The Long Walk Back
An In-Depth Documentary About Napoleon's Invasion Of Russia
The invasion of Russia was not wholly unexpected, as relations between Napoleon and the Tsar Alexander I had gradually deteriorated over time. In 1809, the Tsar had become very apprehensive about Napoleon’s ultimate intentions in Poland, the Balkans and Germany, while the Continental System (a large scale embargo against British trade) had severely damaged Russia’s economy. In late December 1810 he ended compliance with the system, approached Sweden in the hope of forging an alliance and sought to make peace with the Ottoman Empire. Napoleon, living up to his fearsome reputation wasn't prepared to tolerate Russia openly defying agreements and suspected her of having designs on the Grand Duchy of Warsaw and harbouring secret ambitions towards the Ottoman Empire. By the end of 1811, both sides were gearing up for war, though it was Napoleon, not Alexander who initiated open war.
The Russian General
The Russian Plan
Since 1808, the Russian army had progressively modernised under the watchful eye of Alexei Arakcheev, who served as Minister of War from 1808 to 1810, and also Barclay de Tolly, his immediate successor. Despite being a brutal reactionary, Arakcheev’s skills as an artillerist were unquestioned and he helped introduce a whole new range of weaponry, including 10 and 20 pounder howitzers with screw elevating mechanisms and improved sights. By the start of 1812 there were some 1699 guns and a solid doctrine which stressed mass fire. Barclay undertook the reformation of the infantry; he was quite an unusual officer, on account of having served fourteen years in the ranks. He tried to improve the soldiers’ conditions by placing more emphasis on marksmanship, rather than gruelling drills. However, the commanders continued to favour columns and the bayonet over the fire-fight. Administratively, Barclay reduced the large and clumsy infantry divisions to contain three brigades, divisional cavalry and artillery. Finally, just before Napoleon’s invasion he introduced corps, each of two infantry divisions, cavalry and artillery, in the First and Second Western armies.
Within the Russian high command there was plenty of rivalry and intrigue with a clear division between the ‘German’ and ‘Russian’ factions, which impeded the reforms significantly. Among the most influential of the German faction was the elderly General von Phull, a Prussian who in good eighteenth century fashion believed that the conduct of war was a science. Barclay, a Livonian of Scottish descent, also belonged to the German faction, while the Russian group was headed by the sixty seven year old Kutuzov. He was a charismatic leader and had little patience with the modern ways introduced by Barclay, whom he replaced early in the 1812 campaign.
When war appeared imminent the Tsar made peace with Sweden and the Turks which crucially released troops from these fronts. On paper the Russian army numbered around 600,000, but only two western armies were able to be fielded immediately, which equated to around 220,000 men. The war plan, conceived by Phull, exploited strategic depth. Barclay’s First Army of 127,000 men was to withdraw to the entrenched camp at Drissa on the Dvina River. Meanwhile, Bagration’s 48,000 strong Second Army, posted north of the Pripet Marches, would move to attack the right flank of the invaders. A third army assembled far to the south, and troops from Moldavia and Finland were ordered to join with the western armies.
The Man With A Dream To Conquer
Napoleon was well aware of the difficulties ahead. In addition to carefully studying the history and geography of Russia, his 1807 campaign in Poland had given his troops invaluable experience of fighting in an under-populated area with poor to non-existent roads and extreme weather conditions. Therefore he made extensive logistic preparations, amassing enormous quantities of supplies in depots behind the front, and in order to transport them all to the frontline, he assembled a vast supply train, consisting of around 25,000 vehicles, and that’s not counting ammunition caissons, forges and ambulances. Some of the transport companies received draft oxen, but, even so, the train required 90,000 horses, the artillery 30,000 and the cavalry over 80,000. The supply wagons could lift around 7000 tonnes daily, but beyond a certain point the draught animals would consume their payload. The lift capacity was clearly inadequate to provide enough fodder for the horses, but Napoleon was confident that by June new grass would provide fertile pasture. These arrangements might have sufficed had Napoleon managed to destroy the Russian army in a short, decisive campaign near the frontier.
Napoleon realised that he needed a larger army if he was to overwhelm the tough Russians. By the spring of 1812 he had massed an immense force 614,000 including reserves and rear area troops, the ‘army of twenty nations’ as it was called. His first line consisted of 449,000 men of whom fewer than one third were French; the remainder were Dutch, Westphalian, Polish, Bavarian, Saxon, Austrian, Prussian, Croatian, Dalmatian, Swiss, Italian, Portuguese and even Spanish. The size of this army dictated a direct approach along a line stretching north from the Pripet Marshes, so that he was close to his crucial Baltic supply ports and it also gave him an opportunity to threaten Moscow and St Petersburg. Such unprecedented numbers and the width of their deployment, stretching some 300 miles, posed command problems. Napoleon had introduced a new formation, the army group, but with long distance communications depending n mounted messengers he was unable to command and control armies effectively over such vast distances. Additionally his senior subordinates were poorly prepared for independent command.
The March Eastwards
The Smolensk Memorial
The Russians At Borodino
Napoleon At Borodino
The Battle of Borodino
On the 7th September 1812, Napoleon had a golden opportunity to destroy the Russian army entirely. But the stubborn emperor ignored the advice of his generals and insisted on striking right at the heart of the enemy, who were deployed behind extensive earthworks. When the last Great Redoubt was taken, the cavalry overwhelmed the Russian centre. But Napoleon refused to exploit this advantage by keeping his Imperial Guard in reserve. The decision saved the Russian army who withdrew in good order.
Highly Recommended Links
- Napoleon in Russia: Saviour or Anti-Christ? | History Today
An interesting article that discusses the mixed responses of Russia's populations to Napoleon's great gamble on an invasion and the part they played in the eventual French catastrophe.
- Faq#10: Why did Napoleon Fail in Russia in 1812?
Analysing why Napoleon failed in his bid to conquer Russia in 1812.
- Military History Online
A very detailed article that charts Napoleon's invasion of Russia from start to finish.
The March On Moscow
On the 4th June 1812 the Grande Armee crossed the Niemen into Russia. The central column consisted of three armies, commanded by Napoleon, Eugene and Jerome respectively, echeloned all the way back to Warsaw. On his distant flanks were two semi autonomous formations. On his left was Macdonald’s corps, including a Prussian auxiliary contingent and two Bavarian divisions; on his extreme right was the Austrian auxiliary corps commanded by Prince Schwarzenberg. Additional formations were in reserve and along the line of communications.
Napoleon’s plan was for his main force, three infantry and two cavalry corps, the Imperial Guard now 47,000 strong supported by Eugene’s Army of Italy to destroy Barclay’s army in a series of envelopments. Jerome was to lure Bagration towards Warsaw, stalling him at the Narew or Bug River line where Napoleon, having dealt with Barclay would sweep him into the rear. The plan looked grand on paper, but failed partly because the enemy was able to evade battle, but above all because of supply and command problems. Napoleon’s deteriorating health delayed operational decisions. Often lethargic, he wasn't able to handle such a large army on so a wide a front, while his main subordinates failed to exploit opportunities when presented with the sort of operational and strategic decisions normally reserved for Napoleon.
The Russian retreat continued. Attempts to envelop Barclay around Vilna failed when Eugene was late in moving up on the right flank. Vilna was occupied without a fight on the 26th June. Here Napoleon tarried for three weeks, while, led by Murat’s troopers, his main force followed Barclay towards Vitebsk. The army had begun its march in suffocating heat, followed after the 29th June by five days of unrelenting rain. The dirt roads transformed into seas of mud, making them totally impassable for supply trains and artillery. With few rations coming through, men suffered from hunger and fatigue, and though many villages had been burnt, the so called scorched earth policy was a myth concocted much later on. The relentless s pace set by Murat’s cavalry did not permit foraging. The army halted from the 29th July to the 12th August at Vitebsk to rest the troops and allow artillery and supply columns to catch up. Napoleon had penetrated deep into Russia, but without fighting a major battle; his army had already lost close to one third of its strength in both men horses from exhaustion and disease.
Meantime Jerome had failed to engage Bagration, and on the 1st July the impatient emperor ordered Davout to move south from Vilna to intercept the Second Army and trap the Russians between the two French forces. There was a disastrous breakdown in communication between Davout and Jerome, when the latter discovered he had been subordinated to the former, he quit his command and returned to Westphalia. Bagration, meanwhile escaped to the north unhindered. Davout was ordered to prevent a link up of the respective Russian armies; he followed Bagration north but failed to bring him to battle. Further north still, Napoleon compelled Barclay to abandon his entrenched camp and positions along the Dvina. The two Russian armies managed to link up on the 4th August, falling back towards Smolensk, a city on the Dnieper halfway between the Niemen and Moscow. Barclay, pressured by Alexander, Bagration and his own staff, fought an indecisive three day battle, 17th-19th August, but then evacuated the city. Although bitterly assailed for this decision, he had no choice. Napoleon had crossed the river further east, turning his position. Even so, because General Junot failed to cut the Smolensk-Moscow road as ordered, the Russians managed an orderly retreat.
Smolensk had cost Napoleon 10,000 casualties. With troops left in garrisons, with Oudinot and St Cyr detached to help Macdonald in the north and General Reynier sent south to assist Schwarzenberg, Napoleon’s main force was reduced to about 130,000 men. But its heaviest losses continued to be due to administrative and logistic breakdown; vast amounts of stores were dumped for want of transport. Additionally Napoleon’s medical supplies were totally inadequate, resulting in the decimation of the army through dysentery and typhus, further aggravated by near starvation. Napoleon faced a critical decision. Should he consolidate his position and resume his offensive in 1813, or should he attempt to push on? Moscow, his ultimate goal still lay 278 miles to the east, and he was confident that the Russians would fight a decisive battle to defend their capital. On the 28th August the army resumed its advance with Murat leading and Davout trying to keep pace.
On the Russian side Kutuzov, now a prince and a field marshal, had replaced Barclay, widely denounced for his reliance on attrition. Kutuzov intended to fight at the crossroad village of Borodino, 65 miles west of Moscow. On the 7th September an ailing Napoleon disregarded Davout’s advice for turning the Russian left. He instead insisted on sending repeated infantry column attacks against heavily gunned field fortifications. The Russians counter attacked in rather compact formations. After battering and pounding each other without any clear result, at 4pm a desperate French infantry and cavalry assault captured the Great Redoubt in the centre of the Russian position. If Napoleon had elected to utilise his reserve troops he could have destroyed the Russian army, but he refused to commit his 30,000 strong Imperial Guard infantry stating: ‘I will not have my Guard destroyed. When you have come 800 leagues from France you do not wreck your last reserve.’ At the cost of more than 30,000 casualties the road to Moscow was now open, but during the night Kutuzov and his remaining force of 90,000 combat ready troops slipped away towards Kaluga, southeast of Moscow. On the 14th September with 95,000 men, Napoleon entered the near deserted city.
The Westward Retreat
Napoleon Vs. The Russian Winter
A Famous Novel Charting Napoleon's Invasion Of Russia
More On Napoleon's Invasion Of Russia
The Retreat From Moscow
Napoleon had travelled nearly 550 miles from his start line but had failed to destroy the Russian army or the will to resist. His strategic system, which depended on sheer mass and mobility to smash the enemy early in the campaign and bring him to terms, failed against the Russians, who bartered space to compensate for numerical and tactical inferiority. At the end of a vulnerable supply line, Napoleon could not afford to stay in partially scorched Moscow, so on the 19th October he began the long retreat. Initially he intended to follow a southerly route through the Kaluga district, still well supplied with food and fodder. Kutuzov tried to intercept at Maloyaroslavets, and though the battle was ultimately indecisive it did indeed induce Napoleon to return to the northern route via Borodino to Smolensk.
It was lack of discipline as much as the savage winter that destroyed Napoleon’s army. Over 40,000 vehicles of all kinds, loaded with loot instead of supplies, accompanied the army, slowing down its progress, wasting remaining horses. When the first heavy snow fell on the 4th November, any restraint left in the Grande Armee collapsed. Guns and wagons were abandoned; thousands of starving men left their units to forage and were killed by Cossacks or peasants. The column began to stretch out and it took four days, from the 9th to the 14th November for the remnant 50,000 strong army to reach Smolensk, where the Grande Armee descended into what can only be described as anarchy. Pillage, drunkenness and murder were widespread, with looters mindlessly destroying vital supplies. Napoleon had hoped to halt at Smolensk, but this had clearly become impossible. The retreat had now turned into a rout, with only the Guard and the rearguard led by the indomitable Ney, musket in hand, retaining some semblance of order.
Yet for all of their loss of discipline there would be occasions when the gradually retreating hordes behaved like an army and the emperor, seemingly awaking from a stupor, like the great commander he was supposed to be. While the flank corps fell back on the main body, adding some combat capability, Kutuzov shadowed the retreating column and on the 17th November, with 90,000 men, tried to intercept it at Krasnoi, 25 miles south west of Smolensk. A determined attack by the Guard convinced Kutuzov to seek no further engagement until he combined with Wittgenstein and Tshitshagov’s Army of Moldavia. The combined armies, 144,000 strong, converged against Napoleon’s 37,000 exhausted soldiers, who were followed by vast numbers of stragglers. On the 22nd November the Army of Moldavia captured the crucial depots at Minsk, and moved on to seize the only bridge crossing the board Berezina River, completing a complete encirclement of the French. To make matters worse, an unseasonable thaw had turned the frozen river into a raging torrent.
At this point Napoleon regained some of his old fire. He ordered Oudinot, commanding the lead corps, to retrieve the bridge. Against all the odds the marshal almost succeeded, but, having failed, managed to engage the Russians for four days until the main army closed up. On the 26th November Oudinot demonstrated against the Russians at Borizov. By then a possible crossing point had been located some 18 kilometres upstream at Studienka. While Oudinot diverted Russian attention, some 400 heroic French engineers, working in the freezing water, built two wooden bridges. Oudinot’s corps crossed first, Ney, Victor, Junot, Davout and Murat followed. Fierce fighting around the eastern and western bridgeheads continued until the morning of the 29th November, when French engineers destroyed the bridges. In the last minutes mobs of stragglers rushed the bridges. Around 35,000 French survivors managed to escape the trap leaving behind about 80,000 who were either dead or had been captured. Napoleon and the marshals had achieved the impossible, despite the fact they were in full retreat, they had managed to cross the Berezina, and so it can be counted as a victory of sorts.
Now the Russian winter descended in earnest. The cold became so intense that both armies lost fighting capabilities, though the Cossacks continued to harass Ney’s rearguard. Napoleon departed from the scene on the 5th December, returning to Paris to start raising new armies for the coming year. The terrible weather continued unabated; Murat had been left in command, he could do little for the survivors who staggered on, reduced to walking skeletons in tattered rags. On the 8th December they reached Vilna where there were four million rations in depots, but with discipline completely gone, the depots were totally looted. Moreover, Murat feared being caught by the Russians, who were in fact far behind and content to have the weather destroy the French. Abandoning his rear units, Murat marched on to Kovno and from there into Poland and East Prussia, from where he bolted for Naples, leaving Eugene to conduct the final stages of the retreat. On the 14th December the last French soldier, Marshal Ney crossed the last bridge over the Niemen.
Napoleon would campaign again and campaign well, but it was only a matter of time before his enemies would unite against him and, provided they remained united, would prevail by sheer weight of numbers.
James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on December 21, 2012:
I remember hearing that Hitler had to postpone the invasion of Russia, because he was forced to aid Mussolini who'd been thoroughly embarrassed in the Balkans. I can't help but wonder what the outcome of Barbarossa would have been had he been able to invade when he originally intended.
BC on December 20, 2012:
I really think this relates to when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 invading Russia always seems to be a mistake. But I heard that Hitler postponed the Capture of Moscow to aid German troops in Smolensk so that gave time for the Russians to put defense in Moscow and move to make an offensive and also time for the Russian winter to come.
James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on November 05, 2012:
Thanks Gypsy, its amazing to think that he had the audacity to try to conquera country such as Russia. What baffles me more is that Hitler basically made the same mistakes as Napoleon, although Hitler never got a chance to set foot in Moscow.
Gypsy Rose Lee from Daytona Beach, Florida on November 05, 2012:
Wonderful hub. Fascinating as I didn't know Napoleon got as far as Russia. Thanks for this very informative and interesting hub. Passing it on. Great pics and video.
James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on November 05, 2012:
Thanks ata, the book sounds really interesting, I'll definitely check it out. I agree with you that the Peninsular War drained Napoleon and robbed him of vital men and resources. It seems that Napoleon was defeated mostly by the fact that he was overstretched. The destruction of the Grande Armee meant that there was no chance of the men serving in Spain receiving reinforcements, thus making victory unlikely. Thanks for stopping by.
ata1515 from Buffalo, New York. on November 04, 2012:
Great read on Napoleon's invasion. I agree with you and Thomas. If Napoleon had just consolidated his position before moving forward his supply lines would have held together far better and we would have never seen Waterloo.
Another thing that I really think drained Napoleon was the Peninsular War. The Spanish Ulcer took men, supplies and moral that Napoleon simply could not spare.
If you have never read it, I suggest The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier by Jakob Walter. Excellent primary source for Napoleon's invasion of Russia.
James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on November 03, 2012:
Thank you Harald. Personally, while I agree that the likes of Napoleon are great leaders of men, I tend to despise them because they are solely concerned with their own power and glory and nothing else. As I researched this, I thought about the thousands of men who blindly followed their leader to their death. Anyway, thank you very much for stopping by. Appreciate it.
David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on November 03, 2012:
JKenny, you've done it again. Superb account of Napolean's invasion. Sacrificing space for time (and bad weather)... gee, I wonder if that would work again... and again? :) You know, the merits and shortcomings of great leaders can be argued back and forth, but to me, a leader (don't care who) whose ambitions lose entire armies and so goes back to figure out how to raise more... well, I prefer the term "powerful" leader. Voted up and awesome.
James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on November 02, 2012:
They certainly did Thomas, both men could have easily defeated Russia, if only they had been a little more organised and methodical, rather than brash, arrogant and egotistical. Thanks for stopping by.
Thomas Swan from New Zealand on November 02, 2012:
Lots of interesting information. I wonder how similar this was to Hitler's invasion of Russia. Both men let their egos dictate the depth of their invasion, and ultimately found themselves overstretched.