DataViz History: Charles Minard’s Flow Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812 – The Battle of Borodino

Continuing The March

Since Minard’s map is in French, I have provided an English language version for us to use as we discuss the flow of Napoleon’s march in detail. [2]

minard-odt

The Battle of Borodino

The Battle of BorodinoOn 7 September, at the Battle of Borodino, the Russians sought to fight a battle of attrition. Knowing that they were clustered densely around the defensive positions erected in the area (Raevski’s Redoubt and the v-shaped earthworks known as the Bagration flèches), the hope was that Napoleon would be limited tactically and forced to simply meet the Russians head-on. The Russian command knew that this strategy would cost them a great deal of men. The massed ranks of Russian troops formed a thick curtain of troops, whilst the battlefield and troop arrangement made any military manoeuvres almost impossible. The battle has gone down in history not for its strategic brilliance but for the sheer destruction of life on both sides.

After the battle, General Lariboisière estimated that the French artillery – all 587 guns – had fired about 60,000 times, with the infantry having gone through 140,000 cartridges: it is thought that the Russians fired slightly fewer cannon shots (50,000) and 20,000 fewer cartridges. For a battle that lasted about ten hours, this works out at about three cannon shots per second and more than 430 musket shots per minute (figures in Marie-Pierre Rey, L’Effroyable Tragédie, 2012, pp. 156-157). The Russian artillery numbered over 600 pieces, but problems in supplying enough ammunition coupled with a failure to concentrate their fire where it mattered meant that they proved less effective than the French guns. The Russians also lost Aleksandr Kutaisov, the artillery commander: his body was never found. One Russian officer, Lieutenant Andreev, noted in reference to the cannon fire: “They said that the sky burned [that day]. But we could barely make out the sky through the screen of smoke.”

The Battle of BorodinoAt 6.30am, the French forces hit the right-wing of the Russian army, surprising Kutuzov, who expected the first hit to come against the left-wing. Troops commanded by Eugène and led by General Delzons crashed out of the dawn fog and into the Russian forces stationed in Borodino. After a brief counter-attack around 7am, the village fell. At the same time, troops under Davout and Ney attacked the southern-most Bagration flèches, guarded by men under General Mikhail Vorontsov and Neverovsky. The defensive works exchanged hands in the three hours up to 10am, when Ney finally seized them back for the French. By midday, the French troops had fought off the Russian counter-attacks and secured the position. The day was to get worse for the Russians: Bagration was gravely wounded during the battle and had passed out. He would eventually die from the related infection on 24 September. The central redoubt was the site of particularly bloody fighting, captured and lost in turn – swinging like a “pendulum” in the words of Dominic Lieven Russia against Napoleon (p. 201) – as both sides manoeuvred to secure the position. During the fighting, Montbrun died after shrapnel ripped through his kidney, whilst his replacement in the struggle for the redoubt, General Auguste de Caulaincourt (brother of the diplomat), was also killed.

The Batte of Borodino

The Batte of Borodino

Finally, around 6pm, the cannon fire stopped and the two sides retired to their headquarters: Napoleon to Shevardino, Kutuzov to Moshaysk, 15km to the east. Although Napoleon anticipated picking up where he had left off the next morning, in reality the battle was over. The battle was to prove one of the bloodiest in the entire history of the Napoleonic Wars: the Russians had 45,000 dead, wounded or missing, whilst Napoleon’s losses totalled between 28,000 and 35,000. Dominique Jean Larrey, chief surgeon, estimated that he had performed about two hundred amputations – most as a result of artillery fire – in the first twenty-four hours after the battle.

The victory – in terms of territory won and losses inflicted – was Napoleon’s. It was not to be however the decisive one he so craved: the remnants of the Russian armies retreated back towards Moscow, leading Napoleon to declare “La paix est à Moscou”. In relaying the result of the battle to Alexander, Kutuzov’s description painted it as a victory to the Russians. Later Russian army bulletins even described how the French army had been torn to pieces, albeit without any mention of the death toll. Debate remains as to whether the victory could have been the one Napoleon wanted had he committed his Guards. His officer corps had been divided on the issue during the battle – Murat, Davout and Ney for their introduction in order to bring the battle to its conclusion; Berthier, Duroc and Bessières against, for fear that a damaged Guards regiment would affect morale so far from Paris – and historians have continued to debate how successful their introduction would have been. As it was, the Guards remained in reserve, Kutuzov retreated down the Moscow road, and Napoleon found himself obliged to give chase once again.

Next: To Moscow

References

[1] Dr. Daniel Churchill, MITE6323  – Interactivity, Visualization, Emerging Technologies and Paradigms, The University of Hong Kong, February, 2007.

[2] Mike Stucka, English translation of Minard’s classic chart of Napoleon’s March, Analyticjournalism.com, November 4, 2006, http://www.analyticjournalism.com/2006/11/04/english-translation-of-minards-classic-chart-of-napoleons-march/

[3] Napoleon’s Russian campaign: From the Niemen to Moscow, Napoleon.org, http://www.napoleon.org/en/Template/chronologie.asp?idpage=481959&onglet=1.

[4] Karl von Clausewitz, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia in 1812, http://www.napolun.com/mirror/napoleonistyka.atspace.com/Invasion_of_Russia_1812.htm.

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