BATTLE OF BORODINO
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
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.
A chart depicting the events of the 1812 campaign on all fronts in
Kutuzov versus Napoleon - essay by John Sloan
A time schedule of the battle of Borodino
A summary account of the campaign, with bibliography - by John Sloan
A table showing various estimates of the strengths and losses for both