Napoleon's Invasion of Russia
The Russian Campaign
Though later judged to be inadequate by historians, the preparation of the French army before the Russian Campaign was more extensive than that of any of Napoleon’s previous campaigns. Twenty train battalions, comprised of a total of 7,848 carriages and wagons, were to provide a 40-day supply for the Grand Armée, whilst auxiliary supply convoys were formed in early June 1812 to carry enough bread, flour, and medical supplies for 300,000 men for two months, as the army continued its march. Napoleon also studied Russian geography and the history of Charles XII’s invasion of 1708-1709, which informed his main offensive movements. Supply depots were also established at Danzig, Breslau and Magdeburg before the campaign. John Elting notes that the forces assigned to Napoleon’s main thrust towards Moscow were generally well-provisioned, living well on their pre-prepared stocks and forage. However, George Nafziger notes that Napoleon’s flanks to the North and South generally suffered a lack of provisioning due to Russian tactics and the prioritisation of supplies to the main attacking force. He asserts that this was critical to what became a disorderly retreat from Moscow, as Russian forces were able to quickly and successfully attack French forces on the flanks, which were weaker as a result.
Victory at the Battle of Saltanovka enabled the French to prevent two separate Russian armies linking up at Vietbsk, allowing the army to penetrate deeper into Russia, whilst the subsequent Battle of Smolensk marked one of the bloodiest battles of the campaign, with more than 20,000 casualties. 84% of the buildings in Smolensk were also destroyed during the battle, a factor which would be critical to the disastrous French retreat later in the campaign, as soldiers were unable to shelter in or be supplied from the city.
By R. M. Volkov
Following the fall of Smolensk, Kutuzov reasoned that it was wiser for Russian forces to continue to retreat eastward towards Moscow, being careful not to risk losing his armies in an open battle against the French. He decided that he would make a defensive stand at Borodino, some 75 miles before Moscow. The French had planned to garrison Smolensk, however given his enemy’s rapid retreat, Napoleon abandoned these plans and pushed his armies onward, attempting to catch and destroy Kutuzov’s forces, opening the way to Moscow, and forcing the Russians to surrender. This attempt at ‘defeat in detail’, destroying smaller armies which could or would comprise a larger force, was one of Napoleon’s widely-used and successful tactics, destroying enemy forces before they could rally and collect to pose a challenge to him and his advances. The rapid French movement however caused logistical difficulties, as supplies could not be brought up as quickly as forces were advancing. This led to wider starvation within the army, and subsequently disease and desertion. Some 50,000 men are assumed to have deserted the French Army, harassing local populations and preventing supplies from travelling onward to the front, taking them for themselves. By this point, the Grand Armée had already been reduced to 195,000 men.
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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)