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November 15 1812: Napoleon Faces Down the Enemy



On November 15 1812, Napoleon having left Smolensk, fights for the next four days a series of battles around Krasny as the remnants of the Grande Armée continue to retreat. Kutuzov's much larger force surrounds Napoleon but Kutuzov hesitates to commit all his forces to obtain a decisive victory. The situation for the Grande Armée is very desperate.  Armand de Caulaincourt [1] writes:
How, indeed, could one exact service, or any test of endurance, from a man whom one had to let starve, in weather that froze his fingers if he left them exposed to the air? How make any dispositions whatever during an unceasing march, and when the staff officers have lost their horses and must go on foot to deliver the orders they carry? When all are crowded on to the same road, and flanked by Cossacks who hardly let them get ahead out of their sight? There remained not a single brigade of cavalry in a fit state to cover our movements. The exhausted, unshod horses could go no further unless men dragged them by the bridle. Without drawing upon the Guard, who were themselves much reduced, we had not sufficient cavalry to carry out a reconnaissance far enough or boldly enough to give us definite news of the enemy's position. 
On November 15th, Napoleon personally leads the Imperial Guard as they march on the Old Smolensk Road under the fire from Russian troops. The Russian troops are commanded by Miloradovich and hold the high ground. Napoleon walks into the middle of the battlefield and faces down the enemy as Russian shells fall around him. Sergeant Bourgogne describes Napoleon's actions [1]: "Advancing with a firm step, as on the day of a great parade, he placed himself in the middle of the battlefield, facing the enemy's batteries."   The Russian witness Denis Davidov also observes the Imperial Guard on that day and writes:  
"...after midday, we sighted the Old Guard, with Napoleon riding in their midst... the enemy troops, sighting our unruly force, got their muskets at the ready and proudly continued on their way without hurrying their step... Like blocks of granite, they remained invulnerable... I shall never forget the unhurried step and awesome resolution of these soldiers, for whom the threat of death was a daily and familiar experience. With their tall bearskin caps, blue uniforms, white belts, red plumes, and epaulettes, they looked like poppies on the snow-covered battlefield... Column followed upon column, dispersing us with musket fire and ridiculing our useless display of chivalry... the Imperial Guard with Napoleon ploughed through our Cossacks like a 100-gun ship through fishing skiffs.
"He [Napoleon] was vastly outnumbered," the historian writes, "but his bearing, standing calmly under fire as the Russian shells struck men all around him, seems to have impressed not only his men but the enemy. Miloradovich moved back from the road, leaving it open for Davout to march through. And Kutuzov resisted the entreaties of Toll, Konovnitsin, Bennigsen and Wilson, who could all see that the Russians were in a position to encircle Napoleon and overwhelm him by sheer might of numbers, ending the war there and then". 

Notes

1. Armand de Caulaincourt, At Napoleon's Side in Russia (Enigma Books, 2008) at pages 185.

2. Adam Zamoyski, Moscow 1812. Napoleon’s Fatal March, (New York 2004) at page 422. 

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