The battle of Borodino
September 7, 1812
The Battle of Borodino (Russian: Бородинская битва Borodinskaja bitva, French: Bataille de la Moskowa, fought on September 7, 1812, was the largest and bloodiest single-day action of the Napoleonic Wars, involving more than 250,000 troops and resulted in at least 70,000 total casualties. The French Grande Armée under Emperor Napoleon I attacked the Imperial Russian army of General Mikhail Kutuzov near the village of Borodino, west of the town of Mozhaysk, and eventually captured the main positions on the battlefield, but it failed to destroy the Russian army.
The battle itself ended in disengagement, but strategic considerations and the losses incurred forced the Russians to withdraw next day. The battle at Borodino was a pivotal point in the campaign, since it was the last offensive action fought by Napoleon in Russia. By withdrawing, the Russian army preserved its military potential and eventually forced Napoleon out of the country.
The French Grande Armée had begun its invasion of Russia in June, 1812. Czar Alexander I proclaimed a Patriotic War in defence of the motherland. The Russian forces — initially massing along the Polish frontier — fell back before the speedy French advance. Count Michael Barclay de Tolly was serving as commander-in-chief of the Russian army, but his attempts at forming a defensive line were thwarted by the fast moving French.
Napoleon had advanced from Vitebsk hoping to catch the Russian Army in the open where he could exterminate it. The French Army was not in a good position since it was 925 km (575 miles) from its nearest logistical base at Kovno. This allowed the Russians to attack the extended French supply lines. Despite this, the lure of a decisive battle drove Napoleon on. The central French force, under Napoleon’s direct command, had crossed the Niemen with 286,000 men, but, by the time of the battle, it numbered 161,475 (most had died of starvation and disease). Barclay had been unable to offer battle, which allowed the Grand Armée’s logistic problems to deplete the French. Internal political in-fighting by his sub-commanders also prevented earlier stands by the Russian armies on at least two occasions.
Barclay’s constant retreat before the French onslaught was perceived by his fellow generals and by the court as an unwillingness to fight, and he was removed from command. The new Russian commander, Prince Mikhail Kutuzov, was also unable to establish a defensive position until within 125 kilometers of Moscow. Kutuzov picked an eminently defensible area near the village of Borodino and, from September 3, strengthened it with earthworks, notably the Rayevski Redoubt in the center-right of the line and three open, arrow-shaped ‘Bagration flèches’ (named for Pyotr Bagration) on the Russian left.
French forces included 214 battalions of infantry, 317 squadrons of cavalry and 587 artillery pieces, a total of 124,000 troops. However, the French Imperial Guard, which consisted of 30 infantry battalions, 27 cavalry squadrons and 109 artillery pieces, 18,500 troops were never committed to action.
Kutuzov assumed command on August 29, 1812. The 67-year old general lacked experience in modern warfare and was not seen by his contemporaries as the equal of Napoleon. He was favoured over Barclay, however, because he was Russian, not of German extraction, and it was also believed that he would be able to muster a good defense. Perhaps his greatest strength was that he had the total loyalty of the army and its various sub-commanders. Kutuzov ordered another retreat to Gshatsk on August 30 and by that time the ratio of French to Russian forces had shrunk from three to one to five to four. The position at Borodino was selected because it seemed to present the best defensive position before Moscow itself was reached.
The Battle of Shevardino Redoubt
The initial Russian disposition, which stretched south of the new Smolensk Highway (Napoleon’s expected route of advance), was anchored on its left by a pentagonal earthwork redoubt erected on a mound near the village of Shevardino. The French, however, advanced from the west and south of the village, creating a brief but bloody prelude to the main battle.
The unexpected French advance from the west and the seizure of the Shevardino redoubt threw the Russian position into disarray. The left flank of their defensive position was gone and Russian forces withdrew to the east, having to create a new, makeshift position centered around the village of Utitza. The left flank of the Russian position was, therefore, hanging in the air and ripe for a flanking attack.
Battle of Borodino
The Russian position at Borodino consisted of a series of disconnected earthworks running in an arc from the Moskva River on the right, along its tributary the Kalocha (whose steep banks added to the defense) and towards the village of Utitza on the left. Thick woods interspersed along the Russian left and center (on the French side of the Kolocha) also aided the defense by making the deployment and control of French forces difficult. The Russian center was defended by the Raevsky Redoubt, a massive open-backed earthwork mounting 19 12-pounder cannon which had a clear field of fire all the way to the banks of the Kolocha stream.
Kutuzov, who was expecting a corps-sized reinforcement to his right, planned to cross the Kolocha north of Borodino, attack the French left, and roll it up. This helped explain why the more powerful 1st Army under Barclay was placed in already strong positions on the right, which were virtually unassailable by the French. The 2nd Army, under Bagration, was expected to hold on the left but had its left flank hanging in the air. Despite the repeated pleas of his generals to redeploy their forces, Kutuzov did nothing to change these initial dispositions. Thus, when the action began and became a defensive rather than an offensive battle for the Russians, their heavy preponderance in artillery was wasted on a right wing that would never be attacked while the French artillery did much to help win the battle.
Whatever may be said of Kutuzov’s dispositions, Napoleon showed little flair on the battlefield that day. Despite Marshal Davout’s suggestion to a maneuver to out-flank the weak Russian left, the Emperor instead ordered Davout’s First Corps to move directly forward into the teeth of the defense, while the flanking maneuver was left to the weak Fifth Corps of Prince Poniatowski. The initial French attack was aimed at seizing the three Russian positions collectively known as the Bagration flèches, four arrow-head shaped, open-backed earthworks which arced out to the left en echelon in front of the Kolocha stream. These positions helped support the Russian left, which had no terrain advantages. The fleches were themselves supported by artillery from the village of Semyanovskaya, whose elevation dominated the other side of the Kolocha. The battle began at 0600 with the opening of the 102-gun French grand battery against the Russian center. Davout sent Compan’s Division against the southern-most of the fleches with Dessaix’s Division echeloned out to the left. When Compans debouched from the woods on the far bank of the Kolocha, he was hit by massed Russian cannon fire. Both Compans and Desaix were wounded, but the attack was pressed forward.
Davout, seeing the confusion, personally led his 57th Brigade forward until he had his horse shot from under him. He fell so hard that General Sorbier reported him as dead. General Rapp arrived to replace him only to find Davout alive and leading the 57th forward again. Rapp then lead the 61st Brigade forward when he was wounded (for the 22nd time in his career). By 0730 Davout had gained control of the three fleches. Prince Bagration quickly led a counterattack that threw the French out of the positions only to have Marshal Michel Ney lead a charge by the 24th Regiment that retook them. Although not enamoured of Barclay, Bagration turned to him for aid, ignoring Kutuzov altogether. Barclay, to his credit, responded with dispatch, sending three guard regiments, eight grenadier battalions, and twenty-four 12 pounder cannon at their best pace to bolster Semyenovskaya.
Struggle for the Raevsky redoubt
Prince Eugene advanced his corps against the village of Borodino, taking it in a rush from the Russian Guard Jaegers. However, the advancing columns were disordered and once they cleared Borodino, and they faced fresh Russian assault columns that drove the French back to the village. General Delzons was posted to Borodino to prevent the Russians retaking it. Morand’s division then crossed to the north side of the Semyenovka Stream, while the remainder of Eugene’s forces crossed three bridges across the Kalocha to the south, placing them on the same side of the stream as the Russians. He then deployed most of his artillery and began to push the Russians back toward the Raevsky redoubt. Broussier and Morand’s divisions then advanced together with furious artillery support. The redoubt changed hands, Paskevitch’s regiment fleeing and having to be rallied by Barclay. Kutuzov then ordered Yermolov to take action and the general brought forward three horse artillery batteries which began to blast the open-ended redoubt while the 3rd Battalion of the Ufa Regiment and two jaeger regiments brought up by Barclay rushed in with the bayonet to eliminate Bonami’s Brigade. This action returned the redoubt to Russian control.
Eugene’s artillery continued to pound Russian support columns while Marshals Ney and Davout set up a crossfire with artillery on the Semenovskoya heights. Barclay countered by moving Eugene (Russian) over to the right to support Miloradovitch in his defense of the redoubt. When the general brought up troops against an attacking French brigade he described it as “A walk into Hell”. During the height of the battle, Kutuzov’s subordinates were making all of the decisions for him. According to Colonel Karl von Clausewitz of On War fame, the Russian commander “seemed to be in a trance.” With the death of General Kutaisov, Chief of Artillery, most of the Russian cannon sat useless on the heights to the rear and were never ordered into battle, while the French artillery was wreaking havoc on the Russians.
At 1400 the assault against the redoubt was renewed by Napoleon with Broussier’s, Morand’s, and Gerard’s divisions launching a massive frontal attack with Chastel’s light cavalry division on their left and the II Reserve Cavalry Corps on their right. General Caulaincourt ordered Wathier’s cuirassier division to lead the assault. Barclay watched Eugene’s (France) assault preparations and countered by moving forces against it. The French artillery, however, began chopping up the assembling force even as it gathered. Caulaincourt led the attack of Wathier’s cuirassiers into the opening at the back of the redoubt and met his death as the charge was stopped cold by Russian musketry. General Thielemann (French) then led eight Saxon and two Polish cavalry squadrons against the back of the redoubt while officers and sergeants of his command actually forced their horses through the redoubt’s embrasures, sowing confusion and allowing the French cavalry and infantry to take the position. The battle had all but ended, with both sides so exhausted that only the artillery was still at work. Napoleon once again refused to release the guard and the battle wound down around 1600.
End of the battle