The Retreat

In March 1812 Mikhail Barclay de Tolly was appointed to command First Army, whose headquarters were in Vilna, much the biggest city in Lithuania. Though he retained the title of minister of war, Barclay handed over the day-to-day running of the ministry to Prince Aleksei Gorchakov, who remained in Petersburg when Barclay and many of the other most able officers departed the capital for army headquarters.

First Army was roughly 136,000 strong. This made it bigger than Prince Bagration’s Second Army (around 57,000 men) and General Tormasov’s Third Army (around 48,000) combined.1 Together these three armies guarded Russia’s western borders against invasion by Napoleon. Barclay was in no sense the supreme commander of all three forces. In fact he was junior to both Bagration and Tormasov, which mattered greatly in the acutely rank-conscious elite of imperial Russia. The only supreme commander was Alexander himself, who arrived in Vilna in April.

The bulk of First Army was made up of the five infantry corps which by June 1812 were arrayed along the frontier of East Prussia and the northern border of the Duchy of Warsaw. Each of these corps contained two infantry divisions, which in turn were made up of three brigades. Two of these brigades were formed from regiments of the line, one from jaegers. As we have seen, a Russian infantry regiment went on campaign with its first and third battalions, which fought side-by-side. An infantry brigade usually therefore contained two regiments of four battalions. At full strength at the beginning of a war it should in principle be almost 3,000 strong. A Russian infantry division should therefore have 6,000 infantry of the line and 3,000 light infantry, though in reality sickness and the many men absent in detachments meant that no formation ever actually reached these numbers. A Russian division also usually contained three twelve-gun artillery batteries. Two of these batteries were designated as ‘light’ and most of their guns were six-pounders. The other was a heavy battery, with twelve-pounder cannon. Both heavy and light batteries included a section of howitzers, designed to shoot at high angles.

A small number of Cossack and regular light cavalry regiments were attached to infantry corps. Most of the light cavalry, however, was formed into separate mounted formations. Confusingly, these were called ‘Reserve Cavalry Corps’ though in fact they were neither reserves nor corps. The three so-called ‘Reserve Cavalry Corps’ of First Army were each roughly 3,000 strong, and contained anything from four to six regiments of dragoons, hussars and lancers, and one battery of horse artillery. Fedor Uvarov commanded the first of these cavalry corps. The Second Cavalry Corps was commanded by Baron Friedrich von Korff and the Third by Major-General Count Peter von der Pahlen, the son and namesake of the man who had led the conspiracy which overthrew and murdered Alexander I’s father in 1801. His ancestry does not seem to have damaged greatly the career of the younger Pahlen, who was to prove himself an exceptionally able cavalry commander in 1812–14.

First Army’s actual reserves stood behind the front line in the vicinity of Vilna. They were the Grand Duke Constantine’s Fifth Corps, made up of nineteen battalions of Guards infantry and seven battalions of Grenadiers. To them were attached the four heavy cavalry regiments of First Cuirassier Division, which included the Chevaliers Gardes and the Horse Guards. The Grand Duke Constantine also commanded five artillery batteries, though in addition three heavy batteries formed the overall army reserve.2

With very few exceptions the men and horses of First Army were in excellent shape when the war began in June 1812. They had been well fed and well quartered for many weeks, unlike the often already hungry and exhausted men of Napoleon’s army who had been marching across Europe and finding it increasingly hard to feed themselves as they packed into their cramped quarters in the Prussian and Polish border areas. As one might have predicted, the main problems in the Russian army concerned not the soldiers and their regiments but the staffs and the high command.

Barclay’s first chief of staff was Lieutenant-General Aleksandr Lavrov. His first quartermaster-general was Major-General Semen Mukhin. Their inadequacy for senior staff positions was quickly revealed once the war began. Mukhin lasted seventeen days into the campaign, Lavrov just nine. He was succeeded by Lieutenant-General Marquis Philippe Paulucci, who was hanging around in Alexander’s suite and whom the emperor offered to Barclay on a take-him-or-leave-him basis. Paulucci had previously served in the Piedmontese, Austrian and French armies. He was one of a number of individuals scooped into Russian service as a result of Russia’s campaigns in the Adriatic and Mediterranean in 1798–1807. Paulucci described himself in a letter to Alexander as possessing a ‘lively and impetuous’ character which must not be restrained since it boiled over with zeal for the emperor’s cause. Certainly Paulucci possessed a very lively egoism and a bad habit of insinuating that anyone who disagreed with him was an idiot or a traitor. For all Paulucci’s brains and energy, Russia had quite enough generals of this temper already without needing the services of a Piedmontese enfant terrible. Barclay trusted neither Paulucci’s competence nor his loyalty and immediately sidelined him. Paulucci promptly resigned. In early July Colonel Karl von Toll became First Army’s acting quartermaster-general. Paulucci was replaced as chief of staff by Major-General Aleksei Ermolov. Now the right men were in their correct posts. Both Toll and Ermolov were formidable soldiers who would play crucial roles in the campaigns of 1812–14.3

Though Karl von Toll’s family was ultimately of Dutch origin, it had long since settled in Estland and become part of the Baltic German minor gentry. Both Toll’s parents were Germans, and he himself remained a Lutheran all his life. In 1814 he married a Baltic German noblewoman. Although this appears to make him a thoroughgoing Balt, in reality matters were more complicated. For many years of his adolescence he attended a cadet corps in St Petersburg. The school’s director at that time was the later Field-Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, who always regarded Toll not just as a brilliant officer but also almost as an adopted son. On leaving the cadet corps Toll served all his career in the quartermaster-general’s section of the emperor’s suite, in other words the general staff. Here his great patron came to be Prince Petr Mikhailovich Volkonsky. An officer whose two key patrons were leading members of the Russian aristocracy was by definition likely to be seen as an honorary Russian. According to one contemporary, Toll was very careful to portray himself in these terms, always speaking Russian whenever possible, though this did not stop him using his position to find jobs for his German relatives. In doing this he followed the universal custom of the time, which saw such behaviour not as nepotism but as praiseworthy loyalty to family and friends – unless of course the patron happened to be a German and the job was one on which one had set one’s own hopes.

A cynic might remark that with patrons as powerful as Kutuzov and Volkonsky Karl von Toll could hardly fail, but this would be unfair. He earned their patronage by his intelligence, efficiency and hard work, as well as by his loyalty. His main problem was his proud, impatient and passionate temperament. His temper was notorious and he found it very difficult to tolerate opposition or criticism, including from superior officers. On a number of occasions in 1812 this almost ruined his career. After a ferocious argument in August with the equally explosive Bagration, Toll was demoted, only to be rescued by the arrival of his old patron Kutuzov as commander-in-chief. Although Toll could be an infuriating colleague, let alone subordinate, he was neither petty nor vindictive. He was deeply committed to the army and to Russia’s victory over Napoleon. His outbursts of fury and impatience were usually directed not by personal ambitions and slights but against anything which he saw as impeding the efficient prosecution of the war.4

As quartermaster-general of First Army Toll’s immediate boss was Aleksei Ermolov. An extremely courageous and inspiring front-line commander, Ermolov did not have the trained staff officer’s meticulous attention to detail and careful recording of all orders on paper. At times in 1812 this caused problems. Trained as an artillery officer, Ermolov had done brilliantly in the East Prussian campaign of 1807. Together with a number of other young artillerists – of whom Count Aleksandr Kutaisov, Prince Lev Iashvili and Ivan Sukhozhanet were the most famous – he had done much to restore the reputation of the Russian artillery after the humiliation it had suffered at Austerlitz. Subsequently, however, Ermolov contributed to deepening the factional cleavages in the artillery’s officer corps. According to his great admirer and former aide-de-camp, Paul Grabbe, Ermolov not only loathed Arakcheev and Lev Iashvili with particular virulence, but also infected everyone around him with equally black-and-white feelings, which did not benefit either the artillery’s efficient management or the careers of Ermolov’s own clients.5

Aleksei Ermolov was not just a thoroughly skilful and professional artillerist but also an exceptionally intelligent and resolute commander. Above all, he had great charisma. His appearance helped. A big man with a huge head, wide shoulders and a mane of hair, he struck one young officer on first acquaintance as a ‘true Hercules’. First impressions were reinforced by the friendly and informal way he treated his subordinates. Ermolov was a master of the memorable phrase or action. When his mare foaled on the eve of the 1812 campaign he had the newborn animal cooked and fed to his young officers, as a warning of what they would have to put up with during the forthcoming campaign. With the possible exception of Kutuzov, no other Russian senior general so caught the imagination of younger officers at the time or of subsequent nationalist legend.6

Ermolov owed his appeal not just to his charisma but also to his opinions. Coming from a well-off family of the provincial gentry and well educated in Moscow, he was never closely associated with Petersburg or the imperial court. He shared the conviction of most of his class that Russian soldiers were best commanded by gentlemen and that promotion from the ranks was at best an undesirable wartime necessity. In Ermolov’s day, however, Germans were far more serious rivals to Russian nobles than commoners promoted from the ranks, and Ermolov was famous and popular for his witticisms at their expense. This made him an uncomfortable bedfellow for Barclay de Tolly and a ferocious enemy of Barclay’s German aides. Two of the latter, Ludwig von Wolzogen and Vladimir von Löwenstern, wrote memoirs in which they chronicled Ermolov’s ruthless intrigues against them.7

More importantly, Ermolov was at the heart of the opposition to Barclay’s strategy in July and August 1812. Alexander had invited the chiefs of staff of both Bagration and Barclay to write to him directly. Though initially Bagration was very suspicious of his chief of staff as a result, in fact Emmanuel de Saint-Priest’s letters to the emperor strongly supported his commander. Ermolov on the contrary used his direct line to Alexander to undermine Barclay. To do him justice, he acted in this way out of a genuine – albeit misguided – conviction, shared by almost all the senior generals, that Barclay’s strategy was endangering the army and the state.8

Though in the short run Alexander used Ermolov and valued his military skill, it is very unlikely that he ever trusted him. On one occasion he called him ‘black as the devil but armed with as many skills’. With his charisma, his Russian patriotic credentials and his many admirers in the officer corps Ermolov was the perfect focus for gentry feeling against the court. On 30 July 1812, as indignation against Barclay reached its height, Ermolov wrote to Bagration that the army commanders would need to account for their actions not just to the emperor but also to the Russian fatherland. To a Romanov autocrat this was very dangerous language. Not coincidentally, when young Russian officers attempted to overthrow the absolute monarchy in December 1825 it was widely believed that Aleksei Ermolov was a source of inspiration and even possible future leadership.9

A quieter presence at headquarters but also a formidable one was the First Army’s intendant-general, Georg Kankrin. Aged 38 when the war began, Kankrin was a native of the small town of Hanau in Hesse. His father had been lured to Russia, partly by the high salary offered for his skills as an expert in technology and mining, and partly because his sharp tongue had ruined his prospects in Germany. After a German youth which included first-rate university studies and writing a romantic novel, young Georg Kankrin found it very difficult to adapt to life in Russia. He hibernated for a number of years, too poor to buy tobacco and forced to mend his own boots in order to save money. Eventually, his writings on military administration brought him to the attention of Barclay de Tolly and won him a key position in the war ministry’s victualling department, where he proved a great success. As a result, Barclay brought Kankrin with him when appointed to command First Army. During the next two years Kankrin overcame the immense challenge of feeding and equipping Russia’s armies as they marched first across the empire and then through Germany and France. He proved extremely efficient and hard-working, as well as honest and intelligent. On the strength of his achievement in 1812–14 he subsequently served for twenty-one years as minister of finance.10

Between 26 April when he arrived in Vilna and 19 July when he departed for Moscow Alexander lived alongside Barclay de Tolly near First Army headquarters. A curious duumvirate ran Russian strategy and even to some extent tactics. In some ways Barclay benefited from this. He and the emperor shared the view that strategic withdrawal was essential but could not be too openly advocated for fear of undermining morale and alienating public opinion. They believed that Russians, both inside and outside the army, had become inured to easy victories over inferior opponents and were unrealistic about what it meant to face Napoleon’s immense power. Through Alexander, Barclay could exercise a degree of control over Tormasov and Bagration. Since he was positioned with First Army the emperor naturally tended to view operations from its perspective. In addition, though Alexander had no great opinion of any of his leading generals, he trusted Barclay’s strategic insight and military skill much more than he did Tormasov, let alone Bagration. Almost certainly Bagration had been the lover of Alexander’s sister, the Grand Duchess Catherine. To her the emperor wrote in 1812 that Bagration had always totally lacked any skill or indeed conception when it came to strategy.11

If Alexander’s presence allowed Barclay some influence over Second and Third armies, the price he paid was the emperor’s interference in the affairs of his own First Army. First Army’s corps commanders sent reports in duplicate to Alexander and Barclay. At the beginning of the campaign they sometimes received orders from both men, too. Eight days after the war began Lieutenant-General Karl Baggohufvudt, the huge and jovial commander of Second Corps, wrote to Barclay that ‘I just received your orders of June 18th: since they are in contradiction with His Majesty’s orders what are we to do?’ On 30 June Barclay wrote to the emperor that he was unable to give instructions to Count Peter Wittgenstein, who commanded First Corps on the army’s vulnerable right flank, ‘because I don’t know what planned deployment Your Imperial Majesty intends for the future’. When Lieutenant-General Count Shuvalov, the commander of Fourth Corps, suddenly fell ill Alexander replaced him on 1 July with Count Aleksandr Ostermann-Tolstoy, claiming that there was no time to consult Barclay on this appointment.12

This degree of confusion was obviously dangerous and Alexander subsequently usually refrained from undermining Barclay’s control over his subordinates. The fact that both the emperor and Barclay had agreed on an initial retreat to the camp at Drissa also helped to reduce misunderstanding. Nevertheless tensions remained, not least because Alexander had been accompanied to Vilna by a gaggle of underemployed senior generals, courtiers and relatives who attempted to press their own ideas about how best to combat Napoleon on both the emperor and Barclay.

Among this gaggle the most competent but also in the long run probably the most destructive person was Levin von Bennigsen. Since Tilsit Bennigsen had been living in retirement and semi-disgrace on his estate at Zakrent very close to Vilna. When Alexander arrived in Vilna in April 1812 he invited the general back into his suite. In some ways bringing Bennigsen back into active service made sense and was part of Alexander’s policy of mobilizing all resources and all talents at this time of extreme emergency.

Bennigsen was undoubtedly a talented soldier. In the eyes of some observers he was indeed the most skilful tactician among the senior Russian generals. On the other hand, he was a born intriguer and a man of great pride and ambition. He himself confessed in his memoirs to ‘ambition and a certain pride which cannot, indeed ought not, ever to be absent from a soldier’. He also admitted that this pride made him ‘feel repugnance at the thought of serving in a subordinate position having once been commander-in-chief against Napoleon’. He did not forget that Barclay had once upon a time been a mere major-general in his army. He was also much inclined to remind people that in 1806–7 he had held his ground for six months against Napoleon though outnumbered two to one. In the early stages of the campaign Bennigsen was merely a minor nuisance. In time, however, he was to contribute greatly to the conflicts and jealousies that wracked the Russian high command.13

When news arrived in Vilna late on 24 June that Napoleon’s advance guard had crossed the Russian border earlier that day Alexander was actually attending a ball in Bennigsen’s country house at Zakrent. The roof of a temporary ballroom erected for the occasion had collapsed and the guests danced beneath the stars. The emperor was not surprised by the timing of the invasion or by the place where Napoleon had chosen to cross the river Neman and enter the Russian Empire. Russian intelligence and French deserters had given ample warning of the attack in the previous two days. Russian intelligence also had an accurate sense of enemy numbers. Alexander and Barclay had long since agreed on the need for a strategic withdrawal to the camp at Drissa in the face of this overwhelming enemy force. Orders went out immediately to the Russian commanders to execute this planned move. Manifestos had already been printed in advance to prepare both the army and Alexander’s subjects for the forthcoming struggle.

In the two weeks between the French invasion and First Army’s arrival in Drissa most of Barclay’s units retreated in good order and without significant losses. From the perspective of the high command, things mostly went according to plan. As is always true in war, matters did not look so orderly and well managed to the officers and men at ground level. Though most stores were carried away or burned, inevitably some fell into enemy hands, though not remotely enough to satisfy the enormous demands of Napoleon’s horses and men. Barclay’s attempt to requisition local carts for his army’s ‘mobile food magazine’ was delayed by the foot-dragging of local – often Polish – officials and many of these carts were lost to Napoleon.14

For troops who had been in quarters for weeks the sudden need for forced marches could be quite a shock. Even the Guards, which had least far to march, suffered initially. On 30 June Captain Pavel Pushchin of the Semenovskys wrote in his diary that they had broken camp and marched for eleven hours in pouring rain. As a result, forty of the regiment’s Guardsmen had fallen ill and one had died. Further long marches followed amidst intermittent downpours and extreme heat. To Pushchin’s great indignation three Polish soldiers in his company deserted. Especially in the lancer regiments, mostly recruited from Poles, desertion rates were far higher than this. The basic point, however, is that, in comparison to the devastating losses of horses and men in Napoleon’s ranks during these days, the losses on the Russian side were pinpricks.15

Of Barclay’s units the ones most at risk in these first two weeks stood on his left flank where they were in danger of being cut off from the rest of First Army by Napoleon’s advance. The biggest single error made by the Russian high command in the war’s first days was Fourth Corps’s failure quickly to notify its advance guard deployed close to the river Neman that the French had crossed the river to their north. As a result, the 4,000 men commanded by Major-General Ivan Dorokhov were very nearly overwhelmed and only escaped by marching southward to join up with Bagration’s Second Army.

Dorokhov’s detachment comprised one hussar, two Cossack and two jaeger regiments, including the excellent 1st Jaegers. An officer of this regiment, Major Mikhail Petrov, wrote in his memoirs that the 1st Jaegers only escaped by dint of uninterrupted days and nights of forced marches which left some men dead and others near senseless from exhaustion. Petrov recalled that the officers dismounted, piled the men’s equipment on their horses and helped to carry the muskets of their soldiers. For the first but by no means the last time in the campaigns of 1812–14 Russian light infantry displayed phenomenal endurance as they kept up with light cavalry and horse artillery while serving in advance and rearguards.16

Lieutenant-General Dmitrii Dokhturov’s Sixth Corps was much larger than Dorokhov’s detachment and therefore less likely to be overwhelmed. Nevertheless Dokhturov did well by not just avoiding Napoleon’s clutches but also cutting across the advancing French army and rejoining First Army before Drissa. Among Dokhturov’s officers was young Nikolai Mitarevsky, an artillery lieutenant in the Twelfth Light Battery. He recalled that on the eve of the war it had never occurred to any of the officers that they would retreat. All expected to advance in time-honoured style to meet the invader and when this did not happen rumours quickly spread about the unstoppable strength of Napoleon’s army.

Mitarevsky’s battery had long been posted far in the Russian interior and it took officers and men some time to learn how to survive on campaign. Initially they went hungry when their transport carts temporarily vanished but they quickly learned to carry enough food to last men and horses festooned on their guns and caissons. Though the horses had to eat grass for part of the two-week retreat this was a small hardship since they began the campaign in fine condition and the battery was equipped with sickles to cut the long grass. Most of the population had fled into the forests but Sixth Corps had little difficulty in either finding sufficient food to requisition or ensuring that nothing was left for the French.

Though rumours abounded that the enemy was nearby, the closest Mitarevsky’s battery came to action was when a large herd of cattle in a forest was mistaken for French cavalry. The worst actual enemy assault on the column came when the Poles captured two straggling regimental priests, tied their beards together, fed them an emetic, and returned them to Dokhturov’s furious soldiers, for whom Orthodoxy and suspicion of Poles were much of what it meant to be a Russian. Sixth Corps eluded the French partly by dint of hard marching. In addition, however, it was expertly shielded and shepherded by Peter von der Pahlen’s cavalry.17

In a retreat of this sort a strong cavalry arm was essential. Barclay was weakened by the fact that Napoleon’s advance had cut off General Matvei Platov’s independent Cossack detachment from First Army and forced it to move southwards to join up with Bagration. Platov’s force was made up of nine Cossack regiments, all but two of them from the Don region. It also included four ‘native’ regiments of irregular cavalry, of which two were Crimean Tatar, one was Kalmyk and one was Bashkir.

No one needed to fear for the safety of Platov’s regiments. Napoleon’s whole army could have chased these Cossacks all year without the least chance of catching them. But the temporary loss of almost all its irregular cavalry put Barclay’s regular cavalry regiments under some strain. Fedor Uvarov reported that in the absence of the Cossacks he had been forced to use regular line and even Guards cavalry regiments for outpost duty. Not merely did this exhaust their horses, it also involved them in work for which they had often not been fully trained. One result of this was that Uvarov could not harass the enemy or pick up anything like the normal number of prisoners, who were important as a source of intelligence about the enemy’s size and movements.18

Even without the Cossacks, however, the Russian cavalry usually came out on top in its skirmishes with the French. The French cavalry had very little success in impeding or embarrassing Barclay’s men in their planned retreat to Drissa. In other ways, too, the Russian high command had reason to be satisfied. Napoleon had yearned for a decisive battle in the first days of the war. His overriding strategic purpose was not the conquest of territory but the destruction of the Russian army. Correctly, he believed that if he could annihilate the armies of Barclay and Bagration in a second Austerlitz then Alexander would have little option but to make peace on French terms. The Russians had encouraged his hopes of an early decisive battle by ‘turning’ a key French agent in Lithuania and passing disinformation through him that they intended to fight for Vilna. Caulaincourt recalls that ‘Napoleon was amazed that they had yielded Vilna without a struggle, and had taken their decision in time to escape him. It was truly heartbreaking for him to have to give up all hope of a great battle before Vilna.’19

The Russian high command also learned quickly that Napoleon’s army was paying a heavy price for his determination to press the retreating enemy and force it to battle. Many of Napoleon’s men and, more importantly, his horses had been poorly fed in the weeks before the invasion. In all circumstances his huge army, concentrated in anticipation of an early decisive battle, would have found it impossible to feed itself adequately in impoverished Lithuania. Speeding forward in an attempt to force Barclay to battle across terrain eaten out and scorched by the Russians made matters worse. Torrential rain completed a picture of misery. After only two weeks of campaigning Napoleon wrote to his war minister in Paris that there was no point trying to raise new cavalry regiments since all the horses available in France and Germany would barely suffice to remount his existing cavalry and make up for the enormous losses he had already suffered in Russia. Deserters and prisoners of war informed the Russians of hunger and disease in the French ranks, and above all of the devastating loss of horses. So too did the military intelligence officers who were sent on supposedly diplomatic missions to French headquarters under flag of truce.20

Much the best-known mission was General Balashev’s visit to Napoleon’s headquarters immediately after the war’s outbreak carrying a letter to the French emperor from Alexander. Balashev left Vilna on 26 June shortly before its evacuation by the Russians and found himself back in the city, now occupied by the French, four days later. On 31 June he met Napoleon in the very room where Alexander had given him his instructions only five days before. Part of this mission’s purpose was to put the French clearly in the wrong before European public opinion by showing Alexander’s commitment to peace despite Napoleon’s aggression. Less well known is that Balashev was accompanied by a young intelligence officer, Mikhail Orlov, who kept his eyes and ears open during the days he spent behind the French lines. When Orlov returned to Russian headquarters, Alexander spent an hour with him alone and was so pleased by the information he received about enemy movements and losses that he promoted Orlov and made him his own aide-de-camp on the spot. Few lieutenants, to put it mildly, could expect such attention from their sovereign, which illustrates the importance Alexander attached to the information Orlov provided.21

Paul Grabbe, formerly the Russian military attaché in Munich, was dispatched on a similar mission, ostensibly in response to an enquiry by Marshal Berthier as to the whereabouts of General Lauriston, Napoleon’s ambassador to Alexander. Penetrating well behind the French front lines, Grabbe was able to confirm the ‘carelessness’ and ‘disorder’ which reigned amongst the French cavalry, reporting that the ‘exhausted’ horses were being left without any care. Partly from his own eyes and partly through conversations, he was also able to inform Barclay that the French had no intention of attacking the camp at Drissa and were in fact advancing well to its south.22

The information provided by Grabbe confirmed all Barclay’s doubts about the strategic value of the camp at Drissa. Already on 7 July he had written to Alexander that the army was retreating towards Drissa with excessive and unnecessary speed. This was having a bad effect on the troops’ morale and was causing them to believe that the situation was much more dangerous than was actually the case. Two days later, when the first units of Barclay’s army were arriving at the camp, Barclay wrote to the emperor that Grabbe’s information provided clear evidence that Napoleon’s main forces were advancing well to the south of Drissa, splitting First and Second armies and pushing towards the Russian heartland: ‘It seems clear to me that the enemy will not attempt any attack against us in our camp at Drissa and we will have to go and find him.’23

When Alexander and his senior generals arrived in Drissa the camp’s uselessness quickly became evident. If First Army sat in Drissa Napoleon could turn almost all his army against Bagration, perhaps annihilating him and certainly driving him far to the south and away from the key theatre of operations. The gateway to Moscow would then be wide open, with First Army far off to the north-west. Still worse, Napoleon might himself move northwards into the rear of Drissa, cutting the Russian communications, encircling the camp and virtually ending the war by forcing First Army’s surrender.

In addition to these strategic dangers, the camp was also shown to have many tactical weaknesses. Above all, it could easily be surrounded or even taken from the rear. Alexander, Barclay and even Pfühl were seeing Drissa for the first time. Even Wolzogen, who chose the spot, had only spent thirty-six hours in Drissa. As the Russian engineering corps was quick to point out, none of their officers had played any part either in choosing the camp or in planning and building its fortifications. They had been too overstretched trying to get the fortresses of Riga, Dünaburg, Bobruisk and Kiev ready for war.24

Faced with a storm of objections from almost all his chief military advisers, Alexander agreed that the army must abandon Drissa and retreat eastwards to reach Vitebsk before Napoleon. There is no record of the emperor’s innermost thoughts when he made this decision. Whatever may have been his doubts about the camp, he was undoubtedly very unhappy that the whole line of defence along the river Dvina was being abandoned within three weeks of the war’s start, threatening all efforts to organize reserve armies or a second line of defence in the rear in good time.25

On 17 July First Army abandoned Drissa and retreated towards Vitebsk, hoping to reach this city before Napoleon. Two days later Alexander departed for Moscow. The emperor had been urged to take this step in a joint letter signed by three of his most senior advisers, Aleksei Arakcheev, Aleksandr Balashev and Aleksandr Shishkov. Above all, they argued that Alexander’s presence in the two capitals was essential in order to inspire Russian society and mobilize all its resources for war. Before leaving the army the emperor had a one-hour conversation with Barclay. His last words to his commander before he departed were overheard by Vladimir Löwenstern, Barclay’s aide-de-camp: ‘I entrust my army to you. Don’t forget that it is the only army I have. Keep this thought always in mind.’ Two days earlier Alexander had written in similar fashion to Bagration:

Don’t forget that we are still opposed by superior numbers at every point and for this reason we need to be cautious and not deprive ourselves of the means to carry on an effective campaign by risking all on one day. Our entire goal must be directed towards gaining time and drawing out the war as long as possible. Only by this means can we have the chance of defeating so strong an enemy who has mobilised the military resources of all Europe.26

Bagration was much more in need of such advice than Barclay. His system of war is well summed up in a number of his letters and circulars from the summer of 1812. ‘Russians ought not to run away,’ he wrote; ‘we are becoming worse than the Prussians.’ He urged his officers ‘to instil into our soldiers that the enemy’s troops are nothing more than scum drawn from every corner of the earth, whereas we are Russians and Christian believers (edinovernye). They don’t know how to fight bravely and above all they fear our bayonets. So we must attack them.’ To be sure, this was propaganda designed to raise morale, but even in private Bagration stressed aggression, moral superiority and offensive spirit. At the beginning of the war he urged Alexander to allow him to launch his army on a diversionary raid towards Warsaw, which in Bagration’s view would be the most effective way of drawing French troops away from First Army. He conceded that in the end superior enemy forces would concentrate against him and force him to withdraw, and planned then to move southwards to link up with Tormasov’s Third Army and defend the approaches to Volhynia.27

Correctly, Alexander dismissed this proposal, which would have given Napoleon a golden opportunity to surround and destroy Second Army and which even in the most optimistic scenario would have resulted in Bagration’s force moving far to the south and away from the decisive theatre. Instead the emperor urged on Bagration his own strategy: while First Army retreated in the face of superior numbers, Second Army and Platov’s Cossacks must harass Napoleon’s flanks and rear.

In pressing this strategy Alexander was sticking to the basic principles which had guided Barclay’s thinking from early 1810 and which in the end were to bring victory in 1812. Whichever Russian army was threatened by Napoleon’s main body must withdraw and refuse battle, while the other Russian armies must strike into the ever-lengthening enemy flanks and rear. But this strategy was only fully realizable by the autumn of 1812 when Napoleon’s armies had been hugely depleted and their immensely long flanks were vulnerable to the Russian armies brought in from Finland and the Balkans. Launching Bagration into the flank of Napoleon’s main body in June 1812 was almost as sure a recipe for disaster as allowing him to mount a diversion into the Duchy of Warsaw.

In time sense prevailed and Bagration was ordered to retreat and to attempt to join up with First Army. By then, however, precious time had been wasted and Davout’s advancing columns were cutting across Bagration’s route to join Barclay. In these first weeks of the war Barclay’s First Army executed a planned and for most units safe withdrawal to Drissa. By contrast, the movements of Bagration’s Second Army had to be improvised and were more dangerous. For the next six weeks the Russians’ main aim was to unite their two main armies. Napoleon’s key goal was to stop them from doing so, to force Bagration southwards and, if possible, to crush Second Army between Davout’s corps to the north and Jérôme Bonaparte’s forces advancing from the west.

In the end the Russians won this competition. Jérôme’s troops, mostly Westphalians, had been held back well behind Napoleon’s first echelon, partly in the hope that Bagration would advance to attack them and thrust his head into a sack. Even after Bagration wasted a number of days before retreating, Jérôme still had ground to make up if he was to catch them. The Russians were on the whole superior troops and quicker on the march than Jérôme’s Westphalians. They were marching towards their own supply magazines and across still unravaged countryside. By contrast, Jérôme’s soldiers were advancing away from their supplies and into a region which the Russians had already stripped.

In addition, Jérôme was up against the formidable cavalry of Bagration’s rearguard. When Napoleon’s advance forced Platov to escape to the south-east he joined up with Second Army. On three successive days between 8 and 10 July near the village of Mir Platov ambushed and routed Jérôme’s advancing cavalry. The biggest victory came on the last day, when six regiments of Polish lancers were destroyed by a combination of Platov’s Cossacks and Major-General Ilarion Vasilchikov’s regular cavalry. This was the first time in the war that the French had encountered the full force of combined Russian regular and irregular light cavalry. It was also the first time they met Vasilchikov, one of the best Russian light cavalry generals. The superiority of the Russian light cavalry, established at the start of the 1812 campaign, was to grow ever more pronounced over the next two years of war. The Russian victory at Mir ensured that henceforth Jérôme’s advance guard kept a healthy distance behind Bagration.

Davout’s corps proved a tougher nut. They blocked Bagration’s efforts to push his way through to First Army via Minsk, forcing him to make a big detour to the south-east. At Saltanovka on 23 July Davout’s men defeated another attempt by Bagration to link up with Barclay, this time via Mogilev. Only on 3 August, having crossed the Dnieper, did Second Army finally join First Army near Smolensk. For the whole of July both Barclay and Bagration had been attempting to bring their two armies together. Each blamed the other for their failure to do so. In retrospect, however, it is possible to see that not merely was the failure to unite neither general’s fault, it also worked out to the Russians’ advantage.

This was partly because the attempt to cut off Bagration exhausted and depleted Napoleon’s army much more than the retreating Russians. Even by the time Davout reached Mogilev the result of hastening forward to catch Bagration through a ravaged countryside had cost him 30,000 of the 100,000 men with whom he had crossed the Neman. After Mogilev he gave up his attempt to pursue Second Army for fear of wrecking his corps. In addition, the fact that the Russian armies were split provided Barclay with a perfect reason to retreat and not to risk facing Napoleon in a pitched battle. Had the two armies been joined and the charismatic and very popular Bagration been on hand to lead the call to battle this would have been far more difficult. If the two Russian armies had fought Napoleon in early July the odds would have been worse than two to one. By early August they were closer to three to two. In that sense the strategy planned by Barclay and Alexander to wear down Napoleon had proved a triumphant success. But there was an element of good fortune in their ability to pursue this strategy as long as they did.

After abandoning Drissa and bidding farewell to Alexander, Barclay de Tolly was in fact planning to make a stand in front of Vitebsk. Partly this was to sustain his troops’ morale. When the army had reached Drissa the soldiers had been served up a bombastic proclamation promising that the time for retreating was over and that Russian courage would bury Napoleon and his army on the banks of the Dvina. When a few days later the retreat was renewed there was inevitable muttering. Ivan Radozhitsky, a young artillery officer in Fourth Corps, overheard grumbling among his gunners at the ‘unheard-of’ retreat of Russian troops and the abandonment of huge swaths of the empire without a fight. ‘Obviously the villain [i.e. Napoleon] must be very strong: just look at how much we are giving him for free, almost the whole of old Poland.’28

Barclay’s main reason for risking a battle at Vitebsk, however, was to distract Napoleon’s attention and allow Bagration to advance through Mogilev and unite with First Army. Barclay’s troops arrived at Vitebsk on 23 July. To gain time for them to gather their breath and for Bagration to arrive he detached Count Aleksandr Ostermann-Tolstoy’s Fourth Corps down the main road leading into Vitebsk from the west in order to slow down Napoleon’s advancing columns. On 25 July at Ostrovno, roughly 20 kilometres from Vitebsk, there occurred the first major clash between Napoleon’s forces and First Army.

Aleksandr Ostermann-Tolstoy was immensely wealthy and had some of the eccentricities worthy of a Russian magnate of this era. Despite his name, he was a purely Russian type: adding the prefix ‘Ostermann’ to his own proud surname of Tolstoy had been an unwilling concession to rich bachelor uncles who had left him their great fortunes. Ostermann-Tolstoy was a handsome man, thin-faced and with an eagle’s nose. He looked the pensive, Romantic hero. On his estate in Kaluga province Tolstoy lived with a pet bear decked out in fantastic dress. More modest when on campaign, he nevertheless liked when possible to be accompanied by his pet eagle and his white crow. In some ways Ostermann-Tolstoy was an admirable man. He was a great patriot, who had loathed what he saw as Russia’s humiliation at Tilsit. Well educated, fluent in French and German and a lover of Russian literature, he was enormously and inspiringly brave, even by the very high standard of the Russian army. He was also careful of his men’s food, health and welfare. He shared their love for buckwheat kasha and was physically as tough as the toughest of his veteran grenadiers. Ostermann-Tolstoy was in fact an inspiring colonel of a regiment and an acceptable commander of a division so long as he was operating under the noses of more senior generals. But he was not a man one could safely trust with a larger detached force.29

Fourth Corps fought the battle at Ostrovno in a manner that rather reflected Ostermann-Tolstoy’s character, though to be fair it also reflected the inexperience of many of his units and the Russian soldiers’ longing finally to get to grips with the enemy. Barclay sent forward his aide-de-camp, Vladimir Löwenstern, to keep an eye on Ostermann-Tolstoy. Subsequently Löwenstern recalled that the corps commander showed exceptional courage but also exposed his troops to unnecessary losses. The same point was made by Gavril Meshetich, a young artillery officer serving in the Second Heavy Battery of Fourth Corps.

According to Meshetich, Ostermann-Tolstoy failed to take proper precautions despite the fact that he had been warned that the French were nearby. As a result his advance guard was ambushed and lost six guns. Subsequently he did not use the cover available on either side of the main road to shelter his infantry from enemy artillery fire. He also attempted to drive back enemy skirmishers with a massed bayonet charge, a tactic much used by the Russians in 1805 and which generally proved both costly and ineffective. Ostermann-Tolstoy could not, however, be blamed for the small-scale debacle which occurred on his left flank where the Ingermanland Dragoon Regiment had been posted in a wood to keep an eye on the French. At last given the opportunity to have a go at the enemy, the Russian dragoons stormed out of the forest, smashed through the nearest enemy cavalry and were then overwhelmed by superior French numbers, losing 30 per cent of their men. One result of these losses was that the regiment was kept out of the front line and relegated to military police duties for much of the rest of 1812. To fill the shoes of the officers lost at Ostrovno, five non-noble NCOs were promoted, one of the earliest examples of what was to become a common occurrence in 1812–14.30

It would be wrong just to dwell on Russian failings at Ostrovno, however. Fourth Corps fulfilled its task by delaying the French and inflicting heavy casualties despite facing increasingly superior numbers. Though not very skilful, Ostermann-Tolstoy was nevertheless an inspiring commander. Ostrovno was young Ivan Radozhitsky’s first battle, as was true for very many of Fourth Corps’s soldiers. He recalled scenes of growing desolation and potential panic as enemy pressure mounted and men’s bodies were eviscerated and torn limb from limb by French cannon balls. In the thick of the fire Ostermann-Tolstoy sat unmoved on his horse, sniffing his tobacco. To messengers of doom requesting permission to retreat or warning that more and more Russian guns were being put out of action, Ostermann-Tolstoy responded by his own example of calm and by orders to ‘stand and die’. Radozhitsky commented that ‘this unshakeable strength of our commander at a time when everyone around him was being struck down was truly part of the character of a Russian infuriated by the sufferings being inflicted on his country. Looking at him, we ourselves grew strong and went to our posts to die.’31

That evening Fourth Corps retired 7 kilometres towards Kakuviachino where responsibility for delaying the French was handed over to Lieutenant-General Petr Konovnitsyn, the commander of 3rd Infantry Division. Konovnitsyn was as courageous as Ostermann-Tolstoy but a much more skilful rearguard commander. His men kept the French at bay for most of 26 July. That night, however, Bagration’s aide-de-camp, Prince Aleksandr Menshikov, arrived at Barclay’s headquarters with news that transformed the situation. At Saltanovka on 23 July Davout had blocked Bagration’s attempts to march northwards via Mogilev to join up with Barclay. As a result, Second Army was being forced to march still further eastwards and there was no chance of any link-up between the two Russian armies in the immediate future.

Even after receiving this news Barclay still wanted to fight at Vitebsk but he was dissuaded by Ermolov and the other senior generals. As Barclay later acknowledged, Ermolov’s advice was correct. The position at Vitebsk had its weaknesses and the Russians would have been outnumbered by more than two to one. Moreover, even if they had beaten off Napoleon’s attacks for a day this would have served no purpose. In fact it would merely have widened the distance between First and Second armies and allowed Napoleon to push between them and take Smolensk. Orders therefore went out for First Army to retreat. With Napoleon’s entire army deployed under the Russians’ noses, slipping away unscathed would be no easy matter, however.32

First Army’s retreat began at four in the afternoon of 27 July. All that day the Russian rearguard commanded by Peter Pahlen kept the French at bay, manoeuvring with skill and calmly giving ground when necessary but mounting a number of sharp counter-attacks to deter any attempt to press too hard. Barclay de Tolly was not at all inclined to excessive praise of subordinates but in his reports to Alexander he stressed Pahlen’s great achievement in disengaging First Army from Napoleon and covering its tracks during the retreat from Vitebsk to Smolensk. French sources are more inclined to argue that Napoleon missed a great opportunity on 27 July by taking it for granted that the Russians would stand and fight on the following day and not pressing Pahlen very hard. That night the Cossacks kept all the bonfires burning in the Russian bivouacs, which convinced the French that Barclay was still in position and awaiting battle. When they woke the next morning to discover that the Russians had gone there was much dismay, increased by the fact that Pahlen covered Barclay’s tracks with such skill that for a time Napoleon had no idea in which direction his enemy had retreated.33

The Duc de Fezensac, who was serving as aide-de-camp to Marshal Berthier, recalls in his memoirs that the wiser and more experienced French officers began to feel uneasy at Vitebsk: ‘They were struck by the admirable order in which the Russian army had made its retreat, always covered by its numerous Cossacks, and without abandoning a single cannon, cart or sick man.’ The Count de Segur was on Napoleon’s staff and recalls an inspection of Barclay’s camp on the day after the Russians had departed: ‘nothing left behind, not one weapon, nor a single valuable; no trace, nothing in short, in this sudden nocturnal march, which could demonstrate, beyond the bounds of the camp, the route which the Russians had taken; there appeared more order in their defeat than in our victory!’34

After abandoning Vitebsk Barclay’s army headed for Smolensk. Initially there were fears that the French might get there first and Preradovich’s detachment of Guards cavalry and jaegers covered 80 kilometres in thirty-eight hours in order to forestall them. In fact this was something of a false alarm since Napoleon’s troops were exhausted and needed a rest. On 2 August Barclay and Bagration met in Smolensk and the two main Russian armies were united at last.

Both generals did their best to put past grievances behind them and act in a united fashion. Barclay went to meet Bagration outside his headquarters in full uniform, hat in hand. He took Bagration round the regiments of First Army, showing him to the soldiers and making great show of the two commanders’ unity and friendship. Meanwhile Bagration conceded the overall command to Barclay. Since he was marginally senior, came from the ancient royal family of Georgia and had married into the heart of the Russian aristocracy, by the standards of the time this represented great self-sacrifice. But unity and subordination were always conditional. In the end, as Barclay well understood, Bagration would only go along with his plans if he chose to do so.

In reality, despite goodwill on both sides, unity could not last. The fiery Georgian and the cool and cerebral ‘German’ were simply too different in temperament and this fed directly into contrasting views on what strategy to adopt. Bagration, supported by almost all the leading generals, was for an immediate, decisive offensive. Quite apart from all the military reasons which inspired them to support this strategy, it is clear from many officers’ memoirs that once they reached Smolensk the army became acutely aware that they were now defending Russian national soil.

Luka Simansky, for example, was a lieutenant in the Izmailovsky Guards. In the first weeks of the war his diary shows little emotion and is largely a record of everyday conversations and minor pleasures and frustrations. Only when Simansky gets to the Russian city of Smolensk, views the miracle-working icon of the Mother of God and writes of its saving grace in earlier times of national emergency do strong emotions emerge. For Ivan Paskevich, the commander of the 26th Division in Bagration’s army, nature rather than anything man-made provided the first great reminder that this was a ‘national’ war: ‘now we were fighting in old Russia, as every birch-tree standing by the side of the road reminded us’.35

In many ways the most cogent justification for Bagration’s line was set out in a letter from Ermolov to Alexander. He argued that the armies would find it hard to remain united and static at Smolensk for long. Since it had never been envisaged that they would concentrate here, few supplies had been gathered and they would be hard pressed to feed themselves. Smolensk was in any case not a strong defensive position. The slightest threat to the army’s communications back to Moscow would force a further retreat. Now was the time to strike while Napoleon’s army was dispersed. The enemy’s inactivity must be caused by weakness, having had to make many detachments to fend off threats from Wittgenstein and Tormasov on the northern and southern flanks.

Ermolov stated that the main obstacle to an offensive was Barclay: ‘The commander-in-chief…as far as possible will avoid a major battle and will not agree to one unless it is absolutely and unavoidably necessary.’ Alexander by now knew from many sources how deeply unpopular Barclay’s strategy was among the generals and soldiers alike. An expert at avoiding responsibility for unpopular policies, the emperor cannot have been pleased to read Ermolov’s comment that Barclay ‘did not hide from me Your Majesty’s will in this matter’.36

In fact, by the time the two armies had united at Smolensk Alexander’s position had changed radically and he himself was putting Barclay under heavy pressure to advance against Napoleon. Probably the emperor was sincere in stating that he had never expected retreat to reach Smolensk before risking a battle but he will also have been aware of the political risks if Barclay continued to retreat without fighting. On 9 August he wrote to the commander-in-chief that ‘I now hope that with the help of the Supreme Being you will be able to take the offensive and thereby stop the invasion of our provinces. I have placed the safety of Russia in your hands, general, and I like to hope that you will justify all my confidence in you.’ Two days later Alexander repeated his calls for an attack, adding without any apparent sense of irony that ‘you are free to act without any impediment or interference’. Under great pressure to attack from his own generals and Bagration, Barclay was in no position to ignore his master also. In any case he was the captive of his own earlier promise to Alexander that he would attack once the armies joined.37

Barclay was therefore forced to agree that the army would go over to the offensive but it is clear from both his words and his actions that he had strong doubts about the wisdom of this policy. In part this reflected his fear that Napoleon would take the opportunity to sweep round the flanks of the advancing Russians and cut them off from their communications back to Moscow. The Russian cavalry had lost contact with Napoleon’s forces and Barclay would be advancing without a clear idea where the enemy was concentrated or definite knowledge about their numbers. In addition, Barclay had some concerns about the Russian army’s own quality when compared to its enemy.

He wrote to Alexander that ‘the simple soldier of Your Imperial Majesty’s army is without doubt the best in the world’ but that this was not true of the officers. In particular, the junior officers were usually too young and inexperienced. This was a little unfair since any criticism of the army’s subalterns needed to be qualified by recognition of their great courage, their loyalty to their comrades and regiments, and their impatience to get to grips with the French. Much more solidly based were doubts about the Russian army’s high command. Barclay would also have been less than human had he not experienced some fears about facing the greatest commander of the era.38

Moreover, it was one thing to take up a strong defensive position and invite Napoleon to attack, as Bennigsen had done successfully at Eylau and the Archduke Charles at Aspern, and as Wellington was to do at Waterloo. It was quite another to attempt to outmanoeuvre Napoleon and defeat him on the offensive. So long as Napoleon was present in person, his authority over his commanders, the power of his reputation, and his exceptional military instincts were likely to give the French victory in such a war. His corps’ movements would be better coordinated, opportunities more quickly spotted, and any advantage more ruthlessly exploited. If this was true in all cases, it was doubly so in present circumstances when the Russians were heavily outnumbered and were operating with two independent armies whose commanders had very different perceptions and instincts.

Above all, Barclay remained faithful to the strategy on which he and Alexander had agreed before the war started. It was far easier to express this honestly to outsiders than to his own increasingly hostile and frustrated generals. On 11 August he wrote to Admiral Chichagov, whose Army of the Danube was marching northwards towards Napoleon’s rear, that ‘the enemy’s desire is to finish this war by decisive battles and we on the contrary have to try to avoid such battles because we have no army of any sort in reserve which could sustain us in the event of a defeat. Therefore our main goal must be to gain as much time as possible which will allow our militia and the troops being formed in the interior to be organized and made ready.’ Until that happened First and Second armies must not take any risks which might lead to their destruction.

Subsequently Barclay was to justify his strategy in very similar terms to Kutuzov, stating that he had sought to avoid decisive battles because if First and Second armies were destroyed no other forces yet existed in the rear to continue the war. Instead, he had attempted with considerable success ‘to stop the enemy’s rapid advance only by limited engagements, by which his forces were diminished more and more every day’. As he wrote to Alexander at the end of August, ‘had I been guided by a foolish and blind ambition, Your Imperial Majesty would perhaps have received many dispatches telling of battles fought but the enemy would be at the walls of Moscow without it being possible to find any forces to resist him’.39

As the Russian official history of the war subsequently recognized, though Barclay was almost in a minority of one at the time, in fact he was right and his opponents were wrong. Among other things, they greatly underestimated the strength of Napoleon’s forces and they exaggerated the extent to which they were dispersed. But Barclay’s ‘offensive’, crippled by his doubts, brought him only ridicule at the time. Even his loyal aide-de-camp, Vladimir Löwenstern, wrote that ‘it was the first time that I wasn’t entirely happy with his performance’.40

As agreed with Bagration at the council of war of the previous day, on 7 August Barclay advanced to the north of the river Dnieper towards Rudnia and Vitebsk. But he did so with the proviso that he would not initially go more than three marches from Smolensk. No serious offensive was possible with such equivocation and uncertainty. When Barclay was informed in the night of 8 August that a large enemy force had been discovered to his north at Poreche he immediately believed that this was the outflanking movement he had feared. As a result he shifted his line of march northwards to meet the threat, only to discover that the ‘large enemy force’ was little more than a figment of his scouts’ imagination. Bagration complained that ‘mere rumours shouldn’t be allowed to alter operations’. Officers and men grumbled as uncertainty reigned and the troops marched and counter-marched.41

Moving ahead of Barclay down the road to Rudnia, Platov routed a large force of French cavalry near the village of Molevo-Bolota, capturing General Sebastiani’s headquarters and much of his correspondence in the process. When these documents seemed to show that the French had been tipped off about the offensive an ugly wave of xenophobia and spy-mania spread in the Russian army. A number of officers at headquarters who were not ethnic Russians, including even some officers such as Löwenstern who were the emperor’s subjects, were escorted to the rear under suspicion of treason. Bagration wrote to Arakcheev: ‘I just cannot work with the minister [i.e. Barclay]. For God’s sake send me anywhere you like, even to command a regiment in Moldavia or the Caucasus but I just cannot stand it here. The whole of headquarters is packed with Germans so it is impossible for a Russian to live there.’42

While the Russians were dithering and arguing Napoleon struck. He concentrated his army near Rasasna south of the river Dnieper and on 14 August marched on Smolensk via Krasnyi. The only Russian forces in his way were the 7,200 men commanded by Dmitrii Neverovsky, whose core were the regiments of his own 27th Division. These regiments had been formed just before the war, mostly from new recruits and soldiers from the disbanded garrison regiments. Given time and efficient training, most of the recruits and garrison soldiers could be turned into good troops. The big problem was finding good officers to train and lead them. Most of the officers were initially drawn from the former garrison regiments but they quickly proved useless. In the Odessa Regiment, for example, within a few weeks only one of the initial twenty-two former garrison officers was considered fit for front-line service. Desperate measures were sometimes required to find officers. Dmitrii Dushenkovich, for instance, was commissioned as an ensign into the newly formed Simbirsk Regiment aged only 15, after a crash course as a cadet in the Noble Regiment.43

Neverovsky’s force was buttressed by two experienced regiments of line infantry and included one dragoon regiment, some Cossacks and fourteen guns. Nevertheless it should have been very easy meat for the far larger enemy advance guard under Marshal Murat which it faced on 14 August. In fact Neverovsky lost some guns and possibly as many as 1,400 men, but the bulk of his force escaped, despite between thirty and forty assaults by Murat’s cavalry.

Napoleon’s secretary, Baron Fain, had the following to say about the affair at Krasnyi:

our cavalry dashes forward, it attacks the Russians in more than forty consecutive charges: many times our squadrons penetrate into the square;…but the very inexperience of the Russian peasants who make up this body gives them a strength of inertia which takes the place of resistance. The élan of the horsemen is deadened in this mob which packs together, presses against each other, and closes up all its gaps. Ultimately the most brilliant valour is exhausted in striking a compact mass which we chop up but cannot break.44

Fighting in what to many of them seemed to be Europe’s semi-savage periphery, many of the French have left descriptions of the 1812 campaign that have a ring of cultural arrogance more familiar from European descriptions of colonial warfare. Not surprisingly, Russian descriptions of the battle at Krasnyi are rather different from Fain’s account.

Dmitrii Dushenkovich experienced his first battle before his sixteenth birthday. He wrote in his memoirs:

Anyone who has been through the experience of a first hot, dangerous and noisy battle can imagine the feelings of a soldier of my age. Everything seemed incomprehensible to me. I felt that I was alive, saw everything that was going on around me, but simply could not comprehend how this awful, indescribable chaos was going to end. To this day I can still vividly recall Neverovsky riding around the square every time the cavalry approached with his sword drawn and repeating in a voice which seemed to exude confidence in his troops: ‘Lads! Remember what you were taught in Moscow. Follow your orders and no cavalry will defeat you. Don’t hurry with your volleys. Shoot straight at the enemy and don’t anyone dare to start firing before my word of command.’45

After retreating over 20 kilometres under intense pressure Neverovsky’s men were relieved by Major-General Ivan Paskevich’s 26th Division, which Bagration had rushed forward to rescue them. Paskevich wrote that ‘on that day our infantry covered itself in glory’. He also recognized Neverovsky’s excellent leadership. He pointed out, however, that if Murat had shown minimal professional competence the Russians would never have escaped. It was true that the double line of trees on either side of the highway down which Neverovsky retreated had impeded the French attacks. That was no excuse, however, for complete failure to coordinate the cavalry attacks and use his overwhelming superiority in numbers to slow the Russians’ march. It was also elementary tactics that cavalry attacking disciplined infantry in square needed the help of horse artillery. ‘To the shame of the French one has to note that though they brought up 19,000 cavalry and a whole division of infantry they only deployed one battery of artillery.’ Whether this omission occurred through sheer incompetence or whether Murat wanted all the glory for his horsemen Paskevich could not guess.46

Maybe Paskevich was a little unfair. French sources claimed that their artillery had been stopped by a broken bridge. Nor was the fight at Krasnyi in itself very significant. The fate of Neverovsky’s 7,000 men would hardly decide the campaign one way or another. Neverovsky’s action did not even seriously slow down the French advance. But what happened at Krasnyi was to prove symptomatic. During August 1812, in and around Smolensk, Napoleon was to have a number of opportunities seriously to weaken the Russian army and possibly even to decide the campaign. These chances were lost because of failures in executing his plans, above all by his senior generals.

When he heard of Neverovsky’s plight and the threat to Smolensk Bagration ordered Nikolai Raevsky’s corps (which included Paskevich’s division) back to the city at top speed. By the late afternoon of 15 August when Napoleon’s army approached Smolensk, Raevsky and Neverovsky were deployed behind its walls. Even together, however, their force probably only added up to 15,000 men and if Napoleon had pushed hard from dawn on 16 August Smolensk might well have fallen. Instead he delayed throughout that day, allowing both Bagration and Barclay’s armies to arrive.

That night First Army took over responsibility for Smolensk’s defence, with Second Army moving out to defend the Russian left and the road to Moscow from any French outflanking movement. By the morning of 17 August 30,000 men of Barclay’s army were strongly posted in the suburbs and behind the walls of Smolensk. Had Napoleon chosen to dislodge them, at little cost, it was within his power to do so by an outflanking movement, since he well outnumbered the Russians, there were many fords across the Dnieper and any serious threat to their communications back to Moscow would have forced Barclay to abandon the city. Instead he chose a head-on assault, losing heavily in the process.

Ever since 1812 historians have puzzled as to why Napoleon acted in this fashion. The most plausible explanation is that he did not want to dislodge the Russians but rather to destroy their army in a battle for the city. Perhaps he believed that if he gave them the chance to fight for Smolensk they would not dare simply to abandon so famous a Russian city. If so, Napoleon’s calculation proved wrong, because after a day’s ferocious fighting on 17 August Barclay once again ordered his army to retreat. It is worth remembering, however, that Barclay did this against the strong and universal opposition of Bagration and all of First Army’s senior generals. He faced furious accusations of incompetence and even treason. Predictably, the Grand Duke Constantine’s was the loudest and most hysterical voice, screaming out within earshot of junior officers and men that ‘it isn’t Russian blood that flows in those who command us’. Barclay de Tolly also knew that his decision to retreat would anger Alexander and probably wreck his standing with the emperor. It took great resolution, unselfishness and moral courage for Barclay to act in the way he did. Perhaps Napoleon cannot be blamed for failing to predict this.47

The Russian generals’ opposition to abandoning Smolensk was all the stronger because they had defended it successfully against great odds and with heavy losses throughout 17 August. In the battle for Smolensk, 11,000 Russians died or were wounded. Nevertheless, nowhere had the French broken through the walls and into the city. Though Smolensk’s defences were medieval they did sometimes provide good cover for Russian artillery and skirmishers. In some cases, too, attacking French columns could be hit by Russian batteries firing from across the river Dnieper.

The Russian infantry fought with great courage and grim determination. Ivan Liprandi was a senior staff officer in Dmitrii Dokhturov’s Sixth Corps. His accounts of the 1812 campaign are among the most thoughtful and accurate from the Russian side. He remembered that at Smolensk it was difficult for the officers to stop their men from launching wasteful counter-attacks against the French at every opportunity. Volunteers for dangerous tasks were plentiful. Many soldiers refused to go off to the rear to have their wounds seen to. The sight of the city in flames and of the wretched remnants of the civilian population was an additional incentive to fight to the death. So too was the sense, absorbed with their mother’s milk, that Smolensk was from ancient times Orthodox Russia’s citadel against invasion from the ‘Latin’ West. In previous centuries the city had at times been a prize contested between the Russians and the Poles. One officer remembered that, although the soldiers sometimes took French prisoners, on 17 August they always killed the Poles.48

The Russian troops in the city had been commanded by Dmitrii Dokhturov and on the night of 18 August he very unwillingly obeyed Barclay’s order to evacuate Smolensk and pull back to the city’s northern suburbs across the river Dnieper. That day Barclay allowed his exhausted soldiers a rest. On the night of 18–19 August he ordered them to retreat towards the main road which led back through Solovevo and Dorogobuzh into the Great Russian heartland and ultimately to Moscow.

The initial stages of this retreat presented serious difficulties. After it left Smolensk the main road to Moscow passed along the east bank of the Dnieper in full view and easy artillery range of the west bank. The river was also easily fordable in a number of places during the summer. Barclay did not want his retreating column, spread out as it would be for miles, to offer a perfect opportunity for the French to attack it on the march. So he decided to move his men in the night of 18–19 August down side roads which would lead them out onto the main Moscow road at a safe distance from Smolensk and the French. First Army would be divided into two halves. Dmitrii Dokhturov would lead the smaller half of the army on the longer detour which would take a night and a day before ultimately bringing them out on the Moscow road, not far from Solovevo. This part of the operation went without a hitch but it did mean that when disaster threatened the other half of First Army on 19 August Dokhturov was far away and unable to help.

The other column, commanded by Lieutenant-General Nikolai Tuchkov, was to make a shorter detour, coming out on to the Moscow road closer to Smolensk and just to the west of the village of Lubino. It adds something to the confusion of what is already a rather confusing story that the advance guard of Tuchkov’s column was commanded by his younger brother, Major-General Pavel Tuchkov. The younger Tuchkov was given the task of leading the march down the side roads to Lubino and the Moscow road, where he was supposed to link up with Lieutenant-General Prince Andrei Gorchakov’s division of Bagration’s Second Army. It had been agreed that Gorchakov and Second Army would guard the Moscow road until First Army’s column had emerged safely down the back lanes and onto the main highway near Lubino.

Everything went wrong, partly because of poor coordination between the First and Second armies and partly because of the difficulty of moving down country lanes at night. In principle, these roads should have been reconnoitred in advance by staff officers who should then have guided the columns to their correct destinations. The army’s movements were these staff officers’ responsibility. Any movement at night of large bodies of men requires very careful arrangements, especially if tired troops are to march through forests and down country lanes. The historian of the general staff claims, not altogether implausibly, that there were simply too few staff officers available for all the tasks in hand in the immediate aftermath of the evacuation of Smolensk. Some had been sent ahead to look for quarters for the following night and others had been dispatched to find possible battlefields on the road to Moscow where the army might make a stand. It is certainly evident from staff officers’ memoirs that their corps was seriously overstretched in the first half of the 1812 campaign with very responsible jobs sometimes being allocated to junior and inexperienced officers. That was no doubt the inevitable price of having to build the general staff corps at such speed in the years just before the war.49

Whatever the reasons, the result was confusion. Only one-third of Nikolai Tuchkov’s column – mostly made up of his own Third Corps – set off at the right time and took the correct road. Even they faced many obstacles in trying to get artillery and thousands of cavalry down lanes and over bridges designed to carry peasant carts. Next to move was Ostermann-Tolstoy’s Fourth Corps, but they started late, lost track of Tuchkov’s men and completely lost their way, splitting up into separate groups and wandering around through the night down a number of country lanes.

This threw into confusion the final third of the column, Karl Baggohufvudt’s Second Corps. The last elements of Second Corps, commanded by Prince Eugen of Württemberg, could only set off far behind schedule at one in the morning of 19 August. Since Second Corps was following Ostermann-Tolstoy they inevitably got lost too and wandered in their own circle. At roughly six o’clock in the morning of 19 August Prince Eugen and his men found themselves near the village of Gedeonovo less than 2 kilometres from the Smolensk suburbs and in full view of Marshal Ney’s corps, whose bands they could hear playing rousing music to get the men from their bivouacs.

Disaster loomed. Ney’s corps far outnumbered the three infantry regiments and handful of cavalry and guns which Eugen commanded. Most of the rest of Fourth and Second corps were still wandering around in the forests and would be routed and cut off from the Moscow road should Ney advance and push Eugen aside. Fortunately, Barclay himself turned up – completely by accident – at the point of crisis and began making arrangements to block any advance by Ney.

The commander-in-chief will not have been overjoyed to find that his army’s fate rested in the hands of by far its youngest and least experienced division commander. The 24-year-old Eugen held his rank because he was Empress Marie’s favourite nephew and Alexander’s first cousin. Barclay disliked aristocratic amateurs and was suspicious of Eugen’s relatives and friends at court. No doubt the decent but rather solemn Barclay saw the lively young prince, whose pastimes included writing plays and operas, as a terrible dilettante. In fact, however, Eugen was to prove one of Russia’s best generals in 1812–14. He had received a thorough military education, had seen a little of war in 1807 and against the Turks, and was to prove himself a courageous, resolute and intelligent commander in the campaigns of 1812–14. The battle outside Smolensk on 19 July was to be his first real test and he passed it well.

Luckily for Eugen, Ney was as surprised to see the Russians as they were to see him. It took him three hours to begin his attack. Even then, Eugen recalled, large numbers of French troops never moved from their camp. During these three hours Eugen could post his three regiments in good positions behind breastworks and bushes in the woods. Russian infantry of the line did not always perform well in a light infantry role but on the morning of 19 August the men of the Tobolsk, Wilmanstrand and Beloozero regiments fought like heroes, beating off repeated French attacks for just long enough for reinforcements to hurry through the forest to the sound of the guns. When Barclay finally ordered a retreat, Eugen was able to put together a rearguard which held off the French while Second and Fourth corps were led through the forest paths to the Moscow road.50

Unfortunately, however, confusion on the Moscow road very nearly allowed the French to get first to Lubino, block the paths out of the forest, and undermine everything Eugen and his men had achieved. Barclay had just made what arrangements he could to deal with the emergency facing Eugen, when he was informed that Second Army had retreated eastwards along the Moscow road without waiting for First Army, leaving the vital crossroads near Lubino open for the French to seize. Friedrich von Schubert was alone with Barclay when the message was delivered and he recalled that the commander-in-chief, normally so self-controlled and calm in crisis, said out aloud: ‘Everything is lost.’ Barclay can be forgiven his temporary loss of composure because this was one of the most dangerous moments for the Russians in the 1812 campaign.51

The situation was partly saved by Pavel Tuchkov. After a long and exhausting night-time march through the forests he moved onto the Moscow road near to Lubino at about eight o’clock in the morning. Tuchkov was astonished to find no one there from Second Army save a few Cossacks. Though his orders had been to turn eastwards on the high road and head for Solovevo, this had presumed that Gorchakov’s troops would be on the road to block any French advance and guarantee the rest of First Army a safe retreat. To make matters worse, Cossacks reported that Junot’s Westphalian corps was preparing to ford the Dnieper at Prudishchevo, which would allow them to move onto the road from the south against minimal opposition.

Pavel Tuchkov kept his head and showed praiseworthy initiative. Ignoring his orders, he turned his 3,000 men right rather than left onto the Moscow road and took up a good defensive position as far to the west of Lubino as possible, behind the river Kolodnia. Here his men hung on against growing French pressure for five hours, reinforced by two fine Grenadier regiments rushed forward to his assistance by his elder brother. In mid-afternoon Pavel Tuchkov fell back to a new position behind the river Strogan, which was the last defensible position if the army’s exit routes from the forests onto the Moscow road were to be kept open. Ferocious fighting continued until the evening but Tuchkov held out, supported by a growing stream of reinforcements organized by Aleksei Ermolov.

As at Krasnyi, the Russian generals had kept their heads and the Russian infantry had shown great steadiness and courage in emergency. Unlike at Krasnyi, the cavalry and artillery had also contributed to the victory. In particular, Count Vasili Orlov-Denisov’s cavalry had protected Tuchkov’s vulnerable left flank against strong pressure from French cavalry and infantry, using the terrain with great skill and timing their counter-attacks to perfection.

Nevertheless, no amount of Russian skill and courage could have saved Tuchkov had the French used all their available troops intelligently. Having crossed the Dnieper at the ford near Prudishchevo, for most of the day General Junot’s corps stood motionless behind the Russian left flank and rear, with Tuchkov at their mercy. French sources later explained this failure by Junot’s incipient mental illness but it also made clear that the French army’s reputation for rapid and decisive exploitation of opportunities on the battlefield only applied when Napoleon was present. But the emperor had no reason to expect a serious battle on 19 August and had remained in Smolensk. His absence rescued the Russians from disaster, as their commanders well understood. Aleksei Ermolov wrote to Alexander that ‘we ought to have perished’. Barclay told Bennigsen that one chance in a hundred had saved First Army.52

As the Russian armies retreated eastwards the initiative lay with Napoleon. Either he could pursue them or he could end his campaign at Smolensk, and seek to turn Lithuania and Belorussia into a formidable base from which to launch a second, decisive strike in 1813. Both at the time and subsequently there has been much debate about the relative advantages and dangers of these two options.

In favour of stopping at Smolensk were the dangers of extending French communications still further eastwards. Not merely were the lines of communication already very long but by mid-August they were facing a growing threat on both flanks, especially in the south where Admiral Chichagov’s formidable Army of the Danube was approaching the theatre of operations. In addition, two months of war had not only greatly reduced French numbers, they had also seriously weakened discipline and morale. With sick, deserters and marauders scattered across Lithuania and Belorussia in their tens of thousands was it not more sensible to consolidate one’s base, restore order to one’s army and not risk even more pressure on its fragile discipline?

There were also powerful political reasons for stopping in Smolensk. Given satisfied elites and effective administration, Lithuania and Belorussia could have become key allies in a war against Russia. The Russian leaders had always feared that by abandoning the western provinces they would allow Napoleon to consolidate his power there and mobilize Polish resources against them. One of the calculations on which Napoleon had based his invasion was that the Russian elites would never fight to the death to preserve their empire’s Polish provinces. If he conquered and organized these provinces, how much pain would the Russians be willing to endure in the hope of getting them back?

For Napoleon, 1812 was a cabinet war fought for strictly limited political purposes. At the absolute maximum he would have annexed Lithuania and part of Belorussia and Ukraine, forced Russia back into the Continental System, and – possibly – coerced the Russians into helping him to challenge British power in Asia. Having experienced the problems of campaigning in Russia he might have settled for less, even in the event of victory. Already embroiled in one national war in Spain, the last thing he wanted was to ignite another in Russia. From the start there had been strong signs that Alexander and his generals were trying to incite a national war against him. As he approached Smolensk these signs became more ominous. The further he penetrated into Great Russia the likelier a national war became.

Napoleon was a man of order who had put the lid on the French Revolution and married the daughter of the Habsburg emperor. He had no desire to launch a serf insurrection in Russia. But the threat might be a useful form of political leverage. It was much more likely to work with the French army poised menacingly on Great Russia’s borders than if it actually invaded the Russian heartland. With their churches desecrated, their women raped and their farms destroyed the Russian peasants were unlikely to listen to French promises.

All these points were fully comprehensible at the time. To them one might add other points with the wisdom of hindsight. The restoration of a powerful Polish state was crucial if French hegemony in Europe was to survive. A restored Poland would be a far more reliable ally of France than the Habsburg, Romanov or Hohenzollern monarchies could ever be. It was also well within Napoleon’s means to make Poland’s restoration fully acceptable to Austria, by restoring the Illyrian provinces he had annexed from it in 1809. Standing even further back from events and looking at the last three centuries of Russian history, it is true to say that whereas simple military assaults on Russia tend to break against the country’s immense scale and resources, the Russian Empire has been vulnerable to a combination of military and political pressures. This proved true both in the First World War and in the Cold War, both of which Russia lost in large part because of the revolt of non-Russians but also of the Russians themselves against the price of empire and the nature of the regimes required to secure it. In the early nineteenth century military pressure combined with exploiting the Romanov empire’s political weaknesses might have worked when geared to strictly limited war aims.

Even leaving aside the fact that Napoleon could not see into the future, there were, however, powerful arguments against stopping in Smolensk. Napoleon was very unwilling to spend more than one campaigning season away from Paris. As we have seen, Chernyshev had pointed this out before 1812 and linked it to the nature of the Bonapartist regime and the challenges it faced. After noting a number of these challenges (the economy, the Pope, Spain, the elites) the leading contemporary French expert on Napoleon concludes that ‘Chernyshev was correct when he reported to his government that Napoleon would take a major domestic risk if the war against Russia was prolonged’. If this judgement can be made now in calm retrospect, how much greater must Napoleon’s feeling of insecurity have been in 1812? He had seen the enormous instability of French politics in the 1790s. He understood how very conditional was the French elite’s loyalty to him. He knew how much his throne owed to victory and to chance.53

He also knew that consolidating a secure base in the western borderlands would be difficult. Lithuania and Belorussia found it hard to feed armies even in peacetime, and especially in winter and spring. The Russian First Army was far smaller than Napoleon’s forces and by no means all of it had wintered in the western borderlands in 1811–12. Even so it had been forced to quarter itself across a huge area to secure adequate supplies. This was particularly true of the cavalry. The five regiments of Baron Korff’s Second Cavalry Corps had been quartered all the way from the Prussian frontier to central Ukraine in order to feed their horses.54

Matters were hardly likely to be better in the winter of 1812 after a year in which the region had been plundered by two armies. The Russian light cavalry was superior to the French even in the early summer of 1812. As Napoleon had discovered in 1806–7, however, the Cossacks revealed their true potential in winter, when they could operate in conditions which destroyed regular light cavalry. With the full manpower of the Cossack regions now being mobilized by the Russians, the French would face huge difficulties in securing their base or feeding their horses and even their men in the winter of 1812.

Of course, if Napoleon had stopped at Smolensk his entire army would not have been destroyed, as happened after his botched invasion of the Russian heartland. But the destruction of Napoleon’s army was by no means inevitable just because he advanced from Smolensk. Other factors – and mistakes – intervened.

In August 1812 Napoleon would have preferred not to be sitting in Smolensk with an undefeated Russian army still in the field. His strategy had been rooted in the correct belief that if he could destroy First and Second armies Russia would lose any hope of ultimate victory. He had chased the Russians all the way to Smolensk in pursuit of this strategy but they had frustrated him. One political calculation made by Napoleon was correct: the Russians could not surrender Moscow without a fight. Moscow was two weeks’ march from Smolensk. Since he had come this far in pursuit of a battle, it might well seem foolish to give up now with the prize so nearly in his grasp. Operating in the rich Moscow region in the midst of the harvest season, he would have no serious problems feeding his men and horses so long as they kept on the move. No doubt to advance was a gamble, but Napoleon was a great gambler. He was also right to believe that in August 1812 stopping in Smolensk was by no means a safe bet. So he decided to push on towards Moscow.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!