It has been often said that Russia can’t be conquered. That is too large, with poor roads, and a winter so harsh and long, that an invading army simply lacks time and resources. Is this true? 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? The answer is simple, he never intended to. How he, and more than a half million French and allied soldiers ended up there, with many of them dying in one of largest catastrophic defeats of the history of warfare, will be explained here.    

1# Heights of Power

1810. Napoleon Bonaparte, First Emperor of the French, was master 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 Russia remained France’s ally.

Europe 1812
Europe in 1812. France, its allies and conquests 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 20th March 1811, his first son, Napoleon François Joseph Charles Bonaparte was born. Heir to the throne, he was granted the title King of Rome, a title from the Holy Roman Empire, by his dotting father. Unlike the stern royal families of the time, Napoleon was rather playful, warm and well-predisposed to care about his offspring. In that year he made a habit of travelling around his Empire, and with his mania of micromanagement, besieging with questions the astounded prefects, mayors, and officials of the places he toured.

However, bright as Napoleon’s star was, dark clouds hovered in the horizon. The war in Spain in Portugal, both aided by the British under Wellington, worsened by the minute. Moreover, Britan kept funding any army marching against Napoleon, who had no illusions about the precariousness of his power. It rested only on the strength of his sword, and should it break, his hard-won empire would turn to dust. His former foes Prussia and Austria, were humbled but not domesticated, and his abduction of the Pope Pius VII in 1809 had the stiff Catholics of Europe seething with resentment. And finally, Emperor Alexander I of Russia, who had been France’s most powerful ally in the continent since the treaties of Tilsit in 1807, and the Congress of Erfurt in 1808, was quickly growing suspicious of Napoleon.     

2# Russia and the Continental System

One of the main causes of Russian discontentment, was the Continental System. Intended by Napoleon as a large-scale European blockade of British goods, the effects of the Continental System on British economy were dubious at best, and some European economies such as the Hanseatic towns or Russia, suffered badly from it. Napoleon proved he could do even worse, when he replaced the unpopular system 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, while the non-French accused the authorithies of French favouritism. And rightly so. 

Napoleon knew that in certain areas of his Empire and allied countries, smuggling of British goods was rife, particularly in Portugal and Spain (hence the war there), Russia, and the Hanseatic towns, particularly the Duchy of Oldenburg. The Duchy was ruled was ruled by regent Duke Peter, father-in-law of Tsar Alexander’s sister, Grand Duchess Catherine Pavlovna, whom Napoleon had wanted to marry before Marie Louise. On 19th December 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 Alexander retaliated by banning some French products in the Russian empire or subjecting them to heavy duties. This too contravened the agreements of Tilsit and Erfurt between the two emperors.

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

Equally important, was Alexander’s mistrust towards Napoleon’s assurances that he had no intention of reestablishing a full Polish state. He had created the Duchy of Warsaw in 1807, and 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. Napoleon had stated in private several times that he had never intended to resuscitate Poland, just for the sake to appease Alexander, but the later didn’t believe him. Just as Napoleon didn’t believe 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 bend the knee through violent means. They had previously clashed at Austerlitz, Eylau, and Friedland, with Napoleon emerging victorious. In all his famous battles, he had crushed the enemy main army, after which he had been free to impose whatever penance he wished on the defeated. There was no reason to think it wouldn’t happen likewise this time. Moreover, he counted on the Ottoman Empire and Sweden (both recently at war with Russia) to tie up Russian units. It is unquestionable that Napoleon was counting on a decisive battle west of the Neman River, the border between then 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 talked of marching to Moscow at this stage. 

Napoleon also expected Austria and Prussia to join him, but unbenknowst to him, they both had given secret assurances to Alexander that they would not attack Russia. 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, resources and history, including the 1709 defeat of Charles XII of Sweden against Peter the Great of Russia 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 soldiers in the biggest army the world had ever seen. 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 territory of the Russian Empire. Napoleon referred to the coming enterprise as the Second Polish Campaign, in hopes of attracting Polish support, and he indeed might even had attracted more, had he decided on restoring Poles to their borders of 1771. On Wednesday June the 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 considered elite troops. 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 starting off. For starters, few except the French and Poles felt any loyalty towards Napoleon, and as a result, their commitment to battle would be compromised in several occasions. Second, the sheer size of the army meant that Napoleon could’t supervise it as closely as he would have liked, thus having to delegate more to his generals. Problem was, many a competent one had died in the course of the years, and although he still counted with more than excellent Marshals such as Davout, the lack of good leadership would plague the Grande Armée from the start. This was soon plain when Jérôme Bonaparte, King of Westphalia, failed to surround 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 would repeat several times during the campaign. The Russians seemed to be in no rush to pitch their tents and face him in the decisive battle he required. This was the strategy of the Russian Minister of War, Barclay de Tolly, to withdraw to the French advance and overstretch their communication lines. The Russian regulars mercilessly scorched their own fields and towns, taking and destroying anything of use to the enemy, while the Cossack cavalry harried the French supply and communication lines. With the French numbers so overwhelmingly superior, it was a necessity to avoid a direct confrontation at this stage. Had Napoleon brought a smaller army, he might have tempted the Russians into pitched battle, for many disliked Barclay de Tolly’s guerrilla approach.    

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 of its huge size: food and water. Belarus and Russia were poor in comparison with the fertile fields of central Europe, with endless swamps, forests and poor roads that turned into rivers of mud with the rain. Heat became atrocious, and the dust the marching soldiers lifted was so thick that drummers had to march at the hed of the battalions to guide them. Water was badly scarce too, and together with packed conditions, manlnutrition, and lice, worsened the outbreaks of dysentery and thyphus (known as war plague). 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 without the Russians attacking in open battle. Not that they simply ran and did nothing else, the Cossacks and irregular cavalry picked stragglers and foraging parties during lightning raids, killing or maiming hundreds every day. And with the 250.000 French horses dying fast for lack of fodder, the Cossacks often rode with impunity.

Despite this, Napoleon marched forward. There exists the possibility that some of Napoleon’s commanders lied to him about the real numbers of sick and starved soldiers, however, it was in Napoleon’s nature to be bold, swift, and ambitious, qualities that in the had past had delivered him astounding victories. It’s more than plausible that he would have kept on even if he had had a full grasp of the worrying situation of the army. Moreover, at this stage he had no intentions of chasing the Russians to Moscow. That, he confided, was the target of a second or even third campaign if necessary. But even as far as Vitebsk, eastern Belarus, Bagration’s army eluded him. By then a third of his central army was lost.

5# Battle of Borodino

Napoleon seriously considered quartering in Vitebsk, and even made preparations. If later he decided on marching on, wasn’t due to madness, 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 winter in Vilnius, where he had the depots. Several of his commanders 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, one of the oldest Russian cities and protecting the road to Moscow itself. And let’s not forget, Napoleon was a doer, a racer. Sitting down and wait for the enemy had never paid him off.  

But in Smolensk the Russians once again retreated in good order after both sides suffered heavy casualties in a hard-fought battle. The French entered the town, or what was left of it after their artillery pulverised it almost completely, in August 18th. By then, all Napoleon’s generals except Davou, and perhaps Murat, wanted to winter in Smolensk or retreat, for Moscow was still 400km away. Again, the restless and confident Napoleon prevailed. Although Moscow was no longer the capital of Russia, that being St Petersburg, he couldn’t conceive that Alexander would abandon the centre and soul of old 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

The Grande Armée resumed its march east. By then, the central force was reduced to 124.000, of which 32.000 were cavalry. Another 40.000 protected their over-stretched supply routes. On August 20th, Napoleon saw his tenacity rewarded when news reached him that Barclay de Tolly had been replaced as commander-in-chief by Mikhail Kutuzov. Barclay de Tolly’s policy of retreat and attrition war hadn’t sit well amongst the soldiers, but Kutuzov stuck to the hated script all the same. A 100km miles west of Moscow, in the village of Borodino, he found the perfect place to wait for the Grande Armée.

He heavily fortified the area and on 7th September 1812, 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 the death of Bagration himself. On that day Napoleon failed to listen to his marshals several times, when they begged thim to unleash his elite reserve, the Imperial Guard, to smash through the extended Russian line. But fearing to lose his only reserves so far from Paris, the opportunity was lost. The daring general of the Battle of the Pyramids, Austerlitz, Jena, Friedland, and Wagram, bowed to caution. His French soldiers won the field when Kutuzov retreated, his army wounded, but not destroyed. The battle was a French victory, but not the victory that Napoleon required.

The Battle of Borodino, 1812. In the centre is Bagration, lying after being mortally wounded, and giving orders. Author: Peter von Hess, 1843. Hermitage Collection. Source

6# Napoleon in Moscow

At first that didn’t seem crucial, for everyone expected Kutuzov to make another stand in front of Moscow. To their bewilderment, he didn’t. On 14th of September, 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 250.000 inhabitants, only 15.000 remained behind. He must have been baffled that the Russians would surrender their symbol city, but nonetheless, he installed himself in the Kremlin, to wait for the Tsar’s offer of peace in exchange for his leaving. But fate hadn’t in store a pleasant stay in the Kremlin for him. 

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 went back on his word on his deathbed. Others suggest conflagrations in a wooden city like Moscow were fairly common in such hot summers, aggravated by the presence of a foreign army, and a lack of a fire brigade. Be as it may, Napoleon had hundreds of arsonists shot, which suggest the fires might have been a combination of all the above.

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

It was such an inferno that even the Kremlin had to be evacuated. 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’. He was right. Alexander had dismissed all his peace offers even before Moscow had turned to ashes. Nonetheless, a part of him must have believed he could still settle things with his old friend the Tsar, otherwise he could have taken actions to seriously harm him, such as emancipating the Russian serfs, which lived under conditions of bondage and indentured servitude. Another indicator is that he unnecessarily prolonged his stay on the remainings of Moscow, waiting for an answer that would never come. As we would later see, it would have been better for the French had the whole of Moscow been destroyed by the fires.

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 hadn’t underestimated the Russian winter, as many are led to believe. He was an avid reader who always, before launching a campaign, held in account and studied all the factors that might affect the performance of his army. Of course, he knew all about the infamous Russian winter, and his calculations were made with readings of the last twenty years, that subzero temperatures would set in around mid November with heavy snow coming much later. But the first snow of the season 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 and back into Lithuania, he decided on marching south, to Kaluga and Tula, to destroy arms factories there, and later reach the warmer and fertile fields of Ukraine. The sea of mud that were the Russian paths in autumn critically slowed his tired army, and halfway to Kaluga, in the town of Maloyaroslavets, Kutuzov clashed against the French with heavy losses for both. At this stage, so far from his own supply lines, Napoleon couldn’t afford more losses, and on reaching this critical juncture, he gathered all his marshals and generals to ask their opinion. Three options were presented to him: either they could try to break through Kutuzov’s position and force their way to Kaluga; return they way they had come, to Smolensk via Borodino and Vyazma; or march west through the undefended Medyn, and into northern Ukraine to swerve north to Smolensk later.

Napoleon decided that he lacked information on this later route, and that Kutuzov would threaten his exposed left flank, whereas he was reluctant to try and break through Kutuzov’s strong position with his dwindling army. Napoleon then, took perhaps the worst option, and what has been regarded by some as the turning point of the campaign, and the most fateful decision of his military career. He decided on retracing his steps, and return to Smolensk via Borodino and Vyazma. A retreat in autumn conditions would have been though, but when subzero temperatures begun in late October, and the first major snowfall desceneded on November 4th―both earlier than expected―Napoleon and his army faced an enemy more implacable than any they had battled before.

A countryside already depleted and ravaged on their advance, offered no food or comfort in the retreat. Soldiers collapsed of exhaustion and died of hunger, they resorted to eat their horses, and when these ran out, there were even recorded instances of cannibalism. Their lack of winter clothes (for nobody had expected a winter campaign) meant that frostbite devoured their fingers, toes, noses, and sexual organs. Their breath turned to icicles, the cold made their wounds gangrenous, and the Cossack cavalry fell upon the stragglers like wolves. Discipline collapsed, soldiers no longer obeyed their officers and many preferred to surrender rather than endure the deadly march. The lucky ones commited suicide, for the Russians, and specially the vengeful peasants and irregulars, made few prisoners. Napoleon himself saw his men falling like flies, surrendering to a pleasant drowsiness, and when that happened, their comrades were unable to stir them up, although most of the time they didn’t even bother to try. It was pure survival that left no space for friendship or the Esprit de Corps that had characterised the French army during the Napoleonic wars.  

8# The beginning of the end

By the time they reached Smolensk on November the 9th, the once mighty army of 297.000 had quickly dwindled to 60.000 men, and with no horses to carry the artillery, they had to spike the cannons and leave them behind. And although they had stored supplies in Smolensk, their ordeal wasn’t over yet. East of there Kutuzov ordered a series of raids and skirmishes in what is now known as the Battle of Krasnoi, and despite the fact that he counted now with double the effectives than the French, Kutuzov still refused to give battle and continued to harass the French flanks and rearguard on their retreat.  

On November 21st, the remants of the Grande Armée reached the eastern bank of the Berezina River, eighty kilometres east of Minsk. But 31.000 Russians under Chichagov were already waiting for them on the west bank, and in Barysaw, they had burnt the only bridge that crossed it. Thus, French soldiers, stragglers, and camp followers, were trapped against the river with Wittgenstein advancing from the north with 30.000 Russians, and Kutuzov marching on their backs with another 40.000. Even then the ragged survivors trusted that Napoleon would get them out of there, proof of the undying loyalty that he inspired in the soldiers.

In a brilliant manoeuvre, Marshal Oudinot drew Chichagov south in a decoying action, while Marshal Victor held Wittgenstein’s men to allow for the Dutch enginners to build pontoons north of Barysaw. The Battle of the Berezina saw a miraculous retreat in -33 degrees, in a freezing water full of ice chunks where the brave engineers worked non-stop to save their comrades-in-arms with their sacrifice. From noon November 27th to 29th, around 50.000 French crossed the 100 metres-long bridges, and Napoleon had 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 all loot taken from Russia.

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

Although he suffered heavy casualties, Napoleon managed to avoid an even bigger catastrophe by fooling Chichagov and brining a substantial portion of his troops safe to the west bank of the Berezina. This would be the last big confrontation of the campaign. The worst had been left behind. Earlier that month he had 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, where he arrived three days later. 

Many had compared it to his abandoning the army in Egypt in 1799, and accused him of cowardice. Notwithstanding the fact that few in his ever-loyal army saw it as betrayal, 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 would cause. The defeat threatened―and would, as time proved―to alienate France’s erstwhile allies, Austria and Prussia, and encourage them to turn against him in his weakened position. Even his long-standing allies of the Rhine Confederation were compromised. It was the beginning of the end for Napoleon and his First French Empire.

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 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 victory, and downplaying 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 had again and again despised them in Spain), and regarded their guerrilla tactics as a coward’s way. However, there was no denying, nor in France’s perception or his own, that this was a serious defeat. The first major defeat of Napoleon in Europe saw a turning point on his fortunes; would drive Prussia by the end of 1812, and Austria next summer, to join a coalition of the United Kingdom, Russia, Sweden, Spain and Portugal. The Sixth Coalition that would wage war against Napoleon and would force him to abdicate in April 1814.  But by early 1813 the situation was bad, not yet hopeless. And Napoleon would go in fighting against increasing, insurmountable obstacles until his final defeat in Waterloo, in 1815.

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