The Effect of the Russian Winter Described by a General

Ségur gave a terrifying description of the effect of the Russian winter that started in November 1812.


But on the sixth of November, the sky underwent a total change. Its azure disappeared. The army marched through a cold mist; the vapor then became dense, and soot fell in a thick and heavy shower of large snow-flakes. It seemed as if the heavens were falling and joining with the earth and its inhabitants in one common league for our utter destruction.

Every thing was now confounded and undistinguishable; objects changed their appearance; we marched without knowing where we were; we saw nothing before us; obstacles [seemed] to grow around us. Whilst the soldier[s] tried to force their way through the whirlwinds of sleet, the snow, drifted by the storm, collected in heaps in every cavity—its surface concealed those unexpected chasms which treacherously yawned beneath their feet. There they were ingulphed, and the weakest rose no more. Those who followed turned round, but the wind drove in their faces not only the falling snow, but that which it raised, in fierce and confounding eddies, from the earth. It seemed to oppose their march with obstinate fury. The Muscovite winter, under this new form, attacked them in every part: it penetrated through their light clothing and their ragged shoes. Their wet clothes froze upon them, this covering of ice pierced their bodies, and stiffened all their limbs. A cutting and violent wind stopped their breath, or seized upon it at the moment it was exhaled and converted it into icicles, which hung upon their beard round their mouths. The unhappy men crawled on, with trembling limbs, and chattering teeth, until the snow collecting round their feet in masses, like stones, some scattered fragment, a branch of a tree, or the body of one of their companions made them stagger and fall. Their cries, their groans were vain; soon the snow covered them and small hillocks marked where they fell;—such as their sepulcher! The road was filled with these undulations, like a place of burial—the most intrepid, the most apathetic, were affected; they hurried past with averted eyes. But before them, around them—all is snow: the eye loses itself in this boundless and melancholy uniformity: the imagination is confounded, the horizon seems one vast winding-sheet, in which nature is inshrouding the whole army. The only objects which come out from the blank expanse are a few gloomy pines, funereal trees, with their sad green, and the motionless erectness of their black trunks; their mournful character completes the picture of universal gloom and desolation formed by an army dying in the midst of a scene so wild, so death-like.

Even their arms, which, offensive as far as Malolaroslavetz, had since been only defensive, now turned against themselves. They seemed a weight insupportable for their benumbed limbs. In their frequent falls, they slipped out of their hands, and were broken or lost in the snow. If the men rose again, their arms at least were gone: they did not throw them away, cold and hunger seized upon them. Many others had their fingers frozen on the musket they still grasped—it prevented their using the motion necessary to keep up some remains of life and heat in their hands. We soon met a number of men of every corps, sometimes alone, sometimes in parties. They had not deserted their standards from cowardice; cold and inanition alone had detached them from their columns. In this general and individual struggle, they had been separated from each other, and they were now disarmed, subdued, defenseless, without a leader, and obeying nothing but the pressing instinct of self-preservation. Most of them, attracted by the sight of some cross-paths, dispersed themselves over the fields, in the hope of finding bread and a shelter for the night; but on our former passage through the country everything had been laid waste for seven or eight leagues on each side the high road; they met nothing but Cossacks, and an armed population who surrounded them, wounded and stripped them, and left them with ferocious laughs to expire naked on the snow.

Source: General Count Philip de Sˇgur, History of the Expedition to Russia, undertaken by the Emperor Napoleon in the Year 1812, 2 vols. (London: H.L. Hunt and C.C. Clarke, 1825), II: 143-145.