Tag Archives: Kutuzov

Why Napoleon’s 1812 Russian Campaign Failed

This is the last post the series on Napoleon’s 1812 Russian Campaign. It discusses the reasons why it failed, which relate mainly to logistics.

David Chandler argues that the enterprise was beset with problems from the start. [1] Tsar Alexander I was not persuaded to come to terms by the threat of invasion, meaning that he was unlikely  to negotiate once the fighting had started. Defeats made the Russians more, not less, determined to resist; the size of Russia made it hard to conquer.

Napoleon was fighting on two fronts. A successful end to the Peninsular War would have released 200,000 troops. Without them, he was forced to turn to allies to supply him with troops. Some of them, including Austria and Prussia, were very reluctant to co-operate. The different languages and equipment of the various nationalities involved created discipline, communications and supply problems.

Napoleon was unwilling to restore the Kingdom of Poland because he needed Austrian and Prussian aid. Consequently, he did not receive full support from the Poles and Lithuanians. However, he gave them enough encouragement to make the Austrians and Prussians suspicious.

Chandler believes that the main reason for the campaign’s failure was logistics. The French over-estimated the traffic capacity of the roads, meaning that supply convoys were always late. There was less grain and fodder available than they had forecast. The depots were too far to the rear and the Russian scorched earth policy meant that the army could not find supplies locally.

The retreating army found large amounts of supplies at Smolensk, Vilna and Kaunas, whilst the Russians captured more at Minsk and Vitebsk. The problem was not the quantity of supplies, but the ability to move them to the front line.

Napoleon should, in Chandler’s view, have spent the winter of 1812-13 at Smolensk. The Emperor had not originally intended to go as far as Moscow. His plan was to win a decisive victory as soon as possible, but the Russians evaded a series of traps intended to force them to fight at Vilna, Vitebsk, Drissa and Smolensk. The French supply system could not cope with the demands of the advance from Smolensk to Moscow.

The need to protect the lines of communication and flanks meant that Napoleon did not have enough troops to win a decisive victory by the time that he managed to bring the Russians to battle at Borodino.

Napoleon then stayed too long in Moscow, allowing the Russians to rally after Borodino. Chandler points out that the Emperor had captured Vienna in 1805 and 1809 and Berlin in 1806 without the enemy immediately coming to terms, so why did he think that taking Moscow in 1812 would induce Alexander to surrender?

Finally, Napoleon  took the wrong route from Moscow to Smolensk. In order to avoid fighting Kutuzov, he switched from the southern route through the fertile and unspoilt Kaluga province to the northern route, which had been ravaged in his advance. He did this after the Battle of Malojaroslavets, but this was a French victory. Chandler doubts that the cautious Russian commander Prince Mikhail Kutuzov would have risked repeating the heavy casualties of Borodino to defend Kaluga.

Chandler argues that Napoleon was already beaten by the time that the Russian winter set in. He also notes that the French suffered as much from the heat of the summer, which caused many men to drop out and killed many horses. The cold made the disaster worse, but did not cause the French defeat.

Chandler praises the endurance and skill in combat of the Russians, and says that the strategy of trading space for time in order the blunt Napoleon’s offensive was correct. However, he wonders whether or not this was the intention from the start, suggesting that the Russians retreated because of weakness rather than a deliberate plan. He contends that it is difficult to see a clear Russian plan until after Napoleon reached Moscow.

In summary, he argues that Napoleon’s military abilities had declined. He was less energetic than in the past.  He failed either to supervise his subordinates, or to take charge himself at the decisive point. He over-estimated the ability of his army and under-estimated the Tsar. Finally, the enterprise was simply too big.

Martin van Creveld devotes a chapter of Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, in his seminal work on importance of logistics in the history of warfare, to Napoleon’s campaigns.[2]

Van Creveld says that the Emperor increased his supply train ahead of the invasion, and stockpiled large amounts of artillery ammunition. He notes that the operational plans for the campaign have not survived, but argues that the logistical arrangements imply that he expected a short war.

The French supply train was inadequate to sustain an advance on Moscow. An army of 200,000 men that took 60 days to reach Moscow (the Grande Armée actually took 82 days) would have required 18,000 tons of supplies. The French supply train had a capacity of half that, and would also have had to supply troops protecting the flanks and lines of communication.

Once in Moscow, 300 tons of supplies per day would have been needed. It was 600 miles from the supply depots, so the required transport capacity would have remained at 18,000 tons, assuming that supplies moved at an optimistic 20 miles per day.

The invading force carried four days of rations in their packs and 20 days in their battalion supply wagons. Van Creveld argues that a 12 day campaign is implausibly short. He therefore contends that Napoleon expected to win within 24 days, whereupon he would have required his defeated opponent to supply his troops, as he had done previously. This would have allowed him to advance up to 200 miles into Russia.

According to van Creveld, logistics played a major role in the planning of the campaign. The invasion had to begin in June so that the 250,000 horses could be fed from the grass crops. It was impossible to provide fodder for so many animals from base depots. The invasion route was determined by supply considerations; the roads were too poor further north and the River Niemen could not have been used to supply a more southerly advance.

He believes that the Russian plan was also based on logistics. His contention is that all the Russian commanders agreed that ‘only the factors of distance, climate and supply could defeat the French army.’[3] The only dispute was over the speed of retreat; some were afraid that too quick a withdrawal would cause a revolt by the serfs. It was also necessary to ensure that Napoleon followed the Russians into the interior.

Mistakes by his subordinates, notably his brother Jerome, prevented Napoleon from defeating even part of the Russian army at Vitebsk, which van Creveld says is the furthest into Russia that the French logistic system could sustain the army.

Napoleon chose to head for Moscow because the land became richer after Smolensk, so it was easier to live off the land the further east he moved. His army was strong enough to defeat the Russians at Borodino.

Van Creveld believes that the Grande Armée’s biggest problem was ill discipline rather than lack of supplies, citing as evidence the fact that the Imperial Guard reached Moscow almost intact.

My view is that Napoleon’s first mistake was to invade Russia whilst he was still at war in the Iberian Peninsular. He should have concentrated on first winning that war. His dispute with Alexander over the Continental System, the French attempt to wage economic war with Britain, would have mattered less if the British had been expelled from the Continent.

Victory in the Peninsular would at best have meant that there was no need to invade Russia. At worst it would have released a large number of French troops for the invasion of Russia, reducing Napoleon’s dependence on allies.

Having made this initial mistake, he planned to win a quick victory. He failed to do so because the enemy did not play into his hands, and because of mistakes by his subordinates. He did not supervise them as closely as in the past, probably because his army was now too big for his old, personal style of command to work.

After failing to win an early victory, he should have wintered at Smolensk. There was no reason for him to assume that he could win a decisive victory by heading deeper into Russia, or that he would force the Russians to surrender by taking Moscow. The Russians had only to survive to win, so there was no point in them risking a catastrophic  defeat.

Napoleon made the losses from his defeat worse by making a number of errors after reaching Moscow: he stayed there too long; he retreated by the ravaged route that he had advanced across; and he should have taken only as much loot and as many guns as he had horses to pull.

Overall, Napoleon took on an enterprise that was both unnecessary and too big to succeed when he invaded Russia. It was an example of the importance of logistics in warfare; see the blog entry on Bullets, Bombs and Bandages, a BBC TV series on logistics.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966). The analysis of the reasons for the failure of the campaiign is on pp. 854-61.

[2] M. Van Creveld, Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). The chapter on Napoleon is on pp. 40-74, with the 1812 Russian Campaign analysed on pp. 61-70.

[3] Ibid., p. 65.

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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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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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Napoleon Retreats from Moscow, 18 October 1812

This post leads on from this one on the Battle of Borodino on 7 September 1812.

After Napoleon’s victory at Borodino led to the French capture of Moscow, Prince Mikhail Kutuzov’s Russian army retreated to Tarutino, south and slightly to the west of Moscow. Adam Zamoyski describes this as ‘a good position.’[1] It was a sufficient distance from Moscow to be safe from a major French attack, threatened the French lines of communication and protected the routes to the south.

The French cavalry, commanded by Marshal Joachim Murat, and Marshal Josef Poniatowski’s V Corps were near Tarutino. Some Russian generals, notably Count Levin Bennigsen, wanted to attack them, but Kutuzov realised that his army needed time to rest, recuperate and receive reinforcements.

The rest of the French army was around Moscow. Much of the city was destroyed by a fire that started on 15 September and lasted for three days. City Governor Count Fyodor Rostopchin had made preparations to burn any stores useful to the French and city and had ordered Police Superintendent Voronenko to set fire to not only the stores, but to anything that would burn. Rostopchin had also withdrawn all the fire fighting pumps and their crews from the city.

Zamoyski suggests that the fires started by Voronenko and his men were further spread by local criminals and French soldiers engaged in looting, and by the wind. He contends that the fire left many French troops without shelter. Other historians who believe that the fires were started deliberately by the Russians include David Bell and Charles Esdaile.[2]

David Chandler agrees that Rostopchin ordered the fires, but says that most supplies and enough shelter for the 95,000 French troops remained intact. He argues that a complete destruction of the city would have actually been better for the French, as it would have forced them to retreat earlier. Instead, Napoleon stayed in the hope that he could persuade Tsar Alexander to come to terms.[3]

On the other hand, Leo Tolstoy claims in his novel War and Peace, the most famous book on the 1812 Campaign, that the fire was an inevitable result of an empty and wooden city being occupied by soldiers who were bound to smoke pipes, light camp fires and cook themselves two meals a day.[4]

On 5 October Napoleon sent delegations to attempt to negotiate a temporary armistice with Kutuzov and a permanent peace with Alexander. Kutuzov, who wanted to gain time to strengthen his forces, received the French delegates politely and gave them the impression that Russian soldiers wanted peace.

However, Kutuzov refused to allow the delegation to proceed to St Petersburg to meet the Tsar. He sent their letters on to the Tsar, with a recommendation that Alexander refuse to negotiate, which the Tsar accepted. According to Chandler, Napoleon refused to believe that the Tsar would not negotiate until a second French delegation also failed.[5]

The balance of power was moving against Napoleon as time passed. Chandler says by 4 October Kutuzov had 110,000 men facing 95,000 French at Moscow and another 5,000 at Borodino. The Russians had an even greater advantage on the flanks.[6]

Napoleon had been sure that Alexander would negotiate once Moscow fell and had not planned what to do if the Tsar refused to make peace. According to Zamoyski, Napoleon had studied weather patterns and believed that it would not get really cold until December, but did not realise how quickly the temperature would drop when it changed.[7]

Chandler argues that he had six options:

  1. He could remain at Moscow. His staff thought that there were sufficient resources to supply his army for another six months. However, he would be a long way from Paris, in a position that was hard to defend and facing an opponent who was growing stronger. His flank forces would have greater supply problems than the troops in Moscow.
  2. He could withdraw towards the fertile region around Kiev. However, he would have to fight Kutuzov and would move away from the politically most important parts of Russia.
  3. He could retreat to Smolensk by a south-westerly route, thus avoiding the ravaged countryside that he had advanced through. This would also mean a battle with Kutuzov.
  4. He could advance on St Petersburg in the hope of winning victory, but it was late in the year, his army was tired and weakened and he lacked good maps of the region.
  5. He could move north-west to Velikye-Luki, reducing his lines of communication and threatening St Petersburg. This would worsen his supply position.
  6. He could retreat to Smolensk, and if necessary, Poland the way that he had come. This would be admitting defeat and would mean withdrawing through countryside already ravaged by war.

There were major objections to each option, so Napoleon prevaricated, hoping that Alexander would negotiate. On 18 October Napoleon decided on the third option, a retreat to Smolensk via the southerly route, which would entail a battle with Kutuzov. He ordered that the withdrawal should begin two days later.[8]

Also on 18 October, however, Kutuzov decided to attack Murat’s cavalry at Vinkovo. An unofficial truce had been in operation, so the French were taken by surprise. Murat was able to fight his way out, and Kutuzov did not follow-up his limited success.

However, the Battle of Vinkovo, also known as the Battle of Tarutino, persuaded Napoleon to bring the retreat forward a day. Around 95,000 men and 500 cannon left Moscow after 35 days, accompanied by 15-40,000 wagons loaded with loot, supplies, wounded and sick soldiers and camp followers.[9]

In an attempt to distract Kutuzov, Napoleon sent another offer of an armistice and told his men that he intended to attack the Russian left flank, expecting this false intelligence to reach Kutuzov.


[1] A. Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (London: HarperCollins, 2004), p. 333.

[2] D. A. Bell, The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Modern Warfare (London: Bloomsbury, 2007), p. 259; C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 478; Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 300-4.

[3] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 814-15.

[4] L. Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans., A. Maude, Maude, L. (Chicago IL: Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., 1952). Book 11, p. 513.

[5] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 814.

[6] Ibid., pp. 815-16.

[7] Zamoyski, 1812, p. 351.

[8] Chandler, Campaigns, pp. 817-19.

[9] Ibid., pp. 819-20; Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 367-68.

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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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