Barclay’s War

David Chandler

Given the amount of attention that has been lavished on the Napoleonic period in its many aspects, it may seem strange that a full life of Field-Marshal Prince Barclay de Tolly has not appeared before now: but it is not difficult to suggest reasons for this. Barclay had a rather dour and in some ways unattractive personality. He had little of the panache of his rival Russian commander, Prince Bagration, the epitome of dash and colour, whose mortal wounding at Borodino was deeply mourned by Tsar, people and army alike. Instead he was immensely thorough, cautious and intensely professional. Nor did he enjoy the mystique of the veteran Kutusov, detested by the Tsar and with the stigma of Austerlitz on his reputation, but set over Barclay’s head as supreme commander (after Tsar Alexander) as the crisis of the 1812 campaign was reached after the abandonment of Smolensk. Of course, Kutusov’s reputation with posterity owes much to Tolstoy’s portrait in War and Peace, where the drunken old womaniser is depicted as a Russian father-figure of great cunning and latent genius, capable, in some mystically inspired way, of drawing the last ounce of effort out of the stolid, brave moujiks that made up the mass of the Russian armies. This image has been seized upon and endlessly refurbished by the Soviet authorities, for whom Kutusov is indubitably the hero sans reproche of the First Great Patriotic War.

Barclay de Tolly laboured under serious disadvantages, several of which stemmed from his background. A fourth-generation Livonian (Josselson himself, incidentally, was an Estonian by origin), Barclay drew his antecedents from a shadowy Barclay of Towie in Scotland. The transfer to the Baltic scene came in the early 1620s, and by 1664 his direct ancestor had moved to Riga. The family was typical of the foreign talent Peter the Great employed in his determination to modernise Russian society along West European lines, which produced lawyers, administrators and a number of minor soldiers for the service of Holy Russia. As a result, Barclay was regarded throughout his life as a foreigner by true-born Russians: a ‘German’, a Protestant expatriate. As such he was the subject of endless envy, suspicion and outright distrust – never more so than in the months between June and August 1812 when continuous retreat was the order of the day. The point of the retreat was not understood by any Russians other than the Tsar, but Alexander was fully privy to the Fabian strategy of his Minister of War and Commander of the First Army of the West, although he refused to give him complete authority over his armies.

The difficulties of Barclay’s youth and early manhood had made him into the kind of withdrawn character which the many gallant blades of the minor Russian nobility, who made up the bulk of the officer caste, found deeply alien. Because of the impecunious circumstances of his father, a failed estate-owner, he and his younger sister, on whom he doted, were brought up in the family of a maternal aunt in St Petersburg. Any chance that this milieu would help Barclay lose his ‘Germanness’ was vitiated by the fact that his uncle had served long years under Frederick the Great and was a strict Lutheran. Great stress was laid on discipline and proper respect for authority – concepts that increased rather than diminished the gap between Barclay and his easy-living, hard-drinking comrades. In a word, Barclay was something of a misfit, prone in middle life to bouts of disabling illness at critical moments.

His formal military career dated from 1776, when he left his foster-home, aged 15, to join the Pskovskii Jaeger (or light-infantry) Regiment (I wonder if Michael Josselson is strictly correct to call it a ‘Rifle’ regiment at so early a date). As was the practice among the Russian and ‘foreign’ gentry, Barclay had been a nominal NCO in a cuirassier regiment since the age of six. This system, the author notes, ‘provided an enormous class of ill-educated “gentleman” army officers’. By the standards of the day, however, the strictly brought-up Barclay certainly wasn’t ill-educated, and soon he was earning good marks from his superiors for his knowledge, reliability and undoubted courage in action – or ‘laconic calmness’. As a junior and field officer, he gravitated through a number of different formations towards inevitable staff appointments. He fought in Polish, Swedish, Turkish and Finnish campaigns in turn, and learnt much in the military families of General von Patkul, Count Anhalt and Prince Anhalt-Bernburg. He also learnt something of partisan tactics under Prince Tsisianov, ‘the Caucasian specialist in guerrilla warfare’. The year 1791 saw his marriage to Auguste von smitten: it proved a devoted match and produced a son. He continued to dote on his sister and on his niece and eventual foster-daughter, Christel, through whose family the princely Barclay de Tolly title would eventually descend by special dispensation of the Tsar.

The break in his career came in March 1799, when, at the age of 37, he was promoted to Major-General, after 21 years of service. In 1807 came his first encounters with the French when, as commander of Bennigsen’s advance guard in Poland, he fought the Grande Armée at Pultusk, Hof and on the first evening at the dreaded Eylau, where he was seriously wounded in the right arm. This apparent setback proved to be of crucial importance. Although the wound was 15 months under cure, and indeed bothered him to the end of his days, it earned him the rank of Lieutenant-General and – the truly vital point – brought him into personal contact with Tsar Alexander for the first time (at Memel in April 1807). The Tsar was impressed by the forthright views of this unknown soldier, and sent his personal surgeon to tend his wounds. After the fresh disaster at Friedland in June, Barclay pressed a strategic plan for the defeated Russians to retreat deep into Russia and thus lure on the French to over-extended destruction. Alexander thought otherwise, of course, and soon fell under the charm of Napoleon at Tilsit, but it is important to note the date when the scheme Barclay was to implement five years later was first conceived, for it proves that the retreat was not the product of panic and terror, as Barclay’s detractors would later seek to show. He was now clearly in favour; added to his reputation by his part in the campaigns of 1808 and 1809 in Finland and Sweden; and became the grateful recipient of Alexander’s largesse. His advance over the ice to Umea in Sweden eventually earned him the coveted post of Governor-General of Finland. Then, in January 1810, the Tsar suddenly appointed Barclay Minister of War in succession to Arakcheev, with orders to modernise the Russian Army. The entente with Napoleon was wearing decidedly thin.

The next five years brought a series of peaks and lows in Barclay’s career. As an administrator, he proved his worth in Finland and then in the Ministry of War. He increased the size of the Army, modernised its organisation, improved its intelligence system (he employed well-placed spies in Warsaw, Dresden and Paris), replaced Peter the Great’s Army Regulations of 1716, and made many influential enemies both at Court and in the Army by his determination to root out corruption and inefficiency. He planned a fall-back position along the Lower Dvina and Upper Dnieper in the event of an attack from the West, and tried to counter, or at least contain, Alexander’s enthusiasm for the Prussian adviser Phull’s scheme for a huge entrenched camp at Dunaburg.

The great test came in 1812. With questionable wisdom, Barclay decided to command the First Army (by far the largest) in person without handing over the Ministry. Perhaps he was not very good at delegating authority. The double responsibility was taxing in the extreme, yet the Tsar did not cut the Gordian knot by appointing his faithful servant to anything approximating to supreme command. Thus Barclay was junior as a full general to Prince Bagration, his bitter and implacable critic, and had to turn out in full uniform and medals to greet the commander of the Second Army when at last the long-intended junction of forces took place near Smolensk. Even this tactful gesture failed to improve relations, and subsequent events around Smolensk and Lubino gave rise to charges of treachery against Barclay and to mounting hysteria at Court. The troops and officers were either depressed or furious, but Barclay continued to control the situation, impose his authority and carry out his master strategy, which the Tsar was well aware of and approved. However, without warning, Alexander conceded to the popular clamour, made his Minister a scapegoat, and appointed Kutusov over his and Bagration’s heads. Barclay loyally fought at Borodino (where his rival was fatally injured), before retiring from the army with a plea of ill-health. Riding away into exile on his estate at Beckhof he was almost lynched as a ‘German traitor’. He suffered a great deal of vilification in despatches, news-sheets and pamphlets, which Alexander did nothing to check.

Happier times would come in 1813 following Kutusov’s death, and Barclay would continue to give good service in the campaigns of Germany and France – but never in the supreme command. That dubious distinction was awarded the Austrian Prince Schwarzenberg. This was probably just as well. The author wisely does not attempt to make far-reaching claims for his subject’s standing as a battle commander. Brave to a fault, Barclay more often than not got his troops into considerable scrapes – as he did at Bautzen in 1813. However, his master, probably conscience-stricken by his cavalier treatment of arguably his most loyal general, now pressed new commands and endless decorations upon him, awarded him the coveted baton of field-marshal, and ultimately conferred a princedom. Barclay de Tolly deserved these honours for the administrative and strategic skills he indubitably possessed and displayed. If ‘General Winter’ had a lot to do with Napoleon’s defeat in 1812, so had Barclay’s slow, remorseless strategy of refusing the Emperor – and the Russian generals too, for that matter – the much-sought-after major battle until French strength had been whittled away to manageable proportions. Barclay’s career survived Alexander’s brief but highly daunting ‘religious’ phase and came to an end in 1816 in a strongly-pressed opposition to the Tsar’s latest craze: a scheme for establishing retired soldiers in military colonies (‘spearheads of civilisation’) over wide tracts of the Russian Empire. He died on 25 May at Insterburg as he was travelling to seek a cure for his mounting ailments in the spas of Bohemia. The Tsar put the Court into mourning, but observed Auguste’s desire to avoid a state funeral in St Petersburg.

Barclay’s greatest weakness was perhaps his inability to get on with his superiors and equals. The mercurial Tsar, ‘great-hearted’, Napoleon-obsessed, religious fanatic and self-styled military genius, haunted by the somewhat dubious circumstances of his succession to Mad Tsar Paul in 1801, was everything by fits and nothing for long. Small wonder Barclay never mastered Alexander’s shifting moods. Who did? Usually he was forthright and direct with him, but sometimes he could be unctuous and fawning, as he was on his return towards something approaching favour in late 1812. But the scapegoat was vindicated in the end. Barclay’s contacts with his less competent, jealousy-prone, scheming, perpetually resigning fellow commanders, particularly Bagration, were even more unfortunate. The opposition, with friends at Court, could work on Alexander’s somewhat feckless nature, as Barclay found to his cost. He was admired and respected by his men rather than loved. They cheered him at Borodino, but in the preceding weeks they had sulked and refused to offer salutes.

Michael Josselson unfortunately died before his book was published. This may explain the lack of a true summary, and a chronological table would also have been useful. The maps and illustrations are valuable, and complement a well-researched and perceptive text based on both primary and secondary material. It fell to his wife to complete the bibliography, inventory of letters and glossary. The result is a long-needed reappraisal of a hitherto somewhat shadowy figure, too often relegated to the sidelines by the more charismatic Bagration and the wily, cunning Kutusov for reasons of literary and (alas) political expediency.