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Russiacrossing the river Niemen. What officially was proclaimed as the Second Polish War had begun. The Russian army had spend a year and a half deploying for an offensive, but instead began retreating the moment operations began.
To add to the general confusion, issues like command and strategy had not been decided because of chaos and intrigue at the Russian headquarters. As nobody and nothing was prepared, the Russian army commanded by general Barclay therefore continued their retreat without major resistance, looking for a suitable position in which to make a stand.
Apparently such a position was not easily found, so the retreat continued for weeks. This development left people in Moscow and St. Petersburg bewildered about what was going on, and Tsar Alexander found himself in a difficult position.
Already on 28 June Napoleon entered Vilna, km east of Niemen In western Russia the weather July turned out to be exceedingly warm with daytime temperatures reaching 36oC Zamoyski Many French soldiers who had previously campaigned in Egypt claimed that they had never marched in such a heat.
Early July a heavy thunderstorm drifted across the area near Vilna, for a short time making all roads impassable. After the rainstorm, the warm weather continued. The remaining horses were having a terrible time. Unused to the kind of diet they were exposed to, they suffered from colic and diarrhoea or constipation.
The overall supply situation therefore rapidly deteriorated, and most soldiers had to find something to eat and to prepare it themselves. Not surprisingly, under these circumstances, many soldiers died of dehydration, malnutrition and hunger, while others got dysentery. The summer weather was beginning to turn the whole campaign into a nightmare.
The Russian army was no happier than the French, and its troops were in a state of dejection as they retreated towards Smolenskkm southwest of Moscow. Napoleon was convinced that the Russian army would have to fight in defence of the wholly city of Smolensk.
The Russian forces and general Barclay were, however, in a state of tactical confusion, and no strong defence of the city was organised. Smolensk went up into flames, and fell to Napoleon 17 August. The burnt-out city represented neither an effective bastion nor a hard-needed resource for his army.
According to his secretary Baron Fain ZamoyskiNapoleon himself was presumably feeling disheartened and disgusted at the turn events had taken, and did not quite know what to do next. The battle of Smolensk had also demonstrated the unpleasant fact to Napoleon, that the individual Russian soldier did not lay down his arms even in very difficult situations.
The French were dismayed by all this. This was not how war was supposed to be. In addition, these discomforts were added to by the fact that the Russians had adopted a new tactic now that the invaders were in the Russian homeland proper.
They evacuated the entire population as they retreated, leaving towns and villages deserted and burnt down. It became increasingly difficult for the French army to find provisions.
Napoleon realised that he could not stop where he was, and as he would not retreat for political reasons, he could only advance in the hope of eventually obtaining a decisive military victory over the Russians.
If not before, the Russians would surely make a stand in defence of their old capital Moscow.
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Based on existing knowledge on climate in western Russia, Napoleon at that time expected at least two months of decent campaigning weather ahead. The mood at Russian headquarters was hardly better, even though the general situation was changing in their favour.
The retreat was a good deal less orderly than before, and the Russian armies were now leaving behind them a trail of abandoned wagons and dead or dying men and horses. Like the French, the Russians were disturbed by the inhumane turn the campaign had taken.
The ongoing retreat meant that discipline were fast breaking down, and everybody was on the lookout for traitors. All this was having a detrimental effect on the army and Barclay's authority. Petersburg Tsar Alexander found the general mood depressingly defeatist, and decided that the Russian army needed a new commander instead of Barclay.
He was hard pressed by the public opinion to choose Field Marshal Mikhail Ilarionovich Kutuzov as Barclay's successor.Gerry, Thanks much for the great resource! On that topic, Bo Jinn comments in Illogical Atheism.
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