Chapter 9

The southern sector – Podubna/Gorodeczna

The allies had 18,000 men and 48 guns; the Russians brought up 26,000 men and 42 guns. On 11 August Schwarzenberg advanced south from Kobryn, through the Kossenbrod defile and closed up to Gorodeczna. Reynier’s Saxons were close behind him. Tormassow had taken up a strong position on a low ridge, which commanded the few crossings of the very swampy river to his front; his left and right flanks were also covered by swampy areas. The paths across the morass at Podubna and Gorodeczna would only allow the passage of columns, six men abreast. One path was covered by the fire of twelve Russian guns, the other by thirty. The situation looked like a stalemate.

When the Saxons came up, they formed to the west of the Austrians, at Podubna. Reynier sent out patrols, who discovered an area of dead ground along the Russian left flank, in which was a forest. Even more surprising, there was a track, muddy but drivable, south from the village of Szedowa, along which cannon could pass. There were no Russian troops covering this flank at all.

Armed with this information, Reynier and Schwarzenberg rapidly formed a plan to exploit this chance. While the Austrians held the Russians in front, the Saxons were to cross the swamp and turn Tormassow’s left flank. The move began that night.

Next day, Tormassow was shocked to discover the threat to his army and at once set a complete redeployment in force. A fierce combat developed between the Russians and the Saxons, which went on all day, while Schwarzenberg bombarded the enemy from the north. The Russian artillery fire was poorly aimed and overshot the Saxons, causing relatively few casualties.

The Saxons were nevertheless hard pressed, and part of Bianchi’s division arrived at three o’clock to reinforce them. By now, Schwarzenberg could try to break through and the Regiment Colloredo Nr 33 pushed forward over the river. Finally, as night fell, Tormassow withdrew his right wing and abandoned his position; falling back south to Lutzk. His negligence had cost him dear; Russian losses were some 3,000 killed, wounded and missing. The Austrians lost 1,300 casualties, the Saxons 930. Had the Austrian commander used his initiative and supported the Saxons earlier, it is likely that Tormassow would have been very badly beaten.

Saxon Ulan Captain von Boehm reported as follows on this phase of the operations:

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Battle of Gorodeczna (podubna), 11 August 1812.

We fulfilled this task well. At Koszibrod on 10 August, and at Podubnie [Gorodeczna] two days later, we hit Tormassow hard. Our losses were 2,000 dead and wounded; the Russians lost 3,000. Later we held the field for three months in face of the far superior forces of Tormassow and Tschitchagow at the clashes of Luboml (29 September) and Rudnia (18 November).

In fact, the allies had begun their advance from Slonim on 3 August, south west with 30,000 men, looking to attack Tormassow. The 13,000 Saxons marched on their right, through Pruzany. Reynier was 50 km to the north, on a parallel course - surely too far distant for security.

For his part, Tormassow remained static at Kobryn and Antopoli (to the east), with outposts at Pinsk (in the centre of the Pripet marshes), Chomsk (General Tschaplitz, north east of Antopoli) and Malecz. Tschaplitz and the detachment in Pinsk (13,000 men in all) were to take no part in the forthcoming battle.

General Lambert, with 8,000 men, was at Pruzany, north of the swamps and on the Brest-Litowsk-Slonim road. He was surprised at Rudnia on 8 August by the Austrian advanced guard and thrown back south west on Tormassow with the loss.

The clash at Rudnia, near Kobryn, 8 August. A small village in the southern sector, east of Kobryn. A minor Austrian victory of parts of General Bianchi’s 2nd, General Trautenberg’s 1st and Frimont’s Reserve Divisions over General Lambert’s corps (5th Division) of General Tormassow’s 3rd Army of the West. The Austrians had 4,200 men; the Russians somewhat fewer. Losses were minor on both sides. This was an insignificant action, but raised allied spirits.

The clash at Gorodeczna (Podubna), 12 August. A village in the southern sector, in Grodno province, 53 km north east of Brest-Litowsk. An Austro-Saxon victory (Prince Schwarzenberg with the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Austrian Divisions and the Saxons under General Reynier) over General Tormassow’s 3rd Russian Army of the West.

The Austrians remained at Gorodeczna. Lieutenant von Wolffersdorff, of the Saxon Prinz Clemens infantry regiment, continues with his account of events:

The Russians had used up all the resources in this sandy region; the heatwave of July had now given way to very cold weather. Without good clothing and rations, the number of sick began to rise. The Austrian advance was so slow, that we had to wait for them to catch up on 8 and 9 August.

Next day, we attacked General Lambert’s advanced guard of about 8,000 men at Pruczany and pushed them back. The Austrians came up too late to help us destroy them in front of the defile of Kossebrod.

On 12 August my battalion came into action for the first time in this campaign.

On 11 August we came up to the village of Podubna and found the Russians in a very strong position on the Kobryn road, to our left, at Gorodeczna. There were only two very narrow tracks and bridges over the swamps there. Our patrols found out that the swamps on the enemy left flank were not guarded. A battalion of our light infantry took post where the road from Tscheretschowo comes south to cross the marshes. General Reynier decided to exploit this Russian omission. That night, most of the horses of the Austrian Hussar Regiment Kaiser broke their picket ropes and stampeded through our lines, causing great alarm. It seems that wolves had scared them.

At dawn on 12 August General Reynier climbed onto the straw roof of the inn in Zabin to spy out the land with his telescope. At 7 o’clock we advanced across the bridge, Reynier at the head of the cavalry of the advanced guard. Lecoq’s division followed him. This move surprised Tormassow, who soon moved troops and artillery to oppose us. Lieutenant von Kauffberg, of the Regiment Prinz Friedrich, was killed. Grenadier Battalion von Spiegel, acting as guard to our artillery, lost a lot of men.

Enemy cavalry charged our Light Infantry, but were driven off by them in short order.

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General Freiherr von Langenau, VII Corps’ chief of staff in 1812.

On the Russian side, the divisions of Kamenski Markow and Tscherbatow and Lambert’s cavalry were engaged; this was about 26,000 men against 16,000 Saxons and the Austrian cavalry of Zechmeister’s brigade. It was not until 3 o’clock in the afternoon that Bianchi’s Austrian division came into action to support us.

Now Schwarzenberg broke through on the other flank and as dusk fell, Tormassow withdrew south behind a screen of Cossacks. Reynier rode along the front of the Saxon troops and was cheered along the whole length.

My battalion had lost some killed; one officer and 20 men had been wounded, most by cannonballs.

Wolffersdorff continues:

That night was awful; all around were the groans of the wounded and dying. Next to me was a Russian with a stomach wound; his entrails were spilling out. We had him bandaged up. There was no water for anyone to drink. Next day we buried the dead. One man of my company had a ball in his thigh; it was simply cut out by the surgeon, as the man calmly smoked his pipe and drank the brandy that was given to him. At last we marched off.

Following this action, Tormassow seems to have lost his nerve; instead of utilising the good positions, which lay along the road, his rearguard abandoned them one after the other. The Saxons picked up about 400 prisoners along the route; with more cavalry, much more could have been done.

Tormassow withdrew all the way to Lutzk, some 240 km to the south, on the River Styr, destroying all the bridges behind him. Here he called in General Osten-Sacken’s corps of 8,000 men and awaited the arrival of Admiral Tschitschagoff’s Army of Moldavia, some 36,000 men, which was now able to leave the southern front against the Turks to join him in mid-September.

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Battle of Gorodeczna (podubna), 12 August 1812.

Schwarzenberg did not follow the Russians into the swamps and his two corps remained for several weeks in hutted camps in the area east of Brest-Litowsk, along the northern edge of the Pripet marshes. Here they were joined by the Polish Bug Division of 5,500 men under General Antoine Amilcar Kosinski. This formation operated on Schwarzenberg’s western flank until January 1813. It consisted of the 1st and 2nd Provisional Cavalry Regiments, the Bug Jaegers1, the 13th Infantry Regiment and some units of the Plotzk National Guard. It was dissolved in February 1813. According to the Austrian officer, Wilhelm Edler von Gabler: ‘Kosinski’s troops were without uniforms, weapons, equipment and saddlery; only the 13th Infantry Regiment was any good.’

The Austrian division of General Mohr was sent south east to Pinsk on the Pripet River, to observe the II Russian Reserve Corps of General F.F. Ertell at Moszyr, which gradually increased to a strength of 12,000 men and 22 guns.

Wolffersdorff left us some observations on his opinions of the Russian army:

The Russian army was not yet that which it became in 1813. Their line infantry fought with great bravery and did not withdraw, even from bad positions, until they were surely forced to. They held their dressing well, but once they had lost it, they had great difficulty in restoring order. Their tactics were too mechanical. Their dispositions indicated that their senior commanders and general staff were functioning well, but their middle commanders lacked practice and decision; they often failed to exploit opportunities.

They did not understand how to skirmish in open order, unlike our Sharpshooters, who could rapidly deploy from close to open order and back again. In close combat they lost more men than we Saxons even though they had better muskets and ammunition. In general, all their equipment was better than ours. Their artillery shot at very long range but with little accuracy; they had excellent gunpowder, but tended to use too large a charge, so that the balls mostly went over our heads. ‘The closer to the enemy the safer it will be from artillery fire’ was our motto.

Their artillery was also too static on the battlefield and failed to move as the tactical situation demanded. Their infantry and cavalry moved far too slowly on the battlefield.

All the military virtues which the line troops lacked, appeared among the Cossacks in profusion. Each one of them was led by the correct instincts and acted in the best interests of the entire corps. As scouts they are unequalled by any other nation and a position guarded by them can never be surprised. But they are far less courageous than other Russian soldiers. Their courage is fuelled only by hope of loot and is based on outwitting the enemy. If they meet a determined foe, even when they are in superior numbers, their bravery evaporates. If they are covering a withdrawal, they are masters of slowing the pursuit by repeated sallies.

The diary of Sergeant Vollborn, of the Infantry Regiment Prinz Clemens, contained a section on his experiences after the battle of Podubna:

Marching through the swamps of Wolhynia meant that the men were wading through water and mud all day, half undressed. The battalion pioneers went ahead under escort and cut trees to build bridges over the worst spots. Those who have not seen the spectacle of an army of half-naked soldiers, floundering through such mud will have no idea of what it looked like.

On the first day we all laughed to see how the regimental band got on; but the sutleresses were the funniest. But one gets used to all sorts of things.

It went on for days; wading along all day, bivouacking in the swamp at night, no bread since over a week, not even biscuit - only some captured Russian biscuit, which was the baked crusts of black loaves - it was awful.

Anyone who discovered one of the haystacks, which dotted the swamps, and could sleep in them was a happy man. It was a miracle that the whole army did not go down with fever, or that discipline did not collapse.

We then heard that the commander of the Regiment [Prinz] Anton had been arrested by General Lecoq, who had caught some of his regiment maurauding. If you put your hand on your heart, you know the cause of this maurauding; it was the failure of the ration supply system in this terrible piece of country.

Evidence that we had taken many prisoners was seen every day in the piles of destroyed weapons at the sides of the track. We sergeants each received fine Russian swords and discarded our sabres... In the Russian cartridge boxes we found finely made cartridges of the best vellum - made in England. What a massive difference to ours, which adopted the English pattern only in 1820, and even then without vellum paper.

At the end of August, Vollborn’s regiment reached the River Styr and the pursuit of the Russians ended:

During our time on the Styr we saw the second, and final, public execution. Two soldiers, who had slept on guard duty, were made to run the gauntlet. Apart from this, discipline was rapidly restored once we were able to set up orderly, hutted camps again. The whole secret is: regular supply of rations. The supply organization was solely to blame for the lack of clothing resupply, which they ought to have arranged at least as far as Wlodawka on the Bug. We were now all in rags; everyone was cutting pieces from their greatcoats to patch elbows and knees. The men often had no breeches and gaiters any more; they wore shoes and boots taken from peasants and prisoners, and self-made trousers cut from peasant smocks. My own costume consisted of homemade green trousers, gaiters and a dark grey overcoat, reaching to mid-thigh.

Following the battle of Podubna, the Saxon corps took up quarters north of the Pripet marshes, between the Austrians to the east and the Polish Bug Division. Von Wolffersdorff’s regiment was initially around the Kobryn area, but on 16 August they moved westwards to Brest-Litowsk on the River Bug.

In the midst of the horrors of war, there were occasional, almost incredible, islands of peace and tranquillity - at least in the southern sector - as this account illustrates:

One battalion of the Regiment Prinz Clemens was in the town itself, Lieutenant von Goeckel, myself and some men were quartered in the Ursuliner Nunnery, with the administrator’s family. That fine evening we sat out in the garden under a large fruit tree and drank tea with a wonderful arak. The battalion choir was nearby and sang Saxon folksongs. The administrator’s wife had a beautiful, clear voice and he accompanied her on the mandoline... On 26 August we were attached to the Austrian Colonel Soden for a reconnaissance south east to Rudnia.2 Next day we pushed the Russian rearguard back to Macewo. The area was filled with lakes and streams; the roads were the usual log tracks. We advanced as far south as the village of Szazk,3 where we stayed three days. The maps and the inhabitants told us that the entire surrounding area was impenetrable. We pushed on south to Luboml, where we clashed with the enemy. The corps then pushed on south to Turijsk, where we took up a position along the Turija River. It was here that our General Lecoq received the commander’s cross of the Order of Heinrich. We also heard that the Army of the Moldau, of five divisions under generals Langeron, Bulatow, Woinow, Sabanjew and Essen was advancing northwards, up the left bank of the Dnjestr on us to support Tormassow. The Army of the Moldau could be on us by early September. Our further advances were thus cancelled and we restricted ourselves to frequent patrols to our front and flanks. The Saxon troops now went into hutted camps, the 1st Division at Kiselin,4 the 2nd at Maskowicze,4 an hour north of Turijsk. Kosinski’s Polish division was at Pawlowicze4 to the west of the Saxons.

Jean-Louis-Ebenezer Reynier, Commander VII Corps

Born on 14 January 1771 in Lausanne (Switzerland), in May 1790 Reynier was a pupil in the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées in Paris, an engineering school. He entered military service in September 1792 as a volunteer gunner and was posted next day, but was soon recalled to Paris to work on the fortifications. His career in the staff soon began, and he served at the battle of Jemappes, the siege of Maastricht and at the battle of Neerwinden.

In June 1794 Reynier was nominated General de Brigade, but refused to accept on the grounds that he was too young. Nevertheless, he was promoted to acting general in November in Macdonald’s division and this was confirmed in January 1795. He travelled widely, serving in the conquest of Holland, occupying Gozo off Malta and fighting in the battle of the Pyramids in Egypt, later becoming Governor of Charquieh province in Egypt. In January 1799 he went on the expedition to Syria and was at the capitulation of Fort El Arish on 20 February. At the battle of Alexandria on 21 March 1801 Reynier openly opposed General Menou and was arrested by General Destaing and sent back to France on a ship called Le Lodi. He landed at Nice on 28 June. He then published a book on the Egyptian campaign which was critical of Menou; this was siezed on the orders of the First Consul.

On 5 May 1802 Reynier fought a duel with Destaing in Paris, killed him and was exiled from the city. He entered the service of the Italian Republic and commanded troops successfully in many exploits, for which he became a Grand Officer of the Legion d’Honneur.

Further important commands ensued, including taking over the French army in Calabria in place of Massena in 1807, and taking command of the 2e Division of the Armée d’Espagne in 1809. In May 1811 Reynier was created a Count; in June he became second in command to Marmont of the Armée de Portugal. On 23 January 1812 he was called to the Grand Armée in Germany and given command of the VII (Saxon) Corps; he fought on the southern flank together with Schwarzenberg’s Austrians at Gorodetchno, Wolkowysk and other clashes.

Reynier received the Grand Cross of the Order of the Two Sicilies and was created Commander of the Order of St Heinrich of Saxony. On 3 April he was also awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of the Reunion. His corps fought at Bautzen, Reichenbach, Gross-Beeren, Dennewitz and lifted the siege of Wittenberg on 12 October. His remaining Saxons went over to the enemy on 18 October at Leipzig; he was captured after the battle and returned to France on 12 February 1814. He died in Paris on 27 February.

Austrian headquarters was now at Kowelj,4 later in Goloby,4 in order to cover the left flank of the Saxon corps and to maintain contact with the main body of the Grande Armée. [now nearing Borodino].

The Russians had now withdrawn south to Luzk and had taken up fortified positions behind the River Styr; west of Lutzk was General Lambert’s corps, which extended south west along the upper reaches of the river to include the town of Berestezko, on the border with Galicia.

Horses of the Italian Dragoons in bivouac. Faber du Four.

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We built our huts on some high ground, taking materials for them from the surrounding villages; in this process some of the Russian houses were completely demolished. Each battalion built a large wooden barn to serve as an inn and social centre, in which our sutleresses did brisk business.

That which we needed, and could not draw from our stores, we took from the surrounding areas. Sometimes we were lucky enough to find dry straw or a smoked ham, which was then shared out in our ‘inn’. There was always a good supply of excellent brandy and the Austrian sutleresses brought in Hungarian wines. Generally we closed our inn (which we christened ‘Eilenburg’ after our garrison town in Saxony) at 11 o’clock at night. The officers and men then went off to their huts and the sutleresses went to bed under their carts, draping sheets of canvas to form rooms there.

This type of warfare meant that we were supported at the cost of the country, and Wolhynia offered us goods in abundance. The country was rich in grain and fruit, the lush meadows supported plenty of cattle and the gardens, protected from the east winds, were full of all sorts of fruit and vegetables. The ponds were full of fish, the farms had plenty of poultry and the cellars were full of brandy, which, due to the ban on trade, had been building up for years.

Then comes a side-swipe at the French methods of treating the assets of the country in which they were operating:

Despite all these assets, the French commissars managed to plunder most of it bare and to ensure that almost none of it found its way to their own troops – or to any others.

It was noticeable that the local Jewish merchants always managed to undercut the army sutleresses in price.

Thus it was that we had to mount regular requisitioning expeditions. I was sent out on one on 15 September, with 60 men, to a village three hours distant, to requisition horses and rations.

We set off at dawn, making a wide detour through the meadows in order to escape being seen; we then passed through some woods to come out in a clearing containing several paddocks with horses grazing in them. This was the stud farm of a rich landowner.

The Jew, whom we had brought along as a guide suddenly vanished and we had to find our own way, but finally we found our village, by a lake in the middle of the forest. We found plenty of supplies of bread, wild honey and cattle, as well as traces that Cossacks had also been here.

I kept my men together, gathered up quickly what we needed and set out sentries to avoid being surprised. Half an hour later, one of my sentries came running back with the news that enemy cavalry was approaching from the next village and could be here in thirty minutes.

I sent my wagons off as fast as they could go; we hid ourselves behind the houses... Then I saw three Cossacks appear in the distance and we heard the rattle and clatter of a large body of cavalry behind them. We stayed under cover; I had to be prepared to fight off an attack by superior numbers. Finally the first shots rang out, echoing ten times as loudly in the surrounding trees. We formed up to do our duty, and after about ten minutes of musketry, fifty Cossacks rode away; our casualties were very light, there was just one man hit in the thigh, but he could still march.

In Kiselin we received a long-awaited shipment of new clothing, but it didn’t help much, as the cloth was damp and rotting from the long journey. Part of the shipment had been taken by the Cossacks.5

The regular attrition of operations, which steadily ground down the armies even in ‘quiet’ periods, is mentioned here.

The frequent patrols that we sent out to the Styr often caused us casualties. On 7 September Lieutenant of Engineers, Geise, was sent off with an escort of Lieutenant von Mangold and fifteen hussars to scout the river bank; they were captured. The same fate befell a patrol of the Austrian Hussar Regiment Kaiser at the same spot next day. They lost two officers and 37 horses. After these events, only strong patrols were sent out.

Russian General Ertell now attacked Austrian General Mohr with superior force and pushed him back to Cubieszow; Mohr lost some hundreds of men.

Napoleon’s entry into Moscow was a watershed in our fortunes. From early September, the Russian pressure against us grew.

Obviously the entry into the Russian capital was not, of itself, a trigger in this event; it merely occurred at the same time as the Russian mobilisation efforts began to deliver more troops and guns to the front line formations.

The action of Schwarzenberg in deploying his forces deep into the Pripet marshes, with miles of fragile defiles behind them, is difficult to understand. It would have been more advisable to remain on the northern edge of this major obstacle, with regular patrolling activity forward into the swamps. The enemy would then have had to cope with the difficulties of advancing through the miles of deadly morasses. As we shall see, when the allies were forced to withdraw, the exercise was a nightmare.

Notes

1

The same unit that had excited Napoleon’s ire in Wilna on 7 July.

2

Ratno.

3

Now Sack, about 90 km south of Brest.

4

I have been unable to locate these villages.

5

In December, when it was very cold, cloth was requisitioned in Rozana in order to have greatcoats and trousers made for the men, who were running around in rags. They had to buy the items at one Thaler each, because they were not official issue items.

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