Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Battle of Berezina

Two hundred years ago, from November 25th through to 29th, the final battle of Napoleon's 1812 Russian Campaign occurred at the crossing of the Berezina River.

The French army was in full retreat from Moscow, forced to retrace the same route as they had traveled in the summer. With no foraging possible for man or beast, horses and humans were dying as they marched. The cavalry was virtually afoot and hundreds of supply wagons were abandoned.  (It was not the bitter Russian winter that did them in, it was starvation.  Severe winter never came to Russia until after the French were in Poland).

The Berezina River was the last major crossing before the safety of the  Polish border.  Roughly 40,000 French soldiers and 40,000 civilian followers or non-combatants arrived at the river November 25th.  They planned on crossing on the ice and Napoleon had ordered all bridge construction materials destroyed a few days previously.  However, unseasonable warmth meant the river was thawed and impassable. The only bridge at Borisov had been blown by the Russians.

The Russian army had 34,000 men under Chichagov on the west bank of the Berezina while Wittgenstein was approaching from the north with 30,000.  Kutuzov was following about 40 km behind with another 54,000 soldiers.  The plan was to trap and destroy the French army and capture Napoleon.

From Wikipedia 
Napoleon sent Odinot south on the 25th with enough soldiers to draw Chichagov's force , believing the French intended to escape to the south.  It worked.  In the meantime, as not all bridge materials had been destroyed, the engineers set to work building two 100 meter bridges across the icy water at a ford near Studenka, further north.  By the 26th, the bridges were complete and enough French forces and cannon across to hold the bridgehead when Chichagov realized he had been had.

Victor was left behind to fight rear guard against Wittgenstein's army and on the night of the 29th, the last survivors made their way across the bridges.  Those non-combatants who had not managed to cross were left behind to the tender mercies of the Cossacks. Estimates of French and Russian losses vary widely but French losses ranged from 15,000 to 25,000 combatants and 10,000 to 20,000 civilian non-combatants.

From Wikipedia
Napoleon had been campaigning on two fronts in 1812 and loosing both (Wellington's army and Spanish guerrillas were chasing the Grande Armee all over Spain).  Plots were hatching to dump Napoleon who had to leave the remnants of his army at Berezina and hurry home to save his throne.

The Battle of Berezina was a strategic success for Napoleon as he escaped and his troops were not completely annihilated, leaving sufficient to rebuild his army the following year. The Russians failed to stop him because they really were not that committed to doing so, while the French were fighting for their lives.

Kutuzov, who did not arrive in time, never had any intent whatsoever to do so.  If he had had his way, not a single Russian soldier would have lost his life fighting Napoleon. Kutuzov realized that Napoleon was beaten as soon as he crossed into Russia, that distance and weather would do the army's work for them.  His objective was simply to clear the last French soldier out of Russia and they were going.

Russia's failure to stop Napoleon at Berezina resulted in two more years of war plus the "100 days" in 1815 before Napoleon was finally finished. 


  1. Good stuff, Al. The Russians later named a new settlement colony in Bessarabia as Berezina, and it was settled by German immigrants.

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.


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