Battle of Borodino: Bloodiest Day of the Napoleonic Wars
The Battle of Borodino, fought on September 7, 1812, was the bloodiest single day of fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon had marched his Grande Armée into Russia in June of 1812. He hoped to quickly engage the Russian army, win a decisive victory, and force Tsar Alexander I to agree to his terms. However, the Russians kept retreating, setting fire to military stores, crops, and towns along the way. Napoleon had counted on his troops being able to forage for sustenance, but as they were drawn further into Russia, they became increasingly reliant on overstretched supply lines. By September, Napoleon – who had entered Russia with more than 400,000 soldiers, one-third of them French, the rest from French-occupied or allied territories – had lost a third of his men to starvation, straggling, desertion and disease.
A morale advantage
At Borodino, a village 75 miles (120 km) west of Moscow, the Russians under General Mikhail Kutuzov established a defensive position near the Kolocha and Moskowa Rivers (thus the French called the engagement the Battle of the Moskowa). In the centre was a hill with a large earthwork fortification known as the Grand Redoubt, surmounted by cannons.
Louis-François Lejeune, an aide-de-camp to Napoleon’s Chief of Staff Marshal Berthier, wrote:
This strongly fortified position must have greatly encouraged the Russians; but what added yet more to their confidence, and gave them an immense moral[e] advantage over us, was the fact that they had plenty of provisions and fodder, and neither men nor horses had suffered from famine. Moreover, as they were always falling back upon their reserves, their numbers daily increased. Only twenty-six leagues from Moscow, they were sure of reinforcements and help of every kind, and their General, knowing the superstitious piety of his soldiers, took care to rouse their fanaticism by making the war appear to be one in defence of their religion. He had the image of a certain canonised bishop, which it was said had been miraculously rescued from the impious hands of the French, carried through the ranks with all the pomp due to some sacred relic. It excited the greatest enthusiasm wherever it appeared, and we could hear the shouts of joy with which its passage was greeted by the 160,000 Russians making up the army.
Very different were the sentiments of the French. Not nearly so numerous as the Russians, they were yet full of confidence in the genius of the great man commanding them, and thought of nothing but the joy of entering as conquerors the ancient city of the Czars, where their labours were to end and they were to reap the reward of all their toil. Imbued with this idea, they one and all donned their best uniforms to take part in the battle which was to be the crown of their glory. (1)
In fact, the French may have had a numerical advantage. Estimates of the number of Grande Armée troops at the Battle of Borodino range from 130,000 to 190,000, and the number of Russian troops from 120,000 to 160,000.
Bad news and a portrait
Though Napoleon’s marshals urged him to swing south around the Russian flank, the French Emperor instead planned a series of frontal assaults on the Russian lines. On September 6, the day before the battle, Napoleon received bad news from Spain. Colonel Charles Fabvier, who appears in Napoleon in America, arrived at imperial headquarters with dispatches saying that British and Portuguese forces under the Duke of Wellington had defeated French forces at the Battle of Salamanca. Napoleon desperately needed a victory.
Napoleon also received a letter from his wife, Marie Louise, with a portrait of their son, the King of Rome, who was 18 months old. Painted by François Gérard, the artwork showed the baby holding a cup-and-ball toy.
The ball might have been taken for the globe of the world and the cup-stick for a sceptre. Napoleon contemplated his son’s picture with an emotion which was increased by the recollection of the distance which separated him from France as well as by the preparations for a battle which he had long wished for, but the approach of which filled him with anxiety. He ordered one of his valets to carry the picture outside his tent and to hold it up high enough that the sentry of the guards might see it. This sight brought all the officers and soldiers who were in the neighbourhood running up. To satisfy the curiosity of the military crowd, which kept increasing, the Emperor ordered the portrait of the King of Rome to be placed on one of the folding chairs in his tent and left it standing all day in sight of the army. The sympathy and the sentiments of all these good soldiers ended by breaking out into a manifestation which deeply touched the Emperor. (2)
Napoleon didn’t sleep well. He was suffering from a migraine, a bad cold, swollen legs, and difficulties with urination. Early in the morning of September 7, his order of the day was read to the troops.
Soldiers! This is the battle that you have longed for. Victory now depends on you: it must be ours. It will bring us abundance, good winter quarters and a quick return home. Do as you did at Austerlitz, at Friedland, at Witepsk, at Smolensk; and may your conduct today be spoken of with pride by all generations to come. May it be said of you: He was at that great battle beneath the walls of Moscow! (3)
Vomiting forth death
At 6 a.m., upon a signal from Napoleon, the French artillery opened fire. The Russian batteries immediately responded in kind. Jakob Walter, a German conscript in the Grande Armée, likened the barrage to “thunderbolts…both against and from the enemy. The earth was trembling because of the cannon fire, and the rain of cannon balls crossed confusedly.” (4)
Surgeon Heinrich von Roos established himself and his aides in a small valley by a stream.
At first, I went closer to the terrible game, but the hissing of a few balls of respectable caliber above my head put a brake on my curiosity. Now they brought me officers and men: Saxons, Westphalians, French, Wurtembergers, in a jumble with the Russians. For the most part, it was cavalrymen with serious wounds or broken limbs. … In general, the French were quiet and patient; many…died before their turn came to be bandaged. In contrast, a Westphalian who had lost his right arm cursed Napoleon and regretted that he couldn’t take vengeance. (5)
The focus of the battle soon became the murderous struggle for the Grand Redoubt. The French took it. Then the Russians retook it.
The wounded who arrived recounted terrible scenes that had given place to repeated assaults on the redoubt; they spoke to us of the piles of corpses building up inside and around this entrenchment, of the tenacity with which they had attacked and defended, of the destruction already started on the parapets and the burial of corpses under the rejected earth. (6)
Napoleon was not at the front of his army. He was sitting in the rear, watching the battle through his telescope, his view obscured by clouds of smoke. Many of his generals urged him to send in the Imperial Guard. He refused. “If there’s a second battle tomorrow, with what shall I fight it?” (7)
French cuirassiers (armoured cavalry) charged the redoubt, followed by infantry under the command of Napoleon’s stepson Eugène de Beauharnais, Viceroy of Italy. Eugène Labaume, an ordinance officer on the Viceroy’s staff, wrote:
The whole eminence, which overhung us, appeared in an instant a mass of moving iron: the glitter of the arms, and the rays of the sun, reflected from the helmets and cuirasses of the dragoons, mingled with the flames of the cannon that on every side vomited forth death, gave to the redoubt the appearance of a volcano in the midst of the army. (8)
By 4 p.m., the Grand Redoubt was in the Grande Armée’s possession. According to Lejeune:
In the struggle the wind, which was blowing strongly, raised clouds of dust, which mingled with the smoke from the guns was whirled up in dense masses, enveloping and almost suffocating men and horses. When at last the thick clouds, augmented every moment by the fury of the combat raging on every side, rolled away, we found that the column of Russian grenadiers had been driven back into the ravine, and that we were masters of the redoubt, where the artillerymen had been cut down at their guns. Thirty pieces of cannon also remained in our hands, the violence and rapidity of our cavalry charge having been such that the enemy had not had time to drag them away. Our victory had, however, been dearly bought, for [General Auguste-Jean-Gabriel de] Caulaincourt had been killed at the gorge of the redoubt, as he led the charge. (9)
The interior of the redoubt presented a horrid picture. The dead were heaped on one another. The feeble cries of the wounded were scarcely heard amid the surrounding tumult. Arms of every description were scattered over the field of battle. The parapets, half demolished, had their embrasures entirely destroyed. Their places were distinguished only by the cannon, the greatest part of which were dismounted and separated from the broken carriages. In the midst of this scene of carnage, I discovered the body of a Russian cannonier, decorated with three crosses. In one hand he held a broken sword, and with the other, firmly grasped the carriage of the gun at which he had so valiantly fought. All the Russian soldiers in the redoubt chose rather to perish than to yield. (10)
The surviving Russians retreated to the next ridge. Nightfall put an end to the fighting. Both sides were so exhausted that in several places firing ceased without orders having been given. Lejeune wrote:
The tents of the Emperor and of Major-General Prince Berthier were pitched on the verge of the battlefield, which in itself was doubtless a token of victory, but the enemy’s army was still within gunshot of us; the Russians, too, were rejoicing over a victory, and on our side the leaders were all making preparations for the resumption of the struggle the next day. The night was very dark, and gradually the fires on both sides, all too numerous, warned us what we might expect on the morrow.
Whilst waiting for the frugal repast which was to restore our exhausted forces, I jotted down notes of what I had seen during the day, and compared this battle with those of Wagram, Essling, Eylau, and Friedland. I was surprised that the Emperor had shown so little of the eager activity which had before so often ensured success. On the present occasion he had not mounted except to reach the battlefield, and had remained seated below his Guard on a sloping mound, from which he could see everything. Several balls had passed over his head. Whenever I returned from the numerous errands on which I was sent, I found him still seated in the same attitude, following every movement with the aid of his pocket field-glass, and giving his orders with imperturbable composure. But we did not see him now, as so often before, galloping from point to point, and with his presence inspiring our troops wherever the struggle was prolonged and the issue seemed doubtful. We all agreed in wondering what had become of the eager, active commander of Marengo. Austerlitz, and elsewhere.
We none of us knew that Napoleon was ill and suffering, quite unable to take a personal part in the great drama unfolded before his eyes, the sole aim of which was to add to his glory. In this terrible drama had been engaged Tartars from the confines of Asia, with the elite of the troops of some hundred European nations, for from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south, men had flocked to fight with desperate courage for or against Napoleon. The blood of some 80,000 Russians and Frenchmen had been shed to consolidate or to overturn his power, and he looked on with an appearance of absolute sang-froid at the awful vicissitudes of the terrible tragedy. We were all anything but satisfied with the way in which our leader had behaved, and passed very severe strictures on his conduct. (11)
Results incommensurate with losses
During the night, the Russians stole away. Labaume and others returned to the battlefield early the next day.
As we passed over the ground which they had occupied, we were enabled to judge of the immense loss that the Russians had sustained. In the space of a square league, almost every spot was covered with the killed or wounded. On many places the bursting of the shells had promiscuously heaped together men and horses. The fire of our howitzers had been so destructive that mountains of dead bodies were scattered over the plain; and the few places that were not encumbered with the slain, were covered with broken lances, muskets, helmets, and cuirasses, or with grape-shot and bullets, as numerous as hailstones after a violent storm. But the most horrid spectacle was the interior of the ravines; almost all the wounded who were able to drag themselves along, had taken refuge there to avoid the shot. These miserable wretches, heaped one upon another, and almost suffocated with blood, uttering the most dreadful groans, and invoking death with piercing cries, eagerly besought us to put an end to their torments. (12)
The Russians lost an estimated 40,000-45,000 dead, wounded, or captured, and the French an estimated 28,000-35,000. Some claim there were as many as 100,000 casualties at the Battle of Borodino. Lejeune remarked:
The terrible struggle, so hotly contested, had won no results at all commensurate with the great losses sustained on both sides. The French had to mourn two generals of division, Montbrun and Caulaincourt, and eight other generals killed, thirty-eight generals wounded, ten colonels killed, and some 40,000 men killed or wounded. The Russians had lost sixty pieces of cannon, and had had thirty-five generals killed, wounded, or taken prisoners, with 45,000 men killed or disabled, and 5,000 taken prisoners.
After all our fatigues the pursuit was slack, and the Russians retired in perhaps even more admirable order than on the day preceding the battle. For several leagues their route was dotted with the wooden crosses they had hastily set up over the graves of the wounded officers who had died by the way. …
Nothing could have been more melancholy than the appearance of the battlefield covered with groups occupied in carrying away the thousands of wounded, and in taking from the dead the few provisions remaining in their haversacks. Some of the wounded dragged themselves towards Kolotskoy, where Baron Larrey had set up an ambulance, whilst others were carried thither by their comrades in one way or another. Very soon an immense number were waiting attention, but, alas! everything needed for them was wanting, and hundreds perished of hunger, envying the happier lot of those who had been killed on the spot. (13)
Roos commented on a young Russian who rose from the corpses.
Whether the first rays of the sunlight had called him to life, or whether he was awakened by the numerous comings and goings around him, he suddenly sat up amid the dead, rubbed his eyes, and got slowly to this feet. Then he took a circular look around him in astonishment and walked away in a direction where there were few of us. No one who saw him thought to stop him. (14)
Jakob Walter wrote:
Although this terrible sight looked like a kingdom of the dead, the people had nevertheless become so indifferent to their feelings that they all ran numbly like shades of death away from the piteous crying. (15)
To Moscow and back
Although Borodino was a French victory, it was a Pyrrhic one. According to Armand de Caulaincourt, Napoleon’s Master of the Horse and brother of the slain general:
The Emperor went into the town towards noon [on September 8th]. He was very much preoccupied, for affairs in Spain were weighing him down just when those in Russia, despite this victorious battle, were far from satisfactory. The state of the various corps which he had seen was deplorable. All were sadly reduced in strength. His victory had cost him dear. When he had come to a halt on the previous evening, he had felt convinced that this bloody battle, fought with an enemy who had abandoned nothing in their retreat, would have no result beyond allowing him to gain further ground. The prospect of entering Moscow still enticed him, however; but even that success would be inconclusive so long as the Russian army remained unbroken. Everyone noticed that the Emperor was very thoughtful and worried, although he frequently repeated: ‘Peace lies in Moscow.’ (16)
The French entered Moscow on September 14, only to find the city largely abandoned. That night, fires broke out and raged for three days, destroying most of Moscow. Lacking supplies and with winter approaching, Napoleon began his long and costly retreat from Russia on October 19. As the remnants of the Grande Armée passed the field of Borodino almost two months after the battle, they came upon a horrible sight.
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. (17)
You might also enjoy:
- Louis-François Lejeune, Memoirs of Baron Lejeune, translated by Mrs. Arthur Bell, Vol. II (London, 1897), pp. 177-178.
- Claude-François de Méneval, Memoirs Illustrating the History of Napoleon I From 1802 to 1815, Vol. III (New York, 1894), pp. 52-53.
- Armand de Caulaincourt, With Napoleon in Russia (New York, 1935), p. 96.
- Jakob Walter, A German Conscript With Napoleon: Jakob Walter’s Recollections of the Campaigns of 1806-1807, 1809, and 1812-1813, according to a manuscript found at Lecompton, Kansas, edited and translated by Otto Springer (Lawrence KS, 1938), p. 39.
- Henri de Roos (Heinrich von Roos), Avec Napoléon en Russie (Paris, 1913), pp. 80-82.
- Ibid., p. 84.
- Méneval, Memoirs Illustrating the History of Napoleon I From 1802 to 1815, Vol. III, p. 53.
- Eugène Labaume, A Circumstantial Narrative of the Campaign in Russia (Hartford, 1817), p. 124.
- Lejeune, Memoirs of Baron Lejeune, pp. 182-183.
- Labaume, A Circumstantial Narrative of the Campaign in Russia, pp. 125-126.
- Lejeune, Memoirs of Baron Lejeune, pp. 186-187.
- Labaume, A Circumstantial Narrative of the Campaign in Russia, pp. 131-132.
- Lejeune, Memoirs of Baron Lejeune, pp. 188-190.
- Roos, Avec Napoléon en Russie, p. 88.
- Walter, A German Conscript With Napoleon, p. 41.
- Caulaincourt, With Napoleon in Russia, pp. 104-105.
- Philippe de Ségur, History of the Expedition to Russia Undertaken by the Emperor Napoleon in the Year 1812, Vol. II (New York, 1872), p. 119.
The glitter of the arms, and the rays of the sun, reflected from the helmets and cuirasses of the dragoons, mingled with the flames of the cannon that on every side vomited forth death, gave to the redoubt the appearance of a volcano in the midst of the army.