Home Forums Horse and Musket Napoleonic Back to the Berezina

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    Jonathan Gingerich

    Piqued by yet another outbreak of the “French victory of Berezina” nonsense on TMP, I decided it was time to take Mikaberidze’s The Battle of the Berezina off the shelf and under the reading lamp. Unfortunately, while I consider his Borodino and The Russian Officer Corps to be essential, Berezina does not reach that level. There are a couple technical problems to consider. The map on a page at the front does not include every hamlet mentioned in the text, let alone the road net and terrain – terribly important to the decision making. And there is no OB. Granted, the main French Army is probably undecipherable. But Oudinot’s and Victor’s corps, who did most of the fighting, could certainly be deliniated, and likewise Chichagov’s and Wittgenstein’s corps have some unusual formations. With out knowing which units were where, interpreting the narrative is a matter of comparing vague, approximated numbers. Even the basic structure – Maj Gen Chaplits was in command of Maj Gen Umanetz and Maj Gen Kornilov – is not immediately presented in the text.

    The narrative itself switches between the 6-7 commands and describes events for several days at a time. It probably is necessary as story telling, but makes it difficult to focus on the whole picture at any moment. So after reading through it, I went back and assembled a day by day chart of significant events. That illuminated a lack of precision with the chronology. A day’s march might start anywhere from the wee hours of the morning to late afternoon. When the narrative changes from one command to another, the time line might jump back without much notice. And several events over more than one day might be described without pinning them down precisely. But most irksome when I encountered it, twice, was a reference to the “night of the 26th” referring to what I would describe as the wee morning hours of the 26th!?

    Grumbling aside, the operation is pretty straightforward. On the 21st Lambert seized Borisov as Oudinot started towards Bobr. The next day Chichagov arrived and then on the 23d, his advanced guard was routed and scattered by Oudinot coming from Bobr, who retook Borisov (on the east side of the Berezina). By evening he had already identified Studyanka as the best crossing point and the next day sent some forces to gather materials, while others demonstrated to the south. The same day Chichagov, rattled by the previous encounter received messages from Wittgenstein and Kutuzov each suggesting Napoleon might attempt to cross to the south. So on the 25th, the Dutch pontooners arrive and start building the tressles through the night, while Chichagov takes his main force a day’s march south of Borisov. The bridge goes up on the morning of the 26th as Chichagov realizes his mistake and countermarches, awkwardly, back to Borisov. It takes another day to reach Brili, so the French are not attacked in force until the 28th. The two days plus lost to marching and countermarching are all the time the French needed to move their main force across the river.

    Along with moving the main forces south, Chichagov ordered MG Chaplits to move his command from the northern banks south to Borisov. Chaplits, aware of French preparations, asked to stay, but Gen. Langeron threatened court-martial if he did not obey. (The narrative is very sketchy here. In part because of gaps in the record – along with finger-pointing, but also in the presentation. Messages are described without a precise time or destination or what other messages they are in response to.) In any event, while Chaplits pulled out just as the French were ready to begin the construction of the bridge, it is not clear if it mattered that much. The French had a large battery on the heights of the east bank, and sent strong forces across the river without need of a bridge, so they would have cleared the opposite bank regardless.

    The failure by the Russians to destroy the Zembino causeway is another matter. Brili is nestled in the fork of the Berezina and (running the other direction) marshy Gaina river. The road from Brili is connected to Zembino across the river and marshes by a long wooden causeway. While it is agreed that the marshes are passable in a hard frost, and the weather did turn after the 27th, it is not clear how soon this occurred. Russian cavalry attempted to cross on left flank of the battle on the 28th, but could not pass the marshy banks of the Gaina. Of course, burning a causeway is easier said than done, and both Yermolov and Bennigsen appear to genuinely believe Napoleon would have likely defeated Chichagov and retaken Minsk if forced to turn south.

    But enough of that, what we really want to know is who won the Battle of Berezina? Um, what battle? There were clashes at Borisov, Loshnitsa, Kholopenichi, Baturi, Brili, Staroi-Borisov, and Brili-Studyanka. The latter could be considered the battle of Berezina, but by that point the French army, less Victor’s rearguard, were over the bridge, and it was in essense a rear guard action. Rearguards, unless destroyed or pointless, are always going to appear somewhat successful. Although given the ghastly losses the French continued to suffer in the retreat to Vilna and Konigsberg, that is in question. No, the Beresina was an operation and should be judged as such.

    Which I think it the main failure of all participants in the chronic discussion. The Russian maximal outcome was to surround and destroy the Grande Armée then and there. Making Napoleon a casualty would be an A+, although I agree with Dominic Lieven that such an event would be unlikely as there was nothing stopping a “sacred squadron” from fleeing north and then fording the Berezina at many a point. Forcing the French to capitulate would reduce the 1800 (of 2700 surviving) French officers who continued to fight in 1813. (These numbers are quite close to the officer causualties at Borodino and Leipzig respectively.) How many the Russians could capture is another question. I think it is more a matter of the ethos of the age rather that the feasibilty whether the officers could have mounted up and fled while the ranks laid down their arms. But short of this, the Russians could still punish the French while preventing French aims.

    This brings us to the French maximal outcome. It was not escaping across the river. It was reaching Minsk and its provisions, linking up with Victor and Oudinot, then Schwarzenberg and MacDonald. Thrashing Chichagov and who ever else got too close. Napoleon could have bridged the river at any point in an hour’s time. That went out the window when he burned his pontoon train (while keeping much excess transport). (An unanswered question is whether the Russians were aware of this??) Given that mistake, getting across the river became paramount, and it went off without a hitch due to luck and the professional competence of the French forces. None the less the army continued to suffer terribly, in part because poor traffic control left the bridged unused through the nights, and because the whole campaign was a disastrous defeat.

    So what the verdict? It came to me there is an obvious bookend to the “battle of Berezina” occurring about the same point in the beginning of the campaign, with the same sort of misnamed moniker and missed chances. And that is the “battle of Smolensk”. Recall that after Barclay and Bagration joined up, political pressure forced Barclay to seek battle. He missed and Napoleon sprinted across the river and outflanked the Russians to the south, reaching Smolensk where a desperate garrison managed to hold them off long enough to allow their army to concentrate. Then Junot failed to take advantage of the situation by crossing the river, and the Russian managed to retreat, although Barclay’s army got lost in road net north of the city and barely escaped French pursuers when they rejoined the main road to the east. While Napoleon might have bitterly regretted what might have been, no one calls Smolensk a Russian victory…


    To my mind, most of the time, declaring a victor in a battle is a matter of propaganda. Sure, the French win Austerlitz, Jena, Friedland, Wagram… but the Russians claim Golymin as a victory, as do the French, the Russians claim Pułtusk as a victory. Napoleon, and the Russians, both claim Eylau as a victory. The list goes on and on. Most battles are indecisive, no one gets most of what they are seeking to accomplish.

    Who wants what at the Berezina?
    • Napoleon wants to extricate the French Army, as much of it as possible, really all of it.
    • Alexander wants to destroy the French Army, as much of it as possible, really all of it.
    • The French marshals, who are a mixed lot, mostly just want to get out of Russia.
    • The Russian generals, who are a mixed lot, mostly just want the French to leave.
    • The French army, exhausted, mostly just wants to get out of Russia.
    • The Russian army, nearly as exhausted as the French, want the French out of Russia.

    Who gets what they want?
    • Not Napoleon.
    • Not Alexander.

    The French Army leaves, a lot of it gets out. So who feels they got what they wanted?
    • French survivors, but I doubt they feel good about it.
    • Russian rank & file, they probably feel relieved.
    • French marshals, but they were not united in their happiness…
    • Russian generals, well some, others were really hoping to do more damage…

    Who claims to have gotten what they wanted?
    • Napoleon.
    • Alexander.
    • Kutuzov.

    Did anyone win or lose the Berezina?

    I’d say Alexander lost as he got the least of what he wanted. But significant parts of the Russian Army would feel they accomplished what they wanted, separate from Alexander.

    Everyone else got some of what they wanted, but it wasn’t much of a victory for anyone.

    Did Napoleon get much of what he wanted? Hard to say, most of what he said after the Berezina regarding it can be considered propaganda, if not in its intent, certainly in its practicality.


    The Bandit


    Ha. That was my thread that got way out of hand!

    I simply asked why the Russians did so much better during the winter of 1806/1807 then they and the Austrians did in 1805 and Prussians in 1806.

    And then the next 5 or 6 pages ended up being about everything else

    Jonathan Gingerich

    Well, Bandit, as I said, I don’t think that’s sound grounds for accessing the results of the Berezina operation. However laudably you view the bridging operation, it must be seen as climbing out of a hole Napoleon put them in when he burned the pontoons. Napoleon did have a chance to thrash Chichagov if he still had his bridging train (and he probably would have been best off feigning north and crossing south, away from Wittgenstein.) And he did lose his army.  According to Riehn, 4300 men in the  ranks left Vilna, and then the rear guard was destroyed at Ponari.

    I don’t know how this squares with Bogdanovich’s 2700 surviving officers.  Either he is counting all survivors (on the grounds that the destruction of the main army would cause their capitulation?), or there were an awful lot out of ranks, or there were very few men and NCOs left…


    Jonathan Gingerich


    Yes some of us have heard it all before. More than twice.

    I have an opinion on your original question, too!

    I don’t think either the Russians or French were different in 1805 than they were in 1806-7.  Goetz on Austerlitz makes a good case that Russians were quite competitive on the battalion level. This can be seen at Austerlitz on the northern flank, where Bagration faced off Lannes. The real issue was the Allies devised a classical Frederickian flank march, all clock work synchronization, and Napoleon, with his hierarchical command structure punched it in the mouth.  Buxhoeveden sat with a third of the Russian army waiting for his cue to advance, and never considered an alternative, while the French overwhelmed the Allied center.

    I’m toying with an essay called “The Four Wars of Napoleon”.  If you look at 1805-7 all as one war, then the huge mistake is Prussia’s late entry.  (Remember that Austria, Prussia, and European Russia together weren’t all that populous or wealthy compared to France.)  A mobilized Prussia might have mitigated Austria’s mistaken deployment at Ulm and the colossal bungling at Austerlitz.  Jena-Auerstedt was a hard fight that Prussia had to risk alone defending its western provinces.  Their luck ran out. But even then, when you look at whole thing, you still have Dürnstein, Hollabrunn, Schöngraben, Pultusk, Golymin, Hof, and Eylau .  All tough, exhausting, inconclusive fights. And clearly the Grand Armee was not operating in Poland like it did in the wheat fields of Bavaria.


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