Military Parade of Emperor Paul in front of Mikhailovsky Castle painting by Alexandre Benois
Paul made several idiosyncratic and deeply unpopular attempts to reform the army. Under Catherine’s reign, Grigori Potemkin introduced new uniforms that were cheap, comfortable, and practical, and designed in a distinctly Russian style. Paul decided to fulfil his predecessor Peter III’s intention of introducing Prussian uniforms. Impractical for active duty, these were deeply unpopular with the men, as was the effort required to maintain them. His love of parades and ceremony was not well-liked either. He ordered that Wachtparad (“Watch parades”) take place early every morning in the parade ground of the palace, regardless of the weather conditions. He would personally sentence soldiers to be flogged if they made a mistake, and on one occasion ordered a Guards regiment to march literally to Siberia after they became disordered during maneuvers, although he changed his mind after they had walked about 10 miles (16 km). He attempted to reform the organization of the army in 1796 by introducing The Infantry Codes, a series of guidelines for the army based largely upon show and glamour. But his greatest commander, Suvorov, completely ignored them, believing them to be worthless.
Paul strove to reshape the Russian army in the Prussian fashion, introducing strict discipline and ridiculous wigs for soldiers. These reforms fed discontent among officers and ordinary soldiers alike.
Among his first steps was the summoning of all guardsmen to their regiments, which brought several surprising details to light. Most officers had actually been in their country estates or villages deserting their regiments, where they had also enlisted their children, whose ages were often given as 18 when they were in fact not even 10. The widespread practise of enrolling the nobles’ infants into the army to provide them with a ‘deserved’ officer rank by the age of 16 – 17 was forbidden.
Paul also forbade army officers from coming to military exercises in their six or four horse driven carriages and wear fur coats or muffs, as this was not part of their uniform. To avoid freezing in cold weather (the average temperature in St. Petersburg in February 1799 was minus 37C) officers had to wear woolen sweaters beneath their jackets or line them with fur.
Russian soldiers were notorious for their fighting capacity and staying power: prior to the campaign of 1812 Napoleon’s worst experience on the battlefield had come at the hands of General Bennigsen at the battle of Eylau, whilst in the Seven Years’ War Frederick the Great had repeatedly been very roughly handled by the green-coated soldiers of the Empress Elizabeth, gaining an extremely pyrrhic victory over them at Zorndorf in 1758 and going down to ignominious defeat at Kunersdorf in 1759. Other Russian victories from the same war numbered Gross-Jägersdorf and Kay, whilst in 1799 General Suvorov’s invasion of Switzerland had seen Russian troops gain a series of dramatic successes: on 1 October, for example, 5000 troops under General Rosenberg had utterly defeated a column of more than twice as many Frenchmen under no less a figure than André Masséna, a general who is always rated as one of Napoleon’s greatest commanders. In all this the self-same factors generally identified as the mainspring of Russian patriotism in 1812 had made an appearance. Thus, throughout the eighteenth-century commanders such as Rumiantsev and Suvorov had made every effort to play on the devotion of the soldiery to the Orthodox faith and to instill love of the tsar. In this respect it is the opinion of some historians that they appear to have had at least some success.
Three months after the first battle of Zurich, a reinforced Marshal Massena’s found himself in another unenviable position of having to fend off vastly greater numbers of Russians under the legendary Field Marshal Suvarov. The French commander, however, acted with a Bonapartish style and, after sending a small force to slow Suvarov’s progress through the passes, rounded on the other Russian army under General Alexander Korsakov. He smashed into the Russians and scattered them, causing 8000 casualties and capturing supplies, baggage and cannons. Then, Massena turned on Suvarov and in a brilliant offensive operation drove him away – killing, wounding and capturing almost 14,000 Russians.
The Second Battle of Zürich (25-26 September 1799) was a French victory over an Austrian and Russian force near Zürich. It broke the stalemate that had resulted from the First Battle of Zürich three months earlier and led to the withdrawal of Russia from the Second Coalition.