It’s a scorching 30 degrees Celsius in the Belarussian countryside, and Lieutenant Radozhitsky is experiencing his baptism of fire – the Russians are trying to hold their ground against Marshal Murat’s famed French cavalry of the Grande Armee. French Hussars charge again and again, and finally break into the Russian lines and capture a battery of guns. With his men falling around him, Radozhitsky is terrified – his eyes grow dim and his knees give way. But the young Lieutenant and the rest of the Russian army are not so easily broken, and battles are raging all across the western empire.
In late July 1812, the two main Russian armies are retreating in good order as Napoleon’s Grande Armee continues its advance into Russia. Prince Bagration’s 2nd Western Army, however, is still in mortal danger of being cut off before it can join Barclay’s 1st Western Army near Vitebsk. After Marshal Davout blocked Bagration’s path at Minsk on July 8, the Georgian hopes to reach Barclay via the town of Mogilev. But once again, Davout strikes first. His troops enter the city on July 20, and even though he doesn’t know exactly how many troops Bagration has, he prepares to attack. Mogilev is surrounded by deep ravines which strengthen the French position, and the Russians also don’t know how many men Davout has, but they attack anyway July 23.
General Nikolai RaEvsky leads 17,000 men and 84 guns, against Davout’s 21,500 men and 55 guns. Raevsky leads the 26th Division in a frontal assault near the village of SaltAnovka, while the Russian 12th Division hits the French in the flank. The 12th manages to take the village of FAtovo, but Davout sends in his reserves and stops it. The frontal assault fails, but it gives rise to a Russian patriotic myth. General Raevsky is said to have brought his two sons into battle with him, a story that inspires patriotic paintings showing the scene and becomes a favorite of Stalin’s. But the story isn’t true – as Raevsky himself will later write:
“It’s true I led the attack. When the men drew back I encouraged them along with the other officers. On the left side, everyone was killed or wounded, and grapeshot struck near me. But my children were not there at that moment. […] That's it, the whole story was made up in St. Petersburg [by] engravers, journalists, [and] writers. […] And that is how history is written! Et voila comment on écrit I’histoire!” (Есипов)
The Battle of Mogilev, which the French call the Battle of SaltAnovka, costs the Russians 2500 men and the French 1500. Davout once again prevents Bagration from taking the shortest route to join Barclay, so Bagration sends his forces across the river south of Mogilev to continue his retreat by a longer route.
Barclay de Tolly’s 1st Western Army reaches the town of Vitebsk the same day Davout turns Bagration away at Mogilev. Since he doesn’t know about Bagration’s defeat, Barclay thinks that if he can delay the Grande Armee in front of Vitebsk, Bagration can join him and together they can finally face the enemy.
Barclay orders a spoiling action to slow down the French-led advance on July 25, which leads to three battles in three days collectively known as the Battle of Vitebsk.
General Alexander OstermAnn-TolstOy’s IV Corps of 8000 infantry and 2000 cavalry await the enemy near the village of OstrovnO, in positions on either side of the VItebsk road. Marshal Murat’s vanguard of 8000 cavalry and 1000 infantry attack immediately, but without enough infantry and artillery, French-led forces struggle to break the Russian lines protected by forests and swamps. French cavalry charges again and again, and eventually forces back the Russian left. The fighting is intense, and Russian officer Alexander MikhAilovsky-DanilEvsky records a dramatic scene:
“During the battle of VItebsk, an adjutant came to tell Ostermann-Tolstoy that the left wing was under pressure, and asked for orders. The count replied: stand and die. граф отвечал ‘Стоять и умирать.’”(Ивченко 505)
After action reports criticize Ostermann-Tolstoy for being careless and reckless, but also unquestionably courageous. He orders a massed bayonet charge, a tactic the Russians are trying to phase out, and a near-suicidal charge by the IngErmanlAnd Dragoons. The Russians manage to hold the line, but in the evening French reinforcements arrive, and Ostermann-Tolstoy decides to withdraw. French doctor Raymond Faure surveys the battlefield:
“The [field] was ploughed up and strewn with men lying in every position and mutilated in various ways. Some, all blackened, had been scorched by the explosion of a caisson; others, who appeared to be dead, were still breathing; as one came up to them one could hear their moans; […] they were in a sort of apathy, a kind of sleep of pain, […] paying no attention to the people walking around them; they asked nothing of them, probably because they knew that there was nothing to hope for.” (Zamoyski)
Despite the carnage, the Grande Armee hasn’t been slowed down at all, so the Russians try another stand on July 26. The 3rd Russian Division its 8000 infantry and 3000 cavalry come face to face with a French-led force of 8000 infantry and 7000 cavalry. The Russians take up a position on a hill flanked by the Western DvinA river and a swamp. After fierce resistance for most of the day, the Russian right wing gives under the pressure, and they retreat to the line of the LuchEsa river. Only now does Barclay learn of Bagration’s defeat at Mogilev – the 1st Western Army has been waiting in vain. July 27 brings still more fighting as Russian cavalry and light infantry Jäger hold out for as long as they can against Murat’s cavalry, but French-led horsemen outflank the Russians position and the Russians once again fall back. Each side has lost about 4000 men over three days – to make up for Russian officer losses, 5 non-noble NCOs are promoted, a rare occurrence until this war.
Napoleon now expects that the next day will bring the decisive battle he has been looking for since June, so his forces break off the chase and make camp for the night.
With the two main Russian armies still in full retreat, the Russian High Command decides to strike with its southern army to relieve some pressure on Bagration.
The Tsar orders General Tormasov’s 3rd Observation Army to advance against the right flank of the Grande Armee, which is covered by the Austrian Auxiliary Corps and General Reynier’s VII Corps. Tormasov’s advance is dangerously close to the Duchy of Warsaw, a key French satellite state. French command doesn’t realise that Tormasov has 45,000 men, far more than Reynier. The two forces clash at the small town of Kobryn, which is defended by 3000 Saxons under Major General von Klengel. The Saxons barricade the roads, and prepare positions in the monastery and half ruined 18th century fortifications.
Early on July 27, Cossack, Tatar, and Bashkir cavalry push the Saxons out of their forward positions and back into the town itself. At 9am, Russian infantry storms Kobryn and a brutal house-to-house fight begins, and the town burns to the ground. Saxon officer Carl Becker later recalls the confusion in the midst of battle: “During this extremely intense fighting, we suddenly got news that the Sahr Brigade had arrived to reinforce us. There was a loud cry of celebration – long live the King! Long live the Sahr Brigade! […] Unfortunately we learned soon after that this news was wrong […] it was a Russian light infantry unit with uniforms nearly the same as ours.” (Becker)
The Battle of Kobryn costs the Saxons about 1000 dead and wounded and 2000 prisoners, including Klengel himself. The Russians lose only 200 dead and wounded, and they capture 4 Saxon regimental standards. Following the Russian victory, Reynier force marches his remaining troops north to join with the Austrians, who will now stay in Volhynia to keep Tormasov in check instead of supporting the main offensive as planned.
As all three Russian armies fight to stave off disaster, Tsar Alexander meets with churchmen and wealthy merchants in SmolEnsk and Moscow. They pledge 10 million rubles to the cause, and most serfs accept forced service in the new militia, even though some are armed only with pikes. Still, Alexander orders the imperial family in St Petersburg to prepare to flee to Kazan if need be. And his armies will continue to retreat. On the 27, General Aleksei ErmOlov convinces Barclay it is too dangerous to fight Napoleon at Vitebsk, so the Russians abandon the city. Female Russian cavalry officer NadEzhda DUrova remains confident, according to her later patriotic memoirs: “We are moving by quick marches into the heart of Russia, with an enemy at our heels who believes in all simplicity that we are running to escape him! Fortune blinds. […] The artillery lieutenant, whose unprecedented luck has cost him both wits and common sense, will soon be remarked through the emperor’s robes.” (Durova 131)
On the morning of the 28, Napoleon’s officers are shocked that Vitebsk is undefended. The decisive battle has eluded the Emperor once again, and some historians think he made a serious mistake by not attacking with everything he had the day before. Many of his troops are reaching breaking point marching in the 30 degree heat. Piedmontese soldier Giuseppe Venturini keeps a diary of his suffering:
“Bivouacked in the mud [July 20-23], thanks to our two cretinous generals. […] [The 24] I was on sentry duty at General Verdier’s. I was lucky that day; I ate a good soup. On the 26th six men died of hunger in our regiment.” (Zamoyski) For Venturini and the rest of the Grande Armee, every step deeper into Russia brings more dangers – and their Emperor knows it.