Night has fallen over the battlefield around the hilltop redoubt near the village of Shevardino. French and Russian forces have fought over the fortifications past sundown, and the darkness is deformed by the shapes of dead men and horses strewn all over. A battalion of French soldiers are relieved to see a column of allied Saxon cavalry coming towards them, and make way to let them by. Suddenly, they realise the horsemen are not Saxons – they’re Russian heavy cavalry. The bugles sound the charge, and the cuirassiers thunder towards the hapless French. It’s the Battle of Shevardino Redoubt. https://youtu.be/w4RFgFTV0w8
As the Russian army retreats east in the early days of September 1812, its new commanders decide to finally stop and give battle to the Grande Armee. As the Russians fight daily rearguard actions against the advancing French-led forces along the Smolensk-Moscow road, General Kutuzov sends his officers to select a defensible position. Which, in this part of the empire, is not easy. Russian army officer Carl von Clausewitz sums up the difficult terrain:
“[…] the forests are thinner [and] the ground is level – without any decided mountain ridges – without any deep hollows; the fields are without enclosures, therefore everywhere easy to be passed; the villages of wood, and ill adapted for defense. […] If a commander then, wishes to fight without loss of time, as was Kutuzov’s case, it is evident that he must put up with what he can get.” Lieven 192
Russian army officers Bennigsen and Toll select a position near the village of Borodino, near the confluence of the rivers KolOcha and Moskva, about 120km west of Moscow. In the first days of September, the Russian army begins to prepare defensive works and organize itself along a line running from northeast of the village of GOrki towards the southwest. The weak link in the Russian defences is the southern flank, since the Grande Armee might push along the Old Smolensk road and threaten to advance into the rear of the Russian forces. Anchoring the southwestern corner is a hill near the village of Shevardino. A small group of pioneers begin to build a redoubt in a hurry, and soon there’s a pentagonal shaped fortification with a 1.5m high wall and shallow ditch around.
The redoubt is in an awkward position out in front of the Russian line – there’s even an undefended hill just 200m away the French could use for their artillery. Kutuzov decides it won’t be the southern anchor after all, and plans to protect his left wing further back at the village of Utitsa. Regardless, General NeverOvsky’s division is ordered to defend the redoubt. Historians debate about what the Russians actually have planned for the redoubt: was it to threaten the French flank when they arrive, delay their advance, disrupt their deployment, or simply as an observation point.
On September 5, Marshal Murat’s cavalry scouts catch sight of the entire Russian army spread out below them – the long-awaited battle will finally happen. Napoleon surveys the situation and decides the Shevardino Redoubt must be taken before the main battle can be fought. 30,000 French-led infantry, 10,000 cavalry, and 186 guns make ready to attack in the afternoon. The Russians only have 8000 infantry, 4000 cavalry, and 36 guns in and around the redoubt.
A combined force drawn from the corps of Davout, Poniatowski and Murat mount an attack on the area around the redoubt starting in the late afternoon. Russian Jaegers put up stiff resistance, but French General Compans’ division cannot be stopped. French officer Gourgaud witnesses a clever tactic to inflict maximum damage on the enemy:
“[General Compans] made [a battalion] advance, covering four guns charged with grape[shot] that moved behind it. […] At 50 toises [100m] from the Russians, he unmasked his battery, which caused a dreadful destruction of the enemy. Compans profiting by the disorder which he observed in their ranks, and charged with his battalion at the point of the bayonet.” [Mikaberdize, Battle of Boro]
There is vicious hand-to-hand fighting as the French storm the redoubt, which changes hands several times. The French 61st Line Regiment take the hill, but a counterattack by the Sibirskii and MalorossIski Grenadiers drive them off again. After dark, the French try to maneuver between the redoubt and Shevardino village, but they confuse Russian heavy cavalry with allied Saxon cavalry and are cut down. The Red Lancers of Hamburg don’t know they’re facing the heavily armored Russian cuirassiers, so they charge into a superior force only to beat a hasty retreat.
The Russians feed three divisions into the fight, but the Grande Armee threatens to outflank them, so the Russians finally abandon the Shevardino redoubt at 11:00pm. They leave behind a virtual charnel house on and around the hill: there about 7000 dead and wounded Russians, and 5000 killed and wounded soldiers of the Grande Armee. The French troops who occupy the position spend the night surrounded by heaps of bodies and the cries of the wounded.
The stubborn defence of the Shevardino Redoubt allows the Russian militiamen to work on other field fortifications that will play a critical role at the Battle of Borodino in two days’ time, and the Russians now suspect that Napoleon will focus his main attack in the south. Kutuzov reports a glorious if modest victory to the Tsar.
The corpse-covered Shevardino Redoubt is now in French hands, and both armies now prepare for the colossal clash of arms that will come on September 7, 1812.
Along the main Moscow road, the first days of September see several clashes between the French vanguard and the Russian rearguard. The Grande Armee reaches the fatefully-named village of Borodino on the 6th, but the retreating Russians are applying their policy of scorched earth effectively. A French officer notes the effects:
“Coming out of the woods, which were full of Cossacks who were routed by the Italian cavalry, we passed through several villages devastated by the Russians. The devastation, which these barbarians left in their wake, showed us the way.” (mikaberidze, battle of boro)
The scorched earth only worsens the misery of the men of the Grande Armee. Food is scarce, they are exhausted from the endless marches, and they’re parched. Captain Girod de l’Ain is among those suffering:
“The heat was excessive: I had never experienced worse in Spain […] This heat and dust made us extremely thirsty […] [but] water was scarce. Will you believe me when I say that I saw men lying on their bellies to drink horses’ urine in the gutter!” (Mikaberidze, Battle of Boro)
While his men are starving and desperate to still their thirst, Napoleon gets a welcome piece of personal news from France. The Prefect of Paris arrives and brings a gift from Napoleon’s wife, Marie-Louise of Austria. It’s a painting of their 1-year-old son, who already has the title King of Rome. The Emperor is so pleased he displays the painting outside his tent, and writes Marie-Louise to thank her for “the portrait of the king.”
On the Russian side, the troops destroy the inconveniently located village of SemYOnovskoe to deny cover to the enemy. Inexperienced Moscow militiamen are frantically working on more field fortifications on the high ground. Generals Bennigsen and Toll argue about how best to construct the central redoubt and so-called fleches fieldworks in the south – and none of the work is being overseen by military engineers. The militiamen struggle with a lack of tools and hard ground which is also dangerous for artillery ricochets. They’re not finished with their work by the end of September 6. Kutuzov also has leaflets printed in French to encourage the enemy to desert:
“Soldats francais, […] don’t believe the perfidious words that you are fighting for peace […] you are fighting for the insatiable ambition of a master who does not want peace, or he would have had it long ago, and who is playing a game with the blood of the brave. Go home while there is still time […]” Rey 155
On the eve of the great battle, General Kutuzov orders the icon of the Virgin Mary, removed from Smolensk before the battle there a few weeks ago, to be carried before the troops. Napoleon and some French officers mock the religious procession, but Russian officer Fedor Glinka believes his countrymen are at one with God:
“Never have Russians prayed with such fervor as today…. At this hour, the hearts and souls of the Russians were in a secret conversation with the divine.” Rey 155
French officer Raymond de Fezensac is also keenly aware of what is at stake: “Both sides realised they had to win or perish: for us, a defeat meant total destruction, for them, it meant the loss of Moscow and the destruction of their main army, the only hope of Russia.” (Zamoyski)
The next day, September 7, 1812 will determine whether French hopes are realized, or Russian prayers are answered.
- Boudon, Jacques-Olivier. Napoléon et la campagne de Russie en 1812. 2021.
- Lieven, Dominic. Russia Against Napoleon. 2010.
- Mikaberidze, Alexander. The Battle of Borodino: Napoleon against Kutuzov. 2007.
- Rey, Marie-Pierre. L’effroyable tragédie : une nouvelle histoire de la campagne de Russie. 2012.
- Zamoyski, Adam. 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow. 2005.