Book 14 Chapter 3

THE SO-CALLED “PARTISAN” WARFARE had begun with the enemy's entrance into Smolensk. Before the irregular warfare was officially recognised by our government many thousands of the enemy's soldiers—straggling, marauding, or foraging parties—had been slain by Cossacks and peasants, who killed these men as instinctively as dogs set upon a stray mad dog. Denis Davydov was the first to feel with his Russian instinct the value of this terrible cudgel which belaboured the French, and asked no questions about the etiquette of the military art; and to him belongs the credit of the first step towards the recognition of this method of warfare.

The first detachment of irregulars—Davydov's—was formed on the 24th of August, and others soon followed. In the latter stages of the campaign these detachments became more and more numerous.

The irregulars destroyed the Grande Armée piecemeal. They swept up the fallen leaves that were dropping of themselves from the withered tree, and sometimes they shook the tree itself. By October, when the French were fleeing to Smolensk, there were hundreds of these companies, differing widely from one another in number and in character. Some were detachments that followed all the usual routine of an army, with infantry, artillery, staff-officers, and all the conveniences of life. Some consisted only of Cossacks, mounted men. Others were small bands of men, on foot and also mounted. Some consisted of peasants, or of landowners and their serfs, and remained unknown. There was a deacon at the head of such a band, who took several hundred prisoners in a month. There was the village elder's wife, Vassilisa, who killed hundreds of the French.

The latter part of October was the time when this guerilla warfare reached its height. That period of this warfare, in which the irregulars were themselves amazed at their own audacity, were every moment in dread of being surrounded and captured by the French, and never unsaddling, hardly dismounting, hid in the woods, in momentary expectation of pursuit, was already over. The irregular warfare had by now taken definite shape; it had become clear to all the irregulars what they could, and what they could not, accomplish with the French. By now it was only the commanders of detachments marching with staff-officers according to the rules at a distance from the French who considered much impossible. The small bands of irregulars who had been at work a long while, and were at close quarters with the French, found it possible to attempt what the leaders of larger companies did not dare to think of doing. The Cossacks and the peasants, who crept in among the French, thought everything possible now.

On the 22nd of October, Denisov, who was a leader of a band of irregulars, was eagerly engaged in a typical operation of this irregular warfare. From early morning he had been with his men moving about the woods that bordered the high road, watching a big convoy of cavalry baggage and Russian prisoners that had dropped behind the other French troops, and under strong escort—as he learned from his scouts and from prisoners—was making its way to Smolensk. Not only Denisov and Dolohov (who was also a leader of a small band acting in the same district) were aware of the presence of this convoy. Some generals in command of some larger detachments, with staff-officers also, knew of this convoy, and, as Denisov said, their mouths were watering for it. Two of these generals—one a Pole, the other a German—had almost at the same time sent to Denisov an invitation to join their respective detachments in attacking the convoy.

“No, friend, I wasn't born yesterday!” said Denisov, on reading these documents; and he wrote to the German that in spite of his ardent desire to serve under so brilliant and renowned a general, he must deprive himself of that happiness because he was already under the command of the Polish general. To the Pole he wrote the same thing, informing him that he was already serving under the command of the German.

Having thus disposed of that difficulty, Denisov, without communicating on the subject to the higher authorities, intended with Dolohov to attack and carry off this transport with his own small force. The transport was, on the 22nd of October, going from the village of Mikulino to the village of Shamshevo. On the left side of the road between Mikulino and Shamshevo there were great woods, which in places bordered on the road, and in places were a verst or more from the road. Denisov, with a small party of followers, had been the whole day riding about in these woods, sometimes plunging into their centre, and sometimes coming out at the edge, but never losing sight of the moving French. In the morning, not far from Mikulino, where the wood ran close to the road, the Cossacks of Denisov's party had pounced on two French waggonloads of saddles, stuck in the mud, and had carried them off into the wood. From that time right on to evening, they had been watching the movements of the French without attacking them. They wanted to avoid frightening them, and to let them go quietly on to Shamshevo, and then, joining Dolohov (who was to come that evening to a trysting-place in the wood, a verst from Shamshevo, to concert measures with them), from two sides to fall at dawn like an avalanche of snow on their heads, and to overcome and capture all of them at a blow.

Six Cossacks had been left behind, two versts from Mikulino, where the wood bordered the road. They were to bring word at once as soon as any fresh columns of French came into sight.

In front of Shamshevo, Dolohov was in the same way to watch the road to know at what distance there were other French troops. With the transport there were supposed to be fifteen hundred men. Denisov had two hundred men, and Dolohov might have as many more. But superiority in numbers was no obstacle to Denisov. There was only one thing that he still needed to know, and that was what troops these were; and for that object Denisov needed to take a “tongue” (that is, some man belonging to that column of the enemy). The attack on the waggons in the morning was all done with such haste that they killed all the French soldiers in charge of the waggons, and captured alive only a little drummer-boy, who had straggled away from his own regiment, and could tell them nothing certain about the troops forming the column.

To make another descent upon them, Denisov thought, would be to risk alarming the whole column, and so he sent on ahead to Shamshevo a peasant, Tihon Shtcherbatov, to try if he could capture at least one of the French quartermasters from the vanguard.