On a hot August day in the provincial Belarussian town of Vitebsk, Hessian troops of Napoleon’s Grande Armee line the town square. Row upon row stand at attention, ready to parade for the Emperor of the French himself, to remind him of the strength of his forces as his army prepares to march on Moscow. Suddenly, there’s a commotion among the ranks. One word spreads like wildfire – Cossacks! Vitebsk has been in French hands for weeks, but Russian raiders have been spotted outside the city, and the Grande Armee prepares to give chase. The Russian People’s War has begun. https://youtu.be/DxQUq-dzHgA
The People’s War
As the Grande Armee pushes deeper into the Russian Empire in late August 1812, it leaves lands mostly populated by Poles, Lithuanians and Belarussians, and enters territory mostly inhabited by ethnic Russians. The Tsar announced a national war back in July, and now the people’s war against the extended supply lines of the French-led invasion force begins in earnest.
Russian tactics in their unconventional national war against Napoleon are based on partisan resistance, Cossack raids, and scorched earth.
Peasant resistance begins to grow in response to the violence and looting of the Grande Armee. Around the conquered city of Smolensk, any chance of the local population seeing Napoleon as a liberator are disappeared with the destruction of the city. According to Russian officer G.P. Meshticha: some villagers are prepared to fight the invader:
“Along the way residents had abandoned their villages and towns and taken with them their food and belongings. What they couldn’t take with them, they destroyed. […] Some had left the towns, others hid in the forests with their families. They were armed with pikes and guns to defend themselves in case of attack.” (Rey 139)
At the same time, some Russian commanders start sending small and agile Cossack units to operate behind enemy lines. Prince Bagration and his aide-de-camp Lieutenant Colonel Davydov agree to detach some irregular cavalry units to harass the enemy with hit-and-run raids. Bagration spells out his orders in a letter:
“I order you to harass the enemy and to try to strike his supplies not only from the flanks, but in the middle and rear. You are to disrupt supply columns and vehicle parks, and to destroy ferries. […] Nobody should know [about] your movements, and you are to maintain absolute secrecy. You yourself are responsible for your own supply of food.”(Mika Lion)
Other Russian commanders also begin to send out raiding parties, and gradually more and more Cossacks are stalking isolated enemy units or groups of foragers looking for food and fodder – with the help of local peasants. Grande Armee soldiers begin to forage in larger, organized groups in case of attack by Cossacks or armed resistance by peasants. Even though the Cossack raiders are not a serious military threat, they do take several hundred prisoners a day and case widespread fear in French-led ranks.
Hessian Captain Röder observes one such incident at Vitebsk:
“Everything was suddenly thrown into ridiculous uproar because a few Cossacks had been sighted, who were said to have carried off a forager. The entire garrison sprang to arms, and when they had ridden out it was discovered that we were really surrounded by only a few dozen Cossacks who were dodging about hither and thither. In this way they will be able to bring the whole garrison to hospital in about fourteen days without losing a single man.” (Chandler)
Many Russians accept the scorched earth policy, because of their suffering at the hands of the Grande Armee. This planned destruction of supplies, infrastructure, and shelter worsens the already catastrophic French supply problems and military losses. In late August, Marshal Oudinot’s wife Eugenie de Coucy describes the journey to visit him in hospital:
“The roads were destroyed, choked with debris of wheels and horse skeletons. Ruined villages consisted of little more than a few walls, around which moved the inhabitants, clothed in rags. […] but what saddened me the most were the unmistakeable little mounds, on the top of many of which stood a small cross.” (Boudon 154)
The problem is also troubling Marshal Murat , as he writes to General Berthier:
“We are very badly off. […] You cannot imagine how the Russians leave the country when they withdraw. They leave nothing, absolutely nothing. Ils ne laissent rien, absolument rien.” (Boudon 151)
Peasant resistance, Cossack raids, and scorched earth are now part of the reality of the war in Russia, but both sides are still focused mostly on how to win the conventional war.
Napoleon is committed to an advance on Moscow and he expects Russian leadership will fight for the old capital. On August 24, the Grande Armee begins to move east from Smolensk, 400km from Moscow. It enters the city of Vyazma without a fight on the 28th. Vyazma’s 15,000 residents have nearly all left, and French troops are able to put out the fires left by the retreating Russians and salvage badly-needed food.
While his army marches ahead, Napoleon also needs to secure his rear and his vulnerable supply lines. He leaves garrisons at Smolensk, Vitebsk, and Minsk, and orders a Polish division to cover the line from Minsk to Mogilev. He also knows that he needs reinforcements, so the two reserve corps from East Prussia begin to move east. General Mathieu Dumas has put in charge of medical and supply logistics, but he and his team are overwhelmed by the task at hand. There is simply no way to properly supply the army in the field, even though the French threaten to shoot local Russian officials who don’t give them the food they demand. There is not enough flour, and even if there were there are not enough ovens to bake it in. Horses continue to starve, and even the herds of cattle the army have brought along from East Prussia are dying off. In the summer heat, there is also a serious shortage of water, so troops drink whatever they can find, which causes many to get sick. The crisis weakens combat effectiveness of all units – for example, the VI Bavarian Corps regularly has a quarter of its strength out looking for fodder for the horses.
The shortages also torture the men, as Sous-lieutenant Jean-Marie-Pierre-Guillaume Aubry de Vildé writes to his father:
“Mon cher papa, I am writing to tell you of the misery we are suffering. We have no bread and live only on meat, like wild animals. […] We continue to run after these damned Russians who run away from us as quickly as we chase them. We haven’t fought yet, but I constantly hope that happy moment will come.” Boudon 148
Meanwhile the two Russian armies continue their retreat in good order, in spite of difficult conditions and flagging morale. The heat is so oppressive officers grant special permission for the men to unbutton their tunics. One of the keys to the withdrawal is a disciplined marching order to protect the columns from attack. The vulnerable horse-drawn artillery moves in echelon. When crossing open ground, cavalry protects the columns, while light infantry provides the cover over more difficult terrain. Further afield, Cossack cavalry keeps watch and reports any sign of enemy flanking attacks. Cavalry officer Nadezhda Durova later writes that her faith in the long retreat never wavers:
“When I imagine the dreadful end of our retreat, involuntarily I sigh and become pensive. The French are a foe worthy of us, noble and courageous, but evil fate in the guise of Napoleon is leading them into Russia. Here they will lay down their heads, and their bones will be scattered and their bodies rot.” (Durova 131)
The rest of the army does get a morale boost when General Mikhail Kutuzov arrives to take overall command on August 29. Kutuzov will be made into a symbol of the Russian spirit in Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace, and still later will be portrayed as a military genius by Stalinist historiography, but in 1812 he is actually a flawed commander. The Tsar doesn’t like him and he is known for his loose morals, but Kutuzov is popular, skilled at relationship-building, and fresh off a convincing victory over the Ottomans. Lieutenant Radozhitsky sums up the feelings in his unit when they learned of Kutuzov’s arrival:
“The moment of joy was indescribable: this commander’s name produced a universal rebirth of morale among the soldiers […] a man with a Russian name, mind and heart, from a well-known aristocratic family, and famous for may exploits.” (Lieven 188)
Kutuzov’s appointment creates a complicated command structure since the two Russian armies remain under Barclay and Bagration, but both accept their new superior and his plan. Kutuzov intends to draw the Grande Armee further into Russia, and fight a series of well-chosen defensive battles along the way while building up Russia’s weak reserves. This task gets a little easier on August 27, when Tsar Alexander meets with Swedish regent Jean Bernadotte and the British ambassador. The Swedes release Russia from its promise of 40,000 men to help them conquer Norway.
The Grande Armee is still the most powerful army on earth, but hunger, disease, and the Russian People’s War are wearing it down. A reorganized Russian army under united command is slowly growing in strength and recovering its morale – and every last Russian soldier will be needed soon, since the largest and bloodiest battle of the campaign is just days away.
- Boudon, Jacques-Olivier. Napoléon et la campagne de Russie en 1812. 2021.
- Chandler, David: The Campaigns of Napoleon, Volume 1, New York 1966.
- Durova, Nadezhda. Cavalry Maiden. Journals of a Female Russian Officer in the Napoleonic Wars. 1990.
- Lieven, Dominic. Russia Against Napoleon. 2010.
- Mikaberidze, Alexander. "The Lion of the Russian Army": Life and Military Career of General Prince Peter Bagration 1765-1812. PhD Dissertation, 2003.
- 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.