LEONTII LEONTIEVICH BENNIGSEN

(Levin August Theophile) (b. 10 February 1745, Brunswick – d. 3 October 1826, Hannover) was born to a Hanoverian noble family in the Brunswick, where his father was a colonel in the guards. His family also owned estates at Banteln in Hanover. Due to his father’s connections at the Hanoverian court, Bennigsen began his service at the age of ten as a page. Four years later he was commissioned as ensign in the guard and, in 1763, as a captain, he participated in the final campaign of the Seven Years War. A year later, after the death of his father and his own marriage to the Baroness Steimberg, he retired to his estates at Banteln, disillusioned with military service and widely regarded as an unpromising officer. Bennigsen apparently squandered his inheritance and, after his wife’s untimely death, he briefly reentered Hanoverian service before deciding to seek a career in Russia. He was accepted into the Russian service with a rank of premier major and assigned to the Vyatka Musketeer Regiment in 1773.

During the Russo-Turkish War, Bennigsen served in the Narva Musketeer Regiment and was noticed by Rumyantsev and Saltykov. In January 1779, he became a lieutenant colonel in the Kiev Light Cavalry Regiment. In 1787, he was appointed commander of the Izumsk Light Cavalry Regiment and fought at Ochakov and Bender, receiving promotion to brigadier in 1788. In 1792-1794, Bennigsen took part in the operations against the Polish insurgents, was promoted to major general on 9 July 1794 and awarded the Order of St. George (3rd class) on 26 September 1794. In 1795, he commanded a brigade at Vasilkov. After returning to St. Petersburg, he formed a close association with Valerian Zubov, the brother of the Empress’ last favorite. In 1796, he took part in the Persian Campaign along the Caspian Sea and fought at Derbent. After Paul’s accession to the throne, Bennigsen was named chef of the Rostov Dragoons Regiment (14 December 1796) and was promoted to lieutenant general (25 February 1798). However, he was dismissed from service on 11 October 1798 during Paul’s military purge of high-ranking officers. He participated in the conspiracy to overthrow Paul and according to the memoirs of the participants, was chosen to lead the coup d’état because of his reputation for audacity and courage. Despite his role in the conspiracy, Bennigsen’s career did not suffer under Alexander. He was appointed the Military Governor of Vilna and inspector of the Lithuanian Inspection on 23 July 1801. Bennigsen was then promoted to general of cavalry on 23 June 1802 with seniority dating from 4 December 1799.

During the 1805 Campaign, Bennigsen commanded a reserve corps of some 48,000 men arranged between Taurrogen and Grodno. In 1806, he was directed to take up quarters in Silesia and assist the Prussians against the French. After the Prussian defeat, Bennigsen withdrew to Poland, where he fought the French army at Golymin and Pultusk. He claimed these battles as decisive Russian victories, received the Order of St. George (2nd class) on 8 January 1807 and was appointed commander-in-chief of the Russian army on 13 January 1807. He launched an offensive in January 1807 and fought the French army at Eylau (received the Order of St. Andrew the First Called), Guttstadt, Heilsberg and Friedland, where his poor tactics resulted in the Russian defeats with heavy losses. Displeased with his actions, Emperor Alexander discharged Bennigsen on 9 July 1807. Bennigsen remained in exile until 1812, when he was ordered to join the Imperial Retinue (8 May 1812). He was considered for the post of commander-in-chief in August 1812, but was rejected in favor of Mikhail Kutuzov. Instead, he was appointed the chief of staff of the united Russian armies and bickered with Kutuzov for command throughout the campaign. After Borodino, he advised against abandoning Moscow to the French. He distinguished himself at Tarutino, where he was wounded in the leg. However, in late 1812, Bennigsen was finally dismissed because of his ongoing disagreements with Kutuzov.

Bennigsen returned to the army in early 1813 and received command of the Army of Poland. He later fought at Lutzen, Bautzen and Leipzig and besieged Torgau and Magdeburg; for his actions, he was conferred the title of count of the Russian Empire on 10 January 1814. He then commanded the Russian troops besieging Hamburg and was decorated with the Order of St. George (1st class) on 3 August 1814 for his conduct. He commanded the 2nd Army in 1815-1817 but was criticized for poor administration and forced to retire on 15 May 1818. He spent next eight years at Hanover. He was awarded almost all the highest Russian awards, including the Orders of St. Andrew with diamonds, of St. Vladimir (1st class), of St. Alexander of Neva, of St. Anna (1st class), of St. George (1st class) and a golden sword with diamonds for courage. In addition, he had six foreign decorations, the Prussian Order of Black Eagle, the Hanoverian Order of Guelf, the Dutch Order of the Elephant, the French Legion of Honor, the Swedish Order of the Sword and the Austrian Order of Maria Theresa.

Bennigsen is an over rated general. Brave officer, he showed no tactical or strategic abilities in 1806-1807 and 1813 Campaigns. Despite his claims to victories, the battles of Pultusk and Eylau were draws at best. At Heilsberg, he lost consciousness and other senior Russian commanders conducted the battle. At Friedland, he chose disadvantageous positions that led to heavy Russian casualties. Bennigsen was very ambitious officer and able courtier, who easily navigated in the court politics. His three-volume Mémoires du général Bennigsen, published in Paris in 1907-1908, contain fascinating details on the Russian operations in 1806-1813 but often embellish facts.

Battle of Tarutino on 6 (18) October 1812

Germany, 1847 by Peter von Hess, 1792-1871

The painting is a part of the series devoted to the great battles of the Patriotic War of 1812. On 6 (18) October 1812 in Tarutino the Russian Army made the first attack since the beginning of the war which resulted in the defeat of Murat’s unit. The next day Napoleon ordered his soldiers to leave Moscow. Here the critical stage of the battle after the attack of ten Cossack Regiments under the command of Vasily Orlov-Denisov is depicted. Cossacks rapidly attacked elements of the 2nd Cavalry Corps of the French. “…At 9 a.m., when we were going to look for provisions, lots of Cossacks attacked us. The 4th Division of Cuirassiers and the whole unit of Seguin were defeated – all fled in disorder.” That was how a French cuirassier captain recalled these events in his letter. The Cossacks returned with rich booty and captives after the defeat of the enemy bivouacs. Several soldiers caught by surprise were still in their coats which they used as wrapping for the night and in caps that they usually wore out of ranks. General Levin (Leonty) Bennigsen on a bay horse is depicted on the left. His command staff includes Quartermaster-General Karl Toll and a company officer of the Semenovsky Life-Guards Regiment wearing the Order of St. Vladimir of the Fourth Class with a bow and the Prussian Pour le Merite. General Vasily Orlov-Denisov, the commander of a Cossack unit, approaches them riding a grey horse. He is wearing a red jacket of the Cossack Life-Guards Regiment, which he commanded. Several Cossacks escort French cavalry captives; among them there are carabineers in white collars, gilt cuirasses and helmets with red horse hair plumes, cuirassiers in blue jackets, silver cuirasses and horsetail helmets. One of the Cossacks raises the Standard of the 1st Cuirassier Regiment high in the air – the first French colour that was captured by the Russians as trophy during the Patriotic War. Imperial Cossacks (who differed from other Cossack Regiments which wore blue uniform by wearing a red one) are passing by and greeting their commander and the trophies. In the right corner of the picture the artist portrays a Don Cossack Artillery team entering their position. On the left there are elements of the unit commanded by General Egor Meller-Zakomelsky. Imperial Hussars in red hussar pelisses are riding with their sabers naked, ready for battle. A French cuirassier, who helps a wounded officer, is asking for aid. In the middle, behind the Hussars the Imperial Uhlans, Dragoons and horse artillery are placed. Egor Meller-Zakomelsky wearing a Hussar uniform and a hat with a white plume is shown next to Bennigsen. He gives orders to an officer of the Chuguevsk Uhlan Regiment. In the background of the picture one can see Cossacks and French Cavalry still fighting as well as other French elements approaching. Murat “… was throwing himself on all bivouacs, gathering all horsemen on his way and when he managed to gather a squadron of those, immediately started an attack… During his entire military career Murat, who was nicknamed “the child of victory” (L’enfant gate de la Victoire), had never been wounded before that day, when he shed his blood for the first time. He got hit by a [Don Cossack] pike in his thigh”. At a distance a church of the Teterinki village can be seen, where the French artillery is bombarding the attacking Russian infantry.

Hell’s Battlefield: Heilsberg.

 

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