The Russian Army of 1812

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The Russian Army of 1812 was, in many respects, quite different from the one Napoleon faced in 1805 and 1807. The lessons of Austerlitz, Eylau and Friedland led the Russian government to realize the need for change and to pursue a modernization through military reforms. It was a lengthy process, since Russia was at war for virtually the entire period between 1789 and 1812, fighting three campaigns against France, two wars against the Ottomans, two wars with Sweden, one war against Persia and participating in the partitions of Poland and annexations of the Caucasian principalities.

Able to draw on a population of almost 40 million by the late 18th century, Russian sovereigns drafted conscripts from the servile population that included serfs, state and Church peasants and townspeople. During the Napoleonic Wars, Russia raised levies every year except in 1814, raising some 1,100,000 men. In times of emergency, Russian sovereigns often ordered heavier levies or resorted to militia mobilizations. The heaviest levies were held in 1812, when three emergency levies were initiated within a six-month timeframe, calling for over 400,000 men.

The Russian officer corps primarily consisted of nobles. Over 86 per cent of the 2,000 officers present at Borodino belonged to the nobility, as did 96 per cent (728 out of 758) of senior officers. Nobles received preferential treatment on enlisting and also in subsequent promotions, while non-nobles were required to serve as non-commissioned officers for extended periods before further advancement. On paper, nobles were required to serve in the lower ranks, but naturally sought to circumvent regulations. The most prominent and powerful families often exploited a loophole in the system by enlisting their children in infancy: consequently, by the time these infants grew up, they already had extensive ‘records of service’, making them eligible for officer status without any real experience or training.

Of course, patronage and nepotism was of paramount importance in this practice, as well as subsequent career development. Obviously, non-nobles had a lesser chance of obtaining quick career advancement and usually had to wait between five and seven years to become officers. NCOs from the soldier ranks were in the worst position because they, on average, served up to a decade before reaching the officer ranks, but there were exceptions. At Borodino, sixty-four NCOs had already served between ten and twenty-five years, while three others had remained NCOs for an incredible twenty-four to twenty-seven years.

Directly linked to the length of service is the battle experience of the Russian officers at Borodino. Studying their records of service, it becomes clear that about 55 per cent of officers had some battle experience prior to 1812, while 45 per cent (or 925 officers) went through their baptism by fire in 1812. Among the officers with prior combat experience, some 1,305 served in the campaigns against the French and thus had some knowledge of their enemy; the largest number (357 and 640) had served in the 1805 campaign in Bohemia and the Polish campaign of 1806-07 respectively. About 247 officers had served in the Baltic campaigns against the Swedes in 1788-90 and 1808-09, while the careers of 395 officers included wars against the Ottoman Empire in 1770-90 and 1806-12.

Even more interesting is the data on the number of battles these officers participated in: some 580 (almost one-third or 28 per cent) had fought between three and five battles; 692 officers (33.4 per cent) between six and ten battles; 350 (over 16 per cent) between eleven and fifteen battles; 163 (7.9 per cent) between sixteen and twenty battles; and 59 (2.8 per cent) between twenty-one and twenty-five battles and combats. Remarkably, there were six officers who had previously fought thirty-six to forty battles, and two with experience of up to forty-five battles! Among these officers were A. Berger of the 6th Jägers and L. Rubachev of the Lithuanian Uhlan Regiment, who had served in thirty-eight and forty-four battles respectively.

The Russian system of military education was quite diverse and eight major institutions produced a steady stream of cadets. However, emphasis was usually placed on general subjects that broadened students’ intellectual horizons and made them fit for both civil and military service. Many officers entered service untrained and semi-illiterate. A number of relatively competent foreign officers often transferred to the Russian service but, as we have seen, generated mistrust among the ethnic Russian officers and troops.

The records of service of the officers present at Borodino reveal that the majority (1,061 out of 2,074 men) could only read and write. Many officers were fluent in several languages, with 630 (30.4 per cent) speaking French and 522 (25.2 per cent) German, followed by 17 speaking English and 10 Italian. The ill-advised emphasis on general education is revealed by the fact that only 61 officers (2.9 per cent) studied military sciences and even fewer (7 or 0.3 per cent) had been taught military tactics. The artillery branch, naturally, fared better in this respect and many artillery officers were competent in arithmetic (23.2 per cent), geometry (10.6 per cent), algebra (6.5 per cent) and trigonometry (3.5 per cent). Over 67 per cent of the Russian artillery officers present at Borodino were graduates of institutions offering a higher military education, compared to 10.5 per cent in the Guard cavalry and 10 per cent in the regular cavalry. On a higher note, 21.6 per cent of the regular infantry officers studied in cadet corps and 21.2 per cent of Guard infantry officers studied at some of the highest military institutions. Non-commissioned officers, many of whom were promoted from the rank-and-file, still had a relatively high level of literacy at 38 per cent.

In the upper levels of the officer corps, out of some 500 generals participating in the 1812-13 Campaigns, 45 graduated from the Artillery and Engineer Corps (II Cadet Corps), 35 from the Infantry Cadet Corps (I Cadet Corps), 22 from the Page Corps, 7 from the Corps of Fellow Believers, 4 from the Schklov Cadet Corps and 11 from the Naval Cadet Corps. Some prominent commanders, such as Bagration and Platov, received no military education at all and contemporaries often highlighted this. On the other hand, Miloradovich studied at the Universities of Hottingen, Königsberg, Strasbourg and Metz, while Saint Priest graduated from the University of Heidelberg, and d’Auvray completed the Engineer Academy at Dresden.

Ever since Peter the Great employed large numbers of foreigners in his newly created regular Army, the foreign-born officers were a continual presence and many played an important role in its development. The ratio between Russian and foreign officers varied greatly throughout the 18th century, increasing during the reign of Empress Anna Ioanovna and decreasing in later decades. Tsar Paul’s purges in the 1790s expelled many foreigners and shifted the percentages in favour of Russian officers. In 1812, out of 1,434 officers examined, some 1,228 (over 85 per cent) were from the Russian heartlands, 51 (3.6 per cent) were born in the Lithuanian provinces, many of them ethnic Poles, while 7.1 per cent were from the Baltic provinces, the majority of these being of German stock. Germans composed the largest non-Russian ethnic group, followed by Poles, French and Swedes. Relations between the Russian and foreign-born officers was tense at times but it became especially hostile during the 1812 campaign, as discussed earlier. Osterman-Tolstoy certainly reflected the attitudes of many when he told Italian Marquis Paulucci: ‘For you, Russia is a uniform that you put on or off at will, but for me Russia is my skin!’136 Foreigners were mostly concentrated in His Majesty’s Suite on Quartermaster Service, the predecessor of the Russian General Staff, where foreign-born officers accounted for almost one-third of staff officers. They composed only 2.4 per cent in infantry and 3.1 per cent in cavalry and the Guard.

Although the popular stereotype portrays Russian officers as wealthy serf owners and spoiled aristocrats, in reality most Russian officers lived in poverty, without any property or serfs. Young officers from the gentry often had nothing but a simple bundle of clothes when they joined a regiment. Records of service show that 77 per cent of the Russian officers at Borodino did not own any property or serfs and another 20 per cent had shared ownership of serfs and property with their respective families. Furthermore, 95.6 per cent of foreign officers in the Russian Army held no assets in Russia and depended on their salaries; the same condition applied to 88.6 per cent of Polish officers and 83.1 per cent of officers from the Baltic provinces. The data on the various Army branches also clearly shows the discrepancies in financial and property ownership status. Naturally, the Guard units had the most affluent officers, with 38 per cent of them owning serfs and property. The cavalry officers were less well off at 22 per cent, followed by infantry officers at 20 per cent and artillery officers at 15 per cent. It is also surprising to discover that that among 295 generals, the majority (160 or 54.2 per cent) had no serfs or property, 13 owned less than 20 serfs, 34 possessed between up to 100 serfs and 79 owned over 100 serfs.

Following the purges and reforms of Tsar Paul I in the late 1790s, the first years of Alexander’s reign saw a gradual transformation of the Russian military forces. After the 1802 reforms, an infantry regiment was organized into three battalions of four companies each, and the average strength of units varied between 1,500 and 1,700 men. Although the Russian Army had ad hoc divisions on campaign, the conversion to a divisional system was not initiated until 1806, when the first eighteen divisions were formed. The normal strength of a division was 18,000-20,000 men. Between 1809-12, the Russian Army was reorganized to accommodate a corps system along French lines. Thus, in 1812, the 1st Western Army consisted of six infantry, three cavalry and one Cossack corps, and the 2nd Western Army included two infantry and one cavalry corps.

An infantry corps was organized with two divisions, while cavalry corps included three brigades. The basic infantry division included three infantry brigades, where the 3rd often was composed of Jägers; in a grenadier division, all three brigades were composed of grenadier battalions. Each division had field artillery consisting of one heavy and two light companies (batteries). Divisions were designated with numbers and, by mid-1812, the Army had 1 Guard infantry division, 2 grenadier divisions and 24 infantry divisions. Later, additional divisions were established, including the 28th and 29th Divisions from the Orenburg and Siberia garrisons forces. The 30th through 37th Divisions were raised from the 2nd Battalions of the first twenty-seven divisions and the 38th through 48th Divisions were raised from the 4th Battalions.

The backbone of the Russian Army consisted of regular and light infantry regiments. Regimental chefs commanded the regiments and the 1st Battalion was designated the ‘Chef’s Battalion’ and carried his name. In the Chef’s absence, the regimental commander or commanding officer led the unit. After October 1810, a regular infantry regiment consisted of two active battalions (1st and 3rd) and one replacement (2nd zapasnoi) battalion. After November 1811 the 4th reserve (rezervnii) battalion was assigned to the recruitment depot. The grenadier companies of the 2nd Battalions were often united to establish ‘combined grenadier battalions’. The Russian light infantry increased throughout the Napoleonic Wars and by 1812 consisted of two guard and fifty Jäger regiments, plus the Guard Ekipazh. In addition, special Jäger regiments and battalions were organized within the provincial Opolchenyes. The Jäger regiments had a similar organization to the line infantry units, and the regular infantry division had one Jäger brigade, usually the third. The light infantry regiments did not carry flags, while line infantry units usually had six flags (two for each battalion, except for the 4th Battalion, which had none). One of the flags was considered ‘regimental’ and often referred to as ‘white’, while other lags were known as ‘colour’ lags.

After the 1801 reorganization, Russian heavy cavalry regiments comprised five squadrons each, of which four were active and one held in reserve. By 1812 the Russian cavalry arm included six guard, eight cuirassier, thirty-six dragoon, eleven hussar and five Uhlan (lancer) regiments. Two or three cavalry regiments were often organized into a brigade and three brigades (two heavy and one light) were united into a cavalry division. In 1812 divisions were further organized into cavalry corps. Cuirassier brigades had a separate designation from the general cavalry brigades. In 1812 there was one guard cavalry division plus two cuirassier divisions and eight cavalry divisions. In March of that year, eight new cavalry divisions were formed, with the 9th through 12th Divisions organized from the replacement squadrons, while the 13th through 16th Divisions were raised from the cavalry recruitment depots.

Alexander continued his father’s reforms of the artillery. In 1805 the Inspector of All Artillery, Alexei Arakcheyev, launched a series of reforms to modernize the arm. Known as ‘the 1805 System’ these measures introduced standardized equipment, ammunition and guns. However, following the Russian defeat at Austerlitz, further changes were introduced. In 1806 artillery regiments were reorganized into brigades of two battery or heavy, one horse, and two light companies. These brigades were attached to infantry divisions. New artillery regulations prescribed specific instructions on artillery deployment and firing. Battery companies were armed with eight 12-pounders and four 1/2-pud (1 pud/pood = 16.4kg) licornes, while the light companies had eight 6-pounders and four 1/4-pud licornes. Horse artillery companies had six 6-pounders and six 1/4-pud licornes. Two guns were organized into squads (vzvod) commanded by a non-commissioned officer. Two squads formed a division and three divisions made up one company led by a staff officer.

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