Battle of Berezina

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Battle of Berezina
Part of French invasion of Russia (1812)
National Museum in Poznan - Przejscie przez Berezyne.JPG
Napoleon's crossing of the Berezina
an 1866 painting by January Suchodolski
oil on canvas, National Museum in Poznań
Date26–29 November 1812
Location
The Berezina river near Borisov (now Barysaw)
Result Russian tactical victory
French strategic victory;
French cross the river but suffer massive casualties [1] [2]
Belligerents
Flag of France.svg First French Empire
Grand Coat of Arms of Duchy of Warsaw.svg Duchy of Warsaw
Flag of Russia.svg Russian Empire
Commanders and leaders
Flag of France.svg Napoleon I
Flag of France.svg Nicolas Oudinot
Flag of France.svg Victor-Perrin
Flag of France.svg Michel Ney
Flag of Russia.svg Pavel Chichagov
Flag of Russia.svg Peter Wittgenstein
Flag of Russia.svg Mikhail Kutuzov
Strength
49,000 combatants,
40,000 stragglers. [3]
64,000 combatants,
Chichagov: 34,000;
Wittgenstein: 30,000. [3]
Casualties and losses
13,00025,000 combatants
10,00020,000 stragglers
25 cannons.
6,00020,000 combatants.

The Battle of Berezina (or Beresina) took place from 26 to 29 November 1812, between the French army of Napoleon, retreating after his invasion of Russia and crossing the Berezina (near Borisov, Belarus), and the Russian armies under Mikhail Kutuzov, Peter Wittgenstein and Admiral Pavel Chichagov. The battle ended with a mixed outcome. The French suffered very heavy losses but managed to cross the river and avoid being trapped. Since then "Bérézina" has been used in French as a synonym for "disaster."

Napoleon 18th/19th-century French monarch, military and political leader

Napoléon Bonaparte was a French statesman and military leader of Italian descent who rose to prominence during the French Revolution and led several successful campaigns during the French Revolutionary Wars. He was Emperor of the French as Napoleon I from 1804 until 1814 and again briefly in 1815 during the Hundred Days. Napoleon dominated European and global affairs for more than a decade while leading France against a series of coalitions in the Napoleonic Wars. He won most of these wars and the vast majority of his battles, building a large empire that ruled over much of continental Europe before its final collapse in 1815. He is considered one of the greatest commanders in history, and his wars and campaigns are studied at military schools worldwide. Napoleon's political and cultural legacy has endured as one of the most celebrated and controversial leaders in human history.

Barysaw City in Minsk Voblast, Belarus

Borisov is a city in Belarus situated near the Berezina River in the Minsk Region. With a population of around 145,000, it lies around 74 km northeast of Minsk.

Belarus country in Eastern Europe

Belarus, officially the Republic of Belarus, formerly known by its Russian name Byelorussia or Belorussia, is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe bordered by Russia to the northeast, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and Lithuania and Latvia to the northwest. Its capital and most populous city is Minsk. Over 40% of its 207,600 square kilometres (80,200 sq mi) is forested. Its major economic sectors are service industries and manufacturing. Until the 20th century, different states at various times controlled the lands of modern-day Belarus, including the Principality of Polotsk, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Russian Empire.

Contents

Background

As the surviving masses of the Grande Armée struggled on for the perceived safety of the west, the Russian armies closed in on them.

The French had suffered a defeat just two weeks earlier during the Battle of Krasnoi. However, reinforcements who had been stationed near the Berezina during Napoleon's initial advance through Russia brought the numerical strength of the Grande Armée back up to some 30,000 to 40,000 French soldiers capable of fighting, as well as 40,000 non-combatants. The Russians had approximately 61,000 troops at the Berezina, with another 54,000 under Kutuzov just 40 miles to the east who were approaching the river.

Battle of Krasnoi Part of Napoleons invasion of Russia

The Battle of Krasnoi (Krasny) was a series of skirmishes fought in the final stage of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. The Russians under General Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov inflicted heavy losses on the remnants of the Grande Armée. Lacking sufficient artillery, cavalry and supplies to wage battle, Napoleon's objective at Krasnoi was to collect his scattered troops and to resume his retreat. Despite the vast superiority of his forces, Kutuzov refrained from launching a full-scale offensive during the four days of fighting.

Battle and crossing

Napoleon's plan was to cross the Berezina River and head for Poland, while his enemies wanted to trap him there and destroy him. The original plan to cross the frozen river quickly proved impossible, as the usually frozen waterway had thawed and was now impassable.

The nearby bridge at Borisov had been destroyed and most of the equipment to build a pontoon bridge had been destroyed a few days earlier. However, the commander of the bridging equipment General Jean Baptiste Eblé had disobeyed Napoleon's earlier order to abandon equipment, instead retaining crucial forges, charcoal and sapper tools and thus only needed protection from Chichagov's force on the far west bank to span the river. [4]

Jean Baptiste Eblé French army commander

Jean Baptiste Eblé was a French General, Engineer and Artilleryman during the Napoleonic Wars. He is credited with saving Napoleon's Grand Army from complete destruction in 1812.

Marshal Oudinot was given the task of drawing off the admiral and made a move towards the south. The plan worked, and Eblé's Dutch engineers braved ferociously cold water to construct the vital 100-metre bridge. Hypothermic death in less than 30 minutes of exposure was likely. The four Swiss infantry regiments acted as the rearguard. Cavalry quickly crossed it followed by infantry to hold the bridgehead. The Swiss suffered terrible losses (of the four Swiss Regiments of Oudinot's corps only 300 soldiers survived), but managed to cover both positions and the retreat. This struggle is depicted in the Beresinalied . The Swiss' heroic stand saved most of the French troops.

Nicolas Oudinot Marshal of France

Nicolas Charles Oudinot, 1st Comte Oudinot, 1st Duc de Reggio, was a Marshal of France. He is known to have been wounded 34 times in battle. Oudinot is one of the Names inscribed under the Arc de Triomphe, Eastern pillar Columns 13, 14.

The Beresinalied, originally known as Unser Leben gleicht der Reise is a Lied composed by Friedrich Wilke after the 1792 poem "Die Nachtreise" by Karl Ludwig Giesecke.

A second structure opened within hours and cannons were taken across it to bolster the defensive perimeter. They arrived just in time, as Chichagov realised his error and attacked the 11,000 French troops.

By midday of the 27th, Napoleon and his Imperial Guard were across, and the strategy now swung to saving the Swiss rearguard, which was fighting against Wittgenstein's arriving army.

Imperial Guard (Napoleon I)

The Imperial Guard was originally a small group of elite soldiers of the French Army under the direct command of Napoleon I, but grew considerably over time. It acted as his bodyguard and tactical reserve, and he was careful of its use in battle. The Guard was divided into the staff, infantry, cavalry, and artillery regiments, as well as battalions of sappers and marines. The guard itself as a whole distinguished between the experienced veterans and less experienced members by being separated into three sections: the Old Guard, Middle Guard and Young Guard.

One of the spans broke in the late afternoon, but more feats of engineering skill had it repaired by early evening. The corps of Marshal Davout and Prince Eugene crossed, leaving Marshal Victor's IX Corps to hold off the enemy on the east bank.

Eugène de Beauharnais French general and adoptive son of Napoleon I

Eugène Rose de Beauharnais, Duke of Leuchtenberg was the first child and only son of Alexandre de Beauharnais and Joséphine Tascher de la Pagerie, first wife of Napoleon I.

Boosting his firepower with artillery from across the river, Victor held out until after midnight, when his forces were able to join their colleagues, push Chichagov aside, and continue the retreat to France.

Casualties

Berezina at Studzionka in winter 2015, looking north. P1030756-001.JPG
Berezina at Studzionka in winter 2015, looking north.
Berezina, same spot, looking south. P1030754-001.JPG
Berezina, same spot, looking south.

There is considerable disagreement regarding the numbers of casualties on both sides. While some 22,000 French men became casualties, these included a great number of stragglers, many of them civilians. [5] A higher estimate is provided by historian Jacques Garnier, who places French losses at 25,000 combatants, 25 cannon and 20,000 civilian stragglers, of whom around 10,000 were massacred by Cossacks. [3] Russian casualties were also high, and although a very moderate 19th century Russian estimate places them at 6,000 [6] they probably amounted to 20,000 men. [3] Historian Alain Pigeard offers more moderate figures (combatants only): between 13,000 and 16,000 men (2000 killed, 7,000-10,000 wounded, plus the entire Partouneaux division killed, wounded or prisoners) for the French, 13,000 men (10,000 dead or wounded, 3,000 prisoners on the right bank) for the Russians. Among the French casualties were three generals and four colonels, killed during this battle. [7] Pigeard's estimate reflects more recent research, with most modern historians placing French losses at around 15,000 combatants and 10,000 stragglers. Russian losses are usually placed at up to 15,000 combatants. [8] According to the modern Russian encyclopedia, the Russian army lost from 8,000 to 15,000 killed, wounded and prisoners during four days; French casualties were from 25,000 to 40,000 [9] Richard K. Riehn estimated French losses at about 30,000; most of these were stragglers, actual battle losses being relatively small with about 10,000 French and 14,000 Russians actually involved. [10]

The Battle of Berezina is depicted in the 1956 film War and Peace . The erection of a bridge over the Berezina is described in Honoré de Balzac's novel The Country Doctor.

The drama of the battle's story inspired many works of art centred on the crossing.

See also

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References

  1. Riehn, p.387.
  2. Clausewitz, Karl Riehn, p.387
  3. 1 2 3 4 Tulard, volume 1, p. 202-203.
  4. Beresina : Battle of the Beresina : Napoleonic Wars : Retreat from Russia 1812 : Napoleon Bonaparte
  5. Marley, E. J. La Méthode Graphique (Paris, 1885) (as cited in Tufte, Edward R.'s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information)
  6. Богданович М. И., История Отечественной войны 1812 года по достоверным источникам. Т.3.-СПБ.,1860
  7. Pigeard, p.125-126.
  8. Moscow, 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow, Adam Zamoyski, Harper/Collins, 2004, ISBN   0-06-108686-X, page 480.
  9. Отечественная война 1812 года. Энциклопедия. - М., РОССПЭН, 2004, стр.65
  10. Riehn, p.387

Sources

Further reading

Coordinates: 54°19.550′N28°21.631′E / 54.325833°N 28.360517°E / 54.325833; 28.360517