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Primary Source – Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier

Learning Target: I can explain what a primary source is, and I can read and understand primary sources (History Standard 1).


“…It seemed as though the Russians had surrounded us entirely, for the cannonades thundered upon us from all sides, and it was necessary to retreat hurriedly…Every time in bivouac (camp) the Germans joined together and made small fires in groups I was also included. They were mostly Wurttemberg sergeants (a south German province; Walter’s home) and soldiers who joined with me at the fire; and here each one fried the horse meat which he had cut off laboriously along the way with scuffling and slugging; for, as soon as a horse plunged and did not get up immediately, men feel upon it in heaps and often cut at it alive from all sides. The meat, unfortunately, was very lean, and only the skin with a little red meat would be wrested away. Each of us stuck his piece on a stick or a saber, burned off the hair in the fire, and waited until the outside was burned black. Then the piece was bitten off all around and stuck into the fire again. One seldom had time for boiling, and not one among twenty men had a pot.”

The following passage is from the autobiography of Jakob Walter, one of Napoleon’s soldiers. It describes Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, Russia in the fall of 1812. Read the passage, annotate, and answer the questions that follow.

1. This diary is a primary source – explain what a primary source is and give three examples. ________________ ___________________________________________________________________________________________

2. Why do you think historians consider primary sources like Walter’s diary such valuable sources of information? ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

3. Where was Walter from? ____________________________________________________________________ ___________________________________________________________________________________________

4. What part of speech is “laboriously”; what does it mean? ___________________________________________ ___________________________________________________________________________________________

5. Make an inference: why do you think that the horse meat was so lean? _______________________________ ___________________________________________________________________________________________



6. Why were the soldiers attacking the horses? What does this suggest about the state of Napoleon’s army? ___ ___________________________________________________________________________________________

7. Why did the soldiers not wait to cook the meat properly? __________________________________________ ___________________________________________________________________________________________


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