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French invasion of Russia
|French invasion of Russia|
|Part of the Napoleonic Wars|
Clockwise from top left:
Russian Empire Supported by :United Kingdom
|Commanders and leaders|
| French Army
449,000 First wave 
| Russian Army
198,000 First wave
|Casualties and losses|
| Total military and civilian deaths:
On 24 June 1812 and the following days, the first wave of the multinational Grande Armée crossed the border into Russia with around 400,000–450,000 soldiers, the opposing Russian field forces amounted to around 180,000–200,000 at this time. Through a series of long forced marches, Napoleon pushed his army rapidly through Western Russia in a futile attempt to destroy the retreating Russian Army of Michael Andreas Barclay de Tolly, winning just the Battle of Smolensk in August. Under its new Commander in Chief Mikhail Kutuzov, the Russian Army continued to retreat employing attrition warfare against Napoleon forcing the invaders to rely on a supply system that was incapable of feeding their large army in the field.
The direful Battle of Borodino, seventy miles (110 km) west of Moscow, was a narrow French victory that resulted in a Russian general withdrawal to the south of Moscow near Kaluga. On 14 September, Napoleon and his army of about 100,000 men occupied Moscow, only to find it abandoned, and the city was soon ablaze. Napoleon stayed in Moscow for 5 weeks, waiting for a peace offer that never came. Lack of food for the men and fodder for the horses, hypothermia from the bitter cold and guerilla warfare from Russian peasants and Cossacks led to great losses. Three days after the Battle of Berezina, only around 10,000 soldiers of the main army remained. On 5 December, Napoleon left the army and returned to Paris.
The Treaty of Schönbrunn, which ended the 1809 war between Austria and France, had a clause removing Western Galicia from Austria and annexing it to the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. Russia viewed this as against its interests and as a potential launching point for an invasion of Russia.
Napoleon had tried to get better Russian cooperation through an alliance by seeking to marry Anna Pavlovna, the youngest sister of Alexander. But finally he married the daughter of the Austrian emperor instead. On 20 March 1811 Napoleon II (Napoléon François Joseph Charles Bonaparte) was born as the son of Emperor Napoleon I and Empress Marie Louise becoming Prince Imperial of France and King of Rome since birth.
Napoleon himself was not in the same physical and mental state as in years past. He had become overweight and increasingly prone to various maladies.
Declaration of war
Officially Napoleon announced the following proclamation:
Soldiers, the second Polish war is begun. The first terminated at Friedland; and at Tilsit Russia vowed an eternal alliance with France, and war with the English. She now breaks her vows, and refuses to give any explanation of her strange conduct until the French eagles have repassed the Rhine, and left our allies at her mercy. Russia is hurried away by a fatality: her destinies will be fulfilled. Does she think us degenerated? Are we no more the soldiers who fought at Austerlitz? She places us between dishonour and war — our choice cannot be difficult. Let us then march forward; let us cross the Niemen and carry the war into her country. This second Polish war will be as glorious for the French arms as the first has been; but the peace we shall conclude shall carry with it its own guarantee, and will terminate the fatal influence which Russia for fifty years past has exercised in Europe.
The invasion of Russia clearly and dramatically demonstrates the importance of logistics in military planning, especially when the land will not provide for the number of troops deployed in an area of operations far exceeding the experience of the invading army. Napoleon made extensive preparations for provisioning his army. The French supply effort was far greater than in any of the previous campaigns. Twenty train battalions, comprising 7,848 vehicles, were to provide a 40-day supply for the Grande Armée and its operations, and a large system of magazines were established in towns and cities in Poland and East Prussia. The Vistula river valley was built up in 1811–1812 as a supply base. Intendant General Guillaume-Mathieu Dumas established five lines of supply from the Rhine to the Vistula. French-controlled Germany and Poland were organized into three arrondissements with their own administrative headquarters. The logistical buildup that followed was a critical test of Napoleon's administrative and logistical skill, who devoted his efforts during the first half of 1812 largely to the provisioning of his invasion army. Napoleon studied Russian geography and the history of Charles XII's invasion of 1708–1709 and understood the need to bring forward as many supplies as possible. The French Army already had previous experience of operating in the lightly populated and underdeveloped conditions of Poland and East Prussia during the War of the Fourth Coalition in 1806–1807.
However, nothing was to go as planned, because Napoleon had failed to take into account conditions that were totally different from what he had known so far.
Napoleon and the Grande Armée were used to living off the land, which had worked well in the densely populated and agriculturally rich central Europe with its dense network of roads. Rapid forced marches had dazed and confused old-order Austrian and Prussian armies and much use had been made of foraging. Forced marches in Russia often made troops do without supplies as the supply wagons struggled to keep up; furthermore, horse-drawn wagons and artillery were stalled by lack of roads which often turned to mud due to rainstorms. Lack of food and water in thinly populated, much less agriculturally dense regions led to the death of troops and their mounts by exposing them to waterborne diseases from drinking from mud puddles and eating rotten food and forage. The front of the army received whatever could be provided while the formations behind starved.
the most advanced magazine in the operations area during the attack phase was Vilnius, beyond that point, the army was on its own.
Compare on Minard's Map the location of Vilnius.
A massive arsenal was established in Warsaw. Artillery was concentrated at Magdeburg, Danzig, Stettin, Küstrin and Glogau. Magdeburg contained a siege artillery train with 100 heavy guns and stored 462 cannons, two million paper cartridges and 300,000 pounds/135 tonnes of gunpowder; Danzig had a siege train with 130 heavy guns and 300,000 pounds of gunpowder; Stettin contained 263 guns, a million cartridges and 200,000 pounds/90 tonnes of gunpowder; Küstrin contained 108 guns and a million cartridges; Glogau contained 108 guns, a million cartridges and 100,000 pounds/45 tonnes of gunpowder. Warsaw, Danzig, Modlin, Thorn and Marienburg became ammunition and supply depots as well.
Provisions and transportation
Danzig contained enough provisions to feed 400,000 men for 50 days. Breslau, Plock and Wyszogród were turned into grain depots, milling vast quantities of flour for delivery to Thorn, where 60,000 biscuits were produced every day. A large bakery was established at Villenberg. 50,000 cattle were collected to follow the army. After the invasion began, large magazines were constructed at Vilnius, Kaunas and Minsk, with the Vilnius base having enough rations to feed 100,000 men for 40 days. It also contained 27,000 muskets, 30,000 pairs of shoes along with brandy and wine. Medium-sized depots were established at Smolensk, Vitebsk and Orsha, and several small ones throughout the Russian interior. The French also captured numerous intact Russian supply dumps, which the Russians had failed to destroy or empty, and Moscow itself was filled with food. Twenty train battalions provided most of the transportation, with a combined load of 8,390 tons. Twelve of these battalions had a total of 3,024 heavy wagons drawn by four horses each, four had 2,424 one-horse light wagons and four had 2,400 wagons drawn by oxen. Auxiliary supply convoys were formed on Napoleon's orders in early June 1812, using vehicles requisitioned in East Prussia. Marshal Nicolas Oudinot's IV Corps alone took 600 carts formed into six companies. The wagon trains were supposed to carry enough bread, flour and medical supplies for 300,000 men for two months.
The standard heavy wagons, well-suited for the dense and partially paved road networks of Germany and France, proved too cumbersome for the sparse and primitive Russian dirt tracks. The supply route from Smolensk to Moscow was therefore entirely dependent on light wagons with small loads. Central to the problem were the expanding distances to supply magazines and the fact that no supply wagon could keep up with a forced marched infantry column. The weather itself became an issue, where, according to historian Richard K. Riehn:
The thunderstorms of the 24th [of June] turned into other downpours, turning the tracks—some diarists claim there were no roads in Lithuania—into bottomless mires. Wagons sank up to their hubs; horses dropped from exhaustion; men lost their boots. Stalled wagons became obstacles that forced men around them and stopped supply wagons and artillery columns. Then came the sun which would bake the deep ruts into canyons of concrete, where horses would break their legs and wagons their wheels.
The heavy losses to disease, hunger and desertion in the early months of the campaign were in large part due to the inability to transport provisions quickly enough to the troops.The Intendance administration failed to distribute with sufficient rigor the supplies that were built up or captured. By that, despite all these preparations, the Grande Armée was not self-sufficient logistically and still depended on foraging to a significant extent.
Inadequate supplies played a key role in the losses suffered by the army as well. Davidov and other Russian campaign participants record wholesale surrenders of starving members of the Grande Armée even before the onset of the frosts. Caulaincourt describes men swarming over and cutting up horses that slipped and fell, even before the horse had been killed. There were even eyewitness reports of cannibalism. The French simply were unable to feed their army. Starvation led to a general loss of cohesion. Constant harassment of the French Army by Cossacks added to the losses during the retreat.
Though starvation caused horrendous casualties in Napoleon's army, losses arose from other sources as well. The main body of Napoleon's Grande Armée diminished by a third in just the first eight weeks of the campaign, before the major battle was fought. This loss in strength was in part due to diseases such as diphtheria, dysentery and typhus and the need to garrison supply centers.
Combat service and support and medicine
Nine pontoon companies, three pontoon trains with 100 pontoons each, two companies of marines, nine sapper companies, six miner companies and an engineer park were deployed for the invasion force. Large-scale military hospitals were created at Warsaw, Thorn, Breslau, Marienburg, Elbing and Danzig, while hospitals in East Prussia had beds for 28,000.
Following the campaign a saying arose that the Generals Janvier and Février (January and February) defeated Napoleon, alluding to the Russian Winter. Minard's map shows that the opposite is true as the French losses were highest in the summer and autumn, due to inadequate preparation of logistics resulting in insufficient supplies, while many troops were also killed by disease. Thus the outcome of the campaign was decided long before the weather became a factor.
Once winter eventually arrived, the army was still equipped with summer clothing, in spite of a 5 week stay at Moscow, and did not have the means to protect themselves from the cold. It had also failed to forge caulkin shoes for the horses to enable them to traverse roads that had become iced over. The most devastating effect of the cold weather upon Napoleon's forces occurred during their retreat. Starvation coupled with hypothermia led to the loss of tens of thousands of men. In his memoir, Napoleon's close adviser Armand de Caulaincourt recounted scenes of massive loss, and offered a vivid description of mass death through hypothermia:
The cold was so intense that bivouacking was no longer supportable. Bad luck to those who fell asleep by a campfire! Furthermore, disorganization was perceptibly gaining ground in the Guard. One constantly found men who, overcome by the cold, had been forced to drop out and had fallen to the ground, too weak or too numb to stand. Ought one to help them along – which practically meant carrying them. They begged one to let them alone. There were bivouacs all along the road – ought one to take them to a campfire? Once these poor wretches fell asleep they were dead. If they resisted the craving for sleep, another passer-by would help them along a little farther, thus prolonging their agony for a short while, but not saving them, for in this condition the drowsiness engendered by cold is irresistibly strong. Sleep comes inevitably, and sleep is to die. I tried in vain to save a number of these unfortunates. The only words they uttered were to beg me, for the love of God, to go away and let them sleep. To hear them, one would have thought sleep was their salvation. Unhappily, it was a poor wretch's last wish. But at least he ceased to suffer, without pain or agony. Gratitude, and even a smile, was imprinted on his discoloured lips. What I have related about the effects of extreme cold, and of this kind of death by freezing, is based on what I saw happen to thousands of individuals. The road was covered with their corpses.
This befell a Grande Armée that was ill-equipped for cold weather. The Russians, properly equipped, considered it a relatively mild winter – the Berezina river was not frozen during the last major battle of the campaign; the French deficiencies in equipment caused by the assumption that their campaign would be concluded before the cold weather set in were a large factor in the number of casualties they suffered.
Napoleon lacked the apparatus to efficiently move so many troops across such large distances of hostile territory. The supply depots established by the French in the Russian interior were too far behind the main army. The French train battalions tried to move forward huge amounts of supplies during the campaign, but the distances, the speed required, and missing endurance of the requisitioned vehicles that broke down too easily meant that the demands Napoleon placed on them were too great. Napoleon's demand of a speedy advance by the Grande Armée over a network of dirt roads that dissolved into deep mires resulted in killing already exhausted horses and breaking wagons. As the graph of Charles Joseph Minard, given below, shows, the Grande Armée incurred the majority of its losses during the march to Moscow during the summer and autumn.
Crossing the Russian border
The invasion commenced on 24 June 1812 with Napoleon's army crossing the border on schedule with around 400,000 to 450,000 men into Russia:
1. The left wing under Macdonald with the X corps of 30,000 men crossed the Niemen at Tilsit towards Riga defended by 10,000.
X corps of Macdonald 30,000
2. The centre under Napoleon Buonaparte with 297,000 men crossed the Niemen at Kaunas/Pilona towards Barclay's first army of 90,000.
Guards of Mortier 47,000
I corps of Davout 72,000
II corps of Oudinot 37,000
III corps of Ney 39,000
IV corps of Eugene 45,000
VI corps of St. Cyr 25,000
Cavalry corps of Murat 32,000
3. The second centre under Jérôme Bonaparte with 78,000 men crossed the Niemen near Grodno towards Bagration's second army of 55,000.
V corps of Poniatowski 36,000
VII corps of Reynier 17,000
VIII corps of Vandamme 17,000
Cavalry corps of Latour Maubourg 8,000
4. The right wing under Schwarzenberg crossed the Bug near Drohyczyn towards Tormasow's third army of 35,000.
Auxiliary corps of Schwarzenberg 34,000
In the course of the campaign, the IX corps of Victor with 33,000, the divisions Durutte and Loison with 27,000 as part of the XI reserve corps, other reinforcements of 80,000 and the baggage trains with 30,000 men followed the 440,000 of the first wave.
IX corps of Victor 33,000
XI corps of Augerau parts of the reserve
Napoleon's army had entered Russia in 1812 with more than 600,000 men, 180,000 horses and 1,300 pieces of artillery.
In January 1813 the French army gathered behind the Vistula some 23,000 strong. The Austrian and Prussian troops mustered some 35,000 men in addition. The numbers of deserters and stragglers having left Russia alive is unknown by definition. The number of new inhabitants of Russia is unknown. The number of prisoners is estimated around 100,000, of whom more than 50,000 died in captivity.
Napoleon lost more than 500,000 men in Russia.
March on Vilnius
Napoleon initially met little resistance and moved quickly into the enemy's territory in spite of the transport of more than 1,100 cannons, being opposed by the Russian armies with more than 900 cannons. But the roads in this area of Lithuania were actually small dirt tracks through areas of dense forest. At the beginning of the war supply lines already simply could not keep up with the forced marches of the corps and rear formations always suffered the worst privations.
The 25th of June found Napoleon's group past the bridgehead with Ney's command approaching the existing crossings at Alexioten. Murat's reserve cavalry provided the vanguard with Napoleon the guard and Davout's 1st corps following behind. Eugene's command crossed the Niemen further north at Piloy, and MacDonald crossed the same day. Jerome's command wouldn't complete its crossing at Grodno until the 28th. Napoleon rushed towards Vilnius, pushing the infantry forward in columns that suffered from heavy rain, then stifling heat. The central group marched 70 miles (110 km) in two days. Ney's III Corps marched down the road to Sudervė, with Oudinot marching on the other side of the Neris River in an operation attempting to catch General Wittgenstein's command between Ney, Oudinout and Macdonald's commands, but Macdonald's command was late in arriving at an objective too far away and the opportunity vanished. Jerome was tasked with tackling Bagration by marching to Grodno and Reynier's VII corps sent to Białystok in support.
The Russian headquarters was in fact centered in Vilnius on June 24 and couriers rushed news about the crossing of the Niemen to Barclay de Tolley. Before the night had passed, orders were sent out to Bagration and Platov to take the offensive. Alexander left Vilnius on June 26 and Barclay assumed overall command. Although Barclay wanted to give battle, he assessed it as a hopeless situation and ordered Vilnius's magazines burned and its bridge dismantled. Wittgenstein moved his command to Perkele, passing beyond Macdonald and Oudinot's operations with Wittgenstein's rear guard clashing with Oudinout's forward elements. Doctorov on the Russian Left found his command threatened by Phalen's III cavalry corps. Bagration was ordered to Vileyka, which moved him towards Barclay, though the order's intent is still something of a mystery to this day.
On June 28, Napoleon entered Vilnius with only light skirmishing. The foraging in Lithuania proved hard as the land was mostly barren and forested. The supplies of forage were less than that of Poland, and two days of forced marching made a bad supply situation worse. Central to the problem were the expanding distances to supply magazines and the fact that no supply wagon could keep up with a forced marched infantry column. The weather itself became an issue, where, according to historian Richard K. Riehn:
The thunderstorms of the 24th turned into other downpours, turning the tracks—some diarists claim there were no roads in Lithuania—into bottomless mires. Wagon sank up to their hubs; horses dropped from exhaustion; men lost their boots. Stalled wagons became obstacles that forced men around them and stopped supply wagons and artillery columns. Then came the sun which would bake the deep ruts into canyons of concrete, where horses would break their legs and wagons their wheels.
A Lieutenant Mertens—a Württemberger serving with Ney's III corps—reported in his diary that oppressive heat followed by rain left them with dead horses and camping in swamp-like conditions with dysentery and influenza raging though the ranks with hundreds in a field hospital that had to be set up for the purpose. He reported the times, dates and places of events, reporting thunderstorms on June 6 and men dying of sunstroke by the 11th.
Desertion was high among Spanish and Portuguese formations. These deserters proceeded to terrorize the population, looting whatever lay to hand. The areas in which the Grande Armée passed were devastated. A Polish officer reported that areas around him were depopulated.
The French light cavalry was shocked to find itself outclassed by Russian counterparts, so much so that Napoleon had ordered that infantry be provided as back up to French light cavalry units. This affected both French reconnaissance and intelligence operations. Despite 30,000 cavalry, contact was not maintained with Barclay's forces, leaving Napoleon guessing and throwing out columns to find his opposition.
The operation intended to split Bagration's forces from Barclay's forces by driving to Vilnius had cost the French forces 25,000 losses from all causes in a few days. Strong probing operations were advanced from Vilnius towards Nemenčinė, Mykoliškės, Ashmyany and Molėtai.
Eugene crossed at Prenn on June 30, while Jerome moved VII Corps to Białystok, with everything else crossing at Grodno. Murat advanced to Nemenčinė on July 1, running into elements of Doctorov's III Russian Cavalry Corps en route to Djunaszev. Napoleon assumed this was Bagration's 2nd Army and rushed out, before being told it was not 24 hours later. Napoleon then attempted to use Davout, Jerome, and Eugene out on his right in a hammer and anvil to catch Bagration to destroy the 2nd Army in an operation spanning Ashmyany and Minsk. This operation had failed to produce results on his left before with Macdonald and Oudinot. Doctorov had moved from Djunaszev to Svir, narrowly evading French forces, with 11 regiments and a battery of 12 guns heading to join Bagration when moving too late to stay with Doctorov.
Conflicting orders and lack of information had almost placed Bagration in a bind marching into Davout; however, Jerome could not arrive in time over the same mud tracks, supply problems, and weather, that had so badly affected the rest of the Grande Armée, losing 9000 men in four days. Command disputes between Jerome and General Vandamme would not help the situation. Bagration joined with Doctorov and had 45,000 men at Novi-Sverzen by the 7th. Davout had lost 10,000 men marching to Minsk and would not attack Bagration without Jerome joining him. Two French Cavalry defeats by Platov kept the French in the dark and Bagration was no better informed, with both overestimating the other's strength: Davout thought Bagration had some 60,000 men and Bagration thought Davout had 70,000. Bagration was getting orders from both Alexander's staff and Barclay (which Barclay didn't know) and left Bagration without a clear picture of what was expected of him and the general situation. This stream of confused orders to Bagration had him upset with Barclay, which would have repercussions later.
Napoleon reached Vilnius on 28 June, leaving 10,000 dead horses in his wake. These horses were vital to bringing up further supplies to an army in desperate need. Napoleon had supposed that Alexander would sue for peace at this point and was to be disappointed; it would not be his last disappointment. Barclay continued to retreat to the Drissa, deciding that the concentration of the 1st and 2nd armies was his first priority.
Barclay continued his retreat and, with the exception of the occasional rearguard clash, remained unhindered in his movements ever further east. To date, the standard methods of the Grande Armée were working against it. Rapid forced marches quickly caused desertion and starvation, and exposed the troops to filthy water and disease, while the logistics trains lost horses by the thousands, further exacerbating the problems. Some 50,000 stragglers and deserters became a lawless mob warring with local peasantry in all-out guerrilla war, which further hindered supplies reaching the Grand Armée, which was already down 95,000 men.
Kutuzov in Command
Barclay, the Russian commander-in-chief, refused to fight despite Bagration's urgings. Several times he attempted to establish a strong defensive position, but each time the French advance was too quick for him to finish preparations and he was forced to retreat once more. When the French Army progressed further, it encountered serious problems in foraging, aggravated by scorched earth tactics of the Russian forces advocated by Karl Ludwig von Phull.
Political pressure on Barclay to give battle and the general's continuing reluctance to do so led to his removal after the defeat at the Battle of Smolensk (1812) on August 16–18. He was replaced in his position as commander-in-chief by the popular, veteran Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov. Kutuzov, however, went on with Barclay's strategy, using attrition warfare against Napoleon instead of risking the army in an open battle. The Russian Army fell back ever deeper into Russia's interior as he continued to move east while intensifying the guerilla warfare of the Cossacks. Unable because of politial pressure to give up Moscow without a fight, Kutuzov took up a defensive position some 75 miles (121 km) before Moscow at Borodino. Meanwhile, French plans to quarter at Smolensk were abandoned, and Napoleon pressed his army on after the Russians.
The Battle of Borodino
The Battle of Borodino, fought on 7 September 1812, was the largest and bloodiest battle of the French invasion of Russia, involving more than 250,000 troops and resulting in at least 70,000 casualties. The French Grande Armée under Emperor Napoleon I attacked the Imperial Russian Army of General Mikhail Kutuzov near the village of Borodino, west of the town of Mozhaysk, and eventually captured the main positions on the battlefield but failed to destroy the Russian army. About a third of Napoleon's soldiers were killed or wounded; Russian losses, while heavier, could be replaced due to Russia's large population, since Napoleon's campaign took place on Russian soil.
The battle ended with the Russian Army, while out of position, still offering resistance. The state of exhaustion of the French forces and the lack of recognition of the state of the Russian Army led Napoleon to remain on the battlefield with his army, instead of engaging in the forced pursuit that had marked other campaigns that he had conducted. The entirety of the Guard was still available to Napoleon, and in refusing to use it he lost this singular chance to destroy the Russian Army. The battle at Borodino was a pivotal point in the campaign, as it was the last offensive action fought by Napoleon in Russia. By withdrawing, the Russian Army preserved its combat strength, eventually allowing it to force Napoleon out of the country.
The Battle of Borodino on September 7 was the bloodiest day of battle in the Napoleonic Wars. The Russian Army could only muster half of its strength on September 8. Kutuzov chose to act in accordance with his scorched earth tactics and retreat, leaving the road to Moscow open. Kutuzov also ordered the evacuation of the city.
By this point the Russians had managed to draft large numbers of reinforcements into the army, bringing total Russian land forces to their peak strength in 1812 of 904,000, with perhaps 100,000 in the vicinity of Moscow—the remnants of Kutuzov's army from Borodino partially reinforced.
Both armies began to move and rebuild. The Russian retreat was significant for two reasons: firstly, the move was to the south and not the east; secondly, the Russians immediately began operations that would continue to deplete the French forces. Platov, commanding the rear guard on September 8, offered such strong resistance that Napoleon remained on the Borodino field. On the following day, Miloradovitch assumed command of the rear guard, adding his forces to the formation.
The French Army began to move out on September 10 with the still ill Napoleon not leaving until the 12th. The main quarter of the Russian army was situated in Bolshiye Vyazyomy. Here Mikhail Kutuzov wrote a number of orders and letters to Fyodor Rostopchin and organized the withdrawal from Moscow. 12 September [O.S. 31 August] 1812 the main forces of Kutuzov arrived at Fili (Moscow). On the same day Napoleon Bonaparte arrived at Bolshiye Vyazyomy and slept in the main manor house (on the same sofa in the library). Napoleon left the next morning and headed direction Moscow. Some 18,000 men were ordered in from Smolensk, and Marshal Victor's corps supplied another 25,000. Miloradovich would not give up his rearguard duties until September 14, allowing Moscow to be evacuated. Miloradovich finally retreated under a flag of truce.
Capture of Moscow
On September 14, 1812, Napoleon moved into Moscow. However, he was surprised to have received no delegation from the city. Before the order was received to evacuate Moscow, the city had a population of approximately 270,000 people. 48 hours later three quarters of Moscow was reduced to ashes by arson. Although Saint Petersburg was the political capital at that time, Napoleon had occupied Moscow, the spiritual capital of Russia, but Tsar Alexander I decided that there could not be a peaceful coexistence with Napoleon. There would be no appeasement.
On October 19th, after 5 weeks of occupation, Napoleon left Moscow. The army still numbered 108,000 men, but his cavalry had been nearly destroyed. With horses exhausted or dead, commanders redirected cavalrymen into infantry units, leaving French forces helpless against Cossack fighters. With little direction or supplies, the army turned to leave the region, struggling on toward worse disaster.
Napoleon followed the old Kaluga road southwards towards unspoilt, richer parts of Russia to use other roads for retreat westwards to Smolensk than the one being scorched by his own army for the march eastwards.
At the Battle of Maloyaroslavets, Kutuzov was able to force the French Army into using the same Smolensk road on which they had earlier moved east, the corridor of which had been stripped of food by both armies. This is often presented as an example of scorched earth tactics. Continuing to block the southern flank to prevent the French from returning by a different route, Kutuzov employed partisan tactics to repeatedly strike at the French train where it was weakest. As the retreating French train broke up and became separated, Cossack bands and light Russian cavalry assaulted isolated French units.
Supplying the army in full became an impossibility. The lack of grass and feed weakened the remaining horses, almost all of which died or were killed for food by starving soldiers. Without horses, the French cavalry ceased to exist; cavalrymen had to march on foot. Lack of horses meant many cannons and wagons had to be abandoned. Much of the artillery lost was replaced in 1813, but the loss of thousands of wagons and trained horses weakened Napoleon's armies for the remainder of his wars. Starvation and disease took their toll, and desertion soared. Many of the deserters were taken prisoner or killed by Russian peasants. Badly weakened by these circumstances, the French military position collapsed. Further, defeats were inflicted on elements of the Grande Armée at Vyazma, Polotsk and Krasny. The crossing of the river Berezina was a final French calamity: two Russian armies inflicted heavy casualties on the remnants of the Grande Armée.
In early November 1812, Napoleon learned that General Claude de Malet had attempted a coup d'état in France. He abandoned the army on 5 December and returned home on a sleigh, leaving Marshal Joachim Murat in command.
Subsequently, Murat left what was left of the Grande Armée to try to save his Kingdom of Naples.
In the following weeks, the Grande Armée shrank further, and on 14 December 1812, it left Russian territory.
On 24 June 1812, around 400,000–450,000 men of the Grande Armée, the largest army assembled up to that point in European history, crossed the border into Russia and headed towards Moscow. Anthony Joes wrote in the Journal of Conflict Studies that figures on how many men Napoleon took into Russia and how many eventually came out vary widely. Georges Lefebvre says that Napoleon crossed the Neman with over 600,000 soldiers, only half of whom were from France, the others being mainly Poles and Germans. Felix Markham thinks that 450,000 crossed the Neman on 25 June 1812. When Ney and the rearguard recrossed the Niemen on December 14, he had barely a thousand men fit for action. James Marshall-Cornwall says 510,000 Imperial troops entered Russia. Eugene Tarle believes that 420,000 crossed with Napoleon and 150,000 eventually followed, for a grand total of 570,000. Richard K. Riehn provides the following figures: 685,000 men marched into Russia in 1812, of whom around 355,000 were French; 31,000 soldiers marched out again in some sort of military formation, with perhaps another 35,000 stragglers, for a total of fewer than 70,000 known survivors. Adam Zamoyski estimated that between 550,000 and 600,000 French and allied troops (including reinforcements) operated beyond the Nemen, of which as many as 400,000 troops died but this includes deaths of prisoners during captivity.
Minard's famous infographic (see above) depicts the march ingeniously by showing the size of the advancing army, overlaid on a rough map, as well as the retreating soldiers together with temperatures recorded (as much as 30 below zero on the Réaumur scale (−38 °C, −36 °F)) on their return. The numbers on this chart have 422,000 crossing the Neman with Napoleon, 22,000 taking a side trip early on in the campaign, 100,000 surviving the battles en route to Moscow and returning from there; only 4,000 survive the march back, to be joined by 6,000 that survived from that initial 22,000 in the feint attack northward; in the end, only 10,000 crossed the Neman back out of the initial 422,000.
Imperial Russian Army
General of Infantry Mikhail Bogdanovich Barclay de Tolly served as the Commander in Chief of the Russian Armies. A field commander of the First Western Army and Minister of War, Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov, replaced him, and assumed the role of Commander-in-chief during the retreat following the Battle of Smolensk.
These forces, however, could count on reinforcements from the second line, which totaled 129,000 men and 8,000 Cossacks with 434 guns and 433 rounds of ammunition.
Of these, about 105,000 men were actually available for the defense against the invasion. In the third line were the 36 recruit depots and militias, which came to a total of approximately 161,000 men of various and highly disparate military values, of which about 133,000 actually took part in the defense.
Thus, the grand total of all the forces was 488,000 men, of which about 428,000 gradually came into action against the Grande Armee. This bottom line, however, includes more than 80,000 Cossacks and militiamen, as well as about 20,000 men who garrisoned the fortresses in the operational area. The majority of the officer corps came from the aristocracy. About 7% of the officer corps came from the Baltic German nobility from the governorates of Estonia and Livonia. Because the Baltic German nobles tended to be better educated than the ethnic Russian nobility, the Baltic Germans were often favored with positions in high command and various technical positions. The Russian Empire had no universal educational system, and those who could afford it had to hire tutors and/or send their children to private schools. The educational level of the Russian nobility and gentry varied enormously depending on the quality of the tutors and/or private schools, with some Russian nobles being extremely well educated while others were just barely literate. The Baltic German nobility were more inclined to invest in their children's education than the ethnic Russian nobility, which led to the government favoring them when granting officers' commissions. Of the 800 doctors in the Russian Army in 1812, almost all of them were Baltic Germans. The British historian Dominic Lieven noted that, at the time, the Russian elite defined Russianness in terms of loyalty to the House of Romanov rather in terms of language or culture, and as the Baltic German aristocrats were very loyal, they were considered and considered themselves to be Russian despite speaking German as their first language.
Sweden, Russia's only ally, did not send supporting troops, but the alliance made it possible to withdraw the 45,000-man Russian corps Steinheil from Finland and use it in the later battles (20,000 men were sent to Riga).
A serious research on losses in the Russian campaign is given by Thierry Lentz. On the French side, the toll is around 200,000 dead (half in combat and the rest from cold, hunger or disease) and 150,000 to 190,000 prisoners who fell in captivity.
Hay has argued that the destruction of the Dutch contingent of the Grande Armée was not a result of the death of most of its members. Rather, its various units disintegrated and the troops scattered. Later, many of its personnel were collected and reorganised into the new Dutch army.
Most of the Prussian contingent survived thanks to the Convention of Tauroggen and almost the whole Austrian contingent under Schwarzenberg withdrew successfully. The Russians formed the Russian-German Legion from other German prisoners and deserters.
Russian casualties in the few open battles are comparable to the French losses, but civilian losses along the devastating campaign route were much higher than the military casualties. In total, despite earlier estimates giving figures of several million dead, around one million were killed, including civilians—fairly evenly split between the French and Russians. Military losses amounted to 300,000 French, about 72,000 Poles, 50,000 Italians, 80,000 Germans, and 61,000 from other nations. As well as the loss of human life, the French also lost some 200,000 horses and over 1,000 artillery pieces.
The losses of the Russian armies are difficult to assess. The 19th-century historian Michael Bogdanovich assessed reinforcements of the Russian armies during the war using the Military Registry archives of the General Staff. According to this, the reinforcements totaled 134,000 men. The main army at the time of capture of Vilnius in December had 70,000 men, whereas its number at the start of the invasion had been about 150,000. Thus, total losses would come to 210,000 men. Of these, about 40,000 returned to duty. Losses of the formations operating in secondary areas of operations as well as losses in militia units were about 40,000. Thus, he came up with the number of 210,000 men and militiamen.
The Russian victory over the French Army in 1812 was a significant blow to Napoleon's ambitions of European dominance. This war was the reason the other coalition allies triumphed once and for all over Napoleon. His army was shattered and morale was low, both for French troops still in Russia, fighting battles just before the campaign ended, and for the troops on other fronts. Out of an original force of 615,000, only 110,000 frostbitten and half-starved survivors stumbled back into France. The War of the Sixth Coalition started in 1813 as the Russian campaign was decisive for the Napoleonic Wars and led to Napoleon's defeat and exile on the island of Elba. For Russia, the term Patriotic War (an English rendition of the Russian Отечественная война) became a symbol for a strengthened national identity that had a great effect on Russian patriotism in the 19th century. A series of revolutions followed, starting with the Decembrist revolt of 1825 and ending with the February Revolution of 1917.
Napoleon's invasion of Russia is better known in Russia as the Patriotic War of 1812 (Russian Отечественная война 1812 года, Otechestvennaya Vojna 1812 goda). It should not be confused with the Great Patriotic War (Великая Отечественная война, Velikaya Otechestvennaya Voyna), a term for Adolf Hitler's invasion of Russia during the Second World War. The Patriotic War of 1812 is also occasionally referred to as simply the "War of 1812", a term which should not be confused with the conflict between Great Britain and the United States, also known as the War of 1812. In Russian literature written before the Russian revolution, the war was occasionally described as "the invasion of twelve languages" (Russian: нашествие двенадцати языков). Napoleon termed this war the "Second Polish War" in an attempt to gain increased support from Polish nationalists and patriots. Though the stated goal of the war was the resurrection of the Polish state on the territories of the former Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (modern territories of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus and Ukraine), in fact, this issue was of no real concern to Napoleon.
The British historian Dominic Lieven wrote that much of the historiography about the campaign for various reasons distorts the story of the Russian war against France in 1812–14. The number of Western historians who are fluent in French and/or German vastly outnumbers those who are fluent in Russian, which has the effect that many Western historians simply ignore Russian language sources when writing about the campaign because they cannot read them.
Memoirs written by French veterans of the campaign together with much of the work done by French historians strongly show the influence of "Orientalism", which depicted Russia as a strange, backward, exotic and barbaric "Asian" nation that was innately inferior to the West, especially France. The picture drawn by the French is that of a vastly superior army being defeated by geography, the climate and just plain bad luck. German language sources are not as hostile to the Russians as French sources, but many of the Prussian officers such as Carl von Clausewitz (who did not speak Russian) who joined the Russian Army to fight against the French found service with a foreign army both frustrating and strange, and their accounts reflected these experiences. Lieven compared those historians who use Clausewitz's account of his time in Russian service as their main source for the 1812 campaign to those historians who might use an account written by a Free French officer who did not speak English who served with the British Army in World War II as their main source for the British war effort in the Second World War.
In Russia, the official historical line until 1917 was that the peoples of the Russian Empire had rallied together in defense of the throne against a foreign invader. Because many of the younger Russian officers in the 1812 campaign took part in the Decembrist uprising of 1825, their roles in history were erased at the order of Emperor Nicholas I. Likewise, because many of the officers who were also veterans who stayed loyal during the Decembrist uprising went on to become ministers in the tyrannical regime of Emperor Nicholas I, their reputations were blacked among the radical intelligentsia of 19th century Russia. For example, Count Alexander von Benckendorff fought well in 1812 commanding a Cossack company, but because he later become the Chief of the Third Section Of His Imperial Majesty's Chancellery as the secret police were called, was one of the closest friends of Nicholas I and is infamous for his persecution of Russia's national poet Alexander Pushkin, he is not well remembered in Russia and his role in 1812 is usually ignored.
Furthermore, the 19th century was a great age of nationalism and there was a tendency by historians in the Allied nations to give the lion's share of the credit for defeating France to their own respective nation with British historians claiming that it was the United Kingdom that played the most important role in defeating Napoleon; Austrian historians giving that honor to their nation; Russian historians writing that it was Russia that played the greatest role in the victory, and Prussian and later German historians writing that it was Prussia that made the difference. In such a context, various historians liked to diminish the contributions of their allies.
Leo Tolstoy was not a historian, but his extremely popular 1869 historical novel War and Peace, which depicted the war as a triumph of what Lieven called the "moral strength, courage and patriotism of ordinary Russians" with military leadership a negligible factor, has shaped the popular understanding of the war in both Russia and abroad from the 19th century onward. A recurring theme of War and Peace is that certain events are just fated to happen, and there is nothing that a leader can do to challenge destiny, a view of history that dramatically discounts leadership as a factor in history. During the Soviet period, historians engaged in what Lieven called huge distortions to make history fit with Communist ideology, with Marshal Kutuzov and Prince Bagration transformed into peasant generals, Alexander I alternatively ignored or vilified, and the war becoming a massive "People's War" fought by the ordinary people of Russia with almost no involvement on the part of the government. During the Cold War, many Western historians were inclined to see Russia as "the enemy", and there was a tendency to downplay and dismiss Russia's contributions to the defeat of Napoleon. As such, Napoleon's claim that the Russians did not defeat him and he was just the victim of fate in 1812 was very appealing to many Western historians.
Russian historians tended to focus on the French invasion of Russia in 1812 and ignore the campaigns in 1813–1814 fought in Germany and France, because a campaign fought on Russian soil was regarded as more important than campaigns abroad and because in 1812 the Russians were commanded by the ethnic Russian Kutuzov while in the campaigns in 1813–1814 the senior Russian commanders were mostly ethnic Germans, being either Baltic German nobility or Germans who had entered Russian service. At the time the conception held by the Russian elite was that the Russian empire was a multi-ethnic entity, in which the Baltic German aristocrats in service to the House of Romanov were considered part of that elite—an understanding of what it meant to be Russian defined in terms of dynastic loyalty rather than language, ethnicity, and culture that does not appeal to those later Russians who wanted to see the war as purely a triumph of ethnic Russians.
One consequence of this is that many Russian historians liked to disparage the officer corps of the Imperial Russian Army because of the high proportion of Baltic Germans serving as officers, which further reinforces the popular stereotype that the Russians won despite their officers rather than because of them. Furthermore, Emperor Alexander I often gave the impression at the time that he found Russia a place that was not worthy of his ideals, and he cared more about Europe as a whole than about Russia. Alexander's conception of a war to free Europe from Napoleon lacked appeal to many nationalist-minded Russian historians, who preferred to focus on a campaign in defense of the homeland rather than what Lieven called Alexander's rather "murky" mystical ideas about European brotherhood and security. Lieven observed that for every book written in Russia on the campaigns of 1813–1814, there are a hundred books on the campaign of 1812 and that the most recent Russian grand history of the war of 1812–1814 gave 490 pages to the campaign of 1812 and 50 pages to the campaigns of 1813–1814. Lieven noted that Tolstoy ended War and Peace in December 1812 and that many Russian historians have followed Tolstoy in focusing on the campaign of 1812 while ignoring the greater achievements of campaigns of 1813–1814 that ended with the Russians marching into Paris.
Napoleon did not touch serfdom in Russia. What the reaction of the Russian peasantry would have been if he had lived up to the traditions of the French Revolution, bringing liberty to the serfs, is an intriguing question.
Napoleon's invasion was prefigured by the Swedish invasion of Russia a century before. In 1707 Charles XII had led Swedish forces in an invasion of Russia from his base in Poland. After initial success, the Swedish Army was decisively defeated in Ukraine at the Battle of Poltava. Peter I's efforts to deprive the invading forces of supplies by adopting a scorched-earth policy is thought to have played a role in the defeat of the Swedes.
In one first-hand account of the French invasion, Philippe Paul, Comte de Ségur, attached to the personal staff of Napoleon and the author of Histoire de Napoléon et de la grande armée pendant l'année 1812, recounted a Russian emissary approaching the French headquarters early in the campaign. When he was questioned on what Russia expected, his curt reply was simply 'Poltava!'. Using eyewitness accounts, historian Paul Britten Austin described how Napoleon studied the History of Charles XII during the invasion. In an entry dated 5 December 1812, one eyewitness records: "Cesare de Laugier, as he trudges on along the 'good road' that leads to Smorgoni, is struck by 'some birds falling from frozen trees', a phenomenon which had even impressed Charles XII's Swedish soldiers a century ago." The failed Swedish invasion is widely believed to have been the beginning of Sweden's decline as a great power, and the rise of Tsardom of Russia as it took its place as the leading nation of north-eastern Europe.
Historical comparisons reveal that many fundamental points that denote Hitler's failure in 1941 were actually foreshadowed in past campaigns. The most obvious example is Napoleon's ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812. The German High Command's inability to grasp some of the essential hallmarks of this military calamity highlights another angle of their flawed conceptualization and planning in anticipation of Operation Barbarossa. Like Hitler, Napoleon was the conqueror of Europe and foresaw his war on Russia as the key to forcing England to make terms. Napoleon invaded with the intention of ending the war in a short campaign centred on a decisive battle in western Russia. As the Russians withdrew, Napoleon's supply lines grew and his strength was in decline from week to week. The poor roads and harsh environment took a deadly toll on both horses and men, while politically Russia's oppressed serfs remained, for the most part, loyal to the aristocracy. Worse still, while Napoleon defeated the Russian Army at Smolensk and Borodino, it did not produce a decisive result for the French and each time left Napoleon with the dilemma of either retreating or pushing deeper into Russia. Neither was really an acceptable option, the retreat politically and the advance militarily, but in each instance, Napoleon opted for the latter. In doing so the French emperor outdid even Hitler and successfully took the Russian capital in September 1812, but it counted for little when the Russians simply refused to acknowledge defeat and prepared to fight on through the winter. By the time Napoleon left Moscow to begin his infamous retreat, the Russian campaign was doomed.
The invasion by Germany was called the Great Patriotic War by the Soviet people, to evoke comparisons with the victory by Tsar Alexander I over Napoleon's invading army. In addition, the Germans, like the French, took solace from the notion they had been defeated by the Russian winter, rather than the Russians themselves or their own mistakes.
An event of epic proportions and momentous importance for European history, the French invasion of Russia has been the subject of much discussion among historians. The campaign's sustained role in Russian culture may be seen in Tolstoy's War and Peace, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, and the identification of it with the German invasion of 1941–45, which became known as the Great Patriotic War in the Soviet Union.
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