THE BATTLE OF BORODINO

 

EMPEROR NAPOLEON

 

 

 

 

By 1812, the Emperor Napoleon had grown annoyed with Tsar Alexander Ist and his refusal to join the French imposed continental system over Europe, where as all trade with Great Britain was forbidden. In an attempt to force Russia to abandon her ally and submit to French authority, Napoleon forced all the vassal states within his European empire to submit troops and march alongside the powerful French Grand Army in its quest to crush Russia once and for all.

On June 24th 1812, Napoleon crossed the Prussian border into Russia with the largest army ever assembled, numbering nearly 600,000 men. Almost immediately the Russian’s adopted a policy of scorched earth and tactical withdrawal, pulling Napoleon deeper into the Russian steppes and forcing the French army to depend  on tenuous supply lines, made worse by the poor road systems.

Almost two months to the day of the invasion, the French army's crossing of the Dnieper river caught the Russian forces by surprise. Despite heavy fighting around the city of Smolensk ( Aug 17-19 ) the outcome was indecisive and the Russian army slipped away continuing to withdrawal east. Failing to trap and destroy the Russian army, Napoleon now made the fateful decision to advance on Moscow, a further 280 miles into Russia.

Upset with the inability of the Russian commander’s to give battle, Tsar Alexander reorganized his command structure and appointed Field Marshall Kutuzov supreme commander of the Russian army. Kutuzov's orders were very straight forward, he was to stop Napoleon before he reached Moscow no matter what the cost. Seventy miles west of the Russian capitol near the town of Borodino, Kutuzov and the main Russian army  stopped retreating and prepared to stand and fight. 

 

FIELD MARSHALL KUTUZOV

 

 

 

 

By the time Napoleon arrived at Borodino sickness, disease and desertion had wrought havoc amongst his army reducing their combat strength to 133,000 men. In response Kutuzov fielded 121,000 men who were inspired by a patriotic and religious zeal for Mother Russia, every bit as strong as the enthusiasm of the French for their  Emperor.

For the upcoming battle Napoleon would command 104,000 infantry, 28,000 cavalry and 580 cannons. Kutuzov would counter with 97,000 infantry, 24,000 cavalry and 640 cannons. The ground in which Kutuzov chose to give battle was difficult terrain for an attacker and excellent for defence. The Russian’s also added extra strength to their central position by constructing large earthwork fortifications.

With the French army now in position, Napoleon gave the order to begin the assault. At 6:am on the morning of September 7th, the French broke the dawn with a thundering volley of cannon fire all along their front line. On the French left, Delzon's infantry division in Prince Eugene's IV corps advanced through the village of Borodino, pushing the Russian’s across the Koloch river. 

Delzon's advance was so rapid, that his troops captured the bridges intact and were soon across and marching on the town of Gorki. Delzon's progress was soon checked however as he began to face fierce counter attacks by Russian forces under Tolstoi to his  front and Doctorov on his right. Without French support Delzon found his position untenable and he was forced back across the Koloch.

Furious with Eugene's failure to send reinforcements to aid Delzon's attack, Napoleon knew he had missed a golden opportunity to breakthrough the Russian lines and put serious pressure on Kutuzov's right flank. With the area around Gorki once again under firm Russian control, Napoleon turned his attention to the Russian  center and ordered Field Marshall Davout's I corps to launch an attack on the Bagration fleches.

 

                                                                                 

                                                     GENERAL BAGRATION                              FIELD MARSHALL DAVOUT

 

 

 

 

Davout ordered his 5th division, under General Compan's the task of launching the first assault. As the French came within cannon range, Compan's men came under murderous fire from the Russian gunners. As they slowly continued onward, the French line began to waiver and lose cohesion as the division began to take severe losses. 

General Compan's was shot and wounded while a cannon shell exploded close to Marshall Davout throwing him from his charger and momentarily knocking him out. The division third in command Dessiax, now continued the division forward through the  carnage. the Russian cannons (now firing at point blank range) decimated the  French ranks, throwing back the assault in complete disarray.

As cheering Russian troops within the redoubt celebrated. General Voronzov ordered Sievers three cavalry regiments to attack what was left of the retreating French infantry. Sievers assault easily cut through the shattered French division and continued forward in an attempt to break through the enemy front lines.

General Nansouty, now took it upon himself to launch his cavalry brigades against the Russian chargers. Nansouty's counterattack slammed into the now exhausted Russian horsemen, successfully pushing them back and reestablishing the French lines once again.

 

FRENCH INFANTRY FAIL TO CAPTURE  THE FLETCHES

 

 

Napoleon now realized the Russian’s were not going to retreat as they had done so in the past and set about organizing a more powerful attack to break the Russian defences. At 9:00 am, Napoleon gave command to a revived Field Marshall Davout  the 4th and 10th infantry divisions under Rapp and Ledru, including General  Junot's entire VIII corps supported by the 1st and 4th cavalry corps and entrusted the Field Marshall to seize the Bagration fleches.

Bagration saw the  French assembling for a major attack on his positions and ordered Neverovski's infantry division forward to link up with Voronzov. Bagration also ordered  General Raevsky to detach a division from his VII corps southward and General Tutchkov a division from his III corps northward to bolster the defences. Field  Marshall Kutuzov also sensed the coming danger and ordered three infantry and two cavalry regiments from General Constantine's V reserve corps to march up in support.

Fully assembled, Davout now marched forward with his impressive forces, as he drew closer to the fleches Davout ordered two infantry regiments from the 4th division to attack the enemy from the south, while Ledru's entire division was to attack from the  north. This combined assault quickly pushed the Russian’s from their defensive positions but at the same moment, Bagration's reinforcements began to arrive. 

The two forces collided head on within the fortifications, the savage fighting was horrific, with each side asking nor giving any quarter, the fleche’s simply became a cauldron of blood, agony and death. The fast arriving Russian reinforcements now began to gain the advantage, slowly pushing the French back, retaking the fleche’s yet again.

At 10:00 am, Ledru reformed his division and launched another attack, after very bitter fighting the central position of the fleche’s defensive works were once again in French hands. Ledru was still occupying this hard fought over prize when Konovnitzin’s infantry division supported by two cavalry regiments arrived and counter attacked, driving Ledru out yet again.

Napoleon now became furious with the inability of the French troops to secure the fleche’s and decided to launch a much larger assault to retake this strategic position once and for all. Napoleon ordered Field Marshall Ney and his entire III infantry corps to assist Davout's reformed divisions in the next attack.

After repelling two more bloody assaults, General Konovnitzin was once again faced with another major French attack approaching his now shattered positions. With no possibility of reinforcements coming to his aid, the General had no option but to withdrawal what was left of his mangled divisions, leaving the fleche’s under firm  French control.

While the titanic battle for the fletche’s was drawing to an end, on the French left wing, Prince Eugene ordered Delzon to continue holding Borodino while he crossed the Kolocha river at the head of three infantry divisions under Broussier, Morand and Gerard to launch an attack on General Raevsky and his VII corps, holding the positions in and around the great redoubt. 

As the French columns advanced, their ranks were decimated by Russian cannons atop the redoubt. Eugene rallied his men forward through the murderous fire with the battle cries of " Vive La France ". As the French assault began to penetrate the redoubt walls, fierce and bloody hand to combat ensued between the two foes. The Russian’s fought with extreme valour and courage but the French weight of numbers eventually rolled over the defenders, sweeping the Russian’s from their positions. 

 

THE FRENCH ASSAULT ATOP THE GREAT REDOUBT

 

Witnessing the Russian collapse within the great redoubt, General Yermolov personally took command of two infantry divisions and immediately moved on the French, who were still consolidating their positions within the redoubt. As Yermolov approached, the exhausted French lost heart for the defence in the wake of this new Russian assault and simply vacated their positions, the great redoubt was once again in Russian hands. 

With the situation around the great redoubt grid locked in endless stalemate, Napoleon decided to exploit the French success in and around the Bagrarion fletche’s, ordering General Friant's 2nd infantry division flanked by the I and IV cavalry corps to advance directly on the village of Semenovskaya. The Russian’s, knowing the seriousness of the situation before them now began to commit their reserves and sent the 2nd infantry division supported by the IV cavalry corps to halt the French attack.

The two powerful formations engaged one another in a fierce and bloody battle for the town. Resistance by the Russian’s within the village itself was so stubborn and fanatical that General Friant's almost called off the attack.Pressured however by the arrival of Field Marshall Murat, the General reformed his lines and continued  forward. The renewed French effort now began to slowly push the defenders from the village and out onto the open plains, where the French IV cavalry corps broke through their ranks and cut them down mercilessly.

A massive breech in the Russian center had now been achieved, as past Napoleonic victories would dictate, it was time for Napoleon to commit the 20,000 strong undefeated Imperial Guard for the coup de grace, but Napoleon strangely became ever cautious and hesitated.

Field Marshall's Ney and Murat, personally pleaded with the Emperor to release the Guard, but Napoleon would have none of it, sternly refusing them both. With the collapse of the Russian center, General Barclay attempted to re establish contact with that of the main army by ordering the last of the Russian reserves forward to form a  defensive line in the center, but to the rear of the main Russian lines.

Napoleon was now receiving urgent requests from all senior commanders to release the Guard against the decimated Russian center, but he still would not give the order. For two crucial hours, Napoleon was absent from all decision making regarding the battle, allowing the fighting to rage at the discretion of his Field Marshall's and Corps commanders.

 

  

NAPOLEON REFUSES TO RELEASE THE IMPERIAL GUARD

 

On the extreme French right flank, Prince Poniatowski and his Polish V corps, after a three hour artillery duel with the Russian III corps under Tutchkov, began to gain the advantage, blasting large holes in the Russian lines.

Poniatowski then ordered his entire corps to advance, after two failed Russian counter attacks, Tutchkov's third assault finally halted the Polish advance. The successful counter attack had momentarily stabilized the situation for the Russian’s but Tutchkov's northern flank was completely exposed, he then ordered what was left of his corps to fall back along the old Smolensk road.

With the withdrawal of Tutchkov's force and the coming of darkness, Field Marshall Kutuzov began to fear that Napoleon would finally unleash his Imperial Guard and win the day, but the French attack never came. As evening began to fall on the  battle field both sides ceased hostilities.

Kutuzov's situation was that the Russian army was totally exhausted, low on ammunition and numbering fewer than 75,000 men, the Russian Field Marshall had no choice but to save what was left of his army and ordered a general retreat. The French had also suffered so severely that no attempt was made to pursue the retreating Russian’s.

The battle of Borodino had been a dawn to dusk bloody meat grinder. Russian losses were a staggering 45,000 men, among those were twenty three Generals of division. The  French Grand Army faired little better, with 30,000 men lost including fourteen Generals. 

                                                                                                               

                                                                                                                               THE BATTLE

 

 

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