His account concentrates in particular on the retreat from Moscow, but he was present at all the major actions and followed the entire course of the campaign from the opening moves in July to being chased through Prussia by bands of Cossacks in early On our side we had a few soldiers and some officers killed or wounded. I had five bullets lodged in my riding coat and was bruised twice by spent bullets.
We returned to Krasnoe following this expedition, and spent the night there. On the 17th we marched out in order to take up a position to protect I Corps, then acting as the rearguard as it arrived. What followed was a serious affair in which we lost a large number of officers and soldiers. The first regiments of Voltigeurs and Tirailleurs of the Guard were entirely destroyed — only a total of men from both units remained.
The two Fusilier regiments also suffered heavily. I had two horses killed beneath me. Just before Krasnoe there was a ravine crossed by a small bridge. That bridge was soon so clogged with wagons pushing forwards in their haste to get across, that it proved impossible to either go forwards or have them taken back. So it was that we were forced to abandon everything that remained on the far side. A young lady, very well dressed, with shoes made from white satin, was forced to abandon her coach and was now obliged to continue on foot.
She was carrying in her arms an infant of two or three months. Close by my battalion she lost her shoes, but continued onwards in bare feet, looking at her baby and occasionally raising her eyes up towards heaven. Just at that moment we were hit by a large number of roundshot, canister and musketry. Herds of beef-cattle were driven with the army, but their flesh rapidly deteriorated under the effects of bad fodder and fatigue.
Generally speaking, the periods when the Grand Army was not living from hand to mouth were few, even on the advance. During the retreat it was half-starved at best.
In the disorganisation of the transport the hospital service fared badly. There was a fairly adequate staff of surgeons and medical officers; but their efforts—often devoted and persevering in the highest degree—could effect little when supplies of every kind were lacking. On the outward route, no less than the return, men died in thousands by the roadsides, uncared for and unnoticed. Nearly half the Bavarian Corps died or was invalided without seeing an enemy. The hospitals were inadequate and badly equipped from the outset; later on their condition became too frightful for words.
All whom ill-fortune or duty brought into contact with them describe them in terms of horror. They eventually became mere charnel-houses, in which men were left to perish in thousands of every kind of misery. The French army in was undoubtedly, from the military standpoint, the best organised in Europe; but its officers, as a whole, left much to be desired. The rapid increase of the numbers of the rank and file since had involved the improvisation of thousands of officers, often from doubtful material. The best of the regimental officers were those who united education to practical experience, but they were relatively few in number.
The cadets of the military school were admirable [Pg 28] material, but naturally lacked experience and, as De Fezensac adds, the physical strength which was so necessary. But besides those classes of educated officers there was a third composed of promoted sergeants, whose education was, as a rule, elementary. One of them, the worthy Staff-Captain Coignet, tells us in his delightful autobiography that he did not learn to write until he was thirty-three years of age! He was, indeed, a man of much natural sagacity, and keenly regretted his deficiencies; but it is obvious that these illiterate men can scarcely have made good company officers.
The officers of the artillery and engineers were indeed generally excellent; but many of those of the cavalry, though dashing leaders on the field, possessed little solid knowledge of the duties of their arm, and the work of keeping in touch with the enemy was often very badly performed. As regards their ideas of personal ease the French officers were no better than their opponents. Their private vehicles and baggage swelled the trains to gigantic dimensions—a fact which contributed much to the disasters of the retreat.
The quality of the rank and file was by no means what it had been in the great years of Austerlitz and Jena. The bloody campaign of had created gaps not easily to be filled at the time, and the Austrian and Peninsular wars deprived the army of the leisure necessary for it to repair its losses. The French divisions of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Army Corps contained many old regiments, but even in them there was a large proportion of recruits; and there were a number of regiments, belonging to newly annexed provinces, which were not altogether trustworthy.
Their material—the sturdy peasantry of the Low Countries and North Germany—was excellent, and their conduct on the field usually irreproachable; but their administration and discipline left much to be desired. Their bad condition was continually exercising the soul of the order- [Pg 29] loving Davout. Ney likewise complained of the th, and pointed out that it would have been better to draft the recruits of which it was composed into older regiments. It is probable that Napoleon's object in forming new units was to train as many officers as possible.
The deterioration of the troops rendered it necessary to employ deep tactical formations, with consequent risk of heavy losses. The usual formations for attacking infantry were 1 the "column of companies," in which each battalion advanced with its companies in three-deep line, one behind another, and 2 the "column of divisions," with a front of two companies instead of one. At best the front was narrow and the volume of fire proportionately weak, even when, as was usual, each battalion was preceded by a skirmishing line of Voltigeurs.
Napoleon was fully aware of the fire weakness of these attack formations, and recommended as the ideal the ordre mixte in which battalions in column alternated with others in line. This order, like the others, failed hopelessly against the British two-deep line which brought every musket into action; and it is remarkable that able French generals continued to employ it when its inefficiency had been so clearly demonstrated. It is at least probable that the excitable and imaginative French soldiery could not advance steadily in line. At any rate, French tacticians trusted, to the end, in the thick skirmishing line which preceded the advance being able to clear a way for the masses behind.
As the Russians, with less intelligent and on the whole worse trained troops, adopted similar tactics, the problems which troubled the French in Spain did not arise in Russia. The French cavalry was excellent on the field, but otherwise often unsatisfactory. In scouting and outpost work it was inefficient; more than once during the campaign [Pg 30] touch with the Russians was entirely lost.
No doubt much of this inefficiency was due to the exhaustion of the horses. Forage was generally scarce, and to losses from fatigue and lack of food were soon added those in action. The men were frequently poor horse-masters. Murat took no care for the mounts, and over-worked his force from the first. When the central army began its retreat only 15, horsemen remained mounted, and none but the Guard regiments were really fit for service.
Concerning the internal condition of the French army something must be said. With the old soldiers devotion to their leader was still the watchword; but it would be a grave mistake to imagine that this sentiment was universal, especially among the better educated elements of the army. Yet the loyalty of the troops, as a whole, admits of no doubt.
Sir Robert Wilson and De Fezensac are at one in bearing witness to this. The desire for plunder no doubt counted for something, but it was hunger rather than greed that made the French soldier a marauder. The spirit of brigandage was indeed rife in the army, and infected everyone from the commanders downward. On the whole, it may fairly be said that in the ranks the sense of loyalty was strong and the general spirit good, but that discipline was often badly maintained and naturally tended to become more and more relaxed as hardships increased.
Further, it may be observed that while there were numbers of irreproachable men among the officers, there were also many greedy adventurers, besides those who were demoralised, like their men, by years of predatory warfare. Finally, there was, of course, in the army the ruffianly element, which is never absent.
To this element must be attributed the commission of most of the atrocities which undoubtedly took place, and for which the whole army had later to suffer. One further point must be touched upon. The evidence as to the presence of women and children with [Pg 31] the army, especially during the retreat, is abundant and overwhelming. Some of the officers, at any rate, were ill-advised enough to take their wives with them.
The foreign population of Moscow mostly awaited the invaders, and fled with them in fear of Russian vengeance. Finally, the morals of the French army in sexual matters can only be described as low, at any rate from the British standpoint. Napoleon himself was not so much immoral as unmoral—not that there is any absolute proof that he gave way to his passions during the Russian campaign—and many of his officers followed his example. On the whole, it seems clear that for one reason or another the invading army was burdened with thousands of women and children, whose sufferings during the retreat constituted probably its most harrowing feature.
The troops of the allied states who accompanied and outnumbered the French were, generally speaking, the fair equals on the field of their comrades-in-arms. The Italians fought admirably at the one general action at which they had the fortune to be present. The great Polish contingent performed splendid service for the man to whom Poland looked for its restoration to the roll of independent nations.
Nor can any fault be found with the conduct in battle of the Spanish and Portuguese troops, though they were no better than prisoners, serving by compulsion. The Austrians and Prussians generally took no very prominent part in the campaign; but what they did was by no means to their discredit. It was in administration rather than fighting quality that the allied troops fell below the French standard. That the Spaniards and Portuguese supplied more than their proportion of deserters and pillagers is merely what might have been expected, and the same may be said of the Croats and Illyrians, whose interest in the war in which they were sacrificed was absolutely nil.
Yet, on the whole, it cannot well be said that the foreign troops showed conspicuously worse discipline than their French comrades, though doubtless the general mixture of races and languages tended to lower the general standard. As to the absolute quality of the allied troops it is very difficult to speak. The best of the Polish troops were very good indeed; but the regiments were largely composed of raw recruits, hastily raised for the great effort which, as the Poles of Warsaw fondly hoped, was to re-establish their national existence.
The cavalry was good; the infantry less so. Discipline does not appear to have been very satisfactory; the officers included too many Pans , owing their commissions to their noble birth. The Prussians were probably the best disciplined and best officered of all the allied troops. The general quality of the Austrians, also, was good. Much of it had been hastily [Pg 33] raised; and its enormous numbers merely added to the difficulty of provisioning it and, in consequence, to its misery and losses. General Bonnal thinks that Napoleon, when he collected the gigantic force, was more or less suffering from megalomania; and that he would have achieved more had he depended upon a Franco-Polish first line of about , troops, perfectly organised, disciplined and supplied.
The point is certainly worthy of consideration. Something must be said of the commanders who, under the direction of Napoleon, conducted the greatest of his armies during the most ambitious and disastrous of his campaigns. For Napoleon himself a very few words must suffice. More has probably been written about him than of any other single figure in history.
No good purpose can here be served by anything more than some brief animadversions upon the share which he himself had in the catastrophe of Napoleon's position as the greatest military leader of modern times is as yet unchallenged; and it is needless therefore to discuss it. In he was, as far as years go, a comparatively young man. He was barely forty-three; his bodily energy and capacity of endurance were yet enormous. Nevertheless, he was not the Napoleon of and He had grown stout and somewhat unwieldy; and his gross habit of body must at times have affected his mind.
Nor is it possible to ignore the first-hand evidence as to his indifferent health on more than one important occasion. Napoleon's fierce and impetuous nature always made light of obstacles, and lack of patience was certainly a very pronounced feature in his character. Wellington is said to have remarked that it incapacitated the Emperor from defensive action in , when circumstances imperatively demanded it. Finally, Napoleon in was ruler as well as general; [Pg 34] and political considerations probably had something to do with his adoption of courses of action indefensible from the military standpoint.
Napoleon's natural impatience, and his rage at being unable to strike a crushing blow, will probably explain the fatal rush in August past Smolensk on to Moscow. Bodily suffering appears to the author to account satisfactorily for his undoubted lack of energy at Borodino. The fatal delay at Moscow may fairly be attributed to a combination of political circumstances and not entirely unfounded optimism as regards the future. For some of Napoleon's amazing blunders on the retreat reasons such as these will hardly account. The fatal dispersion of the marching columns along 60 miles of road, even after passing Smolensk, when the army was already worn down to a mere remnant; the unnecessarily slow pace of the march, the burning of the pontoon train previous to the passage of the Berezina, are cases in point; and can hardly be attributed to anything save declining intellectual powers.
On the whole, it seems difficult to deny that Napoleon, in , had definitely entered upon his decline; that his perception was less clear than of old; that his bodily energy had decayed; that his genius, though still capable of burning brightly, now only blazed forth fitfully. Certainly there were times during the Moscow campaign when it appeared to be almost extinct.
His methodical habits and untiring industry, coupled with his complete familiarity with Napoleon's character, rendered him indispensable to the latter.
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His military talents were not remarkable, and his general position was rather that of a confidential secretary than that of a modern chief-of-staff—for whom, indeed, there was no place near a man of Napoleon's essentially despotic temperament. He was a fine example of the modern scientific soldier, a stern disciplinarian and an admirable administrator, with a passion for order and method; and very careful of his men.
The charges of cruelty brought against him do not appear to the author to have been satisfactorily made out—certainly not according to the standards of humanity generally accepted in Continental warfare. At the same time, there was undoubtedly a harsh and rough side to his character, and he seems to have lacked self-control and tact. Davout had excellent strategic insight, and his tactical ability and tenacity in action had been frequently and brilliantly demonstrated.
He took a distinguished part in the first half of the campaign of , but rather failed in the unaccustomed post of rear-guard commander. Men of his methodical habit of mind are probably ill-fitted to shine in such a turmoil of misery and disorder as the retreat from Moscow. He was an excellent subordinate, but failed in separate command like so many of Napoleon's generals, though his action previous to the passage of the Berezina was highly meritorious.
Ney is commonly regarded as a mere hard fighter, but he was fairly well educated, and to all appearance a careful administrator. Among the papers of the French War Office relating to is an order in which he carefully instructs his suffering troops how to cook [Pg 36] the unground grain which was their only food. As a strategist Ney did not excel, and he failed in independent command, but he was a fine tactician, and as a corps commander probably unsurpassed. His famous title "Le Brave des Braves" fairly sums up his character. His courage was indeed of that nobler type which rises to its height at the moment when that of meaner men declines.
He was brave, disinterested and devoted to his stepfather, but his military talents were not great, and he lacked experience. In he had been opposed to a commander even less capable than himself, and his officers and soldiers had helped him successfully out of his difficulties. He was brave and popular with his men, but possessed of no great capacity, and was indolent and pleasure loving. General Gouvion St. General Reynier, the commander of the Saxon 7th Corps, was a hard-fighting, experienced soldier of no special ability, and extremely unfortunate in war. Junot, who took over the Westphalian Corps from King Jerome, owed his position chiefly to Napoleon's friendship for him.
Vauchelet at Versailles. King Jerome Napoleon of Westphalia would probably have done well enough at the head of the troops of his own kingdom; his courage, as he showed at Waterloo, [Pg 37] was beyond question. But to place him in command of three army corps, operating in a difficult country, and charged with a vitally important mission, was a gigantic blunder on the part of Napoleon.
It is no especial discredit to Jerome that he failed so completely. General Bonnal observes that he cannot be blamed for transgressing military principles with which he had never been acquainted. Marshal Victor, the commander of the 9th Corps, was an experienced officer, but had been very unfortunate in the Peninsula against the British.
Marshal Macdonald, commanding the 10th Corps, took a very small part in the campaign; and, unless he had special orders, cannot be said to have displayed much activity. He was a man of high personal character and a good hard-fighting corps commander, but of no eminence as a general. Napoleon, during the latter part of his career, was repeatedly accused of placing his relations in positions for which they were not fitted.
The case of King Jerome is one in point; so also perhaps, to a certain extent, is that of Napoleon's celebrated brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, King of Naples, commander of the Cavalry Reserves. Audacity and tactical ability on the field Murat certainly possessed, but he was hardly a great cavalry leader.
With Napoleon's Guard in Russia
His outpost and reconnaissance work was often very badly performed, and his impetuosity caused him to overwork and harass his men and horses. He lacked stability of character and steadiness in adversity, as he was soon to show. Yet as King of Naples he possesses more than one title to esteem, and in his character, amidst vanity and absurdity, there was much that was elevated and noble.
The commanders of the four corps under Murat's orders were all men of experience as cavalry leaders. The best of them, perhaps, was Nansouty, at any rate in his own estimation, but the name of Grouchy is better [Pg 38] known in Great Britain. Montbrun and Latour-Maubourg had seen much service in Spain.
Marshal Lefebvre, Duke of Dantzic, commander of the Old Guard, was much attached to Napoleon, but otherwise merely a rough, honest old soldier of little strategic or tactical ability. His title was much better deserved by the brilliant engineer, General Chasseloup, who accompanied the army in as chief of his branch of the service.
Marshal Mortier, Duke of Treviso, commander of the Young Guard, was an excellent corps commander, as had been demonstrated in Spain. He was a fine cavalry leader, and a man of integrity and devotion to his chief, otherwise deserving of no special mention. Generally speaking, Napoleon's commanding officers had one great defect. With few exceptions they had become so habituated to submission to the dominating personality of the Emperor that they had lost all power of initiative.
In an army so huge and of such experience there were naturally many officers who in a less warlike age would have been acclaimed as great generals. The majority of the divisional and brigade leaders were excellent, though some were already wearing out. Several of them—men such as Verdier—had had considerable experience in independent command, and some had acquired therein a by no means savoury reputation.
Gudin, the leader of Davout's 3rd Division, was perhaps the most distinguished as a soldier, but his colleagues Friant, Morand, Desaix and Compans were all fine officers. Of the General Staff it may be said that it had scarcely any affinity with the board of specially trained officers which accompanies and assists a modern commander-in-chief. Napoleon's absorption, in his single person, of all military and administrative functions had reduced it to a position of complete insignificance. For all practical purposes it was nothing but a mass of orderlies, and though it contained many talented and meritorious officers they had small opportunity of distinguishing themselves so long as they remained members of it.
Napoleon in one moment of exasperation declared that "the General Staff is organised in such a manner that nothing is foreseen. The invading host was, in short, the army of a despot who endeavoured to supervise everything himself and discouraged initiative in others, with the natural result that much that might have been done to minimise the catastrophe was not attempted.
The numbers of the invading army and its composition, according to the states and peoples who contributed contingents, are given in detail in Appendices A and B. Roughly it may be said that during the campaign Napoleon disposed of the following numbers:—. The circumstance which most impresses the reader who for the first time, and without knowledge of the conditions, peruses the story of the Franco-Russian campaign of is that the forces of Russia were, as compared with those of Napoleon, very weak.
This weakness in war is familiar enough to all students of Russian history, nor are the reasons far to seek. Since, however, it must appear peculiar to all who regard Russia as a power essentially huge and powerful—the "Colossus of the North"—its causes must be briefly reviewed. It is true that Russia is a country of vast extent; but her huge territory, to-day very imperfectly developed, was in largely in an almost primeval condition, while the population was even more sparsely distributed.
The country was and is covered in many places by wide expanses of almost impenetrable forest, and by vast tracts of morass. In the western provinces the marshes of Pinsk cover an area of more than 20, square miles; and in they were pierced by only three indifferent roads. The majority of the numerous rivers do not in themselves present grave obstacles to intercommunication or military operations, being in summer shallow and easily fordable, and in winter usually frozen over, but they are often wide, and frequently have soft or sandy beds.
The larger of them must be negotiated by means of bridges, and in bridges were few. Moreover, in Central Russia the soil is generally yielding and sandy, [Pg 42] and every small stream has hollowed for itself in the course of ages a gully more or less deep. These gullies, repeatedly recurring, presented considerable obstacles, especially since they were rarely bridged.
The distances to be traversed were and are enormous. Readers of Herodotus will remember how the prospect of the three months' march from Miletus to Susa frightened Kleomenes and the elders of Sparta. To transfer troops from the Caucasus to St. Petersburg in involved a journey of even greater magnitude—without the aid of the Royal Road of Persia. Even to-day the Russian roads are comparatively few and bad. In it was infinitely worse. The few high-roads were frequently very badly maintained; cross-roads of use for military purposes were almost non-existent.
Finally, Russia was as undeveloped politically as economically. The bulk of the peasantry were serfs chained to the soil. The accepted method of enrolling them for the national defence was to call upon the nobles, who owned the greater part of the land, for a levy of so many per hundred or thousand souls. Their interests naturally induced them to endeavour to retain the best and most industrious of their serfs, and to furnish for the army the ill-conditioned or idle, as far as possible. In a country in which corruption has always been rampant the recruiting officials were doubtless amenable to the influence of judicious bribery, and the actual result of a military levy was often far less than it should have been.
The slowness of communication, the general poverty of the Government, the lack of factories of clothing, arms and ammunition, added to the difficulty of rapidly and efficiently increasing the armed strength. In Russia was suffering also from an almost complete cessation of commerce, the result of the British blockade of her coasts brought on by the alliance with Napoleon in , and the financial difficulties were in consequence even greater than usual.
The Russian army, since its organisation on European methods by Peter the Great, has usually tended to be a rather crude and imperfect copy of the most modern force of the time. In French ideas naturally predominated, and their influence was apparent in many respects, especially in the direction of the higher organisations. Early in , as already noted, General Barclay de Tolly became Minister of War in Russia, and set himself earnestly, with the support of the Emperor, to reorganise the army.
Divided counsels near the Tzar, and the adverse influence of the conditions above detailed, rendered the execution of his plans slow and difficult. Nevertheless, a great deal was effected, and whatever opinions may be held as to Barclay's military ability there can be no doubt of his talent for organising. In the Russian infantry comprised 6 regiments of Imperial Guards, 14 of Grenadiers, 50 of light infantry Chasseurs , and 96 of the line. Each regiment consisted of 3 4-company battalions with an establishment of officers and men per battalion in the Guards, and in the line. As a fact, only the Guard regiments were able to complete 3 field battalions.
The strengths of the line regiments were so low that Barclay could only complete 2 battalions of each regiment at the expense of the third. One company of the third battalion was also completed by drafts from the other three, and these companies combined in threes or fours to form battalions of "combined grenadiers. These were collected at various strategic centres as "Reserve Divisions," and Barclay hoped to complete them with recruits.
In this respect, however, there was not enough time for his judicious arrangements to [Pg 44] have much effect. In practice Russia was able to do little more than maintain her field army at something like war strength.
The third battalions, reserves and new levies were chiefly absorbed in feeding the fighting line. A large proportion of the troops were by armed with a musket of new model, about equal to that with which the French and British infantry were furnished, but many still carried the older and clumsier weapon which had been employed in The bullet was rather heavier than that of the French infantry musket; but, judging from the fact that the Russians usually appear to have had a higher proportion of killed to wounded than their adversaries, it is probable that the powder was often inferior.
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The Cossack regiment included a detachment of Orenburg Cossacks, and apparently had 5 or 6 field squadrons. The establishment of a Guard squadron was officers and men, that of a line squadron The cavalry was well and adequately mounted, much better so than that of Napoleon. The men were less well trained than their opponents, but, belonging to a country in which there is a horse to every five or six human beings, were probably good horse masters.
Hay was the usual forage, and, to the surprise of Clausewitz, the horses throve upon it. Accurate details of armament I have been unable to procure, except that the line Cuirassiers were only protected on the breast. Helmets and cuirasses were painted black, not polished—a very sensible and labour-saving device. Besides the Cossacks these were Crimean Tartars, Kalmuks and Bashkirs—the latter still clothed in chain mail and armed with the bow!
In June there were perhaps 15, of them on the western frontier. Their numbers later increased to 30, or more. Their reputation rests largely upon the dread with which they inspired the demoralised Napoleonic army during its retreat. In the field they could not contend with regulars, and even during the retreat could never achieve anything against such of the French infantry as kept its ranks. For guerilla operations and for harassing the retreat they were invaluable. In artillery Russian armies have usually been very strong. Peter the Great in his reorganisation paid special attention to it, and his crowning victory at Poltava was very largely due to his excellent artillery.
After Peter's reign his policy was continued, and Russia owed many victories to the masses of well-served guns which accompanied her armies. In the Russian artillery of the line comprised 44 heavy, 58 light and 22 horse-artillery batteries organised in 27 foot and 10 reserve brigades, besides single horse artillery batteries attached to the cavalry. The numbers of gunners and drivers varied from an average of for the heavy batteries to for light artillery companies. They were each armed with 12 guns and howitzers. Cossacks had their own horse batteries. The artillery of the Guard comprised 2 heavy and 2 light batteries, each of 16 guns and howitzers, and 2 horse artillery batteries of 8, with establishments in proportion.
The heavy ammunition waggons customary in other European armies were not employed in Russia, their place being taken by a larger number of light vehicles. The quality of the material appears generally to have been excellent, though Sir R.
With Napoleon’s Guard in Russia: The Memoirs of Major Vionnet, 1812
The Russian artillery continually performed feats of transport that speak volumes for its high quality, and the number of pieces abandoned or captured was extraordinarily small. The technical troops were few in number and lacking both in scientific officers and training. The medical department, though far better than in , when it was practically non-existent, was still terribly inadequate and ill equipped, and trained physicians and surgeons were very few.
There were 32 garrison regiments, 1 Guard garrison battalion, garrison artillery, and pensioners. A detailed statement of the Russian forces is given in Appendix C, but of course all of these were not available. Immediately disposable to meet the invasion there were:—.
The last item can only be a very rough estimate. It is, however, certain that the large figures given in some authorities bear no proportion to the numbers of reinforcements which actually reached the front. It is of course obvious that the entire armed strength of Russia cannot be reckoned as opposed to Napoleon. The Asiatic, Caucasian and Crimea troops could at best only furnish small detachments.
The First and Second Armies had received at the hands of Barclay a fairly complete army-corps organisation, each corps containing two infantry divisions, a brigade or division of cavalry, and two brigades of artillery, with a battery of horse artillery attached to the cavalry. The Third Army and the Army of the Danube were still organised in the main on the old system of mixed divisions. The characteristics of the Russian soldier have never varied.
He was and is endowed with remarkable endurance and courage, but is comparatively unintelligent. In illiteracy was practically universal. The conditions of service were bad. The period was twenty-five years, and brutal methods were often necessary to compel the recruits to leave the homes which they would probably never see again. Life in the ranks was hard, and only the fact that it was probably no harder than the existence of the average peasant could have rendered it endurable. The men were well clothed, for obvious reasons; but they were in general ill-fed, ill- [Pg 48] lodged, ill-cared-for, and practically unpaid.
The methods of maintaining discipline were brutal, and if in theory military service meant emancipation from serfdom, in practice the men were treated as slaves. It is all to their honour that they made and make such good soldiers. The great characteristic of Russian troops is their extraordinary solidity and imperturbability under the most terrible punishment. A Russian army hardly ever dissolves under the influence of defeat; it must literally be battered to pieces.
A good example of this was afforded at Zorndorf in , when Frederick the Great gained a Cadmean success over a largely raw, badly trained and equipped, and ill-led Russian army not greatly superior in number to his own. He nearly destroyed both wings of the Russian host, but the centre stood firm, rallied the survivors, fought doggedly until nightfall, and lumbered defiantly away with some show of equality. The campaign of was to afford further proof of these characteristics. There is a tendency to regard the Russian soldiers as generally large men, but there is abundant evidence that this was not the case.
An English observer, writing about , describes them as usually undersized, but they were doubtless hardy enough. The Guards were picked men. The cavalry, artillery, light infantry and grenadiers absorbed the best of the remaining recruits; the ordinary line regiments, with very inadequate means, had to assimilate and train the poorest of the available material.
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The officers, as a class, were not capable of adequately training the fine material at their disposal. There were honourable exceptions, but at his best the Russian regimental officer was hardly the equal of his opponent of corresponding rank, though often, perhaps, a better linguist and a finer social figure. The Guards, as a whole, obtained the best officers, and after them the pick went to the cavalry and artillery, while the line infantry [Pg 49] regiments were often very badly off. The ordinary battalion and company leaders frequently lacked all but the most elementary military instruction.
WITH NAPOLEON'S GUARD IN RUSSIA: The Memoirs of Major Vionnet 1812
Appointment and promotion were too often due to Court favour, female influence or corruption. The officers were, as a class, indolent. Too often they were not at the head of their men; their private carriages or sledges swelled the trains to enormous proportions, while the fighting line was weakened by the numbers of men detailed for their service. It is fair to add that defects such as these existed more or less in all armies of the period, but the Russian army has always been badly or inadequately officered.