For roughly a 72-hour period in late November of 1812, every kind of challenge, foundering or success, every kind of loss or gain or triumph or horror ever associated with living creatures played out in one form or another on the banks of the Berezina River. Here in Russian territory was the culmination of human existence in one massive showcase, a scene rife with paradox. Napoleon’s final flourish of military genius sparkled in the darkness of his greatest military failure. The best and worst of civilization, its saviors and its murderers, were pinned together here to prove who they were. Atheists turned to faith and the faithful denounced God. Some crossed over the river, others only crossed over. And they did it by the thousands. A handful of Napoleon’s soldiers forfeited their own lives by jumping into the icy flood and building two bridges—the only paths by which their emperor, their military brethren and the civilian refugees in their wake could escape Russian vengeance. These were bad-asses. The Russians fired artillery straight into the starving, exhausted crowds at the bridgeheads. Cannonballs and howitzer shells splattered body parts across the ice while the river swallowed its fill of vehicles, animals and people. In the end, Napoleon gave the order to burn the bridges, leaving several thousand stragglers trapped on the wrong side. The din of panic and terror then rose up in the valley and a bloody frenzy ensued, a wholesale slaughter by the Russians of the men, women and children who didn’t drown after throwing themselves into the water.
“Beyond the Berezina” is the title of an historical fiction I wrote around the French flight from Russia. That title comes from a line in “War and Peace,” in which Tolstoy tells us that the French fled “…beyond Smolensk, beyond the Berezina….” This site is about the observations behind the story, about how I conceived the characters, about their lives and the times in which they lived and the things that haven’t changed. It’s about traveling through time and space with me as your host, about those glimpses we think we get behind the big curtain, about what’s real and what isn’t, about life and death and beyond. And it’s about me. I go places, I do things, and when my head clears and the dust settles, I write it down. But sometimes I’ll have a sandwich first.
- Charting a Military Disaster (charliewingard.com)
- 1813-1814 : Napoleon blowing bubbles (retronaut.com)