The Soldiers In The Snow
by Charlotte M. Yonge
Few generals had ever been more loved by their soldiers than the great Viscount de Turenne, who was Marshal of France in the time of Louis XIV. Troops are always proud of a leader who wins victories; but Turenne was far more loved for his generous kindness than for his successes. If he gained a battle, he always wrote in his despatches, ‘We succeeded,’ so as to give the credit to the rest of the army; but if he were defeated, he wrote, ‘I lost,’ so as to take all the blame upon himself. He always shared as much as possible in every hardship suffered by his men, and they trusted him entirely. In the year 1672, Turenne and his army were sent to make war upon the Elector Frederick William of Brandenburg, in Northern Germany. It was in the depth of winter, and the marches through the heavy roads were very trying and wearisome; but the soldiers endured all cheerfully for his sake. Once when they were wading though a deep morass, some of the younger soldiers complained; but the elder ones answered, ‘Depend upon it, Turenne is more concerned than we are. At this moment he is thinking how to deliver us. He watches for us while we sleep. He is our father. It is plain that you are but young.’
Another night, when he was going the round of the camp, he overheard some of the younger men murmuring at the discomforts of the march; when an old soldier, newly recovered from a severe wound, said: ‘You do not know our father. He would not have made us go through such fatigue, unless he had some great end in view, which we cannot yet make out.’ Turenne always declared that nothing had ever given him more pleasure than this conversation.
There was a severe sickness among the troops, and he went about among the sufferers, comforting them, and seeing that their wants were supplied. When he passed by, the soldiers came out of their tents to look at him, and say, ‘Our father is in good health: we have nothing to fear.’
The army had to enter the principality of Halberstadt, the way to which lay over ridges of high hills with narrow defiles between them. Considerable time was required for the whole of the troops to march through a single narrow outlet; and one very cold day, when such a passage was taking place, the Marshal, quite spent with fatigue, sat down under a bush to wait till all had marched by, and fell asleep. When he awoke, it was snowing fast; but he found himself under a sort of tent made of soldiers’ cloaks, hung up upon the branches of trees planted in the ground, and round it were standing, in the cold and snow, all unsheltered, a party of soldiers. Turenne called out to them, to ask what they were doing there. ‘We are taking care of our father,’ they said; ‘that is our chief concern.’ The general, to keep up discipline, seems to have scolded them a little for straggling from their regiment; but he was much affected and gratified by this sight of their hearty love for him.
Still greater and more devoted love was shown by some German soldiers in the terrible winter of 1812. It was when the Emperor Napoleon I. had made his vain attempt to conquer Russia, and had been prevented from spending the winter at Moscow by the great fire that consumed all the city. He was obliged to retreat through the snow, with the Russian army pursuing him, and his miserable troops suffering horrors beyond all imagination. Among them were many Italians, Poles, and Germans, whom he had obliged to become his allies; and the ‘Golden Deed’ of ten of these German soldiers, the last remnant of those led from Hesse Darmstadt by their gallant young Prince Emilius, is best told in Lord Houghton’s verses:–
‘From Hessen Darmstadt every step to Moskwa’s blazing banks,
Was Prince Emilius found in flight before the foremost ranks;
And when upon the icy waste that host was backward cast,
On Beresina’s bloody bridge his banner waved the last.
‘His valor shed victorious grace on all that dread retreat–
That path across the wildering snow, athwart the blinding sleet;
And every follower of his sword could all endure and dare,
Becoming warriors, strong in hope, or stronger in despair.
‘Now, day and dark, along the storm the demon Cossacks sweep–
The hungriest must not look for food, the weariest must not sleep.
No rest but death for horse or man, whichever first shall tire;
They see the flames destroy, but ne’er may feel the saving fire.
‘Thus never closed the bitter night, nor rose the salvage morn,
But from the gallant company some noble part was shorn;
And, sick at heart, the Prince resolved to keep his purposed way
With steadfast forward looks, nor count the losses of the day.
‘At length beside a black, burnt hut, an island of the snow,
Each head in frigid torpor bent toward the saddle bow;
They paused, and of that sturdy troop–that thousand banded men–
At one unmeditated glance he numbered only ten!
‘Of all that high triumphant life that left his German home–
Of all those hearts that beat beloved, or looked for love to come–
This piteous remnant, hardly saved, his spirit overcame,
While memory raised each friendly face, recalled an ancient name.
‘These were his words, serene and firm, ‘Dear brothers, it is best
That here, with perfect trust in Heaven, we give our bodies rest;
If we have borne, like faithful men, our part of toil and pain,
Where’er we wake, for Christ’s good sake, we shall not sleep in vain.’
‘Some uttered, others looked assent–they had no heart to speak;
Dumb hands were pressed, the pallid lip approached the callous cheek.
They laid them side by side; and death to him at last did seem
To come attired in mazy robe of variegated dream.
‘Once more he floated on the breast of old familiar Rhine,
His mother’s and one other smile above him seemed to shine;
A blessed dew of healing fell on every aching limb;
Till the stream broadened, and the air thickened, and all was dim.
‘Nature has bent to other laws if that tremendous night
Passed o’er his frame, exposed and worn, and left no deadly blight;
Then wonder not that when, refresh’d and warm, he woke at last,
There lay a boundless gulf of thought between him and the past.
‘Soon raising his astonished head, he found himself alone,
Sheltered beneath a genial heap of vestments not his own;
The light increased, the solemn truth revealing more and more,
The soldiers’ corses, self-despoiled, closed up the narrow door.
‘That every hour, fulfilling good, miraculous succor came,
And Prince Emilius lived to give this worthy deed to fame.
O brave fidelity in death! O strength of loving will!
These are the holy balsam drops that woeful wars distil.’
Charlotte Mary Yonge