The Battle of Borodino

The Battle of Borodino

On the 7th September 1812 the meteoric career of Napoleon Bonaparte reached its apogee and started its precipitous descent towards catastrophe as the Emperor fought the Russians in one of the bloodiest battles of the 19th century.

At the end of June Napoleon had marched into Russia with an army of 530,000, the greatest concentration of troops in Europe since the Persian king Xerxes had invaded Greece in 480 BC. With this vast array came over 1,000 guns, 30,000 supply wagons and 28 million bottles of wine.

For weeks the army marches through the vast emptiness that was Russia, as the Tsar's army refused to be drawn into a major battle. Slowly Napoleon's front-line force was reduced, mostly to guard over his ever-lengthening lines f communications but also owing to sickness, accident and the occasional guerrilla ambush. By early September the Emperor's forces ready to battle were only about 130,000.

On 6 September the French army (which in fact was only one-third French, the rest being conscripts from Napoleon's empire) arrived at the town of Borodino, a little over 60 miles west of Moscow. There at last the Russians turned to fight, 120,000 strong under the command of 67 year old General Prince Mikhail Kutuzov, a fat and heavy drinking noble who had lost an eye fighting the Turks but who possessed the cunning, determination and ruthlessness to match his adversary.

On the morning of 7 September Napoleon rose early and, remembering the brilliant weather at his most famous victory seven years before, he welcomed a glorious sunrise with the optimistic exclamation 'Voila le soleil d ‘Austerlitz! (Look, the sun of Austerlitz) At six he ordered his cannon to open fire to start a day of frightful carnage.

By nightfall the stubborn Russians had lost some 45,000 men killed or wounded, but these could be replaced. Napoleon suffered 30,000 casualties of irreplaceable troops 1,500 miles from home.

The following morning Kutuzov ordered a retreat, enabling the French to claim a victory and to begin the march on Moscow. But the battle of Borodino was in fact Napoleon's greatest defeat. During the next three months his soldiers occupied a deserted Moscow which burnt to the ground around them, and then struggled back to the Polish border in the dead of Russian winter, attacked by Cossacks, guerrillas, the bitter cold and starvation. Only about 10,000 of the original force of over half a million survived the campaign. As Tsar Nicholas I later remarked 'God punished the foolish; the bones of the audacious foreigners were scatted from Moscow to the Nieman'

After the Battle of Borodino Napoleon's sun had passed its Zenith and the Emperor's days in power were numbered. As the crafty old Talleyrand said on hearing of the battle 'Voila le commencement de la fin' (There is the beginning of the end)

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Added: 30th August 2017

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