Charles Minard

DataViz History: Charles Minard’s Flow Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812 – Polotsk, Smolensk and on to Borodino

Continuing The March

Since Minard’s map is in French, I have provided an English language version for us to use as we discuss the flow of Napoleon’s march in detail. [2]

minard-odt

Polotsk, Smolensk and on to Borodino

To the north, on the French left flank, Oudinot had been charged with linking up with Etienne-Jacques-Joseph-Alexandre Macdonald – leading the 10th Corps and himself ordered to capture the stronghold of Riga – and pushing back Wittgenstein. Although Oudinot never succeeded in joining up with Macdonald, he did engage Wittgenstein between 30 July and 1 August. The first battle actually took place on 28 July, between Wittgenstein’s advance guard (under General Kulniev) and Oudinot’s light cavalry and the 6th infantry division, commanded by Corbineau and Legrand respectively, at Kliastitsy (35km north of Polotsk). This initial clash saw the French surprised and pushed back: the second meeting, which ran over 30 July, 31 July and 1 August, saw further French losses as the Russian artillery held the advance. Kulniev was however killed leading a charge late on 1 August, the Russians lost about one thousand men, and the battle came to an end with Oudinot withdrawing south towards Polotsk and Wittgenstein falling back northwards. As a result, Gouvion-Saint-Cyr, who commanded the Bavarian VI Corps and had already been instructed to offer Oudinot support, was obliged to force march from Biešankovičy (about 80km south-east of Polotsk) to Polotsk. Setting out on 4 August, the Bavarian corps reached Polotsk on 7 August. That same day, Oudinot set out from Polotsk, heading towards Wittgenstein’s position at a village called Rosiza, north of the Drissa camp. On 11 August, the Russian commander headed south towards Svol’na (Belarus), intent on cutting Oudinot off. The latter retreated back towards Polotsk. For the memoirs of D’Aupias which recount in detail this northern theatre, see here (text in French).

Polotsk, Smolensk and on to Borodino

Source: Mr. Yankey’s World History Class, Owasso Mid High School, 8800 N 129th East Ave, Owasso, OK 74055, http://www.owasso.k12.ok.us/webpages/gyankey/regadvhandouts.cfm?subpage=313703.

By now, Alexander was aware that it was becoming politically dangerous to cede such huge swathes of Russian territory without a fight. He therefore wrote to Barclay de Tolly on 9 August indicating the need to go on the offensive and begin fighting back properly against the invaders. Despite the push from both within and without the army to attack Napoleon in open battle, Barclay de Tolly remained unconvinced. Arguing that pitched battle against the Grande Armée risked leaving the Russian empire completely undefended should he prove unsuccessful, Barclay de Tolly continued to pursue his defensive retreat, hoping that slowing Napoleon would allow Alexander time to put together a reserve force. Further south, in Gorodeczna (north-east of Brest-Litovsk, between Pruzhany and Kobrin), on 12 August troops under Schwarzenberg and Reynier defeated a Russian force commanded by Tormassov. On the afternoon of 15 August, troops under Murat and Ney arrived at the western edge of Smolensk, where elements of the 1st and 2nd Western Armies had convened (including Dokhturov’s VII Corps, infantry from Konovnitzin’s II Corps and Neverovsky’s 27th Division).
Over the course of 16 and 17 August, Ney’s and Murat’s troops, along with Poniatowski’s Polish Corps, clashed with the Russians pitched in Smolensk: Barclay de Tolly – who was resolved to continue the retreat and draw Napoleon ever eastwards – called a withdrawal. About 11,000 Russians died defending the city.   Back in the north west, the First Battle of Polotsk took place between 17 and 18 August and saw Oudinot’s troops, supported by Gouvion-St-Cyr’s Bavarians, meet Wittgenstein’s reinforced 1st Corps of about 22,000 men. The Russian attack centred on the village of Spas (near Polotsk) but by the end of the first day, both sides had maintained their positions. Oudinot was wounded during the day, and Gouvion-St-Cyr took over the command. On 18 August, a French counter attack was launched and succeeded in pushing Wittgenstein back, who decided that withdrawal was the best course of action. Although the Russians had withdrawn (Gouvion-St-Cyr was made a maréchal shortly afterwards, on 27 August, 1812), Oudinot’s march on St Petersburg was held up. The latter came in for some severe criticism from Napoleon, who considered that Oudinot had allowed himself to be cowed and bullied by Wittgenstein. Alexander, for his part, would later declare Wittgenstein to be the “saviour of St Petersburg” whilst Gouvion-St-Cyr praised the Russians for their orderly and combative retreat. The Russian troops fell back to Sivoshin, 40km or so from Potolsk, and there was to be no further combat until October.   The 1st and 2nd Western Armies’ march back in the direction of Moscow was to prove eventful. Having evacuated Smolensk (which was by now in ruins), and forced along poor country roads in order to avoid the French artillery, Barclay de Tolly’s rearguard – commanded by Eugen of Württemberg, Alexander’s cousin – was severely harried by Napoleon’s advancing troops, commanded by Ney and Murat. The retreat had begun in confusion and a complete lack of coordination, caused in part by poor organisation, difficult roads, and a night-time departure. As a result, Württemberg’s troops were caught by Ney’s advancing force.

map_of_war_1812_a

Meanwhile, troops under Pavel Tuchkov (who was later captured during the combat and imprisoned), held their nerve and succeeded in protecting the Moscow road to the east of Smolensk. These skirmishes, which took place on 19 August near Valutino and Gedeonovo (on the outskirts of Smolensk, near modern-day Lubino), are often claimed as French victories. Although the Russians were forced to withdraw, the advancing troops under Ney and Murat were held up long enough to allow the Russians to retreat to a safe distance. Napoleon, who believed the Russians to have retreated further back than they in actual fact had, remained away from the frontline, installed in Smolensk since 16 August. In the end, the lack of concerted push from the French saved the Russian army. Smolensk had been left to the French, but Napoleon knew that Moscow would not be abandoned without a serious fight.   On 18 August, Kutusov was appointed supreme commander, replacing Barclay de Tolly, whose tactics had been widely criticised, particularly by Bagration. Barclay de Tolly remained in command of the 1st Western Army, but Kutusov now dictated the strategy. Since the retreat from Smolensk, a defensible position for battle with Napoleon had been sought somewhere along the Moscow road. Dorogobuzh and the nearby Usv’atye fields (the site of Colonel Toll’s open criticism of Barclay de Tolly’s strategy, an incident on 21 August known as the “Mutiny of the Generals”) were both suggested and rejected. Time was running out as the Russian forces retreated back towards Moscow. Eventually, the small village of Borodino, 124 kilometres from Moscow was chosen.   On 25 August, Napoleon – based near Dorogobuzh (about ninety kilometres east of Smolensk) – received the wounded Tuchkov, where he proposed peace talks. Tuchkov refused and later that autumn was dispatched to Metz.

By 28 August, the Grande Armée had arrived in the town of Vyaz’ma, 114km from Borodino. The retreating Russian troops had sought to raze it to the ground, but the French forces succeeded in extinguishing the fire and salvaging the town’s food stores. On 29 August, Kutusov joined up with the retreating Russian forces on the Moscow road. On 30 August, 2,000 reinforcements under General Miloradovich arrived, and at the start of September, the Russians were in Borodino. On 31 August, two cossacks were captured by Murat’s forces: Napoleon subsequently learned of Kutuzov’s promotion and arrival as commander of the Russian forces. On 1 September, Napoleon arrived in Gjatsk (modern-day Gagarin, Russia), just sixty or so kilometres from Borodino.

Borodino
The run-up to  Borodino

Despite being chosen as the site to pitch battle, Borodino was not without its faults. The Old Smolensk Road, which cut in from the west behind the Russian position (the latter running from Maslovo, through Borodino and the destroyed village of Semenovskoe – Raevski’s Redoubt – and onto the Russian left-flank stationed at Shevardino), offered the advancing Grande Armée a route behind Russian lines. To avoid this, Bagration’s troops, stationed at Shevardino, started to push south eastwards to Utitsa, due south of Borodino.   On 5 September, the French advance guard under Murat appeared on the Russian left-wing near Shevardino, commanded by Major General Count Sievers. Murat, with Davout, captured the villages of Alexinki and Kolotsa, near Shevardino. Meanwhile Poniatowski moved up from the south and captured Doronino. During the fierce battle, the Russians lost between 5,000 and 6,000 men and were pushed back. French losses totalled about 4,000. As a result, a large majority of the Russian forces stationed at Borodino were squeezed into the small area of land between Semenovskoe and Borodino.   The morning of 5 September, French forces totalled slightly more than 140,000 men (of which Napoleon would commit 124,000, refusing to commit his elite Guards regiment), with the Russian troops at about 110,000. On 6 September, the two sides recuperated from the previous day’s battle and made preparations for the next clash.   The night before the battle, Kutuzov roused his troops, declaring: “Companions, Fulfil your duty. Think of the sacrifices made of your cities delivered to the flames and of your children who implore your protection. Think of your emperor, your lord, who considers you to be the source of his strength, and tomorrow, before the sun has gone down, you will have written your faith and your loyalty to your sovereign and your fatherland in the blood of the aggressor and his armies.” (Quoted in French in Marie-Pierre Rey, L’Effroyable Tragédie, 2012, p. 155) “Compagnons, Remplissez votre devoir. Songez aux sacrifices de vos cités livrées aux flammes et à vos enfants qui implorent votre protection. Songez à votre Empereur, votre Seigneur, qui vous considère comme le nerf de sa force, et demain, avant que le soleil ne se couche, vous aurez écrit votre foi et votre fidélité à votre souverain et à votre patrie avec le sang de l’agresseur et de ses armées.”

The Battle of Smolensk

At 2am on 7 September, Napoleon dictated his famous proclamation, to be read to the troops at about 6am: “Soldiers! Here is the battle that you have so much desired. From now on victory depends on you: it is necessary to us. It will give you abundance, good winter quarters, and a prompt return to the fatherland. Conduct yourselves as at Austerlitz, at Friedland, at Vitebsk, at Smolensk, and let the most distant posterity point with pride to your conduct on this day. Let it be said of you, ‘He was in that great battle under the walls of Moscow.'” “Soldats ! Vous avez supporté les privations et les fatigues avec autant de courage que vous avez montré d’intrépidité et de sang-froid au milieu des combats. Vous êtes les dignes défenseurs de l’honneur de ma couronne et de la gloire du grand peuple. Tant que vous serez animés de cet esprit, rien ne pourra vous résister. Soldats, voilà la bataille que vous avez tant désirée ! Désormais la victoire dépend de vous : elle nous est nécessaire. Elle nous donnera l’abondance, de bons quartiers d’hiver et un prompt retour dans la patrie ! Conduisez-vous comme à Austerlitz, à Friedland, à Vitebsk, à Smolensk, et que la postérité la plus reculée cite avec orgueil votre conduite dans cette journée ; que l’on dise de vous : il était à cette grande bataille sous les murs de Moscou !”

Next: The Battle of Borodino

References

[1] Dr. Daniel Churchill, MITE6323  – Interactivity, Visualization, Emerging Technologies and Paradigms, The University of Hong Kong, February, 2007.

[2] Mike Stucka, English translation of Minard’s classic chart of Napoleon’s March, Analyticjournalism.com, November 4, 2006, http://www.analyticjournalism.com/2006/11/04/english-translation-of-minards-classic-chart-of-napoleons-march/

[3] Napoleon’s Russian campaign: From the Niemen to Moscow, Napoleon.org, http://www.napoleon.org/en/Template/chronologie.asp?idpage=481959&onglet=1.

[4] Karl von Clausewitz, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia in 1812, http://www.napolun.com/mirror/napoleonistyka.atspace.com/Invasion_of_Russia_1812.htm.

2 replies »

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s