Wilson was incredulous, pleading with Kutuzov to reconsider. In an argument mirroring Davout’s to the north, he argued that to turn their back to an enemy to their front would doom the army and leave the route to Kaluga and Medyn for the French. Kutuzov did not heed his counsel. Instead he told Wilson that if pressed by the French he would move the army farther south across the Oka, 24 miles to the southeast. Like his French counterpart, he had had enough.
The French Army’s Infamous Retreat
On the 26th, both armies began preparations to depart, the French to the north and the Russians to the southwest. These preparations were noted by each army’s pickets and duly reported to higher headquarters. This was information neither commander wanted to hear—the hard-fought campaign had claimed the energy and confidence of each. The French advance guard under Davout turned away from the Medyn road and moved north toward Fominskaya; the infamous retreat had begun.
From the start things did not go well. Wagons full of provisions had to be burned for lack of horses. On the first day, as the French passed through the field of Borodino, Ségur wrote in his memoirs, “We saw a field, trampled, devastated and every tree shorn off a few feet above the earth. In the background stood a number of hummocks with their tops blown off, the highest of which seemed the most misshapen. The spot had the appearance of a flattened, extinct volcano. Everywhere the earth was littered with battered helmets and breastplates, broken drums, fragments of weapons, shreds of uniforms, and bloodstained flags. Lying amid this desolation were thirty thousand half-devoured corpses. The scene was dominated by a number of skeletons lying on the crumpled slope of one of the hills; death seemed to have established its throne up there. This was the terrible redoubt which had been the victory grave of Caulaincourt. All along our lines ran the sad murmur, ‘The field of the Great Battle.’” Hungry, demoralized, and with winter setting in, the remnants of the Grande Arméemoved on.
That night Napoleon learned from a captured Russian soldier that the Russians were pursuing the French along the Medyn road, a route that would cut them off from Smolensk—the road Davout had counseled Napoleon to take after Maloyaroslavets. Each day the weather and hunger took its toll on the French as their losses in men and horses began to mount. The advance guard under Davout and Eugène and the rear guard under Ney were the only intact elements of the army; the remainder in between represented a roving mob more than the Grande Armeé.
On the night of November 2, the Russian advance guard, moving along the Medyn road, took up a position between the French and the town of Vyazma along the Moscow-Smolensk road. Compared to the battles before it, the number of men involved, and the casualties inflicted, the battle of Vyazma was hardly significant. What was significant was the condition of the Grande Armée and how it fought. The lack of horses hampered the movement of artillery, and the loss of discipline and order limited the units that could be brought into the battle. As Davout and Eugène engaged in an uneven contest with the Russian advance guard under Miloradovich, the last intact elements of the army were being sacrificed for the mob behind. As night closed on the field, the French had not cleared the road. Miloradovich had called for reinforcements, but his plea fell on deaf ears and the next day the French were able to push him from the road, resuming their way west.
Kutuzov considered his next move. He knew his army was in condition to continue to engage the French. But rather than doing so, he chose to give the honor of the victory to the freezing weather and the empty plains of Russia.
By the 6th the snow blew in and the Cossacks began to make their presence known. With each step, the toll on men and horses continued to mount, and at each town or obstacle soldiers fell off to the side. Units became separated and cohesion was lost. Three days later on the 9th, the Grande Arméewould reach Smolensk, having lost over 50,000 men to death and desertion. More importantly, the army would enter Smolensk a broken force, an undisciplined mob, that would descend on the carefully hoarded French supplies like a swarm of locusts. With their supplies quickly exhausted the army could not remain in Smolensk, so on they went, into disaster. The Grande Armée of 600,000 men that had crossed the Niemen River in June would number just over 100,000 by December.
We will never know what the outcome would have been if the Grande Armée had pushed through Maloyaroslavets to Kaluga. Perhaps if the army had traveled over more fertile ground it would have been in better shape once it reached Smolensk and its vital supplies. The retreat from Moscow may then have only been a setback in Napoleon’s illustrious career, instead of the defining moment of his downfall. We do know in hindsight that the road was open, that Kutuzov would not have contested its passage.
Napoleon had always counted on his star to provide him insight into the mind of others. His faith in his own destiny had blazed a path of victory across the plains of Europe. But his star abandoned him on the cold, open steppes of Russia at the crossroads of Maloyaroslavets.