On This Day in Napoleonic History – 3 November 1812

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2The battle of Vyazma

The French repelled a Russian attempt to encircle Marshal Davout at the start of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. Although Ney, Eugène and Poniatowski, who was wounded, came to Davout’s assistance, 3000 French were taken prisoner at Vyazma, which illustrated perfectly the level of demoralisation of the Grande Armée. General Armand de Caulaincourt reminisced, ‘This momentary disorder was conspicuous because it was the first time that this gallant infantry broke ranks and compelled their dogged commander to give ground.’

The retreat from Vyazma was also disastrous for the French and a sign of things to come. The first heavy snow fell on November 4 and temperatures plunged. Frozen soldiers would lie down next to a fire and not have the strength to get up. Those who remained often fell into the hands of the Russian peasants, which in itself was worse than death sentence. The tortures inflicted on French soldiers by Russian peasants, such as skinning them alive, were terrible. One Russian priest called for more humane treatment of prisoners, suggesting drowning them in the river instead.

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