“It is better to die than to remain crippled.” Fatal wound of Prince Bagration

The wound of Prince Bagration. Source: 1812.nsad.ru

The last battle of the prince

In the war with Napoleon, Prince Peter Ivanovich Bagration, General of Infantry, commanded the 2nd Western Army, which on September 7, 1812 (hereinafter the dates will be in the new style) was located on the left flank of the Russian troops on the Borodino field. The center of all the events of that day were the Semyonov flashes, which became the object of incessant attacks by the troops of Napoleon’s marshals Davout and Ney. It was here, in the thick of the battle, that General Bagration was. He led a counterattack by units of the 8th Infantry, 4th Cavalry Corps and 2nd Cuirassier Division. At about 12 noon, the prince is wounded in the left leg. The first few moments he stays on his horse, but then falls – he is barely able to be picked up by the close officers. Eyewitnesses describe the first minutes after being wounded:

“… The face, darkened with gunpowder, is pale, but calm. Someone was holding him from behind, clasping him with both hands. The people around him saw him, as if forgetting the terrible pain, silently gazed into the distance and seemed to listen to the roar of the battle. “

It should be noted that Bagration’s wound was not fatal – it was a splinter of a “repaired” shell that damaged one of the shin bones (it is not known which one) in the shin region. “Chinenkoy” in those days was called an artillery shell filled with gunpowder, which became the prototype of modern fragmentation ammunition. A distinctive feature of the “chinenka” was the high kinetic energy of the fragments, exceeding the energy of the lead bullet at close distances. As a result, the general’s situation was close to disaster. Around there was not just a battle, but a real bloody battle – the French, with artillery and small arms, held back the Russian counterattack as best they could. At the same time, the Russian artillery intensively supported its advancing units, sometimes not having time to transfer fire after the attack – Russian units often suffered from friendly attacks. At the time of the general’s injury, the battle had been going on for at least five hours, and the Russian troops already had significant losses. The 2nd combined grenadier division of Major General Vorontsov and the 27th Infantry Division of Major General Neverovsky were practically destroyed. By noon, all around the Semyonovskaya flash was littered with corpses and wounded, and the site itself was fired upon by 400 French and 300 Russian cannons. From this meat grinder, the wounded Bagration is evacuated to the “foot of the Semenovskaya height”, that is, to a relatively safe place. The main problem was finding a doctor. The chief physician of the 2nd Western Army, Gangart, was concussed two hours earlier (the nucleus hit the horse’s chest) and was taken to the Mozhaisk hospital of the 1st line. There was no doctor in the nearest units either, since they were, in fact, almost completely destroyed. To help the distressed left flank of the Russian army, Kutuzov put forward the Finnish, Izmailovsky and Lithuanian guards regiments. It was in the Life Guards Lithuanian Regiment for Bagration that the doctor Yakov Govorov was found, who later, about the tragic epic of the general’s unsuccessful treatment, would publish in 1815 the book “The Last Days of the Life of Prince Pyotr Ivanovich Bagration”.

Source: bibliokhronika.ru

According to all the rules of field surgery of that time, Govorov probes the wound, detects damage to the bone and applies a simple bandage. Let us clarify here that a simple regimental doctor could not perform any immobilization of the wounded limb, since there were no elementary devices for this. Decades later, Govorov was accused of erroneous actions on the “sole of Semyonovskaya height”, which led to the aggravation of the fracture of the tibia of Bagration’s left leg. After this, the prince, according to one version, is evacuated to the nearest dressing station of the Lithuanian regiment, where Jacob Willie himself, His Excellency the chief medical inspector in the army, is already engaged in it. It was this man who determined the main paths of the development of military medicine in Russia both before the war and during military operations. Therefore, there is no reason to doubt his actions. According to one of the versions, already at the dressing station of the Life Guards of the Lithuanian Regiment, Bagration was offered an early amputation, but the answer was categorical:

“… it is better to die than to remain crippled.”

According to another version, Willie did the dressing not at all in the Lithuanian regiment, but at the dressing station in the Psarevsky forest area – this is three kilometers from the wound site.

An eyewitness I. T. Radozhitsky writes about what was happening in such medical centers during the Battle of Borodino in his “Traveling notes of an artilleryman from 1812 to 1816”:

“The cutters washed the wound, from which the meat hung in shreds and a sharp piece of bone was visible. The operator took a crooked knife out of the box, rolled up his sleeves up to the elbow, then quietly approached the injured hand, grabbed it and so deftly turned the knife above the shreds that they instantly fell off. Tutolmin screamed and began to groan; the surgeons spoke in order to drown it out with their noise, and with hooks in their hands rushed to catch the veins from the fresh meat of the hand; they pulled them out and held them, meanwhile the operator began to saw through the bone. This apparently caused terrible pain: Tutolmin, shuddering, groaned and, enduring torment, seemed exhausted to the point of fainting; he was often sprinkled with cold water and allowed to sniff alcohol. Having cut off the bone, they picked up the veins in one knot and tightened the cut off place with natural leather, which was left and folded for this; then they sewed it up with silk, applied a compress, tied it in bandages – and that was the end of the operation. “

It was in approximately these conditions that the chief physician of the Russian army conducted a second examination of Bagration’s wound and bandaged it. During the procedure, Willie found out that the wound was severe, the tibia was damaged, and the patient himself was in serious condition. During the examination, the doctor even took out a fragment of the tibia. At the same time, Willie erroneously made the assumption that the wound was shot by a bullet, and this seriously complicated further treatment. The fact is that doctors in the Russian army at that time did not seek to amputate lightly wounded limbs in the very first moments – conservative treatment was in use. And the bullet, during the suppuration of the wound, often simply came out. Obviously, this was the reason for the further treatment of Bagration – to wait a few days until the pus takes the bullet out of the wound. Although, according to some sources, the prince was still offered amputation. However, Willie, as we already know, was mistaken – the wound was not a bullet.


While the medical work with the wounded Bagration was going on, the situation on the left flank did not develop in the best way. Both sides are bringing into battle all the new reserves, which perish within a short time, dotting the battlefields with the bodies of the dead and the groans of the wounded. So, the above-mentioned Lithuanian regiment together with Izmailovsky for some time were generally surrounded by the French and barely had time to repulse the attacks. The Lithuanian regiment lost 956 out of 1,740 personnel in just one hour … In addition, the absence of Bagration caused a collapse of management, since almost simultaneously with it, the chief of staff of the 2nd Western Army, Major General E.F. Saint-Pri. Kutuzov first appoints Duke A.F. of Württemberg as commander, but then transfers the reins of government to General D.S.Dokhturov, but at that time he was too far from the village of Semenovskaya. Therefore, the commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, P.P. Konovnitsyn, remained in command, recalling the minutes of that battle:

“There are many wounded and killed … Tuchkov was wounded in the chest. Alexander Tuchkov was killed … Ushakov’s leg was torn off. Drizen is injured. Richter too … My division is almost nonexistent … Hardly a thousand people will be counted. “

As a result, the situation on the left flank turned out to be catastrophic – the battle formations of the 2nd Western Army were crushed and offered only focal resistance. M. B. Barclay de Tolly (by the way, an enemy of Bagration) recalled those hours on September 7:

“The second army, in the absence of the wounded Prince Bagration and many generals, was overturned in the greatest disorder, all the fortifications with a part of the batteries went to the enemy. … The infantry was scattered in small groups, already stopped at the main apartment on the Mozhaisk road; three guards regiments retreated in a hefty arrangement and approached the other guards regiments … “

In general, in the first hours after Bagration was wounded, they did not have time to carry out all the necessary procedures after being wounded for a banal reason – the enemy could break into the location of the dressing station from minute to minute and capture the renowned military leader. And this could not be allowed. That is why Jacob Willie did not expand the wound with a scalpel, as required by his own “Brief Instructions on the Most Important Surgical Operations” and did not extract the shell fragment. In addition, Bagration at that time was in a state of severe traumatic shock – the constant many kilometers of movement across the battlefield and serious blood loss affected.

In the publication “News of Surgery” authors S. A. Sushkov, Yu. S. Nebylitsyn, E. N. Reutskaya and A. N. Cancer in the article “A Difficult Patient. The Wound of Pyotr Ivanovich Bagration” analyze in detail the clinical manifestations of the general’s injury in the first hours … Immediately after being wounded, Bagration loses consciousness from pain, then comes to his senses on the “Semyonov sole” and even tries to lead the battle, and already in the bandage he is inhibited and depressed. This is a typical picture of traumatic shock, with which Willie and Govorov were certainly familiar. At that time, they made the only correct decision – not to carry out serious surgical intervention and prepare the general for evacuation as soon as possible. At the same time, many experts reproach doctors for the lack of immobilization of the wounded limb at Bagration, despite the fact that in each dressing station there were

“Ready-made devices for dressing fractures and after surgery, all kinds of dressings, except for bandages, head, chest, abdominal, shoulder, as well as surgical instruments, plasters, necessary ointments, lotions, splints, silk, etc.”.

Allegedly, this was the reason for the further complication of the injury – a complete fracture of the tibia. About the imposition of fixing splints on Bagration’s leg is not written in any source, and there may be several reasons for this. Firstly, the doctors, obviously, decided not to pay attention to the self-evident fact of immobilization, and, secondly, the methods of fixing broken limbs at the beginning of the 19th century were far from ideal and completely allowed bones to be displaced during transportation.

Monument to Prince Bagration in the parish of the Church of Dmitry Solunsky in the city of Sima. Source: wikipedia.org

Be that as it may, the wounded Bagation is placed in a carriage and in a hurry is evacuated to the Mozhaisk mobile hospital of the 1st line. On September 8, a day after being wounded, the general writes to Alexander I from his temporary refuge:

“Although, most merciful sir, in the case of the 26th I was not easily wounded in my left leg by a bullet with a bone fracture; but I do not regret this in the least, being always ready to sacrifice the last drop of my blood for the defense of the Fatherland and the august throne; however, it is extremely regrettable only that at this most important time I remain in the impossibility of further showing my services … “

To be continued…

Based on materials: publications: “Surgery News”, “Clinical Medicine”, books by Govorov Ya. I. “The Last Days of the Life of Prince Pyotr Ivanovich Bagration”, articles by Davydov M. “Was the wound fatal” in the journal “Science and Life” No. 9 for 2012 and the book of I. T. Radozhitskiy “Travel notes of an artilleryman from 1812 to 1816”.

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