Skipping back to the gunpowder age.
Name: The Battle of Borodino, sometimes known as the Battle of the Moscow River
The War: The French Invasion of Russia in 1812, part of the Napoleonic Wars.
When: 7 September 1812
Where: Just outside the village of Borodino, circa 50 miles west of Moscow
Force/Commanders: 130’000 men of the French Grande Armee under the Emperor Napoleon against 120’000 men of the Russian Empire under General Mikhail Kutuzov
“…a continuous slaughter which could be of no avail either to the French or the Russians.”
-Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
“Of the fifty battles I have fought, the most terrible was that before Moscow. The French showed themselves to be worthy victors, and the Russians can rightly call themselves invincible.”
Napoleon’s invasion of Czarist Russia, with a force of men numbering near 300’000, was easily his most ambitious and risky campaign to that date and by early September it was clear why. His supply lines were stretched to their utmost and his army was suffering from shortages in nearly all materials. He had lost close to 120’000 men in three months, the majority of them to starvation and disease. Unable to bring the Russian army to a decisive battle, Napoleon continued to press on and on.
The Russians were in a seemingly endless retreat with their commander, Count Barclay, unwilling to face the French directly. Replaced by Prince Mikhail Kutuzov, thought to be more competent (and in an atmosphere of severe political infighting, more suitable as an ethnic Russian), the Russian army had finally been directed to turn and fight, choosing the area around the village of Borodino to make its stand.
The positions were on a wide front, intersecting several hamlets, rivers and streams. Kutuzov made the first error and it was a big one, placing most of his artillery and a large portion of his men under the former supreme commander Barclay to the north in strong positions that were, more or less, unassailable. His aim was to attack the French left with this force.
However, by strengthening his right to such a degree, his left and centre were left understaffed. Luckily for him, Napoleon, though advised to hit the weak Russian left, choose instead to attack the centre dead on.
The centre of the battlefield was dominated by what became known as the “Bagration fleches“, open-backed, arrow shaped earth works, named after the centre’s commanding general, which offered excellent artillery position. Following an intense cannon bombardment, the attacking French, led by General Ney, walked into a storm of fire and took heavy casualties just gaining the heights. An hours long see-saw fight erupted within the fleches with the three most southerly changing hands several times.
Bagration, in desperation, called for help from Barclay who was still sitting unassailed and overburdened to the north. The former commander immediately sent several regiments and cannon batteries. The fighting became a tangled mess: the immense smoke from both sides obscured the battlefield making tactical deployments almost impossible. Flank attacks and forward charges were made on the spur of the moment and movement was impeded by the mounds of corpses and wounded: after some hours, the Russians pulled back though the blinded French took some time to realise it. Most of Barclay’s reinforcements had been wiped out by French artillery.
Just to the north, another gigantic fight was raging. French Corps under Eugène de Beauharnais had taken Borodino village and held it against counter-attack. Now French troops advanced towards the Raevsky redoubt, the last of the Russian earthwork positions. With heavy artillery support they were able to take it, but faced a pounding from Russian cannon that had been hurriedly brought up by Barclay. A Russian counter-attack reclaimed the redoubt but continued French assaults, made for the rest of the day, kept the Czarist army under a constant hail of musket and cannon fire.
A final massive assault at around 1400, with flank attacks and heavy cavalry support, regained the redoubt for the French but with heavy casualties. Some cavalrymen forced their horses through opening at the front of the fleche, rather than face the quagmire of cannon-shot and dead horses on both flanks. By the time the Russians pulled back from the redoubt, only the artillery of each side was still engaged, the infantry too exhausted to continue fighting.
To the south, limited fighting took place around the village of Utiza.
Much has been made of the varying accounts of the two commanders, which have obviously been colored by political concerns throughout the intervening centuries. Napoleon is noted as having a very bad day: usually a tactical genius, his blunt unimaginative assault on the fleches cost many lives. The Emperor himself stayed well back from the battle, suffering from a cold, and refused to release his Imperial Guard to chase the retreating Russians, preventing a decisive victory. He was perhaps deceived by the haziness of conditions, which prevented him from realising that the Russian were nearly routing.
As for Kutuzov, various accounts place him a half-hour from the battlefield, with most of the decisions being made by subordinate commanders. The noted theorist Carl Von Clausewitz, then a Russian Colonel, claimed the Prince was in a trance for most of the battle. Kutuzov had also kept a large proportion of the Russian artillery in reserve, a tragic mistake that gave the French a huge advantage in firepower.
Close to 80’000 soldiers on both sides had been killed or wounded.
Why It’s Decisive – Effect On That War
Both sides claimed victory after the battle though Napoleon, having taken the field, had a better right to. The Russians withdrew again, abandoning Moscow to the grande armee. The burning of the city and the five weeks wait there during the beginning of a bitter Russian winter eliminated the chance of a French victory over Russia. Having lost the bulk of his army at Borodino, to starvation, to disease and desertion, Napoleon was forced to make a long retreat back into central Europe with a newly resurgent Russian army biting at his heels all the way.
Borodino and its aftermath, specifically the failure to hunt down and destroy the retreating Russian army, insured that Napoleon would not be able to defeat the Czars.
Little. In fact, the battle is more noted for the brutish unimaginative attacks made by both sides rather than any new tactical manoeuvre. Sheer firepower and mass of men won the day for France, at a terrible cost in life. The defensive positions set-up by the Russians, and their general strategy, while not new, demonstrate the immense power of the Russian defensive doctrine.
Borodino ended Napoleon. His battered, starving, reduced army could just about take an undefended Moscow following the slaughter, but could not win the war against Russia, The long retreat and the losses that the grande armee sustained (famously illustrated in this graph by Charles Minard) totally changed the geo-political situation of the continent.
Vassal states, most notably in Italy and Germany began to rebel and break away from French control. Generals attempted coups back in France while Anglo-Spanish forces continued a constant march forward in Iberia. Napoleon suffered a decisive defeat at Leipzig in 1813, and his drastically reduced forces could only fend off the Allied advances on Paris until March 1814.
Napoleon would be back (I’ll be covering Waterloo at a later date) but his decisive failure was in restraining his forces after Borodino, not taking the opportunity to destroy Russia’s army. If he had, it might have engineered a Russian surrender, or at least favourable peace terms. His army would still have suffered, but would have had greater strength to face his other enemies. A greater victory at Borodino would surely have resulted in the continuing hegemony of Imperial France in Europe.
In National Consciousness
While Waterloo quickly overtook Borodino as the defining battle of the period in western European eyes, Russia continues to view the slaughter as one of its most pivotal military moments. The constant political shifts of the nation, from Czarist to Soviet to democratic, has resulted in much misappropriation of the battle for propaganda purposes. The Soviet Union especially, used the battle and its memory as a rallying call during the Second World War, hyping up the example of a Russian army blunting a European assault.
In fact, Borodino Fields, a crucial battle against Nazi Germany, took place close to the 1812 field with similar results for the invaders (though, despite being much longer, the 1941 battle had lighter casualties). Soviet Russia also used the name of Bagration, who died shortly after Borodino from wounds sustained, on one of their most succesful advances of the Great Patriotic War.
The battle has its place in the arts, most notably in Leo Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace, but also in poetry and paint. The 1812 Overture, one of the most famous pieces of orchestra music ever composed, commemorates the battle. The fleches are still preserved in their original state and reenactments are held their every year. The battle and the village even have enough fame to lend their names to a minor planet/asteroid, discovered by a Russian astronomer in 1977.
Russia, a nation that has a divisive relationship with its past, takes care to remember such events.
For more of NFBs Decisive Battles check out the index here.