Cemetery of those killed in battle, near the village of Studenka in Napoleonic campaign (photo by S.M. Prokudin-Gorskii, 1911) |
Battle of BerezinaThe Battle of Berezina (or Beresina) took place November 26-29, 1812 between the French army of Napoleon, retreating after his invasion of Russia and crossing the Berezina (near Borisov Belarus), and the Russian armies under Mikhail Kutuzov, Peter Wittgenstein and Admiral Pavel Chichagov. The battle ended with a victory for the Russians. The French suffered very heavy losses. Since then "Berezina" has been used in French as a synonym of disaster.
As the surviving masses of the Grande Armee struggled on for the perceived safety of the west, the Russian armies closed in on them. The French had suffered a defeat just two weeks earlier during the Battle of Krasnoi. However, reinforcements who had been stationed near the Berezina during Napoleon's initial advance through Russia brought the numerical strength of the Grande Armee back up to some 30,000 to 40,000 French soldiers capable of fighting, as well as 40,000 non-combatants. The Russians had approximately 61,000 troops at the Berezina, with another 54,000 under Kutuzov just 40 miles to the east who were approaching the river.
Napoleon Bonaparte's plan was to cross the Berezina River and head for Poland, while his enemies wanted to trap him there and destroy him. Bonaparte's original plan to cross the frozen river quickly proved to be impossible, as the usually frozen waterway had thawed and was now impassable. The nearby bridge at Borisov had been destroyed and most of the equipment to build a pontoon bridge had been destroyed only a few days earlier. Fortunately, for the French, the commander of the bridging equipment General Jean Baptiste Eble had kept crucial forges, charcoal and sapper tools and only needed protection from the Chichagov's force on the far west bank to span the river.
Marshal Oudinot was given the task of drawing off the admiral and made a move towards the south. The plan worked and so Eble's Dutch engineers braved ferociously cold water to construct the vital 100-metre bridge. Cavalry quickly crossed it followed by infantry to hold the bridgehead. The rearguard infantry suffered terrible losses (of the four Swiss Regiments of Oudinot's corps, only 300 soldiers survived), but managed to cover both positions and the retreat. This struggle is depicted in the Beresinalied.
A second structure opened within hours and cannons were taken across it to bolster the defensive perimeter. Their arrival was just in time as Chichagov realised his error and attacked the 11,000 French troops. By midday of the 27th, Bonaparte and the Imperial Guard were across and the strategy now swung to saving the rearguard, which was fighting against Wittgenstein's arriving army.
One of the spans broke in the late afternoon but more feats of engineering skill had it repaired by early evening. Marshal Davout and Prince Eugene got their corps across leaving Marshal Victor's IX Corps to hold off the enemy on the east bank. Boosting his firepower with artillery from across the river, Victor held out until after midnight when his forces were able to join their colleagues and push Chichagov aside and continue the retreat to France.
While some 25,000 French troops became casualties, their losses paled next to that of the French stragglers. At least 10,000 were massacred by rampaging Cossacks, while another 20,000 died in the near freezing water or were crushed to death in the panic to cross the bridges. Àccording French a further 15,000 Russians became casualties, but according Russian sources Russians lost only 5 000-6 000
Battle of Berezina
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