September 6 1812: Borodino

On September 6 1812,  the sun rose finding the two great armies arrayed against each other  on the fields of Borodino. The main decisions as to how the battle was to be fought were made by Napoleon on this day. Napoleon reviewed the deployment of the Russian army and saw the weakness on its left wing. Adam Zamoyski [1] writes:
Davout and Ney were to attack the fleches (Napoleon had only spotted two of them through his telescope) while Poniatwoski turned the Russian left wing, and then all three, supported by Junot, were to roll up the whole Russian army in a northerly direction, pinning it against the Mosakva river and annihilating it completely. Davout suggested an even deeper flanking move, to be delivered by himself and Poniatowski while Ney tied down the Russian, which would have achieved even more spectacular results with greater economy.  But Napoleon was uncharacteristically cautious.
One of the reasons for Napoleon's caution was that he was concerned about the number of troops that he had available. The losses  sustained as he had marched into Russia meant that he was no longer certain that he outnumbered the Russians. In fact, he may have been outnumbered. The other factor was that Napoleon was sick during the days of September 5, 6 and 7. He had caught a cold that had led to a dysuria, which affected his bladder. He breathed with some difficulty, would often be coughing, had shivering fits, his legs swollen, and his "urine came in drops, thick with sediment." [2] Philippe-Paul de Segur, who was with Napoleon, provides an artful description of his illness:  
It was on the 6th of September, the very day before the great battle! that a hurricane announced its fatal commencement. It struck Napoleon. Ever since the night of that day, it has been seen that a wearying fever had dried up his blood, and oppressed his spirits, and that he was quite overcome by it during the battle; the suffering he endured from this, added to another still more severe, for the five following days arrested his march, and bound up his genius. This it was which preserved Kutusof from total ruin at Borodino, and allowed him time to rally the remainder of his army, and withdraw it from our pursuit.
It should also be borne in mind that the Russian troops defending their motherland were to provide a heroic defence and fight tenaciously the next day. 

As for September 6, De Segur provides a masterful description of the events of that day. The translation by J. David Twonsend [3] is superior but the Gutenberg translation is reproduced below because it available on line here. The original French can be found here.

The sun of the 6th found the two armies again, and displayed them to each other, on the same ground where it had left them the evening before. There was a general feeling of exultation.

The emperor took advantage of the first rays of dawn, to advance between the two lines, and to go from height to height along the whole front of the hostile army. He saw the Russians crowning all the eminences, in a vast semicircle, two leagues in extent, from the Moskwa to the old Moscow road. Their right bordered the Kologha, from its influx into the Moskwa to Borodino; their centre, from Gorcka to Semenowska, was the saliant part of their line. Their right and left receded. The Kologha rendered their right inaccessible.

The emperor perceived this immediately, and as, from its distance, this wing was not more threatening than vulnerable, he took no account of it. For him then the Russian army commenced at Gorcka, a village situated on the high-road, and at the point of an elevated plain which overlooks Borodino and the Kologha. This sharp projection is surrounded by the Kologha, and by a deep and marshy ravine; its lofty crest, to which the high-road ascends on leaving Borodino, was strongly entrenched, and formed a separate work on the right of the Russian centre, of which it was the extremity.

On its left, and within reach of its fire, rose a detached hill, commanding the whole plain; it was crowned by a formidable redoubt, provided with twenty-one pieces of cannon. In front and on its right it was encompassed by the Kologha and by ravines; its left inclined to and supported itself upon a long and wide plateau, the foot of which descended to a muddy ravine, a branch of the Kologha. The crest of this plateau, which was lined by the Russians, declined and receded as it ran towards the left, in front of the grand army; it then kept rising as far as the yet smoking ruins of the village of Semenowska. This saliant point terminated Barclay's command and the centre of the enemy: it was armed with a strong battery, covered by an entrenchment.

Here began the left wing of the Russians under Bagration. The less elevated crest which it occupied undulated as it gradually receded to Utitza, a village on the old Moscow road, where the field of battle ended. Two hills, armed with redoubts, and bearing diagonally upon the entrenchment of Semenowska, which flanked them, marked the front of Bagration.

From Semenowska to the wood of Utitza there was an interval of about twelve hundred paces. It was the nature of the ground which had decided Kutusof thus to refuse this wing; for here the ravine, which was under the plateau in the centre, just commenced. It was scarcely an obstacle; the slopes of its banks were very gentle, and the summits suitable for artillery were at some distance from its margin. This side was evidently the most accessible, since the redoubt of the 61st, which that regiment had taken the preceding day, no longer defended the approach: this was even favoured by a wood of large pines, extending from the redoubt just mentioned to that which appeared to terminate the line of the Russians.

But their left wing did not end there. The emperor knew that behind this wood was the old Moscow road; that it turned round the left wing of the Russians, and passing behind their army, ran again into the new Moscow road in front of Mojaisk. He judged that it must be occupied; and, in fact, Tutchkof, with his corps d'armée, had placed himself across it at the entrance of a wood; he had covered himself by two heights, on which he had planted artillery.

But this was of little consequence, because, between this detached corps and the last Russian redoubt, there was a space of five or six hundred fathoms and a covered ground. If we did not begin with overwhelming Tutchkof, we might therefore occupy it, pass between him and the last of Bagration's redoubts, and take the left wing of the enemy in flank; but the emperor could not satisfy himself on this point, as the Russian advanced posts and the woods forbade his farther advance, and intercepted his view.

Having finished his reconnoissance, he formed his plan. "Eugene shall be the pivot!" he exclaimed: "it is the right that must commence. As soon as, under cover of the wood, it has taken the redoubt opposite to it, it must make a movement to the left, and march on the Russian flank, sweeping and driving back their whole army upon their right and into the Kologha."

The general plan thus conceived, he applied himself to the details. During the night, three batteries, of sixty guns each, must be opposed to the Russian redoubts; two facing their left, the third before their centre. At daybreak, Poniatowski and his army, reduced to five thousand men, must advance on the old Smolensk road, turning the wood on which the French right wing and the Russian left were supported. He would flank the one and annoy the other; the army would wait for the report of his first shots.

Instantly, the whole of the artillery should commence upon the left of the Russians, its fire would open their ranks and redoubts, and Davoust and Ney should rush upon them; they should be supported by Junot and his Westphalians, by Murat and his cavalry, and lastly, by the emperor himself, with 20,000 guards. It was against these two redoubts that the first efforts should be made; it was by them that he would penetrate into the hostile army, thenceforth mutilated, and whose centre and right would then be uncovered, and almost enveloped.

Meanwhile, as the Russians showed themselves in redoubled masses on their centre and their right, threatening the Moscow road, the only line of operation of the grand army; as in throwing his chief force and himself on their left, Napoleon was about to place the Kologha between him and that road, his only retreat, he resolved to strengthen the army of Italy which occupied it, and joined with it two of Davoust's divisions and Grouchy's cavalry. As to his left, he judged that one Italian division, the Bavarian cavalry, and that of Ornano, about 10,000 men, would suffice to cover it. Such were the plans of Napoleon.


He was on the heights of Borodino, taking a last survey of the whole field of battle, and confirming himself in his plan, when Davoust hastened up. This marshal had just examined the left of the Russians with so much the more care, as it was the ground on which he was to act, and he mistrusted his own eyes.

He begged the emperor "to place at his disposal his five divisions, 35,000 strong, and to unite with them Poniatowski, whose force was too weak to turn the enemy by itself. Next day he would set this force in motion; he would cover its march with the last shades of night, and with the wood on which the Russian left wing was supported, and beyond which he would pass by following the old road from Smolensk to Moscow; then, all at once, by a precipitate manœuvre, he would deploy 40,000 French and Poles on the flank and in the rear of that wing. There, while the emperor would occupy the front of the Muscovites by a general attack, he would march impetuously from redoubt to redoubt, from reserve to reserve, driving every thing from left to right on the high-road of Mojaisk, where they should put an end at once to the Russian army, the battle, and the war."

The emperor listened attentively to the marshal; but after meditating in silence for some minutes, he replied, "No! it is too great a movement; it would remove me too far from my object, and make me lose too much time."

The Prince of Eckmühl, however, from conviction, persisted in his point; he undertook to accomplish his manœuvre before six in the morning; he protested that in another hour the greatest part of its effect would be produced. Napoleon, impatient of contradiction, sharply replied with this exclamation, "Ah! you are always for turning the enemy; it is too dangerous a manœuvre!" The marshal, after this rebuff, said no more: he then returned to his post, murmuring against a prudence which he thought unseasonable, and to which he was not accustomed; and he knew not to what cause to attribute it, unless the looks of so many allies, who were not to be relied on, an army so reduced, a position so remote, and age, had rendered Napoleon less enterprising than he was.

The emperor, having decided, had returned to his camp, when Murat, whom the Russians had so often deceived, persuaded him that they were going to run away once more without fighting. In vain did Rapp, who was sent to observe their attitude, return and say, that he had seen them entrenching themselves more and more; that they were numerous, judiciously disposed, and appeared determined much rather to attack, if they were not anticipated, than to retreat: Murat persisted in his opinion, and the emperor, uneasy, returned to the heights of Borodino.

He there perceived long black columns of troops covering the high-road, and spreading over the plain; then large convoys of waggons, provisions, and ammunition, in short all the dispositions indicative of a stay and a battle. At that very moment, though he had taken with him but few attendants, that he might not attract the notice and the fire of the enemy, he was recognized by the Russian batteries, and a cannon-shot suddenly interrupted the silence of that day.

For, as it frequently happens, nothing was so calm as the day preceding that great battle. It was like a thing mutually agreed upon! Wherefore do each other useless injury? was not the next day to decide every thing? Besides, each had to prepare itself; the different corps, their arms, their force, their ammunition; they had to resume all their unity, which on a march is always more or less deranged. The generals had to observe their reciprocal dispositions of attack, defence, and retreat, in order to adapt them to each other and the ground, and to leave as little as possible to chance.

Thus these two colossal foes, on the point of commencing their terrible contest, watched each other attentively, measured one another with their eyes, and silently prepared for a tremendous conflict.

The emperor, who could no longer entertain doubts of a battle, returned to his tent to dictate the order of it. There he meditated on his awful situation. He had seen that the two armies were equal; about 120,000 men, and 600 pieces of cannon on either side. The Russians had the advantage of ground, of speaking but one language, of one uniform, of being a single nation, fighting for the same cause, but a great number of irregular troops and recruits. The French had as many men, but more soldiers; for the state of his corps had just been submitted to him: he had before his eyes an account of the strength of his divisions, and as it was neither a review, nor a distribution, but a battle that was in prospect, this time the statements were not exaggerated. His army was reduced indeed, but sound, supple, nervous,—like those manly bodies, which, having just lost the plumpness of youth, display forms more masculine and strongly marked.

Still, during the last few days that he had marched in the midst of it, he had found it silent, from that silence which is imposed by great expectation or great astonishment; like nature, the moment before a violent tempest, or crowds at the instant of an extraordinary danger.

He felt that it wanted rest of some kind or other, but that there was no rest for it but in death or victory; for he had brought it into such a necessity of conquering, that it must triumph at any rate. The temerity of the situation into which he had urged it was evident, but he knew that of all faults that was the one which the French most willingly forgave; that in short they doubted neither of themselves nor of him, nor of the general result, whatever might be their individual hardships.

He reckoned, moreover, on their habit and thirst of glory, and even on their curiosity; no doubt they wished to see Moscow, to be able to say that they had been there, to receive there the promised reward, perhaps to plunder, and, above all, there to find repose. He did not observe in them enthusiasm, but something more firm: an entire confidence in his star, in his genius, the consciousness of their superiority, and the proud assurance of conquerors, in the presence of the vanquished.

Full of these sentiments, he dictated a proclamation, simple, grave, and frank, as befitted such circumstances, and men who were not just commencing their career, and whom, after so many sufferings, it would have been idle to pretend to exalt.

Accordingly he addressed himself solely to the reason of all, or what is the same thing, to the real interest of each; he finished with glory, the only passion to which he could appeal in these deserts, the last of the noble motives by which it was possible to act upon soldiers always victorious, enlightened by an advanced civilization and long experience; in short, of all the generous illusions, the only one that could have carried them so far. This harangue will some day be deemed admirable: it was worthy of the commander and of the army; it did honour to both.

"Soldiers!" said he, "here is the battle which you have so ardently desired. Victory will now depend upon yourselves; it is necessary for us; it will give us abundance, good winter-quarters, and a speedy return home! Behave as you did at Austerlitz, at Friedland, at Witepsk, and at Smolensk, and afford to remotest posterity occasion to cite your conduct on that day: let it be said of you, 'He was in that great battle under the walls of Moscow.'"


About the middle of the day, Napoleon remarked an extraordinary movement in the enemy's camp; in fact, the whole Russian army was drawn up and under arms, and Kutusof, surrounded with every species of religious and military pomp, took his station in the middle of it. He had made his popes and his archimandrites dress themselves in those splendid and majestic insignia, which they have inherited from the Greeks. They marched before him, carrying the venerated symbols of their religion, and particularly that divine image, formerly the protectress of Smolensk, which, by their account, had been miraculously saved from the profanation of the sacrilegious French.

When the Russian saw that his soldiers were sufficiently excited by this extraordinary spectacle, he raised his voice, and began by putting them in mind of heaven, the only country which remains to the slave. In the name of the religion of equality, he endeavoured to animate these serfs to defend the property of their masters; but it was principally by exhibiting to them that holy image which had taken refuge in their ranks, that he appealed to their courage, and raised their indignation.

Napoleon, in his mouth, "was a universal despot! the tyrannical disturber of the world! a poor worm! an arch-rebel, who had overturned their altars, and polluted them with blood; who had exposed the true ark of the Lord, represented by the holy image, to the profanation of men, and the inclemency of the seasons." He then told them of their cities reduced to ashes; reminded them that they were about to fight for their wives and children; added a few words respecting the emperor, and concluded by appealing to their piety and their patriotism. These were the virtues of instinct with this rude and simple people, who had not yet advanced beyond sensations, but who, for that very reason, were so much more formidable as soldiers; less diverted from obedience by reasoning; confined by slavery to a narrow circle, in which they are reduced to a small number of sensations, which are the only sources of their wants, wishes, and ideas.

As to other characteristics, proud for want of comparison, and credulous as they are proud, from ignorance—worshippers of images, idolaters as much as Christians can be; for they had converted that religion of the soul, which is wholly intellectual and moral, into one entirely physical and material, to bring it to the level of their brute and short capacity.

This solemn spectacle, however, their general's address, the exhortations of their officers, and the benedictions of their priests, served to give a thorough tincture of fanaticism to their courage. All, even to the meanest soldier, fancied themselves devoted by God himself to the defence of Heaven and their consecrated soil.

With the French there was no solemnity, either religious or military, no review, no means of excitation: even the address of the emperor was not distributed till very late, and read the next morning so near the time of action, that several corps were actually engaged before they could hear it. The Russians, however, whom so many powerful motives should have inflamed, added to their invocations the sword of St. Michael, thus seeking to borrow aid from all the powers of heaven; while the French sought for it only within themselves, persuaded that real strength exists only in the heart, and that there is to be found the "celestial host."

Chance so ordered it, that on that very day the emperor received from Paris the portrait of the King of Rome, that infant whose birth had been hailed by the empire with the same transports of joy and hope as it had been by the emperor. Every day since that happy event, the emperor, in the interior of his palace, had given loose when near his child, to the expression of the most tender feelings; when, therefore, in the midst of these distant fields, and all these menacing preparations, he saw once more that sweet countenance, how his warlike soul melted! With his own hand he exhibited this picture outside his tent; he then called his officers, and even some of the soldiers of his old guard, desirous of sharing his pleasure with these veteran grenadiers, of showing his private family to his military family, and making it shine as a symbol of hope in the midst of imminent peril.

In the evening, an aid-de-camp of Marmont, who had been despatched from the field of battle near Salamanca, arrived at that of the Moskwa. This was the same Fabvier, who has since made such a figure in our civil dissensions. The emperor received graciously the aid-de-camp of the vanquished general. On the eve of a battle, the fate of which was so uncertain, he felt disposed to be indulgent to a defeat; he listened to all that was said to him respecting the scattered state of his forces in Spain, and the number of commanders-in-chief, and admitted the justice of it all; but he explained his reasons, which it enters not into our province to mention here.

With the return of night also returned the apprehension, that under cover of its shades, the Russian army might escape from the field of battle. Napoleon's anxiety was so great as to prevent him from sleeping. He kept calling incessantly to know the hour, inquiring if any noise was heard, and sending persons to ascertain if the enemy was still before him. His doubts on this subject were so strong, that he had given orders that his proclamation should not be read to his troops until the next morning, and then only in case of the certainty of a battle.

Tranquillized for a few moments, anxiety of an opposite description again seized him. He became frightened at the destitute state of the soldiers. Weak and famished as they were, how could they support a long and terrible shock? In this danger he looked upon his guard as his sole resource; it seemed to be his security for both armies. He sent for Bessières, that one of his marshals in whom he had the greatest confidence for commanding it; he wished to know if this chosen reserve wanted nothing;—he called him back several times, and repeated his pressing questions. He desired that these old soldiers should have three days' biscuit and rice distributed among them from their waggons of reserve; finally, dreading that his orders had not been obeyed, he got up once more, and questioned the grenadiers on guard at the entrance of his tent, if they had received these provisions. Satisfied by their answer, he went in, and soon fell into a doze.

Shortly after, he called once more. His aid-de-camp found him now supporting his head with both hands; he seemed, by what was heard, to be meditating on the vanities of glory. "What is war? A trade of barbarians, the whole art of which consists in being the strongest on a given point!" He then complained of the fickleness of fortune, which he said, he began to experience. Seeming to revert to more encouraging ideas, he recollected what had been told him of the tardiness and carelessness of Kutusof, and expressed his surprise that Beningsen had not been preferred to him. He thought of the critical situation into which he had brought himself, and added, "that a great day was at hand, that there would be a terrible battle." He asked Rapp if he thought we should gain the victory? "No doubt;" was the reply, "but it will be sanguinary." "I know it," resumed Napoleon, "but I have 80,000 men; I shall lose 20,000, I shall enter Moscow with 60,000; the stragglers will there rejoin us, and afterwards the battalions on the march, and we shall be stronger than we were before the battle." In this estimate he seemed to include neither his guard nor the cavalry.

Again assailed by his first anxiety, he sent once more to examine the attitude of the Russians; he was informed that their fires burned with equal brightness, and that by the number of these, and the moving shadows surrounding them, it was supposed that it was not merely a rear-guard, but a whole army that kept feeding them. The certainty of their presence at last quieted the emperor, and he tried to take some rest.

But the marches which he had just made with the array, the fatigues of the preceding days and nights, so many cares, and his intense and anxious expectation, had worn him out; the chillness of the atmosphere had struck to him; an irritating fever, a dry cough, and excessive thirst consumed him. During the remainder of the night, he made vain attempts to quench the burning thirst which consumed him. This fresh disorder was complicated with an old complaint; he had been struggling since the day before with a painful attack of that cruel disorder[rention of urine], which had been long threatening him.

At last, just at five o'clock, one of Ney's officers came to inform him that the marshal was still in sight of the Russians, and wished to begin the attack. This news seemed to restore the strength of which the fever had deprived him. He arose, called his officers, and sallied out, exclaiming, "We have them at last! Forward! Let us go and open the gates of Moscow!"

1. Adam Zamoyski, Moscow 1812. Napoleon’s Fatal March, New York 2004, page 258
2. Adam Zamoyski, Moscow 1812. Napoleon’s Fatal March, New York 2004, page 257
3.  Defeat: Napoleon's Russian Campaign (New York Review Books Classics) by Philippe-Paul de Segur (Author), J. David Townsend (Translator), Rk Danner (Introduction)  I use this translation for some of the wording for my tweets, which I usually have to edit for space.

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