THE DON COSSACKS AND NAPOLEON'S INVASION OF RUSSIA IN 1812
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The war of 1812 demonstrated the great value of the Cossack irregular formations. In addition to the 31 cavalry regiments which were stationed on Russia's western frontier at the time of the French invasion another 26 cavalry regiments could be put in battle readiness in September-October 1812. The latter were mobilized as a levée by Ataman Adrian Denisov. It was then that the Russian supreme command decided to create a mobile Cossack army headed by Ataman Matvei Platov. Platonov's Cossack light cavalry operated on the exposed western flank of the withdrawing Russian troops. Their task was to hinder the progress of the French advance, collect frontline intelligence, protect the retreating columns from head-on or flanking assault, and, last but not least, implement the famed scorched earth policy. The Cossacks avoided regular battles in preference to hit and run attacks. Napoleon's Polish cavalry suffered heavy casualties when ambushed on two occasions at Mir and Romanov. At Borodino, one of the great military showdowns of the war, Platov's regiments played a vital role in a surprise attack in the rear of the French army. The westward retreat of La Grand Armée after the battle of Maloyaroslavec changed the nature of the Cossack operations. They became the avantgarde of Kutuzov's counter-offensive and, together with the partisans and regular Russian regiments, harassed the retreating invasion force, dramatically multiplying the French losses. In fact, the Cossacks had formed the hard core of the resistance in the territories overrun by the French. In the second phase of the war, when increasing numbers of Napoleon's troops were taken prisoner, the task of escorting them to makeshift detention centres also fell to the Cossacks. From the battle of Maloyaroslavec until the French retreat across the Berezyna the Don Cossacks captured 10 enemy generals, 1000 officers and 38 572 soldiers. They also boasted of having seized 115 standards, 364 canons and 1066 ammunition trailers. Of the 50 000 Don Cossacks that joined the war, 15 thousand paid with their lives for Russia's final victory.
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