Initial Retreat of the Russian Army 1812

As the Russian armies retreated, discontent about the conduct of the war quickly increased among Russian officers and soldiers. Russia had not sustained a foreign invasion since that of Charles XII’s Swedes in 1709, and even that was defeated at Poltava. A contemporary recalled: ‘The victories of [Field Marshals] Peter Rumyantsev and Alexander Suvorov made the very word “retreat’’ reprehensible.’15 Throughout the 18th century, Russia fought victorious wars against Sweden, the Ottoman Empire, Persia and Poland. The 1799 Campaign in Italy, conducted by Alexander Suvorov, was regarded as a true reflection of Russian military spirit, and the setbacks in the Alps were overshadowed by heroic Russian exploits. The defeat at Austerlitz in 1805 was largely blamed on the Austrians, while the memories of Friedland were soothed by victories in Finland and Wallachia. So, on the eve of the French invasion, an offensive psychology prevailed in the Russian military. Many officers were unwilling to accept defensive warfare within Russia and were inflamed by a belligerent ardour to fight Napoleon. According to one Russian nobleman:

All letters from the Army are filled with aspiration of war and animation of the souls […] It is said that soldiers are eager to fight the foe and avenge the past defeats. The common desire is to advance and engage Napoleon in Prussia, but it seems that the Sovereign’s advisers are against this notion. They decided to wage a defensive war and let the enemy inside our borders; everyone aware of this German [italics added] strategy […] is extremely upset, considering it as the greatest crime.

And a few days into the war Colonel Zakrevsky complained:

We are retreating to that dreadful Drissa position that seems to doom us for destruction. [Our commanders] still cannot agree on what to do and, it seems, they make the worst decisions. The cursed Pfuel must be hanged, shot or tortured as the most ruinous man …

A letter written by General Rayevsky expressed similar sentiments: ‘I do not know what the Sovereign’s intentions are […] Pfuel’s voice is stronger than anyone’s […] Lord save us from such traitors.’ But Ivan Odental perhaps expressed the Army’s frustration best, writing: ‘it seems to me that Bonaparte gave our leaders large doses of opium. They are all dozing off while [worthless] men like Pfuel and Wolzogen are acting instead of them.’

Despite increasing criticism of Pfuel’s strategy, the Russian armies continued to withdraw towards the Drissa Camp. The 1st Western Army reached the camp on 8 July, when Alexander finally realized the laws of Pfuel’s plan and discarded it. Urged by his advisers, Alexander then left the Army without appointing a supreme commander. Barclay de Tolly took over the command of the 1st Western Army and also enjoyed authority over the 2nd Western Army based on his position as Minister of War.

On 14 July Barclay de Tolly abandoned the Drissa camp, detaching General Peter Wittgenstein with some 20,000 men to cover the route to St Petersburg. Barclay de Tolly then withdrew toward Smolensk, fighting rearguard actions at Vitebsk and Ostrovno. In the south, Bagration withdrew first on Minsk and then to Nesvizh and Bobruisk, eluding Napoleon’s enveloping manoeuvres and gaining minor victories at Mir and Romanovo. When Marshal Davout’s forces finally intercepted the 2nd Western Army at Moghilev, Bagration fought a diversion at Saltanovka on 23 July, while his troops crossed the Dnieper to the south and marched toward Smolensk through Mstislavl. On 2 August, the two Russian armies finally united at Smolensk, bringing their total strength to 120,000 as opposed to some 180,000 in Napoleon’s main force.

Meanwhile, in the north, French forces Marshal Oudinot attacked Wittgenstein, protecting the road to St Petersburg, taking Polotsk on 26 July. But in combats near Klyastitsy on 30 July–1 August, the French suffered a defeat, forcing Napoleon to divert Saint-Cyr to support Oudinot’s operations. And in the Baltic provinces, Macdonald’s corps was fighting near Riga, while the Russians redirected reinforcements from Finland. Finally, in the south, Tormasov defeated French forces at Kobrin and then pinned down Schwarzenberg and Reynier in the Volhynia region. On 31 July Chichagov’s Army of the Danube moved from Moldavia to support Tormasov.

Thus, by August 1812, Napoleon’s initial plan to destroy the Russian forces in a decisive battle had largely failed. The two main Russian armies eluded piecemeal destruction and united at Smolensk, while the Grand Army suffered high losses from strategic consumption and desertion.

By the time they reached Smolensk, the Russian armies were already reeling from an ongoing crisis of command. The continuous retreat stirred up discontent among the troops, with many senior officers opposing Barclay de Tolly’s defensive strategy. Relations between the two commanders-in-chief deteriorated after they began to exchange recriminating letters, each unaware of the difficulties the other faced. Yet this discord was far from a simple quarrel between two generals: it also represented political friction between foreign officers and members of the Russian aristocracy, most of whom preferred a straightforward stand-up fight and bitterly resented the surrender of every inch of Russian soil, blaming the outsiders for all their misfortunes. Needless to say, chances of a harmonious partnership between Barclay de Tolly (a Livonian of Scottish ancestry) and Bagration (a Georgian prince) were thus severely compromised.

Indeed, the two commanders gradually came to represent opposing fractions within the officer corps. Barclay de Tolly was surrounded by the so-called ‘German Party’, consisting of émigrés or the descendents of settlers. The latter were usually thoroughly Russified, but they still had foreign-sounding names, and many professed Protestantism or Catholicism, unlike the Orthodox Russians. The ‘Russian’ group naturally resented numerous foreign officers, who filled Alexander’s army in the wake of Napoleon’s European conquests. For many Russians, such an influx of foreign officers seemed to have undermined the very spirit of the Russian Army and many identified with Bagration’s complaint that: ‘our headquarters is so full of Germans that a Russian cannot breathe.’ Besides, many newcomers were incompetent or inexperienced but took advantage of their social standing and connections to obtain promotions, as Bagration observed: ‘wishing to become field marshals without reading any military journals or books […] Today the rogues and impudent upstarts are in favour.’

2–7 August: Mutiny of the Generals

Leading the Army against the French, Barclay de Tolly acted under great stress and would later note that ‘no other commander-in-chief operated in more unpleasant circumstances than I did.’ Although his Scottish family settled in Russia in the 17th century and loyally served its new motherland for decades, Barclay de Tolly was still perceived as a foreigner by the ‘real’ Russians. According to Jacob de Sanglen, head of the Military Police, on the eve of the war he warned Barclay de Tolly that: ‘it is troublesome to command the Russian troops in their native language but with a foreign name.’ Barclay de Tolly could not boast ancient nobility or titles – and he never became a wealthy estate and serf owner as many around him did – but his successful career and high social status caused envy and hostility among fellow officers, and this was exacerbated by his foreign origins.

The Russian prejudice against foreign officers had deep roots, and by 1812 it was ingrained in both the Army and society. Russian senior officers gradually formed an anti-Barclay opposition party aimed at his dismissal. Barclay’s own staff members, headed by Major General Yermolov – ‘the sphinx of modern times’ as he was described for his inscrutable, conspiratorial mind – intrigued against him. Unaware of the actual circumstances and exasperated by the retreat, officers taught the rank and file to call Barclay de Tolly by the nickname ‘Boltai da i tolko’ (‘All talk and nothing else’). Soldiers complained about the continual retreat since: ‘they were prejudiced against the word “retirada’’ [retreat], considering it alien to the dignity of the courageous soldiers, whom [Field Marshals] Rumyantsev and Suvorov trained to advance and gain victory.’

Thus, confidence in the Commander-in-Chief was undermined and every new stage of the retreat intensified the malicious rumours about him. It was hard for Barclay de Tolly to parry thrusts of criticism since his cautious, albeit sensible, policy contrasted with the popular ideas of Bagration and his fire-eating supporters. One of the Russian officers understood that Barclay’s defensive strategy was ‘prudent’ but also noted ‘the extremely negative impact’ it had on the commander-in-chief: ‘The common view about him was that of a treacherous German; naturally, this was followed by mistrust and even hatred and contempt that were openly expressed.’

Bagration, with his impeccable reputation and eagerness to fight, certainly fared much better in the eyes of the common soldier. A contemporary remarked: ‘The difference in the spirit of the two armies was that the 1st Army relied only on itself and the Russian God, while the 2nd Army also trusted Prince Bagration […] His presence, eagle-like appearance, cheerful expression and keen humour inspired soldiers.’ Similar sentiments are echoed by Yermolov, who noted a dramatic difference in the state of the armies as they reached Smolensk:

The 1st Army was exhausted by the continuous withdrawal and soldiers began to mutiny; there were cases of insubordination and agitation […] At the same time, the 2nd Western Army arrived [at Smolensk] in an entirely different state of mind. The music and joyful songs animated soldiers. These troops showed only pride for the danger they had overcome and the readiness to face and overcome a new danger. It seemed as if the 2nd Western Army did not retreat from the Nieman to the Dnieper, but covered this distance in triumph.

Such were the passions on the eve of the junction at Smolensk, and the impending meeting of the two generals was naturally expected to be intense.

Yet, to everyone’s surprise, when they encountered each other on 2 August both commanders displayed unusual tact, realizing the importance of restoring a workable partnership.

When Bagration arrived, accompanied by his generals and aides-de-camp, Barclay de Tolly met him wearing a parade uniform complete with medals, sash, and plumed bicorn in hand. The two commanders then had a private conversation and each apologized for any injustice he might have caused the other. Bagration praised Barclay’s withdrawal from Vitebsk and Barclay de Tolly complimented Bagration on the skilful manner in which he had eluded Napoleon’s trap.

Bagration was pleased with this meeting and though senior in rank, agreed to subordinate himself to Barclay de Tolly. Unity of command was thus achieved for the moment. Alas, such cordiality between the generals would survive a mere seven days.

7–14 August: Offensive at Last

With the Russian armies concentrated at Smolensk the question was what to do next? Should the armies continue retreating or take advantage of their combined strengths and launch an offensive? The majority of officers, and Russian society in general, demanded a more vigorous conduct of the war. Minor successes at Mir, Romanovo, Ostrovno, Saltanovka, and Klyastitsy were already portrayed as great victories, which only intensified calls for an offensive. In early August, Pavel Pushin, serving in the 3rd Battalion of the Semeyonovsk Life Guard Regiment, noted in his diary the general restlessness prevailing in the Army: ‘We all are burning with impatience to fight, each of us is willing to shed blood to the very last drop, and, if commanded properly, we will inflict heavy losses on the enemy.’ Three days later the Army learned about Count Wittgenstein’s victory at Polotsk and the news only intensified the sentiments.

To many soldiers it seemed that the fruits of these victories were wasted by their high command (coincidentally full of ‘German’ officers) and Russian soil was being surrendered to the enemy without a fight. Bagration certainly echoed the opinion of many when he wrote to Barclay de Tolly:

With our armies finally uniting, we accomplished the goal set by our Emperor [Alexander]. With so many experienced troops gathered together, we now enjoy a superiority, which [Napoleon] tried to exploit while we were separated. Now, our goal must be to attack the [French] centre and defeat it while [the French] forces are scattered […] We would seize our destiny with one blow […] The entire Army and all of Russia demand [attack].

Conceding to public pressure, Barclay de Tolly called a council of war on 6 August. The council agreed to an attack and next day the Russian armies advanced westward in three columns on a 20-mile front. The weather was dry and the advance rapid. Yermolov recalled that the soldiers were in high spirits because: ‘the order to attack was finally given and it [was] impossible to describe the joy of our troops! Smolensk watched in bewilderment at our forces’ eagerness to fight; the Dnieper vociferously flowed, proud of the orderly movement of our troops!’

But the advance also revealed an ongoing disagreement between Bagration and Barclay de Tolly. One day after the offensive began Barclay de Tolly received news, later proved incorrect, that the French were advancing towards Porechye, north of Smolensk. Fearing Napoleon would turn his right lank, Barclay de Tolly ordered his troops to veer to the right to cover the Porechye–Smolensk route. Bagration opposed the change in direction of the 1st Western Army’s advance, since he anticipated Napoleon’s actual attack on the left flank.

Barclay de Tolly ignored Bagration’s pleas and remained on the Porechye route, awaiting new intelligence. His order to Platov (leader or Ataman of the Don Cossacks) to halt did not reach him in time, and acting under original instructions, Platov continued his march north-west, making a sudden attack on General Sébastiani’s division near Inkovo (Molevo Boloto). Instead of trying to exploit this initial success by mounting a major attack in this direction (as envisaged by the council of war), Barclay de Tolly remained idle on the Porechye route, still believing that the main threat to Smolensk lay from the north. A Russian general complained:

Instead of rapid movement that would have secured our success, the armies were given a useless rest and the enemy gained additional time to concentrate his forces! […] Circumstances still favoured us and had our Commander-in-Chief showed more firmness in his intentions [we would have succeeded]. Of course, the defeat at [Inkovo] awakened the French, but they were about to suffer from further attacks and had no time to avoid them. Yet, the Commander-in-Chief not only evaded executing the adopted plan but completely changed it.

This was a decisive blow to the Russian counter-offensive. The Russian armies remained inactive for days as Barclay de Tolly dithered, thus alerting Napoleon to Russian intentions and permitting him to prepare his troops accordingly. Finally, on 12 August, Barclay de Tolly learned that his intelligence regarding a French concentration at Porechye was incorrect and that Napoleon had assembled his army at Babinovichi, on the Dnieper, threatening the left flank of the Russian Army, as Bagration had anticipated days before. He responded by withdrawing his troops from the Porechye road to the Rudnya route on 13 August. The Russian troops reacted bitterly: the soldiers were grumbling and, after marching several times through the village of Shelomets, they called Barclay’s manoeuvres ‘oshelomelii’ or ‘dumbfounding’.

The sudden cancellation of the planned attack, lack of information on Barclay de Tolly’s plans, constant changes in orders and delayed manoeuvres aroused feelings of dismay in many Russian officers, and in Bagration above all. He clearly saw the threat to the Russian left lank but could not convince Barclay de Tolly to believe him. He complained:

I still believe that there are no enemy forces [in the direction of Porechye] […] I would be glad to coordinate my actions with [the 1st Western Army] but [Barclay de Tolly] is making twenty changes in a minute. For God’s sake, please do not change the strategy every minute; [we] must have some kind of system to act upon.

Russian senior officers who disliked Barclay de Tolly before now openly despised him. Conspiracy theories lourished in this fertile ground: especially after the Russians, searching Sébastiani’s headquarters at Molevo Boloto, found a message from Marshal Murat describing the Russian offensive. Could it be that someone at Barclay de Tolly’s headquarters had notiied the enemy about the counter-offensive? On 12 August, Pavel Pushin of the Semeyonovskii Life Guard Regiment noted in his diary:

A few days ago, General Sébastiani’s personal papers were captured. Notes were found in his portfolio that contained numbers, places and day-by-day movement of our corps. Rumours have it that, as a result, all suspicious persons were removed from headquarters, including Flügel Adjutants and Counts …

Not surprisingly, all of these persons were non-Russians, mostly Poles. It later transpired that the Polish Prince Lubomirski, one of the adjutants, accidentally overheard several generals discussing Russian offensive plans in the street and had sent a message to his mother, urging her to lee the coming bloodshed. Murat – who was billeted at Lubomirski’s family home – had intercepted this letter. Another incident further increased Russian suspicions against the Poles in particular. As the troops marched back and forth between Prikaz Vydra and Shelomets, some soldiers noticed:

a woman following our columns and, when asked, she always replied that she was with General Lavrov. Everyone was satisfied with her answer until one joker decided to flirt with her and, in a moment of passion, tore off her hat, which revealed a male head underneath. It appeared that he was a spy; he was [arrested] and sent to headquarters.

14–19 August: Napoleon Strikes Back – The Battles of Krasnyi, Smolensk and Lubino

Russian hesitation gave Napoleon enough time to adjust his plans. His first reaction to news of the action at Inkovo had been to suspend preparations for the drive on Smolensk, followed by an order to concentrate the Grand Army around Lyosno, in order to meet the Russians. But by 10 August Barclay de Tolly’s indecision convinced Napoleon that the Russian offensive presented no significant threat. Meanwhile, an opportunity to deal the enemy a decisive blow had presented itself.

Napoleon’s manoeuvre on Smolensk was a masterpiece. He concentrated his corps on a narrow front between Orsha and Rosasna on the northern bank of the Dnieper; then, under cover of a heavy cavalry screen, the Grand Army crossed to the southern bank. Napoleon’s plan was to advance eastwards along the left bank, taking Smolensk while the Russians were preoccupied with the northern approaches.

By daylight on 14 August almost the entire Grand Army was across the Dnieper and advancing on Smolensk. However, Napoleon’s plan was thwarted by a small Russian detachment led by General Neverovsky, which Bagration had deployed at Krasnyi to watch for any potential flanking manoeuvres. Neverovsky’s troops made a successful fighting retreat to Smolensk, ‘retreating like lions’ as one French officer described it. Their exploits enthralled the Russian Army, and future guerrilla leader Denis Davidov reflected what many felt at the time: ‘I remember how we looked at this division, as it approached us in midst of smoke and dust. Each bayonet shone with an immortal glory.’

Without Neverovky’s staunch resistance at Krasnyi, the French might well have reached Smolensk by the evening of the 14 August and taken the city, cutting the Russian line of retreat. However, as a result of this action, Napoleon decided to halt his advance for a day in order to regroup his forces, missing his chance of taking Smolensk by surprise.

Hearing of Napoleon’s flanking attack, both Russian armies rushed back to Smolensk. On 15–16 August the Russians repulsed French assaults on Smolensk but were nonetheless forced to abandon the city. Smolensk was almost completely destroyed and of 2,250 buildings only 350 remained intact. Meanwhile, of the city’s 15,000 inhabitants only 1,000 remained in its smoking, smouldering wreck. The Russians lost about 10,000 men in the two-day battle. French losses reached a similar figure, though Russian sources often claim as many as 20,000 French casualties.

As the Russians withdrew to Moscow, Napoleon attempted to cut their line of retreat but at the Battle of Valutina Gora (Lubino) on 19 August Barclay de Tolly’s army succeeded in clearing its way to Dorogobuzh. Once again the fighting proved bloody, this battle claiming over 7,000 French and around 6,000 Russian casualties.

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