Napoleon’s Polish Campaign: General Peter Bagration during January – February 1807
Part I: A Surprise Winter Campaign
By Alexander Mikaberidze, Chairman of the Napoleonic Society of Georgia
Having described, in my previous article, Bagration’s role in the Russian campaign of 1812, I decided to give an account of his participation in another important Napoleonic war, that of the 1807 campaign in Poland.
An Extension of the Austerlitz & Jena Campaigns
Following his brilliant campaigns of 1805-1806, when the best troops of Russia, Austria and Prussia were crushed in the Danube valley and Germany, Napoleon was on his way to become the de facto master of Europe. Britain had limited her war efforts to peripheral operations in the Mediterranean and Latin America while subsidizing the other members of the Coalition. To undermine her ability to remain a paymaster to anti-French coalitions, Napoleon resolved on economic warfare. In November 1806, he decreed the Continental System, declaring a blockade of the British Isles and closing all French controlled ports to British trade. If largely ineffective, attempts to enforce and expand the system drove Napoleon further toward ever more costly wars. On 16 November, Prussia, whose armies had been routed at Jena-Auerstadt, had signed an armistice at the chateau of Charlottenburg. Peace negotiations were to follow, but if they should fail, the two parties pledged themselves not to resume hostilities without giving ten days’ notice. It was King of Prussia, Frederick William, who had taken a refuge at Osterode and denounced the armistice, relying on the Russian armies to beat Napoleon.
After the disastrous defeat at Austerlitz, Russia began to reorganize its military forces. Until 1806 the line regiments were grouped in Inspections, an organizational framework which was now gradually replaced by divisions and corps. Furthermore, the number of Jager regiments was significantly increased from 22 in 1805, to 32 in 1806. In 1805, the Inspector General of Artillery, Aleksey Arakcheev, launched a major reform of the artillery, introducing a new range of guns to replace the old Russian system. By 1806, Russia had mobilized another two armies under the respective commands of General Count Levin Bennigsen and General Friedrich Wilhelm Buxhowden. Together these armies, comprising about 90,000 men, compelled Napoleon to engage in several more months of fighting; once again a war was waged.
In November 1806, Bennigsen moved into central Poland but on the approach of Louis-Nicolas Davout, followed by Jean Lannes, Nicolas-Jean de Dieu Soult and Joachim Murat, he retired across the Vistula to concentrate around Pultusk from where he threatened Napoleon’s communications. In late December Napoleon tried to destroy Bennigsen through a manoeuvre sur les derrieres, but bad weather and road conditions prevented the execution of this plan. The Russians escaped from a net that was spread wide, and the actions at Pultusk and Golymin showed that the swift and brilliant strategy of previous campaigns was not to be repeated amid the rigors of a Polish winter.
Benningsen retired north. Napoleon realized that he was nearing the end of his operational range and that the troops’ morale was low. In Poland, the poorest region in Europe, it was impossible to live off the land. There were substantial magazines in Prussia, but poor roads and cold weather hampered movement of supplies. But with Bennigsen pushed north, Napoleon was able to disperse his army into winter quarters spread across a vast area north of Warsaw.
Holding court in Warsaw, he hinted at future Polish independence and enlisted Polish troops. Two Polish and two Italian divisions, joined by a Baden contingent, were formed as a provisional army corps under Marshal Lefebvre to invest Prussian-held Danzig, though at this time no close siege was yet possible. Napoleon needed the port to ease his supply problem.
The Russian Offensive Opens: Hunting Marshal Ney
Meanwhile, on 2 January 1807, the Russian command held a council of war at Nowogrod where a plan of the future operations against Napoleon was decided upon. It was determined that the 14th Division and the two divisions under General Count Pierre Essen, now approaching from Moldavia, were to be left between the Bug and the Narew rivers to watch and occupy the French right wing. The remaining divisions would assemble by the beginning of January, between Biala and the right bank of the Narew, for an advance behind the Johannisburg forest into East Prussia against the French left wing. By launching an unexpected and unseasonable offensive in north Poland against Napoleon’s flank, General Bennigsen had reason to hope that he could surprise the extended French left wing scattered in bivouacs, and then be able to press forward to force the Vistula line, thus placing his army in a good position for the spring campaign.
Bennigsen moved on 6 January up the left bank of the Narew, by Lomsa, to Tykoczin, with the 2nd, 3rd, 4th 6th 8th and 14th divisions, arriving there on 8 January. Crossing the Narew river, he marched for Goniondz, where received the Tsar’s orders conferring on him the Order of St. George in recognition of his action at Pultusk and, what he prized still more, the chief command of the army. Meanwhile, on 3 January, General Peter Bagration had arrived from St. Petersburg and joined the army as a commander of the advance guard. On 12 January, some 75,000 Russian troops crossed the river Bobra, now covered with thick ice, using the vast expanse of forests to conceal their march from the Murat’s cavalry screen, and by 14 January were at Biala, where Buxhowden left for Russia, surrendering the command of his army to Bennigsen. The march of the Russian army to northwest was aimed at cutting off the advanced French left wing (Ney and Bernadotte), and forcing Napoleon, by a movement on the Lower Vistula, to withdraw from the Vistula’s left bank.
French Marshal Michel Ney had, by this time, advanced northward, despite orders from Napoleon prohibiting all forward movements intended to provoke Russian reaction. The Emperor desired to leave them quiet for a period, while he himself was busy making preparations for the spring campaign. Nevertheless, early in January Ney began to move towards Königsberg. His primary motive was the lack of supplies. Although there were plenty of supplies in Prussia, extremely cold weather and bad roads significantly delayed their availability and arrival. Therefore Ney felt compelled to move further northward and search for rations and fodder. His light cavalry marched on Guttstadt by Passenheim and Oertelsburg and in the following days his headquarters were first at Wartenburg; then at Allenstein, with his troops dispersed all over the neighboring countryside. On 9 January, Ney proposed a strong reconnaissance to determine if the Russians were still covering Königsberg, but eventually he abandoned the idea in consequence of fresh news. By this time Ney had, unwittingly, advanced too far from the general line of the French positions. The Marshal had no positive news about either of his fellow marshals, Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte and Nicolas Jean Soult, or about the location of the Russian army. But since his troops were occupying a well-supplied countryside, Ney decided to bivouac there.
Napoleon was informed on Ney’s advance only on 16 January. Furious that his orders had been disobeyed, the Emperor blamed Ney for stirring up the Russians. Until that time, Napoleon had confidently presumed that Ney had obeyed his orders and stayed within the perimeter of original advance. The Emperor still had no information on the movement of the Russians’ main forces under Bennigsen on the right flank. Cold weather, lack of supplies and almost unknown territory made it difficult to get dispatches and reports in time. As a result, the French headquarters possessed out-dated intelligence on Bennigsen’s location, the latter, who by this time was moving northwest on the right bank of the Narew, in the general direction of Biala – Arys – Rhein. Nevertheless, hearing about Ney’s advance to the north, Napoleon became suspicious and anticipated the approaching Russian counter-strike.
From 25 January, the Emperor sent a series of orders intending to meet any eventualities on the left flank. Marshal Francois Joseph Lefebvre, who had been ordered to proceed with the 10th Corps towards Danzig, was now re-directed to Thorn with instructions to hold it at any cost. Marshal Pierre Augereau was dispatched to pass the Vistula and concentrate at Plonsk, while Nicolas Charles Oudinot was to leave Kalisch, and reach Lowicz by the 31st.
Bennigsen’s intended operations would have been successful, but the implementation of his scheme depended on the rapidity of action and skill of the commander. Bennigsen demonstrated either attribute. The movement of the Russian army, although not discovered by the French, was too slow and indecisive and as a result the Russians missed an opportunity to cut off Ney’s corps.
Napoleon, receiving intelligence of the movement of the Russian army toward Schippenbeil and Bischofstein, prepared to make his blow a crushing one. He anticipated that by proceeding further to the west, Bennigsen would inevitably expose his left flank and rear to an attack of the French main forces. Napoleon at once determined a new scheme according to which his left flank was at Thorn, while rest of troops move wheeling from Thorn to his right and center, driving Bennigsen into the angle between the Lower Vistula and the Frisches-Haff. To this end, Napoleon ordered a general advance to Allenstein. Murat was to assemble his troops at Raciaz, while the Emperor himself proceeded with his headquarters to Prasznitz and Willemburg; Marshal Soult’s forces would concentrate at Willemburg. Ney was ordered to cover Soult’s left, and, with Augereau now marching on Mlawa, to unite with Bernadotte.
Meanwhile, Ney, having not received yet the orders from Imperial Headquarters and unaware of the Russians’ approach, still had his cavalry at Schippenbeil. On 19 January, these French elements were encountered by Bagration’s advance detachment under Golitsyn, who was exploring the roads from Rhein towards Königsberg on the right, and Bischofstein on the left. On the same day, General Lestocq managed to unite with the Russian right flank. Meanwhile, because the main Russian forces marched from Rhein in three columns, Bagration had decided to divide his advance guard into three parts to cover each of main.
On 20 January, Bagration established his headquarters at Roessel, on the midway between Rastenburg and Bischofstein, while Golitsyn was attacking Ney’s corps in the north. By the 21st January, Lestocq’s Prussians and the Russians took positions on the line from Schippenbeil to Bischofstein.
That day at Bischofstein, Ney’s light cavalry under Auguste Colbel, retreating from Schippenbeil through Bartenstein, was attacked by Bagration’s advance guard, and driven back to Seeburg. Simultaneously, Bagration sent detachments to penetrate further as far as Heilsberg and to move on towards the river Passarge, while the Russian main forces were halted. By 22 January, Ney succeeded in making good his retreat, though with losses, to Neidenburg, where he extended his corps towards Soult on his right, and Bernadotte on his left.
First Clash: Mohrungen
With these first success, the Russian and Prussian forces continued advance. On the 22nd, Prussian troops marched from Schippenbeil towards Bartenstein and pushed outposts towards Landsberg. On 24 January, the Russian headquarters were already at Heilsberg, with advance guard approaching the Liebstadt where, after a short fight, they defeated the French rearguard and captured about 300 French cavalry and infantry. On the 25th, Bennigsen’s headquarters reached Arensdorf, his left column, passing the Alle at Guttstadt, reached the Passarge at Deppen, while Bagration directed the advance guard forward to Alt-Reichau on the road to Mohrungen. The right column of the Russian army marched through Arensdorf to Liebstadt.
Upon receiving the news of the Russian’s advance, Bernadotte immediately ordered Dupont’s division, Laplanche’s dragoons, and the light cavalry to assemble at Preussisch Holland. Pursuing the retreating forces of Bernadotte, Bagration’s advance guard under Markow encountered the French on 25 January at Mohrungen. Bernadotte immediately prepared to attack superior Russians. The fight continued for the whole of the 25th, with considerable losses on both sides. During the clash, Bernadotte was informed that the Russian cavalry had suddenly appeared behind him at Mohrungen, thus cutting the French line of retreat. This threat was posed by the squadrons of the left wing of the Russian army that, moving through Alt Reichau and passing between Narien and Mahrung lakes, had advanced to Mohrungen and captured the baggage and supply columns. Besides these, they had captured some 300 French troops and released about 200 Russian and Prussian prisoners. Hearing the firing to his rear, Bernadotte at once counter-marched with his men to attack the Russians there, driving them out of Mohrungen and capturing one detachment. The losses were heavy for both sides, with French casualties totaling in 26 officers and 670 men killed and wounded, and 400 prisoners, while the Russians counted losses of 1,100 killed and wounded, 300 prisoners.
The action in front of Mohrungen might have involved Bernadotte in a serious disaster, since he should have taken measures to protect the area between the lakes on his right rear. Probably he felt that he had not sufficient troops available to be able to spare any for this purpose. After the clash at Mohrungen, Bernadotte retreated on Liebemuhl.
Meanwhile Bennigsen occupied Mohrungen with part of his main army on 26 January, the rest coming up on the next day. Bagration sent on his advance guards to Allenstein upon its evacuatation by Bernadotte’s forces, which marched on Lobau. On the 28th, Bennigsen, seeing the exhaustion of the soldiers from continual marching, decided to rest and replenish his supplies.
Napoleon’s Polish Campaign continued… Part II: Napoleon Springs a Trap Part III: The Battle of Eylau Bibliography