As the surviving masses of the Grande Armée struggled on for the perceived safety of the west, the Russian armies closed in on them.
The French had suffered a defeat just two weeks earlier during the Battle of Krasnoi. However, reinforcements who had been stationed near the Berezina during Napoleon’s initial advance through Russia brought the numerical strength of the Grande Armée back up to some 30,000 to 40,000 French soldiers capable of fighting, as well as 40,000 non-combatants. The Russians had approximately 61,000 troops at the Berezina, with another 54,000 under Kutuzov just 40 miles (64 km) to the east who were approaching the river.
Napoleon’s plan was to cross the Berezina River and head for Poland, while his enemies wanted to trap him there and destroy him. The original plan to cross the frozen river quickly proved impossible, as the usually frozen waterway had thawed and was now impassable.
The nearby bridge at Borisov had been destroyed and most of the equipment to build a pontoon bridge had been destroyed a few days earlier. However, the commander of the bridging equipment General Jean Baptiste Eblé had disobeyed Napoleon’s earlier order to abandon equipment, instead retaining crucial forges, charcoal and sapper tools and thus only needed protection from Chichagov‘s force on the far west bank to span the river.
Marshal Oudinot was given the task of drawing off the admiral and made a move towards the south. The plan worked, and Eblé’s Dutch engineers braved ferociously cold water to construct the vital 100 m bridge. Hypothermic death in less than 30 minutes of exposure was likely. The four Swiss infantry regiments acted as the rearguard. Cavalry quickly crossed it followed by infantry to hold the bridgehead. The Swiss suffered terrible losses (of the four Swiss Regiments of Oudinot’s corps only 300 soldiers survived), but managed to cover both positions and the retreat. This struggle is depicted in the Beresinalied. The Swiss’ heroic stand saved most of the French troops.
A second structure opened within hours and cannons were taken across it to bolster the defensive perimeter. They arrived just in time, as Chichagov realised his error and attacked the 11,000 French troops.
By midday of the 27th, Napoleon and his Imperial Guard were across, and the strategy now swung to saving the Swiss rearguard, which was fighting against Wittgenstein’s arriving army.
One of the spans broke in the late afternoon, but more feats of engineering skill had it repaired by early evening. The corps of Marshal Davout and Prince Eugene crossed, leaving Marshal Victor‘s IX Corps to hold off the enemy on the east bank.
Boosting his firepower with artillery from across the river, Victor held out until after midnight, when his forces were able to join their colleagues, push Chichagov aside, and continue the retreat to France. However, the 125ème and 126ème Line Regiments, consisting mostly of Dutch troops, fought until ordered to surrender, and the survivors were taken into captivity.
Chichagov was blamed for letting Napoleon escape, Ekaterina Ilyinichna Golenishchev-Kutuzova, the wife of Kutosov, quipped, “Peter Wittgenstein saved St. Petersburg, my husband Russia, and Chichagov Napoleon!”