Battle of Valutino, 19 August 1812

The battle of Valutino (19 August 1812) was the last chance for a major French success during Napoleon's manoeuvre of Smolensk, but a combination of inactivity by part of the French army and a stubborn Russian rearguard action meant that the opportunity was missed .

Russia 1812 - The Road to Moscow
Russia 1812
The Road to Moscow

On 4 August the Russian armies of Barclay de Tolly and Bagration met at Smolensk, marking the failure of the first phase of Napoleon's invasion of Russia. Napoleon was now based at Vitebsk on the Dvina River, north-west of Smolensk on the Dnieper, with his army stretched out between Vitebsk and Orsha on the Dnieper.

Both sides now decided to go onto the offensive. Napoleon's manoeuvre of Smolensk is regarded as one of his most impressive plans. The army was to turn south and cross the Dnieper east of Orsha. This movement would be shielded by Murat's cavalry, leaving the Russians on the north bank of the river. Napoleon would then advance east to Smolensk, get behind the Russians and cut the roads to Moscow. The Russians would be forced to either fight on ground of Napoleon's choice or retreat north and abandon Moscow.

Marshal Joachim Murat
Marshal Joachim Murat

The Russian offensive played into Napoleon's hands. On 7 August they moved west in three columns, but on 8 August Barclay de Tolly received false reports that the French were advancing to the north of Smolensk. The Russians abandoned the move north and instead faced north-west, ready to repel this attack.

The French crossed the Dnieper on the night of 13-14 August, and on 14 August began to advance east towards Smolensk. They ran into a single Russian division at Krasnyi, and were held up all afternoon as the Russians carried out a dogged fighting retreat (First battle of Krasnyi, 14 August 1812). This stopped the French cavalry from reaching Smolensk late on 14 August and allowed the Russians to rush reinforcements into the city on 15 August.

Napoleon wasted most of 15 August, and when he did go back onto the offensive he chose to carry out a series of frontal assaults on the Old Town of Smolensk, on the south bank of the Dnieper (Battle of Smolensk, 16-17 August 1812). Once again the Russians held on with great determination and the French were unable to fight their way into the Old Town.

Although the Russians had successfully defended Smolensk they were worried that Napoleon would head east again, cross the Dnieper somewhere to the east of Smolensk and cut the Moscow road. As a result they decided to withdraw from Smolensk and continue with the retreat east. The Russian troops evacuated the Old City on the night of 17-18 August and burnt the bridge. Early on 18 August Bagration began the move east, leaving Barclay de Tolly at Smolensk.

The French realised what was happening early on 18 August. They quickly captured the Old Town, and one party even fought its way across the river (crossing on the ruins of the bridge), but they were held off by the Russian rearguard. Barclay de Tolly moved off on the afternoon of 18 August, and both Russian armies were now on the move.

Portrait of Marshal Michel Ney (1769-1815)
Portrait of
Marshal Michel Ney

Napoleon still had a chance to salvage something from the failure of the manoeuvre on Smolensk. The two Russian armies were now badly separated, and Bagration had failed to properly guard the important crossroads at Lubino, eighteen miles to the east of Smolensk. By the morning of 19 August Ney's corps and Murat's cavalry were on the north bank of the river and they set off in pursuit of the Russian rearguard. At first Napoleon wasn’t sure which way the Russians were going, but when it became clear that they were heading east he decided to try and split the Russian column in two and defeat Barclay de Tolly. Junot was chosen to carry out the important blocking move. He was sent east along the south bank of the river, with orders to cross over at Prudichevo, capture the crossroads at Lubino and cut the Russian army in two.

The only serious fighting on 19 August was Ney and Murat's attack on the Russian rearguard, which included part of General Nikolay Tuchkov I's 3rd Corps and Eugen of Wurttemberg's division, both from the 1st Western Army. This was said to have been one of the most hard fought actions of the entire campaign, and the French were unable to make any significant progress..

Further east Tuchkov's brother General Pavel Alekseyevich Tuchkov III was sent to guard the crossroads at Lubino, but he French attack on the crossroads never really gathered momentum. By 1812 Junot was a shadow of his former self, and was seen to be drinking quite heavily on the day. It took him most of the day to find away across the Dnieper at Prudichevo. By the evening Murat was so annoyed by the failure of Junot's corps to appear that he rode off to find him. By now Junot had got across the river but even Murat couldn't get him to attack. Napoleon himself, who might have had more impact, left the battlefield at 5pm and retired to Smolensk.

The battle continued until around 11pm with heavy casualties on both sides. The Russians lost around 6,000 men, including General Tuchkov III who was captured leading a counterattack. The French lost 8,000 men, including General Gudin who was mortally wounded when both of his legs were shot off. Junot's inaction meant that the Russians were able to slip away to the east, and Napoleon blamed Junot for the day's failure. This was rather unfair - Junot's decline was well known and the younger Napoleon would have rushed to the key point and made sure that the attack went in.

The French failure at Valutino meant that the Russians were able to retreat towards Moscow, but Napoleon was soon to get the battle he desired. Russian public opinion finally convinced the Tsar to replace Barclay de Tolly. The veteran commander Kutuzov was given command of the army, and ordered to stand and fight. On 7 September Napoleon finally got the battle he desired, but his performance at Borodino was unimpressive and although Moscow soon fell to the French the Russian army had survived.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (8 April 2014), Battle of Valutino, 19 August 1812 ,

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