Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns

The Maneuver of Vilna

By: General H. BONNAL

Translated by: Greg Gorsuch




The dispositions of June 20.

On June 20, the corps of the Grand Army occupied the following locations (Map No. 8):

Flank guard of left.

The 10th Corps, near Mehlancken,

   at one march from Tilsit.

Left wing.

The 1st, 2nd Corps and Guard, in echelon from

   Pibraisky up to Gumbinnen.

The 3rd Corps at Kalwarya.


The 4th Corps, near Rhein and Lötzen.

The 6th Corps, between Arys and Lyck.


The 5th Corps, and between Ostrolenka and Nowogrod.

The 8th corps, between Rozan and Pultusk

The 7th Corps, at Warsaw.

Flank guard of right.

The Austrian Corps, marching from Lublin

   on Warsaw.

Corps of Cavalry.

The first three corps of cavalry, in the rear

   of the Niemen that only conduct patrols

   with the light cavalry.

Orders of June 20.Of all the inconveniences of his position as of June 20, Napoleon believed that it had the fewest to prevent the rapid crossing of his left wing at Kovno to defensive preparations that the enemy might be tempted to make on the Niemen, vis-à-vis the forest of Wilkowisky, when it learned of the arrival of the large forces on this side.

Wasting no time to grumble about the past, Napoleon wanted to believe that the corps of the center and those of the left wing would force the rapid receipt of very urgent new orders.

Accordingly, he dictated, at Gumbinnen, June 20, the provisions relating to the opening of hostilities.

The pontoon equipment crews that left, the 21st, from Wilkowisky to Kovno, detached a section of 60 fathoms (120 meters) by Prény for Skrandze.

The boats should be hard at work in the evening of June 22

In an explanatory letter to Marshal Davout whose corps was at the head of the left wing, Napoleon set out the reasons for the choice of Kovno as the principal point of passage.

"I need to switch to my main crossing to Kovno because of the intersection of two rivers (Niemen, less broad than beyond the confluence of the Wilia), and its closer proximity to Tilsit (the Niemen navigable to, the confluence of the Wilia), whence I will draw my supplies by water; but the army is so large that I'll throw a bridge at Prény, where I'll have the Duke of Elchingen and the Viceroy (Eugène) cross…Be careful not to show a infantry man nor any cuirassier.  The first infantry man seen by the enemy will be a "pontooner."

Left wing.

The 1st Corps had to move on the 21st, on

on Skrandze within the forest

of Wilkowisky.

The 2nd Corps was concentrated between

Wilkowisky and Stallupönen, the 21st.

The Guard remained at Stallupönen the 21st.

The 3rd body was assembled east of

Maryampol, the 21st.


The 4th Corps was to be found, the 23rd

at Kalwarya.

The 6th Corps between Suwalky and

Kalwarya, the 23rd also.

Right wing.

The 5th Corps would arrive the 25th at Augustowno.

The 8th Corps, the 25th at Raygrod.

The 7th Corps, the 25th, near Brok to cover Warsaw

to the east, awaiting the arrival of the

Austrian Corps.

Orders of June 21.

On June 21, new orders were sent to the corps of the left wing for the evening of the 22nd (Map No. 9):

The 1st Corps was concentrated between Skrandze and Poniémon;

The 3rd Corps, 12 kilometers from Premy;

The 2nd Corps, 12 kilometers east of Pibwisky;

The Guard, and between Wilkowisky and Pibwisky.

Prince Eugène at the same time was advised to be with his two corps, at Mariampol, on the 23rd, in a fashion to allow crossing, the 24th, at either Prény or at Kovno.

The reports of spies signaled no movement, the 21st and 22nd from the Russian side.

Napoleon thought, therefore, that in attempting the crossing, at Poniémon, on the 23rd at night, he would have no more than the six divisions listed to fight for a long time between Vilna and Kovno.

If these divisions were defending the approaches to Kovno, the 3rd Corps, debouching by Prény, could attack them in flank and thus facilitate the main crossing.

Map No. 9.jpg

Order of June 23 for the crossing of the Niemen.

It was at his camp in the middle of the forest of Wilkowisky, that Napoleon dictated, June 23rd, his famous order for the crossing of the Niemen.

When studying the order from the point of view of substance and form, one is dazzled by the clarity of the provisions to the accuracy of terms.

This order saw the construction of three bridges near Poniémon, the preliminary arrangements to cross the 1st Corps, the placing of the artillery of the 1st and 2nd Corps in batteries, and the crossing of the first division (General Morand) of the 1st Corps.

All provisions of the order in question should have been made by Marshal Davout, whose troops, with the pontoon crews and the reserve artillery of the 2nd Corps, were the only effected.

In usurping the powers of Marshal Davout, Napoleon diminished the authority of the best of his lieutenants.

Quite often we have sensed defects in Napoleon's command that we felt we needed to emphasize.

Between 8 and 9 at night, three rifle companies of the 13th Light were transported by boat to the right bank of the Niemen and went to occupy Kovno without a shot being fired.

They met on the way a platoon of Russian cavalry, whose leader that came to the front of his troops, exclaimed in French: "Who goes there? "

One of the captains of voltigeurs replied in a whisper: "France!"

"What the devil are you f… here?" Replied the Russian officer.

"You'll see!" Replied the captain, and ordered to prepare arms.

The Russian cavalry turned around and disappeared into the darkness.

During the night of the 23rd to 24th, the 1st Division (Morand) established itself on the right bank.

The day of June 24.

The contemporary accounts say it was a handsome spectacle, that was offered, June 24, at sunrise, the corps of  Davout arranged in sixteen lines of infantry by regiment in battle formation between Alexoto and Jesi, the grand battery established on the bank of the Niemen, ready to blast the opposite side, finally the 1st and 2nd Cavalry Corps, with glittering arms and rich uniforms, who were closely massed on the western slopes of the hill of Alexota.

From this mass of men gathered in a small space, how few should see their homeland again!

The operation of crossing was completely successful, and all the 1st Corps was assembled on the other side of the Niemen before the end of the day.

That day, June 24, the head of the corps of Prince Eugène only arrived at one march to Kalwarya, and the head of the corps of King Jérôme, at two marches from Augustowno.

Under these conditions, the center of the Grand Army could begin the crossing at the Niemen, from Prény on the 27th or 28th at the earliest, and the right wing would not reach Grodno before the 29th.

The lead taken by the French left would cause the failure of the operation of Vilna, since the corps of Barclay and those of Bagration were free to withdraw into the interior of Russia, having at their disposal no adversary capable of retaining them, or at least delaying them.

The days of 25 and 26 June.

The 25th and 26th of June the 1st and 2nd Cavalry Corps, the 2nd Corps (Oudinot), the 3rd (Ney) and the Guard crossed the Niemen on the three bridges at Poniémon.

The Emperor acquired, from the there, the belief that the corps of Barclay had made its retreat to the northeast.

Before marching on Vilna, we therefore needed to cover the left flank of the main mass.  It was the 2nd Corps that was vested with this mission.

On 26 June, the general advanced guard made up of the 1st Corps preceding the 1st and 2nd Cavalry Corps under Prince Murat, began moving so it could reach Vilna on the 28th, after three marches.[1]

At the same time, the 2nd Corps (Oudinot) came down the right bank of the Niemen, and the 10th Corps, after crossing the river at Tilsit, marched near Rossiena; finally, the 3rd Corps was directed from Kovno near Vilna, by the right bank of the Wilia.

This was a fanning deployment, which aimed to find the enemy, to catch its army corps between his columns in this way, perhaps causing the concentration of Barclay's forces a short distance from Vilna.

In the spirit of the Emperor, the fanning movement of the 2nd, 3rd and 1st Corps, from Kovno, in search of Barclay's army, if contact could be made and the decisive battle prepared for, was performed with caution, if we judge by the following terms of the letter that Napoleon sent to Marshal Davout from Kovno, the 26th of June,  at 3:30 in the morning:

"The result of this operation (eccentric marches of the 2nd and 3rd Corps, from Kovno on Skorouli and Yonof) will begin to clarify our position and allow us to better understand the chessboard.  Until that time, the King of Naples (Murat) had perhaps been too fast.  The army only met, and it must not go against a whole army as if it marched against a defeated army."


[1] There are 100 kilometers from Kovno to Vilna.



Placed on the Napoleon Series: December 2010

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