Battle of Golymin, 26 December 1806

The battle of Golymin (26 December 1806) was one of two inconclusive battles fought between French and Russian armies in the Prussian partition of Poland on the same night.

After crushing the Prussians at Jena and Auerstadt (both 14 October 1806) the last serious threat to Napoleon's position in central Europe came from the Russians. In November Napoleon decided that he wanted to enter winter quarters on the east bank of the Vistula in preparation for a campaign he expected to take place in the following year. During November the French occupied Warsaw and crossed the Vistula. The Russians, under Marshal Kamenski, decided not to defend the great river, and even abandoned the line of the River Bug, retreating towards Ostrolenka. They then changed their mind and moved back towards the Bug, but arrived too late. On 10 December the French crossed the Bug close to its junction with the Vistula and established a bridgehead on the north bank. The Russians decided to hold a new position on the River Ukra, which flows south into the Bug just to the east of the French bridgehead.

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

On 23 December the Russians were forced to abandon their new defensive lines. The French successfully forced their way across the Ukra at its mouth (combat of Czarnowo, 23 December 1806) and repulsed a Prussian attack at Biezun at the other end of the river line. The Russians decided to retreat north-east towards Ostrolenka, while Napoleon saw a chance to win a major victory and set his corps in motion. On the right Lannes was sent towards Pultusk. Davout was next, moving towards Streshegozin. Augereau was on his right, with orders to head for Schensk and attempt to cut off the Russian line of retreat. Soult was further to the left, with orders to support Augereau.

Portrait of Marshal Jean Lannes, 10 April 1769-1809
Portrait of
Marshal Jean Lannes,
10 April 1769-1809

This campaign took place in terrible weather, with a mix of frosts and thaws turning the un-metaled roads of Poland into a sea of mud. The French were thus unable to move fast enough to cut off the Russians, and Napoleon's decisive battle never took place. Instead two encounter battles were fought, both on 26 December. At Pultusk Lannes ran into Bennigsen, with the main Russian army. The resulting battle was somewhat inconclusive, with both sides claiming victory.

In one way the fighting on 26 December resembled that on 14 October at Jena and Auerstadt. On both days the French fought two battles, one in which they were outnumbered (Auerstadt and Pultusk) and one in which they held the advantage (Jena and Golymin).

While the battle at Pultusk was deliberately triggered by Bennigsen, who had chosen to make a stand at the town, the fighting at Golymin was a rearguard action. Prince Dmitry Golitsyn, who commanded one division in the Russian army, reached Golymin at 8am on the morning of 26 December. His men were too tired to move much further, and he also needed to wait for part of General Sacken's division to arrive. Golitsyn had around 18,000 men with him at Golymin.

Marshal Joachim Murat
Marshal Joachim Murat

Augereau started the day at Kaleczyn, nine miles to the south-west of Golymin. His first division, under General Desjardin, began to move at 7.30am, and the second (General Heudelet) at 9am. Murat, with part of the reserve cavalry, advanced along a parallel route a little further to the east.

The first fighting came early in the morning of 26 December when Murat's leading troops ran into Golitsyn's rearguard of two cavalry squadrons. The Russian rearguard was reinforced, and Lasalle, leading Murat's advance guard, was forced back. Golitsyn hoped to win enough time to allow him to resume the retreat, but the first French infantry appeared at Ruszkowo, two miles to the west/ south-west of Golymin, before the Russians were ready to move.

Golitsyn's men occupied a strong defensive position. Golymin was surrounded by a mix of woods and swamps, which opened up onto a large swampy plain. The French were unable to move quickly, or to get their artillery into action. Golitsyn posted a small force in the village of Nowy Kaleczyn, just to the west of Golymin (one regiment of infantry supported by four light guns). The rest of his army was posted in front of Golymin, with six battalions of infantry and two cavalry regiments in the front line and a regiment of cuirassiers, two squadrons of hussars and some troops from General Doctorow's division in reserve.

Augereau arrived on the scene in the early afternoon (around 2pm) and decided to attack the Russian position with his two infantry divisions. Heudelet was placed on the left, to advance through the village of Watkowo, and Desjardins on the right, attacking through Ruszkowo. Heudelet came under constant attack by Russian cavalry, and was forced to advance in squares. Neither French division had much success. Desjardins failed to make any real progress. Heudelet was more successful at first, and pushed back the Russian advance guard. Golitsyn reinforced the advance guard, and the French were pushed back. Heudelet rallied his men and returned to the attack. The French got within fifty paces of the Russian lines but were then hit by grapeshot fired at short range by the Russian guns and were forced to retreat. The two French divisions pulled back a short distance, and the fighting on this front died down. Both side's skirmishers remained in action, but Augereau's main force played no further part in the battle.

At this stage the Russian position was facing west, but it was now threatened from the south by the arrival of Murat in person with two cavalry divisions. The Russian cavalry on their left flank was forced back into the woods around Golymin, but lacking infantry support Murat was unable to advance any further.

A third French force now arrived on the scene. This was Morand's division from Davout's corps, which had marched towards Golymin from the south. This fresh force was ready to attack at around 3.30pm Morand placed his 1st brigade in the front line, organised into battalion columns, with his 2nd brigade following on behind. The French infantry advanced into the woods south of Golymin, and after some stubborn Russian resistance drove the Russians out of the woods.

Davout realised that the Russian's best line of retreat was east along the road towards Makow. If he was going to cut off the Russian retreat Davout needed to cross the Pultusk road, which ran south-east from Golymin. He moved Morand's 2nd brigade to his right, towards the road, and then sent Count Jean Rapp with a force of dragoons to attack the Russian cavalry on the Pultusk road. At first Rapp's men were successful, but their advance brought them into the middle of a force of Russian infantry, standing in a deep bog on the sides of the road. The French cavalry was unable to advance into the bog and came under heavy fire. Rapp, who was an Imperial aide-de-camp, suffered one of his many wounds and his men were forced to pull back to the infantry.

This ended the battle. Morand remained in the woods south of Golymin and didn’t risk attacking towards the town. Golitsyn's stubborn resistance had convinced the French that they faced a much larger army than they really did. This allowed Golitsyn to begin his retreat back towards Makow, and by 9pm the last Russian troops were on the road. The French attempted to pursue on the following day but the weather made their task almost impossible and on 28 December Napoleon ordered his men into winter quarters.

Although the French outnumbered the Russians by two-to-one, their attacks were uncoordinated. Augereau's attack had failed by the time Murat's cavalry was engaged, and Davout's leading division attacked without any support from Augereau. Both sides reported losing around 800 men during the battle. Both battles on 26 December had ended as inconclusive draws, and the war in Poland continued on into 1807.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (3 September 2012), Battle of Golymin, 26 December 1806 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_golymin.html

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