Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns


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“The Mutiny of Generals”

Part VI: The Battle of Smolensk

By Alexander Mikaberidze , FINS


Smolensk was one of the major Russian cities and had formerly been an important frontier fortress. But by 1812 the city fortifications had dwindled and its nucleus consisted of the ancient fortified city, whose massive 15th-16th century brick walls[1] formed an irregular pentagon. The walls were encircled by a ditch, both in neglected condition. Also, the city suburbs mostly consisted of wooden buildings and, so, were vulnerable to artillery and fires. The governor failed to prepare the city and nothing was done to reinforce its defenses. General Ermolov recalled that “the governor was the first to leave the city without any instructions…. Everything was confused !”[2]

On 16 August General Rayevsky, commanding about 15,000 men and 72 guns[3], knew that both Bagration and Barclay de Tolly were hurrying to his aid. He saw his duty plainly, that he and his men must die, if necessary, in defense of the city in order to gain time for the main forces. For this purpose Rayevsky deployed most of his men beyond the suburbs and prepared for the French assault.[4]

The French Prepare to Strike

It seems that Napoleon was concerned with Bagration’s bridge-building at Katan, since a flank attack upon his army as it lay stretched along Rassasna-Smolensk road might have serious consequences.[5] Therefore, he halted the 1st Corps (except for General Charles Etienne Gudin’s division) at Korythnia. Early on 16 August the bulk of Ney’s and Murat’s forces reached Smolensk. The French brought some batteries into action against Rayevsky’s artillery and Ney deployed his corps opposite the Krasnoy suburb and the Royal Bastion. Murat’s divisions extended to the right. Despite a number of skirmishes, no major attack was made, to the astonishment of Rayevsky, who expected a massive French assault. Yet, Ney had only some 19,000 infantry, scarcely enough to carry the city, especially since he did not know Rayevsky’s strength, and therefore marshal awaited orders.[6]

Napoleon arrived at Smolensk by 1:00 p.m., and immediately directed Murat and Ney to launch attacks. During the subsequent encounter, the Russians were forced back beneath the walls and the French all but succeeded in capturing the Royal Bastion, when Rayevsky directed his two reserve battalions to counter the breakthrough. The Russians resisted desperately and repulsed the French attacks. Elsewhere the only French successes gained had been to drive off the stubbornly resisting Russian outposts, and so, the opportunity of taking Smolensk proved fleeting. Artillery bombardment continued long after dark fell, but no major attack was ordered by Napoleon. The Russians were surprised by the French inactivity. A contemporary wrote that “certainly, if Napoleon endeavored to attack Smolensk on 4 August with the same resolution as he did on 5 August, the city would have been occupied.”[7] It was obvious that Rayevsky’s brave resolution and the courage of his troops prevented Napoleon from taking Smolensk and cutting the Moscow route. Napoleon, however, now had different intentions in regard to this objective. Since he could no longer hope to surprise Smolensk, Napoleon intended to lure and engage the main Russian forces. He perceived that the Russian armies would immediately concentrate at Smolensk for the purpose of giving him a battle and this would be precisely in accordance with his plans.[8] In the evening, Napoleon saw long columns marching in clouds of dust towards Smolensk. They were the joint forces of Barclay and Bagration moving rapidly to the city. Segur recalled that “at the sight, Napoleon, beside himself with joy, clapped his hands, exclaiming, ‘At last ! I have them!’”[9] Napoleon deployed Ney’s troops on the left flank, close to the river. Davout assumed a central position and Poniatowski moved to the far right. Murat and cavalry remained in reserve with the Guard and Eugene’s 4th Corps. The 8th Corps under Junot was expected shortly.[10]

Russian Sortie & Fighting Withdrawal

During the night of 16-17 August, Rayevskly was reinforced by the 7th Corps of Dokhturov, the 7th and 24th Divisions and the 3rd Division under Konovnitsyn. Neverovsky’s 27th Division also remained in the city. This brought the total number of Russian troops in Smolensk to 20,000 men and 180 guns. They were facing some 185,000 French with 300 guns.[11] Next day Dokhturov undertook a successful sortie. He was able to drive the French out of the trench beneath the outside walls and out of two suburbs infiltrated by the French during the night. Early in the morning of 17 August, the battle resumed and an almost constant artillery fire went on for thirteen hours. By afternoon, all the suburbs of the city were burning. On the night of 17-18 August, the cannonade had been intensified. In the middle of the night, the Russian guns suddenly ceased firing and shortly afterwards, the French heard explosions of a tremendous force, the result of Barclay’s order to blow up the magazines and evacuate the city. The Russian rearguard under General Konovnitsyn and Colonel Toll fought desperately and continued to hold back the French. Isolated Russians sharpshooters, scattered in gardens, fired at the approaching French infantry. A participant of this battle, Fabre de Faure recalled that

“Among these sharpshooters, one Russian chasseur distinguished himself by his staunchness and bravery. He placed himself right opposite us, on the very bank of the river behind some willows and we could silence him neither by concentrating our fire on him nor by the use of a gun, which demolished all the trees behind him…. He continued to shoot and did not stop until that night. On the following day we visited this memorable position out of curiosity and found the body of our foe, face downward, among broken and splintered trees. A non-commissioned officer of the Russian chasseurs, he had been killed by one our cannon-balls”[12]

According to witnesses, the Russians at Smolensk so thirsted for battle that their commanders had to use swords to drive them from spots where they were senselessly exposing themselves to slaughter by the French artillery. A witness of the battle of Smolensk recalled that

“I found the commander of the regiment, Major-general Tsibylsky, in full uniform, mounted on horseback among his marksmen. He replied that he was unable to restrain his men, who after exchanging a few shots with the French… repeatedly tried to dislodge them by bayonet assaults, without awaiting orders. Even as he spoke, there was a shout of “Hurrah” from the line of men. He [Tsibulsky] began to shout, even drove the marksmen back with his sword. At his presence, his command was obeyed, but only a few paces from him the cry of “Hurrah!” resounded again and again, and the men flung themselves on the enemy. Many other regiments acted likewise…. Light wounds were ignored until the wounded fell from exhaustion and loss of blood.”[13] 

Meanwhile, on August 17, Barclay and Bagration had held a war council. Both commanders observed that Napoleon might feign his attack on Smolensk, and  instead move his troops to Dorogobouzh to cut the Moscow route and the Russian line of communication. Therefore, it was agreed that the 1st Western Army would stay at Smolensk and give a battle to the French, while Bagration’s army would march to Dorogobouzh, fifty miles from Smolensk and protect the road to Moscow.[14] It is noteworthy, that Barclay declined battle at Vitebsk because the two armies were not united, but now, at Smolensk, he sent Bagration eastward with his army on the eve of the major engagement.[15] As he marched along the Dnieper, Bagration sent several messages to Barclay imploring him to stand firm at Smolensk and later he stated that Barclay de Tolly gave him his word of honor that the 1st Western Army would not surrender Smolensk.[16] It is also unusual that Bagration, with his knowledge of Barclay de Tolly and his intentions, expected him to fight anything more than a delaying action.

A Heavy Toll

During the night of 18 August the last defenders of Smolensk retired, burning bridges behind them and joined the main Russian forces on the right bank. Two hours later the French advance guards moved in and occupied the city. Smolensk was virtually destroyed. From 2250 buildings only 350 remained by the end of the battle[17], and less than 1,000 of inhabitants (from the original 15,000) had stayed in the city.[18] The Russians lost about 12,000 men, while the French casualties amounted to some 10,000 killed and wounded.[19] The battle of Smolensk was all the more terrible because most of the wounded in previous battles (at Moghilev, Vitebsk, Krasnoy) had been evacuated to Smolensk. Thus, thousands of wounded were gathered in the old city of Smolensk and left without appropriate medical attention. During the battle the old city had caught fire and was reduced to ashes during the withdrawal of the Russian troops, who were unable to save any of the wounded from there.

[1] The city walls were 6,5 km long, 19 m. high and 5 m. wide, with 17 towers. I. Smirnov, Smolensk - gorod russkoi slavi [Smolensk - the City of the Russian Glory], (Smolensk, 1982), pp.38-49.

[2] Pogodin, A.P. Ermolov: Materials for His Biography, p.95.

[3] Troitsky, 1812: The Glorious Year of Russia, p.110; Vorontsov, The Patriotic War of 1812 in Smolensk Gubernya, p.102.

[4] General Paskevich’s division occupied Krasnoy suburb and the ditch before the citadel, with the Vilna regiment from the 27th Division and battalion of convalescents in reserve behind the wall. Kolubakin’s division defended Mstislavl suburb, and Stavidzki’s brigade of the 27th division was deployed at Roslavl suburb. Four battalions were in reserve in town and two more were spared to watch the line from the Roslavl suburb to the river. Eighteen guns were placed on Royal Bastion and the rest along the earth ramparts behind the walls. Troitsky, 1812: The Glorious Year of Russia, p.116; Vorontsov, The Patriotic War of 1812 in Smolensk Gubernya, pp.102-4;

[5] Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon, p.786; Foord, Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812, p.134;  p.84; Nafziger, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, p.186.

[6] Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon, p.786; Foord, Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812, p.134;  p.84; Nafziger, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, p.186.

[7] Kharkevich, 1812 Campaign in Diaries, Memoirs and Correspondence of the Contemporaries, II, p.8.

[8] Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon, p.786; Foord, Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812, p.134;  p.84; Nafziger, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, p.186; Troitsky, 1812: The Glorious Year of Russia, p.112; Vorontsov, The Patriotic War of 1812 in Smolensk Gubernya, pp.102-4;

[9] Segur, Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, p.27

[10] Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon, p.788; Foord, Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812, p.134;  p.84; Nafziger, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, 186; Thiers, Consulate and the Empire under Napoleon, VIII, pp.85-86.

[11] Troitsky, 1812: The Glorious Year of Russia, p.113; Vorontsov, The Patriotic War of 1812 in Smolensk Gubernya, pp.108-10; Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon, p.788; Thiers, Consulate and the Empire under Napoleon, VIII, p.87.

[12] Faber du Faur, G. de. La Campagne de Russie (1812) d’après le journal illustré d’un témoin oculaire (Paris, 1895)

[13] Tarle, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, p.145

[14] Bagration to Alexander, 17 August, 1812, Correspondence of Bagration, p.231; Barclay de Tolly to Alexander, 21 August, 1812, Russian State Historical Archive, f. 1409, op.1, d. 698, part 1, p.35. It should be noted that Bagration moved to Dorogobouzh in accordance with Barclay de Tolly’s orders, and not on his own authority as it is usually asserted.

[15] Kochetkov, Barclay de Tolly, p.43; also, Bagration to Rostopchin, 26 August, 1812, Dubrovin, Patriotic War in Letters of Contemporaries, p.95-98; Bogdanovich, History of the Patriotic War of 1812, I, p.259; Aglamov, Historical Materials of the Semyenovsky Lifeguard Regiment, p.42.

[16] Bagration to Barclay de Tolly, p.17 August, 1812, Dubrovin, Patriotic War in Letters of Contemporaries, p.82; Bagration to Alexander, p.19 August, 1812, Correspondence of Bagration, pp.234-35.

[17] V. Grachev, Smolensk I ego Gubernya v 1812, [Smolensk and its Gubernya in 1812 campaign], (Smolensk, 1912), p.65

[18] Tarle, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, p.148

[19] The number of casualties of both sides is still matter of dispute. The Russian sources acknowledge between 4,000-10,000 men, though usually a number of 12,000 killed and wounded is considered more realistic. Bagration to Alexander, 19 August, 1812, Correspondence of Bagration, p.235; Troitsky, 1812: The Glorious Year of Russia, p.115; Vorontsov, The Patriotic War of 1812 in Smolensk Gubernya, p.126; D. Buturlin, Istoria nashestvia imperatora Napoleona na Rossiu v 1812 [History of Napoleon’s Invasion of Russian in 1812], (St. Petersburg, 1823), I p.226; Garnich, 1812, p.90; Zhilin, Destruction of the Napoleonic Army in Russia, p.123; A. Mikhailovsky-Danilevsky, Opisanie Otechestvennoi voini 1812 goda [Description of the Patriotic War of 1812], (St. Petersburg, 1839), II, p.121;

Although almost all the Russian sources refer to 20,000 French casualties, the French and English sources acknowledge about 10,000 killed and wounded, Thiers, Consulate and the Empire under Napoleon, VIII, pp.86-87; Ségur, Histoire de Napoléon I, p.264; Chambray, Histoire de l’expedition de Russie, I, p.330; Denniée, P., Itineraire de l’empereur Napoleon pendant la campaigne de 1812 (Paris, 1842), p.52. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon, p.786; Elting, Military Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars, map p.113; Nafziger, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia,195; Smith, Napoleonic Wars Data Book, p.387.



Placed on the Napoleon Series: December 2001


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