Napoleon’s Bloodiest Day: Borodino 1812


This Epic History TV video is brought you
by Magellan TV, the documentary streaming service. Russia, 1812. Napoleon invades his former ally with the
largest army Europe has ever seen. But for the French Emperor, the decisive blow
remains frustratingly beyond reach. Russia’s resilience is unlike anything he’s
ever encountered. And as winter closes in, his army begins the
most infamous retreat in history. September 1812. 10 weeks had passed since Napoleon invaded
Russia with more than half a million men. The French Emperor wanted a quick victory
over the Russians, one that would force Emperor Alexander to make peace, and agree to French
terms. But at Vitebsk, and then Smolensk, the outnumbered
Russian army had narrowly escaped his clutches. The holy city of Smolensk had been virtually
destroyed. Napoleon had advanced deep into Russia, and
months of marching had left his army decimated by disease and exhaustion. It was now half
its original strength, and summer was nearly over. But finally, 70 miles west of Moscow, near
the village of Borodino, the Russians had turned to offer battle. Napoleon would have a chance to win the decisive
victory, that he believed would end the war. In 1812 Napoleon was master of Europe. But
his meteoric rise to power had nearly been cut short several times – by cannonballs,
bullets… even by Madame Guillotine. His early years are brilliantly retold in
the drama-documentary ‘Napoleon’ – available now on documentary streaming service ‘Magellan
TV’, generous sponsors of this video. Magellan TV offers access to more than 2,000
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happily recommend, from a history of aviation to World War Two’s Eastern Front, so if
you’re a history fan we think this is a great offer. Thanks to Magellan TV for supporting the channel. The Russian army, commanded by the 67-year-old,
one-eyed veteran General Kutuzov, occupied a defensive position across the two main roads
leading from Smolensk to Moscow. General Barclay de Tolly’s First Army was
on the right, its front protected by the Kalatsha River, steep-banked but shallow and easily
forded. Prince Bagration’s Second Army was on the
left, a more open position, but reinforced by major earthworks – the Great Redoubt,
and what the French nicknamed, for their shape, the Flèches – the arrows. Another forward redoubt at Shevardino was
expected to delay the enemy’s advance. Historians still dispute the size of the Russian
army, but it’s likely Kutuzov had around 121,000 men and 680 guns at Borodino. On 5th September, Napoleon’s army began
to arrive from the west: around 130,000 men, and 585 guns. Napoleon quickly saw that the Shevardino Redoubt
would have to be taken before he could deploy his army, and ordered an immediate assault. The attack was led by Compans’ 5th Division
of the First Corps, supported by the Polish Fifth Corps to the south. In several hours of heavy fighting, the redoubt
changed hands more than once. But late that evening the Russians finally
withdrew to their main line, and the redoubt fell to the French. Its capture had cost them an estimated 4,000
casualties, while the Russians lost around 6,000 men. Napoleon noted how few prisoners were taken
– a worrying sign of the enemy’s unbroken resolve. Both sides spent the next day preparing for
battle. Marshal Davout, commanding French First Corps,
and widely considered Napoleon’s most able subordinate, appealed to the Emperor to use
his Corps to make a wide, outflanking attack to the south… But Napoleon dismissed the idea as too risky,
and instead began preparing for a massive frontal assault on the Russian defences. Shortly after dawn on 7th September, Orthodox
priests paraded one of Russia’s holiest icons, Our Lady of Smolensk, before the Russian
army. It was a stirring sight for many devout, Russian
soldiers, thousands of whom would not live to see dusk. The battle began at 6 am, as French batteries
opened a deafening cannonade against the Russian defences. Eugène’s Fourth Corps advanced on Borodino
village, lightly held by Jaegers of the Russian Imperial Guard. After clearing the village, his infantry crossed
the Kalatsha and advanced towards the Great Redoubt, but were driven back with heavy losses. The Russians burned the bridge across the
river, but did not launch a counterattack, and Eugene was able to move cannon into the
village, to put flanking fire on the Great Redoubt. In the centre, Davout’s First Corps began
its advance against the Flèches, coming under heavy fire… While on the right, the Polish Fifth Corps,
ordered to take Utitsa, got held up in the woods and ravines… Their slow advance allowed Tuchkov’s Third
Corps to send a division north to reinforce the Fléches defences. Kutuzov, at his headquarters in Gorki, took
little part in the battle, leaving tactical decisions to his subordinates. Barclay and Bagration had spent most of the
summer arguing furiously over strategy, but in the hour of crisis, they put their differences
aside. They could see the main French attack was
falling on the Russian centre and left… so Barclay ordered General Baggovut’s Second
Corps south to reinforce Bagration. Fighting around the Flèches intensified,
as the French captured one of the earthworks, only to be driven out by a Russian counterattack.
Davout himself was injured in the fighting as he fell from his dying horse, but he refused
to leave the field. When Russian cavalry counterattacked, Marshal
Murat himself led the French cavalry forward to meet them. Ney’s Third Corps now joined the attack
on the Flèches. A charge by Russian cuirassiers forced Murat
to take shelter in a square of Württemberg infantry. Murat, with his flamboyant dress and reckless
courage, had now even made a name for himself among the Russians – the Cossacks in particular
saw him as a kindred spirit, and were eager to capture him alive if they could. To the south, Polish troops now took Utitsa,
which the Russians set ablaze before withdrawing. But General Baggovut’s reinforcements arrived
just in time to shore up the Russian flank. Around 10am, Eugène launched another attack
on the Great Redoubt. It was briefly captured by Morand’s First Division, before his men
were thrown out by a ferocious Russian counterattack. The Russian army’s 27-year-old artillery
commander, General Kutaisov, was killed leading one of these counterattacks. A heroic death,
but a blow to the organisation of Russian artillery for the rest of the day. Fighting continued to rage around the Flèches
earthworks. Some counted as many as six major French assaults,
involving 45,000 troops, with hundreds of cannon on both sides pouring fire into the
packed ranks. More than once, French infantry fought their way into one of the Russian positions,
only to be driven out again at bayonet point. Junot’s Westphalian Corps was sent forward
in support, helping to clear Russian skirmishers from the woods to the south. General Bagration was close to the action,
overseeing the defence of the Flèches, leading forward reinforcements and ordering counterattacks. Around 10am he was hit in the leg by shell
fragments. Mortally wounded, he was carried from the
field. Shaken by the loss of their iconic commander,
the exhausted Russian infantry began to fall back, and the French finally took the Flèches. Marshal Murat then led forward Friant’s
division – First Corps’ last reserve – supported by waves of heavy cavalry on both flanks. Russian Grenadiers formed squares to ward
off the French cuirassiers… While their own Guard cavalry fought the French
in a giant, confused melee… with heavy losses on both sides. The Russians resisted doggedly, but the combined
onslaught of French artillery, cavalry and infantry proved irresistible. As the Russians pulled back, Friant’s infantry
fought their way into the village of Semënovskaya. The Russian centre was in disarray… and
seemed close to breaking. Surely now was the time for Napoleon to deliver
the knockout blow. For most of the day, Napoleon remained at
his headquarters near Shevardino. Those around him later said that illness,
as well as the exertions of the long campaign, had left him tired and irritable. As the Russian centre buckled, Murat and his
staff urged him to send forward his last reserve, the Imperial Guard. The Emperor refused. “If there is another
battle tomorrow,” he asked them, “where is my army?” But he did make one exception… Barclay was continuing to move troops from
his unengaged right wing to bolster the centre. As Ostermann-Tolstoy’s Fourth Corps arrived
behind the Russian centre, French observers feared they were massing for an attack. So Napoleon ordered forward General Sorbier’s
Guard artillery. His batteries opened a devastating fire on
the enemy. Yet even as they were mown down in their ranks, the Russian infantry stood
their ground. On the Russian right wing, all remained quiet,
so General Platov, commander of the Don Cossacks, proposed that he lead an attack on the lightly-defended
Borodino village. Permission received, Generals Platov and Uvarov
led a force of 8,000 Cossacks and cavalry across the Kalatsha River They fell on French and Italian troops around
Borodino with complete surprise, spreading panic and disorder. Grouchy’s Third Cavalry Corps had to be
pulled back across the river to drive off the Russians. Russian commanders saw this raid as a missed
opportunity. But it had delayed the next French attack
by two hours… and may have persuaded Napoleon that he was right to hold back his reserve. Around 3pm, the French launched their biggest
assault yet on the Great Redoubt.. Russian gunners targeted the French infantry
advancing to their front, allowing French cavalry to outflank the Redoubt, and charge
it from the rear. Saxon cavalry were first in, cutting down
Russian infantry and gunners, almost to the last man. It was an astonishing feat by the horsemen,
against all the rules of war – and testament to the ferocity of the fighting. As Eugène’s infantry consolidated their
hold on the Redoubt, he ordered forward all the available cavalry to exploit this success. But they were met, and checked by the last
Russian cavalry reserves. Eugène now implored Napoleon to commit the
Imperial Guard. But again, the Emperor refused. “I will
not destroy my Guard,” he told his staff, “I am 800 leagues from France and I will
not risk my last reserve.” By 5pm, both armies were in a state of utter
exhaustion. The battlefield was strewn with dead and wounded. Some infantry battalions could muster only
a third of their strength. Cavalry could advance no faster than a trot. Gun crews were collapsing with fatigue. As dusk approached, fighting slowly died out
across the battlefield. Napoleon and the French army expected the
fighting to resume the next day. But by dawn, Kutuzov, having learned the full,
horrifying scale of Russian losses, had ordered a withdrawal. The losses on both sides were enormous. Russian casualties are estimated at 44,000. French losses: around 30,000, including 49
generals – 12 of them killed. Borodino would prove to be the bloodiest single
day of the Napoleonic Wars. The Russian army could not fight another battle
until it had received major reinforcements. And so Kutuzov decided that he must abandon
Moscow. On 15th September, a week after his victory
at Borodino, Napoleon entered the city. He would find it virtually deserted, and already,
the first fires starting to burn. Thank you to the artists Aleksandr Averyanov
and Egor Zaitsev for kind permission to use their artwork in this video. And thanks as always to all our Patreon supporters
for making this series possible. Find out how you too can support the channel
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