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.
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.
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 was the monarch of the First French Empire and the Second French Empire.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
Vitebsk, or Viciebsk, is a city in Belarus. The capital of the Vitebsk Region, it had 342,381 inhabitants in 2004, making it the country's fourth-largest city. It is served by Vitebsk Vostochny Airport and Vitebsk Air Base.
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.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.
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-Napoléon Murat was a Marshal of France and Admiral of France during 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.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.
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.
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.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.
The Battle of Austerlitz, also known as the Battle of the Three Emperors, was one of the most important and decisive engagements of the Napoleonic Wars. In what is widely regarded as the greatest victory achieved by Napoleon, the Grande Armée of France defeated a larger Russian and Austrian army led by Emperor Alexander I and Holy Roman Emperor Francis II. The battle occurred near the town of Austerlitz in the Austrian Empire. Austerlitz brought the War of the Third Coalition to a rapid end, with the Treaty of Pressburg signed by the Austrians later in the month. The battle is often cited as a tactical masterpiece, in the same league as other historic engagements like Cannae or Gaugamela.
The Battle of Borodino was a battle fought on 7 September 1812 in the Napoleonic Wars during the French invasion of Russia.
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.
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.
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.
The Battle of Wagram was a military engagement of the Napoleonic Wars that ended in a costly but decisive victory for Emperor Napoleon I's French and allied army against the Austrian army under the command of Archduke Charles of Austria-Teschen. The battle led to the breakup of the Fifth Coalition, the Austrian and British-led alliance against France.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Battle of Vyazma occurred at the beginning of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. In this encounter, the rear guard of the Grande Armée was defeated by the Russians commanded by General Mikhail Andreyevich Miloradovich. Although the French repelled Miloradovich's attempt to encircle and destroy the corps of Louis Nicolas Davout, they withdrew in a partial state of disorder after suffering heavy casualties from continued Russian attacks.
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 Battle of Schöngrabern, also known as the Battle of Hollabrunn, was an engagement in the Napoleonic Wars during the War of the Third Coalition, fought on 16 November 1805 near Hollabrunn in Lower Austria, four weeks after the Battle of Ulm and two weeks before the Battle of Austerlitz.
Étienne-Marie-Antoine Champion, comte de Nansouty was a French cavalry commander during the French Revolutionary Wars who rose to the rank of General of Division in 1803 and subsequently held important military commands during the Napoleonic Wars.
In the Battle of Mohrungen on 25 January 1807, most of a First French Empire corps under the leadership of Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte fought a strong Russian Empire advance guard led by Major General Yevgeni Ivanovich Markov. The French pushed back the main Russian force, but a cavalry raid on the French supply train caused Bernadotte to call off his attacks. After driving off the cavalry, Bernadotte withdrew and the town was occupied by the army of General Levin August, Count von Bennigsen. The fighting took place in and around Morąg in northern Poland, which in 1807 was the East Prussian town of Mohrungen. The action was part of the War of the Fourth Coalition in the Napoleonic Wars.
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.