Notes of A. I. Antonovskii

(In 1812 in Diaries, Notes, and Memoirs of Contemporaries; Material of the Military Archive of the Main Staff. Series III. Wittgenstein’s Corps. Compiled by V. Kharkevich.)

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On 12 June our regiment [26th Jägers] arrived at Chekishki, but it was not allowed to settle in here since we were ordered to leave these quarters and move away from the border. We were in marching order and ready to go at a moment’s notice wherever ordered, and so we did not delay in leaving Chekishki. However, no one knew where we were going except the commander of the regiment; up to now it was a secret, but not for long.

During this march we passed a small place called Yeregoly. Three versts from there we stopped near an inn and bivouacked. I had not yet been acquainted with such accommodations, but a cold north wind made me intensely familiar with sleeping out overnight. Such a situation was all the more unpleasant for us since we were ordered not to build any fires. I did not sleep the whole night because I was immersed in such deep thoughts. How my musings swarmed in my head, and how I built castles in the air—I remember all that, but even with all these fantastic thoughts I much rather looked forward to the dawn, being perturbed by the wind which went right through me. Rocking from side to side, I turned to the east and was heartened to perceive the pre-dawn glow that heralded the day (*) .

At dawn on 13 June we got up from our bivouac and went onward, again not knowing to where. We reached a Polish farmstead were General Kulnev, commander of our vanguard, had his headquarters. Here all the regiments were gathered together to form the vanguard. Forming by platoons, we passed by Kulnev in a parade march. Coming even with him, every platoon cheered him with a loud "Ura!" Brave Kulnev himself initiated this.

It was only here that the new situation became apparent, and that instead of offensive military operations on our part, our vanguard would become the rearguard. From this point onward our column was divided into two parts: the 24th and 26th Jäger Regiments, heavy companies of artillery, four squadrons of the Grodno Hussars, and two regiments of cossacks, all under the command of Colonel Vlastov, formed a column going to Rossieny, while General Kulnev with the rest of our vanguard retreated to Vilkomir.

From our situation, it was not hard to guess that we were withdrawing in front of a pursuing enemy. Soon this was proven to be true, when on the march to Rossieny we met some Don cossacks of our column. They informed us that French troops were crossing to our side of the Nieman at Jurburg. This news did not alarm us at all, but was received calmly, as if it were something usual.

Our column spent the night in Rossieny, and on the following day of 14 June we remained in place for half the day. We then left Rossieny rather hurriedly and later, having come to Grinkishki, laid out bivouacs for the night. Unused to these open accommodations, that night seemed cold to us, but after being warmed by a little fire it seemed better than what we had been through before. Fortified by sleep, by dawn we were ready to move on further.

At sunrise on 15 June our detachment arrived at Beisagoly. Not long before the 26th Jäger Regiment had been quartered here. When I found out that this village lay on our column’s route, I obtained the regimental commander’s permission to invite another officer to accompany me and go on in front.

Our unexpected appearance surprised and, to judge by our reception, gladdened my former hosts, the local landowners U.U. Questions rained down from all sides so that words were not sufficient to answer them all. We could make out that at first they were asking whence we came and where we were going, what was the reason for our coming here, and so on. Not knowing ourselves such particulars, nor whence we had come and where we were bound, we answered as much.

"Remembering," I said, "your bread, salt, and care, I could not refrain from dropping in on you in this situation, if only for a minute, to see you and at the same time bid farewell, to find out how you were doing, and tell you of my own soldier’s life."

After a few words, we were given some of that excellent coffee you always find in Poland. After this, the good and thoughtful hosts fixed up a fine breakfast for us, which after our bivouac fare tasted most delicious. Not standing on ceremony for long, we ate with an appetite, and seeing that our column had already gone past, we thanked our hosts, got ourselves ready for the journey ahead, and to all their attempts to persuade us to stay for dinner, my comrade and I explained that no matter what our wishes, we absolutely could not do that.

At this time one of our lady hosts put forth the question, "They say that the French are following after you. Are you really leaving us defenseless?"

"I don’t think that we would give up one yard of what is ours without a fight. Where we are going and why, and for what purpose we do so—I absolutely don’t know, since it is not up to me to give such orders, and I answer in the words of my simple-hearted countrymen, ‘It’s one’s own itch that you know about.’ That the French, as you say, are following on our heels, is also not credible. To tell you openly, we haven’t seen them yet."

"But what will happen when you do see them?" responded the Polish lady. Such irony made me think a bit.

"We’ll fight," I answered, "and the sooner the better. But I only hope that our meeting with the French doesn’t take place here, since that would cause you much unpleasantness."

Her brother gave her a look to tell her that such questionings were inappropriate, and talk about the current situation ceased.

We thanked our hosts as their hospitality deserved, and parted on friendly terms. Riding on the road, we discussed between ourselves how the Poles did not at all fear a French invasion of Russia. They were even pleased by it, and it could be seen that our hosts shared the thoughts and desires of their whole nation.

We overtook our column at a halt where we rested awhile, and then left again very quickly. Going through Krakinovo village, we had to stop at some small stream where the bridge had been completely destroyed and upstream a pond must have been let drain. A ford was found, and the infantry crossed with the water up to their chests, carrying their knapsacks on their heads along with their ammunition pouches holding their cartridges. The guns were pulled across with ropes. The artillery ammunition and caissons could not cross at all without damaging and soaking them. In a small village nearby we found some wooden beams and lashed them together. On them we put doors, benches, and planks and in this way soon constructed a ferry. Having set up a crossing with ropes, all the column’s heavy equipment was ferried to the other side. All this went on past midnight, when, soaked and cold, we stopped for what was left of the night. At dawn we saw that the stream had become smaller and was at the level it always was, with the water not even up to the knees.

The ill-will of such a daring crime clearly demonstrated the sentiment of this region toward Russians. This, apparently, was an innate antipathy now transformed into hate and revenge. But if the culprit had been uncovered in this case, he would have known military justice and the consequence of his vile treason. Such an trick of the part of the Poles was too humiliating and one could see scorn in the eyes of everyone wishing us well. Of course, at another time they would not have decided to do it, since the guilty would not have been able to hide from pursuit, but we did not have time to engage in searches due to the closeness of the enemy. The water had been let loose on purpose to interfere with our retreat, intended to delay us and give the French a chance to overtake us.

But the attempt failed. We passed this obstacle and were dried out by the cheerful morning sun looking down on us. At 9 o’clock on 16 June we left this place, rather hurriedly, however, intending on this march to join up with the part of our vanguard that was away with General Kulnev. But this did not happen. We passed through a small village where our road forked and went to the right, while the supply train and all the regimental transport and officers’ belongings took the road on the left to the Dünaburg fortress. This situation gave rise to much speculation, and both soldiers and officers whispered that our column was cut off, and that we would have to fight our way through and make a passage by force of arms. Indeed, our situation, it turned out, was near to something like that.

Here the column was allowed a short halt. The soldiers were issued a portion of spirits at an unusual time—after the midday meal—and then yet another glass for each man. Afterward it was ordered to take spirits, of which we had no shortage, along on the road. As the regiments and commands made their way where stores of bread, spirits, and livestock could only be obtained from the landowners, they made requisitions in exchange for vouchers, not bothering to calculate needs based on the number of personnel, and as far as possible only taking care not to slow down their progress, not checking the quantity of what was gathered but being satisfied with the word of the landowner, and giving out receipts on that basis.

The ample spirits rejuvenated our soldiers. They forgot the heaviness of their loads, the exhausting marches, and by their talk scorned the imminent dangers. In our ranks singing broke out. The more fanciful started dancing, entertaining themselves and cheering up the others.

Our drunken march continued the whole night without rest, so that even the sober became tired. Before dawn, no less from intoxication than from what was natural, we were an incredible sight as we knelt down to sleep, but we were not allowed to sleep or even sit down. In addition, the road turned out to be a country track with many marshes, which exhausted everyone. A first a few men dropped out of their regiments; some said openly that they lacked any more strength, others claimed sudden onsets of illness and therefore they could not go on, though it was clear to see what kind of ailment was causing their legs to fail. Stern measures to force them could not be used, but after seeing the great number of stragglers, it had to be accepted that the fast pace had to slacken. We went slower, but this did not improve our situation at all. The number of officers on duty in the regimental columns was doubled, and they were ordered to see that no one fell out. However, these measures were also not entirely effective. We had to leave to their own uncertain fate those who could not go on at all. Whatever over took them is unknown, but many did not return to their units.

On 17 June we continued on in the same formation with the most insignificant rests, passing along our route the villages of Rogove and Trashkuny. To crown our misery it rained and the weather turned gloomy; mud, slush—these brought everyone to their limit, so that even the officers decided to ask for a respite, feeling that without one they would not have the strength to continue the march. Our requests were taken seriously but they were not able to gain a satisfactory rest for us. We were hurried onward day and night, but why—we did not know. But the soldiers’ guesses were right; our column was truly in a serious situation, but although our higher leaders knew this, they did not explain it, leaving us only with guesses. Imagine our situation—we were exposed to all weather for whole days and nights, but in the deepest mud, soaked to our shirts, we went constantly forward. I cannot myself imagine how human strength could endure this, especially the soldiers burdened with their loads.

On 19 June, staggering from side to side, it may be said, we reached Vizhuny. Here before evening we were at last unexpectedly heartened. In Vizhuny our column was allocated quarters, a thing which we had not even imagined. Here we dried out and rested, and after almost four days and nights without sleep we rewarded ourselves as we wanted most. And on the next day, 20 June, as if nothing had happened, we set off again, happy and cheerful. That day they did not hurry us at all. After completing a short march, we set out overnight bivouacs at a small place called Davgel and relaxed pleasantly.

(*) On this night the French forces made three crossings over the Nieman River: one column at Tilsit, another at Jurburg, and the third at Kovno, led by Napoleon himself.

End of translation.


Translated by Mark Conrad, 1996.