NAPOLEON'S INVASION OF RUSSIA -
This is a brief summary of one of the most momentous and widely studied
military campaigns. The following are the main references used. Rather than
make the same comment repeatedly, I will point out here that in matters of
transliteration of Russian names one encounters the wildest and most fanciful
renditions in most of these English language references.
_______ 1812 Borodinskaya Panorama, Moscow, Izobrazitel'noye
iskusstvo, 1985. A small but excellent book containing a great many
illustrations of scenes during the campaign.
Austin, Paul Britten, 1812 - The March on Moscow, London, Greenhill,
Austin, Paul Britten, 1812 - Napoleon in Moscow, London, Greenhill,
Austin, Paul Britten, 1812 - The Great Retreat, London, Greenhill,
This is an extraordinary book (or trilogy) in every respect. It is must
reading for students of this campaign, but also essential for everyone
interested in the nature of warfare itself. The author has studied hundreds of
primary and secondary references on the campaign and then selected about 160
eyewitness accounts of participants on the French side. Some of these are daily
diaries, written on the spot. Others are memoirs prepared shortly after the
war, while others were accounts written from memory many years later. Some are
personal letters home and others are official staff orders and correspondence.
All ranks are included, from Napoleon himself and his most senior advisors, to
the lowest rankers in front line units. He has woven these into a seamless
tapestry that unfolds like a moving picture day by day, week by week, as the
most massive military machine yet assembled at that time slides, slowly at
first, then more rapidly but inexorable into the abyss. That the "Grand
Army" contained so many different nationalities, whose accounts are woven
together in these word pictures, enables the author to create an exceptionally
rich and variegated pattern. The author does not intrude unnecessarily into the
painting, but his excellent commentary as he moves the story along from scene
to scene provides plenty of judicious analysis as well. He calls attention
whenever one eye-witness seems to contradict another. Although such a portrait
can only be painted from one side, Austin manages to interpolate enough
information about the Russian side so the reader is well appraised on what is
going on across the front lines. Still, one has to wish that eventually someone
will provide us with something at least somewhat comparable painted from the
Russian point of view.
Beskrovni, L. Atlas karti skhyem po russkoi voyennoi istorii,
Moscow, Voyenni isdatelstvo, 1946. This excellent collection of campaign and
battle maps plus schematic diagrams covers Russian military history from
ancient times to the Russo-Japanese War.
Cartwright, Frederick, Disease and History, New York, Thomas
Crowell, 1972. There is one chapter in this comprehensive discussion of the
effect of many different diseases on the course of human events throughout
history. In this case it is typhus and the focus is on the 1812 campaign. Most
accounts note the high losses the French suffered from sickness without
providing much detail. Cartwright describes typhus and its causes and effects
during the opening stages of the campaign. But one wishes he had provided more
details and statistics. To round out the chapter he discusses also Napoleon's
personal medical history and problems. He states that Napoleon was suffering
from a severe bout of cystitis (inflammation of the bladder) during the battle
at Borodino, as well as from a heavy cold. Cartwright also speculates on the
causes of the Emperor's death years later.
Britt, Albert S. The Wars of Napoleon, West Point Military History
Series, Thomas Griess series editor, Wayne New Jersey, Avery Publishing, 1985.
with Atlas. There is a 20 page chapter on the 1812 campaign. This is an
adequate overview of the campaign with only a few minor errors noted. The maps
are helpful, but not up to the quality found in the 1964 version, see Elting.
Cate, Curtis, The War of the Two Emperors, New York, Random House,
1985. The title indicates the author's intention, to counter the conception
promoted by Tolstoy in War and Peace that war is a struggle of
impersonal forces in which hardly any role is played by individual leaders.
Cate used extensive Russian sources to provide the most balanced treatment of
this campaign available. The narrative of events is clear and excellent. The
author presents his assessments of events, their actors, and individual
motivations throughout. He includes everything from the diplomatic and grand
strategic level down to details of individual activities and battle tactics,
often illustrated with gripping anecdotes provided by eye witnesses. The
description of the campaign itself does not start until Chapter 10 on page 132,
which shows the amount of background detail the author believes necessary to
explain the following events. As is too often the case, the maps are
insufficient. The text presumes an extensive knowledge of geography. The
military descriptions of battles are excellent also, but presume considerable
knowledge of tactics, military organization and order of battle.
Chandler, David, The Campaigns of Napoleon, New York, MacMillan Co,
1966. In his unsurpassed study of Napoleon's military career, David Chandler
allocates 122 pages to the campaign in Russia. The narrative is compressed, but
clear. The most valuable part is the author's analysis, and his critique of
both sides including the many errors each committed. There are a few editorial
slips, such as writing that Prince Bagration was an Armenian (he was Georgian).
The earlier chapters are valuable for the author's explanations about the
French Army organization and tactics.
Chandler, David, Atlas of Military Strategy, New York, The Free
Press, 1980. The 1812 campaign is covered in 4 pages half filled with good
maps. The description is obviously extremely brief, but by reading of this
campaign in its context within the history of military campaigns the reader may
gain an appreciation of its broader aspects.
Chandler, David, Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars, New York,
MacMillan, 1979. Considerable information on the Russians and 1812 campaign in
these alphabetical entries. Even though it is a dictionary it would be nice if
it had an index to enable the reader to find cross references.
Clausewitz, Carl von, The Campaign of 1812 in Russia, London, 1843,
reprint edition by Academic International Press, 1970. This book was edited and
published by the author's sister after his death. The organization is a bit
disjointed and possibly not exactly as he would have wanted. But the content is
exceptionally important. Not only is there a clear narrative of the events
provided by an astute professional observer, but also much of the analysis of
warfare that has made students read his On War over and over. The
concepts of 'friction' 'fog of war' and 'culmination' are all here, as are his
views on leadership. He divides the campaign into its logical phases, an
organization that I have followed in the description below. The anonymous
translator provides an excellent introduction in which he brings attention to
several of the issues the Clausewitz raises that are at variance with generally
accepted views. The most important of these is Napoleon's true objectives
during the first week of his retirement from Moscow, when he began by marching
southwest toward Kaluga, thus launching an attack against Kutuzov at Malo-
Duffy, Christopher, Borodino: Napoleon Against Russia 1812, New
York, Charles Scribners, 1973. This 208 page book is the best available purely
military study of the campaign. Duffy uses more Russian sources than do most
accounts in English. There is a lengthy account and analysis of the battle at
Borodino. The maps are well done and the statistical data provided are
Elting, Colonel John R. and BG Vincent Esposito, A Military History and
Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars, New York, Praeger, 1964. These are absolutely
the best maps of all the important campaigns and battles of the Napoleonic
Wars. Each is accompanied with clear descriptive text on the facing page. The
coverage of the campaign in Russia is extremely detailed and excellent. This is
the atlas one needs to have in hand when reading any of the other accounts.
Falls, Cyril, ed. Great Military Battles, New York, Spring Books,
1964. Among the articles on individual battles is one by Peter Young on
Borodino. Brief, but nicely illustrated, it provides a popular summary of the
Haythornthwaite, Philip, The Napoleonic Source Book, New York, Facts
on File, 1990. This is an encyclopedia-type approach to the presentation of
information on the topic. There are brief but excellent entries on practically
every aspect of warfare. There are entries on each campaign and every
participating nation. That for the 1812 campaign is only a couple pages long.
And out of 42 biographies of important leaders there is only one on a Russian,
Kutuzov. But there is a well written article on the Russian army.
Haythornthwaite, Philip, The Russian Army of the Napoleonic Wars:
Infantry and Cavalry, two volumes, London, Osprey, 1987. These are in the
standard Osprey Men at Arms series format which provides details mostly on
Holmes. E. R. Borodino, 1812, New York, Hippocrene Books, 1975. This
68 page long précis is an excellent, concise summary of the battle and
campaign containing all the information essential for the student war-gamer, as
its inclusion in the Knight's battles for Wargamers series would indicate.
Korkh, A. C. Mikhail Kutuzov, Moscow, State Order of Lenin History
Museum, Vneshtorgizdat, 1988. Essentially a book of illustrations, with little
text. It provides a useful visual source by use of paintings and etchings
related to the campaign.
Lachouque, Henry and Anne S. K. Brown, The Anatomy of Glory, Napoleon
and his Guard, London, Arms and Armour Press, 1978. Napoleon carefully kept
his Imperial Guard out of combat right up until it formed his ultimate survival
weapon during the disastrous days of the retreat. But then it amply deserved
its reputation by repeatedly pulling off local tactical victories against
overwhelming Russian forces that were as much put off by its undiminished
reputation as its dwindling firepower. The book is the definitive reference for
the overall topic, and provides ample background about the Imperial Guard for
the reader to appreciate its psychological role in 1812. The account of this
campaign of course is necessarily limited to its narrow subject, but
nevertheless of value for the student.
Lochet, Jean, ed. NAPOLEON, A quarterly magazine published by
Emperor's Press, 5744 West Irving Park Road, Chicago Il 60634. Issue number 6
has an article on the crossing of the Berezina River.
Nafziger, George, Napoleon's Invasion of Russia, Novato, Presidio
Press, 1988. The author is an expert specialist in military order of battle,
having created the most extensive database of such information on European
armies from the 17th century on. The main strength of this book is its massive
compilation of the organizational structure, orders of battle, strength and
casualty statistics, and other date for both sides. Also it provides the most
extensive treatment of the "minor" theaters on the north and south
flanks of the main offensive to Moscow. None of the minor engagements or
skirmishes have been omitted and for each of these and all the battles details
down to the regimental level are provided. Maps for all the battles have been
provided, but in some cases the date on the map appears to be "old
style" while the text is narrated in "new style". The narration
itself is occasionally difficult to follow due to dates being omitted from
Peredelski, V. ed. Tseikhgaus, Moscow, yearly. Excellent Russian
military history journal focused mostly on uniforms. There are regularly
articles on the Napoleonic era.
Pivka, Otto von, Armies of 1812, Vol I. The French Army, Cambridge
Patrick Stephens, 1977. A concise yet detailed study of the technical aspects
of the French and all its allied armies. It is especially valuable for
descriptions of these latter formations. There is much statistical data. Of
especial interest are the graphs depicting the deteriorating strength of each
corps of the Grand Army over time during the campaign. The exact campaign trail
for each corps is also shown on individual maps. It is well illustrated in
Rothenberg, Gunther E. The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon,
Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1980. This is the best concise study of
the technical aspects of warfare of the period. It is extremely useful as a
supplement to provide all the information missing from the accounts of the 1812
Snibbe, Robert, ed. Members Bulletin, The Napoleonic Society, 1115
Ponce de Leon Blvd, Clearwater, Florida, 34616. A quarterly publication
containing a mixed lot of articles on a wide variety of topics related to
Vilinbakhov, George, Otechestvennaya voina 1812 goda v kartinokh Petera
Khersa, Leningrad, Iskustvo, 1984. George Vilinbakhov is Deputy Director of
the State Museum of the Hermitage and a specialist on military history. This
book discusses the illustrations of the 1812 campaign by the artist, Peter
Viskovatov, A. V. Historical Description of the Uniforms and Armaments
of the Russian Army, St Petersburg, 1844-56. There is a 19 volume version
of this massive work in the library of the Army Research Institute at Carlisle
Barracks. I have photographed all the original lithograph plates and am in the
process of digitizing them for publication on CD-ROM and on my World Wide Web
site on the Internet. Individual sections are being translated and published by
Wartenburg, York von, Napoleon as a General, The Wolseley Series,
reprint, ND. In this two volume work the author provides equal parts of
narrative and critique always focused on Napoleon himself, his thought
processes, and leadership characteristics. His commentary on the 1812 campaign
is particularly biting. It closes with the following assessment. "It must
be acknowledged indeed, that the general here only reaped the reward for that
utter contempt for the future, which he always exhibited both in the government
of his people and the training of his troops."
Zhilin, P. A. Borodino 1812, Moscow, Isdatel'stvo, 1987. This is a
magnificent commemorative book for the 175th anniversary of the battle. It is
prepared by and focused on the great Panorama Museum in Moscow. The book is
primarily a work of art as each page contains full color illustrations of art
related to the campaign. But the accompanying text is a valuable source of
information as well. The book is organized chronologically from invasion to
withdrawal and includes illustrations depicting both sides. Then there are
sections on the influence of the campaign as seen in art depicting it over the
century and half since.
Zweguintzow, W. L'Armee Russe, Paris, 1973. This work was written in
French and Russian and privately printed in multivolume folio format. The
volume on the Army of Alexander I contains not only all the information from
Viskovatov but also sections on organization and tactics.
BEFORE THE CAMPAIGN
Some comments on the dispositions and command structure.
The dispositions as of June are shown on the
map. The main French and Allied force is in the north. Eugene's and
Jerome's corps are deployed far to the south west a considerable distance from
the Russian border. From the dispositions of the Grand Army is seems possible
that Napoleon hoped to entice the Russians into taking the offensive in which
he could spring a trap. But one result was that Jerome was much too far from
Grodno to accomplish his mission of catching Bagration. Eugene also was not as
close to the border as he should have been.
Also, Jerome should not have been given command of three corps. This was an
example of Napoleon's reluctance to let his marshals have any independence or
power. He knew Davout was his best corps commander, and gave him six divisions
to form the largest of the corps. But every time there was a question of Davout
suggesting the right course of action Napoleon had nothing good to say about
it. Then Junot was not the best replacement for Jerome, when the latter quit
and went home. The VIII Corps had been commanded by Vandamme, who was much
superior to Junot, but Vandamme had already retired to France due to conflict
Or Davout should have been located where Eugene was. From there he could have
caught Bagration by himself. As it was, when Davout was sent to intercept
Bagration at Minsk he only had two of his five remaining divisions and could
not accomplish the mission without participation by Jerome's formations.
The French army had gained operational mobility in its campaigns in Western
Europe by living off the country. This was feasible in such rich lands,
especially when operating in enemy territory. Napoleon knew this would not be
possible in Russia, so he stockpiled huge quantities of food and materials in
depots. And he organized unprecedented numbers of supply transport units. But
it is not possible to stock enough fodder for horses and impossible to
transport it in sufficient quantities because the horses and even oxen are
bound to eat all that they can pull in wagons before traveling long distances.
Thus horses must live off the land. That is one reason armies from ancient
times on planned major campaigns around the growing cycle and dates of harvest
periods. Napoleon had the troops issued with rations for two weeks but in order
to insure that this mobile supply would be intact for the first days of the
campaign he ordered that it not be touched until the Nieman was crossed. The
immediate result was that the units had to scrounge "maraud" for
their food while crossing theoretically allied Poland. This not only caused
great resentment among the population and reduced their enthusiasm for the war,
but also got the troops into bad habits of desertion and wandering off with the
excuse they were searching for food. It also created serious struggles and
conflicts between units, especially those of different nationalities.
The Grand Army itself was only about half French. Many of the recruits were too
young and physically weak.
The French command system was elaborate and well manned with staff officers.
But it was highly centralized. All commanders and staff depended on and
deferred to Napoleon. He was capable of handling vast quantities of detail.
There are many examples of his photographic memory for faces and names years
after his initial meetings and also for details of administrative statistical
data. He could dictate four letters simultaneously to four different clerks.
The elaborate nature of the staffs did enable individuals to point to others
when something was not accomplished. There were quite a few personal rivalries,
hatreds, and feuds between senior officers, for instance, between Davout and
Murat, and Davout and Berthier. Napoleon exacerbated such personal conflicts as
part of his management style to increase competition.
Despite the organization of very elaborate and relatively efficient courier and
postal services, when distances between headquarters grew as great as they were
in Russia, communication became a major problem. Napoleon kept his plans secret
even from most of his senior officers. There was no such thing as what we call
now "commander's intent" to guide subordinates.
The Russian high command was divided and in much worse condition than the
French. Although Barclay de Tolly had been named Minister of War and had
carried out a major reform of the armed forces that was well received during
the previous four or five years, he was intensely disliked by many officers and
men as a "foreigner" as soon as the campaign began. He was actually a
Livonian whose Scottish ancestors had long before entered Russian service, but
his name still was against him. Moreover, he was personally disliked by many
senior officers, especially Bagration. Then there were other officers who were
simply self- centered power seekers, such as Benningsen, or incompetent
thinkers such as Grand Duke Constantine. Initially Tsar Alexander assumed
direct command of the Russian armed forces and appointed Barclay de Tolly to
command only the First Western Army at Vilna. Bagration had an independent
command of the Second West Army and Tormasov also was independent with his
Third or Reserve Army south of the Pripet Marshes in Volynia. In addition there
were Russian troops in Moldavia winding up the Turkish campaign and in Finland
observing potential Swedish activities.
When the campaign began Tsar Alexander was at Vilna with his own large
headquarters staff breathing down Barclay's throat. The situation threatened to
become another Austerlitz. Fortunately Alexander was persuaded by his sister
among others that his real duty lay in rousing the people and generating the
national resources needed. Thus he left Vilna in July and went to Moscow to
start this process, afterwards proceeding to St. Petersburg.
Despite Barclay's initial reforms the Russian army staff system was much weaker
than the French. On the other hand, senior commanders, when placed in
geographically remote locations, had no difficulty assuming responsibility for
their independent conduct of operations or in understanding what the overall
strategic picture required of them. On the battlefield as well, the initiative
displayed by Russian tactical commanders was at least as great and any shown by
their French opponents. The typical Russian unit organization and combat
tactical formations are shown here. (Org1,
Org 2, Org 3)
The 1812 campaign is interesting for one sidelight. The two major military
theoreticians of the era were participants; Clausewitz with the Russian Army
and Jomini with the French. But neither was in a major command role. Jomini had
already published his sensational theoretical work of analysis of Napoleonic
warfare and was well known and read by both sides. He wanted to be Napoleon's
chief of staff or at least a senior advisor. But Napoleon had no need of a
Jomini about the headquarters and Berthier certainly didn't want him around. He
was appointed military governor of Vilna, in which post he soon was in conflict
with the appointed military governor of Lithuania. Clausewitz was only a
colonel, a junior officer among the Germans serving the Tsar. Worse, he could
not speak Russian, so was relegated to inconsequential duties as a staff
officer to Uvarov and then to Wittgenstein's staff. On the other hand his
position gave him an excellent opportunity to observe at first hand much more
than Jomini was able to see. His book on the campaign contains many of the most
important of his theories later made famous in ON WAR. The ideas about
"friction", "fog of war", "culmination", and
leadership are all there. We will follow his analysis of the campaign.
CLAUZWITZ - SUMMARY OF CAMPAIGN
Clauzwitz gives a masterful summary and analysis of the campaign
interspersed with his personal observations of events during it. He divides the
campaign into its two natural divisions, the period up to the French retreat
and the retreat itself.
He points out that the war was conducted in five separate theaters. Two were to
the left of the main road from Vilna to Moscow, two to the right of the road,
and the main theater in the center. Although there were some shifts in the
troops operating on these strategic directions during the campaign, the
theaters themselves remained.
1. On the lower Dvina, Macdonald had 30,000 men to besiege and observe the
garrison of Riga of 10,000 Russians. He also was to clear the Nieman River
basin to enable French logistic traffic to bring supplies from Danzig to Kovno.
His secondary mission was to threaten St. Petersburg and the right flank of the
central Russian theater. The Russian garrison commander at Riga was Essen. The
Russians added 12,000 of General Steingell from Finland in September, but these
marched on to join Wittgenstein. From the Russian strategic point of view
Macdonald was not much of a threat, and he proved them right.
2. On the middle Dvina around Polotsk, Oudinot had 40,000 men at first and
then he and St Cyr together had 65,000 (to start on paper) opposed by
Wittgenstein with 30,000 later increased to 50,000. The actions of these
opponents eventually centered around Polotsk.
3. In the main central theater Napoleon had 300,000 against Barclay and
Bagration with 120,000.
4. To the right flank, after Jerome's three corps joined the main army,
General Dombrowski had about 10,000 Polish troops around Bobrusk fortress and
occupying Minsk against General Hertel with 12,000 at Mozyr. They had an
important mission to cover the Allied right flank along its extended LOC and
protect the key supply depots being built at Minsk, Orsha and other towns from
incursions by Russian irregular troops.
5. In southern Lithuania in the Pripet marshes Schwarzenberg and Reynier
had 51,000 (at the start) against Tormassov with 35,000, who was joined later
by Chichagov from Moldavia with 35,000. These allied generals eventually failed
in their mission and allowed Chichagov to slip past them and block Napoleon's
retreat at Borisov.
The Allied army on 24 June initially advanced as follows:
1. Macdonald with X Corps of two Prussian and one of Davout's French divisions
(30,000) crossed the Niemen at Tilsit headed toward Riga, via Mitau and
2. Napoleon had:
Davout I Corps
Oudinot II Corps
Ney III Corps
Eugene IV Corps
St Cyr V Corps
Murat 3 Cavalry Corps
Of these, 230,000 crossed the Niemen at Kovno and 67,000 crossed at Pilona
several days later.
3. In southern Poland Jerome had
Poniatowski, V Corps, 36,000
Reynier, VII Corps, 17,000
Vandamme, VIII Corps, 17,000
Latour-Mauborg, Cavalry corps, 8,000
These crossed at Grodno on 1 July to attack Bagration.
4. On extreme right flank Schwarzenberg crossed Bug at Drohyczyn with
The Russian army on the frontier was divided into three bodies. First West
Army under Barclay had 90,000 with its right wing (Wittgenstein) as far as the
Baltic and its left (Doctorov) around Grodno and its headquarters at Vilna.
Second West Army under Bagration had 45,000 from Grodno to Muchavetz with
headquarters at Volkovski. He also had Platov with 10,000 Cossacks covering the
border. At these locations he had already shifted much further north from where
he had been when Napoleon had conceived his initial strategic plan. The Reserve
Army under Tormassov was in southern Volhynia with 35,000 and headquarters at
Lutzk. Napoleon consistently refused to believe this force amounted to anything
of strategic significance. There was a second strategic echelon of regimental
third battalions along the Dvina and Dnieper with 35,000 men. In addition there
were Russian armies in Finland, on the lower Danube and in the Caucasus.
During July the five Allied armies shifted as they advanced and were
redistributed. The actions on the four flanking theaters did not amount to much
until October, when Napoleon was starting to retreat. Then Schwarzenberg was
pushed away from the center, while Oudinot and St Cyr were pushed toward the
Napoleon's plan was to cross at Kovno and drive Barclay back. The Russians were
to be cut off from Barclay by a force of 67,000 sent from the center under
Eugene, who was to cross on 30 June and cover the gap between Napoleon and
Jerome. It was assumed that Bagration would be by then advancing against Warsaw
or at least not retreating. Eugene's mission was to protect the right flank of
the main French army and provide a connecting link with Jerome's three corps.
Napoleon also hoped to catch Doctorov while he was still along the frontier.
Jerome was first to serve as "bait" for Bagration and then to advance
rapidly to hold him in place so that others could easily surround him.
The Russian commanders didn't conform to Napoleon's preconceptions. Their
initial plan was governed by the concept Alexander had been sold of one army
occupying an elaborately prepared fortress at Drissa while the other operated
on Napoleon's flank. But this plan was almost immediately discarded as
impractical, leaving both Barclay and Bagration to their own devices and take
advantage of whatever opportunities Napoleon might leave them.
SUMMARY OF THE CAMPAIGN PHASES:
The offensive period has two periods. The first includes the movements in
which the French attempts to separate the two Russian forces, while the
Russians are marching to join themselves together. That is, the period from 24
June until the French reach Vitbesk and Orsha at the beginning of August and
the Russians reach Smolensk. This period has two phases. In the first the
French moved to Vilna and halted, in the second they moved to Vitebsk and again
The second period is from the Battle of Smolensk until they decide to retire
from Moscow. It has two phases, the march from Smolensk through Borodino to
Moscow, and the long stay in the city.
The First Period:
French advance from
June to their halt in Vilna in the middle of July:
Napoleon crossed the Niemen River at Kovno on three pontoon bridges and assault
craft and reached Vilna on 29 June. After crossing he sent Oudinot north
against Wittgenstein at Keidany to push him apart from Barclay. He sent Ney
after Oudinot for support and to cover the Vilia river. Wittgenstein met
Oudinot's advance guard at Vilkomir, but reached the main Russian army abreast
of Svanziany with the two French corps following him.
Already at Kovno Napoleon was concerned about the lack of intelligence on
Russian locations and intentions. He became cautious, not knowing what
Bagration might be doing on his exposed right flank. This feeling of unease
increased at Vilna. Also, between the Nieman and Vilna straggling and
"marauding" increased dramatically. Many horses were lost due to
being fed green grain and exposed at night to sudden chills. The summer was
unusually hot, especially by western standards. Many troops complained that
marching conditions were worse than in Spain or even Egypt. Dust obscured even
vision to the front of the column. Water was scarce. The peasant huts were
astonishingly dirty and miserable. Hunger and bad water caused dysentery and
enteric fever immediately. But it was a disease entirely new to the French that
exposed its wrath within days of the river crossing. This appeared as blotchy
pink rashes and turned men's faces to a dusky blue. Frequently death was quick.
The unknown cause was the lice that infested most buildings and quickly took up
residence in unwashed clothing. The French and their allies had never witnessed
typhus. By the third week of July 80,000 soldiers were dead or sick.
At Vilna Napoleon sent 50,000 men under Davout (minus three of his best
divisions) to Minsk to accomplish the separation of Bagration from the main
army of Barclay. Thus Davout in effect crossed the path of Eugene who was
headed northeast. If he had crossed the Nieman much further south he could have
accomplished this mission more easily. But he drove his troops with forced
marches. Enroute Davout's advance guard hit a Russian unit that he and Napoleon
presumed was Bagration's advance guard, but it was actually Docturov's rear
guard. Thereby the Russian corps escaped being cut off from Barclay.
Napoleon directed the remaining 110,000 under Murat against Barclay toward
Barclay started his withdrawal from Vilna on 26 June via Svanziany to the
northeast toward Drissa according to plan, but on
2 July he was still at Svanziany, where both Wittgenstein and Docturov
joined him. Barclay then reached Drissa on the 10th of July.
Eugene crossed the Nieman on 30 June as ordered, headed to Anuszyski. But
Napoleon redirected his VI Corps northeast to Vilna. Eugene continued to
Devinicki on 10 July. By then Davout was already in Minsk and Bagration had
already slipped south to Bobrusk. Therefore Eugene changed his line of march
more to the east via Smorgoni to Vitebsk where he reunited with the main army.
On 1 July Jerome advanced from Grodno as ordered (behind schedule according to
Napoleon's new plans) toward Novogrodeck. Bagration left Volkovisk on 29 June
marching via Slonim and Novogrodeck to Nikolayev where on 4 July he tried to
cross the Niemen. Finding Davout at Voloschin he turned to Mir trying to reach
Minsk. At Schverschin he again found Davout. He shifted and remained 3 days
from the 10th at Nzhevich collecting his artillery and supply trains. Situation
Tormasov was assembling his army around Lutzk.
Situation on 10 July:
Macdonald with 30,000 between Rossiena and Schvilzha
Oudinot with 40,000 (-) at Solock
Ney with 39,000 (-) at Rimsziani
Murat with 51,000 (-) at Vidzy
Napoleon with guards and St Cyr 72,000 (-) at Vilna
Davout with 50,000 (-) at Minsk
Eugene with 40,000 (-) at Dipnischki
Jerome with 61,000 (-) at Novogrodeck
Reynier with 17,000 (-) between Volkovisk and Novogrodeck
Schwarzenberg with 34,000 at Pruschany
Essen with 10,000 garrison at Riga
Barclay with 100,000 in fortress camp at Drissa
Bagration with 45,000 at Nzhesvich
Tormasov with 35,000 at Lutzk
Chichagov with the Army of the Danube in Besarabia
The French had to halt for supplies and rest. Already sickness, especially
typhus and dysentery, and lack of food was having a terrible effect. Tens of
thousands of troops were straggling or marauding and thousands of horses had
died. Also heavy rain caused roads to turn to mud. Supply and artillery trains
were far to the rear. Napoleon stayed 14 days at Vilna, Davout spent 4 days at
Minsk. Murat, Ney and Oudinot spent 15 days covering 30 miles and then 8 days
at Drissa. Napoleon was already loosing control of his own army and his
opportunities to control the strategic situation to force his will on his
From the end of the first halt to the second, that is the middle of July to
August 8th, 3 weeks.
At the middle of July Napoleon started again toward Glubockoy. He then
considered surrounding the Russian camp at Drissa. Meanwhile Barclay gave up
the idea of defending the camp and started toward Vitebsk, leaving Drissa on
the 16th and reaching Vitebsk on the 23rd. He left Wittgenstein with 25,000 at
Polotsk to cover routes to Petersburg.
Napoleon sent Oudinot toward Wittgenstein and then followed Barclay, arriving
before Vitebsk on the 26th. Bagration left Nzhesvisch on the 13th, marching via
Sluzk, Glusk and Bobruisk over the Beresina and then to Stari-Bychov on the
Dnieper on the 21st. He moved up the Beresina, hoping to cross at Mogilev.
Davout had to detach 6,000 cavalry to the main army at Orsha. He then marched
to Mogilev, arriving on the 20th of July. Thus Davout with 20,000 remaining was
to wait at Saltanovka for Bagration with 45,000.
Battle of Saltanovka:
Davout had to prepare a defensive position because he lacked his three
corps that were with Murat. If he had been in full strength it is likely that
he would have driven Bagration back south if not destroyed his army. Bagration
attacked without success on the 23rd. Thinking he was facing Davout's entire I
Corps of at least 60,000, Bagration then feinted with cavalry and Rayevsky's
corps, while crossing the Dnieper by a pontoon bridge at Stari-Bychov on the
24th. Situation on
Jerome, meanwhile, from 10 July had advanced to Novogrodeck and then Mir. At
Mir Ataman Platov's Cossacks and Tatars ambushed the Polish cavalry inflicting
severe losses. Jerome turned extra cautious. This allowed Bagration his 3 day
wait at Nzhesvisch, where Jerome arrived on the 16th. Napoleon censured Jerome
for delay and wrecking the strategic plan. It was actually Napoleon's fault,
first for not placing Jerome in position in Poland from which he could have
arrived sooner and then for not giving Davout sufficient forces to accomplish
the mission. Jerome took offense and went home to Westphalia. His forces were
divided. The VIII Corps was given to Tharreau, Vandamme having already returned
to France, and then to Junot. It marched via Minsk to Orsha to join the main
army eventually at Smolensk. Poniatowski with V Corps followed Bagration as far
as Romanova and then retired to Mogilev on 29 July. Latour-Mauborg (IV Cavalry
Corps) followed Bagration as far as Glusk on the 24th but then could not cross
at the Russian-held fortress of Bobrusk, so crossed the Berezina at Beresino
and reached Mogilev on 5 August.
Meanwhile, Reynier with VII Corps was sent to join Schwarzenberg against
Tormasov. Napoleon wanted to bring Schwarzenberg to the Grand Army and replace
him with Reynier's Saxons, whom he thought sufficient to control Tormasov.
Reynier moved back to Slonim and then to Muchavits. Schwarzenberg was at
Muchavits and Pruschany. Theater
Battle of Kobrin:
On 17 July Tormasov started forward under orders to hit French rear areas.
On 25 July Reynier was at Chomsk and his brigade commanded by Klengel at
Kobrin. Tormasov was able to surround Klengel in Kobrin and force his surrender
with 6,000 troops before Reynier could assist. Reynier was forced back to
Slonim, where Schwarzenberg supported him. Schwarzenberg knew better than
Napoleon the true situation and refused to obey the order to march east.
Macdonald moved the Prussian troops toward Riga. On 19 July they attacked the
Russians and drove them back.
On 24 July the Allied Order of Battle was as follows:
Macdonald with 20,000 at Riga against Essen and 10,000 at Jacobstadt
Oudinot with 40,000 (-) against Wittgenstein with 30,000 at Polotsk.
Napoleon with 180,000 against Barclay with 75,000 at Vitebsk
St. Cyr with 25,000 in reserve at Uszacz.
Davout with 50,000 (-) against Bagration near Mogilev
Bagration with 45,000 between Beresino and Mogilev
VIII Corps, 17,000 near Borisov
Schwarzenberg with 34,000 near Slonim
Reynier with 17,000 near Chomsk against Tormasov with 35,000 at Kobrin.
Clauswitz bases his count on original strength figures, but points out
there were already heavy losses in the Grand Army. By 26 July the French had
lost at least 25% of their starting strength, mostly due to sickness and
straggling. The Russians had lost much less. The French also had to form
detachments to garrison key points and depots. Some statistics are shown below.
Battle of Ostrovno:
Barclay sent a strong rear guard from Vitebsk against the French main army.
This engaged Murat in heavy fighting along the road between Ostrovno and
Vitebsk on 25, 26, and 27 August. On the 27th Napoleon thought he had brought
Barclay to battle. But Barclay, hearing that Bagration was moving to Smolensk,
himself departed Vitebsk on the night of 27th. Barclay reached Smolensk on 2
Aug and Bagration arrived on the 4th. There was a reinforcement of 8,000 troops
waiting for them.
Napoleon remained at Vitebsk until 8 August and reorganized. He again found
that his forward units were lacking in artillery and ammunition and all were
running out of food. The delay resulted in Davout on 21st, Eugene on 24th, and
Junot (VIII Corps) on 4 Aug joining the main army along the Dnieper.
Poniatowski remained at Mogilev until 8 Aug and then joined at Smolensk. He
left Dombrowski with one division to cover Minsk and guard against the Russian
fortress at Bobruisk.
At this time Wittgenstein retired toward St Petersburg, then turned and attack
Oudinot at Jackubovo before Macdonald might join him. The battle lasted two
days and went back and forth, but in the end the Russians held the advantage.
Wittgenstein followed Oudinot and St Cyr toward Polotsk, but could not attack
this strong position.
The campaign had now lasted 6 weeks. According to French strength figures, the
original main army of 375,000 in the central theater had been reduced by 90,000
in detachments to Oudinot, St. Cyr, Latour-Mauborg and Reynier. This gives a
theoretical strength of 285,000 remaining. But the muster showed only 185,000
on 3 August. The 100,000 missing were mostly clear loss, due to sickness more
than battle casualties. According to commentary by individuals in the Grand
Army even this count may be high, because there was already falsification of
strength returns by intermediate commanders reluctant to reveal their true
losses. Murat apparently concealed the true losses in cavalry mounts. And at
one point Ney had both French and Russian dead stripped before Napoleon arrived
on the scene so he could claim a much higher ratio of enemy dead to his own
loss. In one of those especially fascinating accounts given in Austin's book
there is a discussion of the intelligence value of examining latrines. (This is
one of those interesting duties the US Army Mission in Potsdam used to have
while crawling around in Soviet unit rear areas). The French command noted that
whereas their own forces were obviously suffering seriously from dysentery and
diarrhea, the Russians clearly were healthy and well fed.
Meanwhile, Schwarzenberg and Reynier had only 42,000 out of 51,000. Oudinot and
St. Cyr had only 35,000 out of 65,000. Macdonald had not suffered very much
Otto von Pivka provides some very interesting and enlightening graphs
showing the declining strength of each individual corps. From these we can read
that the Imperial Guard did not fall to 50% strength until after 1 October,
reflecting the fact that it even then had not been in combat. But by 3 Aug it
was at 24,600, compared to an initial strength of over 35,000. I Corps reached
50% strength on 17 Aug, during the battle of Smolensk. II Corps hit 50%
strength on 3 August during its battle at Jakubovo. III Corps reached 50% on 19
August at the battle of Lubino (east of Smolensk). IV Corps also declined to
50% on the 17th at Smolensk. V Corps passed the 50% mark on August 13th. VI
Corps was already down to 50% on 7 July. VII Corps (Reynier) which never
entered very far into Russia never fell below 60%. VIII Corps declined to 50%
by 28 July, was reinforced, and then fell again below 50% at Borodino. IX Corps
(Victor) entered the theater only in September and didn't fall below 50% until
November. XI Corps did not enter Russia until 18 November and went no further
than Osmiana, but nevertheless fell below 50% before the month was out. The
combined I, II, III, and IV Cavalry Corps strength, initially at 40,000,
declined by 50% by 3 August. Situation
From the Russian attempted offensive before Smolensk to the loss of Moscow
- from 8 August to 15 September or 5 weeks.
The French main army was now distributed into camps with Murat and Ney at
Rudina, 3 divisions of I Corps at Babinovicki, Imperial Guard at Vitebsk,
Eugene at Surasch and Velisch, Davout and Junot on the left bank of the
Dnieper. (In other words quite spread out.) This gave Barclay some idea he
could launch a successful attack against one or two of these separated corps.
Barclay therefor decided to attack toward Rudina with both armies less the
division of Neverovski, which Bagration had very wisely stationed south of the
Dnieper at Krasnoi to cover the road to Smolensk. This counter-offensive was to
be accomplished in 3 columns on 8 August. Immediately Platov's cossack advance
guard hit the French van under Sebastiani at Inkovo and drove it back with high
losses to the Allies. Receiving false information, Barclay suddenly became
worried that the French were on the road from Poreciz north of him and not
where he was attacking. He called off the attack and retired. But this aborted
attack roused Napoleon, while causing much disturbance to him and his army. He
decided to renew his offensive, but by a different road. On the 14th all the
corps not already south of the Dnieper crossed at Rasasna to advance against
Smolensk from the south. Barclay realized he had been mistaken and started to
advance again. But this time, being warned by Bagration, he discovered that the
French were indeed not north of the river. He therefore on the 16th headed
rapidly back toward Smolensk, where Bagration was already located.
On the 15th Neverovski's division, that had wisely been left behind and south
of the Dnieper at Krasnoi was struck by the full weight of Murat's cavalry plus
Ney's infantry. Neverovski's small force of 8,000 was driven back with high
losses, but not without disputing every inch of ground in a heroic defensive
battle. This saved Smolensk. One cause of his success was the way Murat refused
to allow Ney to bring artillery into play, but insisted on repeated,
ineffectual frontal cavalry attacks. Rayevski soon reenforced Neverovski.
Battle of Smolensk:
On the 16th the French advance guard attacked
By then Bagration had put Rayevski's corps into the town. The Russians held the
French out, using the massive medieval walls, which were impervious to the
French field artillery. During the night 16-17 August Rayevski was replaced by
Docturov from Barclay's army and Bagration withdrew to the east, toward Moscow.
The French continued their frontal assault on Smolensk all day on the 17th,
finally breaking into the suburbs as far as the massive walls that evening.
During the night of the 17th the Russians left Smolensk south of the river but
remained in contact on the north bank. Finding the city empty early on the
18th, Ney entered the city, followed by Napoleon. The French attempted to cross
the river but spent most of the day reorganizing, while sending reconnaissance
eastward to find crossings of the Dnieper. On the 18th during the night Barclay
began to retreat on a northern road away from the river. Some of his formations
became disoriented and lost. Bagration was on the direct or southern route
Battle of Valutino Gora:
In a very fierce battle the Russian rear guard successfully held
Gora against Murat and Ney on the north bank and Junot, who was crossing
the Dnieper east of Smolensk to cut them off. Ney ordered Junot to attack in
support but the latter refused.
These battles cost each side about 20,000 casualties. But the loss was much
worse for the French, since the Russians were expecting reinforcements.
Napoleon again had to stop to bring up supplies and attend to wounded and
missing. Napoleon now had serious discussions with his senior officers about
what to do. Most recommended that he stop and consolidate around Smolensk and
hold the Dvina and Dnieper river lines over the winter. He seemed to agree, but
the lure of Moscow proved too enticing.
From Smolensk to Borodino the Russian rear guard daily held against the French
advance. Situation on
25th. Generally these skirmishes involved 10,000 cavalry and 10,000
infantry on each side. Murat continued his reckless use of cavalry, bringing
him into conflict not only with Ney but now Davout as well. But their criticism
was to no avail. On 27 August Miloradovich brought in 15,000 fresh troops to
the Russian army. Kutuzov arrived and took command on the 29th.
Battle of Borodino:
( see Borod2 for photos of the battlefield and of
sections of the great Panorama.) (See time line for
the hour by hour action during the battle.) On 3 September Napoleon ordered a
full muster with strength counts. The official count was 128,000 total plus
6,000 expected to return to duty within 6 days. On 4 September the Russians
received an additional 10,000 of the opolchenia at Borodino, where Kutuzov had
agreed to halt and give battle. After several other possibly better locations
were rejected he had to accept this location recommended by Benningsen and
selected initially by Toll.
The terrain in this area was as favorable for the defense as one could hope for
in central Russia. Clausewitz writes that there are no really good defensive
positions to be had so a general has to make do with what he can find. The
Russian line was located on low rolling hills with open areas between pine and
birch forests. The center was between the two main roads from Smolensk to
Moscow. The position was behind the Kolotcha River, but this stream did not
afford much protection because it flowed at an angle to the front and wasn't
very deep anyway. The right flank was behind a favorable stretch of the
Kolotcha River from its confluence with the larger Moskva River upstream a
mile. But the center and left were far back from the Kolotcha. Several much
smaller dry stream beds afforded some defensive capability, especially the
Semenovka, which intersected the position before joining the Kolotcha. There
were several low ridges and in the right center of the line a larger hill gave
a view across the streams. The so-called Rayevsky Redoubt mounting 18 12pounder
cannon was placed on this hill.
The Grand Army by this time had 90,000 infantry and 29,500 cavalry with 587
guns. But some units were very under-strength and the entire cavalry was weak
due to poor quality horses. Of the 83 cavalry regiments, 43 were French and 40
were of other nationalities. The Russian army contained 90,000 infantry and
24,000 cavalry plus 7,000 cossacks, and had 640 guns.
On 5 September the French took the advanced
redoubt from the march after a bitter fight as they approached the battlefield
in the evening. On the 6th both sides prepared. On the 7th the battle of
Borodino resulted in about 40,000 Russian and 30,000 French casualties. (For a
detailed hour-by-hour description see the table.)
The initial Russia disposition was badly weighted too much on their relatively
protected right side and too little on their exposed left side (map).
On the right Barclay had the First West Army with Baggovout's II Corps on the
far right and Ostermann- Tolstoy's IV Corps also to the right of the main road
and behind the Kolotcha. Behind these corps were the 1st Cavalry Corps of
Uvarov and Ataman Platov's main cossack force. The VI Corps commanded by
Dokhturov held the center up to the Raevsky Redoubt. The redoubt itself was
covered by Paskevich's division of Raevsky's VII Corps of the Second West Army.
The II Cavalry Corps of Korff and III Cavalry Corps of Kreutz were behind the
infantry on the right flank. The Life Guard Jager Regiment held the bridge and
village of Borodino.
Bagration's Second West Army deployed on the left end of the line. From the
Raevsky redoubt it had 2,500 yards of frontage behind Semenovka village, which
was torn down, up to a hill on which three fletches were hastily constructed.
Raevsky's VII Corps had to hold this line from the redoubt to Semenovka
inclusive. The IV Cavalry Corps of Sievers was in support. Vorontsov's 7th
Combined Grenadier Division held the fletches and Neverovsky's 27th Infantry
Division was behind the line until moved up to Shevardino. This was a redoubt
hastily constructed a mile in front of the main Russian position to serve as a
kind of look out post and to prevent the French from deploying easily.
Borozdin's VIII Corps held the left of Bagration's and the army line.
At the last minute Barclay and Bagration became aware of the great weakness of
the left flank. They managed to have Tuchkov's III Corps sent there from the
general reserve on the 6th, but by then it was too late to construct field
1 of battle.
Thus the army reserve was reduced to the V Corps consisting of the Life Guard
Infantry Division and the 1st and 2nd Cuirassier Divisions.
Kutuzov established his headquarters in Gorki village, which is on the new
Smolensk-Moscow road not far from Borodino village. But this is far to the
right flank, actually almost beyond the right of the region in which all the
fighting took place. In addition to the two army commanders, Barclay and
Bagration, an intermediate echelon of command was created. General Miloradovich
was placed in charge of II and IV Corps and I and II Cavalry Corps. General
Dokhturov controlled his own VI Corps and the III Cavalry Corps. On the left
Prince Gorchakov controlled the VII and VIII Corps and IV Cavalry Corps.
In the Allied army Eugene occupied the left flank with his Italian Corps north
of the Kolotcha River. He had to build several pontoon bridges to bring his
divisions into line to attack the Rayevski Redoubt. He had divisions led by
Delzons, Broussier, Gerard and cavalry led by Ornano and Grouchy. Ney and
Davout attacked in the center, supported initially by Junot, whose corps was
later shifted south, between Davout and Poniatowski. They were supported by
Murat's cavalry, the Reserve Corps of Nansouty, Montbrun, and Latour-Maubourg.
In addition the Imperial Guard stood behind them. Poniatowski had his Polish
Corps on the far right of the line with the mission to attack up the Old
Smolensk Road and take Utitsa. He had 10,000 men and 50 guns, or 8% of the army
and 11% of the artillery.
Napoleon deployed about 85,000 men in the center of his line with formations
stacked up a mile deep. According to one estimate the French 133,000 men were
deployed at 44,000 per mile. Cates has estimated the density of the Russian
forces at 9.5 men per yard over the entire 11,000 yard wide position. Initially
the Russians were deployed with four corps covering 7,000 yards and 2 corps
covering 4,000 yards, plus one corps in reserve. This shows why they had to
shift several corps during the battle. But considering that most of the
fighting took place in a 6,500 yard wide central sector into which two corps
from the right were shifted, the total Russian strength there comes to 16 men
per yard. According to another estimate the Russian army had 125,000 men
deployed at 36,000 infantry per mile, 24,000 line cavalry in reserve, and
14,000 artillerymen and engineers. But of these there were 15,000 opolchenie
and 15,000 new recruits. The 7,000 cossacks were divided to the two flanks.
Their 640 artillery pieces were of larger caliber and outranged the French.
Unfortunately almost half (300) were in reserve and never made it into combat.
Also, the Russian artillery had a habit of shooting high.
During the battle the French fired 60,000 artillery rounds and 140,000 infantry
cartridges. The Russians fired 50-60,000 artillery rounds also and probably
120,000 infantry cartridges. This indicates an average rate of fire of 3 cannon
shots per second and 430 musket shots per minute.
Phase 2 of battle.
Casualty estimates vary. The French lost about 30,000. The Russians lost
between 38,000 and 44,000, with the official records indicating a loss of
43,924. George Nafziger provides the most detailed data on Russian losses by
regiment. Some Russian units came off with relatively light losses in the range
of 2 - 5%, while others took heavy casualties. In the Imperial Guard, for
instance, the Preobrazhenski Regiment, which had never seen direct action,
nevertheless suffered 7% casualties while standing in its deep reserve
position. The Semenovski Regiment, also mostly in reserve suffered 29% a loss.
But the three regiments that had withstood repeated French cavalry attacks and
withering fire from the French Guard Artillery took -Ismailovski 42%,
Lithuanian 39% and Finland 24.4% losses. The Guard Jager Regiment, that had
been surprised and driven out of Borodino at first light, suffered 27% losses.
3 of battle.
The French stated they recovered 20,000 cannon balls from the battlefield after
the engagement. Russian records indicate the peasants buried 58,521 men and
35,478 horses on the battlefield in early 1813.
4 of battle.
On the 8th Kutuzov retired to Moscow. Napoleon marveled at the tiny number of
Russian prisoners and small number of wounded they left behind. The next day
Napoleon followed, leaving Junot's much reduced corps to hold Mozhaisk. On 10
September Miloradovich dealt Murat's advance guard a sharp blow at Krimskoi in
which the French lost 2,000. But Russian weaponry was the least of the French
worries. Between the battle of Borodino and their arrival in the Russian
capital another 10,000 French troops fell by the wayside, stricken with typhus
or dysentery. On 14 September the Russians marched through Moscow. They exited
by the road to Riazan (on the east bank of the Moskva River) in order to keep
the river between them and the French, but then shifted on the 16th to cross
the river. On the 17th and 18th they marched to cross the Pachra River at
Podolsk. They reached the Kaluga road on the 20th and remained there until the
26th. Meanwhile, immediately that the Russian army had cleared the city it was
set on fire on orders of its governor, Count Rostopchin.
Battle of Polotsk:
During this period Wittgenstein had attempted to attack Grandjean's
division of Macdonald's corps at Dunaburg, but received reports that Oudinot
and St Cyr were moving against him. He therefor shifted to attack Oudinot. On
16 August he reached Polotsk and attacked Oudinot on the 17th with great
success. Oudinot was preparing to retire, when he was wounded, passing command
to St. Cyr. On the 18th St Cyr decided to attack instead, forcing Wittgenstein
to retreat behind the Dvina River. The two sides remained observing each other
At Riga the Russians on 23 August sallied against the Prussian right wing at
Dahlenkirchen and drove them back. Then both sides rested into October.
Meanwhile Schwarzenberg and Reynier united and advanced against Tormasov. On 12
August Schwarzenberg turned Tormasov's left and forced him to retreat toward
Kobrin and then back south around the Pripet Marsh. By 29 August Tormasov was
defending behind the Styr River at Lutzk. There Tormasov was joined by Admiral
Chichagov with 38,000 on 18 September. Chichagov had left Bucharest with the
Army of Moldavia on 31 July.
In the rear of the French center Victor crossed the Niemen on 3 September at
Kovno with IX Corps, 34,000 strong, and moved toward Smolensk.
From the French arrival at Moscow to their retreat, Sept 15 to October 23,
or 5 weeks.
The French main army arrived at Moscow only 90,000 strong. Murat with an
advance guard of 25,000 to 30,000 carefully followed Kutuzov a short distance.
Junot had 2,000 men at Mozhaisk and D'Hilliers had a division of various troops
collected at Smolensk. Victor was between the Dnieper and Dvina. During these
weeks about 12,000 reinforcements reached Napoleon in Moscow. But these barely
kept up with the losses due to sickness. The fall weather was exceptionally
warm. In Moscow typhus continued to take its daily toll and another 10,000
troops were lost to sickness or succumbed to prior wounds. Meanwhile the
hospitals established at the Kolotski monastery, and in Viazma and Smolensk
were filled with the sick and wounded who were dying from lack of medicine and
French unit strength in Moscow in
2,000 at Mozhaisk
Kutuzov shifted from Krasnoi Pachra to Tarutino and went into an entrenched
position behind the Nara River on 2 October. Kutuzov had only 70,000 as he
passed through Moscow, but by now had 110,000 in line.
Alexander meanwhile issued orders to Wittgenstein, Steinheil and Chichagov to
unite and cut the French line of communications at the Beresina River.
Steinheil brought the 12,000 of the army from Finland to Wittgenstein, raising
his force to 40,000.
Kutuzov detached Vinzingerode and Doctorov to the left and right of Moscow to
attack French garrisons. Militia swarmed over all roads and villages holding
the French in check.
Napoleon sent Lauriston twice to Kutuzov to negotiate. Kutuzov pretended to be
interested, prolonging the discussions and holding Napoleon longer in Moscow.
Barclay realized his position was compromised by his enemies. He asked to be
relieved due to ill health. He was then exiled to Vladimir due to the very
unfair attacks against him by so many of the senior officers.
Battle of Valuntino:
On 18 October Benningsen attacked Murat's advance guard of 20,000 at
Valuntino on the Czernicznia river and drove him back with French losses of
3-4,000 men and 36 guns.
During this period on 20 September General Steinheil having arrived in Courland
by sea from Finland and marched overland to Riga, attacked the Prussians on the
26th. General Yorck fought for 3 days to defend the French siege artillery at
Second Battle of Polotsk:
Steinheil retired to Riga and then marched to join Wittgenstein by the left
bank of the Dvina to attack Polotsk in rear. On 18-19 October Wittgenstein,
under orders from Alexander, attacked in the Second Battle of Polotsk, storming
the town and forcing the French to retreat. The remanet of the French VI Corps
retired toward Vilna and the II Corps toward Czasvicki to meet Victor.
Wittgenstein sent detachments after the VI Corps and himself followed the II
Chichagov now had 65,000 against Schwarzenberg and Reynier with 40,000. The
Russians attacked again Schwarzenberg retired down the Bug to Brest-Litovsk,
where the two armies met on 9 October. Tormasov was called to Kutuzov.
Chichagov in command advanced again. Schwarzenberg recrossed the Bug and
retired on the Warsaw road to Vengrov. Chichagov was ordered to shift to block
the French at the Berezina River, so did not pursue the Austrians but went into
camp to rest. General Hertel continued to hold the Austrians at Pinsk and the
Poles (Dombrowski at Bobruisk) in check.
Part II: the French Retreat
From the start of Napoleon's retreat to the crossing of the Niemen -
October 18 to December 11, or seven weeks.
Napoleon was on the point of retiring from Moscow when the news of Murat's loss
at Valuntino came in. This forced him to act early. One of the major questions
about his strategy during the campaign concerns his motives and strategic
conceptions at this time. Some of his written orders to corps commanders
described a plan to march southwest to Kaluga and then from there northwest to
Smolensk via Yelnia. As part of this plan he ordered Victor to send troops
south from Smolensk to Yelnia to help prepare this route. But Clausewitz is
adamant in discounting this strategic plan. He claims that Napoleon began the
retreat by first advancing toward Kutuzov at Malo Yaroslavets in order to
reduce the advantage of position that Kutuzov had over him. At Taritino (map)
Kutuzov was 3 days closer to Smolensk than Napoleon was in Moscow. Napoleon
therefor decided to push Kutuzov back toward Kaluga, while shifting his army
onto a direct road to Mozhaisk. Commentators who believe Napoleon had any
intention of trying to march back through a so-called 'unravaged' southern
route are quite mistaken. The French army depended on its depots for supply and
had gone to great lengths to create such depots along the road via Smolensk.
There was no way they could forage effectively for supplies in the countryside
unravaged or not as they marched in winter with cossacks on all sides. So
Napoleon's aim was to shift himself into a more favorable position to be able
to reach Smolensk before Kutuzov.
Napoleon therefor marched at first on the old road toward Kaluga to Krasnoi
Pachra, then turned onto the new road to Fominski and threatened Kutuzov's left
flank and communications with Kaluga. Napoleon hoped to force Kutuzov into
another withdrawal toward that town without a battle. At the same time he sent
Poniatowski further to his right to clear the way and recover Veriya, which was
accomplished on 23 October.
Kutuzov was surprised, but managed to shift Doctorov to Malo-Yaroslavets just
in time to meet Eugene's Italians on 24 October. The French army managed to
hold the town in a fierce, back-and-forth battle. This showed Napoleon that he
could not push Kutuzov back without heavy losses. He had achieved part of his
purpose, so assembled the army on 25 October to start for Smolensk via
Mozhaisk. But why clear back to Mozhaisk. There were intermediate roads
available that would have led to Smolensk more directly. Kutuzov withdrew on
the Kaluga road anyway. Also on the 25th Platov launched a cossack sortie
against the French position at Gorodnia that took 11 cannon and from which
Napoleon himself barely escaped. Other cossacks appeared at Borovski, causing
increased French concern about their line of communications.
Meanwhile, on the 23rd, Mortier left Moscow with the Young Guard directly for
Mozhaisk. He was ordered to blow up the Kremlin, but fortunately many of the
fuzes did not function so the damage was relatively minor. He joined Junot on
the 28th west of that town to form the advance guard for the retreating army.
Napoleon reached Mozhaisk on the 28th and Davout was at Borovski with the rear
guard. On the 31st Napoleon with the advanced guard reached Viazma, the
Imperial Guard and Murat were at Federovski, Poniatowski and Eugene were at
Gzhatsk and the rear guard of Davout was at Gridnevo.
Kutuzov moved on the 27th from Gonczarovo on the parallel road through Medyn
and Veriya and on toward Viazma. Miloradovich with 25,000 men advanced to
Gzhatsk, where he attacked the last French corps. Platov followed with 6-8,000
Napoleon halted two days at Viazma to bring the army together. On 2 November he
reached Semlevo, with the Guard, Murat, and Junot. Ney was at Viazma; Eugene,
Poniatowski and Davout at Federovskoye.
Battle of Viazma:
On 3 November Miloradovich and Platov with 40,000 men attacked the French
at Viazma. Kutuzov came close at Vikovo, but did not participate. The French
retired as soon as Davout's rear guard was closed in, having suffered heavy
Between Viazma and Smolensk there were several rear-guard actions between Ney
and Miloradovich, at Semlevo and Dorogobusch. Eugene moved via Duchovtschina
looking for supplies, but was forced at the Vop River to abandon his 60 guns
and struggle back to the main road at Smolensk. At the same time Augereau's
whole brigade of 2,000 men was captured at Liskova on 9 November.
By the time they reached Smolensk the French army was down to 45,000 men.
Napoleon reached the city on 9 November, his advance guard arrived on the 10th,
and he hoped to distribute supplies to his starving army. But the garrison and
others had already practically destroyed the depots in their frenzy for
self-preservation. Eugene finally made it to Smolensk on the 13th, by which
time Junot and Poniatowski were one day's march west on the road to Krasnoi and
Minsk. The Imperial Guard and Murat were in Smolensk, Davout was at
Tschuginevo, east of town. Ney had the rear guard further east at the Vop
river. These corps shifted west by stages.
Miloradovich left a small force with General Schakovski to attack Ney's rear
guard along the main road, while he shifted his main army over to the road
through Liskova, nearer to Kutuzov. They marched through Viazma to Yelnya on
the 8th and then toward Krasnoi.
Junot and Poniatowski reached Krasnoi on 13 November.
Napoleon and the Guard left Smolensk on the 14th, Eugene left on the 15th,
Davout on the 16th on order to remain in supporting distance of Ney, who was to
reach Smolensk only on the 15th, and depart on the 17th.
At Krasnoi Kutuzov got ahead of the French and could now interpose directly
behind them if he chose. But he still feared Napoleon and didn't want to risk
an open battle. He counted on the French army self-destructing in the coming
winter weather. He stepped up skirmishing and low level engagements. This
caused a series of 6 actions around Krasnoi. These were effective in creating
significant losses to the French even though they appeared to be French
Battle of Krasnoi:
The first battle of Krasnoi was on 14 November in which the Guard engaged
one of Kutuzov's corps under Ostermann. The second battle on the 15th found the
Guard fighting their way past Miloradovich at Merlino. The third battle, also
on the 15th, was between Napoleon and Ozarovski south of Krasnoi. The fourth
battle on the 16th was between Eugene and Miloradovich who blocked the road
into Krasnoi. Eugene managed to bypass the Russian left after sustaining
considerable losses. The fifth battle was on the 17th between Napoleon and
Kutuzov. Napoleon attacked southeast with part of the Guard (14,000 men) in
hopes of forcing Miloradovich to go to Kutuzov's aid, thus clearing the main
road for Ney and Davout to reach Krasnoi. Kutuzov thought the French army had
already passed and was in process of shifting forward to cut off the
stragglers. When Kutuzov realized he was facing Napoleon he called off his
advance. The result was that Davout did find the road partly open and Napoleon
withdrew toward Lidyi, where Eugene had already been. By then Junot and
Poniatowski were already nearing Orsha. Miloradovich inflicted heavy casualties
on Davout along the road. The Russians collected 45 guns and 6,000 prisoners in
these actions while the cossacks brought in another 112 guns abandoned along
the roads from Smolensk. The sixth battle on the 18th occurred when Ney with
6,000 men, having left Smolensk on the 17th, reached Miloradovich's road block
and like Eugene was forced to try to bypass it to the right. He first tried
twice to break through and then vanished by night march across the Dnieper onto
a long circular route that finally brought him into Orsha with a remaining 600
men. The Russians took the rest along with his artillery.
By these running battles the French managed to get through Kutuzov and
Miloradovich's last road block. For the rest of the campaign these commanders
followed Napoleon at a respectable distance. However they were counting on more
road blocks to come, courtesy of Wittgenstein and Chichagov. The French army
left Smolensk with 45,000 men still bearing arms. At Orsha the main body
controlled by Napoleon still had 25,000 under arms with 110 guns. The army
reached the Berezina with 12,000, giving a loss of 33,000 of which probably
20,000 fell in these engagements. The Russians picked up around 10,000
stragglers during this week. During the four days the French also lost 230
By 19 November the French army, except for Ney, was at Orsha. They resumed
marching for Minsk. With Vitebsk already in Russian hands and its large depot
lost, Minsk had the only remaining depot short of Vilna. Napoleon also hoped to
get nearer to Schwarzenberg at Minsk. But this road crosses the Berezina at
Borisov on a 600 yard long causeway bridge in the middle of a swamp.
David Chandler gives the following strength data for the Grand Army at
V + VIII Corps
250 - 300 guns
Wrede at Gluboko
During these weeks the French suffered losses on their flanks as well. At
Riga Macdonald had been harassed for a month, so undertook a small offensive to
drive the Russians back from the Dvina. He was not informed enough about the
situation in the French center to realize he should consider retiring.
St Cyr retired after the Second Battle of Polotsk. He joined Victor at Lukomlia
on 29 October. Their combined army numbered 36,000. Victor decided to renew the
offensive against Wittgenstein on the 31st. Victor changed his mind in
mid-battle. Wittgenstein then counter-attacked. Victor had to retreat to
Czereya, which he reached on 6 November. This gave Wittgenstein the opportunity
to detach General La Harpe to seize the huge depots at Vitebsk, which was
stormed on the 7th.
Oudinot recovered from wounds and took command of his corps. Victor received
another order from Napoleon to attack Wittgenstein and drive him back over the
Dvina. This resulted in the battle of Smoliani, after which Victor again
retired in the face of Russian superiority (30,000 to 25,000). On 19 November
general Corbineau's light cavalry joined Oudinot after fording the Berezina at
Studianka, which revealed this option to Oudinot.
Meanwhile Chichagov started out again on 27 October toward Minsk, leaving
General Sacken with 27,000 men to face Schwarzenberg. Chichagov reached Slonim
on 6 November and then moved on Minsk, which was defended by only 4,000 men. To
aid in its defense Dombrowski marched northwest from Bobruisk. On 15 November
Chichagov's advance guard routed the forces sent against it from Minsk. He
entered the city on the 16th before Dombrowski could reach it, so the latter
retired now to Borisov.
Schwarzenberg, learning that Chichagov had departed, advanced once more across
the Bug to turn Sacken's left flank and move to Slonim, which he reached on 14
November. Reynier covered Schwarzenberg's flank against Sacken. The Saxon and
Austrian forces were now between Sacken and Chichagov. Sacken only discovered
the importance of this shift when Schwarzenberg had reached the Narev River. He
decided to advance to force the Saxon-Austrian force to return west. Reynier
formed a defense line to cover Schwarzenberg's rear and requested immediate
assistance. But Sacken hit Reynier's headquarters on the 15th at Volkovisk and
drove the Saxons back with heavy losses. On the 16th he assaulted Reynier's
left flank hoping to drive him away from Schwarzenberg. However the Austrian
commander left 6000 men at Slonim and returned with his main force to strike
Sacken in turn in the rear. This forced Sacken to retreat southwestward, after
sustaining heavy losses. Schwarzenberg and Reynier followed via Brest- Litovsk
and Kovel. Schwarzenberg reached Kobrin on 25 November. Thus he was effectively
drawn away from the main action in the French rear. He received Napoleon's
order to march on Minsk, which he started to do on the 27th, followed by
Reynier on 1 December but it was much too late.
Sacken's offensive had the result of freeing Chichagov from a danger from
Schwarzenberg. He marched on 20 November toward Borisov. His advance guard
under General Lambert met Dombrovski's division at Borisov. Lambert attacked,
driving Dombrovski back across the Berezina with very heavy losses. Lambert was
seriously wounded in the action. Dombrovski took his remaining 1,500 men back
to join Oudinot at Bobr. On 22 November Chichagov sent his advance guard, now
suddenly commanded by General Pahlen, toward Bobr and crossed the Berezina
himself to defend Borisov.
Thus, when the main French army was departing Orsha with 12,000 remaining the
two Russian armies that were to close the trap at the Beresina and Ula Rivers
were are Czasniki and Borisov and they were opposed by two French corps at
Czereya and Bobr. With Minsk and Borisov lost Napoleon was really in a tight
spot. He had to find a way across the Berezina that would get him to Vilna. One
suggestion he discarded was to march north and attack Wittgenstein. He ordered
Oudinot to clear the Berezina and find a passage. Napoleon marched toward Bobr,
reaching it on 23 November. The same day Oudinot moved from that town to
Borisov and struck Chichagov's advance guard by surprise. Pahlen was driven
back with heavy losses clear across the bridges. Chichagov himself was nearly
captured at dinner before he managed to escape back across the river, but he
did destroy part of the bridge. Oudinot held Borisov including the eastern end
of the bridge. On 24 November he did a reconnaissance of the river and selected
the ford he had learned of at Studianka. But he continued to make feints south
Battle of Berezina River Crossing:
Napoleon had burned his bridges (pontoon) literally at Orsha, fooled by a
temporary cold spell into thinking the rivers would be frozen. Then it thawed.
Fortunately for him his engineer bridging commander, Eble, had saved his
precious tools and forges etc.
23 Nov. The engineers worked all day on the 24th and 25th tearing down
houses and fabricating bridging. The bridges were started at 8 AM on the 26th
and completed by 1 PM.
On the 24th Napoleon was at Losnitza and his rear guard under Davout was at
Bobr. Victor was at Ratuliczi, Wittgenstein at Kolopodniczi. Kutuzov was just
crossing the Dnieper at Kopys.
On the 25th Napoleon reached Borisov and the rear guard was at Krupki.
25 Nov. Victor remained in place. But Wittgenstein moved toward Baran to
approach Chichagov and cover the Ula River.
At this point Chichagov thought Napoleon would move south to join
Schwarzenberg. He had already seized the bridges at Zembin as well as covered
the ford at Studianka. But he thought the French activity there was the false
demonstration. Therefor on the 26th, despite contrary advice and urging from
General Tschaplitz who was on the spot, he shifted his main force south and
withdrew from Zembin to Borisov, leaving only cossack patrols north of the
town. These also failed to destroy the critical bridges at Zembin.
On the 26th the remaining French main army totalling about 30,000 under arms
and twice that many stragglers was between Losnitza, Borisov, and Studianka.
Oudinot crossed the bridges at 1 PM, driving General Tchaplitz's remaining
troops, which were hurrying back north, back to Stakov. Ney followed
immediately. Victor marched during the evening of 26th to Borisov with
Wittgenstein following to Kostritza.
On the 27th Napoleon crossed with the Imperial Guard. Eugene and Davout crossed
that night. During the 27th there were engagements on both sides of the river.
On the right (west) bank Oudinot and Ney drove Chichagov's returning advance
guard back, while the very cautious Russian commander himself remained at
Borisov. On the left (east) bank Wittgenstein also was too cautious. He moved
toward Borisov even though he knew of the crossing point at Studianka. He
captured one of Victor's divisions commanded by General Partonneau (4,000 men)
as it was moving from Borisov to Studenka.
On 28 November only Victor remained on the east bank with only one division.
Situation 28 Nov. His other remaining division was sent back (minus its
artillery that could not cross back). The idea was to delay at least one more
day to enable more of the mass of stragglers to escape. On the 28th there were
again engagements on both banks. Wittgenstein attacked Victor on the east bank.
Chichagov defended against the French on the west bank. The French retreated,
but for those on the west bank it was a move west that eluded Chichagov.
Wittgenstein collected thousands more prisoners and more cannon.
On 29 November the main French remanent was at Zembin headed on the direct road
to Vilna. As they passed the dyke at Zembin the French destroyed the bridges
behind them. This delayed the Russians further. The Russian generals sent only
cossacks and other cavalry in slow pursuit. They didn't have to press the issue
and in fact couldn't as weather was killing off their men almost as fast as the
French. It was during these weeks that the temperature dropped into the minus
20 - 30 degree range. Of the "Grand Army" another 15,000 died between
the Berezina River and Vilna. There they met their enemy, typhus again. Of the
25,000 who made Vilna only 3,000 survived.
Napoleon left the army on 5 December at Smorgoni.
Macdonald departed the Riga and Mitau area on 19 December. The Prussian corps
changed sides during this retreat. He reached Konigsberg on 3 January 1813.
Schwarzenberg delayed at Slonim until 14 December, deceived by the false
reports being issued by Napoleon's headquarters. He retired into Galicia.
Reynier also retreated, being followed by Sacken.
According to Clausewitz, in January 1813 the French army surviving behind the
Vistula amounted to 23,000 men. The Austrian and Prussian armies returned with
35,000 together. This gives a total of 58,000. Counting reinforcements that
joined during the campaign the total strength of the Grand Army reached
610,000. This gives a total loss of 552,000 men. The army started with 182,000
horses of which about 15,000 remained with the Prussian and Austrian
contingents. Of the original 1,372 artillery pieces the Austrians and Prussians
brought back about 150. This gives a loss of over 1,200 guns.
David Chandler has slightly different statistical data. He counts 655,000
crossing the Vistula including reinforcements with 80,000 cavalry horses. Of
this 450,000 were in the main attack force, and the flank armies had 68,000.
For January 1813 he counts 93,000 remaining. He estimates total losses at
570,000 of whom 370,000 died and 200,000 were prisoners (but of whom less than
50% survived). He estimates the loss in horses at 200,000 and cannon at 1050.
Graph of the French army strength during the
We may categorize the reasons for failure as external and internal.
Technological inadequacy - The transportation system that relied on horses and
oxen was simply not adequate for the demand placed on it. In addition the
condition of roads and bridges was far worse than Napoleon or any French
planners had imagined. There was little fodder for the animals
The command system looked good on paper and did perform remarkably well in some
ways. Dispatches could arrive from Paris in two weeks until the Cossacks began
intercepting the postal carriages. But even at its best the system could not
pass messages back and forth between detached commanders in a sufficiently
Napoleon immediately blamed the weather, and his story has been repeated over
the years. But the early months were actually too hot. Then came heavy rains
that washed out roads. The fall was exceptionally and deceptively warm. This
encouraged Napoleon into a false sense of security. He was already defeated
before the weather turned cold. On the other hand the sub-zero temperature and
snow and ice on the roads turned his defeat into a total disaster. Considering
his performance under dire circumstances in France in 1814 and in Germany in
1813 one might argue that under similar climatic conditions he would have
managed at least to salvage his position in October - November 1812.
Among his failures was an unrealistic appraisal of the international diplomatic
situation. His campaign relied greatly on Sweden and Ottoman Empire placing
significant military pressure on Russia that would force the Tsar to retain
sizable forces to oppose them.
Napoleon's personality led to a massive case of cultural blindness. He simply
could not comprehend the level of Russian intransigence. And this was despite
his intensive study of the campaigns of Charles XII and Frederick II against
Russian armies, not to mention his own campaign at Eylau and Friedland.
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