Czar Paul I’s Army II

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Czar Paul Is Army II

“A Long Road Home”: Russian Prisoners in France,

Eman M. Vovsi

There were several reasons – economic, practical and
personal – why Russia participated in the Second Coalition. First, Bonaparte’s
Egyptian expedition 1798-1801 threatened Russia’s exports at the Mediterranean
to market in Europe and elsewhere. Second, Russia had been excluded from the
Second Congress of Rastatt, opening in December 1797 (where Russia, since 1779,
traditionally should have had a seat), which followed in the wake of the Treaty
of Campo-Formio, 17 October 1797, regulating some territorial questions between
France and Austria (as part of the Holy Roman Empire). Finally, the seizure of
Malta by the French at the end of June 1798 – where Tsar Paul I had been the
Protector of the Order of the Knights of the St. John since 1797 – was seen as
an additional expansion of the French hegemony in the Mediterranean. Thus,
Russian armies were sent to Europe – mainly to collaborate in the restoration
of the old pre-Revolutionary order. 

According to the treaty with Austria – a major initiator of
the Second Coalition against France’s encroachment in Italy – Russia sent her
forces under overall command of Field Marshal Alexander V. Suvorov to support
the Habsburgs. However, these troops did not come to Italy all at once. The
corps under General of Infantry Diedrich Arend von Rosenberg (originally
21,976) arrived in mid-April 1799, while Lt.-General Maxim Woldemar von
Rehbinder’s corps (10,489) – only in June. Additionally, a corps under
Lt.-General Ivan Hermann von Fersen (17,736) was sent to assist the British in
their invasion of Holland, where the French had established a satellite
Batavian Republic. Finally, Lt.-General Alexander M. Rimsky-Korsakov’s corps
(32,399) was sent to join the Austrian troops under Archduke Karl against the
French army commanded by General André Masséna operating in Switzerland.

While the victories of Field Marshal Suvorov’s in North
Italy over the French Republican armies of Generals Jacques Macdonald and Jean
Victor Moreau are well known, the fate of the Russian soldiers who fell into
captivity during the unsuccessful operations in Switzerland and Holland,
remains little known and therefore merits an in-depth look. The following
article will try to consider the following three basic questions: how many
Russian prisoners were there? what was their experience of captivity, and did
this captivity correspond with the existing norms of international law?
finally, what was the fate of these prisoners in the wake of France’s First
Consul Napoleon Bonaparte’s sudden rapprochement with the Russian Emperor, Paul
I, who agreed to reestablish Franco-Russian diplomatic relations?

Unfortunately, there is a dearth of documents and studies on
this topic. French archival documents dealing specifically with the Russian
prisoners are yet to be discovered. By far the most comprehensive source on the
subject is Istoria voiny Rossii s Franciei v tzarstvovanie Imperatora Pavla I v
1799 [History of Russia’s War against France during the Reign of Emperor Paul I
in 1799], a vast multi-volume study undertaken by the Russian general officer
and historian, Dmitry Milyutin, in 1852-53 and 1857. Utilizing Russia and some
French archival documents, this work offers detailed analysis of military
operations but has only a brief discussion of the fate of the Russian prisoners
taken in Switzerland and Holland. By contrast, General Frédéric Koch’s Mémoires
de Masséna (1849) provides only general observations and imprecise numbers on
operations of General André Masséna in Switzerland in 1799. Equally
disappointing are British sources assembled by Edward Walsh in his The
Expedition to Holland in the Autumn of the Year 1799 (1800), which concentrates
primarily on military operations, the aftermath and following
Anglo-French-Dutch (Batavian) peace negotiations.

However, with the help of an integral approach and
‘microhistory,’ we may glean sufficient information from existing primary and
secondary sources to allow for a reconstruction of the experiences of the
Russian POWs and the subsequent work of the Russian and French governments
towards their release.

In September 1799, according to the new war plan, Field
Marshal Suvorov – fresh from his great victory over the French at Novi in North
Italy (15 August) – advanced through the St. Gothard Pass with some 28,000 men
into Southern Switzerland to relieve the army of Archduke Karl which was
supported by the Russian troops under Lt.-General Rimsky-Korsakov (about 27,000
men). Suvorov ordered Rismky-Korsakov to block French troops under General
Masséna (over 35,000 in close proximity) by attacking them frontally between
Zurich and Glarus – until the main Russian army could properly deploy and take
the French in rear. However, Massena anticipated this maneuver and, on 25
September, he attacked Rimsky-Korsakov in strength and routed his force. 

The two-day battle had cost the Russian army nearly 3,000
killed and wounded; 26 guns, 51 artillery wagons and 9 colors were also lost. 

Many Russian wounded found a shelter at a nearby monastery
and the farm houses of Einsiedeln (north of modern Schwyz), where monks and
local farmers, hostile to the French soldiers, attended to their needs until
victorious French entered the city and declared all wounded as prisoners of

Meanwhile, some eight hundred kilometers northwest of
Zurich, the Russian corps under Lt.-General Hermann von Fersen supported the
British expeditionary force commanded by the Prince Frederick, Duke of York and
Albany, in a joint invasion of North Holland. After two indecisive battles at
Bergen (19 and 21 September 1799), the Allies went on the offensive, on 6
October 1799, against the Franco-Batavian army, commanded by General Guillaume
Brune, at Castricum. After several unsuccessful assaults, the Allies were
forced to retreat losing over 3,400 men. Disheartened by this setback, the Duke
of York informed General Brune of his readiness to negotiate an armistice. By
the convention signed on 18 October at Alkmaar, the Allied forces returned the
French and Dutch prisoners and evacuated Holland, the Russian contingent being
taken aboard the British vessels to the islands of Jersey and Guernsey. 

As of April 1800, there were 11,238 Russian soldiers and
officers on those British islands, all that remained of the 17,736 soldiers and
officers who had originally set off on this Dutch misadventure.

The defeat in Holland, which had a profound effect on
Emperor Paul I, was blamed on the British failure to cooperate, just as the
Russian setbacks in Switzerland was explained by the “treacherous” behavior of
Austria. Field Marshal Suvorov personally wrote to the Austrian Emperor Francis
II requesting the proper exchange of prisoners, including the Russians taken by
the French in Italy and Switzerland. Yet, responding on behalf of his master,
the Austrian Director of Foreign Affairs, Baron Johann Amadeus Franz de Paula
von Thugut, had refused to take part in it. He wrote that the Russian troops in
Switzerland were acting while placed under British financial subsidies and that
therefore Britain should shoulder responsibility for these prisoners. Further
discussions between Russian and Austrian officials proved to be in vain. 

On 22 October 1799, Emperor Paul I, incensed by the Austrian
behavior, announced his decision to withdraw from the coalition and ordered his
armies to return to Russia. 

But for Russian soldiers and officers who had been captured
in Switzerland and Holland, the road home soon took an unusual turn.

The precise number of the Russian prisoners of war remains
debated. Field Marshal Suvorov’s report stated that “no more than 300 men were
taken prisoners in Italy and about 1,000 in Switzerland” but this document is
most definitely incomplete. 

Dictating his reminiscences during his exile on St.-Helena,
Napoleon claimed that there were between 8,000 and 10,000 Russian military
personnel of various ranks taken prisoner during the Italian, Switzerland and
Holland campaigns in summer-autumn 1799. 

More reliable are Russian archival documents that list
Russian prisoners being held in France (along with wounded and those who died
in captivity), as of January 1801:

    Lt.-General Fabian
Gottlieb von der Osten-Sacken; five Major-Generals: Markov, Likoshin, Nechaev,
Garin and Kharlamov (died in prison);

    16 staff officers
(4 of which died in prison) and 150 company grade officers (14 died in prison);

    6,628 NCOs and
rank-and-file, including 2,459 wounded

Thus, the total number was 6,800 general officers, officers,
NCOs and soldiers. 

To this should be added Lt.-General Hermann von Fersen, who
was taken prisoner along with his staff, and some 1,500-2,000 Russian POWs
taken after the two battles of Bergen in September 1799 (total losses killed,
wounded and missing in action estimated at over 4,000). Furthermore, an unknown
number of Russian soldiers and officers were also taken prisoner after the
final Anglo-Russian defeat at the Battle of Castricum, 6 October 1799. At a
local town –now Egmond aan Zee – the Russians left 216 of their wounded who,
most likely, were also declared prisoners by victorious Franco-Batavian

The majority of them was imprisoned on the territory of the
Batavian republic. Therefore, the total number of the Russian prisoners
including wounded could be estimated well over 8,000 men of all ranks.

How did the French treat their prisoners of wars during the
numerous campaigns against the forces of European monarchies? If toward the
last decades of the Old Regime the treatment of prisoners among the major
European countries was more or less civilized – albeit captured officers were
often treated more “nobly” than the rank-and-file – that the outbreak of the
war in April 1792 changed the French attitude towards the first prisoners, such
as Austrians, Prussians, Croatians, etc. Attempting to apply ideals of the
Enlightenment to the harsh reality of war, the French government called for
humane treatment of prisoners. One of the first regulations, issued in early
May 1792, called for gathering prisoners in specially organized localities some
thirty miles from the frontier under “the safeguard of the nation against
violence and rigorous treatment.”  

Furthermore, the law of 25 May 1793 established modes of the
prisoner exchanges, excluding from it all émigrés and deserters. Another
document, issued a year later, organized the first special depots, which were
to receive, organize and manage prisoners. Finally, on 3 May 1799, the
Directory issued a decree regarding treatment of enemy prisoners detained in
France: each soldier and NCO was to receive a food ration and a monetary
stipend according to his rank as if he was on the active duty; officers were to
receive payments in the amount equivalent to an inactive French officer’s
payment of corresponding rank. Additionally, this decision called for
establishment of a commission on exchanging prisoners, though it was limited to
the Austrian prisoners only. 

Where were the Russian POWs detained? By 1800, all French
field forces – and all French field forces – and their prisoners, taken in
numerous campaigns – were dispersed amongst twenty-six divisions militaires
(military districts) that stretched from Brussels to the Eastern Pyrenees, and
from Paris to Marseilles – and soon, beyond. Since March 1790, the entire
French territory was divided, administratively, into départements (102 by
1800/1801) presided over by civil officials; the military districts, which
usually covered from two to five départements, were commanded by experienced
general officers and members of military administration appointed directly by
the Consular government. They were to act as liaisons between the civil and
military authorities, a task that included observation of territorial
administration and postal services, supervision of conscription and military
command in towns and fortresses, controlling units either stationed in or
marching through the territory; they were also responsible for prisoners
detained in their respective districts in special depots (soldiers) or under
house arrest (officers). 

Commanders of military districts corresponded directly with
the Bureau of Prisoners and Foreign Deserters at the War Ministry in Paris,
which oversaw the situation by furnishing necessary funds, selecting depots and
residences, organizing exchanges of POWs or administering the parolees. 

Regarding the Russian prisoners detained in France, the
Fourth Military District, led by sixty-six year old General of Division Joseph
Gilot, bore the brunt of responsibility. 

With its headquarters in Nancy, his district included
north-eastern départements of Meurthe and Vosges where most of the POWs were
gathered as a result of military campaigns in Italy and Switzerland.
Additionally, Lt.-General Hermann and some of his officers were imprisoned at
the Lille fortress (modern département Nord). Being desperate, he requested
from General Brune’s permission to leave on parole; the French commander, in
turn, forwarded Hermann’s request to First Consul Bonaparte. In response,
Bonaparte’s Minister of War, General Alexander Berthier demanded the release of
general officers Emmanuel de Grouchy, Catherine Dominique Pérignon, Louis de
Colli-Ricci and others, all taken prisoner during Suvorov’s Italian campaign in

The formal exchange of prisoners began in summer 1800 when
First Consul Bonaparte firmly secured his position after victory at Marengo, 14
June; the French General of Brigade Joseph Julhien, in the service of the
Cisalpine Republic (Milan), was put in charge of this mission, but his
authority was limited to Franco-Austrian exchanges. After the armistice,
Austria was neutralized and the First Consul, feeling the change of political
climate and, no doubt, planning to enforce the Franco-Russian rapprochement –
one of the foundations of his early foreign policy – took this issue further.
Thus, in a letter to the commander of the Fourth Military District, General
Gilot, dated 24 June 1800, the new French War Minister Lazar Carnot, writing on
behalf of the First Consul, outlined the following instructions regarding the
Russian officers in captivity:

    “The intention
of the First Consul is that all Russians, who felt victims by the destiny of
our arms, shall be looked after for their unfortunate fate and courage. You
shall personally seek to uphold the French conduct in this regard. The officers
of this nation now are coming under special consideration of the First Consul.
Their bravery, loyalty and delicate situation, which they undertook while in
detention, shall be held in high esteem.

    He does not
make distinction [between the French and Russian officers – E.V.] by allowing
them to settle in Paris and hoping that they would find it pleasant; he also
would like to grant an audience to those of them who wish to request so.

    You shall
deliver contents of this letter to the Russian officers who are detained within
the borders of your military district and order the issuance of traveling
documents to those who would request it.” 

Soon, as an ice-breaker, Lt.-General Osten-Sacken received a
personal letter form the War Minister Carnot on a free lodging in Paris while
on parole, which confirmed First Consul’s good will and a hope that “the French
people would express their trust and good intentions toward the Russian

More overtures followed. Since Russian foreign ministers
were forbidden from directly engaging with Republican France’s representatives,
French Foreign Minister Charles Maurice Talleyrand used his alternative
diplomatic channels in Hamburg to deliver, on 18 July 1800, an official letter
to Russian Vice-Chancellor Nikita Panin. This letter, besides placing blame on
both Britain and Austria for the previous conflicts, served as a chivalrous
gesture. First Consul Bonaparte offered, without any compensation, to return
all Russian prisoners held in France. At the same time, the Russian mission in
Berlin received a proposal from the Batavian Republic in which its government
expressed willingness to release Russian prisoners captured during the Holland

This offer of prisoner exchanges marked not only a formal
end of the War of the Second Coalition but, as far as Russia was concerned, it
led to a veritable diplomatic revolution. Tsar Paul I, who felt embittered
towards his erstwhile allies, was won over by this sudden show of empathy from
his former enemy. Starting in August 1800, Berlin was chosen as a place for
negotiations between French and Russian representatives whereas the Prussian
Foreign Minister Christian August Heinrich Curt von Haugwitz acted as a general
mediator. During its sessions, the French minister plenipotentiary in Berlin,
General of Division Pierre Riel Beurnonville confirmed that since both Austria
and Britan refused to exchange the Russian POWs, First Consul Bonaparte was
willing “while paying respect to the brave Russian troops,” to release them
without any conditions or obligations from the Russian Tsar.

At first, Bonaparte’s original offer to release the Russian
POWs was met with a rather cool response from the Russian tsar who replied that
he could only accept it on the understanding that these troops would swear not
to fight against France. He wanted to avoid any imputation of an unconditional

However, this response marked a good start for the
negotiations; the Tsar soon communicated, through his minister in Berlin, Baron
Burghard-Alexis Krüdner, that he was grateful for the French offer and that he
would send Göran Magnus Sprengtporten, a Russian general of mixed
Finnish-Swedish origins who was well known for his pro-French sympathies.
Sprengtporten’s mission to Paris was not limited to just negotiating the return
of the Russian prisoners; Sprengtporten was, in fact, instructed to try to
improve Franco-Russian relations, as well. The Russian Tsar’s state of mind is
well illustrated in the instructions which were given to Sprengtporten:

    “… [T]he
[Russian] Emperor participated in the coalition with the aim of giving
tranquility to the whole of Europe. He withdrew when he saw the powers were
aiming at aggrandizements which his loyalty and disinterestedness could not
allow, and as the two states of France and of Russia are not in position, owing
to the distance [separating them], to do each other any harm, they could by
uniting and maintaining harmonious relations between themselves, hinder the
other powers from adversely affecting their interests through their envy or
desire to aggrandize and dominate.”  

Besides technicalities regarding the Russian POWs, General
Sprengtporten was also told to to form two infantry regiments out of the
prisoners of war; it was generally understood that in the event that Malta fell
to the English, the island would be occupied by Russian, English and Neapolitan
troops. But when British Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson took Malta on 4 September
1800, he announced that he intended to hold the island until a peace conference
could determine its future. A senior Russian officer was dispatched to take
over the newly formed regiments who, freshly armed and accounted, were to be
used to garrison Malta once the island had been recovered from the British. 

This, however, did not happen, and Malta remained the apple
of discord which eventually led to the rupture of the Peace of Amiens and the
formation of the Third Coalition.

Meanwhile, Tsar Paul issued new instructions to General
Sprengtporten, who was told to lead former Russian POWs back to Russia; all
generals, staff and company-grade officers were to be reassigned to their
respective units while preserving their previous ranks and seniority. While in
exile on St. Helena, Napoleon reminisced that all Russian officers received
their swords back; Russian prisoners were reunited at Aix-la-Chapelle/Aachen
where they supposedly received new uniforms, equipment and armament made at
local manufactures. 

However, until today, no precise information has been
retrieved from the French archives that such new uniforms (subject to Tsar Paul
I regulation issued in mid-December 1796) along with new elements of equipment
and flags had been, in fact, made. Furthermore, there is no information
regarding the exact departure of the Russian POWs from France. General
Sprengtporten’s diary, which he submitted to the Topographical Department of
the War Ministry, stops after the 6 March 1801 entry when the column was
probably already on the march to Russia. Some of these soldiers and officers
would eventually return to France – either as new prisoners of the 1805-07
campaigns or as victors, such as general officers Osten-Sacken and Markov, in
1814. They certainly remembered the humane treatment by the French inhabitants
and officials during their days of misfortune and tried to pass these good
memories on to their soldiers.


Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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