Borodino, Battle of (7 September 1812) Part I

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Borodino, the only major set-piece battle during Napoleon’s campaign in Russia, was fought between the Grande Armée and the Russian armies of General Mikhail Kutuzov, around the village of Borodino, a small hamlet on the banks of the Kaluga River near the confluence with the Moskva, about 115 kilometers west of Moscow. The battle is best known for the tenacity with which the two evenly matched opponents fought and for the horrendous carnage that resulted in this extremely bloody—and yet inconclusive— battle, whose losses exceeded those of every other engagement of the period apart from Leipzig in 1813.

Having defeated the retreating Russians at Smolensk and capturing that city in August, Napoleon closely pursued the 1st and 2nd Armies of the West, under Kutuzov, who succeeded General Barclay de Tolly as commander in chief on 20 August. While Barclay urged immediate confrontation with the French, then steadily advancing east, Kutuzov decided instead to withdraw to Borodino, there to make a stand, a decision made as a result of political pressure urging the defense of Moscow. The main part of the Grande Armée duly followed, with an Austrian auxiliary corps under Karl Philipp Fürst zu Schwarzenberg and French general Jean Reynier observing Alexander Tormasov’s 3rd Army of Observation and Pavel Chichagov’s Army of the Danube far to the south, while Marshal Macdonald’s corps kept watch on the Russians situated far to the north.

Although the French had left the vicinity of Smolensk with 156,000 men as recently as 19 August, by the time they reached the outskirts of Borodino on 5 September they were down to 133,000 fit for action (86,000 infantry, 28,000 cavalry, and 16,000 artillerists) and 587 guns, all units depleted by disease and generally wearied by the laborious march deep into Russia that had begun on 22 June. The Russians mustered about 155,000 men, of whom 115,000 were regulars (the remainder were Cossacks and militia) plus they were more rested and enjoyed a numerical superiority in artillery, with 640 guns. Nevertheless, the Russian total included a proportion of virtually untrained militia known as Opelchenie, about the same number of new recruits in the regular army, and a large body of Cossacks who could not be relied upon to execute orthodox charges against formed troops. Thus, the two armies stood on approximately equal terms.

The French advance guard made contact with the Russians on 5 September when they came in sight of the Shevardino redoubt, a forward earthwork manned by General Dmitry Neverovsky’s division, supported by light infantry and cavalry, which the Russians had constructed about 3 miles southwest of Borodino. The French could tolerate no such hindrance to their general advance, so early on the evening of the fifth a division, supported by cavalry, seized the redoubt at bayonet point after an hour’s exchange of musketry and artillery fire. Entering the entrenchment, the assailants found it choked with bodies. Driven out again by Russian grenadiers, the French finally took possession when, around midnight, the defenders retired after the place was pronounced untenable.

On the following day, the sixth, the main body of the Grande Armée appeared along the New Post Road and began a reconnaissance of Kutuzov’s position. There was to be no fighting on this day; instead, both sides spent the day reorganizing, deploying their infantry and cavalry, siting their artillery, and planning the forthcoming battle. Having established a respectable line of earthwork field fortifications, Kutuzov arranged a religious procession to inspire his very devout troops to fight for “Holy Russia.” He then rested his men, satisfied to await the French onslaught.

Russian dispositions were based on a largely static defense, with their right under the command of Barclay de Tolly and their left under General Peter Bagration. Kutuzov established his line on a ridge that looked down on the Semenovskaya creek, with his forces straddling Borodino in his center. His right wing faced north, running parallel to the south bank of the shallow Kalatsha River as far as its confluence with the Moskva; his left, facing west, extended southward from the formidable Rayevsky (or “Great”) Redoubt (mounting eighteen pieces of artillery and protected to the front by “wolf pits” dug the previous day) through the ruined village of Semenovskaya, then past three arrowshaped earthworks known as flêches to the village of Utitsa, which sat atop a knoll on the Old Post Road, beside which stood thick woodland. Much of Kutuzov’s position was covered by heavy brush and trees, not least the Utitsa woods. Large bodies of Cossacks, unreliable against formed bodies of troops but effective in harassment, scouting, and postbattle pursuit, protected both flanks. Finally, light infantry extended along the entire front. Several brooks intersected the area; these, and the knolls, woods, and ridges at various points along a position measuring only 8 kilometers long, left exceptionally little room for maneuver; conversely, there would be plenty of opportunity for massed artillery to wreak havoc in the tightly packed formations on both sides.

Apart from the strongpoint captured by the French at Shevardino, the field fortifications along the main Russian line, though rapidly constructed, were by no means unimpressive. Earthwork structures manned with artillery stood around Borodino, near Utitsa, and on the right flank to cover the fords of the Kalatsha River. The two most formidable, however, were the Rayevsky Redoubt and the flêches built by Bagration. The Russian reserves were kept close to the front line, a great mistake as they were to make an ideal target for massed French artillery.

With his left anchored on woods and his center strongly fortified, the Russians probably expected Napoleon to turn their right, and hence the relatively stronger dispositions around Gorki, the site of Kutuzov’s headquarters. Napoleon, however, decided against making his main thrust against the Russian right on account of the high banks of the Kalatsha. He also rejected Marshal Davout’s proposal for a wide, sweeping maneuver to the south with 40,000 men, intended to outflank Kutuzov’s left—a plan fraught with potential difficulties and yet if successful, possibly decisive. Having insufficient troops to both pin the enemy and execute a wide turn around Kutuzov’s flank may have dissuaded Napoleon from adopting the plan. Whatever the reason, the Emperor, suffering from a heavy cold, failed to display his usual energy and opted for a simple strategy: a massive frontal assault on the Russian center and left-center. Specifically, the main thrust would be directed against the area between Borodino to the north and the flêches to the south, with Prince Poniatowski’s V Corps, on its own, attempting a small flanking movement against the Russian left. This was perhaps the least imaginative and potentially the costliest method of defeating the Russians.

The French were in position by 5:00 A.M. on 7 September, but at sunrise, through some oversight made the previous day, the batteries were found to have been constructed out of range of the Russian line. Once they had been repositioned to within 1,300 yards of the enemy it was precisely 6:00 A.M., at which time 100 guns opened a massive bombardment against Bagration’s positions. The French enjoyed some initial success, as IV Corps (mostly Italians) under Prince Eugène de Beauharnais, operating on the left of the attack, captured Borodino in a rapid assault. Barclay de Tolly’s counterattack managed to retake the village, but finding the place untenable, the general ordered his troops to withdraw across the Kalatsha and burn the bridge behind them.

Meanwhile, two divisions under Davout reached Semenovskaya further south, while at 6:30 the French made their first assault on the flêches, briefly taking one of them. Having lost heavily from artillery fire in the process, however, they soon retreated before a Russian counterattack with bayonets. Davout had his horse shot from under him and was carried off the field semiconscious. On the extreme right, Poniatowki began his efforts at turning the Russian left.He succeeded in capturing Utitsa and part of the woods to the north of the village, aided by the transfer of some of the Russian troops in this sector to the area around the hard-pressed flêches. General Alexander Tuchkov was killed in the seesaw battle around Utitsa, where the Poles, despite gallant efforts, found themselves unable to achieve a breakthrough. Kutuzov reacted accordingly, shifting large numbers of reserves from his as-yet unengaged right wing in order to reinforce his center and left.


Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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