The hot summer air is filled with fire and shot all around the fortress city of Smolensk. French and Russian cannon pour fire into the ranks of the advancing Grande Armee and into the city itself, home to a precious Orthodox icon. The Russian armies have finally united and are making a stand – for Napoleon, this could be the decisive battle he has been waiting for. As the flame and smoke lick around the bastions and towers of the ancient city, and French and Polish soldiers surge against the ramparts and into the inferno. https://youtu.be/O1baWblvfIA
After the Battles of Vitebsk and Mogilev at the end of July, Napoleon and the Grande Armee enter the city of Vitebsk. Given the hardships of the campaign so far, the Emperor decides to pause and rest his troops – even at the risk that the two Russian armies he has been pursuing could finally unite. The Grande Armee has suffered terribly from logistics problems, and has lost about one third of its men mostly to sickness, exhaustion, and desertion – as well as half of its draft and cavalry horses.
Napoleon uses the time to try to reorganize his army’s supply: he orders hospitals to be set up in Vitebsk, Kaunas to become a logistics hub, and for Minsk to provide the army with flour.
On August 2, the two Russian armies finally met near Smolensk. The Russian high command now debates whether to continue the retreat or finally stand and fight. 1st Western Army Chief of Staff Aleksei Yermolov worries that his troops are tired and losing morale, and Barclay fears that the enemy is still too strong. He’s also lost contact with the French vanguard so he doesn’t know where their forces are. But there is not just enormous pressure from Prince Bagration. The Tsar himself urges Barclay to launch an offensive in a letter. Finally, he agrees to a limited offensive towards Vitebsk on August 7, but almost immediately cancels it based on rumors of strong French forces on his flanks.
Grande Armee command is also planning its next steps. Napoleon and his marshals debate stopping the campaign until 1813, but the Emperor decides to push on. He decides to strike before the Russians can organize a proper defense, so he plans to outflank them at Smolensk. On August 11, the Grande Armee begins to move and crosses the Dneper river on the 14th, and the clash of arms is not long in coming.
First Battle of Krasny
As the French advanced towards Smolensk, Marshal Murat’s cavalry run into Russian General Dmitry NeverOvsky’s 27th Division at Krasny. The French far outnumber the 7000 Russian infantrymen, but the Russians close ranks and form an infantry square to cover their retreat. The French cavalry charge the square repeatedly, but they cannot break it. 15 year old Russian soldier Dmitrii DushEnkovich experiences his baptism of fire:
“Everything seemed incomprehensible to me. I felt that I was [still] 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 […]: ‘Lads! Remember what you were taught in Moscow. Follow your orders and no cavalry will defeat you.’” (Lieven 163)
The Russians lost around 1500 men, but their infantry square manages to pull back in good order. The French cavalry has the numbers to stop them, but with French artillery held up by a broken bridge they cannot defeat the square.
The French have missed anopportunity to weaken the Russians at Krasny, but will get another chance at the largest battle of the campaign so far – the Battle of Smolensk.
Battle of Smolensk
The town of Smolensk has a population of about 13,000 in 1812. It’s only really symbolically important since it houses a sacred Orthodox icon of the Virgin Mary, and features a citadel from the 17th century wars against the Polish Kingdom. Napoleon has failed to surround the Russians, but now he thinks they will fight, so he doesn’t try to outflank them further down the river.
The evening of August 16, Marshal Ney and Murat launch an attack on the city outskirts but General Raevsky’s corps beats them off. By the next morning, the Russians have 30,000 men defending the town under General Dmitrii DokhturOv, and the Grande Armee has lined up about 50,000 troops for a frontal attack. First, the French-led forces attack the outskirts and push the Russians back. By the early afternoon, it’s clear to Napoleon that Barclay is not going to come out and face him, so he orders his troops to storm the walls. French cavalry on the right flank defeat Russian dragoons, and all along the line fierce hand-to-hand fighting begins. When the French-led troops reach the 10-meter high fortress walls, they find they can’t scale them without specialized equipment. Instead, they try to climb them as best they can under Russian fire. French cavalryman Auguste Thirion of the 2nd Cuirassiers witnesses the scene:
“I cannot conceive how a single man or a single horse could escape that mass of cannonballs coming from [both sides]. We [saw our] infantry laboriously descending into the ditches, or rather the ravines which made up the moat of the fortress. It was a Polish division which was trying to storm those rocks with a courage, a desperation worthy of greater success; these brave men tried to scale them by climbing on each other’s shoulders.” (Zamoyski)
French artillery soon sets the town on fire, and civilians begin to flee. Russian troops still hold the town, but in the early morning hours of August 18, Barclay decides to give up Smolensk and retreat towards Moscow. Prince Bagration is furious and calls Barclay a “German sausage-maker” while Cavalry Corps commander Prince Constantine gives his opinion to his staff officers in no uncertain terms:
“It isn’t Russian blood that flows in those who command us.” (Lieven 165)
The Russian army begins a dangerous retreat in the presence of stronger French forces on August 18, and the Grande Armee enters Smolensk. The battle has cost the French-led forces about 7000 killed and wounded, and the Russians about 11,000. Smolensk is ruined, and nearly all of its residents have been killed or fled. French doctor Raymond Faure takes in the destruction:
“[Russian] soldiers [trying] to flee had fallen in the streets, asphyxiated by the fire, and had been burned there. Many no longer resembled human beings; they were formless masses of grilled and carbonised matter, which the metal of a musket, a sabre, or some shreds of accoutrement lying beside them made recognisable as corpses.” (Zamoyski)
As Smolensk burns and the Russian armies move east, fighting also breaks out in the south, where Napoleon’s reluctant Austrian allies go over to the attack.
Battle of Gorodechno
Austria would have preferred to stay neutral in 1812 after Napoleon had defeated it in 1809. But the Emperor of the French expected Austrian support against Russia so Austria provides 30,000 men in exchange for the Illyrian Provinces and confirmation of its control of Galicia. The Austrian corps is under direct Austrian command of Karl von Schwarzenberg, unlike the Prussian corps. Although Napoleon is married to an Austrian princess, he still has some concerns about potential disloyalty – and indeed, the Austrians have agreed with the Russians that they will try to avoid aggressive operations as much as possible.
The Austrian corps was meant to advance towards Minsk, but after the Russian victory over the French-led VII Saxon corps at Kobryn, it’s joined by the remaining Saxons and moves south. Russian General Tormasov’s 3rd Observation Army takes up defensive positions around the village of GorodEchno, which the Austrians and Saxons attack on August 12. The Russians make skillful use of the terrain, occupying the higher ground behind a swamp. The Saxons try to outflank the Russian positions, but the battle lasts all day and includes heavy fire from Austrian artillery. Later, Saxon Colonel von Bose blames a lack of Austrian support for allied difficulties: “Die Österreicher wollen nicht recht beißen. The Austrians just don’t want to sink their teeth into it.” (Holzhausen, S. 75)
Russian troops manage to hold their positions for most of the day, but their left wing is in such danger of being overwhelmed that Tormasov decides to withdraw behind the safety of the river Styr. The Battle of Gorodechno, aka the Battle of PodObna costs the Saxons about 1000 killed and wounded and the Russians 3000. The southern flank of the Grande Armee has been stabilized, but the fresh Russian Army of the Danube is on its way from Bessarabia.
The Grande Armee is now in possession of the charred ruins of Smolensk, and has won another tactical victory – but some question whether attacking at Smolensk made sense. Prussian officer Carl von Clausewitz considers Napoleon’s failure to outflank the Russians east of Smolensk to be the gravest error of the entire campaign. But such judgments are far from the men’s minds as the Russians struggle to maintain cohesion on the retreat. The Grande Armee still has the upper hand – and the very next day the Russians will face their worst crisis of the war.
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- Vojtêch Kessler: Der österreichische Pyrrhos - Der Feldzug des österreichischen Auxiliar-Korps im Jahre 1812 in den Briefen des Oberbefehlshabers Karl Fürst von Schwarzenberg an seine Frau.
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