On 25 January 1808 General Aleksei Arakcheev was appointed minister of war. Joseph de Maistre commented that ‘opposed to Arakcheev’s nomination there were only both empresses, Count Lieven, General Uvarov, all the imperial aides-de-camp, the Tolstoys – in a word, everyone who has weight here’. Moreover, in appointing Arakcheev the emperor broke his own first rule of government, which was never to allow undivided authority over a key area to any one adviser. Previously the war minister had been balanced by the very powerful head of the emperor’s military chancellery. Arakcheev’s price for becoming minister was undisputed authority over the army and therefore the chancellery’s emasculation. Christoph von Lieven was diverted into a diplomatic career. His deputy, Prince Petr Mikhailovich Volkonsky, had already been sent to Paris to study the French general staff system. In the opinion of Joseph de Maistre, the Sardinian envoy in Petersburg, Alexander had acted in this way because of ‘the terrible disorder’ in the commissariat and victualling departments revealed in 1806–7. In addition, opposition sentiment within the Petersburg elite required an absolutely loyal ‘iron hand’ at the head of the army.1
At the time of his appointment Arakcheev was 38. He was of above average height, round-shouldered and with a long neck; one of his many enemies in the Petersburg aristocracy recalled that Arakcheev resembled an outsize monkey in uniform. His earthen complexion, big fleshy ears and hollow cheeks completed the impression. Perhaps matters might have improved had he ever smiled or joked but he very seldom did. Instead, a cold, gloomy and sardonic look greeted most of those who met him. Amidst the extravagant, fun-loving society of Petersburg and the glittering festivities of the imperial court he cut a strange figure. Up every morning at four, he dispatched his private and estate business first and then got down to affairs of state by six. He sometimes played cards for pennies with his few friends, but never went to the theatre or to balls, and ate and drank very sparingly.
To an extent, Arakcheev’s austere behaviour reflected his origins. Like most sons of run-of-the-mill gentry families at this time, the young Arakcheev was educated initially by the village sexton on his father’s small estate. His father owned just twenty male serfs and had to tighten his belt to pay for his son’s entry into a cadet corps, even though Aleksei’s place was subsidized. A strict, austere and very resolute mother formed the character and aroused the ambition of her eldest son. Starting well behind many of his peers, Arakcheev quickly made his mark at the Second Cadet Corps because of his excellent brain, his astonishing work-rate, his ambition, and his rigid discipline and obedience to orders. These qualities won him a succession of patrons, ending with the Grand Duke and later Emperor Paul.2
Arakcheev was very much Paul’s ideal subordinate. He was blindly obedient to his superiors, very efficient, meticulous to the point of pedantry, and relentlessly strict in his treatment of wayward juniors, whatever their social origins or aristocratic connections. Arakcheev himself never belonged to any Petersburg faction, remaining wholly dependent on the monarch’s favour and support. Of course, this too was a comforting thought for a Russian autocrat. Though his cadet corps training had taught him French and German, Arakcheev possessed none of the cultural or intellectual interests or the witty conversational skills of the Petersburg elite. Fascinated by mathematics and technology, his mind was entirely practical. In modern jargon, he was a problem-solver and an enforcer. For an emperor trying to govern Russia through a grossly overstretched, poorly paid and corrupt bureaucracy, men like Arakcheev could seem a precious asset. Joseph de Maistre wrote that ‘I consider him to be evil and even very evil…but it is probably true that at present only such a man can restore order’.3
Arakcheev was an artillery officer by training and had been inspector-general of the Russian artillery since 1803. At least in retrospect, even his enemies usually acknowledged his success in this position. In 1800 the Russian artillery had poor guns and equipment, a corrupt administration, confused doctrines, and disorganized (usually civilian) drivers and trains. Thanks above all to Arakcheev, by 1813 it had solved almost all these problems and was superior to its Austrian and Prussian counterparts. By the time he became minister, Arakcheev had already transformed the weapons and equipment, greatly improved the quality and upkeep of the horses, and militarized the drivers and ammunition trains. He studied campaign reports from 1805–7 carefully, in order to understand what made artillery effective on the Napoleonic battlefield. Though the key reforms of the Russian artillery had already occurred before 1807, a number of important improvements to weapons and ammunition were brought in while Arakcheev was minister.4
As minister, Arakcheev also encouraged the creation of the Artillery Journal (Artilleriiskii zhurnal) so that an intelligent public debate could contribute to modernizing the Russian artillery and educating its officers. He introduced stiff exams for officers wishing to enter the Guards artillery and then used the Guards as a training ground and model for all artillery officers. He assigned and often subsidized sixty cadets a year to train with the Guards batteries and rotated officers and gunners from the line artillery through short spells with the Guards in order to learn best practice. On the eve of 1812 General Neithardt von Gneisenau, the Prussian military reformer, submitted a memorandum to Alexander I which in many respects was critical of the Russian army. Even Gneisenau conceded, however, that ‘the Russian artillery is in wonderful condition…nowhere else in Europe can one find such teams of horses’.5
On his appointment as minister of war, Arakcheev sent word to the ministry that he would turn up for work at 4 a.m. on the following day and that he expected all officials to be there to meet him in their correct uniforms. This set the tone for his two subsequent years in the job. Strict obedience to the regulations was the watchword. All communications with the emperor must go through the minister. Commanding officers must record all failings of their juniors in the latter’s service records. Tight rules were drawn up as regards supplying the army with uniforms and equipment on time and in the correct manner: laggards were threatened with fines and dismissal. Arakcheev took pride in the fact that whereas the arsenals were empty when he became minister, within two years all new recruits were armed and there were 162,000 spare muskets in store. Some bottlenecks restricting production at the Tula arms factory were also being overcome. The minister insisted that officials must make payments according to the agreed budgets, and no longer simply dole out the cash provided by the finance ministry whenever it became available to whatever need appeared most pressing.6
The new model musket introduced by Arakcheev was lighter and less clumsy than its predecessors. Given time, he believed that it could become the standard firearm for all infantry regiments. One clear lesson of 1805–7 was that Russian musketry was far inferior to French. The new firearm was intended to help here but in addition Arakcheev issued repeated orders that troops must be trained to aim and shoot accurately. He also produced a very useful booklet on the components, maintenance and cleaning of firearms. Meanwhile energetic measures had been taken to boost production of gunpowder and of cloth for uniforms. By the time he left office in 1810 Arakcheev was able to claim that future demand for military uniforms could now be met from Russian production without the need for the emergency ban on sales to the civilian market which he had been forced to introduce on becoming minister.7
Arakcheev’s management certainly did improve matters. His successor as minister, General Mikhail Barclay de Tolly, was also extremely strict when it came to failings in the military administration. Shortly after his appointment, however, he noted that the commissariat was being run with outstanding efficiency and was in ‘the very best order’. Supplies and uniforms were beginning to flow into the stores. On the eve of Arakcheev’s retirement as minister, the French ambassador noted that ‘there has never previously been this level of order in the military administration, above all in the artillery and the victualling departments. In general, military administration is in excellent condition.’8
Nevertheless, through no fault of Arakcheev, there remained many problems. In reality the Russian textile industry was still very hard pressed to meet military needs. New factories and sheep farms could not be created overnight and a bankrupt government was poorly placed to provide subsidies to encourage their development. Arakcheev had partly ‘solved’ shortfalls by extending the lifetime of existing uniforms. In addition, for example, demand had been reduced by requiring the provincial administration to clothe all new recruits in so-called ‘recruit uniforms’ which would have to last them for their first year in the army. Usually grey, and always made of inferior ‘peasant cloth’, these uniforms were much shoddier and less durable than the dark-green woollen tunics of the regular infantry. The ministry of war struggled to provide uniforms for a growing army in 1809–12. It had no chance of stockpiling large reserves for wartime needs, though Alexander tried to encourage this. When war came in 1812 the commissariat had spare uniforms and equipment for only one-quarter of the existing field army. The so-called ‘recruit uniforms’ quickly disintegrated when worn by soldiers on campaign.9
Similar problems affected Russian firearms. The new musket was an improvement but accurate shooting was still affected by the varying thickness of the paper in Russian cartridges. To accommodate these cartridges, calibres had to be greater than initially planned. Though the new model musket was well designed, Russian labour and machine tools were not capable of mass production of top-quality interchangeable parts.10 Some cartridges still rattled around in the barrel. In addition, lead was in short supply and was very expensive during these years in Russia. In part it was imported secretly and at great cost from Britain. As a result Russian infantry on average had six rounds of live ammunition a year for shooting practice and had to make do with clay bullets. Ordinary British foot soldiers received thirty rounds, light infantrymen fifty. Perhaps most important, efforts substantially to increase the production of muskets failed, above all because of shortages of skilled labour. More than anything else, it was this that sabotaged efforts to boost production at the new arms works near Izhevsk in the Urals, which Arakcheev set up in 1807. Luring skilled foreign labour to the borders of Siberia was a difficult and expensive business. Meanwhile inadequate labour and machine tools, added to a shortage of water to power the machinery, greatly undermined efforts to boost production at Tula in the pre-war years. Although the ministry tried hard to introduce suitable steam-powered machinery at Tula, when the war began Russia had a dangerously small reserve of muskets to arm new units and replace losses in existing ones.11
Probably the most radical change introduced during Arakcheev’s two years as minister concerned the treatment of recruits. Under the system he inherited new recruits were delivered straight to their regiments, where they received all their military training. This was particularly difficult in wartime but even in normal circumstances the shock of sudden immersion in their regiments could be too much for the peasant recruits. Very heavy sickness and mortality rates resulted. To avoid this, a new system of Reserve Recruit Depots was established in October 1808. Men would be given their initial military training for nine months in these depots. The tempo of training was rather slow, discipline relatively mild and the training cadres were in any case entirely devoted to this task, rather than being subject to the other pressures of regimental service. Arakcheev expressed the hope that this would do something to ease the inevitable psychological stress when – as he put it – a peasant was torn from his accustomed village life and subjected to the totally different society and disciplines of the army.12
In January 1810 an important new institution was created at the heart of Russian government. The new State Council was Speransky’s brainchild. It was designed to debate and to advise the emperor on all legislation and budgets, and to oversee the ministries. Mikhail Speransky saw the State Council as the first step in the complete transformation of central government. This never happened, but major changes in the ministries’ structure and responsibilities were also under way in these years. In these circumstances it was difficult to predict in which institutions most power would lie. Alexander offered Arakcheev the choice of either remaining minister of war or becoming chairman of the military committee of the new state council. Arakcheev chose the latter, commenting that he preferred to supervise rather than be supervised. Since the new war minister, Barclay de Tolly, was junior to Arakcheev and to some extent owed his promotion to him it may be that Arakcheev believed that he would retain a degree of indirect control over the ministry. In fact, however, Barclay soon showed that he was very much his own man and quickly became Alexander’s chief military adviser, thereby earning the enmity of Arakcheev, who was intensely jealous of anyone who rivalled him for the emperor’s favour.13
Though his family originated from Scotland, Barclay was in reality a member of the German professional middle class. His ancestors had settled in the Baltic provinces, but Barclay himself was brought up by relatives in the German community of Petersburg. The dominant Lutheran values of his childhood home were obedience, duty, conscience and hard work. He reinforced these values and his own place within the German community in Russia by marrying his cousin, as commonly happened in this era. At the age of 15 he entered Russian military service as an NCO, being promoted to officer rank two years later. Better educated than the normal officer drawn from the Russian gentry, he rose on merit and at modest speed. It took him twenty-one years to rise from cornet to major-general. His skill and courage in the East Prussian campaign of 1806 won him promotion to lieutenant-general, brought him to Alexander’s attention, and secured him a key role in the subsequent war with Sweden. Urged on by Arakcheev, Barclay invaded southern Sweden from Finland across the ice of the Gulf of Bothnia in March 1809, thereby helping greatly to bring Swedish resistance to an end. A grateful monarch promoted Barclay to full general and made him commander-in-chief and governor-general of Finland.14
Tall, well built and with an upright, commanding presence, the new head of the army looked the part. His slight limp and stiff right arm, both the product of wounds, added to his distinction. But in the jealous world of Petersburg Barclay’s rapid promotion to full general and minister won him many enemies. By temperament, background and experience he was not well suited to Petersburg high society and the imperial court, milieux which a minister ignored at his peril. At court he was respectful but awkward, wooden and insecure. The earnest, proud and sensitive Barclay knew that he lacked the culture, wit or broad education to win respect in this world. The Petersburg aristocracy, many of whose members held top military posts, looked down on him as a solemn, boring German and a parvenu. Barclay did not make friends easily, though men who served near him in time came to admire him greatly. Like all senior Russian generals and ministers, he had acquired his own clients in the course of his career, many of whom were Germans. This did not help his popularity. Whatever Barclay did, however, criticism was inevitable in this world of jealousy and carping: when subsequently he appointed Ivan Sabaneev to be his chief of staff he was criticized for favouring an old regimental colleague over other, abler (and in this case Baltic German) staff officers.15
Barclay de Tolly had Arakcheev’s virtues without his vices. He was an efficient, incorruptible, hard-working and meticulous administrator but he was never a pedant. He could also be very tough, even ruthless, when necessary: given the habits of the Russian commissariat this was essential. Unlike Arakcheev, however, Barclay never indulged in superfluous cruelty, rudeness or vendettas. He was both a more efficient administrator and a tougher disciplinarian than Bennigsen, in whose army hunger, indiscipline and banditry had become endemic in 1806–7. As minister and commander-in-chief Barclay did everything possible to stop mistreatment of troops by their officers. His circulars condemned officers who used fear as a means to train and instil discipline into their troops: ‘The Russian soldier has all the highest military virtues: he is brave, zealous, obedient, devoted, and not wayward; consequently there are certainly ways, without employing cruelty, to train him and to maintain discipline.’16
Given the emperor’s skill at manipulation, it is quite possible that Alexander nudged Arakcheev into abandoning his ministerial post and joining the State Council in January 1810. In 1808 a war minister had been needed who would restore order to military administration, where necessary by terror. No better candidate for such a task existed than Arakcheev. By 1810, however, the job requirements had changed. An efficient and hard-working administrator was necessary but not sufficient. With conflict against Napoleon beginning to loom over the horizon the army needed a chief who could prepare and plan for war. Arakcheev had never served in the field and was barely competent to discuss strategy or war plans. Barclay de Tolly on the other hand was a front-line soldier with an outstanding wartime record. If Barclay lacked the daring or imagination of a great commander-in-chief, he nevertheless had a solid grasp of tactics and a quick eye to spot the possibilities and dangers of a battlefield. More important, he had not just a realistic grasp of strategy but also the patriotism, resolution and moral courage to sustain this strategy in the face of many obstacles and ferocious criticism. To an extent which was rare, Barclay would put the ‘good of the service’ above personal interests and vendettas. In 1812 Russia was to owe him much for these qualities.
In the two and a half years between his appointment as minister and Napoleon’s invasion Barclay was immensely active. In the sphere of legislation, the new law on the field armies was of greatest significance. It was extremely detailed, taking up an astonishing and unprecedented 121 double-columned pages in the collection of laws. Known as the ‘yellow book’ because of the colour of its cover, the law encompassed all the departments, functions and key officers of the field army, and set out their powers and responsibilities. It also, however, went far beyond this, acting as a handbook for officers on how they should fulfil their tasks.17
Of course there were some errors in such a vast and complicated piece of legislation. The dual subordination of chiefs of staff, both to their own general and to the chief of staff at the next level of command, caused problems. Prussian commentators claimed that their own model, in which all departments had access to commanding generals only through their chiefs of staff, reduced inter-departmental wrangling and freed the supreme commanders from worrying about trivia. The division of responsibility for hospitals between the commissariat (supply and administration) and the medical department (doctors and paramedics) caused much inefficiency in 1812–14. Inevitably, too, the regulations sometimes had to be adapted to wartime realities. For example, the law envisaged a situation in which a Russian commander-in-chief commanded a Russian army operating in the absence of the emperor and on foreign soil. Actually in 1812–14 this never happened: the army was either fighting on Russian soil or operating abroad in Alexander’s presence, though often under the command of foreign generals.
None of this mattered too much, however. For the first time, clear rules were set out for how an army should be run in wartime. Most of the principles established by Barclay worked well in 1812–14. Where necessary these rules could easily be amended to suit conditions on the ground. Six weeks after the army law was issued in early 1812, for example, it became clear that the future war would initially be fought on Russian territory. As regards the feeding and supply of the army, an amendment was immediately published which stated that the law was to be applied to any Russian provinces which the emperor declared to be in a state of war. In these provinces all officials were thereby subordinated to the army’s intendant-general, who had the right to requisition food, fodder and transport at will in return for receipts. The law therefore goes far towards explaining how the Russian treasury sustained the 1812 campaign at such small cost to itself, at least in the short run of the wartime emergency. The clear lines of command and responsibility it established also laid the groundwork for the generally good collaboration of the army and the provincial governors in 1812.18
The other crucial pre-war legislation transformed the organization of internal security within Russia. To some extent the new law on internal security, issued in July 1811, was a spin-off of efforts to shake out manpower from the army’s rear echelons in order to get the maximum number of soldiers into the ranks of the field armies. Above all this meant combing out men capable of service in the field from the many so-called garrison regiments distributed very unevenly across the empire’s cities and fortresses. Thirteen newly formed regiments, roughly 40,000 trained men, were added to the field army in this way without recourse to an additional levy. Most of the soldiers released from the garrison units were potentially of good quality. Very many of the officers were not, however, since assignment to a garrison regiment (except in the key front-line fortresses on the Baltic coastline) implied that an officer was either physically incapable of front-line service or had a poor record.19
Roughly 17,000 men of the garrison regiments were deemed unfit for service in the field. They were to form the nucleus of the new internal security forces, with a half-battalion (in other words two companies) deployed in each of the empire’s provincial capitals. They joined the small internal security units which already existed in the provinces and the more numerous but less mobile companies of veterans (invalidy) who were often deployed in the smaller provincial towns. All these units were now integrated into a single command which covered the whole of European Russia. It might have seemed logical to subordinate the internal security troops to Aleksandr Balashev, who, as minister of police, had overall responsibility for preserving order within Russia. But Alexander distrusted his police chief’s growing power and was unwilling to add the internal security forces to his empire. He therefore made the internal security troops a separate organization, commanded by his own aide-de-camp general, Count Evgraf Komarovsky, who reported directly to the monarch.20
The internal security forces guarded public buildings, and helped to enforce judicial verdicts and to uphold public order, though in the event of widespread unrest they would need reinforcements from the regular army. What really mattered in 1812–14, however, was that they were responsible for guarding prisoners of war and, above all, for mustering recruits and escorting them to the camps where the army’s reserves were being formed. As one would expect, many of the officers of the internal security forces who commanded these escort parties were of low quality. Prince Dmitrii Lobanov-Rostovsky, who commanded the Reserve Army in 1813–14, complained about them constantly and no doubt many recruits suffered at their hands. From the point of view of the Russian war effort, however, the new internal security forces were a godsend. Before 1811 regiments had been obliged to send officers and men back to the provinces to collect and escort the new recruits. Even in peacetime this had been a major distraction. In 1812–14, with a vastly expanded army operating far from the empire’s interior, the diversion of effort would have been crippling.21
It is relatively easy to assess the impact of the new legislation on the field army and the internal security forces. Coming to firm conclusions about the results of Barclay’s efforts to improve military training is more difficult. Hundreds, even sometimes thousands, of kilometres from Petersburg the effect of even the most intelligent and best-intentioned circulars might be muted. It is true that in 1808–12 bright young officers of the line were seconded to the Guards training camps outside Petersburg and were then expected to take the lessons they learned in tactics back to their regiments and teach them to their soldiers. Most generals commanding divisions in these years also did their utmost to ensure effective training of their soldiers. For much of the year even an infantry division, let alone a cavalry one, was quartered over a wide area, however. A great deal therefore depended on the regiments’ commanding officers.22 Some commanders were brutes and pedants. Only rarely were they punished for their brutality if it was seen to threaten the army’s effectiveness. The commander of the Kexholm Infantry Regiment, for example, was actually court-martialled and dismissed the service in 1810 for mistreatment of soldiers on a scale to cause near mutiny.23
Most commanders were not brutes, however, and some were excellent. Count Mikhail Vorontsov, for example, was the chief of the Narva Infantry Regiment in this period. He echoed Barclay in condemning the use of beatings to train and discipline Russian soldiers. Vorontsov once commented that discipline was far better in the Narva regiment, where such beatings were forbidden, than in the neighbouring 6th Jaegers, whose commander, Colonel Glebov, thought that Russian troops could only be controlled by the rod. Like some other regimental commanders, Vorontsov issued instructions to his officers outlining how they were to fight on the battlefield. Petr Bagration thought these instructions to be a model and reissued them to his whole army.
Vorontsov put a heavy stress on the example that officers needed to set. In some regiments, he stated, one found officers who were strict and demanding in peacetime but weak and irresolute in war: ‘There is nothing worse than such officers.’ Putting on a good show at parades was useless. It was battles that mattered. Officers who won the men’s trust in peacetime by decent behaviour would be able to turn that respect to good effect on the battlefield. Leadership was everything. No officer who caused even a whiff of doubt about his courage had ever been tolerated in the Narva regiment. When the regiment was advancing the company commanders must march in front of their men to show an example. But an officer must combine courage with calm and good judgement. When the enemy fled in the face of the regiment’s attack – which was to be expected because ‘Russians always were and always will be much more courageous’ – the officers must keep their heads and rally their men. Only a detachment from the third rank should be sent off in pursuit. When commanding skirmishers the officer must try to conceal his men if the terrain permitted but he himself must move ceaselessly up and down the skirmish line to encourage his soldiers and keep an eye out for unexpected danger.
Under artillery fire the regiment must stand upright. Any ducking was quickly noticed by the enemy and boosted their confidence. If there was better cover in the immediate neighbourhood then it was permitted to move there but the regiment must not retreat under any circumstances. Before a battle began every soldier should have two reserve flints and sixty cartridges, all in proper repair. No unwounded soldier should accompany wounded comrades to the casualty station in the rear. If the regiment was attacking an enemy under cover in a village or broken ground the key to success was to charge in with the bayonet, since the defenders would have all the advantages in a fire-fight. When firing at the enemy the men must take careful aim and remember what they had been taught about judging ranges and not shooting over the heads of their target. In 1806–7 regiments had sometimes been thrown into disorder by panicky cries that the enemy was attacking their flank or rear. Any repetition of such behaviour must be punished severely. Officers seeing enemy attempts to outflank the regiment must report this calmly to the colonel and must remember that a well-trained unit like the Narva regiment would have no difficulty redeploying to its flank or rear. Finally, the officers must encourage their men by noting their exploits, bringing them to the colonel’s attention and recommending them for promotion, where appropriate even promotion to officer rank. ‘The officer corps always gains by taking in a truly brave man, from whatever background he comes.’24
Another outstanding commander was Dmitrii Neverovsky, who was appointed to the crack Pavlovsky Grenadier Regiment in November 1807. Neverovsky was the kind of general that the Russian army loved. His background was typical of the officer corps. His father owned thirty male serfs and was a middle-ranking provincial official elected by his fellow nobles. With no less than fourteen children to care for, life at home was spartan. Though Neverovsky came from Poltava in present-day Ukraine, in the world of 1812 he was regarded (realistically in his case) as a Russian. Like many inhabitants of Ukraine, he was a fine horseman. He was actually rather better educated than the average product of the provincial nobility, having Latin and mathematics as well as being able to read and write in Russian. Possibly this was because he was befriended by a local grandee, Count Petr Zavadovsky, who liked Neverovsky’s father, took the son into his own home, and helped him in the first stages of his career. Nevertheless the young Neverovsky enjoyed the tough, free, adventurous youth of a provincial nobleman. His loud voice, upright bearing and confidence inspired respect in his leadership. So did his size. At almost two metres tall he topped most of his grenadiers.
Above all Neverovsky was honest, direct, generous and hospitable. He was also very courageous. These were the legendary qualities of a Russian regiment’s commander. Neverovsky kept a close eye on his soldiers’ food and health. When he took over the regiment he found a high level of desertion in two of the companies. Like many other senior officers he believed that if Russian soldiers deserted it almost certainly meant that their officers were incompetent, cruel or corrupt. Both company commanders were quickly forced out of the regiment. Meanwhile he set up a regimental school to train NCOs and teach them to read and write. Above all, he put a heavy stress on training the men in marksmanship, personally overseeing the upkeep of muskets and participating in shooting practice alongside his men.25
If good shooting was important for infantry of the line such as the Pavlovskys, it was even more so for the light infantry (in Russia called jaegers), whose job it was to skirmish and to pick off enemy officers and artillerymen with accurate fire. Here, however, one needs to be a little cautious. The history of light infantry in the Napoleonic era has acquired a certain degree of mythology and ideological colouring. Given the nature of the weapons available at the time, it was still in most cases only close-order massed formations of infantry that could deliver the firepower and shock which brought victory on the Napoleonic battlefield. Nor was every chasseur a freedom-loving citizen-in-arms. Light infantry had existed before the French and American revolutionary armies. In 1812–14 perhaps the best light infantry in Europe were the hard-bitten, professional soldiers of Wellington’s Light Division, who were about as far removed from being citizens-in-arms as it is possible to imagine.26
General George Cathcart had served with the Russian army and was well placed to make international comparisons. His comments on the Russian army’s jaegers are balanced and realistic. Cathcart believed that where light infantry were concerned,
individual intelligence is the main requisite; and the French are, without question, by nature the most intelligent light infantry in the world…The Russians, like the British, are better troops of position than any of the other nations; but it is difficult to excel in all things, and their steadiness in the ranks, which after all is the great object to be desired, as well as their previous domestic habits, render them naturally less apt for light infantry purposes than more volatile nations: yet in both services particular corps, duly practiced in this particular branch, have proved themselves capable of being made by training equal to any men that could be opposed to them.27
Russian jaeger regiments had existed since the Seven Years War. By 1786 there were almost 30,000 jaegers in the Russian army. Mikhail Kutuzov commanded jaeger regiments and actually wrote the general rules for jaeger service. The 1789 regulations for training jaegers stressed the need for marksmanship, mobility, craftiness and skilful use of terrain for concealment. The jaeger must, for example, learn how to reload lying on his back and to fire from behind obstacles and folds in the ground. He must trick his enemy by pretending to be dead or by putting out his shako as a target. The jaegers became associated with Grigorii Potemkin and Russia’s wars against the Ottomans. Potemkin introduced comfortable, practical uniforms to suit the climate and the nature of operations on the southern steppe and in the Balkans. The jaeger regulations told the men not to waste time polishing their muskets.
None of this endeared the jaegers to Paul I, who reduced the number of light infantry by two-thirds. Though one needs to be wary about Russian nationalist historiography’s attacks on German pedantry, in this case the Russian historians were right to believe that Paul’s obsession with complicated drill on the parade ground damaged the Russian army in general and its jaegers in particular. George Cathcart was undoubtedly also correct in believing that serfdom was not the perfect background for a light infantryman. Nor was the discipline to which the new recruit was subjected in order to turn the peasant into a soldier. After 1807 the need to expand and re-train the jaegers was widely recognized at the top of the army. Both Mikhail Barclay de Tolly and Petr Bagration, for example, had been commanders of jaeger regiments. Some senior officers found it hard to believe that Russian peasants could make good light infantry, however. This could easily serve as an excuse for their own failure to train the men intelligently. As Gneisenau noted in the spring of 1812, the training of Russia’s jaegers was often much too rigid, complicated and formalistic.28
Nevertheless one should not exaggerate the failings of Russia’s jaeger regiments. On the whole the jaegers performed well in the rearguard actions during the retreat to Moscow and at Borodino. The key point was that by 1812 the Russian army had over fifty jaeger regiments, which in principle meant well over 100,000 men. Differences in quality between regiments were inevitable. Fourteen line infantry regiments were redesignated as light infantry in October 1810 and one would expect them initially to be poor skirmishers since all sources agree that in the Russian army true jaeger units were much better at operating independently than the infantry of the line. On the other hand, those jaeger regiments which had fought in Finland, in the Caucasus or against the Ottomans in 1807–12 were likely to be best.29
On active service there were plenty of targets and no constraints on the use of live ammunition. The historian of the 2nd Jaegers writes that the campaign in Finland’s forests was excellent training for light infantry in marksmanship, use of terrain and small-scale warfare. General Langeron recalls that the 12th and 22nd Jaegers were among the best marksmen in his corps, since they had years of experience fighting Circassian sharpshooters in the Caucasus. According to the historian of the 10th Jaegers the same was true of the Ottoman campaigns, during which the regiment was sometimes required to cover more than 130 kilometres in five days as it fought a ‘small war’ of skirmishes and ambushes in the foothills of the Balkans. Ottoman raiding parties often had better guns and were better marksmen than the Russian jaegers, at least until the latter learned from experience.30
The difference in quality between Russian jaeger regiments in 1812 was often evident to their enemies. The first Russian skirmishers encountered by the Saxon army after invading Russia were the inexperienced troops of General Oertel’s corps. A Saxon officer recorded that ‘the Russian army was not yet that which it became in 1813…they did not understand how to skirmish in open order’. Some weeks later the Saxons got a great shock when they first encountered the veteran jaegers of the Army of the Danube, fresh from many campaigns in the Balkans. These men were ‘the excellent Russian jaegers of Sacken’s corps. They were as skilled in their movements as they were accurate in their shooting, and they did us great harm with their much superior firearms which were effective at twice our range.’31
How to train and use light infantry was one of the themes debated in the Military Journal (Voennyi zhurnal), published for the first time in 1810–12 under the editorship of the highly intelligent Colonel P. A. Rakhmanov. The Journal was designed to encourage officers to think about their profession. Some of its articles were translations from foreign ‘classics’. They introduced Russian officers to the ideas of key foreign thinkers such as Antoine de Jomini, Friedrich Wilhelm von Bülow and Henry Lloyd. Other pieces concerned military history or were anecdotes about recent Russian wars. Very many of the articles concerned the key issues of the day, however, and were written by serving officers, often anonymously. Of course the Journal could not openly debate aspects of a future war with France but it was easy to read between the lines of some of its articles on questions such as the role of fortifications and the relative advantages of offensive and defensive war. The Journal also debated issues such as the proper deployment of artillery on the battlefield, the role of general staffs, and what values and skills military education should seek to instil into the officer corps. The subscription list for the Journal was impressive. Some regimental commanders bought many copies of it for their officers. But there were also very many individual subscriptions, above all of course from what one might describe as the emerging military intelligentsia.32
The core of this intelligentsia was the general staff, which grew in size and in quality during these years. In fact one could truthfully say that it was in 1807–12 that a real Russian general staff emerged for the first time. The need for such a staff was very evident from the debacle in 1805–7. The Russian army set off for war in 1805 guided by too few staff officers, who were poorly educated for the job. Kutuzov’s chief Russian staff officer was a fine hydrographer of German origin, who had virtually no experience of wartime operations. In all respects Major-General Gerhardt was in fact typical of Russian staff officers of the time, the best of whom were cartographers, engineers, even astronomers but very seldom soldiers in the full meaning of the word. Even the minority of staff officers who had military experience had usually only served against the Ottomans. Fighting against the Turks was no preparation for a number of key tasks of staff officers facing Napoleon in 1805–14, including picking advantageous battlefields on which Russian troops could counter the tactical mobility, concentrated artillery and skilled skirmishing of Europe’s best army.33
The two most informed Russian staff officers in Kutuzov’s entourage were Prince Petr Mikhailovich Volkonsky and Karl von Toll. These two men learned the lessons of 1805 and were the key figures in the creation of an effective general staff in the subsequent years. Volkonsky was a small, stocky man who, as an officer of the Semenovsky Guards, had known Alexander from his adolescence. Nevertheless he stood in some awe of the monarch, to whom he was absolutely loyal and whose will he never questioned. Kindly, tactful and modest, Volkonsky was quite well educated and exceptionally hard-working. He was an efficient administrator who cut quickly to the heart of problems. His calm, patient good manners made him a useful diplomat at allied headquarters in 1813–14 when wrangling between rival egos and national perspectives threatened to get out of hand. Nobody ever claimed that Volkonsky had an outstanding brain, let alone that he was a great strategist. But he selected first-class subordinates – above all Karl von Toll and Johann von Diebitsch – and had the good sense to trust and support their judgement. Without Volkonsky’s hard work, political skills and connections the Russian general staff would have been much more weakly positioned and less effective in 1812–14. Even after all his efforts, when the war began in 1812 there were still too few staff officers and too many of those that existed were young and inexperienced.34
On returning from Paris, where he had studied the French staff, Volkonsky struck up a good working relationship with Barclay de Tolly which endured throughout the period. In the two years that preceded Napoleon’s invasion he got the Russian general staff on its feet. Acting as Volkonsky’s assistant, Toll produced a manual to guide staff officers. It set out their key responsibilities as being all issues linked to the army’s deployment, movements and choice of battlefields. Meanwhile A. I. Khatov was running the education of an increasing number of bright young cadets who would become junior staff officers and Volkonsky himself was luring some very able officers to transfer into the general staff, of whom Diebitsch, another officer of the Semenovskys, was subsequently the most famous. Bringing into the staff a number of officers who had front-line military experience and some young Russian aristocrats helped to reduce the gap and the suspicion between the fledgling general staff and the generals commanding corps and divisions. So too did the wartime experience gained by staff officers in 1805–12.
Nevertheless distrust remained. A key moment came in 1810 when Alexander decreed that henceforth all staff positions at headquarters should be reserved for trained general staff officers. Traditionally, commanding generals had run their headquarters through a duty general and a bevy of aides-de-camp, many of whom were relatives, friends and clients. In a manner typical of the Russian army and bureaucracy, headquarters resembled an extended family household. Now professionalism was attempting to upset and nose its way into this comfortable and traditional arrangement. Commanding generals might find the principle hard to swallow. They might also wonder whether the unknown, young and often non-Russian staff officers foisted on them were truly competent at real war, as distinct from organizing marches and drawing maps.
In addition, one great point about the friends and clients who had traditionally manned headquarters was that they were loyal to their patron. Could one be so sure of this with unknown staff officers appointed on supposedly impersonal professional grounds? In his manual for staff officers Toll had stressed loyalty to their commanding general as being of paramount importance. That did not stop Alexander from telling the chiefs of staff of both Barclay’s and Bagration’s armies to write directly to him about all matters of interest in their commands. Not at all surprisingly, it took Russian command structures some time to settle in 1812–13. The historian of the general staff suggests that if Tormasov’s Third Army did so more quickly than Barclay’s First or Bagration’s Second that was because Tormasov himself and all his key staff officers came from the old network of Field-Marshal Prince Repnin.35
As this suggests, if in some ways the Russian army had been renewed in 1807–12, in other ways old habits and problems remained. On the whole the Russian army in June 1812 was not just bigger but also better than the one that had faced Napoleon in 1805. Over and above the specific reforms which had taken place in 1807–12, the army benefited from having far more experience of European warfare than had been the case seven years before. Nowhere was this more true than in the Guards. Paul I had begun their transformation from ornaments at the imperial court to a fighting elite but when the Guards regiments went on campaign in 1805 they had minimal experience of war. In the Preobrazhenskys, for example, no officer under the rank of colonel, no sergeant-major and very few sergeants had ever seen action.36 Blooded in 1805–7 and reinforced in subsequent years by veterans drawn from the line regiments, the Guards were now much closer to being an elite reserve fighting force whose commitment could decide the fate of a battle. Nevertheless the army’s most fundamental strengths and weaknesses remained unchanged from 1805. On the credit side stood the numbers and quality of the light cavalry, and the immense courage, discipline and endurance of the infantry. On the other side of the balance were problems in the high command. Above all this meant rivalries between the generals and the difficulty of finding a competent and authoritative supreme commander.
Once one goes into detail, the deployment of Russian forces to meet the threat of invasion inevitably becomes complicated. For that reason it is useful to think of the Russian forces as divided in principle into three lines of defence.
The front line was filled by the Guards, the Grenadiers and most of the line army. Initially it was divided between Barclay de Tolly’s First and Bagration’s Second armies. When Petersburg learned of the Franco-Austrian alliance a Third Army was formed in May 1812 under General Aleksandr Tormasov to defend the invasion routes into northern Ukraine. These three armies combined and including their Cossack regiments added up to only 242,000 men, which was barely half the first wave of Napoleon’s invading forces. If they were destroyed, the war would be over. Without their cadres it would be impossible to rebuild an army capable of challenging Napoleon during the course of a war.
Since in principle the Russian army was said to have almost 600,000 men on its rolls in June 1812, the fact that it could put less than half of this number in the front line against Napoleon appears surprising. To some extent this merely reflected the usual gap in the Russian army of that time between men on the rolls and soldiers actually present in the ranks. There were always many men who were either ill or detached on a range of duties, or even dead and not yet removed from the rolls. In addition, however, many troops were deployed on other fronts. These included 42,000 men in the Caucasus, many of whom were engaged in the ongoing war with the Persians. Most important were the 31,000 men in Finland, the 17,500 in Crimea and southern Ukraine, and the nearly 60,000 soldiers of the Army of the Danube who had just become available as a result of the peace treaty with the Ottomans. These troops were not just numerous but also battle-hardened veterans. They were too far away to join the fray in the summer of 1812 but if the war could be prolonged their impact might be decisive.37
The second line of defence was manned by reserve units. Part of this force was made up of the line regiments’ reserve infantry battalions and cavalry squadrons. In this period Russian infantry regiments were composed of three battalions, each in principle approximately 750 men strong. In the event of war, the first and third battalions set off together on campaign, while the second battalion was designated as ‘reserve’ and remained in the rear. Cuirassier and dragoon regiments were formed of five squadrons, one of which was left behind as a reserve. Two of the ten squadrons of light cavalry regiments were called ‘reserve’ and left in the rear. The function of these reserve units was to fill up the front-line regiments, guard regimental stores, train recruits and (in the cavalry’s case) muster and break in remounts.38
Unfortunately, matters were a little more complicated than this simple picture suggests. As was so often the case, the Guards were an exception to the rule. Their infantry regiments set off to war in full three-battalion strength.39 In addition, all Russian infantry battalions – Guards, line or light – were composed of four companies. Of these the elite company was called ‘Grenadier’, the other three usually ‘Musketeer’. Though the second battalions of the line infantry remained in reserve, they detached their Grenadier companies for front-line service. These companies were united into so-called ‘Combined’ Grenadier battalions, brigades and divisions. Between them the First and Second armies had two such divisions and both fought at Borodino.
In 1812 there was a lively exchange between successive governors of Riga (Dmitrii Lobanov-Rostovsky and Magnus von Essen) and army headquarters about the quality of the reserve battalions which formed the Riga garrison. Not only the governors but also the senior Russian military engineer, General Karl Oppermann, complained that reserve battalions were by their nature very under strength and often poorly trained. Alexander denied this, arguing that good regiments had good reserve battalions and vice versa. Common sense suggests that Lobanov, Essen and Oppermann were at least partly right. Any sensible colonel taking his regiment off to war was likely to try to slip weaker elements into a reserve battalion designated for service in the rear. By definition, a battalion which shed its elite Grenadier company declined in quality as well as size. Nevertheless, Alexander was right in insisting that many of the reserve battalions which served under Bagration or joined Count Peter Wittgenstein’s First Corps fought very well in 1812.40
The other half of the Russian ‘second line’ was made up of battalions formed from the Reserve Recruit Depots initially created by Arakcheev back in 1808 to ease peasants’ transition to military service. In 1811, with war looming, it was decided to form the recruits who had almost completed their training in the so-called ‘first-line’ depots into reserve battalions. These were officially called the fourth battalions of their respective regiments. Their cadres were provided by the officers, NCOs and veterans who had been detached from the parent regiments to train the recruits in the depots. The fourth battalions were then united into reserve brigades and divisions. In March 1812 proposals were hatched to unite all the reserve units of the ‘second line’ into three reserve armies. In time these reserve armies would be able to reinforce Barclay, Bagration and Tormasov. In the event that the front-line armies were defeated or forced to retreat, they would be able to fall back under the cover of these rear formations.41
This plan never came to fruition and in reality reserve armies never existed in 1812. One reason for this was that Napoleon advanced more quickly than anticipated and the Russian reserve units were forced to decamp before they could form such armies. More importantly, many reserve battalions had to be redeployed in 1812 to stiffen the front line of defence. In May 1812 when Tormasov’s Third Army was created in response to the new threat from Austria, it included many reserve (i.e. second) battalions. Reserve battalions also comprised most of the 18,500-strong garrison of Riga, as well as the smaller forces assigned to hold the fortresses of Bobruisk, Kiev and Dünaburg. When Dünaburg was abandoned its garrison joined Wittgenstein’s corps in defending the approaches to Petersburg.
Meanwhile, of the eighty-seven fourth battalions from the Recruit Depots twelve joined the Riga garrison and six fought under Wittgenstein but the rest were incorporated into the retreating First and Second armies on the march. General Mikhail Miloradovich joined Kutuzov’s forces on the eve of the battle of Borodino with most of the last remaining group of battalions, some 13,500 men. The fourth battalions were all broken up and their men distributed to refill the ranks of Kutuzov’s regiments. This made good sense. The recruits in the fourth battalions had never seen their parent regiments and had little sense of regimental identity. In addition, battalions packed with men who had never seen action could not be relied on in battle. But these men all had basic military training and would be a safe and valuable addition when distributed among Kutuzov’s veteran units. In addition, this policy allowed the fourth battalions’ officers and NCOs to be detached to instruct the horde of new conscripts mobilized by the wartime levies.42
In principle Russia’s third line of defence was the entire able-bodied manpower of the empire. During the war more than a million men were to be mobilized into the armed forces, over and above the hundreds of thousands of soldiers already in the ranks when the war began. Very few of this million saw active service in 1812, however, and it might seem strange that with such resources at his disposal Alexander allowed himself to delay mobilizing his potential manpower and thereby to be seriously outnumbered by Napoleon at the war’s outbreak.
A number of plausible explanations exist. The full dimensions of Napoleon’s invasion force only became apparent early in 1812. Alexander was also intent on not provoking Napoleon by ostentatiously increasing the size of the Russian army. Probably even more to the point were issues of cadres and finance. There was no sense in mobilizing hordes of recruits to fill their stomachs at the government’s expense unless there were officers and NCOs to train and lead them. The government did all it could to create effective military cadres in 1807–12. Regiments were instructed to train junior NCOs. Three so-called Grenadier Training battalions were established to train likely looking young soldiers to become sergeant-majors and quartermaster-sergeants. A range of inducements were offered to potential officers. For instance, the widows of officers killed in action would receive their full salaries as pensions. Above all the ministry of war created the so-called Noble Regiment, which offered free, compressed officer-training courses and was attached to the Second Cadet Corps. Between 1807 and the end of 1812 more than 3,000 young men had passed through this regiment and received commissions, the great majority of them entering the line infantry. Nevertheless both before and during the war finding reliable officer and NCO cadres was always a bigger problem than netting recruits.43
Alexander’s actions and words around the time of Napoleon’s invasion provide some clues to his thinking. He told a Finnish official in August 1812 that the only way to unite Russian society behind the immense sacrifices needed to defeat Napoleon was for the latter to be seen as the aggressor and to invade Russian territory. Fighting on Russian soil, the emperor clearly felt he could appeal for ‘voluntary’ contributions towards the military build-up in a way that would not have been possible had he begun the war himself or fought it abroad, like all the other wars of the previous century. He had already begun to appeal for these contributions on the eve of Napoleon’s invasion. There was therefore a political and financial logic for a bankrupt government to delay full-scale mobilization until war was in sight and it could tap society for contributions. It continued to follow this policy throughout 1812.44
Planning for war began early in 1810. In March of that year Barclay de Tolly submitted a memorandum to Alexander entitled ‘The Defence of Russia’s Western Frontiers’. The document is crucial both for what it did and did not say. Most of its ideas underlay all subsequent planning by Barclay and Alexander, who in the end were the only two people who truly mattered when it came to deciding how to fight the war.
Barclay stressed that of all Russia’s borders the western one was the most vulnerable. It was enormously long and poorly defended by nature or man. Unlike most of Russia’s other borders, there had been no threat on the western frontier since Charles XII’s defeat at Poltava a century before. That explained its lack of fortifications. The minister argued that, if the territories annexed from Poland since 1772 were invaded by an enemy whose forces greatly outnumbered the Russian army, it would be impossible to defend them. The network of fortresses which alone would make it possible to hold this region would cost a fortune and take at least twenty-five years to build. In these circumstances the Russian army must stage a fighting withdrawal across the whole of Belorussia and Lithuania. It must eat up, remove or destroy all the food and fodder available in the region, leaving the enemy to sustain itself in a desert.
The key priority was to establish a strong defensive line along the rivers Dvina and Dnieper, where the Russians must make their stand. A number of fortresses and fortified camps must be constructed to strengthen this line. Barclay believed that it was ‘most probable’ that the enemy’s main thrust would be south-eastwards towards Kiev, though an advance north-eastwards into Courland and Livonia was also possible. In either case, the Russian army facing this advance would seek to slow it down by a fighting withdrawal, without, however, risking a major battle. As the threatened army retreated into its fortified camp, the Russian army at the other end of the line would seek to advance into the enemy’s rear. Barclay added that ‘one cannot expect that the enemy would dare to advance in the centre’ – in other words towards Minsk and Smolensk – but if it did so then the small ‘Reserve Army’ deployed there would draw the enemy onwards and the two main Russian armies would strike into its flanks and rear.
Of Russia’s twenty-three existing divisions, Barclay argued that eight would need to remain in Finland, the Caucasus and the Ottoman border to defend these regions. This assumed some construction of fortresses in Finland, peace with the Ottomans and no Austrian invasion of Wallachia and Moldavia. Even given this optimistic scenario only fifteen divisions – barely 200,000 men – would be available for the western front. Seven of these divisions were to be deployed in the south, in other words on the left of the Russian line. They would block an enemy advance towards Kiev. Four divisions were to be concentrated on the right in Courland. In the enormous gap between these two armies the Reserve Army of just four divisions would deploy between Vilna and Minsk.
For whatever reason, Barclay said nothing about what would happen if the defence line along the Dvina and Dnieper was breached. Nor did he venture an opinion as to whether 200,000 men would be sufficient. Only weeks into his new job, perhaps he felt that he had risked enough by advocating the abandonment of the whole of Belorussia and Lithuania in his first discussion of strategy with the monarch.45
For two years after Barclay wrote this memorandum Russian generals debated whether to adopt a defensive or offensive strategy in the face of the threat from Napoleon. Given the fact that the defensive strategy initially suggested by Barclay in March 1810 was the one which was finally adopted and which ultimately proved successful it might seem self-evident that this was the correct option. In fact this was far from clear at the time. A number of intelligent proposals for an offensive strategy were put forward by key generals. A point to note is that for much of the period between March 1810 and April 1812 both Barclay de Tolly and Aleksandr Chernyshev advocated at least a limited initial offensive into Prussia and the Duchy of Warsaw. The leading advocate of a purely defensive strategy was Lieutenant-General Karl von Pfühl, a former senior Prussian staff officer accepted into Russian service in December 1806. Pfühl’s chief assistant was Lieutenant-Colonel Ludwig von Wolzogen, who was responsible for choosing the position of the famous fortified camp at Drissa on which Pfühl’s defensive strategy rested. But in October 1811 even Wolzogen argued that an offensive strategy made more sense.46
The reasons for this were partly political. It was clear to everyone that unless the Russian army advanced at the beginning of the war there was no chance of keeping Prussia as an ally. Right down to the winter of 1811–12 this issue hung in the balance, with a Russo-Prussian convention pledging Russia to an offensive signed but ultimately never ratified by the Prussian side. Another vital political issue was the competition to secure Polish loyalty. As Bennigsen argued in February 1811, a Russian offensive into the Duchy of Warsaw would stymie Napoleon’s wish to mobilize Polish support in Russia’s western borderlands. If the moral effect of a Russian offensive was combined with attractive political concessions to the Poles, large sections of the Polish army might fight on the Russian side.47
There were also powerful military reasons for an offensive. Invading the Duchy of Warsaw meant that Polish rather than Russian soil would bear the costs of war. More important, if Napoleon was to invade Russia, the Duchy of Warsaw and East Prussia would be his key bases. Huge stores would need to be amassed well in advance to sustain the invading army. As this army made its way across Europe to take up position on the Russian border their stores and their sources of food and fodder in the Duchy would be vulnerable to a Russian preemptive strike. For a sensible invader, the campaigning season in Russia was short. It was lunacy to invade before early June, when there would be sufficient grass in the field to feed the horses. That allowed less than five months before the snows began to fall in November. At the very least, a Russian pre-emptive strike might delay Napoleon’s plans for an offensive and gain an additional year for Russian defensive preparations.
Above all, Russian generals advocated an offensive because they understood how very risky and difficult a purely defensive strategy would be. The western border was immensely long. If Russia was still at war with the Turks, French or Austrian troops could invade Bessarabia and threaten the entire Russian position on the north shore of the Black Sea, at the same time as Napoleon’s main army was tying most of the Russian forces down in Belorussia and Lithuania. In the spring of 1812 peace with the Ottomans and the Austrian promise not to invade Russia from Galicia at least ended these worries.
Nevertheless the border with East Prussia and the Duchy of Warsaw alone remained very long. The Russians had to defend the approaches to Petersburg and Moscow. The latter could be threatened directly via Smolensk in the west or from Kaluga and the south-west. The defence of Kiev and Ukraine was also a top priority. Russian armies would therefore be stretched very thin. Communications through the huge area of the Pripet marshes were extremely poor. The Russian southern army defending Ukraine would be on its own. It would be within Napoleon’s power to block the two main roads across the marshes and turn most of his army against one or other half of the Russian defensive screen.
It was in the nature of a defensive strategy that it gave the enemy the initiative. Added to the geography of the western borderlands, it would give Napoleon every opportunity to drive through the Russian forces, keep them separated and defeat them in detail. Moving through the centre of the Russian armies, he would then have the advantage of being between them and using interior lines. Bagration, Petr Mikhailovich Volkonsky and the emperor’s uncle, Duke Alexander of Württemberg, all stressed this danger in the early months of 1812.48 To make the situation worse, in the impoverished western borderlands it was very difficult to keep large armies concentrated and static for weeks on end, except possibly in the weeks immediately after the harvest. Sickness rates also shot up once the army was concentrated. In addition, much the most effective way to eat up the region’s food supplies and deny them to the French was to quarter the Russian army across a large swath of the area and use it to requisition supplies in lieu of tax. A state of war was declared in the border provinces in late April, which helped with requisitioning, but army headquarters was loath to concentrate its forces too early and too narrowly. In any case, once Napoleon left Paris the sources of Russian intelligence partly dried up. Napoleon himself was hoping for a Russian offensive and did not make final plans for an invasion until very late. He then of course did his utmost to hide where he intended to make his main thrust. Not until late May 1812 did the Russians begin to get a clear sense of where the main enemy attack was likely to come.49
In his March 1810 memorandum Barclay had stated that Russia’s western borderlands were very weakly defended by man or nature. Many other officers expanded on this theme in reports written between then and June 1812. Russian military engineers were badly overstretched in these years. In 1807–11 the small corps of engineers was deployed in the Baltic seaport fortresses against possible British attack, in the Caucasus and in attempts to refortify strong-points taken from the Ottomans in the Balkans. From March 1810 it was also lumbered with the immense task of fortifying the western borderlands at breakneck speed. As was pointed out in a number of memorandums, fortresses bypassed by Napoleon would be a big threat to his fragile communications. This would slow down his advance. More importantly, a retreating army with no fortresses in its rear had nowhere secure for its supplies and baggage, and was therefore always obsessed with the need to protect them. In this situation an army tended to retreat quickly since only distance provided security.50
But fortresses, however necessary, could not easily be built from scratch in two years. On their southern flank, the Russians succeeded in preparing Kiev’s defences for a siege and constructed a strong fortress at Bobruisk. On their northern flank, Riga was strengthened though the commander of the corps of engineers, General Oppermann, doubted whether it could hold out for long against a serious siege unless its garrison was very large. Once the new fortress of Dünaburg on the Dvina was completed, Oppermann wanted to move all supplies and stores there from Riga, since he feared that the latter’s fall to the French would otherwise threaten the logistics of the main Russian armies.
Unfortunately, however, Dünaburg could not be completed by the summer of 1812. This meant that the entire central sector of the Russian defence line was open. As Bennigsen pointed out, this central sector gave access to the core territories of the Russian Empire, including the army’s likely supply bases in Moscow and Smolensk. To make matters worse, this huge central sector had no natural defences of real value. Wolzogen had obeyed his orders to choose a defensive position on the river Dvina and had selected the spot for a fortified camp at Drissa. Nevertheless he warned that the upper two-thirds of the Dvina was shallow and easily forded in summer. Moreover at most points the west bank was higher than the east, which put defenders at a serious disadvantage. Barclay received the same advice from an even more authoritative voice, namely General Oppermann, who told him in August 1811 that the river Dvina could not be defended against a serious enemy advance, ‘however good any specific position may be’. The reason for this was that ‘in summer the river is easily crossed, the areas close to its banks are almost everywhere open and easily traversed, and any position on or near the river’s banks can be outflanked’.51
Between Riga on the Baltic coastline and Bobruisk far to the south the only significant defence-works in June 1812 were the fortified camp at Drissa, way upriver on the Dvina towards Vitebsk, whose construction began in the spring of 1812. Alexander’s unofficial adviser, General Pfühl, made the camp at Drissa the key to his plan for the defence of the empire’s heartland. By the time Napoleon’s forces approached Drissa, Pfühl expected them to be exhausted and reduced in number after crossing a devastated Belorussia and Lithuania. If they attempted to storm the fortified camp in which the bulk of First Army had taken refuge they would be at a great tactical disadvantage. If they tried to move beyond Drissa then First Army could attack their flank. Meanwhile Bagration and Platov’s forces would be striking deep into Napoleon’s rear.
In principle Pfühl’s plan had much in common with Barclay’s proposals in March 1810. There was the same reliance on strategic retreat and devastating the abandoned territory; on fortified camps as a means to strengthen the defending army when it finally turned at bay; on the role of other Russian forces in striking into Napoleon’s flanks and rear. Pfühl had merely transported Barclay’s concept from the two flanks, where Barclay had seen the greatest threat, to the centre of the Russian line, which now seemed the likeliest target for Napoleon’s main blow. But Barclay’s fortified camps were to rely on the support of fortresses, Riga in the north and Bobruisk in the south. With Dünaburg gone, Drissa must stand alone. In addition, in 1810 Barclay had not anticipated that Russia would be invaded by an army of anything like half a million men.
Even in 1812 Pfühl was probably not fully aware of the size of Napoleon’s invasion force. Access to Russian intelligence material was confined to a very tight circle. By March 1812 Alexander, Barclay and their de facto chief intelligence officer, Petr Chuikevich, knew that even the first wave of Napoleon’s army would be 450,000 strong. A force of this size could both mask and outflank Drissa without danger. It could also block any attack by Bagration and Matvei Platov without difficulty. If First Army took refuge in Drissa, it might be surrounded and captured as easily as Mack’s troops in Ulm had been at the beginning of the 1805 campaign.
Nevertheless Alexander’s plan of campaign in 1812 at least on the surface revolved around the fortified camp at Drissa. The Russian army was to make a strategic withdrawal to Drissa at the war’s outbreak and would then attempt to hold the French on the line of the river Dvina. Perhaps Alexander genuinely believed in Pfühl’s plan. He always tended to value foreign soldiers’ opinions above those of his own generals, in whose abilities he usually had little confidence. In addition, Pfühl’s ‘scientific’ predictions as to the precise moment when Napoleon’s supplies would run out may have appealed to Alexander’s liking for tidy, abstract ideas. Undoubtedly the emperor believed that Pfühl’s plan was based on the same concept as Barclay’s earlier proposals. He will also have remembered that in 1806–7 Bennigsen had kept at bay for six months an enemy double his numbers. Nevertheless there is room for some cynicism. Alexander did not want Napoleon to penetrate into the Russian heartland, though he feared that he might do so. Any open admission that Napoleon might reach Great Russia in his initial campaign, let alone the circulation of plans based on such an idea, would have destroyed the emperor’s credit. If Napoleon was to be stopped short of the Great Russian border, Pfühl’s plan seemed the only one currently available. Should it fail, Alexander knew that Pfühl would be the perfect scapegoat. A foreigner without protection, he was also despised by the Russian generals as the epitome of a German pedantic staff officer who knew nothing about war.52
Though Alexander may have retained faith in Pfühl’s plan even in June 1812, it is very hard to believe that the experienced Barclay allowed it greatly to affect his thinking on how the war should be conducted, given the advice he had received from the army’s chief engineer. From Barclay’s perspective, however, the camp at Drissa did no harm. It absorbed almost none of his resources, since it was built with local labour. It was also a useful stopping point in the army’s retreat and almost unique as a place where stores could be established for the retreating army under some kind of protection. In any case, final decisions on Russian strategy rested with the emperor, not with Barclay. But the best guide to Barclay’s thinking immediately before the war is provided by a memorandum written by Chuikevich in April 1812. It says nothing about fortified camps in general or the camp at Drissa in particular.
Chuikevich’s analysis was close to the ideas expressed earlier by Aleksandr Chernyshev. He argued that Napoleon’s whole system of war depended on big battles and rapid victories. For the Russians, the key to victory was ‘to plan and pursue a war exactly contrary to what the enemy wants’. They must retreat, raid enemy communications with their much superior light cavalry, and wear down Napoleon’s forces. ‘We must avoid big battles until we have fallen right back on our supply bases.’ In previous wars, when frustrated, Napoleon had made serious mistakes but his enemies had not exploited them. Russia must not miss this opportunity. Its cavalry could prove lethal in pursuit of a beaten foe. Determination not to negotiate and to continue the war until victory was vital but so too was caution; Fabius, the Roman general whose refusal of battle had so frustrated Hannibal, must be their guide. So too must Wellington’s policy of strategic withdrawal in the Peninsula. ‘However contrary this strategy based on caution is to the spirit of the Russian people, we must remember that we have no formed reserve units behind our front-line forces and the complete destruction of the First and Second armies could have fateful consequences for the Fatherland. The loss of a few provinces must not frighten us because the state’s survival depends on the survival of its army.’ Chuikevich also advocated a number of ways in which Europe might be incited to rise up in Napoleon’s rear. Though unrealistic, they do serve as a useful reminder that for him, Barclay and Alexander the 1812 campaign in Russia was merely the first act in a longer war designed to destroy Napoleon’s domination of Europe.53
Chuikevich’s memorandum did not go into details. It said nothing specific about where Napoleon’s advance might be stopped. Unlike Pfühl, Chuikevich was a practical soldier who understood the uncertainties of warfare. But no one who read the memorandum could be confident that Napoleon’s advance would be halted within the western borderlands. The danger that the war would spread into the Russian heartland was obvious. In reality Barclay and Alexander had always understood this possibility. Any Russian leader knew how Charles XII had marched deep into the empire’s interior and had been destroyed by Peter the Great. The parallels were clear enough. On the very eve of Napoleon’s invasion, Count Rostopchin wrote to Alexander that ‘if unfortunate circumstances forced us to decide on retreat in the face of a victorious enemy, even in that case the Russian emperor will be menacing in Moscow, terrifying in Kazan and invincible in Tobolsk’. While recovering from his wounds in 1807 Barclay himself apparently spoke at length of the need to defeat Napoleon by drawing him into the depths of Russia and inflicting on him a new Poltava. Before 1812 Alexander and his sister Catherine spoke privately about the possibility of Napoleon taking both Moscow and Petersburg in the event of a war. Early in 1812 the emperor made quiet arrangements to evacuate his mistress and child to the Volga if the need arose.54
All this was a long way from concrete plans to lure Napoleon into the Russian interior or prepare for his destruction there. In reality no such plans or preparations existed. This was sensible. Barclay’s brother was a colonel on the general staff: he wrote in 1811 that it was pointless to make plans for military operations beyond the first stages of any war, so great were the uncertainties involved in any campaign. This was doubly the case in 1812 since Russia’s defensive strategy had left the initiative in Napoleon’s hands. If Napoleon crossed the Dvina he might head for Moscow. On the other hand, he could make for Petersburg or even shift the main thrust of the war southwards towards Ukraine, as his Polish advisers were urging. More likely, he could end his campaign with the conquest of Belorussia and devote his energies to restoring the Polish kingdom and organizing a supply base for a campaign into the Russian heartland in 1813. Before the war began Napoleon told Metternich, the Austrian foreign minister, that this was what he intended to do and at least one senior Russian general staff officer believed that if Napoleon had stuck to this idea the consequences for Russia would have been disastrous.55
For the Russian leadership, how their own subjects would respond to the French invasion was a matter of immense importance and uncertainty. Above all, this meant the Poles, not least because they dominated the region which Russian strategy intended to surrender to the invaders. There was considerable debate among Russian generals and statesmen before the war began about how the Poles would respond to a French invasion. It was felt that many of the great landowners preferred Russian rule because they disliked the abolition of serfdom in the Duchy of Warsaw and feared further radical measures. As to the region’s peasants, they might indulge in anarchic assaults on property and order but the Russian leadership was confident that they neither understood nor cared about nationalist or Jacobin ideas. The big danger was the mass of the Polish gentry. Most Russian generals agreed that, if Napoleon invaded Russia and proclaimed Poland’s restoration, the great majority of educated Poles in Lithuania and Belorussia would support him, partly out of nationalist enthusiasm and partly because they believed that he would win. Of course this reinforced the generals’ unwillingness to withdraw from the borderlands, not least for fear that Napoleon would turn them into a fruitful base for subsequent operations against the Russian heartland. Alexander and Barclay could not deny this possibility. But they believed that Napoleon’s overwhelming numbers left them no alternative to their strategy. They knew that restoring the Polish kingdom could not be done overnight. They banked on Napoleon’s temperament, as well as on the nature of his regime and military system, making a strategy of sustained patience unlikely.56
As regards the emperor’s Russian subjects, much the most important ‘constituency’ was the army itself. For any army, maintaining discipline and morale during a long retreat is extremely difficult. The Prussian army disintegrated after Jena-Auerstadt and the French were little better during the retreat from Moscow in 1812 and from Leipzig in the autumn of 1813. British discipline collapsed during Sir John Moore’s retreat to Corunna in 1808 and again during the retreat from Burgos back into Portugal in 1812. As one historian of the Peninsular War comments, ‘retreats were not the British army’s forte’. Though the Russian army was famous for its discipline, a retreat not just across the whole of Belorussia and Lithuania but also deep into Russia itself was bound to test morale and order within the regiments to the limit. In stressing the impact of retreat on his troops’ morale just before the war Prince Bagration had his own axe to grind because the very idea of retreating in the face of an enemy was anathema to him. Nevertheless, his fears were by no means groundless.57
It is a truism among military historians that armies can only fight wars in line with their ‘military doctrine’, which is elaborated in the pre-war years. In the early nineteenth century formalized military doctrine in the modern sense existed nowhere. This would have to wait for staff colleges and the whole paraphernalia of modern military education and training. In an informal sense, however, the Russian army did have a ‘doctrine’ in 1812 and it was wholly committed to offensive strategy and tactics. From his first moments in his regiment the young officer was encouraged to be daring, fearless, confident and aggressive. Every lieutenant was expected to believe that one Russian was worth five Frenchmen. Male pride was at stake in the ‘game’ to capture trophies such as flags and drive the enemy off the battlefield. Many Russian generals in 1812 had this mentality too. To retreat before the enemy was almost as shocking as failing to defend one’s honour in a duel when challenged. In addition, in the previous century the army had experienced only victory. Its great triumphs over Frederick II and the Ottomans had been won on the offensive and on enemy soil. The greatest eighteenth-century Russian generals, Aleksandr Suvorov and Petr Rumiantsev, stressed speed, aggression, surprise and shock. An army bred on such ideas and traditions was bound to mutter if forced to retreat hundreds of kilometres deep into Russian territory on the basis of calculations about logistics and numbers made by ‘German’ staff officers.58
It was also hard to predict how the Russian civilian population would respond if Napoleon entered the Great Russian provinces. After all, the army of a great power was supposed to protect the property of its compatriots, not retreat for hundreds of kilometres without a battle and open the country’s core to devastation. Above all, the elites had to worry about how their serfs would react to Napoleon, particularly if he issued promises of emancipation. In pre-war military documents there is very little on this subject. One interesting (though unique) war ministry document did raise the spectre of Russian peasant disturbances, arguing that the experience of the Pugachev rebellion showed that house serfs and peasants working in factories were the least reliable elements.59
Inevitably such fears grew as Napoleon approached the Russian borders in July 1812. The private secretary to Alexander’s wife Empress Elizabeth, Nikolai Longinov, wrote in July that ‘although I am convinced that our people would not accept the gift of freedom from such a monster, it is impossible not to worry’. In December 1812, with the danger passed, John Quincy Adams wrote that among the Petersburg elite there was great relief that ‘the peasants had not shown the least disposition to avail themselves of the occasion to obtain their freedom…. I see this is what most touches the feelings of all the Russians with whom I have conversed on the subject. This was the point on which their fears were the greatest, and upon which they are most delighted to see the danger past.’ The influence of such fears on pre-war planning or wartime operations must not be exaggerated, however. Petersburg’s salons might shiver at the word ‘Pugachev’ but fears of peasant insurrection barely figure in the correspondence of Alexander, Barclay or Kutuzov.60
At the beginning of April 1812, as they struggled to prepare their armies to oppose the invasion, Russia’s generals had more pressing concerns than serf rebellion. At this time Barclay was still hoping to mount a pre-emptive attack into the Duchy of Warsaw and East Prussia, though he realized that by now this could only be a quick and limited spoiling action. He awaited with impatience the emperor’s arrival at headquarters and permission to start the attack. In fact, however, Alexander was delayed and permission never came. The emperor had always preferred to await the attack and to adopt a defensive strategy. His determination to follow that line was confirmed by news of the Franco-Austrian alliance. If a Russian army advanced into the Duchy of Warsaw, Austria might well be impelled by this treaty to mobilize all its military forces and could push forward from Galicia into the rear of the advancing Russian armies.61
With all chances of a pre-emptive strike gone and the Austrian army also now to be reckoned with, the Russians were forced to redeploy their troops quickly. As Petr Mikhailovich Volkonsky wrote on 11 May, currently more than 800 kilometres separated the headquarters of Barclay’s right-hand corps at Schawel and Bagration’s headquarters at Lutsk. The armies were deployed for an advance into the Duchy of Warsaw. Above all, they were well placed to feed themselves off the countryside. But they were very poorly deployed to resist invasion. Volkonsky admitted that a pre-emptive strike had been the best option but it was no longer possible even in military terms because Napoleon had now gathered his stores into fortresses and 220,000 enemy troops were already deploying along the border. A new, ‘Third’, army was set up under Aleksandr Tormasov to guard the approaches to Ukraine. Bagration would detach part of Second Army to reinforce Tormasov and would bring the rest of his command northwards to link up with Barclay. Volkonsky reckoned that it would take fifteen days’ uninterrupted marching for Bagration’s men to reach their new positions. Even then First and Second armies would still hold a front of not much less than 200 kilometres.62
By 6 June Bagration’s army, now really no more than the size of a big corps, was deployed around Pruzhany. The Russians were evacuating cash, food, transport and archives from the border region. They were also trying to ‘evacuate’ local Polish officials who would be of service to the enemy. Having reached Pruzhany, Bagration was soon ordered to move still further northwards, since Russian intelligence now correctly believed that Napoleon’s main thrust would be further north than previously thought, from East Prussia and through the centre of First Army’s deployment in the direction of Vilna. This order was dispatched on 18 June, only six days before Napoleon crossed the border.63
Bagration was becoming distinctly unhappy. His army was drawing further and further away from Tormasov’s men. He wrote to Barclay that Volhynia (i.e. western Ukraine) was a juicy target for the French since it contained great reserves of food and horses, and its Polish nobles were certain to collaborate with Napoleon if given the chance. With Second and Third armies now beyond the range of mutual support, the road into Ukraine’s richest provinces was opening up. Meanwhile, in an effort to draw closer to First Army, his much reduced force was strung out over a front of more than 100 kilometres. Nor was it possible to execute his orders to destroy or drag away all local food supplies. Most local carts had been requisitioned by the army and if he drove all the local horses and cattle to the rear they would eat out the meadows on which his own army’s horses depended.64
In all these complaints there was, without doubt, an element of foot-dragging. Bagration loathed the idea of retreating without a fight and appealed to Alexander on 18 June to be allowed to mount a pre-emptive strike. In a fiery letter he set out all the disadvantages of a retreat. To do Bagration justice, his understanding of realities was not helped by the fact that Alexander had not passed on Russian intelligence’s estimates about the size of Napoleon’s forces. Nor had Bagration any clear overall picture of Napoleon’s deployment on the other side of the border. Before he could receive a response from the emperor Napoleon had crossed the border on 24 June and the war had begun.65