7 September 1812, one of the bloodiest battles of the 19th century was fought near Moscow at the small village of Borodino, ending with something resembling a French tactical victory.
“Our colonel’s mettle did you feel: Czar’s servant, soldiers’ father real… Yea, ’tis a pity: slain by steel, Now sleeps he in black earth. And eyes aflame, he spoke his mind: “Hey lads! is Moscow not behind? By Moscow then we die As have our brethren died before!” And that we’ll die we all then swore, And th’ oath of loyalty ne’er tore Neath Borodinian sky.“ (Mikhail Lermontov “Borodino”)
|The imagination of the Russian war painter Vasily Vasilyevich Vereshchagin of the|
treacherous French triumph over Kutuzov’s retreat with the carnage of the field of Borodino in the foreground (1899-1900)
Admittedly, Barclay de Tolly, commander-in-chief of the Russian Army of the West, had lost the Battle of Smolensk in August 1812, the first major engagement during Napoleon’s invasion and the logistical hub in Central Russia was destroyed, but nothing of worth had fallen into Napoleon’s hands when the city burned down. And by using the depth of the Russian vastness, continuously withdrawing before the advancing Grande Armée and making their supply lines impossibly long while keeping the Russian army intact, Barclay de Tolly had chosen a certainly valid option to counter the invasions of military geniuses, time-honoured since Quintus Fabius Maximus Cunctator, the delayer, let Hannibal march into nothing and attacked his supply lines in Italy in the 3rd century BCE. However, Barclay de Tolly faced the same fate as the Roman Cunctator. With the military genius’ hosts close to the gates of the old capital, the Courlandian with Scottish roots was replaced by the Tsar under pressure of the nobility lobbying for an All-Russian commander with Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov. Ordered to seek a decision with Napoleon, Kutuzov marched with 120,000 men to intercept the Grande Armée and give battle on the approaches of Moscow.
|Vasily Vereshchagin: "Napoleon I on the Borodino Heights" (1897)|
"Soldiers! Here is the battle that you have so much desired.” Napoleon gave his 130,000 men to understand before they were ordered to advance against the redoubts of the well-positioned Russian army near the village of Borodino. “From now on victory depends on you: it is necessary to us. It will give you abundance, good winter quarters, and a prompt return to the fatherland. Conduct yourselves as at Austerlitz, at Friedland, at Vitebsk, at Smolensk, and let the most distant posterity point with pride to your conduct on this day. Let it be said of you, 'He was in that great battle under the walls of Moscow.'" The Grand Armée, mostly Poles, Württembergians, Westphalians, Saxons, Croats and Bavarians, followed suit. A couple of hours later, Napoleon learned to his dismay that Russian infantry soldiers on their home turf were “like fortresses” and had “to be destroyed with cannon”. They stood and held beyond a point where Austrians, Prussians and the Russians themselves had surrendered long since in previous battles. At Borodino, it was artillery duels and fierce hand-to-hand combat and in the centre of the line, the dead had piled up to a height that made it impossible for the Russians to return fire.
|In the All-Russian home of the peasant A.S. Frolov: Kutuzov and his staff in the meeting at Fili village, |
when Kutuzov decided that the Russian army had to retreat from Moscow, Alexey Danilovich Kivshenko, 1880
By the end of the day, Kutuzov managed to withdraw his men from the field while Napoleon had not committed his 19,000 men of the Imperial Guard, prohibiting a pursuit. About 60,000 men from both sides and 35,000 horses lay dead in the field, Napoleon had lost almost his entire cavalry, a sacrifice that would cost him dearly during his retreat. And Kutuzov was free to pursue Barclay de Tolly’s strategy after the battle. Moscow fell a week later, but the city burned and the Russian army was still far from being defeated. Napoleon’s position, sitting in the ashes of Moscow, became simply impossible and his catastrophic retreat began. By the end of the year, the Grand Armée was no more. The Battle of Borodino itself was commemorated most notably in Tolstoy’s epic “War and Peace” and remains a gory writing on the wall, an omen of Napoleon’s fate.
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