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.
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.
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. 
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.
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.
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.’ Charles Esdaile calls Maloyaroslavets a ‘pointless battle’ 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
 D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 820.
 A. Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (London: HarperCollins, 2004), p. 369.
 Quoted in Ibid., p. 373.
 Ibid., p. 374.
 Ibid., pp. 375-77.
 Chandler, Campaigns, p. 823.
 C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 478.
 Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 387-88.
 Ibid., pp. 391-92.
 Quoted in Chandler, Campaigns, p. 827.
 Ibid., pp. 827-28.
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