The French army melted away at the uniform rate of a mathematical progression; and that crossing of the Berezina about which so much has been written was only one intermediate stage in its destruction, and not at all the decisive episode of the campaign. If so much has been and still is written about the Berezina, on the French side this is only because at the broken bridge across that river the calamities their army had been previously enduring were suddenly concentrated at one moment into a tragic spectacle that remained in every memory, and on the Russian side merely because in Petersburg--far from the seat of war--a plan (again one of Pfuel's) had been devised to catch Napoleon in a strategic trap at the Berezina River. Everyone assured himself that all would happen according to plan, and therefore insisted that it was just the crossing of the Berezina that destroyed the French army. In reality the results of the crossing were much less disastrous to the French--in guns and men lost--than Krasnoe had been, as the figures show.
The sole importance of the crossing of the Berezina lies in the fact that it plainly and indubitably proved the fallacy of all the plans for cutting off the enemy's retreat and the soundness of the only possible line of action--the one Kutuzov and the general mass of the army demanded--namely, simply to follow the enemy up. The French crowd fled at a continually increasing speed and all its energy was directed to reaching its goal. It fled like a wounded animal and it was impossible to block its path. This was shown not so much by the arrangements it made for crossing as by what took place at the bridges. When the bridges broke down, unarmed soldiers, people from Moscow and women with children who were with the French transport, all--carried on by vis inertiae--pressed forward into boats and into the ice-covered water and did not, surrender.
That impulse was reasonable. The condition of fugitives and of pursuers was equally bad. As long as they remained with their own people each might hope for help from his fellows and the definite place he held among them. But those who surrendered, while remaining in the same pitiful plight, would be on a lower level to claim a share in the necessities of life. The French did not need to be informed of the fact that half the prisoners--with whom the Russians did not know what to do--perished of cold and hunger despite their captors' desire to save them; they felt that it could not be otherwise. The most compassionate Russian commanders, those favorable to the French--and even the Frenchmen in the Russian service--could do nothing for the prisoners. The French perished from the conditions to which the Russian army was itself exposed. It was impossible to take bread and clothes from our hungry and indispensable soldiers to give to the French who, though not harmful, or hated, or guilty, were simply unnecessary. Some Russians even did that, but they were exceptions.
Certain destruction lay behind the French but in front there was hope. Their ships had been burned, there was no salvation save in collective flight, and on that the whole strength of the French was concentrated.
The farther they fled the more wretched became the plight of the remnant, especially after the Berezina, on which (in consequence of the Petersburg plan) special hopes had been placed by the Russians, and the keener grew the passions of the Russian commanders, who blamed one another and Kutuzov most of all. Anticipation that the failure of the Petersburg Berezina plan would be attributed to Kutuzov led to dissatisfaction, contempt, and ridicule, more and more strongly expressed. The ridicule and contempt were of course expressed in a respectful form, making it impossible for him to ask wherein he was to blame. They did not talk seriously to him; when reporting to him or asking for his sanction they appeared to be fulfilling a regrettable formality, but they winked behind his back and tried to mislead him at every turn.
Because they could not understand him all these people assumed that it was useless to talk to the old man; that he would never grasp the profundity of their plans, that he would answer with his phrases (which they thought were mere phrases) about a "golden bridge," about the impossibility of crossing the frontier with a crowd of tatterdemalions, and so forth. They had heard all that before. And all he said--that it was necessary to await provisions, or that the men had no boots--was so simple, while what they proposed was so complicated and clever, that it was evident that he was old and stupid and that they, though not in power, were commanders of genius.
After the junction with the army of the brilliant admiral and Petersburg hero Wittgenstein, this mood and the gossip of the staff reached their maximum. Kutuzov saw this and merely sighed and shrugged his shoulders. Only once, after the affair of the Berezina, did he get angry and write to Bennigsen (who reported separately to the Emperor) the following letter:
"On account of your spells of ill health, will your excellency please be so good as to set off for Kaluga on receipt of this, and there await further commands and appointments from His Imperial Majesty."
But after Bennigsen's departure, the Grand Duke Tsarevich Constantine Pavlovich joined the army. He had taken part in the beginning of the campaign but had subsequently been removed from the army by Kutuzov. Now having come to the army, he informed Kutuzov of the Emperor's displeasure at the poor success of our forces and the slowness of their advance. The Emperor intended to join the army personally in a few days' time.
The old man, experienced in court as well as in military affairs--this same Kutuzov who in August had been chosen commander in chief against the sovereign's wishes and who had removed the Grand Duke and heir--apparent from the army--who on his own authority and contrary to the Emperor's will had decided on the abandonment of Moscow, now realized at once that his day was over, that his part was played, and that the power he was supposed to hold was no longer his. And he understood this not merely from the attitude of the court. He saw on the one hand that the military business in which he had played his part was ended and felt that his mission was accomplished; and at the same time he began to be conscious of the physical weariness of his aged body and of the necessity of physical rest.