Battle of Mogilev, 23 July 1812

The Battle of Mogilev or Mohilev (23 July 1812) was the first significant fighting during Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812 and was a minor French victory that prevented General Bagration's Second Western Army from moving north to join with Barclay de Tolly's First Western Army.

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

When Napoleon crossed the Niemen into Russia he expected to win a quick victory, ideally by keeping the two main Russian armies apart and defeating them separately. His first target was Bagration's Second Army, the southern of the two main armies, but a combination of slow moving French armies (in particular Jerome Bonaparte's force) and Bagration's determination to avoid battle meant that the Russians were able to escape from the trap. Davout had been given command of the force that was meant to catch Bagration, but by the time his men reached Minsk on 8 July it was clear that Bagration had escaped from the trap and was some way to the south, heading east towards the Berezina and the Dnieper.

Napoleon next turned his attention to Barclay de Tolly's First Army. The Manoeuvre of Vitebsk was an attempt to get behind Barclay de Tolly, who had taken up a position in fortified camps at Drissa and Dünaberg and force him to fight. While Napoleon with the main army focused on this plan, Marshal Davout was given the task of preventing Bagration from joining up with the main Russian army.

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

After evading the French trap Bagration reached Bobruisk on 20 July. He had around 28,000 men under his command in late July, and was thus outnumbered by Bagration, who had around 45,000 men under his command.

The first clash between the two forces came on 21 July when the two advance guards ran into each other near Dashkovka, south of Mogilev. Bagration wasn't sure how strong the French force was, and in any case his main task was to join up with Barclay de Tolly, not to fight minor battles of his own. He decided to use General Rayevsky's 7th Corps to attack the French at Mogilev. If Rayevsky was successful then the Russians would cross the Dnieper at Mogilev and head north towards Orsha and a possible junction with Barclay de Tolly at Vitebsk on the Dvina. If Rayevsky failed then Bagration would cross the Dnieper further south and attempt to head north-east to reach Smolensk.

The French found a strong defensive position at the village of Saltanovka, south of Mogilev. The French left was protected by the marshes near the Dnieper and their front by a small stream in a ravine. Saltanovka was on the French left which stretched west to Fatova where Davout built some field defences. Davout posted five battalions from the 108th Line and one from the 85th on his right, three battalions from the 85th and a company of skirmishers on his left and five battalions from the 61st and one from the 85th in reserve.

The Russian plan was for their advance guard to start the battle with an attack on the bridge over the ravine at Saltanovka. There would then be simultaneous attacks on the French left and right. The French right at Fatova was to be attacked by the 26th Infantry Division (General Ivan Paskevich), while the left at Saltanovka was to be attacked by the rest of 7th Corps, supported y two regiments of light troops and led by Rayevsky.

The battle began at around 7am when the Russian 6th and 42nd Jägers attacked Saltanovka. By 8am they had reached the bridge and managed to overwhelm the defenders. The Russian advance was stopped when Davout sent in the 85th Line.

The two parts of the main attack were intended to begin at the same time. General Paskevich had the longer march to reach his starting point, and so Reyevsky was to delay his attack until he heard the sound of fighting from the French right. This part of the plan failed and the two parts of the Russian attack ended up being staggered with Paskevich attacking first and Reyevsky second.

Paskevich's attack forced the battalion from the French 85th Line to retreat. Davout sent one battalion from the 108th to support the 85th and between them they stopped the first Russian attack. Paskevich renewed the attack and captured Fatova, but the Russians were then attacked by the remaining four battalions of the 108th. The Russians were forced to retreat, but then launched a third attack. Once again Fatova was captured, and this time Davout had to send in the 61st Line from the reserve. The Orlov and Nizhniy Novgorod regiments on Paskevich's right were both defeated and he was forced onto the defensive.

Rayevsky's attack on the French left was far less successful. The attack began late and ran into heavy French artillery fire. Rayevsky attempted to rally his men in person, but the attack failed. Both Russian attacks had now been stopped, and French reinforcements were seen to be arriving. It was clear that the French were present in stronger numbers than Bagration had hoped, and Rayevsky decided to abandon the attack and withdraw to Dashkovka.

The French had the best of the fighting on the day. The Russians suffered 2,548 dead and wounded. They claimed to have inflicted 4,134 casualties on the French, but this was a massive exaggeration. Davout claimed to have only lost 900 men, but the true figure was probably nearer 1,200.

In the short term the battle of Mogilev was a French victory. Bagration was prevented from moving north along the Dnieper and was thus unable to join Barclay de Tolly at Vitebsk. As a result Barclay de Tolly abandoned a plan to stand and fight there and withdrew towards Smolensk.

In the long term Davout's success worked against the French. Napoleon was denied the battle he had been hoping for. Bagration was able to cross the Dnieper a little further south and move north-east to Smolensk. The main Russian armies were thus able to unite and Napoleon was forced to move ever-further east in an attempt to seek battle.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (24 March 2013), Battle of Mogilev, 23 July 1812 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_mogilev.html

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