|Napoleon - by Ingres|
Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia in 1812 was a military disaster: he did not have in place the correct logistical infrastructure. The French did not comprehend the willingness of the Russians to deploy scorched-earth tactics, and, despite never losing a major pitched battle before taking Moscow, within six months Napoleon had retreated from Russia. When nearly 650,000 French, German and Polish soldiers marched into Russia across the Niemen River on the political excuse of liberating the Duchy of Warsaw (now eastern Poland and parts of Lithuania and Belarus) from the threat of the Russian Empire, they were victorious in a number of skirmishes, and Napoleon believed that a quick and decisive victory was on the cards, and taking Moscow, the spiritual and ancient capital of the Russian people, would bring the Tsar to negotiations. He could have not been more wrong. The Russian Empire at the time covered a vast area, covering the majority of modern day Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine, and parts of Finland and Poland. Napoleon had already behind him numerous successful military campaigns: the 1805 Battle of Austerlitz is a prime example, known as the ‘Battle of the three Emperors’, it saw Tsar Alexander I and Holy Roman Emperor Francis II decisively defeated by Napoleon, and it dissolved the once glorious Holy Roman Empire. Russia was not going to suffer the same fate.
After advancing into the Russian Empire in the summer of 1812, he took both Vilnius (now capital of Lithuania) in late June, then Vitebsk (now in Eastern Belarus) in late July, encountering little resistance, after the cities had been largely abandoned by the Russians. By mid-August, he reached Smolensk (in western Russia), roughly 400km from Moscow, having lost thousands of men both in battle at Smolensk and in skirmishes and also as a result of insect-borne diseases such as typhus and water-related diseases like dysentery which had been perpetuated during the summer months. Furthermore, whilst there was not any major engagement with the Russian Imperial Army as yet apart from at Smolensk, the Cossacks had been ordered to disrupt supply lines. Following the Russian withdrawal from Smolensk, the Cossacks burnt crops and villages so that it was a logistically impossible task for the French to keep the Grand Armée adequately supplied, leading some soldiers to wander off in search of food, leaving them ripe for the slaughter to parties of Cossacks. Disease and starvation was rife, but Napoleon’s army stayed together. For now.7th September saw the largest and bloodiest single-day action of the Napoleonic Wars, involving more than 250,000 soldiers and resulting in 70,000 casualties – the Battle of Borodino (just seventy miles west of Moscow). About a third of Napoleon's soldiers were killed or wounded; and whilst the figures were higher for the Russian General Kutuzov’s army, it is clear that it was considerably easier for the Russians to repopulate their ranks on home soil. It is said that roughly three cannon booms and seven musket shots rang out each second during the battle of Borodino.
The French were victorious, but at the cost of 49 general officers and thousands of men. The Russian Imperial army was able to withdraw the following day, leaving the French without the decisive victory Napoleon sought; the huge number of lost men combined with the prospect of Tsar Alexander I not signing any treaty and with constant Cossack raids and a significant lack of sufficient supply lines, the morale of the Grand Armée was slipping. In addition, the Russian Winter was now setting in. By retreating, the Russians left open the road to Moscow and by 14th September 1812, Napoleon arrived in Moscow, only to see it become engulfed in flames, and all but abandoned. He was not greeted by any city delegation as was customary when seizing a city, having expected the keys to the Kremlin be brought to him on Poklonnaya Hill (literally meaning ‘bow-down hill’), where it was customary for those from the west to pay homage. It was clear that, having not received any capitulation from Tsar Alexander I, the Russian people and Command was not going to discuss terms and sue for peace. Vast quantities of alcohol had been left in Moscow but very little food and an estimated four-fifths of the city had been consumed by flames. French troops drank and pillaged while Napoleon waited for Alexander to sue for peace. It never came, and winter was approaching. Napoleon knew it would be nearly impossible for his whole host to survive the winter in Moscow.
The Russian Imperial Army had moved south, not east, and waited, having avoided its utter destruction by leaving the field at Borodino. Conversely, the Grand Armée was by this time warn out and low on morale having been promised Moscow and finding it left in such a state. Napoleon was now down to some 100,000 troops, the rest having died, deserted or been wounded, captured or left along the supply line. Now realising that winter was well and truly starting, with snow flurries falling, Napoleon realised that he had come so far east into the Russian Empire, that, with Cossack raiding parties, and with the routes becoming ‘rasputitsa’, where the roads become cold bogs making them particularly difficult to walk over, he would not be able to hold out in Moscow for the duration of the harsh winter. He had to retreat if he was to survive. Approximately 100,000 - 200,000 of his soldiers were already dead or hospitalized due to disease and exhaustion just getting to Moscow, and he was now forced to leave the city after roughly a month waiting for the Tsar to come to the table.
Originally he planned a southerly retreat, but was forced back to the original road they took after a replenished Russian army engaged them at Maloyaroslavets, and despite nominally winning the battle, Napoleon realised he would have to retreat back through Mozhaysk and Smolensk, the way he had come. He could not retreat south, only west. Along this road, the vast majority of forage and remnants of food and supplies had already been used. Horses were dying at an alarming rate, and the Grande Armée’s flanks and rear guard faced constant attacks from Cossacks and local militias. An unusually early winter set in: high winds, sub-zero temperatures the ground was a blanket of snow. On particularly bad nights, thousands of men and horses lay exposed to the elements. Stories abound of soldiers splitting open dead animals and crawling inside for warmth, or stacking dead bodies in windows for insulation, mass starvation and hypothermia set into Napoleon’s ranks, who had set out in the summer months. Thousands died in their sleep overcome by exhaustion and exposure to the elements. The army was equipped with summer clothing, and did not have the means to keep it protected from the cold of the Russian winter. Moreover, without horses, the cavalry had to march, and cannons and equipment which could not be carried were simply dumped thus reducing the potency of the Grand Armée even further. Desertion was common-place, and those who did so often found themselves being lynched by Russian peasants, with stories of soldiers being skinned or boiled alive. 8,000 French were killed or wounded at Vyazma on 3rd November, 6,000–13,000 killed and 20,000–26,000 captured at Krasnoi between 15th-18th November and a further 8,000 at Polotsk between 18th-20th November.Now out of what is modern day Russia, Napoleon had to cross the Berezina River (now in Belarus). During four days; French casualties numbered between 25,000 to 40,000 people (most likely 30,000), including civilians of whom around 10,000 were massacred by Cossacks. They had to construct a 100-metre bridge like structure to cross the thawing frozen river, whilst the Swiss held off attacks from the Russians. Whilst Napoleon and his Imperial Guard managed to cross the river, the French suffered heavy casualties, and the Russians successfully inflicted damage and drove them further out of the Empire towards Poland, although they did not successfully manage to trap the French, narrowly escaping complete annihilation, they severely weakened it and drove morale to a new low. Russian cannons opened fire as the remnants of the Grand Armée crossed the Berezina.
By the time the army crossed back into Poland on 7th December less than 100,000 exhausted, tattered, broken and malnourished soldiers remained of the 600,000 proud soldiers who crossed the Niemen a mere five months before. Napoleon had left his army on 5th December to return to Paris to deal with reports of a coup launched by General Claude François de Malet, and then to raise another army to again fight the Sixth Coalition (Austria, Prussia, Russia, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Sweden, Spain and various German States). He was decisively beaten at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, and in 1814 the Coalition marched into Paris, ending his reign and exiling him to Elba. He arrived back in Paris on 20th March 1815 having escaped and ruled for what is known as the ‘Hundred Days of Napoleon’, but was crushed at the Battle of Waterloo, and abdicated on the 22nd June 1815, and surrendered to Captain Frederick Maitland of HMS Bellerophon on 15th July then he was transported to England, and then exiled to the Island of St Helena where he died in 1821.
The powerful 1812 Overture of Tchaikovsky celebrates Russia’s defence of the Motherland: