First battle of Krasnyi, 14 August 1812

The first battle of Krasnyi (14 August 1812) was a successful Russian rearguard action that gave the Russians time to rush reinforcements to Smolensk thus preventing the French from gaining any advantage from Napoleon's famous Manoeuvre of Smolensk.

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

During the first phase of the French invasion of Russia Napoleon had concentrated on preventing the armies of Barclay de Tolly and Bagration from joining up, but after the failure of the manoeuvre on Vitebsk in late July the last chance of this ended, and on 4 August the two Russian armies met up at Smolensk on the Dnieper River. The French were a little further west, stretched out between Orsha on the Dnieper in the south and Vitebsk on the Dvina in the north.

Over the next few days both sides decided to go onto the offensive. The Russians began a limited offensive between the Dnieper and the Dvina on 7 August. On 8 August the Russians changed direction, and moved north-west in response to a false report of a French advance to the north of Smolensk. On the same day they defeated a French cavalry force at Inkovo (8 August 1812), alerting the French to the Russian offensive. Napoleon briefly suspended his own plans, but by 10 August it was clear that the Russians had stopped moving and Napoleon put his own plan into action.

Marshal Joachim Murat
Marshal Joachim Murat

The manoeuvre of Smolensk is often described as one of Napoleon's most impressive plans. He decided to turn his army south, cross the Dnieper east of Orsha (the Dnieper flows west from Smolensk then at Orsha turns south and heads into the Ukraine). The French movement would be screened by Murat's cavalry. Once the army was across the river it would turn east and advance towards Smolensk. Unless the Russians reacted very quickly Napoleon would be able to get between them and Moscow and force them to fight on his terms.

The French began to move on 11 August. On the night of 13-14 August General Eblé's engineers built four bridges across the river, and by dawn nearly 200,000 men were across the river. The French then began the advance east towards Smolensk.

The Russians hadn't left the south bank entirely undefended. While most of the combined Russian army was operating on the north bank of the river General Dmitry Neverovsky's division (10 infantry battalions, 4 cavalry squadrons, 3 Cossack regiments, 14 guns, for a total of somewhere between 7,200 and 9,500 men) was posted west of Smolensk, on the south bank of the Dnieper. His cavalry outposts were at Liady, several miles to the west of Krasnyi, where most of his division was stationed.

The battle started with a clash between the Russian cavalry outposts at Liady, west of Krasnyi, and General Grouchy's cavalry. The French had the best of this fight, but it did alert Neverovsky to the danger he was in. It was clear that he would soon be very badly outnumbered and so he prepared for a fighting retreat. He placed the 49th Jägers in Krasnyi, supported by two battalions from the 50th and 41st Jägers, while the rest of his troops were placed east of the twon.

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

The next French troops to arrive were the light cavalry of Ney's corps, with the 24th Légère close behind. They attacked at about 3pm and captured Krasnyi. Neverovsky responded by forming his infantry into two columns and retreating east along the road to Smolensk.

The rest of the battle consisted of a series of ineffective French cavalry attacks. Murat launched between 30 and 40 attacks on the Russian force as it retreated back along the road. Ney wanted to bring his III Corps into the battle, but Murat refused to let him into the battle. The Russian retreat was costly - Neverovsky lost around 1,500 men, three times as many as the French, but when darkness fell the Russians were safe. On the following day they were reinforced and continued their march back to Smolensk, almost unopposed by the French.

The battle of Krasnyi was the first major setback in Napoleon's great manoeuvre, preventing the French cavalry from reaching Smolensk late on 14 August when the city might still have been weakly defended. Early on 15 August both Barclay de Tolly and Bagration were informed of the French move, and reinforcements were quickly rushing into the city. Napoleon then added to his own problems by pausing for the day on 15 August. He also wasted some time with a review of the army to celebrate his birthday.

By the time the French were ready to attack Smolensk (16-17 August 1812) the chance for an easy victory was gone. The Russians had reinforced the garrison and their main armies had reached the city. The two day French assault ended in failure, and the city was only abandoned because the Russians were worried that Napoleon might move further east and cut the Smolensk-Moscow road. This stage of the Russian campaign ended with a successful Russian rearguard action at Valutina on 19 August 1812. The Russians then continued their retreat towards Moscow and the fateful field of Borodino.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (3 April 2014), First battle of Krasnyi, 14 August 1812 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_krasnyi_1st.html

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