WHAT RUSSIAN READER has not known an irksome feeling of annoyance, dissatisfaction, and perplexity, when he reads the accounts of the latter period of the campaign of 1812? Who has not asked himself: How was it all the French were not captured or cut to pieces, when all the three Russian armies were surrounding them in superior numbers, when the French were a disorderly, starving, and freezing rabble, and the whole aim of the Russians (so history tells us) was to check, to cut off, and to capture all the French?
How was it that the Russian army, that with inferior numbers had fought the battle of Borodino, failed in its aim of capturing the French, when the latter were surrounded on three sides? Can the French be so immensely superior to us that we are not equal to beating them, when we have surrounded them with forces numerically superior? How could that have come to pass? History (what passes by that name) answers these questions by saying that that came to pass because Kutuzov, and Tormasov, and Tchitchagov, and this general and that failed to carry out certain manœuvres.
But why did they fail to carry them out? And how was it, if they really were responsible for not attaining the aim set before them, that they were not tried and punished for their shortcomings? But even if we admit that Kutuzov and Tchitchagov and the others were responsible for the non-success of the Russians, it is still impossible to understand why, in the position the Russian troops were in at Krasnoe and the Berezina, on both occasions with numerically superior forces, the French army and marshals were not taken prisoners, if that really was the aim of the Russians.
The explanation of this phenomenon given by the Russian military historians—that Kutuzov hindered the attack—is insufficient, because we know that Kutuzov was not able to restrain the troops from attacking at Vyazma and Tarutino. Why was it that the Russian army, that with inferior forces gained a victory at Borodino over the enemy in full strength, was unsuccessful at Krasnoe and the Berezina, when fighting in superior numbers against the undisciplined crowds of the French?
If the aim of the Russians really was to cut off Napoleon and his marshals, and to take them prisoners, and that aim was not only frustrated, but all attempts at attaining it were every time defeated in the most shameful way, this last period of the war is quite correctly represented by the French as a series of victories for them, and quite incorrectly represented by the Russians as redounding to our glory.
The Russian military historians, so far as they recognise the claims of logic, are forced to this conclusion, and in spite of their lyric eulogies of Russian gallantry and devotion, and all the rest of it, they are reluctantly obliged to admit that the retreat of the French from Moscow was a series of victories for Napoleon and of defeats for Kutuzov.
But putting patriotic vanity entirely aside, one cannot but feel that there is an inherent discrepancy in this conclusion, seeing that the series of French victories led to their complete annihilation, while the series of Russian defeats was followed by the destruction of their enemy, and the deliverance of their country.
The source of this discrepancy lies in the fact that historians, studying events in the light of the letters of the sovereigns and of generals, of narratives, reports, projects, and so on, have assumed quite falsely that the plan of that period of the campaign of 1812 was to cut off and capture Napoleon and his marshals and his army.
Such a plan never was, and could not have been, the aim of the Russian army, because it had no meaning, and its attainment was utterly out of the question.
There was no object in such a plan. In the first place, because Napoleon's army was flying in disorder at its utmost possible speed out of Russia; that is to say, doing the very thing that every Russian most desired. What object was there in conducting all sorts of operations against the French when they were running away as fast as they could already? Secondly, it would have been idle to stop men on the road, whose whole energies were bent on flight. Thirdly, it would have been absurd to lose men in destroying the French army when it was already, without external interference, perishing at such a rate that, without any obstruction of their road, not more than one hundredth of its original number succeeded in crossing the frontier in December.
Fourthly, it was absurd to desire to take prisoners the Emperor, kings, and dukes, since the possession of such prisoners would have greatly enhanced the difficulty of the Russian position, as was recognised by the most clear-sighted diplomatists of the time (J. Maistre and others). Still more absurd would have been the desire to capture the French army when it had dwindled to one-half before reaching Krasnoe, and a division of convoys had to be given up to guard a corps of prisoners, while the Russian soldiers themselves had not always full rations, and the prisoners they did take died of hunger.
Any plan of cutting off and capturing Napoleon and his army, however carefully thought out, would have been like the action of a gardener who, after driving out a herd of cattle that had been trampling his beds, should run out to belabour the cattle about the head. The only thing that could be said in justification of his proceeding would be that he was greatly incensed. But the authors of this supposed plan cannot plead even this excuse, since theirs were not the gardens that had been trampled.
And, besides being absurd, to cut off the retreat of Napoleon's army was also impossible.
It was impossible, in the first place, because, since experience shows that the movement of columns in a single battlefield at five versts' distance never coincides with the plan of their movements, the probability that Tchitchagov, Kutuzov, and Wittgenstein would all reach an appointed spot in time was so remote that it practically amounted to impossibility. As Kutuzov in fact regarded it when he said that manœuvres planned at great distances do not produce the results expected of them.
Secondly, it was impossible, because to paralyse the force of inertia with which Napoleon's army was rebounding back along its track, incomparably greater forces were needed than those the Russians had at their command.
Thirdly, it was impossible, because the military expression, to cut off, was really no meaning. One may cut off a slice of bread, but not an army. To cut off an army—that is, to bar its road—is impossible, because there are always many places by which the men can make a circuit to get out, and there is always the night, during which nothing can be done; a fact of which the military strategists might have been convinced by the examples of Krasnoe and Berezina. One can never take a prisoner unless he agrees to be taken, just as one can never catch a swallow, though of course it is possible if it settles on one's hand. One can take a prisoner who will surrender, as the Germans did, in accordance with the rules of strategy and tactics. But the French soldiers very wisely did not feel it incumbent on them to do so, since death from cold and hunger awaited them as much if taken prisoner, as if persisting in their flight.
The fourth and chief reason why it was impossible is that war was waged in 1812 under conditions more terrible than ever since the world has existed; and the Russian troops strained every nerve in the pursuit of the French, and could not have done more without perishing themselves.
The Russian army lost in its march from Tarutino to Krasnoe fifty thousand sick or stragglers, that is, a number equal to the population of a large provincial town. Half of the army was lost without a battle.
At this period of the campaign the soldiers were without boots or fur-lined coats, on half rations, without vodka, camping out at night for months in the snow with fifteen degrees of frost; while there were only seven or eight hours of daylight, and the rest was night; where discipline could not exert the same influence, and men were put in peril of death, not for a few hours, as on the field of battle, but for whole months together were keeping up a struggle every moment with death from cold and hunger. And of this period of the campaign, when half the army perished in one month, the historians tell us that Miloradovitch ought to have made an oblique march in one direction, and Tormasov in another, and Tchitchagov ought to have advanced to this point (the men advancing knee-deep in the snow), and that so and so pushed through and cut the French off, and so on, and so on.
The Russian soldiers did all that could or ought to have been done to attain an end worthy of the people, and half of them died in doing it. They are not to blame because other Russians, sitting in warm rooms at home, proposed that they should do the impossible.
All this strange discrepancy between the facts and the accounts of historians, so difficult to understand to-day, arises simply from this, that the historians wrote the history of the noble sentiments and fine speeches of various generals, and not the history of the events themselves.
They attach great consequence to the words of Miloradovitch, to the honours bestowed on this general or that, and the proposals made by them. But the question of the fifty thousand men who lay in the hospitals and graveyards does not even interest them, for it does not come within the scope of their researches.
And yet we have but to turn away from researches among the reports and plans of the generals, and to look into the movements of those hundred thousand men who took direct immediate part in the events; and all the questions that seemed insoluble before can be readily and certainly explained with extraordinary ease and simplicity.
The plan of cutting off Napoleon and his army never existed save in the imagination of some dozen men. It could not have existed because it was absurd and could not be carried out.
The people had a single aim: to clear their country of the invaders. That aim was effected primarily of itself, since the French were flying, and all that was necessary was not to check their flight. It was promoted, too, by the irregular warfare kept up by the people destroying the French army piecemeal; and thirdly, by the great Russian army following in the rear of the French, ready to use force in case there were any pause in their retreat.
The Russian army had to act as a whip urging on a fleeing animal. And the experienced driver knew that it was better to keep the whip raised as a menace than to bring it down on the creature's back.