IN FUTURE UNDERSTANDING THE PAST

Even today, 196 years after those events happened, there exists a proverb in France: “You look like a Frenchman at the Berezina” meaning “as bad as it gets”. The Napoleonic army had a rough time there: by different estimations, the emperor lost almost 35 thousand people during the crossing, both military and civilian ones. At the end of November 1812 one of the biggest dramas in the history of Europe happened near Studenka village
Even today, 196 years after those events happened, there exists a proverb in France: “You look like a Frenchman at the Berezina” meaning “as bad as it gets”. The Napoleonic army had a rough time there: by different estimations, the emperor lost almost 35 thousand people during the crossing, both military and civilian ones. At the end of November 1812 one of the biggest dramas in the history of Europe happened near Studenka village.

It is noisy in a bus coming to Borisov: uniformists of Minsk infantry regiment are discussing hot news and recollecting army songs which are two hundred years old. French “uniforms” are sitting next to Russian ones. We are passing by a road sign “Studenka,” stopping near a village cemetery, and the soldiers are falling into a line. It is frosty and piercing wind is blowing. They say that in November 1812 the weather was the same.

“For Napoleon, retreating from Moscow, Borisov and its crossing were of strategic importance. Everybody realized it. However, the Berezina, navigable, with swampy bottom-lands left few chances to infantry, artillery and cavalry,” Olga Kalacheva, the guide of Borisov tourist club, says. “On the right bank of the river Chichagov’s army locked the road for Frenchmen to move on (at first Russian soldiers occupied Borisov but they were forced to drop back and burnt the bridge). Wittgenstein and Kutuzov were on the way. That is why Bonaparte ran to stratagem… Using a deceptive maneuver, he assured the enemy that he was going to cross the river near Bolshaya Ukholoda village within the distance of 15 kilometers to the south of Borisov. At the same time construction of 2 ponton bridges was in progress at a growing rate near Studenka (17 kilometers to the north of the city).

400 soldiers of general Eblй worked in ice water reaching their shoulders and later died of hypothermia. In the neighborhood there was no wood hard enough for construction, that is why Frenchmen unlogged village houses. The first bridge had been built by 1 p.m. of November 26 and artillery and cavalry started over it. By 4 p.m. the second bridge had been built for infantry. During November 27 the movement was still in progress when a train of carts approached the crossing: wounded, frostbitten soldiers and those who lost their weapon, retainers, courtesans, families with nurslings — thousands and thousands of hungry people whipped up with frost. Russian troops had started an attack by the morning of November 28”.

“Being afraid of seizure of the bridges by the enemy, Napoleon ordered to burn them. A part of military carts managed to cross the river, the rest didn’t. Chaos arose… Everyone tried to reach the far bank knocking down others into the water. Many people were squashed with wheels and horse hooves. Scream overgrew buzzing of cannon balls, bursts of bombs and gunfire. Infantry, cavalry, women, and children rushed to the bridge, but they didn’t manage to cross it,” Olga Kalacheva says. “Cannonry and carts fell into the river from burning logs, hundreds of people puddled about in ice water appealing for help. Whole troops lay near the bridges… There were so many corpses that the river overflew the banks and diverted the course. In the morning it was a sharp frost. Among the corpses, rising above the water surface, there could be seen stiffed in death cavalrymen on horses standing as statues. This was a kingdom of cold, death, and silence.

In the result, only one third of the Napoleon’s troops managed to break through to the west, to Vilnius. The rest died, perished from cold or yielded prisoners. Historians estimate that Russian troops lost 6 thousand people.”

…A cemetery near Studenka village. The guard of honor, consisting of soldiers of both armies in the uniform of 1812. Military band of the Ministry of Defense. Two salvos, a minute’s silence, and a ceremony by the memorial headstone under which remains of 331 French soldiers were buried.

“Today we are venerating the memory of soldiers and civilians who died on the Belarusian land 196 years ago after a tiresome retreat. They fell victims of battles, famine, cold and diseases, and, in particular, of human blindness and arrogance,” said Mrs. Mirielle Musso in her speech, the ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of France to the Republic of Belarus. “Only 50 000 people out of 500-thousand’s army of Napoleon returned to their Motherland. They were lucky to survive in the icy hell in November of 1812. We still remember this disaster. This is a monstrous episode in the history of Europe, because nations of whole Europe took part in this war from both sides. I would like that the word “Berezina,” symbolizing horror, despair and hopelessness of defeat from the XIXth century, became a component of the common European memory in the XXIst century, the symbol of reconcilement and friendship.

“Two hundred years ago not merely a battle of two enemy armies took place on the banks of the Berezina, but one of the biggest tragedies in the European history which took lives of 50 thousand people. We shall not forget about it,” Valentina Shutko thinks, the Deputy Chairman of Borisov District Executive Committee.

General Bress, the Director of French Army Museum, spoke about frailty of peace. He said that it was priceless and that the future was built on the knowledge about the past, not on lies about it. To forgive doesn’t mean to forget… There are suppositions for creation of a common cultural and historical center in Borisov area. Its opening could be confined to the 200th anniversary of crossing the Berezina in 2012.

…The ceremony is being closed by laying of wreaths to three monuments on Brilevskoe field: Russian, Soviet, and French. The right bank of a legendary river. Red pinks on white snow. A cannon salvo.

Vasily Matveev
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