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Too Many Foreigners in the Russian Army?

Bagration versus Barclay de Tolly

Prince Bagration as a Tactician


"The Mutiny of Generals

Part II: Internal Divisions

By Alexander Mikaberidze , FINS

Too Many Foreigners in the Russian Army?

Bagration himself arrived to Smolensk on 2 August to discuss with Barclay de Tolly the future war plans. This meeting was of a great importance for the Russian military. The persistent discord between Barclay and Bagration was neither a simple quarrel between two generals, nor mere disagreement on strategy. This conflict now became a political discord between the old Russian aristocracy and the "foreigners, the so-called "Germans and the Russian society watched this opposition with a passionate interest.

The main reason of this tension was the difference of views on the strategy among the senior officers and both commanders-in-chief represented relevant opposing parties. Barclay de Tolly was surrounded by the "German party, mainly consisted of the officers with foreign origins and migrs from Europe, who supported defensive strategy . Opposing to them, there was a "Russian party led by Bagration who uphold an offensive warfare. It should be noted that the "Russian party expressed opinion of the majority of the Russian army. Grand Duke Constantine and generals Alexander Ermolov, Nikolay Rayevsky, Dimitry Dokhturov, Matvei Platov, Illarion Vasyl'chykov, Nikolay Tuckov, Paul Tuchkov and Alexander Tuchkov, Peter Konovnitsyn, Paul Shuvalov and others - they all believed in the possibility of defeating Napoleon by vigorous offensive and supported Bagration's appeals. Denis Davidov recalled that,

"inspired with ardent love to our mother land, Prince [Bagration], with unrestrained ardor characteristic of all Asians, felt anger against Barclay; this feeling, based only on antipathy to the German party, considerably increased due to constant retreat of our troops.[1]

Bagration was particularly against the hundreds of foreign officers who filled the Russian army. Most of them were Prussians, who after the disastrous campaign of 1806, when Napoleon's troops virtually annihilated the Prussian army, emigrated to Russia and enlisted in the Russian army. With them, the spirit of Prussian army was brought to the Russian military that most of the Russian generals, including Prince Bagration, detested. In letter to Arakcheyev, Bagration complained, "the whole headquarters is so full of Germans that a Russian can not breathe[2]. In the letter to Paul Stroganov, he described Barclay's headquarters, specifying that "people around the minister wish to become field marshals without reading any military journals or [other writings]. Today the rogues and impudent upstarts are in favor.[3]

Bagration versus Barclay de Tolly

Personal relations of Bagration and Barclay de Tolly are remarkable for their complexity. Both generals fought in 1806-1807 campaign in Poland and 1808-1809 campaign in Sweden, and established friendly relations with each other. A contemporary wrote that "after Pultusk and Eylau, Prince Bagration highly respected Barclay de Tolly and often praised him.[4] But in 1812 their relationship rapidly deteriorated, and one of the reasons for this laid in their personalities. Count de Segur gives an excellent description of them:

"On the one side we have the cool courage and the informed methodical and tenacious intelligence of Barclay: he had a German mind, as well as a German blood and he wished to reduce everything even risks to the process of calculations. On other hand we encounter the warlike, bold and violent instincts of Bagration, an out-out Russian of the school of Suvorov. Bagration was terrible in combat, but he read in no other books save the one of nature[5]

General Alexander Ermolov, chief-of-staff of the 1st Western Army also left interesting portrays of these remarkable men.

"Prolonged subordinate service concealed Barclay de Tolly in obscurity, made him accustomed to gradual promotion, constricted his hopes and ambition. Prince Bagration on contrary rapidly became famous. The Italian Campaign [of 1799] promoted him; Suvorov's genius bestowed him with fame, gathered homage that attracted great attention; encouraged abilities inspired his self confidence. Being quickly promoted to the rank of general, then appointed as Minister of War and soon after as commander-in-chief of the 1st Western army, Barclay de Tolly was envied by many. Awkward at the court, he did not earn respect and well-disposal of the people close to the Tsar. Being unexcited, he was not liked neither by his colleagues, nor by subordinates. At the same time, Bagration was also appointed on the same high positions (except for the post of the Minister of War) but his success was concurred with expectations and estimations. Certainly he caused envy, but did not gain enemies. Of smart and cunning wit, he made powerful connections at the Court[6]

Leading his army against the French, Barclay de Tolly was acting under the great moral stress. His own staff members headed by General Alexander Ermolov, "the sphinx of the modern times[7] as he was called because of his diplomatic skills and intrigues, was conspiring against him. The agitation against Barclay came from senior officers, who taught the rank-and-file to call Barclay de Tolly by the nickname "Boltai da i tolko - "All talk and nothing more. Barclay de Tolly's position became precarious from the very beginning of the campaign. Confidence in the commander-in-chief was undermined and every new stage of the retreat intensified the malicious rumors about him. It was hard for him to parry Bagration's thrusts. Barclay had neither a heroic career nor a brilliant reputation of the Suvorov's disciple. He lacked everything that Bagration had in such abundance. A diligent administrator and reformer, he gained Alexander's confidence by his executive ability and firmness. As Minister of War, the cautious strategist instinctively hit on the correct tactics.

Prince Bagration as a Tactician

Prince Bagration was then in the prime of his strength and on the crest of his military reputation. Suvorov's campaigns covered him with fame. It was known that Bagration and Kutuzov had been Suvorov's favorites, his best disciples and aides and that of the two, Bagration had learned the Suvorov's tactics more thoroughly. Countless tales and legends circulated about him. He retained an extraordinary presence of mind in the most desperate situations and was known to endanger his life in the circumstances where the odds seemed a hundred to one against him. The rank-and-file knew this well; they worshipped Bagration as no one else, except for Kutuzov. He was a magnetic personality who could fire his men to attempt an impossible, as he did at Schongraben and Bothnia Gulf.

A possible problem for Bagration was his uncontrolled temper. Not that he was inflammable, on the contrary, he often amazed everyone by an impressive calm, taciturnity, restraint and dignity of manner. But when he found an object which seemed to him worthy of his wrath and hatred, his anger knew no bounds and he would not restrain the force of his blows. And the blows of his anger were often out of proportion to the actual situation. Thoughh his animosity was the outcome of temporary ill-temper, as were his occasional unjust remarks concerning Barclay. Bagration regarded Barclay's tactics as bad. He was impatient to fight, but his insignificant forces could not face Napoleon's enormous army without being destroyed and his all appeals to Barclay remained unanswered. Bagration's rage grew steadily, because for want of support from Barclay he himself was forced to retire and this he considered ruinous for Russia.

Bagration is often portrayed as reckless general, whose only strategy was to blindly attack and fight the enemy; a commander with a violent temper, limited strategic sense, tactical skills no more than moderate, unfitted for large independent command. Yet, this is an unjust assumption. Bagration was equally able to conduct offensive and defensive warfare. In 1799, 1805 and 1806, 1807 and 1809 campaigns he successfully commanded his troops, justly deserving the name of the one of the most skillful commanders of the Russian army. A number of scholars seem to have a distorted picture of Bagration. They so often refer to his impetuous nature as if this made him too reckless for high command. Yet, reading Bagration's record of service, one is amazed by his actions in Italy and Switzerland, at Schongraben, Austerlitz, Eylau, Heilsberg and Friedland. Bagration often took calculated risks, but he never was reckless and arrogant. He was distinguished for his extreme composure at the battlefield and massive taciturn in peace time. It is still a matter of debate whether Bagration had the right temperament for overall command, some saying he lacked mastery of strategy and therefore did not understand Barclay's strategy. It is true that the lack of military education prevented Bagration from becoming a great strategist. Born in a small town in periphery of the empire, he did not graduated from any school (not saying about military) and his military knowledge was inborn, based on huge personal experience. Even his great admirer, famous guerrilla leader Denis Davidov has to admit that Prince lacked knowledge of the military theory.[8] Nevertheless, Bagration showed an instinctive strategic sense and this did not prevent him to understand the necessity of the withdrawal. Though kept unaware on the strategy pursued by the high command, Bagration conceived Napolon's designs and in his initial reports to Barclay de Tolly emphasized the necessity of the retreat, requesting permission to withdraw to Minsk. Bagration's decision to withdraw on his own initiative at the very beginning of the war, without relevant order from the central headquarters, was of a vital importance for the Russian armies. It gave the 2nd Western Army three-four days advantage over the French and an opportunity to retreat before the coordinated advance of Napoleon's forces. Bagration agreed with Barclay on the necessity of the retreat, but he did insisted also on the active offensive warfare. After actions at Mir, Romanovo, Ostrovno, Saltanovka, Klyastitsy and others, Bagration was convinced that the Russian army was able to wage defensive warfare combined with offensive raids. Seeing the Russian armies retreating Bagration was in a state of almost uninterrupted irritation. He appealed for the offensive and criticized Barclay's strategy. In letter to Arakcheyev on July 8, he wrote,

"I am not to blame for anything. First they stretched me out like a gut, while the enemy broke into our lines without a shot. We began to retreat, no one knows why. You will get no one in the army, or in Russia, to believe that we have not been betrayed. I can not defend all Russia alone. I am completely encircled and can not say yet where shall I break through. I implore you to advance against the enemy or else it shall be the worse for us when the enemy comes and perhaps on the domestic front as well. It does not befit Russian to run. We are behaving worse than the Prussians. One feels ashamed. I have no peace and I do not live for myself, God is my witness; I am glad to do everything in my power, but you must have a conscience and be just. You will continue retiring, and I am asked to break through. If my person can not be borne here, better have me released from the yoke which is on my neck and send someone else to command. But why torment the soldiers without purpose and satisfaction ?[9]

In another letter, Prince complained:

"One feels ashamed to wear the uniform. I feel sick. What a fool. The minister himself is running away, yet he orders me to defend all of Russia. We were brought to the frontier, then scattered about everywhere like pawns and there we stood, our mouths agape, befouling the entire frontier and then running away. I must confess, I am so disgusted with the whole business that I am nearly out of my wits. As for me, I am going to swap my uniform for a peasant's robe.[10]


[1] Tartarovsky, Nerazgadannyi Barklai: legendy i byl' 1812 goda [Unknown Barclay: Legends and Tales of 1812], (Moscow, 1996), 65.

[2] Bagration to Arakcheyev, 10 August, 1812, Correspondence of Bagration, 226.

[3] Pisma kniazya P.I. Bagrationa grafu P.A. Stroganovu [Correspondence of Prince P.I. Bagration with Count P.A. Stroganov], Istoricheskoe issledovanie epokhi imperatora Alexandra I (St. Petersburg, 1903), III, 259.

[4] Vospominania F. Bulgarina, [Memoirs of F. Bulgarin] (St. Petersburg, 1848) IV, 172.

[5]Sgur, Philippe Paul, comte de, Histoire de Napolon et de la grande-arme pendant l'anne 1812, (Paris, 1825) I, 264.

[6] Ermolov, Memoirs,14-15.

[7] Tartarovsky, Unknown Barclay, 84.

[8] D. V. Davidov, Sochinenya [Compilation of writings], (St. Petersburg, 1893), I, 133.

[9] Bagration to Arakcheyev, 8 July, 1812, Headquarters' archives, XVI, 215-16.

[10] Bagration to Ermolov, 27 July, 1812, Tarle, Napoleon's Invasion of Russia, 91.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2001

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