The next morning, Pierre wakes up in a corner of Boris’s cottage. The windows are rattling with gunfire, and almost everyone has left long ago. Pierre hurriedly rides to the hill from which he’d overlooked the battlefield yesterday; Kutuzov and his men are gathered there. Pierre is struck by the sunlit beauty of the panorama, covered with troops, smoke, and mist. He longs to be in the middle of the action. When a general goes down the hill, Pierre follows at a gallop.
Boris, not accustomed to the rigors of battle, sleeps through the beginning of the action. But that doesn’t lessen his compulsion to be right in the thick of things, wanting to prove himself useful in some way. He is more struck by the ambient beauty of the field than by the brutal realities of fighting.
When Pierre loses track of the general, he gets stuck in the middle of some infantry ranks, to the soldiers’ annoyance. People yell at him to get out of the front of the line. Finally, he finds an adjutant he knows, who leads him toward a battery with a view of the left flank, where the action is growing hot. Only then does Pierre start to notice the dead lying around, and the adjutant points out that Pierre’s horse has been wounded in the foreleg. The adjutant leaves Pierre at the battery and rides away; Pierre learns later that the adjutant’s arm was shot off that day.
As he often does, Pierre stumbles awkwardly into a mess and needs somebody else to extricate him. At first, he’s also oblivious to the deadly violence playing out all around him—even underneath him. Letting his ideals lead the way, he is clueless about what he’s gotten himself into.
The place where Pierre is standing is called the Raevsky battery, which the French consider to be the most important part of the Russian position. Smiling and staying out of the soldiers’ way, Pierre strolls around the redoubt watching the action. At first, the soldiers are annoyed by Pierre’s presence, but soon they begin to good-naturedly tease him, nicknaming him “our master.” Pierre is so absorbed in the men’s camaraderie that he doesn’t notice what’s happening through the surrounding cloud of smoke. Even as men are wounded and killed, the group remains cheerful. The deadlier things get, the more laughter there is.
While the Raevsky battery provides an ideal lookout, it’s more than that: Pierre has unknowingly climbed the hill that the French will viciously target before the day is over. He observes the soldiers’ determined brotherhood and perseverance under deadly fire—the fighting spirit Tolstoy sees as key to prevailing in battle.
Suddenly cannonballs begin to fall thickly on the battery. Pierre volunteers to run down the hill and bring the caissons from the reserves, but by the time he gets there, he forgets what he’s doing. Just then, a tremendous shock throws him to the ground. When he comes to, there’s nothing around him but charred grass and a screaming horse.
Pierre tries to make himself useful by fetching more artillery, but, unused to the intensity of warfare, he gets disoriented even before there’s a catastrophic impact nearby.
Without thinking, Pierre runs back to the battery for refuge. He doesn’t realize that the senior colonel is lying dead on the rampart, or that a soldier who’s shouting “Brothers!” is being restrained by the enemy. A man in a blue uniform collides with Pierre and seizes his collar, just as Pierre grabs him by the throat. Before they can sort out who’s captured whom, another cannonball hits nearby, and they let go of each other. Pierre races back down the hill, running into a crowd of merrily shouting Russians, who retake the hill. Yet all of the men who’d become familiar to Pierre on the battery now seem to be dead. As he follows the stretchers down the hill, Pierre wonders why, seeing the horror that’s ensued, they don’t stop fighting at once.
In the meantime, the French have seized the Raevsky redoubt. Many of the men he’s briefly gotten to know now lie dead or are in the process of being taken captive. The same almost happens to Pierre, but the Russians soon retake the hill. But this rapid change of fortune isn’t what strikes Pierre most; rather, the horror surrounding him seems sufficient reason to call off the fighting. Pierre’s impression confirms Tolstoy’s view that the violence of warfare is inherently irrational.
The battle’s main action takes place on a stretch of field between Borodino and Prince Bagration’s defenses. From his position on the Shevardino redoubt, peering through field glasses at the billowing smoke, Napoleon can’t determine what’s happening. Though many adjutants gallop to Napoleon with news, their reports are invariably false: either they misunderstand what’s happening in the confusion, or circumstances change by the time messages arrive. Such reports lead Napoleon to give instructions that are either redundant or can’t be fulfilled.
Ironically, though the outcome of the battle tends to be attributed largely to Napoleon, Napoleon knew less than most about what was going on that day—from his vantage point above the fray, he simply can’t see or keep up with what’s going on. This is a prime illustration of Tolstoy’s point that commanders’ instructions aren’t as important as historians claim.
This battle is different from all Napoleon’s previous battles. Instead of putting the enemy to flight, French troops straggle back from the zone of fire, disorganized and reduced in number. At one point, General Murat asks Napoleon for reinforcements. Napoleon, baffled, sternly refuses. After two more generals send the same request, Napoleon finally sends a reinforcement division. As the day wears on, the same request comes repeatedly, and Napoleon becomes more pensive and withdrawn. He begins to feel as if he’s in a nightmare.
Though Napoleon follows the same methods he’s always followed in battle, they’re not infallible this time. The French are technically winning, but they’re also utterly exhausted by the resistance of the strong Russian defense.
Eventually, Berthier suggests that they ride along the line to get a better sense of the situation. Napoleon shakes himself out of his daze. As they ride, he sees heaps of dead men and horses. When they reach Semyonovskoe, he sees only Russian uniforms and realizes this has ceased to be a battle; it’s now a slaughter. A general suggests that Napoleon send the old guard into battle. After a long pause, Napoleon says he will not have his old guard annihilated.
Berthier and other generals did encourage Napoleon to send his most prestigious soldiers—the elite Imperial Guard—into battle in order to boost flagging morale. In the end, he refused, encouraging his men to hold their current position.
Meanwhile, Kutuzov receives reports from his subordinates, agreeing or disagreeing with what’s suggested. However, he knows that the battle’s fate doesn’t hang on his instructions, but on the spirit of his troops. He tries to encourage this spirit as best he can despite his age and weariness. In the late morning, he learns that Prince Bagration has been injured. Soon after, he hears the heartening news that General Murat has been captured. He says that the battle is won, but he urges calm.
While Napoleon spends much time debating his orders, Kutuzov believes that Russian morale will decide the battle, and that this spirit is more important than issued commands. Bagration later died of his wounds at Borodino. However, most of what Kutuzov hears points to a Russian victory—at least for now.
By two o’clock in the afternoon, the French have stopped attacking. The day’s tension has been too much for Kutuzov, and he occasionally dozes off. Wolzogen, the imperial adjutant, approaches Kutuzov while he’s eating his dinner. Wolzogen, who doesn’t respect the elderly Kutuzov, condescendingly says that commander in chief Barclay de Tolly has assessed the state of the left flank and determined that the battle is lost. Kutuzov suddenly gets up and shouts at Wolzogen, reprimanding him for his ignorance. Tomorrow, the Russians will repel the enemy from this holy land, he tells Wolzogen, growing tearfully emotional. Before long, Kutuzov’s orders for the next day’s attack spread from one end of the army to another, confirming what each Russian has already sensed in his soul.
The Prussian Wolzogen who, with Pfuel, planned the 1812 campaign, represents a European approach to warfare, based on meticulous assessments of conditions. In contrast, Kutuzov’s approach is passionate and instinctive—he and his army know “in their souls” that they’ve won and will continue to prevail. The contrast supports Tolstoy’s argument that, in the end, such instinctive Russian leaders and methods are more effective than the reasoned plans imposed by European outsiders.