The Age of George III

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Napoleon's Moscow Campaign: 1812

The Moscow Campaign

Napoleon's determination to implement the Continental System had led him to embark on the Peninsular Campaign in a further extension of the French Wars. Although the attempt to conquer Spain was failing, Napoleon set about a greater task: the conquest of Russia. One reason for this was that Britain had become involved in a war with America and Napoleon was convinced that Britain was on the verge of collapse, provided that the blockade of trade with Britain was carried out. However, the Czar was making a big hole in the plan. The interview at Erfurt had merely checked the process of disillusionment which had been going on in Alexander's mind ever since Tilsit. There had always been a strong anti-Bonaparte party at his Court, headed by the Czar's mother; and its influence was strengthened during the next few years. For instance

The main trouble was over the Continental System. The stoppage of trade with England meant the ruin of Russian commerce, and therefore of the Czar's revenues; also of the corn-growing on which the Russian nobles depended for their own incomes. Alexander grew slacker and slacker in the enforcement of the Decrees, and Napoleon's protests grew more and more heated. In 1810 the Czar forbade the importation of a number of luxury articles, such as wines and lace, most of which came from France, in order to redress his trade-balance. A year later he openly admitted British shipping to his ports.

Napoleon thought that he could not let this go on. Ruinous as the defection of Russia was in itself, even worse was the effect it would have on other countries groaning under the System. He believed that he must make an example of the Czar that would intimidate other rulers who were "willing to wound yet half afraid to strike": He intended to give a demonstration of his overwhelming strength and determination but he was no longer the man he had been.

Napoleon was growing old at an age when others were just coming into their prime. He was becoming fatter, less energetic and more cautious. He made more military mistakes and his run of success had robbed him of all sense of the attainable. He had begun to shut his eyes to unpleasant facts, and to ignore the voice of common sense.

When in the middle of 1811 the clash became inevitable, Czar and Emperor competed with each other in the search for alliances. Austria was now bound to Napoleon by family ties following his marriage to Princess Marie Louise; moreover, however much the Emperor Francis of Austria- Hungary chafed against his dependence, he was haunted by memories of Campo Formio, Lunéville, Pressburg and Schönbrunn. He therefore agreed to mobilise an army on his Galician frontier with an understanding that he was to recover his Illyrian provinces at the end of the campaign. However, his new Chancellor, Metternich, had seen enough while he was the Austrian ambassador at Paris to realise that the Napoleonic Empire would not last much longer, and he privately made a "gentleman's agreement" with Alexander that his army should do nothing in particular.

In Prussia, patriotic fervour was strong, but the King's nerve had been even more shaken than that of the Emperor Francis. He was forced to send an army to cover the Baltic flank of the coming invasion, and to feed the invading host as it passed through his dominions. The Poles, too, remained faithful to Napoleon; he had done much for them, and would, they hoped, do more when he had conquered Russia.

Napoleon hoped that Sweden and Turkey would join in attacking Russia, but in these countries he was outdone by his rival. The King of Sweden, being a childless old man, had adopted Marshal Bernadotte as his heir, with Napoleon's grudging consent 1810; and the new "Prince Royal", who at once became the moving spirit of the kingdom, put the interests of his adopted country before those of his old master. That meant repudiating the Continental System. Napoleon offered to restore Finland to Sweden if Bernadotte would help him against the Czar; but Alexander countered this with the more attractive suggestion that he should annex Norway instead - Norway being a province of Denmark, which had adhered to the French alliance ever since the days of Tilsit and Copenhagen. By the Treaty of Abo in April 1812 a Russo-Swedish alliance was made. As for the Sultan, Alexander had little difficulty in convincing him that he had more to fear from France than from Russia, and by the Treaty of Bucharest in May 1812 Turkey received back the Danubian Principalities, but ceded Bessarabia to Russia. Two months later Alexander also signed a formal treaty of alliance with Britain, with whom nominally he had been at war ever since 1807.

Meanwhile Napoleon was pushing on with preparations for war on a colossal scale. By the summer of 1812 he had about 750,000 men under arms, of whom 450,000 were destined for the actual invasion. Only half of them were French, the rest were made up of Poles, Italians, Saxons, Bavarians, Swiss, Austrians, Prussians and Illyrians. He passed the elite of these forces in review at Dresden, before a throng of vassal rulers, including an Emperor and five kings, with Marie Louise treating her father with lofty condescension. Then on 28 May this army of armies set out towards the east. Immense stores were collected: two million pairs of boots were held in reserve at Danzig, for instance. The baggage was hauled by 18,000 heavy draft horses, the siege-guns and pontoons by 10,000 oxen. A million greatcoats had been bought from the West Riding of Yorkshire, helping the English woollen trade in a time of desperate need. However, Napoleon had sought to cut the cost of these coats by ordering tin buttons instead of brass ones. He did not know that tin undergoes an allotropic transformation at low temperatures and turns to dust. His men discovered this fact the hard way. [1]

On 23 June the army passed unopposed over the Niemen into Russia. By the time it reached Vilna, some fifty miles from the frontier, some of the difficulties of campaigning in Russia had become apparent. The lack of roads held up transport, and the scantiness of the population prevented living on the country. The Emperor had expected to fight pitched battles with his enemy but this was not to be. The main Russian army under Barclay de Tolley seemed to be always a day's march in front, while farther south a smaller army under Bagration had eluded King Jerome and was also retiring eastward. The Russian plan was an imitation of Wellington's at Torres Vedras. A great fortified camp had been prepared at Drissa, about a hundred and fifty miles from the frontier; there the main body was to stand on the defensive while the invaders starved and Bagration harried their communications. As they drew near, the Czar became convinced that without Wellington's covering sea-power the place would be a death trap so the Russians continued their retirement and Bagration joined the main body at Smolensk. Meanwhile Napoleon was pressing on, hoping that each day's march would bring him to grips with his enemy. "The whole Russian force is at Vitepsk," he wrote to the Empress on 25 July; "we are on the eve of great events." but by the next day the Russians had disappeared once more.

Nevertheless Barclay was meeting with much opposition in continuing the retirement. His officers distrusted him as a foreigner (he was of Scottish descent) and insisted on a stand in defence of Smolensk. After inflicting great losses on the French, they only escaped just as Napoleon's pincers were about to close upon them. Napoleon remained some weeks at Smolensk, debating whether to continue the chase, or to go into winter quarters there. He eventually decided that a threat to Moscow would compel the Czar either to fight or to negotiate. By this time Barclay had been dismissed in favour of Kutusoff, who gave Napoleon his pitched battle at Borodino in September. Though the losses amounted to 40,000 men on each side, neither could claim a clean-cut victory. Perhaps if Napoleon had thrown in his reserves, the Old Guard, at the critical moment he might have destroyed the enemy; but he had not the nerve to risk losing that solid core of his army so far from France so the Russians were able to continue their retreat in good order to Moscow and beyond. A few days later Napoleon rode in with his staff through echoing empty streets and squares. The population had evacuated the city, carrying off all transportable foodstuffs; and on the following night fires broke out - whether by accident or design nobody knows - until half the city was in flames.

Napoleon had won his "high victories" over professional armies; but in Russia, as in Spain, he was finding himself opposed by a force far more formidable because far less tangible - the hostility of a whole nation defending its fatherland and by way of reminder of the analogy between the two countries, he now received the dire news of Salamanca.

To Napoleon's dismay, Alexander continued to keep silence. By this time the Russians realised that their half-involuntary strategy of retirement had lured their enemy to destruction. Napoleon had thought of Moscow as the heart of Russia; but he found, all too late, that such a great sprawling country has no vital spot, a blow at which will paralyse the whole body. There were now three possible courses open to him:

The marshals were reluctant to march northwards at that time of year while to stay at Moscow meant starvation for the troops and a free hand for lurking "treason" among the vassal states. The last humiliating alternative had to be faced, and in the middle of October the Grand Army set out to trudge the thousand miles back to civilisation.

It started by a more southerly route than it had come by, in the hope of finding fresh supplies of food but when it had got eighty miles on, it found the Russians so strongly posted at Malo-Jaroslavetz that after an obstinate fight it had to turn back and rejoin the wasted line of its advance at Borodino. For a time things did not go badly; the autumn weather was particularly fine, and the worst trouble was the lack of fodder, which necessitated killing and eating the horses and abandoning the baggage. On 6 November came the first fall of snow, and from then on the story of the march became an epic of human and animal misery. No food, no shelter, no fuel except what could be scraped together on a bare countryside by weary and famished men at the close of a day's march; icy gales that froze them, killing scores every night; snowdrifts that blotted out the landscape so that hundreds got lost or were cut down by prowling Cossacks.

Winter horse-shoes. Note the hooks.

Worse, the horses were kitted out for a summer campaign and therefore were not provided with winter shoes. Winter horse-shoes have hooks which point downwards to dig into the ground -- without the hooks, the horses had no grip so they slipped about, fell, broke their legs, pulled muscles and otherwise damaged themselves. They, like the soldiers, had no winter equipment.

All semblance of military discipline faded away. The climax came with the crossing of the Beresina, where the military bridges, made by devoted engineers at the cost of their lives in the half-frozen water, broke down, and 12,000 corpses were found when the winter floods abated.

Napoleon now announced to his staff that he must hurry on ahead, to reach Paris before his enemies both inside France as well as outside learned the extent of the disaster. He needed to raise a fresh army with which to face the dangers that threatened. The command devolved on Murat, but that was a mere formality: it was every man for himself, now. Ney added fresh laurels to his fame as "the bravest of the brave" by his heroic courage in holding together the rearguard and beating off the exultant pursuers.

Eventually, of the 450,000 who had crossed the Niemen to conquer Russia in June, only 20,000 frostbitten and famished scarecrows tottered back over it in December.

[1] This information was given to me many years ago by the man who was then my Head of Department. He was a metallurgist. He did not give - and I did not request - the source of the anecdote. [back]

The Retreat from Moscow by General Count Philip de Segur
See also the Greville Memoirs

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Last modified 21 August, 2019

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