73,000 casualties…in one day’s fighting

Yesterday was the 198th anniversary of the Battle of Borodino. 

And yes, you read that number right.  There were at least 73,000 casualties.  And that errs on the side of caution. 

French casualties came in at about 28,000.  Russian sources vary–some say they lost no more than 38,500.  Others insist the number is more like 58,000. 

It was the greatest massacre of men killed in a single day’s combat in recorded history until the first day of the Somme in World War One. 

Less well known is the loss of some 35,000 horses on that battlefield. 

The French, of course, regarded Borodino as a great victory.  And Napoleon wrote home to say so. 

(This claim of course should be regarded with a pinch of salt–Napoleon also claimed Trafalgar had been a great French victory…)

But Napoleon liked nothing better than a good pitched battle in which he whooped the enemy in one fell swoop, destroying their army and forcing them to the peace table with him as conquerer.

The Russians, led by General Kutuzov, also claimed it as a victory.  And in at least one way they were very right. 

 The French were now thousands of miles from their supply lines, from home, their forces so weakened by disease, hunger, and exhaustion–many of them had marched into battle barefoot–that they had no hope of recovery, even if they survived the battle.  Those who were wounded begged and screamed to be put out of their misery.  There was no hope of a field hospital for them.

The Russians retreated to Moscow in good order.  And then a few days later, abandoned the capital–leaving to be invaded by the French and set alight…

The loss of the horses was even more problematic–especially for the French. 

We have a hard time conceiving today of a life where everything depended upon horse power.  But in 1812, for the French, those losses meant the end of their cavalry, the end of their horse-drawn artillery guns, the end of their supply trains, there may have been carts but there were no horses to draw them and thus remove the wounded from the battlefield. 

It would also subsequently mean that French foraging parties could not get farther than their legs would carry them…nor could they bring back more than theycarry on their backs.  The area around Moscow had already been stripped of fodder and food and there could be no going farther afield…and yet the French still had hundreds of thousands of men to feed.

Still, when I look at that number–73,000–I cannot but mourn.  So many lives lost to serve one man’s insatiable greed for power.

And most French and allied families never did learn what had become of their sons and husbands on that date…

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11 comments on “73,000 casualties…in one day’s fighting

  1. MHM says:

    Another great post, M. ‘The Beloved’ here has been learning of some of the social problems at home at the time, viz syphilis, which I believe you may have written of before.

    Wholly unrelated but it’s a ‘good thing’ when one’s spouse shares one’s interest in the period.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      The history of the whole Russian invasion has really been thrown open in the last decade, with the Russian, Ukrainian and Lithuanian sources which were off-limits from 1914-1990, now available. The mass graves that have been dug up from the period show–when they do the forensic testing–roughly 80% of the French soldiers in Napoleon’s army had syphilis. Add that to the moral vacuum that the Revolution and Napoleon fostered and you have a spread of disease similar to AIDs in places like Zimbabwe.

  2. cavalrytales says:

    Awww – being a bit tough on poor old Boney, aren’t you? I think he was stuffed, really – he couldn’t let Alexander’s Emperor-sized ego let him believe he could be the next big thing, and Metternich was already cosying up to the Brits. If Napoleon let one of them get away with stealing territory back, they’d all think they could do it and the whole empire would collapse about his ears. But sort it, and he could go back to treating his ulcer.
    Why did he go too far, though? I’d be interested to read what Franceschi (a descendant?) and A N Other wrote about his pacifist tendency in ‘The Wars Against Napoleon’, if only for a good laugh.
    What I can’t get my head around is that he goes straight back to Paris, begins to recruit more troops, puts the weapon factories on overtime and buys in 17,000 horses (according to Asprey). Even assuming he was spared much of the horror of the retreat, how could such a bloodbath not affect his mind? The letters he fired off to Prussia and his other satellite states apparently read as if the disaster never happened.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I think you’re searching for a phrase here. Could it be “in denial”?

      Bonaparte had never, not from his days in Egypt in ’98, given a tinker’s damn about who or what he lost so long as ‘son gloire’ remained intact.

      He was right when he said that a military dictator could only retain power by continuing to win victories.

      I’ve been poring over Dominic Lieven’s Russia Against Napoleon recently. Besides being readable–always a pleasure–he outlines that Alexander had been plotting the ‘sucking the Frenchies into the Russian interior’ plan since 1810. British historians have always discounted Alexander, I like to think, because they haven’t had access to Russian military sources since 1914.

      And Lieven also points out that it was Napoleon’s loss of his horses that cost him the next sequence of wars. He simply couldn’t replace not only the cavalry, but also the artillery horses, the baggage train horses, the cart horses, nothing. He couldn’t therefore deliver a battle after the artillery had softened the enemy up, but he also couldn’t feed the armies he had once they were in the field, and his men, equally couldn’t forage far from the roads upon which they were marching.

      By autumn, 1813, the army’s need for horses was so desperate that Bonaparte decreed that all fields were to be cultivated by spade, so that all horses could be taken from the farms…which will tell you a-just how desperate they were; and b-how unsuited for army life the horses were…

      Metternich was approaching the Brits in 1813 because Austria, frankly, was bankrupt and couldn’t hope to put a carrot in a field, let along an army without someone else footing the bill. The Brits were also supplying Russia with muskets and ammo, because their factories just couldn’t keep up.

  3. cavalrytales says:

    Aha! So Hofschroer’s book should really have been called ‘Waterloo – The German Victory – Bankrolled by the British who paid for just about Everyone to go to the Party.’
    Though it probably wouldn’t have sold too many with a title like that.
    How is it WE always end up paying? Talk about history repeating itself again, and again, and again….a bit like the horses at Corunna, to return to an old (oops – nearly said ‘hobby-horse’!).

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Well, I can’t speak for other wars, but in the case of the Napoleonic wars, all of continental Europe had been bankrupted by the Continental Blockade plus twenty years of continual war (pillage, reparation payments, destroyed crops…), not to mention the drain on their populations. Britain on the other had used the Continental Blockade to become the world’s commercial empire, plus she was in the throes of industrialisation, plus no land wars on her soil–by 1813, Britain was the only European power with any money or men at all. Plus, obviously, horses…(see above for how important they were.)

  4. cavalrytales says:

    Judging from some of Wellington’s despatches, by 1813 even we were starting to struggle for horses – trained animals, anyway.
    Even though I’ve now managed to read a fair bit on this period, from a modern perspective I still find it difficult to appreciate total reliance on horsepower and to visualise all the infrastructure such a reliance required.
    And I keep the damn things!

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I know what you mean about that. Curiously, the best historian I’ve found to give a sense of it is Dominic Lieven in his book, which I keep bigging up, Russia Against Napoleon. But the thing is, he talks about things like how many horses were needed for a supply train for a single regiment just to carry their food and fodder. How many carts…all of that kind of stuff. And he points out that Napoleon’s loss of the horses in Russia–many of which could have been saved if only he’d bothered to order them shod with winter horseshoes, directly contributed to his losses in 1813-14. Because he could never rebuild his cavalry. And if you consider too, that Britain was having trouble–but Britain was the one European nation he hadn’t trampled over, requisitioning everything that moved…the disaster in terms of livestock of his wars just boggles the mind.

      • Robin Helweg-Larsen says:

        So… any suggestions that this (post-Civil War) untrampledness of Britain is the (THE) cause of Britain’s lead in the Industrial Revolution? Followed by the untrampledness of the (post-Civil War) United States in the 20th century?

      • M M Bennetts says:

        It wasn’t something I’d considered until after I started studying what had happened to Prussia, Silesia and Poland as the troops of the Grande Armee were assembled there prior to the invasion of Russia, but yes, absolutely. Not only was everything wrecked, pillaged or ruined–all crops, livestock, houses–but the governments had been literally beggared by Napoleon’s demands that these 500,000+ men be provided for. Then add in that while they were there the French were spreading syphilis like it was icing sugar–about 80% of their army was infected–and at that time syphilis was roughly the equivalent of AIDs. Then add on, the European manufacturers had almost to man been put out of business by the Continental Blockade and they’d lost not only all their skilled workforce, but also any access to any market other than France…and you understand a little why it took the Continent about 100 years to drag itself back to the levels of population and industrialisation that Britain had experienced at roughly 1789.

  5. […] blogged about this elsewhere, so I shan’t now go into details.  But the number of casualties is staggering–even for […]

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