You think Bear Grylls is a tough guy? Wait til’ you hear about Jakob Walter.
“When I arrived at Smolensk, it was raining rather heavily, and my sled could be pulled only with great effort. When I came toward the city, the crowd was so dense that for hours I could not penetrate into the column, for the guard and the artillery with the help of the gendarmes knocked everyone out of the way, right and left. With effort I finally pressed through, holding my horse by the head, and accompanied by sword blows I passed over the bridge. In front of the city gate I and my regiment, now disorganized, moved to the right toward the city wall beside the Dnieper River. Here we settled down and had to camp for two days. As had been reported to us beforehand, we were to engage in battle with the enemy here and also to get bread and flour from the warehouses. Neither of the two reports, however, proved to be true. The distress mounted higher and higher, and horses were shot and eaten. Because I could not get even a piece of meat and my hunger became too violent, I took along the pot I carried, stationed myself beside a horse that was being shot, and caught up the blood from its breast. I set this blood on the fire, let it coagulate, and ate the lumps without salt.“
450,000-500,000 soldiers of the Grande Armée entered Russia as part of Napoleon’s march on Moscow. Only a few thousand survived, Jakob Walter was one of them.
He survived through numerous battles against the Russian Army, marching through icy cold weather, sickness to the point of delirium, severe sleep deprivation, lice infestation, and numerous days without food – often a week at a time.
He persevered while getting his horse stolen four times, being beat down and robbed several times – one time he was robbed of most of his clothes while being frozen to the extent that he could not even put the remainder of his clothes back on. He was brutally attacked by Polish soldiers and had to feign his death. After this event his arm was broken and his shoulder became dislocated, he had to endure this condition for months before receiving medical attention.
Jakob Walter was born in a small town called Rosenberg in Germany and was trained as a stonemason. But he did not practice his trade for long before being drafted to the French Army going back and forth on a few stints.
There was a significant increase in self-mutilation in the male population of France and its vassal states during this time as a way to escape being drafted to the army. But there were also men who were motivated to join the army in order to seek glory under Napoleon and were hoping to be awarded medals and money. Jakob Walter never writes about why or how he joined the army.
He seems to have conducted himself nicer and more civil than most of his fellow soldiers. While staying in a civilian’s home on the way to meeting up with the rest of the army, a friend of Jakob’s fired his gun to scare the host into singing for them just because he could.
At times Jakob would be forced to use violence in order to get guides to lead him without trying to trick him while he was lost in foreign towns in which he was not able to speak the language. His first way out of a sticky situation appears to not have been to resort to violence, but rather to reason with the other party. That may very well be a reason why he managed to survive.
March on Moscow
He had been in the army since 1806, but he mentions little of it. In 1812 he began marching to Moscow with the rest of the Grande Armée.
The March on Moscow is one of the biggest logistical failures in military history, and one of the harshest military operations ever undertaken.
Jakob Walter writes about the incredible hardships he endured during these years in his autobiography, The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, which was later studied by historians and published as a book. His writing is very objective and succinct. There is not even a hint of bragging, self-pity, or polishing-up of details. It’s an interesting book because it’s one of the very few accounts from this time that was given by a non-French draftee.
The number of survivors in the Grande Armée returning back from Moscow vary depending on which source is used. According to Jakob Walter there were 7000 survivors, among which 1500 were among the royal guard. The royal guard originally consisted of 5000 men. That meant that the chances of surviving if you were part of the royal guard were 24,5 times higher!
The reason why members of the royal guard were more likely to survive was because they were given at least twice the amounts of daily rations compared to an average French soldier. The soldiers of vassal states, among which Jakob Walter belonged, were last on the food chain.
Soldiers were fatigued and in low morale even before the winter had begun. Many fell down in the mud and were trampled upon. If you could not march on you were likely to marched upon.
Even before reaching Moscow, many of the soldiers in the Grande Armée had reached a state of “egoism sacre” – a state purely centered around surviving. All energy and thoughts were directed toward keeping one alive, there was no room for anything else.
This makes me think of something Henry Ford said:
. . .The man who worked fifteen & sixteen hours a day desired only a corner to lie in &, now & then, a bit of food. He had no time to cultivate new needs, hence he had only the most primitive.
Now take that times ten and maybe you get somewhere close to the state of being Jakob Walter and his fellow soldiers dwelt in!
Climate & Circumstances
In the beginning of the march it was somewhat chilly, but within weeks and for the remainder of the time spent in Russia, the climate would be incredibly cold. The soldiers would resort to wearing any type of clothing available. On the way back from Moscow the army was very disorganized due to not being able to distinguish between officers and soldiers. They were all completely covered up to the eyes in rags and pieces of clothing, scarves, hats, coats, jackets and so on. The only way to identify someone was by hearing their voice.
Even while wearing several layers of clothing many soldiers suffered severe cases of frostbite. Jakob Walter writes that during the return from Moscow there would hardly go by 50 meters without passing a frozen corpse.
Because the army was so large and so cold, there would constantly be an enormous amount of fires started just to keep them warm. Several villages were burned down in keeping the army warm. You might think that this would give off their location, right? But it only did sometimes because the cold weather made the smoke stay relatively low. This made it very hard to see further than a few meters ahead and many soldiers hurt their eyes.
The soldiers had to be constantly working together and making fires or they would freeze to death at night while sleeping. To sleep comfortably you had to prop yourself up on something. Corpses would be used as pillows, and when there were no corpses around the soldiers had to lay atop of each other. It was crucial to be surrounded by friends if you wanted to get good sleep, because as soon as you fell asleep people would rob you of your food, clothes, or horse. Therefore Jakob Walter always tied his horse to himself, but it didn’t always work.
A large part of the army became infested with lice. Jakob Walter refers recurrently to the lice as his “friends”. On one occasion he noticed his commander’s neck and became disgusted, for it was missing of all of its skin. The lice had eaten it! This in combination with frostbite made the “skin” look like darkish wood. When his commander asked him about it later he pretended not to be able to see it and told his commander that it was too smoky outside to see properly.
There were long periods when there was only three hours of darkness per day. This of course led to terrible sleeping conditions and most of the soldiers were severely deprived of sleep.
Most casualties were due to thirst. Many horses and soldiers lay dead along the road in puddles of water — from which the survivors would drink from.
At one point the army had to dig ditches the size of a cubic metre in which water was collected. The problem was that this water was dirty and filled with millions of tiny red worms. But it had to be drunk. For the soldiers to extract the water they had to collect it in rags and then suck on these rags and get it in their mouths and then spit it out in buckets. This is the only time in the book that Jakob Walter mentions that he was seriously disgusted.
The moment a horse fell down and did not immediately get up from the ground, it was quickly pierced by numerous swords and eaten alive.
I cut off intestines from cows, warmed it in the flames, and then ate it from my sword.
Napoleon had made plans for food storages to be placed in strategic locations and had guards watching over these buildings. Unfortunately it did not go according to his plans.
Starving soldiers beat down or killed the guards to get food. Jakob Walter writes how he entered one of these storages and got stuck by a wall, unable to move for a long time due to the large amounts of people rushing in to get food. People were stampeded to death!
It was a daily occurrence for someone to be killed over crumbs of bread, and cannibalism was not uncommon.
The hunger was palpable already by the time the army had reached the Russian border and it become worse from that point on. Russian farmers preferred dying to telling the soldiers where they had hidden their food supplies.
Many soldiers committed suicide due to hunger or disease. In a Russian village the soldiers found pigs that they chased after and clubbed to death. Jakob Walter managed to cut off a small piece of flesh from a pig and had to eat it raw before someone else robbed him off it. It tasted poorly.
Outside the city of Maliaty there was a two-day break from the march. Here the soldiers were served good meat, but by this time there were few people who were able to eat normal food and many suffered from severe cases of diarrhea. Many soldiers died from the diarrhea!
Jakob Walter mentions how knowing someone, even for the briefest of moments and meeting that person again, was an incredibly uplifting experience since almost everyone died or became separated from each other sooner or later in the struggle for survival.
He met a childhood friend and was overcome with happiness for the first time in a very long time. The two men shared a meal. After the meal his friend wrongly accused him of stealing a piece of bread that the friend had been storing for his commander. Jakob Walter insisted that the friend was wrong and swore on his grave that he had not stolen the bread – but the friend did not believe him. Jakob then makes a vague note suggesting that the friend died. I assume he was forced to kill his friend.
For fourteen days straight Jakob lived on only tallow. He writes that he did not sleep because he felt energized and high all day and night. During these nights he would procure food for his horse.
On another occasion he was able to find enough flour and seeds to make about two dozen buns. Another time he found a jar of honey. These things made him feel incredibly happy and fortunate. Yet another time he met a few people and they all pooled together their ingredients: Jakob had some seeds, the other some soup and vegetables, and the third one some salt. When they ate the food they found out that the salt was actually soap. They burnt their throats and had to throw away the food and starve for days.
Jakob does not comment on how this made them feel, but I imagine that must have sucked.
Before a particular battle Jakob had procured a vessel containing a small portion size of half-cooked rotten kale. When the battle started he dropped this vessel amidst the chaos. When he noticed he had dropped it he ran back and got it back, completely disregarding gunshots fired all around. That’s how hungry he was.
On the way back from Moscow Jakob passed through a town and saw a barrel with coins in it but he didn’t care for it because he feared that if he were to remove his frozen hands from his pockets he might lose them to frostbite.
When cannon balls were fired from afar during combat they would hit the icy ground and start rolling. The rolling cannon balls had such force that they would sever the legs and feet of ten to twelve people in line. A person who was hit would usually lose both legs and feet. Jakob notes that during most battles there was no sensation of tiredness, fear, or hunger; only an intense focus on survival. After the battles he would get extremely tired and hungry.
When he was finally out of Russia and somewhat close to home he came down with a serious case of fever together with two friends. The three of them stayed in a tavern and were one day approached by an elderly german man who said that he could cure them. The man wrote out three pieces of paper, which he called “magic tickets”, which he prescribed for the three men to eat. Jakob Walter didn’t believe in it, but somehow all three of them were cured within a matter of days. This astounded him.
After recovering from the fever he soon got to the German town of Asperg and was dispatched to their sharpshooters division. He marched with them for a few days, but soon fell ill with fever again. It wasn’t as bad as last time, but this time it was accompanied with a constant nosebleed. The field doctor had to tie a wet towel around his head every five minutes for several days in a row and he was unable to lie down during this time. As his condition worsened the doctor discovered the extent of the damage done to his broken arm and dislocated shoulder. He was finally granted a sick leave from the army and spent months recovering before meeting his sister who couldn’t believe he was still alive.
. . .
Still think your life is hard?
The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, Jakob Walter