The prolonged and brutal struggle between Europe's most formidable armies, French
fought on an unprecedented scale over vast expanses of territories whose sheer size,
geographical complexity, and seasonal climatic extremes made the conflict episodic in nature.
The campaign had revealed that Napoleon was not invincible, putting an end to his reputation as an undefeated genius.
The war reduced the mighty French Grand Army (500,000 men) to a tiny fraction of their initial strength.
Napoleon had foreseen what it would mean, so he fled back to Paris before word of the disaster became
widespread. Sensing this, and urged on by Prussian nationalists and Russian generals, German nationalists revolted
across the Confederation of the Rhine and Kingdom of Prussia. The decisive Leipzig campaign likely could not have
occurred without the message the defeat in Russia sent to the rest of Europe.
Prussian officer Karl von Clausewitz analyzes all the significant players with sharp and enlightening characterizations,
and provides one the best eyewitness accounts of the battle of Borodino and the Convention of Tauroggen.
"The Campaign of 1812 in Russia" is a brilliantly observed study of one of the major turning points of history.
["The Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz is widely acknowledged as the most important of the major strategic theorists. Even though he's been dead for over a century and a half, he remains the most frequently cited, the most controversial, and in many respects the most modern. This website is intended as a central source for information, articles, and arguments about the man and his ideas. It is designed to accommodate anyone interested in understanding human strategies, including not only scholarly researchers on Clausewitz but also students and faculty in professional military education (PME) institutions, business schools, and other organizations concerned with human competition and conflict." - http://www.clausewitz.com/]
Excerpts from Karl von Clausewitz - "The Campaign of 1812 in Russia":
He [General Phull] had already in St.Petersbourg
"In February of 1812, the alliance between France and Prussia against Russia was concluded.
The party in Prussia, which still felt courage to resist, and refused to acknowledge the necessity of a junction with France, might properly be called the Scharnhorst party ...
Scharnhorst quitted the centre of government, and betook himslef to Silesia ... Major von Boyen, his intimate friend, who had held the function of personal communicaation with the King on military affairs, now obtained his conge, carrying with him the rank of colonel and a small donation. It was his intention to go to Russia. Colonel von Gneisenau, lately made state councillor, left the service at the same time, with a like intention. ...
(- p 1)
The 1st Western Army, under General Barclay, who at the same time was war minister, was placed along the Niemen, the 2nd Western Army, commanded by Bagration, in south Lithuania; the reserve under Tormasov, in Volhynia. On the second line there were about 30,000 men of depots and recruits, on the Dnieper and Dvina. (- p 3)
The Tzar wished to take the command of the whole. He had never served in the field, still less commanded. For several years past he had taken lessons in the art of war from General von Phull in Petersburg.
Unpractical as he was, in 6 years of residence in Russia he [Phull] had not thought of learning Russian, nor, which is more striking, had he thought of making himself acquainted with the principal persons in the administration of affairs, or with the institutions of the civil and military departments.
The distribution of the Russian force really on foot was as follows:
The Tzar and Phull had hit upon the sound idea that the real resistance must begin later and from the interior, on account of their weakness of the frontier. Phull, therefore, proposed to draw back the struggle to a considerable distance, thus approaching their reinforcements, gaining time, weakening the enemy by means of detachments which he would be compelled to make, and gaining space for strategical operations upon his flank and rear. This project was the better entertained by the Tzar, because it reminded him of Wellington's Portuguese campaign in 1811.
Strategical operations on a hostile flank are to be considered as available modes of action when the enemy's line of operations is greatly extended through hostile provinces, and requires detachments for its security, which weaken the main body. Such was the case in 1812, when the French had pressed forward to Moscow, but were not properly masters of the country right and left, further than the Dnieper and the Dvina. (- p 9)
The principal persons at HQ, such as Barclay, Bennigsen, and Arenfeld, could not see their way in this plan of campaign ... Thus there arose at Wilna a conflict of opinions, which at least shook the Tzar's confidence in the plan of Phull. (- p 12)
NOTE: the strategic significance of this region (Lithuania and western Russia) was conditioned, first and foremost, by the fact that the
principal roads from Moscow and central Russia to Poland and Germany ran through this area.
Capturing this region would have a great effect on the campaign.
Lithuania and western Russia was a vast plain cut by many rivers and covered, to a large degree, by forests. Elevations consisted of very low, circular hills with gentle slopes and few ravines. These elevations failed to complicate troops movements.
The least convenient area for conducting large scale operations were the lowlands. A forrest and shrubbery covered most of the lowlands, and part of it was swampy and intersected by lakes and rivers. A vast lowland (300 km x 100 km) ran along the Berezina River. It was wooded, swampy, not very populated and had a limited number of roads. Only the region of Bobruisk and Berezino were convenient for military operations by large formations. The so-called Polish Lowland, which was formed by the Pripet River ran along the entire southern part of the theater. The character of this region was wooded and very swampy. Populated areas were very rare and the road network was very poor. The principal mass of forrests was located predominantly in the lowlands.
Buonaparte's plan was to cross at Kowno ... with 230,000 men,
and to drive Barclay as quickly as possible. The 78,000 men
under Jerome were to cross a week later ... and to march
against Bagration. By this delay he hoped to induce both
Bagration and Barclay's left wing under Doctorof, to postpone
their retreat, and then to cut them off entirely from Barclay ...
"The Russian army on the frontier, at the opening of the campaign was disposed in 3 main bodies:
In the second line were the reserve divisions, formed of 3rd battalions and 5th squadrons, along the Dwina and Dnieper, 35,000 men; employed as reinforcements to Wittgenstein, as garrisons to Riga and Bobruisk, and as part of General Hertel's corps, and therefore coming into activity somewhat later. (- p 28)
The French with their allies, advanced in 4 main bodies:
Buonaparte's plan was to cross at Kowno on the 24th June with 230,000 men, and to drive Barclay as quickly as possible. The 78,000 men under Jerome were to cross a week later, on the 1st of July, and to march against Bagration. By this delay he hoped to induce both Bagration and Barclay's left wing under Doctorof, to postpone their retreat, and then to cut them off entirely from Barclay by detaching troops against them from the centre.
The passage of the Niemen was thus conducted ... Immediately after the passage he detched Oudinot, strengthened with one cavalry division, to left against Wittgenstein who, at the moment, was posted near Keidany, in order, if possible, to separate him from Barclay. (- p 29)
From Wilna Buonaparte sent some 50,000 men under Davout by Oszmiany, Woloschin, and Rakow, upon Minsk, to effect the contemplated separation of Bagration from Barclay. ... Barclay, with the centre of the 1st Western Army, had commenced his retreat from Wilna the 26th of June by Swienziany towards Drissa: but so slowly, that on July 2 he was still at Swenziany, and both Wittgenstein and Doktorof were able to join him. (- p 29)
Meanwhile, the events of the war had taken a shape
by no means in consonance with the plans of General Phull.
Bagration took a line of retreat, with a view to a later
junction with Barclay's 1st Western Army.
The Tzar, therefore, saw his plan of campaign,
on which he had at first depended, half-destroyed.
"The Author, on his return (June 28.), found the Imperial HQ transferred to Swanziani, 3 marches from Wilna. The war had broken out, the army had commenced its retreat. The HQ of General Barclay were 2 marches nearer to Wilna. (- p 14)
The Author was several times sent to General Barclay (see picture) to hurry him on his retreat; and, although Colonel Wolzogen was there, and acted the part of mediator, was always ill received. The Russian rearguard had the advantage , in several affairs, with the French advanced troops. This gave the troops and their leaders a certain confidence; and General Barclay, a very calm man, feared to impair this spirit by a retreat without resisting. (- p 16)
... a report obtained that the enemy had out-flanked the army on its left, and that in consequence the order of march must be altered, unless we wished to see the morrow single columns overwhelmed by superior forces.
Meanwhile, the events of the war had taken a shape by no means in consonance with the plans of General Phull. When the moment arrived for forwarding to General Bagration (see picture) the order for an offensive movement on the French rear, the Russian courage failed, and either the representations of that general, or the sensation of weakness, brought it to this; that Bagration took a line of retreat, with a view to a later junction with the 1st Western Army, a resolution by which was avoided a leading calamity incident to the plan of Phull, viz. the total destruction of this 2nd Western Army.
Barclay gave up the idea of fighting a battle in the [Drissa] Camp,
and determined upon a further retreat upon the Moscow road,
and thus in the direction of Witebsk in the first instance.
On the 1st July, Jerome advanced by Grodno and Bialystock towards Novogrodeck. Bagration had broken up from Wolkowisk on the 29th June, and marched by Slonim and Novogrodeck to Nikolajef, where, on the 4th July, he wished to pass the Niemen. ... He remained 3 days from the 10th July in Njeswich, in order to collect his troops, and give time to the baggage and artillery to gain the advance.
It was about this time that the French army entered on a formal suspension of operations. Buonaparte, with the flower of his army, remained a forthnight at Wilna. (He individually left Wilna on the 16th July). Murat (see picture), Ney, and Oudinot pressed the Russians so feebly that the latter were able to spend 15 days on the march of 30 miles from Wilna to Drissa, and then to remian some 8 days longer before the latter. Even Davoust halted in Minsk 4 days before moving on Mokhilev. ...
Towards the middle of July, Buonaparte set his force in motion towards Glubockoe, moving thitherward himself on the 16th. While he was meditating thence the attack, or rather the surrounding of the Drissa Camp, with his whole central army exclusive of Davoust, Jerome, and Eugene, Barclay gave up the idea of fighting a battle in the camp, and determined upon a further retreat upon the Moscow road, and thus in the direction of Witebsk in the first instance. He broke up on the 16th, took his way along the right bank of the Dwina by Polotzk, and reached Witebsk the 23rd. He left Wittgenstein behind with 25,000 men in the neighbourhood of Polotzk to cover the roads to Petersbourg.
The march to Witebsk was accomplished in 10 days - no great speed, but the Russians had learnt from their detachments of light cavalry that the French had not yet taken the direction of Witebsk. Barclay, on arriving, marched through the town, and placed himself on the left bank of the Dwina ... A more detestable field of battle could hardly be imagined. General Barclay, on the day following his arrival, had pushed forward General Tolstoi Ostermann (see picture) as an advance guard to Ostrovno. This officer was attacked on the 26th by Murat, and suffered a considerable defeat ...
The Author felt himself delighted, and in a
frame of mind to thank God on his knees
for thus having diverted our steps from
the mouth of an abyss.
Barclay had already passed 5 days in this position, and every one conceived that it was fixed determination to accept a battle in it ... The Author was in despair at this idea. (- p 63)
... when he [Barclay] found the French army approaaching him in earnest, begun to feel apprehensive as to the position in which he had intended to deliver battle, and had changed his resolution at the last moment. ... The Author felt himself delighted, and in a frame of mind to thank God on his knees for thus having diverted our steps from the mouth of an abyss. (- p 64)
Bagration broke up on the 13th from Njeswisch, marched by Sluzk, Glusk, and Bobruisk over the Beresina, and then upon Staroi-Bychow on the Dnieper which he reached on the 21st. He proceeded up the stream towards Mokhilev, in order to avail himself on the bridges there. ...
The mass of troops under Jerome (see picture), which was immediately destined against Bagration, and by the 10th July had advanced to Novogrodeck, following Bagration's march to Mir. There Platoff laid an ambuscade for his advance guard, which occasioned it severe loss, and which seems to have made Jerome cautious. He allowed Bagration to delay for 3 days in Njeswisch, and was still there himself on the 16th, when Buonaparte sent him severe remonstrances on his slowness, and ordered him to place himslef under orders of Davoust. Discontented with this, he forthwith left the army. (- p 32)
... it is perhaps to be reckoned among
The result of the campaign up to this period was that the Russians had evacuated of 60 miles in depth, with the sacrifice of all the magazines - and they were considerable - which it contained. In men and artillery, on the other hand, their loss was triffling: 10,000 men, perhaps, and 20 guns. They had now a great army in the centre of 120,000 men, and two smaller of some 30,000 each on the flanks; the fortresses also of Riga and Bobruisk had come into play, the latter in connection with the observation corps under General Hertel, stationed near Mozyr.
On the 24th of July, then, the distribution of either army was as follows:
If both in this statement and the former we have given the numbers as they originally stood, it is only for the better comprehension of the original distribution of the forces. We may otherwise assume that by about the 26th July they had lost, on the French side, at least 1/4 by stragglers, sick, and casualties in battle. The Russian loss was less, since their retrograde march on their own soil could be better provided for, and facilitated by magazines. The French were also weakened by detachments ...
Barclay had pushed out a strong rearguard from Witebsk against the French, on the left bank of the Dwina which ... between Ostrowno and Witebsk, had continual and lively actions with Murat ...
Barclay reached Smolensk the 2nd of August, Bagration on the 4th, where they found a reinforcement of 8,000 men. (- p 34)
This town [Smolensk], one of the most considerable in Russia, with a population of 20,000 souls, had an ancient wall, something such as that of Cologne, and a bad and ruinous earthen work on the bastion system. (- p 72)
The Russians had an important accessory interest in reaching Smolensk, in order to effect a junction with Bagration sooner than it could elsewhere have been managed. Smolensk might also hold out for some days. It contained considerable stores, and some troops; and it would therefore have been well worthwhile to have forced the Russians in a contrary direction. Buonaparte, however, pursued only as far as Rudnia, and made a second halt at Witebsk, during which he called in the last troops of his right wing, which had been destined to operate against Bagration ... (- p 65)
We have hitherto, with respect to the battles of Smolensk, spoken only of Russian motives, but we cannot avoid dwelling for a moment on those of the French. We confess that we here alight upon the most incomprehensible passage of the campaign. Buonaparte found himself on the 7th, when Barclay made his attempt at the offensive, with his 180,000 men, for the most part between the Dnieper and the Dwina. Davoust alone had crossed that river ... It was easier then for Buonaparte, and more natural, to advance on the Witebsk road to Smolensk, than on that of Minsk.
Buonaparte sat down at Witebsk, and distributed his army between the Dwina and Dnieper. Here ensued the second halt of the French army, which lasted to the 8th August. Before it terminated, the corps of Jerome, Eugene, and Davoust, which had been detached against Bagration, rejoined the main army ... Poniatowski with the V Corps remained till the 8th at Mokhilev, whence he despatched Latour-Maubourg with the IV Cavalry Corps and the division of Dabrowski against Bobruisk and General Hertel. Latour-Maubourg returned ultimately also to the great army, but Dabrowski remained in that quarter, to cover Minsk, till the period of retreat. Poniatowski joined the centre at the moment of its advance on Smolensk. Reynier, as we have mentioned, had been sent to Volhynia.
Barclay reached Smolensk the 2nd of August,
Bagration on the 4th ... On the 16th the French
attacked Smolensk ...
The distribution of the French army, for the most part in canonments, was at least extended enough to afford hope of advantage from a rapid offensive to theextent of placing isolated corps in difficulty. Even though no general defeat of it should result, it might prove a brilliant feat of arms to Russia, calculated to exalt her moral strength, and to debilitate her enemy, both physically and morally, on which everything depended for the success of Russia. (- p 36)
Barclay, therefore, resolved leaving behind only the division of Neverovski, which had been advanced on Krasnoi, to direct both armies on Rudnia, as the central point of the enemy's position ... The result of this unsuspected movement was that Platoff fell, with the Russian advanced guard, on that of the French under Sebastiani (see picture) at Inkovo, and drove it in with great loss.
From Valutina Gora to Borodino affairs of rearguard were of daily occurence, but none of great importance. It usually happened that 10,000 or 15,000 cavalry, supported by some 10,000 infantry, were opposed to a similar force on some point, and kept each other in check. ...
In the army there was great joy on his arrival. Up to this time everything, in the opinion of the Russians, had gone very ill; any change, therefore, was held to be for the better. The reputation of Kutuzov, however, in the Russian army was not very great; at least there were two parties on the subject of his claims to distinction. All however were agreed, that a true Russian, a disciple of Suwarow, was better than a foreigner, and much wanted at the moment. (- p 80)
Russia is very poor in positions [for battles].
Where the great morasses prevail, the country is
so wooded that one has trouble to find room for
a considerable number of troops. ...
If a commander then wishes to fight ... as was Kutuzov's case,
it is evident that he must put up with what he can get.
The Russian army determined to retire, not upon Petersburg, but into the interior, because it could be there best reinforced and make front in all directions against the enemy. (- p 84)
Could they have forseen the rapid melting away of the French army, it would have been possible to have adopted from Smolensk the plan of quiting that direction, and choosing another road into the interior, that for example of Kaluga and Tula, since it might have been argued, that the superiority of the French being at an end, it was no longer in their power to detach a corps to Moscow, and that with their one line of connection with their base, it would still less be possible for the to pass by the Russian army on their way thither.
Russia is very poor in positions [for battles]. Where the great morasses prevail, the country is so wooded that one has trouble to find room for a considerable number of troops.
Where the forrests are thinner, as between Smolensk and Moscow, the ground is level - without any decided mountain ridges - without any deep hollows. The fields are without enclousers, therefore everywhere easy to be passed; the villages of wood, and ill adapted for defence. ...
It was thus that Colonel Toll could find no better position than that of Borodino, which is however a deceptive one, for it promises at first sight more than it performs ...
The whole position too strongly indicated the left to the French as the object of operation to admit of their forces being attracted to the right. ... (- p 88)
The works [redoubts], which had been thrown up, lay partly on the left wing, partly before the centre, and one of them as an advanced post, a couple of thousand paces before the left wing. These works were only ordered at the moment when the army arrived in position. They were in a sandy soil, open behind, destitute of all external devices, and could therefore only be considered as individual features in a scheme for increasing the defensive capabilities of the position. None of them could hold out against a serious assault, and in fact most of them were lost and regained 2 or 3 times. It must, however, be said of them that they contributed their share to the substantial and hearty resistance of the Russians; they formed for the left wing the only local advantage which remained to the Russians in that quarter. (- p 88)
Buonaparte with his united force of 130,000 men advances against the Russian position, passes with the greater part of his troops over the Kolotscha beyond the sphere of the Russian fire, and determines, as the circumstances obviously indicate, to make his principal attack on the left wing, which Poniatowski is directed to reach and turn. ... The advance of Poniatowski brought General Tuchkov into play earlier than the Russians had calculated. (- p 91)
... on the 7th occured the battle [of Borodino], in which the Russians were about 120,000, the French about 130,000. After a loss of some 30,000 on the Russian side, and 20,000 on the French, Kutusov, early on the 8th, continued his retreat on Moscow. ... (- p 38)
The Russians retired in the night of the 7th and, as we have said, in 4 contiguous and parallel columns on one and the same road. They made only a mile distance, to behind Mozhaisk which sufficiently proves that they were in a state or order and preparation, which is not usual after the loss of a battle. The Author can also attest that there was no symptom of that dissolution which has been attributed to it by an otherwise very important writer (the Marquis de Chambray). (- p 100)
... the Russian army marched through Moscow,
and the rearguard received orders to follow on the same day
Moscow had nearly the appearance of a deserted city.
Thenceforward the retreat to Moscow was continuous, but by very easy marches. Borodino is 15 miles from Moscow, and these were accomplished in 7 marches; for on the 14th the army passed through the city. The rear guard was confided to General Miloradovich, and consisted of 10,000 infantry and about as many cavalry. General Uvarov with his corps formed part of the latter. The French did not press it strongly. Murat, with a great mass of cavalry, formed the advanced guard. The two parties touched on each other usually about the afternoon, marched towards each other, skirmished and cannonaded for some hours, when the Russians retired a slight distance, and both sides formed their camp. This march had the character of weariness and strategic disability on both sides. (- p 100)
The direction of Kutusov's retreat from Mozhaisk to Moscow has been made matter of censure. He might, it has been said, have pursued the road by Wereja to Tula. On this road, however, he would not have found a morsel of bread. Everything which an army should have in its rear, every element of its life was on the Moscow Road.
The cavalry of the rearguard alone (and this, indeed, was the greater number) was worse off, because it could seldom unsaddle. The Author scarcely remembers to have seen through the whole retreat a light cavalry regiment unsaddled; almost all the horses were galled. (- p 101)
The advancing army has but two resources for relief. It now and then captures a magazine of the enemy, and is not obliged to keep together in large masses in the same degree; can divide itself more, and live better on the inhabitants. In Russia these resources failed; the first because the Russians generally set fire, not only to the magazines, but to the towns and villages they abandoned; the second, by reason of the scantiness of population, and the want of side roads. (- p 103)
The Author has strongly in his recollection the suffering from want of water in this campaign. He never endured such thirst elsewhere. (- p 104)
On the 14th September, the Russian army marched through Moscow, and the rearguard received orders to follow on the same day, but General Miloradovich was also entrusted to conclude an agreement with the King of Naples, by which some hours should be granted to the Russian army for the complete evacuation of the city, and ordered to threaten, in case of refusal, an obstinate defence at the gates and in the streets. (- p 104)
Moscow had nearly the appearance of a desrted city. Some 200 of the lowest class came to meet General Miloradovich, and to implore his protection. In the streets some scattered groups were seen who contemplated our march with sorrowful countenances. The street swere also so thronged with the cariages of fugitives that the General was obliged to send forward two cavalry regiments to make room. ... We struck in passing through the city, on the road to Riazan, and took a position some 1000 paces behind it. General Sebastiani had promised that the head of his advanced guard should not enter the city sooner than 2 hours after our departure.
On this march we saw Moscow burning without interruption, and although we were 7 miles distant, the wind sometimes blew the ashes upon us. (- p 108)
This leads us to the question of the origin of the fire. ... Rostopchin [governor of Moscow], whom the Author had occassion often to meet in a small circle some 8 days after the event, moved heaven and earth to repudiate the idea of his being the inciendary of Moscow, an idea which arose at that time. (- p 109)
He possessed the manners and the polish of a man of the world, grafted on a strong Russian stock. He was on terms of decided hostility with Kutusov, and loudly assailed him for the impudent falsehood with which
... the march on Kaluga ... made so much noise in the world,
and is become a sort of luminous point in the region of
military speculations ...
He [the Author, Clausewitz] was agreeably surprised to observe that at least that direction
[of Russian retreat] was not in the straight line towards Vladimir, but to the right towards Riazan. ... Even the younger officers of the staff frequently discussed this idea so that if not throughly illustrated, it was at least much talked over.
The flanking position of Kutusov had also the afvantage of more easily operating on the enemy's line of retreat, and thus contributed something to the result, only it cannot at all be considered as the main cause of that result. ... That Colonel Toll, before reaching Moscow, wished to bend off towards Kaluga was in fact, only with the idea of not exposing Moscow to danger for, otherwise, the deflection was easier to execute at Moscow than anywhere else. ...
In the Russian army there prevailed at this time a condition of grief and despondency which led men to consider an early peace as the sole resource. Not that the army itself was without courage. Among the soldiers there was rather a feeling of pride and superiority, ahich, justifiable or not, had still a powerful influence, but there was little confidence in the general direction of affairs, the feeling of the immense losses already incurred by the state seemed overwhelming, and any distinguished firmness and energy on the part of the government appeared not to be expected. This made peace not only expected, but desired. How Kutusov was inclined, no one ever rightly knew. He assumed, however, the appearance of determined opposition to all negotiation. (- p 111)
General Barclay ... said near Woronowo early in October ... to the Author and some other officers who presented themselves to him on their transference to some distant appointments, 'Thank your God, gentlemen, that you are called away from hence; no good can come out of this history.'
Immediately after the evacuation of Moscow, the General Miloradovich gave up the command of the rearguard, which was transferred to General Raievski. (- p 113)
The march of Buonaparte on Kaluga was a very necessary beginning of his retreat, without the intermixture of the notion of another road, Kutuzov, from Tarutino,
had 3 marches less to Smolensk than Buonaparte from Moscow; the latter, therefore, was compelled to begin, by endeavouring to overwhelm the other, and gain the advance of him before he began his real retreat. It would naturally have been more advantageouos to him if he could have manoeuvered Kutusov
back to Kaluga. He hoped to effect this by suddenly passing from the old road to the new, whereby he menaced Kutusov's left flank.
In pursuance of instructions from the Tzar, Wittgenstein had to press Oudinot altogether away from this district, to throw him back on Vilno, and then to leave it to the army of Steinheil to keep him out of play. ... On November 20th he [Wittgenstein] learned that the marshals opposed to him were making a movement towards the Beresina, which indicated the approach of the French main army, respecting which nothing more was here known than that it had arrived in a very weakened state at Smolensk. (- p 118)
In Petersburg the turn of affairs was accurately judged of,
and to the honour of the Tzar we must say, not only in the
last moment, but at an earlier period of events. ...
Buonaparte was not certain of maintaining himself through the winter in Moscow, it became necessary for him then to commence his retreat before the winter set in, and the preservation or the reverse of Moscow could have no immediate influence on his plans. His retreat was unavoidable, and his whole campaign a failure, from the moment that the Tzar Alexander refused him peace. Everything was calculated on this peace, and Buonaparte assuredly never for a moment deceived himself on this point. (- p 111)
As no proposals for peace came from Petersburg (and already a forthnight had been wasted in inactivity)
Buonaparte determined to make the first advance, and on the 4th October sent Lauriston to Kutusov with a letter for the Tzar Alexander.
Kutusov received the letter, but not the bearer. Buonaparte suffered 10 days more to elapse, and then renewed the attempt, beginning at the time
to think on his retreat. Kutusov received Lauriston this time, which produced some specious negotiations, by which
Buonaparte was misled to postpone his retreat for some days longer.
In Petersburg the turn of affairs was accurately judged of, and to the honour of the Tzar we must say, not only in the last moment, but at an earlier period of events. ... We have seen that the idea of falling back in the centre, and operating on the two flanks of the enemy had been the original conception of the campaign, though on a very reduced scale. Circumstances had now so shaped themselves that the centre was deep in Russia, while the right wing of the French was still on the frontier, and the left on the Dvina. The two main reinforcements to Russia of regular troops, the Moldavian Army and that of Finland, had their own natural direction against the wings; it was therefore natural, but not the less meritorious in the Tzar, that he determined to revert to the first idea, but to carry it out on a larger scale. (- p 112)
During the repose of 5 weeks at Moscow, the following events occured in the other theatres of the war. In Riga, September 20th, General Steinheil had landed from Finland with two divisions, together 12,000 strong. Strengthened by a part of the garrison, he took the offensive against the Prussians on the 26th; but after an obstinate action with General York, which lasted 3 days, and during which the siege artillery of the French at Ruhenthal was in great danger, he found himself compelled to retire, after considerable loss, to Riga. (- p 41)
General Steinheil proceeded immediately to effect a junction with Wittgenstein, but finding that the latter was on the point of assuming the offensive near Druja, he marched by the left bank of the Dvina in order to attack Polotzk from the rear. ... On the 18th and 19th of October - thus the moment when Buonaparte was commencing his retreat from Moscow - Wittgenstein delivered the second battle of Polotzk, won it, stormed the town, and forced the enemy to further retreat, the 6th Corps (Wrede) retiring by Glubockoie to cover Wilna ... In the south, Chichagov, who on the 31st July had left Bucharest with the Army of Moldavia, 38,000 strong, had effected his junction on the 18th September with Tormasov in the neighbourhoof of Lutzk; and both together formed a force of 65,000 men against Schwarzenberg and Reynier, who were reduced to 40,000. ... General Hertel, with one hand from Mozyr, kept the Austrian force at Pinsk employed, and with the other Dombrowski before Bobruisk. (- p 42)
Napoleon's army began to retrace its steps along the road from Borodino to Moscow. It was burdened by wagons overloaded with loot and wounded and sick soldiers. The French filed past the battlefield at Borodino which was still litered with corpses and military equipment. Kutuzov positioned himself such that he always remained a threat to Napoleon's withdrawal. The Grand Army was preceded by Ozharovski's small light force, while Miloradovich's and Platov's light troops hounded its flanks and harrassed its rear. Ozharovski raided ahead of Napoleon in an attempt to destroy all of the supplies possible. Napoleon also feared that the Russians might cut him off from Smolensk. The French reached Viazma on October 31 but Miloradovich appeared before the city attempting to interpose himself between Napoleon's army and the rear guard under Davout. In the battle of Viazma, 25,000 Russians defeated 35,000 French, Poles and Italians. Kutuzov was unable to hold back his troops in their anxiety to catch up with the fleeing French. Davout's highly trained I Army Corps was cut off from Napoleon's army. Eugene's and Ney's corps and Poniatowski's Poles turned back to free Davout. The fighting was hard. The French at the cost of 8,000 killed, wounded and prisoners managed to break through. The Russians suffered only 2,100 casualties.
The bulk of the (Russian) Army of Moldavia was moving towards Dubno and Lutzk. The Austrians under Schwarzenberg and Saxons under Reynier fell back on Drohiczyn in order to cover Warsaw and Vilno, as Russian corps under Essen withdrew on Brest. Chichagov's army stood between Brest and Kamieniec-Litovski. Tzar Alexander had ordered the 3rd Western Army to divide into two forces. The one under Sacken was to observe the Austrians and Saxons, the other force was to move towards the Berezina River to block Napoleon. Schwarzenberg responded by once again advancing on Slonim.
On October 24, Sacken moved eastwards towards Kovel and Luboml, and Reynier's Saxons followed him. Schwarzenberg reoccupied Kobrin but then received orders to fall back on Warsaw. Reynier formed his rear guard.
On 23 September General Steinheil departed Riga and marched south to join Wittgenstein.
Wittgenstein crossed the Dvina River and marched on Polotzk. Steinheil crossed the Dvina in Drouia
while Wittgestein established his headquarters in Jourevich.
Steinheil and Wittgenstein then maneuvered on St.Cyr's forces near and in Polotzk.
St.Cyr sent letter to MacDonald asking him to engage Steinheil as he crossed MacDonald's front,
but MacDonald did not feel himself authorized to execute such maneuver without orders.
He also mistrusted Prussian General Yorck.
Wittgenstein seized all the defiles through the woods near Polotzk on the Russian bank of Dvina. St.Cyr had not sufficiently entrenched himself to oppose the enemy. In the battle of Polotzk 27,000 French and Bavarians had engaged 32,000 Russians. The French and Bavarians lost 10,000 dead, wounded and prisoners, the Russians suffered 12,000 casualties. Wittgenstein was unable to cross the Dvina River and pursue St.Cyr because the bridges were destroyed, while Steinheil fell back on Dissna. St.Cyr detached Wrede's Bavarians to Glubokoie and cover the important road to Vilno. Wrede was attacked by the Russians and St.Cyr was ordered to return with the French and also resume command of the Bavarians.
Marshal Victor's II Army Corps joined St.Cyr's IX Army Corps on 28 October and together moved on Beszenkovichi. Wittgenstein left Polotzk area and moved against Victor who wished to conceal the junction of II and IX Army Corps. On 1 November Victor and one of St.Cyr's divisions merged. Wittgenstein attacked them at Czaszniki and then at Smoliany. The French and Baden troops fought well and withdrew in good order. Witgenstein established bridgehead at Smoliany and waited for the arrival of Admiral Chichagov's army. Victor and St.Cyr completed their merger and moved on Torbinka, Chereia and Lukonil.
Marshal Oudinot resumed the command of the II Army Corps and separated from St.Cyr's force. On November 13 Victor moved back toward Czaszniki in order to strike Wittgenstein, thrown him back across the Dvina River and away from Napoleon's line of retreat on the Berezina River. On November 15 St.Cyr received from Napoleon an order to withdraw. St.Cyr marched on Senno and Czereia with Wittgenstein's force on his heels. Napoleon directed Marshal Victor's force on Borisov and to form the rear guard of the Grand Army retreating from Moscow.
Dambrovski abandoned Minsk. The French governor of Minsk, Hagendorp, had retreated on Borisov. General Lambert occupied Minsk on November 16. In Minsk were stored 2,000,000 rations, 40 days' supplies for 100,000 men, and huge quantity of shoes, uniforms, and gun powder. Dombrovski who had heard of the capture of Minsk, moved his force (5,000 men) to Berezino. Hagendorp occupied a bridgehead in Borisov with a battalion of the 95th Line Infantry. Dombrovski moved quickly along Berezina River towards Borisov. The French battalion was surpised by the Russians and driven back across the bridge. The Poles counterattacked with cold steel. The battle of Borisov cost Dombrovski 3,500 killed and wounded, and several guns. The Russians suffered 2,500 casualties.
Oudinot met with Dambrovski and received the news of the fall of Borisov.
Chichagov directed his advance guard under Pahlen (who had replaced Lambert)
to follow Dombrovski's force. George Nafziger writes: "A quick action resulted, and Pahlen found himself unable to deploy.
Pahlen found himself quickly bundled up and hustled in great disorder down the road.
He fled back over the bridge at Borisov." (Nafziger - "Napoleon's Invasion of Russia" p 297, publ. in 1998)
Chichagov and his staff had been dining in Borisov as Oudinot's II Army Corps arrived. The Russian generals escaped but lost all correspondence and baggage. On November 29 Napoleon ordered Schwarzenberg's Austrians to move against Chichagov.
... it was his [Napoleon's] reputation which chiefly saved him ...
Wittgenstein and Chichagov were both afraid of him here
[at Beresina] as Kutusov had been afraid of him at Krasnoi ...
No one chose to be defeated by him.
Kutusov believed he could obtain his end without that risk ...
Wittgenstein resolved to let his advanced guard, now on the roads of Czereja and Kolopodniczi,
pursue the enemy closely, and to march with his main body on Czereja, where he remained in a direction
calculated to cover the Ula, and to lie in wait for Buonaparte behind that river should he take this direction.
Had Wittgenstein on the 25th made a march direct from Kolopodniczi on Borisov, and on the 26th attacked everything he found before him, he would not have found the gulf so deep as he apprehended. He might have been beaten by Buonaparte
but he would have hindered his passage for a day, and perhaps for two.
Unquestionably this exhibited a certain timidity, a too great anxiety to preserve his corps from all injury and, on this occasion, General Wittgenstein cannot be acquitted of a certain share in the escape of Buonaparte. On the 27th he could not indeed have absolutely hindered the passage, but he might have made the French loss much greater. (- p 121)
Wittgenstein [see picture --> ] made some 10,000 prisoners on these 2 days, and among them an entire division. With
this brilliant result he soothed his conscience, and transferred the blame on Chichagov, who had abandoned the ground as far as Zembin
at an unlucky moment. The latter general seems certainly to have exhibited no great capacity for command in this campaign.
It is however true, that every man was possessed with the idea that the enemy would take the direction
of Bobruisk. Even from Kutusov advices were forwarded to this effect.
The French army had ceased to exist, and,
with the exception of the capture of Buonaparte
and his principal lieutenant, the campaign has
the most complete result conceivable.
Should the Russian army be denied all merits for this ?
That were gross injustice.
After he [Napaoleon] had overcome all the difficulties of his perilous moment, Buonaparte said to those about him, 'Vous voyez comme on passe sous la barbe de l'ennemi.' Buonaparte had here entirely saved his old honour and acquired new, but the result was still a stride towards the utter destruction of his army. We know how much of it reached Kovno, and that the Beresina contributed the last blow towards this result. Besides himself, his principal generals, and a couple of thousand officers, he brought away nothing of the whole army worth mentioning. (- p 122)
Eugene escaped by a detour at Krasnoi, but with half his troops. Ney escaped likewise by a greater circuit, with 600 men out of 6,000 (as his secretary
relates). Nominally, the Russians had failed in cutting off their enemy: Eugene, Ney, at Krasnoi, Buonaparte at the Beresina;
but nevertheless, they had cut off considerable masses. This holds still more true of the campaign as a whole.
The Russians seldom head the French; when they do so, they let them through.
The French are everywhere victorious - but look to the end of the account.
The French army had ceased to exist, and, with the exception of the capture
of Buonaparte and his principal lieutenant, the campaign has the most complete result conceivable.
Should the Russian army be denied all merits for this ? That were gross injustice.
French infantry crossing the icy Berezina River in winter 1812.
Russian horse gunners (in helmets) open fire on the French.
Picture by Oleg Parkhaiev.
NOTE: during Wold War 2, in 1944, a fierce fighting raged along the Berezina River.
The Germans (4th and 9th Army) constructed a strong defense lines along the river, and barricaded the streets
of towns. The first Russian attacks made by the 1st Guards Don Tank Corps were unsucessful.
The Russians (G.F.Zakharov's and K.Rokossovski's forces) regrouped and attacked again. They have penetrated into the towns and crossed the river.
The main forces of Russian 48th Army captured Bobruisk. The German soldiers furiously
attacked with a line of officers in the vanguard. However, only a small number of them succeeded in reaching the Russian positions.
The Germans resumed their counterattack in the night. Drunk to a man, the Germans attacked the positions of Russian 356th Infantry Division. There was a hand-to-hand fighting in the darkness. Then the Germans surged into the woods attempting to take shelter. The next day a large German force (5,000 men) led by General Hoffmeister, the commander of the 41th Panzer Corps, attempted to break out no matter how; however, it was soon destroyed. The remaining German forces fell back along the entire line. In the battles for Berezina, Orsha and Bobruisk the Russians captured and destroyed 300 tanks and self-propelled guns, 4,000 guns and mortars of various calibres and 12,000 motor vehicles.
He [Kutusov] saw that the result of the campaign
must in any case be a colosal one; he foresaw
with much acuteness the total destruction of his enemy:
Tout cela se fondra sans moi ...
Could an accelerated catastrophe - or rather,
ought it - have such a value in his eyes as to make him
put a portion of his own remaining strength in hazard ? ...
Kutusov saw his army melting in his grasp, and the difficulty he would have in bringing any
considerable portion of it to the frontier.
He saw that the result of the campaign must in any case be a colosal one; he foresaw with much
acuteness the total destruction of his enemy: Tout cela se fondra sans moi, were his
words to those about him. Could an accelerated catastrophe - or rather, ought it - have such
a value in his eyes as to make him put a portion of his own remaining strength in hazard ? ...
From the Beresina Chichagov took the lead in the pursuit, followed by Miloradovich. Platoff (-->) and several other Cossack corps hung on the French flanks, or even gained their front. (- p 124)
Wittgenstein, after having given his corps some days' rest at Niemenzin, had moved thence on the 17th December, and taken the direction of Georgenburg on the Niemen, by Wilkomir and Keidany. (- p 125)
It may now be allowed the Author to give his opinion
on Buonaparte's plan of operation in this much-discussed
Buonaparte determined to conduct and terminate the war in Russia as he had so many others. To begin with
decisive battles, and to profit by their advantages; to gain others still more decisive, and thus to go on playing double or quits
till he broke the bank - this was his manner; and we must admit that to this manner he owed the enormous success of his career, and that the attainment of such success was scarcely conceivable in any other manner.
In the case of Russia, he had against him the prodigious extent of the empire, and the circumstance of its having
two capitals [Moscow and St.Petersbourg] at a great distance from each other.
... If Buonaparte was really obliged to calculate on ending the war in two campaigns, it then made
a great difference whether he conquered Moscow or not in the first. This capital once taken, he might hope to undermine
preparations for further resistance by imposing with the force which he had remaining - to mislead public
opinion - to set feeling at variance with duty.
He would, perhaps, have lost 30,000 men fewer in action if he had not chosen on every occasion to take the bull by the horns.
... Whether 200,000 men placed in the heart of the Russian empire would have produced the requisite moral effect, and commanded a peace, is certainly still a question, but it seems to us that it was allowable to reason a priori to that effect.
It was not to be anticipated with certainty that the Russians would desert and destroy the city, and enter upon a war of extermination;
perhaps it was not probable. If they were to do so, however, the whole object of the war was frustrated, carry it on as he would.
This implies a conclusion of the campaign without a victory over the Russian army, which was to remain to
a certain extent intact, and Moscow not threatened. The Russian military, weak at the commencement, and certain to be nearly
doubled in the progress of hostilities, would have had time to complete its strength and then, in the course of the winter, to commence the
offensive against the enormously extended line of the French. This was no part in Buonaparte's taste of play.
Its worst feature was that a victory in the field, if he could gain one, remained without positive effect; since, in the middle of winter,
or even late autumn, he could devise no further operation for his victorious troops, no object on which to direct them.
He could then do nothing more than parry without thrusting in return.
Concede we, nevertheless, the possibility that such a campaign might have fulfilled its object, and prepared the way for a further
advance in the following season. Let us, however, remember what we have to consider on the other side - that Buonaparte found the Russians but half-prepared, that he could throw upon
them an enormous superiority of force, with a fair prospect of forcing a victory, and giving
to the execution of his undertaking the rapidity necessary for a surprise, with all but the certainty
of gaining Moscow at one onset, with the possibility of having a peace in his pocket within a quarter of a year.
The famous conqueror in question was so far from deficient in this quality that he would have chosen the most audacious course from inclination, even if his genius had not suggested it to him as the wisest. We repeat it. He owed everything to this boldness of determination, and his most brilliant campaigns would have been exposed to the sam imputations as have attached to the one we have described, if they had not succeeded. (- p 148)
Karl von Clausewitz - "The Campaign of 1812 in Russia"
(New Forevard by Gerard Chaliand).
Blue Crane Books, Watertown, Massachusetts 1996