To Sleep Is To Die

This passage is from With Napoleon in Russia by General Armand Caulaincourt, Napoleon’s Master of Horse during the invasion of Russia, and describes conditions during their disastrous retreat from Moscow:

“The cold was so intense that bivouacking was no longer supportable. Bad luck for those who fell asleep by a camp-fire! One constantly found men who, overcome by the cold, had been forced to drop out and had fallen to the ground, too weak or too numb to stand.

“Ought one to help them along — which practicallly meant carrying them? They begged one to be let alone. There were bivouacs all along the road — ought one to take them to a camp-fire?

“Once these poor wretches fell asleep, they were dead. If they resisted the craving for sleep, another passer-by would help them along a little farther, thus prolonging their agony for a short while but not saving them; for in this condition the drowsiness engendered by cold is irresistably strong. Sleep comes inevitably; and to sleep is to die.

“I tried in vain to save a number of these unfortunates. The only words they uttered were to beg me, for the love of God, to go away and let them sleep. To hear them, one would have thought this sleep was their salvation. Unhappily, it was a poor wretch’s last wish; but at least he ceased to suffer, without pain or agony.

“Gratitude, and even a smile, was imprinted on his discoloured lips.

“What I have related about the effects of extreme cold, and of this kind of death by freezing, is based on what I saw happen to thousands of individuals. The road was covered with their corpses.”

You or I might be upset by this kind of experience, but Caulaincourt and the rest of the emperor’s staff didn’t let it get them down.

“Since we were all in it together, we were generally gay, careless, even full of raillery. Unquestionably, despite our sufferings, our headquarters were in as good a humour as were the Russian headquarters.”