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Peter Bagration: The Best Georgian General of the Napoleonic Wars

By Alexander Mikaberidze, Chairman of the Napoleonic Society of Georgia

Chapter XIII: Bagration -- "The God of an Army"

On September 17, the day of Bagration's funeral, General - Aide-de-camp Sen-Pry was one of Bagration's only intimates present at the mourning ceremony in Simy — and only because, being himself wounded, he was in the vicinity for treatment. Twenty-five years later, on the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Borodino, which was celebrated rather solemnly, it was decided to set up on the battlefield a memorial obelisk in honor of fallen heroes. The famous Denis Davydov, who was still alive, arranged with the permission of Czar Nikolay to transfer ashes of the great commander and hero of the 1812 war to rest at the bottom of this monument. And so the resting-place worthy of the great Bagration was finally determined.

General Bagration

General Bagration

Peter Bagration bears a huge share of credit for the victory of the Russian army in the Great Patriotic War of 1812. The Russian forces under his command inflicted serious defeats on French arms by their skilful actions during the summer retreat and at the Battle of Borodino.

Bagration takes his place in the history of military art as a remarkable commander who made a great contribution to the development of advanced methods of conducting the armed struggle. He demonstrated outstanding examples of skilful decision-making amidst complex strategic and tactical tasks on various battlefields. "Suvarov's disciple," wrote S.G. Volkonsky about Bagration, "never betrayed the instructor and up to the end of his life was a Glory of the Russian army." Being the talented representative of the Suvarov's strategy, Bagration, together with other progressive figures of Russian army at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th Centuries, was a bearer of advanced military ideas for that era.

Highly gifted by nature, with a "wise and flexible mind", he rendered practical decisions of radical problems. In the field of strategy, the one of the most urgent questions was to define ways of achieving quick and decisive victory over the enemy. In spite of its out-datedness, Prussian positional strategy was still very much "alive"; yet, new strategic Napoleonic and Suvarovian insights into strategy did much to herald changes and to sweep it aside.

In contrast to adherents of positional strategy, who gave greatest value to the struggle for fortresses and the communications of the enemy, supporters of new strategic insights advanced the idea that the destruction of enemy's armed forces in open battles was most important. They rejected the requirement of old strategic thinking that required equal distribution of forces and means on a battlefield for maintenance of coverage in all directions and instead championed the necessity of massing of forces and means at the major strategic points to achieve decisive battlefield decisions against the enemy as the best means of achieving a fast and complete victory.

The champions of this new decisive strategic thinking in the Russian army were A.V.Suvarov and whole group of his followers, among whom was Bagration. Bagration's actions gave many vivid examples of the skilful execution of tasks in light of this new thinking. It was especially evident in his actions as commander-in-chief of the Moldavian army and during the Great Patriotic War of 1812. Bagration acted as the commander-innovator placing before the Russian army decisive strategic tasks and rejecting the increasingly obsolete positional strategy of the old school.

The forms of military operations used by Bagration corresponded to his advanced perspective on the character of strategy. Under his command the Russian forces gave instructive examples of offensive and defensive actions. Under adverse conditions, Bagration was equally capable of applying his methods to retreat. But he considered offensive action as the basic form for the conduct of combat, for only by approach and contact was it possible to achieve the rout of the enemy's armed forces and to accomplish one's strategic purpose in the shortest time-frame. "In all cases," wrote Bagration, "I prefer offensive war to a defensive one"

Bagration's strategic views defined also his insights about the character of tactical military action. It is possible to discern these insights, for example, by considering the famous order to the forces of the 2nd Western Army, dated June 25, 1812. In the order, written by Bagration with own hand, instructions were given concerning actions to be taken against the French armies if they invaded Russian territory. He wrote:

"For us, it is necessary to attack them bravely, quickly, not to become engaged in shooting matches; artillery must fire precisely; irregular armies must try to surround their flanks and rear . . . . The regular cavalry attacks quickly, but as a part of concerted action, without dividing into small bodies. Squadrons must support each other in the attack, not forgetting to provide for reserves and flanks. The cavalry should be located under the chess order."

Attacks were to be conducted with troops formed in columns.

"Commanders of Corps must try to turn all attention to attacking the enemy with bayonets, using columns, and to attack until the enemy retreats. The horse artillery should operate energetically, as should cavalry, but harmoniously and without the slightest confusion. It is especially necessary when the enemy has strong reserves and may frustrate our attacking forces; for that we must try to have our forces in columns and in readiness, and as soon as everyone is driven into flight, then the Cossacks must prick and harass them, with the regular forces in close and harmonious support."

Bagration recommended deployment of the forces in a battle array that was not too closely packed, but sufficiently so to permit soldiers to fell each other's presence with their elbows.

In case of counter-attacks by enemy cavalry, Bagration advised the use of battalion masses and squares, or "carres". "When the enemy cavalry attacks infantry, it takes only a minute to form either a column closed on all sides, or a battalion in a 'carre'."

With the purpose of increasing the enthusiasm of armies, all attacks were to be made with a shout, and during the approach the drums were to be beaten and music to be played.

Similar insights are reflected in a number of Bagration's other orders, instructions and letters. In particular, as the characteristic of his tactical perspective, the "Manual for Infantry Officers on the Day of Battle" may serve as an example. This document was prepared on the basis of the "Manual to Officers of the Narva infantry Regiment," authored by M.S. Vorontsov in 1812.

According to military historian P. Simansky, Vorontsov's manual "was strongly influenced by Suvarov's precepts, and was appraised by the most favorite disciple of Suvarov, Prince Bagration; it was slightly corrected by him, as in some places it concerned only Narva infantry Regiment, and then in July 1812 it was dispatched to all units of the 2nd Army."

The "Manual to Infantry Officers on the Day of Battle" recognized the offensive as the fundamental form of combat. The principal manifestation of offensive combat was the bayonet attack, concluded with a vigorous pursuit of the defeated enemy. This "Manual" considered in detail the question of action in separate lines and in columns and about conducting aimed fire. The necessity of maintenance by skirmishers of a close communication with their columns was specified; movement forward was to be determined only by an order of the chief of division or battalion. If it was necessary to operate on separate line in forests, it was suggested to hold a reserve behind one of flanks in order to have an opportunity to envelope suddenly the flank of a counter-attacking enemy.

Attacks by enemy cavalry acting in separate lines was to be met by fire, having permitted the enemy to advance to within 150 paces; after that it would be necessary to divide into small groups of 10 and to repulse the enemy by fire and bayonets until the approach of reinforcements. Upon approaching, reinforcements were to be redeployed from a column into square, firing on enemy cavalry from a distance of 150 paces.

The "Manual" demanded that officers demonstrate constant care for their soldiers, to remind them of their duties and the oath, to explain what was required from them during military actions. Special attention was addressed to maintenance of trust in the virtue of "Russian bayonets", a spirit of boldness, courage and persistence in the fight. "Persistence and courage," declared the "Manual", "have won more battles than all other military talents taken altogether."

Dissemination of all rumors of disaster and panic, such as "we are cut off", were categorically forbidden, under a threat of severe punishments. It was specified in the "Manual" that: "Brave people are never cut off; wherever the enemy goes, turn your breast to follow and defeat him."

Thus, in the field of tactics, as well as in the field of strategy, Bagration acted as an innovator, a convinced supporter of decisive offensive action. He doggedly introduced advanced tactics; he dispensed with obsolete positional tactics and applied tactics of columns in a combination with separate lines. Paying great attention to the value of offensive combat, Bagration at the same time did not reject the opportunity to conduct defensive operations. He creatively approached planning for his assigned tasks, applying such forms of combat as provided exactly the right answers to particular circumstances. His practical legacy offers experience rich in the conduct of offensive battles as well as the development and practice of waging both advance and rear guard fights.

Bagration was the unsurpassed master of organization of these extremely complex kinds of actions. It was not casually that at the most crucial moments of wars of 1799-1807, it was Bagration who was appointed to command the rear guards and advance guards of the Russian Army. The engagements, conducted by Russian armies under Bagration's leadership during the Italian campaign of 1799, and also the advance and rear guard combats during the Swiss campaign of 1799 and war between of Russia and France in 1805-1807, belong among the finest accomplishments in Russian military art. Bagration built a process of education and training of soldiers on the basis of the system developed by A.V. Suvarov. He paid great attention to the training and education of troops to develop soldiers with courage and initiative, capable of carrying out orders quickly and skillfully.

Bagration constantly worried about soldiers' health, and that they were well clothed and be fed on time. S.G.Volkonsky, who during the Franco-Russian conflict of 1806-1807 was frequently was in Bagration's group, wrote:

"... I visited several times an avant garde where many of my friends were serving at Prince Bagration's headquarters. The hospitable manner of the Prince with subordinates, amicable relations between themselves, harmony, cleanliness in tents, the fresh and pleased appearance of the lower grades - proved the Prince's good treatment and attitude toward them, and in all hearts the pledge of general trust in him".

Cases of the careless attitude of other commanders towards their subordinates provoked feeling of deep indignation for Bagration. For example, in the order to the 2nd Western Army dated on February 13 (25), 1812, Bagration underlined the poor organization of medical treatment in the 11th Jager Regiment and specifically noted that soldiers were left without any attention owing to the carelessness of Dr. Baranovich, whom "I order to be arrested and detained for one month . . ."

While showing a concern for the soldier, however, Bagration at the same time demanded the maintenance of high military discipline, considering it to be the foundation of military service. "In military service," he wrote, "the first objective is order, subordination, discipline, unanimity and friendship." First of all Bagration was extremely demanding of himself. "...To execute the will of the sovereign, of the emperor and my commanders is the most sacred obligation which I follow and obey at every step of my service …. I love soldiers, I respect their bravery, and equally I demand order and discipline." Armies under Bagration's command were always distinguished by high discipline and, in some sense, this was one of the main reasons for their brilliant victories over enemies.

Bagration's military achievements had brought him great glory. "The God of an army" ("Bog [the God]-rati [army]-on [he is]") - thus was he named in the Russian army. Bagration's name was widely known not only in Russia, but also is far beyond its boundaries.

Many outstanding contemporary military figures of Western Europe estimated his military talent highly. In the opinion of Polish General Kolachkovsky, one of the participants of the 1812 campaign, Bagration "belonged among the most famous military leaders of his time" and might be numbered with the glorified military commanders like Napoleon, Suvarov, Kutusov, Ney, Davout and many others.

Napoleon himself considered Bagration to be the best general in the Russian army.

Bibliography

General Bagration. Summary of Documents and Materials published by Gospolizdat, 1945 (in Russian).

Borysov, S. Bagration Moscow : Ministry of Defense; 1958. (In Russian)

Clauzewitz. Napoleon's Russian Campaign, 1812 Moscow; 1957. (In Russian)

Davydov, Denis. Memoirs Moscow; 1985. (In Russian)

Ermolov, A. Notes of Aleksey Petrovich Ermolov part 1 (1801-1812), Moscow; 1865. (in Russian)

The Great Patriotic War 1812: Materials from the Military Archive of the General Headquarters Moscow; 1910-1911

Jorjadze, A. Military Art of Georgians Tbilisi; 1989. (In Georgian)

Field-Marshal Kutuvov. Summary of Documents and Materials, Moscow; 1947. (in Russian)

Military Encyclopedia volume IV (in Russian)

Polosyn, I. Bagration Moscow; 1950.

Rostunov, I. Bagration Moscow; 1957. (in Russian)

Sloane, W. The Life of Napoleon New York; 1896. (in English)

Sokhvadze, B. Barclay de Tolly during 1812 Tbilisi; 1995. (In Georgian)

Tarle, E. Napoleon's Campaign in Russia 1812 Moscow; 1989. (in Russian)

Zherve, V. Heroes of 1812, Barclay de Tolly and Bagration Moscow. (in Russian)

 

 

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