Mikhail Barclay de Tolly served in the Russian army with great distinction almost his entire life. Despite this, the Russians never accepted him as one of their own. His surname was proof enough of his foreign origins. Among contemporaries Barclay was described as German or even French, but his ancestors were in fact Scottish. A branch of the Clan Barclay became lords of Towie castle in Aberdeenshire. As such, they were known as the Barclays of Towie. In 1621 Peter Barclay of Towie and his brother John, both merchants, moved to the trading port of Rostock in Livonia. Over time the surname was corrupted and became Barclay de Tolly.
The Barclays de Tolly soon established themselves among the political elite in the Baltic. Peter's grandson Wilhelm Stephan Barclay de Tolly (1675-1735) served as Mayor of Riga. His Coat of Arms is displayed in Riga's St Peter's Church to this day. Over the course of the 18th century, the Russian empire acquired more and more influence over the Baltic. Wilhelm Stephan's son Gotthard became a Russian officer by the name of Bogdan Barclay de Tolly. His three sons Erikh, Mikhail and Andrei would all join the Russian army.
Mikhail Barclay de Tolly's spent his early military career fighting against the Ottomans, the Swedes and the Poles. He acquired a reputation as a brave and intelligent officer and gradually rose through the ranks. He came to the fore during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1807 he served as a major general and suffered a heavy wound while commanding the rearguard of the Russian army at Eylau (7-8 February). In 1808 during the Russo-Swedish War, Barclay led a column of 5,000 men across a 200 mile stretch of the frozen Gulf of Bothnia to surprise the garrison of the Swedish fortress of Umea. This act established his reputation on the international stage. When the war ended in 1809 Sweden ceded Finland to Russia. Barclay was appointed Deputy Governor-General of Finland. After several months the unpopular Governor was dismissed, and Barclay assumed the top job.
Barclay was a capable administrator and politician who protected Finnish autonomy and personally chaired meetings of the Finnish Senate. In June 1810 Tsar Alexander I summoned Barclay to St Petersburg and appointed him Minister of War. In his new capacity Barclay was faced with a herculean task: to reform the Russian army in time for an imminent war against Napoleon. The War Minister did not shy away from the hard work and over the course of only two years made significant progress. The army was reorganised into self-sufficient corps modelled on Napoleon's Grande Armée. The chain of command was streamlined and new field regulations were introduced via the so-called Yellow Book. The War Minister issued decrees for factories to increase production, making sure that the army was well supplied with weapons, ammunition, uniforms and food. Barclay established a network of secret agents who worked across Europe to gather military intelligence. By 1812, the army Barclay presided over was the most disciplined in the whole of Europe.
Upon Napoleon's invasion in June 1812, Barclay de Tolly was appointed commander-in-chief of the First Western Army, some 110,000 men. Before leaving the Russian camp for St Petersburg, Tsar Alexander ordered Barclay to preserve the army, for he had no other. Barclay's force, even when combined with the 40,000 men of General Pyotr Bagration's Second Army, was greatly outnumbered by the Grande Armée. Barclay knew that the only way to preserve his army was to retreat and refuse Napoleon the opportunity to do battle on favourable terms and destroy the enemy army, as he had done before against the Russians at Austerlitz (1805) and Friedland (1807). Barclay knew well that the further Napoleon's army advanced, the further away his supply depots were. Meanwhile, the Russian army would be closer to its supplies and reinforcements.
Barclay's strategy of retreat was poorly understood by his fellow generals. In order to maintain morale, he addressed his soldiers about the prospect of doing battle with the enemy, but each time it seemed a battle was imminent, Barclay ordered a retreat. Bagration, a far more aggressive commander by nature, was infuriated by Barclay's actions, accusing him of cowardice and even treachery. In some circles Barclay de Tolly was considered a Napoleonic agent due to his foreign origins. After all, he had given up Lithuania and Belarus and was leading the enemy to the gates of Moscow. The last straw was Barclay's decision to abandon the defence of Smolensk (16-18 August). Although Barclay remained commander of the First Army, General Mikhail Kutuzov was appointed to assume overall command of the army.
At the Battle of Borodino (7 September) Barclay sent a defiant message to his detractors by fighting with exceptional courage. Commanding the Russian right, he rode to the critical points of the battlefield and on occasion personally led units into the heat of battle. Following the battle there was no question of Barclay's loyalty, but after advising Kutuzov to abandon Moscow at the Council of Fili, his ideas on strategy were still poorly understood. Soon after the Russian army abandoned Moscow, Barclay left for Petersburg to restore his health. On his way he was often forced to assume a disguise to avoid stones being thrown at him.
Barclay spent the winter months in disgrace, but by the beginning of 1813, after the Grande Armée was driven out of Russia, Barclay's strategy was vindicated and he returned to favour in the court. The tsar ordered Kutuzov to continue the campaign and force Napoleon all the way to Paris, allied with Austria and Prussia. When Kutuzov died in April 1813, Barclay was waiting in the wings. In June he was appointed commander-in-chief of the Russo-Prussian Army. At the Battle of Leipzig (16-19 October 1813) he commanded the centre of the coalition army and secured a decisive victory over Napoleon. By March the following year, Barclay de Tolly's victorious men were the first to march into Paris.
In June 1814, as part of the celebrations following the victory over Napoleon, the British government invited the allied monarchs to visit Britain. Tsar Alexander's entourage included his most senior commander, Barclay de Tolly. Barclay was relatively inconspicuous in Britain. The British public were far more interested in the sovereign and General Matvei Platov and his Cossacks. Barclay de Tolly spent his time in London sightseeing and meeting with distant relatives named Barclay. The British government eventually sent Barclay a diamond-encrusted sword for recognition of his services in the war against Napoleon.
Barclay, now Field Marshal, remained in his post of commander-in-chief until his death in 1818. He was created a hereditary prince (knyaz) in 1815, the highest non-royal title in the Russian empire. Despite such accolades, Barclay's reputation is still not secure, with most people ascribing Napoleon's defeat either to Kutuzov or 'General Winter'. Following the bicentennial of Napoleon's invasion in 2012, Barclay's name is better known among Russians, while recent academic works such as Dominic Lieven's Russia Against Napoleon have encouraged a better appreciation of Barclay's exploits among students of Russian history.
By Jimmy Chen