Searching for the decisive encounter
As Napoleon concentrated his enormous coalition army in preparation for the invasion of Russia, three Russian armies were positioned to guard the western frontier: the 1st Western Army, under Mikhail Barclay de Tolly, the 2nd Western Army, under Prince Pyotr Bagration, and the 3rd Western Army, under Alexander Tormasov. In June 1812, the 1st Western Army was stationed along the frontier with East Prussia and the Duchy of Warsaw. The 2nd was placed further south in modern Belarus. The 3rd stood yet further south, but still in Belarus. The overall commander of these three armies was Alexander himself, who was installed in Barclay de Tolly's headquarters near Vilna.
On 23 June, the Prussian major (and later military theorist) Karl von Clausewitz, who had recently entered Alexander's service, reached the Drissa camp (northwest of Polotsk on the Dvina, near modern Verkhniadzvinsk in Belarus) to inspect the site and report on the progress being made on its defensive works and fortifications. He remained unconvinced of its defensive qualities and said so to Alexander on 28 June. Despite the fact that the camp had appeared central to Russian strategy pre-invasion, it would prove of little worth once the Russian forces had withdrawn from the western frontier.
News of the Grande Armée's advance guard crossing the Niemen (24 June, 1812) reached Alexander and Barclay de Tolly that same day, late in the evening. The order to withdraw to the Drissa camp was issued shortly afterwards, and Barclay's units fell back.
Between 26 and 27 June, the order to retreat back from borders spread to each of the Russian corps commanders. Although most of the 1st Western Army's withdrawal was relatively untroubled, General Dokhturov's 6th corps, stationed between Lida and Grodno, was almost cut off by the Grande Armée's crossing of the Niemen and Davout's troops making for Minsk. Only by force marching did the 6th corps avoid the advancing French troops and reach Drissa unmolested. It was also on 26 June that Alexander dispatched a letter proposing talks with Napoleon, provided that the French emperor retired back over the border. The messenger was held up by Davout and only succeeded in reaching Berthier and Napoleon at the end of the month. The evacuation of Vilna began late on 26 June: by the time Napoleon received Alexander's messenger and letter, Vilna had been occupied by the Grande Armée. Barclay de Tolly left the city early on 28 June, having destroyed the remaining depots as well as the bridge across the Dvina. Napoleon's advance troops arrived about an hour later.
Bagration, at the head of the 2nd Western Army, had been stationed in the triangle of Volkovysk (modern day Belarus) Białystok (modern-day Poland) and Brest-Litovsk when Napoleon crossed the Niemen. With less than 250km between the two commanders, Bagration was instructed to head back inland, and he left Volkovysk on 28 June. On 30 June, Jerome Napoleon, king of Westphalia, arrived in Grodno (modern-day Belarus), about 50 km to the north of Volkovysk so recently vacated by the Russians. However Jerome's slow advance at the head of his Westphalian troops was not speedy enough for his infuriated brother, Napoleon. The emperor wanted Jerome to push on and harry Bagration's force before it had a chance to withdraw and join up with the 1st Western Army. Whilst Bagration had initially been instructed to head straight for the Drissa camp, on learning of Davout's position further north – near Achmiany (Belarus), heading for Minsk – which rendered his instructions impossible, the Russian instead set off due east for Bobruysk, also heading towards Minsk. Jerome's advance troops eventually made contact with Bagration's strong rearguard cavalry further down the line, but by then it was too late: Bagration had escaped Jerome and Davout and was able to continue his reluctant retreat.
By 4 July, the Austrian headquarters, commanded by Prince Schwarzenberg, had moved up from Lviv and was by now in Pruzhany (modern-day Belarus). His orders were to monitor Tormasov's forces stationed on Alexander's far left wing, in the Volynia region (modern-day north-western Ukraine, around Lutsk and Rivne).
To Drissa via Saltanovka
By 5 July, Jerome had still not made any serious advance on Bagration. On 6 July, Napoleon gave orders that in the event of Jerome's and Davout's troops reuniting, overall command would devolve to Davout as the more experienced general. He also instructed his stepson and Viceroy of Italy, Eugene de Beauharnais to lead his IV, the VI corps and the III cavalry corps to get after Bagration in support of Davout. The viceroy left Novo Troki (modern-day Trakai, Lithuania) on 7 July and headed south for Šalčininkai (Lithuania). On 8 July, Davout and his 1st Corps occupied Minsk.
The advance guard of the 1st Western Army, with Alexander, arrived at the fortified camp in Drissa on 9 July, followed two days later by Barclay de Tolly with the main body of the 1st Western Army. Yet by 17 July, the Russians were leaving the camp, having burned their remaining stores. Pursuing a policy of scorched earth and a total avoidance of open battle with Napoleon, the forces retreated back on Vitebsk.
At the start of the campaign, General Matvei Platov's flying cossacks offered cover for Bagration's retreating force. With Jerome's troops desperately trailing after the retreating 2nd Western Army, Platov's cossacks ambushed Jerome's advanced Polish lancers on 8, 9 and 10 July, near the villages of Kareličy and Mir (Belarus). These clashes were the first real combat of the campaign, and saw the Polish troops defeated, and indeed nearly routed, by the superior cossack light cavalry. These defeats ensured that a healthy distance remained between Jerome and Bagration's retreating forces.
Finally, on 11 July Jerome's two corps reached Navahrudak (Belarus) and continued east, reaching Nesvizh on 14 July. It was there that, on 16 July, he received Davout who informed him of Napoleon's decision to amalgamate the forces and remove his younger brother from command. Furious, Jerome set off home to Kassel (back in Westphalia). Meanwhile, Bagration had reached Slutsk by 13 July, by now beyond the reaches of both Jerome and Davout. Davout's presence did however prevent Bagration from immediately linking up with Barclay de Tolly at the Drissa camp. Forced to circle further to the south in order to stay out of Davout's reaches, Bagration eventually met Davout later that month, at the Battle of Saltanovka (23 July).
Meanwhile, Napoleon remained in Vilna until 16 July, occupied with a number of important tasks. One was the organisation of the government of Lithuania. On 1 July, 1812, Napoleon had signed a text establishing the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (also known as the Provisional Government of Lithuania): the initial aim was to raise troops in the Lithuanian territories and provision the rearguard of the Grande Armée. Despite putting in place an extensive system of government and administration (he appointed diplomat Louis Pierre Edouard Bignon as imperial commissar and Dutch general Dirk van Hogendorp as governor), logistical difficulties and lack of material support beset the provisional government. Another key operation was the organisation of his supply line: a great deal of food and water provisions for the entire campaign had to come through Vilna. In the end, however, the three or so weeks that Napoleon spent in Vilna slowed the advance to such an extent that both Bagration and Barclay de Tolly were able to retreat back into Russia relatively unhindered.
Morale had however suffered greatly in the Russian camp in the early days of the campaign. In fact even the initial strategic withdrawal had proved extremely unpopular with a number of the tsar's generals, who considered it not only militarily risky to cede ground so easily but also politically dangerous to abandon the Duchy of Warsaw and Prussia to Napoleon. Russian despondency surrounding this initial retreat was palpable. On 10 July, 1812, the Russian officer Arseny Andreyevich Zakrevsky (who had served as adjutant to Barclay de Tolly earlier in 1812) wrote to Fieldmarshal Vorontsov with criticism for the strategy:
“We have retired hastily, towards the wretched position of Drissa which, it would seem, will be our ruin. We cannot now reassess our decision, or undertake a different strategy; it appears that we have chosen the worst.”
And as time passed, the Drissa camp too began to appear unable to offer the protection required against Napoleon's advancing Grande Armée. If Barclay de Tolly remained entrenched in the camp, Napoleon would be at liberty to direct his forces against Bagration and destroy the 2nd Western Army. Such an event would open up the Grande Armée's march on Moscow and leave Barclay de Tolly dangerously exposed and threatened from behind.
And so, on 17 July, in another morale-sapping manouvre, Russian forces destroyed the camp's magazines and marched out south east, away from the border and towards Vitebsk. What had initially been been built as the bedrock on which the entire Russian defensive strategy was to be abandoned only three weeks after the invasion. Peter Wittgenstein was to remain in the area with 25,000 men (the 1st Infantry Corps) and orders to protect the road to St Petersburg. On 18 July, having arrived in Polotsk, Alexander left his army in the hands of Barclay de Tolly and proceeded on to Moscow, before returning to St Petersburg. The Russian strategy appeared to be in tatters. On the same day (18 July), Napoleon arrived in Hlybokaye (modern-day Belarus), 86km to the south-west of Polotsk. Oudinot was by now just below the Drissa camp.
From Saltanovka towards Smolensk
Further to the south-east, at 7am on 23 July, General Rayevski's 7th Corps (part of Bagration's 2nd Western Army) met Davout's infantry forces – commanded by Joseph-Marie Dessaix , Compans and Claparède – and his cavalry squadrons at Saltanovka, just south of Mogilev. The French forces outnumbered Rayevski's troops, and the Russian troops – instructed to force their way through to Mogilev – failed to make any headway. Rayevski's attack did however buy enough time for the remaining troops of the 2nd Western Army to head north-east for Smolensk. Russian losses numbered about 2,500, whilst the Grande Armée saw over a thousand soldiers injured, killed or taken prisoner. And although Davout had prevented Bagration's force from reaching Barclay de Tolly, thus forcing him westwards, catching up with the Russians remained beyond the Grande Armée. Davout's aggressive march to cut off Bagration had also severely depleted his troops. Following his victory at Saltanovka, the marshal was obliged to halt at Mogilev and let the Russians withdraw.
On 24 July, Napoleon had reached Kamień, about 95km due west of Vitebsk. Oudinot was based near Dzisna, keeping an eye on Wittgenstein (who was based at the Drissa camp) but prepared to cross the river Dvina if necessary. The 1st Western Army had marched hard, with some of its forces reaching Vitebsk by 23 July. Barclay de Tolly still hoped to link up with Bagration but, aware that Napoleon was looking to force an engagement at Vitebsk, he dispatched Alexander Ivanovich Ostermann-Tolstoy, commander of the 1st Western Army's 4th Corps, back to Ostrovno to create a screen and slow the Grande Armée's advance.
On 25 July, Murat came across Ostermann-Tolstoy's forces stationed in a defensible position near the river Dvina and the modern-day village of Astroüna (Ostrovno) at what was the first major clash between Napoleon forces and the 1st Western Army. As a result of Ostermann-Tolstoy's limited qualities as a general, the French ambush succeeded in capturing a number of the 4th Corps' guns. And a rash Russian infantry charge (not this time the general's fault) was initially successful but eventually overwhelmed, losing 30% of its men. With an additional French division under Alexis Joseph Delzon advancing on the position, Ostermann-Tolstoy retreated back towards Kakuviachino. Although losses were high (about 2,500 killed, wounded or missing), the 4th Corps had succeeded in slowing down the French advance. The task of delaying the Murat's troops further was handed over to Peter Konovnitsyn, commander in the 3rd Corps. The latter and his troops managed to hold the French off for another day until on 26 July. When however Barclay de Tolly learned that Bagration had been held at Mogilev and was not going to make Vitebsk, possibilities of facing Napoleon at Vitebsk were severely compromised. Russian generals, notably Ermolov, managed then to pursuade Barclay de Tolly that holding the position at Vitebsk risked being outnumbered by the advancing Grande Armée, and there was still the possibility that the 1st and 2nd Western Armies could become cut off from one another. At 4pm on 27 July, the First Western Army's retreat from Vitebsk began east in direction of Smolensk. With Peter Pahlen, in charge of the rearguard, holding the French at bay and covering the Russian troops' tracks, the 1st Western Army again succeeded in slipping away from Napoleon. The deft withdrawal, which left nothing to the French forces when they arrived in Vitebsk on 28 July, was a clear sign to some of the Grande Armée's officers that the Russian forces in front of them were not going to be a pushover. By this point, Napoleon needed to give his troops a rest and Barclay de Tolly's men were able to make their way on to Smolensk, arriving there on 1 August.
On 2 August, Bagration's 2nd Western Army and Barclay de Tolly's 1st Western Army finally convened in Smolensk.
Having arrived in Vitebsk on 28 July, Napoleon decided to offer his troops some much needed rest. The march, coupled with the heat (the daily temperature was by averaging 28-30° C), meant his troops could not continue any serious pursuit of Barclay de Tolly. That night, the French emperor declared to Murat, Berthier and Eugène that “The first Russian campaign is over… We shall be in Moscow in 1813, [and] in St Petersburg in 1814. The war with Russia is a three-year war.”
On 4 August, the French headquarters was thus in Vitebsk, with Eugene in Surazh (between Velizh, Russia, to the north-east and Janavičy to the south-west in modern-day Ukraine); Murat at Rudnya (just over the border in modern-day Russia, on the road between Vitebsk and Smolensk); Davout at the confluence of the Beresina and the Dnieper; Ney south-east of Vitebsk, at Liozna (Belarus); Junot in Orcha (Belarus); Poniatowski in Mogilev; Oudinot before Polotsk; and Schwarzenberg in Slonim (Belarus).
Polotsk, Smolensk and on to Borodino
To the north, on the French left flank, Oudinot had been charged with linking up with Etienne-Jacques-Joseph-Alexandre Macdonald – leading the 10th Corps and himself ordered to capture the stronghold of Riga – and pushing back Wittgenstein. Although Oudinot never succeeded in joining up with Macdonald, he did engage Wittgenstein between 30 July and 1 August. The first battle actually took place on 28 July, between Wittgenstein's advance guard (under General Kulniev) and Oudinot's light cavalry and the 6th infantry division, commanded by Corbineau and Legrand respectively, at Kliastitsy (35km north of Polotsk). This initial clash saw the French surprised and pushed back: the second meeting, which ran over 30 July, 31 July and 1 August, saw further French losses as the Russian artillery held the advance. Kulniev was however killed leading a charge late on 1 August, the Russians lost about one thousand men, and the battle came to an end with Oudinot withdrawing south towards Polotsk and Wittgenstein falling back northwards. As a result, Gouvion-Saint-Cyr, who commanded the Bavarian VI Corps and had already been instructed to offer Oudinot support, was obliged to force march from Biešankovičy (about 80km south-east of Polotsk) to Polotsk. Setting out on 4 August, the Bavarian corps reached Polotsk on 7 August. That same day, Oudinot set out from Polotsk, heading towards Wittgenstein's position at a village called Rosiza, north of the Drissa camp. On 11 August, the Russian commander headed south towards Svol'na (Belarus), intent on cutting Oudinot off. The latter retreated back towards Polotsk. For the memoirs of D'Aupias which recount in detail this northern theatre, see here (text in French).
By now, Alexander was aware that it was becoming politically dangerous to cede such huge swathes of Russian territory without a fight. He therefore wrote to Barclay de Tolly on 9 August indicating the need to go on the offensive and begin fighting back properly against the invaders. Despite the push from both within and without the army to attack Napoleon in open battle, Barclay de Tolly remained unconvinced. Arguing that pitched battle against the Grande Armée risked leaving the Russian empire completely undefended should he prove unsuccessful, Barclay de Tolly continued to pursue his defensive retreat, hoping that slowing Napoleon would allow Alexander time to put together a reserve force.
Further south, in Gorodeczna (north-east of Brest-Litovsk, between Pruzhany and Kobrin), on 12 August troops under Schwarzenberg and Reynier defeated a Russian force commanded by Tormassov.
On the afternoon of 15 August, troops under Murat and Ney arrived at the western edge of Smolensk, where elements of the 1st and 2nd Western Armies had convened (including Dokhturov's VII Corps, infantry from Konovnitzin's II Corps and Neverovsky's 27th Division). Over the course of 16 and 17 August, Ney's and Murat's troops, along with Poniatowski's Polish Corps, clashed with the Russians pitched in Smolensk: Barclay de Tolly – who was resolved to continue the retreat and draw Napoleon ever eastwards – called a withdrawal. About 11,000 Russians died defending the city.
Back in the north west, the First Battle of Polotsk took place between 17 and 18 August and saw Oudinot's troops, supported by Gouvion-St-Cyr's Bavarians, meet Wittgenstein's reinforced 1st Corps of about 22,000 men. The Russian attack centred on the village of Spas (near Polotsk) but by the end of the first day, both sides had maintained their positions. Oudinot was wounded during the day, and Gouvion-St-Cyr took over the command. On 18 August, a French counter attack was launched and succeeded in pushing Wittgenstein back, who decided that withdrawal was the best course of action. Although the Russians had withdrawn (Gouvion-St-Cyr was made a maréchal shortly afterwards, on 27 August, 1812), Oudinot's march on St Petersburg was held up. The latter came in for some severe criticism from Napoleon, who considered that Oudinot had allowed himself to be cowed and bullied by Wittgenstein. Alexander, for his part, would later declare Wittgenstein to be the “saviour of St Petersburg” whilst Gouvion-St-Cyr praised the Russians for their orderly and combative retreat. The Russian troops fell back to Sivoshin, 40km or so from Potolsk, and there was to be no further combat until October.
The 1st and 2nd Western Armies' march back in the direction of Moscow was to prove eventful. Having evacuated Smolensk (which was by now in ruins), and forced along poor country roads in order to avoid the French artillery, Barclay de Tolly's rearguard – commanded by Eugen of Württemberg, Alexander's cousin – was severely harried by Napoleon's advancing troops, commanded by Ney and Murat. The retreat had begun in confusion and a complete lack of coordination, caused in part by poor organisation, difficult roads, and a night-time departure. As a result, Württemberg's troops were caught by Ney's advancing force. Meanwhile, troops under Pavel Tuchkov (who was later captured during the combat and imprisoned), held their nerve and succeeded in protecting the Moscow road to the east of Smolensk. These skirmishes, which took place on 19 August near Valutino and Gedeonovo (on the outskirts of Smolensk, near modern-day Lubino), are often claimed as French victories. Although the Russians were forced to withdraw, the advancing troops under Ney and Murat were held up long enough to allow the Russians to retreat to a safe distance. Napoleon, who believed the Russians to have retreated further back than they in actual fact had, remained away from the frontline, installed in Smolensk since 16 August. In the end, the lack of concerted push from the French saved the Russian army. Smolensk had been left to the French, but Napoleon knew that Moscow would not be abandoned without a serious fight.
On 18 August, Kutusov was appointed supreme commander, replacing Barclay de Tolly, whose tactics had been widely criticised, particularly by Bagration. Barclay de Tolly remained in command of the 1st Western Army, but Kutusov now dictated the strategy. Since the retreat from Smolensk, a defensible position for battle with Napoleon had been sought somewhere along the Moscow road. Dorogobuzh and the nearby Usv'atye fields (the site of Colonel Toll's open criticism of Barclay de Tolly's strategy, an incident on 21 August known as the “Mutiny of the Generals”) were both suggested and rejected. Time was running out as the Russian forces retreated back towards Moscow. Eventually, the small village of Borodino, 124 kilometres from Moscow was chosen.
On 25 August, Napoleon – based near Dorogobuzh (about ninety kilometres east of Smolensk) – received the wounded Tuchkov, where he proposed peace talks. Tuchkov refused and later that autumn was dispatched to Metz. By 28 August, the Grande Armée had arrived in the town of Vyaz'ma, 114km from Borodino. The retreating Russian troops had sought to raze it to the ground, but the French forces succeeded in extinguishing the fire and salvaging the town's food stores. On 29 August, Kutusov joined up with the retreating Russian forces on the Moscow road.
On 30 August, 2,000 reinforcements under General Miloradovich arrived, and at the start of September, the Russians were in Borodino. On 31 August, two cossacks were captured by Murat's forces: Napoleon subsequently learned of Kutuzov's promotion and arrival as commander of the Russian forces. On 1 September, Napoleon arrived in Gjatsk (modern-day Gagarin, Russia), just sixty or so kilometres from Borodino.
The run-up to Borodino
Despite being chosen as the site to pitch battle, Borodino was not without its faults. The Old Smolensk Road, which cut in from the west behind the Russian position (the latter running from Maslovo, through Borodino and the destroyed village of Semenovskoe – Raevski's Redoubt – and onto the Russian left-flank stationed at Shevardino), offered the advancing Grande Armée a route behind Russian lines. To avoid this, Bagration's troops, stationed at Shevardino, started to push south eastwards to Utitsa, due south of Borodino.
On 5 September, the French advance guard under Murat appeared on the Russian left-wing near Shevardino, commanded by Major General Count Sievers. Murat, with Davout, captured the villages of Alexinki and Kolotsa, near Shevardino. Meanwhile Poniatowski moved up from the south and captured Doronino. During the fierce battle, the Russians lost between 5,000 and 6,000 men and were pushed back. French losses totalled about 4,000. As a result, a large majority of the Russian forces stationed at Borodino were squeezed into the small area of land between Semenovskoe and Borodino.
The morning of 5 September, French forces totalled slightly more than 140,000 men (of which Napoleon would commit 124,000, refusing to commit his elite Guards regiment), with the Russian troops at about 110,000. On 6 September, the two sides recuperated from the previous day's battle and made preparations for the next clash.
The night before the battle, Kutuzov roused his troops, declaring:
Fulfil your duty. Think of the sacrifices made of your cities delivered to the flames and of your children who implore your protection. Think of your emperor, your lord, who considers you to be the source of his strength, and tomorrow, before the sun has gone down, you will have written your faith and your loyalty to your sovereign and your fatherland in the blood of the aggressor and his armies.” (Quoted in French in Marie-Pierre Rey, L'Effroyable Tragédie, 2012, p. 155)
Remplissez votre devoir. Songez aux sacrifices de vos cités livrées aux flammes et à vos enfants qui implorent votre protection. Songez à votre Empereur, votre Seigneur, qui vous considère comme le nerf de sa force, et demain, avant que le soleil ne se couche, vous aurez écrit votre foi et votre fidélité à votre souverain et à votre patrie avec le sang de l'agresseur et de ses armées.”
At 2am on 7 September, Napoleon dictated his famous proclamation, to be read to the troops at about 6am:
“Soldiers! Here is the battle that you have so much desired. From now on victory depends on you: it is necessary to us. It will give you abundance, good winter quarters, and a prompt return to the fatherland. Conduct yourselves as at Austerlitz, at Friedland, at Vitebsk, at Smolensk, and let the most distant posterity point with pride to your conduct on this day. Let it be said of you, 'He was in that great battle under the walls of Moscow.'”
“Soldats ! Vous avez supporté les privations et les fatigues avec autant de courage que vous avez montré d'intrépidité et de sang-froid au milieu des combats. Vous êtes les dignes défenseurs de l'honneur de ma couronne et de la gloire du grand peuple. Tant que vous serez animés de cet esprit, rien ne pourra vous résister.
Soldats, voilà la bataille que vous avez tant désirée ! Désormais la victoire dépend de vous : elle nous est nécessaire. Elle nous donnera l'abondance, de bons quartiers d'hiver et un prompt retour dans la patrie ! Conduisez-vous comme à Austerlitz, à Friedland, à Vitebsk, à Smolensk, et que la postérité la plus reculée cite avec orgueil votre conduite dans cette journée ; que l'on dise de vous : il était à cette grande bataille sous les murs de Moscou !”
The Battle of Borodino
On 7 September, at the Battle of Borodino, the Russians sought to fight a battle of attrition. Knowing that they were clustered densely around the defensive positions erected in the area (Raevski's Redoubt and the v-shaped earthworks known as the Bagration flèches), the hope was that Napoleon would be limited tactically and forced to simply meet the Russians head-on. The Russian command knew that this strategy would cost them a great deal of men. The massed ranks of Russian troops formed a thick curtain of troops, whilst the battlefield and troop arrangement made any military manoeuvres almost impossible. The battle has gone down in history not for its strategic brilliance but for the sheer destruction of life on both sides. After the battle, General Lariboisière estimated that the French artillery – all 587 guns – had fired about 60,000 times, with the infantry having gone through 140,000 cartridges: it is thought that the Russians fired slightly fewer cannon shots (50,000) and 20,000 fewer cartridges. For a battle that lasted about ten hours, this works out at about three cannon shots per second and more than 430 musket shots per minute (figures in Marie-Pierre Rey, L'Effroyable Tragédie, 2012, pp. 156-157). The Russian artillery numbered over 600 pieces, but problems in supplying enough ammunition coupled with a failure to concentrate their fire where it mattered meant that they proved less effective than the French guns. The Russians also lost Aleksandr Kutaisov, the artillery commander: his body was never found.
One Russian officer, Lieutenant Andreev, noted in reference to the cannon fire:
“They said that the sky burned [that day]. But we could barely make out the sky through the screen of smoke.”
At 6.30am, the French forces hit the right-wing of the Russian army, surprising Kutuzov, who expected the first hit to come against the left-wing. Troops commanded by Eugène and led by General Delzons crashed out of the dawn fog and into the Russian forces stationed in Borodino. After a brief counter-attack around 7am, the village fell. At the same time, troops under Davout and Ney attacked the southern-most Bagration flèches, guarded by men under General Mikhail Vorontsov and Neverovsky. The defensive works exchanged hands in the three hours up to 10am, when Ney finally seized them back for the French. By midday, the French troops had fought off the Russian counter-attacks and secured the position. The day was to get worse for the Russians: Bagration was gravely wounded during the battle and had passed out. He would eventually die from the related infection on 24 September. The central redoubt was the site of particularly bloody fighting, captured and lost in turn – swinging like a “pendulum” in the words of Dominic Lieven Russia against Napoleon (p. 201) – as both sides manoeuvred to secure the position. During the fighting, Montbrun died after shrapnel ripped through his kidney, whilst his replacement in the struggle for the redoubt, General Auguste de Caulaincourt (brother of the diplomat), was also killed.
Finally, around 6pm, the cannon fire stopped and the two sides retired to their headquarters: Napoleon to Shevardino, Kutuzov to Moshaysk, 15km to the east. Although Napoleon anticipated picking up where he had left off the next morning, in reality the battle was over. The battle was to prove one of the bloodiest in the entire history of the Napoleonic Wars: the Russians had 45,000 dead, wounded or missing, whilst Napoleon's losses totalled between 28,000 and 35,000. Dominique Jean Larrey, chief surgeon, estimated that he had performed about two hundred amputations – most as a result of artillery fire – in the first twenty-four hours after the battle. The victory – in terms of territory won and losses inflicted – was Napoleon's. It was not to be however the decisive one he so craved: the remnants of the Russian armies retreated back towards Moscow, leading Napoleon to declare “La paix est à Moscou”. In relaying the result of the battle to Alexander, Kutuzov's description painted it as a victory to the Russians. Later Russian army bulletins even described how the French army had been torn to pieces, albeit without any mention of the death toll. Debate remains as to whether the victory could have been the one Napoleon wanted had he committed his Guards. His officer corps had been divided on the issue during the battle – Murat, Davout and Ney for their introduction in order to bring the battle to its conclusion; Berthier, Duroc and Bessières against, for fear that a damaged Guards regiment would affect morale so far from Paris – and historians have continued to debate how successful their introduction would have been. As it was, the Guards remained in reserve, Kutuzov retreated down the Moscow road, and Napoleon found himself obliged to give chase once again.
This time, the Russian withdrawal was less organised. The retreat, covered by the cossack commander Matvei Platov, proved ineffective in slowing up the French chase. As a result, on 10 September the Russian rearguard clashed with Murat's vanguard. The Russian troops, unable to retreat in good order, were forced to leave many of their wounded and sick in Moshaysk. Napoleon remained in Moshaysk until 12 September.
The problem of Moscow reared its head again: no longer a question of pitching battle en route, the Russian forces headed back to the capital of Old Russia.
Kutuzov was far more attached to Moscow than Barclay de Tolly was (as a Baltic Protestant, Barclay de Tolly's allegiance lay primarily with the tsar and the empire, rather than the city of Moscow) and initially saw its loss as the end for Russia. However the previous battle had convinced him that the Russian army needed time and space to recover. A further engagement so soon after Borodino was not high on his list of priorities. At 4pm on 13 September, the day after the Russian army had arrived in Fili (a small village on the western outskirts of Moscow), a council of war was held. There, it was made clear that any attempt to hold the city would result in the destruction of the Russian army, the fall of Moscow and the likely end of the Russian Empire. Kutuzov may have come to that decision already, but as Lieven points out, the agreement (or at the very least a shared blame) had to be reached before he could call the retreat. In attendance were Bennigsen and Barclay de Tolly. Bennigsen was charged with preparing and choosing the battleground for the defence of the city, and he made it clear in later correspondence that he saw Barclay de Tolly and Kutuzov as the culprits behind the decision. Barclay de Tolly supported Kutuzov in his argument: not only would a defeat in front of the gates of Moscow have lost the city, but any subsequent retreat would be severely hampered by having to withdraw – probably hastily – through Moscow. At the end of the meeting, Kutuzov declared:
“I know that I am going to have for the breakage, but I sacrifice myself for the good of the fatherland. I order the retreat.” (quoted in Marie-Pierre Rey, op. cit., 2012, pp. 168-169)
By the evening of 13 September, the decision had been announced. Despair, shame and anger swept through the army (to be replaced by grim resolve), whilst fear took hold of the civilians all too aware of the Grande Armée's imminent arrival. Although some inhabitants had started to leave the city before the decision had gone public, there was little time to complete a full civilian evacuation. Archives were hurriedly boxed up, treasures covered, hidden or dispatched from the city. Carriages and carts were requisitioned for transport. At 11pm, the artillery began moving out of the city. The infantry began a few hours later, at 3am on 14 September. That day, as the Russian army passed through, the city descended into absolute chaos. As early as 3 September, however, Fyodor Rostopchin, the governor of Moscow, had begun removing not only all inhabitants considered “foreign” enough to harbour pro-French or pro-Napoleon sympathies (including Germans, Swiss and French) but also all civil servants and local elites, intent as he was to deprive Napoleon of any opportunity to liaise with or develop a relationship with the Russian authorities.
As Napoleon's advance guard under Murat approached the city walls, the Russian general in charge of covering the Russian retreat was a certain Mikhail Miloradovich, who succeeded in securing a one-day truce in order to evacuate the army in good order. Murat obliged, and the Russians were able to withdraw unmolested. Murat's troops did not reach the Dorogomilovo District, in the west, until 2pm on 14 September.
The night of 13/14 September, Rostopchin also evacuated the 2000-odd members of the fire brigade and nearly one hundred water pumps from the city. What followed remains uncertain. There is evidence to suggest that Rostopchin gave the order to set fire to the city once the army had left. It may have also been part of the general scorched earth policy of the Russian army ever since the Grande Armée had crossed the border. It equally could have been brought about from looting on both sides. All that is known is that no orders for such an act were given by Napoleon or Alexander (irrespective – in the case of the former – of later Russian propaganda). Whatever the case, early on 15 September Napoleon entered an almost completely deserted Moscow. The population, about 262,000 in 1812, had left, with only 10,000 (some of whom were wounded soldiers) remaining. By midday he had set up his headquarters in the Kremlin. The nature of the evacuation had left a large quantity of food and drink in the city. Yet by the end of the day, the first fires had broken out within the city walls. Between 10.30pm and midnight, the fire spread further, leaping quickly between the closely-packed buildings and warehouses. As the wind picked up, controlling the fire became more and more difficult. By the morning of 16 September, the fire had intensified. The Arbat – the historical centre of the city – was destroyed and the University of Moscow's library had gone up in flames. At midday that day, Napoleon was encouraged to evacuate the Kremlin. Refusing, he remained in the palace until 5.30pm when, “besieged by an ocean of flames” (in Ségur's words), he was obliged to flee.
He and his officers set up camp in the Petrovski Palace, a few kilometres north-west of Moscow, on the St Petersburg road. The remaining French troops, being completely without the means to bring the fire under control, left the city at the same time. Eugene de Beauharnais lead his troops out on the road to Zvenigorod (to the west). Ney headed north-west towards St Petersburg. Davout took the road to Smolensk. The French forces remained outside of the city limits until 20 September when, as the rain came to fall, the fire was extinguished. Returning to the city that day, the army – officer and common soldier alike – descended into a frenzy of pillage. In the absence of police or any sort of authority, many Russians still in the city joined in. Napoleon returned to the Kremlin. A third of Moscow's houses were utterly destroyed, whilst only 122 out of 329 churches remained standing after the fire and destruction.
Meanwhile, Kutuzov and the army had evacuated the city on 13/14 September. Initially heading out towards Ryazin', they had passed through Lyubertsy on 16 September and continued south-east. Then, Kutuzov suddenly turned west and passed back in front of Moscow at high speed. Fortunately for the Russians, the Grande Armée was to prove too exhausted to follow the withdrawal. On 18 September Kutuzov was in Podolsk, before continuing on to his encampment near Tarutino, about 100km to the south-west of Moscow. This position not only allowed him to harass the French lines of communication, but also stay in contact with the Russian forces under Tormasov and Chichagov, commander of the Army of the Danube. He was also well placed to watch over the workshops and arms factories in nearby Tula and Briansk, and receive supplies which came up to Kaluga from the fertile lands to the south, in modern-day Ukraine.
Napoleon was left with a few choices. He could make his winter quarters in the ravaged city of Moscow. He could head south towards the breadbasket of The Ukraine. Or he could make for St Petersburg. This latter option would have been feasible had he the men and the material, but as it was, he would be forced to march through the winter-ravaged land with the possibility of being cut off by the remaining troops under Kutuzov. Napoleon however seemed convinced that an approach to treat from Alexander was imminent. Nor was a great deal of coordinated effort made to organise winter equipment and supplies. Napoleon, by various means, sought to engage Alexander, but each one remained ignored.
On 20 September, Napoleon wrote to Alexander:
“The beautiful and fine city of Moscow is no more: Rostopchin has had it burnt down. Four hundred arsonists have been caught in the act; they all declared that they were lighting the fire on the order of this governor and the director of police: they have all been shot. The fire now seems to have abated. Three-quarters of the houses have been burnt, one quarter remains. […] How is it possible to destroy one of the most beautiful cities in the world and the work of centuries in the achievement of such a weak aim? […] The fire has opened the way to pillage, in which the soldiery is competing with the fire for the remains. If I once for a moment imagined that such things had been done on Your Majesty's order, I would not be writing this letter; however I am convinced that it is impossible, given your principles, your spirit and your enlightened ideas, that you ordered such excesses, unworthy as they would be of so great a sovereign and so great a nation. […] I made war against your majesty without bitterness; one word from you, whether before or after our recent battle, would have stopped my advance and I would even have agreed to forgo the advantage of entering Moscow.” [20 September, 1812, Correspondance générale, Fayard/Fondation Napoléon, 2012, n° 31,736, p. 1,103]
Upon learning of Kutuzov's movements, he dispatched Bessières to observe the Russian movements. Poniatowski and his force reached Podolsk on 24 September.
By 4 October, Napoleon knew that a decision had to be taken. Macdonald's siege of Riga was threatened by the arrival of Governor of Finland Faddey Steingell at the head of 10,000 men. Although Macdonald successfully repelled the threat, Steingell linked up with Wittgenstein, still in the area. To the south-west, Chichagov and Tormasov threatened Schwarzenberg, based near Brest-Litovsk. There were over nine hundred kilometres between Riga and Moscow, and more than a thousand kilometres between Napoleon and Brest-Litovsk. Any further advance would simply increase these distances.
In the end, Napoleon was to stay in the Moscow about a month. What was the plan there? The mounting of an attack on St Petersburg was apparently mooted; huge amounts of stores were amassed with the idea of wintering in the Russian capital; reinforcements were on their way from Smolensk. But the situation in Moscow was not good. The city was half burnt and the troops had plundered much. And not far to the south east, the Russian army, by no means out of action, was preparing to counterattack. Furthermore, partisan units were successfully harrying transport columns, and, as the encounter at Taroutino would show, despite their chaotic approach, the Russians were still a force to be reckoned with. Kutuzov was later to boast that he had played the French emperor, dragging out negotiations with Napoleon because the Russian knew that the French in Moscow were stuck in a trap.
It is possible however that, taking into account the fact that he said this in December 1812, this assertion was made with the benefit of hindsight. And in the same conversation, Kutusov also convincingly remarks that he thought that Napoleon had waited too long, letting himself be obsessed with obtaining a peace treaty instead of continuing to be belligerent. Be that as it may, Napoleon's actions in Moscow seem to imply hesitation, and in the mental and strategic void, the emperor took the fateful step of heading, too late, back west.
For a link to Part I of this timelines, click here.