Battle of Maloyaroslavets, 24 October 1812

The battle of Maloyaroslavets (24 October 1812) was one of the most important battles during Napoleon's invasion of Russia, and disrupted his original plans for the retreat from Moscow.

Napoleon's army entered Moscow on 14 September, and attempted to open negotations with Tsar Alexander I. The Tsar refused to reply to Napoleon's messages, and by mid-October even Napoleon had to admit that his plan had failed. He was now faced with the problem of deciding what to do next. He had several options, including an attack towards St. Petersburg, attempting to sit out the winter in Moscow or retreating west back towards his supply dumps. He decided to move back towards Smolensk, and decide where to spend the winter as he went. There were several alternative routes from Moscow to Smolensk. The worst option would be to take the route used during the march on Moscow - both armies had already stripped this area of any available supplies. In the end Napoleon decided to move south-west from Moscow and advance through previously untouched areas.

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

The Grande Armée began to leave Moscow on 19 October, heading south-west towards Kaluga. Once he was past the worst devastation he would turn back north towards the supply depots at Smolensk or Vitebsk. Napoleon told his men that he was planning to attack Kutuzov's left flank in the hope that this news would leak and convince the Russians to withdraw to the east, opening the road south.

The first important target on the road south was the small town of Maloyaroslavets, just to the south of the Lusha River, on the New Kaluga Road. If Kutuzov could block this position then the French would have to find an alternative route.

It took the Russians a couple of days to discover where the French were going. On 22 November General Dokhturov's corps was sent to shadow the French, and if possible beat them to the key bridges.

General Delzons' 13th Division from Prince Eugene's IV Corps won the race. On the evening of 23 November Delzons captured the bridge and then drove off a force of Cossacks in the town. He reported that the town was secure, but then pulled back most of his division to the river, leaving only two battalions in the town.

Dokhturov arrived during the night of 23-24 November. During the night he launched a surprise attack on the town, forcing the French to retreat to the river. He then pressed on and forced Delzons to retreat to the north bank of the Lusha. Dokhturov then began to fortify his position, as well as moving artillery batteries onto some ridges that commanded the approaches to the bridge (and that would later hide the movements of the main Russian army from Napoleon).

At first light Prince Eugene began a series of attempts to retake the bridge and the town. General Delzons was killed early in the fighting on 24 October, but his troops did manage to take the town. They were then pushed back by the Russians, beginning a period in which the town changed hands at least seven times and possibly as many as twelve times. The Russians were reinforced by General Rayevsky's division, and eventually Eugene was forced to send in his last reserves, General Pino's division. Soon after midday the Russians decided to abandon the town and withdrew to the ridges overlooking the town.

This ended the main part of the battle, which now faded away into a series of minor skirmishes. Eugene's Italians had suffered around 4,000-6,000 casualties, with seven generals killed or wounded, but they had secured the crucial crossing point.

By the afternoon Napoleon had arrived with most of the Grande Armée, but he now made the first of a series of mistakes that would lead to disaster. The Russians still held the ridges, and Napoleon decided not to try and push then away. This was a major error - Kutuzov had already decided to retreat if the French did appear on top of the ridges, so one last push would have cleared the French route to the south.

On 25 October Napoleon decided to conduct a personal reconnaissance on the south bank of the Lusha. During this expedition he was almost captured by a force of Cossacks, with one said to have got within twenty yards of him. After this Napoleon always carried a bag of poison to make sure he couldn't be captured.

After this close call Napoleon held a council of war. He still had three choices - cross the river and continue down the Kaluga road, head west to Medyn and stay on the southern road or return north and retrace his steps past Borodino and on to Smolensk. He chose the last of these three options, and ordered his army to turn back and head north to rejoin their original road.

This was a disastrous decision. First, it meant that a week of good weather had been wasted in the march south. Second it meant that the retreat would be carried out across an area that had already been ravaged by two armies and in which supplies would be almost impossible to find. Third, it took the army back across the battlefield of Borodino, which was now a truly ghastly sight and had a big impact on morale. Finally it made it clear that this wasn't a strategic withdrawal but a full blown retreat. The morale of the army began to droop, as did its discipline. The infamous 'retreat from Moscow' was now underway.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (13 May 2014), Battle of Maloyaroslavets, 24 October 1812 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_maloyaroslavets.html

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