Monthly Archives: July 2012


The swift moving Grande Armée quickly outran the supply train making it necessary for the army to forage.  This was part of the plan and the cavalry had even been issued scythes so they could harvest grain for their horses as they went along.  Each man carried four days of provisions as he crossed the Nieman River into Russia.

From The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier by Jakob Walter

Jakob Walter describes how he was part of a foraging party in late July along the Dvina River in the area of Polotsk.  (Polotsk was to the north-west of Vitebsk, also along the Dvina River, where the battle described in yesterday’s post took place).  Walter writes about his foraging expedition, “There were eight of us, and we came to a very distant village.  Here we searched all the houses.  There were no peasants left…  each [soldier] ran into a house alone, broke open everything that was covered, and searched all the floors and still nothing was found…  I once more inspected a little hut somewhat removed from the village.  Around it from top to bottom were heaped bundles of hemp and shives, which I tore down; and, as I worked my way to the ground, sacks full of flour appeared.”  They sifted the flour to remove the chaff and refilled the sacks.  Walter remembered seeing a horse somewhere in the village.  They found two colts, but one couldn’t be used.  Two sacks were placed on the remaining horse and they started back to camp.  “While we were marching there, the Russians saw us from a distance with this booty; and at the same moment we saw a troop of peasants in the valley, about fifty.  These ran toward us.  What could we do but shoot at them?  I, however, led the horse, and a second man held the sacks while the rest fired, one after another, so that the peasants divided in order not to be hit so easily; but they could not take the sacks away from us.”

They came to a deep stream with only a round tree trunk laid across as a bridge.  Walter volunteered to carry the sacks across and suggested they throw the horse into the water.  Walter made it across with his sacks, quite a feat he said, on a log without handrails.  The horse was driven across by throwing stones at it and then re-loaded on the far bank.

They made dough balls with the flour and roasted it in the fire.  The food lasted for a week.

About the same time, at Vitebsk, Sgt. Bourgogne had an easier time getting his provisions.  He was visited by twelve young men from his “country” (Conde in northern France on the border of Belgium).  Ten were drummers, one a drum-major and the other a voltigeur.  They invited him to “…come with us and share what we have, wine, gin, and other things very good for you.  We took them yesterday evening from the Russian General.  There was a little cart holding his kitchen and everything belonging to it.  We have put it all into the canteen cart, with Florencia our cantiniere – she is a pretty Spandiard.”

Sgt. Bourgogne ends this episode with a sad note, “The poor fellows little thought that in a few days eleven of them would not be alive.”  These events took place at the end of July.  The drummers were killed at the Battle of Borodino in September.

Sergeant Bourgogne’s Eyewitness Account

Adrien Bourgogne, a sergeant with the Imperial Guard, wrote an account of his experiences in the Russian Campaign.  Compared to his memoirs as a whole, the advance into Russia is a very small part of the book.  He does, however, describe in detail an encounter soon after his unit arrived in Vitebsk on July 27, 1812.

“We took up our position on a height above the town.  The enemy occupied hills to right and left.

The cavalry, commanded by Murat, had already made several charges.  Just as we arrived we saw 200 Voltigeurs of the 9th Regiment, who had ventured too far, met by a portion of the Russian cavalry, which had just been repulsed. Unless help arrived speedily to our men, they were lost, as the river and some deep gullies made access to them very difficult  But they were commanded by gallant officers, who swore, as did also the men, to kill themselves rather than not come honoroubly out of it.  Fighting as they went, they reached a piece of favourable ground.  They formed a square, and having been under fire before, their nerves were not shaken by the number of the enemy.  They were quite surrounded, however, by a regiment of lancers and other horse trying in vain to cut through them, and soon they had a rampart of killed and wounded all around them, both of men and horses.  This formed another obstacle for the Russians, who, terrified, fled in disorder, amid cries of joy from the whole army.”

After this engagement, “The Emperor at once sent for the most distinguised, and decorated them with the order of the Legion of Honour.”

An Artist Sees His First Battle and London Gets News of the Invasion

Artist Albrecht Adam wished to see a battle so he would have some material from which to make his paintings.  On July 25, 1812, there was an engagement with the Russian rear guard west of Vitebsk at Ostrovna.  Adam was attached to Prince Eugene’s staff.  A German, he wrote that he was treated well by the French, but was teased, ” ‘Just now our Adam is always around, but once the bullets start flying we shall have to hunt for him.’ “

Adam vowed to himself to show them “…that a German heart is worth as much as a French one.”

He proudly wrote that he “…saw enough to provide me with material for a lifetime of painting battles.  Furthermore, on this occasion I really heard the bullets whistle, but I did not let this distract me from drawing.  I still possess sketches done in the middle of the battle and autographed by Prince Eugene.”

Meanwhile, the news of the French invasion of Russia was only just reaching London.  The Times had an account of the crossing of the Niemen in the July 25th, 1812 edition while the Observer carried the news the next day.  It had taken one month for the news to cross Europe and the English Channel.

Napoleon Reaches Kamen

On July 24, 1812, Napoleon reached the city of Kamen, about 200 miles from the Niemen river crossing.  He wrote to the Empress, “We are having much rain, the weather is stifling, always we keep marching… I have marched too far.”

Meanwhile, the cavalry under Marshal Joachim Murat was riding through the countryside ahead of the main army, looking for the Russians.  Major Heinrich von Roos was a doctor with the 3rd Wurttemberg Regiment in Montbrun’s cavalry corps.  He wrote that “On 23 July we came in pouring rain to the River Dvina, which we had orders to cross.  There was no bridge.  For several days we had not been dry, and now such a cold bath was pleasant for nobody, all the more so because we were in a sickly condition.”  He rode his swimming horse across the river between two N.C.O.s and made it safely to the other side although soaked up to his ribs.  He noted “Everyone who swam was drenched likewise.  None of our men was drowned, but the next regiment did not get over without loss.”

On the far bank, they built fires, but could not get dry because of the rain.  “We exchanged greetings, filled our pipes, and everyone who had some schnaps in his bottle offered it round to his friends.”

It is interesting to note that there were women along with the scouting cavalry.  von Roos wrote that they pitied two wives of the regiment who rode smaller horses and as a result they and their baggage were even more soaked than the men.  He mentions them by name and was very complimentary about their abilities, “The first, Frau Worth, was able to fend for herself so well under all circumstances that she was highly esteemed by the officers and respected by the soldiers.  The other woman, the careful Frau Weiler, had already proved extremely useful to us, and did so again when we advanced further into Russia, through her knowledge of the Polish language.”

Another source is the artist Albrecht Adam.  He wrote on the 24th that Prince Eugene de Beauharnais‘s corps was next to the River Dvina.  Napoleon and the main army joined them there.  He tells an amusing story about how he could observe Napoleon and his party on the high bank of the river.  He “noticed a striking person wearing a light-blue coat trimmed all over in gold braid, red trousers edged with gold, a strange hat lavishly decked with plumes – in short, a person of whom I could make nothing.  What struck me most forcibly was that he had so much to do near the Emperor…”  Adam finally asks an officer “Perhaps you can solve a riddle.  How is it that the Emperor has so many dealings with that drum-major?”  The officer exclaimed “…that is Murat, the King of Naples.”

The Battle of Saltanovka

On July 23, 1812, the battle of Saltanovka took place after the French had captured the nearby town of Mogilev (about 250 miles east of the crossing of the Niemen river).  This action prevented the Russian 2nd army under Bagration from joining up with the main Russian army under Michael Andreas Barclay de Tolly .  The French were led by Marshal Davout.

At 7 am on the 23rd, the Russians advanced on the French front and also attempted to turn the French right.  The battle lasted all day with 9,000 French fending off 20,000 Russians.  The defeated Russians retreated east to Smolensk where they were able to join up with the main Russian army on August 4th.  The joining of the two Russian armies set-up the conditions for the battle of Smolensk.

Battle of Mogliev (Saltanovka)

Davout’s I Corps out-marched Bagration, reaching Mogilev on 20th July. Thus astride the road to Orsha and Smolensk and flanked by the Dnieper River he blocked the retreat of the Second Western Army. Bagration ordered Raevski’s VII Corps to launch a diversionary attack, while he sought to find a crossing of the Dnieper at Stari Bikhov.

General Ivan Paskevitch, commander of the 26th Division of Raevski’s VII Corps, describes the action:

“…Therefore the Prince ordered me to attack them [Davout’s troops] and after it to occupy the town [Mogilev]… Early in the morning of 11th [by Russian, Gregorian calendar, i.e. 23rd] we began to advance. Between us and the enemy was a distance of 5 km. In one and quarter kilometres we encountered his infantry of the advance guard and ousted them from the wood…

Marshal Davout himself expecting an attack, had beforehand prepared the defence. The bridge at Saltanovska had been demolished and the walls of the tavern were cut through with gun loopholes, situated on the left side of the ravine covering all the line of the French. The bridge at the Fatovoy Mill had been demolished and in the neighbouring houses loopholes were also made. Three battalions had been placed near Saltanovka; one battalion at Fatovoy, having for themselves in reserve another five battalions, four battalions were between Fatovoy and the village of Seltsen and near the ravine and in front of the last village had been placed two more battalions. …

The infantry of Marshal Davoust consisted of two regiments of Compans’ Division, in which were 25 battalions, the cavalry consisted of 48 squadrons, moreover the enemy expected to be reinforced by a detachment of General Pazholya’s and the Polish Legion of the Vistula, but these troops joined him only after the battle… [Against these, the] 26th Division had only eight battalions and the 12th ten battalions. All the [VII] Corps consisted of five regiments of the 26th Division and three regiments of the 12th Division, twenty squadrons of cavalry, three Cossack regiments and 72 guns. …

In the middle of the wood I met our engaged skirmishers, withdrawing from the French skirmishers. The enemy on this road outflanked our left. The firing of my first battalion had stopped and had overrun the enemy. I ordered [them] to drive them to the edge of the woods and followed with the rest of the troops. …leaving the woods… skirmished with the enemy, lying behind a small rising, in front of the town of Fatovoy. Behind them I caught sight of the glittering bayonets of two French columns. The distance between them was no more than 130 metres. The dense wood did not allow me to turn the troops in column, I was forced to move to the right by sections, to leave the wood and form them in front of the edge. The firing continued. …I ordered Colonel Ladizhenski to attack with a shout of ‘Ura!’ on the enemy as far as the stream, to overthrow [those] on the bridge, and having occupied the first houses on that side, to wait for my orders. The enemy was immediately overthrown and ran… as far as the bridge. Seeing that the battalion passed the bridge I brought forward 12 guns onto the height and ordered the Poltava Regiment, under the cover of the battery, to go also on that side. … Having moved up to the battery six more guns and having placed the Ladoga Regiment on the left flank, I set off to the right flank. To my astonishment I found that the enemy skirmishers were ensconced there in the ravine… our artillery, losing men and horses, drew off from the position. I stopped them. … Having ordered the [Poltava] Regiment to halt, riding farther and expecting to meet the Orlov and Nishki Novogorod battalions and seeing two battalions departing from the wood to the rear of my position, I galloped towards them, but to my surprise I saw at 30 paces French grenadiers. Colonel Ashar ordered about. The French charged our battalion… ‘Lads, forward!’ I shouted to the Poltava Regiment. They hesitated, ‘Ura! Charge! … From the men I heard a voice, ‘even the artillery is with us.’ ‘Well’, I said ‘hold there.’ Riding down towards the artillery arranged behind my position was a battery of four guns returning towards the Poltava Regiment … The enemy having seen their retreat, began with shouts of ‘Forward!’ The regiment made way and caseshot struck into the French battalions. They stopped, confused. I drew up to the Poltava Regiment, ordered ‘Forward!’ They charged and drove the enemy up to the bridge. …

The Nishki Novgorod and Orlov battalions at first overthrew the enemy and crossed the bridge, occupied an inn and the little village of several peasant huts on that side of the ravine. Barely had they been deployed, when from this small village four French battalions appeared; lying in the rye, they rose up at a distance of 60 metres, volleyed and charged with the bayonet. The fighting was entered into hand-to-hand. The French rushed on the white ensign of the Orlov Regiment and captured it by killing the ensign. [One of] our NCOs snatch it away from the Frenchman, but he was killed. The ensign was again lost. Once again it was seized up, and in the fight the staff was broken. At this time the adjutant of the Orlov Regiment rushed into the middle, took away the ensign and bore it from the fight. Colonel Ladizhenski was wounded in the jaw… Half of our two battalions were killed or wounded. They were forced to retreat and thrown back onto the wood. They were pursued by two battalions. Setting the battery, we fired for more than one and a half hours. …

At the time I heard on the right side a severe firefight. This was General Raevski attacking the front of the enemy’s position. The woods, surrounding the village of Saltanovka did not allow any other approach. On the main road was an enemy battery. At the end of the road… was a bridge. The Smolensk Regiment of the 12th Division moved forward with astonishing firmness, but could not seize the bridge. Generals Raevski and Vasilchikov dismounted to walk in front of the columns*, but the advantage of the [enemy] situation destroyed all the exertions of courage of our soldiers. They could not burst into the village and on the road endured all the fire of the enemy’s battery.” …

(*This was immortalised in Mykola Samokysh’s famous painting of Raevski, accompanied by his sons aged 11 and 17, at the head of the Smolenski Infantry Regiment).

“I sent a report to General Raevski that I had encountered on the left flank, not 6 000 but maybe 20 000. Therefore it was necessary to dislodge them, [he must] dispatch to me reinforcements of several battalions. General Raevski answered that the attacks on him were beaten off, but that he had lost many men and consequently could not send any more than one battalion.

It was about 4 pm, my troops were already tired, only the cavalry not being in the fighting and that only because the woodland position did not allow the use of them. I obtained the despatch of a battalion of the 41st Jäger Regiment and went into the woods in a wide enveloping movement on the right flank of the enemy. The elderly Colonel Savoini was ordered to appear from the woods and descend on the enemy, in order that he… [could] cross the bridge at Fatovoy and attack the French at bayonet point. On the left I found Colonel Ladizhenski with the Nizhegorod battalion, who directed a vigorous skirmish across the ravine… General Raevski’s adjutant arrived with orders to retire. …

To provide time for the troops to organise, I ordered the artillery to move off, two guns from the flank being left at the entrance to the wood… The others passed through the wood at a trot. The skirmishers were told that when the last two guns were removed, they could rush back on the flanks of the artillery. This was all carried out precisely. The enemy, seeing this apparent retreat, rushed headlong on us, but here, being met by caseshot from the two guns and the battalion fire of the two regiments, they stopped and we passed the wood so successfully that I did not lose any guns. …

We continued to retreat, covering the horse on the flanks and occupied the heights behind us. … The cannonade did not stop.”

Raevski’s reported to Bagration that 2 458 officers and men had been killed, wounded or missing. French casualties were of a similar proportion. An officer of the Poltava Infantry Regiment, who had lost an arm from a cannonball,

“calmly picked it [his arm] up and left the battlefield. As he was passing Bagration, he saluted him with the remaining hand.”

The rearguard action at Mogilev allowed Bagration’s engineers to build a bridge over the Dnieper at Stary Bikhov by which his Second Western Army crossed, and continued its retreat to Smolensk, via Mtsislav.

Taken from Spring, L (2009) 1812: Russia’s Patriotic War. The History Press, Stroud Gloucestershire, UK. p. 44–48.

Writing to Poniatowski on 26th July, Davout stated, “I see that the battle of the 23rd put great confusion into their projects, but they will follow them in part, and my first manoeuvre is not to let myself be separated from the emperor, who to-day must be in Vitebsk. Raevski’s two divisions must be looked on as hors de combat.”

Taken from Dodge, TA (2008) Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia. First Published 1904-07. Frontline Books (and imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd), Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK. p. 82

This post was contributed by James Fisher.

Prelude to the Battle of Saltanovka

When the Grande Armée crossed into Russia in June, they split their forces with some heading north, others east (with Napoleon) and some to the south.  The Russians had a number of different armies and Napoleon wanted to make sure they were all covered.

On July 21, Marshal Louis Nicolas Davout made contact with advance elements of Prince Pyotr Bagration’s  2nd army.  The terrain of the impending battle favored the French with a field surrounded by forests and a deep ravine with a stream along the bottom.  This would prevent the Russians from bringing their numerical superiority to bear on an open field.

Davout spend the night of the 22nd preparing the field of battle.  He had one bridge barricaded while the sappers (engineers) took down a bridge and a dam.  They also cut loopholes in the neighboring buildings.  The attack by the Russians would come the next morning.

A Russian Prisoner of War

Security in the camps of the Grande Armée was apparently lax during the advance into Russia as illustrated in this account by Albrecht Adam.

A Russian Prisoner of War
at Headquarters, Kamen
21 July 1812
by Albrecht Adam

A Russian Prisoner of War at Headquarters, Kamen
“On 22 July one of our chasseurs, serving on the picquets, brought a Russian prisoner back with him to headquarters.  This man, by his singular conduct, attracted universal attention.  He seemed so familiar with the men of our advanced posts that he had been eating and drinking with them.  Even before the Prince [Eugène de Beuaharnais], who wished to speak with him, his conduct showed such pluck as almost bordered on temerity.”

“The following day we heard that he had been granted a little freedom in his movements and, taking advantage of that, he had absconded during the night without anyone being aware of how or when.  This gave rise to much conjecture and I won’t repeat that here as the truth was never arrived at.”

“The man next to the prisoner in this plate is the Prince’s Mameluke who had accompanied the Viceroy since the Egyptian expedition but who, alas, came to an untimely end.”

“During the retreat the Mameluke was taken seriously ill and stayed behind at Kovno.  His master left him a sum of money and entrusted him to the care of some charitable individuals, but he was never heard of again.  There were accusations that the man had simply given up and that he should have made every effort to keep up with the army.  But, for my part, I believe that the suffering he endured personally, and witnessing that of the persons closest to him, broke his body and his soul.  Frank, sincere, loyal and courageous, he showed that he was more than a servant and that such a master was worthy to have such an assistant.”

“I was a personal friend of the man and it is with great pleasure that I conserve for posterity the memory of him by this faithful portrait.”

With Napoleon in Russia:  The Illustrated Memoirs of Albrecht Adam, 1812; Edited by Jonathan North




The Country was Barren and Dusty Past the Niemen

In the book 1812: Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, Antony Brett-James quotes Lieutenant Karl von Suckow.  Lt. von Suckow wrote there was “Not a soul in sight, not an inhabitant in the villages we passed through…. we were all struck by the absence of any birds flying up at our approach.”

“These exceptional marches, added to the great shortages we had to put up with, thinned our ranks to an unexpected degree and thousands of men disappeared within a very short time.  Hundreds killed themselves…Every day one heard isolated shots… Patrols were sent to investigate and they always came back and reported… [it was a] Frenchman, or an ally, who has just committed suicide.”

To add to the misery of the heat and lack of food and water was the dust.  Lt. von Suckow writes that the dust was so thick “I recall that at one stage, so as to prevent anyone taking a wrong turning, a drummer was stationed at the head of each battalion, and his job was to beat the drum all the time.  This fact alone will indicate just how dense the clouds of dust were.”

A Captain Fritz _____ (last name unknown) from Pomeranian Mecklenburg, now part of northern Germany, was serving on the Russian side.  Writing about the Russian withdrawal towards the fortified camp of Drissa in early July, he also remarked on the dust.  He had served on the British side in Spain so was used to heat and dust, but these couldn’t compare to the conditions in Russia.  “If one was unfortunate enough to be caught between the innumerable waggons, which ploughed along in deep sand ruts at the slowest pace of the draught animals, and to have to remain among them for hours on end without being able to escape, then one was enveloped in so much dust that one really thought one would suffocate.”

A Common Occurrance

It was a common event for a newly occupied town to catch fire.  Albrecht Adam recorded one such event that happened on the 18th of July, 1812.

18 July 1812
by Albrecht Adam

“We set off for Dokzice, a march of 21 miles being necessary to reach that place. The town is inhabited almost exclusively by Jews.  it has an attractive central square, a church and a miserable mansion house constructed of wood.  The outskirts of the town are built on two heights with a little marshy stream running through the middle.  On the day we actually spent in the town the Viceroy [Prince Eugène de Beauharnais] was accommodated in the mansion house.  A small plume of smoke was spied rising from just behind this place, quickly followed by flames.  Soon the fire was consuming the neighbouring houses but, fortunately, the army rushed to our assistance and our fears vanished when the fire subsided.”

With Napoleon in Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Albrecht Adam, 1812; Edited by Jonathan North