By 1812, Jakob Walter, although only 24 years of age, had already served in two campaigns as a foot soldier for the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. During peacetime, Jakob worked as a stonecutter in the village of Waiblingen, near Stuttgart, at the time part of the Kingdom of Westphalia in what is now western Germany. Napoleon had incorporated Westphalia into his Empire six years earlier as a de facto vassal state, installing his brother Jérôme as its King. In January of 1812, hostility between the Empires of France and Russia erupted into all-out war over the future of Poland. Napoleon had already committed many of his French forces to campaigns in Spain, so in order to conduct an invasion into Russia, he activated his allied conscripts, including Jakob Walter.
Jakob received his orders to join with his fellow Westphalians and journey east to Leipzig to assemble with the Grande Armée. Jakob and 150 fellow Germans assembled in a hollowed-out theater in Leipzig that had been fully stocked with rows of tables packed of a feast of cheese and bread, with brandy and beer to drink. An experienced campaigner, Jakob recognized the implications of the expensive feast, as well as of the large number of French soldiers in town, and his suspicions were confirmed when they received their orders: the Grande Armée was to march on Moscow. At first, he and his fellow soldiers enjoyed their travels through Germany, with large feasts staged by local landowners, and plenty of merriment and singing amidst beautiful villages and woodlands.
Once their travels took them beyond Germany, however, the local support in Poland was less willing to feed a marching army numbering more than a half million men, so Napoleon tasked his soldiers with finding their own food, a common practice at the time that was largely successful in bountiful areas. Poland, however, was already stretched thin, and many peasants hid their stores of food and supplies. Even though outright marauding was technically illegal, many commanders turned a blind eye to it in favor of having a well-fed and efficient army; to that end, many of the hungry soldiers began to ransack local villages, even though the Polish were ostensibly allied to Napoleon’s cause.
On June 25, Napoleon’s forces crossed into Russia, and the food situation quickly turned disastrous. The token Russian border force, retreating in the face of the mighty Grande Armée, practiced a scorched earth policy, burning crops and destroying supplies as they fled. The soldiers marched in columns amid sweltering heat and choking dust, alternating with periods of heavy rain; many soldiers, Jakob included, tossed aside their heavy and often waterlogged cold weather gear, instead sleeping atop each other at night for warmth. Food was increasingly scarce, consisting only of the occasional slaughtered animal; at one point Jakob saw soldiers tear apart a captured pig while it was still alive, devouring it raw. Some soldiers found a basement full of brandy and in their enthusiasm several, including Jakob’s company drummer, binged so heavily that they froze to death while sleeping it off. Soldiers fired on peasants attempting to reclaim their stolen grain, and pushed a pregnant woman over before stealing her hidden stores of food; one officer was so despondent over the conditions that he slit his own throat.
The first pitched battle of the campaign occurred in mid-August, at the medieval walled city of Smolensk, in western Russia. On August 16, more than 200 pieces of French artillery pounded the Russian positions, but the Russian artillery on high ground combined with the thick stone bastions rebuffed the repeated assaults by Napoleon’s tired and hungry troops. While camped outside the city that night, Jakob, a devout Catholic, prayed, “God, Thou hast allowed me to live till now. I thank Thee and offer up my sufferings to Thee and pray Thee at the same time to take me further into Thy protection.” Nibbling on the bit of honey on which he had subsisted for the previous week, his thoughts wandered to his friends in Waiblingen, and to his brother and two sisters who he loved and missed very much. Eventually he drifted off to sleep.
As Jakob and the Grande Armée slept during the night, the Russian forces withdrew from the city, setting it alight and leaving behind only a token force tasked with delaying the French advance; Napoleon’s artillery soon blew the front gates to pieces, and before long the Grande Armée stormed into Smolensk. Jakob’s unit raced into a church suspected to be a defensive stronghold, but found no soldiers within, only aged priests in threadbare clothes; he was taken by how similar the Russian church in Smolensk appeared to his own in Waiblingen, with similar decorations and religious artifacts, the main difference being that this church had no holy water. The limited supplies scrounged from Smolensk meant that within a short two days, Napoleon’s army was under way once more, departing on August 19th in pursuit of the fleeing Russians. As they passed through the razed landscape, Jakob and his fellow soldiers marched over more obliterated ground, littered with dead Russian soldiers and choked with dirt and dust.
The Grande Armée once again caught up to the Russians on September 7, at the small riverside town of Borodino, just west of Moscow. The Russian forces had entrenched themselves behind a series of earthenworks called flèches; artillery between the two sides bombarded each other for a full day before elite French troops stormed the ramparts and the Russians gave way. Jakob stepped over bodies stacked three deep as they entered the town, and what was once a pastoral forest around the village had been blasted by the artillery, leaving only gray and white stumps. The people there, he noted, were so numb that he no longer saw anyone crying.
Within a week, Jakob caught his first view of the city of Moscow. “Clouds of fire, red smoke, great gilded crosses of the church towers glittered, shimmered, and billowed up toward us from the city … there were broad streets, long straight alleys, tall buildings massively built of brick, church towers with burned roofs and half-melted bells, and copper roofs which had rolled from the buildings; everything was uninhabited and uninhabitable.” The Russian army, retreating in the face of Napoleon’s monstrous Grande Armée, had annihilated the great city as they left just as they had Smolensk, again leaving Jakob and his companions little on which to survive. They marched for hours before reaching the Kremlin at the city center, setting up camp in a square behind it, after which they essentially ran wild in the town, as “each soldier was now citizen, merchant, innkeeper and baker of Moscow.” Despite the Russian army's best efforts, the forces of Napoleon did manage to scavenge quite a bit from the city; they dressed themselves in bright, expensive Russian linens, ate a variety of vegetables and food, and scoured the city for any valuables or supplies they could find. At one point, a fire broke out, and with no one tasked to fight it, it burned for days. Jakob and the other soldiers stayed in Moscow for about a month, living and eating with grandeur and abandon, and purchasing some items from the few civilians who remained. Between the Russian damage, the soldier’s frenzy, and the fire, about 80% of the city was destroyed.
By mid-October, reports came in that the a second, larger Russian army had been recalled from Turkey and was marching on Moscow. Napoleon had no intention of accepting any terms of surrender or retreat, but from a strategic standpoint he also could not let his army remain in Moscow; on October 17, the reports rang through that they were leaving the following day. The Grande Armée hastily assembled and marched out before dawn on the 18th, heading out to the east, then following the road as it curved to the south, then the southwest. On October 23, the retreating French met with the Russians at the town of Maloyaroslavets. Camping with his army on a hill overlooking the village that night, Jakob and another soldier got drunk on Russian brandy, even though they had been told specifically not to.
In the morning, Major von Schaumberg of the Grande Armée noticed that Jakob looked “alert and spirited,” and enlisted the young man as his personal attendant, charged along with one other with caring for the Major’s horse and equipment. The French and Russians alternated fortunes during the battle, with ownership of Maloyaroslavets changing eight times in that one single day. Eventually, the Russians prevailed and overran the French command center, capturing or killing many of the French leadership and forcing Napoleon’s troops to retreat in chaos. In their panic, many of Napoleon’s men dropped their weapons and packs and burned their wagons when they could, unable to rest for a moment without being set upon by the pursuing Russian Cossack horsemen. “The fighting, the shrieking, the firing of large and small guns, hunger and thirst, and all conceivable torments increased the never-ending confusion.”
Their flight led them back up the road from which they originally approached the grand city of Moscow, through burning and burned villages, including Borodino, where the bodies of the dead soldiers still laid, a month and a half after the battle there. Jakob relied on his faith to provide his motivation to keep moving, and held to the belief that if even one single German made it back to their homeland, God would allow him to be the one to do so. Snow began to fall, and Jakob found and retrieved a smoked pig’s head hanging from a chain, and he, the Major, and the other attendant ate it furiously as soon as they were able. Later, he scavenged a rolled-up fur for which he offered a prayer of thanks; when the Major saw his attendant arrive in such a ragged cloak, he offered Jakob his own—a fine fur with a green silk lining—as well.
The three men pushed westward, managing to stay slightly ahead of the relentless Cossacks. Arriving at the burning town of Gshatsk, the road was clogged with panicking and fleeing troops and refugees, and Jakob was separated from the other two men in the chaos. He managed to retain the horse he had been leading for the Major; it was of a sturdy, native breed, but the animal was suffering to push through the snow, which by that time was about fifteen inches deep. Jakob built a makeshift sled for the bundles of gear, to ease the animal’s burden by allowing it to drag its load rather than having to carry it.
Escape from the Cossacks and the threat of starvation led the Grande Armée soldiers to begin turning on each other; Jakob noticed how others eyed his horse, and began lashing the reins around his wrist so that even as he slept, he would feel a tug during any attempt to abscond with his animal. As he sat eating a piece of bread, he was accosted by a band of French soldiers, who stole his food from him. A band of Germans chased off the French, only to steal the bread for themselves instead, leaving Jakob once again hungry. Jakob recognized that they could have killed for his bread but didn’t, and he got to keep his horse as well, and for those reasons he refused to harbor a grudge against the desperate men.
On November 12, nearly a month and more than 300 miles since leaving Moscow, Jakob and his horse arrived once again at Smolensk. French troops ahead had cleared out a token resistance of Russians, and the shattered remnants of the Grande Armée staggered and pushed through the city in a mob. Jakob met up with some men from his regiment and, with the harrying attacks of the Cossacks having seemingly abated, the men found it safe enough to make camp in the city, during which time they were soaked by a cold, driving rain. Reorganizing as best they could, Jakob’s unit was tasked with engaging the enemy and seizing grain, but they found neither. Horses that fell or froze were quickly slaughtered for food, and Jakob, having no meat but desperate for sustenance, caught horse blood and cooked it until it coagulated before eating it for as much nourishment as possible. After two days in Smolensk, news reached the soldiers that the Russians, rather than having returned to the east, had been amassing and organizing in Minsk, fewer than 200 miles away. Once again feeling the pressure of advancing Russians, Jakob and his companions fled the city in haste, dumping cannons in the water and burning hospitals as they left, even though (or perhaps especially because) the patients were still inside.
The rain, snow, and mud conspired to make the ground dangerous footing. Many of the horses, their shoes worn and muscles aching, were either abandoned or eaten after slipping or collapsing during the flight, but Jacob’s country horse was unshoed and therefore had more traction; it also, he noted, had developed the admirable habit of sliding down short slopes on its rump rather than attempting to stay upright. French troops near the front of the line repelled another Russian attack in a skirmish on the road near Dubrovna, and during one night his skittish horse alerted him to advancing Cossacks, allowing Jakob to escape a raid. After several attempts, someone finally cut the tether around Jakob’s wrist as he slept and stole away the Major’s sturdy country horse, so Jakob responded by stealing a replacement from another soldier and leading it off. He soon met up once again with Major von Schaumberg, who complimented him on the replacement horse.
At the village of Sembin, near the Berserina River, Napoleon had stopped to eat, ordering his attendants to set up a table on a bluff overlooking the road so he could review his army as they passed by. The army was a jumbled mess, looking less like a military force and more like a trail of human debris shuffling by, almost completely obscured by the dirty, patchwork rags. Jakob, passing beneath the Emperor’s table, noticed that Napoleon looked “indifferent and unconcerned” of his men’s poor condition, as his servants presented more prepared food for the Emperor to eat.
Jakob continued to salvage for food. At one point, he was almost crushed to death by a throng swarming into a basement in pursuit of a storage of potatoes, and another time he saw a burning building collapse as soldiers scavenged within it, hearing their cries as they burned to death; he and the Major instead survived on rough bran mixed with snow. During another attack by Russian troops, Jakob managed to scoop up his cooking pot, still filled with boiled cabbage, cradling it in both arms as they fled from the Cossacks. He and the Major then celebrated by eating the cabbage from the pot with their gloved hands.
Near the Byelorussian village of Borisov, Napoleon’s forces had massed against the banks of the icy, swift-moving Berezina River that formed the town’s western border. With the only bridge destroyed and attacking Russians threatening to force the Grande Armée into the river, French deceptions and the heroics of a Swiss rear guard had bought Napoleon’s Dutch engineers enough time to build two side-by-side replacement bridges a short distance upstream from the original. As Jakob and Major von Schaumberg approached, they saw the bridges choked with refugees and fleeing soldiers as Russian artillery bombarded the crossing in an attempt to prevent the French retreat. The people were packed so closely as they crossed, the bridges themselves were completely obscured by the mass of humanity, and the only time movement actually occurring was when a Russian cannonball smashed into the packed refugees and blew out a hole.
Each mounted on their horses, Jakob and the Major pushed into the throng; Jakob’s horse reared several times, earning them a few inches each attempt as the hooves came down on another soldier. The bridges had no railings to the side, and most attempting to cross on foot were trampled or knocked into the unforgiving water. Bodies piled up on, below, and around both bridges, holding the bridges together in places by their mass alone. The two men moved about four or five feet every fifteen minutes, inching along the bridge, with the air filled with the sounds of distant combat and of cannonballs impacting with the bridge or the people, for the better part of a day. By dark, they had reached the other side. Of the 600,000 soldiers in the Grande Armée that crossed into Russia on June 25 on the march to Moscow, roughly 27,000 had remained long enough to cross the Berezina River.
The far shore of the Berezina had been fortified, and by the time Jakob and the Major arrived on November 27th, French troops had repelled an attack from a second Russian force on that western side. The two men rode on, past hungry, cold, exhausted, and wet refugees spread out on the ground; Jakob noted that many had crossed the bridge only to collapse and die on the opposite shore. His thoughts once again wandered to his family in Waiblingen, and how glad he was that they could not see him in his bedraggled state, and that his brother was not suffering with him. Jakob and Major von Schaumberg encountered fresh troops for the first time—Polish regulars with German conscripts—which instilled a slight bit of hope, though thirst and hunger still bedeviled their movements, and their limbs and lungs were still frozen by the cold. Word filtered through the ranks that, with the Berezina crossing behind them, Napoleon had left his army and ridden ahead toward Paris with only his Imperial Guard.
One night, Major von Schaumberg handed his reins to Jakob and said he would head out in the woods for a bit. After a while, the Major had not returned, and after some time, Jakob realized what had happened; he had seen many soldiers head into the woods to relieve themselves, only to find they lacked the strength to stand again. Jakob prepared to leave, but a Captain, who with his attendant was waiting with him, exhorted him to wait longer; Jakob did so for a while, but ultimately insisted on leaving, as they could very well freeze themselves if they remained, and searching for the Major in the dark and cold was life-threatening and futile. Finally, the Captain acquiesced and the three men headed off, having seen the last of Major von Schaumberg.
As Jakob, the Captain, and an attendant bedded down beside a nearby burning building, and woke in the morning to the sounds of a nearby commotion. As their feet were wrapped too heavily to use stirrups, they led their horses out to the road, directly into the eyesight of a band of mounted Cossacks, again harassing the rear elements of the fleeing Grande Armée troops. The Cossacks called to them, but the three men tried to hurry away; the Cossacks called again and gave chase, and both the Captain and attendant were quickly cut down by their sabers. Jakob ducked between the two horses he was leading, seeking cover behind their wide bodies; one Cossack speared him in the side, but caught only heavy clothing, and another lanced him in the neck but only grazed the skin. Jakob seized the moment to throw himself into the foot-deep snow, managing to pull one of the horses down on top of him. Holding his breath and keeping as still as he could, he tracked the Cossacks by their shadows and the sound of their circling hoofbeats. The Cossacks, Jakob determined, couldn’t stop to search or loot him, because their hands, like his feet, were wrapped too heavily against the cold. He lay there still until they moved a distance away, at which time he pushed himself out from under his horse, grabbed what he could from the items fallen around him and ran, offering a thanks to God under his breath as he did.
In his frantic flight, Jakob had managed to grab only a bag of peas and a cooking pot; armed only with these, he continued to stumble through the snow until he met with some soldiers from Württemberg, the German kingdom adjacent to his own of Westphalia. One of the soldiers suggested that they combine Jakob’s peas and pot with another man’s cooking fat to make a meal, to which he quickly agreed; they ate only a few bites before realizing that what they thought was lard was in fact soap, ruining the meal.
Jakob reached Vilnius, Lithuania, which welcomed the troops of the Grande Armée; he still had some money in his pockets, having been there through the entire ordeal as it was both small and of little use during the flight; here he used some of it to buy some brandy, a loaf of bread, a new horse, and some more brandy. After meeting up with some fellow Westphalians, he and his new horse crossed the icy Memel River with his fellow German conscripts back once again into Poland. A Catholic family, impressed by his faith, offered him shelter and food, calling in a favor with the locals to keep his most recent horse from being stolen, but sometime later bandits held him at swordpoint and took all of his remaining money except a single silver ruble, which they had missed on account of it having been tightly wedged into the coin pocket in his trousers.
Jakob and the other Westphalians continued to push westward, and as they did so, the lands gradually grew less desolate and the people more welcoming, with only a few exceptions. They met at one point with a rules-strict commander, who ordered them to proceed to Königsberg for further orders; Jakob and his friends simply ignored him and continued down a different road to the village of Thorn (their name for the Polish town of Toruń), where he spent his single remaining coin on a room, meal, shave, and bath.
On February 24, 1813, Jakob Walter returned home to Waiblingen.
“All at once I saw my brother-in-law and my brother. They would not have recognized me, of course, as I looked then; but I called, thrust out my hand, and greeted them. They jumped into the air for joy and pressed my hands, and our hearts alone could feel, for we could not speak. Oh, that all people might know how high the love of friends and relatives can mount through such a chance meeting! One feels in it heavenly joy, the all-wise providence of God, and at the same time the miracle of nature.”
Jakob convalesced at a nearby castle, suffering from maladies related to his journey so severe that many of the attendants thought he would expire. During his stay there, one of his beloved sisters travelled thirty hours in two days to sit with him, and after a week, he was asking for vinegar and soup. Eventually, Jakob regained his full health and returned to Waiblingen to live among his brother, two sisters, and friends. He rejoined his career as a stonemason, and married in 1817; the couple had ten children, two of which would eventually emigrate to America.
Tsar Alexander’s decision (against the advice of his leading general) to pursue the fleeing Grande Armée was instrumental in Napoleon’s eventual downfall; after the torturous retreat from Russia, Napoleon’s army was nearly annihilated, and an alliance including his former subject states of Prussia and Austria joined with Russia to force Napoleon’s abdication and exile by April of 1814. He would return to France in 1815 for one final resurgence, but would again soon be defeated and exiled, dying on St. Helena in 1821.
Links and Sources:
The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, by Jakob Walter, edited by Marc Raeff (Penguin Books, 1991).
Image of the Westphalian private from Men at Arms 044 - Napoleon's German Allies (1) Westfalia and Kleveberg by Osprey Publishing.
Battle and taking of Smolensk (Russia) by Napoleon's troops in 1812 (here labeled "The taking of Smolensk, August 1812"), drawn by Martinet and etched by Couché, from France Militaire at the McGill University Library, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, via Wikimedia Commons.
Battle of Maloyaroslavets 1812 By Aleksandr Yurievich Averyanov.
In the Suburbs of Smolensk, 12 November (here labeled "The Return to Smolensk, November 1812") by Christian Wilhelm von Faber du Faur.
Image of Napoleon's solders huddled against the icy wind is a photo of a painting with an unknown title at the Museum of the Patriots War of 1812 in Moscow, taken by Greencrow Creative Resources at http://greencrowasthecrowflies.blogspot.com/p/the-spirit-of-russia.html
The Grande Armée Crossing the Berezina by January Suchodolski (1797-1875) from the National Museum at Poznań, Poland, via Wikimedia Commons.
Painting of soldiers at the spit by Wojciech Kossak.
The French Retreat in 1812 by Illarion Pryanishnikov, 1874, from Saratov University, Saratov, Russia via Wikimedia Commons.
"Jakob Walter’s March Home" © 2018 by James Husband