THE FAMOUS OBLIQUE MOVEMENT consisted simply in this. The Russian troops, which had been retreating directly back from the French, as soon as the French attack ceased, turned off from that direction, and seeing they were not pursued, moved naturally in the direction where they were drawn by the abundance of supplies.
If we imagine, instead of generals of genius at the head of the Russian army, an army acting alone, without leadership of any kind, such an army could have done nothing else but move back again towards Moscow, describing a semicircle through the country that was best provided with necessaries, and where supplies were most plentiful.
So natural was this oblique movement from the Nizhni to the Ryazan, Tula, and Kaluga road, that that direction was the one taken by the flying bands of marauders from the Russian army, and the one which the authorities in Petersburg insisted upon Kutuzov's taking. At Tarutino Kutuzov received what was almost a reprimand from the Tsar for moving the army to the Ryazan road, and he was directed to take up the very position facing Kaluga, in which he was encamped at the time when the Tsar's letter reached him.
After recoiling in the direction of the shock received during the whole campaign, and at the battle of Borodino, the ball of the Russian army, as the force of that blow spent itself, and no new blow came, took the direction that was natural for it.
Kutuzov's merit lay in no sort of military genius, as it is called, in no strategic manœuvre, but in the fact that he alone grasped the significance of what had taken place. He alone grasped even then the significance of the inactivity of the French army; he alone persisted in maintaining that the battle of Borodino was a victory; he alone—the man who from his position as commander-in-chief might have been expected to be the first to be eager for battle—he alone did everything in his power to hold the Russian army back from useless fighting.
The wild beast wounded at Borodino lay where the fleeing hunter had left him; but whether alive and strong, or only feigning, the hunter knew not. All at once a moan was heard from the creature. The moan of that wounded creature, the French army, that betrayed its hopeless plight, was the despatch of Lauriston to the camp of Kutuzov with overtures for peace.
Napoleon, with his conviction that not what was right was right, but whatever came into his head was right, wrote to Kutuzov the first words that occurred to his mind, words that had no meaning at all.
“M. LE PRINCE KOUTOUZOFF,” he wrote, “I am sending you one of my aides-de-camp to converse with you on various interesting subjects. I desire that your highness will put faith in what he says, especially when he expresses the sentiments of esteem and particular consideration that I have long entertained for your person. This letter having no other object, I pray God to have you in His holy and powerful keeping.
“Moscow, October 30, 1812.”
“I should be cursed by posterity if I were regarded as the first instigator of any sort of settlement. Tel est l'esprit actuel de ma nation,” answered Kutuzov, and went on doing everything in his power to hold the army back from advance.
A month spent by the French army in pillaging Moscow, and by the Russian army quietly encamped at Tarutino, brought about a change in the relative strength of the two armies, a change both in spirit and in numbers, which was all to the advantage of the Russians. Although the position of the French army and its numbers were unknown to the Russians, as soon as their relative strength had changed, a great number of signs began to show that an attack would be inevitable. Among the causes that contributed to bring about this result were Lauriston's mission, and the abundance of provisions at Tarutino, and the reports that were continually coming in from all sides of the inactivity and lack of discipline in the French army, and the filling up of our regiments by recruits, and the fine weather, and the long rest enjoyed by the Russian soldiers, and the impatience to do the work for which they have been brought together, that always arises in troops after repose, and curiosity to know what was going on in the French army, of which they had so long seen nothing, and the daring with which the Russian outposts dashed in among the French encamped at Tarutino, and the news of the easy victories gained by bands of peasants and free-lances over the French, and the envy aroused by them, and the desire of revenge, that every man cherished at heart so long as the French were in Moscow; and—stronger than all—the vague sense growing up in every soldier's heart that the relative strength of the armies had changed, and the preponderance was now on our side. The relative strength of the armies had really changed, and advance had become inevitable. And at once, as surely as the chimes in a clock begin to beat and play when the hand has made the full round of the dial, was this change reflected in the increased activity, and bustle and stir of wheels within wheels in the higher spheres.