Battle of Pultusk, 26 December 1806

The battle of Pultusk (26 December 1806) was one of two inconclusive battles fought on the same day between French and Russian forces, and was one of the first hints that the Russians might be a difficult opponent for Napoleon.

In November Napoleon had advanced up to the Vistula, occupied Warsaw, and at the end of the month crossed the great river. The Russians, under Marshal Kamenski, withdraw north-east towards Ostrolenka, abandoning the line of the River Bug. The Russians then changed their mind and moved back towards the Bug, but they were too late - on 10 December the French crossed the river close to its junction with the Vistula and established a bridgehead. The Russians decided to hold the line of the River Ukra, which flowed into the Bug just to the east of the French bridgehead.

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

On 23 December the French successfully forced their way across the Ukra at its mouth (combat of Czarnowo, 23 December 1806). Kamenski decided to retreat towards Ostrolenka, and the Russian army began to move north. Napoleon saw this as a chance to inflict a major defeat on the Russians and set his army in motion. Lannes was to move towards Pultusk on the River Narew. To his left Davout was to move towards Streshegozin. Augereau was next, with orders to head for Schensk in an attempt to cut the Russian line of retreat. Soult was to cross the Ukra and support Augereau.

The Russians were suffering from a divided command. Marshal Kamenski was an elderly general and was increasingly unwell. His two chief subordinates, Bennigsen and Buxhowden, were rivals and found it hard to work together. Although Kamenski had ordered a general retreat towards Ostrolenka, Bennigsen decided to make a stand at Pultusk.

In 1806 most of the town of Pultusk sat on low ground on the west bank of the River Narew, which flows from north to south towards the Bug. At the western edge of the town the ground rose to a low height. The road from Pultusk to Golymin ran north-west up the hill, then passed to the south of the village of Mosin (modern Moszyn), running through a large forest on a plateau. This was part of a ridge that ran east towards the Narew, passing to the south of Pultusk and thus hiding the town from anyone approaching from the south. 

Bennigsen's line ran roughly along the Golymin road. His main force was deployed in three lines, with 21 battalions in the first line, supported by most of the artillery. Eighteen battalions formed the second line and the third line was much smaller, with only five battalions. This main part of the line ran from Pultusk up to the edge of the woods at Mosin.

On the right Barclay de Tolly occupied part of the wood, with three regiments of jägers. On the left General Baggovut commanded ten infantry battalions, two squadrons of dragoons, 600 Cossacks and one artillery battery. As well as forming the left wing of the army he had to guard the bridge over the Narew River. Bennigsen had around 40,000 men at his disposal at Pultusk.

Lannes had around 20,000 men in the two divisions of Gazan and Suchet. On the night of 25-26 December he was camped at Zbroski, above five miles to the south-west of Pultusk (now on the eastern outskirts of Gmina Winnica). His corps began to move at 7am on the morning of the 26th, but progress was very slow. The weather over the previous few days had been mixed and the ground had repeatedly frozen and thawed. On 26 December it was thawing, and as a result the roads were thick with mud. Lannes knew that there was a strong Russian force at Pultusk, but wasn't aware of the true size of the forces opposing him.

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

The 3rd Division (d'Aultanne) from Davout's corps was also in the area, having been ordered to intercept a Russian column believed to be moving east from Strzegocin (north-west of Zbroski) towards Pultusk. This division arrived at Pultusk in mid-afternoon, although Lannes didn't know it was on its way.

As his infantry struggled through the mud Lannes rode towards Pultusk to scout out the Russian lines in person. From his position Lannes could see Barclay de Tolly to his left and Baggovut to his right, with a force of Cossacks linking them. The main Russian force was hidden behind the ridge.

Lannes had ordered to capture the bridge over the Narew, and so he prepared to attack the Russian lines. He deployed his corps in two lines, with most of Suchet's division in the front line and two regiments from Gazan's division, plus the 40th Line from Suchet's in the second. Two battalions from the 21st Line, part of Gazan's division, formed the reserve.

Lannes expected the main fighting to come on the flanks, where he could see Russian troops. On his left one battalion from the 88th Line, the 34th Line and Becker's dragoons, all commanded by Suchet, were to attack Barclay de Tolly. On the right the 17th Light Infantry (Claparède) and Treilhard's Light Cavalry were to attack Baggovut. The centre of the first line contained the 64th Line and one battalion from the 88th Line.

The French attack began at around 11am when Claparède attacked Baggovut at the eastern end of the line and Suchet attacked Barclay de Tolly at the western end of the line.

On the Russian left/ French right Baggovut's cavalry were soon driven off, as was the 4th Jäger regiment. The French then ran into seven cavalry squadrons, part of a line that covered the front of the main Russian position. Bennigsen had also responded to the French attack, sending four infantry battalions to reinforce Baggovut. On the French side the French centre (Wedell) had advanced parallel to Claparède, and now turned right in an attempt to attack Baggovut's right flank. Poor visibility caused by a snowstorm meant that Wedell was unaware that this move exposed his own left flank to the seven Russian cavalry squadrons and the regrouped 4th Jägers. This force attacked Wedell's advanced troops, and was close to success when the next of Wedell's units, a battalion from the 88th Line, joined the fighting. After a hand-to-hand struggle in the snow the Russians pulled back slightly. Treilhard's cavalry was now able to reach the top of the ridge, but this just exposed it to fire from the Russian artillery on the main line and the French were forced to retreat after suffering heavy losses. 

The attack on the French left was led by Suchet and Lannes. The 34th Line managed to push back Barclay de Tolly's front line and captured an artillery battery he had posted in the Mosin woods, but the French then ran into de Tolly's reserves and were forced back into the woods. The Russians recaptured their lost guns, but were prevented from completing their victory over the 34th Line by the arrival of the other battalion of the 88th Line.

In the centre the French 2nd Line reached the top of the ridge, where it was exposed to heavy fire from the guns of the Russian main line, which now came into sight. It was now around 2pm, and Lannes was in danger of being overwhelmed by the much larger Russian army, or at least being forced into a costly retreat along the muddy roads.

The French position was saved by the arrival of Davout's 3rd Division, under the temporary command of Davout's chief of staff General d'Aultanne. This division had approached Pultusk from the north-west, along the road to Golymin, and had pushed back some Russian cavalry. His advance brought d'Aultanne within sound of the guns from Pultusk, and he abandoned plans to camp for the night and advanced towards the battlefield. D'Aultanne had nine infantry battalions with him, probably around 7,000 men, along with a single gun and a handful of cavalry.  

D'Aultanne arrived on the battlefield at around 2-3pm, and decided to attack the Russian right. His left advanced towards Mosin, behind Barclay de Tolly's main line, his right towards de Tolly's right flank. Bennigsen responded to this new threat by turning the right half of his main line to their right to face d'Aultanne. This reduced the danger to Lannes' centre, but almost caused a disaster for the French. At first Barclay de Tolly was forced to retreat back towards Bennigsen's new line, under pressure from d'Aultanne, whose attack now placed him at the extreme left of the French line. Barclay de Tolly was reinforced by two infantry regiments and twenty cavalry squadrons, while Bennigsen formed a powerful artillery battery which he used to bombard the French 34th Line, which was still holding the woods south of Mosin.

Under this bombardment the French were forced out of the woods, a move that created a gap between Lannes' left and d'Aultanne's right. Barclay de Tolly send his twenty cavalry squadrons into this gap, and it looked as if the French were in trouble. They were saved by the 85th Line, from d'Aultanne's division, which fought off a series of cavalry attacks. The last of these came at around 8pm, four hours after dark and in a snowstorm, and its failure ended the fighting on the French left.

At the other end of the battlefield d'Aultanne's arrival had arrived the French to go onto the offensive. When Bennigsen altered his line most of his artillery moved to the new right flank. This allowed Gazan to turn his attention to the Russian left. Claparède's light infantry, Wedell's troops from the centre and Gazan's artillery forced Baggovut to withdraw and the French captured his guns.

This French success was short-lived. The left hand part of the Russian main line had not yet been engaged. General Osterman-Tolstoi sent a force of cavalry which stopped the French advance. He moved more guns to support Baggovut, and followed up with five fresh infantry battalions. Baggovut was able to return to the offensive and pushed the French back. They were forced to abandon the guns they had just captured, and withdrew, ending the battle on the French right.

That night d'Aultanne moved away to the north-west to re-join Davout's corps. Lannes pulled back a short distance to the positions his men held before the start of the battle, where he remained through the 27th. Official French reports understated the losses they had suffered during the battle, and most sources consider the French to have lost 7,000 men during the day.

On the night of 26-27 December Bennigsen decided to resume the retreat to Ostrolenka. Most of his army crossed the bridge over the Narew, and arrived at Ostrolenka on 28 December. Bennigsen's casualties are also uncertain, but he probably lost around 2,000 killed and another 3,000 wounded or missing.

The battle of Pultusk was a draw. Bennigsen claimed a victory on the grounds that he had repulsed the French attack, but given that he outnumbered Lannes by two-to-one at the start of the fight he could have achieved more, and he abandoned the battlefield on the night after the battle. After the battle he claimed to have been facing 60,000 men commanded by Napoleon in person, which perhaps explains his lack of offensive action during the battle.

Lannes could claim that he had forced the Russians to retreat, but it was actually the fear of being outflanked by other parts of Napoleon's army that convinced Bennigsen to withdraw.

In an echo of the fighting at Jena and Auerstadt earlier in the year a second battle had been fought on 26 December. At Golymin the French had outnumbered the Russians by more than two-to-one, but their attacks were uncoordinated, and the French had no more success at Golymin than at Pultusk. By now the weather was making movement difficult, and on 28 December Napoleon ended the pursuit of the Russians and ordered his men into winter quarters. They would be disturbed two months later when the Russians began the campaign that led to the costly drawn battle of Eylau (8 February 1807).

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

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