After a long night of confusing marches through the dark forests east of Smolensk, the tired Russian soldiers of General Pavel TuchkOv’s division emerge into the morning light along the Moscow road. They expect to meet the rest of the Russian 2nd Western Army, which will protect the road so the Russians can get away from the Grande Armee and continue their retreat. But the 2nd Western Army isn’t there, and French troops under Marshals Ney and Murat are not far off. It’s a critical moment – if the French can take the road, the fragmented Russian army will be cut to pieces. Tuchkov’s orders are to move east, but instead he tells his men to form up and hold the line while they can already hear the French pipes and drums. https://youtu.be/8PuHQu9_emU
After the Battle of Smolensk on August 17, the two Russian armies facing Naopleon’s Grande Armee need to retreat along the Moscow road. Extracting Russian forces from around Smolensk makes strategic sense, but it exposes them to extreme risks.
The Moscow road runs right along the Dnepr river, within sight and range of French guns across the river. If the Russians use that route, their strung-out columns will be decimated. So after a day of rest on August 18, Barclay divides his forces and sends them on a night-time detour along smaller roads running through nearby forests, in the hopes they can get back on the Moscow road farther east.
This is a dangerous maneuver. The Russian troops are marching in the dark, and do not know the territory they are passing through. Some units are delayed, while others get lost in the forest and take the roads meant for others, causing confusion. If the Russians don’t move fast enough, the more numerous French-led forces might seize the critical road junction near the village of Lubino. The Russians would then be trapped while their units are still separated.
The 2nd Western Army army is supposed to guard the road junction and wait for the 1st Western Army to join it, but due to miscommunication most of it marches east and leaves only a rearguard behind. Meanwhile the French-led corps overcome their surprise at the disappearance of the enemy from Smolensk, and make their move. Marshal Ney begins a pursuit, while Junot’s Westphalian corps moves on the Moscow road from the south.
French troops launch a series of attacks, which the outnumbered Russians desperately resist to allow the 1st Western Army can get to safety. When General Pavel Tuchkov’s 3000 men exit the forest and reach the Moscow road, he realises the bulk of the 2nd Western Army is not there to protect it. So he disobeys his orders to move east and takes up a defensive position with Count Vasily Orlov-Denisov’s cavalry protecting his flank. Still, French-led pressure on the Russians forces them back to the last position protecting the junction between the forest roads and the Moscow road. General Yermolov is able to send some reinforcements to support Tuchkov, but the situation is hanging by a thread and the Russians only have 30,000 men facing 50,000 from the Grande Armee. Inexplicably, most of Junot’s Westphalian corps does not attack the vulnerable Russian flank, even though it has orders to do so and could have turned the battle. Hessian Lieutenant Colonel von Conrady is furious:
“If we had attacked, the Russians would have been routed, so all of us, soldiers and officers, were eagerly awaiting the order to attack. […] whole battalions [were] shouting that they wanted to advance, but Junot would not listen, and threatened those who were shouting with the firing squad […] Several officers and soldiers in my battalion wept with despair and shame.” (Zamoyski)
Ney is able to force the Russians to give up their positions once fresh French divisions arrive, but by then their two armies were safely on the road to Moscow. Losses at the battle of Valutino GorA are about 9000 killed and wounded on each side. Russian commanders are stunned that they’ve escaped total destruction. At one point in the fighting, Barclay exclaims “everything is lost,” and he later says the chances of escaping were 1 in 100. Yermolov says “we should have perished” (Lieven 170) and Russian army staff officer Woldemar von Loewenstern admits “The fate of the campaign and of the army should have been sealed that day.” (Zamoyski)
As the Russian armies barely escape disaster at Lubino and retreat towards Moscow, other battles are taking place to the north, on the road to Saint Petersburg.
On the northern front, the Russians have the momentum. General Wittgenstein’s Russian 1st Corps has broken off from the 1st Western Army to protect the approaches to the imperial capital at Saint Petersburg, but Wittgenstein has no intentions of a passive defense. From July 30 to August 1, Russian troops launch a surprise attack and defeat Marshal Oudinot’s forces at KlIAstitsy. Oudinot is forced to retreat to the town of Polotsk, where he is joined by Gouvion St-Cyr’s Bavarian Corps. Wittgenstein decides to press his advantage and despite having only 19,000 men to the French and Bavarian 35,000, he attacks on August 17. The French occupy the high ground near the junction of the Dvina and PolotA rivers, so the Russians concentrate on the Bavarian positions at the village of Spass. The Bavarians are able to hold off the Russians with great difficulty, while Russian artillery manages to stop a French advance. That evening, Marshal Oudinot is badly wounded in the shoulder and Gouvion St Cyr takes command of the Franco-Bavarian troops.
Russian reinforcements have arrived, but they’re still outnumbered. Wittgenstein does not expect a French attack, but St Cyr is more aggressive than Oudinot. He fakes a retreat and instead sends the 8th French Division across the river Polota, but even before it arrives the Bavarians advance. The Russian rearguard of cavalry and light infantry are under extreme pressure and give way. The French also push the Russians back in the center. Desperate to stem the tide, Russian dragoons charge the French cavalry, and a confused mass of horsemen from both sides moves back towards French lines. The Russian advance is only stopped when a Swiss regiment holds its ground and neighboring units pour in flanking fire. Swiss officer Salomon Hirzel later gives the credit to his countrymen:
“The Russian dragoons arrived at the same time as the fleeing [Frenchmen], and they cut down the gunners at their guns. This success spurred on the enemy, and regiments threw themselves against each other and friend and foe joined in one mass. This meant our batteries on the walls of Polotsk couldn’t fire. The entire corps seemed close to collapse […] but the 1st and 2nd Swiss regiments stood fast like a wall, with bayonets lowered, threatened friend and foe alike with death should they come too close.” (Maag 125)
Hirzel exaggerates the danger and the role of the Swiss, but the Russian charge is an intense moment in the fight: General St Cyr narrowly escapes capture by jumping into a ditch, though he is wounded for the second time in two days.
The First Battle of Polotsk costs the Franco-Bavarians 6300 killed, wounded and prisoner, and the Russians 7500. Wittgenstein is forced to retreat and the Grande Armee’s northern flank is secure for the time being, although the French now shelve plans of offensive action. Napoleon makes Gouvion St Cyr a Marshal of France, but the carnage on the battlefield is gruesome. Days after the battle, wounded men still lie unattended, as Swiss Captain Landolts records:
“With horror, we saw [a Russian dragoon] who had his right leg torn off at the hip by a cannonball. Despite the massive loss of blood and four days without food, he managed to firmly ask to be sent to hospital. This I promised to do […] and the dragoon lived for several days more.” (Maag 129)
Napoleon’s commanders have once again been unable to win a decisive victory, even though Valutino-Gora was their best chance so far. French leadership again discusses its options: pursue the Russians to Moscow in the hopes of a final battle, or stop at Smolensk and prepare for a new campaign in 1813. If they stop, they might be able to re-establish their logistics, recover deserters, and deal with the threat to their southern flank posed by the Russian Army of the Danube. They could also rally Polish and Lithuanian support in their newly-won territories, which might also have long-term benefits for France. On the other hand, staying in Russia for another year might increase the risk of a coup back in Paris, and his war against Britain and Spain is going badly. There’s also a food shortage in French-occupied provinces. An advance to Moscow however, would put the Grande Armee in fertile territory at harvest time. In the end, Napoleon decides he must deal with Russia now, and that the Russians will certainly fight for their old capital.
The Russian government is also making decisions. Its soldiers are exhausted from the interminable retreat, and many officers – not only Bagration – have lost confidence in Barclay, not only because of his non-Russian origins, but because he refuses to face the Grande Armee. Some now refer to Barclay de Tolly as boltai da i tolko, all talk and no action. On August 17, the Tsar meets with his advisors to choose a new commander, and announce their decision three days later: the Russian armies will now answer to Mikhail KutUzov.
- Boudon, Jacques-Olivier. Napoléon et la campagne de Russie en 1812. 2021.
- Lieven, Dominic. Russia Against Napoleon. 2010.
- Maag, Albert. De Schicksale der Schweizerregimente in Napoleons I. Feldzug nach Russland 1812. 1900.
- 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.