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…
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…