July 31 1812: Napoleon's Indecision

On June 31, 1812, Napoleon is at Vitebsk. Napoleon uncharacteristically is uncertain as what to do next. On July 28, Philippe-Paul de Segur [1] has him saying: "Here I stop! I want to collect myself, rally my forces, rest my army, and organize Poland. The campaign of 1812 is finished. The Campaign of 1813 will do the rest." Later, Napoleon is heard to say: "For we shall not repeat the folly of Charles XII." This King of Sweden had been crushed by venturing too far into Russia in 1709. De Segur captures Napoleon's indecision, with what amount of truth or art we cannot now know, when he writes
In this state of perplexity he spoke in a few disconnected words to whomever he chanced to meet."Well, what we are going to do?... Shall we stay here? Shall we advance?... How can we stop now on the road to glory?" Without waiting for an answer, he would move on, seeming to be looking for someone or something that could help make up his mind.
Napoleon's dilemma is that he has been able to move his army great distances, claiming places on the map, but the Russian armies remain in tact moving deeper into the ancient provinces of Russia and still undefeated. Meanwhile, the resources needed to keep the Grande Armée on the field continue to become ever more difficult to find. Napoleon has to decide whether to bring matters to a conclusion by trying to defeat the Russian armies on the battlefield or basically declare victory and consolidate his gains. He will remain in Vitebsk for weeks agonizing over the decision he alone can make. In the words of the historian Adam Zamoyski:"This proverbially decisive man seemed panicked by the very fact that he could not reach a decision." 

None of this is reflected in the Tenth Bulletin De La Grande Armée dated July 31, 1812 which continues the propaganda war for Napoleon and is reproduced below.


The Emperor of Russia and the Grand Duke Constantine have quitted the army, and repaired to the capital. On the 17th, the Russian army left the entrenched camp of Drissa, and marched towards Polotzk and Vitepsk. The Russian army which was at Drissa consisted of five corps-d'armee, each of two divisions—and of four divisions of cavalry. One corps d'armee, that of Prince Witgenstein, remained for the purpose of covering St. Petersburg; the four pther corps, having arrived on the 24th at Vitepsk, crossed to the left bank of the Dwina. The corps of Osterman, with a party of the cavalry . of the Guards, put itself in motion at day-break of the 25th, and marched upon Ostrovno.

On the 25th of July, General Nansouty, with the divisions Bruyeres and St. Germain, and the 8th regiment of light infantry, encountered the enemy two leagues in advance of Ostrovno. The action commenced. Several charges of cavalry took place; all of them were in favour of the French. The light cavalry covered itself with gloiy. The King of Naples mentions the brigade of Pire, composed of the 8th Hussars, and 16th Chasseurs, as having distinguished itself. The Russian cavalry, of which a part belonged to the Guards, was overthrown. The batteries which were opened upon our cavalry, were carried. The Russian infantry, who advanced to support their artillery, were broken and sabred by our light cavalry.
On the 26th, the Viceroy marching with the division Delzon at the head of the columns, an obstinate action of the advanced-guard, of from 15 to 20,000 men took place a league beyond Ostrovno. The Russians were driven from their positions one after another. The woods were carried by the bayonet.

The King of Naples, and the Viceroy, mention with praise Generals Baron Delzon, Huard, and Roussel. The 8th light infantry, the 84th and 92d regiments of the line, and the 1st regiment of Croats, distinguished themselves.

General Roussell, a brave soldier, after being the whole day at the head of the battalions, was visiting the advanced posts at ten at night, when a sentinel took him for an enemy, fired upon him, and the ball shattered his skull. He ought to have died three hours sooner, on the field of battle, by the hands of the enemy.

On the 27th at day-break, the Viceroy made the division Broussier file off in advance. The 18th regiment of light infantry, and the brigade of light cavalry of the Baron de Pire, wheeled to the right. The division Broussier marched by the great road, and repaired a small bridge which the enemy had destroyed. At day-break, the enemy's rear-guard, consisting of 10,000 cavalry, was perceived drawn up en echellon on the plain; their right resting on the Dwina, and their left on a wood lined with infantry and artillery. General Count Broussier took post on an eminence with the 53d regiment, waiting till the whole of his division had passed the defile. Two companies of voltigeurs had marched in advance, alone; they skirted the bank of the river, advancing towards that enormous mass of cavalry, which made a forward movement, and surrounded these two hundred men, who were thought to be lost, and who ought to have been so. It happened otherwise. They concentrated themselves with the greatest coolness, and remained during a whole hour hemmed in on all sides; having brought down more than 300 horsemen of the enemy, these two companies gave the French cavalry time to debouche.

The division Delzon defiled on the right. The King of Naples directed the wood and the enemy's batteries to be attacked. In less than an hour all the positions of the enemy were carried; and he was driven across the plain beyond a small river which enters the Dwina below Vitepsk. The army took a position on the banks of this river, at the distance of a league from the town.

The enemy displayed in the plain 15,000 cavalry, and 60,000 infantry. A battle was expected next day. The Russians boasted that they wished to give battle. The Emperor spent the remainder of the night in reconnoitring the field, and in making his dispositions for next day: but at day-break the Russian army was retreating in all directions towards Smolenzk.

The Emperor was on an height very near the 200 voltigeurs, who alone on the plain had attacked the right of the enemy's cavalry. Struck by their fine conduct, he sent to inquire what corps they belonged to. They answered, " To the 9th; and three-fourths of us are lads of Paris" "Tell them," said the Emperor, " that they are brave fellows: they all deserve the cross!"

The fruits of the three actions of Ostrovno are 10 pieces of cannon of Russian manufacture taken, the cannoneers sabred; 20 caissons of ammunition; 1500 prisoners; 5 or 6000 Russians killed or wounded. Our loss amounts to 200 killed, 900 wounded, and about 50 prisoners.

The King of Naples bestows particular praise on Generals Bruyeres, Pire, and Ornano, and on Colonel Radzivill, commandant of the 9th Polish lancers, an officer of singular intrepidity.
The red hussars of the Russian guard have been cut up. They lost 400 men, many of whom are prisoners. The Russians had three generals killed or wounded. A considerable number of colonels and superior officers of their army remained on the field of battle.

On the 28th at day-break, we entered Vitepsk, a town of 30,000 inhabitants. It has 20 convents. We have found in it some magazines, particularly one of salt, valued at 15,000,000.

While the army was marching on Vitepsk, the Prince of Eckmuhl was attacked at Mohiloff.
Bragation passed the Berezina at Bobruisk, and marched upon Novoi-bickoff. At daybreak on the 23d, 3000 Cossacks attacked the 3d regiment of chasseurs, and took 100 of them, among whom were the colonel and four officers, all wounded. The generate was beat; an action commenced. The Russian General Sieverse, with two select divisions, began the attack. From eight in the morning till five in the afternoon, the firing was kept up on a strip of wood, and at a bridge which the Russians wished to force. At five, the Prince of Eckmuhl caused three chosen battalions to advance, put himself at their head, overthrew the Russians, carried their positions, and pursued them for a league. The loss of the Russians is estimated at 3000 killed and wounded, and 1100 prisoners. We lost 700 killed and wounded. Bragation repulsed, retired upon Bickow, where he passed the Boristhenes, to advance towards Smolenzk.

The battles of Mohiloff and Ostrovno have been brilliant, and honourable to our army. We never have had engaged more than the half of the force which the enemy presented, the ground not being suitable for greater developments.


1. Defeat: Napoleon's Russian Campaign (New York Review Books Classics) by Philippe-Paul de Segur (Author), J. David Townsend (Translator), Rk Danner (Introduction), Pages, 19-20
2. Adam Zamoyski, Moscow 1812. Napoleon’s Fatal March, New York 2004, page 156

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