Smolensk has been the site of a number of key battles in history. In 1941 the German Wehrmacht was dealt its first serious delay during Operation Barbarossa at Smolensk. In 1943 Soviet forces methodically cleared Smolensk of the German occupation force on their way to Berlin.
In 1812 Smolensk was the site of the first major battle of Napoleon's Russian Campaign. As can be seen from the map, Smolensk was a small but heavily-fortified city of about 13,000 souls. General Barclay de Tolly was in charge of Russian forces in the region. General Pytor Bagration corps was actually in the city.
On August 14, 1812 Napoleon ordered his marshals to cross the Dneiper River and race to the city, intending to capture it without a fight. Poor communication allowed Bagration, against orders, to slip into the city. Two days later Napoleon assaulted the city in an effort to lure out the Russians. An intense artillery barrage soon had the city in flames. A lack of siege equipment, including ladders, hampered the French effort. On the 17th Tolly ordered the city abandoned in order to save the army. Though Napoleon succeeded in capturing the city, its destruction meant it was useless as a base of operations. French losses exceeded 4,000, with the Russians suffering at least 6,000. Some estimates double the numbers for both sides.