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.

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