In 1812, the proud French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte attempted to take Russia in a six-month long campaign that stretched throughout at least four harsh winter months. Throughout the bitter campaign that followed, Bonaparte lost approximately 380,000 men. Some estimate the casualties as closer to 450,000. These deaths were not caused by bombs, machine guns or missiles, nor even to bayonets and inaccurate single-shot muskets, but exposure to sickness and freezing temperatures. More men were lost in the campaign on Russia than either Britain or America put into the field during the entire Revolutionary War or the War of 1812, better known as the French and Indian War, which was going on at the same time. In the entire invasion of Russia, Bonaparte only crossed blades with the Russian army a few times. The tragic loss of life was due mainly to natural causes. This is the first part of a poem I wrote in memory of their campaign.
The Russian Winter of 1812
Open your mind and close your eyes,
And follow me if you can,
To a land where the snow never melts,
Where the lonely tragedy began.
Imagine the boots on a frozen plain,
The wind a howling whirl,
Their banners flying through the storm,
And through the gale unfurled.
The wind whips through their tattered ranks
And leaves its icy grasp
Upon the hearts and souls of each,
As through the plains they pass.
Long have they traveled upon the road,
And longer still have they to go,
Through wind and rain and hail and sleet,
On paths of freezing ice and snow.
Troubles mark their slow progression
And thousands will fall before the end,
For an icy rage in the hand of Winter
Is a fearsome foe to offend.
The cheerful rays of a summer sun
Have long since fled this land
There is no hope of victory,
But the troops go marching on.
The snow stretches across the fields
But melts with the coming rain
Churning the paths to a treacherous mire
To slow the retreating campaign.
Along the road lie the bodies of men
Half-covered with ice and snow
And horses lay prostrate and rigid,
Under the silent shadow.
The march is cruel and terrible
Men fall and fail to rise,
“Winter is with the Russians!”
That is their final cry.
Indeed, what other reason can there be?
To explain this woeful tale,
For if Winter were with the Frenchman,
Then her sons would not have failed.