Borodino Battle and Battlefield

Borodino, a small village about 70 miles west of Moscow, was the site of a bloody battle during the Napoleonic Wars. It took place on September 7, 1812 and was made even more famous by Tolstoy in his epic novel "War and Peace."

This photograph, circa 1911, depicts the area of Borodino where the battle was fought between Napoleon's troops and Russian troops (led by Marshall Kutusov).

The Library of Congress, which maintains a copy of this photograph, provides more background about the photographer—Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii—and the image:

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Russian photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863–1944) used a special color photography process to create a visual record of the Russian Empire. Some of Prokudin-Gorskii’s photographs date from about 1905, but the bulk of his work is from between 1909 and 1915, when, with the support of Tsar Nicholas II and the Ministry of Transportation, he undertook extended trips through many different parts of the empire.

When a combined force of about 300,000 men met on this now-peaceful field, Napoleon Bonaparte controlled nearly the whole of continental Europe. His sphere of influence extended from Sicily to the Baltic, from the Atlantic Ocean to Poland.

In September of 1812, France’s Emperor was eager to capture Moscow. Borodino was the gateway to that goal.

Napoleon had not planned his invasion of Russia the way it was going. By the time he arrived at Borodino, he and his men had been in Russia around two months.

Instead of defending their country against the invaders, however, Russians were withdrawing deeper and deeper into their own land. Along the way, their strategy—of pulling Napoleon into the country’s forests and steppes rather than engaging with Napoleon’s army—required them to sacrifice towns and cities such as Vilnius, Minsk and Smolensk.

It wasn’t just the towns and cities which Russian soldiers sacrificed as they led the Grand Army deeper and deeper into Russian territory. They also burned crops and other resources which Napoleon would have simply taken if they had been available to him.

By September of 1812, when Napoleon arrived at Borodino with stretched supplies, his men were not the only ones who were tired, hungry and frustrated. Napoleon himself had a cold and wanted to engage the Russian army. But how could he do that when the opposing army wouldn’t fight?

Under the command of their new leader, Prince Kutusov, the Russian army would finally fight against the French Grand Army—at Borodino. Napoleon’s plan was to soundly defeat the Russians as he made his final push to Moscow.

But ... Napoleon’s plan, to cause mass disarray among the Russians, also didn’t work-out the way he expected. Although he won the day, it was an extremely costly victory.

Today the rolling hills and gentle streams seem peaceful, but peace was not evident on the 7th of September, 1812, when the battle was joined. Tens of thousands of soldiers fell here and their bodies are still resting in the area.

Prince Pyotr Bagration, one of Russia’s key leaders, had his men dig earthworks to protect themselves against the invading Frenchmen. It took eight attacks, and the loss of around 30,000 French infantry, before Napoleon’s men were able to overcome those earthworks.

Bagration, like so many others, died at Borodino.

Then there is the Raevsky Redoubt, another key Russian position, where some of the battle’s worst fighting took place. It is here where Tolstoy places Pierre Bezukhov who first surveys the scene, as the troops prepare for battle, and then witnesses (as an observer, not a fighter) the unbelievable ferocity of war.  (Move the video clip forward, to 19:00, to view this part of the BBC’s “War and Peace,” a twenty-part series released in 1972 which features Anthony Hopkins as Count Bezukhov.)

This Redoubt ultimately falls to the French, around 3:30 in the afternoon of September 7th, but Napoleon disregarded his generals’ advice to send-in his Imperial Guard to seal the victory. Wanting to protect that elite force from destruction, Napoleon reportedly told his generals:

I will most definitely not; I do not want to have it blown up. I am certain of winning the battle without its intervention.

His decision, not to send-in the Imperial Guard, meant that Napoleon did not deliver a decisive blow against Russia. His victory at Borodino, however, meant that the road to Moscow was now open.    

Nothing, Napoleon believed, would hinder him from taking Moscow.

Except ... when Napoleon arrived in Russia’s capital, Moscow was mostly abandoned. The Tsar wasn’t there. Most of the people weren’t there. No one surrendered to the French Emperor.

The city was his for the taking, until ... Moscow, with its mostly wooden buildings, burned to the ground within a day after Napoleon and his troops arrived.

To this day, no one is really sure how the massive conflagration began.

By the 19th of October, 1812, Napoleon’s generals were worrying about the coming Russian winter. It was time, they urged their commander, to abandon his prize and withdraw from Moscow.

By that time, Kutuzov and his men had regrouped. With Borodino and its losses behind them, the Russians had planned a trap for the retreating French.

From their location south of Moscow, Russians harassed and chased the departing French forces. In "War and Peace," Tolstoy has Pierre Bezukhov caught-up in that awful retreat. At one stopping point, along the brutal way, Pierre realizes they are back at Borodino where so many thousands of men were still lying on the field of battle.

Thousands more were dying during the French retreat and, by December, the Emperor himself had had enough. The land of promise had become the land of misery. Wrapped in his furs, and riding in his sleigh, Napoleon headed for Paris.

When Napoleon entered Russia, he had about 600,000 men. When he left Russia, he had about 100,000 men. To those losses, we must add all the Russians who died as a direct result of the invasion, including civilians.  The total loss of life was around one million people.

The Emperor’s six-month campaign produced a total loss of lives exceeding one million people.

Borodino, and its aftermath, remind us that when the mighty fall, they usually fall hard. And ... they usually do not fall alone.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: Aug 30, 2015

Updated Last Revision: May 01, 2019

Media Credits

Image of the Borodino battlefield, described above, online via the Library of Congress.


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"Borodino Battle and Battlefield" AwesomeStories.com. Aug 30, 2015. Feb 18, 2020.
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