The Battles of Friedland & Borodino
1807 - 1812
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This article was published in Strategy & Tactics Magazine,
Number 195 and written by LTC Wilbur E. Gray
Friedland to Borodino
The Death and Resurrection
of the Russian Army 1807-1812
This article was published in Strategy & Tactics Magazine,
Number 195 and written by LTC Wilbur E. Gray
14 June 1807: The Emperor Napoleon snapped his spyglass shut and smiled. From his position on an elevation in the rear of the small town of Posthenen, he could see the entire battlefield. Looking down the slope covered with wheat and rye towards the great river of Alle, he could also see the small village of Friedland some two miles away. To the right of his position at a distance of some 500 yards stood the significant Wood of Sortlack, and behind the trees the village of same name at the tributary Alle. One and one quarter miles to the north of Posthenen lay the town of Heinrichsdorf. Behind the two towns rose a solid line of heavy timber, which connected the two villages. The ground was flat enough to allow for the free movement of troops of all arms, except for one landmark of notable exception. This was the Muhlenfluss, or Millstream, which began west of Posthenen and flowed directly toward the Alle through Friedland, expanding into a large semicircular pond near the town.
Through relatively narrow, the banks of the Muhlenfluss, like those of the Alle, were steep and provided a significant obstacle for the lateral movement of troops. The Muhlenfluss cut the battlefield in half and it was against this geographic backdrop that the Emperor stood before the mighty host of Holy Russia. The brave warriors of the Czar were trapped with their backs against the Alle and their Army split in two by the Muhlenfluss. Napoleon smiled, for while many of his staff urged caution and delay of battle until the morrow, the Emperor knew that he was unlikely to find his enemy making such a mistake twice.
The Emperor awoke from his daydream and realized he was no longer at Friedland and the year was no longer at Friedland and the year no longer 1807. Instead the day was 7 September 1812 and the place a little Russian town called Borodino. He nodded and muttered to himself. “The Russians have learned much.”
Collision at Friedland
Alexander I, Czar of all the Russians, had anticipated the 1807 campaign as one where his army would not have to fight the French. After the blistering defeat of his and the Austrian army at Austerlitz in 1805, Alexander was in no mood to face Napoleon again. But when Prussia went to war against France in 1806, the Czar saw a golden opportunity; while the first stringers——the vaunted Prussian army——dealt Napoleon the defeat he so richly deserved, Russia as a loyal and faithful ally could move to support Berlin, scooping up the spoils of war. The Prussian Army of 1806 was considered to be the worthy successor to the army of Frederick the Great, but Alas, that was, the entire problem. After the crushing defeats of the Prussians at Jena and Auerstadt in 1806, General of Cavalry Levin Bennigsen found his Russian army once again on the front lines against the Grand Army of France.
A nasty winter campaign followed with the Russians managing to deny Napoleon the one thing he so greatly desired, a decisive battle where the opposing army would not only be beaten but totally destroyed. After such a victory, Napoleon would resolve all political considerations as victor dictated to vanquished. There had been a chance for battle on 10 June, 1807, at a little town in northeastern Poland called Heilsberg, but Prince Peter Bagration, Russia’s own home grown version of Marshal Ney, had other ideas and fought a tough rear guard action, inflicting 8000 casualties on the French and allowing Bennigsen and the army to with-draw to the east. Napoleon pursued slowly, with the bulk of his army moving toward the old battleground of Preussisch-Eylau, some 25 miles to the northeast.
To force Bennigsen and his Russians into a stand up fight, Napoleon decided to threaten the strategically and politically important town of Konigsberg. Accordingly, Napoleon sent Marshal Joachim Murat with a portion of the Cavalry Reserve, Marshal Louis Davout’s III Corps and Marshal Nicolas Soult’s IV Corps towards Konigsberg on 13 June, with orders to capture the city. In order to relieve Konigsberg, Napoleon believed that Bennigsen would have to advance through one of three towns along the Alle River--Bartenstein. Schippenbeil or Friedland. At 1500 hours of the same day, Bonaparte received cavalry reports that the Russians were closing on Friedland. The trap was closing.
Napoleon received more good news when Marshal Jean Lannes reported that his corps cavalry had scouted towards and occupied Friedland with no Russians in sight. The Emperor immediately ordered Lannes to move East and secure the town. Thus, when Russian Prince Dmitri Galitzen with 20 squadrons of cavalry first approached Friedland from the east hank of the Alle at about 1800, he found the place occupied by the French 9th Hussars along with some Saxon horse. Russian Colonel (Col) Tchalikov. Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Prince Manvelov and Major Mesenov led several squadrons of the Grand Duke Constantine Uhlans into the city to eject Lannes’ troopers and promptly did so. They were reinforced by the St George Cuirassier, one of the toughest units in the Russian army. Lannes’ cavalry fell back to the woods behind Heinrichsdorf, losing a few prisoners in the process.
When Bennigsen arrived in Friedland at 2000 hours, he learned from these prisoners that Lannes and his entire corps (some 15,000 men) were moving directly towards Friedland and breaking all speed records doing it. Accordingly, he ordered nearly his entire army across to the west bank of the Alle, "with the intention of pushing back the enemy corps so that the army could occupy Friedland in peace for a day and refresh themselves..." Bennigsen wrote, he then "intended to withdraw to the right bank of the Alle and continue in the afternoon of the next day. my march on Wehlau." Bennigsen’s true rationale remains unclear, but he may well have thought this was the most direct route to Konigsberg, while the prospect of smashing an isolated French corps must have been equally tempting.
Regardless, not all the Russians crossed the Alle. Prince Mikhail Dalgourky’s dragoon brigade, along with the 14th Infantry Division, remained on the bank. At the same time Bennigsen ordered General Matvei Platov and his Cossacks to move north and occupy the town of Wehlau. At the same time, he directed Major General (MG) Nicolas Borozdin to take a large chunk of the Russian Imperial Guard along with some dragoons to occupy Allenburg, some seven miles to the northwest. A large detachment of dragoons also moved north to occupy the village of Gross-Wohnsdorf. These three detachments could provide early warning in case of a French flanking move to the north. Since all three locations were further crossings of the Alle, the forces would also secure the areas as alternate Russian routes towards Konigsberg, towards this end, Bennigsen deployed 46,000 troops and 324 guns to the west bank of the Alle, 6000 men on the east bank and some 6000 as detachments.
By sunrise 14 June, Bennigsen‘s army on the west bank was positioned from north to south. LTG Theodore Uarov’s line cavalry, along with LTG Kollogrivov‘s Guard cavalry, secured the northern flank of the army, deployed directly east of Heinrichsdorf. South of their position in order were the 3rd Division under General Titov, then the 7th and 8th Divisions under the combined command of General Soukine. Behind Soukine, just north of Friedland, stood part of the Guard infantry and Galitzen's cavalry in reserve. This entire force fell under the orders of Prince Andre Gortchakov, its southern boundary the Muhlenfluss.
South of this stream stood the left wing of the Russian army, under the orders of Prince Bagration. Next to Gortchakov‘s wing was the 2nd Division and then, moving south, the 6th Division and Bagration’s Advance Guard. The Jaeger formations of this latter unit, reinforced with the Guard light infantry, deployed in skirmish formation to the Sortlack Woods. Held in reserve to this wing directly west of Friedland was another portion of the Guard infantry, the Gard a Cheval Regiment, as well as two brigades of line cavalry.
Time however, was something the Russians sorely lacked. By 1800, the French had cleared the entire Sortlack Woods. Ney moved forward with MG Bisson’s infantry division on his left and MG Marchand's on the right, a thick skirmish screen leading. The corps’ light cavalry, as well us Latour-Maubourg’s dragoons, followed in the rear center of the formation. Marchand splattered Jaegers everywhere, then veered to his right to capture the town of Sortlack and drive the Russian light infantry into the Alle. As he did so. a gap appeared between his division and that of Bisson. LTG Bagration immediately threw his own reserve cavalry into the gap, the Garde a Cheval at their head, but to no avail. Latour-Maubourg’s French dragoons smartly moved in to fill the gap and, assisted by a crossfire from the infantry, promptly kicked the Russians out. Marchand then reunited men with Bisson's troops and wheeled to the north, both generals heading for the church steeple of Friedland.
Ney’s attack forced the Russian left wing back into an "L" shaped line with its right resting on the Muhlenfluss and its left on the Alle, just where the two bodies of water begin forming the narrow neck of land leading into Friedland. As such, the retreating Russian troops were beginning to become densely packed. Yet there was hope for Bennigsen. Though the Russian batteries actually facing Ney found it tough going against French skirmishers, some guns positioned on the east bank of the Alle began to ruthlessly riddle Ney’s advancing columns. At the same time Galitzen"s cavalry, recalled by Bennigsen, galloped across the bridges of the Muhlenfluss and then launched an attack into the left flank of Ney‘s infantry. This combination of horse and cannon proved too much tor the French, and Ney‘s attack recoiled to the southwest. Towards the Woods of Sortlack. For the Russians, however. Galitzen’s assault was too little, too late.
Napoleon anticipated Bennigsen’s move and had already ordered Victor to advance to support Ney’s left flank. At the head of Victor’s I Corps was MG Pierre Dupont’s infantry division, formerly assigned to Ney. On seeing their old comrades hard pressed, they roared down the road double time, closely supported by Lahoussaye’s dragons. The Russian horsemen, by now already embroiled in combat with Ney’s cavalry, could not stand against this new threat against their own flank. They retreated back into Friedland, totally disordering the packed masses of Russian infantry now struggling to cross the bridges over the Alle. For Victor’s corps artillery commander, MG Alexandre Senarmont, such a massed target was simply too good to pass up.
The Grand Battery
Senarmont, who had been amusing himself by over-seeing the replacement of dead horses, asked for and received Victor’s permission to strip all the guns away from the infantry to form a “Grand Battery." The battery was formed with a heavy reserve of six 12 pounder guns plus two wings of l5 guns each, one wing being set on each flank of Dupont’s division to effect a crossfire.
The left wing, commanded by Maj Raulot, consisted of the 2nd and 6th Companies, 8th Foot Artillery Regiment and the 2nd company, 3rd Horse Regiment. The right wing, under Col Forno, included the 6th Company 1st Foot Regiment, 1st Company 2nd Horse Artillery and the 3rd company 3rd Horse Artillery Regiment. Both wings counted ten 6lb guns. two 4lb guns and three 5lb howitzers each. A single infantry battalion and some of Lahoussaye’s dragoons provided support.
As soon as his Grand Battery was formed, Senarmont led it to within 400-500) yards of the enemy, deployed his guns and let loose with two salvos. Senarmont moved forward again. Dumbfounded Russian commanders blinked. "Who was this damn fool attempting to charge their lines with cannon?” Senarmont dropped his guns at around 300 yards range and fired several more salvos. Again he moved the guns forward, the wings of the formation now merging together one unit. At a distance of 120-200 yards the guns dropped and for the next 25 minutes raked the Russian infantry in front of Friedland with ball and canister. It was too much. The Russian infantry abandoned their positions, taking their guns with them. The whole affair had lasted less than two and one half hours with Senarmont shooting 2516 rounds, of which 368 were canister. French casualties amounted to 111 killed and 45 wounded. Russian losses have been estimated at near 4000.
With the Russians now in total retreat through Friedland, Ney rallied his divisions and plunged into the town. Dupont crossed to the north bank of the Muhlenfluss, using the Russian pontoons constructed there. He then wheeled right and entered Friedland from the Konigsberg-Friedland road. repulsing a desperate attack by Bennigsen’s last reserve, the parade ground Imperial Guard. Senarmont, along with Ney’s gunners, continued to pummel the Russians, setting afire at least one of the spans across the Alle. The Russians were not helped when their own artillery accidentally torched some of the Alle bridges. Retreat turned into rout and many drowned trying to swim the Alle. Many other Russians fought to the death. None surrendered. And at least one Russian regiment distinguished itself, its serried ranks of mitre capped grenadiers repulsing all attempts to destroy it. So superb was Grenadier Regiment Pavlov's performance that the Czar allowed them to retain this same headgear so that they would forever remain. "in the state in which they left the battlefield a visible mark of its bravery and Our grace.”
The Final Count
By 2000 hours Friedland was in French hands. The 14th Division arrived too late to reinforce Bagration and, along with some of Platov‘s returning Cossacks, could only cover the retreat of what was left of the army. A Cossack attempt to ford the Alle and threaten rear was easily brushed aside. Bennigsen, cowed and broken. marched north and reformed his army near Allenburg. French pursuit was half hearted at best.
North of the Muhlenfluss. Russian fortunes fared little better. Gortchakov had again advanced on Heinrichsdorf, apparently to relieve the pressure on Bagration. Napoleon acted quickly to this turn of event, bypassing his staff and sending Aide de Camp BG Jean Savary to collect the Guard Fusiliers and march them to the threatened area. Thus reinforced, Mortier and Lannes easily repulsed Gortchakov. Napoleon dropped the flag and both marshals lunged forward to destroy the Russian right wing. Gortchakov, under attack from the front and with his rear and left under French control, he was pushed into the Alle. An attempted Russian breakout through Friedland got nowhere, though many guns and men escaped across a ford discovered near Kloschenen. About 5000 more escaped north along the west bank of the Alle, finally reforming near Allenburg. Grouchy, whose cavalry should have prevented this, remained passive because the (he said) of a lack of orders. Regardless, by half past ten it was all over except the body count.
Total French casualties for the battle were 11,062 men killed, wounded and missing. As for the Russians, French Adjutant Commandant Dentzel counted 11,004 dead and wounded on the field itself. Including those who drowned or managed evacuation, total Russian casualties may have been near 25,000. The French also reported the capture of 80 Russian guns. some stuck in the soft banks of the Alle. Beyond the numbers, the Russian army was psychologically destroyed and its monarch demoralized. Despite the protests of some of his generals, Alexander settled on French terms by signing the Treaty of Tilsit on 9 July 1807.
Napoleon had gained his decisive battle.
Lannes Seizes the Initiative
At 0500 hours a long line of French skirmishers advanced against the Russian positions. It was Lannes along with his only available infantry formation, MG Nicolas Oudinot’s Combined Grenadier Division. Which had been secretly deploying since its arrival at around 0100. It was supported by MG Emmanuel Marquis de
Grouchy‘s dragoon division and MG Etienne Nansouty division of cuirassiers. The two units were, in reality, the head of a long string of French reinforcements fast closing on Lannes’ position.
Since the first clash at Friedland, Lannes had kept Napoleon apprised of events. Accordingly, the Emperor ordered Grouchy and Marshal Edouard Mortier’s VIII Corps to move out for Friedland at 2100 the night before, with Nansouty and Marshal Michel’s VI Corps hitting the road an hour later. The cavalry from both formations arrived at 0300 and immediately linked up with Lannes‘ horse in front of Heinrichsdorf.
Lannes mission was simple. He had to keep Bennigsen pinned in place until the rest of the French army could arrive and destroy him. Lannes accomplished this by launching his newly reinforced cavalry regiments against those of Uvarov and Kollogrivov. An indecisive, seesaw battle around Heinrichsdorf followed, lasting about four hours until a brigade of French grenadiers occupied the town itself. The remaining infantry advanced in dense skirmish order along the whole front, but in particular strength through the Sortlack Woods. This tree to tree fighting also proved inconclusive. On the Russian side, the Guard Jaegers, the 20th Jaeger Regiment, and the Rostov Musketeer Regiment were particularly noteworthy in their performance.
Against other segments of the Russian line, Lannes launched sequenced local attacks with formed infantry columns. This not only forced Bennigsen to stay in place but convinced the Russian commander there were more French troops present than there actually were. Using the tall grain and the high ground overlooking the plains of Friedland for concealment, Lannes shifted his troops from one place to another by hiding his movements behind the reverse slope. When Lannes’ columns appeared, they were mistaken by the Russians for new formations. The French skirmish screen was so thick it gave the impression that a huge number of formed troops had to be lurking in support. The skirmish screen was also particularly effective at aiming at anyone in the Russian army who wore an officer’s bicorne. MG Soukine was shot in the foot, with LTG Dmitri Docturov taking his place. LTG Ivan Essen. Bennigsen’s logistics chief and Quartermaster General Steinheil, as well as Generals Markov and Karl Baggovouth from Bagration’s Advance Guard, were also shot
On the Russian Side of the Hill
Bennigsen, meanwhile, remembered where he had placed his backbone. At 0900 hours, he ordered an attack all along the line of battle, weighted towards capturing Heinrichsdorf and turning the French northern flank. The attack was met head on by MG Dupas‘ division of Marshal Mortier‘s VIII Corps, just arriving on the field (at about 0800).The carnage was terrible, Mortier went down when his horse was shot and the 15th Ligne Regiment suffered 952 casualties, its eagle captured by the Schlusselburg Musketeer Regiment. Nevertheless, the Russians were thrown back. A Cossack turning movement to the north of Heinrichsdorf was sent packing by Mortier’s corps cavalry and another timely arrival, the VI Corps light cavalry.
In the aftermath, Dupas positioned his troops while Mortier‘s second infantry division, MG Jan Dombrowski’s Poles, marched up and took position in front of Posthenen. Oudinot’s grenadiers continued to take target practice in the Sortlack Woods as well as hold the area between Posthenen and Heinrichsdorf. Grouchy, as senior cavalry commander present, used all available horse to cover the French left flank, north Heinrichsdorf. Lannes‘ final formations, some Saxons and MG Jean Verdier’s infantry division, arrived at 1000 hours and were placed to support the grenadiers linking Dupas and Dombrowski. The French commanders than took a deep breath and waited for the next Russian assault. It never came.
Bennigsen was now content to begin a prolonged but desultory artillery duel with the French. Mortier‘ s counterattack evidently convinced him that there were many more French on the field than he previously thought, and so the Russian commander ordered his entire front to shift closer towards Friedland where 21 night crossing of the Alle could be made. To facilitate operations, three pontoon bridges were constructed across the river while at further four spanned the Muhlenfluss, connecting the Russian left and right. Meanwhile, Russian officers stationed in Friedland’s church tower reported column after column of French moving into the battle area. The cries of "‘Vive l’empereur!“ around noon did nothing for Bennigsen’s already frazzled nerves, but did confirm his belief that it was high time to leave the area.
Napoleon arrived around 1200 hours and immediately began at personal reconnaissance of the battlefield, one that left him in at state of disbelief. How could Bennigsen have been so stupid as to get his entire army trapped against the banks of an unfordable river? Unbelievable or not, Napoleon knew that an opportunity like this would not come twice. If he did not strike now, Bennigsen would surely try to recross the river. Though a good portion of his army was yet to arrive, Napoleon dictated his commanders intent to his staff somewhere between l400 and 1500 hours.
Napoleon’s plan was exceedingly simple. Marshal Ney and the VI Corps, supported by MG LatourMauhourg’s dragoon division. would form up on the right (southern) flank of the French army, relieving Oudinot’ s grenadiers and occupying the Sortlack Woods north of Posthenen. The majority of troops would hide behind trees. Lannes‘ Reserve Corps would remain in their present position at the center of the French line, ably supported by Nansouty's cuirassiers. Mortier and the VIII Corps would redeploy in front of Heinrichsdorf. Grouchy with his dragoons and some attached light cavalry would also stay at their present location, forming the northern wing of the army. The Imperial Guard, along with MG Claude Victor-Perrin’s I Corps, would remain in reserve behind Posthenen. Lahoussaye‘s division of dragoons would support Victor. The Emperor decided to remain near Posthenen.
Upon a signal of 20 cannon, Ney would launch forward into the Sortlack woods, clear it, and then wheel northeast to drive the Russian flank back against the town of Friedland and tho steep banks of the Alle and Muhlenfluss. Upon receipt of orders, Lannes and Mortier would advance to drive the Russian right wing into the Alle. Victor would wait to be committed at time and place chosen by the Emperor. While Grouchy was ordered to "maneuver as to cause as much harm as possible to the enemy when he, pressed by the vigorous attack. of our right, shall feel the necessity of retreat." As Napoleon was still unsure of Bennigsen’s strength, he also recalled Murat with two cuirassier divisions and Davout’s III Corps. The precaution was unnecessary. Not only was the Russian position tactical joke, but the French now had nearly 80,000 men deploying for battle against Bennigsen’s 46,000. Russian artillery, however as more than double the number of French guns present.
At about 1600 hours, Victor, Nay, the Guard and the final two dragoon divisions lumbered onto the field and went to their assigned positions. At the same time Bennigsen (thinking that no one could start a battle that late in the day) directed his staff to issue orders to all commanders for a withdrawal across the Alle under the cover of darkness. At 1700 hours, 20 French cannon boomed in the distance. In a matter of minutes the Russian Jaegers holding the Sortlack Wood were seen in headlong in retreat with Ney’s VI Corps hot on their heels. Bennigsen had no choice but to countermand his order to withdraw. He then directed the 14th Division and all other troops on the east bank of the Alle to cross to the west and reinforce his battle line. The only question was, would they arrive in time?
Reflection and Reform
It was against this backdrop of battlefield defeat that newly appointed Russian Minister of War Mikhail Andreas Barclay de Tolly began in 1810 a top to bottom overhaul of the army. Barclay had participated in the 1807 campaign but missed out on the debacle at Friedland due to wounds suffered earlier. Yet he had seen enough firsthand to know that the Holy Russian Army was vastly inferior to the French in three specific areas—the use of massed artillery, the use of tight infantry skirmishers, and the total lack of a decent command and control system.
The problems with artillery, fortunately, generally fixed themselves due to Russia‘s long standing affection for this arm. This was in great contrast with the rest of Europe which would not even acknowledge their gunners as proper soldiers (“mechaniks” Frederick the Great had called them). Given such a tradition, and considering that the Russians consistently marched with more cannon of heavier caliber than anyone on the planet, it was an easy step to promote more artillery officers to the rank of general. Their resulting influence would then manifest itself in battle through the deployment of massed artillery reserves, ready for decisive action. In particular, the young MG Kutaisov promoted not only massed artillery fire but the hiding of batteries until needed and a change in the long-standing policy of withdrawing the guns when danger threatened. He wrote, “The artillery must be prepared to sacrifice itself. Let the anger of your guns roar out! Fire your last charge of canister at point blank range! A battery which is captured after this will have inflicted casualties on the enemy which will more than compensate for the loss of the guns."
The light infantry problem was a tougher nut to crack, however, and was never really resolved. In any event, Barclay issued an order of 19 October 1810 which transformed fourteen musketeer regiments into the 33rd through 46th Jaeger Regiments. The problem stemmed from the nature of Russian society itself. French skirmish tactics, as befitted an army whose roots lay in the Revolution, relied on the individual initiative of the enlisted soldier. This was as it should be since the dispersed formation of a skirmish screen prohibited close control by those in charge.
Most Russian officers cringed at such a proposition, since to admit that the common soldier (in Russia, your basic peasant or serf) was capable of such individual action implied that there was little difference between serf and noble. In reality, the peasantry soon lived up to their officers’ low expectations though not out of any inherent personality defect. Simply, in an autocratic society such as Russia, the serf had little experience doing anything for himself that was not specifically directed from higher authority. Thus when Russia‘s famous Cavalry Maiden, Nadezhda Durova. Observed the Jaegers in training, she noted the frustration of their officers who could not get their troops to perform even the simplest of functions (such as when to take cover or fire their weapons) without a direct order. This meant that Russian skirmish formations were doomed to be much more compressed than those of France to insure their officers were close enough to direct them. This, in turn, meant less flexibility and a much higher casualty rate.
Barclay had much more success reforming the organizational and command structure of the Russian army, since doing so did not trespass on rigid social structure. Here the need was critical since the Russians previously followed the Fredericken system which held no permanent formation or staff larger than a regiment. Larger formations were ad hot: conglomerations of regiments and brigades that seemed to change daily, providing no continuity and prohibiting commanders from ever learning the capabilities of their troops. The lack of a formal staff system left commanders to operate by their own whim, forcing battle plans to be unbelievably detailed and issued far in advance to insure everyone was on the proverbial “same page." Adapting to change was a slow, painful (note the l4th Division at Friedland) and normally impossible task.
At lower echelons, most of Barclay's changes involved the infantry, and here Barclay kept the standard three battalions per regiment organization. However, the second battalion was now designated a depot battalion, responsible for the training of new recruits. The other two battalions each had three regular companies, and one elite company divided into a grenadier platoon and one of Jaegers. This effectively reduced the number of elites in each regiment from nearly one third to one eighth, but Barclay had previously noted that in the past such soldiers were elite in name and uniform only. Now he wrote, “The slightest fault will deprive the Jaeger and grenadier of his distinction, and by fault I mean not only carelessness in drill and similar mistakes, but any offense which is inconsistent with good conduct and the honor of a crack soldier."
At this level Barclay also instituted some significant training reforms, the most notable being to move the infantry away from the cult of the bayonet. To be sure, the concept that the bayonet was the soldiers friend and the musket was at lazy fellow was based on practical reality. Russian muskets were generally of dreadful manufacture while the fact that they were produced in not less than 28 different calibers meant that Russian abysmal logistics, system rarely could provide all the proper ammunition a regiment needed. Nevertheless, Barclay directed on 10 September 1810 that the “main occupation of a soldiers training should be shooting at a target.” In additional guidance, Barclay wrote. “The men can only become good marksman when their officers avoid all compulsion and have at fundamental understanding of the mentality of the soldier.” Barclay‘s thoughts were put into formal action when he issued his regulation instructions for target practice in 1811.
At higher echelons, Barclay copied French practice and reorganized the army into permanent divisions and corps, each with a formal staff structure. Each infantry division had a brigade of Jaeger (two regiments) and two regular infantry. Two divisions of infantry with a brigade of artillery constituted an infantry corps, with a similar pattern being followed for the cavalry. The compulsion for the attachment and cross attachment of between formations was discouraged and this meant that for the first time commanders actually began to become familiar with their assigned forces, discovering both their weaknesses and strengths.
Barclay also imitated the French by grouping all his elite forces together into the formations such that they would he used decisively, rather than dissipating their effect by assigning individual units to other formations as had been done in the past. All the line grenadiers were formed into two divisions of three brigades each. The cuirassiers (who finally received body armor to make them the equal to the French) were likewise grouped into it single reserve formation, and by 1813 these organizations were deployed with the Russian Imperial Guard for an army level elite reserve.
Additionally. Barclay also stripped the elite companies away from the infantry depot battalions and formed them into battalions and divisions of converged grenadiers. This action was significant because it demonstrated Barclay‘s desire to more towards a system that would fully mobilize all his country’s vast human resources for Military duty, not unlike the French levee en mass. It was for this same reason that on 16 January 1811 he affected a change that stripped three of the companies from each of the army‘s garrison battalions for service with the regular ground forces. Another undated memorandum proposed a “National Guard“ a recommendation that became a reality in July 1812 with the deployment of the pike toting olpochenie, or militia.
These reforms had the effect of making the Russian army more flexible and efficient that it had ever been in the past, though certainly not the equal of the French. Yet there was something further about this new Russian army. It seemed to possess a different spirit than in the past. one that defied even the changes of the Great Reformer Barclay had instituted. No one could precisely define this new vibrancy, nor even whence it came, but many prayed that as the war clouds again began to gather that it would he enough.
This article was published in Stratey & Tactics Magazine,
Number 195 and written by LTC Wilbur E. Gray
Stand at Borodino
The battle of Borodino occurred on 7 September 1812, some 70 miles west of Moscow. Borodino was to be the Russian campaign's decisive battle. Since the Grande Armee crossed the Vistula River into Russia on 33 May 1812, decisive action had eluded Napoleon. Barclay dc Tolly skillfully evaded French attempts at pitched battle and simply withdrew ever farther into the vastness of the Russian steppes. However militarily sound they might be, Barclays operations were not politically popular with the Russian nobility. The thought of Moscow falling to the French without a fight was anathema to them. The nobility pressured Czar Alexander to appoint 67 year old Prince Mikhail Kutusov as the new commander of the Russian armies, which he did on 20 August. Kutusov, lethargic, immobile. and described by Alexander as "immoral and thoroughly dangerous.” immediately declared his intent to stand and fight. Kutusov’s Chief of Staff, the unlucky Bennigsen, chose the area around the tiny town of Borodino as the place where the warriors of Holy Russia would tum and face the hated invader.
Bennigsen established the Russian line on a ridge overlooking the Semyenovka Creek. There was a forward position at Shevardino while the main line was linked together by the Borodino, Semenovskaya and Utitsa villages. Much of the position, notably the left, lay in forests and heavy brush. In general the front had a strong right but extended left, only partially covered by the Utitsa Woods. Russian pioneers (engineers troops. ed) had constructed earthwork fortifications with artillery emplacements around Borodino, near Utitsa, and on the right flank. The last covered the fords of the Kolocha River which flowed in a northwest direction. The pioneers also built three formidable strong points: the Shevardino Redoubt. the Great Redoubt, and the “Bagration Fleches”(arrow shaped earthworks), the last two flanking Semenovskaya. Both flanks of the army were protected by Cossacks and the entire Front was screened by Jaegers in skirmish formation.
The Russians deployed to fight defensively, with Barclay‘s 1st West Army in the North and Prince Bagration’s 2nd West Army in the South. Bagration assigned the two divisions of LTG Nicolai Tuchkov's Ill Corps to protect Utitsa, backed up by several thousand opolchenie ( militia). LTG Borosdin’s two-division VIII Corps secured the fleches while LTG Nicolai Raevski’s VII Corps, also two divisions, defended the Great Redoubt and Semenovskaya. MG Sievers‘ single division IV Cavalry Corps supported Raevski. Finally, Bagration controlled a small Reserve consisting of the 2nd Cuirassier Division, the 7th (or 2nd) Converged Grenadier Division, some artillery and General Akim Karpov’s Cossacks.
Barclay assigned the two divisions of General Docturov’s VI Corps to defend Gorki. The four divisions of LTG Karl Baggovout’s II Corps and LTG Alexander Ostermann-Tolstoy‘s IV Corps defended the fords across the northeast. trace of the Kolocha River. This last deployment was a serious mistake as the steep banks of the Kolocha virtually assured that the French would not strike that wing of the Russian Army. Barclay backed these positions with three complete cavalry corps: the I under LTG Uvarov, the II under MG F.K. Korff and the III under MG Kreutz. General Platov added some 5,500 Cossacks. Barclay‘s Reserve consisted of Grand Duke Constantine’s redoubtable V Imperial Guard Corps and MG Aleksander Kutaisov’s substantial Artillery Reserve.
Kutusov himself seemed to have no other plan than to let Barclay and Bagration run the battle as they saw fit. Nevertheless, with some 120,800 men at his disposal, the defense looked strong. However, untrained militia from Smolensk and Moscow numbered some 10,000 of this total. One officer sadly described them as “raw peasants clutching pikes and muskets which they scarcely knew how to wield.”
Napoleon Ponders the Situation
For his part, Napoleon rejected a scheme by Marshal Davout fora huge outflanking movement to the south of the Utitsa Forest. Napoleon had concerns that his Grande Armee was simply too weak in numbers to attempt such a movement. The army was down to about 124,000 men from the 286,000 main force that had crossed the Vistula. He also feared that the Russians might take to their heels yet again when they discovered the French maneuver. This would deny the Emperor the decisive victory that he so critically needed to win his campaign. Instead, he intended to pound the Russian battle line until it was almost at the breaking point, forcing Kutusov to commit all his reserves. Then Napoleon intended to find the weakest part of the Russian line and strike with his own reserves. This would split the Russian defense and collapse Kutusov’s army.
French forces captured the Shevardino Redoubt on 6 September, and this allowed Napoleon to examine Russian intentions more closely, validating the Emperor's battle plan. Napoleon picked the area around the partially razed village of Semenovskaya as the point where he would rupture the Russian defense. Opposite this point the Emperor planned to deploy nearly 85,000 of his available troops, all on a front less than a mile and a half wide.
MG Josef Poniatowski‘s V Polish Corps (Napoleon had recreated the Polish Kingdom as the Grand Duchy of Warsaw and raised troops from there. ed.) got the job of capturing Utitsa and crushing the Russian left flank. Napoleon directed Prince Eugene dc Beauharnais’ reinforced IV Corps to occupy the attention of the Russian right by capturing Borodino. Eugene was then to transfer the bulk of his corps by pontoon bridge to the southern bank of the Kolocha River and storm the Great Redoubt. MG Grouchy’s III Cavalry Corps deployed to support Eugene. Davout and his beloved I Corps received orders to capture the fleches. Marshal Ney’s III Corps, with one cavalry and three infantry divisions, would support Davout’s effort. Napoleon held in reserve MG Friant’s division of I Corps, the Imperial Guard, MG Jean Juno’s VIII Westphalian Corps and, finally. Marshal Murat’s Cavalry Reserve. The last counted nearly 14,000 sabers, consisting of MG Nansouty’s I. MG Louis-Pierre Montbrun's II and MG Nicholas Latour-Maubourg's IV Cavalry Corps. Napoleon would commit these forces as needed.
The Carnage Begins
The French planned to attack at dawn and as the first rays of light crept across the eastern sky an optimistic Napoleon could remind himself of the “sun of Austerlitz.” Even now, however, problems were beginning to crop up. French artillery had somehow found itself set up outside the range of its targets and had to redeploy. This took a little doing, but at 0600 hours 210 French guns began to belch fire at the fleches. The massed artillery heralded what one historian would call “the bloodiest day in military history prior to the First World War.”
Prince Eugene‘s IV Corps quickly swung into action. MG Morand’s Division (attached from I Corps) had deployed south of the Kolocha and swiftly cleared all the Russian light infantry screening the Great Redoubt. North of the Kolocha, MG Delzon’s Division immediately overran Borodino, sending the defending Russian Guard Jaegers scurrying toward Gorki. Delzon mounted a pursuit, but the Russian VI Corps defending Gorki forced his retreat back to Borodino. The Russians made it impossible to recapture Borodino, burning its bridge across the Kolocha instead Eugene then positioned his artillery around Borodino to bombard the Great Redoubt to the southeast. He also began to transfer the bulk of his infantry and cavalry to the southern bank of the Kolocha to assault the very same fortification.
In the southern pan of the battlefield, the difficult underbrush around Utitsa delayed the attack of Poniatowski‘s Poles until about 0700. Many hours of tough tree to tree fighting followed before the Russians would finally surrender the town in its identically named forest at 1600. This occurred only after Napoleon committed Junot‘s Westphalians to the fray at nine in the morning. The VII Corps was initially to link Poniatowski with Davout’s I Corps in the north and then clear Utitsa Forest of the enemy Jaegers that had been harassing Davout‘s advance. Poniatowski’s attack had begun well enough, with the Poles storming and immediately taking the town of Utitsa, fieldworks and all.
The reason was that Bagration had ordered the 3rd Division, Russian III Corps, north to reinforce the fleches. This decision left General Tuchkov with only the 1st Grenadier Division to stop the Poles. However, at 0700 Bagration had wisely requested Baggovout’s II Corps from the north to reinforce Tuchkov. Upon Baggovout’s arrival at 1000, the battle turned into the seesaw previously noted.
Obviously. Bagration‘s reinforcing of the fleches indicated serious problem for that position and the Russian center as at whole. That problem was Marshal Davout‘s two divisions which roared in and captured the southern fleche at 0600 hours. Davout personally led the attack after his lead division commander. MG Compans, went down under n hail of grapeshot. The French attack. spearheaded by "the Terrible” 57th Line Regiment, must have been quite impressive. Bagration himself stood up in saddle. clapped his hands and shouted, “Bravo. bravo!” at the French assault. Bagration then began to take more practical measures to correct the situation. He requested assistance from Kutusov and when no answer was received pleaded directly to Barclay for help. Though Barclay and Bagration personally despised each other, the former responded by sending part of the Imperial Guard to the fleches. He also ordered Baggovout’s II Corps south to reinforce Utitsa. Barclay then threw his reserve grenadiers and heavy cavalry, as well as Tuchkov‘ s 3rd Division, against Davout. The counterattack forced Davout to retreat and the Marshal himself was temporarily taken out of action when his horse was hit by Russian artillery fire.
Meanwhile Marshal Ney, never far from a fight, led his III Corps against the northern fleche at about 0700. The redheaded commander took the position at the first assault but like Davout retreated under the counterattack of Bagration’s reserves. Attack followed counterattack, but around 1000 the fortunes of war began to smile on France. Bagration received a round in the leg and after losing much blood toppled from his horse in plain view of hundreds of Russian infantry. This event completely demoralized the Russian southern wing and gave a final French attack at 1100 undisputed control of the fleches. Barclay then shifted Tolstoy‘s IV Corps southward. just to the northwest of Semenovskaya, in an attempt to plug the gap. The Russian situation was becoming critical as the battle was barely four hours old and Kutusov had already seen significant chunks of his reserves committed.
And French pressure would not abate. Immediately upon seizing the fleches. French artillery moved up and began to pound Semenovskaya where the remnants of Borosdin’s V II Corps took refuge. Napoleon ordered General Friant’s division to move out of reserve and storm the tiny Russian village. Prince Murat supported this attack by deploying Nansouty‘s I Cavalry Corps to the left of Friant and Latour-Maubourg‘s IV Cavalry Corps to his right. As the infantry advanced the cavalry would execute a massive pincer flanking attack designed to trample the Russian forces deployed on either side of the village. This attack succeeded and by 1200 Semenovskaya also fell to the French. Napoleon deployed another massed artillery battery around Semenovskaya and these guns began to rake the Great Redoubt from the southern flank. The Russian center was about to split and at noon the French Marshals on the scene petitioned the Emperor to commit his reserves, specifically the Young Guard. But as had happened earlier. Napoleon refused saying, “Before I deploy my reserve I must be able to more clearly my chessboard”. Murat took the new gracefully, but Ney was livid. The refusal also gave the Russians enough lime to form a second (shaky) defensive line.
The Great Redoubt
During this time Russian General Raevski's Great Redoubt the scene of much desperate fighting. Prince Eugene had previously transferred the bulk of his forces south of the Kolocha and at 1000 launched an attack against the redoubt using General Brourssier’s 14th Infantry Division. This attack failed, but anotherassault led by General Morand’s 1st Division at 1100 curried the position. Unfortunately for the French. General Yermalov, Barclay’s chief of Staff, was near the position on route lo Semenovskaya with two horse batteries, Yermalov deployed the guns and canistered the rear of the redoubt. Then he and Artillery Reserve Commander Kutaisov grabbed every available infantryman counterattacked. Their assault was successful but the French artillery shot Kutaisov dead. As a result the entire Artillery Reserve would not move much for the rest of the battle for the lack of leadership. Eugene on the other hand collected his forces for yet another try at the Great Redoubt.
The next assault would be delayed for three hours as reports began coming in concerning a Russian flank attack in the north. The Russians had evidently found a usable ford the northwest branch of the Kolocha. Kutusov approved a diversionary attack across the river into the French northren flank, hoping to relieve some of the pressure on the center. Some 8000 cavalry from General Uvrov’s I Cavalry Corps and Platov‘s Cossacks executed the maneuver, forcing Eugene to delay his plans. Eugene shifted sufficient forces nort across the Kolocha to deal with the Russians. The Czar’s horsemen found themselves easily repulsed as French baggage train guards, among others, sent the Cossacks packing. For the Russians, however, the maneuver was good enough.
Eugene launched his final assault against the Great Redoubt at 1500 hours. Three infantry divisions stormed the position from the front while Grouchy‘s III Cavalry Corps swung north to destroy any Russians in the rear. Latour-Mauhourg’s IV and General Caulaincourt’s II Cavalry Corps thundered to the south of the Redoubt to attack its flank and rear. Caulaincourt, one of Napoleon’s doughty Aides de Camp, had taken control of Montbrun’s cavalry when the latter officer fell to a Russian cannon ball the clapped and yelled “Good shot?" when he saw the projectile coming toward him. The attack was successful with the infantry pouring over the front of the Redoubt and Latour-Mauhourg’s Saxon cuirassiers spinning left and coming through the rear.
An initial French advance from the redoubt stalled in the face of Russian artillery. Nevertheless. it was evident that the hastily formed Russian second line was onthe verge of collapse. Kutusov had not a single soldier in reserve left to commit. The French Marshals again implored Napoleon to unleash the Imperial Guard tofinish the Russians. Though he had some 20.000 untouched troops available. Napoleon considered the situation and then at 1700 hours refused. He stated, "When you are 800 leagues from France, you do not wreck your last reserve.” Kutusov withdrew during the night and the drama of Borodino was over.
While Count Leo Tolstoy exaggerated in his description of the battle, it was indeed a bloodbath. French losses were 28,255 men, about 23% of the army present. Russian losses were much worse with some 45,600 casualties, or about 55% of the regular army on the field. Raevski’s corps was down to 700 effectives while one Russian officer mistook the 2nd Division as part of a single battalion. The 7th Converged Grenadier Division suffered the most grievous loss with nearly 96% casualties. It is little wonder that only significant amounts of rum kept Barclay going.
Yet, this battle was not the decisive victory that Napoleon needed. The Russian army, though beaten senseless, was still intact. And as long as the Russian army remained intact, Czar Alexander ignored Napoleon‘s attempts to negotiate. Napoleon would march into Moscow on 14 September, but this move gained him nothing. With winter coming on, and so far from France, the very existence of the Russian Army forced Napoleon into the disastrous retreat where Cossacks. “Marshal Mud” and “Marshal Winter" took their toll. Of the 630,000 French and French-allied soldiers who began the campaign. only 65.000 would survive the retreat from Moscow, some 35,000 of these little more than stragglers. One might well note the Emperor's compliment to the Wurtemburgers on 10 November 1812, when he noticed them still marching information. From an initial strength of 4000. they now numbered but 30 men.
War and Politics, Politics and War
Borodino was important in other ways as well. It validated the reforms that Barclay had instituted. The reforms did not make the Russians a man-for-man match for the French. but given the massive material resources Russia and the other powers of Europe could bring to bear against Napoleon. The reforms were sufficient enough.
Yet there was one thing more. something that even Barclay could not have foreseen. Borodino was the first true spark of Russian nationalism. The Russian soldier fought and died at Borodino not simply because his officers told him to, but because this time it was his struggle as well. This war was not “the final argument of kings,” but a war in which the survival of his culture and his way life, however flawed, seemed at stake. Borodino signaled to all Russians that affairs of state ceased to be the sole province of the Czar; they concerned the people as well.
At first, the Russian government deliberately tried to instill patriotic fervor into its soldiers to gain the same elan that French soldiers seemed to possess. Ceremonies such as the procession of the icon of the Black Virgin of Smolensk inspired the troops to truly Herculean efforts. The Russian soldier had always been known as a tough customer and conventional wisdom swore it was not enough to shoot one, you had to push him over. And at Borodino the legend grew even larger. Sir Robert Wilson certainly noticed this when he observed the militia and wrote:
“The very militia who had just joined (and who, being armed only with pikes. formed the third rank to the battalions), not only stood as steady under the cannonade as well as their veteran comrades, but charged the sallying enemy with an ardent ferocity!”
But the advisors to the Czar also recognized the danger of such rampant nationalism becoming insurrection if left unchecked. Thus one Russian partisan leader, Captain Naryshkin, received orders to disarm his own men and “execute those guilty of rebellion!” When Private Chetwertakov raised a partisan force of some 4000 men, the government branded him a troublemaker. Arrested him. and forced him to return to his regiment.
It was too late for both Czar and Kommisar. Once unleashed, the Russian peoples’ love and pride for their country, of which they were an integral and important part, could not be restrained. It would reassert itself in front of the Winter Palace in 1917, and yet again in front of the Russian Federation’s Parliament in 1991. Borodino foretold not only the demise of Napoleon, but the end of the Russian and Soviet empires as well. The Russians had indeed learned much.