Napoleon's Pontonniers

While 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.

Their main contribution was helping the emperor to get his forces across water obstacles by erecting pontoon bridges.

The 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.

Much 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 courageous experts.

Under 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.

The pontoons were rectangular-shaped, flat copper-bottomed boats that would be positioned together, anchored, and then have planks laid across its length.

All 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.

There were also mobile wagon-mounted forges that the pontonniers used to fashion items that were out of stock.

It 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.

Napoleon 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.

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, Eble had kept his precious forges, charcoal and sapper tools and his engineers braved ferociously cold water to construct the vital 100-metre bridge.

A 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.

The work was exhausting and dangerous for the pontonniers, who had to endure horrendous conditions to save the army.

Many 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.

They may not have had the glory, but Bonaparte clearly valued his pontonniers and had 14 companies commissioned into his armies.



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