The Battle of Krasny and The Bravest of the Brave
After the capture, and subsequent destruction, of Moscow by Russian patriots, Napoleon realized that Czar Alexander I was not going to sue for peace. Reluctantly, Napoleon began his retreat on 8 October 1912 before his army starved to death during the Russian Winter. He planned on retreating just to his depots at Smolensk but that position proved to be untenable and he had to continue on to Poland. His Grande Armee disintegrated further every step of the way.
On 15 November at the Battle of Krasny in Western Russia, Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov surprised Napoleon’s strung out columns on the road to Smolensk. Of the French Corps engaged over the next 3 days, Poniatowski’s Advanced Guard and Junot’s Corps managed to escape the trap, Eugene’s Corps was destroyed, Davout’s Corps was wrecked nearly beyond repair, tens of thousands of French stragglers were captured or butchered by Cossacks, and the baggage train and what was left of the artillery were overrun. The Grande Armee was only saved from complete destruction by an audacious feint by the Imperial Guard led by Napoleon himself. The maneuver threw the Russian command into panic and indecision, and Kutuzov held back his final attack which would have most assuredly destroyed the French. The bold maneuver allowed what was left of the Grande Armee to escape west.
Unfortunately, the maneuver did nothing for Napoleon’s Rear Guard, Marshall Ney’s III Corps, which was then completely cut off from the rest of the army. On 18 Nov 1812, the Russians surrounded Ney and offered terms for surrender to which Ney promptly declined. Thinking Napoleon was still just ahead (and not fleeing west as he was), Ney attacked with his 8000 troops and 7000 stragglers, whom he hastily organized into units. The valiant but ultimately futile charges, many led by Ney himself, broke thru line after line of Russians but the rest of the Grande Armee was nowhere to be found.
Ney was forced to retreat into the forests with whatever he had left and march westward along woodsmen’s’ trails, fighting off Cossack attacks and Russian troops at every clearing and field. Throughout the ordeal, Ney often took up a musket and fought alongside his men on the line, and was later universally credited by them as the only reason they didn’t break. Three days and nights later, Ney with just a remnant of 800 troops, rejoined Napoleon in an emotional reunion, during which the Emperor proclaimed him to be “The Bravest of the Brave.”