Saturday, July 17, 2021

Shevardino 1812


Napoleon's Russian Invasion

5 September 1812

French  nominally under Joachim Murat, 32,000 men with 186 guns
Russians under 
Lt. Gen. Prince Andrey Ivanovich Gortchakov ,  approx. 20,000 men with 64 guns

Location:  Borodino, Russia  55⁰ 32' N, 35⁰ 45' E

Weather Conditions:  Partial clouds, following several nights of light rain. Cold nights. Hot days. After a year of drought, though, the drizzle was not enough fill the rivers and streams, which were low and, in many places, completely dry.  The small Kolocha River, bisecting the Borodino battlefield, was fordable everywhere. Mist in the morning.

Sunrise: 05:49   Sunset: 19:22  
Calculated for this location and date with NOAA's Sunrise/Sunset Calculator

Moon: New moon that night. Black as pitch.
Calculated with World TimeDate moonrise calculator

Approximate deployment of Russian and Napoleon's forces in the afternoon of 5 September 1812. Note that the famous Raevsky Redoubt and Bagration's Fleches had yet to be constructed, though Barclay de Tolly, commanding the right wing of the Russian army, had built a number of entrenchments on the high ground along the Kolocha stream.  This deployment map also shows that Kutuzov had largely neglected his exposed left wing at the village of Utitza along the old Smolensk highway, trusting to the Cossacks and some ptichfork-armed militia under Karpov to guard that flank, an oversight that was not corrected until the following day. I have also rendered those villages which seemed to have been set on fire by the Russians to deny them to the French as shelter. As with all of my maps, this one is protected by a digital watermark. Copyright 2021 by Jeffery P. Berry Trust.

Parental Guidance Warning

Before proceeding any further in this article, be aware that certain characters who have been considered beyond reproach in certain countries (I'm not looking at you, Russia, so put your hand down), may be treated with disdain and ridicule. Like my warning to Stonewall Jackson lovers in my article on Cedar Mountain 1862, this applies to lovers of Mikhail Kutuzov and his chief of staff, Levin Bennigsen. If you love these two historic heroes, you may be offended.

Now that we've dispensed with that warning, on with the fun and carnage.

Prelude to Borodino

While given a few paragraphs in most of the numberless histories, novels, movies, and BBC series of Napoleon's disastrous Russian campaign of 1812, the action on 5 September, two days before the climatic battle of Borodino, was itself larger in terms of forces engaged and casualties than most of the battles of the eighteenth century, certainly as large as Marengo or Arcola. Though it was completely overshadowed by the catastrophic abattoir two days later, it may have been strategically consequential to the outcome of that monster battle, and, indeed, to the whole fate of Napoleon's ill-considered invasion.

Most historians and participants (most notably the know-it-all Carl von Clausewitz, who was actually there) considered the Russian advanced position and redoubt built in front of the tiny hamlet of Shevardino a mistake on the part of the Russian commander-in-chief, Kutuzov. They say it served no purpose and only resulted in the destruction of so many men, horses, and ordnance at the cost of the subsequent battle and risk to the nation.  They also blame the impetuosity of Bagration, who sent forces from his Second Army forward to defend the position on the 5th. 

However, an alternate (and therefore obscure) explanation exists: That Prince Bagration, commander of the Second Army of the West and the left wing of the Russian combined army, (with the nodding approval of the somnolent and "yeah-whatever" Kutuzov) recognized that he had to delay the oncoming French so the Russian army could complete the fortifications on the main battlefield. He had served this same service during the 1805 campaign at Schöngrabern, when he delayed the French long enough for Kutuzov to get the main Russian army back across the Danube to link up with reinforcements and prepare the battleground of Austerlitz (which he then managed to lose anyway). It is my proposition that had not Bagration made this forward deployment at Shevardino, Napoleon would have been able to quickly outflank the Russian army from the south and sweep over it on open ground before they were dug in, driving it into the corner of the Kolocha and Moskva Rivers and annihilating it. I wonder if the tsk-tskers about Bagaration's "mistake" are just indulging in Monday morning my Tuesday morning quarterback opinion. But strategically, Bagration's tactical "mistake" may have actually saved the Russian army, and ultimately Russia.

As Always, a Little Background

For those of you readers who are not intimately familiar with the Borodino battle, the 1812 Russian campaign, or even when the Napoleonic Wars happened, I should spend a little time setting up this battle. So you have some context. 

The reason for this war at all was based on Napoleon's pique that Czar Alexander was not living up to his previous agreements at the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807 that ended the long war between the two empires, ostensibly bringing Russia into the French hegemony against its arch-enemy Britain. But five years after this treaty, Russia was still openly trading with Britain, one of its most important economic partners. Napoleon couldn't let this go.

The honeymoon of Tilsit
was definitely over.
Didn't the two emperors make
an adorable couple, though?

So he called on all of his Continental satraps and moved up the conscription in France to bring in a whole new army of fresh troops. He had ordered the mobilization of the largest army Europe had ever seen, over half-a-million people (teenagers, though). It may have been a huge army, but after two decades of almost constant warfare, it was not of the same caliber as those that fought at Marengo in 1800 or Austerlitz in 1805, or even Friedland in 1807. Most of those had been used up in all the subsequent wars of the next five  years, especially in the unending war in Spain. Added to these Napoleon impressed a quarter-million Germans, Italians, Dutch, Spaniards, and even his former enemies the Austrians and Prussians to swell his invasion force. His final diplomatic gestures ignored by the Czar, he moved across the River Nieman on June 25, 1812 with over half-a-million men and proceeded to march east, hoping to provoke the Russians to battle and end this silliness in a matter of a couple weeks. 

The Russians, though, not yet mobilized to full strength, had at most 218,000 spread across 400 miles of frontier in three armies (Prince Michael Barclay de Tolly's 1st Army, 127,000; Prince Pyotr Bagration's 2nd Army, 48,000; and Tormassov's 3rd Army, 43,000). Instead of manfully meeting Napoleon's tidal wave at the border, the Russians just inched back, and back, and back. They would pause occasionally to appear to offer battle, but then would retreat again. And all the while they did so, they and the retreating population of serfs (helped by the Cossacks) would burn crops, stores, and villages to deny them to the invaders.  This was a conscious Fabian strategy, proposed by Barclay and supported by Czar Alexander that went on for nearly two months. On 16 August, over 400 miles from the border, Barclay and Bagration finally joined forces at Smolensk and confronted Napoleon. Or seemed to. The Emperor was overjoyed, thinking this was the Big Battle he had so longed for to end the war and force the Czar to negotiate for peace.

But Smolensk was a medieval town with high, thick walls and the French were not prepared for a siege (either with equipment or time). Instead, Napoleon ordered a costly frontal attack on the city, blasting holes in the vertical walls with his artillery. His army at hand, now reduced to 180,000, charged into the breaches, but had no ladders with them to scale the walls, and were cut down in those choke points.. The Russians made the French pay dearly, inflicting 10,000 casualties (losing about 6,000 themselves) and then retreated again, crossing the Dnieper River and leaving a burning city. Napoleon had failed to destroy the main Russian army. He had paid dearly for a Pyrhhic victory, and now found himself 1,500 miles (2,500 km) from home in hostile, burned out territory, with barely half his army left, and with his lines of supply stretched beyond capacity. And Czar Alexander still didn't seem inclined to negotiate for peace.

The end of summer now coming, with the dread Russian winter ahead, Napoleon sat down around the smoking husk of Smolensk for a week and dithered about what to do next. His envoys to Alexander (mostly released Russian prisoners) continued to elicit no response. Apparently they conveyed to the Czar about something terrible happening inside Napoleon's army and urged him to keep on resisting. Probably not the best messengers to have sent.


What these released prisoner-envoys described to Alexander of the condition of Napoleon's army was the presence of something sinister.  Typhus. 

Few of the dozen or so histories I read of this campaign mention the disease as a strategic factor, though it was certainly noted by various memoir-writers. Since crossing the Niemen  toward the end of June, the invasion force had diminished to something on the order of 36-50% of its original strength in just two months. Digby Smith's meticulous orders of battle over the course of the campaign indicate that some corps, like the cavalry, were down to 27% on the eve of Borodino.  Napoleon later made the feeble excuse that it was "General Winter" that had defeated him in 1812, not the Russians. Popular belief, has long bought this Napoleonic myth,  that it was the Russian winter that caused so great a loss in the Emperor's army. Tolstoy, in his novel, War & Peace, continued this myth. And the even more disastrous invasion of Russia by the Nazis in WWII perpetuated it. Russia's winter always saves it, time after time. 

But this was still summer, and Napoleon's force was already far below normal attrition numbers for other campaigns. There had been no great battles prior to 5 September to account for the death rate. Even the Battle of Smolensk, didn't account for such catastrophic losses (possibly 10,000 at most). And winter that year wouldn't really get going in Russia until early December, well after Napoleon had started his retreat from Moscow.

An enemy more deadly than the Cossacks,
the common louse. Imagine your body
swarming with these creatures, all infected
Rickettsia bacteria. Contemporary doctors
who bathed and changed the lice-ridden
clothes of their patients recorded that their
patients got better and were no longer

One author I read for this article, Stephen Talty,  (The Illustrious Dead), describes both archaeological and eye-witness evidence that there was a more ominous (and in our own time, familiar) cause of such a great lost of life. Recent discoveries of mass graves in Lithuania dating from 1812 reveal DNA evidence (extracted from the tooth pulp of the skeletons) that typhus was already rampant and lethal even at this early stage of the campaign. Typhus (Rickettsia prowazkkii) is spread by body lice, which in early 19th century Europe, were common. Put a half-a-million men together, have them never bathe or change their clothes for weeks (Western Europeans had had religious objections to bathing for centuries), and you have the recipe for a super-spreader event. Memoirs recount that when the clothes were taken from dead men, their bodies were alive with lice. Besides the archaeological evidence, accounts by survivors of the invasion describe identical symptoms to typhus; high fever, rash all over the body except (curiously) the face and hands, and dementia. Though it was not called typhus at the time

In 1812 the science of epidemiology and medicine hadn't progressed much since the Middle Ages. The so-called miasma theory of disease was still prevalent, the belief, dating back to Hippocrates 2,200 years before, that disease was caused by bad smells emanating from swamps, cesspools, or dead animals. In June 1812 the spread of the disease was ascribed to the bad odors of Poland and Russia. This was several decades before Pasteur's discovery of microbial infection as the source of contagious diseases. Also, since these hundreds of thousands of men never bathed or changed their clothes, one can only imagine that the bad smells weren't coming from the land. If these men had just sniffed their own armpits, they might have realized it wasn't Poland's or Russia's countryside.

But I digress. The evidence is that Napoleon's original, central strike force of 331,000 men (Guard, I, II, III, !V, V, VIII Corps, plus cavalry) had dwindled to around 120,000 effectives by 5 September.  Nor could most of the missing be chalked up to detachment (that's what the flanking corps' job was--VI, VII, IX, X, and XI Corps, originally totaling 148,000 people) or to combat losses. Almost 64% were sick or dead. And the Russians were taking note of this.

Below, Charles Minard's famous 1869 graphic illustrating the attrition of Napoleon's army in 1812. Notice that by Borodino (Mojaisk, just prior to 7 September) the width of the main striking force had diminished to just 40% of its original before detachments.

Of course, one could point out that all wars throughout history had seen attrition through disease (cholera, malaria, typhoid fever, small pox, dysentery, and typhus). And until the discovery of microbial infection in the late 19th century (overturning the miasma theory), and the invention of antibiotics in the 20th, attrition through disease it was a fact of military life. But the typhus epidemic in Napoleon's army seemed to reach a new height of lethality. He himself callously chalked it up to the "weaker elements" being winnowed out early in the campaign. He was not altogether wrong. Since a large proportion of his army consisted of teenage conscripts, a population with naive immune systems, it stands to reason that so many of them would die heart-breakingly young.

 Of course, there were other factors besides typhus that didn't help. Russia and Eastern Europe had been experiencing one of the worst droughts in history in 1812. Though there were days of light drizzle, for the most part the streams and ponds had dried up and the rivers were very low for the whole of the invasion route. Severe thirst was also taxing the men (and we, presume, these included the Russians). But the drought was especially hard on the horses, which were dying at even greater rates from thirst, hunger, and all the equine maladies that plagued these poor creatures during war. This would be one explanation for the greater attrition among the cavalry (27% vs 50% for the infantry by Borodino). The drought had also killed off the fields of grain that horses needed to graze on along the route.

It had also been one of the hottest years on record in Russia. So men and horses were also dying from heat exhaustion, a condition only briefly (and deceptively) relieved by the periodic nighttime drizzle.

Add to this the practice of the retreating Russian army and the peasants who scorched the earth behind them, burning towns, villages, farms, orchards, and fields to leave nothing for the invaders. Even the sacred city of Smolensk was not spared, but left a burning ruin after it was abandoned by Barclay and Bagration.  Of course, this Fabian practice was not perfect, as the French discovered buried larders beneath the burned-out houses. But the strategy of living off the land that Napoleon's armies had successfully used during their campaigns in Western Europe for years was not working in Russia.

Finally, the invaders faced a menace in the thousands of Cossacks who swarmed around the advancing army like gnats. Never standing for battle (Murat, at one point, rode up alone to a bunch of them, said "Boo!" and they scattered), they nonetheless preyed on stragglers and isolated foragers and captured and killed them in the most grisly fashion. Like the guerillas that had plagued Napoleon in Spain, these eastern irregulars terrorized the French, Poles and Germans. Foraging parties dared not leave the column unless they were in strength and protected by cavalry. Morale was sagging. 

And it wasn't only the Cossacks. The peasants, understandably pissed at having to burn their farms and at the propaganda about the French being defilers of Jesus, would capture lone stragglers themselves and subject them to hideous torture and death. They'd often buy captives from the Cossacks to enjoy a night of fun with the poor prisoners. Ironically, these atrocities enforced discipline on Napoleon's troops, who were fearful of being separated from their units on the march. And they didn't incline them to mercy on the Russians.

So by September 5th, Napoleon's army was down to half of its original strength of eight weeks earlier. Reduced by hunger, thirst, heat, disease, and guerilla warfare.


The Russians turn to fight

After retreating for nine weeks and some 500 miles (800 km), laying waste the countryside behind them, the two Russian armies under Barclay de Tolly and Bagration, now united after Smolensk, finally turned to fight on 29 August near the little town of Tsarevo-Zamishche some 119 miles (192 km) from Moscow on the Smolensk-Moscow highway. Reconnaissance by Barclay's staff had determined that this position, with its high ground, sweeping fields of fire, minimum of woods, and secure avenues of retreat was the best between Smolensk and Moscow. Though Bagration had been chiding at Barclay for weeks for not wanting to stand and fight, now that he was, the Georgian sneered at the selected battlefield as "worthless". He refused to have his men pitch in to fortify it.. So Barclay, the senior commander (and Minister of War) supervised his own men to start to dig in and prepare redoubts. Bagration wrote to St. Petersburg about how incompetent Barclay was (the subtext of his messages to the Czar, "You should put me in charge."). 
So it seemed, Barclay was damned if he did and damned if he didn't. He was criticized for retreating and trying to preserve the army. And criticized if he stood his ground to offer battle. It seemed like he was trying to fight this war surrounded by a gaggle of high school mean girls. Good thing for him they didn't have Twitter or Facebook back then.
Even without Twitter, Czar Alexander had been feeling increasing pressure.from his court in St. Petersburg and from politicians in Moscow, as well as anti-Barclay factions in the Army to do something. As Napoleon got closer to Moscow daily, this pressure to do anything to defend the capital became overwhelming. Privately, Alexander agreed with the Fabian tactics of Barclay, understanding that the farther Napoleon marched into Russia and the longer his lines of communication extended, the more vulnerable he became. It was endless space, not winter, that was Russia's secret weapon. So privately he supported Barclay.
But politically and at court, Alexander couldn't publicly condone this. His own position on the throne was vulnerable. There were still mumblings both in Russia and abroad that he had had his father, Czar Paul, assassinated so he could seize the crown. He didn't feel all that secure on the throne himself, and Russian history had had a few precedents of disgruntled nobles getting rid of unpopular rulers. He was also surrounded by factious generals like Levin Benninsen (loser of Eylau and Friedland), who hated Barclay for his prudence and careful use of forces and his management as Minister of War. Having been dismissed by Barclay from his staff, Bennigsen wanted his command back and lobbied the Czar for just that. What he really wanted was to be named Commander-in-Chief and Minister of War. But with all the xenophobia rampant in Russia just then, Bennigsen, not even a Russian  subject but a contemptuous German expat, was not really an option for Alexander, was still angry at him for losing Friedland and forcing the Czar to concede to Napoleon at Tilsit in 1807.
Heroic, Soviet-era painting of Kutuzov, astride
his charger
--er--stool, asking everybody if they
could see that bunny rabbit shape in the clouds.
(Painting by Anatoly Sheplyuk, 1952)

But one popular nomination at court was someone Alexander really couldn't stand, Mikhail Kutuzov, the "loser" of Austerlitz. Though Alexander meddled with Kutuzov's command in that 1805 campaign, to the point where the old general just washed his hands of any responsibility, the monarch felt he had to intervene because Kutuzov was doing nothing but taking naps while Napoleon was right in front of them at Austerlitz. Kutuzov, though, had been one of the great Russian hero Suvurov's favorite generals during the wars against the Turks and the French in the 1790s. But Alexander still  couldn't forgive him for abandoning him at Austerlitz.  He coudn't stand to be in his presence.
Still, Kutuzov was lobbied for as a "true" Russian by the anti-Barclay faction in St Petersburg.  They claimed he was supposedly popular with the troops and the people. So on 17 August Alexander controlled his personal disdain and called Kutuzov to an audience at the imperial dacha on Kameny Island to personally ask him to take over as commander-in-chief of all Russia's armies. He apparently even gave Kutuzov some "traveling allowance" as the shameless old man, on leaving the imperial presence, turned to ask him for some money, you know, just something for the trip, a mere 10,000 rubles. The Czar nodded that he be given this travel allowance, but nearly lost his lunch as Kutuzov left.
Nearly two weeks later, when Kutuzov finally arrived at Tsarevo-Zamische a couple of days after Barclay and Bagration had been preparing it, he had been declaring to the press and everyone along the way of his intention to stand and fight. He snidely and loudly said, upon stepping down from his luxurious carriage and seeing a delegation of soldiers standing to attention to greet him, "How can we expect these fine fellows to continue to retreat?"  But the two commanders he was sent to oversee had already agreed to stand and fight, and their troops were almost done finishing the fieldworks. 

That day, according to legend, an eagle was spotted soaring over Kutuzov, signifying God's blessing on him,  the Army, and on Holy Mother Russia. Though more cynical witnesses say it was hard to tell what kind of a bird it was; a buzzard? A crow? A chicken hawk? But, as with the legend of George Washington throwing a silver dollar across the river, this incident of the eagle was jellified in Russian official histories.
Count Levin Bennigsen
Kutuzov's Chief-of-Staff
and loser of Friedland.
Portrait by George Dawe

When greeted by Barclay and Bagration, and shown the newly fortified field their troops had prepared, the old man initially said the place and the preparations looked fine to him. But later, when he was alone with his staff of sycophants he had brought down with him from Petersburg, his know-it-all, obsequious chief-of-staff, Bennigsen, and a gaggle of other fawning princelings (everybody seemed to be a prince in Russia), all  convinced the aging new Commander-in-Chief that it would look bad for him if he allowed the battle for Moscow to be fought on ground someone else had chosen. This swayed Kutuzov. Besides, he was tired from his journey and needed another nap. He peremptorily waved his hand and let Bennigsen tell everyone to pack up and keep retreating. 
So, after having loudly proclaimed his intention to stand and fight for Holy Mother Russia, one of Kutuzov's first acts on taking command was to order another retreat. He also lost three valuable days, which would play a critical role at Borodino a week later.

The Russians turn to fight...again.

The Russian army continued to fall back, much to everybody's disgust and the soldiers' confusion. On 3 September, they all stopped at another site about 46 miles (74 km) miles further east, astride the new Smolensk-Moscow road where it crosses the tiny Kolocha River at the little town of Borodino, about 75 miles from Moscow.

It wasn't an ideal battlefield. More cluttered than Tsarevo had been, it was broken up by ravines from which attacking forces could launch assaults, and the fields of fire were blocked by woods. Also the Kolocha River hardly deserved the category of "river" it was so low due to the long drought, easily fordable nearly everywhere.
But Kutuzov's chief of staff, Bennigsen, thought the field was excellent, as did all the crowd of yes-men. Kutuzov, as usual not wanting to take responsibility for any strategic decisions, just nodded in agreement. The aging field marshal (he was only 67) was infamous for not issuing orders himself and was notorious for taking a nap when decisions had to be made (something he had done at Austerlitz). Plausible deniability, you know. He left it all to Bennigsen, and to his own son-in-law, Prince Nicholay Kudashev, an entitled young aristocrat who had unofficially attached himself to the staff and took it upon himself to issue orders willy-nilly in his father-in-law's name. It must have been fun for this kid to ride up to veteran generals and tell them what to do. And if things went wrong, Kutuzov, a master at covering his own butt, could just claim he never gave any such orders.

It was on the 4th, too, that Bennigsen (with Kutuzov's non-committal nod) set up a new level of command structure, giving the Russian right wing to Mikhail Miloradovich (perhaps as a way to further humiliate Barclay, who still retained command of the First Army there), the center to General Dmitry Dokhturov, and the left to Bagration's own subordinate, Prince Andrey Gortchakov (leaving Bagration in command of the Second Army, below Gortchakov?). Here was more needless meddling in an organization that had been working just fine.

Barclay, who was himself a stickler for tight chain-of-command and a paper-trail of orders, had had a direct hand in modernizing the Russian Army under his administration as Minister of War (which he still officially was).  He set down and published a document called, The Yellow Book, which codified command procedures and had made the Army far more efficient than it had been under old soldiers like Suvarov and Kutuzov. Bennigsen, though, an old soldier from the age of Lace Wars, had sneered at these bureaucratic, new-fangled methods and was notorious for ignoring the chain-of-command and just going directly to subordinates to give verbal orders ("You don't need no stinkin' writing! Just respect my authoritay!"--for all you South Park fans out there.). Without even informing their commanders, he would frequently hijack one of their units, a vice he would repeat a number of times during Borodino two days later. It is typical that on the same day he had created intermediate commands of the two wings above the two senior commanders (Barclay and Bagration), he even went around the new commanders and started micro-managing again.
Bennigsen, feeling his new muscles as chief-of-staff, apparently saw the need for a forward post to delay the French...or ambush them...or observe their flank...or something. Without telling Kutuzov, and on his own authority, he had bypassed Bagration and the newly appointed wing commander, Gortchakov, and rode up to one of his division commanders, General Dmitry Neverovksy (27th Div), and verbally ordered him to march west and build the redoubt near Shevardino, an exposed site a mile-and-a-half beyond artillery support from Bagration's position. Bagration and Gortchakov scrambled to support Neverovsky. 

Barclay notices something wrong.

On the right, Barclay just kept on doing his job from the 3rd to the 5th. He supervised the construction of defenses on the right and made sure his troops were replenished and ready for battle. Late on the 5th, satisfied that his own position was ready, he took a ride over to Bagration's position to see how things were going there. He was shocked to see that none of the hills on the Russian left had been fortified, particularly the big, bare hill that overlooked the Borodino bridge over the Kolocha (see big map at the top of this article). He rode to Kutuzov's headquarters to alert them to this gross oversight. Kutuzov apparently said "oh." In fact, it wasn't until the next day, the 6th, just a day before the great battle, that any work commenced to build the soon-to-be-famous earthworks (The Great Redoubt and the Bagration Fleches) that would define the Battle of Borodino. Three days late. Talk about an after-thought!
Dmitry Petrovich Neverovsky
Commander of the Russian 27th Division
portrait by George Dawe

This may have some rationale for the need to prepare a forward position at Shevardino. The after-the-fact reason for preparing this exposed position (according to apologist Russian historians eager to prop up Kutuzov's "Hero-of-the-Great-Patriotic-War" stature) was that the wiley commander-in-chief needed to give Bagration's men time to prepare the vital redoubts along the left flank of the main Russian position. It was here that the time lost in preparing and then abandoning the Tsarevo-Zamische battle site a week before was being paid. According to the apologists, the supposedly shrewd Kutuzov, knowing that time had to be bought to prepare the new battlefield, saw that fortifying Shevardino, a mile-and-a-half west, and sacrificing several thousand men, would delay the enemy and save the day later. So went the rationalization. Or perhaps Kutuzov was thinking of Peter the Great's victory over Charles XII of Sweden in 1709 when he forced the Swedes to march past the forward redoubts at Poltava. Yeah, that must have been it! My own hunch is that Kutuzov was oblivious (and literally napping) and Bennigsen was an incompetent, arrogant, senile idiot. Or is it just me?

But, to be fair, it is also plausible that Bagration, who was known for his aggressiveness and for fighting rear-guard, offensive-defensive actions (
Schöngrabern,1805), was the initiating agent in this "delaying" operation. Later in the action, he even got personally involved and led a third counter-attack here (spoiler alert!).
Whatever the strategic reasons, it could be said that the late-begun Shevardino redoubt was not ready either when it was attacked. By the late afternoon of the 5th, the pentagonal fort, which men had only started digging that morning, was essentially not much more than a hastily tossed-up pile of loose dirt. It's been reported that embrasures for the guns were poorly sited and too narrow for the tubes to be aimed properly. And the breastworks were too low to offer much protection above the waist.
Gortchakov, the new wing commander, took defense of this forward position seriously, though. He had sent the two jager regiments of Neverovksy's 27th Division (49th and 50th) and the borrowed 5th Jager from the 26th Division forward to intercept any French action toward Shevardino. While the redoubt was being frantically thrown up, he had Neverovsky flank the village and the fort with four infantry regiments (Odessa, Tarnopol, Vilna, and Simbirsk). So there were, including jagers, about 6,700 infantry defending the position. Gortchakov then supported these with the cavalry divisions of Duka (2nd Cuirassier Div) and Sievers (4th Cavalry Div), almost 5,000 horse. But there was not much in the way of artillery support. Once the 60-yard diameter redoubt was laid out, there would be room for just eight 12-pounder guns of the #32 Position Battery, with the remaining four of its licornes (early gun-howitzers) held behind them in reserve. 

Barclay, having discovered the lack of fortified positions of the left flank on the 5th, had also become increasingly alarmed at how exposed the left flank of the Russian position was. Bagration had just two corps in his Second Army (Raevsky's and Borosdin's) facing the plain to the west. The Georgian found himself actually agreeing with his old nemesis, Barclay. The left (south) of the Russian position was .as they say in tactical jargon, "in the air,"completely exposed to an assault through some open woods from any French flanking assault via the Old Smolensk-Moscow Road. As of 5 September, there were only some of Karpov's Cossacks and a few pitchfork-armed Moscow militia watching this back entrance. The two marshals implored Kutuzov to take one of Barclay's four corps and shore up this vulnerability. Kutuzov, again not wanting to make any definite decisions, deferred to his new chief-of-staff, Bennigsen, who dismissed the threat, as he habitually dismissed any suggestion from Barclay, his political enemy. In his expert opinion, and knowing Napoleon as he fought him before (losing both times), the French would attack straight up the New Smolensk Road, across the Kolocha River, and straight into the Russians' strongest front, the one that Barclay held. That's what he, Bennigsen, would have done (and we all knew what a brilliant tactician Bennigsen had been). Yep. That's what Napoleon's going to do. So, Kutuzov's new chief-of-staff looked at the map and said, "Hm. No, I don't think we have to worry about our left."

Meanwhile, the Napoleonic tyrannosaur was making the ground rumble as it got closer. 
Positions at 17:00 as described in the various narratives I relied on to reconstruct this battle. The representation of the fences behind which both the French voltigeurs and Russian jagers took cover from the cavalry charges is speculative. But evidently the fields between Shevardino and Dorodino were criss-crossed with them, which makes perfect sense for a farming community. I am just not sure exactly of the layout.


16:30ish The French arrive

Meanwhile, during the late afternoon of 5 September, French cavalry under Murat, supported by one of Davout's infantry divisions (5th Div, Jean Compans) now assigned to Murat by Napoleon, started to show up on the Smolensk-Moscow road. From the high ground around the burned out village of Valuyevo on the north side of the Kolocha, the French could see the entire Russian army getting ready for battle about two miles to the east. Closer to them, on the rolling plain to the south, they also saw the activity around Shevardino, including the building of the little redoubt there.

Murat, ever aggressive, ordered his engineers to throw trestle bridges over the Kolocha at Fominko and Valuyevo to bring his artillery over. His infantry and cavalry, though, had no trouble splashing across the low stream to start deploying on the south side. Napoleon soon joined Murat, and after scanning his telescope across the scene, came to the same conclusion: This forward deployment of Russians around Shevardino had to be eliminated. They both  also saw through their spyglasses that the Russians in the main army were vulnerable on their left flank (Bagration's position between the river and the village of Semenovkaya--see big map above). But to attack that side the French needed to first take Shevardino and drive the Russians back from there.
At this point Davout, the I Corps commander, came up. He had seen a golden opportunity. Scouts had revealed that the entire left of the Russian army was exposed from the Old Smolensk-Moscow Road (see first map above), guarded by only some Cossacks and opolchenyie (militia). He urged a vast sweeping operation with his I Corps and Poniatowski's V Corps of Poles (already approaching up that  road from the south). While Napoleon would use Eugene's IV Corps, Ney's III Corps, and Junot's VIII Corps to demonstrate and hold the front of the Russian army, he and Poniatowski's 37,000 would sweep around through the open woods with a surprise attack that would drive the Russians into the crook of the Kolocha and Moskva Rivers and annihilate them.  
This end run would have been a bold move, the exact kind of thing that Napoleon would have done back in his heyday (at Arcola, Ulm, Austerlitz, Jena-Auerstadt, and Friedland, which Bennigsen himself had last fallen for). It was also the kind of strategy that Napoleon's hero, Frederick the Great, had won with at Leuthen, which Napoleon had studied religiously. In fact military history back then was thick with examples of the indirect approach, formally called le mouvement sur les derrières by contemporary military experts.
But this was not the same Napoleon of his heyday. The grueling march for the past, stifling weeks since the crossing of the Nieman, deeper and deeper into the endless expanse of Russia; the unprecedented losses from typhus, heat, and lack of sustenance that had devastated the army; and the apparent lack of response from his overtures for negotiation to Alexander, all shook Napoleon's confidence. He was no longer willing to take chances. Moreover, he himself had been sick with something for the past few days. Either with a cold, the flu, some gastro-intestinal bug, kidney stones, or a bladder infection, he was not himself.*  
*There is also a theory, long argued by Ben Weider and Sten Forshufvud, that there had already begun a plot to  slowly poison Napoleon beginning in 1812 and finally coming to an end at St. Helena eleven years later. Weider contended that Napoleon's fogginess and gut problems from 1812 on seem to suggest arsenic poisoning, which was how you wanted to kill somebody and leave no evidence back then.  But Weider's theory was never proven and remains on the fringe of history.

A more likely cause of Napoleon's health problems in 1812 came from a peptic ulcer, which only got worse with stress. And his doctor had prescribed him calomel (mercury chloride), the miracle drug of the age, to deal with all sorts of ailments. Regularly taking mercury chloride, the hydrochloroquine of its time, may also have had something to do with Napoleon's deteriorating health.
I'll bet you didn't think you'd have to wade through so much medical material during this post about an obscure battle.

At any rate, irrelevant to his stomach ache, Napoleon, was not willing to take the risk of an end run this time, so far from home, with an army greatly reduced. However, he was not going to do what Bennigsen expected him to do and make a frontal attack across the Kolocha at Borodino village. He would attack the Russian left, just not as sweepingly as Davout urged. The next day he eventually did order Poniatowski to take his V Corps and attack Utitza on the 7th, up the Old Road to threaten Bagration's left. The Poles were already down there anyway. But it would be a token maneuver.

On this afternoon, though, he agreed with Murat and his staff and saw the immediate need to seize the ground currently occupied by the Russians at Shevardino, and eliminate that pathetic little fort. He looked at his pocket watch. Five o'clock. Two-and-a-half more hours until sunset.

17:00 The battle begins.

Jean Dominique Compans
Commander of the French 5th Division
I love the sarcastic expression on his face.
One of those faces you just want to punch.
As Compans led his division (about 5,500) across the Kolocha, he arrayed his twenty infantry battalions in attack columns and sent forward his twenty voltigeur companies. He also brought up his divisional artillery to a rise in the ground southeast of Fominko to start bombarding the Russian jagers, driving them back. These guns were supported by the 5,000 cavalry of Nansouty's First Cavalry Corps, who started to make charges against the Russian jagers to persuade them to leave.

The Russian light infantry (49th and 50th Jager) fought back for awhile, but were soon overwhelmed by the combined-arms French attack, and fell back to the shelter of the first gully (see detailed map above for topographic features). The only guns they had to support them were the eight 12 pounders in the hastily built fort, who apparently had trouble siting through the narrow embrasures. So these were not much help.

After the jagers were driven back, Compans's voltigeurs replaced them behind the shelter of the fences in the fields around the village of Dorodino (not Borodino! Wake up! There'll be a test.). Russian dragoons from Siever's division charged at the loosely formed French skirmishers, but came up against these fences and were stopped by the independent fire from the tirailleurs behind them and fell back in their turn. 
Now Compans and Murat brought their batteries (38 guns, including the horse artillery of  First Cavalry Corps) to the next slight ridge, within range of the Shevardino redoubt. About the same time, Poniatowski's Poles began arriving from the southwest and their twelve guns joined in on the bombardment. This crossfire pummeled the ill-protected people and guns in the little fort, and the French snipers crept up to within musket range and picked off anyone who stuck his head above the low parapet. Soon, the guns inside the earthwork fell silent. A battalion of the the 61st Infantry Regiment swept over the crest and into the redoubt. They found hideous carnage. According to Gaspard Gourgaud, one of Napoleon's staff officers who accompanied the assault, "Gunners, horses, every living thing had been destroyed by our fire."
Shevardino Redoubt Memorial from the parking lot (i.e. from the Russian perspective)
Google Street View image

The victorious infantry of the 61st didn't have much time to rest inside the captured fort, however, for Neverovsky led a counter-attack with his four infantry regiments, who drove the French out with great loss. Russian cavalry supported this charge by harrowing the fleeing French infantry back toward the fences around Dorodino. And Gortchakov moved up Sievers's horse artillery and the four licornes of the decimated #32 Position Battery to support them at canister range. For about an hour, the two sides conducted a murderous fire fight from their respective fences. 

At about 19:00 Gorthcakov sent back one of his staff, Lowenstern, to Bagration that the day had been won and the redoubt had held. This premature declaration of victory was relayed back to Kutuzov and Bennigsen, who broke out the champagne again (any excuse, right?). 

But it was premature. The French weren't done. They had almost another half-hour of daylight left. Compans ordered a fresh assault by the 57th (nicknamed "le Terrible", presumably for its ferocity and not a comment on its competence) against the Russian left. One battalion of the 57th marched up, let go a volley, then double-quick marched by files to its right to unmask the regimental battery of four 4-pounders behind it, who blasted a salvo of canister into the close-packed Russians. This broke the stalemate. Shocked, the Russian battalions began to retreat in a cascade up the line. 

It was about sunset now (19:22 according to NOAA's calculator for date and geo-ref). Gortchakov wanted to hold on at least until dark, when he presumed the engagement would end. So he called up the 2nd Grenadier Division standing in reserve about 1,200 yards to the rear (see big map at the top). These 6,000 fresh troops drove Compans's exhausted infantry back to the fences around Doronino. The Russian grenadiers, supported by cavalry, managed to capture several guns and a few hundred men.
But now Murat threw in the arriving divisions of Davout's I Corps, Friant's and Morand's, who were just crossing the river as the sun started to go down below the trees. In the lead of  Friant's division was the Spanish regiment of Joseph Napoleon, who charged in, retook the captured guns, drove back the Russian grenadiers, and allowed the retreating infantry of Compans to rally behind them. More and more French infantry marched forward, pushing back the Russians. More French cavalry showed up too (from Nansouty's corps) and began to weigh against the previous superiority of Russian horse.  Poniantowksy's V Corps infantry divisions also started arriving from the south. By 20:00, a half-hour after sunset and now getting really dark, the French had over 30,000 troops over the Kolocha and were pushing back the stubborn Russian defense, who had reinforced their own numbers to just 17,000.

Who goes there?

Now, in the darkness and the "fog" of three hours of gunsmoke, it was getting really hard to see. Still, the Russians didn't seem to be retreating. Bagration, unable to restrain himself, personally led a third charge with the 2nd Combined Grenadier Division (Vorontsov's, not to be confused with the above-mentioned 2nd Grenadier Division under Mecklenburg--see OOB below). These engaged in yet another firefight, each side blazing into the night at the sparks opposite them.

This confused fighting in the dark went on for another couple of hours. Gortchakov wondered when the French would call it a day so he could withdraw safely. About 23:00, a verbal order finally came from Kutuzov's HQ for Gortchakov to give up the redoubt and withdraw back to the main line at the Semenovka stream. Of course it was just a verbal order, delivered by a young orderly, because Kutuzov didn't want a paper trail blaming him for the retreat, not when he had a scapegoat like Gortchakov. 

With Bagration's help, Gortchakov supervised a fighting withdrawal, using the relatively fresh squadrons of Duka's 2nd Cuirassier Division and a single battalion of the Odessa infantry regiment to stall the French pursuit. The Russian heavy cavalry made charge after charge out of the dark against the French infantry, the ground ominously rumbling before they came out of the gloom (remember, there was no moon that night). Their charges were short and mostly for intimidation since they couldn't see what was in front of them either. But these short charges worked in that they forced the French battalions to halt and form square, since they couldn't see what was coming at them either. A couple battalions even broke and abandoned their artillery (this is when the Spanish Joseph Napoleon regiment again came to the rescue, earning their award as MVP for the game). These cavalry charges on the part of the Russians gave time for the rest of their force to escape in order. When the French cavalry attempted their own charges in the dark, Gortchakov had the lone battalion of the Odessa regiment shout "Ooorah!" at the top of their lungs and beat their drums, trying to sound like an entire fresh division. This halted the French cavalry. 

By midnight all of the Russians had made it back to the main line. And the French had technically won the battle, which did wonders for their morale. However, the thousands of campfires of the main Russian army lit the night sky to the east, showed the vast extent of that army, now swollen by another 15,000 volunteers from Moscow. The French, having little in the way of uncarbonized wood because of the burned villages, fences and fields in their wake, had few campfires. It was also getting cold and starting to drizzle.,

What difference did it make?

So this "Clash", which is how it is categorized in Digby Smith's Napoleonic Wars Data Book,  involving upwards of 53,000 people and something like 250 guns, ended with approximately 16,000 casualties (about equal on both sides). It lasted some seven hours of extremely brutal, see-saw fighting. It was, in its scale, as big or bigger than Arcola, Rivoli, Marengo, and most of the battles of the previous century. But it  has long been considered just a clash, an engagement, an hors d'oeuvre, completely eclipsed by the holocaust of Borodino that followed it two day later. 

As with so many encounter battles (see Gettysburg or Cedar Mountain) neither side intended it to be so costly, or involve so many troops and expend so much ammunition, men, and horses. Napoleon evidently thought it would be a minor affair, like brushing away a fly. He was reportedly shocked that almost no Russians had been taken prisoner. He and all of the participants were also unnerved by how the Russians just wouldn't budge, dying in place, at their guns, rather than retreat or be captured. Of course, this had long been Napoleon's (and for that matter, Frederick's) experience fighting the Russians. They just didn't know when they were licked. It didn't bode well for the upcoming main event. 
It also sobered Napoleon about the likelihood that Alexander would sue for peace. While it took a few more weeks after Borodino and the burning of Moscow by its own citizens for that lesson to sink in, it must have been a blow to his belief in his invincibility.

One thing that the severity of the clash at Shevardino did do was convince Bennigsen and Kutuzov that Barclay and Bagration were right: their left flank was extremely vulnerable. After Shervardino and all day on the 6th, as they observed the French and allied buildup on the right bank of the Kolocha, it became clear where Napoleon's main attack would fall. Fortunately for them, Napoleon inexplicably gave his army a full day of rest on the 6th, which allowed vital time for the Russians to frantically throw up the earthworks on the hills on their left (the Raevsky, or Great, Redoubt, and the three V-shaped redans, later known as the Bagration Fleches, in front of Semenovksaya). While these fortifications were still not finished by the morning of the 7th, the dawn of the great battle, they still managed to break the force of the French assault enough to allow Kutuzov to hold on until that night. If no work had even begun on these "breakwaters", it is probable that Napoleon's Grande Armée would have simply rolled over the Russians like a tsunami.

Bennigsen also belatedly took Barclay's advice to take one of own superfluous corps and use it to shore up Bagration's vulnerable left. The chief-of-staff personally ordered General Tuchkov to move his corps over to block the road behind the village of Utitza on the Old Smolensk Road. Of course, he didn't bother to tell Barclay. Nor did he tell him when he personally started moving Barclay's other units around. This was exasperating to the disciplined Barclay who, when he rode over to confer with these commanders, could not find them. Of course, when he complained to Kutuzov, the one-eyed generalissimo claimed he didn't know anything about it. Which was true.

Also, on hearing complaints from the Cossacks covering the Utitza flank that they felt exposed, Bennigsen personally ordered Tuchkov's division commanders to move their troops out from their concealed, ambush positions in the woods where Tuchkov had deployed them into the open fields around that village. As usual, he didn't bother to inform Tuchkov of this either. When the corps commander came back from a meeting with Kutuzov and couldn't find his troops, only to eventually find them exposed to Poniatowski's artillery further west, he became furious and rode back to Kutuzov to demand an explanation. Again, Kutuzov said he didn't know anything about it.

In fact, Kutuzov didn't seem to know anything about anything happening under his supreme command. His absentee negligence at Borodino was noted by several subordinates, including Barclay. The chaos that Bennigsen and the sycophantic Peterbourgeois staff officers caused to the command-and-control of the army nearly destroyed the army completely. Were it not for the competence, professionalism, and diligence of officers like Barclay and Bagration, like Raevsky, Baggovut, Gortchakov, Tuchkov, Borosdin, Dokhturov, and hundreds of their heroic and veteran subordinates, or for the never-surrender stoicism of the Russian soldiers themselves, Napoleon would have snuffed out all Russian resistance, like he did when Kutuzov neglected his command at Austerlitz.
But while lousy at battles, Kutuzov was very good at politics.  When the Czar appointed him Commander-in-Chief, there was widespread popular acclamation.  Reports in the Russian press were that his carriage was swamped by cheering peasants on his trip down to assume command. All across the country, the people were reported to be inspired and relieved that a "true Russian" was at last in charge. And on the 6th, the politically shrewd Kutuzov organized a "rally" in which he led a parade of clergy carrying sacred ikons (which were believed to have magical powers) to inspire the troops. So in spite of the carnage the previous day at Shevardino, the Russian soldiers were galvanized to keep fighting the defiling French on the next day. Kutuzov would have fit right in today as a cynical, manipulative politician.

And what was Kutuzov's reaction at the end of Borodino? He sent a message to the Czar proclaiming a great victory, and a press release to the public trumpeting the same. Then he ordered another retreat. In fact, he kept on retreating (giving up Moscow even as he said he would die rather than do), and retreating, and retreating, and retreating for the rest of the campaign. Good thing he had replaced Barclay.
Throughout the next two centuries, Kutuzov had several heroic statues and monuments to his glory, a cruiser and a number of parks, streets, and squares, named after him. Even the huge Soviet counter-offensive against the Nazis during WWII was called Operation Kutuzov. And, like a number of other military leaders (Stonewall Jackson, Robert E.Lee, George Armstrong Custer, Field Marshal Montgomery, Douglas McArthur, etc.) he has been revered by so many people as a military genius.

In researching for this post, I have had a different opinion.

Closeup from my digital "sand table"  scale model of the Shevardino redoubt, as best as I can reconstruct it from narratives and from the Google Satellite photo of its footprint at the Borodino memorial park. While there would have been five sides, there would have been practically only room for the operation of eight guns at a time (the eight 12-pounders of the #32 Position Battery of Neverovsky's 27th Division) with all of their limbers and caissons. The other four pieces  of the battery (actually "licornes", an early type of gun-howtizer) would have been held in reserve outside of the fort. Indeed, nearly all of the narratives and eye-witnesses describe only eight guns inside the earthwork.

Wargaming Shevardino

This battle was the very first one I set up on my brand new sand table my ever-patient and supportive wife and I had built together thirty-some years ago. So the battle has a nostalgic place in my heart.

Should you want to wargame it yourself, I have some suggestions to consider.
Victory Conditions
In a wargame of Shevardino, you might want to consider what victory points would accrue. From the Russian player's point of view, since the goal was to delay the French long enough to gain an extra day for Bagration to build his main redoubts back at the main position above the Semenovka gully, the game could be considered won if the Shevardino position were held until midnight.  From the French players's point of view, victory would be attained if all the Russian forces are driven back to the Semenovka and the redoubt captured before midnight.
The limited tactical value of the redoubt
The Shevardino redoubt was hastily constructed and, from reports, gave limited protection because of its low, unreinforced breastworks. Apparently, too, the embrasures cut into it were too narrow and didn't allow for the swiveling of the cannon. There was only room for 8-10 guns in the 60 yard fort, and only two per face. Any wargame set up should take these limitations into account. Rather, the redoubt should serve as more of a symbolic prize to defend (for victory points?) than as a significant tactical feature.

Shevardino redoubt on my 1990 sand table with 15mm models. The advantage of setting up a game on a sand table is that you can construct actual earthworks, made of actual earth (well, sand). I was not aware when I made this model, though, that the breastworks were unreinforced.

The tactical effect of fences
Wooden and wattle fences criss-crossed the ground between the villages of Dorodino and Shevardino. These proved to have far more tactical value to the otherwise exposed infantry on both sides. For one thing, they were robust enough to stop cavalry charges, allowing the infantry behind them to unleash volleys at the horsemen. They also provided psychological defense points for troops. While they may not have been thick enough stop a modern bullet, they did provide some protection from slower muzzle-velocity flintlocks. And a bunch of men huddled behind a slatted, or even a rail fence at least feel they have some protection, and were less likely to fall back. This probably explained why the firefights between the infantry lasted for several hours, each side popping up to shoot over or between the slats.
In this colorized photo from the late 19th century, you can see a variety of fence types common in Russia in that century, and I'm sure centuries before that. Most would have been easy to dismantle, but not from horseback and not while troops are behind them.

Painting below of a village by 19th century Russian landscape painter, Konstantin Kyrzhitsky. Notice the construction of the fence by the houses to the right.  This painting also shows the extremely flammable nature of the thatched buildings in Russian villages, as well as what the Kolocha River might have looked like (left).

Above, Another landscape by Kryshitsky (just discovered this artist and I love his work). In this one
the fencing around the village is also in evidence. And the river in this scene was probably the
condition of the drought-reduced Kolocha in September 1812.


Though not burned in this bucolic scene, you can see in this painting of a Russian village circa 1864 by Petr Sukhodolsky how extremely flammable and rickety the villages in Russia were.
Burning Villages
The Cossacks and even the Russian peasants burned their own homes to deny shelter and sustenance to the advancing French. Strategically this cost Napoleon more and more as he extended his vulnerable logistics from Western Europe. The French had been used to living off the land wherever they campaigned. This wasn't working in Russia in 1812.

But tactically this scorched-earth practice also denied the French strong points to shelter in on the battlefield. A wargame of Shevardino should assume that all the villages on the table or board would be on fire or already burned. Something I didn't allow for on my sand table game. But aren't my homemade Russian thatched houses cute (see details of my sandtable diorama below)?
The Kolocha River
Assume that the Kolocha river is easily fordable to horse and foot all up and down the board. However, guns can only cross by bridge.

The eastern banks of the river below Borodino (Barclay's wing) would have been very steep and have presented an obstacle to infantry and cavalry.

It got really dark after about 20:00 (three hours into the game). Reduce visibility for both sides to a single hex, or fifty yards, or six inches, or whatever your measurement is. Provide for hidden movement (ala Avalon Hill Midway) to simulate the unnerving effect of cavalry charging out of the gloom.

Roads, both large and small represented on the map, weren't paved, metaled, or even graded in this period in Russia. They were dirt. Which meant that they were dusty as hell on a hot, dry day and boot-eating mud monsters on rainy ones.

They were also wider than we know roads today (see Russian landscape paintings from the 19th century below). So while they would not afford faster ground speed in a wargame, they would accommodate fairly wide formations. Artillery batteries were also known to move on them two abreast.  Mostly, they were used for not getting lost between towns and villages, not for speed. And, of course, you could be relatively sure, when traveling by a road or path, not to come upon an unexpected ditch or fence disrupting your formation or blocking your artillery. In most wargame rules, moving units across country would account for this kind of disruption. So roads serve as a free pass from point to point in movement allowances.

Unless your game has allowances for weather, in which case I would charge a movement penalty when moving on a road on a rainy day (say after a full day of rain), and a fatigue tax on hot, dusty days.

An extremely wide highway, this one in Ukraine in the mid 19th century. I imagine that the Smolensk-Moscow Highway rising from Borodino through Gorky looked something like this.
(Painting by Vladimir Orlovksy, 1883 from the blog site Glory of Russian Painting)


Still another landscape by Kryshitksy from the late 19th century, showing what roads in Russia looked like. You can see how wide even minor roads between villages were. This one appears to be about 10 -12 yards wide (assuming the woman in the foreground is about 5 ft).

Above: another sand table view from the French end, looking toward the redoubt in the upper right. That's meant to be Fominko in the foreground, which in this my first sand table battle, was not on fire, as I later realized it would have been.

Compans's 5th Division starts its attack on the Shevardino redoubt, 15mm models arranged in columns of attack. Village of Fominko in the upper right. Don't ask me what a Dutch windmill is doing in Russia.I just liked the look of windmills on my dioramas. That's Napoleon and his staff in the lower right, including Roustam, his Mameluke valet. With the sand table, I was also able to place cotton-ball shell explosions on pins above the troops to mark hits; so much more authentic than colored poker chips..

Above, Long view of the sand table game, from the French side. Fominko on the left foreground, and the one in the left background is Shevardino, with the redoubt at the extreme end of the table.

And from the Russian side. You can see why I was relegated to the garage with this hobby...until we got a much bigger house.


Orders of Battle

Strengths The following orders of battle for the 5th of September are distilled from a variety of sources. Unit strengths conform to Digby Smith,  George Nafziger, and Christopher Duffy. Smith admits that his own rosters come from a secondary source (Fabry's Campagne de Russe 1812, 1903) and in some cases may be in error. He points out that the arithmetic doesn't always add up. The most recent parade states ordered by Napoleon  had been 15 August, three weeks prior. According to Smith, by Borodino the attrition on the French army reduced them to between 36-50% of their original levels back in June, when they first crossed the Nieman, depending on the corps (the Imperial Guard suffering the least and IV Corps suffering the most). I have then applied those ratios to the estimated strengths for the French from where they started on June 25.

For the Russians, I could not find any actual strength records of individual units. I used Nafzigers' overall estimates and assumed an average of 475 men per infantry battalion and 400 per cavalry regiment.

So, as usual, A CAVEAT THE SIZE OF A PLANET: Be wary of citing this source for any academic purposes. They are presented for wargaming use and discussion. I'm sure you won't heed this warning, though, and like most people, just leap to the information. As one of my engineer advertising clients once said to me, "Ah! Nothing is as persuasive as graphs and tables!"

Uniform Colors: As with all of my OOBs, each cell in the first column is color coded in the coat color of that regiment, the second column in the color of its principle facing (cuffs and turnbacks).

Flags Where known, I have also displayed the regimental flag for that regiment. Where I could not find information, or if the regiment did not carry flags into the field, I have left that cell blank. All French units officially carried the 1812 Tricolor (illustrated at the top of the French table). However, some of them (and I don't know which) probably still carried the old 1804, "diamond" model.  Feel free to mix and match in your own model armies.

Commanders  are listed by their nearest division or brigade. Overall command on both sides was chaotic as Napoleon and Kutuzov were only distantly commanding, and the other commanders were often going on their own hook, or countermanding each other. Napoleon had given Murat the order to take the Shevardino position using whatever commands came up, but he didn't have tight control over the actions of the divisional generals.



NB: Since I prefer to patronize independent bookstores, particularly my favorite, Powell's Books in Portland, OR, I have linked each of these sources to that store. Powell's not only supports authors (being one myself),  but they also have the largest inventory of out-of-print and used books in the United States. Their shipping efficiency, too, rivals Amazon's (and you don't need a $119/yr Prime membership). In cases where Powell's doesn't seem to have a title in stock, I have linked it to (sigh) Amazon. But if you are not in the United States or North America, I would also encourage you to patronize your own country/city's independent bookstore first, like my old favorite, Foyles, in London.

Austin, Paul Britten, 1812: The March on Moscow, 1993, Greenhill Books, ISBN 1-85367-154-1
A compilation of hundreds of eyewitness memoirs of the whole first half of Napoleon's invasion.
Cate, Curtis, The War of the Two Emperors: The Duel Between Napoleon and Alexander, Russia 1812, 1985, Random House, ISBN 0-394-53670-3 

Chandler, David, The Campaigns of Napoleon, 1966, Macmillan, ISBN

Clausewitz, Carl, The Campaign of 1812 in Russia, 1832, Napoleonic Library (1992), ISBN 1-85367-114-2
Duffy, Christopher, Borodino: Napoleon Against Russia, 1812, 1973, Scribner, ISBN 684-13173-0

Esposito & Elting, A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars, 1999, Stackpole Books, ISBN 1-85367-346-3
Hourtoulle, Francois G, Borodino, The Moskova: The Battle for the Redoubts, 2000, Histoire & Collections, ISBN 2-908-182-963
Very good source for uniform details of all of the participants.

Nafziger, George F., Napoleon's Invasion of Russia, 1988, Presidio Press  ISBN 0-89141-322-7
Extremely detailed and useful narrative and orders of battle for all the major engagements of the 1812 Invasion.
Pivka, Otto von, Armies of the Napoleonic Era, 1979, David & Charles, ISBN 0-7153-7766-3
An excellent source for details of weapons capabilities and uniforms of all states.

Segur, Philippe de,  Napoleon's Russian Campaign, 1824, Meredith Books (1980), ISBN 2221121704428
A firsthand account by an eyewitness of the entire debacle of 1812, though written many years after, so it has to be taken with a pinch of sodium chloride (not mercury chloride)
Smith, Digby, Armies of 1812, 2002, Spellmount, ISBN 1-86227-165-8
An amazingly detailed OOB of Napoleon's army and unit-by-unit analysis of its dwindling strength during the entire campaign. Smith, a thorough scholar of military history, does himself acknowledge that he is dependent on a history by G. Fabry  done in 1903, so presents some of these strength levels with a caveat.
Smith, Digby, Napoleonic Wars Data Book, 1998. Greenhill, ISBN 1-85367-276-9

Online References:

Glory of Russian Painting, an inspiring source for Russian landscapes during the 19th century. Useful for imagining what the landscape, villages, fences, streams, and roads may have looked like during Borodino.And some of the paintings, besides interesting, are just beautiful to look at.

Mikaberedsze, Alexander, Order of Battle of the Russian Army at Borodino


  1. Fantastic post - worth a second read through

  2. Brilliant work Jeff! Thank you for your hard work in creating this wonderfully engaging write up on what is an obscure battle due to the over-shadowing from the confrontation a few days later. It deserves to be given the same depth of investigation as a battle such as Quatre Bras, but it never is. It is also very interesting to read through your thoughts and thoughts on the Russian commanders present.

    1. Hi Jeff, only one query. You list the 32nd Position battery twice in the Russian OOB. Is that on purpose due to the confused Russian command structure on the day? Or were there 2 similarly named batteries in different Div?

    2. Oops. Good eye, M. Gilhead. The second mention of #32 Bty under Vorontzov was a typo. I'm going to blame it on the copy/paste function. The first listing, under Neverovsky, was the correct one. This was the battery (at least the eight 12-pdrs, minus the 4 licornes) that was set up in the redoubt.

      Thanks for spotting this. I do try to proof my articles and graphics before I post, but it's good that my readers help, too. An old editor of mine warned against authors proofing their own work, because we will just read what we intended and not what is there. It's good that this work in digital and I can amend it after it's published.

      Correcting now.

    3. Hi Jeff,
      No need to apologise! I am amazed that it was the only point to query. You have a better editor than a large number of the books I read these days! Including (especially) wargames related ones!
      I do remember playing this battle at my old club once, using General de Brigade rules. It was a fun game, but playing as the Russians the tide of Frenchmen (catch all for the Grand Armee) was tough to stop. So it is interesting to read your opinion of the effect of the fence lines on the battle. I would be interested to replay it one day with the linear obstacles, see if it is easier to blunt the French advance.

  3. More superb work, Jeff.

    I persuaded my brother in law to lend me his chauffeur for the day so that he could drive me from Moscow to Borodino and it was well worth the time and trouble. It's a fantastic battlefield and the small museum is great. It's all very Russian though: The stones with plaques, showing the positions of all the Russian units, is suitably counterbalanced by no plaques for the French.

    As the chauffeur said to me "I've never been here before. We were all taught in school about what a great Russian victory the battle was."

    To the end, he was adamant that the French were routed. Who was I to argue, stood in a muddy field with a strident 6' 4" tall Russian and not a witness in sight!

    Memories, memories.....

    1. Ha, ha. Very prudent restraint on your part.

      I envy you having actually visited the site. Nothing like going there yourself to understand a battle.

      Re; revisionist history. I was going to say that the Russians are masters at revising history (and even science), but then we in the West don't do a bad job of twisting it ourselves. And, to give your driver some leeway, Napoleon did ultimate lose the campaign and the war(though not the battle).

      I remember when I was in the 8th grade, I was infuriated by my history teacher, Mr. Zielinski, who told us that the American "patriots" during our Revolution were particularly cruel to loyalists (which we misnamed "Tories" over here). He also told us some other unpatriotic and--to my mind, false--things about the Revolution. I went home to complain to my dad, an arch-conservative Republican, that he should go confront this commie. And my dad surprised me by asking how I knew Mr. Z was wrong, and encouraged me to go to the library and do some research myself. I took that advice and found, to my horror, that Mr. Z had been right, that there are two sides (actually many sides) to history, depending on who is reporting it. That incident informed my skepticism thereafter, not just in school but in consuming news and my amateur love of history.

      I went to Mr. Z and apologized for doubting him, and he was so kind and evidently pleased, and gave me a list of other books I could look up on the subject. I'd like to think he drew satisfaction from teaching at least one student how to be discriminating.

      So, to cut this short, that is part of the spirit behind this blog. What we thought we knew wasn't necessarily so.

  4. To quote George Gershwin, "It ain't necessarily so".

    As for the AWI, I call the patriots Whigs and the loyalists Tories.

  5. Oh, and another excellent post. Thank you.

    1. Actually, Mr. Tsao, I believe you are quoting Ira Gershwin, George's lyricist. from Porgy and Bess. But you knew that.

      And thanks for the kind compliment on my blog. I aim to please. (Or, even better, to provoke.)

  6. Excellent maps,
    just use it to setup my Shevardino gameboard with 2mm miniatures.

  7. Excellent as usual. I'm putting on a game of this action at Partizan on 10th October, so very useful.

    Couple of questions if you can - the sources I've used give the Russian battalions behind the redoubt as deployed in 2 lines. And they also give the guns in the redoubt as from the 12th position battery. Any comments?

    Thanks again for a very thought-provoking post.

    1. Thanks, Keith,
      I'm following up this post with one on the main battle two days later, using several respected accounts as references. One of the things I find exasperating, and also revealing, is that there is so much disagreement among them; orders of battle, formations, timing, casualties, and eye-witness accounts of what supposedly happened all contradict each other radically. It brings to mind the remark that Wellington made in which he said narrating a battle was like trying to narrate a ball.

      Like so many historical incidents, there is no universal agreement about this battle. And one finds factions among wargamers about which account to rely on, often dogmatically. I address this as my "obscure" take on Borodino, one of the least obscure battles.

      As to your question about the deployment of Russian infantry at Shevardino, two accounts I referenced (one archival) describe the Russians formed up in closed platoon columns. Others say just "columns" without apparent interest in what kind. One even says, off-handedly, they were in squares.

      Another thing I find frustrating in researching my own analyses is the hazy descriptions that many historians make in the tactical distinction between "lines" and "ranks". To be deployed in two lines means that one body of troops is positioned behind another, not that they were arrayed in two ranks.

      I also find the description of the lateral spacing between battalions/squadrons is usually not mentioned. I have tried to address this in my maps, assuming that troops would be positioned in columns to allow enough intervening space to deploy into line. But that is just an assumption based on tactical practice from the previous century. But the narratives are vague on this point. For all we know, the battalions were packed together, shoulder to shoulder.

      By doing the detailed scaling that I have on my deployment maps, I have been able to see what the ground would allow, based on the density of troops and their formations.

  8. Sorry- for the record my most detailed source was Alexander Mikaberidze, 'The Battle of Borodino', which you don't mention.

  9. Thanks Jeff. Yes, the sources I've found online say the same, but add that the individual battalions were in 2 lines - i.e. 4 battalions next to each other in front, with another 4 battalions next to each other behind. The Mikaberidze book can be accessed on Scribd. The Scribd site has a lot of military history available to read online for a modest monthly subscription.

    1. Actually, Mikaberidze is one of my sources, listed under my online references. I am currently working on the main battle of Borodino (maps, OOBs and narrative) which will reflect this double line deployment (one brigade in front of the other), though I have rendered the two lines in echelon, with the rear battalions covering the space between the front battalions. I may re-render the Shevardino maps too.