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Not Waterloo: This Was the Moment Napoleon Met His Match

August 11, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: NapoleonFrance1812Napoleonic WarsRussia

Not Waterloo: This Was the Moment Napoleon Met His Match

Napoleon Bonaparte’s intuition failed him in the fight for the southerly route out of Moscow during the Patriotic War of 1812.

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.

As Delzons was attempting to regroup his forces, Eugène arrived with the remainder of his infantry and heavy artillery. An hour later Delzons’ regrouped forces, under cover of heavy fire, descended the banks of the ravine across the bridge and into the heart of the town. A bloody hand-to-hand struggle ensued for the center of town as each side threw more and more forces into the narrow streets. At first the momentum of the French charge gave them the upper hand. But Dokhturov’s forces, under cover of their own heavy guns, pushed the French back to the ravine. This left forces in possession of a church and some adjacent homes that commanded the northern approaches to the bridge. Delzons was killed attempting to retain his hold on the northern edge of the town. His successor, General Guillment, renewed the offensive. Prince Eugène called up elements of an additional division under General Broussier, which managed to regain the town square, but they could make no further progress against stiffening Russian defenses.

As the morning wore on, the bulk of the Grande Armée began to close on the town. Ney and Marshal Louis Nicolas Davout’s corps arrived first and Eugène began constructing a second bridge across the Luzha to bring across the remainder of Broussier’s 14th Infantry Division. As the arrival of further French reinforcements threatened to overpower his overstretched command, Dokhturov dispatched riders in a desperate call for reinforcements. The first to arrive were Grenadiers from Raevski’s corps who quickly swept into the town, forcing the French back yet again and threatening to trap the expanding French bridgehead on the southern side of the river.

The Grenadiers sent the French back through the heart of town to the church and the area south of the bridge. Eugène was forced to regroup his scattered elements yet again and answered this new Russian attack with General Pino’s 15th Infantry Division—the last of Eugène’s divisions. Pino’s division slammed into the exhausted Grenadiers at the ebb of their charge, forcing them away from the bridge and through the town square, finally halting on the edge of town in the face of Russian artillery on the heights above.

The French at last had gained complete control of the town, but the Russians still held the surrounding hills. The cost was high, some 20,000 French and Russian casualties, or about one-third of the forces of Eugène and Dokhturov’s respective corps. The town itself was all but destroyed; most of the buildings had been damaged and many were afire.

By 3 pm the French were gathering their forces to assault the heights beyond the town, but the timely arrival of the remainder of Raevski’s corps solidified the situation and denied the French their opportunity. As the afternoon wore into evening, both armies converged on the battlefield, taking positions on their respective sides of the Luzha River. Around 7:00 pm Napoleon and his staff arrived. Bonaparte was pleased with the efforts of Eugène’s corps and began making preparations to assault the heights in the morning.

Napoleon sent General Jean-Baptiste Bessières, the commander of his Old Guard and a trusted confidant, forward to survey the field and advise him on the morrow’s dispositions. The general reported that the Russian position on the far bank was “unassailable.” When questioned further by Napoleon, Bessières stated that “three hundred grenadiers up there would be enough to stop an army.”

Napoleon Calls for a Council of War

Once again Kutuzov had thwarted Napoleon’s maneuvers. As at Borodino, the Grande Armée’s effort had been for naught. The next morning, October 25, as Napoleon was surveying the Russian positions, a band of Cossacks burst from the nearby woods and attacked his escort, reportedly coming within 20 yards of Napoleon himself. His escort was able to repel the attack, but the incident had a profound effect on Napoleon and would shape the events about to come. In the face of an entrenched army to his front and now a direct threat to his person, Napoleon’s faith in his star, his destiny, was shaken to the core. That evening he took an unprecedented step in his career and called a council of war to decide the army’s next course of action.

 

According to General Armand Caulaincourt, Napoleon’s Master of Horse, and General Philippe-Paul Ségur, Napoleon summoned Ney, Murat, Prince Eugène, Berthier, Davout, and Bessières and asked them which route the army should take to reach Smolensk—continue south to Kaluga, shift north and west to Medyn, or retreat north back toward Moscow and Mozhaysk? At first, sensing Napoleon’s mood, the assembled generals were quiet, then Murat spoke, “You may accuse me of imprudence once again, but, in war everything is decided by circumstance. When there is no choice but to attack, discretion becomes valor, and valor discretion. It is impossible to stop now, and dangerous to run away. We must pursue! What do we care for the threatening attitude of the Russians and their impenetrable forests? I laugh at them all! Just give me the remainder of the cavalry and the Old Guard and I’ll go into their woods, crush their battalions, overthrow everything and open the road to Kaluga for our army!” To this Napoleon replied, “I’ve had my fill of heroics! We’ve done far too much for glory. The time has come now for us to turn all our thoughts to saving the remains of the army.”

Bessières, probably hoping to avoid being placed under Murat’s command, quickly agreed with the Emperor, citing the Guard’s dwindling morale and the army’s inability to handle the task. He and the others pointed to the wounded from the previous day’s battle and argued that the army would not pay a further price for this land. Davout, hoping to salvage the situation, suggested that the attempt be made to bypass the Russian position to the north and west, through Medyn. This, he argued, would allow Napoleon to still utilize the southern approach to Smolensk and place the army between Smolensk and the Russians.

 

Murat, seizing a chance to attack a rival, accused Davout of leading the army to disaster, citing that such a maneuver would expose the army’s flank to the Russians. Instead, Murat refuted his earlier statement and suggested that the army retire north via Mozhaysk and the road back toward Moscow. Davout countered that to return north was to take the army across a virtual desert where it would wither and die. As the argument rose to a crescendo, Berthier and Bessières stepped between the two feuding marshals. Finally, a dejected and weary Napoleon had had enough. At the height of his despair he announced that he had decided the army would return north to Moscow via Bovorsk. The fate of the Grande Armée was sealed.

Kutuzov Considers Russia’s Next Move

Coincidentally, a similar meeting was taking place in the Russian camp. According to Sir Robert Wilson, the British liaison officer assigned to Kutuzov’s headquarters, at 11 pm Kutuzov called all the officers to his tent and vigorously announced his intention to stand and contest the crossing of the Luzha, stating that “he had determined to finish the war on that spot—to succeed or make the enemy pass over his body.” Orders were quickly issued and the Russian Army was deployed to contain the French bridgehead. Three hours later, at about 2 am, Kutuzov resummoned his generals and announced that he had changed his mind; he had received word that the army was in danger if it remained in position above Malo-yaroslavets. To ensure the army’s safety he ordered an immediate withdrawal back beyond Kaluga, to secure the army’s communications across the Oka River. Perhaps he feared Napoleon was using Eugène’s corps to pin his army in place while other elements of the Grande Armée crossed the Luzha at another point, trapping him against the river.