1812, Part 4

Throughout the summer of 1812, Bashkir and Kirghiz regiments gathered in Moscow on the Smolensk road, clad in their colourful conical bashlyks and bristling with quiverfuls of arrows.

David Noël Dieudonné (1797-1852), a French painter, has illustrated military men of the various European armies. Here’s his watercolour of the central Asiatic warriors.

Kirghiz or Bashkir horsemen, by David Noël Dieudonné. (1831).

Napoleon was advancing steadily into the heart of Russia, with the Russians constantly falling back and torching the countryside. While this was an effective defence, popular opinion began to veer against the Russian military leadership. Why did they retreat? Why didn’t they stand and fight? Forced by public outcries of cowardice, the Czar ordered his army to defend Smolensk, where the first large scale battle of the war took place on August 17, 1812.

It did not go well for the Russians. Barclay de Tolly had to abandon the city, which was almost completely destroyed. But the French supply lines were by now dangerously stretched, and Napoleon’s soldiers were running out of food. Smolensk’s destruction meant he couldn’t replenish his stores.

Peter von Hess’s Battle of Smolensk doesn’t show any French soldiers: the view, instead, is of the beginning of the Russian retreat as observed from the command post on a hill. There’s chaos and anxiety all around, the wounded and dying on the ground, the column of refugees struggles towards the road. von Hess concentrates on the small details that indicate the horror of the impending destruction.

Battle of Smolensk, by Peter von Hess.

Albrecht Adam accompanied the French forces in the company of Prince Eugene de Beauharnais, Viceroy of Italy, and painted several scenes of the campaign. Here is his depiction of the battle.

Battle of Smolensk, by Albrecht Adam. (1812).


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