Napoleon’s 1812 Russian Campaign to the Capture of Vitebsk on 28 July

This post follows on from previous ones describing Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in June 1812 and the reasons why he invaded.

Napoleon was aware that his invasion of Russia presented major supply problems, describing it as ‘the greatest and most difficult enterprise that I have ever attempted.’[1] He did not expect to have to advance far into Russia, believing that he could win a decisive victory near the frontier.

Napoleon reached Vilna on June 28. He had hoped to engage Tsar Alexander I and the First Army under General Prince Michael Barclay de Tolly, but they had retreated north-east towards Drissa. This increased the distance between the First Army and the Russian Second Army, commanded by General Prince Peter Bagration.

Napoleon attempted to trap and destroy Bagration’s army between the I Corps of Marshal Louis Davout and his right flank, commanded by his brother Jerome, King of Westphalia; the 45,000 Russians would be surrounded by 110,000 troops.[2]

On 4 July, Bagration learnt that Davout had crossed his line of retreat and moved south towards Minsk. Jerome,  hampered by supply problems, poor roads and heavy rain, moved slowly, and Bagration escaped. Jerome failed to keep his brother informed of his movements. Napoleon told him that:

If you had the most elementary grasp of soldiering, you would have been on the 3rd where you were on the 6th, and several events which would have resulted from my calculations would have given me a fine campaign.[3]

Napoleon blamed Jerome for the French failure to destroy Bagration’s army. Charles Esdaile says that this is now generally regarded as being unfair; Jerome was not a good general, but he was given an impossible task by his brother. The French faced great supply problems in a country where they could not rely in the local population. The army was too big and the distances too vast to allow Napoleon to control the battle and to carry out a battles of encirclement.[4] Adam Zamoyski blames Napoleon, who had appointed his brother, who had no military experience, to high command for political reasons.[5]

Napoleon put Jerome under the command of  Davout. Jerome was angered by his brother’s criticisms and got on poorly with Davout. He left the army and returned to Westphalia.

Napoleon ordered Davout to pursue Bagration and prevent the two Russian armies joining forces. Napoleon intended to destroy Barclay de Tolly’s army, which had reached Drissa on 11 July. Its fortifications were strong, so Napoleon decided to turn its flank, forcing the Russians to retreat and fight in the open.

On 12 July Alexander accepted that Drissa was a trap for his army, and that it should withdraw to Vitebsk. Adam Zamoyski points out that this decision, whilst militarily correct, created problems for Alexander. He had made a rousing speech the day before, promising his troops a victorious battle. The army had done nothing to fight the invader, and Alexander had given up a large proportion of his empire. The Tsar was persuaded by his advisers that his place was in his capital, rallying his people and recruiting more troops. He therefore left the army.[6]

On 19 July Napoleon received a report that the Russians had left Drissa. He expected the Russian armies to meet at Polotsk, and thus moved towards Kamen. Two days later he realised that their rendezvous was to be at Vitebsk. On 23 July Bagration and Davout fought a battle, called Mogilev by the French and Saltanovka by the Russians. Bagration was unable to break through and unite with Barclay.

Engagements took place between the French cavalry under Marshal Joachim Murat and Barclay’s troops at Ostrovno on 25 and 26 July. This convinced Napoleon that Barclay was willing to give battle, and he decided to wait until 28 July to bring up more troops, rather than attacking on 27 July with the troops available.

David Chandler considers this decision to be a major error by Napoleon. Barclay abandoned his original plan to fight at Vitebsk when he learnt that Bagration could not move to support him. The day’s delay allowed the Russians to withdraw towards Smolensk. There were enough good roads for him to be sure of getting there safely.[7]

Barclay, according to Adam Zamoyski, was correct to withdraw. A Russian victory would have been highly unlikely, and would not have been decisive; Barclay commanded the main Russian army but faced only part of Napoleon’s army. The failure to win a victory damaged French morale.[8]

The French took Vitebsk on 28 July. It had been the most easterly city of Poland until 1772,  when Austria, Prussia and Russia carried out the first of their three partitions of Poland. The French had taken all of Lithuania and had a defensible position. Napoleon initially claimed that:

Here I stop! Here I must look around me, rally, refresh my army and organise Poland. The campaign of 1812  is finished.[9]

Napoleon, however, soon changed his mind.  The country to the east was more fertile and the Russian armies were only about 100 miles away. On 12 August he marched on Smolensk, intending to inflict a decisive defeat on the Russians; see the next post in this series.


[1] Quoted in C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 462.

[2] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 775-76.

[3] Quoted in A. Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (London: HarperCollins, 2004), p. 176.

[4] Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, p. 468.

[5] Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 167-68.

[6] Ibid., pp. 171-72.

[7] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 779.

[8] Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 179-81.

[9] Quoted in Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, p. 470.

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4 responses to “Napoleon’s 1812 Russian Campaign to the Capture of Vitebsk on 28 July

  1. Pingback: Napoleon's 1812 Russian Campaign to the Capture of Vitebsk on 28 ... | Napoleon Bonaparte - Emperor of the French | Scoop.it

  2. Pingback: Battle of Smolensk, 17 August 1812. | War and Security

  3. Pingback: Why Napoleon’s 1812 Russian Campaign Failed | War and Security

  4. Pingback: What Minard’s Map Helps Show Us: Why Napoleon’s 1812 Russian Campaign Failed | Michael Sandberg's Data Visualization Blog

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