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Voices of Borodino – A narrative of the Battle of Borodino through officers’ accounts

The Battle of Borodino took place on 7 September 1812. Napoleon’s Grande Armée clashed with the Russian army near Mozhaisk 70 miles to the west of Moscow, by the end of the day 70,000 casualties were sustained. To mark the 208th anniversary of the battle, we have teamed up with Josh Provan of the Adventures in Historyland Youtube channel to put together a narrative of the battle through 13 accounts, read by Napoleonic era historians and enthusiasts from around the world. This post includes some of abridged extracts from the video.

Colonel Jean-Jacques Germain Pelet-Clozeau was a staff officer during the 1812 campaign. He quotes Napoleon’s proclamation on the morning of the battle and describes the initial assault on the Bagration fleches.

At dawn on the seventh, the Imperial proclamation was read to the French ranks, which inflamed these noble hearts, and which will inspire noble hearts from all countries and all ages. “Soldiers!,” the Emperor said, “Here is the battle, which you have so desired. From now the victory depends on you. It is necessary to us. It will bring us an abundance of good winter quarters, and a swift return to our country. Behave as at Austerlitz, Friedland, Vitebsk, Smolensk, and let the latest posterity recount with pride your deeds this day. Let them say of you: “He was at the great battle beneath the walls of Moscow.” The soldiers replied with joyful cries; they told Napoleon: “Be assured: today we have all sworn to win, and we will win.”

The right flank of the French army, made up of Compans and Desaix’s divisions, were to attack the redans, to the south of Semenovskoe, the enemy’s left flank. In order to achieve this goal, it was compelled to cross through half a mile of extremely difficult terrain. It passed along the edge of the woods, preceded by its artillery. At halfway it encountered a ravine, occupied by Russian jaegers, supported by Borozdin’s first line. Under terrible artillery fire, Compans attacked the enemy fortifications, Desaix followed after him. These brave divisions crossed through the ravine and fell on the first enemy line. They pursued them with bayonets and attacked the second line. This latter was not able to stand up to their efforts. The redans were taken by the first troops, which, in their turn, were driven out. Upon receiving support, they again occupied the fortifications. Our divisions suffered terrible losses from the very beginning of the battle. In a quarter of an hour Davout, Compans, Desaix, Dupellin were all wounded, as was Rapp who had come to replace Compans. The wounds of the commanders did not calm the fervour of the soldiers, but they upset the direction of movement.

General Mikhail Kutuzov was the supreme commander of the Russian army at Borodino. In his report to Tsar Alexander I, he describes the enemy’s attack on the village of Borodino as well as the Russian left, the weakest part of the Russian line.

The enemy’s attack on the village of Borodino was carried out with incredible speed, but the bravery of the Life Guard Jaeger Regiment, inspired by the example of its commanders, halted the advance of 8000 Frenchmen. The bloody battle intensified, and these brave jaegers held the enemy for more than an hour witnessed by the entire army. Finally, the enemy’s reserves which had arrived strengthened his force and forced this regiment to leave the village of Borodino and cross behind the River Koloch. The French, encouraged by taking Borodino, pursued the jaegers and almost crossed the river with them, but the Guard jaegers, reinforced by Colonel Monakhtin’s regiments and the jaeger brigade of the 24th division under the command of Colonel Vuich, suddenly turned against the enemy and together with the reinforcements attacked with bayonets, and all the French who had crossed to our bank were the victims of their daring enterprise. The bridge on the River Kolocha was completely destroyed, despite heavy enemy fire, and for the whole day the French did not dare to attempt to cross and satisfied themselves with exchanging fire with our jaegers.

Meanwhile the fire on our left wing intensified hour by hour. In this sector the enemy had gathered his main forces, made up of the corps of Prince Poniatowski, Marshals Ney and Davout, and significantly outnumbered us. Prince Bagration, seeing the enemy’s increasing numbers, summoned the 3rd Infantry Division under the command of Lieutenant General Konovnitsyn and moreover was forced to use the 2nd Grenadier Division from the reserves under the command of Lieutenant General Borozdin, which he placed in an echelon formation across the left wing behind the village, and further to the left three regiments of the 1st Cuirassier Division and the entire 2nd Cuirassier Division. I found it necessary to bring regiments closer to this sector: the Life Guard Izmailovsky Regiment and the Litovsky under the command of Colonel Khrapovitsky.

Eugene Labaume, an engineer serving in Prince Eugene’s IV Corps recounts the first attack on the Russian Great Redoubt

At 8 o’clock Morand’s division, which formed the extreme right of IV Corps, was fiercely attacked as it prepared to advance on the redoubt, a movement which was supposed to be supported by Gérard’s division. General Morand, in order to hold back the enemy lines, detached the 30th Regiment on his left to seize the redoubt. This position was captured through a great demonstration of valour. Our batteries duly occupied the heights, and retained the advantage which the Russians had had for more than two hours. The parapets, turned against us during the attack, were now turned in our favour. The battle was lost for the enemy, who did not think it had started.

In this extremity, Prince Kutuzov did not despair of the fate of his country: to save it, and to support a reputation acquired by half a century of service, he harangued the generals, revived the soldiers, and renewed the combat, attacking with all his troops the strong positions he had just lost. Three hundred of our pieces of cannon, placed on this high ground, bore down upon these masses, and their vanquished soldiers came to die at the foot of these ramparts which they had erected, and which they regarded as if it were a street in Moscow, their holy and sacred city.

Ivan Paskevich, the commander of the 26th Infantry Division which occupied the redoubt, vividly recounts the successful Russian counterattack which regained the position

Despite Russian artillery fire, the enemy division advanced. Although we were outnumbered by the enemy, I successfully held off the enemy’s assault. Finally, the superiority of their numbers forced me to withdraw in order to reform my depleted regiments. General Bonnamy’s 30th Line Regiment at the head of Morand’s Division broke into our lines. He was supported by the entire division. But at this moment under the cover of the Ufa Regiment led by Count Kutaisov, I reorganised my Division again and charged at the enemy with the 18th Jaeger Regiment.

I recall the terrible sight that appeared before me during the struggle for the main battery. The 19th and 40th Jaeger Regiments attacked the enemy from the left flank. General Vasilchikov and several regiments of the 12th Division fell upon them from the right flank. The 30th French regiment was almost completely destroyed. General Bonnamy was taken into captivity. The remainder of his regiment was driven back towards Morand’s Division. I led the remaining regiments of the 12th Division, went behind the redoubt to cut off the French troops I found there. Reinforced by cavalry attacks, our powerful offensive demonstrations threw Morand’s Division into disarray.

Thus we regained control of the redoubt within a quarter of an hour. This struggle was one of the most terrible and bloody during the whole of the Battle of Borodino. The bodies of the enemy piled up in the redoubt in front of the fortification. From our side General Kutaisov was killed. A horse was killed from under me, and another wounded.

Colonel Waldemar Lowenstern, serving as General Barclay de Tolly’s senior aide de camp, recalls an exchange with a mortally wounded Prince Bagration after being wounded himself during the counterattack at the Great Redoubt

I arrived at an ambulance where I was aggrieved to see Prince Bagration sitting on the grass, surrounded with many medical officers and his aides-de-camp. He was wounded, his leg was bare and Wylie, the emperor’s surgeon, was busy extracting a ball which had entered into his leg bone. He suffered much, but accepted it with heroism.

Upon seeing me, he asked me: “How is General Barclay? Tell him that the fate of the army is in his bands. Everything is going well so far.”

He noticed that I was also wounded: “Ah,” he said, “go and get bandaged.”

I left him with regret. He fought valiantly on the left wing. The main attacks were directed against him. Unfortunately the Prince was mortally wounded, General Tuchkov the same, Count Vorontsov who commanded the grenadiers and Count de Saint-Priest were also out of action.

Avraam Norov, a 17 year old junior officer in the Guards artillery, describes a desperate artillery duel on the Russian left, moments before he loses his leg

We saw before us ranks of enemy cavalry. This was Latour-Maubourg's cavalry. Napoleon, temporarily enthused by the capture of the Semenovskoye fleches, ordered Murat with Nansouty and Latour-Maubourg's cavalry corps to decide the battle against us. From the Shevardino Redoubt, he enthusiastically shouted, “There they go! There they go!”

This large swarm, threatening to rout us, crashed against the squares of our Izmailovsky and Lithuanian Guards regiments, and was then defeated by the Guards batteries of His Imperial Majesty and Count Arakcheev together with part of the 1st light company. Another cavalry attack was launched but met with the same fate. The cavalry which appeared before us was preparing for a third attempt.

The enemy bravely advanced at a slow trot straight towards the menacing battery awaiting it, but once the enemy cavalry was no more than 300 metres from the battery, which was already preparing to fire, this cavalry turned to both sides and presented a light horse battery which had been hidden behind it, already detached from its limber. Both sides began to fire at the same time. The inevitable confusion temporarily reigned over the battery amidst canister at such close quarters. Several men and horses were taken out of action.

Philippe Paul, Comte de Ségur, Napoleon’s aide-de-camp, recounts Napoleon’s refusal to commit the Guard at a critical juncture in the battle

About mid-day, the whole of the French right wing, Ney, Davout, and Murat, after annihilating Bagration and half the Russian line, presented itself on the half-opened flank of the remainder of the enemy army, of which they could see the whole interior, the reserves, the abandoned rears, and even the commencement of the retreat.

But as they felt themselves too weak to throw themselves into that gap, behind a line still formidable, they called aloud for the Guard: “The Young Guard! Only let it follow them at a distance! Let it show itself, and take their place upon the heights! They themselves will then be sufficient to finish!”

But Bessieres, who had just returned from the heights, to which Napoleon had sent him to examine the attitude of the Russians, asserted, that, “far from being in disorder, they had retreated to a second position, where they seemed to be preparing for a fresh attack.” The emperor then said to Belliard, “That nothing was yet sufficiently unravelled: that to make him give his reserves, he wanted to see more clearly upon his chess-board.” This was his expression; which he repeated several times, at the same time pointing on one side to the old Moscow road, of which Poniatowski had not yet made himself master; on the other, to an attack of the enemy’s cavalry in the rear of our left wing; and, finally, to the great redoubt, against which the efforts of prince Eugene had been ineffectual.

Belliard, in consternation, returned to the king of Naples, and informed him of the impossibility of obtaining the reserve from the emperor. At this account, Ney, furious and hurried away by his ardent and unmeasured character, exclaimed, “Are we then come so far, to be satisfied with a field of battle? What business has the emperor in the rear of the army? There, he is only within reach of reserves, and not of victory. Since he will no longer make war himself, since he is no longer the general, as he wishes to be emperor everywhere, let him return to the Tuileries, and leave us to be generals for him!”

The famous Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz served in the Russian army in the 1812 campaign, and was on the staff of General Fyodor Uvarov at Borodino. He participated in the Russian cavalry charge against the French left, describing the action by Platov’s Cossacks.

There suddenly arose a heavy fire beyond the stream, out of the brushwood, upon the left wing of the French; and the account was soon spread that Platov had at length found a passage and with his Cossacks was in the wood on that side. We saw, in fact, these troops so remarkable for wonderful transitions from the extreme of timidity to that of daring, careering about among the masses of infantry, without making any decided attack, as if skirmishing. The troops immediately in our front feared to be locked in the morass, and made a side movement. The Cossack regiment of the Guard attached to Uvarov’s corps could stand it no longer: like a rocket with its tail, they were over the dam like lightning, and into the wood to join their brethren.

Uvarov unquestionably might have followed at this moment, but he had no desire to let himself be squashed in the defile, if repulsed, or to have to make a retreat in loose formation, as the Cossacks are accustomed to do on occasion. Having also despatched messengers in all directions to Kutuzov, Bennigsen, and Barclay, he remained, waiting for further orders. Before long the Cossacks of the Guard returned, and with a considerable deficit in killed and wounded.

Armand de Caulaincourt, Master of the Horse in Napoleon’s suite, receives news of his brother Auguste’s death during the second attack on the Great Redoubt

Our troops redoubled their efforts without gaining ground. The fire increased to greater intensity; we are at grips at all points. It was at this moment that my brother, having put into motion two of his divisions supported by two battalions of infantry, placed himself at the head of the Fifth Cuirassiers to lead the troops under his command on the Great Redoubt and thus ensure the success of this attack, already attempted in vain several times. He drove out the enemy, and from that moment the battle was won, as the Emperor himself said, for the Russians at once began a general retreat.

I think it was about three o’clock when an aide-de-camp arrived in hot haste to tell the Emperor that the Great Redoubt had been taken by my brother and the enemy was retiring at all points. An instant later M. Wolbert, my unfortunate brother’s aide-de-camp, who had not quitted his side, brought the Emperor the details of this affair, and told him that my brother had been killed by a bullet below the heart, just as he was coming out of the Redoubt to pursue the enemy who had rallied at some distance and were advancing to retake it. I was at the Emperor’s side when this report was brought. I need not attempt to describe my feelings.

Franz Ludwig August von Meerheim, a Saxon cavalry officer, leaves his impressions of the intense fighting following the capture of the Great Redoubt

The combat was frightful! Men and horses hit by gunshots collapsed into the ditches and thrashed around among the dead and dying, each trying to kill the enemy with their weapons, their bare hands or even their teeth. To add to this horror, the succeeding ranks of assaulting cavalry trampled over the writhing mass as they drove on to their next targets - the infantry squares - who greeted them with well-aimed volleys.

The duration of the scene of murder was not to be measured in minutes, since the enemy, who outnumbered us by far, used all their means and even the now silenced pieces to avenge their inevitable deaths with the last breath. The forces of the opposing Russians only seemed to have died under the Saxon sabres in order to rise and be replenished with doubled anger.

We were still in a bloody hand-to-hand fight with the Russians still standing fast among our horses, when the enemy cavalry fell upon us from several sides: Cuirassiers and Dragoons, Chevaliergardes and Horse Guards, at full gallop, but closing upon us like walls, charging furiously against us, who were exhausted, and with a little effort caused a terrible bloodbath among us. Everyone was too shocked, probably too weakened, to be able to make a quick immediate decision. Nobody even thought of the flight or did not want to consider it. So a lot of victims fell before the last resort was finally employed. It was impossible for us to resist, because the enemy's charge was too violent to think of reforming up there.

Mikhail Barclay de Tolly, commander-in-chief of the Russian First Army, orders his cavalry to counter charge the enemy cavalry

The heights was taken by storm together with part of the artillery, and the 24th Division returned in the greatest confusion, but was immediately stopped and reformed. Then the enemy cavalry launched a coordinated attack against our infantry. I already anticipated that this was the moment that our fate would be decided. My cavalry was insufficient to detain this enemy horde, and I was unable to lead it against the enemy, suspecting that it would be overrun and pushed back against the infantry in disorder. I entrusted all my hope on the brave infantry and artillery, which proved themselves to be immortal on this day. They fulfilled my expectations and the enemy was stopped.

At this most difficult moment two guard cuirassier regiments arrived, I pointed out the enemy and with rare fearlessness the regiments rushed to attack: the Sumsky, Mariupolsky and Orenburg Dragoons pursued him. The Pskov Dragoons and Iziumsky Hussars, also detached without my knowledge, then arrived under the command of General Korf. I placed them in reserve. Thus began one of the most stubborn cavalry battles ever fought. The enemy and our cavalry overran each other in turn, then they reformed under the protection of cavalry and infantry. Finally, ours succeeded with the assistance of the horse artillery and infantry in turning the enemy cavalry to flight. They completely withdrew from the field of battle. The infantry opposite IV Corps also retreated almost out of the view of the artillery, leaving behind a chain of fire, but the captured heights was defended even more heavily. Behind it still stood several columns of infantry and a small number of cavalry. The artillery fire was renewed, the enemy's weakened little by little, but our battery was constantly in action until the evening against the aforementioned heights and the columns deployed behind it. Finally, the darkness of night also established silence from our side.



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