1812, Part 19

While the battle of Krasnoy raged, a Russian corps under Chichagov captured Minsk on November 16, 1812, thus destroying Napoleon’s final hope of reorganising his failed army. All he could do now was to get the remains of his forces across the Berezina river – the exact same river he crossed only months earlier to begin the great invasion of Russia.

Burning of regimental flags before Napoleon, by Wojciech Kossak.

On November 23, Napoleon oversaw the destruction of staff papers, personal wagon trains, and regimental colours and ornaments.

Meanwhile, the Russian army staff was planning the encirclement and capture of Napoleon upon the Berezina. The plan involved three flanking manoeuvres by the Russian forces, one commanded by Chichagov, another by Kutuzov, and the third by Wittgenstein.

Flight of the French towards Berezina, by Bogdan Willewalde.

Flight of the French towards Berezina, by Bogdan Willewalde.

Grand Army crossing the Berezina, 26 November 1812, by Raymond Joseph de Fournier.

Grand Army crossing the Berezina, 26 November 1812, by Raymond Joseph de Fournier.

The plan, for all its theoretical merit, was undone by the lack of coordination between the Russian commanders. Napoleon sped across the river with hardly a fight. Chichagov was the only commander to engage the French, but he was repulsed by Oudinot. Once the majority of the French had crossed the river, Napoleon ordered the bridges to be destroyed, abandoning a large number of goods, soldiers and French women and children to their fate on the left bank of the river.

French retreat across the Berezina, 17 November 1812, by Peter von Hess.

French retreat across the Berezina, 17 November 1812, by Peter von Hess.

Battle of Berezina, by Oleg Avikemyan.

Battle of Berezina, by Oleg Avikemyan.

Dutch infantry at Berezina, by Jan Hoynck van Papendrecht.

Dutch infantry at Berezina, by Jan Hoynck van Papendrecht.

Flight of the artillery, by Wojciech Kossak.

Flight of the artillery, by Wojciech Kossak.

Crossing guides at Berezina in 1812, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Crossing guides at Berezina in 1812, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Grand Army upon the Berezina, by Januarius Sukhodolsky.

Grand Army upon the Berezina, by Januarius Sukhodolsky.

Crossing the Berezina, by Vasily Vereshchagin.

Crossing the Berezina, by Vasily Vereshchagin.

Chichagov received terrible press for his unsuccessful attack on the French, despite the fact that neither Kutuzov nor Wittgenstein achieved their parts of the encirclement plan. Kuzutov’s wife damned Chichagov’s reputation with the acerbic quip, “Wittgenstein saved Peterburg, my husband saved Russia, and Chichagov saved Napoleon.” His later fate was tragic indeed.

Napoleon could now head towards Vilnius.

[Translated excerpts from КНИЖКА С КАРТИНКАМИ.]

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