Napoléon’s 1812 Russia campaign failed, why? Bad luck? The mistakes of others? Or as Shakespeare wrote: ‘the fault dear Brutus is not in our stars but in ourselves.’
If Emperor Napoléon had a telephone, what might he have said to Tsar Alexander sometime in the summer of 1812, 209 years ago? What would have Alexander said in response – ‘beware the Russian bear at home’?
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’.
He did ascribe 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.’
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.”
* I read widely on the 1812 debacle for my current novel: a Russian filmmaker character in my novel was making a film — and I thought why let this research remain out of sight.
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In the Summer or 1812, Napoléon marched elements of his army, 420,000 armed soldiers in a city of 690,000 in a sweltering heat up through France and Germany, finally reaching the Grand Duchy of Warzaw’s north-eastern border with Russia. He said in the aftermath he really had no urge to fight, but if the objective was to speak with Alexander, why not leave this city-sized army and followers at home?
What was Napoléon’s motive for this invasion? He dreamt of becoming Tsar of the richest country in Europe. After replenishing his army, perhaps he was planning to head on to the Far East, or march south and climb up over the Himalayas to take India away from the British. All these ideas were rumoured. The invasion would accrue its own meaning somehow inside Russia.
Subjugation of Russia was the first task. Perhaps initially all Napoléon wanted to do was demonstrate to Tsar Alexander who was the true ruler of Europe. Alexander had broken the terms of the unequal Treaties of Tilsit and Napoléon was said to be angry about that.
At the Nieman River border with Lithuania, the most-western point of the Russian Empire, the French leader fell off his horse, joking that if he had been a Caesar in Ancient Rome he might have accepted the bad omen and turned around and headed home. Of course for Napoléon, there was no turning back. He made it clear he was confident of victory. At 43, he was thirsty for battle, up for a fight, even if he did say, some seven years earlier, he only had five good years left as a soldier.
Still, it was a glorious day. The pontoon crossings were uneventful, except for the deaths by drowning of some overzealous Polish cavalry, who in trying to impress their great leader, needlessly threw themselves and their horses into a watery grave, foolishly taking on the strongly flowing Nieman.
Once troops were across the river there was a skirmish with a contingent of Russians on the eastern bank, but after some shots from both sides, it was quickly settled when the Russians rode off.
Inside the Russian Empire, Napoléon then rode his men around in the first weeks trying to find his opponent. He had wanted to force the Russians into a momentous battle, but they kept themselves out of sight.
Napoléon still hoped for an easy victory, an early Russian surrender, while the Russian troops under the command of the German Scot, Barclay de Tolly, managed to avoid him.
When Napoléon finally caught up with Barclay at Smolensk, and saw the Russians were ready to make a stand, he smacked his lips at the prospect. Smolensk! This was the decisive battle he had been craving.
Only Napoléon’s approach lacked military invention. Launching an artillery bombardment, he sent his troops in through the front door in a full-frontal attack, after failing to close the city’s ‘ back door’, providing an opportunity to Russia’s famous General, Prince Bagration, an opportunity Bagration did not ignore.
In man-to-man fighting in the streets of Smolensk Napoléon’s troops met determined Russians, including members of the priesthood and untrained locals. Napoléon’s troops suffered major casualties, sustained because Prince Bagration kept feeding in fresh Russian reinforcements through the city’s northern gate.
Smolensk, the spiritual sister-city to Moscow, was a metropolis filled with religious icons and fiercely patriotic Russians. Where Napoléon saw an opportunity to set the tone of his invasion, the Russians saw a chance to deal the Frenchman and his military dreams a wake-up call.
A highly symbolic military event Napoléon technically “lost” this first major test on Russian soil because he could not work out a strategy to demoralise the Russians. The Prussian military theorist, Carl Von Clausewitz, at the time advising Russia, wrote that the French leader failed onward tactically from this very first encounter with the Russian army. Von Clausewitz was astounded Napoléon mounted a full-frontal assault without first surrounding and securing the city.
This ‘new’ Napoléon signals a decline his capacities. His failure at Smolensk to establish a clear French superiority is the first step in a trend in poor decision-making.
Still, with casualties high on both sides, the battle for Smolensk is accorded by “history” as a victory for the French, but that is largely 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 confrontations, an historical fact was now emerging—the defeat of Napoléon was underway.
The Russians received support from local farmers and peasantry who fed their army on their march to Moscow. Following behind, the French met nothing but stubborn farming-community resistance. Non-existent food supplies soon began affecting the French, who now had to work very hard foraging for any-old food and clean drinking water. Men and horses began to die. Desertions increased daily.
Troop numbers were now a real problem for Napoléon, not only because of starvation and desertion. Napoléon’s men were also dying in alarming numbers from a mysterious disease. Napoléon’s personal and chief army surgeon, Baron Dominique Jean Larrey, witnessed the dying. Napoléon’s aide-de camp, Marquis de Caulaincourt, saw them as well. It is unimaginable that Napoléon would have been unaware of what Typhus was doing to his army.
Did he not surround Smolensk because he knew he didn’t have the troops to carry-out two tasks— attack and secure the city? If he knew, then why chase the Russians? He had informed Austria’s Metternich months earlier that he planned to build a base at Smolensk, supply it and rest there rest for winter, then attack Russia’s heartland the following spring. Instead, late in this stifling summer, seeing disease, starvation, thirst and desertion savage his army, Napoléon altered his plans. In changing course, he put himself and his remaining army at risk.
Leaving a contingent to hold the city of Smolensk, in part as he had planned to do, Napoléon drove this fatigued, famished, thirsty, diseased army, their supply lines over-stretched, after the Russians.
The Russians were heading for Moscow for sound defensive reasons, while Napoléon’s forces were now engaged in a military gamble. Napoléon tactics exhibited first signs of desperation. Craving an elusive morale-boosting victory he refused to rest his men, ordering Maréchal Junot to attack the retreating Russians from the rear. Junot promptly disobeyed the order. The French leader’s military plans were beginning to disintegrate. Yet, on he rode, not quite chasing the Russians anymore, more lagging behind in their wake.
There are ways and methods of rationalising how wars happen. There is at least one good defence always for war—defence itself. Nations have a right, even a duty, to defend themselves. The Russians to a man knew what they had to do, and it was clear they knew how to defend Russia. And they would do whatever it took. It was up to the invaders to match their resolve.
Still, many in the Russian high-command deplored Barclay’s tactical retreat, however necessary or shrewd. “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 Bagration—discretion being central to Barclay de Tolly’s absent valour—the foreign-born army chief lacked a Russian’s desire to fight for his country. Barclay’s retreat showed cowardice and signalled defeatism.
On the French side, Napoléon was barely a shadow of his younger self. It wasn’t only his ailments, and he had several, he now seemed unhinged. It wasn’t a good strategy to drive his depleted army deeper into the enemy’s territory, where the Russians could regroup and replenish their forces. Napoléon’s army, demonstrating real signs of distress, continued pursuing the Russian army on insufficient food, water and rest. Napoléon’s military plans were unwise but as always he was overwhelmed by his manic desire to win a decisive battle. Yet when he did get into a fight he showed an odd lack of military skill. His strategies in Russia were terminally flawed.
In ordering Junot, once a trusted maréchal, to chase-down and attack the Russian rear, Napoléon was not only let down by Junot, he let his army down by sending Junot in the first place. Why Junot of all commanders? He had long been suffering from a major head wound from a past campaign. Why not send Murat or Ney?
Then Napoléon found himself facing a new chief-of-staff in the opposition. Yielding to the pleas of Bagration and others, Tsar Alexander removed Barclay as head of the army. The new commander of the Russian forces was a Russian’s Russian—Prince Mikhail Kutuzov.
Back from a campaign against the Ottoman Empire deep in the south, Kutuzov rode to assume his new command on 29 August, 1812, at Borodino, 84 miles from Moscow. Bringing his battle credentials with him, the new appointment of an experienced and wily Russian general—a shrewd soldier who also had survived two serious head wounds—satisfied the Russian senior command, particularly Prince Bagration, who viewed Barclay’s strategies as hopeless.
Napoléon was happy with Marshal Kutuzov’s appointment. He had beaten the Russian at Austerlitz. Though that was 1805, another time and place and battle fought under very different conditions, back when Napoléon, by his own estimation, was at the peak of his powers. Aged 67, Kutuzov was definitely at the end of his career, but he was a thoughtful warrior and his command style seemed to fit the Russian needs well.
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On September 7, 1812 near a village of the same name, the Battle of Borodino began in a field, a field no more significant than any other in Russia, as Tolstoy wrote.
The night before battle the two armies sat camped perhaps two football fields distance from each other, the French chewing their horse meat in silence, listening to the faith-inspired 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 came and the French and Russian forces charged each other.
Napoléon watched from a dinner-table chair on a western hill. He had woken with a urinary tract infection. Staring into smoke his brain hammered by the simultaneous firing of seven muskets and three cannon every second, he sat silent and hunched low, unable throughout to have any effect on the unfolding fight.
His maréchaux kept offering him ideas, but Napoléon rejected them all, his military prowess, positivism, ingenuity shrivelling to nothing when he needed it most. Asked over and over to send in his Imperial Guard to shore up his own troops at key moments, Napoléon continually refused. He wouldn’t commit his last piece in the chess game that ended up defining him most. He couldn’t sacrifice his famed Guard.
Watching the brave but wild and ultimately fruitless battle turn into another pyrrhic victory for the French, Napoléon stared-on listlessly, bereft of ideas, probably thinking: any more victories like this so far from home and I and my army are doomed.
Borodino gave him the truth whether he wanted to hear it or not.
Summarising the day, Napoléon emphasised Russia’s losses, downplaying his own. Kutuzov was realistic. Knowing both armies had suffered savage losses, the Russians knew when to quit the battle and Kutuzov marched his broken army up the road towards Moscow.
Remaining camped on the field where his dreams virtually disappeared, Napoléon wrote to his Austrian-born wife Marie-Louise on 8 September claiming Russian losses were 30,000 men, failing to mention French losses. 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” (1 to 6 ratio).
These days losses are calculated as 25,000 to 28,000 men for the Grande Armée, and about 45,000 for the Russians. The loss ratio was 1 to 2. While accruing favourably to Napoléon’s army, Borodino is still one of the bloodiest battles ever fought by the French anywhere.
Unlike Napoléon Kutuzov saw no victory where there was none and no beauty in war and death. He knew how many men the Russian army had lost, and he mourned every one, particularly his best, Bagration. The Russians buried their fallen. The French left their dead on the battlefield.
Murat wanted to take Napoléon‘s Imperial Guard and chase down and attack the stricken Russians. But Napoléon, the famed tactician, now seemed unable to divine the real from illusory in his opportunities anymore. Why did he not see military merit in Murat’s argument. The Russians were so badly wounded they could now be defeated. So, why did Napoléon continue refusing to commit his Guard as he had done throughout the Battle of Borodino itself? Over-optimism, always at the core of his reasoning, suddenly seemed suddenly missing from his reasoning. Why? Was Napoléon now consumed by self-preservation? His diary entries from Sainte-Hélène mention ‘false reports, ridiculous plots, betrayal and pure stupidity’. Where did this come from? His own high command?
From one perspective of course Napoléon inaction after Borodino could be seen as showing some respect and sympathy for the stricken Russian army. But as Napoléon wasn’t really in Russia to hold a meeting with the Tsar, where they would discuss peace proposals, and as he had never shown this sort of attitude in military engagements before, this is unlikely to be the reason. By now, it is difficult to chart the strange ideas his deluded mind might have been consumed by. On a simple level, Napoléon’s objective was, as it always was, to take Moscow. To do that he had to keep his Imperial Guard intact. To him, he had to ignore Murat’s tactical reasoning. It is also possible, however, that Napoléon thought, in his dazed and confused post traumatic stressed and disordered state of mind, that if he didn’t let Murat crush the Russians with a charge from the rear, that the French leader’s largesse would be recognised by the Russians. Hence he would be invited to take over their country, and find himself liked, even loved, for what he had done.
Whatever the truth of Napoléon’s reasoning, in showing an unwillingness to employ his Imperial Guard against the Russians at this critical post-Borodino moment, he lost the chance to deal the crippled Russians a death blow. Napoléon let the Russians survive Borodino and lost the campaign.
However, as Moscow was for the French leader, his real moment in history, he went on, not chasing any defining military-engagement anymore. Thinking now of his triumphant ride into the Russian capital, taking Moscow represented everything the campaign was about now. Napoléon marched slowly behind the retreating Russians, utterly focussed only on entering the Russian capital as conqueror. The big questions left were:
Could Napoléon ride through Moscow’s gates and from there control Russia? Could the Grande Armée hold the old capital? Would Alexander ever give up his crown? Would the Russians ever accept Napoléon as Emperor? Or even—could Napoléon’s army open up a gateway to Asia? Would he ever be as great as Alexander of Macedonia?
So many energy-consuming thoughts must have been flowing around inside his battle-curdled brain. For Marshal Kutuzov, life and conflict seemed far simpler. Moscow was whatever he had to do in order to rid Russia of the French. After the Russians troops marched through Moscow, he left the metropolis for Napoléon.
Napoléon arrived at the gates and waited on his horse expecting to be greeted by Moscow’s elders. Nobody came. He sent Murat in to clear the city of the enemy while he bedded down in a village house just inside the city’s perimeter.
The next morning, the ghost of Pyrrhus on his shoulder, the Russians still retreating south to a base camp at Kaluga, he rode in towards the Kremlin, still deluding himself enough to believe he could and should occupy Moscow, even if only for several depressing weeks. And depressing it was for him.
Napoléon controlled the city because the Russian army let him have it, and only after its mayor, Count Fyodor Rostopchin, as many say, made sure it was left in flames.
Napoléon couldn’t understand the depth of the Russian spirit of resistance. While he waited for an answer from Alexander, he watched the burning of his sacred Moscow, 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.” He witnessed his army ransack and abuse the cradle of Russian history for five weeks. Meanwhile, Alexander ignored him.
Moscow gave Napoléon sleepless nights and 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 remained in Moscow far too long. It was said that only in seeing the first October snowflakes did he bring himself to order his army to pack-up and leave. Or was he moved to act only when a French party he sent south to search for food was attacked by a Russian contingent? Was it that that made Napoléon realise his time was up.
Heading south seeking warmer food-stocked territories, Napoléon’s exit was soon known to the Russians. When he arrived and camped at Maloyaroslavets Kutuzov’s army attacked. Out reconnoitering with his men, some Cossacks emerged from some woods and charged, getting so close to Napoléon he was nearly captured, a shaken Napoléon saved only by the intervention of his Imperial Guard.
In his headquarters that night he listened to Murat, the calvary’s commander and bravest and most headstrong of his maréchaux arguing his tactics—They take on Kutuzov and his army in a final battle south at Kaluga, no matter how replenished the Russian army is. The French would then have access to the food they needed for the long march west.
Napoléon demurred and ordered his troops back north and west back up along the food-stripped, emptied old Moscow to Smolensk road, dragging his men by the still-shocking death scene at Borodino, a battle-field which weeks afterwards still lay covered with rotting French remains. The sight stunned even his most battle hardened men. Napoléon drove his demoralized army straight into the jaws of a freezing foodless Russian winter. With each passing mile the troops began to smell death, yet his soldiers had no choice but to march on.
Napoléon’s early missives home demonstrated his denial of the state of his retreating French army—its exhaustion and lack of winter-clothing and food. Disaster was near, yet not until 18 November, writing Maret four weeks after exiting Moscow, did Napoléon finally admit, in explicit and almost naive terms, the structural difficulties he faced, in stark contrast to an enemy in total harmony with its surroundings: “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.”
The French went on until they were halted by the ice-filled but not frozen solid Bérézina river. It was uncrossable. An end game final battle was close at hand. Admiral Pavel Chichagov was waiting for the French on the western bank. From the north, Peter Wittgenstein was closing in with his Russian army. And a day’s march away to the east, Kutuzov rode slowly west with the rest of the Russian troops. Napoléon ordered his papers burnt.
Then Bérézina turned into a miracle escape. Not because of Napoléon, in spite of him. Having disobeyed Napoléon’s orders to jettison all his heavy bridge-building gear, General Eblé kept his pontoon equipment. Climbing down into freezing waters, Eblé and his corps of Dutch engineers constructed pontoons for troops and their ragtag followers to pass over. Most of the engineers who spent hours in the waters, building and rebuilding the pontoons, died. Eblé succumbed to the experience sometime later after arriving back in Paris.
It was Eblé who managed the miracle, and Murat who made a decoy move up river to confound Chichagov. Taking Murat’s bait, Chichagov tracked the French along the riverbank. This left the crossing point free for the French to use—for a very short time. But it was enough for Napoléon and his men to file onto the pontoons. The Swiss troops under Oudinot bravely fought off a furious, returning Chichagov. Napoléon and the bulk of his army were able to escape, the French getting across the treacherous part-frozen river by the skin of their teeth.
Their rag tag followers, the travelling support city, were not so lucky. Simply too cold or unwilling to move when ordered to, many drowned when they rushed the bridges at the very end, hearing word the pontoons were about to be destroyed. Bérézina is a tale of woe in itself, symbolizing how misguided Napoléon’s 1812 campaign truly was.
29 November, Napoléon wrote that 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.”
Napoléon himself had it easy. Leaving his army in Bérézina, he rode south with his aide-decamp, Caulaincourt, in a sleigh to Paris. Freed from his responsibilities as the principal architect of the failed campaign, he was heard laughing uproariously, enjoying life again.
Arriving back in Paris on 19 December he was reassured by French morale. Once more he turned his mind to grandiose plans, raising new troops.
On the day of his arrival, he wrote to Murat: ‘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 anyone defend this? Is it callousness or madness? Madness is part folklore, part a tale children shout at each other in streets. Madness has meanings and definitions in medicine, but when military commanders are certifiably insane what modes of censure are available for dealing with them? Probably many would say it’s wrong to call Napoléon’s invasion of Russia an act of madness—without a qualification of what ‘madness’ means in regard to his intentions.
So, should we say then, that Napoléon’s attack on Russia in 1812 was only a military misadventure? When Napoléon Bonaparte, Emperor Extraordinaire, dragged 690,000 people north across Europe to invade an independent sovereign nation, and in doing so, made a complete mess of his campaign, he only made a military miscalculation?
Perhaps Napoléon needed to be physically and psychiatrically examined before he left Paris, but no-one thought to analyse leaders that way, back then. He marched north into Russia and exited five months later with around 10,000 of his original army (10,000, who were barely in any condition to carry out any military duties). Of the travelling support team of hangers-on, few of them made it home.
Then Napoléon lost the Battle of Leipzig in 1813. Another Napoléonic army gone, ending when a panicked corporal blew up a bridge too early, trapping thousands of retreating French soldiers in the German city. By the advent of Waterloo, the other European armies and generals had worked-out Napoléon’s military tactics. Still, the question of his 1812 failures remain.
Did the Russia campaign represent a great military-leader brought down by unforeseeable events, or were the thousands upon thousands of French troops and their loyal allies needlessly sacrificed at the altar of the ego of a fly-by-the-seat of his pants soldier whose luck just ran out?
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 Russia, as a général, Napoléon couldn’t “cut it” anymore. Did he know? Probably. Was it the reason he kept his Imperial Guard sidelined? He knew his weaknesses and knew he needed protection.
His state of mind in his 1812 Russia campaign seems to be a major factor in the failure. The Russia campaign mirrored Napoléon‘s mental condition, which connected to his performance led directly to crises, then his failure to avert the next crisis, and failure to rectify earlier crises.
Napoléon seems to have been a victim of the cumulative war injury once known as shell-shock—now included in the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Soldiers used the term shell-shock in World War I. A British Physician and Psychologist, Charles Myers, asked by the British Army to examine the problem, wrote an article for Lancet in 1915 Myers listing symptoms of the condition and he was criticised by those who believed in medicalising shell-shock it became an excuse for cowardice and malingering.
Cowardice doesn’t sit easily next to Napoléon‘s name, not if we believe his established history and list of achievements. It takes the Russia campaign to see a fuller picture. The catastrophe in Russia resulted from his decisions that lacked inspiration and courage, but where did this spring from?
How far PTSD defines Napoléon’s performance clearly needs expert examination, but that he was a sufferer of PTSD seems quite likely given his career. After fighting so long in the artillery, it would be more surprising if his judgment weren’t affected by concussive-blows suffered over so many years.
‘Critics’ might complain that in saying Napoléon was suffering from shell-shock, a physical and psychological condition, it reduces his responsibility for the debacle he created. That is arguable, and I think it’s also arguable his maréchaux should and could have done more to prevent the campaign failing, but that would have meant mutiny.
© Lou R. Alba