The Napoleonic Wars: Invasion of Russia (1812)


Figure 1.--.

It was in Russia that Napoleon was finally defeated on the Continent. Tsar Alexander was increasingly concrned with the financial cost of having to participate in Napoleon's Continent System and the resulting British naval blockade. The Tsar decided to withdrawl from the Continental System. Napoleon was concerned that other countries would follow suit which, in combination with the Royal Navy, would mean that France could be isolated and straggled economically. Napoleon tried to negotiate with Alexander, but failed. Napoleon carefully prepared for an ivasion and assumed a huge army of 0.5 million French and other European soldiers. He had defeatd the Russians before and was convinced he could again. The Grand Armée crossed the Niemen River, launching the offnsive (June 24, 1812). (Note that this was almost the same date chosen by Hitler for his invassion of Russia.) The Russians developed an imanginative strategy, basically refusing to give battle. It was not until the French reached Smolensk that the first major engagement was fought. By this time Napoleon had lost huge number of horse and perhaps half his men. The two armies slogged it out at Borodino, both suffering massive losses in frontal assaults. The Russians, however, evacuated Moscow, burning it in the process and destroying foodand supplies. Napoleon thought his possesion of Moscow would force Alexander to seek peace. He did not. Napoleon decided to withdraw the army to supply bases in western Russia, Poland, and Prussia. The withdrawl begun optimistically but a battle at Maloyaroslavets forced the French from the route they had planned. They had to revert to the path they had followed into Russia which had already been pilliged. Then the weather turned bad. Discipline began to break down. The crossing of the Berezina River was a dissaster. Only a few thousand men reached Vilna. The Grand Armee had been swallowed by Russia.

Background

The Russian Army in the 7 Years War against Frederich the Great's Prussian Army showed itself to be the equal of the great European powers. Napoleon after seizing control of France defeated each continental power, except Russia. Napoleon also smashed Tsar's Alexander Russian Army as Austerlitz even with the Austrians as allies. While Napoleon continued to maulRussian armies, he was unable to defeat Russia fighting in Germany and Poland. Tsar Alexander at first agreed to cooperate with Napoleon's Continental System to defeat Britain. The Tsar was, however, increasingly concrned with the financial cost of having to participate in Napoleon's Continent System and the resulting British naval blockade. The Tsar decided to withdrawl from the Continental System. Napoleon was concerned that other countries would follow suit which, in combination with the Royal Navy, would mean that France could be isolated and straggled economically. Napoleon apparently did not want war with Russia. He tried to negotiate with Alexander. He even expressed an interest uin marrying one of the Tsar's sisters. Alexandr would have no dynastic union with the man he cinsudered an upstart. The economic cost to Russian of the Continental System was just too great for Russia. Napoleon's diplomacy failed. There was also the question of Poland. Napoleon had seized Poland from Russia and established the Duchy of Warsaw. Alexander wanted Poland back. Large Russian armies at the border apparently comvinced Napoleon that he would have to fight lexander. [Zammoyski]

The Grand Armée

Napoleon carefully prepared for an ivasion and assumed a huge army of 0.6 million French and other European soldiers--The Grand Armée. It was not just a French army, but a European army including Frebnch as well as Germans, Italians, Poles, Swiss, and oithers. He had defeated the Russian before and was convinced he could again and thus time on Russian soil.

Russian Legend

Napoleon's invasion of Russia was an epic evebt in that country's history. No European power had ever before reached Moscow. Russiam mothers for generations grew up thinking of Napoleon as the great terrorof the world. School children were taught that the valliant Tsar Alexander rallied the Russian peasantry to save mother Russia by cleverly enticing Napoleon deeper and deeper into Russia so he would be destroyed by the Russian Winter. The great Russian victory was celebrated in mucic (Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" and Tolstoy's War and Peace. To Tolstoy the defeat of Napoleon was Russia's rejection of corrupting European influences.

Ideology

Napoleon's campaign in Russia was not grea war of ideas as had been the case in wars of the French Revilution. True he was fighting the Russia Tsar who was an absolute monarch and ruked over a nation of serfs--virtual slaves, But Napoleon was no democrat. Napoleon brought an equitable law code to France--the Code Napoleon. Nut he did not bring democracy. Nor did he introduce republican institutions. He made no effort to rally Poles, Germans, and others to a nationalistic cause that could have proven useful in fighting the Russians. (Hitler repeated this same mistake when he unvaded the Soviet Union.)

Invasion

The Grand Armee crossed of the Niemen River, launching the offensive (June 24, 1812). (Note that this was almost the same date chosen by Hitler for his invassion of Russia.) Legand has it that the Russians developed an imanginative strategy, basically rfusing to give battle. One historian is not convinced that this was an actual strategy developed by the Russians. He believes that the Russians fell back because they did not want to give battle and be defeated by Napoleon. They did not know what else to do. [Zamoyski] Only later did this become a coherent Russian strategy. It was not until the French reached Smolensk that the first major engagement was fought. By this time Napoleon had lost huge number of horse and perhaps half his men.

Borodino

Borodino was one of the bloodiest battle fought in Europe until World War I. Napoleon here made no effort to finese a victory. He simply hurled the Grand Armée straight into the Russian lines. The two armies slogged it out at Borodino, both suffering massive losses in frontal assaults.

Moscow

The Russians, however, evacuated Moscow, burning it in the process and destroying food and supplies. Napoleon thought his possesion of Moscow would force Alexander to seek peace. He did not. Napoleon did not undersyand why Alexander did not surrender and remained silent. Some historians attribute this to clever tactics on the part of Amexander. One historians describes it more as panic. [Zamoyski] Napoleon decided to withdraw the army to supply bases in western Russia, Poland, and Prussia.

Buttons

The French during the Napoleonic Wars used tin buttons. The Grand Armée that marched into Russia in 1812 had tin buttons. Apparently tin turms to powder a temperatures below 56°F. Certainly that did nothing to assist the Frenbch on their retrat from Moscow. [Le Couteur and Burreson]

Retreat

The withdrawl begun optimistically. The Russian Army was in the hands of Field Marshal Pribce Kutuzov. One historian describes him as pompous and stupid. But now the Russuans were in a superior position. The Russians in a battle at Maloyaroslavets forced the French from the route they had planned. They had to revert to the path they had followed into Russia which had already been pilliged. Then the weather turned bad. Accounts of the retreat are hornebdous. One account describes how Prince Wilhelm of Baden, one of Napoleon's German commanders, gave the prder to march in the morning but found that "the last drummer boy had frozen to death" (DEcenber 7). [Zamoyski] Discipline began to break down. The crossing of the Berezina River was a dissaster. Only a few thousand men reached Vilna. The Grand Armée had been swallowed by Russia.

Consequences

The Napoleonic War was noted for bloody battkes that brough killing to an epic scale. There are no precise numbers avalable on either side. About 0.4 million are believed ti have perished from the Grand Armee. Many of those who survived are the soldiers who deserted on the march to Moscow. A comparable number of Russians are also believed to have perished. This was killing on a scale never before experienced in Russia.

Sources

Le Couteur, Penny and Jay Burreson. Napoleon's Buttons (Tarcher). This fascinating book written by two chemists recountsthe impact of 17 different molecules on history.

Zamoyski, Adam. Moscow 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March (HarperCollins, 2004), 644p.







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Created: June 1, 2003
Last updated: 6:59 AM 8/10/2004