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Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia

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Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia
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Author(s): R. G. Burton
Date Published: 2010/04
Page Count: 176
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-939-8
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-940-4

The beginning of the end of the Napoleonic Age

This is a work of military analysis written by a well known historian of his time. Burton had a fascination for both the spectacular magnitude of the Russian invasion and the magnificent hubris of the man who conceived and drove it onwards to destruction. Nevertheless, he has given a considered view of the events of his subject to his readers and whilst all such academic evaluations are subjective, he has taken great care in preparation of his conclusions to refer to Russian sources including Bogdanovich's history of the war and French sources including Segur, Fezensac and many others. Perhaps, most significantly in preparation for this work, Burton traversed the route of the French Grand Army in its march to Moscow so that he could appreciate its challenges at first hand. This is a valuable evaluation of a famous Napoleonic Campaign. Available in soft cover and hard cover with dust jacket for collectors.

Bagration began his retreat at four o’clock in the morning on the 17th August, and took up a position behind the Kolodnya stream, eight versts from Smolensk, Barclay’s army remaining in the vicinity of the city. Skirmishing in the suburbs of Smolensk began at daybreak, and at eight o’clock Dokhturov made a sortie from the town into the suburbs and drove out the enemy. Until three in the afternoon the action was limited to cannonade and musketry, and the French fire was not directed on the town. Napoleon still hoped that the Russians, having possession of Smolensk and being able to pass the Dnieper freely under cover of its strong walls, would cross over and give battle to protect the town.<br>
Napoleon, about midday, receiving information from the right flank of his position of the movement of consider able Russian forces on the Moscow road, went to the village of Shein-ostrog and personally convinced himself of Bagration’s retreat. He then proposed to cross the Dnieper above Smolensk and envelop the Russian left. But in order to carry out this project the whole army would have to ford the river, for if any attempts were made to construct bridges the Russians would oppose them at the selected points, or, passing through Smolensk, would assail the flank and rear of the French army; in any case the construction of bridges would take so much time that the Russians would be able to decline battle and retreat by the Moscow road. Napoleon, after considering these circumstances, sent some scouts to look for fords, but none were found. The only alternative was to take Smolensk.<br>
The attack began at three o’clock in the afternoon, when the French cavalry overthrew the Russian dragoons and drove them headlong into the town through the Malakhov gate, killing their general, Skalon. Poniatovski then attacked the Nikolskoye suburb and the Rachenka, with. his right flank on the Dnieper, and established a battery of sixty guns on the bank of the river. The suburbs were fired in several places, and the Poles reached the wall of the town, attempted to storm, but were driven back with heavy loss. Ney in the meantime got possession of the Krasnoi suburb. Davout attacked and gained the Mstislavl and Roslavl suburbs after a stubborn fight, but the walls of the city proved an insuperable obstacle.<br>
Fierce assaults were concentrated against the Malakhov gate, but time after time the French were driven back. Finally towards evening the attacks ceased, and the assailants contented themselves with a cannonade which did much damage and fired the town in many places. Another assault at seven o’clock failed, and by nine the battle ceased. The French had lost some 6000 and the Russians 4000 men.<br>
A fearful night succeeded the day. The Russians could no longer hold out amid the burning ruins which surrounded them, and Barclay de Tolly ordered the evacuation of the town. Dokhturov marched two hours before dawn, taking his artillery, after burning the bridges across the Dnieper.<br>
Barclay’s army assembled in position on both sides of the Poryechiye road, with the left flank on the village of Krakhotkina, leaving a rearguard in the St Petersburg suburb to cover the retreat of the last defenders of Smolensk. The town, which was nearly all burnt, was evacuated not only by the troops but by the inhabitants, so that when Napoleon entered it next morning by the Nikolskoye gate he found little besides a blackened heap of ruins. Ney sent some Wurtemberg and Portuguese battalions across the river to occupy the St Petersburg suburb, but the Russian rear guard, being reinforced, drove them back, and held the suburb throughout the day on the 18th August.<br>
That morning Bagration continued his retreat by the Moscow road to Pneva Sloboda, near Solovyova, leaving a detachment under Prince Gorchakov to remain near Lubino until relieved by troops of the First Army.<br>
Barclay de Tolly, having rested his troops during the day, marched in the evening, taking the route by Sushchovo and Prudishchiye with a view to joining the Moscow road at Solovyova, where it crossed the Dnieper.<br>
Napoleon remained in inaction at Smolensk on the 18th August. He had no information as to the position of the enemy, and the fords of the Dnieper were unknown, in the absence of spies and of guides. With knowledge on these points he might yet be in a position to keep separate the armies of Barclay de Tolly and Bagration by an immediate passage of the river at the fords of Prudishchevo. At Smolensk the crossing of the Dnieper was delayed by the necessity for the construction of bridges, the permanent wooden bridge and two pontoon bridges having been destroyed.<br>
Barclay de Tolly moved his troops in two columns, which were to reach Solovyova in two marches. The first, under Dokhturov, was to march by the Petersburg road to Stabna, and thence continue through Zikolino and Sushchovo to Prudishchiye, rest there and reach Pneva Sloboda next day. The second column, under Tuchkov 1st, accompanied by the commander-in-chief himself, would follow the Petersburg road only as far as Krakhotkina, and march by Polueva, Gorbunovo, Zhabino, and Kashayevo, and so by the Moscow road to Solovyova. A rearguard under General Korf was to follow this column. Platov’s Cossacks were to form a line of detachments from Smolensk to Poryechiye, and as the columns approached Solovyova, he was to extend his left to the Dnieper and form a general rearguard. A special advanced guard, under General Tuchkov 3rd, was to move ahead of Tuchkov 1st’s column through Gorbunovo on to the Moscow road.<br>
This advanced guard, owing to the difficulty of the roads through forest and marsh, did not debouch on to the Moscow road until eight o’clock on the morning of the 19th August. Prince Gorchakov, commanding the detachment left by Bagration, had marched on to Solovyova without waiting to be relieved by troops of the First Army, leaving only three regiments of Cossacks to observe the Smolensk road. Tuchkov 3rd could not, therefore, march on, or he would leave open the point by which the column would debouch on to the Moscow road. He accordingly moved a short distance towards Smolensk, and at ten o’clock took up a position with his 3000 men behind the Kolodnya stream, with Karpov’s Cossacks covering his left to the Dnieper. He had information that Junot was constructing bridges with a view to crossing the river at Prudishchevo, and that French troops were moving out from Smolensk to the Moscow road.<br>
In the meantime a portion of one of Barclay de Tolly’s corps had lost its way in the forest, and emerged at Gedeonovo in the morning when Ney, who had crossed the Dnieper by bridges constructed during the night, was forming up his corps in front of the Petersburg suburb, only 1500 yards distant.<br>
Barclay de Tolly happened to appear at this point, and made arrangements for the troops to occupy the defensive position, to cover the retreat of the remaining corps which had lost their way to Gorbunovo. Thus, while the Russians had not yet effected their retreat, and had had to post detachments at two points to cover the movement, Ney was in a position to attack and Junot was in a situation to advance and appear on the rear of the First Army. But Ney delayed his advance until after eight o’clock in the morning, giving the Russians (commanded by Prince Eugene of Wurtemberg) time to prepare the Gedeonovo position for defence. At length the French advanced, cut off a battalion, and forced back the Russians, who were only saved from destruction by timely reinforcements of cavalry, which covered their retreat to Gorbunovo.