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.

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