The First Battle of Smolensk took place on August 17 1812, between 175,000 men of the Grande Armée under Napoleon Bonaparte and 130,000 Russians under Prince Bagration, of whom about 50,000 and 60,000 respectively were actually engaged. Bagration's corps occupied the town of Smolensk, which Napoleon attacked, carrying two of the suburbs. During the night the Russians set fire to the place and evacuated it, having lost about 11,000 killed and wounded in the action. The French lost 9,000.
Since almost the beginning of the Russian campaign Napoleon
and the Grande Armee
were engaged in fight and fade battles with the Russians. Whenever encountered, the Russians would put up a defence for a short time before withdrawing. In an attempt to confront the enemy, Napoleon devised the Smolensk Manoeuvre in an attempt to sweep behind the enemy and defeat them once and for all. On August 14, 1812 forces under the command of Joachim Murat
, Marshal Davout
, and Michel Ney
crossed the river Dnieper at Rassna on bridges constructed in the middle of the night. The plan was to rush toward the city of Smolensk, take it without a fight, and march north to the rear of the main Russian forces which were under the overall command of General Barclay de Tolly
. This would have been the case, but conflicting orders and a breakdown in communication led the Russian General Bagration
to disobey his orders to march west, instead he went south to Smolensk. When the French forces arrived at the city on the August 16, they found it heavily garrisoned with Russian troops. These were further reinforced with the arrival of Barclay and the main Russian army.
Smolensk was a city of 12,600 inhabitants, and had no strategic value other than it being in the way of the French. It was enforced by bastion towers and a thick stone wall, and occupied both sides of the river Dnieper, which prevented encirclement.
The best way for the French to fight the battle would have been to cross the Dnieper further east, and come in from behind the city. This could have forced surrender from the Russians, and saved Napoleon countless men. However Napoleon believed that the Russians would come out to protect their city as it housed a religious icon, and that they would not allow their holy city to be reduced to rubble. As it happened the Russians did not come out to fight, but Napoleon had by that time committed to taking the city by force.
The main battle began on August 16. An initial probing force carried two of the suburbs, but failed to bring the Russians out of the city, and Napoleon ordered a general assault with three corps of the Grande Armée, supported by two hundred artillery pieces. This was successful for a time, but when the French forces reached the city walls, they had no ladders or climbing apparatus to scale them. They tried in vain to climb onto each others shoulders, all the time taking fire from Russian artillery. Throughout the day the French still failed to make any progress. Predictably the intense artillery bombardment set the city on fire, and most of it was burning by nightfall. At the end of August 16, the French had made no ground, and had lost between 7 and 9,000 men, while the Russians had lost about 11,000.
At this point Barclay de Tolly made the decision to abandon the city in order to save the army. Before he did, he set fire to all ammunition stores and destroyed the bridges. He also left a small force to hold out for two more days to ensure his retreat.
Around dawn of August the 17th Polish forces within the Grande Armée successfully breached the walls, and in a few hours the main French forces entered the city. Barclay retained forces on the other side of the river preventing a crossing until the night of August the 18th. The city of Smolensk was almost completely destroyed.
Technically the battle of Smolensk was a victory for Napoleon. He captured the city, and did not incur as many casualties as his enemy. However the manner in which the battle was fought was to have dire consequences. Due to a failing supply chain his soldiers were already running short on food. Smolensk would have been a useful supply base if it had been captured intact.
1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow, Adam Zamoyski, HarperCollins, 644 Pages. ISBN 0-00-712374-4