Battle of Borodino, 7 September 1812

Battle of Shevardino, 5 September 1812
6 September 1812
The French Army
The Russian Army
The Battlefield
Russian Plans
French Plans
The Battle
Morning: North
Morning: Centre
Morning: South
Afternoon: North
Afternoon: Centre
Afternoon: South


When Napoleon invaded Russia in the summer of 1812 his aim was to bring the Russians to battle, inflict a decisive defeat, and force them to sue for peace. That battle eventually came at Borodino on 7 September 1812, just to the west of Moscow. Although Napoleon could claim to have won the battle it was far from a decisive victory, and even the occupation of Moscow failed to bring the Russians to the negotiating table. Napoleon's poor performance at Borodino thus played a major part in the destruction of the Grand Armée and the eventual fall of his empire.


The French crossed the Niemen on 22-24 June 1812. At this stage Napoleon's main army was between Barclay de Tolly's 1st Western Army, which was to the north-east, and Bagration's 2nd Western Army, to the south. Napoleon's aim was to keep his army between the two Russian forces, prevent them from uniting, and defeat them separately. Bagration was the first target, but an attempt to trap him between the Niemen and the Pripet Marshes failed, mainly because Napoleon's supporting armies moved too slowly. The French then turned their attention to Barclay de Tolly, who was retreating north-east towards a fortified camp at Drissa on the Dvina River. Marshal Davout was given the task of preventing Bagration from moving north to join Barclay de Tolly. Napoleon led the main army east in an attempt to get behind Barclay de Tolly and force him to fight. The Russians soon realised that the camp at Drissa was an indefensible trap and continued to retreat east. This triggered the manoeuvre on Vitebsk, with both armies moving east on opposite sides of the Dvina. At first Barclay de Tolly intended to stand and fight at Vitebsk. His army fought a two-day long rearguard action at Ostrovno (25-26 July) to win time for Bagration to move up from the south, and on 27 July the Russians and French spent the day facing each other across a minor creek, ready for battle. Further south Davout successfully blocked Bagration at Mogilev (23 July 1812). When this news reached Barclay de Tolly he decided to retreat to Smolensk, and when the French woke on 28 July, ready to fight, they found the Russian camps deserted. It was now impossible to prevent the two Russian armies from joining, and on 4 August Barclay de Tolly and Bagration met at Smolensk.

Russia 1812 - The Road to Moscow
Russia 1812
The Road to Moscow

The decisive battle of the campaign very nearly came around Smolensk. By early August the French were stretched out between Orsha on the Dnieper in the south and Vitebsk on the Dvina in the north. The Russians were further east around Smolensk. Both sides now decided to go onto the offensive. The Russian attack was conducted between the two rivers. It began on 7 August but very quickly ran out of steam. Napoleon's plan was much more ambitious. He decided to move his army to the south bank of the Dnieper and advance east towards Smolensk, in the hope that he could get behind the Russians, cut the roads to Moscow and force them to either fight or retreat north towards St. Petersburg. The French were across the Dnieper by the morning of 14 August and the manoeuvre of Smolensk was underway, but the ambitious plan quickly fell apart. On the afternoon of 14 August the leading French troops ran into a Russian rearguard at Krasnyi. The first battle of Krasnyi (14 August 1812) saw the Russians carry out a successful fighting retreat back towards Smolensk, giving Barclay de Tolly time to rush reinforcements into the city.

Napoleon still had a chance to force the major battle he wanted, but his performance outside Smolensk was poor. He paused on 15 August to allow more troops to arrive, wasting the surprise he had achieved by crossing the Dnieper. He then missed a chance to send troops east and cut the road between Smolensk and Moscow and instead carried out two days of unsuccessful frontal assaults on the Old Town of Smolensk (16-17 August). On the night of 17-18 August the Russians pulled out of the Old Town, on the south bank of the Dnieper and on 18 August they began to retreat east. Once against Napoleon had a chance to split their armies, as a gap developed between Bagration and Barclay de Tolly, and once again the chance was missed and the Russians were able to hold up the French pursuit in a costly rearguard action at Valutino (19 August).

As the Russians retreated east Barclay de Tolly began to look for a suitable position to stand and fight in an attempt to defend Moscow but his time in command came to an end on 20 August. He was replaced as commander-in-chief by the veteran General Mikhail Kutuzov, although remained in charge of his own 1st Western Army. Barclay de Tolly's authority had been undermined by officers angry with the long retreat and by rampant nationalism amongst the 'Old Russian' element of the officer corps, who resented taking orders from a 'foreigner' (Barclay de Tolly had some Scottish ancestry but his family had long been settled in Livonia, at the western edge of the Russia Empire).

Barclay de Tolly continued to lead the retreating army for several days after his replacement. The army passed through Vyazma on 27 August, burning the supplies stored there. Barclay de Tolly considered stopping and fighting at Tsarevo, about half way between Smolensk and Moscow, but then Kutuzov reached the army and overruled this decision. He decided to continue the retreat for a few days, partly to give him more time with the army and partly to find a better position. On the night of 30-31 August the Russians reached Gzhatsk, where Kutuzov thought he had found a suitable defensive position. This position was then abandoned because it was too large for the army and the search continued. The next suggestion came from Colonel Toll, one of Barclay de Tolly's staff officers and a favourite of Kutuzov. The new position was near the village of Borodino, and was adapted before Kutuzov had actually examined it in person.

The retreat thus resumed for a few days. There was some fighting during this period, including a thirteen hour long rearguard action at Gzhatsk on 1 September and another rearguard action at Gridnevo on 4 September. The main Russian army was already at Borodino, having arrived on 3 September, and the French caught up on 5 September.

The first Russian position ran along the southern bank of the River Kolotcha, from Shervardino in the west to the junction with the River Moskva in the east. The village of Borodino was on the northern bank of the river, and wasn't really part of the main Russian line, although a small detachment was posted there at the start of the battle on 7 September. This line appears to have been chosen in the belief that Napoleon would advance along the New Smolensk Road, which ran north of the Kolotcha before crossing the river just east of Borodino and continuing on east towards Moscow.

Battle of Shevardino, 5 September 1812

Many aspects of the Russian deployment at Borodino are controversial. Kutuzov's performance is perhaps the most controversial, and the picture has been greatly confused by Soviet historians who followed the official line - Kutuzov was a great commander and Borodino was his masterpiece. In this version of events Kutuzov isn't allowed to make mistakes, and therefore there must have been a good reason for the decision to build a redoubt at Shervardino, west of what became the main line, and then an equally good reason to defend it stubbornly on 5 September. The redoubt was described as an observation post, or as a threat to the French if they moved along the New Smolensk Road (it was actually out of artillery range of the road)

The truth appears to have been that the initial Russian deployment was flawed. The Old Smolensk Road ran south of the original Russian line, and could easily have been used by Napoleon to get behind the entire Russian army. Contemporary sources disagree on exactly which Russian commander decided to bend the left flank back into a new position that ran south from Borodino taking advantage of a line of streams, with Kutuzov and Bagration both possible candidates. The move was made on 5 September, and the most likely reason for the prolonged defence of the Shervardino redoubt was that the French arrived a little quicker than expected. The Russian left was caught in the middle of redeploying and the Shervardino redoubt had to be defended to shield the main Russian line.

The French began to arrive in front of the Russian position at Borodino early on 5 September. The first fighting came north of the Kolotcha, and saw the Russians hang on to Borodino village. Napoleon then examined the position in the south and decided to attack the Shervardino redoubt in order to clear the way for the right wing of his army to deploy. A prolonged fight began and lasted until about 10.30pm when the Russians finally retreated. Both sides lost at least 5,000 men and Napoleon was rather disconcerted by the lack of prisoners. The Russian stand had given Bagration's men time to work on their fortifications, and allowed the main part of his army to redeploy without being interrupted. Russian historians see the fighting on 5 September as part of the wider battle.

6 September 1812

Perhaps surprisingly the long-hoped for battle did not take place on the following day. Instead 6 September was spent preparing for a battle on the following day. This was the third time Napoleon had paused for a day on the eve of battle (the previous occasions had been at Vitebsk and at Smolensk) and on both occasions the delay had allowed the Russians to slip away. As a result many of the French soldiers had a nervous day and especially night, straining their ears for any signs of a Russian retreat.

Napoleon received two very different messages on 6 September. The first came from his wife Marie Louise and included a portrait of their infant son. The second was more depressing. On 22 July Wellington had won his great victory at Salamanca, defeating the army of Marshal Marmont and forcing the French to abandon large parts of central and northern Spain. Marmont sent his aide-de-camp Captain Charles Fabvier to take the news to Napoleon, and by unlucky chance he arrived on 6 September. Napoleon's reaction is unclear - Segur and Thiers both suggest that Napoleon reacted quite calmly, while Gourgaud, who wrote a response to Segur's history, claimed that the Emperor was furious with Marmont. Fabvier is said to have fought as a volunteer in the upcoming battle to uphold the honour of the Army of Spain (admittedly he might have chosen to do this regardless of the Emperor's reaction). The news of Spain was kept secret and many senior officers only learnt of the defeat after the retreat from Moscow!

The French Army

The exact size of the French army at Borodino is uncertain. A role-call held on 2 September produced figures of just over 103,000 infantry and 30,000 cavalry, a total of 133,819 troops (the infantry figures appear to have included the artillery). After the fighting on 5 September this was reduced to around 128,000, but the 19,000 men of the Imperial Guard were never committed, so the French fought with about 110,000 men. This shows how badly stretched the French were by Borodino - the main army had begun the campaign with 450,000 men and Napoleon still had around 180,000 men at Smolensk, three weeks earlier. At Borodino the French had more regular troops than the Russians, but fewer troops overall.

Marshal Bessieres on Horseback
Marshal Bessieres
on Horseback

The Grand Armée at Borodino was an international force, and the long march across Russia led to some confusion within the army. Different sources even different arrangements for the Imperial Guard. The Old Guard was commanded by Marshal Lefebvre, the Young Guard by Marshal Mortier. Lefebvre's force included the 3rd Guard Division (General Curial), Mortier had the 2nd Guard Division (General Roguet) and the Polish Vistula Legion (also known as Claparède's division). The confusion comes with the 1st Guard Division (Delaborde), with most sources allocating this to the Old Guard while Mikaberidze's excellent study of the battle places one brigade from the division with the Young Guard. The Guard also included a strong cavalry force under Marshal Bessières and the Artillery of the Guard.

Portrait of Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout, 1770-1823
Portrait of
Marshal Louis-Nicolas
Davout, 1770-1823

I Corps was commanded by Marshal Davout, and officially contained five divisions (Morand's 1st Division, Friant's 2nd Division, Gérard's 3rd Division, Dessaix's 4th Division and Compans' 5th Division). However at the start of the battle Friant was part of the general reserve and Morand and Gérard came under Prince Eugene's command, so Davout's early attacks on the fleches only involved Dessaix and Compans.

III Corps was under Marshal Ney. He commanded three divisions, two French and one German. The two French divisions were the 10th (General Ledru) and 11th (General Razout), the German division was the 25th (Württemberg) Division (General Marchand). Ney's corps was to the left of Davout and also took part in the attack on the fleches.

IV Corps was commanded by Prince Eugène de Beauharnais, and was mainly Italian although did include some Croatian and Spanish infantry. The infantry was provided by the Italian Guard, 13th Division (Delzons) and 14th Division (Broussier). The cavalry was commanded by Count Ornano and included Italian and Bavarian troops. Eugene was also given two of Davout's divisions for his attack on the Grand Redoubt. IV Corps was posted on the left of the French line.

V Corps was commanded by Prince Josef Poniatowski  and was entirely Polish. He had the 16th Division (Zayonczeki) and 18th Division (Kniaziewicz) and three brigades of cavalry. V Corps was on the French right.

VIII Corps had originally been commanded by Napoleon's brother Jereme, but he had been replaced early in the campaign by General Junot. VIII Corps was German, with the 23rd (Westphalian) Division of General Tharreau, the 24th (Westphalian) Division of General Ochs and two brigades of Westphalian cavalry. VIII Corps was originally part of the reserve but was very soon thrown into the fighting on the right.

Each corps had its own cavalry, but most of the French cavalry was organised into four Reserve Cavalry Corps.

I Cavalry Corps (General Nansouty) contained the 1st Light Cavalry Division (Bruyères), 1st Cuirassier Division (Saint-Germain) and 5th Cuirassier Division (Valence).

II Cavalry Corps was commanded by General Louis-Pierre Montbrun, the only French corps commander to be killed at Borodino. Hi commanded the 2n`d Light Cavalry Division (Pajol), 2nd Cuirassier Division (Watier de St. Alphonse, normally known as Watier) and the 4th Cuirassier Division (Defrance).

III Cavalry Corps was commanded by General Grouchy and contained the 3rd Light Cavalry Division (Chastel) and the 6th Heavy Cavalry Division (Houssaye). Most of his men were French, but the corps also included Saxon and Bavarian troops.

The most international of the cavalry corps was General Latour-Maubourg's IV Cavalry Corps, which consisted of the 4th Light Cavalry Division (Rozniecki) and 7th Cuirassier Division (Lorge). Latour-Maubourg's men included Saxons, Westphalians and Poles. 

The Russian Army

The exact size of the Russian army at Borodino is unknown, and over the years a wide range of figures have been produced, ranging from just over 100,000 up to 160,000. For a long time it was believed that the Russian army was smaller than the French (and this was an official part of the Soviet version of the battle, emphasising the Russian achievement during the battle). More recent studies suggest that the Russians actually had around 155,000 men, but this included around 30,000 militia and just under 10,000 Cossacks, who weren't at their best on a regular battlefield. Barclay de Tolly had around 80,000 regular troops and Bagration another 40,000 (this includes the Cossacks). The Russian had around 17,000 regular cavalry, 14,500 gunners manning just under 640 guns, 30,000 militia, 10,000 Cossacks and 83,500 infantry.

The Russians had a rather over-complex command structure at Borodino. At the top was General Kutuzov, but his actual contribution to the fighting was said to have been rather limited. He spent the day at his headquarters at the Gorki on the northern flank of the battlefield, and seems to have limited himself to approving his subordinate's decisions.

Below Kutuzov came the two army commanders, Barclay de Tolly and Bagration. Barclay de Tolly's 1st Western Army held the northern half of the Russian line with Bagration's 2nd Western Army to the south.

The two armies were then subdivided into 'corps groups', an extra level of command, staff and headquarters inserted between the army commanders and the corps.

In the 1st Army Miloradovitch commanded Baggovut's II Corps, Ostermann-Tolstoy's IV Corps, and Uvarov's and Korf's cavalry corps. Dokhturov commanded his own VI Corps and Pahlen's cavalry corps.

In the 2nd Army General Gortchakov commanded Raevski's VII Corps, Borozdin's VIII Corps and Siver's cavalry corps while General Nikolay Tuchkov I commanded his own III Corps and the Moscow militia.

At the start of the battle the Russian right was far too strong. Almost all of Barclay de Tolly's men began the day in areas that the French never attacked. Baggovut's II Corps was on the right, near the village of Maslovo. Ostermann-Tolstoy's IV Corps was to his left, north of the village of Gorki. Dokhturov'sVI Corps was on Barclay's left, opposite the village of Borodino. Platov's Cossacks were on the far right, with the remaining cavalry corps close to the infantry in the front line.

Bagration's army held the left flank of the Russian position and would thus find itself in the way of the main French attacks. Raevski's VII Corps was on Bagration's right, and held the Great Redoubt (also known as the Raevski Redoubt). Borozdin's VIII Corps was next in line and held the village of Semenovskaya and the Fleches. Tuchkov I's III Infantry Corps was on the left of the Russian line, close to Utitsa on the Old Smolensk Road.

The Battlefield

The battlefield of Borodino stretched south from the Moskva River. Although Napoleon chose to name the battle after that river the fighting never actually reached that far north.

The Borodino Battlefield
The Borodino Battlefield

The battle was fought in an area of gentle rolling hills, generally quite small in scale, split up by a series of small brooks that cut some fairly steep sided valleys.  

A more important feature was the Kalatsha River, which flows east then north-east across the battlefield and flows into the Moskva. The village of Borodino is on the northern side of the Kalatsha, at about the point where the river begins to curve around to the north-east. The right flank of the Russian position ran along the right bank of the Kalatsha, although one contingent was left isolated in Borodino itself.

A number of creeks flow south from the Kalatsha. The most important during the battle flows into the river just to the west of Borodino. This stream, the Semyonovskaya Creek, rises behind the Russian line and flows north-west, passing between the Great Redoubt and the Fleches. A second stream, the Kamenka Creek, rises in the gap between the two armies and flows north, joining the Semyonovskaya Creek almost in the centre of the battlefield. The combined creeks then flow north into the Kalatsha. The main Russian defences in the centre and south of the battlefield were built on higher ground to the east of the line of the Kamenka and the lower stretches of the Semyonovskaya Creeks, although a screen of light infantry was posted just to the east of the streams.

There were several villages scattered across the battlefield. Borodino was on the north bank of the Kalatsha, at the hinge in the Russian lines. Further east was Gorki, where Kutuzov had his headquarters. On the southern flank of the battle was Utitza, where Tuchkov and Poniatowski would spend most of the day fighting. In the centre of the battlefield was Semyonovskaya, on a hill to the south-east of the Great Redoubt and north of the Fleches. The village was constructed of wood and so its buildings were dismantled before the battle, but the village was still the site of heavy fighting later in the day,

Two major roads crossed the battlefield, both running west-east from Smolensk to Moscow. The New Smolensk Road (or New Post Road) was to the north. It ran parallel to the Kalatsha, crossed the river east of Borodino and continued on through Gorki towards Moscow.

The Old Smolensk Road (or Old Post Road) ran along the southern edge of the battlefield, passing through Utitza. The two roads reunited some way to the east of the battlefield. This part of the battlefield was partly covered in woods, and there was a particularly dense forest north of Utitza that would play a significant part in the battle, slowing up the French and partly splitting their line into two.

Russian Plans

The Russian plan was very simple. The position at Borodino was to be strengthened with field fortifications and the French assault repulsed. If the French attacks failed then Napoleon would be trapped hundreds of miles inside Russia with a defeated army.

The two most important sets of fortifications during the battle were the Great Redoubt, in the centre of the Russian line at the start of the battle and the three 'fleches', on a hill half way between Utitza and the Great Redoubt.

Work on the 'fleches' began first. They were constructed on a hill between the Kamenka and Semeyonovskii brooks. Three were built - two in the front line and the third behind them, and at the start of the battle the French were only aware of the front two. The front two were actually lunettes, with four sides and an open rear. In both cases the front consisted of two sides, one facing west and the other north, with parallel sides running back from them. The rear fortification was actually a fleche - a simple two-sided arrowhead again with an open back. The parapets were 1.5-2m tall, but time and tools were short and they weren't as strong as Bagration would have liked.

Work on the Great Redoubt began during the evening of 6 September. This was built on a hill east of the Semyonovskaya creek and south-east of Borodino village. The redoubt faced west, with 72m long shoulders meeting at a shallow 100 degrees angle in the centre, extended by flank fortifications. Work continued on the night of 6-7 September and by the start of the battle the redoubt was protected by a ditch, extra pits to stop horses and the open back was closed by a double palisade with an 8ft high inner wall and 6.5ft high outer wall. At the start of the battle there were 18 guns in the redoubt although this may later have increased to 24.

French Plans

Napoleon adopted a very simple plan. On his left Eugène's IV Corps and Grouchy's III Reserve Cavalry Corps would operate north of the Kalatsha River and attack Borodino, then the Great Redoubt.

On his right Poniatowski's V Corps was to attack Utitsa and threaten the left flank of the Russian army.

Portrait of Marshal Michel Ney (1769-1815)
Portrait of
Marshal Michel Ney

The main attack would come in the centre. Two divisions from Davout's I Corps would attack the Fleches. Ney's III Corps would then attack into the gap between the Fleches and the Great Redoubt, over the ruins of the village of Semionovskaya.

The Guard, one division from I Corps, Junot's VIII Corps and most of the cavalry would form the reserve.

The aim was to break through the Russian line with a frontal assault and then take advantage of the breakthrough to destroy the divided enemy.

Davout had suggested a more ambitious plan in which his and Poniatowski's corps would march around the Russian left flank and attack from the rear, hopefully pinning the Russians against the Moskva River. Napoleon rejected this plan and had since been criticised for his apparent lack of ambition. However Napoleon's arguments against this plan were sound. It would have involved a night march by almost half of his infantry. If the march went wrong then Napoleon's army would be dangerously divided. If it went well the Russians might have simply abandoned their position and Napoleon would have been denied his battle. Finally the Russians hadn’t always shown the same concern about their flanks as other European armies, and so might simply had stood and fought on a different line, produced a similar battle but with different place names. 

The Battle

Here we will divide the battle into morning and afternoon, and three sectors - the northern area including Borodino village, the Russian right and the Great Redoubt, a central area based on the Fleches and a southern area stretching south along the Russian left wing.

Borodino - The Start of the Battle
The Start of the Battle

Borodino is one of the more straightforward of Napoleon's major battles. The Russians spent the day on the defensive, with the exception of one major cavalry attack and local counterattacks. On the French side Napoleon tried no clever plans or great manoeuvres. The battle was simply a slogging match as the French attempted to capture the fortifications in the Russian left and centre and bludgeon their way through the Russian line. On the Russian side reinforcements were slowly moved from the almost unengaged right wing to support the left wing, until at the end of the day the Russians appeared to have formed a new defensive line to the east of their original main line. At that point, with both armies exhausted, the battle ended. As a result any account of Borodino becomes an account of a series of expensive French frontal assaults countered by a determined Russian defence.

The battle started with an artillery duel that began at around 6am (most eyewitness accounts give this time, although inevitably some give earlier or later times). Although a number of Russian artillerymen claimed to have actually fired the first shots the French began the main bombardment. Some of their gun batteries had been built too far to the west, and couldn't reach their targets, so the French had to drag their guns towards the Russian lines before they could resume firing.

Morning: North

The first French attack came on the right of their line, where Prince Eugene was given the task of capturing Borodino village. The village was held by the elite Lifeguard Jägers, but Barclay de Tolly didn’t see any point in attempting to hold such an isolated position. He attempted to withdraw the garrison but the French attack went in just before his messenger could cross the river. Delzons's division from Eugene's corps led the assault, and the Russians were quickly forced out of the village. The Lifeguards lost about one third of its men, and was forced back across the river, without being able to destroy the bridge.

The 106th Line, which had led the attack on Borodino, now got carried away, crossed the river and advanced towards the Gorki heights. Their brigade commander, General Louis-Auguste Plauzonne, attempted to stop them but was shot and killed on the river bridge. The Russians counterattacked and the 106th was forced to retreat back into Borodino village, where it was supported by the 92nd Line. This ended the infantry battle at Borodino village. Barclay de Tolly had no interest in retaking the isolated village, and bridge had now been destroyed. Prince Eugune left Delzons and some cavalry to defend the village and then moved the rest of his men across the river (using bridges further west), ready for the first attack on the Grand Redoubt.

There was now a pause on the northern part of the line, while very hard fighting began to develop further south, around the fleches. General Raevski (or Rayevsky) had the task of defending the Grand Redoubt and part of the line to the south with his VII Corps, but as the fighting developed further south he had to send some troops to help Tuchkov. By the time the French launched their first attack on the redoubt Raevski had two infantry divisions (Vasil'chikov's 12th and Paskevich's 26th), the 26th Artillery Brigade inside the redoubt. He also had a number of jäger regiments, three from his own corps, the 19th and 40th from Dokhturov's VI Corps and the 40th from Ostermann-Tolstoy's IV Corps. Most of the jägers were posted in a skirmish line in front of the redoubt, while the two infantry divisions and the 19th jägers were posted to the east ready to launch counterattacks against the French.

Prince Eugene had three divisions available for this attack - Broussier's 14th Division from his own corps and Morand's 1st and Gerard's 3rd Divisions from Davout's corps. The attack began with a heavy artillery bombardment that inflicted heavy losses on the Russians. This was followed at around 10am by an attack from the north-west by Broussier's division, but this was soon repulsed (if it was actually an attack - there is some evidence that this was merely a reconnaissance in force aimed at the screen of light troops).

The second French assault was led by Morand's division. This time troops from the 30th Line managed to get into the earthworks, forcing Raevski to abandon his command post within the earthworks. Most of the rest of Morand's men were still fighting outside the redoubt, so the 30th was left alone to face the inevitable Russian counterattack. This involved Raevski's own two divisions and the 24th Division (Likachev) from VI Corps, and was a success. The redoubt was recaptured and General Bonnamy, commander of the 30th Line, was captured. The Russians did suffer one major loss - General Alexander Kutaisov, commander of the Russian artillery, decided to take part in the counterattack in person and was killed. For the rest of the battle the Russian artillery suffered from the lack of his leadership.

The final stage of this first assault on the redoubt was a cavalry attack, although which part of the French army actually carried this out is unclear. It was repulsed by Eugen of Württemberg, the commander of the 4th Division in Baggovut's corps. His men now held the line south of the redoubt, connecting with the new Russian line that was formed after the fleches were captured by the French.

Morning: Centre

When the fighting began in Borodino village Napoleon assumed that Prince Poniatowski's attack on the right must also have begun and he ordered Davout to launch the first attack on the Bagration fleches. At this stage the French were only aware of the central and southern fleches. The first attack was to be led by Compans' division, which would attack in two columns. The right-hand column would clear the woods north of Utitsa while the left-hand column would attack the fleche.

The fleches were defended by General Vorontsov's 2nd Combined Grenadier Division of Borozdin's VIII Corps, with the 11th and 32nd Artillery Companies posted in the fleches. The French suffered heavy losses as they advanced towards the Russian lines, and especially in the woods. Compans was hit in the shoulder and knocked out of the battle at around 7.30 while Davout's horse was shot under him. The Marshal was briefly knocked out, and reports of his death reached Napoleon who was very relieved when they turned out to be false. Despite heavy losses the southern fleche was taken by the French, but Vorontsov quickly send in a counterattack, using the bulk of the 2nd Combined Grenadier Division and the fleche was recaptured.

After this first attack Bagration asked for reinforcements. Kutuzov agreed to move Baggovut's unengaged II Corps from the right of the Russian line to the left and centre, and also fed in some of the reserve (from Grand Duke Constantine's V Corps). Tuchkov's 3rd Division was also sent from the left.

The French now prepared to launch their second attack on the fleches. This attack would involve elements from Davout's I Corps, Ney's III Corps and Junot's VIII Corps. Davout was to attack the southern fleche and Ney what the French believed to be the northern fleches (actually the central fleche). Junot was sent to the right of the attack to clear out the woods north of Utitsa. Napoleon also sent his aide, General Jean Rapp, to take over Compans's division.

Marshal Joachim Murat
Marshal Joachim Murat

The second French attack was led by Ledru des Essart's division from Ney's corps on the left and Dessaix's division on the right. At the start of the fighting the fleches were still held by the 2nd Combined Grenadier Divison, although reinforcements were on the way. The fighting would be so severe that General Vorontsov would say that his division had ceased to exist after the first hour of the attack. As the French advanced Rapp was wounded (getting his 22nd battle injury) and Dessaix had his left arm broken. Ney's men ended up taking part in the battles for the central and southern fleches. This period of the battle is utterly confused. The fleches changed hands several times, but there is no agreement on how many times or on how many major attacks the French launched (at least three, possibly as many as eight). Several senior French commanders became closely involved in the fighting including Murat, who was forced to taken shelter amongst some Württemberg troops at one point and Ney who was wounded. It isn't even entirely clear when the fighting ended, with different eyewitness accounts having it end as early as 10am or as late as noon. Modern research suggests that the fleches finally fell to the French by 10am.

The same uncertainty is found in accounts of Bagration's mortal wounding, which could have taken place as early as 9.30 or as late as 11.30. The earlier time seems most likely for both events. Bagration was hit in the left leg by a shell splinter. He attempted to hide the injury but soon had to be taken away for treatment. The wound eventually proved to be fatal, and Bagration died on 24 September. After Bagration was taken away control of his part of the line first fell to General Konovnitsyn, and then to General Dokhturov. The Russian troops were badly demoralised by Bagration's injury, but the fighting around the fleches continued for perhaps as long as an hour before the French finally secured them. The new Russian front line now ran along the eastern side of the Semenovka brook, between the Grand Redoubt and the abandoned fleches.

The new Russian line was the target of the next major French attack. This involved parts of Ney's III Corps, Davout's I Corps and the cavalry of Nansouty's I Cavalry Corps (on the left) and Latour-Maubourg's IV Cavalry Corps (on the right). If the French could break the Russian line on the Semenovka and capture the village of Semenovskaya then Napoleon would be on the verge of his decisive victory - the Russian line might have been cut in two, with Barclay de Tolly trapped against the Moskva River. The exact timing of the French attack on the new Russian line is unclear, with various estimates putting it as early as 10am and as late as 12 noon.

The Russian defence was carried out by a mixed force. The village of Semenovskaya was defended by the 2nd Combined Grenadier Division (Borozdin's VIII Corps). To their left was the 3rd Division (Konovnitsyn, sent from Tuchkov's III Corps early in the battle) and to their left were three regiments from the reserve (Izmailovskii, Litovskii and Finland Life Guards). Behind the line of infantry was a line of cavalry, with IV Cavalry Corps in the north and the 1st and 2nd Cuirassier Divisions to the south.

The French cavalry met with mixed fortunes. In the north Latour-Maubourg's men caught the 2nd Combined Grenadier Division as it was forming into three squares. One square was run down, but the other two managed to form and the French cavalry charged through the gap. They then got into the rear of the Russian line and briefly threatened the rear of the Lifeguards, before they were driven off by Sievers's IV Cavalry Corps. The Westphalian Cuirassier brigade restored the situation and Latour-Maubourg was able to hold on to the north of the village.

In the south Nansouty's men were unable to break the squares of the elite Russian Lifeguard regiments, who even launched a bayonet attack at one point. The Lifeguards fought of a number of French attacks before Russian cavalry under General Kretov forced them to retreat.

In the centre the 2nd Combined Grenadier Division managed to reform after the French cavalry had passed over it and formed a new line in front of the village, with General Dokhturov taking direct command of the defence. He was able to feed the Moscow and Astrakhan Grenadier Regiments from VIII Corps into the line. The first French assault was repulsed but the 15th Light Regiment (General Dufour) captured the village on their second go. Friant reinforced it with the 48th and 33rd Line and repulsed a Russian counterattack.

This was perhaps the best chance for a decisive French victory. Murat realised that his attack had nearly broken the Russian line, and sent an officer to ask Napoleon to commit the Guard. Napoleon is said to have agreed to send in the Young Guard (General Lobau) but then almost immediately changed his mind. Murat then sent his chief of staff, Belliard, to renew the request. Belliard claimed that the Russians were in disorder and a fresh attack would win the battle, Bessières, who Napoleon had sent to study the situation, disagreed and claimed that the Russians had formed a new line and might even be about to attack. Napoleon decided not to commit the Guard.

This was one of the most controversial moments of the entire campaign. Napoleon did not perform well at Borodino. He spent almost the entire battle at Semeyonovskoye, and so had to rely on second-hand accounts of the fighting. The younger Napoleon would have visited the key positions along the front himself and thus been able to form a more accurate impression of what was going on. Napoleon was reported to have been ill on the day of Borodino, but he had commanded with a fever in the past and had still performed well. His decision to preserve the Guard was at least partly motivated by an awareness of the distance from France and an unwillingness to take such a major gamble, but the entire Russian campaign, and in particular the advance on Moscow, was a massive gamble, so this was the wrong moment for Napoleon to have lost his nerve. Very few of the Guardsmen who were preserved at Borodino survived to the end of the campaign.

Morning: South

The southern attack began last. Poniatowski's advance had been slow, and they didn’t enter the battle until around 8am. They forced General Stroganov's 1st Grenadier Division to pull back from its exposed positions around Utitsa village. By this point Tuchkov had already been forced to dispatch his 3rd Division north to help Bagraton, and he didn’t feel strong enough to defend the village. Stroganov was ordered to burn the village and pull back east to join the defenders of a key mound east of the village. Poniatowski's advance was then stopped by light infantry in the woods north of the village (the same troops that had delayed the first attack on the fleches) and by Russian artillery, and the Polish advance came to a temporary stop.

Poniatowski renewed his attack at about 10.30am. By now the Russians had a battery of four 12pdrs on the mound, while Poniatowski had a battery of 22 guns. Tuchkov was now badly exposed and outnumbered. The Russian high command realised the danger just in time and ordered General Baggovut to send his 17th Division south from the right flank to support the left. Baggovut's 4th Division followed soon afterwards, leaving only his jägers on the right. Baggovut had to leave part of the 17th Division to support the fighting in the centre, and the first of his men were unable to prevent the French capturing the Utitsa mound. By noon Baggovut's II Corps had joined the survivors of Tuchkov's III Corps and the combined corps launched a counterattack. Tuchkov was killed leading his troops, but the French were pushed back off the mount and past Utitsa village. Baggovut took command on the left of the Russian line.


By noon both sides had committed most of their men. The original Russian right hadn’t been attacked. They still held the Grand Redoubt, now at the northern end of the active front line and Utitsa at the southern end, but had lost the fleches in the centre of the battle. The Russian line was thus bowed in the middle, but was still holding. The Russian high command moved Ostermann-Tolstoy's IV Corps from the right to reinforce the centre of their line, while on their right they decided to carry out a cavalry attack. 

Afternoon: North

By noon Prince Eugene was preparing for a second attack on the Grand Redoubt, but his plans would be delayed by a daring Russian cavalry attack. General Platov, the commander of the Cossacks, had spent part of the morning examining the lower reaches of the Kalatsha River. He had made two key discoveries - the river could easily be forded by cavalry and it was undefended by the French. He sent a messenger to Kutuzov's headquarters to suggest that the Russian cavalry sitting unused on the right flank of the army should be used to attack the unsuspecting French left. The suggestion reached Kutuzov at the right moment and the plan was promptly adopted. It was even expanded, and Platov's 2,700 Cossacks (half of his total force) were joined by General Uvarov's 2,500 regular cavalry.

The Russian cavalry crossed the Kalatsha River near Maloye (north of Gorki) between 11am and noon and advanced west towards the Voina, a stream that flows south and joins the Kalatsha just to the west of Borodino village. The French had a small garrison north of the Kalatsha, made up of Count Ornano's Bavarian and Italian cavalry and Delzons's infantry division, both from Eugene's division. The Russian force split as it approached the Voina. Platov's Cossacks crossed the stream some way to the north of Borodino and threatened the French left-rear. Uvarov's regular cavalry began involved in a fight with Ornano cavalry and Delzons, and made little headway. The Russian cavalry did remain on the north bank of the Kalatsha for most of the early afternoon and wasn't recalled to the south bank until about 4pm. Some of the Cossacks may have stayed on the north bank for much longer.

At the time the Russian high commander was very unimpressed with the cavalry raid and Uvarov received a hostile reception at headquarters. Only later did the Russians realise how much they owed to this cavalry raid. The French over-reacted, sending seventeen cavalry regiments north to deal with the perceived threat. Eugene's attack on the Grand Redoubt was delayed for two hours and Napoleon became even more convinced that he needed to keep the Old Guard out of the battle.

While the French dealt with the cavalry raid other parts of the cavalry came under heavy artillery fire from the redoubt. During this period the talented General Montbrun was killed by round-shot (dying at about 5pm). He was replaced in command of II Cavalry Corps by General Auguste-Jean de Caulaincourt, the brother of Napoleon's diplomatic advisor Armand-August de Caulaincourt. The Russians also suffered heavily in the artillery duel and had to replace both the garrison and the guns in the redoubt at least once.

The new attack involved three infantry divisions (Broussier, Gerard and Morand), II Cavalry Corps (Caulaincourt) and IV Cavalry Corps (Latour-Maubourg). The cavalry was to attack in the area to the south of the redoubt and then turn back to attack the defenders from the open eastern side, while the infantry attacked frontally. The attack was supported by a massive artillery bombardment, perhaps involving as many as 400 guns.

The attack began at around 3pm. It is most famous for the death of Caulaincourt, normally said to have been killed just after capturing the redoubt. In fact the evidence suggests that II Cavalry Corps failed to get into the redoubt, and it was actually captured by the 7th Cuirassier division of Latour-Maubourg's corps. This force included the Saxon Garde du Corps and Zastrow Cuirassiers and the 14th Polish Cuirassiers, and later claims that the largely French II Cavalry had captured the redoubt caused a great deal of controversy. Soon after the cavalry took the redoubt the infantry arrived and prepared to defend the new position. At the same time the cavalry attacked the retreating Russian infantry, but without success. Barclay de Tolly considered a counterattack, but quickly realised that the redoubt was lost and ordered the creation of a new line a little further east.

Prince Eugene attempted to exploit his success with a massive cavalry attack. The Russian infantry squares held, and the Russian Guard cavalry then arrived from the reserve, marking the start of a long and complex cavalry battle that may have lasted for as long as two hours. Eventually both sides ran out of energy. The French cavalry withdrew behind their infantry while the Russians pulled back and formed a new line behind a ravine about 800 meters east of the lost redoubt.

At this point Napoleon made one of his rare visits to part of the battlefield to examine the results of the fall of the redoubt. He even appears to have considered sending in the guard, but eventually decided against it. The Young Guard were sent forward to guard the artillery, but that was the limit of their involvement. The fighting in the north was now limited to a massive artillery duel, which lasted until about 6pm and inflicted heavy casualties on both sides.

Afternoon: Centre

Fighting in the centre continued throughout the afternoon, but without any significant changes in the French or Russian positions. The Russians did alter their line late in the day to reduce the losses they were suffering to French artillery, but the fighting in this sector faded away at around 9pm and ended by 10pm.

Afternoon: South

The last significant fighting came at the southern end of the line. Junot's corps had been sent this way earlier in the day, but spent much of its time clearing the woods north of Utitsa. A Russian gun battery held them up for some time and Junot's VIII Corps didn't make contact with Prince Poniatowski's V Corps until about 2pm. A period of rather confused fighting began, made worse by the thick woods in this area.

Junot and Poniatowski finally launched a coordinated attack at about 5pm (Junot leading one brigade in person). This attack, combined with news of the general withdrawal further along the line, convinced Baggovut to pull back, abandoning the hill at Utitsa. Poniatowski attacked the retreating Russians but Baggovut's men were able to hold on to their new position near Psarevo.


Borodino - The End of the Battle
The End of the Battle

After 6pm the fighting came to an end, although some artillery continued to fire for longer. The Russians had been forced out of their initial positions along most of the line, and now lacked any reserves, while Napoleon still had his Guard intact. Some Russian officers were worried that the French might resume the attack, but Napoleon had no intention of risking his Guard, and the rest of his army was too exhausted to attack. Instead the French pulled back from their most advanced positions, and the Russians even attempted to retake the Grand Redoubt during the night. At first Kutuzov claimed to have won a great victory and planned to resume the fight on the next day, but during the night the true scale of Russian losses began to emerge. Eventually Kutuzov was forced to order a fresh retreat, and early on 8 September the Russian army began to march east.

Borodino is generally described as a French victory. Both armies spent the night after the battle camped on the battlefield (although both sides withdrew from the scenes of the worst carnage), but on the following day it was the Russians who retreated. Both armies were greatly weakened by the fighting at Borodino, but the French were in slightly the better state, and at least could boast one intact major formation in the shape of the guard.

The exact number of casualties on both sides will never be known for sure. At the time both sides made unrealistic claims, and Russian estimates of French casualties were distorted during the Soviet period. The Russians probably lost 45,000-50,000 men at Shervardino and Borodino (both seen as part of the same battle). Early French estimates of their losses just at Borodino ranged from 15,000 to 30,000. Baron Denniée, Inspector of Reviews of the Grand Army produced an official report that wasn't made public until 1842. He calculated the French losses on 7 September as 6,547 dead (amongst them 10 generals and 10 colonels) and 21,453 wounded, a total of 28,000. Another 5,000 were lost at Shervardino, so French losses over the two days probably came to 35,000. The fighting at Borodino on 7 September was thus amongst the most costly single days of warfare before the carnage of the First World War.

A rearguard action was fought at Mozhaisk on 8-9 September and Murat had some success against the Russian rearguard on 10-11 September, but the Russians continued their retreat east to Moscow, starting to pass through the city on 13 September. On the same day Kutuzov summoned a council of war, and decided not to risk a second battle outside Moscow. On 14 September the first French troops entered the Russian but the triumph was short-lived. Over the next few days much of the city was destroyed by fires, most of them started deliberately. Tsar Alexander refused to discuss peace with Napoleon, while Kutuzov rebuilt his army to the south of Moscow.

Napoleon now made one of the biggest mistakes of his career, staying in Moscow for more than a month. All the time his own army was getting weaker while the Russians were gathering around him, and most seriously of all the winter was approaching. For most of that time Napoleon genuinely believed that the Tsar would soon open negotiations but it eventually became clear that this wouldn't happen. Eventually the French left Moscow on 19 October. Their original plan was to head south and retreat through unspoiled country, but after a narrow victory on Maloyaroslavets on 24 October Napoleon made the fateful decision to turn back and retrace his steps, past Borodino and along the route of his advance. The famous 'retreat from Moscow' had begun, and very few of the men who had survived the bloodbath at Borodino would ever return to their homes.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (11 April 2014), Battle of Borodino, 7 September 1812 ,

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