Coignet's brush with cossacks

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

29 November 1812

The Emperor sent for me. "Start at once; carry these orders by the road to Wilna; here is a guide upon whom you can rely. Make every effort to get there by daybreak tomorrow."

He had my guide questioned. A reward was given him in my presence and to each of us was given a good Russian horse. I set out on a fine road, white with snow, on which our horses did not slip.

At night we came to a wood, and, as a precaution, I tied a stout cord round my guide's neck, lest he should get away from me. He said to me, "Bac, tat," which meant "That is a good idea."

At last I had the good fortune to reach my destination without any mishap. I dismounted, and my guide introduced me to the mayor, who had our horses put in a barn. I gave him my despatches; he offered me a glass of schnapps, and, first tasting it himself, he said, "Drink," in French.

He broke the seal of my package, and said to me, "I could not possibly collect the immense quantity of provisions which your sovereign demands of me within three leagues of this city. There is a great deal in my district, but it would require a month to do it."

"That is none of my business."

"All right," said he, "I will do my best." But he had no time to say more. The man who had taken my horse to the barn began to scream "Cossacks!"

I expected to be captured. The worthy mayor led me out of his cabinet into an ante-chamber, turned suddenly to the right, and, taking me by the shoulders and telling me to stoop, pushed me into the oven. I had no time for reflection.

The oven was close to the ground under a vault, very long and deep; it was already lighted, but was not too warm, and so I could stand it. I had no time to go back. I knelt down on my right knee and stayed. I was in a state of great anxiety.

This excellent mayor had had the presence of mind to take some wood and put it in front of the entrance to the oven, so as to conceal me. This was no sooner done than some officers entered the mayor's house; but they passed by the door of the oven where I was awaiting my fate.

The minutes seemed ages; my hair stood on end; I thought I was lost. How long time seems when one is in suspense.

At last I heard all the officers leave, passing by my place of refuge. A terrible shuddering seized me. I thought I was lost; but Providence watched over me. They had seized upon my despatches, and had gone to join their regiment at the end of the village so as to go to the place indicated in my despatches. (I learned afterwards that the Emperor had sacrificed me in order to have my despatches captured and deceive the enemy.)

The worthy mayor came to me: "Come out," said he, "the Russians have gone off with your despatches, and to stop the advance of your army. Your road is open."

When I got out of the oven, I threw my arms around that generous man's neck, and said to him," I shall inform my sovereign of your conduct."

After having taken a glass of schnapps, he gave me some bread, which I put into my pocket. 'I found my horse at the gate and, starting off at a gallop, I flew like the wind for a league. At last I began to go more moderately, for my horse was giving out. I thought no more of my guide who was left in the village.

What joy when I saw our scouts I began to breathe freely, and cried out, "Saved, saved!" and then I felt for my piece of bread, and devoured it.

The army was marching silently; the horses slipped, for the roads had been made smooth by the tramping of the troops. The cold became more and more intense.

At last I came up to the Emperor and his staff; I went up to him hat in hand. "So here you are! And your mission?"

"Accomplished, sire."

"What! They did not capture you? And your despatches, where are they?"

"In the hands of the Cossacks."

"What! Come nearer. What do you say?"

"I have told you the truth. When I reached the mayor's house I gave him my despatches, and a moment after the Cossacks arrived and the mayor hid me in his oven."

"In his oven?"

"Yes, sire; and I was not very comfortable; they passed right by me when they went into the mayor's cabinet; they took my despatches, and ran off."

"It strange, my old grouser, that you escaped being captured."

"The brave mayor saved me."

"I shall see him, this Russian."

He related my adventure to his generals and said, "Set him down for a week's rest, and pay his expenses double."

I rejoined General Monthyon, and found my horses and sugar safe. I was half dead of hunger. That night we came to a place about a mile from where my despatches had been taken by the Cossacks.

He sent for the mayor and had a conference with him. The mayor conducted him to within a league of his village and I gave him, as he passed, a good grasp of the hand.

"I love the French," said he. "Farewell, brave officer."

To this day I bless that man who saved my life.

- From the Notebooks of Captain Coignet


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