Battle of Smoliani


Battle of Smoliani

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Smoliani
partof=French invasion of Russia (1812)
date=November 13-November 14, 1812
place=Smolyany, Governorate of Vitebsk, Belarus
result=Marginal Russian victory
combatant1=
combatant2=
commander1=Prince Peter Wittgenstein
commander2=Marshal Claude Victor,
Marshal Nicholas Oudinot
strength1=30,000 troops
strength2=approximately 25,000 troops available; 6,000 involved on the 1st day; 5,000 involved on the 2nd day
casualties1=3,000
casualties2=3,000

At the Battle of Smoliani (November 13-November 14, 1812), the Russians under General Peter Wittgenstein defeated the French forces of Marshal Claude Victor and Marshal Nicholas Oudinot. This battle was the last effort of the French to reestablish their northern flank in Russia, known as the “Dwina Line”. Previously, the French had been defeated in this sector at the Second battle of Polotsk (Oct. 18-20, 1812) and at the Battle of Czasniki (Oct. 31, 1812)

Background

Upon learning of Victor’s defeat at the Battle of Czasniki, Napoleon – who was already distressed about the situation in the north due to the earlier French defeat at Polotsk – ordered Victor to assume the offensive at once and drive Wittgenstein back. [ Riehn, pages 361-262. The urgency of the situation in the north was captured by Napoleon’s adamant words to Victor: “The safety of the army depends on it, every day’s delay is a disaster. Forward!”]

At the time of the Smoliani encounter, Napoleon was planning on leading his rapidly disintegrating Grande Armee to a safehaven in the west such as Minsk. In order to execute this plan, the Grande Armee's [http://www.dean.usma.edu/HISTORY/web03/atlases/napoleon/napoleon%20pages/napoleon%20map%2051.htm planned route of retreat] had to be secured. Wittgenstein's position at Czasniki was just 40 miles north of Bobruisk, a town Napoleon needed to be secure in order for the main French army to reach Minsk.

Victor, per Napoleon’s orders, was to coordinate the actions of his IX corps with the VI corps and the II corps commanded by Marshal Oudinot. [Cate, page 356] The initial French plan – ordered by Napoleon and endorsed by Victor, was not to attack Wittgenstein frontally, but for one corps to attack the Russians in the flank while the other conducted a frontal assault. [Riehn, page 362] This plan however was scuttled per the insistence of Oudinot, who thought it more advantageous to attack Wittgenstein head on. [Riehn, page 362]

The Contrasting Moods In Russian and French Headquarters

Going into the action at Smoliani, the French commanders exhibited the hallmarks of leaders setting themselves up for failure: bad planning, indecision, and pessimism due to earlier reversals.

Historians have criticized Oudinot and Victor for not attempting a flanking maneuver against Wittgenstein. Victor especially has been criticized for indecision in his planning and execution of the Smoliani attack. [See Riehn's comments on Victor, pages 362-364, and Cate, pages 365-366] Previously, at Czasniki, Victor had proven himself over-inclined to retreat in the face of just minor reversals.

The mood among the Russian leaders on the eve of the battle stood in stark contrast to that of the French.

In Wittgenstein’s headquarters at this time, there existed a “sense of self-confidence and proud accomplishment”, which had coalesced as a result of their repeated victories over the French in earlier battles. [See Riehn, page 363; these are the exact words Riehn uses to describe Clausewitz’s personal observations] One notable work on 1812 describes the aura among Wittgenstein and his staff at this juncture as a sense of being “morally equal and often superior to the enemy.” [Riehn, page 363. These quoted words are Riehn’s, as he describes Clausewitz’s observations of Wittgenstein and his staff] It is no wonder, perhaps, that Victor was hesitant in executing the task assigned to him by Napoleon.

evere Attrition Among French Forces

The French cause at Smoliani was also undermined by mounting attrition within their ranks.

In the two weeks following the action at Czasniki, Victor’s force had suffered greatly from exposure to frost and disease. By November 10th, only 25,000 troops remained until Victor’s command, a development that increased Wittgenstein’s margin of superiority over the French in this sector. As a result of being better supplied, better quartered and more intelligently protected from the elements than their French foes, Wittgenstein’s troops suffered less attrition from privation and the weather. [Riehn, page 361]

The Battle

The Battle of Smoliani commenced on November 13th, at the nearby village of Axenzi, and initially the French were successful. Here the 6,000 troops of General Partenoux attacked Wittgenstein’s advance guard, 6,000 strong, led by General Alexiev. [Smith, 1998, pages 400-401] Each side lost roughly 500 troops in this encounter, and despite being reinforced, the Russians were forced to retreat to Smoliani. [Riehn, page 362]

The next day, November 14th, the combat intensified as 5000 of Victor’s troops attacked and captured Smoliani. After this however the French attacking force suffered a reversal, being repulsed on the Russian right wing and then losing Smoliani to Wittgenstein’s counterattack. [Riehn, describes the action very generally on page 362.] While this action was taking place, a small Russian detachment kept Oudinot’s superior force in check at the village of Poczavizi, thereby preventing these troops from assisting Victor. [Riehn, page 362]

Although the action died down with each side in their original position, and the losses suffered by both were equal – 3000 killed, wounded and taken prisoner – it was the French who very much had the worst of the scrap. [Smith (2004), page 181, describes Victor as having been “badly beaten”.] The next day, November 15th, Victor retreated 20 miles south to Chereja. [Smith (2004), page 181]

Consequences

Although Wittgenstein did not immediately pursue his defeated enemy, by winning this battle he retained the potential to attack the Grande Armee when it passed through Bobr, just 40 miles south of his position near Czasniki. That Victor and Oudinot retreated in the face of this grave threat to the Grande Armee was another heavy blow to Napoleon. The Battle of Smoliani also ended, permanently, any hope the French had of reestablishing their northern “Dwina Line.”

Notes

References

*"Napoleon In Russia: A Concise History of 1812", 2004, Digby Smith, Pen & Sword Military, ISBN 1-84415-089-5
*"The War of the Two Emperors", Curtis Cate, Random House, New York, ISBN 0-394-53670-3
*"The Greenhill Napoleonic Wars Data Source", 1998, Digby Smith, Greenhill Books, ISBN 1-85367-276-9
*"1812 Napoleon’s Russian Campaign", Richard K. Riehn, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., ISBN 0-471-54302-0


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