French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was without a doubt one of the most brilliant leaders in history. Nevertheless, his Invasion of Russia in 1812 was one of the worst military disasters ever undertaken. Much like Adolf Hitler’s failed attempt over a century later, it would be a turning point in his ultimate downfall and the defeat of his country in war. So how did things go so terribly wrong for Napoleon and the French Army?
Following the French Revolution, Napoleon took power over the new French Republic in 1799 as First Consul. In 1804, he was elected Emperor by referendum and crowned himself and his wife, Josephine, in Notre Dame Cathedral. He then won a string of brilliant military victories in the subsequent Wars of Coalition against Britain, Prussia, Austria, and Spain. France annexed Belgium and Holland, along with large swathes of Italy and Prussia. He set up satellite dependencies in Spain and Poland. After 5 coalition wars, Austria, Prussia and Russia had been browbeaten by Napoleon into becoming his allies.
Only Great Britain remained defiantly outside of Napoleon’s iron grasp.
In 1806, Napoleon attacked Britain economically by instituting a strict trade embargo by nearly all of Europe known as “The Continental System.” But by the beginning of 1811, Russian Czar Alexander I had stopped complying and was instead trading with France’s sworn enemy, Britain! The embargo was having a harmful effect on Russian trade and its own economy. Czar Alexander had also imposed a heavy tax on French products in order to raise revenue. Finally, he rebuffed Napoleon’s desire that he marry one of his sisters. Tensions escalated and every attempt to negotiate failed.
Napoleon had created the Duchy of Warsaw from Prussian lands. Czar Alexander worried it would incite Polish nationalism against his empire. The Russian army started to concentrate its military forces on the border. Napoleon went to the Russian ambassador in Paris, and harshly rebuked him: “You know it’s easy to start a war, but it’s very difficult to finish one.” Napoleon had never considered Russia a threat. But now, he decided to teach Czar Alexander a lesson. He would invade Russia first.
Preparations began in January 1811. Napoleon gathered together his Grande Armée, consisting of roughly 650,000 soldiers including Frenchmen and conscripted Austrians, Poles and Prussians. Then he moved them all into Poland, along Russia’s border. The French forces were far greater than anything that Europe had ever seen. It was truly a European army, comprising mixed languages and cultures, the most diverse since the Crusades. ALL decisions were made by Napoleon himself, with implementation delegated to his officers.
Emperor Napoleon presented the invasion to the French people in grand terms. Its noble goal was to the destroy the Russian threat to Europe. They must be punished for leaving the French continental blockade and daring to side with their enemy Britain. He’d simply flood enough men east to quickly force the Russians to engage in battle, overwhelming and defeating them. Napoleon fully expected the Czar to surrender in 20 days after the first major battle.
In May 1812, Napoleon arrived in Poland and took personal command of his Grande Armée.
Ignoring the advice of his closest advisors, in June the army crossed the Niemen River into Russian territory. They would fight approximately 200,000 soldiers on the Russian side. Napoleon’s goal was to win a quick victory that forced Czar Alexander to the negotiating table.
Instead, the Russian army pulled back! They let the Grande Armée capture the city of Vilna in a week with barely a fight. Napoleon remained confident. “I have come once and for all to finish off these barbarians of the North. They must be pushed back into their ice, so that they no longer come to busy themselves with the affairs of civilized Europe.”
In July, the Russian army similarly withdrew and abandoned Vitebsk. They set fire to military storehouses and bridges as they left. In August, they retreated as well from Smolensk, and torched the city to the ground. Peasant farmers were ordered to burn their crops to prevent them from falling into the hands of French troops. This “SCORCHED EARTH” tactic was incredibly effective in denying the French army a food source. The summer had also become oppressively hot. The Grande Armée soldiers were coming down with deadly diseases like typhus and cholera.
Napoleon’s troops trudged along regardless, deeper into Russia’s vast territory. Tje Emperor had hoped to defeat his enemy quickly, but the Russians would not give battle. He had an army twice the size of the Russia, but it did not matter. The Russians continued to retreat, drawing him deeper and deeper into Russia. Companies of Cossacks would ride in to hack at Napoleon’s rear and flanks, then gallop away into the hills.
As the weeks turned into months, the hot Russian summer took its toll on the men.
The Grande Armée soldiers fell out from sickness, exhaustion, and finally mass desertion — more than 5,000 a day. After two months, 150,000 soldiers were out of action without a single battle fought. A lot of the foreign troops just abandoned their lines. They weren’t Frenchmen, after all, and weren’t loyal to Napoleon. They were fighting simply because their kings had ordered them too.
In September, the Russians finally made a stand at the Battle of Borodino, just 75 miles from Moscow. Moscow, the holy city of Russia, was now at stake. The soldiers of the Czar finally stood their ground and prepared for battle. They chanted, “‘Tis the will of God! Tis the will of God!” They were prepared to die for Russia.
Napoleon threw his entire army at the Russians lines in a massive frontal assault. It was a wild attack for the usually strategic leader, and it was horrific. The Grande Armée and Russians pounded each other with artillery. Then they launched charges and countercharges. The battle began at 6:30 in the morning and lasted until 3 in the afternoon. The Russians managed to fight the French army to a standstill. The losses on both sides were enormous, with at least 70,000 combined casualties.
Rather than fighting a second day, the Russians withdrew again and left Moscow to the French. Napoleon could finally declare a victory! He found Moscow mostly abandoned, emptied by the Russian army, and burning. He said of it, “Mountains of red, rolling flames, like immense waves of the sea. Oh, it was the most grand, the most sublime, and the most terrifying sight the world ever beheld.” Napoleon gained a strategic city, but at a very high cost. Then he waited … but still the Czar refused to negotiate a treaty.
Finally, the first snow flurries of winter began to fall.
Now finally Napoleon finally realized the error of his ways. The increasing cold ultimately forced the French to retreat from Moscow, less than a month after occupying it. They could NOT survive the winter there. The Russian winter began to further decimate his Grande Armée. By October, Napoleon was down to some 150,000 troops, the rest having died in battle, wounded and left behind in Moscow, or simply deserted.
They could not take a planned southerly retreat to quicker warmth. His troops were forced further north by the Russian army at Maloyaroslavets. When the Grande Armée arrived at back at Smolensk, they found that stragglers had eaten the food supplies they had left there. Their horses were freezing to death and dying in droves, only to be eaten by the desperate starving troops. There was near constant desertion and attrition. Napoleon finally realized his invasion was an unmistakable disaster. He ordered a full, humiliating retreat back to Poland.
By November, the Russian winter had set in with sub-zero temperatures, high winds, and waves of deep snow. On the worst nights, thousands of soldiers would succumb to exposure. Desperate men split open dead animals and crawled inside for warmth. Or they stacked the dead bodies of their comrades in windows for insulation. In December, Napoleon was told rumors of a coup attempt back in Paris. He left the army under the command of Joachim Murat and sped for France.
The remains of the Grande Armée stumbled back across the Niemen River into Poland.
Napoleon’s aura of invincibility was finally shattered and his vulnerability exposed to all of Europe. His reluctant allies, Prussia and Austria, quickly abandoned him. In Paris, a conspiracy led by the General Malet threatened to overthrow him, as he had spread news of Napoleon’s death in Russia.
In early 1813, Prussia broke from its alliance with Napoleon and joined Russia against him. Northern Germany rose against him as well. Austria then broke with the French alliance. France was forced to evacuate Madrid. Emboldened by the defeat, Austria, Prussia and Sweden joined Russia and Great Britain in the fight against Napoleon Bonaparte. The time of a year, all Europe was now united against Napoleon.
Although he still had his old expertise and daring, Napoleon’s cause was lost. The ‘Battle of the Nations’ at Leipzig in October 1813 was the end. Napoleon lost and retreated from the Germany states. Britain’s Duke of Wellington was advancing north through Spain, so France was now forced to fight on two fronts. The Allies crossed the Rhine in January 1814 and Italy abandoned him as well. Napoleon stubbornly refused all offers of treaties.
French generals surrendered Paris to Wellington and the Allies in March. Emperor Napoleon was forced to abdicate unconditionally in April 1814. His wife and family was placed in the custody of Emperor Francis I in Vienna, Austria. Louis XVIII became king of a France, with its border restored to pre-Napoleonic frontiers.
Napoleon was exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba.
The Treaty of Paris, which restored France to its 1792 borders, was surprisingly mild. Instead of carving up France amongst themselves, the monarchs of Europe wanted a stable, royal France to return. The clear winner was Britain. With its dominance of the seas, global colonial empire, and industrial economy, the British Empire emerged on top of Europe and the world for the next 100 years.
Napoleon’s 1812 Invasion of Russia has become a synonymous with autocratic overreaching power, or if you prefer a cliché, biting off more than you can chew. Like Charles XII of Sweden before him in 1707, and Adolf Hitler in the 1940’s, Napoleon Bonaparte faced deadly failure in the vast frozen expanse of the Russian Empire.
In 1815, Napoleon managed to escape exile and seized control of a still loyal French Army. He made one more attempt to take power, but it would last only 100 days. He was overcome by British, Dutch and Prussian troops, led by the Duke of Wellington, at the famous Battle of Waterloo in Belgium. He abdicated again and this time was exiled by the British to the island of Saint Helene off the southwestern coast of Africa. He died there alone and frustrated six years later in 1821 of a stomach ulcer … at the age of only 51.
As with the Nazi’s attempt a century later, Napoleon was doomed from the start. He was logistically incapable of succeeding before his troops took one step into Russia. Napoleon believed, like Hitler later, that defeated Russian generals would surrender, seeking an immediate truce. Czar Alexander, like Josef Stalin later, denied them any surrender. They instead withdrew into Russia’s vast territory. In a desperate attempt to win, both the French and Nazis marched deeper and deeper into enemy territory. Until the brutal Russian winter arrived.
Napoleon’s, and later Hitler’s, invasion of Russia symbolizes what happens when one autocratic leader avoids the advice of his own generals and launches a war outside its abilities to succeed. If we could only LEARN from the lessons of the past. Then perhaps we could have avoided subsequent wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. History is nothing if not an excellent teacher. The wars waged against today’s threats will not be short incursions into weak enemies. They will rather be sustained and costly conflicts incurring thousands civilian casualties.