What was the Battle of Krasnoi (1812)?

Introduction

The Battle of Krasnoi (Krasny) (15 to 18 November 1812) was a series of skirmishes fought in the final stage of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. The Russians under General Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov inflicted heavy losses on the remnants of the Grande Armée. Lacking sufficient artillery, cavalry and supplies to wage battle, Napoleon’s objective at Krasnoi was to collect his scattered troops and to resume his retreat. Despite the vast superiority of his forces, Kutuzov refrained from launching a full-scale offensive during the four days of fighting as he did not want to risk a pitched battle.

The climax of the engagement occurred on 17 November when an aggressive feint by the French Imperial Guard induced Kutuzov to delay a potentially decisive final Russian attack. Napoleon was thus able to withdraw part of his army before the Russians seized Krasnoi.

Despite Napoleon’s success in saving part of his army from destruction at Krasnoi, overall the encounter was ruinous for the French. During the four days of combat Napoleon’s subordinate commanders suffered heavy defeats in individual actions, and large numbers of French stragglers were captured by the Russians. The Grande Armée was also compelled to abandon much of its remaining artillery and baggage train.

The Forces Converge on Krasny

Napoleon Retreats from Smolensk

After departing from Moscow on 18 October with 100,000 combat-ready but undersupplied troops, Napoleon’s strategic object was to quarter his army for the winter at the closest French supply depot, which was at Smolensk, 430 km (270 miles) to the west. During the three-week march to Smolensk, however, the Grande Armée was devastated by a combination of factors: cold, starvation, demoralisation, breakdown in troop discipline, a crippling loss of horses and essential supplies, attacks from the Russian army and constant harassment by its Cossack irregulars and partisans.

The condition of the Grande Armée was further degraded by sub-zero temperatures in the first two weeks of November.

By the time the French arrived at Smolensk on 09 November the strategic situation in Russia had turned decisively against Napoleon. Only 40% men of what was left of the Grande Armée was still under arms at this point. The ravaged condition of his forces and French defeats on other fronts, Napoleon realised his position at Smolensk was untenable surrounded by Russian armies, threatening his retreat. The new strategic goal was to put the Grande Armée into winter quarters further west, in the area of the massive French supply depot of Minsk.

Having lost contact with Kutuzov during the previous two weeks, Napoleon incorrectly believed that the Russian army must have been as devastated by the elements as his own. Not expecting an offensive by Kutuzov, Napoleon made the strategic mistake of resuming his retreat by dispatching the Grande Armée’s corps individually from Smolensk on four successive days, starting on 13 November. Napoleon left on 14th, Davout on 15th, Beauharnais on 16th, Ney on 17th, together with Joseph Barbanègre, the city commandant. Thus the French approached Krasny in a piecemeal 53 km (33 mile) long column of disconnected corps, not massed together in preparation for battle.

On 14 November, the corps of Józef Zajączek (V Corps) and Junot, as the vanguard of the retreating French army, passed through Krasny and continued marching west to Orsha. The next day, 15 November, Napoleon himself arrived at Krasny with his 16,000-strong Imperial Guard. There Napoleon planned to remain for several days so that the 6,000 troops of Eugène’s IV Corps, the 9,000 troops of Davout’s I Corps, and the 8,000 troops of Ney’s III Corps could unite with him before he resumed his retreat. Ney’s corps formed the rearguard and was not to leave Smolensk until 17 November after destroying the city walls.

Marching between and around these French corps were nearly 40,000 troops who had disintegrated into mobs of unarmed, disorganised stragglers, looking for something else to eat than horsemeat.

Kutuzov’s Southern March

During the same period, the main Russian army under Kutuzov followed the French on a parallel southern road. Because this route passed through countryside unaffected by previous campaigning, the Russian army approached Krasny much less weakened by attrition than the Grande Armée.

Based on faulty intelligence reports, Kutuzov believed that only one third of the French army was retreating through Krasny toward Orsha, with Napoleon and the balance of his forces marching much farther to the north. Kutuzov therefore accepted a plan proposed by his staff officer, Colonel Toll, to march on Krasny to destroy what was believed to be an isolated French column.

The Russian position at Krasny began forming on 15 November when the 3,500-strong flying advance guard of Adam Ozharovsky seized the town. The same day, the 16,000 troops of Miloradovich took position at Rshavka, a village located alongside the eastern road leading into Krasny. Meanwhile, Kutuzov’s 35,000-strong main force slowly approached Krasny from the south, taking position several miles away from the town.

In all, Kutuzov had 50,000 to 60,000 regular troops at his disposal at Krasny, including a large cavalry force and approximately 500 cannon. Another 20,000 Cossack irregulars, operating mostly in small bands, supplemented the main army by harassing the French at all points along the 53 km (33 mile) long road from Smolensk to Krasny. Kutuzov’s main body was divided into two columns. The larger force, led by General Alexander Tormasov, formed the left flank. The second column, commanded by Prince Dmitry Golitsyn, held the army’s centre. Miloradovich’s position at Rshavka represented the Russian right flank.

15 November: The Rout of Ozharovsky

The 15 November saw the first actions in and around Krasny as the 16,000-strong Imperial Guard, led personally by Napoleon, marched past Miloradovich’s troops, who were positioned on the high ground parallel to the road. Impressed by the order and composure of the elite guardsmen, Miloradovich decided not to attack them, and settled instead for bombarding the French at extreme range. The Russian cannon fire inflicted little damage on the Guard, which continued moving toward Krasny.

During the afternoon of the 15th, the Imperial Guard was harassed on the road between Nikolino and Lyskovo by the Cossacks of General Vasily Orlov-Denisov. The eyewitness description of this encounter by the Russian partisan leader Denis Davidov, which eloquently portrays the comportment of the Old Guard and Napoleon, has become one of the most often quoted in the histories of the 1812 war:

…after midday, we sighted the Old Guard, with Napoleon riding in their midst… the enemy troops, sighting our unruly force, got their muskets at the ready and proudly continued on their way without hurrying their step… Like blocks of granite, they remained invulnerable… I shall never forget the unhurried step and awesome resolution of these soldiers, for whom the threat of death was a daily and familiar experience. With their tall bearskin caps, blue uniforms, white belts, red plumes, and epaulettes, they looked like poppies on the snow-covered battlefield… Column followed upon column, dispersing us with musket fire and ridiculing our useless display of chivalry… the Imperial Guard with Napoleon ploughed through our Cossacks like a 100-gun ship through fishing skiffs.

Later that day, Napoleon and his Guard entered Krasny, and his troops forced the withdrawal of the squadrons of Cossacks under Ozharovsky who were in possession of the village. Napoleon promptly made plans to remain in Krasny for several days so that the rest of his army could catch up with him.

Shortly after midnight, Napoleon detected the campfires of Ozharovsky’s 3,500-strong force near Kutkovo, south of Krasny. Recognizing that Ozharovsky’s position was dangerously isolated from Kutuzov’s main army, Napoleon dispatched the Young Guard on a surprise attack against the Russian encampment, which was not protected by pickets. The operation was first entrusted to General Jean Rapp, but at the last moment Napoleon replaced Rapp with General Roguet. François Roguet then divided the Guardsmen into three columns and began a silent advance on Ozharovsky’s camp. In the ensuing combat, the Russians were taken completely by surprise and, despite their fierce resistance, were totally routed. As many as half of Ozharovsky’s troops were killed or captured, and the remainder threw their weapons in a lake nearby Krasny and fled south. Lacking cavalry, Roguet was unable to pursue Ozharovsky’s remaining troops.

16 November: The Defeat of Eugène

Miloradovich Attacks

The next day, 16 November, however, went much better for the Russians as Miloradovich’s soldiers cut the road leading to Krasny and inflicted heavy losses on the French corps of Prince Eugène de Beauharnais. In this skirmishing, Eugène’s IV Corps lost one third of its original force of 6,000, as well as its baggage train and artillery. Eugène fooled the Russian general attacking his army on the left flank, but managed to escape the heights on right side and succeeded to connect with Napoleon and his Imperial Guard. He was saved from total destruction only because Kutuzov, who did not want the skirmishing to expand into a full-scale battle, ordered Miloradovich to restrain himself and reposition his troops closer to the main army at Shilova. A force of Cossacks was left to harass Eugène while Miloradovich’s final attack was postponed to the next day.

Kutuzov at Zhuli

Earlier that day, Kutuzov’s main army finally arrived within 8 km (5.0 miles) of Krasny, taking up positions around the villages of Novoselye and Zhuli. Kutuzov could have attacked Krasny immediately, but he chose not to.

That evening, under pressure from his aggressive subordinate generals to move decisively against the French, Kutuzov finally made plans for an offensive, but he firmly forbade his commanders from executing the attack until daylight on 17 November which meant the French would have the entire evening to evacuate Krasny unharassed by the Russians.

The Russian battle plan called for the army to execute a three pronged attack on Krasny. Miloradovich was to remain east of the village near Lyskovo, and attack Eugène’s IV Corps and Davout’s I Corps. The main army at Novoselye and Zhuli would break into two groups: Prince Golitsyn would advance directly west through Uvarovo against Krasny with 15,000 troops. Alexander Tormasov with 20,000 troops was to encircle Krasny from the west by marching through Kutkovo to Dobroye, where they would cut the French retreat route to Orsha. Ozharovsky’s flying column – reinforced since its drubbing by the Young Guard – would operate independently west and north of Krasny.

Sometime after 1:00 am on 17 November Kutuzov learned from prisoners that Napoleon would be remaining in Krasny, and not withdrawing before the Russian attack as Kutuzov had expected. Kutuzov now had second thoughts about executing the Russian army’s planned offensive.

17 November: The Guard’s Feint

Davout in Peril

At 3:00 am on 17 November the 9,000 troops of Davout’s I Corps decamped from their bivouac near Rzhavka and began a forced march to Krasny. The reports of Eugène’s defeat the previous day were so dismaying that Davout felt it necessary to abandon his original plan of postponing his movement until Ney’s III Corps, still at Smolensk, had caught up with him.

Miloradovich, permitted by Kutuzov to recommence his attack, opened a massive artillery barrage on Davout near Yeskovo. The panicked French troops began fleeing from the road, and as Russian infantry and cavalry attacks were likely to follow, the I Corps was soon threatened with destruction.

“The first corps was thus preserved, but we learned at the same time, that our rear-guard could no longer defend itself at Krasnoi; that Ney was probably still at Smolensk, and that we must give up waiting for him any longer. Napoleon, however, still hesitated; he could not determine on making this great sacrifice.”

Napoleon’s Gamble

Davout’s peril, and the distressing developments of the previous day had alerted Napoleon to the grave danger confronting the Grande Armée. Waiting for Davout and Ney in Krasny was no longer feasible, given that any kind of determined attack by Kutuzov would destroy the Grande Armée. The starving French troops also needed to reach their closest supply source 40 km (25 miles) west at Orsha – before the Russians captured the town ahead of him.

At this critical juncture, Napoleon’s sense of initiative returned to him for the first time in weeks. In Caulaincourt’s words: “This turn of events, which upset all the Emperor’s calculations… would have overwhelmed any other general. But the Emperor was stronger than adversity, and became the more stubborn as danger seemed more imminent.”

Immediately, before daylight, Napoleon prepared his Imperial Guard to make an aggressive feint against Miloradovich and the main Russian army, gambling that this unexpected manoeuvre would discourage the Russians from attacking Davout. The Grande Armée’s remaining artillery was massed for combat, and the Guardsmen formed themselves into attack columns.

Simultaneously, the remnant of Eugène’s IV Corps was ordered to advance west from Krasny, to secure the Grande Armée’s escape route to Orsha.

Napoleon’s hope was to fend off the Russians just long enough to collect Davout’s and Ney’s troops, and to immediately resume his retreat before Kutuzov attacked or outflanked him by moving on Orsha.

The Guard Advances

At 5:00 am, 11,000 Imperial Guardsman marched out of Krasny intending to secure the terrain immediately east and southeast of the village. These troops split into two columns: one 5,000 strong moving along the road to Smolensk, the other 6,000 Young Guardsmen led by Roguet, marching south of the road toward Uvarovo. The left flank of the Young Guard’s column was protected by a battalion of elite Old Guard grenadiers, described by Segur as forming a “fortress like square.” Stationed on the right of these columns were the weak remnants of the Guard’s cavalry. Overall direction of the operation was entrusted to Marshal Mortier.

This bold, unexpected feint of the Guard was lent additional melodrama by the personal presence of Napoleon. With his birch walking stick in hand, Napoleon placed himself at the helm of his Old Guard grenadiers, declaring “I have played the Emperor long enough! It is time to play general!”

Facing the tattered but resolute Imperial Guardsmen were densely concentrated Russian infantry columns to the south and east, supported by massive, powerful artillery batteries.

Lacking sufficient cannon of their own, the Guardsmen were badly outgunned by the enemy. As described by Segur: “Russian battalions and batteries barred the horizon on all three sides – in front, on our right, and behind us”

Kutuzov’s reaction to the Imperial Guard’s forward movement led to the most decisive and controversial development of the battle: he promptly cancelled his army’s planned offensive, even in spite of the Russians’ overwhelming superiority in strength.

For most of the rest of this day, the Russians remained at a safe distance from the Guard, beyond the reach of French muskets and bayonets, and simply blasted the enemy with cannon fire from afar.

Combat Near Uvarovo

The limited close quarters combat that did occur on this day unfolded throughout the morning and early afternoon around Uvarovo. The Imperial Guard attacked Uvarovo in order to use the village to cover Davout’s retreat into Krasny.

Uvarovo was held by two battalions of Galitzin’s infantry, which formed a weak forward outpost in advance of the rest of the Russian army. The Russians were soon driven from Uvarovo, as Kutuzov forbade Galitzin from reinforcing his troops. Galitzin reacted by commencing a devastating artillery barrage on Uvarovo, which took a terrible toll on the Young Guardsmen.

Kutuzov, in order to mass as much strength as possible behind Galitzin, at this point ordered Miloradovich to shift his position west, so that it linked with Galitzin’s lines. Kutuzov’s decision to realign Miloradovich’s troops is remarkable, as the bulk of the Russian army – Galitzin’s and Tormasov’s commands – were already merged in a powerful defensive position. Miloradovich was thus denied the chance to complete the destruction of Davout.

Meanwhile, to the north, Davout’s troops began streaming into Krasny, harassed by swarms of Cossacks who made no serious attempt to stop them. The Russian artillery continued to pound Davout’s corps with grapeshot, inflicting ruinous casualties on the I Corps. Most of Davout’s baggage train was lost, but a significant number of his infantrymen had been saved, and they were rallied by their officers in Krasny.

Next, General Bennigsen, second in seniority only to Kutuzov among Russian generals, ordered Galitzin to recapture Uvarovo. Galitzin’s attack was met by a simultaneous counterattack by a column of the Guard’s voltigeurs.

Galitzin attacked the voltigeurs with two regiments of cuirassiers; the French formed squares and repelled the attack. During the third Russian attack they became trapped and without ammunition, and soon the entire contingent of Light Infantery was killed or captured; the 33rd regiment light infantry ceased to exist. A second line of (Dutch) grenadiers, which had been advancing to support the voltigeurs, then fell back under heavy Russian cannon fire. The grenadiers were driven from a critical defensive position with massive casualties. Roguet attempted to support the Dutch by attacking the Russian artillery batteries, but this offensive was broken up by Russian grapeshot and cavalry charges. Only fifty soldiers and eleven officers of the Grenadiers survived this encounter.

Napoleon Retreats

Around 11:00 am, as the Imperial Guard was holding firm near Uvarovo despite its withering losses, Napoleon received intelligence reports that Tormasov’s troops were readying to march west of Krasny. This news, coupled with the Young Guard’s mounting casualties, forced Napoleon to abandon his ultimate object of standing down Kutuzov long enough for Ney’s III Corps to arrive in Krasny. If Kutuzov opted to attack, the Grande Armée would be encircled and destroyed. Napoleon immediately ordered the Old Guard to fall back on Krasny, and then join Eugène’s IV Corps in marching west toward Liady and Orsha. The Young Guard, nearing its breaking point, would remain near Uvarovo, to be relieved shortly thereafter by Davout’s reorganized troops from Krasny.

Napoleon’s decision was not an easy one to make. Segur describes the beleaguered Emperor’s predicament as follows:

So the 1st Corps was saved; but at the same time we learned that our rear guard was at the end of its resistance at Krasny, that Ney had probably not left Smolensk yet, and that we ought to give up all idea of waiting for him. Still, Napoleon hesitated, unable to bring himself to make this great sacrifice. But finally, as everything seemed lost, he decided what to do. He called Mortier to him, took his hand kindly, and told him, ‘There is not a minute to lose! The enemy is breaking through on every side. Kutuzov may reach Liady, even Orsha and the last bend of the Dnieper before me. I must move rapidly with the Old Guard to occupy that passage. Davout will relieve you. Together you must try to hold out at Krasny until nightfall. Then you will rejoin me.’ His heart heavy with despair at having to abandon the unfortunate Ney, he withdrew slowly from the field of battle, entered Krasny where he made a brief halt, then cut his way through as far as Liady.

In short order, the Old Guard was following the IV Corps moving west out of Krasny, and the road to Orsha was clogged with soldiers and their wagonry. Huge mobs of civilians, fugitives, and stragglers preceded the retreating French troops.

Meanwhile, near Uvarovo the Young Guard’s capacity to resist the Russians was deteriorating rapidly, and Mortier ordered a retreat before his remaining troops were surrounded and destroyed. As if on parade ground drill, the perfectly disciplined Guardsmen then turned about face and marched back to Krasny, absorbing a final, terrible barrage of Russian cannonshot as they retired.

Only 3,000 of the Young Guard’s original 6,000 troops had survived the Russian shelling near Uvarovo. 17 November, may have been the bloodiest day in the Young Guard’s entire history.

The Young Guard’s retreat did not end once it returned to Krasny. Mortier and Davout were so wary of the possibility that the inert Kutuzov might attack that they immediately joined the throng of troops, mobs and wagons rushing that moment to Liady. Only a weak rearguard under General Friedrich was left to hold Krasny. Ney’s III Corps, having departed Smolensk only that morning, would not find Davout’s I Corps in Krasny awaiting him.

Kutuzov Delays the Pursuit

Miloradovich and Galitzin were not permitted by Kutuzov to attack Krasny for several more hours.

At 2:00 pm, satisfied that the French were in full retreat and not intending to resist his troops’ advance, Kutuzov finally allowed Tormasov to begin his enveloping movement west through Kutkovo and north to Dobroye. It would take Tormasov two hours to reach his destination, however, by which time the opportunity to encircle and destroy the Grande Armée would be past.

Sometime around 3:00 pm, Galitzin’s troops rushed into Krasny like a torrent, and Friedrich’s rearguard quickly crumbled.

Simultaneously, on the western road to Liady, the French initially encountered an ambush by the small detachments of Ozharovsky and Rosen. A bedlam of exploding grapeshot, overturned wagons, careening carriages, and mobs of fugitives rushing in panic ensued. But the troops of Cobert and Latour-Maubourg forced the Russians aside, and Napoleon was finally marching on Orsha.

Simultaneously, on the western road to Liady, the French initially encountered an ambush by the small detachments of Ozharovsky and Rosen. A bedlam of exploding grapeshot, overturned wagons, careening carriages, and mobs of fugitives rushing in panic ensued. But the troops of Cobert and Latour-Maubourg forced the Russians aside, and Napoleon was finally marching on Orsha.

By nightfall on 17 November Kutuzov had occupied Krasny and its surroundings with his 70,000 troops. Marshal Ney, still advancing on Krasny from the east, was not yet aware the Grande Armée was no longer in Krasny to receive his III Corps.

18 November: The Destruction of Ney

At 3:00 pm on 18 November, Ney’s III Corps finally made contact with Miloradovich, who had posted 12,000 troops on a hill overlooking a ravine with the marshy brook Losvinka. Ney had 8,000 combatants and 7,000 stragglers under his command at this point.

Believing that Davout was still in Krasny, directly behind Miloradovich’s columns, Ney turned down a Russian offer of honourable surrender, and boldly attempted to ram his way through the enemy. The dogged French troops then succeeded in piercing the first two lines of Russian infantry. The third line, however, proved indomitable, and at the decisive moment, the Russians counterattacked (the battle at the brook Losvinka). An eyewitness to this engagement, the English General Sir Robert Wilson, describes it thus:

Forty pieces of cannon loaded with grape, simultaneously on the instant, vomited their flames and poured their deadly shower on the French assailants. The Russians most in advance, shouting their “hurra”, sprang forward with fixed bayonets, and without firing a musket. A sanguinary but short struggle ensued; the enemy could not maintain their footing, and were driven headlong down the ravine. The brow and sides of the hill were covered with French dead and dying, all the Russian arms were dripping with gore, and the wounded, as they lay bleeding and shivering on the snow, called for “death”, as the greatest mercy that could be ministered in their hopeless state.

The terrible defeat of the III Corps was thorough enough to induce the chivalrous Miloradovich to extend another honourable surrender to Ney. In the early evening Ney decided to escape silently passing the Russians and following the brook Losvinka. When the Cossacks appeared during the night Ney succeeded to cross the Dnieper, one by one, but lost a thousand men in the ice-cracks when crossing the river, leaving his guns and carriages behind. The elements and the Cossacks reduced Ney’s contingent to only 800 diehards.

For the next two days Ney’s small party bravely stood off Cossack attacks as it marched westward along the river in search of Napoleon’s army. Again, Ney refused to submit, and with 2,000 refugees – all that remained of his corps – he absconded into the forests pursued by Platov’s Cossacks. On 20 November, Ney and Napoleon were reunited near Orsha, an event which the demoralised French troops regarded as the emotional equivalent of a great victory.

At Krasny, Ney’s steely courage in defeat immortalised him in the annals of military history, leading Napoleon to bestow upon him the sobriquet of “Bravest of the Brave.”

Aftermath and Legacy

Total French losses in the Krasny skirmishes are estimated between 6,000 and 13,000 killed and wounded, with another 20,000 to 26,000 lost as prisoners to the Russians. Almost all of the French prisoners were stragglers. The French also lost close to 130 artillery pieces and a huge portion of their supply train. Russian losses are estimated to have been no more than 5,000 killed and wounded.

Significant however was that Napoleon successfully led 75% of the combatants of the I and IV Corps and the Imperial Guard out of Krasny, thus salvaging his hope of using these troops as a nucleus around which he could rebuild his army the following year.

Krasny was a Russian victory, but a highly unsatisfactory one. Tsar Alexander I was enraged with Kutuzov upon learning of the old field marshal’s failure to totally destroy the French. Nonetheless, owing to Kutuzov’s immense popularity with the Russian aristocracy, Alexander gave him the victory title of Prince of Smolensk for what had been accomplished in this battle.

The sources are unclear as to why Kutuzov did not decide to annihilate the last remaining French troops during the offensive. Russian military historian General Nikolay Mikhnevich [ru] pointed to Kutuzov’s unwillingness to risk the lives of his exhausted and frostbitten troops and cited the words of the field marshal, “All that [the French army] will collapse without me”. General Robert Wilson, the British liaison officer attached to the Russian Army, recorded Kutuzov as having commented in late 1812,

I prefer giving my enemy a ‘pont d’or’ [golden bridge], as you call it, to receiving a ‘coup de collier’ [blow born of desperation]: besides, I will say, as I have told you before, that I am by no means sure that the total destruction of the Emperor Napoleon and his army would be of such benefit to the world; his succession would not fall to Russia or any other continental power, but to that which commands the sea, and whose domination would then be intolerable.

In Popular Culture

Leo Tolstoy references the battle in his War and Peace.

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