How Close Did Napoleon Get To Moscow? Battle Of Vyazma & An Invasion In Shambles
3 November (22 October OS) 1812 marks the Battle of Vyazma in Napoleon’s Bonaparte’s Russian Invasion.
Infantry General Count Mihail Miloradović’s 16,500 Russian infantry, 5,500 cavalry and 3,000 Cossacks defeated Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s 34,500* French, Polish, German & Italian infantry & 3,000 cavalries.
The heavy casualties & the near destruction of Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout’s elite I Corps severely impacted the Grande Armée’s morale, furthering its disintegration & destruction.*
Napoleon leaving the Kremlin
The 6 French Corps that fought at Vyazma comprised 137 French, 33 Polish, 22 Italian, 17 German (14 Württemberg, 2 Baden & 1 Mecklenburg), 4 Portuguese, 4 Serbian, 4 Spanish & 2 Croat infantry battalions & 109 French, 32 Polish, 26 German (12 Württemberg, 8 Bavarian, 4 Saxon & 2 Prussian) & 13 Italian cavalry squadrons. With so many guns lost or abandoned during the march, calculating their number on 3 November is impossible.
By November, Napoleon’s famed Grande Armée had been retreating almost constantly, without food or rest, over the devastated Mozhaysk Road. Bitter cold, starvation, exhaustion & relentless attacks from Russian & Cossack irregulars inflicted terrible losses. He left Maroyaroslavets with 73,000 men. He’d been on the road a week & had already lost half that number. In this environment, discipline disintegrated. As a result, men fell behind, deserted, or wandered off in desperation to find food. Furthermore, many simply sat down to await death or capture. The land was littered with corpses, abandoned guns, broken wagons and discarded plunder.
This map denotes the positions of the Russian and French armies at 10am, as the corps of Davout is encircled by the Russians. That portion of Davout’s corps which broke ranks and fled in panic is positioned toward the north of the main road. The French IV Corps of Eugene and the V Corps of Poniatowski are marching east to rescue Davout’s troops. The III Corps of Ney is positioned to the west of the battlefield, preparing to assume the Grande Armee’s rear guard duties.
Due to the retreat’s speed, significant gaps opened between formations. By 3 November, Napoleon’s army was strung out along a 96 km (60 mile) span. Davout’s I Corps (13,000 foot: 83 French, 2 Spanish, 2 Baden & 1 Mecklenburg bns; plus 12 French & 4 Polish sqns) was the official rearguard. Behind him came Cavalry General Count Matvei Platov’s Cossack Corps, 7,000 strong. Platov raided isolated detachments, slaughtering stragglers. Major General Ivan Paskevich’s 26th Division (12 bns: 5th & 42nd Jägers; Bieloserk, Brest, Ryazan & Wilmanstrand Pekhota) pursued Davout relentlessly. Everywhere roamed enraged peasants, eager to cut a man throat as he slept.
Under this pressure, Davout’s corps constantly slowed & weakened. Due to the lack of cavalry for scouting & sentry duties, neither Davout nor Napoleon knew that a large Russian army was almost on top of them. Miloradović’s “Advance Guard” (17,500 men) shadowed Davout for some time. Per Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov’s plan to let the elements do the fighting, Miloradović was tasked with simply keeping Napoleon’s army on the Mozhaysk Road & not letting it venture south. But as Davout fell ever further behind, the aggressive Miloradović saw an opportunity for a cheap victory.
Moreover, the problem was that the Russians were almost as ignorant of French movements as the French were of them.
The extremely rapid speed of Napoleon’s retreat made intelligence gathering exceptionally difficult. Platov & Paskevich could barely keep up with Davout. They lost contact many times. In a report on 1 November (20 October), a frustrated Platov wrote, “The enemy is running like no army has ever run!”
Miloradović couldn’t know that Napoleon, frustrated with Davout’s slowness, had sent Marshal Michel Ney’s relatively undamaged III Corps (6,000 foot: 26 French, 14 Württemberg, 4 Portuguese & 4 Serbian bns; plus 13 French & 12 Württemberg sqns) back to relieve him & take over as rearguard.
Miloradović’s plan was simple. On 1 November, Davout camped at Tsarevo-Zaimische. It was perfect terrain for an ambush – a narrow winding road through a steep defile. An army ambushed there would be shredded. In the dark, Miloradović would assemble his men, Paskevich & Platov. They would wait on Davout’s flank & rear. At dawn, they would burst forth like a thunderbolt at men rising from sleep or making breakfast. He gave strict orders for silence. Fires were forbidden. Prince Eugen von Württemberg’s recklessness ruined it. Furthermore, he didn’t try to conceal his division.
He immediately attacked on contact, dragging Paskevich with him. However, Davout’s men fought back fiercely.
Darkness ended the engagement.
Miloradović had no choice but to abort the attack.
He could only watch, fuming, as Davout’s now fully alert men marched by, past him, past his men, past the perfect killing ground of Tsarevo-Zaimische. Davout settled near Fedorovskoye. The broken & scrub patched ground was much more unfavorable to Miloradović’s plan. Further on lay Prince Eugène de Beauharnais’ IV (Italian) Corps (12,000 foot: 28 French, 22 Italian, 2 Croat, 2 Spanish bns; plus 6 French & 13 Italian sqns). Division General Prince Józef Poniatowski’s V (Polish) Corps (3,500 foot: 33 Polish bns; plus 20 Polish sqns) waited beyond.
Ney camped further on at Vyazma.
His orders were to let the other corps pass him, then march.Miloradović & Platov were still determined to attack. Kutuzov arrived. Despite his usual caution, the wily old commander agreed. This attack had a good prospect of success. He detached the Tula Cossacks & 2 Lifeguard Horse Artillery Batteries. More importantly, he sent Lieutenant General Fyodor Uvarov with 2,000 men of the 1st (Astrakhan, Imperator & Imperatritsa Kirasiry) & 2nd (Ekaterinoslav, Glukhov, Malen’kaya Rossiya Novgorod & Voyennyy Orden Kirasiry) Cuirassier Divisions.
The “Kirasiry” were the elite assault cavalry – massive men on massive horses wielding massive swords with massive aggression. Kutuzov’s decision to risk them showed the faith he had in Miloradović’s plan.Miloradović’s force set off at 04:00, 3 November. Platov began his pursuit at dawn. Several Cossack Regiments & 300 mounted Jägers set off then. Platov led the rest off at 07:00. At 08:00, Kutuzov’s II & IV Cavalry Korps deployed parallel to the highway.
Adjutant General Fyodor Korf led II CK (24 sqns: Ingermanland, Kargopol, Moskva & Pskov Draguny; Yelisavetgrad Husary). LG Ilarion Vasilchikov led IV CK (24 sqns: Byelorussia, Chernigov, Kharkov & Kiev Draguny; Akhtyrka Husary). Behind them came LG Zakhar Olsufiev’s 17th Division (8 bns: Belozersk, Brest, Ryazan & Wilmanstrand Pekhota). 3 horse artillery batteries posted on high ground would provide fire support.At 08:00, Miloradović ordered Vasilchikov forward. The Akhtyrkas & Kievs quickly scattered a brigade. The Kharkovs crossed in front of them to the highway’s far side. They doubled back & struck the enemy’s rear as they were redeploying to face Vasilchikov. The horse batteries opened fire. Davout ordered his men to move as quickly as they could. The road was crowded with wagons & stragglers.
At 10:00, Württemberg’s 4th Division (8 bns: 4th Jägers; Kremenchug, Tobolsk & Volhynia Pekhota) cut the road in front of Davout. MG Aleksey Yermolov’s force (5th Jägers; Ladoga, Nizhegorod, Orel & Poltava Pekhota; Courland & Nezhin Draguny) attacked Davout’s rear. The trap was sprung & rapidly snapping shut.
The sounds of fighting alerted Beauharnais. He hurried back & saw Davout’s plight. He formed assault columns, determined to break through & save him. Poniatowski arrived & deployed behind him. DGs Étienne Nansouty’s 1st (42 French, 8 Polish & 2 Prussian sqns) & Emmanuel Grouchy’s 3rd (36 French, 8 Bavarian & 4 Saxon sqns) Cavalry Corps also arrived to investigate. Miloradović saw all this. He ordered all units currently on the road to get off it immediately & deploy to face the new threat. Davout saw his salvation. He ordered his men to advance.
Miloradović’s cavalry had backed off. But his infantry & artillery still lined the highway off Davout’s left. He’d have to lead his corps along a hellish gauntlet of shot & shell. He ordered his guns & wagons to retreat to the right, behind his infantry columns. Skirmishers & marksmen would give cover on the left, using the scrub & farm buildings to keep Miloradović’s batteries at a distance. Miloradović, seeing his victory slip away, attacked with his full force. It was a terrible, grim fight. But Davout was the Iron Marshal. His I Corps was the best in the army. They ran the terrible gauntlet, both taking & inflicting heavy casualties.Some of the men abandoned the columns & broke for the open country. Louis Philippe de Ségur described the panic:
“Disorder reigned in the I Corps – the one commanded by Davout. The sudden maneuver, the surprise, & particularly the tragic example of the crowd of unhorsed, unarmed cavalrymen running up & down in blind fright, threw this corps into utter confusion. This spectacle encouraged the enemy, who credited themselves with a victory. Their artillery, superior in strength, galloped into position &, opening an oblique fire on our lines, began mowing our men down, while our own guns were coming back to us at a snail’s pace from Vyazma.”
Beauharnais didn’t wait for Davout. He began his own hasty retreat. He deployed at Rzhavets. At 10:00, Davout joined him. Poniatowski & the 2 Cavalry Corps formed a reserve. They hoped Miloradović would retreat in the dusk. But they’d fight if needed. Davout’s wagon train passed through Vyazma safely. Miloradović was furious. But he couldn’t abandon his plan. After an 80-gun bombardment, he launched a ferocious attack. MG Laptev’s 23rd Division (6 bns: Alexopol, Rylsk & Yekaterinburg Pekhota) struck Beauharnais. MG Pavel Choglokov’s 11th (6 bns: Kexholm, Pernov & Yelets Pekhota) struck Davout. The Russian soldier was famous for his skill & savagery with the bayonet.The sheer fury of the attack quickly drove Davout & Beauharnais back.
When Ney tried to help, Uvarov & the Lifeguard Ulany menaced him.
Davout & Beauharnais made a second stand on the high ground before Vyazma. A 2nd attack nearly drove them into the city. At 14:00, the commanders agreed to retreat. They would leave through Vyazma, abandoning it to the enemy. Ney’s rearguard burned the buildings, including all their stores & ammunition.
In a final, spiteful move, the French locked many civilians and Russian prisoners inside the buildings before setting fire to them.
Miloradović smelled blood.
The Russians advanced as if in ceremony, with music and unfurled flags.
Choglokov’s infantry came first. They broke into the burning city at 16:00. Partisans drawn by the fighting broke into the far side. The Russians seized the city in brutal urban combat. But Ney’s rearguard fought with desperate strength. He held the Russians back long enough to let his fellow Corps escape. He then left himself. Tragically, many wounded Frenchmen burned to death when the fire reached the hospitals. The Russians were able to break into buildings & save at least some people, French & Russians both.
The Russians eventually emerged & deployed on the city’s far side. Platov circled it & joined them. It was around 18:00. They wanted to attack at dawn. Kutuzov refused to renew the action. He’d won what was, in truth, a highly risky operation. He had no idea of Napoleon’s exact positions or strengths. To fight on in unscouted territory risked additional French units, perhaps even the Imperial Guard & Napoleon himself, arriving. There was no need to risk a cheap victory turning into an expensive draw. His attrition strategy was working wonderfully. Why take additional risks? Some of his generals were furious, but he wouldn’t be swayed. In the night, the Grande Armée disappeared into the dark.Miloradović himself summed up Kutuzov’s position:
“The old man’s view is this: if we incite the enemy to desperation, that will cost us useless blood. But if we let him run & give him a decent escort he will destroy himself in the course of a few days. You know, people cannot live on air, snow doesn’t make a very homely bivouac & without horses he cannot move his food, munitions or guns.”
Miloradović lost 800 dead, 1,000 wounded. Napoleon lost 4,000 dead/wounded, 3,000 captive (including 30 officers & V Corps Artillery General Jean-Baptiste Pelletier), 3 guns & an eagle. Next day, Ney assumed his duties as rearguard. The road was heaped with burned out wagons & blown-up munitions. Unarmed stragglers roamed the forests. The retreat’s speed stopped many broken units from reforming. Men who desperately needed rest were chivvied mercilessly onward. As each horse collapsed, starving men set upon it & carved it to pieces.
The famed I Corps was especially damaged, losing its steadfast reputation. The collapse of such an elite body sent waves of panic & despair throughout the Grande Armée. General Armand de Caulaincourt wrote:
“Until then – as long, that is, as it had to withstand alone the attacks of the enemy – the First Corps had maintained its honor & reputation, although it was fiercely attacked & its formation broken by the artillery. This momentary disorder was conspicuous because it was the first time that these gallant infantry broke ranks & compelled their dogged commander to give ground. I have related these painful details because from this incident must be dated our disorganization & misfortunes. The First Corps, which on taking the field was the largest & finest, a rival to the Guard, was thenceforward the hardest hit; & the evil spread.”
On the morning of 4 November (24 October), Colonel Raymond Fezensac witnessed the following scene:
“As soon as dawn began to break, 3e Corps set out from their overnight halt. At that very moment, all the stragglers, leaving their bivouacs, joined the troops. Only the sick & wounded, crowding around the fires, begged us not to leave them at the mercy of the enemy. But we did not have any means to evacuate them from the army. Therefore, we pretended not to hear their pleas. I gave orders to drive away the scoundrels who, despite being able to fight, had deserted the colours, using musket butts & warned that, in the event of an enemy attack, I would order them to be shot if they interfered with the activities of my soldiers…”
Things would only get worse.
(I owe a great debt to the scholar Peter Phillips, whose translation of Russian primary sources was invaluable.)
Napoleonic Historian Garrett Anderson
How Close Did Napoleon Get To Moscow? Battle Of Vyazma & An Invasion In Shambles Written by Garrett Anderson
How Close Did Napoleon Get To Moscow? Battle Of Vyazma & An Invasion In Shambles