Authors: Josef Holub
When Napoleon and his surviving army reached the hilltops overlooking Moscow’s golden onion-domes a week later, they waited for a delegation from the city to bring terms of surrender. Instead, nobody appeared. Then, on the evening of September 15, flames appeared on rooftops across Moscow. Soon, the flames turned into a conflagration, and the whole city burned for three days.
Again, the Russians had pursued a strategy Napoleon never would have imagined: They abandoned their capital city and set fire to it, so that the
had nothing to conquer. Nonetheless, Napoleon ordered his troops to stay in Moscow while he attempted to convince tsar Alexander I, the ruler of Russia, to sign a peace treaty. He spent four weeks in negotiations with the tsar, who ultimately refused to sign anything.
At the end of those four weeks, it was mid-October. The weather was turning cold and wet. Napoleon had no choice: He had to retreat. On October 19, the
assembled once again at the gates of Moscow, this time to march
back along the way they had come. They had to travel through countryside that they themselves had devastated, and this time, they had to do it in winter.
The retreat from Moscow was accompanied by even greater suffering than the march there had been. Ice and snow covered the roads; food and shelter were difficult — and sometimes impossible — to find; and many soldiers lacked the heavy boots and furs required to survive in the sub-zero temperatures. Meanwhile, Russian troops and Cossacks (warriors on horseback) continuously harried the retreating army. The soldiers became accustomed to seeing frozen bodies on the side of the road.
Napoleon was marching the remnants of the
toward Vilnius, a city in Lithuania held by troops he had left behind. In order to reach Vilnius, though, the army had to cross the Berezina River, and the Russians had burned the only bridge across the river. Ironically, just as the
drew close to the Berezina, the weather turned slightly warmer, and the ice that covered the river began to thaw. This meant that crossing the river ice would not be an option. The only option was to rebuild the bridge.
Napoleon ordered part of his army to distract the Russians a few miles from the river, while his engineers feverishly built two bridges. The first bridge was completed in three hours. Unsurprisingly, a chaotic rush to get across the river to safety ensued. When the
guard could no longer hold off the Russians, they crossed the bridges and then set fire to them — despite the fact that thousands of stragglers remained on the Russian side.
On December 9, most of the remaining
arrived at Vilnius, where they found what seemed like unparalleled luxuries: warm food and sleep under a rooftop. Only a day later, though, the Russian army arrived, having pursued Napoleon and his soldiers into non-Russian territory. Some soldiers managed to escape the city, but many were hunted down and imprisoned or killed.
It was not until January and February of 1813 that the last survivors of the
hobbled into their home barracks and depots in France, Italy, Holland, Germany, and other countries across Europe. Those who survived had overcome almost insurmountable odds.
Cover art by Gregory Manchess
Cover design by Leyah Jensen
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Arthur A. Levine Books hardcover edition, art directed by Elizabeth B. Parisi, published by Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., October 2005.
Text copyright © 2002 by Josef Holub
Translation copyright © 2005 by Michael Hofmann
Map illustration copyright © 2005 by Kirk Caldwell
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