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.

5 Comments

Filed under War History

5 responses to “The Battle of Krasny, November 1812.

  1. Pingback: Napoleon’s Crossing of the Berezina | War and Security

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

  3. Pingback: DataViz History: Charles Minard’s Flow Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812 – The Battle of Krasny (Krasnoi), November 1812 | Michael Sandberg's Data Visualization Blog

  4. Pingback: DataViz History: Charles Minard’s Flow Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812 – Crossing of the Berezina | Michael Sandberg's Data Visualization Blog

  5. 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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