Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns


Military Paper Award

Mutually Bungled Withdrawal & Pursuit

Russian Quest for the Next Field of Battle

Tempers Flare in the Russian Command

Bagration & Barclay


“The Mutiny of Generals”

VII:  Russian Military Leadership on Trial

By Alexander Mikaberidze , FINS


A Mutually Bungled Withdrawal & Pursuit

To conceal direction of his retreat, Barclay de Tolly moved his troops in two columns on different routes - General Dokhturov with the 5th, 6th Infantry and 2nd and 3rd Cavalry Corps and the reserve artillery moved through Prudische to Soloviyevo. General Nikolay Tuchkov I with 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 1st Cavalry Corps marched to Gorbunovo and then to Lubino.[1] Barclay de Tolly was also concerned with a breach between the 1st and 2nd Russian Armies. Bagration was nearing Dorogobouzh, about fifty miles from Smolensk, and thus leaving a perilous opening for Napoleon to drive a wedge between two armies. To cover the withdrawal of the 1st army, Bagration left a rear guard under General Andrey Gorchakov, instructing him to cover the Moscow road and march eastward toward Dorogbouzh as soon as the 1st Army came into a view. On 19 August General Gorchakov, seeing the advancing troops from Gorbunovo (it was just General Tuchkov’s detachment), thought that the entire 1st Army was on its march and consequently he left his positions, covered by only a screening force of three hundred Cossacks.[2] Thus, an important crossroad at Lubino was left without protection and the 1st Western Army was in jeopardy of being surrounded and destroyed. Barclay de Tolly realized the dangerous position of his army and dispatched 3,000 men under General Paul Tuchkov to defend Lubino at any costs.[3]

Marshal Ney departed Smolensk on 19 August and moved eastward, while Murat also crossed the Dnieper and moved down to the Moscow road. Once it became clear that the Russians were marching for Moscow and not for St. Petersburg, Napoleon dispatched Marshal Junot’s 8th Corps to outflank Smolensk, cross the river at Prudischevo, and prevent Barclay and Bagration from uniting on the Moscow road. However, Junot failed to accomplish this mission. It took several hours for Junot to find a way over the Dnieper at Prudischevo, and even after his troops had traversed the river, he refused to advance despite the repeated pleas of his colleagues. Meantime, Ney and Murat were engaged in heavy fighting against General Tuchkov’s troops at Valutino. Barclay seeing the French superiority, reinforced Tuchkov with an additional 5,000 men, enabling him to stand firm for several hours before retreating behind the Stragan brook. By late afternoon the number of troops engaged reached some 40,000 French and 22, 000 Russians.  In a fierce battle the French were unable to overcome and drive back the tenacious Russians; the number of casualties rapidly increased, including General Charles Etienne Gudin among the fallen and General Paul Tuchkov among the prisoners. Marshal Junot’s refusal to attack the Russian flank without Napoleon’s orders proved fatal to any hopes of cutting the Moscow route and surrounding Barclay’s troops. While Tuchkov’s troops were fiercely engged, the main forces of the 1st Army marched eastward in the wake of Bagration’s army. Thus failed another attempt by Napoleon to trap the Russians. The Emperor complained bitterly: “Junot has let the Russians escape. He is losing the campaign for me.”[4] The French lost approximately 7,000 men, while the Russian casualties amounted to 6,000 men.[5]  On the night of 24-25 August, Napoleon moved his army eastward, pursuing the retreating enemy. The entire day he followed the Russian army on the devastated road, on both sides of which one could see the glow of distant villages deliberately set aflame by the Russians. On 26 August the Grand Army was in Dorogobuzh and on 29th Napoleon entered Vyazma. Meanwhile, the Russian army continued to retreat eastward.

A Russian Quest for the Next Field of Battle

Barclay de Tolly realized that a battle had to be fought before moving much closer to Moscow. By this time the 1st Western Army crossed the Dnieper at Solovievo and arrived at Dorogobouzh.[6] Barclay instructed several junior officers, including Quartermaster-general Colonel Toll, to search out advantageous ground  on which to offer battle. As a result, two advantageous positions were found at Usv’atye on the Uzha River and at Tsarevo-Zaimische, near Vya’zma. On 21 August Barclay and Bagration, accompanied by Grand Duke Constantine and aides-de-camp, met at Usv’atye to inspect the site. Both commanders found the position faulty on several counts, including an unprotected left flank. During the reconnaissance of Usv’atye, Colonel Toll passionately defended advantages of this position, in spite of Barclay’s sound conclusions, and even insulted him. Barclay refrained from an angry reply, but Bagration was furious and his natural generosity impelled him to defend Barclay, the man whom he had criticized recently.  He ranted at the young quartermaster-general,

“If you can not choose a position, that is not to say that others can not also ! How dare you, you unlicked cub, address the commander-in-chief so? He owes his position to his great qualities, and deserves every consideration. I am his senior, but I set the example by serving under him. But you think that you honor him by serving under him. Yet it is the other way about. It is disgraceful that a young swell-head like you should use such language towards the man on whom depends the fate of the army and the empire. Thank his generosity that worse does not befall you, for if I had my way I would change that blue riband [of the Order of Knight of St. Andrew] for a common soldier’s belts!”[7]

Bagration suggested another site, near to Dorogobouzh.

On 24 August both armies were deployed at Dorogobouzh and commanders spent morning surveying the positions and finding them disadvantageous.[8] Next morning the Russians left Dorogobouzh and retreated to Vya’zma, where commanders-in-chief now found a position at Tsarevo-Zaimische they could agree upon. Though, Bagration was not completely satisfied with the terrain, he and Barclay both knew that a better position could not be found at a safe distance from the capital.

Tempers Flare in the Russian Command

After the loss of Smolensk, Barclay’s position in the army became more unsteady. Most of the Russian generals and officers were against the surrender of the city. Barclay’s favorite, young General Count Kutaisov spoke with him in the name of senior officers, appealing for continuation of the battle. Barclay de Tolly listened attentively to him and then kindly replied, “Let’s everyone mind his own business and I shall mind mine.”[9] In Dorogobuzh, the corps commander complained to the Grand Duke Constantine regarding Barclay’s administration of the army. According to a contemporary, “soldiers were disappointed, looking downcast…. Everybody was concerned with the future of the army”[10] From the beginning of the war soldiers were eager for battle, refusing to give up Lithuanian and Belorussian territories, which they considered as integral part of the Russian Empire. And now they were outraged by finding themselves marching on Russian soil and conceding it to the enemy without contesting it. The loss of Smolensk hurt their pride and inspired nationalist sentiments. Soldiers grumbled, “if we were defeated, that would have been a different case. But now we are just conceding Russia without a fight.”[11] Many officers publicly slandered Barclay de Tolly. The Grand Duke Constantine particularly discredited commander-in-chief, telling the rank-and-file that “we could do nothing… there is not a single drop of Russian blood in our commander’s veins.”[12] In Dorogobuzh, he accused Barclay in presence of the aides-de-camp and staff members, “you are German, traitor, vermin, and you are betraying Russia!”[13] The majority of the Russian generals were against Barclay de Tolly. General Dokhturov considered Barclay as “stupid and loathsome person”[14]; Ataman Platov declared that he would not wear the Russian uniform since Barclay de Tolly disgraced it.[15] Barclay de Tolly was increasingly unpopular among the soldiers, who saw “irrefutable” evidence of his betrayal: Barclay de Tolly was German and was therefore a traitor. Later, one of the Russian veterans, with respect to the question of why Barclay de Tolly was detested in the army, replied: “Because in 1812 he was called Barclay de Tolly, and not Kutuzov or Bagration.”[16]

Bagration & that “wretch, scoundrel and vermin, Barclay”

Bagration was a one of the central figures in this turmoil. After Smolensk, the relations between two commanders grew tense. Bagration was particularly irritated by the fact that Barclay de Tolly had broken his pledge not to leave Smolensk. He complained to the Tsar that Barclay did not take into consideration his suggestions and endeavored to mislead him.[17] He wrote Rostopchin, “I do not rely on Barclay anymore and… can assure you that he will bring the enemy to you.”[18] Two days after the battle of Smolensk, Bagration complained to Arakcheyev that “your minister may be good at ministerial affairs, but as a general he is not only bad, but simply worthless. I am truly going out of my mind from grief.”[19] Next day he again sent a letter to Arakcheyev saying:

“I held out for more than thirty five hours with 15,000 men and I was beating them [the French], whereas he did not remain even fourteen hours. It is disgraceful. It is a blot upon our army and as for him, I consider that he should not stay alive…. It is not my fault if the minister is feeble, cowardly, muddle-headed dawdler - everything that is worst. The whole army weeps over it, and condemns him out of hand”[20]

Bagration was impatient to fight, although he admitted that the Russians had only 80,000 men (by his reckoning) while Napoleon was stronger.[21] He stressed the French superiority in cavalry and appealed to Rostopchin for additional troops. Complaining about Barclay’s leadership, he added “though I am superior in rank, and thus must have the authority, I can not take command [from Barclay], because the Tsar does not want this.”[22] However, Bagration also commented that “even if I receive command, no means are left since he [Barclay] messed up everything, and the enemy is just 20 miles from me and attacks constantly.”[23] Bagration emphasized his successful retreat and ingratitude of the Tsar. “I do not praise myself, but my junction with the 1st Army was an incredible and exceptional event. Yet, what did I get for it? I was not even given thanks, while past-master Napoleon himself acknowledged [my success].”[24]  The more details reached Bagration about the courageous behavior of the Russian troops at Smolensk, the greater was his rage. He was convinced that Smolensk could have been held.

“I owe a great deal to General Rayevsky. He commanded a corps and fought with dash…. Neverovsky’s new division fought with incredible bravery. But that wretch, scoundrel and vermin, Barclay, gave up a splendid position for nothing. I wrote him very seriously, I implored him in person not to withdraw, yet no sooner had I set out for Dorogobouzh than he began to follow me….. I swear to you that Napoleon would have been defeated, but Barclay never listens to me and does everything that is useful to the enemy…. I can tell you that we would have covered Napoleon with shame if only the minister had held firm…. All the French prisoners tell me that he [Napoleon] was saying that once he vanquished Bagration, he could take on Barclay with his bare hands…  I do not rely on Barclay anymore and… can assure you that he will bring the enemy to you. I must admit that I am thinking of leaving Barclay and joining you, I would rather fight with Moscow militia”[25]

“I am perplexed and do not understand the reasons and purpose of this retreat…. If the minister looks for advantageous positions, then Smolensk was an appropriate place to halt the enemy for a long time. I do consider that the enemy had lost approximately 20,000 men… and seeing our firm resistance for day or two, he [Napoleon] might have been forced to retreat.”[26]


[1] Muratov, Historical Survey of Patriotic War and it’s Reasons, 80; Josselson, The Commander: a Life of Barclay de Tolly, p.126; The march of the 1st army became confused at the very beginning. The units of the second column marched after midnight, lost contacts with each other and several regiments took off in the wrong direction. They wandered all night long, their nocturnal march describing a loop that brought them back at daybreak to the St. Petersburg suburb, facing Ney’s troops. After a short skirmish with the French, they finally managed to proceed as planned.

[2] Ibid., p.80.

[3] When the battle began and it seemed as if the French would carry the Russian positions, General Tuchkov went himself to ask Barclay for reinforcements. Barclay was furious. “Go back to your post and get yourself killed. If you come back again, I will shoot you !” Löwenstern, Zapiski [The Notes], Russkaya Starina, 1900, N12, p.559.

[4] Caulaincourt, Armand de. Memoirs (London, 1950) I, p.210.

[5] Trudi Moskovskogo otdela imperatorskogo Russkogo voenno-istoricheskogo obshestva, [Documents of the Moscow branch of the Imperial Russian Military Historical Society, hereafter cited as Russian Military Historical Society] (St. Petersburg, 1913) IV, part I, pp.346-348; Nafziger, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, p.206; Smith, Napoleonic Wars Data Book, p.388; Josselson, The Commander: a Life of Barclay de Tolly, p.127.

[6] Its retreat was covered by Platov’s Cossacks and the rear guard under General Baron Korff, while on the left bank of the river Barclay deployed Jagers under Baron Rozen. Supply trains were directed on a detour trough Dukhovshina to Dorogobouzh, while wounded were sent to Vya’zma. Vorontsov, The Patriotic War of 1812 in Smolensk Gubernya, p.154.

[7] A witness recalls that “everybody was silent. Barclay de Tolly remained taciturn… while Toll began to cry and tears went down on his face.” Dnevnik kapitana Puschina za 1812 god [Diary of Captain Puschin on 1812 Campaign], Aglamov, Historical Materials of the Semyenovsky Lifeguard Regiment, p.45; Ermolov, Memoirs, I, p.180; Vorontsov, The Patriotic War of 1812 in Smolensk Gubernya, p.155.

[8] An interesting incident took place at Dorogobouzh. Coming back from reconnaissance, the commanders-in-chief discovered that the troops were badly deployed. Later, when the campaign was over, General Ermolov remarked, “this fact was immediately concealed ! Bagration insisted on punishment of Quartermaster-General Toll, who deployed the army with its rear facing the French… [Bagration] requested to reduce him in ranks for this unjustifiable blunder.” Zhirkevich, The Notes, Russkaya Starina, 1874, N8, p.653; Vorontsov, The Patriotic War of 1812 in Smolensk Gubernya, p.155.

[9] Grabbe, Paul Iz pamiatnikh zapisok [From the Memoirs], (Moscow, 1873), II, p.57.

[10] I. Radozhitsky, Poxodnie zapiski artilerista s 1812 po 1816 [The Memoirs of Gunner, 1812-1816] (Moscow, 1835) I, 125, p.129.

[11] N. Mitarevskii, Nashetsvie nepriatelia na Rossiu [The Enemy Invasion of Russia] (Moscow, 1878) p.53.

[12] Ivan Zhirkevich, Zapiski [The Notebooks], Russkaya Starina, 1874, N8, p.648.

[13] A. Muraviyev, Avtographiobicheskie zapiski [Autobiographical notes], Dekabristi: Novie materialy, (Moscow, 1955), p.187.

[14] Dokhturov wrote to his wife, “You cannot imagine, my friend, what a stupid and loathsome person Barclay is: he is irresolute, sluggish and not capable of commanding any section, least at all an army. The devil knows what got into him… leaving so many wounded in the hands of the enemy. My heart bleeds when I think of it.” Russkii Arkhiv, 1874, N1, p.1101, p.1118.

[15] Wilson, Narrative of Events . . . , pp.114-15.

[16] P. Glebov, Slovo o Barklae de Tolly [ About Barclay de Tolly], Sovremennik, 1858, N1, p.155.

[17] Bagration to Alexander, 19 August, 1812, Ibid., p.235.

[18] Bagration to Rostopchin, 26 August, 1812, Dubrovin, Patriotic War in Letters of Contemporaries, p.96.

[19] Bagration to Arakcheyev, 19 August, 1812, Otechestvennaya voina 1812 goda: sbornik dokumentov i materialov [The Patriotic War of 1812: a compilation of materials and documents], (Moscow, 1941) p.54.

[20] Bagration to Arakcheyev, 20 August, 1812, Antony Brett-James, Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia (New York, 1966), pp.96-97.

[21] Bagration to Rostopchin, ?? August (the date is not shown), 1812,  Ibid., p.99.

[22] Bagration to Rostopchin, 26 August, 1812, Ibid., p.97.

[23] Bagration to Rostopchin, ?? August (the date is not shown), 1812,  Ibid., p.99

[24] Bagration to Rostopchin, ?? August, 1812,  Ibid., p.99.

[25] Bagration to Rostopchin, 26 August, 1812, Dubrovin, Patriotic War in Letters of Contemporaries, p.96.

[26] Bagration to Alexander, 19 August, 1812, Correspondence of Bagration, 235.



Placed on the Napoleon Series: December 2001


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