Monthly Archives: August 2012

Battle of Smolensk, 17 August 1812.

This post follows on from this one on Napoleon’s campaign in Russia up to Battle of Vitebsk on 28 July 1812.

The Russian commander, General Michael Barclay de Tolly, was reluctant to attack. The further that the French advanced into Russia, the better the odds became for the Russians. The French were being harassed by Cossacks and had to leave troops to guard their lines of supply, whilst the Russian were able to bring up more troops.

However, most Russians could not understand why they were surrendering so much territory without a fight, especially after Barclay was joined by General Peter Bagration’s Second Army on 4 August. According to David Chandler, Barclay commanded 125,000 men and Napoleon had about 185,000 in the immediate area.[1]

Barclay was under pressure both from both Tsar Alexander and from his subordinates to attack. On 6 August his generals persuaded him to concentrate against Marshal Joachim Murat’s cavalry and Marshal Michel Ney’s corps. The next day, Barclay received false reports that there was a French force at Poriechie to his north. He re-aligned his army to the north to face the supposed French threat.

General Matviei Platov, commanding the Don Cossacks. did not receive the order to move north. He encountered and defeated General Horace Sebastiani’s cavalry division at the Battle of Inkovo, taking 200 prisoners, but had to retreat when the French counter-attacked.

Barclay ordered a cautious advance on 13 August, but Bagration, angered by Barclay’s continual changes of orders, declined to co-operate. He had put himself under Barclay’s command when they united on 4 August, but he was not officially subordinate to Bagration.

Napoleon had halted his advance on Smolensk and prepared to receive a Russian attack when he learnt of Inkovo. By 10 August it was apparent that this was not going to happen and he resumed preparations for an attempt to envelop the Russians at Smolensk. Chandler says that:

Almost all commentators agree that this operational plan constitutes one of Napoleon’s masterpieces…This was a manoeuvre of strategic envelopment worthy of the one that preceded his great triumph of Jena-Auerstadt in 1806, and if it had succeeded the fruits of victory would have been no less impressive.[2]

The French manoeuvres started on 11 August. Barclay put a rearguard of 8,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry under General Neveroski on the south bank of the Dnieper to guard the approaches to Smolensk. It held up the French cavalry, which might otherwise have reached Smolensk on 14 August. Instead, Napoleon paused for a day to re-group.

Napoleon had now lost the element of surprise and the Russians were able to withdraw to Smolensk. Barclay ordered General Raevski to occupy it with 20,000 men and 72 guns. It had a medieval wall and some more modern defences, but these were in a poor state of repair.

The French reached Smolensk on 16 August. Some fighting took place, but they did not attempt to storm the city until the next day. The Russians held on, suffering 12-14,000 casualties, but inflicting 10,000. Chandler says that it is unclear why Napoleon attacked rather than masking the city and moving to threaten the Smolensk to Moscow road.[3]

Barclay feared such a manoeuvre and evacuated Smolensk on the night of 17-18 August after destroying all his stores. Grand Duke Constantine, the Tsar’s brother, and General Bennigsen objected to this and accused Barclay of cowardice.

The French were slow to move, and their pursuit did not get properly underway until 19 August. General Junot was ordered to take his corps over the Dnieper at Prudichevo in order to cut off the Russian retreat, but took all day to find a crossing, and then did not attack. Ney and Murat were held up by the Russian rearguard under Eugen and Tutchkov at Valutino, and the main Russian

Napoleon did have some good news on 18 August; a victory at Polotsk secured his northern flank. Marshal Charles Oudinot, the French commander, was wounded, but General Laurent St Cyr took over and defeated the Russians. St Cyr was promoted to Marshal.

However, Napoleon was having to advance even further into Russia in an attempt to bring the Russians to battle.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 782.

[2] Ibid., pp. 783-84.

[3] Ibid., p. 786.

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Allied Liberation of Madrid, 12 August 1812.

As described in this post, on 22 July 1812 Wellington‘s Anglo-Portuguese army defeated the French at the battle of Salamanca. On 6 August Wellington moved towards Madrid with about 60,000 men.The French and their Spanish allies had 210,000 troops in Spain, but many of these were spread around the country in garrisons. Others were in Andalusia in the south under the command of Marshal Nicolas Soult

King Joseph Bonaparte and Marshal Jean Jourdan had only 22,000 men with which to oppose Wellington. On 10 August Joseph and his royal household left Madrid for Valencia, accompanied by 15,000 civilians in a convoy of 2,000 wagons. Only a small garrison was left behind.

The poor communications between Andalusia and Madrid meant Soult did not learn of the French defeat at Salamanca until 12 August. He was forced to withdraw. He ended his siege of Cadiz on 25 August and evacuated Seville two days later, apart from a small rearguard that was quickly defeated by an Anglo-Spanish force. Soult joined with other French forces from Extremadura at Cordoba and withdrew to Granada. On 16 September he retreated to Valencia.

Wellington’s army entered Madrid on 12 August 1812 to the cheers of the population. The French had lost half the territory that they had gained in Spain since 1808 in eight months.

The Spanish could theoretically put 100,000 troops in the field, and more could be raised from the liberated territories. The British hoped for a general Spanish mobilisation against the French, but this did not happen. Charles Esdaile says that the British attributed this to ‘Spanish laziness and incompetence’[1] but argues that this view ignored the true situation in Spain and the ineffectiveness of the government.

The 1811 harvest was disastrous, and the countryside had been pillaged by a series of armies. The crowds that cheered Wellington’s armies wanted bread rather than a chance to fight the French.

Police controls imposed by the French were little relaxed. Feudalism was theoretically abolished, but landowners simply replaced feudal levies with rents. Some guerillas preferred banditry to pursuing the French or joining the regular army. There was consequently anarchy in much of the country.

The country was also in a dire financial state. The French invasion and troubles in the Spanish American colonies reduced revenue from 407.7 million reales in 1810 to 210.6 million in 1811 and 138 million in 1812. Esdaile argues that Spain was bankrupt unless it could stabilise the situation in its American colonies. Only British subsidies allowed it to continue the war.[2]

Despite the liberation of the capital of Spain and half the country, the Peninsular War was a long way from being over.


[1] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 403.

[2] Ibid., pp. 406-7.

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The Journal of Military Operations – New, Free Online Academic Journal

The Journal of Military Operations, a new peer-reviewed academic journal, has just published its first issue. It is available online at https://www.tjomo.com/. You have to register, but it is free. Its editor, Dr Jim Storr, states on the Birmingham “On War” blog that it aims to fill a gap for a journal “which focuses on how armed forces do, and should, fight wars.”

This is a very promising venture, which fills a gap in the market and is free. Judging by the membership of the Editorial Advisory Panel, it should be a high quality publication:

It is produced by the IJ Group, which was founded by A. E Stahl. It already publishes the Infinity Journal, which describes itself as being

an online, peer-reviewed “journalzine” concerned with strategy as the product of consciously linking ends, ways, and means. We are interested in strategy at any level—from grand strategy to campaign strategy—and as regards any dimension—from nuclear weapons to cyber-power. We are as concerned with the theory as much as the practice of strategy, whether across cultures, across history, or as a way ahead.

You do have to register separately for the two journals, but doing so is quick.

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