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The Battle of Smolensk began

16 August 1812

4 (16) August began the Battle of Smolensk of the Patriotic War of 1812.

With the beginning of the Patriotic War of 1812, one of the main goals of Napoleon's army was to prevent the uniting of Russian armies. Napoleon wanted to break the Russian army one by one, to impose the general battle on Russians and to force Alexander I to make peace under threat of losing the throne. Despite all attempts of Napoleon to carry out his plan, July 22 (August 3), 1812, the 1st Western army of Russia under the command of Mikhail B. Barclay de Tolly and the 2nd Western Army led by P. I. Bagration joined in the Smolensk region, scoring thus the first strategic success. After the joining of the armies, the front went calm for a while. Napoleon made a stop in Vitebsk to bring up the rear and tidying the units harried by a rapid offensive.

Under pressure from the generals and the public opinion, the commander of the Russian troops, Barclay de Tolly, decided to begin an offensive against the cavalry corps of Napoleon’s Marshal I. Murat. However, from a personal letter of one of the Russian officers, intercepted by the French, Napoleon had learned about the impending attack, prepared himself for a counter strike: he decided to unite separate corps, to make all the forces to cross the Dnieper and to capture Smolensk from the south. The main objective of Napoleon was still to create conditions for the decisive battle, as all previous maneuvers led only to moving aside the Russian army to the east, which worsened strategic position of the French troops.

Napoleon's troops, according to the Emperor’s plan, rushed to Smolensk. In the direction of the town of Krasnyi, which was occupied by a detachment of General D. P. Neverovsky, moved the cavalry of Murat, the Guards, the corps of Marshals L.-N. Davout and M. Ney. General Neverovsky, informed about the approach of the enemy, lined up his division on the road, blocking the way to Krasnyi and intending to defend the town. However, taking into account the intelligence reports of significant French forces, Neverovsky decided to withdraw the troops. Murat's cavalry of 15, 000 men passed through the town, and 2 (14) of August, attacked Neverovsky’s detachment of 6, 000 men.

Russian infantry, having repulsed the first attacks, lined up in a square and began a slow movement toward Smolensk. The stubborn resistance of Neverovsky’s detachment near Krasnyi detained French forces for a day. Russian Infantry Division, half composed of recruits, retreating, managed to repulse the attacks of the superior forces of the enemy for a long time and maintain its combat capability. The actions of the infantry allowed the Russian command to organize the defense of Smolensk by the 7th Infantry Corps under Lieutenant-General N. Raevsky before the enemy approached the city.

Raevsky decided to hold the defense inside the city, relying on the fortress walls and city buildings. In the morning of 4(16) August the troops of Murat, Ney and Davout approached Smolensk. However, their attempts to take Smolensk straight away were repulsed by Russian troops. Napoleon, having drawn up to the city about 140, 000 men and 350 guns, decided to give there general battle to the Russian army. French artillery started shelling the fortress. Raevsky’s corps managed to hold on until the evening of 4 (16) August, when the main forces of the 1st and 2nd armies reached to Smolensk. They camped north of the city.

The commander of the 2nd Army, Bagration, thought it necessary to give there a general battle, but Barclay de Tolly insisted on the continuation of the retreat. He decided to give in Smolensk a rearguard battle, while withdrawing the main forces behind the Dnieper. The depressed corps of Raevsky was replaced by the corps of D. S. Dokhturov, the divisions of Neverovsky and P. P. Konovnitsyn, which were to cover the retreat of the 1st and 2nd armies toward the Moscow road.

5 (17) August, at 8 a.m., Dokhturov Corps attacked and knocked the French out of Mstislavl and Roslavl outskirts of the city. On the order of Barclay de Tolly, on the right bank of the Dnieper, above and below Smolensk were deployed two powerful groups of artillery under the command of Major-General A. I. Kutaisov that were striking the enemy attacking the fortress with flanking fire. At 14 o’clock, Napoleon launched his main forces to storm Smolensk. After a two-hour battle, they took Mstislavl, Roslavl and Nikolsk suburbs. Barclay de Tolly sent the 4th Infantry Division under the command of Prince Eugene of Württemberg to help Dokhturov. Having occupied the suburbs, the French set up about 150 guns to destroy the city walls.

In the evening the enemy troops managed to briefly seize Malakhovskiye gates and Krasnenskoye suburb, but a determined counterattack of Russian troops forced them to retreat. As a result of intensive shelling, the city caught fire. By 10 p.m. the fighting subsided in all areas. Dokhturov troops numbering about 30, 000 men, having repulsed the enemy’s attack, retained Smolensk. However, due to the great destruction and a huge fire, on the night of 6 (18) August Russians were forced to leave the city. The corps of Dokhturov, having destroyed the bridge, retreated to the right bank of the Dnieper.

As a result of the battle of Smolensk, Napoleon's plan to impose on the Russian army the general battle in unfavorable conditions was thwarted. The strategic position of the French army during the march from Vilna to Smolensk, greatly worsened. After the battle of Smolensk, Napoleon ordered his troops to begin the offensive of Moscow, hoping for a decisive battle, which, like Austerlitz, would lead him to victory in the war. However, ahead there was Borodino and the defeat of Napoleon's army after the retreat from Moscow.

Lit.: Бескровный Л. Г. Отечественная война 1812 года. М., 1962; Клаузевиц К. 1812 год. М., 1937; То же [Электронный ресурс]. URL: http://militera.lib.ru/h/clausewitz3/index.html ; Отечественная война 1812 года. Энциклопедия / Под ред. В. М. Безотосного. М., 2004; Тарле Е. В. Нашествие Наполеона на Россию М., 1941; То же [Электронный ресурс]. URL: http://militera.lib.ru/h/tarle1/index.html ; Щепкин Е. Н. От Вильны до Смоленска. Взятие Смоленска // Отечественная война и русское общество: В 7 т. Т. 3. М., 1911; То же [Электронный ресурс]. URL: http://museum.ru/MUSEUM/1812/Library/Sitin/book3_19.html.

From the Presidential library materials:

Отечественная война 1812 года: коллекция;

Богорадский Н. Путешествие в Смоленск, или Воспоминание 1812 г. М., 1839;

Отечественная война 1812 года. Отд. 1. Т. 16 : Боевые действия в 1812 г. (Август месяц). СПб., 1911;

Перехваченное письмо офицера французской армии, адресованное его матери, о сражениях под Смоленском и при Бородине и вступлении наполеоновских войск в Москву [Дело]: 20 сентября 1812 г., Москва.