Chapter 10

The central sector – the battle of Smolensk

‘Here I remain. Let us rally our forces. The campaign of 1812 is at an end.’

The chase of the 1 st and 2nd Russian Armies of the West by the main body went on to Smolensk, where, on 16 August, the armies of Barclay de Tolly and Bagration finally united. Napoleon, expecting a battle, seemed to want to halt for the year. Murat advised advancing further; the Emperor responded: ‘In 1813 I shall be at Moscow; in ‘14 at St Petersburg. This war will last three years.’ But next day, just prior to the battle of Smolensk, he said:

Russia cannot continue this sacrifice of her towns. Alexander can only begin negotiations after there has been a major battle. No blood has yet been spilled. Even if I have to march as far as the holy city of Moscow, I am determined to force a fight and win!

The battle of Smolensk, 17/18 August. A Russian city in the central sector, on the River Dniepr. A drawn battle between Ney’s III and Prince Poniatowski’s V (Polish) Corps and elements of the combined 1st and 2nd Russian Armies of the West.

The city of Smolensk lay astride the river. To the north was the small new town, or St Petersburg suburb. Across the bridge lay the old city, still surrounded by the massive, red-brick, medieval walls and towers, five kilometres long, and a moat. There were three gates, to the west, north and south. The fortifications had been allowed to fall into disrepair and extensive suburbs of wooden houses had sprung up on the glacis, obscuring the defenders’ fields of fire. There was no time to clear them.

Napoleon concentrated 50,000 men and 84 guns on the day of the battle; Barclay opposed him with 30,000 men and 108 guns. At five o’clock on the afternoon of 15 August, Murat’s cavalry and Ney’s infantry closed up to the western side of the city. The main body of the army did not come up until late next day. Nonetheless, Napoleon ordered an assault on 16 August.

Ney’s III Corps and Grouchy’s III Cavalry Corps managed to push in the defenders of Kolubakin’s 12th Russian division (2nd Army of the West), who were in front of the Krasnoi suburb, but were unable to penetrate the city. The Emperor called off his dogs.

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Trooper of the Italian Dragoons in bivouac. Albrecht Adam.

That night, the rest of the 2nd Russian army, and all of the 1st, arrived to the east of Smolensk. But Barclay decided - once again - to avoid a pitched battle and to adhere to his policy of drawing the invaders further to the east. His 1 st Army would lead the way; Bagration would provide the rearguard.

Next day, Napoleon had 183,000 men in the area. Still in the city were Dokturov’s VII Corps, the 3rd Infantry Division of Konovnitzin’s II Corps, Neverovski’s solid 27th Division and the 6th Jaegers of the 12th Division. This made a total of 20,000 men and 180 guns.

On the right wing of the Grande Armée were Poniatowski’s V Corps and Murat’s cavalry on the eastern flank. Then came the I Corps (with the Guard behind them) and Ney’s III Corps up against the river. A general assault began at three o‘clock in the afternoon; the Russians were soon forced back inside the old city. The suburbs were soon ablaze and a French attempt to break into the centre of Smolensk was repulsed with heavy loss. Three other assaults were treated in the same manner. By seven o’clock the whole city was ablaze. That night (17/18 August) the Russians evacuated the ruins and withdrew eastwards.

Napoleon had lost 8,564 men, the Russians about 6,000. The Imperial Guard was not engaged.

Caulaincourt, a usually reliable source on Napoleon, recorded that the Emperor actually considered halting the campaign for 1812 at this point. Watching the retreating Russian columns, Napoleon mused:

By abandoning Smolensk, which is one of their holy cities, the Russian generals are dishonouring their arms in the eyes of their own people. That will put me in a strong position. We will drive them back a little further for our own comfort. I will dig myself in. We will rest the troops and dominate the country from this pivotal position and we’ll see how Alexander likes that. I shall turn my attention to the corps on the Dwina which are doing nothing [a reference to the II and VI Corps, facing off against Wittgenstein at Polotzk]; my army will be more formidable and my position more menacing to the Russians than if I had won two battles. I will establish my headquarters at Witebsk. I will raise Poland in arms and later on I will choose, if necessary, between Moscow and St Petersburg.

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Smolensk 17/18 August and Valutina Gora (Lubino) 19 August. This is a Blackwood map; the complex movements of this three-day conflict are shown on this composite map. It was largely due to General Junot’s refusal to attack that the Russian army was allowed to slip away to the east. napoleon lost some 18,000 casualties, Barclay de Tolly and Bagration lost 11,000. They withdrew towards Borodino.

Indeed, a strategic pause at this juncture would allow Napoleon’s tired and much diminished army to rest, refit, reorganize and integrate the drafts of young, scarcely-trained reinforcements that were trickling in from western Europe. The shockingly inadequate supply situation could also be addressed, although it must be said that without active - and massive - Russian cooperation, there was not the slightest hope of supporting even what was left of the Grande Armée; the vast majority were already doomed to die of starvation whatever Napoleon did; it was just a question of where their bones would lie. One thing was certain: on any further advance towards Moscow, the supply situation would only get worse; the Russian army would see to that.

According to Segur, Joachim Murat told him at Smolensk, on 18 August, of his attempts to make the Emperor see reason: ‘I threw myself on my knees before my brother-in-law and implored him to stop. But he could see nothing but Moscow. Honour, glory, rest - everything was there for him. This Moscow was going to be our ruin!’

On 19 August, Bagration wrote to Araktchejev from Michaelowka, just west of Dorogobusch:

Your Minister might be good in the ministry but he’s no good as a general!... I’m losing my mind with rage! ...Organize the militia because the Minister is leading our guests right into the capital! The army is very much against ADC Wolzogen; they say that he is more for Napoleon than for us and he is advising the Minister!... It’s not my fault that the Minister is indecisive, cowardly, stupid, slow to make decisions and has all the bad characteristics. The whole army insults him. Poor Pahlen I is dying of grief and all are being driven mad with rage and sorrow. We have never been so depressed as now... I would prefer to be a common soldier than a commanding general at this time, and that even under Barclay. I have written the whole truth.

These letter extracts give us some idea of the divisions that were ripping the very fabric of the Russian high command apart at this strategically critical juncture; the atmosphere is one of near-mutiny. That the Russian army could give such a good account of itself as it did at Smolensk, after weeks of demoralising withdrawals, abandoning their homeland to the ravages of the horde of the Antichrist (as Napoleon was held to be by most Russians) and with practically no faith in their commander, speaks volumes for the high quality of the army and all its members. It also demonstrates how ineffective Barclay was at communicating his strategic concept to his junior commanders, and even to the Czar, because all of Bagration’s letters to Alexander’s close adviser had had their effect.

Giesse, with the Westphalians, relates the incident which caused the unfortunate VIII Corps to miss this battle, and to earn Napoleon’s enmity:

Until Smolensk, we had rarely seen the Duke of Abrantes, only when he galloped through marching columns of troops, lashing out left and right with a large riding whip at any unfortunate who failed to get out of his way quickly enough.

At that point we didn’t know that he had formerly been a sort of a ‘Leibmameluke,’ or valet, to Napoleon and owed his rise through the ranks to this. On 15th August the corps was ordered to become the right flank guard of the army. This involved a march to the right, around V Corps, with the aim of being at Smolensk the next day. The march was to go via a village named Tscherkowiczi, which no-one seemed to be able to identify. The Duke of Abrantes appeared before the troops, early in the morning. After much secretive discussion with his staff, poring over a map and looking towards all points of the compass with obvious signs of impatience, he ordered an officer to go off and get a peasant.

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General Andoche Junot, commander of the VIII, (Westphalian) Corps after Vandamme’s removal. He was judged to be mentally unstable, a proven and unrepentant squanderer of several fortunes. He committed suicide on 29 July 1813.

A peasant was duly produced; a lame geriatric who at once fell at the feet of our Duke. A great blow from the Duke’s whip brought him very smartly to his feet again.

There was not one officer in Junot’s retinue who could speak Russian or Polish; this did not worry the Duke for a second. He pulled Berthier’s order from his pocket and proceeded to read the word ‘Tscherkowiczi’ gravely to the peasant, several times.

No response.

Another great blow from the Duke’s whip.

The peasant fell back a step and shouted what sounded like: ‘Ziverowiczi!’ and waved his hand off to his left rear.

Even if this was the right direction, Junot - or one of his officers - should have become suspicious, because that was the direction that we had just come from.

The Duke, however had no such doubts; ordering one of his staff to take the peasant on his stirrup leather, he rode to the head of the column, shouting: ‘Filons Messieurs!’ and set off in the direction indicated by the peasant.

We marched for some hours; no village appeared. This made the Duke annoyed, as he laid great value on a good breakfast and it was time for a long rest period.

He was about to ride off with his suite in order to spy out the ‘château d’un bon baron,’ when General von Hammerstein1 rode up and pointed out a distant castle with the words: ‘Mais Monseigneur, voilà notre bivouac d’hier!’ (But Sire, that is our bivouac of yesterday).

The Duke stared silently in the direction of the castle; motionless. Then he galloped back to the unfortunate peasant, cursing and screaming, flogged him briefly with his beloved whip, then drew his sabre and cut and hacked at him. Not satisfied with that, he ordered him to be shot, and galloped off towards breakfast in the castle.

Thus the VIII Corps took no part in the battle of Smolensk.

In the battle of Smolensk on 17/18 August the Grande Armée lost over 8,560 men; the Russians lost some 6,000 and slipped away to the east. The city was destroyed by fire; no quarters here. Away to the north at the same time, Marshal Oudinot, with the II and VI Corps, had fought General Count Wittgenstein’s Russians to a bloody draw; no resounding French victory here either.

On 19 August another opportunity for Napoleon to catch the Russians at the defile of Valutina Gora was missed, largely due to Junot’s blatant - and expensive - mishandling of his VIII Westphalian corps. Again a captured Russian general was asked by Napoleon to carry a message of peace to the Czar; the plea was mixed with many threats of what destruction would be wreaked on Russia if no peace ensued.

The letter was written and delivered; it was never answered. Alexander had learned to play poker with the big boys very well.

After the Russian left, General Rapp asked the Emperor whether the army was to advance or retreat; the answer was: ‘The wine is poured out; it must be drunk to the last drop. I am for Moscow... Too long have I played the emperor; it is time I became the general once more.’

At long last the fateful die had been cast.

But the months of uncharacteristic, querulous indecision on Napoleon’s part betrayed the changes that were taking place in his thought processes - or was it just that Lady Luck’s face was now turned against him? This indecision was to surface again in the 1813 campaign.

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On 18 August General of Infantry Prince Michael Giliaronovich Goleichev Kutuzov was appointed supreme commander in Barclay’s place. His task was to revitalise and reunite the army, restore morale and to offer battle to the invaders as soon as possible. Kutuzov was 67 years of age, heavily overweight, ponderous both physically and mentally, and blind in the right eye from a wound received in the wars with the Turks. He had served in the army for 52 years and had ‘commanded’ at the Austro-Russian defeat at Napoleon’s hands at Austerlitz on 2 December 1805. ‘Commanded’ is probably not the correct formulation as Czar Alexander was present in his headquarters and was playing at soldiers.

This new, aggressive policy could not, of course, be adopted overnight; a suitable defensive position had first to be found to tilt the playing field in favour of the Russians in the face of the enemy’s numerical superiority. But there was the proviso that it had to be found somewhere between the armies’ present location and Moscow; to abandon the capital without a fight would be totally unacceptable to the army and to the populace.

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A group of men of the Italian Royal Guard in bivouac. Albrecht Adam. Author’s collection.

French cavalry search for rich pickings in a Russian town. Albrecht Adam. Author’s collection.

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The battle of Valutina-Gora (Lubino), 19 August. A village in the central sector, 8 km north east of Smolensk. Another drawn battle. On the French side were the I, III and VIII (Westphalian) Corps; on the Russian side, under General Tutschkov I, the II, III and IV Corps.

Following the action at Smolensk, the Russians pulled back eastwards, their extensive trains offering a tempting target to the allies as they struggled through the defile of Valutina-Gora. Murat’s cavalry and Junot’s VIII Corps crossed the River Dnieper at the ford of Pruditcheva to the south east of Smolensk and had a chance to cut off the Russian rearguard, but Junot refused to advance and the Russians were allowed to slip away to the east. French losses were some 9,000 of the 41,000 men involved; General Gudin was killed. The Russians had 22,000 men in the action and lost about 5,000.

The Westphalians, who had missed the Russians at the start of the campaign, and who had missed the battle of Smolensk, were - unwittingly - to consolidate their reputation for ineptitude this day. Giesse’s tale is continued:

On the morning of the 19th August, VIII Corps crossed the River Dniepr on two pontoon bridges. By midday they had reached the village of Tschebonkowo, when their advanced guard came up with the Russians, who were moving so slowly, that it was in Junot’s hands to bring them to battle. The troops were eager for a fight; the sounds of heavy gunfire showed that action had already been joined. General von Ochs2 records that if Junot continued his march, they would have taken the enemy rearguard in flank and destroyed 10,000 Russians.

Horse artillery advancing at the battle of Smolensk. Albrecht Adam. Author’s collection.

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A scene during the battle of Smolensk, 18 August 1812. Wuerttemberg infantry of the 25th Division, III Corps, skirmishing in the outskirts of the city. Faber du Four. Author’s collection.

Junot now decided to call a halt and took a siesta.

After his rest, Junot continued his march, but by now, Russian cavalry had come up to cover the exposed flank. Despite being exhorted by his generals to attack, Junot just sat and watched the spectacle.

He eventually could be moved to send out the 2nd Light Infantry Battalion and the voltigeur company of the 1st Light Infantry Battalion. These troops were far too weak to affect anything.

The latter unit was attacked by a swarm of Cossacks and formed square; they then fired a volley too soon; the Cossacks charged in and cut them down to a man.

This took place in full view of the rest of the corps, but Junot did nothing. He was roundly cursed by many an officer and man.

Westphalian participation had been eagerly expected by the other allied corps commanders. After a time, the King of Naples galloped up, cursing and shouting: ‘Where is General Junot?’

Murat’s appearance on the scene evoked roaring cheers from the Westphalians, who thought that at last they would have a chance to prove their worth in battle.

Murat confronted Junot and hotly demanded to know why he was not attacking the enemy.

Junot replied that he had received no direct orders from Napoleon to attack, that he did not trust the Westphalians, they were untried troops, they might endanger his artillery, and the responsibility was too great.

At last, Murat rode back along the front of the VIII Corps shouting: ‘Eh bien, Westphaliens! Si vous êtes aussi braves que vous êtes beaux! Chassez-moi cette canaille – là!’ (So, Westphalians! Are you as brave as you are handsome? Chase this mob off for me - go!) And rode back to the main army.

Stung into some sort of action at last, Junot ordered Hammerstein’s light cavalry to advance through the defile into action.

Defiling took some time; when the brigade at last formed line, they were attacked by the Russians, who outnumbered them by three to one. Despite being repeatedly urged by General von Ochs to send them some support, it was some time before he allowed a battery of artillery to be sent up.

Meanwhile, General von Hammerstein, on his great Turkish grey, had challenged any Russian daredevil to come out and face him in single combat. At last a Russian hussar with a lance came forward. He circled around von Hammerstein and fired his pistol at him. The general sat quietly while this went on, then suddenly spurred his horse forward and cut the Russian through the shako and head to his shoulders.

The Russian slumped to the ground like a sack. The general caught his horse and gave it to a hussar to take to the rear. ‘Just a little determination and you can get all those fellows like that’ he said to his men.

Apart from these minor skirmishes, that was all that VIII Corps was permitted to contribute to the day’s events. We stood and watched as the Russians moved off into the forests.

Von Lossberg’s feelings are of interest:

I share the feelings of all those who say that it is a disaster for our corps that we have lost Vandamme and gained Junot. If the former were still here, some of us would not be alive now, but the living would at least have earned honour and fame, which it seems we shall lose under Junot, and that is worse than death.

A scene during the battle of Smolensk. Albrecht Adam. Author’s collection.

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View of part of the battle of Valutina Gora, 19 August, by Paul Hess. Author’s collection.

According to Segur, Napoleon, on the field of the drawn battle of Valutina Gora, on 19 August, said:

This battle has been the most brilliant exploit in all our military history. You soldiers who are listening to me are men with whom one could conquer the world. The dead here have earned immortal names for themselves.

He was less than pleased with his old friend, Junot, and removed him from his command for a brief period, replacing him with General Rapp. Junot’s friends interceded for him, however, and much to the chagrin of the Westphalians, the Duke of Abrantes was soon flogging his way through his marching columns again.

The Imperial Guard was not engaged in the battle of Smolensk, or in that of Valutina-Gora. The Russians withdrew before the Grande Armée in a most professional manner, leaving behind nothing of value. Their view of events was radically different from that of the invaders - doubtless moulded by the needs of public relations as much as any bulletin.

On hearing that Te Deums were being sung in St Petersburg to celebrate alleged Russian victories at Witebsk and Smolensk, Napoleon burst out indignantly: ‘What! Te Deums? Then they dare to lie to God as they lie to men!’ The Emperor was obviously annoyed that anyone else had dared to infringe his copyright.

Notes

1

Commander of the Light Cavalry Brigade.

2

Commander, 24th Division.

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1. Russian infantry drawn from life by Georg Adam in Nuremburg, Germany, in 1814. This plate throws up some teasing questions, possibly illustrating the differences between the purely theoretical uniform regulations and what was actually worn in the field after a hard campaign and miles away from the regimental depot. The central officer and the private to his right with the brass, double eagle cap plate of the Pavlovski Grenadiers are apparently of the Imperial Guard, as is the private with the black plume. None of them, however, wear guards’ lace to collar and cuffs. The figure on the extreme right, with a black fur busby and light blue facings, would appear to be from a militia unit.

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2. Once again, Georg Adam has given us campaign dress. In the foreground we see a member of the Starodub Kuerassiers. To his right is a member of the Lifland Mounted Rifles; to his right a member of the Ulans, but the Czapka and lance pennant colours make identification impossible. The dragoon seems to be from the Kasan Regiment.

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3. A group of Austrian cavalry officers from various regiments. Note the imperial cipher ‘FI’ on the helmet plates and the forage cap of the groom holding the horse on the left. A plate by Theodor Weigl, Vienna.

4. Officers and men of various Austrian hussar regiments. From left to right they are: trooper, 8th Regiment (poplar green dolman and pelisse, light red breeches); officer, 3rd Regiment (ash grey shako, dark blue dolman, breeches and pelisse); officer, 5th Regiment (red shako, dark green dolman and pelisse, crimson breeches); officer, 4th Regiment (light blue shako, poplar green dolman and pelisse, light red breeches); trooper, 9th Regiment (black shako, dark green dolman and pelisse, crimson breeches); officer, 3rd Regiment (ash grey shako, dark blue uniform).

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5. The Aigle-Garde of an infantry regiment. In the Army Museum in Vienna is an example of the brass helmet with red fur crest worn by some members of this guard when in action. By the brothers Suhr in Hamburg. Author’s collection.

6. Below: Gunner, Silesian artillery brigade. Pioneer, marching order.

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7. Below: Private, Garde-Jaegers, parade dress. Musician, Silesian Grenadier Battalion.

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8. Troopers of different cavalry regiments. Left to right: Leib-Chevauxlegers-Regiment, Jaeger-Regiment zu Pferd Nr 4, Chevauxlegers-Regiment Nr 1 Prinz Adam, Jaeger-Regiment zu Pferd Nr 3, Herzog Louis. A Knoetel plate. Author’s collection.

9. Left to right: three infantrymen, a trooper of the Chevauleger-Regiment. Wuerzburg retained traditional white uniforms for its infantry. The cavalryman’s costume reflects Austrian fashion. A plate from the Augsburger Bilder. Author’s collection.

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10. Again, Frankfurt retained the traditional white uniforms of the Catholic states of the Holy Roman Empire, whilst introducing French-style badges of rank and red and green plumes and epaulettes for the grenadier and voltigeur companies. Augsburger Bilder. Author’s collection.

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11. A sappeur of a line infantry regiment. As in the British regiments, the sappers went unshaven. The leather apron, the axe and a saw-toothed sword completed his toolkit. By the brothers Suhr in Hamburg. Author’s collection.

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12. Left to right: officer in undress uniform; fusilier; grenadier in service dress; grenadier in parade dress; voltigeur; pioneer; musician. Knoetel plate. Author’s collection.

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13. Left to right, grenadier, Schwerin (note Prussian style of the uniform); centre – officer, Schwerin artillery, with the usual black facings; officer, Strelitz infantry battalion. Mecklenburg-Schwerin’s infantry regiment served in the 5th Division, I Corps, while Mecklenburg-Strelitz’s infantry battalion was with the 3rd Division of the same corps. Knoetel plate. Author’s collection.

14. Right: Left to right, infantry officer, private, Leib-Regiment (the regiment was the only one of the infantry of the grand duchy to wear the lace loops to collar and cuff flaps), private Jaegers, private Garde-Grenadiers. Knoetel plate. Author’s collection.

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15. Officer and troopers, Kuerassier Regiment von Zastrow. This cavalry regiment (and the Garde du Corps) were detached from VII Corps, brigaded together under General von Thielmann and transferred into General Lorge’s 7th Heavy Cavalry Division, in Latour-Maubourg’s IV Cavalry Corps. They fought at Borodino and were the regiments that finally took the grand battery. Author’s collection.

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16. This formation of infantry and cavalry was raised by the French from Portuguese prisoners of war from the campaign of 1808 in Portugal.

Left to right: chasseur (background), grenadier (rear view), two fusiliers, seated voltiguer (foreground), officer of Chasseurs (mounted), infantry officer, mounted chasseur. Augsburger Bilder. Author’s collection.

17. These troops fought with the VIII Corps under General Jean-Andoche Junot (after King Jerome was sent home by Napoleon).

Left to right, officer of grenadiers of the line, officer of light infantry. Knoetel plate. Author’s collection.

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18. This regiment was with the 6th Regiment, Confederation of the Rhine, in the 34th Division, XI Corps of Marshal Augereau. Together with the 5th Regiment (see below) they entered Russia, relatively intact, in mid-November 1812. The XI Corps then had 14,000 men; it was reduced to 1,500 within four weeks. Augsburger Bilder. Author’s collection.

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19. This regiment was with the 5th Regiment, Confederation of the Rhine, in the 34th Division, in Marshal Augereau’s XI Corps. Knoetel plate. Author’s collection.

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