Napoleon began his fateful invasion of Russia in 1812. He had begun the invasion with more than six hundred thousand soldiers, of whom nearly 450,000 were ready for a front-line role. Faced with such power, the Russians spent much of their time in retreat. It was not, however, an acknowledgment of defeat, but rather, a useful expedient. The deeper into Russia that Napoleon had to proceed, the more difficult he found it to keep his men supplied, and the more men he had to leave behind on garrison duty. Retreat gradually whittled away at the French army, while giving the Russians time to assemble new forces. Several times along the way, the Russians stopped to make a stand, costing the French more time and men. The last of these was made at a town called Borodino, about 65 miles from Moscow.
In August, the Russians fought to defend Smolensk, and while it eventually fell, the Russian armies under Barclay and Prince Bagration escaped in good order. Napoleon made an active pursuit, hoping finally to destroy these armies, but while he still outnumbered them, his effective strength was merely 130,000 men. Disease kept many men inactive, and in fact Napoleon himself suffered from illness in this period, soldiering on but operating at much less than his peak performance. Moreover, resupply issues dogged the French more and more the further they marched into Russian territory. Moreover, the size of the forces involved challenged the command and communications standards of the day; in effect, operations were carried out on the scale of an Army Group, but the commanders could not yet coordinate such a force properly. Both sides would lose men, opportunities or positions at times as a result of this fact.
After Smolensk, the two Russian armies were placed under the overall command of Marshal Kutuzov, who meant to defend Moscow by uniting the armies in Napoleon’s path west of the city. He had selected the area south of Borodino, which was dominated by four fortifications. The largest was known as the Great Redoubt, while the three smaller ones to its south are commonly called the Fleches. Well-provisioned with artillery, these fortifications served well as force multipliers.
Napoleon tried to stop these armies before they united. The closest he got, however, was in meeting elements of Bagration’s army at Shevardino on September 5. The fight was fierce, but eventually the Russians retired. Bagration’s army took its position in the southern end of the line at Borodino, including the four fortifications.
After a day of preparation, battle opened at Borodino on September 7. The action began with an artillery exchange, followed by an attack on the town of Borodino, on the northern side of the Kolocha river. The French seized the town, but overreached themselves in victory, exposing themselves in their advance after their retreating opponents and taking serious losses of their own. From Borodino, the French had a position on which to site artillery for use against the Great Redoubt on the other side of the river.
The rest of the morning was spent with infantry and cavalry fighting in the south, primarily over control of the three Fleches and the village of Utitsa. The ebb and flow of fortunes was dramatic, with the Fleches changing hands five times during the course of a cavalry-driven fight between Marshal Ney and Prince Bagration.
In the north, the French under Eugene tried to cross the river to attack the Great Redoubt, but the initial effort was repulsed, and a follow-up was delayed by a Russian cavalry attack on the northern flank of Borodino. The main effect of this attack was the time that Eugene took to ensure that his flank was secure; he did not resume the attack on the Great Redoubt until 2 pm. By 4:00, the French had finally taken the Great Redoubt, and the Russians were in retreat.
Here, Napoleon’s illness came into play. Some of his generals wanted to follow up on this success by sending in fresh troops to destroy the retreating Russians. This would have meant the use of Napoleon’s last trump card, his Guards infantry force. This force numbered at 30,000, and would have dealt a serious blow to the Russians at this juncture, but Napoleon did not want to jeopardize his last-ditch defense while he was so far in enemy territory.
Interestingly, Kutuzov seems to have considered the battle a victory as well, at least initially. Certainly, his letter to the Tsar claimed it to be so, but the fact that he believed it to be true is demonstrated by the anger with which he received the first recommendations that his armies should withdraw. As his men reported in, however, it became clear that his losses exceeded a third of his total manpower, and ammunition was running low. At last, he gave the order for his armies to withdraw to Moscow.
The Russians had lost 45,000 men and retreated. Napoleon had lost about 30,000 and remained on the field. By all standards, it was a French victory, but one with a dangerously Pyrrhic undertone. Russian losses in men and materiel could be replaced far more quickly than French losses, and Napoleon now contemplated an attack on the enemy capital with only 100,000 men available, a small fraction of the original force. As it happened, that attack never came. The Russians picked up some supplies in Moscow and then continued their retreat east, leaving the city open. Napoleon took the city unchallenged on September 14, but the act brought no political resolution. When at last it became clear that the Russians had no intention of surrendering, but were instead preparing new offensives of their own, Napoleon was forced to order a retreat of his own.
Fremont-Barnes, Gregory and Todd Fisher. The Napoleonic Wars: The Rise and Fall of an Empire. Osprey, 2004.
Rothenberg, Gunther. The Napoleonic Wars. Cassell, 1999.
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