Key point: Napoleon had overreached. He tried to take over Russia and failed, leaving his army in ruins and setting the course for the end of his empire.
For many, the fascination of military history lies in the “What if …” What if Hitler had not ordered the Luftwaffe to shift from bombing RAF airfields to bombing London in 1940? What if Saddam had pushed on through Kuwait into northern Saudi Arabia, denying coalition forces the use of Saudi airfields to launch their counterattack? Many of the defining events in history turn on the fate of a single decision, a decision whose import is not always evident to the participants. For Napoleon’s Grande Armeé, that fateful day of decision was October 25, 1812.
Napoleon’s invasion of Russia set the stage for his downfall and the destruction of the Grande Armée. The long march to Moscow and the bloody Battles of Smolensk and Borodino lay the planks for the army’s coffin; a little-known battle in a town southwest of Moscow at Maloyaroslavets and the fatal council of war pushed on the lid, with the long torturous retreat driving in the nails.
Battle of Borodino
Following the bloody Battle of Borodino, Napoleon and his Grande Armée had at last reached the gates of Moscow. Victory was in sight. With his army in possession of the Russian capital, Napoleon believed it was only a matter of time before Alexander sued for peace and the long, costly campaign would end as all the others had, in victory. This campaign had been like no other Napoleon had fought: The Russian strategy of trading space for time had frustrated his ability to bring them to battle and had dangerously thinned his army as he was forced to guard his long and tenuous supply line back to France.
The Battle of Borodino on September 7, 1812, had at last provided Napoleon with a chance for the decisive battle he had sought on the long road from the Niemen River. The battle, like the campaign, however, proved to be a hollow triumph, the Grande Armée ending the day in possession of the field but at horrible cost—some 30,000 men. More importantly, the battle had shaken Napoleon and his army’s confidence. At the height of the struggle, with the chance for a decisive victory in his grasp, the Viceroy Eugène implored him to employ the Guard against the Russian center. Napoleon hesitated. “I will not demolish my Guard,” he answered.
Marshals Louis Berthier and Joachim Murat agreed. Berthier “urged him not to engage the only Corps in the army that remained intact and ought to be kept so for future occasions.” Napoleon and his marshals were aware how far away they were from France and how much they risked by tempting fate. The great gambler, who had always believed in his destiny, had blinked—he would not take the risk. The seed of doubt planted at Borodino would grow to fruition on the field of Maloyaroslavets, with harsh consequences.
Napoleon’s Options for Retreat
Throughout September and into October, Napoleon waited in the palaces of the Czar for Alexander’s gesture of negotiation. He waited in vain. Alexander offered no terms and refused to meet with envoys. He had sworn to remove the French from Russian soil and he intended to keep that promise. As he had from the beginning, Alexander intended to allow the expanse of Russia itself to wear on the French. Six hundred miles from their starting point on the Niemen River and 1,400 miles from the security of France, Napoleon and his army were not looking forward to spending the winter in Moscow. It was time to consider a retreat, but by which route and how far?
Napoleon faced three options. First was a withdrawal to the northeast toward Kalinin and Velikiye Luki. Doing so would allow the French to shorten their supply lines by bringing them closer to the security of friendly Lithuania and to threaten St. Petersburg at the same time. However, the prospect of moving farther north with winter looming was deemed too risky to chance. The second option was to retreat back along their line of advance, the Smolensk-Vyazm-Moscow road. This was uninviting because the retreating Russians and advancing French had picked it clean of food and forage. Moreover, this center route would take the Grande Armée through the carnage of the Borodino battlefield, a dreadful prospect.
That left the southern route through Kaluga via Maloyaroslavets to the southwest. This route would allow the Grande Armée to pass through land not already ravaged by the war and rejoin the main Vilna-Vitebsk-Smolensk road where Napoleon had painstakingly gathered supplies to maintain his army.
The Southern Road to Smolensk
Realizing he could wait no longer, Napoleon ordered preparations for a return via the Kaluga Gate and the southern road to Smolensk. Since the French Army had entered Moscow, the main Russian Army had been encamped south-southeast of the city in the vicinity of Taruntina. This placed the Russians across the Old Kaluga Road and astride the projected route of Napoleon’s army. Opposite them sat the corps of Murat and Marshal Josef Poniatowski. Since mid-September, an uneasy if often-violated truce had been in place along this front. Napoleon’s plan was to send Viceroy Eugène’s corps southwest down the New Kaluga Road, while he and the bulk of the main army left Moscow via the Old Kaluga Road. He hoped to deceive the Russians into believing he was moving to engage them southeast of Moscow. If he could avoid a major engagement and evade the Russians, Napoleon would be able to place his army between Smolensk and the main Russian Army.
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On October 13, Eugène’s corps left Moscow via the Kaluga Gate, and by the 16th they reached the village of Gorki some 10 miles south-southwest of Moscow. The Russians, however, had plans of their own. Alexander, realizing the state of the French Army, implored Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, commander of the Russian forces, to attack. After some hasty preparations, Kutuzov set his forces in motion to attack Murat’s extended line at Vinkovo. Accordingly, at 7:00 am on October 18, the 7th and 8th Russian Corps under General Nicolay Raevski struck the right and center of Murat’s corps at Vinkovo. The initial assault met with some success. Raevski’s lead columns under Generals Mikhail Miloradovitch and Orlov-Densilov drove the French back through Vinkovo and threatened to cut the New Kaluga Road.
But the French recovered quickly. While Murat rallied the scattered remnants of his corps, Marshal Michel Ney and Poniatowski’s corps restored the situation and pushed the Russians back to the vicinity of Vinkovo. The crisis having been averted, Napoleon continued to move the army south. He and the Guard left Moscow on October 19 while Eugène and the vanguard reached Fominskaya, 25 miles to the south, on the 21st. In an attempt to take advantage of the latest Russian setback, and as a further deception, on October 20 Napoleon sent General Jacques Lauriston to Kutuzov’s headquarters with yet another request for a negotiated settlement. He held no real hopes that Alexander would come to terms. Rather, his intent was to delay any possible Russian reaction to his movements while his message was forwarded and he awaited a reply. On the 23rd, Napoleon’s rear guard left Moscow via the New Kaluga Road, while Napoleon began to shift the army from the Old Kaluga Road to the New Kaluga Road, sidestepping the main Russian Army. By the 22nd, Kutuzov began to sense something was up when his scouts informed him that the French vanguard under Eugène was heading toward Maloyaroslavets. Kutuzov hastily began to shift his forces to intercept them.
The Battle for Maloyaroslavets
The town of Maloyaroslavets is 57 miles southwest of Moscow and 25 miles north of Kaluga. Three key routes meet there: The Old Kaluga Road passes through the center of town, the Mulin Road is to the west, and the Tula Road is to the east. The town rests on the side and summit of a hill south of the Luzha River. From Moscow the town was only accessible to cavalry and artillery via a single wooden bridge spanning a ravine and the Luzha River. South of the river the terrain was just as foreboding. The southern bank of the Luzha River and the area east, west, and south of the town are heavily wooded and steep. Any assault force from the north would first have to secure the bridge across the Luzha, the town itself, and finally the heights beyond.
On the evening of October 23, Eugène’s lead infantry division—the 13th, under Alexis Delzons—reached the town ahead of General Dmitri Dokhturov and quickly moved to take up positions to hold the vital river crossing. He occupied the town, but not in force. Later that evening, Dokhturov’s forces reached the town and took up positions on the southern side of the ravine astride the three main routes. Dokhturov quickly ordered his Chasseurs into the town to dislodge the French before they could solidify their hold on the bridge and its crossing. Their initial charge carried the town, but the banks of the ravine provided cover for Delzons’ troops and the Russians were stopped short of the bridge. Throughout the early hours of the 23rd, the Russian Chasseurs fortified their position, but Dokhturov did not send in further reinforcements. The following morning, Delzons ordered a regiment of infantry forward in support. Their reckless charge cleared the Russians from the base of the bridge and would have cleared the town itself, except a Russian light artillery battery moved into position and fired three rounds of canister into the advancing column. The first halted the column, the second wavered it, and the third dispersed it.