Battle of Vyazma

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Battle of Vyazma
Part of French invasion of Russia
Battle vyazma.jpg
Battle of Vyazma, by Piter von Hess
Date3 November 1812
Location
Vyazma, Russia
Result Russian victory
Belligerents
Flag of Russia.svg Russian Empire

Flag of France.svg First French Empire

Commanders and leaders
Flag of Russia.svg General Mikhail Miloradovich Flag of France.svg Louis Nicolas Davout
Flag of France.svg Eugène de Beauharnais
Flag of France.svg Michel Ney
Flag of Poland (1807-1815).svg Józef Antoni Poniatowski [ disputed ]
Flag of Poland (1807-1815).svg Józef Zajączek
Strength
26,500 troops 37,000, of whom 24,000 took part in the battle
Casualties and losses
1,800 killed and wounded 8,000, including 4,000 taken prisoner

The Battle of Vyazma (3 November 1812) 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.

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.

Moscow Capital city of Russia

Moscow is the capital and most populous city of Russia, with 13.2 million residents within the city limits, 17 million within the urban area and 20 million within the metropolitan area. Moscow is one of Russia's federal cities.

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.

Contents

The French reversal at Vyazma was not decisive, but it was noteworthy because of its disruptive impact on the Grande Armée's retreat. [1]

Vyazma Town in Smolensk Oblast, Russia

Vyazma is a town and the administrative center of Vyazemsky District in Smolensk Oblast, Russia, located on the Vyazma River, about halfway between Smolensk, the administrative center of the oblast, and Mozhaysk. Throughout its turbulent history, it defended western approaches to Moscow. Population: 57,101 (2010 Census); 57,545 (2002 Census); 59,022 (1989 Census); 44,000 (1970).

Background

Two weeks before the Battle of Vyazma, Napoleon began his retreat from Moscow because Moscow was isolated deep in enemy territory, [2] and was thus unsuitable as the Grande Armée's winter quarters. [3] Napoleon's objective at this stage of the retreat was to lead the Grande Armée to his closest major supply depot, Smolensk, which was 270 miles (430 km) west of Moscow. The campaign was then to be recommenced in the following spring.

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).

The French departed Moscow on 18 October, and after having a southern route to Smolensk denied them as a result of the Battle of Maloyaroslavets (24 October), they were compelled to backtrack and retreat along the same road used in their earlier advance on Moscow. Because the territory alongside this road had been economically ravaged by earlier campaigning, the retreat imposed on the Grande Armée extreme conditions of privation and attrition. [4] Lack of foodstuffs soon led to demoralization and disorder in the French ranks. [5]

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.

By 3 November, the day of the action at Vyazma, the retreating Grande Armée was stretched out in a column 60 miles (100 km) long. [6] The head of the column, Junot's VIII Corps, was at Dorogobuzh, with Davout's I Corps, serving as the army's rearguard, located at the tail of the army just east of Vyazma. Between these two endpoints were, running west to east, the Imperial Guard, Joachim Murat's troops, Michel Ney's III Corps, Poniatowski's V Corps, [notes 1] and Eugène's IV Corps. [7]

Jean-Andoche Junot French general

Jean-Andoche Junot, 1st Duke of Abrantès was a French general during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

Dorogobuzh Town in Smolensk Oblast, Russia

Dorogobuzh is a historic town and the administrative center of Dorogobuzhsky District in Smolensk Oblast, Russia, straddling the Dnieper River and located 125 kilometers (78 mi) east of Smolensk, the administrative center of the oblast. Population: 10,720 (2010 Census); 12,250 (2002 Census); 12,254 (1989 Census).

Louis-Nicolas Davout Marshal of France

Louis-Nicolas d'Avout, better known as Davout, 1st Duke of Auerstaedt, 1st Prince of Eckmühl, was a French general who was Marshal of the Empire during the Napoleonic era. His talent for war along with his reputation as a stern disciplinarian earned him the title "The Iron Marshal". He is ranked along with Masséna and Lannes as one of Napoleon's finest commanders. His loyalty and obedience to Napoleon were absolute. During his lifetime, Davout's name was commonly spelled Davoust, which is how it appears on the Arc de Triomphe and in much of the correspondence between Napoleon and his generals.

At this point, the French retreat was harassed by Cossack attacks at every juncture, Davout's corps in particular being beleaguered by Russian attacks. [8] By 2 November, Napoleon had grown dissatisfied with Davout's management of rearguard activities, and ordered Ney to remain in Vyazma, to allow the I, IV, and V Corps to bypass him, and to assume rearguard duties himself. [9]

The Russians, meanwhile, organized themselves into three groups while pursuing the French. [9] First, following Davout closely were 5,000 Cossacks commanded by Ataman Platov. This group was supported by General Ivan Paskevich's 26th Division, with 4,000 troops. Marching slightly to the south was General Miloradovich with the II and IV Infantry Corps, some 14,000 troops in all, and the II and III Cavalry Corps, which amounted to 3,500 soldiers. Miloradovich coordinated the activity of all of these troops, including those of Platov and Paskevich. [10] The main Russian army led by Mikhail Kutuzov, some 70,000 troops in all, marched further to the south. [11]

On the evening of 2 November, while conducting reconnaissance south of the Smolensk-Moscow road, Miloradovich, together with his cavalry commanders General Korff and General Sievers, noticed a gap between the I Corps, situated to the east at Fedorovskoye, and the troops of the IV and V Corps located to the west just outside Vyazma. Recognizing an opportunity to isolate and destroy Davout's corps, the aggressive Miloradovich decided to attack early the next morning. [12]

Action

Russian cavalry attacks

At 8 a.m. on 3 November, Miloradovich's cavalry attacked the disorganized French column holding the length of road which separated the I Corps from the IV and V Corps. Miloradovich also ordered his artillery, positioned on nearby heights, to begin a cannonade. [13] The attack was a complete success, as it captured the French IV Corps baggage train and sent the French troops fleeing in disarray. [14] Miloradovich then placed infantrymen and horse batteries astraddle the road, thereby severing Davout's connection with the rest of the French army. [14]

Simultaneous to Miloradovich's attack to the west of Davout, Platov's Cossacks attacked Davout from the east, supported by Paskevich's troops. [15] Davout's infantrymen formed squares to meet the attack from Platov and Paskevich, and his artillerymen set up their pieces to return Miloradovich's fire. [15] The 14,000 exhausted, hunger-weakened soldiers of Davout's Corps were now at risk of being overwhelmed and destroyed by the Russians.

Eugene's counterattack

Fortunately for Davout, there was a weakness in the Russian plan of attack, in that the Russian cavalry had attacked the Vyazma-Fedorovskoye road that morning without the full support of the II and IV Infantry Corps (led by Eugene of Württemberg and General Ostermann-Tolstoy respectively), which were located to the south and would not be able to reach the battlefield until 10 a.m., two hours after the action commenced. Miloradovich, fearing that the gap between Davout and the rest of the French army would close before he could exploit it, felt it expedient to launch his cavalry attack without having the balance of his infantry on hand. [14] Lacking sufficient numbers of infantrymen to consolidate their hold on the Vyazma-Fedorovskoye road, Miloradovich's cavalry was vulnerable to a determined French counterattack.

At this juncture, Davout's fortunes changed for the better. His infantrymen to the east repulsed Platov and Paskevich with steady, disciplined musketfire. [14] [16] More importantly, Eugene heard the cannon fire engulfing Davout's position to the rear, and immediately ordered his troops to counterattack Miloradovich and regain possession of the Vyazma-Fedorovskoye road. [15]

Eugene's counterattack fell on the rear of the troops Miloradovich had positioned on the road facing Davout. This counterattack was conducted by two of Eugene's Italian divisions, one division of Poles from the V Corps, and a single regiment of troops sent to the scene by Ney, whose III Corps was positioned in the heights near Vyazma. [14] [17] Davout, upon seeing these troops advancing to rescue him, sent his infantrymen to attack as well. [17] Miloradovich's cavalry and his small body of infantrymen were now attacked from the east and the west, including being enveloped in French artillery shot, and were compelled to retreat from the road. [17] Thanks to Eugene's counterattack, a passageway had been created on the Vyazma-Fedorovskoye road for Davout to continue his retreat.

Miloradovich repositions his troops

The Russians at this point had been repulsed at all points, but they were hardly finished with the battle. Having pulled back from Eugene's attack, Miloradovich ordered his troops to reposition themselves parallel to the road. [14] A heavy cannonade was then commenced against Davout's troops as they retreated toward Vyazma. [18] Davout's artillery was unable to respond effectively to the Russian fire, and panic broke out among his troops.

Louis Philippe, comte de Ségur, an observer of the action on the French side, describes this moment in the battle thus:

…disorder reigned in the I Corps – the one commanded by Davout. The sudden maneuver, the surprise, and particularly the tragic example of the crowd of unhorsed, unarmed cavalrymen running up and down in blind fright, threw this corps into utter confusion. This spectacle encouraged the enemy, who credited themselves with a victory. Their artillery, superior in strength, galloped into position and, opening an oblique fire on our lines, began mowing our men down, while our own guns were coming back to us at a snail's pace from Vyazma. [19]

The damage wrought by the Russian artillery on Davout's troops was such that many of them were compelled to abandon the road, and to retreat across an open field in their desperation to reach safety behind Eugene's position. [19] By 10 am, when the rest of Miloradovich's infantry arrived, Davout's battered corps had taken shelter behind Eugene. [15]

Eugene's troops, too, came under pressure from the Russians and were obliged to fall back. [20] General Sir Robert Wilson, an Englishman who observed the action from the Russian side, describes the combat at this moment as follows:

On the remainder of the Russian infantry coming up (Eugene of Württemberg and Ostermann-Tolstoy), Miloradovich renewed the attack under protection of a superior and admirably served artillery. The enemy fell back on a second position, between Rjavets and the farm of Rieaupiere, and thence, when menaced on both flanks, to some heights in front of Vyazma, where they were reinforced by the two Italian divisions, the Italian guards, and the corps of Ney. [21]

According to Segur, the Russian cannonshot and musketry at this point were "frighteningly effective." [19]

At 2:00 p.m., Davout, Eugene, and Poniatowski/Zajączek conferred, and they concluded that victory was not possible given the disorganization in the French units caused by the Russian aggression. [22] Soon, the three French corps had retreated into Vyazma. [23]

At some point prior to the three French corps falling back to a position on the heights protected by Ney, Miloradovich urgently requested reinforcements from Kutusov, as he recognized that the French were vulnerable and the opportunity for a great victory may have presented itself. Kutusov, who was now within earshot of the battle with his main army (just 20 miles (32 km) away), sent only the 3000 cuirassiers of General Uvarov and nothing more. [24]

Final Russian assault on Vyazma

At 4 p.m., the fighting spread into the town of Vyazma itself, which at this point was consumed by flames. By now the infantry of General Choglokov (from Ostermann-Tolstoy's corps), as well as detachments of Platov's Cossacks were engaging the French in torrid, close quarters combat on the streets of Vyazma. [25] The French were hard pressed, and had to fight desperately to hold the Russians off while evacuating the town. [26]

By 8 p.m., the fighting was over. The corps of Davout, Eugene, and Poniatowski/Zajączek had retreated west of Vyazma, bruised but safe. Ney's rearguard was last to withdraw from the town, suffering heavy losses in a final bayonet fight with a force of Russian grenadiers. [27]

In order to cover their retreat, the French had set large sections of Vyazma on fire, resulting in many wounded from both sides burning to death. Worse yet, the French are reported to have locked civilians and Russian prisoners in buildings before setting them aflame. Russian troops pouring into the town were able to save some of these victims. [28]

That evening, Ney's corps remained on the western outskirts of Vyazma to block the Russians. However, given the Russians' aggression, great danger remained, and according to Caulaincourt, even Ney had to "continue his retreating movement before dawn in order not to risk the loss of his troops." [29]

The next day, withdrawing along a road heaped for miles with burning, overturned wagons, and blown-up ammunition caches, Ney dispatched an entire series of grim reports to Napoleon detailing the lost battle. [30]

Consequences

The Russian double-headed eagle fluttering Napoleon's banner. A monument in Vyazma, commemorating the Russian victory over Napoleon. Vyazma monument.jpg
The Russian double-headed eagle fluttering Napoleon's banner. A monument in Vyazma, commemorating the Russian victory over Napoleon.

The Battle of Vyazma represented a defeat of the Grande Armée's rearguard, as French losses in this battle, 6,000 to 8,000 casualties, including 4,000 lost as prisoners to the Russians, were prohibitive. The shock of the Russian attack reduced many French units to a state of disarray, and owing to the speed with which their retreat had to be resumed, order was never restored within them. These disorganized units became easy targets for Cossack raids in the following days.

General Armand de Caulaincourt, the famed memoirist who participated in the events of 1812 from the French side, perhaps best summarized the effects of Vyazma on his army with the following rueful words:

Until then – as long, that is, as it had to withstand alone the attacks of the enemy – the First Corps had maintained its honor and reputation, although it was fiercely attacked and its formation broken by the artillery. This momentary disorder was conspicuous because it was the first time that these gallant infantry broke ranks and compelled their dogged commander to give ground. I have related these painful details because from this incident must be dated our disorganization and misfortunes. The First Corps, which on taking the field was the largest and finest, a rival to the Guard, was thenceforward the hardest hit; and the evil spread. [31]

Russian casualties at Vyazma were no more than 1,800 killed and wounded, out of 26,500 troops involved.[ citation needed ]

Notes

  1. According to Od Jakobina do księcia namiestnika (Jadwiga Nadzieja (1988), Wydawnictwo "Śląsk", ISBN   978-83-216-0682-8, pp. 212–213), Józef Poniatowski was wounded and from 1 November Zajączek commanded the corps.

Citations

  1. Caulaincourt, page 197; Segur, page 168
  2. 1812-10-04 situation map [ permanent dead link ]
  3. See Riehn, pages 300–302, for a discussion of the severe logistical problems facing the French army in Moscow. The lengthy road connecting Moscow to the closest French supply depot, Smolensk, was 270 miles (430 km) long and impossible to defend. The road was choked by partisan activity and Cossack raiding parties. French supply trains were routinely wiped out and 15,000 French troops were captured along this road in September and October alone.
  4. The deterioration of the French army's combat ability and discipline in the first two weeks of its retreat is well documented. For a discussion of this situation, see Chandler, page 823, Riehn, pages 335–337, Cate, pages 343–347, Zamoyski, pages 377–385. In the 17 days between the evacuation of Moscow and the Battle of Vyazma, half of the troops of Ney, Davout, Eugene and Poniatowski had deteriorated to the status of stragglers.
  5. Zamoyski, page 385; Riehn, page 322, describes the beginning of the breakdown in troop discipline in Moscow; on page 341, how starvation during the retreat accelerated the deterioration in discipline.
  6. Esposito and Elting, map 120
  7. See Riehn, pages 338–339 for more details regarding the arrangement of this retreating train of troops
  8. Riehn, pages 338–339
  9. 1 2 Cate, page 348
  10. This data is derived from Cate, page 348, and Riehn, pages 337 and 345–346. Miloradovich's seniority is presumed.
  11. See Riehn's table and notes, pages 345–348. Kutuzov's full strength is presumed
  12. Cate, pages 348–49. Wilson, page 242, writes that Miloradovich sent a message to Kutusov, 30 miles (48 km) away at Dubrova, requesting the main army's support in the upcoming action.
  13. Wilson, page 242
  14. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Cate, page 349
  15. 1 2 3 4 Riehn, page 339
  16. Wilson, Beskrovny, and Zhilin describe Platov's and Paskevich's attack as being successful, but their words are unconvincing in light of the accounts provided by Riehn, Tarle, and Cate.
  17. 1 2 3 Wilson, page 243
  18. Beskrovny L.G, Zhilin, and Tarle
  19. 1 2 3 Segur, page 167
  20. Riehn, on page 339, states that "…when the Russian infantry approached from the south at 10 a.m., Davout had already passed behind Eugene's receiving position. Eugene made a right turn and faced the Russians, but he was pressed back via Myasoyedova." Note that Wilson's description of this juncture of the battle compliments Riehn's.
  21. Wilson, page 244
  22. Segur, pages 167–168
  23. Riehn, page 339. Many of Davout's troops are acknowledged by all sources to have broken ranks and fled at this juncture. Noteworthy is that even Eugene's and Poniatowski's troops were in some degree of disorder due to the Russian pressure.
  24. Wilson, page 245; Segur, page 167. Perhaps Kutusov at this moment was thinking of his experience at Durrenstein, in 1805, when his forces in overwhelming numbers attacked Mortier's corps, intending to destroy Mortier before the rest of the Grande Armée arrived. In the ensuing battle, Mortier was severely mauled, but held his position just long enough for the Grande Armée to appear distantly on the horizon. Kutusov, lacking the resources to fight Napoleon's entire army, was obliged to retire and to let Mortier survive. At Vyazma in 1812, a heavy attack by Kutusov's main army on Eugene, Poniatowksi, Davout and Ney might have destroyed the numerically inferior enemy in one sweeping blow, but it's also possible that Napoleon's Imperial Guard and Junot would have arrived on the scene had the battle stretched into a second day of combat.
  25. Beskrovny L.G, Zhilin, and Tarle. As to whether the Russians pressed a successful offensive into Vyazma or if the French were holding the Russians at bay while executing a staged withdrawal, the sources yield conflicting information. Tarle, page 341, states that Choglokov's troops accidentally outpaced the main Russian force. Tarle claims also that Miloradovich and Platov remained outside of Vyazma until the French had withdrawn.
  26. Segur, page 168, describes how General Morand and General Compans fended off the Russians during the French evacuation of the town; they were ambushed unexpectedly by Russian infantry.
  27. Wilson, page 247
  28. Wilson, page 247; Beskrovny L.G, Zhilin, and Tarle
  29. Caulaincourt, page 198
  30. Caulaincourt, pages 198–199
  31. Caulaincourt, page 197

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References

Coordinates: 55°12′N34°15′E / 55.200°N 34.250°E / 55.200; 34.250