Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Battle of Saltanovka (Mogilev)

General Rayevski bravely leading his men into combat at the battle of Saltanovka.

A battle fought between the 2nd (Russian) Western Army and Marshal Nicolas Davout’s forces in the early phase of Napoleon’s advance on Moscow in 1812, Mogilev is also known as the Battle of Saltanovka. As Napoleon’s forces invaded Russia, Prince Peter Bagration’s 2nd Western Army eluded their enveloping maneuvers and hastily retreated eastward to join General Mikhail Barclay de Tolly’s 1st Western Army. Threatened by the forces under Jérôme Bonaparte from the rear and Marshal Louis Davout’s corps from the north, Bagration moved by forced marches toward Mogilev, where he intended to cross the Dnieper River and join Barclay de Tolly. 

However, Davout beat him to the town, arriving with some 28,000 men on 20 July. The Russians approached Mogilev on the twenty-first, and their advance guard under Colonel Vasily Sysoev engaged Davout’s advance troops near the village of Dashkovka, south of Mogilev. Bagration then decided to attack Davout with only the 7th Infantry Corps under General Nikolay Rayevsky: If Mogilev proved to be held only by Davout’s advance troops, Rayevsky was strong enough to drive them out, move to Orsha, and cover the route to Smolensk. However, if Davout were there in force, Rayevsky was to fight a delaying action to keep the French on the right bank of the Dnieper, while Bagration crossed the river with the army to the south of Mogilev. 

Davout’s forces, reduced by fatigue from marching, were still further weakened by the strategic situation. The effective forces at his command to oppose Bagration’s army amounted to only 22,000 infantry and some 6,000 cavalry. Taking into account the numerical superiority of the Russians, Davout positioned his troops at Saltanovka. His left was deployed on the marshy bank of the Dnieper and was unassailable. A stream flowing in a difficult ravine, spanned from the village of Saltanovka by a wooden bridge, covered his front. Dense forest surrounded the village, especially on the northern bank of the stream.

Davout reinforced these positions with additional earthworks. His soldiers cut the bridge at Fatova, fortified the buildings on the high road, and established strong batteries there. Davout deployed five battalions of the 108th Line and one battalion of the 85th Line here. Behind them he placed four battalions of the 61st Line in reserve between Fatova and Selets. On the left wing, at Saltanovka, Davout arranged three battalions of the 85th Line and an independent company of voltigeurs (light infantry operating as skirmishers). Finally, he deployed battalions of the 85th and 61st Line, respectively, and several cavalry units. 

Around 7:00 A.M. on 23 July the advance guard (6th and 42nd Jägers) of the Russian 7th Corps led the attack on Davout’s left wing at Saltanovka. Pushing the French outposts back, it reached the bridge over the Saltanovka stream at 8:00 A.M. Despite the fierce fire, the Jägers under the command of Colonel Andrey Glebov overran the defenders on the bridge and continued their advance. Davout immediately counterattacked with the 85th Line. The Russian advance was halted by heavy artillery fire and musketry, but their infantry then stood stoically for several minutes, allowing themselves to be shot down rather than yield ground. Rayevsky then launched almost simultaneous assaults on the French positions at Saltanovka and Fatova. 

The 26th Infantry Division under General Ivan Paskevich was ordered to march on a narrow path through a forest to attack the French; this maneuver would serve as a signal for the main forces of 7th Corps to attack. Paskevich deployed his division in extended column and attacked the village. In fierce fighting the Russians overran the 1st battalion of the 85th Line, forcing its retreat. To support the 85th Line, Davout sent a battalion of the 108th Line with a few guns. Both French battalions took up a position on the heights to the south of Fatova and repulsed the Russian attack. Paskevich rallied his troops on the edge of the forest and, supported by a 12-gun battery, launched another attack that carried the village. However, after passing Fatova, the advancing Russian battalions were suddenly counterattacked by four battalions of the 108th Line, concealed by Davout in the wheat fields behind the village. The French inflicted heavy casualties on the Russians and forced their retreat. 

Despite this setback, Paskevich rallied his troops and counterattacked. At first the attack was successful and he captured the village again. Davout, however, moved the 61st Line to strengthen his defenses. The French repulsed the Russian attack and drove them back; on the right flank, two French battalions overwhelmed the Orlov and Nizhniy Novgorod regiments and crossed the brook. 

Paskevich was compelled to move the Poltava Regiment to contain the French advance and prevent the Russian right wing from being turned. Meanwhile, the main effort of 7th Corps was focused on Saltanovka. Rayevsky led the Smolensk Infantry Regiment to seize a dam and cover the approach of the main forces. This column was to be supported by the 6th and 42nd Jäger regiments and artillery deployed on the heights on both sides of the road. It was agreed that the attack would be launched simultaneously with Paskevich’s advance on Fatova. 

Yet, Rayevsky did not hear the cannon shots that signaled the advance, and so his attack started too late. Russian units endured devastating artillery fire and suffered heavy casualties. At one point, seeing the confusion in his troops, Rayevsky held the hands of his two sons, Alexander (sixteen) and Nikolay (ten), and, yelling “Hurrah!” led the attack. Notwithstanding this inspiration, the charge was repulsed. Learning from prisoners that Davout had gathered reinforcements, Rayevsky ordered a general retreat and withdrew his troops to Dashkovka. 

Following the engagement at Mogilev, the 2nd Western Army completed construction of a bridge at Novy Bikhov and crossed the river toward Smolensk. The Russians acknowledged 2,548 killed and wounded in the battle and claimed the French lost 4,134 dead and wounded. Although Davout admitted to only 900 casualties, the French losses were close to 1,200. Mogilev is often acknowledged as a French victory, though in reality Bagration achieved his goal of eluding the French envelopment and breaking through to Smolensk, where the Russian armies united.

References and further reading Afanas’ev, A. 1992. 1812–1814: Lichnaia perepiska Nikolaia Rayevskogo. Moscow: Terra. Davout, Louis Nicolas. 1885. Correspondance du maréchal Davout, prince d’Eckmühl, ses commandements, son ministère, 1801–1815. Paris: Plon, Nourrit. Gallaher, John. 1976. The Iron Marshal: A Biography of Louis N. Davout. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. Girod de l’Ain, Felix Jean. 1873. Dix ans de mes Souvenirs militaires (de 1805 à 1815). Paris: N.p. Inostrantsev. 1914. Otechestvennaya voina 1812 goda, Operatsii 2-oi Zapadnoi armii kniazya Bagrationa ot nachala voini do Smolenska. St. Petersburg: N.p. Kharkevich,V. 1901. Voina 1812 goda. Ot Nemana do Smolenska. Vilna: Izd. Nikolaevskoi akademii general’nago shtaba. Mikaberidze, Alexander. 2003. “Lion of the Russian Army: The Life and Military Career of General Prince Bagration.” Ph.D. diss., Florida State University.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Fighting for Shevardino Redoubt

What Kutuzov got was a position near the village of Borodino, 124 kilometres from Moscow. For the Russian staff officers who initially viewed this position from the main highway – the so-called New Smolensk Road – first impressions were very good. Troops standing on either side of the highway would have their right flank secured by the river Moskva and their front protected by the steep banks of the river Kolocha. Problems became much greater when one looked carefully at the left flank of this position, south of the main road. Initially the Russian army took up position on a line which ran from Maslovo north of the road, through Borodino on the highroad itself and down to the hill at Shevardino on the left flank. The centre of the position could be strengthened by the mound just to the south-east of Borodino which became the famous Raevsky Redoubt. Meanwhile the left could be anchored at Shevardino, which Bagration began to fortify.

Closer inspection soon revealed to Bagration that the position on the left assigned to his army was very vulnerable. A ravine in his rear impeded communications. More important, another road – the so-called Old Smolensk Road – cut in sharply behind his line from the west, joining with the main highway to the rear of the Russian position. An enemy pushing down this road could easily roll up Bagration’s flank and block the army’s line of retreat to Moscow. Faced by this danger, Bagration’s army began to withdraw to a new position which abandoned Shevardino and turned sharply southwards from Borodino in a straight line to the village of Utitsa on the Old Smolensk Road. On 5 September Bagration’s troops at Shevardino fought off fierce French attacks in order to cover the redeployment to this new line, losing 5,000–6,000 men and inflicting perhaps slightly fewer casualties on the enemy.


Having defeated the retreating Russians at Smolensk and capturing that city in August, Napoleon closely pursued the 1st and 2nd Armies of the West, under Kutuzov, who succeeded General Barclay de Tolly as commander in chief on 20 August. While Barclay urged immediate confrontation with the French, then steadily advancing east, Kutuzov decided instead to withdraw to Borodino, there to make a stand, a decision made as a result of political pressure urging the defense of Moscow. The main part of the Grande Armée duly followed, with an Austrian auxiliary corps under Karl Philipp Fürst zu Schwarzenberg and French general Jean Reynier observing Alexander Tormasov’s 3rd Army of Observation and Pavel Chichagov’s Army of the Danube far to the south, while Marshal Macdonald’s corps kept watch on the Russians situated far to the north.

Although the French had left the vicinity of Smolensk with 156,000 men as recently as 19 August, by the time they reached the outskirts of Borodino on 5 September they were down to 133,000 fit for action (86,000 infantry, 28,000 cavalry, and 16,000 artillerists) and 587 guns, all units depleted by disease and generally wearied by the laborious march deep into Russia that had begun on 22 June. The Russians mustered about 155,000 men, of whom 115,000 were regulars (the remainder were Cossacks and militia) plus they were more rested and enjoyed a numerical superiority in artillery, with 640 guns. Nevertheless, the Russian total included a proportion of virtually untrained militia known as Opelchenie, about the same number of new recruits in the regular army, and a large body of Cossacks who could not be relied upon to execute orthodox charges against formed troops. Thus, the two armies stood on approximately equal terms.

The French advance guard made contact with the Russians on 5 September when they came in sight of the Shevardino redoubt, a forward earthwork manned by General Dmitry Neverovsky’s division, supported by light infantry and cavalry, which the Russians had constructed about 3 miles southwest of Borodino. Afternoon was passing, and Napoleon needed to take the position so that he could deploy his men to face the rest of the Russian army waiting for him a mile-and-a-half beyond the redoubt. He ordered in Compans' 5th division of Davout's 1st Corps, supported by two cavalry corps. At the same time the Emperor ordered Poniatowski's Polish Corps to circle to the south and take the position from the flank.

The French came on in skirmish formation and poured a terrific fire into the Russians. The latter responded as best they could, with most damage coming from their cannon. The time had come to take the redoubt, and Compans sent in his best troops. At the point of the bayonet, the Terrible 57th Line swept the flanking defenders away and entered the redoubt.

They found not a single man standing left to oppose them. The sun was setting and Prince Bagration mounted an attempt to retake the bloody position. His cavalry had a terrific clash with the French and got the best of it, but could not follow up in the darkness. Bagration claimed to have taken the redoubt and then withdrawn, but their relatively small losses suggest they did little more than skirmishing. What is clear is that the Russians had a stiff fight over a relatively useless position.

Russian Army – Napoleonic Wars

Upon his accession to the throne, Tsar Paul launched a series of reforms aimed at transforming the Russian Army. His Gatchina Troops (the tsar's personal guard at the palace of that name), trained in the Prussian manner, became the pattern for the rest of the imperial army. New drill regulations were introduced in December 1796, while new uniforms were issued in the Prussian style, and soldiers were required to wear their hair pulled back behind their heads in tightly braided queues. The officer corps was purged, and 7 field marshals, over 300 generals, and more than 2,000 officers were expelled between 1796 and 1799. Regiments went through a major transformation, as regimental commanders lost their power and regimental chefs (colonel-proprietors) gained virtually unlimited authority over the units. For the duration of Paul's rule, units were designated after the chefs. Ten Jäger corps and three separate battalions were soon transformed into separate regiments. Under the 1796 Regulations, heavy cavalry regiments comprised five squadrons, while the light cavalry was organized into two regiments of five squadrons each. 

Paul's reforms were most beneficial for the artillery. Lighter artillery pieces were introduced, and specific regulations were adopted for barrels and carriages. New artillery was armed with 12-pounder (medium and small) and 6-pounder guns, and 20-pounder and 10-pounder unicorns (a type of artillery piece unique to the Russians, the unicorn was a compromise between an ordinary cannon and a howitzer). Russian artillery was organized into one horse and ten field battalions, each consisting of five companies. Each field artillery company included four medium 12-pounder guns, four small 12-pounder guns, and four 20-pounder unicorns. The horse artillery company consisted of six 6-pounder guns and six 10-pounder unicorns. Infantry regiments were also assigned artillery pieces. 

The Russian Army was divided between fourteen military inspectorates (inspektsia). Two inspectors (one each for infantry and cavalry) regularly examined troops in each inspection, while the Inspector of All Artillery supervised the whole branch of the service. Emphasis was put on drilling and parade appearance, rather than on actual tactical maneuvers. In January 1801, the Russian Army consisted of 446,059 men: 201,280 infantrymen, 41,685 cavalrymen, 36,500 artillerymen, 96,594 garrison troops, and 70,000 men in special forces (for example, the corps of Louis- Joseph de Bourbon, prince de Condé, a French emigré). 

On the accession of Tsar Alexander, the main military forces comprised the following forces: infantry-three Imperial Guard, thirteen grenadier, sixty-nine musketeer, and nineteen Jäger regiments; cavalry-four Imperial Guard, thirteen cuirassier, eleven dragoon, eight hussar, two horse, and three regular Cossack regiments; and the artillery and engineer service-four field and one horse artillery regiments, one pioneer regiment, and eight pontoon companies. The first several years of Alexander's reign saw the gradual transformation of Russian military forces. After the 1802 reforms, an infantry regiment was organized into three battalions of four companies each, and the average strength of units varied between 1,500 and 1,700 men. Although the Russian Army had ad hoc divisions on campaign, the conversion to a divisional system was only initiated in 1806, when the first eighteen divisions were formed. The normal strength of a division was 18,000- 20,000 men. By 1812 Russian forces increased to almost 700,000 men, including 362,000 infantry, 86,920 cavalry, 52,500 artillerymen, 75,000 garrison troops, and up to 120,000 irregulars. 

The Russian infantry included heavy and light infantry and garrison troops. In 1812, the heavy infantry included four Guard, fourteen grenadier, ninety-six infantry, and four marine regiments, and the Caspian Sea Marine Battalion. The garrison infantry comprised the Life Guard Garrison Battalion, twelve garrison regiments, twenty garrison battalions, and forty-two battalions and four halfbattalions of the Internal Guard. Infantry forces also included invalid companies. Each regiment included two to four battalions, each composed of four companies. Regimental chefs commanded the regiments, and the 1st battalion was designated as the chef bataillon (shefskii) and carried the chef’s name. In the chef’s absence, the regimental commander or commanding officer led the unit. After October 1810 a regular infantry regiment consisted of two active battalions (1st and 3rd) and one replacement (2nd, or zapasnoi) battalion; after November 1811 the 4th reserve (rezervnii) battalion was assigned to the recruitment depots. The grenadier companies of the 2nd battalions were often combined to establish combined grenadier battalions. The light infantry regiments did not carry flags, while the line infantry units usually had six flags (two for each battalion, except for the 4th battalion). One of the flags was considered regimental and often referred to as "white," while the other were known as "colored." 

Infantry regiments were organized into brigades, divisions, and corps. Two regiments comprised a brigade; three brigades (1st and 2nd infantry, 3rd Jäger) made a division. In a grenadier division, all three brigades were composed of grenadiers. Each division had field artillery consisting of one battery and two light companies. Divisions were designated by numbers, and by mid-1812 there were one Guard infantry division, two grenadier divisions, and twenty-four infantry divisions. Later, additional divisions were established to reinforce the army, including the 28th and 29th divisions from the Orenburg and Siberia garrisons forces; the 30th through the 37th divisions were raised from the 2nd battalions of the first twenty-seven divisions and the 38th to 48th divisions from the 4th battalions of the remaining divisions. The light infantry gradually increased throughout the Napoleonic Wars. In 1812 it consisted of two Guard and fifty Jäger regiments and the Guard ekipazh (crew). In addition, during the Russian campaign, special jäger regiments and battalions were organized within the gubernia Opolchenyes (provincially based, virtually untrained militia). The Jäger regiments had similar organization to the line infantry units. Each infantry division had one Jäger brigade, usually the third. 

After the 1801 reorganization, Russian heavy cavalry comprised five squadrons, of which four were active and one stood in reserve. In 1803, the number of cuirassier regiments was set at six, while the dragoons increased to twenty-two. By 1805 there were four Guard regiments, six cuirassier, thirty dragoon, eight hussar, and three uhlan (lancer) regiments, while in 1812, cavalry included six Guard, eight cuirassier, thirty-six dragoon, eleven hussar, and five uhlan regiments. The Russian Guard cavalry consisted of four regiments of five squadrons each, two heavy (Chevalier Guard and Life Guard Horse) and two light (Hussar and Cossack). 

Unit strengths varied greatly; on average, a heavy cavalry regiment consisted of one commanding officer, forty officers, seven NCOs, seventeen trumpeters, and 660 privates. Light cavalry regiments were divided into two battalions of five squadrons each; each regiment included one commanding officer, sixty-seven officers, 120 noncommissioned officers, twenty-one trumpeters, and 1,320 privates. One squadron from each battalion was designated as in reserve, while the remaining units were on active duty. On campaign, the reserve squadron remained in depot and trained recruits for the replacements. The regimental chef commanded each cavalry regiment, and the 1st squadron was usually named after him. In his absence, the regimental commander led the unit. Two or three cavalry regiments were often organized into a brigade, and three brigades (two heavy and one light) were united into a cavalry division. In 1812 divisions were further organized into cavalry corps. Cuirassier brigades had a separate designation from the general cavalry brigades. By 1812 there were one Guard cavalry division, two cuirassier divisions, and eight cavalry divisions. In March 1812 eight new cavalry divisions were formed; the 9th through 12th Divisions were organized from the replacement squadrons, while the 13th through 16th Divisions were raised from the cavalry recruitment depots. 

After the 1812 campaign the cavalry underwent major reorganization. Two dragoon regiments were transformed into cuirassier regiments, one dragoon regiment into a hussar regiment, seven dragoon regiments into uhlans, and eight dragoon regiments into horse Jägers. In late December 1812 new cavalry divisions were formed-one Guard cavalry division, three cuirassier divisions, four dragoon divisions, two horse-Jäger divisions, three hussar divisions, and three uhlan divisions. Each division now included four regiments, with each regiment composed of six active and one replacement squadron. 

Tsar Alexander also continued his father's reforms of the artillery. Starting in 1802 a special commission supervised its modernization. In 1803 the artillery train, which was previously manned by civilians, was placed under military control. New aiming devices (dioptre and quadrant) and caissons (ammunition wagons) were introduced in 1802-1803. In 1803, 3-pounder unicorns were distributed to Jäger units. The field artillery was reorganized. Regimental artillery was detached from units and formed into separate light artillery companies. In 1804 the regimental artillery was organized into regiments composed of two battalions of four companies each (two heavy and two light). In 1805 the inspector of all artillery, Aleksey Arakcheyev, launched a series of reforms to modernize the artillery. Known as the 1805 System, these measures introduced standardized equipment, ammunition, and guns. Following the Russian defeat at Austerlitz, however, further changes were introduced in the artillery. In 1806 artillery regiments were reorganized into brigades of two heavy, one horse, and two light artillery companies. Brigades were attached to infantry divisions. 

New artillery regulations prescribed specific instructions on artillery deployment and firing. By 1812 the artillery comprised the Guard and (regular) army branches. The regular artillery consisted of twenty-seven field artillery brigades (972 guns), ten reserve brigades (492 guns), and four replacement brigades (408 guns). Each brigade included one heavy and two light companies of 12 guns each. Cossack forces also included two horse artillery companies, with a third added in 1813. Artillery companies were armed with 12-pounder and 6-pounder guns, and 20-pounder and 10-pounder unicorns. A squad comprised two guns (vzvod) commanded by a noncommissioned officer. Two squads formed a division, and three divisions made one company, led by a staff officer.