Borodino: Where Napoleon met his Waterloo

1

07/09/2012 by noonobservation


Call me strange, but when I get a new diary, I like to ritualistically go through the events of the Napoleonic wars and write in all the 200th anniversaries. People at work occasionally notice that alongside a focus group, author meeting or some other such trifle, I’ve written “Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro” or “Death of Sir John Moore”. I feel it helps keep the office in its proper perspective, and also keeps my colleagues guessing.

Today is a biggy – 200th anniversary of the Battle of Borodino. I’ve been looking forward to it for ages.

Having done a quick survey down the pub, I am astonished to find that no one knows anything about Borodino (except Max, whose birthday coincides). Despite the 70,000 casualties and its cameo in War and Peace, it remains but an unglamorous foreign battle on the misty historical horizons of most British people, their knowledge only extending to the “inevitable doomedness” of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, and that “Hitler should have learned something from it.” Considering their own lack of knowledge on the subject, I think they should be less harsh on Adolf.

The Russians, of course remember it better and restaged the whole battle over the weekend (though presumably with significantly fewer actual deaths). You can see the exciting footage here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GDhCgj51gMk

Background:

Mine.

In 1812, Napoleon squatted over the carcass of Europe like a vulture on a dead baby wildebeest.

Not only did he control most of Spain, the German states, Austria, Italy, Poland, etc., but he had also successfully impregnated an Austrian Archduchess, and in February, introduced the metric system. Life was good.

Russia, however was showing signs of twitching back into life and refusing to enforce Napoleon’s Continental Blockade – a trade policy designed to bankrupt Britain and protect Europe from cheap British textiles (e.g. Topshop) and the evils of parliamentary democracy.

Napoleon mustered some 650,000 troops and 200,000 horses and set off for Moscow to give Czar Alexander a damned good peck in the eye.

The Russians, very sensibly, retreated taking all their stuff and people (at least the important ones) with them and leaving behind nothing but burned crops and serfs. Despite appearances, this was in fact not cowardly, but part of a Cunning Plan. The plan involved buying time with territory, enabling the army to recruit and train more men, in exchange for surrendering empty fields to the invaders. As a pleasant side effect, French supply lines became horridly stretched – men and horses ran out of proper food, and resorted to living off pot noodles and muddy puddles of dysentery.

Unfortunately, the Moscow populous were reluctant to burn their samovars, furs and bejewelled eggs and demanded that they have more time to pack. They also pointed out that there is little point sending your dashing younger sons into the army if they never get the chance to be dashing/get killed? Thus the Russian General Kutusov reluctantly agreed to fight a Proper Battle near the small village of Borodino, about 80 miles from Moscow.

The Battle of Borodino

Here is my representation of the French and Russian dispositions at the start of the battle, fashioned from a tea towel and things I found in the cupboard.

The Battlefield of Borodino
pearl barley = French; red rice = Russians; Fusilli = cannon; black cable = road; blue ribbon = river.
Napoleon I is played by my left index finger. Kutusov is played by Edward Cullen.

Kutusov prepared for battle by allowing Prince Bagration to build some flèches, consisting of two lunettes and one redan. If you don’t know what this means, I pity you.

Kidney stone, 8mm

Napoleon prepared by capturing the Shevardino Redoubt and developing a kidney stone. Napoleon appears on Wikipedia’s “List of kidney stone formers” along with his nephew, Napoleon III, who apparently lost the Franco-Prussian war because of one.

Kick-off was at 6am when the French Grand Buttery opened for business. Dismissing the weak Russian left flank as too easy, Napoleon opted for buttering the strongly defended centre instead. By 7:30 the French had captured the fleches, but the Russians retook them, only to lose them again and then take them again. By 11:30 they were back in French hands, but the ground was so strewn with fresh, bloody meat that it was almost impossible to get over them.

On the Russian right, the French under Napoleon’s former step-son, Prince Eugène de Beauharnais captured Borodino and joined the attack on the strong Raevsky redoubt. The French eventually took it, only to be met by murderous artillery fire directed into the undefended side of the redoubt. The Russians retook the position, only for the French to bring up more cannon and blast them all to bits from three sides. By 15:30 the French had captured the redoubt again in a final assault costing the lives of 1000 cuirassiers.

Fortunately at this point, the Russians managed to distract Napoleon with a good sharp Cossack-shaped poke in the rear, and while he wasn’t looking, retreat to the next ridges to the east. Despite the advice of his marshals to follow up and destroy them, Napoleon decided he wasn’t in the mood any more.

Who won?

Borodino is usually considered a French victory, since they held the field at the end of the day, but it was hardly something to celebrate.

Casualties are disputed. French killed, wounded or missing were around 35,000, compared to around 44,000 Russians, however, with the French short of food, many of their wounded were starved to death, whereas the wounded Russians were actually treated. In terms of officers, the French lost 49 generals, compared to 22 for the Russians (including Prince Bagration of fleches fame). This was partly due to their habit of riding at the front of cavalry charges.

It’s difficult to imagine the scale of death. In terms of deaths per minute (dpm) it scores at around 123, compared to around 62 dpm for Waterloo (though exact start and end times for Waterloo are disputed).

It is generally thought that neither Kutusov nor Napoleon exactly brought their A game to Borodino. There are several theories about Napoleon’s unimaginative tactics of repeated frontal assaults:

A ziggy pig.

1. By 1812, Napoleon was a great fatty lard-arse with numerous health issues. This may have been due to his excellent adventure in 1989 San Dimas, or just due to his age and banqueting habits. On the day of Borodino, he not only had kidney stones, but also a nasty cold. Poor lamb.

2. Napoleon’s plan might have been to kill as many Russians as possible, rather than just win the battle. If this was the case, he should have paid more attention to not killing all of his own soldiers at the same time.

3. It was his time of the month.

Kutusov wasn’t in great health either. He was 66, also very fat, and had a wonky eye from having been shot in the head by the Turks in 1773. Czar Alexander found him too ugly to even look at.

Kutusov sat well behind the front line, keeping his reserves (including most of the artillery) nice and clean, before ordering the retreat. His main goal was to still have an army at the end of the day. Win?

Aftermouth

As we all know, the invasion of Russia didn’t really work out too well for Napoleon. He sat in a deserted, Moscow for a month waiting for the Czar to show up and surrender, set the city on fire (probably accidentally) and eventually had to admit that he wasn’t having fun any more. Of his 650,000 men, only about 23,000 survived the march back to Poland.

None of the horses made it back, in case you were wondering.

I’m off to eat my Bagration fleches now and think about the futility of war. Happy Borodino day!

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One thought on “Borodino: Where Napoleon met his Waterloo

  1. Where have you been all my life?!? You have me snorting with laughter while imparting some flat good history. Following you fo sho. PS on our way to Waterloo Anniversary, spending the 18th at 1 London since I waited too long to get re-enactment tickets. Best regards, Jan

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