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Battle of Borodino

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Another Battle of Borodino took place in October 1941.

The Battle of Borodino (Russian: Бородино) (September 7, 1812 (August 26 in the Old Style Russian calendar)), also called the Battle of the Moskva, was the largest single-day battle of the Napoleonic Wars and arguably the greatest battle in human history up to that date, involving nearly a quarter of a million soldiers.

It was fought by Grande Armée under Napoleon I of France and the Russian army of Alexander I near the village of Borodino, west from the town of Mozhaysk. The battle ended with inconclusive tactical results for both armies, and only strategic considerations forced the Russians to withdraw. Napoleon's conduct during the battle also shows that his tactical decisions were marred by the attempt to evade the repetition of "Pyrrhic victory". He was also suffering from a fever at the time of the battle and this was displayed in an uncharacteristic dettachment from the battle as well as his unusually simplistic battle plan.

Contents

Background

The French Grande Armée had begun the invasion of Russia in June, 1812. Alexander I proclaimed a Patriotic War in defence of the motherland. The Russian forces - previously massing on the Polish frontier - fell back before the invaders, executing a 'scorched earth' policy as they withdrew. This strategy was criticized and the commander-in-chief, Prince Michael Barclay de Tolly was removed. The new Russian commander, Prince Mikhail Kutuzov, saw the wisdom, if not the popular support, in Barclay's strategy and waited until the French were within 125 Kilometers of Moscow before choosing to seek a battle. Kutuzov picked an eminently defensible area near the village of Borodino and from September 3 strengthened it with earthworks, notably the Rayevski Redoubt in the centre-right of the line and three open arrow-shaped 'Bagration fletches' to the left.

The Opposing Armies

Earlier estimates placed the size of Kutuzov's army at 112,000, but this figure later grew to 125,000. Most recently however, historians now believe the true figure was much higher - in fact somewhere between 154,800 and 157,000. The reason for the disparity between the original figures and the modern ones is the presence of 30,000 Russian militia or opolcheniye as well as around 10,000 irregular Cossacks. Most of these never took part in the combat operations and so are discounted. However if this is to be done, then the all 25,000 men of the French Imperial Guard should also be discounted as it never fired a shot all day. Either way the Russians had a numerical advantage (there were approximately 134,000 men). Furthermore their fortified position and their artillery superiority - 640 pieces to 584 - further accentuated this advantage. All in all Kutuzov can be praised for setting himself up very effectively prior to the battle.

The Battle

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Battle_of_Borodino.jpg
Battle of Borodino
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Battle of Borodino, Peter von Hess, 1843

When Napoleon was faced with the Russian defences his usual tactical skill appears to have left him, as he ordered a frontal assault straight at the Russians. This is often attributed to his ailment at the time. It is believed he was seeking a decisive encounter that would destroy the Russian army in one day. The initial French attack was successful if costly; the King of Naples, Joachim Murat, directed a joint cavalry and infantry attack that by early afternoon had broken through the Russian line and seized the Rayevski Redoubt, lost it and retaken it. But the Russians committed their reserves and the battle ground down into a bloody attritional mess. A Russian counter-attack was broken by artillery; as night fell, both sides broke away and the Russian forces retreated, at first only a few miles, but later that night they began to withdraw all the way past Moscow.

Statistical Discussion

Casualty estimates vary dramatically. The French are said to have suffered 28,000 dead and wounded including 48 generals, according to historian Adam Zamoyski. Others put the figure much higher, with Stephen Pope claiming that as many as 50,000 is a reasonable figure. The Russians lost between 38,500 and 58,000 - 45,000 being the accepted number. Elsewhere a combined figure as high as 125,000 is given, although this is generally said to be highly unlikely. Even the lowest figures - 28,000 French and 38,500 Russians together give a combined total of 66,500. By contrast the figures provided on this site for casulties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 give a combined total of 65,470 for both sides - this despite the fact that many historians claim the first day of the Somme was the bloodiest day of battle in history. It seems that this rather dubious title instead goes to Borodino - although any one of the three days of Third Battle of Nanking is also a strong contender.

Around 8,500 casualties were being sustained each hour - the equivalent of a full-strength company wiped out every minute. In some divisions casualties exceeded 80% of the strength prior to the battle. Such a bloodbath had no precedent.

Adam Zamoyski, in his in depth account of the Russian campaign, provides figures of 1,400,000 rounds being discharged by the French infantry and a further 60,000 to 91,000 by the artillery. This averages perhaps 2,300 rounds of musketry per minute from the French.

Aftermath, Historical Impact and Borodino in Literature

The Russian retreat opened the way for the French to seize Moscow on September 14 but the capture would do the French very little good. The battle was famously described by Leo Tolstoy in his novel War and Peace.

External links


de:Schlacht von Borodino fr:Bataille de la Moskowa pl:Bitwa pod Borodino sv:Borodino

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