On the night of June 11-12 (23–24), 1812, Napoleon's Great Army crossed the Neman. The crossing of 220 thousand soldiers of the Great Army near Kovno took four days. There was no resistance from the Russians. Napoleon planned to bypass, force a decisive battle and defeat the main enemy forces near the border. On June 16 (28) Vilna was occupied without a fight.
Intelligence informed Napoleon in Vilna that the main Russian forces were withdrawing to the northeast, and large enemy forces were also located in the south. The French emperor moved Murat's cavalry (1st, 1nd and 2rd cavalry corps), Oudinot's 3nd corps and Ney's 2rd corps against the 3st Russian army. Davout's 1st Corps was allocated against Bagration.
It is worth noting that problems began almost immediately in the Great Army, which could soon develop into a crisis and catastrophe (which happened later). Thus, communications quickly stretched out, the troops got tired, the soldiers lagged behind their units, became deserters and marauders, and formed into international gangs. The army quickly dissolved in the vastness of Russia. The calculation for the replenishment of reserves at the expense of the Russians did not materialize. Russian troops, leaving, destroyed warehouses, supplies. Due to the lack of fodder, the horses began to die. The motivation of some troops, especially German and Italian, was low. A large army was strong, but lost the speed and maneuverability traditional for the early Napoleon. The French emperor had to abandon the idea of a quick pursuit and encirclement of the 1st Army, confining himself to the encirclement plan of the 2nd Army. Davout's faction is getting stronger.
Napoleon stayed in Vilna for 18 days. On the one hand, he hoped for Tsar Alexander's offer of peace. On the other hand, a new plan had to be developed. It was not possible to defeat the Russians in one general battle in the Vilna region. The Russians refused to fight and retreated. It was also necessary to create a rear base for a further offensive, to pull up troops. The 20-day supply of food and fodder, taken with him, is over. There were few local funds to replenish stocks. We urgently had to create warehouses in Kovno, Olita, Grodno, Vilga and other places. Transport supplies from Warsaw, Pultusk, Modlin, Thorn and other cities. However, this business required resources, time and troops (small garrisons, guards on communications, etc.).
Napoleon could not create a solid base in Lithuania. He wanted to get people and provisions there for the war. A provisional Lithuanian government was created - the “Commission of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania”. The Provisional Government immediately received the task of creating 5 infantry and 4 cavalry regiments. Did not work out. The peasants refused additional requisitions, started a people's war. They did not follow the instructions of the authorities, they attacked the estates and French foragers. The Lithuanian nobles themselves had to ask for military protection from the Commission, there was no formation of Lithuanian regiments. In addition, when the first news of the failures of the French troops appeared, the ardor of the Lithuanian nobles to create the Grand Duchy faded. This forced Napoleon to create his own military administration in Lithuania, headed by the Governor-General Hogendorp.
Russian campaign of 1812. Drawing from 1896
1 Army Retreat
The Russian Emperor Alexander Pavlovich received news of the crossing of the French army at the Bennigsen estate, where a ball was held. The troops of the 1st army of Barclay de Tolly, which was located from the Baltic to Lida, were ordered to concentrate at Sventsyan. The 2nd Army of Bagration and Platov's corps were to go on the offensive and strike at the flank and rear of the enemy army. True, how Bagration with a 45th army could defeat the enemy, who had twice the strength of both Russian armies, and another army of the enemy (Jerome Napoleon) on the tail, Alexander and his "brilliant" foreign environment ("The war will be played out against the interests of France and Russia") did not think.
Bagration showed prudence and did not fall into a trap, he was able to slip away between the hammer and the anvil - the powerful corps of Davout and the troops of Jerome (How Platov's Cossacks defeated the Polish cavalry division in the battle near Mir; Battle of Saltanovka).
By June 19 (July 1), Barclay de Tolly's 1st Army was concentrated in Sventsyany. Dokhturov's group: the 6th Infantry Corps and the 3rd Reserve Cavalry Corps of Palen, went to Oshmyany. Barclay, having received more accurate information about the strength of the enemy, abandons the idea of a general battle and orders to retreat to the Drissa fortified camp. The withdrawal began on June 21 (July 3). Russian troops retreated without fighting. Murat acted very cautiously and soon lost contact with the Russians.
By June 29 (July 11), Barclay de Tolly's army was concentrated in the Drissa camp. Soon the corps of Dokhturov and Palen came here. In addition, in this camp, the 1st Army received reinforcements of about 10 thousand people. According to the pre-war plan of the Prussian General Pfuel: the 1st Army, relying on the Dris camp, was supposed to contain the enemy, and the 2nd Army was to act on his flank and rear. But then it became clear that this plan was wretched. With the implementation of this idea, the camp became a trap for the Russian army, it was doomed to blockade and death (surrender). Napoleon had such large forces that he could easily block Barclay's army and at the same time defeat Bagration's army. Then the 1st Army was doomed. It was a trap.
Sovereign Alexander Pavlovich arrived at the Drissa camp on June 26 (July 8). He was going to carry out the Pfuel plan and give the French a general battle here. However, the Prussian officer in the Russian service Karl Clausewitz and Barclay de Tolly expressed their doubts about this camp. The commander of the 1st Russian Army received information about the size of the enemy and refused to fight in such conditions. Clausewitz called the camp a trap. The news also came that Bagration's army could not break through and was leaving for Bobruisk.
On July 1 (13), 1812, Pfuel's plan was rejected at a military council. Barclay strongly opposed the battle in Drissa and demanded the connection of the two armies. He was supported by Bennigsen. Yermolov believed that the position in Drissa during the offensive of Napoleon was meaningless, he proposed to go on the counteroffensive and "fight with all cruelty." This made it possible to stop the enemy and connect with Bagration. General Chernyshev noted that the defeat would lead to a crisis of statehood. It is necessary to retreat, create a new line of defense, prepare reserves and only then counterattack. Arakcheev offered to leave the camp and fight in another more convenient place. Other military leaders were also against the Drissa camp. Alexander was convinced.
On July 4 (16), the troops receive an order to advance to Polotsk. On July 6 the army was in Polotsk. Here it became clear that the enemy would not go to the capital. To protect the St. Petersburg direction, the 1st Corps of Wittgenstein was allocated. At the same time, a decision is made to convene the militia - the second reserve army, the "second wall" ("People's Armament" in the Patriotic War). The Danube army of Chichagov (she covered the Danube direction) was ordered to go to the connection with the 3rd army of Tormasov. The combined forces of Tormasov and Chichagov were to act on the flank of the enemy army.
Thus, almost all the pre-war plans of the Russian command were violated.
Departure to Vitebsk
Meanwhile, Napoleon developed a new plan. He realized that the Russians would not allow themselves to be squeezed in Drissa. It was necessary to avoid the connection of the two Russian armies. Therefore, Murat had to distract the enemy. Guards - 4th and 6th Corps, were transferred to the right bank of the Dvina between Disna and Polotsk in order to block Barclay's path to Vitebsk and Smolensk. The 1st Army had to either accept the battle or leave for Pskov. At the same time, Davout and Jerome were to intensify their actions against Bagration.
However, this plan was not implemented either due to the skillful actions of the Russian commanders and the slowness of the corps of the Great Army.
July 9 Napoleon receives newsthat Russian troops left Polotsk and go east, to Vitebsk. As a result, the efforts made were useless, the bypass march was disrupted. The French commander orders accelerated marches to go to Vitebsk.
July 7 (19) Barclay receives a message about the enemy's withdrawal to Glubokoe. He immediately understands that the French army is making a deep detour and decides to quickly retreat to Vitebsk. Before the performance of Russian troops from Polotsk, the Russian emperor leaves the army and leaves for the capital. The reason for the departure was a report compiled by Arakcheev, Balashov and Shishkov on the need for his presence in the rear to organize reserve forces. However, having left the army, the emperor did not appoint a commander-in-chief of all forces. As a result, Barclay de Tolly, Bagration and Tormasov became independent commanders.
On July 11 (23), Barclay's army reached Vitebsk. The commander decides to stop in order to give the troops a rest, replenish supplies and wait for the arrival of Dokhturov's group. There was also hope for a speedy connection with Bagration. The 3rd, 4th and 5th infantry and 1st cavalry corps crossed to the left bank of the Dvina and settled on the road to Beshenkovichi. The 2nd Infantry and 2nd Cavalry Corps remained on the right bank of the Dvina. The approaching 6th Infantry and 3rd Cavalry Corps were to stand on the Polotsk road. Having received incorrect information about the occupation of Bagration's troops by Mogilev, Barclay sends an order to the 12nd Army on the night of July 13-2 to begin offensive operations between the Berezina and the Dnieper. This made it possible to stop the enemy's movement towards Orsha and Smolensk and speed up the connection of the two armies.
The beginning of the Vitebsk battle
On July 12 (24), 1812, French troops approached Beshenkovichi. Napoleon orders to speed up the withdrawal of troops to Vitebsk, intending to start a general battle.
At the forefront of the Great Army were two cavalry and one infantry corps - about 25 thousand soldiers with 70 guns. In turn, Barclay de Tolly, having received information about the appearance of the enemy on the left bank of the Dvina, ordered the commander of the 4th Infantry Corps, Alexander Osterman-Tolstoy, to advance towards Beshenkovichi. The corps, which had two infantry divisions (11th and 23rd), was reinforced by two hussar regiments, one brigade of dragoons and a company of horse artillery. Russian forces numbered up to 14 thousand people with 66 guns. Our troops were to block the road to Vitebsk and delay the French until Dokhturov approached.
On the night of July 12-13 (24–25) July, a few kilometers from Vitebsk, the advanced Life Guards Hussar and Nezhinsky Dragoon Regiments met enemy patrols from the Nansouti corps, overturned them and pursued to Ostrovno (about 25 km west of Vitebsk). Pire's cavalry brigade entered the battle near Ostrovno. She overturned the Russian cavalry and captured 6 horse battery guns. Osterman-Tolstoy launched another hussar regiment into the attack, deployed the infantry and threw the enemy back to Ostrovna. At this time, Marshal Murat arrives in Ostrovno with the 1st Hussar Division of General Bruyère and the 1st Cuirassier Division of General Saint-Germain.
Osterman-Tolstoy took up positions 1 km from Ostrovno, deploying his corps in two lines across the road to Vitebsk. In the first line stood the 11th, and in the second the 23rd infantry divisions and cavalry. The wings rested against the swampy forest, besides, the right wing was covered by the Western Dvina. That is, the French could not bypass our troops. Murat built his divisions and went on the attack. Due to the narrowness of the position and the lack of infantry, the French commander could not fully use the numerical advantage. The French had to attack head-on.
The Russian battalions lined up on the road in a square and fought off the onslaught of the enemy cavalry. A fierce battle went on all day. Russian artillery shot through the road, inflicting heavy losses on the French cavalry huddled along it. In turn, the French artillery inflicted great damage on our forward units.
S. N. Glinka in "Notes on 1812" noted:
“The enemy artillery thundered furiously and pulled out entire ranks of the brave Russian regiments. It was difficult to transport our guns, the charges were fired, they fell silent. They ask the count: "What to do?" “Nothing,” he replies, “to stand and die!”
Russian troops tried to counterattack through the forest, but their attacks were repelled by French artillery fire. The French lost 4 guns during this day. The 13th infantry division of Delson from the corps of Eugene Beauharnais did not help the French either. By the end of the day, the cavalry units of Uvarov's 1st Cavalry Corps approached. Under their cover, the Russian infantry withdrew to the village of Kakuvyachina (Kukovyachino).
Lithograph according to fig. A. Adam. 1830s Battle of Ostrovno
The battle near Ostrovno delayed the advance of the enemy army, which made it possible to concentrate all the forces of the 1st Army. Barclay decided to give battle at Vitebsk. To prepare positions and deploy the army, it was necessary to delay the enemy. The 4rd Infantry Division of General Pyotr Konovnitsyn (3rd Corps) is moving forward to replace the 3th Corps. At dawn on July 14, there was a change of units. Corps Osterman-Tolstoy now formed a rearguard.
The troops of the Konovnitsyn division took up a position behind a ravine near the village of Kokuvyachina (8 km from Ostrovno). Ahead of the position was a deep ravine, the right flank was covered by the Dvina, and the left by a dense marshy forest. In the morning, the divisions of Nansouty and Delzon went on the attack. The main blow was inflicted on the left wing. The advance of the French, despite the double superiority in forces, was still held back by the fire of Russian artillery and the difficult terrain that interfered with the actions of the cavalry. Also, the Russians on the right wing themselves attacked and overturned the enemy. Murat himself had to lead the Polish lancers into battle, while the generals put the battered units in order.
Barclay sent reinforcements - the 1st Grenadier Division from the 3rd Corps. The Russian troops were led by the commander of the 3rd Infantry Corps Nikolai Tuchkov. At about 2 pm, Napoleon personally arrived at the battlefield and led the troops. By 3 o'clock, the French were able to break through the Russian defenses and began to push them towards the village of Komary. In addition, the Russians had a mess in command.
The Chief of Staff of the 1st Army, General Yermolov, wrote:
“Neither the courage of the troops, nor the fearlessness of General Konovnitsyn himself could keep them. Our overturned arrows quickly retreated in droves. General Konovnitsyn, indignant that General Tuchkov took command of the troops, did not care about restoring order, the latter did not heed the importance of the circumstances and did not provide the necessary activities. I gave them the idea of the need to bring the troops out of confusion and turn to the device.
The battle near the village of Komary lasted until 5 o'clock. Then the Russians withdrew to the village of Dobreika. Tuchkov withdrew troops across the Luchesy (Luchosy) River to join the army.
Map of rearguard battles near Vitebsk in 1812
At this time, the 1st Army took up positions behind the Luchesa, resting its right wing against the Western Dvina and closing with a forest on the left wing. But in the early morning of July 15 (27), a messenger from Bagration rushed to the headquarters of the 1st Army with the message that he was going to Smolensk. And the captives reported that Napoleon himself was standing against Barclay with a 150-strong army. Twice as many as ours. The military council decides to retreat to Smolensk. Russian troops begin preparations for withdrawal.
The withdrawal of the army was covered by a detachment of Peter Palen - 7 thousand soldiers with 40 guns. The Russians took up a position 8 km from Vitebsk, near Dobreika. The troops were located in two lines. Napoleon threw into the attack the Nansouty cavalry and the Delzon division - 23 thousand soldiers with 70 guns. The battle lasted from early morning until 3 pm. Then our troops retreated across the Lechesa River. The loss of the Russian army in a 3-day battle is about 3,7 thousand people, the French - 3,7 thousand soldiers.
Napoleon believed that the stubborn resistance of the Russians indicated that the enemy was ready for a decisive battle near Vitebsk and was not going to retreat. But in the afternoon of 15 (27) July and at night of 16 (28) July, the Russian army left towards Smolensk. Palen's rear guard and the forest covered the withdrawal of the army. July 22 (August 3) Russian armies united in Smolensk. It was a major strategic success of the Russian command.
Thus, Napoleon could not impose a decisive battle on the Russian army on his own terms and defeat the two Russian armies separately. The Russian army remained combat-ready and was eager to give a decisive battle to the enemy.
At the same time, the condition of the French army deteriorated significantly during this march. The French could not even pursue Barclay's army. General Belliard, when asked by the emperor about the condition of the cavalry, answered simply:
"Six more days of march and the cavalry will be gone."
After a council of war, Napoleon decided to halt any further advance into Russia. In Vitebsk he said:
“Here I will stop! Here I must look around, rest the army and organize Poland. The 1812 campaign is over; the 1813 campaign will complete the rest."
George Doe. Portrait of Alexander Ivanovich Osterman-Tolstoy. 1825 Military gallery of the Winter Palace