Captaine Coignet's Escape


The following is an extract from Jean-Roch Coignet's notebooks and deals with his experiences on the terrible retreat from Moscow in the winter of 1812. Coignet had fought with Napoleon Bonaparte since 1800 in Italy and saw service in all of the major campaigns. Among his battles were Austerlitz, Jena, Leipzig and Waterloo.

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

The Emperor had ordered that his household and all his office staff should be sent from Moscow on the 23rd of October and join him at Mojaisk. It is impossible to give any idea of the rapidity of the execution of his orders. The preparations for this move were completed in three hours.

We went to the house of our princess, and there we found some good horses, which had been concealed in a cellar. We mounted two superb ones, and immediately hitched them to a fine carriage.

While this was being done, I got the provisions ready: about ten loaves of sugar, a good-sized box of tea, some elegant cups, and a copper to melt the sugar in. We had a carriage load of provisions.

At three o'clock we left Moscow. It was scarcely possible to make our way, for the road was blocked up with carriages and all the army plunderers were there in great numbers.

When we had gone about three leagues from Moscow we heard a tremendous report. The shock was so great that the earth shook under our feet. It was said that there were sixty tons of powder under the Kremlin, with seven trains of powder, and some sort of contrivance fixed on the casks.

Our 700 brigands, who had been captured match in hand, met their just punishment. They were all criminals from the prisons.

There was a line of carriages on the road twelve leagues long. By the time I had reached our first halting place, I had had carriage enough. I had all our provisions put on horses and burned up the carriage. After that we could pass everywhere.

It was with the greatest possible difficulty that we at last reached the headquarters beyond Mojaisk. The next day the Emperor went over the battlefield of the Moskwa (Borodino) and sighed when he saw the dead still unburied.

On the 31st of October, at four o'clock in the afternoon, he reached Wiazma.

The Russian winter set in with all its severity on the 6th of November.

The Emperor made frequent marches in the midst of his guard following his carriage on foot, with an iron-shod cane in his hand; and we went along the side of the road with the cavalry officers.

In a dispirited condition we reached Smolensk on the 9th of November. The halting places were miserably supplied; the horses died of hunger and cold, and when we came to any cottages, they devoured the thatch.

The cold was already intense, seventeen degrees below zero. This occasioned great losses to the army.

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