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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 Siege of Burgos and Wellington’s Retreat, 1812.

This post leads on from previous ones on the Battles of Salamanca and Garcia Hernandez.

Wellington was faced with a dilemma after his army liberated Madrid. Politically he could not fall back to Salamanca, but he faced the risk of being counter-attacked by a larger French forces from more than one direction.

The French had withdrawn their garrisons to Burgos and Valencia. According to Charles Esdaile they could field at least 100,000 men against the 60,000 of Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese army, which might be increased to 70,000 by the addition of Spanish regulars. The guerrillas were good at harassing the enemy, but they could not resist a French counter-offensive.[1]

In late August General Bertrand Clausel advanced on Valladolid, north of Madrid, intending to relieve the isolated French garrisons of Astorga, Toro and Zamora. Wellington, seeing a chance to defeat part of the French army before it concentrated against him, moved north with 21,000 men.

Wellington had taken what Esdaile describes as ‘a serious risk’[2] by moving with such a small force, but it was politically impossible for him to take more troops from Madrid. He hoped to receive support from General Fransisco Castaños’s Spanish 6th Army, which had just taken Astorgas.

In the event, the Spanish, who were short of supplies and artillery, moved slowly, and Clausel was able to retreat, taking the garrisons of Toro and Zamora with him.

Esdaile argues that Wellington should then have gone back to Madrid. He faced two French armies, and have could looked for an opportunity to win a major victory by concentrating against one of them.[3] Instead, he decided to advance on Burgos.

Click here for a link to map of Burgos in 1812.

The city was being pillaged by guerrillas, but a well supplied French garrison of veterans occupied a strong position in Burgos Castle. Esdaile compares General Jean-Louis Dubreton, its commander, to General Armand Phillipon, who had successfully defended Badajoz in 1811 and inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers before being forced to surrender the city in April 1812.[4]

Burgos had nine heavy guns, 11 field guns and six howitzers. The garrison of 2,000 men had no permanent shelter. Frederick Myatt argues that the fortress could resist guerrillas or an army without siege guns but not an army well equipped with a siege train and engineers. [5]

However, Wellington had only three 18 pounder guns, five 24 pounder howitzers, five engineer officers, eight Royal Military Artificers, 10 assistant engineers and 81 tradesmen. His army was short of tools, although it found some French ones in the town.

Burgos was invested by the British 1st and 6th Divisions and two Portuguese brigades on 19 September. The 5th and 7th Divisions were positioned to the north-east to guard against a French attempt to lift the siege.

Wellington’s shortage of artillery meant that he had to concentrate on digging and mining, with his guns being used mainly to support assaults. An outer works, the Hornwork, was captured on the first evening of the siege, but at the cost of heavy casualties; 421 Allied compared with 198 French dead, wounded and captured according to Jac Weller.[6] Seven French field guns were taken as well as 60 prisoners.[7]

An attack on the castle’s outer wall on 22 September failed, and Wellington then concentrated on mining. The miners had to operate under fire from the castle, with little support from their own guns, and it often rained.

By 29 September the miners believed that they had reached the scarp wall and a mine was detonated that evening. The subsequent attack failed after troops became lost and failed to find the breach. In the morning it was revealed that it was not a good one, and that the French were working at shoring up their defences. The mine had been detonated too far forward, as the foundations that the miners had met were ancient ones rather than the those of the wall.

The failure damaged Allied morale; Myatt points out that the French had:

‘the reasonable hope that relief would arrive. The British…[were] feeling (perhaps rightly) that they were attempting a hopeless task with quite inadequate support’[8]

The British worked on a second mine. They also set up a battery 60 yards from the outer wall, which was ready by 1 October. The French moved their guns to deal with this new threat and destroyed the battery the same day. The damaged guns were withdrawn and a new position prepared that night. The French artillery destroyed it before the guns could be moved into it.

It was intended to detonate the second mine on 3 October, but problems with the rocky ground meant that it was not ready until the next day. British guns made a breach 60 feet wide in the wall, which was extended to 100 feet when the mine detonated. The British attack succeeded in taking the breach with relatively light casualties.

Preparations now began for an assault on the second wall, but these were hampered by French sorties and poor weather. The attack was planned for 17 October, but Wellington delayed it for a day as he thought that the breach made in the second wall was inadequate. A third mine was detonated  underneath the church of San Roman.

The French beat off the attack on 18 October. Wellington had, according to Jac Weller, 24,000 Anglo-Portuguese troops and 10,000 Spaniards around Burgos. He was now faced with 53,000 French soldiers commanded by General Joseph Souham, who had replaced Clausel. Another French army was advancing on Madrid from Valencia.

Wellington therefore called off the siege and withdrew on the night of 21 October. The French suffered 623 dead, wounded and captured during the siege, but inflicted 2,059 casualties on the besiegers.[9]

Wellington’s rearguard fought an action against French cavalry at Venta del Pozo on 23 October. He initially hoped to make a stand along the River Carrión forty miles to the north-east of Valladolid and to join up with General Sir Rowland Hill’s corps from Madrid.

A series of engagements took place between 25 and 29 October, known collectively as the Battle of Tordesillas. The French captured the bridge over the Carrión at Palencia on 25 October and the bridge over the Duero at Tordesillas on 29 October. Wellington was therefore forced to retreat and ordered Hill to do the same

Hill had been preparing to fight a battle against the advancing French, commanded by Marshal Nicholas Soult. Instead, his rearguard fought an action against the French at Aranjuez on 30 October and he abandoned Madrid the next day. Wellington and Hill combined near Salamanca on 8 November and took up a strong defensive position. The French arrived six days later.

Soult moved to the west to threaten Wellington’s communications with Ciudad Rodrigo. Marshal Auguste Marmont had tried a similar manoeuvre in June and had been defeated after being caught on the march. Soult avoided this by staying further away from Wellington.

This left Wellington with the options of attacking a force that outnumbered him 95,000 to 70,000 or retreating. He chose to retire to Ciudad Rodrigo; it started to rain heavily just after the withdrawal began.

Esdaile says that ‘the French pursuit was none too vigorous.’[10] However, the Allies still lost 6,000 killed, wounded and missing. They included Sir Edward Paget, Wellington’s newly arrived second-in-command, who was captured on 17 November. Discipline and morale broke down as the troops retreated in bad weather, echoing the retreat to Coruña in 1809.

Wellington had lost much of the ground that he had won earlier in the year. However, the Allies still held the fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, known as the keys to Spain. An army invading Spain from Portugal had to hold these, so Wellington had a better starting point for his 1813 offensive than he had possessed in 1812.


[1] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 409.

[2] Ibid., p. 410.

[3] Ibid., p. 411.

[4] Ibid.

[5] F. Myatt, British Sieges of the Peninsular War (Tunbridge Wells: Spellmount, 1987), p. 134.

[6] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814, New ed. (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 236.

[7] Myatt, British Sieges, pp. 136-37.

[8] Ibid., p. 142.

[9] Weller, Peninsula, pp. 237-38.

[10] Esdaile, Peninsular War, p. 418.

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The Battle of Borodino, 7 September 1812

This post follows on from this one on the Battle of Smolensk on 17 August 1812.

Most of French army rested near Smolensk for 6 days after the battle and Napoleon thought about wintering there. This would allow new drafts to be trained and the supply arrangements to be improved. Napoleon might obtain a large Polish army if he allowed the establishment of a Polish Kingdom. An advance on Moscow might not bring victory, and could leave the French deep in Russia in winter, with long and exposed lines of communication.

However, Napoleon needed to get Russia back into the Continental System, by which he was conducting economic warfare against Britain, as quickly as possible. The Russians would also be able to train reinforcements and might counter attack. The French already had supply problems. Setting up an independent Poland would make it hard to achieve a negotiated peace and would upset that Austrian and Prussian monarchs. Halting the offensive would be presented as a defeat by his foreign enemies and his domestic opponents would conspire against him if he stayed away from Paris for too long.

David Chandler argues that Napoleon believed the only way to win a war was to destroy the enemy army. He thought that Tsar Alexander would have to fight for Moscow:

If for logistical reasons it was dangerous to linger at Smolensk, it was even more risky to head for Moscow, but only by such a bold course could there by any possibility of a reasonably rapid conclusion to the campaign.[1]

Alexander had decided to give up his strategy of conceding ground. On 24 July he made a successful appeal for new recruits. Religious symbols were presented to the army.

On 17 August, with the battle of Smolensk about to start, a meeting of senior generals urged Alexander to replace Mikhail Barclay de Tolly as commander-in-chief of the army with the Mikhail Kutuzov, a veteran of Russia’s wars with Poland and Turkey. He had done a good job in extracting the Russian survivors of the defeat at Austerlitz; he was nominally in command there, but Alexander was present and had ignored his advice not to fight. He did not receive another field command until 1811, when he won a number of victories against the Turks.[2]

Charles Esdaile points out that the loss of Smolensk, a major centre for the Russian Orthodox Church, threatened the estates of several leading nobles. Many officers were bitter and angry that they had continually to retreat. The government was successfully trying to boost Russian patriotism. Kutuzov was the leading ethnic Russian general whilst Barclay, who had surrendered much Russian territory, was regarded as a foreigner.[3] In fact, although Barclay had a Scottish name, he had been born in modern Latvia and his Scottish ancestors had emigrated to Russia in the seventeenth century.[4]

The Tsar ‘feared and resented’[5] Kutuzov and hesitated for three days before accepting that the strength of opinion amongst his nobles and generals left him with no choice but to appoint the 67 year old veteran. Alexander, concerned over Kutuzov’s ‘possible treachery as well as his imputed incompetence’[6], appointed Count Levin Bennigsen as his Chief of Staff. Barclay retained command of the Russian 1st Army.

On 24 August Napoleon decided to advance on Moscow the next day. As before, his army was menaced by Cossacks as it moved through territory that had been subjected to a policy of scorched earth. Heavy rain made Napoleon say on 30 August that he would return to Smolensk the next day unless the weather improved, but 31 August was dry and sunny.

By 5 September the French could see the Russians digging in around the village of Borodino. There is some doubt over which was the bigger army. Chandler, Esdaile and Zamoyski all put the French one at over 130,000. Chandler has 156,000 French leaving Smolensk, but 133,000 at Borodino. Chandler and Esdaile both say that there were 121,000 Russians at the battle, but Zamoyski argues that recent Russian research estimates the Russian strength at 154,800 to 157,000 men. This includes 10,000 Cossacks and 30,000 militia, who played little role in the battle, but the French Guard, which Zamoyski  puts at 25,000 men and Esdaile at 18,000, also did not fight in the battle. Chandler gives the Russians an advantage of 640 to 587 in artillery.[7]

John Elting notes that this was the largest ratio of artillery to men that Napoleon, an artilleryman, had at any of his battles; 4.5 guns per 1,000 men compared with around two in his early battles, 3.9 at Wagram in 1809 and 3.5 at the later battles of Leipzig in 1813 and Waterloo in 1815.[8]

The Russians had taken up a naturally strong defensive position, which they had then strengthened by the construction of a series of redoubts. One was a mile in front of the main position at the hamlet of Shevardino. The main line was held by a large entrenchment called the Great or Raevski Redoubt to the north and three flèches on hills further south. The flèches were arrow-shaped redoubts fortified on three sides, but with the rear open. An earthwork at Gorki guarded the new post road to Moscow and others covered the River Kalatsha north of Borodino. See the map below:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Battle_of_Borodino_map.jpg. Original from Gregory Fremont-Barnes (main editor) – The Encyclopedia of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, page 172. Adapted from Chandler 1987, 437.
Reference to Chandler is unclear, but may be The Dictionary of Battles (London: Ebury Press, 1987).

There was a fight for the Shevardino Redoubt on the afternoon and evening of 5 September, which ended when Kutuzov withdrew to the main line after the Polish General Jozef Poniatowski’s V Corps moved along the old post road.

Napoleon was ill with a heavy cold and an old bladder infection, meaning that he was far less active during the battle than normal. Both sides spent 6 September preparing for battle. Napoleon decided that the terrain north of Borodino was too difficult for an attack. A demonstration there would have tied down Russian troops, but this was not done. He made the capture of the Great Redoubt a priority, even though this would mean heavy casualties.

Marshal Louis Davout wanted to outflank the Russians to the south with 40,000 troops, but Napoleon told him ‘Ah, you are always for turning the enemy. It is too dangerous a manoeuvre.’[9] The Emperor thought that the Grande Armée was too small to detach a large flanking force and was concerned about the condition of his troops, artillery and especially horses. The Russians might avoid battle if they realised that he was planning to outflank them. Even if he succeeded in threatening their communications, his study of Frederick the Great’s campaigns convinced him that this did not greatly concern Russian armies that were about to fight a major battle.

Short of time, Napoleon decided on a frontal attack rather than a battle of manoeuvre. The attack began at 6 am and initially went well, with the French taking Borodino in the north, the flèches in the centre and Utitsa in the south. Russian counter attacks began at 7 am, forcing the French back. The open backs of the flèches made it hard for the French to defend them against counter attacks.

Kutuzov realised that there was no French threat north of Borodino, allowing him to move troops who were guarding the Kalatsha further south. Napoleon also committed new troops. By 8:30 am he had few reserves left other than the Imperial Guard.

The French launched a new attack against the Russian centre just after 10 am. Artillery caused heavy losses on both sides, including generals. Davout had been wounded earlier, and Marshal Michel Ney received four wounds during this phase, whilst the Russian Prince Piotr Bagration was killed. The Russians were forced back and Marshal Joachim Murat’s French cavalry, seeing an opportunity for victory charged, but the Russians formed square and held firm. Davout, Murat and Ney urged Napoleon to commit the Old Guard, but the Emperor refused.

The Russians had been forced back, but were able to reinforce the hardest pressed parts of their line. Chandler argues that Kutuzov did not actively command, but left most decisions to his subordinates, contenting himself with accepting or rejecting their ideas. Napoleon, tired and in poor health, did not perform well. preferring to stay at his command post and receive reports rather than going forward to see what was happening.[10]

A surprise attack by Uvarov’s Russian cavalry forced the French out of Borodino. Napoleon’s step-son Prince Eugène stabilised the situation, but this delayed his IV Corps’ planned attack on the Great Redoubt, and made Napoleon sure that he must not commit his Guard in case of further such surprises.

Eugène’s attack was carefully planned and had the support of 400 guns. Casualties were again heavy, but the French had taken the Great Redoubt by 3 pm. Eugène sent forward every available cavalryman in an attempt to exploit the success, but Barclay stopped the French advance by sending in two corps of Russian cavalry, whose horses were in far better condition than the French ones.

Eugène asked Napoleon to deploy the Guard, but the Emperor refused. Chandler notes that Marshals Murat and Louis Berthier agreed with him this time and argues that the Emperor was correct to maintain it intact, since he was 1,200 miles from home.[11] The Russians were able to retire to new positions.

The Russians launched a counter-attack, which was stopped by French artillery. In the south Poniatowski’s V Corps advanced, and by 6pm the Russians in the south had withdrawn to the line held by the rest of their army. The Russians had been forced back to an inferior position, but their army was still intact. The fighting now died down.

The most common figures for casualties (dead and wounded) are 30,000 French and 44,000 Russians, making this the bloodiest battle of the Napoleonic Wars and perhaps any until the First World War, but estimates vary from 28,000 to 50,000 French and 38,500 to 58,000 Russians. The casualties included 48 French generals, 11 of them dead, and 29 Russian generals, six of them killed. The French fired between 60,000 and 90,000 artillery rounds and 1,400,000 to 2 million musket cartridges.[12]

Chandler argues that neither Napoleon nor Kutuzov significantly contributed to the battle. The Russian generals made many mistakes; unnecessarily extending their line before the battle, leaving the southern flank open, exposing their reserves by putting them too far forward and not exploiting Uvarov’s local success. Chandler says that ‘[w]hat saved the Russian army was the dogged courage and endurance of its rank and file.’[13]

Borodino is known as La Bataille de la Moskova in France. Napoleon could claim victory on the basis of occupation of the ground, and probably casualties inflicted, but he had not destroyed the Russian army.

Kutuzov realised that his army was not capable of fighting again and retreated towards Moscow, 75 miles to the east. On 13 September he called a meeting of his eight most senior generals. Four, including Barclay, agreed with his view that the army would be destroyed if it fought again, and that it was more important to preserve it than to defend Moscow.  Bennigsen, supported by the other three, wanted to attack a French corps on the march. Kutuzov decided to withdraw and the Army abandoned Moscow early on 14 September.

Zamoyski describes Kutuzov’s decision to give up Moscow to save his army as ‘ the only brilliant decision he made during the whole campaign.’[14] He notes that Kutuzov told the Tsar that the loss of Smolensk made the loss of Moscow inevitable, thus transferring the blame to Barclay.[15] The French army, now reduced to 100,000 men entered Moscow later the same day. It was deserted as two-thirds of the population of 270,000 had left and most of the others stayed indoors.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 792.

[2] P. J. Haythornthwaite, The Napoleonic Source Book (London: Arms & Armour, 1990), pp. 339-40.

[3] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), pp. 475-76.

[4] A. W. Palmer, An Encyclopaedia of Napoleon’s Europe (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1984), pp. 25-26.

[5] A. Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (London: HarperCollins, 2004), p. 25.

[6] Ibid., p. 248.

[7] Chandler, Campaigns, pp. 794, 1119; Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, pp. 476-77; Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 258-59.

[8] J. R. Elting, Swords around a Throne : Napoleon’s Grande Armée (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988), p. 59.

[9] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 798.

[10] Ibid., p. 804.

[11] Ibid., pp. 805-7.

[12] Ibid., pp. 806-7; Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, p. 477; Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 287-88.

[13] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 808.

[14] Zamoyski, 1812, p. 287.

[15] Ibid., p. 292.

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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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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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The Battle of Salamanca, 1812

Wellington‘s Anglo-Portuguese army captured the French held fortress of Badajoz in April 1812 and then moved north to deal with the threat offered by Marshal Auguste Marmont‘s French army to Ciudad Rodrigo, which Wellington had taken in January. Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz  covered the northern and southern routes respectively from Portugal to Spain. An army invading Spain from Portugal had to hold both in order to protect its lines of communication back to Portugal.

River Tagus from the repaired stone bridge towards the position of the French wooden pontoon bridge.

On 12 May 1812 three brigades under General Sir Rowland Hill attacked and destroyed the wooden pontoon bridge that the French had built across the River Tagus at Almaraz. It replaced a stone bridge that had been destroyed during the Talavera campaign in 1809. The loss of the Almaraz bridge greatly lengthened the lines of communication between Marmont’s army in northern Spain and Marshal Nicolas Soult‘s force in the south.

The French had significantly more troops than Wellington in Spain.  According to Jac Weller, he had just over 60,000 men whilst there were over 230,000 French soldiers in Spain. However, the French forces were divided into five armies; Marmont  had 52,000 troops and Soult 54,000.[1]

Wellington had sole command and his superior supply and intelligence systems, British control of the seas and the Spanish guerrillas meant that he could manoeuvre against  either Marmont or Soult. The latter could more easily evade and join up with other French forces, such as the 60,000 men under Marshal Louis Suchet that had just taken Valencia.

Charles Esdaile notes that the defeat of Soult would result in the liberation of Andalusia, but that this would have no impact on the north. Defeat of Marmont in the north would force the French to withdraw from Andalusia.[2]

Wellington therefore determined to attack Marmont. He did not have control over Spanish troops at this stage,, but his prestige gave him enough influence to persuade the Spanish to undertake operations aimed at tying down the rest of the French forces in Spain.

An Anglo-Portuguese division under Hill was sent south to help General Ballesteros’s army in the south. The threat of invasion of from Naples by from Lord William Bentinck’s British, Neapolitan and Spanish force kept French troops in Catalonia.

Wellington advanced  on Salamanca on 13 June with 48,000 men and 54 guns. Marmont withdrew behind the River Duero, leaving behind a small force, based in three fortified convents. Wellington entered the city on 17 June but took 10 days to subdue the garrison.

Wellington then advanced on the Duero, hoping that Marmont would attack him, and waiting for the Spanish 6th Army to arrive in the French rear.  The 6th did not appear, as its siege of Astorga took longer than expected.

Marmont had only 44,000 men, but Wellington’s inaction convinced him that he could afford the take the initiative despite being slightly outnumbered.  He crossed the Duero on 15 July and forced Wellington back towards Salamanca by trying to outflank him and thus threaten his lines of communication.

Map of the Battle of Salamanca, 22 July 1812. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Battle_of_Salamanca_map.jpg

On 22 July the Anglo-Portuguese army was positioned along a line of low hills, the southern end of which was a hill called the Lesser Arapile. Marmont seized the Greater Arapile, a larger hill a few hundred yards to its south, and attempted to move round Wellington’s left flank. Wellington saw what was happening and re-positioned his army to avoid this.

Marmont now made a mistake. He was convinced that Wellington was too cautious and mistook these movements for a preparation to retreat. Marmont therefore ordered his army to move westwards. Wellington, who had been considering an attack, observed the French becoming strung out threw away a chicken leg that he had been eating and ordered an attack, announcing ‘By God that will do.’[3]

Thomières’s division, leading the French advance, was attacked by Pakenham’s Third Division, which appeared over the crest of a ridge. The French fell back with heavy losses, and Pakenham then advanced on the next French division, that of Maucune. It had formed itself into squares because of the threat from a British cavalry brigade under General John Le Marchant, but had then been attacked by the infantry of  Leith’s Fifth Division, Well disciplined infantry in square were secure against cavalry but had no chance in a firefight with infantry in line.

The Lesser Arapile from the Greater Arapile.

Le Marchant’s cavalry charged into Maucune’s troops as they retreated, and then attacked the third French division, commanded by Taupin. It was also routed. Three out of eight French divisions had now been destroyed.

Thomières and Le Marchant were amongst the dead, whilst Marmont and his second-in-command, General Bonnet, had both been wounded. There is some doubt over the timing of Marmont’s wound; he claimed that it was before Wellington counter-attacked, preventing him responding, whilst his enemies said that it was later.

An attack by Cole’s Fourth Division and Pack’s Portuguese Brigade on the Greater Arapile was repulsed. General Bertrand Clausel, now commanding the French army, thought that this came him an opportunity to counter-attack. Wellington saw the danger and had plenty of reserves, which he moved into position to cover the danger.

Esdaile says that the battle is ‘Known, and for good reason, as “Wellington’s Masterpiece”.’[4] He surprised Thomières and then destroyed Maucune and Brennier’s divisions with an attack in echelon. Wellington was able to mas superior numbers at the decisive point.

Weller argues that Clausel’s counter-attack in ‘conception was brilliant; it was flawlessly executed. Against any other contemporary commanders, excepting only Napoleon and Wellington, Clausel would probably have succeeded in making it a drawn battle.’[5]

The French casualties were 12,000, compared with 5,000 for the Anglo-Portuguese. the French also lost 12 guns and two eagles. Their losses might have been higher had the pursuit been more vigorous, but the pursuers lost cohesion in the night and were exhausted after days of marching and a battle on a very hot day. Some, including Weller, blame the Spanish General de España  for not garrisoning the bridge at Alba de Tormes, but Esdaile says that this had little effect.[6]

Casualties amongst senior officers were high in this battle. The deaths of Thomières and Le Marchant and the wounds suffered by Marmont and Bonnet have already been mentioned. On the French side, General Ferrey was also killed and Clausel was wounded, meaning that the three most senior French officers were wounded. The British General Lord William Beresford was badly wounded and Wellington was badly bruised by a bullet that struck his saddle holster.

The loss of Le Marchant was a particular blow to the British. He had improved the training and tactics of the British cavalry, which was prone to getting out of control when charging. The only British cavalry general of comparable skill was Henry Paget, then Lord Uxbridge and later Lord Anglesey; he had eloped with Wellington’s brother’s wife and the two consequently did not serve together until Waterloo in 1815.

The map in this post is from Wikipedia; link given in the caption. The two photos were taken by myself when I visited the battlefields of Wellington’s campaigns of 1809-12 in a tour led by Ian Fletcher. I have no connection with Ian Fletcher Battlefield Tours except as a satisfied and repeat customer.


[1] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814, New ed. (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 207.

[2] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 390.

[3] Quoted in Ibid., p. 395.

[4] Ibid., p. 397.

[5] Weller, Peninsula, p. 223.

[6] Esdaile, Peninsular War, p. 397; Weller, Peninsula, p. 225.

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June 1812 – Napoleon Invades Russia

In June 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia. On 22 June, 139 years to the day before Hitler’s invasion of the USSR, he issued a proclamation to his soldiers, telling them that ‘The second Polish war has opened; the first ended at Friedland and Tilsit.’[1] Europe, apart from the Iberian Peninsula, had been at peace since 1809. See this post for the situation in the  Napoleonic War in June 1812.

On 22 June Napoleon’s Polish lancers reconnoitred the west bank of the River Niemen for any sign of Russian troops on the far bank. At night Napoleon, wearing a Polish uniform, personally led a small party across the river, looking for the best place to cross. He was thrown from his horse after a hare caused it to shy.

Marshal Louis-Alexandre Berthier, his chief of staff,  told General Armand Caulaincourt, formerly Napoleon’s ambassador to Tsar Alexander I, that ‘We would do well not to cross the Niemen. This was a bad omen.’ Caulaincourt, who had advised Napoleon against attacking Russia, commented that the Emperor ‘remained very serious and preoccupied for the rest of the day.’[2]

The rest of 23 June was taken up with preparations for the crossing. Light infantry crossed by boat at 10 pm in order to screen the construction of three pontoon bridges by engineers. They were briefly fired on by a Russian cavalry patrol, but this was the only resistance offered to the crossing; the Russian army had withdrawn. The bridges were completed  by dawn and the Grande Armée crossed on 24 and 25 July.

The Grande Armée was a huge, multi-national force. David Chandler puts its strength at 614,000, including 302,000 Frenchmen, 190,000 from Austria, Prussia, Switzerland and other German states, and 90,000 Poles and Lithuanians. The remaining 32,000 were Italians, Illyrians, Spaniards and Portuguese.  The enthusiasm of many, other than the French and the Poles, was questionable.

Three armies, totalling 449,000 men formed the main invasion force. The other 165,000 men were intended mainly to provide replacements. Napoleon had previously commanded armies of no more than 200,000 men.

He had 1,422 cannons, pulled by 30,000 horse, and 80,000 cavalry. The supply train included 25,000 vehicles and a further 90,000 animals. Supplying such a large army was a major problem, and Napoleon timed the invasion for the point at which the grass crops would provide the most animal feed. [3]

The invading force heavily outnumbered the Russian forces facing it. Chandler says that the Russian Army had 409,000 soldiers in early 1812, of whom 211,000 were in front-line armies, 45,000 in the second line and 153,000 in garrisons and reserve units. By June 1812, transfers from the quiet Turkish and Persian fronts and from garrisons and reserves had allowed the formation of three Russian field armies in the west with 218,000 men by June 1812.[4]

Napoleon had, by invading Russia, launched an enormous enterprise. Charles Esdaile notes that the ‘”The great proof of madness”, Napoleon is once supposed to have said, “is the disproportion of one’s designs to one’s means.” If so, then the Emperor stands condemned from his own mouth.’[5]

The next post in this series will consider the reasons why Napoleon decided to invade Russia, which had been his ally since the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807.


[1] Quoted in D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 739.

[2] Both quoted in A. Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (London: HarperCollins, 2004), pp. 146-47.

[3] Figures in this and the two previous paragraphs are from Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon, pp. 753-59.

[4] Ibid., pp. 750, 764.

[5] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 401.

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The Siege of Badajoz, 1812.

This follows on from a previous post on Wellington‘s capture of Ciudad Rodrigo in 1812, which also briefly described Napoleonic siege warfare.

All photos in this post were taken by myself when I visited the battlefields of Wellington’s campaigns of 1809-12 in a tour led by Ian Fletcher. I have no connection with Ian Fletcher Battlefield Tours except as a satisfied and repeat customer.

A successful invasion of Spain from Portugal required the invade to hold both Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, which controlled the north and south routes respectively between the two countries.

After taking Cuidad Rodrigo, Wellington moved south to siege Badajoz. He had lacked a proper siege train earlier in his campaigns but now had one consisting of 52 guns, including 12 24 pounders, 16 24 pounder howitzers and 18 Russian 18 pounders, and many other supplies. It arrived at Elvas on 8 March. The Russian guns presented some supply problems as they could not take British 18 pounder shot, but sufficient ammunition for them was found.

Although Wellington now had an adequate siege train, Britain still lacked specialist sappers and miners, meaning that infantrymen had to carry out work that they were not trained to do, and which was tiring and dangerous. The Royal Engineers then consisted solely of officers. They had recently been supplemented by 115 Royal Military Artificers; Ian Fletcher’s history of the siege of Badajoz points out that this was far too few.[1]

Most of Wellington’s army was also at Elvas by 16 March, except two Portuguese brigades that arrived a couple of days later and the 1st Hussars of the King’s German Legion, which were at Ciudad Rodrigo.

Wellington could leave 15,000 men to invest Badajoz and deploy 40,000 against Soult‘s southern French army of 25,000. The risk is was that Marmont moved his army south. Wellington thought that it was likely that Marmont would do so, but not for 3-4 weeks. This meant that he could capture Ciudad Rodrigo, but he could not take his time in doing so. In fact, Napoleon did not allow Marmont to move until 27 March.

Many of the inhabitants of Badajoz, especially the richer ones, had fled, reducing the population from 16,000 before the war to 4,000. General Armand Phillipon, the governor of Badajoz had improved the defences, including building a new lunette, a small fortification, called Fort Picurina and repairing the damage inflicting on Fort San Christobal in the 1811 siege. His garrison of 5,000 men, including 700 non-combatants, was too few.

Walls of Badajoz

The siege began on 16 March. A pontoon bridge was built across the River Guadiana; Wellington did not intend to attack the San Christobal. The first parallel was dug in front of Fort Picurina on the night of 17-18 March.

The attackers were hampered by bad weather and by an aggressive defence. Phillipon conducted frequent sorties and offered bounties to Frenchmen who captured entrenching tools. On 19 March Colonel Richard Fletcher, commanding Wellington’s Royal Engineers, was wounded in a French sortie

On 22 March heavy rain caused the Guadiana to flood, sweeping away the pontoon bridge. The break to communications between the two banks of the river threatened to end the siege, but the weather improved and the bridge was repaired the next day.

Fort Picurina was invested by 5th Division on 24 March and successfully assaulted the next day by men of 3rd and Light Divisions; casualties were heavy. The ladders were too short to scale the walls but were used to bridge ditches. A party of the 88th Foot forced their way through an embrasure and a detachment of the 83rd entered by a salient angle where artillery had damaged the palisades. The siege batteries were able to fire on the bastions by 31 March.

Repaired breach in walls of Badajoz

Wellington wanted to force the garrison to surrender rather than storming the fortress, but Soult’s advance forced him to order the assault for the evening of 5 April. Fletcher, recovered from his wound, said that there were too many obstacles in the two breaches and wanted a third, so the attack was postponed.

The third breach was made by 4 pm the next day and Wellington ordered the attack for 7:30 pm. It was impossible to be ready in time and it was postponed until 10 pm, by when the French had improved the defences. The British made an error in not destroying the counterscarp, or outer wall of the ditch; it should have been blown into the ditch, making it easier to cross.

The French filled the breaches with chevaux de frise, made of sabres, fascines, sandbags, woolpacks, planks studded with 12 inch spikes chained to the ground and explosives.

The main attack on the breaches to the south east was to come from the 4th Division at La Trinidad and the Light Division at Santa Maria. General Sir Thomas Picton‘s 3rd Division was to take the castle by escalade from the east. The 5th Division was to demonstrate against the Pardaleras and, if feasible, escalade the San Vincente. A Guards detachment was to storm the San Roque and Power’s Portuguese Brigade demonstrate against the San Christobal.

Badajoz Castle

The attacks on the breaches were beaten off, with heavy casualties. By 1:30 am Wellington had realised that further assaults were pointless.  He was then informed that Picton had taken the castle. Picton’s initial attacks had failed. He was wounded and command passed to General Sir James Kempt. Kempt was wounded and Picton took command back

An hour after the initial assault Lt-Col Ridge of the 5th led an attack at a point where the wall was a little lower and an embrasure offered some protection. He got onto the wall and his troops followed. Ridge was killed but the British were in the castle. Phillipon had hoped to make his last stand there. Lt McPherson of the 45th lowered the French flag and, in the absence of a British one, raised his tunic on the flagpole.

A French counter-attack, using troops from the San Vicente, failed as more British troops crossed the wall. The British were then able to take the San Vicente.

Walls near Badajoz Castle

Phillipon launched a cavalry charge by around 40 dragoons, which failed. He escaped through the Gate of Las Palmas to San Christobal with about 50 men. A few French troops at the breaches withdrew into houses and continued the fight until dawn, but most dispersed or surrendered.

At 2 am Wellington ordered another attack on the breaches by the 4th and Light Divisions, who crossed them without opposition.  Some fighting continued, but most of the French surrendered.

The British troops now indulged in an orgy of rape, drunkenness and pillage. Most of the victims were Spanish civilians.  3,500 of the 5,000 French garrison were taken prisoner.

Phillipon surrendered on the morning of April 7. Wellington entered Badajoz and received a drunken salute from some of his men. He ordered the erection of a gallows, but it does not appear to have been used.

Juana Maria de Los Dolores de Leon and her sister were rescued by British officers. She married Harry Smith, one of them, and became the Lady Smith after whom the Ladysmith in South Africa is named. Johnny Kincaid, one of Smith’s comrades, claimed in his memoirs that it was him rather than Smith who rescued the girls.

Once the looting had ended the wounded could be cared for. Wellington’s army suffered 5,000 casualties in the siege, 3,000 of them in the assault.

Phillipon fought a good defence but was let down by his superiors. Marmont and Soult became involved in unnecessary actions with local Spanish forces when they should have marched straight to Badajoz.

The Royal Corps of Miners and Sappers was founded on 23 April in order to provide the British Army with specialist troops for siege warfare, but they were not able to make any impact until the siege of San Sebastian in 1813. Even then there were too few of them.

Armand Phillipon escaped, served in Russia and Germany, retired from active service in September 1813 and later made his peace with the Bourbons


[1] Ian Fletcher, In Hell Before Daylight: The Siege and Storming of the Fortress of Badajoz, 16 March – 6 April 1812 (Chalford Stroud: Spellmount, 2008), p. 22. This description of the siege is largely based on this book.

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Ciudad Rodrigo, 1812 and Siege Warfare

This post leads on from a previous one on Wellington’s 1811 campaign.

Click here for a low resolution map of the Peninsular War.

All photos in this post were taken by myself when I visited the battlefields of Wellington’s campaigns of 1809-12 in a tour led by Ian Fletcher. I have no connection with Ian Fletcher Battlefield Tours except as a satisfied and repeat customer.

In 1812 Wellington intended to launch an offensive into Spain with the aim of capturing Madrid, which he hoped would provoke an uprising throughout Spain. In order to do so he had to capture the fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, which controlled the Spanish sides of the northern and southern routes between Portugal and Spain respectively and were consequently known as ‘the Keys to Spain.’

His army totalled 60,000 men; he detached 14,000 under General Sir Rowland Hill to guard against an attack by Marshal Marmont from the north and 19,000 under General Sir Thomas Graham to cover the south, where Marshal Soult commanded the French forces.

Sieges were not as common in the Napoleonic War as they had been a century before. Napoleon preferred to bypass fortresses and defeat the enemy in a pitched battle. The lack of roads crossing the Spanish-Portuguese border meant that it was impossible for invading armies to bypass the border fortresses.

Walls of Ciudad Rodrigo

A siege was a complex operation.  The attacker would begin by blockading the fortress. Trenches would have to be dug in order to allow the assault force to move close to the fortress in cover. The first trench, known as a parallel because it would run parallel to the walls of the fortress, would be dug several hundred yards from the fortress. Zig-zag trenches would then be dug in order to advance closer to the wall and another parallel constructed. A  third might have to be dug before the attackers were close enough to the wall to assault it. The digging would take place at night as digging in daylight in view of the fortress would be suicidal. The siege guns would bombard the wall in order to create a breach in it. The attackers could concentrate their fire at one part of the wall,  but they would also have to launch diversionary attacks or else the defenders would reinforce the defences of the point to be attacked. Aggressive defenders would launch sorties in order to disrupt the attackers. As well as causing casualties and trying to damage siege works, they would steal entrenching tools.

In the 18th century the custom was that once a practical breach had been made in the wall (i.e. one that could be successfully assaulted) the defenders would request the honours of war. They would then be allowed to march out of the fortress and go to the nearest friendly garrison.  The rules of war meant that the attackers could decline to take prisoners if they had to assault the fortress.

If an assault was to be made, then engineers, operating from the closest parallel, would place a mine to detonate in the breach just before the attack. The defenders would fill the breach with obstructions such as chevaux de frise, wooden frames with sabres attached, fascines, sandbags, planks studded with 12 inch spikes chained to the ground and explosives.

The attack would take place at night and casualties would be high. If the attackers won, then their blood lust after a vicious fight meant that they would probably sack and pillage the fortress. Little mercy would be shown to civilians and the attacking officers would struggle to restrain their men.[1]

Greater Tesson from walls of Ciudad Rodrigo. The Lesser Tesson was flattened to allow construction of the houses in the foreground

Jac Weller points out that Ciudad Rodrigo was strong but not impregnable.[2] It had not been fully modernised and was overlooked by two hills, the Greater and Lesser Tessons. The former can still be seen, but the latter has now been built over. An attacker who took them could bombard the fortress from above. The French built the Redoubt Renaud on the Greater Tesson to protect it. Their objective was to hold out until reinforcements arrived. Towards the end of 1811 Spanish guerillas under Julian Sanchez invested Ciudad Rodrigo. Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese army entered Spain on 4 January 1812 and reached Ciudad Rodrigo four days later. This surprised the French, as armies did not then normally conduct sieges in the winter. The Anglo-Portuguese army took the Redoubt Renaud in a surprise attack the same night. Two breaches had been made in the wall by 19 January and the fortress was successfully assaulted that evening. Anglo-Portuguese casualties were 568 killed and wounded in the assault and around 1,100 over the whole siege. The British dead included General Sir Robert Craufurd, commander of the Light Division. About 530 Frenchmen were killed or wounded. The rest of the 1,937 strong garrison were captured.

The British troops looted and pillaged for about two hours before being brought under control. It was common for soldiers who had captured an enemy fortress to behave in such a way, but the population of Ciudad Rodrigo were Britain’s allies.

Wellington now moved south to siege Badajoz. This will be described in the next post in this series.


[1] Frederick Myatt, British Sieges of the Peninsular War (Tunbridge Wells: Spellmount, 1987), pp 9-25.

[2] Jac Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 192-94.


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