Did you ever hear about Joseph Abbeel? He was a carabineer of Napoleons army, a conscript soldier from Vrasene (Belgium). Like many ten thousands of his fellow Belgians, Joseph was forced into military service for the French Emperor. He kind of started liking his new situation though, unlike most of his Belgian comrades. After several years of service, his regiment followed the Emperor to Russia.
Raw estimations speak of some 30.000 Belgians who started off for Moscow. How many did return? Maybe 1000? Probably less. But Joseph was one of them. Wounded, more dead than alive, he survived the horror of the retreat to Vilnius. Impossible to tell how many times death crossed his path. In Hamburg he was caught by Cossacks and brought back to Moscow (and beyond) as a prisoner. Well… maybe ‘brought’ is not the right word, for he had to walk of course. After three months in a village east of Moscow he was released. Imagine how it must have felt to start off for another 3000km journey by foot, the third in two years! And all that in hostile territory!
Anyway, despite all the hardship, somehow Joseph managed to get home this time. He immediately started writing his memoirs. For Karsten and me, a Dutchman and a Belgian who plan to walk just a tiny part of Joseph’s trip, he feels like a friend already. His memoirs will be our lighthouse. Of course other soldiers wrote down their story as well. Walter Jacob from Württemberg for instance. And his fellow German Faber du Faur made this amazing series of gouaches. But Joseph’s journal is unique because it was written so shortly after the events. You can still feel the throbbing heart of darkness of this whole insane campaign.
By the way... Tomorrow I’m off to the archives in Beveren to check on another Joseph, a relative (not even a distant one) of Tine, my wife. He survived the same Russian campaign, and just like Abbeel was shot in his hand. Abbeels hand could write memoirs after that, But Joseph Van de Vel couldn’t even sign his wedding register. His ‘best man’ signed for him, declaring that Joseph could not write. Maybe he never could.
In his memoirs of Saint Helena, Napoleon Bonaparte wrote: "Of four hundred thousand who crossed the Vistula, half were Austrians, Prussians, Saxons, Poles, Bavarians, Wurttembergers, Mecklenburgers, Spaniards, Italians, and Neapolitans. The Imperial army, strictly speaking, was one third composed of Dutch, Belgians, men from the borders of the Rhine, Piedmontese, Swiss, Genevese, Tuscans, Romans, inhabitants of the Thirty-second Military Division, of Bremen, of Hamburg, and so on: it included scarcely a hundred and forty thousand who spoke French. The Russian expedition actually cost France less than fifty thousand men.”
It is sad to read that this so called internationalist ruler, with all his talk about a European nation and so on, seeks comfort in the fact that of the people he lost in this campaign, less than fifty thousand were his compatriots. Apart from the fact that his figures are wrong, his mood is cynical. Joseph Abbeel lived in Flanders, now part of Belgium, but then annexed to France. To separate them from the French in an ultimate attempt to get on even terms with France is such a pitiful move. Vanitas, vanitas, thy name is emperor!