Peter Wittgenstein came from an aristocratic family of Prussian origin. He was born on 5 January, 1769, and at the age of 21 enlisted as a sergeant on 1 April, 1781, in the Life Guard Semeyonovsk Regiment. He was an excellent and courageous horseman who fought in the Russo-Polish War in 1794, during which time he was awarded the Order of St George, 4th Class and the golden cross. He also fought in the Persian Campaign in 1796, in which he was mentioned in dispatches for delivering the keys of the city of Derbent to St Petersburg. On 9 February, 1798, Wittgenstein was made colonel, before becoming commander of the Akhtyrsk Hussar Regiment the following year on 5 May. He was then promoted to major general in June and went on to command the Mariupol Hussar Regiment on 1 July, 1799. He took part in both the 1805 Campaign against Napoleon and in the Russo-Turkish War from 1806. He fought in the battles of Amstetten, Wischau and Austerlitz, earning various decorations along the way. He also commanded a corps in southern Finland from 1808-1811.
Yet it was in the Campaign of 1812 that Wittgenstein was able to really stand out. He commanded the First Russian Corps whose function was to block the route to St Petersburg. He was known as the “saviour of St Petersburg” since he defeated general Oudinot and his army at Polotsk in August and November 1812. He also fought at Wilkomir, Klyastitsy, Kokhanovichi, Chashniki, Smolani and at the Berezina. He was equally popular among Russian society and his own troops, whose morale he uplifted through his constant offensive actions that imposed his will on the enemy. However Wittgenstein was to make some mistakes during Napoleon's crossing of the Berezina which allowed Napoleon to rescue most of his forces, though the majority of the blame for the Russian fiasco was laid at Chichagov's door. In the 1813 Campaign Wittgenstein assumed overall command of the Russian Army on the 25 April on the death of Kutuzov. He soon proved incompetent in this position, failing to prevent the twin defeats at Lutzen and Bautzen in May. After his subsequent resignation, he was replaced by Mikhail Barclay de Tolly. He took part in several battles later on in 1813 (notably at Dresden and Leipzig), but was wounded at Bar-sur-Aube in 1814. After 1815 he was to see action in the Russo-Turkish War 1828-1829 where he was commander in chief. Finally retiring for health reasons in 1829, he lived a further ten years in retirement before dying in Lvov on 11 June 1843 whilst on a journey taken for health reasons.
Alexander Mikaberidze, The Russian Officer Corps in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1792-1815, New York: Savas Beatie, 2005, pp. 445-447
Dominic Lieven, Russia against Napoleon, London: Penguin Books, 2009
Dictionnaire Napoléon, Paris: Fayard, 1987, vol. 2, p. 973
Ed. AM PH