Monthly Archives: November 2012

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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A Pause for Negotiations in the Israel-Hamas Conflict from Stratfor

The latest thoughts of George Friedman of Strafor on the situation in Gaza. Click here for a previous report.

“<a href=”http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/pause-negotiations-israeli-hamas-conflict”>A Pause for Negotiations in the Israeli-Hamas Conflict</a> is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

The Israeli-Hamas conflict has entered into a negotiation phase. Both sides  want talks. Hamas wants them because any outcome that prevents an Israeli ground  assault gives it the opportunity to retain some of its arsenal  of Fajr-5 rockets; the Israelis want them because the cost of an  invasion could be high, and they recall the political fallout of Operation Cast  Lead in 2008, which alienated many European and other governments.

No matter how much either side might want to avoid ground warfare,  negotiations are unlikely to forestall an Israeli assault because Hamas’ and  Israel’s goals leave little middle ground.

Visit our Israel  page for related analysis, videos, situation reports and maps.

One of Hamas’ main goals in this current round of fighting is to retain  enough Fajr-5 rockets to allow it to threaten the Israeli heartland, the Tel  Aviv-Jerusalem corridor. If they succeed, Hamas will have gained a significant  lever in its relations with the Israelis. The Israeli goal is to deny Hamas  these rockets. The problem for the Israelis is that this requires a ground  assault in order to have any chance of success. The Israelis may think they know  where the rockets are, but they cannot be certain. Airstrikes can target known  facilities, at least those where rockets are not stored in hardened underground  bunkers. But only by going in on the ground with substantial force will the  Israelis have the opportunity to search for and destroy the rockets.

Finding middle ground will be difficult. The retention of the Fajr-5 both  dramatically improves Hamas’ strategic position and gives Hamas the chance to  further weaken the Palestinian National Authority. Hamas cannot agree to any  deal that takes the rockets away — or that does not at least leave open the  possibility that it could have them. Meanwhile, Israel simply cannot live with  the Fajr-5 in the hands of Hamas.

Lack of International Involvement

It is interesting to note the remarkable indifference of most countries that  normally rush to mediate such disputes, the United States chief among them.  Washington has essentially endorsed the Israeli position so strongly that it has  no option to mediate. The Turks, who had been involved with the Gaza issue  during the flotilla  incident of May 2010, have taken no steps beyond rhetoric in spite of  relations with both Hamas and Israel. The Saudis have also avoided getting  involved.

The Egyptians have been the most active in trying to secure a cease fire:  Beyond sending their prime minister into Gaza on Nov. 16, as well as their  intelligence chief and a group of security officials, Cairo then hosted a  delegation of senior Hamas and Islamic Jihad members to further this goal. But  while the Egyptians have a great interest in preventing an Israeli ground  invasion of Gaza and are crucial to the Israeli imperative to prevent weapons  smuggling via Gaza, there is little more they can do at present to mediate  between the two sides.

If no one seems to want to serve as mediator, it is because there is such  little room for negotiation. It is not ideology but strategy that locks each  side into place. Hamas has come this far and does not want to give up what it  has maneuvered for. Israel cannot allow Hamas a weapon that threatens the  Israeli heartland. This situation is too serious for the parties to reach an  agreement that ends the hostilities for now but in reality simply pushes back  the issues to be addressed later. No one is eager to mediate a failure. U.N.  Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has said he will go to Gaza in the coming week,  but he will not be in a position to find middle ground.

Israel will not budge on this. Hamas could be compelled to relent under  threat from its core financial supporters in the Arabian Peninsula, but these  states, such as Qatar, are all far more concerned with the threat posed by Iran.  The fact that these rockets likely originated with Iran ought to give them  incentive to lean on Hamas.

Dubious Prospects for Negotiations

It is important to bear in mind that the war is already under way. Israeli  airstrikes are intense and continuous. Hamas is firing rockets at Israel.  What has not yet happened is a direct ground attack on Gaza by the Israelis,  although they have been mobilizing forces and should now be in a position to  attack if they so choose. But the Israelis would much rather not attack. They  fear the consequences — measured both in human casualties and in political  fallout — that would certainly follow.

Thus, both sides want a negotiated end on terms that would leave the other  side in an impossible position. While Hamas might be able to live with the  status quo, Israel cannot. A negotiated end is therefore unlikely. Still, both  sides are signaling their willingness to talk, and however forlorn the  possibilities, there is a chance that something could be arranged.

We remain of the opinion that this current pause will be followed by a ground  assault. Only by expanding the discussion beyond the Fajr-5 to a broader  settlement of Hamas-Israeli issues could these negotiations succeed, but that  would require Hamas recognizing Israel’s right to exist and Israel accepting the  equivalent of a Palestinian state run by Hamas in Gaza — one that might spread  its power to the West Bank. The more expansive the terms of these negotiations  get, the more dubious their prospects for success — and these negotiations  start off fairly dubious as it is.

Read more:  A Pause for Negotiations in the Israeli-Hamas Conflict | Stratfor

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Update on the Israel-Gaza Conflict from Stratfor

This report originally appeared on Stratfor, which describes itself as follow:

Stratfor is a subscription-based provider of geopolitical analysis. Individual  and corporate subscribers gain a thorough understanding of international  affairs, including what’s happening, why it’s happening, and what will happen  next.

Read more:  About Us | Stratfor

The bulk of its reports are available only to paid subscribers, but a reasonable number, including this one, are free:

“<a href=”http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/update-israel-gaza-conflict”>Update on the Israel-Gaza Conflict</a> is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

Summary

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

An Israeli rocket fired from the Iron Dome in Tel Aviv on  Nov. 17

New intelligence indicates forces in Gaza may be manufacturing long-range  rockets locally. If this is the case, a significant ground force offers the  Israelis the best chance of finding and neutralizing the factories making these  weapons. Meanwhile, Israel continues its airstrikes on Gaza, and Gaza  continues its long-range rocket attacks on major Israeli population centers,  though Israel claims its Iron Dome defense system has intercepted most of the  rockets.

Analysis

Israel appears to be positioning itself for a ground operation, perhaps as  early as the night of Nov. 17. The Israeli Cabinet on Nov. 16 approved Defense  Minister Ehud Barak’s request to call up 75,000 reservists, significantly more  than during Operation Cast  Lead in 2008-2009. The Israeli army meanwhile has also sought to strengthen  its presence on the borders with Gaza. Primary roads leading to Gaza and running  parallel to Sinai have been declared closed military zones. Tanks, armored  personnel carriers, self-propelled artillery and troops continue to stream to  the border, and many units already appear to be in position.

During Operation Cast Lead, the Israelis transitioned to the ground phase  around 8:00 p.m. on Jan. 3, 2009. Going in during dark hours allows the IDF to  take advantage of its superior night-fighting equipment and training, including  the use of night vision goggles and thermal optics.

The Israeli air force remained active throughout the night of Nov. 16-17,  striking at targets across the Gaza Strip including key Hamas ministries, police  stations and tunnels near the border crossing with Egypt. The IAF reportedly  carried out strikes in Rafah’s al-Sulan and al-Zahour neighborhoods, as well as  east of the al-Maghazi refugee camp. According to IDF reports, the air force  carried out a rapid and coordinated military strike, targeting approximately 70  underground medium-range rocket-launching sites in the less than an hour. The  IDF claims direct hits were confirmed. The IAF will increasingly target Hamas  militant defenses ahead of any ground invasion. Already the IAF has bombed  militant defensive positions, particularly in the northern part of the Gaza  Strip.

Meanwhile, Hamas and other militant factions in Gaza have been actively  striking back at Israel. More than 80 rockets have been launched from Gaza over  the past 24 hours. Of the rockets launched Nov. 17, approximately 57 landed in  Israel. According to the IDF, a total of 640 rockets have been launched since  Nov. 14, with 410 landing in Israel. A long-range rocket was fired from Gaza  toward Tel Aviv at approximately 4:45 p.m. local time Nov. 17 but was  successfully intercepted by the recently deployed Iron Dome anti-rocket defense  system in the area. Hamas continues to target areas around Ashkelon, Ashdod and  Beersheva, with the Iron Dome system intercepting five rockets over Ashkelon at  5:15 p.m. The majority of rockets launched from Gaza appear to be of shorter  range than the Fajr-5. The IDF has stated its Iron Dome interceptors have so far  successfully intercepted 90 percent of the rockets, though this may be an  exaggeration.

One of the long-range rockets was intercepted by the newly installed Iron  Dome battery in the Tel Aviv area. A Stratfor source has indicated that the  rocket was not a Fajr-5, but was a locally manufactured long-range rocket in  Hamas’ arsenal.

If militants in Gaza are now able to locally manufacture their own long-range  rockets that can target Tel Aviv and other major Israeli cities, it would be a  worrisome development for Israel. Thus far, Israel has been able to focus its  efforts on limiting the supply of these rockets to Gaza through interdiction  efforts, such as the alleged Oct.  23 strike on the Yarmouk arms factory in Sudan. But if Palestinian militants  can manufacture long-range rockets in Gaza, it will be much more difficult for  Israel to restrict Gaza’s inventory of these rockets. Beyond rocket launch  sites and caches, which Israel is currently targeting with its airstrikes, it  would need to target production sites and those who would be responsible for  manufacturing the rockets.

Furthermore, it will be significantly harder for Israeli intelligence to form  an accurate picture of the number of these rockets locally constructed in Gaza.  We have already seen that Israeli intelligence likely did not anticipate how many long-range rockets had  escaped its first wave of strikes, and the fact that Hamas may have been  producing these weapons could explain Israel’s lack of complete information.

Hamas recognizes that these long-range rocket attacks have only increased the  likelihood and intensity of an Israeli ground incursion. A significant ground  force offers the Israelis the best chance of finding and neutralizing the  factories making these long-range rockets as well as the shorter-range Qassams.  Hamas and the other militants therefore are actively preparing their defenses  for the anticipated incursion and are likely laying improvised explosive  devices, setting up road blocks and defensive emplacements and sorting out their  ranks and tasks.

Hamas has already announced that its Al Murabiteen units, consisting of five  brigades spread across Gaza, will be concentrated in the border region to limit  Israeli penetration into the Gaza Strip. Learning from Hezbollah’s example in  2006, special units of Hamas are relying heavily on tunnels to maintain  communications. Should Israel be drawn into more densely populated areas of Gaza  in pursuit of weapons storage and manufacturing facilities, Hamas has also  reportedly prepared its suicide bombers, known as Istishadiyeen, to raise the  cost for Israel in an urban battle.

Read more:  Update on the Israel-Gaza Conflict | Stratfor

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Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow to Smolensk

The previous post in this series described how Napoleon decided to retreat from Moscow on 18 October 1812. His intention was to make for the supply depot at Smolensk by a southerly route. This might require a battle with Mikhail Kutuzov’s Russian army, but would mean that the French were not moving through the territory that had been ravaged in their advance on Moscow.

The Grande Armée set off on 19 October, moving south west towards Kaluga. The main body took the older of the two roads to Kaluga, with Prince Eugene’s IV Corps taking the newer road, which was further to the west. Napoleon ordered Marsahl Edouard Mortier, commander of the French rearguard, to destroy the Kremlin before withdrawing on 23 October. The French demolition charges did not work properly, damaging but not destroying the Kremlin.

According to David Chandler, Napoleon had told his men that he intended to attack Kutuzov’s left flank, realising that this news would reach the Russians. He hoped that Kutuzov would consequently move to the east and allow the French to escape to Smolensk.[1]

Adam Zamoyski speculates that Napoleon may have intended to attack the Russians, with Eugene launching a flanking manoeuvre. If Napoleon did consider this, he changed his mind, since on 21 October the main French army moved to join Eugene on the new road.[2]

Kutuzov was quickly informed that the French had left Moscow, but was slow to move. General Dimitry Dokhturov learnt from prisoners that the Grande Armée corps was heading for the road junction at Maloyaroslavets. The French would threaten the flanks and supply lines of the Russian army if they took the junction, so Dokhturov moved his corps there. Control of Maloyaroslavets would give mean that Napoleon could proceed to Smolensk via either Medyn or Kaluga

General Alexis Delzons’s 13th Division reached Maloyaroslavets ahead of Dokhturov, but Delzons left only two battalions in the town. Dokhturov’s corps attacked at dawn on 24 October, taking the town and forcing Delzons to retreat back across the river.

Delzons launched a counter-attack and forced the Russians back. The Croatians of the 1st Illyrian Regiment did particularly well. Kutuzov’s leading corps, under General Nikolai Raevsky, arrived and re-captured the town. General Domenico Pino’s 15th (Italian) Division then took it back. The Russians fell back, but took up a position that covered the bridges over the river.

By 1pm most of the Grande Armée was drawn up on the north back, but Napoleon decided not to send it across the river because the well-positioned Russian artillery would have inflicted heavy casualties on it as it moved.

Fierce fighting continued in the town for the rest of the day and the Italians held it at nightfall. General Sir Robert Wilson, a British observer with the Russian army, wrote that:

The Italian army had displayed qualities which entitled it evermore to take rank amongst the bravest troops in Europe. [3]

The action had involved 27,000 soldiers and 72 guns of the Grande Armée against 32,000 Russians with 354 guns. Napoleon had lost 6,000 men, including Delzons. Russian casualties were higher, but they could be replaced. Napoleon now had only about 65,000 men with him, facing 90,000 Russians with 500 guns.

Early on the 25 October Napoleon carried out a reconnaissance of the battlefield. He was nearly captured by Cossacks, but his escort fought them off. Baron Agathon Fain, his secretary, said that the Emperor was badly affected by the sight of the corpses on the battlefield, many of whom had been burnt to death.[4]

Kutuzov had withdrawn two kilometres to a new position. Attacking it might result in a decisive French victory, but casualties would be heavy. The Russian withdrawal had opened up the route to Smolensk via Medyn, but taking this route would mean that the Grande Armée would be closely pursued by the Russians all the way to Smolensk.

Napoleon therefore decided to retire and head for Smolensk via the route that the Grande Armée had originally advanced along.

Zamoyski points out that Kutuzov, concerned about the inexperience of his troops, was reluctant to fight a pitched battle with the Grande Armée . He suggests that if Napoleon had moved boldly, he could have reached Medyn, where supplies were available, joined up with General Louis Baraguay d’Hilliers’s division and reached Smolensk by 3 or 4 November.[5]

Chandler argues that Napoleon’s plan to defeat Kutuzov before heading to Smolensk via Kaluga was the best option open to him. Changing his plan now meant that six days had been wasted. He could still have headed for Smolensk via Medyn, but reverting to the original line of advance ‘was to court disaster.’[6] Charles Esdaile calls Maloyaroslavets a ‘pointless battle’[7] for the French as it wasted a lot of time.

The Grande Armée marched along a single road, meaning that those further back had to march through ground churned up by those ahead of them. The horses were in poor condition, so it was hard for them to pull guns and wagons. Some generals wanted to speed up the column by abandoning part of the artillery, but Napoleon refused, as he argued that he was making a tactical withdrawal rather than retreating.

On 28 October the head of the column reached the battlefield of Borodino. The corpses had not been cleared away, and large numbers of French wounded had not been evacuated. Napoleon ordered that they should be taken along, against the advice of his Surgeon-General, Baron Dominique Jean Larrey and other doctors. Few survived the retreat.

Napoleon reached Vyazma on 1 November. He reached despatches that informed him that things were going badly on his flanks. In the south the Austrian Prince Karl Schwarzenberg was withdrawing towards the River Bug, exposing Napoleon’s flank. In the North a Franco-Bavarian army under Marshal Laurent St Cyr had been forced to retreat from Polotsk

St Cyr had been promoted to Marshal after the First Battle of Polotsk on 18 August 1812, in which he took over from the wounded Marshal Charles Oudinot and defeated Prince Peter Wittgenstein’s Russian army.

On 18 October Wittgenstein, who had been reinforced and now outnumbered St Cyr, launched a new attack on St Cyr at Polotsk. The Franco-Bavarians held off the attack on the first day; casualties on both sides were heavy. St Cyr realised late the next day that he was in danger of being encircled. A Bavarian counter-attack on 20 October enabled the Franco-Bavarian force to withdraw, but the road to the French supply base at Vitebsk was opened.

The retreat continued, with the column being pressured by both Cossacks and Kutuzov’s advance guard, commanded by Count Mikhail Miloradovich. On 3 November Miloradovich attacked the Grande Armée’s rearguard, Marshal Louis Davout’s I Corps, to the east of Vyazma.

Davout received support from Eugene’s IV Corps and Marshal Josef Poniatowski’s IV Corps. The French suffered heavy casualties, but were able to fall back on Marshal Michel Ney’s III Corps. It had been left at Vyazma with orders to replace the I Corps as the rearguard once it was clear of the town.

French casualties were about 6,000 dead and wounded and 2,000 prisoners. Poniatowski, crushed beneath his horse, was amongst the wounded. Russian losses were at most 1,845. As well as human casualties, the Grande Armée suffered a loss of cohesion. Zamoyski argues that the Russians could have destroyed four French corps if Kutuzov had attacked with his full army.[8]

Until 3 November the retreat had taken place in reasonable weather. The temperature fell sharply on the night of 4-5 November, and the snow began on 6 November. Armies did not then normally campaign in the winter, so the French uniforms were completely inadequate for the Russian winter. Zamoyski describes how men out on fur coats and even women’s dresses that they had plundered from Moscow to take home to their womenfolk.[9]

Troops in units that retained their discipline and cohesion coped best. Stragglers, without comrades to help and support them, fared worse. The animals fared worse; deaths amongst horses meant that wagons and thus supplies had to be abandoned. Saul David’s recent BBC TV series on logistics and war, Bullets, Bombs and Bandages, explained that the French horses had the wrong type of shoes, which made it hard for them to walk on the snow and ice.

Napoleon continued to receive bad news as he retreated. On 6 November he was told that General Claude Malet, a patient at a sanatorium, had escaped and tried to launch a republican coup in Paris on 23 October, claiming that the Emperor was dead. It was quickly suppressed, but Malet had easily fooled some local commanders and Napoleon’s infant son and heir had received little support. The Emperor therefore decided that he needed to return to Paris as soon as possible.

The next day Napoleon learnt that Marshal Louis Victor had been forced to retreat after a battle with Wittgenstein at Czasniki on 31 October. The seriousness of the situation was shown by the phrasing of the order that Napoleon sent to Victor to attack Wittgenstein and re-capture Polotsk. Victor was told to:

Take the offensive  – the safety of the whole army depends on you; every day’s delay can mean a calamity. The army’s cavalry is on foot because the cold has killed all the horses.[10]

Napoleon reached Smolensk on 9 November. It was four days before the whole of the retreating column arrived. The food stocks were lower than expected and this was compounded by looting. Chandler says that in three days the army ate supplies that could have been eked out to last a fortnight; it now comprised only 41,500 men.[11]

The Grande Armée did not stay long in Smolensk. Napoleon wanted to link up with Victor and Oudinot’s 25,000 men and considered wintering at his Vitebsk supply base. He did not know that the Russians had captured it on 7 November.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 820.

[2] A. Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (London: HarperCollins, 2004), p. 369.

[3] Quoted in Ibid., p. 373.

[4] Ibid., p. 374.

[5] Ibid., pp. 375-77.

[6] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 823.

[7] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 478.

[8] Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 387-88.

[9] Ibid., pp. 391-92.

[10] Quoted in Chandler, Campaigns, p. 827.

[11] Ibid., pp. 827-28.

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The USS United States Captures HMS Macedonian, 25 October 1812

On 8 October 1812 Commodore John Rodgers’s squadron of the frigates USS President, United States and Congress and the brig USS Argus set sail from Boston. Four days later the United States and the Argus separated from the other ships.

The USS President and Congress returned to Boston on 31 December, having captured nine British merchantmen. They encountered the frigates HMS Nymphe on 10 October and HMS Galatea on 31 October, but were unable to bring either to action. The USS Argus stayed at sea until 3 January 1813, capturing six British merchantmen.

On 25 October 1812 the USS United States, captained by Commodore Stephen Decatur, encountered HMS Macedonian, under the command of Captain John Carden. Their broadsides were:

USS United States: 16 long 24 pounders and 12 42 pound carronades for a total broadside of 888 pounds, reduced to 826 pounds if Theodore Roosevelt’s argument that US shot was 7 per cent lighter than its nominal weight is accepted. Roosevelt claims that the United States had a broadside of 11, not 12, 42 pound carronades, reducing her weight of fire to a nominal 846 pounds and an actual 787 pounds).[1]

HMS Macedonian: 14 long 18 pounders, one long 12 pounder, one long 9 pounder and eight 32 pound carronades. She also had a single moveable 18 pound carronade, giving a total broadside of 547 pounds, assuming that this gun could bear on the target.

Carden decided not to close the range quickly, although larger guns of the American ship meant that her advantage was greater at longer ranges. Macedonian suffered heavy damage as she cautiously approached her opponent.

Realising that his plan was not working, Carden then tried to close the range more quickly. By the time that the ships were within close range Macedonian had lost much of her rigging and most of her carronades. At 11:15, 90 minutes after the action had begun, she was forced to strike her colours.

British casualties were 41 killed and 63 wounded; six men were killed and five wounded on the American ship. Macedonian’s crew included eight Americans, three of whom were killed. The five survivors joined the USN.

The relative strengths of the two ships meant that the United States ought to have won, but she might have suffered heavier casualties in doing so under a less skilful captain than Decatur.

Alfred Mahan describes Decatur’s performances during the battle as being ‘thoroughly skilful.’[2] Decatur’s duty was to defeat his opponent whilst suffering as little damage as possible to his own ship. Roosevelt is critical of Carden, saying that he ‘was first too timid, and then too rash, and showed bad judgement at all times.’[3]

Carden was court-martialled after his return to Britain, a normal procedure for RN captains who had lost their ship. He was acquitted, but was criticised for his handling of his ship. He was never given another command, although the RN’s system of promotion by seniority above the rank of Captain meant that he eventually became an Admiral on the retired list.

The two ships returned to the USA after Macedonian had been repaired at sea. On 4 December the United States out into New London and Macedonian into Newport. Both subsequently moved to New York. The USS Macedonian was commissioned into the USN after being repaired and remained in US service until 1828.

Mahan notes that it is rather surprising that the two ships were not spotted by the British, who had sent a large number of reinforcements to North America. However, he points out that Admiral Sir John Warren, the British C-in-C, preferred to use his ships to patrol the trade routes rather than stopping US ships from putting to sea.[4]

The RN had three stations in North America and the Caribbean; Halifax, the Leeward Islands and Jamaica. Each had its own commander, meaning that the British naval effort against the USA was unco-ordinated until Warren was appointed to overall command on 3 August 1812. He arrived at Halifax on 26 September.

Mahan notes that the USA had reported 190 prizes and probably taken over 200 before Warren arrived. The British took only 70 prizes in first three months of war. Mahan suggests that this was due to the effect of Rodgers’s first cruise, a lack of British warships on station and the fact that the USA declared war.[5]

One of Warren’s first actions was to propose peace on 30 September. Britain had by then repealed the Orders-in-Council that were one of the causes of the war. On 27 October US Secretary of State James Monroe replied, saying that the USA wanted peace, but that the British must first stop pressing [conscripting] US sailors into the RN. Warren had no powers to negotiate this issue.

The capture of HMS Macedonian by the USS United States followed the taking of HMS Guerrière by the USS Constitution on 19 August 1812 and would be followed by the capture of HMS Java by the Constitution on 29 December 1812.

In each case the US ship was superior to the British one. Roosevelt accepts this but disagrees with British historians who said ‘that this superiority was so great as to preclude any hopes of a successful resistance.’[6]

N. A. M. Rodger notes that the best tactic for the weaker ship was to fire high and from long range, hoping to slow the enemy ship by damaging her enemy’s rigging.[7] This was not the tactic normally adopted by the British, who preferred to close the range and then fire at the enemy’s hull. This normally worked against opponents other than the USN.

Roosevelt argues that British frigates had won actions against European opponents that were as superior to them as were the American frigates to their opponents. He gives a number of examples taken from the French historian Onésime-Joachim Troude’s four-volume Batailles navales de la France .

On 1 March 1799, the 38 gun HMS Sybille captured the larger French  frigate Forte. The French ship’s main guns were 24 pounders; the British ones were 18 pounders. On 10 August 1805 HMS Phoenix took the French frigate Didon. On 8 March 1808 HMS San Florenzo captured the Piedmontaise.

Phoenix and San Florenzo were rated at 36 guns, but Roosevelt says that they had actual broadsides of 13 18 pounders, two nine pounders and six 32 pound carronades, a total of 21 guns with a broadside of 444 Ib.

The Didon and Piedmontaise were rated at 40 guns, but had actual broadsides of 14 18 pounders, two 8 pounders and seven 36 pound carronades, a total of 23 guns with a broadside of 522 pounds. Roosevelt believes that French shot was heavier than its nominal value, giving the two French frigates an actual broadside of around 600 pound. The armaments given for these ships are from Roosevelt; some of the linked websites differ.[8]

Roosevelt argues that the Didon and Piedmontaise’s superiority to HMS Phoenix and San Florenzo was greater than that of the USS Constitution to HMS Guerrière or HMS Java. He also claims that against European opponents during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars the British lost only five out of around 200 actions between two ‘ships of approximately equal force (that is, where the difference was less than one half).’[9]

This seems to be a rather wide definition of ‘approximately equal force’, but the point is that British were used to defeating more powerful European opponents at sea. Anglo-American sea actions were normally won by the more powerful ship. The RN had a long tradition of victory, but the USN was a young force.

Thus, victories by the USN over the RN had a much greater impact on morale in both countries than was apparently justified by a dispassionate analysis of the relative strengths of the ships involved.


[1] T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. i. pp. 82-88

[2] A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London,: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol. i, p. 421.

[3] Roosevelt, Naval War. vol. i, p. 139.

[4] Mahan, Sea Power 1812. vol. i, pp. 422-23.

[5] Ibid. vol. i, pp. 391-92.

[6] Roosevelt, Naval War. vol. i, p. 120.

[7] N. A. M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2004), p. 568.

[8] Roosevelt, Naval War, pp. 120-21.

[9] Ibid., pp. 122-23.

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