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I was reading War and Peace and became a bit confused about troop movements during the Kutuzov's fallback to Vienna. I wanted to check my understanding and hopefully resolve some contradictions I see.

In Chapter 6, Kutuzov sends Nesvitsky to deliver a command to a colonel(who I think is different from Bogdanich). The command includes a detail that he should tell the hussars "they should cross last". In chapter 7, Nesvitsky struggles to cross the bridge, which is crowded with infantry. Though he succeeds thanks to the help of Denisov who is returning to the other side. I don't know why Denisov is crossing back to where his squadron is, but it seems he was trying to clear the bridge. Once on the other side, the infantry is halted, Nesvitsky delivers the message, and he leaves back across the bridge. The hussars then overtake the halted infantry who look on with ill-will. This is an odd thing to happen because it directly violates the order given and I'm unsure if I've miss read something.

In chapter 8, the remaining infantry crosses the bridge, which presumably includes the halted soldiers that the Hussars overtook. It is then stated that "Only Denisov's squadron of hussars were left on the farther side of the river facing the enemy". This isn't exactly true because the Cossacks haven't crossed but it does imply that there are no more Hussars left. Bogdanich then comes across the bridge and commands that Denisov to stop delaying and cross with his squadron. The next sentence is particularity vague and confusing: "The squadron crossed the bridge and passed out of range of the enemy's guns without losing a single man. The second squadron that had been in the line followed them across". If this means there are two squadrons on the far side of the bridge it would contradict the earlier statement. It could also mean that the first squadron had just succeeded fully crossing the bridge. But I feel like this is a bit of an odd reading of the sentence. Moreover, there is a statement("the colonel moved forward and ordered the second squadron, the one in which Rostov was serving under Denisov") which implies that "The squadron" is not referring Denisov's, but rather the second is. However, Bogdanich command to Denisov makes it seem like "The squadron" is referring to Denisov's squadron.

How did the troops actually move in the aforementioned chapters?

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  • You could mention what translation you are reading. These might be details that have been confused in translation.
    – mikado
    Mar 19, 2023 at 11:22
  • I'm reading the Edmond's translation, but I did check Pevear and Volokhonsky and didn't have much more luck understanding. Mar 19, 2023 at 17:00

1 Answer 1

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My understanding of the events. Nesvitski is sent with the order to “tell the hussars that they are to cross last and to fire the bridge […]; and the inflammable material on the bridge must be reinspected.” It seems that some squadron of hussars is trusted to cross the bridge last in order to fire it. So it’s not necessary for all of the hussars to stay.

We don’t know what message Nesvitski does deliver. In the chaos, he seems to forget some parts of it:

The colonel deliberately stopped the regiment and turned to Nesvítski.
“You spoke to me of inflammable material,” said he, “but you said nothing about firing it.”

When the bridge is cleared, the hussars leave, then the infantry and baggage wagons (presumably, not very fast). Denisov’s squadron is still on the other side to cross last:

The last of the infantry hurriedly crossed the bridge, squeezing together as they approached it as if passing through a funnel. At last the baggage wagons had all crossed, the crush was less, and the last battalion came onto the bridge.

Now we have Denisov’s hussars near the bridge, Cossack scouts closer to the foot of the hill, and “the second squadron that had been in the front line”. “Line” here is a military formation (the Russian word is “цепь”). Since the enemy is near, some soldiers are to form the line facing the French. I was unable to understand where this line is located exactly, though.

After Denisov’s squadron crosses the bridge, the squadron in the line can follow (no need to protect the crossing anymore). Then the scouts leave too:

The squadron crossed the bridge and drew out of range of fire without having lost a single man. The second squadron that had been in the front line followed them across and the last Cossacks quitted the farther side of the river.

Now the difficulty with the colonel addressing the second squadron.

The English translation says “ordered the second squadron”, but the Russian text gives me “полковник выдвинулся вперед и 2-му эскадрону…” So “2nd“ seems to mean the number of the squadron in which Rostov serves. It doesn’t refer to the previous events on the bridge. There are five squadrons in the 2nd Pavlograd Life Hussar Regiment, and the Rostov’s one is the 2nd squadron.

EDIT: "Only Denisov's squadron of hussars were left on the farther side of the river facing the enemy" (“against the enemy” in the original).

It’s unlikely that Tolstoy forgot something he mentions in the same chapter.

Two previous sentences are about the last units crossing the river. We can imagine it as a movie: the battalions leaving the shore until only one squadron is left near the bridge.

While I don’t know for sure, I think the simplest explanation is that the phrase is just shorthand for “from the troops waiting to cross the river, only Denisov’s squadron were left...” Details about the Cossacks and the line will be mentioned when necessary (and those who know how a crossing works understand them anyway).

This phrase also transfers the readers into the military situation and how the squadron experiences it. They are waiting to face the French alone, and indeed, the artillery fires only at the men at the bridge – the French don’t care about the scouts or the line! Military-wise, Denisov has three options: wait there, cross the bridge, or attack. But in all these options his hussars can only count on themselves. From a military point of view, these scouts and those waiting in the line are as good as non-existent.

So the scouts and the line are more like the default elements of the crossing and are not important for the situation described.

It also somewhat subverts Rostov’s expectations. He thinks he does well in the “facing the enemy alone” situation, but cannot handle the “everybody running back to the bridge under fire” one later.

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  • This seems to be an appropriate order of events. I had misinterpreted "line" and the explanation of the squadron numbers makes sense. I'm still unsure of what to make of "Only Denisov's squadron of hussars were left on the farther side of the river facing the enemy". Clearly it's false(or at least how I interpreted the statement makes it false), so I'm wondering why it's stated. Mar 19, 2023 at 17:07

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