5 – Battle of Borodino (1812)
Although he achieved a victory, the Battle of Borodino was one of the costliest of Napoleon’s military career. It occurred a couple of months into the French invasion of Russia, and while he managed to defeat the Russian forces led by General Kutuzov, the casualties were so high that his entire invasion was in jeopardy. While his Grand Armee enjoyed fantastic success elsewhere in Europe, it found the going tough when it encountered the treacherous conditions in Russia.
The Russian Army had no interest in engaging directly with the French, so they continued to retreat and burned crops and resources along the way. As a result, Napoleon’s ‘living off the land’ strategy was ruined, and his army’s supply lines were stretched to the limit. Eventually, the Russian army turned to fight at the town of Borodino some 70 miles from Moscow. Napoleon was happy to engage because he knew a decisive win would pave the way to Moscow and represent a major step in his plan to conquer Russia.
At Borodino on September 7, 1812, two of the greatest armies in Europe squared off as the Grand Armee had somewhere between 130,000 and 190,000 men against the Russian forces with 120,000-160,000 soldiers. The French had 587 guns against 624 Russian guns. As usual, Napoleon attacked aggressively but sustained large losses as the Russians opted for a counterattacking strategy.
Eventually, the French took control of the battlefield and seized a key position. However, Napoleon did not want to risk his Imperial Guard; he apparently said that he could win the battle without their intervention.
While this proved to be correct, the decision allowed Kutuzov to retreat from the field in relatively decent shape. A total of 60,000 men died at Borodino and Napoleon could ill-afford the losses (some 30,000-35,000 French soldiers died or were wounded or captured). Nonetheless, he was free to take Moscow.
Unfortunately for him, the Russians did not do what he expected. They elected to abandon the city so when the French arrived, less than one-third of its population remained, and law & order had completely broken down. Also, the stores had been plundered so there were few supplies to feast upon.
Napoleon had expected to receive the Tsar in Moscow and bask in the glow of victory, but there wasn’t even a Russian general there to surrender on bended knee. The French were in Moscow for a day when a huge fire engulfed the city, and eventually they fled on October 19. By then, the Russian army had regrouped and harassed the French until Napoleon decided to abandon his invasion in 1812. In just six months, Napoleon had lost almost half a million men.