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
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 quarterbacking...well...in 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.
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.
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.
The Russians turn to fightAfter 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.").
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.
|Heroic, Soviet-era painting of Kutuzov, astride |
could see that bunny rabbit shape in the clouds.
(Painting by Anatoly Sheplyuk, 1952)
The Russians turn to fight...again.
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.
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.
Barclay notices something wrong.
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!).
Meanwhile, the Napoleonic tyrannosaur was making the ground rumble as it got closer.
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.
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.
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.
|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.
Who goes there?
What difference did it make?
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.
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.
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).
|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.|
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)?
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.
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.
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)
|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.|| |
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.
ReferencesNB: 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.
A compilation of hundreds of eyewitness memoirs of the whole first half of Napoleon's invasion.
Very good source for uniform details of all of the participants.
Extremely detailed and useful narrative and orders of battle for all the major engagements of the 1812 Invasion.
An excellent source for details of weapons capabilities and uniforms of all states.
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)
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.
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