Battle of Vitebsk (1812)

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Battle of Vitebsk
Part of the French invasion of Russia
Battle near Vitebsk 1812 by Vernet.jpg
French infantry repulsing attacks from Russian cavalry at Vitebsk.
Date26–27 July 1812
Location Vitebsk, Governorate of Vitebsk, Belarus, then Russian Empire
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 Petr Konovnitsyn
Flag of Russia.svg Ludwig von der Pahlen
Strength
Two divisions
Elements of I Cavalry Corps
90,000 present
(a fraction engaged)
Casualties and losses
1,370 3,000

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 (on 26 July) and Peter von der Pahlen (on 27 July) and ended with the Russian forces making a strategic retreat from the battlefield.

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 Tsar Alexander I of Russia 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.

First French Empire Empire of Napoleon I of France between 1804–1815

The First French Empire, officially the French Empire, was the empire of Napoleon Bonaparte of France and the dominant power in much of continental Europe at the beginning of the 19th century. Although France had already established an overseas colonial empire beginning in the 17th century, the French state had remained a kingdom under the Bourbons and a republic after the Revolution. Historians refer to Napoleon's regime as the First Empire to distinguish it from the restorationist Second Empire (1852–1870) ruled by his nephew as Napoleon III.

Emperor of the French title used by the House of Bonaparte

Emperor of the French was the monarch of the First French Empire and the Second French Empire.

Contents

The battle occurred as Napoleon was trying to envelop the Russian First Army at Vitebsk and force them to accept battle. The commander of the Russian First Army, General Michael Andreas Barclay de Tolly, was himself aiming to fight and thus massed the bulk of his forces at Vitebsk, even though he was aware that his chances to win against Napoleon were not good. Barclay's motivation to make a stand resulted from political pressures and from his own desire to improve the army's morale, after weeks of retreating without a fight.

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.

The fighting on 26 July had General Konovnitsyn's rearguard division fighting elements of the French IV Corps and ended with the Russians managing to delay the enemy for the entire day, allowing the bulk of the army to mass at Vitebsk. Meanwhile, Barclay received intelligence that Pyotr Bagration's Second Army had been defeated three days earlier, which meant that Barclay was forced to abandon his plan to fight a major action against Napoleon.

Pyotr Bagration General of the Imperial Russian Army

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

Barclay's main concern for the day of 27 July was to keep the French at bay for long enough, in order to allow his main force to escape towards Smolensk, where he planned to unite with Bagration. The task of delaying the French was assigned to General Pahlen, who succeeded in frustrating any French breakthrough attempts for half a day, before Napoleon decided to stop the fighting and wait for reinforcements, convinced that he would be able to renew battle the next day.

Smolensk City in Smolensk Oblast, Russia

Smolensk ; is a city and the administrative center of Smolensk Oblast, Russia, located on the Dnieper River, 360 kilometers (220 mi) west-southwest of Moscow. Population: 326,861 (2010 Census); 325,137 (2002 Census); 341,483 (1989 Census).

Unbeknownst to Napoleon, the Russian army retreated during the afternoon and night, which meant that the Emperor's plans for a major battle collapsed. Meanwhile, the Russian army made a hasty retreat and safely reached Smolensk, where they were able to unite with Bagration, just as planned.

Background

During the early stages of the Russian campaign, Emperor Napoleon I sought to force the Russian army to commit the bulk of its forces to a major battle, in order to defeat it and thus avoid a protracted campaign. Towards mid-July, he thus launched a part of his forces in an enveloping action towards Vitebsk, with the first engagement taking place at Ostrovno on 25 July. [1]

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 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.

There, a French force under Marshal Joachim Murat and General Etienne de Nansouty tried to pin down a superior force under Russian General Alexander Ivanovich Ostermann-Tolstoy. While the Russians registered relatively high casualties, they were able to retreat in good order and the French did not manage to concentrate enough forces to launch an immediate pursuit. [1] The Russians themselves inflicted significant casualties on the enemy and crucially, delayed them for long enough to allow the concentration of significant forces around Vitebsk. [2]

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.

Joachim Murat Grand Duke of Berg and King of Naples

Joachim-Napoléon Murat was a Marshal of France and Admiral of France under the reign of Napoleon. He was also the 1st Prince Murat, Grand Duke of Berg from 1806 to 1808, and King of Naples from 1808 to 1815. Murat received his titles in part by being Napoleon's brother-in-law through marriage to his younger sister, Caroline Bonaparte, as well as personal merit. He was noted as a daring, brave, and charismatic cavalry officer as well as a flamboyant dresser, for which he was known as "the Dandy King".

Alexander Ivanovich Ostermann-Tolstoy Russian general and noble

Alexander Ivanovich Count Osterman-Tolstoy was a Russian nobleman and soldier in the era of the French Revolutionary Wars. He belonged to the famous Tolstoy family.

Meanwhile, with the Russian army having continually retreated before the enemy ever since the campaign started a month earlier, morale among the rank and file had begun to decline. Discontent was also growing at the Russian Imperial Court in Saint-Petersburg, with courtesans failing to understand why the commander of the Russian field army, General Michael Andreas Barclay de Tolly, was abandoning vast territories of the Empire to the enemy without making a stand. Barclay was thus under serious pressure to fight and decided to do so at Vitebsk, where he had managed to concentrate a large part of his forces. However, Napoleon's superior numbers and the weaknesses of Barclay's battlefield position meant that the chances for a Russian victory were very weak at best. [2]

Battle

Following the engagement at Ostrovno, Ostermann-Tolstoy's IV Corps retreated 7 kilometres (4.3 mi) towards Kakuviachino, where they were relieved by the 3rd Infantry Division under General Petr Konovnitsyn, who took up the rearguard responsibilities. Konovnitsyn was extremely adept at leading rearguard actions and he managed to block all the enemy's attempts to advance, delaying them for an entire day. The French were thus unable to make contact with the bulk of the Russian forces on 26 July. [3]

Meanwhile, at nightfall, Prince Aleksandr Meshikov, aide-de-camp to General Pyotr Bagration arrived at Barclay's headquarters. Meshikov brought alarming news of the defeat of Bagration's Second Army at the Battle of Saltanovka, three days earlier, at the hands of Marshal Louis Nicolas Davout. Davout's victory meant that Second Army would not be able to link up with Barclay's First Army and there was a danger that Napoleon might drive a wedge between the two armies, separating them for good and getting to the strategic city of Smolensk before them. [4]

The Russians thus needed to abandon any plans to give battle, urgently break contact with the pursuing enemy and move southeast, in an attempt to draw closer to Bagration's force. Despite these considerations, Barclay still wanted to give battle the next day and was only dissuaded from doing so by his advisers, late on 26 July. That night, the commander issued orders for retreat, but the proximity of Napoleon's force meant that a retreat would not be easy to operate. [5]

At daybreak on 27 July, Napoleon set his troops in motion, thrilled that he finally faced a massed enemy army, apparently willing to fight. Napoleon was unaware that the bulk of the Russian force was already making arrangements for an immediate retreat and that they had pushed forward only a rearguard, under General Peter Ludwig von der Pahlen, with orders to fight a delaying action and thus allow the army to slip away unmolested. The battlefield at Vitebsk was a vast and flat plain and only the river Dvina separated the French forces from the Russians, who were occupying a slightly elevated position on the eastern bank. [6]

From his position, Napoleon could see the steeples of the town of Vitebsk, as he watched his forces begin to cross the ravine that separated them from the enemy. Napoleon only had two infantry divisions (13th and 14th) from Viceroy Eugène's "Army of Italy" (also called IVth Corps), under his immediate command and was aware that the enemy possessed superior numbers of some 90,000 men. Elements of Etienne de Nansouty's mighty Ist Cavalry Corps were also in the vicinity, but these forces were by far insufficient for a pitched battle, so the Emperor planned to pin down the enemy forces, without pushing them to commit significant forces, and then wait for reinforcements of his own. [6]

The French 14th division, under General Jean-Baptiste Broussier moved forward first, with its left leading but he was attacked by surprise by enemy cavalry. The Russian commander, General Pahlen, first launched the Life Guard Cossacks, and then the bulk of his cavalry against Broussier's men. Pahlen's cavalry skillfully harassed the French infantry, preventing them from moving forward and brilliantly traded ground for time. The Russian cavalry organised repeated actions, which lasted for several hours. Broussier did his best to push through, using his divisional artillery, which fired deadly salvos at the Russian horse, but, without cavalry support of his own, he was not able to break through. [6]

Three hundred voltigeurs from the 9th Line regiment, which had been sent forward to skirmish were caught in an awkward position by superior Russian forces, but the French valiantly held their ground against all odds. The timely arrival of Alexis Joseph Delzons's 13th infantry division and most of all the cavalry from Nansouty's Ist Cavalry Corps persuaded Pahlen to cross to the other bank of the small Luchenza river, where the bulk of his forces waited, ready for battle. [6]

Towards 11:00, Napoleon realised that the forces under his immediate control were insufficient for a prolonged battle and stopped the advance. The men bivouacked where they stood, while the Emperor went off to reconnoiter the situation in person. Napoleon was pleased to see that the Russians had taken battle positions, which seemed to reconfirm that they were finally ready to fight. The Emperor made arrangements for the continuation of the battle the next day, and praised the voltigeurs of the 9th Line for their gallantry. [6] The Russians took advantage of this respite and began to move out towards 16:00, leaving behind Cossack parties, which kept camp fires burning at night, in order to deceive the French into thinking that the army had not moved. [7]

Aftermath

The Russian were able to extricate themselves from a dangerous position and make a dash for Smolensk, where Barclay planned to unite his force with Bagration's Second Army. For a while, however, Barclay feared that Napoleon might get there before him and thus made dispositions for a particularly hasty retreat, which was nevertheless conducted in perfect order. Napoleon was in fact in no position to get to Smolensk before the Russians, as he needed to rest his exhausted troops and actually had no intelligence as to the direction of the Russian retreat. [7]

The Battle of Vitebsk was in fact no more than a rearguard combat and French casualties, some 400 dead, 900 wounded and 70 captured, were relatively light. The French lost Colonel Liédot, a distinguished officer, commander of the general staff of the army's military engineer corps, who was killed in action. Russian losses amounted to some 3,000 men, killed and wounded. [6] Their main strategic goal, namely to fight a delaying action aimed at allowing the army to retreat unmolested, was achieved.

General Pahlen received high praise for this action from an otherwise reserved Barclay de Tolly. The battle is often seen by French historians as a missed opportunity for Napoleon, who failed to press Pahlen hard and thus render the Russian retreat difficult. Indeed, Napoleon took for granted the fact that the Russians would fight the next day and stopped his attack early on, unwilling to risk high losses against an enemy who vastly outnumbered the forces that he had available. [7]

Notes

  1. 1 2 Fierro, Palluel-Guillard, Tulard, p. 439 and p. 587.
  2. 1 2 Lieven, p. 156.
  3. Lieven, p. 156–157.
  4. Lieven, p. 156–157.
  5. Lieven, p. 156–157.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Pigeard, pp. 953–954.
  7. 1 2 3 Lieven, p. 157.

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References

Coordinates: 55°11′N30°10′E / 55.183°N 30.167°E / 55.183; 30.167