Despite their reputation for savagery, some memoirists also remembered acts of kindness from the Cossacks. One soldier, for example, recalled the fate a pregnant soldier’s wife, captured alongside her husband. The pregnant woman was given a horse to ride and treated with the utmost care. Others were treated well because they possessed a skill that their captors valued. Karl von Schehl was better treated than his fellow prisoners because he was able to play the trumpet.
The image of the Cossack presented in the memoirs is, therefore, that of an implacable, almost omnipresent threat. It is possible that the German soldiers that marched into Russia already had an image of the Cossacks formed in their imagination. Cossacks had been deployed by the Russian military in German Central Europe during the Seven Years’ War and they appear to have left behind a reputation for rapine, wildness and violence. Dieter Kienitz has indicated the ‘the reports of the behaviour of the Cossacks in the Seven Years’ War had left the public with the impression that they were nothing more than plundering and murderous barbarians from the East’ (Kienitz: p. 11). Indeed, for the ‘Western Europeans, above all the Germans, the concept of the Cossack was bound up with a terrible images (Schreckensbilder) of torturing, robbing, looting and murderous barbarians’ (Kienitz: p 43). The soldiers’ memoirs did little to counter this image, but rather tended to reinforce it.
The images would shift somewhat as a consequence of the 1813 campaigns. Cossacks now campaigned in Central Europe against the French. Katherine Aaslestad, for example, has identified a ‘Cossackmania’ in parts of northern Germany in the 1813, as the educated public sought to understand the culture of their liberators from French hegemony. This manifested itself in a craze for Cossack costume, music and that was enthusiastically, if briefly, embraced by parts of the German public (Aaslestad: p. 284). The fascination with the Cossack spread beyond Germany to other European states, such as Britain. The figure of the Cossack appeared in many European prints and caricatures in between 1812 and 1815. Yet, this print culture also emphasised the exoticism of the Cossack. This was projected against the background of civilised Europe, such as the streets of European cities like Paris or their terrifying presence in a French village. Often the positive interest in Cossack culture was short-lived as the demands of war meant that they, like all armies, quickly became a burden on the local population.
Undoubtedly the reputation the Cossacks gained during the Seven Years’ War coloured the expectations of German soldiers in 1812. Their seemingly savage nature was heightened by the circumstances of the retreat from Moscow. Despite the brief interest in wider Cossack culture created by the military and political circumstances of 1813, they remained a shorthand for the uncivilised nature of Eastern Europe.
- Scheel, Karl von: Vom Rhein zur Moskva 1812 (Krefeld: Richard Obermann, 1957)
- Suckow, Karl von: Aus meinem Soldatenleben (Stuttgart: Adolph Krabbe, 1862)
- Aaslestad, Katherine: Place and Politics: Local Identity, Civic Culture, and German Nationalism in North Germany during the Revolutionary Era (Leiden: Brill, 2005)
- Kienitz, Dieter: Der Kosakenwinter in Schleswig-Holstein 1813/14: Studien zu Bernadottes Feldzug in Schleswig und Holstein und zur Besetzung der Herzogtümer durch eine schwedisch-russisch-presussiche Armee in den Jahren 1813/14 (Heide: Boyens, 2000)
- O’Rourke, Shane: The Cossacks (Manchester: MUP, 2007)
James, Leighton: The Cossacks in the Memoirs of German Soldiers in the Grande Armée (2015), URL: http://www.mwme.eu/essays/index.html