The battle of Borodino was fought on the 7th of September 1812 near the western side of Moscow. Napoleon had an intention to invade the Russian country with an aim of making the Russians to declare war. He wanted to show the Russians that the French were strong and that he would defeat the Russians in a decisive manner. This military strategy according to Napoleon would force the Russians to come to the peace table. According to analysts, Napoleon claimed to have won as it was never a decisive defeat. The people of Moscow did not come to the peace table. The resulting poor performance in the battle led to the decline in the strength of the Napoleon Empire. In fact, the Grand Armée was destroyed. As such, it is relevant to trace back in history and explore the background of this battle as well as tactics employed by both sides in order to critically analyze one of the crucial battles in the European history.
From June 1812, we, the Napoleon army started the invasion of Russia. Napoleon wanted to divide the Russian army and deal with each of the groups individually. The series of events that followed this attempt to divide the Russian army led to the failure of our army. On the 28th of July that year, the Russian’s camps were deserted and we found it difficult to prevent the union of the Russian army (Duffy, 1972, 8). The Russian armies came together again in Smolensk.
The decisive confrontation in the battlefield of the campaign almost came at Smolensk. Both our army and the Russian armies decided to play the offensive part when we all found ourselves near one another; our army was stretched out in Orsha and Dnieper in the southern part and Divina to the northern part. Napoleon’s plan was to take the army to the south bank and move towards the east to Smolensk with a hope that his army could attack the Russian army from behind and close the roads leading to Moscow (Duffy, 1972, 23). He expected that this maneuver would force the Russian army to fight or retreat to St. Petersburg. This plan, however, did not work out well.
The first confrontation happened in Krasnyi and led to the tactical retreat to the city of Moscow to seek reinforcement. Napoleon wasted a number of chances in Old Town in an excuse that he was waiting for more armed forces to arrive. We the French army was consequently got off-guard Valutino on the 19th of August. Barclay de Tolly searched for a suitable position to launch a defense. The commander had then been replaced but he continued serving. The authority of Barclay de Tolly was greatly undermined by top army officers who had been angered by the long-term retreat and by the frequent nationalism that was common among the old officers in the army (Reid, 2002, 37). The commanders resented taking orders from what they termed as a foreigner as Barclay de Tolly had a Scottish ancestry. His family had however settled for a long time in the city of Livonia which was part of the Russian Empire (Duffy,1972, 38).The leadership of Barclay continued for a longer period after he had been replaced. The leadership instructed Vyazma to supply reserves that were burned toward the end of August. Barclay wanted to fight at Tsarevo but Kutuzov convinced the army not to obey the decision. Barclay decided that a retreat was better and he continued with it in an effort to find a place to launch a defense. The Russian army reached Gzhatsk and this made Kutuzov change his mind citing the reason that the place was too big for the relatively small army.
The search continued and the army through Colonel Toll’s suggestion finally agreed on the village of Borodino. The retreat continued for a few days with some small fights in Gzhatsk and Gridnevo. The most important part of the Russian army was already in Borodino (Duffy, 1972, 45). We the French army arrived on the 5th of September. At the same time, the Russian army organized itself in the southern part of the river Kolotcha spreading all the way from Shervardino to Moskva. Borodino was not part of the Russian line but a small part of the army that was posted on the village to start the war on the 7th of September (Duffy, 1972, 56).
The French Army
The exact number of the French army was unknown. However, some of the rough estimates indicate that there were 103000 men in the infantry and about 30000 men in the cavalry. The battles along the way had, however, reduced the number to 110000. We were stretched a lot in the battle of Borodino. Napoleon had an extra 180000 men in Smolensk which enabled the French army to receive a frequent reinforcement (Van Creveld, 2004, 58). This, however, did not mean that we out-numbered the Russian troops. The Grand Armée’s march across Russia caused confusion even to the army (Palmer, 1972, 60). It was an international force having a unique arrangement to guard as Imperial Guard. Lefebvre and Mortier commanded the Old and the Young guard respectively.
The arrangement of the army was as followed;
The corps were under the command of Marshall Devout and were divided into five. The first division was, however, part of the reserve and also in the second group together with the third group (Palmer, 1972, 68).
The second group was under Marshal Ney who commanded three divisions (Mikaberidze, 2011, 70). There were two French and one German. This troop was on the left side of Devout participated in the attacks
III. The third group was made up of mainly Italians with some Croatians and Bavarians. Italian guards were given the role of infantry. They were to fight on the left of the French line (Mikaberidze, 2011, 79).
The corps were under the command of Josef and mainly consisted of Polish. The group was organized into a total of three brigades of cavalry and corps on the French right (Palmer 1972, 85). There were other groups organized in the order of the requirement of the day.
The Russian Army
Just like the French army at Borodino, the exact number of Russians in the battle Borodino is unknown. The figures approximated range between 100000 to 160 000. We had been believed for a long time that the Russian army was much smaller than the French army and that the overall number in the battlefield included militia and Cossacks who were not competent in the military matters. The kind of command structure that the Russians used in Borodino consisted of generals (Palmer, 1972, 90). General Kutuzov was at the top of the hierarchy though analysts have argued that his contribution and efficiency was not of significance. He stayed in the headquarters most of the time and approved the decisions of the subordinates. Barclay and Bagration were below Kutozov in command. Barclay army held the northern part while Bagration held the south. The two troops were then further divided into two corps groups which were comprised of a more decentralized command system, staff, and headquarters (Palmer, 1972, 101). In total there were four corps that actively participated in military operations. Noteworthy, at the beginning of the battle, the Russian army was far much stronger than the French army.
Leaders of the Russian army employed a simple plan (Mikaberidze, 2011, 103). Specifically, they indented to strengthen Borodino and assault the French forces. If the plan had worked they would have locked Napoleon in the Russian world with a desperately defeated army. The fortifications came in two sets, one was Great Redoubt which was in the central location of the Russian line and the second was the flinches on the hill between Utitza and Great Redoubt.
The combat on the flinches was the one to go first. The construction was on a hill at the center between Kamenka and Semeyonovskii (Palmer, 1972, 98). There were to be three of them in the front and another one behind. This construction was to hoodwink the French that there were only two which appeared in the front. Lunettes were at the front and were made up of four sides (Mikaberidze, 2011, 120).
The work on Great Redoubt began early on September 6th (Mikaberidze, 2011, 123). This was built on the southeast of Borodino village and it was strategically located on a hill near the eastern side of Semyonovskaya. The whole construction faced west and it had shoulders 172m in length. The shoulders connected at 100 degrees. It had flank fortifications (Palmer, 1972, 134). The building works did not stop even at night. The start of the battle found the construction already completed and the ditches of the construction ensured that the horses of the enemy would not be able to traverse. There were fewer guns at the beginning though by the end of the war their number increased.
Under the leadership of Napoleon we adopted a simple plan which included the involvement of Eugene corps, reserve cavalry corps which would operate in the north of the river and were to attack the village of Borodino; thus, they would proceed to the Great Redoubt. On the right flank, the Poniatowski corps were to attack the Utitsa place and scare the flank of the Russians on the left. We wanted the main attack to be at the center (Duffy, 1972, 40). There was a plan that two divisions would attach fleches and the III corps would bridge the gap at the center between the Great Redoubt and Fleches. There was to be a reserve corps unit which was to comprise corps from division I, VIII corps and the major part of the cavalry. The whole idea in this tactic was to divide and break into the Russian line from the front and probably benefit from the weakness of the army of the enemy. Devout had a different plan in his mind which was rejected by Napoleon. He had suggested that his group would move to the left side of the Russian army and the attack from the rear end. He thought that this would likely pin the Russian troops against the river. Napoleon’s reasons for the rejection of this plan were that it would result in a march by our soldiers at night. In the case of a wrong calculation in the march then it would result in a possible division in the army (Duffy, 1972, 134).
The battle took place in the entire Borodino and it lasted for only a day. This was one of the major battles fought by Napoleon. In general, the Russians were on the defensive side for the better part of the day. On our side, there were attempts to maneuver. We attempted to capture the Russian’s left fortifications. The Russians reinforced their right wing. In fact, the Russian army had a line of defense to the east. The end of the war came at the point when both sides were exhausted (Mikaberidze, 2011, 140). Our assaults were met by Russian defense.
The morning session of the attacks to the north ended with a cavalry attack. We never got to know the section of our army which executed this. The section led by Eugene then held the south. This connected the Russians who had been dispersed when the fleches came under the French (Duffy, 1972, 143). The morning session at the center showed a lot of controversy in the career of Napoleon. Some reports said that he was sick on the day of the battle. The end of the battle was around 6 pm, although some sources say that there were several sessions of firing afterward. The Russians had been forcefully displaced out of their original positions. In addition, they lacked reserves while Napoleon had the original guard intact.
The battle of Borodino has been described by analysts as a French victory. Both armies stayed in the battlefield overnight. However, Russians retreated the following day. The two armies were greatly affected by the battle. However, we were in a better state than the Russians. The statistics on the number of casualties are not clear even today. Some analysts say that about 50000 Russians died in the battle while about 30000 our fellow French men lost their lives. From the 8th to 13th, the Russians continued their retreat to Moscow. They fought minor battles on the way such as Moshaisk. The commander of the Russian army, Kutuzov called a meeting with the council of war members and declared his decision that he was not going to risk any other war outside Moscow. Over the next few days, fires started in Moscow and destroyed property (Mikaberidze, 2011, 4). The leader of the Russian empire refused to talk peace with Napoleon. Kutuzov had to build his army once again in the south of Moscow.
It has been argued that Napoleon made a terrible mistake to stay for more than one month in Moscow. All this time, Russians were recollecting their armies while his army was getting weaker without bearing in mind that he was in a foreign land. Winter was fast approaching too and this reinforced the problems of Napoleon. Napoleon thought that Alexander would call for peace talks but this was not to happen. Our army eventually decided to leave Moscow on the 19th day of October (Mikaberidze, 2011, 13). We wanted to move out of Moscow through the south because it was unspoiled country. Napoleon and commanders finally made a decision to retrace their footsteps backward in what was seen by the Russians as a retreat. The battle of Borodino had ended and few men who were lucky to survive the battle would return to Borodino.
Duffy, C. (1972). Borodino and the War of 1812. London: Seeley Service & Company Limited.
Mikaberidze, A. (2011). The battle of Borodino: Napoleon against Kutuzov (campaign chronicles). Barnsley: Pen and Sword
Palmer, A. W. (1972). Russia in war and peace. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Reid, D. M. (2002). Whose Pharaohs?: Archaeology, museums, and Egyptian national identity from Napoleon to World War I. California: University of California Press.
Van Creveld, M. (2004). Supplying war: logistics from Wallenstein to Patton. UK, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.