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Book Eleven: 1812 - Chapter III 


When Ermolov, having been sent by Kutuzov to inspect the position, told the field marshal that it was impossible to fight there before Moscow and that they must retreat, Kutuzov looked at him in silence.

"Give me your hand," said he and, turning it over so as to feel the pulse, added: "You are not well, my dear fellow. Think what you are saying!"

Kutuzov could not yet admit the possibility of retreating beyond Moscow without a battle.

On the Poklonny Hill, four miles from the Dorogomilov gate of Moscow, Kutuzov got out of his carriage and sat down on a bench by the roadside. A great crowd of generals gathered round him, and Count Rostopchin, who had come out from Moscow, joined them. This brilliant company separated into several groups who all discussed the advantages and disadvantages of the position, the state of the army, the plans suggested, the situation of Moscow, and military questions generally. Though they had not been summoned for the purpose, and though it was not so called, they all felt that this was really a council of war. The conversations all dealt with public questions. If anyone gave or asked for personal news, it was done in a whisper and they immediately reverted to general matters. No jokes, or laughter, or smiles even, were seen among all these men. They evidently all made an effort to hold themselves at the height the situation demanded. And all these groups, while talking among themselves, tried to keep near the commander in chief (whose bench formed the center of the gathering) and to speak so that he might overhear them. The commander in chief listened to what was being said and sometimes asked them to repeat their remarks, but did not himself take part in the conversations or express any opinion. After hearing what was being said by one or other of these groups he generally turned away with an air of disappointment, as though they were not speaking of anything he wished to hear. Some discussed the position that had been chosen, criticizing not the position itself so much as the mental capacity of those who had chosen it. Others argued that a mistake had been made earlier and that a battle should have been fought two days before. Others again spoke of the battle of Salamanca, which was described by Crosart, a newly arrived Frenchman in a Spanish uniform. (This Frenchman and one of the German princes serving with the Russian army were discussing the siege of Saragossa and considering the possibility of defending Moscow in a similar manner.) Count Rostopchin was telling a fourth group that he was prepared to die with the city train bands under the walls of the capital, but that he still could not help regretting having been left in ignorance of what was happening, and that had he known it sooner things would have been different.... A fifth group, displaying the profundity of their strategic perceptions, discussed the direction the troops would now have to take. A sixth group was talking absolute nonsense. Kutuzov's expression grew more and more preoccupied and gloomy. From all this talk he saw only one thing: that to defend Moscow was a physical impossibility in the full meaning of those words, that is to say, so utterly impossible that if any senseless commander were to give orders to fight, confusion would result but the battle would still not take place. It would not take place because the commanders not merely all recognized the position to be impossible, but in their conversations were only discussing what would happen after its inevitable abandonment. How could the commanders lead their troops to a field of battle they considered it impossible to hold? The lower-grade officers and even the soldiers

(who too reason) also considered the position impossible and therefore could not go to fight, fully convinced as they were of defeat. If Bennigsen insisted on the position being defended and others still discussed it, the question was no longer important in itself but only as a pretext for disputes and intrigue. This Kutuzov knew well.

Bennigsen, who had chosen the position, warmly displayed his Russian patriotism (Kutuzov could not listen to this without wincing) by insisting that Moscow must be defended. His aim was as clear as daylight to Kutuzov: if the defense failed, to throw the blame on Kutuzov who had brought the army as far as the Sparrow Hills without giving battle; if it succeeded, to claim the success as his own; or if battle were not given, to clear himself of the crime of abandoning Moscow. But this intrigue did not now occupy the old man's mind. One terrible question absorbed him and to that question he heard no reply from anyone. The question for him now was: "Have I really allowed Napoleon to reach Moscow, and when did I do so? When was it decided? Can it have been yesterday when I ordered Platov to retreat, or was it the evening before, when I had a nap and told Bennigsen to issue orders? Or was it earlier still?... When, when was this terrible affair decided? Moscow must be abandoned. The army must retreat and the order to do so must be given." To give that terrible order seemed to him equivalent to resigning the command of the army. And not only did he love power to which he was accustomed

(the honours awarded to Prince Prozorovski, under whom he had served in Turkey, galled him), but he was convinced that he was destined to save Russia and that that was why, against the Emperor's wish and by the will of the people, he had been chosen commander in chief. He was convinced that he alone could maintain command of the army in these difficult circumstances, and that in all the world he alone could encounter the invincible Napoleon without fear, and he was horrified at the thought of the order he had to issue. But something had to be decided, and these conversations around him which were assuming too free a character must be stopped.

He called the most important generals to him.

"My head, be it good or bad, must depend on itself," said he, rising from the bench, and he rode to Fili where his carriages were waiting.

CHAPTERIV IV

The Council of War began to assemble at two in the afternoon in the better and roomier part of Andrew Savostyanov's hut. The men, women, and children of the large peasant family crowded into the back room across the passage. Only Malasha, Andrew's six-year-old granddaughter whom his Serene Highness had petted and to whom he had given a lump of sugar while drinking his tea, remained on the top of the brick oven in the larger room. Malasha looked down from the oven with shy delight at the faces, uniforms, and decorations of the generals, who one after another came into the room and sat down on the broad benches in the corner under the icons. "Granddad" himself, as Malasha in her own mind called Kutuzov, sat apart in a dark corner behind the oven. He sat, sunk deep in a folding armchair, and continually cleared his throat and pulled at the collar of his coat which, though it was unbuttoned, still seemed to pinch his neck. Those who entered went up one by one to the field marshal; he pressed the hands of some and nodded to others. His adjutant Kaysarov was about to draw back the curtain of the window facing Kutuzov, but the latter moved his hand angrily and Kaysarov understood that his Serene Highness did not wish his face to be seen.

Round the peasant's deal table, on which lay maps, plans, pencils, and papers, so many people gathered that the orderlies brought in another bench and put it beside the table. Ermolov, Kaysarov, and Toll, who had just arrived, sat down on this bench. In the foremost place, immediately under the icons, sat Barclay de Tolly, his high forehead merging into his bald crown. He had a St. George's Cross round his neck and looked pale and ill. He had been feverish for two days and was now shivering and in pain. Beside him sat Uvarov, who with rapid gesticulations was giving him some information, speaking in low tones as they all did. Chubby little Dokhturov was listening attentively with eyebrows raised and arms folded on his stomach. On the other side sat Count Ostermann-Tolstoy, seemingly absorbed in his own thoughts. His broad head with its bold features and glittering eyes was resting on his hand. Raevski, twitching forward the black hair on his temples as was his habit, glanced now at Kutuzov and now at the door with a look of impatience. Konovnitsyn's firm, handsome, and kindly face was lit up by a tender, sly smile. His glance met Malasha's, and the expression of his eyes caused the little girl to smile.

They were all waiting for Bennigsen, who on the pretext of inspecting the position was finishing his savory dinner. They waited for him from four till six o'clock and did not begin their deliberations all that time talked in low tones of other matters.

Only when Bennigsen had entered the hut did Kutuzov leave his corner and draw toward the table, but not near enough for the candles that had been placed there to light up his face.

Bennigsen opened the council with the question: "Are we to abandon Russia's ancient and sacred capital without a struggle, or are we to defend it?" A prolonged and general silence followed. There was a frown on every face and only Kutuzov's angry grunts and occasional cough broke the silence. All eyes were gazing at him. Malasha too looked at "Granddad." She was nearest to him and saw how his face puckered; he seemed about to cry, but this did not last long.

"Russia's ancient and sacred capital!" he suddenly said, repeating Bennigsen's words in an angry voice and thereby drawing attention to the false note in them. "Allow me to tell you, your excellency, that that question has no meaning for a Russian." (He lurched his heavy body forward.) "Such a question cannot be put; it is senseless! The question I have asked these gentlemen to meet to discuss is a military one. The question is that of saving Russia. Is it better to give up Moscow without a battle, or by accepting battle to risk losing the army as well as Moscow? That is the question on which I want your opinion," and he sank back in his chair.

The discussion began. Bennigsen did not yet consider his game lost. Admitting the view of Barclay and others that a defensive battle at Fili was impossible, but imbued with Russian patriotism and the love of Moscow, he proposed to move troops from the right to the left flank during the night and attack the French right flank the following day. Opinions were divided, and arguments were advanced for and against that project. Ermolov, Dokhturov, and Raevski agreed with Bennigsen. Whether feeling it necessary to make a sacrifice before abandoning the capital or guided by other, personal considerations, these generals seemed not to understand that this council could not alter the inevitable course of events and that Moscow was in effect already abandoned. The other generals, however, understood it and, leaving aside the question of Moscow, of the direction the army should take in its retreat. Malasha, who kept her eyes fixed on what was going on before her, understood the meaning of the council differently. It seemed to her that it was only a personal struggle between "Granddad" and "Long-coat" as she termed Bennigsen. She saw that they grew spiteful when they spoke to one another, and in her heart she sided with "Granddad." In the midst of the conversation she noticed "Granddad" give Bennigsen a quick, subtle glance, and then to her joys he saw that "Granddad" said something to "Long-coat" which settled him. Bennigsen suddenly reddened and paced angrily up and down the room. What so affected him was Kutuzov's calm and quiet comment on the advantage or disadvantage of Bennigsen's proposal to move troops by night from the right to the left flank to attack the French right wing.

"Gentlemen," said Kutuzov, "I cannot approve of the count's plan. Moving troops in close proximity to an enemy is always dangerous, and military history supports that view. For instance..." Kutuzov seemed to reflect, searching for an example, then with a clear, naive look at Bennigsen he added: "Oh yes; take the battle of Friedland, which I think the count well remembers, and which was... not fully successful, only because our troops were rearranged too near the enemy..."

There followed a momentary pause, which seemed very long to them all.

The discussion recommenced, but pauses frequently occurred and they all felt that there was no more to be said.

During one of these pauses Kutuzov heaved a deep sigh as if preparing to speak. They all looked at him.

"Well, gentlemen, I see that it is I who will have to pay for the broken crockery," said he, and rising slowly he moved to the table. "Gentlemen, I have heard your views. Some of you will not agree with me. But I," he paused, "by the authority entrusted to me by my Sovereign and country, order a retreat."

After that the generals began to disperse with the solemnity and circumspect silence of people who are leaving, after a funeral.

Some of the generals, in low tones and in a strain very different from the way they had spoken during the council, communicated something to their commander in chief.

Malasha, who had long been expected for supper, climbed carefully backwards down from the oven, her bare little feet catching at its projections, and slipping between the legs of the generals she darted out of the room.

When he had dismissed the generals Kutuzov sat a long time with his elbows on the table, thinking always of the same terrible question: "When, when did the abandonment of Moscow become inevitable? When was that done which settled the matter? And who was to blame for it?"

"I did not expect this," said he to his adjutant Schneider when the latter came in late that night. "I did not expect this! I did not think this would happen."

"You should take some rest, your Serene Highness," replied Schneider.

"But no! They shall eat horseflesh yet, like the Turks!" exclaimed Kutuzov without replying, striking the table with his podgy fist. "They shall too, if only..."

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