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The Deadliest Day of the Napoleonic Wars - Battle of Borodino 1812

Posted by RTH Real Time History on

Napoleon Bonaparte is facing one of the toughest moments of his 20 years as a soldier. He’s just received word that his Grande Armee has pushed the Russians out of their fortifications all along the line around the village of Borodino. In the bloodiest battle of his entire career, 2500km from France and in hostile territory, his army half starved but on the cusp of victory, Napoleon must now decide whether to risk his elite Imperial Guard to crush the Russians once and for all. The Emperor’s choice just might determine the fate of his empire. https://youtu.be/bx-eHx8q4HU

On the morning of September 7, 1812, the Grande Armee faces the combined forces of two Russian armies near the village of Borodino – the biggest battle of Napoleon’s campaign in Russia so far. The Emperor wakes up at around 2:00AM, and dictates a message to his troops. He reminds them that they are defending his crown, promises them glory, and perhaps more importantly for the men, an end to their misery:
“Soldats, voilà la bataille que vous avez tant desirée. Soldiers, here is the battle you have so long desired. From now on, victory depends on you: it is a necessity. Victory will give us abundant supplies, good winter quarters, and a prompt return to la patrie.” (Boudon 215)
Some soldiers are stirred by Napoleon’s words, but others don’t hear it, or only get a brief translation from their officers. Meanwhile, the Russian armies have held their religious ceremonies yesterday, and this morning brace for the coming storm.

The Russian defences stretch from north of the Kolocha river near Gorki, and extend westwards in a rough semi-circle ending along the Old Smolensk-Moscow road near the village of Utitsa and a large wood. The fortifications around Gorki are strongest, and Kutuzov suspects the French might attack there, against Barclay. Bagration’s sector on the Russian left flank, however, is open and vulnerable, so they’ve reinforced it with two major defensive works: a large redoubt, known by the French as the Grande Redoute and the Russians as Raevsky’s Redoubt; and three arrow-shaped field fortifications known as fleches. Each one includes sharpened logs, mutually supporting gun positions, is surrounded by ditches, and is protected by a double palisade at the rear. Small streams and ravines in front of the Russian line add a natural obstacle.
This southern sector is precisely the part of the line where Napoleon wants to strike the decisive blow. Eugene’s troops will fix the Russian right, while Ney and Davout will concentrate on the Grande Redoute and the Fleches. Prince Poniatowski’s Polish V Corps will try to overwhelm the extreme Russian left and push into the Russian rear along the Old Smolensk road.
The Russians hope to bog down the Grande Armee in a battle of attrition, so they pack most of their troops between Raevsky’s Redoubt and the Fleches. There are between 9 and 16 Russian soldiers per metre of front, which means they will take heavy casualties but Napoleon will have very little room to outmaneuver them as he has so often in the past. The Russians are also counting on the superior firepower of their more numerous artillery to turn the tide. To discourage unauthorized retreat, the Moscow militia is positioned just behind the southern end of the line to turn any fleeing men back to the front lines. All told, about 135,000 French-led soldiers and 587 cannon are facing about 114,000 Russian troops, 8000 Cossack irregular cavalry, and 30,000 militiamen.

At 6:00AM, a battery of the French Imperial Guard fired the signal for the battle of Borodino, or la bataille de la Moskova, to begin. French-led units launch attack after attack against the Russian defenders, and the two massive armies crash amidst the thunder of hundreds of guns and the whinnying of tens of thousands of horses. In the midst of the chaos and the killing, the sun begins to shine. Napoleon takes heart and tells his staff that it’s the same sun that shone at his victory at Austerlitz in 1805. But the Russians at Borodino are not the Russians of Austerlitz, and they continue to hold their positions under enormous pressure. The fighting is of an intensity rarely seen in the Napoleonic Wars, a fact not lost on Lieutenant N.I. AndrEev:
“The artillery roared to such an extent that from dawn until the middle of the day we couldn’t even hear the musket fire; the cannonade was constant. One might think the sky was on fire. But we could hardly see the sky through the thick smoke.” (Rey 157)
The French take first the southern Fleche, then the others, but the Russians counterattack and take them back. Marshal Davout is knocked unconscious when his horse is hit and he falls to the ground, and Russian artillery general Kutaisov is killed – no one is in command of the Russian artillery for the rest of the battle. By mid-morning, the constant bombardment from Eugene’s artillery and relentless pressure of the Grande Armee begins to take its toll on the defenders. The huge number of men and immense firepower in a small space make the fighting far more chaotic than a typical Napoleonic battle, as Russian army officer Friedrich von Schubert recalls:
“He who has not seen it with his own eyes cannot imagine the disorder. One couldn’t speak of command. Each regiment, as soon as it had half reformed after a clarion call, attacked +immediately. […] In the middle of the melee were our infantry divisions, which the officers were trying to reorganize; [General] PaskEvich was desperately tearing at his hair and cursing.” (Rey 161)
Around 10:00AM, although historians still debate the exact timeline of the battle, Bagration’s Fleches are taken yet again – Bagration counterattacks, but the lines has been breached. Andreev later recall the apocalyptic scene:
“Our division was annihilated. I couldn’t go by the road, so I went through the fields were wounded and mutilated men and horses were everywhere, in a most horrible state. Describing these horrors is beyond my strength. Even today I cannot think about that horrible spectacle.” (Rey 159)
By noon, Ney is able to consolidate possession of the Fleches, helped by the fact that a shell seriously wounds Bagration – who will die of gangrene in a few weeks. Kutuzov appoints Alexander von Wuertemberg as commander of the 2nd Western Army, but in practice Aleksei Yermolov takes over.
Meanwhile in the north, the Grande Armee takes the village of Borodino despite the fierce fight put up by the Russian Chasseurs de la Garde light cavalry. Eugene sets up more French guns in the village to pour fire into the Russian center. Grouchy’s cavalry and three divisions of infantry cross the Kolocha and move on the Russian center. Just as Napoleon had planned, Kutuzov has been forced to weaken his center to support the south.
Raevsky’s Redoubt, anchoring the Russian line, still resists. The Grande Redoute is all the more imposing for the attackers because it is protected by a swampy stream to the front, with only limited access from the rear. But now its Russians defenders are under attack from all sides. About 2:00PM, Marshal Murat’s cavalry begins a series of charges to open a breach in the Russian lines to allow the French infantry to assault the redoubt. At 15:00, French cuirassiers heavy cavalry smash into the Russian lines one final time, and the infantry is able to capture the redoubt at heavy cost on both sides.
Sous-lieutenant Ducque is shocked by what he sees:
“Most of the [dead] were infantrymen who lay under dead horses and cavalrymen who had charged over them. This mix of men, weapons, and horses, breastplates, iron and brass cavalry helmets formed an indescribable scene. […] The horror of this incredible sight was increased by the moans of the dying who lay among the dead.” (Rey 161)
French-led troops can now move south on the plateau to support the Poles, and threaten Russian troops in the ruins of the SemYOnovskoe. The Russians have now lost their most important defensive positions and begin to fall back. Napoleon must now decide whether to throw in the Imperial Guard to finish off the Russians. But French command believes that the battle will continue the next day, and the Emperor decides not to risk the Guard. The Grande Armee has taken all Russian positions, and Russian troops have pulled back more than 1km from their original line.
The artillery rumbles until about 6:00PM but both armies begin to pitch camp for the night at a safe distance. The soldiers who survive the day’s butchery are forever marked by it, as Russian soldier Yuri BartEnev writes to his parents:
“Pieces of bodies were everywhere, and the dying groaned. I saw one man without a head, another one without hands or legs. I saw a lightly wounded soldier who couldn’t speak because his mouth was full of the brains of the man who had been killed beside him.” (Rey 162)

There is no second day of battle at Borodino. In the night of September 7-8, Kutuzov gives the order to retreat towards Moscow, and the next day, the Grande Armee, once again, has no enemy before it – but it is too exhausted to pursue the Russians, and stops to rest. The Battle of Borodino is one of the largest and bloodiest of the Napoleonic Wars. This is partly because it is not decided by maneuver; but waged with brute force and firepower in a head-on struggle.
In just one day, French guns fire 60,000 cannonballs, and the Russians 50,000; French-led infantry fires some 140,000 cartridges and the Russians 120,000. An average of three cannons are fired every second of the battle. All this iron, lead and fire takes a terrible human toll. The Grande Armee loses 28,000 killed and wounded, and 15,000 of its already decimated complement of horses. The Russians suffer 45,000 killed and wounded and 1000 prisoners. Borodino did not spare the generals either. 10 French generals are dead and 39 wounded; the Russians lose 6 dead generals, including both Tuchkov brothers, and 23 wounded. The Russian 2nd Western Army has nearly been destroyed.

Napoleon, who is sick the day of the battle, has been heavily criticized for his performance at Borodino. Some historians call it one of the worst moments of his career, and insist that if he had sent in the Guard he could have carried the day and won the campaign. In the end, both sides claim victory: the French since they are the masters of the field; and the Russians since have badly weakened their enemy and still have an army. The Russian command also made mistakes including confused orders and placing too many troops on their right wing. French-allied King Wilhelm von Wuerttemberg, whose brother fought on the Russian side that day, is relatively reserved about the outcome:

“In reality, Kutuzov didn’t have any more reason to have Alexander order a Te Deum in St. Petersburg than did Napoleon to send victorious communiques to Marie Louise.” (Fileaux 115)

The Battle of Borodino goes on to become THE symbolic battle of the Napoleonic Wars in Russian history. It will be used by poets, novelists, composers and filmmakers over the course of two centuries, to build a powerful mythology and national memory that is still influential today. But all the history books and national celebrations are far from the minds of the armies at the end of the day on September 7. Despite the scale, intensity, and lethality of Borodino, the war is far from over, and Moscow is only a few marches away.


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