Witebsk was a town on the River Dwina, about 130 km north west of Smolensk. One of the less realistic plans suggested to the Czar had been to construct a domestic version of Wellington’s famous Lines of Torres Vedras, within which the Russian army would shelter if needed. Unfortunately, the vast plains of western Russia offer but few convincing obstacles. The only ones are the rivers, but these are all shallow, mainly with low banks, and easily forded. However, General von Phull – a German adviser of Czar Alexander - designed an armed camp to be built at Drissa.
Von Phull calculated that the camp would need 130,000 men to defend it, but in fact the 1st Army (to whom this task would fall) could only be brought up to 100,000. Apart from inadequate forces, the fortified camp was constructed on the western side of the river (it was in fact a bridgehead), the river was fordable at several points both up and downstream of it, and no provision had been made to fortify the eastern bank, or to ensure that adequate forces would be available to man these works if they were to be built. Many Russian officers were aware of these grave shortcomings, but the project went ahead and much time, effort and money was expended upon it. Meanwhile the hectic race to catch the elusive Russians - extremely destructive to the Grande Armée – went on.
An Italian officer carries the packs of two exhausted soldiers during the early part of the advance. Faber du Four. Author’s collection.
General F.P. Uwarow, Russian commander of the I Cavalry Corps, who, together with Platow, mounted the raid on the northern French flank at Borodino.
On 28 June in Wilna, the II and VI Corps were detached together, under command of Marshal Oudinot, with General Gouvion St-Cyr commanding VI Corps, from the main body of the Grande Armée and sent off to the north east to Duenaburg, Swolna and Polotzk on the River Duena. Here they acted as flank guard, holding in check the I Russian Corps of General Wittgenstein until after the second battle of Polotzk on 20 October. They then fell back south to rejoin their comrades for the Beresina crossing. To the south, the VII (Saxon) Corps was also detached from the main body. On 2 July they crossed the River Narew at Surace to join up with Prince Schwarzenberg’s Austrian corps to form the south flank guard.
On 21 July, Captain Abraham Colkoen, of the 2nd ‘Red’ Lancers, wrote to his father from Orscha:
Here we are at Orscha on the Dniepr, a little above Smolensk.1 Since Koenigsberg I have not taken off my boots; we have always been in the vanguard, always at the Russians’ heels without ever being able to catch them. They retreat at an unbelievable speed, and all we have been able to capture so far are several depots just as they were about to set them on fire, and a number of wagons loaded with powder, arms and baggage which were following their army. We have not given them a single sabre cut yet and we do not understand it... Their army seems to be split up by our forces, one part of it at Riga and all along the Dwina, and the other towards the Ukraine, and both are retreating... It is quite impossible that this campaign should last less than a year, and spending the winter in this country of bears and wolves is quite a prospect... I have lost all my belongings but what I stand up in... We have taken a convoy of 14 wagons loaded with sugar, coffee, pepper and ginger going from Riga to Moscow and have shared it out among the troops, so we are all drinking coffee day and night.
The 2nd Russian Army of the West, hurrying eastwards along the southern side of the central corridor, was attempting to join up with Barclay de Tolly’s 1st Army (now at Witebsk, 160 km north of his location), but Davout’s I Corps was able to frustrate this junction at Mohilev.
The clash at Saltanowka (Mohilev), 23 July. A village in the central sector, 10 km west of Mohilev. A French victory of Davout’s I Corps: General Dessaix’s 4th Division (85e Ligne) and Compans’s 5th Division (61e and 108e Ligne) with Bourdesoulle’s 2nd Light Cavalry Brigade (3e Chasseurs) over General Rajevsky’s VII Corps. This formation consisted of General Paskievich’s 26th Division (infantry regiments Ladoga, Nishegorod, Orel, Poltava, 5th and 42nd Jaegers).
Rajevsky had been ordered to hold Mohilew with his 16,000 men and 72 guns; he put the town into a state of defence. At the start of the action, the Russian 26th Division advanced to the south of Fatova, not knowing that all of Davout’s corps was closing in on it. Rajevsky was forced to turn away to the south east and run for his life.
Davout lost some 4,134 casualties, Rajevsky lost 2,548. Off to the north Murat’s cavalry, lashed forward with imperial fury, was about to catch up with the 1st Russian Army of the West.
The clash at Ostrowno, 25 – 27 July. A village in the central sector. on the left bank of the River Dwina, 20 km west of Witebsk. Victory of the French General Bruyère’s 1st Light Cavalry Division, Niemoiewski’s 15th Light Cavalry Brigade on I Cavalry Corps and Delzon’s 13th Infantry Division, Eugene’s IV Corps, over General Count Ostermann-Tolstoi’s IV Corps of Barclay’s 1st Army.
Napoleon, hearing that the Russians were at Witebsk, rushed on to catch them. The French had some 28,000 men and twelve guns against 20,000 Russians with twenty guns.
Seven kilometres from Witebsk Osterman’s advanced guard (two squadrons of the Life Guard Hussars and a company of horse artillery) clashed with Bruyères’s division. The Russians advanced rashly and were thrown back by Pire’s brigade, which mauled them. In the following combat, many more units on both sides were involved. The Russians lost over 2,500 casualties and six guns. French losses, however, were a surprising 3,334.
The 7th Hussars (I Cavalry Corps) charge the Russian rearguard at Ostrowno on 25 – 27 July. 1812. Albrecht Adam.
The clash at Jakubovo, 28 July. A village in the central sector, near the River Dwina, 10 km west of the town of Witebsk. A Franco-Polish victory. Marshal Murat with General Niemoiewski’s 15th Light Cavalry Brigade, I Cavalry Corps, Castex’s 5th Light Cavalry Brigade, 6th and 8th Infantry Divisions, II Corps. On the Russian side, Osterman-Tolstoi’s IV Corps, as for Ostrowno. The 8th Polish Lancers broke a Russian square in this action; about 800 of the infantry were captured.
The first clash at Krasnoi, 14 August. A village in the central sector, 40 km south west of Smolensk. A French victory (Marshal Ney’s III Corps) over General Neverovski’s 27th Infantry Division, VIII Corps, 2nd Army of the West.
Barclay ordered General Neverovski to take his newly-formed 27th Division south, over the River Dnieper to watch the approaches to Smolensk on that bank of the river. Napoleon sent Ney’s III Corps and Murat’s cavalry to force their advance on the city. The French cavalry (Ney’s corps did not come into action) had 15,000 men with thirty guns; the Russians 7,200 men and fourteen guns. After initial combat, Neverovski realised that he was hopelessly outnumbered; he formed his division into one huge square and withdrew, fighting as he went. Despite Ney’s repeated pleas to Murat to draw his cavalry off so that his artillery could engage the square, Murat stupidly persisted in throwing his precious regiments in futile charges at the Russians, who skilfully withdrew until nightfall and safety. The French lost 500 men; the Russians 640 men and seven guns.
On 27 July, about fifty members of the Red Lancers were ambushed in the town of Babinowitz by the lancers of the Russian Imperial Guard under Grand Duke Constantine; only an NCO and three men managed to escape. Albert de Watteville, commanding a squadron of the 2nd Lancers of the Guard, wrote that night from Orscha:
We have constantly been out in front of the whole army corps, sometimes 25 to 30 Meils. The campaign continues to be murderous. Except for the Prince of Eckmühl2, who has defeated Bagration at Mohilev,3 I do not believe that there has been any fighting other than by the vanguard, and then only occasionally. The Emperor has crossed the Duena at Orscha at a time when the Russians were leaving their camp to take refuge in Witebsk; they must have found themselves in even greater difficulties... We have been in Orcha for ten days now, using food from the Russian supplies. The enemy’s manoeuvres at Witebsk compel us to bring together all our forces before moving forward. If, when we first reached this town, we had had half the cavalry that is now here, and a little artillery, we could have reached Moscow without firing a shot; and we could have spread terror to Witebsk. They are completely routed.
King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia. His indecision, and terrible sense of timing, led to the crushing defeat of the Prussian army at Jena and Auerstaedt in 1806. General von Yorck’s Convention of Tauroggen, with the Russians in December 1812, was key to bringing Prussia into the allied camp against Napoleon.
Not quite yet.
By this point, the chronic lack of food supply had seriously eroded the bonds of discipline in all units of the Grande Armée. Entire tactical formations left the march route to go foraging - or marauding - for food. Had they not done so, they would simply have died. It was only at Witebsk that the advance was halted and some of the stragglers could catch up. The Red Lancers of the Imperial Guard now had only 600 horses left; they had already lost 400 since the start of the campaign, and only fifty of these had been in combat, the rest by sickness and exhaustion. On 28 July, Segur tells us:
Napoleon rode forward into the site of the camp just abandoned by Barclay’s 1st Army. Everything he saw spoke of a mastery of the science of war; the favourable situation of the camp, the symmetrical layout of its parts, the exact and exclusive observance of the use for which each had been designed, and the resultant order and cleanliness. Moreover, nothing had been left behind, not a weapon or personal possession, no tracks – nothing to indicate the route the Russians had taken in their sudden nocturnal flight. There was more order in their retreat than in our victory! Defeated, they left us as they fled the sort of lessons by which the victorious never profit, either because success thinks it has nothing to learn, or because we put off improving ourselves till misfortune has struck.
Colonel Thomasset, commanding officer of the 3rd Swiss Infantry Regiment (9th Division, II Corps), described the terrible conditions of this initial advance to contact in a letter to Colonel von May in the regimental depot in Lille on 10 July:
You can have no concept of what we have suffered in this campaign. We have not had any bread for two months; only a little flour of which each soldier carries four pounds in a small sack. The entire country is devastated, the house are looted, the peasants have fled. We have lost an incredible number of men due to the forced marches that we have had to make. We had to march 12 Meilen in 24 hours which drove our agony to the limit and meant that two thirds of the men fell out and are now with the stragglers. They are trickling back day by day; I have met many, particularly from the 3rd Regiment – the waggons are always behind due to lack of horses; we replace them with whatever we can find, but the regiment loses about 20 per day despite this. The [regimental] artillery is without teams; the regiment now has no more than ten of the horses that we bought in Nimwegen. There have been two skirmishes with the enemy in the advance so far, one east of Wilna, one at Wilkomir; we only had to deploy two infantry regiments to put to flight a corps of 25,000 men. There are rumours of an early peace; I hope they are true and that we can leave this terrible land. The war in Spain was child’s play [une plaisanterie] compared to this, where we are short of everything; I haven’t drunk any wine for two months.
Another Swiss, Captain Rosselet, added his contribution to the record of this desperate period:
A detail of the clash between Russian and Saxon cavalry in the final struggle for possession of the Grand Battery at Borodino. Photographed from the great painting in the Rotunda museum in Moscow.
Fusiliers of the Portuguese Legion foraging on 4 August at Liozni; sketched by Faber du Four. The infantry of the Legion served in the 6th, 10th and 11th Divisions. Author’s collection.
By day great heat; terrible storms with thunder and hail; by night, floods and cold in our wet clothes. It’s terrible to bivouac in these conditions. Many have dysentery.
After several days of terrible heat, a gigantic thunderstorm burst over the weary columns as they struggled forward, bringing five days of torrential rain and a sudden, sharp - and unpleasant - drop in the temperature. The ‘roads’ and fields were flooded; all movement of the lumbering waggons stopped as their teams of starved, exhausted draught animals collapsed and died in the mud. The already bad supply situation for the troops became catastrophic; the bivouacs in the fields of half-grown barley became swamps. The problem of stragglers was already serious and quickly became acute and chronic as thousands left their regiments to forage on their own account; many never to return to their colours, many to die at the hands of the enraged Russian peasants.
At the end of July Napoleon’s patience - ever in short supply - was steaming rapidly out of both his ears at the absence of real success or of any response from the Czar. He looked at Witebsk and was unimpressed.
Segur furnishes some revealing imperial quotations, all dated on 28 July in Witebsk:
Do you think I have come all this way just to conquer these huts? How many reasons have I for going to Moscow at once? How can I bear the boredom of seven months of winter in this place?
Am I to be reduced to defending myself – I who have always attacked? Such a role is unworthy of me... I am not used to playing it... It is not in keeping with my genius.
And in answer to a request that they stay in Witebsk, Napoleon responded: ‘Of course I see that the Russians only want to lure me on. Nevertheless, I must extend my line as far as Smolensk, where I shall establish headquarters ...’ But then, according to the same source, he said: ‘How far must we pursue these Russians before they decide to give battle?... shouldn’t all this make us decide to stop here on the border of old Russia?’
General Nikolai Nikolajevich Rajewski, Russian commander of the Grenadier Corps and defender of the Grand Battery at Borodino. He went on to fight in 1813 and entered Paris with the allied troops in 1814.
Also from the Witebsk quotations is this:
We must take possession of it [Smolensk] so that we may march on the two capitals simultaneously. In Moscow, we’ll destroy everything; in St Petersburg we’ll keep everything. Then I’ll turn my arms against Prussia and make her pay the cost of the war.
When Napoleon asked his minister (Pierre-Anton Daru, Minister for War) his opinion of this war; the latter replied:
It is certainly not a national matter. The importation of some English goods into Russia, even the creation of the kingdom of Poland are not sufficient reasons for waging war with such a remote country. Neither your troops nor ourselves see the object or the necessity for such a conflict. Everything warns us to stop where we are.
And in yet another mood swing, Napoleon said: ‘Peace awaits me at the gates of Moscow...’ Daru said to the Emperor (to quote Segur) ‘Your army has already diminished by one-third, either through desertion, famine or disease. If supplies are scarce in Witebsk, what will it be like further on?’
The Emperor spent fifteen days in Witebsk, so obviously his need for speed had suddenly abated and his indecision had increased dramatically. Every day, at six o’clock, he attended the guard mounting ceremony in front of his palace, at which the presence of everyone in his extensive entourage was also required. As he soon found that the available space was too small, he had some houses pulled down to provide more room for the spectacle.
But some, such as General Raymonde-Aimery de Fezensac, were still fascinated by Napoleon’s spell. Napoleon famously once said: ‘In war men are nothing, one man is everything.’ And in this case, that one man was himself. General de Fezensac wrote of the state of the army at the end of July 1812:
Here I may mention that no general ever paid more attention to the subsistence of his troops and to the hospitals of his army than Napoleon. It is not sufficient, however, to issue orders: those to whom they are given should have it in their power to execute them. The orders themselves should be practicable; yet how could this palpable truth be realised in the present state of things? The rapidity of the movements, the concentration of so many, the bad state of the roads, the difficulty of obtaining forage, all interposed to prevent any methodical issue, or any complete organization of the hospitals. The soldiers, who never troubled themselves with these difficulties, contented themselves with inveighing at the want of zeal, and sometimes the want of honesty, of the commissaries and contractors. They were heard to say, when perishing on the road, or dying in the ambulances, ‘It was sad thus to die when the Emperor interested himself so much about them.’
And if you’ll believe that...
As of 14 August, the 1st and 2nd Lancers of the Guard formed a brigade under General Baron Colbert. The combat reputation of the Red Lancers among the Cossacks was not high; the Dutchmen seemed to have been less than expert with the use of the lance.
Actually about 90 km west of Smolensk.