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.
At Borodino Napoleon deployed 587 guns. The great majority of them were targeted against the Russian troops defending the line from just north of the Raevsky Redoubt to the three field fortifications which Bagration’s men constructed beyond Semenovskoe, and which have gone down in history as the Bagration flèches – arrow-shaped earth-works, open to the rear, whose crumbling earthen breastworks offered little cover to defenders. When the flèches fell the Russian line bent southwards still more sharply around Semenovskoe itself. The distance from the Raevsky Redoubt to Semenovskoe is only 1,700 metres. The flèches were a few hundred metres beyond the village. More than 90,000 Russian troops were packed into this area. From Barclay’s report after the battle it is clear that his lines within the salient were not just being subjected to cross-fire. French batteries near Borodino were also sometimes on the flank of Russian lines and able to inflict maximum casualties by shooting right along them.
It is true that Wellington was more skilful than either Russian or Prussian generals in using reverse slopes and other natural obstacles to shield his troops. But Barclay did on a number of occasions order his generals to keep their men under cover, only to be told that there was none available. When one walks around the position held by the Russian army on this still unspoiled battlefield it is easy to confirm the generals’ claim. Contrary to tradition, some Russian commanders also told their men to lie down to avoid the bombardment, though not all units obeyed. The Russians can fairly be criticized for bunching their troops too tightly and not keeping at least their reserves and part of their cavalry beyond the range of Napoleon’s guns. On the other hand the bone-hard stony ground did them no favours when it came to ricochets. Russian villages constructed of wood also gave no help to defenders and instead threatened them by bursting into flames. For that reason the Russians destroyed the village of Semenovskoe before the battle began. The contrast with the enormous assistance which the stone buildings at Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte gave to Wellington is obvious.
The dense Russian deployment was designed to force Napoleon to fight a battle of attrition. The cramped battlefield would give his units little room to manoeuvre or to exploit tactical successes. It would in the most literal sense cramp Napoleon’s own genius. The price to be paid, as the Russian commanders knew, was very high casualties. In addition, committing oneself to a battle of attrition more or less precluded any chance of a striking Russian victory. With Napoleon present in person and his army considerably outnumbering the Russians as regards trained troops, such a victory was in any case unlikely. In many ways therefore the battle of Borodino was a microcosm of the 1812 campaign as a whole, during which the Russian high command had forced Napoleon to fight the kind of war that suited them but not him.
History had accustomed Russian troops to fighting on terrain that gave them few natural advantages. By tradition therefore they were more inclined than most European armies to build field fortifications to strengthen a position. This they did at Borodino but with only limited success. The strongest and most professionally constructed fortifications were on the far north of the Russian line, beyond the village of Gorki. No fighting occurred in this area, so the fortifications were largely wasted. The two fortifications which did play a significant role in the battle were the much weaker Bagration flèches and the Raevsky Redoubt. Though the redoubt in particular was a key element in the Russian line of defence, one has to be very cautious in taking French descriptions of these supposedly formidable fortifications at face value.
Neither the flèches nor the Raevsky Redoubt were built by engineer officers. All the small cadre of army engineers were assigned on other tasks as were most of the pioneer companies, which in any case even in principle were only 500 strong. The Moscow militiamen who did most of the construction work on the Raevsky Redoubt had no clue about how to build fortifications and were impeded by the stony ground and lack of implements. Matters were not helped by an argument between Toll and Bennigsen about how best to construct fortifications on the mound. Karl Oppermann, the army’s senior and most authoritative engineer, devoted most of his attention to fortresses in 1812 and had not yet rejoined the main army in time for the battle. In addition, however, there were delays in finding spades and pickaxes for the militiamen. Work therefore began in the late afternoon of 6 September and continued through the night. Ensign Dementii Bogdanov and his small command of pioneers only arrived to help with the construction of the redoubt shortly before midnight. It was far from completed when the battle began on the morning of 7 September.
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.
As a result, according to the official history of the military engineering corps, there were all sorts of elementary mistakes even in the redoubt, let alone the flèches. The mound on which the Raevsky Redoubt was constructed is in any case small and low. In the end eighteen guns with one battalion of infantry as a covering force was all that could be squashed into the position. When one walks over the mound, it seems remarkable that the Russians managed to pack in even this many men. The slope up to the front of the redoubt was very gentle, the slope in its rear only a little less so. The militiamen had done their best to make up for these weaknesses but with limited success. One problem was that ‘the counter-escarpment was much lower than the escarpment, and the ditch in front of the redoubt was completely inadequate’. Of course, the militiamen had no idea how to use fascines, gabions and other elements of the pioneer’s art. Through lack of time, embrasures were only constructed for ten guns. One result of this was that the artillery within the redoubt could not cover part of the approaches. The area in front of the redoubt was swept by the fire of Russian batteries of First Army to the north and Second Army to the south but almost all these guns were deployed in the open and subjected to devastating enemy counter-battery fire. All of this, together with the massive artillery bombardment which it suffered on 7 September, helps to explain how the redoubt could finally be stormed by cavalry.
The officer who initially oversaw the construction of the Raevsky Redoubt was Lieutenant Ivan Liprandi, the senior quartermaster of Dmitrii Dokhturov’s Sixth Corps. That a mere lieutenant should be the second senior staff officer in a corps indicates the shortage of senior staff officers. That he should also be doing a job which belonged properly to a military engineer was due not just to the scarcity of engineer officers but also to the fact that First Army’s engineers had been committed to building the much more formidable fortifications on the army’s right flank north of Gorki. While so much effort went into fortifying the northern flank on 4, 5 and 6 September nothing was done until almost the eve of battle at the Raevsky Redoubt. This says a great deal about the priorities of the Russian high command and where they expected the most important fighting to take place.
Even more striking was Kutuzov’s initial deployment of the Russian army. Of the five infantry corps placed in the front line, two – Baggohufvudt’s Second and Ostermann-Tolstoy’s Fourth – were positioned north of Gorki, as was one regular cavalry corps and Platov’s Cossacks. Dokhturov’s Sixth Corps stood opposite Borodino and between the village of Gorki and the Raevsky Redoubt. The entire line south of the redoubt as far as the flèches was manned by the two corps of Bagration’s Second Army: Nikolai Raevsky’s Seventh Corps stood next to the redoubt and Mikhail Borozdin’s Eighth Corps held the left of the line at and beyond the village of Semenovskoe. The two remaining corps of First Army, Nikolai Tuchkov’s Third and the Fifth (Guards) Corps formed the overall reserve. The army’s deployment as well as its fortifications thus reflected Kutuzov’s overriding concern for his right flank and for the New Smolensk Road, which was his line of communications and supply to his base at Moscow.
In the two days before the battle, many of Kutuzov’s senior generals pointed out the vulnerability of the Russian left flank. Napoleon’s attack on Shevardino seemed to presage an assault on this section of Kutuzov’s line. Even quite junior officers were aware that the enemy was likely to strike in the south. Kutuzov made some changes to counter this danger. Above all, he moved Nikolai Tuchkov’s corps out of the reserve and onto the Old Smolensk Road to block any attempt to outflank the Russian left. But despite pleas from, among others, Barclay de Tolly, he insisted on keeping the corps of Baggohufvudt and Ostermann on his right flank beyond Gorki.
An uncharitable explanation for this might be mere stubbornness, for which Kutuzov’s chief adviser, Karl von Toll, was noted. Given antagonisms within the high command, to change the army’s deployment on the advice of rival generals might smack of humiliation. More probably, Kutuzov and Toll were unwilling to weaken the force guarding their vital line of communication until absolutely convinced that Napoleon did not intend to strike in this direction. The price of defensive tactics is that troops must be deployed on the basis of assumptions and fears about where the enemy will strike. Given Napoleon’s reputation for surprise and daring this might result in many units being wasted far from the battlefield. Once again a comparison with Waterloo may be useful. Deeply concerned by what proved to be a non-existent threat to his communications with the sea, Wellington kept 17,000 men under Prince Frederick of the Netherlands inactive at Hal for the duration, many kilometres from the battlefield. At least the 23,000 men of Ostermann and Baggohufvudt did join the battle of Borodino, albeit dangerously late.
Nevertheless the mis-deployment of Second and Fourth Corps had serious consequences. In their absence, Kutuzov was forced to send most of the army’s supposed reserve into the front line by early on 7 September, contrary to all normal practice and much to Barclay’s indignation. The fact that the Guards were moved without Barclay even being informed speaks to the confusion and divisions in the Russian command structure. In the end the two right-wing corps did act as a substitute reserve, but it took desperate appeals from Bagration to shift Baggohufvudt’s men and two hours for them to arrive on the army’s threatened southern wing. Ostermann’s Fourth Corps moved even later. By the time all these reinforcements were on the spot, enormous losses had been suffered by Bagration’s outnumbered Second Army.
Disputes about exactly how many men each side brought to Borodino have rumbled on ever since 1812, partly out of a rather childish effort by historians to boost their side’s prowess by proving it to have been outnumbered. The Russians certainly had more men but only if one counts the 31,000 militiamen from Moscow and Smolensk who were mostly armed with pikes and axes and had no military training. The militia was not totally useless, because it fulfilled auxiliary tasks such as collecting the wounded and acting as military police. But these militia units could not and in fact did not take any part in the fighting. If one discounts the militia entirely, Napoleon probably had a slight numerical edge: perhaps 130,000 of his soldiers faced somewhat less than 125,000 Russians. Certainly Napoleon had the edge if one discounts the 8,600 Cossacks in the Russian army. Though far more useful than the militia, most Cossack units could not be expected to stand against regular cavalry, let alone infantry, on a battlefield.
As regards the quality of the two armies’ regular units, even men who had started the campaign as rookies could now almost be seen as experienced troops. Weaklings had long since fallen out of the ranks during ten weeks of gruelling marches and battles. The one exception to this were the 13,500 men of the fourth (i.e. Recruit Depot) battalions commanded by General Mikhail Miloradovich, who joined Kutuzov one week before the battle and were dispersed among the regiments of First and Second armies. These men had been adequately trained but, as usual in the peacetime army, target practice had been constrained by shortage of lead and none of them had ever previously fired a shot in anger. On the other hand, the elite units of both armies were present in strength. In the Russian case this meant the regiments of Guards and Grenadiers. In Napoleon’s it included the Guards, Davout’s First Corps, and many excellent German and French heavy cavalry regiments.
The two armies prepared for battle in ways that reflected their rather different natures, but both were highly motivated and itching to fight after weeks of frustrating marches. As the decisive battle loomed, postponed so often and for so many weeks, both sides knew that they were fighting for very high stakes.
Kutuzov ordered the famous Icon of the Smolensk Mother of God, which had been evacuated from the city, to be carried down the line of his army. Segur recalls that the religious procession was visible from Napoleon’s headquarters: they could see how ‘Kutuzov, surrounded with every species of religious and military pomp, took his station in the midst of it. He had made his popes and archimandrites dress themselves in those splendid and majestic insignia, which they had inherited from the Greeks. They marched before him, carrying the venerated symbols of their religion.’ Kutuzov was a master of speaking to his soldiers in terms they understood but after watching Smolensk and many other Russian towns burn, they barely needed his appeals to defend their native land and its faith to the last.
By contrast the French army of 1812 was entirely secular, having preserved many of the republican norms of the 1790s. Moreover, the force which fought at Borodino included tens of thousands of Poles, Germans and Italians. Napoleon’s order of the day, read out to his troops by their commanders, therefore spoke neither of religion nor patriotism. It appealed to the pride and confidence they should derive from their past victories and invoked the glory they would obtain in the eyes of posterity by having triumphed in a battle ‘under the walls of Moscow’. More prosaically, but very much to the point, it stressed the necessity of victory: ‘It will give you abundance, good winter quarters and a rapid return to your homeland.’
Well into the afternoon of 6 September, while Napoleon was reviewing the Russian position from near Borodino, Marshal Davout approached him with a proposal to abandon plans for a frontal assault on Bagration’s army and instead to authorize a flanking movement by 40,000 men of his and Poniatowski’s corps down the Old Smolensk Road in order to envelop and roll up the Russian left flank. In principle this was a good idea. Napoleon needed a decisive victory and there had to be doubts whether this could be achieved by a frontal assault. The toughness and stubbornness of Russian troops were legendary. A flanking movement might bring on a battle of manoeuvre rather than attrition, which could only work to Napoleon’s advantage.
Nevertheless the emperor was right to reject Davout’s suggestion. Given the quality of their light cavalry the Russians were unlikely to be surprised by a flanking movement but in any case a threat to his flank might simply inspire Kutuzov to decamp which after so long a pursuit Napoleon dreaded. To redeploy Davout’s corps for such a movement would by now require large-scale movements in the dark through the forests on the French right, which was a recipe for chaos. Moreover, the Russian strategy of whittling down Napoleon’s army now bore fruit. Earlier in the campaign he could easily have spared 40,000 men for such a movement but by now his margin for risk and error was much more tight.
Soon after first light on 7 September the battle of Borodino began. At about six in the morning the Russian Guards Jaeger Regiment was driven out of the village of Borodino and back across the river Kolocha, with heavy losses. The French attacked under cover of a mist and in overwhelming numbers. Either the regiment should not have been left in so exposed and isolated a spot or it had failed to take proper precautions. Barclay believed the former to be true and had urged the Jaegers’ withdrawal on Kutuzov. But army gossip often blamed the regiment’s commanders for the defeat. The French units which had taken Borodino pursued the Guards Jaegers over the river Kolocha and were then ambushed and driven back with heavy losses, so in tactical terms the battle was a draw. Its broader significance was that it enabled the French artillery pounding the Raevsky Redoubt to be brought forward and given excellent positions to enfilade the Russian lines. This initial blow towards the northern end of the Russian line may also have persuaded Kutuzov that Napoleon might strike his right wing after all. If so, it can only have increased his hesitation about sending Ostermann and Baggohufvudt southwards.
Shortly after the attack on Borodino the vastly bigger assault on the Bagration flèches began. Though initially the assault was made by Davout’s men, quite soon Marshal Ney threw his corps into the battle as well. Russian sources claim that by the end of the fight 400 enemy guns supported the advance on the flèches. This sounds exaggerated but there is no question that the three divisions of Borozdin’s Eighth Corps, the only Russian infantry initially deployed in this area, were heavily outnumbered and subjected to an immense bombardment. The three flèches – their earthen walls soon shattered by the French bombardment – were held by Count Mikhail Vorontsov’s Second Combined Grenadier Division, which was annihilated in the course of the fighting and subsequently disbanded. Vorontsov himself was severely wounded. So too were most of the other generals of Second Army, who showed outstanding courage and self-sacrifice. Within three hours Petr Bagration, his chief of staff Emmanuel de Saint-Priest, and Mikhail Borozdin were all out of action.
Both the French and the Russian armies used basically similar tactics. Attacks were mounted behind a cloud of skirmishers and with strong artillery support but the bulk of the infantry was deployed in columns. As Jomini pointed out in his theoretical writings, if the attacking force was sufficiently numerous and determined it was unlikely to be stopped by the musketry of enemy infantry themselves largely deployed in column. Having broken into the front line, however, the attacker would then be very vulnerable to immediate counter-attack by fresh enemy forces as yet untouched by the fighting and already deployed for a counter-strike in battalion columns. If both sides were equally motivated, attack would follow counter-attack and the pendulum would swing between the two sides until the first one to exhaust its reserves was defeated and withdrew. Great efforts have been expended by Russian historians to discover how many times waves of French infantry assaulted the flèches but this is almost impossible to establish and not that important. For all their immense courage the outnumbered Russians were finally forced to withdraw over the Semenovsky stream and redeploy on either side of the village of Semenovskoe.
In the course of the ferocious battle for the flèches Bagration drew in reinforcements from both his right and his left. On the right this meant that some of the infantry of Nikolai Raevsky’s Seventh Corps, positioned just to the left of the Raevsky Redoubt, redeployed southwards towards Semenovskoe. Meanwhile on the far left of the Russian line Nikolai Tuchkov was forced to send one of his two infantry divisions under Petr Konovnitsyn to help Bagration.
As a result, Tuchkov was hard pressed when Prince Poniatowski’s Polish corps began its advance down the Old Smolensk Road towards the village of Utitsa. Fortunately for the Russians, Poniatowski had been forced to make a big detour to avoid getting lost in the forests, which suggests what kind of fate would have awaited Davout’s much larger force had he attempted his proposed flank attack. When Poniatowski did advance, his 10,000 men forced the outnumbered Tuchkov to fall back to a stronger position anchored by a hill just to the east of Utitsa.
For the rest of the day fierce but ultimately indecisive fighting continued around Utitsa and the Old Smolensk Road. The Poles were reinforced by most of Junot’s Westphalian corps. On the other side, Karl Baggohufvudt’s Second Corps arrived to rescue Tuchkov. Meanwhile in the Utitsa forest between the Old Smolensk Road and the open ground where the flèches had been constructed Prince Ivan Shakhovskoy’s jaeger regiments put up a tremendous fight, tying down a larger enemy force and, in the words of a German historian, showing ‘not only their courageous endurance but also a skill which Russian light infantry did not always and everywhere display’.
Once Baggohufvudt arrived, the battle on the Russian far left became something of a sideshow. Given the relatively even balance of forces in the area, it was very unlikely that Poniatowski would succeed in pushing far down the Old Smolensk Road and into the Russian rear. Much more dangerous was the situation around the Raevsky Redoubt. If the French broke through here they would split the Russian line in two. They would also be within easy striking distance of the New Smolensk Road, Kutuzov’s key line of communication to the rear.
For more than two hours after the fall of Borodino the enemy’s artillery and skirmishers poured fire on the defenders of the Raevsky Redoubt, but no mass attack was made by the infantry of Eugeène de Beauharnais, who commanded the left wing of Napoleon’s army. When the order for the attack did finally come, its weight was too great for the redoubt’s defenders, who were driven off the mound. One problem for the Russians was that their artillery in the redoubt was running short of ammunition. In addition, the advancing columns were concealed by the dense clouds of smoke which clung around the redoubt in the still morning air. Panic resulted when the French infantry suddenly emerged out of the smoke and swarmed over the redoubt. Precise timings for the various episodes during the battle of Borodino are very difficult to establish. The one certainty as regards the attack on the redoubt is that it occurred shortly after Petr Bagration was wounded and after part of Nikolai Raevsky’s corps had left the area of the redoubt to go to his aid.
On hearing the news that Bagration was a casualty, Kutuzov sent Aleksei Ermolov down to Second Army to help its remaining commanders and report back on the situation. Together with Ermolov rode Major-General Count Aleksandr Kutaisov, the overall commander of the artillery. Kutaisov was an able young artillerist, passionately committed to his profession. He was also handsome, kindly, charming and cultured, which helped to make him one of the most popular figures in the army. In this there was some irony since his grandfather, the first Count Kutaisov, was a universally loathed and barely literate former Turkish prisoner of war whom Paul I had made his close confidant and a count, partly to spite the Russian aristocracy.