Battle of Borodino Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the Battle of Borodino, Napoleon’s French army engaged and defeated Russia’s army in a bloody battle of attrition outside Moscow. Because the Russians retreated and left Moscow open to occupation, Napoleon claimed a victory. His inability to destroy the Russian army, however, left him unable to dictate terms and brought about his eventual defeat.

Summary of Event

Napoleon I’s invasion of Russia in 1812 was a consequence of his desire to control continental trade and to remove a potential ally for Britain. In previous campaigns, Napoleon’s formula had been to march rapidly into enemy territory, draw the enemy army into a major battle, and then rely upon high French morale, skill, and concentrated artillery to destroy the opposing force. After a nation’s field army was effectively destroyed, Napoleon could dictate the terms of peace. In 1806, for example, the twin battles of Jena and Auerstädt had crippled the Prussian army Army, Prussian;Napoleonic Wars and resulted in Prussia’s surrender and its subsequent incorporation into Napoleon’s system of alliances. Borodino, Battle of (1812) Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815);and War of 1812[War of 1812] Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815);French invasion of Russia Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815);Battle of Borodino Napoleon I [p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];Russia invasion Napoleon I [p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];Battle of Borodino Kutuzov, Mikhail Ilarionovich Russia;French invasion [kw]Battle of Borodino (Sept. 7, 1812) [kw]Borodino, Battle of (Sept. 7, 1812) Borodino, Battle of (1812) Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815);and War of 1812[War of 1812] Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815);French invasion of Russia Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815);Battle of Borodino Napoleon I [p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];Russia invasion Napoleon I [p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];Battle of Borodino Kutuzov, Mikhail Ilarionovich Russia;French invasion [g]Russia;Sept. 7, 1812: Battle of Borodino[0600] [g]France;Sept. 7, 1812: Battle of Borodino[0600] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Sept. 7, 1812: Battle of Borodino[0600] Barclay de Tolly, Mikhail Bogdanovich Bagration, Pyotr Ivanovich Davout, Louis

When he attacked Russia in 1812, Napoleon’s strategy appears to have been based on the expectation of fighting a decisive battle near the frontier that would have allowed him to repeat his formula for success. While French forces had been successful in earlier battles, however, the cumulative costs of Napoleon’s campaigns since 1796 had reduced the available manpower in France. To compensate, Napoleon created the famous Grand Armée Napoleon I [p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];Grand Armée (great army), an amalgam of French and French-allied forces. Large contingents from Prussia, Westphalia, Austria, Poland, and Italy provided more than half of the Grand Armée’s 614,000 troops.

In Russia, meanwhile, the drift toward war had not resulted in coherent planning. Divisions within the Russian leadership affected operations throughout 1812. The two principal commanders in the field, General Prince Pyotr Ivanovich Bagration Bagration, Pyotr Ivanovich and General Mikhail Bogdanovich Barclay de Tolly, promoted different strategies. Barclay proposed a slow withdrawal to lure Napoleon into the vastness of Russia, where French logistic limitations would cripple the Grand Armée. Bagration sought early battle, but when the French advance began in June, 1812, it soon separated the two Russian commanders and forced them to retreat. Throughout June, July, and August, the Russian retreat continued.

In August, Barclay Barclay de Tolly, Mikhail Bogdanovich attempted an unsuccessful stand near Smolensk, but he was again forced to withdraw after suffering significant casualties. In frustration, the Russian czar, Alexander I Alexander I [p]Alexander I[Alexander 01];and French invasion[French invasion] , promoted General Mikhail Ilarionovich Kutuzov to the honorary rank of prince and gave him overall command of Russian forces. Kutuzov chose to make a stand at the small village of Borodino, eighty-one miles west of Moscow Moscow;French invasion . Borodino was located at a choke point on the road to the great city, and the nearby terrain would allow Russian defenders to claim the high ground and use it to obstruct the French advance. Napoleon would be forced into a disadvantageous battle against fire from prepared Russian positions.

Although the summer had seen continued Russian defeats, it had also seen a diminution of the Grand Armée. Throughout the Napoleonic Wars, logistics were an Achilles heel of the French forces. On campaign, the French fed themselves by scavenging and requisitioning from farms en route. Because Russia was both poorly developed and thinly settled, this method was insufficient. The army’s rations grew increasingly sparse. Moreover, ordinary Russians saw these “requisitions” as depredations, so French logistic inadequacies not only weakened the army but also created a deep reservoir of ill will among the Russian populace.

Because Napoleon failed to trap and destroy the Russian army, he was repeatedly forced to leave large garrisons behind to hold major cities and crossroads. Thus, by the time Kutuzov decided to stand at Borodino, the Grand Armée had fallen from 614,000 men to approximately 126,000. The continued advance had been especially hard on the French cavalry, which lost large numbers of valuable horses. The lack of horses markedly reduced the efficiency of French scouting and the French ability to use cavalry rapidly to exploit any battlefield victory—key factors in Napoleon’s normal tactics.

The Russian army had also suffered during the summer, and Kutuzov’s forces were down to perhaps 120,000 effective soldiers. To augment these troops, the Russians raised militia forces and also strengthened their position at Borodino by constructing a number of hasty fortifications. On the north end of their position, they built what became known as the Raevsky, or Great Redoubt. This was an earthwork position, with a ditch backed by walls composed of piled-up earth. Within these walls were eighteen heavy cannon sited to overlook a long, open slope. The Russians anticipated that the main attack would come at the Great Redoubt, so they stationed the bulk of their forces and reserves on the north end of their line. During the middle of the field, the homes of the hamlet of Semenovskaya—southeast of Bordino—were disassembled to provide timbers for the creation of three “fletches.” These were arrowhead-shaped earthworks that were open in the back. Each fletch was established on higher ground near obstacles preventing movement to either side of the approach. Thus, any attack by the French would be forced directly into the fletches’ lines of fire.

Not only were Napoleon’s forces depleted, but many of his men also were suffering from the rigors of months of hard marching on an insufficient diet. They were both hungry and thirsty as a result of poor logistic preparations. Napoleon himself was ill, suffering from dysuria, a condition in which urine is very concentrated and any movement—especially urination—is very painful. Thus, Napoleon, a man famous as an active commander who was often present on the battlefield, proved remarkably passive and stationary during the battle. Kutuzov proved equally unwilling to leave his headquarters, so throughout the day key decisions were made by subordinates and junior officers at the front with surprisingly little supervision from their commanders.

The Russians expected an attack in the north. When the attack finally came, however, on September 7, 1812, it began in the south: The French intended to encircle the Russians. Napoleon’s most capable marshal, Louis Davout Davout, Louis , had recommended a strong envelopment, but Napoleon refused, apparently fearing that any delay would allow the Russians to retreat again. Inadequate French reconnaissance failed to identify all the fletches, and throughout the morning, stubborn fighting in and around these field works drew in more and more of both sides’ reserves. Attacks in the center of the line also bogged down among the ruins of Semenovskaya. Corps and division commanders continued to persevere with attacks, and some positions changed hands a number of times, resulting in the loss of many fine officers on both sides.

In the north, the French attack began late in the morning, and the straight-on attacks again resulted in high casualties. Kutuzov allowed a force of Cossacks and cavalry to ride toward the French supply train, and as a result, Napoleon held back his cavalry, which was forming for a mass assault on the Great Redoubt. The massed French cavalry waited for more than two hours to launch its attack. It had massed within range of the heavy artillery in the redoubt and suffered very heavy casualties. Finally, the cavalry charged. It managed to push the Russians out of the redoubt, but only after heavy hand-to-hand combat.

By evening, the Russians had been forced out of both the Great Redoubt and the fletches, but they retreated in good order and maintained cohesion. Although the French had now gained the upper hand, Napoleon refused to send in his major reserves, the Imperial Guard, to capitalize on the Russian withdrawal. Napoleon’s comment at the time indicated that he wanted to preserve the Imperial Guard as a reserve force for the rest of the campaign. Without the pressure of continued French attacks, however, the Russian army was able to withdraw intact, and Napoleon’s opportunity to destroy the army was lost. His own Grand Armée had shown great courage and determination and ultimately held the field, but the cost was huge. Of the French forces, 6,967 were killed and 21,453 were wounded—including one marshal, fourteen lieutenant generals, and thirty-three major generals. The Russians lost approximately 17,000 dead and 30,126 wounded. Napoleon had sought a battle to destroy the Russians, but his lack of tactical finesse at Borodino prevented his troops from encircling the Russians effectively enough to destroy them. It also caused his own army heavy casualties.

Significance

For Napoleon’s invasion of Russia to succeed, he would have had to force the Russian czar to surrender and to follow Napoleon’s dictates. The losses suffered by the Russian army at the Battle of Borodino were insufficient to force surrender. Even worse, those losses were heavy enough—especially in combination with the depredations of French scavengers—to incite great resentment among the Russian people. They fueled a Russian nationalism that refused surrender. Despite Napoleon’s nominal victory, then, Borodino contributed to his ultimate failure in Russia.

Borodino proved to be the climactic battle of Napoleon’s Russian campaign, and it is particularly telling that the battle progressed in a manner so contrary to the emperor’s accustomed military experiences. It was fought deep inside Russia rather than at the border, and the exhausted Grand Armée was unable to encircle and destroy the opposing force as it had done in Napoleon’s earlier campaigns. Instead, Napoleon’s direct attacks against entrenchments resulted in heavy losses and a grudging but orderly Russian retreat. As a result of Napoleon’s insistence on direct attacks, his losses were nearly as crippling as those suffered by the Russians. He failed to destroy the Russian army, and as a result he was not in the position of overwhelming superiority he had hoped to achieve. Napoleon’s plan was to dictate the terms of surrender. Instead, he was unable to force Russia even to offer to surrender. Ultimately, the heavy casualties the Grand Armée suffered at Borodino meant that a French tactical victory was also a significant strategic defeat.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duffy, Christopher. Borodino and the War of 1812. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973. Classic study of the Battle of Borodino. Duffy’s insight into the commanders and their plans is essential for understanding the battle.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Riehn, Richard K. 1812: Napoleon’s Russian Campaign. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1991. Accessible and thorough; a masterful study of Napoleon’s most crucial campaign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rothenberg, Gunther E. The Napoleonic Wars. London: Cassell, 1999. Provides a good basic understanding of Napoleon’s style of generalship and the role that the Russian campaign played in his ultimate defeat.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zamoyski, Adam. Moscow, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. Provides a good soldier’s-eye view of the campaign and the sacrifices made before, during, and after the Battle of Borodino.

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