Second battle of Krasnyi, 15-18 November 1812

The second battle of Krasnyi (15-18 November 1812) was a series of clashes between the Russians and elements of Napoleon's retreating Grand Armée that ended as a French victory, but that continued the slow destruction of the army (Russian Campaign of 1812).

The French left Moscow on 19 October, heading south-west. Napoleon's initial plan was to avoid the route he had used to reach Moscow, but this was abandoned after the hard-fought battle of Maloyaroslavets (24 October 1812) and the French returned to their original road. Kutuzov appears to have been happy to allow the winter to complete the defeat of the French, although the Russians did attempt to disrupt the French column at Fiedovoisky (3 November 1812). This attack failed and the French continued on their way west.

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

The French reached Smolensk on 9 November. Napoleon had considered stopping at Smolensk, and at worst he had expected to find a well-stocked supply depot. Instead he found that the supplies had been eaten into by troops retreating ahead of the main army. Napoleon had also been hoping to find fresh troops at Smolensk, but instead he learnt that this division, under Baraguey d'Hilliers, had run into a Russian ambush south-west of Smolensk and a sizable part of it had been forced to surrender. These misfortunes helped convince Napoleon that he would need to continue the retreat, heading towards the depots at Minsk and Vitebsk.

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

On 14 November the leading French troops left Smolensk, followed by the rest of his army, with each element moving one day apart. Over the next few days the Russians made a series of attacks on the last three French corps (Eugene, Davout and Ney). In each case the French were able to escape, although each suffered heavy losses. Napoleon was even forced to commit the Guard to keep the road open.

The army marched in five groups. VIII Corps (Junot), V Corps (Poniatowski) and the Vistula Legion were in the front. The Imperial Guard was next, followed by IV Corps (Prince Eugene), then I Corps (Davout), with III Corps (Ney) forming the rearguard.

On 13 November VIII Corps, V Corps and the Vistula Legion left Smolesnk. The Guard spent the day in Smolensk, while IV and I Corps reached the city. Ney's III Corps was engaged in a rearguard action east of the city, and would continue to fight in that area for four days.

14 November saw VIII Corps, V Corps and the Vistula legion reach Korytnia. The Guard left Smolensk, while Eugene's IV Corps was fighting a rearguard action north of the city. I Corps spent the day in Smolensk, while Ney continued his rearguard action. On the same day a Russian force captured Krasnyi, threatening the line of retreat of the entire army.

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

On 15 November the Vistula Legion managed to recapture Krasnyi, taking the important bridge intact. Napoleon entered the town later in the day. The Guard reached Korytnia. IV Corps left Smolensk, I Corps remained in the city for another day and Ney continued to fight his rearguard action.

On 16 November the Guard joined VIII Corps, V Corps and the Vistula Legion at Krasnyi. Eugene's IV Corps was held up for most of the day by Miloradovich, who blocked the road at Merlino or Nikulina. Eugene's men eventually managed to get around the Russian roadblock, with the help of part of the Young Guard.

The most notable event of the battle came very early on 17 November. The French were now threatened by Kutuzov's main army, which was to their south. Napoleon briefly considered sending the entire Guard to attack the Russians, but then decided to restrict the attack to the Young and Middle Guard. General Rapp was chosen to command the fight, but was then replaced by General Roguet of the Middle Guard. Around 16,000 men took part in the attack, and cut through the Russians. This attack proved that Napoleon's army still had teeth. Kutuzov, who wasn't that keen on risking a major battle anyway, pulled back, opening up the main road and allowing most of the Grand Armée to come back together.

On 18 November most of the Grand Armée was marching west towards Orsha and the intact bridges over the Dnieper. Napoleon and most of his men believed that Ney's 6,000 strong rearguard was lost somewhere east of Smolensk, but they would soon get a rare pleasant surprise. After a series of adventures and a nervous crossing of the frozen Dnieper Ney and 800 of his men rejoined the main army at Orsha. Napoleon was delighted to see him, and awarded him the title 'bravest of the brave' after this exploit.

Kutuzov claimed that the battle had been a major victory, and the French had suffered heavier losses than the Russians, but given the poor state of the Grand Armée and the much larger size of the attacking Russian force it has to count as a lucky escape for Napoleon. His next major obstacle would be the Berezina River, where Napoleon would have another lucky escape.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (26 June 2014), Second battle of Krasnyi, 15-18 November 1812 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_krasnyi_2nd.html

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