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ON THE FIELD OF BORODINO

By Carl Willner

Carl Willner's Borodino Photos on Picasa

A visit to the actual battlefield is one of the most enjoyable parts of designing a historical game.   Texas Glory took me to the Alamo, Goliad and the battlefield of San Jacinto.   But Columbia's newest release, Borodino, called for a much longer journey, all the way to Mother Russia.   

The field of Borodino lies some 70 miles west of Moscow.   Though today it can be reached by train and modern road, much of it still looks little changed from 1812.   There are just a few paved roads, and dirt tracks leading to villages of small wooden houses, a few distinguished by onion-domed churches, lying amid scattered forests and small hills, on either side of the winding Kolocha river.   Many of the villages that marked the events of the battle -- Borodino, Semyonovskoye, Shevardino, Utitsa, Fomkino, Gorki, and others -- are still there, though others have disappeared over the years.  There are, of course, monuments everywhere, as on Civil War battlefields here, with inscriptions in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, naming the generals, regiments and divisions that fought there 200 years ago.  Remains of the principal redoubts defended by General Kutuzov's Russian army can still be seen -- on the hill of Shevardino, at the Fleches (now marked by the beautiful 19th century monastery of the Savior of Borodino, with one of the three fleche redoubts right inside its walls), and most famously, at the Great Redoubt so bravely defended by Lt. General Rayevski's corps, where the highest ranking Russian officer who fell at Borodino, General Pyotr Bagration, is now laid to rest.   And in the village of Borodino itself still stands the one original building left from the battle, the Church of the Nativity, where from the steeples the Russian artillery observers could see the approach of Napoleon's Grande Armee on September 5, 1812.   About 130,000 French and allied troops from across Europe -- Italians, Germans, Poles and others -- now faced off against close to 150,000 Russians, including some 110,000 regulars, 10,000 Cossacks, and masses of ill-equipped militia from Moscow and Smolensk.

Exploring the battlefield, it is not hard to trace the course of the fighting, since all the key locales are readily accessible (though it helps to have a car if you want to see them all in a day, with several miles of ground to cover both north-south and east-west).    I have had the opportunity to visit it twice, in 2008 and again in 2012 for the anniversary year.  After the French crossed the Kolocha around Fomkino, Shevardino fell to a preliminary French attack on the Russian left flank on September 5.  Following a pause the next day allowing the rest of Napoleon's army to arrive, the main battle commenced at dawn on September 7, with the fall of Borodino village.  Napoleon and Kutuzov both observed the ever-growing slaughter throughout the day from their headquarters, by the hills of Shevardino and Gorki.  In turn the French took the Fleches, Semyonovskoye village, and the Great Redoubt in the Russian center, in gigantic clashes of infantry and charging cavalry, with both sides suffering horrendous losses.  Meanwhile the Russians launched a large but ultimately unsuccessful cavalry raid on the French left north of the Kolocha, and in the south Napoleon's Polish and Westphalian German allies took Utitsa village and the Kurgan hill behind it, but could not break through the Russian defenses to cut their supply roads.   With the French suffering about 30,000 losses and the Russians close to 50,000, at last Kutuzov chose to retreat and sacrifice Moscow.

Each year, Russia hosts a reenactment of the Borodino battle near the day of the actual battle, with thousands of participants coming from European countries and even the United States.   Napoleon himself has regularly been played by an American who closely resembles the Emperor!   For anyone seriously interested in seeing the historical battlefield as well as the reenactment, I recommend making two trips from Moscow, one on the reenactment day and another a couple of days before when the reenactors are just starting to arrive, adding some color to the visit, but the crowds are not overwhelming.   The reenactment takes place on part of the original battlefield, near the banks of the Kolocha, between the villages of Borodino and Valuyevo.  In most years, it is possible to get close enough to the action to see it, and take good pictures, but for the 200th anniversary the crowds were immense.   There were probably as many visitors on the battlefield that day as there were troops in the combined armies of Napoleon and Kutuzov in 1812!

For Americans used to seeing merely troops in blue and grey at our Civil War reenactments, the colorful nature of Napoleonic armies is amazing, especially in the many gorgeously uniformed cavalry formations, with cuirassiers, hussars, dragoons and Cossacks all riding about.   Along with the well-disciplined regular infantry in blue and green, bodies of scruffy Russian opolcheniye, the hastily raised militia, are also marching on the fringes and skulking in the brush.  The fighting typically begins with some cavalry and light infantry skirmishing as the main bodies of troops move into position and artillery is emplaced, while the  Russians prepare to defend a redoubt in the center of the field.   Troops are reviewed, and the armies start moving into action. Then the artillery commences its bombardment, with dramatic effect.  The Russian fire marshals evidently are not as strict as their American counterparts, or lawsuits are not such a concern, for the Russians have no problem with preplanted charges exploding all over the battlefield to mark hits as artillery is fired, or setting buildings aflame as mock villages are fought over.   Cavalry race back and forth, sabers clashing with each other, and infantry facing cavalry charges form into actual squares while the horsemen ride around them.  French infantry assault the Russian-held redoubt, and as the smoke of battle becomes ever thicker, it is not hard to appreciate the need for the colorful uniforms, or the huge flags both sides are carrying to rally the troops.  Meanwhile, Russian announcers describe the events of the battle, blow by blow, to the crowds lining the field.

At last the action dies down, and the armies assemble for review by their commanders.   Old Kutuzov in his cap rides along, accompanied by Barclay de Tolly and other generals.   On the French side, Napoleon appears in his trademark hat and grey coat on a white horse, followed by the magnificent Marshal Murat, King of Naples, in fantastic plumed white fur headgear.   Soldiers pose for pictures, ladies in historical costume stroll about, and one almost expects to see Pierre from War and Peace wandering onto the field.  All are at peace again, and the troops disperse to their camps around the battlefield, looking forward to another year.


Carl Willner
October 2012

Footage of the 2012 re-enactment courtesy of the Telegraph.co.uk

Napoleon at the Re-enactment