Kutuzov takes Command Part III


M.I. Kutuzov and his staff in the meeting at Fili village, when Kutuzov decided that the Russian army had to retreat from Moscow.

As Ermolov and Kutaisov were riding past the Raevsky Redoubt on their way to Second Army they saw the Russian troops in the neighbourhood in full flight. It was crucial for the Russians to counter-attack immediately before the enemy could consolidate its hold on the redoubt.

Aleksei Ermolov was just the right man for such an emergency. He immediately took command of the troops which remained in his vicinity and led them in a successful counter-attack. When Ermolov’s men – mostly from the Ufa Regiment of Dokhturov’s Sixth Corps – fought their way back into the redoubt they found other units from Sixth Corps, led by Barclay’s aide-de-camp Vladimir Löwenstern, storming into the position from the other side of the hill. Meanwhile Ivan Paskevich had rallied the remnants of his own 26th Division and advanced in support of Löwenstern and Ermolov to the left of the redoubt. The Russian counter-attack succeeded because the Russian officers on the spot acted immediately, resolutely and on their own initiative, without waiting for orders. In addition, General Morand’s division, which had spearheaded the assault, had moved ahead of Eugène de Beauharnais’s other divisions and was isolated.59 For the Russians the most important casualty of the counter-attack was Aleksandr Kutaisov, who was killed in the retaking of the redoubt. His body was never found. No doubt the army’s chief of artillery should not have risked his life in this way, and subsequently Kutaisov’s death was used to explain mistakes in the way in which the Russian artillery was handled during the battle. Explanations were certainly in order. The Russians had 624 guns on the battlefield and, in particular, had many more heavy twelve-pounders than the French. Nevertheless they fired only the same number of rounds. Problems occurred with the re-supply of ammunition to batteries. Much worse, though individual batteries fought with great skill and courage, the Russians failed to concentrate their artillery fire. In key areas of the battlefield the Russian batteries were heavily outnumbered and smothered by enemy fire. After they were destroyed or forced to retire, the new batteries brought up from the reserve in ones and twos often then suffered a similar fate. According to Ivan Liprandi, this failing had little to do with Kutaisov’s death. In his view, the Russians always failed to concentrate their artillery in 1812, though by 1813 they had learned their lesson and sometimes did better.

In normal circumstances the repulse of Morand’s division should have been followed by a renewed attack by the rest of Eugène’s corps. In fact, however, hours passed before the next major attack, which was launched after three o’clock in the afternoon. The delay proved crucial. More than half of Paskevich’s 26th Division were casualties and Barclay sent the division to the rear to rest and reorganize itself. He was able to do this because in the meantime the whole of Aleksandr Ostermann-Tolstoy’s Fourth Corps had arrived and could be used to plug the gap between the Raevsky Redoubt and the Russian troops involved in the ferocious battle around the village of Semenovskoe. The ‘lull’ around the redoubt was strictly relative. Ostermann-Tolstoy’s men were subjected to a devastating artillery barrage. But the full-scale infantry attack which might have broken through the weakened Russian defences near the redoubt in the late morning never occurred.

The reason for this delay was that Eugène was distracted by a Russian cavalry raid which came in from the north and threatened his rear. The raid was initiated by Matvei Platov, whose Cossack corps stood on the far right of the Russian line. Early in the morning of 7 September his patrols reported that there were no French troops in front of them and that it was possible for cavalry to ford the river Kolocha and work their way southwards behind the French lines. As a result, not only Platov’s Cossacks but also Fedor Uvarov’s First Cavalry Corps were ordered off to harass Eugène. In reality a few thousand cavalry, unsupported by infantry and with just two batteries of horse artillery, were unlikely to achieve much. Platov’s Cossacks raided Eugene’s baggage train while Uvarov’s regulars made a number of not very determined attacks on his infantry. At the time Kutuzov saw the attack as a failure and was annoyed by Uvarov’s lacklustre performance. It was only much later that the Russians came to understand what a difference the raid had made.

Meanwhile throughout the late morning and early afternoon fierce fighting continued in and around the village of Semenovskoe, towards the Russian left. In the village and to its right were the remnants of Bagration’s Second Army and Prince Grigorii Cantacuzene’s small brigade of Grenadiers which had come up from the reserve to help them. To the left of the village stood Petr Konovnitsyn’s infantry division and three Guards regiments, the Izmailovskys, the Lithuania (Litovsky) Guards and the Finland Regiment. Some way behind the infantry were the six dragoon and hussar regiments of Karl Sievers’s Fourth Cavalry Corps but by the end of the day most of the Russian heavy cavalry had also been committed to the battle near Semenovskoe.

All the Russian infantry near Semenovskoe were subjected to repeated attacks and devastating artillery fire. Casualties were immense. The Guards were worst placed since there was no cover to the left of the village. On the contrary, the area where they stood was dominated by the other bank of the Semenovsky stream on which Davout and Ney brought forward and deployed many batteries. The range was so short that at times the French guns were firing canister into the ranks of the Russian Guards. The latter were under repeated attack from a mass of French cavalry so they were forced to remain in squares, the juiciest of all targets for artillery. As at Waterloo, the attacks of the enemy cavalry became a welcome respite from the artillery fire. The Guards also had to deploy many skirmishers against the French infantry attempting to break out from the forest to their left. Nevertheless the three regiments held firm against all these threats. They kept the French cavalry and infantry at bay, and their steadiness was the rock around which the Russian defence coalesced.

In all, the Izmailovskys and Lithuania Guards suffered more than 1,600 casualties. In the Lithuania Regiment, for example, all the majors and colonels were killed or wounded, some of them remaining in the ranks despite multiple wounds. Casualties were also very heavy in the Guards artillery batteries which moved forward in the regiments’ support and were smothered by the more numerous French guns. Among these casualties, for example, was the 17-year-old ensign Avram Norov, who lost a leg at Borodino but nevertheless later made a brilliant career, ending as minister of education. His battery commander ‘could not hold back his sorrow at seeing Norov, who was a handsome and fine young man – indeed really only a boy – disfigured for life. But Norov responded with his usual slight stammer. “Well, brother, but there’s nothing to be done! God is merciful and I will recover and then get back to the battle on crutches.”’ Kutuzov reported to Alexander that the Guards regiments ‘in this battle covered themselves in glory under the eyes of the whole army’. Borodino was in fact the day in the Napoleonic Wars when the Russian Guards came of age as ever-reliable elite troops whose commitment could turn the fate of a battle.

The Russians were ultimately forced to abandon Semenovskoe and retreat a few hundred metres to the east but they kept their discipline, continuing to present a firm front to the enemy. The French cavalry attacked the squares but could not break them. When they tried to break out to the rear of the Russian line they found that they had little room to manoeuvre and were counter-attacked by the Russian cuirassiers and by Sievers’s Fourth Cavalry Corps, both of which more than held their own. By mid-afternoon it was clear that Davout’s and Ney’s corps were played out. If Napoleon was to break through the Russian line beyond Semenovskoe he would have to commit fresh troops. All that remained were his Guards. One of the Guards infantry divisions had been left behind at Gzhatsk but the other two were on hand and roughly 10,000 strong. Ney and Davout appealed to Napoleon for their release.

Ever since September 1812 a debate has raged as to whether the emperor’s refusal to commit his reserve cost him a decisive victory at Borodino and thereby his chances of winning the campaign of 1812. There can be no definite answer to this. The Russians themselves disagreed about the probable result if Napoleon had sent forward his Guards. The best of the nineteenth-century Russian historians, General Bogdanovich, believed that he would have secured a decisive victory and thereby seriously damaged Russian morale. On the other hand, Eugen of Württemberg wrote that the introduction of the Guards would have turned an almost drawn battle into an unequivocal French victory but that Kutuzov’s army would still have got away down the New Smolensk Road and the ultimate strategic outcome of the battle would therefore not have been altered.

My own hunch is that Eugen was probably right. On the Russian side, the six battalions of the Preobrazhensky and Semenovsky Guards were still in reserve and had together suffered only 300 casualties from artillery fire. The Second Guards Infantry Brigade had already shown the Guards regiments’ powers of resistance and the First Guards Brigade was not likely to do worse. As at Semenovskoe, other units would have formed around the Guards. Ivan Paskevich’s division, for example, had been sent to the rear to re-form and was quite capable of renewing the struggle in emergency, as were a number of artillery batteries also withdrawn from the front line to rest and restock with ammunition. A combination of Russian stubbornness, the bushes and broken country behind the Russian lines, and the distance to the main highway probably meant that the Russians would be able to delay the French advance for long enough to allow the army to slip away. Given time, Kutuzov could also bring four untouched jaeger regiments and some artillery batteries down from beyond Borodino to form a rearguard. Barclay still believed that his army had a lot of fight left in it and was expecting the battle to be renewed on the next day.

The whole debate is of course theoretical since Napoleon refused to risk his Guards. The smoke and dust thrown up by the battle made it impossible to see what was going on behind the Russian lines. The Russians had fought with immense stubbornness, which showed no sign of abating. The commander of the Guards, Marshal Bessières, whom Napoleon sent forward to spy out the land, reported that Russian resistance was still strong. With the possibility of another battle before Moscow and given the insecurity of his position deep in central Russia it is not surprising that Napoleon wished to retain his ultimate strategic reserve. The fact that the Guards were still intact was indeed to prove a major asset during the retreat from Moscow.

Given the emperor’s refusal to commit his Guards to the battle at Semenovskoe, his final chance of victory was to be Eugène de Beauharnais’s second assault on the Raevsky Redoubt, which was launched not long after three o’clock. By now the redoubt was a near ruin. It was defended by Petr Likhachev’s 24th Division of Sixth Corps, with Ostermann-Tolstoy’s Fourth Corps in support to the left. The attack was spearheaded by heavy cavalry, which was an unorthodox way to take a field fortification. The hand-to-hand fighting in the confined space of the redoubt was grim. Dead and wounded men piled up in mounds. Likhachev himself was captured but most of the Russian defenders were slaughtered, though some of the guns were withdrawn in time. On this occasion enough of Eugène’s remaining 20,000 infantry came up to consolidate their hold on the redoubt.

Barclay de Tolly had been in the thick of the fighting all day, calmly re-forming and redeploying his regiments to meet one emergency after another. Dressed in full uniform and wearing all his decorations, he seemed to be – and indeed was – courting death. Most of his aides were killed or wounded. The example he showed of courage, coolness and competence at moments of extreme stress and danger won him renewed respect. Now once again, but for the last time on 7 September, he rallied his infantry and artillery a kilometre or so to the east in a good defensive position on rising ground and drew on his cavalry to stop the enemy from exploiting their capture of the redoubt. Napoleon’s own cavalry had suffered heavy casualties in storming the Raevsky Redoubt. Their horses were also in a much worse state than those of their Russian opponents. On the other hand, Napoleon’s regular cavalry outnumbered the Russians by a wide margin. Barclay was forced even to commit his ultimate reserve, the Chevaliers Gardes and the Horse Guards, but these elite troops drove back the enemy cavalry and his lines held. When Napoleon once again refused to commit his Guards to exploit the fall of the redoubt the battle of Borodino was over.

That night Lieutenant Luka Simansky of the Izmailovsky Guards recalled the day’s events in his diary. The Smolensk Icon of the Mother of God was positioned close behind the Izmailovskys’ bivouac and before loading their muskets the regiment had turned to pray to it. In their squares near Semenovskoe the regiment was deluged by round-shot and canister. In comparison the attacks of the enemy cavalry were relaxing. No Russian artillery seemed to be anywhere in sight. All the senior officers of the Izmailovskys fell. A staff captain commanded the battalion and a mere ensign its skirmishers. By some miracle Simansky himself was untouched. When his orderly saw him returning unscathed from the fray he burst into tears of joy. Simansky ended his entry by writing: ‘I thought of my family and of the fact that I had remained calm and not budged one step from my post; of how I had cheered up my men and how I had prayed and given thanks to God as every cannon ball flew past me. The Almighty heard my prayer and spared me. Pray God that in His mercy he will also save dying Russia, which has already been punished for her sins sufficiently.’

Kutuzov had spent the day at his command post on the right wing, near the village of Gorki. He had positioned his corps before the battle and played some role on 7 September as regards the release of the reserves. On the whole, however, he left Barclay and Bagration to conduct the fighting. When Bagration was wounded he sent Dmitrii Dokhturov to replace him but himself never budged from the hill at Gorki. This made good sense. Barclay, Bagration and Dokhturov were fully competent to run a defensive battle of this sort in which no grand manoeuvres were attempted by the Russians. They were also much younger and more mobile than Kutuzov. Moreover, he was irreplaceable. Had Kutuzov been killed the army’s morale and cohesion would have collapsed. No other commander could have drawn anything approaching the same degree of trust and obedience. As Ivan Radozhitsky put it, ‘only Field-Marshal Prince Kutuzov, a true son of Russia, nourished at her breast, could have abandoned without a fight the empire’s ancient capital’.

In the immediate aftermath of the fighting, abandoning Moscow seems to have been far from Kutuzov’s mind. On the contrary, he told his subordinates that he intended to attack the next day. Only the news that Napoleon had not committed his Guards and that Russian losses were enormous persuaded him to change his mind. In all, the most recent Russian estimates suggest that they lost between 45,000 and 50,000 men at Shevardino and Borodino, as against perhaps 35,000 French casualties. In particular, Bagration’s Second Army had been nearly destroyed. Even some weeks later, after stragglers had returned to the ranks, Second Army was reckoned to have lost more than 16,000 men on 7 September, and this was on top of the 5,000 lost at Shevardino two days before. As serious, casualties among the army’s senior officers had been crippling.

Kutuzov therefore ordered a retreat. For almost the only time during the campaign the Russian rearguard performed poorly. This was blamed on its commander, Matvei Platov, and was seen by regular officers as confirmation of their long-held view that Cossack generals were not competent to command infantry and artillery. The basic problem was that Platov’s rearguard did not impose delays on the French or keep them at a sufficiently respectful distance from the main body of the retreating Russian army, as Konovnitsyn had always done with great skill. As a result, the already exhausted troops did not get the rest they needed. The army’s precipitate departure from Mozhaisk meant that thousands of wounded were left behind, in sharp contrast to what had happened previously during the retreat. When Kutuzov reinforced the rearguard and replaced Platov by Mikhail Miloradovich matters improved greatly but the episode fed growing tensions between the regular and Cossack leaders.

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