Napoleon and Igumen

Submitted by Howard Cuckle

In 1812 our ancestors in Igumen were witnesses to one of the most dramatic events in European history, namely Napoleon's invasion of Russia. In the Summer, on their way to Russia, a Corps of Napoleon's Grand Armée passed close to the village and there is some evidence that another part of the army actually passed through it. Furthermore in the Winter, during their retreat from Russia, Igumen is actually mentioned in one report as a place where Cossacks attacked a division of the depleted Grand Armée.

At beginning of the campaign, in the last week of June, most of the Russians forces were deployed in the Pale. There were two main armies, the First Western Army under General Barclay centred in Vilna and the Second Western Army under General Prince Bagration based North of the Pripet Marshes. The Russian strategy was for Barclay to fall back to a specially built defensive position at Drissa, thus they thought drawing Napoleon forward into an attack and Bagration would push North to strike his flank. Barclay arrived at Drissa on 10-11 July only to find that the defences were inadequate. The First Army was therefore forced to fall further back, to Vitebsk, which they reached by 20 July. Meanwhile the Grand Armée advanced on a wide front. On 5 July Marshall Davout moved the 1st Corps South-East from Vilna and by 8 July had taken Minsk. He then moved rapidly forward towards Mogilev along the road that passes Igumen. The terrain was dry and to prevent the soldiers getting lost in the ensuing dust cloud musicians accompanied the soldiers. From accounts of the noise our ancestors must have heard it in Igumen.

Davout's advance was threatening to trap Bagration. His Corps was blocking the route to Mogilev in the East, the Pripet Marshes were to the South and he planned to swing the Second Support Army of Germans and Saxons up from the South-West. However to succeed he would need to take direct control of the troops and their commander, King Jerome of Westphalia, Napoleon's brother refused to move. Hence Bagration was able to escape South-East to Bobrusk, eventually linking up with Barclay but only after a brilliant outflanking manoeuvre by Napoleon which caused the Russians to retreat to Smolensk in Russia proper. Jerome's troops arrived on the Minsk-Mogilev road on 13 July and from the map were almost certain to have reached it by passing through Igumen. Jerome was chastised for his behaviour, took offence and returned to Westphalia.

On 16-17 August the Battle of Smolensk ended with the Russian armies in further retreat and Barclay losing command to Field Marshal Prince Kutuzov. Had Napoleon consolidated his position and resumed the campaign in 1813 the outcome would have been different. But he pressed on towards Moscow, on 7 September winning the great Battle of Borodino, at which Bagration was killed, and entered the capital on 15 September. But it was a Pyrrhic victory ultimately leaving Napoleon no choice other than retreat, which began on 19 October. The retreating army left Smolensk on 10 November and were once more in the Pale moving on a line half way between Vitebsk and Mogilev, through Orsha to Borisov where they held a bridge across the Berezina River.

By that stage not only was the Grand Armée being pushed from the East by the pursuing Russians but it was under attack from the North by the 1st Corps under General Wittgenstein and from the South by a Moldavian force led by Admiral Chichagov who recaptured Minsk on 16 November. General Bronikowski, the Polish commander of the garrison, withdrew to guard the West bank of the Berezina at Borisov. A Polish division commanded by General Dombrowski also moved back to defend the bridgehead at Borisov on 20 November. And here is where our ancestors may have come in, because on 19 November I have seen a reference to the rearguard of Dombrowski's division having been attacked by Cossacks whilst passing through Igumen. Despite Dombrowski's efforts the bridge fell to Chichagov, Napoleon was trapped on the East bank and it was not until 26-28 November that the Grand Armée with heavy losses was able to escape cross the river at a point further North. The Grand Armée was shrinking daily and from the 95,000 who left Moscow there were just 1,000 combatants and a few thousand stragglers who finally crossed the River Neiman at Kovno on 14 December.

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