The Battle of Berezina

Kharlamova Maria

Welcome to our series of programs dedicated to the Patriotic War of 1812. Two hundred years ago today Napoleon's army suffered heavy losses when clashed with the Russian troops on the Berezina River. This is what our program is about today.

The Berezina River is located near the town of Borisov in Belarus. After deciding to retreat, Napoleon's army was very weak when finally reached the river. One of eyewitnesses wrote in his diary: "The French could not believe their eyes. They were no longer a strong army that invaded Moscow but weak soldiers who had no arms and horses".

This was a very precise description, though by that time Napoleon's army comprised about 40,000 troops. The French Emperor expected them to cross the Berezina River and reach Vilnius to have a rest there. But the Russian army planned to do the opposite- to defeat the French troops and capture Napoleon. Leaflets detailing the French Emperor`s appearances were distributed among the local residents so that they were prepared to capture him. Archives show there were cases when people detained men who looked like Napoleon, but nobody managed to capture the real emperor.

As it often happened to him at crucial moments, Napoleon acted decisively. On learning that all bridges across the Berezina were controlled by the Russian, he ordered to ford the river. Then his soldiers again proved how devoted to their commander-in-chief they were: suffering from hunger and cold and having the risk to be killed under artillery fire that came from the Russian side, they built the bridge. But only 20,000 troops managed to cross the river, while others had to remain where they were as Bonaparte ordered to burn the bridge when learnt that the Russian army was too close. The Russian General Mikhail Kutuzov later rebuked some of his subordinates for letting even a part of the French army cross the river.

20,000 troops were not enough for Napoleon but he realized that to rescue the other part of his army would be impossible. That was a catastrophe but he could not admit defeat. He told his generals to guide the army to Vilnius to rest there and wait for reinforcement to arrive. Napoleon promised to send extra troops within a few months. To do this he had to return to Paris urgently. He announced his decision during a special meeting with his Generals. He appointed Marshal Murat as his deputy. One of those who attended the meeting wrote: "Marshals looked sad and kept silent as they listened to the Emperor. They understood that Russian would never leave them in peace. And Napoleon's departure was no more but escape which left no chances for further participation in the war."

So, Bonaparte fled the scene while his devoted Generals guided the army westward which did not help them escape defeat after all.


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