The Age of George III
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From History of the Expedition to Russia by General Count Philip de Segur, 1825
I am grateful to David Williamson for his kind permission to copy this document from his website
The marshal found in Kowno a company of artillerymen, consisting of three hundred Germans who constituted the garrison of the place, and general Marchand, with four hundred men. Of these he assumed the command. And in the first place he inspected the city, to reconnoitre its position, and if possible to rally any troops that might remain in it. He found, however, none but sick and wounded, who were attempting, in tears, to follow our wretched route. For the eighth time, since leaving Moscow, it had become necessary to abandon them in mass in their hospitals, as they had been abandoned in detail through the whole of our retreat, on all our fields of battle, and at all our bivouacs.
Some thousands of soldiers covered the great square and the adjoining streets, but they lay extended and stiff in front of the magazines of brandy, which they had broken open, and from which they had drunk in death, expecting to derive from them life. Such were the only succours left him by Murat.
Ney saw himself left in Russia with only seven hundred men, and those only foreign recruits. At Kowno, as well as after the disasters of Wiazma, of Smolensk, of the Berezina, and of Wilna, to him was once more confided the honour of our arms, and the whole peril attending the concluding steps of our retreat. He willingly undertook the charge.
On the 14th, at break of day, the attack of the Russians commenced. While one of their columns presented itself boldly on the Wilna road, another crossed the Niemen, upon the ice above the town, advanced into the Prussian territory, and, elated with delight and triumph at being the first to pass its own frontier, proceeded to the bridge at Kowno, to close that passage against Ney, and cut him off from all retreat.
The first firing was heard at the Wilna gate. Ney hastened thither; he was resolved to remove Platof’s cannon by his own; but he found that his own pieces were already spiked, and that his artillery-men had taken flight. Enraged almost to madness, he flew with his drawn sword at the officer who had commanded them, and would have killed him on the spot, if his aide-de-camp had not fortunately parried the blow aimed at him, and assisted his escape.
Ney then summoned his infantry, but of the two weak battalions which composed it, one only had taken up arms. It consisted of the three hundred Germans of the garrison. He drew them up in order, addressed them in a few words of animation, and, as the enemy was now fast approaching, was just about to give the command to fire, when a Russian bullet, after carrying away before it the top of the palisade, broke the thigh of their colonel. The officer fell to the ground, and, feeling that his wound was mortal, he coolly took one of his pistols, and blew out his brains before his men. At this act of despair, his soldiers were completely shocked and panic-struck, and instantly throwing down their arms in horror and consternation, betook themselves to flight.
Ney, thus abandoned by all, yet neither abandoned himself nor his post. After some useless efforts to check the fugitives, he collected their arms which were loaded; he became once more a soldier, and for the fifth time presented an intrepid front to some thousands of Russians. His audacity checked them; it inspired some sense of shame into a few of the artillery-men, who immediately imitated and supported their marshal; and it afforded time to his aide-de-camp Kyemes and general Gerard to collect thirty soldiers, and bring up two or three light pieces; and also to generals Ledru and Marchand for collecting the only battalion then remaining.
But just at this moment commenced, beyond the Niemen and near the bridge of Kowno, the second attack by the Russians: it was about half-past two o’clock. Ney despatched Ledru and Marchand, with their four hundred men to retake and secure that passage: and himself, without relaxing his efforts, or disturbing himself about what was going on behind him, fought at the head of thirty men, and maintained his ground till night at the Wilna gate. He then passed through Kowno, and over the Niemen, fighting the whole of the way, never hastening into flight, always the last in the march, supporting to the very last moment the honour of our arms, and for the hundredth time in the course of forty days and forty nights, ready to sacrifice his own life and liberty to save a few more Frenchmen from the dreadful wreck.
He at length quitted that fatal country, the last man that left it of the grand army, proving to the world that even fortune herself is powerless against the energy of true valour, and that the genuine hero converts every thing into glory, even the most serious and accumulated disasters.
After the battle of Waterloo Marshal Ney managed to hide out in the South of France for a few months; then he was captured by his countrymen, tried by his peers and sentenced to be executed as a traitor. On 7 December 1815 he was taken to a corner of Luxembourg Gardens in Paris and shot.
The Moscow Campaign
See The Battle of Waterloo web site for a detailed account of the battle.
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