with the catastrophe in the Ukraine still happening lets remember December and january 210 years ago—when Napoléon led a failed campaign. Is Putin doing the same?
What explanations are there for Napoléon’s miscalculations during his invasion? Going to Russia raises questions—though conversations with Metternich before setting off shows he once had a rational plan. Why didn’t he follow it? Putin is described as being ill, that his reasoning isn’t what it once was. Should Napoléon’s maréchaux have done more to prevent La Grande Armée’s Russia debacle? Could Vladimir Putin’s lieutenants show him the folly of his plans?
Was Napoléon‘s failed Russia campaign due to bad luck or the mistakes of others? Or to cite Shakespeare: was the fault not in his stars but in himself
From Sainte-Hélène, Napoléon wrote: … “the defeat was not the result of the ‘efforts of the Russians’ but rather [due to] ‘complete accidents … a capital burned to the ground by foreign parties before the eyes of its inhabitants … a freezing winter the sudden arrival and intensity of which was nothing less than phenomenal’ and finally ‘false reports, ridiculous plots, betrayal and pure stupidity.’
Napoléon did connect one ‘possible-fault’ to himself: ‘I did not wish for this famous war, this audacious undertaking. I had no urge to fight. Nor did Alexander, yet once we were face to face, circumstance drove us against each other. Fate did the rest.’
Does this post facto self-justification sound familiar?
Preparations for Napoléon’s Russia campaign began in 1811. In a letter to his brother Jérôme on 27 January 1812, he wrote: “I have had to assemble my armies, train them, and reconstitute my equipment. These preparations have taken a year.” This equivalent of an incriminating tweet in 2022 shows Napoléon wished for and planned wholeheartedly for his 1812 invasion of Russia. No wriggle room anywhere. In January 6 committee and DOJ terms Napoléon is ready for indictment.
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In the sweltering European summer of 1812 Napoléon marched various elements of a 420,000 strong army, driving a city-sized mass of 690,000 soldiers and supports up through France and today’s Germany. Arriving late July at the Grand Duchy of Warzaw’s border with Russia Napoléon said his objective was to ‘speak with Alexander’—only he forgot to leave his army back in Paris.
What was Napoléon’s interior-motive for this project? Did he dream only of becoming Tsar of the richest country in Europe? Or was the plan to conquer Russia then head on to the Far East, or even march south to climb the Himalayas in order to take India from the British?
Many ideas have occurred to observers in the years after 1812 went so badly, because the project still doesn’t make a lot of sense. Napoléon’s last big invasion accrued its lasting and indelible meaning inside Russia—that of a military disaster.
Subjugation of Tsar Alexander and Russia was the first task. Napoléon was said to be in Russia to demonstrate who ruled Europe. Alexander had broken the terms of the Treaties of Tilsit and Napoléon was angry. There was always ‘that reason’ to show everyone.
At the Nieman River border with Lithuania, the most western point of the Russian Empire, the French hero fell off his emblematic white steed, joking that if he had been a Caesar in Ancient Rome he might have accepted the omen was bad and headed home.
For Napoléon there was no going back ever. That much was clear. He told everyone he was confident of victory and still thirsty for a bloody encounter. Yet some seven years earlier at Austerlitz, he also said: there were only five years left in him as a soldier.
Still, his arrival at the Nieman River made for a glorious day. The pontoon crossings went well. Nothing went wrong except for the unnecessary deaths by drowning of a contingent of Polish cavalry, who in trying to impress their leader foolishly threw themselves and their horses into the strongly flowing waters.
Once French troops were across the river a skirmish occurred after Russian cavalrymen appeared on the eastern bank. Though with some shots fired from both sides it was quickly settled. The Russians retreated.
Once inside the Russian Empire, in the first few days Napoléon marched his men up and down and around and about trying to find his opponent again. He wanted to force the Russians into a decisive battle, but he couldn’t find them anywhere. On Napoléon marched, still supremely confident of an early victory, an all-settling Russian surrender. Meanwhile the Russian troops under the German Scot, Barclay de Tolly, deftly side-stepped his advance. Eventually the French caught up with Barclay and his men at Smolensk. Seeing the Russians were now ready to make a stand, Napoléon smacked his lips—this was the moment he had been craving for.
Yet, strangely, military inventiveness suddenly deserted the 43 year old, once-described as Europe’s military genius. Failing to first secure the city’s back gate, Napoléon launched a full-frontal artillery bombardment, then sent his troops into the city in an equally full-frontal attack. It left Russia’s most able commander, Bagration, with an opportunity he didn’t ignore—the chance to replenish his troops through the open back door. Smolensk, the spiritual sister-city to Moscow was a metropolis filled with icons and fiercely patriotic Russians. Where Napoléon saw an opportunity to set the tone of his invasion, the Russians saw a real chance to deal the Frenchman and his invasion dreams a wake-up call. They succeeded.
In the battle for the city of Smolensk Napoléon’s troops fought mano-a-mano against Russians soldiers, with priests and untrained locals joining-in. Napoléon’s troops suffered major casualties, sustained in large part because Bagration kept pushing Russian reinforcements in through the open back gate.
In this symbolic campaign opener, Napoléon effectively “lost” his first test on Russian soil, because he failed to establish a clear method for overpowering and demoralising the Russians. The Prussian military theorist, Carl Von Clausewitz, at the time advising Russia, wrote that the French leader began losing tactically from this very first encounter with the Russian army. Astounded that Napoléon would mount a full-frontal assault without first surrounding and securing the city, Von Clausewitz wrote that this new Napoléon signalled a decline. The failure to establish French superiority at Smolensk was the first step in a trend in Napoléon’s dubious planning.
With casualties high on both sides, the battle for Smolensk is accorded by history as a technical victory for the French, but that is perhaps due to the Russian retreat east along the road to Moscow, making it seem as if Barclay de Tolly accepted he had lost Smolensk. Whether or not Barclay decided this strategy, or it was due only to his default position of avoiding most confrontations, a military fact was emerging—the defeat of Napoléon was underway.
Receiving vital support from farmers and peasantry, the Russian soldiers marched orderly towards Moscow, while the French following behind them faced the same western Russian farming communities in full resistance mode. With its supply lines stretched, Napoléon’s army forced to forage, found often only barely edible food, and in drinking ditch water, men and horses began dying.
Desertions increasing daily, troop numbers were now a growing problem for Napoléon—not only due to starvation, thirst and desertion. His men were dying in alarming numbers from a mysterious disease. Napoléon’s personal and chief army surgeon, Dominique Jean Larrey and his aide-de camp, Marquis de Caulaincourt, witnessed the dying. It is unimaginable Napoléon was unaware of what Typhus was doing to his army. Did Napoléon fail to surround Smolensk because he already knew he didn’t have the troops to manage the simultaneous tasks of securing and attacking the city? If so, then why continue chasing the Russians? Speaking with Austria’s Metternich months earlier Napoléon said he planned to build a base at Smolensk, rest there for the winter, then attack Russia’s heartland the following spring. Yet late in this stifling 1812 summer, with disease, starvation, thirst, desertion and plummeting morale ravaging his army, Napoléon changed his plans, putting himself and his army at risk.
Leaving a contingent to hold the city of Smolensk, in part as he had planned to do, Napoléon drove his army in pursuit of the Russians. Barclay’s men were heading to Moscow for sound defensive reasons, while Napoléon was now engaging in a dubious military gamble. Exhibiting his first signs of desperation, craving a morale boosting victory, Napoléon refused to stop chasing the Russians. He even ordered Maréchal Junot to attack the retreating Russians from the rear. Junot ignored the order. Napoléon’s plans were unravelling. Yet, on he rode, not really chasing the Russians, more lagging behind in their wake.
There are ways and methods of rationalising how wars develop and there is at least one good defence for them developing—self-defence. Nations have a right, even a duty, to defend themselves. The Russians to a man knew what they had to do was what they had to do—defend Russia. Russia would do whatever it took to make this defence work. It was up to the invaders to match this resolve.
Still, for all its shrewdness, many in the Russian command deplored Barclay’s strategic retreat. “Tell me for God’s sake,” Prince Bagration said, “what will our Russia—our mother—say seeing that we are so frightened … that we are giving up such a good and zealous Fatherland to such rabble and instilling hatred and disgrace in every subject? Why are we so cowardly, and who are we afraid of? It is not my fault that the minister is irresolute, cowardly, muddle-headed, temporizing, and has every bad quality. The whole army is completely in tears and scolds him to death …”
To General Bagration—Barclay de Tolly’s retreat displayed an absence of valour. The foreign-born army chief lacked Bagration’s natural Russian determination to defend his homeland. Barclay’s retreat demonstrated cowardice, signalled defeatism.
For his part, Napoléon was only a shadow of himself. Beset with physical ailments, his mind didn’t seem sharp. He was failing himself and his army. It was unsound strategically to drive an already-depleted army deeper into enemy territory, where the Russians could regroup and replenish their ranks. In driving his army on with insufficient food, water and rest, in pursuit of the Russians, Napoléon showed himself as a visibly ageing man losing the plot. Overwhelmed by his desire to win a conclusive battle, to create a defining moment, the once successful military campaigner had mislaid his military skills. Had the once great French general finally lost his mojo? In ordering Junot, a no-longer completely trustworthy maréchal, to attack the Russian rear, Napoléon was not only let down by Junot, he let himself and his army down by sending Junot in the first place. Why Junot of all commanders, a man continuing to suffer from a life-altering head-wound, gained from a past campaign? Why not send Murat or Ney?
Though there is another judgment of Napoléon’s approach. The Russians were still intact after Smolensk. Then, was Junot right? Any further attack now needed careful planning.
Then Napoléon found himself facing a new chief-of-staff of the Russian army. Yielding to the pleas of Prince Bagration, Tsar Alexander removed Barclay from his post. The new commander of Russian forces was now a Russian’s Russian—Prince Mikhail Kutuzov. Returning from a campaign against the Ottoman Empire in the deep south, Kutuzov rode to assume his new command on 29 August, 1812, and meet his troops at Borodino, 84 miles from Moscow. With solid battle credentials, Kutuzov was an experienced and trusted Russian general—a shrewd soldier who had survived two serious head wounds (neither though touching his brain as with Junot)—Marshal Kutuzov satisfied the Russian senior commanders, particularly Prince Bagration, who now considered Barclay as a complete incompetent.
Predictably perhaps, Napoléon declared himself happy with Marshal Kutuzov’s appointment. He had beaten him at Austerlitz. But that was 1805 in a battle fought under different conditions, back when Napoléon was, by almost everyone’s estimation, at the peak of his powers. At 67, Kutuzov was definitely near the very end of his career, but being a thoughtful man, and exhibiting a light touch in command style, he suited Russia’s needs almost perfectly.
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On September 7 1812 near to a village of the same name, the Battle of Borodino took place in an insignificant field—a field like any other, as Tolstoy described it.
The night before battle the two armies camped two football fields distance from each other, the French chewing on horse meat in silence, forced to listen to the morale-boosting singing of the Russian army. Kutuzov knew how to rouse his men, and he did so by parading before them a Russian priest, who recently had been released from captivity, as if he were a religious icon.
Morning arrived and the French and Russian forces charged each other.
Having awoken with a urinary tract infection, Napoléon watched it all from a dinner chair on a western hill. Staring into smoke his brain received repetitive hammer blows of seven muskets and three cannon firing every second. Silent, hunched low, he was unable to engage effectively with the free-for-all before him.
Meanwhile his maréchaux kept offering ideas. Napoléon rejected them all, one by one. When he most needed to be bold, begged repeatedly to send in his Imperial Guard to shore up hard-pressed troops, Napoléon kept on shaking his head. His military prowess shrivelled down to nothing, he would not, could not, commit his last piece in the chess game, the military piece that defined him in the end—his personal protection.
Watching brave Russians hold-up, turn back, the more numerous French, attack after attack moulding somehow into a kind of French victory, Napoléon was bereft of ideas. Was he thinking: any more battles like this I am doomed? He would have been right if he were thinking like this. The battle of Borodino provided him with a savage historical lesson whether he wanted one or not.
Summarising the day, he emphasised Russia’s losses, downplaying his own. Camped on the field, where his invasion dreams had disappeared into heavy smoke, Napoléon wrote to his Austrian-born wife Marie-Louise claiming that Russian losses were 30,000 men, failing to mention what had happened to his own army. In a letter to Maret, he wrote: “Russian losses at the Moskova are huge. It is the most beautiful battlefield I have seen thus far: there are 2,000 French and 12,000 Russian, and that is no exaggeration.”
Napoléon fantasized a 1 to 6 ratio ratio of losses in favour of his own army. These days those losses are calculated as 25,000 to 28,000 dead to the Grande Armée, and about 45,000 to the Russians. The loss ratio was around 1 to 2. While accruing more favourably to Napoléon, Borodino is one of the bloodiest battles ever fought by the French anywhere. So far from home it was just short of a complete disaster.
Kutuzov was realistic. Knowing both armies had suffered terrible losses, he knew when to quit, slowly marching his broken force up the road towards Moscow. Unlike Napoléon, Kutuzov saw no victory where there was none, no beauty in war or death. He knew how many men the Russian army had lost, and he mourned every one, particularly the demise of his best battle commander, General Bagration. In telling fashion, the Russians buried their fallen men, the French left their bodies on the battlefield.
Maréchal Murat wanted to take Napoléon’s Imperial Guard and chase down and attack the stricken Russians from the rear, but Napoléon, once famed as a shrewd military tactician, now seemed unable to read his opportunities for victory anymore. He ignored Murat. Yet, the Russians were so badly wounded they could now be defeated. Why did Napoléon refuse to commit his Imperial Guard?
Throughout the Battle of Borodino they were unused. Optimism, which in the past sat at the core of Napoléon’s military reasoning, suddenly was missing. He seemed consumed by self-preservation. His diary entries from Sainte Hélène mentioned ‘false reports, ridiculous plots, betrayal and pure stupidity’. Where did these false reports come from? Officers high up in his own command? Perhaps Napoléon’s inaction after Borodino could be seen as a show of respect, a soldier’s sympathy for the stricken Russian army. But as he had rarely let a chance for military victory slip by him and because he was not in Russia to demonstrate sympathy for the Russian army—even if peace was now his best hope for salvaging anything from his failing campaign—this seems unlikely to be the reason.
Two centuries later, of course, it is difficult to look inside Napoléon’s mind at that crucial moment. His objective was to take Moscow. And to do that perhaps he believed he had to keep his Imperial Guard intact. So is this why he ignored Murat’s tactical reasoning? Could destruction of the Russian army have made taking Moscow more difficult? Perhaps it is possible that Napoléon in a post-Borodino depressed state thought Murat’s ideas on crushing the Russians in a charge from the rear could be seen as a war crime, that the French leader’s largesse in holding back could be seen favourably by Russia as a whole.
War crimes? Who thought of such things in 1812?
Could Napoléon be invited to take over Russia? Would he be seen as a generous an invader as history accords Alexander the Great as once being? Could the Russians ever love Napoléon? History shows us now that the Russians were never going to accept him. That was clear to the clear-headed even before Borodino. So, whatever Napoléon’s reasoning, in showing an unwillingness to employ the Imperial Guard against the Russians at this opportune post-Borodino moment, he lost the chance to deal the Russians a death blow. Allowing them to survive he lost the campaign.
Moscow was still the French leader’s ‘moment in history’, at least in his own head. So on he slowly rode, not chasing a new military engagement, thinking only of how he could manage his entry into Moscow. Taking Russia’s main city represented everything his campaign was about. Onward Napoléon marched his battered army, staying well behind the retreating Russians, focused now on how to take the famed city.
There were some big questions left to resolve: how could the depleted Grande Armée control the centre of Russian life? Would Tsar Alexander give up his throne? Would the Russians ever accept Napoléon as Emperor? Could Napoléon’s army open a gateway to the far east? Could Napoléon ever be as great as Alexander of Macedonia? Many energy-consuming thoughts must have been circulating in his battle stricken brain.
For Russia’s Marshal Kutuzov the way forward was quite simple. Moscow was whatever he had to do to rid the fatherland of the French. The Russians troops marched through the city and left the metropolis to Napoléon.
Arriving at the city’s gates Napoléon waited impatiently on his horse, fully expecting to be greeted by Moscow’s elders. When nobody came he sent Murat in to check that the city was clear of the enemy, bedding himself down in a village house on the perimeter. The next morning, with the Russians now south of Moscow retreating to a base-camp south at Kaluga, Napoléon rode in towards the Kremlin, thinking, deluding himself, that he had to occupy Moscow, even if only for a few depressing weeks. And depressing it was going to be for him. Napoléon controlled Moscow because the Russian army left it for him. In chaos. After its mayor, Count Fyodor Rostopchin, made sure the city was soon ablaze.
Napoléon couldn’t comprehend the depth of the Russian spirit of resistance. Waiting for a letter of surrender from Alexander, he watched sacred Moscow burning down, a city he described in a letter to Marie-Lousie as “500 palaces as beautiful as the Elysée Napoléon furnished luxuriously à la française, several imperial palaces, barracks, [and] magnificent hospitals.”
Napoléon witnessed his own army ransack and abuse the cradle of Russian history for five weeks. Meanwhile Alexander continued to ignore him. Moscow gave Napoléon nightmares. Moscou, la capitale asiatique de ce grand empire, la ville sacrée des peuples d’Alexandre, Moscou avec ses innombrables églises en forme de pagodes chinoises! He must have known the game was up. He had to, with his army now not even half its original size. Napoléon remained in Moscow far too long. He dithered. It was said that only in seeing the first October snowflakes did he bring himself to order his army to pack-up and leave. Perhaps he was moved to act when a French foraging party, sent south to find food, was attacked by a Russian contingent. Was it this event that really made Napoléon realise it was time to go? Meanwhile the Russian army was regrouping fast, as Napoléon’s troops were even faster becoming an undisciplined rabble of looters.
Heading south to the promise of warmer food-stocked territories, Napoléon’s exit was soon known to the Russians. They had spies in Moscow. They had spies everywhere. When the French arrived at Maloyaroslavets, Kutuzov’s army attacked. Riding out to reconnoiter with his men in the aftermath of another disturbing encounter, Cossack cavalrymen charged Napoléon’s party. Appearing from out of some woods the Cossacks got so close to the French leader he was nearly captured, with Napoléon saved only by the quick intervention of his Imperial Guard.
Back in his headquarters that night he listened to Murat, his brave calvary commander and most headstrong of his maréchaux, arguing his ideas for a dangerous attack on Kutuzov—Napoléon should take on the Russians at Kaluga. No matter how replenished the Russians were, the French would beat them, gaining access to the food they needed for the long march home along the more southern route.
Napoléon listened but demurred, ordering his troops back north and west back up along the food-stripped, battle-ruined old Moscow to Smolensk road, dragging his men by the still-shocking death scene at Borodino—a battle-field which weeks afterwards still lay littered with rotting French remains. The sight stunned even his most battle hardened men.
Napoléon drove a demoralised army straight into the jaws of a freezing Russian winter on an ice-covered food-less road. With each passing mile, the smell of death was everywhere, his troops mostly walking themselves west, dragging their Moscow-looted booty behind them.
Napoléon’s letters home demonstrated how much in denial he was over the state of his army—its exhaustion, lack of winter clothing and food. With disaster closing in, on 18 November, when writing Maret four weeks after exiting Moscow, Napoléon finally admitted, in explicit and almost naive terms, the structural difficulties he faced: “Since the last letter I sent you, our situation has worsened. Freezing conditions and a biting cold of 16 degrees [below zero on the Réaumur scale, about minus 20° C ] have killed nearly all our horses, almost 30,000 of them. We have been forced to burn more than 300 artillery pieces and an immense number of transports. […] A few days of rest, some good food and above all horse and artillery equipment will set us right. But the enemy has over us experience of moving in icy conditions, something that gives him an immense advantage in winter. As we struggle to get a transport or artillery piece over the smallest defile without losing 12 or 15 horses and 12 to 15 hours, they – with their skates and specially equipped teams – move them as if there were no ice at all.”
Intermittently attacked by Cossack raiding parties, the French staggered on until they were halted at the ice-filled but not quite frozen-solid Bérézina river. The river was uncrossable. It looked like Napoléon’s end game had arrived. A final battle was at hand. With Admiral Pavel Chichagov waiting for the French on the western bank, and north, Peter Wittgenstein closing in with his Russian army, and a day away to the east, Kutuzov slowly marching towards the retreating French with the rest of the Russian troops, Napoléon ordered his papers burnt.
Yet, Bérézina turned into Napoléon’s miracle escape. Not because of but in spite of him. Having disobeyed direct orders to jettison all his heavy bridge-building gear, Général Eblé crucially retained his pontoon equipment. Climbing down into freezing waters, Eblé and his corps of Dutch engineers constructed pontoons for French troops and the ragtag followers to walk over. The engineers spent hours in the freezing waters building and rebuilding the pontoons—twice—because a repair was needed. Eblé’s men died as a result of their mammoth efforts, Eblé succumbing to the experience after arriving home in Paris.
Général Eblé managed the impossible, together with Murat who made a noisy decoy move up river, managing to confound Chichagov, who thought the French now planned to cross the river elsewhere. Taking Murat’s bait, Chichagov tracked the French miles along the river, leaving the Bérézina pontoons free for Napoléon’s troops to use—for a few short hours, still it was enough for him and his troops to file over.
On the west bank, an incandescent Admiral Chichagov raced back only to meet brave Swiss troops under Général Oudinot who defended the French crossing down to the last of their corps. Napoléon and the bulk of his army escaped, his troops getting across the treacherous part-frozen river by the skin of their chattering teeth. The Grande Armée’s rag-tag followers support city were not so lucky. Too cold and demoralised to move when ordered to, many drowned when they rushed the bridges at the end, upon hearing the pontoons were about to be destroyed. Bérézina is a tale of woe, underlining how misguided Napoléon’s 1812 campaign was.
29 November Napoléon wrote he was “cut off from everything: It has been fifteen days since I last received any news or any dispatch, and I am in the dark on everything” adding: “The army is large but terribly strung out,” before instructing Maret to assemble plenty of provisions in Vilnius. “Without them,” he warned, “there is no horror that this undisciplined and unruly mob will not visit upon the city.”
30 November, Napoléon wrote: 40,000 soldiers “driven, by fatigue, cold and want of food roaming as vagabonds and looters.” Napoléon ordered: “100,000 rations of bread, without which anarchy and violence would reign in Vilnius.”
4 December he wrote Maret before crossing the Niemen, admitting now that: “The army, exhausted and worn out by the miseries it has experienced, is at the brink. It is capable of no more, not even if it were asked to defend Paris.”
As his history shows, Napoléon managed this sort of military failure more than once. At Bérézina, once again he got off lightly. Convincing his generals it was best if he left for Paris, he deserted another army, leaving his men behind, riding south with his aide-de-camp Caulaincourt in a sleigh. Freed from the responsibility of being the principal architect of another failed campaign, Napoléon was heard laughing uproariously.
Back in Paris, 19 December, reassured by morale he found, he turned his mind once again to grandiose plans. On the very day of his arrival he wrote to Murat that he was raising another army: ‘I have arrived in Paris. I was extremely satisfied with the Nation’s resolve. They are prepared to make any sort of sacrifice, and I shall be tireless in my work to reorganise the means [at my disposal]. I already have an army of 40,000 men in Berlin and on the Oder.’
How can this be defended? Is it madness? Hubris. Both. Madness is part folklore, a tale children shout at each other in streets. It has meaning in Psychiatry. But when military commanders demonstrate themselves to be certifiably insane what censures are available for dealing with them?
Many would say it is wrong to call Napoléon’s invasion of Russia an act of a mentally ill man—without defining what ‘madness’ means exactly, analysing his state-of-mind scientifically. Let us say then, that in his attack on Russia in 1812, Napoléon, Emperor Extraordinaire, military adventurer, in marching, cajoling 690,000 humans northward across Europe to invade the sovereign nation of Russia, he unfortunately messed up a perfectly acceptable plan, due to some minor miscalculations.
Perhaps Napoléon needed to be physically and psychiatrically examined before he left Paris but no-one even thought of analysing leaders that way back then. He force-marched 690,000 north into Russia and exited five months later with around 10,000 of his original force—10,000 humans who were barely in any condition to carry out any duties let alone military tasks. Of the support team of hangers-on, few survived.
One year later he lost the Battle of Leipzig. Another Napoléonic army gone, ending when a panicked corporal blew up a bridge early, trapping thousands of fleeing French soldiers still in the German city. By 1815 and Waterloo, European armies and generals had pretty-well worked out Napoléon’s time-worn tactics.
These final battles have been thoroughly examined, explained, but questions of his 1812 failures remain. Did the 1812 Russia campaign represent a great military-leader brought down by unforeseeable events, or were the thousands upon thousands of French troops and loyal allies needlessly sacrificed on the altar of the ego of a fly-by-the-seat of his pants gambling-freak soldier whose luck just ran out?
Or would a young Napoléon—in his right mind—have known that even by Smolensk the game was up? When the troops at his disposal were already suddenly reduced. When men were deserting, supplies short. Typhus was raging.
Before Russia, Napoléon was considered to be the ‘war genius’ of 18th and early 19th century Europe. If this was still true inside Russia his decisions must have been made by another person.
The truth seems to be by the time of Russia in 1812, as a général, Napoléon couldn’t ‘cut it’ anymore. Was he aware of his decline? Yes. He kept his Imperial Guard sidelined. He knew his weaknesses and like an ageing mob boss he knew he needed protection. Was he in the end a military-gangster who surrounded himself with gunmen in order to survive? His overly self-protective state-of-mind in the 1812 campaign seems to be a major factor of its failure.
Russia 1812 was perhaps more than a misadventure. Napoléon’s failure to analyse and manage evolving crises, meant each new failure only worsened matters for his army and himself. Reaching for medical reasons, by 1812, Napoléon seems to have been a victim of the cumulative war injury known as shell-shock, now corralled under Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. A British Physician and Psychologist, Charles Myers, when asked by the British Army to examine the emergent problem, wrote an article for Lancet in 1915, listing his findings. He was criticised by many military decision-makers who believed the medicalising of shell-shock Myers allowed the condition to become an excuse for cowardice and malingering. Do Napoléon’s 1812 symptoms paint him as a PTSD victim coward malingerer?
In conventional historical analysis, ‘malingering coward’ doesn’t sit easily next to Napoléon Bonaparte’s name, yet the Russia campaign presents another portrait of the man. His failures inside Russia, his military in-decision, lack of inspiration, and seemingly occasional absences of courage, raise several questions.
How far PTSD defines his performance needs further examination, but that he was a sufferer of PTSD seems a cumulative probable result of his long career in the artillery—and a reasonable cause for his impaired-thinking inside Russia. So long in the artillery, it would be surprising if his judgment were not somehow affected by the continuing concussive blows in twenty years of engagements.
If Napoléon were suffering from PTSD, would it reduce his responsibility for the 1812 invasion? Should we, 200 years after 1812, bring him to account for war crimes inside Russia? His maréchaux could have done more—even if it meant mutiny. But when did they need to act? After Smolensk—Borodino—Moscow?
© Lew Collins