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Battle of Borodino


On Monday, September 7, 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte’s Grand Armée faced the principal Russian army under Field Marshal Prince Mikhail Kutuzov at Borodino, a small village some 65 miles to the west of Moscow. Since invading Russia in late June with approximately 615,000 men, the largest invasion force in the history of mankind to that time, the Emperor of the French had been trying to draw the Russians into a major battle. He got his opportunity at the Battle of Borodino. The clash raged for ten hours and featured some of the fiercest fighting in military history. Kutuzov’s army suffered enormous casualties, but the Russian commander successfully withdrew that night, managing to keep the remainder of his forces intact. Although Napoleon retained the battlefield, opened the road to Moscow, and suffered fewer casualties, he failed to gain the decisive victory that he needed, which would ultimately prove fatal to his campaign. The two sides combined suffered an estimated 72,000 casualties, making the Battle of Borodino the bloodiest engagement of the Napoleonic Wars.

Before dawn on Wednesday, June 24, 1812, Napoleon’s massive army of over 600,000 men, which was larger than the entire population of Paris at the time, started crossing the Niemen River into Russia. This massive force was not merely made up of Frenchmen; it also comprised Poles, Austrians, Prussians, Swiss, Dutch, Romans, Spaniards, Portuguese, and many other foreigners. Napoleon’s multi-national coalition was a testament to the incredible power that he had attained by successfully expanding the French Empire across much of western and central Europe. The Emperor of the French was an avid student of history and he understood that invading Russia would be no easy task. Napoleon did not plan to advance deep into the vast country. He wanted to quickly smash the Russian army in order to compel Russia’s political cooperation.

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries by Jacques-Louis David. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

After defeating the Russians at the Battle of Friedland in 1807, Napoleon reached peace with the Tsar of Russia, Alexander I. Although the two leaders agreed to a treaty of alliance, over time, Alexander turned out to be a very unreliable ally, defying France’s Continental System, which considered the British Isles “in a state of blockade” and banned any trade at all between them and Europe.

Tsar Alexander I of Russia. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Tsar Alexander had actually been planning for another war against France since 1810. The Continental System had proven ruinous to the Russian economy, and despite the alliance between the two leaders, Franco-Russian relations were always tense. Recognizing Alexander’s extensive fortification program of Russia’s western frontier, as well as the relocation of troops to the Polish border, Napoleon is said to have concluded by early 1811 that Russia intended to “make common cause with England.” “I cannot disguise from myself that Your Majesty no longer has any friendship for me,” Napoleon had written to Tsar Alexander in late February 1812. After ordering a fresh enlistment of troops on March 1, Alexander replied: “Neither my feeling nor my politics have changed, and I only desire the maintenance and consolidation of our alliance.” The Tsar ended his message by writing, “If war must begin, I will know to fight and sell my life dearly.”

War certainly came when Napoleon crossed the Niemen River into Russian territory in June 1812. Although the Emperor had planned to win a quick campaign with his massive force, the Russians had plans of their own. Russian officer Piotr Chuikevich wrote that it was essential “to plan and pursue a war exactly contrary to what the enemy wants.” The Russians stayed true to this strategy, avoiding the sort of battle that could destroy their army, and retreating into the depths of their vast country, destroying supplies as they went. By “gaining time and drawing out the war as long as possible,” as Tsar Alexander confided to another general, the Russians had indeed adopted the correct plan to counter Napoleon’s military might.

There were moments during the campaign when Napoleon came close to turning his forces around, but the Emperor had always been bold and he was determined to carry on. It wasn’t just Russian strategy that frustrated Napoleon’s plans. The sheer size of the Emperor’s army made it more difficult to control and maneuver than the forces Napoleon had commanded earlier in his career. Russia’s scorching summer and disease, especially typhus fever, wreaked havoc on the Grand Armée. According to historian Andrew Roberts, “By the third week of July over 80,000 men had either died or were sick, at least 50,000 of them from typhus. Within a month of the start of the invasion, Napoleon had lost one-fifth of the men in his central army group.” Despite these problems, Russian scorched earth tactics, and other difficulties, Napoleon continued to push forward to the west of the country, fighting the Russians in a number of minor engagements and in a large battle at Smolensk. Although he came close at Smolensk, the Emperor gained little but the city’s smoking ruins.

The Battle of Smolensk, 17th August 1812 by Jean-Charles Langlois. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

On August 20, 1812, Tsar Alexander replaced Barclay de Tolly as commander-in-chief with the sixty-seven-year old Field Marshal Prince Mikhail Kutuzov, who Napoleon had defeated at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, one of the Emperor’s most infamous victories. Although de Tolly’s policy of withdrawal was widely unpopular in the Russian army, his tactics had been luring the Grand Armée deep into Russian territory, putting tremendous stress on Napoleon’s force by stretching its supply lines away from the military depots that it depended on. Napoleon thought that Kutuzov’s appointment would bring on the decisive battle that he needed, assuming that, “He has been summoned to command the army on condition that he fights.” Napoleon’s assessment was not entirely correct; Kutuzov was in no rush to fight. He continued to fall back towards Moscow, reconnoitering for the place to take his stand. The Russian commander chose Borodino, a small village some 65 miles to the west of Moscow. At Borodino, the landscape would soon be turned red.

Field Marshal Prince Mikhail Kutuzov. Nearly 40 years before the Battle of Borodino, a musket ball had passed clean through Kutuzov’s head, leaving him badly scarred and nearly blind. (Photo:Wikimedia Commons)

“Peace is in front of us,” Napoleon told his staff, believing that Kutuzov couldn’t surrender the holy city of Moscow, the revered former capital of the Russian Empire, without a major battle. After this great fight, the Emperor of the French was convinced that Tsar Alexander would have to sue for peace. Napoleon didn’t know it, but Alexander had declared in St Petersburg, which was the Russian capital at the time, that he would never make peace, saying: “I would sooner let my beard grow to my waist and eat potatoes in Siberia.” As Napoleon marched towards Moscow to force the Russians to give battle, Andrew Roberts writes that the Emperor’s “mind was already turning to the terms of surrender he could impose." Although the campaign had taken a toll on his army, Napoleon still had reason to be confident. “This poor army is much reduced,” Napoleon said, “but what remains of it is good; my Guard besides is untouched.” The Emperor was ready to conquer yet another opponent, but the Russians would prove on the battlefield just how determined they were to resist him.

Napoleon reviewing his Imperial Guard before the Battle of Jena in 1806. The Imperial Guard was Napoleon’s favorite unit, the shock troops of the French Empire. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

On September 5, 1812, Napoleon’s forces captured the Shevardino Redoubt on the south-western edge of the Borodino battlefield. Roberts points out that the redoubt was “too distant from the main Russian position to be properly defended.” The fight cost the Russians some 6,000 casualties and the French suffered around 4,000. After this action, Napoleon braced his army for the clash that he had been longing for since beginning the campaign ten weeks earlier.

“Soldiers,” read the proclamation written to the Grand Armée the night before Borodino, “Behave as you did at Austerlitz, at Friedland, at Vitebsk, at Smolensk, and the remotest posterity will quote with pride your conduct on this day. Let it say of you: ‘He was at the great battle under the walls of Moscow.’” Around 110,000 men had fallen sick to typhus and many others had been picked off or fallen away since the start of the campaign. This gave Napoleon some 103,000 men and 587 guns in his central army group to take on Kutuzov’s 120,800 men and 640 guns. The Russians had also constructed strong defenses, which according to Roberts included “formidable redoubts and arrowhead-shaped defensive earthworks called flèches, deepen ravines and clear artillery fields of fire on the battlefield.”

At 6 a.m. on Monday, September 7, 1812, a battery of one hundred French guns opened fire on the Russian center and the bloody Battle of Borodino began. The fighting that morning was relentless, with some sections of the battlefield descending into close-quarter bayonet fighting and attritional combat. Napoleon’s frontal assaults hit the Russians hard, but Kutuzov’s men showed a firm reluctance to cede ground. At noon several of Napoleon’s marshals begged him to unleash the Imperial Guard to smash through the Russian line while it was extended, but recognizing that he was 1,800 miles from Paris without any other reserves, the Emperor refused. Savage fighting continued throughout the afternoon and by 4 p.m. the Grand Armée had taken the field of battle. The Russians had withdrawn half a mile by 5 p.m. and prepared to defend their positions. Napoleon’s troops were too exhausted to continue the attack and artillery was ordered to shell the new Russian positions. Under the cover of darkness, Kutuzov withdrew that night.

Part of the Battle of Borodino Panorama, a gigantic 360-degree oil painting created by Russian artist Franz Roubaud in 1912 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the battle. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Battle of Borodino was the bloodiest single day in the history of warfare until the First Battle of the Marne over a century later. Kutuzov suffered around 43,000 casualties. Andrew Roberts notes that “so dogged was the Russian resistance that only 1,000 men and 20 guns were captured.” Napoleon lost some 6,600 killed and 21,400 wounded. Roberts writes, “The combined losses are the equivalent of a fully laden jumbo jet crashing into an area of 6 square miles every five minutes for the whole ten hours of the battle, killing or wounding everyone on board.” It was a struggle that few, including Napoleon, would ever forget.

It can be argued that Napoleon’s refusal to commit the Imperial Guard at noon prevented him from achieving the decisive victory that he needed. “People will be surprised that I did not commit my reserves to obtain greater results,” Napoleon said, “but I had to keep them for striking a decisive blow in the great battle the enemy will fight in front of Moscow.” The Russians, however, did not fight another battle in front of Moscow. Kutuzov had managed to keep the remainder of his forces intact, but he decided to abandon the city. “Napoleon is a torrent,” Kutuzov said, “but Moscow is the sponge that will soak him up.” The Russian commander’s prophecy would come to pass. Napoleon entered Moscow on September 15, 1812. A nightmare was about to begin that the Emperor of the French would never fully recover from.


Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts.

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