What Kutuzov got was a position near the village of Borodino, 124 kilometres from Moscow. For the Russian staff officers who initially viewed this position from the main highway – the so-called New Smolensk Road – first impressions were very good. Troops standing on either side of the highway would have their right flank secured by the river Moskva and their front protected by the steep banks of the river Kolocha. Problems became much greater when one looked carefully at the left flank of this position, south of the main road. Initially the Russian army took up position on a line which ran from Maslovo north of the road, through Borodino on the highroad itself and down to the hill at Shevardino on the left flank. The centre of the position could be strengthened by the mound just to the south-east of Borodino which became the famous Raevsky Redoubt. Meanwhile the left could be anchored at Shevardino, which Bagration began to fortify.
Closer inspection soon revealed to Bagration that the position on the left assigned to his army was very vulnerable. A ravine in his rear impeded communications. More important, another road – the so-called Old Smolensk Road – cut in sharply behind his line from the west, joining with the main highway to the rear of the Russian position. An enemy pushing down this road could easily roll up Bagration’s flank and block the army’s line of retreat to Moscow. Faced by this danger, Bagration’s army began to withdraw to a new position which abandoned Shevardino and turned sharply southwards from Borodino in a straight line to the village of Utitsa on the Old Smolensk Road. On 5 September Bagration’s troops at Shevardino fought off fierce French attacks in order to cover the redeployment to this new line, losing 5,000–6,000 men and inflicting perhaps slightly fewer casualties on the enemy.
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. Afternoon was passing, and Napoleon needed to take the position so that he could deploy his men to face the rest of the Russian army waiting for him a mile-and-a-half beyond the redoubt. He ordered in Compans’ 5th division of Davout’s 1st Corps, supported by two cavalry corps. At the same time the Emperor ordered Poniatowski’s Polish Corps to circle to the south and take the position from the flank.
The French came on in skirmish formation and poured a terrific fire into the Russians. The latter responded as best they could, with most damage coming from their cannon. The time had come to take the redoubt, and Compans sent in his best troops. At the point of the bayonet, the Terrible 57th Line swept the flanking defenders away and entered the redoubt.
They found not a single man standing left to oppose them. The sun was setting and Prince Bagration mounted an attempt to retake the bloody position. His cavalry had a terrific clash with the French and got the best of it, but could not follow up in the darkness. Bagration claimed to have taken the redoubt and then withdrawn, but their relatively small losses suggest they did little more than skirmishing. What is clear is that the Russians had a stiff fight over a relatively useless position.