After the defeat and heavy losses on the Berezina River, Napoleon Bonaparte could not be afraid of the environment and the complete defeat. He even planned to gain a foothold in Vilna, collect the remnants of the “Great Army”, the troops of the left and right flank, get reinforcements from Western Europe and continue the Russian campaign in 1813. Napoleon had still quite significant forces in this theater of war: the MacDonald, Rainier and Schwarzenberg corps gave him up to 70 thousands of soldiers; part of the 11 of the Oquero reserve corps together with the new Polish formations - up to 38 thousand people; Napoleon himself was up to 45 thousand soldiers (9 thousand he brought to Vilna, and up to 36 thousand were laggards).
Of these troops it was quite possible, having at that time, to form a strong and numerous army capable of conducting defensive operations. The French emperor had well-equipped rear rooms. Large stores were in Vilna, Kovno and on the line of the Vistula River. Arsenals in Vilna, Grodno and other places could provide weapons and ammunition 80-100 thousand people. As a result, it was possible to organize and arm the crowds of unarmed and demoralized soldiers who were able to move to the right bank of the Berezina. According to the testimony of the Lithuanian governor-general Gogendorp, in Vilna there was a reserve of provisions for three months, sufficient for 100 thousand people, a significant amount of weapons and clothing were stored in warehouses.
Russian Army Forces and Command Plans
The Russians had 51,5 thousand people in the Main Army of Kutuzov, 24,4 thousand people in the Chichagov army, and about 34 thousand people in the Wittgenstein army; in the Saken building - up to 30 thousand people, and in the Tuchkov building (replaced Ertel) - 15 thousand people. Thus, the Russian troops did not have an overwhelming superiority over the French. In addition, it should be noted that the number of the army was reduced every day - people fell ill, because they were not supplied with sufficient warm clothing. True, now the Russian forces were concentrated in a single fist and could be sent in any direction. It was obvious that the war was not over and there would be heavy fighting in Europe. The commander-in-chief said: “I want Europe to see that the existence of the Main Army is reality, and not a ghost or shadow. Although the army is weakened by the campaign, a month rest in good apartments will restore it. Only a strong army can tilt the scales and make Germany decide to go over to our side. ”
The exit of the Russian army to the western borders of the empire created new, already political opportunities. There was an opportunity to negotiate with Poland, Austria and Prussia, putting military and political pressure on them. Kutuzov considered it necessary to incline Austria and Prussia to the side of Russia. Especially great hopes were pinned on Prussia, which brought shame on the French occupation. But first of all it was necessary to resolve the issue of ousting the enemy from Lithuania.
At the military council, it was decided that the troops of Chichagov and Wittgenstein would start pursuing the enemy, because their armies were not as exhausted as the Main Army, which had made an almost 800-kilometer-long march in combat. Admiral Chichagov was instructed to pursue the French "on the heels of". The army of Wittgenstein had the task of marching on the right flank to prevent the formation of the Prussian corps of Macdonald with Napoleon’s troops. The Cossacks Platov was assigned to overtake the enemy and attack him in the head and on the flanks, to destroy all ferries, food supplies and weapons on the way of the French. The Saken Corps received the task of preventing the movement of the Austrian troops of Schwarzenberg to Vilna. After crossing the Berezina, the main army was to go to Smolevichi, Olshany and Troki. To the south of Kutuzov's army, the Ozharovsky detachment was in the capacity of the flank vanguard. Detachments of Davydov and Seslavin received orders to seize Kovno, destroying the enemy’s reserves there. The reserve was the corps of Tuchkov, who received the order to go closer to Chichagov. In addition, to ensure the rear, the commander-in-chief ordered that the militia, which showed itself well in the war, be ordered to the theater of military operations. The Vladimir and Nizhny Novgorod militia at that time were located in Vladimir and Moscow, Smolensk - in the Smolensk province, Ryazan - in the Ryazan province, Tula - in Minsk, Poltava and Chernigov - in the Volyn region, Moscow, St. Petersburg and Novgorod acted within the army. 19 November this plan was presented to Emperor Alexander Pavlovich.
In the case of Napoleon's connection with his flank corps, Kutuzov ordered Chichagov to stop at Ashmyana, expect Wittgenstein to arrive at the town of Slobodka and the Main Army to Olshans. Then all three armies could take offensive action.
The actions of Napoleon's troops. Napoleon planned, breaking away from the pursuit of Russian troops, to stop the movement and arrange the units to rest. He ordered the commander of the 6 Corps (Bavarian) Wrede to leave from Dokshitsy to Vileyka and provide a ferry and prepare supplies in Smorgon and Ashmyana. However, Wrede was unable to comply with these instructions, since his corps did not recover from previous defeats and had no more than a third of the original composition, many soldiers and officers fled or went over to the Russians. Napoleon did not tell McDonald anything, and Schwarzenberg provided action depending on the circumstances. As a result, MacDonald remained under Riga until December 19, starting a retreat, when the remnants of Napoleon’s army had already left Russia. In mid-December, Schwarzenberg retreated to the Duchy of Warsaw.
In the twentieth of November a severe frost hit. The thermometer dropped below 21 degrees, reaching individual nights to −30. Many of the backward Napoleon soldiers simply froze. Denis Davydov recalled the road to Vilna: “Many wounded enemies lay in the snow or, hiding in carts, expected death from the effects of cold and hunger ... My sled was hit on heads, hands and feet frozen or almost frozen; this continued throughout our movement from Ponarey to Vilna. ” The Russian army also had a hard time during the 12-day march from Berezina to Vilna, but it was somewhat better equipped, had the opportunity to stay longer in the settlements and evacuate the wounded, frostbitten and diseased. The French did not have the opportunity to stay in settlements, to take out the wounded and sick. The constant danger of an attack by Russian cavalrymen and Cossacks made it impossible to organize a normal night rest. As a result, cold and hunger killed more people than bullets and bayonets. The situation was so difficult that the next "common Europeans" repeated the terrible experience of their Polish comrades who, during the blockade of the Kremlin, began to eat each other (during the Time of Troubles). There are cases when the French ate their dead comrades. The soldiers decomposed to such an extent that they did not disdain to rob the weaker and frightened comrades. So, according to the memoirs of the commander of the cavalry Regiment of the 2 Corps of Baron Marbo, the Poles came up with the following trick - they were out at night on the road, where the retreating French camped out and shouted “Hurray!”. The French panicked that this Cossack attack, fled, throwing the remaining property, food. Another occurrence during the retreat was regular suicide. Desperate soldiers, and even officers, committed suicide.
Most of the units turned into a faceless crowd, where it was not clear where the officers and soldiers were. They looked like thousands of beggars dressed in dirty rags. Many had frostbite hands, legs, ears, noses. The main value was food and vodka, when a piece of rusk and a few potatoes were valued higher than silver and gold. People threw weapons to make it easier to go. Riders, caring only about leaving as soon as possible, pressed on the road the wounded and weak. A lot of people died in the hustle on crossings across rivers and swamps. Almost all suffered from various diseases, colds, dysentery. Medics were few, and there was no medicine. People were forced to survive, human concepts were forgotten. Still alive, they robbed the half-dead, killed for a piece of bread, burned houses to warm themselves. There was neither strength nor will to resist, people could only run. The appearance of the Cossacks or peasants with dubjem, caused the panic fear of the former soldiers.
Night bivouac "Great Army". Hood V.V. Vereshchagin, approx. 1896
The pursuit of the enemy by Russian troops
18 (30) November, the avant-garde of Chichagov’s army, under the command of General Chaplitsa, attacked Viktor’s 9 corps, which was the rearguard of the French army. Russian soldiers overtook the French from Zembin. It was captured before 400 prisoners and 7 guns. The next day, Chaplitsa’s vanguard, along with the Cossacks, Platov, again attacked the French rear-guard at Pleschenitsy. The enemy was ousted from Pleshchenitsy and pursued to Khotavich, capturing up to 1,4 thousands of prisoners and 6 guns. 20-21 November (2-3 December) Russian troops continued to pursue the enemy, captured up to 1,9 thousand prisoners, two standards and 10 guns.
After Napoleon’s crossing, Wittgenstein sent a Golenishchev-Kutuzov detachment to Lepel to take action on the enemy’s flank and observe the Vrede forces that were stationed at Dokshits. When it was determined that the Bavarians were approaching Vileika, Golenishchev-Kutuzov sent a detachment of Lieutenant Colonel Tetenborn to Dolginov to prevent the connection of the body of Wrede with the main forces of Napoleon. November 20 (December 2) Tetenborn caught up and defeated the rearguard of the Wrede corps near Dolgin, and captured prisoners before 700. Corps Wrede has ceased to represent a combat unit.
November 22 (December 4) Napoleon arrived in Benitsa, and the next day in Smorgon. Viktor's rearguard was again overturned by Chaplits and Platov to Molodechno, losing 500 people to captives and 8 guns. The French broke bridges on the Ushitsa River and tried to halt the Russian offensive. At this time, the forces of Chaplitsa and Platov were supported by a detachment of Yermolov and the main forces of Chichagov. On the night of 22 on November 23 (December 4-5), our troops discovered a dam three miles below Molodechno. A ferry was brought in and at o'clock in the morning the Russian cavalry crossed the river, cut off part of the French rearguard and occupied Molodechno. By dawn, bridges were built near Molodechno and the main forces of Chichagov crossed the river. The enemy almost did not defend, the French fled and surrendered in droves. Only prisoners took up to 4 thousand people, captured 2,5 guns. As a result, in just five days the French army lost more than 24 thousand people and 12 guns. It was a rout.
Napoleon's departure from the army
The French army divided into two columns and randomly marched towards Vilna. Napoleon first went with his troops, but when he became convinced that his hopes of restoring order in the decomposed parts of the army were in vain, he decided to go to Paris. He wanted to form a new army in Europe. Before leaving, Napoleon - 21 November (3 December) issued the 29 bulletin, which quite frankly outlined the disastrous condition of the army (in earlier bulletins, defeats and failures were called victories and maneuvers). Napoleon reported about frosts, about the drop in morale, about the loss of cavalry and artillery horses, respectively cavalry and artillery, carts. The army was recognized incompetent. On November 22, Napoleon ordered the Loison divisions (from the Ogereau corps) to meet the army from Vilna to Oshmyany, in addition, separate detachments were located in Medniki and Smorgon. Thus, the French emperor secured his way to Vilna.
November 23 (December 5) Napoleon moved to Smorgon and gathered a military council. He informed the marshals of his intention to leave for Paris. According to the emperor, in the present state of things, only from the palace in Tuileries could he inspire reverence for the whole of Europe. As his vicar he left the king of the Neapolitan kingdom Joachim Murat. In a closing speech, he said that he was leaving them in order to bring three hundred thousand soldiers. "It is necessary to become in such a position that we can lead the second campaign, because the first war did not end with one campaign." Among the reasons for the defeat in the first campaign, Napoleon called the fire of Moscow, frost, intrigue and error, possibly treason (hint at the actions of Schwarzenberg). Murat received instructions, in which he was ordered to gather the remnants of the army in Vilna, to stop in this city for the winter and keep the defense. The Austrians were supposed to cover Grodno, Brest and Warsaw. All other troops were located at Vilna and Kovno. The main task of the army is to stop the Russian offensive. In case of failure, the right wing was supposed to cover the Duchy of Warsaw, and the left to protect the line along the Neman River. All the stocks, in case of failure, were planned to be taken outside the Neman. In addition, it was ordered to replenish warehouses in Königsberg, Danzig, Warsaw and Thorn. Murat had the opportunity to act according to circumstances. Napoleon ordered the formation of the Lithuanian militia in Kovno, the 5 corps of Poniatowski to be restored in Warsaw, the 6 corps in Grodno, the 8 corps of Olite. The diplomatic corps was ordered to move from Vilna to Warsaw, the wounded generals and officers were to be evacuated to Königsberg and Warsaw. Army treasury also ordered to transport to Warsaw and Konigsberg.
Judging by these instructions and instructions, Napoleon had hoped that the offensive of the Russian army could be stopped on the line of the Neman and the Duchy of Warsaw. At this time, he wanted to build a new army and in the spring and summer of 1813, to begin the second Russian campaign. In general, his departure was expedient from a military-strategic point of view. The remnants of the "Great Army" lost their fighting capacity and continued to decompose. It was necessary to form a new army to continue the war with Russia, to retain conquests in Europe, to rein in, if necessary, Austria and Prussia. It also required to restore order in France itself, where dangerous processes were taking place. Although it is obvious that for ordinary soldiers and officers such a departure looked disgusting. It was like a flight, the emperor threw an army. Although it was not the first time, before Napoleon left the troops in Egypt.
On the same day when the military council was collected and the last instructions were given, Napoleon left, accompanied by Kolenkur, Chief Marshal Duroc, Adjutant General Mouton, with cavalry guards. Napoleon wanted to drive through Germany incognito - under the name of the Duke of Vicenza (Kolenkur). It must be said that at this moment the life of the French emperor was under threat, and not only from the Russian troops. On the day Napoleon left the army - November 23 (December 5), the division of Loison came to Ashmyany. On the same day, a detachment of Colonel Seslavin broke into the city, but he was ousted. Napoleon quickly passed Oshmyany, making a stop only for the change of horses. If Seslavin knew about Napoleon’s movement, he could have intercepted him, since he was only a few miles from the main road 5-6. In addition, there was a danger from the division of the Loison which consisted of Italians and soldiers of the Rhine Union. They were embittered by losses and dissatisfied with French domination. The division marched from Vilna with about 10 thousand soldiers and arrived in Ashmyany, numbering no more than 3 thousand people in their ranks (the Italians killed almost all of them). A conspiracy arose among the officers, it was supposed with their parts to break into the house where Napoleon was located and kill all those who would resist. Then the German units could switch to the Russian side. However, while the German officers were arguing, arguing over who should lead the soldiers and take responsibility for this treacherous act, Napoleon left.
Napoleon arrived in Vilna on November 24 (December 6). Napoleon toured the city itself as a suburb, stopping at the exit towards Kovno, without meeting with the local authorities. In Vilna, Napoleon gave the last orders. In a conversation with the French Foreign Minister Mare, he admitted that the army had turned into “discordant crowds” who wander, looking for food and shelter. Mare told Napoleon that there was a 40-day supply of supplies for the 100 thousand army in the warehouses in Vilnius, and new supplies were also expected. Also in the city and the surrounding area there are livestock for 36 days for 100 thousand people, there are large stocks of beer and vodka. In Vilna warehouses there were 30 thousand pairs of shoes, 27 thousand guns and a lot of ammunition. Napoleon was delighted with this news and ordered Mare to remain until Murat arrived, who was ordered to stay in Vilna for at least a week in order to bring the army in relative order. To organize the defense of the Warsaw Duchy, Loriston was sent, in Danzig - Rapp. After a conversation with the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Napoleon went to Kovno and moved to the Russian border on the morning of November 26 (December 8).
Two days later, Napoleon arrived in Warsaw. There he met with the French envoy in the Duchy of Warsaw Pradt, the head of the Council of Ministers Potocki, the Minister of Finance Matushevich and several other high officials. The French emperor reported the loss of cavalry, artillery, carts, the pernicious frost for Europeans (supposedly the French could have fought no more than 7 degrees in the cold, and the Germans - 5 degrees). In his opinion, it was a mistake to stay in Moscow for two extra weeks. He complained that he had been held, "asserting that the boyars would take my side, that the peasants would come running to me to get out of slavery." All this turned out to be a hoax, the peasants were loyal to the sovereign, and the nobles were full of zeal. "This is a wild superstitious people, from which nothing can be done," stressed the French lord.
He offered the Poles themselves to help rebuild their state, form new units, especially light cavalry (recruit ten thousand "Cossacks"). He promised that if there was no peace between France and Russia, he would return in the spring with a new army and defend the Duchy of Warsaw. He expressed the hope that Austria and Prussia will remain on his side. After resting for several hours, Napoleon continued on his way, and on the night of December 7 (19) arrived in the French capital.
French Army in Vilna
The chief of staff, Berthier, was instructed to order the army to appoint Murat as commander-in-chief and dismiss the rumor about the movement of the French emperor with the Austrian-Saxon troops to Warsaw. The departure of Napoleon to Paris was ordered to be reported to the troops no earlier than 5-6 days. However, the departure of the emperor, who was the last thread fastening the army, did not remain secret for long. The soldiers, embittered by the last calamities, cursing Napoleon, shouted: "... he flees, as he escaped from Egypt, he leaves us, betraying death." The news of the departure of the emperor was the signal for a general flight to Vilna. Governor General Gogendorp, the only one left to meet the troops, reported that in a blink of an eye, Duke Bassano fled with his office, all foreign delegates, members of the interim government, all provincial authorities, the mayor, most of the city administration.
In the army, no one wanted to obey orders. Everyone wanted to quickly get to Vilna, where they were promised bread, warmth and rest. Only a few parts of November 26 (December 8) arrived in the city in relative order. Behind them, the thronged 20 crowd of thousands of people, which did not recognize the authority of the commanders and curse their former idol, moved. The townspeople were shocked by the appearance and behavior of the former "Great Army", which they had recently seen quite different, brilliant and victorious.
To be continued ...