Battle of Borodino - Armies & Commanders:
The Battle of Borodino was fought September 7, 1812, during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815).
Armies & Commanders
Battle of Borodino - Background:
Assembling La Grande Armée in eastern Poland, Napoleon prepared to renew hostilities with Russia in mid-1812. Though great efforts had been made by the French to procure the needed supplies for the effort, barely enough had been collected to sustain a short campaign. Crossing the Niemen River with a massive force of nearly 700,000 men, the French advanced in several columns and hoped to forage for additional supplies. Personally leading the central force, numbering around 286,000 men, Napoleon sought to engage and defeat Count Michael Barclay de Tolly's main Russian army.
It was hoped that by winning a decisive victory and annihilating Barclay's force that the campaign could be brought to speedy conclusion. Driving into Russian territory, the French moved swiftly. The speed of the French advance along with political infighting among the Russian high command prevented Barclay from establishing a defensive line. As a result, Russian forces remained uncommitted which prevented Napoleon from engaging in the large-scale battle he sought. As the Russians retreated, the French increasingly found forage harder to obtain and their supply lines growing longer.
These soon came under attack by Cossack light cavalry and the French quickly began consuming the supplies that were on hand. With Russian forces in retreat, Tsar Alexander I lost confidence in Barclay and replaced him with Prince Mikhail Kutuzov on August 29. Assuming command, Kutuzov was forced to continue the retreat. Trading land for time soon began to favor the Russians as Napoleon's command dwindled down to 161,000 men through starvation, straggling, and disease. Reaching Borodino, Kutuzov was able to turn and form a strong defensive position near the Kolocha and Moskwa Rivers (Map).
The Russian Position:
While Kutuzov's right was protected by the river, his line extended south through ground broken by woods and ravines and ended at the village of Utitza. To strengthen his line, Kutuzov ordered the construction of a series of field fortifications, the largest of which was the 19-gun Raevsky (Great) Redoubt in the center of his line. To the south, an obvious avenue of attack between two woods was blocked by a series of open-backed fortifications known as flèches. In front of his line, Kutuzov constructed the Shevardino Redoubt to block the French line of advance, as well as detailed light troops to hold Borodino (Map).
The Fighting Begins:
Though his left was weaker, Kutuzov placed his best troops, Barclay's First Army, on his right as he was expecting reinforcements in this area and hoped to swing across the river to strike the French flank. In addition, he consolidated nearly half his artillery into a reserve which he hoped to use at a decisive point. On September 5, the cavalry forces of the two armies clashed with the Russians ultimately falling back. The next day, the French launched a massive assault on the Shevardino Redoubt, taking it but sustaining 4,000 casualties in the process.
The Battle of Borodino:
Assessing the situation, Napoleon was advised by his marshals to swing south around the Russian left at Utitza. Ignoring this advice, he instead planned a series of frontal assaults for September 7. Forming a Grand Battery of 102 guns opposite the flèches, Napoleon commenced a bombardment of Prince Pyotr Bagration's men around 6:00 AM. Sending the infantry forward, they succeeded in driving the enemy from the position by 7:30, but were swiftly pushed back by a Russian counterattack. Additional French assaults re-took the position, but the infantry came under heavy fire from Russian guns.
As the fighting continued, Kutuzov moved reinforcements to the scene and planned another counterattack. This was subsequently broken up by French artillery which had been moved forward. While fighting raged around the flèches, French troops moved against the Raevsky Redoubt. While assaults came directly against the redoubt's front, additional French troops drove Russian jaegers (light infantry) out of Borodino and attempted to cross the Kolocha to the north. These troops were driven back by the Russians, but a second attempt to cross the river succeeded (Map).
With support from these troops, the French to the south were able to storm the Raevsky Redoubt. Though the French took the position, they were pushed out by a determined Russian counterattack as Kutuzov fed troops into the battle. Around 2:00 PM, a massive French assault succeeded in securing the redoubt. Despite this achievement, the assault had disorganized the attackers and Napoleon was forced to pause. During the fighting, Kutuzov's massive artillery reserve played little role as its commander had been killed. To the far south, both sides battled over Utitza, with the French finally taking the village (Map).
As the fighting lulled, Napoleon moved forward to assess the situation. Though his men had triumphed, they had been badly bled. Kutuzov's army worked to reform on a series of ridges to the east and was largely intact. Possessing only the French Imperial Guard as a reserve, Napoleon elected not to make a final push against the Russians. As a result, Kutuzov's men were able to withdraw from the field on September 8.
Aftermath of Borodino
The fighting at Borodino cost Napoleon around 30,000-35,000 casualties, while the Russians suffered around 39,000-45,000. With the Russians retreating in two columns towards Semolino, Napoleon was free to advance and capture Moscow on September 14. Entering the city, he expected the tsar to offer his surrender. This was not forthcoming and Kutuzov's army remained in the field. Possessing an empty city and lacking supplies, Napoleon was forced to begin his long and costly retreat west that October. Returning to friendly soil with around 23,000 men, Napoleon's massive army had effectively been destroyed in the course of the campaign. The French army never fully recovered from the losses suffered in Russia.