Battle of the Berezina, 21-29 November 1812

Background
20 November
21 November
23 November
24 November
25 November
26 November
27 November
28 November
Aftermath and Conclusion

The Battle of the Berezina (21-29 November 1812) was the last major success for Napoleon's Grande Armée during the invasion of Russia in 1812 and saw the remnants of the army escape from a Russian trap on the Berezina River and continue their march west to relative safety.

Background

Napoleon's invasion of Russia had involved more than one army. Earlier in the campaign these forces had been widely separated, with the Grande Armée advancing in the centre, Victor and Oudinot guarding the northern flank and briefly threatening to advance on St. Petersburg and Reynier and the Austrian Schwarzenberg guarding the southern flank.

Russia 1812 - The Road to Moscow
Russia 1812
The Road to Moscow

The Russians also had several armies in the field in the winter of 1812.  Marshal Kutuzov commanded the army that had fought at Borodino, watched the French at Moscow, and conducted the first part of the pursuit as Napoleon retreated west. General Wittgenstein commanded in the north, facing Victor and Oudinot in a series of battles. In the south Admiral Chichagov was bringing his army up from the Balkans.

By mid-November five of these armies were converging on the Berezina crossings. Victor and Oudinot were being pushed back by Wittgenstein and Kutuzov was following Napoleon. In the south Schwarzenberg had to move south-west to help Reynier, thus escaping from the trap. This also allowed Chichagov to slip past the French and Austrians and on 16 November he captured the important French supply depot at Minsk.

Napoleon's options were quickly been reduced. He had already lost Vitebsk (7 November) and Polotsk, blocking the northern route. The loss of Minsk cut off a southern route, leaving him with one road out of Russian. This crossed the Berezina River at Borisov then made for Vilna and Kovno and eventually Konigsberg on the Baltic coast. Napoleon was now in a race with Admiral Chichagov to reach Borisov and capture its critically important bridge over the Berezina.

Borizov wasn't entirely undefended. A small Polish force, under General Bronikowski, had been in the town since the fall of Minsk. More Poles, under Dombrowski, were on their way, and Napoleon also ordered Marshal Oudinot to move south and either reinforce Dombrowski or counter-attack if required. Napoleon also made the fateful decision to have his baggage train cut in half. Amongst the equipment lost was the pontoon train, although General Eblé, commander of the engineers, managed to save a few wagon loads of tools and key equipment.

20 November

The French situation got worse on 20 November. Normally the Berezina was frozen in late November, and wouldn't have posed an impossible barrier, but on the 20th there was an unexpected thaw. The ice broke, the river burst its banks and a minor obstacle became a major barrier, with large muddy areas on either side of the river only making things worse.

On the positive side General Dombrowski arrived in Borisov late in the day. Napoleon now had around 4,200 men posted at Borisov.  

21 November

Dombrowski had one full division along with the smaller detachment already present, but he also had a difficult position to hold. By this point in the campaign neither side had good intelligence, so the defenders of Borisov had no real idea where any of the other armies actually were. Dombrowski had to defend the town on the east bank of the river and a weakly fortified bridgehead on the west bank.

On 21 November Admiral Chichagov reached the Berezina and attacked the Polish positions. After a day-long battle (First battle of Borisov), the Poles were forced to abandon the town and retreat. Chichagov moved most of his men across the river and prepared to defend Borisov. Napoleon was now trapped, with a hostile force in control over the only suitable crossing point on the Berezina.

23 November

The French position began to improve on 23 November. Marshal Oudinot arrived at Borisov and won two quick victories. First he defeated part of Chichagov's army at Loshnitsa, east of the town (combat of Lostnitsa), and then pushed the Russians out of Borisov (Second battle of Borisov). Unfortunately for the French the Russians were able to burn the bridge over the Berezina, so the French needed to find an alternative crossing point. Chichagov spread his army out along the western bank of the river, from Brilli eight miles to the north down to Usha, 20 miles to the south.

Oudinot sent scouts to try and find a crossing point below Borisov, but without luck. The Russians now had a stroke of luck. General Corbineau's division had been detached for duty in the north, but he was now returning to II Corps. On the 23rd he was approaching the Berezina from the west, and needed to find a ford. He had some Polish troops in his division, who were able to question a local Lithuanian peasant who appeared to have just crossed the river. He reveals a ford that crossed from the viscinity of Brilli to Studienka. The ford was 3 ½ deep on the 23rd and the water level was rising, but Corbineau's men were able to get across the river.

24 November

Portrait of Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout, 1770-1823
Portrait of
Marshal Louis-Nicolas
Davout, 1770-1823

Corbineau's news reached Oudinot on 24 November, and he quickly passed it on to Napoleon. For much of the Russian campaign Napoleon had been rather listless and lacking his normal abilities, but for the next few days he recovered his earlier zeal. Victor was ordered to try and hold Wittgenstein six miles to the north-east of Studienka (Wittgenstein was on the east bank of the Berezina). Davout had the task of slowing down Kutuzov, but the main Russian army was moving rather slowly at this stage and didn't play a significant part in the fighting at the Berezina.

Portrait of Marshal Michel Ney (1769-1815)
Portrait of
Marshal Michel Ney
(1769-1815)

The main priority was to trick Chichagov into moving away from Brilli so that the French bridge builders could get to work. Napoleon put in place a series of diversions, starting opposite Stakhov (west of Borisov), at Borisov and further south at Ukholody. Once these diversions were in place Corbineau was to lead a small force of infantry and cavalry across the river at Studienka. Finally Eblé and Chasseloup's Engineers would build three bridges using the buildings of Studienka to provide the material. In the event there was only enough wood to build two bridges, one for infantry and one capable of taking artillery.

Napoleon also put in place a detailed plan for the crossing itself. The bridges were to be used night and day. Oudinot's corps was to cross first and move south to block Chichagov. Ney was to cross second, and move into line to the left of Oudinot. The Imperial Guard and Imperial HQ would be next and would form a reserve. Eugene's IV Corps would be fourth, and would form a northern flank. Davout would be fifth, leaving Victor to form the rearguard. Finally Victor would cross and the bridges would be burnt.

The biggest problem with Napoleon's plan was that it failed to take into account the massive crowds of stragglers and non-combatants with the army. Most of them refused to cross at night, and would suffer a terrible fate when they did attempt to cross. Napoleon's energy levels might have briefly improved, but he still wasn't at his peak.

25 November

The diversions began on 25 November. The most successful was at Ukholody, where 300 soldiers and several hundred stragglers were sent to make as much noise as possible while gathering bridging materials. A division of cuirassiers was also sent to parade in the same area. Chichagov was not helped by messages from Kutuzov in which the Marshal suggested that the French would probably cross somewhere to the south of Borisov. The combination of the French ruse and Kutuzov's letters convinced the Admiral to move his main force south to Zabashevichi (or Shabashevichi). Around 5,000 men were left to watch Borisov. At first a significant detachment was left at Brili, but a confused series of orders meant that this too was withdrawn just before the French were planning to attack.

The French engineers got to work on the night of 25-26 November, gathering materials and preparing for the main effort.

26 November

At about 8am on the morning of 26 November Napoleon ordered Corbineau to lead his cavalry across the ford and drive away the few remaining Russians (mainly Cossacks). Corbineau was supported by a battery of 44 guns on the east bank of the river, which quickly eliminated the four light guns left on the Russian bank. The engineers then began their work, entering the freezing waters of the Berezina. General Eblé's 400 engineers, sappers and bridge builders would save the Grande Armée but at terrible cost - only 40 survived the campaign and Eblé himself died of exhaustion a few weeks later.

The infantry bridge was completed by 1pm. It was around 100m long and 4-5m wide, and had required the construction and installation of 23 trestles. The top of the bridge was only about a foot above the water, and was very fragile.

Oudinot's II Corps was first to cross, followed at around 5pm by Dombrowski's division. Oudinot led most of his men south and they forced the remaining Russian troops to retire for most of the afternoon. This gave the bridgehead some depth and gave Oudinot a good defensive position to use against Chichagov. At the same time a smaller force was sent west and captured the key line of causeways on the road to Zembino - if these had been destroyed then the French would have been trapped on the west bank of the Berezina.

III Corps (Ney) began to cross at about 10pm, and V (Polish) Corps at about midnight. Ney's men took up a position to the left of Oudinot's men.

The artillery bridge was completed by either 3pm or 4pm. II Corps' artillery was first across, followed by part of the Guard Artillery. This bridge partially collapsed at around 8pm and was blocked until 11pm when the artillery could resume its crossing.

The Russians eventually realised that they had been tricked. General Langeron sent reinforcements north from his position opposite Borisov. Chichagov himself prepared to move later in the day, with the intention of reaching Borisov by nightfall. In the event his movement was slower than this and only one of his divisions was opposite the town by nightfall.

By the end of the day the French still had Victor's IX Corps, Eugene's IV Corps, Davout's I Corps, Junot's VIII and the Imperial Guard on the east bank, along with a vast crowd of stragglers. Many of these formations were only a ghost of their former selves, with Junot's corps down to no more than 400 men.

27 November

The artillery bridge broke for a second time at 2am on the morning of 27 November. Once again the sappers were forced into the freezing water to repair it. The bridge was repaired by 6am, and the Guard foot artillery began to cross. At the same time the infantry bridge was unused - the stragglers preferred to shelter overnight rather than seek relative safety on the west bank.

During the day both bridges were heavily used. The Vistula Legion began to cross using both bridges at around 10am. The Young Guard moved across at noon, followed at 1pm by Napoleon, then the Old Guard.

At about 4pm the artillery bridge broke again, and was out of use for two hours. This break caused a mass panic, and hundreds died in a crush at the one remaining bridge. Even after the artillery bridge was repaired (around 6pm), the approaches were blocked by a mass of broke vehicles and bodies, and the engineers had to cut a gap in this mass to allow I Corps and IV Corps to cross.

Daendel's Division from Victor's Corps crossed the infantry bridge at about 5pm. Eugene's IV Corps and Davout's I Corps crossed over last on the 27th, starting at about 8pm. This left Victor's IX Corps on the east bank for the last day of the battle.

Once again the bridges were unused on the night of 27-28 November, as the stragglers once again missed a chance to escape. Eblé was unable to convince them to move, and Napoleon was already across the river.

Elsewhere the Russians were finally closing in on Napoleon's men. Admiral Chichagov spent the day pushing Oudinot's positions, but the French were able to maintain a stable line.

Kutuzov was also moving west at some speed, but his movement began too late and his men didn’t take part in the battle.

On the east bank Wittgenstein's men began to arrive on the scene. Wittgenstein had had a chance to attack the crossing on 26 November, but had instead decided to move further south to Borisov. He was now ordered to move to Stary Borisov, a village between the town and the French bridges. This put him between the main army and General Partonneaux's comparatively fresh division (with 4,000 survivors from its original 12,000 men). Partonneaux had been ordered to defend Borisov on the previous days, and had been delayed in the town by a stream of stragglers, but he was now trapped. Partonneaux attempted to break through to the main army, but took a wrong turning late in the day and early on 28 November was forced to surrender. Victor was thus lacking a key division for the battles of 28 November (battle of Stary Borisov).

28 November

The 28th saw the fiercest fighting of the battle, with separate engagements on each bank of the river. The main Russian armies were now in direct contact, and Admiral Chichagov attempted to coordinate an attack with Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein promised much, but eventually failed to cooperate and so the two armies made uncoordinated attacks.

On the west bank Chichagov made the strongest attack on the French, committing about 25,000 men to the battle (battle of Stakhov-Brili). Napoleon expected an attack, and had arranged his troops in four lines - Oudinot's II Corps was in the first line. Ney's III Corps and what was left of V Corps were the second line. A cavalry force made up the third line and the Imperial Guard the fourth. Behind this shield I and IV Corps were already moving west. There were probably less than 19,000 men in the four French lines, with around 4,000 in Oudinot's front line.

The Russian attack began at around 6am, and at first they made good progress. Oudinot was wounded just as he was about to order a cavalry attack. Ney was put in charge, committing II Corps, V Corps and the Vistula Legion (just under 3,000 men in total). The battle was decided at about noon when 400 cuirassiers and 700 Polish lancers charged the Russians. They were caught in open formation and pushed back. Eventually the Russian position stablised and they began to slowly push the French back once again, but any chance of a major victory was gone and the fighting died down in the late evening. 

On the east bank Wittgenstein only committed about 14,000 of his 45,000 men (battle of Studyanka). Victor was in a weaker than expected position, with only Girard's division left on the east bank (Partouneaux having surrendered and his third division having crossed the river. Napoleon sent Daendels' division back across the bridge to help Victor. The main threat came from the south, where Wittgenstein was advancing from Borisov. Victor took up a position on a ridge that ran perpendicular to the Berezina, behind a stream that ran into the river south of Studyanka. Most of his infantry were positioned behind the ridge (a tactic more famously used by Wellington).

Wittgenstein's main attack was eventually fought off by Victor, but the Russian artillery was now able to fire into the mob of stragglers waiting to cross the river. What little order remained broke down and a mass panic broke out. Thousands are said to have been killed in this rush. Things got worse when the artillery bridge broke, and the crowd behind kept on coming, pushing many more into the freezing water. The situation was partly restored when Napoleon created a large artillery battery on the west bank and forced the Russians left to pull back.
 
At 7pm Victor was ordered to retreat across the bridges, and to burn them after he had completed the crossing. IX Corps began to retreat at 9pm, and the last rearguard was across the bridge by dawn. There was then a gap when the bridges were unused while a series of officers attempted to convince the stragglers to cross. Finally, at about 9am on 29 November Eblé set fire to the bridges. At last the stragglers realised they had missed their last chance and yet more died in another panic at the burning bridges.

Aftermath and Conclusion

The crossing of the Berezina was one of Napoleon's more impressive achievements during the 1812 campaign, but he was greatly helped by the poor Russian performance. Only Chichagov's army took part in the entire battle. Wittgenstein arrived late and then failed to cooperate and Kutuzov's main body never reached the battlefield.

Although Napoleon had managed to get across the Berezina, the Grande Armée had suffered very heavy losses in the process. The exact number of combatants still with the colours at the start of the battle isn't at all clear, and neither are the casualties.

Napoleon acknowledged that his army had been reduced to 7,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry on 30 November, while Chambray's 1823 history of the campaign put the figure at 8,800 in total. The French had lost at least 20,000 combatants during the battle of the Berezina (and possibly as many as 30,000), and by any normal standards it would count as a crushing defeat. Anther 10-20,000 non-combatants were killed or captured. Only Napoleon's escape turned it into a victory of sorts.

The retreat continued into December, and the Grande Armée continued to shrink. Napoleon decided to leave the army and return to Paris on 5 December, leaving Murat in command. The army reached Vilna on 8 December, and at the end of the month crossed the Nieman. The disastrous invasion of Russia was over.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (7 July 2014), Battle of the Berezina, 21-29 November 1812 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_berezina.html

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