Prince Bagration’s 2nd Western Army is in a race against time: if his men can move fast enough, they can link up with the other Russian army, and draw the Grande Armee deeper into Russia. If they are too slow, the more powerful French-led troops will catch and crush them. On July 4, 1812, Bagration gets disturbing news: Marshal Davout’s corps is already behind him. If Napoleon’s brother Jerome’s corps can also catch the Russians, the entire 2nd Western Army will be trapped, and Russia’s fate will be sealed. https://youtu.be/P-XYy_rfouY
Napoleon’s Grande Armee crosses the Neman river in June 1812, but in the following days it does not find its Russian enemy. On June 28 French-led troops enter the regional capital of Vilna after a brief cavalry skirmish on the outskirts. French officers like General Berthezène are surprised: “In all directions we found the Russian army in full retreat […] we advanced without any obstacle, and to our great surprise, since we couldn’t imagine that the Russians would abandon the capital of Lithuania without firing a shot.” (Boudon 112)
But the Tsar, the Russian high command and the troops were gone. Before they left, the Russians destroyed the flour mills, warehouses, supplies and town bridge. Many pro-Russian residents have also fled, but some Polish and Lithuanian notables hope that Napoleon will grant them an independent state. The Countess of Tisenhaus was moved:
“Prince Radziwill’s regiment passed in our street, Polish Uhlans with a charming uniform and banners in the Polish colors. I was on the hotel balcony and they saluted me and laughed. It was the first time in my life I saw Pol[ish troops]! I shed tears of joy and enthusiasm, I felt Polish. It was a moment to savor.” (Rey 95-96)
Napoleon does set up a local administration on July 3, and recruits up to 40,000 local troops, but he doesn’t want to create a full Polish Kingdom for fear it will claim lands that his ally Austria took in the 18th century partitions of Poland. On June 30th an envoy from the Tsar arrives and tells the French Emperor Alexander will talk peace if the Grande Armee leaves Russia. Napoleon refuses the offer, and decides to stay in Vilna while his army advances.
Meanwhile, Russian General Barclay’s 1st Western Army of 136,000 men is marching hard towards the fortified camp at Drissa. The goal is to meet up with Prince Bagration’s 2nd Western Army and its 60,000 troops to make a stand along the DvinA river. Barclay’s retreat is going relatively well – despite the strain on morale and discipline, only about 10,000 Russians desert and the cavalry is mostly able to provide a protective rearguard. The main difficulty is the chain of command and the lack of operational plans for the strategic withdrawal. The Tsar told Barclay that Barclay was in overall command, but Alexander keeps interfering with orders of his own and Bagration resists accepting Barclay’s authority.
Prince Bagration considers the retreat dishonorable: “We were brought to the frontier, scattered along it like pawns, then, after they had all sat there, mouths wide open, shitting along the whole length of the border, off they fled. It all disgusts me so much it’s driving me crazy.” (Zamoyski)
He wants to strike north into the flank of Napoleon’s army group, or west towards Warsaw. But either of these options would be far too risky given the superior enemy, so after a few days’ delay, Bagration also begins moving east to join up with Barclay.
Napoleon wants to prevent the two Russian armies from joining up, so he hatches a plan. Marshal Davout turns towards Minsk, to get between the two Russian armies. If Davout can cut off Bagration’s route to Drissa, Jerome’s army group can then smash the trapped Russian army to pieces. Things start well when Davout’s maneuver cuts off General PlAtov’s Cossack corps from Barclay’s army and forces them to join up with Bagration.
But Jerome’s corps are having trouble. His army group leaves GrOdno on the 30th and is immediately hampered by lack of food, poor roads, and alternating extremes of cold and hot weather. He also hesitates to attack Bagration since he has no intelligence about enemy forces. Napoleon is livid, and orders Jerome to pick up the pace. On July 4, Bagration realizes that Davout is cutting off his path to Barclay, so the Georgian Prince disobeys his orders and swerves to the southeast to avoid encirclement.
Bagration has escaped the French trap for now, but the superior French-led forces are still hot on his heels. But just who was marching in the so-called Army of Twenty Nations?
The Grande Armee of 1812 was massive – over 650,000 men, about 150,000 horses, and 1393 guns:
- 355,000 French Empire (includes parts of the Italian peninsula, parts of the Rhineland, and the Low Countries)
- 80,000 Grand Duchy of Warsaw
- 36,000 Prussia
- 30,000 Austria
- 29,000 Westphalia
- 27,000 Saxony
- 20,000 Kingdom of Italy
- 16,500 Würtemberg
- 15,000 Bavaria
- 9,800 Denmark
- 8000 Kingdom of Naples
- 6800 Hessen
- 6600 Switzerland
- 3700 Spain
- 2900 Illyrian Provinces
- 2800 Croatia and Dalmatia
- 2200 Portugal
- 15,000 from smaller German duchies and principalities
Note that these are the paper strengths, and actual boots on the ground are fewer.
For the Russian campaign, Napoleon divides his forces into three main army groups, called Grandes masses: one under Napoleon himself, including the Guard and the corps of Marshals Davout, Oudinot, and Ney plus a massed cavalry force under Marshal Murat, the King of Naples; another under his stepson Eugene de Beauharnais, including Marshal Saint-Cyr's and Grouchy’s corps; and the third under his brother Jerome, King of Westphalia, with Marshal Reynier’s and the Polish Prince PoniatOwski’s corps. Marshal Macdonald commands the northern flanking corps, while Austrian forces under Prince von Schwarzenberg cover the south. In all there are 11 army corps and 6 of cavalry.
Of this total force, about 330,000 infantry, 70,000 cavalry, and 30,000 artillerymen actually cross into Russia in June 1812 (Rey).
Some men in the Grande Armee volunteered, but the majority are conscripts from the popular classes who can’t pay for a replacement. Many are experienced veterans, while others are among the 160,000 new recruits from the expanded French Empire. French infantry includes the Regiments de ligne, light infantry like voltigeurs and chasseurs a pied, and the elite 50,000 strong Imperial Guard.
The artillery consists of foot and horse batteries, plus bridge layers, wagoners, and armorers. The horses and drivers of artillery trains are specialized in moving the guns and ammunition when not in combat, while the gunners handled the 6, 8, and 12 pound guns in battle.
The cavalry is considered the best in the world, and includes heavy cuirassiers, dragoons, hussars, lanciers, carabiniers, chasseurs a cheval. It is still the most prestigious branch, but according to General Paul Thiébault, cavalry wouldn’t play the main role in a pitched battle:
“With few exceptions, [the cavalry] serves to complete or decide victory, but not to obtain it. The artillery must weaken enemy [formations], the infantry must overrun them and break through, the cavalry must disperse them and take prisoners. [Cavalry] charges must be infrequent, but when they happen must be all-out; since it can only fight in close quarters, cavalry must appear only when it will strike. et comme elle ne peut combattre que corps à corps, elle ne doit paraître que pour frapper.” (Brun)
Nearly half the Grande Armee is from outside the French Empire, from hesitant allies Prussia and Austria or satellite states like the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, the Confederation of the Rhine, or the Italian kingdoms. Units from different states were often placed in the same larger formations – notably, 3 Polish regiments were attached to the Young Guard. Some historians argue that non-French units were less motivated to fight, while others point to widespread respect, admiration and even adulation towards Napoleon as a motivating factor for non-Frenchmen. There were certainly challenges with communication given the number of languages spoken, and occasional French arrogance. Eugene, himself Viceroy of Italy, responded this way when General Pino complained about the lack of food:
“Gentlemen, what you ask for is not possible, and if you are not happy go back to Italy. I have nothing to do with you or the others. Know that I fear neither your sabres nor your daggers.” (Del negro 5)
The quality of the troops also varies, including those of the army of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. The Polish cavalry was capable, but many of the Polish troops are in a poor state when the campaign begins. They spent much of the previous two years building fortresses in Bohemia, Prussia and the Duchy; they’d been poorly fed; many are suffering from scurvy and dysentery, and they often aren’t paid by the cash-strapped Duchy. 8 out of 10 men have never seen combat. There’s also an issue with leadership, as Prince Poniatowski is unfamiliar with modern logistics, movement, and camp practices (Nieuwazny 89-90).
For all their differences, Napoleon’s troops did have some things in common according to French officer Elzéar Blaze: “The Grande Armée fought hard, seldom cheered, and always bitched.” (Elting vii)
The Grande Armée might be the most powerful army in Europe, but it’s already getting weaker by the day. French logistics and supply plans are failing, and on the 30th, a snap cold rainstorm kills tens of thousands of draft and cavalry horses. Forcing a decisive battle before sickness and hunger take too much of a toll is becoming more and more urgent. The Russians have escaped for now, but Marshal Davout writes to his wife that the Emperor’s genius will soon triumph:
“The Emperor’s manoeuvres will prevent this from being a particularly bloody campaign. We have taken Wilna without a battle and forced the Russians to evacuate the whole of Poland: such a beginning to the campaign is equivalent to a great victory.” (Zamoyski)
But not every victory will be without battle, and next week brings a baptism of fire.
- Boudon, Jacques-Olivier. Napoléon et la campagne de Russie en 1812. 2021.
- Brun, Jean-François. “Le cheval dans la Grande Armée.” Revue historique des armées (249), 2007.
- Del Negro, Piero. “Les Italiens dans la Grande Armée. La campagne de Russie et le patriotisme italien.” Revue historique des armées (250), 2008.
- Elting, John. Swords Around a Throne: Napoleon’s Grande Armée. 1997.
- Lieven, Dominic. Russia Against Napoleon. 2010.
- Nieuwazny, Andrzej. “Les Polonais de la Grande Armée,” in Rey, Marie-Pierre and Thierry Lentz, eds. 1812, la campagne de Russie. 2012.
- Rey, Marie-Pierre. L’effroyable tragédie : une nouvelle histoire de la campagne de Russie. 2012.
- Zamoyski, Adam. 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow. 2005.