Action at Sochocin, 24 December 1806
By Robert Goetz
As with the other actions in the French army’s 24 December crossing of the Wkra, English language accounts of the action at Sochocin are vague and lacking in detail. Given the strategic significance of the action in exposing the Russian right, it is important to understand the action at Sochocin in order to understand fully the operations on the Narew and Wkra in December 1806. The action at Sochocin, described as a French victory in a number of accounts, was in fact a French failure that was transformed into a victory by the French success at Kolozab to the south. Because the French forces at both Kolozab and Sochocin were under the overall command of Marshal Augereau and forces from Kolozab were diverted to Sochocin after the successful seizure of the Kolozab bridge, the two actions have been typically described together as two parts of a single action. However, as separate forces were involved in the two actions, it is appropriate to examine the action at Sochocin on its own merits and as distinct from its “twin” action to the south.
In the fourth week of December 1806, the bridge at Sochocin played a crucial role in the plans of both the Russian and French commanders. For Field Marshal Mikhail Fedorovich Graf Kamenskii, overall commander of the Russian forces in Poland since 21 December, Sochocin was the point where the right column of his army would cross the Wkra when he launched his offensive to drive the French back across the Vistula. Major General Mikhail Bogdanovich Barclay de Tolly had commanded the Advance Guard on the Russian right at Kolozab and Sochocin since about 5 December. On 22 December, Kamenski shifted two battalions under the command of Colonel Iakov Iakovlevich Davydovskii from Borkowo and placed them under Barclay’s command at Sochocin to strengthen the position. The plank bridge, which had been destroyed by the Russians previously, was rebuilt in preparation for Kamenskii’s offensive.
For Napoleon, Sochocin was the key to his planned “maneuver sur les derrieres” in which he would turn the Russian right flank. Napoleon ordered the VII Corps of Marshal Pierre Francois Charles Augereau to march from Plonsk to clear the Wkra opposite Kolozab and at Sochocin, seize or restore the bridges and advance on the Russians at Nowemiasto to pressure the Russian right. Seizure of the bridge at Sochocin would allow the French IV Corps of Marshal Jean de Dieu Soult to march rapidly on Ciechanow and then turn and fall on the Russian right and rear. While Napoleon’s plan did not take into consideration the thick mud and abysmal roads that made rapid movement impossible, Sochocin remained central to his plans. Soult’s forces, however, still crossing the Vistula on 22 December, were assigned an impossible task.
Sochocin occupies a strategic position at the point where the road from Plonsk to Ciechanow crosses the Wkra. This road reaches the Wkra approximately 200 meters southwest of Sochocin and runs parallel to it along the right bank before crossing the river and entering the town. From Plonsk to Sochocin, about 8 kilometers to the northeast, the road runs generally downhill. From Sochocin to Ciechanow, about 20 kilometers beyond Sochocin, the ground trends generally upward to a point midway between the two towns and then levels off as it approaches Ciechanow. Two minor roads east of the Wkra also played a significant role in the action of 24 December. The river road that follows the left bank of the Wkra for most of its length connected Sochocin with Barclay’s position on the Plonsk-Nowemiasto road opposite Kolozab. A road also travels east from Sochocin for about 6 kilometers before angling southeast for another 4 kilometers to Nowemiasto, passing over rolling terrain, allowing the forces from Sochocin to reunite with the forces from Kolozab at Nowemiasto should they be forced to retreat.
Davydovskii’s position at Sochocin was a strong one. The bridge at Sochocin crosses the river just above the point where the river turns to the southwest, placing it inside the angle formed by the river. This provided a clear field of fire on the approach to the bridge from the left bank for a considerable distance on either side of the bridge. The absence of any nearby fords secured the position from any turning maneuver, and the level ground on both sides provided no advantage for an attacker. Scrub growing along the banks of the river afforded excellent cover for defenders lining the riverbank while woods, at the time apparently extending right up to the riverbank south of the town, provided depth of cover, which the Russians would use to their best advantage. North and south of Sochocin the right bank of the river is quite steep, although on either side at Sochocin it is fairly level. The Wkra is unfordable for at least 9 kilometers above Sochocin, although above that point the river is considerably narrower. Between Sochocin and Kolozab (about 4-5 kilometers downstream) the river is also unfordable.
The Russian forces at Sochocin were under the overall command of Barclay de Tolly. Barclay was himself with the forces at Kolozab, leaving command of the forces at Sochocin to Colonel Davydovskii, shef of the 1st Jäger regiment. Details of the composition of Davydovskii’s force are not clear, but his force arrived at Sochocin on 22 December, having marched from Borkowo to strengthen the extreme right of the Russian positions on the Wkra. This may have been prompted by Kamenskii’s offensive plans, by the French build-up north of the Vistula-Narew line or both. Davydovskii’s force consisted of two battalions of 1st Jäger, an excellent unit that had been trained in the woods of Karelia and specialized in fighting in woods and broken terrain. These two battalions amounted to about 1100 men. Supporting the infantry were three squadrons of Isoum hussars, amounting to about 375 men, and a half battery (6 guns) of horse artillery. A small detachment of Efromov-V Cossacks may have also been attached to Davydovskii’s force, although these would have been distributed as patrols and not have played a very significant role in the action. In all, Davydovskii had about 1525 men and 6 guns at Sochocin. As of 23 December, Davydovskii had positioned a squadron of cavalry and up to a battalion of jäger on the right bank of the Wkra covering the bridgehead. To the south in the woods on the left bank between Sochocin and Kolozab stood Barclay’s reserve, three battalions of Tenguinsk Musketeers under Colonel Petr Ivanovich Ershov. Ershov’s regiment, amounting to about 1600 men, was under Barclay’s direct command but would play an important role in the action at Sochocin.
The French forces attacking Sochocin were drawn from Augereau’s VII Corps. Augereau divided his corps to march on both Sochocin and Kolozab. Against the first point he sent the 2nd Division of Général de Division Etienne Heudelet de Bierre, supported by the light cavalry brigade of Général de Brigade Antoine Jean Auguste Henri Durosnel. Heudelet’s division was composed of two brigades. The first, commanded by Général de Brigade Francois Pierre Joseph Amey, include the three battalions of 7th Légère and formed the advance guard. The second brigade of Général de Brigade Jacques Thomas Sarrut, composed of 24th Ligne (3 battalions) and 63rd Ligne (2 battalions), along with Durosnel’s 7th and 20th Chasseurs, formed Heudelet’s reserve. Supporting the force were a battery of horse artillery and a battery of foot artillery.
Heudelet’s column was supported on its left by General Watier’s cavalry brigade, which screened the French left by covering the road to Raciaz to the north. On the right was the 1st Division of VII Corps under General Desjardin, supported by General Milhaud’s light cavalry brigade. Desjardin’s second brigade, under the command of Général de Brigade Jacques Lefranc, stood in reserve at Kolozab and would later play a crucial role in the action at Sochocin. Lefranc’s brigade consisted of 44th Ligne and 105th Ligne, each regiment with two battalions.
Napoleon’s orders had been issued to Augereau on 22 December, placing Milhaud and Watier under his command and directing him to seize the bridges at Kolozab and Sochocin and clear the way to Nowemiasto and Ciechanow. Durosnel’s cavalry and Heudelet’s division had marched from the bridgehead at Zakrocym on the 22nd and 23rd of December, and were concentrated at Skarzyn and Radzymin, southwest of Plonsk, by the evening of the 23rd.
Colonel Sicard, aide-de-camp to Augereau, had conducted a reconnaissance in force of Sochocin on the morning of 23 December. Sicard’s force consisted of two battalions of infantry (one from 16th Légère and one from 14th Ligne) and 100 chasseurs from Milhaud’s brigade, along with two 4-pounders. At the approach of the French the Russian cavalry outposts withdrew to the bridgehead, alerting the force on the right bank. French reports give the strength of the Russian force on the right bank as about 300 men (perhaps as much as one battalion), a squadron of cavalry (hussars or Cossacks) and two guns. The remainder of the Russian force on the left bank went unnoticed by the French. The approach of Sicard’s party provoked an exchange of fire in which four voltigeurs of 16th Légère were wounded and a handful of Russians also fell. Sicard, having determined that the Russians were present in force at Sochocin, withdrew and returned to Plonsk after pressing close enough to the bridge to determine that it had been recently rebuilt and was intact. Russian accounts claimed to have repulsed the French attempt to force a crossing, but this seems an exaggeration as the French were only conducting a reconnaissance.
The report of the French activity at Sochocin combined with the French reconnaissance at Kolozab prompted Barclay to order all forces to the left bank and both bridges dismantled. Davydovskii used the woods, hills and hollows on the left bank to his best advantage, deploying a battalion (perhaps two) of jäger in open order along the river bank and positioning the remainder of his force out of site behind a patch of woods.
The following morning around 4:00 a.m., Heudelet’s division, with Durosnel’s cavalry brigade attached, had advanced from its position southwest of Plonsk to Plonsk itself. By 8:00 a.m., Heudelet had begun his march on Sochocin, arriving in the vicinity of Sochocin around 11:00 a.m.. Amey with the three battalions of 7th Légère pressed on to the river while Sarrut remained in reserve with the five battalions of the 24th and 63rd Ligne. Observing the strength of the Russian position and the difficult approach to the bridge, Heudelet first attempted to find an alternative crossing. Heudelet’s scouts were unable to locate a nearby ford, however, and the general detached a party of infantry and cavalry under the command of Chef d’Escadron Massy to press further downstream in search of a crossing. Having failed to locate a means to turn the Russian position at the bridge, Heudelet sent a party forward to attempt to repair the bridge, but it was driven off by enemy fire.
By around 12:30 p.m., Heudelet decided to try forcing the bridge. Selecting the bravest officer of his staff, Commandant Martin, Heudelet assembled the carabineers of 7th Légère to form a storming party, accompanied by a party of engineers who were to repair the bridge. A half battery was advanced to support Martin’s force and two battalions of 7th Légère were advanced to the banks of the river on either side of the bridge to provide fire support. A single 8-pounder loaded with grapeshot was assigned to the storming party to sweep away any Russian attempt to approach the far side of the bridge. Heudelet ordered the force to repair the bridge at all costs. Martin’s party dutifully advanced to the near end of the bridge and was met by a withering crossfire from the opposite bank. In the first few minutes under fire, Commandant Martin, the captain of engineers, the artillery officer commanding the 8-pounder and 20 carabineers were killed or wounded and the remnants of the force withdrew in disorder.
The firing on both sides of the river remained intense. Davydovskii, in the process of writing a report to Barclay, took a bullet in the leg and later received an apparently superficial wound in the head. By around 1:30 p.m. Davydovskii received word of the French crossing at Kolozab and Barclay’s withdrawal. With this news came the order to withdraw on Nowemiasto, presumably after holding his position as long as he could safely do so. Ershov, his three battalions in the woods covering Davydovskii’s left, began falling back towards Sochocin shortly after 1:30, having lost contact with Barclay.
Heudelet had received word of the French crossing at Kolozab at about the same time as Davydovskii. With the seizure of the bridge at Kolozab, Augereau ordered Desjardin’s first brigade (Lapisse) in pursuit of Barclay towards Nowemiasto while the second brigade (Lefranc) crossed the river and turned north to clear the Russian forces from Sochocin. Augereau sent orders for Sarrut’s brigade to cross at Kolozab behind Lefranc. Around the same time Massy reported that he had succeeded in getting two companies of infantry across the river at Gromadzyn, presumably as Ershov’s men withdrew to the north. Heudelet sent Sarrut off to Kolozab while Amey remained opposite Sochocin to maintain pressure on Davydovskii.
With Amey’s forces reduced to firing futilely across the river, the focus of the action shifted to the woods south of Sochocin where Ershov’s Tenguinsk Musketeers were deployed to cover Davydovskii’s left. The details of Ershov’s deployment are unclear, but it seems he positioned skirmishers in woods near the northern edge with the remainder of the regiment formed up just beyond the woods. Lefranc, advancing north through the woods with Colonel Habert’s 105th Ligne in the lead, made contact with the Russian infantry around 3:00 p.m., and intense skirmishing broke out. The French pressed the Russian skirmishers back out of the woods and ran directly into the main body of Tenguinsk Musketeers. Habert formed his regiment and advanced against Ershov, but the French faltered under the fire of the Russians. Seizing the moment, Ershov ordered a counterattack that drove the French back into the woods in disorder. Habert’s men reformed under cover of the woods and managed to hold firm against the Russian advance.
By around 3:30 p.m. the 44th Ligne had joined Habert’s 105th and Lefranc made a second attempt to dislodge Ershov’s men. The second French attack made better progress and forced the Russians to give ground. The numbers now favoring the French, Ershov and Davydovskii determined that the time had come to withdraw. As the sun set, Ershov and Davydovskii withdrew towards Nowemiasto, joining Barclay there and then marching on Strzegoczin where Kamenskii had ordered the concentration of the Russian forces. Lefranc pursued the Russians a short distance until darkness forced him to break off the pursuit. With the withdrawal of Davydovskii’s forces, the remaining French forces opposite Sochocin were able to conduct their repairs of the bridge and cross to the left bank. Durosnel’s cavalry, 7th Légère and Lefranc’s brigade bivouacked near Sochocin while Sarrut’s brigade seems to have bivouacked near Kolozab having followed Lefranc’s regiments across the Wkra at that point.
The action at Sochocin differs from the actions at Kolozab and Borkowo in that the crossing of the Wkra at that point was essentially unsuccessful. The Russian forces at Sochocin were only forced to withdraw after the seizure of the position at Kolozab exposed their left flank. The success of the Russians in holding this position is due to the natural strength of the position, particularly the location of the bridge, and the absence of any fords by which the position could be turned. Under the circumstances, the attempt to repair the bridge under fire does not seem to have been well thought out, but rather an act of frustration and desperation for lack of more positive action to take. Martin’s doomed attempt resulted only in unnecessary loss of life, and is similar in that regard to Colonel Savary’s storming of the bridge at Kolozab on the same day. Baron Marcellis de Marbot, then a colonel and aide-de-camp to Augereau, harshly condemns Heudelet’s attempt to storm the bridge, declaring that “I have always felt disgusted by this contempt of human life, which at times leads generals to sacrifice their men to their desire of seeing themselves mentioned in dispatches.” Commandant Lechatier is also severely critical of Heudelet in his history of the campaign, although unlike Marbot he is equally critical of Savary. However, in defense of Heudelet it should be pointed out that his orders were to take the bridge. There were few options open to him beyond a direct assault and the extent of the Russian forces opposed to him was largely concealed from view. Further, he did not know the situation at Kolozab until after the attempt had been made, a point that Marbot, with the benefit of hindsight, overlooks. The French losses were considerable given small force engaged and the short duration of the fighting. Heudelet reported 33 dead and 229 wounded, apparently all from 7th Légère and the artillery. These casualty figures are slightly more than those of 1st Division, which had suffered 33 dead and 223 wounded with all four regiments engaged at either Kolozab or Sochocin.
For the Russians, there is little to criticize. Davydovskii made the most of the position, concealing his troops skillfully and beating off all attempts to cross the river. In maintaining the position, he was ably assisted by Ershov who conducted a capable rearguard action against Lefranc, safeguarding Davydovskii’s flank until near dusk. Russian casualties are not stated, although they included Davydovskii himself, but were certainly much lighter than those incurred by 7th Légère and probably no heavier proportionally than those suffered by Lefranc’s battalions. The overall strategic significance of the action for the Russians, however, was bad. With the bridge at Sochocin in French hands, the main road from Plonsk to Ciechanow was now open, exposing the Russian right to a flanking movement by the French as Napoleon had envisioned.
2nd Division - Général de Division Etienne Heudelet de Bierre
Light Cavalry Brigade - Général de Brigade Antoine Jean Auguste Henri Durosnel
2nd Brigade, 1st Division - Général de Brigade Jacques Lefranc
Detachment - Major General Barclay de Tolly (not present)
“Le Général Milhaud au Général Belliard, Aux avant-postes de Pomichowo, 22 décembre 1806, 2 heures der demie du matin” in Foucart (see below), p. 370-71.
“Le Major Général au Maréchal Augereau, Varsovie, 22 décembre 1806” in Foucart (see below), p. 377.
“Le Maréchal Augereau au Major Général, Plonsk, 23 décembre 1806” in Foucart (see below), p. 405-8.
“Rapport du Général Desjardins sur L’Affaire du 24 Décembre” in Foucart (see below), p. 430-31.
“Extrait du Journal des Opérations du 7e Corps” in Foucart (see below), p. 431-33.
Bennigsen, Leonty Leontyevich, count von. Mémoires du Général Bennigsen Vol. 1 (1908)
Foucart, Paul Jean. Campagne de Pologne Vol. 1 (1882)
Höpfner, Eduard von. Der Krieg von 1806 und 1807 Vol. 3 (1851)
Lechartier, G. La Manoeuvre de Pultusk (1911).
Lettow-Vorbeck, Oscar von. Der Krieg von 1806 und 1807 Vol. 3 (1893)
Marbot, Baptiste Antoine Marcelin, Baron de. The Memoirs of Baron de Marbot translated by John Butler, Vol. 1 (1892)
Mikhailovskii-Danilevskii, Aleksandr Ivanovich. Opisanie vtoroi voiny imperatora Aleksandra s Napoleonom v 1806 i 1807 godakh (1846). Excerpts translated by Boris Megorsky (unpublished).
Petre, F. Loraine. Napoleon’s Campaign in Poland, 1806-1807 (1989)
Plotho, Carl von. Tagebuch wahrend des Krieges Zwischen Russland und Preussen (1811)
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Smith, Steven H., “Russian Army, Dec. 1806 - Jan. 1807” (unpublished)
Wilson, Sir Robert. Brief remarks on the character and composition of the Russian army, and a sketch of the campaigns in Poland in the years 1806 and 1807 (1810)
 Mikhailovskii-Danielevskii states that the Russian troops were deploying on the 22nd of December (10th of December old style). The two battalions of 3rd Jäger, the Tenguinsk Musketeers, and Isoum Hussars had been in position since at least 18 December according to Plotho.
 Plotho only notes a half battery of horse artillery at Kolozab and Sochocin. The French captured 6 guns at Kolozab and sources agree that there was artillery present at Sochocin as well. Therefore, the horse artillery at Sochocin seems likely to have accompanied Davydovskii from Borkowo, which would make this the second half of the horse artillery battery from 4th division.
 Marbot. Memoirs Vol. 1, p. 246.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: May 2002
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