Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Battle of Borodino

Napoleon might have met his ultimate fate at Waterloo, but it was the Russian Campaign that proved to Europe that the Little Corporal could be undone. Napoleon missed a glorious opportunity to destroy the Russian army at Borodino that proved to be the last offensive action of his invasion of Russia.

The French Grande Armée entered Russia in June 1812 and steadily advanced. On August 29th, General Mikhail Kutuzov took over command of Russian forces. The Russians wisely retreated towards Moscow. Kutusov realized that the time had come to offer battle, if only to bolster the morale of his troops. He chose to make his stand at Borodino. The Russians began to construct a line with earthworks, including three arrow-shaped "Bagration fléches" named after General Pyotr Bagaration.

Despite attrition from the tiring campaign, the French Army was still the finest in Europe. A tense but futile attempt to stop or delay the French at the Shevardino Redoubt left the Russian army in confusion. The battle, fought on September 7, 1812, quickly became a defensive effort on the part of the Russians.

Repeated, heavy attacks eventually drove the Russians from Bagration's fléches, but smoke, dust and exhaustion prevented the French from advancing and destroying Bagration's army. Napoleon, sick with a cold and far from the battlefield refused to release the Imperial Guard, his last reserve.

The fiercest fighting took place at the Raevsky redoubt. The position changed hands a number of times as each offensive and counteroffensive added to the mounting toll of casualties. The Russians abandoned the redoubt for good when a division of French cuirassiers, along with Polish and Saxon cavalry squadrons shared and captured the contested area. Casualty estimates vary widely, but it is likely that more 70,000 men were captured, wounded or killed in the epic struggle.

Despite the slaughter, the Russian army had survived and Napoleon's had suffered losses that could not be replaced so far from home. A French victory, some scholars believe it could easily have been a glorious Russian victory if Kutuzov had better placed his forces. Napoleon would make it to Moscow, but with a greatly weakened army. After his eventual retreat, less than 10% of Napoleon's 286,000 troops would cross the Russian border alive. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Battle of Smolensk

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.