Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns

The Maneuver of Vilna

By: General H. BONNAL

Translated by: Greg Gorsuch





General assembly of forces before the start of operations.

Napoleon wrote, March 16, to the Chief of Staff, a letter containing information on the general meeting of forces to be performed for April 13, along the Vistula and Oder, and the same letter explained the operations that Davout would carry out if the Russians took the initiative of operations.

"In the supposition that the Russians will not leave their frontier and not begin the assault, the principle is to base troops, well supplied with food, organize the bridges and bridgeheads on the Vistula, and being in a word master from there to start with the campaign activity, if hostilities occur."

From this, the conditions for the general assembly of the forces were:

1o  Safety and welfare of troops going to the points they have been assigned in the selected rallying area behind a large natural barrier;

2o  Organize the debouchments;

3o  Getting started on the departure of the army in the desired direction.

Role assigned to Davout, in case of invasion of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw by the Russians.

On the subject that hostilities could spontaneously begin with the Russians, Napoleon estimated that the King of Westphalia should have at his passage at Crossen, April 1, the command of the 5th, 7th and 8th corps, totaling 80,000 men, "and with these three corps would cover Warsaw."

So from April 10th to April 15th, an army of 80,000 men was ready to cover Warsaw.

"The 1st Corps (100,000 men) advancing on the Alle (starting from the lower Vistula), through Osterode, Allenstein and Guttstadt, threatens to turn the corps that would debouche from Grodno on Warsaw and force the enemy on guard at the Niemen."

The maneuver that Napoleon potentially reserved for Marshal Davout, is basically the same as under the previous year.  It was to take advantage of the Prussian territory lying north of the probable invasion route of the Russians, oriented on Warsaw and Posen, to fall onto their right flank, supported by the town of Danzig.

Napoleon ended his letter by recommending to Marshal Davout "to announce his intention to move his whole corps with Warsaw as its destination."

This was…a political maneuver.  This was done to make the Russians believe that the 1st Corps would march on Warsaw and Thorn, as a result, its operations were directed against the Volhynia, one of the most fertile provinces of Russia.

This feigned indicates that as of March 16, the Emperor had made his invasion plan.

The date of the plan and its spirit.

Did the design of this plan go back to ancient times or was it modern?

Napoleon chose the offensive form whenever he was able to have adequate time, space and greater resources.

He provoked or expected attack, however, when he felt weaker or less prepared than his opponent.

In 1800, 1805 and 1806, the offensive was carried out by virtue of a fundamental plan, prior to the assembly of his forces.

In 1796 and 1809, the initiative actually belonging to the enemy, it was conducted by counter-attacks, starting from a defense posture taken and prepared.

In 1812, Napoleon had had ample time to prepare for war against Russia.

When he wrote, April 2, 1811, to the King of Württemberg: "Danzig is the key to everything," did he not foresee that the lower Vistula as the starting point for an offensive directed towards the middle or lower Niemen?

The band of Prussian territory, which runs along the Baltic to the lower Niemen, offered him the opportunity to envelop Russian forces who marched in the direction of Warsaw or better, to outflank them if they remained in position on the border.

It was a renewal on a larger scale of the maneuvers of Ulm and Jena: turn the bulk of enemy forces using a flank march on the lower Niemen, come and offer battle in their front perpendicular or inverted, near Bialystok, or in case of a Russian offensive in the direction of Warsaw or on Vilna, where the enemy would have remained in position along the border.

They then destroy the enemy at one stroke by not allowing it even a chance to rally within its country.

For us, the fundamental plan of Napoleon, which we will unveil gradually as we move through the study of his operational instructions that preceded, accompanied and followed the passage of the lower Niemen, was designed from the beginning of 1811 .

The plan was followed, point by point, since the meeting of separate divisions of the Grand Army, February 15, even in the month of May

The successive forms of the general assembly of the forces of the Grand Army, from March 15 until May 15, had been adopted by Napoleon in order to induce the Russians into an error and make them fear for their more southern provinces in White Russia.

Another very important consideration of morale, needs to be examined in Napoleon's invasion from the north.

He knew better than anyone the intellectual poverty of the Russian General Staff, and this weakness must have been very great in that the Emperor Alexander had chosen as a military adviser, one Pfül, the laughingstock of the Prussian army!

If the Austrian and Prussian generals had been unable to understand and incapable to practice a war aimed primarily at the destruction of active forces, what could be expected from Russian generals that he suspected to be even more inept?

The fortifications erected at the beginning of 1811 to Drissa and Borizoff were a first response.

The Russian army, if it did not take the offensive would use all its efforts to deploy across the roads to Saint-Petersburg and Moscow in order to block final access to the troops of Napoleon from these capitals.

In the case of a Russian offensive on Warsaw, as in one where the troops would remain in strength in a cordon along the borders of Prussia and the Grand Duchy, the maneuver of Napoleon, by the lower Niemen, would throw the enemy's right wing on the other wing and crush them all, after a great battle in the swamps of Pinsk or the Bug and the Vistula.

We therefore believe that in 1812 as in 1800, 1805 and 1806, Napoleon wanted to initiate operations, in other words, the strategic offensive, and had formed a basic plan before he knew positively which side he would meet the bulk of enemy troops.

For him, the main meeting of the Russian forces north of the Pinsk marshes was not in doubt; but he could not guess where their center of gravity would be.

We shall further expose the series of political and military maneuvering that was ordered by Napoleon to attract the bulk of the Russian army on the side of Warsaw.

For now, let us recognize the existence of a thought out plan and see the many precautions taken by Napoleon to lull the vigilance of the Russians and bring the Grand Army of the Lower Vistula, like the tiger crawling towards its prey.

Amendments to the plan following the dispositions of the enemy.

Towards the end of March, Napoleon received definitive reports about the strength and location of Russian troops set up near the border of Prussia and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw.

He knew well that an army of 150,000 men was roughly divided into cordons over a front of 400 kilometers between Scharloni and Slonim, in Vilna, and another army of 100,000 men gathered in the region of Lyncker in Volhynia.

As long as these two armies were separated by the marshes of Pinsk, they could not very easily link their operations.

It was therefore important to hold by all possible means the southern army in Volhynia, and it was to this end that the Emperor had spread false news stating that Davout's army was moving to the lower Oder at Warsaw and the general headquarters were directed to this city.

The holding of the cordon of the Russian right wing was on the other hand, very desirable, for as long as this wing remained scattered over a front of 400 kilometers an offensive on its part was not to be feared.

By what means did Napoleon think to ensure the immobility of the Russian right until his own operations would be unmasked?

That way, he found, we believe, was in the overt deployment of the entire Grand Army on the Vistula, from Radom to Danzig.

The river was wide and deep, 400 kilometers in front of the Russian army of the north, a large barrier behind which the corps of the Grand Army could move clandestinely and securely to form, at some point by assembling in two, three or four, a clearly offensive disposition.

The Army of Volhynia, should be immobilized in the feelings of the Emperor, by means of moral and political associations of the demonstrations carried out through the corps of the Prince Schwarzenberg[1] and the Saxon Corps (Army of King Jerome).

Subsequent events show that the role of immobilization entrusted to the detachments of the right wing of the Grand Army, not counting the false news spread by design, was unfulfilled, that General Bagration, Commander  of the Army of Volhynia, managed to escape Grodno along the western margin of the Pinsk marshes, and that when Napoleon still believed him to be between Lyncker and Brzesc, he had his headquarters at Wolkowisk, 75 kilometers south of Grodno .

Primer on the Strategic Deployment of the Vistula.

From 1 to 15 April, the Russians had taken no offensive movement, the Grand Army executed a new leap forward and formed the following dispositions (Map No. 2):

Great General Headquarters at Berlin

The 4th Corps (Army of Italy) and 6th (Bavarian) at Glogau and surroundings (on the Oder).

The 2nd Corps (Marshal Oudinot) around Berlin.

The 3rd Corps (Ney), in Frankfort on the Oder and surroundings.

Coverage King of Westphalia.

The 5th Corps (Polish), at Warsaw, Modlin and Plock.

The 7th Corps (Saxons), at Kalisz.

The 8th Corps (Westphalian), on the road between Crossen in Kalisz.

Vanguard of maneuver (1st Corps).

1 division, at Thorn with the headquarters.

1 division, north of Kulm.

1 division, at Marienwerder.

1 division, at Dirschau.

1 division, on Danzig.

1 division (the 7th) to the east of Danzig, on the Isle of Nogat.

1st Corps of Cavalry and light cavalry to the east and not far from Thorn.

Prussian Corps between Kœnigsberg and Pillau, in the extreme advanced-guard.

The Prussian corps, which was to include 18 battalions, 20 squadrons and 8 batteries under the command of General York, met at the beginning of April, at Konigsberg, under the direction of General Grawärt, defeated at Jena.

Marshal Davout took a dim view of the Emperor using this contingent, to form the extreme vanguard of the 1st Corps, because, living for years in Prussia, he knew the spirit of the population.

As he wrote, April 2, to the Chief of Staff:

'"This contingent is full of hot heads, very hostile to the new position of their country and moved more by the Russians than for us."

The Marshal concluded that it seemed unwise to assign the Prussian Corps the role of extreme advanced guard.

At the same time, April 2, the Prussian General Grawärt addressed to Chief of Staff a letter, which reads in part:

"Happy to find ourselves under the protection of the greatest monarch and be led to glory by the heroes covered in laurels, the corps of Prussian troops will not fail in this opportunity to prove itself worthy of being placed next to an army whose illustrious exploits will forever captivate the admiration of posterity."

No comments!

In forming a line across the middle and lower Vistula with the divisions of the 1st Corps and holding firmly at Modlin and Warsaw with Polish Corps (5th), Napoleon began the strategic deployment on the Vistula, he would reinforce the Grand Army from the end of April to mid-May. <

In fact, Napoleon had written from Paris to the Chief of Staff:

"The battle line of the army, when debouching, will be:

The 1st Corps (Davout), at Elbing, Marienburg and Marienwerder.

The 2nd Corps (Oudinot), at Danzig.

The 3rd Corps (Ney), at Thorn.

The 4th Corps and the Bavarian (6th Corps), under the command of the Viceroy at Plock.

The Westphalian (8th Corps), the Saxons (7th Corps), the Polish (5th Corps) and a division of Prussians, under the orders of the King of Westphalia, at Warsaw.

The Austrians supporting the Vistula, in the extreme right (Lublin).

The headquarters and the Guard, Posen.

It is necessary that the Prince of Eckmühl (Davout) does not make known his plans to move anyone,  on the contrary, he will announce the move of his headquarters to Warsaw.

By the time the orders I have given him are seen, it will only be since 1 May that my army will thus be in battle formation on the Vistula."

The strategic deployment that the Grand Army was made on the Vistula, of Radom in Danzig during the period between April 15 and early May, did it result from a principle of absolute war, or else, was it a special case?

To us, Napoleon forming the Grand Army for battle on the Vistula River on a stretch of 400 kilometers in front of the Russian right wing, deployed itself in cordon over a front of 400 kilometers, was only to induce that wing to maintain its thin disposition.

Given the enormous distance that separated the opposing forces directly, Napoleon was sure to be able operate at leisure the groups of his army, either for counter-offense, of for pure offensive, if the Russians advanced in the first case on Warsaw or remain motionless in the latter case.

Strategic deployment is not necessarily the initial phase of a campaign.

In 1800, I805 and 1806, one sees no trace of it on the French side.

The proposed meeting of French and Allied forces on the Lech in 1809, where the Austrians were to invade Bavaria or Franconia before April 15, offers an example of a strategic deployment.

But in 1809 as in 1812, this deployment, developed far away from the opponent in a waiting position, covered by a natural barrier which improved its opportunities.

One can conclude from this that such a deployment is only necessary when, on the defensive, we come to see the enemy, to discern his intentions and in the offensive, to deceive the enemy on our own designs.

In all cases, a strategic deployment preceding the opening of operations is inconceivable unless done at a distance from the enemy at least as large as the front of the deployment.

In early August 1870, Moltke thought fit to order the strategic deployment of three German armies on the Saar. There are critiques of this in our books with the titles, one, Frœschwiller the other, The Maneuvers of Saint-Privat.

Map No. 2.jpg

Information on the enemy, end of April.

During the month of April, Napoleon, still in Saint-Cloud, was active in the organization of maintenance services of the Grand Army, and fixed the basis of organization, during the current month of May, for a ninth corps that would be responsible for containing Prussia and come later on the Vistula as second-line corps.

Towards the end of April, Napoleon had enough positive information about the organization and replacement of Russian troops established near the western borders of the Muscovite empire.

He was informed that since the end of March:

1o  A First Army of the West, under the command of Barclay de Tolly, presented six army corps and three cavalry corps on the front Scharloni-Slonim;

2o  A Second Army of the West, under Bagration, consisting of two army corps with a corps of cavalry, was in Volhynia in the region of Lyncker;

3o  A new army composed of five divisions of infantry and two cavalry divisions, under the command of General Tormasov, marched down the Danube to Volhynia to replace the army of Bagration, which, once relieved, moves back to north to join the army of Barclay.

Napoleon, after having acquired this information could only persevere in his original plan of keeping the opposing armies in their extended positions and maneuver his left to dismiss the First Army to the south.


The strategic deployment on the Vistula.

As of May 15, arrangements were completed for the strategic deployment on the Vistula, Napoleon was supposed to have ended on 1 May.

Going from right to left, the Army Corps were gathered in close quarters around the following points:

Austrian Corps: being assembled at Lemberg;

7th Corps: Radom;

8th Corps: Warsaw;

5th Corps: Modlin;

6th Corps: Plock;

4th Corps: in the second line, Kalisch;

3rd Corps: Thorn;

2nd Corps: Marienwerder;

1st Corps: Danzig;

Prussian Crops: Kœnigsberg.

Orders for the march in three groups to the border.

On May 26, the Emperor shot to Dresden orders and instructions for marching the Grand Army to the border.

The forces required to invade Russia presented three groups and two flanking corps.

The group of the left, including the 1st, 2nd, 3rd Crops and the 2nd Cavalry Corps, commanded directly by the Emperor (220,000 men).

The group of the center, consisting of the 4th, 6th Corps and the 3rd Cavalry Corps, commanded by Prince Eugène (85,000 men).

The group of the right, with the 5th, 7th, 8th Corps and the 4th Cavalry Corps, under the leadership of King Jérôme (75,000 men).

The disposition 1 June.

On June 1, the body of the Grand Army reached their headquarters with the following (Map No. 4):

Prussian Crops: Kœnigsberg;

The 1st Corps (Davout): Elbing;

The 2nd Corps (Oudinot): Mohrungen;

3rd Corps (Ney): Osterode;

4th Corps: Soldau;

6th Corps: Mlawa;

The 5th and 8th Corps continued to remain around Warsaw, while the 7th Corps was beginning a demonstration movement on Lublin.

Meanwhile, the Russian Second Army under Bagration, was brought north of the Pinsk marshes after the arrival in Volhynia of the army of Tormasof and, in early June, it had its headquarters in Wolkowisk, its advanced posts in Grodno and Bialystok, while Napoleon was supposed to just move to Lyncker on Brzesc.

Dispositions planned for 12 June.

On June 6, Napoleon jumped to Thorn, where he had placed his headquarters, ordering movement, June 12, that the corps and the cavalry corps occupied the following locations (Map No. 5):

June 12. Prussian Corps…Labiana.


1st Corps…between Kœnigsberg and Insterburg.

Cavalry… Gumbinnen.

2nd Corps… Preuss-Eylau (in 2nd line).

3rd Corps…Gerdauen.

Cavalry…Goldap and Nordenberg.

4th Corps…Rastenburg.

Cavalry…Lotzen and Oletzko.

6th Corps…Ortelsburg.

Cavalry…Arys and Johannisberg.

At this time, Napoleon formed under the Duke of Taranto (Macdonald), a 10th Corps with the Prussian Corps and the 7th Division (Polish).

This corps would be responsible for the left flank of the Grand Army, just as the Austrian corps (35,000 men) of Prince Schwarzenberg flanked the right.

The disposition of June 12, 1812 shows the Grand Army divided into three groups of army corps.

The group of the right has stalled around Warsaw, awaiting the return of the 7th Corps previously sent on an demonstrative expedition to Lublin.

The groups of center and left wing, separated by an interval of about 50 kilometers, were deployed at roughly the same height and mark the intermediate phase between the strategic deployment of the Vistula and the staggered arrangement, with the left wing forward, which will precede the opening of hostilities, and whose form indicates the kind of maneuver planned.

Napoleon put out an axiom that, in the same theater of operations, there should be only one army.

Despite the unusual size of his means of action and the vastness of the theater of war in which he would operate, the Emperor wants to stay and remain faithful to the principle of unity of the army that he had established .

He was commander in chief (généralissime) and directly commands the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Corps.

Prince Eugène was the head of the 4th Corps and further directs the 6th Corps.

The King of Westphalia has under his immediate command the 8th Corps, which was part of the three corps that he commanded.

The only staff of the army operates under the direction of the Chief of Staff; one man, the Emperor, plans and directs, and manages his own maintenance services.

If, in fact, the Grand Army was divided into three armies, those of the center and right wing do not show a shadow of autonomy.

Napoleon only has means of transmission that are slow and imperfect, we can guess what delays the information and orders had to undergo to go from Warsaw, which was the headquarters of the right wing, to Danzig, then Gumbinnen, the successive residences of the Emperor, in mid-June

A family loyalty, driven to madness, had Napoleon choose two mediocre parents to command his center and right wing.

Prince Eugène had indeed shone, in the second row under Massena, and Prince Jérôme, King of Westphalia, was making his debut.

If Davout had commanded the three corps of the right, Ney the two corps of the center, and Oudinot the three corps of the left, Napoleon standing at the most favorable position for directing overall operations would have probably taken a different turn, despite the difficulties of transmitting orders and reports, inherent in that time.



[1] Under an agreement signed in March 1812, Austria agreed to provide an army corps against Russia.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2010

Military Index | Battles Index | More on the Maneuver of Vilna  ]

© Copyright 1995-2011, The Napoleon Series, All Rights Reserved.

Top | Home ]