Kutuzov takes Command Part I

General Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov at Borodino
General Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov at Borodino

In the nineteen days between the evacuation of Smolensk and the battle of Borodino Barclay’s popularity reached its lowest point among the troops. The soldiers had been told they would bury Napoleon on the river Dvina and then that they would fight to the death first for Vitebsk and then for Smolensk. Each promise had been broken and the hated retreat had continued. After Smolensk the same pattern continued, with the soldiers first being ordered to dig fortifications on a chosen battlefield and then retreating yet again when either Barclay or Bagration considered the position unsuitable. They nicknamed their commander-in-chief ‘Nothing but Chatter’ (Boltai da Tol’ko) as a pun on Barclay de Tolly. The historian of the Chevaliers Gardes wrote that Barclay misunderstood the nature of the Russian soldier, who would have accepted the unvarnished truth but grumbled at broken promises. The comment is probably true but glosses over the fact that Kutuzov subsequently spoke and acted in a fashion very similar to Barclay.

Along with the grumbling went a decline in discipline in some units. On Alexander’s urging, Barclay ordered the execution of some marauders at Smolensk. According to a young artillery officer, Nikolai Konshin, one of these so-called ‘marauders’ was a wholly innocent orderly from his battery, who had been sent off to find some cream for the officers. Bitterness against Barclay increased in the ranks but despite the executions marauding continued, with Kutuzov writing to Alexander that the military police picked up almost two thousand stragglers within days of his arrival to take over command of the army. Perhaps one should take the new commander-in-chief’s gloomy comments with a pinch of salt, however, since he had an obvious interest in painting his new command in a bad light when reporting to the emperor. A few days later he wrote to his wife that the troops’ morale was excellent.

In reality some degree of disorder was inevitable among soldiers who had retreated so far and had been ordered to destroy all food and shelter along the way to deny it to the French. Once encouraged, the habit of destruction is hard to contain. The sight of burning Russian towns and miserable civilian refugees also had its impact on morale. In most other armies in a similar situation, the deterioration of discipline would have been worse. As General Langeron wrote in his memoirs, with only a little exaggeration, ‘an army which during a retreat of 1,200 versts from the Neman to Moscow sustains two major battles and loses not a single gun or caisson, nor even a cart or a wounded man, is not an army to disdain’. Perhaps the most important point was that the soldiers longed for battle. Once given the opportunity to take out their anger and frustration on the French, most problems of morale and discipline would disappear.

In the ranks of the retreating Russian army was Lieutenant-Colonel Karl von Clausewitz, who was to become the most famous military thinker of the nineteenth century. A passionate Prussian patriot, he could not stomach his king’s alliance with Napoleon and had resigned his commission in order to join the Russian army. Unable to speak Russian, at sea amidst the battles within the Russian high command and sometimes engulfed in an atmosphere of xenophobia and suspicion, he experienced these weeks as a time of great personal trial. Perhaps this is one reason why he is anything but generous in his comments on the Russian retreat:

As, with the exception of the halt at Smolensk, the retreat from Vitebsk to Moscow was in fact an uninterrupted movement, and from Smolensk the point of direction lay always tolerably straight to the rear, the entire retreat was a very simple operation…When an army always gives way and retires continually in a direct line, it is very difficult for the pursuer to outflank it or press it away from its course: in this instance, also, the roads are few, and ravines rare; the seat of war, therefore, admitted of few geographical combinations…in a retreat this simplicity greatly economises the powers of men and horses. Here were no long arranged rendezvous, no marches to and fro, no long circuits, no alarms; in short, little or no outlay of tactical skill and expenditure of strength.

The other great military thinker of the era, Antoine de Jomini, also took part in the 1812 campaign, in his case on the French side. He was far more appreciative of the Russian achievement. He wrote that ‘retreats are certainly the most difficult operations in war’. Above all, they put a tremendous strain on the troops’ discipline and morale. In his opinion, the Russian army was far superior to any other in Europe when it came to managing such retreats. ‘The firmness which it has displayed in all retreats is due in equal degrees to the national character, the natural instincts of the soldiers, and the excellent disciplinary institutions.’ To be sure, the Russians had enjoyed a number of advantages, such as the great superiority of their light cavalry and the fact that the two key French commanders, marshals Murat and Davout, were at each other’s throats. Nevertheless, the ordered retreat by the Russians ‘was highly deserving of praise, not only for the talent displayed by the generals who directed its first stages but also for the admirable fortitude and soldierly bearing of the troops who performed it’.

As one might expect, the reminiscences of Russian generals who fought in the rearguards agree with Jomini rather than Clausewitz. Eugen of Württemberg criticized Clausewitz for prejudice and misjudgements where the Russian army was concerned. He commented that ‘our retreat was one of the finest examples of military order and discipline. We left behind to the enemy no stragglers, no stores and no carts: the troops were not tired by forced marches and the very well-led rearguards (especially under Konovnitsyn) only fought small-scale and usually victorious actions.’ The commanders picked good positions in order to exhaust and delay the enemy, forcing him to bring forward more artillery and deploy his infantry. They only retreated once the enemy had advanced in great strength, inflicting casualties as they retired. ‘In general the withdrawals were carried out by horse artillery moving back in echelon, covered by numerous cavalry in open ground and by light infantry in broken terrain…Any attempt to move around the position would be reported quickly and unfailingly by the Cossacks.’

During these weeks the French advance guard was usually led by Joachim Murat, the King of Naples. The commander of the Russian rearguard was Petr Konovnitsyn. A Russian officer remembers,

as a total contrast to the elegant outfit of Murat one had the modest general, riding a humble little horse…in front of the Russian ranks. He wore a simple grey coat, rather worn, and held together a bit carelessly by a scarf. Underneath his uniform hat you could glimpse his nightcap. His face was calm and his years, some way beyond middle age, suggested a cold man. But beneath this appearance of coolness there existed much warmth and life. There was a great deal of courage beneath the grey coat. Under the nightcap lived a sensible, energetic and efficient mind.

Petr Konovnitsyn was one of the most attractive senior Russian generals in 1812. Modest and generous, he was less of an egoist and far less concerned with fame and reward than many of his peers. Extremely courageous but also very religious, in battle he was always in the thick of the action. The same was true at parties, where he played the violin badly but with fine gusto. Even so, Konovnitsyn was above all a calm man, who in moments of stress puffed away at his pipe, invoked the intercession of the Virgin Mary and seldom lost his temper. He controlled wayward subordinates more by irony than by anger.

Konovnitsyn also earned his subordinates’ respect by professional skill. As a rearguard commander he knew exactly how to use his cavalry, infantry and artillery in combination and to best effect. Picking positions to bring advancing French columns under a crossfire was one trick. Trying to ensure that his own night-time bivouacs were close to fresh water and that the enemy was forced to thirst was another. In the intense heat of August 1812 water became a major issue. Thousands of men and horses marching down unpaved roads raised a vast dust storm. With faces blackened by the dust, throats parched and eyes half-closed, the men in the ranks stumbled onwards day after day. In these circumstances, which side had better access to water mattered greatly.

On 29 August at Tsarevo-Zaimishche the army was joined by its new commander-in-chief, Mikhail Kutuzov. Young Lieutenant Radozhitsky recalled that morale soared:

The moment of joy was indescribable: this commander’s name produced a universal rebirth of morale among the soldiers…immediately they came up with a ditty: ‘Kutuzov has come to beat the French’…the veterans recalled his campaigns in Catherine’s time, his many past exploits such as the battle near Krems and the recent destruction of the Turkish army on the Danube: for many men all this was still a fresh memory. They remembered also his miraculous wound from a musket ball which passed through both sides of his temple. It was said that Napoleon himself long since had called Kutuzov the old fox and that Suvorov had said that ‘Kutuzov…can never be tricked’. Such tales flying from mouth to mouth still further strengthened the soldiers’ hope for their new commander, a man with a Russian name, mind and heart, from a well-known aristocratic family, and famous for many exploits.

Ever since First and Second armies had joined before Smolensk the Russians had been in dire need of a supreme commander. Lack of such a commander had resulted in confusion and near catastrophe as the Russian troops withdrew from the city. In fact, however, Alexander had decided to appoint an overall commander-in-chief even before hearing of events at Smolensk. There were very few possible candidates. The supreme commander had to be unequivocally senior to all his subordinate generals, otherwise some would resign in a huff and others would drag their feet when obeying his commands. With Napoleon advancing towards Moscow and Russian national feeling outraged, it was also essential that the new commander be a Russian. Of course, he also needed to be a soldier of sufficient wit and experience to take on the greatest general of the age. Though a number of candidates were in principle discussed by the six grandees to whom Alexander delegated the initial selection, in reality – as the emperor recognized – there was little choice but Kutuzov.

It was no secret within the Russian elites that Alexander did not admire Kutuzov. Captain Pavel Pushchin of the Semenovskys wrote in his diary that new supremo had been ‘summoned to command the field army by the will of the people, almost against the wishes of the sovereign’. Alexander himself wrote to his sister that there had been no alternative to Kutuzov. Barclay had performed poorly at Smolensk and had lost all credit in the army and in Petersburg. Kutuzov was the loudly expressed choice of the Petersburg and Moscow nobilities, both of which had chosen him to command their militias. The emperor commented that of the various candidates, all of them in his opinion unfit to command, ‘I could not do otherwise…than fix my choice on him for whom overwhelming support was expressed’. In another letter to his sister he added that ‘the choice fell on Kutuzov as being senior to all the rest, which allows Bennigsen to serve under him, for they are good friends as well’. Alexander did not say but probably believed that in the circumstances of 1812 it would be dangerous to ignore society’s wishes: in addition, if disaster befell the army, it might even be convenient that its commander was known to be the choice of public opinion rather than of the monarch.

Mikhail Kutuzov became a Russian patriotic icon after 1812, thanks partly to Leo Tolstoy. Stalinist historiography then raised him to the level of a military genius, superior to Napoleon. Of course all this is nonsense, but it is important not to react too far in the other direction by ignoring Kutuzov’s talents. The new commander-in-chief was a charismatic leader who knew how to win his men’s confidence and affection. He was a sly and far-sighted politician and negotiator. But he was also a skilful, courageous and experienced soldier. His trapping and destruction of the main Ottoman army in the winter of 1811–12 had shown up the previous efforts of Russian commanders in 1806–11. In 1805 he had extricated the Russian army with skill and composure from the very dangerous position in which it had been placed by the Austrian capitulation at Ulm. Had Alexander listened to his advice before Austerlitz, catastrophe would have been avoided and the 1805 campaign might have ended in victory.

The main problem with Kutuzov was his age. In 1812 he was 65 years old and his life had been anything but restful. Though he could still ride, he preferred his carriage. There was no chance of his riding around a battlefield to act as his own troubleshooter in the style of a Wellington. The 1812 campaign entailed enormous strains, physical and mental, and at times Kutuzov’s energy was suspect. On occasion he seemed to have an old man’s aversion to risk and great exertion. In time it also became clear that Kutuzov did not share Alexander’s views on Russia’s grand strategy and the liberation of Europe. This did not matter in the first half of the 1812 campaign but it became important during Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.

Though the appointment of Kutuzov was certainly a great improvement it did not solve all problems in the Russian command structure and indeed created some new ones. Barclay de Tolly reacted loyally to Kutuzov’s appointment and understood its necessity, but the enormous criticism to which he had been subjected made him very sensitive to slights from his new commander, and these were not slow in coming, above all from the new chief of staff, Levin von Bennigsen. Meanwhile, though Barclay’s replacement by Kutuzov was a major concession to Russian sentiment it did not at all satisfy the leaders of the ‘Russian party’ at headquarters, Petr Bagration and Aleksei Ermolov. Perhaps Bagration himself dreamed of the supreme command, though this is hard to believe given that he knew how little favour he enjoyed with Alexander. Certainly, neither general thought highly of Kutuzov’s ability. As for the new commander-in-chief, he respected Bagration as a battlefield commander. Rather like Barclay, he appreciated Ermolov’s talent but had justified doubts about his loyalty.

The problems were structural as much as personal, however. It would have been rational for the new commander-in-chief to suppress First and Second armies and to subordinate their seven infantry and four cavalry corps directly to himself and to his chief of staff, Bennigsen. To have done this, however, would have meant public demotion and humiliation for Barclay, Bagration and their staffs. This was contrary to the modus vivendi of the tsarist elite. It would also have required the emperor’s assent, since he had appointed both generals and created their armies. The survival of both armies produced a cumbersome command structure, however. It also made conflict inevitable between the staffs of the supreme commander and those of Barclay and Bagration. In particular, Barclay soon found that general headquarters was poaching some of his staff officers and giving direct orders to some of his units.

In this case too, structures and personalities intertwined. The new chief of staff, Bennigsen, had only been persuaded to take the job with difficulty and after Kutuzov stressed the emperor’s desire that he should do so. In traditional style, Alexander may have wanted to use Bennigsen to keep tabs on Kutuzov. He undoubtedly had more faith in Bennigsen’s ability, as well as in his energy. To do Alexander justice, Kutuzov and Bennigsen had been firm friends for many years before 1812 so the emperor did not anticipate that they would become deadly enemies in the course of that year. Kutuzov was always suspicious of any subordinate who might seek to steal his laurels. Bennigsen on the other hand was intensely proud and firmly convinced that he was a far more skilful general than Kutuzov, let alone Barclay. In time-honoured fashion, feeling himself rather isolated, Kutuzov increasingly leaned on the advice and support of Karl von Toll, his old protégé. For Bennigsen it was intolerable that anyone else’s advice should be preferred to that of the chief of staff but to be sidelined in favour of a mere bumptious colonel was a source of fury.

Ever since the army had evacuated Smolensk, a relay of staff officers had been sent back down the road to Moscow to find good positions on which the army could fight Napoleon. It was unthinkable to almost all senior officers to give up Russia’s ancient capital without a battle. Clausewitz describes well the difficulties these staff officers faced:

Russia is very poor in positions. Where the great morasses prevail [i.e. in much of Belorussia], the country is so wooded that one has trouble to find room for a considerable number of troops. Where the forests are thinner, as between Smolensk and Moscow, the ground is level – without any decided mountain ridges – without any deep hollows; the fields are without enclosures, therefore everywhere easy to be passed; the villages of wood, and ill adapted for defence. To this it must be added, that even in such a country the prospect is seldom unimpeded, as small tracts of wood constantly interpose. There is therefore little choice of positions. If a commander, then, wishes to fight without loss of time, as was Kutuzov’s case, it is evident that he must put up with what he can get.

What Kutuzov got was a position near the village of Borodino, 124 kilometres from Moscow. For the Russian staff officers who initially viewed this position from the main highway – the so-called New Smolensk Road – first impressions were very good. Troops standing on either side of the highway would have their right flank secured by the river Moskva and their front protected by the steep banks of the river Kolocha. Problems became much greater when one looked carefully at the left flank of this position, south of the main road. Initially the Russian army took up position on a line which ran from Maslovo north of the road, through Borodino on the highroad itself and down to the hill at Shevardino on the left flank. The centre of the position could be strengthened by the mound just to the south-east of Borodino which became the famous Raevsky Redoubt. Meanwhile the left could be anchored at Shevardino, which Bagration began to fortify.

Closer inspection soon revealed to Bagration that the position on the left assigned to his army was very vulnerable. A ravine in his rear impeded communications. More important, another road – the so-called Old Smolensk Road – cut in sharply behind his line from the west, joining with the main highway to the rear of the Russian position. An enemy pushing down this road could easily roll up Bagration’s flank and block the army’s line of retreat to Moscow. Faced by this danger, Bagration’s army began to withdraw to a new position which abandoned Shevardino and turned sharply southwards from Borodino in a straight line to the village of Utitsa on the Old Smolensk Road. On 5 September Bagration’s troops at Shevardino fought off fierce French attacks in order to cover the redeployment to this new line, losing 5,000–6,000 men and inflicting perhaps slightly fewer casualties on the enemy.

The new line was certainly safer because it blocked the Old Smolensk Road. To do this, however, it had been forced to abandon the strong position at Shevardino and instead to stretch across terrain between Borodino and Utitsa which offered no help to the troops that were defending it. In addition, by turning sharply southwards near Borodino and the Raevsky Redoubt the Russian line now became a sort of salient with all the troops between Borodino and the left of Bagration’s line beyond the village of Semenovskoe vulnerable to French artillery crossfire.

During the battle of Borodino on 7 September the great majority of the Russian army was packed into this small salient. This included five of the seven Russian infantry corps, which alone added up to 70,000 men. In addition, there were more than 10,000 cavalry in the ‘salient’. Even the other two Russian infantry corps – Baggohufvudt’s Second and Tuchkov’s Third – detached half of their men to defend this area. The Russian deployment was not just on a very narrow front but also extremely dense. The infantry divisions were drawn up in three lines. In front were the jaegers. Behind them came two lines of infantry, deployed in so-called ‘Battalion Columns’. These columns had a frontage of one company and a depth of four. Not far to the rear of the infantry divisions stood the cavalry, with the army’s reserve units deployed behind them but still often within range of Napoleon’s heavy artillery, to which the six or even sometimes seven lines of Russian troops offered a fine target.

To explain what all this means to an English-language readership it is perhaps useful to make comparisons with the familiar landscape of Waterloo. Napoleon brought 246 guns to Waterloo, some of which had to be deployed even at the very start of the battle on his right against the Prussians. The so-called ‘Grand Battery’ which pounded Wellington’s infantry squares in the afternoon of 18 June 1815 consisted of 80 guns. Napoleon’s artillery was ranged face-to-face with Wellington’s army. Almost all the fighting was confined to a line running roughly 3,500 metres east from the chateau of Hougoumont, into which Wellington packed his 73,000 men. Waterloo was indeed probably the most densely packed of the major battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars – with the exception of Borodino. The British commander partly shielded his men behind a reverse slope, though he was also helped by the fact that mud reduced the number of ricochets and therefore the killing power of Napoleon’s guns.