Дата публикации: 13 октября 2021
Автор(ы): Yevgeny MEZENTSEV
Публикатор: Научная библиотека Порталус
Источник: (c) Science in Russia, №5, 2012, C.84-91
Номер публикации: №1634116428

Yevgeny MEZENTSEV, (c)

by Yevgeny MEZENTSEV, Cand. Sc. (History), RAS Institute of Russian History (Moscow)


The year 2012 announced as the year of Russian history is marked with jubilees of several far-reaching events in the life of our country. The bicentennial of our people's victory in the Patriotic War of 1812 is one of such events. We bow to its heroes who defended honor, dignity and freedom of our native land and repelled the Napoleonic army, which had conquered almost the whole of Europe! And among them, to the talented military commander and infantry general prince Pyotr Bagration (1765-1812), a favorite follower of Alexander Suvorov (1730-1800), the greatest commander who never suffered defeats.


Bagration in 1812 already had a 30-year battle experience and was widely known in Europe. The most determined and courageous general of the Russian army was particularly well-known and feared by the French, whom he first met on the battlefield in 1799 in Italy under the banners of Suvorov* and later on achieved more than one victory over them in Austria and Prussia during the Napoleonic wars of 1805-1807**. It is no mere


* The Italian campaign of Suvorov--operations of Russian and Austrian armies headed by him against the French troops in Northern Italy in April-August of 1799. See: A. Bogdanov, "Russia's Sword", Science in Russia, No. 1, 2011.--Ed.


** The Napoleonic wars--operations, which France and its allies conducted during the Consulate (1799-1804) and the Napoleonic Empire (1804-1815) against coalitions of European states.--Ed.


chance that Bonaparte noted on the eve of his attack on our country: "Russia has no good generals except for Bagration."


Indeed, Bagration was well acquainted with the enemy psychology: the French, due to peculiarities of national mentality, attack with fervor and vigor, but defend themselves much worse. Therefore, proceeding from Suvorov's rule not to wait for impending danger but to meet it boldly, he suggested to Emperor Alexander I in the mid-March of 1812 to start preventive actions (to reach the Vistula river line crossing the central part of Poland from south to north to pick the first fights in the foreign territory far from the center of our country).


His plan was: first, Alexander I was to give a tacit warning to Napoleon: should the French and the allied troops cross

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the Odra river (border line between Germany and Poland) and advance offensive further eastward, Russia will consider it declaration of war*. According to Bagration, if Bonaparte ignores the emperor's ultimatum, our military command will have a free hand for counter actions. While the enemy moves from the Odra river to the Vistula, which can take 1.5-2 months by Bagration's estimates, the Russian military command was to form two armies of 100,000 men each in the Baltic region and near Bialystok (Poland) equipped with siege artillery, foodstuffs and fodder sufficient for a year, and 50,000 men reinforcement. Two force groupings were to move westward to capture the objective on the Vistula before the enemy approach.


The Bialystok army, which Bagration wanted to lead, was to capture Warsaw, and the Baltic army was to occupy Eastern Prussia, then, assisted by the Baltic fleet, to lay siege to the important fortress and port Danzig (today Gdansk, Poland). Such battle tactics would allow to gradually halt the enemy troops not waiting for their complete concentration (the main idea of Bagration), i.e. to act like Napoleon and Suvorov: precisely so acted always the French emperor and before him--the great Russian commander. Bagration justified the invasion of Poland by the fact that the latter was Bonaparte's ally and


* This is exactly what Alexander I did. Indeed, just as Bagration had foreseen, Napoleon gained time by diverting the emperor's attention by negotiations on disputed matters and moved on to the Russian borders.--Auth.


that of Prussia by the pact signed between Prussia and France against Russia in February of 1812.


However, the concept of the operation suggested by Bagration and other generals, who had worked out plans of preventive attacks on the enemy troops remained unrealized as Austria, on whose neutrality he relied, entered into a military alliance with France in March of 1812. Moreover, Napoleon, after learning about the plans of preventive actions against his army, threatened Alexander I with encirclement of Russian troops, if they dare attack his army. As a result, Alexander I decided to passively wait for the enemy's invasion.


Meanwhile, the tsar's fears, it seems, were unfounded. In the course of the whole military confrontation between Russia and France, Napoleon never encircled or destroyed any of Russian armies or even army corps. The point is that Suvorov's followers were used to fast-moving marches, possessed high power of endurance, moved much faster than their enemy, especially on impassable roads, and managed always to avoid the enemy's enveloping movements. Only sometimes the enemy managed to encircle light detachments (as a rule, those operating in the rear), but never managed to force them to surrender or destroy completely as about a half of the strength always fought its way to their troops.


On the threshold of the war, the most formidable 1st Western Army (130,000 men) was entrusted to the Commander-in-Chief and Minister of War Mikhail Barclay

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de Tolly (1761-1818), and the 2nd Western Army (45,000 men) was assigned to Bagration. Such decision of Alexander I was explained by the fact that he considered Bagration to be a good tactician, but devoid of strategic thinking and, what is more, was hot-tempered. However, for all his inclination to offensive actions, Suvorov's favorite follower could defend himself and his men and maneuver in a masterly manner: if numerical superiority was not on his side, he pulled back his troops and waited for a propitious moment to attack the enemy. In short, Bagration possessed enough foresight and cautiousness, though it was not too evident as he preferred to write and talk about counter-blows and attacks in his letters and speeches.


Moreover, in spring of 1812, just on the insistence of Bagration, the tsar ordered to move Polish landowners from western provinces to inner regions of Russia, as they were ready to render assistance to Napoleon, stop shipping of the Ukrainian bread by the Bug and Vistula rivers to Danzig, to avoid getting of foodstuffs and water transport by the enemy, and prohibit crossing of the Russian-Polish border from either side without a special permit.


Thus, the 1st Western Army deployed in Kurland, Lithuania and the northern Byelorussia protected the roads to Petersburg and Moscow, and the 2nd Western Army deployed near Lutsk and reinforced by the Reserve (Observation) Army of equal strength, headed by the general of cavalry Alexander Tormasov (1752-1819) defended a strategic route to Kiev. Such concentration of troops in Ukraine was due to the fact that the Russian command, after learning about Austria's intention to side with Napoleon, awaited its attack from Lvov.


Bagration was actively making preparations for the forthcoming battles: he conducted exercises with aimed target fire, took active participation in liquidation of cases of enemy espionage and was concerned about adequate organization of communication and quartermaster service provision of troops with all necessary things, paying special attention to feeding and medical care for soldiers. These measures had a natural result: when the war of 1812 broke out, his army turned to be better prepared to repel the enemy than the armies headed by Barclay de Tolly and Tormasov.


Besides, Bagration organized perfectly well secret intelligence, which enabled him, in particular, to be first to learn that the Austrian corps of the field marshal-lieutenant Karl Philipp Schwarzenberg deployed opposite his regiments near Lvov, in May of 1812 started moving north to reach Brest and Drahichyn areas, with a great "gap" not occupied by Russian troops. Bagration immediately requested Alexander I to move his army in the same direction to cover the unprotected areas and suggested to

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deploy Tormasov's Reserve Army, renamed to the 3rd Western Army, in the former place of his army. The tsar approved this plan.


On the eve of the war, Bagration asked Alexander I to order closing in of the stretched Russian border troops to close up these gaps, but our military command failed to accomplish it before the enemy invasion. Besides, "the lion of the Russian army", as the brave general was often called, still tried to frustrate Napoleon's plans by a sudden attack. He wrote to Alexander I: "It would be much more useful not to wait for the enemy attack but to oppose it on its territory." However, he never got such order from the tsar.


On June 12, 1812, after the main French forces headed by Viceroy of Italy Eugene de Beauharnais crossed our border near Kovno (Lithuania), the 1st Western Army of Barclay de Tolly began retreating in compliance with the earlier prepared plan to the Drysa fortified camp on the Zapadnaya Dvina river, more and more moving away from the 2nd Western Army of Bagration. The latter was ordered by the commander-in-chief to retreat in the same direction but via Minsk, Polotsk or Vitebsk (Byelorussia) and at the same time take actions against the enemy flank and rear (four times exceeding in strength his troops!) partly hindering its advance to Moscow. As we see, the task was not an easy one. However, even in such conditions, Bagration did not abandon his idea of launching an offensive, if only for a while, solely in his part of the front, to upset the enemy's plans. His motto was "To attack even retreating!"


Making use of the fact that the 70,000-men army of Napoleon's brother Jerome Bonaparte and the 30,000-men Austrian corps of Schwarzenberg deployed opposite his troops did not reach yet the Russian border, Bagration suggested to the commander-in-chief in his letter of June 14, 1812, that his army supported by the Cossack corps of

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the general of cavalry Matvei Platov (1751-1818) should carry out a sudden subversive advance to Warsaw. He planned to destroy the enemy's supply depots, first of all foodstuffs, and then to move swiftly to Brest and Kobrin (Byelorussia) where, assisted by Tormasov's army, to hold the enemy in check.


But the tsar gave no permission for such risky operation and confirmed his order for retreat of Bagration's army to the deployment area of the 1st Western Army using the shortest way via Novogrudok to Vileika (Byelorussia). However, after Napoleon captured Vilno (today Vilnius, Lithuania), he moved the 60,000-men corps of his best marshal Louis Davout to intercept Bagration's troops followed by the military units of Jerome Bonaparte.


Initially Bagration intended, in the spirit of Suvorov, to defeat the persecutor, a second-rate commander, then to turn towards the stronger enemy, Davout, and after defeating the latter to clear the way to the grouping of Barclay de Tolly. But Jerome, according to intelligence information, was not going to engage in combat, he planned to retreat, enticing the 2nd Western Army to his rear. Therefore, Bagration moved his army to Bobruisk, where he turned up before the French troops. On his way he defeated a cavalry detachment of Jerome, who attacked the Russian rearguard composed of Platov's Cossacks and a regular cavalry.


Bagration moved his regiments from Bobruisk to Mogilev, there was the only permanent crossing over the Dnieper, but the 28,000-men grouping of Davout was already deployed there. The advanced 11,000-men corps of general Nikolai Rayevsky (1771-1829) attacked courageously and pressed the enemy's advanced echelons near the village of Saltanovka, winning eternal glory, but then, after strong resistance, by order of Bagration, it withdrew by 3 km, to the village of Dashkovka. In the existing circumstances, Bagration considered reasonable not to force his way, but to deceive the enemy approaching him from the flank. While our rearguard simulated active willingness to return to fighting and Davout started feverish

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preparations for it, the 2nd Western Army carried out an easy crossing of the Dnieper south of Mogilev, near Novy Bykhov, and soon joined the troops of Rayevsky.


Protected from the side of Mogilev with a strong "barrier" of Platov's Cossack pickets, Bagration headed for Smolensk, having informed Barclay de Tolly, who also moved in that direction. Davout realized the situation only when Bagration outstripped him by two daily marches. The best Napoleonic marshal moved hastily by a parallel march hoping again to intercept the 2nd Western Army, but he failed. On July 22, 1812, Bagration joined the 1st Western Army.


Bagration realized that Bonaparte scattered his forces, and his advanced corps had no time to get assistance from the main forces in case of a sudden Russian counter-offensive, therefore he suggested again to Barclay de Tolly fighting against the enemy. However, the commander-in-chief was slow in making a decision, and, to Bagration's indignation, he gave time to Davout to recapture the initiative, get the troops together and move them to Smolensk. Nevertheless, the division of the lieutenant general Dmitry Neverovsky from Bagration's army stopped the enemy's advance for a whole day near the village of Krasny (45 km south-west of Smolensk).


Then, there followed 2-day battle in which Rayevsky's soldiers again distinguished themselves: they shattered all assaults of the first day, and inflicted heavy losses on the enemy. Bagration was of the opinion that the battle could be continued successfully, but in case of retreat, to leave a garrison to defend Smolensk--then Napoleon would have to detail a strong corps for the city blockade, thus degrading the main forces of the French. However, Barclay de Tolly did not consent to any of his suggestions. He ordered Bagration to retreat to Moscow, and he himself together with his army started retreating to the north, along the road to Petersburg, hoping that Bonaparte would follow him with a major part of his troops.


But Napoleon sent his main forces to follow Bagration, considering Moscow to be a more important target. When Barclay de Tolly realized his fault, he turned to

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Moscow, but his rearguard headed by major-general Pavel Tuchkov assisted by the Cossacks of lieutenant-general Akim Karpov from the 2nd Western Army had to withstand an intense combat action with the attacking French near the Valutina Mount (not far from the Lubino village, 20 km east of Smolensk).


Meanwhile, on August 17, the field-marshal Mikhail Kutuzov* headed the Russian troops. After considering possible options of a general engagement position, the new commander-in-chief picked out a field near the village of Borodino, not far from Mozhaisk, and the most vulnerable left section of the forthcoming battle entrusted


See: G. Gerasimova, "Great Soldier and Diplomat", Science in Russia, No. 2, 2008.--Ed.


to "the lion of the Russian army". The combat operations of August 26 proved that such decision was correct: 30-34 thous. soldiers entrusted to Bagration fought so desperately that the French thought his army to be twice bigger, and while he was with them, the enemy failed to move them.


The enemy repeatedly captured the field fortifications close to the Semenovskoye village, but Bagration's soldiers always threw it back by bayonets. During his last counterattack Bagration put up a real slaughter, but unfortunately was badly wounded by cannon splinters. This grave news created confusion among our soldiers: they stopped the pursuit of the retreating enemy and left the already taken back positions. Thus, this event, as

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Kutuzov complained later, had a crucial effect on the fate of the whole campaign.


Like many of his contemporaries, Bagration saw no point in the sacrificial surrender of Moscow to the enemy and believed that it could be avoided. He was confident that even the best French soldiers could not resist the Russian heroes under skillful leadership. He wanted to defeat the enemy gradually, attacking its independent corps. He considered it possible to attack Napoleon's main forces only in case of their equal number, but in other cases he retreated, though unwillingly. However, given any possibility and eagerness to encourage and inspire his soldiers, Bagration always strived to deliver a counterblow. Even in defense he was active and constantly launched counterattacks.


The soldiers idolized the fearless general almost like Suvorov, and already in 1807 they composed songs in his honor (in honor of Kutuzov, mainly, only from 1812). They used to say: " Suvorov is father of Russian glory, and Bagration is its son!" The untimely death of Bagration caused an acute pain in the hearts of all patriots as his talent of a military leader died down in its prime. Unfortunately, he did not live to see the victory but he believed in it till his last sigh, and his contribution to the successful outcome of the Patriotic War of 1812 is immense.

Опубликовано на Порталусе 13 октября 2021 года

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