Captaine Coignet's Escape (5)


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

Fortunately, the intrepid Ney put a stop to the confusion. The right and left wings of the Russian army had passed by the city, and saw us go by; they were stopped by a few rounds from our guns, but the rout was complete.

When we reached the mountain of Wilna the confusion was at its height. All the material of the army and the Emperor's carriages were on the ground. The soldiers helped themselves to gold and silver plate. All the chests and casks were burst open. What a quantity of plunder was left on that spot! No, a thousand times no; never was there such a sight!

We marched on to Kowno, which place the King of Naples reached on the 11th of December, at midnight; he left there on the 13th at five o'clock in the morning, and went to Gumbinnen with the Guard.

In spite of the efforts of Marshal Ney, seconded by General Gerard, Kowno at once fell into the hands of the Russians. A retreat was urgently necessary; Marshal Ney effected it at nine o'clock at night, after having destroyed all that remained of our artillery, ammunition, and provisions, and having set fire to the bridges.

It may be said in praise of Marshal Ney that he kept the enemy at bay at Kowno by his own bravery. I saw him take a musket and five men and face the enemy. The country ought to be grateful for such men.

We had the good fortune to be under the command of Prince Eugene, who made every effort to reunite our scattered forces.

At Koenigsberg we came upon some Prussian sentries, who insulted our unfortunate soldiers, who were without arms; all the doors were closed against them, and they died on the pavement of cold and hunger.

I went at once with my two comrades to the town hall. No one was allowed to approach. I showed my decoration and my epaulets, and was allowed to enter through a window. Three billets for lodgings were given me, and we had the best apartments.

No one spoke to us; they only stared at us. They were at dinner. Seeing this indifference on their pan, I took out 20 francs, and said, "Have something got for us to eat; we will give you 20 francs a day."

"All right," said the host. "I will have a fire made in the stove in this room, and give you some straw and some coverings." Some broth was served us immediately, and we were fed for 30 francs a day, not including the coffee (a franc for each man).

This Prussian was kind enough to stable our horses and feed them. The poor beasts had had no hay and oats since they left Wilna; how glad they were to bite into a bundle of hay! And we, so happy to sleep on some straw in a warm room.

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