In the early 19th century large bodies of troops might be moved by carriage (if they were lucky), by wagon or simply have to march to where they were going. The sledge was a common conveyance in northern Europe and would perhaps have been used on occasion by the military when the conditions favoured it, but this set is clearly aimed at one particular event; Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in the winter of 1812. That famous epic retreat, which took place during an especially severe Russian winter, effectively destroyed the French Grande Armée and was a major episode in Napoleon’s downfall.
Sledges came in all shapes, from well-made and elegant ones that the wealthy might happily use, to simple platforms on runners for the peasant. The sledge in this set is very much at the budget end of the market. Its floor is 35mm (2.5 metres) in length, and it has no front, back or fittings. The sides are an open wooden framework which for some reason slants outwards at around 45 degrees, which means there is nothing to hold on to and virtually no protection from the mud, snow etc.. All this tells us that this is not a vehicle intended for human transportation, and the wide open sloping sides implies the intent is for carrying bulky goods such as hay. Many sledges were built for carrying goods rather than people, so there is nothing particularly unlikely in this design. Desperate to travel as easily as possible, and with vast numbers of sick and wounded to move, any sledge would have been pressed into service during the terrible retreat of 1812, and while a more traditional peasant sledge would have been a much better choice in our view the one modelled here is crude but perhaps plausible.
A major issue during the retreat was the lack of horse power. Quite apart from the normal attrition of horses any army of the time faced, those on the retreat generally dropped dead of exhaustion or hunger, and indeed were a major source of food for the starving soldiers as the weeks went by. A lack of suitable shoes for the snow and ice meant many animals simply could not keep their feet, and once fallen they vainly struggled to get up until they were exhausted and died. Most of the cavalry and officers quickly lost their mounts, and priority was given to moving the guns, so even when a sledge was available it was often unusable through a lack of any animal to pull it. We were pleased to see that the animal here exhibits some signs of being malnourished, and its walking pose is good, so it works well. It is attached to the sledge with a greatly simplified harness which attaches to a collar, which is fine, but it lacks the traditional shaft bow or 'arch' which was very common in Russia at this time.
The general appearance of the sledge is very rough, and it is made in the same medium-soft plastic as the figures. All the parts have tatty edges and fit together with large pegs in large holes, resulting in a pretty crude model as are all Strelets kits. Having said that, everything does at least fit together quite well, and the sledge itself is just three pieces - the body is one piece (which is surely the reason for the sloping sides) to which you just need to attach the runners and harness. It is all very basic, but those familiar with other Strelets assemblies will find nothing different here.
Much the same is true of the figures, of which there are just eight in total. Obviously you couldn't stand on a moving sledge, so those in our top row are not in the sledge itself but doing what most people did, attempting to walk back home. The first is of a man carrying a small child and also a drum, so quite a significant and difficult burden, even though he has no kit. This would be most likely fairly early in the retreat as anything which did not help to keep you alive such as a drum was often jettisoned as men became desperate, and the chances of survival for the child would be bleak too, although it is true that many families did accompany the men on the retreat, and shared their fate. Next we have what looks like a Polish infantryman wearing an overcoat and with full kit, followed by a barefoot heavy cavalryman with a small garment or piece of cloth wrapped round his shoulders. The fourth is also dressed as a cavalryman, and leans on a crutch as he has lost a leg. Such men would naturally be unlikely to keep up if required to walk in this way, and so would be a candidate for putting on a vehicle, but as we have said these were often unavailable or had no horses, so very few amputees like this man survived. Indeed of these four men, only the Pole looks to have much chance, as the others are injured, carrying a great burden or inadequately clothed (the barefoot man still has his toes, but certainly not for long).
The second row shows those that might be found in the sledge itself. The first is a man wearing a large fur coat and a pokelem forage cap, which was only first issued in 1812. He sits on a chest and holds another, smaller example in his hands. Many men on the retreat carried looted items with them, and some managed to get them home too, although many such items were abandoned, sold for food or lost to Russian peasants or soldiers. Beside this man is what looks like an officer wearing a bicorn and a coat with a cape. Like the man with the chests he looks to have a better chance of survival, and is a particularly nice figure.
Third in the row is a man lying on his back and perhaps already dead, badly wounded or maybe just asleep. Wearing little more than his uniform however he is unlikely to wake if asleep out in the open, and if wounded then again he is greatly under protected from the cold and will not last long. Although it is not clear, it seems this figure wears an ordinary coatee and has a small overcoat with cape draped over his legs. If he is placed on the sledge then it takes up most of the space. The last figure is supposed to be a driver and is useless. He seems to sit partly astride something and partly on a seat, but there is no seat here and nothing on which to sit astride! He cannot sit on the floor of the sledge as there is not nearly enough room for his legs between the shafts, and his feet would be on the ground if he did anyway. He cannot sit on the horse because he does not fit, the shafts mean he cannot get his legs over the sides, there is no saddle anyway and that is not how a sledge is driven. We completely fail to see what purpose this figure has; simply a really badly considered design.
The accuracy of the sledge we have already speculated, but the accuracy of the figures is fine. As the men died or at least sank down in their thousands their comrades quickly relieved them of anything that might be of use to the living, particularly food and clothing. As a result uniforms were spread everywhere and wearing any particular item was no guarantee that you belonged to that type of unit. Civilian clothing (including women’s), bedding and anything else to hand was used to help try and keep warm, so the look of the men on the retreat was anything but military.
It would be impossible to overstate the suffering and desperation of the men involved in the retreat from Moscow, and these figures are a fair depiction. Anyone with a sledge would count themselves lucky, but as we have said several of the figures in this set look like they stand little chance of completing their journey. The sculpting of the figures is the usual fairly rough Strelets style, and the same goes for the sledge, which also appears in several other Strelets sets. What they were thinking with the driver figure we do not know, but apart from that the poses are fine. It must be said there is not a lot of plastic in the box, and the sledge could have been better, but this is a fair if very small collection for a particularly terrible episode in Napoleonic history.