Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

Between Inspections and Corps:  The Russian Divisional Structure, 1806 - 1810

By Robert Goetz

On the morning of 2 December 1805, the allied Austro-Russian forces under the personal command of Tsar Alexander I of Russia met the French army of Emperor Napoleon I near the Moravian town of Austerlitz.  By the end of the day, at least 13,000 Russians lay dead or dying on the field of battle and almost 10,000 had been taken prisoner.[i]  Most of the remainder had been severely routed and were fleeing in disorder from the pursuing French.  With the exception of the column of General Bagration, which had retired from Austerlitz in good order, and the columns of Generals Essen and Bennigsen that were still en route from Russia, there was little left to oppose the victorious French.  Kaiser Franz I of Austria entered into peace negotiations with the French soon after the battle.  Prussia, who had been preparing to enter the conflict against France, had second thoughts and hastily backed off from its belligerent stance.  The shattered remnants of the Russian left and center pulled away from their pursuers by falsely informing them that an armistice had been signed, and the battered Russian army, left without allies, regained the frontier. 

News of Austerlitz reached Moscow on 12 December 1805 …"Moscow is sad, as gloomy as an autumn night,” wrote a contemporary Russian writer, Zhikharev. [ii]  But within a few days the mood had already improved.  As late as January 1806 the papers published articles doubting the veracity of the reports of the disaster, attributing them to French propaganda.  An article in “The Bulletin of Europe" asked, "Why because of all the successes of the French should anyone despair?" Russians had become used to victories, but while the news of Austerlitz was a severe blow to Russian vanity it caused no great alarm and provoked no outcry for change.  Informed individuals considered the role of the Austrians in the campaign, the good fortune of the French and Kutuzov’s “excessive compliance to his sovereign” to be the root causes of the catastrophe.[iii]

The views expressed in “The Bulletin of Europe” were not without justification.  Rather than seeking to concentrate with the Russian forces, which obviously had a considerable distance to march, the Austrian army of Germany had advanced into Bavaria, allowed itself to be surrounded by Napoleon’s fast-marching forces, and surrendered before the Russian advance guard could reach the Austro-Bavarian frontier in force.  While the Russian commander-in-chief Kutuzov conducted a skillful retreat, staying a march ahead of the French and finally placing the formidable barrier of the Danube between his corps and the main body of the French army, an Austrian general had allowed himself to be tricked into surrendering the Tabor bridges at Vienna to the French.  This placed the French army on Kutusov’s left rear and forced an even more desperate retreat.  As if this were not enough justification to blame the Austrians, the Austrian General Weyrother was the author of the allied plan of operations at Austerlitz that had failed so miserably.  Good fortune for the French included not only the Austrian blunders, but also Prussian vacillation.  The bold French march through Prussian Anspach provoked words of outrage from Prussia, but did not produce an immediate commitment to the war against France.  Finally, the Tsar’s role in engineering the failure was clear.  Alexander superceded Kutuzov, fully approved Weyrother’s plans and overrode the objections of his former commander-in-chief.  It is interesting to see this described as Kutuzov’s failing rather than Alexander’s.  Certainly Kutuzov had few options beyond complete compliance to his sovereign’s orders, but the meaning behind the statements in the Bulletin is clear enough.[iv]

From the magnitude of the Russian defeat it seems that probing investigations into the causes of the defeat would be conducted and major reforms would follow in its aftermath, as would be the case with Prussia after her disastrous campaign with France in 1806-7.  To the contrary, however, in St. Petersburg and Moscow there was little official reaction to the defeat.  Official reaction in Russia corresponded with public opinion, blaming the obvious failings of the Austrians, Prussia’s vacillation, and the “duplicity” of Bavaria.[v]  Alexander to some degree blamed Kutuzov, who fell from favor after Austerlitz, though it seems from the Tsar’s actions in later campaigns – particularly 1812 – that he understood his own responsibility for the disaster well enough.  Beyond this there was no immediate reaction.  Unlike the Prussians eighteen months later, there was no officer purge, no re-examination of tactical doctrine, and no complete restructuring of the military infrastructure.

What did occur in Russia in the wake of Austerlitz and over the next several years was a reform of the existing peacetime infrastructure of the army, the Inspections.  These reforms do not appear very significant on the surface, but the timing of the reforms and the implications of the reorganization for the Russian army suggest a direct link to the lessons learned in the 1805 campaign against France.  The reorganization had the immediate effect of concentrating a larger proportion of regiments closer to the frontiers, which seems to be a direct result of the delays in mobilization experienced in 1805.  Subsequent adjustments to the structure made in following years shifted the underlying function of the divisions from geographic and administrative to operational.  Because the new divisions were composed of fewer regiments than the inspections and were more uniform in size, they could be used as operational units to speed mobilization and improve efficiency on campaign.  While it is not entirely clear to what degree these additional benefits of the new divisional structure were planned or anticipated, the gradual implementation of the structure and inconsistent use of divisions as operational formations indicates that these benefits were only gradually realized after the changes were made.  Taken as a whole, the organizational reforms of 1806-1810 represent an evolutionary process that transforming the typical 18th century organization of the Russian army into a more modern corps d’armée structure paralleling the state-of-the-art French model.[vi]

Best of Series Award

 

 

Notes

[i] Christopher Duffy, Austerlitz 1805, London, 1977, p. 156.

[ii] D. A. Zharynov, “Pervye Voiny s Napoleonom i Russkoe Obtschestvo” (“The First Wars with Napoleon and Russian Society”), in I. D. Sytina, Otechestvennaya Voina I Russkoe Obtschestvo, Tom I.  Moscow:  1911. http://www.museum.ru/MUSEUM/1812/Library/Sitin/book1_14.html

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.   

[v] Ibid.

[vi] The term “corps” was commonly used to describe any variety of intermediate commands and had no specific implications on the organizational structure.  It was often used interchangeably with “column” and even “division” to describe any large semi-independent command.  The term “corps d’armée” will be used here to designate the formal corps system.  The key components in this definition are permanent composition (even in peacetime) with commander and staff, subdivision into divisions or other intermediate bodies also with permanent commanders and staff, and inclusion of all three arms (infantry, cavalry and artillery). 

 

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: December 2002

 

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