On This Day in Napoleonic History – 17 August 1812

17Battle of Smolensk

Smolensk was the first major battle of Napoleon’s Russian campaign. Because the city was well protected by walls and ravines, the Russian army under the command of Barclay de Tolly was able to retreat eastwards after suffering losses of around 6,000 men.

During the battle Smolensk caught fire, which Napoleon observed from his headquarters. Comte de S├ęgur said that ‘the Emperor contemplated in silence this awful spectacle.’ French troops entered the city on the 18th to find it deserted. When Napoleon heard that the Russians had sung Ta Deum in celebration of their supposed victory at Smolensk, he said, ‘They lie to God as well as to men.’

At the counsel of war Napoleon held in the city, he exclaimed, ‘Scoundrels, abandoning such a position. Come on, we have to march on Moscow.’ Everyone but Davout was in favour of stopping at Smolensk. Davout argued that ‘it is only in Moscow that we would sign a peace treaty.’ Napoleon agreed, even though he would years later admit that marching on Moscow was a mistake. ‘I should have put my soldiers in quarters at Smolensk for the winter,’ the former Emperor would say on Saint Helena.

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