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The Battle of Borodino, 7 September 1812

This post follows on from this one on the Battle of Smolensk on 17 August 1812.

Most of French army rested near Smolensk for 6 days after the battle and Napoleon thought about wintering there. This would allow new drafts to be trained and the supply arrangements to be improved. Napoleon might obtain a large Polish army if he allowed the establishment of a Polish Kingdom. An advance on Moscow might not bring victory, and could leave the French deep in Russia in winter, with long and exposed lines of communication.

However, Napoleon needed to get Russia back into the Continental System, by which he was conducting economic warfare against Britain, as quickly as possible. The Russians would also be able to train reinforcements and might counter attack. The French already had supply problems. Setting up an independent Poland would make it hard to achieve a negotiated peace and would upset that Austrian and Prussian monarchs. Halting the offensive would be presented as a defeat by his foreign enemies and his domestic opponents would conspire against him if he stayed away from Paris for too long.

David Chandler argues that Napoleon believed the only way to win a war was to destroy the enemy army. He thought that Tsar Alexander would have to fight for Moscow:

If for logistical reasons it was dangerous to linger at Smolensk, it was even more risky to head for Moscow, but only by such a bold course could there by any possibility of a reasonably rapid conclusion to the campaign.[1]

Alexander had decided to give up his strategy of conceding ground. On 24 July he made a successful appeal for new recruits. Religious symbols were presented to the army.

On 17 August, with the battle of Smolensk about to start, a meeting of senior generals urged Alexander to replace Mikhail Barclay de Tolly as commander-in-chief of the army with the Mikhail Kutuzov, a veteran of Russia’s wars with Poland and Turkey. He had done a good job in extracting the Russian survivors of the defeat at Austerlitz; he was nominally in command there, but Alexander was present and had ignored his advice not to fight. He did not receive another field command until 1811, when he won a number of victories against the Turks.[2]

Charles Esdaile points out that the loss of Smolensk, a major centre for the Russian Orthodox Church, threatened the estates of several leading nobles. Many officers were bitter and angry that they had continually to retreat. The government was successfully trying to boost Russian patriotism. Kutuzov was the leading ethnic Russian general whilst Barclay, who had surrendered much Russian territory, was regarded as a foreigner.[3] In fact, although Barclay had a Scottish name, he had been born in modern Latvia and his Scottish ancestors had emigrated to Russia in the seventeenth century.[4]

The Tsar ‘feared and resented’[5] Kutuzov and hesitated for three days before accepting that the strength of opinion amongst his nobles and generals left him with no choice but to appoint the 67 year old veteran. Alexander, concerned over Kutuzov’s ‘possible treachery as well as his imputed incompetence’[6], appointed Count Levin Bennigsen as his Chief of Staff. Barclay retained command of the Russian 1st Army.

On 24 August Napoleon decided to advance on Moscow the next day. As before, his army was menaced by Cossacks as it moved through territory that had been subjected to a policy of scorched earth. Heavy rain made Napoleon say on 30 August that he would return to Smolensk the next day unless the weather improved, but 31 August was dry and sunny.

By 5 September the French could see the Russians digging in around the village of Borodino. There is some doubt over which was the bigger army. Chandler, Esdaile and Zamoyski all put the French one at over 130,000. Chandler has 156,000 French leaving Smolensk, but 133,000 at Borodino. Chandler and Esdaile both say that there were 121,000 Russians at the battle, but Zamoyski argues that recent Russian research estimates the Russian strength at 154,800 to 157,000 men. This includes 10,000 Cossacks and 30,000 militia, who played little role in the battle, but the French Guard, which Zamoyski  puts at 25,000 men and Esdaile at 18,000, also did not fight in the battle. Chandler gives the Russians an advantage of 640 to 587 in artillery.[7]

John Elting notes that this was the largest ratio of artillery to men that Napoleon, an artilleryman, had at any of his battles; 4.5 guns per 1,000 men compared with around two in his early battles, 3.9 at Wagram in 1809 and 3.5 at the later battles of Leipzig in 1813 and Waterloo in 1815.[8]

The Russians had taken up a naturally strong defensive position, which they had then strengthened by the construction of a series of redoubts. One was a mile in front of the main position at the hamlet of Shevardino. The main line was held by a large entrenchment called the Great or Raevski Redoubt to the north and three flèches on hills further south. The flèches were arrow-shaped redoubts fortified on three sides, but with the rear open. An earthwork at Gorki guarded the new post road to Moscow and others covered the River Kalatsha north of Borodino. See the map below:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Battle_of_Borodino_map.jpg. Original from Gregory Fremont-Barnes (main editor) – The Encyclopedia of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, page 172. Adapted from Chandler 1987, 437.
Reference to Chandler is unclear, but may be The Dictionary of Battles (London: Ebury Press, 1987).

There was a fight for the Shevardino Redoubt on the afternoon and evening of 5 September, which ended when Kutuzov withdrew to the main line after the Polish General Jozef Poniatowski’s V Corps moved along the old post road.

Napoleon was ill with a heavy cold and an old bladder infection, meaning that he was far less active during the battle than normal. Both sides spent 6 September preparing for battle. Napoleon decided that the terrain north of Borodino was too difficult for an attack. A demonstration there would have tied down Russian troops, but this was not done. He made the capture of the Great Redoubt a priority, even though this would mean heavy casualties.

Marshal Louis Davout wanted to outflank the Russians to the south with 40,000 troops, but Napoleon told him ‘Ah, you are always for turning the enemy. It is too dangerous a manoeuvre.’[9] The Emperor thought that the Grande Armée was too small to detach a large flanking force and was concerned about the condition of his troops, artillery and especially horses. The Russians might avoid battle if they realised that he was planning to outflank them. Even if he succeeded in threatening their communications, his study of Frederick the Great’s campaigns convinced him that this did not greatly concern Russian armies that were about to fight a major battle.

Short of time, Napoleon decided on a frontal attack rather than a battle of manoeuvre. The attack began at 6 am and initially went well, with the French taking Borodino in the north, the flèches in the centre and Utitsa in the south. Russian counter attacks began at 7 am, forcing the French back. The open backs of the flèches made it hard for the French to defend them against counter attacks.

Kutuzov realised that there was no French threat north of Borodino, allowing him to move troops who were guarding the Kalatsha further south. Napoleon also committed new troops. By 8:30 am he had few reserves left other than the Imperial Guard.

The French launched a new attack against the Russian centre just after 10 am. Artillery caused heavy losses on both sides, including generals. Davout had been wounded earlier, and Marshal Michel Ney received four wounds during this phase, whilst the Russian Prince Piotr Bagration was killed. The Russians were forced back and Marshal Joachim Murat’s French cavalry, seeing an opportunity for victory charged, but the Russians formed square and held firm. Davout, Murat and Ney urged Napoleon to commit the Old Guard, but the Emperor refused.

The Russians had been forced back, but were able to reinforce the hardest pressed parts of their line. Chandler argues that Kutuzov did not actively command, but left most decisions to his subordinates, contenting himself with accepting or rejecting their ideas. Napoleon, tired and in poor health, did not perform well. preferring to stay at his command post and receive reports rather than going forward to see what was happening.[10]

A surprise attack by Uvarov’s Russian cavalry forced the French out of Borodino. Napoleon’s step-son Prince Eugène stabilised the situation, but this delayed his IV Corps’ planned attack on the Great Redoubt, and made Napoleon sure that he must not commit his Guard in case of further such surprises.

Eugène’s attack was carefully planned and had the support of 400 guns. Casualties were again heavy, but the French had taken the Great Redoubt by 3 pm. Eugène sent forward every available cavalryman in an attempt to exploit the success, but Barclay stopped the French advance by sending in two corps of Russian cavalry, whose horses were in far better condition than the French ones.

Eugène asked Napoleon to deploy the Guard, but the Emperor refused. Chandler notes that Marshals Murat and Louis Berthier agreed with him this time and argues that the Emperor was correct to maintain it intact, since he was 1,200 miles from home.[11] The Russians were able to retire to new positions.

The Russians launched a counter-attack, which was stopped by French artillery. In the south Poniatowski’s V Corps advanced, and by 6pm the Russians in the south had withdrawn to the line held by the rest of their army. The Russians had been forced back to an inferior position, but their army was still intact. The fighting now died down.

The most common figures for casualties (dead and wounded) are 30,000 French and 44,000 Russians, making this the bloodiest battle of the Napoleonic Wars and perhaps any until the First World War, but estimates vary from 28,000 to 50,000 French and 38,500 to 58,000 Russians. The casualties included 48 French generals, 11 of them dead, and 29 Russian generals, six of them killed. The French fired between 60,000 and 90,000 artillery rounds and 1,400,000 to 2 million musket cartridges.[12]

Chandler argues that neither Napoleon nor Kutuzov significantly contributed to the battle. The Russian generals made many mistakes; unnecessarily extending their line before the battle, leaving the southern flank open, exposing their reserves by putting them too far forward and not exploiting Uvarov’s local success. Chandler says that ‘[w]hat saved the Russian army was the dogged courage and endurance of its rank and file.’[13]

Borodino is known as La Bataille de la Moskova in France. Napoleon could claim victory on the basis of occupation of the ground, and probably casualties inflicted, but he had not destroyed the Russian army.

Kutuzov realised that his army was not capable of fighting again and retreated towards Moscow, 75 miles to the east. On 13 September he called a meeting of his eight most senior generals. Four, including Barclay, agreed with his view that the army would be destroyed if it fought again, and that it was more important to preserve it than to defend Moscow.  Bennigsen, supported by the other three, wanted to attack a French corps on the march. Kutuzov decided to withdraw and the Army abandoned Moscow early on 14 September.

Zamoyski describes Kutuzov’s decision to give up Moscow to save his army as ‘ the only brilliant decision he made during the whole campaign.’[14] He notes that Kutuzov told the Tsar that the loss of Smolensk made the loss of Moscow inevitable, thus transferring the blame to Barclay.[15] The French army, now reduced to 100,000 men entered Moscow later the same day. It was deserted as two-thirds of the population of 270,000 had left and most of the others stayed indoors.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 792.

[2] P. J. Haythornthwaite, The Napoleonic Source Book (London: Arms & Armour, 1990), pp. 339-40.

[3] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), pp. 475-76.

[4] A. W. Palmer, An Encyclopaedia of Napoleon’s Europe (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1984), pp. 25-26.

[5] A. Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (London: HarperCollins, 2004), p. 25.

[6] Ibid., p. 248.

[7] Chandler, Campaigns, pp. 794, 1119; Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, pp. 476-77; Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 258-59.

[8] J. R. Elting, Swords around a Throne : Napoleon’s Grande Armée (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988), p. 59.

[9] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 798.

[10] Ibid., p. 804.

[11] Ibid., pp. 805-7.

[12] Ibid., pp. 806-7; Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, p. 477; Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 287-88.

[13] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 808.

[14] Zamoyski, 1812, p. 287.

[15] Ibid., p. 292.

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Battle of Smolensk, 17 August 1812.

This post follows on from this one on Napoleon’s campaign in Russia up to Battle of Vitebsk on 28 July 1812.

The Russian commander, General Michael Barclay de Tolly, was reluctant to attack. The further that the French advanced into Russia, the better the odds became for the Russians. The French were being harassed by Cossacks and had to leave troops to guard their lines of supply, whilst the Russian were able to bring up more troops.

However, most Russians could not understand why they were surrendering so much territory without a fight, especially after Barclay was joined by General Peter Bagration’s Second Army on 4 August. According to David Chandler, Barclay commanded 125,000 men and Napoleon had about 185,000 in the immediate area.[1]

Barclay was under pressure both from both Tsar Alexander and from his subordinates to attack. On 6 August his generals persuaded him to concentrate against Marshal Joachim Murat’s cavalry and Marshal Michel Ney’s corps. The next day, Barclay received false reports that there was a French force at Poriechie to his north. He re-aligned his army to the north to face the supposed French threat.

General Matviei Platov, commanding the Don Cossacks. did not receive the order to move north. He encountered and defeated General Horace Sebastiani’s cavalry division at the Battle of Inkovo, taking 200 prisoners, but had to retreat when the French counter-attacked.

Barclay ordered a cautious advance on 13 August, but Bagration, angered by Barclay’s continual changes of orders, declined to co-operate. He had put himself under Barclay’s command when they united on 4 August, but he was not officially subordinate to Bagration.

Napoleon had halted his advance on Smolensk and prepared to receive a Russian attack when he learnt of Inkovo. By 10 August it was apparent that this was not going to happen and he resumed preparations for an attempt to envelop the Russians at Smolensk. Chandler says that:

Almost all commentators agree that this operational plan constitutes one of Napoleon’s masterpieces…This was a manoeuvre of strategic envelopment worthy of the one that preceded his great triumph of Jena-Auerstadt in 1806, and if it had succeeded the fruits of victory would have been no less impressive.[2]

The French manoeuvres started on 11 August. Barclay put a rearguard of 8,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry under General Neveroski on the south bank of the Dnieper to guard the approaches to Smolensk. It held up the French cavalry, which might otherwise have reached Smolensk on 14 August. Instead, Napoleon paused for a day to re-group.

Napoleon had now lost the element of surprise and the Russians were able to withdraw to Smolensk. Barclay ordered General Raevski to occupy it with 20,000 men and 72 guns. It had a medieval wall and some more modern defences, but these were in a poor state of repair.

The French reached Smolensk on 16 August. Some fighting took place, but they did not attempt to storm the city until the next day. The Russians held on, suffering 12-14,000 casualties, but inflicting 10,000. Chandler says that it is unclear why Napoleon attacked rather than masking the city and moving to threaten the Smolensk to Moscow road.[3]

Barclay feared such a manoeuvre and evacuated Smolensk on the night of 17-18 August after destroying all his stores. Grand Duke Constantine, the Tsar’s brother, and General Bennigsen objected to this and accused Barclay of cowardice.

The French were slow to move, and their pursuit did not get properly underway until 19 August. General Junot was ordered to take his corps over the Dnieper at Prudichevo in order to cut off the Russian retreat, but took all day to find a crossing, and then did not attack. Ney and Murat were held up by the Russian rearguard under Eugen and Tutchkov at Valutino, and the main Russian

Napoleon did have some good news on 18 August; a victory at Polotsk secured his northern flank. Marshal Charles Oudinot, the French commander, was wounded, but General Laurent St Cyr took over and defeated the Russians. St Cyr was promoted to Marshal.

However, Napoleon was having to advance even further into Russia in an attempt to bring the Russians to battle.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 782.

[2] Ibid., pp. 783-84.

[3] Ibid., p. 786.

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Napoleon’s 1812 Russian Campaign to the Capture of Vitebsk on 28 July

This post follows on from previous ones describing Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in June 1812 and the reasons why he invaded.

Napoleon was aware that his invasion of Russia presented major supply problems, describing it as ‘the greatest and most difficult enterprise that I have ever attempted.’[1] He did not expect to have to advance far into Russia, believing that he could win a decisive victory near the frontier.

Napoleon reached Vilna on June 28. He had hoped to engage Tsar Alexander I and the First Army under General Prince Michael Barclay de Tolly, but they had retreated north-east towards Drissa. This increased the distance between the First Army and the Russian Second Army, commanded by General Prince Peter Bagration.

Napoleon attempted to trap and destroy Bagration’s army between the I Corps of Marshal Louis Davout and his right flank, commanded by his brother Jerome, King of Westphalia; the 45,000 Russians would be surrounded by 110,000 troops.[2]

On 4 July, Bagration learnt that Davout had crossed his line of retreat and moved south towards Minsk. Jerome,  hampered by supply problems, poor roads and heavy rain, moved slowly, and Bagration escaped. Jerome failed to keep his brother informed of his movements. Napoleon told him that:

If you had the most elementary grasp of soldiering, you would have been on the 3rd where you were on the 6th, and several events which would have resulted from my calculations would have given me a fine campaign.[3]

Napoleon blamed Jerome for the French failure to destroy Bagration’s army. Charles Esdaile says that this is now generally regarded as being unfair; Jerome was not a good general, but he was given an impossible task by his brother. The French faced great supply problems in a country where they could not rely in the local population. The army was too big and the distances too vast to allow Napoleon to control the battle and to carry out a battles of encirclement.[4] Adam Zamoyski blames Napoleon, who had appointed his brother, who had no military experience, to high command for political reasons.[5]

Napoleon put Jerome under the command of  Davout. Jerome was angered by his brother’s criticisms and got on poorly with Davout. He left the army and returned to Westphalia.

Napoleon ordered Davout to pursue Bagration and prevent the two Russian armies joining forces. Napoleon intended to destroy Barclay de Tolly’s army, which had reached Drissa on 11 July. Its fortifications were strong, so Napoleon decided to turn its flank, forcing the Russians to retreat and fight in the open.

On 12 July Alexander accepted that Drissa was a trap for his army, and that it should withdraw to Vitebsk. Adam Zamoyski points out that this decision, whilst militarily correct, created problems for Alexander. He had made a rousing speech the day before, promising his troops a victorious battle. The army had done nothing to fight the invader, and Alexander had given up a large proportion of his empire. The Tsar was persuaded by his advisers that his place was in his capital, rallying his people and recruiting more troops. He therefore left the army.[6]

On 19 July Napoleon received a report that the Russians had left Drissa. He expected the Russian armies to meet at Polotsk, and thus moved towards Kamen. Two days later he realised that their rendezvous was to be at Vitebsk. On 23 July Bagration and Davout fought a battle, called Mogilev by the French and Saltanovka by the Russians. Bagration was unable to break through and unite with Barclay.

Engagements took place between the French cavalry under Marshal Joachim Murat and Barclay’s troops at Ostrovno on 25 and 26 July. This convinced Napoleon that Barclay was willing to give battle, and he decided to wait until 28 July to bring up more troops, rather than attacking on 27 July with the troops available.

David Chandler considers this decision to be a major error by Napoleon. Barclay abandoned his original plan to fight at Vitebsk when he learnt that Bagration could not move to support him. The day’s delay allowed the Russians to withdraw towards Smolensk. There were enough good roads for him to be sure of getting there safely.[7]

Barclay, according to Adam Zamoyski, was correct to withdraw. A Russian victory would have been highly unlikely, and would not have been decisive; Barclay commanded the main Russian army but faced only part of Napoleon’s army. The failure to win a victory damaged French morale.[8]

The French took Vitebsk on 28 July. It had been the most easterly city of Poland until 1772,  when Austria, Prussia and Russia carried out the first of their three partitions of Poland. The French had taken all of Lithuania and had a defensible position. Napoleon initially claimed that:

Here I stop! Here I must look around me, rally, refresh my army and organise Poland. The campaign of 1812  is finished.[9]

Napoleon, however, soon changed his mind.  The country to the east was more fertile and the Russian armies were only about 100 miles away. On 12 August he marched on Smolensk, intending to inflict a decisive defeat on the Russians; see the next post in this series.


[1] Quoted in C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 462.

[2] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 775-76.

[3] Quoted in A. Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (London: HarperCollins, 2004), p. 176.

[4] Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, p. 468.

[5] Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 167-68.

[6] Ibid., pp. 171-72.

[7] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 779.

[8] Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 179-81.

[9] Quoted in Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, p. 470.

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