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The Prussian military theoretician was combat tested in the Napoleonic Wars.

Carl von Clausewitz’s major book, On War, published in 1832, remains the indispensable work on military theory and strategy, and he is respected worldwide as a theoretician. Although famous as a man of letters and ideas, he was also a soldier, involved in three dozen battles during the Napoleonic wars.

Historian Donald Stoker’s deeply researched new biography of Clausewitz, from which this excerpt is drawn, traces the vital interplay between Clausewitz’s experiences as an army officer and the development of his strategic ideas on war. A single example: After Napoleon forced Prussia to join France in its war against Russia, hundreds of Prussian officers opposed to the emperor’s hegemony resigned from the Prussian army to fight on the side of the Russians. Clausewitz joined Tsar Alexander’s army as a lieutenant colonel and soon bore arms against the French, who invaded Russia on June 24, 1812. Clausewitz was posted as chief of staff of the III Cavalry Corps under General Count Peter Pahlen. He was decorated for bravery under fire during the fighting retreat from Vitebsk in July. Then came the Battle of Borodino.

The battlefield at Borodino conferred some advantages on the Russians. Several streams that twisted to the Moscow River cut the hilly terrain. This river and the Kolocha marked the battlefield’s north, or right flank, and the villages of the Old Smolensk Road marked the southern, or left flank. The ground here was hilly, but not as much as the rest of the nearby earth. The Russians had a strong position in the center, one studded with high ground and cut by gullies and steep-banked creeks, as well as the village of Borodino itself. The Russians stiffened the position by building field fortifications. The Maslovo Flèches helped anchor their right. Rayevsky’s Redoubt (or the Grand Redoubt)dominated the center; the Bagration Flèches and Shevardino Redoubt supported the Russian left (the Russians were forced out of this position before the main battle on September 5,after bitter fighting). The right flank of the Russian position,as Clausewitz observed, was certainly the strongest, made so by the terrain. This virtually dictated a French attack on the Russian left.

The Russian army stretched in a line along the Kolocha River,one Clausewitz later criticized because it assisted the French attacks on the weak Russian left, did not give the Russians a direct line of retreat, and ignored a second road that ran to the rear of their position. The placement of the Russian army in a type of arc that made the left flank weak—and drew the enemy there—also essentially placed the Russian right flank forces out of the fight. In Clausewitz’s opinion, “it would have been better for the Russians to have extended the right wing along the Kolocha to the neighborhood of Gorky, and the rest of the terrain running to the Moskva River might have been occupied with a few units, or merely observed.” He approved of the short frontage, which produced a dense, layered defense that he believed contributed to the staunchness of the Russian resistance. But Clausewitz preferred even greater depth,insisting that it would have been better to have the reserves as well as the cavalry even farther back, beyond the enemy’s view, 3,000 to 5,000 paces, because major battles develop slowly and further depth offers the opportunity to throw in the reserves at the decisive moment. He thought the Russian cavalry and reserves too close to the rear of the infantry, and thus exposed unnecessarily to enemy fire without utilizing their combat power.

Napoleon planned to open his attack with a heavy cannonade (he had 587 guns, almost twice his number at Waterloo). A heavy frontal assault would then strike the Russian center,supported by diversions on each flank. In the north, the troops of his stepson, Eugène de Beauharnais, were to capture the village of Borodino and then slide rightward, crossing the Kolocha and taking the Rayevsky Redoubt. This would also pin Russian forces so they couldn’t be used elsewhere. Meanwhile,General Józef Poniatowski’s men were to march around the Russian flank on the Old Smolensk Road and threaten their left. Napoleon’s primary attack would be made in the center with Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout’s forces. Now, approximately 125,000 Russians awaited the attack of roughly 130,000French troops. Both sides banked on brute force and attrition.

Not long after 6 a.m. on September 7, 1812, the French artillery commenced the bombardment. The French drums beat, and Napoleon’s troops moved to attack. Eugène’s troops quickly took Borodino and pushed on, while Poniatowski swung around the Russian left, driving the Russians out of the village of Utitsa. Davout’s men dove into the Russian center,seizing the Bagration Flèches. The Russians counterattacked at approximately 7 a.m., throwing back Eugène’s forces into Borodino, stopping Poniatowski cold, and pushing Davout from the hard-won flèches. An intense fight for Davout’s position ensued as both sides poured troops into the cauldron. By 8:30Napoleon had been forced to commit all of his reserves except the Imperial Guard to this flank. Eugène pushed forward,launching a failed assault on the Rayevsky Redoubt. Napoleon massed forces in the center and at around 10 a.m. tried again.Both sides threw enormous amounts of artillery fire into the morass. Some of the Russians gave way, but re-formed with aravine to their front. A series of French cavalry charges failed to dislodge them. Napoleon would not commit his guard—his last reserve—despite the pleas of his marshals. Russian general Mikhail Kutusov reinforced his weakened center and the attrition went on. Napoleon began planning a new assault.

It is at this point that Clausewitz’s involvement in the battle intensifies. After General Pahlen fell ill, Clausewitz had found himself assigned as the senior quartermaster general to Lieutenant General Fedor Uvarov’s I Reserve Cavalry Corps, which anchored the Russian right (or northernmost point). When General Matvei Platov, the Cossack commander on this flank, forded the Kolocha, he was stunned to find no French troops where he had expected many. He watched as Eugène weakened this force to support his effort around Borodino and hit upon the idea that launching a flank attack could win the Russians much. He sent word to his superiors.

At the time (between 8 and 9 a.m.), Clausewitz was with the men of Uvarov’s staff in Gorky village behind the Russian lines among Kutusov and his retinue. Colonel Toll, Kutusov’s assistant quartermaster, arrived with word that everything was secure on the Russian right when a report came in that the Russians had captured Eugène during the fighting for the Rayevsky Redoubt. The report was later proven false, but initially after this news, Clausewitz said, “enthusiasm rose up like blazing straw.” At this moment, Toll relayed Platov’s idea to Kutusov and suggested the 2,500 men of I Cavalry Corps as the support. Kutusov, Clausewitz said, “who had been listening to the reports and discussions like someone who did not have his head screwed on straight,” thought such a diversion might even win the battle, and agreed.

In his history of the 1812 campaign Clausewitz is critical of this attack. He believed such an action should be launched late in the day and also thought that using such a small force early in a battle against an enemy with abundant numbers had little hope of dramatic success. It also should have had infantry support because the Russians could certainly expect to meet enemy infantry as well as cavalry, and cavalry alone could not expect to triumph over two of the other service arms fighting in unison.

Kutuzov dispatched half of Platov’s Cossacks (at most about2,700 men) and the I Cavalry Corps commanded by Uvarov (Clausewitz with them), which had roughly 2,440 men and a dozen guns. Uvarov splashed across the Kolocha River on the north flank of both armies around Maloye Selo, the artillery in the rear. They wove through the marshy but steep-banked rivulets feeding the Kolocha and shifted left toward Borodino.Sometime between 11 and 12 o’clock they reached the Voina,a stream flowing past Borodino and into the Kolocha. The Voina hosted a dam, which created a small lake a bit south of Bezzubovo, a dot of a village almost due north of Borodino that marked the north of the French line. A bridge near the dam crossed the Voina, and a small mill stood nearby. As Uvarov’smen moved, Platov’s forces swept to the north of Bezzubovo and deeper behind the French lines.

When the Russian cavalry appeared, the French dispatched word to their corps commander, Eugène. The flank attackworried him enough that he called off his new attack on the Rayevsky Redoubt, dispatched an update to Napoleon, and took a horse to investigate. He reached the front in time tobe swept up in Uvarov’s attack and forced to seek safety in a French infantry square.

Clausewitz described the unfolding scene:

On the near side of the brook stood two regiments of French cavalry and a body of Italian infantry, perhaps a regiment or a reinforced battalion.The cavalry at once withdrew over the dam that crossed the brook about two thousand paces above Borodino, but the infantry [four regiments] was bold enough to remain and formed a square with its back to the brook.General Uvarov ordered his men to attack. In vain the author [Clausewitz]suggested that the square first be placed under fire by the light artillery;the Russian officers feared it would then retreat and they would not get any prisoners. The hussars of the Guard were therefore called forward and ordered to charge. They made three ineffectual attacks; the [French and Croatians] maintained discipline and their tight formation and returned a steady fire. As is usual in such cases, the hussars turned back some 30 paces from the square and drew out of range. General Uvarov discontinued these not very brilliant attempts, ordered the artillery to open fire, and at the first volley the enemy withdrew across the brook.The whole business came to an end.

The Russian horsemen suffered heavily attacking the squares,and the French moved in more troops to oppose them. Eugènealso called for cavalry reinforcements, which Major General Emmanuel de Grouchy dispatched. The Russian cavalry tried to fight its way over the dam, but French canister and musketfire made that impossible. The Russian guns drove off the French battery, but the Russians simply lacked the strength to break through. Uvarov and Clausewitz soon realized that the mass of enemy troops facing them meant they could not attack Borodino itself, and they also grew increasingly aware that “the whole weight of the giant [Napoleon’s army] was beginning to press upon them.” Russian general staff officers,including Toll, began appearing among Uvarov’s command to see what this move could accomplish. Clausewitz wrote that “under these circumstances the author thanked God for having been reduced to a zero. He was not even able to take part in the exchanges in Russian between General Uvarov and the various officers that were sent to him. From the outset he had been convinced that this diversion would fail, and now saw that if anything at all was to be salvaged it could be done only by a young fire eater who had his reputation to make, not by General Uvarov.” Others felt similarly. Russian observers later criticized Uvarov’s advance as too slow, branding him a poor leader who missed a fine opportunity to damage the enemy.

It became apparent to Uvarov, Clausewitz, and others that the French had too many reserves for much to come out of the situation. Heavy fire from across the stream on the French left eventually interrupted several hours of wrangling back and forth about what to do. Clausewitz and his comrades discovered that Platov’s Cossacks were hitting the French.“Soon we could see these troops [the Cossacks]—remarkable in that sometimes they are exceptionally brave and at other times exceptional cowards—careening about between enemy infantry and stands of trees without making a serious charge,”Clausewitz wrote. “The enemy units opposite us feared that the Cossacks might force them into the swamp and marched off to one side. At this, the Cossacks of the Guards, who were attached to Uvarov’s corps, could restrain themselves no longer.They streamed over the dam like a rocket with a long tail,and like lightning were among their brethren in the woods on the other side.”

Clausewitz and Uvarov held their position. Uvarov kept up the pressure on the left flank, feigning attacks to keep the enemy from pulling forces from here to use in the center. They watched parts of the battle unfold until they received an order from Kutusov at 3 o’clock to return to their starting position. At between 4 and 5 they gathered behind Gorky. Uvarov’s and Platov’s superiors were not pleased—especially Kutusov. They thought spectacular results could have arisen from this attack if its leaders had properly executed it. Platov, who had a reputation for spending too much time with a bottle, was accused by several participants of being drunk when the attack was made.

Uvarov’s and Platov’s attack had an effect that Clausewitz didn’t understand at the time (or even later). Napoleon was about to send the Young Guard to bolster his units fighting around Semeyonovskoe and the Rayevsky Redoubt, but the heavy firing from across the Voina (where the attack was going in) convinced him to wait. Worried about the potential threat to his baggage and communications, the emperor personally ordered forces to support Eugène and rode to the Kolocha River to examine his left. It was as much as two hours before he returned to his headquarters. The affair purchased the Russians two or three hours to re-form and strengthen their center, which had suffered heavy French blows.

As the bloody day drew to a close, “a fog soon covered the battlefield,” a Russian officer wrote, “and complete stillness descended. Only now we were able to calmly discuss the events of this memorable day. None of us considered the battle lost.” Indeed, Kutusov intended to fight a second day, but as the casualty reports came in he reconsidered. The Russians had suffered heavy losses, more than the French, though they could not have known this at the time, and the encroaching French threatened their line of retreat. With nothing to be gained, and his forces still in solid order—wisely, Clausewitz observed later—Kutusov ordered a retreat, which began after midnight.

That night a wind kicked up, and a cold rain began to fall on the charnel house that was Borodino. Between them the armies had suffered approx- imately 65,000 casualties, 108 for every minute of battle. Indeed, this was the bloodiest one-day fight of the Napoleonic era, and the daily loss rate eclipsed that of Verdun and Stalingrad. Tens of thousands of dead and wounded lay on Borodino’s hills, and thousands more would die in improvised field hospitals over the next few days, often from hunger and thirst. The French suffered fewer casualties,but the slight difference mattered little.

Napoleon has often been criticized, at the time and since,for not committing his last reserves at Borodino and thus destroying the Russian army, and for not ordering a pursuit.Clausewitz, for his part, defended the emperor on both counts.Doing the first, he says, could have weakened Napoleon’s army to the point where he could not have reached Moscow, which Napoleon believed necessary for forcing a peace (though hewould be proved wrong about this). On the latter criticism,Clausewitz points out that when the battle had been decided,at 4 p.m., the Russians were strongly upon the field, had notyet decided to leave, and would have inflicted heavy casualties on the French.

Kutusov announced their victory and then told Tsar Alexander that their casualties had been too heavy to hold a position as large as the one at Borodino. This necessitated their withdrawal to Mozhaisk, “where he hoped to receive reinforcements and fight another action.” He also told Alexander that winning battles was not his objective; he sought the destruction of the French army. Alexander recognized that Kutusov’s decision to withdraw had been the right one, but he also knew that announcing the battle as a victory and not mentioning the withdrawal was smart politics. He promoted Kutusov to field marshal and gave rewards and decorations to many others.Clausewitz later received a golden saber inscribed with “For Bravery” for his service as Uvarov’s quartermaster general at Borodino and other places.

The Russians, in an orderly manner, spent the next seven days withdrawing the 80 miles from Borodino to Moscow. In the retreat, Platov initially commanded the rearguard, which included Uvarov’s cavalry, with Clausewitz still serving as quartermaster. The Russian army re-formed behind Mozhaisk,about 10 miles to the east, on September 8. Marshal Joachim Murat’s cavalry led the French pursuit. They reached the Russians that afternoon, and made some light attacks, but failed to break into the city. Reinforced, the French hit harder the next morning and Platov abandoned the town. Upset that Platov had allowed the French to so easily take Mozhaisk—which housed so many Russian wounded—Kutuzov replaced him with Mikhail Miloradovitch. The Russians continued their retreat on the 9th, after which, Clausewitz noted later, a pattern emerged on their march to Moscow.

The French cavalry—Murat’s force—followed lightly, the sides usually skirmished faintly in the afternoon, but with little result beyond a continued Russian withdrawal, whereupon both sides then encamped. “Only one day proved an exception,” Clausewitz wrote of this rearguard campaign, and it occurred when they were at the village of Krymskoye about50 miles west of Moscow:

On September 10 Miloradovitch had moved to within two miles of the main body of the army when, an hour before sundown, the French appeared with infantry and artillery as well as cavalry. Miloradovitch could not take evasive action without uncovering the main camp, and because the ground seemed not unfavorable he decided to risk battle.The Russian infantry, drawn up among trees on a low ridge, defended itself vigorously, and after it was forced to withdraw it continued to fight for another hour in a very unfavorable position at the foot of the ridge.Here too the French attacks, though initiated with great energy, had a feeble quality about them. The engagement lasted until 11 o’clock, and Miloradovitch retained a position close behind the battlefield.

Clausewitz described this to his wife, Marie, as “a fierce rearguard action which lasted until late in the night,” during which his horse was wounded.

In the rearguard, Clausewitz and his comrades endured almost daily combat, but the rigors of retreat itself proved nearly as threatening. The rearguard, Clausewitz said, “usually found all wells dry and the smaller streams fouled and had to rely on whatever rivers and small lakes might be in the area.”It was even worse for the French, of course, who came behind even them. “The author still vividly recalls the oppressive lack of water during this campaign,” Clausewitz wrote later. “Never had he suffered such thirst; the filthiest puddles were emptied to quench the fever, and washing was often out of the question for a week. How this affected the cavalry can be imagined,and as we have said, the French must have suffered doubly. It is well known in what wretched condition the French cavalry reached Moscow.” During the entire retreat (14 weeks by the time it was over, Clausewitz told his Prussian colleague Augustvon Gneisenau), he never slept in a town or village.

Though they struggled to find water—a problem exacerbated by the summer being hotter and dryer than normal—the Russian supply system kept them fed. “It is true that bread was usually lacking and that one had to content oneself with very bad biscuits, which however were not unhealthy and proved as nourishing as bread would have been. Porridge, meat, and spirits were plentiful. There was seldom grain for the horses,but Russian horses are used to feeding on hay,” Clausewitz wrote to Marie.

Both armies relied to at least some extent on foraging to feed both animals and men (the French more so than the Russians, whose line of retreat housed many supply depots). When the rearguard entered a village, they consumed any food and forage and then burned or tore down the buildings.“What had at first been thoughtlessness and carelessness gradually became policy,” Clausewitz recalled, “which was often extended to small and large towns as well.” In his three months in the rearguard he saw almost nothing but scenes of fire. They destroyed the bridges and cut the numbers from the mileposts. “These difficulties impeded the French advance and burdened and wasted the energies of man and beast.”

After a council of war on September 13, Kutusov took the side of the generals urging retreat and abandoning Moscow to the French. Clausewitz thought Borodino had decided Moscow’s fate and wrote Gneisenau shortly after the battle that “I find that the evacuation of Moscow is neither a crime nor an error.” He believed Kutusov had to choose between saving Moscow or the army and made the right choice, as a second battle would have likely meant a total Russian defeat. Kutusov preserved the Russian army. Because he did, the war went on.


Donald Stoker is professor of strategy and policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Excerpt reprinted from Clausewitz: His Life and Work, by Donald Stoker, with permission from Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2014 by Donald Stoker.

Originally published in the April 2015 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.