A wooden building more than 200 years old stands high above the Triftbach river, opposite the Edelweiss restaurant, at “Turuwang uf dem Pfad”. The barn, built in 1811, recalls the Napoleonic Battle of Beresina (or Berezina), at the Berezina river near today’s border with Belarus.
Recruitment of soldiers for Napoleon
As Napoleon prepared for his Russian campaign, he recruited soldiers from Switzerland and the Valais. Switzerland was then (1803-1813) effectively a French vassal state. About 12,000 Swiss and Valais soldiers formed four regiments. Every village in the Valais was obliged to provide at least one soldier for the Russian campaign. In many places, volunteers stepped forward – mostly from bitter necessity.
In Zermatt, no volunteers could be found. Rather than force somebody to join up or choose someone by lot, the people of Zermatt decided on another procedure. Whoever volunteered to join the army would subsequently receive a barn with surrounding pastures up at the “Fad” on the “Turuwang”. These were times of economic hardship and poverty: in due course, a young man volunteered with a view to receiving the property on his return.
The barn was built, and the volunteer left for war. Sadly, he never returned from Russia and so never took possession of his property. About a thousand Swiss and Valais soldiers lost their lives at the Battle of Beresina, and ever since, locals have called this barn, in local dialect, the “Beresinahüs”.
Facts about Napoleon’s Russian military campaign of 1812
- 600,000 men fighting with Napoleon, 420,000 men in the army of Tsar Alexander I.
- 12,000 Swiss soldiers in Napoleon’s army
- Napoleon’s winter in Moscow: thousands of soldiers die from hunger and disease
- During the retreat: Battle of Beresina, 26-28 November 1812
- Sappers work in ice-cold water to improvise pontoons
- Many die from exposure or drown
- Swiss rearguard infantry cover the troops retreating across the river, at the end fighting only with bayonets
- On 26 November only 300 Swiss soldiers still survive; one third are wounded
- Fewer than 40,000 men of Napoleon’s army join the retreat from the Russian campaign
Zermatt Inside, 01/2013, “Zermatt anno dazumal - das Beresina-Haus”, by Dr. Thomas Julen, a summary. In German.