August 27 1812: Barclay's Demotion

On August 27 1812,  Barclay de Tolly learned that he had been replaced by Kutuzov as the commander-in-chief of the Russian Armies.  Disappointed, he first accepted his demotion  and then asked to be relieved of any further service. The Tsar refused and he continue to lead the First Army of West. Alexander Mikaberidze describes Barclay and provides an assessment of his leadership and importance: 
Barclay de Tolly received his copy of the imperial decree on 27 August, while his army was marching through Vy’azma, and was deeply hurt by the news. The letter sent to Barclay was not even accompanied by a personal note from the Tsar. This, even more than the decision itself, made the sudden blow particularly painful for Barclay de Tolly. It was more distressing to realize that the decision was made just when Barclay’s strategy was at last showing results and Napoleon’s superiority in numbers was almost eliminated. No one could more faithfully have respected Alexander’s parting warning at Polotsk: “remember that this is my only army and that I have no other”. Yet, now at Vya’zma, Barclay was disgraced and humiliated. Barclay wrote [Aug 28] back stoically to assure Alexander of his continuing “eagerness to serve the country in whatever post or assignment” might be granted to him. To justify his actions, Barclay wrote toward the end of the letter:

“Had I been motivated by blind and reckless ambition, Your Majesty would probably have received a number of reports of battles fought, and nevertheless the enemy would still be at gates of Moscow without encountering sufficient forces able to resist him.”

Justice demands the recognition of Barclay de Tolly’s achievement in saving the army and handing it over to his successor unimpaired. At the beginning of the campaign, the ratio of forces was against the Russians. It was, perhaps, fortunate for Russia that Bagration and his supporters were not given high command, since a battle at that time would have led to the destruction of both Russian armies and all of Russia would have laid open before Napoleon. Opposing the entire army and all the nobility, Barclay had prevented this from happening by his continued retreat. At the same time, Barclay must be criticized for playing a double game with Bagration and the other generals. For instance, while promising them to attack the French, Barclay informed the Tsar, the same day, of his intentions to abandon Smolensk. Naturally the rumors of Barclay’s schemes reached Bagration and others, causing them to mistrust the commander in chief.

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