Battle of Smolensk (1812)

Last updated
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
Coordinates: 54°47′N32°03′E / 54.783°N 32.050°E / 54.783; 32.050
Result French victory

Flag of France (1794-1815).svg  First French Empire

Flag of Russia.svg Russian Empire
Commanders and leaders
Flag of France (1794-1815).svg Napoleon I
Flag of Poland (1807-1815).svg Michał Grabowski  
Flag of The Russian Empire 1883.svg Barclay de Tolly
Flag of The Russian Empire 1883.svg Pyotr Bagration
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]


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]

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


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]

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]

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]

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]


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.


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.


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


  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". 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.

Related Research Articles

Pyotr Bagration General of the Imperial Russian Army

Pyotr Bagration was a Russian general and prince of Georgian origin, prominent during the Napoleonic Wars.

Battle of Leipzig 1813 battle in the Napoleonic Wars

The Battle of Leipzig or Battle of the Nations was fought from 16 to 19 October 1813, at Leipzig, Saxony. The coalition armies of Russia, Prussia, Austria, and Sweden, led by Tsar Alexander I of Russia and Karl Philipp, Prince of Schwarzenberg, decisively defeated the French army of Napoleon I, Emperor of the French. Napoleon's army also contained Polish and Italian troops, as well as Germans from the Confederation of the Rhine. The battle was the culmination of the German campaign of 1813 and involved 600,000 soldiers, 2,200 artillery pieces, the expenditure of 200,000 rounds of artillery ammunition and 127,000 casualties, making it the largest battle in Europe prior to World War I.

Battle of Borodino battle of the French invasion of Russia during the Napoleonic Wars

The Battle of Borodino was a battle fought on 7 September 1812 in the Napoleonic Wars during the French invasion of Russia.

Battle of Eylau battle

The Battle of Eylau or Battle of Preussisch-Eylau, 7 and 8 February 1807, was a bloody and inconclusive battle between Napoleon's Grande Armée and the Imperial Russian Army under the command of Levin August von Bennigsen near the town of Preussisch Eylau in East Prussia. Late in the battle, the Russians received timely reinforcements from a Prussian division of von L'Estocq. After 1945 the town was renamed Bagrationovsk as a part of Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia. The engagement was fought during the War of the Fourth Coalition, part of the Napoleonic Wars.

Battle of Mormant 1814 battle in Europe

The Battle of Mormant was fought during the War of the Sixth Coalition between an Imperial French army under Emperor Napoleon I and a division of Russians under Count Peter Petrovich Pahlen. Enveloped by cavalry led by François Étienne de Kellermann and Édouard Jean-Baptiste Milhaud and infantry led by Étienne Maurice Gérard, Pahlen's outnumbered force was nearly destroyed, with only about a third of its soldiers escaping. Later in the day, a French column led by Marshal Claude Perrin Victor encountered an Austrian-Bavarian rearguard under Anton Leonhard von Hardegg and Peter de Lamotte in the Battle of Valjouan. Attacked by French infantry and cavalry, the Allied force was mauled before it withdrew behind the Seine River. The Mormant-Valjouan actions and the Battle of Montereau the following day marked the start of a French counteroffensive intended to drive back Karl Philipp, Prince of Schwarzenberg's Allied Army of Bohemia. The town of Mormant is located 50 kilometres (31 mi) southeast of Paris.

Battle of Vauchamps battle

The Battle of Vauchamps was the final major engagement of the Six Days Campaign of the War of the Sixth Coalition. It resulted in a part of the Grande Armée under Napoleon I defeating a superior Prussian and Russian force of the Army of Silesia under Field-marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher.

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.

Battle of Ostrovno battle

The Battle of Ostrovno was a military engagement that took place on 25 July 1812, between French forces under the command of King of Naples Joachim Murat and Russian forces under General Ostermann-Tolstoy and ended with the Russian forces retreating from the battlefield.

Battle of Valutino battle

The Battle of Valutino took place on 19 August 1812, between a corps of French and allied troops led by Marshal Ney, about 30,000 strong, and a strong rear-guard of General Barclay de Tolly's Russian army of about 40,000, commanded by the general himself. The Russians were strongly posted in marshy ground, protected by a small stream, about 20 Kilometers east of Smolensk. The French, attacking resolutely, captured the Russian position in the face of considerable physical obstacles.

Battle of Maloyaroslavets battle

The Battle of Maloyaroslavets took place on 24 October 1812, between the Russians, under Marshal Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov, and part of the corps of Eugène de Beauharnais, Napoleon's stepson, under General Alexis Joseph Delzons which numbered about 20,000 strong.

Battle of Hanau battle

The Battle of Hanau was fought from 30 to 31 October 1813 between Karl Philipp von Wrede’s Austro-Bavarian corps and Napoleon's retreating French during the War of the Sixth Coalition.

Battle of Berezina battle

The Battle of Berezina took place from November 26 to 29, 1812, between the French army of Napoleon, retreating after his invasion of Russia and crossing the Berezina, and the Russian armies under Mikhail Kutuzov, Peter Wittgenstein and Admiral Pavel Chichagov. The battle ended with a mixed outcome. The French suffered 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".

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 of Fère-Champenoise battle

The Battle of Fère-Champenoise was fought between two Imperial French corps led by Marshals Auguste de Marmont and Édouard Mortier, duc de Trévise and a larger Coalition force composed of cavalry from the Austrian Empire, Kingdom of Prussia, Kingdom of Württemberg, and Russian Empire. Caught by surprise by Field Marshal Karl Philipp, Prince of Schwarzenberg's main Coalition army, the forces under Marmont and Mortier were steadily driven back and finally completely routed by aggressive Allied horsemen and gunners, suffering heavy casualties and the loss of most of their artillery. Two divisions of French National Guards under Michel-Marie Pacthod escorting a nearby convoy were also attacked and wiped out in the Battle of Bannes. The battleground was near the town Fère-Champenoise located 40 kilometres (25 mi) southwest of Châlons-en-Champagne.

Battle of Saltanovka battle

The Battle of Saltanovka, also known as the Battle of Mogilev, was a battle during the early stages of the 1812 French invasion of Russia.

The Second Western Army was created during the 1810 as part of the reform of the Imperial Russian Army as a whole and was intended to defend the central western region of the Russian border with Poland to the Austrian border during the expected French invasion of Russia.

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 the 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 to provide a political pretext for his actions.

This is the order of battle of the French invasion of Russia.

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.

Battle of Kobrin

The Battle of Kobryn was a battle that took place on 27 July 1812 between the Russian and Saxon forces in the city of Kobryn at the initial stage of the French invasion of Russia. The battle was the first major victory of Russian forces in the Patriotic War of 1812.