the glory of battle went to the cavalry and infantry, the
bridge builders of Napoleon
Bonaparte's army - the pontonniers - were an indispensable
part of the military machine.
main contribution was helping the emperor to get his forces
across water obstacles by erecting pontoon bridges.
skills of his pontonniers allowed Bonaparte to outflank
enemy positions by crossing rivers where the enemy least
expected and, in the case of the great
retreat from Moscow, saved the army from complete annihilation
at the Beresina.
of the professionalism and discipline of the pontonniers
can be credited to General Jean-Baptiste
Eble, who took over a haphazard organisation - originally
of Rhine boatmen - and turned into a body of talented and
his tutelage a company of pontonniers could construct a
bridge of up to 80 pontoons - some 120 to 150 metres long
- in a little under seven hours.
pontoons were rectangular-shaped, flat copper-bottomed boats
that would be positioned together, anchored, and then have
planks laid across its length.
the materials for the temporary spans were carried by the
pontonniers' wagon train right down from the pontoons themselves
to the clamps, spikes and anchors needed to secure them.
were also mobile wagon-mounted forges that the pontonniers
used to fashion items that were out of stock.
was Eble's disobeying of imperial orders - to destroy the
forges on the retreat from Moscow - that saved the pitiful
numbers of Grande Armee survivors at the Beresina.
Bonaparte had been expecting the river to have been frozen
in the appallingly cold winter weather, but the waterway
had thawed and was now impassable.
nearby bridge at Studienka had been destroyed and most of
the equipment to build a pontoon bridge had been destroyed
only a few days earlier.
Eble had kept his precious forges, charcoal and sapper tools
and his engineers braved ferociously cold water to construct
the vital 100-metre bridge.
second structure opened within hours and with a hastily
thrown out defensive perimeter in place, the remnants of
one of the greatest fighting forces ever put together survived
for another day.
work was exhausting and dangerous for the pontonniers, who
had to endure horrendous conditions to save the army.
died from the effects of the harsh working conditions and
Eble himself never recovered from the rigours of the Russian
campaign and died in Konigsberg.
may not have had the glory, but Bonaparte clearly valued
his pontonniers and had 14 companies commissioned into his