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 Napoleon's Invasion of Russia

 

Overview

Containing some of the largest and bloodiest battles of the wars, Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812 represents the Napoleonic Wars at their most fierce, with men fighting for the existence of their nations, as Napoleon attempted to re-draw and re-shape the boundaries of Europe once again. Indeed, at the Battle of Borodino, the central clash within the campaign, roughly 250,000 troops assembled on the battlefield, in a day’s fighting that saw roughly a third become casualties, making it one of the largest and bloodiest battle of the entire Napoleonic Wars. It is this sense of scale which has motivated study of the campaign, but also makes it so interesting, inspiring, amongst other works, powerful music by Tchaikovsky in the 1812 Overture, and Tolstoy’s literary epic, War and Peace.

The Russian Campaign however also represents one of the major turning points of the Napoleonic Wars, with Napoleon crossing the Neman River on 24th June 1812 with roughly 600,000 men in his Grand Armée, the largest army ever assembled in Europe up until that point, of which only roughly 22,000 (3.5%) returned. Despite initial French successes, and the capture of Moscow, the Russian Army, led by Mikhail Kutuzov, was able to retreat into the expanse of Russia, implementing a ‘scorched earth’ strategy, by burning all crops and sources of provisions for the French army, forcing Napoleon to overextend his supply lines and stall at the Russian Capital, as his army relied on foraging. Held at the capital, and unable to continue campaigning onward into Russia, Napoleon was forced to retreat at the onset of the perilous Russian winter, which made the difficult problem of supplying his army an impossible one. Equipped only for summer campaigning, too, his army suffered heavy attrition from the weather, and were then attacked by the advancing Russians, who began their counteroffensive and harried them as they retreated.

Napoleon's Invasion of Russia

(Available through wikimediacommons)

 

After the campaign drew to a close, the French army and their once-victorious Emperor were eventually pushed back to Paris across multiple fronts by the forces of an allied coalition, with France’s territorial boundaries having reached their greatest extent during mid-1812. Some historians even consider that it was upon the icy Russian steppe that Napoleon’s spark of military genius was extinguished, with Adam Zamoyski indicating how during the campaign, Napoleon lost a lot of his characteristic energy and vigour, becoming hesitant in his decision-making as his health deteriorated. There has been significant debate as to why the Russian Campaign represented such an epic failure for Napoleon, with historians generally concluding it was a result of poor planning and logistics, alongside Napoleon being overly ambitious, and arrogantly self-confident at the height of his power.A series of poor tactical decisions also led to a French victory being rendered impossible, whilst decisions to continue to advance rather than consolidate the ground taken exacerbated problems in French logistics.

 

This section has been split into a series of different pages so that you can explore the campaign of 1808 in greater depth. Click the links to find out more.

The Origins of the Russian Campaign

The Invasion of Russia

The Battle of Borodino and its Aftermath

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