Chapter 6

The southern sector

We turn now to the southern sector of the war, where the Saxons of the VII Corps and Austrians were operating. This theatre of operations is geographically dominated by the vast Pripet marshes, also known as the Roknito swamps, running eastwards from the area of Kobryn, along the upper reaches of the river of the same name, some 340 km to the town of Mozyr. In places these swamps are 150 km wide. They were - and are - the largest swamps in Europe and a major obstacle to all movement; roads through them are extremely few and far between. They are also extremely dangerous. Austrian accounts of operations there in 1812 talk of men and horses disappearing within seconds, never to be seen again, if they strayed from the track.

The few roads that crossed or entered this marshland were built of tree trunks and were of very limited military use. Running repairs of these fragile tracks was a daily task. Another aspect of life in this region was the mosquito. Men and animals were subject to a constant offensive barrage by thousands of these rapacious insects, which must have made life extremely difficult. There were very few towns or villages within the area of these swamps.

Tha Saxon bridging train company was called upon five times to deploy their pontoon bridges. Despite all the difficulties of the terrain, they returned to Saxony at the end of the campaign with all their vehicles and were missing only ten pontoons that had been damaged and abandoned. Each battalion and squadron of the Saxon corps had a ration wagon. Logistics personnel were attached to the advanced guard and were responsible for requisitioning rations as the corps advanced.

As there were insufficient train vehicles at the start of 1812, Saxony paid for 300 to be made for transporting biscuit. Due to the impassability of the roads, replacement stocks of uniforms, equipment and shoes were sent by river barge from Saxony to the area of operations, along the Vistula and the Bug. Unfortunately, they either never arrived, or came up very late, and most of the items were mouldy. Away from the marshes, the ground was fruitful and the Austrians and Saxons suffered few of the desperate, long-term shortages that so afflicted Napoleon’s central group.

The Austrians fielded 26,830 infantry, 7,318 cavalry and 60 guns; while the Saxons, still under Jerome’s command at this point, had some 21,000 men and 56 guns, as well as 20 regimental pieces. The allies in this sector were opposed at the end of June by General Tormassow’s Third Army of the West, some 46,000 men. It was spread along a front of 275 km facing the River Bug, with its headquarters at Lutzk, on the River Styr; the right wing was at Kowel, the left on the border with Podolien. Off to the east, at Mozyr, was General Ertell’s corps of one cavalry and two infantry divisions. This would later be expanded to five infantry divisions.

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The southern flank; the area of operations of the Austro-Saxons and Tormassow’s 3rd Army of the West.

The young Austrian Captain of Ulans, von Boehm, returning from Imperial headquarters in Wilna to Prince Schwarzenberg’s in Pruzany in July, had been given a courier’s transport requisition by Marshal Berthier and had managed to acquire ‘a very miserable Jew with a Droshki and three good horses.’ His account of his adventures continued:

I took possession of my Jew and set off that evening. Scarcely had we left the town, than he asked me if we might leave the main road and use some shortcuts. He spoke fluent German and had been requisitioned in Kowno. We travelled on for two full days1 in the direction of Slonim, resting in the woods only in the heat of the day and feeding the horses as well as we could. We changed horses in Slonim, and in the late evening of 15 [July] I reached our headquarters, which was still in Pruzany. [Pruzany was about 50 km north of Kobryn and to the north of the Pripet marshes.]

The Prince was eagerly awaiting the despatches and my report. With his keen sense of the strategic situation, he seemed to be rather worried by our new task of ‘marching on the centre’, but there was much to be expected from the impending action at Drissa.2At all events, there was nothing else for us to do but to set off [north east] in the direction of Borisow.

Our advanced guard had reached Minsk, and our headquarters Neswiecz, on 27 July, when a brigade of Reynier’s VII (Saxon) Corps was attacked at Kobryn by Tormassow3 and mostly captured. Reynier, naturally, called upon the Prince for aid, and this was the turning point of our campaign, for in turning back to help Reynier, we abandoned the march on Moscow, the horrors of the retreat and of the Beresina, and the almost certain destruction which would have accompanied that.

Napoleon approved of the Prince’s decision; the VII Corps was placed under the Prince’s command, and the aim of the two corps was now: ‘de porter la guerre en Volhynie, de couvrir le duche de Varsovie et la droite de la Grande Armée.’ [ ... to carry the war into Volhynia, to cover the Duchy of Warsaw and the right of the Grande Armée]

Lieutenant von Wolffersdorff, of the Saxon Infantry Regiment Prinz Clemens, relates how the corps, in the best of spirits and well equipped as they marched out of Saxony on 28 March to make for Kalisch, was soon very depressed by marching on muddy tracks in the pouring rain for days on end. As their own draught animals died of exhaustion, there were great difficulties finding replacements, as the natives drove all their stock off into the forests.

The same difficulties were experienced by the Austrians in this difficult terrain. To resolve the problem, Prince Schwarzenberg appointed a general to organize local supplies as they moved. This meant requisitioning from the natives, but great care was taken to prevent violence and it seems that the Austrians suffered little from starvation. In view of the lack of pay - for the agreed funds were not forthcoming from the French authorities - Schwarzenberg organized the issue of wine, brandy and tobacco to the troops in lieu.

At the Polish border, on 5 April, an imperial order detached General von Thielmann’s cavalry brigade from the corps and sent it off to join Latour-Maubourg’s IV Cavalry Corps. The Saxon Garde du Corps and the von Zastrow Kuerassiers would storm the grand battery at Borodino on 7 September with the 7th Heavy Cavalry Division.

Von Wolffersdorff tells us that on 6 April:

...we reached Gostyn, which had been partially burned down. I was billeted in one of the outhouses of the abbey and the monks provided for us well. For the first time, I tasted mead, which is common in Poland and is prepared from honey.

On 8 April we were quartered in a run-down old castle of the Graf Rublow. Some of the rooms were well maintained and I shared one with Lieutenant von Neitschitz. It was a great pleasure to sleep in a bed again - the first time since we crossed the Polish border.

On 11 April I was billeted on some poor nobleman who didn’t even have any bread.

From 25 April to 12 May VII Corps was in the area of Radom, in eastern Poland. The weather improved, but von Wolffersdorff relates that even then, there was very little food left in the area due to the continual requisitioning by passing troops.

On 1 June King Jerome of Westphalia reviewed all the troops in the area at Gniewaszow, on the left bank of the Vistula. The king was a very mediocre rider; he rode a very fine English thoroughbred, which was much too fast and spirited for him. As he had come from Warsaw, the Saxon train department had to station 40 horses for his use at each station. He also demanded twelve riding horses for his ADCs.

The Saxon cavalry mounts were used to light bridles and bits; when they were fitted with the heavy Westphalian items, with their gilt fittings and clumsy bits, the horses went mad and threw their riders off. In vain the Saxon grooms tried to explain that the bridles were the trouble; the Westphalians refused to mount the horses again and made do with the peasant horses of the Polish guides, much to the amusement of the onlookers.

In order to reach out to the Austrian corps near Lemberg, the VII Corps extended itself from Lublin, all the way back4 to Gora near Warsaw.

In the night of 15/16 June my regiment had to march off to Praga, a suburb of Warsaw, on the orders of King Jerome, to relieve his troops there... We stayed in Praga until 19 June and had plenty of time to see the city, which was full of Westphalian troops. I saw a detachment of Italian Horse Guards in wonderfully rich uniforms, with brass helmets and cuirasses...

From now on we bivaouacked everywhere, except in rare instances, and we had to subsist just on our field rations, which our servants tried to make appetising; but hunger is the best cook and practice makes perfect. We often changed our march route and the ration wagons had great problems to find us, so we had to allow the men to forage for their food; a very negative step as far as the maintenance of discipline was concerned. The area we were in was very thinly populated; the villages far apart and most of the inhabitants had fled into the forest with their stock before we arrived.

Von Wolffersdorff then described the existing social system in that part of Russian Poland, which shocked him and seems to have been absolute feudalism. There were numerous - but poor - aristocrats who paid no taxes, servile peasant serfs, the property of their lords, who paid taxes and existed on the verges of starvation, and numerous Jews who flourished by holding the monopoly on trade and moneylending, making them despised but essential to the other social groups. They also ran all the inns and shops and functioned as brokers in all major transactions. Once a peasant had fallen into debt with a moneylender, he would never be free again.

The aristocrats were the only class allowed to hold civil offices. The agricultural methods were primitive; land rotation was practised and most of the soil could have produced much more, had it been properly managed. Spreading of manure on the fields was unknown.

The native cattle were small and produced little meat. Oxen were rarely seen. The horses were excellent, but had limited staying power. The ploughs were usually pulled by teams of four of them; often at a trot, with the ploughman running behind. There were plenty of pigs, which seemed to flourish. The meagre harvests seem only to have lasted until the new year, as much of it was rendered as rent or traded for other necessities. The diet of the peasants consisted of pickled beetroot and pickled cabbage, sour milk, potatoes, gruel and black bread, which was rock-hard and looked like a clump of earth. ‘No dog in Saxony would eat it!’ Brandy was drunk by young and old every day. Maize was the main winter feed of the cattle and pigs.

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Kaiser Franz I of Austria, Napoleon’s father-in-law and reluctant ally in the 1812 campaign. In the 1813 campaign, Austria’s decision to come over to the allied side during the armistice sealed the fate of the resurrected Grande Armée in the gigantic battle of Leipzig.

Von Wolffersdorff’s account moves on to the crossing of the Russian border:

Our advanced guard reached Poswienko5 on the road to Suraz on 1 July; we followed today and crossed the border into Russia. The Russian troops had left the place shortly before and had destroyed the bridge over the River Narew. The area is rich and very fruitful... Next day we reached Bialystock. Our whole brigade and the Regiment Prinz Anton, was billeted in the town... which is famous for its breweries; the beer is very strong. Magazines and a hospital have been established here. Cossack patrols are seen every day.

The march eastwards went on; on 7 July the Saxons reached Wolkowysk, near Slonim. The weather was very hot, drinking water was not to be had and many men and horses dropped out of the columns from exhaustion. The Russians opposing them fell back without fighting to Minsk. The Austrians had now reached Ruzany and the V and VIII allied corps, with King Jerome, were in Nowogrudok.

The small Polish ponies could not move the supply wagons fast enough, so the troops existed on their rations of biscuits. The horses began to die from eating green fodder. Despite the heat, in every village the Saxons found cellars full of ice - regrettably the quantities were very small.

By 15 July the Saxons were in Nieswicz, about 90 km south west of Minsk. It was about this time that King Jerome was sent back to Westphalia; Napoleon ordered Reynier to take VII Corps back south west to Slonim to be closer to the Austrians. This was also done at high speed. From Bialystock to Bitin6 was 330 km and had been covered in 16 days. The men and horses were exhausted.

Sergeant Vollborn, of the Saxon infantry Regiment Prinz Clemens, takes up the story:

The weapons and equipment used by the Saxons in the 1812 campaign were praised in all official reports. It soon became clear, however, that the Russian weapons, especially the 12 and 8 pound guns, were better than the Saxon 6 and 4 pounders, as were the muskets, especially those of the Russian Jaegers, which had greater range and accuracy than the Saxon weapons.

Our muskets, ‘Vienna pattern’ of 1811, had many defects; many of the men were terrified of them, as several barrels had burst during live-firing practice. Also, the ‘Capots’ or greatcoats, many dating from 1807 and used in the 1809 campaign, were worn out, and the French linen camping bags were very unpopular.

On 19 August, Colonel von Mellentin of the Prinz Clemens Regiment felt forced to issue an order to his regiment:

Certain soldiers - particularly quartermasters - have been tempted by the disgusting example of other troops to mishandle the unfortunate natives by making demands, which their poverty does not allow them to fulfil. The company commanders are herewith required by me to make known to their men - especially the quartermasters - that any man who mishandles a native, no matter what the excuse, will be punished by being placed in staff arrest four days on bread and water, and will be chained to a wagon for four hours daily.

Vollborn wrote of the deadly rush that the VII Corps was forced to make:

In the period from 5 to 19 July we had to carry out long marches in great heat. On one such march, I think it was the 9 July, 19 men died of exhaustion. The route led through a great pine forest, at the end of which was a little stream, in which were the rotting cadavers of several horses. Everyone rushed to the stream to drink; some drank themselves to death. Duty on the flanking patrols was the worst; there were often no paths and it was cross-country all day.

In the bivouac at Slonim on 10 July, we had the first and most severe court-martial of the campaign. A quartermaster NCO of the 1st Light Infantry Regiment had taken a silver spoon from a manor farm. He was condemned to death and shot at 11 o’clock at night. If one considers that the reduction of the discipline, which gradually occurred, was the outcome of the breakdown of the food supply system, one would have to agree that hundreds of others should also have been shot.

If one of our flank patrols found some of the farmers in the woods, with their animals and their supplies, then they just took what they needed. Opportunity makes a thief.

Premierleutnant Blassmann, of the Prinz Clemens Infantry Regiment, recorded the execution of the NCO:

The NCO showed great courage at his execution. He selected the comrades that were to shoot him, and made a short final speech. The general had no alternative but to make an example of him, in order to maintain discipline. Then he knelt down on the heap of sand; he died at the first shot, without giving any sign of pain.

Sergeant Vollborn records that during one, well-earned rest at night during this march, there was a great panic when one of the men stuffed his pipe into his cartridge box and then set off his cartridges.

The complete breakdown of the food supply system meant that it was every man for himself. As there was a profusion of wild strawberries in the woods, the men gorged themselves on these - and then were hit by dysentery.

The clash at Kobryn, 27 July.

A town in Grodno province, in the southern sector, 47 km east of Brest-Litowsk. A victory of Russian General Cherbatov’s 18th Infantry Division, 3rd Army of the West, over the Saxon General von Klengel’s brigade. This was the opening action in the southern sector.

In mid-July, Tormassow was ordered to attack the enemy troops to his front. He moved north against VII Corps. General Reynier, aware of Tormassow’s advance, still ordered General von Klengel to hold Kobryn (an isolated advanced post) until 28 July. The town lay at the western end of the Pripet marshes, was built of wood and contained a redoubt built by the Swedes during their invasion of 1709.

Adhering to his orders, von Klengel held on, reporting back the various Russian advances to Reynier as they occurred, although he did send off his train vehicles and an escort of 300 Ulans to safety. On 27 July he was attacked by Cherbatow from Ratno and Mokrany in the south east, while Count Lambert’s cavalry corps took Brest-Litowsk along the Bug from the south.

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The clash at Kobryn, 27 July 1812. This was the first action of any note on the southern front. Kobryn is about 47 km east of Brest-Litowsk and at the eastern edge of the Pripet marshes. Saxon General von Klengel, isolated with two infantry regiments, three squadrons of lancers and eight guns, was surprised, overwhelmed and captured in this village by General Cherbatov’s 18th Infantry Division of Tormassov’s 3rd Army of the West. The earthwork by the bridge dates from the time of the invasion of King Charles XII of Sweden. Author’s collection.

Tormassow’s main body of 12,000 men and 22 guns advanced rapidly on Kobryn from the east, from Drohyczin. Klengel’s brigade, Infantry Regiments Koenig and von Niesemüschel and Ulan Regiment Prinz Clemens, 3,300 men, did not stand a chance.

Early that day, the Saxon outposts on the roads to Brzesk and Dywin were pushed back on the town by heavy masses of Russian cavalry. At the same time, six other squadrons of Russian cavalry crossed the River Muchawiez by a ford below Kobryn and formed across the road to Pruczany. Russian batteries were placed on the western, southern and eastern sides of the town and opened up a heavy fire. Even though von Klengel might still have been able to slip away, he stuck to his orders to hold on until the next day.

By half-past ten the town was burning fiercely and completely encircled by Russian troops. Two hours of hard fighting followed, in which the Saxons began to run out of ammunition. They withdrew to two points; the market square and the old Swedish earthwork by the river (the Regiment Koenig). Here they held out doggedly for another seven hours, but the situation was clearly hopeless and von Klengel capitulated.

Saxon losses were 108 killed, the rest captured, together with eight guns and four colours. A squadron of eighty Saxon Ulans in Brest was also captured. Russian losses were light. General Tormassow was so impressed at the bravery of the Saxons that he gave the officers back their swords. The prisoners were marched off to Kiev, returning to Saxony only in July 1813; about half of the men died in captivity.

This loss shocked Reynier into calling for help from Schwarzenberg, now marching away from him towards Minsk. Reynier also pulled his corps back, north east, to Ruzany near Slonim, to await the arrival of the Austrians. Due to the difficulties of moving food forward through the swamps, Tormassow’s advance came to a halt, but he did send Cossack bands forward into the Grand Duchy of Warsaw to disrupt recruitment and to spread terror.

So at last the Austrians arrived at Ruzany and the Saxons saw their first Russian prisoners. These were Baschkirs, armed with bows and arrows. They had to put on demonstration shoots for their hosts. Austrian sutlers bartered their wares among the Saxons; Hungarian wine and three-grain bread. Sergeant Vollborn regretfully traded his Lithuanian pony for a loaf of bread and a bottle of red wine - to cure his dysentery.

By now, the VII Corps had marched more than 600 km (200 km more than the main body of Napoleon’s army) and had lost 4,500 men, including 2,089 in combat. This was about 20 per cent against 33 per cent in the main body over the same time, and combat losses in the main body were only one-tenth of their total losses. The VI (Bavarian) Corps, for example, had now lost 12,000 of their original 25,000 men.

Notes

1

South, through Lida.

2

The Russians evacuated this fortified camp, so the action did not take place.

3

3rd Army of the West.

4

163 km north west along the Vistula.

5

About 50 km south west of Bialystock.

6

Now Bycen, south of Slonim, which the Saxons reached on 19 July.

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