The Long March Home

Written by Daniel Sharp

 I am writing this on some ripped scraps; sitting on a rock at night; several feet away there is the light from the camp fire, my only illumination. Other men are packed around the fire. There is no space. So I sit here, on my rock. The fire may as well be put out- the light is dim, the wind blows and makes the flames tiny, and the cold bites as hard as before.

To be honest, I do not know why I am writing. It is not a suicide note exactly – I am not going to kill myself. I am just going to let myself drift away. Once the men start moving, I will leave the group, as so many have done before, either by choice or because they have fallen half dead, and lie down in a ditch, where the cold and the grief will take me as the please. This is my last record then. It will probably never be found, but it allows me to set down some of my story.

The month is November, the year 1812, and the place, Russia. Oh, what a place! Vast and warm a few months ago, it is now vast and freezing. I have never felt cold like this. We left the west with a grand army, one of the largest ever assembled, led by our Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. Now we are cut down by hundreds of thousands due to death, disease and desertion. I would willingly have laid down my life for the glory of France, my people, and my Emperor. But this campaign has been a disaster. It will be the beginning of the end for France as I know it, and for the little general.

I have followed him for over a decade. He is a giant, a conqueror of men, women, children, nations, armies, kings, emperors and lands. We have not seen one like him since the days of Alexander! But oh- those days are gone. This invasion of Russia has been his biggest mistake. He has lost so many men, so many supplies, and, most of all, he has lost his reputation. Here lies Napoleon! Former master of the universe, defeated by Russia’s vast interior, the tsar’s retreating army, the Cossacks, and the weather. Glory is gone. And so shall I soon too.

My wife and my son accompanied me on the campaign. They died two days ago. The cold got them, that is all. I went to check on them one morning and their bodies were frozen stiff, their eyes lightless. I burned the bodies, but said no prayers. It is not just the soldiers who have suffered. The civilians, women children who came with us have suffered too. I thought that if I had them I would make it home, back to Paris. Our home is small, but it is ours. Or rather, it was ours – now, without them, it is no longer a home, it is just a house, and I will never make it home again.

Little over a month ago we entered Moscow. After all our hardship, surely this was the end! The capital of the tsar was taken – victory was ours! The Russians had evaded our armies, choosing to retreat rather than fight for the most part, to exhaust us. By God, did they succeed. But we had won! Moscow was ours! After the awful march, picked at by Cossacks and scythed down by fatigue and disease, and a bloody battle at Borodino, we were done – glory was restored! Long live the Emperor! Long live France! Alas, Moscow was burned by the Russians, and the tsar never surrendered.

Thus we left Moscow, forced to retreat in shame. But our exhaustion was too great for us to care – we felt like Sisyphus after an eternity of toil. We just wanted to see home again. That goes for all people in this once great army – the French, the Polish, the Prussians and all the others. Home, just home – that is all we wanted, and now most of us will die in the red snow.

A battle was fought at Maloyaroslavets towards the end of last month on the way back from Moscow. It was not as awful as Borodino, that great blood factory which spewed out human remains like a fountain gushing water. But we were tired and demoralised, and it was truly awful to behold the continuing human sacrifice to the gods of war offered up that day. Indeed, I have witnessed terrors in all the battles we have fought. I have always been immune to weak emotion in the heat of battle, but this campaign has scarred me.

Yes, I have seen many battles. I served under the Emperor in Italy and I was there at Austerlitz, when he crushed two emperors under his heel and showed the height of his artful skills in war. I met him for the first time yesterday. He came along in the afternoon, greeting his men to keep up their morale as he often did. This was a half-hearted attempt. We were exhausted, and so was he. We were all demoralized. The soldiers were all starving – we had barely eaten in weeks. He shook my hand, attempted a smile, and gave me his condolences on the death of my family. Someone must have told him before he had gotten to me. A flicker of love swelled within me – this was the man I had followed for years and who would lead us to glory! But it was extinguished in an instant – the old love was gone. I felt as much anger as I could in my desolate state, and then felt nothing again as he moved on.

A few years ago meeting the Emperor would have brought me untold happiness. I had never been lucky enough to meet him, though I had heard tales of his kindness and generosity to us soldiers. I knew these stories were true. But now I could not forgive him for leading us here, for throwing away all he – and we! – had fought for. For the ruin he had brought upon us and our families.

But that is all in the past. The sky is starting to lighten and we shall be moving soon. I shall put these scraps under this rock, and then I shall hasten to my sleep in the ditch by that small frozen hill, and if there is even the tiniest amount of divine justice left in the universe, I may just see my dear and beautiful family again.

Author’s note: Estimates vary, but Napoleon’s Grande Armée assembled for the invasion of Russia numbered as many men as 680,000. On returning from Russia, as few as 27,000 remained due to the effects of war, disease, capture and desertion. This is not to mention the Russian casualties, or the civilian casualties on both sides. It was one of the most lethal military campaigns in history.


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