French invasion of Russia

French invasion of Russia
French invasion of Russia
(Patriotic War of 1812)
Part of Napoleonic Wars
Napoleons retreat from moscow.jpg
Napoleon's withdrawal from Russia, a painting by Adolph Northen.
Date 24 June  – 14 December 1812
Location Russian Empire
Result Decisive Russian victory[1]
Destruction of French Allied Army
France French Empire

Austrian Empire Austria
Kingdom of Prussia Prussia
Spain Spain

 Russian Empire
Commanders and leaders
France Napoleon I
France Louis Alexandre Berthier
France Louis-Nicolas d'Avout
France Michel Ney
France Jacques MacDonald
France Nicolas Oudinot
Kingdom of Westphalia Jérôme Bonaparte
Coat of arms of the Duchy of Warsaw Józef Poniatowski
Kingdom of the Two Sicilies Joachim Murat
Kingdom of Italy (Napoleonic) Eugène de Beauharnais

Austrian Empire Prince Schwarzenberg
Kingdom of Prussia Count Yorck

Russian Empire Alexander I
Russian Empire Mikhail Kutuzov
Russian Empire Michael Andreas Barclay de Tolly
Russian Empire Pyotr Bagration 
Russian Empire Peter Wittgenstein
c. 449,000 end of May[2] regulars: 198,250 June 20th[3]
Casualties and losses
Deaths: 380,000.

Survivors: 120,000 men (excluding early deserters).

Of these, 50,000 were Austrians and Prussians, 20,000 Poles and 35,000 Frenchmen.[4]
Deaths: 210,000[5]

The French invasion of Russia of 1812 (also known as the Patriotic War of 1812, Russian: Отечественная война 1812 года) was a turning point in the Napoleonic Wars. It reduced the French and allied invasion forces (the Grande Armée) to a tiny fraction of their initial strength and triggered a major shift in European politics as it dramatically weakened French hegemony in Europe. The reputation of Napoleon I as an undefeated military genius was severely shaken, while the French Empire's former allies, at first Prussia, then Austria, broke their alliance with France and switched camps, which triggered the War of the Sixth Coalition.[6]

The campaign began on 24 June 1812, when Napoleon's forces crossed the river Neman. Napoleon aimed to compel Emperor of Russia Alexander I to remain in the Continental Blockade of the United Kingdom; an official aim was to remove the threat of a Russian invasion of Poland. Napoleon named the campaign a Second Polish War; the Russian government proclaimed a Patriotic War.

Half a million strong, the Grande Armée marched through Western Russia, winning a number of relatively minor engagements and a major battle at Smolensk on August 16-18. However, on that same day, the right wing of the Russian Army, under the command of General Peter Wittgenstein, stopped part of the French Army, led by Marshal Nicolas Oudinot, in the Battle of Polotsk. This prevented the French marching on the Russian capital at Saint Petersburg; the fate of the war had to be decided on the Moscow front, where Napoleon himself led his forces.

While the Russians used scorched-earth tactics, and often raided the enemy with light Cossack cavalry, their main army retreated for almost three months. This constant retreat undermined confidence in Field Marshal Michael Andreas Barclay de Tolly, leading Alexander I to appoint an old veteran, Prince Mikhail Kutuzov, the new Commander-in-Chief. Finally, on 7 September , the two armies met near Moscow in the Battle of Borodino. The battle was the largest and bloodiest single-day action of the Napoleonic Wars; it involved more than 250,000 troops and resulted in at least 70,000 casualties. The French captured the battlefield, but failed to destroy the Russian army. Moreover, the French could not replace their losses whereas the Russians could replace theirs.

Napoleon entered Moscow on September 14, after the Russian Army had again retreated. But by then the Russians had largely evacuated the city and even released criminals from the prisons to inconvenience the French; furthermore, the governor, Count Fyodor Rostopchin, ordered the city to be burnt.[7] Alexander I refused to capitulate and the peace talks that Napoleon initiated failed. In October, with no clear sign of victory in sight, Napoleon began his disastrous Great Retreat from Moscow.

At the Battle of Maloyaroslavets the French tried to reach Kaluga, where they could find food and forage supplies. But the replenished Russian Army blocked the road, and Napoleon was forced to retreat the same way he had come to Moscow, through the heavily ravaged areas along the Smolensk road. In the following weeks, the Grande Armée underwent catastrophic blows from the onset of the Russian Winter, the lack of supplies and constant guerilla warfare by Russian peasants and irregular troops. When the remnants of Napoleon's army crossed the Berezina River in November, only 27,000 fit soldiers remained; the Grand Armée had lost some 380,000 men dead and 100,000 captured.[8] Napoleon then abandoned his men and returned to Paris to protect his position as Emperor and to prepare to resist the advancing Russians. The campaign effectively ended on 14 December 1812, when the last French troops left Russia.

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 and Russia.


Alternative names

Napoleon's invasion is better known in Russia as the Patriotic War of 1812 (Russian Отечественная война 1812 года, Otechestvennaya Vojna 1812 goda), not to be confused with the Great Patriotic War (Великая Отечественная война, Velikaya Otechestvennaya Voyna) which refers to Hitler's, rather than Napoleon's, invasion of Russia. The Patriotic War of 1812 is also occasionally referred to as the "War of 1812", which is not to be confused with the conflict of the same name between the United Kingdom and the United States. It was also termed the "Fatherland War", and later the "First Fatherland War", with both World Wars later being termed the "Second Fatherland War".[9] In pre-revolutionary Russian literature, the war was occasionally described as "an invasion of twelve languages" (Russian: нашествие двунадесяти языков). In an attempt to gain increased support from Polish nationalists and patriots, Napoleon in his own words termed this war the "Second Polish War" (the first Polish war being the creation of Duchy of Warsaw from parts of Prussian and Austrian partitions), because one of the stated goals of the war was the resurrection of the Polish state on the territories of former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (modern territories of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine).


At the time of the invasion, Napoleon and the Empire was some distance from its apogee in 1806-1809. While with most of Western and Central Europe lay either under his direct control or by various protectorates, allies, and countries defeated by his empire and under treaties favorable for France, Napoleon had embroiled his Armies in a costly and drawn-out conflict in the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal). The economy, Army morale, and political support at home had noticeably declined. But most importantly, 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.[10] Nevertheless, despite his troubles in Spain, with the exception of British expeditionary forces to that country, no European power dared move against him.[11]

The 1809 Austrian war treaty 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.[12] In 1811 Russian Staff developed a plan of offensive war, assuming a Russian assault on Warsaw and Danzig.[13]

In an attempt to gain increased support from Polish nationalists and patriots, Napoleon in his own words termed this war the Second Polish War: "Soldiers, the second war of Poland is started; the first finished in Tilsit. In Tilsit, Russia swore eternal alliance in France and war in England. It violates its oaths today. Russia is pulled by its fate; its destinies must be achieved! Does it thus believe us degenerated? Thus let us go ahead; let us pass Neman River, carry the war on its territory. The second war of Poland will be glorious with the French Armies like the first one." Napoleon daily decree, June 22, 1812. The "first" Polish war being the War of the Fourth Coalition to liberate Poland from Russia, Prussia and Austria), because one of the official declared goals of this war was the resurrection of the Polish state on territories of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Tsar Alexander found Russia in an economic bind as his country had little in the way of manufacturing yet was rich in raw materials and relied heavily on trade with Napoleon's continental system for both money and manufactured goods. Russia's withdrawal from the system was a further incentive to Napoleon to force a decision.[14]


Map of the campaign in Russia

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.[15] Napoleon and the Grande Armée had developed a proclivity for living off the land that had served it well in the densely populated and agriculturally rich central Europe with its dense network of roads.[16] Rapid forced marches had dazed and confused old order Austrian and Prussian armies and much had been made of the use of foraging.[16] In Russia many of the Grande Armée's methods of operation worked against it. Forced marches often made troops do without supplies as the supply wagons struggled to keep up.[16] 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 would receive whatever could be provided while the formations behind starved.[17]

Napoleon had in fact made extensive preparations providing for the provisioning of his army. Seventeen train battalions, comprising 6000 vehicles, were to provide a 40-day supply for the Grande Armée and its operations, and a large system of magazines was established in towns and cities in Poland and East Prussia.[18] At the start of the campaign, no march on Moscow was envisioned and so the preparations would have sufficed. However, the Russian armies could not stand singularly against the main battle group of 285,000 men and would continue to retreat and attempt to join one another. This demanded an advance by the Grande Armée over a network of dirt roads that would dissolve into deep mires, where ruts in the mud would freeze solid, killing already exhausted horses and breaking wagons.[19] 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. Starvation, desertion, typhus, and suicide would cost the French Army more men than all the battles of the Russian invasion combined.[20]

Opposing forces

Grande Armée

On 24 June 1812, the 690,000 men of the Grande Armée, the largest army assembled up to that point in European history, crossed the river Neman and headed towards Moscow. Anthony Joes in Journal of Conflict Studies wrote that:

Figures on how many men Napoleon took into Russia and how many eventually came out vary rather 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, of whom less than 40,000 recrossed in anything like a recognizable military formation.
  • 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 less than 70,000 known survivors.
  • Adam Zamoyski estimated that between 550,000 and 600,000 French and allied troops (including reinforcements) operated beyond the Niemen, of which as many as 400,000 troops died.[21]
"Whatever the accurate number, it is generally accepted that the overwhelming majority of this grand army, French and allied, remained, in one condition or another, inside Russia."
—Anthony Joes[22]

M. Minard's famous infographic (see below) 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) 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.[23]

Russian Imperial Army

Monument to Kutuzov in front of the Kazan Cathedral in Saint Petersburg. The Kazan Cathedral and the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow were built to commemorate the Russian victory against Napoleon.

The forces immediately facing Napoleon consisted of three armies comprising 175,250 Russians and 15,000 Cossacks, with 938 guns as follows:

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 until replaced by Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov who assumed the role of Commander-in-chief during the retreat after the Battle of Smolensk.

As irregular cavalry, the Cossack horsemen of the Russian steppes were best suited to reconnaissance, scouting, and harassing the enemy's flanks and supply lines. Seldom were they committed to execute a conventional charge in battle.

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 the 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 Grand Army. 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.

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).[24]


Crossing the Niemen

The invasion commenced on 24 June 1812. Napoleon had sent a final offer of peace to Saint Petersburg shortly before commencing operations. He never received a reply, so he gave the order to proceed into Russian Poland. He initially met little resistance and moved quickly into the enemy's territory. The French coalition of forces amounted to 449,000 men and 1146 cannon being opposed by the Russian armies combining to muster 153,000 Russians, 938 cannons, and 15,000 Cossacks.[25] The center of mass of French forces focused on Kaunas and the crossings were made by the French Guard, I, II, and III corps amounting to some 120,000 at this point of crossing alone.[26] The actual crossings were made in the area of Alexioten where three pontoon bridges were constructed. The sites had been selected by Napoleon in person.[27] Napoleon had a tent raised and he watched and reviewed troops as they crossed the Niemen.[28] Roads in this area of Lithuania hardly qualified as such, actually being small dirt tracks through areas of dense forest.[29] Supply lines simply could not keep up with the forced marches of the corps and rear formations always suffered the worst privations.[30]

March on Vilnius

The 25th of June found Napoleon's group past the bridge head 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 corp following behind. Eugene's command would cross the Niemen further north at Piloy, and MacDonald crossed the same day. Jerome 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 would cross 70 miles (110 km) in two days.[31] Ney's III corps would march 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 to 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.[32]

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.[32] Doctorov on the Russian Left found his command threatened by Phalen's III cavalry corp. Bagration was ordered to Vileyka which moved him towards Barclay though the order's intent is still something of a mystery to this day.[33]

On June the 28th 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.[33] 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.[34] 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 diarist claim there were no roads as 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.[34]

A Lieutenant Mertens — a Wurttemberger 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 the 6th of June and men dying of sunstroke by the 11th.[34] The Crown Prince of Wurttemberg reported 21 men dead in bivouacs. The Bavarian corps was reporting 345 sick by June 13.[35]

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.[35]

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.[35] 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.[36]

Eagles monument in Smolensk, commemorating the centenary of the Russian defeat of Napoleon.

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.[35] Strong probing operations were advanced from Vilnius towards Nemenčinė, Mykoliškės, Ashmyany, and Molėtai.[35]

Eugene crossed at Prenn on June 30 while Jerome moved VII Corps to Białystok, with everything else crossing at Grodno.[36] Murat advanced to Nemenčinė on July 1 running into elements of Doctorov's III Russian Cavalry Corps enroute 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.[37]

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.[38] 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.[39]

Napoleon reached Vilnius on the 28th of 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.[40] Barclay continued to retreat to the Drissa deciding that the concentration of the 1st and 2nd armies was his first priority.[41]

Barclay continued his retreat and with the exception of the occasional rearguard clash remained unhindered in his movements ever further east.[42] To date the standard methods of the Grande Armée were working against it. Rapid forced marches quickly caused desertion, starvation, 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, that further hindered supplies reaching the Grand Armee which was already down 95,000 men.[43]

March on Moscow

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, serious problems in foraging surfaced, aggravated by scorched earth tactics of the Russian army[44][45] advocated by Karl Ludwig von Phull.[46]

Political pressure on Barclay to give battle and the general's continuing resistance (viewed as intransigence by the populace) led to his removal from the position of commander-in-chief to be replaced by the boastful and popular Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov. Despite Kutuzov's rhetoric to the contrary, he continued in much the way Barclay had, immediately seeing that to face the French in open battle would be to sacrifice his army pointlessly. Following an indecisive clash at Smolensk on August 16–18, he finally managed to establish a defensive position at Borodino.

The Battle of Borodino

The Battle of Borodino (Russian: Бородинская битва, Borodinskaya bitva; French: Bataille de la Moskowa), fought on September 7, 1812,[47] was the largest and bloodiest day 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 disorganized Russian Army out of position and ripe for destruction. 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 the forced pursuit that had marked other campaigns that he had conducted.[48] 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.[49] 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 and was forced to 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.

Capture of Moscow

Napoléon and General LauristonPeace at all costs!

On September 14, 1812, Napoleon moved into the empty city that was stripped of all supplies by its governor, Feodor Rostopchin. Relying on classical rules of warfare aiming at capturing the enemy's capital (even though Saint Petersburg was the political capital at that time, Moscow was the spiritual capital of Russia), Napoleon had expected Tsar Alexander I to offer his capitulation at the Poklonnaya Hill but the Russian command did not think of surrendering.

As Napoleon prepared to enter Moscow he was surprised to have received no delegation from the city. At the approach of a victorious general, the civil authorities customarily presented themselves at the gates of the city with the keys to the city in an attempt to safeguard the population and their property. As nobody received Napoleon he sent his aides into the city, seeking out officials with whom the arrangements for the occupation could be made. When none could be found, it became clear that the Russians had left the city unconditionally.[50]

In a normal surrender, the city officials would be forced to find billets and make arrangements for the feeding of the soldiers, but the situation caused a free-for-all in which every man was forced to find lodgings and sustenance for himself. Napoleon was secretly disappointed by the lack of custom as he felt it robbed him of a traditional victory over the Russians, especially in taking such a historically significant city.[50]

Before the order was received to evacuate Moscow, the city had a population of approximately 270,000 people. As much of the population pulled out, the remainder were burning or robbing the remaining stores of food to deprive the French of their use. As Napoleon entered the Kremlin, there still remained one-third of the original population, mainly consisting of foreign traders, servants and people who were unable or unwilling to flee. These, including the several hundred strong French colony, attempted to avoid the troops.

Retreat and Rebuilding

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 the 8th of September, offered such strong resistance that Napoleon remained on the Borodino field.[51] On the 9th of September Miloradovitch assumed command of the rear guard adding his forces to the formation. Another battle was given throwing back French forces at Semolino causing 2,000 losses on both sides, however some 10,000 wounded would be left behind by the Russian Army.[52] The French Army began to move out on Sept. 10th with the still ill Napoleon not leaving until the 12th. Some 18,000 men were ordered in from as Smolensk, and Marshal Victor corps supplied another 25,000.[53] Miloradovich would not give up his rear guard duties until the 14th allowing much of Moscow to be deserted, and retreated under a truce at last.[54]

Fire of Moscow

The fire of Moscow (1812)

After entering Moscow, the Grande Armée, unhappy with military conditions and no sign of victory, began looting what little remained within Moscow. Already the same evening, the first fires began to break out in the city, spreading and reemerging over the next few days.

Moscow, comprised two thirds of wooden buildings at the time, burnt down almost completely (it was estimated that four-fifths of the city was destroyed), depriving the French of shelter in the city. French historians[who?] assume that the fires were due to Russian sabotage.

Tolstoy, in War and Peace, claimed that the fire was not deliberately set, either by the Russians or the French; the natural result of placing a wooden city in the hands of strangers in wintertime is that they will make small fires to stay warm, to cook their food and for other benign purposes and that some of the fires will get out of control. Without a Fire Department, house fires will spread to become neighborhood fires and ultimately a city-wide conflagration.

Retreat and losses

Sitting in the ashes of a ruined city without having received the Russian capitulation and facing Russian operations against his supplies forced him and his diminished army out of Moscow.[55] Napoleon started his long retreat by the middle of October 1812. 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 and which had been stripped of food by both armies. This is often presented as another example of scorched-earth tactics. Continuing to block the southern flank to prevent the French from returning by a different route, Kutuzov again deployed partisan tactics to constantly strike at the French train where it was weakest. Light Russian cavalry, including mounted Cossacks, assaulted and broke up isolated French units.[55]

French Army in the Town Hall Square of Vilnius during the retreat.

Supplying the army became an impossibility – the lack of grass weakened the army's remaining horses, almost all of which died or were killed for food by starving soldiers. With no horses the French cavalry ceased to exist and cavalrymen were forced to march on foot. In addition the lack of horses meant that cannons and wagons had to be abandoned, depriving the army of artillery and support convoys. Although the army was quickly able to replace its artillery in 1813, the abandonment of wagons created an immense logistics problem for the remainder of the war, as thousands of the best military wagons were left behind in Russia. As starvation and disease took their toll desertion soared. Most of the deserters were taken prisoner or promptly executed by Russian peasants. Badly weakened by these circumstances, the French military position collapsed. The Russians inflicted further defeats on elements of the Grande Armée at Vyazma, Krasnoi, and Polotsk. The crossing of the river Berezina was the final French catastrophe of the war, as two Russian armies inflicted horrendous casualties on the remnants of the Grande Armée as it struggled to escape across pontoon bridges.

Bad News from France, painting depicting Napoleon encamped in a Russian Orthodox church (Vasily Vereshchagin, part of his series, "Napoleon, 1812", 1887–95).

In early November 1812 Napoleon learned that General Claude de Malet had attempted a coup d'état back in France. He abandoned the army and returned home on a sleigh, leaving Marshal Joachim Murat in charge. Murat later deserted to save his kingdom of Naples, leaving Napoleon's former stepson Eugène de Beauharnais in command.

In the following weeks, the Grande Armée shrank further and on 14 December 1812 it left Russian territory. According to the popular legend only about 22,000 of Napoleon's men survived the Russian campaign. However, some sources say that no more than 380,000 soldiers were killed.[56] The difference can be explained by up to 100,000 French prisoners in Russian hands (mentioned by Eugen Tarlé, released in 1814) and more than 80,000 (including all wing-armies, not only the rest of the "main army" under Napoleon's direct command) returning troops (mentioned by German military historians). 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.[24]

Napoleon and his marshals struggle to redress the situation during the retreat.

Russian casualties in the few open battles are comparable to the French losses but civilian losses along the devastated campaing 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.[57] Military losses amounted to 300,000 French, about 72,000 Poles,[58] 50,000 Italians, 80,000 Germans, 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 hard to assess. A 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. The main army at the time of capture of Vilnius in December had 70,000 men, while its number at the war start was about 150,000. Thus, the total loss is 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.[5]

Weather as a factor

The Night Bivouac of the Napoleon Army during retreat from Russia in 1812. Oil on canvas. Historical Museum, Moscow, Russia.

One study concluded that the winter only had a major effect once Napoleon was in full retreat, saying that "In regard to the claims of "General Winter", the main body of Napoleon's Grande Armée diminished by half during the first 8 weeks of his invasion before the major battle of the campaign. This decrease was partly due to garrisoning supply centres but disease, desertions and casualties sustained in minor actions caused thousands of losses. A saying arose that the Generals Janvier and Fevrier (January and February) defeated Napoleon, alluding to the Russian Winter. At Borodino, Napoleon could muster no more than 135,000 troops and he lost at least 30,000 of them to gain a narrow and Pyrrhic victory almost 1,000 km (620 mi) deep in hostile territory. The sequels were his uncontested and self-defeating occupation of Moscow and his humiliating retreat which began on 19 October, before the first severe frosts later that month and the first snow on 5 November.[59] General of Cavalry Denis Davidov writing in 1814 noted that the winters during campaigns in 1795 and 1807 were far colder but failed to prevent French operations and victories. Also, for much of the period of retreat, the temperature did not drop below 10 °C (50 °F) and even at its coldest during November in Vilno the temperatures on the 13th (−8 °C/18 °F), 14th (−9.2 °C/15.4 °F) and 15th (−6.5 °C/20.3 °F) were not specially severe. In fact the severe cold temperatures that are often referred to and depicted on paintings did not occur until after the French retreat crossed the Neman River.[60] Davidov and other Russian campaign participants record wholesale surrenders of starving members of the Grande Armée well before the onset of frosts amid eyewitness reports of cannibalism and point to the breakdown in French supply and constant harassment of the French army by Russian forces as the primary reasons for their losses during the retreat.

Napoleon's invasion of Russia is listed among the most lethal military operations in world history.[61]

Charles Joseph Minard's famous graph showing the decreasing size of the Grande Armée as it marches to Moscow (brown line, from left to right) and back (black line, from right to left) with the size of the army equal to the width of the line. Temperature is plotted on the lower graph for the return journey (Multiply Réaumur temperatures by 1¼ to get Celsius, e.g. −30 °R = −37.5 °C)

Historical assessment

A hall of military fame in the Winter Palace with portraits of the Russian war heroes.

The Russian victory over the French army in 1812 marked a huge 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 frost-bitten and half starved survivors stumbled back into France.[62] The Russian campaign was the decisive turning-point of the Napoleonic Wars that ultimately led to Napoleon's defeat and exile on the island of Elba.[1] For Russia the term Patriotic War (an English rendition of the Russian Отечественная война) formed a symbol for a strengthened national identity that would have great effect on Russian patriotism in the 19th century. The indirect result of the patriotic movement of Russians was a strong desire for the modernization of the country that would result in a series of revolutions, starting with the Decembrist revolt and ending with the February Revolution of 1917.

Napoleon was not completely defeated by the disaster in Russia. The following year he raised an army of around 400,000 French troops supported by a quarter of a million French allied troops to contest control of Germany in an even larger campaign. Despite being outnumbered, he won a large victory at the Battle of Dresden. It was not until the decisive Battle of Nations (October 16–19, 1813) that he was finally defeated and afterwards no longer had the troops to stop the Coalition's invasion of France. Napoleon did still manage to inflict heavy losses and a series of minor military victories on the far larger Allied armies as they drove towards Paris, though they captured the city and forced him to abdicate in 1814.

The Russian campaign had revealed that Napoleon was not invincible, putting an end to his reputation as an undefeated military genius. Napoleon had made many terrible errors in this campaign. One of the worst that he refused to quit his campaign in Spain while trying to campaign in Russia. Historian F.G. Hourtoulle perhaps says it best: "One does not make war on two fronts, especially so far apart."[63] In trying to have both he gave up any chance at either. Napoleon had foreseen what it would mean, so he fled back to France quickly before word of the disaster became widespread, allowing him to start raising another army.[62] Metternich began to take the actions that would take Austria out of the war with a secret truce.[64] Sensing this and urged on by Prussian nationalists and Russian commanders, German nationalists revolted in the Confederation of the Rhine and Prussia. The decisive German campaign likely could not have occurred without the message the defeat in Russia sent to the rest of Europe.

See also


  1. ^ a b von Clausewitz, Carl (1996). The Russian campaign of 1812. Transaction Publishers. Introduction by Gérard Chaliand, VII. ISBN 1412805996
  2. ^ Riehn, p.50
  3. ^ Riehn, p.50
  4. ^ Zamoyski, page 536
  5. ^ a b Bogdanovich, "History of Patriotic War 1812", Spt., 1859–1860, Appendix, pp. 492–503.
  6. ^ Fierro; Palluel-Guillard; Tulard, p. 159-161
  7. ^ With Napoleon in Russia, The Memoirs of General Coulaincourt, Chapter VI 'The Fire' pp. 109–107 Pub. William Morrow and Co 1945
  8. ^ The Wordsworth Pocket Encyclopedia, page 17, Hertfordshire 1993
  9. ^ Geisler, Michael E. National Symbols, Fractured Identities: Contesting the National Narrative. University Press of New England, 2005: pg. 107.
  10. ^ McLynn, Frank, pp. 490-520.
  11. ^ Riehn, Richard K, pp. 10–20.
  12. ^ Riehn, Richard K, p. 25.
  13. ^ Dariusz Nawrot, Litwa i Napoleon w 1812 roku, Katowice 2008, pp. 58-59.
  14. ^ Reihn, Richard K, p. 24.
  15. ^ Riehn, Richard K, pp. 138–40.
  16. ^ a b c Riehn, Richard K, p. 139.
  17. ^ Riehn, Richard K, pp. 139–53.
  18. ^ Riehn, Richard K, p. 150.
  19. ^ Riehn, Richard K, p. 151.
  20. ^ Typhus in Russia, Montana University.
  21. ^ Zamoyski 2005, p. 536 — note this includes deaths of prisoners during captivity.
  22. ^ Anthony James Joes. Continuity and Change in Guerrilla War: The Spanish and Afghan Cases, Journal of Conflict Sudies Vol. XVI No. 2, Fall 1997. Footnote 27, cites
    • Georges Lefebvre, Napoleon from Tilsit to Waterloo (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), vol. II, pp. 311–12.
    • Felix Markham, Napoleon (New York: Mentor, 1963), pp. 190, 199.
    • James Marshall-Cornwall: Napoleon as Military Commander (London: Batsford, 1967), p. 220.
    • Eugene Tarle: Napoleon's Invasion of Russia 1812 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1942), p. 397.
    • Richard K. Riehn See 1812: Napoleon's Russian Campaign (New York: John Wiley, 1991), pp. 77 and 501
  23. ^ See a large copy of the chart here, but discussed at length in Edward Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (London: Graphics Press, 1992)
  24. ^ a b Helmert/Usczek: Europäische Befreiungskriege 1808 bis 1814/15, Berlin 1986
  25. ^ Riehn, Richard K, p. 159.
  26. ^ Riehn, Richard K, p. 160.
  27. ^ Riehn, Richard K, p. 163.
  28. ^ Riehn, Richard K, p. 164.
  29. ^ Riehn, Richard K, pp. 160–1.
  30. ^ Riehn, Richard K, p. 162.
  31. ^ Riehn, Richard K, p. 166.
  32. ^ a b Riehn, Richard K, p. 167.
  33. ^ a b Riehn, Richard K, p. 168.
  34. ^ a b c Riehn, Richard K, p. 169.
  35. ^ a b c d e Riehn, Richard K, p. 170.
  36. ^ a b Riehn, Richard K, p. 171.
  37. ^ Reihn, Richard K, p. 172.
  38. ^ Reihn, Richard K, pp. 174–5.
  39. ^ Reihn, Richard K, p. 176.
  40. ^ Reihn, Richard K, p. 179.
  41. ^ Reihn, Richard K, p. 180.
  42. ^ Reihn, Richard K, pp. 182–4
  43. ^ Reihn, Richard K, p. 185.
  44. ^ George Nafziger, 'Napoleon's Invasion of Russia (1984) ISBN 0-88254-681-3
  45. ^ George Nafziger, "Rear services and foraging in the 1812 campaign: Reasons of Napoleon's defeat" (Russian translation online)
  46. ^ Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie (ADB). Bd. 26, Leipzig 1888 (German)
  47. ^ August 26 in the Julian calendar then used in Russia.
  48. ^ Riehn, P.253
  49. ^ Riehn, P.255-256
  50. ^ a b Zamoyski 2005, p.297.
  51. ^ Riehn, p.260
  52. ^ Riehn, p.261
  53. ^ Riehn, p.262
  54. ^ Riehn, p.265
  55. ^ a b Riehn, p.300-301
  56. ^ The Wordsworth Pocket Encyclopedia, p. 17, Hertfordshire 1993.
  57. ^ Zamoyski 2004, p. 536.
  58. ^ Zamoyski 2004, p. 537.
  59. ^ "Fighting the Russians in Winter: Three Case Studies". US Army Command and General Staff College. Retrieved 2006-03-31. 
  60. ^ Мороз ли истребил французскую армию в 1812 году? Денис Васильевич Давыдов (Did the cold exterminate the French army in 1812?) by Denis Vasilyevich Davidov in Дневник партизанских действий (Journal of partisan actions), part III (Russian)
  61. ^ Grant, R. G. (2005). Battle: A Visual Journey Through 5,000 Years of Combat. Dorling Kindersley. pp. 212–213. ISBN 0756613604. 
  62. ^ a b Riehn, p.395
  63. ^ Hourtoulle p.119
  64. ^ Riehn, p.397


  • Britten Austin, Paul (2000). 1812: Napoleon's Invasion of Russia. Greenhill Books. ISBN 185367415X.  (Originally published in three volumes: The March on Moscow, Napoleon in Moscow, The Great Retreat.)
  • Bogdanovich, Michael (1863). History of Patriotic War 1812. St. Petersburg. pp. 1859–1860. OCLC 25319830. 
  • Connelly, Owen (1999). Blundering to Glory: Napoleon's Military Campaigns (2nd ed.). Wilmington, Delaware: SR Books. ISBN 0842027807. 
  • Marshall-Cornwall, James (1967). Napoleon as Military Commander. London: Batsford. 
  • Nafziger, George (1984). Napoleon's Invasion of Russia. New York, N.Y.: Hippocrene Books. ISBN 0882546813. 
  • Riehn, Richard K. (1991). 1812 Napoleon's Russian Campaign. New York: Wiley. ISBN 0471543020. 
  • Zamoyski, Adam (2004). Moscow 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March. London: HarperCollins. ISBN 0007123752. 
  • Lieven, Dominic (2009). Russia Against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814. Allen Lane/The Penguin Press. pp. 617. [1]
  • Fierro, Alfred; Palluel-Guillard, André; Tulard, Jean (1995). Histoire et Dictionnaire du Consulat et de l'Empire. Paris: Éditions Robert Laffont. pp. 1350. ISBN 2-221-05858-5. 

Further reading


  • Bogdanovich Modest I. (1859-1860). 'History of the War of 1812' (История Отечественной войны 1812 года) at in DjVu and PDF formats
  • David G. Chandler (2002). The Campaigns of Napoleon. Folio. ISBN 0-29-774830-0. 
  • Denis Davidov (1999). In Service of the Tsar Against Napoleon, 1806–1814. Greenhill Books. ISBN 1-85367-373-0. 
  • Edward Ryan (1999). Napoleon's Elite Cavalry. Greenhill Books. ISBN 1-85367-371-4. 
  • Heinrich von Brandt (1999). In the Legions of Napoleon; The Memoirs of a Polish Officer in Spain and Russia, 1808–1813. Greenhill Books. ISBN 1-85367-380-3. 


  • War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
  • The Retreat, Patrick Rambaud
  • Commodore Hornblower by C.S. Forester A fictional account of the siege of Riga on the Baltic by the French army and its allies.

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