Napoleon’s ultimately disastrous invasion of the Russian Empire in 1812 is one of the most famous military campaigns in modern history. On 24 June 1812, Napoleon and his Grande Armée crossed the river Neiman in Western Russia and began marching towards Moscow with some 690,000 men. By the time the Armée had retreated from Russia less than six months later only tens of thousands of soldiers remained.
Three quarters of Moscow lay in smouldering ruins and hundreds of thousands of Russians had been killed, but Napoleon and his great empire had been forced to retreat. It was a defeat that ultimately proved that Europe’s previously undefeated ‘military genius’ could indeed be crushed, albeit at a huge cost.
By Louise Whitworth
By 1812 most of mainland Europe was under the control of Napoleon and his French Empire, who had swept across Europe with the help of a vast army and outstanding military strategies. Next on the French emperor’s list was its fragile ally Russia, which was doing little to honour the flimsy peace agreements that Napoleon had imposed on it. Bent on teaching the Russians a lesson, Napoleon mustered the full strength of his pan-European Grande Armée, the largest army Europe had seen since Roman times, and began marching towards the Russian Empire.
Although estimates vary, the Russian military was by all accounts vastly inferior in size to that of Napoleon’s invading army. For Napoleon the Russian invasion resembled an easy victory and he anticipated that Russia would capitulate within a matter of weeks. What Napoleon hadn’t expected was the resolve of Tsar Alexander I to fight to the last and the willingness of the Russian people to defend the nation at all costs.
Napoleon’s invasion was to be fought along three fronts aimed at “Russia’s feet” (Kiev), the “Russian heart” (Moscow) and “Russia’s head” (the capital St. Petersburg). As the Grande Armée marched determinedly across Western Russia - crushing the Russians in a terrible siege at Smolensk in the process - the Russian generals quickly recognised that further battles against Napoleon’s vast war machine would destroy the Russian army. Direct confrontation appeared an unwise strategy so the Russians began to retreat across the country, fighting few major battles and relying on Cossack raids of French positions to damage French morale and destroy their supply lines.
The Russian retreat turned out to be a surprisingly effective strategy, stretching Napoleon’s supply lines further and further and forcing his men over rough terrain. As they withdrew, the Russians also destroyed crops and other food stores in what is now known as a ‘scorched earth’ strategy, thus denying the French army and its vast cavalry essential supplies. As Napoleon had planned for a swift victory, the further the Russians retreated the more he became entrenched in a long war that he had not logistically prepared for. Persistent hunger and desertion and growing distances from essential supply lines meant that by September Napoleon’s army would be halved by the conditions alone.
St. Petersburg is saved
By July, fears were spreading in St. Petersburg that an invasion of the city was imminent and the state’s most valuable treasures from the Hermitage and the Alexander Nevsky Lavra were transported east to Kazan for safe keeping, soon to be followed by the royal family. Tsar Alexander I felt that strong action was needed to restore his men’s resolve and appointed veteran military leader and celebrated commander Mikhail Kutuzov to lead all the ground and naval forces based in St. Petersburg. As the excitement and anticipation of imminent battle in St. Petersburg grew, Kutuzov’s troops swelled with thousands of new recruits and the coffers filled with donations from anxious citizens.
The Russian army won its first victory of the campaign at the battle of Potolsk against the north-bound flank of Napoleon’s army, who were travelling through modern day Belarus on their way to St. Petersburg. Forced by the defeat in Potolsk to reconsider plans to take the capital St. Petersburg, Napoleon instead focused his energies on capturing Moscow. Napoleon believed that if the French could occupy the ancient seat of the tsars, Russia would be forced to surrender.
Meanwhile in St. Petersburg Tsar Alexander I was studying closely the Russian strategy of retreat. It seemed clear that the leader of the Russian army, Field Marshall Barclay de Tolly, would continue the retreat all the way to Moscow and that the city would then be taken by Napoleon. The tsar believed that a battle would eventually have to be fought and so he promoted Kutuzov to lead the army into battle. Kutuzov, like Barclay de Tolly, knew that the Russian army was far outnumbered by the French. However, he also knew that politically it would be impossible for the retreat to continue - the Russian people expected a battle and the tsar demanded a stand. Sooner rather than later, the two armies had to meet.
The Battle of Borodino
By September Napoleon’s troops were within days from Moscow. Field Marshall Kutuzov had mustered as much fire power as he could and was preparing to face Napoleon’s men in battle. On the dawn 7 September in the fields of Borodino - a quiet cluster of small villages and farms 200 kms from Moscow - 250,000 men went to war in what would be the largest and bloodiest single day of battle in all the Napoleonic Wars, and indeed one of the most harrowing battles in human history.
Of more than 250,000 men on the field that day, between 70,000 and 100,000 were killed. From the crack of dawn the fields were filled with cannon smoke, the deafening noise of thousands of muskets and the thunder of horse hooves. Cavalry regiments charged across the low hills and men armed with bayonets surged forward to meet their enemy. As one observer noted, “to those present, even those who had been in battle before, it seemed as though all hell had been let loose."
During the chaos of the battle both Kutuzov and Napoleon were presented with opportunities to commit the last of their best men to the battle and force a victory, but both refused - Napoleon believing he had all but won and Kutuzov fearing his weakened army would not be able to recover from yet more causalities. The various defensive positions of both armies changed hands numerous times and as the day drew on the field was covered in dead men and horses, sometimes lying two or three deep and in such a position that it actually made it difficult for the surviving men to advance. Scores more were wounded and what little area was not covered with the dead and bloody was scattered with the debris of the battle - helmets, lances, cannonballs, drums and flags.
After hours of bitter carnage Napoleon took to the battlefield and Kutuzov was forced to retreat south with the remainder of the Russian army, leaving Napoleon free to take Moscow. Napoleon’s victory was a Pyrrhic one however, and Kutuzov is considered to have dealt Napoleon the decisive blow by retreating to replenish his troops and gather more supplies, which Napoleon would have little luck finding in Moscow. As Bonaparte wrote many years later during his exile, of the 50 battles of his life Borodino was where "the greatest valour was displayed and the least success gained."
The Fire of Moscow
Having won the Battle of Borodino, Napoleon entered Moscow on 14 September expecting a prompt surrender by Tsar Alexander I. Anticipating that members of the Russian command would meet him and hand over a truce and the keys to the city, Napoleon set up camp and waited on the hills of Poklonnaya Gora (where the Borodino panorama museum and Victory Park is now located). No one came. Reports soon arrived from Napoleon’s aides that the city was deserted and that no officials could be found. More than two thirds of the population had fled Moscow, burning or robbing food stores on their way out. Furthermore numerous criminal gangs had been released from local prisons to terrorise the incoming troops. Of the remaining population, most were foreign merchants, French expats, servants, and others who were unable or unwilling to leave.
Disappointed to find that the Russians would not surrender and with morale and provisions running at an all time low, the Grande Armée began widespread looting of the city in search of provisions and valuables to take away with them. Meanwhile, before leaving Moscow and ordering the evacuation of its citizens, the Governor of Moscow Count Fyodor Rostopchin had made arrangements that if the French army entered Moscow fires would be started in various districts to destroy any remaining resources and force the French back out. Small blazes were already spotted during the first day of French occupation, but were largely blamed on careless French troops.
On 15 September Napoleon arrived at the Kremlin and the very same day massive fires began in the Kitay Gorod area just to its east. Fanned by high winds and wooden housing, the inferno soon threatened the Kremlin itself and more fires were being spotted in other parts of the city. Moscow was soon ablaze in a terrifying firestorm. As a French diplomat in Moscow later noted in his memoirs, “the air was charged with fire; we breathed nothing but smoke, and the stoutest of lungs felt the strain after a time.” With fire raging across the city, on 16 September Napoleon was forced to leave the Kremlin, relocating to the safety of the Petrovsky Palace, an imperial residence on the road to St. Petersburg, while his troops gave up the fight against the fire and instead took to pillaging whatever treasures remained.
By 18 September the fire was brought under control and Napoleon returned to the Kremlin at the centre of a city of ashes - still awaiting the tsar’s final surrender. Yet the tsar refused to give up, while Kutuzov was based south of the city, out of reach of the French and busy mustering new troops and bolstering his army. To make matters worse, the great fire had destroyed yet more of the French army’s rapidly dwindling supplies, and Napoleon’s men were now beginning to starve. Finally after occupying Moscow for just five weeks the situation reached critical levels and Napoleon was left with no choice but to begin a long retreat west.
Retreat and Defeat
The French army began to file out of Moscow on 18 October in what was to be a thoroughly devastating journey back west from which it would never fully recover. During the gruelling return journey many of the remaining soldiers and some 200,000 horses died either from starvation, cold, injury or disease. With no horses left, the French had to abandon their wagons and cannons, further weakening their fighting power. The replenished Russian army then set out on the war path and pushed Napoleon’s men to retreat along the same roads they had previously used, forcing them through the empty scorched earth left by the Russians during the summer months.
War-weary, starved, disease-ridden and plagued by constant raids from Russian partisans and brigades of Cossacks, tens of thousands of Napoleon’s soldiers began to desert. With few able fighting men left and mass misery in French ranks, it was easy for the Russians to inflict further battle defeats on the Grande Armée. In early November Napoleon abandoned his troops and fled to Paris to pick up the pieces, leaving Joachim Murat as Grand Marshall. Murat, facing his own troubles at home, soon deserted. Napoleon’s stepson was then put in charge of guiding the army back to safety in the west. By the time they finally made it out of Russian territory and arrived in Poland in December 1812 there were little more than 100,000 starved and frost-bitten men left, from an army that had left just a few months earlier with seven times that number.
Moscow after 1812
With much of Moscow in ruins following the great fire, the Russians were given the unique opportunity to completely replan the city from scratch, providing local architects with a wealth of opportunities. However, state funds and resources were still low following the war effort and the real reconstruction of the city didn’t begin in earnest until 1817.
Moscow’s fashionable new look was defined by neo-classical buildings, which were ordered to be painted in muted pastel shades and adorned with classical facades. Grand projects such as the rebuilding of the Bolshoi theatre and Moscow University were undertaken first, as was the restoration work inside the Kremlin and the creation of the Garden Ring road (which was later completely reconstructed by Stalin). As there was still a lack of masonry, numerous wooden buildings were also built by well-off merchants keen to start afresh, and were given a neo-classical look with carved wooden facades. A few of these buildings can still be admired in the area around Bolshaya Ordnyka ulitsa. And of course great emphasis was paid on constructing buildings and monuments that would testify to Russia’s great victory over Napoleon.
The cultural legacy of the war resounded across Russia for decades in music and words. Lermontov was the first literary giant to recreate scenes from the battle in his poem Borodino, which he published in 1837 in honour of the 25th anniversary of the battle. In 1865 Tolstoy’s epic masterpiece War and Peace was published with extensive philosophising on the nature of war and was later made into films by various Russian and foreign directors. The war has also been immortalised by Russia’s most famous composers - in 1880 Tchaikovsky penned his iconic 1812 overture and in 1941 Prokofiev wrote the opera War and Peace, based on Tolstoy’s novel.