The Battle of Borodino and the Fires of Moscow

When the French Army crossed the Nieman River and invaded Russia in June 1812, Emperor Napoleon I had 300,000 troops under his direct command. 3 months and 600 miles later, he had half that due to casualties, desertion, starvation, Cossack raids, and detachments to guard his overextended supply lines. General Kutuzov, the Russian commander opposite Napoleon used scorched earth tactics as he retreated and wouldn’t allow his army to be caught and destroyed by Napoleon’s superior numbers and skill. But after judging Napoleon’s strength in late summer 1812, Kutuzov decided it was time to make a stand with his 120,000 men. On 9 September, the Russians would make build a defensive position just outside the small village of Borodino: a bare 70 miles from Moscow. Napoleon was ecstatic that he could finally destroy the Russian Army. He launched his combined French, Polish, Italian and German Army in a series of bloody frontal assaults against the Russian redoubts. It was the largest battle of the Napoleonic era and by the end of the day, the bloodiest. The French had 35,000 casualties and the Russians had 45,000 men killed, wounded and missing but the Kutuzov managed to escape with the remains of his army when Napoleon wouldn’t commit his Imperial Guard to finish the job. Napoleon won the battle, but his hesitance would eventually cost him his empire.

On 14 September 1812, Emperor Napoleon I and his La Grande Armee triumphantly marched into Moscow… only to find it abandoned and deserted. The vast majority of the population took all of the food in the city and evacuated ahead of the French. Napoleon fully expected Tsar Alexander to surrender once Moscow was occupied but now he couldn’t find anyone to entreaty with. Two days later, on the night of 16 Sep, Russian patriots snuck in and set the city ablaze. For the next several days the French attempted to put out the fires but eventually ¾ of Moscow would be a smoldering ruin. Napoleon was now not only short of food for his army but also short of shelter for the coming Russian winter. He would wait around for the Tsar’s surrender for a month before he accepted that his troops must retreat or starve and freeze to death. On 19 October 1812, Napoleon and his Grande Armee began the long retreat back to Poland and East Prussia. Over the next several months, the Russian winter, Cossack raids, peasant guerrillas, and the scorched earth would contribute to Napoleon’s defeat in the campaign, but it was Kutuzov’s Army that escaped Borodino that would eventually throw Napoleon out of Russia and drive him back to Paris. Of the 690,000 troops Napoleon started the invasion of Russia with, only 63,000 would re-cross the Nieman River.

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