Tag Archives: Emperor Alexander

Alexander appoints Kutusov

The withdrawal from Smolensk caused a further deterioration in the relations between the Russian generals and increased anti-Barclay sentiment. According to Sir Robert Wilson:

“The spirit of the Army was affected by a sense of mortification and all ranks loudly and boldly complained; discontent was general and discipline relaxing. The removal [of Barclay de Tolly]… had become a universal demand.”

On the 17th of August, in a letter to Alexander, General Count Shuvalov, one of the Czar’s advisors, presented his master with a stark decision:

“The Army has not the least confidence in the present Commander. … A new commander is necessary, one with authority over both armies and Your Majesty should appoint him immediately; otherwise Russia is lost.”

General Prince Mikhail Golnishchev-Kutusov was recommended as the new

Portrait of
Field Marshal Kutuzov
By George Dawe,
painted in 1829
Hermitage Museum,
St. Petersburg

Russian army commander by the committee of senior officers whom Alexander had charged with the task. Alexander was reluctant to appoint Kutusov, whom he had disliked since the disastrous Battle of Austerlitz, but, on 20th August, he signed the decree. Lord George Cathcart noted:

“in appointing Koutousof [sic.], it was considered that his long-standing in the Army, his recent able conduct of the Turkish campaign, and his former military reputation, would place him above rivalry, and that in consequence he might be a kind of head to unite all parties.”

Source: From Mikaberdize, A (2007) The Battle of Borodino: Napoleon versus Kutuzov. Campaign Chronicles (Ed. C Summerville). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, England. pp. 19–21.

Thank you to James Fisher for providing the information for this blog post.

Departing for Smolensk

In early August, Napoleon held a council with his generals at Vitebsk.  As described in Alan Palmer’s book, Napoleon in Russian: The 1812 Campaign, Napoleon wished to pursue a victory so he could bring the campaign to an end in 1812.  He was determined to go on to Smolensk and Moscow if necessary in order to force the issue with Alexander.

The generals were not comfortable with this plan, fearing they were too far into Russia already.  Napoleon dismissed them angrily saying “I have made my generals too rich.  They think only of their pleasures, of hunting, of rolling through Paris in brilliant carriages!  They have become sick of war!”

The following day, Chief of staff, Marshal Louis-Alexandre Berthier, and Count Bruno Daru, Minister Secretary of State, held an eight hour meeting with Napoleon.  Daru gave his reasons for halting the advance: 8,000 horses dead so far, no fodder within thirty miles of Vitebsk itself; no forges for shoeing the cavalry, no surgical lint for the medical service, no certainty that the supply train would get through.  Without fighting a battle, the Grande Armée had lost a third of its force through desertion, disease and hunger.

But Napoleon thought he detected signs of a Russian willingness to take a stand and give him the battle he wanted.  At two in the morning on August 13, he headed by carriage to Smolensk where the 1st and 2nd Russian armies had joined.

Meanwhile, Sgt. Bourgogne was staying in Vitebsk for a fortnight.  He wrote that his regiment was quartered in the suburbs with a family.  In the house, the family had a vat for making beer and some of the ingredients, but no hops.  He gave the husband some money to buy hops and held the wife and daughters hostage to insure his return.  One day later, the husband returned with the hops and one of the members of the regiment, who was a brewer, made “…five barrels of excellent beer.”

When they left town on August 13 to head for Smolensk, they still had two barrels of beer left.  “…we put them under the care of Mother Dubois, our cantiniere.  The happy idea then occurred to her of staying behind and of selling the beer for her own profit to the men who were following us, while we, in the sweltering heat, were nearly dead of thirst.”

Pleased To See Her Countrymen… Initially

On 28th June, the Countess de Choiseul-Gouffier, who had recently been at the ball held in honour of General Levin-Bennigsen that was attended by the Czar, witnessed the entry of the lead elements of la Grande Armée into Vilna:

“I can find no words to describe my emotions when I saw some Polish troops! Poles who were galloping at full speed, sabres drawn and laughing, waving their lance pennants, which were in the national colours. I was wearing these for the first time! I stood at an open window, and they saluted me as they passed. The sight of these real compatriots set my heart racing. I felt that I was Polish by birth, that I was going to to become Polish again. Tears of joy and enthusiasm streamed down my face. This was a delicious moment , but it was not to last long.”

She continued:

“The French army who entered Vilna had not had bread for three days… The country through which the Grande Armée had passed had been ravaged and pillaged and its corn had been cut green for cavalry; it could not, therefore, supply the needs of the capital, and the people dared not even expose their convoys on the roads which were infested by marauders.

Besides, the disorderly behaviour of the army was a consequence of the sentiment of the chief, for after having crossed the Nieman Napoleon in an order of the day declared to the troops that they were about to set foot on Russian territory. It was like this that the liberator of Poland, so much desired, announced himself to the Lithuanians. In consequence of this Proclamation Lithuania was considered and treated as a hostile country, while its inhabitants, animated by patriotic enthusiasm flew to welcome the French. They were soon to be desported and outraged by those who they regarded as the instruments of the deliverance of their country and compelled to abandon their homes and their property to pillage. Many took refuge in the depths of the forest, carrying with them that which they hold the most dear—honour of their wives and children.

Each day brought the recital of new excesses committed by the French soldier in the country. Vilna seemed to have become a seat of war, soldiers bivouacked in the streets, which resounded with the clash of arms, the blare of trumpets, the neighing of horses and the confusion of many languages.”

Taken from Spring, L (2009) 1812: Russia’s Patriotic War. The History Press, Stroud Gloucestershire, UK. pp. 26 & 27.  Thank  you to James Fisher for providing this post.

Departing for Smolensk

In early August, Napoleon held a council with his generals at Vitebsk.  As described in Alan Palmer’s book, Napoleon in Russian: The 1812 Campaign, Napoleon wished to pursue a victory so he could bring the campaign to an end in 1812.  He was determined to go on to Smolensk and Moscow if necessary in order to force the issue with Alexander.

The generals were not comfortable with this plan, fearing they were too far into Russia already.  Napoleon dismissed them angrily saying “I have made my generals too rich.  They think only of their pleasures, of hunting, of rolling through Paris in brilliant carriages!  They have become sick of war!”

The following day, Chief of staff, Marshal Louis-Alexandre Berthier, and Count Bruno Daru, Minister Secretary of State, held an eight hour meeting with Napoleon.  Daru gave his reasons for halting the advance: 8,000 horses dead so far, no fodder within thirty miles of Vitebsk itself; no forges for shoeing the cavalry, no surgical lint for the medical service, no certainty that the supply train would get through.  Without fighting a battle, the Grande Armée had lost a third of its force through desertion, disease and hunger.

But Napoleon thought he detected signs of a Russian willingness to take a stand and give him the battle he wanted.  At two in the morning on August 13, he headed by carriage to Smolensk where the 1st and 2nd Russian armies had joined.

Meanwhile, Sgt. Bourgogne was staying in Vitebsk for a fortnight.  He wrote that his regiment was quartered in the suburbs with a family.  In the house, the family had a vat for making beer and some of the ingredients, but no hops.  He gave the husband some money to buy hops and held the wife and daughters hostage to insure his return.  One day later, the husband returned with the hops and one of the members of the regiment, who was a brewer, made “…five barrels of excellent beer.”

When they left town on August 13 to head for Smolensk, they still had two barrels of beer left.  “…we put them under the care of Mother Dubois, our cantiniere.  The happy idea then occurred to her of staying behind and of selling the beer for her own profit to the men who were following us, while we, in the sweltering heat, were nearly dead of thirst.”

Letters Home from the Campaign (Never Received)

Jakob Walter’s book, The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier,  includes six letters home from soldiers (none from Walter).  The letters were included by the editor of the book.  They are from fellow Württembergers or Westphalians and ended up in an archive in Leningrad.

In order to keep news from individual soldiers from contradicting Napoleon’s positively worded Bulletins de la Grande Armée during the campaign, letters to home were read and confiscated if they contained news contrary to the Bulletins.  Six of these confiscated letters were eventually sent to the Kingdom of Westphalia government where they eventually came into the possession of a Russian General who turned them over to his government.

Most of the letters were asking for something, usually money, but one was asking for shirts.  The writer, George Bormann, wrote his letter on Christmas Eve 1812.  There are a few interesting things about his letter.  One is that he describes the burning of Moscow, but makes it sound like it burned from a battle:  “Unfortunately we were there [Moscow] only twenty-four hours as the Russian troops pushed forward again and put fire to this city, with grenades and incendiary bombs was this beautiful city destroyed and turned into an ash heap.”  Since there wasn’t an attack on Moscow, I can only assume he was looking at the situation from his point of view and perhaps the burning of the city appeared to be from an attack.

After the city was destroyed “And so we retreated, when many died and I lost my health.  We retreated Twenty-four miles when Emperor Alexander endcircled us with 200,000 in our back and captured us…..they [Russians] did not leave a shirt on our skin.  So you can well imagine, dear parents, in what condition I am in.”   At this point he asks his parents to “… help me out with some shirts.”

The final thing that struck me was his line “More I don’t know what to write than that you will soon get foreign troops.”

Reading the letters I thought about the mail system in those days and the length of time it must have taken for a letter to travel hundreds of miles and then for a return letter to find a soldier in a moving army (in this case, a prisoner of war).  These letters asking for money and shirts were never received and I can imagine the sender waiting day after day for their requests to be answered.  Hopefully, they wrote other letters that made it through.