The Battle of Berezina

26-29 November 1812

Map by [HWK]Stone





The Battle of Berezina took place November 26-29, 1812 between the French army of Napoleon, retreating after his invasion of Russia and crossing the Berezina (near Borisov, now Barysaŭ, in Belarus), and the Russian army under Kutuzov. The battle ended with a victory for the Russians. The French suffered very heavy losses. Since then "Berezina" has been used in French as a synonym of catastrophe.


As the surviving masses of the Grande Armee struggled on for the perceived safety of the west, the Russian armies of generals Wittgenstein, Kutuzov and Admiral Pavel Chichagov closed in on them.


The French had suffered a defeat just two weeks earlier during the Battle of Krasnoi. However, reinforcements of almost 30,000 soldiers who had been stationed in the area during Napoleon's initial advance through Russia brought the numerical strength of the Grande Armée back up to some 49,000 French soldiers capable of fighting, as well as 40,000 non-combatants. The Russians had more than 140,000 troops.


Napoleon Bonaparte's plan was to cross the Berezina River and head for Poland, while his enemies wanted to trap him there and destroy him. Bonaparte's original plan to cross the frozen river quickly proved to be impossible, as the usually frozen waterway had thawed and was now impassable.


The nearby bridge at Borisov had been destroyed and most of the equipment to build a pontoon bridge had been destroyed only a few days earlier. Fortunately, for the French, the commander of the bridging equipment General Jean Baptiste Eble had kept crucial forges, charcoal and sapper tools and only needed protection from the Chichagov's force on the far west bank to span the river.


Marshal Oudinot was given the task of drawing off the admiral and made a move towards the south. The plan worked and so Eble's engineers braved ferociously cold water to construct the vital 100-metre bridge. Cavalry quickly crossed it followed by infantry to hold the bridgehead.


A second structure opened within hours and cannons were taken across it to bolster the defensive perimeter. Their arrival was just in time as Chichagov realised his error and attacked the 11,000 French troops.


By midday of the 27th, Bonaparte and the Imperial Guard were across and the strategy now swung to saving the rearguard, which was fighting against Wittgenstein's arriving army.


One of the spans broke in the late afternoon but more feats of engineering skill had it repaired by early evening. Marshal Davout and Prince Eugene got their corps across leaving Marshal Victor's IX Corps to hold off the enemy on the east bank.


Boosting his firepower with artillery from across the river, Victor held out until after midnight when his forces were able to join their colleagues and push Chichagov aside and continue the retreat to France.


While some 25,000 French troops became casualties and a further 20,000 Russians, their losses paled next to that of the French stragglers. At least 10,000 were massacred by rampaging Cossacks, while another 20,000 died in the near freezing water or were crushed to death in the panic to cross the bridges.





The Map


The map presents the situation where most of the Grande Armée has crossed the Berezina except for Victor’s rear-guard. Victor’s forces are trying to hold Wittgenstein’s forces at bay while the stragglers cross the river. Similarly the bulk of the remnants of the Grande Armée are preparing for an attack by Chichagov on the Western side of the river.


The only crossings presented on the map are the bridges built by Eble's engineers so that the battle concentrates on control of those bridges if either armies set of divided forces is to be united.


(See large map)


Victory Conditions


The French (blue) must prevent the destruction of at least 150 of the 300 civilian stragglers (peasants), situated initially at the village of Studzienka to the right of and near to the bridges, for one hour of game


Conversely, the Russian forces (green) must destroy more than 150 of the stragglers before one hour of gameplay elapses.