The French Army at Smolensk 1812


Peter von Hess (1792-1871). Battle of Smolensk (1812).


At 2 p.m., seeing that the Russians were not going to come out and give battle, Napoleon gave the order for a general assault on the city. Over two hundred guns opened up, and three corps of the Grande Armée went into action. It was an unforgettable sight for those present. The city of Smolensk lies on a slope descending to the river Dnieper, on the side of a great amphitheatre, the other side of which is made up by the slope rising from the other side of the river. This was occupied by Barclay’s army, which could see the whole city across the river and the French attacking it from three sides. As the French attackers went into action, their comrades watched from the top of the slope, cheering them on. The weather was fine, the troops were in full dress uniform, and they went into the attack with their bands playing. It was a magnificent spectacle.

In the centre were Davout’s three divisions, under Generals Morand, Gudin and Friant; on the left Ney with two divisions, one of them of Württembergers; on the right Poniatowski with two divisions, and on his right General Bruyère’s cavalry division; a total of some 50,000 men. The French columns lumbered forward. Bruyère’s horsemen charged a body of Russian dragoons under General Skallon and swept them off the field, killing their commander. The infantry penetrated the suburbs and forced the defenders to retreat. The Russians attempted a counterattack, but this was beaten back in fierce hand-to-hand fighting. ‘On both days at Smolensk, I attacked with the bayonet,’ recalled the Russian General Neverovsky. ‘God preserved me, and I only had three bulletholes in my coat.’ Eventually the French reached the city walls, which they then tried, vainly, to escalade. They had no ladders, so all they could do was attempt to climb them.

Auguste Thirion of the 2nd Cuirassiers went to get a better view from the emplacement of one of the French batteries, which was being shelled by Russian guns from the heights on the other side of the river. ‘I cannot conceive how a single man or a single horse could escape that mass of cannonballs coming from two sides and crossing in the midst of those batteries,’ he wrote, but it did not prevent him enjoying the spectacle. ‘We also saw at our feet infantry laboriously descending into the ditches, or rather the ravines which made up the moat of the fortress. It was a Polish division which was trying to storm those rocks with a courage, a desperation worthy of greater success; these brave men tried to scale them by climbing on each other’s shoulders. But the nature of the terrain would not permit of success, and it was a unique and curious spectacle to see that ant-like mass of men crawling over the rocks in such a picturesque manner while above their heads the cannon which were the object of their efforts thundered against their brothers in arms. Opposite them, the French batteries fired projectiles which occasionally fell short, showering the rocks with a mass of fragments of the walls.’

Charles Faré, a lieutenant in the 1st Grenadiers of the Old Guard, told his mother in a letter home that he had never seen French troops fight with greater dash. Ney himself said that the attack by one battalion of the 16th Regiment of the Line was the bravest feat of arms he had ever seen. But not everyone was cheering. General Eblé and his colleague the cartographer of the Grande Armée, General Armand Guilleminot, could see no point to the grand frontal assault on the city walls. They knew that the twelve-pounder field guns Napoleon had brought up were of no use, as their cannonballs were simply absorbed by the soft brick fortifications, and that they could not make a breach in the massive walls. ‘He always wants to take the bull by the horns!’ exclaimed Eblé, shaking his head. ‘Why doesn’t he send the Poles off to cross the Dnieper two leagues upstream of the city?’

Others who were not enjoying the spectacle were the citizens of Smolensk. In the morning the inhabitants of the suburbs had taken weapons from the bodies of dead soldiers and made up gaps in the ranks of the defenders; priests holding crucifixes aloft placed themselves at the head of the militiamen and died with them. When the troops were beaten back, the civilians tried to follow. ‘The inhabitants fled in horror, dragging their valuables; here I saw a good son, bearing on his shoulders an infirm father, there a mother making her way along a safe path towards our positions clutching her little ones in her arms, having sacrificed everything else to the enemy and to the fire,’ recalled one artillery officer.

Their fate was not much more to be envied when they did manage to get into the old city within the walls, according to a fifteen-year-old officer in the Simbirsk Infantry Regiment. ‘What an awful confusion I witnessed within the walls: the inhabitants, believing that the enemy would be repulsed, had remained in the city, but that day’s strong and violent attack had convinced them that it would not be in our hands by the morrow. Crying out in despair, they rushed to the sanctuary of the Mother of God, where they prayed on their knees, then they hurried home, gathered up their weeping families and left their houses, crossing the bridge in the utmost confusion. How many tears! How much wailing and misery, and, in the end, how many victims and blood!’

The grandiose spectacle of the afternoon turned into a scene from hell as the evening drew in. The mortar shells that the French had been lobbing into the city had set many of the predominantly wooden houses on fire, and this spread rapidly. Baron Uxküll of the Russian Chevaliergardes speaks for many who watched impotently as one of their old cities and its inhabitants were engulfed in the flames. ‘I was standing on the mountain; the carnage was taking place at my very feet. Shadows heightened the brilliant sheen from the fire and the shooting,’ he wrote. ‘The bombs, which displayed their luminous traces, destroyed everything in their path. The cries of the wounded, the Hurrahs! of the men still fighting, the dull confused sound of the rocks that were falling and breaking up – it all made my hair stand on end. I shall never forget this night!’

The French onlookers were equally gripped by the ‘sublime horror’ of the spectacle; thoughts turned to the fall of Troy. ‘Dante himself would have found here inspiration for the hell he set out to depict,’ according to Captain Fantin des Odoards. As the French still tried to storm the walls, much of the city was on fire, and the defenders showed up as black silhouettes against the flames behind them, looking for all the world ‘like devils in hell’, as Colonel Boulart of the artillery put it. Similar thoughts were going through the head of Caulaincourt as he stood in front of Napoleon’s tent, watching. Suddenly he felt a slap on his shoulder. It was the Emperor, who had come out to watch, and who compared the sight to an eruption of Vesuvius. ‘Don’t you think, Monsieur le Grand Écuyer, that this is a fine spectacle?’ he added. ‘Horrible, Sire,’ was Caulaincourt’s only answer.

Grand spectacle or not, Napoleon had nothing to be pleased about. As the fighting died down that night it became apparent that the French had gained nothing and lost at least seven thousand men in dead and wounded. Barclay too had little to rejoice over. Aside from the satisfaction of denying the French an easy victory, he had achieved nothing, beyond the loss of over 11,000 men and two generals.

Barclay realised that he could not stay where he was much longer, as it was only a matter of time before Napoleon crossed the Dnieper upstream and cut him off. He had made a symbolic gesture in defending Smolensk for two days, and it was now time to think of saving the army. He therefore ordered Dokhturov to evacuate the city after setting fire to all remaining stores and anything else that could be of use to the enemy, and to destroy the bridges after him. The holy icon of the Virgin of Smolensk had already been removed from its shrine, placed on a gun carriage and escorted over the bridge to the northern bank of the river.

Barclay’s orders for the city to be abandoned provoked a general outcry. ‘I cannot express the indignation that prevailed,’ wrote General Sir Robert Wilson, who had just arrived to take up his post as British ‘commissioner’ at Russian headquarters. A succession of senior officers came to beg Barclay to reconsider his decision, or, if he were determined to retreat, to allow them to fight on to the last drop of blood. Bagration wrote him a note demanding that Smolensk be defended regardless of cost. Bennigsen, in stark contradiction to his earlier assertion that there was no point in a battle at this point in the retreat, came out in favour of a last-ditch stand. He stormed into headquarters, accompanied by Grand Duke Constantine and a bevy of generals, demanding that Barclay change his plans. The Grand Duke virtually commanded him to rescind his ‘cowardly’ order and launch a general attack on the French. ‘You German, you sausage-maker, you traitor, you scoundrel; you are selling Russia,’ he shouted at Barclay for all to hear. ‘I refuse to remain under your orders,’ he added, saying he would move the Guards corps under Bagration’s command. He continued to heap invective on Barclay, who eyed him in silence. ‘Let everyone do their duty, and let me do mine,’ he finally interjected, cutting short the argument. That evening Constantine received an order from Barclay to take an important letter to the Tsar and hand over command of the Guards to General Lavrov.

Two hours before dawn the last of Dokhturov’s men trudged back across the bridges and set fire to them. A short while earlier, a voltigeur company of the 2nd Polish Infantry managed to make a breach in the walls and entered the blazing city. In the morning, once one of the gates had been opened and its approaches cleared of the dead and dying bodies heaped around it, the French made their entry into the city.

It was a veritable charnelhouse, its streets strewn with corpses, mostly blackened by fire. In the ruins of houses that had been engulfed by fire lay the remains of inhabitants or wounded soldiers who had taken refuge inside. ‘One had to walk over debris, dead bodies and skeletons which had been burned and charred by fire,’ recalled one French officer. ‘Everywhere unfortunate inhabitants, on their knees, weeping over the ruins of their homes, cats and dogs wandering about and howling in the most heart-rending way, everywhere only death and destruction!’ The Russian wounded had been laid out in makeshift hospitals, which had then been swept by fire as their comrades evacuated the city. ‘These unfortunates, abandoned in this way to a hideous death, lay in heaps, calcinated, shrunken, conserving only just a human form, amidst the smoking ruins and burning beams,’ in the words of Lieutenant Julien Combe of the 8th Chasseurs à Cheval. He was not the only one to notice that the bodies of the burnt soldiers had shrunk; some thought they were those of children. ‘Soldiers who had wanted to flee had fallen in the streets, asphyxiated by the fire, and had been burned there,’ observed Dr Raymond Faure. ‘Many no longer resembled human beings; they were formless masses of grilled and carbonised matter, which the metal of a musket, a sabre, or some shreds of accoutrement lying beside them made recognisable as corpses.’


Barclay had remained on the north bank of the Dnieper throughout the day of 18 August, holding the suburb on that side of the river and preventing the French attempts at rebuilding the burnt bridges. But that night he withdrew. As the road to Moscow ran for several miles along the north bank within range of French guns, he set a course that started in a northerly direction, gradually swinging round to rejoin the Moscow road at Lubino. So as to avoid encumbrance along the small country roads they would have to use, he divided his force in two. But this only complicated matters, as during the first stage of the withdrawal, on the night of 18 August, several units lost their way. Progress was slower than expected, with guns and supply wagons getting stuck at the crossing of the many streams dissecting the roads. The inclines were so steep that in several places guns and heavy wagons rolled down, dragging their teams of horses and men to a nasty death at the bottom of a ravine, and in turn obstructing progress further.

In the meantime, Ney had repaired the bridge at Smolensk, crossed the river and started to advance down the Moscow road, while Junot had begun to cross further upstream, at Prudichevo. Fearing that they might reach it before his retreating men did, Barclay had sent General Pavel Alekseievich Tuchkov with a small force to Lubino to cover the point at which the wheeling Russian columns were to rejoin the Moscow road.

Ney, who began to move along the Moscow road in the morning, was checked by what he thought was a counterattack developing on his left flank. In fact it was Ostermann-Tolstoy’s division, which had got lost in the night, and after marching in a circle for ten hours reappeared outside Smolensk. Ney deployed against it, which gave Tuchkov some time, but soon the French were pushing the Russians back along the Moscow road.

On hearing of the fighting, Napoleon rode out to the scene. Assuming that this was no more than a rearguard action, he ordered Davout to back up Ney with one of his divisions. Together they pushed Tuchkov back, but he too was reinforced by other units and the timely arrival of Barclay himself, who rallied the troops and steadied the situation. Wilson was impressed by Barclay, who ‘seeing the extent of the danger to his column, galloped forward, sword in hand, at the head of his staff, orderlies, and rallying fugitives, and crying out, “Victory or death! we must preserve this post or perish!” by his energy and example reanimating all, recovered possession of the height, and thus under God’s favour the army was preserved!’

The Russians took up strong positions at Valutina Gora. Junot with his Westphalians was actually behind their left wing, and could have taken them in the back, which indeed Napoleon ordered him to do. But the usually fearless Junot, who had been acting strangely and complaining of heat stroke, made a number of incoherent replies and would not move, even when Murat galloped up in person to tell him to attack.

‘If we had attacked, the Russians would have been routed, so all of us, soldiers and officers, were eagerly awaiting the order to attack,’ wrote Lieutenant Colonel von Conrady, a Hessian in Junot’s corps. ‘Our ardour to go into battle was expressed vociferously, with whole battalions shouting that they wanted to advance, but Junot would not listen, and threatened those who were shouting with the firing squad … Grinding our teeth, we were reduced to the role of spectators, while honour and duty beckoned. Never was an opportunity to distinguish oneself more shamefully lost! Several officers and soldiers in my battalion wept with despair and shame.’

There were by now some 20 to 30,000 Russians facing, and outflanked by, as many as 50,000 French. According to Barclay’s aide-de-camp Woldemar von Löwenstern, Tuchkov rode up and asked for permission to fall back, to which Barclay allegedly replied: ‘Return to your post and get yourself killed if you must, for if you fall back I shall have you shot!’ Aware that the fate of the Russian army was in his hands, he held on, but it was touch and go. At one point Yermolov, who was watching, seized his aide-de-camp by the elbow. ‘Austerlitz!’ he whispered in horror.

If the French had been able to defeat Tuchkov, they could have sliced through the middle of the Russian forces on the march, and these would have stood no chance. ‘Never had our army been in greater danger,’ Löwenstern later wrote. ‘The fate of the campaign and of the army should have been sealed on that day.’

It was unlike Napoleon not to sense the reason behind the Russian stand, but at about five o’clock in the afternoon he left Ney to get on with it and rode back to Smolensk. ‘He seemed to be very annoyed, and broke into a gallop when he came up with us, whose acclamations appeared to importune him,’ noted an officer of the Legion of the Vistula who watched him ride by.

Tuchkov stood his ground, and his men fought like lions. Ney’s divisions, supported by Davout’s Gudin division, also fought with dash and determination, and the battle developed into a massacre which only ceased when darkness fell. The field was strewn with seven to nine thousand French and nine thousand Russian dead and wounded, but the living lay down to sleep among them, too exhausted to build a camp.

The following morning, Napoleon rode out to the scene. ‘The sight of the battlefield was one of the bloodiest that the veterans could remember,’ according to one of the Polish Chevau-Légers who escorted him. He took the salute of the troops drawn up on this field of death and proceeded to enact one of the rituals that made him such a brilliant leader of men. He had decreed that he would award the coveted eagle that topped the standards of regiments which had proved their valour to the 127th of the Line, made up largely of Italians, which had distinguished itself on the previous day. ‘This ceremony, imposing in itself, took on a truly epic character in this place,’ in the words of one witness. The whole regiment was drawn up as if on parade, the men’s faces still smeared with blood and blackened by smoke. Napoleon took the eagle from the hands of Berthier and, holding it aloft, told the men that it was to be their rallying point, and that they must swear never to abandon it. When they had sworn the oath, he handed the eagle to the Colonel, who passed it to the Ensign, who in turn took it to the centre of the élite company, while the drummers delivered a deafening roll.

Napoleon then dismounted and walked over to the front rank. In a loud voice, he asked the men to give him the names of those who had particularly distinguished themselves in the fighting. He then promoted those named to the rank of lieutenant, and bestowed the Légion d’Honneur to others, giving the accolade with his sword and giving them the ritual embrace. ‘Like a good father surrounded by his children, he personally bestowed the recompense on those who had been deemed worthy, while their comrades acclaimed them,’ in the words of one officer. ‘Watching this scene,’ wrote another, ‘I understood and experienced that irresistible fascination which Napoleon exerted when he wanted to, and wherever he was.’

By this extraordinary ceremony, Napoleon managed to turn the bloody battlefield into a field of triumph, sending those who had died to immortality and caressing those who had survived with kind words and glorious rewards. But many asked why he had not been there himself to direct the battle. And his entourage wondered what, if anything, had been achieved by the past four days of bloodletting.

Leave a Reply