Peter Bagration: The Best Georgian General of the Napoleonic Wars
By Alexander Mikaberidze, Chairman of the Napoleonic Society of Georgia
Chapter XI: Withdrawal from Smolensk & a Change of High Command
After the junction of the 1st and the 2nd Western Armies at Smolensk, favorable conditions for a transition to offensive actions were created.
Napoleon's forces were scattered, with its advanced elements toward Rudny, and much of the rest strung out on the march. The French were vulnerable to defeat in detail and Russian command decided to take advantage of the opportunity. To this end, the Russians launched an offensive on July 26. The main blow fell at Rudny, where portions of Murat's 3rd Cavalry Corps were located.
This decision by the Russian command quite answered to the circumstances. By fast and resolute action, it was reasonable to expect to rout Murat. However, Barclay de Tolly failed to demonstrate the necessary resoluteness. Soon the direction of the main thrusts was transferred toward Porechye, and on August 1, again toward Rudny.
Napoleon took advantage of the Russian command's sluggish action and managed to concentrate around Smolensk a great bulk of his forces. On August 1, the French armies advanced across the Dnepr (some 70-80 kilometers west of Smolensk) and approached Smolensk through Lyadi and Krasny, with the objective of enveloping the rear of the Russian armies and cutting off retreat to Moscow. The Russian armies, compelled to halt their own advance, began to concentrate at Smolensk.
Initially against French troops approaching Krasny, a portion of Neverovsky's Division was directed, followed by the 7th Infantry Corps of Rayevsky. Together, these Russian forces held off the repeated attacks by French elements endeavoring to break into Smolensk on August 4.
On 5 August, Napoleon expected to give the Russian army near Smolensk a decisive battle. In consideration of the adverse ratio of forces, and aware of the danger that the French might detour around Smolensk, the Russian army withdrew from Smolensk in the small hours of August 5, and set off east on the Moscow road. The rearguard defense of Smolensk was assigned to the 6th Infantry Corps of Dokhturov, with the Divisions of Neverovsky and Konovnitsyn.
In the tenacious engagement that began on August 5, the Russians resisted all French attacks and successfully maintained possession of the city. Having executed his assigned task, Dokhturov left Smolensk the night of August 6, and rejoined the main Russian army.
The continued of retreat by Russian armies after the abandonment of Smolensk engendered loud protests against the strategy being pursued. Some critics blamed the imperial government and Barclay de Tolly, who was both commander of the 1st Western Army and Military Minister, for not engaging in vigorous measures to repulse the enemy.
Supporting calls for an offensive strategy, Bagration insisted on more active military action against Napoleon. Barclay De Tolly's leadership of the Russian Armies particularly irritated him. Bagration appealed several times to Barclay to provide him with information on future plans of the military command, but all his demands went unanswered. "I have written to you twice, but there is no answer," Bagration informed the chief of a staff of 1st army, General Ermolov. "I kindly ask of the minister, where is he leading the army? I wrote to him, but there is no answer. I do not understand, what does it mean, why do you run so and to where do you hasten? ... What is happening with you, why do you neglect me? It is no time for jokes. If I write, it is necessary to answer." In another letter to Ermolov, characterizing the chaos that reigned in the armies, Bagration declared, "Really, it is easy to go mad from all these absurdities".
Bagration sharply criticized Barclay de Tolly for his policies that diverged so sharply from those who championed the immediate defense of the country. The tense relations between both commanders reached a breaking point. "I can not remain together with the minister in any way," declared Bagration. "For God's sake, send me anywhere you want, to command over a regiment in Moldova, or to the Caucasus, but I can not remain here. And all headquarters is filled with Germans so that . . . it is impossible to live and no sense bothering."
All this produced an extremely negative influence on the operations of armies. To rescue the situation, it was necessary to unite command of the armies in the hands of one commander capable of mobilizing the economic and moral forces of the country to crush the enemy. Bagration well understood importance of such action and in his reports to the Czar insisted on the consolidation under one man. In this respect he reflected the mood of the majority of the Russian army, which demanded assignment of a single commander-in-chief who enjoyed its confidence.
"The good order and clear communication necessary to the comfort of the army," wrote Bagration to Alexander, "demand, as always, management by one man, and no more so than at the present time, when our business is the rescue of the fatherland; I shall not fail to give perfect obedience to the one to whom it is destined that I should be subordinate."
Under the pressure of public opinion, Alexander I was compelled to appoint M.I. Kutusoff as the commander-in-chief of all field armies. Assignment of Kutusoff met warm approval by the army and the people. All knew him as the remarkable commander whose activity had been marked by brilliant victories by Russian arms. The majority trusted Kutusoff. "Kutusoff has arrived to beat the French!"
On 18 August Kutusoff accepted command of the armies and thereafter began vigorously to draft the strategic plan of war. Taking into consideration Napoleon's desire to achieve his objectives by decisive battle, Kutusoff dared to confront him with a strategy more appropriate to Russian conditions by applying mass armies to achieve a military decision through a system of consecutive battles. For the successful conduct of war, Kutusoff valued reserves highly. Therefore, right after his assignment, he demonstrated intense interest in the question of available reserves. When he discovered that none actually existed, Kutusoff decided on withdrawal of the army, combined with a strategy to exhaust the French through defensive fights, to strengthen his own army by the development of reserves, thereby changing the ratio of forces to his advantage, and then to proceed to counterattack and crush army of Napoleon.
While the Russian army continued to retreat eastwards in accordance with Kutusoff's plan, guerrilla activity spontaneously arose and it spread like a flame across more and more of the territory occupied by the French armies.
Bagration Unleashes Davydov: a Guerilla Movement Blossoms
Bagration from the very beginning of war had correctly understood its features and national character. He had remarked: "Nowadays the war is not ordinary, but National" That is why Bagration viewed the spontaneous development of guerrilla activity with great approval. In the letter to Rostopchyn on August 14, from village Lusky (near Vyazma) he wrote : "Smolensk province shows patriotism rather well; local muzhiks (peasants) beat the French as pigs wherever they are found in small commands." His grasp of the altered character of the war resulted in Bagration's decision that the unique means to detain Napoleon's advance into the depths of Russia and to defeat him was a guerrilla movement and its joint actions with Russian regular army. "To me it seems that there is no other way but, without reaching two marches up to Moscow, to gather all people and the army and with cold steel, pikes, and sabers to pull hard on them [the French]... " he wrote to the governor of Moscow, Rostopchyn.
His former aide-de-camp, commander of the Akhtyrsk Hussar Regiment, Vice Colonel D.V. Davydov, shared Bagration's views on a role for a guerrilla movement in a war against the French. Davydov had addressed a letter to Bagration that asked his sanction to allocate resources from the regular Russian army: a small group for actions in rear of the French invader. On August 21, Bagration invited Davydov to his headquarters, presently established at Kolotsk monastery, 12 kilometers west of Borodino. Bagration listened to Denysov describe the possible character of actions by guerrilla group and approved his proposal.
At the same time, Bagration agreed that the size of the contingent approved by Kutusoff was not enough. Thus he observed: "I do not understand what His Highness fears. Whether it is necessary to bargain over several hundreds persons when, if the business goes well, he may deprive the enemy of all supplies. . . . In case of failure, he will lose only a handful of people. What to do? War is not for kisses." Davydov assured Bagration that more were necessary in order for him to accomplish anything, and he would bear responsibility for the force. "For this purpose, only boldness in attacks, resoluteness in abrupt encounters, and caution on halts and lodgings for the night are necessary; for this I shall do my best... Only, I repeat, the number of people is too limited, give me 1000 Cossacks, and you will see, what will be," urged Davydov.
"I would give you 3000 of them to start with," answered Bagration, "for I do not like to act superficially, but I can not even speak about it; Knyaz has defined the composition of the group himself; it is necessary to obey." Bagration then down and wrote with own hand the following instruction to Davydov:
To Vice-Colonel of Akhtyrsk Hussar Regiment Davydov.
Bagration then wrote letters to Generals Vasilchikov and Karpov about allocation of the best Cossacks and hussars. Having informed by Davydov that he had no map of Smolensk province, Bagration gave him his own personal copy. And as they parted, Bagration wished Davydov success with the project.
Bagration's wishes were justified. The guerrilla movement soon developed wide scope. Beside Davydov's group, groups under command of General Dorokhov, Captain Fisher, Captain Seslavin, Colonel Kudashev and others were also created. These groups successfully struggled against the French, combining their activities with those of peasant guerrilla groups.
The facts testify that Bagration was among the first Russian commanders of that era to pay attention to the necessity of developing the guerrilla movement and to the use of both aspects that composed it: peasant and regular military. Bagration was the first during the war to organize a military unit to conduct guerrilla action. He also was the author of the first instructions for such activity, and he precisely defined the purposes of such groups and character of their actions.
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