Battle of Pułtusk

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Pułtusk

partof=the War of the Fourth Coalition
date=December 26 1806
place=Pułtusk, New East Prussia
result=Inconclusive; Russian retreat.
combatant1=flagicon|France First French Empire
combatant2=flagicon|Russia Russian Empire
flagicon|Prussia|1803 Kingdom of Prussia
commander1=flagicon|France Marshal Lannes
commander2=flagicon|Russia General Bennigsen
strength1=20,000 soldiers plus another 5,000-7,000 late arrivals [Petrie "Poland" 2001 ed, p.96]
strength2=40,000-45,000 soldiers, 128 guns [Petrie "Poland" 2001 ed, p.96]
casualties1=7,000 in total
casualties2=5,000 in total|

The Battle of Pułtusk took place on December 26 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars near Pułtusk, Poland. 35,000 Russian soldiers with 128 guns under Bennigsen resisted the attacks of 25,000 French soldiers under Marshal Lannes, and withdrew the next day.

trategic situation

After defeating the Prussian army in the autumn of 1806, Napoleon entered partitioned Poland to confront the Russian army, which had been preparing to support the Prussians until their sudden defeat. Crossing the River Vistula, the French advance corps took Warsaw on 28 November 1806.

The Russian army was under the overall command of Field Marshal Mikhail Kamensky, but he was old and becoming infirm. The Russian First Army of some 55,000 to 68,000 men, [Petre "Poland", 2001 ed, p38] commanded by Count Bennigsen, had fallen back from the Vistula to the line of the River Ukra, [Petre "Poland", 2001 ed, p70] in order to unite with the Second Army, about 37,000 strong, [Petre "Poland", 2001 ed, p39] under Buxhoeveden, which was approaching from Russia and was still some 15 days march from the First Army. However, realising his mistake in allowing the French to cross the Vistula, Kamensky advanced at the beginning of December to try to regain the line of the river. [Petre "Poland", 2001 ed, p40] French forces crossed the River Bug at Modlin on 10 December, and the Prussian Corps commanded by L'Estocq failed to retake Thorn. This led Bennigsen on 11 December to issue orders to fall back and hold the line of the River Ukra. [Petre "Poland", 2001 ed, p73]

When this was reported to Napoleon, he assumed the Russians were in full retreat. He ordered the forces under Murat (the 3rd corps of Davout, 7th of Augereau and 5th under Lannes and the 1st Cavalry Reserve Corps) to pursue towards Pułtusk while Ney, Bernadotte, and Bessières (6th, 1st and 2nd Cavalry Reserve Corps respectively) turned the Russian right and Soult's (4th Corps) linked the two wings of the army. [Petre "Poland", 2001 ed, p76]

Kamensky had reversed the Russian retreat, and ordered an advance to support the troops on the River Ukra. [Petre "Poland", 2001 ed, p77] Because of this, the French experienced difficulty crossing the river and it was not until Davout forced a crossing near the junction of the Ukra and the Bug on 22 December [Petre "Poland", 2001 ed, p79-82] that the French were able to advance.

On 23 December after an engagement at Soldau with Bernadotte’s 1st Corps, the Prussian corps under L'Estocq was driven north towards Königsberg. Realising the danger, Kamensky ordered a retreat on Ostrołęka. Bennigsen decided to disobey and stand and fight on 26 December at Pułtusk. He had available the 2nd division of Ostermann-Tolstoy and 6th of Sedmaratzki, and part of the 4th (Golitsyn's) and 3rd Osten-Sacken’s divisions.

To the north-west, most of the 4th Division commanded by General Golitsyn and the 5th Division under General Dokhturov were falling back towards Ostrolenka via the town of Golymin. [Petre "Poland", 2001 ed, p89]

The weather

The weather caused severe difficulties for both sides. Mild autumn weather had lasted longer than normal. [Petre "Poland", 2001 ed, p354] The usual frosts, which rendered the inadequate roads passable after the muddy conditions of autumn, were broken by thaws. There was a thaw on 17 December [Correspondance de Napoleon Ier, XI 497] and a two-day thaw on 26 and 27 December. [Petre "Poland", 2001 ed, p. 40] The result was that both sides found it very difficult to manoeuvre; in particular the French (as they were advancing) had great difficulty bringing up their artillery. Davout recorded it took two hours to cover 2½ miles. [Petre "Poland", 2001 ed, p. 93]

There were also difficulties with supply. Captain Marbot, who was serving with Augereau's Corps wrote:

The site of the battle

Pułtusk lies [Petre " Poland", 2001 ed, p90] on the west bank of the River Narew with a suburb on the east bank. The road from Strzegociz crossed the river by a bridge and then ran north-west towards Golymin. A second road from Warsaw entered the town from the south-west, and then ran along the west bank of the river towards Rozan. Before it reached Pułtusk this road was joined by one from Nasilesk. Another longer route to Rozan ran along the east bank. The final road was that to Markow, which ran northwards from the town.

The town itself lay on low ground. To the north and west lay a plateau, narrowing to a wide ridge nearer the river. A ravine cut into the plateau near the river. A large wood lay on the north-west side of the plateau, towards the village of Mosin. Further out from the plateau more woods covered the approaches from Warsaw.

The battle

Bennigsen arrayed his forces [For details see Petrie "Poland" 2001 ed, p.90-107; Chandler "Campaigns" p.521; Chandler "Dictionary" p.439] along the Pułtusk - Golymin road, with three lines composed respectively of 21, 18 and 5 battalions. The left rested on the town, the right on the Mosin wood. The artillery was positioned in front of the first line. On the extreme right General Barclay de Tolly occupied part of the Mosin wood with three battalions, a cavalry regiment and an artillery battery covering the road to Golymin. General Bagavout covered the left of the line and the bridge over the Narew from a position in front of the ravine with ten battalions, two squadrons of dragoons and an artillery battery. 28 squadrons of cavalry were deployed along the edge of the ridge, linking Barclay and Bagavout and the cossack cavalry was deployed in front of them. [Petrie "Poland" 2001 ed, p.91]

Lannes had orders to cross the Narew at Pułtusk with his Corps He was aware that there was a Russian force in front of him, but was not aware of its size. After struggling through the mud, his first troops reached the area at about 10 a.m., [Petrie "Poland" 2001 ed, p.95] and drove the Cossacks back onto the Russian main line. Because of the terrain Lannes could only see the Russian advance positions on the extreme left and right with the cavalry between them.

Lannes deployed Suchet's Division on his left, opposite the Mosin wood, then Gazan's, Wedell's and Claparede's divisions to cover the rest of the Russian line. The few guns were deployed on the left and in the centre. [Petrie "Poland" 2001 ed, p.96]

At about 11 a.m. the French right advanced against Bagavout. The Russian Cossacks and cavalry were driven back and Bagavout sent forward a Jäger unit, which was driven back despite artillery support. The French centre had also advanced, to attack Bagavout from the flank. But this manoeuvre exposed them to the Russian cavalry line, seven squadrons of which suddenly attacked the French flank in a sudden snow storm while Bagovout's cavalry and the jägers attacked from the front. A French infantry battalion then took the Russian cavalry in their flank. After a confused melee the Russians fell back to their original position. An attempt by Lannes's cavalry division, under Treilhard, to advance was driven off by artillery.

At the same time as the French right attacked, on the French left Suchet's division, lead by Lannes in person, attacked the position held by Barclay. The initial attack drove the Russians out of the wood, and captured the battery stationed there, but Barclay’s reserve drove the French back into the wood and recaptured the guns.

The French centre had also advanced. The Russian cavalry withdrew behind the main line, exposing the French to artillery fire from the Russian batteries.

By about 2 p.m. [Petrie "Poland" 2001 ed, p.99] the French position looked dangerous. The Russian left had held, the French centre was suffering from the artillery fire, and on the right increasing pressure was beginning to force Suchet's men out of the wood. A French retreat looked a distinct possibility when unexpected reinforcements arrived.

The 3rd division of Davout’s 3rd Corps, temporarily commanded by his Chief of Staff d'Aultanne, had been ordered to pursue a Russian column apparently retiring on Pułtusk. Concerned about the strength of the Russian cavalry force which was escorting guns and stores d'Aultanne had pursued but not engaged. He was preparing to stop for the night when he heard the sounds of combat to his right, and so marched his men towards Pułtusk. Due the state of the roads he was only able to bring up one gun. [Petrie "Poland" 2001 ed, p.99]

Seeing this force approach, Bennigsen wheeled back his main line to face the wood, thus reducing the artillery fire directed at Lannes’s units. Barclay, finding d'Aultanne attacking his right flank, fell back to the right of the main Russian line. Bennigsen reinforced him with two infantry regiments and some cavalry, and directed an artillery battery to fire on the wood. Thus reinforced Barclay attacked the wood. The French were driven out, and d'Aultanne’s right flank exposed. This was attacked by twenty squadrons of Russian cavalry, but the 85th French infantry regiment formed squares and by a steady fire drove the cavalry off. At about 8 p.m. the combat died away, and d'Aultanne retired to the edge of the woods. [Petrie "Poland" 2001 ed, p.101] .

The arrival of d'Aultanne's division also had an effect on the French right wing. With the switch of much of the Russian artillery to support Barclay the French were able to use their own guns to support a fresh attack at about 2 p.m. [Petrie "Poland" 2001 ed, p.102] on Bagavout by the divisions of Claparede and Wedell, supported by Gazan on their left. Bagavout's men were driven back over the ravine in their rear, and their guns captured. Osterman-Tolstoy established a battery to Barclay's right and reinforced by five battalions he attacked. After a desperate fight the French were thrown back and the guns recaptured. The French right and centre fell back to their start positions as night fell.

During the night, Bennigsen decided to retire, and did so the next day, 27 December, using the longer road to Rozan along the east bank of the Narew and then continued to Ostrołęka. d'Aultanne's division also moved off, to rejoin the 3rd Corps at Golymin. Lannes was in no position to pursue the Russians, and occupied Pułtusk on 28 December.

Analysis of the battle

Losses on both sides are disputed. Lannes claimed the Russians lost 2,000 killed, 3,000 wounded and 1,800 prisoners, a total of 6,800; Sir Robert Wilson, British liaison officer with the Russian army, claimed the Russians lost less than 5,000 men. Lannes admitted 700 French killed and 1,500 wounded; Russian authorities said the French losses were 7,000 killed and wounded and 70 prisoners. Given the French were attacking and exposed to artillery fire a total for them of 7,000 killed, wounded and prisoners does not seem unreasonable, and a total of 5,000 casualties for the Russians. [Petrie "Poland" 2001 ed, p.103 quotes the various authorities]

Bennigsen claimed a victory. The consensus seems to be [Petrie "Poland" 2001 ed, p104-5] that having decided to fight, in defiance of his orders he could have better disposed his forces, taken the offensive and destroyed Lannes's corps before d'Aultanne had come up. Bennigsen said he thought he was facing 60,000 French under Napoleon in person, which may explain his defensive stance. Bennigsen also complained that Buxhoeveden did not support him, but that officer was obeying his orders to retire.

Lannes, on the other hand, was following his orders, and the result was to find himself facing a superior force in a good defensive position. Napoleon's orders had not allowed for this, and unaware of the odds against him Lannes attacked. If d'Aultanne had not used his initiative and marched to the sound of the guns the result may have been very different.

The aftermath

At Golymin, General Golitsyn had successfully held off a superior French force. This, combined with the failure of Soult's Corp to pass round the Russian right flank destroyed Napoleon’s chance of getting behind the Russian line of retreat and trapping them against the River Narew.

The Russian 5th and 7th Divisions retired towards the main body of the army at Rozan. Bennigsen's forces fell back to Nowogrod on the River Narew, uniting on 1 January 1807 with the forces under Buxhoeveden. On 28 December, Napoleon stopped his advance and, having lost contact with the Russian army, decided to go into winter quarters. His troops were exhausted and discontented, and the supply situation was in great disorder. [Petre "Poland", 2001 ed, p117]

The break in hostilities did not last long - on 8 February 1807, the two armies faced each other at the dreadful Battle of Eylau.

Forces involved

This list is created using the information referred to in Petre's "Napoleon's Campaign in Poland 1806-1807”, [Petre "Poland", 2001 ed, p89] and by checking the details for the same formations for the order of battles for Jena [ Chandler, David G. “Jena 1806”. Osprey 1993. ISBN 1-85532-285-4] and Elyau. [ Stolarski. P; "Elyau", Miniature Wargames Magazine, March 1997]

The French list is more detailed as there are more sources to work from. Petre was using the French Army archives for his research, and most unit details appear to be taken from there. The sources referred to give unit compositions down to individual battalions and squadrons.

Petre's source for the Russian units present was the memoirs of Sir Robert Wilson, British liaison officer with the Russian army. This was published in 1810 (“Remarks on the Russian Army”). It does not appear to contain any further information to help identify individual units. Stolarski’s article [ Stolarski. P; "Elyau", Miniature Wargames Magazine, March 1997] appears to make too many assumptions about the Russian order of battle at Eylau to be reliable.


3rd Corps - Marshal Davout (part)

:3rd Infantry Division normally under Gudin, but on the day commanded by d'Aultanne – ::Two Brigades totalling 9 battalions of infantry::Cavalry - 70 chasseurs and 100 dragoons [Petre "Poland" 2001 ed. p100; the rest of the Corp's cavalry was at Golymin] ::1 gun.

:5th Corps - Marshal Lannes

::1st Infantry Division under Suchet - Three Brigades totalling 16 battalions of infantry::2nd Infantry Division under Gazan – Two Brigades totalling 11 battalions of infantry::Light Cavalry Division under Treilhard - Six squadrons of Hussars and three squadrons of Chasseurs::Artillery - 38 guns


In 1806 the organisation of a Russian division was [Petrie, "Poland" 2001 ed. p37] -

::Six regiments of infantry, each of three battalions;::Ten squadrons of heavy cavalry;::Ten squadrons of light cavalry;::Two position batteries of artillery of 14 guns (mainly 12 pounders)::Three light batteries of artillery of 14 guns (mainly 6 pounders)::One battery of horse artillery of 12 guns (6 pounder cannon)

Losses to combat and attrition, and the disorganisation of the retreat mean that the ideal organisation and numbers were not achieved. Though there is an overall total for the Russian forces it does not appear possible to break it down further.

Commander - Count Bennigsen

:66 infantry battalions, 55 cavalry squadrons, 7 batteries of field artillery and 2 1/2 batteries of horse artillery - 128 guns in all [Petrie "Poland" 2001 ed. p.96]

::2nd Division under Osterman-Tolstoy

::6th Division under Sedmaratzki::4th Division under Golitsyn's – part (Golitsyn was not present at the battle)::3rd Division under Osten-Sacken- (Osten-Sacken was not present at the battle)


*Chandler, David G. "The Campaigns of Napoleon." New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. ISBN 0-02-523660-1
*Chandler, David G. "Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars." Ware: Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1999. ISBN 1-84022-203-4
*Marbot, Baron M. "The Memoirs of Baron de Marbot". Translated by A J Butler. Kessinger Publishing Co, Massachusetts, 2005. ISBN 1417908556 (References are to book and chapter). Also available in English translation on line (see external links below).
*Petre, F Loraine. "Napoleon's Campaign in Poland 1806-1807." First published 1901; reissued Greenhill Books, 2001. ISBN 1-85367-441-9. Petre used many first hand French sources, German histories and documents from the French Army archives. However as he spoke no Russian he was not able to use any Russian sources.

External links

* [ Memoirs of Marbot translated into English]
* [ Napoleon Miniatures Wargame Society of Toronto]

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