Borodino and the Fall of Moscow

As Napoleon’s main body advanced into central Russia in the second half of August 1812 the situation on its northern and southern flanks began to turn against the French. In part this reflected the enormous area across which Napoleon’s armies were now being forced to operate. In the north, Marshal MacDonald, the descendant of a Scottish Jacobite émigré, had been given the task of covering Napoleon’s left flank, clearing Courland and capturing Riga. In the south, the Austrians and Saxons were facing General Aleksandr Tormasov’s Third Army on the borders of Ukraine. More than 1,000 kilometres separated these forces. The distance between Napoleon’s spearhead beyond Smolensk and his bases in East Prussia and Poland was even greater. Inevitably, as distance and sickness took their toll, his forces began to thin out. Napoleon could not be strong everywhere.

Marshal MacDonald’s Tenth Corps comprised 32,500 men. Almost two-thirds of these troops were Prussians and in the early stages of the campaign they fought hard. Their commander, Lieutenant-General von Gräwert, stressed the need to restore Prussian military pride and regain the respect of the French for the army of Frederick the Great. Near the main estate of the Pahlen family at Gross Eckau on 19 July 1812 the Prussians defeated a Russian attempt to check their advance. Within a month of the war’s commencement the Prussians were in the vicinity of Riga, a huge Russian supply base, the largest city in the Baltic provinces and the key to the river Dvina.

Riga was not a strong fortress. Uniquely, the costs of its upkeep were borne not by the Russian state but by the Riga municipal government. In the century that had passed since the city was last seriously threatened its defences had been allowed to deteriorate. Only in June 1810 did the state take back responsibility for the city’s fortifications. During the next two years much was done to prepare Riga for a siege, but major weaknesses remained. Many of the key fortifications were out of date. The citadel was very cramped and hemmed in by residential areas. Riga’s suburbs had also grown greatly during the eighteenth century, occupying much of what had been open ground in front of the city’s outer walls.

The 19,000-strong garrison of Riga was commanded by Lieutenant-General Magnus von Essen. Most of these men came from reserve battalions and many were poorly trained. Sickness was rife in the garrison even before the siege began. Immediately on hearing that Napoleon had crossed the Neman Essen declared Riga to be in a state of siege: every household was ordered to store four months’ supply of food and any civilian departing the town was required to leave behind two able-bodied citizens in his household to help defend the city. In the fourth week of July, as the enemy approached Riga, Essen ordered that its western and southern suburbs be burned to the ground, in order to give the garrison a free field of fire beyond the walls. More than 750 buildings were destroyed, at an estimated cost of 17 million rubles. Nevertheless, it was generally agreed that Riga could not hope to hold out for more than two months against a serious siege.

If Napoleon had stopped in Vitebsk or Smolensk and dispatched part of his main army to help MacDonald, Riga would certainly have fallen. Without additional help, however, the French commander could not hope to take the city. A complete blockade line would have needed to stretch around Riga for more than 50 kilometres on both sides of the river Dvina. MacDonald’s 32,500 men on their own could never man such a line. In addition, Russian gunboats controlled the river and the British navy dominated the Baltic Sea and raided MacDonald’s communications along the coast. The French siege artillery, initially sent to Dünaburg, did finally arrive near Riga, but by the time it could be deployed for a serious siege the balance of forces on Napoleon’s northern flank was beginning to turn against the French.

Above all, this was because of the intervention of the Russian army in Finland. In the last week of August Alexander travelled to Åbo in Finland to meet the Swedish crown prince, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte. The two leaders confirmed their alliance as well as arrangements for future military collaboration in northern Germany and Denmark. Of more immediate importance was the fact that Bernadotte released Alexander from his promise to use the Russian troops in Finland for a joint Russo-Swedish landing in Denmark in 1812 and urged him to send them to Riga instead. As a result, the Russian navy transported the bulk of the 21,000-strong Finland Corps to the Baltic provinces. Commanded by Count Fabian von Steinhel, these were mostly battle-hardened troops. By the second half of September their arrival in Riga was promising to end the stalemate on the northern front.1

Though Riga was Marshal MacDonald’s main preoccupation, he was also forced to keep one eye over his right shoulder towards Dünaburg and Polotsk. This was the area in which Lieutenant-General Count Peter von Wittgenstein’s First Russian Corps was operating. When Barclay’s army abandoned the camp at Drissa and headed for Vitebsk Wittgenstein’s corps was detached to block the roads leading north-westwards to Pskov, Novgorod and ultimately Petersburg. Wittgenstein’s main opponent was Marshal Oudinot, whose orders were to advance over the river Dvina and drive the Russians back on Pskov. In principle, this task should not have been beyond Oudinot, whose corps was more than 40,000-strong when it entered Russian territory. By contrast, Wittgenstein had only 23,000 men in First Corps and, though his forces were reinforced by two other small detachments, he was also responsible for containing any attempt by MacDonald’s right-wing division to advance from Dünaburg.2

In fact, however, Oudinot was to prove a complete failure as the commander of an independent force, allowing himself to be dominated and overawed by Wittgenstein. Russian light cavalry raided constantly over the Dvina, disrupting French communications and supplies. When Oudinot advanced on Wittgenstein’s army in late July he allowed himself to be surprised and routed by the Russians in three days of battle at Kliastitsy and Golovshchina between 30 July and 1 August. One reason for his defeat was his failure to concentrate all his forces on the battlefield. According to the Russian account, he had more than 8,000 men in the neighbourhood of Kliastitsy who never got into action.

In addition, however, the Russian troops fought exceptionally well. The core of Wittgenstein’s little army had recent experience of fighting in Finland’s forests during the war of 1808–9. Not only Wittgenstein’s jaegers but also some of his infantry proved very adept at skirmishing in the similar terrain of north-western Russia. Perhaps it was their example that inspired the many reserve battalions and new regiments formed from garrison troops in Wittgenstein’s divisions to perform much better than anyone had the right to expect right from the start of the campaign. Wittgenstein immediately took the offensive, won battles and imposed his will on the enemy; as a result, his soldiers’ morale was high and no one carped at his German origins.3

It probably helped Wittgenstein that, unlike Barclay de Tolly, he came from an aristocratic, albeit rather impoverished, family. Born in Russia and the son of a general in Russian service, he moved much more assuredly in Russian aristocratic circles than was the case with the awkward Barclay. In addition, Peter Wittgenstein was a cavalryman and something of a beau sabreur. A fine horseman, bold, generous and often chivalrous, Wittgenstein’s values were very much those of the Russian military aristocracy. In addition, he was personally modest and kindly, as well as very generous in recognizing and reporting his subordinates’ achievements. Combined with a string of victories, these qualities ensured that great harmony reigned at Wittgenstein’s headquarters in 1812.4

Harmony at headquarters was combined with professional skill. Wittgenstein’s chief of staff was Friedrich d’Auvray, an intelligent, loyal and excellently educated staff officer of French origin who was born in Dresden and began his military career in the Polish army. The commander of First Corps’s artillery was the Georgian, Prince Lev Iashvili. His deputy was the 24-year-old Ivan Sukhozhanet, the son of a Polish officer. Both men had performed well in the East Prussian campaign of 1806–7.5

The pick of the bunch, however, was the 27-year-old quartermaster-general of Wittgenstein’s corps, Colonel Johann von Diebitsch. He was the son of a senior Prussian staff officer who had transferred to the Russian service in 1798. The young Diebitsch had begun his military service in the Semenovsky Guards regiment, from which Petr Mikhailovich Volkonsky – another former Semenovsky officer – had plucked him for the general staff. Diminutive, pop-eyed and ugly, Diebitsch’s appearance had so appalled the Semenovskys’ colonel that he had tried to keep the young officer away from service at court and on the parade ground. Diebitsch was known by his many friends as ‘the samovar’ because when he became excited he boiled over, with words spilling out in almost incomprehensible fashion. For all his oddities, Diebitsch was probably the ablest staff officer in the Russian army in 1812–14. He also showed energy, initiative and judgement on the occasions when called upon to command detachments. Though ambitious and determined, Diebitsch was also very loyal to the army and the cause which he served. By 1814, aged only 28, he was a lieutenant-general, having skyrocketed past his former peers in the Semenovskys. Nevertheless, to his credit and theirs, he remained on good terms with his old comrades.6

After Kliastitsy Oudinot complained to Napoleon that he was faced by far superior Russian numbers. Often in 1812–14 the emperor was to torment his subordinates by underestimating the size of the enemy forces they faced. On this occasion, however, his sour response to Oudinot was accurate and justified:

You are not pursuing Wittgenstein…and you are allowing this general the freedom to attack the Duke of Tarento [i.e. MacDonald] or to cross the Dvina to raid our rear. You have the most exaggerated notions of Wittgenstein’s strength: he has only two or at most three divisions of the line, six reserve battalions under Prince Repnin and some militia who aren’t worth counting. You must not allow yourself to be hoodwinked so easily. The Russians are announcing everywhere that they have scored a great victory over you.7

Despite this criticism, Napoleon reinforced Oudinot by all the infantry and artillery of Gouvion Saint-Cyr’s Sixth (Bavarian) Corps. Marching in the wake of the first echelon of Napoleon’s army, Sixth Corps was 25,000-strong when it crossed the Neman but had only 13,000 men left by the time they joined Oudinot at Polotsk just five weeks later. It is true that the Bavarian cavalry had been detached to join Napoleon’s main body, but most of the losses were due to sickness, straggling and desertion. During this period the Bavarians had not fired a shot in anger.

Although Wittgenstein knew that with the arrival of Saint-Cyr’s corps he was heavily outnumbered, he was determined to retain the initiative and impose his will on the enemy. With this goal in mind he attacked the joint forces of Oudinot and Saint-Cyr at Polotsk on 17 August. Unfortunately for Wittgenstein, although on the battle’s first day he succeeded in pushing the French back into the town of Polotsk, Oudinot himself was wounded and command passed to the far more competent Saint-Cyr. The next day the new French commander concentrated much of his artillery and two fresh infantry divisions for a counter-attack on the Russian centre. With a sleight of hand rather familiar in descriptions of battles at this time, Saint-Cyr claimed that his army was substantially outnumbered. He wrote in his memoirs that one-quarter of the 31,000-strong French force was absent ‘foraging’, whereas Wittgenstein had more than 30,000 soldiers to hand. In reality, as Wittgenstein reported to Alexander, constant battles, combined with the need to need to keep an eye on MacDonald, meant that his available strike force was reduced to barely 18,000 men.8

Surprise combined with overwhelming numbers meant that the Russians were forced to retreat but they did so with great steadiness and courage. The Estland Regiment, for example, had been formed in 1811 from the soldiers of garrison units. The battle of Polotsk was its first serious action. As part of Major-General Gothard Helfreich’s 14th Division, the men of the Estland Regiment stood right in the path of the French counter-attack. Despite this and despite losing fourteen officers and more than 400 men, the Estland Regiment held off repeated enemy attacks during 18 August, skirmished effectively in the woods, and finally won their way to safety. The regiment’s commanding officer, Colonel Karl Ulrikhin, was wounded twice and subsequently forced to retire from the army as a result. But he stayed with his men throughout the retreat, leading a number of counter-attacks to keep the enemy at a safe distance. Forty-three men of the Estland Regiment won military medals for their performance on 18 July and the regiment itself was awarded a standard to mark its exploits.9

One might perhaps take a regimental history’s account of its own soldiers’ courage with a pinch of salt, but in this case the Russian story is supported by Saint-Cyr himself, who wrote that

the Russians showed in this battle a sustained courage and an individual boldness of which one finds very few equivalents in the armies of other nations. Surprised, fragmented, with their battalions isolated as much as actually attacked (for we had penetrated through their lines), they nevertheless were not disconcerted and continued to fight as they retreated, which they did very slowly, facing about in all directions with a courage and a steadiness which is, I repeat, particular to the soldiers of this nation. They performed prodigies of valour but they could not beat back the simultaneous attack of four concentrated and ordered divisions.10

Technically the battle of Polotsk was a defeat for Wittgenstein but in fact it helped him to achieve his strategic goal, which was so to weaken and impress the enemy that they would refrain from advancing down the roads to Pskov, Novgorod and Petersburg. After the battle, Wittgenstein fell back roughly 40 kilometres to a fortified position near Sivoshin, where the French left him in peace for the next two months. During that time stalemate reigned in the north-west, with the war degenerating into raids and a competition between the two armies to feed themselves and rebuild their strength. To an extent, what happened next was precisely what Pfühl had planned at Drissa. Weakened by the advance across the western borderlands, Saint-Cyr lacked the numbers either to attack Wittgenstein behind his entrenchments or to move past his flank. Pinned down in a static position in a poor and devastated countryside, sickness and hunger melted away the French army.

Meanwhile Wittgenstein’s corps was abundantly supplied by the Russian administration and population in its rear, which in this case meant the province of Pskov. As Wittgenstein recognized with his customary generosity, the true hero here was Pskov’s governor, Prince Petr Shakhovskoy. In mid-August Wittgenstein wrote to Alexander that ‘from the first moment when First Corps stood on the river Dvina, it received all its victuals from Pskov province. Thanks to the untiring efforts, the efficiency and the care of the governor, Prince Shakhovskoy, these victuals were supplied all the time and with excellent efficiency so that the troops were provided with everything they needed and suffered not the slightest lack of anything.’ Shakhovskoy mobilized thousands of carts from his province to transport food to Wittgenstein. The governor’s efforts continued throughout the 1812 campaign, by the end of which it was reckoned that Pskov province alone had voluntarily contributed 14 million rubles to the war effort. This voluntary contribution from just one (out of more than fifty) provinces, amounted to one-third of the war ministry’s total budget for feeding the entire army in 1811.11

By September Napoleon was facing growing danger on his northern flank as Steinhel’s men approached Riga and the hungry and exhausted corps of Oudinot and Saint-Cyr melted away in front of Wittgenstein. Meanwhile an even greater danger was looming to the south where Admiral Chichagov’s Army of the Danube was about to link up with Tormasov’s Third Army near Lutsk in north-west Ukraine.

In the first weeks of his campaign Napoleon had underestimated the size of Tormasov’s army. Though Tormasov’s 45,000 men had to be quite widely dispersed to guard Ukraine’s northern border, nevertheless they far outmatched the 19,000 Saxons of General Reynier’s corps who were initially given the task of protecting Napoleon’s southern flank. Urged on by Alexander and Bagration, Tormasov advanced northwards and on 27 July destroyed a Saxon detachment at Kobrin, taking more than 2,000 prisoners. Tormasov was more a military administrator and diplomat than an aggressive commander in the field. He was widely criticized after Kobrin for failing to press his advantage and destroy the rest of Reynier’s corps. Napoleon was given time to send Prince Schwarzenberg southwards with the whole of the Austrian corps to rescue Reynier. In the face of overwhelming numbers, Tormasov was forced to move back to a strong defensive position on the river Styr.

Though this seemed at the time to be a disappointing aftermath to the victory at Kobrin, in fact Tormasov had achieved his main objective. It was premature in July 1812 to think that one or other of the Russian flanking armies could drive deep into Napoleon’s rear. Meanwhile, however, the victory at Kobrin had not only boosted Russian morale but had also drawn 30,000 Austrian troops out of the main theatre of operations and well to the south.

So long as the Russo-Austrian border remained neutralized and his left flank was thereby secured, Tormasov could hold his position behind the fast-flowing river Styr without difficulty. The south bank of the river where the Russians stood was wooded and was higher than the north bank. The Russians could hide their own forces and see exactly what their enemies were doing. With fertile Volhynia at their back, they could feed themselves more easily than was the case with their enemies. The Austrians and Saxons were much better off than Oudinot and Saint-Cyr’s corps in the barren Russian north-west. Even so they suffered from hunger and from raids by Third Army’s light cavalry. Meanwhile Tormasov’s men enjoyed a good rest.12

The stalemate on the river Styr could only be ended by the arrival of Chichagov’s Army of the Danube. Though in all circumstances Chichagov would have to leave part of his army behind to guard the Ottoman frontier, potentially he could bring more than 50,000 troops northwards to join Tormasov. These tough, battle-hardened soldiers were among the best in the Russian army.13

Chichagov’s army could not move northwards until peace was sealed with the Turks. The peace treaty was signed on 28 May by Kutuzov before Chichagov arrived to take over command of the Army of the Danube. Seven nervous weeks then passed before Alexander received news that the sultan had finally ratified the treaty. During this time, fearing that the Ottomans would refuse to ratify, Chichagov floated a plan to advance on Constantinople, incite insurrection among the sultan’s Christian subjects, and resurrect a great Byzantino-Slav empire. Such plans were doubly dangerous: it was difficult to control a viceroy so far from Petersburg and Alexander himself could be carried away by grandiose dreams. Fortunately, the Ottomans did in the end ratify the treaty and sanity returned to Russian planning.14

After hearing that the Turks had ratified the peace, Alexander wrote to Chichagov: ‘Let us adjourn our projects aimed at the Porte and employ all our forces against the great enemy by whom we are faced.’ Thoughts of Constantinople would merely draw Chichagov away from ‘the true centre of action – which is Napoleon’s rear’. Nevertheless these thoughts were being postponed, not abandoned: ‘Once our war against Napoleon goes well, we can return to your plan against the Turks immediately, and then proclaim either the empire of the Slavs or that of the Greeks. But to occupy ourselves with this at a moment when we already face such difficulties and so numerous an enemy seems to me risky and unwise.’ Alexander knew that this risked alienating Russia’s Balkan clients but in present circumstances they must be told that Russia’s survival had to be the top priority for all Slavs: ‘You can tell them secretly that all this is only temporary, and that as soon as we have finished with Napoleon we will retrace our steps and will then create the Slav empire.’ Meanwhile Chichagov’s thirst for glory was assuaged by the promise of supreme command over both his own and Tormasov’s armies.15

Throughout the spring and early summer of 1812 all plans to use Chichagov’s army were greatly affected by fear and uncertainty as to what role Austria would play in the war. As we have seen, it was news of the Franco-Austrian treaty which ended Russian thoughts about a pre-emptive strike into the Duchy of Warsaw. In the very same letter of 19 April in which he informed Barclay of the Franco-Austrian alliance and told him that this ruled out a Russian offensive, the emperor also outlined his plans for neutralizing the Austrian threat:

We must adopt a great plan capable of paralysing the efforts of the Austrians against us. We must give assistance to the Slav nations and launch them against the Austrians, while seeking to link them to discontented elements in Hungary. We need a man of intelligence (un homme de tête) to direct this important operation and I have chosen Admiral Chichagov, who supports this plan enthusiastically. His ability and energy make me hope that he will succeed in this crucial commission. I am preparing all the necessary instructions for him.16

These instructions were issued on 21 April. They started by warning Chichagov that ‘the treacherous behaviour of Austria, which has allied with France, forces Russia to use all available means to defeat the harmful plans of these two powers’. Chichagov must use his army to incite and support a massive Slav insurrection in the Balkans which would threaten Austria, undermine her strength, and also destroy Napoleon’s position on the Adriatic. Believing that revolt could break out all the way to Illyria and Dalmatia, Alexander instructed Chichagov to link up with British naval and financial power in the Adriatic in order to support and subsidize insurrection as far afield as the Tyrol and Switzerland. Encouraging revolt in Napoleon’s rear was a key part of Alexander’s grand strategy in 1812–14. In the end it was to score important successes by mobilizing opposition to Napoleon in Germany and in France itself. The plan for a great Slav insurrection was one of this grand strategy’s earliest, most spectacular and least realistic elements.17

This plan was to a great extent the result of panic and anger on learning of the Franco-Austrian alliance but it also reflected the deep-seated views of Nikolai Rumiantsev. Even with Napoleon approaching Smolensk, Rumianstev’s eyes remained turned towards the south and the spoils which Russia could obtain from the declining Ottoman Empire. He wrote to Alexander on 17 July that ‘I have always believed that the British Cabinet sees its interest to lie in the weakening of your empire: together with the Cabinet of Vienna, it wishes that because of serious threats to your own territories Your Majesty should allow to slip from your hands the huge advantages which the war with Turkey offered you’. As regards Austria, ‘I believe that Your Majesty’s interests require that no mercy be shown to the court of Vienna. Only by maximizing her difficulties, will you be able to drive her to a separate peace with Your Majesty, and this will not be achieved immediately.’ As part of his grand strategy Alexander must appeal to the Slavs, stressing that ‘the very same Emperor Napoleon who has subjected the Germans, now proposes to enslave the Slav peoples. To this end he makes war with no justification against Your Majesty to stop you from giving protection to them [i.e. the Slavs] and because Providence has made you the sovereign of this great nation of Slavs, of which all the other tribes are but branches (souches).’ Alexander must stress in his proclamation that Chichagov was advancing towards the Adriatic through the lands of the South Slavs in order to provide Russian leadership in their struggle for freedom.18

Fortunately for Russia, Rumiantsev’s plans were aborted. The Russian military attaché in Vienna, Theodor Tuyll van Serooskerken, wrote to Barclay that given Napoleon’s overwhelming numbers it was madness to divert so many troops and so much money to a peripheral and risky enterprise. Above all, however, it was fear of Austrian reactions which doomed Chichagov’s plans. Quiet conversations between Russian and Austrian diplomats revealed that Vienna’s contribution to the war would be strictly limited unless Russia provoked additional action. In no circumstances would Schwarzenberg’s corps be increased to more than 30,000 men and the Russo-Austrian border would be neutralized. Subsequently Schwarzenberg kept to this promise by moving northwards into the Duchy of Warsaw and crossing into Russia over the Polish border. By July Alexander was increasingly convinced that Vienna would keep its promises, which made Chichagov’s planned advance to the Adriatic not only unnecessary but also politically very dangerous.19

By late July therefore all political complications had been cleared aside and the Army of the Danube was on the march to join Tormasov. It was to take Chichagov’s men fifty-two days to cover the distance from Bucharest to the river Styr. Only after the Army of the Danube began to join Tormasov’s men on 14 September could a decisive move against Napoleon’s communications begin.20

On that very day Napoleon’s advance guard entered Moscow. In retrospect the fact that the threat from Chichagov took time to emerge was all to the Russians’ good. It encouraged Napoleon to plunge ever further into Russia. This was not how the overwhelming majority of Russian generals saw things at the time, however. As they retreated from Smolensk towards Moscow most of them became ever more desperate to protect Russia’s ancient capital.

Exceptionally, though Barclay would defend Moscow if he could, he made it clear to his aide-de-camp that this was not his top priority: ‘He would regard Moscow just like any other place on the map of the empire and he would make no more extra movement for the sake of this town than he would for any other, because it was necessary to save the empire and Europe and not to protect towns and provinces.’ Inevitably Barclay’s opinion spread around and contributed to the unpopularity of a ‘German’ who was willing to sacrifice Russia’s heart for the sake of Europe. Though at one level Barclay’s cold and honest military rationality was admirable, one can understand the exasperation of Alexander, whose difficult job it was to manage morale and politics on the home front. As he once wrote to Barclay, the long retreat was bound to be unpopular but one should avoid doing or saying things which might increase public exasperation.21

In the nineteen days between the evacuation of Smolensk and the battle of Borodino Barclay’s popularity reached its lowest point among the troops. The soldiers had been told they would bury Napoleon on the river Dvina and then that they would fight to the death first for Vitebsk and then for Smolensk. Each promise had been broken and the hated retreat had continued. After Smolensk the same pattern continued, with the soldiers first being ordered to dig fortifications on a chosen battlefield and then retreating yet again when either Barclay or Bagration considered the position unsuitable. They nicknamed their commander-in-chief ‘Nothing but Chatter’ (Boltai da Tol’ko) as a pun on Barclay de Tolly. The historian of the Chevaliers Gardes wrote that Barclay misunderstood the nature of the Russian soldier, who would have accepted the unvarnished truth but grumbled at broken promises. The comment is probably true but glosses over the fact that Kutuzov subsequently spoke and acted in a fashion very similar to Barclay.22

Along with the grumbling went a decline in discipline in some units. On Alexander’s urging, Barclay ordered the execution of some marauders at Smolensk. According to a young artillery officer, Nikolai Konshin, one of these so-called ‘marauders’ was a wholly innocent orderly from his battery, who had been sent off to find some cream for the officers. Bitterness against Barclay increased in the ranks but despite the executions marauding continued, with Kutuzov writing to Alexander that the military police picked up almost two thousand stragglers within days of his arrival to take over command of the army. Perhaps one should take the new commander-in-chief’s gloomy comments with a pinch of salt, however, since he had an obvious interest in painting his new command in a bad light when reporting to the emperor. A few days later he wrote to his wife that the troops’ morale was excellent.23

In reality some degree of disorder was inevitable among soldiers who had retreated so far and had been ordered to destroy all food and shelter along the way to deny it to the French. Once encouraged, the habit of destruction is hard to contain. The sight of burning Russian towns and miserable civilian refugees also had its impact on morale. In most other armies in a similar situation, the deterioration of discipline would have been worse. As General Langeron wrote in his memoirs, with only a little exaggeration, ‘an army which during a retreat of 1,200 versts from the Neman to Moscow sustains two major battles and loses not a single gun or caisson, nor even a cart or a wounded man, is not an army to disdain’. Perhaps the most important point was that the soldiers longed for battle. Once given the opportunity to take out their anger and frustration on the French, most problems of morale and discipline would disappear.24

In the ranks of the retreating Russian army was Lieutenant-Colonel Karl von Clausewitz, who was to become the most famous military thinker of the nineteenth century. A passionate Prussian patriot, he could not stomach his king’s alliance with Napoleon and had resigned his commission in order to join the Russian army. Unable to speak Russian, at sea amidst the battles within the Russian high command and sometimes engulfed in an atmosphere of xenophobia and suspicion, he experienced these weeks as a time of great personal trial. Perhaps this is one reason why he is anything but generous in his comments on the Russian retreat:

As, with the exception of the halt at Smolensk, the retreat from Vitebsk to Moscow was in fact an uninterrupted movement, and from Smolensk the point of direction lay always tolerably straight to the rear, the entire retreat was a very simple operation…When an army always gives way and retires continually in a direct line, it is very difficult for the pursuer to outflank it or press it away from its course: in this instance, also, the roads are few, and ravines rare; the seat of war, therefore, admitted of few geographical combinations…in a retreat this simplicity greatly economises the powers of men and horses. Here were no long arranged rendezvous, no marches to and fro, no long circuits, no alarms; in short, little or no outlay of tactical skill and expenditure of strength.25

The other great military thinker of the era, Antoine de Jomini, also took part in the 1812 campaign, in his case on the French side. He was far more appreciative of the Russian achievement. He wrote that ‘retreats are certainly the most difficult operations in war’. Above all, they put a tremendous strain on the troops’ discipline and morale. In his opinion, the Russian army was far superior to any other in Europe when it came to managing such retreats. ‘The firmness which it has displayed in all retreats is due in equal degrees to the national character, the natural instincts of the soldiers, and the excellent disciplinary institutions.’ To be sure, the Russians had enjoyed a number of advantages, such as the great superiority of their light cavalry and the fact that the two key French commanders, marshals Murat and Davout, were at each other’s throats. Nevertheless, the ordered retreat by the Russians ‘was highly deserving of praise, not only for the talent displayed by the generals who directed its first stages but also for the admirable fortitude and soldierly bearing of the troops who performed it’.26

As one might expect, the reminiscences of Russian generals who fought in the rearguards agree with Jomini rather than Clausewitz. Eugen of Württemberg criticized Clausewitz for prejudice and misjudgements where the Russian army was concerned. He commented that ‘our retreat was one of the finest examples of military order and discipline. We left behind to the enemy no stragglers, no stores and no carts: the troops were not tired by forced marches and the very well-led rearguards (especially under Konovnitsyn) only fought small-scale and usually victorious actions.’ The commanders picked good positions in order to exhaust and delay the enemy, forcing him to bring forward more artillery and deploy his infantry. They only retreated once the enemy had advanced in great strength, inflicting casualties as they retired. ‘In general the withdrawals were carried out by horse artillery moving back in echelon, covered by numerous cavalry in open ground and by light infantry in broken terrain…Any attempt to move around the position would be reported quickly and unfailingly by the Cossacks.’27

During these weeks the French advance guard was usually led by Joachim Murat, the King of Naples. The commander of the Russian rearguard was Petr Konovnitsyn. A Russian officer remembers,

as a total contrast to the elegant outfit of Murat one had the modest general, riding a humble little horse…in front of the Russian ranks. He wore a simple grey coat, rather worn, and held together a bit carelessly by a scarf. Underneath his uniform hat you could glimpse his nightcap. His face was calm and his years, some way beyond middle age, suggested a cold man. But beneath this appearance of coolness there existed much warmth and life. There was a great deal of courage beneath the grey coat. Under the nightcap lived a sensible, energetic and efficient mind.28

Petr Konovnitsyn was one of the most attractive senior Russian generals in 1812. Modest and generous, he was less of an egoist and far less concerned with fame and reward than many of his peers. Extremely courageous but also very religious, in battle he was always in the thick of the action. The same was true at parties, where he played the violin badly but with fine gusto. Even so, Konovnitsyn was above all a calm man, who in moments of stress puffed away at his pipe, invoked the intercession of the Virgin Mary and seldom lost his temper. He controlled wayward subordinates more by irony than by anger.

Konovnitsyn also earned his subordinates’ respect by professional skill. As a rearguard commander he knew exactly how to use his cavalry, infantry and artillery in combination and to best effect. Picking positions to bring advancing French columns under a crossfire was one trick. Trying to ensure that his own night-time bivouacs were close to fresh water and that the enemy was forced to thirst was another. In the intense heat of August 1812 water became a major issue. Thousands of men and horses marching down unpaved roads raised a vast dust storm. With faces blackened by the dust, throats parched and eyes half-closed, the men in the ranks stumbled onwards day after day. In these circumstances, which side had better access to water mattered greatly.29

On 29 August at Tsarevo-Zaimishche the army was joined by its new commander-in-chief, Mikhail Kutuzov. Young Lieutenant Radozhitsky recalled that morale soared:

The moment of joy was indescribable: this commander’s name produced a universal rebirth of morale among the soldiers…immediately they came up with a ditty: ‘Kutuzov has come to beat the French’…the veterans recalled his campaigns in Catherine’s time, his many past exploits such as the battle near Krems and the recent destruction of the Turkish army on the Danube: for many men all this was still a fresh memory. They remembered also his miraculous wound from a musket ball which passed through both sides of his temple. It was said that Napoleon himself long since had called Kutuzov the old fox and that Suvorov had said that ‘Kutuzov…can never be tricked’. Such tales flying from mouth to mouth still further strengthened the soldiers’ hope for their new commander, a man with a Russian name, mind and heart, from a well-known aristocratic family, and famous for many exploits.30

Ever since First and Second armies had joined before Smolensk the Russians had been in dire need of a supreme commander. Lack of such a commander had resulted in confusion and near catastrophe as the Russian troops withdrew from the city. In fact, however, Alexander had decided to appoint an overall commander-in-chief even before hearing of events at Smolensk. There were very few possible candidates. The supreme commander had to be unequivocally senior to all his subordinate generals, otherwise some would resign in a huff and others would drag their feet when obeying his commands. With Napoleon advancing towards Moscow and Russian national feeling outraged, it was also essential that the new commander be a Russian. Of course, he also needed to be a soldier of sufficient wit and experience to take on the greatest general of the age. Though a number of candidates were in principle discussed by the six grandees to whom Alexander delegated the initial selection, in reality – as the emperor recognized – there was little choice but Kutuzov.31

It was no secret within the Russian elites that Alexander did not admire Kutuzov. Captain Pavel Pushchin of the Semenovskys wrote in his diary that new supremo had been ‘summoned to command the field army by the will of the people, almost against the wishes of the sovereign’. Alexander himself wrote to his sister that there had been no alternative to Kutuzov. Barclay had performed poorly at Smolensk and had lost all credit in the army and in Petersburg. Kutuzov was the loudly expressed choice of the Petersburg and Moscow nobilities, both of which had chosen him to command their militias. The emperor commented that of the various candidates, all of them in his opinion unfit to command, ‘I could not do otherwise…than fix my choice on him for whom overwhelming support was expressed’. In another letter to his sister he added that ‘the choice fell on Kutuzov as being senior to all the rest, which allows Bennigsen to serve under him, for they are good friends as well’. Alexander did not say but probably believed that in the circumstances of 1812 it would be dangerous to ignore society’s wishes: in addition, if disaster befell the army, it might even be convenient that its commander was known to be the choice of public opinion rather than of the monarch.32

Mikhail Kutuzov became a Russian patriotic icon after 1812, thanks partly to Leo Tolstoy. Stalinist historiography then raised him to the level of a military genius, superior to Napoleon. Of course all this is nonsense, but it is important not to react too far in the other direction by ignoring Kutuzov’s talents. The new commander-in-chief was a charismatic leader who knew how to win his men’s confidence and affection. He was a sly and far-sighted politician and negotiator. But he was also a skilful, courageous and experienced soldier. His trapping and destruction of the main Ottoman army in the winter of 1811–12 had shown up the previous efforts of Russian commanders in 1806–11. In 1805 he had extricated the Russian army with skill and composure from the very dangerous position in which it had been placed by the Austrian capitulation at Ulm. Had Alexander listened to his advice before Austerlitz, catastrophe would have been avoided and the 1805 campaign might have ended in victory.33

The main problem with Kutuzov was his age. In 1812 he was 65 years old and his life had been anything but restful. Though he could still ride, he preferred his carriage. There was no chance of his riding around a battlefield to act as his own troubleshooter in the style of a Wellington. The 1812 campaign entailed enormous strains, physical and mental, and at times Kutuzov’s energy was suspect. On occasion he seemed to have an old man’s aversion to risk and great exertion. In time it also became clear that Kutuzov did not share Alexander’s views on Russia’s grand strategy and the liberation of Europe. This did not matter in the first half of the 1812 campaign but it became important during Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.

Though the appointment of Kutuzov was certainly a great improvement it did not solve all problems in the Russian command structure and indeed created some new ones. Barclay de Tolly reacted loyally to Kutuzov’s appointment and understood its necessity, but the enormous criticism to which he had been subjected made him very sensitive to slights from his new commander, and these were not slow in coming, above all from the new chief of staff, Levin von Bennigsen. Meanwhile, though Barclay’s replacement by Kutuzov was a major concession to Russian sentiment it did not at all satisfy the leaders of the ‘Russian party’ at headquarters, Petr Bagration and Aleksei Ermolov. Perhaps Bagration himself dreamed of the supreme command, though this is hard to believe given that he knew how little favour he enjoyed with Alexander. Certainly, neither general thought highly of Kutuzov’s ability. As for the new commander-in-chief, he respected Bagration as a battlefield commander. Rather like Barclay, he appreciated Ermolov’s talent but had justified doubts about his loyalty.34

The problems were structural as much as personal, however. It would have been rational for the new commander-in-chief to suppress First and Second armies and to subordinate their seven infantry and four cavalry corps directly to himself and to his chief of staff, Bennigsen. To have done this, however, would have meant public demotion and humiliation for Barclay, Bagration and their staffs. This was contrary to the modus vivendi of the tsarist elite. It would also have required the emperor’s assent, since he had appointed both generals and created their armies. The survival of both armies produced a cumbersome command structure, however. It also made conflict inevitable between the staffs of the supreme commander and those of Barclay and Bagration. In particular, Barclay soon found that general headquarters was poaching some of his staff officers and giving direct orders to some of his units.

In this case too, structures and personalities intertwined. The new chief of staff, Bennigsen, had only been persuaded to take the job with difficulty and after Kutuzov stressed the emperor’s desire that he should do so. In traditional style, Alexander may have wanted to use Bennigsen to keep tabs on Kutuzov. He undoubtedly had more faith in Bennigsen’s ability, as well as in his energy. To do Alexander justice, Kutuzov and Bennigsen had been firm friends for many years before 1812 so the emperor did not anticipate that they would become deadly enemies in the course of that year. Kutuzov was always suspicious of any subordinate who might seek to steal his laurels. Bennigsen on the other hand was intensely proud and firmly convinced that he was a far more skilful general than Kutuzov, let alone Barclay. In time-honoured fashion, feeling himself rather isolated, Kutuzov increasingly leaned on the advice and support of Karl von Toll, his old protégé. For Bennigsen it was intolerable that anyone else’s advice should be preferred to that of the chief of staff but to be sidelined in favour of a mere bumptious colonel was a source of fury.35

Ever since the army had evacuated Smolensk, a relay of staff officers had been sent back down the road to Moscow to find good positions on which the army could fight Napoleon. It was unthinkable to almost all senior officers to give up Russia’s ancient capital without a battle. Clausewitz describes well the difficulties these staff officers faced:

Russia is very poor in positions. Where the great morasses prevail [i.e. in much of Belorussia], the country is so wooded that one has trouble to find room for a considerable number of troops. Where the forests are thinner, as between Smolensk and Moscow, the ground is level – without any decided mountain ridges – without any deep hollows; the fields are without enclosures, therefore everywhere easy to be passed; the villages of wood, and ill adapted for defence. To this it must be added, that even in such a country the prospect is seldom unimpeded, as small tracts of wood constantly interpose. There is therefore little choice of positions. If a commander, then, wishes to fight without loss of time, as was Kutuzov’s case, it is evident that he must put up with what he can get.36

What Kutuzov got was a position near the village of Borodino, 124 kilometres from Moscow. For the Russian staff officers who initially viewed this position from the main highway – the so-called New Smolensk Road – first impressions were very good. Troops standing on either side of the highway would have their right flank secured by the river Moskva and their front protected by the steep banks of the river Kolocha. Problems became much greater when one looked carefully at the left flank of this position, south of the main road. Initially the Russian army took up position on a line which ran from Maslovo north of the road, through Borodino on the highroad itself and down to the hill at Shevardino on the left flank. The centre of the position could be strengthened by the mound just to the south-east of Borodino which became the famous Raevsky Redoubt. Meanwhile the left could be anchored at Shevardino, which Bagration began to fortify.

Closer inspection soon revealed to Bagration that the position on the left assigned to his army was very vulnerable. A ravine in his rear impeded communications. More important, another road – the so-called Old Smolensk Road – cut in sharply behind his line from the west, joining with the main highway to the rear of the Russian position. An enemy pushing down this road could easily roll up Bagration’s flank and block the army’s line of retreat to Moscow. Faced by this danger, Bagration’s army began to withdraw to a new position which abandoned Shevardino and turned sharply southwards from Borodino in a straight line to the village of Utitsa on the Old Smolensk Road. On 5 September Bagration’s troops at Shevardino fought off fierce French attacks in order to cover the redeployment to this new line, losing 5,000–6,000 men and inflicting perhaps slightly fewer casualties on the enemy.37

The new line was certainly safer because it blocked the Old Smolensk Road. To do this, however, it had been forced to abandon the strong position at Shevardino and instead to stretch across terrain between Borodino and Utitsa which offered no help to the troops that were defending it. In addition, by turning sharply southwards near Borodino and the Raevsky Redoubt the Russian line now became a sort of salient with all the troops between Borodino and the left of Bagration’s line beyond the village of Semenovskoe vulnerable to French artillery crossfire.

During the battle of Borodino on 7 September the great majority of the Russian army was packed into this small salient. This included five of the seven Russian infantry corps, which alone added up to 70,000 men. In addition, there were more than 10,000 cavalry in the ‘salient’. Even the other two Russian infantry corps – Baggohufvudt’s Second and Tuchkov’s Third – detached half of their men to defend this area. The Russian deployment was not just on a very narrow front but also extremely dense. The infantry divisions were drawn up in three lines. In front were the jaegers. Behind them came two lines of infantry, deployed in so-called ‘Battalion Columns’. These columns had a frontage of one company and a depth of four. Not far to the rear of the infantry divisions stood the cavalry, with the army’s reserve units deployed behind them but still often within range of Napoleon’s heavy artillery, to which the six or even sometimes seven lines of Russian troops offered a fine target.38

To explain what all this means to an English-language readership it is perhaps useful to make comparisons with the familiar landscape of Waterloo. Napoleon brought 246 guns to Waterloo, some of which had to be deployed even at the very start of the battle on his right against the Prussians. The so-called ‘Grand Battery’ which pounded Wellington’s infantry squares in the afternoon of 18 June 1815 consisted of 80 guns. Napoleon’s artillery was ranged face-to-face with Wellington’s army. Almost all the fighting was confined to a line running roughly 3,500 metres east from the chateau of Hougoumont, into which Wellington packed his 73,000 men. Waterloo was indeed probably the most densely packed of the major battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars – with the exception of Borodino. The British commander partly shielded his men behind a reverse slope, though he was also helped by the fact that mud reduced the number of ricochets and therefore the killing power of Napoleon’s guns.39

At Borodino Napoleon deployed 587 guns. The great majority of them were targeted against the Russian troops defending the line from just north of the Raevsky Redoubt to the three field fortifications which Bagration’s men constructed beyond Semenovskoe, and which have gone down in history as the Bagration flèches – arrow-shaped earth-works, open to the rear, whose crumbling earthen breastworks offered little cover to defenders. When the flèches fell the Russian line bent southwards still more sharply around Semenovskoe itself. The distance from the Raevsky Redoubt to Semenovskoe is only 1,700 metres. The flèches were a few hundred metres beyond the village. More than 90,000 Russian troops were packed into this area. From Barclay’s report after the battle it is clear that his lines within the salient were not just being subjected to cross-fire. French batteries near Borodino were also sometimes on the flank of Russian lines and able to inflict maximum casualties by shooting right along them.40

It is true that Wellington was more skilful than either Russian or Prussian generals in using reverse slopes and other natural obstacles to shield his troops. But Barclay did on a number of occasions order his generals to keep their men under cover, only to be told that there was none available. When one walks around the position held by the Russian army on this still unspoiled battlefield it is easy to confirm the generals’ claim. Contrary to tradition, some Russian commanders also told their men to lie down to avoid the bombardment, though not all units obeyed. The Russians can fairly be criticized for bunching their troops too tightly and not keeping at least their reserves and part of their cavalry beyond the range of Napoleon’s guns. On the other hand the bone-hard stony ground did them no favours when it came to ricochets. Russian villages constructed of wood also gave no help to defenders and instead threatened them by bursting into flames. For that reason the Russians destroyed the village of Semenovskoe before the battle began. The contrast with the enormous assistance which the stone buildings at Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte gave to Wellington is obvious.41

The dense Russian deployment was designed to force Napoleon to fight a battle of attrition. The cramped battlefield would give his units little room to manoeuvre or to exploit tactical successes. It would in the most literal sense cramp Napoleon’s own genius. The price to be paid, as the Russian commanders knew, was very high casualties. In addition, committing oneself to a battle of attrition more or less precluded any chance of a striking Russian victory. With Napoleon present in person and his army considerably outnumbering the Russians as regards trained troops, such a victory was in any case unlikely. In many ways therefore the battle of Borodino was a microcosm of the 1812 campaign as a whole, during which the Russian high command had forced Napoleon to fight the kind of war that suited them but not him.

History had accustomed Russian troops to fighting on terrain that gave them few natural advantages. By tradition therefore they were more inclined than most European armies to build field fortifications to strengthen a position. This they did at Borodino but with only limited success. The strongest and most professionally constructed fortifications were on the far north of the Russian line, beyond the village of Gorki. No fighting occurred in this area, so the fortifications were largely wasted. The two fortifications which did play a significant role in the battle were the much weaker Bagration flèches and the Raevsky Redoubt. Though the redoubt in particular was a key element in the Russian line of defence, one has to be very cautious in taking French descriptions of these supposedly formidable fortifications at face value.42

Neither the flèches nor the Raevsky Redoubt were built by engineer officers. All the small cadre of army engineers were assigned on other tasks as were most of the pioneer companies, which in any case even in principle were only 500 strong. The Moscow militiamen who did most of the construction work on the Raevsky Redoubt had no clue about how to build fortifications and were impeded by the stony ground and lack of implements. Matters were not helped by an argument between Toll and Bennigsen about how best to construct fortifications on the mound. Karl Oppermann, the army’s senior and most authoritative engineer, devoted most of his attention to fortresses in 1812 and had not yet rejoined the main army in time for the battle. In addition, however, there were delays in finding spades and pickaxes for the militiamen. Work therefore began in the late afternoon of 6 September and continued through the night. Ensign Dementii Bogdanov and his small command of pioneers only arrived to help with the construction of the redoubt shortly before midnight. It was far from completed when the battle began on the morning of 7 September.43

As a result, according to the official history of the military engineering corps, there were all sorts of elementary mistakes even in the redoubt, let alone the flèches. The mound on which the Raevsky Redoubt was constructed is in any case small and low. In the end eighteen guns with one battalion of infantry as a covering force was all that could be squashed into the position. When one walks over the mound, it seems remarkable that the Russians managed to pack in even this many men. The slope up to the front of the redoubt was very gentle, the slope in its rear only a little less so. The militiamen had done their best to make up for these weaknesses but with limited success. One problem was that ‘the counter-escarpment was much lower than the escarpment, and the ditch in front of the redoubt was completely inadequate’. Of course, the militiamen had no idea how to use fascines, gabions and other elements of the pioneer’s art. Through lack of time, embrasures were only constructed for ten guns. One result of this was that the artillery within the redoubt could not cover part of the approaches. The area in front of the redoubt was swept by the fire of Russian batteries of First Army to the north and Second Army to the south but almost all these guns were deployed in the open and subjected to devastating enemy counter-battery fire. All of this, together with the massive artillery bombardment which it suffered on 7 September, helps to explain how the redoubt could finally be stormed by cavalry.44

The officer who initially oversaw the construction of the Raevsky Redoubt was Lieutenant Ivan Liprandi, the senior quartermaster of Dmitrii Dokhturov’s Sixth Corps. That a mere lieutenant should be the second senior staff officer in a corps indicates the shortage of senior staff officers. That he should also be doing a job which belonged properly to a military engineer was due not just to the scarcity of engineer officers but also to the fact that First Army’s engineers had been committed to building the much more formidable fortifications on the army’s right flank north of Gorki. While so much effort went into fortifying the northern flank on 4, 5 and 6 September nothing was done until almost the eve of battle at the Raevsky Redoubt. This says a great deal about the priorities of the Russian high command and where they expected the most important fighting to take place.45

Even more striking was Kutuzov’s initial deployment of the Russian army. Of the five infantry corps placed in the front line, two – Baggohufvudt’s Second and Ostermann-Tolstoy’s Fourth – were positioned north of Gorki, as was one regular cavalry corps and Platov’s Cossacks. Dokhturov’s Sixth Corps stood opposite Borodino and between the village of Gorki and the Raevsky Redoubt. The entire line south of the redoubt as far as the flèches was manned by the two corps of Bagration’s Second Army: Nikolai Raevsky’s Seventh Corps stood next to the redoubt and Mikhail Borozdin’s Eighth Corps held the left of the line at and beyond the village of Semenovskoe. The two remaining corps of First Army, Nikolai Tuchkov’s Third and the Fifth (Guards) Corps formed the overall reserve. The army’s deployment as well as its fortifications thus reflected Kutuzov’s overriding concern for his right flank and for the New Smolensk Road, which was his line of communications and supply to his base at Moscow.

In the two days before the battle, many of Kutuzov’s senior generals pointed out the vulnerability of the Russian left flank. Napoleon’s attack on Shevardino seemed to presage an assault on this section of Kutuzov’s line. Even quite junior officers were aware that the enemy was likely to strike in the south. Kutuzov made some changes to counter this danger. Above all, he moved Nikolai Tuchkov’s corps out of the reserve and onto the Old Smolensk Road to block any attempt to outflank the Russian left. But despite pleas from, among others, Barclay de Tolly, he insisted on keeping the corps of Baggohufvudt and Ostermann on his right flank beyond Gorki.46

An uncharitable explanation for this might be mere stubbornness, for which Kutuzov’s chief adviser, Karl von Toll, was noted. Given antagonisms within the high command, to change the army’s deployment on the advice of rival generals might smack of humiliation. More probably, Kutuzov and Toll were unwilling to weaken the force guarding their vital line of communication until absolutely convinced that Napoleon did not intend to strike in this direction. The price of defensive tactics is that troops must be deployed on the basis of assumptions and fears about where the enemy will strike. Given Napoleon’s reputation for surprise and daring this might result in many units being wasted far from the battlefield. Once again a comparison with Waterloo may be useful. Deeply concerned by what proved to be a non-existent threat to his communications with the sea, Wellington kept 17,000 men under Prince Frederick of the Netherlands inactive at Hal for the duration, many kilometres from the battlefield. At least the 23,000 men of Ostermann and Baggohufvudt did join the battle of Borodino, albeit dangerously late.

Nevertheless the mis-deployment of Second and Fourth Corps had serious consequences. In their absence, Kutuzov was forced to send most of the army’s supposed reserve into the front line by early on 7 September, contrary to all normal practice and much to Barclay’s indignation. The fact that the Guards were moved without Barclay even being informed speaks to the confusion and divisions in the Russian command structure. In the end the two right-wing corps did act as a substitute reserve, but it took desperate appeals from Bagration to shift Baggohufvudt’s men and two hours for them to arrive on the army’s threatened southern wing. Ostermann’s Fourth Corps moved even later. By the time all these reinforcements were on the spot, enormous losses had been suffered by Bagration’s outnumbered Second Army.47

Disputes about exactly how many men each side brought to Borodino have rumbled on ever since 1812, partly out of a rather childish effort by historians to boost their side’s prowess by proving it to have been outnumbered. The Russians certainly had more men but only if one counts the 31,000 militiamen from Moscow and Smolensk who were mostly armed with pikes and axes and had no military training. The militia was not totally useless, because it fulfilled auxiliary tasks such as collecting the wounded and acting as military police. But these militia units could not and in fact did not take any part in the fighting. If one discounts the militia entirely, Napoleon probably had a slight numerical edge: perhaps 130,000 of his soldiers faced somewhat less than 125,000 Russians. Certainly Napoleon had the edge if one discounts the 8,600 Cossacks in the Russian army. Though far more useful than the militia, most Cossack units could not be expected to stand against regular cavalry, let alone infantry, on a battlefield.48

As regards the quality of the two armies’ regular units, even men who had started the campaign as rookies could now almost be seen as experienced troops. Weaklings had long since fallen out of the ranks during ten weeks of gruelling marches and battles. The one exception to this were the 13,500 men of the fourth (i.e. Recruit Depot) battalions commanded by General Mikhail Miloradovich, who joined Kutuzov one week before the battle and were dispersed among the regiments of First and Second armies. These men had been adequately trained but, as usual in the peacetime army, target practice had been constrained by shortage of lead and none of them had ever previously fired a shot in anger. On the other hand, the elite units of both armies were present in strength. In the Russian case this meant the regiments of Guards and Grenadiers. In Napoleon’s it included the Guards, Davout’s First Corps, and many excellent German and French heavy cavalry regiments.49

The two armies prepared for battle in ways that reflected their rather different natures, but both were highly motivated and itching to fight after weeks of frustrating marches. As the decisive battle loomed, postponed so often and for so many weeks, both sides knew that they were fighting for very high stakes.

Kutuzov ordered the famous Icon of the Smolensk Mother of God, which had been evacuated from the city, to be carried down the line of his army. Segur recalls that the religious procession was visible from Napoleon’s headquarters: they could see how ‘Kutuzov, surrounded with every species of religious and military pomp, took his station in the midst of it. He had made his popes and archimandrites dress themselves in those splendid and majestic insignia, which they had inherited from the Greeks. They marched before him, carrying the venerated symbols of their religion.’ Kutuzov was a master of speaking to his soldiers in terms they understood but after watching Smolensk and many other Russian towns burn, they barely needed his appeals to defend their native land and its faith to the last.50

By contrast the French army of 1812 was entirely secular, having preserved many of the republican norms of the 1790s. Moreover, the force which fought at Borodino included tens of thousands of Poles, Germans and Italians. Napoleon’s order of the day, read out to his troops by their commanders, therefore spoke neither of religion nor patriotism. It appealed to the pride and confidence they should derive from their past victories and invoked the glory they would obtain in the eyes of posterity by having triumphed in a battle ‘under the walls of Moscow’. More prosaically, but very much to the point, it stressed the necessity of victory: ‘It will give you abundance, good winter quarters and a rapid return to your homeland.’51

Well into the afternoon of 6 September, while Napoleon was reviewing the Russian position from near Borodino, Marshal Davout approached him with a proposal to abandon plans for a frontal assault on Bagration’s army and instead to authorize a flanking movement by 40,000 men of his and Poniatowski’s corps down the Old Smolensk Road in order to envelop and roll up the Russian left flank. In principle this was a good idea. Napoleon needed a decisive victory and there had to be doubts whether this could be achieved by a frontal assault. The toughness and stubbornness of Russian troops were legendary. A flanking movement might bring on a battle of manoeuvre rather than attrition, which could only work to Napoleon’s advantage.

Nevertheless the emperor was right to reject Davout’s suggestion. Given the quality of their light cavalry the Russians were unlikely to be surprised by a flanking movement but in any case a threat to his flank might simply inspire Kutuzov to decamp which after so long a pursuit Napoleon dreaded. To redeploy Davout’s corps for such a movement would by now require large-scale movements in the dark through the forests on the French right, which was a recipe for chaos. Moreover, the Russian strategy of whittling down Napoleon’s army now bore fruit. Earlier in the campaign he could easily have spared 40,000 men for such a movement but by now his margin for risk and error was much more tight.52

Soon after first light on 7 September the battle of Borodino began. At about six in the morning the Russian Guards Jaeger Regiment was driven out of the village of Borodino and back across the river Kolocha, with heavy losses. The French attacked under cover of a mist and in overwhelming numbers. Either the regiment should not have been left in so exposed and isolated a spot or it had failed to take proper precautions. Barclay believed the former to be true and had urged the Jaegers’ withdrawal on Kutuzov. But army gossip often blamed the regiment’s commanders for the defeat. The French units which had taken Borodino pursued the Guards Jaegers over the river Kolocha and were then ambushed and driven back with heavy losses, so in tactical terms the battle was a draw. Its broader significance was that it enabled the French artillery pounding the Raevsky Redoubt to be brought forward and given excellent positions to enfilade the Russian lines. This initial blow towards the northern end of the Russian line may also have persuaded Kutuzov that Napoleon might strike his right wing after all. If so, it can only have increased his hesitation about sending Ostermann and Baggohufvudt southwards.53

Shortly after the attack on Borodino the vastly bigger assault on the Bagration flèches began. Though initially the assault was made by Davout’s men, quite soon Marshal Ney threw his corps into the battle as well. Russian sources claim that by the end of the fight 400 enemy guns supported the advance on the flèches. This sounds exaggerated but there is no question that the three divisions of Borozdin’s Eighth Corps, the only Russian infantry initially deployed in this area, were heavily outnumbered and subjected to an immense bombardment. The three flèches – their earthen walls soon shattered by the French bombardment – were held by Count Mikhail Vorontsov’s Second Combined Grenadier Division, which was annihilated in the course of the fighting and subsequently disbanded. Vorontsov himself was severely wounded. So too were most of the other generals of Second Army, who showed outstanding courage and self-sacrifice. Within three hours Petr Bagration, his chief of staff Emmanuel de Saint-Priest, and Mikhail Borozdin were all out of action.54

Both the French and the Russian armies used basically similar tactics. Attacks were mounted behind a cloud of skirmishers and with strong artillery support but the bulk of the infantry was deployed in columns. As Jomini pointed out in his theoretical writings, if the attacking force was sufficiently numerous and determined it was unlikely to be stopped by the musketry of enemy infantry themselves largely deployed in column. Having broken into the front line, however, the attacker would then be very vulnerable to immediate counter-attack by fresh enemy forces as yet untouched by the fighting and already deployed for a counter-strike in battalion columns. If both sides were equally motivated, attack would follow counter-attack and the pendulum would swing between the two sides until the first one to exhaust its reserves was defeated and withdrew. Great efforts have been expended by Russian historians to discover how many times waves of French infantry assaulted the flèches but this is almost impossible to establish and not that important. For all their immense courage the outnumbered Russians were finally forced to withdraw over the Semenovsky stream and redeploy on either side of the village of Semenovskoe.55

In the course of the ferocious battle for the flèches Bagration drew in reinforcements from both his right and his left. On the right this meant that some of the infantry of Nikolai Raevsky’s Seventh Corps, positioned just to the left of the Raevsky Redoubt, redeployed southwards towards Semenovskoe. Meanwhile on the far left of the Russian line Nikolai Tuchkov was forced to send one of his two infantry divisions under Petr Konovnitsyn to help Bagration.

As a result, Tuchkov was hard pressed when Prince Poniatowski’s Polish corps began its advance down the Old Smolensk Road towards the village of Utitsa. Fortunately for the Russians, Poniatowski had been forced to make a big detour to avoid getting lost in the forests, which suggests what kind of fate would have awaited Davout’s much larger force had he attempted his proposed flank attack. When Poniatowski did advance, his 10,000 men forced the outnumbered Tuchkov to fall back to a stronger position anchored by a hill just to the east of Utitsa.

For the rest of the day fierce but ultimately indecisive fighting continued around Utitsa and the Old Smolensk Road. The Poles were reinforced by most of Junot’s Westphalian corps. On the other side, Karl Baggohufvudt’s Second Corps arrived to rescue Tuchkov. Meanwhile in the Utitsa forest between the Old Smolensk Road and the open ground where the flèches had been constructed Prince Ivan Shakhovskoy’s jaeger regiments put up a tremendous fight, tying down a larger enemy force and, in the words of a German historian, showing ‘not only their courageous endurance but also a skill which Russian light infantry did not always and everywhere display’.56

Once Baggohufvudt arrived, the battle on the Russian far left became something of a sideshow. Given the relatively even balance of forces in the area, it was very unlikely that Poniatowski would succeed in pushing far down the Old Smolensk Road and into the Russian rear. Much more dangerous was the situation around the Raevsky Redoubt. If the French broke through here they would split the Russian line in two. They would also be within easy striking distance of the New Smolensk Road, Kutuzov’s key line of communication to the rear.

For more than two hours after the fall of Borodino the enemy’s artillery and skirmishers poured fire on the defenders of the Raevsky Redoubt, but no mass attack was made by the infantry of Eugeène de Beauharnais, who commanded the left wing of Napoleon’s army. When the order for the attack did finally come, its weight was too great for the redoubt’s defenders, who were driven off the mound. One problem for the Russians was that their artillery in the redoubt was running short of ammunition. In addition, the advancing columns were concealed by the dense clouds of smoke which clung around the redoubt in the still morning air. Panic resulted when the French infantry suddenly emerged out of the smoke and swarmed over the redoubt. Precise timings for the various episodes during the battle of Borodino are very difficult to establish. The one certainty as regards the attack on the redoubt is that it occurred shortly after Petr Bagration was wounded and after part of Nikolai Raevsky’s corps had left the area of the redoubt to go to his aid.57

On hearing the news that Bagration was a casualty, Kutuzov sent Aleksei Ermolov down to Second Army to help its remaining commanders and report back on the situation. Together with Ermolov rode Major-General Count Aleksandr Kutaisov, the overall commander of the artillery. Kutaisov was an able young artillerist, passionately committed to his profession. He was also handsome, kindly, charming and cultured, which helped to make him one of the most popular figures in the army. In this there was some irony since his grandfather, the first Count Kutaisov, was a universally loathed and barely literate former Turkish prisoner of war whom Paul I had made his close confidant and a count, partly to spite the Russian aristocracy.58

As Ermolov and Kutaisov were riding past the Raevsky Redoubt on their way to Second Army they saw the Russian troops in the neighbourhood in full flight. It was crucial for the Russians to counter-attack immediately before the enemy could consolidate its hold on the redoubt.

Aleksei Ermolov was just the right man for such an emergency. He immediately took command of the troops which remained in his vicinity and led them in a successful counter-attack. When Ermolov’s men – mostly from the Ufa Regiment of Dokhturov’s Sixth Corps – fought their way back into the redoubt they found other units from Sixth Corps, led by Barclay’s aide-de-camp Vladimir Löwenstern, storming into the position from the other side of the hill. Meanwhile Ivan Paskevich had rallied the remnants of his own 26th Division and advanced in support of Löwenstern and Ermolov to the left of the redoubt. The Russian counter-attack succeeded because the Russian officers on the spot acted immediately, resolutely and on their own initiative, without waiting for orders. In addition, General Morand’s division, which had spearheaded the assault, had moved ahead of Eugène de Beauharnais’s other divisions and was isolated.59 For the Russians the most important casualty of the counter-attack was Aleksandr Kutaisov, who was killed in the retaking of the redoubt. His body was never found. No doubt the army’s chief of artillery should not have risked his life in this way, and subsequently Kutaisov’s death was used to explain mistakes in the way in which the Russian artillery was handled during the battle. Explanations were certainly in order. The Russians had 624 guns on the battlefield and, in particular, had many more heavy twelve-pounders than the French. Nevertheless they fired only the same number of rounds. Problems occurred with the re-supply of ammunition to batteries. Much worse, though individual batteries fought with great skill and courage, the Russians failed to concentrate their artillery fire. In key areas of the battlefield the Russian batteries were heavily outnumbered and smothered by enemy fire. After they were destroyed or forced to retire, the new batteries brought up from the reserve in ones and twos often then suffered a similar fate. According to Ivan Liprandi, this failing had little to do with Kutaisov’s death. In his view, the Russians always failed to concentrate their artillery in 1812, though by 1813 they had learned their lesson and sometimes did better.60

In normal circumstances the repulse of Morand’s division should have been followed by a renewed attack by the rest of Eugène’s corps. In fact, however, hours passed before the next major attack, which was launched after three o’clock in the afternoon. The delay proved crucial. More than half of Paskevich’s 26th Division were casualties and Barclay sent the division to the rear to rest and reorganize itself. He was able to do this because in the meantime the whole of Aleksandr Ostermann-Tolstoy’s Fourth Corps had arrived and could be used to plug the gap between the Raevsky Redoubt and the Russian troops involved in the ferocious battle around the village of Semenovskoe. The ‘lull’ around the redoubt was strictly relative. Ostermann-Tolstoy’s men were subjected to a devastating artillery barrage. But the full-scale infantry attack which might have broken through the weakened Russian defences near the redoubt in the late morning never occurred.61

The reason for this delay was that Eugène was distracted by a Russian cavalry raid which came in from the north and threatened his rear. The raid was initiated by Matvei Platov, whose Cossack corps stood on the far right of the Russian line. Early in the morning of 7 September his patrols reported that there were no French troops in front of them and that it was possible for cavalry to ford the river Kolocha and work their way southwards behind the French lines. As a result, not only Platov’s Cossacks but also Fedor Uvarov’s First Cavalry Corps were ordered off to harass Eugène. In reality a few thousand cavalry, unsupported by infantry and with just two batteries of horse artillery, were unlikely to achieve much. Platov’s Cossacks raided Eugene’s baggage train while Uvarov’s regulars made a number of not very determined attacks on his infantry. At the time Kutuzov saw the attack as a failure and was annoyed by Uvarov’s lacklustre performance. It was only much later that the Russians came to understand what a difference the raid had made.

Meanwhile throughout the late morning and early afternoon fierce fighting continued in and around the village of Semenovskoe, towards the Russian left. In the village and to its right were the remnants of Bagration’s Second Army and Prince Grigorii Cantacuzene’s small brigade of Grenadiers which had come up from the reserve to help them. To the left of the village stood Petr Konovnitsyn’s infantry division and three Guards regiments, the Izmailovskys, the Lithuania (Litovsky) Guards and the Finland Regiment. Some way behind the infantry were the six dragoon and hussar regiments of Karl Sievers’s Fourth Cavalry Corps but by the end of the day most of the Russian heavy cavalry had also been committed to the battle near Semenovskoe.

All the Russian infantry near Semenovskoe were subjected to repeated attacks and devastating artillery fire. Casualties were immense. The Guards were worst placed since there was no cover to the left of the village. On the contrary, the area where they stood was dominated by the other bank of the Semenovsky stream on which Davout and Ney brought forward and deployed many batteries. The range was so short that at times the French guns were firing canister into the ranks of the Russian Guards. The latter were under repeated attack from a mass of French cavalry so they were forced to remain in squares, the juiciest of all targets for artillery. As at Waterloo, the attacks of the enemy cavalry became a welcome respite from the artillery fire. The Guards also had to deploy many skirmishers against the French infantry attempting to break out from the forest to their left. Nevertheless the three regiments held firm against all these threats. They kept the French cavalry and infantry at bay, and their steadiness was the rock around which the Russian defence coalesced.

In all, the Izmailovskys and Lithuania Guards suffered more than 1,600 casualties. In the Lithuania Regiment, for example, all the majors and colonels were killed or wounded, some of them remaining in the ranks despite multiple wounds. Casualties were also very heavy in the Guards artillery batteries which moved forward in the regiments’ support and were smothered by the more numerous French guns. Among these casualties, for example, was the 17-year-old ensign Avram Norov, who lost a leg at Borodino but nevertheless later made a brilliant career, ending as minister of education. His battery commander ‘could not hold back his sorrow at seeing Norov, who was a handsome and fine young man – indeed really only a boy – disfigured for life. But Norov responded with his usual slight stammer. “Well, brother, but there’s nothing to be done! God is merciful and I will recover and then get back to the battle on crutches.”’ Kutuzov reported to Alexander that the Guards regiments ‘in this battle covered themselves in glory under the eyes of the whole army’. Borodino was in fact the day in the Napoleonic Wars when the Russian Guards came of age as ever-reliable elite troops whose commitment could turn the fate of a battle.62

The Russians were ultimately forced to abandon Semenovskoe and retreat a few hundred metres to the east but they kept their discipline, continuing to present a firm front to the enemy. The French cavalry attacked the squares but could not break them. When they tried to break out to the rear of the Russian line they found that they had little room to manoeuvre and were counter-attacked by the Russian cuirassiers and by Sievers’s Fourth Cavalry Corps, both of which more than held their own. By mid-afternoon it was clear that Davout’s and Ney’s corps were played out. If Napoleon was to break through the Russian line beyond Semenovskoe he would have to commit fresh troops. All that remained were his Guards. One of the Guards infantry divisions had been left behind at Gzhatsk but the other two were on hand and roughly 10,000 strong. Ney and Davout appealed to Napoleon for their release.

Ever since September 1812 a debate has raged as to whether the emperor’s refusal to commit his reserve cost him a decisive victory at Borodino and thereby his chances of winning the campaign of 1812. There can be no definite answer to this. The Russians themselves disagreed about the probable result if Napoleon had sent forward his Guards. The best of the nineteenth-century Russian historians, General Bogdanovich, believed that he would have secured a decisive victory and thereby seriously damaged Russian morale. On the other hand, Eugen of Württemberg wrote that the introduction of the Guards would have turned an almost drawn battle into an unequivocal French victory but that Kutuzov’s army would still have got away down the New Smolensk Road and the ultimate strategic outcome of the battle would therefore not have been altered.63

My own hunch is that Eugen was probably right. On the Russian side, the six battalions of the Preobrazhensky and Semenovsky Guards were still in reserve and had together suffered only 300 casualties from artillery fire. The Second Guards Infantry Brigade had already shown the Guards regiments’ powers of resistance and the First Guards Brigade was not likely to do worse. As at Semenovskoe, other units would have formed around the Guards. Ivan Paskevich’s division, for example, had been sent to the rear to re-form and was quite capable of renewing the struggle in emergency, as were a number of artillery batteries also withdrawn from the front line to rest and restock with ammunition. A combination of Russian stubbornness, the bushes and broken country behind the Russian lines, and the distance to the main highway probably meant that the Russians would be able to delay the French advance for long enough to allow the army to slip away. Given time, Kutuzov could also bring four untouched jaeger regiments and some artillery batteries down from beyond Borodino to form a rearguard. Barclay still believed that his army had a lot of fight left in it and was expecting the battle to be renewed on the next day.64

The whole debate is of course theoretical since Napoleon refused to risk his Guards. The smoke and dust thrown up by the battle made it impossible to see what was going on behind the Russian lines. The Russians had fought with immense stubbornness, which showed no sign of abating. The commander of the Guards, Marshal Bessières, whom Napoleon sent forward to spy out the land, reported that Russian resistance was still strong. With the possibility of another battle before Moscow and given the insecurity of his position deep in central Russia it is not surprising that Napoleon wished to retain his ultimate strategic reserve. The fact that the Guards were still intact was indeed to prove a major asset during the retreat from Moscow.65

Given the emperor’s refusal to commit his Guards to the battle at Semenovskoe, his final chance of victory was to be Eugène de Beauharnais’s second assault on the Raevsky Redoubt, which was launched not long after three o’clock. By now the redoubt was a near ruin. It was defended by Petr Likhachev’s 24th Division of Sixth Corps, with Ostermann-Tolstoy’s Fourth Corps in support to the left. The attack was spearheaded by heavy cavalry, which was an unorthodox way to take a field fortification. The hand-to-hand fighting in the confined space of the redoubt was grim. Dead and wounded men piled up in mounds. Likhachev himself was captured but most of the Russian defenders were slaughtered, though some of the guns were withdrawn in time. On this occasion enough of Eugène’s remaining 20,000 infantry came up to consolidate their hold on the redoubt.66

Barclay de Tolly had been in the thick of the fighting all day, calmly re-forming and redeploying his regiments to meet one emergency after another. Dressed in full uniform and wearing all his decorations, he seemed to be – and indeed was – courting death. Most of his aides were killed or wounded. The example he showed of courage, coolness and competence at moments of extreme stress and danger won him renewed respect. Now once again, but for the last time on 7 September, he rallied his infantry and artillery a kilometre or so to the east in a good defensive position on rising ground and drew on his cavalry to stop the enemy from exploiting their capture of the redoubt. Napoleon’s own cavalry had suffered heavy casualties in storming the Raevsky Redoubt. Their horses were also in a much worse state than those of their Russian opponents. On the other hand, Napoleon’s regular cavalry outnumbered the Russians by a wide margin. Barclay was forced even to commit his ultimate reserve, the Chevaliers Gardes and the Horse Guards, but these elite troops drove back the enemy cavalry and his lines held. When Napoleon once again refused to commit his Guards to exploit the fall of the redoubt the battle of Borodino was over.

That night Lieutenant Luka Simansky of the Izmailovsky Guards recalled the day’s events in his diary. The Smolensk Icon of the Mother of God was positioned close behind the Izmailovskys’ bivouac and before loading their muskets the regiment had turned to pray to it. In their squares near Semenovskoe the regiment was deluged by round-shot and canister. In comparison the attacks of the enemy cavalry were relaxing. No Russian artillery seemed to be anywhere in sight. All the senior officers of the Izmailovskys fell. A staff captain commanded the battalion and a mere ensign its skirmishers. By some miracle Simansky himself was untouched. When his orderly saw him returning unscathed from the fray he burst into tears of joy. Simansky ended his entry by writing: ‘I thought of my family and of the fact that I had remained calm and not budged one step from my post; of how I had cheered up my men and how I had prayed and given thanks to God as every cannon ball flew past me. The Almighty heard my prayer and spared me. Pray God that in His mercy he will also save dying Russia, which has already been punished for her sins sufficiently.’67

Kutuzov had spent the day at his command post on the right wing, near the village of Gorki. He had positioned his corps before the battle and played some role on 7 September as regards the release of the reserves. On the whole, however, he left Barclay and Bagration to conduct the fighting. When Bagration was wounded he sent Dmitrii Dokhturov to replace him but himself never budged from the hill at Gorki. This made good sense. Barclay, Bagration and Dokhturov were fully competent to run a defensive battle of this sort in which no grand manoeuvres were attempted by the Russians. They were also much younger and more mobile than Kutuzov. Moreover, he was irreplaceable. Had Kutuzov been killed the army’s morale and cohesion would have collapsed. No other commander could have drawn anything approaching the same degree of trust and obedience. As Ivan Radozhitsky put it, ‘only Field-Marshal Prince Kutuzov, a true son of Russia, nourished at her breast, could have abandoned without a fight the empire’s ancient capital’.68

In the immediate aftermath of the fighting, abandoning Moscow seems to have been far from Kutuzov’s mind. On the contrary, he told his subordinates that he intended to attack the next day. Only the news that Napoleon had not committed his Guards and that Russian losses were enormous persuaded him to change his mind. In all, the most recent Russian estimates suggest that they lost between 45,000 and 50,000 men at Shevardino and Borodino, as against perhaps 35,000 French casualties. In particular, Bagration’s Second Army had been nearly destroyed. Even some weeks later, after stragglers had returned to the ranks, Second Army was reckoned to have lost more than 16,000 men on 7 September, and this was on top of the 5,000 lost at Shevardino two days before. As serious, casualties among the army’s senior officers had been crippling.69

Kutuzov therefore ordered a retreat. For almost the only time during the campaign the Russian rearguard performed poorly. This was blamed on its commander, Matvei Platov, and was seen by regular officers as confirmation of their long-held view that Cossack generals were not competent to command infantry and artillery. The basic problem was that Platov’s rearguard did not impose delays on the French or keep them at a sufficiently respectful distance from the main body of the retreating Russian army, as Konovnitsyn had always done with great skill. As a result, the already exhausted troops did not get the rest they needed. The army’s precipitate departure from Mozhaisk meant that thousands of wounded were left behind, in sharp contrast to what had happened previously during the retreat. When Kutuzov reinforced the rearguard and replaced Platov by Mikhail Miloradovich matters improved greatly but the episode fed growing tensions between the regular and Cossack leaders.70

The basic point, however, was that the Russians were running out of space. Six days after the battle of Borodino, Kutuzov’s army was on the outskirts of Moscow. The great question now was whether or not to fight for the city. Kutuzov would find it harder than Barclay to abandon Moscow. Both generals were patriots who had risked their lives on many battlefields, but the Russia for which they fought was not quite the same. Barclay had great loyalty and admiration for the Russian soldier but he was a Protestant Balt brought up in Petersburg. For him, Russia meant above all else the emperor, the army and the state. For reasons both of sentiment and interest these were very much part of Kutuzov’s Russia too, but not all of it. For any member of the old Russian aristocracy who had not lost his roots there was also another Russia, an Orthodox land which had existed before the Romanovs and before the empire and whose capital was Moscow.

Kutuzov’s last words to Alexander on leaving Petersburg to assume the supreme command were that he would rather perish than abandon Moscow. Shortly after arriving at headquarters he wrote to Rostopchin, Moscow’s governor-general, that ‘the question remains undecided as to which is more important – to lose the army or to lose Moscow. In my opinion the loss of Moscow entails the loss of Russia itself.’ When the council of war met at Fili on 13 September, however, Kutuzov understood that actually this was no longer the question. If he stood and fought, there was every probability that both the army and the capital would be lost. No doubt the commander-in-chief had already made his decision to abandon the city before the council met at four o’clock that afternoon. But such a momentous step could not be taken without consulting his senior generals. Moreover, Kutuzov was anxious to share some of the responsibility for a decision which was bound to cause huge anger and condemnation.71

The main protagonists at the council of war were Bennigsen and Barclay. The former had chosen the ground on which the army was preparing to fight outside Moscow. In time-honoured fashion pride alone would have forbidden him to admit that he had made a mistake. From his subsequent correspondence with Alexander it was also clear that he was anxious to thrust responsibility for the city’s loss onto Kutuzov and Barclay. At the council of war Barclay set out the reasons why the Russian army would certainly be defeated if it stood on the defensive in this position. Not only would they be greatly outnumbered but their position was divided up by ravines, which would make it very difficult to coordinate resistance. A lost battle would entail a rushed retreat through Moscow, which could easily result in the army’s disintegration. The only possibility was to attack Napoleon’s army but the huge loss of officers at Borodino made a battle of manoeuvre immensely risky. Toll and Ermolov shared Barclay’s view, though Ermolov lacked the moral courage to speak up and take responsibility in front of his seniors. On the contrary, Barclay showed not just moral courage but also some generosity of spirit by speaking up decisively and thereby sharing the burden of responsibility of a man who had superseded him in command.72

There remained the difficult task of getting an exhausted and somewhat demoralized army with all its baggage and some of its wounded through the streets of a great city. With the enemy on their heels this could be an extremely dangerous enterprise. Matters were not helped by the fact that the news that Moscow was to be abandoned had broken on the civilian population very late. As the army passed through Moscow on 14 September a mass civilian exodus was still under way. One staff officer described the scene as ‘not the passage of an army but the relocation of whole tribes from one corner of the earth to another’. Barclay did his usual indefatigable best to impose some order on this chaos. Officers were posted at key intersections to direct the troops. Cavalry rode down the sides of the columns to stop desertion and plundering. Barclay himself oversaw arrangements.73

The true hero of the occasion, however, was Miloradovich, who was now commanding the Russian rearguard. His opposite number in the French advance guard was usually Joachim Murat, and the two men had much in common. Both generals were showmen who loved splendid clothes and the grand gesture. It would be an understatement to say that neither man was an intellectual but Miloradovich was not only honourable and generous but on occasion surprisingly modest and shrewd. He certainly summed up the essence of the present danger and with some bravura sent his aide-de-camp to Murat to suggest a one-day truce so that the Russians could depart, leaving the city intact. In the event that this request was refused, Miloradovich threatened to fight in the streets and turn Moscow into a ruin. Even more than most of the French generals, Murat was longing for comfortable quarters, peace and a return home. Perhaps lulled by Napoleon’s own illusions, he saw the fall of Moscow as a prelude to peace. All this disposed him not just to accept Miloradovich’s offer of a truce but also subsequently to extend it for a further twelve hours. As a result of Miloradovich’s cheeky initiative, the Russian army emerged from Moscow almost unscathed.74

In principle Kutuzov might have retreated out of Moscow in a number of directions. Had he turned north-west, for instance, he could have blocked the road to Tver and Petersburg, whose population was bound to be in an uproar at the news of Moscow’s fall. In fact he retreated south-eastwards down the road to Riazan. This was in many ways the safest exit from Moscow in the face of an enemy who was entering the city from the west. On 17 September, however, after crossing the river Moskva at Borovsk, Kutuzov turned sharply westwards. Marching rapidly he crossed the roads to Kashira and Tula before turning southwards down the Old Kaluga Road which led out from Moscow to the south-west.

Meanwhile on 15 September Napoleon entered Moscow and set up his headquarters in the Kremlin. That very day fires started in many parts of the city. Moscow burned for six days. Three-quarters of its buildings were destroyed. In all, during the summer and autumn of 1812, 270 million rubles’ worth of private property was destroyed in the city and province of Moscow, an astronomical sum for that era. The overwhelming majority of the civilian population had already fled but those who remained were driven from their homes, made destitute and sometimes killed. Of the more than 30,000 wounded soldiers who had been in Moscow, all but 6,000 were evacuated in time, thanks above all to the efforts of James Wylie, the efficient head of the army’s medical services. But very many of those who were left behind died in the flames. When the Russians recaptured Moscow they found and burned 12,000 corpses.75

Even before the fire began the Russians had also been forced to abandon vast stocks of military materials in the city, including more than 70,000 muskets, though admittedly half of these were in need of repair. Moscow had been the rear base for Kutuzov’s army and by the time the news came that the city was to be abandoned it was very difficult to evacuate all military stores. Finding sufficient carts at this last moment was impossible, so most weapons, equipment and other military goods were evacuated on twenty-three barges. The first three escaped but the fourth, overloaded by the artillery department, got stuck in the river Moskva and blocked the passage of the remaining nineteen. These barges carried almost 5 million rubles’ worth of weapons, clothing and equipment, all of which had to be burned in order to keep it out of Napoleon’s hands.76

Who or what caused the fire has always been a source of dispute. The one certain point is that neither Alexander nor Napoleon ordered the city to be burned. Rostopchin said before the city’s fall that the French would only conquer its ashes. He evacuated the 2,000 men of Moscow’s fire brigade and all its equipment. Cossack detachments from Kutuzov’s army burned one at least of the city’s quarters, following a scorched-earth policy of destroying all houses which the Russians had pursued ever since Napoleon passed Smolensk and invaded the Russian heartland. Kutuzov also ordered that the many remaining military stores should be set alight. Although French carelessness and plundering may have contributed to the city’s destruction, it was undoubtedly the Russians who were most responsible for what happened. What mattered at the time, however, was the perception that Napoleon was to blame and that the city’s destruction was a huge sacrifice to Russian patriotism and Europe’s liberation.77

Maybe the fire helped to distract French attention from Kutuzov’s flank march from the Riazan to the Kaluga road. In normal circumstances this would have been a risky undertaking since it took the Russian columns right across the front of Napoleon’s army in Moscow. In fact, however, a combination of French exhaustion and the Cossack rearguard’s skill meant that it was some time before Napoleon even realized that his enemy was no longer en route to Riazan.

Once installed in his camp near Tarutino on the Old Kaluga Road, Kutuzov was in a strong position. He could cover the arms works and stores at Briansk and above all the crucial arms factories and workshops at Tula. At the news of Moscow’s fall many artisans in the Tula arms works fled back to their native villages. Major-General Voronov, the commandant of the Tula arms works, reported that if he was forced to evacuate Tula it would be six months before production could resume, which would have been a disaster for the Russian war effort. The field-marshal was able to reassure him that Tula was now covered by the Russian army and in no immediate danger.78

At Tarutino Kutuzov was excellently positioned to send out raiding parties to harass the long French lines of communication stretching westwards from Moscow all the way back to Smolensk. He was also best placed for communication with Tormasov and Chichagov. Since his food supplies and reinforcements were mostly coming up through Kaluga from the fertile and populous southern provinces, his new deployment gave him every opportunity to feed his men and horses and rebuild their strength. To understand how this was done, however, means we must turn aside from military operations for a moment and look instead at the mobilization of Russia’s home front.

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