The 1812 Russo-French war: A passage about strategy long remembered

It was the mid ’80s when I first read this book called Far Flies The Eagle by Evelyn Anthony. It was about Alexander I, the Tsar of All Russias and a major part dealt with his relations with Napoleon, the Emperor of the French. These few passages I quote below dealt with the French invasion of Russia in 1812, a step that was the first in a link that led to the latter’s decline and eventual eclipse from history. I had long thought of sharing them with you, but it was now in this watershed visit home that I discovered that the book was safe in what remained of my library and was neither given to a fickle “friend” as I had feared, nor lost in the despoiling of the collection. So let me quote verbatim……

A paragraph or two of background. It is known that Napoleon will soon invade and it deals with the plans to tackle the eventuality…..

In accordance with General Pfuhl’s strategy, Russia’s armies were divided into two mobile forces. The main body of troops was commanded by a Lithuanian of Scottish descent, Barclay de Tolly; the other was led by Prince Bagration. The pivot of the Russian strategy was a huge fortified encampment built by a bend of the river Dvina. It was intended that this bastion at Drissa should bar Napoleon’s way, so that the decisive battle should be fought close to it by Barclay de Tolly’s men while Bagration’s forces remained separated in order to harass the French in the rear or in the flank.

Alexander had adopted the plan and disposed his forces accordingly, but a threefold campaign was being waged to make him change his mind. Araktcheief and Barclay de Tolly denounced Pfuhl’s theory as fiercely as the German emigrant tacticians defended it, and Bagration prophesied disaster if the plan was really put into practice.

Still another faction….. (but that is not required here). Lets jump ahead when Napoleon’s army crosses the river Niemen and the invasion has begun.

~~~~ At the village of Rykonty the advance guard brought in a Russian nobleman who claimed to be the Czar’s emissary. It was Balachov. He was taken to Napoleon’s headquarters, where he delivered Alexander’s protest against the invasion of his country without a declaration of war. Napoleon raged at him, abusing and threatening in the most violent terms, but Balachov stared at the floor and appeared not to hear. His silence and the phrasing of Alexander’s message roused Napoleon to a climax of rage.

‘Which is the road to Moscow?’ he shouted suddenly.

Balachov raised his eyes and looked at him blankly.

‘Your majesty’s question embarrasses me a little. The Russians have a saying like the French, that all roads lead to Rome. To reach Moscow one takes the road one fancies. Charles XII set out by way of Poltava.’

Napoleon swallowed. Poltava, where the Swedish invaders had been annihilated by Peter the Great in 1709. Poltava….

He swung around and walked away.

Balachov was escorted beyond the French ouposts and rode out to rejoin the Czar.

Alexander was with the main Russian forces commanded by Barclay de Tolly, and the army was withdrawing towards the encampment at Drissa in accordance with the official strategy. Bagration, with a smaller force of forty-five thousand men, waited in the province of Volhynia. When the French advanced to attack Barclay, Bagration would strike at their flank.

As the Imperial Army passed, it burned crops and villages to the ground, on the Czar’s orders. Nothing was to be left for the invader. He would march into a smouldering desert, abandoned by people already driven ahead by their own troops. All possible shelter was razed, livestock carried off or slaughtered.

In the course of the long march to Drissa, Alexander rode through the ruins of his own countryside………… (I will again omit a para or two, not strictly germane to the topic)

……Barclay de Tolly spent long hours conferring with him. A dour man, hard-headed and cautious, he was convinced that the Prussian strategy would mean disaster.

To be continued…..


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