Historical Article: Battle of Borodino, 7 September 1812
Celebrating the 200th Anniversary of the large and epic battle, Martin Lampon pulls out the history books and lectures about what exactly took place on that day.
"The Melee". French Carabiniers and Russian Hussars at the Battle of Borodino. - Courtesy of Keith Rocco
Background to the Russian Campaign of 1812
Why did Napoleon decide to invade Russia? Surely, attacking this huge state was doomed to failure. By 1812 the French empire under Napoleon had already reached its limits. Britain's control of the world's oceans constrained the French Empire to mainland Europe and Napoleon's “Continental System”—designed to exclude European trade with Britain—was slowly bringing bankruptcy to many countries. Russia was one country that openly flouted this system, much to Napoleon's irritation.
Emperor Napoleon of France.
The relationship between France and Russia was already strained. In trying to cement an uneasy alliance with Russia, Napoleon, after divorcing his wife Josephine in 1809, asked Tsar Alexander I of Russia for his younger sister Anna's hand in marriage. This request was greeted with a horrified silence. At the same time, Napoleon also sent a similar request to Emperor Franz of Austria to marry the Grand Duchess Marie-Louise. With the Russians stalling, Napoleon eventually married his Austrian princess to the relief of Russia, but the marriage snub was an obvious insult.
The French creation of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw on Russia's western border after the conclusion of Napoleon's campaigns in Europe (in several of which France and Russia actively fought each other), was seen as a step towards a new Polish state. Russia would not tolerate such a state and Napoleon didn’t rule out the possibility.
Alexander I, Tsar of Russia.
Sensing that the “Continental System” was not being enforced properly throughout his empire, Napoleon annexed many coastal trading ports and territories in Northern Europe in 1810 with a view to administering them himself. One of the territories was the Duchy of Oldenburg, which was ruled by Duke Friedrich August, uncle to the Tsar of Russia. The Tsar argued that the status of Oldenburg was guaranteed by the Treaty of Tilsit, signed by Russia and France in 1809; and if the situation changed, the state would revert to Russia. Napoleon's ongoing tinkering of the map of Europe was bringing a conflict with Russia ever closer.
Over the next year the situation between Russia and France dissolved into a diplomatic slanging match, with Russia occupying several small eastern European states, and both countries adopting a tit-for-tat policy for taxing each other's trade goods. Both France and Russia also actively courted alliances with other neighbouring states in an attempt to isolate each other. Sweden was promised territory by both sides, but eventually came down on Russia's side. Austria and Prussia were pressed into defensive alliances with France, providing troops to strengthen the border garrisons with Russia.
An event that surprised and enraged Napoleon, and some hoped may have stopped his ambitions in the East, was an armistice between the Russian and Turkish empires in July 1811. Napoleon had long stirred-up trouble between the two, and this armistice would now free up many more Russian troops for any potential campaign that Napoleon had planned in Russia. But the continuous build-up of forces in Eastern Europe was dragging both sides to an inevitable clash. As 1812 began diplomacy continued, but either side was too far entrenched to give ground. Ambassadors of both countries were now largely engaged in overt spying, and with Napoleon and Alexander leaving their capitals to take up command of their armies in June, the die was cast.
Napoleon Invades Russia
The armies involved in the campaign of 1812 were by far the largest the world had yet seen. Napoleon's initial invasion force contained not only French troops, but had contingents from every state and nation under French influence and numbered approximately 500,000 men. The Russians, by contrast, could field up to approximately 300,000 troops initially, supplemented with reinforcements drawn in from the other fronts of the Russian Empire.
The French plan was relatively simple. The main army was to cross the River Niemen at Kovno on 23/24 June, occupying Vilnius a few days later, then to push into Russia as far as Minsk. There was no intention at the start of the campaign to advance on Moscow: but to engage and destroy Russian forces early, forcing the Tsar to sue for peace. The flanks of the main body were to be protected by smaller armies that would stop Russian forces from linking up, and keep an eye on the lines of supply and communication as the main army advanced. Unfortunately, the French were unable to stop Russian forces escaping eastwards, and after a few weeks of pursuit no decisive engagement had been achieved. The Russian plan of initially falling back had drawn Napoleon into a conflict similar to his war in Spain; a struggle of the entire Russian population fighting the French invader, drawing the French army ever further into the vast Russian landscape. This strategy drained the manpower of the French-led armies at an alarming rate.
At this time, all was not at ease in the Russian command. There were some that advocated a more aggressive defence of the homeland rather than relying on a scorched earth policy. The appointment of Barclay de Tolly, over his senior Bagration, as Russian army commander was also frowned upon, as he was seen as a 'non-Russian'. On 16/18 August it was decided that the now joined Russian armies should make a stand at Smolensk. This was only designed to be a delaying action before continuing the retreat eastwards, and did give the much larger French army a bloody nose. But mutiny was the growing feeling in Russia after constant withdrawals, and this led to Barclay de Tolly being replaced as army commander by the aged Field Marshal Kutuzov.
Kutuzov's new aggressive policy could not be implemented immediately, and a suitable defensive position had to be found to face the still numerically superior French army. The site in and around the village of Borodino, within a mere 100 miles of Moscow, was selected. This also gave Napoleon the opportunity he had been waiting for, to deliver a knock-out blow to the Russian forces and end the campaign of 1812.
Napoleon's Marshals survey the battlefield.
The French advance to Borodino was initially held-up whilst the French forces commanded by the flamboyant Joachim Murat assaulted an earthworks redoubt at Shevardino—a village south west of Borodino. After two days of heavy fighting the Russians eventually retreated to the village of Utitza, on the left flank of the main Borodino position. There is still some debate as to why the Russians fought in this action, as the ground was very exposed and hard to defend. It is possible Kutuzov insisted that the redoubt was constructed as a delaying tactic, whilst the main Russian army prepared for the main battle. In any case, the Russian troops forced to retreat from there were now vulnerable to a flank attack from the French.
The Battle of Borodino 1812
The armies and battlefield
Kutuzov makes his battle plans.
The Battle of Borodino was one of the largest Napoleonic battles. The French army numbered around 130,000 men and with approximately 600 cannons, with troops from France, Italy, the Grand Duchy of Warsaw and allied states of the Confederation of the Rhine. The Russians were able to commit about 120,000 men and 650 cannon to the battle. The French did not have a large numerical advantage but the quality of Napoleon's army was still considered to be better, and this factor could still influence the outcome of the battle.
The battlefield map of Borodino, 7th September 1812.
The Russian defensive position at Borodino stretched between the villages of Borodino to the north and Utitza in the south, on the old and new post roads from Smolensk to Moscow. In between these villages were a series of redoubts and earthworks that the French would have to assault head-on in order to win the battle. Fearing a flanking manoeuvre to the north, Kutuzov placed troops under former army commander Barclay de Tolly in very strong defensive positions. This did secure his right flank, but a large percentage of his artillery took no part in the battle as this position was never attacked.
Battlefield of Borodino.
On the 7th of September the French army attacked. Instead of a strong flanking attack on the Russian left flank at Utitza, as suggested by his marshals, Napoleon instead chose to first assault the earthworks ordered to be constructed by the Russian commander Bagration. These arrow-shaped earthworks, known as the “Bagration fleches”, in the centre of the Russian defensive position proved to be very costly to take. The flèches changed hands several times in the morning of the battle. But by midday and after very heavy losses on both sides, the Russian forward defensive position was held by the French. Would Napoleon now release his Imperial Guard to secure the victory?
Russian infantry are pushed out of the flèches
Attack on the Raevsky (Great) redoubt
Whilst the battle raged in the centre, the French left flank commander Eugène de Beauharnais, the son of Napoleon's former wife Josephine, began his attack on the village of Borodino. The village fell quickly to the French, who then pressed on with the assault on the northern most defences known as the “Raevsky” redoubt. This action again saw furious fighting, with the earthworks changing hands several times. But this time, crucially, the Russians retained control of the defensive position by the end of the morning. The fighting here was particularly fierce as the ground was in a crossfire from artillery of both sides—especially the French. Whole battalions and brigades were simply destroyed in the struggle.
French heavy cavalry attack Russian Grenadiers.
The Russian left flank at Utitza, which had been correctly identified by Napoleon's marshals as the Russians' weakest spot, was at first defended by mainly light infantry and militia due to the heavily wooded and marshy terrain. The French attack here was assigned to the Polish troops under Poniatowsky. The assault was slow going, but the village of Utitza did eventually fall to combined Polish and Westphalian attacks. After the village fell the fighting on this flank then became mainly a skirmishing and artillery duel for the rest of the day. With Napoleon reluctant to release any extra troops to support Poniatowsky, the difficult ground and Russian reserve forces sent to the area caused the advance on this flank to stall and become a stalemate. The opportunity for the French to outflank the Russian army was lost.
Russian Guard Infantry attack.
Early in the morning, the Russians had discovered a ford across the Kolocha River at the northernmost position on their right flank. The Russian cavalry commander, Platov, devised a plan to send an attack around the French left flank and into their rear. Unfortunately, Kutuzov only thought of this attack as a feint and did not support it with any significant numbers of troops. The Russian cavalry were indeed able to ride around the French flank, but without infantry support, were not able to achieve anything by themselves. The appearance of this cavalry force on the French left flank did, however, delay the French assaults on the Raevsky redoubt, as troops were diverted to deal with this potential threat. This also gave the Russians vital time to reinforce the defensive positions in and around the redoubt. Eventually, the Russian cavalry had to retire back to their starting positions in the Russian line. This flanking attack could certainly be looked on as a missed opportunity for the Russians to turn the French flank and win the battle. Did this bold manoeuvre influence Napoleon's decision on when and where to commit his guard?
French and Russian cavalry clash.
The last attack on Raevsky redoubt
Early afternoon saw the French renew their attack on the Raevsky redoubt to the south of Borodino village. Again, the fighting was fierce with all arms (infantry, cavalry and artillery) thrown in. However, the redoubt eventually fell to the French. But the effort exhausted the troops and no effective pursuit of the retreating Russians could be made. Whole formations of troops on both sides were decimated, with huge numbers of Russian artillery crews dying manning their guns rather than retreating. The cost to the French of capturing the redoubt was enormous. Napoleon eventually ordered his troops to fall back to their starting positions, allowing the Russians to reoccupy the blood-soaked ground.
French and Russian cavalry in combat behind Raevsky redoubt.
Shall I commit the guard?
With the battle effectively in the balance by mid-afternoon, many French commanders urged Napoleon to now commit the Imperial Guard and assault the Russian position in the centre. It was hoped that the appearance of the guard would raise French morale for one final, victorious attack. Napoleon, after consultation, was reluctant to commit his last reserve and ordered it to hold its ground. Consequently, 20,000 elite French troops played no part in a battle they could have significantly influenced.
The final acts
After many hours of desperate fighting, both armies were by now utterly exhausted. The Russian central position had fallen back to another ridge behind the Bagration fleches—this ridge line was now held by Russian guard formations until the evening of the battle. Constant French bombardment caused huge casualties; but with Napoleon unwilling to commit the guard and with the rest of the French army spent, the battle soon began to peter out. The next day, the Russian army resumed its retreat towards Moscow knowing that it had severely weakened Napoleon's army. Thus, having control of the battlefield, Napoleon declared victory but at an enormous price.
Kutuzov decides to disengage from the French.
The Battle of Borodino proved to be one of the bloodiest battles of the Napoleonic Wars, with an estimated 60,000 to 65,000 combined casualties for the day's fighting. Arguments will continue to rage on about whether Napoleon should have released the Imperial Guard for one final attack to break the Russian lines; but, being so far from France without a viable reserve, it would have been a brave decision to make.
The battle itself can only be looked on as either a draw or a pyrrhic victory for the French. Ultimately, Napoleon was still able to occupy Moscow, but failed to bring the Tsar to the peace table. This eventually led to the catastrophic retreat of the Grand Armée from during the coming winter. As a consequence, the European powers of Prussia and Austria soon reneged on their alliances with France, declaring war once the full extent of the destruction of the French army was known. Only approximately 25,000 men of the French army re-crossed the Russian border alive, and these troops were in a terrible state. The steady decline and fall of Napoleon's French Empire over the next two and a half years had been set in motion.
Article written by: Martin Lampon, Staff Writer
About Martin Lampon
Martin Lampon is a graphic designer who has been a wargamer, board gamer and PC gamer for nearly 40 years. He has a particular interest in the history of the Napoleonic Wars, but will do anything to pursue knowledge in military history subjects of any era.
Forum username: MartNick