People's Volunteer Corps in the Patriotic War of 1812

People’s Volunteer Corps in the Patriotic War of 1812

 

military units created in Russia during wartime by a manifesto issued by Emperor Alexander I on July 6, 1812.

The people’s volunteer corps was intended to replace regular troops in the interior regions and to reinforce them if the Napoleonic army invaded deep into the country. In response to the unfavorable course of military operations, the people’s volunteer corps was a manifestation of the patriotic enthusiasm of the Russian people. It became a source for supplementing the regular Russian Army, because the recruitment system and the 25-year term of military service had resulted in the lack of a trained reserve. The ranks of the people’s volunteer corps were filled by pomeshchiki (landlords) from their serfs, usually four or five men aged 17 to 45 per 100 serfs, as determined by the revision. A few artisans, burghers, and persons of the ecclesiastical estate volunteered for service. The serfs gladly entered the corps, hoping that

they would be freed after the war. The assembling, arming, and supplying of corps members was carried out by committees of district and provincial dvorianstvo (nobility or gentry) assemblies using voluntarily contributed funds, which amounted to 83 million rubles (1812–14); in March 1813 funds were also provided by the treasury. The officers were appointed from dvorianstvo volunteers who had earlier served in the army. Commanders of military districts were elected by the dvorianstvo assemblies.

By a manifesto of July 18, the area of formation of the people’s volunteer corps was limited to 16 central provinces. The people’s volunteer corps of Moscow, Smolensk, Kaluga, Tula, Riazan’, Tver’, Yaroslavl, and Vladimir provinces formed the first military district, commanded by General F. V. Rastopchin; its mission was to defend Moscow. The second district, first commanded by General M. I. Kutuzov, from August 27 by General P. I. Meller-Zakomel’skii, and from September 22 by Senator A. A. Bibikov, included the people’s volunteer corps of St. Petersburg and Novgorod provinces; it covered the road to St. Petersburg. The people’s volunteer corps of Kostroma, Viatka, Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Simbirsk, and Penza provinces formed the third military district, commanded by General P. A. Tolstoi; it was a reserve force. Later, cavalry and infantry corps were formed in Poltava and Chernigov provinces under the command of General N. V. Gudovich. On the initiative of local authorities, detachments of the people’s volunteer corps were created in Pskov, Tambov, Kursk, Kiev, and other provinces.

The people’s volunteer corps totaled more than 300,000 men. They were organized as infantry regiments of four battalions with 2,500 men each, cavalry regiments of 1,400 men each, and druzhiny of 820 men each. The basic arms were pikes, axes, and sabers; a few soldiers had firearms. By late 1812 the majority of corps members had received guns. Their clothing consisted of a caftan, wide trousers, a shirt, boots, and a cap with a brazen cross. Regiments of the people’s volunteer corps fought in the battles of Smolensk and Borodino and took part in fighting near Polotsk, Chashniky, and the Berezina River. They also fought in the foreign campaigns of 1813–14 and the sieges of the Danzig, Thorn, and Hamburg fortresses. The soldiers exhibited bravery and perseverance in battle. On their return to Russia (in March 1813 to October 1814), the people’s volunteer corps was disbanded, and the serfs were returned to the pomeshchiki.

In 1812 there was also a cossack volunteer corps created on the Don, in the Ukraine, and in the Urals from Bashkirs, Kalmyks, and other nationalities, but it was formed according to different principles.

REFERENCES

Narodnoe opolchenie v Otechestvennoi voine 1812 g.: Sb. dok-tov. Moscow, 1962.
Babkin, V. Narodnoe opolchenie v Otechestvennoi voine 1812 g. Moscow, 1962.
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