7 September 1812

A round the Russian village of Borodino, lying astride the road that led from Smolensk to Moscow, there took place one of the bloodiest battles fought by any European army before the age of mass slaughter in the trenches of the First World War.

A painting from 1911 by the Russian artist Franz Roubaud (1856–1928) shows the French army in the thick of the battle at Borodino on 26 August 1812. The French and Russian armies took terrible casualties as they stood their ground against artillery fire and repeated charges. The two sides counted 73,000 casualties, making this the bloodiest day of the Napoleonic Wars.

It was here that the Grande Armée of the French Emperor Napoleon was confronted for the first time by the bulk of the Russian army under the veteran commander Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov. As the two armies fought back and forth, the soldiers were met by withering musket fire and a deadly cannonade from more than 1,000 guns. Both sides stood their ground with an exceptional courage. At the end of the day, 75,000 were dead or wounded, one-third of all those who took part.

Napoleon had not wanted to fight in Russia, but the vast, ramshackle empire that he had constructed across Europe faced numerous threats. The Russian tsar, Alexander I, refused to accept the trade blockade of Britain (the so-called ‘Continental System’) and was consolidating Russia’s strategic position in the Baltic and Black Sea regions.

Napoleon gathered a huge army of almost half a million men (only 200,000 of them were French) to march through Poland and pressure Alexander to accept a humiliating treaty that acknowledged Napoleon’s domination of Europe. He anticipated, at most, a battle or two in Lithuania or Belarus, not a major campaign deep inside Russian territory.

Alexander was not to be intimidated, and appointed Kutuzov to meet the threat from France. On 24 June 1812, Napoleon crossed the River Niemen and captured the Lithuanian capital of Vilna (Vilnius). He expected a major battle but the Russian marshals pulled their forces back. On 9 July, he left Vilna and marched into the interior seeking the elusive grand battle that would decide the future.

As Napoleon marched from Vilna towards Vitebsk, the problems that his army was to experience for months became evident. Freak blizzards, burning sun, an absence of fresh water and food, and the slow plod of the baggage wagons far in the rear, resulted in a line of dead and dying men and horses along the road. Napoleon was moved by the loss. ‘I have marched too far,’ he confessed to himself, but he was too committed to battle to give up.

Russian armies gathered in defence of Smolensk, but after two days of indecisive fighting, which cost Napoleon 20,000 men, the Russians once again made off in good order, sucking Napoleon inexorably deeper into the savagely hostile terrain. Advised by all around him to halt and recover, Napoleon was driven on by his inner demons. He had left Vitebsk with 185,000 troops; he marched down the Smolensk–Moscow highway with his army reduced to perhaps 130,000 tired, malnourished and anxious soldiers. Napoleon fell ill with a heavy cold; he had swollen legs and a painful bladder.

By chance the Russians chose an opportune moment to stand and fight. Kutuzov stopped at Borodino in early September and set out a prepared battlefield with earthworks and redoubts. He was popular with his men but his marshals saw him as lazy and unimaginative.

PARIS – DEC 5, 2018 – Scene from battle of Borodino in 1812, Les Invalides Army Museum, Paris, France

Dressed only in a green frock coat and white cap, he sat a great deal, wrote little and paid scant attention to the battlefield. Both men, Kutuzov and Napoleon, could have won the battle at Borodino decisively if they had been fit and active enough. As it turned out, the battle was commanded by two men who fought like lumbering punch-drunk boxers, unable to inflict the knock-out blow. Kutuzov deployed approximately 150,000 regular soldiers, Cossack horsemen and Moscow militia in a broad semi-circle with a powerful redoubt in the centre (the Raevsky). The right wing under Marshal Barclay de Tolly was shielded by a small river; here the bulk of the infantry and cavalry were placed.

The left wing under Prince Piotr Bagration was much weaker; Kutuzov sent a fresh corps to hide in the woods behind the left wing in order to attack any French effort to outflank Bagration, but the local commander ordered the corps out into the open.

The Russian position was weak because it gave little chance for manoeuvre and risked encirclement, but Napoleon failed to exploit the possibilities open to him. After inspecting the Russian dispositions in detail on 5 and 6 September, Napoleon chose a frontal assault, placing his key commanders – Michel Ney, Joachim Murat and Louis Davout – in a strong centre, with the Polish commander Prince Josef Poniatowski on the right and Prince Eugène Beauharnais on the left.

His generals found him uncharacteristically indecisive and lethargic. Though his troops were hungry, racked with dysentery and, in some cases, shoeless, Napoleon chose the most dangerous and costliest form of attack. At 6 a.m. on 7 September, the guns of both sides broke out a deafening roar. The troops had to stand waiting while the cannon balls and canister-shot crashed remorselessly into their ranks, removing a head here, an arm there, or tearing a horse literally in half.

Both sides were exposed, and they remained so for much of the day. Yet they kept formation even while their ranks were decimated by cannon and musket fire, a rare courage displayed by both sides. The Russians in particular stood to the last man, giving ground as little as possible before they collapsed in heaps of dead. Napoleon was puzzled that they did not give up: ‘These Russians let themselves be killed like automatons.’ The result was an ebb and flow on the battlefield in which both sides took horrifying losses as they hacked and stabbed their way forward only to be driven back once again.

Reserves waiting to be thrown into the cruel mêlée were too close to the front to avoid being killed by the guns where they stood. One French cavalry unit lost one-third of its men and horses without seeing action. The exceptional bravery in the face of fire owed something to a tough discipline instilled in both armies, but it was also a mark of desperation, since neither side wanted to risk the grisly consequences of defeat. Prisoners were few.

Each time the French forces stormed a redoubt or an earthwork, a second line of Russian soldiers stood in front of them a few hundred metres further back, making a second charge necessary. The struggle for the Raevsky redoubt came late in the afternoon and it soon turned into a swarm of soldiers from both sides fighting hand-to-hand to the death. But when the French stormed it, there was a second line of Russian infantry forming a new wall 800 metres (2,500 feet) away. Napoleon could find no way through and failed to outflank his enemy.

His 25,000-strong Imperial Guard was held back throughout the battle when it might have won it in the last hours. At around 6 p.m., the battle petered out and the Russians withdrew a few kilometres to the east. Their withdrawal allowed Napoleon to claim Borodino as a victory, but it was a hollow success.

He inspected the battlefield with its piles of corpses and wounded. In the Raevsky redoubt, they lay bleeding or senseless six to eight deep. The French forces lost forty-nine generals killed or wounded; the Russians lost twenty-nine, including Prince Bagration. French losses were estimated at 28,000, but thousands more died of wounds that could not be treated for lack of medical supplies and doctors. Russian casualties were put at 45,000.

The Russian army reformed to the south but abandoned Moscow, which Napoleon entered on 15 September. Borodino made no difference in the end to either side. Alexander still refused to make peace. Short of food and water, harassed constantly by angry peasants and booty-seeking Cossacks, uncertain as to the future, the French armies became quickly demoralized.

Napoleon was forced to retreat, and the long road back from Moscow left him in the end with only 20,000 tattered, emaciated and frozen troops when the army arrived outside Vilna. Napoleon hastened back to Paris, leaving perhaps 400,000 dead littering the wide Russian steppe. ‘Fortune,’ Napoleon is supposed to have said on the eve of Borodino, ‘is a fickle courtesan.’ For all the courage of his army, fortune abandoned him as it abandoned them.


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