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Friday, 7 September 2012
A short book... but a hell of a story
Book Review: Passage de la Beresina 26, 27, 28 et 29e Novembre 1812, by An Anonymous Eyewitness
This book, 31 pages long, is a brief eyewitness account of the crossing of the Berezina. The author is anonymous, but I suspect that he was a member of staff of the engineers corps or of one of the French generals as he states in the ‘observations’ at the end of his description, “As I had seen things for myself, and as the nature of my functions kept me close to the late General Elbé, I thought it my duty to supplement as much as I could the account that the General would have given of an operation he directed alone, from the beginning to the end of the crossing.”
The author’s account describes in some detail the building of the bridges, and the crossing of the Berezina by the various corps of the French-Allied army on the 26th and 27th November. He describes vividly the brave work of the pontonneers, sappers and engineers of constructing and, more amazingly, repairing, the bridges that allowed so many to cross in safety.
“The pontoneers alone worked in the water; in spite of the drifting ice, they often went down to the armpits to place and hold the trestles until the beams were fixed on the caps. ... only a small number survived; the remainder died on the banks of the Berezina, or were unable to follow the Army two days after the crossing. They were never seen again.”
The description is at its most dramatic and moving when it comes to the less orderly crossing by the mass of stragglers, camp followers and other non-combatants who were “...thoroughly depressed and dominated by selfishness.” His words bring to life the desperate efforts of the pontonneers to keep the bridges open, the orderly crossing of the IX Corps and the indifference of the mass of stragglers, until it was too late and the bridges were fired and it “... became the scene of the most painful sight: men, women, children were shrieking in despair; several tried to rush across the burning bridges or threw themselves into the river in which large blocks of ice were drifting.”
The book is simply produced; paperback, no pictures save for the cover and non-glossy stock. I picked up my copy at a reasonable price, but one would not want to have paid too much for it. One of the great aspects of the book is that it comprises both a facsimile of the handwritten account in French and an English translation. This latter, which is a literal translation and mainly true to the original, covers merely nine pages of typed text.
The book is best read once one has a clear appreciation of the crossing of the Berezina and its role in the campaign. In that case, it provides a detailed, vivid and moving account of that “hell of a story”.