22. The burning of the Kremlin, 15-16 September 1812
(Armand Augustin Louis de Caulaincourt (1773-1827) was a French diplomat, Grand Equerry to Napoleon from 1804 (and at his side during many of his battles), and later Napoleon's Foreign Minister. He had been to Russia in 1801-2, and had impressed Tsar Alexander I. From 1807-11 he was France's Ambassador in Russia. working for peace — though in 18il Napoleon upbraided him and accused him of being 'Russian'. He alone accompanied Napoleon in his sleigh on the retreat from Moscow to Paris. Alexander I saved him from proscription in 1815.)
At eight o'clock in the evening flames broke out in one of the suburbs. Assistance was sent, without more attention being paid to the matter, for it was still attributed to the carelessness of the troops.
The Emperor [Napoleon] retired early; everyone was fatigued and as anxious to rest as he was. At half-past ten my valet, an energetic fellow who had been in my service during my embassy to Petersburg, woke me up with the news that for three-quarters of an hour the city had been in flames. I had only to open my eyes to realize that this was so, for the fire was spreading with such fierceness that it was light enough to read in the middle of my room. I sprang from bed and sent to wake the Grand Marshal (Duroc) while I dressed. As the fire was spreading in the quarters farthest away from the Kremlin, we decided to send word to the Governor of the city, to put the Guard under arms, and to let the Emperor sleep a little longer, as he had been extremely tired during the past few days. I mounted my horse hurriedly to go and see what was happening and gather what assistance I could muster, and to make sure that the men connected with my own department, scattered throughout the city as they were, were running no hazards. A stiff wind was blowing from the north, from the direction of the two points of conflagration that we could see, and was driving the flames towards the centre, which made the blaze extraordinarily powerful. About half-past twelve [16 September] a third fire broke out a little to the west, and shortly afterwards a fourth, in another quarter, in each case in the direction of the wind, which had veered slightly towards the west. About four o'clock in the morning the conflagration was so widespread that we judged it necessary to wake the Emperor, who at once sent more officers to find out what was actually happening and discover whence these fires could be starting.
The troops were under arms; the few remaining inhabitants were flying from their houses and gathering in the churches; there was nothing to be heard but lamentation. Search had been made for the fire-engines since the previous day, but some of them had been taken away and the rest put out of action. From different houses officers and soldiers brought boutechnicks (street constables) and moujiks (peasants) who had been taken in the act of firing inflammable material into houses for the purpose of burning them down. The Poles reported that they had already caught some incendiaries and shot them, and they added, moreover, that from these men and from other inhabitants they had extracted the information that orders had been given by the governor of the city and the police that the whole city should be burned during the night ...
The Emperor [Napoleon] was deeply concerned. At first he attributed the fire to disorders among the troops and the state in which the inhabitants had abandoned their dwellings. He could not persuade himself, as he said at Ghjat, that the Russians would deliberately burn their houses to prevent our sleeping in them. At the same time he made serious reflections on the possible consequences of these events for the army with regard to the resources of which they would deprive us. He could not believe that it was the result of a firm resolution and a great voluntary sacrifice. But the successive reports left no further doubt, and he renewed his orders to take every possible measure to stop the disaster and discover those who were carrying out these cruel measures.
Towards half-past nine he left the courtyard of the Kremlin on foot, just when two more incendiaries caught in the act were being brought in. They were in police uniform. Interrogated in the presence of the Emperor they repeated their declarations: that they had received the order from their commanding officer to burn everything, that houses had been designated for this end, that in the different quarters everything had been prepared for burning in accordance with orders from the Governor Rostopchin, as they had heard. The police officers had spread their men in small detachments in various quarters, and the order to put their instructions into action had been given in the evening of the previous day and confirmed by one of their officers on the following morning. They were reluctant to give the name of this officer, but at last one of them ended by declaring that the man concerned was a minor non-commissioned officer. They could not, or would not, indicate where he was at the moment, nor where he was to be found. Their replies were translated to the Emperor in the presence of his suite. Many other depositions confirmed unmistakably what they said. All the incendiaries were kept under observation, some were brought to judgment and eight or ten executed.
The conflagration invariably spread from the extremities of the district where it originated. It had already reached the houses around the Kremlin. The wind, which had veered slightly to the west, fanned the flames to a terrifying extent and carried enormous sparks to a distance, where they fell like a fiery deluge hundreds of yards away, setting fire to more houses and preventing the most intrepid from remaining in the neighbourhood. The air was so hot, and the pinewood sparks were so numerous, that the beams supporting the iron plates which formed the roof of the arsenal all caught fire. The roof of the Kremlin kitchen was only saved by the men placed there with brooms and buckets to gather up the glowing fragments and moisten the beams.* Only by super-human efforts was the fire in the Arsenals extinguished. The Emperor was there himself; his presence inspired the Guard* to every exertion.
I hastened to the Court stables, where some of the Emperor's horses were stabled and the coronation coaches of the Tsar were kept. The utmost zeal, and, I may add, the greatest courage on the part of the coachmen and grooms, were necessary to save the place; they clambered on to the roof, and knocked off the fallen cinders, whilst others worked two fire-engines which I had had put in order during the night, as they had been totally dismantled. I may say without exaggeration that we were working beneath a vault of fire. With these men's help I was able to save the beautiful Galitzin Palace and the two adjoining houses, which were already in flames. The Emperor's men were ably assisted by Prince Galitzin's servants, who displayed the utmost devotion to their master. Everyone did his best to further the measures we took to check this devouring torrent of flame, but the air was charged with fire; we breathed nothing but smoke, and the stoutest lungs felt the strain after a time. The bridge to the south of the Kremlin was so heated by the fire and the sparks falling on it that it kept bursting into flames, although the Guard, and the Sappers in particular, made it a point of honour to preserve it. I stayed with some generals of the Guard and aides-de-camp of the Emperor, and we were forced to lend a hand and stay in the midst of this deluge of fire in order to spur on these half-roasted men. It was impossible to stay more than a moment in one spot; the fur on the Grenadiers' caps was singed.
The fire made such progress that the whole of the northern and the greater part of the western quarter, by which we had entered, were burned, together with the splendid playhouse and all the larger buildings. One breathed in a sea of fire, and the westerly wind continued to blow. The flames spread continuously; it was impossible to predict where or when they would stop, as there was no means of staying them. The conflagration passed beyond the Kremlin; it seemed that the river would surely save all the district lying to the east.
About four o'clock in the afternoon, while the fire was still raging, the Emperor began to think that this great catastrophe might be connected with some movement of the enemy,* though the frequent reports from the King of Naples assured His Majesty that the Russians were pushing forward their retreat along the Kasan road.
Napoleon therefore gave orders to leave the city, and forbade anything to be left within its walls. Headquarters were established at the Petrowskoie Palace, on the Petersburg road, a country mansion where the Tsars were accustomed to take up residence before making their solemn entry into Moscow for their coronation. It was impossible to proceed thither by the direct road on account of the fire and the wind; one had to cross the western part of the town as best one could, through ruins, cinders, flames even, if one wanted to reach the outskirts.` Night had already fallen when we got there, and we spent the following day in the Palace.