Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Military Fraternity and Friendship: Napoleonic Soldiers and the Memoirs of Sergeant Bourgogne

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Military Fraternity and Friendship: Napoleonic Soldiers and the Memoirs of Sergeant Bourgogne

Article excerpt

Introduction

During the disastrous retreat of Napoleon's armies from Russia in the winter of 1812, a weary soldier trudged across a frozen bridge. His beard caked with ice and his hands numb from the cold, the old soldier had long ago abandoned his exhausted horse to continue alone on foot. Thousands of Napoleon's men faced the greater nightmare of abandoning their comrades, weakened by exposure, hunger, and fatigue. During this frozen death march, many ravaged soldiers focused all remaining energy on their own survival as they stumbled on in the snow, indifferent to the suffering around them. Thus it was extraordinary when this old soldier snapped out of his trance on the bridge and heard a young sergeant's call for help. Attempting to cross the river on thin ice, Sergeant Francois Bourgogne cried out: "Camarade, je vous en prie [...] en me donnant une main, vous me sauvez la vie!--Comment voulez-vous, me dit-il, que je vous donne une main? Je n'en ai plus! [...] Mais, reprit-il, si vous pouvez saisir du pan de mon manteau, je tacherais de vous tirer de la!,,1

As Sergeant Bourgogne slipped into the icy river, the only one who stopped to help was a man with no hands. Along with bis horse, the old grenadier had lost his frostbitten fingers to the snow. Yet this man lenta hand when he had no hand to lend. Huddled together, the two soldiers marched on, Bourgogne reports, "afin de ne pas etre separe" (315). While some survived the Russian retreat on the premise of every man for himself, many found that their lives depended on the commitment of every self for his man. More than mere ideais, military fraternity and friendship became essential strategies for survival in the harsh conditions of the Napoleonic Wars.

Over half a million men in Napoleon's Grande Armee died from battle wounds, starvation, exhaustion, and hypothermia during the Russian retreat in 1812-13. Although Napoleon succeeded in taking Moscow, the Russians' scorched-earth tactics left the city uninhabitable and Napoleon's men exposed to a long winter without sufficient food, shelter, or resources. Forced to retreat to winter quarters in occupied Poland, Napoleon's armies faced an eight-week march of over 1,000 kilometers as the early Russian winter began in late October. With few provisions and limited shelter along this barren stretch of burned-out towns and abandoned farms, the soldiers of this massive army were exposed to freezing temperatures and constant attack by Russian Imperial forces and Cossack militia. Thousands of exhausted soldiers who stopped to rest simply fell asleep in the snow and froze to death. Thousands more drowned in icy waters during the perilous crossing of the Berezina River on fragile pontoon bridges hastily constructed by Napoleon's engineers. Frozen cadavers littered the route, buried under the snow in silent bundles amid the rest of the army's debris, including thousands of frozen horse cadavers, hastily killed and eaten raw or gutted for their blood, a desperate source of nourishment that hung on the frozen beards of Napoleon's men and made them look like savage animals gone mad.

In terms of human loss, the Russian Campaign was a titanic disaster. According to Alan Schom, Napoleon's invading forces were the "largest army ever assembled by any one force in European history," numbering over 600,000 men when they crossed the Niemen River into Russia in June 1812. (2) When the survivors of the Grande Armee crossed the frozen Niemen again during the December retreat, they numbered only 43,000 weak and ravaged men. (3) As discipline broke down in Napoleon's armies, many survivors resorted to the desperate tactic of sauve-qui-peut. There were many reports of soldiers killing one another for a frozen potato, men stealing boots off the wounded, and starving soldiers resorting to cannibalism. Even those who did not commit such atrocities fell victim to a kind of zombie-like complacency. Faced with the terrible decision to assist a comrade, many hid their own meager rations, kept walking, or simply looked away. …

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