Napoleon’s hopes to make an effective stand at Smolensk were dashed. There was little by way of provision nor any warmth at all for his suffering army. His troops were too demoralised to fight off the advancing Russians, so on November 14, 1812, he ordered yet another retreat, this time through the town of Krasnoi on the Orsha.
The French moved out in five echelons and soon lost sight of each other. The Russians attacked each column separately in a series of pitched battles that lasted several days.
Although the French were severely outnumbered, Kutuzov didn’t send in overwhelming force to crush them. Still, the French losses were severe: over twenty thousand men, banners, Napoleon’s office train, baggage wagons of senior officers. Marshal Ney, who had been the last to leave Smolensk, refused the Russian general Miloradovich’s request to him to surrender. Marshals do not surrender, Ney declared, and there can be negotiations under fire. Ney took the Russian emissary prisoner, and the man spent twenty-six days in the company of the French. Despite several opportunities to escape, he did not violate his parole. It was clearly an age where savagery mingled with the honour among gentlemen.
A large part of Ney’s forces were taken prisoner. He himself was like a man possessed in his determination to get to the river. Advance through the forest! There is no road? Proceed without a road! Get to the Dnieper and cross the Dnieper! The river is not frozen through yet? It will freeze over. March!
While crossing the Dnieper, Ney lost more soldiers who fell into the cracks into the ice and drowned, but he managed to escape the Russians. Of his corps, barely three thousand managed to rejoin the rest of the Grand Army. Ney’s regiment was practically annihilated, yet to the demoralised French, the news of his arrival was as sweet as victory.
Although not one of the French echelons laid down their arms, the Grand Army was now effectively in utter collapse.
[Translated excerpts from КНИЖКА С КАРТИНКАМИ.]