Napoleonic Wars.

Napoleon’s invasion of Russia cost the lives of hundreds of thousands and changed the course of history. Europe had never seen an army quite like the one gathering in Poland in 1812 – half a million men in brilliant uniforms, plumed shakoes and shimmering helmets. Six months later, it was the ghost of an army, frozen and miserable, that limped back to their horrified homes.

While the story of this epic military disaster has often been told, it has never been described before from the viewpoint of the tens of thousands of Polish soldiers who took part, and that is why this selection of their vivid eyewitness testimony is of such value.

Most of their accounts – letters, diaries and memoirs – have not been translated into English before, and they come from a variety of authors. Some of them were patriots who were keen to wage war on the Russians in order to regain independence for their country. Others were charmed by the glory of Napoleonic warfare or were professional soldiers who did their duty but had seen too much war to be seduced by it.

They all tell an unrivalled tale – of muskets and drums and burning villages, of Borodino and Moscow and ruthless battles, and of the numbing hunger and biting cold. By the end the great army had been reduced to a pitiless mob and the Polish soldiers, who had set out with such hope, recalled it with horror.

A few excerpts:

Colonel Stanisław Aleksander Małachowski recounts his charge at Borodino:

Then [about 1 p.m.] we received the order that we would attack the redoubt which was to our right. So we set off at a walking pace to the foot of the slope. And our charge commenced. To the right, the battery was to be attacked by the Westphalian cavalry, whist our brigade was to strike the very centre of the position. But the heavy fire pouring from the battery so confused the Westphalians that they fell into complete chaos by the redoubt, and then plunged into us as they retreated, almost forcing us to withdraw downhill too. Without wasting any time, the Saxon general [Johann] Thielmann, who was in command of our brigade, rallied us despite the canister fire, led us across to the other side of the earthworks, and, using the impetus of our horses, we broke over the top and became masters of the battery.

The French infantry soon arrived in support, while we turned and in the greatest order moved against the central battery. We were about 300 yards away from it when a French general, an adjutant of the emperor’s, rode up and cried: ‘Colonel au nom de l’empereur, chargez á l’instant!’ My reply was: ‘Vive l’empereur! En avant!’ And, in the blink of an eye, this battery was covered by my soldiers. My regiment took over 300 prisoners and one cannon, which I handed over to Imperial headquarters. There were also four more guns but without horses, and so these could not be moved. The ditches were full of Russians. I wanted to protect the defenceless from death, but the enraged soldiers did not listen to their commander’s voice, and hacked away, soaking their swords in the blood of the enemy. I myself pulled four frightened and barely conscious soldiers out of the ditches, took them prisoner and sent them to the rear with a corporal.

Captain Franciszek Gajewski during the retreat near Smolensk:

After igniting their bonfires, everybody began to track down whatever they could to appease their constant hunger. A horse, a dog, or whatever animal came to hand, all was fair game. There were those who had a bag of flour, carefully guarded, and they melted the snow in a pot over the fire, poured a handful of flour into the boiling water, added a few cartridges of gunpowder for seasoning, and consumed this strange stew. Such pap became the envy of countless others, and often 20 Francs and more changed hands for a portion of this meal. I myself paid 20 Francs for a small glass of vodka at Krasnoe, just after Smolensk. At Vyazma I myself caught a cat, killed it, skinned it, baked it, and ate it as though it was the most delicious delicacy.

Captain Captain Józef Rudnicki at the Berezina:

Just then, a 12-pound shot struck the grenadier standing next to me, completely shattering his legs. I was so close to the blast that I fell to the ground. Judging by the fact that the ball had almost knocked me down too, I felt the harm done to me to be not too bad, even if, for some time afterwards, I felt no strength in my legs and I was unable to pick myself up. Indeed, Colonel [Tadeusz] Woliński ordered some volunteers to carry me away on their muskets. These soldiers carried me off and pushed through the crowd of wounded people lying without any help in front of the bridges. Many of them had been wounded by the detonation of the large number of caissons hit by artillery, and several hundred lives were probably lost there. The screams of the wounded, lying there without any medical assistance, were the screams from the day of Last Judgment. At last, the soldiers transferred me to the other side of the Berezina, where they placed their burden by a big bonfire, and they, as good soldiers should, went back to the scene of the bloody battle of the Polish regiments. Lying there for a few hours, I had to look with pain upon the dying warriors who, due to the bridges being clogged with artillery, ammunition and coaches, determined to cross the Berezina on horseback. To their misfortune, this river, despite the harsh frost, had not yet frozen solid, meaning that when the horseman rode over it, the thin ice under the horse broke and the Berezina welcomed rider and horse into the abyss. There were also those who, in a hurry to escape, and unable to escape across the crowded bridges, jumped down to those artificial islands which had formed in the Berezina from those carts, carriages and coaches pushed into the river by the gendarmerie. A lot of people took such an uncertain course, but those who slipped into the Berezina’s currents faced certain death. I saw some of them up to their breasts in the freezing water and they were crying out with all their strength for rescue. Rescue which would not come.