Napoleon’s Bloodiest Day: Borodino 1812

published on June 30, 2020

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Russia, 1812

Napoleon invades his former ally with the
largest army Europe has ever seen

But for the French Emperor, the decisive blow
remains frustratingly beyond reach

Russia’s resilience is unlike anything he’s
ever encountered

And as winter closes in, his army begins the
most infamous retreat in history

September 1812

10 weeks had passed since Napoleon invaded
Russia with more than half a million men

The French Emperor wanted a quick victory
over the Russians, one that would force Emperor

Alexander to make peace, and agree to French
terms

But at Vitebsk, and then Smolensk, the outnumbered
Russian army had narrowly escaped his clutches

The holy city of Smolensk had been virtually
destroyed

Napoleon had advanced deep into Russia, and
months of marching had left his army decimated

by disease and exhaustion It was now half
its original strength, and summer was nearly

over

But finally, 70 miles west of Moscow, near
the village of Borodino, the Russians had

turned to offer battle

Napoleon would have a chance to win the decisive
victory, that he believed would end the war

In 1812 Napoleon was master of Europe But
his meteoric rise to power had nearly been

cut short several times – by cannonballs,
bullets… even by Madame Guillotine

His early years are brilliantly retold in
the drama-documentary ‘Napoleon’ – available

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The Russian army, commanded by the 67-year-old,
one-eyed veteran General Kutuzov, occupied

a defensive position across the two main roads
leading from Smolensk to Moscow

General Barclay de Tolly’s First Army was
on the right, its front protected by the Kalatsha

River, steep-banked but shallow and easily
forded

Prince Bagration’s Second Army was on the
left, a more open position, but reinforced

by major earthworks – the Great Redoubt,
and what the French nicknamed, for their shape,

the Flèches – the arrows

Another forward redoubt at Shevardino was
expected to delay the enemy’s advance

Historians still dispute the size of the Russian
army, but it’s likely Kutuzov had around

121,000 men and 680 guns at Borodino

On 5th September, Napoleon’s army began
to arrive from the west: around 130,000 men,

and 585 guns

Napoleon quickly saw that the Shevardino Redoubt
would have to be taken before he could deploy

his army, and ordered an immediate assault

The attack was led by Compans’ 5th Division
of the First Corps, supported by the Polish

Fifth Corps to the south

In several hours of heavy fighting, the redoubt
changed hands more than once

But late that evening the Russians finally
withdrew to their main line, and the redoubt

fell to the French

Its capture had cost them an estimated 4,000
casualties, while the Russians lost around

6,000 men

Napoleon noted how few prisoners were taken
– a worrying sign of the enemy’s unbroken

resolve

Both sides spent the next day preparing for
battle

Marshal Davout, commanding French First Corps,
and widely considered Napoleon’s most able

subordinate, appealed to the Emperor to use
his Corps to make a wide, outflanking attack

to the south…

But Napoleon dismissed the idea as too risky,
and instead began preparing for a massive

frontal assault on the Russian defences

Shortly after dawn on 7th September, Orthodox
priests paraded one of Russia’s holiest

icons, Our Lady of Smolensk, before the Russian
army

It was a stirring sight for many devout, Russian
soldiers, thousands of whom would not live

to see dusk

The battle began at 6 am, as French batteries
opened a deafening cannonade against the Russian

defences

Eugène’s Fourth Corps advanced on Borodino
village, lightly held by Jaegers of the Russian

Imperial Guard

After clearing the village, his infantry crossed
the Kalatsha and advanced towards the Great

Redoubt, but were driven back with heavy losses

The Russians burned the bridge across the
river, but did not launch a counterattack,

and Eugene was able to move cannon into the
village, to put flanking fire on the Great

Redoubt

In the centre, Davout’s First Corps began
its advance against the Flèches, coming under

heavy fire…

While on the right, the Polish Fifth Corps,
ordered to take Utitsa, got held up in the

woods and ravines…

Their slow advance allowed Tuchkov’s Third
Corps to send a division north to reinforce

the Fléches defences

Kutuzov, at his headquarters in Gorki, took
little part in the battle, leaving tactical

decisions to his subordinates

Barclay and Bagration had spent most of the
summer arguing furiously over strategy, but

in the hour of crisis, they put their differences
aside

They could see the main French attack was
falling on the Russian centre and left…

so Barclay ordered General Baggovut’s Second
Corps south to reinforce Bagration

Fighting around the Flèches intensified,
as the French captured one of the earthworks,

only to be driven out by a Russian counterattack
Davout himself was injured in the fighting

as he fell from his dying horse, but he refused
to leave the field

When Russian cavalry counterattacked, Marshal
Murat himself led the French cavalry forward

to meet them

Ney’s Third Corps now joined the attack
on the Flèches

A charge by Russian cuirassiers forced Murat
to take shelter in a square of Württemberg

infantry

Murat, with his flamboyant dress and reckless
courage, had now even made a name for himself

among the Russians – the Cossacks in particular
saw him as a kindred spirit, and were eager

to capture him alive if they could

To the south, Polish troops now took Utitsa,
which the Russians set ablaze before withdrawing

But General Baggovut’s reinforcements arrived
just in time to shore up the Russian flank

Around 10am, Eugène launched another attack
on the Great Redoubt It was briefly captured

by Morand’s First Division, before his men
were thrown out by a ferocious Russian counterattack

The Russian army’s 27-year-old artillery
commander, General Kutaisov, was killed leading

one of these counterattacks A heroic death,
but a blow to the organisation of Russian

artillery for the rest of the day

Fighting continued to rage around the Flèches
earthworks

Some counted as many as six major French assaults,
involving 45,000 troops, with hundreds of

cannon on both sides pouring fire into the
packed ranks More than once, French infantry

fought their way into one of the Russian positions,
only to be driven out again at bayonet point

Junot’s Westphalian Corps was sent forward
in support, helping to clear Russian skirmishers

from the woods to the south

General Bagration was close to the action,
overseeing the defence of the Flèches, leading

forward reinforcements and ordering counterattacks

Around 10am he was hit in the leg by shell
fragments

Mortally wounded, he was carried from the
field

Shaken by the loss of their iconic commander,
the exhausted Russian infantry began to fall

back, and the French finally took the Flèches

Marshal Murat then led forward Friant’s
division – First Corps’ last reserve – supported

by waves of heavy cavalry on both flanks

Russian Grenadiers formed squares to ward
off the French cuirassiers…

While their own Guard cavalry fought the French
in a giant, confused melee… with heavy losses

on both sides

The Russians resisted doggedly, but the combined
onslaught of French artillery, cavalry and

infantry proved irresistible

As the Russians pulled back, Friant’s infantry
fought their way into the village of Semënovskaya

The Russian centre was in disarray… and
seemed close to breaking

Surely now was the time for Napoleon to deliver
the knockout blow

For most of the day, Napoleon remained at
his headquarters near Shevardino

Those around him later said that illness,
as well as the exertions of the long campaign,

had left him tired and irritable

As the Russian centre buckled, Murat and his
staff urged him to send forward his last reserve,

the Imperial Guard

The Emperor refused “If there is another
battle tomorrow,” he asked them, “where

is my army?”

But he did make one exception

Barclay was continuing to move troops from
his unengaged right wing to bolster the centre

As Ostermann-Tolstoy’s Fourth Corps arrived
behind the Russian centre, French observers

feared they were massing for an attack

So Napoleon ordered forward General Sorbier’s
Guard artillery

His batteries opened a devastating fire on
the enemy Yet even as they were mown down

in their ranks, the Russian infantry stood
their ground

On the Russian right wing, all remained quiet,
so General Platov, commander of the Don Cossacks,

proposed that he lead an attack on the lightly-defended
Borodino village

Permission received, Generals Platov and Uvarov
led a force of 8,000 Cossacks and cavalry

across the Kalatsha River

They fell on French and Italian troops around
Borodino with complete surprise, spreading

panic and disorder

Grouchy’s Third Cavalry Corps had to be
pulled back across the river to drive off

the Russians

Russian commanders saw this raid as a missed
opportunity

But it had delayed the next French attack
by two hours… and may have persuaded Napoleon

that he was right to hold back his reserve

Around 3pm, the French launched their biggest
assault yet on the Great Redoubt

Russian gunners targeted the French infantry
advancing to their front, allowing French

cavalry to outflank the Redoubt, and charge
it from the rear

Saxon cavalry were first in, cutting down
Russian infantry and gunners, almost to the

last man

It was an astonishing feat by the horsemen,
against all the rules of war – and testament

to the ferocity of the fighting

As Eugène’s infantry consolidated their
hold on the Redoubt, he ordered forward all

the available cavalry to exploit this success

But they were met, and checked by the last
Russian cavalry reserves

Eugène now implored Napoleon to commit the
Imperial Guard

But again, the Emperor refused “I will
not destroy my Guard,” he told his staff,

“I am 800 leagues from France and I will
not risk my last reserve”

By 5pm, both armies were in a state of utter
exhaustion

The battlefield was strewn with dead and wounded

Some infantry battalions could muster only
a third of their strength

Cavalry could advance no faster than a trot

Gun crews were collapsing with fatigue

As dusk approached, fighting slowly died out
across the battlefield

Napoleon and the French army expected the
fighting to resume the next day

But by dawn, Kutuzov, having learned the full,
horrifying scale of Russian losses, had ordered

a withdrawal

The losses on both sides were enormous

Russian casualties are estimated at 44,000

French losses: around 30,000, including 49
generals – 12 of them killed

Borodino would prove to be the bloodiest single
day of the Napoleonic Wars

The Russian army could not fight another battle
until it had received major reinforcements

And so Kutuzov decided that he must abandon
Moscow

On 15th September, a week after his victory
at Borodino, Napoleon entered the city

He would find it virtually deserted, and already,
the first fires starting to burn

Thank you to the artists Aleksandr Averyanov
and Egor Zaitsev for kind permission to use

their artwork in this video

And thanks as always to all our Patreon supporters
for making this series possible

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