Napoleon's Russian Invasion
Monday, 7 September 1812
French under Napoleon, approx. 105,000 men with 686 guns
Russians under Lt. Gen. Prince Mikhail Kutuzov, approx. 123,000 front line troops with 658 guns, plus approx. 22,000 militia
Location: Borodino, Russia
55⁰ 32' N, 35⁰ 45' E
Weather Conditions: Partial clouds, following
several nights of light rain. Cold nights. Scorching days during a year of historic heat. . 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
Since I recently did all the research in posting the Shevardino battle, two days prior to this gargantuan main event, I thought I should, as a service to my wargamer audience, just go ahead and post the maps and OOBs of Borodino as well, And yes, I know, I know, this isn't exactly an "obscure battle" in my increasingly misnamed URL. But get over it. And besides, I'll endeavor to make my own take on it obscure.
And a word of caution. In doing the research on this battle, I was frustrated with how much the various sources (all supremely respected; people like Chandler, Nafziger, Duffy, Mikaberidze, Cate, Digby Smith) differed about details. So, rather than picking one over the other, I decided to make my own narrative broader rather than specific. This caveat especially covers my orders of battle at the end.
Narrative begins below the map below.
Situation on the morning of 7 September. You can see in this map how the Russian Army is deployed heavily on their right, opposing almost no French. Napoleon has concentrated his main force against the left of the Russian position, at the hinge between the 1st and 2nd Armies. The Russian positions are represented after Bennigsen’s meddling had moved all the troops out of the shelter of the woods and forward onto the exposed slopes, in range of French artillery. I have rendered the villages on the French side of the battlefield, as well as the Semenovkaya village, burned husks, as the retreating Russians set fire to them on the 4th, pulling back to their final positions. .
The Great Victory that Lost the War
One of my readers (James Roach) was sharing a story about how, on a visit to Moscow, his brother-in-law lent him his chauffeur to go out and visit the Borodino battlefield and museum. You know, the big battle featured in Tolstoys' War and Peace,.His driver told him that they'd been taught in school that Borodino was a great victory for Russia, completely annihilating Napoleon. Not wanting to argue with him (he said his driver was also a head taller than he was and they were out in the middle of nowhere with no witnesses), my friend just assumed this was some Russian chauvinism again, kind of like the counterfactual opinions of many people about their own countries' history (I'm didn't say you, United States! Don't be so touchy! ).
But the anecdote got me
If you take the long, historic view, had Napoleon not won the battle, he would not have gone on to Moscow, would not have stayed too long hoping for Czar Alexander's plea for surrender, and not, in the end, have lost not just his entire army but, in two years, his crown. A lot of conditionals. But it's on little decisions like this, based on wishful thinking or denial of reality, that ultimately chart history.
But I'd go further. Was Borodino really even a French victory on the immediate, tactical scale? Both sides suffered horrific casualties, the French 20-40,000 (depending on who’s counting) and the Russians, officially, 43,924. A toll of roughly 35% for each side. So it was definitely Pyrrhic as far as victories were concerned.
Moreover, though the Russians eventually continued their retreat to and past Moscow, they hung around on the field of battle until early the next morning before, with Kutuzov’s reluctant nod, they continued their retreat. Their army was battered but still intact. And the French, who had finally sacrificed so much to capture the fortified Russian redoubts and positions, abandoned those and retreated back to their jump-off positions to collapse around their campfires.
Nor did Napoleon, his own army bashed to a pulp, follow through with his "victory" the next day; he let the Russians retreat unmolested. Not exactly the behavior of a victorious army. His stated strategic goal of destroying the main Russian field army--long his doctrine in his career--failed
So maybe James's chauvinistic chauffeur wasn't actually wrong.
A Little Background
In my previous post about the obscure Battle of Shevardino, two days before Borodino, I covered some of the run-up to the main event. I won't repeat that here. But, to sum up, Napoleon had been pursuing the two Russian armies under Barclay de Tolly and Bagration all summer, driving deeper and deeper into Russia. Uniting at Smolensk in mid-August, Barclay and Bagration fought their first standup battle against Napoleon, defending the walled city and inflicting terrible destruction on two corps of la Grande Armée. The Russians then abandoned the city in the night, escaping across the Dnieper River to continue their withdrawal toward Moscow, eventually turning at Borodino to stand and fight.
|Barclay de Tolly|
Minister of War and
Commander of the First Army
of the West
by George Dawe, 1829
in the Hermitage, St Petersburg
About a week before the 7th, the two Russian army commanders had been assigned an overall commander, a generalissmo, in Mikhail Kutuzov. The 67-year-old, one-eyed general had promised the Czar (who had appointed him reluctantly under political pressure, thinking him an incompetent, senile drunk) that he would not permit further retreat from the "Holy Soil of Mother Russia". He would stand and fight. So the position at Borodino, while not ideal, seemed as good a place as any. Kutuzov, unlike Barclay, his predecessor, was not into the details of defense or deployment. He had amply demonstrated that laissez-faireness at Austerlitz seven years before. He assumed his subordinates would do the right thing. So they presented him with the Borodino position and he said, essentially, yeah, looks okay to me, and retired to his daily nap.
As I related in my Shevardino article, while the Russians got to Borodino on the 3rd, they only started working on the main defensive works on their left flank (Bagration's sector) late on the morning of the 6th, wasting three days. About 22,000 militia (opolchenie) from Moscow and nearby cities had arrived, not so much to reinforce the Russian front line troops as to help with picks and shovels. Indeed, many of these men were completely untrained and not even armed with muskets; many just with sharp sticks and pitchforks. Their enthusiasm, though, was welcome, and they would prove to be invaluable in the coming battle, bringing up ammunition from the rear and helping the wounded back. So not to discount their contribution and sacrifice in the slightest.
With their patriotic enthusiasm, the militia men swarmed over the battlefield like ants, erecting fieldworks all along the Kolocha River on the right bank, a huge redoubt on a hill in the center, overlooking the crossing at Borodino (subsequently known as the "Great" or "Raevsky Redoubt"), and three open-ended forts (or "Bagration's Flèches ") on the left. But since the Russian's engineers were few and far between to supervise the work, these well-intentioned civilians mostly just used their hands (there not being enough picks and shovels) to scrape out shallow ditches with their bare hands and throw up loose dirt as parapets. Both Russian historian, Modest Bogdonovich, and Clausewitz observed that the redoubts these men tossed up had inadequate embrasures through which to aim the guns, didn't have any reinforcing gabions or wooden planking, and since the ground was sandy and laced with large, Ice Age-era boulders, the parapets were uneven and loosely packed. Bogdonovich went on to point out that the trenches fronting the redoubts were extremely shallow and unlikely to be an impediment to any assault by cavalry or infantry. So, as we'll see later, this explained the ability of the French cavalry to roll over them, like a wave over a berm.
This is one of those details, though, that I mentioned as not being consistent among all the narratives I referenced. Some described the Great Redoubt as a formidable emplacement, with then foot deep ditches thirty feet wide, reinforcing gabions, packed earth backed-up by wooden planks, and fronted down the slope with hundreds of deep wolf-pits (holes for men or horses to fall into). However, the archivist Bogdonovich and Clausewitz, who himself was there, don’t mention these details, but both noted how sloppy and unfinished the emplacements were.
Napoleon's forces started arriving in the area late on the 5th, where the lead elements clashed at Shevardino. It took another whole day to bring up his entire army with all its guns, and Napoleon let his troops rest a day while he scoped out the Russian position, courteously giving the enemy time to dig in. Time, as I said, which they squandered. While the two sides' skirmishers exchanged pot shots, there was not much fighting. The Guard Jagers stationed in defense of Borodino village, though, did fight off half-hearted attacks from French skirmishers in their attempt on the village.
The Emperor hadn't been feeling his best (an ulcer? a gastro-intestinal bug? IBS? A poison plot?) and was not his old, aggressive self. In fact, his behavior throughout the entire campaign could only be said to have been indecisive and lax. Davout, his most competent and aggressive corps commander (and arguably the most abrasive), had vehemently argued for a strong sweep around the Russian left with both his entire I Corps (26,000) and Poniatowski's V Corps (10,000) to roll up the whole Russian army in one decisive sweep, driving them into the cul-de-sac of the Kolocha and Moskva Rivers. Davout and several staff officers could readily see that while the Russians' right (Barclay's sector) was strong and well-positioned, Bagration's wing on their left was in the air, as the strategic phrase goes. To Davout, this Russian deployment mistake was crying out to be exploited. But Napoleon, feeling his tummy rumbling, just waived this suggestion away and said, according to his aide, Ségur , "No! You're always wanting to outflank. The movement is altogether too great! It would lead me away from my objective and make me lose too much time." He wanted just a straight-up, straight-on, frontal assault on the center. Not Napoleonic at all; in fact, a plan ironically crying out for massive casualties and an even higher risk of failure.
So while Davout's suggestion of a strategic flank attack was sound, and what Napoleon himself would have done not long before, the Emperor just didn't want to risk it this time. He was tired and feeling his age. He had lost trust in his own star, no longer willing to risk. Instead, he laid out unimaginative plans for an overwhelming direct assault on the Russian center, against their strongest redoubts. He even had broken up Davout's strong corps to lend two of his divisions (Gerard's and Morand's) to Eugene's left wing on the far side of the Kolocha, weakening his strength even further for the main assault in the center. Davout was, needless to say, pissed. You could just imagine all the significant looks that Napoleon's staff were giving each other.
The Emperor, besides feeling sick (he had to sit down with his head in his hands a lot), was also having second thoughts about whether this whole invasion thing had been a bad idea. The farther he marched into Russia, the longer his lines grew--he was almost six hundred miles from his crossing the Nieman-- and the more men he was losing to typhus (see my previous article) and the wastage from the suffocating weather. They'd all been marching in a severe drought and a record-breaking heat wave, so thirst and heat were taking as much a toll on the troops as the typhus epidemic. Men and horses were dying of dehydration and hyperthermia. Even when the troops came across pools of water or wells, they had been polluted with dead bodies and offal by retreating Russians. There had been only one big battle so far in the campaign (Smolensk) and the toll of this was a small fraction of the overall attrition. Napoleon's central army group (I, III, IV, V, VIII Corps, the cavalry, and the Guard) were down to 39% of their starting strength (also taking into account detachments). So he arrived at Borodino with just 105,000 men left of the original 266,000 these formations had started with in June. While several sources credit the French army at Borodino with 120,000-133,000, in my research, and subtracting the units detached and not at the battle, as well as Digby Smith's meticulous attrition numbers, I could not get them above 105,000. This was another one of those things that was inconsistent from reference to reference.
On the Other Side
Meanwhile, the Russians had assembled a force of 123,000 (145,000 if you include the Moscow militia). As they retreated, and in spite of the drought, they had been receiving new recruits while they withdrew farther and farther into their own country. And they, the Cossacks, and peasants had been practicing a scorched earth strategy, burning villages, towns, farms, and stores, and poisoning wells and ponds with dead bodies to deny them to the invaders. The French were marching into a desert, while the Russians were closer and closer to their main supplies. Their biggest weakness was their top leadership.
While the new generalissimo Kutuzov had had three days to prepare the army's position, by the morning of the 7th the main redoubts on the army's left were still not nearly complete. As Bogdonovich and Clausetiz described, they were totally inadequate as defenses, essentially piles of lose dirt and shallow ditches. Barclay's First Army, with the responsibility of the Russian right, had done a better job digging in and preparing that sector, as they had at Tsarevo-Zamiche two weeks before, when Kutuzov told him to abandon that position. But Kutuzov and his idiot chief of staff, Bennigsen, completely neglected fortifying the left flank under Bagration (who didn't believe in defensive fieldworks; he was a bayonet guy).
|Levin Count Bennigsen|
Chief of Staff to Kutuzov and loser of Friedland
George Dawe, 1820, Hermitage, St Petersburg
Bennigsen (loser of Friedland) assumed that Napoleon would charge right straight up the Smolensk-Moscow road, through the village of Borodino, across the single wooden bridge there, and up against the steep slopes on the right bank of the Kolocha (see map). That's what Bennigsen would have done, anyway, like he did at Friedland. Kutuzov grunted in assent (or maybe in noncommitment). But Bagration's Second Army, with responsibility for the left, had done little to even start building fieldworks by the 6th. After being satisfied that his own right flank was ready, Barclay took a ride down to inspect the left that afternoon and was appalled to see that no defensive work had been started (except for the ill-fated Shervardino redoubt, which was captured the day before). It was only on Barclay's urging that work started on that at all sometime late that afternoon. Again Kutuzov apparently nodded (in agreement or sleepiness?). Both Barclay and Bagration (who hated each other) agreed that the Russian left was dangerously exposed from the Old Smolensk-Moscow Road to the south (see map). Bennigsen finally agreed after inspecting the left himself but, without informing Barclay, ordered one of his corps (Tuchkov's III) to move down to the south of Bagration and lie in ambush in the woods behind the village of Utitza, guarding the Old Smolensk-Moscow Road. It was only when Barclay was doing another ride-through of his forces on the evening of the 6th that he noticed one of his corps was missing. He had to go to Kutuzov's HQ to confront Bennigsen what he had done with it.
Bennigsen's idea had been that if the French did attempt a flanking maneuver on the Russian left, Tuchkov's two divisions could leap on their flank from the woods and rout them. Not a bad plan. However, later in the afternoon, he heard complaints from the jager regiments deployed forward around Utitza that they felt exposed. Instead of explaining that they were indeed supported by troops behind them in ambush, Bennigsen rode over to order Tuchkov's regiments forward into the open behind the jagers so they could see them and be comforted by their support. The trouble was, while the jagers could see them, so could the Poles in Poniatowski's V Corps a few hundred yards away. An ambush doesn't work unless you hide it. Again, Bennigsen failed to notify Tuchkov about personally redeploying his troops. Tuchkov rode up to HQ to complain about Bennigsen's high-handed behavior and what he had done. Kutuzov sympathetically said he was just as outraged as Tuchkov, but he said he knew nothing about it, and did not issue an order rescinding the order. That would have been too incriminating in case something went wrong.
Barclay, on his wing, had also had his men stationed farther back, behind the rolling hills and in the open woods to protect them from enemy artillery and to conceal his force, a deployment strategy that Wellington also had long used. But Bennigsen also took it upon himself to order Barclay's troops out of the woods and onto the forward slopes, into the sights and range of French guns. Bennigsen had even ordered the reserve formations (the Guard and cavalry) to move forward so they too could be seen by the French and were in collateral range of enemy artillery.
It gets worse. It was also Russian tactical practice at this time to array their infantry battalions in deep, close platoon columns (24 files deep), easier to maneuver but making them even more vulnerable to enemy cannonballs. The Russian officer corps, a class of privileged martinets, were so callous that they would not even order their men to lie down to avoid casualties. Their men were merely peasants, serfs, after all, who were not valued as actual people, you know, with feelings and souls. Their job was to stand up in tight ranks and just get ripped to shreds by enemy shot and shell. Some rationalization on the part of the Russians was in emulation of Frederick the Great's Prussians, who also never lied down to avoid getting shot. And, it was thought, that with such an undisciplined lot as the typical muzhik soldier, you'd never get him up again once he was lying down. This seems a doubtful and unfair prejudice when one considers the stoic bravery of the Russian soldiers. In the resulting battle some reserve formations, who never engaged the enemy themselves, suffered appalling casualties unnecessarily because of this gross incompetence and negligence.
As a consequence of this inane deployment, the entire Russian army was virtually exposed on the forward slopes; a gift to Napoleon's telescope, and to his artillery. Philippe de Ségur, on the Emperor's staff, described their deployment as if "set up as in a band box."
The primary weakness of the Russian Army at this time was not the caliber or bravery of the troops. It was, as I said, in its latest inept leadership. There had been a few years of modernization of the Russian Army under Barclay's ministerial supervision. He implemented the corps/division structure, emulating the French but with Russian innovations. He reorganized the structure and tactics of the infantry. He had begun to require live firing exercises so troops could become proficient at aiming and reloading. And, most important, he was a stickler for command-and-control discipline, implementing a bureaucratic paper trail of orders and actions, treating war almost like a well-run business. His reforms were far-reaching in themselves in future implications. So in 1812 this was not the same army that had suffered so many defeats before (under Bennigsen).
But neither Bennigsen nor Kutuzov were aware or cared about any of those new reforms. They took over the army as if they were still fighting Frederick the Great. Bennigsen himself (who hated Barclay, who had fired him) believed in micro-managing, issuing verbal orders on the spur of the moment and with little information. He'd ride around and speak direct orders in Kutuzov's name to the nearest officer, and then ride on without seeing them carried out, or bothering to inform the local commanders. Kutuzov himself just let his chief of staff do what he wanted. He never followed up orders with a paper trail (as Barclay's administration had done), and would only grunt noncommittally whenever someone, like Bennigsen or one of his other young aides, would suggest a course of action. In that way, he was legally protected in case of disaster. He could plausibly say (as he did at Austerlitz), "I was not aware of that," or "I never gave such an order, do you have it in writing that I did?" Nope. Nobody did.
A further hindrance to Barclay's command structure was that Bennigsen arbitrarily re-organized the existing commands, giving Miloradovich (previously the avant garde commander) command of the right wing, Dokhturov (one of Barclay's corps commanders) command of the center, and Gorchakov command of the left. These ad hoc commands had no staffs to support them and overlapped the commands of both Barclay's 1st West Army and Bagration's 2nd West Army. At the same time, these latter two commanders were not relieved of their original positions, but neither were they told what their relationship to the three ad hoc generals was. So nobody knew who was working for whom. I've worked at companies that were structured in this ambiguous, figure-it-out-yourselves way and I can tell you no good ever comes of it. And I've written other cautionary articles about the perils of this dumb management chaos (Crecy, Chickamauga, Isandlwana). But the Russian High Command at Borodino really takes the cake.
The Russians did have one thing going for them, though; patriotic--even religious--fervor. Morale was soaring after Kutuzov took command. To the average enlisted man, he was one of them, a muzhik, a man of the soil, not one of these suspect "foreigners" or aristocrats. He wasn't admired for his intelligence, or his judgment, or even his bravery (he spent both Austerlitz and Borodino in the rear, taking naps and drinking champagne), but he was worshiped by the people for his patriotic blustering. And he had many political allies at court (which was why Alexander felt pressured to appoint him, against his own distaste).
Kutuzov had a lot of military failings but he was a shrewd populist politician. One of the first things he is reputed to have said when he stepped down from his carriage on taking command and seeing the grenadiers lined up to greet him, "How can we expect these fine fellows to continue to retreat?" That got around like a Twitter meme (#noretreat). And on the 6th, when everybody should have been cleaning their muskets and digging in, he organized a vast rally in the Russian camp, with a religious procession of some sacred (and presumably "magical") icons and banners and a battalion of priests clouded in incense and flinging holy water. This was as popular as a modern political rally. Kutuzov portrayed the coming fight as a holy war against the godless demons from the West. The roar of enthusiasm was so great as the thousands of troops flocked around the procession that it was said to have worried the French, a couple of miles away. These didn't sound like frightened sheep to them.
praying before the Virgin of Smolensk Icon and religious banners.|
This must have really got the troops riled up.
Moreover, politicians like Fyodor Rostopchin, governor of Moscow, had whipped up patriotic fervor and hatred of the French so much it spread across the whole of Russia like a wildfire, making it lethally dangerous for straggling French soldiers to be caught by the peasantry. In fact, it was the same kind of seething hatred that the French experienced in Spain the previous three years, from which the term guerilla ("little war") originated. I don't know if what had been going on in Spain had reached Russia by this time, or if it was an autochthonous, patriotic reaction to invasion. But it was a phenomenon that was spreading rapidly all over Europe, leading, unintentionally, to mass nationalistic social movements and revolutions throughout the 19th century.
So in Russia in 1812, the population and the army were seething with hatred for the French, just as the people in Spain had been in 1809. It was part of the reason that Rostopchin was able to quickly raise a militia of 22,000 opolchenie in Moscow to march out and meet the main army at Borodino, even though they were poorly armed and almost completely untrained. This fanatical patriotism was probably the main reason that the Russian troops were so willing to stand up like bowling pins against bouncing cannonballs.
The whole of the 6th was spent by the French getting into position, cleaning their weapons and generally resting after their long march and after the not-small battle the previous evening. The day was spent by the Russians throwing up dirt, and digging trenches, and also attending Kutuzov's pep rally. The French were confident of victory, now that they'd finally cornered (as they thought) the fleeing Russians. They knew they were the professional, veteran army; the victors of Austerlitz, Jena, Eylau, Friendland, Wagram. The Russians were also confident of victory, now that they had a real Russian to lead them, and now that they'd finally halted to stand and fight the hated French. So both sides were chomping at the bit.
Both sides also had plenty of ordnance. The French and Russian armies had well over 600 tubes each, though the Russians had more heavy twelve-pounders (140 to the French 108), and the French artillery consisted of some 154 light three- and four-pounder battalion pieces (22% of the total), which had very short range. These latter were mostly used to boost morale in the infantry they were attached to. As a whole, though, Russian artillery, though numerous, were not considered quite as proficient as the French. And there was something inferior about their gunpowder, which gave them less range (ah, the importance of chemistry in history!). All of this artillery was also going to insure that the next day was going to be a bloodbath.
Come the dawn of the 7th, both sides were dressed in their Sunday-best uniforms, and ready to get at it.
Then something remarkable happened...
Napoleon woke up and during the night had an epiphany. It came to him that what he was doing was wrong. War was evil. All the suffering, destruction, and death it caused were not worth whatever temporary political gain might come of it. He had a vision of a peaceful Europe, free of war and oppression. A Europe that went on to experience a future of peace and cooperation, with economic benefits shared by everyone, with colonialism abandoned in favor of helping their fellow humans across the planet share in peace, freedom, and prosperity.
So he sent an emissary over to Kutuzov under a flag of truce to announce that he was leaving Russia with all his troops, never to threaten her again. He told his men that the war was over and they could all return home to their families, with full pensions, of course, and asked them to help him build a brighter future, full of prosperity and justice for all. And, above all, to work for peace.
Yeah. That's what happened. In that alternate universe. The end.
Meanwhile, back in this universe...
Wait! What? Excuse me, I must have dozed off for a minute.
Where was I?
Oh yes...Let the carnage commence!
Napoleon actually didn't get any sleep the night before, which probably didn't help his illness. Or his critical thinking skills. Ségur, his aide-de-camp, also didn't get any sleep and reports the Emperor getting up and down from his cot all night, asking for reports, "Are the Russians' still there?". Ségur also says Napoleon sat dejectedly, with his head in his hands, lamenting to nobody in particular on the futility of war and even life itself. A very Shakespearean scene, like something out of Richard III or Macbeth. Other memoirists on the French side recall how nobody got any sleep in the whole army, what with all the infernal racket of the guns being moved into position and the battery emplacements being built.
|Mr. Grumpy-Pants not feeling tip top at Borodino|
painting by, admittedly somewhat biased, Vasily Vereshchagin in 1897
The sun was scheduled to come up at 05:49. At 06:00ish the first gun went off, signaling everyone to start. All the artillery of the I, III, VII, and IV Corps, as well as some of the Guard batteries, went off in a rippling salvo; 146 guns in this front line. These were quickly answered by 90 guns on the Russian side. But, firing east, into the glaring sun, skrimmed by the morning mist, the French gunners were firing blind. After about half-an-hour, the French artillery commander, Sorbier, realized that in the darkness, he had placed his batteries too far back to reach their targets. So everybody halted fire to drag their guns out of their prepared emplacements forward into the open. It wasn't until about 07:00 that firing recommenced on the French side.
Now their rounds started smashing into the tightly massed columns of the Russian infantry arrayed on the slopes in front of them, bounding on to hit those troops standing rigidly in reserve. Presumably something similar was happening to the troops behind the French batteries, but I could find no mention of whether the French officers had their men lie down (as Wellington had his infantry do at Waterloo, and as the Union and Confederates did with their troops at Gettysburg). But there were some anecdotally described grisly wounds from Russian artillery on this side as well. The barrage reportedly went on for the rest of the day, with only momentary pauses. One earwitness says the cacophony was like a volcano; a constant, deafening roar, with no discernible single shot. Another, General Mayevsky said "I was so deafened... that for two hours I could not clear my ears or close my mouth." Curtis Cate, in his book, War of the Two Emperors, wrote there had been nothing like this bombardment in history and that it foreshadowed the gigantic barrages of Verdun and the Somme a century later. Cate goes on to do a rough calculation that during the day, given the amount of ammunition expended, there would have been, non-stop, a rate of three cannon blasts per second and something like 430 musket shots per minute. It must have sounded like a gigantic Harley-Davidson.
Morning Action from North to South
After about half-an-hour after this of this initial "softening" up barrage had started, Napoleon launched a cascading series of ground assaults across the entire front. The artillery kept firing throughout.
While these ground attacks were conducted up and down the line simultaneously for the next several hours, I'll briefly describe each one from north to south:
The morning mist actually worked to the advantage of the French at the village of Borodino. Though Barclay had argued against trying to hold that village, isolated from the army by a single wooden bridge over the Kolocha, Bennigsen (naturally, ever brilliant) cautioned Kutuzov that to give up the village would be a national disgrace and, with the sleepy generalissimo's ambiguous nod, had the village occupied by the 1,884 jagers of the Guard, 14 guns, and a detachment of the Guard Equipage Marines. They all must have been nervous and wondered what they were doing there.
Borodino Church from the NW
Photo by Evgeny Matsevity from Google Street View
At six the village was blasted in a crossfire from 28 guns of Eugene's artillery. Out of the mist Delzon's 13th Division stormed suddenly into the town, driving the unprepared jagers back in a panic. The dozen pieces of the #12 Russian Light Battery (and two of the Marines) hardly had time to limber up and gallop back over the bridge. The bridge was so crowded with a traffic jam of fleeing infantry and artillery that the French skirmishers flanking it were apparently able to pick off at least half of the men.
Pumped with the adrenalin of their easy victory, the four battalions of the 106e Ligne, who had led the attack into Borodino, charged across the bodies of the dead and wounded Russians on the bridge, their momentum carrying them forward in a disorganized mob. Apparently, intoxicated by their easy victory, they must have felt they had triggered the collapse of the entire Russian army by themselves.
Barclay, though, was hardly panicked. He coolly ordered a counter-attack from two jager regiments on the south bank supported some of the artillery batteries covering that slope. The 106e Ligne themselves were nearly annihilated, the survivors running back over the bridge and splashing through the shallow Kolocha to rally behind the 92e Ligne. Barclay refrained from trying to retake Borodino and contented himself with letting the three jager regiments lining the river and the supporting artillery hold back another French assault while the Marines destroyed the bridge. Enough of that nonsense trying to hold Borodino for “Russia’s honor.” Fortunately, Bennigsen was distracted by action farther south to intervene up here again.
Eugene ordered Delzon’s Division to consolidate its defensive position in Borodino village. About 09:30 he ordered Broussier’s 14th Division to redeploy behind Delzon and send a strong reconnaissance-in-force across the Kolocha upstream to probe the Raevsky Redoubt to see how strongly it was defended. There was not room in the redoubt for any Russian infantry, but the two companies of guns there, as well as Paskevitch's 29th Division in support managed to drive the probing French back across the river. Eugene found out what he needed about the position. He ordered a massive bombardment of it, and after wrecking much of the artillery in the redoubt, the bounding shot bounced on to do severe damaged to the infantry of Paskevitch’s 29th Divison and Pahlen’s 3rd Cavalry Corps lined up close behind the fort. Apparently this blind bombardment was so intense that an entire horse battery attached to 3rd Cavalry was destroyed by it before it could ever even unlimber to fire a shot itself.
After over an hour of this pulverizing barrage (times vary according to the various narrators), Morand's 1st Division (detached to Eugene from I Corps) started wading crossing the Kolocha and its lead brigade, the 30e Ligne and 2nd Baden, started rushing up the slope up toward the Great Redoubt. As badly constructed as the emplacement was, the 30e managed to swarm over the parapets (though Nafziger says “great holes were ripped in their ranks by canister”) and bayoneted or drove the artillery crews out of the fort. The 30e’s capture of the redoubt, however, didn't last long as Raevsky launched a massive counter-attack which drove the French out, with great slaughter on both sides. The French retreated to the bottom of the hill.
|View toward Kolocha from Raevsky Redoubt in the direction Morand's morning assaults.|
Eugene kept ordering wave after wave up the low hill to retake the redoubt. And Raevsky, and then Yermalov, and several other passing commanders and staff officers, would rally and lead counter-attacks to re-retake it. Sometime around 11:00, the French stopped charging up the hill and just renewed their bombardment. Barclay said he estimated the attacks cost the French 3,000 casualties, but did not opine on the cost to the Russians. It was undoubtedly a carnage on both sides, but for a time, the Russians held on to the Great Redoubt.
One loss to the Russians did turn out to be strategically significant, though. First Army’s brilliant and foolishly brave artillery chief, the 28-year-old General Alexander Kutaisov, forgot his management duties of the army's reserve artillery and impulsively grabbed the flag at the head of one of the counter-attacking infantry battalions to charge into the redoubt. He never made it out. At the time, his loss was unknown to Barclay or anyone at HQ, so that artillery resupply and reinforcement from the reserve stopped for the rest of the day. Consequently, a third of the First Army’s artillery was never engaged and was absent when it was later needed most.
After the last French infantry attack was driven back and as the French bombardment resumed, Barclay remarked that the French seemed to want to win the battle by artillery alone.
Semenovskaya and The Flèches
While all this was going on, to the south of the Great Redoubt, Napoleon had ordered Ney to lead his 11th Division under Razout and Ledru's 10th Division to take the village of Semenovskaya and the linear redoubts defending it. He supported these with Latour-Maubourg’s and Nansouty’s cavalry corps. This attack ran into extreme, enemy artillery fire from the redoubts and resistance from Vorontsov’s Combined Grenadiers Division. Bennigsen also ordered up half the Guard Infantry Reserve (Ismailov, Lithuania, and Finland Jagers), as well as half the Guard artillery in support. The French and allied cavalry (Saxon and Westphalian cuirassiers) charged into and beyond the burning Semenovskaya village against the Russian grenadiers, who had formed squares (or perhaps just closed up their platoon columns; the various narratives are vague about exact formations). They also overran the sloppily thrown up breastworks and artillery batteries. The infantry followed in to Semenovskaya, throwing the Russian grenadiers out.
Then Bagration ordered in everything he had at hand to retake the village. Battalions of Vaslichikov’s 12th Division, Mecklenburg’s 2nd Grenadier Division, Siever’s IV Cavalry Corps, the 2nd Cuirassier Division, and more artillery from the Guard. These eventually threw back the French and Saxon cuirassiers and pushed the French infantry out of the captured redoubts and smoking village.
But then Napoleon sent in the rest of Sorbier’s Guard Artillery reserves and these additional 130 elite guns pulverized the defending Russians. Barclay had taken it upon himself to move his unengaged IV Corps under Osterman-Tolstoy down into the breech. But as these infantry marched in their tight columns they were enfiladed by the French Guard artillery, each round taking out entire platoons. By the time they had gotten into position, they had been reduced by perhaps as much as one third their original strength before firing a shot themselves.
Back and forth this battle surged all morning. By noon the Russians seemed spent and Mikhail Borosdin (Bagration had been wounded and taken to an aid station by this time and was succeeded by his VIII Corps commander) ordered the general withdrawal back into the open woods behind this central position—where they should have been stationed in the first place, no thanks to Bennigsen.
Simultaneously, a little further to the south of Semenovskaya, another infantry assault was underway. About 08:00 (all these times are approximate, of course), about an hour after the initial bombardment had commenced, Davout ordered his lead division, the 5th, under Compans (of Shevardino heroism two days before) to assault the southernmost redan (called flèches for reasons I’ll explain in a minute) in front of the Semenovka streambed (see map). Marching to the right of the massed French batteries, who kept up their pounding until the very last minute, three battalions of the 57e Ligne , the lead regiment of the division, came up to the ditches of this fort until the went to ground, picked to pieces by the canister from the Russian guns. Compans went down wounded. Davout had his horse shot out from under him, but was only momentarily shaken. The rest of the battalions of the 5th came through cover of the woods and swung around behind the flèche. Dessaix, commanding the 4th Division moved through the woods to the south, driving back the jagers and then wheeling left to attack the southernmost flèche out of the cover of the woods. Wave after wave of supporting infantry came up to continue the assault until they at last swarmed over the hastily thrown-up parapets and bayoneted the surviving Russians inside.
Meanwhile, Marshal Ney (III Corps) had simultaneously led an attack with General Ledru's 10th Divison against the northernmost flèche, which they also overran after much slaughter on both sides.
It wasn't until now, though, that the French had two unsettling realizations. One, the emplacements they had captured were wide open at the back (hence the term flèche, whch means arrowhead, but weren't called that at the time because the French didn't know before how they were constructed). They apparently thought they were just capturing normal, enclosed redoubts like the one they had captured at Shevardino. So they were extremely vulnerable to counterattack. The other realization was that there were three of these damn things. A third flèche could only be seen down the opposite slope from the first two. And its fire was directly into the open rear of the northern flèche and enfiladed the southern one. So hell!
Naturally, Bagration wasn't going to meekly give up these fortlets. He ordered his jagers, his entire combined Grenadier Division, part of Neverovsky's 27th Division (also of Shevardino heroism), part of Tuchkov's III Corps (remember, they were redeployed to defend Utitiza on the south?) and a whole mess of cavalry to retake the two captured flèches. Which they did. And these were, in turn, recaptured by the French as fresh infantry and cavalry were thown in. And so on.
|Russians defending the wrecked village of Semenovskaya|
Detail from the panorama painted by Franz Roubaud in 1911
The narratives all describe the capture, recapture, re-recapture, re-re-recapture, rex-recapture of all of these flèches in precise detail within each story; the units involved, the commanders killed and wounded (including Generals Rapp, Compans, Bagration, Dessaix, Neverovsky, Konovnitzin, etc.), and the curious incidents related.
Nor are the narratives consistent in these details (like who, what, where, when, etc.). In perspective, there was so much smoke, and so much dust kicked up during this battle at this point that no one could be precisely sure what was happening. I'm not going to relate those details. If you, as a meticulous reader or wargamer, want them, I refer you to my several excellent references below (Nafziger, Duffy, Cate, Smith, Chandler, Hourtoulle). And then you can decide which author is your favorite to go with. Frankly, it gets monotonous. I'm just going to summarize and say that this see-saw battle went on for almost five goddam hours, and involved nearly 38,000 French and about 44,000 Russians.
|Murat saying "Boo!" to Cossacks|
in his Dracula costume.
Anyway, the incident struck me as hilarious. Well...except for the thousands of dead and wounded.
Nevertheless, though this part of the battle would go on in this sector for another two hours at least, back in Russian headquarters in Gorki, a staff officer galloped in breathlessly from the hot action about 10:00 and reported that the French had been completely repelled from the flèches and that the famous Murat had been captured. Kutuzov ordered more bottles of Champagne to be popped and more pastries served, even though there was no confirmation of either claim. Still, it's always right for Champagne, right?
By about noon—though who's to say?--the Russians seemed to have had enough of trying to retake the fleches and the village of Semenovkaya and fell back to the woods in their rear. The French and Germans also stopped attacking, falling down exhausted in their corpse-choked prizes.
Toward the end of the see-saw battle over the flèches and Semenovkaya, Ney and Murat (who normally never agreed on anything except how much they hated each other’s guts) went back to plead with Napoleon to unleash the Guard. They both saw that the Russians were exhausted in this sector and were falling back. If ever there was a time for the coup de grace, it was now. This was exactly what you saved your reserve for. But Napoleon refused. He mumbled something Zen-like, “The chessboard is not yet clear to me,” like this was a game he was playing in the public room of a retirement home. As he did see it, though, he wasn't about to risk his Guard 600 miles deep into Russia. He did order his Young Guard to go in. But they hadn't marched but a few hundred yards before he called them back. This was certainly not the Napoleon his commanders used to know. He had become a slow, timid, cautious, old man--at the ripe age of 43. But this midlife crisis was costing thousands of lives by the minute. Maybe it was his ill health. Or maybe he really was being poisoned.
The attack on the center ground to a halt. And the guns kept on rumbling.
Moving south, more action was taking place in front of Poniatowski's V Corps, which had commenced its own attack about 08:00 on hearing the gigantic battle beyond the woods around the flèches. While Napoleon had rejected Davout's plan of a vast outflanking movement with both his and Poniatowski's Corps, he did order a smaller scale attack here, with just the V Corps (not quite 10,000 men). But it had taken Poniatowksi some time to move his two infantry and one cavalry division up the wood-bordered Old Smolensk Road into the wide meadow around the village of Utitza. There he discovered Tuchkov’s III Corps arrayed out in the open (remember Bennigsen had ordered them out from under cover to bolster the spirits of the complaining jagers).
|Prince Jozef Poniatowski|
by Josef Grassi, after1810
Poniatowski’s attack, though, moved slowly. It took him time to get his divisions into formation in the open woods on either side of the highway. Meanwhile he had his 24 guns pound the columns of Russian grenadiers under Strogonov, who only had half as many guns to reply with. The Russians moved slowly back and Tuchkov sent urgent pleas for help to HQ. Kutuzov was busy partying (celebrating the “capture” of Murat, remember) but Barclay took it upon himself to send his northernmost corps, Baggovut’s II, down to help Tuchkov. Of course, being on the opposite end of the Russian position, they had to move about four miles through narrow paths and woods to get to Tuchkov. Even double-timing was going to take at least an hour-and-a-half. On their way, other sectors of the Russian front, namely around the Raevsky Redoubt and the flèches, cried for help, so Baggovut graciously peeled off one of his divisions (the 4th) and some artillery and cavalry to help. His men, too, though unengaged up to now, were now relentlessly pounded by the gauntlet of French cannonballs bounding into their flank as they marched. So they arrived to help Tuchkov about 11:00 with about half their original force.
Poniatowski, by this time was pressing hard on the Utitza position from the north and south. Strogonov’s grenadiers and the remaining jagers and artillerists were taking horrendous casualties and falling back slowly. But they weren’t running yet. As what was left of Baggovut’s corps finally marched in, Tuchkov tried to rally the Pavlov Grenadiers in his own command and was killed by a roundshot. Baggovut took over the remnants of both corps and fell back fighting through the woods to regroup. Polish cavalry drove off the Cossacks and threatened the retreating Russian infantry, who, in squares, still didn’t break.
The Polish prince called a halt to his attack about noon. He had captured the now burning Utitza and driven off the defenders. But he didn’t move on to envelop the main Russian army as per his original orders. With the din of the main battle to the north, and no word on how it was going, he was probably thinking that this was no time to further expose his command. For all he knew, his fickle ally, Napoleon, was retreating back toward Smolensk, leaving himat the mercy of the none-too-merciful Russians. About noon, though, Junot’s VIII corps of Westphalians did show up to support Poniatowski, having been sent down by Napoleon since they didn’t seem to be needed to help capture the flèches any more.
|Russian Leib-Garde Litovsk counterattack.|
Oh, no. Get back in your seat: It’s not over yet.
Davout’s, Poniatowski’s, and Junot’s corps were pretty much spent or out of the battle by noon. With the final capture of the flèches in front of Bagration’s wing (and that general mortally wounded—a shock which had a profound effect on the morale of the Russian 2nd Army), Napoleon now ordered Ney and Eugene to throw everything they had at capturing the Big Prize, Le Grand Redoubt de Raevsky, in the center of the Russian position. This would win him the Jackpot and, I guess, make the Russians and the Czar bow down to him. Yeah, that was the plan.
At about 11:00, all the action in the center and left of the Russian position had seemed to die down. Almost all of Barclay’s 1st West Army had been moved south to shore up the crumbling line of the 2nd Army. Uvarov, commander of the 1st Cavalry Corps, noticed that the opposite bank of the Kolocha in the north was virtually undefended. His Cossacks (under Platov) had found that the stream was so low that it could be forded around the village of Maloe (see map at the top). Since his cavalry had been unengaged and stationed so far back that it was probably forgotten in the all the crises going on to the south, he thought he could make a strategic end run and attack the virtually undefended French left (or so he thought, since his Cossacks failed to reconnoiter that far). He sent an aide to Kutuzov at Gorki, and accompanied by Colonel Toll, one of the trusted aides on the generalissimo’s staff, these two pitched the idea. Kutuzov, in his only contribution to the battle so far, thought it sounded like a brilliant plan and endorsed it (verbally—no written paper trail, remember, in case it failed).
by George Dawe, 1823
Uvarov was disappointed. He sent
apologies to Kutuzov for his failure, but blamed the Ataman Platov for not
supporting him with all his Cossacks, who had all held back and suffered almost
no casualties. One of Platov’s officers, a Capt. Murav’ev, said the Cossacks
were resentful for being attached to the “foreigner” Barclay’s army and didn’t
want any part of helping him. But others, like Barclay’s staff officer,Yermalov,
pointed out that Cossacks had never been relied upon in pitched battles anyway,
so they had always been discounted in any force calculations. Kutuzov, also
disappointed, heard Uvarov’s report and said,, “I know. May God
forgive you!” Such a dick.
Uvarov’s failure could also be chalked up to the poorly planned operation. It had no infantry support, no heavy cavalry, and didn’t allow the few guns that accompanied the cavalry to at least unlimber and rip into the French infantry squares before the yelling hussars and dragoons charged them, only to get cut down. So it had no proper combined arms coordination. They were also way too few (2,900 against as many as 30,000), especially considering that they should have known the Cossacks weren’t going to help them anyway.
But unappreciated by Kutuzov and his sneering staff, Uvarov’s expedition did accomplish one vital thing. It probably saved the Russian army from complete annihilation that day. It forced Napoleon’s to put off his coup-de-grace by three, critical hours.
So distracted by all the commotion to the north, Eugene crossed back over the river to supervise the defense, pulling back Morand’s, Gerard’s, and Delzon’s divisions as they were getting ready to charge up the hill on the Great Redoubt again. He diverted Grouchy’s 3rd Cavalry Corps to help Ornano’s light cavalry repulse the Russian attack. And Napoleon, all set to renew his attack on the Great Redoubt, instead moved the Young Guard and Vistula Legion north to form squares and defend his flank. All this took a long time, which allowed the Russians to regroup in the center and left, and to prepare for reinforcing the Great Redoubt. But Uvarov wouldn’t get any thanks for that until after the war, when Russian historians had access to French records and could see the hesitation the foray caused.
This so-called failed assault by Uvarov reminds me of my own great-great-grandfather’s participation in another “failed” fight on Snodgrass Hill at the end of Chickamauga in 1863, which ended up saving the Union Army of the Tennessee under Rosecrans after they lost that battle, holding up the victorious Confederates long enough for the main army to withdraw, more or less intact, to Chattanooga. Yeah, it was all my great-great-grandfather’s doing. Alone. Well, him and George Thomas and about 10,000 other guys. But still.
The Final Assault
After the three hour distraction caused by Uvarov’s field trip had died down, Napoleon again focused on the pesky Great Redoubt in the Russian center. All morning he had been getting plea after frustrated plea from Eugene, from Ney, from Murat, from Davout, from everybody and their aunt to send in the Guard to cinch the victory. But he had refused every request. Ney groused to his staff that Napoleon was squatting back behind his Guard, cowering, and refusing to commit himself to victory. He sneered to his staff that he should just go back to the Tuileries and let his generals fight this war. He was right. Napoleon was visibly sick all through the battle, straddling his folding camp chair, leaned over and occasionally propping his telescope on the back to see what he could see a mile away through the smoke. Other memoirists said he looked pale. He wasn’t into it today.
While the crisis on the left was being dealt with, Napoleon had ordered the gap left open in the center, opposite the Great Redoubt, to be occupied by Montbrun’s 2nd and Latour-Maubourg’s 4th Cavalry Corps. Nobody on the Emperor’s staff understood why this was necessary. The “gap” was already covered by the Guard, lined up safely a thousand yards behind the low ridge and scrub. Nobody used cavalry to "plug gaps". This ridiculous and callous order exposed over 6,000 cavalry to three hours of constant artillery bombardment, cavalry who had already suffered disproportionately so far in the campaign and were down to 38% of their original strength when they arrived at Borodino.
But exposed they were, just 700 yards from all the Russian guns in and on either side of the Redoubt. And for three hours they stood there while shot and shell ripped through their ranks, ultimately costing both corps half the remainder of their men and horses in needless casualties. During this hellish penance the 2nd Corps’ commander, the legendary Montbrun, was himself killed by an exploding shell, a devastating loss to the morale and leadership of the army and a loss to France. To replace him, Napoleon sent the brother of his aide-de-camp, Auguste de Coulaincourt, to take command of 2nd Cavalry Corps. Those who survived described it as a worse experience than any cavalry battle they had ever been in; just standing there inert, their comrades being ripped to shreds on either side of them, helmets, breastplates, heads, body parts being tossed up in the air, and expecting any second to suffer the same fate…all the while unable to fight back at the Russian guns annihilating them. One can only imagine the frustration, mortal terror, and pent-up fury they felt (probably not just at the Russians).
Anticipating another attack on the Great Redoubt, Barclay had moved up Kapsevitch’s 4th Division (Moscow, Pskov, Libau, and Sofia regiments) and Lichacheff’s 24th Division (Ufa, Shrivan, Tomsk, Butirsk) all deployed in echelon in battalion squares in the ravine behind the redoubt. Behind them were Korff’s 2nd Cavalry Corps (Pskov and Moscow Dragoons, as well as the Izium Hussars and Poland Uhlans) and Pahlen’s 3rd Cavalry Corps (Kurland, Orenburg, Siberia, and Irkutsk Dragoons, and the Sumy and Mariupol Hussars), and two regiments of Guard cuirassiers (Horseguards and Chevalier-gardes), some 6,800 horse, all in somewhat better shape than the oncoming French cavalry. In the redoubt itself were almost two dozen heavy guns, and on their flanks were all the artillery of Dokhturov’s VI Corps artillery, all told about 60 guns.
During the hours while the French cavalry were being sacrificed to the Russian bombardment, Sorbier had moved up some 140 guns to pulverize the big fort and defenses. By the time the last attack started, the poorly built Great Redoubt had been reduced to a pile of loose dirt and sand, and the shallow ditch in front of it had been more or less filled in as the parapet fell into it.
By about 15:00, after the crisis on the left had been dealt with, Napoleon ordered everybody to their original places to get ready to storm up the hill to the Great Redoubt. Eugene moved three of his infantry divisions (Morand’s 1st, Girard’s 3rd, and Broussier’s 14th) back over the Kolocha and stacked up in columns of attack on the west side of the Kamencka gully, at the foot of the Great Redoubt’s hill. These were supported on their left by Grouchy’s 3rd Cavalry Corps of dragoons, hugging the banks of the Kolocha. And on their right by the heavy cavalry corps of Montbrun (now under Coulaincourt) and Latour-Maubourg (Saxon, Polish, and Westphalians).
|French cavalry and infantry swarm up the hill to the Great Redoubt about 16:00|
detail from Rouboud's Borodino panorama of 1911
About 16:00, when the sword came down to start the assault, and the infantry started their attack, they were quickly left behind as Coulaincourt’s and Latour-Maubourg’s cuirassiers took off at a gallop up the hill. Having endured hell for the previous three hours, these troopers were seething with revenge. They first came upon lines of jagers, tightly packed in the ditch in front of the redoubt (or what was left of it), presenting a porcupine hedge of bayonets. But they swirled around the flanks of this formation and into the openings at either end of the redoubt, hacking and trampling every living thing in their path. They were shortly followed by Eugene’s infantry, who swept aside what was left of the jagers in front and over the crumbled berm that had once been the parapet. There was no quarter given as the Russians defended their guns to the last (managing only to haul away six). Eyewitnesses recall there being no survivors in the wreckage of the redoubt. But it is not clear if they were already all dead by the time the three hour bombardment and the French cuirassiers had been through.
|Saxon Cuirassiers charging up the hill toward the Great Redoubt|
They couldn't wait to give the Russian gunners a stern talking-to.
by Albrecht Adam, 1815
Coulaincourt, the brand new brevet commander of Montbrun’s 2nd Cavalry Corps was shot dead almost as soon as he entered the redoubt at the head of his first squadrons. The berserk cuirassiers (including the 1e and 2e Carabiniers and the Saxon Gardes du Corps, the Zastrow Cuirassiers, the Polish 14th Cuirassiers, and Westphalian cuirassiers, as well as four French cuirassier regiments and numerous Polish uhlan regiments), having taken the redoubt and killed everything in it, charged on past it. Unfortunately their wave broke upon the steady squares of the 16 Russian battalions in the ravine behind the redoubt. While the French cavalry miraculously broke into some of these squares (who were vulnerable to Polish lancers), the majority of the infantry held and delivered volley after volley into the swirling horsemen. The allied cavalry also ran into a counter-attack from Korff’s, Pahlen’s and Nikokai Borosdin's 8,000 cavalry, and were driven back.
The French infantry settled into the Great Redoubt and prepared for yet another counter-attack, as had usually happened all day. But none came.
|Russian Guard Cuirassiers from Borodsin's 1st Cuir Div counter-attacking |
Lorge's Saxon cuirassiers after they had overrun the Great Redoubt
detail from the 1911 Borodino panorama by Rouboud
Are we finally done?
Both sides were spent. Barclay, having all of his reserves shoplifted by Bennigsen earlier, had none left. His troops were out of ammunition and exhausted from ten hours of continuous fighting. He judged that it would not be worth it to try and retake the Great Redoubt yet another time. Moreover, as the rest of the Russian army had been pulled back to the woods behind the Semenovka position, the flèches given up, and the Utitza position finally abandoned to Poniatowski’s Poles, the Great Redoubt in the center was now a dangerously exposed salient. Barclay wisely judged letting the French keep it.
He sent one of his staff, Colonel Ludwig von Wolzogen, back to find Kutuzov to report the loss of the Great Redoubt. Wolzogen took about half-an-hour searching before he finally found the commander-in-chief, who had long since abandoned his headquarters at Gorki and retreated back up the Smolensk-Moscow road toward Mozhaisk. The obese generalissimo and his entourage of privileged sycophants, were all sitting at a table enjoying a sumptuous “victory” feast. Wolzogen noted that Kutuzov was drunk. He reported to the Commander-in-Chief that the Great Redoubt had fallen and that Barclay was organizing a second line of defense behind the original one. Furious, Kutuzov yelled, “With what low-down sutler woman have you been getting drunk to deliver such an inane report? It is I whom must needs know best how the battle has been going! The attacks of the French have everywhere been victoriously repulsed, and so tomorrow I am going to place myself at the head of the army in order to drive the enemy from Russia’s sacred soil without further ado!” (Cate, p 251) All of Kutuzov’s crew of fawning princelings raised their champagne glasses and hoorahed in agreement. “Uh…o…kay,” Wolzgogen undoubtedly thought.
Barclay had cautioned Wolzogen to only accept orders written down and signed by Kutuzov, as he had been burned before by the generalissimo’s political tactic of deniability. So Kutuzov did have an order written to Barclay to have the army withdraw “1,000 paces” and get them ready to fight the next morning. Barclay, on reading this, was exasperated. The army had been reduced to barely 30,000 effectives in the ranks (from its original 124,000), had no more ammunition, and hadn’t eaten since the night before. Nor were they going to get any new supplies this night. They were in no position to fight the next day. They had lost the battle as far as Barclay was concerned. He was the one who had been in the thick of the fighting all day while his new boss, Kutuzov, had been getting plastered far in the rear, and who hadn’t even been within telescope range of the front. Barclay, whose primary concern throughout the campaign had been the preservation of the army while they drew the French farther and farther into Russia, strongly advocated for a strategic withdrawal to save what they had left. He looked at the written order from Kutuzov and said bitterly to Wolzogen that the idea that the army could be rested and replenished by the morning was crazy, that they might as well keep fighting now until no one was left. He rode back to find Kutuzov himself and lobby for retreat.
But on the French side, things weren’t much better.
When the Great Redoubt fell around 17:00, Eugene galloped back to his step-father (or his ex-step-father?), the Emperor, to plead that now was the time to send in the Guard to complete the victory. The Russians were on the run and now was the time to deal the killing blow. He was met with the same sullen refusal; not this far from home. For some reason, in a turnabout, Murat agreed with Napoleon. Now was not the time to risk the only reserve the army had left (oh, now, he thinks so!).
The French themselves were estimated to have suffered nearly as badly as the Russians. After ten hours of nearly continuous combat, their own strength was down to around 75,000 effectives. They too had shot away most of their ammunition. And they were exhausted. They pretty much abandoned the Great Redoubt and the flèches and other fortifications they had captured and recaptured so many times and at such great cost, retreating back to their original bivouacs west of Shevardino and north of the Kolocha. So, if, in traditional military terms, the winner of the battle was the side which occupied the field at the end. Napoleon hadn’t won. And since the Russians didn’t start retreating toward Moscow until early the next morning, they could, from their point of view, claim that they had defeated the French by staying on the battlefield. Which is exactly the argument that Kutuzov sold to the Czar, and to subsequent Russian historians.
Napoleon was reported to be in a very depressed mood. That evening he rode slowly across the battlefield, feeling sick as his horse jerked back and forth trying to avoid stepping on dead and wounded men and horses. Mostly he was shocked that there were so few prisoners (Sègur writes that there were only seven or eight hundred, mostly wounded prisoners, with as few as twenty broken captured cannon). The Emperor remarked glumly how Russians just didn’t surrender, and that it wasn’t enough to kill them; you had to push them over. Of course, he had fought the Russians before, at Austerlitz, at Eylau, at Friedland, at Smolensk, so this wasn’t a new discovery about his perennial enemy. They had fought to the death in all of those battles. Thousands of wounded Russians crawled away from the battlefield to make their way back to their comrades—and in this the Moscow opolchenie proved their worth by assisting them, even though Kutuzov had made no provisions for transport to remove his own wounded.
But Napoleon was in no mood to chase them with his fresh reserve.
At 18:00, at Barclay’s and several of the frontline generals’ urging, Kutuzov gravely pronounced that they would withdraw in the night and not stay to fight the next day. Soviet propaganda artists and filmmakers (like Sergei Bondarchuk in his War and Peace), portray this moment as a tableau of tragic but strategic necessity on the part of the heroic Kutuzov. But, in spite of his theatrical bluster a couple of hours earlier, he probably realized the battle was lost and sullenly accepted Barclay’s recommendation, repainting it as his own shrewd decision. Nevertheless, he sent a dispatch to the Czar proclaiming a great victory, explaining that he was only pulling back to the more defensible Mozhaisk position in order to administer the killing blow to the French. He ordered that the retreat not start until 02:00 the next morning so that, technically, he could claim that he still held the battlefield at the end of the day (the 7th) while the French had retreated (which, technically, they had).
There was bell-clanging, drum-banging, and raucous celebrations in St. Petersburg when the news of the “victory” over the Ogre arrived. Alexander promoted Kutuzov to field marshal and sent him 100,000 rubles.
Moreover, as I mentioned above, Kutuzov had made no provision for transport to move his thousands of wounded back to Moscow. He falsely complained that his orders to Rostochopin, governor of Moscow, for such transport had been ignored. But he really never sent them. And nearly all the wheeled transport in Moscow was being used to move treasure (art, gold, dishes, furniture) out of the capitol, not for removing the wounded. Consequently, when the French, a day later, came upon what Kutuzov had told the Czar was supposed second line of Russian defense at Mozhaisk, all they found were tens of thousands of Russian wounded, languishing without medical care in the town. The French, of course, ejected all these poor people to die in the streets and fields.
And, yes, we're finally done.
Borodino: A Crashing Bore
There has been so much written about this momentous battle and its consequences. When you read in succession all of the narratives (see my references below, which are a fraction of the library), you are struck by how confusing and contradictory the events are. There seems to be little consensus among the historians about what actually happened, when, and to whom? It was another example of Wellington’s quip that describing a battle is like describing a ball.
Add to this the fact that nobody could actually see much. After ten hours of continuous fire from over a thousand guns and tens-of-thousands of muskets (Chandler estimates that the French alone fired over two million musket and ninety-thousand artillery rounds), and the dry dust churned up by thousands of charging men and horses, visibility was pretty much nil. So eyewitnesses were, except for what was happening to them directly, blind.
But one thing does emerge: Borodino was a pointless carnage. Casualty estimates were as high as 75,000, or about 35% for each side. Since Napoleon’s “strategy” had been basically to attack straight ahead, hour after hour, into the most fortified and densest part of the Russian army with all his force (except his Guard), and since the Russians’ disorganization could be described as merely reactive to this straight-ahead onslaught, there is nothing to be learned from this battle; except that war is a waste. This was the truth that Napoleon himself apparently finally hit on in his insomniac epiphany the night of the 6th. A truth that went in and out of his head like an annoying mosquito. Too bad.
Of course, taking the longer view. it is fair to conclude that had Napoleon unequivocally lost Borodino, or at least had been decisively checked, he would not have marched on to Moscow, would not have stayed too long there waiting for Alexander’s white flag, and would not have lost the war. Maybe. There are so many ifs. He might also have decided to more vigorously pursue Kutuzov to destroy his army. He might have pulled back to Smolensk to regroup and replenish, spending the winter there. There are so many “beam splitters” that might have opened alternate universes (in the quantum physical sense).
Reading about Borodino is like
reading about the “strategy” behind the Somme,Verdun, or Passchendaele in World War I. Just keep charging into certain death for
hour after hour, hoping a miracle will happen. And, as chaotic and terrifying as the experience of the participants in this battle was, I thought of John Keegan's groudbreaking book, Face of Battle, in which he describes the perspective of the combatants as telescoped down to what was immediately in front of them. My own uncle, who had fought in the WWII battles on Saipan and Iwo Jima as a Navy hospital corpsman with the Marines, said he could not describe anything except what was happening in front of him. All he said he could think of was tending to the wounded in his own platoon and imagining a Japanese bullet headed right for his head at any second. I think that anybody who has participated in any battle, would not be able to describe it except in those terms.
After having spent hundreds of hours (and, I must say, at least five decades) studying Borodino, I’ve come to the conclusion at long last that it was a tragic bore. I realize that just writing that last sentence, especially in a military history blog, seems contradictory itself; almost cynical; as interesting as watching a meat grinder. I admit that, just before I finished writing this article, I had considered it such a dull exercise that I almost didn’t post it.
Still, as Eddie Izzard said in his hilarious monologue explaining the Crusades, “Look, we’ve come all this way!”
Considering the ultimate outcome of this battle and the 1812 campaign, it seems almost pointless to consider what-ifs for the Borodino battle by itself. But I will venture a few scenarios to game:
· What if the Russians had started building their fortifications four days earlier, when they first arrived at Borodino, instead of the night before, so that the French would have confronted fully built and reinforced redoubts?
· What if Napoleon had not waited a day after his army arrived and attacked on the 6th?
· What if Kutuzov had let Barclay retain operational command of the combined army, and fired or (betters still) had never hired Bennigsen?
· What if Bennigsen had not committed Barclay’s reserves prematurely? Or at least told him he was doing so?
· What if Bennigsen had not moved the reserve and cavalry corps into the open on the forward slopes and to within artillery range? (as Wellington would definitely would not have done)
· What if Russian infantry were not arrayed in close platoon columns (say in shallower, open company columns or even lines) and were allowed to lie down to avoid collateral damage from French artillery? (also ala Wellington)
· What if Kutaisov had done his job and had stayed behind to manage the Russian artillery reserve and not been killed leading an infantry charge he had no business doing?
· What if Napoleon had not needlessly exposed half his heavy cavalry to statically endure bombardment for three hours from noon to three?
· What if Bennigsen had not ruined Tuchkov’s ambush behind Utitza and have let him keep his corps in hiding until Poniatowski stumbled upon it in the woods?
And in a more strategic game:
· What if Napoleon had decided to winter in Smolensk two weeks before Borodino?
· What if he moved north on St. Petersburg instead of Moscow after Borodino? Or before Borodino, after he had captured Smolensk?
· What if Alexander had resisted political pressure to appoint the incompetent Kutuzov and let Barclay continue his Fabian strategy of refusing battle, leading the French farther and farther into Russia?
Aside from the hypotheticals, if you are playing a wargame of Borodino, here are some things to think about in planning and playing it:
There is ample evidence that the Russian infantry were formed in tight, platoon columns (eight platoons to a battalion), making them narrow and compact. This would make them particularly vulnerable to artillery fire, each roundshot, for instance, plowing through up to 24 tightly packed ranks when hit head-on. (For reasons for this formation, see Troop Ratings below.)
French battalions were, by contrast, formed up for this battle in “attack columns”, two company front and nine ranks deep.
So, in assessing artillery damage in a wargame, the Russian infantry would sustain 266% more hits than the French. Proportional musket firepower would also be reduced, with the Russian columns only able to deliver 1/8th fire to the French’s 1/3rd per battalion.
And of course there is also evidence in all of the sources that the infantry of both sides were forced to form squares against all of the cavalry attacks. I am assuming, by this, that they formed hollow squares with the companies and platoons facing outward so that all of the muskets and bayonets would be in play. Some sources even describe the Russians as deploying into line to repel the French attacks.
I had originally believed that the French infantry, on losing over half their strength up to Borodino, would have reduced their ranks from three to two, as had been the usual practice in armies all through the 18th century. But from the research I had done, French regiments, at least, typically did not do this, even when reduced in strength. This actually makes sense since it would require a change in forming up, causing confusion. But since it’s your game, you can make that call yourself about whether it would be done at Borodino. Doing so would affect the frontage and number of ranks (and thus vulnerability to artillery).
Though slightly more numerous and heavier in throw-weight (164% more 12 pounders) the Russian artillery was also slightly less proficient than Napoleon’s artillery. Also, the gunpowder produced in Russia was also considered of inferior quality, so that the range of the guns would have been shorter (due to the reduced kinetic energy produced by the explosion in the barrel).
Another consideration when playing Borodino as a game has to do with the command and control of the reserve artillery. While the Russians had more guns, at least a third of them were never used but languished in the rear. The First Army artillery commander, Kutaisov, got himself bravely but uselessly killed leading an infantry charge in the early part of the battle and a successor apparently wasn’t appointed—nobody knew where he was or what had happened to him. So nobody was managing the feeding of fresh guns and ammunition to the front. A rule could be written ad hoc to simulate this control breakdown (see Command, Control, and Leadership below), which was endemic to the Russian Army as a whole.
Rivers and Streams
The Kolocha River dividing the battlefield was reported to be fordable everywhere, though French engineers saw the necessity of throwing bridges over it near Borodino village to move artillery more efficiently, probably having more to do with the steepness of the banks than the depth of the water. The Moskva River was not fordable.
All of the streams across the battlefield were either bare trickles or completely dry gullies, so should be treated as crossing a ditch.
Likewise, these dry gullies could
count as natural defensive trenches to light infantry. Also impeding the
movement of artillery somewhat, due to their steep banks.
WoodsWoods in the vicinity were pine, oak, and birch, with light or no undergrowth. So troops would be able to move relatively unhindered through them. However, linear formations would be disrupted. Any infantry or cavalry formation moving though these woods would be disordered and have to realign on exiting, unless moving in column of route.
Though open for movement, visibility
beyond or into woods would be blocked. I imagine that the character of the
woods here was very similar to that I described at Chickamauga
in my post on that battle.
|Nature of the open woods in the vicitnity of Borodino|
Painting by Ivan Shishkin, 1891
As related above, the fortifications on the Russian side were incomplete. Since work in earnest on them had only begun late on the 6th (at least for the Great Redoubt, the fleches, and emplacements along the Semenovka stream), they should not be counted as robust forts, but loose piles of dirt. Artillery bombardment would have torn them apart and then they would have been easily surmounted in an attack by either cavalry or infantry. So in your game treat them as partial defensive structures. Their use as fortifications was primarily as territorial landmarks to defend—more psychological strong points than physical.
Obviously, the ferocity and bravery of both sides in this battle were awesome. As Napoleon said of the Russians, it wasn’t enough to kill them, you had to push them over. Several units on both sides fought until virtually annihilated.
So if your game rules account for morale, I would rate both French, Russians, and all participating nationalities as very high.
Skill levels, however, were not equal. In spite of Barclay’s reforms, the competence level of regimental level leadership and rank-and-file training was far below that of the French. Consequently, tactical dexterity in things like changing formation, rates of fire, and accuracy of fire were lower on the Russian side than the French. Hand-to-hand combat, however, was equivalent. Both sides favored the bayonet.
That being said, it could be argued that the toll of years of war and the drafting of younger and younger age groups had left the French Army of 1812 not nearly at the level as La Grande Armee of 1805. This was noticed in campaigns of 1809 where, for the first time, massive, unwieldy columns were used at Wagram because the infantry simply couldn’t be maneuvered in and out of line/attack columns as they had been in the early part of the Empire. So you might want to rate the tactical proficiency of your French troops as lower than your 1805-07 rules.
The argument against this, however,
is that the catastrophic attrition of the army caused by the typhus epidemic (see my
previous article on Shevardino) had largely winnowed out the less robust
(at least immunologically) young. Napoleon himself had callously commented on
this to his complaining generals. So that those that remained were the toughest
and most experienced of the old army. Which is a sad thing to think about all
those poor teenagers and young men snuffed out. Of course, dwelling on what you are actually simulating in a wargame takes all the fun out of it; they're just toy soldiers or cardboard squares. (Excuse me, "military miniatures")
French cavalry, however, should be rated as lower than Russian cavalry. Or at least their stamina. Not because they were less skilled, but because their horses were worn out and sick from hundreds of miles of marching through a hot drought and poisoned wells. Russian horses, having been replenished as they withdrew farther into their own country, were fresher and more numerous.
Command, Control, and Leadership
If your game rules provide for Command and Control (as my self-generated engine does), then this could be a decisive difference between the French and Russian players.
French C&C should be efficient, with orders written and dispatched quickly. This had been the hallmark of Napoleonic staff practice for over a dozen years. So, for instance, a player could write an order and dispatch it from his Napoleon figure and as soon as the messenger arrives at the recipient, could be acted on at once, with only the transmission time to account for.
However, though the Russian Army under Barclay’s administration and his reforms as Minister of War had sought to emulate the French staff discipline, when Kutuzov and his staff of amateurs and idiots took command, all of this professional and modern practice was thrown out in favor of the old, 18th century, personal, entrepreneurial style. Very quickly during the battle, local commanders didn’t know who they were reporting to, their immediate superior (e.g. a brigade to a division to a corps to an army) or whatever self-appointed staff officer from Kutuzov’s staff happened to be riding by. So very quickly all command discipline broke down. This would prove to be a major hindrance to the Russian army as the chaotic battle unfolded. Both Barclay and Bagration, trying to manage their assets, would send back for support only to find their carefully pre-positioned reserves gone, sent somewhere else by Bennigsen or some princeovich from the generalissimo’s staff.
This chaos could be reflected in a wargame (at least on a divisional scale) by rolling dice (or testing randomly) against a command efficiency rating, both for the successful dispatch of an order and for it arriving at its intended recipient.
That being said, individual commanders on both sides could be given various inspirational (or leadership) bonuses to galvanize their troops. Napoleon’s, Murat’s, Ney’s, Barclay’s, Bagration’s ratings would be relatively high. Even Kutuzov’s would be high, at least for inspiring the rank and file. But his competence rating would be zero. I can envision a game in which the Russian player would have to roll a die to see whether Kutuzov could roust himself to go out and inspire the men. You could call it “rolling a drunk.”
In my own game, each of my commanders are given five ratings: Competence, Initiative, Inspiration, Morale (i.e. Courage), and Staff. Depending on the action I want to test, each of these ratings comes into play as a probability or a bonus. So I can have a brave officer who inspires his men (raising their morale quotient), but who constantly makes stupid decisions or won’t do the thing you want him to do. Or I can have one who is brilliantly competent (almost your avatar), but whom his men despise. Or whose initiative is hampered by an incompetent staff who can’t deliver the orders on time, or at all. Of course, my algorithm calculates these outcomes automatically so I don’t have to do the bookkeeping or roll dice. Makes the game run more smoothly. But it also seeks to simulate the frustration of trying to manage an army that’s poorly led or managed.
Orders of Battle
Strengths The following orders of battle for the 7th of September are distilled from a variety of sources. Unit strengths for the French 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 20-50% of their original levels back in June (depending on the corps), when they first crossed the Nieman. The Imperial Guard suffering the least (50%) and the 25th Division of Ney's III Corps suffering the most (down to 20% its starting strength). I have then applied those ratios in this OOB to the reported exact strengths for the French from where they started on June 25 (in Smith).
For the Russians, except for Borosdin's VIII Corps,I could not find actual strength records for nearly all the individual units. As well as Nafizigers' comprehensive OOB, I relied chiefly upon Jonathan Gingrich's 2014 OOB from his now archived site, which itself was compiled from many original Russian archives and sources he credits.Those units of Borosdin's Corps, however, did list specific strength levels for the day of the battle, so I applied those. Otherwise I used an average regimental strengths derived from Hourtoulle's book on Borodino and the Napoleon-Series website (see references below.
It was also confusing as I tried to parse out the units that were present on both sides at the battle. Between the eight OOBs I consulted, there was widespread discontinuity, with some regiments and even entire divisions listed in one that are missing or described as detached in another. The French, for instance, though described by Wikipedia and other narratives as having on the order of 120,000 combatants on the 7th, seem, by my calculations, to have had not quite 105,000 on the morning of 7 Sept..
So, as usual, Caveat the Size of a Planet: Be wary of citing this source for any academic purposes. The orders of battle are presented for wargaming use and discussion.
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, usually, but with hussar regiments this color is that of the pelisse).
Where known, I have also
displayed miniatures of 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. 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. The Guard regiments, for instance, are reported to have
retained their 1804 flags.
Commanders are listed by their official division or brigade assignments. 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. Murat, for instance, only had the titular command of the cavalry, but was busy throughout the day galloping around, commandeering whatever troops were nearby for his reckless charges.
Flags Russian infantry flags are shown with both the colonel's color (the "white" flag), carried by the 1st battalion in the regiment, and the regimental flags, of which each two battalion regiment carried three.
ReferencesNB: Since I prefer to patronize independent bookstores, particularly my favorite, Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon, 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's or 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, which had changed just prior to 1812.
Extremely detailed and useful narrative and orders of battle for all the major engagements of the 1812 Invasion. And a work chock full of operational and anecdotal detail of the entire campaign.
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. However, 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.
Gingerich, Jonathan, 2014, https://kiver.000webhostapp.com/BorodinoOB.html The most detailed list of actual Russian participants in the battle. Thoroughly documented from Russian archives and historical sources. And the only one which gave some specific strength levels per unit (at least of Borosdin's VIII Corps).
Yet another competing order of battle to consider, though without strengths.
Mikaberidze's OOB for the Russian Army, with corps strengths.
An excellent narration with maps of the battle.
Another detailed description of the evolution of Russian infantry during the Napoleonic Wars.
For a detailed description of the amateurishness and ignorance of the Russian officer corps during the Napoleonic Wars.
Description of employment, organization, equipment, and uniforms of the Russian artillery
Fabry's 1903 messaging archives of the first part of the Russian campaign. Digby Smith's own secondary source.