Alexander Mikaberidze


Subtitle: Napoleon Against Kutuzov, Pen and Sword, Barnsley, England, 276 pgs., index, footnotes, bibliography, glossary, order of battle, illustrations, 10 maps -


The author begins with a 23 page summary of the background and campaign prior to the battle at Borodino. After describing the preliminary battle for the Shevardino redoubt, he switches to a description of the armies and leaders, the troop strengths and estimates. There is an interesting table comparing the years of service and ages of the senior officers on both sides. Then more data on the officers, and diagrams of the Russian field fortifications on the battlefield.

The description of the battle is divided by sectors and phases and then narrated hour by hour. The units' are named with their commanders. Their movements are given in detail. For the reader to follow this detail recourse to the maps is essential. Even better would be using a set of more detailed maps such as in the West Point Atlas of Napoleonic Wars. The integration of eye witness accounts by participants of various ranks on both sides with the author's general narratives is excellent. A great strength of this book is the extensive inclusion of Russian accounts. At each stage and incident Dr. Mikaberidze analyzes the situation. Especially valuable is his integration of historiographical material. If there has been controversy, he describes the issue and names the authors and their views. he starts with witnesses, then writers and historians from the early 1800's to the present. Some times he reaches a conclusion and some times he leaves the issue unresolved. Throughout the battle one of the principal issues has been the timing of events, especially in relation to each other. He does an excellent job of clarifying the timing of significant incidents.

The descriptions are very detailed, yet clear. But the reader should have considerable prior knowledge to benefit from this wealth of detail. The final section of 22 pages - Aftermath - includes estimates of the number of casualties on both sides that have been given in various sources over the past two centuries. As with the discussion of other controversial issues, Dr. Mikaberidze's commentary and analysis of these conflicting calculations is lucid and judicious. This is the best book I have seen in English on the Battle. I will mention below some other books that describe the campaign as a whole.

The narrative and analysis of the battle begins with the opening of the initial French artillery fire at 0600. Immediately we come to conflicting versions, both as to the time and as to which side actually fired first. The author treats both questions in separate side-bars. At any rate we are sure that the main French salvos were launched by Sorbier, Pernetty and Foucher in the center to support Napoleon's main assault on the Russian fleches. But the shot were falling short, due to French miscalculation (despite their detailed reconnaissance of the day before) of the actual distance from battery positions to their targets. This necessitated an embarrassing lull as the pieces were displaced forward. Without further discussion the author shifts the scene to the northern sector.

Before the French artillery in the center even began their cannonade, Prince Eugene was moving his IV Corps (mostly Italian) into position on the Grand Armee left flank, across the Kolocha stream from the Russian lines. The main target was the village of Borodino and the bridge immediately behind it. About 0530 Eugene ordered General Delzon to attack. The units of the 13th Division converged on the village, defended by the Russian Life Guard Jager Regiment. The author describes this convoluted set-piece struggle in detail, noting also the various conflicting accounts and opinions as to who did what to whom and when. On the Russian side the Life Guard Jagers and their officers came under criticism that was suppressed.

The author, after a detailed account of the events around Borodino between 0600 and 0700, shifts his attention to the area he calls 'The Southern Sector - The Bagration Fleches." My view is that the fleches were part of the left-center of the Russian line. Apparently he divides the battlefield into two Russian sections - northern defended by Barclay de Tolly and southern defended by Bagration. But the Russian left extended a great distance further south, past a woods, to the Old Smolensk Road. No matter, this was the sector designated by Napoleon for his main attack and the scene of the heaviest fighting all day. Here Napoleon had concentrated "60,000 infantry, 20,000 cavalry and 297 guns." The author's descriptions include identification of the units down to infantry regiment, cavalry squadron and artillery company with their commanders. French Marshal Davout ordered the infantry assault around 0630. From then until about 1100 the fighting raged back and forth over the three fleches. The author attempts to sort out the timing of events. Most controversy has been over the time Prince Bagration was wounded and taken from the field. Apparently Colonel Toll, the Quarter-master General, initially reported that Bagration was wounded around 9 AM, and then altered it to 10 AM to extend the time frame of the Russian resistance. At any rate Dr. Mikaberidze leaves the two sides still engaged in hand-to-hand combat over the fleches around 1100 AM and shifts the scene slightly to the north to the first assault on the Rayevsky Redoubt.

This was to be Prince Eugene's major assignment and contribution to the battle. With Borodino firmly in hand but the bridge over the Kolotcha destroyed Eugene deployed about 24,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry and 135 guns against the key redoubt held by the Russian 12th Division, with battalions of the 26th Division in support. "Thus the Russians had approximately 27,000 infantry and 8,500 cavalry with 46 guns around the redoubt." Again, the timing of events in this sector has varied with accounts of numerous authors whom the author names with their estimates. The first assault began around 9 AM. The French carried the redoubt, but were driven out and back down the hill by overwhelming Russian counter-attack. The this phase of French attacks ended about 11 AM. The author assesses the causes of French failure.

The scene now shifts the far south, the Russian extreme left flank along the Old Smolensk Road and Utitsa. This was the weakest section of the Russian line. In fact its defense was practically an after-thought which required major shifts of Russian units from their far right to make survival even possible. From the side of the Grand Armee the mission of forcing the Russian left was given to General Poniatowski's Polish Corps. They began to move forward at dawn, but were noticeably slow. The author does not venture to establish the exact time of the first exchange of fire or infantry attack. He does describe in his usual detail the role of units and sub-units on both sides during the morning's to and fro over the Utitsa Kurgan. He leaves this scene around noon with Poniatowski back on the defensive about where he started.

Phase Two (from noon to 1800) is recounted starting again at Borodino. Not much was going on. From 0700 Delzon faced the Russians across the Kolotcha and both sides engaged in an artillery duel. It is time to move even further north and describe the abortive cavalry raid. The origin of this endeavor is also subject to much controversy. Dr. Mikaberidze intersperses eye-witness accounts with later versions produced by authors, some of whom were historians. The issues revolve around who actually conceived the idea for a cavalry raid, when it was ordered, and what the Russian command staff thought of the results. The incidents during the raid are also in some dispute as are its effect on the French including Napoleon himself. In any event, the raid took place, various units of Eugene's corps were diverted, French assaults elsewhere along the line were delayed and some level of consternation was evident in the French camp. According to Clausewitz the cavalry was advancing between 11 and 12 AM. and he noted that it was over between 1600 and 1700.

Returning to the 'southern sector' actually Semeyonovskoe almost in the center of the Russian line, the author takes up the narrative around 11 AM. This would be a bitter struggle between Davout and Ney versus Dokhturov with Barclay de Tolly providing reinforcements. The French (actually Saxons and Westphalians) led off with a huge cavalry attack around noon. They succeeded in passing on both sides the ruins of Semeyonovskoye village but failed against the Imperial Life Guard Izmailovskii, Litovskii, and Finlandskii Regiments. Three major French cavalry assaults were driven back and they were then counter-attacked by the Russian Yekaterionslavskii and Military Order Cuirassiers. Meanwhile French infantry were assaulting directly against the village. They made it into the village but were driven out. Ney ordered fresh assaults between 1400 and 1500. Ney and Davout requested Napoleon to send reinforcements to no avail. Another controversial issue since then has been the reasons for and results of Napoleon's refusal to commit the Imperial Guard. By evening the French did manage to hold the village, but the Russians had formed a second line. Firing gradually ended by 2100.

Back to the Rayevsky Redoubt. Eugene's preparations were interrupted by his diversion to counter the cavalry raid, discussed already. During this several hours hiatus the French cavalry corps standing still to cover the space between Eugene and Ney were subjected to horrendous losses from Russian artillery fire. The author provides eye-witness accounts of what this was like. But the French artillery was also busy inflicting heavy casualties on the immobile Russian infantry regiments around the redoubt and practically demolishing the earth embankments. Around noon the French launched several cavalry attacks in the direction of the redoubt. But the spectacular cavalry assault came later. This once again created subsequent controversy. So who was first into the redoubt - Frenchmen or Saxons? Naturally Napoleon himself, watching through his telescope pronounced the verdict that it was indeed French cavalry. But many others, including our author, give the honor to the Saxon cuirassiers. The conflict raged until past 1600. At this point in the exciting narrative our author takes a break to insert a side bar about Leo Tolstoy at Borodino. He writes that Tolstoy's powerful novel "War and Peace' although based on Tolstoy's philosophy about the nature of human actions in history, has generated a mythological portrait that obscures the reality of events in the minds of readers today.

Attacks and counter attacks swirled around, in front of and behind the redoubt for several hours and across the pages of this gripping narrative for as long as the reader cares to study it. By 1630 the redoubt was finally in French hands, but their cavalry was exhausted. The Russians formed their second line some distance to the rear and awaited developments. But from then into the evening the struggle was limited to artillery duels and a few skirmishes. Napoleon decided to inspect the redoubt in the face of Russian counter-attacks.

Meanwhile to the far south Poniatowski became more active again. With Tuchkov wounded Russian command shifted to Baggovut, who has marched his corps during the day from the far northern end of the Russian position. The Poles and Westphalians (Junot) attacked again around 1400. and again around 1600 and again at 1700. The struggle along the Old Smolensk Road was rather detached from the fighting on the remainder of the battlefield. But it was in these hand-to-hand struggles that the Pavlovski Grenadier Regiment so distinguished itself that it alone of all the Russian grenadiers kept its miter caps (literally) right down to the 1917 revolution.

The final phase of the battle (1800 - 2400) reflected the exhaustion of both sides. The author at this point focuses more on Kutuzov and his questionable role in the affair. More controversies mostly generated by self-serving accounts both immediately after and much later.

In the final chapter - Aftermath - the author briefly describes the Russian withdrawal through Moscow and the scene on the battlefield when the French officers rode over it. In addition to the excellent section about strength and casualty estimates, the chapter concludes with a brief synopsis of the final stages of the war of 1812.


Some other references worth study.
Zamoyski, Adam, Moscow 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March, Harper Collins, New York, 2004, illustrations, maps, glossary, notes, bibliography, index, 644 pgs. This is my favorite book on the entire campaign of 1812. The author uses Russian sources as well as French and other. He melds contemporary accounts with his own narative.
Austin, Paul, Britten 1812 The March on Moscow, 1812 Napoleon in Moscow, 1812 The Great Retreat - Greenhill books, London, 1993 - 1996, notes, illustrations, bibliography, index - 3 volumes. This is a wonderful work that incorporates multiple personal accounts, often of the same incident as seen from different view points, with the author's connecting prose. It is a work of tremendous effort to integrate all this material seamlessly. But it is practically all from the French and Grand Armee side.
Cate, Curtis, The War of the Two Emperors: The duel between Napoleon and Alexander Russia 1812, Random House, New York, 1985, notes, bibliography, illustrations, index. 484 pgs. This work provides a great amount of the background, the diplomatic situation, the general scene that are naturally left out of the books focused on the battles.
Duffy, Christopher, Borodino, Napoleon against Russia, 1812, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1983, maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. 208 pgs. A shorter work, focused on the military events, by a professional military historian. Worthwhile as a basic reference. Nafziger, George F. Napoleon's Invasion of Russia, Presidio Press, Novato, 1988, maps, estensive tables of data, bibliography, index, 657 pgs. This is a huge book on the entire campaign. It is written mostly from the French side and from western sources. But the amount of detail in the orders of battle and casualty data is very valuable.

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A chart depicting the events of the 1812 campaign on all fronts in sequence.

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Kutuzov versus Napoleon - essay by John Sloan

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A time schedule of the battle of Borodino

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A summary account of the campaign, with bibliography - by John Sloan

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A table showing various estimates of the strengths and losses for both armies.

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