Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns

The Maneuver of Vilna

By: General H. BONNAL

Translated by: Greg Gorsuch




We now go back a bit to discuss the ideas expressed by Napoleon in his letters written from May 26 until June 15, the day when the last push of the left wing of the Grand Army to reach the Niemen began.

Napoleon to Davout, in Elbing.

Dresden, May 26

"Everything is conditional on the arrival of the pontoon equipment, because my whole campaign plan is based on the existence of this pontoon equipment well harnessed and also as mobile as a  cannon piece."

General Barclay de Tolly, if he had learned of the approach of a large group of French down the Niemen, could have decided to border the right bank of the river with many troops at the points most favorable for its defense.

Under these conditions, the tactics of Napoleon would be to execute feints to cross at many points, while the pontoon crews, would be concentrated near a road junction well chosen, to be prepared to march towards the point recognized most favorable for passage by the main force.

This required that the pontoon teams were pushed to the head of a column of the 1st Corps forming the advanced echelon or vanguard, and, secondly, it was "also as mobile as a cannon piece" after the colorful expression of the Emperor.

"The result of all my movements will gather 400,000 men at a single point."

In the mind of the Emperor, the corps of the Grand Army, with the exception of Austrian and Saxon corps on the one hand, and Prussian-Polish corps, on the other hand, formed in their maneuvers a concentration of 400,000 men, preparatory to the great battle that would decide the fate of the campaign.

This concept of an offensive war is imposing.

The great Prussian staff had tried to achieve this in the early campaigns of 1866 and 1870, and indications are that it inspires them today more than ever, in the plans of offensive operations by our neighbors to the East.

In the same letter Napoleon recommends to Marshal Davout to leave at Marienburg and Danzig the heavy baggage so as to have the largest possible number of carts to transport food.

"The baggage left behind can be gotten after the first expedition."

The troops were to be equipped, when crossing the Niemen, with four days of bread carried by men and twenty days of flour after them transported by convoys, Napoleon cherished the hope to destroy or disrupt the Russian armies for a long time during the first expedition, lasting fifteen to twenty days, which would be followed by an stay more or less prolonged in Volhynia.

Napoleon to Eugène, in Plock.

Dresden, May 26

"Pretend that you are marching on Warsaw."

It's always the same system. Napoleon relied on false news of a general concentration of his forces in Warsaw to draw the enemy to the side of Grodno (Barclay) and of Brzesc (Bagration).

Employed against a weak or pusillanimous opponent, these means may succeed, but it fails when opposing commanders having a good intelligence service and that bases its resolutions, not on words, but facts.

Napoleon to King Jérôme, in Warsaw.

Dresden, May 26

Just before the first operations of a campaign, it is indeed very important to prevent the enemy from receiving letters and emissaries.

Napoleon assumed at that time the army of Bagration was still in Volhynia, or, at most, marching on Brzesc.

Accordingly, the role he assigned to the army of Prince Jérôme was purely defensive.

This army would use the Bug, lower Narew, and the Vistula to resist, if necessary, the Russian offensive led by Bagration against the right flank of the Grand Army.

"I recommend the bridgehead at Pultusk and at Sierock on the Narew and the Bug, because it would be possible in a second movement (march of the left wing and center on the lower Niemen) that I leave the enemy (Bagration) master of the country from the glacis of Praga (Warsaw), satisfied that I keep (with the right wing) Praga, Modlin, the left bank of the Vistula (between Prague and Modlin ) and the right bank of the Narew from Modlin just up to Sierock; and then, depending on circumstances, I would abandon also the peninsula formed by the Bug and the Narew near their confluence, and holding myself to the right bank of the Narew up to Rozan and Ostrolenka; or, better I would hold the Bug from Sierock to Brok."

Napoleon wanted King Jérôme at the same time to hold demonstrations towards Lublin to have one believe that his army would meet the Austrians and operate in Volhynia.

"The truth is that your movement will be the opposite."

The Emperor did not want his army of the right to seriously operate against the army of Bagration; at most, he allowed it a short jab of the 7th Corps in the direction of Lublin.

"Maneuver and place your light cavalry posts as if you were moving on Volhynia."

Such means are insufficient to stop a powerful enemy.

Napoleon's plan manifests the intent to execute a movement with the army of King Jérôme opposite to that which would result in ending in Volhynia.

This army would climb the left bank of the Narew and would arrive no doubt on Grodno.

But then, the army of Bagration would have in front of it, that of the Austrian Corps, allowing him freedom in his movements.

Napoleon counting on Bagration to be retained purely by the brotherly demonstrations of the army of King Jérôme, would lose many days, being surprised in the middle of a flank march, while he wanted to join the army of Barclay at Vilna, and would be thrown into the marshes of Pinsk.

The means employed by Napoleon to retain Bagration south of Brzesc were inadequate because they relied almost solely on the cowardice of this general.

It was very difficult to know the mood of Bagration, Barclay, of the Emperor Alexander, and finally the army as that of the Russian people.

Why wouldn't the most virile resolve not arise on the approach of danger?

Napoleon to King Jérôme, in Warsaw.

Thorn, June 5

"In a business such as this, and in so great a theater, there will be no success without a well established plan and without its parts being well coordinated."

Napoleon had only very imperfect means of transmission and it was his intention to directly command the left wing of the Grand Army all the way to the very far right wing; it was not possible to play three masses, as we understand that one could do with a supreme commander with electric telegraphs, railroads and automobiles at his disposal.

The war of 1812 could not have been a war of armies, though it was dressed up to give that appearance.

This war marks rather the transition between a war of corps and a war of armies, which is inconceivable without the aid of rapid transmission offered by the inventions of modern times.

Unable to move in the proper sense his three masses on the vast theater that embraces the entire western border of Russia, Napoleon was forced to establish a plan that was not only the strategic deployment on the Vistula, the debouchments of his three bodies and their operations up to the first meeting, but the maneuvers to movements that resulted from his imagination and sense of war attributed to the Russian armies.

In attempting to prejudge the events beyond the passage of his left body onto the right bank of the lower Niemen, Napoleon violated the fundamental principle of any plan of operations.

While a plan of this nature must contain the germ of a developing idea whose implementation will be pursued against all the obstacles posed by the enemy, it cannot provide the means to be employed for this purpose.

But in Napoleon's plan for the year 1812, he does not show this ruling idea as in 1805, 1806 and 1809.

March on Moscow and St. Petersburg?

It will be discussed in the correspondence of the Emperor, but timidly, without conviction. These cities were too far, and besides, the Russian provinces, endowed with their own life, have nothing in common with those of Western nations, highly centralized, rich and populous, in which capitals play a dual role of brain and heart.

The war of 1812 could only get the great results wanted by Napoleon if Russia took the offensive on Warsaw or remained motionless in cordon.

Apart from these two possibilities, the Emperor could only expect disappointment.

A large army could cross or defeat all obstacles, but there is one before whom all means are powerless: the desert.

Napoleon prepared to invade Russia as if he had at his disposal railways and telegraphs.

Its design, inharmonious with the times, circumstances and means, had only two chances of success: the Russian offensive on Warsaw, or their stillness along the borders, and these opportunities, the energetic Russians would take away by avoiding battle and executing a rapid retreat through the desolate regions stretching from the Niemen to Moscow.

Nevertheless, Napoleon presented in his plan to his brother Jérôme, that he comply with the start of operations at a moment where the Prince was receiving instructions at the general headquarters for instructions that were already old and mostly useless for the moment's reality.

"First, act as if you think to move into Volhynia, and hold to the enemy if possible on its part, outflanking  his extreme right, I have gained on him twelve or fifteen marches in the direction of Saint-Petersburg, I find myself on the right wing: I will cross the Niemen and with it CARRY VILNA, THAT IS THE PRIME OBJECT OF THE CAMPAIGN."

We see Napoleon wants to maneuver the enemy on his right, before having fixed them by other than playing with their minds: false information, long-distance demonstrations, performed by small forces.

The head of the Grand Army believed the army of Bagration was still east of Brzesc, and he supposed  the army of Barclay still in cordon to his left near Grodno.

The twelve or fifteen marches he hoped to gain in the direction of Saint-Petersburg, were calculated from the area of general assembly of the armies of Barclay and Bagration, as Napoleon did not admit that the Russians had avoided battle and prepared accordingly with the intention of uniting before accepting it.

The deployment of the Russian armies in cordon required that they operate their meeting to the back or front, by converging movements to avoid marches that would expose the flanks very dangerously, that would be required for the union of these forces on a portion of their huge strategic front.

"The occupation of Vilna is the first object of the campaign."

Indeed, accomplishing this first transaction, the right wing of Bagration, hit in the center, would be forced to withdraw towards Dinabourg, and the situation of other Russian fractions would become very difficult.

"The movement of the Prince of Schwarzenberg (from Lemberg on Zamosc) does not fully unmask the design (crossing of the lesser Niemen by the left wing and the occupation of Vilna), because the enemy (army of Bagration) may believe that the meeting in Zamosc (of the Austrians and the army of King Jérôme), will lead from there to enter Volhynia."

"When this operation is unmasked (crossing the lower portion of Niemen by left wing), the enemy will take one of the following paths: either he will unite in the interior of his States to build strength and deliver battle, or take himself  the offensive."

Napoleon does not seem to admit that the greater Russian army was divided into two autonomous armies and judging others by himself, he can only conceive of a single Russian army separated into two groups temporarily.

He assumes, therefore, that the operation of crossing the Niemen by the left wing on the far right of the corps of Barclay, would force the enemy into a unified decision, either to a general retreat to a point single of concentration or for a general offensive on Warsaw.

This second hypothesis was very unlikely because the Russian general staff could no longer ignore the enormous size of the mass that would have overwhelmed its right wing, and in these circumstances, initiating a general offensive on Warsaw would, on its part, be madness.

If, however, the first hypothesis came true (general retirement), what result could be expected from the echelon disposition, the left wing advanced, that the Grand Army had taken while marching from the banks of the Vistula River to the shores of the Niemen?

Nowhere fixed, and deployed in huge spaces in a half-desert country in which it could destroy, in withdrawing, the land's  meager resources; the enemy would possibly create a famine, and when it would have finally lured the corps of the Grand Army hundreds of miles, considerably reduced by the hardships and privations, what would happen?

Napoleon certainly had these reflections, long before prescribing the movements which were to decide the outcome of the campaign, but his pride was overwhelming.  The invasion of Russia once decided, allowed nothing to prevail against the madness that carried the Emperor to his ruin.

One detail will show better than a long discussion, how intelligence is suppressed by passion when it reigns supreme.

Napoleon delayed the passage of the Niemen until mid-June, only so the horses of the Grand Army could be fed on grass fields, very late in Lithuania.

Thus the army chief, who waged war for twenty years and had a fair knowledge of horse health (his correspondence attests to this), the same leader was blinded by passion to the point of admitting that horses subjected to the hardships of war, in an almost desert like country, with a similar climate, could somehow do without live oats and live on grass.

We know the result.

From the first days of July, the horses of the cavalry and artillery died by the thousands died, unable to withstand the continual hardships of cold and rainy nights spent at the camp.

Continuing his discussion of the eventualities of the next campaign, Napoleon wrote: 

"Thus, while the end of the line (Russian) would be overwhelmed, it (the enemy) could march on Warsaw, either to debouch at Ostrolenka and Pultusk, or to debouch on Sur and Sierock, or to debouch on the right line (by the left bank of the Bug) on Praga (Warsaw)."

Napoleon did not stop for a moment to consider the hypothesis of a general retreat of the Russians towards the interior of their country and he dwells complacently on an offensive that would have been on their part the height of recklessness.

Napoleon's insistence on ascribing to the Russians the plan of starting the war by a general advance on Warsaw shows that he supposed they remained animated, as in 1806-1807, of a boundless offensive ideology, and he knew the passionate aspirations of the old Russian party to punish the Poles for their love for France by capturing the Grand Duchy of Warsaw.

The study of Napoleon's correspondence suggests that he believed until June 20 of an attack by the armies of Barclay and Bagration in the direction of Warsaw.

The maneuver of Vilna is entirely based on this presumption.

So, June 5, the Emperor admits that Bagration will gather his forces on Grodno or Bialystok, Bagration on Brzesc, and then the two Russian armies will focus on Warsaw.

Continuing in the same vein, the Emperor indicates to his brother Jérôme the Narew, from Ostrolenka to Sierock, and the Vistula, of Praga at Modlin, as lines of defense against the Russian army that would come from Bialystok, from Brzesc or from Zamosc, to capture Warsaw.

"While the enemy is on the ramparts of Praga" (Warsaw) and on the banks of the Vistula, merely support (observe) Modlin, Sierock and Pultusk you will find yourself reunited with the army (not separated from it by the Narew and therefore easier to unite), and by my movement to the right, his army would be overwhelmed and thrown into the Vistula."

The dream was beautiful, but since 1807 the Russian General Staff was wary of Napoleon and distrusted his enveloping maneuvers.  The bold attacks of 1807, which had their climax at Eylau, Friedland, would lead to this conservative approach, and especially the concern of not being cut off from the roads leading to the two capitals.

"If the enemy (of Volhynia) suddenly took the offensive and General Reynier (commander of the 7th Corps) had some difficulty in returning to Warsaw (from Lublin), in this hardly likely situation, you must hold with the 4th Cavalry Corps and the 8th Corps.  But in general, you have to probably calculate that your whole army corps (5th, 7th, 8th Cavalry Corps) will eventually move by Pultusk on Ostrolenka, on Sur, on Bialystok, or on Grodno."

The Emperor wants to believe in the offensive of the Russian left wing (Bagration) to Warsaw, but as his thoughts on the situation deepen, the more it shows a low probability of such audacity.

Everything seems to indicate that the army of Volhynia, from the time it learned of the French left wing near the lower Niemen, perhaps even earlier, tried to join the army Barclay along the western edge of the marsh of Pinsk. It was then that the army of King Jérôme was directed on Sur, on Bialystok, or on Grodno, starting from Pultusk or Ostrolenka to focus on this army, to delay and give time to the center or French left-wing to come together for its destruction.

The prediction was correct; but how difficult and delicate an execution was needed for such a project.

In the event that the army of Bagration left Volhynia to move toward Vilna or Minsk along the western margin of the Pinsk marshes, when would King Jerome learn of his departure, where, when and how was he to hold him?

Such a delicate role could be filled by an experienced warrior, as Davout.

Note that Napoleon refers to the army of King Jérôme as army corps, although the forces placed under the command of the Prince consisted of four corps, one of cavalry.

Once again, Napoleon would never show in substance and in form, the character of a group of army corps operating in the same theater as anything other than groups of corps[1].  He did not organize a war of armies; he suffered from it.

Napoleon to the Chief of Staff.

Danzig, June 10

Napoleon begins to give orders, then he sets out information which would inform King Jérôme on the situation (Map No. 6).

1o  The 7th Corps, that he assumed arrived in Lublin, falling back on Praga (Warsaw), by forced marches, once at the head of the Austrian corps will arrive at Zamosc, probably from June 15 to 18;

2o  The headquarters of King Jérôme will be at Pultusk the 14th, and Ostrolenka, the 17th;

3o  The 8th corps will move on Sierock and Pultusk, and the 5th Corps occupies the line at Pisck (Skiva).

Both corps will perform the movements above from the 15th  to the 18th of June

As additional information:

The 6th Corps (Bavarian) will move on the 16th to Ortelsburg, with its cavalry at Johannisburg; the headquarters of Prince Eugène, in Rastenburg, the 3rd Cavalry Corps, at Loetzen and Oletzko.

The Austrian corps will meet as soon as possible, the 7th Corps, which, on its return from Lublin, will put strong garrisons in Praga, in Modlin and along the Vistula (between those two places).

Napoleon then discusses the contingencies that may occur at the same time he indicated for the operations to be performed by King Jérôme to coordinate his efforts with the center and left wing.

In this discussion, Napoleon did not let himself be carried away by his passionate optimism on the assumptions of the kind we have noted in his letters of May 26 and June 5

The projects against the enemy were already set in motion, and we may assume that, if Prince Eugène and King Jérôme had not suffered excessive delays because of their inexperience and poor quality of their troops, the maneuver designed by Napoleon would have likely brought good results.

"If the enemy (Barclay) took the offensive on the right (bank) of the Narew or the King (Jérôme) took (as a line of defense) the line of Pisck (Skiva), or that he fell back to that of the Omulew, so that the enemy fell on the flank of the Viceroy (Eugène) would fall on his right."

"If it was between the Narew and the Bug that the enemy (Bagration) made an offensive movement, the 5th and the 8th corps could debouch (on the left bank of the Narew), by Ostrolenka and Pultusk and fall on the right of the enemy. "

"While the enemy would thus sink into operations that did not lead to anything, since in the final analysis he would find at the Vistula, that he had lost many marches, and the left of our army, which would have past the Niemen appearing on his flank and rear before he could recover.  If, on the contrary, the enemy makes no movement, the King (of Westphalia) is to threaten, by movements of the light troops, that are moved on Grodno and Bialystok; it must therefore , advance his pontoons and openly announce this project; but the general plan is to refuse the right and to move the left, it would really only be after the left had crossed (the Niemen) and that movement had produced its effect on the enemy cantonments of Grodno and of Bialystok, that the right (of the Grand Army) would be relegated to the pursuit of the enemy to occupy and stop their movement entirely on the left (of the Great Army) but without compromising itself; it is so essential that he properly considers the dispositions, to not become engaged too heatedly and to be familiar with the tenets of the general operations… that (King Jerome) must continually spread the rumor of his going (to Warsaw)."

Napoleon implicitly admits that the army of Bagration would be contained by the Austrian corps with the support of the Saxon Corps (7th) in the situation where it would march on Warsaw by Brzesc or Zamosc.

The instructions of the Emperor, in his letter of June 10 to King Jérôme, therefore assume that this is the only offensive operations that Barclay's army could do immediately, that is to say, before the crossing of the lower Niemen by the left wing and center of the Grand Army.

For Napoleon, the parallel rivers that flow into the Narew between Nowogrod and Pultusk, are lines of defense against an identified enemy from the vicinity of Grodno on the right (north) of Narew.

The 5th Corps (Polish) occupied the first line of the Pisck (Skiva) and is prepared to defend a second position as a defensive line of Omulew to stall for time and allow the Viceroy (Prince Eugène) to intervene on the right flank of the enemy with the 6th, the 4th Corps and the 3rd Cavalry Corps.

At the moment when the 5th Corps is in position on the Pisck (Skiva), that is to say June 18th and the 6th Corps (Bavarian) will have reached and perhaps gone past Ortelsburg, at two marches from Nowogrod; the 4th Corps at  Rastenburg, three marches from the same point, the 3rd Cavalry Corps, at Johannesburg, one march.

The 5th Corps, with support behind it in the 8th corps, would have to fight for three days, the enemy disputing the Pisck (Skive), the Omulew and, if necessary, Orzye to allow time for 6th and 4th Corps to come by Wittemburg and Myszyniec to fall on the right wing of the Russian army.

The combination is instructive, but it was difficult to execute in a country like Poland, where roads are few and generally poor.

The other hypothesis, to a Russian attack directed against Warsaw passing between Narew and the Bug, was less likely than the first.

The really important instructions of 10 June were relating to the operations of the corps of King Jérôme, the case where the Russians would not move before the crossing of the lower Niemen by the French left wing.

Prince Jérôme is to threaten with his light troops the Russians stationed in the region of Grodno and Bialystok, but the army will actually be marching up to the crossing of the French left wing to the right bank of the Niemen, having the effect of preventing a counter-blow against it by the recoiling Russian left wing.

The King of Westphalia will not attack, but he will pursue the forces of Grodno and Bialystok once they begin their retirement, to prevent them from proceeding to meet the French troops who have crossed the lower Niemen.

Napoleon provides for the retreat that the left wing of the Russians will surely take with the news of a crossing of the lower Niemen by the left mass of the Grand Army, but he dares not confide in his brother's mission coming too close to the wing of the Russians, just as the lower Niemen is being taken by Napoleon himself.

He does not want to brawl (d'échauffourée), as saying he considers his brother unable to carry out an independent tactical operation.

We also know of Napoleon's reluctance for any isolated action.

This letter contains the view of a fundamental anterior plan at the outset of operations.

If we assume, against all likelihood that the plan had been formed only as the strategic deployment of the Grand Army on the Vistula, it would be preceded by more than a month of making contact between the two adversaries.

Napoleon had prepared for a long time the maneuver in echelon, the left wing in front, designed to outflank the Russian right and the throw them into the marshes of Pinsk.

Like all maneuvers in a vacuum that leave the enemy the freedom of movement until the launched mass is about to reach the strategic maneuver of June 1812, it was doomed to failure if the Russians did not pronounce a general offensive on Warsaw.

However, similar maneuvers were used by Napoleon in 1805 and 1806.

It was then that the enemy, imbued with the doctrines of outdated eighteenth century, could not guess of his audacity.

But the ideas had changed since.

Wellington in Portugal showed that there was no shame to flee an envelopment, when one hoped to return a little later to the lost ground.

Napoleon to Prince Eugène, at Willenberg.

Danzig, June 10

"We are still at peace with Russia, yet we are in the last moments."

"If the enemy took the offensive against us (4th Corps), you would be supported by General Saint-Cyr (6th Corps); the 2nd Corps, the 3rd Corps, the Guard that will be the Schippenbeil the 14th and even the 1st Corps, which is on the Pregel, would easily come to your rescue."

The staggered arrangement of the Grand Army, left wing forward, enabled, you see, for them to make a flank attack of the Russians against the right wing or center.

This device was perfect against an enemy marching to meet the right or center French; it was still usable when the Russian armies were motionless, despite the crossing of the lower Niemen by the French left wing, but if the enemy maintained throughout his freedom of action, if he wasn't anchored in any place, the essential precondition of any deception, of choosing and setting a pivot point, was not fulfilled.

"The march of the army is a move I do with my left constantly denying my right…"

"This right is intended to keep Warsaw and to be always supported by the Narew…"

"…in constant communication with you by his left, but keeping his line of operations in Warsaw."

Napoleon directed Eugène to change his line of operations, which went by Plock to Willenberg, for another line of operations, leaving Thorn and leading to Willenberg by Osterode and Rastenburg.

After this change, the center group would be in a position to combine its operations more closely with those groups of the left, and if the Russians attacked in the flank (right) the columns in the center during their march on Grodno, the route followed by the supplies would be covered by the columns themselves.

The centerpiece of the strategic move taken by Napoleon to outflank the Russian right wing was formed by the army of King Jérôme, but he only plays its pivotal role if the enemy takes the initiative and attacks the French right wing.

"If the enemy push on Nowogrod is so hard that the King of Westphalia felt he needed to fall back a few marches, he would recoil on Pultusk, and the enemy presents his right flank to you since you've made your line of operations on the lower Vistula and which must remain united with the left."

Why should Prince Jérôme wait to fall back on Pultusk and Warsaw, is the enemy is very strong at Nowogrod?

Is there no way to induce the enemy to change in the direction of our intentions, the distribution of its strengths?

That the group of King Jérôme causes by its offensive on Grodno, a strengthening of the Russian left wing, the latter being greater than it will win, but when it continues its advantages, it will be taken in the right flank by the left wing and center of the Grand Army, operating in concert, that is to say, reunited.

The reunited forces of Prince Eugène with those left, which was to take place during their crossing to the right bank of the Niemen, shows that in the spirit of Napoleon, the Grand Army was formed at that time into two major groups:

A pivot of maneuver on the Narew near Ostrolenka;

A mass of maneuver at Kovno.

The pivot of maneuver is fixed; instead of being mobile, it is passive when it should be active, finally he persisted in dealing with the enemy in either of two purely subjective circumstances, which were:

1o  Retirement of Russian troops from Grodno and Bialystok to Vilna;

2o  The offensive march of these troops in the direction of Warsaw.

"The army (left wing and center) who crossed the lower Niemen, the whole right (5th, 7th, 8th Corps) may be moved, according to the circumstances to Grodno and Bialystok, where it would be joined by the Austrian Corps."

The lines above indicate where the Emperor's belief was, that Bagration, on hearing the news of the crossing of the lower Niemen by the Grand Army, would move to extricate himself from Bialystok and Grodno to effect a junction with the army of Barclay.

The prediction was correct, but the means to retain the army of Bagration and prevent it from aiding that of the Barclay were insufficient, because the group of King Jérôme had to march on Bialystok and Grodno while the chief of the Russian left wing was in full retreat northward.

Napoleon to the Chief of Staff.

Danzig, June 11

On 11 June, the Emperor received a report from King Jérôme, of the 8th , reporting that Bagration moved back on Brzesc and the corps of General Essen reassembled in Bialystok.

In the same report, the commander of the right wing of the Grand Army requested further instructions given these events.

When King Jérôme sent his report of the 8th, he had not received either the imperial letter of the 5th, nor that of the Chief of Staff of the 10th; his request for instructions was therefore excusable.

The news of the march of Bagration on Brzesc and Essen on Bialystok was not likely welcomed by the Emperor, who had the feeling that the Russian left wing was going to escape.

He immediately wrote to the Chief of Staff to indicate the terms to answer these actions:

"Tell him…that we are so distant that it is now for him to handle, according to circumstances in the general spirit of his instructions…"

An army commander charged with operating at a great distance from the main headquarters will, most often be guided by the circumstances and the spirit of his instructions to cooperate in the common goal, even since the telegraph allows one to correspond almost instantaneously with the commander in chief (généralissime).

To take one example: General Manteuffel, in January 1871, had received instructions from Moltke concerning the role of 2nd and 7th Corps in Burgundy and Franche-Comte, but these instructions did not prevent General Manteuffel from maneuvering depending on the circumstances and demonstrating greater initiative.

King Jérôme had received before June 8, the Emperor's letter of May 26.  It is true that the terms of this letter did not signal any offensive movements to be performed by the right wing of the Grand Army and had only attributed to the army corps making up that wing a purely defensive role.

By habit and by calculation, Napoleon revealed his intentions as late as possible, when it was forced by necessity, and only gave up his plans, and then only in pieces, to his relatives and a few personalities with his trust.

The letter of June 5 should have been sent May 26 at the latest, in order to place King Jérôme in a position to act according to the true intentions of the Emperor.

Suppose this condition was met.  Does one think that King Jérôme would have been able to seize in a moment, the opportunity that presented itself by the march of Bagration, clinging to him and preventing him from reaching Brzesc and Bialystok?

The qualities of a leader of an army, or, if you will, science and art of command cannot be decreed.

Napoleon had entrusted the command of his center to his adopted son, and his right wing to his younger brother, what was the result?

The subdivisions of the army of Prince Eugène and the King of Westphalia had suffered delays on delays from lack of foresight in relation to provisions, and by inability to maneuver, of the type that all corps of the Grand Army, which was rather making plans to execute a long military campaign in Russia, and that only one corps, the 1st, had fully completed its task, and which alone, or nearly so, would bear the brunt of operations until the Battle of the Moscowa.

The report of King Jérôme, dated June 8, had to guess to the Emperor, of the project consisting of Bagration rejoining the army of Barclay.

"The movement of Bagration can be designed to regain the marches that I have (left wing) on him to be able to defend the crossing of the Niemen and find myself moved to cover Vilna  with all the reassembled forces to give battle."

Consequently, if the King Jérôme saw that Bagration retired on Brzesc by Grodno, he was:

"…to accelerate his own movement to move on Ostrolenka and Nowogrod with his (plural) army corps and still be able to be opposed to the leftof the enemy, that is to say to the army of Bagration."

Unfortunately, we could foresee that it would take a considerable advance for, as of June 8, the 7th Corps was not back at Warsaw, the Austrians marched from Lemberg to Lublin, the 8th corps occupied Warsaw and Modlin and the 5th Corps reached Pultusk.

The army of King Jérôme was dispersed at this time, and 5th Corps was not in itself strong enough to fight against the corps of Bagration, assuming it could make contact with it at Bialystok.

We shall see later (imperial letter of July 5) what measures the King Jérôme should have taken to delay the march of Bagration north.

Napoleon then returned to the assumption, already discussed in the letters of May 26 and June 5, of an offensive march of the Russian left wing against the right flank of the center and left of the Grand Army on its march towards lower Niemen.

This hypothesis, after all, was not unreasonable, since the Russians had, it seems, these intentions on realizing a few days before of the passage of the Niemen by the French left wing, but at the a time when they were still unaware of the enormous number of troops assembled near the left bank.

In this case, the plan remains the same as before: keep and defend the right bank of the Narew downstream from Ostrolenka and fight defensively from position to position, drawing the enemy to the entrenched camp of Modlin, while the corps of the center (4th and 6th) flock on his right flank.

"This movement of the enemy to attack (against the right flank of the central corps and the corps of the left wing of the Great Army that was moving in echelon on the Vistula by the lower Neiman), which is quite natural and which was expected from the beginning, cannot influence  my offensive operations; it is important that the right (5th, 7th, 8th Corps) do not commit themselves against superior forces and maneuver uniting, from position to position; if the greater part of the Russian army was on the flank attack, he could never come to the right (5th, 7th, 8th Corps), which would always seek refuge in the entrenched camp of Modlin and the Vistula; immediately on hearing of such a movement from the Russians had been chosen, I would fall with my whole army (left and center) on their right flank and on their rear; it would be very difficult for the enemy in such a situation to avoid a total loss."

As in all his previous letters, Napoleon, one feels, does not believe that the Russians were so blind to come of their own accord to placed between the jaws of a vise that, in closing, would crush them in a net.

Napoleon to Eugène, at Rastenburg.

Kœnigsberg, June 13

The Emperor began by pointing to the Chief the center the locations of the corps of the Grand Army as of June 20, on the map, that is to say the day before the day chosen for the surprise crossing of the Niemen around Kovno. (Map No. 7)

Right wing.


The King of Westphalia at Nowogrod.


The 6th Corps, at Lyck.

The 4th Corps (general headquarters), at Oletzko.

The 3rd Corps of Cavalry, near Ségery.

Left wing.

The 3rd Corps, at Kalwarya.

The 1st Corps, at Wilkowisky

The 2nd Corps, at Gumbinnen.

The Guard, behind the 1st Corps.

The Grand General Headquarters, at Wilkowisky or at


Flank-guard of the left.

The 10th Corps, at Tilsit, observing


Flank-guard of the right.

The Austrian Corps, at Lublin.

Napoleon then lists the Russian forces along the border, according to his information, which is found quite accurate.

The Russian General Wittgenstein, with his three divisions, will be retained by the 10th Corps vis-à-vis Georgenburg, Tilsit and Memel.

The four divisions of General Barclay and the Russian guard will probably be at Olitta and Kovno.

General Essen, with four divisions will be between Grodno and Meretch. General Bagration be at Brzesc and Bialystock.

The Russian forces, mentioned previously, fell at almost 180,000 men, and the French left wing, assembling in its center, would be brought to about 300,000 men with the troops concentrated, June 20, near the lower Niemen.

"In this situation, my intention is to cross between Kovno and Olitta."

Why was this region chosen in preference to another?

The vast forest of Wilkowisky formed in front of Kovno, on the left bank of the Niemen, a very favorable mask to concentrate several corps intended to surprise or to force the passage.

By choosing Kovno as crossing point, one allowed for water supplies, the safest and most important at the beginning of this war, to come without transshipment at Danzig up to the point where the Niemen started to allow for large commercial vessels , provided however that Marshal Macdonald (10th Corps) should secure the north of the river downstream from Kovno, as adequate protection.

Finally, that after the disposition of enemy forces that Napoleon knew well enough, the debouchments at Kovno placed the left wing of the Grand Army between the right (Wittgenstein) and the center of Barclay's army, then separated by a interval of several tens of miles, and this permitted him to hope that most of this army would be overwhelmed by his right and deny that of Bagration, after it had occupied Vilna, with a major city, the capital of Lithuania, located only a few marches from Kovno, on the road from Warsaw to Saint-Petersburg.

Napoleon chose therefore the village of Paniémon, a short distance upstream from Kovno, as a crossing point for the 1st and 2nd Corps and the Guard.

The 3rd Corps and the army of Prince Eugène had to cross the Niemen eight or ten miles above at midway between Kovno and Olitta near a village called Preny.

The intention of the Emperor was to cross the Niemen, June 22, the first three and the Guard Corps, over bridges laid before Paniémon and Preny, but this required the arrival of Prince Eugène and King Jérôme, that day, one in Survalky, one in Bialystok, so that, on 24, when news of the crossing of the French left wing reached the corps of the left wing Barclay's army and the army of Bagration, the center of the Grand Army would find itself near the Niemen at Olitta, and right at Grodno.

Thus, assuming that the left would have surprised or forced the crossing of Kovno, June 22, and was immediately put in motion on Vilna, the line should be, the 24th, clinging to the two corps of Bagration, while the center would establish, by Olitta, a link between left and right.

But, June 16, the 5th Corps alone had reached Ostrolenka having far behind it, the 8th Corps at Pultusk and Sierock.  It was therefore impossible that these two corps (the 7th was in Warsaw, waiting on the Austrian Corps which never came), arrived on the 24th, eight days from Grodno.

On the other hand, the two corps of Prince Eugène (4th and 6th) were also very late.

Napoleon could not, on the other hand, maintain the assembly of three corps of the left and the Guard for long after the forest behind Wilkowisky, so near the Niemen, because the enemy were very well informed would have time to concentrate large forces near to Kovno to oppose the passage.

The situation, very difficult, implied fault for not having taken into account the small number and poor condition of roads reserved for the center corps and the right wing in a country without resources, and not having planned against the impediments of any kind when relying upon the command of princes with little capability and without much authority.




[1] Napoleon wrote at Sainte-Helena:  "Two armies should never be in the same theater of operations."


Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2010

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