Monday, July 10, 2017

Napoleonic Russian Troops

The Imperial Russian Army was the largest and, arguably, the most powerful of the forces that confronted Napoleon. Considered slightly barbaric by their more "enlightened" allies, the Russians had a reputation for toughness and stoic behavior, especially on the defense. The Russian artillery was large in numbers and deadly on the battlefield. Although the Russian line cavalry was solid and dependable, the infamous Cossacks would fill their opponents with fear while on campaign.

A Russian army in miniature is definitely a colorful and powerful force to build and game.

My Russian Napoleonic collection is primarily made up of troops of the 1812-1814 campaigns


In the 1790's, during the Revolutionary wars, the Russian army was patterned after the Prussian model and was linear in nature. Tsar Paul I had an almost unhealthy obsession for anything Prussian and this was definitely reflected throughout the army. For infantry, the line formation was considered the primary formation for battle, while the column by platoons (company column) was to be used for maneuver only.

Tsar Paul I committed his forces to ally with the British in Holland and the Austrians in Switzerland and Italy against the dreaded French foe. The Holland expedition was a disaster, but the Russo/Austrian force under Marshal Suvarov was initially victorious in Italy. Notable victories at Trebbia and Novi cemented the brilliant Suvarov's reputation. Although defeated in Switzerland by Massena (Suvarov was not present at the battle), the Russians built on their reputation for toughness and a particular fondness for the bayonet.

Unfortunately for the Russians, Marshal Suvarov was an exceptional representative of Russian leadership. As a whole, the officer corps in the Russian army was typically horrible and drunk most of the time. Although the officers on the regimental and brigade levels were capable, the higher echelon of leaders were considered deplorable.

In 1805, the Russians and their Austrian allies were beaten decisively at Napoleon's crown jewel of battles, Austerlitz. The Austrians promptly sued for peace, while the Russians retreated.

In 1806, allying itself with Prussia against the French, the Russian army had reorganized with a fixed divisional structure, which greatly increased its administrative and command capability.  The Prussians engaged the Grande Armee before the Russians could arrive and the army was essentially destroyed at the battles of Jena and Auerstadt. The Russians retreated into Poland and waited for Napoleon's advance.

The 1807 campaign in Poland featured the most brutal fighting up to this point in the Napoleonic Wars. The Russians fought the French to a standstill in the snow of Eylau. Although a bloody draw, the Russians abandoned the field, allowing Napoleon to proclaim victory. Eylau saw the massive use of Russian artillery to decisively damage the French. Marshal Augereau's Corps was effectively blown apart by the Russian guns. Although later defeated by Napoleon at Friedland, the 1807, the Russians proved in 1807 that they were worthy foes.

Russian artillery was especially dominating on the fields of Eylau and Borodino

The Treaty of Tilsit  agreed upon between the Emperor Napoleon and the Emperor Alexander temporarily tied Russian interests to France. 

Russian imperial interests eventually collided with France as well as Alexander's disdain for the continental system, which steadily weakened the Russian economy. The formation of Poland as the Duchy of Warsaw also threatened Russia. War was on the horizon and Napoleon gathered a massive Grande Armee and invaded Russia in 1812.

The Russians had utilized  the years of peace wisely and reorganized their forces along the Corps system. This was evident in the battles for "Mother Russia" in 1812. Employing a "scorched earth" policy to draw the French and their allies further into the interior of Russia, the Russians finally made their stand outside Moscow at the Battle of Borodino. Borodino was the bloodiest battle to date in the Napoleonic Wars. Both sides butchered each other, with the Russian guns and unyielding infantry proving to be especially stubborn. At the end of the day, the Russians left the field, but had damaged the Grande Armee severely. Napoleon entered an abandoned Moscow but soon began the long and devastating retreat as winter reared its head. The fearsome Cossacks were especially brutal and established a fearsome reputation among the French. By the end of the campaign, Napoleon's proud army had disappeared and the Russians continued to pursue.

Russian Cossacks and Bashkirs developed a fearsome reputation for raiding in the 1812 campaign

Napoleon proved to be a magician in order to build another army from scratch in the spring campaign of 1813. Although Napoleon had lost an army in Russia, the 1812 campaign was no less kind to the Russian armies. Allying themselves with a resurgent Prussia, the battles of Lutzen and Bautzen were fought and considered minor French victories, but with a substantial lack of cavalry, Napoleon was unable to pursue effectively. A cautious Austria finally joined the coalition with the Prussians and Russians and, after a lengthy campaign, finally defeated the French at the massive battle of Leipzig.

A final campaign for the occupation of France followed in 1814, with Napoleon pulling off miracle after miracle against the allies. Eventually, the French army was diminished to the point of annihilation and Napoleon abdicated. Except for the Hundred Days campaign in 1815 in which the Russians did not see combat, the Napoleonic Wars were over.


The Russian line infantry and jagers were organized into 4 company battalions, 2-3 battalions to a regiment, 2-3 regiments per brigade, and 2-3 brigades per division. Although the line battalions, on paper, contained a grenadier company (the jagers had a carabineer company), these elite troops were typically formed into combined grenadier battalions and brigaded as a reserve force.

The Russian infantry endured harsh discipline that owed much to the cultural treatment of the serfs and peasants of the Russian population by the nobility. This discipline did indeed produce extremely tough soldiers who seemed to withstand hardship of any kind.

The Russian army boasted a powerful Imperial Guard as well and was considered second only to Napoleon's Imperial Guard in size and reputation.

Russian infantry had a reputation for extreme toughness

Russian grenadiers form a powerful brigade


Russian cavalry of the line was made up of Curassiers, Dragoons, and Hussars. The cavalry typically performed well but was overmatched in the earlier years by the extremely well-led French cavalry.

The irregular Russian cavalry consisted of a large number of Cossacks, as well as Bashkirs. Although no match for formed European cavalry on the battlefield, these irregular horsemen excelled at ambushes, woods fighting, and lightning raids on supply lines. Their reputation for not offering quarter and their particular fondness for plunder created a strong fear among the French.

Russian armored cuirassiers in reserve

Russian Hussars at the ready

Ural Cossacks support the infantry


The Russian artillery arm also had a reputation for toughness and tenacity on the field. Batteries were typically huge, sporting 12 guns on the average. The Russians were essentially the first nation to employ massed batteries at Eylau, to horrific effect. Training and leadership was considered excellent. Equipment was maintained at a high level, although gunpowder has been mentioned as a weak spot. The artillery's philosophy was also one of defense, whereas the French tactical philosophy was to use their guns in support of an attack, therefore Russian position batteries typically were immobile and static.

Supply and Logistics

Due to the poor leadership within the Russian officer corps, supply was always a problematic area. When allied with the Austrians and Prussians, the Russian armies benefitted directly from their allies' logistical prowess. When left to their own devices, the Russians subsisted on very little food and forage (another example of the toughness of the Russian soldier).


Especially in the early years, the Russian officer corps was probably the most inefficient and amateurish of all of the coalition nations. The exception was the superb Marshal Suvarov. The inability of the Russians to employ offensive power dictated that many battles were fought on the defense. The years between 1807 and 1812 saw many reforms and the reputation of Russian leadership greatly improved. Leaders like Platov, Kutusov, and Bagration proved to be outstanding generals in the fight against Napoleon.


As a wargaming army, the Russians are one of my favorites. Extremely tough on defense, they are colorful and unique among their European allies.

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