The hot July sun beats down on the village of Mir in the western Russian Empire. A squadron of Polish Uhlans, in the service of Napoleon’s Grande Armee, are in hot pursuit of the enemy – they’ve sighted Cossacks who are on the run. The Poles don’t know it yet, but as they gallop through the village, they are playing right into the Russians’ hands. It’s the first battle of the Russian Patriotic War – and it’s a trap! https://youtu.be/dEc7mkoi3IM
By July 9, 1812, Prince Bagration’s 2nd Western Army has retreated 250km in 10 days without a rest. He orders a stop at NEsvizh, and sends General PlAtov’s cavalry to hold up the advancing French-led army of King Jérome. Jerome’s vanguard of Polish Uhlan cavalry clash with the Cossacks at Mir in the first battle of the Russian campaign. Around 1300 Poles attack the village, and the Russian horsemen retreat. Some of the Poles gallop after them, but they run straight into an ambush – it’s the Cossacks’ VEnter tactic. 3000 Russian horsemen are waiting for them and force the Poles back across a stream. When Polish reinforcements arrive that evening, the Russians pull back to the village of SimakOvo.
On the 10th, Platov also gets more reinforcements, and outnumbers the Poles 6000 to 3000. The Poles don’t know this, so they advance. Platov attacks the Uhlans with everything he’s got, including artillery and some regular cavalry. After 6 hours of desperate fighting, more Russian units arrive and the Poles withdraw. The two-day skirmish costs the Russians 175 killed and wounded, while the Poles suffer 400 killed and wounded and 500 prisoners.
It’s a small Russian victory, but an important one for General Ivan PaskEvich: “This action had great consequences for morale. In the cavalry, you either beat the enemy or you are beaten. Все зависит от первого успеха. Everything depends on the first success. Platov had to defeat the enemy at Mir to stop the boasting and arrogance of the Poles.” (1812 год, 83)
The Russians win a tactical victory at Mir, which buys a little time for Bagration’s tired footsoldiers on their strategic retreat, but the French are still breathing down their necks.
Napoleon is trying to isolate and destroy Prince Bagration’s 2nd Western Army before it can join up with the larger 1st Western Army. Bagration, however, has changed course to avoid being trapped between Marshal Davout and King Jerome. After a brief rest helped by the Cossack defense of Mir, Bagration’s troops resume the march towards MogilYOv. Davout’s corps reaches Minsk on July 8, only to learn that Bagration has escaped the trap. Jerome’s army is simply too slow. Despite their utter exhaustion and hunger, Davout’s troops race to cut off the Russians at Mogilev. There’s still time to catch them, but Davout has already lost a third of his men to sickness, exhaustion, and desertion. Captain Gardier recalls the conditions: “Beaten by the wind and the rain, after being weakened by the excessive heat […] the horses as well as the men can barely stand.” (Rey 101)
Napoleon’s first attempt to force a decisive battle at Minsk has failed because of logistical problems, Jerome’s indecisiveness, and perhaps the Emperor’s own lack of energy. While Davout and Jerome chase Bagration, the Emperor now turns his attention to Barclay de Tolly. Here, Marshal Murat’s cavalry corps are to keep the Russians busy at Drissa, while the main French-led force is supposed to continue east, then turn north to cut off Russian communications with St. Petersburg. If Barclay retreats, the two Russian armies will be even farther apart. If he stands and fights, he’ll be surrounded and outnumbered.
But the Russian high command has new plans of its own as its armies continue their brutal forced marches to keep ahead of the Grande Armee. On July 8, Tsar Alexander arrives at the fortified camp at Drissa, which is to be the lynchpin of the Russian defense along the Dvina. He visits the fortifications with Prussian Major Carl von Clausewitz, who joined Russian forces since he opposed his country’s alliance with Napoleon. Clausewitz delivers his report: the defenses are very strong in some places, but the geographical location is a liability since the French can cut off the camp from behind, just as Napoleon is planning. Other Russian generals also doubt the position. Even if Barclay’s army can hold out, if it stays put at Drissa the French will have a free hand to catch up with the 2nd Western Army. Bagration has escaped one trap, but might not escape another. The bulk of the 1st Western Army reaches Drissa on July 11. Abandoning the position is politically complicated for Alexander, since he’s simultaneously under pressure to turn and fight and to stop meddling in the chain of command. Nonetheless, the very next day, the high command issues its orders: the army is to leave Drissa in a few days and continue east. They will not let Napoleon surround them, and they will not yet fight.
The Russian army is now retreating farther than planned – so what kind of army is it that has so far outrun Napoleon?
In June 1812, the Russian Empire boasts an army of some 622,000 men. But only about 200,000 of these can be spared to face the French-led invasion, with another 113,000 in reserve.
The men in the three Russian armies reflect the country’s social system – the vast majority of other ranks are unfree serfs. Saint Petersburg sets annual conscription quotas according to which young Orthodox Christian men are recruited to serve for 25 years – which meant that for many they would never see their homes again and serve until death. Families often observed the conscription of a son as they would a funeral. Pamfil Nazarov’s mother is distraught when he is called up:
“[My brother] left in the evening and arrived [our parents’] at dawn. He tethered the horse at the gate and went into the house. He burst into tears as he told them that I had been conscripted as a soldier and I send them my regards. My mother took the news very badly – she even lost consciousness for a few minutes.” (Назаров 532)
The peasants resented this system, as did land and serf-owning nobles who did not want to lose farm workers. It also struggled to provide enough manpower, since Russia’s inefficient agriculture meant large numbers of serfs were needed in the fields. The manpower shortage in 1812 forces the government to call on the Народное ополчение, a poorly trained militia. In theory every able-bodied man could serve, but in practice they’re ineffective, and threaten the established order of docile serfs – only 230,000 militiamen are called to the colors and they play a limited role in combat.
More than 80% of the officers are noblemen, but most of these are poor in spite of their noble titles, and depend on their meagre army salary. Only 15% of Russia’s officers in 1812 have received any formal military training. Many of those who have are from ethnic minorities like the Baltic Germans, or foreigners from the German states, Britain, and anti-revolutionary aristocrats from France. The many Prussian officers serving on the general staff causes tensions, as some Russian officers do not take kindly to foreign influence – especially when the “dishonorable” strategic retreat plan of 1812 was drawn up by Prussian officer von Phull. St. Petersburg diarist VarvAra BakUnina considers the officer corps motivated but ill-disciplined:
“All the army letters are filled with the desire to get the war started […] they say the soldiers are impatient to get to grips with the enemy and avenge past defeats. […] young officers spend their time drinking and playing…there are orgies every day.” (Rey 63)
The Russian army of 1812 is also the product of the French-inspired reforms introduced after its defeat by France in 1807. The army’s structure was formalized and unified – corps and divisions were made permanent, and the number of cavalry and infantry regiments, and artillery brigades in each division was fixed. In 1812, there are 33 divisions, each of which has 4 infantry and 2 cavalry regiments, and one artillery brigade. All told, a division has 18-20,000 men. Army staffs were also re-organized and formalized from 1811, which -- on paper at least -- improves command and control. Combat training also improved, especially musketry and a softer approach to discipline introduced by Barclay de Tolly:
“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.” (Lieven 108)
Though the re-training program wasn’t complete by 1812, the Russian army of 1812 is far better than the one Napoleon defeated at Austerlitz, and Friedland in 1805 and 1807. In fact the artillery is among the best in Europe, and its 6 and 12 pounders and licorne or edinarOg howitzer are generally heavier than their French counterparts.
Cavalry is also formed into corps, and includes light Uhlans, Hussars, heavy cuirassiers and dragoons. Most of the irregular troops are light cavalry, and the Cossacks were the most numerous and important. Most Cossacks came from the Don, UrAl, and OrenbUrg Hosts, and they excelled at reconnaissance, hit-and-run tactics, and harassing slower French units. Other irregular cavalry came in the form of BashkIrs, KalmYks, or Tatars. The Bashkirs were meant to serve as border guards and still used traditional clothing and weapons like the bow and arrow. Imperial authorities did not trust them with firearms after their numerous rebellions in the 18th century.
The much-improved Russian army has won the first skirmish of the campaign, and avoided a pitched battle with the powerful Grande Armee. Even though Napoleon’s massive army is suffering from exhaustion and hunger, he’s in no mood for political compromises. On July 14, he refuses a Warsaw delegation’s request for a Polish Kingdom. According to French ambassador Abbé de Pradt in Warsaw, this is a grave mistake:
“[Les délégués polonais] étaient partis de feu; ils revinrent de glace. [The Polish delegates] left full of fire [but] they returned with ice in their souls. The chill communicated itself to the whole of Poland, and it was not possible to warm her after that.” (Zamoyski)
Both sides are still confident: the French that they will force a decisive confrontation and end the war; and the Russians that they will escape the trap. Both will soon be disappointed.