Monday, August 27, 2012

Road to Borodino I : Strategic Considerations

We know that Napoleon had originally considered the possibility of spending the winter around Smolensk, and, according to Caulaincourt, usually a reliable source, he reverted to this idea shortly before the battle of Lubino.  "By abandoning Smolensk, which is one of their Holy Cities, the Russian generals are dishonoring their arms in the eyes of their own people.  That will put me in a strong position.  We will drive them a little further back for our own comfort.  I will dig myself in.  We will rest the troops; the country will shap up around this pivot - and we'll see how Alexander likes that.  I shall turn my attention to the corps on the Dvina, which are doing nothing; my army will be more formidable and my position more menacing to the Russians than if I had won two battles.  I will establish my headquarters at Vitebsk.  I will raise Poland in arms, and later on I will choose, if necessary, between Moscow and St. Petersburg."

What were the advantages such a course could offer? Although most of them were negative rather than positive, they were nevertheless important and tempting.  On the positive side, if the army consolidated its position around Smolensk, the autumn and winter could be employed in bringing the troops to a peak of battle-readiness.  Many of the new drafts reaching the front were practically untrained youngsters, who might prove a liability in any action; a strategic pause would enable them to be brought up to the desired standards of fitness and efficiency.  Similarly, the over-strained and inadequate convoy and supply departments would be given a chance to recover and reorganized.  If Napoleon agreed to the formation of a new Kingdom of Poland, and he was under constant pressure to do so, he might even find a new, large army of grateful Poles placed at his disposal by the spring of 1813.  On the negative side, a halt at Smolensk would also avert a number of dangers.  More than 280 miles lay between the city and Moscow, and it would take all the rest of the late summer and early autumn to cover the distance.  Even if the Grande Armee succeeded in traversing this area, which was badly mapped and would certainly be devastated by the retiring Russian armies, there was no guarantee that the Tsar's generals would accept battle, and even if Moscow was occupied, Alexander might still not be prepared to sue for peace.  In that event, the French might find themselves involved in a costly and frighteningly difficult winter campaign, for which they were in no way equipped, and at the end of a critically extended series of communications with even huger flanks to protect.  The strategic consumption of manpower in maintaining their position around Smolensk was already immense, and a further advance into the unknown without due preparation might well place an impossible strain on the already depleted French resources.  There would be little food for the army to find en route for Moscow; the bad harvest of 1811 and the war-raved one of 1812 made that certain, while the deliberate Russian scorched-earth policy was fast removing what little there remained.

Strategic situation in August 1812, Russia

2007 Eylau Game

On the basis of these mainly military considerations, it would seem that Napoleon would have been well advised to stay at Smolensk, but there were other factors - both military and political - to consider.  In the first place, if Russia was to be forced back into the Continental System with a minimum of delay, it was vital that the decisive battle should be fought as soon as possible.  a six-month respite would give the Tsar time to redeploy his recently released Moldavian and Finnish armies, mobilize and train new forces in the interior, and draw more practical assistance from his British ally.  This would improve the Russian military position and make a French victory even harder to achieve.  Furthermore, the Tsar might be persuaded to launch a massive counteroffensive in the New Year against the extended French positions, stretching from Riga on the Baltic to Smolensk and then southwest to the Pripet Marshes.  Memories of early 1807 made this hardly an alluring prospect. 

2007 Eylau Game
It was also going to prove almost as difficult to feed and maintain the army in its present location as it would around Moscow.  Next, it was necessary to consider the political repercussions of any stay in the offensive.  Th British and Russian governments would certainly immediately represent this pause as a strategic defeat for the "Corsican Ogre," and, indeed, on the previous form of 1805, 1806, or even 1809, it would amount to a serious setback.  Any such check might give those dubious allies, Prussia and Austria, occasion for second thoughts and even lead to serious defections.  The again, tempting though it may be to create an independent Polish kingdom and thus secure the services of a new army of enthusiastic allies, such a course of action was also politically hazardous.  It would most certainly serve to harden the Tsar's resolve to resist to the uttermost, make a negotiated settlement extremely unlikely, and would hardly be welcomed by the Houses of Hohenzollern and Hapsburg.  Again if the Emperor was detained in the east until say, the late spring or summer of 1813, he would have been more than a year absent from Paris, and by August 1812 there were already signs of developing conspiracies.  The news from Spain was also bad.  How much longer, therefore, could Napoleon afford to remain in Russia?

~ D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon, p. 790-792

1 comment:

Archduke Piccolo said...

An all or nothing proposition. If Napoleon was talking sticking around Smolensk, he seems almost to have determined upon that course. Something must have changed his mind. I wonder what it was?

A conspiracy in Paris would have been a dangerous thing for the conspirators, as Napoleon still had the army.