‘The most terrible of all my battles’ Napoleon Bonaparte

/ datavizblog.com

/ datavizblog.com

Perhaps one of the least documented pitched battles of the Napoleonic Wars was fought on 7th September 1812. It was called Borodino and took place in Russia, some 70 miles west of Moscow.

The Russian general involved was Kutusov, commanding 120,000 troops in defensive positions on high ground near the village of that name – Borodino. The town was important because it stood directly on the Moscow – Smolensk highway. Napoleon took no notice of the advice of his Marshal Davout, who had suggested a southerly outflanking movement. The Emperor said he had not enough soldiers for a manoeuvre of that kind. Typically, he chose a frontal assault.

Kutuzov / napoleonbonaparte.es

Kutuzov / napoleonbonaparte.es

This kind of pitched battle, when employed against Russians, is invariably negative in result. The Russians repulsed wave upon wave of French assaults on their main position until the early evening, when they simply withdrew in good order to another defensive line. Still Bonaparte refused to send in his Imperial Guard (perhaps because he could not afford to lose such magnificent fighters), and the battle became loose and disorganised, finally petering out completely. Then Kutusov silently withdrew during the night leaving the French to claim victory, but it might be described as a truly Pyrrhic victory, as nobody won.

Later, in seclusion on the island of St. Helena after Waterloo, Bonaparte described Borodino as ‘the most terrible of all my battles’. He lost fully 25% of his troops, and the Russians around 34%, but this appalling casualty rate was entirely useless, as no ground had been gained, or lost for that matter. Borodino was another example of the dreadful futility of all war. Approximately 93,460 men were killed or wounded on both sides.

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