Monday, December 29, 2014

The Battle of the Berezina, or So you think you are cold

End of November, 1812... Napoleon and his Grand Armee begins a retreat from Moscow, having hurt, but never destroyed the Russian Empire.  During the retreat of Napoleon's army from Moscow, his forces had abandoned many things, including most of its bridging supplies.  Fortunately for Napoleon his general in charge of such things, General Jean Baptiste Eblé had held back just enough of such in case of the inevitable emergency.  And there would be one, because Russian territory was large and every land has rivers.

As the army was retreating, some were fighting a rear guard action, against a Russian force that was hungry for vengeance, and to evict the invaders. Napoleon was concerned about the battles, but now, his forces in early winter, cold and freezing weather, approached a river that was open, but moving, freezing cold, and dangerous.

The crush of oncoming forces behind his 60,000 men forced Napoleon into making desperate commands.  He sent various forces in different directions to distract his enemy.  Meanwhile General Eblé sent his force of Dutch engineers into the waters of the Berezina river, where they set up a 100 meter bridge, in waters that were going to kill them from the cold.

Swiss units in the Grand Armee of the French were sent to hold out against the constant attacks and kept the Russians from breaking through.  From their original number of 8000 they numbered a mere 300 by the end of the action at the Berezina river. 

The bridges were holding, and the army poured across, but it was not a victory, nor defeat in military terms, much like Dunkirk in the Second World War, Berezina was realization of a disaster that could have been, and relief for the disaster that did not occur.

A poem was written for the Swiss units who fought so hard and were left with so few, by Ludwig Giseke

Our life is like a journey
Of a wanderer through the night;
Everybody carries something on his way
That causes him to grieve.
But then unexpectedly do fade
Night and darkness before us,
And the sorely troubled find
Solace to their sorrow.
Fearless, fearless, dear brothers,
Abandon the anxious worries;
Tomorrow the sun will rise again
Friendly in the sky.
Therefore let us move on;
Do not retreat disheartenedly!
Beyond those far heights
A new happiness awaits us.