Chapter 16

The northern flank, Polotzk — the finale

Since the first battle at Polotzk on 18 August, action had been limited to patrolling and skirmishing. The town itself was mainly constructed of wood, which was used to build huts, feed the fires and to build defence works to the north of the town. By October, much of the place had simply disappeared. Abraham Rosselet,1 recorded that:


General Prince Ludwig Adolph Peter von Wittgenstein, commander of the 1st Russian Independent Corps, which operated against the II and VI Corps of the Grande Armée around Polotzk. He was from a Westphalian family. In 1813 he commanded the allies at the battle of Bautzen on 20—21 May, where he was defeated; he then resigned and reverted to commanding a corps. At his throat is the Austrian Order of Maria Theresia. Author’s collection.

Le camp était assis dans la plaine en avant de cette place. Le camp était plutot un village; on s‘y était établi dans de fortes et bonnes baraques, construi de manière a se garantir du froid, car on comptait y passer l’hiver.[The camp was on the plain in front of the place. The camp was a real town, made up of fine, strong huts, constructed as to be warm because we expected to overwinter there.]

The deadly fever and typhus continued to rage. In the four ‘hospitals’,2 which the allies had built on the banks of the Dwina, there died about 100-150 men each day. As there were not enough men to bury the corpses, they were just thrown out of the windows into the river. As the river provided the drinking, cooking and washing water, the high mortality rate is scarcely to be wondered at.

Due to the absence of regular food supplies, the men were reduced to eating anything that they could find. Cowskins were cut into narrow strips and boiled, toads and frogs were fried, old fish, cats and dogs, herbs and mushrooms, animal entrails, offal and blood - it all went into the pot. Each corps was allocated an area from which to obtain its rations and fodder; that of the VI Corps lay between Uschatz and the village of Plissa. By this means, regular supplies of bread - even if only at half-ration level — were enjoyed for the next two months. By early September there was no more grain or bread to be found. The total absence of cavalry much reduced the effectiveness of these operations.

On 3 September a courier arrived from Imperial headquarters bearing promotion for Gouvion Saint-Cyr to marshal. General von Deroy was created a count of the Empire, and eighty crosses of the Legion of Honour were distributed to officers and forty to NCOs and men.

The musicians of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Swiss Regiments all fell ill and were sent back to the ‘hospitals’ in Kowno. As it was impossible to give them any money for this journey, few reached Kowno, and those who did, died there.

The VI Corps melted rapidly away. On 15 June 1812 it had 25,105 men; by 15 September this had shrunk to 7,814 and by 15 October it was down to 2,607. Indeed, Saint-Cyr gives the figure of 1,823 Bavarians present and fit for duty at the start of the second battle of Polotzk. The four Swiss regiments fared little better; in mid-September, the 1st Regiment had 864 men, the 2nd 983, the 3rd 314 and the 4th 664; a total of 3,025. These figures are without the foraging detachments.

There is a major question to be asked about Napoleon’s management of his assets here. We are told repeatedly that he was able to reel off the parade states of his corps at will, with no reference to any documents. He knew how many men were available, where and when. If the men at Polotzk were dying at the steady rate of 100 each day, any fool could calculate that the 22,000 men of the II Corps and the 20,000 of the VI Corps, left after the first battle of Polotzk, would dwindle away to nothing within a finite time. So what went wrong in the fabled French high command? Was Saint-Cyr not rendering true parade states to the Emperor? Was Berthier falsifying the figures? If so, why? Why did Napoleon let two corps just sit in a poisonous trap and waste away? Why did Saint-Cyr just sit there and watch his command vanish? Why did he not pull back some miles and leave the miasma to the Russians?

Karl Philipp Wrede, Commander, 20th Division, then of the VI (Bavarian) Corps

Born on 29 April 1767 in Heidelberg, son of the Regierungsrat of Heidelberg, Ferdinand Joseph Reichsfreiherr von Wrede and his wife Katharina, Wrede studied law and in 1792 became the Commissar of the Palatinate with the Austrian Corps of FZM Fuerst Hohenlohe at Schwetzingen. In 1793 he was Oberlandeskommissar (Senior Commissar) with the Austrian army under Wurmser on the Upper Rhine.

On 18 June 1794 he was appointed titular colonel in the Bavarian General Staff; in this capacity he took part in all campaigns on the Rhine and was sent on special mission to the Duke of Brunswick with the Prussian army. He was then appointed Senior War Commissar in Rheinland Palatinate, before becoming colonel in the general staff with seniority from June 1794. He commanded a battalion in the campaign against France and was distinguished on several occasions. In December 1799 he was awarded the Military Medal.

Between 1800 and 1806 Wrede was involved in numerous actions, and he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Maximilian Joseph for his services, along with the Grand Cross of the Legion d’Honneur. In 1809, after further distinguished military efforts, Napoleon created Wrede a count.

As General der Kavallerie, Wrede commanded the 2nd Bavarian Division in the VI (Bavarian) Corps in Russia in 1812. They fought at Polotzk; after Deroy’s death, Wrede took command of his division as well. On 25 June 1813 Wrede was awarded the Grand Cross of the Military Medal. In July 1813 he commanded a 20,000 strong corps; after the signature of the Treaty of Ried Bavaria joined the allies against Napoleon. He fought Napoleon at Hanau and was wounded on the second day. He was defeated in this battle, largely due to the fact that his dispositions were tactically stupid and he had ‘forgotten’ his artillery park. Despite this, on 9 November he was showered with further honours.

In 1817, after further commands in the army, and following the fall of Graf Monteglas from the Bavarian government, Wrede took his place and did much work on the constitution of 1818. At the opening of the Chamber in that year, he was appointed to be its President. On 26 September 1822 he was appointed Minister for the Army. In 1826, while in St Petersburg on a diplomatic mission, he was presented with the Order of St Andrew in diamonds. On 29 April 1831 he was appointed colonel-in-chief of the 9th Line Infantry Regiment. He died on 12 December 1838 in Ellingen.

The final scene (without the enemy doing anything to hasten things along) would see Saint-Cyr and his ADCs, well provided with food and drink, sitting alone on the banks of the Dwina, surrounded by the 50,000 corpses that had once been their army.

But the enemy were not content to let nature take its course.

French communications from Moscow to Polotzk had broken down due to partisan activity; Saint-Cyr received his news from Maret in Wilna. The Russian General Count F.F. Steinheil now advanced south from Riga with his Finland Corps of 12,000 infantry, 1,250 cavalry and fifty-two guns to reinforce Wittgenstein. Together with local militia formations and this new corps, the latter could concentrate some 40,000 men. To oppose them, Saint-Cyr had only just over 20,000 weak, sickly, starving and demoralised men.

The stage was set for a showdown. Preliminary action opened on 14 October, when Wittgenstein attacked the II Corps right wing at Sirotino.

The 2nd Battle of Polotzk, 18—20 October. A drawn battle between Oudinot and Gouvion Saint-Cyr (II and VI Corps), and Wittgenstein’s I Corps and Steinhiel’s Finland Corps. The Franco-Bavarians could bring 23,000 men and 140 guns into line for this battle; Wittgenstein had 31,000 regulars, 9,000 militia and 136 guns.

This action coincided with the Russian surprise attack on Murat at Tarutino and was obviously well coordinated. Since the first battle in August, the wooden buildings in the town had been dismantled to provide materials for the bivouac huts of the troops and the various fortifications on the periphery of Polotzk.

There had been little action by either side in the intervening weeks. But now General Steinheil’s Corps of Finland (6th, 21st and 25th Divisions and the 27th Cavalry Brigade) had come south to reinforce Wittgenstein and the combined force mounted an assault on the right wing of II Corps at Sirotino on 14 October. The advanced French and Bavarians withdrew on Polotzk with only slight loss.

Some of the VI Corps had been detached to occupy a bridgehead at Strunja, two hours march upstream from the town. On 18 October the assault began all along the line; the 2nd Swiss Regiment particularly distinguished themselves this day, losing their commander and twenty-three other officers in combat. General von Wrede, commanding in Redoubt Nr 2, had the guns moved out into the open ground so that they could rake an advancing Russian column with canister; the attack was beaten off. The combat was broken off at six o’clock that evening.

Next day, the Russians commenced a great bombardment of the defences of the town and also attacked the Strunja bridgehead. Outflanking moves began to wrap around Polotzk. That night, Marshal St-Cyr evacuated that part of the town on the right bank of the river, broke the bridges and began his withdrawal to the south west to Arekowka.

Laurent Gouvion Saint-Cyr, Commander, VI Corps

Born in 1764 as the son of a butcher in Toul, Saint-Cyr adopted the surname Gouvion after his mother deserted her family while he was a baby. He studied art and tried to become an actor before entering French military service in 1792. He was defeated in the clash at La Grisuelle near Maubourg that year, but within two years he had risen to the rank of General de Division. In the 1796 campaign, he was initially commander of the two divisions of the left wing of Moreau’s Armée de Rhin et Moselle. Later, he commanded the centre. Due to his cold, introverted, unsociable manner, he was quickly dubbed ‘le hibou’ — the owl. He was an honest, principled man who despised his looting comrades, particularly the rapacious Massena, whom he had succeeded in 1798 as commander of the Armée de Naples. In 1799 he served initially in Italy in Joubert’s army, which was defeated by the Austro-Russians at Novi on 15 August. He was then transferred to Holland, where he commanded the 1st Division of the French corps fighting the Anglo-Russian invasion. He then moved to southern Germany to serve under Moreau again in the Armée du Danube.


Laurent Gouvion Saint-Cyr, commander of the VI (Bavarian) Corps in 1812. He was to receive his marshal’s baton for the first battle of Polotzk. He was wounded in the second battle there on 18 October. In 1813 he commanded the XIV Corps and capitulated in Dresden.

He then fell out with Moreau and was relieved of his command. From 1801-1803 Gouvion Saint-Cyr was ambassador to Madrid, and then to the court at Naples until 1805. He was apolitical and thus mistrusted by Napoleon, particularly as he refused to sign the proclamation supporting the latter’s elevation to emperor. Not surprisingly, he was excluded from the first marshalate. In August 1808 he was appointed commander of the French troops in Catalonia. He was recalled for failing to capture Girona in August of that year. In 1812 he was given command of the VI (Bavarian) Corps in the invasion of Russia and rendered excellent service on Napoleon’s northern flank.

Gouvion Saint-Cyr was wounded on 18 August in the 1st battle of Polotzk. For this, he at last received his marshal’s baton, nine days later. He was badly wounded in the foot at the second battle of Polotzk on 18 October and had to give up command of his corps.

In 1813 he was appointed commander of XIV Corps, fought at Dresden on 26 and 27 August, and was commander in that city during the siege. He was captured when Dresden fell on 11 November 1813. After the Bourbon restoration, he continued to serve and refused to support Napoleon during the Hundred Days. In July 1815 he was appointed Minister for War, but was forced out of office by ultra-royalist intrigues the following September. His attempts to gain clemency for Ney were unsuccessful.

In June 1817 he was appointed Minister for the Marine, and two months later he was reinstated as Minister for War. By this point, he had been ennobled as a marquis. His reforms were very beneficial for the French army, but he resigned in 1819 to devote his time to his family, agriculture and writing. His military talents were recognised, even by his enemies, and his control of troops on the battlefield was thought to be exceptional.

The last allied troops to leave Polotzk were Swiss, and they had to cross the river in barges. The wounded and sick in the Jesuit Monastery were abandoned to the Russians. Losses in the three day battle were 9,000 for the allies (including 2,000 captured) and 12,000 for the Russians, whose infantry had suffered terribly from close range artillery as they repeatedly assaulted the town.

But while Russian losses could be replaced with increasing ease, the allies just dwindled away. On 23 October, Saint-Cyr (who had been wounded in the foot on 18 October) felt himself ‘no longer able to exercise command of the army’ and handed over to General Count Claude-Juste-Alexandre Legrand, previously commander of the 6th Division. His chief of staff, Colonel Laurencez, sent a message to inform General von Wrede:

As Marshal Saint-Cyr can no longer exercise active command, he has delegated this to General Legrand. I already had the honour to inform Your Excellency of this, but it seems that the despatch did not arrive. The marshal requests you to consider yourself as reporting to General Legrand in all service respects, and to send the 7e Cuirassier-Regiment back to him tomorrow.

This must have been the last straw for Wrede. To be asked to place himself (and what little remained of the once-proud Bavarian army) under the command of a junior general was a calculated insult. He ignored the letter and took his own route out of Russia.

The subsequent retreat of VI Corps went through Kublitschi to Puichna, then westwards to Dogschitzi, which was reached on 27 October. Wittgenstein now abandoned the chase of the Bavarians to follow the remnants of Legrand’s II Corps south east through Lepel and Tscheria, towards the Beresina.

There was to be one more misfortune to befall the hapless Bavarians. As the battalions were now so weak, all twenty-two regimental colours were packed into a treasury wagon and sent back to Uschatz with the artillery convoy. Unhappily, this convoy fell into Russian hands on 25 October.

So the conflicts on the northern flank ended.

Wrede led the VI Corps to join up with Marshal Ney on the River Niemen in mid-December.



Swiss Lieutenant-Colonel in 9th Division, II Corps.


There were no medical staff, no medicines, no bandages.


Malojaroslawetz, 24 October. Eugen’s IV Corps spearheaded Napoleon’s attempt to break through to the unspoiled country of the Ukraine in which to retreat to the west. His opponent was Dochtorov’s VI Corps. French losses were 6,000; the Russians lost 8,000, but Napoleon gave up his thrust to the south and turned back onto his ruined advance route through Smolensk. This is a Blackwood map.

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