Battle of Berezina

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Battle of Berezina
Part of French invasion of Russia (1812)
National Museum in Poznan - Przejście przez Berezynę.JPG
Napoleon's crossing of the Berezina
an 1866 painting by January Suchodolski
oil on canvas, National Museum in Poznań
Date26–29 November 1812
The Berezina river near Borisov (now Barysaw)
Result Russian tactical victory
French strategic victory;
French cross the river but suffer massive casualties[1][2]
Flag of France.svg First French Empire
Coat of arms of the Duchy of Warsaw Duchy of Warsaw
Flag of Russia.svg Russian Empire
Commanders and leaders
Flag of France.svg Napoleon I
Flag of France.svg Nicolas Oudinot
Flag of France.svg Victor-Perrin
Flag of France.svg Michel Ney
Flag of Russia.svg Pavel Chichagov
Flag of Russia.svg Peter Wittgenstein
Flag of Russia.svg Mikhail Kutuzov
49,000 combatants,
40,000 stragglers.[3]
64,000 combatants,
Chichagov: 34,000;
Wittgenstein: 30,000.[3]
Casualties and losses
13,000–25,000 combatants
10,000–20,000 stragglers
25 cannons.
8,000–15,000 combatants.

The Battle of (the) Berezina (or Beresina) took place from November 26 to 29, 1812, between the French army of Napoleon, retreating after his invasion of Russia and crossing the Berezina (near Borisov, Belarus), and the Russian armies under Mikhail Kutuzov, Peter Wittgenstein and Admiral Pavel Chichagov. The battle ended with a mixed outcome. The French suffered heavy losses but managed to cross the river and avoid being trapped. Since then "Bérézina" has been used in French as a synonym for "disaster".


As the surviving masses of the Grande Armée struggled on for the perceived safety of the west, the Russian armies closed in on them.

The French had suffered a defeat just two weeks earlier during the Battle of Krasnoi. However, reinforcements who had been stationed near the Berezina during Napoleon's initial advance through Russia brought the numerical strength of the Grande Armée back up to some 30,000 to 40,000 French soldiers capable of fighting, as well as 40,000 non-combatants. The Russians had approximately 61,000 troops at the Berezina, with another 54,000 under Kutuzov just 40 mi (64 km) to the east who were approaching the river.

Battle and crossing[edit]

Napoleon's plan was to cross the Berezina River and head for Poland, while his enemies wanted to trap him there and destroy him. The original plan to cross the frozen river quickly proved 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 a few days earlier. However, the commander of the bridging equipment General Jean Baptiste Eblé had disobeyed Napoleon's earlier order to abandon equipment, instead retaining crucial forges, charcoal and sapper tools and thus only needed protection from Chichagov's force on the far west bank to span the river.[4]

Marshal Oudinot was given the task of drawing off the admiral and made a move towards the south. The plan worked, and Eblé's Dutch engineers braved ferociously cold water to construct the vital 100 m (330 ft) bridge. Hypothermic death in less than 30 minutes of exposure was likely. The four Swiss infantry regiments acted as the rearguard. Cavalry quickly crossed it followed by infantry to hold the bridgehead. The Swiss suffered terrible losses (of the four Swiss Regiments of Oudinot's corps only 300 soldiers survived), but managed to cover both positions and the retreat. This struggle is depicted in the Beresinalied. The Swiss' heroic stand saved most of the French troops.

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

By midday of the 27th, Napoleon and his Imperial Guard were across, and the strategy now swung to saving the Swiss 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. The corps of Marshal Davout and Prince Eugene crossed, 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, push Chichagov aside, and continue the retreat to France. However, the 125ème and 126ème Line Regiments, consisting mostly of Dutch troops, fought until ordered to surrender, and the survivors were taken into captivity.[5][6].

Chichagov was blamed for letting Napoleon escape, Ekaterina Ilyinichna Golenishchev-Kutuzova, the wife of Kutosov, quipped, "Peter Wittgenstein saved St. Petersburg, my husband Russia, and Chichagov Napoleon!"[7]


Berezina at Studzionka in winter 2015, looking north.
Berezina, same spot, looking south.

There is considerable disagreement regarding the numbers of casualties on both sides. While some 22,000 French men became casualties, these included a great number of stragglers, many of them civilians.[8] A higher estimate is provided by historian Jacques Garnier, who places French losses at 25,000 combatants, 25 cannon and 20,000 civilian stragglers, of whom around 10,000 were massacred by Cossacks.[3] Russian casualties were also high, and although a very moderate 19th century Russian estimate places them at 6,000[9] they probably amounted to 20,000 men.[3] Historian Alain Pigeard offers more moderate figures (combatants only): between 13,000 and 16,000 men (2000 killed, 7,000-10,000 wounded, plus the entire Partouneaux division killed, wounded or prisoners) for the French, 13,000 men (10,000 dead or wounded, 3,000 prisoners on the right bank) for the Russians. Among the French casualties were three generals and four colonels, killed during this battle.[10] Pigeard's estimate reflects more recent research, with most modern historians placing French losses at around 15,000 combatants and 10,000 stragglers. Russian losses are usually placed at up to 8,000 combatants.[11] According to the modern Russian encyclopedia, the Russian army lost from 8,000 to 15,000 killed, wounded and prisoners during four days; French casualties were from 25,000 to 40,000 [12] Richard K. Riehn estimated French losses at about 30,000; most of these were stragglers, actual battle losses being relatively small with about 10,000 French and 14,000 Russians actually involved.[13]

In popular culture[edit]

Leo Tolstoy references the battle in his War and Peace.[14]:640

The Battle of Berezina is depicted in the 1956 film War and Peace. The construction of a bridge over the Berezina is described in Honoré de Balzac's novel The Country Doctor.


The drama of the battle's story inspired many works of art centred on the crossing.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Riehn, p.387.
  2. ^ Clausewitz, Karl Riehn, p.387
  3. ^ a b c d Tulard, volume 1, p. 202-203.
  4. ^ Beresina : Battle of the Beresina : Napoleonic Wars : Retreat from Russia 1812 : Napoleon Bonaparte
  5. ^, pages 16-17
  6. ^ Austin, P.B., 1812. Napoleon's invasion of Russia , (London 2000), p. 282-283, and Zamoyski, A., 1812. Napoleons fatale veldtocht naar Moskou (Napoleon’s ill-fated campaign to Moscow) (Amsterdam 2005), p. 412-413.
  7. ^ Beaucour (dir), Fernand (2006). La Bérézina, Une victoire militaire. Paris: Economica. p. 77.
  8. ^ Marley, E. J. La Méthode Graphique (Paris, 1885) (as cited in Tufte, Edward R.'s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information)
  9. ^ Богданович М. И., История Отечественной войны 1812 года по достоверным источникам. Т.3.-СПБ.,1860
  10. ^ Pigeard, p.125-126.
  11. ^ Moscow, 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow, Adam Zamoyski, Harper/Collins, 2004, ISBN 0-06-108686-X, page 480.
  12. ^ Отечественная война 1812 года. Энциклопедия. - М., РОССПЭН, 2004, стр.65
  13. ^ Riehn, p.387
  14. ^ Tolstoy, Leo (1949). War and Peace. Garden City: International Collectors Library.


  • Mikaberidze, Alexander (2010). Napoleon's Great Escape: The Battle of the Berezina. London: Pen and Sword. ISBN 978-1-84415-920-8.
  • Morelock, Jerry, Napoleon's Russian nightmare. Misjudgments, Russian strategy and “General Winter” changed the course of history, 2011
  • Weider, Ben and Franceschi, Michel, The Wars Against Napoleon: Debunking the Myth of the Napoleonic Wars, 2007
  • Zamoyski, Adam, 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow, 1980
  • Chandler, David, The Campaigns of Napoleon New York, Macmillan, 1966
  • Tulard, Jean - "Dictionnaire Napoléon”; Librairie Artème Fayard, 1999, ISBN 2-213-60485-1
  • Pigeard, Alain - "Dictionnaire des batailles de Napoléon", Tallandier, Bibliothèque Napoléonienne, 2004, ISBN 2-84734-073-4
  • Pigeard, Alain - "La Bérézina", Napoléon Ier Editions 2009

Further reading[edit]

  • Mikaberidze, Alexander (2010). Napoleon's Great Escape: The Battle of the Berezina. London: Pen and Sword. ISBN 978-1-84415-920-8.

Coordinates: 54°19′29″N 28°21′16″E / 54.32472°N 28.35444°E / 54.32472; 28.35444