I picture Marshal Mortier gnashing his teeth, clutching at his moustaches and yelping, ‘Curses! Foiled again!’ His dastardly plan to blow up Moscow failed because of a heavy rain, observant partisans who extinguished lit fuses, and the same kind of ill fortune that had been dogging his boss since late summer.
Still, there was damage – the Kremlin suffered the destruction of the arsenal, the commandant’s house, some of the palace, the extensions to the belfry of Ivan the Great, and the Alexeyevsky Tower. Much of its treasure was looted. Here is a sketch by the architect A. N. Bakarev.
Mortier left Moscow with his rearguard, and the city was reoccupied by Cossacks under the Ilovaisky brothers (their original commanding officer, Wintzingerode, having been captured by Mortier earlier). The painting below by I. Ivanov somewhat exaggerates the Cossack incursion – when they arrived in Moscow, there was scarcely any trace of the French.
From the surviving churches, the bells rang out, and mass was celebrated at the Monastery of the Passion.
Napoleon set out with his Grand Army, about 116,000 strong and heavily laden with goods and loot, on the old Kaluga road. Although the area was bristling with Cossack irregulars, he was – quite remarkably – unnoticed. In a diversionary tactic, he sent a letter (ostensibly drawn up in Moscow) to Kutuzov offering to continue battle according to the accepted principles of war. He also wanted to make sure that Kutuzov was still in Tarutino. Napoleon managed to get to the new Kaluga road by Fominskoye, still unbeknownst to the Russians.
Meanwhile, in the region of St Petersburg, a Russian army under Wittgenstein was attacking the French under St-Cyr at Polotsk, the second battle of the war in this region. Between 18-20 October 1812, they managed to overrun the enemy defenses, and pushed them into the town. The French began their withdrawal from Polotsk in the silence of the night.
Unfortunately for the French, one of their marshals decided to set fire to the barracks so that the equipment they were leaving behind was useless to the Russians. Wittgenstein, seeing the flames, realised what was going on and ordered his troops to storm the town. Vicious hand-to-hand fighting ensued. The French were defeated; the battle cost enormously in lives and injuries on both sides.
On the 22nd, Napoleon’s army was discovered by a team of scouts led by a captain Seslavin, who conveyed the news to Kutuzov. The old Field Marshal was beside himself with excitement. He declared, ‘From this moment, Russia is saved.’ He ordered one of his generals to race to Maloyaroslavets (where Seslavin had spied the French), and set off himself to intercept Napoleon at Kaluga.
[Translated excerpts from КНИЖКА С КАРТИНКАМИ.]