The Maneuver of Vilna
By: General H. BONNAL
Translated by: Greg Gorsuch
The blockade, if it were effective, would bring ruin to the whole commercial power of England.
But complete disruption of the economic conditions in continental Europe could not occur without harming a lot of interest and temporarily dry up the sources of public wealth.
Russia, which exported food, fur and timber, saw its revenues decline in a proportion such that the Czar thought he would relax some of the blockade.
Did Napoleon wage war against Russia in 1812 as punishment for its violation of the Treaty of blockade, or, did this cause of dissension mask other more serious issues?
This war seems to have had its germination in the Treaty of Tilsit, which opposed an insuperable barrier to the gigantic projects of Napoleon to restore Poland and remove the Prussian state.
On the other hand, the Emperor Alexander wanted Constantinople and it was opposed by this plan.
The friction of self-esteem became more vivid and frequent, especially after the meeting at Erfurt (1808), and led at the beginning of 1811, to a state of political tension so severe that the two sides thought the fight was inevitable and imminent.
The match was formidable, because while Napoleon had many troops, maneuverable and well commanded, Russia had her vast territory and an endless race of soldiers harden to privations such as weather, that religious feeling and patriotism, combined together, could push to the limits of even more extreme stoicism.
Forces available in 1810.
In 1810, there were in Germany and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw:
Napoleon could therefore bring rather quickly, on the Elbe an army of 160,000 men, which would cover, on the Vistula, the Polish corps counting 36,000 men.
In second line, were ranked the corps of the Ocean and of Italy, all told with strengths of 90,000 to 100,000 men.
On January 3, 1811, Napoleon planned the reorganization of the Grand Army into four corps.
In addition, the cavalry reserve was divided into three parts each with a light division and two cuirassier divisions, except the 3rd Corps, where a division of cuirassiers would be replaced by a division of dragoons.
To these forces would be added the Imperial Guard, composed of four divisions, one cavalry.
The Corps Davout advance-guard contingency.
On January 21, 1811, Napoleon wrote to Marshal Davout in Hamburg about the reorganization of the corps, he hinted that in the course of the summer he would have five infantry divisions, three light brigades , a division of reserve cavalry, 180 guns, and thus "a force of 80,000 men," that I would always have available for forming the advance guard and to move where necessary."
The vanguard of Napoleon, was a massive ploy to buy time to gather all the forces at points suitably chosen in case the Russians unexpectedly took the offensive in Poland.
Preparations for January 1811 were motivated by reports that Napoleon had received from General Rapp, Governor of Danzig, and after Russia was put on a war footing with its regiments stationed on the borders of Prussia and Poland, while raising fortifications at Drissa, on the Dvina, and at Borisoff on the Berezina.
At the same time he prepared to thwart any aggression of the Russians, Napoleon declared his desire for peace and denied to his ambassador at St. Petersburg his preparations for war, putting out an account of a possible raid on the English along the Baltic coast.
At the beginning of March, he strengthened Stettin and Danzig and ordered Marshal Davout in Hamburg to organize in place for the moment.
Meanwhile, the Moscow government, aware of the preparation for war in France by the treachery of an employee, redoubled its activity and sent its army to the Danube, while busy waging war against the Turks, five divisions were marched on the Dnieper.
At the news of these dispositions, Napoleon wrote, March 24, to Marshal Davout
to stagger a division between Szczecin (on the Oder) and Magdeburg (on the
Elbe), with a brigade of cavalry on the Oder, near Stettin,
These came to form an advanced-guard on the Lower Oder, while the majority continue to remain on the lower Elbe between Magdeburg and Hamburg.
Napoleon had a high estimate of the military and administrative talents of Marshal Davout, the only one he had deemed worthy of understanding, and on the occasion of the redispositions, the only one whose advice he sought.
We demonstrate in the next sentence of his letter of March 24, 1811:
We guess the maneuver that Marshal Davout was called to do if the Russians invaded the Grand Duchy of Warsaw in the summer of 1811: the Russian forces from the border, reinforced part of the Army of the Danube, about a hundred thousand men; the Polish Army, attacked by the Russians, would yield the ground, step by step, and Marshal Davout, having collected his 80,000 men on the Oder, would march between the right flank of the invading army, to fight together with the 30,000 to 40,000 of Prince Poniatowski.
Napoleon announces his plans to the king of Württemberg.
In the presence of war preparations directed against Russia, the King of Württemberg, Napoleon's ally, thought to sent him, respectful remonstrance.
The Emperor replied, April 2, 1811, that Russia was arming to the death, that she had built twenty campaign staging areas, that she had created fifteen new regiments, that she had directed her troops from Finland and Siberia to the Polish border, and finally, she had detached four divisions of its Army of Moldova to move them to the Grand Duchy of Warsaw.
The argument is extremely strong, and they easily persuaded themselves that Napoleon was sincere, if we didn't know that the Treaty of Tilsit formed an obstacle to his designs, that the war alone could break.
On the other hand, Napoleon admitted that the Czar should break the French alliance to become neutral.
Napoleon undoubtedly thought that "the strongest reason is always the best"; but in war, the stronger is sometimes weak.
In his letter to the King of Württemberg, Napoleon denies wanting to restore Poland and is "very far from wanting to be the Don Quixote of Poland."
These assertions prove nothing.
In this letter, we take away, the strategic perspective, from the following sentence:
This place, by the support it could provide the army of Marshal Davout maneuvering between it and the towns of the lower Oder, to threaten the right flank of a Russian army that had crossed into Poland, was in indeed, the key to everything.
Without it, the operations of Marshal Davout could not go beyond the Oder before the reassembly of the Grand Army on the Elbe, and therefore no guarantee against the Russian invasion of the territory of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw.
The place of Danzig, well armed, heavily stocked, constituted a flank position, though admittedly a defective phrase, in that such a position did not threaten the immediate flank of the enemy, but allowed the active forces, supported by it, to reach the flank, following a direct march, of the enemy engaged in the direction it was ordered to follow.
Thus, a Russian army, which had crossed the Vistula in Warsaw, could not expand to the west without running the risk of being restrained in front, by the Polish forces that have driven back to Posen, and contested on the flank, by the Army Davout that came from Pomerania, supporting its operations through Stettin and Danzig.
Napoleon did not want the Russians established by surprise in the Grand Duchy of Warsaw.
This occupation, even transiently, would be regarded by him as a moral failure or if you prefer, as an affront to his power.
Danzig as an offensive position and Stettin, as a staging area.
In a letter dated April 4, Napoleon reminded Marshal Davout that, if circumstances required it, he should move as fast as wings will carry him on Danzig, and he recommended that a supply of 500,000 rations of biscuit in the town of Stettin "which is the pivot."
In the spirit of the Emperor, if Danzig was to be a potential fulcrum between the Oder and the Vistula to the operations of Marshal Davout, Stettin would be the pivot, that is, the point of departure for his line of operations, the spot where he would take his supplies and where he would later link with the Grand Army.
Instructions to the King of Saxony.
On April 16, Napoleon sent instructions to the King of Saxony in case the Russians invaded the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, then ruled by that prince.
The Polish army depending on the King of Saxony, Napoleon told the sovereign what actions to take, both on and between the Vistula and Oder river.
This meant that the regiments and brigades of cavalry of the Polish army should form a security in depth, or staggered, with the enemy coming towards the western parts meeting increasingly stronger forces.
Surely the role of a corps of coverage directly opposed to the invasion of the enemy.
Contrary wise, the Army Davout is a tactical one, based on the towns of Stettin and Danzig, maintaining freedom of movement, while the Polish army when it has lost, despite its efforts, the line of the Vistula, retreats step by step, on the Oder, or to Crossen or Glogau.
Napoleon knew that the Russians will not assemble more than 100,000 men in the summer of 1811 on the border of Poland. The following year, they would be able to have three or four times more.
But, pending the assembly of all the forces that had, the Russians may have the inclination to throw their available troops, their vanguard, into the Grand Duchy, with the hope of surprising Napoleon, whose activity was drawn to Spain, and thus acquire, in anticipation of the 1812 campaign, a moral and material advantage.
So thought the Emperor, when he wrote:
In other words, the retreat of the Polish Army, from Warsaw to Küstrin or Glogau, must be prepared so as to leave in the hands of the Russians neither trophies or food, and the Saxon army will go to her to support her, and at worst, the recompose her.
Napoleon, who was the incarnation of offensive genius, had already conceived in 1809 for his corps of coverage (Davout and Lefebvre) posted across threatened borders with a series of operations aimed, not to fight back, but make contact with the enemy, clinging to him, to draw it in a desired direction and save time by disputing terrain.
Maneuvers given to Davout for a possible retirement.
A new maneuver in retirement, planned for the Polish Corps, formed the basis for attacks of Marshal Davout to inflict on the Russian army leading to a decisive defeat.
The Marshal would, consequently, take the direction of all forces from the first sign of operations between the Vistula and Oder, and his command accordingly extended to the Poles and Saxons.
Napoleon made this known to Marshal Davout in his letter of April 17:
Thus, the Poles and Saxons, once gathered in Warsaw, fallback on Glogau, when they are forced by the enemy, and prepare for the maneuvering of the corps of Davout.
But the Polish army would be forced to hold the line of the Vistula as long as possible, and to assist it, the garrison of Danzig will detach a corps of 6,000 men to Dirschau, (on the Vistula River, 40 kilometers south of Danzig) "which would provide communications with Thorn," which would help the Prince Poniatowski keep the Vistula."
In this letter, Napoleon reveals his intention to assemble the Grand Army into two echelons, not counting the Corps of the Elbe forming the vanguard.
The first level, consisting of troops of the Confederation not used to support the Polish army, would not go beyond the Oder before its complete formation, and the second echelon, which consisted of the Corps of the Ocean and Italy, in addition to the Guard, would probably deploy on the Elbe.
Finally, the vanguard link, during the gathering of forces, as long as it could, with Danzig.
This sentence shows Napoleon had confidence in the military talents of Marshal Davout.
The month of May 1811 gave rise to a number of diplomatic incidents.
Caulaincourt was replaced at the Embassy of Saint-Petersburg by General Lauriston, who was to increase more than his predecessor the demonstrations to the Czar in favor of keeping the peace.
On his side and for the same purpose, the Emperor Alexander sent to Paris one of his aides, Count Czernichew.
These approaches were used, on both sides, to stall for time.
Extension of the role assigned to Davout.
But the build up and preparation of troops from Germany would allow Napoleon to provide for in the case of an unexpected attack of the Russians, the expansion of the role assigned to Marshal Davout from March.
The Emperor announced, in effect, to General Clarke, Minister of War, by letter dated June 23, that towards the end of summer, the Corps of the Elbe would be 120,000, not counting garrisoned towns and that Marshal Davout would have at his disposal and under his command 60,000 men of the Polish, Saxon and Westphalian contingents.
These combined forces would give him about 200,000 men with which he would be able to abort any attempt of an invasion of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw.
We see that the idea of vanguard army for maneuvering is the same as in March, but it takes on greater precision and scale.
Later in that Fall, the Turks concluded an armistice for several months with Russia, whose Army of the Danube, thus, became available.
Napoleon saw the event as a new symptom of war against France.
On the other hand, the Czar would, superficially at least, make one last attempt at reconciliation through Nesselrode, his minister, appointed by him for a secret mission to Napoleon.
For this there would be no answer to the offer, and the Minister did not come to Paris.
Final organizational measures.
We may assume that in December 1811, war against Russia was irrevocably decided upon in the spirit of Napoleon. But he had to wait until late spring of the next year before starting operations, to avoid the harsh weather and the difficulties of all types that the campaign in Poland in 1806-1807 had helped him to assess to the their full extent.
On 20 December, Napoleon wrote to the Minister of Foreign Affairs (Mr. Maret) instructions to immediately organize spies in Russia.
This organization should be as follows:
The continuous expansion cadres, the inevitable result of training required by the Spanish Civil War and the custody of a vast territory, led Napoleon to mobilize in each infantry regiment of the Grand Army, five battalions of 800 men . Of the five battalions, three were commanded by the colonel and two by the staff. A regiment formed, therefore, a brigade commanded by a general officer.
Napoleon restored, somehow, the cannons of the battalion by giving each regiment of infantry a battery of ten pieces, commissioned and served by elements taken from the regiment.
By order of December 25, 1811, all six divisions of the cavalry reserve would be composed of three regiments of cuirassiers (the 6th dragoons), of eight squadrons, forming a brigade and a regiment of lancers of three squadrons (in total , 27 squadrons per division).
During charges, the lancers would be placed on the rear or sides of cuirassiers "to move into the gaps and falling on the infantry, once routed, or the cavalry, and pursuing with lances in the kidneys."
With six divisions of the cavalry reserve and three divisions of cavalry, Napoleon formed, as he had planned January 3, three corps of cavalry, each filled, with 30 cannons and two divisions of the reserve cavalry and a division of light cavalry, the latter with four regiments.
The preparatory assembling of forces.
On January 10, 1812, Napoleon issued the final reorganization of the Grand Army, which presented in March 1812, nearly 300,000 men besides the allies.
The same day (10 January), Napoleon sent orders to the commanders of the four corps and heads of different formations used in the composition of the Grand Army, so that February 15, everyone was at his post, ready to leave.
On this date of February of 15, the infantry divisions of the Grand Army, numbering fifteen, would be assembling for eight days at fixed points:
From their point of preparatory meeting, the divisions and brigades of cavalry were directed from February 15 to 20, to head towards the area of general assembly of the Grand Army.
The Corps of Italy is directed to Glogau.
On February 8, Napoleon sent instructions to Eugène for the Corps of Observation in Italy to start moving.
The movement would begin the 15th through 20th by crossing the Brenner Pass, where snow would need to be cleared immediately.
Prince Eugène had under his command the Bavarians and the three divisions (13th, 14th and 15th) of the Corps of Italy, totaling from 70,000 to 80.000 men, a veritable army.
The Emperor Alexander would no longer doubt the opening of hostilities, when he learned that the Army of Italy had debouched in the Bavarian Tyrol, and one could expect the arrival of Prince Eugène in Germany is the signal for the invasion of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw by the Russians.
Napoleon believed that the counter blow of the news of the Corps of Italy passing through the Brenner Pass could be felt on the border of Poland before March 15, made arrangements, as we've seen previously, to oppose at that time, the invasion of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw.
Final selection of the Grand Army.
On March 3, Napoleon settled the final organization of the Grand Army, which had, as of April 1, consisted of eight army corps, four French and four foreign.
The Corps of Davout, as Advanced-Guard, is sent to Stettin.
On March 6, Napoleon ordered the Chief of Staff to tell Davout beforehand he would have to assemble, March 15, the 1st Corps around Stettin, with the light cavalry division of Bruyère, for a march east of Stargard, to be ready to move in six or seven days to the Vistula.
Prince Poniatowski, without making extraordinary movements, would bring the Polish troops in Warsaw and detach a brigade of light cavalry with a Polish infantry regiment on the side of Thorn; a brigade that will pass, March 20, under the command of General Bruyère (of the 1st Corps), but without moving, so as "not to create a fuss (among the enemy)".
The Saxons, then around Guben, would be ready to cross the Oder, twenty-four hours after having received the order (and march on Warsaw).
Finally, Napoleon insisted that no movement was made in Danzig so as "not to alarm the enemy."
Location of the Grand Army, as of March 10.
A few days later, the Chief of Staff, Prince Berthier, sent to the Emperor a general situation of French and Allied forces in the process of assembling in Germany.
The extract below gives the composition and size of the Grand Army divided into left wing, center and right wing, but not in three independent armies.
1° Left Wing.
3° Right Wing.
Total: 387,343 men, 98,311 horses, not including the major parks.
The joint forces on the Elbe and Oder.
At the moment when Napoleon assumed that the Tsar's, informed of the arrival in Germany of Prince Eugène at the head of the Army of Italy, that is to say between 15 and March 25, could invade the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, he wanted the body of the Grand Army already prepared as follows (Map No. 1):
In coverage, on the left wing, the town of Danzig, provided with a strong garrison and supported by the 7th Division.
On the right wing, the 5th Corps (Polish), concentrated on the left bank of the Vistula near Warsaw and linked to the troops of Danzig by a detachment stationed at Thorn.
In support of the coverage of the right wing, the 7th Corps (Saxons), near the Oder, at Guben, ready to bring reinforcements to the 5th Corps in Warsaw.
In an advanced guard of maneuver, the 1st Corps (100,000 men), near Stettin; the light cavalry on the road to Thorn.
Forming the bulk, the 3rd Corps around Torgau, the 2nd Corps in Magdeburg and surroundings, and the 8th Corps near Wittenberg, all three on the left bank of the Elbe.
The 6th Corps (Bavarian) in Dresden.
The 4th Corps, en route from Bayreuth to Dresden.
It was somewhat of a grand halt position, cutting the march that brought in on 1 April the 7th and 8th Corps near the 5th Corps in the vicinity of Warsaw, and the 1st Corps between Thorn and Danzig, while the other four (6th, 4th, 3rd, 2nd) reached the Oder between Glogau and Küstrin.
Napoleon knew from experience, since his winter campaign (1806-1807) in Poland, what Russia could offer his troops from the standpoint of food; that they had very limited resources.
He should therefore very strongly organize the transport service, so that the army could live on its convoy during the entire duration of the first active operations.
The Emperor hoped, by means of a strategic move, draw the Russians into a great disastrous battle at the outset of hostilities.
Appreciating that about twenty days was the time needed to crush the enemy, he took steps to ensure that every corps, at the time of the crossing of the Niemen, had four days of bread brought by the men and twenty days of flour loaded on the trains.
To this end, during the year 1811, Napoleon built a large number of caissons with four horses, and small carts with one horse, called the Counts.
Twenty train battalions of six companies were chosen to enter into the composition of the Grand Army chosen to operate in Russia.
Of these twenty battalions, twelve harnessed the caissons, four the Counts, and four were intended to drive carts drawn by oxen, which must be sooner or later eaten.
Note in passing that the error was to drag loads by animals intended for slaughter.
A battalion of the normal train (1 to 12) had a planned total of 771 men, 1,227 horses and 252 caissons loaded with 1,500 kilograms.
A battalion of the Counts was driving 606 carts loaded with 600 kilograms.
A battalion consisted of 600 ox carts loaded with 1,000 kilograms.
In early June 1812, Napoleon gave further orders for the formation of auxiliary convoys, using carts acquired in East Prussia.
The Emperor formed magazines for food and manufacturing centers on the Vistula in Warsaw, Modlin, Thorn, Danzig and Königsberg.
But the troops until they arrived at the Niemen, lived off the country, with the help of sections of campaign ovens and bakeries marching with the advanced guard.
The caissons with four horses could not, for the most part, be used east of the Vistula, because of their weight (1,600 kilograms). This being too much for the bad roads in the region, and we had to replace them with carts required in the country. This resulted in losses of food and disorder.
Immense supplies had been accumulated in Danzig during the year 1811 and the first months of 1812.
Napoleon had recourse to use small boats for their transportation to the Kovno using waterways (Frische-Haff, Warth, channel of Deime, Kurisches-Haff, Niemen).
A rear admiral had the senior management of water transport.
By this means four pontoons, two siege parks, 20,000 quintals of flour, 2,000
quintals of rice and 1,000,000 rations of biscuits were brought to Danzig at
Tilsit in the month of June, and later, to Kovno.
The campaigns of 1796, 1800, 1805, 1806 and 1809 had, in fact, invested more or less the character of an improvisation.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2010
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