Empire dust in the Berezina

“Winter 1812. Retreat from Russia”, by Michel Bernard, Perrin, 304 p., €21, digital €16.

Berezina. The word evokes the rout, the save who can, the moment of bewilderment, the chaos where there is nothing more to do. The name of this river remains tragically remembered after the battle that took place there from November 26 to 29, 1812, when it was crossed by the Napoleonic armies at the almost end of the terrible retreat from Russia.

The outcome of the fighting was nevertheless favorable to the French, who heroically managed to extricate themselves from the trap in which the Russians had tried to lock them up. A victory, then, but so dearly paid for by wounded men, exhausted by cold, by hunger, that it had nothing glorious about it except their courage, their sacrifice. It was already The beginning of the end. The Empire has begun to unravel in the frozen swamps of the Berezina. From then on, the survivors will be so many witnesses.

Just a tactical move

The writer Michel Bernardof which we know the taste, or rather the attachment, for the history of France, its resonances, its concordances in the feeling, the fragile sensation of today, written in Winter 1812 the difficult chronicle of this frightening mess of lives and destinies. In 2019, he had already published the story of the French campaign of 1814 (Winter 1814, Perrin), this last epic moment, of military exhilaration, which ended in the humiliating abdication. The dust of Empire flutters. They still sparkle. Pale stars illuminating carnage, fields covered with dead.

Napoleon’s army left Moscow, barely conquered, in mid-September. The Russians burned down their capital. Everything became inferno, and it was necessary to consider a withdrawal. Oh, not a retreat, just a tactical move. Except that, step by step, it turns to debacle. The victors flee. With them, a whole heterogeneous troop of refugees. There is enemy fire, Cossack attacks. Freezing cold. Hands, feet freeze. The dead number in the thousands. We leave the wounded. Horses too exhausted to advance are shot. We cut them up and eat them.

Patient research

Michel Bernard keeps, with closeness, the trying diary of this army that confusion and disorder win. He soaked up the stories of all those who accompanied, crossed this unimaginable disaster. And who got away with it. He read the Memoirs Sergeant Bourgogne, those of General Griois, the Memories of actress Louise Fusil, the Log by Jakob Walter, the one, illustrated by von Faber du Faur, On a sleigh with the Emperorof Armand de Caulaincourt, the letters of the war commissioner Henri Beyle, future Stendhal, embarked in this disastrous campaign by his cousin, the count Daru.

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