Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns


 

Military Paper Award

Notes


“The Mutiny of Generals”

Part V: The Russians Turn to Fight & The French Move on Smolensk

By Alexander Mikaberidze , FINS

Barclay did realize the advantages of trying to forestall the full concentration of the enemy forces and keeping the enemy pinned down to give time for more Russian troops to be assembled in the interior. But he was too cautious to give his consent for such a dangerous venture. He thought that success was credible at the initial phase of the operation, but then the army would ultimately lose its momentum and face superior enemy troops on disadvantageous positions. Yet, he was alone opposing unanimous desire to attack the French.[1] Overwhelmed by the pressure of opposing the whole army and faced by the solidarity of the generals, Barclay gave his assent reluctantly, with a strict proviso that the armies would remain not farther than three days march from Smolensk.[2] It is possible to argue that the plan thus confined only to “three marches” was but a doomed half-measure. Only prompt and decisive actions could secure the success of this venture. Though, it is equally possible that Barclay’s caution saved the Russian army from destruction. Despite the apparent dispersion of the French cantonments, Napoleon was able to concentrate his army within a day or two and finally achieve his goal of fighting a battle with the Russians. 

On 7 August, the Russian armies advanced to the west in three columns on a twenty miles front. The right column was commanded by General Tuchkov. In the center, there were two infantry and one cavalry corps under General Dokhturov, with Ataman Platov’s Cossacks moving ahead of them. Finally, on the left, there was the 2nd Western Army under Bagration. Only one infantry regiment was left at Smolensk.[3] On Bagration’s suggestion, Barclay de Tolly sent General Neverovsky’s 27th Infantry Division to  Krasnoy, about thirty miles southeast of Smolensk, to guard against a surprise attack from the south.[4]

The weather was dry and the movement rapid. Soldiers were animated and moved “lively, singing, since it was the first time in campaign that they went to the west, not east.”[5]  By the evening of 7 August, Barclay’s headquarters was set up at Prikaz Vydra, while Bagration halted at Katan. The army was preparing to resume the march when suddenly at the dawn of 8 August, Barclay was informed about the advance of the French troops under Eugene towards Porechye.[6] Apprised of the presence of the French troops in this direction, Barclay feared Napoleon would concentrate troops at Porechye and attack his right flank. He reacted by having Tuchkov’s column veer more to the right in order to cover the Porechye-Smolensk route. Next he deployed the central column under Dokhturov around Prikaz-Vydra, except for Count Pahlen’s cavalry, which he had already ordered to advance towards Rudnya to support Platov. The 2nd Western Army was commanded to move northward and protect Prikaz-Vydra.[7]

Bagration opposed this deployment. Unlike Barclay, he anticipated Napoleon’s attack on the left flank and appealed to Barclay to continue advance and reinforce troops at Krasnoy.

“We do know that the enemy troops are assembled at Porechye, Vitebsk, Rudnya, Lubovichi, Babinovichi, Orsha, Dubrovka and Moghilev, but we still do not know exactly where his main forces are located. Therefore, if we deploy the 1st Army on the Porechye route, and the 2nd Army on the Rudnya route, the enemy would attack our left flank and destroy our troops at Krasnoy.”[8]

Bagration urged Barclay de Tolly to continue to advance on Rudnya and to make diversion on Porechye. He stressed the importance of the rapid movement and attack on the French. “Any inactivity would give the enemy enough time to concentrate his forces at the advantageous positions. Therefore, we should immediately continue to advance and perceive his intentions and if possible prevent them.”[9] Bagration also warned that by moving northward to Prikaz-Vydra, he would leave Neverovsky’s troops at Krasnoy without any reinforcements and thus vulnerable to a French attack. [10]

Despite Bagration’s suggestion, Barlay de Tolly moved his army on the Porechye route,  awaiting for the new intelligence. He sent an order to Ataman Platov commanding himto halt his advance at Prikaz-Vydra. Yet, Platov did not receive this dispatch and continued his march towards Rudnya. On 8 August, he encountered General Horace Sebastiani’s division near Inkovo,[11] east of Rudnya. The French division, less than 3,000 men strong, fought well, but was forced to fall back before superior numbers and suffered considerable losses.[12] “The enemy did not ask for mercy and the raging Cossacks slaughtered them “ reported Platov.[13]

Instead of trying to exploit this initial success by mounting a major attack on the French center at Rudnya, as it had been planned at the war council, Barclay de Tolly remained idle and spent next three days on Porechye route. He still believed that the main threat to Smolensk lay in the French march from Porechye, that could cut the vital Smolensk-Moscow route. This was a fateful decision for the Russian counteroffensive. It gave Napoleon enough time to perceive the Russian intentions and prepare his troops for the counter-attack. On 12 August, Barclay was informed that the intelligence on the French concentration at Porechye was incorrect and, in fact, Napoleon assembled his army at Babinovichi and threatened the left flank of the Russian army, as it was anticipated by Bagration. Barclay decided to concentrate his army at Volokovo on the Rudnya route and on 13 August, withdrew his troops from Porechye direction.[14] This time, the soldiers were somber, often grumbling and calling Barclay’s maneuvers “oshelomelii” - “dumbfounded” after the village Shelomets, that they moved through several times.[15]

Bagration was upset with Barclay’s indecision and his time-wasting maneuvers. He observed that “the rumors should not affect our operations, especially when each minute is so precious. With such concern for our flanks, it would be impossible to find an appropriate positions [to fight]”[16] Bagration also emphasized the critical condition of armies. “The state of my army requires to leave these positions, since there is neither water nor provisions here; the sickness is rife and the number of sick soldiers considerably increased, further weakening the army [that could be already called a corps]”[17] He again warned Barclay de Tolly on the possible attack of the French on the left flank of the Russian army. “The enemy could leave Orsha on the route to Smolensk and assail my left flank…. Thus, if we continue to waste time here, he [Napoleon] would march to Smolensk, forestall me there and cut the Moscow route.”[18] Bagration also stressed that the positions at Prikaz-Vydra were disadvantageous and did not allowed him to give a battle, in case the French would attack him there.[19] Considering these facts Bagration suggested to leave the current positions and retreat to Smolensk. “Since Your Excellency does not intends to advance against the enemy and attack him in accordance with the approved plan, I do not see any necessity of protecting the Rudnya route…. Therefore, I do kindly appeal to you for the permission to withdrew my troops [to Smolensk]”[20]

The sudden calling-off of planned attacks, constant changes in orders and time-wasting maneuvers aroused feelings of dismay in Bagration, who wrote to Arakcheyev:

 “I am being treated without frankness and with unpleasantness beyond the power of words…. I can not get along with the Minister. For God’s sake, send me anywhere, if only to command a regiment in Moldavia or in the Caucasus. But here I do not want to be. The whole headquarters is so full of Germans that a Russian can not breathe and the whole thing does not make any sense. I swear to god, they drive me mad with their changes every few minute…. My 40,000 men are called an army, and I am ordered to stretch them out like a thread and pull them in all directions.”[21]

Bagration’s accusation of  constant changes was not exaggerated. It seemed that Barclay de Tolly got confused; vacillation and doubts beset him, orders and counter-orders reflected his state of mind. Barclay de Tolly’s maneuvers during 8-13 August are discussed ever since. His aide-de-camp Lowernstern admitted that “for the first time I did not support his decisions.”[22] Eugene Tarle wrote that “his [Barclay’s] army moved aimlessly, now towards Rudnya, now away from Rudnya”[23], while other Russian historians observed that due to Barclay’s indecision, the Russian armies lost precious time in senseless maneuvers.[24] This hesitation of the Russian command gave Napoleon enough time to perceive its plans and counteract.[25] His first reaction on the news of the battle at Inkowo had been to suspend preparations for the drive on Smolensk and order the army to concentrate around Lyosno to meet the Russians. However, by 10 August, Barclay de Tolly’s irresolute actions convinced Napoleon that the Russian were not going to attack. He immediately stopped his concentration and reverted to his original plan to move on Smolensk.

Almost all historians and commentators agree that Napoleon’s maneuver at Smolensk was one of his masterpieces. Napoleon ordered Davout to cross the Dnieper River at Rossasna, Junot to move to Romanovo and Murat, Ney and Eugene to march south, screened by Sebastiani’s cavalry. The Emperor intended to form a formidable “bataillon carre” with his army and launch it as secretly as possible across the river on fifteen-mile front, through Orsha and Rosasna. There were to be two columns:

The Rossasna column under Napoleon himself, was to consist of Murat’s cavalry, the Imperial Guard, the 3rd and the 4th Corps.

The second column under Marshal Davout was composed of the 1st, the 5th and the 8th Corps.

Latour-Maubourg’s cavalry was to made a diversion southward from the Dnieper.

Having crossed the Dnieper, the Grand Army was to advance along the left bank of the river, occupy Smolensk and cut the Moscow route. Then it would concentrate its forces and drive the Russians to the north. On 10 August Napoleon began his concentrations for the maneuver. With a deep cavalry screen, his movements remained unknown to Russians. During the night of 13-14 August, General Jean-Baptiste Eble completed pontoon bridges over the Dnieper at Rosasna and the French crossed the river. By daylight almost entire Grand Army was advancing on Smolensk.[26]

In the afternoon the French advance guard reached Krasnoy, where the 27th Infantry Division of General Neverovsky was deployed.[27] Neverovsky’s cavalry outposts were stationed at Liady, a few miles west, and by 2:00 p.m. they were driven out by Grouchy’s troops. Facing the overwhelming enemy forces, Neverovsky at once made his dispositions for a retreat. He deployed the 49th Jagers at Krasnoy and moved the 50th Jagers and the Cossacks at full speed to Korythnia, halfway to Smolensk, where they were to take up position and check any further French advance should they be forced to retreat.

The French[28] attacked and occupied Krasnoy at 3:00 p.m. capturing two guns and driving the Russians over the ravine. Neverovsky, seeing the French superiority, sent his cavalry off to the rear and began to withdraw, with his ten battalions in two dense columns. The French cavalry rapidly pursued the enemy. Murat directed his massed squadrons against the Russians, but failed to break their cohesion, although they captured seven guns out of total fourteen. It seemed that Murat lost his nerve. Despite Ney’s pleas to employ the artillery and allow the 3rd Corps to engage the Russians, the King of Naples launched more than forty cavalry charges against the enemy.[29] Neverovsky succeeded in repulsing them, then rallied his troops and ordered them into one large square. This massive square of some 6,000 men, continued withdrawing towards Smolensk. Count Segur recalled that Neverovsky’s troops “retreated like lions….”[30] Neverovky’s division recoiled with an exemplary steadiness, repulsing the French cavalry attacks and suffering heavy casualties. At about 8:00 p.m. Neverovsky arrived at Korytnnya, where he rallied his cavalry and rearguard and next day continued his retreat to Smolensk. His division lost 1,500 men, including 800 captured and 9 guns. The French losses amounted to 500-600 men.[31]

The Russian army was enchanted by Neverovsky’s exploit at Krasnoy. Denis Davidov wrote “I do remember how we looked at this division, that approached us in midst of smoke and dust. Each bayonet shined with an immortal glory.”[32] Bagration praised the soldiers and reported to Alexander that “one could not find another example of such courage.”[33] If not for Neverovky’s staunch resistance, the French might well have reached Smolensk by the evening of 14 August and could easily taken Smolensk, that was protected only by a small garrison under Count Bennigsen. Napoleon decided to halt his advance for a day in order to regroup his forces. The chance of taking Smolensk by surprise was missed.

Meanwhile, the news of the battle at Krasnoy reached the main forces. Bagration immediately marched his army back to Smolensk. To prevent occupation of Smolensk, he ordered General Rayevsky, whose corps was moving from Smolensk to Nadva, to march at once back to Smolensk and defend it at any costs.[34] Fortunately, Rayevsky’s corps moved only some ten miles from Smolensk. That morning the 2nd Grenadier Division was to precede Rayevsky, but, to his astonishment, this division did not move for three hours and so Rayevsky’s troops had to wait. Alexander Ermolov later recalled that “the division was commanded by Lieutenant General Karl of Mecklenburg. Having spent the previous night with friends, he was drunk [and unable to command]… and awoke very late the next day; only then he was able to order his troops to march.”[35] At this moment, the news of Neverovsky’s heroic retreat and the French advance arrived and thus, this feat - for which the Prince of Mecklenburg should have been shot - became advantageous for the Russian army. General Rayevsky immediately turned back his troops and arrived to Smolensk early on 16 August.[36]

Meanwhile, Barclay and Bagration were hurrying back to Smolensk. Barclay was still anxious about a possible attack from the Porechye direction and sent urging orders to his cavalry commanders to gather intelligence. He doubted whether the advance on Smolensk was just a diversion and the main attack should be expected from the north.[37] He ordered Bagration to cross the Dnieper at Katan and join Rayevsky and Neverovsky at Smolensk. Bagration marched to Katan on the same day and constructed a bridge there. He soon gathered new intelligence and realized that crossing the river would simply mean annihilation of his army by the Grand Army. He informed Barclay that entire French army was moving to Smolensk and that the 2nd Western Army would march on the right bank.[38] To Rayevsky, Bagration sent a brief message - “I shall not march to rejoin you - I shall run. I only wish I had wings. Courage ! God will help you “[39]

Notes:

[1] His aide-de-camp Wolzogen was also against this plan. He argued that a through survey of the terrain had convinced him that its wood and marshes were unsuitable for a massive maneuver. Also, the grand army still outnumbered the Russians. Instead of attacking, Wolzogen suggested deploying the troops around Smolensk and repairing the fortifications. Wolzogen, Memoiren, 115-18; Bogdanovich, Istoria Otechestvennoi voini 1812 goda po dostovernum istochnikam [History of the Patriotic War of 1812 Based on Original Sources] (St. Petersburg, 1859) I, 226-27.

[2] Barclay de Tolly, Izobrazhenie voennikh deistvii 1812 g [ Survey of the military operations during 1812 campaign] (St. Petersburg, 1912), 13. Also, Troitsky, 1812: The Glorious Year of Russia, 106;  Vorontsov, The Patriotic War of 1812 in Smolensk Gubernya, 85; Muratov, Historical Survey of Patriotic War and it’s Reasons, 68.

[3]The right column was composed of 2nd (General Baggovut), 3rd (General Tuchkov) 4th (General Osterman-Tolstoy) Infantry Corps and 1st (General Uvarov) and 2nd (General Korff) cavalry corps. The left column consisted of 5th (General Lavrov), 6th (General Dokhturov) Infantry Corps and 3rd (General Pahlen) Cavalry Corps. Vorontsov, The Patriotic War of 1812 in Smolensk Gubernya, 86. Muratov, Historical Survey of Patriotic War and it’s Reasons, 69.

[4] Headquarters archives, XVII, 158-59, XVIII, 173-76; Troitsky, 1812: The Glorious Year of Russia, 107;  Vorontsov, The Patriotic War of 1812 in Smolensk Gubernya, 81-82; Beskrovny, Patriotic War of 1812, 31. 

[5]A. Kochetkov, Barclay de Tolly (Moscow, 1970) 36.

[6]Muratov, Historical Survey of Patriotic War and it’s Reasons, 70; Vorontsov, The Patriotic War of 1812 in Smolensk Gubernya, 86; Troitsky, 1812: The Glorious Year of Russia 106; Elting, Military Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars, map 112; Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon, 783; Thiers, Consulate and the Empire under Napoleon, VIII, 82; Josselson, The Commander: a Life of Barclay de Tolly, 116; Beskrovny, Patriotic War of 1812, 30-31; Nafziger, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, 181.

[7]Muratov, Historical Survey of Patriotic War and it’s Reasons, 70; Troitsky, 1812: The Glorious Year of Russia 106;  Vorontsov, The Patriotic War of 1812 in Smolensk Gubernya, 86; Elting, Military Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars, map 112; Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon, 783; Thiers, Consulate and the Empire under Napoleon, VIII, 82; Josselson, The Commander: a Life of Barclay de Tolly, 116; Beskrovny, Patriotic War of 1812, 30-31; Nafziger, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, 181.

[8]Bagration to Barclay de Tolly (on the movement of the army towards Rudnya), 8 August, 1812, Correspondence of Bagration, 220

[9]Ibid., 223

[10]Bagration to Barclay de Tolly (on movement of the 2nd Western Army), 8 August, 1812, Correspondence of Bagration, 223

[11]The Russian sources sometimes refer to this clash as the battle at Molovo Boloto.

[12]Chandler, The Campaign of Napoleon, 782; Thiers, Consulate and the Empire under Napoleon, VIII, 82; Nafziger, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, 181.

[13]Platov to Barclay de Tolly, August 8, 1812, Donskoe kazachestvo v Otechestvennoi voine 1812 goda [Don Cossacks during the patriotic War of 1812] (Moscow, 1942) 16-17.

[14]Troitsky, 1812: The Glorious Year of Russia 107; Vorontsov, The Patriotic War of 1812 in Smolensk Gubernya, 88; Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon, 783; Thiers, Consulate and the Empire under Napoleon, VIII, 82; Josselson, The Commander: a Life of Barclay de Tolly, 119; Zhilin, Destruction of the Napoleonic army in Russia, 120.

[15]I. Zhirkevich, Zapiski [The Notebooks], Russkaya Starina, 1874, N8, 648. Muratov, Historical Survey of Patriotic War and it’s Reasons, 70; Troitsky, 1812: The Glorious Year of Russia 107.

[16]Bagration to Barclay de Tolly, 11 August, 1812, Correspondence of Bagration, 227.

[17]Bagration to Barclay de Tolly, 10 August, 1812, Ibid., 225.

[18]Ibid., 225.

[19]Ibid., 225.

[20]Ibid., 225.

[21]Bagration to Arakcheyev, 10 August, 1812, Correspondence of Bagration, 226.

[22]Löwernstein, Waldemar. Zapiski [The Notes], Russkaya Starina, 1900, N 11, 358.

[23]Tarle, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, 138.

[24]Troitsky, 1812: The Glorious Year of Russia 107; Beskrovny, The Patriotic War of 1812, 31; Zhilin, Destruction of the Napoleonic army in Russia, 121; Muratov, Historical Survey of Patriotic War and it’s Reasons, 70.

[25]It should be noted that at General Sebastiani’s headquarters at Molevo-Boloto, the Russians found a message from Marshal Murat on the Russian offensive. It seemed that someone at the Russian headquarters had notified the enemy about the counteroffensive This discovery led to revival of the deep-seated aversion between Russians and Germans at the headquarters. Later it was learned that Polish Prince Lubomirski, one of the Tsar’s aide-de-camps, who, after accidentally overhearing several generals discussing the Russian offensive plans in the street, had sent a message to his mother urging to flee the coming bloodshed. This letter had been intercepted by Marshal Murat who was billeted at Lubomirski’s house. Aglamov, S. Otechestvennaya voina 1812 goda: Istoricheskie materiali Leib-Gvardii Semyenovskogo polka [The Patriotic War of 1812: Historical Materials of the Semyenovsky Lifeguard Regiment], (Poltava, 1912), 41; Josselson, The Commander: a Life of Barclay de Tolly, 117;

[26] Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon, 784; Thiers, Consulate and the Empire under Napoleon, VIII, 84; Elting, Military Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars, map 112; Gallaher, The Iron Marshal, 237-38; Austin, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia (The March on Moscow), 168-70; Nicolson, Nigel. Napoleon:1812, (London, 1985), 52;  Riehn, Richard. 1812: Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, (New York, 1990), 212; Nafziger, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, 183.

[27] The 27th Division amounted to 7,200 men (mostly of raw recruits) and 14 guns. Troitsky, 1812: The Glorious Year of Russia, 108;  Vorontsov, The Patriotic War of 1812 in Smolensk Gubernya, 92; Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon, 784; Thiers, Consulate and the Empire under Napoleon, VIII, 84; Josselson, The Commander: a Life of Barclay de Tolly, 119; Nafziger, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, 183; Smith, Napoleonic Wars data Book, 386.

[28]The general order of the French advance is uncertain. It appears that Grouchy with Chastel’s light horse and De la Houssaye’s dragoons were on the left flank; the light cavalry of the 1st and 3rd Corps with the 24th Line were at the center under Ney; Montbrun’s two Cuirassier divisions marched on the right flank, with Nansouty’s troops behind them. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon, 784; Thiers, Consulate and the Empire under Napoleon, VIII, 84.

[29] Troitsky, 1812: The Glorious Year of Russia 108;  Vorontsov, The Patriotic War of 1812 in Smolensk Gubernya, 92-96; Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon, 784.

[30]Segur, count Philippe-Paul de, Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, (Cambridge, 1958) 27.

[31] Troitsky, 1812: The Glorious Year of Russia, 109;  Vorontsov, The Patriotic War of 1812 in Smolensk Gubernya, 98; Foord, Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812, 128; Thiers, Consulate and the Empire under Napoleon, VIII, 84; Nafziger, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, 186; Smith, Napoleonic Wars Data Book, 386.

[32]Davidov, Sochinenia [The Writings], (St. Petersburg, 1893), III, 124.

[33]Bagration to Alexander, 17 August, 1812, Correspondence of Bagration, 229.

[34]Bagration to Alexander, 17 August, 1812, Ibid., 230.

[35]Ermolov, Memoirs, I, 163.

[36]Bagration to Alexander, 17 August, 1812, Correspondence of Bagration, 230.

[37]Vorontsov, The Patriotic War of 1812 in Smolensk Gubernya, 107.

[38]Ibid., 108.

[39]Bagration to Rayevsky, 15 August, 1812, From the Private Correspondence, 59.

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2001

 

Military Index | Battles Index ]



Search the Series

© Copyright 1995-2004, The Napoleon Series, All Rights Reserved.

Top | Home ]