“One is surprised — even shocked — at the relative compactness of the site, the scene of the worst effusion of blood in the nineteenth century. Between dawn and dusk that day in 1812, an area of eight square miles saw some 70,000 fatalities, both sides included. It was the equivalent…. to a jumbo-jet load of passengers crashing every five minutes for eight hours with no survivors; a thought that gives me reason to pause awhile.”
– Dr. David G. Chandler on the battlefield of Borodino, viewed in August of 1970.
It was dubbed by no less an authority than Napoleon himself as “The most terrible of all my battles”. The battle of Borodino took place on today’s date, September 7 exactly two hundred and one years ago in 1812. And it was a truly bloody battle waged with artillery playing a particularly destructive role and without any of the dashing flanking maneuvers of past Napoleonic engagements. For this was the climactic brawl of the climactic campaign of Napoleon’s career, a campaign which would spell his certain doom right up front where the rest of the Europe which he had tyrannized since 1800, could see it unmistakably.
Napoleon in Russia, Tsar Alexander I, and Kutuzov
Napoleon was by 1812 the master of Europe. But like all megalomaniacs he had to have it ALL. He sought to force the European continent into the “Continental System” by which he hoped to close all Europe to trade with the Brits. But the Russian Empire under her Tsar, Alexander I was a big fat hole in that plan.
Thus he undertook to invade Russia in June of 1812. He thought a few weeks would bring a decisive enagement with the Russians, he would beat them, and that would be it. But he didn’t reckon on the Tsar’s or the Russian people’s reaction to an invasion of “Holy Russia.” Against this, they would turn very nasty indeed, and no simple battle would be enough to force them out. This mystical
bond with “Holy Russia” was enough to force the Czar to appoint Mikhail Illiaronovich Kutuzov (above) to the command of the Russian forces. The Czar had hated Kutuzov ever since he had been so right at the Battle of Austerlitz, and the Czar so wrong. But the cry amongst the Russian nobility to appoint a “true Russian” to command the Russian forces instead of Barclay de Tolly (an ethnic German), who had commanded up until then, had become too intense to ignore. So the fat, one-eyed Kutuzov was brought on board.
Borodino – The Big Showdown???
Barclay had several times withdrawn the Russian forces from Napoleon’s grasp in search of more favorable ground on which to defeat the Great Napoleon on the battlefield. This had the quite incidental, but ultimately decisive effect of drawing Napoleon into the vast interior of Russia, wherein his supply lines were stretched dangerously far, and he was like a goose with his neck on the chopping block. And as far as I can tell, only Kutuzov realized this. But the great battle everyone had been demanding had to be fought to “save Russia’s honor”. So Kutuzov chose to fight it out on the field of Borodino, some 70 miles west of Russia’s holy capital city of Moscow. It was hardly an ideal spot, but as Clausewitz said: “If someone wants to fight a battle without delay.. it is obvious he must take what he can get!” Hoping to inspire his men to greater effort Napoleon issued a decree: “Soldiers! Here is the battle you have so long wished for… let the remotest posterity cite your conduct on this day… let it be said of you ‘that person was at the great battle fought under the walls of Moscow’!” But Georges de Chambray says “The minds of the soldiers were not disposed for enthusiasm; this proclamtion was coldy received.”
Murderous Progress of the Battle
The map above (“Click” on it to enlarge) gives an account of the battles progress: it began with a murderous French artillery barrage on the south end off the line against the Fleches commanded by Prince Bagration, who was killed in the assault It was a very uninspired effort by Napoleon, a simple frontal assault. The fleches were taken, followed by the Russian positions further south. The French then assaulted the “Great” or “Raevski Redoubt” a heavily fortified position at the center of the Russian lines. Following an unsuccessful Russian counter-attack to relieve the pressure on that position, the French turned their full attention to the Great Redoubt, finally taking it by 4:00 p.m. that day.
The Destruction on the Battlefield , and the Escape of the Russian Army
The scene to be found inside the Great Redoubt was truly horrible. The Russian artillery (pictured above) had fought bravely with incredible tenacity, but had payed a heavy price. According to Eugene Labaume: “The interior of the Great Redoubt presented a horrid picture. The dead were heaped on one another. The feeble cries of the wounded were scarcely heard amid the surrounding tumult. The parapets, demolished, had their embrasures entirely destroyed. In the midst of this scene of carnage I discovered the body of a Russian cannoneer, decorated with three crosses. In one hand he held a broken sword, and with the other, firmly grasped the carriage of the gun at which he had so valiantly fought.”
But the Russian army had managed to escape!! This was a key moment when the dash and elan of the young General Bonaparte was replaced by the unimaginative older Emperor. His plan of attack was essentially a frontal assault, with no attempt to turn the Russian flank, and throughout the battle, he just sat on a chair with his leg propped up on a drum (above), taking very little of the kind of active role which he would have taken in the past. And at the moment late in the battle, when he might have finally caught up with and destroyed the Russian Army, he refused to commit the Imperial Guard, his finest troops in his arsenal. He was unwilling to commit his last reserves, so far from home. This was a cautious attitude which he would have tossed to the winds in the past. And it cost him here his one chance to break his enemy by finishing off his army.
He would move his men into Moscow following the battle, but the Russians burnt the city to the ground (right) And the damn Tsar refused to react to the news of his “loss” at Borodino by negotiating for peace. He had warned Napoleon’s ambassador before the invasion that he would be the last to sheath his sword… Napoleon had not reckoned on the effect that his violation of “Holy Russia” would have on the Tsar and his people… there would be NO peace talks this time as there had been after previous defeats. Napoleon was thus forced to retreat through the freezing snow of the Russian winter. He had won a victory at Borodino, but it had been purely by virtue of being the last man standing. And that wiley old veteran Kutuzov had been the only one who saw Napoleon’s exposed position. In the words of Clausewitz: “….the frivolous Kutuzov responded with brazen arrogance and endless boasting and so sailed with good fortune through the enormous gap that was already opening in the French lines.”
“History of the Russian Expedition” – Georges de Chambray, Pairs, 1828. Transl. by unknown scholar, viewed at the Collections Deposit Library, University of Texas at Austin in 1992.
“Relations and Circumstances of the Russian Campaign of 1812” – Eugene Labaume, London, 1815. Translator unknown; volume in Humanities Research Library, University of Texas at Austin.
by Dr. David G. Chandler, Greenhill Books, London, 1994.
by Alan Palmer, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1967
by Carl von Clausewitz, Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey, 1992