Daily Archives: September 7, 2012

The Death of Caulaincourt

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.

Death of Calaincourt
by L Rousselot

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.

Caulaincourt Dies Storming
the Great Redoubt
Caulaincourt is on the white horse
to the right of center

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

Murat Takes Cover

Often in battle, there are differing views on what actually happened.  Faber du Faur and Philippe-Paul de Ségur both described an incident involving Marshal Murat.  However, their descriptions differed.

On the Field of Borodino,
Near Semenovskii, 7 September
by Faber du Faur

First Faber du Faur who also painted the scene.  “A long and bloody struggle was waged on the heights above the ruins of Semenovskii, for possession of the redoubts. Finally, towards noon, we secured the position after a combat of mixed success in which the redoubts were stormed, lost and stormed again.  The redoubt on the right had fallen to the 25the Division as the battle raged at its fiercest.  The enemy continually fed fresh troops into the fray and managed to turn back Murat’s repeated charges.  It was during one such reverse that Murat, pursued by enemy cuirassiers, sought shelter, so as not to fall into the hands of the enemy, in the redoubt taken by the 25th Division.  Here, contrary to what Segur has written, he came upon steady troops fresh from having taken possession of the position after a bloody struggle and who were prepared to defend the place to the last.  These were the troops who would earn for their marshal the title ‘Prince of the Moskova’ [Ney] and win their general [Jean-Gabriel Marchand] the title ‘Count of the Empire.’ ”

“A vigorous fire from our light infantry, and from line infantry in their support, soon repulsed the enemy’s cavalry and assured the safety of the King.  He, Murat, threw himself upon the retreating foe with the cavalry of [General Jean-Pierre-Joseph] Bruyère and [General Étienne Marie Antoine Champion] Nansouty and, after a number of attacks, forced them back off the heights.”

So what did Ségur write?  “The enemy’s cavalry, vigorously pressing their success, surrounded Murat, who had forgotten his own safety in an attempt to rally his men.  Hands were already reaching out to seize him when he escaped by leaping into the redoubt, where he found only a few distracted soldiers, completely out of control and racing wildly around the parapet.  The only thing that prevented them from running away was the lack of an exit.”

“The presence of the King [Murat] and his shouts restored the courage of some of the men.  He seized a weapon himself, and fighting with one hand, held his plumed hat up with the other and waved it as a sign to his men who rallied to the authority of his example.  Meanwhile Ney had re-formed his divisions, stopped the Russian cuirassiers with his fire and spread disorder in their ranks.  They fell back: Murat was finally rescued, and the knoll retaken.”

Nansouty’s Cuirassiers
Attacking Squares to the left
of Semyanovskaya
by Franz Ruobaud
Part of the Borodino Panorama

“No sooner had the King got himself out of this danger than he rushed into another.  He charged the enemy with the cavalry of Bruyères and Nansouty, and by a series of stubbornly repeated attacks succeeded in breaking their line and pushing them back toward the centre, concluding within an hour the defeat of the entire left flank.”

You can see the complete Borodino Panorama by following this link.

Nansouty was wounded in the knee at Borodino.


With Napoleon in Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Major Faber du Faur, 1812, Edited by Jonathan North

Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur

Live in Dishonor or die with Honor?

Captain Jean Bréaut des Marlots, wrote of his experience during the battle with a cuirassier regiment.

Battle of the Village of Borodino
by P Gess

“On every side one saw nothing but the dying and the dead.  Twice during the battle I went to look at the faces of the cuirassiers in my squadron to see which of the men were brave.  I was pleased and told them so on the spot.  When I rode over to congratulate one young officer (Monsieur de Gramont) on his good bearing, I witnessed some terrible things.  He told me that he had nothing to complain of and that all he wanted was a glass of water.  He had barely finished speaking when a cannon-ball cut him in two.  I turned to another officer and said how sorry I was about poor de Gramont.  Before he could reply, his horse was struck dead by a cannon-ball.  And a hundred other incidents of this kind.  I gave my horse to a cuirassier to hold for half a minute, and the man was killed.  I was covered with earth thrown up by shells, yet I escaped without the slightest scratch.  This is what gave me the coolness under fire which is so essential.  I said to myself: ‘It is a lottery whether you survive or not.  One has to die sometime.  Would you rather live in dishonor or die with honor?’  I had no difficulty in making my choice.  When one is brandishing one’s sword, when one is in action, the fire which tingles in one’s veins wipes out all thought.  Battle is often a game of prisoner’s base.  But to see death as almost a certainty, or rather wait for it, is often more than the human frame can stand, and I believe that philosophy alone has the power to set us above these troubles by revealing to us the nothingness of our being.”


1812: Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, Antony Brett-James, p. 129

A Day of Agony in the Saddle

Lieutenant Louis Planat de la Faye was an ADC to General Lariboisière who was in command of the French artillery.  He describes his experience during the battle including a very personal problem and the fierce conditions at the Great Redoubt.

Bataille de la Moscova
by Louis Francois Baron Lejeune

“At Dorogobuzh I had again been smitten with the diarrhea which had afflicted me so badly at Smolensk, and in the course of this day I went through the worst sort of agony one can imagine, because I did not want either to quit my post or dismount.  I dare not describe just how I managed to dispose of what was tormenting me, but in the process I lost two handkerchiefs which I threw as discreetly as I could into the trench of the fortifications we passed.  This was a serious loss in a country devoid of washerwomen, at least for us.”

Cannon fired from the Great Redoubt

“…The struggle which developed [Russian attempts to recapture the Great Redoubt] was one of the most murderous I have ever seen.  Leipzig [October 1813] is the only battle I can compare it to.  The cannon-balls and shells rained down like haill, and the smoke was so thick that only at rare intervals could one make out the enemy masses.  The Westphalian corps [the 8th, under Junot] was massed in close columns behind the redoubt, and now and then was a target for shells which sent shakos and bayonets flying.  Each time one of these shots landed, the poor soldiers fell flat on their faces.  Not all of them stood up again.”


1812: Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, by Antony Brett-James, p. 128

The Death of General Lariboisière’s Son

General Jean-Ambroise Baston Lariboisière was in command of all of the artillery of the Grande Armée on the campaign.  His two sons, Honoré and Ferdinand were both with the army in Russia.  Honoré was one of his Aides-de-Camp while Ferdinand served as a lieutenant in the 1st company of the 1st squadron in the 1st Carabiniers-à-Cheval regiment.

General Lariboisiere and his son
By Antoine-Jean Gros
Musée de l’Armée

On the morning of the Battle of Borodino, Ferdinand’s unit rode past where General Lariboisière was positioned.  Father and son had a few moments to spend together, a scene that was captured in Antoine-Jean Gros‘ painting.

From the website Napoleon.org: “Although the painting sits squarely in a military context – Gros chooses to depict the moment as the young man passes by his father’s command post, just before charging off into the Battle of the Borodino, on 7 September, 1812 – this is just a pretext for what is in actual fact a very private moment of familial attachment. The worry on the two subjects’ faces is clear to see. The way in which the father clasps his son’s hand tight to his body is deeply moving, without ever becoming overly dramatic or mawkishly sentimental. Seated on a canon support, his medals pinned to his division general uniform, Lariboisière ceases in this moment to be the artillery officer thinking of the battle ahead. The plans of attack hang limply from his right hand. He is simply a father, with his son by his side, considering the unhappy fate that lies in store for them. Standing out from the background behind them and the clear sky above, Ferdinand, looking particularly dashing in his uniform, appears less fatalistic. But the left-hand side of the painting betrays the drama that is about to unfold: a dark, foreboding sky hangs over and the young man’s white steed awaits him, clasped by a carabineer officer. The terror in the horse’s eyes mirror the horror of the combat taking place all around them. ”

Charge of the Carabiniers
by Marck Churms

Ferdinand rode into battle where he was mortally wounded.  He lingered for five days.  Lt. Nicolas Louis Planat, an ADC of the general and friend of the general’s other son, Honoré, wrote, “Although I’d known him but slightly, I’d taken a great liking to him.  There was something gay, chivalrous and generous about him, which pleased everybody.  A charming young man, as frank and loyal as could be.  Truly born to the military estate, he’d just come from the pages.  I believe he was hardly eighteen years old.”

The headquarters staff prepared to leave Borodino on September 12.  General Lariboisière delayed leaving for a few hours to spend more time with his dying son.  Finally he had to leave and asked Planat to stay, “… until his last moment.  About 4 pm the poor young fellow, who’d been groaning from his wound ever since morning, began to rattle and suffer convulsive spasms that heralded his end.  Ferdinand then opened his eyes a moment, put one arm around my neck and, a moment afterwards, died.”

Planat informed the father,  “The general squeezed my hand and a few moments later left to rejoin the Emperor.”  Planat was entrusted with the funeral arrangements and, later that night, received a note from Honoré instructing him to preserve his brother’s heart.

“After allowing twenty-four hours to pass, Gudolle opened up the corpse and, in my presence, extracted the heart, for me a very terrible and dolorous spectacle. This heart was placed in a little beaker of spirits of wine…”

The body was placed in a coffin, “… nailed together by the workmen of the Engineer Corps.  In it I enclosed a scroll of strong paper, on which I’d written these words: ‘The body of Ferdinand Gaston de Lariboisière, lieutenant of Carabiniers, killed at the Battle of the Moscowa, Sept. 1812.  His father recommends his remains to the public piety.’  The funeral took place at nightfall, without any religious ceremony, we not having a priest with us.  A detachment of 25 gunners commanded by a lieutenant escorted the coffin.  To secure it from any profanation we’d dug a ditch in the old town wall, of Tartar construction, which was in ruins.  Enormous stone blocks had been displaced and were afterwards put back again on top of the coffin, with such are it was impossible to see what had been done.  Yet if I were to visit Mojaisk I could still point to the spot where Ferdinand is buried.”

Planat sent a lock of Ferdinand’s hair to his brother along with his heart and belongings.

General Lariboisière himself did not have much longer to live.  Although he survived the retreat, he died in Königsberg on December 21, 1812.  He is buried in the church of Les Invalides.  The general’s heart and that of his son are kept in the chapel at the Château de Monthorin in Louvigné-du-Désert (Brittany).

Sources: 1812: Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, by Paul Britten Austin, p. 325


The Battle of Borodino

Antony Brett-James has an account by General Jean Rapp, aide-de-camp to the Emperor, who was on duty the night before the battle and slept in Napoleon’s tent: “The place where he rested was usually separated by a canvas partition from the room reserved for the duty aide-de-camp.  The Emperor slept very little.  I woke him several times to give him reports from the outposts which all proved that the Russians were expecting an attack.  At three o’clock in the morning he summoned the valet de chambre and had some punch brought in.  I had the honour of drinking some with him.  He asked if I had slept well.  I replied that the nights were already cool and that I had frequently been woken.”

Napoleon at Borodino

“He said to me: ‘Today we shall have to deal with this celebrated Kutuzov.  No doubt you remember that it was he who commanded at Braunau during the Austerlitz campaign.  He stayed in that place for three weeks without leaving his room once.  He did not even mount his horse to go and inspect the fortifications.  General Bennigsen, although as old, is a much more energetic fellow.  I cannot understand why Alexander did not send this Hanoverian to replace Barclay.’  He took a glass of punch, read several reports, and then added:

‘Well, Rapp!  Do you think that we shall have a successful day?’

‘There is no doubt about it, Sire.  We have used up all our resources, and have simply got to win.’  Napoleon went on reading and then said: ‘Fortune is a shameless courtesan.  I have often said it, and I am beginning to experience it.’ …

Napoleon Writes the Dispositions for Borodino
Commemorative 1912 Russian Candy Box Card

“Napoleon sent for Prince Berthier, and worked until half past five.  Then we mounted.  The trumpets sounded, the drums beat, and as soon as the troops spotted us, there were acclamations all the way.  ‘It is the Austerlitz enthusiasm again.’ ”

Who fired first?  Alexander Mikaberidze in The Battle of Borodino writes that it is generally agreed that the French fired first.  But some Russian accounts disagree.  D. Danilov of the 2nd Artillery Brigade claimed one of his guns fired first and the French replied.  He wrote “At dawn, the first Russian cannon shot was fired by our battery and this round was made by me personally… Everything fell silent but several minutes hardly passed when a long line of French guns, deployed in front of Shevardino, erupted in response.”

Levin August, count von Bennigsen, one of the Russian generals, believed Raevsky’s battery fired the first shot.  Kutuzov’s adjutant, Mikhailovsky-

Kutuzov at Borodino

Danilevsky noted “the first cannon-ball, fired by the enemy batteries, was directed towards the house occupied by Prince Kutuzov.”  Kutuzov’s ordinance officer Dreyling confirmed: “It barely dawned when the enemy fired his first round.  One of the very first cannon-balls flew above our heads and shattered the roof of the house where Kutuzov was billeted.”

Jakob Walter, a Westphalian soldier on the French side,  describes the battle: “On September 7, every corps was assigned its place, and the signal to attack was given.  Like thunderbolts the firing began both against and from the enemy.  The earth was trembling because of the cannon fire, and the rain of cannon balls crossed confusedly.  Several entrenchments were stormed and taken with terrible sacrifices, but the enemy did not move from their place…  Now the two armies moved more vigorously against one another, and the death cries and shattering gunfire seemed a hell…”

The Battle of Borodino has Ended

“This beautiful grain region without woods and villages could now be compared to a cleared forest, a few trunks here and there looking gray… Within a space an hour and a half long and wide, the ground was covered with people and animals.  There were groans and whines on all sides.  The stream separated the battlefield into two parts… Over the river there was a wooden bridge that had been burned… the banks on both sides of the bridge were filled with dead piled three and four deep.  Particularly the wounded who could still move hurried to the river to quench their thirst or to wash their wounds; but the suffering brothers had no help, no hope of rescue: hunger, thirst, and fire were their death…”

“We moved forward and camped by a forest on a height facing Moscow; it was a wood of green trees.  Here we not only had nothing to eat but also no water to drink, because of the high camp site; and the road through the fields was still covered with dead Russians.”

1812: Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia, Antony Brett-James

Image and translation of the Commemorative 1912 Russian Card was provided by Alexey Temnikov