Beyond Smolensk

Author(s) : HICKS Peter
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The Grande Armée’s march out beyond the gates of Smolensk and on towards Moscow raises a number of tantilising questions regarding Napoleon’s plans for Russia. Through analysis of a little-known French source for the campaign, Peter Hicks takes a look at the battle of wits that took place between Kutuzov and the French emperor as the latter marched deeper into the Russian heartland.

Vicomte Puybusque (private collection)

A longer campaign?

When Napoleon left Smolensk on 18th August, 1812, he was well aware that he was going further than his own propaganda had said was good for him. Indeed, even his entourage warned him against it. 1 The enemy had retreated at Borodino and given up the religious capital city. Perhaps we can sympathise with Napoleon in his thinking that Alexander would sue for peace. As Dominic Lieven has pointed out “most European statesmen and much of the Russian elite shared some of the doubts on Alexander's strength of will”.2 The French Emperor was also presumably counting on the fact that the Francophiles in the Russian court would push Alexander in that direction, thereby definitively overcome the anglophiles, and that Alexander, true to his enlightened 'French' education, would return to the French alliance. And so when the Emperor of all the Russias does not sue for peace, we almost sense Napoleon's perplexity. In a letter to the Russian emperor (dated 20 September)3 he reminds Alexander of what happened in Vienna (twice), Berlin and Madrid – namely that the administration, the magistrates and civilian police had all been left in place in the captured city and had to a certain extent collaborated (and the sub-text is that these countries came to heel). Napoleon cannot understand why in Russia it could be different. Indeed, this exasperation was shared at the French emperor's headquarters. One of Napoleon's most loyal and bravest ADC's, the Comte de Lobau, George Mouton, noted with frustration in his letter of 25 September, “you could not find words to describe the bone-headed stubbornness of these beings”.4
Puzzlingly for Napoleon, Alexander (unlike Francis in Austria) would not accept psychologically that he was the loser, and without this Napoleon could not be the winner. Napoleon had not seen that a Russian soldier, at the Tsar's bidding, would stand and die rather than flee, that he would fall where he stood, upon the bodies of his comrades piled up around him, rather than give up Mother Russia and the Orthodox Church.5 Did Napoleon have no vision that in the morale terms, defending the motherland overtrumped Napoleon's (and France's) political victory and the soldiers' apparent interest in seeing the world and coming home with booty?

Que faire?

The French emperor seems to have forgotten that there were two capitals in Russia and that he had only captured one (of the two the least important financially speaking), and that the population (and so the army) at least equalled if not surpassed that of the Grand French Empire. Napoleon could stay in Moscow all he liked, Russia still had more armies, more beasts of burden to haul the ordnance through the inhospitable terrain, more carts on which to load the stores, and indeed a ready store of arms in the arms factory to the south of Moscow.
So, once the rain had put the fire of Moscow out, Napoleon was more than ever presented with the “What to do?” question.
Clearly one plan was to hole up in the city for the winter. The Comte de Lobau, Général Mouton noted in his letters, “This city abounds in all sorts of provisions and delicious wines, and despite the ravages of the fire, the whole army could live easily for another six months.”6 The huge army, stretched out along the road from Moscow to Vilnius, had become disorganised over the summer and had suffered significantly at Borodino, not only in rank and file (28,000 casualties or 1/5th of the army) but also officers (10 generals killed and 39 other seriously wounded). It needed time to be got back into fighting trim. So orders were given for the fortification of the Kremlin on 1 October against possible attack,7 and a bulwark was to be placed on the river Moskowa (document dated 4 October) and a house commandeered to guard the crossing.8 However staying was complicated. Napoleon was to learn in Moscow of serious French setbacks in Spain with the defeat at the Arapiles and the taking of Madrid, and the fact that Soult had been forced to abandon the siege of Cadiz. Another possibility was to march on St Petersburg. Yet another solution was to return to Smolensk or even Vilnius. This was what some generals in his headquarters (Ney, Murat and Davout – even Berthier) were forcefully advising.
However the primary plan was to bring Alexander to the negotiating table. A letter to the Russian generalissimo Kutusov, dated 3 October, 1812,9 details the sending of a peace envoy, Lauriston. And Kutusov was famously to receive the French diplomat, despite explicit orders from Alexander not to do so. In the account of Lauriston's mission in the memoirs of British observer/spy Sir Robert Wilson, Wilson recounts his own fury at Kutusov, fearing that the Russian's action would lead to peace talks.10 Be that as it may, Napoleon clearly thought that peace had a chance – and maybe Kutusov's ambivalence encouraged that. Napoleon had made gestures towards Alexander's mother, Maria Fedorovna, protecting a hospice of which the Empress mother was protectress. The French emperor also promised Alexander time to rebuild Russia. But at the same time in the letter of 20 September he also reminded Alexander of what the latter had lost in giving up Moscow. The attempt must have been to depress Alexander but it could have angered him and strengthened his resolve to fight.

The Vicomte Puybusque

In this respect the little-known memoirs of a French noble, the Vicomte Puybusque,11 give a fascinating insight into the Russian view of Napoleon's time in Moscow. After being intendant at Smolensk, Louis Guillaume de Puybusque was captured by Russian forces during the encounters before Krasny on 15-19 November. As part of Davout's First Corps he and his son had set out on 17 November for Krasny, but near Ieskovo were caught between three sides of Russian artillery. Fleeing into the woods and taking refuge in an abandoned village, Puybusque junior and senior managed to ensure (via an almost Wildwest standoff) their capture and not execution on the spot by Cossacks. After being assured safe conduct by Count Platov and Ermolov, they were brought before Kutuzov. Louis Guillaume's account of the conversation is particularly revealing because it purports to reveal the reasons for Kutusov's actions during Lauriston's peace mission at the beginning of October. The account of the conversation is exceedingly intriguing and worth quoting in full.12

“The Marshal Kutusov called for me, nor did he put on any of those haughty airs of superiority which hinder confidence. He was alone; after five minutes of meeting, the conversation became comfortable – it lasted more than an hour and bore on subjects of the greatest import. I noticed that the Prince knew the situation and strength of the French army down to the smallest detail – my astonishment grew steadily until I took my leave. In the five days I spent in his headquarters, I had a further two meetings, after each of which my surprise grew ever greater, both in what I saw and in what I learned. Please bear with me if I put off giving you the details. You will not lose by waiting, and although my memory is relatively good, I was careful to take notes.

I had long known that the Marshal was considered one of the subtlest and cleverest men in the whole of Russia. I noticed from his external appearance a great deal of goodness and openness. He had lost one eye from a gunshot which had passed through his head. He must be about sixty years old, he speaks French fairly easily but with a foreign accent which is like that of the Germans when they speak our language. I noticed the posture, air and manners of veritable patriarch. I do indeed believe that he is sophisticated and clever, but in an honourable sense. He is educated and knows men very well. And there is one in particular which he has studied and second-guessed so well that he is leading him into a trap which he will find it hard to escape from. The marshal has used his talents on behalf of his country, but he has not used them for his own gain. Regardless of the fact that he has performed important roles for many years, he has little property. On campaign, he is one of the principal generals. As commander in chief of the Russian army he is adored – he takes great care of the soldiery. In St Petersburg, he is an amiable man who avoids intrigue and prefers pleasure. He has always liked the French, and if today he is waging a bloody war against them, it is our government which has brought it upon them.13 […] This letter will give you the detail of the two first conversations I had with Marshal Kutusov. He seemed sure that when I left him, B… [Bonaparte] would probably perish or be captured at the crossing of the Berezina; I do not know yet if he escaped. Amongst the many prisoners who keep arriving, I cannot see any of those taken at Borisov.

The Marshal Kutusov tells me that for some time now they had been studying B's character, even down to his obsessions; that they were persuaded that once on the other side of the Niemen, he would always want to conquer. They ceded ground to him as far as was necessary in order to thin out his army, to spread it out, so that it should be beaten by fatigue and hunger. They counted on the rigors of the climate to annihilate him. By what blindness could he alone not see the trap which was so visible to everyone else? The Marshal was astounded at the ease with which all the ruses employed to retain him in Moscow worked, astounded at his ridiculous pretension to make peace when he no longer had the necessary forces to wage war. They [the Russians] had wanted him [Napoleon] to believe that count Platov had been disgraced and sent back to his country with a major part of his Cossacks – he believed it. The Marshal saw clearly that B. had put much store on the well-deserved esteem which count Lauriston had gained in Russia when he sent the latter for peace discussions. Kutusov received him with honour, recalling the agreeable relations which he had had with him in St Petersburg but as regarded the propositions which Lauriston had come to make to him, Kutusov declared that he had not been authorised to carry them any further. Kutusov agreed that he had done everything he could to draw out and prolong the negotiations, because in politics you do not miss an opportunity which presents itself to you spontaneously; that he [Kutusov] really had not been authorised to work for peace; that he had only agreed to send letters to St Petersburg at the specific request of the French plenipotentiary, a plenipotentiary who would have taken the same journey as the letters had the Marshal thought it appropriate to take the responsibility of allowing it. The distance between St Petersburg and Moscow required time, and it was precisely that time which the Marshal needed to order all the armies of Russia to march. The march of Admiral Chichagov's army was destined above all to close all the crossings on the river Berezina. The others were supposed to distract the army corps commanded by our Marshals on the Dvina and by the Prince Schwartzenberg in Volhinie, such that they could not individually bring support to the principal army when it began its movement, and above all when it reached the Berezina, even if it managed to cross that distance without falling to pieces or being destroyed.

The Marshal Kutusov then found all sorts of advantages in allowing the time to pass. As you have just read, he knew that the French army in Moscow was badly dressed and with no furs, that the cold season was approaching; Kutusov was convinced that that army could not hold up against it; he knew for sure that that army was suffering daily losses both in foraging and marauding; he well knew that the country in which it was stationed was devastated and had nothing left to lose; there were many more reasons to allow that army to get weaker on its own than to drive it out. Furthermore, he thought that with the weather, the climate, the reinforcement of twenty-five thousand Cossacks which Count Platov brought him, he could complete its destruction without exposing his own soldiers. That whilst throughout the whole of Russia men were taking up arms, letters written to be intercepted by the French had persuaded B. of the opposite; that while he [Napoleon] was so poorly informed of the threatening posture of his enemy, the Marshal Kutusov knew that ever since Napoleon had entered the Kremlin, every day his [Napoleon's] disordered mind gave birth to a new scheme, which was in turn destroyed by the next day's scheme; that as far as he knew of the orders given in one month, he [Kutusov] saw neither foresight nor thought-out schemes; and that it was precisely because B. clung uniquely and too openly to the idea of peace, that it was impossible not to conclude that in fact his [Napoleon's] only hope of salvation was peace.
If the Emperor Alexander had wished to make peace in those circumstances, the Marshal would not have hesitated to have put him off. “You probably saw”, he said to me, “that when your army left Moscow, I closed off all the new exit points it headed for. I only deviated from my plan of avoiding engagements at Malojaroslavitz because it was important for me to throw that army back on the earth which it had already scorched. I was certain that apart from a few wood cabins which it had burned, there was nothing left to destroy. I had ordered Count Platov to make a flank march on your right. You were followed by my army, a part of which I detached on your left flank, without letting your foragers leave the road. You have been escorted like prisoners from Viazma to Smolensk. It was up to me whether I destroyed you before you got to that town or not. However, certain of your destruction, I did not wish to risk a single one of my men. You see how in the three days you have been with me I have given them three days rest, and if spirits or food were lacking, I would stop immediately, shut myself in my room and not dare to show myself to my army. That is how we barbarians of the North preserve our soldiers [Italics in the text].

I made sure your horses died of hunger on the route from Viazma to Smolensk. I knew by that that you would be forced to abandon to me what remained of your artillery in that latter city – and this happened just as I had predicted it would. As you left Smolensk, you could no longer fight against me with cavalry or artillery; my avant garde was waiting for you near Krasny with fifty cannon. Since I wanted to destroy you without facing any resistance, I ordered them to fire only on the rear of the columns and only to send in cavalry on disbanded corps. Your B. gave me more than I could ever have hoped for when he set a day's interval between each army corp. Without my troops having to leave their positions, the guard and the three army corps which followed successively each left half of their soldiers. Those who escaped at Krasny will pass with difficulty at Orcha, and what ever happens, our dispositions are made on the Berezina such that, if my orders are followed precisely, there will be the end of the road for your army and its commander.

You certainly had some excellent soldiers – some of the remains of regiments came to die on our canon at Krasny with a courage worthy of better fortune and of another general.”14

A political advantage?

Bearing in mind, of course, that Kutusov is talking after the event (by November the retreat was already turning positively for the Russian) and that Puybusque's book was not published until 1816 – plenty of time to write with hindsight – here would be the answers to the conundrum of why Napoleon stayed so long in Moscow. After the initial period of consolidation of the army, Kutusov on purpose drew out the discussions, guessing that this peace initiative was in fact a sign of absolute weakness. Whether any of the other details are true – the effective use of disinformation; the intimation of spies at French headquarters (how else could Kutusov have known about Napoleon's indecision?); the crushing description of the fighting at Krasny – we cannot tell. It is true that there are many reasons to be wary: the account, written in confinement in Russia, gives Kutusov the best role and shows a carefully laid plan where there was only improvisation and rationalisation after the event; Puybusque was to receive a Russian honour order from Alexander in 1815 for his rescuing of an important religious icon in Smolensk during the 1812 campaign; and Louis XVIII was to award the viscount the Légion d'honneur. Moreover, Labaume's account of the campaign was published in 1814 (which Puybusque could have read). And yet, with all this said, the details in the account are tantalising… The conclusion being not that the Russian winter beat Napoleon, but the astuteness and carefulness of Kutusov. As Kutusov apparently said: “In politics you do not miss an opportunity which presents itself to you spontaneously.”


1) Letter to Marie Louise, dated Moscow 16 September, 1812, Napoléon Bonaparte, Correspondance générale, tome 12, Paris : Fayard/Fondation Napoléon, 2012, no. 31,727.
2) Dominic Lieven, Russia against Napoleon, London: Penguin, 2010, p. 251.
3) Correspondance générale, cit., no. 31,736.
4) George Mouton, letter to his wife, dated 25 September 1812, in Emmanuel de Waresquiel (ed), Lettres d'un Lion: Correspondance inédite du general Mouton, comte de Lobau, (1812-1815), Paris: Nouveau Monde Editions/Fondation Napoléon, p. 85.
5) In Denis Davidov's memoirs (Gregory Troubetzkoy (trans./ed.), In the service of the Tsar against Napoleon. The memoirs of Denis Davidov, 1806-1814, London: Greenhill, 1999, p. 114) there is an account of how priests are brought to view an execution of a Russian collaborator. They sing a memorial service over him before his execution, and afterwards one of the priests raises his cross and says: “Let any man who disobeys the constituted authorities be cursed. An enemy of God and a traitor to the Tsar and Fatherland let him be cursed”. Religion and patriotic sentiment mixed played an important role in Russian morale and determination.
6) Lettres d'un Lion, cit., p. 89.
7) Correspondance générale, cit., no. 31,758.
8) Correspondance générale, cit., no. 31,798.
9) Correspondance générale, cit., no. 31,792.
10) H. Randolph (ed.), Narrative of events during the invasion of Russia by Napoleon Bonaparte [...] by General Sir Robert Wilson, London: John Murray, 1860, p. 234.Wilson however was later to rescind his opinion on hearing from Kutusov what the latter said he had really said en tête à tête to Lauriston. H. Randolph (ed.), Private Diary of Travels, Personal Services, and Public Events [...] by General Sir Robert Wilson C.M.T., London : John Murray, 1861, vol. 1, p. 193.
11) Puybusque, Guillaume-Albert de, Généalogie de la famille de Puybusque, E. Privat (Toulouse), 1912, p. 319: “Louis Guillaume de Puybusque was born on 6 March 1770. He was Garde du corps then Commissaire des guerre and finally Sous-Intendant militaire, having taken part in all the campaigns of the Revolution and Empire, notably in Russia in 1812 and in Spain in 1823. He received the Légion d'Honneur, the Russian Order of St Anne and was made Chevalier de Saint Louis. He died in Paris on 18 August, 1841. He is credited with several written works, notably: Lettres sur la guerre en Russie (Paris, 1816-1817); an important study on the administration of army stud farms in France, Administration et la comptabilité dans les remontes militaires et les haras (1831); he also published the memoirs of the Marquis de Sérang, Les prisonniers français en Russie. Mémoires et souvenirs de M. le marquis de Sérang, recueillis et publiés par M. de Puybusque 2 vols, (Paris, 1837); and his own memoirs, Souvenirs d'un invalide 2 vols, (Paris, 1841).”
12) Lettres sur la guerre en Russie (Paris, 1817), pp. 122-153, letter dated 23 November, 1812.
13) Lettres sur la guerre en Russie cit., pp.137-39, letter dated 2 December, 1812.
14) Lettres sur la guerre en Russie cit., 141-48.

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