Battle of Vyazma
The Battle of Vyazma occurred at the beginning of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. In this encounter the rear guard of the Grande Armée was defeated by the Russians commanded by General Mikhail Andreyevich Miloradovich
Mikhail Andreyevich Miloradovich
Mikhail Andreyevich Miloradovich , spelled Miloradovitch in contemporary English sources was a Russian general prominent during the Napoleonic Wars. He entered military service on the eve of the Russo-Swedish War of 1788–1790 and his career advanced rapidly during the reign of Paul I...

. Although the French repelled Miloradovich's attempt to encircle and destroy the corps of Louis Nicolas Davout
Louis Nicolas Davout
Louis-Nicolas d'Avout , better known as Davout, 1st Duke of Auerstaedt, 1st Prince of Eckmühl, was a Marshal of France during the Napoleonic Era. His prodigious talent for war along with his reputation as a stern disciplinarian, earned him the title "The Iron Marshal"...

, they withdrew in a partial state of disorder after suffering heavy casualties from continued Russian attacks.

The French reversal at Vyazma
Vyazma is a town and the administrative center of Vyazemsky District of Smolensk Oblast, Russia, located on the Vyazma River, about halfway between Smolensk and Mozhaysk. Throughout its turbulent history, the city defended western approaches to the city of Moscow...

 was indecisive, but it was noteworthy because of its disruptive impact on the Grande Armée's retreat.


Two weeks before the Battle of Vyazma, Napoleon began his retreat from Moscow because this city was isolated deep in enemy territory, and was thus unsuitable as the Grande Armée's winter quarters.

Napoleon's objective at this stage of the retreat was to lead the Grande Armée to his closest major supply depot, Smolensk
Smolensk is a city and the administrative center of Smolensk Oblast, Russia, located on the Dnieper River. Situated west-southwest of Moscow, this walled city was destroyed several times throughout its long history since it was on the invasion routes of both Napoleon and Hitler. Today, Smolensk...

, which was 270 miles (434.5 km) west of Moscow. The campaign was then to be recommenced in the following spring.

The French departed Moscow on October 18, and after having a southern route to Smolensk denied them as a result of the Battle of Maloyaroslavets
Battle of Maloyaroslavets
The Battle of Maloyaroslavets took place on 24 October 1812, between the Russians, under Marshal Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov, and part of the corps of Eugène de Beauharnais, Napoleon's stepson, under General Alexis Joseph Delzons which numbered about 20,000 strong.-Prelude:On 19 October, Napoleon...

 (October 24), they were compelled to backtrack and retreat along the same road used in their earlier advance on Moscow. Because the territory alongside this road had been economically ravaged by earlier campaigning, the retreat imposed on the Grande Armée extreme conditions of privation and attrition. Lack of foodstuffs soon led to demoralization and disorder in the French ranks.

By November 3, the day of the action at Vyazma, the retreating Grande Armée was stretched out in a column 60 miles (96.6 km) long. The helm of the column, Junot's VIII Corps, was at Dorogobuzh
Dorogobuzh is a historic town and the administrative center of Dorogobuzhsky District of Smolensk Oblast, Russia, straddling the Dnieper River to the east of Smolensk and west of Vyazma. Population:...

, with Davout's I Corps, serving as the army's rearguard
Rearguard may refer to:* A military detachment protecting the rear of a larger military formation, especially when retreating from a pursuing enemy force. * Rear Guard , a computer game released in 1982...

, located at the tail of the army just east of Vyazma. Between these two endpoints were, running west to east, the Imperial Guard, Murat
Murat is a male Turkish name, spelled as Murad during the Ottoman period. Its meaning can be translated roughly into Reached Desire or Accomplished Goal...

's troops, Ney's III Corps, Poniatowski's V Corps, and Eugene's IV Corps.

The French retreat at this point was harassed by Cossack
Cossacks are a group of predominantly East Slavic people who originally were members of democratic, semi-military communities in what is today Ukraine and Southern Russia inhabiting sparsely populated areas and islands in the lower Dnieper and Don basins and who played an important role in the...

 attacks at every juncture, Davout's corps in particular being beleaguered by Russian attacks. By November 2, Napoleon had grown dissatisfied with Davout's management of rearguard activities, and ordered Ney to remain in Vyazma, to allow Eugene, Poniatowski and Davout to bypass him, and to assume rearguard duties himself.

The Russians, meanwhile, organized themselves into three groups while pursuing the French.

First, following Davout closely were 5,000 Cossacks commanded by Ataman Platov. This group was supported by General Ivan Paskevich
Ivan Paskevich
Ivan Fyodorovich Paskevich was a Ukrainian-born military leader. For his victories, he was made Count of Erivan in 1828 and Namestnik of the Kingdom of Poland in 1831...

's 26th Division, with 4,000 troops. Marching slightly to the south was General Miloradovich with the II and IV Infantry Corps, some 14,000 troops in all, and the II and III Cavalry Corps, which amounted to 3,500 soldiers. Miloradovich coordinated the activity of all of these troops, including those of Platov and Paskevich.

The main Russian army led by Mikhail Kutuzov, some 70,000 troops in all, marched further to the south.

On the evening of November 2, while conducting reconnaissance south of the Smolensk-Moscow road, Miloradovich, together with his cavalry commanders General Korff and General Sievers, noticed a gap between Davout's troops, situated to the east at Fedorovskoye, and the troops of Eugene and Poniatowski, located to the west just outside of Vyazma. Recognizing an opportunity to isolate and destroy Davout's corps, the aggressive Miloradovich decided to attack early the next morning.

The Russian cavalry attacks

At 8 AM on the morning of November 3, Miloradovich's cavalry attacked the disorganized French column holding the length of road which separated Davout from Eugene and Poniatowski. Miloradovich also ordered his artillery, positioned on nearby heights, to begin a cannonade. The attack was a complete success, as it captured the French IV Corps baggage train and sent the French troops fleeing in disarray. Miloradovich then placed infantrymen and horse batteries astraddle the road, thereby severing Davout's connection with the rest of the French army.

Simultaneous to Miloradovich's attack to the west of Davout, Platov's Cossacks attacked Davout from the east, supported by Paskevich's troops. Davout's infantrymen formed squares to meet the attack from Platov and Paskevich, and his artillerymen set-up their pieces to return Miloradovich's fire. The 14,000 exhausted, hunger-weakened soldiers of Davout's Corps were now at risk of being overwhelmed and destroyed by the Russians.

Eugene's counterattack

Fortunately for Davout, there was a weakness in the Russian plan of attack, in that the Russian cavalry had attacked the Vyazma-Fedorovskoye road that morning without the full support of the II and IV Infantry Corps (led by Eugene of Württemberg and General Ostermann-Tolstoy respectively), which were located to the south and would not be able to reach the battlefield until 10 am, two hours after the action commenced. Miloradovich, fearing that the gap between Davout and the rest of the French army would close before he could exploit it, felt it expedient to launch his cavalry attack without having the balance of his infantry on hand. Lacking sufficient numbers of infantrymen to consolidate their hold on the Vyazma-Fedorovskoye road, Miloradovich's cavalry was vulnerable to a determined French counterattack.

At this juncture, Davout's fortunes changed for the better. His infantrymen to the east repulsed Platov and Paskevich with steady, disciplined musketfire. More importantly, Eugene heard the cannonfire engulfing Davout's position to the rear, and immediately ordered his troops to counterattack Miloradovich and regain possession of the Vyazma-Fedorovskoye road.

Eugene's counterattack fell on the rear of the troops Miloradovich had positioned on the road facing Davout. This counterattack was conducted by two of Eugene's Italian divisions, one division of Poles from Poniatowski's V Corps, and a single regiment of troops sent to the scene by Ney, whose III Corps was positioned in the heights near Vyazma. Davout, upon seeing these troops advancing to rescue him, sent his infantrymen to attack as well. Miloradovich's cavalry and his small body of infantrymen were now attacked from the east and the west, including being enveloped in French artillery shot, and were compelled to retreat from the road.

Thanks to Eugene's counterattack, a passageway had been created on the Vyazma-Fedorovskoye road for Davout to continue his retreat.

Miloradovich repositions his troops

The Russians at this point had been repulsed at all points, but they were hardly finished with the battle.

Having pulled back from Eugene's attack, Miloradovich ordered his troops to reposition themselves parallel to the road. A heavy cannonade was then commenced against Davout's troops as they retreated toward Vyazma. Davout's artillery was unable to respond effectively to the Russian fire, and panic broke out among his troops.

Louis Philippe, comte de Ségur
Louis Philippe, comte de Ségur
Louis Philippe, comte de Ségur was a French diplomat and historian.-Life:He was born in Paris, the son of Philippe Henri, marquis de Ségur and Louise Anne Madeleine de Vernon....

, an observer of the action on the French side, describes this moment in the battle thus:

…disorder reigned in the I Corps – the one commanded by Davout. The sudden maneuver, the surprise, and particularly the tragic example of the crowd of unhorsed, unarmed cavalrymen running up and down in blind fright, threw this corps into utter confusion. This spectacle encouraged the enemy, who credited themselves with a victory. Their artillery, superior in strength, galloped into position and, opening an oblique fire on our lines, began mowing our men down, while our own guns were coming back to us at a snail's pace from Vyazma.

The damage wrought by the Russian artillery on Davout's troops was such that many of them were compelled to abandon the road, and to retreat across an open field in their desperation to reach safety behind Eugene's position. By 10 am, when the rest of Miloradovich's infantry arrived, Davout's battered corps had taken shelter behind Eugene.

Eugene's troops, too, came under pressure from the Russians and were obliged to fall back. General Sir Robert Wilson
Robert Thomas Wilson
General Sir Robert Thomas Wilson Kt was a British general and politician who served in Egypt, Prussia, and was seconded to the Imperial Russian Army in 1812. He sat as the Liberal Member of Parliament for Southwark from 1818 to 1831...

, an Englishman who observed the action from the Russian side, describes the combat at this moment as follows:

On the remainder of the Russian infantry coming up (Eugene of Württemberg and Ostermann-Tolstoy), Miloradovich renewed the attack under protection of a superior and admirably served artillery. The enemy fell back on a second position, between Rjavets and the farm of Rieaupiere, and thence, when menaced on both flanks, to some heights in front of Vyazma, where they were reinforced by the two Italian divisions, the Italian guards, and the corps of Ney.

According to Segur, the Russian cannonshot and musketry at this point were "frighteningly effective."

At 2:00 PM, Davout, Eugene, and Poniatowski conferred, and they concluded that victory was not possible given the disorganization in the French units caused by the Russian aggression. Soon, the three French corps had retreated into Vyazma.

At some point prior to the three French corps falling back to a position on the heights protected by Ney, Miloradovich urgently requested reinforcements from Kutusov, as he recognized that the French were vulnerable and the opportunity for a great victory may have presented itself. Kutusov, who was now within earshot of the battle with his main army (just 20 miles (32.2 km) away), sent only the 3000 cuirassiers of General Uvarov and nothing more.

Final Russian assault on Vyazma

At 4 pm, the fighting spread into the town of Vyazma itself, which at this point was consumed by flames. By now the infantry of General Choglokov (from Ostermann-Tolstoy's corps), as well as detachments of Platov's Cossacks were engaging the French in torrid, close quarters combat on the streets of Vyazma. The French were hard pressed, and had to fight desperately to hold the Russians off while evacuating the town.

By 8 pm, the fighting was over. The corps of Davout, Eugene, and Poniatowski had retreated west of Vyazma, bruised but safe. Ney's rearguard was last to withdraw from the town, suffering heavy losses in a final bayonet fight with a force of Russian grenadiers.

In order to cover their retreat, the French had set large sections of Vyazma on fire, resulting in many wounded from both sides burning to death. Worse yet, the French are reported to have locked civilians and Russian prisoners in buildings before setting them aflame. Russian troops pouring into the town were able to save some of these victims.

That evening, Ney's corps remained on the western outskirts of Vyazma to block the Russians. However, given the Russians' aggression, great danger remained, and according to Caulaincourt, even Ney had to "continue his retreating movement before dawn in order not to risk the loss of his troops."

The next day, withdrawing along a road heaped for miles with burning, overturned wagons, and blown-up ammunition caches, Ney dispatched an entire series of grim reports to Napoleon detailing the lost battle.

The consequences

The Battle of Vyazma represented a defeat of the Grande Armée's rearguard, as French losses in this battle, 6,000 to 8,000 casualties, including 4,000 lost as prisoners to the Russians, were prohibitive. The shock of the Russian attack reduced many French units to a state of disarray, and owing to the speed with which their retreat had to be resumed, order was never restored within them. These disorganized units became easy targets for Cossack raids in the following days.

General Armand de Caulaincourt, the famed memoirist who participated in the events of 1812 from the French side, perhaps best summarized the effects of Vyazma on his army with the following rueful words:

Until then – as long, that is, as it had to withstand alone the attacks of the enemy – the First Corps had maintained its honor and reputation, although it was fiercely attacked and its formation broken by the artillery. This momentary disorder was conspicuous because it was the first time that these gallant infantry broke ranks and compelled their dogged commander to give ground. I have related these painful details because from this incident must be dated our disorganization and misfortunes. The First Corps, which on taking the field was the largest and finest, a rival to the Guard, was thenceforward the hardest hit; and the evil spread.

Russian casualties at Vyazma were no more than 1,800 killed and wounded, out of 26,500 troops involved.

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