The Borodino Battlefield

The Borodino Battlefield

The Borodino Battlefield

This map shows the Borodino Battlefield, with the Kalatsha River running diagonally across it and the New and Old Smolensk Roads marking the northern and southern boundaries most of the fighting. We also see the main Russian fortifications on their left wing and the creeks that played a part in the battle.

Battle of Borodino.

It was a Pyrrhic victory, costing Napoleon 1/3 of his troops. He was deep in Russian in the winter and it was difficult to resupply his army in the hostile territory of his enemy.

In his own words- "Of the fifty battles I have fought, the most terrible was that before Moscow. The French showed themselves to be worthy victors, and the Russians can rightly call themselves invincible."
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Cedar Brown

Tactically, it's undeniably a French victory. Napoleon was left in possession of the field and suffered fewer casualties as well. The cost of the battle was high though. He lost a large portion of his quickly disintegrating army. However. the road to Moscow was open and he was sure that capturing "Holy Moscow" would compel Tzar Alexander to make terms for peace. That turned out to be a miscalculation.

Strategically, it was not outrightly disastrous. Kutuzov shrunk away with his bloodied army leaving the largest city in Russia undefended. The worse thing was that Napoleon could not complete the destruction of the Russian forces. If he perhaps committed the Guard, he may have been able to rout the Russians. A battle of much greater strategic relevance was that at Maloyaroslavets. A fun name to say in a fake Russian accent.

After Moscow was burned, Alexander refused terms and it became clear that the Grande Armee could not be sustained in that territory, Napoleon decided upon strategic withdrawl. He planned to march into the Ukraine where the army could forage in unscorched country. The Kutuzov saw this and moved to block his march. They clashed at Maloyaroslavets forcing the Grande Armee to retreat along the Smolensk Road. Territory already stripped clean of all sustainance.

Yes, Borodino was a technical victory but a hollow one in the grand scheme of things.


Tactically, it's undeniably a French victory. Napoleon was left in possession of the field and suffered fewer casualties as well. The cost of the battle was high though. He lost a large portion of his quickly disintegrating army. However. the road to Moscow was open and he was sure that capturing "Holy Moscow" would compel Tzar Alexander to make terms for peace. That turned out to be a miscalculation.

Strategically, it was not outrightly disastrous. Kutuzov shrunk away with his bloodied army leaving the largest city in Russia undefended. The worse thing was that Napoleon could not complete the destruction of the Russian forces. If he perhaps committed the Guard, he may have been able to rout the Russians. A battle of much greater strategic relevance was that at Maloyaroslavets. A fun name to say in a fake Russian accent.

After Moscow was burned, Alexander refused terms and it became clear that the Grande Armee could not be sustained in that territory, Napoleon decided upon strategic withdrawl. He planned to march into the Ukraine where the army could forage in unscorched country. The Kutuzov saw this and moved to block his march. They clashed at Maloyaroslavets forcing the Grande Armee to retreat along the Smolensk Road. Territory already stripped clean of all sustainance.

Yes, Borodino was a technical victory but a hollow one in the grand scheme of things.


The Battle of Borodino was the largest single-day battle of the Napoleanic Wars and one of the largest that Europe had seen in history up until that point. It pitted Napolean Bonaparte and the French Grand Army against a roughly equal Russian force, each with perhaps 150,000 or more men. Although a French victory which led directly to the capture of Moscow, the casualties on both sides were immense, and Napolean was not able to hold his gains for long. Because of this, the short-lived French victory at Borodino was considered the high-water mark of Napolean’s empire, and the turning point which ultimately led to his defeat at the Battle of Leipzig a century later.


In June of 1812, Napolean Bonaparte, emperor of France and one of the most brilliant military commanders in history, undertook a campaign to defeat his last major opponent on the European continent: Russia. Over a quarter of a million soldiers from France and her allies crossed into Russia bent on capturing Moscow before winter. Napolean, who had hitherto been undefeated, began to run into difficulties immediately.

The biggest problem was the logistical nightmare casued by Russia’s vast distances. The French supply lines were immense and subject to almost continual harassment by Russian raids. Desertion, especially among the allies, was rampant. Nevertheless the French, led personally by Napolean, drove relentlessly on the Russian capital seeking to bring the Russian army to heel.

After a series of skirmishes wherein the French took several advance Russian positions, the main battle was joined at Borodino in September. The Russians prepared a series of defensive earthwork redoubts, as well as taking advantage of heavy forests, to make their stand. But as the battle unfolded, the two sides simply charged each other in frontal assaults of unimaginable carnage. A Russian attempt to outflank the French with Cossacks and cavalry failed to break the impasse, but it did concern Napolean enough to cause repercussions later in the battle.

Eventually the Russian army broke off and began to desert the battlefield. Worried about the threat of another cavalry attack, Napolean did not pursue the retreating Russians and lost what was his only real chance to destroy the Russian army permanently. Although the French were victorious and the road to Moscow lay open, the Russian army remained intact and while both sides received atrocious casualties, the Russians were ultimately able to recover while the French were not. This pyrrhic victory ultimately led to the end of Napolean’s Russia campaign and ultimately the Grand Army of France.


The Battle of Borodino, while technically a French victory, is accounted a Russian strategic and morale victory due to the damage inflicted on Napolean’s army. Because of this Borodino is an honored historical site in Russia. The battlefield, now located amid open, rolling farmland, is popular for military historians. The main site of interest is the Borodino memorial known as the Kutuzov Obelisk, in honor of the Russian commander who inflicted so much damage on the French during the campaign.

Borodino battlefield tour: where Napoleon won and lost

"Napoleon had entered Russia with more than 600,000 men. About half a million never made it home"

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Standing on a low knoll looking out over the birch woods and grassland of the great Russian plain, on a warm sunny day in May, I was trying to imagine myself as Napoleon Bonaparte. The knoll, topped by a monumental obelisk and framed by vertical cannon and neatly stacked ammunition, marks the remains of the Shevardino Redoubt, where, 200 years ago next Friday, the great strategist stood, surveying the field of Borodino with his Grande Armée laid out before him. At that moment he was one of the most powerful men the world had ever seen. He controlled virtually all of continental Europe, from Sicily to the Baltic and the Atlantic to Poland.

More than two months into his invasion of Russia, however, things were not going well. As he advanced, the Russian army had, very sensibly, refused to engage properly with the Grande Armée, withdrawing ever deeper into the steppes and forests, destroying crops and resources as it went, and sacrificing Vilnius, Minsk and Smolensk on the way. As a result, Napoleon’s supply lines had become dangerously stretched, and his troops were tired and hungry. He himself, as Tolstoy points out in War and Peace, which brilliantly chronicles the invasion, was tired and frustrated, plagued by a cold.

Now, at last, outside the village of Borodino, 70 miles west of Moscow, the Russian forces, under their new commander – Kutuzov – had turned to fight. Nearly 300,000 men – two of Europe’s greatest armies – were pitted against each other. This was the Frenchman’s chance. A decisive victory at Borodino would leave the Russians in disarray and Moscow at his mercy.

You can still see the main battle positions today, marked by a series of columns and memorials, spread over several square miles. It’s an eerily peaceful place. Gently rolling country is laced with streams and pockets of woodland where tens of thousands of soldiers lie buried. Although it marks one of the most significant turning points in European history, only tiny numbers of foreign tourists come here, and surprisingly few Russians.

Near the monastery built by Margarita Tuchkov at the spot where her husband, General Tuchkov, fell on the day of the battle, you can see the remains of the earthworks – the flèches – dug by Prince Bagration to protect his battalions at the centre of the Russian lines. They were eventually taken by the French, but only after eight attacks and the loss of 30,000 infantry.

A mile to the north is another raised earthwork capped by an onion-domed monument. This is the Raevsky Redoubt, another critical Russian position, which changed hands several times amid some of the most brutal fighting of the day. It is from here that Pierre, Tolstoy’s naive, unworldly hero, witnesses the battle. The position finally fell to the French at 3.30pm, but the victory was meaningless. As at the flèches, Napoleon had seized a key position, but was inexplicably cautious in following up his success. Critically, he was reluctant to commit his elite Imperial Guard to the fray, despite the urgings of his generals. “I will most definitely not I do not want to have it blown up. I am certain of winning the battle without its intervention,” he is supposed to have replied.

The result of this caution was that Kutuzov, stationed on a bluff just outside Borodino, was able to withdraw his forces in reasonable order. The road to Moscow was now open, and Napoleon had won a technical victory, but at huge cost. The battle had been the bloodiest single day of the entire Napoleonic wars, with combined losses of about 65,000 men. And he had still failed to deliver the decisive blow.

Still, all might have been well for the French emperor, if only the Russians had done what he expected. They didn’t. The order was given to abandon Moscow. By the time the French arrived, less than a third of the population – mostly stragglers, foreigners and those too poor or too frightened to move – was left. Stores had been plundered, law and order was breaking down.

To Napoleon’s chagrin, there was no one to surrender to him, no Tsar to fall on bended knee and submit his imperial will, no aristocracy to entertain him, no Russian generals to hand over their authority. It was a hollow victory. More importantly, the situation almost immediately became positively dangerous for him. Moscow’s buildings were built mostly of wood, and within a day of his arrival a massive conflagration engulfed the city.

He found himself emperor of a smoking ruin and commander of a hungry and dispirited army. On October 19, fearing the severity of the Russian winter, he ordered his army to withdraw.

It was too late. After Borodino, the Russian army had regrouped to the south of Moscow. Kutuzov chased and harried the retreating Grande Armée, slaughtering thousands, while many more died of cold and hunger. In December, Napoleon informed his commanders he was going home to Paris. He swept off in his sleigh, wrapped in furs.

He had entered Russia with more than 600,000 men. About half a million never made it home. The total losses during the six-month campaign, including Russian civilian deaths, probably amounted to one million. How are the mighty fallen. And how many they bring down with them.=

  • Nick Trend flew to Moscow with British Airways (, which offers returns from Heathrow from £255, including taxes and charges. He stayed at the Ritz-Carlton (, near Red Square, which has double rooms from £225 per person.

The battlefield

When I visited in May, the visitor centre at Borodino was closed for restoration and due to reopen for the 200th anniversary. It now looks as though this won’t happen, though it is hoped it will be open by next summer. As well as the key battlefield sights, visitors can see the museum to Tolstoy and War and Peace – a former guesthouse by the Tuchkov monastery where he stayed in1867, when researching the novel. It holds some of his manuscripts, notes, cannon balls, musket shot and other memorabilia of the battle and the novel.

The easiest way to get to the battlefield is to take a private guided tour by car from Moscow. These are expensive (about £300 through the Ritz-Carlton hotel, for example – see above). Much cheaper is to go by train (two hours, £5 each way), though the station is a couple of miles from the key sights, so be prepared to do a good deal of walking.

In Moscow

Much of the Moscow that Napoleon would have recognised had burned down within days of his arrival. He lodged himself in the Kremlin, one of the key sights of the city (see our Expert Guide to Moscow at, but – not surprisingly – there are no memorials to him there.

The Borodino Panorama Museum

The recently restored Borodino Panorama, which first went on show in 1912, is a rather old-fashioned but surprisingly effective 360-degree painting that portrays the scene in the middle of the battle as though the viewer is standing on the Raevsky Redoubt. Once you get your bearings, you can start to pick out the Russian and French positions, and Napoleon himself mounted on a white charger. It’s a good way to get a feel for the field before travelling out to Borodino. There are also displays of paintings, uniforms and other artefacts from the battle. 38 Kutuzovsky prospekt (Park Pobedy metro).

The Tolstoy connection

The story of Napoleon’s invasion and retreat provides the plot for Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Leo Tolstoy was a wealthy aristocrat with his own large estates, and you can visit his country home Yasnaya Polyana (, a three-hour drive south of Moscow. His own town house, at Ul Lva Tolstogo 21 (Park Kultury metro), was relatively modest and is one of the few surviving wooden houses in the city. It was built in 1805, but Tolstoy bought it in 1882 and lived there for 19 winters with his family of eight children. It’s now an atmospheric museum with a table set with English faience tableware, plus his piano in the corner room, and his chess set, bicycle and bearskin rugs. It has a peaceful woodland garden.

Aficionados of War and Peace might be interested in the grand 18th-century residence (now known as the House of Writers and not open to the public) at 52 Povarskaya Street, just north of Arbat, which was the model for the Rostov mansion in War and Peace. After the crash in his family fortunes, Nikolai Rostov moved to a much smaller house, which Tolstoy based on the little single-storey building nearby at 34 Sivtsev Vrazhek Pereulok, where he himself had lived briefly in 1850. There is a small plaque on the wall in commemoration.

The battle [ edit | edit source ]

Position [ edit | edit source ]

The ground taken up by the left wing presented no particular advantages. Some hillocks with a gentle slope, and perhaps twenty feet high, together with strips of shrubby wood, formed so confused a whole, that it was difficult to pronounce which party would have the advantage of the ground. Thus, the best side of the position, the right wing, could be of no avail to redeem the defects of the left. The whole position too strongly indicated the left flank to the French as the object of the operation, to admit to their forces being attracted to the right.

— Carl von Clausewitz, The Battle of Borodono, Mikaberidze, Alexander p.26

The Russian position at Borodino consisted of a series of disconnected earthworks running in an arc from the Moskva River on the right, along its tributary, the Kolocha (whose steep banks added to the defense), and towards the village of Utitsa on the left. ⎬] Thick woods interspersed along the Russian left and center (on the French side of the Kolocha) made the deployment and control of French forces difficult, aiding the defenders. The Russian center was defended by the Raevsky Redoubt, a massive open-backed earthwork mounting 19 12-pounder cannons which had a clear field of fire all the way to the banks of the Kolocha stream.

Kutuzov was very concerned that the French might take the New Smolensk Road around his positions and on to Moscow ⎭] so placed the more powerful 1st Army under Barclay on the right, in positions which were already strong and virtually unassailable by the French. The 2nd Army under Bagration was expected to hold the left. The fall of Shevardino unanchored the Russian left flank but Kutuzov did nothing to change these initial dispositions despite the repeated pleas of his generals to redeploy their forces. Thus, when the action began and became a defensive rather than an offensive battle for the Russians, their heavy preponderance in artillery was wasted on a right wing that would never be attacked, while the French artillery did much to help win the battle. ⎬] Toll and others would make attempts to cover up their mistakes in this deployment and later attempts by historians would compound the issue. ⎮] Indeed, Clausewitz too complained about Toll's dispositions being so narrow and deep that needless losses were incurred from artillery fire. The Russian position therefore was just about 8 kilometres (5 mi) long with about 80,000 of the 1st Army on the right and 34,000 of the 2nd Army on the left. ⎯]

Bagration's flèches [ edit | edit source ]

Nansouty's heavy cavalry attacks squares of Russian guardsmen to the left of Semyanovskaya (background) to support Ney's attack. Detail from the Borodino Panorama by Franz Roubaud, 1912.

Russian Leib-Guard attacking at Borodino

The first area of operations was on the Bagration flèches, as had been predicted by both Barclay de Tolly and Bagration. Napoleon, in command of the French forces, made errors similar to those of his Russian adversary, deploying his forces inefficiently and failing to exploit the weaknesses in the Russian line. Despite Marshal Davout's suggestion of a maneuver to outflank the weak Russian left, the Emperor instead ordered Davout's First Corps to move directly forward into the teeth of the defense, while the flanking maneuver was left to the weak Fifth Corps of Prince Poniatowski. ⎰] The initial French attack was aimed at seizing the three Russian positions collectively known as the Bagration flèches, four arrow-head shaped, open-backed earthworks which arced out to the left en échelon in front of the Kolocha stream. These positions helped support the Russian left, which had no terrain advantages. There was much to be desired in the construction of the flèches, one officer noting that the ditches were much too shallow, the embrasures open to the ground, making them easy to enter, and that they were much too wide exposing infantry inside them. ⎱] The flèches were supported by artillery from the village of Semyanovskaya, whose elevation dominated the other side of the Kolocha. ⎬] The battle began at 06:00 with the opening of the 102-gun French grand battery against the Russian center. ⎲] Davout sent Compans's Division against the southernmost of the flèches, with Dessaix's Division echeloned out to the left. ⎳] When Compans exited the woods on the far bank of the Kolocha, he was hit by massed Russian cannon fire both Compans and Dessaix were wounded, but the French continued their assault. ⎴]

Davout, seeing the confusion, personally led the 57th Line Regiment (Le Terrible) forward until he had his horse shot from under him he fell so hard that General Sorbier reported him as dead. General Rapp arrived to replace him, only to find Davout alive and leading the 57th forward again. Rapp then led the 61st Line Regiment forward when he was wounded (for the 22nd time in his career). By 07:30, Davout had gained control of the three flèches. Prince Bagration quickly led a counterattack that threw the French out of the positions, only to have Marshal Michel Ney lead a charge by the 24th Regiment that retook them. ⎴] Although not enamoured of Barclay, Bagration turned to him for aid, ignoring Kutuzov altogether Barclay, to his credit, responded quickly, sending three guard regiments, eight grenadier battalions, and twenty-four 12-pounder cannon at their best pace to bolster Semyаnovskaya. ⎵] Prince Bagration was wounded here as early as 09:30 hours ⎶] while Colonel Toll, and Kutuzov moved the Guard Reserve units forward as early as 09:00 hours. ⎷]

Ney's infantry push Russian grenadiers back from the flèches (which can be seen from the rear in the background). Detail from the Borodino Panorama.

During the confused fighting, French and Russian units moved forward into impenetrable smoke and were smashed by artillery and musketry fire that was horrendous even by Napoleonic standards. Infantry and cavalrymen had difficulty maneuvering over the heaps of corpses and masses of wounded. Murat advanced with his cavalry around the flèches to attack Bagration's infantry, but was confronted by Duka's 2nd Cuirassier Division supported by Neverovsky's infantry. This counterpunch drove Murat to seek the cover of allied Württemberger infantry. Barclay's reinforcements, however, were sent into the fray only to be torn to pieces by French artillery, leaving Friant's Division in control of the Russian forward position at 11:30. Dust, smoke, confusion, and exhaustion all combined to keep the French commanders on the field (Davout, Ney, and Murat) from comprehending that all the Russians before them had fallen back, were in confusion, and ripe for the taking. Napoleon, who had been sick with a cold and was too far from the action to really observe what was going on, refused to send his subordinates reinforcements he was hesitant to release his last reserve, the Imperial Guard, so far from France. ⎸]

First attacks on the Raevsky redoubt [ edit | edit source ]

Saxon cuirassiers and Polish lancers of Latour-Maubourg's cavalry corps clash with Russian cuirassiers. The rise of Raevsky redoubt is on the right, the steeple of Borodino church in the background. Detail from the Borodino Panorama.

Prince Eugène de Beauharnais advanced his corps against Borodino, rushing the village and capturing it from the Russian Guard Jägers. ⎹] However, the advancing columns rapidly lost their cohesion shortly after clearing Borodino, they faced fresh Russian assault columns and retreated back to the village. General Delzons was posted to Borodino to prevent the Russians retaking it. ⎺] Morand's division then crossed to the north side of the Semyenovka stream, while the remainder of Eugène's forces crossed three bridges across the Kolocha to the south, placing them on the same side of the stream as the Russians. He then deployed most of his artillery and began to push the Russians back toward the Raevsky redoubt. Broussier and Morand's divisions then advanced together with furious artillery support. The redoubt changed hands as Barclay was forced to personally rally Paskevitch's routed regiment. ⎻] Kutuzov then ordered Yermolov to take action the general brought forward three horse artillery batteries that began to blast the open-ended redoubt, while the 3rd Battalion of the Ufa Regiment and two Jäger regiments brought up by Barclay rushed in with the bayonet to eliminate Bonami's Brigade. ⎼] The Russian reinforcements' assault returned the redoubt to Russian control.

French and Russian cavalry clash behind the Raevsky redoubt. Details from Roubaud's panoramic painting.

Eugène's artillery continued to pound Russian support columns, while Marshals Ney and Davout set up a crossfire with artillery positioned on the Semyonovskaya heights. ⎽] Barclay countered by moving the Prussian General Eugen over to the right to support Miloradovich in his defense of the redoubt. ⎾] The French responded to this move by sending forward General Sorbier, commander of the Imperial Guard artillery. Sorbier brought forth 36 artillery pieces from the Imperial Guard Artillery Park and also took command of 49 horse artillery pieces from Nansouty's Ist Cavalry Corps and La Tour Maubourg's IV Cavalry Corps, as well as of Viceroy Eugène's own artillery, opening up a massive artillery barrage. ⎿] When Barclay brought up troops against an attacking French brigade, he described it as "a walk into Hell". ⎽] During the height of the battle, Kutuzov's subordinates were making all of the decisions for him according to Colonel Karl von Clausewitz, famous for his work On War, the Russian commander "seemed to be in a trance." ⎾] With the death of General Kutaisov, Chief of Artillery, most of the Russian cannon sat useless on the heights to the rear and were never ordered into battle, while the French artillery wreaked havoc on the Russians. ⏀]

The Cossack raid on the Northern Flank [ edit | edit source ]

On the morning of the battle at around 07:30, patrols of Don Cossacks from Matvei Platov's pulk had discovered a ford across the Kolocha river, on the extreme Russian right (northern) flank. Seeing that the ground in front of them was clear of enemy forces, Platov saw an opportunity to go around the French left flank and into the enemy's rear. He at once sent one of his aides to ask for permission from Kutuzov for such an operation. Platov's aide was lucky enough to encounter Colonel von Toll, an enterprising member of Kutuzov's staff, who suggested that General Uvarov's Ist Cavalry Corps be added to the operation and at once volunteered to present the plan to the commander-in-chief. Together, they went to see Kutuzov, who nonchalantly gave his permission. There was however no clear plan and no objectives had been drawn up, the whole manoeuvre being interpreted by both Kutuzov and Uvarov as a feint. Uvarov and Platov thus set off, having just around 8000 cavalrymen and 12 guns in total, and no infantry support. As Uvarov moved southwest and south and Platov moved west, they eventually arrived in the undefended rear of Viceroy Eugène's IV Corps. This was towards midday, just as the Viceroy was getting his orders to conduct another assault on the Raevski redoubt. The sudden appearance of masses of enemy cavalry so close to the supply train and to the Emperor's Headquarters caused panic and consternation and prompted Eugène to immediately cancel his attack and pull back his entire Corps westwards to deal with this alarming situation. Meanwhile, the two Russian cavalry commanders tried to break what French infantry they could find in the vicinity, but, having no infantry of their own, the poorly coordinated Russian attacks came to nothing. Unable to achieve much else, Platov and Uvarov moved back to their own lines and the action was perceived as a failure by both Kutuzov and the Russian General Staff. As it turned out, however, the action had the utmost importance in the outcome of the battle, as it delayed the attack of the IV Corps on the Raevski redoubt for a critical two hours. During these two hours, the Russians were able to reassess the situation, realize the terrible state of Bagration's 2nd Army and send reinforcements to the front line. Meanwhile, the retreat of Viceroy Eugène's Corps had left Montbrun's II French Cavalry Corps to fill the gap under the most murderous fire, which used and demoralized these cavalrymen, greatly reducing their combat effectiveness. The delay contradicted a military principle the Emperor had stated many times: "Ground I may recover, time never." ⏁] Also, the Cossack's raid contributed to Napoleon's later decision not to commit his Imperial Guard to battle. ⎖]

Final attack on Raevsky redoubt [ edit | edit source ]

French cuirassiers charge into the Raevsky redoubt.

At 14:00, Napoleon renewed the assault against the redoubt, as Broussier's, Morand's, and Gérard's divisions launched a massive frontal attack, with Chastel's light cavalry division on their left and the II Reserve Cavalry Corps on their right ⎾] At the Russian sides, 24th Division of Likhachov was sent into the battle. The Russian fought bravely under Likachev's motto: "Brethren, behind us is Moscow !" But the French troops approached too close for the cannons to fire, and the cannoneers had to use everything to fight against their foes. ⎖] General Caulaincourt ordered Watier's cuirassier division to lead the assault. Barclay watched Eugène's assault preparations and countered it, moving his forces against it. The French artillery, however, began bombarding the assembling force even as it gathered. Caulaincourt led the attack of Watier's cuirassiers into the opening at the back of the redoubt and met his death as the charge was stopped cold by Russian musketry. ⏂] General Thielmann then led eight Saxon and two Polish cavalry squadrons against the back of the redoubt, while officers and sergeants of his command actually forced their horses through the redoubt's embrasures, sowing confusion and allowing the French cavalry and infantry to take the position. The battle had all but ended, with both sides so exhausted that only the artillery was still at work. Ζ] At 15:30, the Raevsky redoubt fell with most of the 24th Division's troops. All the Russian cannoneers in Raevsky also died right next to their cannons, ⎖] and General Likhachev was captured by the French. ⏃] But, besides the dead Russian troops were the corpses of 1000 Caulaincourt's cuirassiers, including Caulaincourt himself. ⎖]

However, the fall of the Raevsky redoubt did not have much meaning. The Russian troops successfully moved to the rear without being destroyed (despite suffering heavy losses). So, in spite of losing some areas in the battlefield, the Russian formation was prevented from collapsing. On the French side, the gain of the Raevsky redoubt cost them large casualties and, after that, Napoleon himself ordered his troops to retreat to the starting line. The Russians then reoccupied their previous positions. ⎖]

Utitsa [ edit | edit source ]

The third area of operations was around the village of Utitsa. The village was at the southern end of the Russian positions and lay along the old Smolensk road. It was rightly perceived as a potential weak point in the defense as a march along the road could turn the entire position at Borodino. Despite such concerns the area was a tangle of rough country thickly covered in heavy brush well suited for deploying light infantry. The forest was dense, the ground marshy and Russian Jaeger were deployed there in some numbers. Russian General Nikolay Tuchkov had some 23,000 troops but half were untrained Opolchenye (militia) armed only with pikes and axes and not ready for deployment. ⏄] Poniatowski had about 10,000 men all trained and very eager to fight but his first attempt did not go well. It was at once realized the massed troops and artillery could not move through the forest against Jaeger opposition so had to reverse to Yelnya and then move eastward. ⏄] Tuchkov had deployed his 1st Grenadier Division in line backing it with the 3rd division in battalion columns. Some four regiments were called away to help defend the redoubts that were under attack and another 2 Jaeger regiments were deployed in the Utitsa woods, weakening the position. The Polish contingent contested for the village of Utitsa, effecting its capture with their first attempt but Tuchkov had ejected the French forces by 08:00. General Jean-Andoche Junot led the Westphalians to join the attack and again captured Utitsa, which however was set on fire by the departing Russians. After the village's capture, Russians and Poles continued to skirmish and cannonade for the rest of the day without much progress. The heavy undergrowth greatly hindered Poniatowski's efforts but eventually he came near to cutting off Tuchkov from the rest of the Russian forces. ⏅] General Barclay sent help in the form of Karl Gustav von Baggovut with Konovnitzyn in support. ⏅] Any hope of real progress by the Poles was then lost. ⏆]

Napoleon's refusal to commit the Guard [ edit | edit source ]

Towards 15:00, after hours of heroic and stoic resistance, the Russian army was in dire straits, but the no less valiant French forces were exhausted and had neither the necessary stamina nor the necessary will to carry out another assault of the enemy line. At this crucial juncture, Murat's chief of staff, General Augustin Daniel Belliard rode straight to the Emperor's Headquarters and, according to General Ségur who wrote an account of the campaign, told him that the Russian line had been breached, that the road to Mozhaysk, behind the Russian line, was visible through the gaping hole the French attack had pierced, that an enormous crowd of runaways and vehicles were hastily retreating, and that a final push would be enough to decide the fate of the Russian army and of the war. Generals Daru, Dumas and Marshal Louis Alexandre Berthier also joined in and told the Emperor that everyone thought the time had come for the Guard to be committed to battle. Given the ferocity of the Russian defense, everyone was aware that such a move would cost the lives of thousands of Guardsmen, but it was thought that the presence of this prestigious unit would bolster the morale of the entire army for a final decisive push. A notable exception was Marshal Bessières, commander of the Guard cavalry, who was one of the very few senior generals to strongly advise against the intervention of the Guard. As the general staff were discussing the matter, general Rapp, a senior aide-de-camp to the Emperor, was being brought from the field of battle, having been wounded in action. He immediately recommended to the Emperor that the Guard be deployed for action at which the Emperor is said to have retorted: "I will most definitely not I do not want to have it blown up. I am certain of winning the battle without its intervention." ⏇] Determined not to commit this valuable final reserve so far away from France, Napoleon rejected another such request, this time from Marshal Ney. Instead, he called the commander of the "Young Guard", Marshal Mortier and instructed him to guard the field of battle without moving forward or backward, while at the same time unleashing a massive cannonade with his 400 guns. ⏈]

Bones for Fertilizer

Human remains could still be seen at Waterloo a year after the battle. A company was contracted to collect the visible bones and grind them up for fertilizer. Other Napoleonic battlefields were also reportedly scoured for this purpose. In November 1822 a British paper reported:

It is estimated that more than a million of bushels of human and inhuman bones were imported last year from the continent of Europe into the port of Hull. The neighbourhood of Leipsic, Austerlitz, Waterloo, and of all the places where, during the late bloody war, the principal battles were fought, have been swept alike of the bones of the hero and of the horse which he rode. Thus collected from every quarter, they have been shipped to the port of Hull, and thence forwarded to the Yorkshire bone grinders, who have erected steam-engines and powerful machinery, for the purpose of reducing them to a granulary state. In this condition they are sent chiefly to Doncaster, one of the largest agricultural markets in that part of the country, and are there sold to the farmers to manure their lands. The oily substance, gradually evolving as the bone calcines, makes a more substantial manure than almost any other substance, particularly human bones. It is now ascertained beyond a doubt, by actual experiment upon an extensive scale, that a dead soldier is a most valuable article of commerce and, for ought known to the contrary, the good farmers of Yorkshire are, in a great measure, indebted to the bones of their children for their daily bread. It is certainly a singular fact, that Great Britain should have sent out such multitudes of soldiers to fight the battles of this country upon the continent of Europe, and should then import their bones as an article of commerce to fatten her soil! (10)

SH Archive Battle of Borodino: Napoleon's Army and Battle Evidence

The Battle of Borodino was a battle fought on 7 September 1812 in the Napoleonic Wars during the French invasion of Russia. The fighting involved around 250,000 troops and left at least 70,000 casualties, making Borodino the deadliest day of the Napoleonic Wars.

I find it interesting that in certain instances we know what Julius Caesar had for breakfast 2,000 years ago, and in others we are unsure whether 100,000 people were present at the Borodino Field for one of the most important battles of the 19th century. Kudos to Wikipedia for calculating the minimum, but at its max we could have had 350,000 people.

I'm not sure what battle you can have with 250,000-350,000 people, and whatever number of horses within a 3x2 mile area. It sure is easy to draw maps, but sticking all those people into this constricted space and making them fight. I don't know.

There is this Battle of Borodino webpage, with a few paintings accompanied by corresponding descriptions. If those paintings are representative of the battle in question, where are those 250,000 - 350,000 soldiers and god knows how many horses.

Sure you can fit all those people in there, but. Was it a battle, or was it a parade?



I regularly attend soccer games, 50,000 people in a small place, even with police and security, and '21st century tech' it is organised chaos outside at best, even without any trouble.

Imagine 5 x that ammount of people (on each side? , taking orders, sticking to orders, injured, dead, then the horses. Thats no battle, it would just be unbridled chaos. I simply don't buy the numbers, never mind the logistics.

Archive Archive

We've been to this lady's site before but here's some things she has found in contemporary accounts all be it told third hand, at least, as she seems to be quoting from other authors book.

  • After passing the Kologa, we marched on, absorbed in thought, when some of us, raising our eyes, uttered a cry of horror. Each one instantly looked about him, and there lay stretched before us a plain trampled, bare, and devastated, all the trees cut down within a few feet from the surface, and farther off craggy hills, the highest of which appeared misshapen, and bore a striking resemblance to an extinguished volcano. The ground around us was everywhere covered with fragments of helmets and cuirasses, with broken drums, gun-stocks, tatters of uniforms, and standards dyed with blood.
  • On this desolate spot lay thirty thousand half-devoured corpses while a pile of skeletons on the summit of one of the hills overlooked the whole. It seems as though death had here fixed his throne.
  • Napoleon had ordered the Westphalian VIII Corps to stay and guard the battlefield, transport the wounded to hospitals, and bury the dead while the rest of the army continued on to Moscow. However, the corps could do little for the wounded, as the hospital system was rudimentary and no wagons or other means of transport could be found in the deserted villages.
  • The Westphalians remained on the battlefield surrounded by corpses and dying men, and they were forced to change position from time to time on account of the stench…. soldiers, at the request of some of the wounded in extreme agony, shot them dead and turned the face away while shooting… When von Borcke was riding on horseback over the battle-field on the 5th day after the battle, he saw wounded soldiers lying alongside the cadaver of a horse, gnawing at its flesh. On September 12th the Westphalians moved to Moshaisk, which was deserted by all inhabitants, plundered and half in ashes…. Burnt bodies were lying in the ruins of the houses which had been burnt, the entrance of these places being almost blockaded by cadavers. The only church…contained several hundred wounded and as many corpses of men dead for a number of days…. Soldiers, Westphalians as well as Russian prisoners, were ordered to remove the corpses from the houses and the streets, and then a recleansing of the whole town was necessary before it could be occupied by the troops.
  • After passing over a little river, we arrived at the famous battlefield [Borodino], covered all over with the dead, and with debris of all kinds. Legs, arms, and heads lay on the ground. Most of the bodies were Russians, as ours had been buried, as far as possible but, as everything had been very hastily done, the heavy rain had uncovered many of them. It was a sad spectacle, the dead bodies hardly retaining a human resemblance. The battle had been fought fifty-two days before.
  • After the Battle of Waterloo, local peasants were hired to clean up the battlefield, supervised by medical staff. The allied dead were buried in pits. The French corpses were burned. Ten days after the battle, a visitor reported seeing the flames at Hougoumont.
  • The pyres had been burning for eight days and by then the fire was being fed solely by human fat. There were thighs, arms and legs piled up in a heap and some fifty workmen, with handkerchiefs over their noses, were raking the fire and the bones with long forks.

Human remains could still be seen at Waterloo a year after the battle. A company was contracted to collect the visible bones and grind them up for fertilizer. Other Napoleonic battlefields were also reportedly scoured for this purpose.


The depiction of post-battle scavenging in Napoleon in America is based on fact. Soldiers were typically the first to pick through the dead and wounded, taking weapons, clothing and valuables. There was little sentimentality involved. The victors looted from the fallen of both sides. It was a matter of survival, or profit. Camp followers – civilians and women who accompanied the men on campaign – also stole and salvaged from the battlefield. So did the local inhabitants, who had to deal with the mess the armies left behind. British General Robert Wilson described the scene after the Battle of Heilsberg (1807):

The ground between the wood and the Russian batteries, about a quarter of a mile, was a sheet of naked human bodies, which friends and foes had during the night mutually stripped, although numbers of these bodies still retained consciousness of their situation. It was a sight that the eye loathed, but from which it could not remove. (1)

French soldier Jean Baptiste de Marbot, wounded in the Battle of Eylau (1807), gave a sense of what it was like to be one of the bodies:

Stretched on the snow among the piles of dead and dying, unable to move in any way, I gradually and without pain lost consciousness…. I judge that my swoon lasted four hours, and when I came to my sense I found myself in this horrible position. I was completely naked, having nothing on but my hat and my right boot. A man of the transport corps, thinking me dead, had stripped me in the usual fashion, and wishing to pull off the only boot that remained, was dragging me by one leg with his foot against my body. The jerk which the man gave me no doubt had restored me to my senses. I succeeded in sitting up and spitting out the clots of blood from my throat. The shock caused by the wind of the ball had produced such an extravasation of blood, that my face, shoulders, and chest were black, while the rest of my body was stained red by the blood from my wound. My hat and my hair were full of bloodstained snow, and as I rolled my haggard eyes I must have been horrible to see. Anyhow, the transport man looked the other way, and went off with my property without my being able to say a single word to him, so utterly prostrate was I. (2)

One of the unusual things about the remains of a soldier unearthed in 2012 at the battlefield of Waterloo (1815) is that the man does not appear to have been robbed.

Russia’s historic Borodino battlefield is in war with cottages

BORODINO, Russia — Dozens of war buffs in fur hats, capes and tights rode prancing horses, practicing for the battle reenactment. Workers frantically laid tiles, paved roads and touched up monuments in a skirmish of last-minute activity before Sunday’s anniversary festivities.

But 200 years after Russian forces fought Napoleon’s men in the apocalyptic Battle of Borodino, leaving 70,000 people dead and the ground soaked with blood, a new enemy is on the march on the edges of the iconic battlefield immortalized in “War and Peace.”

Two-story dachas, slick and modern, are springing up on the rolling grassland where Russian soldiers, whom Leo Tolstoy described as “tortured” and “terrified,” waged a battle that many see as a turning point against the invading French.

Russians are outraged that local officials had taken advantage of lax land regulation to sell off parcels of national parkland — many of them, locals allege, to rich people from nearby Moscow.

“A cottage village could have grown right behind a monument!” said an incensed Anna Pakhomova, the public relations director of the State Borodino War and History Museum and Reserve.

Last month, President Vladimir Putin, who on Sunday will be the first head of state to show up for an anniversary since Czar Nicholas II visited Borodino in 1912, ordered subordinates to draft laws that will protect Borodino and other historic sites.

But land sales, especially in the Moscow region, are the most corrupt sphere of governance in Russia, said Moscow anti-corruption activist Sergei Korolev. Land-grabbing officials know they have nothing to fear because few face any reprisals, he said.

“Local officials are ready to sell this land without thinking of the legacy, probably because many of their children don’t live in Russia, so they don’t care,” Korolev said. “Neither the government nor the citizens follow the laws.”

Although the Battle of Borodino is honored on the first Sunday of September every year with a reenactment, the bicentennial is a much bigger deal.

French and Russian troops fought the decisive battle on Sept. 7, or Aug. 26 on the old Julian calendar used at the time in Russia. It was the bloodiest battle of the war.

The French, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, invaded Russia in June 1812 after conquering much of Europe. They tore through western Russia on their advance to Moscow. At Borodino, they won the battle, but suffered such heavy losses that they were not able to rebound. French forces soon left Russia, a shadow of their former size, and Napoleon subsequently lost much of his European empire.

Countless artworks commemorate the battle. Putin quoted Mikhail Lermontov’s poem “Borodino” during a campaign rally in Moscow, which drew more than 100,000 Russians (many of whom were forced to attend by their employers).

“Let’s die outside of Moscow. Like our brothers died! And we promised to die, and swore to be faithful during the Borodino battle,” Putin said in February.

Perhaps the most famous account of the Borodino battle comes in “War and Peace.”

“Several tens of thousands of people lay dead in different positions and uniforms in the fields and meadows,” Tolstoy wrote.

“An acre of land and grass was saturated in blood at spots where the infirmaries stood. Crowds of wounded and healthy people from different troops, with terrified faces, from one side staggered back toward Mozhaisk, from the other side back toward Valuyev. Other crowds, tortured and hungry, walked forward to carry out the orders of their commanders. The third group stood at their places and continued to shoot.”

To many Russians, such a hallowed spot is hardly the place for summer cottages. Confusing laws and rampant corruption are partly to blame for their spread, Pakhomova and Korolev said.

The Soviet government deemed Borodino a national park and outlined its boundaries in 1961, but the boundaries were not officially included in the government registry the reasons are unclear.

During the Soviet years, the government owned several villages and farms in the park that had existed for centuries. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, although the majority of the park remained government property, more than 10,000 farmers and villagers became owners of plots of land that they lived or farmed on.

Local councils were formed, four of which have dominion in the park and were given power over the land not owned by the government. In 2009, a federal law was passed allowing the councils to convert farmland into much more valuable plots for country cottages.

Even though national parkland is the domain of the federal government, some local officials took advantage of lax regulation and lack of official boundaries and converted some of the farmland on the Borodino reserve into cottage parcels, Korolev said. More than a hundred cottages went up, mostly on the outskirts of the reserve.

Finally, after numerous letters from the Borodino museum and angry activists, the Kremlin got involved. An investigation was opened and several cases were filed to the local court in nearby Mozhaisk.

One involved a former Borodino region head of administration, Maya Sklyuyeva, who was removed from her post this year. She had converted 94 acres of the reserve’s land into cottage land and turned four plots into her family’s personal property. The museum’s director was also investigated for negligence for allowing the cottages to be built, but was cleared.

This spring, the court ruled that 11 cottages must be demolished, said Vadim Skvortsov, deputy head of the administration of Mozhaisk region, responsible for Borodino. Complaints about other cottages are still being reviewed. Putin’s head of administration, Sergei Ivanov, acknowledged last month that the cottages wouldn’t be down before the anniversary.

Despite the scandal, Internet ads for land and houses in the Borodino area abound. “Beautiful historic place, Borodino museum reserve is nearby,” an advertisement placed in July reads.

Villagers don’t believe the cottages will be demolished.

“Everywhere they are converting farmland to cottage villages. There is big money in that, not just here, all over the Moscow region,” said one 70-year-old, who wouldn’t give his name for fear of problems with the local administration.

The Borodino Battlefield - History

By John Walker

By mid-afternoon on September 7, 1812, Russian troops had lost control of the earthworks on their left flank at Borodino. The defensive position known as the Bagration fleches had changed hands multiple times over the course of the savage fighting throughout the day.

French Emperor Napoleon’s Grand Armée and Russian Tsar Alexander’s Imperial Army were engaged in a titanic struggle on the road to Moscow in which approximately 250,000 men were crowded into a three-square-mile area along the Kolocha River. The compact area had been transformed from peaceful rural pastureland into a gruesome landscape in which thousands of dead and wounded soldiers lay amid a sea of dead horses and shattered equipment.

The linchpin of the Russian defense was the Great Redoubt, which dominated the center of the Imperial Army’s position and remained in Russian hands. If the French could seize the strongpoint, it would put them in a position to pierce the Russian line and destroy Field Marshal Prince Mikhail Kutusov’s army.

Two days before the final battle, Russian cavalry wade into French infantry assailing the Shevardino Redoubt. The redoubt was too far in front of the main Russian line to be defended.

After two decades of war in which France had gone from a nation in the throes of civil war to a powerful empire, by 1812 it had conquered much of Europe. Napoleon had assimilated the Low Countries and parts of western Germany and northern Italy into a strong core that was buttressed with various satellite states and confederations ruled by relatives and loyal allies. On the political and economic fronts, Napoleon busied himself with a governmental structure that would fuse his conquests and acquisitions and ensure the perpetuation of the largest European empire since that of ancient Rome.

The foremost impediment to such a resolution was Britain, with which Napoleon had become locked in a struggle for global maritime and continental supremacy. Unable to confront the British on the high seas, Napoleon tried to destroy it economically by closing the entire European continent to its trade, thereby securing a captive market for French manufacturing and agriculture. Napoleon’s Continental System never succeeded entirely in preventing British goods from reaching mainland ports. In the case of Russia, the system forced the country to penalize itself by waging an economic war.

In an attempt to combat the smuggling of goods across the northwest German coastline, Napoleon in December 1810 annexed the Hanseatic towns and the Duchy of Oldenberg, the latter ruled by the father-in-law of Tsar Alexander’s sister, Grand Duchess Catherine Pavlovna. These moves infuriated the tsar, who responded by issuing a decree that reaffirmed Russia’s right to keep its ports open to the shipping of neutral countries and placed additional import duties on French luxury items and wines entering Russia. Although not an overt declaration of war, the decree essentially withdrew Russia from Napoleon’s imperial system at a time when he was capable of raising an army of almost a million men.

In an ill-advised move meant to enforce his blockade along the Baltic coast, Napoleon in January 1812 annexed Swedish Pomerania. Although an ally of France, two years earlier Sweden had elected one of Napoleon’s own officers, Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, as crown prince and heir to their childless King Charles XIII. Sweden had been at war with Russia as recently as 1809, but this new annexation threw it into the Russian camp, as evidenced by Bernadotte’s signing of a friendship treaty with Alexander in April 1812. The new treaty secured Russia’s northern flank in case of war with France. The following month Alexander signed a peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire that ended the six-year war between the two rivals and secured Russia’s southern flank.

Fearing a Russian invasion of the Duchy of Warsaw, Napoleon ordered his dispersed armies eastward toward Prussia and East Poland, apparently believing a large-scale repetition of his 1807 campaign would not entail great risk. As a huge military buildup took place on both sides of the Polish border, Napoleon made plans to field an army vast enough to intimidate Alexander or, failing that, to force him into submission with a rapid blow. However, emergency levees in early 1812 that raised 400,000 new peasant conscripts, coupled with deep-seated military and social reforms, had transformed the tsar’s army into a far more formidable one than the French had faced in central Europe in 1805 and 1807. With war a fait accompli, Alexander left St. Petersburg for his army’s main base at Vilna on April 21, 1812, but he returned to his capital some weeks later, wisely allowing his commanders to conduct all subsequent operations.

Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov conducts a council of war in a peasant’s cabin. Tsar Alexander, who detested the elderly commander, appointed him to overall command because he was widely popular with the Russian people and soldiers.

Promising to return in two months, an overly optimistic expectation, Napoleon departed for the front on May 29, leaving Empress Marie Louise and their infant son with her father, Austrian Emperor Francis II, and reached the banks of the Niemen River on June 23. Preferring not to alienate his reluctant Prussian and Austrian allies, Napoleon intentionally did not stop in Warsaw. In the late 18th century, Austria, Prussia, and Russia had partitioned Poland. Although 90,000 Poles served in the Grand Armée, Napoleon had no intention of assisting his Polish allies to reunify their nation. In a Europe controlled by France, such dreams would have to remain unfulfilled.

Napoleon’s resolve to field such a vast force, which included a 40,000-man cavalry corps under Marshal Joachim Murat to be used as a mobile spearhead, not only resulted in the greatest forage problem in the history of warfare, but also dictated the timing of the campaign’s start. Napoleon invaded Russia with more than 200,000 horses. His massive army needed 30,000 horses for its artillery, 80,000 for its cavalry, and 90,000 for its supply train. The supply train carried enough provisions to support the 600,000-man army in hostile territory for 40 days.

The means to adequately feed so many horses outstripped the army’s capabilities. The livestock would have to be fed on the new crop of hay and oats along the eastward march that would not be ready for harvest before the end of June at the earliest. “We were obliged to cut the grass of the meadows, and, when there was none, reap corn, barley, and oats which were only just sprouting,” wrote Colonel Jean Boulart of the Imperial Guard’s artillery corps. This not only destroyed the harvest but threatened the health of the horses because it failed to provide them with the nourishment required for forced marches.

Fed on unripe barley, oats, and even rotten straw taken from the thatched roofs of peasant huts, the dehydrated horses quickly came down with severe colic and dysentery and began perishing by the thousands. The flamboyant Murat was seemingly more concerned with his elaborate uniforms than the proper care and feeding of his animals.

Suffering from multiple maladies, French Emperor Napoleon observed the battle from a folding camp chair.

The men of La Grande Armée began suffering food and fresh water shortages long before they began crossing the Niemen River into Russia on June 24, 1812. As provisions dwindled the troops in the lead columns began emptying barns and stables, harvesting crops, and looting peasant houses. Field Marshal Prince Michael Barclay de Tolly, Russia’s minister of war and commander of the First West Army, moved quickly to put a scorched-earth policy in place. As a result, French follow-on units found only deserted villages, ravaged fields, and poisoned wells. Punishing marches over the primitive road system in searing heat and choking dust, interrupted by freezing rainstorms that turned the roads into muddy bogs, left heavy supply wagons far behind. As they proceeded east, Napoleon’s columns steadily lost men and horses from thirst, hunger, and exhaustion.

Napoleon occupied Vilna without a fight on June 28. His focus at that time was on preventing a union of Barclay’s First West Army and General Prince Pyotr Bagration’s Second West Army. But by placing his inexperienced brother, Prince Jerome Bonaparte, in command of 80,000 troops, he lost an opportunity for a quick victory. Prince Jerome and Marshal Louis Davout had a chance to trap Bagration’s army early in the campaign, but Jerome’s bumbling allowed Bagration to escape. Napoleon berated Jerome for his incompetence, and his brother resigned and departed for his home in Westphalia. Barclay’s First West Army and Bagration’s Second West Army united on July 21.

Napoleon hoped to overtake the Russians in the open and destroy them, but they continued falling back. He pursued them through Drissa, Polotsk, and Vitebsk. The French emperor caught up with the rear guard of the combined Russian army at the walled city of Smolensk. After two days of fighting in which the city was burned, the combined Russian army continued its retreat. At that point, the French were 310 miles from Moscow. Napoleon’s obsession with achieving a decisive victory, and the relatively short distance remaining to reach Moscow, compelled him to press eastward even though his supply line was stretched far beyond the breaking point.

The Russian populace, army, nobility, and Tsar Alexander, though, were fed up with the continuous retreat, and now that Barclay and Bagration had joined forces there was a universal desire to stand and fight. The Russian defenders were deeply religious, illiterate serfs who had been conscripted for a lifetime of army service. They preferred to fight to the death rather than surrender an inch of sacred Russian soil.

Barclay was resented by aristocratic Russian officers as a Baltic German and not a true Russian. To reduce the friction plaguing his army’s high command, Alexander named the 67-year-old veteran Kutusov as commander in chief, leaving Bagration and Barclay in their present posts. The army and nation were elated. Kutusov joined the army on August 29 during its eastward trek and searched for a good position from which to confront the French juggernaut.

On September 3 Kutusov arrived at Borodino, a small village on the New Smolensk Road just north of the Kolocha River. He inspected and quickly approved a position suggested by one of his aides that would allow him to deploy his entire army astride the New Smolensk Road behind the protection of the Kolocha River’s steep banks. Thousands of militiamen were soon clearing woods, erecting earthworks, and dismantling entire villages to ensure clear fields of fire.

Kutusov believed Napoleon would advance eastward on the New Smolensk Road toward Moscow. On the morning of September 4, the general began making his dispositions, ordering the construction of several groups of unconnected redoubts along the line. The most impressive of these strongpoints was the Great Redoubt, or Raevsky Redoubt, studded with 12-pounder field guns, that was situated southeast of the village of Borodino.

The revered general put a great deal of effort into strengthening his right wing, which would be defended by Barclay’s First West Army. Barclay’s engineers oversaw the construction of sturdy earthworks around the village of Maslovo. Kutusov entrusted Bagration’s smaller Second West Army with holding the mostly open ground on the left wing. His troops manned the Shevardino Redoubt, which was a dangerously exposed forward position. Kutusov set up his command post in the village of Gorki, which was situated a mile behind Borodino.

Clockwise from top left: Pyotr Bagration Michael Andreas Barclay de Tolly Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon’s untalented brother and Eugene de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s intrepid stepson. Bagration desired a pitched battle with the French, whereas de Tolly favored a Fabian strategy.

By midday on September 4, the Russian line ran diagonally for five miles from Maslovo near the confluence of the Kolocha and Moskova Rivers to the village of Shevardino. Although Barclay’s army blocked the New Smolensk Road on the north end of the battlefield, the Old Smolensk Road three miles to the south lay undefended beyond Bagration’s left flank. This road cut in sharply behind the Russian left wing from the west to join the main road to Moscow behind the Russian lines. If Napoleon pushed rapidly eastward along the Old Smolensk Road and turned the Russian left, he could get behind Kutusov’s entire army and cut off its retreat route to Moscow.

Marshal Murat’s vanguard arrived west of Borodino on the morning of September 5. It deployed in preparation for an advance against the Shevardino Redoubt. Finding the Russians preparing for battle, Murat promptly notified Napoleon, who arrived at midday to reconnoiter the enemy’s position. The emperor concluded that the Russian right wing was virtually unassailable while the open ground south of the New Smolensk Road offered better prospects. The Polish V Corps, which was led by Marshal Prince Josef Poniatowski, had arrived via the Old Smolensk Road to support an advance. With sufficient forces on hand, Napoleon decided to launch an attack against the Russian left wing.

In response to his subordinates’ pleas to adjust his flawed positions, on September 5 Kutusov ordered the Russian left wing to withdraw eastward into a new line that would run south from Borodino to the village of Utitza on the Old Smolensk Road. The Shevardino Redoubt would remain manned. Its purpose was to retard the French advance. He ordered General Nikolai Tuchkov’s III Guards Corps out of the reserve, along with 1,500 Cossacks and 7,000 militiamen, astride the Old Smolensk Road just south of Utitza, and deployed four regiments of jaegers into the wooded area on Tuchkov’s right, consolidating his new line between the New and Old Smolensk Roads. However, Kutusov insisted on keeping both the II Corps of Lt. Gen. Karl Baggovut and the IV Corps of Lt. Gen. Aleksandr Osterman-Tolstoy in their original positions on the right wing where he still expected Napoleon to strike.

The tip of the Russian defenses, the unfinished Shevardino Redoubt, had by that time become an isolated salient. Napoleon ordered Davout to immediately liquidate it with the troops at hand. It took seven hours and 35,000 soldiers to seize the redoubt, which changed hands several times and was destroyed by French artillery fire at a cost of 6,000 Russian and 4,500 French casualties. Realizing the position had become untenable, Barclay ordered the survivors to withdraw on the night of September 5-6 to Bagration’s new line.

Both armies used September 6 to make the final dispositions of their forces for the impending battle. After 10 weeks of marching and skirmishing, the soldiers of both armies were eager for battle and aware of the high stakes involved. A solemn religious procession that included Kutusov and his staff, Orthodox clergy, and the revered icon of the Virgin of Smolensk took place within the Russian lines. There was no such event on the French side, though, given that Napoleon’s multinational army was almost entirely secular.

In a last-minute preparation, Kutusov also ordered the construction of three additional earthworks on a piece of high ground west of Semenovskaya village, a mile south of the Great Redoubt, that would become known as the Bagration fleches. The rocky ground and a shortage of tools impeded the Russians’ progress. When hostilities resumed the following morning, they had not finished building the fleches.

After Napoleon’s deployment south of the main road and seizure of the Shevardino Redoubt negated any possible Russian offensive actions, Kutusov resolved to stand on the defensive and inflict crippling losses on the attackers. As for Napoleon, he intended to bludgeon the weak Russian left until a breakthrough was achieved.

Although he was suffering from a severe cold and recurrent bladder infection, Napoleon was up at 3 am on September 7 and at his command post on a mound behind the ravaged Shevardino Redoubt. Sitting on a folding camp chair, Napoleon could see the entire battlefield and had drawn up his elite Imperial Guard Corps, 18,500 strong, alongside and behind him, safely out of artillery range. When 102 French guns opened fire at 6 am against the Russian left and center manned by Bagration’s Second Army, they were answered in kind by Russian artillery, and the fighting at Borodino commenced once again. The reeds and brushes along the Kolocha River were alive with Russian jaegers. Behind them on rising ground were deployed massed ranks of Russian cavalry and infantry in front of the redoubts, on whose parapets gleamed brightly polished bronze cannons. More massed bodies of troops could be seen behind the redoubts.

Kutusov deployed his 120,000 regulars into deep, narrow columns backed by large concentrations of artillery. They were opposed by the Grand Armée’s 103,800 men. The French had 587 guns, and the Russians had 640 guns.

Kutusov’s army included 10,000 Cossacks and 31,000 militiamen. The militia troops took no part in the fighting. Their task was solely to remove the wounded and form a cordon behind the front lines to prevent desertion. Rejecting Davout’s proposal to outflank the weak Russian left, Napoleon instead ordered Davout’s I Corps to attack directly forward into the teeth of the enemy’s defenses. The responsibility for the flanking maneuver lay with Poniatowski’s corps, which was deployed farther south on the old road.

The troops of both sides were exposed to massed artillery fire as they waited to go into battle. The French guns pounded the Russian positions, particularly the earthworks, throwing up clouds of dust, which when mixed with smoke from the defending guns, created an impression of a vast, swirling sea.

With its 18 cannons firing as fast as possible, the Great Redoubt resembled an erupting volcano. Maj. Gen. Prince Eugene de Beauharnais, Viceroy of Italy, whose IV Corps held the French left opposite Borodino village and the Great Redoubt, quickly occupied Borodino after sweeping away three battalions of advanced Lifeguard Jaegers, who lost half their men in the brief action. Two more of Eugene’s divisions crossed the Kolocha, but a Russian counterattack drove them back across the river.

Meanwhile, Marshal Davout unleashed a fierce ground assault against Bagration’s southernmost fleche. Davout sent a total of 22,000 troops from three divisions who deployed for battle in brigade columns. The divisions were Maj. Gen. Louis Friant’s II Division, Maj. Gen. Joseph-Marie Dessaix’s IV Division, and Maj. Gen. Jean Compans’ V Division. They were opposed by the three divisions that constituted Lt. Gen. Mikhail Borozdin’s VIII Corps. The Russians, who were outnumbered, suffered substantial losses from the devastating French artillery fire.

Compans’ division, which was spearheaded by the renowned 57th Line Infantry Regiment and 30 guns, moved ahead and quickly disappeared into the dust, smoke, and fog. French voltigeurs brushed aside Russian skirmishers. After exiting the woods on the far bank of the Kolocha and closing upon the southernmost fleche, Russian guns pummeled the 57th Line. “Suddenly, from that peaceful plain and the silent hills, volumes of fire and smoke were seen spouting out, followed by a multitude of explosions, and the whistling of bullets tearing the air in every direction,” wrote Brig. Gen. Philippe Paul de Segur. Compans was struck in the shoulder and unable to continue commanding his troops.

Seeing the confusion, Davout, who was known as the Iron Marshal, assumed command. He led the 57th Line Regiment forward only to have his horse shot out from under him. He tumbled to the ground so hard that his men believed he was dead. General Gene Rapp arrived to replace him, only to find Davout alive and again commanding the 57th as it seized the earthwork, albeit temporarily. Rapp, one of Napoleon’s most trusted aides, led the 61st Line Regiment forward and was wounded.

To the south, Poniatowski attacked Utitza and the wooded slopes and forests adjacent to and north of that village. His efforts were aided by the transfer of some of the Russian units in the sector to the hard-pressed fleches to the north. Kutusov dispatched two divisions from General Karl Gustav von Baggovut’s corps to reinforce Tuchkov’s troops, who stood between Poniatowski and the Russian rear. Tuchkov was killed in the seesaw, indecisive fighting in and around Utitza, where the Poles finally found themselves, despite valiant efforts, unable to make a breakthrough. Poniatowski’s depleted corps spent the rest of the day in a fruitless battle of attrition astride the Old Smolensk Road and in the woods to its north.

A furious Russian counterattack soon expelled the French from the southern fleche. Yet a second assault was rapidly mounted. Rapp, who led Compans’ division, was supported by Dessaix’s division and elements of Maj. Gen. Jean Junot’s VII Corps. Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. François Ledru’s division of Marshal Michel Ney’s III Corps attacked the nearby second fleche. A battalion of grenadiers braced for the attack in each fleche. Seven more battalions were deployed in columns to the rear.

The French captured both redoubts in fierce melees. The flimsy earthen parapets crumbled under the storm of shells from the French artillery. With the cramped conditions making reloading fouled muskets nearly impossible, foot soldiers on both sides resorted to the bayonet. Maj. Gen. Prince Mikhail Vorontsov, commanding the Second Combined Grenadier Division, was wounded in the fighting. By 8:30 am his division had been annihilated. Of his 4,000 troops, 3,700 were killed, wounded, or missing.

Davout had gained possession of the two advanced Bagration fleches. The French initially failed to see the third fleche to the northeast. Bagration quickly led a counterattack that expelled the French. But Marshal Ney, who commanded three divisions totaling 10,000 men and was supported by 7,000 of Ledru’s Westphalians, recaptured the key positions. In desperation, Bagration turned to Barclay for help rather than to Kutusov. To his credit, Barclay responded within the hour, dispatching three guards regiments, three cuirassier regiments, eight grenadier battalions, and 36 guns to support Bagration.

Opposing infantry fight with bayonets and clubbed muskets for control of a key position. French frontal attacks against staunchly defended field fortifications resulted in heavy losses.

The fleches proved to be death traps for the French. They were simple earthen works that were open at the back and had ramparts no more than six feet high. Once the French had taken them, they found themselves facing multiple lines of Russian troops. It was only after they had taken the second fleche that the French realized there was a third fleche. While Russian guns shelled the French ranks, Maj. Gen. Dmitry Neverovsky led his 23rd Infantry Division in a counterattack that drove the French from the fleches. The French rallied for another assault. Both sides fed reinforcements into the fray. The French attacks and Russian counterattacks succeeded each other one after the other, leaving thousands of dead and wounded men and horses strewn across the smoke-covered field.

Napoleon remained at the Shevardino Redoubt throughout the battle. “Every time I returned from one of my numerous missions, I found him sitting there in the same position, following all the moves through his pocket telescope and issuing his orders with imperturbable calm,” wrote Colonel Louis Lejeune, a French aide-de-camp.

After deploying his various infantry and cavalry corps for battle, Kutusov remained at his command post near Gorki for almost the entire day, unable to see the battlefield, doing little more than releasing reserves when requested. This left Barclay and Bagration, who were quite competent to manage a defensive battle in which no grand maneuvers were attempted on either side, to conduct operations.

With the French again in possession of all three fleches in the late morning, Bagration rallied his troops for a final effort and led them in himself. The counterattack succeeded, but at the moment of triumph Bagration was struck in the leg by a shell fragment that inflicted a mortal wound. His troops lost heart, and the next French attack cleared the Russians from the fleches for good, driving them back across the ravine of the Semeonovka stream all the way to the ruins of the village of Semenovskaya, where houses were collapsing under the French bombardment.

“There are no words to describe the bitter despair with which our soldiers threw themselves into the fray,” wrote Ivan Lubenkov, a Russian captain. “It was a fight between ferocious tigers, not men, and once both sides had determined to win or die where they stood, they did not stop fighting when their muskets broke, but carried on, using butts and swords in terrible hand-to-hand combat.” The French had committed 40,000 infantry and 11,000 cavalry to capture the fleches.

Both commanders had tapped into the bulk of their reserves by noon. Having redeployed Osterman-Tolstoy’s IV Corps from his unmolested right wing to bolster his center and left, Kutusov agreed to send a combined cavalry force north across the Kolocha River in a small-scale raid to harass Eugene’s left and rear. This force, which consisted of Count Matvei Platov’s Cossacks and General Fyodor Uvarov’s I Cavalry Corps regulars, numbered 8,000 men and a dozen cannons. The spoiling attacks conducted by Platov against the French baggage train and Uvarov against Eugene’s infantry ranks accomplished little. Kutusov judged them both to be failures. The sudden appearance of enemy cavalry close to Eugene’s supply train and headquarters while he was making preparations to attack the Great Redoubt, prompted the usually unflappable commander to postpone his attack. He dispatched 17 cavalry regiments to deal with the unexpected threat. The Russian mounted foray succeeded in delaying Eugene’s attack on the Great Redoubt for two hours. This gave the Russians time to regroup and shore up their battered left wing.

Napoleon decided to hurl the weight of the Grande Armée against the Russian left flank. At the climactic moment, Napoleon was unwilling to commit his Imperial Guard.

The defenders of the Great Redoubt were commanded by General Prince Nikolai Raevsky. “We built these batteries ourselves,” Raevsky wrote. “A sapper officer advised us to dig a series of wolf-pits 150 meters before the redoubt as the position was at risk of being overrun by cavalry. We did this and now all we had to do was await the enemy.”

Although hastily constructed, the four-sided, earthen Great Redoubt was nevertheless formidable. Erected on a 200-yard-long hillock, the Great Redoubt faced west. It consisted of two 70-yard-long shoulders that met at a 90-degree angle in the center of the Russian front line. The redoubt was extended by fortifications to its flanks. Unlike the fleches, the Great Redoubt had protection in the rear, consisting of a double wooden palisade with an eight-foot high inner wall and a six-foot-high outer wall.

Raevsky’s VII Corps was tasked with defending the Great Redoubt and part of the Russian line on its left, but when the fighting escalated farther south he had to dispatch troops to help Tuchkov. When Eugene launched his first attack against the Great Redoubt, Raevsky was in command of two infantry divisions, six jaeger regiments, and an 18-gun artillery brigade. The bulk of the jaegers were posted in a skirmish line to the redoubt’s front while the two infantry divisions and 19th Jaegers were posted alongside and to the rear, ready to launch counterattacks against the French. After a devastating artillery bombardment inflicted appalling losses upon the defenders both inside and outside the Great Redoubt, Eugene sent in one division from the northwest, commanded by General Jean-Baptiste Broussier, which was quickly repulsed.

General Charles Antoine Morand made the second attempt, and this time soldiers of his 30th Line Regiment managed to scale the approaches, pass through the embrasures, and enter into the Great Redoubt, forcing Raevsky to temporarily abandon his command post. With most of the 30th Line still fighting outside, though, Morand’s unsupported attackers inside the works faced the inevitable counterattack alone. The Russians soon retook the Great Redoubt, though at a heavy cost. General Alexander Kutaisov, the highly regarded commander of the Russian artillery, was killed in the counterattack. Kutusov did not replace Kutaisov, which meant the Russian superiority in this arm was never adequately brought into play for the rest of the day.

With his advance stalled, Eugene crossed back to the north bank of the Kolocha River in the early afternoon, both to bolster the troops under attack there by enemy cavalry and to prepare his three divisions for the next assault on the Great Redoubt. The withdrawal of IV Corps, though, left only General Louis-Pierre Montbrun’s II Cavalry Corps to fill the large gap in the French line where they suffered under massed artillery fire that severely thinned their ranks and destroyed their morale. Marshal Marquis Emmanuel de Grouchy’s III Cavalry Corps was sent to cut up any Russian infantry in the area, but failed when the Russians withdrew into squares. After Grouchy’s troopers returned to their lines, the French redoubled their artillery bombardment. The shelling killed and maimed thousands of men and horses in the tightly packed Russian ranks.

With a breakthrough on either wing doubtful, the French could only achieve victory in the center. Situated roughly in the Russian line between the Great Redoubt and the fleches and already burned and virtually demolished, the village of Semenovskaya had been destroyed by French artillery fire. Murat’s cavalry swept in to deliver a potentially decisive blow. Although thousands of Russian grenadiers in the village fought to the death, the French advance drove them from the burning village.

For a short time Kutusov’s army was split in two. Appeals to Napoleon by Davout, Murat, and Ney to commit the Imperial Guard Corps were made. But Napoleon was not inclined to commit the Guard so deep in enemy territory. He believed it was essential to preserve it for future actions. As a result, a chance for victory was lost. Napoleon also failed to make optimum use of Murat’s cavalry. Receiving no order to exploit the gap in the enemy’s line, Russian reinforcements drove them back from the area around Semenovskaya village. The cavalry remained immobile for several hours during which they suffered heavy losses, including the loss of Montbrun from Russian cannon fire. The Russians brought up more reserves and plugged the gap, which enabled the Russian line to remain intact.

Napoleon arrives in Moscow to find it aflame and bereft of supplies. He failed to destroy the Russian army and had greatly underestimated Tsar Alexander’s political resolve.

At 2 pm Eugene unleashed a massive, coordinated infantry and cavalry attack against both the front and flanks of the shapeless Great Redoubt, sending in three infantry divisions in a frontal assault while French heavy cavalry attacked from left and right. Half of Osterman-Tolstoy’s corps, sent from the Russian right, and Maj. Gen. Peter Likhachev’s 24th Infantry Division occupied the redoubt. In the tumult, Maj. Gen. Auguste de Caulaincourt, commanding the II Cavalry Corps, attempted to lead French cuirassiers into the rear of the redoubt, but he was cut down by a cannonball when fierce Russian fire broke up his charge.

Brigadier General Johann von Thielmann, commanding the Saxon Heavy Cavalry Brigade, led eight Saxon and two Polish cavalry squadrons against the rear of the redoubt. His officers and sergeants forced their horses through the crumbling embrasures and into the seething cauldron where French cavalrymen and Russian infantrymen were engaged in a momentous struggle. When the French infantry poured over the breastworks, Likhachev was captured, the defenders annhilated, and the Great Redoubt irretrievably lost.

“The Raievski Redoubt and the area around it offered an aspect which exceeded the worst horrors one could ever dream of,” wrote Lieutenant H. Brandt of the Vistula Legion, which was attached to the French Young Guard. “The approaches, the ditches, and the earthwork itself had disappeared under the amount of dead and dying, of an average depth of six to eight men, heaped one upon the other.”

Gathering all the exhausted horsemen he could find, Eugene attempted an advance to exploit the fall of the Great Redoubt. Though the French cavalry had suffered dreadful losses storming the redoubt and their horses were in terrible condition, they still outnumbered their foe by a substantial margin. Barclay therefore committed his remaining cavalry reserves, the elite Chevaliers Guardes among them, who finally drove back the French cavalry after two hours of confused fighting. The Russian infantry formed squares when French cavalry squadrons stormed their new line. With no additional reserves and Napoleon still refusing to commit the Guard, the redoubtable Prince Eugene was unable to accomplish anything further.

Upon hearing of the Great Redoubt’s fall, Poniatowski mounted another advance on the French right at 4 pm, capturing Utitza village and the knoll upon which it stood, before halting an hour later while the defenders pulled back to their main line. By 5 pm the Battle of Borodino was nearly over. Both armies were bloodied and exhausted. Napoleon’s Grand Armée had advanced roughly to the site of the Russian positions at the start of the battle. Barclay’s forces, battered but not broken, had retired only a short distance to the east to the next ridge. This was hardly the outcome Napoleon had desired. Too weary to pursue, the French withdrew to their original lines.

The bloodiest single day’s fighting of the Napoleonic era thus ended in an exhausting stalemate, neither commander having achieved his objectives. The cost of Kutusov’s flawed dispositions was staggering. He suffered 43,000 casualties, which when added to those lost earlier at Shevardino amounted to one-third of his army. When he realized the extent of his losses and that Napoleon’s Imperial Guard had not been committed, Kutusov ordered a retreat toward Moscow. As for the Grande Armée, it suffered 27,000 casualties. Napoleon chose not to attempt a rigorous pursuit when the Russians withdrew.

Napoleon arrived in Moscow on September 14 to find the city stripped of supplies and with only a third of its population of 270,000 still in residence. Russian hooligans, with the tacit approval of the city’s governor, set fire to the city that night. The conflagration destroyed most of the city, leaving the Grande Armée without quarters to protect it from the harsh Russian winter.

While Kutusov regrouped and rebuilt his army south of the city, Napoleon waited five weeks for a surrender that never came. Alexander feared his nobles would kill him if he were to surrender. With winter approaching and none of his objectives achieved, Napoleon exercised the best option that remained to him, which was to order a general retreat. On October 19 the Grande Armée marched out of the city to begin an 800-mile retreat to the Niemen River.

Although Napoleon wisely chose a withdrawal route that swung southwest toward Kaluga, Kutusov anticipated the move. The savvy Russian commander deployed his army to block the retreat. After one of Napoleon’s officers advised him it would take another battle on the scale of Borodino to dislodge the Russians, the French emperor diverted his dwindling army, by then reduced to 90,000 men, back to the despoiled path he had taken to reach Moscow.

When the Russian winter struck with its full fury the first week of November, the typhus-infested Grande Armée’s retreat degenerated into a death march. The starving French soldiers butchered their horses, leaving the cavalry without mounts and the army as a whole without either cannons or supply wagons. The nightmarish conditions resulted in a widespread collapse of discipline and morale. The only unit retaining its cohesion during the retreat was the Imperial Guard Corps.

The Grande Armée’s retreat, which was characterized by intense suffering and cruelty in unbearable winter conditions, remains one of the defining images of the Napoleonic era. The disaster in Russia compelled Napoleon’s remaining allies to turn against him and ultimately led to his abdication and exile to Elba.

This story was published in Military Heritage magazine. Click to subscribe HERE.