At the center of the Russian line at Borodino stood The Great Redoubt, also known as Raevsky’s Redoubt. Throughout the morning and early afternoon of the 7th, it was the scene of fierce fighting. Marshals Murat and Ney asked Napoleon repeatedly for reinforcements. Unwilling to risk his reserves, the Old and Young Guard, Napoleon refused and Murat turned to one of his own units that had not yet been committed, the cavalry of General Louis-Pierre Montbrun. The General, however, had been killed. Napoleon dispatched one of his aides-de-camp, General Auguste de Caulaincourt, to take command of Montbrun’s heavy cuirassiers.
Auguste’s older brother, Armand de Caulaincourt, was also on Napoleon’s staff as Master of the Horse. Armand had also served as French ambassador to Russia.
Older brother Armand recorded, “My brother seized my hand, saying, ‘Things have become so hot that I don’t suppose I’ll see you again. We’ll win, or I’ll get myself killed.’ ” Arriving to take command of Montbrun’s troops, he finds the ADC’s of the fallen General weeping. According to Ségur, Auguste said, “Follow me! Don’t weep, but come and take your revenge!”
The plan was for Auguste to lead the cuirassiers past the redoubt and then turn and attack it from the rear. Baron Agathon Fain, Napoleon’s secretary, watched from headquarters at the Shevardino redoubt. The cuirassiers charged through the Russian lines, then wheeled to the left “disappearing in a cloud of dust and smoke.” Supporting infantry attacked, “Assailed on every side, the volcano [redoubt] thunders, flashes and sends forth torrents of fire that are redoubled and then suddenly extinguished.” The Great Redoubt is in French hands.
Auguste de Caulaincourt, then turned his horse to lead the attack against the massing Russian reserves preparing for a counter-attack and was struck dead by a musket ball through the heart. Lt. Heinrich von Brandt described the aftermath, “Men and horses, alive, mutilated, dead but lying by sixes and eights heaped on top of each other covered the approaches all round, filled the ditch and the work’s interior. While we were advancing they were carrying away General Caulaincourt. He passed in front of us, carried by several cuirassiers on a white cuirassier mantle covered with great bloodstains.”
Ségur describes the moment when Armand hears the news of his brother’s death, “A messenger raced to the Emperor to announce both victory and the loss. The grand equerry, brother of the slain general, was listening. At first he was shocked, but immediately braced himself against the cruel loss; and had it not been for the tears that ran silently down his cheeks, one would have thought him unmoved. The Emperor said to him, ‘You have heard: do you wish to withdraw?’ accompanying his words by an exclamation of grief. But at that time we were advancing against the enemy. The equerry neither answered nor moved, but simply touched his hat, as a sign of thanks and refusal.”
Armand later wrote Napoleon said, “He has died as a brave man should, and that is, in deciding the battle. France loses one of her best officers.”
1812: Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, by Paul Britten Austin, p. 304
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, p. 75
Napoleon in Russia: The 1812 Campaign, by Alan Palmer, p. 126