Peter Bagration: The Best Georgian General of the Napoleonic Wars
By Alexander Mikaberidze, Chairman of the Napoleonic Society of Georgia
Chapter XII: Chapter 12: Borodino — the Final Glory
By August 22, the Russian army had established itself in the area of Borodino. Under Kutusoff's orders, active preparation went forward to give battle on a favorable defensive position.
The position chosen by Kutusoff occupied a front of 8 kilometers. The front line passed through Maslovo, Gorky, Borodino, Semyenovskoe, and Utytsa. The right flank lay on the Moscow River at Maslovo, and the left flank was anchored in the almost impassable Utytsk Forest. The center was based on Kurgan height.
The Borodino position covered two important routes to Moscow: the New Smolensk Road and the Old Smolensk Road, the route by which Napoleon's army was moving.
Kutusoff had a high opinion of the Borodino position. In his report to Alexander, dated on August 23, 1812, he wrote to the Czar:
Kutusoff assigned his most proven troops, Bagration's 2nd Western Army, to the left flank. Moreover, he ordered that this flank be strengthened by the construction of earthworks. At Semyenovskoe, three redoubts, the so-called "fleches" ("flèche" - a fieldwork whose sides meet to form an obtuse angle), were constructed. They were subsequently named after Bagration, whose troops so courageously defended them during the battle. To the west, from Semyenovskoe, was located an advanced work, the so-called Shevardyn Redoubt. On the Kurgan Heights was an 18-gun battery known under the name of "Rayevsky's Battery".
Kutusoff intended to wage a defensive battle against Napoleon, possibly leading to such large losses that the result would change the ratio of forces advantageously, and in the case of a favorable outcome, to permit an advance against the French army.
The Russian order of battle consisted of the right wing, the center, the left wing, and reserves. Barclay de Tolly was assigned command of both the right and center.
With the right wing, from Maslovo up to Gorky, the 2nd and 4th Infantry Corps, along with the 2nd Cavalry Corps, were deployed.
However, Kutusoff's chief of staff, General Bennigsen, failed to implement this order. On the eve of battle, he placed Tuchkov's Corps with its front to the French, which did not correspond to Kutusoff's order.
Kutusoff gave great attention to the creation and the conservation of reserves. "Reserves," he specified, "should be saved as long as possible, since the general who still possesses a reserve is not defeated." Bagration valued the presence of reserves as extremely important. In his order to the army on the eve of the battle, he wrote, "It is necessary to have strong reserves and to locate them as close as possible to the works."
Kutusoff had in reserve the following troops: the 5th Infantry Corps and the 1st Cuirassier Division, positioned at Knyazkov. The artillery reserve (306 guns) was assembled at Psarev. These forces made up the main reserve available for use on the right wing, the center, or on the left wing. Moreover, each wing had special reserves. The right wing's reserve was composed of the 9 Cossack Regiments under M.I. Platov and the 1st Cavalry Corps under F. P.Uvarov. The left wing's reserve consisted of the 2nd Grenadier and the 2nd Cuirassier Divisions, the Don artillery, and a separate artillery reserve of the left wing. This reserve was located to the east from Semyenovskoe.
Having pondered the Russian positions, Napoleon decided to strike the left flank of the fortified Russian positions, to break through Russian defenses here, drive through to its rear, and to destroy it, having pressed to the Moscow River.
Napoleon concentrated the great bulk of the French army, the Army Corps of Murat, Davout, Ney, and Junot, on the axis of the main attack. With the purpose of concealing the direction of the main effort, Napoleon planned demonstrative actions against Borodino and Utizy.
On August 24, Napoleon launched as assault against the Shevardyn Redoubt. The Emperor committed 30,000 infantry, 10,000 cavalry and 186 guns. The Russians met them with 8,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry and 36 guns. Both sides fought with great courage and boldness. After several attacks the French managed to seize the redoubt. Bagration then sent two divisions to assist the redoubts defenders finally throw back the French by a vigorous counter-attack. In the general orders of the following day, Kutusoff declared that, "the heated affair that took place yesterday on the left flank, finished to the glory of the Russian Army."
The fight for the Shevardyn Redoubt was important. It provided the Russian Army with an opportunity to finish construction of the basic defensive works in the Borodino position. Moreover, this engagement made clear Napoleon's intention to direct the main French thrust against the Russian left wing.
The Russian forces having carried out the task put before them, Kutusoff ordered Bagration to redeploy his troops from Shevardyn Redoubt. With the approach of darkness, Bagration's troops withdrew from the redoubt and occupied their main defensive positions.
During August 25 (6 September), both sides made their last preparations for the forthcoming battle. The French army totaled some 135,000 men and 587 guns. (W. Sloane, in his book, Life of Napoleon, wrote: "He had a hundred and twenty-eight thousand men at hand, and six thousand more within reach".)
The Russian army confronted the French with 120,000 soldiers and 640 guns.
The Borodino battle began at dawn of August 26 (7 September), with a powerful artillery cannonade from both sides. The French then advanced on Borodino, which lay, defended by jagers, in front of the Russian positions. The jagers, after firm resistance, were compelled to retire to the Kalacha River under the pressure of superior enemy forces. Nevertheless, these French attacks were principally designed to be feints. The main effort was developing at "Bagration's fleches" and at the Rayevsky Battery.
The Fight for the Fleches
About at 6 am, Marshal Davout's Corps attacked Bagration's positions, with approximately 25,000 men, supported by 102 guns.
The Summary Grenadier Division under command of Vorontsov and the 27th Infantry Division under the leadership of Neverovsky defended "Bagration's fleches". In total, there were 8,000 Russians and 50 guns to meet the attack.
Despite of the three-fold French superiority of manpower and two-fold advantage in artillery, the Russians had confidence in their forces and were in high spirit. "In their first onset they advanced like devotees, with the cry, 'God have mercy upon us!' and, as each forward rank went down before the relentless invaders, those behind pressed onward over the bodies of their comrades," wrote W. Sloane in his book Life of Napoleon.
The Russians met the attacking columns of the French with a heavy artillery fire. Simultaneously, Russian jagers, scattered in front of fleches, opened fire on the enemy. The French could not sustain the Russian storm fire and leaving behind many killed and wounded withdrew in disorder. The first French assault against "Bagration's fleches" has exhausted itself.
At 7 am the French renewed their attack. Suffering great losses, they managed to grasp the left-most fleche. However, Bagration ordered some battalions of 27th Infantry Division forward in a vigorous counter-attack against the enemy flank. The French were again thrown back, again suffering heavy losses. Thus the second attack on "Bagration's fleches" also finished in failure for the French.
Napoleon was impressed with the tenacious resistance by Bagration's troops. The French Emperor supported Davout with the corps of Ney and Junot, as well as Murat's cavalry, and ordered a third attack against "Bagration's fleches."
In the meantime, Bagration considerably strengthened his position by bringing up his reserve: the 2nd Grenadier and 2nd Cuirassier divisions. He had also directed eight battalions from Raevsky's 7th Corps to redeploy to the north of the fleches. And finally, Bagration positioned Konovnitsyn 3rd Infantry Division at Semyenovskoe.
Kutusoff, who was closely watching the development of the fight at "Bagration's fleches," sent large reserves to strengthen Bagration's position. The Russian Commander-in-Chief ordered forward on the left wing the 2nd and a part of 5th Infantry Corps, and also 100 guns from the main artillery reserve. However, relocation of these forces was likely to require at least l-2 hours. Therefore Bagration would have to rely on only his own forces during the next French attack.
At 8 am, after a powerful artillery bombardment, the third attack on "Bagration's fleches" began. The French managed initially to rush into both the right and left fleches, but Bagration's troops beat them out with a prompt counter-attack and restored the position by 9 am. Simultaneously with the third attack, the forces of Poniatowski's Corps attacked Utizy with the purpose of striking for the rear of Bagration's forces, but Tuchkov's 3rd Infantry Corps repulsed this attempt and thereby broke up the French enveloping maneuver.
This new failure infuriated Napoleon. He strengthened Davout's and Ney's Corps by sending forward Murat's Corps, and at 9 am the French launched their fourth attack.
They managed to seize the fleches and the village of Semyenovskoe. By this time, however, the 2nd and 5th Corps began to arrive to reinforce Bagration's 2nd Army. Bagration now threw all of his available forces against his enemy. The French troops were again ejected with heavy losses. Thus the fourth attack against "Bagration's fleches" had also finished in failure.
Disregarding casualties, Napoleon decided to seize "Bagration's fleches" by any and all means. At 10 am the French mounted their fifth attack; at 10.30 am, their sixth; at 11 am, their seventh!!! Each of these attacks, however, was rebuffed.
With a view to counteracting the French hammer-blows, Kutusoff continued to strengthen his left wing. He threw in the 4th Infantry and 2nd Cavalry Corps. In addition, he prepared a courageous maneuver with the objective of attacking the left flank and rear of the enemy. To accomplish this task he chose Platov's Cossack Regiments and Uvarov's 1st Cavalry Corps.
At noon, the French opened their eighth attack on "Bagration's fleches." This time against Bagration's 18,000 soldiers and 300 guns Napoleon sent 45,000 men with 400 guns. Bagration decided to meet the enemy boldly and fierce hand-to-hand fighting erupted.
Military historian Buturlin, one participant of this fight, wrote: "An awful combat took place, in which, on both sides, miracles of almost supernatural bravery were displayed. The infantry, cavalrymen, and gunners of both sides, having got mixed up together, presented an awful spectacle of the great bulk of soldiers struggling in private, furious despair."
Bagration Falls Wounded
It was at exactly this moment that Bagration fell fatally wounded. A splinter from a French shell struck him in a leg, but Bagration did not lose courage.
"When he was wounded," wrote N.B. Golitsyn, "he, despite his sufferings, wanted to wait for the outcome of the attack by the Second Cuirassier Division and to make sure with own eyes of its success; after that, feeling sincere gratification, he left the battle-field."
The news of Bagration's injury made for some confusion among the troops. The management of 2nd Western Army was broken and, under pressure of superior enemy forces, the Russians were compelled to retire. "This unfortunate occasion," wrote Kutuzoff to Emperor Alexander, "rather upset the hitherto successful action of our left wing, which until that time had enjoyed an ascendancy over the enemy ." After Bagration's wounding, temporary command of the left wing has taken up by Konovnitsyn, who was soon replaced by Dokhturov. The Russian forces retreated and occupied Semyenovskoe, "Bagration's fleches" remaining in French hands.
Napoleon now decided to commit his reserve to the battle - the Imperial Guard - to complete this initial break-up of the Russian positions. At the same time, by order of Kutusoff, Platov and Uvarov bypassed the left flank of Napoleon's army and launched a sudden attack in the Valuem-Bezubovo area.
The panic among the transport and troops of the left flank temporarily distracted Napoleon from further attacks against the 2nd Western Army for about two hours while he dealt with the eruption on his left. During the time thus won, Kutusoff rearranged his forces and strengthened the center and the left wing. Subsequently, the continued attempts by Napoleon to break through the Russian defense experienced no success, save that of managing to grasp the battery of Rayevsky. By the end of day, the Russian army stood firmly on the Borodino position. Having become convinced of the futility of continued attacks, Napoleon order his troops to resume their initial positions.
Thus concluded the famous Battle of Borodino. Kutusoff informed Alexander of its results on August 29 (September 10), 1812: "This battle, which took place on the 26th, was the most bloody of those known in modern times. The battlefield remains entirely ours, and the enemy retired to those positions from which he had opened his attack against us."
The question of who won the Battle of Borodino has always caused fierce debate. To my mind, Napoleon won at Borodino while losing the campaign. In this regard, the Battle of Borodino may be considered a great Russian victory. The French suffered serious losses as a result of the battle and Napoleon's plan to crush the Russian army in a decisive engagement was derailed. The French army lost about 58,000 casualties from 135,000 effectives; Russian losses amounted to about 44,000.
The forces under Bagration's command played an especially important role in the battle. Operating under the main blows of the enemy, they courageously repulsed numerous attacks by the French and in many respects contrinuted directly to the general victory of Russian army.
"This day," wrote Kutusoff, "will be an eternal monument to the courage and excellent bravery of the Russian soldiers, where all infantry, cavalry and artillery fought desperately. The desire of everyone was to die on the spot without conceding an inch to the enemy. The French army under Napoleon's personal leadership, and being of superior numbers, could not overcome the determination of the Russian soldier who, endowed with courage, offered his life for the fatherland."
After the victory gained at Borodino, the Russian army prepared for a transition in its approach to the ultimate objective of ejecting Napoleon's army from Russia. Its huge losses and the absence if necessary reserves with which to rebuild, however, postponed the development of active operations and compelled commander-in-chief Kutusoff to order a withdrawal to Moscow to enable the Russian army to replace its losses and to continue the war under more favorable conditions. "As the business of war looks not only to the glories of the battles won, but also bends all resources and efforts to the destruction of the French Army I have taken the decision to retire ." Kutusoff now informed Alexander.
With the retreat of the Russian army from Borodino, a new period in the Great Patriotic War of 1812 began, during which the Russian Army, under the leadership of Kutusoff, skillfully carried out a flank march to Tarutino, finished their preparations for broad offensive actions and, having passed over to mounting resolute counter-attacks, defeated Napoleon's armies.
Bagration was not fated to participate in all these events. Evacuated to the village of Simy, in Vladimir province, he died there from his battle-wound on 14 September (26 September) 1812, bringing an end to the account of his life just short of his 47th year.
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