In early October, Napoleon sends Kutuzov another peace offer. The letter is addressed from Moscow, even though Napoleon is ahead of Kutuzov on the Kaluga road. Again, Kutuzov rejects the offer. Soon after, a small detachment is sent to Fominskoe to fight Broussier’s division. Kutuzov doesn’t want to do this, but the rest of the staff, energized by the victory at Tarutino, insists. Dokhturov, a humble, quiet general, is sent there—as indeed he appears at most of the war’s major engagements, though history records little of him.
Kutuzov’s goals are simple—he wants to eject the French from Russia and preserve Russian lives as much as possible. This explains why he rejects a peace treaty while also being reluctant to fight. The younger generals are more keen to fight, wanting to destroy the French outright. Inconspicuous generals like Dokhturov often play indispensable roles, though history focuses on bigger personalities.
On October 10th, the entire French army joins Broussier at Fominskoe for no apparent reason. In other words, where Dokhturov had expected to meet one division, he now faces Napoleon’s full force. Refusing to act on his own orders, Dokhturov sends an officer galloping to Kutuzov’s headquarters.
The engagement to come is known as the battle of Maloyaroslavets. General Dokhturov, facing more than he bargained for, looks for guidance rather than brazenly attacking Napoleon’s whole army.
Kutuzov sleeps poorly that night. He’s lying awake thinking about the battle of Tarutino and wishing his generals could understand that the French army is likely mortally wounded, and that the Russians just need patience and time. He thinks they behave like children, maneuvering restlessly as if fighting is an amusement in itself. Yet, even though he reproaches the younger generals for it, Kutuzov also lies awake picturing different scenarios by which the French might be conclusively beaten.
Kutuzov’s strength as a general is that he understands the bigger picture, and with that insight comes a patience that younger, less experienced generals lack. He believes there’s no need to proactively crush the French when, weakened and starving, the French are effectively destroying themselves. That doesn’t mean he lacks the desire to crush the enemy.
As Kutuzov is lying in bed thinking about all this, Toll, another general, and Bolkhovitinov (Dokhturov’s messenger) come in. Kutuzov listens to Bolkhovitinov’s report and suddenly bursts into tears. He turns to the icons in the corner and thanks God for saving Russia.
Because of his insights as a general, Kutuzov knows instantly what the report means: the French can now be driven decisively out of Russia.
From now on, Kutuzov leads his army on retreat, while Napoleon’s army retreats in the opposite direction. The army already contains the seeds of its own destruction. Still, they need a final push in that direction, and that push comes in the form of what the French call le Hourra de l’Empereur. The day after the council of war that decided to retreat, Napoleon rides along his line of troops. Some Cossacks, searching for booty, stumbled across Napoleon and could easily have captured him if they weren’t distracted. After this, there’s nothing left to do but flee—even Napoleon sees that. Soon the French army marches down the Smolensk road.
The French phrase translates as “the Emperor’s hurrah.” In other words, the catastrophe of Napoleon’s near capture is his “last hurrah,” and the decimated French army no longer puts up any significant resistance.
Because France is so far away, the defeated French long for Smolensk as if it’s the promised land. Each individual soldier longs to surrender himself as a prisoner and be done with the whole business; but the whole body of the army moves too quickly and inexorably toward its goal to disintegrate. All the generals except Kutuzov want to go on the offensive and demolish the French. Kutuzov opposes this with all his strength. But at Vyazma, the generals, including Ermolov and others, can no longer restrain themselves, and they inform Kutuzov of their intentions by sending him a blank sheet of paper. All they succeed in doing is losing thousands of men. The French draw together tightly, avoid being overrun, and march determinedly toward Smolensk.
The critical mass of the French army is in a hurry to get out of Russia; there’s no longer any will to fight. Characteristically, however, the younger generals give in to their desire to crush the unresisting enemy. As Kutuzov had foreseen, this ends up being a pointless waste for the Russians.