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Napoleon’s 1812 Russian Campaign to the Capture of Vitebsk on 28 July

This post follows on from previous ones describing Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in June 1812 and the reasons why he invaded.

Napoleon was aware that his invasion of Russia presented major supply problems, describing it as ‘the greatest and most difficult enterprise that I have ever attempted.’[1] He did not expect to have to advance far into Russia, believing that he could win a decisive victory near the frontier.

Napoleon reached Vilna on June 28. He had hoped to engage Tsar Alexander I and the First Army under General Prince Michael Barclay de Tolly, but they had retreated north-east towards Drissa. This increased the distance between the First Army and the Russian Second Army, commanded by General Prince Peter Bagration.

Napoleon attempted to trap and destroy Bagration’s army between the I Corps of Marshal Louis Davout and his right flank, commanded by his brother Jerome, King of Westphalia; the 45,000 Russians would be surrounded by 110,000 troops.[2]

On 4 July, Bagration learnt that Davout had crossed his line of retreat and moved south towards Minsk. Jerome,  hampered by supply problems, poor roads and heavy rain, moved slowly, and Bagration escaped. Jerome failed to keep his brother informed of his movements. Napoleon told him that:

If you had the most elementary grasp of soldiering, you would have been on the 3rd where you were on the 6th, and several events which would have resulted from my calculations would have given me a fine campaign.[3]

Napoleon blamed Jerome for the French failure to destroy Bagration’s army. Charles Esdaile says that this is now generally regarded as being unfair; Jerome was not a good general, but he was given an impossible task by his brother. The French faced great supply problems in a country where they could not rely in the local population. The army was too big and the distances too vast to allow Napoleon to control the battle and to carry out a battles of encirclement.[4] Adam Zamoyski blames Napoleon, who had appointed his brother, who had no military experience, to high command for political reasons.[5]

Napoleon put Jerome under the command of  Davout. Jerome was angered by his brother’s criticisms and got on poorly with Davout. He left the army and returned to Westphalia.

Napoleon ordered Davout to pursue Bagration and prevent the two Russian armies joining forces. Napoleon intended to destroy Barclay de Tolly’s army, which had reached Drissa on 11 July. Its fortifications were strong, so Napoleon decided to turn its flank, forcing the Russians to retreat and fight in the open.

On 12 July Alexander accepted that Drissa was a trap for his army, and that it should withdraw to Vitebsk. Adam Zamoyski points out that this decision, whilst militarily correct, created problems for Alexander. He had made a rousing speech the day before, promising his troops a victorious battle. The army had done nothing to fight the invader, and Alexander had given up a large proportion of his empire. The Tsar was persuaded by his advisers that his place was in his capital, rallying his people and recruiting more troops. He therefore left the army.[6]

On 19 July Napoleon received a report that the Russians had left Drissa. He expected the Russian armies to meet at Polotsk, and thus moved towards Kamen. Two days later he realised that their rendezvous was to be at Vitebsk. On 23 July Bagration and Davout fought a battle, called Mogilev by the French and Saltanovka by the Russians. Bagration was unable to break through and unite with Barclay.

Engagements took place between the French cavalry under Marshal Joachim Murat and Barclay’s troops at Ostrovno on 25 and 26 July. This convinced Napoleon that Barclay was willing to give battle, and he decided to wait until 28 July to bring up more troops, rather than attacking on 27 July with the troops available.

David Chandler considers this decision to be a major error by Napoleon. Barclay abandoned his original plan to fight at Vitebsk when he learnt that Bagration could not move to support him. The day’s delay allowed the Russians to withdraw towards Smolensk. There were enough good roads for him to be sure of getting there safely.[7]

Barclay, according to Adam Zamoyski, was correct to withdraw. A Russian victory would have been highly unlikely, and would not have been decisive; Barclay commanded the main Russian army but faced only part of Napoleon’s army. The failure to win a victory damaged French morale.[8]

The French took Vitebsk on 28 July. It had been the most easterly city of Poland until 1772,  when Austria, Prussia and Russia carried out the first of their three partitions of Poland. The French had taken all of Lithuania and had a defensible position. Napoleon initially claimed that:

Here I stop! Here I must look around me, rally, refresh my army and organise Poland. The campaign of 1812  is finished.[9]

Napoleon, however, soon changed his mind.  The country to the east was more fertile and the Russian armies were only about 100 miles away. On 12 August he marched on Smolensk, intending to inflict a decisive defeat on the Russians; see the next post in this series.


[1] Quoted in C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 462.

[2] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 775-76.

[3] Quoted in A. Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (London: HarperCollins, 2004), p. 176.

[4] Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, p. 468.

[5] Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 167-68.

[6] Ibid., pp. 171-72.

[7] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 779.

[8] Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 179-81.

[9] Quoted in Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, p. 470.

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June 1812 – Napoleon Invades Russia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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