On 26 October the temperature began to fall. Houses and barns were torn down to supply firewood. Exhausted soldiers risked falling into the flames and being badly burnt. War booty taken from Moscow was abandoned by the roadside, as were many of the wounded. Russian prisoners of war that fell behind were shot. On 29 October the head of the retreating army reached the battlefield of Borodino, still littered with bodies and the debris of war.
The army reached Smolensk in November, but the stockpiles of supplies were quickly looted by the starving troops. The temperature continued to fall to between minus 15 and minus 25 Celsius. Heavy snowfall now hampered the retreat. Starving men fell on the carcasses of horses in search sustenance and cut strips of flesh from living animals in their desperation. Under these circumstance discipline broke down as soldiers banded together by national and regional identity.
Stragglers or those forced off the road in search of supplies risked being captured and killed by Cossacks and armed peasants. Many were immediately killed or died as a result of exposure after being stripped of their clothing. Cossacks sold prisoners to peasants to be killed. Such activities fuelled perceptions of the Russians as savage and uncivilised. Of the 90,000 to 100,000 prisoners were taken by the Russians, only around 39,000 survived they captivity. Those fortunate to survive their capture were sent to the interior of Russia, some to return home years after.
The suffering of the army intensified at the crossing of the river Berezina. Dutch engineers, working in freezing temperatures, had constructed a pontoon bridge across the river. While Marshals Oudinot and Ney, fended off Russian troops on the west bank, and Marshal Victor did the same on the east, the remnants of the army began to cross on 28 November. The Russian General, Wittgenstein, however, brought his cannons within range of the bridge. Memoirs describe a terrifying scramble to cross the bridge. Men, women and children were crushed in the press, trampled underfoot or drowned in the freezing water. As the Russians approached the bridge was fired. Desperate stragglers sought to cross the burning bridge or tried to swim across. Some 15,000 to 20,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or captured, along with some 10,000 to 30,000 civilians.
The suffering continued in the twelve-day march from the Berezina to Vilnius. Those soldiers that fell by the wayside were stripped by their former comrades, sometimes while still alive. Theft was commonplace. Fighting broke out and acts of murder occurred as the soldiers struggled to survive.
The suffering of the army was compounded by division in the command. On 5 December Napoleon left the army to return to Paris. He turned over command to Marshal Murat, but the Marshals were soon at odds. Unable to impose order, Murat handed over command to Eugène de Beauharnais and abandoned the army. He was followed by the rest of the Marshals. The lack of clear command and organization meant that the supplies stockpiled in Vilnius, like those at Smolensk, were quickly looted.
The retreat ended on 23 December when the Imperial Guard entered Königsberg. The losses had been devastating. Although the Prussian and Austrian contingents had escaped relatively intact, of the main force only some 38,000 recrossed the Niemen. Participants continued to die into 1813 as a consequence of wounds and disease. The German contingents were decimated. Of the 25,500 Saxons and 30,000 Bavarians who marched into Russia, 6,000 and 3,000 returned respectively. The losses of other Confederation of the Rhine troops were even higher. Only 250 Westphalian, 118 Mecklenburg and 500 Württemberg soldiers returned.
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