The area around Borodino was a rolling, open plain speckled with clumps of birch and pine. To the north ran the "New Road" from Smolensk to Moscow; to the south ran the "Old Smolensk Road." The two joined in Mozhaisk, to the east.
Kolocha Stream flowed along the north of the plain, swinging away in that direction to eventually join the Moscow River. It and its tributaries had deeply scored the ground and were marked with steep banks that would prove serious military obstacles.
The Russians had fortified the area with a number of entrenchments. Twenty-six guns were positioned behind the Kolocha in what was to become known as the "Great" or "Raevsky Redoubt." Two further batteries, with a total of twelve guns (nine in the forward battery and three in the rear battery), were placed in echelon near Gorki.
On the southern edge of the battlefield there were a number of small streams running approximately north-south to the Kolocha: the Voinak, Semenovka, Kamenka and the Stonets. Kutusov had chosen to make his stand on the east bank to take advantage of a low ridge so as to give his gunners the fullest advantage and to use the streams as a moat.
|The Campaign Prior to Borodino|
The Raevsky Redoubt was constructed in the shape of a "V" with two short epaulments (shoulders) at the tops of the "V." The work was originally open at the back, but a wooden palisade was raised to close it. But the otherwise impressive redoubt's guns were unable to fire properly on the surrounding terrain. Its construction was only begun on 6 September, the evening before the battle. That failure in preparedness occurred because the men of the Moscow militia, to whom the work had been assigned, had not been provided with pickaxes and shovels, and began with no idea how to manufacture the needed structures.
By dawn on the 7th, the day of the main engagement, the embrasures for only nine guns were complete and the redoubt was not fully ready. The digging had been difficult because of the ground. As a result, the cross section of the redoubt had not be given sufficient bulk. The shortage of fascines had prevented the proper facing of the slope. There was nothing to speak of in the way of palisades or other obstacles to the French approach.
Kutusov, the commander of the Russian army at Borodino, anticipated the main French advance along the new Smolensk road. He deployed the forces of Barclay de Tolly on his right at Borodino. He'd commanded the entire Russian army earlier in the campaign, but had been replaced by Kutusov just prior to Borodino. Despite the demotion he still commanded the 1st Army of the West, forming it with Platov's Cossacks and the 1st Cavalry Corps on his right.
Baggovout's 2nd Infantry Corps and Ostermann-Tolstoy's 4th Infantry Corps stood in a strong position behind the Kolocha. Docturov's 6th Infantry Corps extended from the Kolocha to the Raevsky Redoubt. The redoubt itself was manned by men from Paskevitch's 26th Division of the 7th Infantry Corps. The 2nd (Korff) and 3rd Cavalry Corps (Kreutz), were positioned behind the redoubt. The village of Borodino stood in front of the Raevsky Redoubt and was occupied by the Guard Jager Regiment.
Kutusov's position was strong on the south. There was an open stretch of 2,500 yards devoid of any terrain protection other than the banks of the Semenovka stream. The village of Semenovskaya dominated the area. But being of totally wooden construction it was reckoned a military liability. It had been dismantled and burned to provide a clear field of fire.
On the left were three more field fortifications known as the "Bagration Fleches." These three v-shaped structures were staggered backward in echelon. About a mile in front of them stood the isolated Shevardino Redoubt, another V-shape. It had been erected to provide early warning of any French advance from that direction.
Kutusov positioned one division of Gen. Raevsky's corps in the redoubt, facing south toward the village of Semenovskaya. The 4th Cavalry Corps also stood by there to support Raevsky. Still farther south Voronzov's 2nd Converged Grenadier Division occupied the Bagration Fleches. Neverovski's 27th Division was behind him.
Kutusov formed a general reserve with the 1st and 2nd Cuirassier Divisions, the Guard Infantry, Tuchkov's 3rd Infantry Corps and twenty-six batteries with 300 guns, total.
Kutusov's tactical dispositions reveal his failure to grasp the possibility of a French advance from the south. Initially he made little effort to defend that flank at all. When he did react to the appearance of the French there, he only sent 8,000 men from Tuchkov's 3rd Corps, 1,500 Cossacks and 7,000 militia. That force took up position around the Utitsa Mound.
Kutusov then compounded his initial error by not directing fortifications be raised on the strong position the mound offered. However, he did place Tuchkov's forces in the woods in the hope of ambushing the French if they advance rashly. He hoped once the French had committed their last reserves against Bagration's flank, those forces could swing out and strike the French from behind.
To link Tuchkov's force and Bagration's southern flank, Kutusov strung out four jager (light infantry) regiments in an extended skirmish line. Just before the battle, as Gen. Bennigsen passed through that area, he was assailed with complaints about their dispositions from their commanding officers. On his own authority, he reversed Kutusov's order, directing Tuchkov to abandon the ambush and take up a position on the open plain to calm the jager commanders' fears.
Kutusov was not informed of the change, and it was presumed the changes in the positions had been made by Tuchkov, who died on the 7th. When Bennigsen's actions were later discovered, he incurred Kutusov's wrath.
Kutusov had, shortly before the battle, reassigned the senior commands within his army. Docturov now commanded the center, which consisted of the 6th Infantry and the 3rd Cavalry Corps. Prince Constantine commanded the Reserve. The right was commanded by Miloradovitch and consisted of the 2nd and 4th Infantry Corps as well as 2nd and 3rd Cavalry Corps. Prince Gorchakov commanded the left, which was formed using practically the entire 2nd Army of the West.
These dispositions were not unusual for the Russians, but were in striking contrast to those used by Wellington in that Kutusov had placed his troops in dense columns on forward slopes. Thus they stood in full view of the French and their artillery. He was either ignorant of, or perhaps despised, Wellington's practice of placing as many as possible of his men on reverse slopes, where they would be hidden from enemy view and fire.
The French, though, were well aware of the disadvantages of that type of deployment. Davout instructed his artillery the vulnerable Russian columns were to be their principal target. The combination of Kutusov's dispositions and French artillery doctrine needlessly doomed thousands of Russian soldiers to death. The Preobragenski and Semenovski Guard Infantry Regiments, for example, who did not fire a shot in anger the entire day, nevertheless suffered 273 casualties from the French guns.
Kutusov's dispositions dismayed his own generals. The famous Prussian military analyst Carl von Clausewitz later wrote critically of them:
Clausewitz also indicated it was most probably Gen. Toll's influence that had resulted in the dense Russian formation. The German, though he usually favored such deep formations, did not concur with Toll "as to the application of this principal in this instance." He also claimed the Russians were too compact and their reserves were positioned much too close to the front line.
Kutusov waited passively for the French offensive, allowing Napoleon to bring up his straggling columns. Early on the afternoon of the 5 September, he rode forward to personally review the enemy position. The Shevardino Redoubt and its twelve guns was of little military significance, but prevented Napoleon making a close inspection of the Russian lines and hindered the deployment of the French army. Nevertheless, seeing the obvious Russian strength along the Kolocha, Napoleon concentrated his army against their left.
After further studying the Russian lines, Napoleon made his plans for the initial attack. He directed Poniatowski's 5th Corps to move south in an effort to flank the enemy left. He then directed Compans' 5th Division to assault the Shevardino Redoubt.
Gen. Gorchakov, who commanded the redoubt, had spread three
jager regiments in a skirmish line in front of it, extending from
Alexinka to Fomkina along the Doronino ravine and into the brush
stretching toward Yelnia. He posted 27th Division behind the redoubt
in dense columns, where it was covered by the 12-pounder guns
from inside it. To the left and behind the infantry stood the
Russian 2nd Cuirassier Division and some supporting elements.
Gen. Maj Karpov and a force of Cossacks were posted on the Old
Smolensk Road to observe the movements of Poniatowski.
|The Battle of Shevardino|
Preparations for the Main Event
During the night of 5/6 September, the Russian staff held a heated review of the day's events. Yermolov contended Shevardino was a superfluous position and "there was no point in defending and maintaining it." He was outspoken in his opinion, stating the fight there had allowed the French to strike an inferior, isolated portion of the army with little risk to themselves. Barclay agreed and urged the redoubt be evacuated before another assault was launched against it. Bagration's defense of his position was heated, probably because he'd personally selected the redoubt's site and his ego was involved. The decision to withdraw finally did come, but late in the evening.
The staff also argued about the weakly defended Old Smolensk Road, which was open to a flanking maneuver. Bennigsen and Kutusov were firm in their contention the militia was sufficient to hold that flank, and 3rd Infantry Corps was in a position to support them if they became too heavily engaged.
In the French camp there was no such division of opinion. At dawn of the 6th, Napoleon began another review of the Russian positions, paying particular attention to their weak left and center, advancing close to the Russian outposts to ensure he'd seen everything. Poniatowski told him that he'd not encountered heavy resistance to the south, but the emperor hesitated over the decision to attempt a grand tactical encirclement against the Russian left.
Napoleon inspected the Russians a second time, hoping to ascertain if there was any gap between Bagration and the right of the Russian 3rd Infantry Corps. As he stood on the heights opposite Borodino, Marshal Davout rode up and proposed taking 1st and 5th Corps in a flanking maneuver around the Russian left. The result would almost certainly have been the destruction of those Russians. But Napoleon, fearing the time required for the move would permit the Russians to again evade the final battle, or that they might attack his divided forces, rejected the idea. He needed a smashing victory that would once and for all crush the Russians' will to fight.
Napoleon's final plans for the battle evolved during the remainder of the day. He decided to send Poniatowski's 5th Corps on a limited flanking maneuver along the Old Smolensk Road, while his main thrust went in against the Russian center. For that assault he planned to form the 85,000 men of the three divisions of 1st Corps, and the 1st, 2nd and 4th Reserve Cavalry Corps as the instrument of destruction. Behind 1st Corps he placed Ney's 3rd Corps, Junot's Westphalians, the Guard Cavalry, the Young Guard and finally the Old Guard. The Old Guard was designated final reserve. The entire assault formation was one and a half miles long.
Napoleon posted 4th Corps, Gerard's division (1st Corps), and the 3rd Reserve Cavalry Corps north of the Kolocha. Their task was to take the village of Borodino and the Raevsky Redoubt.
Russian Final Preparations
Given a respite by Napoleon, during 6 September the Russians finished their field fortifications and positioned their forces. The Russians had divided their position by army corps. Each corps was supported by a small compliment of artillery, while the bulk of the army's artillery was held in general reserve. Two divisions occupied each corps sector. Initially all the jagers were deployed as skirmishers in front of their respective divisions, leaving only two jager regiments completely formed. As a rule the cavalry formed in regiments in two lines and behind the infantry.
In preparation for the coming battle, Kutusov toured the army encouraging it, preceded by the Black Virgin of Smolensk icon. He read a proclamation to his soldiers and his passage through the ranks was preceded and followed by the incantations and prayers of Orthodox priests who sprinkled holy water, swung their censors and blessed the troops and their colors. This imparted a religious fervor to the effort to drive the invaders from the sacred soil of mother Russia.
Kutusov's battle plan was issued in the form of limited, last minute orders. His intention was to leave most of the tactical execution of the coming battle to the local commanders. But he did insist the corps reserves be held intact as long as possible and on instructing the gunners to economize their ammunition. He also fell back on the old Russian preference for the bayonet, stating it would be the "fundamental tactic² of the day.
Gen. Koutaissof, commander of 1st Army of the West's artillery, issued orders directing the gunners they were:
French Final Plan
During the afternoon of 6 September, Napoleon received a courier who brought news of Marmont's disastrous defeat at Salamanca at the hands of Wellington. Despite the news, he set about preparing and dispatching orders to the various corps. He ordered the break of dawn should be marked by the fire of two new batteries organized during the night by Davout's corps against the fleches opposite them. He was still unaware there was a third fleche.
His battle plan centered on the assignment and deployment of his army's artillery. Sixty-two guns were to support the movement of 1st Corps against the battery opposite them. The 3rd and 7th Corps were to concentrate 40 guns against the redoubt on the left, while all the Guard howitzers were to advance on one or the other redoubt. During the cannonade Prince Poniatowski was to turn the enemy position to the south, and Gen. Compans was to skirt the forest to carry the first redoubt. Eugene was ordered to seize Borodino, and Gens. Morand and Gerard were to seize the Raevsky Redoubt.
September 6th passed quietly with the preparation of orders and movements, except for the Russian Lt. Bogdanov, of the engineers, who was charged with strengthening the Raevsky Redoubt. Taking timber from dismantled houses, he built the double palisade across the rear of the battery. Upon inspecting the work, Gen. Raevsky said: "Now gentlemen, we may rest in security. When daylight comes, Napoleon will spy what seems to be a single open battery, but his army will come against a virtual fortress. The approaches are swept by more than 200 guns [that figure includes nearby field guns], the ditch is deep and the glacis is solid."
When night fell the clatter of arms and neighing of horses slowly died away as tens of thousands of men settled in around their bivouac fires. In every direction the sky was lit with the erie glow of camp fires flickering and glowing in the dark. Few sounds broke the night's stillness to disturb the fitful sleep of the two armies. But more nervous than most, Napoleon rose repeatedly during the night to reassure himself the Russians were still there. He arose for a final time at 3:00 a.m., and as he rode toward the Shevardino Redoubt he remarked to his staff: "It is a trifle cold, but the sun is bright. It is the sun of Austerlitz!"
Situation at 6:30 am
The French broke the dawn with the first cannon shots, and the Russians soon replied. It was quickly discovered the three batteries, a total of 102 guns, Napoleon had ordered formed on the 6th were out of range of their targets - a bad omen.
The firing spread down the line to 1st and 3rd Corps. Eugene's forces advanced into the village of Borodino, where they engaged the Guard Jager Regiment. But Barclay had recognized the dangerous position of that unit and had sent Lowenstern to recall them. But just as that officer arrived, so did the French.
Delzon's 13th Division pushed into the Guard Jagers, chasing them back across the Kolocha. Another brigade sent forward its skirmishers to fire on the fleeing Russians as they crossed the bridge. The crowding was so thick and the fire so heavy the regiment lost half its strength before the crossing was completed.
The French advance was so rapid they too were able to cross the bridge, advancing on Gorki. But they actually moved too fast, and as they grew fatigued they were counterattacked both frontally and in the flank. They fell back across the Kolocha to reform. The Russians quickly reoccupied the lost ground on their side, destroying the bridge.
Delzon's division occupied the village as the Bavarian cavalry deployed behind it to the east. Eugene prepared to renew his assault across the river by organizing a large battery near Borodino, where it could fire on both the Raevsky and Gorki earthworks. Ornano moved to Bezzoubovo and the divisions of Gerard and Broussier, the Italian Guard, and Grouchy's 3rd Reserve Cavalry Corps supported Morand's division as he prepared to recross the Kolocha.
Watching the battle around Borodino, Napoleon judged Poniatowski had enough time to reach his designated position, and he ordered Davout's 1st Corps begin its attack against the Bagration Fleches.
The fleches had been under fire by 102 cannon since 7:00 a.m., but most of those shells had been directed on the Raevsky Redoubt and the village of Borodino. Thirty-eight guns had taken an enfilade position against the lines of 2nd Army of the West, while the others had enfiladed 1st Army of the West. In the middle of that cannonade, Gen. Compans' 5th Division advanced with the support of 30 guns. He moved on the fleches to the right of Sorbier's battery, crossing the woods. The trees were cleared of Russian skirmishers while the entire division pushed along their southern edge. Friant and 2nd Division remained behind as reserve. To the south Poniatowski had also become engaged.
Compans' men marched into the fire of two Russian batteries. Those guns took such a heavy toll the columns thinned perceptively as they advanced. Not only was the cannister fire from the fleches striking home, but Russian skirmishers stationed between the fleches and Utitsa also kept up a heavy fire.
Compans was shot and wounded. Marshal Davout's horse was killed underneath him, throwing him to the ground and stunning him. Dessaix stepped forward to take command of the assault. The 57th Line Regiment, living up to its nickname "Le Terrible," advanced and seized the westernmost fleche only to be thrown back by heavy defensive fire.
Gen. Voronzov's forces re-established themselves in there while Gen. Siever's three cavalry regiments attacked. Those horsemen pursued the recoiling French back to their main lines, capturing 12 guns. But in its turn the Russian cavalry was also attacked by the two Wurttemberg cavalry regiments and thrown back, allowing the French to retake their guns.
The 5th Division had become scattered in the ditches and folds of the ground in front of the fleches. Gen. Rapp came forward to assume command of it from Dessaix. That permitted the latter to concentrate his attention on 4th Division, which had replaced the 5th in the front line.
Ledru's 10th Division moved forward at 9:00 a.m. to form the third assault. He was supported by Junot's 8th Corps, which was positioned to the left of Shevardino, and 4th Reserve Cavalry Corps. Davout's renewed advance was supported by 1st Reserve Cavalry Corps.
Bagration saw the new assault coming and brought up the rest of Neverovski's division to support 2nd Converged Grenadier Division. The French didn't notice the move and were still unaware of the existence of the third fleche, beyond the one designated as Ledru's final objective. As Ledru advanced, Junot chased the Russian light infantry from the woods to the south.
Bagration ordered Raevsky to shift part of his corps toward the fleches while 2nd Grenadier Division moved to the left of Semenovskaya. The 2nd Cuirassier Division was likewise to move to the left of the grenadiers. He also ordered 3rd Corps to detach its 3rd Division toward the fleches. He also demanded and received from the reserve three guard infantry and two cuirassier regiments, eight battalions of converged grenadiers, and one horse battery.
But though reinforcements were on the way, it would take one and a half hours before all of them would arrive. That was sufficient time to allow the French to fully develop their attack. Two French regiments struck the leading fleche from the south while Ledru came in from the north. It was then they realized there was a third fleche. They finally drove the 2nd Converged Grenadier Division out of the fleche. But by that time Bagration had sent 27th Division, four battalions of 12th Division, 2nd Grenadier Division, 2nd Cuirassier Division, three cavalry regiments and five horse guns into the cauldron brewing around the fleches.
The French had meanwhile been reinforced by Beurmann's and Bruyeres' light cavalry brigades. The Wurttemberg cavalry, under Beurmann, was sent to stop some Russian infantry moving to retake the fleche, but they were themselves struck instead by Duka's three cuirassier regiments. The Wurttembergers were thrown back and Duka's cavalry struck the head of Dessaix's 4th Division. Six guns were momentarily lost to the Russians.
Duka's cuirassiers were quickly counter-charged by 100 volunteers from 6th Polish Lancer Regiment. The Russians were stopped and brought under the concentrated fire of French artillery.
Situation at 9:30 am
Ledru's division succeeded in its fourth attack, taking possession of the fleche once again at about 10:00 a.m. They had barely reoccupied the position when Konownitzin's 3rd Division, supported by two hussar and two dragoon regiments, counterattacked and drove them out yet again.
Upon seeing the Russians retake the fleche, Murat took personal command of a Wurttemberg jager battalion and a French infantry regiment. He led them forward to retake the southernmost fleche once again. The Russian cuirassiers then charged Murat's force, surrounding him and his jagers within a sea of hostile cavalry. The remainder of the Wurttemberg division advanced to save their fellows.
Napoleon was informed of the capture of the fleches and decided Junot's 8th Corps was no longer required to support Davout's attack. He directed him instead to move between Davout and Poniatowski. When he then learned the Russians had stopped Ney's force, he sent him Friant's 2nd Division. A total of 26,000 French were massed before the fleches occupied by 18,000 Russians. Though the French retook the fleches again at 11:00 a.m., they were thrown out once more by 8th Infantry Corps, supported by four grenadier regiments from 2nd Grenadier Division.
It wasn't until 11:30 a.m. it became clear the French had finally seized permanent control of the fleches, when Konovnitzin withdrew his troops behind the ravine of the Semenovskaya. The French had committed some 45,000 men and 400 guns to the battle for the fleches. The Russians had faced them with about 300 guns. The fighting had lasted five hours.
To the north, after capturing the village of Borodino, Eugene directed Delzon to hold it with his division and, in making preparations to assault the Raevsky Redoubt, brought the divisions of Morand, Gerard and Broussier across the pontoon bridge he'd raised over the Kolocha. His slow preparations and advance caused the Russians to think his force was purely diversionary, and they accordingly began shifting their units from the northern flank to the south in order to reinforce the battle around the fleches.
Raevsky's 7th Infantry Corps had been assigned to defend the redoubt and the surrounding terrain. He'd formed a massive skirmish line with the six jager regiments taken from 4th, 6th and 7th Infantry Corps. Those men were posted in the ravine of Semenovskaya stream. Four battalions of 12th Division, supported by six field batteries, were posted to the left of the redoubt.
A powerful artillery barrage prepared the way for Eugene's assault. The fire was directed primarily against 3rd Cavalry Corps, posted to the left-rear of the redoubt, mauling those horsemen and their supporting artillery.
Shortly before 10:00 a.m. Raevsky easily threw back a French reconnaissance in force. When Bagration was wounded, Raevsky assumed his command and began to move to Semenovskaya, but soon decided it was too dangerous for him to leave his troops as they were about to be attacked. Instead he sent Konovnitzin to handle things as best he could. Shortly afterward he saw French grenadiers pouring through the embrasures of his redoubt.
It was 11:00 a.m. as the lead elements of Morand's 1st Division advanced directly on the redoubt. Great holes were ripped in their ranks by the cannister belching from the defenders' 12-pounder cannon. But they pressed forward, rolling over the redoubt's walls, whereupon the Russian gunners fought for their lives with their rammers. A bloody hand-to-hand battle ensued, during which the French swept through and beyond the redoubt, chasing the survivors before them. But only a single French battalion remained unengaged and able to exploit the gap in the Russian line. The other battalions were too heavily engaged to move through.
Barclay, having sent Lowenstern to investigate the commotion around the redoubt, soon learned of its loss. He reacted by sending two battalions forward to turn the right of the redoubt. Gen. Yermolov, chief of staff of 1st Army of the West, also happened to be passing in the vicinity of the redoubt when he noted three Russian jager regiments fleeing in disorder. Those men were obviously incapable of interfering with the French reorganization and consolidation of the recently captured redoubt, so Yermolov took command of the Oufa Infantry Regiment, directing it to counterattack. Behind them he reorganized the jagers and ordered them to follow. He also sent three horse batteries to support the advance.
At the same time Gen. Maj. Kreutz, with part of 3rd Cavalry Corps, moved against the Italians, advancing on the French left, stopping their progress. The commanders of the Russian 12th and 26th Divisions rallied their troops and moved to crush the French in and around the redoubt. Most of the French there simply fled before the massive new Russian assault. Those who remained put up a desperate fight, but it lasted no more than 10 minutes. Gen. Yermolov took a handful of crosses of the Order of St. George, throwing them at the redoubt to encourage the jagers, but they were out to avenge their earlier defeat and the gesture was unnecessary. The redoubt again passed into Russian hands.
In the engagement around the redoubt the Russians suffered the loss of Gen. Koutaissof, chief of artillery of 1st Army of the West. He'd forgotten his true duties in order to lead a party of infantry along the right of the redoubt, where he was killed. His death removed the only guidance and supervision the Russian artillery reserve had. With him gone, movement of guns from the artillery reserve to the battle stopped.
As the French fell back from the redoubt, their artillery stopped firing so as to not hit them. Silence fell for the Russians as well, for they were unable to fully man and serve the guns in the redoubt they'd just recaptured. The French quickly reorganized and began to bring another powerful attack column against 7th Infantry Corps and the redoubt. Yet another bloody fight erupted.
Prince Eugene von Wurttemberg was meanwhile leading 17th Division south toward the the fleches, halting it behind the redoubt at 10:00 a.m., when the French attacked him. He was resting his troops when he found himself attacked by the French 3rd Reserve Cavalry Corps. Three cuirassier and four dragoon regiments moved forward with their light cavalry brigade screening their advance. The mass of cavalry swarmed around the Russian infantry, forcing it to form square.
The 3rd Reserve Cavalry Corps inflicted heavy losses on the 17th Division. Kreutz's 3rd Cavalry Corps advanced to assist Prince Eugene, but that force proved insufficient to stop the carnage. Yermolov was twice forced to turn the guns in the redoubt to fire on French cavalry to his rear. Still, Yermolov's men stood fast.
As the actions raged around the Bagration fleches and Raevsky Redoubt, Napoleon directed elements of 1st and 3rd Corps, 1st and 4th Reserve Cavalry Corps and a large force of artillery to strike the Russian center around the village of Semenovskaya. That place was defended by eight battalions of the 2nd Converged Grenadier Division posted immediately in front of the village. They were in turn supported by three guard infantry regiments and the 1st Cuirassier Division. To their rear was 3rd Division, which, though primarily concerned with the fleches, could also assist the center if problems arose.
The French attack on the center was led by Friant's 2nd Division. He was flanked by the heavy cavalry of 1st and 4th Reserve Cavalry Corps. They advanced directly on the rubble that had been Semenovskaya, heralding their assault with a tremendous artillery barrage. The Russian artillery replied, directing most of its fire on the French cavalry. About 10:00 a.m. the French began their advance, crossing the Semenovskaya stream in two columns. The right column contained two Saxon, two Westphalian and a Polish cuirassier regiment. The left column was formed by the 4th Light Cavalry Division.
As the leading two and a half squadrons of the Saxon Garde du Corps crossed the stream, they encountered a Russian battery supported by the 2nd Grenadier Division formed in square. The Saxons charged, broke one square and pushed the rest back. As they pursued the fleeing Russian infantry they encountered the dragoons of the 4th Cavalry Corps. But even they were insufficient to halt the Saxons, who pressed beyond the village. There they found themselves facing two Russian guard infantry regiments formed in six battalion squares.
The French cavalry assault was furious, but the Ismailov Guard withstood them. In one of only a few historically recorded instances, that unit actually executed a bayonet charge against the attacking cavalry. (The last such attack took place in the early 1920s, when a Russian infantry division attacked a Polish cavalry brigade and was slaughtered.)
As the Saxons advanced, the 1st Cuirassier Division struck them frontally while a hussar regiment came in on the flank. The Saxons suffered heavy casualties in the ensuing fight because they'd left their cuirass armor back in Germany. They were driven back behind a crest to the right of Semenovskaya.
The Polish lancers of the 28th Light Brigade, who'd advanced to the left of the Saxons, had meanwhile become involved in battles around the Raevsky Redoubt, where they captured eight guns. A lull developed as the cavalry withdrew, and Friant brought forward two infantry regiments into the ruins of Semenovskaya. Then the cavalry engagement once again renewed itself as the blown Russian horse were struck by the Westphalian cuirassiers. The exhausted Russian cavalry was finally pushed off the battlefield.
As the cavalry battles raged on both sides of Semenovskaya, 2nd Converged Grenadier Division reformed and established a weak line in front of the village. Gen. Docturov slowly fed two Russian grenadier regiments into the village to provide support for them. The Russian resistance inside Semenovskaya itself was impressive. Friant's troops were so discouraged one colonel ordered his regiment to withdraw. After an exchange with Murat, which embarrassed the colonel, he turned to his men and said: "Soldiers, about face! Let's go and get killed!"
But renewed attack crushed what resistance remained in the grenadiers, and the French infantry finally swept over the ruins of Semenovskaya. A true breech in the Russian line had finally been formed, and it lay directly in the path of the French reserve. It was the classic time for a Napoleonic coup de grace, but it didn't occur. Murat and Ney sent a courier to Napoleon requesting the release of the reserves, specifically the Young Guard. Napoleon considered the situation and initially consented, but he then recanted. Still, Gen. Lobau and the Young Guard, disappointed at Napoleon's failure to commit them, slowly edged forward on the pretext of correcting the alignment of their ranks. But Napoleon saw them and immediately brought it to a halt.
Gen. Beillard arrived at noon with a second request for the release of the Young Guard. His request was denied as Napoleon said: "Before I commit my reserves I must be able to see more clearly on my chessboard." No doubt he was thinking of the miles between his army and France as well as the pending winter. Ney was not pleased, but Murat received the word with more grace.
During the interlude the Russian guard infantry withdrew in perfect order while the rest of the 2nd Army of the West, which had defended the fleches, withdrew in great disorder into the woods behind Semenovskaya. With his line pierced, Barclay turned 4th Infantry Corps south to block the threat that flank. At the same time Platov began a maneuver to the north of Eugene on the French bank of the Kolocha.
Those Russian movements in turn obliged Napoleon to release Gen. Sorbier and the 60 pieces of Guard artillery he'd held in reserve. Sorbier quickly deployed in support of Friant. The Guard artillery, eager to join the battle, galloped forward. Once in position, they began an enfilading fire on Ostermann-Tolstoy's infantry standing in the gap behind Semenovskaya. Despite the heavy and accurate French artillery fire, those Russians marched like machines, filling the gaps the artillery ripped in their ranks as if they were on parade. They continued their advance until the French took them under fire with cannister, which blew away entire platoons with a single blast. As the Russians reached their assigned objective they halted and stood motionless under the artillery fire. They were swept with heavy fire for five hours without stirring; the only movement was as new troops stepped forward to fill the ranks emptied by the fire. After the battle their positions could still be seen, clearly marked by the dead whose bodies were still arranged in formation.
To the north the Russians attempted a major tactical maneuver with a force of cavalry under the Cossack commander Ataman Platov. That effort had begun when his men discovered a previously unknown ford. Hoping to exploit it, he sent word to Kutusov suggesting sending the cavalry reserve across to threaten the French left. That reserve was then located on the north side of the Russian army. As word of the discovery arrived, so did word of the fall of the Raevsky Redoubt. Despite that, Col. Toll suggested to Kutusov the entire cavalry reserve of the Russian right should be sent on the suggested maneuver and he agreed.
The order released 8,000 otherwise idle Russian cavalry. The forces of Ouvarov's 1st Cavalry Corps consisted of 28 squadrons and a guard horse battery with 12 guns. They were joined by 5,000 Cossacks and two Don Cossack horse batteries. The entire force moved across the Kolocha near Maloe about 11:00 a.m. The first French unit they encountered was the 84th Line Infantry Regiment and Oranano's brigade of Bavarian and Italian light cavalry.
The Russians attacked the French infantry three times without artillery preparation or success. Then the Russian artillery unlimbered and forced the French infantry to withdraw behind the river, allowing the remainder of the Russian cavalry to drive back the Bavarian and Italian cavalry.
Pavlov had crossed the Kolocha with nine cossack regiments in an attempt to maneuver on the French rear, but the regular cavalry operating with them was stopped by Delzon's division and the reformed Italian and Bavarian cavalry. The French also moved cavalry north to support that flank. Gen. Grouchy's 3rd Reserve Cavalry Corps was the first to move. The 11th Light Brigade engaged the Russians with deadly effect. Napoleon, also reacting to the Russian advance, sent part of the troops attached to the Guard to act as a reserve for the flank. The Vistula Legion, an elite formation of Poles, advanced into Eugene's rear, relieving his fears of Platov's cossacks striking him from behind.
The French reinforcements pushed the Russians back to the Kolocha. Though there was much recrimination on the Russian side and accusations of lethargic efforts by Platov's Cossacks, the Russians didn't understand the real impact of their maneuver. The diversion had in fact paralyzed the French left and center from about noon to 2:00 p.m. Word the much feared Cossacks were to the rear had spread terror as far south as Shevardino. Even the Imperial Guard had made ready to receive cavalry.
The Russian maneuver had diverted a total of 16 cavalry regiments north to support the flank. Grouchy had retained only four regiments of his cavalry south of the Kolocha. Eugene had also moved north to supervise the conduct of the operations personally. Napoleon also shifted his position north, remaining there until about 3:00 p.m. On the Russian side, Kutusov made little personal effort to direct the conduct of the battle. Barclay and Bagration were left to make tactical efforts unaided. Barclay was astonished when Kutusov sent the Guard Infantry to support 2nd Army of the West, though it was heavily engaged in the defense of Semenovskaya.
The end of the infantry assaults on the Raevsky Redoubt and the successful advance against Semenovskaya had opened a gap in the French lines. The only force available to fill it was 4th Reserve Cavalry Corps. As a result, for the better part of three hours those magnificent and expensive horsemen were used to hold the line. They were subjected to the undivided attention of the Russian artillery in and around the redoubt. The 1st Brigade of 7th Cuirassier Division was so badly mauled it lost about half its strength. The Westphalians of the 2nd Brigade were singled out for special attention and suffered even more cruelly as the they stood in the open. The 2nd Reserve Cavalry Corps was also put under this fire, with the bright copper cuirassiers of the Carabinier Regiments attracting the eager attention of the Russian gunners. Their commander, Montbrun, was killed and replaced by Gen. August de Caulaincourt.
While the cavalry was being battered, the French were massing 170 guns. That grande batterie directed its fire on the redoubt and the eight Russian horse batteries positioned near it. The breastwork forming the redoubt was battered, with the earth forming it blown back into the trench, filling it in.
At 2:00 p.m. Napoleon ordered Eugene to resume his attacks. The divisions of Broussiere, Gerard and Morand advanced, supported on the left by part of Chastel's 3rd Light Cavalry Division. They were to strike the right and front of the redoubt, while the 2nd and 7th Cuirassier Divisions attacked its left.
Barclay had positioned 4th Infantry Corps to the left of the Raevsky Redoubt with its left wing refused (pulled back). He placed 7th Infantry Corps and two guard infantry regiments behind 4th Corps as a second line. He then began forming a third line with 2nd and 3rd Cavalry Corps. They were reinforced by two guard cavalry regiments, but 2nd Cavalry Corps hadn't arrived by the time the French assault began. In addition, a large portion of 3rd Cavalry Corps had been detached to the left wing.
The desire of the French, Saxon, Polish and Westphalian horsemen to come to grips with the gunners who had them under fire for so long added speed to their advance. Once they were ordered forward, they quickly outstripped their supporting infantry. Though flashes of fire from the redoubt's guns tore more holes in their ranks, they pressed on, reins in their teeth and sabers drawn.
The 2nd Cuirassier Division arrived at the redoubt first, and as they were about to enter its rear they were greeted by a heavy volley from the infantry inside. Gen. Caulaincourt was struck and killed. Wathier's division was repulsed and 4th Reserve Cavalry Corps moved to fill the gap. The 7th Cuirassier Division, composed of Saxons, Poles and Westphalians, supporting Rozniecki's light cavalry, were met by Russian musketry at 60 paces. The fire brought them to a halt, but the Saxon Garde du Corps continued forward.
The Garde du Corps drew out to the left, advancing directly on the redoubt's breastwork. Then they and the nearest squadrons of the Zastrow Cuirassier Regiment poured up and over, while other squadrons forced their way through the rear and embrasures of the breastwork. As the Saxons passed over the top of the breastwork they were greeted by the uplifted bayonets of the compact mass of troops who occupied the redoubt while also being fired on by the Russian infantry posted around it. Dead cavaliers tumbled from their steeds into the redoubt, but they were quickly followed by their enraged comrades. A bloody melee ensued in which all military discipline and organization disappeared.
The French infantry had advanced close on the heels of the cavalry and also came into the redoubt. Despite the fury of the battle, the Russians succeeded in withdrawing six of the guns from the redoubt. Two others were abandoned in the northern entrance and a third was thrown into the ditch. A further 10 were found dismounted in the redoubt. Once the redoubt was secured, Eugene began to mass all available cavalry behind it, including 2nd, 3rd and 4th Reserve Cavalry Corps. Once they were reorganized, they advanced to face the Russians again.
Situation at 4:00 pm
Barclay meanwhile took personal command of the forces in the Gorki ravine, directing 24th Division to retake the redoubt. But before the counterattack could begin, 14th Polish Cuirassiers attacked, driving back the Russians. But then the French cavalry had to fall back all along their front after their attacks against the Russian 4th and 6th Infantry Corps proved unsuccessful. The Russian infantry was formed in squares and successfully resisted their repeated charges.
Gens. Defrance, Chastel, Houssaye and part of French 5th Corps charged the Russian 7th Division. When the French carabiniers broke through, crushing two squares and sabering the gunners of a guard horse battery, two guard cavalry regiments counter-charged. The Russians recaptured the battery and turned to engage 4th Reserve Cavalry Corps, striking the fatigued Saxon and Polish cuirassiers, forcing them back.
At the same time Russian 2nd Cavalry Corps attacked Wathier's and Defrance's forces, but they were not able to halt the French advance and were themselves thrown back. Charge and counter-charge turned the area around the redoubt into a nightmare of hooves and sabers. The cavalry of both armies intermingled; dust rose obscuring all vision. Small groups of cavalry pulled into and out of the battle to rally, reorganize and charge back into the fray. All control of the fighting passed from the hands of the generals into the knots of battling troopers.
By 5:00 p.m. the cavalry battle began to abate and the Russian generals began to fear Napoleon would finally unleash his still fresh Imperial Guard to carry the day. That was not, however, Napoleon's intention. He said: "I will not have my Guard destroyed. When you are 800 leagues from France you do not wreck your last reserve."
South of the battle, Poniatowski's Poles had advanced to their positions early in the morning. About the same moment the French made the first assault on the fleches, he became heavily involved around Utitza. The first shots there began about 8:00 a.m. when Poniatowski encountered 1st Grenadier Division about a mile south of the fleches. The Russian positing there had been weakened by the detachment of 3rd Division, which had been sent to help around the fleches. Facing Poniatowski were six Russian grenadier and six jager regiments. Those men were in the brush and formed the link between the fleches and Utitza Mound. On either side of the mound were 4,000 Moscow militia armed with pikes and 36 cannon.
At 10:30 a.m. Poniatowski renewed his advance. He moved 22 guns forward, directing their fire on the Russians around the Utitza Mound. Word was sent to Kutusov, and he ordered Baggovout to dispatch 17th Division, and later the 4th Division, south to assist. Eventually the entire 2nd Infantry Corps was shifted south, and only the six jager regiments remained in their original positions.
The 2nd Infantry Corps had not been engaged before that time, but was now marching into one of the hottest battles on the field. Baggovout detached two regiments from 17th Division to cover his flank as he moved. At Tuchkov's request, Baggovout detached two musketeer regiments and a battery to reinforce him as quickly as possible.
Though reinforced by an additional battery, the combination of an uneven artillery duel and the rapid advance of the Poles forced the Russian artillery to withdraw. The Polish advance was met by the Russian infantry and a bloody fight began.
At noon 2nd and 3rd Infantry Corps moved forward, advancing as far as the village of Utitza. During this advance Tuchkov was killed while leading the Pavlov Grenadier Regiment, and Baggovout assumed command of the southern flank.
Poniatowski's artillery engaged in a three hour duel with the Russians in an effort to prepare the way for the infantry assault. He planned a two column attack against the mound. Once it was launched, two Polish columns advanced around the northern flank of the mound until they encountered 2nd Infantry Corps, four infantry regiments and 500 pike armed militia.
The Polish left column was a diversion, and it succeeded in that function very well as the main force advanced to the southern foot of the mound. Baggovout counterattacked with Karpov's Cossacks, 1st Grenadier and 17th Infantry Divisions. They only barely succeeded in stopping the Polish advance. That momentarily stabilized the battle for the Russians; however, the situation to the north left Baggovout's position exposed. He was obliged to fall back along the Old Smolensk Road, abandoning his positions to Poniatowski.
Poniatowski in turn sent his divisions forward against the mound. Four cavalry regiments moved to strike Baggovout's left. But Karpov's Cossacks counterattacked, bringing that attack to a halt. Prince Eugene of Wurttemberg then took command of a rearguard consisting of four guns and an infantry regiment.
With the withdrawal of that last force, the Russians had conceded
the battle was lost. Barclay sent Wolzogen to Kutusov to inform
him of the serious situation across the battlefield. He asked
Wolzogen to be sure to get any orders in writing, fearing Kutusov
might otherwise give instructions he would later deny having issued,
in an effort to stick Barclay with the blame for any failure that
might result. Wolzogen later said he:
But Kutusov, who'd spent the entire day busily engaging in drinking champagne and eating sweet meats, had no idea of the actual course of the battle. His response enraged Wolzogen, who nevertheless carried the instructions to Barclay.
Kutusov then conferred with Col. Toll, dictating an order telling Barclay to move the army about 1,000 paces to the rear and assume a new position aligned with the Gorki Hill on the right and the Utitza woods on the left. He felt the French had suffered as much as the Russians and intended to continue the action. He hoped to restore the army's organization and replenish the ammunition during the night in order to renew the battle in the morning. He felt to withdraw then would result in the loss of all the artillery. He sent a similar set of orders to Docturov, the acting commander of 2nd Army of the West.
Barclay was dismayed by the orders, knowing his troops were incapable of continuing the action the next day. They had undergone 12 hours without food or water and under continual heavy exertion. There was little hope of feeding them during the night either.
The Russians finally fell back to the position occupied by their reserve artillery. The 6th Infantry Corps touched the battery near Gorki and extended south toward Semenovskaya; 4th Infantry Corps touched the 6th on the north and extended south until it encountered two guard infantry regiments. These two regiments capped the salient formed by 2nd Army of the West. The 2nd Infantry Corps fell back from that position to the Old Smolensk Road, where it was joined by 3rd Infantry Corps. Both corps were now commanded by Baggovout. The Russian cavalry withdrew to the newly formed second line. The 5th Corps, Preobragenski and Semenovski Guard Infantry Regiments, as well as part of the Guard and Lithuanian Jager Infantry Regiment, were held in reserve. Behind the right wing, following the course of the lower Kolocha, were four jager regiments. They'd not taken part in the battle and were fresh. The total Russian reserves thus consisted of 5,000 men, while the French still retained 20,000 fresh troops of the Imperial Guard.
In a style more familiar to the students of 20th century Soviet press releases, Kutusov reported a massive (and fictitious) artillery duel occurred, inflicting immense damage on the advancing French, who were thus forced to withdraw. It was a complete fabrication but, believing he had won a great victory, Kutusov sent a report to that effect to Czar Alexander. The courier was a light infantryman who'd not been engaged in the fighting and therefore only knew what he'd been told. There was thus much rejoicing in Moscow and Kutusov was inappropriately promoted to field marshal.
His personal victory complete, Kutusov sent Col. Toll and an aide to review they army. Later they reported the artillery had shot off most of its ammunition and the gun carriages and other equipment were in a terrible state, and the infantry was in even worse condition. On the field Col. Toll asked the name of a "regiment." The answer came that it was the "2nd Division!" The 7th Infantry Corps could barely muster 700 men, and both Russian armies together had no more than 50,000 fatigued and starving troops. Faced with that reality, Kutusov decided to retreat the following morning. His explained the move to the czar by saying he could more easily reconsolidate his forces by withdrawing them to the heights of Mozhaisk.
But the French had also suffered severely and they too withdrew from the battlefield behind the Kolocha that evening to take stock of their situation. As the Russians marched away, the French sank into an exhausted slumber. The Russians actually returned a small force to the battlefield and at daybreak, Barclay, seeing the French had abandoned the Raevsky Redoubt, sent General Miloradovitch and several battalions, accompanied by an artillery battery, to reoccupy the shattered position.
By dawn the Russian baggage and artillery had moved some distance down the road to Mozhaisk. Kutusov discovered the wagons he'd ordered for the transport of the army's wounded had not been actually arranged, but he was still able to carry off many of them in the mass of carts that followed his army. Slowly the ponderous column of retreating Russians drew away from the battlefield and the French showed no inclination to pursue them.
The French spent the day after the battle counting bodies and tending wounded. Napoleon was in a state of extreme depression. Though he had finally gotten his battle, it had been a bloody meat grinder, devoid of the subtle strokes so common in his earlier victories. And the Russians had survived to fight another day. Though bloodied, they were still capable of resistance. They were in the middle of their own country, able to replenish and reinforce their army far more easily than the French, who were at the end of a long and tenuous supply line. The battlefield yielded few trophies, only a handful of prisoners and some broken guns. The manner in which the Russians had stood, like machines, allowing themselves to be mown down by the massed French artillery amazed Napoleon and he feared the prospect of meeting them again. Murat began a tardy cavalry pursuit the afternoon of 8 September, but he was stopped by the Russian cavalry rearguard near Mozhaisk.
Various sources put the Russian losses at Borodino at between 38,500 and 44,000, but the official records shown 43,924 dead, wounded and missing. Among those losses were 23 generals. The true extent of the punishment absorbed by the Russian army is perhaps best illustrated by more graphic descriptions of individual formations. The 2nd Army of the West had been reduced from 20,000 to 14,000 men. Many battalions had fewer than 200 men remaining. The six grenadier battalions that had defended the Bagration Fleches were reduced to a total of about 300 men. The Empress Cuirassier Regiment had entered the battle with 400 men and ended it with only 95.
French losses were around 30,000, including 14 division and 22 brigade commanders, along with 32 staff officers, 86 aides-de-camp and 37 regimental colonels.
Both sides were left totally exhausted, physically and mentally. That was accentuated by the indecisive nature of the battle. It's also interesting to note that in salvaging what was left on the battlefield the French collected 20,000 artillery balls with which to restock their supplies.