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The passage of the Bérézina by the Grande Armée

Retreat from Russia.  

November 26 - 29, 1812 

The passage of the Bérézina by the Grande Armée from 26 to 29 November 1812 is an event that marks the history of France and Europe. The battle which took place there allowed the army of twenty nations led by Napoleon to push back three armies of Czar Alexander I and to escape from the Russian trap. Indisputable military success, the passage of Bérézina will however incorrectly pass down to posterity as a synonym of tragedy or debacle.

The Grande Armée left Moscow to take up winter quarters on October 19, 1812. After several weeks of a retreat made difficult by an early winter and harassment  Russian troops, Napoleon  is in a critical position, trapped by the concentration of three Russian armies at the level of the natural obstacle constituted by the Bérézina marshes.


On November 23, 1812, the Napoleonic vanguard led by Marshal Oudinot jostled the Russian army of Admiral Tchitchakof and threw it back on the right bank of the Berezina. However, the Russians can destroy the Borisov Bridge, the only bridge in the region, and stop Napoleon's march towards Minsk and France. Followed by Koutouzov's army, exposed on his flank by Wittgenstein's army and blocked by the Berezina marshes, Napoleon then found himself under the threat of encirclement by three Russian armies, the outcome of which could only be to be the annihilation of the Grand Army and the capture of its leader. A physical description of Napoleon is even communicated to the Russian army to thwart any attempt to escape.

Construction of bridges .

Napoleon then simulated an attempt to cross a dozen kilometers downstream from Borisov. The feint works and Tchitchakov sends the main body of his troops there. 15 km upstream from Borisov, with reduced resources and in record time, the engineers built two trestle bridges at the ford of Stoudienka on November 25 and 26.



Crossing the Bérézina

The troops crossed the Berezina on November 26 and 27 practically without having to fight, in the absence of Russian troops.

After understanding their error, the Russians concentrated on the site of the passage and engaged in battle on November 28 at dawn on both sides of the Berezina. Napoleonic troops fight victoriously on both sides  : right bank, Tchitchakov is jostled and must retreat several kilometers from the site of the passage  ; left bank, Wittgenstein could not begin the heroic defense of Marshal Victor and failed in his attempt to jostle the Napoleonic rear guard in the Bérézina.

A total of 50,000 men successfully cross the river on these makeshift bridges  : all the army corps, the artillery and a large part of the baggage pass on the right bank. Alexander I's maneuver aimed at the annihilation of the Grande Armée did not work. On the 29th, at 8:30 am, on Napoleon's order, the bridges will be destroyed to block the pursuit of the Russians.


The fights of Borisov, the battles on both shores and the bombardment of the crowds near the bridges are very deadly. Estimates bring the number of civilian and military casualties to nearly 40,000 among belligerents on both sides and among local civilian populations.

© Jérôme Beaucour, May 2012

Center for Napoleonic Studies

Jan Hoynk van Papendrecht -Legermuseum.j

Passage of the Bérézina.  

Jan Hoynk van Papendrecht - Legermuseum.

pontonnier eble.jpg

Passage of the Berezina by the French army Franz von Habermann - Institut de France, Thiers library, Paris


1812 Charge of the cuirassier of Doumerc, at Bolshoi Stakov: the Russian troops are sent back several kilometers from the passage

Army museum

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