‘I have been forced zo abandon Moscow. But the city has been emptied of the people
who are its life. In all the world the people are the soul of an empire. Wherever the
Russian people are, there is Moscow, there is the Russian empire!’
Marshal Kutusov to the Czar
On 14 September Napoleon saw Moscow from Poklonny Hill. The city lay spread out before him, the many gilt onion domes of the numerous churches and monasteries glittering in the early autumn sun. ‘Ah, the Russians do not yet know the effect that the fall of their capital will have on them!’ said Napoleon, gloating over his fabled prize. After some minutes, the cavalcade rode down the slope, preceded by strong patrols. No life was evident; this enormous, semi-oriental capital city had been abandoned by all except a fraction of its inhabitants.
The Emperor felt cheated; where was the humble deputation of trembling city fathers, anxious to proffer him - the conqueror - the ceremonial keys to the place? He was incredulous; ‘Moscow deserted? An unlikely story! We shall get to the bottom of this. Go, bring the Boyars to me!’ But no Boyars came, neither could any be found. This is scarcely surprising; they had been abolished by Czar Peter the Great in the seventeenth century.
Bavarian cavalry general, Preysing-Moos, recorded his impressions of the Russian capital that day:
Before we marched off at seven o’clock on the morning of 15 September, an Order of the Day was given out whereby no one was to enter the city until further notice.1
With Guyon’s Light Cavalry Brigade in the lead, we marched to the left around Moscow, making a halt of some hours at the village of Dworez in order to gather news of the progress of the other columns. During the recent marches, even in this well-urbanised area and so close to such a great city, there had been no sight of living human beings and the destruction of all food and forage supplies - and even the buildings - was much greater than heretofore. The newly-ripened grain had been deliberately trodden down, all the stacks of straw and hay were in flames and huge clouds of smoke poured up out of Moscow itself.
Our march continued directly past one of the city gates without our seeing a living soul and we took up a miserable bivouac in a village called Maria Rostoka. One squadron took post on the road to Moscow. General Ornano sent out two piquets each of 30 men; one of these soon came haring back, hotly pursued, right into our lines, by 60-70 cossacks. The 5th Regiment had 7 men wounded in this mêlée and lost 5 men and 8 horses captured. I reinforced this piquet with 30 men, deployed them in a more defensible manner and from then on, the situation remained quiet. The Viceroy2 took up residence in the fine St Petersburg suburb.
The clash at Moshaisk, 10 September. A town in the central sector. 95 km west of Moscow and 13 km east of Borodino. A victory for Marshal Murat, with parts of I, II and IV Corps and II and III Cavalry Corps, over General Miloradovitch’s II Corps. This was a rearguard action on the part of the battered Russian army. Miloradovitch’s corps numbered 8,600 men with 24 guns. Murat had about 10,000 men and 30 guns. The action cost the Russians 2,000 casualties and a further 10,000 of their wounded from the battle of Borodino were also taken in the town. Murat lost about 2,000 men. The advance to Moscow went on.
The entire French retinue was dumbfounded as they walked through the silent, echoing streets to the Kremlin, that massive, red-brick citadel on the north bank of the River Moskwa, in the centre of the capital. The gates stood open; the Emperor entered, unopposed. The imperial suite took up residence within the fortress; the city was scoured for life, only a few beggars were discovered. But next day, fires broke out in several different spots around the Kremlin. Almost the entire city being built of wood, the fires spread wherever the wind took the sparks. It was then that the French found that all the fire engines of the city had been removed; they were powerless to fight the flames and to save the immense stocks of food and other supplies from destruction.
It is generally accepted that General Count Feodor Vasilievich Rostopchin, Governor of Moscow, had removed the fire engines, freed many convicts, then paid them to become arsonists to destroy the city to deny the invaders shelter and supplies.
Rostopchin’s hatred of the invaders was implacable. He even set fire to his own mansion in the city and placed this placard on the ruins for the stunned French to read and contemplate:
For eight years I have been improving this property, and have lived here happily with my family. The seventeen hundred tenants of my domain left their homes as you drew near, and I have set fire to my own house to save it from being defiled by your presence. Frenchmen, I abandoned to you my two homes in Moscow, with furnishings worth half a million rubles. Here you will find nothing but ashes!
For the first time, Napoleon was confronted with the fact that he was no longer the centre of the universe, was no longer the arbiter of events on the world’s stage. The strings with which he usually manipulated the puppet-like pygmies who dwelt in his world had suddenly and deftly been cut and he had not even heard the snip of the scissors. By sacrificing his capital city, Alexander had wrested the strategic and moral initiative from the invader. Not in his wildest dreams had Napoleon factored in the possible abandonment by the Russians of Moscow. As he himself had said: ‘A good general may be defeated, but he should never be surprised.’ With or without knowing it, the young Czar had become the first - and possibly the only one - of the omnipotent Napoleon’s enemies to have outwitted him so utterly. To say that Napoleon was left this day, in Moscow, figuratively open-jawed and with egg all over his face, would be no overstatement.
Moscow burning in daylight, seen from within the Kremlin. Author’s collection.
Allied troops loot a Russian mansion near Moscow. Albrecht Adam.
‘This forbodes great misfortune for us!’ said Napoleon on the walls of the Kremlin on 17 September, contemplating the fires eating up so much of the city. Soon, the outbreaks had become so widespread, that it was decided to abandon the Kremlin and to move some miles north, up the road to St Petersburg, to the small palace of Petrovskoi there.
Their progress out of the burning city was most dramatic; the roaring of the flames made it almost impossible for them to hear their own voices, smoke obscured the sun and blinded them, their journey was punctuated with the crash of falling buildings. Several times thay had to change their route as the road ahead was found to be blocked by burning debris. There was not the slightest hope of combating the multiple fires; they were forced to stand aside and let them run their courses. After a few days, the fires died down of their own accord; about 75 per cent of the city had been destroyed, and random islands of intact buildings stood in the vast, smoking sea of ashes. But the Kremlin still stood, undamaged. Napoleon decided to reoccupy it.
Segur noted their progress through the ruins:
The section of the city that he had to cross to return to the Kremlin presented a strange appearance. Enormous fires had been lit in the middle of the fields, in thick, cold mud and were being fed with mahogany furniture and gilded windows and doors. Around these fires, on litters of damp straw, ill protected by a few boards, soldiers and their officers, mud-stained and smoke blackened, were seated in splendid armchairs or lying on silk sofas. At their feet were heaped or spread out cashmere shawls, the rarest of Siberian furs, cloth of gold from Persia, and silver dishes in which they were eating coarse black bread, baked in the ashes, and half-cooked, bloody horseflesh - a strange combination of abundance and famine, wealth and filth, luxury and poverty!
On 17 September, Major von Lossberg, of the 3rd Westphalian Infantry Regiment, set down his impressions of life in the ruins of the Russian capital:
It is not individuals who are looting, but whole detachments of all nations, commanded by subalterns, or even field officers. These groups... go from house-to-house, or from cellar-to-cellar if the house has been burned down. In this way they uncover many stores of all types. Our regiment and the two light battalions have occupied the church and neighbouring houses in the Smolensk suburb. I live very comfortably in one of the houses and want for nothing. In particular, I am enjoying ‘Kolonialwaren’3 and several types of fish. As we also have meat, bread and wine, we have everything that we could wish for.
Something which is not less vital, is the fact that our foraging soldiers in the capital have brought back supplies of cloth to be made up into trousers and overcoats, and also a lot of leather including suede, and, most importantly, sole leathers for the soldiers’ shoes. I have had workshops set up.
So, there was some forward thinking going on in Moscow, but it was at grass-roots level.
In fact several regiments did enter the city this day.
Imported British goods from the colonies.