THE WHOLE of that day, the 25th of August, Napoleon spent, so his historians relate, on horseback, inspecting the locality, criticising the plans submitted to him by his marshals, and giving commands in person to his generals.
The original line of the Russian disposition, along the Kolotcha, had been broken through, and, in consequence of the taking of the Shevardino redoubt on the previous day, part of that line—the left flank—had been drawn further back. That part of the line had not been strengthened, was no longer protected by the river, and more open and level ground lay before it. It was obvious to any man, military or non-military, that it was that part of the line that the French should attack. One would have thought that no great deliberation would be necessary to reach this conclusion; that all the care and anxiety of the Emperor and his marshals were unnecessary, and that there was absolutely no need of that peculiar high degree of talent called genius, which they are so fond of ascribing to Napoleon. But the historians, who described the battle afterwards, and the men surrounding Napoleon at the time, and he himself, thought otherwise.
Napoleon rode about the field, gazing with a profound air at the country, wagging his head approvingly or dubiously to himself, and without communicating to the generals around him the profound chain of reasoning that guided him in his decisions, conveyed to them merely the final conclusions in the form of commands. Upon the suggestion being made by Davoust, now styled Duke of Eckmühl, for turning the Russian left flank, Napoleon said there was no need to do this, without explaining why there was no need. But to the proposal of General Compans (who was to attack the advanced earthworks), to lead his division through the forest, Napoleon signified his assent, although the so-called Duke of Elchingen, that is, Ney, ventured to observe that to move troops through woodland is risky, and might break up the formation of the division.
After examining the nature of the country opposite the Shevardino redoubt, Napoleon pondered a little while in silence and pointed to the spots where two batteries were to be placed by the morrow for action against the Russian fortifications, and the spots where, in a line with them, the field artillery was to be arranged.
After giving these and other commands, he went back to his quarters, and the disposition of the troops was written down from his dictation.
This disposition, of which the French speak with enthusiasm, and other historians with profound respect, consisted of the following instructions:
“Two new batteries, to be placed during the night on the plain occupied by the Duke of Eckmühl, will open fire at dawn on the two opposite batteries of the enemy.
“At the same time General Pernetti, in command of the artillery of the 1st corps, with thirty cannons of Compans's division, and all the howitzers of Desaix and Friant's division, will move forward, open fire, and shower shells on the enemy's battery, against which there will be at once in action:
30 cannons of Compans's division, and
8 cannons of Friant and Desaix's division
“General Fouché, in command of the artillery of the 3rd corps, will place all the sixteen howitzers of the 3rd and 8th corps at the flanks of the battery, told off to bombard the left fortification, making forty guns in all aimed against it.
“General Sorbier is to be in readiness to advance on the word being given, with all the howitzers of the artillery of the Guards against either of the enemy's fortifications.
“During the cannonade Prince Poniatovsky is to advance to the village in the wood, and to turn the enemy's position.
“General Compans will cross the wood to gain possession of the first fortification.
“After the attack has begun on these lines, further commands will be given in accordance with the enemy's movements.
“The cannonade on the left flank will begin as soon as the cannons of the right wing are heard. The sharpshooters of Morand's division and of the viceroy's division will open a hot fire on seeing the beginning of the attack of the right wing.
“The viceroy will take possession of the village of Borodino, and cross by its three bridges, advancing to the same height with Morand's and Gérard's divisions, which under his leadership will advance to the redoubt and come into line with the other troops of the army.
“All this is to be done in good order (le tout se fera avec ordre et méthode), preserving as far as possible troops in reserve.
“The imperial camp, near Mozhaisk, September 6, 1812.”
These instructions—which strike one as exceedingly confused and obscure, if one ventures to throw off the superstitious awe for Napoleon's genius in treating of his disposition of his troops—may be condensed into four points—four commands. Not one of those instructions was or could be carried out.
In the first place the instruction is given: That the batteries placed on the spot selected by Napoleon, with the cannons of Pernetti and Fouché, which were to join them, in all one hundred and two cannons, were to open fire and shell the Russian earthworks and redoubts. This could not be done, since from the spots fixed on by Napoleon the shells did not carry so far as the Russian earthworks, and these one hundred and two cannons fired in the air till such time as the nearest officer in command ordered them to advance, in opposition to Napoleon's instructions.
The second instruction given is that Poniatovsky, advancing to the village in the wood, should turn the Russian left flank. This was not, and could not be done, as Poniatovsky, on advancing to the village in the wood, found Tutchkov there barring his way, and did not, and could not, turn the Russian position.
The third instruction is: General Compans will move into the wood to take possession of the first Russian fortification. Compans's division did not take the first fortification, but was beaten back, because, as it came out of the wood, it had to form under a fire of grapeshot, of which Napoleon knew nothing.
The fourth instruction is: That the viceroy will take possession of the village (Borodino), and cross by its three bridges, following to the same high ground as Morand's and Friant's divisions (nothing is said of whence and when they were to advance), which under his leadership will advance to the redoubt and form in a line with the other troops. As far as one can make out, not so much from this confused paragraph, as from the attempts made by the viceroy to carry out the orders given him, he was to advance through Borodino from the left to the redoubt, and the divisions of Morand and Friant were to advance simultaneously from the front. All this, like the other instructions, was impossible to carry out. After passing through Borodino the viceroy was beaten back at the Kolotcha, and could advance no further. The divisions of Morand and Friant did not take the redoubt, but were driven back, and at the end of the day the redoubt was captured by cavalry (in an action probably unforeseen by Napoleon; and not heard of by him).
And not one of the instructions given was, or could be, carried into effect. But in the disposition was the statement, that after the battle had begun, further instructions would be given in accordance with the enemy's movements; and so it might be supposed that all necessary instructions had been given by Napoleon during the battle. But this was not, and could not be, the case, because, during the whole battle Napoleon was so far from the scene of action that (as it turned out later) he knew nothing of the course of the battle, and not a single instruction given by him during the fight could possibly be executed.