Battle of Borodino

The Battle of Borodino took place near the village of Borodino on 7 September 1812 during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. The Grande Armée won the battle against the Imperial Russian Army, but failed to gain a decisive victory and suffered tremendous losses.

Napoleon fought against General Mikhail Kutuzov, whom the Emperor Alexander I of Russia had appointed to replace Barclay de Tolly on 29 August 1812 after the Battle of Smolensk. After the Battle of Borodino, Napoleon remained on the battlefield with his army; the Imperial Russian forces retreated in an orderly fashion southwards.

Because the Imperial Russian army had severely weakened the Grande Armée, they allowed the French occupation of Moscow since they used the city as bait to trap Napoleon and his men. The failure of the Grande Armée to completely destroy the Imperial Russian army, in particular Napoleon’s reluctance to deploy his Imperial Guard, has been widely criticised by historians as a huge blunder, as it allowed the Imperial Russian army to continue its retreat into territory increasingly hostile to the French.

Approximately a quarter of a million soldiers were involved in the battle, and it was the bloodiest single day of the Napoleonic Wars.

French invasion of Russia

Napoleon with the French Grande Armée began his invasion of Russia on 24 June 1812 by crossing the Niemen.

As his Russian army was outnumbered by far, Mikhail Bogdanovich Barclay de Tolly successfully used a “delaying operation”, defined as an operation in which a force under pressure trades space for time by slowing down the enemy’s momentum and inflicting maximum damage on the enemy without, in principle, becoming decisively engaged, using a Fabian strategy as a defence in depth by retreating further eastwards into Russia without giving battle.

After the Battle of Smolensk, the Tsar replaced the unpopular Barclay de Tolly with Kutuzov, who on 18 August took over the army at Tsaryovo-Zaymishche and ordered his men to prepare for battle. Kutuzov understood that Barclay’s decision to retreat had been correct, but the Tsar, the Russian troops and Russia could not accept further retreat.

A battle had to occur in order to preserve the morale of the soldiers and the nation. He then ordered not another retreat eastwards but a search for a battleground eastwards to Gzhatsk (Gagarin) on 30 August, by which time the ratio of French to Russian forces had shrunk from 3:1 to 5:4 thus using Barclay’s delaying operation again.

The main part of Napoleon’s army had entered Russia with 286,000 men, but by the time of the battle was reduced mostly through starvation and disease.

Diorama from the artillery museum (Petrograd DistrictSt. Petersburg)

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