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1812: Napoleon's Invasion of Russia


At the start of 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte dominated most of mainland Europe. By the end of that winter he had destroyed one of the largest armies Europe had yet seen, and the tide of war was turning. He lost it by invading Russia.

France and Russia Return to War

After warring during the French Revolution and early Napoleonic wars, France and Russia had agreed peace at the Treaty of Tilsit. However, it was an uneasy truce, with Russia bound into both an alliance with France it didn’t want, and into a ‘Continental System’ of trade rules and blocks which it felt was damaging the economy. Russia was also smarting over Napoleon’s recent conquest of the north German coast, which included the Duchy of Oldenburg where the Tsar’s sister had married the Crown Duke; in doing so Napoleon had broken the Tilsit agreement.

But the alliance was falling apart all over the place: there was the desire of Tsar Alexander to recast himself as both the liberator of Europe and the man who would beat Napoleon, the risk of assassination if he looked like a French puppet, Tallyrand telling the Tsar to act, a rivalry over land in central Europe (would Napoleon’s expansion of the Duchy of Warsaw lead to demands for Russia to hand Polish land back? – in fact Napoleon was treading carefully here so as not to upset the tsar), rivalry over Scandinavia as Sweden had just given Marshall Bernadotte the prince’s crown, Napoleon’s refusal to support the Tsar’s designs on Constantinople (which would still be part of Russian thinking in 1914), and fears of a French presence in the Balkans (in fact Napoleon was encouraging the Ottomans to fight Russia).

All this led Russia to drift out of the Treaty, pulling out of the Continental System in 1810 and turning back to an alliance with Britain, a vital economic partner. Russia secured its flanks by signing an agreement with Sweden and the Ottomans, freeing 80,000 men for service. Russia had the same population as France, and little industry, but they had space and a large army.

The Armies Form

The Tsar planned an assault on Warsaw to create his own Poland, and although he cancelled the plan, Napoleon was alarmed. Napoleon tried conciliation in 1811 and early 1812, but privately saw war as inevitable, and had been summoning a huge army; he decided to pre-empt Russian aggression by marching into Russia and winning a swift victory, or set of victories, which would bring the Tsar to heel. However this appeared to be the limits of his planning, and any other goal was poorly defined.

He assembled what was probably the largest army Europe had seen to that date, including contingents from every state in his vast European empire; there was even a corps of Austrians. Unfortunately, this army was over the limits of what could be controlled in an age before the wireless or radio. The army was well supplied for the campaign Napoleon hoped for, but poorly supplied for a long campaign, aiming to live off the land and lacking any preparation for winter; Napoleon knew full well what would happen if he didn’t get a result quickly, but went ahead anyway. When the Russian retreat turned into a scorched earth policy – more through desperation than planning - and delayed the French into winter the result was logistical disaster. Meanwhile Russia formed up two armies, led by Barclay de Tolly and Bagration. The stage was set for renewed war, but for Napoleon things could not have gone more wrong.

Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia

With an army of at around 600,000, (300,000 French, 130,000 German, plus 1000s of others, and 270,000 left in Spain) Napoleon crossed the Niemen on June 24th and advanced against the Russian armies, the largest of which was led by Barclay de Tolly. Napoleon had 250,000 himself as the north wing, Beauharnais had 80,000 in the centre, Jerome had 80,000 in the south / right wing. Other units were on the flanks and behind. Had Tolly fought, the war would surely have been over. But he eschewed combat and led the Russians on a constant retreat, and although Napoleon tried to outflank them, the failure of Jerome to pin the enemy caused such an argument that he quit (Davout took over). With battles at Smolensk (Tolly was smarting from complaints about the retreat and tried to attack) and Valutino, the Russians managed to keep moving backwards.

Napoleon tried to stop them linking, but they managed to unite. As the advance / retreat went on, the French wings united into one force under Napoleon. The army was already losing men to disease, heat and desertion, aided by the army stretching out. Napoleon thought of stopping, but felt his regime might not last with him absent for so long and the army already so far away. Meanwhile there was concern in the Russian camp and Kutuzov was placed in charge, and finally the Russians ended their retreat at Borodino, with the prize for victory being Moscow.

The Battle of Borodino / The Battle for Moscow was fought on September 7th. The Grand Army had declined and matched Russian numbers. Napoleon was off form – his drive and imagination were beginning to fade – and his troops weren’t as well trained as those who executed the early marches of his career, so he eschewed a large southern flanking manoeuvre suggested by Davout, and Poniatowski could not achieve one with what he was given, so they attacked as a forward marching bludgeon despite the enemy’s odd deployment; the result was one of the bloodiest single days in Europe’s military history. Late on Napoleon asked his marshals for advice – an out of character move – and he decline to commit the guard. Bagration was killed, and the Russians decided to withdraw, keeping their army alive and knowing Napoleon was weakening. Napoleon’s army was too tired to pursue.

Napoleon was now able to march into Moscow on September 14th, but it was a pyrrhic victory, as the Russians had abandoned the city and burnt vast areas of it down. The Tsar wept at the news but stayed firm.

The Retreat

Moscow was damaged, and the French forces were ill-equipped to spend the impending winter there. But as Napoleon waited in his conquest, hoping for the Russians to come to terms, - he wrote to the tsar asking him to negotiate - perhaps struck with a malaise, the days passed. He had confused Russia’s scorched earth retreat for an exploitable weakness, had failed to provide adequate supply, become perplexed he wasn’t given the chance at a decisive battle, and waited too long, and when he ordered the retreat the Russian winter was ready. Napoleon tried to take a different route back, but the Russian’s forced him to retire over the same devastated ground he had come through.

Over the next few weeks, a combination of biting winter, widespread hunger, constant harassment (from Russian soldiers and partisans) worked to destroy the minds and bodies of France’s once Grand Army. Militarily, the French were wounded at Maloyaroslavets, had a section nearly surrounded at Krasnyi, and faced destroyed bridges at Berezina thanks to a Russian army on the other side, but managed to cross on two temporary pontoons on November 26th – 28th ; this ended in a Russian attack, and tens of thousands of soldiers and most of the civilians were caught. Napoleon was tired, in a fugue, but displayed his old ability fleetingly in the crossing. There is a suggestion the Russians might have eased off to prevent the ultimate destruction of Napoleon and the collapse of France.

Napoleon now had to return to Paris to quell unrest which included a plot to usurp him, and organise a fresh army to face the coming invasion of his empire. Murat was left in charge but he faltered, and organisation vanished among the survivors. Murat marched out of Vilna and places he might have held and after Russia took Vilna and the army lost 25,000 sick and wounded, Murat gave up and handed control to Beauharnais. The Russians finally ended their chase as Napoleon re-crossed the Niemen, but his massive army was to all practical purposes destroyed. Roughly 40,000 men of the main army and 70,000 of the flanking forces survived, but an estimated 160,000 horses had died and France’s cavalry was severely and damaged. Russia had lost 200,000 men, and their army was down to 40,000 effectives.

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