Bagration's last counter-attack


1. Battle of Borodino, September 1812, vs Mikhail Kutuzov (Russia)

Napoleon, outraged that Tsar Alexander I had decided to withdraw from the Continental System, prepared to renew hostilities with Russia in mid-1812. The Grande Armée was assembled in eastern Poland, eventually numbering a staggering 685 thousand men. The Russian Campaign began on the 24th of June when this immense French force crossed the Nemen River and began advancing in several columns. Napoleon personally lead the central force of 286 men, and sought to decisively defeat the main body of the Russian army, commanded by Count Barclay de Tolly.

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The Emperor hoped that by rapidly advancing on Moscow the Russians would sooner or later be forced to block his path, which would allow him to annihilate Barclay's force and bring the war to a quick conclusion. Though it was true that the Russians would eventually have to give battle, for three months Barclay retreated, relying on scorched-earth tactics and light Cossack cavalry raids to whittle Napoleon's force down to 161 thousand men. Though the French won the major Battle of Smolensk on 16-18 August, no oppurtunity for a  decisive engagement was offered. Despite the fact that trading land for time greatly favoured the Russians, Alexander I lost patience with Barclay endless retreat and, on 29 August, replaced him with Prince Kutuzov. Though Kutuzov (recognising, as Barclay had, that an immediate battle would sacrifice his army pointlessly) continued the retreat for another week, upon reaching the town of Borodino he turned and adopted a strong defensive position.

Battle of Borodino Map

While Kutuzov's right was protected by the Kolocha River, his line extended south through ground broken by woods and ravines (all of which offered no advantages) and ended at the village of Utitza. To strengthen his line, Kutuzov ordered the construction of a series of field fortifications, the largest of which was the 19-gun Raevsky (Great) Redoubt in the center of his line. To the south, an obvious avenue of attack between two woods was blocked by a series of open-backed fortifications known as flèches. Far in front of his line, Kutuzov had constructed the Shevardino Redoubt, a pentagonal fortification initially designed to anchor the left of the Russian line. Lastly, light troops held the city of Borodino itself. Though his left was weaker, Kutuzov wasted his best troops, Barclay's First Army, by placing them on his right (the ground already made the area virtually unassailable) as he was afraid that the French would fight their way towards Moscow on the New Smolensk Road. In addition, he consolidated nearly half his artillery into a reserve which he hoped to use at a decisive point.

Fighting at Borodino

 On September 5, the massive cavalry forces of the two armies clashed just to the north of the village of Doronino; the Russians ultimately fell back. The next day, the French launched a massive assault on the Shevardino Redoubt taking it but sustaining 4,000 casualties in the process. The preliminary fighting over, Napoleon now assessed how best to attack Kutuzov's strong defensive position.

Many of the Emperor's marshals, including Davout, advised an attack which would swing south around the Russian left at Utitza. However Napoleon ignoring this advice and instead opted for the unimaginative: a series of massive frontal assaults against the Bagration flèches. Forming a Grand Battery of 102 guns opposite these flèches, Napoleon ordered a immense preliminary bombardment of Prince Bagration's positions at 6:00 a.m on 7 September. The infantry of Davout's I Corps were then ordered forward; by 7:30 a.m. they had driven the defenders out of the flèches but they themselves were soon thrown back by a counterattack. Additional French assaults swiftly recaptured the position, which changed hands multiple times over four hours of fighting; by 11 a.m. the French had finally secured the area.

Meanwhile, at the southern end of the Russian line, General Poniatowski's attack against Utitza, despite being hindered by very thick undergrowth, succeeded in capturing the village. The French were thrown out by 8 a.m. but rallied and again seized Utitza, which was left in flames by the defenders. After this capture, fighting continued in the area for the rest of the day with little progress. 

Fight for the fleches

While fierce fighting still raged around the Bagration flèches, additional French troops moved into action against the Raevsky Redoubt. Prince Eugène's IV Corps attacked the Russian light infantry positions in Borodino and, after securing the town, crossed to the south side of the Kolocha River and began attacking the redoubt. Just before noon further IV Corps action against the redoubt was delayed for a crucial two hours by a large Cossack cavalry raid conducted by Generals Uvarov and Platov on the northern flank of Eugène's force.

At last the situation was stabilised and Broussier's division once again began to push the Russians back towards the Raevsky Redoubt as Morand's division (just to the south) simultaneously advanced against the position. This two pronged assault, aided by ferocious artillery support, allowed the French to storm the redoubt. Though a counter-attack by Russian reinforcements expelled the French, around 2:00 p.m. Napoleon ordered another massive French frontal assault (the last of the battle) against the position; this penultimate onslaught had succeeded in securing the redoubt by 3:30 p.m.

Fighting at Borodino 2

Despite this achievement, the fighting had exhausted and badly bled the French, forcing a pause. Kutuzov's army, though in wild, disorderly retreat, was reforming on a series of ridges to the east and was largely intact. Napoleon now went forward to the former Russian front line to assess the situation. He possessed only the Imperial Guard as a reserve; virtually all of his marshals now urged him to unleash this elite force to secure a decisive victory. The Emperor, however, decided against making a final push against the Russians, a move which could have savaged his foe. Instead Napoleon ordered another massive artillery bombardment against the Russian Guard, which Kutuzov had deployed as his rear-guard, and ordered his Young Guard to guard the field of battle. Though the Russian Guard sustained massive casualties, Kutuzov was able to withdraw from the field unhindered on September 8.

Battle map 2

The fighting at Borodino cost Napoleon around 30,000-35,000 casualties, while the Russians suffered around 39,000-45,000, including Prince Bagration. The carnage was compared by one historian to "a fully-loaded 747 crashing, with no survivors, every 5 minutes for eight hours".  Napoleon's conduct of the battle, from the massed frontal assaults to his refusal to commit the Guard, had been totally uninspired and had not delivered the necessary decisive victory. One must also remember that he had not even had to face Barclay's First Army (wasted on the Russian right) or the massive artillery reserve (which played little role as its commander was killed early on); had Kutuzov deployed his forces more adeptly the French would surely have been defeated.

With Napoleon's Pyrrhic tactical victory, Kutuzov's army remained in the field as a potent fighting force, an outcome which granted the Russians a decisive strategic victory. In the aftermath of the battle the Russians retreated towards Semolino and Napoleon was free to advance and capture Moscow on 14 September. Entering the city, the Emperor expected Tsar Alexander I to offer his surrender, however this was not forthcoming. Possessing an empty city and lacking supplies, Napoleon was forced to begin his long retreat west five weeks later. This retreat wiped out the already gutted Grande Armée, which would never fully recover from the losses it suffered in Russia.

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