Dated: Setember 1, 2008.
Invasion of Russia 1812 (Chapter 2)
NOTE: For Chapter 1 see: here
By Wayne Wood
Night has finally fallen on the vast Russian steppe. A small group of French soldiers settle in wearily for a much needed rest. Sergeant Lambert has reported the watch is set and guards posted. Major LaPonte settles down to write in his journal:
“It has been some days since I have been able to write; however, as I consider our position I cannot help but feel it is essential that I write down what happens to us so that if by some chance we fail in our mission and do not reach the main army perhaps someone may find this journal and know what happened to us.
After our skirmish with the Cossacks where Lieutenant Richaud and his command of lancers were exterminated by a mixed force of Cossacks and local militia we made bivouac in the remains of the village. The village had been put to the torch by the retreating Russians but after the fire burned itself out and the embers cooled we had a fairly comfortable - and secure encampment. The lone stone wall around the village would not have withstood a determined attack, but was still useful as part of my overall defensive plan of the camp.
I realized it would not be possible to move my command immediately. Surgeon Martin informed there were two wounded soldiers who would not be able to move due to their wounds. The Blacksmith, Brun, needed time to repair several of the wagons. I decided we would stay in camp three days. I estimated we are now some forty leagues behind the main army, with the average march of the Army averaging twelve to fifteen leagues a day this would put us about a week behind. However, I hoped that when we finally started the rest and preparations we would make in camp would allow us to move much faster than the army. I hoped to catch them in about a week, barring unforeseen circumstances.
We made good use of the time. Surgeon Martin and his team worked on our wounded. The smiths worked on the wagons tirelessly, using parts from the wagons that couldn't be repaired to repair others. I told the smiths to use a couple of the troops to salvage whatever powder and cannon balls they could and convert them to musket powder and ball. It turned out that Sergeant Lambert was a butcher's son. He put several troops to work assisting him in butchering the horses of the lancers and smoking the meat.
Food - meat at least- should be no problem for a couple of weeks. However, we have no bread and water would be a problem as the Russians had caved in the well of the village. Unless we found a river or stream we would be hard pressed for water. Of course, we were always aware that we were being watched from a distance.
I wish to take this opportunity to laud Sergeant Lambert for his performance as my senior sergeant. He has truly been an invaluable asset to this mission."
LaPonte pauses a moment as he recalls an incident from the village. LaPonte had instructed Lambert to get information from the men as to their experience and training, “One of our problems is organization. I wish to break the men down into squads. I want you to identify any veterans we have - particularly from Spain. I intend to appoint squad leaders with you being my senior sergeant.”
Lambert was gathering the information when he came upon two privates on the perimeter talking among themselves:
“I tell you Marc, we will die if we stay here. That Cossack on the hill - always watching. I tell you they will sweep down and kill us all if we stay here.”
“But what do we do?” the other asked.
“I intend to go home. Tonight, when it was dark. I will head west. I've had it with this war, I want to go home-“
Lambert was on the soldier in an instant. He kicked him to the ground and held his bayonet to the terrified man's throat, “IDIOT!” He screamed.
“WHAT DID YOU THINK, THAT YOU COULD JUST WALK OUT OF HERE? HUH? HOW FAR DID YOU THINK YOU COULD GET BEFORE THE COSSACKS RAN YOU DOWN?
“WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO SAY, FOOL? 'OH I'M SO SORRY MISTER COSSACK THAT I INVADED YOUR COUNTRY. IT IS ALL A TERRIBLE MISTAKE I DIDN'T WANT TO BE HERE. NOW AFTER YOU HOUSE IS BURNED AND YOUR FAMILY IS HOMELESS I WANT TO GO HOME…
“IDIOT! HOW FAR? ONE LEAGUE? TWO BEFORE THE COSSACKS SKEWER YOU ON THEIR LANCES LIKE A KEBOB?”
Lambert turned from the terrified private to address the rest of the men, who were all watching, “LISTEN TO ME YOU IDIOTS! THE ONLY WAY ANY OF US ARE EVER GOING TO SEE FRANCE AGAIN IS TO FOLLOW THE MAJOR EAST.” He lowered his voice now, it was almost as if he were thinking out loud to himself though they could still hear him, “Then, if we can survive whatever battles lie ahead, then we can go home. If we don't survive, then we die as men with our faces to the enemy. We die as French soldiers. YOU ARE STILL FRENCH SOLDIERS AND IF YOU FORGET THAT YOU WON'T HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT THE COSSACKS I WILL GUT YOU MYSELF!”
LaPonte resumes his writing:
"Sergeant Lambert was instrumental in assisting me in organizing the detail into squad sized units and devising a new tactic concerning defense of the column while on the road. I have promoted several veterans to acting corporal - ranks I promised to do my best to make permanent once we reach the main army- as squad leaders. I have also tried to distribute my other veterans evenly throughout the squads to strengthen the recruits.
Our force was more than doubled in the time we spent at the village by groups of soldiers who had been attracted by the sound of gunfire from our battle. Most of them were stragglers; perhaps a few would-be deserters deterred by our friends the Cossacks. They have served to re-enforce Sergeant Lambert's dire warnings. One group stands out in my mind, survivors of a foraging detail that was attacked by Cossacks and irregulars. Of one hundred soldiers only ten survived, led by a Polish private, Private Jablonski, a promising individual who took command of his fellow soldiers, French and Polish and led them for five days avoiding and fighting the Cossacks before hearing the gunfire of our fight. We integrated them all into our organization. I had close to fifty muskets by the time we left the village.
New wounded extended our stay by two days, but eventually we had to leave our camp. I must confess that I, myself would have been content to stay there for the duration of the campaign, but duty and concern for supplies - not to mention I feared the Cossacks had left us alone long enough - demanded we try to rejoin the main army. Of course, we were accompanied by our Cossack companion.
Once again, I cannot exaggerate the value of Sergeant Lambert's services in keeping this command together. He is literate and in conversations with the man I have discovered him to be quite intelligent. I believe he would make an excellent officer."
“If he would accept it.” Laponte thinks to himself. He pauses again in his writing as he recalls a conversation with Lambert on the trail. It was on the first day out from the village, some of the men had been talking about going home and what they would do when the war was over. Laponte had found himself growing quite fond of the grizzled Chasseur sergeant and struck a conversation with him:
“So, Sergeant, what are your plans after the war? Will you go home?”
“What home?” the sergeant responded gruffly. “I have no home.”
Laponte realized at the time he should have left well enough alone, but his curiosity was piqued and he was bored with the endless miles of barren waste. Perhaps, upon reflection, he wanted to take his mind off the Cossack scout on the crest a mile from the column.
“Certainly you were born somewhere.”
“I was, but there is nothing for me there now, Major.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I tried going home once, it was after Austerlitz. I was called up in the Fall of 1805 in the great mobilization. The levee officials refused to believe my claim that I was only seventeen. I found myself in uniform marching east. I was wounded at Austerlitz and after the peace a kindly doctor sent me home as unfit for duty. After all, we were at peace; soon everyone would be going home.
“I wasn't gone seven months. Seven months. Upon my return I discovered both my parents had died from broken hearts. My older brother had already been conscripted the year before and now - me. I couldn't write home at the time to tell them I survived the battle and they received a notice telling them I was listed as dead.
“The girl I was to marry had married a magistrate's son whose father managed to have taken off the conscription lists.”
“So, what did you do?”
“Do, Major? What can one do when there is nothing left? Oh, I confronted the weakling and his stolen wife. I even cut him up badly.”
“Did you kill him?”
Lambert laughed a wicked laugh, “No, but I suppose both he and his wife wish I had.”
“So, I'd attacked a magistrate's son. There was nothing to do but run off to the Army. I rejoined my old regiment. The peace didn't last, of course, and there were more battles to fight. My commanders decided why send me home when my death would serve a more useful purpose on the battlefield.”
“I am sorry,” Laponte said, sincerely.
“Don't be, Major,” Lambert replied lightly. “The swine really did me a favor. My regiment passed close to my home village on its way to Poland last year. I saw a glimpse of my first love. She has the backside of a horse and the face and temperament of a donkey!”
“So, all the talk back there was-“
“Dung! For a soldier there is no going home. There is nothing for us there. There will be no peace as long as the Emperor sits his throne because the kings and queens are afraid of him and the threat he poses to their thrones - so we fight on. We will fight and defeat Russia only to have the British, Austrians, or Prussians rise. And they will rise until Napoleon is defeated; Napoleon will never be defeated so the wars will never cease. All I pray for now in the morning is to see the sunset; in the evening I pray to see the sunrise. That, a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread and an occasional night with a camp follower is all we have a right to ask.”
“But you said back there-“
“I know what I said back there, Major. With all respect, it's dung. But those young fools don't know it yet!”
About the third day out from the village we were attacked by the Cossacks. They came pouring over the hill, it appeared there were over one hundred of them. The irregulars we had been fighting appeared this time to have been reinforced by regulars from Cossack regiments. All I could do was hope that my men would do what they were told to do and that my new strategy would be effective. I had not dared practice or drill it lest our Cossack watchmen see us and we lose the element of surprise:
But the men behaved superbly under the direction of their squad leaders. The wagons moved to form a circle while the squads deployed on the side of the column being attacked rushed to form a firing line facing the advancing enemy; the squads on the far side moved to take defensive positions behind the forming wagons.
Our men kept their discipline magnificently; a marked improvement over our last encounter with the Cossacks, holding their fire until my command when the Cossacks were almost upon us while the men defending the wagons held their fire.
I waited until the enemy was at point blank range before giving the order to fire. The effect at close range was devastating, causing the Cossacks to falter for just a moment, giving our men time to rush back to the wagons.
Recovering swiftly from their surprise, the Cossacks came on, only to be met by withering fire from the men behind the wagons.
Having established as good a defensive perimeter as possible we now attempted to fight off the Cossacks as they circled our position. Fortunately for us the Cossack's main weapon, the lance was virtually useless to them and the few Cossacks who attempted to use their pistols and muskets could not bring accurate fire on us as they were moving too rapidly.
For the first part of the battle we sustained relatively light casualties, while inflicting many on them.
I stayed mounted during the engagement so I could properly observe the battle. Here, LaPonte allows himself a smile as he remembers Lambert's constant warnings about him being a good target for the Cossacks. He continues: With the inaccuracy of the fire being directed at us from the mounted enemy it turned out there was little danger from being shot.
The battle raged on for hours without decision.
I do not know exactly how long the battle lasted. The sun was directly overhead when the Cossacks came, I remember somewhere in the back of my mind noticing the lengthening shadows when I heard the sound of the trumpet blast.
At the sound of the blast, the Cossacks left as quickly as they came, retreating across the steppe.
“The buzzards are leaving, Major,” was Lambert's comment.
“I, for one am glad to see them go!” LaPonte replied.
“Do you truly think they are gone?”
“Perhaps for today,” LaPonte said grimly. “This wasn't a true victory, just a stalemate.”
“We have lived to fight another day - that is victory enough!”
“True, my friend,” LaPonte had to agree. He thought a moment, “Perhaps they are waiting in a hollow for us to move on so they can attack again.” He looked at the sky, “The sun will be setting soon, this is as good a place as any to camp for the night.”
That was three days ago and the Cossacks haven't attacked us since, though we are constantly aware of their presence.
But I pray that I may be forgiven if I feel confident that we can handle whatever the Cossacks try to do to us and even optimistic on our chance for reaching the main army.
Many thanks to Mr. Wood
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