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.