Captaine Coignet's Escape (4)


1812 Invasion of Russia
French Command Structure
Russian Command Structure

On the Road with the Grande Armee
Map of the first stages of the Great Retreat

Map of the last stages of the Great Retreat
Jean-Roch Coignet's Description of the Retreat
Coignet's Brush With Cossacks

At Smorgoni, the Emperor bade farewell, before leaving the army, to such of the general officers as he could gather round him. He left at seven o'clock in the evening, accompanied by Generals Duroc, Mouton, and Caulaincourt.

We remained under the command of the King of Naples, and were not too happy in our minds, for, though he was always the first to draw a sabre or brave danger, he may truly be said to have been the executioner of our cavalry.

He kept his divisions constantly mounted - all along the route, and they were more than enough to keep the Cossacks at bay; but our cavalry were dying of starvation, and when night came, the unfortunate soldiers were not able to use their horses to go for forage.

For himself, the King of Naples had 20 or 30 relays of horses, and every morning he started out on a fresh one.

He was, indeed, the handsomest horseman in Europe; but without foresight, for it was not a question of being an intrepid soldier, but of being able to economize his resources. He lost us (I heard this said to Marshal Davout) 40,000 horses through his mismanagement.

It is always wrong to blame one's officers; but the Emperor could have made a better selection. There were among our leaders two warriors, rivals in glory, Marshal Ney and Prince Beauharnais, who saved us from the greatest perils by their coolness and courage.

The King of Naples went on to Wilna; he arrived there on the 8th of December, and we with the Guard, on the 10th. It was night when we came to the gates of the city, which were barricaded with pieces of wood.

We had the greatest difficulty in entering. I and my comrade were lodged in a school, well warmed. When I went to my general for orders, he said, "Be ready at four in the morning to leave the city, for the enemy is now arriving on the heights, and we shall be bombarded at daylight. Do not lose any time."

As soon as I returned to my lodgings, I made my preparations to leave. I awoke my comrade, who would not listen to me. He had got thawed, and preferred to remain in the enemy's hands. At three o'clock I said to him, "Let us go."

"No," said he, "I shall stay where I am."

"Very well, I shall kill you if you don't follow me."

"All right; kill me."

I drew my sabre, and dealt him some stout blows with it, thus forcing him to follow me. I loved my brave comrade, and would not leave him to the enemy. We had scarcely got ready to leave when the Russians forced the Witebsk gate; we had barely time to get out.

They committed the most horrible acts in the town. All the unfortunate men who were still asleep in their lodgings, were murdered, and the streets were strewn with the dead bodies of Frenchmen. Here the Jews were the executioners of our Frenchmen.

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