It has been often said that Russia can’t be conquered, that is too large, has poor roads and a winter so harsh and long that any invading army is swallowed and destroyed by the elements. But how true is that? And if it is, how come one of the greatests military tacticians of the age, Napoleon Bonaparte, who by the end of his career had fought more than seventy battles and lost only eight, ignored all the signs and commited the folly of invading Russia in 1812? How his army of nearly half a million French and allies ended there, with many of them dying in one of the largest military catastrophes, will be explained here.    

1# Height of power

1810. Napoleon Bonaparte, First Emperor of the French, owned most of Europe. Prussia and Austria had been defeated and relegated to second-class powers, the rest of the German states were under his protection, the so-called Confederation of the Rhine, as well as the Kingdom of Italy. His brothers and brothers-in-law ruled as kings and princes in Naples, Westphalia, Tuscany, and Spain. A rump Polish state, the Duchy of Warsaw, owed its creation to his defeats of Prussia, and the Russian Empire had become France’s ally after the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807.

Europe 1812
Europe in 1812. France dominate the picture. Author:  Alexander Altenhof. Source

On a more personal level, Napoleon had re-married in 1810, with Marie-Louise of Austria, and on March 20th 1811, his first son, Napoleon François Joseph Charles Bonaparte was born. The title of King of Rome (from the Holy Roman Empire) was given by his dotting father. Unlike the stern royal families of the time, Napoleon was rather playful, warm, and well-predisposed to his offspring. Moreover, in that year he made a habit of travelling around his empire, and with his mania of micromanagement, bombarded the astounded prefects, mayors, and officials of the towns and departments he toured with thousands of questions.

However, bright as Napoleon’s star shone, clouds darkened his and France’s future. The Peninsular War worsened by the minute, and Britan gave no signs of exhaustion on their war against him. Napoleon had no illusions about the precariousness of his power, which rested solely on the strenght of his armies, and should it break, his hard-won conquests would be quickly undone. His former foes Prussia and Austria, were humbled but resented, and Tsar Alexander I of Russia was was quickly growing suspicious of Napoleon.     

2# The Continental System

One of the main causes of Russian discontentment was the Continental System. Intended by Napoleon as a large-scale blockade of British goods, the effects of the Continental System on British economy were dubious at best, and some of Europe’s most prosperous trading centres, such as the Hanseatic towns, suffered badly from it. Napoleon proved he could do even worse, when he replaced it with an even more unpopular one, the Nouveau System. This allowed certain companies to trade with Britain under special licences, the problem being that most licences went to the French, with the non-French accused the authorithies of French favouritism. And rightly so. 

Napoleon knew that in certain corners of his empire and satellites, smuggling of British goods was rife, particularly in Portugal and Spain, Russia, and the Duchy of Oldenburg. The Duchy was ruled by regent Duke Peter, father-in-law of Alexander’s sister, Grand Duchess Catherine Pavlovna, whom Napoleon had wanted to marry before Marie-Louise. On December 19th 1810, the French invaded the Duchy to put an end to British trade. This infuriated Alexander, for the independence of the Duchy had been guaranteed by Napoleon in Tilsit, in 1807, and he retaliated by banning some French products in Russia, or subjecting them to heavy duties. This too contravened the agreements of Tilsit and Erfurt between the emperors.

Oldenburg almost on the top left corner, with some of the Hanseatic towns like Lübeck, Hamburg, and Bremen, around. Author: kgberger (Wikipedia). Source

Notwithstanding this, Alexander mistrusted Napoleon’s assurances of his having no intention of restoring the Polish state from the Duchy of Warsaw he had created in 1807. Alexander feared Napoleon would egg on the Poles to claim the rest of their territories that had been annexed by Russia, Prussia, and Austria in 1772, 1793, and 1795 respectively. Napoleon repeatedly assured him and others that he had never intended to revive Poland but the later didn’t believe him, just as Napoleon never believed Alexander’s claims that he was complying with the Continental System. Both France and Russia were the hegemonic powers of Europe, was it inevitable that they would clash?

3# The Russian campaign

For all their private and public reassurances of friendship, both emperors were ready to make the other yield through violence. Austerlitz, Eylau, and Friedland had seen the French and Russians clashing, and Napoleon had always emerged victorious. In Austerlitz and Friedland he had decisively crushed the main enemy army, after which he had imposed whatever peace terms on the vanquished. Napoleon simply thought he could repeat the deed, inflicting a decisive defeat on Russia and imposing his peace terms. Moreover, he counted on the Ottoman Empire and Sweden (both recently at war with Russia) to tie up Russian units. Napoleon was counting on a pitched battle west of the Neman River, the border between Polish Lithuania and Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire. He had no designs on Russian territory other than securing Alexander’s commitment to the Continental System, and neither him or his marshals ever imagined they would be marching to Moscow. 

Napoleon also talked Austria and Prussia into joining him, but unbenknowst to him they both had given secret assurances to Alexander that they wouldn’t attack him. The Ottoman Empire also dashed his hopes for an ally when on May 29th 1812, they made peace with Russia. And finally Sweden―whose heir to the throne was no other than Napoleon’s former Marshal, Jean Bernadotte―declared its neutrality after France invaded Swedish Pomerania in January 1812 (again to stamp out British trade). This short-sighted diplomacy of Napoleon would cost him much but he remained optimistic nonetheless. As it was his wont, he begun amassing and reading books on Russia to prepare the campaign. These included geography, weather, natural resources, and history, including the 1709 catastrophic defeat of Charles XII of Sweden in Poltava.   

Moreover, he still counted with the support of the Confederation of the Rhine, Italy, Naples, Switzerland, the recently annexed Holland, and even factions of Spain and Portugal. Together with the exceptionally and fiercely loyal Poles, they joined the French in the largest invading force of the day. With 600.000 men divided in a first wave of 450.00, and a second of 150.000, la Grande Armée was more than twice the size of the Russian army, which was also dispersed in the vast and poorly communicated Russian landmass. Napoleon referred to the coming enterprise as Second Polish Campaign, in hopes of attracting Polish support, and he indeed might even had attracted more, had he decided on fully restoring Poland. On Wednesday June 24th, they crossed the Niemen River into Russia and towards their fate. Like Julius Caesar―Napoleon’s idol together with Alexander the Great―had allegedly once said: ‘the die is cast’.

A grenadier of the Old Guard. The Imperial Guard was divided into Young, Middle, and Old. They allowed soldiers from different nationalities, including Mameluks, Poles, Dutch, and Lithuanian regiments. They were regarded as the best elite soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars. Painter: Édouard Detaille. Source

4# Invasion and disease

Napoleon split his forces in four armies. Macdonald with 30.000, covered the left flank, the right went under the Austrian Schwarzenberg, 34.000; Napoleon himself commanded the centre with 297.000, and his brother Jérôme, marched with a second centre of 78.000. An impressive, international, coalition that suffered of two important problems even before they started off. For starters, few except the French and Poles felt any loyalty towards Napoleon, and as a result, their commitment to battle was compromised in several occasions. Second, the sheer size of the army meant that Napoleon could’t supervise it as closely as he was accostumed to, thus having to delegate more to his generals. Problem was, many a competent one had died in the course of the wars, and although he still counted with more than excellent Marshals such as Davout, the lack of good leadership plagued the Grande Armée from the start. This was soon plain when his incompetent brother Jérôme failed to surround and destroy the Russian Second Army of Prince Bagration.

Although he was dismissed and packed to Westphalia, this was ultimately Napoleon’s fault, for failing to pick a more able commander and for failing to spot a pattern that repeated several times more during the campaign. The Russians remained elusive, denying him the decisive battle he had counted upon. This was the strategy of the Russian Minister of War, Barclay de Tolly, to withdraw from the French advance and overstretch their communication and supply lines. The Russian army mercilessly scorched their own fields and towns, taking and destroying anything of use to the enemy, while the irregular Cossack cavalry harried the stragglers and forage parties, killing hundreds by the day. And because the 250.000 horses the French had brought were dying extremely fast for lack of fodder, the Cossacks rode with impunity. With the French having numerical advantage, it made a lot of sense to avoid a direct confrontation at this stage, and ironically, had Napoleon brought less troops, he might have tempted the Russians into battle,    

The Cossacks were semi-military and autonomous communities from the steppes, and as such, made excellent horsemen and scouters. Author: F. de Myrbach, 1906. Life of Napoleon Bonaparte by William M. Sloane, New York: Century, vol. 4. Source

Napoleon’s army soon experienced another downside to its colossal size: food and water. Belarus and Russian Lithuanian were very poor in comparison with the fertile fields of Italy for example, with endless swamps, forests, and roads which turned into rivers of mud during the rainy season. Heat became atrocious and the dust lifted by the marching regiments was so thick that drummers had to march at the head to guide them through the sound. The poor sanitation of the time, manlnutrition, and lice, worsened the outbreaks of dysentery and thyphus (known as war plague) that broke out as a result of lack of water. 6.000 men fell sick every day during the first week and by the third week of July 80.000 men had died or were sick. One fifth of the men in Napoleon’s central army had been lost outside military engagements.

Despite this, Napoleon marched forward. There exists the possibility that some of his marshals and generals lied to him about the real number of sick and starving soldiers, however, it was in Napoleon’s nature to be bold and swift, qualities that in the past had delivered him astounding victories. It’s more than plausible that he would have kept on regardless. Moreover, at this stage he had no intentions of chasing Barclay de Tolly to Moscow. Although he confided this was the target of a second, or even a third campaign if necessary. But even as far as Vitebsk, eastern Belarus, the Russian army eluded him.

5# Battle of Borodino

Napoleon initially prepared to quarter in Vitebsk, and if later he decided on marching on, wasn’t due to arrogance or boundless ambition born of megalomania; but due to several logic reasons. The weather of July was still exceptionally hot, giving plenty of time to retreat and overwinter in Vilnius, where he had military depots waiting for him. Several of his marshals supported this course of action, as they were convinced that Barclay de Tolly and Bagration wouldn’t give further ground and battle them in Smolensk, as it was one of the oldest Russian cities and protected the road to Moscow itself.

But in Smolensk the Russians once again retreated in good order after both sides suffered heavy casualties. The French entered the town, or what was left of it after their artillery ground it to rubble and dust, on August 18th. By then, all Napoleon’s marshals except Davou, and perhaps Murat, wanted to winter in Smolensk or retreat, for Moscow lay still 400km away. Again, Napoleon prevailed, for although Moscow was no longer the capital of Russia, he couldn’t conceive that Alexander would abandon the centre and soul of Russia. What he couldn’t know is that Alexander had sworn never to yield to him.

Napoleon watching the smouldering ruins of Smolensk. Painting by Albrecht Adam, 1836. Source

By then, the central force of Napoleon’s army was reduced to 124.000, of which 32.000 were cavalry. Another 40.000 protected their dangerously over-stretched communication routes. On August 20th, Napoleon bursted with joy when news reached him that Barclay de Tolly had been dismissed as commander-in-chief, and replaced by Mikhail Kutuzov. Barclay de Tolly’s policy of retreat and scorched earth was deeply unpopular with his fellow officers, and at first Kutuzov stuck to it all the same. Only near the village of Borodino, a 100km west of Moscow, he dug and awaited for the decisive clash.

The area was heavily fortified with redoubts and flèches, which on September 7th, the French took at great cost. The Battle of Borodino became the bloodiest day in the history of warfare until the First Battle of the Marne, in 1914. Casualties amounted to more than 70.000 killed and wounded between both, including Bagration himself. Napoleon failed to listen to his marshals when they repeatedly implored him to unleash the Imperial Guard, to smash through the extended Russian line. But fearing to lose his only reserve so far from France, the opportunity was lost. The daring general of the Battle of the Pyramids, Austerlitz, Jena, Friedland, and Wagram, bowed to caution. His soldiers, nonetheless, won the field when Kutuzov retreated, his army defeated but not destroyed. It was a French victory but not the victory that Napoleon required.

The Battle of Borodino, 1812. In the centre lies Bagration, mortally wounded but still giving orders. Author: Peter von Hess, 1843. Hermitage Collection. Source

6# Moscow

Everyone expected Kutuzov to make another stand in front of Moscow, but to their bewilderment, he didn’t. On September 14th, the Russian army passed through Moscow, and on the next day Napoleon entered the city unopposed. There weren’t cheers or curious faces to see the man whose name all Europe pronounced in fear or reverence. Of Moscow’s 250.000 inhabitants, only 15.000 remained behind. He installed himself in the Kremlin, convinced that Alexander would sue for peace now. But this was to be one of Napoleon’s worst nights yet.  

That same evening hundreds of fires broke inside the abandoned city, compounded by the extreme heat and wind that fanned them to create a giant, fiery, whirlwind. The French were chagrined when they discovered that before abandoning the city, its governor, Fyodor Rostopchin, had removed all fire engines and sunk the fire boats. It has never been established whether the fires had been set intentionally under his orders, for he claimed so, but later went back on his word on his deathbed. Also, conflagrations in a wooden city like Moscow were common in such hot summers, all aggravated by the presence of a looting army. Napoleon had hundreds of arsonists arrested and shot, which suggest the fires might have been a combination of all the above.

Napoleon in the ruins of burning Moscow. Painting by Albrecht Adam, 1841. Source

Most of the city was destroyed and some fires went on smouldering for as long as six days. This forced Napoleon to reevaluate his plan to winter in Moscow, since now the remaining city wasn’t enough to quarter his more than 100.000 soldiers. The French were impressed with the Russian resolve and capacity for sacrifice, and to his marshals’ appeals to make peace with Alexander, Napoleon replied: ‘gentlemen, don’t think those who have so readily burnt Moscow will rush to make peace’. Alexander had dismissed all his peace offers even before Moscow had turned to ashes, which makes his decision of staying in Moscow for a little while more baffling. As time would prove, it would have been better for the French if the whole of Moscow had perished under the flames.

Plan of Moscow, 1813. In red, the areas destroyed by fire in 1812. Author: А. Н. Булгаков (A.N. Bulgakov). Source

7# Retreat and defeat

Napoleon didn’t underestimate the Russian winter, as we’re often led to believe. He was an avid reader who always before a campaign, studied all the factors that might affect the performance of his army. He knew about the infamous Russian winter but his calculations, made with readings of the last twenty years, indicated that subzero temperatures set in around mid November, with heavy snow coming much later. However, the first snow of 1812 came unusually early, on October 13th, and with no signs of forthcoming offers of peace from Alexander, Napoleon gave the order to evacuate Moscow in five days.

Instead of marching back through Smolensk road, he decided on marching south to Kaluga and Tula, where several arm factories lay, and into the warmer and fertile fields of Ukraine. The autumn rains bogged down the advance of his tired army, and halfway to Kaluga, in the town of Maloyaroslavets, Kutuzov engaged the French again. At this stage, Napoleon didn’t and couldn’t afford more losses, and on reaching this critical juncture, he convened his marshals to ask for their opinion. Three options were presented to him: either they could try to break through Kutuzov’s lines and force their way to Kaluga; return they way they had come, via Smolensk and Vyazma; or march west through the undefended Medyn, and into northern Ukraine.

Deciding that he lacked information on Medyn route, or that would leave his left flank exposed to Kutuzov, and that breaking through Kutuzov’s strong position wasn’t feasible anymore; Napoleon took the worst choice when deciding to return to Smolensk via Borodino and Vyazma. In the current conditions the retreat would have been though but feasible, but when subzero temperatures kicked off in late October, followed by the first major snowfall on November 4th―both much earlier than expected―Napoleon and his army faced the most implacable enemy of their carreers.

A countryside already ravaged on their advance offered no food or shelter in the retreat. Soldiers resorted to eat their horses, and when these ran out, there were even recorded instances of cannibalism. Many more collapsed and died of hunger or freezing where they lay. Their inadequate clothing offered no defence against the frostbite that devoured fingers, toes, noses, and even sexual organs. Their breath turned to icicles, the cold made the wounds gangrenous, and the Cossack cavalry kept descending upon the stragglers like wolves. Discipline collapsed, solidarity vanished, and many a man preferred to surrender rather than endure the mortal march. Others commited suicide, rightly fearing the Russian retribution, specially that of peasants and irregulars, who often resorted to burying their prisoners alive.

8# The beginning of the end

By the time they reached Smolensk, on November 9th, the army had dwindled to 60.000 men, and with no horses to carry the artillery, all artillery had been spiked and left behind. And Smolensk’s supplies brought some relief, these were far from enough. Kutuzov commanded raids and skirmishes in Krasny, and despite counting now with double the effectives than the French, Kutuzov still refused to give battle and preferred to harass the enemy flanks and rearguard.  

On November 21st, the remants of the Grande Armée reached the eastern bank of the Berezina River, 80 kilometres east of Minsk. 31.000 Russians under Chichagov were waiting for them on the west bank, and in Barysaw, the only bridge across had been premptively burnt. Napoleon was thus trapped against the river, with Wittgenstein advancing from the north with 30.000, and Kutuzov marching against his rear with another 40.000. But even then, the ragged survivors believed that Napoleon would get them out of there alive, proving that the loyalty he inspired in his soldiers was harder than steel.

Emulating Alexander’s crossing of the Hydaspes in 326 BC, Oudinot drew Chichagov south in a decoying action, while Victor held Wittgenstein’s men, allowing the Dutch enginners to build pontoons north of Barysaw. The Battle of the Berezina saw a miraculous retreat in -33 degrees, the brave engineers working in a freezing water full with ice chunks, in order to provide a salvation for their comrades-in-arms. From noon, November 27th to 29th, around 50.000 French crossed the 100 metres-long bridges, and Napoleon ordered them destroyed that same day. Over fifteen thousand stragglers and several thousand camp followers were left stranded on the eastern side of the Berezina, and abandoned with them, were 10.00 carriages, paintings, goblets, books, porcelain and virtually all other loot taken from Russia.

The Grande Armée Crossing the Berezina. Author: January Suchodolski, 1866. Collection: National Museum Poznań. Photography:  User:Piotrus (Wikipedia). Source

Although at the cost of heavy casualties, Napoleon managed to avoid an even bigger catastrophe by fooling Chichagov and brining a substantial portion of his army safe to the west of the Berezina. This would be the last battle of the campaign. The worst had been left behind. Earlier that month, Napoleon received news of a foiled coup d’etat in Paris, by Claude François de Malet, a former brigadier general who had engineered false news of Napoleon’s death. The coup was supressed and Malet and his co-conspirators executed on October 29th. Nonetheless, Napoleon was enraged that nobody had given thought about his son as the legitimate ruler of France on the event of his death. With the remnants of his army in relative safety 80km from Vilnius, he left his brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, in charge, and dashed to Paris, arriving there three days later. 

Many compared this to his abandoning the army in Egypt in 1799, and accused him of cowardice. Notwithstanding the fact that few in the army shared this view, there were several logical reasons to his behaviour. Not only the domestic situation in France was restless and thus required of his presence, but he also needed to levy new troops to stem the international hemorrage that his defeat in Russia caused. The defeat threatened―and would, as time proved―to alienate France’s erstwhile allies, Austria and Prussia, and encourage them to turn against her in her weakened position. Even the obedience of the Rhine Confederation was compromised.

9# Total casualties and map  

Of the largest army the world had seen to that day, a total of 600.000 men, 524.000 were lost through several reasons. Estimations range around 200.000 dead and wounded, 100.000-120.000 captured, of which a huge number perished later while in captivity. His right and left flanks, mostly Prussians, Austrians, and other non-French, remained largely intact because they avoided confrontation with the Russians, and would soon join the fight against Napoleon. Russian casualties were similar in the numbers of dead and wounded, with unknown prisoners, and also unknown civilian casualties, but given the scorched earth policy of the Russian army and the rapacity of the French, they must have been tremendously high too.

An interactive map of Napoleon’s army advance and retreat. Author: Ykoshan2 (Wikipedia). Source

In his bulletin to the French, Napoleon blamed the disaster of the campaign entirely on the weather, blatantly giving no credit to the Russians for their deed, and downplayed the real number of casualties, as it was his habit, thus the idiom ‘lying like a bulletin’.  He despised the Cossacks and irregular units of the Russians, as he despised them in Spain, and regarded the guerrilla tactics as a coward’s weapon. However, there was no denying, nor in France’s eyes or his own, that this was a trmendous blow. The first major defeat of Napoleon in Europe saw a turning point of his fortunes, Prussia declared him war before the year was over, Austria over next summer, both joining a coalition with the United Kingdom, Russia, Sweden, Spain, and Portugal amongst others. The Sixth Coalition which waged war against Napoleon and forced him to abdicate in April 1814.  But despite the fact that by 1813 the situation was bad, it wasn’t yet hopeless, and Napoleon would still fight many battles until his final defeat in Waterloo.

I hope you enjoyed it! Please don’t forget to comment, subscribe and to check this fantastic book which I used as the basis of the article: