Battle of Smoliani

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Battle of Smoliani
Part of French invasion of Russia (1812)
Date13 November – 14 November 1812
Location Smolyany, Governorate of Vitebsk, Belarus
54°36′N30°04′E / 54.600°N 30.067°E / 54.600; 30.067 Coordinates: 54°36′N30°04′E / 54.600°N 30.067°E / 54.600; 30.067
Result Russian victory
Belligerents
Flag of Russia.svg Russian Empire Flag of France.svg First French Empire
Commanders and leaders
Prince Peter Wittgenstein Marshal Claude Victor,
Marshal Nicholas Oudinot
Strength
30,000 troops approximately 25,000 troops available; 6,000 involved on the 1st day; 5,000 involved on the 2nd day
Casualties and losses
3,000 3,000

At the Battle of Smoliani (November 13-14, 1812), the Russians under General Peter Wittgenstein defeated the French forces of Marshal Claude Victor and Marshal Nicholas Oudinot. This battle was the last effort of the French to reestablish their northern flank in Russia, known as the "Dwina Line". Previously, the French had been defeated in this sector at the Second battle of Polotsk (October 18-20, 1812) and at the Battle of Czasniki (October 31, 1812)

Peter Wittgenstein Russian army officer in the Napoleonic wars (1769–1843)

Louis Adolph Peter, 1st Prince of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Ludwigsburg-Berleburg, better known as Peter Wittgenstein in English, was a Prince of the German dynasty Sayn-Wittgenstein and Field Marshal in the Imperial Russian Army during the Napoleonic wars.

Contents

Background

Upon learning of Victor's defeat at the Battle of Czasniki, Napoleon – who was already distressed about the situation in the north due to the earlier French defeat at Polotsk – ordered Victor to assume the offensive at once and drive Wittgenstein back. [1]

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

Napoléon Bonaparte was a French statesman and military leader 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.

At the time of the Smoliani encounter, Napoleon was planning on leading his rapidly disintegrating Grande Armée to a safehaven in the west such as Minsk. In order to execute this plan, the Grande Armée's planned route of retreat had to be secured. Wittgenstein's position at Czasniki was just 40 miles north of Bobruisk [ dubious ], a town Napoleon needed to be secure in order for the main French army to reach Minsk.

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.

Minsk Capital city in Belarus

Minsk is the capital and largest city of Belarus, situated on the Svislač and the Nyamiha Rivers. As the national capital, Minsk has a special administrative status in Belarus and is the administrative centre of Minsk Region (voblasć) and Minsk District (rajon). The population in January 2018 was 1,982,444, making Minsk the 11th most populous city in Europe. Minsk is the administrative capital of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and seat of the Executive Secretary.

Victor, per Napoleon's orders, was to coordinate the actions of his IX corps with the VI corps and the II corps commanded by Marshal Oudinot. [2] The initial French plan – ordered by Napoleon and endorsed by Victor, was not to attack Wittgenstein frontally, but for one corps to attack the Russians in the flank while the other conducted a frontal assault. [3] This plan however was scuttled per the insistence of Oudinot, who thought it more advantageous to attack Wittgenstein head on. [3]

The contrasting moods In Russian and French headquarters

Going into the action at Smoliani, the French commanders exhibited the hallmarks of leaders setting themselves up for failure: bad planning, indecision and pessimism due to earlier reversals.

Historians have criticized Oudinot and Victor for not attempting a flanking maneuver against Wittgenstein. Victor especially has been criticized for indecision in his planning and execution of the Smoliani attack. [4] Previously, at Czasniki, Victor had proven himself over-inclined to retreat in the face of just minor reversals.

The mood among the Russian leaders on the eve of the battle stood in stark contrast to that of the French.

In Wittgenstein's headquarters at this time, there existed a "sense of self-confidence and proud accomplishment", which had coalesced as a result of their repeated victories over the French in earlier battles. [5] One notable work on 1812 describes the aura among Wittgenstein and his staff at this juncture as a sense of being "morally equal and often superior to the enemy." [6] It is no wonder, perhaps, that Victor was hesitant in executing the task assigned to him by Napoleon.

Severe attrition among French forces

The French cause at Smoliani was also undermined by mounting attrition within their ranks.

In the two weeks following the action at Czasniki, Victor's force had suffered greatly from exposure to frost and disease. By November 10, only 25,000 troops remained until Victor's command, a development that increased Wittgenstein's margin of superiority over the French in this sector. As a result of being better supplied, better quartered and more intelligently protected from the elements than their French foes, Wittgenstein's troops suffered less attrition from privation and the weather. [7]

The battle

An obelisk commemorating the heroes of the Patriotic War of 1812, in Vitebsk. Unveiled in 1912. Belarus-Vitsebsk-Monument to Heroes of Patriotic War of 1812-3.jpg
An obelisk commemorating the heroes of the Patriotic War of 1812, in Vitebsk. Unveiled in 1912.

The Battle of Smoliani commenced on November 13, at the nearby village of Axenzi, and initially the French were successful. Here the 6,000 troops of General Partenoux attacked Wittgenstein's advance guard, 6,000 strong, led by General Alexiev. [8] Each side lost roughly 500 troops in this encounter, and despite being reinforced, the Russians were forced to retreat to Smoliani. [3]

The next day, November 14, the combat intensified as 5,000 of Victor's troops attacked and captured Smoliani. After this, however, the French attacking force suffered a reversal, being repulsed on the Russian right wing and then losing Smoliani to Wittgenstein's counterattack. [9] While this action was taking place, a small Russian detachment kept Oudinot's superior force in check at the village of Poczavizi, thereby preventing these troops from assisting Victor. [3]

Although the action died down with each side in their original position, and the losses suffered by both were equal – 3,000 killed, wounded and taken prisoner – it was the French who very much had the worst of the scrap. [10] The next day, November 15, Victor retreated 20 miles south to Chereja. [11]

Consequences

Although Wittgenstein did not immediately pursue his defeated enemy, by winning this battle he retained the potential to attack the Grande Armée when it passed through Bobr, just 40 miles south of his position near Czasniki. That Victor and Oudinot retreated in the face of this big threat to the Grande Armée was another heavy blow to Napoleon. The Battle of Smoliani also ended, permanently, any hope the French had of reestablishing their northern "Dwina Line."

Notes

  1. Riehn, pages 361-262. The urgency of the situation in the north was captured by Napoleon's adamant words to Victor: "The safety of the army depends on it, every day's delay is a disaster. Forward!"
  2. Cate, page 356
  3. 1 2 3 4 Riehn, page 362
  4. See Riehn's comments on Victor, pages 362-364, and Cate, pages 365-366
  5. See Riehn, page 363; these are the exact words Riehn uses to describe Clausewitz's personal observations
  6. Riehn, page 363. These quoted words are Riehn's, as he describes Clausewitz's observations of Wittgenstein and his staff
  7. Riehn, page 361
  8. Smith, 1998, pages 400-401
  9. Riehn, describes the action very generally on page 362.
  10. Smith (2004), page 181, describes Victor as having been "badly beaten".
  11. Smith (2004), page 181

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References