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The Battle of the Nations: Origins

The Invasion of 1812


The most menacing army cannot successfully wage war against a whole nation that decided to win or die…Napoleon Bonaparte


The War of the Sixth Coalition was born out of Napoleon’s calamitous invasion of Russia. The Emperor had become increasingly frustrated by the failure of his Continental System, which tried to stop countries trading with Great Britain. This blockade had a significant impact on the Russian economy: between 1806 and 1812 exports fell in Russia by around 40%, and the value of paper money was nearly halved. Alexander came under increasing pressure, so he began to relax his enforcement of the system, much to Napoleon’s fury. Relations between the two countries deteriorated dramatically. The Tsar initially wished to avoid a military clash, but Napoleon was once again determined to demonstrate to Europe his military prowess. He crossed the Neman River into Russia with over 650,000 men on 23 June 1812.


Napoleon advanced as far as Moscow, however the Tsar ordered the city to be abandoned. With supplies running low and winter setting in, the Grande Armée was forced to retreat in freezing weather and under constant harassment by Russian Cossacks. At least 370,000 French soldiers perished, and nearly 200,000 were captured. This once seemingly invincible invasion force was almost totally destroyed.


For a more detailed explanation of the Russian campaign, click here.

The Tide Turns


As soon as France invaded Russia, the diplomatic situation in Europe began to change. Sweden had already formed an alliance with Russia in April 1812 after French troops had threateningly occupied Swedish territory. In July, Britain signed separate peace treaties with both Sweden and Russia, but no formal alliance was agreed between all three states. However, Napoleon was beginning to lose his air of invincibility, and some European nations started to object to French domination of the continent. This was particularly true in Prussia, where there was a growing appetite for a war of liberation.  


It is time to regain our freedom and honour…General Yorck von Wartenburg


Prussia had been treated appallingly by Napoleon after her defeat in 1807 at the battle of Friedland. She signed the Treaty of Tilset with the French Emperor, which stripped the country of almost half its territory and forced her to pay substantial reparations. In 1812, the Prussian king Frederick William III signed a formal alliance with France which forced the German state to send an army in support of the Russian invasion. To add insult to injury, thousands of French soldiers flooded into the Prussian countryside before crossing into Russia, seizing supplies and around ninety thousand horses. Unsurprisingly, Prussian hatred for Napoleon intensified, and the survivors of the grande armée were treated with increasing hostility when they laboured back through the country during their retreat from Moscow. Many senior members of the Prussian officer corps had felt humiliated by their proud nations chastening defeat at the hands of Napoleon, and some sensed an opportunity for revenge. Frederick William remained cautious, and was reluctant to break his alliance with France. However, on 30 December 1812, General Yorck von Wartenburg, the commander of the Prussian army sent to Russia, took matters into his own hands. He signed a separate truce at Tauroggen with Russian General Hans Karl von Diebitsch, and led his men back into Prussia.


Yorck’s defection from the French army was enthusiastically celebrated back home, however the general had acted without his king’s permission. Consequently, when he reached Königsberg on 8 January 1813 he received a message from General Friedrich Wilhelm von Bülow that absolved him of his command and renounced the truce he had negotiated. Yorck sent back a defiant reply to von Bülow, questioning whether the Prussian general had ‘sunk so deep that he fears to break the chains of slavery, the chains that we have meekly carried for five years?’ He avowed that it was ‘time to regain our freedom and honour.’ Frederick William was warned that revolution in his country was imminent, and feared that if he failed to officially end his alliance with France he would be punished by the Russians. He therefore signed the Treaty of Kalisch on 28 February and entered into a formal alliance with the Tsar.

Napoleon Prepares for War

Napoleon could perhaps at this stage have sent out peace feelers to Alexander, but instead he set about rebuilding his grande armée from the safety of Paris in the winter of 1812-13. By the spring, Napoleon was able to field an army of some 200,000 men. However, his force was very inexperienced, and he lacked horses for his cavalry.

The tide was turning against the Emperor, but he believed that he could still rely upon Austria to support him in another European conflict. In truth, Francis I, the Austrian king, had no real desire for war. He was pacific, and was aware that his country’s army and economy were in a poor state. Metternich, the influential Austrian foreign minister, also wanted peace in Europe, and so was prepared to mediate a settlement between France and Russia. This was not possible, so for the time being Austria would remain neutral.

Europe Unites

With Europe once again on the brink of war, Sweden entered into an alliance with Great Britain on the 3 March. On the 16 March, Prussia formally declared war against the Emperor, and Frederick William issued a proclamation to his people that declared ‘this is the final, the decisive struggle; upon it depends our independence, our prosperity, our existence.’ By June of that year, Britain had managed to agree separate treaties with Russia, Prussia and Sweden as well as Portugal and Spain. Britain offered vital financial support to these countries, and in return they agreed to field armies against Napoleon. The French Emperor left for Germany on 15 April, determined to defeat the gathering Prusso-Russian army and remake his reputation.

Up Next: The Germany campaign of 1813

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