What Russian, reading the account of the last part of the campaign of 1812,
has not experienced an uncomfortable feeling of regret, dissatisfaction, an_erplexity? Who has not asked himself how it is that the French were not al_aptured or destroyed when our three armies surrounded them in superio_umbers, when the disordered French, hungry and freezing, surrendered i_rowds, and when (as the historians relate) the aim of the Russians was t_top the French, to cut them off, and capture them all?
How was it that the Russian army, which when numerically weaker than th_rench had given battle at Borodino, did not achieve its purpose when it ha_urrounded the French on three sides and when its aim was to capture them? Ca_he French be so enormously superior to us that when we had surrounded the_ith superior forces we could not beat them? How could that happen?
History (or what is called by that name) replying to these questions says tha_his occurred because Kutuzov and Tormasov and Chichagov, and this man an_hat man, did not execute such and such maneuvers…
But why did they not execute those maneuvers? And why if they were guilty o_ot carrying out a prearranged plan were they not tried and punished? But eve_f we admitted that Kutuzov, Chichagov, and others were the cause of th_ussian failures, it is still incomprehensible why, the position of th_ussian army being what it was at Krasnoe and at the Berezina (in both case_e had superior forces), the French army with its marshals, kings, and Empero_as not captured, if that was what the Russians aimed at.
The explanation of this strange fact given by Russian military historians (t_he effect that Kutuzov hindered an attack) is unfounded, for we know that h_ould not restrain the troops from attacking at Vyazma and Tarutino.
Why was the Russian army—which with inferior forces had withstood the enemy i_ull strength at Borodino—defeated at Krasnoe and the Berezina by th_isorganized crowds of the French when it was numerically superior?
If the aim of the Russians consisted in cutting off and capturing Napoleon an_is marshals—and that aim was not merely frustrated but all attempts to attai_t were most shamefully baffled—then this last period of the campaign is quit_ightly considered by the French to be a series of victories, and quit_rongly considered victorious by Russian historians.
The Russian military historians in so far as they submit to claims of logi_ust admit that conclusion, and in spite of their lyrical rhapsodies abou_alor, devotion, and so forth, must reluctantly admit that the French retrea_rom Moscow was a series of victories for Napoleon and defeats for Kutuzov.
But putting national vanity entirely aside one feels that such a conclusio_nvolves a contradiction, since the series of French victories brought th_rench complete destruction, while the series of Russian defeats led to th_otal destruction of their enemy and the liberation of their country.
The source of this contradiction lies in the fact that the historians studyin_he events from the letters of the sovereigns and the generals, from memoirs,
reports, projects, and so forth, have attributed to this last period of th_ar of 1812 an aim that never existed, namely that of cutting off an_apturing Napoleon with his marshals and his army.
There never was or could have been such an aim, for it would have bee_enseless and its attainment quite impossible.
It would have been senseless, first because Napoleon's disorganized army wa_lying from Russia with all possible speed, that is to say, was doing jus_hat every Russian desired. So what was the use of performing variou_perations on the French who were running away as fast as they possibly could?
Secondly, it would have been senseless to block the passage of men whose whol_nergy was directed to flight.
Thirdly, it would have been senseless to sacrifice one's own troops in orde_o destroy the French army, which without external interference was destroyin_tself at such a rate that, though its path was not blocked, it could no_arry across the frontier more than it actually did in December, namely _undredth part of the original army.
Fourthly, it would have been senseless to wish to take captive the Emperor,
kings, and dukes—whose capture would have been in the highest degre_mbarrassing for the Russians, as the most adroit diplomatists of the time
(Joseph de Maistre and others) recognized. Still more senseless would hav_een the wish to capture army corps of the French, when our own army ha_elted away to half before reaching Krasnoe and a whole division would hav_een needed to convoy the corps of prisoners, and when our men were not alway_etting full rations and the prisoners already taken were perishing of hunger.
All the profound plans about cutting off and capturing Napoleon and his arm_ere like the plan of a market gardener who, when driving out of his garden _ow that had trampled down the beds he had planted, should run to the gate an_it the cow on the head. The only thing to be said in excuse of that gardene_ould be that he was very angry. But not even that could be said for those wh_rew up this project, for it was not they who had suffered from the trample_eds.
But besides the fact that cutting off Napoleon with his army would have bee_enseless, it was impossible.
It was impossible first because—as experience shows that a three-mile movemen_f columns on a battlefield never coincides with the plans—the probability o_hichagov, Kutuzov, and Wittgenstein effecting a junction on time at a_ppointed place was so remote as to be tantamount to impossibility, as in fac_hought Kutuzov, who when he received the plan remarked that diversion_lanned over great distances do not yield the desired results.
Secondly it was impossible, because to paralyze the momentum with whic_apoleon's army was retiring, incomparably greater forces than the Russian_ossessed would have been required.
Thirdly it was impossible, because the military term "to cut off" has n_eaning. One can cut off a slice of bread, but not an army. To cut off a_rmy—to bar its road—is quite impossible, for there is always plenty of roo_o avoid capture and there is the night when nothing can be seen, as th_ilitary scientists might convince themselves by the example of Krasnoe and o_he Berezina. It is only possible to capture prisoners if they agree to b_aptured, just as it is only possible to catch a swallow if it settles o_ne's hand. Men can only be taken prisoners if they surrender according to th_ules of strategy and tactics, as the Germans did. But the French troops quit_ightly did not consider that this suited them, since death by hunger and col_waited them in flight or captivity alike.
Fourthly and chiefly it was impossible, because never since the world bega_as a war been fought under such conditions as those that obtained in 1812,
and the Russian army in its pursuit of the French strained its strength to th_tmost and could not have done more without destroying itself.
During the movement of the Russian army from Tarutino to Krasnoe it lost fift_housand sick or stragglers, that is a number equal to the population of _arge provincial town. Half the men fell out of the army without a battle.
And it is of this period of the campaign—when the army lacked boots an_heepskin coats, was short of provisions and without vodka, and was campin_ut at night for months in the snow with fifteen degrees of frost, when ther_ere only seven or eight hours of daylight and the rest was night in which th_nfluence of discipline cannot be maintained, when men were taken into tha_egion of death where discipline fails, not for a few hours only as in _attle, but for months, where they were every moment fighting death fro_unger and cold, when half the army perished in a single month—it is of thi_eriod of the campaign that the historians tell us how Miloradovich shoul_ave made a flank march to such and such a place, Tormasov to another place,
and Chichagov should have crossed (more than knee-deep in snow) to somewher_lse, and how so-and-so "routed" and "cut off" the French and so on and so on.
The Russians, half of whom died, did all that could and should have been don_o attain an end worthy of the nation, and they are not to blame because othe_ussians, sitting in warm rooms, proposed that they should do what wa_mpossible.
All that strange contradiction now difficult to understand between the fact_nd the historical accounts only arises because the historians dealing wit_he matter have written the history of the beautiful words and sentiments o_arious generals, and not the history of the events.
To them the words of Miloradovich seem very interesting, and so do thei_urmises and the rewards this or that general received; but the question o_hose fifty thousand men who were left in hospitals and in graves does no_ven interest them, for it does not come within the range of thei_nvestigation.
Yet one need only discard the study of the reports and general plans an_onsider the movement of those hundreds of thousands of men who took a direc_art in the events, and all the questions that seemed insoluble easily an_imply receive an immediate and certain solution.
The aim of cutting off Napoleon and his army never existed except in th_maginations of a dozen people. It could not exist because it was senseles_nd unattainable.
The people had a single aim: to free their land from invasion. That aim wa_ttained in the first place of itself, as the French ran away, and so it wa_nly necessary not to stop their flight. Secondly it was attained by th_uerrilla warfare which was destroying the French, and thirdly by the fac_hat a large Russian army was following the French, ready to use its strengt_n case their movement stopped.
The Russian army had to act like a whip to a running animal. And th_xperienced driver knew it was better to hold the whip raised as a menace tha_o strike the running animal on the head.