Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns

The Maneuver of Vilna

By: General H. BONNAL

Translated by: Greg Gorsuch





The Russians avoid envelopment.

On the 28th, arriving in person at Vilna, Napoleon realized that the purely platonic demonstrations of the right wing did not alarm Bagration whose presence always remained shown at Grodno, and the army of Barclay had not changed its cordon disposition, except that it was withdrawing at full speed towards Drissa (Map No. 10).

The general concentration of Russians on Grodno, the Emperor had hoped for at the outset of his maneuver, was the only situation able to produce an immediate success: the envelopment of the 50,000 or 60,000 men of Bagration.

But in such a large theater and with relatively slow communication means, it was necessary to disperse his forces on a wide front to get them to form, like meshes of a net, so that Bagration could not pass between them without a fight

Napoleon therefore divided his advanced guard into two general parts: the first, under Murat (1st and 2nd Cavalry Corps, plus the infantry division of Friant) was sent, June 29th, to Niémenczin in the footsteps of the left wing of Barclay; the other commanded by Davout, and which comprised of the bulk of the 1st Corps, was headed to the east, on Oszmjana in the direction of Minsk to take Bagration at his head while the corps of Jérôme attacked in the rear.

However these, poorly led by the young brother of the Emperor, had not reached Grodno with their cavalry vanguard, until June 30.

Moreover, they would lose four days to replenishment and would not debouch this city until July 4, giving Bagration the opportunity to gain on them five or six marches.

Napoleon did not learn of this long stay of the corps of Jérôme in Grodno, until 10 or 11 July; but on the 5th hearing that the vanguard of this Prince had remained under observation, the 30th, at Grodno, then occupied by part of the forces of Bagration (Platow), and that nothing had been attempted to delay the enemy by attacking him, he concluded that Bagration had escaped by Minsk.

The maneuver of Vilna had miserably miscarried.

Map No.10.jpg

Criticisms made by Napoleon to King Jérôme.

Napoleon, who did not resort to recrimination after a fait accompli, "because they are without remedy" in his own words, did write, 5 July, through Marshal Berthier to his younger brother, the virulent letter we are going to reproduce, less for the criticisms it contains than for its value in terms of strategic doctrine.

"…You'll will let him know (the King of Westphalia) that I am extremely unhappy that he did not put all his light troops under the command of Prince Poniatowski (commanding the 5th Corps), on the heels of Bagration to harass his corps and stop his march; that having arrived the 30th at Grodno, he was to attack on the spot the enemy and to quickly follow them."

"Tell him he could not have handled it more badly than he did; that General Reynier (Commander 7th Corps) and even the 8th corps were unnecessary; that he should have marched with Prince Poniatowski and everything he had available to track the enemy; that, having not followed all the rules of his instructions, that Bagration will have time to retire and to take it easy; that if Bagration left Volkovisk the 30th, he can be in Minsk the 7th (July), and does not matter whether the King (of Westphalia) arrives there in person the 10th, since Bagration has gained four days of marching on him."

"Tell him, that Prince Poniatowski, didn't only have a division, he had to send; but was given every indication that he could send the whole corps (the 5th) in front; he would not have been compromised since Bagration would not have had time to fight or maneuver, and he wasn't seeking to gain ground, knowing well that he would be hit hard as I do; that the Prince of Eckmühl (Davout) is now the 5th, with part of his corps in front of Volozhin, but will not be strong enough to stop Bagration, since he is situated without anything."

"Mandate to the King (of Westphalia) to order Prince Poniatowski on the spot to go with all his cavalry and whatever he has available to put themselves on the heels of Bagration."

"You tell him that all the fruits of my maneuvers and the most beautiful opportunity that has presented itself in the war has escaped by this strange forgetfulness of the first notions of war."

Undoubtedly, King Jérôme had shown a rare failure by not deploying against Bagration on his arrival in Grodno, June 30, all his cavalry and other troops he had available.

But the Prince could not forget the first principles of war, by the compelling reason that he never had the opportunity to acquire them.

Napoleon explains in his letter of July 5, a principle of war, that the Prussian officers had in 1870.

Whatever the strength of the opponent, the duty of every chief in contact with him is to resolutely attack when he sees a general movement of retreat.

The fighting of Spickeren and Borny, led by an appreciation of this kind are the highest honor of the vanguard leaders who had committed them, although the fighting had disrupted the plans of the German generalissimo.

We explained in our book The Operations of Saint-Privat, how the direction of the German armies could have prevented the evils attached to the initiative, sometimes impetuous, though justified, if they were subordinated to the leaders placed in immediate contact with an enemy retreated.

Causes of ruin.

Thus, in the view of Napoleon, the maneuver that should have ended the operation of 1812, in the destruction of the Russian armies, could be regarded by July 5, was a miss.

This is not all. Disorder, in all its forms, had, even before the crossing of the Niemen, developed excessively in the Grand Army formed of heterogeneous and largely mediocre elements.

The German troops were remarkable for their excesses, even in Prussian territory, and the misdeeds of some of them were such that the Württemberg Brigade assigned to the corps of Davout was dissolved by imperial order of June 20.

Beyond the Niemen, the country only offered very limited resources, the Russians destroying them while retreating.

The corps of the Grand Army bivouacked therefore every night, and had to live almost exclusively on what their convoys nominally carried, twenty days of food, out of the Vistula.

The horses fed on field grass, died by the thousands, from the earliest days of July.

The searing heat of the days were followed, at night, with very cold temperatures.

The corpses of men and horses choked the road from Kovno to Vilna and, in this city, the stink from the decomposition of unburied bodies provoked on the part of Napoleon, one letter dated 2 July to the Chief of Staff, ordering the staff officers and gendarmes to work on burying corpses and dead horses, "both in the city of Vilna and in a circle two miles in radius."

The poor staff of the Grand Army had fallen so low! Monitoring the burial of corpses and filth!

Besides, Napoleon let out the same day, July 2, about the construction of kilns, ordered at Vilna, had not even begun, an admission that condemns the organization of the French general staff, for what it had done.

"The staff is organized so that one can expect nothing."

Yes, one cannot expect anything from the staff of the Grand Army, because a man thought, felt, ordered for all, not letting anyone the right to think and take an appropriate decision in the circumstances.

For the few preceding words, Napoleon, yielding to an impulse of anger, condemned his command system.

Simply recording and transmitting, the headquarters had an insignificant role, as it should have taken an active part in the work of command, and help carry the burden of operations, both military and administrative.

Despite the most adverse circumstances, the French Army still marched, and fought bravely during this disastrous war, in the rare opportunities that presented themselves to it to deploy its immense value.  Racked by hunger, she behaved in the way of the mortally wounded heroine, who continues to struggle, taken by fever, until complete exhaustion.

Napoleon said of the campaign of Charles XII, in 1709, it was "wrong thinking".

The same point can apply to that of 1812.  The preparation of this war, which began in January 1811 and continued for eighteen months, exceeded, in its new resources and services organized in the rear, all similar works relating to past campaigns, and yet it led disaster.

The size of the goal was out of proportion to the means of the time.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: December 2010

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