The Moskova 1812

(To Paolo Palumbo)

Of all the battles that Napoleon fought, that of Borodino, or otherwise called by the French historiography de The Moskova, was certainly the bloodiest and fiercest. It represented the culmination of the Napoleonic campaign in Russia in 1812 and perhaps also the maximum point of attrition reached by the French army.

The victory of Napoleon - because it was a victory - opened the way for the French to Moscow where, however, they would have known the ruthlessness of the Russian winter and the misery of hunger. It was the beginning of a steep descent into the underworld, of a defeat with no return, where the soldiers died of starvation, frostbite or pierced by the spear of some Cossack. Napoleon thus began his decline which would lead him to the fateful Battle of Leipzig in 1813.

In Borodino two armies faced each other whose roots were profoundly different: the soldiers belonged to dissimilar cultures. The Russians had a large but obsolete and cumbersome army, especially in the chain of command; Napoleon instead had the Grande Armée, a first-rate military formation, but heterogeneous.

The emperor, before invading Russia, wanted to involve as many allies as possible, although he knew that among them there were those who wanted nothing more than to see it destroyed: Austria and Prussia, for example, joined the cause of Napoleon only because they were obliged from the humiliating defeats suffered in previous years. Furthermore, the French army had been coming from it for months in which it had done nothing but march: hungry, tired and halved in their strength, many regiments were exhausted and could not wait to confront the Russians in a classic battle in the open field. .

Among the many soldiers who made up the French invasion army, there was also the army corps commanded by Prince Eugene of Beauharnais, viceroy of the Kingdom of Italy, who had made a contingent of Italic infantry available to his stepfather. Cesare De Laugier, perhaps the best-known Russian campaign memorialist, was with the Royal Guard, elite corps and Eugene's personal guard: "On the dawn of February 28, 1812, 60.000 Italian soldiers, followed by copious artillery and carriage, set off for Germany, unaware of the reason. Youth, lightheartedness, cheerfulness, excellent hospitality of all kinds, disperse in them any idea of ​​the future . Accustomed to triumphs, they believe Napoleon to lead them to new glories. On June 24, 1812, when they reached the left bank of the Niemen, they found another 500.000 more soldiers and different nations. Splendid is the sun. Arringa Napoleonica makes them aware of the reasons. who moved them to invade the Russian Empire "1.

The march to Moscow

When Napoleon's army crossed the Niemen to invade Russian territory in June 1812, everyone believed that the Tsar's army had deployed close to the borders, ready to defend them, but it did not. Napoleon and his army, made up of soldiers from over 20 nations, began an exhausted march in search of the Russian generals who preferred to retreat, adopting the famous scorched earth tactic.

As always, Napoleon tried to lure the enemy into a trap, forcing him to fight a decisive battle on the terrain of his choice; the Russians, however, at the cost of their own reputation, dodged the French by forcing them to long marches towards nowhere.

The Russian general Mikhail Bogdanovich Barclay de Tolly, author of the retreat almost to the gates of Moscow, was replaced by General Mikhail Kutuzov (portrait) who - according to the Tsar - should have given back to the Russian people the confidence and the hope of defeating the invader.

The new commander was a character with a difficult character, often judged mediocre as a strategist and immoral from a human point of view. Yet - according to the memoirs of the French general Langeron - Kutuzov was an old fox, able to interpret the battlefield and understand what were the best choices to win a leader like Napoleon.

In September, the situation of the French army was critical, but not yet desperate; as already mentioned, the long march towards the heart of Russia had thinned part of the Grand Army, which left Germany with about 500.000 men; nevertheless Napoleon was still riding his horse, confident that - with what remained - he could still decide the fate of the war.

In fact, the optimism of the emperor found various confirmations. Some time before Borodino, Napoleon won the much desired battle in front of the beautiful Smolensk; the night between 13 and 14 August 1812 the general of the genius Eblé threw his pontoon bridges over the Dnieper river, allowing about 175.000 men to pass. The cavalry of Emmanuel de Grouchy, Nansouty and Montbrun provided the protective shield for what everyone remembers as Napoleon's masterpiece move, the "Smolensk maneuver".

General Barclay de Tolly together with Peter Ivanovic Bagration fought every meter of ground and, due to a chain of unfortunate events, the emperor was unable to make the final leap that would have defeated the Russians.

Everything was postponed for a few months, while Smolensk (image) - reduced to a pile of ash by the fleeing Russians - would become the city chosen by Napoleon to spend the winter.

The temptation and the lust for glory, however, won over reason: from Smolensk, in fact, the way opened that would lead Napoleon either to St. Petersburg or to Moscow. The first city represented the administrative heart of Russia, the nerve center from which all decisions departed, while Moscow - Count de Ségur recalled - meant the nobility, the charm of power and the ancient honor of Russian families. Obviously, a commander greedy for glory like Napoleon succumbed to the false vision of his own mirage of greatness: he sent to hell with the idea of ​​stopping in Smolensk heading directly towards Moscow.

Between the two cities there were 450 km to travel, an abysmal distance that would have required several months of walking. If everything went smoothly, Napoleon could arrive in Moscow in the fall (still a reasonable time), but if something went wrong, the French army would face the harsh Russian winter in the open. Napoleon was convinced that his decision was right: the past few years had shown that once the capital was conquered, the rest of the country would fall without resisting. Alexander I could not afford to give up his most precious jewel, the religious center of the country, the golden halls of the Kremlin; lost the city would come to terms.

On August 24, 1812, the Grand Armée he left the neighborhoods of Smolensk to head towards Moscow: Napoleon arranged the approach march on three parallel columns, a short distance between them, so as to join as soon as the Russians had revealed themselves on the horizon. The center was occupied by the cavalry of Joachim Murat followed by the I and III corps, on the left were the Italians of Viceroy Eugenio de Beauharnais and on the right the Poles of Prince Joseph Poniatowski.

The battle

The exit from Smolensk should have meant a certain battle. The honor of the Russian army - according to Napoleon - was now compromised after a month of retreats. Alexander I, for his part, could not go on much longer refusing battle because his prestige would have suffered in front of the people.

A vast territory opened up in front of the French vanguard, made up of streams, hollows and hills dotted with some groves, ideal for placing light infantry. Occasionally houses gathered in small villages among which the most important were Fomika, Schivardino and Semionovaskaija. A similar terrain represented an ideal battleground and it was precisely there that the Russians began to fortify themselves: a large redoubt was built in Schivardino while the famous "great redoubt" or "Raeveskij Reduced" rose further east. The rounds that preceded the clash were marred by interminable rains which insinuated Napoleon with the possibility of returning to Smolensk and waiting for a favorable weather. However, on August 31st, the sun was shining in the sky and everything seemed ready for a major war event.

The Russian generals, Kutuzov in the lead, were determined to drag Napoleon into a battle of attrition: the conformation of the terrain, the reductions and the resistance of the Russian corps would break, one after the other, the assaults of the French line infantry. The Russians presented themselves with an army that was strong in morale, but low in numbers: a part of the infantry was in fact made up of simple, poorly armed militiamen.

Kutuzov placed five infantry corps in the front line: "Baggohufvudt's 2nd and Ostermann-Tolstoy 4th were positioned north of Gorki, as well as a regular cavalry corps and Platov's Cossacks. Dohturov's 6th corps was located opposite Borodino, between the village of Gorki and Raevesky's Redoubt. The entire line south of the Redoubt as well as the arrows were protected by two bodies of Bagration's XNUMXnd Army "2.

Two armies thus found themselves on the line of fire - 130.000 French men versus about 125.000 Russians - who couldn't wait to lead their hands. The Smolensk icon of the "Mother of God" was brought to the field by order of Kutuzov who, to further cheer up the morale of his men, organized a full-scale procession. Religion was perhaps the best weapon in the hands of Alexander I's army since it - as it was already happening in Spain - had proved to be a formidable glue to keep men together.

On 7 September, shortly after dawn, the first cannon salvo was fired, followed by a thunderous back and forth between the two artillery. The evolution of the battle was slow and progressive, a crescendo of death and heaps of men who shattered body and soul on the defense of the Russians.

Napoleon had a plan, however, with respect to the past, he elaborated a rather crude strategy based on the consistency of frontal attacks and diversionary maneuvers on the flanks. Eugenio's Italians would have had the hard task of attacking Borodino and then concentrating on the fearsome "great reduced". The initial stages of the battle were in complete favor of the French: the village of Borodino was overwhelmed and the hunters of the Guard Russian were driven backwards; Kutuzov then attempted to remedy this by sending his reserve forward. Eugenio, who in the meantime had gone too far with his Italians, was overwhelmed and pushed back to the starting positions, while Marshal Davout was forced to abandon the famous "Bagration Arrows" in the hands of the Russians.

The trap of the Russians seemed to work as Napoleon began to send regiments upon regiments to attack, without following a particular strategic plan. The life of the men was consumed on the earthy edges of the Russian redoubts: several officers were seriously injured3.

One of the warning signs of the gravity in which Napoleon found himself was the use of the Imperial Guard; at a certain point, after the Russian redoubts swallowed up hundreds of French infantry, the emperor was forced to send some units of the Young Guard, without however mobilizing the precious Old guard.

The I, III and VIII corps were destined to certain death to conquer the positions of Semionovskaija, together with two cavalry corps and the support of 250 guns.

It was a terrible carnage and Caulaincourt himself admitted that the great redoubt was literally tearing the French to pieces. Suffice it to say that during those terrible assaults Marshal Ney, the "brave of the brave" was wounded 4 times; during the whole day General Rapp, aide-de-camp to the emperor, received 22 wounds.

Exhausted from fatigue and with death on their faces, Marshals Davout, Ney and King Murat asked Napoleon to commit Old guard, but he replied with a sharp no: at what point, it would have been imprudent to throw in the meat grinder of Borodino, the only resource still able to fight even in the following days.

A few hours later, Napoleon organized the mass attack on the deadly bulwark of the "great redoubt".

General Macellin Marbot, in his memoirs, remembers the death of General Montbrun as follows: "[...]. General Montrbun proposed to enter the redoubt by passing from behind with his cavalry, while the infantry would attack it from the front. It was a courageous council, approved by Murat and the emperor. Montbrun was charged with carrying it out, but while this intrepid general was organizing to act, he was killed by a cannon shot; it was a great loss to the army! His death did not however make us give up the plan he had prepared, and the emperor sent General Caulaincourt, brother of the Grand Squire to replace Montbrun. Then something never seen in the glories of war was seen: an immense fort defended by numerous artillery and several battalions, attacked and taken by a column of cavalry! of cuirassiers at the head of which the 5th regiment marched, commanded by the intrepid Colonel Christophe, he dropped everything that prevented entry to the redoubt, he reached the p Orta, went inside and fell dead, killed by a ball in the head! "4.

Meanwhile, Eugenio's Italians finally conquered the Russian position, but at a very high price. "A long and bloody struggle had started on the heights, - remembered Faber du Faur - in front of the ruins of Séménowskoi for the possession of the redoubts; after several successes, they were taken, lost and taken back. Finally, around noon, they remained in the power of the victor. The redoubt on the right was captured from the enemy by the rest of the 25a division (Wurtemburgese). Meanwhile, the fighting still continued in the redoubts. The Russians continually sent new troops from the heights of Séménowskoi and repelled Murat's charges. It was in one of these retreats that Murat, pursued by enemy cuirassiers, took refuge in order not to be taken prisoner, in the reduced taken and occupied by the 25a division […]. Brisk fire, directed from the redoubt by our light infantry and the fire of our line infantry supporting it, soon repelled the cuirassiers, freeing the king. Murat, in his indefatigable ardor, launched himself, at the head of the cavalry of Bruyere and Nansouty, on the enemy cavalry which was rejected, after repeated charges, on the heights of Séménowskoi "5.

Until that moment Kutuzov had played a secondary role, confirming the opinion that many had about his real leadership abilities, however at the right moment he was able to react to his proverbial indolence. He, as previously mentioned, knew how to read the battlefield: sensing the fading of the French pressure, he threw into the fray the body of General Doctorov together with the V corps under the orders of the Grand Duke Constantine. Davout, who sensed the enemy's intentions, asked for the intervention of the Guard, but once again the emperor denied consent, allowing only the use of 80 guns from his reserve. That providential bombardment repelled the Russian counter-offensive during which General Lev Tolstoy suffered a bad wound.

In twelve hours of fighting to the death, the French had conquered just a kilometer and a half of land; at dawn on September 8, General Kutuzov saw fit to save what remained of his army. In theory Napoleon had won, but it had been a sterile victory, which didn't decide anything.

The only positive news was the opening of the road to Moscow, but from then on new tragedies would take place that would lead to the massacre of the Grand Army.

The Russians traveled backwards to Moscow, however it was not a brilliant retreat as they totally lacked the tactical support of Platov's cavalry confirming that the Cossacks were only capable if they were faced with disbanded or badly organized troops. For Kutuzov, the space to be able to withdraw the army had dramatically reduced and now, faced with the dilemma of whether to defend Moscow or abandon it to Napoleon, the fate of the war would be decided. Indeed, the Russian commander had few alternatives: after the defeat of Borodino, risking an all-out defense of Moscow meant losing both the army and the capital. So the most painful choice was perhaps also the most appropriate: Napoleon would have violated the golden doors of the Kremlin.

The Russians considered The Moskova like a great victory, Kutuzov himself, at the end of the day, took care to write to the emperor Alexander telling him of a great victory: the general was appointed savior of the country and took the ranks of field marshal. Indeed, the Russians had won strategically; they, in fact, forced Napoleon to fight a battle according to their schemes, condemning him to a long day in which he wore out part of his army.

1 C. De Laugier, Concise memories of a Napoleonic soldier, Turin, Einaudi, 1942, p. 66.

2 D. Lieven, The tragedy of Napoleon in Russia. 1807-1814: the end of the imperial dream, Milan, Mondadori, 2010, p. 205.

3 Among the wounded there was also Marshal Davout and at the end of the day there were 14 generals of the army corps, 33 generals of division between dead and wounded. The list also included 12 staff officers, 86 aides-de-camp and 37 regimental colonels. In total, thirty percent of the participants in the battle had been hit. D. Chandler, Napoleon's campaigns, Milan, Rizzoli, 1992, vol. 2, p. 968.

4 M. Marbot, Mémoires, Paris, Plon, 1892, Vol. IIII, pp. 136-137.

5 G. De Faber du Faur, Campagne de Russie 1812 d'aprés le journal d'un témoin oculaire, Paris, Flammarion, sd, pp. 157-158.