On the twenty-fifth of August, so his historians tell us, Napoleon spent the whole day on horseback inspecting the locality, considering plans submitted to him by his marshals, and personally giving commands to his generals.
The original line of the Russian forces along the river Kolocha had been dislocated by the capture of the Shevardino Redoubt on the twenty-fourth, and part of the line- the left flank- had been drawn back. That part of the line was not entrenched and in front of it the ground was more open and level than elsewhere. It was evident to anyone, military or not, that it was here the French should attack. It would seem that not much consideration was needed to reach this conclusion, nor any particular care or trouble on the part of the Emperor and his marshals, nor was there any need of that special and supreme quality called genius that people are so apt to ascribe to Napoleon; yet the historians who described the event later and the men who then surrounded Napoleon, and he himself, thought otherwise.
Napoleon rode over the plain and surveyed the locality with a profound air and in silence, nodded with approval or shook his head dubiously, and without communicating to the generals around him the profound course of ideas which guided his decisions merely gave them his final conclusions in the form of commands. Having listened to a suggestion from Davout, who was now called Prince d'Eckmuhl, to turn the Russian left wing, Napoleon said it should not be done, without explaining why not. To a proposal made by General Campan (who was to attack the fleches) to lead his division through the woods, Napoleon agreed, though the so-called Duke of Elchingen (Ney) ventured to remark that a movement through the woods was dangerous and might disorder the division.
Having inspected the country opposite the Shevardino Redoubt, Napoleon pondered a little in silence and then indicated the spots where two batteries should be set up by the morrow to act against the Russian entrenchments, and the places where, in line with them, the field artillery should be placed.
After giving these and other commands he returned to his tent, and the dispositions for the battle were written down from his dictation.
These dispositions, of which the French historians write with enthusiasm and other historians with profound respect, were as follows:
At dawn the two new batteries established during the night on the plain occupied by the Prince d'Eckmuhl will open fire on the opposing batteries of the enemy.
At the same time the commander of the artillery of the 1st Corps, General Pernetti, with thirty cannon of Campan's division and all the howitzers of Dessaix's and Friant's divisions, will move forward, open fire, and overwhelm with shellfire the enemy's battery, against which will operate:
24 guns of the artillery of the Guards
30 guns of Campan's division
and 8 guns of Friant's and Dessaix's divisions --
in all 62 guns.
The commander of the artillery of the 3rd Corps, General Fouche, will place the howitzers of the 3rd and 8th Corps, sixteen in all, on the flanks of the battery that is to bombard the entrenchment on the left, which will have forty guns in all directed against it.
General Sorbier must be ready at the first order to advance with all the howitzers of the Guard's artillery against either one or other of the entrenchments.
During the cannonade Prince Poniatowski is to advance through the wood on the village and turn the enemy's position.
General Campan will move through the wood to seize the first fortification.
After the advance has begun in this manner, orders will be given in accordance with the enemy's movements.
The cannonade on the left flank will begin as soon as the guns of the right wing are heard. The sharpshooters of Morand's division and of the vice-King's division will open a heavy fire on seeing the attack commence on the right wing.
The vice-King will occupy the village and cross by its three bridges, advancing to the same heights as Morand's and Gibrard's divisions, which under his leadership will be directed against the redoubt and come into line with the rest of the forces.
All this must be done in good order (le tout se fera avec ordre et methode) as far as possible retaining troops in reserve.
The Imperial Camp near Mozhaysk,
September, 6, 1812.
These dispositions, which are very obscure and confused if one allows oneself to regard the arrangements without religious awe of his genius, related to Napoleon's orders to deal with four points- four different orders. Not one of these was, or could be, carried out.
In the disposition it is said first that the batteries placed on the spot chosen by Napoleon, with the guns of Pernetti and Fouche; which were to come in line with them, 102 guns in all, were to open fire and shower shells on the Russian fleches and redoubts. This could not be done, as from the spots selected by Napoleon the projectiles did not carry to the Russian works, and those 102 guns shot into the air until the nearest commander, contrary to Napoleon's instructions, moved them forward.
The second order was that Poniatowski, moving to the village through the wood, should turn the Russian left flank. This could not be done and was not done, because Poniatowski, advancing on the village through the wood, met Tuchkov there barring his way, and could not and did not turn the Russian position.
The third order was: General Campan will move through the wood to seize the first fortification. General Campan's division did not seize the first fortification but was driven back, for on emerging from the wood it had to reform under grapeshot, of which Napoleon was unaware.
The fourth order was: The vice-King will occupy the village (Borodino) and cross by its three bridges, advancing to the same heights as Morand's and Gdrard's divisions (for whose movements no directions are given), which under his leadership will be directed against the redoubt and come into line with the rest of the forces.
As far as one can make out, not so much from this unintelligible sentence as from the attempts the vice-King made to execute the orders given him, he was to advance from the left through Borodino to the redoubt while the divisions of Morand and Gerard were to advance simultaneously from the front.
All this, like the other parts of the disposition, was not and could not be executed. After passing through Borodino the vice-King was driven back to the Kolocha and could get no farther; while the divisions of Morand and Gerard did not take the redoubt but were driven back, and the redoubt was only taken at the end of the battle by the cavalry (a thing probably unforeseen and not heard of by Napoleon). So not one of the orders in the disposition was, or could be, executed. But in the disposition it is said that, after the fight has commenced in this manner, orders will be given in accordance with the enemy's movements, and so it might be supposed that all necessary arrangements would be made by Napoleon during the battle. But this was not and could not be done, for during the whole battle Napoleon was so far away that, as appeared later, he could not know the course of the battle and not one of his orders during the fight could be executed.
Eric von Hippel
Erik S. Raymond