Battle of Shevardino, 5 Sept 1812

The battle of Shevardino (5 September 1812) was a preliminary battle fought two days before the battle of Borodino, and was fought over the possession of an isolated Russian redoubt built to protect the left wing of their original front line.

Russia 1812 - The Road to Moscow
Russia 1812
The Road to Moscow

Ever since Napoleon had invaded Russia in late June 1812 the Russian armies had been retreating, but after the loss of Smolensk in mid-August the pressure on the Russian commanders to stand and fight became irresistible. Barclay de Tolly, the Russian commander for most of the first phase of the campaign, began to look for a suitable battlefield as the army moved east from Smolensk towards Moscow, but he was increasingly blamed for the long retreat and Tsar Alexander came under pressure to replace him. On 20 August General Mikhail Kutuzov was appointed as the new commander-in-chief of the Russian army, and a few days later he joined the army west of Moscow. Barclay de Tolly's preferred site for a battle was abandoned and eventually a new site chosen near Borodino.

The village of Borodino was located on the New Smolensk Road, a post road connecting Smolensk to Moscow. Borodino sits on the north bank of the Kalatsha River, which flows east then north-east across the battlefield. The river ran parallel to, and just to the south of the river west of Borodino, then just past the village curved around to the north-east to flow into the Moskva River. The New Smolensk Road crossed the river just east of Borodino and continued on east towards Moscow. The initial Russian plan appears to have been to defend the line of the Kalatsha, on the assumption that Napoleon would advance along the New Smolensk Road. The left flank of the Russian army would thus come up towards the village of Shervardino, a little to the south of the river.

It quickly became obvious to most of the senior Russian commanders that this position would leave their left flank dangerously exposed. The Old Smolensk Road ran parallel to the New Road, but two miles further south. The French could easily have used the Old Road to get behind the entire Russian position, leaving them in a very vulnerable position. Kutuzov decided to adopt a new left flank that ran south from Borodino village, taking advantage of some low hills. Shervardino was now some way to the west of the planned Russian front line, but the move was only to be made once the French appeared. In the meantime work began on the Shervardino Redoubt, a fortification built on a hill to the south of the village of the same name. The exact purpose the redoubt is unclear, but it was probably originally planned to support the main Russian line and then defended on 5 September to provide cover for the left wing of the Russian army as it moved from its first position near the Kalatsha to its second position south of Borodino.

Work on the redoubt began on the evening of 4 September. Only thirty pioneers were allocated to the work and the difficult ground meant that progress was slow. By the time the fighting began the redoubt had a 1.5m un-reinforced wall with some incomplete embrasures but work on a ditch had only just begun. The redoubt was badly sited, and was overlooked by a slightly higher hill 200m to the south-west.

Portrait of Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout, 1770-1823
Portrait of
Marshal Louis-Nicolas
Davout, 1770-1823

Napoleon decided to launch an immediate attack on the redoubt with the troops immediately at hand. The 16th and 18th Divisions from Poniatowski's V Corps would make a flanking move through the woods to the south of the redoubt, but the main attack would be made by the 5th Division (Compans) of Davout's I Corps, supported by Nansouty's and Montbrun's cavalry corps. Between them these five formations contained around 34,000-36,000 men, although not all of them would be involved at the start of the battle.

The defence of the redoubt was commanded by Prince Andrei Gorchakov, a nephew of the great Russian commander Field Marshal Suvorov. He would be badly outnumbered at the start of the battle, with around 8,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry and 36 guns at his immediate disposal. The bulk of the infantry came from General Neverovsky's 27th Division, which was deployed in battalion columns behind the redoubt. Neverovksy had four infantry regiments - the Odesskii and Simbirskii formed his front line and the Vilenskii and Tarnopolskii the second. Behind the infantry was the 2nd Cuirassier Division.

The position was protected by a screen of light infantry, with the 49th, 41st and 6th Jägers to the west, around the village of Doronino and the 42nd, 5th and 50th Jägers to the south of Doronino. There were two regiments of dragoons to the north-west of the redoubt, another and another two regiments of dragoons and two squadrons of hussars to the south-west. Finally the twelve guns of the 12th Battery Company were deployed in or around the redoubt (probably with three inside the small fortification and nine just to the north).

Gorchakov could also call on the 2nd Grenadier Division, which was his immediate reserve, and later in the battle was given the 2nd Combined Grenadier Division.

The battle started in the mid afternoon when the first of Poniatowski's men began to skirmish with the Russians to the south-west of the redoubt. They would make very little progress for much for of the day and thus had little impact on the main part of the fighting.

Compans got underway soon after the Poles. He crossed the Kalatsha and attacked the Russian light infantry at Doronino, west of the redoubt. Russian cavalry attacked the French infantry but were held off until French cavalry arrived to restore the balance. Doronino was soon taken but the Russians were able to retreat in good order.

The French now moved Nansouty and Montbrun's cavalry corps and Friant and Morand's infantry divisions across the Kalatsha. The infantry was to outflank the Russian right while the cavalry filled gaps in the line.

At about 5pm Compans began his first direct assault on the redoubt. His four infantry regiments were stretched out in a line. The 111th Line was at the left. Next was the 25th Line, which was to attack the village of Shevardino (north east of the redoubt). Compans led the 57th Line and 61st Line, which attacked to the south of the redoubt. The French quickly occupied Doronino Hill (the higher ground west of the redoubt) and mounted a gun battery on top of the hill.

The garrison of the redoubt and the 27th Division began to retreat under the heavy French pressure. Major-General Waldemar von Löwenstern, the commander of artillery for the 2nd Army, returned from delivering a report to Bagration just as his troops began to retreat. Löwenstern rallied the 27th Division, but was unable to prevent the French from seizing the redoubt for the first time.

This would be a short-lived success. Löwenstern launched a counterattack using a brigade from the 27th Infantry Division, and retook the redoubt.

Compans responded with a counterattack of his own, committing two reserve battalions to the fight. The key moment in this attack came when Compans unmasked four guns that had been sheltering behind his advancing infantry and fired grapeshot into the Russians. This allowed the 57th and 61st Line to fight their way into the redoubt, taking it for the French for the second time. The redoubt was captured at about 7pm, just as it strated to get dark.

The Russians responded with a major counterattack, commanded by either Gorchakov or Bagration (Russian sources disagree). This started with the Sibirskii and Malorossiiskii Grenadier Regiments, but soon expanded to include the 2nd Grenadier Division and four battalions of the 2nd Combined Grenadier Divisions. Russian cavalry also began involved in this fight and the French 111th Line suffered especially heavily, losing some of its guns. The Russian cavalry was eventually fought off by Spanish infantrty from Friant's division, which was approaching from the north. By about 10.30 the Poles were finally approaching from the south and Kutuzov decided to end the defence of the redoubt (by now the actual redoubt itself had been destroyed by artillery fire). The order reached Gorchakov at about 11pm and the Russian retreat began. It isn't at all clear which side actually held the redoubt at this point, with both sides claiming it was in their hands before the Russian retreat.

The retreat included one of the most famous incidents of the battle. As the Russian infantry retired the French cavalry attempted to attack them. Gorchakov found himself caught with an isolated infantry force when the sounds of a large cavalry force were heard. The Russian cavalry was on its way, but wouldn't arrive in time. Gorchakov ordered the Odessa Infantry Regiment to bang its drums and shout 'Hurrah!" as if reinforcements had just arrived. The sudden noise appears to have started the French cavalry who stopped and allowed the Russian infantry to escape.

Both sides suffered heavy casualties during this battle. The Russians are generally said to have lost around 6,000 men, half of them in General Neverovsky's 27th Division. This same unit had suffered heavy losses at Krasnyi on 14 August when it had played a major part in saving the Russians from a possible defeat at Smolensk, and had since received 4,000 replacements.

The French probably lost 4,000-5,000 men, with the infantry regiments of Compans's division worst affected. The 57th Line lost around 500 men, the 11th lost 86 dead, 555 wounded, 33 captured and 138 missing and the 61st Line 30 killed, 238 wounded and 17 captured. The biggest worry for Napoleon was that very few prisoners were taken during the battle, indicating that the Russians would prove to be an unusually stubborn foe. This would be confirmed two days later when the two sides clashed in the battle of Borodino (7 September 1812), one of the most hard-fought battles of the Napoleonic Wars.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (8 April 2014), Battle of Shevardino, 5 Sept 1812 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_shervardino.html

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