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The Battle of Borodino
by Baron Lejeune


About seven o'clock on the morning of the 7th the signal for the attack was at last given, and immediately 800 pieces of cannon on our side opened fire on an equal number of Russian howitzers and guns, the projectiles from which ploughed through our ranks with a hissing noise such as it is impossible to describe. As ill luck would have it, our reserves at the beginning of the struggle, even those of the cavalry, were rather too near the fighting, and, either from vainglory or more likely from fear of giving a false impression to the enemy, they would not retire the few hundred paces needed to place them in a position less exposed to useless danger, so that we had the grief of seeing thousands of gallant cavaliers and fine horses struck down, though it was of the utmost importance to us to preserve them.

The Emperor had announced that he would establish his head-quarters on the redoubt taken the evening before, and as a matter of fact he passed a great part of the day on that elevated position, sitting on the steep bank of the exterior slope, and following all the movements of the troops with the glass he kept in his hand. His Guard was posted behind him on the amphitheatre formed by the redoubt and its surroundings, and all these picked men, curbing with difficulty their eager desire to take part in the fighting and help to secure the victory, presented a most imposing appearance.

General Compans had the honour of being the first to lead his infantry to exchange fire with the Russians. He was ordered to attack the enemy's centre on the left of the Passavero wood, and to reach it he had to scale the heights and take the redoubts which barred his passage. The 57th Regiment led the way with a dash, carrying all before it, the battalions charging the first redoubt at the double, where a hand-to-hand conflict lasted for nearly an hour. The rest of the division supported the movement, and the enemy returning with considerable reinforcements to try to retake the redoubt, the ditches were in a few minutes choked up with thousands of killed or wounded Russians. The Gerard and Friant divisions, meanwhile, supported by the cavalry, had attacked other redoubts on the right of that assailed by General Compans.

All this time the formidable artillery of the redoubts in the centre of the enemy's line was working such fearful havoc in our ranks, that it became of the utmost importance to take the largest of these redoubts and spike its guns. The sappers of the engineers, therefore, beneath a hail of grapeshot, flung several little trestle bridges across the Kaluga stream protecting the base of the ridge, and the Morand division crossed the ravine with their aid and managed to get at the enemy. The first brigade of this division, led by General Bonamy, scaled the height and the entrenchments, deployed successfully in the redoubt, and killed the artillerymen at their guns. But the Russians came to the rescue in great force, and General Bonamy, after receiving seventeen bayonet wounds, fell disabled, and as he was taken prisoner he had the grief of seeing all his men either killed or driven back. The remainder of the Morand division was only able to protect the retreat of the few who escaped in disorder.

The Delzons division, belonging to the Viceroy's corps, which was on our left, meanwhile vigorously attacked and took possession of the fortified village of Borodino. Prince Eugene, who had, of course, not foreseen that this attack would succeed beyond his hopes, had ordered nothing more than the taking of Borodino ; but the 106th Regiment, carried away by success, was able to cross the Kaluga by the mill bridge as the Russians had done before it, and pursued the enemy to the heights beyond, scaling them as rapidly as did the retreating forces.

General Plauzonne, however, seeing that the intrepid soldiers of the 106th Regiment were allowing themselves to be separated and were not waiting for the rear of their column to come up, ordered them to halt so as to offer a combined resistance to a Russian column which was coming down to crush them. At that very moment, however, General Plauzonne was killed, and in the momentary confusion into which his death threw his men, the Russians swept down on them and very few of the brave fellows escaped. The 92nd Regiment hastened up to their aid, and in spite of our great loss and of every effort made by the Russians to retake Borodino, it remained in our hands.

Marshal Ney, meanwhile, was gaining ground on the heights above the village, bristling though they were with redoubts and batteries, the artillery fire from which mowed down our ranks. It was grand to see Marshal Ney standing quietly on the parapet of one of these redoubts directing the combatants who were hurrying up below him, and never losing sight of them except when he was enveloped in clouds of smoke. A few paces from where Marshal Ney was standing, the gallant General Montbrun, of the cavalry, was carried off by a ball.

Marshal Davout, Prince of Eckmuhl, continued to defend the redoubts which he had taken, and which the enemy never ceased to try to regain. I was ordered to take the distressing news to him that Prince Poniatowski, who was manoeuvring on the right, had met with such terrible obstacles in the form of dense woods and swampy marshes that he could not, as arranged, fall upon the rear of the Russian left, and so harass it as to aid the first French corps by a powerful diversion. At this moment, in fact, the Marshal's position was most critical ; for although the cavalry under King Murat occupied the whole of the plain before him, and made a series of charges on that of the enemy with the happiest results, the fire from the Russian artillery was making Davout's post all but untenable. He had just been wounded in the arm, but he remained in command of his division. His chief of the staff, General Romoeuf, was pierced by a ball as he was speaking to us. The Marshal, greatly put out at having to make an isolated assault in front on a position which he thought ought to be attacked simultaneously on three sides, said to me angrily, ' It's a confounded shame to make me take the bull by the horns.' I hastened to go and tell King Murat of the critical position of Davout, and he at once ordered several masses of cavalry to unite for the support of General Friant, to whom I carried the order to take Seminskoe. All of a sudden I now saw the plain covered with masses of cavalry, Russian, Cossack, French, and that of our allies, engaged in a desperate melee, and after half an hour's struggle our side remained masters of the ground.

It was about three o'clock in the afternoon when I took this good news to the Emperor.

The Russian artillery from the big central redoubt continued, however, to work terrible havoc in our ranks, which had advanced so boldly within range of it, and the Emperor saw the great importance of getting possession of it. Orders were therefore sent to General Gerard, whose infantry was at the base of the height on which was the redoubt, to take it by assault, whilst King Murat was instructed to support Gerard's attack with a numerous body of cavalry. The manoeuvre was admirably executed, and our infantry, supported by Caulaincourt's cuirassiers and pontonniers, penetrated into the entrenchments.

General Kutusoff, however, who looked upon this redoubt as the key of his position, immediately pointed 100 pieces of cannon upon us, hoping by that means to drive us back, whilst a considerable column of picked Russian grenadiers, who had been hidden at 'the bottom of a ravine behind the redoubt, advanced to attack us. In the struggle the wind, which was blowing strongly, raised clouds of dust, which mingled with the smoke from the guns was whirled up in dense masses, enveloping and almost suffocating men and horses. When at last the thick clouds, augmented every moment by the fury of the combat raging on every side, rolled away, we found that the column of Russian grenadiers had been driven back into the ravine, and that we were masters of the redoubt where the artillerymen had been cut down at their guns. Thirty pieces of cannon also remained in our hands, the violence and rapidity of our cavalry charge having been such that the enemy had not had time to drag them away. Our victory had, however, been dearly bought, for Caulaincourt had been killed at the gorge of the redoubt, as he led the charge.

The Emperor, satisfied with all that had already been accomplished by General Friant and the other divisions under Davout, now thought the right moment had come to send his whole Guard to complete the victory, as yet only begun, when a timid counsellor remarked to him, ' Allow me to point out that your Majesty is at the present moment 700 leagues from Paris, and at the gates of Moscow.' The reflection that he was so near Moscow seems to have greatly cheered the Emperor by calling up a picture in his mind of his entry into that town with all the pomp of a conqueror, and, turning to me, he said, ' Go and find Sorbier, and tell him to take all the artillery of my Guard to the position occupied by General Friant, to which you will guide him. He is to extend sixty guns at right angles with the enemy's line, so as to crush him by a flank fire ; Murat will support him.'

I galloped off to General Sorbier, who was a very hasty man, and he, incredulous of my message, did not give me time to explain it, but broke in on what I was saying impatiently with the words, ' We ought to have done that an hour ago! ' He then ordered the artillery to follow him at a trot. The imposing mass of the artillery at once rolled away with a resounding clank of chains into the valley, crossed it, and ascended the gentle slope covered with the entrenchments we had taken from the enemy, where they broke into a gallop to gain the space necessary for extension by the left flank. In the distance I could see King Murat caracoling about in the midst of the mounted skirmishers well in advance of his own cavalry, and paying far less attention to them than to the numerous Cossacks who, recognising him by his bravado, as well as by his plumed helmet, and a short Cossack mantle made of a goat's skin with long hair resembling their own, surrounded him in the hope of taking him prisoner, shouting, ' Houra ! houra ! Murat ! ' But none of them. dared even venture within lance's length of him, ' for they all knew that the King's sword would skilfully turn aside every weapon, and with the speed of lightning pierce to the heart the boldest amongst his enemies. I galloped up to Murat to give him the Emperor's instructions, and he left the skirmishers to make his dispositions for supporting General Sorbier. The Cossacks took his withdrawal for retreat or flight, and followed us. My horse, which was not so fleet as that of the King, for he was mounted on a beautiful fawn-coloured Arab, caught its feet in the drag-rope of a gun which was making its wheel of a quarter circle at a gallop. The animal, though hurt and shaken by the shock and fall, struggled up again at once without throwing me, and galloped furiously to where General Sorbier was standing in the centre of the terrible battery, now beginning to pour out volleys of grapeshot, shells, and balls on the enemy's lines, which it enfiladed, every discharge telling.

The enemy's cavalry made many useless efforts to destroy our line of guns. We remained masters of the fortified position, which the Russians had looked upon as impregnable, and I went to the Emperor to report on what had taken place.

The day was already far advanced. We had dearly bought the advantages we had gained, nor was there as yet anything to indicate that the struggle would not be renewed on the morrow. When I got back to the Emperor he had already been able to judge of the good results achieved by the artillery of his Guard, and he was still hesitating whether, as many amongst us wished, he should follow up this success with a grand charge from the whole of the brilliant cavalry of the Guard. Just at this moment a Russian lieutenant-general who had been taken prisoner was brought to the Emperor. After having talked to him very politely for a few minutes, the Emperor said to some one standing by, ' Give me his sword.' A Russian sword was at once brought, and the Emperor, taking it, graciously offered it to the Russian general with the words, ' I return your sword.' It so happened, however, that it was not the prisoner's own sword, and, not understanding the honour the Emperor meant to do him, the Russian general refused to receive the weapon. Napoleon, astonished at this want of tact in a general, shrugged his shoulders, and turning to us said, loud enough for the General to hear him, ' Take the fool away ! '

The battle now seemed to be approaching its close. The noise of the firing was diminishing, and the sun was setting. The Viceroy had posted a large body of his troops on our left beyond the Kaluga stream, at the foot of the height on which was the big redoubt taken by our cavalry. The Prince was going about amongst his battalions, when the enemy, who had probably recognised him, ordered a considerable body of Cossacks to charge and try to carry him off. Fortunately the Prince noticed the masses of cavalry threatening our left, and in anticipation of their attack he at once formed his divisions in squares by regiments. The Viceroy had only just time to fling himself into the 84th Regiment, beside Colonel Pegot, and to order the Italian regiment to repulse the thousands of Cossacks advancing upon us with lowered spears, before the shock came. But the point-blank discharge from our infantry drove the mass of riders, always so clever at turning tail, back upon themselves. Our cavalry pursued them for a short distance, and then returned to the ranks. The night fell, and put an end to the exhausting struggle all along the lines of the rival hosts.

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