The clash at Neschwitz, 20 September. A village in the southern sector, on the upper River Styr, near the town of Lutzk in the Pripet marshes. A minor Russian victory for General Count Lambert’s composite cavalry force, over General von Zechmeister’s Austro-Saxon-Polish cavalry brigade.
This ambush heralded a new Russian offensive; they achieved surprise by dressing fifteen German-speaking Tartars in Austrian dragoon uniforms and placing them at the head of their column, shouting out that they were allies. They lost only five men in the entire action.
The Austrians were completely surprised; the O’Reilly Chevauxlegers and a detachment of hussars and dragoons suffered heavy losses and the O’Reilly regiment lost three standards. Czar Alexander sent them back to Kaiser Franz of Austria - a telling political gesture.
Admiral Tschitschagoff’s Army of the Moldau closed up to the River Styr on 21 September. He now commanded 66,000 men with 233 guns. He was opposed by 43,000 allies with 107 guns. His aim was to cut Schwarzenberg off from the River Bug in the west and to throw him into the Pripet marshes. With this in mind, he crossed the Styr at Berestezcko on 22 September and pushed Kosinski’s Polish divison back, while Tormassow held his position at Lutzk.
Lieutenant von Wolffersdorff’s diary contains the following extract of interest at this time; it demonstrates the perils to which the allied troops were exposed by being in this forward deployment, deep into the swamps.
On 25 September, the enemy seemed to want to take the offensive. A strong column, with artillery support, pushed against our right wing and drove in the outposts of General Kosinski’s division. This move threatened our links to the Austrian Army of Observation in Galicia. We then heard that the Russians had already crossed the Styr in strength, and General Reynier could no longer hold that line.
It was clear that the enemy wanted to throw us into the swamps. Despite this, we held on for a whole day to give our heavy baggage train time to get clear on the roads, which had been washed out by days of heavy rain. Following a night march, during which many of the men had to go barefoot despite the cold, we reached the hamlet of Turijskat midday next day, closely followed by Cossacks. We resumed living in our old huts.
On 26 September the 1st Division fell back to Dolsk. General von Sahr’s brigade and Grenadier Battalion von Spiegel occupied Turijsk castle and the Turija crossing.
Shortly after the 1 st Division had left, still before midday, several groups of enemy cavalry appeared along the far bank of the river. At midday, heavy masses of infantry came up the road; they then brought up guns and bombarded our old hutted camp and the island on which the castle stood. A couple of attempts to cross by the charred remnants of the bridge were beaten back. Night fell.
On 27 September, von Sahr’s brigade also left Turijsk and rejoined the other troops that evening.
By means of fire and movement, the enemy were constantly confronted with new defensive positions; not knowing our real strength, the Russians were cautious, even though they sent some artillery shots over our cavalry bivouac. We joined up with the Austrian corps at Luboml on 29 September.
Sergeant Vollborn’s account of the same sequence of events adds some more colour:
We marched out of our camp at 2 o’clock in the morning of 24 September; each of us said a sad farewell to the treasures which we had accumulated there. I left at least three bushels of strawberries and apples, a large pot of pork dripping and an axe that I had found. Strict orders were given that nothing was to be damaged. I wonder what the Russians thought of these wonderful presents?
Nothing dampens the spirits of a soldier more than continual rearward marches after every engagement with the enemy. It is even worse when the rigours of punishing night marches are added. The soldier only judges things by his exhaustion and the increasing numbers of those dropping out of the column. Despite the irregular, often very meagre rations, I never heard any moaning during this difficult period.
At the crossing of the Bug I lost my faithful dog Cornet, who had stuck with me during these last difficult marches. He had always been my hot water bottle in the bivouac. I hoped to find him again in the village on the other side of the Bug, but it was not to be. Apparently he fell off the bridge or was knocked into the water. Even now I mourn the loss of that faithful little animal, which I was given by a minor nobleman in Radom on whom I was billeted.
After crossing the Bug, we joined up with Durutte’s division, a mixture of French, Portuguese, Spanish and Germans (Würzburgers). Despite the welcome numbers of the reinforcements, we were all worried by their extreme youth.
Sergeant Vollborn’s diary entries paint the wider picture for us:
Several Russian attempts to throw us out of the place [Turijsk] failed. As darkness fell, we withdrew in the usual order. It was pitch dark and raining steadily; you couldn’t see even the man in front of you. Reynier had let the path be marked by frequent small bonfires, each tended by a soldier, with orders to stay on duty until the last unit came past. This was an excellent idea. Some of the ‘firemen’ thought that the last unit had already passed and joined its tail, leaving the fires to burn out. At some places we found the fires out and the sentries asleep from weariness. But there were still enough burning to show us the way. Without them, the march along the narrow track, with the many junctions, would have been very difficult. Most of the march was made off the roads, through the mud and across fields and swampy meadows, where it was only possible to walk along the beaten trail.
The many wagons and guns had so cut up the ground, that the 2nd Division, which was the rearguard, had the greatest difficulty to get on and the men were often in danger of sinking into the mud. But the danger in leaving the narrow track, getting lost and not finding the column again, meant that there was no alternative but to press on, as best we could, along the track. The train caused the worst chaos; in order not to get stuck in the deep mud, the drivers whipped up their teams, with the result that they crashed into the wagon in front. We were all aware of the seriousness of our situation; deep silence was maintained, but no enemy attack disturbed our retreat.
The bad turn in the weather added to our misery; at the end of September it became very cold and we had many more men sick, especially with dysentery. My uncle, General von Steindel, fell ill with this, but he stayed with his men, using his wagon only when utterly exhausted.
The constant wet weather of the last few days had brought me down a lot. Due to the closeness of the enemy, we had to stand to under arms, every morning at first light and wait until dawn. This rigid duty sapped the last of my strength; the retreat to Luboml was a real torture for me. I was so weak that I could not hold myself on my faithful little Polish pony, a wonderful animal, which never put a foot wrong. I thus sought out my uncle’s wagon, which followed the brigade...
The chaos of this night march was increased by some of the train drivers, who fell asleep and increased the confusion immeasurably. It would not have needed many enemy cavalry on this night to cause the complete destruction of our column.
Such episodes are the hardest tests on the often thorny path of a soldier’s career. Not the enemy’s bullet, not the raging of the elements are to be feared as much as the danger of losing one’s honour, and thus the most precious thing that one has...
The march went on all night and the next day without pause; towards evening we reached the area, about 3 km above Wlodawka, where the great lake of Szazk reaches a point of three hours at most from the Bug. The intervening area was one of rows of low, sandy hills, running almost perpendicular to the river, in swampy woodland. Lecoq’s division formed up along the first ridge, with its right wing on the river; the 2nd Division was on their left and formed a refused flank. The cavalry, which had joined the corps as rearguard in Opalin that morning, was in front of the refused wing. The Cossacks followed them, but there was only some light skirmishing.
From the hills we could see over into the area of Wlodawka [on the western bank], where the Austrian corps was in the act of crossing by pontoon bridge... The rest of the ground was deep marshes, in which we could see several mills and even some villages.
Here Reynier was having two pontoon bridges built; all approach routes to them were occupied and our troops, as well as the enemy, thought that we would cross the river at Wlodawka and follow the Austrians.’
There follows an account of how the VII Corps was allowed to extricate itself from the trap into which Schwarzenberg had placed it.
On 1 October, at 9 o‘clock in the morning, the 1st Division withdrew to the next range of hills and formed line again. The 2nd Division moved off at 10 o’clock, but marched through a trough to the river and crossed the bridges, to cover the other troops from the Polish bank. The cavalry followed them and formed up beside them. Finally, Lecoq’s division moved off; simultaneously, a regiment of Austrian cavalry appeared on a hill to the rear and scared off the Cossacks and still had time to march off to Wlodawka. Reynier was the last one to ride over the Saxon bridges, which were now pivoted across the river and taken out of the water.
Not a man, not a wagon, not a pontoon was lost, even though the enemy was so close, that we saw them forming up on the ridge before the last pontoon was loaded. The guns of the 2nd Division prevented them setting up a battery to disturb us. We had escaped just at the moment that they thought they had us, separated from the Austrians and trying to cross a river. When Reynier rode up to the 2nd Division, the men received him with a great cheer, as if we had just won a battle; they realised just what sort of peril he had led them out of.
The Austrians had crossed the river at Wlodawka, all except one division, that was to cross at Brest-Litowsk. The rest of the two allied corps marched there in three days. [The distance is about 70 km.]
Here, both allied corps recrossed to the right bank of the Bug and took up a position behind the Muchawiec, with the right wing on the Bug.
By means of prompt withdrawals to the western bank, Schwarzenberg and Reynier evaded this outflanking movement and managed to unite at Luboml on 28 September.
The clash at Luboml, 29 September. In the southern sector. A village just east of the River Bug, 60 km south of Brest. A minor victory for Russian General Count Langeron’s corps of Admiral Tchitchagoff’s Army of the Danube, over Austrian General Bianchi’s 1st and part of General Frimont’s Reserve Division. The 3,600 Austrians were outnumbered and pushed back after a brief struggle. Losses were light on both sides. The 32nd and 33rd Austrian Infantry Regiments distinguished themselves.
However, far from staying behind the Bug, Schwarzenberg moved north west to that river and crossed it at Wlodawka to the eastern bank again, in the presence of Tschitschagoff’s forces, which did not attack them. These allied withdrawals, through very difficult terrain, were some of the most skilfully executed operations of the entire campaign. Not a gun was lost; no mean achievement.
Karl Fuerst zu Schwarzenberg, Commander of the Austrian Corps
Born on 15 April 1771 into an old and distinguished Franconian family which had been elevated to princely rank in 1670 and had provided several senior generals and statesmen to the Austrian state in the past, Schwarzenberg’s father was Fuerst Johann Nepomuk, who died on 5 November 1789. Schwarzenberg entered military service in 1786 as a captain in an Austrian imperial contingent regiment. In 1788 he fought in the wars against the Turks and served together with Prince Poniatowski, a friend. In 1790 he was promoted to major and accepted into the ‘Arcieren Leibgarde’— a Viennese palace ceremonial unit - as a sergeant.
During his military career Schwarzenberg was repeatedly distinguished and promoted, being awarded the knight’s Cross of the Order of Maria Theresia in 1794. In September 1800 he was again promoted toFeldmarschallleutnant.
At Hohenlinden in December 1800 he saved the Austrian right wing from defeat. His division was the only allied formation not to lose a gun in this action but he did lose 30 officers and 1,200 men fighting off the divisions of Bastoul, Grenier and Legrand. In 1803 he wrote: ‘The glue which holds the machine [the army] together, is just subordination and again subordination; one should indulge oneself utterly in it.’
In 1805 he was appointed Vice President of the Aulic Council and commanded a division in the Ulm campaign. On hearing of Mack’s plans he said: ‘Oh, how incredibly irresponsible! This frivolous fool led the Austrian army - totally unprepared in every respect - across the Inn on 8 October to invade Bavaria!’. He advised Kaiser Franz against fighting at Austerlitz but was overruled. In July 1806 he was awarded the commander’s Cross of the Order of Maria Theresia.
Schwarzenberg was sent to Paris in 1809 to negotiate the marriage of Princess Marie-Louise to Napoleon. The Emperor thought very well of him. At this time Schwarzenberg wrote: ‘Napoleon is the greatest prince of his time, but does this mean that he cannot be beaten? And if this can be done, why should it not be me that does it? I am not worried by the prospect of standing against him.’
In 1812 Schwarzenberg commanded the Austrian corps in Russia; won the battle of Gorodeczna (Podubna) against Tormassow and extracted his corps skilfully from the general debacle. On hearing that Napoleon had proposed that he be promoted to field marshal, he wrote to his wife: ‘This is fatal for me. I am not worth it. My deep inner satisfaction is my reward; the trust and respect of my comrades - that is my pride.’ In March 1813, now a field marshal, he was sent to Paris to conduct negotiations with Napoleon aimed at securing peace (as envisaged by Metternich, the Austrian Chancellor). He was received by Napoleon with great friendliness: ‘Mon cher ami!’ said the Emperor in greeting, ‘Vous avez fait une belle campagne!’. [My dear friend! You have fought a fine campaign!] Nevertheless, the negotiations failed.
Schwarzenberg left Paris for Vienna on 30 April. On 8 May he was appointed to command the Army of Bohemia - an utterly thankless task with the three allied monarchs stealing his time and dabbling in his strategic planning. He fought at Dresden (where his failure to assault Saint-Cyr’s weak garrison on 25 August ensured the stinging allied defeat in the battle the following day), Kulm and Leipzig. He was greatly honoured after Leipzig, receiving numerous awards. He also pleaded with the Kaiser for the unlucky Mack to be released from arrest in the Spielberg fortress and rehabilitated; his request was granted.
Schwarzenberg retired on 5 May 1815. Later he was appointed President of the Aulic Council. In 1817 he suffered a stroke, which left him partially paralysed, and he eventually died of a further stroke on 15 October 1820 in the Thomas house on the main square in Leipzig.
Tschitschagoff followed on the eastern bank, forcing Siegenthal’s Austrian division to evacuate Ratno and Mohr’s brigade to leave Pinsk; both withdrew to the north. Siegenthal’s division rejoined the allied main body, but Mohr’s brigade was forced off 150 km north to Mosty on the Niemen by General Ertell. From Mosty, Mohr took up communications with the Duke of Bassano in Wilna.
Tschitschagoff’s aim was now to turn the allied eastern wing and crush them against the River Bug, but his advance was slow and poorly coordinated. Schwarzenberg was able to withdraw some 10 km north to a new position, behind the swamps, at Ljesna, still on the eastern bank of the Bug. The Russians did not press him. Lieutenant von Wolffersdorff’s diary contains the following account:
On 8 October the enemy attacked the Austrians along the road from Kobryn [from the east], but their attack failed due to our good position. Prince Liechtenstein was wounded.
We all had the impression that our army had been placed in a very dangerous situation by the enemy movements to our front and left flank, which could lead to our destruction. We were caught in a box, with the Muchawiec in front, the Ljesna, a river almost parallel to the former, not wider, but deeper, the Bug to our right and a very superior enemy in our left flank. We could not dare to cross the Bug to Terespol, because it could only be approached by one narrow track, where only six men could march abreast and the bridge was weak. One accident, or the failure of the bridge, would mean disaster.
The only thing to do was to withdraw again, straight to the rear, over the Ljesna. This could be done with several columns, in order to reach the left bank of the Bug below Brest via this diversion.
But even this withdrawal was one of the most daring and dangerous. Everything depended upon it being kept secret from the enemy, for the column on the left wing - which would be the right as we marched off - would have to move in close proximity to their outpost line. If the Russians detected this movement, the only outcome would be a desperate battle, probably one that we would lose, and which would result in a rout. We also had to cross the Ljesna as quickly as possible, as we had firm intelligence that the enemy intended to attack us early on 11 October and he might also think to move on our rear beforehand to cut us off.
This Saxon officer had every right to be extremely worried; by crossing back to the eastern bank of the Bug, Schwarzenberg had stuck out his chin to a bigger opponent and was asking to get it severely dented. His army was caught up against a major obstacle, with only one hazardous way out.
The clash at the Muchavietz River (Trycziner Hof), 11 October. In the southern sector, a river crossing between Brest-Litowsk and Kobryn. A victory for Schwarzenberg with his three divisions and part of the VII (Saxon) Corps, over part of the Russian Army of the Danube under General Osten-Sacken. The Austrians had 11,300 men and twelve guns, the Saxons 9,000 men and twelve guns. The Russians brought up some 24,000 men and twenty-four guns. Losses in this action are not known.
Von Wolffersdorff’s diary continues:
With the greatest control and in utter silence, the army left the position at Brest on the night of 10 October. Deep darkness hid the dense columns and by dawn we were over the Ljesna. The bridges were broken and we occupied the village of Klinicky and an isolated manor farm. The 1st Light Infantry Regiment and a battery of foot artillery covered the crossings. My brigade was deployed in the bushes along the bank of the Ljesna. At 10 o’clock the enemy attacked Klinicky and the partially destroyed bridges. My battalion at once advanced to support the six companies of light infantry. After suffering heavy losses, the enemy managed to capture and repair the small bridge, which led to the manor of Klinicky. Some companies of Russian grenadiers ran over; there was a bitter mêlée. It was man against man, the butt and the bayonet came into play. Before my 5th Company reached the fight, Major von Metsch, commander of the Schützen, had been killed. This enraged his men so much, that there was a massacre such as I have not seen. After the fight, about 25 Russian bodies lay on the ground. My company, deployed in a line for skirmishing, maintained a steady fire. Our artillery set Klinicky on fire; the Regiment Prinz Anton occupied the village of Pecky close by. The enemy continued to mount attacks on us until dark, but without success. Our skirmishers were so close to the enemy, that we could clearly see their faces. My Premierleutnant von Neitschitz was a good shot; he duelled for some time with a Russian Jaeger. Four bullets slammed into the tree behind which he was sheltering, before his shot hit the Russian, who fell over backwards. A loud cheer rang out from our ranks. The four days rest at Brest had allowed me to recover completely and I threw myself into the combat with all the energy of my twenty years.
As with the rest of the 5th Company, we had not had a bit of bread since 4 o’clock that morning. Von Neitschitz and I complained of this to our men; shortly after this, Sergeant Müller, who, with some men had entered an isolated building to the right of the bridge at the risk of their lives, brought us some flour and bacon. My servant worked these into a sort of porridge; in the cover of some thick trees, this odd dish was much enjoyed under a hail of bullets. The smoke of the small fire on which it was cooked attracted the attention of the enemy at dusk.
We lost four wounded in the 5th Company; the rest of those that had been in the fight lost up to 100 killed and wounded. At dusk we left the position on the Ljesna, without being able to do anything at all to feed the men, and marched off for Wolczin. It was an awful night, pitch black and cold and the fact that we kept crossing with Austrian vehicle columns meant that there were repeated stoppages. Many stragglers lost contact with the column and fell into the hands of the prowling Russian light cavalry. My Captain von Bünau lost his servant and a fine horse this way... but the thing which he missed most was his coffee mill, which also went missing. Thus the loss of a thing makes one aware of its true value.
Some time prior to this action, Schwarzenberg had sent his ADC, Major Graf Paar, to Moscow to obtain orders as to the action the southern army should take; on 12 October Major Paar returned - empty handed.
The clash at Biala Podlaska, 13 October. A village in the southern sector, 39 km west of Brest-Litowsk. A successful Austrian rearguard action by General Bianchi’s 1st Division over the Russians under General Count Lambert. The Austrians had 7,300 men and twelve guns. Russian totals are not known, but the following regiments were involved: 7th, 14th and 38th Jaegers, Tartar Ulans, Tartar Regiment of Evpatoria, Alexandria Hussars, Arsamass, Schitomir and Starodub Dragoons, Cossack Pulks of Grekov VIII, Grekov XI, Melnikov V and Babarantschikov IX and two batteries of horse artillery. Losses are not known.
The Russian advance was stopped - but only for a moment.
Our situation was still extremely dangerous. Our aim had to be to reach the left bank of the Bug, further below Brest, via a diversion. The problem was that our left flank column was always in close proximity to the enemy. They could always threaten to cut off our line of retreat. The Russians could also throw their whole force at Warsaw, for there was nothing in their way.
Finally, after four marches, we crossed the Bug into Poland. Reynier had a bridge thrown over the river at the village of Klimczice. The Austrians crossed at Drohyczin, seven kilometres further downstream.
We now had a free hand and marched back up the Bug on 15, 16 and 17 October to behind a swampy stretch of the Biala stream, up against Brest and were - once again - facing the Russian army.
Much to our surprise, we carried out this movement in peace, for the Russian main body was still at Brest. They had only sent Colonel Tschernitschew with 4,000 cavalry against Warsaw. He got only as far as Wegrow, when our movement caused him great concern and he withdrew again in a wide arc.
We had no idea what the Russians were doing; thus a squadron of Ulans, under Major von Seydlitz, was sent to Brest. They met General Essen’s corps advancing on Biala, and were pushed back onto our outposts. Essen now attacked us. My regiment had to cross the swamps at Kosulamühle to threaten their right flank, while the Light Infantry crossed at Bialkamühle. After exchanging heavy skirmishing fire, the enemy withdrew. It seemed as if it was just a reconnaissance in force. Lieutenant von Zychlinsky and his platoon of sharpshooters managed to take a 12-pounder cannon, that had been set up in a copse. The Russians were so surprised, that they just ran off.
Saxon losses in this action were nine officers and 186 men. General Reynier expressed his satisfaction in a special order of the day. According to our prisoners, it was one of General Essen’s divisions and part of the 9th Division, with forty-eight guns, which made the attack.
The Russians were so confused with our various manoeuvres that they sent detachments off in all directions. [It seems that the real reason for the lack of serious pursuit was the call for the Russian forces to close in on the Beresina crossing to the north east.]
I spent the following night in the shop of a Jew; a wounded Russian officer was brought in, he spoke German well and was named Bajardinsky. He had a bad head wound. In order to give the troops some rest and to establish contact with Warsaw, we withdrew to Siedlicze and Drohyczin, on the left bank of the Bug. The Austrians also fell back and stayed there until 27 October.
But the rough, cold weather was another enemy and we found little comfort in our hutted camp. Here we were joined by Durutte’s [32nd French] Division of 9,000 men.
In these last combats in the withdrawal we had come to know the Russian Jaegers well, especially those which had joined Sacken’s corps. They were good shots, equipped with long-range muskets and they caused us some damage. Our corps now numbered not quite 12,000 men. The weather was wet and cold, our clothing in rags and the ration supply in this exhausted province was barely sufficient. But, even with all these difficulties, no-one thought that things would very soon get so much worse. But we all hoped for support from the Grande Armée as it fell back; it had to be strong enough to defend the borders of Warsaw for the winter and be ready to resume the offensive in the spring.
It is clear from these passages that Schwarzenberg had risked both his army and the city of Warsaw by his decision to cross back to the eastern bank of the Bug. A more energetic Russian commander would have made him pay dearly for these errors. His decision to return south, upstream to the Biala Podlask — Brest position could also be criticised; the position at Siedlice - Drohycin would have been less exposed and closer to Warsaw.
Schwarzenberg continued north west and crossed the Bug some 90 km downstream at Drohyczin. He then returned south to take up a new line from Biala to the Bug. The Saxons were at Biala, the Austrians against the Bug. The allies were not clear as to the enemy’s intentions; they knew only that Tschitschagoff’s main body was at Brest-Litowsk, east of the Bug, with forces at Mosty and Slonim to the east.
The only Russian forces west of the Bug were the Streifkorps of Colonel Tschernitschew.1 He had pushed some 90 km westwards from Brest to Wegrow and had caused panic in Warsaw. General Frehlich’s Austrian cavalry brigade was sent after him, and the Russian took refuge with General Essen’s corps.
There was no news from the Emperor in Moscow, and the Russian aims were still unclear; Schwarzenberg now fell back north to a new line from Siedlice to Drohyczin, in order to better protect Warsaw. He had no idea that the Grande Armée was to shrink from over 500,000 men in June to a mere 108,000 on 19 October, when the retreat from Moscow began.
The new Austro-Saxon allied position allowed the easy reinforcement of 8,000 Austrians, Durutte’s 15,000-strong 32nd Division to the VII Corps and some squadrons to Kosinski’s Bug Division.
On 29 September, Tschitschagoff received the order to advance north east on Minsk to strike at Napoleon’s rear and to make contact with Wittgenstein’s I Corps at Borisov on the Beresina. By this time, Tschitschagoff had given up hope of defeating Schwarzenberg after he succeeded in withdrawing over the Bug. The Emperor was still wasting his time in Moscow at this point.
Schwarzenberg was to be merely watched by the Reserve Army, now under Osten-Sacken, as Tormassow had been called away to the main army. On 29 October Tschitschagoff set off from Brest on the River Bug to march north east through Pruzany and Slonim to attack the French depots in Minsk, some 375 km away.
At this same date the Austrians had 30,000 men, having been reinforced by 5,800 men on 26 October, the Saxons about 12,000 and Durutte 9,000. The total was about 51,000 men. On the Russian side there were 35,000 with Tschitschagoff, including Tschaplitz, Ertel and Lüders, Sacken’s Corps of 27,000, and Ertel’s Reserve Corps of 15,000 in Mozyrj, 236 km south of Minsk. On both sides, many men were sick at the end of October. Sacken was left at Brest to watch Schwarzenberg.
Tschitschagoff reached Slonim on 6 November, Minsk on 16 November and Lambert’s advanced guard took the town next day. On 21 November Lambert threw General Dombrowsky’s 17th Polish Division out of the town of Borisov on the Beresina River and destroyed the bridge there that was so vital to Napoleon’s escape. The Russians had marched 460 km, in bad weather, in 23 days; no mean feat. By the time of the battle of the Beresina crossing, Tschitschagoff had 38,000 men and these were joined by 3,400 of Ertel’s corps in Minsk.
On 30 October Schwarzenberg crossed to the eastern bank of the Bug at Drohyczin, learned that Tschitschagoff had left for Minsk with his main body, guessed why and at once set off to follow, and try to stop him. He marched with the Austrians via Bielsk, Swisloczi and Wolkowysk. The train made a wide detour to the north, through Liw, Zambrow, Suraz and Zabludow to Swisloczi, and the Saxons - to cover this movement from Sacken — marched south of them via Orlja, Narewka, Rudnia, Porosowo and Podorosk, through the supposedly impassable swamps of the upper River Narew. These towns may be found on the map between Bielsk Podlaski in the west and Slonim in the east.
Reynier was to wait in the area south of Wolkowysk (Porosowo - Podorosk) from 6 to 13 November, until the trains had cleared that town and were on their way to Slonim. The Russians had to cover 180 km from their start-point to Slonim; Schwarzenberg had to march 220 km to reach the same town. His supply train had almost 300 km of appalling roads, in winter, to work their way through. This was strange, overcomplicated planning, involving the fragmentation of his army in enemy territory, lack of supplies and the choice of the worst terrain for much of his force to cope with.
Reynier had advised Schwarzenberg to first defeat Sacken with his whole force, then to follow Tschitschagoff on the best roads in the region, with all his army concentrated. Why this eminently sensible suggestion was ignored is a mystery.
Lieutenant von Wolffersdorff’s diary is eloquent on this trek:
On 27 October the enemy outposts to our front pulled back. This could only be explained by their withdrawal to the main army. We sent out many patrols; it seemed that the enemy had withdrawn in the direction of Slonim and had left a corps of about 15,000 men behind. This caused our commander in chief to throw two bridges at Drohyczin on 29 October, to cross the Bug and to take the road to Slonim.
As soon as it was established that Admiral Tschitschagoff had taken his main army off to operate in the rear of the French Grande Armée, it was decided to disrupt this operation.
It was decided that the allied Austro-Saxon corps would undertake a flank march in the area of Bielsk and across the Narew.
On 1 November the Saxons were back in the area that they held on 13 October. At Telatice the Austro-Saxon cavalry clashed with the enemy; in the skirmish Major von Seydlitz of the Ulans was killed by a pistol shot in the throat. Ulan Reiss managed to recover his body from the enemy. Seydlitz was one of the best cavalry officers.
Marching hard, we crossed the Narew on 5 November. The muddy tracks demanded all our efforts and made these marches the worst of the whole campaign. We bivouacked in the middle of the forest.
As our 2nd Battalion straggled into camp not sufficiently closed up, General Lecoq ordered all company commanders to be arrested. Even in the most difficult circumstances, the general insisted on the best march discipline. This later saved our corps from disintegration.
November brought a mixture of storms, rain and snow. We always broke camp in the dark on these short days. A dry bivouac was a luxury. It was again necessary for the men to find their own food. An officer of the general staff allocated each brigade an area in the surrounding region from which to draw their needs. Each battalion sent out a foraging party. The officer in charge was often unable to ensure that there was good order and no violence in the darkness, especially as everything had to be taken by force. Food, forage, straw for our beds, wood for the fire, even pots and pans, for in the six months of the campaign, our field kettles were worn out by the daily use.
Uniforms and shoes were also missing. We took fur coats, skins, woollen blankets, which we tied around us with string, and peasant smocks.
But, even if the odd crime was committed under these circumstances, the inner discipline of the units was upheld. Very rarely did men go missing. We had to drive the Cossacks out of almost every village that we entered, and they became ever more bold.
They knew of every patrol that we sent out. Our cavalry - now down to 1,200 men - was no longer able to hold them back and we were literally confined to barracks. With every day we missed Thielmann’s cavalry brigade, which had been detached to theGrande Armée, more and more.
Vollborn’s diary has this to say:
The march through the Narew swamps was utterly exhausting. In four days we lost six men from our company; where did those worn out men end up?
The cold got worse and worse; our clothing ever more ragged. My servant brought me a sheeps wool peasant’s smock in Rudnia; I had this turned into trousers by the company tailor, Hensel, in the bivouac, and they lasted me until we marched back into Saxony.
We turned a blind eye to soldiers who supplemented their clothing; we were just pleased that they still had sufficient sense of survival to do it.
The Battle of Wolkowysk, 15-18 November 1812. Reynier’s VII Corps was pushed north out of Wolkowysk on 15 November by Tschitschagoff’s army of the Danube and called for help from Schwarzenberg’s Austrians. Durutte’s 32nd Division, XI Corps and the Wuerzburg Infantry Regiment came up in support of the Saxons and held the line of the hills. Schwarzenberg’s corps arrived on 16 November in the Russian rear and caused them to flee the field. The allies lost 1,800 men, the Russians lost 4,000.
In the following days there were repeated orders issued against looting, maurauding and so on. One quarter of the men had to stand guard around the camp. As the guard was changed only every six hours, this was a great strain on the men. The daily clashes of the next few days soon made us forget these troubles. The general dangers were stronger than mens’ rules. The good spirit of our corps saved the individual as well as the corps itself.
Sacken learned on 8 November that the allies were on the move, and advanced on Wolkowysk from Brest-Litowsk by the most direct road through Rudnia, Nowy Dwor and Porosowo. On 7 November his patrols, emerging from the swamps at two widely separated points, bumped into the Saxons south of Swisloczi. Reynier wished to attack him together with the Austrians, but Schwarzenberg insisted that he adhere to the agreed plan, and continued on after Tschitschagoff.
Reynier was left at a disadvantage, but withdrew skilfully north to Wolkowysk, which he reached on 14 November. The previous day Schwarzenberg had arrived at Slonim, some 56 km to the east, and at last decided to turn back to help Reynier. Wolffersdorff takes up the tale again:
On 7 November we reached Swisloczj; on the 8th Porosowo. The pressure of the enemy on our rearguard was so great, that our continued march to Slonim was not practical, even though the Austrians pressed on. In order to save our artillery and park, we had to turn back to Swisloczj on 11 November, and didn’t turn back to Lapenica, south of Wolkowysk until the 12th. The 13th was supposed to be a rest day, but we were attacked at 9 o’clock by General Lambert, in such superior strength, that our outposts were forced back, even though they were supported by the five battalions of von Sahr’s brigade. The battle was for the woods to our front and the fighting was bloody.
We brought about 100 wounded back out of the combat area. Their condition aroused our deepest sympathy. We had nothing on which to move them in the sharp frost and the terribly cut-up tracks except the rickety local farm carts of the region. Only a few of these unfortunates reached the hospital; even many of those with only minor wounds died on the way.
Reynier could not hold the poor position at Lapenica, due to the presence of Sacken’s corps and the fact that the Austrian troops were 42km away. In the night of 13/14 November he pulled back[north] to the heights north of the little town of Wolkowysk, with the town to our front.’
The clash at Wolkowysk (Izabelin), 14-16 November. A town in south Russia, on the river of the same name, 70 km south east of Grodno. An Austro-Saxon victory over General Osten-Sacken’s corps of the Army of the Danube. Sacken launched a night assault on Wolkowysk on 14/15 November. Renewed attacks were made on 15 and 16; they failed. On the afternoon of 16 November, the tables were turned, when Schwarzenberg took Sacken in rear. The Russians suffered a defeat; fled south to Kobryn and then back to Brest on the Bug. The allies concentrated 28,000 men and 76 guns for this battle; the Russians had 27,000 men and 92 guns. Allied losses were 1,800 men in all. Russian losses were 1,500 killed and wounded, 2,500 captured on the battlefield. Most of their baggage train was lost. The Saxons followed them up and captured 4,700 men along the way.
Wolffersdorff takes up the tale again:
The 1st Saxon Division was on the right wing, covering the road to Mosty and Grodno. One battalion of [Prinz] Friedrich covered the crossings of the Rossa and Wolkowysk streams. Our left flank was covered by swamps. Thick woods ran around to the back of our position.
Wolkowysk, a small town built mostly of wood and inhabited mainly by Jews, lay in the valley, scarcely a quarter of an hour before us. A battalion of Light Infantry occupied it. Reynier set up his headquarters in it.
Durutte’s division2 came in from Grodno and joined us; it was composed mostly of prisoners of war, conscripts, deserters and criminals; a cross-section of the worst that Europe had to offer.
It was rough on the troops who had to bivouac; there was a foot of snow, we were short of straw and dry wood and we had only ship’s biscuit to eat. The night was bitterly cold.
At 3 o’clock in the morning, the Russians assaulted the town. The signal horns blared, the salvoes roared, the wagons and horses clattered up the hill. It was a devil of a noise. Soon flames lit up the combat and two of our battalions were sent down into the town.
The entire headquarters would have been lost had it not been for Leutnant von Petrikowsky’s presence of mind. He had held his picket hidden at the priory until the Russians reached the bridge and then fired into their right flank to such good effect, that it slowed their advance right down. This gave everyone in the town time to get themselves together. Reynier rushed to the town square and almost fell into Russian hands together with his ADC, Major von Fabrice, whose horse was shot and wounded.
In a night attack, the attacker must be very bold right at the start; that which is omitted in this phase can never be made up for later. If the Russian cavalry had attacked our camp at the same time and occupied the exits of the town, the results of the raid would have been much greater.
Von Wolffersdorff explains that the advantage of having experienced soldiers is that they are calmer in tough situations. The troops were never allowed to take off their clothes, and if they were close to the enemy they even slept with their bandoliers on and their packs under their heads. If the alarm was sounded, the men would run to fall in. On the night in question, the men were all in their ranks when the generals, some partially clothed, reached the camp. His tale continues:
With soldiers like this you can do anything, but we also needed a man with Reynier’s rapid decisiveness to get us out of the pickle in which he still was.
General Essen, who commanded the Russians here, had not achieved his main aim, but most of the town and the bridges were in his hands. There was wild confusion in the town. Drivers were rushing about with their horses, wagons were overturned or broke and blocked the streets. The grenadiers and the Light Infantry Battalion still held the exits from the town and thus gave the train time to evacuate the place; only three or four wagons were lost. The rest, including the war chest and the intendance supplies managed to escape to Mosty.
Eventually, the two battalions had to fall back, after having had a series of bitter fights in the back streets. The enemy poured after them, but were in such confusion that they were quickly pushed back to the bridges. They went into the houses of the town to plunder and their officers had a hard job to get them back in the ranks. At 10 o’clock next day we could send details into the town to look for food and forage. That which we could not buy for any price yesterday, now lay in the streets. Sugarloaves, heaps of coffee beans, which the Cossacks had thrown away in order to make room for more precious items in the sacks, furs, woollen blankets, whole bales of cloth. Only brandy was missing; the enemy had left none of that behind.
Aware of the peril of our situation, General Reynier sent one of his ADCs to Prince Schwarzenberg in Slonim, 43 km away, to ask him to come and take the Russians in the right flank or rear.
On 15 November the enemy advanced in heavy assault columns against our left flank. A strong force of cavalry attacked our hussars and the Polenz Dragoons that were there. These were pushed back by the first charge, but stood their ground, supported by the horse artillery battery, for the second, then forced the Russian cavalry back. Colonel von Engel of the hussars was badly wounded here. He was already in the hands of the enemy, when he was rescued by his son.
The enemy repeated his assaults two or three more times that day, but without success. One of my friends, Lieutenant von Zeschau, was wounded in the lower stomach; we bandaged him up, but he died shortly afterwards. Later the Russians bombarded our camp with 12 pounders and caused us some loss.
Both sides remained under arms that night; the Russians in the town. It now became so cold, that the blood from the wounded froze. This bivouac was a severe test, as we were short of everything: food, straw, firewood, even drinking water and the snow was no substitute. I shall never forget the night of the 15/16 November.
Luckily, my servant had found some bacon and eggs in an abandoned house. Together with a soup made of ship’s biscuit, we shared this with my uncle, General von Steindel. Then I stretched myself out on the snow, without a fire to warm my frozen limbs. My poor horse had to eat straw. So we lay there, dumbly wondering how many more such nights we would have to face.
On the morning of 16 November, the enemy renewed his attack on our position. Every time the fog cleared, all we could see were more and more enemy troops pouring down the hill into the town. They might come charging out of it at any time. At three o‘clock a large mass formed up opposite our right wing. Just then, with indescribable joy, we heard the welcome sounds of cannon fire as the Austrians came up behind the enemy. At the same time, Durutte’s division made an assault on the town, which took fire. The Russians were driven out under a hail of fire. Everybody shouted: ‘The Austrians are here! Long live Prince Schwarzenberg!’
In order to break out once and for all, General von Sacken had packed troops into the town; as the burning bridge set the houses alight, the Russians rushed out at this side to escape, cannon and ammunition wagons blocked the bridges and all resistance ceased. Our troops could not miss the great targets that were presented.
The darkness was lit by the burning buildings of Wolkowysk and the flashes of occasional shots. The whole scene was fascinating; we forgot our fatigue. Then we realised that the danger was gone; we all went back to our huts, anyone who had anything to eat was busy, boiling and frying. Everyone was telling of what he had seen and done that day.
Our losses on these two days were heavy, but those of the enemy were much worse, especially in the last two hours. There were about 1,500 dead in Wolkowysk, and 1,700 wounded in the priory alone. Many of these were captured. In battle one’s human feelings are suppressed, but they come to the fore in increased degree when the action is over. You just don’t think of the man who is killed at your side; you have no time to think and to feel. But the impression that you feel, when looking at a battleground, covered with corpses is shattering... A light snowfall covered the bodies and made the scene even more weird. In the distance were the odd peasants, clutching items that they had taken from corpses. Ravens circled overhead.
The Austrians had captured the Russian headquarters, including their war chest. We saw Austrian soldiers with handfuls of gold coins; they offered horses, jewellery, gold crosses, furs for sale. Prince Schwarzenberg presented some dromedaries to General Reynier, but they died of the cold.
On their retreat the Russians had abandoned many guns that they could not move and had thrown the barrels into the swamp. We found just the wrecked limbers.
The fighting was mainly over for the Austro-Saxons, but the struggle to survive the vicious climate went on unabated. On 25 November Schwarzenberg, in Kobryn, received an order from the Duke of Bassano: ‘March at once to take Tschitschagoff in rear and so relieve the Grande Armée.’ The pursuit - and likely destruction - of Sacken’s corps was thus abandoned.
Schwarzenberg was in Slonim on 5 December; here he received news from the Duke of Bassano, implying that something had happened to the Grande Armée. Two days later, Reynier, in Rozana, heard much more definite news from Berthier.
The Austrians withdrew north west to Grodno, then south west to Bialystock. The Saxons fell back west to the River Bug, to Wolczin,3 just north of Brest-Litowsk. Kosinski’s poles held Brest and Pruzany. This was the end of the significant fighting in the southern sector in 1812; at least here the campaign ended with a tactical victory.
In the southern sector, Schwarzenberg had held his position against superior Russian forces; but things were soon to change, as Ulan Captain von Boehm tells us:
All these deeds were buried by the gigantic catastrophe of the retreat from Moscow. Right towards the end, we were called upon to help at the Beresina; the Prince was ordered to: ‘manoeuvrer dans le sens de la position actuelle.’ [manoeuvre in the sense of the current position] But absolutely no clue was given as to where this ‘position actuelle’ was. This was at a time when the Saxons were being assaulted on 14-16 November, by General Osten-Sacken’s corps.
On 19 December the VII Corps reached Wolczin, a village on the Bug, downstream from Brest-Litowsk. Here they were joined by a Saxon reinforcement battalion of 1,000 men and the Grenadier Battalion von Eichelberg, which had been in Bialystock. The corps now numbered 8,000 men. The river froze over and on 22 December Reynier sent the train of the corps over the ice to the west. Finding food was difficult but possible. Wolffersdorff’s servant even managed to buy the ingredients to make something almost like a traditional German Stollen or Christmas cake.
On 22 December, Russian General Wasiltschikow came to Schwarzenberg’s headquarters to agree upon a ceasefire and the allied withdrawal to Warsaw. On condition that the Russians would not invade the Grand Duchy for a time, this was agreed upon. The Austrians withdrew to Ostrolenko, Pultusk and into Warsaw. In contravention of this agreement, the Russians advanced, step-by-step, westwards.
On Christmas day 1812 the Saxons crossed the Bug at Drohyczin and marched to Siedlce. Wolffersdorff survived the campaign with only a frost-bitten hand. The Austrian corps finally set off to return home from the city of Warsaw on 5 February 1813. The terrible campaign of 1812 was over; that of 1813 was about to begin.
Polish General Kosinsky’s division had meanwhile been caught by Tschitschagoff’s Army of the Danube at Kaidanov (30 km south west of Minsk) on 15 November and forced to surrender.
Novo Schwerschen, 13 November. North central section. A village 40 km south east of Smolensk. General Kossecki’s Polish division (one battalion each of the 18th, 19th, 20th and 22nd Lithuanian Infantry Regiments and a combined cavalry regiment) were defeated by a Russian force from Admiral Tschitschagoff’s Army of the Danube, including the 10th and 14th Jaegers. General Kossecki’s 3,500 men were very badly mauled by General Count Lambert, losing 1,000 killed and wounded and their only gun. Russian losses were very light.
The clash at Kaidanowo, 15 November. A village in the central sector, 30 km south west of Minsk. A victory for the cavalry of the Army of the Danube under General Count Lambert, over General Kossecki’s division which had been badly mauled at Novo Schwerschen two days before. It had now been joined by some Würrtemberg infantry and 300 French cavalry and totalled 1,300 men. They were all captured by General Count Lambert (except for one Württemberg sergeant who carried news of the disaster back to Minsk) for insignificant loss.
Seven squadrons, three regiments of Cossacks and four guns.
32nd Division, XI Corps.
Probably now Voucyn.