On 19 October, 1812, the Grande Armée left Moscow and began its miserable retreat. A month later, on 25 November, 1812, it arrived at the Berezina river, which barred its progression to the west. Under attack from the Russians, the army escaped destruction thanks to the sacrifice of the pontonniers of general Eblé who constructed two bridges which allowed the major part of the army to cross the river on 27 and 28 November. The following day, the Grande Armée was forced to abandon its positions and decided to destroy the bridges, abandoning nearly 10,000 men, women and children on the eastern bank of the river. The term “Berezina” has since entered the French language as a synonym for disaster, in reference to the 25,000 combatants and 30,000 non-combatants who were killed. The battle was nevertheless a tactical victory for Napoleon, who managed to get his army out of a potentially fatal situation.
This painting, which depicts the events very precisely, was probably painted by a witness or a veteran like general Langeron (1763-1831), a French émigré fighting on the Russian side, to whom we owe the following narrative: “Wittgenstein’s light artillery rained bullets and shells on the multitude crammed in by the bridge; one can picture the awful disorder that reigned, the cries of the unfortunate valets, stretcher-bearers, the sick and the dying, women and children, French and foreigners, émigrés to Moscow who followed the army; crushed under the wheels of chariots, between carriages, mutilated by the strike of shells or perishing under the cossacks’ pikes, throwing themselves on the burning bridge, where they were devoured by flames and swallowed by the water”.
Grégory Spourdos, Joint Director of the exhibition Napoléon et l’Europe, March 2013
This painting was on display as part of the exhibition at the Musée de l’Armée in Paris, Napoléon et l’Europe, from 27 March 2013 to 14 July 2013.
This painting is part of our close-up on the Russian Campaign.