27-28 November 1812

As the surviving masses of the Grande Armee struggled on for the perceived safety of the west, the Russian armies of generals Wittgenstein, Kutusov and Admiral Tshitsagov closed in on them.

Only some 49,000 French soldiers were capable of putting up a fight and they were followed closely by some 40,000 non-combatants. The Russians had more than 140,000 troops.

Napoleon Bonaparte's plan was to cross the Beresina River and head for Poland, while his enemies wanted to trap him there and destroy him.

Arriving at the river, Bonaparte had a nasty shock in that the usually frozen waterway had thawed and was now impassable.

The 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.

Fortunately, for the French, the commander of the bridging equipment General Jean-Baptiste Eble had kept crucial forges, charcoal and sapper tools and only needed protection from the Tshitsagov's force on the far west bank to span the river.

Marshal Oudinot was given the task of drawing off the admiral and made a move towards the south.

The plan worked and so Eble's engineers braved ferociously cold water to construct the vital 100-metre bridge.

Cavalry quickly crossed it followed by infantry to hold the bridgehead.

A second structure opened within hours and cannons were taken across it to bolster the defensive perimeter. Their arrival was just in time as Tshitsagov realised his error and attacked the 11,000 French troops.

By midday of the 27th, Bonaparte and the Imperial Guard were across and the strategy now swung to saving the rearguard, which was fighting against Wittgenstein's arriving army.

One of the spans broke in the late afternoon but more feats of engineering skill had it repaired by early evening. Marshal Davout and Prince Eugene got their corps across leaving Marshal Victor's IX Corps to hold off the enemy on the east bank.

Boosting his firepower with artillery from across the river, Victor held out until after midnight when his forces were able to join their colleagues and push Tshitsagov aside and continue the retreat to France.

While some 25,000 French troops became casualties and a further 20,000 Russians, their losses paled next to that of the French stragglers.

At least 10,000 were massacred by rampaging cossacks, while another 20,000 died in the near freezing water or were crushed to death in the panic to cross the bridges.


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