First Battle of Polotsk, (17–18 August 1812)

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The Second Day of the First Battle of Polotsk, August 18th 1812

An engagement that took place in the early phase of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia when a Russian army commanded by General Peter Graf Wittgenstein attacked a French force defending the town of Polotsk. After the first day the Russians were in a strong position and Marshal Nicolas Oudinot had been wounded. However on the second day of the fighting General Laurent Gouvion St. Cyr (generally known as St. Cyr) took command of the French and launched a vigorous counterattack driving the Russians back.

In early August Oudinot had been given the task of forcing Wittgenstein back toward St. Petersburg, thus securing the left flank of the Grande Armée. However, after crossing the river Drissa, Oudinot was pushed back by Wittgenstein’s army, and he chose to withdraw to the town of Polotsk. On 15 August Oudinot’s troops were reinforced by the arrival of St. Cyr’s Bavarian corps.Wittgenstein was unaware of these reinforcements and advanced to attack the Franco-Bavarians. On the sixteenth his advance guard clashed with enemy outposts to the north of Polotsk. Oudinot still believed that he was heavily outnumbered and, concerned about his line of retreat, decided to place the bulk of his forces on the far bank of the river Dvina and defend against the Russian attack with only St. Cyr’s corps and another division. The defense was based around a convent about 2 miles to the north of Polotsk.

The initial Russian attack on the convent was beaten back by the Bavarians, but the Russians regrouped and launched a further assault that resulted in the capture of some of the outlying buildings. Oudinot now brought forward some reinforcements over the Dvina and personally led them in an attack on the enemy center. Oudinot was wounded and handed over command to St. Cyr. By now General Friedrich Wilhelm von Berg had taken the convent for the Russians and the French center fell back onto the outskirts of Polotsk. Fortunately for them night intervened, and this allowed St. Cyr to withdraw his wounded and baggage train over the Dvina, while bringing up fresh reserves. He ordered that a second bridge should be built to help in bringing troops forward or to act as a second line of retreat in case of defeat.

The following day Oudinot awaited a fresh Russian attack, but none was forthcoming as Wittgenstein was awaiting further reinforcements. St. Cyr decided to launch an attack late in the afternoon. His troops quickly advanced on the Russians, and with the support of his guns in the center, St. Cyr pushed the Russian first line back. The Russians, however, rallied and General Erasmus Deroy, commanding a Bavarian division, was killed. General Karl Freiherr von Wrede steadied the Bavarians, and the attack was resumed. St. Cyr’s cavalry had defeated the enemy to their front and were now threatening the rear of the Russian position. Wittgenstein now prepared to withdraw, having around 4,000 casualties. St. Cyr had snatched victory from defeat and as a result was rewarded with a marshal’s baton.

A second battle at Polotsk, near Smoliani, took place in October when Wittgenstein attacked St. Cyr in his entrenched camp at Polotsk. The Russian attacks were beaten off, and Wittgenstien for a short time was a prisoner. However, the French knew their position to be untenable and withdrew, leading to a third engagement at Smoliani, near Polotosk, on 14 November, involving Marshal Claude Victor and Wittgenstein.

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