Napoleon's Invasion of Russia
The Battle of Borodino
Driving deep into the heart of Russia after his victory at Smolensk, Napoleon’s Grand Armée clashed with the assembled Russian force at Borodino. Initial attacks drove the Russians back from their defensive positions, however failed to render the French a decisive victory. The centrepiece of the Russian defensive line was the Raevsky redoubt, the central position of which dominated the battlefield and gave the Russian artillery a significant advantage. At the opening of the battle, the French bombarded the redoubt with a 102-gun battery, yet were not able to dislodge the Russian defenders. The redoubt was taken later in the day, after the French had made multiple attempts to storm it, losing many men in the process, however it did not have a decisive impact on the battle as a whole, as the Russian defensive line remained flexible, some Russian troops having managed to retreat to defend positions further behind the redoubt following its capture. Other attacks centred on the Bagration fléches- similar defensive earthworks on the Russian left flank. Multiple attacks were also made here, and were similarly won only after multiple attempts and significant casualties. With casualties mounting on both sides as the battle wore on, Napoleon was asked to commit the French Imperial Guard, an elite battalion, to generate a breakthrough, however instead decided to hold them in reserve, given an assault on Moscow would also be necessary. Richard Riehn, amongst other historians, argue that this decision lost Napoleon his one chance to destroy the Russian Army and win the Campaign
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Napoleon at Borodino
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With casualties mounting on both sides, Napoleon was asked to commit the French Imperial Guard, an elite battalion, to generate a breakthrough, however instead decided to hold them in reserve, given an assault on Moscow would also be necessary. Richard Riehn, amongst other historians, argue that this decision lost Napoleon his one chance to destroy the Russian Army and win the Campaign.
Both armies were exhausted after the battle, and the Russians withdrew from the field the following day. However, though essentially a French tactical victory, given that Kutuzov retreated, Borodino did not produce any strategic or political outcome, with Tsar Alexander refusing to capitulate, and the French army being drawn deeper into Russia. Kutuzov’s army was also not successfully defeated, allowing it to retreat and reform, ready for the Russian winter, when the French would retreat.
Borodino however had represented the last Russian effort to check Napoleon’s advance on Moscow, which now lay open. It was usually customary for the government to present themselves at the capital of an invaded country and receive a victorious general with a delegation, however Napoleon was surprised to receive no such party. This was because the Russians had abandoned the city, which also prevented the creation of billets for the invading army, who were therefore not supplied or housed within the city by the Russians under the terms of an armistice. Napoleon was outraged, feeling robbed of a victory over the Russians, and the taking of a historic city. Feodor Rostopchin, the Governor of Moscow, had also ordered the city to be stripped of provisions and its prisons to be opened, worsening the French confusion and Napoleon’s logistical situation. Only a third of the population of Moscow had not abandoned the city, being either unwilling or unable to flee. A series of small fires occurred in the city as looting and fighting broke out between the French army and the remaining Russian civilians. Although there is debate as to whether the resulting fire, which burnt most of the city to the ground, was deliberate or not, it forced the French to abandon the city, with too few men to impose order, and a lack of supplies to keep them maintained there.
Zamoyski argues that Napoleon didn’t appear to have a strategy beyond the conquering of Moscow, expecting Russia to capitulate after its capital had been conquered, as many other states previously had, with this failure to plan causing subsequent inactivity, which worsened Napoleon’s supply situation as each day wore on. Michael Adams however suggests that although Napoleon’s health was diminishing over the course of the campaign, this did not have any great affect on his military ability, with him still being able to command forces well, and win particular battles, such as at Borodino. However, the expanse of Russia allowed her forces to trade space for time, encouraging the French Army to advance until it was overextended, and then attacking with its prepared and assembled forces, once it was exhausted.
By Adam Albrecht
The French were therefore forced to retreat from Moscow. Napoleon abandoned the invasion of Russia, knowing his army would be unable to consolidate to stall any impending Russian advances. The Russian Campaign therefore marked a significant turning point in the Napoleonic Wars, with Napoleon being placed continually on the strategic defensive from that point onward, whereas previously, he had dictated where and when his forces would be utilised, and to what end.
The retreat from Moscow also sapped French morale, whilst forcing the French to reorganise and call up fresh, inexperienced units to fight in subsequent campaigns. Though the Imperial Guard had been preserved, and would see action famously at the Battle of Waterloo, they did not form enough of a contingent to strengthen weaker French forces, and their number were greatly reduced over the course of the retreat.
Napoleon too, suffering from multiple health complaints and neuroses, became a shadow of his former self, and historians argue that his command ability was declining. This, coupled with a resurgent alliance, fighting on multiple fronts, and achieving victory in significant campaigns such as the Peninsular War by 1814, saw the abdication and exile of Napoleon to Elba, following the War of the Sixth Coalition.
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Interested in Learning More?
Adam Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (London, Harper, 2005)
Georges Lefebvre, Napoleon from Tilsit to Waterloo (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969)
George Nafziger, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia (New York, Presido Press, 1998)