Sunday 24 June 2012

The siege of Riga: 2 the storming

We could see the advancing foes very clearly I could even distingue the individual faces of the soldiers, the grenadiers with their big moustaches the line troopers advancing in their hundreds, a compact block moving as one against our lines of green. And then I realized that actually they were chanting, above the infernal thunder of the artillery or the sound of drums and fifes we could clearly hear fragments of their chanting: la libertè nous over la barriere…. le peuple souvereign…  pour elle un français dois mourir. So they chanted as made the earth shake under the passing of their boots. –Holy Basil they are taking it terribly serious aren’t they?- asked one colonel near to me –then we well have to shut them down with the roar of or muskets sir- replied the major of his regiment a tall man immaculately uniformed who was standing by him. –look our skirmishers are starting to reply- said pointing to the clouds of green jackets ahead of our lines. The jägers opened fire, white puffs of fire emerging sporadically amongst them, but their anarchic fire nor stopped nor slowed their progress.

They kept on coming for us as the furies of hell, the rhythm of their drums was a perfect harmony with their pass- a great spectacle isn’t it?- asked one of my adjutants to an old lieutenant –it’s the spectacle of death my dear, you will get used to it- said he with a stern  grimace.
Then as one man, with a marvelous discipline they stopped, one of their officers in a brown coat and wearing an ornate bicorn advanced from the monolithic ranks and lifting his sword with enthusiasm ordered feu! with a spasm the sudden silence was broken when a line of men of half a kilometer  length opened fire, it was like the time stopped, as their volleys crossed the space hitting home amongst our jägers making them retreat. The cut was bloody but not deep, and now our own men advanced to counter the attack.

-With me forward boys- a young lieutenant could be clearly seen at the head of his company, ahead even from the other officers,  deifying death with the hotness of his young blood. Behind him advanced two of our brigades, at the sound of our own marches they advanced with firm passes, and determination in their fervent eyes, then it happened again as they moved in mass none of them thought about danger or death, they simply moved by inertia following the example of the men surrounding them, so they stopped and at the order of fire launched their volley in response, cutting through their ranks that were too busy reloading and received the full weight of the impact. –as usual Hans, they’re firing too high, a pity those stingy bureaucrat of the supplies only gives us a scarce amount of bullets, my men wouldn’t practice marksmanship as long as those corrupts keep stealing and stealing, by good some of them haven’t seen a piece of bread for a week- I said to one of my old friends in the staff who has made career as much like as me. Their fir, by far more terrific tat that previous by the french opened small gaps in the advancing columns, but for each man who fell, another occupied his place in the rank of fire. The frenchs did not show any sign of weakness or intention to retreat and soon erupted a crossfire that I remember as some of the hardest fight of the battle.
But the battle was going on in an large front and eventually arrived to me notices of what was going on in our extreme left flank, which I had left in the care of General Pavel, was few paces behind the lines of men who were fighting by musket and fire against the columns of Frenchmen, when suddenly an envoy of the general arrived. He was in a deplorable state, his uniform had been ripped in some parts by bullets and was stained by blood and dust, but his face showed an expression of evident joy. –General, general we have smashed the flank, the poles are in the run, our men have penetrated into their lines and are about to take the redoubt by the rear- -excellent news, now the only thing we have to do is to push simultaneously by the front and trap them between the anvil and the hammer- then I called on my officers- let’s go gentlemen we have a battle to won, ride towards the center- As we rode we could clearly see the dying and wounding of hundreds of men, but this flank was secured and our attention was needed in the key point: the central redoubt.

The battle was by now in its peak, at the left the Pskov regiment had opened a gap routing the entire right flank and was menacing their center. The french grand battery was opening an infernal fire on our advancing regiments and one of our brigades had come to a halt when canister ripped their ranks and created the chaos, but another brigade was closing in and soon would be over them. Next to them was a french brigade who haven’t moved a lot and was trying to put order in their ranks, an in our right, three of our brigades were entangled against two in an ferocious firefight at close distance.  I arrived next to general Vasili. –How are the things going over here? - I asked holding my hat against the wind –up to now pretty well sir, they had been pounding us with grapeshot for almost a quarter of our, but their shooting is quite inaccurate and my boys will cut through them with no effort- responded him –let’s hope so general, I hope colonel Boris (who was commanding the heading regiment facing the redoubt) will lead them in his usual style – you mean charging sword in hand? Surely he will, at this step we won’t have space enough for decorations in his chest- replied him with amusement.

I picked the glass and focused it into the brigade, I knew that there were men from Volgograd, Soum and Irkutsk, a total of three regiments, four thousand men with the task of taking the redoubt. as usual the mounted officers have descended from their horses to lead the charge from the front, what a magnificent sight they were, advancing with iron determination in ordered lines, their feet hitting the  ground at the same time, the banners flying in the air and above all the sound of the music bands who were touching the Ismailovsky march as one. Eventually one french gun fired, opening a gap into our lines, but for them it was too lat thy wouldn’t have enough time to reload again, we had got them. Then it started, with a thunderous “hurrah” our regiments charged as one all of them rushed towards the earthworks, explosions rained upon them but each casualty only made grater their anger. They raced and climbed, jumped over trenches and evaded the impotent blows from the french crews, and teared apart the enemy with bayonet and kickback, I saw a young drummer who above on trench played his instrument to give our boys spirit, a french bullet struck him and made him fall, but suddenly an officer climbed next to him and holding him in on arm with the other pointed to the enemy with the sword and encouraged his men with shouting of victory and vengeance.   Finally our flags raised above them with enthusiastic NCOs stirring the colours of their regiments. All guns were taken and with surprising minimal casualties, after their charge some of them climbed into the top of the works waving their hats and cheering to their comrades who were advancing at their rear.

But action was also taking part elsewhere; -look sire over there- said one of my adjutants pointing to our right-damned they are finally moving- I said seeing the remaining french brigade from Mc Donald corps charging against the flank of the troops who were surrounding their brothers of the extreme right. Thanks to God our officers spotted them in time and turned one brigade to face them, the clash was very fierce, with the majority of the shots being fired at practically at blank range, but at the end, our men imposed themselves an despite suffering a fifty percent of casualties smashed their opponents and took their flags, which were later presented to me by the injured officers from the regiments that had such honor, a total of two french eagles were taken in this action from the 9th of line and the 3rd light.

I was at this moment ridding around the fights in the center then one tenant of infantry had my one of the captured eagles, holding it in a safe hand I looked at the colonels and staff officers who surrounded me and said –keep this moment in your mind gentlemen, we could be losing the war by now but learn that victory and defeat is just a matter of attitude and cunning, and through them we will be finally victorious-  -god willing- said some of them crossing themselves, then I looked towards, where the fire had engulfed already some of the buildings of the city and columns of smoke stained the sky with their grease and black  path –it’s a pity all this destruction, we go to war thinking about it as a clean affair, but the reality is far more harmful- let’s hope that this will b the turning point and drive soon the french back to Paris- said grimly one of the oldest members of my staff.

The imperials were cornered, the lone brigade of poles remaining, from the Vistula legion according to their colours were retreating in front of our victorious troops. They closed themselves inside the cathedral of Saint Alexander Nevsky which had dominated the battlefield, trying to make there their last stand. Then I decided one of my best movements of the day, in spite of charging towards tot the sacred building which would have been the usual russian manner of solving a problem I decided to hold back my men and bring forth the artillery. I was decided to bomb the church to the ground if necessary in order to slaughter the poles without losing men that would be of more use in the coming campaign. My orders were passed by, the colonels decided to sit down their men for more insurance and so they did resting in the redoubt they had just taken joking with the dad french artillery and passing amongst them bottles of vodka and curious objects plundered from the dead.
The artillery was soon deployed then, before firing, their chief General Barkovsky rode to the front of his guns and turning their horse he addressed his men; -my sons, my brothers we have been instructed with the most sacred mission to clean this invaders from our land, have no more when shooting, let your members be invigorated by hate, because this is not a church, this is not a monument, them have desecrated staining his holy soil with his presence. No remorse, fire! He shouted, prancing his horse and lifting his fathered hat. As one the bronze monsters roared launching his deadly charge against columns and domes burying the poles under a storm of dust of fire.

The fight of our right resolved slowly and in our favor, the columns and lines had been fighting an endurance test, one of their massive columns had managed to break through the Smolensk grenadiers, capturing their flag and leaving behind men by hundreds, allied and enemy alike. Next to them we managed to envelop their twin column the brigade that had ruptured the french brigade before managed with great discipline to attack by the rear the remaining imperials. And so they died standing to the last men, I had to admit their great valor, that brigade formed by the 4th and the 180th of line fought with the strengths of a lion causing us great losses, but at the end we killed or captured all of them and took possessions of one eagle and three flags. Finally the brigade that had managed to cut through was dispersed by crossfire from the jägers by the flank and an infantry brigade by the rear. 

With that the battle was over and over the dead body of their enemy the russians took rest of all the fatigue all the day, in the redoubt where troops had been less engaged soon fires were lit and at the sound of the balalaika the chanting and the dancing started to celebrate the victory with sobers of vodka and popular songs.
Later I rode across our right flank to inspect the results of the battle. All the zone seemed the reign of dead, foe and friend  embraced as they killed themselves, laid separated by war but united by death; bodies in the most antinatural positions laid dad everywhere, and huge piles of dead marked the places where the fight had been most intense. It was at this point were the battle had been hardest. Mac Donald himself had taken command of this flank in a try to envelop our line or just escape through us towards Eugene, in his typical scot style he had imposed the hand to hand style and none of our men left the fight unscratched. There we had suffered the most of our casualties in this push on battle that happened in a very imitated space, were maneuver was impossible and bayonet your best friend.

The battle was a coming and going of envoys who handed me flags, poles and french alike were beaten all along the day and their flags taken some of them saved their eagles  through putting them out from the staffs and hiding them into their uniforms while running out, all those  flags and trophies where presented a week later by myself to the emperor in person who received me in a room of the winter palace, there, surrounded by treacherous courtesans and the general sadness of war he , holding one of the golden eagles touched by Napoleon himself, asked my the words that I will never forget: are you General Count Barclay de Toilly –yes, I’m your imperial majesty- I kneeling replied –then I appoint you field marshal and chief of all my imperial army- the whole crowd kept silence at this, then the emperor with his blue ys filled with humble humanity crossed himself four times in the orthodox manner add- may God our lord will have mercy of Russia, you may go now Barclay, the fate of our holy mother is now in your hands- .
And what happened to Mc Donald you will be wondering? Well we found him killed by a jäger bullet, struck down lading the retreat of his troops, the dead all warrior could have wished.

Friday 22 June 2012

The Sige of Riga: 1 the opening movements

"The siege and storming of Riga" from the memories of General Barclay de Toilly

-Now in my late years of life, when melancholy fills my aged heart, spent by the joys and misfortunes of a whole existence. I can't help but remember those yars in my youth where heroes walked the face of earth and everything seemed possible for those bold enough to make a try.
Amongst those tims of greatness and tragedy none shines more in my fading remembrances than the great war that shaked the very foundations of Russia. When the emperor amassed all his minimons to launch what he tought to be the decisive strike that would manage the submission of Europe, unaware that since the very moment that he and his army crossed the Niemen their doom was sealed.

Hitherto the campaign has gone against us, repated defeats at the same bordrs o f th empir announced the arrival of harsh times for all of us, supplis run low and collumns of smoke startes to plague the sky when the battered russian armies starts a painful retrat  from the victorious flags of a hunderd nations. It was pitiful to har by rumour or report all those bad news, sickening for the morale of my good men and as deadly as any bullet for fear posions the soul and weaks the will.

So far the war was ben favourable to my men as we had cunningly trapped th army of marshall Mc Donald in Riga, the swamps and beaches of this lativan town become the tombstone of hundreds of frenchmen as the starvation and illness made bite after bite upon the encircled regiments. It was like having rats trapped in a box, swarms of  Cossacks under my dear frined Borstin Petrovich waved a tick web impentrable for supply convoys and reinforce columns; while at the front my artillery, solidly sitted upon its redoubts, blowed one by one the french fortifications. And if anyone of those disgraceful turned his gaze towards  the sea hoping for relief, his hopes were quickly shattered by the english squad that stood inamovible and imperturbable upon the black waves of the northern sea, blockading all scape like the silent and deadly guardians of some oriental myth.
But then one day the nottice arrived, one of my adjutants, a teen called Boris Ivanovich i think, rushed in my quarters -There they are sire at last, they are coming- he reported with a voic filld by excitemnt- who, who's coming i asked him with deep intrest- the italians! Eugne's Corps has left Kediniai and it's heading thowards us, they're trying to break the siege- he said with a last peak of anguish in his voice; -then it's time to finish it once and for all- i said, placing a firm hand on his shoulder and a reassuring glance into his young eyes.

And  so it was that after three weeks of siege we marched against the defenders of Riga determined above all to crush them before they had the chance of linking with Eugene's italians.

 Riga is a  higly popolous city, located in the delta of the Daugava river. Since it's hanseantic times the city had experimented a long and slumbering decadence as a coin of change for the many empires that had made it's way for the zone. Miliarily Riga is not an easily defendable city, bisected by the river any enmy could made it's way into it by water and with the british naval superiority in our hands little could do the frenchs than to holds in his grasp their fortesses hoping to slow us enough for Eugene to come. Bu the odds were agains them , starving and weakned they would doubtfully stand the week necessary for their saviours to come.
 The moon shined as silver in the sky when we took our first steps of the day, as the men waked up and the sounds of life filled the minuts before, silent encampment i thought how many of them would never return to their families, how many of them wouldn't ever saw again that shy sun that started to appear in the east, mirroring in the marshes as asking himself what would  yileld that new day. -The spirits are high eh general- said a fat and red-faced colonel who was forming up his regiment only few paces from me, i took of my hat and massaged my head -if we keep them this high the city will be ours before noon- i responded as speaking to myself, then i turned to my staff, generals assembled from all the brigades and said: -all of you know what's at stake at this day non just our position or a single town but the destiny of whole Russia, so get ready gentelmen todey we're gonna turn the tide- each one of them silently nodded all of us knowing the gravity of the moment till somenone said -hope that there's some vodka left in that dammned ruin of a city- some of the officers smiled sharply. Jesus, as always was general Lanski who culd not take nothing seriously in his hussar-style unifor -that will be easy to know for you'll be the first upon the rampants in that case- i replid back, then i turned back towards the smoking and bombarded city, this day was starting to feel right.
 There way was a long to the french lines and I with some staff rided ahead of the froming columns to surview the enemy's deployment. They had responded surprisingly well for being a mob of desperates but then feeling that cold sweat i remembred all the crushing defeats that they had inflicted upon us, the thougtness of those men that even in the most desperate circumstances managd to outmanouvre you and turn the day in victory when you were most confident. How much had my career resented from my german origins, "pupils of Weirother" they called us, german officers were for some russians nothing more than mathemathicals that played to war like if being in the study, drawing prefect and irreal plans in the map and suffering defat one time and another at the hands of the corsican. But i wasn't a clown like the man that created the disater of Austerlitz. And today all of them frenchs and russians would learn that wen the waters of the Daugava would run red with blood.
 Pavel, pick your brigade and launch it across the left flank against the gap in the right of the redoubt, Vasili you will have to tame the beast today, yours is the grand battery and the redoubt- i will took it or rather die sir- he replied- i want the guns to move and strike, move and strike, even at closer range, since our cansiter turns their ranks into a graveyard- finally i turned with a tired expression towards the ever smiling Lanski -you take the right and try not to make a mess before entering a tavern-
I paused, whatching for a moment the french lines with my spyglass, then suddenly i discovered something different in their right, silver eagles, crimson banners, strange shakos, there were poles amongst them, with a simle i turned tho one of my adjutants, curiousy the same that bringed the report and passing him the glass I humorously said: -seemingly we are facing the whole hydra, take a look at those poles- -I wouldn't say that count, I'm feeling more like the fox attacking the coop with all those trutting eagles smugging over there-
The sun shined strongly with each hour, and under it's light wave after wave of bayonetts flashed thowards the city, it was like contemplating the surge of the sea as each line advanced soft but frimly upon the ground, against a shore that could only provide a violent and abrupt breaking. First a slow movement, confident and quiet, thn becoming more and more accelerated untill smashing agaist their seawalls were smoke and bloodshed would be the foam and death will signal the breaking of the waves.

But only the most veteran seemed to have any knowldge of that for from where i was standing,  music and  chanting cutted the air in every direction, the fifes and drums composed a unharmonic sifony made of a dozen marches, that pushed each men forward and made the prodige of war; for all of them forgot about themselves rushing towards the enemy with the same enthusiasm as if going to their own wedding. This effect was more evident in the hot-blooded younglings for who war and even a battle was yet unknow, advancing with hearts filld by dreams that a bullet could easily ruin forever; and less palpable in the hardened veterans from the rear ranks who with a life of experience against the turks and poles know that little joy was in battle but the dark pleasure of being taked away by savage frenzy.
 We were at least at  two kilometers of them when i realized that something happened with the french left, their regiments were manouvering in apparently meaningless directions, they were lost, chaos ruining their ranks. Inmediately shouts of  encoraugment bursted from our lines -forwad lads- -they're routing already- -we are upon them, a last effort- all ahead of the line rided the regiment's officers pushing their men by example and enjoying the brief pleasure of being to the front, still  away from the enemy's range.
 Pavel was making great progress, i could already see his two brigades advancing in perfect order at our extreme left, none could ever imagine at that point of the battle that those two brigades wre gonna strike the killing blow that wolud won the day for us, but seeing how well they proceeded i called fastly to the genral edecan Platon Ilitch and issued him to give freedom of action to Pavel, the man knew wat he was doing and I could deposit my trust in him to breaking the enemy positions.
 As we came closer we heard the distant music of their bands playing music into th sky -how can they even rise an instrument if we had them eating shoe soles for almost a month- asked a brigadier who had come directly from a pretentious salon from St Petersburg and surely had never known hardship in his entire life -dar Oleg, you will soon learn that those devils can fight, walk, drink and even rise from the dead at hearing just few notes of la marsellaise- an old capitain replied with a cool smile.  Then a liutenant  rided to me and said with a quiet voice -general, the frenchs have reformd again and Vorontzev's jägers seemed to see Mc Donald amongst them, surely the old scot has restablished order by breaking some heads, with respect sir- -then that will be our sisiphus rock gentlemen, expect a harsh fight in their left- I said worriedly. -no problem general we know how to beat them- said a soldier from a passing by company -com one lads the general pays a bottle to the one that grabs the chick- said another- -if he's as thirsty as you Vasili, he'll need tho fill  the sea of Aral -cutted mockingly  their sergent.
And thus through jokes and repressed nerves the brigade moved on regiment by rgiment, man by man.
 Then, suddently, out from nowhere started the rain of death. At an incredibe sped the cannonballs from the french battery falled in the middle of the corps shattering men and formations alike. Som of the youngs threw themselves at the floor while doom fell from the sky in the form of deadly mortar shells and unstoppable black projectiles. Soon the confusion reigned amongst them, with dust and smoke blinding th men and blood squiritng from the dying and wounded and adding more fear and confusion into the ranks, a whole brigade was stopped by the bombardemnt, The veterans lifting the more coward from the ground in an effort to reform and keep the advance, the air was a cacophony of screaming. -you there get up- forward my sons do not be afraid- i heard a colonel say before jumping ten metters up after receiving a grendae under his horse -holy Virgin  protect us, Sacred Michal perserve us- was praying a kneeling man- back in to the line back in to the line shouted a congested veteran who was grabbing one recruit in each hand.
 If I allowed the situation to keep on soon the whole flank will be engulfed by panic. It was time to act, and quickly: -you Mijail pick the grendiers reserve and with them push the back of the brigade, make them advance, by force if it's necessary- Then I faced the petersburgian who had stood his baptism of fire with surprising coolnes -if you plase, bring those cannons forward and make sure that that brigade advances- It'll be done general- he said already trotting towards his mission- then i turnd violently to face a descomposed Lanski, with a skin white as wax he started babling -gen.. dunn.. on..- With some disgust I left him to the care of an adjutant, I knew that after a sober or two of caucasian vodka he would be back at his senses but I hadn't time for that. Well those russians culd despise me for being a german but i wouldn't let them fail me so shamingly. I strated to ride, giving concise orders tot the chiefs of regiment and battalion, my aids flied all across the flank and in a matter of minutes the dubitating mass of sodiers advanced as a whole. In that curious turnings of will that happens in the hotness of combat, they turned from routers to bolds, advancing as a rolling tide of green disposed to crush the enemy under the wheight of their boots.
And there they were, the enemy, the french columns closing upon us with their favourite tactic the massed advance in close order, we hadn't the artilery to slow them as many pices had been trapped in the mood, but then someone raised himself in the stirrups of his forse and waving his hat shouted -brothers, brothers mother Russia calls us will you fail her?- and with renewed strenght they advanced to the beat of the drum.