Chapter 8

The northern flank – Polotzk

In mid-July, Barclay de Tolly detached Wittgenstein’s I Corps to cover the road to St Petersburg at Polotzk, on the north bank of the River Duena. Napoleon sent Oudinot’s II Corps after him. There followed a series of sharp defeats for Oudinot from 28 July to 2 August. Wittgenstein had achieved local superiority.

Oudinot sent a call for help; the Emperor, still chasing after Barclay, but concerned that his lines of communication might be cut, ordered Saint-Cyr’s Bavarians to reinforce the hard-pressed Oudinot.

The VI Corps, the Bavarians, lost two cavalry regiments on 12 April, at Napoleon’s command. These cavalry regiments were sent to join the 17th Light Cavalry Brigade of General Jean-Baptiste Dommanget, in Grouchy’s III Cavalry Corps. On 14 July the Bavarians were reviewed by the Emperor at Wilna. He was so pleased with the remaining four regiments (3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th Chevaulegers under General Graf von Preysing-Moos) that he took them and Captain Widemann’s horse artillery battery and sent them off to the Reserve Cavalry as well. Thus the Bavarians were without any cavalry for the whole campaign; a great tactical disadvantage. As Preysing-Moos wrote in his diary:

When we reached Pokoinje on 1st July, there was an absolute lack of every sort of supplies. We crossed the Niemen next day at Gogi. As it had been raining heavily for several days, the roads (inadequate at the best of times) were transformed into extended swamps, through which we moved the guns and vehicles only with the greatest effort and trouble. Even the slightest hillock became a major obstacle, on which many horses collapsed. From now on until we reached Wilna, we lost hundreds of horses every day.

At midday on the 8th [July] Pino’s 15th Italian Division passed us; they were in such a bad state, that they left some hundreds of men dead on the sides of the road from starvation and exhaustion.

On 14th [July] we, and several other corps, were reviewed by Emperor Napoleon, who was on a hill just this side of Wilna. The army was perhaps the finest, mightiest and best-organized army that had been gathered together at one spot. He was most impressed with our cavalry regiments; but this was to have drastic consequences. The next day I was ordered to leave VI Corps and to join up with the Imperial Guard.

I left my whole herd of cattle and all unnecessary baggage with the corps and set off for my new duty station, without a war commissar, without any money and without any supplies of clothing, as I thought that I would shortly return to my corps.

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Detail of the cavalry action at Borodino. A unit commander of the Russian Cuirassier Guards, with his attendant trumpeter close behind him. Photographed from the great painting in the Rotunda museum in Moscow.

On 25 July Preysing’s division was attached to Montbrun’s II Cavalry Corps and thus was destined for Borodino and all the horrors of the retreat.

Another Bavarian eyewitness was Captain Maillinger1 who, while admiring Saint-Cyr’s undoubted military talents, sheds less flattering light on the marshal’s personality. On 1 April 1812 Saint-Cyr took command of the VI Corps; following the wounding of Marshal Oudinot in the first battle of Polotzk on 18 August, Saint-Cyr assumed command of both corps. Relationships with the Bavarian commanders were extremely strained from the beginning and were to get much worse.

Maillinger described Saint-Cyr as avaricious, greedy and vindictive. When supplies of food and wine were found in the Jesuit monastery in Polotzk, he confiscated them for his own use instead of allowing them to be used for the starving sick and wounded in the field hospital. When Maillinger discovered some supplies in the Polotzk area one day, he passed some of them to the field hospital; Saint-Cyr learned of this and was most enraged.

Saint-Cyr’s chief of staff was Colonel Count Philippe François d’Albignac, a French officer thrown out of the service of the Kingdom of Westphalia in 1810 for misappropriation of funds and foisted off onto Saint-Cyr by the Emperor early in 1812. Saint-Cyr cordially hated d’Albignac and suspected him of theft and almost any other crime which occurred in or near his headquarters, including the theft of some of his cash.

From Wilna, the VI Corps marched through Danielowice on 20 July to Globukoje two days later. Here a hospital was set up for the 600 sick and soldiers who had no shoes.

At this point, Napoleon’s main body was south of the Duena, in the area between Witebsk (on that river), Minsk and Orscha, half way between Minsk and Smolensk. Exhaustion had caused so much straggling that a pause in the advance was needed. Some interpret this as being a cunning move on Napoleon’s part to ‘allow’ Barclay and Bagration to concentrate their two armies, something he had almost wrecked his own force trying to prevent since mid-June. The superiority of the Cossacks in maintaining a protective cavalry screen around their rearguard, and their proven ability to inflict repeated defeats on the allied cavalry undoubtedly added to the new-found caution shown by the Grande Armée.

Wittgenstein had taken up a position behind the River Duena between Duenaburg and the abandoned camp at Drissa on 24 July. His task was to block any thrust on St Petersburg and to act as a link with the Russian forces in Riga. He then moved eastwards on his own initiative for about 40 km to intercept Oudinot’s II Corps as it probed north from Polotzk, towards the Russian summer capital. They met at Kliastitzy.

The first clash at Kliastitzy, 28 July. A village in the central sector. 35 km north of Polotzk, on the River Swolna. A Russian victory of General Kulniev’s Advanced Guard (one squadron of the Life Guard Hussars, the Grodno Hussars and the Cossack Pulk of Platow IV) and the 5th Division, over Legrand’s 6th Division and Corbineau’s 6th Cavalry Brigade. This was the opening action on the Polotzk front. The light cavalry of Oudinot’s II Corps groped towards Wittgenstein’s Russians - and met with a bloody repulse. The 7th and 20th Chasseurs à Cheval lost 167 prisoners.

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1st Polotzk 16 – 18 August. After seven minor defeats at Russian hands, Oudinot’s II Corps was joined by the Bavarian VI Corps under General Gouvion Saint-Cyr, to confront Wittgenstein’s I Corps. After a hard fight, Wittgenstein withdrew to the north, still blocking any thrust at St Petersburg. The Franco-Bavarians lost some 6,000; Marshal Oudinot was wounded; Bavarian generals Deroy and Siebein were killed. The Russians lost 5,500 casualties, including generals Berg, Hamen and Kazatchkowski, who were wounded. There followed relative quiet until the 2nd Battle of Polotzk on 18 October. In this period the Franco-Bavarians dwindled rapidly away due to starvation and sickness. This map is after Bogdanovich.

The second clash at Kliastitzy, 30/31 July – 1 August. Also called Oboarszina. A town in the central sector. Another Russian victory; the 5th Cavalry Brigade, 5th and 14th Infantry Divisions of Wittgenstein’s Corps over Legrand’s 6th Division and the 5th Light Cavalry Brigade of Oudinot’s II Corps. This action in close country lasted over three days, as the opposing sides sought to gain the upper hand. Effective Russian artillery fire held the French in check. Kulniev was killed leading one of the last Russian charges. Following this check, Oudinot withdrew south to Polotzk on the River Duena.

The clash at Golovchtitzy, 2 August. A village north of Polotzk, near the River Drissa. A successful Russian ambush by General Berg’s 5th Division, over General Legrand’s 6th, Verdier’s 8th and Merle’s 9th Divisions. Another French probe north from Polotzk had been ambushed and repulsed. The French had 9,000 men in the action and lost some 5,000; the Russians had some 13,000 and lost about 4,000 casualties.

On 31 July the Bavarians were at Beschenkowitschi, on the left bank of the Duena; here they stayed until 4 August, when they received orders to undertake a forced march to Polotzk to support Oudinot’s II Corps. ‘Dysentery had caused great damage to the army and there was still no food to be found’, as the Bavarian Maillinger recorded. A Bavarian sergeant wrote that:

For thirty-three days we have had no bread; on the 34th we received a little so that each loaf had to be shared among twelve men. The only water we had was that which we scooped out of the river; brackish and alive with insects.

Gouvion-Saint-Cyr and the Bavarians arrived in Polotzk on 7 August. Maillinger gave this description of the place:

Polotzk is the oldest town in White Russia, with some 400 houses and 2,000 inhabitants. There are also five abbeys including that of the Jesuits, which was the largest and finest. It was here that Marshals Oudinot and Saint-Cyr set up their headquarters. Most of the inhabitants were Jews who carried on a not inconsiderable trade with Riga. From the remaining walls and deep ditches behind the Jesuit abbey and on the far side of the Malo Polotzk suburb, it is clear that the town had once been very well defended.

General Deroy, senior Bavarian officer of VI Corps, wrote the following letter to King Maximilian in Munich from his headquarters in Balaubanszyzna, describing the parlous state of his command.

Food supply is very bad; there is no bread and we have no time to bake any. There is much sickness due to the bad weather and the dreadful diet of meat, which must be eaten without bread or salt. These factors depopulate our columns. The lack of money puts officers and men into a desperate state. Shoes, shirts, tousers, gaiters are in tatters and hang in rags from the men; many men march barefoot. It is no wonder that military discipline has suffered under these conditions and that morale is very low.

The clash at Swolna, 11 August. A town in the northern sector. Russian victory of General d’Auvray (standing in as commander of Wittgenstein’s I Corps) with Berg’s 5th, Sasanov’s 14th Divisions, over Verdier’s 8th Infantry and Doumerc’s 3rd Cuirassier Divisions. Again Oudinot’s II Corps, with 9,000 men, were bested by the Russians who managed to bring 20,000 onto the battlefield. Oudinot lost 1,200 killed and wounded and 300 captured; he withdrew again into Polotzk. The Russians lost 800 casualties.

When the Bavarians arrived at Polotsk on 15 August, they went into bivouac to the east of the town, on the left bank of the Polota stream, which bisects the battlefield. It was 1.5 metres deep, narrow, fast-flowing and set in a deep and winding cleft.

Maillinger was now living in the partially destroyed post office in Gamselewo, a village near Polotzk, on the road to Sebesch and Duenaburg. He records that on the evening of 12 August:

Napoleon’s ADC, Hautpoul arrived with despatches for General Saint-Cyr. He came to me and asked me to have a meal prepared for him and to find him a spot to sleep for a few hours as he had had neither rest nor food for some days. I gave him what I had; a good soup, some mutton and a glass of good Schnaps and showed him to a corner where there was a heap of half rotten straw on which a couple of dozen men had already died. He fell upon it at once and asked me to wake him at 3 o’clock in the morning.

When I woke him next morning, with a cup of coffee cooked in Schnaps - which we often did, because the water was so bad - he couldn’t thank me enough. He then set off to return to Smolensk.

Next day headquarters was moved to a fine castle in the village of Bjelaja; I had some flour with me and the nobleman who owned the place gave me some more. One of my company, Enderlein, was a good baker, so I had bread baked for the company. Every man received half a loaf; as there was plenty of meat and Schnaps, we were very comfortable on the 13th and 14th.

Next day, at 10 o‘clock in the morning, we were attacked by Russian light cavalry and Cossacks; after exchanging some shots with us, they withdrew into the forest. At 4 o’clock that afternoon a more serious assault was launched on the castle; probably the owner had told Wittgenstein’s men that the enemy commander was in his house.

Saint-Cyr made a withdrawal back into Polotzk with minor loss - apart from the next ration of bread that had to be abandoned in the ovens.

There followed the first battle of Polotzk. The II Corps had entered Russia with 30,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry; on the eve of this battle there were only 11,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry left. Of the Bavarians, only 10,000 were now fit for duty.

The first battle of Polotzk, 16 – 18 August. A town in northern Russia on the River Dwina, 95 km north west of Witebsk. A drawn battle between Oudinot’s II and Gouvion Saint-Cyr’s VI (Bavarian) Corps and Wittgenstein’s I Corps, 1st Russian Army of the West. The combined allied corps totalled 18,000 men with 120 guns; Wittgenstein now had 22,000 men and 135 guns; the scales were beginning to tip in the Russians’ favour.

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The first battle of Polotzk on 16 August. This plate shows the western half of the conflict, with Bavarian troops of the VI Corps in the foreground right, Bavarian artillery and Swiss grenadiers to the left. The River Duena crosses the plate. Author’s collection.

Wittgenstein advanced south down the road from Newel and at 8 o’clock on the morning of 17 August he launched an attack on the allied right flank, which was Wrede’s division. The combat centred on possession of the village of Spas, in which were a stone church and a Jesuit monastery, both of which formed good defensive positions. Oudinot’s conduct of the battle was unimaginative; the Russians made little headway and fell back into the woods in the evening. Deroy’s 19th Division was in the second line, behind the 20th, and was not used, suffering only slight losses this day.

Deroy, eager for action, asked to be allowed to replace Wrede’s battered command. St-Cyr agreed and the change over took place at dawn on 18 August. St-Cyr now convinced Oudinot to mount a counter-attack at four in the afternoon.

Nicolas-Charles Oudinot, Duc de Reggio, Commander II Corps

Oudinot enjoyed the dubious distinctions of being one of the most decorated, and the most often wounded, of Napoleon’s marshals. Born on 25 April 1767 in Bar-le-Duc (Meuse) as the son of a brewer, he entered military service in June 1784 as a private. During his long career he was promoted and wounded many times: at Hagenau in 1793, at Trier in 1794 and again at Neckarau (Mannheim) in 1795. In action at Ingolstadt on 11 September 1796 he was wounded five times.

Oudinot was promoted to General de Division in 1799, and was appointed Inspector General of Cavalry at Bruges in late 1801; an odd appointment for an infantryman. In March 1805 he was awarded the Grande Aigle of the Legion d’Honneur. He was appointed to command the 1ère Division (of combined grenadier battalions) in Lannes’s V Corps of the Grande Armée in August 1805, and was the victor at the clash at Wertingen before being wounded again at Hollabrunn. Due to the effects of this wound, Napoleon decided to split the command of his division at Austerlitz. Oudinot nevertheless continued to fight with his troops, breaking a leg in a fall from a horse in 1807 and going on to receive numerous annuities and honours for his trouble. In July 1808 he was created a count of the Empire, and in April 1810 he was created the Duc de Reggio.

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Marshal Charles Oudinot, commander of the II Corps, wounded in the first battle of Polotzk.

For the 1812 campaign Oudinot became commander of the II Corps of the Grande Armée in Russia. He fought at Oboarszina (Kliastitzy), was wounded at the first battle of Polotzk and handed over command to Gouvion St-Cyr until October. He also fought at Borisov, was wounded at the Beresina on 28 November; wounded again on 30 November and was replaced by Victor on 8 December.

After action in the campaigns of 1813 and 1814, he became Minister of State in May 1814. A week later he was appointed commander of the Corps Royal des Grenadiers et Chasseurs à Pied de France. In June he received a knighthood in the Order of St Louis; two days later he was created a Peer of France.

In the Hundred Days, on 24 March 1815, he opposed the proclamation of the Empire at Metz, but was forced to leave the city due to the mutiny of the garrison against him. Napoleon called him to Paris on 26 March but he refused to join the Emperor and went into exile.

Following the second restoration Oudinot was showered with honours. On 3 May 1816 he received the Grand Cross of the Order of St Louis; in 1820 he became a knight in the Order of St Espirit. On 12 February 1832 he was appointed to command the I Corps of the army in the war with Spain, and on 29 July he became Governor of Madrid and commander in chief of Extremadura, Leon, New Castile, Salamanca and Segovia. For his services he received the Grand Cross of the Order of Charles III of Spain. Oudinot was made responsible for the disbandment of the Royal Guard on 11 August 1830, during the revolution. On 21 October 1842 he was appointed Governor of Les Invalides. He was wounded in action no less than 22 times in his life, but died on 13 September 1847 in Les Invalides.

The 19th Division, on the right wing, was to advance through Spas village. Legrand’s 6th Division (II Corps) was in the centre and would move forward to Prismenitza and Verdier’s 8th Division was on the left wing, resting on the Duena. His task was to advance along the road towards Sebesch. Up to midday all was quiet and Oudinot transferred his train to the south bank of the river to get it out of harm’s way, should the day go against him.

At 4 o’clock the 19th Division crossed the Polota stream at spots concealed from Russian view, east of Spas, and formed up beside the village. Wrede’s men moved out of the place and Deroy’s 19th Division took their place. Wrede now opened the action by advancing to push the enemy outposts back; this attack was supported by thirty-four guns. The Russians then rapidly brought up their own artillery in much greater strength.

To join the combat line, Deroy’s men had to file out of the gates of Spas then march to the right to form line of battle, and this under effective enemy artillery fire. Bavarian casualties were heavy and the appearance of a Russian force on their right flank caused them to falter. At this point, General von Raglovich (commanding the 2nd Brigade, 19th Division) was wounded; the Bavarians fell back. Deroy soon rallied them, however, and drove off the Russians.

By now, Legrand’s 6th Division had been driven out of Prismenitza; his men streamed back onto the Bavarians and the whole mass rolled back to Spas. Russian artillery fire swept through the allied crowds and soon sergeants were commanding companies, as all the officers had been killed or wounded. The allies rallied; Legrand and Wrede advanced again, but the former’s division was once more driven back, leaving the Bavarians alone. Despite this, they re-took Prismenitza. Wittgenstein decided that he would have to withdraw; to cover this movement, he threw his entire cavalry at Verdier’s 8th Division on the allied left wing. Concealed by the great clouds of gunsmoke, the Russians burst onto the surprised II Corps, spreading panic. The Riga Dragoons and the Grodno Hussars took fifteen guns and advanced right up to the walls of the town. Corbineau’s 6th Light Cavalry Brigade was also swept away.

A counter-attack by the Bavarian General Siebein restored the position and retook all but two of the artillery pieces. The Russians withdrew unmolested; the exhausted allies were too tired to pursue them. This had been one of the bloodiest battles ever fought by the Bavarians.

Marshal Oudinot (Duke of Reggio and commander of II Corps) was badly wounded by a canister ball in the shoulder in this action and General Gouvion Saint-Cyr took command of both allied corps. It was due to his energetic conduct that Wittgenstein was held in check until late September. The allies maintained their hold on Polotzk. General von Deroy, commander, 19th Division, was mortally wounded, dying on the night of 23 August.

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Shako of an officer, Voltigeur company, 2nd Swiss Infantry Regiment. All fittings gilt, French cockade. Author’s collection.

After the battle, Maillinger did what he could to help the numerous wounded, including feeding them with food from Saint-Cyr’s store. The general’s ADC reported this to Saint-Cyr and the enraged general vented his spleen on the lowly captain, because he had ‘wasted his rations’. Maillinger gives a further picture of the conditions under which the Bavarians now lived:

There was scarcely ever any bread, but we did have some meat. As there was no salt, we used gunpowder to season the soup. The water was bad and undrinkable, as all the wells and streams were tainted with the corpses of men and horses.

Sergeant Schrafel2 recorded that he and others drank water ‘from a large puddle, which looked like brown paint and was full of countless tiny worms.’ The shortage of food around Polotzk was now so acute, that foraging parties sometimes fought each other when anything edible was found. Even the Russians withdrew their garrison out of Polotzk in the summer, due to the fevers, which were caused by the mosquitoes in the numerous swamps in the area. All the houses of the town were filled with the sick and dying.

Following this battle, Wittgenstein remained quiet, rebuilding his forces in preparation for the second battle and watching his enemies dwindle away.

Notes

1

Maillinger was from the 1st Infantry Regiment König.

2

Schrafel was from the 5th Infantry Regiment, Bavarian Army.

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A group of Cossacks with their ponies and the typical lances.

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