Like much of the U.S., the Northeast (where I live) has been slogging through a pretty severe winter. Since the end of December we’ve been hammered with several blizzards that have dropped massive amounts snow—many longtime residents of the area are shaking their heads and saying they can’t remember drifts this deep. Ever.
I emerged from my half-buried house on the morning after the first storm and tried to walk to the end of my driveway, only to find the snow up to my thighs. I was huffing and puffing after a 100 yards, and simple tasks, like trying to fetch some firewood from the pile behind the garage, became a comedy of epic proportions. (Tripping, falling, snow angels . . .you get the picture) Thankfully, the snowplows showed up later in the day, helping life get back to normal fairly quickly, but it got me to thinking about winters of old, when high tech technology wasn’t there to roll in and tidy up the mess. I mean, how the devil did people and essential goods manage to move around? It must have been quite an ordeal . . .
Speaking of ordeals, further thoughts on the subject of snow—while curled comfortably under a blanket sipping hot tea—naturally brought to mind one of the epic winters in history: Russia, 1812, when the snows and freezing temperatures are credited with doing what no army had yet accomplished in over a decade of war—defeat Napoleon and his Grand Armee.
In early September of 1812, after much cat and mouse maneuvering between the invading French and the Russian defenders, Napoleon and Kutusov clashed in the Battle of Borodino. Both sides suffered grievous losses, but when the Russian retreated to lick their wounds, Napoleon was able to march into Moscow, confident that Tsar Alexander would soon capitulate and add the vast stretch of Slavic forests and taiga to the French sphere of influence.
Even if the Tsar dragged his feet, the Emperor wasn’t overly worried. He was perfectly comfortable with the idea of hunkering down for the winter within the splendid confines of the Kremlin. And the rest of the city promised to provide a respite from the constant marching and foraging for his weary soldiers. (They had been on the march for months, covering mind-boggling distances on foot.)
As we all know, the Emperor was a brilliant military tactician, but he hadn’t anticipated the grim determination of his Russian foes to drive their enemy from the Motherland. Rather than provide sanctuary, the city soon turned into a raging inferno. Fires set by the Russians accomplished what the bullets at Borodino had failed to do. Napoleon and his troops were forced to flee.
The snows started early that year, and as the first flakes fell, the Emperor was faced with a chilling dilemma—what to do? With cold setting in, there was little chance of living off the land if they tried to march deeper into enemy territory. But with the lands behind them already ravaged, the picking were also slim. Still, there seemed little alternative but to make the trek back into central Europe.
And so began one of the most brutal retreats in military history. Weather played a huge factor. The first weeks were cold and snowy, decimating the already weakened troops. Then a warm spell made the going even more difficult—frozen streams and rivers turned to icy waters, making crossings a nightmare. Rutted roads softened into muddy quagmires. And as they struggled, the maurading Cossacks cavalry kept up a constant and deadly harassment.
The snows then returned with a vengeance, and the retreating French suffered more and more losses to freezing and starvation. Hearing rumbling of a coup in Paris, Napoleon left his struggling army and was whisked away to France in a private sled, The troops were not so fortunate. Step by weary step, they fought their way west, finally crossing the Neiman River into Poland in late December. What had once been a proud army of over 600,000 men was
now a rag-tag band of scarecrows, numbering less than 1000,000.
Having been daunted by a mere stroll down my suburban driveway in heavy snow, I can’t even begin to imagine the hardships suffered. I mean, here we all are trading war stories about what we’re going through, but really, it can’t hold a candle to the past, when there was no one to dig you out of a deep hole. After re-reading some of the accounts of the retreat of 1812, I decided to stop my kvetching about ice on the driveway and the frozen gutters. Somehow, I think I shall survive!
So how about you? Any other winter disasters in history you can think of? And how are you all coping with the weather?