The Duchy of Warsaw was overflowing with troops in June 1812. For more than a year, French and allied troops had been gathering along the Vistula River and on the Baltic coast in preparation for Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. An impressive force, drawn from every corner of Europe, had been assembled. Nearly half a million men—one of the most imposing military hosts ever to take the field—would embark on one of the greatest campaigns in history.
Although the majority of Napoleon’s men were French, he relied on a vast number of allies and vassals. The French emperor could count on his loyal Poles, enthusiastic Italians, and steady Swiss, but the contingents provided by the German states were a decidedly mixed entity. Some, such as the Saxons, were dependable; others, such as the reluctant conscripts provided by Westphalia, were far less reliable; and some, particularly the Bavarians, would melt away to nothing in a matter of months.
Württemberg, an important member of the Confederation of the Rhine, provided twelve thousand men. Troops from this kingdom in southern Germany had proved themselves on the battlefield in 1809 and were greatly respected by their French allies. Most of the Württembergers formed part of Napoleon’s III Corps, under Marshal Michel Ney, and began arriving in Poland in March 1812. The vast majority of the infantry were assigned to the 25th Division and placed under the command of the thirty-one-year-old Friedrich Wilhelm, crown prince of Württemberg, son of the fat, zealous, and autocratic King Friedrich.
The crown prince was relatively inexperienced—he had commanded a reserve force in 1809—but was surrounded by veteran officers and commanded a body of fine troops. He was no friend of Napoleon but was at least aware of the prestige of serving under Marshal Ney and of the need to uphold Württemberg’s reputation.
For the first month of the campaign, the crown prince sent regular reports back to his father detailing the course of the campaign, the condition of his troops, his relationship with his French allies and Napoleon, and his own observations of life on campaign. Frank, written on the spot, well observed and detailed, these unique letters throw considerable light not only on the progress of the Württemberg contingent but also on the first terrible month of Napoleon’s invasion.
The letters serve as a rich source on Napoleonic warfare. They provide insight into the mind of a Napoleonic divisional commander and, in particular, define why 1812 was a disaster for Napoleon’s army well before it reached Moscow.
The Grande Armée was in difficulty even before the campaign opened. Despite meticulous planning, the French swamped impoverished Poland with an army too vast to feed. Supplies were unevenly distributed, soldiers tried to live off a land unable to sustain them, bickering broke out between various units and various nationalities, commanders fretted, deserters made off, and Polish peasants clamored against the invading army.
Napoleon received reports that the Württemberg cavalry—serving as a brigade attached to the III Corps—had been putting the area around Thorn to the sack. He reacted quickly, directing Marshal Louis-Alexandre Berthier, prince of Neufchatel and Wagram, to inform the crown prince of his anger, breaking up the Württemberg cavalry brigade and assigning the regiments to French brigades commanded by French generals.
The crown prince, somewhat stunned by this accusation of “brigandage,” was then ordered to have the commanders of the cavalry, the veteran General August von Woellwarth and Generalmajor Ludwig von Walsleben, confined to quarters pending investigation and to ensure that his troops were better disciplined in the future, “or else,” wrote Berthier, “there would be grave consequences.”
On June 25, just as the first elements of the Grande Armée were crossing over the Niemen River into Russian territory, the crown prince wrote the first of his reports to his father, the king.
Poniemen, 25 June
III Corps did not unite on the 17th at Goldap, as had initially been thought, but on the 20th at Kalvari. All of the troops belonging to the corps camped there and I myself had to be content with a shelter hastily constructed from branches and leaves. Between the 8th and the 20th the troops had been in perpetual motion and daily had to undertake the most arduous marches in the most abominable heat. We hoped that we would be allowed to rest a little at Kalvari—but imperial orders had quite the opposite intention and we were obliged to head as quickly as possible toward Kovno and the Niemen. On the 21st, at 10 in the evening, III Corps began its march and arrived at Marienpol that very night.
There has been a most regrettable change in the organization of our cavalry. The brigade we have been calling the 25th has been dissolved on the emperor’s orders. The chasseur regiment has been assigned to the 9th Light Cavalry Brigade under General Mourier; the two regiments of chevaulegers have been given to [General] Breuning and are to form part of Beurman’s 14th Brigade. Because of these changes, generals Woellwarth and Walsleben have been left without assignments….
Such an action, carried out against a part of the corps and two royal generals, could not be allowed to pass without comment. I sent General Theobald [the crown prince’s chief of staff] to Menkupi in all haste and here he came across the emperor as he was changing horses at Wirballen. The general handed Prince Berthier, who was sharing the imperial carriage, my letter and the emperor himself must have observed this. The general then followed the emperor to Vilkoviski and found an opportunity to address Berthier, who was then with the king of Naples, and ask him whether the order concerning our cavalry was some kind of general displeasure levelled at my own conduct.
The prince warmly denied this, made only generalizations about complaints that the emperor was receiving on a daily basis about the conduct of the cavalry but then agreed to talk to the emperor and asked for a second interview with the general two hours later. At this second meeting the prince was visibly more lighthearted. He tried to assure the general, with all the frankness he is famous for, that the emperor bore no grudge against me personally, indeed, the emperor had shown proof of his confidence in me by giving me command of a front-line division. He said that he understood that the changes would be disagreeable to Your Majesty….
Until I hear of Your Majesty’s intentions regarding the two generals I have had them provisionally quartered at Marienbourg.
We reached Dobillen on the 23rd, at 11 in the evening, but couldn’t even find any drinking water; we continued on to Poniemen on the 24th, and this place is situated close by the river Niemen. The night before three bridges had been thrown over the river without opposition. 150,000 men of I and II Corps and the Guard are already on the far side of the river, marching on Vilna. II Corps followed them across at dawn and war, having now been proclaimed, began today….
General Breuning recorded that, on June 27, Napoleon had been reviewing the Württemberg cavalry as it crossed the bridges over the Niemen. Breuning heard him mutter the words “pillage and brigandage” and then recalled that “I was called over to the emperor and he demanded, ‘Is it you who commands this brigade?’
“On my replying in the affirmative, he added ‘I am outraged by the conduct of these troops; I hope that all the pillaging and disorder will stop; otherwise I’ll break these regiments.’ He then added—and my [aide-de-camp] and myself are in disagreement here—something like ‘I’ll have these men shot’ or ‘I’ll have you shot’ and then ‘I know some of your generals have bad intentions’ and something else which I didn’t catch.”
On July 3, the crown prince again wrote to his father, as much to inform him of events as to plead his case.
Mallatoui, 3 July
I would like to inform Your Majesty that III Corps has crossed the Niemen, our division was at the rear, and is now marching along the Vilna road. On the 26th we reached Skorouli, marching in the same order as before. On the 27th we reached Eve and, as our division was now marching to the fore, the two other divisions only arrived there the following morning after having left half their effectives on the road. We left about 1,000 men in the rear and most of these will probably catch up and rejoin the colors. The march was one of the most difficult imaginable on account of its length, the incredible heat and the continual interruptions caused by the artillery, French caissons and livestock….
The emperor entered Vilna with his Guard on the 28th. II Corps followed and III Corps, or rather our division, had a day of rest. On the 29th III Corps set out for Kiergaliki, on the other side of the Vilia—we crossed the river by means of a hastily-constructed pontoon bridge. We suffered greatly, the rain was coming down in torrents and we were marching through marshy and boggy ground. I have never seen as much suffering as that in the Soudeva camp where the men were up to their knees in mud and had no shelter from the cold rain. Because of the lack of straw and wood they were frozen and only a little revived by a generous ration of brandy. As for food, the situation is worse than bad. We have meat but the rice carried with us has been consumed, as has the flour, and the biscuit which has followed us all the way from our homeland has not been able to keep up on account of the draft animals dying. This campaign surpasses all others the royal troops have participated in for suffering and privation.
The officers are having a particularly bad time and are reduced to eating whatever the common soldiers eat. They lack bread and all their money has been used up.
On the 30th we rested at Soudeva and, on account of the atrocious weather, a man died in camp.
On the 31st we marched for Ghedroisoui, some five miles distant. It took us three hours. Once again we were the last division to move forward and followed on behind the others. Consequently, when we get to the camp, we found that the troops that had gone before had used up all the wood and straw and destroyed all the houses. It was with some difficulty that one house was saved and this served as my HQ.
The way the units are dissolving into a mass of brigands is most worrying. The search for food is the major cause of all this, a situation in itself brought about by a complete breakdown in the issuing of supplies. I have sought to curb the disorganization and have insisted on severity in dealing with such matters. Any soldier found pillaging in the rear will be condemned to death by a council of war. During the march I have the brigades file past me to ascertain whether or not they have stragglers. Such malingerers are caught by a rear guard of NCOs and punished when they are brought into camp.
I now need to make Your Majesty aware of further unpleasant consequences related to the matter of the reorganization of the cavalry. On the 25 June, as I was riding at the head of a division toward Kovno, the emperor and a small staff rode over to me. He immediately began telling me about great disorder in my division, and that he would write to Your Majesty about this, and that some of my generals were malicious and that he would like to have them shot or that they could go as he had no further use for them.
All this was said in a loud voice and at such speed that it was impossible for me to make any reply at all. I thought it better to reply in writing and, until now, have not had any reply to my letter. I have also been forced to send generals Woellwarth and Walsleben back to Stuttgart [in Württemberg] as they will then be under Your Majesty’s jurisdiction.
Regarding the accusation against the cavalry I must point out that whilst they were under my orders I was always prompt in dealing with any kind of problem. The case of Major X is one such example—I removed him from his regiment on account of the numerous complaints caused by his brutal behavior. In general, I have to mention that there does seem to be a lack of authority in some of the regiments and an excess of familiarity between officer and soldier. Our soldiers, on the whole, are more indisciplined and rude when under French command and such troops often pass before me without even noticing me.
None of that can excuse any excess. Specifically that which has disgraced the cavalry in the eyes of the emperor was an episode which took place when they were sent on a mission, on 3 June, by Marshal Ney. They were ordered to round up, in twenty-four hours, sufficient livestock to feed the corps for twenty days. Such an operation of course raised a storm of protest from the inhabitants who, all of a sudden, were deprived of their livelihoods. Unfortunately, Polish Guards were passing through the area at the same time and witnessed how their compatriots were being treated. Their anger fell not on Marshal Ney but on those carrying out his orders. Inevitably the Polish officers sought to win over the emperor at the first opportunity. I don’t know if the cavalry generals, particularly Walsleben, have a bad attitude but it is more than likely a simple lie by the Poles.
Colonel Lalance has informed me that the emperor has shown further displeasure, this time with at our troops in Danzig. During a review on 20 June he criticized, in a loud voice, the fact that our captains, like their majors, wear gold epaulets and ordered them to be removed. The colonel replied that he did not have the authority to do this himself but that he would make out a report.
Despite worsening supply problems as the campaign progressed, the French pushed hard after the retreating Russians. Vilna, capital of Lithuania, had fallen at the end of June, and now Napoleon sought to isolate and crush troops under General Pyotr Bagration near Minsk and those under the tsar and Prince Michael Barclay de Tolly at Drissa. The Grande Armée was forced to make another series of exertions, ignore its pangs of hunger and turn its back on the chaos it was leaving in its wake. The crown prince, two weeks into his first campaign, was now seriously concerned at the effect the constant marching was having on his men, as he wrote in his letter of July 7.
The Royal artillery has, since the passing of the Niemen, lost sixty horses and, in order to keep the limbers moving, it has been necessary to dismount most of the horse artillery battery. The same thing has happened to the French artillery, but on a far bigger scale.
Our loss seems to be quite modest in comparison to theirs and General of Division Foucher, chief of III Corps’ artillery park, expressed his astonishment. Lieutenant-Colonel Brandt, in particular, has distinguished himself both by his zeal and for his good discipline: He is a model to the whole division. As there are so few horses in these parts I have had to have draft animals taken from ammunition wagon teams for use by the artillery.
The convoys of biscuit and flour you sent forward have, to our great dismay, been delayed in the rear. At present, we have consumed our rice and the troops sent out to comb the abandoned villages can only find meat. The clamor for bread is universal. That little procured by merchants on our behalf is snatched up by the soldiers in an instant and fetches a florin a loaf.
The soldiers’ health has suffered much on account of the exertions they have had to undergo. The number of sick has risen to 500 whereas previously it was 180. We have had to send 75 very sick soldiers back to the hospital at Vilna; at Mallatoui I had the sick placed in a building, had them rested and fed and, in a short space of time, they recovered. Diarrhea and nervous fever are our main worries and these have predominantly afflicted the infantry. The cavalry has not had to expend so much energy and just suffers from more mundane maladies.
Until now Napoleon had not set his displeasure down in writing, or if he had it had only been through the indirect means of a letter from Berthier. However, on the 12th, the crown prince received the following imperious letter, which was not published in Napoleon’s correspondence.
My Cousin, I have received your Royal Highnesses’ letter. I will not hide from you the fact that the spirit of the Württemberg troops in no way resembles that which they have shown on previous campaigns. The officers show ill-will; General Walsleben has treated the king, your father, with disrespect, and has demonstrated the most evil of intentions— even that of passing over to the enemy. Colonel von Salm has also been remiss. Many other officers have shown similar bad feeling. Whilst Your Highness is fully aware that there are good officers, you must also be aware that there are some who need to be disciplined and punished. Your Highness knows better than I do which these are. You must forcefully stress the union between our troops and show that no differences come between you and the French. It is a most dangerous thing for a general, in your position, to take up a pose of neutrality. No good will come of it.
It is in the nature of things that an allied force either does well or does badly. You must impress upon your troops the need to maintain a positive attitude. That is what the king would wish and that is how things must be. All else can only lead to unfortunate consequences for you or for Württemberg. You will have to reign over Württemberg one day and it is essential that you show and promote a spirit worthy of your state. Nothing can be hidden from men, they see through everything. If Your Highness does not have the heart for such matters, you will meet nothing but misfortune.
Your Highness must see in this frank letter the sincere respect I hold both for you and for your father, the king. Everything depends on Your Highness and, if you wish it, I might be very happy with your troops. The ordinary soldiers and many of the officers are very good.
The crown prince did not write again to his father until after almost two weeks of hard campaigning. For the first time he began his letter with good tidings:
Raskimozi, 20 July
To begin with something worthy of celebration, I would like to inform you of the brave and glorious behavior of the Archduke Louis Chasseurs in an action which took place on the 5th at Daougelichki, on the Vilna to St. Petersburg road.
This regiment is actually under the orders of General Subervie and forms part of the vanguard led by the king of Naples. On the 30th of the previous month it came into contact with the enemy; since then it has constantly been in action, losing a man prisoner and taking a cossack prisoner. Until the 5th nothing of much note took place but, then, at 9 o’clock, the Chasseurs came up against Russian Dragoons, Uhlans and Hussars supported by three pulks of cossacks. These were pushed back and the Russians withdrew, destroying a bridge as they did so. They took up a new position on some heights, supported by a battery of six cannon. This battery opened up on the Chasseurs but did no damage.
The battery was silenced and the bridge repaired; the enemy was obliged to continue his retreat but was closely followed by our troops. The Russians took up a new position and again established a battery. The Regiment was ordered to dislodge the battery by attacking the heights; under heavy fire it advanced and pushed back the enemy’s cavalry, pursuing them for a mile. The Regiment had by now outstripped the rest of the brigade and was pursuing the enemy alone. The Russians perceived this and mounted a counterattack which the Regiment had the good fortune of resisting. They fell back in complete disorder, and only managed to re-form behind the shelter of some woods. They were about to attack again when the arrival of the rest of the brigade put an end to this. Colonel Waldbourg then fell upon the enemy’s left flank and this decided the battle in our favor.
During this final attack Lieutenant Colonel Prince Hohenlohe advanced too far forward and fell into the hands of the cossacks. He was taken to Belmonte, the headquarters of the Emperor of Russia. The Regiment had nineteen wounded, including Lieutenant von Weiss and four NCOs. Sixteen horses were killed. We took a Dragoon lieutenant, thirty-one men and six horses from the enemy.
The king of Naples, who witnessed the whole affair, pronounced himself, in the most gracious terms, satisfied with the regiment. Marshal Ney has also been very complimentary. The battle has become something of a feat and the regiment has won a reputation amongst the army.
Since my last report we have once more been in motion. On the 9th we were at Kokoutichki, on the 10th we reached Dounaroui, the 11th Libony, the 12th Jenolany and the 13th Drisviatoui. For the first time we heard the rumble of artillery. Hot days followed by exceptionally cold nights mean that many of the exhausted men die in the bivouacs. Major X of the 4th Line killed himself. Earlier I had had to replace him in command of the biscuit convoy with Captain Brechel of the same regiment and, apparently, he had suffered an attack of depression as a result.
From Drisviatoui we marched on Raskimozi, near Braslav. We reached there on the 14th. Twenty-one men died of exhaustion.
The results of all our exertions, the lack of bread, the complete breakdown in the supply of foodstuffs, the rigors of a harsh climate are now showing themselves in the most worrying of ways. On the 18th we sent 500 sick to Vilna, the only place with any semblance of a hospital. 700 men stayed at Mallatoui. Each regiment has a large number of exhausted men or those complaining of various ailments.
Regarding food, little has changed. Indeed, if anything, it has grown worse as the convoy of 3,000 quintals of flour departing from Koenigsberg, and originally intended for III Corps, has been allocated to I Corps. The countryside around here is devoid of resources, it has been stripped by the troops that have gone before. Even if anything can be found, we lack the mills to make flour.
The Royal troops have benefited from a convoy of flour sent from Thorn and which arrived on the 17th. The convoy was a particular relief for the sick at Mallatoui and Vilna and assured them at least eight days’ food. The other troops were also provided for a number of days. The draft animals of the convoy are exhausted; sixty have died and have had to be replaced by native horses.
A great sickness has been raging in the army and this usually takes the form of diarrhea. This leaves the victim totally exhausted and strikes down not only the soldiers but the officers as well. General Scheler almost died from dysentery but has started to recover. Not one officer on my staff has escaped unharmed and I too have been affected and have been obliged to rest behind for a day and then travel behind the division in a carriage.
The division is heading for Sporumi, a mile beyond Braslav. The entire army is in movement.
I must inform Your Majesty that I received a letter [see above] from the emperor on the 12th. I enclose it with this letter. It came in reply to one I had written concerning the disgrace suffered by our cavalry. The accusations the emperor makes against General Walsleben are serious and, when one considers his character and position, very surprising. The criticism of Colonel von Salm is less serious. The most astonishing thing is that in the beginning there was talk of the indiscipline of the troops; now their loyalty is being questioned….
The crown prince had fallen ill on the 15th and was evidently growing weaker, as the above letter was dictated to his chief of staff. Now separated from the contingent, he received reports from his subordinates on the state of the 25th Division. One of the most detailed, and most unsettling to the now absent commander, was from General Kerner, the 25th Division’s chief of staff:
Falkovitschi, 29 July
After Polotsk, from where I sent my last report, until now, our marches have been long and arduous. We have been following the right bank of the Dvina, always starting out early and only making camp as night falls. As might be expected, taking into account these long marches and lack of food, the division gets weaker and weaker and more men fall behind….
The general dearth of food has grown considerably worse; we’ve been marching without a rest for eleven days; the soldiers’ strength dissipates day after day; misery has led to numerous suicides; and our column now resembles a convoy of sick rather than one of warriors. Some days ago Marshal Ney reviewed the division—it has been some time since he last did this—as it paraded before his headquarters. I had moderated my description of the division’s state to him and he was therefore much surprised by the appearance of these ghostly figures dragging themselves along. He remarked to Prince Adam and General Scheler that we should allow our soldiers more freedom in their search for food, so that they might better provide for themselves, but, as for the rest, things were no better in the other divisions. Although it was just a casual remark, it became apparent that we could no longer expect much help from the marshal.
Whilst the 10th and 11th Divisions were being reviewed, the French began angrily demanding bread as soon as they caught sight of the marshal. They looked so hostile and reproaching that the marshal deemed it wise to retire without saying a word. His Highness Prince Adam and General Scheler will visit the marshal just as soon as it is appropriate to do so—he has always been well disposed toward us….
If only Marshal Ney imposed more discipline in those French divisions which precede us, then the entire corps might be able to support itself. At the moment they burn and pillage at will, laying all to waste.
We expected there to be a battle at Vitebsk and Marshal Ney therefore invited our division to make every effort to get there by the 28th. All the generals serving in the division are very aware that it would be very advantageous to fight a battle under the eyes of the emperor; therefore the troops were pushed to their very limits and we arrived in Vitebsk early on the 28th. The Russians had, however, deemed it fit to retire, some of Barclay’s men pulling back along the St. Petersburg road, some along the Smolensk road. This was because, on the 26th, between Ostrovno and Vitebsk, the Italian Army [IV Corps] and the Russians had clashed and the Russians had been forced to withdraw with the loss of some twenty artillery pieces. We crossed over the battlefield and, by all appearances, some six [thousand] to eight-thousand men must have [died].
It is said that Grand Duke Constantine left for Moscow in tears. His Highness Alexander of Württemberg [in Russian service] left Vitebsk just three hours before the emperor marched in. We had to camp on the battlefield. A multitude of wounded Russians lay on the field, none of them being treated, and lots of dead. The air was pestilential for miles around and we kept stumbling across corpses. It seems that the Russian cavalry fight much better than their infantry.
The Russians were expecting an attack to come against Dinabourg but the emperor struck at Vitebsk and this threw them into some disorder. I am still trying to communicate with our cavalry under General Breuning, serving under General Montbrun on the right bank of the Dvina. The emperor sent this cavalry, which is fourteen regiments strong but has no artillery as this was unable to keep up, over the Dvina to make the Russians think that our entire force would cross the river at Disna. The cavalry stuck close to the main Russian army as it pulled back in an attempt to link up with Bagration. Inevitably, there were plenty of skirmishes: Lieutenant Schultz, of the Leib Regiment, was killed, by a pistol shot….The cavalry, however, still appears to be in good condition; it finds food, even oats, and the horses look good. Marshal Ney today told General Scheler that our light cavalry were very distinguished, that he would say so to the emperor and that mention of their brave conduct would be made in an Order of the Day. Marshal Ney told me that the emperor had been informed of the illness afflicting the Prince Royal and expressed his regrets.
Prince Adam endures everything and shares the lot of the officers and soldiers. He presents an excellent example of courage and fortitude.
The artillery should catch up today. The horses belonging to Your Highness should also arrive today and I will assign Major Wagner to look after them. The entire contingent wishes you a swift and speedy recovery and hope that you will rejoin us soon.
Afflicted by dysentery, the crown prince—advised by his surgeon to rest—quit the army for good at the end of July. Spurred on by anxious subordinates and rumors of cossack raids behind the lines, he set out for the Lithuanian capital, escorted by a company of grenadiers, and never did rejoin the division.
General Marchand took over the command, and the Württemberg contingent marched on into Russia, fighting gallantly at Smolensk and Borodino and stumbling on ever eastward. Yet the campaign had taken a heavy toll. After fighting its way through Smolensk, the 25th Division could count just 121 officers and 2,346 men. Worse was to come—few were to see Moscow, fewer would survive the retreat.
Between January and February 1813, scarcely two hundred of the twelve thousand returned to their homeland in Württemberg.
Jonathan North translated and edited With Napoleon in Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Major Faber du Faur, 1812 (Greenhill Books, 2001).
Originally published in the Spring 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.