September 7 1812: Slaughter at Borodino

On September 7, 1812, the French  Grande Armée and the Russian Army slaughtered each other near the village of Borodino. It was the deadliest battle of the Napoleonic Wars. The slaughter of men would only be equaled in the First World War. Hundreds of thousands of men fought a desperate battle that resulted in at least 70,000 casualties. In contrast, the losses suffered after three years of the War of 1812 were about 8,600 losses for the British and anywhere from about 11,300 to 15,000 losses for the Americans. 

Napoleon, the principal author of this slaughter, rose at at three o'clock in morning to survey the front. He was unwell and unusually lethargic that day. His troops were assembled by five. A proclamation, that Napoleon had dictated the night before, was read out by officers:

Soldiers this the battle you have looked forward to so much! Now victory depends on you: we need it. It will give us abundance, good winter quarters and a prompt return to our our motherland! Conduct yourselves as you did at Austerlitz, at Friedland, at Vitebsk, at Smolensk, and may the most distant generations cite your conduct on this day with pride; let it be said of you: He was at that great battle under the walls of Moscow! 

At six o'clock, the battle started with French guns firing and Russian guns responding in a deadly barrage that would continue throughout the day. I will leave it to others to describe the battle in all its detail. Suffice it to say that Napoleon began the battle with a brutal frontal attack that he hoped would set the stage for an attack on the left wing of the Russian Army that was supposed to turn it. What followed were horrific attacks and counterattacks by both armies. There were great acts of heroism and senseless carnage on both sides. On the Russian side, General Bagration was wounded but continued to lead his men until he was forced to leave the battlefield. General Barclay, leading the First Army on the right, provided the needed leadership to hold the Russian lines. On the French side, Ney and Murat were everywhere leading their men with customary bravery. French troops demonstrated great skill despite being weakened by exhaustion and hunger. Most of all the Russian troops fought and died in great numbers in a heroic defence of their country.  

Despite the determined resistance,  by 3 o'clock in the afternoon, the Russian Army was near collapse. It was saved ironically by a failed Russian maneuver and Napoleon's  uncharacteristic caution. Napoleon spent most of the battle seated on his chair on a slope overlooking the battlefield. He was in some pain from his illness. His generals noted that he was not his usual energetic self  and on his horse surveying the battlefield making adjustments as the battle progressed. As the Russian army neared collapse, his generals  pressed him to commit the Imperial Guard that had been held in reserve. They felt that the veteran guard would allow for a final push and raise the morale of the other troops. Napoleon had been  reluctant to commit the guard but now appeared ready to do so. At this crucial moment, Napoleon observed the Russian General Platov lead a cavalry charge against the French left flank. The charge was easily repelled but Napoleon felt that it threatened his left so he held back on committing the Imperial Guard. The decision was to prove costly. Kutuzov was able to re-establish his lines further back where his men received punishing artillery fire but held their position. At sunset, the two armies were exhausted and the fighting ceased. In the night, Russian Commander-in-Chief Kutuzov ordered a retreat of the remaining Russian Army. Napoleon could claim victory but it was to prove a pyrrhic victory. The battlefield was strewn with the dead. Phillipe-Paul de Segur, who was with Napoleon on that day, would write "The number of the dead testified to the courage of the vanquished rather than to the scale of the victory".

I have reproduced the account of that day by de Segur below:  

It was half-past five in the morning, when Napoleon arrived near the redoubt which had been conquered on the 5th of September. There he waited for the first dawn of day, and for the first fire of Poniatowski's infantry. The sun rose. The emperor, showing it to his officers, exclaimed, "Behold the sun of Austerlitz!" But it was opposite to us. It rose on the Russian side, made us conspicuous to their fire, and dazzled us. We then first perceived, that owing to the darkness, our batteries had been placed out of reach of the enemy, and it was necessary to push them more forward. The enemy allowed this to be done: he seemed to hesitate in being the first to break the awful silence.

The emperor's attention was then directed towards his right, when, all at once, near seven o'clock, the battle began upon his left. Shortly after, he was informed, that one of the regiments of Prince Eugene, the 106th, had got possession of the village of Borodino, and its bridge, which it should have destroyed; but that being carried away by the ardour of success, it had crossed that passage, in spite of the cries of its general, in order to attack the heights of Gorcka, where it was overwhelmed by the front and flank fires of the Russians. It was added, that the general who commanded that brigade had been already killed, and that the 106th regiment would have been entirely destroyed had it not been for the 92d, which voluntarily ran up to its assistance, and collected and brought back its survivors.

It was Napoleon himself who had just ordered his left wing to make a violent attack. Probably, he had only reckoned on a partial execution of his orders, and wished to keep the enemy's attention directed to that side. But he multiplied his orders, used the most violent excitations, and engaged a battle in front, the plan of which he had conceived in an oblique order.

During this action, the emperor judging that Poniatowski was closing with the enemy on the old Moscow road, gave him the signal to attack. Suddenly, from that peaceful plain, and the silent hills, volumes of fire and smoke were seen spouting out, followed by a multitude of explosions, and the whistling of bullets, tearing the air in every direction. In the midst of this noise, Davoust, with the divisions Compans and Dessaix, and thirty pieces of cannon in front, advanced rapidly to the first Russian redoubt.

The enemy's musketry began, and was answered only by the French cannon. The French infantry marched without firing: it was hurrying on to get within reach of and extinguish that of the enemy, when Compans, the general of that column, and his bravest soldiers, were wounded and fell: the rest, disconcerted, halted under the shower of balls, in order to return it, when Rapp, rushing to replace Compans, again led his soldiers on, with fixed bayonets, and at a running pace against the enemy's redoubt.

He was himself just on the point of reaching it, when he was, in his turn, hit; it was his twenty-second wound. A third general, who succeeded him, also fell. Davoust himself was wounded. Rapp was carried to the emperor, who said to him, "What, Rapp, always hit! What are they doing above, then?" The aid-de-camp answered, that it would require the guard to finish. "No!" replied Napoleon, "I shall take good care of that; I have no wish to see it destroyed; I shall gain the battle without it."

Ney, then, with his three divisions, reduced to 10,000 men, hastened into the plain to the assistance of Davoust. The enemy divided his fire. Ney rushed forward. The 57th regiment of Compans's division, finding itself supported, took fresh courage; by a last effort it succeeded in reaching the enemy's entrenchments, scaled them, mingled with the Russians, put them to the bayonet, overthrew and killed the most obstinate of them. The rest fled, and the 57th maintained itself in its conquest. At the same time Ney made so furious an attack on the two other redoubts, that he wrested them from the enemy.

It was now mid-day; the left Russian line being thus forced, and the plain cleared, the emperor ordered Murat to proceed with his cavalry, and complete the victory. An instant was sufficient for that prince to show himself on the heights and in the midst of the enemy, who again made his appearance there; for the second Russian line and the reinforcements, led on by Bagawout and sent by Tutchkof, had come to the assistance of the first line. They all rushed forward, resting upon Semenowska, in order to retake their redoubts. The French, who were still in the disorder of victory, were astonished and fell back.

The Westphalians, whom Napoleon had just sent to the assistance of Poniatowski, were then crossing the wood which separated that prince from the rest of the army; through the dust and smoke they got a glimpse of our troops, who were retreating. By the direction of their march, they guessed them to be enemies, and fired upon them. They persisted in their mistake, and thereby increased the disorder.

The enemy's cavalry vigorously followed up their advantage; they surrounded Murat, who forgot himself in his endeavours to rally his troops; they were already stretching out their arms to lay hold of him, when he threw himself into the redoubt, and escaped from them. But there he found only some unsteady soldiers whose courage had forsaken them, and running round the parapet in a state of the greatest panic. They only wanted an outlet to run away.

The presence of the king and his cries first restored confidence to a few. He himself seized a musket; with one hand he fought, with the other he elevated and waved his plume, calling to his men, and restoring them to their first valour by that authority which example gives. At the same time Ney had again formed his divisions. Their fire stopped the enemy's cuirassiers, and threw their ranks into disorder. They let go their hold, Murat was at last disengaged, and the heights were reconquered.

Scarcely had the king escaped this peril, when he ran into another; with the cavalry of Bruyère and Nansouty, he rushed upon the enemy, and by obstinate and repeated charges overthrew the Russian lines, pushed and drove them back on their centre, and, within an hour, completed the total defeat of their left wing.

But the heights of the ruined village of Semenowska, where the left of the enemy's centre commenced, were still untouched; the reinforcements which Kutusof incessantly drew from his right, supported it. Their commanding fire was poured down upon Ney and Murat's troops, and stopped their victory; it was indispensable to acquire that position. Maubourg with his cavalry first cleared the front; Friand, one of Davoust's generals, followed him with his infantry. Dufour and the 15th light were the first to climb the steep; they dislodged the Russians from the village, the ruins of which were badly entrenched. Friand, although wounded, followed up and secured this advantage.


This vigorous action opened up to us the road to victory; it was necessary to rush into it; but Murat and Ney were exhausted: they halted, and while they were rallying their troops, they sent to Napoleon to ask for reinforcements. Napoleon was then seized with a hesitation which he never before displayed; he deliberated long with himself, and at last, after repeated orders and counter-orders to his young guard, he expressed his belief that the appearance of Friand and Maubourg's troops on the heights would be sufficient, the decisive moment not appearing to him to be yet arrived.

But Kutusof took advantage of the respite which he had no reason to expect; he summoned the whole of his reserve, even to the Russian guards, to the support of his uncovered left wing. Bagration, with all these reinforcements, re-formed his line, his right resting on the great battery which Prince Eugene was attacking, his left on the wood which bounded the field of battle towards Psarewo. His fire cut our ranks to pieces; his attack was violent, impetuous, and simultaneous; infantry, artillery, and cavalry, all made a grand effort. Ney and Murat stood firm against this tempest; the question with them was no longer about following up the victory, but about retaining it.

The soldiers of Friand, drawn up in front of Semenowska, repelled the first charges, but when they were assailed with a shower of balls and grape shot, they began to give way; one of their leaders got tired, and gave orders to retreat. At that critical moment, Murat ran up to him, and seizing him by the collar, exclaimed, "What are you about?" The colonel, pointing to the ground, covered with half his troops, answered, "You see well enough that it is impossible to stand here."—"Very well, I will remain!" exclaimed the king. These words stopped the officer: he looked Murat steadily in the face, and turning round, coolly said, "You are right! Soldiers, face to the enemy! Let us go and be killed!"

Meanwhile, Murat had just sent back Borelli to the emperor to ask for assistance; that officer pointed to the clouds of dust which the charges of the cavalry were raising upon the heights, which had hitherto remained tranquil since they had been taken. Some cannon-balls also for the first time fell close to where Napoleon was stationed; the enemy seemed to be approaching; Borelli insisted, and the emperor promised his young guard. But, scarcely had it advanced a few paces, when he himself called out to it to halt. The Count de Lobau, however, made it advance by degrees, under pretence of dressing the line. Napoleon perceiving it, repeated his order.

Fortunately, the artillery of the reserve advanced at that moment, to take a position on the conquered heights; Lauriston had obtained the emperor's consent to that manœuvre, but it was rather a permission than an order. Shortly after, however, he thought it so important, that he urged its execution with the only movement of impatience he exhibited during the whole of that day.

It is not known whether his doubts as to the results of Prince Poniatowski and Prince Eugene's engagement on his right and left kept him in uncertainty; what is certain is, that he seemed to be apprehensive lest the extreme left of the Russians should escape from the Poles, and return to take possession of the field of battle in the rear of Ney and Murat. This at least was one of the causes of his retaining his guard in observation upon that point. To such as pressed him, his answer was, "that he wished to have a better view; that his battle was not yet begun; that it would be a long one; that they must learn to wait; that time entered into every thing; that it was the element of which all things are composed; that nothing was yet sufficiently clear." He then inquired the hour, and added, "that the hour of his battle was not yet come; that it would begin in two hours."

But it never began: the whole of that day he was sitting down, or walking about leisurely, in front, and a little to the left of the redoubt which had been conquered on the 5th, on the borders of a ravine, at a great distance from the battle, of which he could scarcely see any thing after it got beyond the heights; not at all uneasy when he saw it return nearer to him, nor impatient with his own troops, or the enemy. He merely made some gestures of melancholy resignation, on every occasion, when they came to inform him of the loss of his best generals. He rose several times to take a few turns, but immediately sat down again.

Every one around him looked at him with astonishment. Hitherto, during these great shocks, he had displayed an active coolness; but here it was a dead calm, a nerveless and sluggish inactivity. Some fancied they traced in it that dejection which is generally the follower of violent sensations: others, that he had already become indifferent to every thing, even to the emotion of battles. Several remarked, that the calm constancy and sang-froid which great men display on these great occasions, turn, in the course of time, to phlegm and heaviness, when age has worn out their springs. Those who were most devoted to him, accounted for his immobility by the necessity of not changing his place too much, when he was commanding over such an extent, in order that the bearers of intelligence might know where to find him. Finally, there were others who, on much better grounds, attributed it to the shock which his health had sustained, to a secret malady, and to the commencement of a violent indisposition.

The generals of artillery, who were surprised at their stagnation, quickly availed themselves of the permission to fight which was just given them. They very soon crowned the heights. Eighty pieces of cannon were discharged at once. The Russian cavalry was first broken by that brazen line, and obliged to take refuge behind its infantry.

The latter advanced in dense masses, in which our balls at first made wide and deep holes; they still, however, continued to advance, when the French batteries crushed them by a second discharge of grape-shot. Whole platoons fell at once; their soldiers were seen trying to keep together under this terrible fire. Every instant, separated by death, they closed together over her, treading her under foot.

At last they halted, not daring to advance farther, and yet unwilling to retreat; either because they were struck, and, as it were, petrified with horror, in the midst of this great destruction, or that Bagration was wounded at that moment; or, perhaps, because their generals, after the failure of their first disposition, knew not how to change it, from not possessing, like Napoleon, the great art of putting such great bodies into motion at once, in unison, and without confusion. In short, these listless masses allowed themselves to be mowed down for two hours, making no other movement than their fall. It was a most horrible massacre; and our brave and intelligent artillerymen could not help admiring the motionless, blind, and resigned courage of their enemies.

The victors were the first to be tired out. They became impatient at the tardiness of this battle of artillery. Their ammunition being entirely exhausted, they came to a decision, in consequence of which Ney moved forward, extending his right, which he made to advance rapidly, and again turn the left of the new front opposed to him. Davoust and Murat seconded him, and the remnants of Ney's corps became the conquerors over the remains of Bagration's.

The battle then ceased in the plain, and became concentrated on the rest of the enemy's heights, and near the great redoubt, which Barclay with the centre and the right, continued to defend obstinately against Eugene.

In this manner, about mid-day, the whole of the French right wing, Ney, Davoust, and Murat, after annihilating Bagration and the half of the Russian line, presented itself on the half-opened flank of the remainder of the hostile 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!"

General Belliard was sent by them to the emperor. He declared, "that from their position, the eye could penetrate, without impediment, a far as the road to Mojaisk, in the rear of the Russian army; that they could see there a confused crowd of flying and wounded soldiers, and carriages retreating; that it was true there was still a ravine and a thin copse between them, but that the Russian generals were so confounded, that they had no thought of turning these to any advantage; that in short, only a single effort was required to arrive in the middle of that disorder, to seal the enemy's discomfiture, and terminate the war!"

The emperor, however, still hesitated, and ordered that general to go and look again, and to return and bring him word. Belliard, surprised, went and returned with all speed; he reported, "that the enemy began to think better of it; that the copse was already lined with his marksmen: that the opportunity was about to escape; that there was not a moment to be lost, otherwise it would require a second battle to terminate the first!"

But Bessières, 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 ssaid 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; he said, "he had found him still seated in the same place, with a suffering and dejected air, his features sunk, and a dull look; giving his orders languishingly, in the midst of these dreadful warlike noises, to which he seemed completely a stranger!" 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 reverses, and not of victory. Since he will no longer make war himself, since he is no longer the general, as he wishes to be the emperor every where, let him return to the Tuilleries, and leave us to be generals for him!"

Murat was more calm; he recollected having seen the emperor the day before, as he was riding along, observing that part of the enemy's line, halt several times, dismount, and with his head resting upon the cannon, remain there some time in the attitude of suffering. He knew what a restless night he had passed, and that a violent and incessant cough cut short his breathing. The king guessed that fatigue, and the first attacks of the equinox, had shaken his weakened frame, and that in short, at that critical moment, the action of his genius was in a manner chained down by his body; which had sunk under the triple load of fatigue, of fever, and of a malady which, probably, more than any other, prostrates the moral and physical strength of its victims.

Still, farther incitements were not wanting; for shortly after Belliard, Daru, urged by Dumas, and particularly by Berthier, said in a low voice to the emperor, "that from all sides it was the cry that the moment for sending the guard was now come." To which Napoleon replied, "And if there should be another battle to-morrow, where is my army?" The minister urged no farther, surprised to see, for the first time, the emperor putting off till the morrow, and adjourning his victory.


Barclay, however, with the right, kept up a most obstinate struggle with Prince Eugene. The latter, immediately after the capture of Borodino, passed the Kologha in the face of the enemy's great redoubt. There, particularly, the Russians had calculated upon their steep heights, encompassed by deep and muddy ravines, upon our exhaustion, upon their entrenchments, defended by heavy artillery, and upon 80 pieces of cannon, planted on the borders of these banks, bristling with fire and flames! But all these elements, art, and nature, every thing failed them at once: assailed by a first burst of that French fury, which has been so celebrated, they saw Morand's soldiers appear suddenly in the midst of them, and fled in disorder.

Eighteen hundred men of the 30th regiment, with general Bonnamy at their head, had just made that great effort.

It was there that Fabvier, the aid-de-camp of Marmont, who had arrived but the day before from the heart of Spain, made himself conspicuous; he went as a volunteer, and on foot, at the head of the most advanced sharp-shooters, as if he had come there to represent the army of Spain, in the midst of the grand army; and, inspired with that rivalry of glory which makes heroes, wished to exhibit it at the head, and the first in every danger.

He fell wounded in that too famous redoubt; for the triumph was short-lived; the attack wanted concert, either from precipitation in the first assailant, or too great slowness in those who followed. They had to pass a ravine, whose depth protected them from the enemy's fire. It is affirmed that many of our troops halted there. Morand, therefore, was left alone in the face of several Russian lines. It was yet only ten o'clock. Friand, who was on his right, had not yet commenced the attack of Semenowska; and, on his left, the divisions Gérard, Broussier, and the Italian guard, were not yet in line.

This attack, besides, should not have been made so precipitately: the intention had been only to keep Barclay in check, and occupied on that side, the battle having been arranged to begin by the right wing, and pivot on the left. This was the emperor's plan, and we know not why he himself altered it at the moment of its execution; for it was he who, on the first discharge of the artillery, sent different officers in succession to Prince Eugene, to urge his attack.

The Russians, recovering from their first surprise, rushed forward in all directions. Kutaisof and Yermoloff advanced at their head with a resolution worthy of so great an occasion. The 30th regiment, single against a whole army, ventured to attack it with the bayonet; it was enveloped, crushed, and driven out of the redoubt, where it left a third of its men, and its intrepid general pierced through with twenty wounds. Encouraged by their success, the Russians were no longer satisfied with defending themselves, but attacked in their turn. Then were seen united, on that single point, all the skill, strength, and fury, which war can bring forth. The French stood firm for four hours on the declivity of that volcano, under the shower of iron and lead which it vomited forth. But to do this required all the skill and determination of Prince Eugene; and the idea so insupportable to long-victorious soldiers, of confessing themselves vanquished.

Each division changed its general several times. The viceroy went from one to the other, mingling entreaties and reproaches, and, above all, reminding them of their former victories. He sent to apprise the emperor of his critical situation; but Napoleon replied, "That he could not assist him; that he must conquer; that he had only to make a greater effort; that the heat of the battle was there." The prince was rallying all his forces to make a general assault, when suddenly his attention was diverted by furious cries proceeding from his left.

Ouwarof, with two regiments of cavalry, and some thousand cossacks, had attacked his reserve, and thrown it into disorder. He ran thither instantly, and, seconded by Generals Delzons and Ornano, soon drove away that troop, which was more noisy than formidable; after which he returned to put himself at the head of a decisive attack.

It was about that time that Murat, forced to remain inactive on the plain where he commanded, had sent, for the fourth time, to his brother-in-law, to complain of the losses which his cavalry were sustaining from the Russian troops, protected by the redoubts which were opposed to Prince Eugene. "He only requested the cavalry of the guard, with whose assistance he could turn the entrenched heights, and destroy them along with the army which defended them."

The emperor seemed to give his consent, and sent in search of Bessières, who commanded these horse-guards. Unfortunately they could not find the marshal, who, by his orders, had gone to look at the battle somewhat nearer. The emperor waited nearly an hour without the least impatience, or repeating his order; and when the marshal returned, he received him with a pleasant look, heard his report quietly, and allowed him to advance as far as he might judge it desirable.

But it was too late; he could no longer think of making the whole Russian army prisoners, or perhaps of taking entire possession of Russia; the field of battle was all he was likely to gain. He had allowed Kutusof leisure to reconnoitre his positions; that general had fortified all the points of difficult approach which remained to him, and his cavalry covered the plain.

The Russians had thus, for the third time, renewed their left wing, in the face of Ney and Murat. The latter summoned the cavalry of Montbrun, who had been killed. General Caulaincourt succeeded him; he found the aides-de-camp of the unfortunate Montbrun in tears for the loss of their commander. "Follow me," said he to them, "weep not for him, but come and avenge his death!"

The king pointed out to him the enemy's fresh wing; he must break through it, and push on as far as the breast of their great battery; when there, during the time that the light cavalry is following up his advantage, he, Caulaincourt, must turn suddenly, on the left with his cuirassiers, in order to take in the rear that terrible redoubt whose front fire is still mowing the ranks of the viceroy.

Caulaincourt's reply was, "You shall see me there presently, alive or dead." He immediately set off, overthrew all before him, and turning suddenly round on the left with his cuirassiers, was the first to enter the bloody redoubt, when he was struck dead by a musket-ball. His conquest was his tomb.

They ran immediately to acquaint the emperor with this victory, and the loss which it had occasioned. The grand-equerry, brother of the unfortunate general, listened, and was at first petrified; but he soon summoned courage against this misfortune, and, but for the tears which silently coursed down his cheeks, you might have thought that he felt nothing. The emperor, uttering an exclamation of sorrow, said to him, "You have heard the news, do you wish to retire?" But as at that moment we were advancing against the enemy, the grand-equerry made no reply; he did not retire; he only half uncovered himself to thank the emperor, and to refuse.

While this determined charge of cavalry was executing, the viceroy, with his infantry, was on the point of reaching the mouth of this volcano, when suddenly he saw its fires extinguished, its smoke disappear, and its summit glittering with the moveable and resplendent armour of our cuirassiers. These heights, hitherto Russian, had at last become French; he hastened forward to share and terminate the victory, and to strengthen himself in that position.

But the Russians had not yet abandoned it; they returned with greater obstinacy and fury to the attack; successively as they were beat back by our troops, they were again rallied by their generals, and finally the greater part perished at the foot of these works, which they had themselves raised.

Fortunately, their last attacking column presented itself towards Semenowska and the great redoubt, without its artillery, the progress of which had, no doubt, been retarded by the ravines. Belliard had barely time to collect thirty cannon against this infantry. They came almost close to the mouths of our pieces, which overwhelmed them so apropos, that they wheeled round and retreated without being even able to deploy. Murat and Belliard then said, that if they could have had at that moment ten thousand infantry of the reserve, their victory would have been decisive; but that, being reduced to their cavalry, they considered themselves fortunate to keep possession of the field of battle.

On his side, Grouchy, by sanguinary and repeated charges on the left of the great redoubt, secured the victory, and scoured the plain. But it was impossible to pursue the fugitive Russians; fresh ravines, with armed redoubts behind them, protected their retreat. There they defended themselves with fury until the approach of night, covering in this manner the great road to Moscow, their holy city, their magazine, their depôt, their place of refuge.

From this second range of heights, their artillery overwhelmed the first which they had abandoned to us. The viceroy was obliged to conceal his panting, exhausted, and thinned lines in the hollows of the ground, and behind the half-destroyed entrenchments. The soldiers were obliged to get upon their knees, and crouch themselves up behind these shapeless parapets. In that painful posture they remained for several hours, kept in check by the enemy, who stood in check of them.

It was about half-past three o'clock when this last victory was achieved; there had been several such during the day; each corps successively beat that which was opposed to it, without being able to take advantage of its success to decide the battle; as, not being supported in proper time by the reserve, each halted exhausted. But at last all the first obstacles were overcome; the firing gradually slackened, and got to a greater distance from the emperor. Officers were coming in to him from all parts. Poniatowski and Sebastiani, after an obstinate contest, were also victorious. The enemy halted, and entrenched himself in a new position. It was getting late, our ammunition was exhausted, and the battle ended.

Belliard then returned for the third time to the emperor, whose sufferings appeared to have increased. He mounted his horse with difficulty, and rode slowly along the heights of Semenowska. He found a field of battle imperfectly gained, as the enemy's bullets, and even their musket-balls, still disputed the possession of it with us.

In the midst of these warlike noises, and the still burning ardour of Ney and Murat, he continued always in the same state, his gait desponding, and his voice languid. The sight of the Russians, however, and the noise of their continued firing, seemed again to inspire him; he went to take a nearer view of their last position, and even wished to drive them from it. But Murat, pointing to the scanty remains of our own troops, declared that it would require the guard to finish; on which, Bessières continuing to insist, as he always did, on the importance of this corps d'élite, objected "the distance the emperor was from his reinforcements; that Europe was between him and France; that it was indispensable to preserve, at least, that handful of soldiers, which was all that remained to answer for his safety." And as it was then nearly five o'clock, Berthier added, "that it was too late; that the enemy was strengthening himself in his last position; and that it would require a sacrifice of several more thousands, without any adequate results." Napoleon then thought of nothing but to recommend the victors to be prudent. Afterwards he returned, still at the same slow pace, to his tent, that had been erected behind that battery which was carried two days before, and in front of which he had remained ever since the morning, an almost motionless spectator of all the vicissitudes of that terrible day.

As he was thus returning, he called Mortier to him, and ordered him "to make the young guard now advance, but on no account to pass the new ravine which separated us from the enemy." He added, "that he gave him in charge to guard the field of battle; that that was all he required of him; that he was at liberty to do whatever he thought necessary for that purpose, and nothing more." He recalled him shortly after to ask "if he had properly understood him; recommended him to make no attack; but merely to guard the field of battle." An hour afterwards he sent to him to reiterate the order, "neither to advance nor retreat, whatever might happen."


After he had retired to his tent, great mental anguish was added to his previous physical dejection. He had seen the field of battle; places had spoken much more loudly than men; the victory which he had so eagerly pursued, and so dearly bought, was incomplete. Was this he who had always pushed his successes to the farthest possible limits, whom Fortune had just found cold and inactive, at a time when she was offering him her last favours?

The losses were certainly immense, and out of all proportion to the advantages gained. Every one around him had to lament the loss of a friend, a relation, or a brother; for the fate of battles had fallen on the most distinguished. Forty-three generals had been killed or wounded. What a mourning for Paris! what a triumph for his enemies! what a dangerous subject for the reflections of Germany! In his army, even in his very tent, his victory was silent, gloomy, isolated, even without flatterers!

The persons whom he had summoned, Dumas and Daru, listened to him, and said nothing; but their attitude, their downcast eyes, and their silence, spoke more eloquently than words.

It was now ten o'clock. Murat, whom twelve hours' fighting had not exhausted, again came to ask him for the cavalry of his guard. "The enemy's army," said he, "is passing the Moskwa in haste and disorder; I wish to surprise and extinguish it." The emperor repelled this sally of immoderate ardour; afterwards he dictated the bulletin of the day.

He seemed pleased at announcing to Europe, that neither he nor his guard had been at all exposed. By some this care was regarded as a refinement of self-love; but those who were better informed thought very differently. They had never seen him display any vain or gratuitous passion, and their idea was, that at that distance, and at the head of an army of foreigners, who had no other bond of union but victory, he had judged it indispensable to preserve a select and devoted body.

His enemies, in fact, would have no longer any thing to hope from fields of battle; neither his death, as he had no need to expose his person in order to insure success, nor a victory, as his genius was sufficient at a distance, even without bringing forward his reserve. As long, therefore, as this guard remained untouched, his real power and that which he derived from opinion would remain entire. It seemed to be a sort of security to him, against his allies, as well as against his enemies: on that account he took so much pains to inform Europe of the preservation of that formidable reserve; and yet it scarcely amounted to 20,000 men, of whom more than a third were new recruits.

These were powerful motives, but they did not at all satisfy men who knew that excellent reasons may be found for committing the greatest faults. They all agreed, "that they had seen the battle which had been won in the morning on the right, halt where it was favourable to us, and continue successively in front, a contest of mere strength, as in the infancy of the art! it was a battle without any plan, a mere victory of soldiers, rather than of a general! Why so much precipitation to overtake the enemy, with an army panting, exhausted, and weakened? and when we had come up with him, why neglect to complete his discomfiture, and remain bleeding and mutilated, in the midst of an enraged nation, in immense deserts, and at 800 leagues' distance from our resources?"

Murat then exclaimed, "That in this great day he had not recognized the genius of Napoleon!" The viceroy confessed "that he had no conception what could be the reason of the indecision which his adopted father had shown." Ney, when he was called on for his opinion, was singularly obstinate in advising him to retreat.

Those alone who had never quitted his person, observed, that the conqueror of so many nations had been overcome by a burning fever, and above all by a fatal return of that painful malady which every violent movement, and all long and strong emotions excited in him. They then quoted the words which he himself had written in Italy fifteen years before: "Health is indispensable in war, and nothing can replace it;" and the exclamation, unfortunately prophetic, which he had uttered on the plains of Austerlitz: "Ordener is worn out. One is not always fit for war; I shall be good for six years longer, after which I must lie by."

During the night, the Russians made us sensible of their vicinity, by their unseasonable clamours. Next morning there was an alert, close to the emperor's tent. The old guard was actually obliged to run to arms; a circumstance which, after a victory, seemed insulting. The army remained motionless until noon, or rather it might be said that there was no longer an army, but a single vanguard. The rest of the troops were dispersed over the field of battle to carry off the wounded, of whom there were 20,000. They were taken to the great abbey of Kolotskoi, two leagues in the rear.

Larrey, the surgeon-in-chief, had just taken assistants from all the regiments; the ambulances had rejoined, but all was insufficient. He has since complained, in a printed narrative, that no troop had been left him to procure the most necessary articles in the surrounding villages.

The emperor then rode over the field of battle; never did one present so horrible an appearance. Every thing concurred to make it so; a gloomy sky, a cold rain, a violent wind, houses burnt to ashes, a plain turned topsy-turvy, covered with ruins and rubbish, in the distance the sad and sombre verdure of the trees of the North; soldiers roaming about in all directions, and hunting for provisions, even in the haversacks of their dead companions; horrible wounds, for the Russian musket-balls are larger than ours; silent bivouacs, no singing or story-telling—a gloomy taciturnity.

Round the eagles were seen the remaining officers and subalterns, and a few soldiers, scarcely enough to protect the colours. Their clothes had been torn in the fury of the combat, were blackened with powder, and spotted with blood; and yet, in the midst of their rags, their misery, and disasters, they had a proud look, and at the sight of the emperor, uttered some shouts of triumph, but they were rare and excited; for in this army, capable at once of analysis and enthusiasm, every one was sensible of the position of all.

French soldiers are not easily deceived; they were astonished to find so many of the enemy killed, so great a number wounded, and so few prisoners, there being not 800 of the latter. By the number of these, the extent of a victory had been formerly calculated. The dead bodies were rather a proof of the courage of the vanquished, than the evidence of a victory. If the rest retreated in such good order, proud, and so little discouraged, what signified the gain of a field of battle? In such extensive countries, would there ever be any want of ground for the Russians to fight on?

As for us, we had already too much, and a great deal more than we were able to retain. Could that be called conquering it? The long and straight furrow which we had traced with so much difficulty from Kowno, across sands and ashes, would it not close behind us, like that of a vessel on an immense ocean! A few peasants, badly armed, might easily efface all traces of it.

In fact they were about to carry off, in the rear of the army, our wounded and our marauders. Five hundred stragglers soon fell into their hands. It is true that some French soldiers, arrested in this manner, affected to join these cossacks; they assisted them in making fresh captures, until finding themselves sufficiently numerous, with their new prisoners, they collected together suddenly and rid themselves of their unsuspecting enemies.

The emperor could not value his victory otherwise than by the dead. The ground was strewed to such a degree with Frenchmen, extended prostrate on the redoubts, that they appeared to belong more to them than to those who remained standing. There seemed to be more victors killed there, than there were still living.

Amidst the crowd of corpses which we were obliged to march over in following Napoleon, the foot of a horse encountered a wounded man, and extorted from him a last sign of life or of suffering. The emperor, hitherto equally silent with his victory, and whose heart felt oppressed by the sight of so many victims, gave an exclamation; he felt relieved by uttering cries of indignation, and lavishing the attentions of humanity on this unfortunate creature. To pacify him, somebody remarked that it was only a Russian, but he retorted warmly, "that after victory there are no enemies, but only men!" He then dispersed the officers of his suite, in order to succour the wounded, who were heard groaning in every direction.

Great numbers were found at the bottom of the ravines, into which the greater part of our men had been precipitated, and where many had dragged themselves, in order to be better protected from the enemy, and the violence of the storm. Some groaningly pronounced the name of their country or their mother; these were the youngest: the elder ones waited the approach of death, some with a tranquil, and others with a sardonic air, without deigning to implore for mercy or to complain; others besought us to kill them outright: these unfortunate men were quickly passed by, having neither the useless pity to assist them, nor the cruel pity to put an end to their sufferings.

One of these, the most mutilated (one arm and his trunk being all that remained to him) appeared so animated, so full of hope, and even of gaiety, that an attempt was made to save him. In bearing him along, it was remarked that he complained of suffering in the limbs, which he no longer possessed; this is a common case with mutilated persons, and seems to afford additional evidence that the soul remains entire, and that feeling belongs to it alone, and not to the body, which can no more feel than it can think.

The Russians were seen dragging themselves along to places where dead bodies were heaped together, and offered them a horrible retreat. It has been affirmed by several persons, that one of these poor fellows lived for several days in the carcase of a horse, which had been gutted by a shell, and the inside of which he gnawed. Some were seen straightening their broken leg by tying a branch of a tree tightly against it, then supporting themselves with another branch, and walking in this manner to the next village. Not one of them uttered a groan.

Perhaps, when far from their own homes, they looked less for compassion. But certainly they appeared to support pain with greater fortitude than the French; not that they suffered more courageously, but that they suffered less; for they have less feeling in body and mind, which arises from their being less civilized, and from their organs being hardened by the climate.

During this melancholy review, the emperor in vain sought to console himself with a cheering illusion, by having a second enumeration made of the few prisoners who remained, and collecting together some dismounted cannon: from seven to eight hundred prisoners, and twenty broken cannon, were all the trophies of this imperfect victory.


At the same time, Murat kept pushing the Russian rear-guard as far as Mojaisk: the road which it uncovered on its retreat was perfectly clear, and without a single fragment of men, carriages, or dress. All their dead had been buried, for they have a religious respect for the dead.

At the sight of Mojaisk, Murat fancied himself already in possession of it, and sent to inform the emperor that he might sleep there. But the Russian rear-guard had taken a position outside the walls of the town, and the remains of their army were placed on a height behind it. In this way they covered the Moscow and the Kalouga roads.

Perhaps Kutusof hesitated which of these two roads to take, or was desirous of leaving us in uncertainty as to the one he had taken, which was the case. Besides, the Russians felt it a point of honour to bivouac at only four leagues from the scene of our victory. That also allowed them time to disencumber the road behind them and clear away their fragments.

Their attitude was equally firm and imposing as before the battle, which we could not help admiring; but something of this was also attributable to the length of time we had taken to quit the field of Borodino, and to a deep ravine which was between them and our cavalry. Murat did not perceive this obstacle, but General Dery, one of his officers, guessed it. He went and reconnoitred the ground, close to the gates of the town, under the Russian bayonets.

But the king of Naples, quite as fiery as at the beginning of the campaign, or of his military life, made nothing of the obstacle; he summoned his cavalry, called to them furiously to advance, to charge and break through these battalions, gates, and walls! In vain his aid-de-camp urged the impossibility of effecting his orders; he pointed out to him the army on the opposite heights, which commanded Mojaisk, and the ravine where the remains of our cavalry were about to be swallowed up. Murat, in greater fury than ever, insisted "that they must march, and if there was any obstacle, they would see it." He then made use of insulting phrases to urge them on, and his orders were about to be carried,—with some delay, nevertheless, for there was generally an understanding to retard their execution, in order to give him time to reflect, and to allow time for a counter-order, which had been anticipated to arrive before any misfortune happened, which was not always the case, but was so this time. Murat was satisfied with wasting his cannon and powder on some drunken and straggling cossacks by whom he was almost surrounded, and who attacked him with frightful howls.

This skirmish, however, was sufficiently serious to add to the losses of the preceding day, as general Belliard was wounded in it. This officer, who was a great loss to Murat, was employed in reconnoitring the left of the enemy's position. As it was approachable, the attack should have been made on that side, but Murat never thought of any thing but striking what was immediately before him.

The emperor only arrived on the field of battle at nightfall, escorted by a very feeble detachment. He advanced towards Mojaisk, at a still slower pace than the day before, and so completely absent, that he neither seemed to hear the noise of the engagement, nor that of the bullets which were whistling around him.

Some one stopped him, and pointed out to him the enemy's rear-guard between him and the town; and on the heights behind, the fires of an army of 50,000 men. This sight was a proof of the incompleteness of his victory, and how little the enemy were discouraged; but he seemed quite insensible of it; he listened to the reports with a dejected and listless air, and returned to sleep at a village some little distance off, which was within reach of the enemy's fire.


1.  This quote and much of the information above is taken from Adam Zamoyski, Moscow 1812. Napoleon’s Fatal March, (New York 2004) and Defeat: Napoleon's Russian Campaign (New York Review Books Classics) by Philippe-Paul de Segur (Author), J. David Townsend (Translator), Rk Danner (Introduction). The account of De Segur above is from the Gutenberg translation is reproduced below because it available on line here. The original French can be found here. The above painting is the Battle of Borodino 1812, picture by Oleg Parkhaiev found here

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