The Russian nobility is worried - will the Godless Frenchmen invading the empire free the serfs and bring revolution to the land of Orthodox Christianity? The Tsar himself now leaves the army at the urging of his sister, and returns to the old capital. He calls upon the entire nation – noble, cleric and serf, to give no quarter and resist. The earth will be scorched, and the totalization of the Patriotic War of 1812 has begun. https://youtu.be/MK7bfF7fEq8
The Defense of Riga
The Russian 1st Western Army continues its retreat in the face of the advancing Grande Armee: it has left the fortified camp at Drissa and reaches POlotsk on July 18, with Napoleon’s main army group close behind. Barclay hopes he can make a stand at Vitebsk to stiffen morale and give a chance for Prince Bagration’s 2nd Western Army to pass through Mogilev and join him, but Davout’s corps is rushing to cut off the Prince’s escape route.
Bagration gets a little help from French infighting. Napoleon is furious that his brother Jerome didn’t catch up with Bagration near Minsk, so he puts his brother under Davout’s command. King Jerome finds out from Davout rather than the Emperor himself on July 16. Jerome views the demotion as an insult to his honor, so he abruptly leaves the army and returns to Westphalia.
In the north, Marshal Macdonald’s X Corps is on the move towards Riga, a naval base and port of entry for British supplies to Russia. On July 16, a Royal Navy squadron under Admiral Byam Martin arrives off the coast to support the Russians, but can do little more than send encouraging words. The 30,000 French-led forces include Bavarians, Westphalians, Poles, and the Preussische Hilfskorps, the Prussian Auxiliary Corps Napoleon had forced the Prussian King to send. Many of its officers and men are not keen on helping the French they had fought just a few years before, and some emphasize these feelings in later memoirs:
“We Prussians did not follow the loud calls of Napoleon, we followed far more the irresistible will of our hard-pressed King.” (Holzhausen 63)
The 18,000-strong Russian garrison of Riga also includes Prussian officers who have chosen to fight against Napoleon – but its fortifications are outdated and less than half of its 585 guns can even fire. The first clash occurs at Eckau on July 19. The Russians send 3500 men to block the Prussian advance, but Prussians defeat the Russians, who retreat to Dahlenkirchen. On the 22nd, Riga’s Commander General I.N. Essen, orders the burning of several suburbs of the city to deny their use to the enemy, and two days later the Prussians and French lay siege. The siege of Riga is an unusual chapter of the 1812 campaign. Macdonald doesn’t have enough men to cover his assigned 120km front along the Dvina river and close the siege ring around Riga, so the Russians are able to bring reinforcements from Finland after they sign a peace treaty with Sweden on July 17. Russian Army General Friedrich von Löwis leads two sallies in August, and they’re able to push back the Prussians to the point where the French siege engines are in danger of being captured, but the Prussians eventually force them back into the city. When British ships appear off Dantzig, the French are forced to further weaken their forces at Riga.
Eventually the Prussians and Russians also come to an informal agreement to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, and to treat prisoners well. After another failed Russian sortie in September, the siege devolves into an impasse for the rest of the campaign, and the Prussians spend much of their time in camp playing cards and singing songs.
As the Prussians and French settle down to a somewhat comfortable siege at Riga in July, the rest of the Grande Armee’s men and horses are hungry and desperate.
The Achilles’ heel of Napoleon’s army is logistics and supply. The sheer number of men and horses, and the lack of roads, infrastructure, long supply lines, and lack of local food production in the western Russian empire make the campaign a quartermaster’s nightmare even before it begins. As the army was gathered in the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, food was already so scarce soldiers simply took it from local peasants, as Wuertemberg soldier Jakob Walter recalls:
“Day by day, the privations and hunger increased. Despite its orders, the regiment was obliged to carry out requisitions and slaughter livestock so the men could have a bit of meat to improve their rations of potatoes seasoned with sand […] bread was rare and there was none to be bought.” (rey 60)
The men even harvest unripe rye, and feed their horses the thatched rooves of local Polish homes. About 60,000 soldiers are sick when the army finally crosses into Russia, and by early July there are already about 30,000 deserters roaming the countryside (Rey 85 and Zamoyski) Napoleon orders deserters shot, and a Polish cavalry lieutenant reports other draconian punishments:
“The guilty man would be completely stripped and tied by his hands and feet in a square or street, whereupon two troopers were ordered out of the ranks to lash and cut him with whips until the skin peeled off him and he looked like a skeleton […] but even this did not help [to stop desertions].” (Zamoyski)
The army’s European horses are not used to the muddy roads, lack of fodder, and summer cold snaps. By some estimates, up to 40,000 cavalry and draft horses perish in the June 30 storm alone (Zamoyski), which makes the supply situation worse, which leads to even more looting. Polish peasants wryly joke about their “liberators”: “The Frenchman came to remove our fetters but he took our boots too.” (Zamoyski)
The Russian scorched earth policy also deprives the Grande Armee. Just like at Vilna and Riga, in the garrison town of BorIsov Colonel Gresser puts the torch to anything of value as Davout approaches on July 13. He orders the destruction of 1960 quarters of flour, 183 quarters of groats, 2345 quarters straw, and 19,500 poods of hay. The troops also toss 100 pounds of gunpowder in the BerezinA river, destroy 16 cannons and wreck the bridge over the BerezinA – an act that will have dramatic consequences later in the campaign. (Mikaberidze)
The scorched earth policy is just one sign that this war will be more violent and total than those that came before – for the Tsar has called for the entire nation to fight.
The Patriotic War - Отечественная война
On the Russian side, one issue troubling leaders is morale. Barclay told the troops they would finally fight at Drissa, and the renewed retreat causes tongues to wag. Artillery Lieutenant RadozhItsky overhears the concerns of his gunners: “Obviously the villain [Napoleon] must be very strong; just look at how much we are giving him for free, almost the whole of Poland.” (Lieven 154)
Russian civilians are also worried, especially nobles who own serfs and fear the French might support an uprising. Anna KonovnItsyna writes to her husband Piotr, a general with the 1st Western Army:
“Our serfs are all downcast, they’re all afraid of the French. Today quite a few came to see me and asked if I had news of you; I tried to reassure them as much as I could and told them you’d never let the French through. […] I am not afraid for myself, God will not abandon us. If only you come out of this alive. May Christ be with you. да пребудет с тобой господь.” GaspOd (Rey 105)
The Tsar is under pressure from his advisors and his sister Catherine to deal with the political crisis and leave the warfighting to his generals. Alexander finally agrees, leaves the army, and turns his attention to the war effort. He has printing presses set up to print leaflets to encourage the Grande Armee’s German and Italian-speaking troops to desert before preparing two manifestos that will change the very nature of the war his empire is fighting. In the first manifesto, the Tsar calls on Russians of all classes and creeds to fight the enemy by any means necessary:
“Today we call on our loyal subjects, of all orders and all religious and civil statuses, and call on them to oppose the designs and attacks of the enemy in a unanimous and general uprising. […] Nobles! You have always been the saviors of the fatherland. Holy Synod and clergy! With your ardent prayers you have always called God’s grace upon the head of Russia. Russian people! Brave descendants of brave Slavs! You have broken the teeth of lions and tigers who have attacked you more than once. Unite! With the cross in your hearts and weapons in your hands, no human power can defeat you.” (Rey 107)
In the second manifesto, the Tsar announces he will come to Moscow to collect funds for the war and to raise the national militia. The nation in arms, the scorched earth policy, and partisan warfare with peasant help are some of the reasons why the 1812 campaign in Russia is an important step in the totalizing process of modern war. Not all peasants patriotically heed the Tsar’s call though, as there are dozens of local uprisings across the empire in 1812. The war will be used as foundational event in the creation of modern Russian nationalism, and the reason it’s known as the otechestvennaya voina the Patriotic War. The Second World War will later be called the Great Patriotic War.
Just a few weeks after the campaign has begun, it is quickly turning into an all-out war: the men of the Grande Armee are ruthless in their desperation and hunger, and the Tsar has called on the Russian nation to rise up, and his army is torching what it can as it retreats. All eyes are now on the provincial town of Mogilev as both Davout and Bagration force march their exhausted men towards it – whoever gets their first might tip the balance of the Patriotic War.
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