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The Battle of Sorauren, 28-30 July.

On 25 July 1813 French troops commanded by Marshal Nicolas Soult attacked the Allies at Maya and Roncesvalles with the intention of relieving the siege of San Sebastian and the blockade of Pamplona. The Allies, contrary to Wellington’s orders, gave ground.

Wellington, accompanied by only his ADC, Fitzroy Somerset, rode towards the Allied army on 27 July. They reached the village of Sorauren, 10 miles from Pamplona, just ahead of the advancing French. The Allied army was drawn up along a ridge to the southeast, latter called Cole’s ridge after General Sir Lowry Cole. Wellington joined it to the cheers of the troops.

The French took up position along a ridge to the north of the one occupied by the Allied army, later called Clausel’s ridge after General Bertrand Clausel.  They were not ready to attack that day. A thunderstorm in the afternoon boosted Allied morale because there had been one before the battle of Salamanca. It delayed the arrival of reinforcements to both sides.

On 28 July Soult’s 30,000 men attacked Wellington’s 24,000 across the valley between the two ridges. Fighting was fierce, but the French assaults were beaten off. Allied casualties were 1,358 British, 1,102 Portuguese and 192 Spaniards dead or wounded. Around 4,000 French troops were killed or wounded.[1]

Soult’s offensive had failed, and his army was now in a position where it could not be supplied. His obvious course of action was to retreat the way that he had come. However, he was informed that the three divisions of General Jean-Baptiste Drouet, Count D’Erlon, which had missed the battle, were now to his right and rear. Soult decided to join Drouet in an attempt to cut Wellington off from San Sebastian.

Soult’s attempt to disengage on the night of 29-30 July could have succeeded only if it was conducted in complete secrecy, but Allied pickets heard the sound of troops moving in the early hours of 30 July. At daybreak French troops could be seen withdrawing, and were bombarded by the Allied artillery.

Wellington then launched a series of co-ordinated attacks. The Allies were out-numbered, but French morale was very low and they were routed. The battle was over by noon.

Soult was able to withdraw the survivors of his army to France without another major battle, but his nine day offensive cost him 13,500 casualties out of 60,000. The Allies lost 7,100 out of 40,000 men actually engaged in combat.[2]

Charles Esdaile notes that it is hard to see what Soult hoped his offensive would achieve. He could not have resupplied Pamplona even if he reached it, and it would have been difficult to keep his attacking force supplied.[3]


[1] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814, (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 296.

[2] Ibid., p. 300.

[3] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 460.

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The Battles of Maya and Roncesvalles, 25 July 1813

Following Wellington’s victory at Vitoria his Allied army pursued the retreating French towards the Franco-Spanish border. The French, however, still held the fortresses of San Sebastian and Pamplona. Wellington’s siege train was too small to carry out two sieges simultaneously, so he surrounded Pamplona. The siege of San Sebastian began on 7 July.

Peter Snow and Jac Weller both note that some commentators have argued that Wellington should have ignored San Sebastian and pushed on into France. Snow and Weller both point out that if Napoleon had been able to come to terms with the Prussians and Russians he could have sent reinforcements to the Pyrenees. Wellington thought that capturing San Sebastian and Pamplona would allow his army to defeat any French counter offensive, even if reinforced by troops then in Germany.[1]

Wellington left Sir Thomas Graham in command at San Sebastian. There was a breach in its walls practicable for an assault by 22 July. However, Graham delayed until 24 July, then postponed for another day, allowing the French commander, General Emmanuel Rey, to reinforce his defences.

The attack on 25 July failed, provoking Wellington to immediately ride the 25 miles from his headquarters to find out what was happening. He resolved to keep closer control on events at San Sebastian. A later post in this series will describe the outcome of the siege.

On the same day the French counter-attacked. Marshal Nicolas Soult had been put in command of the French army in the Pyrenees on 12 July. He had rallied and reorganised the army that had been beaten at Vitoria, reinforcing it with troops from Bayonne.

There were, according to Wellington, at least 70 passes across the Pyrenees that could be crossed by bodies of a few hundred troops.[2] However, there were only four roads that a large army could use to cross them, three of which were in the western theatre of operations. The main one, which crossed the River Bidassoa, at Irun,  was the furthest to the west. There were two roads from Pamplona to France. The Roman road, which crossed the Pyrenees at the pass of Roncesvalles, was the most easterly one. The other crossed at the pass of Maya.

As San Sebastian was in danger of falling, but Pamplona was not being attacked, Wellington expected Soult todemonstrate towards Maya and Roncesvalles, but to make his main attack along the Roman road.

Soult, however, concentrated his efforts against Maya and Roncesvalles. On 25 July 20,000 troops under General Jean-Baptiste Drouet, better known by his title of Count D’Erlon, attacked the 6,000 men at Maya . 40,000 men under Soult himself assaulted Sir Lowry Cole’s 13,000 British, Portuguese and Spanish troops at Roncevalles.[3]

Soult attacked with three divisions along the Roman road and another three along a mule track to the west, each facing only one brigade, though Cole had two more in reserve. Soult’s main problem was that the pass was too narrow for him to fully exploit his advantage in numbers.

The attack along the Roman road was initially was halted by no more than 500 British and Spanish skirmishers, who were defending a frontage of only 300 yards and had plenty of cover.

The French columns eventually forced the Allies back along the Roman road. They were able to retreat to a strong defensive position, but in doing so opened up the possibility of them being outflanked to the east.

The narrow mule track went through partially wooded terrain, with a frontage of only 60 yards, meaning that only one battalion could fight at a time.

However, a thick fog descended at 4 pm. Cole, fearing that his force would be outflanked, decided to retreat, disobeying Wellington’s clear orders to hold even if there was a risk to his eastern flank.

Sir Rowland Hill had put Sir William Stewart in command of the two brigades at Maya. They fought fiercely, but had been badly deployed and were eventually forced back. Weller says that ‘British troops have rarely fought so courageously, but have not often been worse commanded.’[4] The British suffered 1,500 casualties, but inflicted 2,000.

Hill arrived at Maya after the battle was over. He organised a successful retreat to a position that continued to block the road.

Wellington reached Hill’s position just before noon the next day, and was happy with Hill’s dispositions. No news was received from Cole until the evening. On hearing of the retreat from Roncevalles Wellington ordered Cole and Sir Thomas Picton to stand east of Zubiri. They had 19,000 men facing 40,000 French.

Early on 27 July Wellington learnt that Cole and Picton had continued to retreat. He described his generals as being:

‘really heroes when I am on the spot to direct them, but when I am obliged to quit them they are children.’[5]

Wellington, accompanied by only his ADC, Fitzroy Somerset, then rode towards the Allied army. They found it and the advancing French at Sorauren, 10 miles from Pamplona. Wellington took command, and prepared to give battle the next day.


[1] P. Snow, To War with Wellington: From the Peninsula to Waterloo (London: John Murray, 2010), pp. 205-6; J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814, New ed. (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 275.

[2] Quoted in Weller, Peninsula. Footnote 2, p. 278.

[3] Troop numbers and casualties are from Ibid., pp. 280-90.

[4] Ibid., p. 289.

[5] Quoted in Snow, Wellington. p. 211

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The Battle of Vitoria, 21 June 1813.

In 1812 Wellington defeated the French at Salamanca, took Madrid, and then advanced to Burgos. He failed to capture Burgos, and was forced to retreat past Salamanca. Crucially, however, his army retained control of the fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo in the north and Badajoz in the south.

These two fortresses, known as the keys to Spain, controlled the two invasion routes from Portugal to Spain. In 1812 Wellington had needed to capture them in order to advance further into Spain. In 1813 his task was easier because he already held them.

Additionally, the French forces facing him were weaker because they had been stripped of troops to rebuild the French army in central Europe after the failure of Napoleon’s 1812 Russian Campaign. Wellington had received reinforcements, and had spent the winter and spring training his troops and improving his army’s supply and medical arrangements.

Napoleon thought that Wellington had only 50,000 men, but he had 80,000. He was therefore more concerned with the Spanish guerrillas than with Wellington. General Bertrand Clausel was sent north with the 40,000 troops of the Army of Portugal to deal with the guerrillas.[1]

Wellington was aware that the French had split their forces because George Scovell, his code breaker, had deciphered a captured despatch from the French army in the north to King Joseph Bonaparte.[2]

Wellington’s plan was to advance as far as he could towards the Franco-Spanish border in the Pyrenees. Operations did not begin until 22 May, as the rains had been late, meaning that there was a shortage of suitable forage for the horses until then. He was confident of success, allegedly stating ‘Farewell Portugal. I shall never see you again’ as he crossed the frontier into Spain.[3]

Wellington initially split his army: part moved through Salamanca, with  the rest, commanded by Sir Thomas Graham moving north before heading east towards Valladolid.

The French, commanded by King Joseph and Marshal Jean-Baptiste Jourdan, were forced to retreat. The Allied army took Salamanca, Zamora, Valladolid and Burgos, advancing 200 miles without a fight. On 13 May the French blew up the defences of Burgos, which they had successfully defended in September and October 1812.

Napoleon defeated the Austro-Prussians at Lützen and Bautzen in May, before agreeing an armistice with them at Pläswitz on 4 June. Wellington later told a friend that his staff argued that:

‘we ought not to risk the army and what we had obtained, and that this armistice would enable Buonaparte [sic] to reinforce his army in Spain, and we therefore should look to a defensive system. I thought differently.’[4]

Buonaparte was a deliberate mis-spelling of Bonaparte often used in Britain to emphasis Napoleon’s Corsican origins.

On 21 June the French made a stand at Vitoria. The Allies were now too close to France for Joseph to continue to retreat.

Joseph had about 60,000 troops after being joined by part of the Army of Portugal. He hoped to be reinforced by Clausel and another three divisions. Wellington had about 75,000 men, having detached the British 6th Division to cover the road to Santander and sent most of the Spanish 6th Army towards Bilbao. Wellington had received intelligence that Clausel could not arrive before 22 June.

Vitoria was in a valley that measured about six miles from north to south and 10 miles east to west. It was protected to the south by hills that were mostly impassable to formed troops and by the River Zadorra to the north. The French thought that Wellington would therefore have to attack from the west, and believed that he would not be able to outflank them.

There were, however, many fords and bridges across the Zadorra. Wellington sent a large force under Graham north to swing round the French right flank. Joseph and Jourdan knew from the reports of cavalry patrols that there were fewer enemy troops to the west than they had expected.

As they apparently thought, wrongly, that the roads through the hills north of Vitoria were unsuitable for large number of men, they assumed that Wellington was heading for Bilbao.  One of the  French division resumed its retreat towards France, escorting the baggage, thus reducing the French army to 57,000 men.

Wellington’s plan involved four different attacks. Graham, with the 25,000 men of  the 1st and 5th British Divisions, Pack and Bradford’s Portuguese Brigades, Longa’s Spanish Division was to cut off the enemy retreat. In the west, the first attack would come in the south from the 20,000 men under Sir Rowland Hill: the British 2nd, Silveira’s Portuguese and Morillo’s Spanish Divisions.

Wellington personally commanded the rest of the army. The British 3rd and 7th Divisions would attack from the north-west and the 4th and Light Divisions from the west, where the French expected the main attack. Each force had a proportion of cavalry and artillery, but the largest contingent of cavalry, four of 10 brigades, was in the force attacking from the west.[5]

Hill attacked first, and his troops were in combat before 8:30 am. Graham’s troops were skirmishing by 9 am, but his orders were to delay a full attack until he was in contact with the other Allied columns: he was starting eight miles away from them.

Hill’s attack went well, but Wellington did not want to launch the attack from the west until the 3rd and 7th Divisions were in combat. Lord Dalhousie’s 7th Division was slow getting into position, and Wellington sent an ADC to find him. The ADC instead encountered Sir Thomas Picton, commanding the 3rd Division. The ADC had orders for Dalhousie to attack a bridge, but no orders for Picton, who declared that his division would attack the bridge.

Wellington, seeing the 3rd Division moving into action, ordered the Light Division forward. A Spanish peasant volunteered to guide one of its brigades across the Zadorra by the unguarded Tres Puentes bridge. He was later killed.

By lunchtime the French were being attacked from three sides. They put up fierce resistance, but had been deployed against a frontal assault, and were forced back. They could have been completely destroyed, but Graham, much older than the other British generals, was slow to move.

He followed the letter of his orders and moved east to cut the Madrid to Bayonne road. Charles Esdaile argues that, had he ‘shown a modicum of initiative’, he could have attacked south towards Vitoria and cut the French line of retreat.[6]

Jac Weller gives the total of dead, wounded and missing as being 8,000 French and 5,000 Allied.[7] However, the French lost all but one of their 152 guns, over 500 artillery caissons. almost all their supplies and Joseph’s state papers and treasury.[8]

The French baggage train offered huge opportunities for loot, which the Allied troops were unable to resist. The citizens of Vitoria also suffered. Wellington deplored such activities, but even he benefitted: the Spanish government allowed him to retain a collection of Old Masters that Joseph had been taking back to France. They can still be seen on the walls of Apsley House, Wellington’s London house, which is now open to the public.

Jourdan’s Marshal’s baton was amongst the trophies. Wellington sent it to the Prince Regent, who in return promoted Wellington to Field Marshal, which meant that he received a British baton.

Graham’s lack of initiative and the army’s loss of discipline once presented with an opportunity to loot meant that most of the French soldiers escaped. However, the capture of the French supplies and artillery meant the destruction of Joseph’s army as an effective fighting force. The Allied army could now advance to the Pyrenees and threaten France.

Vitoria and the preceding campaign showed that Wellington was not just a cautious general, happiest on the defensive. He moved his army quickly across Spain and devised an imaginative plan that ended in the enemy being routed.


[1] Unless otherwise stated, figures for troop numbers are from C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), pp. 442-54.

[2] P. Snow, To War with Wellington: From the Peninsula to Waterloo (London: John Murray, 2010), p. 189.

[3] Quoted in Esdaile, Peninsular War, p. 443; and Snow, Wellington, p. 188. Esdaile is ‘wary’ of the story, but notes that there is ‘little doubt’ that Wellington was optimistic

[4] Quoted in Snow, Wellington, pp. 188-89.

[5] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814, New ed. (London: Greenhill, 1992), pp. 256-57.

[6] Esdaile, Peninsular War, p. 448.

[7] Weller, Peninsula, p. 269.

[8] Esdaile, Peninsular War, p. 450.

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The Battle of Bautzen 20-21 May 1813.

Following Napoleon’s victory at Lützen on 2 May 1813 Prince Ludwig Pyotr Wittgenstein’s Russo-Prussian army retreated to Bautzen, where it was reinforced by 13,000 Russians commanded by Prince Mikhail Barclay de Tolly.

Napoleon had received reinforcements from France, including a Young Guard division, four Old Guard battalions and two cavalry divisions, and also now had the support of the Saxon Army. He replaced the previous split of his force into separate Armies of the Elbe and Main with a single Army of the Elbe.[1]

It consisted of two wings. The northern one under Marshal Michel Ney contained 79,500 infantry, 4,800 cavalry and 26 artillery batteries. The main body, under the Emperor’s personal command, consisted of 107,000 infantry, 12,000 cavalry and 53 artillery batteries; 19,000 of the infantry and 4,000 of the cavalry were Guards.. His step-son Prince Eugène, who had performed poorly in this campaign, was sent to command in Italy.[2]

Napoleon’s main problem was that his lack of cavalry meant that he was uncertain of the location and strength of the enemy. He deduced that the bulk of the Allied army would fall back on Bautzen, with a portion covering Berlin.

On 12 May the Emperor sent forward a strong reconnaissance force under Marshal Jacques MacDonald in order to find the enemy. Ney’s wing was to prepare to move on Berlin.

Diplomatic negotiations continued. Prince Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian Foreign Minister, offered to mediate, sending delegates to both sides in order to discover what they would offer Austria. Dominic Lieven points out that the Austrian aims of restoring their lost provinces and of restoring the balance of power in Europe were supported by Austria and Russia, but opposed by France.[3]

Napoleon planned to send Armand Caulaincourt, one of his closest diplomatic advisers, to negotiate directly with Tsar Alexander rather than talking via Austria, but Caulaincourt had not departed by 16 May, when MacDonald discovered the enemy at Bautzen.

The Emperor ordered IV (General Henri-Gatien Bertrand, VI (Marshal Auguste Marmont) and XI (MacDonald) Corps to pin the Allies whilst Marshal Charles Nicolas Oudinot’s XII Corps out-flanked them to the south. Ney was ordered to bring his own III Corps and General Jacques Lauriston’s V Corps south. His II and VII Corps were supposed to continue to advance on Berlin, but Ney misunderstood his orders and brought them south; F. Loraine Petre argues that this error was to the French advantage, as it meant that more troops were concentrated against the main enemy force.[4]

Ney’s orders were complicated. On 18 May he was told to march on 20 May as if he were joining MacDonald, but on 21 May to move eastwards towards the enemy rear. Napoleon hoped that this would enable him to force the Allies back towards the neutral Austrian frontier, meaning that they would be either destroyed or forced to surrender.

Napoleon spent 19 May reconnoitring the enemy. They were in a strong defensive position, but he overestimated their strength, thinking that they had 150,000 men rather than the actual 96,000.[5] As Ney was not in position, he decided to fight a battle of attrition on 20 May, before enveloping the enemy the next day. The Allies intended to stand on the defensive at first, before counter-attacking on their right. They expected the French to attack their left, in order to force them away from Austria.

The French artillery bombardment began at noon on 20 May, with the main infantry attack starting at 3 pm. By 6 pm they had captured the city of Bautzen and the Allied front line. The Allies continued to reinforce their left. They knew that Ney was approaching from the north, but greatly underestimated his strength, so ignored him. David Chandler says that ‘Napoleon could hardly have hoped for anything better.’[6]Napoleon’s plan for 21 May was that VI, XI and XII Corps would pin the enemy, Ney’s III Corps would attack the Allied right and Lauriston’s V Corps would block their retreat. This should force them to strip their centre to strengthen their right flank.Bertrand’s IV Corps would deliver the main attack under the supervision of Marshal Nicolas Soult, who had carried out a similar manoeuvre on the Pratzen Heights at Austerlitz in 1805. A reserve consisting of three infantry divisions, one of them Old Guard and the others Young Guard, and three cavalry division, including a Guard one, supported by 80 guns was established.

The pinning attacks were successful. Oudinot’s XII Corps was forced back a little way, but this drew the Allies out of their prepared positions. IV Corps began its attack at 2 pm, supported by a Young Guard division and all available artillery. Prince Gebhard von Blücher’s Prussians were forced back, but he skilfully extracted them. The French attack lost momentum because the terrain made it difficult to move the artillery forward

The only explicit order given by Napoleon to Ney was that he should be at the village of Preititz by 11 am. His chief of staff, Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini, advised him to screen it and advance into the enemy rear, but Ney launched a series of frontal attacks. Lauriston also moved slowly.

The French attacks in the centre was held up until by a gallant Russian defence, but increasing casualties induced the Tsar to allow limited withdrawals from 4 pm. Napoleon, noting that the enemy resistance was weakening, committed his Imperial Guard against the Prussians.

The Allies were now forced to retreat, but Ney and Lauriston’s failure to advance into their rear meant that they were able to do so safely, extracting all their guns, apart from some that had been disabled.  A heavy rain storm stopped any pursuit.

Napoleon had again won a battle, but failed to rout the enemy because of the failure of his subordinates to block the enemy retreat and a lack of cavalry to pursue the defeated foe. Both sides suffered about 20,000 men dead and wounded.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 888-90.

[2] F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), pp. 100-2.

[3] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 317.

[4] Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813, p. 107.

[5] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 890.

[6] Ibid., p. 893.

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The Battle of Lützen 2 May 1813

By April 1813 Napoleon had rebuilt his army, but was at war with Prussia and Russia. His field forces in Germany consisted of the 121,000 strong Army of the River Main, 58,000 men in the Army of the Elbe, 20,000 troops in the detached I Corps, command by Marshal Louis Nicolas Davout, and 14,000 cavalry under General Horace Sebastiani. On 25 April they were faced by only 110,000 Russians and Prussians.[1]

However, the French were weak in cavalry. The shortage of light cavalry meant that Napoleon lacked intelligence about the enemy’s strength, positions and manoeuvres. Advancing French columns were harassed by enemy light cavalry because there were not enough French horsemen to protect them.

Napoleon’s initial plan was to advance on Berlin. His northern flank would be protected by the fortresses of Torgau, Wittenberg, Magdeburg and Hamburg and the southern one by the Army of the Elbe and I Corps.

He would turn the flank of the enemy army and relieve the besieged fortresses of Danzig, Thorn and Modlin on the Vistula. This would release 50,000 more troops for his field army, threaten the Russian line of communication and intimidate the German princes into supporting France.

David Chandler notes that Napoleon did not implement this plan for a number of reasons: it would require 300,000 men; he was doubtful of the quality of the troops that he did have; his German allies, Bavaria and Saxony, were reluctant; and he did not have enough troops to protect his communications against an enemy advance in the Dresden area.[2]

The Allies concentrated on the Leipzig-Dresden area of Saxony. This covered their communications back to Russia and to Austria, but left Prussia exposed. They had too few troops to protect both, so concentrated on the more important area.

Some Prussians wanted to attack, but Prince Mikhail Kutuzov, the Russian commander was cautious. Dominic Lieven comments that even the ‘ever-aggressive [Gebhard von] Blücher’ remembered that in 1805 the Austro-Russians had attacked before the Prussians were ready and had been defeated at Austerlitz.[3]

Kutuzov died on 28 April. He was replaced by Prince Ludwig Pyotr Wittgenstein, described by Lieven as being ‘[i]n many ways the most suitable candidate.’[4] He had won more victories than any other Russian general in 1812, spoke German and French and was popular with the Prussians. However, he was junior to two of the Russian corps commanders, Alexander Tormasov and Mikhail Miloradovich.

Consequently Wittgenstein was appointed to command only Blücher’s Prussians and Ferdinand Wintzingerode’s Russian corps. Tormasov and Miloradovich received their orders from Tsar Alexander, ‘sometimes without [Wittgenstein's] knowledge’ according to F. Loraine Petre.[5]

Napoleon ordered his troops to cross the River Saale on 1 May. They encountered opposition, notably at Weissenfels, where Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bessiéres was killed, but the crossing was completed. Marshal Michel Ney’s III Corps occupied Lützen in order to protect the southern flank of an advance on Leipzig.

At 4 am on 2 May Napoleon told Ney to send out strong patrols towards Zwenkau and Pegau, and to occupy Lützen and the villages of Kaja, Rahna, Gross Görschen and Klein Görschen, which lay along a ridge. Ney did not send out the patrols, which would have found the enemy army, and kept three divisions at Lützen.Wittgenstein, learning that there was only a weak French force at Kaja, decided to attack it. His troops were supposed to start moving at 1 am and be in position by 7 am. Their columns became mixed up in the dark, and were not in position until 11 am.

The Allies could see only 2,000 French troops, so Wittgenstein ordered the Blücher’s Prussian cavalry to charge them at 11:45 am. However, they were shocked to find themselves faced by two divisions. The French were also surprised, because they had not sent out patrols.

Blücher  waited until artillery could be brought up, allowing the French time to deploy.  General Jean-Baptiste Girard’s division occupied and held the village of Starsiedl, but General Joseph Souham’s division was forced to withdraw from Gross Görschen.

Napoleon and the main French army were marching on Leipzig. Ney had been with Napoleon, but hurried back to his command on hearing the gunfire. He ordered a counter-attack , which led to a desperate action around the villages and along the ridge.

Napoleon quickly devised a plan to envelop the enemy. Ney’s III Corps should hold, with Marshal Auguste Marmont’s VI Corps coming up to support its right flank. Further to the French right, General Henri-Gatien Bertrand’s IV Corps would threaten the Allied left flank. Marshal Jacques MacDonald’s XI Corps would attack the Allied right. The Imperial Guard would reinforce the centre.

Napoleon reached the battlefield at 2:30 pm. He rode amongst his troops, encouraging them, boosting their morale and leading them back into the attack. Chandler quotes Marmont as saying that ‘[t]his was probably the day, of his whole career, in which Napoleon incurred the greatest personal danger on the field of battle.’[6]

Despite appeals from his commanders, Napoleon refused to commit the Guard too soon. The Allies were hampered by a wound to Blücher and the slow arrival of Russian reserves. The Tsar held back his Guards, apparently thinking that the battle was going well and wanting to personally lead them in the decisive attack.

The French flanking  forces were in position by 5:30 pm. At 6:00 pm the attack was launched by XI Corps on the French left, the Imperial Guard and VI Corps in the centre and IV Corps on the right. The assault, with heavy artillery support, threw the Allies back.

The French won the battle, but Chandler notes that Napoleon needed two more hours to make his victory complete. He lacked the cavalry to pursue the enemy in order to turn a victory into a rout.[7]

Petre and Lieven both argue that the delay in the initial Allied attack in the end disadvantaged the French. An earlier start to the battle would have meant that Napoleon and his main body of troops were closer to the action when it began. They would have arrived earlier and would have had more time to complete their victory. Better reconnaissance by Ney would also have allowed Napoleon to move earlier.[8]

The battle showed that Napoleon and his command system could still react far more quickly and flexibility to battlefield developments than his enemies. He had won a victory, but lack of time and cavalry meant that it was not a decisive one, and the French suffered heavy casualties.

Chandler estimates that there were 115,000 French and 97,000 Allied troops in the vicinity, altthough not all of them engaged in combat. He reckons that 20,000 French and 18,000 Allied troops were killed or wounded.[9] Charles Esdaile argues that the French casualties were high because the inexperience of their troops meant that they had to use ‘clumsy and unsophisticated’ tactics.[10]

The Allies retired towards Dresden. An action took place at Colditz on 5 May between French troops under Prince Eugène and the Russian rearguard, commanded by Miloradovich. The Allies did not stop in Dresden and failed to destroy its bridges. Napoleon reached it on 8 May. Two days later the King of Saxony declared for Napoleon.

The Allied retreat ended on 13 Mat at Bautzen, a strong defensive position. They were reinforced by another 13,000 Russian troops under Prince Mikhail Barclay de Tolly.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 874-75.

[2] Ibid., p. 875.

[3] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 311.

[4] Ibid., p. 313.

[5] F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), p. 58.

[6] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 884.

[7] Ibid., pp. 886-87.

[8] Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814, p. 315; Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813, p. 85.

[9] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 1120.

[10] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 501.

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The Start of Napoleon’s 1813 German Campaign

Napoleon had to rebuild his army following the failure of his 1812 campaign in Russia. The 1813 class of conscripts had already been called up, meaning that 137,000 men were nearing the end of their training at the start of 1813.[1]

More men were found from the National Guard, a home defence militia, the navy and Italy. Troops were also transferred from Spain to the German front. Others were found by calling up the 1814 class of conscripts early, along with men who had managed to evade the draft for health or other reasons in earlier years.

The new army was large and would fight bravely, but many of the infantry were either young and inexperienced or else old. It was harder to replace the horses than the men lost in Russia. The lack of cavalry would prove to be a major problem for Napoleon in 1813.

The French Empire managed to replace the cannons lost in Russia, but they needed horses to pull them, as did supply wagons, creating logistical difficulties.

Napoleon also had problems with the quality of his generals. According to David Chandler, the mid-ranking officers were still good, but the marshals were tired and past their best, whilst the junior ones were inexperienced.[2]

Whilst rebuilding his army, Napoleon left Marshal Joachim Murat in command in Germany. The Emperor had hoped that Murat would be able to hold the Russians along the River Vistula, but he was forced to retreat to Posen (now Poznan). He then handed over command to Napoleon’s step-son Prince Eugène, and returned to his kingdom of Naples.

Eugène had too few troops to fight, and the frozen rivers were no help to the defender. Despite orders from Napoleon to hold, he was forced to withdraw his forces, apart from some isolated garrisons, behind the River Elbe.

Tsar Alexander I of Russia was, according to Dominic Lieven, effectively his own foreign minister. He was with his army, whilst the official foreign minister, Nikolai Rumiantsev, was in St Petersburg. Alexander’s aim was to force France behind its natural frontiers. Rumiantsev thought that the Tsar was too focused on Napoleon, paid too little attention to the Ottoman Empire and Persia and was too keen to satisfy the Austrians and British. [3]

Prussia had been forced to contribute a corps to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, but on 30 December 1812 its commander, General Ludwig Yorck, signed the Convention of Tauroggen with Russia, making his troops neutrals. He acted without the consent of King Friedrich Wilhelm III, but the news was received enthusiastically in Prussia.

Friedrich Wilhelm, according to Lieven, ‘detested Napoleon and…liked and admired Alexander…[but] was a great pessimist.[4] He hesitated until the Russian had reached Prussia, but on 28 February 1813 Russia and Prussia signed the Treaty of Kalisz. Five days later the Russian entered Berlin.

The main sticking point in the negotiations was Poland. Friedrich Wilhelm did not want to lose any of the territory that Prussia had gained from the 18th century partitions of Poland. Alexander, however, thought that the only way to deal with Polish nationalism without weakening Russian security was to have a Polish kingdom whose monarch was the Russian Tsar. The agreement was that Prussia would be restored to its 1806 size, receiving northern German territory and population to compensate it for any losses in Poland.

The treaty required both parties to attempt to bring Austria into their alliance. The Austrians, however, were cautious for now.

On 16 March Prussia declared war on France. Napoleon had limited the size of its army to 42,000 after defeating it in 1806, but allowed it to recruit more in late 1812. The Prussians had also secretly created a reserve by forcing a proportion of their soldiers to retire each year. They were therefore able to field 80,000 well trained troops, backed by the Landwehr, a conscript militia and volunteer units.

Charles Esdaile argues that only a ‘very small number’ joined because of German nationalism, but Prussia did have 270,000 troops by the summer.[5]

Defensive manoeuvring continued until early April. By then Eugène had withdrawn from the Elbe because the Prussians were massing near Dresden, and had deployed his troops in a strong defensive position with his right flank on the River Saale.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 866.

[2] Ibid., p. 868.

[3] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), pp. 285-90.

[4] Ibid., p. 293.

[5] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 494.

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Why Napoleon’s 1812 Russian Campaign Failed

This is the last post the series on Napoleon’s 1812 Russian Campaign. It discusses the reasons why it failed, which relate mainly to logistics.

David Chandler argues that the enterprise was beset with problems from the start. [1] Tsar Alexander I was not persuaded to come to terms by the threat of invasion, meaning that he was unlikely  to negotiate once the fighting had started. Defeats made the Russians more, not less, determined to resist; the size of Russia made it hard to conquer.

Napoleon was fighting on two fronts. A successful end to the Peninsular War would have released 200,000 troops. Without them, he was forced to turn to allies to supply him with troops. Some of them, including Austria and Prussia, were very reluctant to co-operate. The different languages and equipment of the various nationalities involved created discipline, communications and supply problems.

Napoleon was unwilling to restore the Kingdom of Poland because he needed Austrian and Prussian aid. Consequently, he did not receive full support from the Poles and Lithuanians. However, he gave them enough encouragement to make the Austrians and Prussians suspicious.

Chandler believes that the main reason for the campaign’s failure was logistics. The French over-estimated the traffic capacity of the roads, meaning that supply convoys were always late. There was less grain and fodder available than they had forecast. The depots were too far to the rear and the Russian scorched earth policy meant that the army could not find supplies locally.

The retreating army found large amounts of supplies at Smolensk, Vilna and Kaunas, whilst the Russians captured more at Minsk and Vitebsk. The problem was not the quantity of supplies, but the ability to move them to the front line.

Napoleon should, in Chandler’s view, have spent the winter of 1812-13 at Smolensk. The Emperor had not originally intended to go as far as Moscow. His plan was to win a decisive victory as soon as possible, but the Russians evaded a series of traps intended to force them to fight at Vilna, Vitebsk, Drissa and Smolensk. The French supply system could not cope with the demands of the advance from Smolensk to Moscow.

The need to protect the lines of communication and flanks meant that Napoleon did not have enough troops to win a decisive victory by the time that he managed to bring the Russians to battle at Borodino.

Napoleon then stayed too long in Moscow, allowing the Russians to rally after Borodino. Chandler points out that the Emperor had captured Vienna in 1805 and 1809 and Berlin in 1806 without the enemy immediately coming to terms, so why did he think that taking Moscow in 1812 would induce Alexander to surrender?

Finally, Napoleon  took the wrong route from Moscow to Smolensk. In order to avoid fighting Kutuzov, he switched from the southern route through the fertile and unspoilt Kaluga province to the northern route, which had been ravaged in his advance. He did this after the Battle of Malojaroslavets, but this was a French victory. Chandler doubts that the cautious Russian commander Prince Mikhail Kutuzov would have risked repeating the heavy casualties of Borodino to defend Kaluga.

Chandler argues that Napoleon was already beaten by the time that the Russian winter set in. He also notes that the French suffered as much from the heat of the summer, which caused many men to drop out and killed many horses. The cold made the disaster worse, but did not cause the French defeat.

Chandler praises the endurance and skill in combat of the Russians, and says that the strategy of trading space for time in order the blunt Napoleon’s offensive was correct. However, he wonders whether or not this was the intention from the start, suggesting that the Russians retreated because of weakness rather than a deliberate plan. He contends that it is difficult to see a clear Russian plan until after Napoleon reached Moscow.

In summary, he argues that Napoleon’s military abilities had declined. He was less energetic than in the past.  He failed either to supervise his subordinates, or to take charge himself at the decisive point. He over-estimated the ability of his army and under-estimated the Tsar. Finally, the enterprise was simply too big.

Martin van Creveld devotes a chapter of Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, in his seminal work on importance of logistics in the history of warfare, to Napoleon’s campaigns.[2]

Van Creveld says that the Emperor increased his supply train ahead of the invasion, and stockpiled large amounts of artillery ammunition. He notes that the operational plans for the campaign have not survived, but argues that the logistical arrangements imply that he expected a short war.

The French supply train was inadequate to sustain an advance on Moscow. An army of 200,000 men that took 60 days to reach Moscow (the Grande Armée actually took 82 days) would have required 18,000 tons of supplies. The French supply train had a capacity of half that, and would also have had to supply troops protecting the flanks and lines of communication.

Once in Moscow, 300 tons of supplies per day would have been needed. It was 600 miles from the supply depots, so the required transport capacity would have remained at 18,000 tons, assuming that supplies moved at an optimistic 20 miles per day.

The invading force carried four days of rations in their packs and 20 days in their battalion supply wagons. Van Creveld argues that a 12 day campaign is implausibly short. He therefore contends that Napoleon expected to win within 24 days, whereupon he would have required his defeated opponent to supply his troops, as he had done previously. This would have allowed him to advance up to 200 miles into Russia.

According to van Creveld, logistics played a major role in the planning of the campaign. The invasion had to begin in June so that the 250,000 horses could be fed from the grass crops. It was impossible to provide fodder for so many animals from base depots. The invasion route was determined by supply considerations; the roads were too poor further north and the River Niemen could not have been used to supply a more southerly advance.

He believes that the Russian plan was also based on logistics. His contention is that all the Russian commanders agreed that ‘only the factors of distance, climate and supply could defeat the French army.’[3] The only dispute was over the speed of retreat; some were afraid that too quick a withdrawal would cause a revolt by the serfs. It was also necessary to ensure that Napoleon followed the Russians into the interior.

Mistakes by his subordinates, notably his brother Jerome, prevented Napoleon from defeating even part of the Russian army at Vitebsk, which van Creveld says is the furthest into Russia that the French logistic system could sustain the army.

Napoleon chose to head for Moscow because the land became richer after Smolensk, so it was easier to live off the land the further east he moved. His army was strong enough to defeat the Russians at Borodino.

Van Creveld believes that the Grande Armée’s biggest problem was ill discipline rather than lack of supplies, citing as evidence the fact that the Imperial Guard reached Moscow almost intact.

My view is that Napoleon’s first mistake was to invade Russia whilst he was still at war in the Iberian Peninsular. He should have concentrated on first winning that war. His dispute with Alexander over the Continental System, the French attempt to wage economic war with Britain, would have mattered less if the British had been expelled from the Continent.

Victory in the Peninsular would at best have meant that there was no need to invade Russia. At worst it would have released a large number of French troops for the invasion of Russia, reducing Napoleon’s dependence on allies.

Having made this initial mistake, he planned to win a quick victory. He failed to do so because the enemy did not play into his hands, and because of mistakes by his subordinates. He did not supervise them as closely as in the past, probably because his army was now too big for his old, personal style of command to work.

After failing to win an early victory, he should have wintered at Smolensk. There was no reason for him to assume that he could win a decisive victory by heading deeper into Russia, or that he would force the Russians to surrender by taking Moscow. The Russians had only to survive to win, so there was no point in them risking a catastrophic  defeat.

Napoleon made the losses from his defeat worse by making a number of errors after reaching Moscow: he stayed there too long; he retreated by the ravaged route that he had advanced across; and he should have taken only as much loot and as many guns as he had horses to pull.

Overall, Napoleon took on an enterprise that was both unnecessary and too big to succeed when he invaded Russia. It was an example of the importance of logistics in warfare; see the blog entry on Bullets, Bombs and Bandages, a BBC TV series on logistics.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966). The analysis of the reasons for the failure of the campaiign is on pp. 854-61.

[2] M. Van Creveld, Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). The chapter on Napoleon is on pp. 40-74, with the 1812 Russian Campaign analysed on pp. 61-70.

[3] Ibid., p. 65.

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The End of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign

After a fierce action, the rearguard of Napoleon’s Grande Armée crossed the River Berezina on 29 November. It seemed to the 55,000 men who had made it over the Berezina that the worst was over. Armand Caulaincourt, formerly Napoleon’s Ambassador to Russia, and a member of his entourage, wrote that ‘After the crossing of the Berezina all faces brightened.’[1]

In fact, although the Berezina was the last major action of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, his army continued to lose men in rearguard actions and to the weather. The temperature was still falling and was recorded as being -30° C (-22° F) on 30 November and -37.5° C (-35.5° F) on 6 December by Dr Louis Lagneau.[2]

Napoleon’s original plan had been to defeat Admiral Pavel Chichagov’s army in order to clear the route to Minsk, but the losses incurred in the crossing meant that he had no choice but to retreat to Vilnius.

He reached Smorgoni on 5 December. He then informed his marshals that he intended to return to Paris. He would take only a small entourage and escort, posing as Caulaincourt’s secretary. He reached Paris late on 18 December.

David Chandler notes that the marshals and most subsequent commentators agree that Napoleon’s decision to return to Paris was correct. His subordinates could handle the rest of the retreat, and he was needed in Paris to recruit new troops and to rally public opinion.[3]

The Emperor left Marshal Joachim Murat in command. Adam Zamoyski says that he would have preferred to appoint Prince Eugène but feared that Murat would mutiny if put under Eugène’s command.[4]

Chandler argues that Murat was more suited to pursuing a defeated enemy than to carrying out a retreat. He attributes Napoleon’s decision to appoint Murat instead of Eugène to the influence of Marshal Louis Berthier, his chief of staff.[5]

Murat’s orders were to make for the supply base at Vilnius. About 20,000 of the men who had crossed Berezina failed to make it; the survivors reached it between 8-10 December. It contained four million rations of biscuits, nearly as much meat and plenty of clothes and weapons. However, the starving troops rioted. Many drank themselves into a stupor and died of exposure. [6]

Many of the Grande Armée’s losses were caused by typhus. In 2001 a mass grave was found by construction workers in Vilnius. It was initially assumed that it contained either Jews murdered by the Nazis or victims of Stalin’s terror.

However, the grave contained French coins and belt buckles from the Napoleonic era, showing that the corpses were of some of Napoleon’s soldiers. A scientific analysis showed that they died of typhus. See this article from Slate.com for more details.

Napoleon had ordered Murat to allow the army to rest and recuperate in Vilnius for at least eight days. Murat, however, was concerned by the threat from Cossacks and ordered the retreat to resume on the night of 9 December; 20,000 men wounded earlier in the campaign were left behind in the hospitals.

The army crossed the River Niemen and left Russia on 14 December. The pursuing Russians, by now reduced to 40,000 men, stopped at the frontier. [7]

The forces on the flanks of the main force also withdrew from Russia. General Ludwig Yorck, commanding 17,000 Prussians and 60 guns, was surrounded on 25 December. After five days of negotiations  he signed the Convention of Tauroggen, making his troops neutrals. He acted without the consent of his king, but the news was received enthusiastically in Prussia.

Prince Karl Schwarzenberg, commanding the Austrians also signed an armistice with the Russians. Austria and Prussia would fight against France in 1813.

According to Chandler, Napoleon took 655,000 troops into Russia, including reinforcements. Only 25,000 out of the 450,000 in the central army group, commanded by Napoleon himself, crossed back over the Niemen. Losses in the flanking forces were high, but not quite as bad; 68,000 of them returned, making a total of 93,000 who retreated out of Russia.

Of the approximately 570,000 who did not, 370,000 died in action or of illness or exposure. The other 200,000, including 48 generals, were captured; about half of them died in captivity.

Napoleon also lost 200,000 horses and 1,050 of the 1,300 guns that he took into Russia. The Russians captured 929, the others being destroyed. New guns were built and new soldiers recruited, albeit inexperienced ones. The horses were the hardest to replace

Russian casualties were 150,000 killed and at least twice as many wounded or frost bitten. Chandler says that the impact of the campaign on Russian civilians cannot be calculated.[8]

Click here for a link to a graphic created by Charles Minard in 1869. It shows the routes taken by the Grande Armée to and from Moscow, with the thickness of the lines indicating its strength at each point. This is then compared with the temperatures throughout the campaign, shown in the chart at the bottom. The temperature is given in Reamurs. Multiply by 1.25 to obtain the temperature in Celsius.

The next and final post on this campaign will discuss why it failed.


[1] Quoted in A. Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (London: HarperCollins, 2004), p. 481.

[2] Ibid., pp. 482, 504.

[3] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 849.

[4] Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 495-96.

[5] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 850.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., pp. 850-51.

[8] Ibid., pp. 852-53.

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Napoleon’s Crossing of the Berezina

Napoleon fought off the pursuing Russians under Prince Mikhail Kutuzov at Krasny on 17 November 1812. However, he was forced to continue to retreat to the River Berezina, leaving Orsha on 20 November.

Click here for a link to a map of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow on Wikimedia.

Kutuzov had missed a number of opportunities to cut off and destroy Napoleon’s Grande Armée as it retreated from Moscow. This angered Tsar Alexander, who said that Kutuzov displayed ‘inexplicable inactivity.’[1]

Three Russian armies were converging on Napoleon. As well as Kutuzov, Admiral Pavel Chichagov had captured Minsk, a major French supply base, and was approaching the Berezina from the south with 60,000 men. In the north, Prince Peter Wittgenstein, with 50,000 troops, had defeated Marshal Claude Victor at Smoliani.

Adam Zamoyski argues that Kutuzov realised that Napoleon and his generals and marshals were better commanders than himself and his subordinates. He consequently did not want to engage in a frontal battle with the Emperor, preferring to wait until Napoleon’s line of retreat had been cut by Chichagov and Wittgenstein.[2]

On 22 November Napoleon learnt that Chichagov had taken Borisov and its wooden bridge across the Berezina. The next day Marshal Charles Oudinot defeated Chichagov and retook the town, but the retreating Russians burnt the bridge.

Normally the ice would have been thick enough in late November to allow the Berezina to be crossed without bridges. However, the Grande Armée, having suffered great privations from the cold, now suffered from an unexpected thaw, which caused the ice to break up.

Fortunately for Napoleon, the Russians were not pressing his army vigorously. They were also suffering from the winter, and his reputation continued to intimidate all their commanders, not just Kutuzov. He also thought that a crushing victory was not necessarily in Russia’s interests, as it would benefit Britain more. General Sir Robert Wilson, a British observer, reported that Kutuzov had said that:

I am by no means sure that the total destruction of the Emperor Napoleon and his army would be such a benefit to the world; his succession would not fall to Russia or any other continental power, but to that which already commands the sea whose domination would then be intolerable.[3]

Napoleon considered attacking Wittgenstein, and then taking an alternative route, which would enable him to reach Vilna without crossing the Berezina. He rejected this because of the exhaustion of his troops, the poor roads and the muddy terrain, deciding to construct a pontoon bridge at Borisov.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Battle_of_Berezina_map.jpgGregory Fremont-Barnes (main editor) - The Encyclopedia of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, page 137. Adapted from Chandler 1966, 840.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Battle_of_Berezina_map.jpg
Gregory Fremont-Barnes (main editor) – The Encyclopedia of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, page 137. Adapted from Chandler 1966, 840.

Napoleon had ordered General Jean Baptiste Eblé, the commander of his bridging train, to destroy his equipment in order to prevent it being captured. However, Eblé had destroyed only the actual pontoon bridge, retaining his tools, smithies and charcoal. Thus, his engineers, who were mostly Dutch, could build a pontoon bridge by tearing down local houses for their wood.The problem was that the river was wide at the site of the burnt bridge, and large blocks of ice, propelled by a strong current, were floating down it. This made construction of a replacement at the same site very difficult.

General Jean Baptiste Corbineau, one of Oudinot’s cavalry brigade commanders, then reported that he had found a ford at Studienka, eight miles north of Borisov. Napoleon initially rejected Oudinot’s suggestion of crossing there, but changed his mind after meeting Corbineau on 25 November.

Eblé was ordered to start building three bridges across the Berezina at Studienka at nightfall on 25 November. Various demonstrations were planned in order to distract Chichagov, whose army was to the west of the Berezina an south of Borisov.

A detailed plan was prepared to move the troops still under discipline across the river, starting as soon as the bridges were complete. However, it depended on the enemy being distracted by the diversionary operations and no specific plans were drawn up to allow stragglers to cross.

The first bridge, intended for infantry, was completed by 1pm on 26 November, and the crossing began immediately. The second one, capable of taking wagons, was ready by 4pm. The plan to build a third was abandoned because there were not enough materials to do so.

Lack of time and materials meant that the bridges were improvised and flimsy, and continual repairs were required. The heavier one had to be closed from 8pm  until 11pm on 27 November, from 2am until 4am the next morning and from 4pm to 6pm later that day. The breakages caused hundreds of death.

However, most of the organised and armed troops were across by the end of 27 November, leaving just Victor’s IX Corps as rearguard. The Gendarmes had so far prevented unarmed men and civilians from crossing, but they were now invited to cross. Many, having settled down beside camp fires and, seeing no immediate danger, decided to wait until morning.

The strength of the Grande Armée at this stage is uncertain, but David Chandler estimates that 25,000 men under arms, 110 guns and 40,000 stragglers left Orsha. Joining up with Oudinot and Victor’s corps increased its strength to perhaps 49,000 combatants, 250-300 guns and 40,000 stragglers. About 75,000 Russians were close enough to interfere with the crossing.[4]

Chichagov was slow to realise what was happening, and did not engage Oudinot, who was covering the southern flank on the west bank of the Berezina, until the morning of 27 November. The French had to surrender ground, but maintained their line.

On the east bank of the Berezina, Victor also gave up some ground under pressure from Wittgenstein, but his corps remained intact and Napoleon left able to withdraw one of its brigades, comprised of Germans from Baden, across the river.

The action on both banks began again early on 28 November. Chichagov’s advance guard, commanded by General Eufemiusz Czaplic, a Pole, attacked Oudinot. The position looked so bad for the French that Napoleon prepared to commit the Old Guard, but Oudinot rallied his men. He was wounded, for the 22nd time in his career, and Marshal Michel Ney took command.

Ney was outnumbered by over 30,000 to 12-14,000 men, and his troops were in a worse physical condition. Three quarters of his men, which included Poles, Italians, Wüttermbergers, Dutchmen, Croats, Swiss and Portuguese as well as Frenchmen, fought gallantly.[5]

Ney ordered General Jean-Pierre Doumerc’s cuirassier division to charge the enemy. Czaplic was wounded and 2,000 of his men were captured. This charge, described as ‘brilliant’[6] by Chandler, forced the Russians back. Fighting continued for the rest of the day, but the line had been stabilised.

On the east bank Victor’s force of 8,000 men, mostly from Baden, Hesse, Saxony and Poland, was attacked at 9am by Wittgenstein, who had numerical advantage of four to one. However, the morale of Victor’s men remained, according to Zamoyski, ‘unaccountably high’[7] and they held out.

Victor faced a crisis on his left flank because he was short of troops. One of his divisions, commanded by General Louis Partouneaux, had been ordered to withdraw from Borisov to Studienka in the early hours of 28 November. It took the wrong road and was captured.

Napoleon therefore ordered the Baden brigade that had been withdrawn the day before to cross back over the Berezina. Doing so was very difficult because of the large number of stragglers coming the other way, but the infantry managed to force their way across.

The Russians were able to bring up guns on Victor’s left, which bombarded the bridges, causing panic and great losses amongst the stragglers. Napoleon deployed guns on the west bank, and they inflicted heavy casualties on the Russians who were trying to envelop Victor’s left.

Victor and his men were ordered to retire across the river at 9pm. The bridges had first to be cleared of the dead men and horses and the wreckages of wagons. By 1am, only a small screen was left on the east bank. Victor and Eblé urged the remaining stragglers to cross, but most again decided to wait.

Victor’s last men withdrew at 6am, and the stragglers at last realised the urgency of the situation. Eblé had been ordered by Napoleon to burn the bridges at 7am, but waited until 8:30am because so many were still on the other side of the river. By then the Russians were close to the bridges, leaving him no choice to set them on fire, even though thousands had still to cross.

Chandler argues that ‘Napoleon was undoubtedly in a position to claim a strategic victory’ at the Berezina.’[8] He had extracted the survivors of the Grande Armée, albeit with heavy losses. Chandler attributes this to the inactivity of the Russian commanders and the efforts of Eblé, who he describes as ‘the true hero of the Berezina’[9], Oudinot and Victor.

Chandler also suggests that Kutuzov’s lack of urgency during this phase of the campaign is difficult to interpret as ‘anything else than a deliberate desire to allow Napoleon to escape over the Berezina’[10]

The crossing of the Berezina marked the last major combat of Napoleon’s 1812 Campaign. He had originally intended to fight Chichagov in order to clear the route to Minsk, but the losses incurred in the crossing meant that he had no choice but to retreat to Vilna.

The crossing of the Berezina did not, however, mean the end of the Grande Armée’s ordeal. It continued to suffer casualties in rearguard actions, and to the weather; the temperature was still falling.


[1] Quoted in A. Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (London: HarperCollins, 2004), p. 432.

[2] Ibid., pp. 435-7.

[3] Quoted in D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 834.

[4] Ibid., pp. 841-42.

[5] Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 471-73.

[6] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 842.

[7] Zamoyski, 1812, p. 473.

[8] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 845.

[9] Ibid., p. 841.

[10] Ibid., p. 846.

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The Battle of Krasny, November 1812.

The previous post in this series described Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow to Smolensk, which he reached on 9 November 1812. It took another four days until all his units had arrived. Only 41,500 of the 100,000 men who had started out from Moscow made it to Smolensk.[1]

Click here for a link to a map of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow on Wikimedia.

There were fewer supplies in Smolensk than Napoleon had hoped, and looting meant that those that there were did not last as long as they would have done if carefully rationed. On the night of 12 November the temperature fell as low as -23.75°C (-10.75°F). Many of the troops were camped out of doors.[2]

Adam Zamoyski points out that Armand Caulaincourt, formerly Napoleon’s Ambassador to Russia, and a member of his entourage, thought that the Emperor could have turned the losses to his advantage by creating a mobile force of around 40,000 men

The wounded could have been left in Smolensk with medical attendants and supplies. Horses, by now in short supply, could have been freed up by ditching loot and the wagons carrying it and part of the artillery. The remaining field force would have been mobile enough to fight its way out of Russia and small enough to be supplied. Instead, the retreat was poorly organised, with the Emperor postponing decisions until the last moment. [3]

Napoleon ordered his army to resume the retreat on 12 November. One corps left each day, ending with the rearguard, commanded by Marshal Michel Ney, on 17 November. The army was therefore strung out along the road. The Emperor himself departed on 14 November.

On 15 November Napoleon and his Imperial Guard reached Krasny. He decided to wait for the rest of his army to catch up. It was harassed by Cossacks and skirmished with the Russian advance guard under General Mikhail Miloradovitch.

The next day Prince Eugene’s 4,000 Italians found the road from Smolensk to Krasny blocked by Miloradovitch’s far larger Russian force. The Italians managed to hold out until nightfall, but seemed certain to be destroyed the next day.

Eugene, however, took them on a night march round the Russians to Krasny. Zamoyski says that a Russian speaking Polish Colonel persuaded Russian sentries that they were acting under orders from Prince Mikhail Kutuzov, the Russian C-in-C.[4]

Napoleon now faced a problem. If he withdrew, then his remaining troops, commanded by Marshals Louis Davout and Ney, might not be able to fight their way through. If he waited for them, then he might find his own retreat cut off by Kutuzov, who was a couple of miles to the south of Krasny. He therefore decided to attack Miloradovitch.

Napoleon led his Imperial Guard forward. They were outnumbered, but Zamoyski says that ‘his bearing…seemed to have impressed not only his own men but the enemy as well.’[5]

Miloradovitch withdrew, allowing Davout’s corps to pass. Kutuzov was urged by his subordinates to attack, since the Russians were strong enough to surround and destroy the enemy, but he did nothing.

Kutuzov did, however, threaten Napoleon’s line of retreat. The Emperor withdrew with the Old Guard, leaving the Young Guard to cover Davout’s retreat. The French suffered heavily from enfilading fire and the Young Guard was almost wiped out. Kutuzov, however, would not attack Napoleon. Zamoyski says that ‘Many on the Russian side felt a deep-seated reluctance to take him on and preferred to stand by in awe.’[6]

David Chandler argues that Krasny ‘reveals the degree of moral ascendancy retained by Napoleon’[7] over his opponents. He also says that it shows that he was correct not to commit the Imperial Guard at Borodino, since events showed that he needed it at Krasny.

Napoleon reached Orsha, a reasonably well stocked supply base on 19 November. He intended to wait there for the remainder of his army. His greatest concern was whether Ney and his 6,000 organised troops, plus double that number of camp followers and stragglers, could make it through Krasny.

Ney encountered Miloradovitch on 18 November, and declined an invitation to surrender. The French tried to break through, but were beaten back with heavy casualties. Miloradovitch and General Sir Robert Wilson, a British observer with the Russian army, both commented on the courage of the French.[8]

Unable to fight his way through, Ney decided to go round the Russians. A crossing point on the Dnieper, which ran north of and roughly parallel to the road, was identified.

After leaving enough camp fires burning to persuade the Russians that his corps was staying put, he led the 2,000 survivors north to the crossing point. The river was frozen, and the ice was just thick enough to take men, provided that they crossed in small groups, but not wagons, guns or horses. Some horsemen and light wagons managed to cross, but cracks appeared in the ice when more tried to follow. In the end, 300 men and all the guns had to be left on the south bank.

The French found food at a village on the north bank that had previously escaped the ravages of war. They were harassed by Cossacks all the way to Orsha, but Ney and 1,000 men made it back to the army.

Napoleon could not linger at Orsha. On 18 November he learnt that Minsk, a major supply base, had been captured by the Russians. Prince Karl Schwarzenberg’s Austrian Corps had been supposed to protect it.

Napoleon accused the Austrians of betrayal. However, Schwarzenberg had moved south-west to support General Jean Reynier’s VIII Corps, which had been attacked by General Fabian Sacken. This left the route to Minsk open to the Russian army commanded by Admiral Pavel Chichagov.

Napoleon’s northern flank was also open. He had ordered Marshal Claude Victor to re-take Polotsk, but he was defeated at Smoliani by Prince Peter Wittgenstein on 13-14 November.

Kutuzov claimed victory at Krasny, but Chandler states that Napoleon had the better of the battle.[9] Zamoyski points out that a real Russian victory would have produced more trophies than Davout’s Marshal’s baton.[10]

However, Napoleon had no alternative but to continue to retreat towards the River Berezina.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 828.

[2] A. Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (London: HarperCollins, 2004), pp. 415-16.

[3] Ibid., pp. 418-19.

[4] Ibid., p. 421.

[5] Ibid., p. 422.

[6] Ibid., p. 424.

[7] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 829.

[8] Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 426-27.

[9] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 829.

[10] Zamoyski, 1812, p. 431.

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