Military Review

Battle of Berezina 14 – 17 (26 – 29) November 1812


The defeat of the French army under the Red could become a prologue for the complete defeat of the enemy. For this, it was necessary to implement the plan planned by Mikhail Kutuzov to encircle the enemy forces in Mesopotamia. Kutuzov conducted a similar operation in the war with Turkey, when with weaker forces than the enemy, he stopped the offensive of the Turkish army at Slobodzei, then pressed it against the Danube, surrounded and forced to surrender. Now it was necessary to destroy a much more professional army than the Turks.

After the battle of Red (Battle of Red 3 – 6 (15 – 18) November 1812 ) Kutuzov gave the troops one day of rest - 7 (19) November. The troops needed to be put in order, to clean the rear of the remnants of the defeated French troops. The pursuit of the enemy was continued by the vanguard of Miloradovich, the Cossacks of Platov, the detachment of Ozharovsky and other commanders of individual formations. For further offensive it was very important to establish contact with the armies of Wittgenstein and Chichagov in order to deliver coordinated attacks on the enemy. The Russian command believed that the enemy forces could go to Lithuania, or move to Volyn, to join the Austrian-Saxon troops. The movement of the French to the north in order to connect with Victor and Saint-Cyr was considered unlikely. Wittgenstein was ordered to increase the pressure on the right flank of the enemy’s retreating army, and promised him to reinforce the strength of Platov and Adjutant General Kutuzov. The commander-in-chief also instructed Chichagov to speed up the exit to the Berezina, in order to forestall Napoleon and take Borisov before him. Kutuzov believed that Chichagov had already united with the troops of Liders and Ertel, thus his army had to increase to 60 thousand soldiers. With such forces, Admiral Chichagov could well resist Napoleon's troops, which were almost without cavalry and artillery.

Received 8 - November 10 from Platov, Yermolov and Seslavin made the picture clearer. It was obvious that the enemy was continuing to move from Orsha along the main road to Borisov. Thus, the army Chichagova had to take the brunt. The plan of the Russian command was that the forces of Wittgenstein from the north and the army of Chichagov from the south should take up a defensive position on the line of Ulka, Berezina, front to the east and cut off Napoleon’s troops to the west. The main army under Kutuzov was to strike at the French from the east.

One of the problems of the Main Army was the question of supply. As they moved westward, the army received less and less food. To somewhat improve the situation, it was decided to seize several French bases. One of the major food bases of the enemy was located in Mogilev. The commander-in-chief gave the order to the detachments of Ozharovsky and Davydov to seize it. Ozharovsky perfectly executed this order. Along the way, Ozharovsky defeated the enemy detachment at Gorki. In the battle, about 1,5 of thousands of enemy soldiers were destroyed, and about 600 captured and captured 4 guns. In addition, Ozharovsky exterminated an enemy detachment in Shklov and saved the city from destruction. The Ozharovsky detachment was joined by 10 thousand Cossacks of the Ukrainian militia. 12 (24) November, his detachment seized the city and proceeded to the purification of the south of Belarus from the enemy.

In addition, the command undertook measures to create food bases in Smolensk, Kiev, to increase stocks in the stores of Bobruisk. No less difficult was the situation with winter uniforms. The bulk of the soldiers were still in summer outfit. As a result, a significant number of sick soldiers were diminishing from the army every day, with which the moving and established in-hospital hospitals were driven behind. Such losses exceeded combat and amounted to 30 thousand people. After the battle at the Red Army, Kutuzov had no more than 50 thousand soldiers.

While the Main Army was moving south of the Moscow road, Chichagov, with the help of Lambert's avant-garde, quickly hit 4 (16) in November and captured Minsk, where there were significant enemy food supplies (about 2 million rations). In the city and its environs, more than 4 of thousands of enemy soldiers were captured, mostly wounded and sick. 9 (21) November Lambert’s vanguard, after a fierce battle, defeated the superior forces of the enemy and captured the ferry from Borisov (South direction. Chichagov army offensive ). The remaining enemy forces under the command of Dombrowski were forced to retreat and moved towards Napoleon. Behind the avant-garde of Lambert, the main forces of Chichagov approached Borisov and established themselves on this position. Simultaneously, the troops of Chaplitsa and Lukovkin arrived. Chaplits went to Zembin, and Lukovkin - to Shabashevich. Chichagov began to forward troops to the left bank of the Berezina. Moreover, instead of first ferrying cavalry and infantry, he began to translate artillery and carts, although it was already known on November November that the French should be expected through the 9-2 of the day.

In Borisov, Chichagov also received a message from Wittgenstein, that his troops were opposing parts of Udino and Viktor, who, in his opinion, were retreating through Loshnitsy to the south to Lower Berezino. Chichagov sent 3 thousand avant-garde troops under the command of Palen (Lambert was seriously wounded and sent for treatment) to establish contact with Wittgenstein's troops. A detachment of Palen, moving along the Smolensk road without proper security measures, at Lochnits ran into the 10 thousand avant-garde of Napoleon’s army under the command of Udino. The road along which Palen walked, passed in a dense forest, which excluded the possibility of deploying troops. Directly at Loshnitsa, the road left the forest and passed through a small copse. Having received information about the movement of the Russian troops, Udi deployed his corps precisely in this grove. Across the road he placed artillery with infantry, behind the cavalry. When the Russian column emerged from the forest, it was met with fire from the French cavalry. Taking advantage of the confusion of the Russians and the fact that they could not deploy the troops, advancing artillery, Udino went on the attack. Russian infantry was driven into the forest, and cavalry overturned. The Russians, pursued by the French cavalry, retreated to Borisov. The French appeared at Borisov almost simultaneously with the retreating Russian troops.

The appearance of the French near the city was sudden for Chichagov. He suggested that these were the main forces of Napoleon and did not dare to start a fight. The admiral overestimated the power of Napoleon’s army, considering that he had at least 90 thousand combat-worthy soldiers. Instead of detaining the enemy with available forces until the rest of the troops crossed over to the right bank of the Berezina, he decided to clear Borisov. The city had to throw a part of the transported carts and blow up the bridge over the river. 12 (24) November Admiral Chichagov, overestimating the forces of the enemy, withdrew his troops (about 25 thousand soldiers) from Borisov and withdrew to the right bank of the Berezina from Zembin to Ushi. The capture of Borisov allowed Napoleon to be the master of the left bank and choose a place for the crossing. In addition, Chichagov was forced to disperse his forces in order to observe the forces of the enemy.

Wittgenstein acted no better than Chichagov. At first, he assumed that Napoleon would go to the connection with the corps of Victor and Oudinot, which occupied Cherey. However, soon came the news that the French troops went to the connection with Napoleon. The actions of the French approved Wittgenstein in the thought that the French would try to cross over south of Borisov. He said this in a letter to Chichagov. Wittgenstein did not know that Victor’s troops retreated against the orders of Napoleon, who demanded to hold positions and create the appearance of an offensive by the entire French army to the north-west. Having established the fact of the withdrawal of the French troops, Wittgenstein began to slowly move after them.

Napoleon's actions

After the defeat under Red, Napoleon needed to solve two main tasks. First, make every effort to preserve the main personnel of the troops, who were retreating westward under the constant attacks of the Russian regular units and partisan detachments. Secondly, he faced the most difficult task of rescuing troops from the simultaneous strike of three Russian armies, which together numbered about 100 thousand people.

While in Orsha, the French emperor reformed Davut's 1 corps into three battalions, Ney's 3 corps also reduced to three battalions, Beauharnais 4 corps and Junod 8 corps were each reduced to two battalions. Napoleon even ordered to collect the banners of all the buildings and burn them. The remaining artillery was also reorganized. 30 guns from Victor's 9 Corps arrived in Orsha, and besides, there was already a fleet of 36 guns in the city itself. Of these, 6 batteries were formed and they reinforced Ney, Davout and Beauharnagh’s bodies. The troops received the necessary ammunition and food from warehouses in Orsha and Dubrovna. From the remaining cavalry a detachment was formed in the officers 500, Napoleon called him "his sacred squadron." These measures increased the combat capability of the army. With the arrival of the Victor and Oudin corps, the size of the army increased to about 75 thousand people, while the total number of outdated and sick soldiers who were behind the corps was about 85-90 thousand people. The combat-ready core of the army was approximately 40 thousand soldiers.

In Orsha, Napoleon received a message that Victor’s corps could not accomplish the task set — he had to push Wittgenstein’s army back to West Dvina. It also received a report on the capture of Minsk by Chichagov's troops. Concerned emperor of the order Udino immediately go to Borisov to preempt the Russians. Victor's corps was to play the role of a flank avant-garde; he had to convince Wittgenstein that Napoleon’s army would retreat north of Borisov. After the withdrawal of the main forces from Orsha, Victor's corps began to play the role of a rear guard.

9 (21) November, French troops left Orsha and destroyed all the crossings across the Dnieper. 10 (22) November, the French arrived in Tolochin. Here a message was received about the capture of Borisov by Chichagov. This news caused Napoleon's concern, and he called a council of war. The question was raised about the future actions of the army. It was proposed to turn north, push Wittgenstein beyond the Dvina, and go through Deep to Vilna. Zhomini believed that you can go to Borisov, force the Berezina and make your way to Vilna. At this time, a report came from Udi about finding a ford near the village of Studenki. This finally determined the decision of Napoleon to cross at Borisov.

Before Borisov, Napoleon’s army went on for three days. The first to enter the city was Oudinot, followed by guards units. Here Napoleon stood for two days in indecision. Udino received Russian units passing along the right bank, knocked out of Borisov and crossing the Berezina at Veselov as Wittgenstein’s vanguard. When the French headquarters was convinced that this assumption was wrong, energetic preparations began for the crossing. To divert Chichagov’s attention, they began to prepare a false crossing near Nizhny Berezino, where several thousand soldiers were to carry out demonstrative actions. A real ferry was prepared near the village of Studenka, in 15 km from Borisov upstream of the Berezina.

Cheating was a success, Chichagov, like Wittgenstein was misled. The admiral suggested that Napoleon wanted to break through in the direction of Minsk in order to unite with the Austro-Saxon troops. Chichagov, contrary to the advice of the Chief of Staff Sabaneev and the corps commanders, ordered the troops to be concentrated at Nizhny Berezino. Borisov left the corps of Langeron, and the village of Bryli had a detachment of Chaplitsa. In addition, Langeron considered that the enemy was trying to restore the crossing at Borisov and ordered Chaplitsa to leave only the observation squad at Zembin, and the rest of the forces to go to him. As a result, the place where the French decided to cross over was covered by a detachment of General Kornilov consisting of one battalion of rangers and two Cossack regiments with four guns.

14 -15 November (26 - 27): crossing the Berezina

Napoleon, having established the fact of the movement of the main forces of the Russian army to the south of Borisov, ordered that the crossing of the Berezina at Studenki be immediately established. The work began on November 14 (26) under the command of engineering generals J. Eble and F. Chassle. One bridge was intended for infantry, the other for cavalry, artillery and wagons. The sappers had to direct the crossing in icy water. According to eyewitnesses, almost all of them later died from the cold. On the same day, the corps commanders were ordered to pull the troops to the crossings.

General Kornilov, discovering a cluster of French troops at Studenka, opened fire on them from his guns. At the same time he sent Chaplitsa news of the preparation of the crossing. However, Langeron detained Chaplitsa in Borisov. They both assumed that Napoleon, having crossed the Berezina, would go not to Vilna, but to Minsk. Kornilov could not interfere with the guidance of the crossing. The Russian battery was soon put down by the 40 gun fire, which was installed on the high bank of the Berezina. The cavalry Corbino brigade crossed under the protection of artillery, followed by the rifle battalion from the Dombrowski division. These forces were enough to push the detachment of Kornilov. When the bridges were ready, the river was crossed by Dombrovsky's cavalry, the Doumerka cavalry division, Udino's 2 corps. These forces covered the approaches to the crossing and captured the Zembe defile, where the bridges across the swamps remained intact. If Chaplits and Lzheron had destroyed these bridges, then the French would have lost time. When Chaplitz approached the place of the crossing, he was met by superior enemy forces, who pushed him behind the village of Stakhovo. He sent an urgent report to Langeron. The latter sent only two regiments to help, since he was afraid to leave Borisov, where there were still many French troops.

At this time, on the left bank, Wittgenstein still believed that Napoleon’s troops were moving south of Borisov. It was only in the evening of 14 (26) that November Wittgenstein decided to move forward and establish contact with Chichagov. It was obvious that if Wittgenstein had taken measures for deeper reconnaissance, he would have discovered the place where the enemy was crossing and could take Studenka to prevent the enemy from retreating. However, he also overestimated the forces of the enemy and did not want to take a strike on his army. The forces of Wittgenstein’s army (35-40 thousand people) were quite enough to withstand the onslaught of the enemy for two days, thereby allowing Chichagov to go to the threatened area and approach the army of Kutuzov.

At this time, Chichagov received news that the crossing at Nizhny Berezino was false, and the real one was located at Studenka. Soon Langeron reported on the actions of the enemy. The admiral realized that he had been cruelly deceived by the enemy and immediately proceeded. 15 (27) in November, having passed more than 30 versts a day, the Chichagov army again came out to Borisov. The troops were exhausted by the march, and they had to give rest, only part of the cavalry was sent to Studenka. As a result of November 15 (27), the French were crossing fairly quietly. On this day, the river was forced by the Guard, 1 and 4 cases of Davout and Beauharnais. As a result, Napoleon had on the right bank of the river already 14-15 thousands of combat-ready soldiers. UNino’s 2 Corps defended the crossing point, while Victor's 9 Corps held Borisov. By the night of November 27 On November, 27 began to arrive lagging troops, crowds abandoned weapon, sick and wounded soldiers, civilians with transports. Napoleon Bonaparte ordered to skip only the combat-ready, “going into the ranks” groups, carts were not missed.

Wittgenstein only at the end of November 15 decided to push the vanguard to Old Borisov, and with the main forces go to the new Borisov. The avant-garde under the command of Major General Vlastov, going to the edge of the forest, through which the road from Old Borisov to Studenka was, discovered the French and began the battle. It was a division of General Partuno, which had the task of holding Borisov until the completion of the crossing. But Partuno left the city earlier because of the appearance of the forces of Platov and Yermolov. Under the authority of the French general, there were about 7 thousand people. Partuno at dusk attacked Russian troops, but was reflected with heavy losses. Seeing that he was surrounded, Partuno sent an officer for the surrender talks to Wittgenstein, and with a part of the division he tried to sneak into the forest to cross, but was unsuccessful and was captured. On the morning of November 16, the rest of the French laid down their arms. Only after this, Wittgenstein realized his mistake and decided to attack the French army.

The main army at that time was preparing for battle. Ordering Chichagov and Wittgenstein to block the withdrawal paths to the west and north, Kutuzov wanted to force the enemy to move south, where the main forces of the Russian army were waiting for her. 15 (27) November The main army was stopped to rest, preparing for a decisive battle.

Battle on the Berezina 16 - 17 (28 - 29) November

On the morning of November 16, Napoleon still held both banks of the Berezina behind him. He wanted to translate the train and the body of Victor. He did not yet know about the surrender of the division Partuno and believed that Victor had two divisions. About 20 thousand people crossed the right bank, and about the same number remained on the other bank.

At about 10 in the morning, Wittgenstein attacked Vlastov by attacking and bringing down artillery fire against the masses of people at the ferry. Victor went to the counterattack, but his blow had no success. Following the avant-garde of Vlastov, the Berg Infantry Division and the Fock reserve entered the battle. Persistent battle continued until the night. Artillery shelling caused panic in the crowd of retreating, a crush began, people rushed to the crossings. One of the bridges collapsed.

On that day, Chichagov's troops also went to the crossing and, hearing artillery firing at Studenka, also launched an offensive. The blow took over the body of Oudinot. The troops of the corps of Sabaneev during the second attack almost completely interrupted the Vistula legion. Other parts of the French Corps also suffered heavy losses. Napoleon sent to help Udi troops of the corps of Ney, the Old and New Guard. Oudin himself was wounded and replaced by Neh. The terrain was swampy, which made it difficult for the cavalry, so the Russian troops could only press the French. Soon Sabaneev was forced to stop the attacks and go to artillery shelling. The number of wounded and killed French generals in three corps - 17 people testifies to the fierceness of the battle on this day.

Platov's corps, occupying Borisov in the evening of 15 (27) in November, in the morning of November 16 crossed over to the right bank of the river and moved around the Zembinsky defile.

17 November Napoleon realized that artillery and carts could not be saved, and ordered Victor to leave the left bank. The troops of this corps cleared their way, dropping people from the bridge and began to move to the other side. After part of the troops crossed over to the other side, the emperor ordered General Eble to burn the crossing. Napoleon feared that Russian infantry would break through behind Victor’s corps. Several thousand more combat-ready soldiers were thrown, and huge crowds of straggling, non-capable French soldiers. They were abandoned to save those who managed to cross. Most of the abandoned drowned, trying to cross, or were captured, some of the Cossacks hacked to death.

Napoleon brought only 9 thousand combat-ready soldiers to the Zimba defile (almost half of them were guardsmen), followed by crowds that had lost their fighting efficiency. The French crossed the swamps and destroyed the bridges behind them. Russian troops crossed the marsh a little later, when the intensified cold weather froze them with ice.

Battle of Berezina 14 – 17 (26 – 29) November 1812

P. Hess. Crossing the Berezina. 1840-s.


- The total losses of the French army for 14 – 17 (26 – 29) in November reached 50 thousand soldiers (according to other data 35 thousand people). Moreover, approximately 20 thousand were lost from among the combat-ready part of the army, during the battles with the forces of Wittgenstein and Chichagov. Only captured Russian captured 5 generals, 427 headquarters and chief officers, about 23,5 thousand soldiers. The actual "Great Army" of Napoleon ceased to exist. Crossing the Berezina and related battles became a disaster for the French army. The Russian army has lost 6-8 thousand people during this time.

- Napoleon managed to avoid encirclement and complete defeat on the Berezina River, which could lead to the surrender of the remnants of the army along with the emperor. Napoleon was able to break into Vilna. The color of the generals, most of the officer corps and the imperial guards, were preserved. As a result, Napoleon retained the backbone of the army, which he could have increased, using the troops stationed in Europe, conducting a new mobilization in France.

- Napoleon managed to break through more because of the mistakes of Chichagov and Wittgenstein, and not because of his skill. The confluence of circumstances and a number of mistakes of the Russian generals saved the French emperor. More active and decisive actions of the armies of Chichagov and Wittgenstein could lead to a more brilliant victory. On the other hand, it is believed that this was the best outcome for this fight. Forcing Napoleon to give a decisive and possibly final battle, the Russian armies would have suffered huge losses. As a result of the battle at Berezina, Napoleon’s “big army” ceased to exist. Kutuzov retained the soldiers, solving the strategic task of eliminating the enemy army, with minimal losses.

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  1. predator.2
    predator.2 15 November 2012 09: 17
    Napoleon managed to break through more because of the mistakes of Chichagov and Wittgenstein, and not because of his skill. Coincidence and a number of mistakes of the Russian generals saved the French emperor. More active and decisive actions of the armies of Chichagov and Wittgenstein could lead to a more brilliant victory. It is a pity that Napoleon would have been missed then, at once they would have rested with the war and there would have been no overseas campaigns.
    1. igordok
      igordok 15 November 2012 09: 37
      I do not miss such an opportunity that Napoleon was released on purpose, as opposed to the small-shavens (in spite of the king). For balance in Europe. Kutuzov did not want to participate in a campaign in Europe.
  2. George
    George 15 November 2012 15: 13
    Kutuzov set the trap for Napoleon masterfully, and he did not want to release it to Europe, where the victory over the foe would go to others (which eventually happened). Chichagov was blamed: Krylov in his fable "The Pike and the Cat", Derzhavin also did not restrain his anger:
    Smolensk Prince Kutuzov
    French prejudice
    and drove and beat
    And finally, he connected the network to him fatally;
    But amphibious general
    He crawled, and he dismissed it all ...
    Although the tsar himself was apparently to blame for having appointed a man accustomed to dealing with the ground forces to deal with the enemy only in the open sea.
  3. bart74
    bart74 18 November 2012 22: 44
    Yes, and in the end, as it is now believed, Napoleon was shaved.