Prince Mikhail Ilarionovich Kutuzov, 1745-1813

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Born in St Petersburg on 5th September 1745 Mikhail was the son of a lieutenant general who had served Peter the Great. In 1757 he was sent to the Russian engineering and artillery school and was posted to the artillery at the age of 14, by 16 years he was commissioned and saw active service in Poland between 1764 and 1769 as a junior officer. In 1770 he requested to be posted to the Turkish front serving in the army of Count Peter Rumiantsev probably being present at the battle of Karkal where the Russians defeated a Tartar and Turkish army. In 1774 a severe head injury lost him an eye but he recovered and served under Alexander Suvarov in the Crimean army. He rose quickly being made a colonel in 1777, a brigadier in 1782, and a major general in 1784. In 1787 the Russians started a second war against Turkey where Kutuzov distinguished himself in the battle for Ochakov at the mouth of the Danube yet again being severely wounded and yet again recovering for active service. When the war ended he was recalled from active service and spent the years between 1793 and 1798 as a diplomat.

In 1802 Kutuzov fell out of favour politically and retired to the country only to be recalled in 1805 as Russia declared war on France as part of the Third Coalition. The Tsar gave him command of 55,000 troops and sent him to block the French advance on Vienna but before Kutuzov could link up with Austrians Napoleon won a great victory at Ulm. Now faced with a superior enemy Kutuzov fought delaying actions and skillful kept his army intact hoping to withdraw to the Russian border. Unfortunately the Tsar overruled him and the Austrians and Russians fought Napoleon at the battle of Austerlitz on 2nd December 1805.Napoleon smashed the allies in one of his greatest victories and Kutuzov dragged the remains of the Russian army back to the motherland. Tsar Alexander blamed Kutuzov for the defeat and removed him from command but his rescue of the army and past service helped Kutuzov secure himself the post of Governor General of Kiev in 1806 and of Vilinus in 1809. During the early 1800s Russia and Turkey had various border disputes in which Kutuzov often lead the Russian forces defeating the Turks at the battle of Rushchuk in July 1811 and again shortly afterwards on the banks of the Danube leading to the Treaty of Bucharest on 29th May 1812 which was very favourable to the Russians. For this service Kutuzov was created a count.

In June 1812 Napoleon began his invasion of Russia. Although Tsar Alexander still blamed Kutuzov for earlier failures public opinion forced the Tsar to appoint Kutuzov as commander of the Russian forces and a Prince the day after. Knowing he could not defeat the Grand Armee in a set battle Kutuzov retreated and harassed the French forces with minor battles as he retreated towards Moscow. The first large scale battle was fought at Borodino on 7th September with over 100,000 men on each side. The battle was incredibly bloody with the Russians suffering nearly 40,000 causalities and being forced to abandon their stand in front of Moscow, but the French failed to follow up this marginal victory. After a month of sitting in Moscow and starving the French drove south to escape the harsh Russian winter but at the battle of Maloyaroslavets were defeated by large Russian force under Kutuzov. The French and Russians now engaged in a game of cat and mouse with the French trying desperately to flee Russia while being attacked by Russian Cossacks and regulars. The French army eventually escaped but much diminished and in January 1813 Kutuzov entered Poland and Prussia but died on 16th April 1813 at Boleslawice in Silesia.

Whether Kutuzov was a great general is open to debate although he served the Russian army in high rank for 20 years he never defeated Napoleon in a decisive battle. He appears a cautious commander both before Austerlitz and after the battle, repeating this retreat and skirmish tactics in the 1812 campaign. His battles against the Turks although successful were against an opponent who was often outclassed when faced with European troops and weapons and when he had the chance of destroying the exhausted and starving French army in 1812 he let victory slip through his fingers. He was certainly a colourful character not above heavy drinking and fond of young women he even fell asleep during an important briefing, but even his enemies admitted that he was a cunning and knowledgeable officer.

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How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, TDP., Prince Mikhail Ilarionovich Kutuzov, 1745-1813, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_kutuzov.html

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