Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Blood at Borodino

George Dunea
Chicago, Illinois, United States

Battle of Moscow, 7th September 1812, 1822
Louis Lejeune
Oil on canvas
2.10 x 2.64 m

The year 2012 marks the 200th anniversary of Borodino, one of the bloodiest battles in the history of mankind. It pitted against each other two roughly matched adversaries, the armies of emperor Napoleon and Czar Alexander I, each boasting about 130,000 men and 600 guns. Having marched all the way from the Russian border on the Niemen, Napoleon’s invading army, which had  consisted of some 600,000 men (the core of which consisted of his 270,000 French Grand Armée, the rest Germans, Poles, and Italians), had been reduced in strength by heat, dust, and rain, starvation and disease. On August 20, Czar Alexander, dissatisfied by the failure of his generals to stop the French, turned over the supreme command to Marshal Prince Kutuzov. In an attempt to save Moscow, Kutuzov halted the army’s retreat and stopped to fight Napoleon at the small village of Borodino on the river Kolocha, some 70 miles west of Moscow.

Napoleon had begun the invasion of Russia with great expectations. Confident of his military genius, he could not conceive of a battle in which he would not be victorious. On September 5, his troops crossed the Kolocha. In “a murderous affair”1 they took the Shevardino Redoubt on the Russian left, leaving 5,000 French and 6,000 Russians dead on the field and dangerously exposing the Russian army’s left flank to French attack.

There followed a day of quiet preparation. Napoleon spent the day riding three of his horses, Lutzelberg, Emir, and Courtois. He commented that “this poor army is sadly depleted, but what remains is good” and later in the day that “the chessmen are set up, the game will begin tomorrow.”1 Towards the evening he addressed his troops: “Soldiers,” he proclaimed, “this is the battle you have looked forward to so much! Now victory depends on you.”1 The soldiers responded by crying, “Long live the emperor!” Then Napoleon wrote out in great detail his orders for the disposition and movement of his troops. In his epic novel War and Peace, Tolstoy commented that such orders would have been impossible to obey, were never followed, and were often carried out to the very contrary of what had been intended.

Napoleon on the Borodino Heights, 1897
Vasiliy Vasilyevich Vereshagin
Oil on canvas

The main battle was fought on September 7, 1812. As the sun rose in the east, a still confident Napoleon remarked that it was the sun of Austerlitz, a reference to his great victory over the armies of three emperors in 1805. Rejecting his generals’ proposal to turn the Russians’ left flank, he ordered instead a frontal attack across the Kolocha. The battle began in the early hours of the morning. A terrific cannonade preceded French frontal attacks on the village of Borodino, fierce fighting on the Russian left flank, and murderous combat for the fortified redoubts erected by the Russians. The Russians counterattacked on the weakly protected French northern (left) front. During most of the day the battle was a continuous carnage, with attacks and counterattacks, cavalry and infantry charges, soldiers fighting in a smoke-covered melee, while above their heads the cannons discharged a continuous deadly fire. By sunset the battleground was a hideous sight of dead horses and overturned cannons, abandoned helmets and scattered human remains, both sides too exhausted to continue.

The roles of both Napoleon and Kutuzov have been much debated and often criticized, neither seemingly being close enough to the front to have commanded effectively. Some historians have ranked Kutuzov a master tactician; others have argued that from his position he could not see what was going on—leaving the battle to his generals, he retired early in the afternoon and relayed his orders several miles from the front. Napoleon was described as being unsure of the situation, sitting still most of the time, showing little emotion, listening to his generals but dismissing them without a word, then going back to survey the battlefield through his telescope. By late afternoon he received a request to send in his elite Imperial Guard to finish up the Russians, but he refused, saying he did not want it blown up. Eventually all shooting ceased; having abandoned the Redoubt he had fought for so dearly, Napoleon stood in command of the field while Kutuzov retreated, declaring victory to the czar.

The casualties at Borodino were enormous, caused mostly by the cannon, a technological innovation much improved since first used by Mehmed II in 1453 to batter down the walls of Constantinople. By the rough estimates of the time, the French lost 30,000 men, including 49 generals. Russians losses were heavier (about 50,000 men), but could be replaced more easily. The combined total casualties of almost 80,000 exceeded those of most other Napoleonic battles (e.g., Wagram 78,000; Jena 52,000; Waterloo 47,000) and those of the American Civil War (e.g., Antietam 26,000; Gettysburg 51,000).

Cannonballs tore into human flesh, producing horrible injuries. The Russians’ larger bullets also reportedly inflicted huge wounds on the French soldiers. Lying on the battlefield with the dead, the wounded suffered from shock, exposure, and dehydration—some begging to be killed to end their misery. Visiting the battleground that evening, Napoleon observed piles of dead and wounded bodies as they lay exposed to the cold wind and rain. Working hard to keep the horses from treading on the living and the dead, the able-bodied, per Napoleon’s orders, struggled to transport the wounded men to the camp, but many died on the way.

Medical care of the day was primitive, and the injured soldiers suffered greatly. Some set their own broken limbs using tree branches as splints. The hospital tent was a site of horror, blood and stench everywhere, naked bleeding human bodies groaning in pain and misery, doctors overworked and covered with blood and body fluids. One surgeon was described as holding his cigar between his thumb and little finger to avoid smearing it with his bloodstained hands. Wounds quickly became infected, the men almost invariably dying from sepsis. Reportedly the French chief surgeon Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey tirelessly carried out 200 amputations in one day. Because of the high risk of wound infection, immediate amputation carried a higher survival rate of 45–65 percent compared to certain death once infection set in.

Larrey had served in 1787 on an expedition to North America and became Inspector General of the Office of Health of the Army in 1805. First to use ambulances during battles, he was greatly admired by Napoleon and attended all of his campaigns until Waterloo, where he was wounded and taken prisoner. In his memoirs he quaintly noted that bald soldiers and those who not had worn fur caps died first, as did the more fair-haired and phlegmatic northern soldiers who lost more heat and became more readily apathetic than the darker emotionally labile southern Europeans. He also observed that soldiers hastened death by drinking snow and icy water to allay their hunger or thirst, as this produced a painful contraction of the throat and irritated the mucous membranes of the stomach. From his own experience he found that a little good wine or coffee eased the pangs of hunger and gave him indescribable pleasure.

Borodino was technically a French victory, but with their troops decimated, exhausted, and unable to destroy Kutuzov’s army, there was little benefit to their success. Napoleon later wrote in his memoirs that of all the 50 battles he had fought, this was the most terrible. For his Grande Armée it was the beginning of the end—merely a prelude to a futile occupation of Moscow that climaxed in a disastrous retreat during a brutal winter: only 22,000 souls of the initial host survived to cross the border into Poland.

In War and Peace, Tolstoy gives few accolades to the military commanders of the day, disagreeing with their leadership and strategy, their choice of the battleground, their comprehension of what was going on at any one time, and their tendency to give orders that were impossible to implement. Unimpressed with the protagonists’ abilities, Tolstoy takes a position reminiscent of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”—involuntary tools of history or pawns of providence, these great men simply believed they were acting out of their own free will. Even worse, they would occasionally act against their own best interests.

Mikhail Kutuzov at the Battle of Borodino, 1952
Anatoly Pavlovich Shepelyuk
Oil on canvas
200 x 240 cm

Indeed it should have not required much foresight on Napoleon’s part to realize that plunging deep into the steppes of Russia was a losing proposition that would doom his army to destruction. Yet Tolstoy argues that even the Russians acted against their best interests in trying to stop the advance of a vastly superior army, arguing that the only way to defeat Napoleon’s army was to draw it deep into Russian territory where it would succumb to cold and starvation. Yet he gives some credit to Michael Kutuzov, the wise half-blind old general who had seen it all. Scorning intellect and learning, he relied on his own long experience, which taught him to appreciate the need for patience. Other historians have commented that his only brilliant decision was to fall back and abandon Moscow: the army still too weak to stop Napoleon, Moscow was the sponge that would suck in his army and destroy it.

Much has been made of Napoleon’s state of health at Borodino. Tolstoy describes him on the eve of the battle, his valet rubbing him down with a bottle of eau-de-cologne, plump body with a hairy chest, face puffy and yellow. By 1812 he was reported to have developed a paunch. His eyes less piercing, his speech slower; he was more pensive and took longer to make decisions. During the campaign he was unwell, with fever, cough, swelling of his feet and legs, and urine coming out painfully in drops. At Borodino, afflicted by cough and throat problems, he complained that he could not smell or taste anything and protested that the lozenges Dr. Corvisart had given him were doing him no good. His urinary problems seem to have continued during the entire Russian campaign.

Nicolas Corvisart (1755–1821), an important figure in the history of French medicine, was Napoleon’s primary physician until the emperor’s exile to St. Helena. Plain spoken and insistent that his instructions be followed to the letter, he would receive weekly visits from Napoleon when he was in Paris. Napoleon was very fond of him, fascinated by his calm demeanor and his confidence in his diagnoses, commenting,“I do not believe in medicine, but I believe in Corvisart.”2 He was also the personal physician of the empress Joséphine, whose constant requests for medication forced him to prescribe placebos. Described by Napoleon as an honest and capable man, he died in 1821, several months after his famous patient.

Historians have speculated that Napoleon’s indisposition at Borodino may have clouded his judgment, impairing his ability to lead his troops—as a curious and uncharacteristic lassitude “seemed to clog the workings of the imperial brain.”3 But Tolstoy, not surprisingly unsympathetic, argued that it did not matter whether Napoleon was unwell or not; he was merely playing the role of a doctor who prolonged the patient’s illness and hindered the course of nature with his ill-chosen treatments. Were it otherwise, he suggested, the Russians should have credited their success to Napoleon’s valet who made him catch cold by forgetting to give him his waterproof boots. But Tolstoy had no faith in physicians anyway, writing in a different context how a certain person “had what the doctors termed bilious fever. But in spite of the fact that they treated him, bled him, and made him swallow drugs—he recovered.”4


  1. Napoleon his army and enemies, s.v. “Battle of Borodino, 1812,” accessed November 21, 2011, http://napoleonistyka.atspace.com/Borodino_battle.htm.
  2. Frank Gonzalez-Crussi, A short history of medicine (New York: Random House, 2007), 145.
  3. Ronald Frederick Delderfield, The retreat from Moscow (New York: Athenium, 1967), 68.
  4. Leo Tolstoy, War and peace (New York: Penguin, 1982), 1306.

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, FACP, FRCP, FASN is the president and CEO of the Hektoen Institute of Medicine. He is also a professor of medicine at University of Illinois at Chicago, the medical director of Chicago Dialysis Center, and founding chairman emeritus, Division of Nephrology, Stroger Hospital of Cook County.

Highlighted in Frontispiece  Volume 4, Issue 1 – Winter 2012

Winter 2012



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