Battle of Smolensk (1812)

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Battle of Smolensk
Part of the French invasion of Russia
Battle of Smolensk on 18 August 1812.jpg
Battle of Smolensk on 18 August, by Albrecht Adam. Swarms of French skirmishers assault the burning city.
Date16–18 August 1812
Location
Coordinates: 54°47′N32°03′E / 54.783°N 32.050°E / 54.783; 32.050
Result French victory
Belligerents

Flag of France.svg French Empire

Flag of Russia.svg Russian Empire
Commanders and leaders
Flag of France.svg Napoleon I Flag of Russia.svg Barclay de Tolly
Flag of Russia.svg Pyotr Bagration
Strength
45,000–50,000 men
84 guns
30,000–35,000 men
108 guns
Casualties and losses
10,000 killed, wounded and missing 10,000–14,000 killed, wounded and missing
14,000 civilians missing or dead

The Battle of Smolensk was the first major battle of the French invasion of Russia. It took place on 16–18 August 1812 and involved 45,000–50,000 men and 84 guns of the Grande Armée under Emperor Napoleon I against 30,000–35,000 Russian troops and 108 guns under General Barclay de Tolly. [1] [2] [3] Napoleon attacked Smolensk, occupied by Prince Pyotr Bagration's Second Army and captured two of the suburbs. During the night the Russians evacuated the burning city. [4]

French invasion of Russia Napoleon Bonapartes attempted conquest of the Russian Empire

The French invasion of Russia, known in Russia as the Patriotic War of 1812 and in France as the Russian Campaign, began on 24 June 1812 when Napoleon's Grande Armée crossed the Neman River in an attempt to engage and defeat the Russian army. Napoleon hoped to compel Emperor of All Russia Alexander I to cease trading with British merchants through proxies in an effort to pressure the United Kingdom to sue for peace. The official political aim of the campaign was to liberate Poland from the threat of Russia. Napoleon named the campaign the Second Polish War to gain favor with the Poles and provide a political pretext for his actions.

The Grande Armée was the army commanded by Napoleon I during the Napoleonic Wars. From 1805 to 1809, the Grande Armée scored a series of historic victories that gave the French Empire an unprecedented grip on power over the European continent. Widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest fighting forces ever assembled, it suffered terrible losses during the French invasion of Russia in 1812 and never recovered its tactical superiority after that campaign.

Michael Andreas Barclay de Tolly Russian general

Prince Michael Andreas Barclay de Tolly was a Baltic German Field Marshal and Minister of War of the Russian Empire during Napoleon's invasion in 1812 and War of the Sixth Coalition. Barclay implemented a number of reforms during this time that improved supply system in the army, doubled the number of army troops, and implemented new combat training principles. He was also the Governor-General of Finland.

Contents

The French artillery bombardment burned the city to the ground. Of 2,250 buildings, 84% were destroyed with only 350 surviving intact. [5] Of the city's 15,000 inhabitants, about 1,000 were left at the end of the battle inside the smoking ruins. [5] With over 20,000 casualties, it was one of the bloodiest battles of the invasion. [5]

Artillery class of weapons which fires munitions beyond the range and power of personal weapons

Artillery is a class of heavy military ranged weapons built to launch munitions far beyond the range and power of infantry's small arms. Early artillery development focused on the ability to breach defensive walls and fortifications during sieges, and led to heavy, fairly immobile siege engines. As technology improved, lighter, more mobile field artillery cannons developed for battlefield use. This development continues today; modern self-propelled artillery vehicles are highly mobile weapons of great versatility providing the large share of an army's total firepower.

Building structure, typically with a roof and walls, standing more or less permanently in one place

A building, or edifice, is a structure with a roof and walls standing more or less permanently in one place, such as a house or factory. Buildings come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and functions, and have been adapted throughout history for a wide number of factors, from building materials available, to weather conditions, land prices, ground conditions, specific uses, and aesthetic reasons. To better understand the term building compare the list of nonbuilding structures.

The Battle of Smolensk is commemorated on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Warsaw, with the inscription "SMOLENSK 17 VIII 1812".

Prelude

Vitebsk operation

The Russian First Western Army under General Michael Andreas Barclay de Tolly slipped away from Vitebsk on 27 July after an inconclusive fight against Emperor Napoleon, avoiding a general engagement. [6] Napoleon was frustrated by his inability to bring the Russian army to battle and lingered at Vitebsk until 12 August to reform his Grande Armée and wait for stragglers to catch up. [7] [6] General Jean-Andoche Junot replaced King Jérôme as commander of the Westphalian VIII Corps and the Corps joined Napoleon's main army on 4 August near Orsha. [7]

The First Western Army was created in 1810 as part of the reorganisation of the Imperial Russian Army, and was intended as a defense against the north-western part of the Empire from the expected invasion by Napoleon. The total troops in this Army included 150 battalions, 128 squadrons, 19 cossack regiments, and 590 guns.

Vitebsk City in Viciebsk Region, Belarus

Vitebsk, or Viciebsk, is a city in Belarus. The capital of the Viciebsk Region, it had 342,381 inhabitants in 2004, making it the country's fourth-largest city. It is served by Viciebsk Vostochny Airport and Viciebsk Air Base.

Battle of Vitebsk (1812)

The Battle of Vitebsk, sometimes spelled Witepsk, was a military engagement that took place on 26 and 27 July 1812 during the French invasion of Russia. The battle put a French force, under the command of Emperor Napoleon I, in combat with Russian rearguard forces under General Petr Konovnitsyn and Peter von der Pahlen and ended with the Russian forces making a strategic retreat from the battlefield.

French situation

After five weeks of non-stop operations, the main 375,000-man strike force available to Napoleon had been reduced to 185,000 men by a host of factors. [6] [8] 90,000 troops under Marshal Nicolas Oudinot and Generals Laurent de Gouvion Saint-Cyr, Jean Reynier and Victor de Fay de La Tour-Maubourg had been detached for various missions. [8] Russian forces had inflicted thousands of combat losses on Napoleon's main army, but the primary cause in the reduction of his force was strategic consumption—the need to garrison cities, towns, fortresses and forward supply depots. [7]

Marshal of the Empire military rank

Marshal of the Empire was a civil dignity during the First French Empire. It was created by Sénatus-consulte on 18 May 1804 and to a large extent resurrected the formerly abolished title of Marshal of France. According to the Sénatus-consulte, a Marshal was a grand officer of the Empire, entitled to a high-standing position at the Court and to the presidency of an electoral college.

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.

Laurent de Gouvion Saint-Cyr Marshal of France

Laurent de Gouvion Saint-Cyr, 1st Marquis of Gouvion-Saint-Cyr was a French commander in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars who rose to Marshal of France and Marquis.

Rapid forced marches and the inability of supply wagon trains led to high incidences of desertion and tens of thousands of losses to hunger and disease, most notably dysentery. [6] The scorching July heat reduced the availability of water supplies. [9] Huge numbers of cavalry horses and transportation horses and oxen had died due to a lack of grazing areas and the inability of the wagons to carry enough fodder. [6]

Wagon four wheeled vehicle (mostly pulled by draught animals)

A wagon is a heavy four-wheeled vehicle pulled by draught animals or on occasion by humans, used for transporting goods, commodities, agricultural materials, supplies and sometimes people.

Dysentery inflammation of the intestine causing diarrhea with blood

Dysentery is an inflammatory disease of the intestine, especially of the colon, which always results in severe diarrhea and abdominal pains. Other symptoms may include fever and a feeling of incomplete defecation. The disease is caused by several types of infectious pathogens such as bacteria, viruses and parasites.

Water chemical compound

Water is a transparent, tasteless, odorless, and nearly colorless chemical substance, which is the main constituent of Earth's streams, lakes, and oceans, and the fluids of most living organisms. It is vital for all known forms of life, even though it provides no calories or organic nutrients. Its chemical formula is H2O, meaning that each of its molecules contains one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms, connected by covalent bonds. Water is the name of the liquid state of H2O at standard ambient temperature and pressure. It forms precipitation in the form of rain and aerosols in the form of fog. Clouds are formed from suspended droplets of water and ice, its solid state. When finely divided, crystalline ice may precipitate in the form of snow. The gaseous state of water is steam or water vapor. Water moves continually through the water cycle of evaporation, transpiration (evapotranspiration), condensation, precipitation, and runoff, usually reaching the sea.

Russian plan

Prince Pyotr Bagration lobbied for an offensive against Napoleon's advancing army. George Dawe - Portrait of General Pyotr Bagration (1765-1812) - Google Art Project.jpg
Prince Pyotr Bagration lobbied for an offensive against Napoleon's advancing army.

The loss of vast stretches of Russian territory to the advancing French led to a crisis and shift in power in the Russian high command. [9] An aggressive "Russian" faction around Prince Pyotr Bagration called for an immediate, all-out attack against Napoleon. [9] They were supported by Czar Alexander I and the bulk of the officer corps. [9] [8] The "foreign" faction around Barclay de Tolly, composed mostly of officers of German extraction, advocated the continuation of the present policy of delay and withdrawal to dilute Napoleon's striking power. [9] Under strong pressure from above and below, including threats of force, Barclay agreed to an offensive on 6 August. [9] [8] Ignorant as to French dispositions, Barclay intended to outflank what he presumed to be the isolated corps of Viceroy Eugène de Beauharnais near Rudnia, destroy it and inflict further losses on the French as they came to Eugéne's aid. [8]

Barclay advanced on Rudnia and Poryeche on 7 August. [8] Count Matvei Platov's Cossacks imposed a sharp defeat on General Horace Sébastiani's cavalry near Inkovo the same day, inflicting 600 French casualties. [8] On 8 August, Barclay received false intelligence that Eugéne's corps was at Poryeche and reoriented half of his army to face north. [8] Platov was directed to rejoin Barclay's army and Bagration was to move to Vidra. [8] Bagration disobeyed his orders, fearing French Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout's threat to his left flank. [10] He declared his army was hungry and sick and moved to Smolensk. [10] Barclay failed to stop him, merely adjusting his own forces to compensate. [10] On 11 August, Barclay stayed put and engaged only in outpost fighting with French cavalry under Neapolitan King Joachim. [10] On 12 August, Barclay's scouts found Poryeche empty and he directed Platov to reconnoiter the French movements. [10] The Russian offensive had failed due to disagreements among the generals, Barclay's inactivity and pointless marches that lost the Russians time they could not recover. [11]

French plan

Napoleon had expected a Russian offensive and saw in it a great opportunity to envelop and annihilate the Russian army. [8] [11] He directed Marshal Jacques MacDonald to cross the Daugava to help out Oudinot's force and ordered Oudinot and Saint-Cyr to attack Prince Peter Wittgenstein's 20,000-strong corps to prevent it from assisting Barclay. [8] [12] Napoleon came up with what became known as the Smolensk maneuver, a masterful operation designed to outflank Barclay from the south, cut off the Russians from Moscow and destroy the isolated Russian army, thus bringing the war to an end. [8] [11]

The Grande Armee crosses the Dnieper on 14 August by Christian Wilhelm von Faber du Faur. Dniapro. Dniapro (C. Faber du Faur, 14.08.1812) (2).jpg
The Grande Armée crosses the Dnieper on 14 August by Christian Wilhelm von Faber du Faur.

The action at Inkovo on 7 August was seen by Napoleon as heralding an immediate Russian attack. [10] Worried, he deployed his army in a defensive posture around III Corps. [10] By 10 August, Barclay's glacial slowness of operations had convinced Napoleon that the threat had passed. [10] He proceeded with his maneuver. [10] Vitebsk was garrisoned with a force of 3,800 men, which later grew to 7,000, to protect the French lines of communications. [10] Napoleon did not know Barclay's exact location and was acting on instinct. [10] The Grande Armée would advance in two huge columns commanded by Napoleon and Davout. [10] Napoleon's column consisted of Joachim Murat's cavalry, the Imperial Guard, III Corps and IV Corps. It would cross the Dnieper at Rosasna. Davout's column would cross at Orsha, composed of I Corps, V Corps and VIII Corps. This giant force would advance east along the left bank of the Dnieper, swing north to cut the Smolensk-Moscow road and annihilate the isolated Russians. [10] Latour-Maubourg's cavalry would attack down the Dnieper as a diversion. [10] Napoleon's deployment remained hidden from the Russians due to a thick cavalry screen under Generals Emmanuel de Grouchy, Étienne de Nansouty and Louis-Pierre Montbrun. [13] French engineers under General Jean Baptiste Eblé erected four pontoon bridges across the Dnieper near Rosasna on the night of 13–14 August and by daybreak the 175,000-strong Grande Armée was advancing rapidly toward Smolensk. [13] [11]

Battle of Krasnoi

Barclay had left Generalmajor Neverovski's 27th Division to guard Krasnoi, along with some cavalry and artillery. This force of 5,500–7,200 infantry, 1,500 cavalry and 10–14 guns was attacked by 20,000 Frenchmen under Murat and Marshal Michel Ney beginning around 2:30 PM on 14 August. [13] [14] Murat's and Ney's inability to coordinate their infantry-cavalry operations allowed the Russians to get away, at the cost of 1,500–2,300 Russian men and seven guns as well as 500 French casualties. [15] [14] The French had multiple excellent chances to annihilate the Russians but failed to so. [16] Neverovski retreated into Smolensk, shutting the gates behind him. [15] The French inability to capture to the city on the fly imposed a disastrous delay on their operations. [11] [15] Neverovski requested reinforcements from Bagration and received Nikolai Raevsky's VII Corps, which arrived on the morning of 15 August to defend the southern bank of the Dnieper near Smolensk. [15]

Barclay learned of the French attack from Neverovski. [15] He interpreted Napoleon's offensive as a retreat and prepared to capture Vitebsk. [15] He ordered Bagration to move south along the Dnieper. [15] Bagration refused, pointing out that Smolensk, Neverovski and Raevsky were in grave danger. [15] He then received permission from Barclay to deploy to the Dnieper's southern bank at Katan. [15] Barclay ordered General Dmitry Dokhturov's corps to join Bagration and directed the Smolensk governor to evacuate the city archives. [15] No decisive action was undertaken by Barclay due to uncertainty about Napoleon's locations. [15] Czar Alexander left the army and turned over command of the armies to Barclay, ordering him to defend Smolensk. [15] Barclay decided to rush his and Bagration's men down the road from Vitebsk to Smolensk. [3] With his entire plan of operations hanging in the balance, Napoleon failed to act with sufficient vigor and ordered a 24-hour halt to the advance instead. [15]

Battle

French artillery in action at Smolensk on 18 August by Faber du Faur. Faur-smolensk1812.jpg
French artillery in action at Smolensk on 18 August by Faber du Faur.

Smolensk, a historic fortress city of 12,600 inhabitants on the main Western invasion route to Moscow was defended by bastion towers and a thick stone wall. The River Dnieper ran through the middle. The Assumption Cathedral in Smolensk housed one of the most venerated icons of the Orthodox Church, Our Lady of Smolensk attributed to St Luke, and Napoleon assumed that the Russians would fight outside the city to avoid its destruction. By August 16, French forces found the city heavily garrisoned by Bagration's troops, further reinforced with the subsequent arrival of Barclay and the main Russian army.

The main battle was fought on August 16. An initial probing force captured two suburbs but failed to bring the Russians out to battle. Napoleon ordered a general assault with three corps of the Grande Armée, supported by two hundred artillery pieces. This was initially successful, the intense artillery bombardment setting the city on fire. French forces lacked ladders or climbing apparatus to scale the city walls and were under counter fire from Russian artillery. By nightfall, most of the city was burning. [17]

To save the army, Barclay de Tolly abandoned the city destroying all ammunition stores and bridges leaving a small force to hold out for two days to cover his retreat. Around dawn on August 17, Grande Armée Polish forces successfully breached the walls, and in a few hours the main French forces entered the city. Barclay retained forces on the other side of the river preventing a crossing until the night of August the 18th. The city was almost completely destroyed.

Aftermath

Napoleon before burning Smolensk. Oil on canvas by Albrecht Adam (1836). Albrecht Adam Napoleon vor dem brennenden Smolensk.jpg
Napoleon before burning Smolensk. Oil on canvas by Albrecht Adam (1836).

Technically the battle of Smolensk was a victory for Napoleon as he captured the city. Its destruction denied him a useful supply base, adding to the logistics problems caused later by the Russian scorched earth tactics.

Casualties

Barclay de Tolly claimed 4,000 Russian casualties, while Bogdanovich spoke of 6,000 hors de combat. [18] Docturov's VI Corps had 16,800 men available prior to the battle but only 6,000 capable of combat at its end, which would mean 10,800 casualties for one Russian corps alone. [18] Prince Eugen of Württemberg's division lost 1,300 men alone. [18] Alain Pigeard quotes Russian losses at 4,000–6,000. [1] Gaston Bodart gave 6,000. [2] Russians put their losses at around 6,000, [19] whilst David Chandler estimates them as 12,000–14,000. [20] Alexander Mikaberidze suggests 10,000 Russian casualties at Smolensk. [5] Carl von Clausewitz put Russian losses at 20,000.

Napoleon claimed 700 French killed and 3,100–3,200 wounded. His estimate is disputed, as I Corps alone under Lobau lost 6,000. [18] Alain Pigeard estimates French losses at 4,200. [1] Chandler puts French losses at 10,000, [20] while Mikaberidze also suggested 10,000. [5] Bodart listed 10,000. [2] Russian authors claimed the French losses were as high as 20,000. [5]

See also

Citations

  1. 1 2 3 Pigeard, Alain - Dictionnaire des batailles de Napoléon, Tallandier, Bibliothèque Napoléonienne, 2004, ISBN   2-84734-073-4, p. 798
  2. 1 2 3 Bodart 1908, p. 436.
  3. 1 2 Nafziger 1988, pp. 185–186.
  4. "5 roubles 2012 Battle of Smolensk, moscow mint". coinsmoscow.ru. Retrieved 16 March 2013.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Mikaberidze 2007, p. 17.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 Mikaberidze 2016, p. 296.
  7. 1 2 3 Nafziger 1988, p. 180.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Nafziger 1988, p. 181.
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Mikaberidze 2016, p. 297.
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Nafziger 1988, p. 182.
  11. 1 2 3 4 5 Mikaberidze 2016, p. 298.
  12. Mikaberidze 2016, p. 295.
  13. 1 2 3 Nafziger 1988, p. 183.
  14. 1 2 Bodart 1908, p. 435.
  15. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 Nafziger 1988, p. 185.
  16. Nafziger 1988, p. 184.
  17. [P. Denniee. Itineraire de l'Empereur Napoleon. Paris, 1842]
  18. 1 2 3 4 Nafziger 1988, p. 195.
  19. Краткий военный журнал движений 1-й Западной армии, "Отечественная война 1812 г.". Материалы военно-ученого архива, Спб., 1911, т. XV, стр. 14-21 "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-03-21. Retrieved 2008-11-20.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  20. 1 2 Chandler, David G. (1996). The Campaigns of Napoleon. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. p. 786. ISBN   0-297-74830-0.

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References