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The Battle of Lützen 2 May 1813

By April 1813 Napoleon had rebuilt his army, but was at war with Prussia and Russia. His field forces in Germany consisted of the 121,000 strong Army of the River Main, 58,000 men in the Army of the Elbe, 20,000 troops in the detached I Corps, command by Marshal Louis Nicolas Davout, and 14,000 cavalry under General Horace Sebastiani. On 25 April they were faced by only 110,000 Russians and Prussians.[1]

However, the French were weak in cavalry. The shortage of light cavalry meant that Napoleon lacked intelligence about the enemy’s strength, positions and manoeuvres. Advancing French columns were harassed by enemy light cavalry because there were not enough French horsemen to protect them.

Napoleon’s initial plan was to advance on Berlin. His northern flank would be protected by the fortresses of Torgau, Wittenberg, Magdeburg and Hamburg and the southern one by the Army of the Elbe and I Corps.

He would turn the flank of the enemy army and relieve the besieged fortresses of Danzig, Thorn and Modlin on the Vistula. This would release 50,000 more troops for his field army, threaten the Russian line of communication and intimidate the German princes into supporting France.

David Chandler notes that Napoleon did not implement this plan for a number of reasons: it would require 300,000 men; he was doubtful of the quality of the troops that he did have; his German allies, Bavaria and Saxony, were reluctant; and he did not have enough troops to protect his communications against an enemy advance in the Dresden area.[2]

The Allies concentrated on the Leipzig-Dresden area of Saxony. This covered their communications back to Russia and to Austria, but left Prussia exposed. They had too few troops to protect both, so concentrated on the more important area.

Some Prussians wanted to attack, but Prince Mikhail Kutuzov, the Russian commander was cautious. Dominic Lieven comments that even the ‘ever-aggressive [Gebhard von] Blücher’ remembered that in 1805 the Austro-Russians had attacked before the Prussians were ready and had been defeated at Austerlitz.[3]

Kutuzov died on 28 April. He was replaced by Prince Ludwig Pyotr Wittgenstein, described by Lieven as being ‘[i]n many ways the most suitable candidate.’[4] He had won more victories than any other Russian general in 1812, spoke German and French and was popular with the Prussians. However, he was junior to two of the Russian corps commanders, Alexander Tormasov and Mikhail Miloradovich.

Consequently Wittgenstein was appointed to command only Blücher’s Prussians and Ferdinand Wintzingerode’s Russian corps. Tormasov and Miloradovich received their orders from Tsar Alexander, ‘sometimes without [Wittgenstein’s] knowledge’ according to F. Loraine Petre.[5]

Napoleon ordered his troops to cross the River Saale on 1 May. They encountered opposition, notably at Weissenfels, where Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bessiéres was killed, but the crossing was completed. Marshal Michel Ney’s III Corps occupied Lützen in order to protect the southern flank of an advance on Leipzig.

At 4 am on 2 May Napoleon told Ney to send out strong patrols towards Zwenkau and Pegau, and to occupy Lützen and the villages of Kaja, Rahna, Gross Görschen and Klein Görschen, which lay along a ridge. Ney did not send out the patrols, which would have found the enemy army, and kept three divisions at Lützen.Wittgenstein, learning that there was only a weak French force at Kaja, decided to attack it. His troops were supposed to start moving at 1 am and be in position by 7 am. Their columns became mixed up in the dark, and were not in position until 11 am.

The Allies could see only 2,000 French troops, so Wittgenstein ordered the Blücher’s Prussian cavalry to charge them at 11:45 am. However, they were shocked to find themselves faced by two divisions. The French were also surprised, because they had not sent out patrols.

Blücher  waited until artillery could be brought up, allowing the French time to deploy.  General Jean-Baptiste Girard’s division occupied and held the village of Starsiedl, but General Joseph Souham’s division was forced to withdraw from Gross Görschen.

Napoleon and the main French army were marching on Leipzig. Ney had been with Napoleon, but hurried back to his command on hearing the gunfire. He ordered a counter-attack , which led to a desperate action around the villages and along the ridge.

Napoleon quickly devised a plan to envelop the enemy. Ney’s III Corps should hold, with Marshal Auguste Marmont’s VI Corps coming up to support its right flank. Further to the French right, General Henri-Gatien Bertrand’s IV Corps would threaten the Allied left flank. Marshal Jacques MacDonald’s XI Corps would attack the Allied right. The Imperial Guard would reinforce the centre.

Napoleon reached the battlefield at 2:30 pm. He rode amongst his troops, encouraging them, boosting their morale and leading them back into the attack. Chandler quotes Marmont as saying that ‘[t]his was probably the day, of his whole career, in which Napoleon incurred the greatest personal danger on the field of battle.’[6]

Despite appeals from his commanders, Napoleon refused to commit the Guard too soon. The Allies were hampered by a wound to Blücher and the slow arrival of Russian reserves. The Tsar held back his Guards, apparently thinking that the battle was going well and wanting to personally lead them in the decisive attack.

The French flanking  forces were in position by 5:30 pm. At 6:00 pm the attack was launched by XI Corps on the French left, the Imperial Guard and VI Corps in the centre and IV Corps on the right. The assault, with heavy artillery support, threw the Allies back.

The French won the battle, but Chandler notes that Napoleon needed two more hours to make his victory complete. He lacked the cavalry to pursue the enemy in order to turn a victory into a rout.[7]

Petre and Lieven both argue that the delay in the initial Allied attack in the end disadvantaged the French. An earlier start to the battle would have meant that Napoleon and his main body of troops were closer to the action when it began. They would have arrived earlier and would have had more time to complete their victory. Better reconnaissance by Ney would also have allowed Napoleon to move earlier.[8]

The battle showed that Napoleon and his command system could still react far more quickly and flexibility to battlefield developments than his enemies. He had won a victory, but lack of time and cavalry meant that it was not a decisive one, and the French suffered heavy casualties.

Chandler estimates that there were 115,000 French and 97,000 Allied troops in the vicinity, altthough not all of them engaged in combat. He reckons that 20,000 French and 18,000 Allied troops were killed or wounded.[9] Charles Esdaile argues that the French casualties were high because the inexperience of their troops meant that they had to use ‘clumsy and unsophisticated’ tactics.[10]

The Allies retired towards Dresden. An action took place at Colditz on 5 May between French troops under Prince Eugène and the Russian rearguard, commanded by Miloradovich. The Allies did not stop in Dresden and failed to destroy its bridges. Napoleon reached it on 8 May. Two days later the King of Saxony declared for Napoleon.

The Allied retreat ended on 13 Mat at Bautzen, a strong defensive position. They were reinforced by another 13,000 Russian troops under Prince Mikhail Barclay de Tolly.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 874-75.

[2] Ibid., p. 875.

[3] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 311.

[4] Ibid., p. 313.

[5] F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), p. 58.

[6] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 884.

[7] Ibid., pp. 886-87.

[8] Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814, p. 315; Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813, p. 85.

[9] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 1120.

[10] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 501.

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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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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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