Napoleon in Russia ALL PARTS

published on June 29, 2020

Russia, 1812

Napoleon invades his former ally with the
largest army Europe has ever seen

But for the French Emperor, the decisive blow
remains frustratingly beyond reach

Russia’s resilience is unlike anything he’s
ever encountered

And as winter closes in, his army begins the
most infamous retreat in history

In 1807, following his defeat of the Russian
army at Friedland, Napoleon had travelled

to Tilsit to meet the Russian Emperor, Alexander

During their celebrated encounter, the two
emperors formed a friendship, and made an

alliance

But it was not to last…

Over the next five years, relations between
France and Russia cooled dramatically

The Russians were irritated by Napoleon’s
creation of a ‘Duchy of Warsaw’ in Poland,

which they regarded as meddling in their own
front yard They feared it would lead to the

return of a fully-fledged Polish state – a
traditional thorn in Russia’s side

Then there was Napoleon’s offer to marry
Alexander’s sister, Grand Duchess Anna Pavlovna,

to cement their alliance But the Romanovs
hated the idea, and after a year of Russian

prevarication, Napoleon married Marie Louise,
daughter of the Austrian Emperor, instead

Later that year, Napoleon broke a guarantee
made at Tilsit, and annexed the Duchy of Oldenburg,

ruled by Alexander’s sister’s father-in-law

Worst of all, was the fallout over ‘the
Continental System’, Napoleon’s not very

effective economic blockade against Britain,
designed to cripple his most steadfast enemy

Alexander had agreed to join the Continental
System at Tilsit, but it was hugely unpopular

in Russia, and ruinous to her finances during
a period of economic crisis

When Napoleon found out that Russia was flouting
the rules of the System, and had resumed an

illicit trade with Britain, he was furious

With both emperors accusing the other of bad
faith, their two countries began preparing

for war

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Napoleon knew an invasion of Russia was a
massive undertaking – especially as he still

had an unfinished war in Spain, that was tying
down more than 200,000 troops

Nevertheless in 1811 he began to assemble
the largest army Europe had ever seen…

Around 600,000 men… though less than half
of them were French

The rest came from allied states across Europe
There was a Polish corps from the Duchy of

Warsaw, led by Prince Poniatowski, a corps
from each of the German Kingdoms of Saxony,

Westphalia and Bavaria, from the Kingdom of
Italy, as well as Swiss, Dutch, Croat, Spanish

and Portuguese units scattered throughout
the army

There were even contingents from Prussia and
Austria – France’s recent enemies, now

uneasy allies

Some of these allied troops, such as the Poles
and Germans, were as reliable as their French

counterparts Others were very inexperienced,
or like the Prussians and Austrians – reluctant

to be there at all

This gigantic formation was deployed in three
armies, the main force under Napoleon himself,

another led by his stepson Eugène, Viceroy
of Italy, and a third led by his younger brother

Jérôme, King of Westphalia

Neither of these two were experienced commanders,
though one would distinguish himself on campaign…

the other would not

On their left flank Marshal Macdonald led
Tenth Corps, with a large Prussian contingent…

While the right flank was guarded by General
Schwarzenberg’s Austrian Corps

Another 100,000 troops were in reserve, including
Marshal Victor’s Ninth Corps

Initially the Russians only had 220,000 men
to face this juggernaut, organised into Barclay

de Tolly’s First Army;
Prince Bagration’s Second Army; and General

Tormasov’s Third Army

They would be outnumbered two-to-one

But in the run-up to war, Russia scored two
crucial diplomatic triumphs:

Sweden had been at war with Russia just three
years earlier, a conflict which cost her Finland

By a curious turn of events, Sweden was now
ruled by Napoleon’s ex-marshal, Bernadotte

But after Napoleon occupied Swedish Pomerania
without warning, a furious Bernadotte promised

Russia that Sweden would remain neutral

Meanwhile a peace treaty with the Ottoman
Empire ended Russia’s six-year war against

its southern rival

These two agreements secured Russia’s flanks
from any strategic threat, and freed up troops

to face Napoleon’s invasion

On 24th June 1812, French troops began crossing
the Niemen River into Russian territory

The army was so large, the crossing took five
days

Napoleon’s plan was to attack north of the
impassable Pripet Marshes, and defeat Barclay’s

army, while Jérôme pinned Bagration in place
French forces would then swing south to trap

Bagration

Napoleon expected the campaign to be over
in five weeks

But the sheer size of the French army convinced
the cautious Barclay that retreat was his

only option

Prince Bagration, a much more aggressive commander
by instinct, and often Barclay’s fierce

critic, was forced to agree

As they withdrew they burned villages and
crops – part of a scorched earth strategy

to deny supplies to the enemy

In four days Napoleon had reached Vilnius,
but Barclay was gone

To the south, Jérôme failed to pin down
Bagration, so when Davout’s First Corps

swung southeast to trap him, he’d already
withdrawn to safety

Napoleon’s younger brother was out of his
depth Stung by the Emperor’s criticism,

humiliated when his troops were put under
Marshal Davout’s command, he resigned his

post and returned to Westphalia

The campaign was already beginning to expose
serious flaws in Napoleon’s plan

Knowing his troops would struggle to live
off the land in this impoverished region,

he’d organised huge supply depots and transport
units to feed the army

But wagons rolled slowly along Russia’s
bad roads, which were turned to rivers of

mud by summer thunderstorms

The army had to make frequent stops to allow
its supplies to catch up – bad news for

Napoleon’s plan to catch the Russians, but
a much-needed relief for the many thousands

of young conscripts in his army, not used
to hard marches day after day

Many were soon dropping out with exhaustion;
others deserted

There were also huge problems of command and
control, over a vast, multi-national army

that was three times bigger than any Napoleon
had commanded before

La Grande Armée, once famed for its speed
of manoeuvre, had become a lumbering beast

After a pause to rest and regroup at Vilnius,
Napoleon resumed his advance

Barclay continued his retreat to Vitebsk,
where he hoped Bagration’s Second Army would

be able to join him

But Davout blocked Bagration’s path at Saltanovka,
forcing him to make for Smolensk instead

At Vitebsk, Napoleon clashed with Barclay’s
rearguard, but once more the Russians escaped,

after setting fire to all the stores they
couldn’t take with them

Meanwhile, 300 miles away, on Napoleon’s
southern flank, Russian Third Army attacked

and defeated the Saxon Seventh Corps, forcing
Napoleon to divert Schwarzenberg’s Austrian

corps to their aid

By the end of July, Napoleon had advanced
250 miles into Russia – much further than

he’d planned

And the long marches in extreme, summer heat
continued to take a heavy toll on his men

Without fighting a major battle, the army
had already suffered 20% casualties – from

exhaustion and illness, particularly typhus
and dysentery

The army had entered Russia with quarter of
a million horses, but they were now dying

at a rate of a thousand every day, from exhaustion
and lack of fodder

It wasn’t just cavalry horses that were
dying, but the very horses that were supposed

to haul the army’s transport wagons, making
a bad situation worse

This crisis in horsepower came just as the
French light cavalry, Napoleon’s eyes and

ears, met their match… in Russia’s Cossacks

Cossacks – self-reliant, proud, ruthless,
and superb horseman – didn’t play by the

same rules as other European cavalry

Every day they shadowed Napoleon’s army,
swooping in whenever they saw an easy target,

but melting away into the forests if they
were attacked by a stronger force

Cossacks, as well as Russian partisans, made
hit and run attacks on French supply lines

and depots, forcing Napoleon to divert thousands
of troops to their defence

Alongside Russian regular light cavalry, they
also prevented French patrols from carrying

out reconnaissance, which meant that Napoleon
often lacked good information about roads,

or the enemy’s whereabouts

Napoleon stayed 16 days at Vitebsk, resting
his troops and considering his options

Among his many mounting concerns was the security
of his long, exposed flanks

But at Vitebsk he received news that Schwarzenberg
had defeated the Russians at Gorodeczna…

A week later at Polotsk, a French-Bavarian
force fought Wittgenstein’s Russian First

Corps to a standstill

Napoleon’s flanks were secure, for now

Although his main force had been reduced to
less than half its original strength, Napoleon

decided to push on to Smolensk, and try to
force the Russians into a decisive battle

for the city

Barclay was indeed under pressure to give
battle, from fellow commander Prince Bagration

and Emperor Alexander in StPetersburg: the
army’s morale and Russia’s honour required

it, they told him

With the First and Second Russian Armies finally
linking up near Smolensk, Barclay decided

to attack Napoleon’s army, which he believed
was concentrated around Rudnya

The offensive was led by General Platov’s
Cossacks, who surprised a French cavalry division

at Inkovo

But alarmed by false reports that Eugène’s
Fourth Corps was outflanking him to the north,

Barclay called off the attack

Napoleon, reassured that Barclay’s offensive
posed no real threat, began a grand outflanking

move to the south, to take Smolensk and cut
off the Russian retreat

The so-called ‘Smolensk Manoeuvre’ was
Napoleon at his best

Using Murat’s cavalry to screen his movements
and keep Barclay in the dark, the Emperor

reached the Dnieper on the evening of 13th
August

His engineers quickly threw up four pontoon
bridges, and by dawn the next day, his army

was across

Marshal Davout led a second column across
the river at Orsha

But a single Russian division, the 27th , fought
a heroic fighting retreat from Krasny, delaying

the French advance… and buying time for
Bagration to reinforce the Smolensk garrison

The chance for a surprise assault on the city
was lost

And as the Russian army began to pull back,
Napoleon displayed an uncharacteristic lack

of urgency, even halting the army for a parade
to mark his 43rd birthday

When the main attack on Smolensk began two
days later, Napoleon opted for a frontal assault

150 French guns battered the city, as three
French corps attacked its medieval fortifications

The Russians resisted bravely

But Barclay, fearing encirclement, ordered
another retreat

With Smolensk in flames, the Russians began
to pull out… just as the French fought their

way into the city, to scenes of utter devastation

Bagration’s Second Army withdrew first…

As Barclay’s army followed, its rearguard
was caught by Ney’s Third Corps at Valutino…

General Junot, commanding the Westphalian
Eighth Corps, had orders to cut off Barclay’s

retreat – but having crossed the river, he
did nothing, and the opportunity was lost

A furious Napoleon swore that Junot would
never now win his Marshal’s baton

The Battle of Smolensk cost both sides around
10,000 casualties, and destroyed one of Russia’s

most historic and holy cities – but settled
nothing

After the missed chance to defeat the Russians
at Smolensk, Napoleon paused once more to

consider his options

His men were weary and far from home, and
it was already late in the campaigning season

He considered sitting out the Russian winter
at Smolensk, and resuming the campaign in

1813

But now he was just 230 miles from Moscow

A century earlier, Peter the Great had moved
Russia’s capital to StPetersburg, but Moscow

remained its historic and spiritual heart
– a prize for which the Russians had to

fight

Napoleon, always a gambler, decided to push
on

The Russians faced their own dilemma

Emperor Alexander had experienced a kind of
religious epiphany that summer, and rallied

the Russian people to the country’s defence,
describing the war with Napoleon as a war

to save Holy Mother Russia from the Antichrist

For months the Emperor had received conflicting
advice – to stand and fight, or retreat

Now he decided change was needed

The cautious General Barclay kept his job,
but the Emperor summoned General Mikhail Kutuzov

to take overall command of Russia’s armies

Kutuzov had been beaten by Napoleon at Austerlitz
seven years before, but he’d since won several

victories against the Ottoman Empire, and
was a ‘true Russian’, loved by the troops

Although Kutuzov agreed with Barclay’s strategy
of delay, he saw that constant retreats were

destroying the soldiers’ and the nation’s
morale If Moscow was given up without a battle,

the fallout could be disastrous

And so, 70 miles west of the city, near the
village of Borodino, the Russian army prepared

to make a stand

Europe was about to witness the bloodiest
day’s fighting of the Napoleonic Wars

September 1812

10 weeks had passed since Napoleon invaded
Russia with more than half a million men

The French Emperor wanted a quick victory
over the Russians, one that would force Emperor

Alexander to make peace, and agree to French
terms

But at Vitebsk, and then Smolensk, the outnumbered
Russian army had narrowly escaped his clutches

The holy city of Smolensk had been virtually
destroyed

Napoleon had advanced deep into Russia, and
months of marching had left his army decimated

by disease and exhaustion It was now half
its original strength, and summer was nearly

over

But finally, 70 miles west of Moscow, near
the village of Borodino, the Russians had

turned to offer battle

Napoleon would have a chance to win the decisive
victory, that he believed would end the war

The Russian army, commanded by the 67-year-old,
one-eyed veteran General Kutuzov, occupied

a defensive position across the two main roads
leading from Smolensk to Moscow

General Barclay de Tolly’s First Army was
on the right, its front protected by the Kalatsha

River, steep-banked but shallow and easily
forded

Prince Bagration’s Second Army was on the
left, a more open position, but reinforced

by major earthworks – the Great Redoubt,
and what the French nicknamed, for their shape,

the Flèches – the arrows

Another forward redoubt at Shevardino was
expected to delay the enemy’s advance

Historians still dispute the size of the Russian
army, but it’s likely Kutuzov had around

121,000 men and 680 guns at Borodino

On 5th September, Napoleon’s army began
to arrive from the west: around 130,000 men,

and 585 guns

Napoleon quickly saw that the Shevardino Redoubt
would have to be taken before he could deploy

his army, and ordered an immediate assault

The attack was led by Compans’ 5th Division
of the First Corps, supported by the Polish

Fifth Corps to the south

In several hours of heavy fighting, the redoubt
changed hands more than once

But late that evening the Russians finally
withdrew to their main line, and the redoubt

fell to the French

Its capture had cost them an estimated 4,000
casualties, while the Russians lost around

6,000 men

Napoleon noted how few prisoners were taken
– a worrying sign of the enemy’s unbroken

resolve

Both sides spent the next day preparing for
battle

Marshal Davout, commanding French First Corps,
and widely considered Napoleon’s most able

subordinate, appealed to the Emperor to use
his Corps to make a wide, outflanking attack

to the south…

But Napoleon dismissed the idea as too risky,
and instead began preparing for a massive

frontal assault on the Russian defences

Shortly after dawn on 7th September, Orthodox
priests paraded one of Russia’s holiest

icons, Our Lady of Smolensk, before the Russian
army

It was a stirring sight for many devout, Russian
soldiers, thousands of whom would not live

to see dusk

The battle began at 6 am, as French batteries
opened a deafening cannonade against the Russian

defences

Eugène’s Fourth Corps advanced on Borodino
village, lightly held by Jaegers of the Russian

Imperial Guard

After clearing the village, his infantry crossed
the Kalatsha and advanced towards the Great

Redoubt, but were driven back with heavy losses

The Russians burned the bridge across the
river, but did not launch a counterattack,

and Eugene was able to move cannon into the
village, to put flanking fire on the Great

Redoubt

In the centre, Davout’s First Corps began
its advance against the Flèches, coming under

heavy fire…

While on the right, the Polish Fifth Corps,
ordered to take Utitsa, got held up in the

woods and ravines…

Their slow advance allowed Tuchkov’s Third
Corps to send a division north to reinforce

the Fléches defences

Kutuzov, at his headquarters in Gorki, took
little part in the battle, leaving tactical

decisions to his subordinates

Barclay and Bagration had spent most of
the summer arguing furiously over strategy,

but in the hour of crisis, they put their
differences aside

They could see the main French attack was
falling on the Russian centre and left…

so Barclay ordered General Baggovut’s Second
Corps south to reinforce Bagration

Fighting around the Flèches intensified,
as the French captured one of the earthworks,

only to be driven out by a Russian counterattack
Davout himself was injured in the fighting

as he fell from his dying horse, but he refused
to leave the field

When Russian cavalry counterattacked, Marshal
Murat himself led the French cavalry forward

to meet them

Ney’s Third Corps now joined the attack
on the Flèches

A charge by Russian cuirassiers forced Murat
to take shelter in a square of Württemberg

infantry

Murat, with his flamboyant dress and reckless
courage, had now even made a name for himself

among the Russians – the Cossacks in particular
saw him as a kindred spirit, and were eager

to capture him alive if they could

To the south, Polish troops now took Utitsa,
which the Russians set ablaze before withdrawing

But General Baggovut’s reinforcements arrived
just in time to shore up the Russian flank

Around 10am, Eugène launched another attack
on the Great Redoubt It was briefly captured

by Morand’s First Division, before his men
were thrown out by a ferocious Russian counterattack

The Russian army’s 27-year-old artillery
commander, General Kutaisov, was killed leading

one of these counterattacks A heroic death,
but a blow to the organisation of Russian

artillery for the rest of the day

Fighting continued to rage around the Flèches
earthworks

Some counted as many as six major French assaults,
involving 45,000 troops, with hundreds of

cannon on both sides pouring fire into the
packed ranks More than once, French infantry

fought their way into one of the Russian positions,
only to be driven out again at bayonet point

Junot’s Westphalian Corps was sent forward
in support, helping to clear Russian skirmishers

from the woods to the south

General Bagration was close to the action,
overseeing the defence of the Flèches, leading

forward reinforcements and ordering counterattacks

Around 10am he was hit in the leg by shell
fragments

Mortally wounded, he was carried from the
field

Shaken by the loss of their iconic commander,
the exhausted Russian infantry began to fall

back, and the French finally took the Flèches

Marshal Murat then led forward Friant’s
division – First Corps’ last reserve – supported

by waves of heavy cavalry on both flanks

Russian Grenadiers formed squares to ward
off the French cuirassiers…

While their own Guard cavalry fought the French
in a giant, confused melee… with heavy losses

on both sides

The Russians resisted doggedly, but the combined
onslaught of French artillery, cavalry and

infantry proved irresistible

As the Russians pulled back, Friant’s infantry
fought their way into the village of Semënovskaya

The Russian centre was in disarray… and
seemed close to breaking

Surely now was the time for Napoleon to deliver
the knockout blow

For most of the day, Napoleon remained at
his headquarters near Shevardino

Those around him later said that illness,
as well as the exertions of the long campaign,

had left him tired and irritable

As the Russian centre buckled, Murat and his
staff urged him to send forward his last reserve,

the Imperial Guard

The Emperor refused “If there is another
battle tomorrow,” he asked them, “where

is my army?”

But he did make one exception

Barclay was continuing to move troops from
his unengaged right wing to bolster the centre

As Ostermann-Tolstoy’s Fourth Corps arrived
behind the Russian centre, French observers

feared they were massing for an attack

So Napoleon ordered forward General Sorbier’s
Guard artillery

His batteries opened a devastating fire on
the enemy Yet even as they were mown down

in their ranks, the Russian infantry stood
their ground

On the Russian right wing, all remained quiet,
so General Platov, commander of the Don Cossacks,

proposed that he lead an attack on the lightly-defended
Borodino village

Permission received, Generals Platov and Uvarov
led a force of 8,000 Cossacks and cavalry

across the Kalatsha River

They fell on French and Italian troops around
Borodino with complete surprise, spreading

panic and disorder

Grouchy’s Third Cavalry Corps had to be
pulled back across the river to drive off

the Russians

Russian commanders saw this raid as a missed
opportunity

But it had delayed the next French attack
by two hours… and may have persuaded Napoleon

that he was right to hold back his reserve

Around 3pm, the French launched their biggest
assault yet on the Great Redoubt

Russian gunners targeted the French infantry
advancing to their front, allowing French

cavalry to outflank the Redoubt, and charge
it from the rear

Saxon cavalry were first in, cutting down
Russian infantry and gunners, almost to the

last man

It was an astonishing feat by the horsemen,
against all the rules of war – and testament

to the ferocity of the fighting

As Eugène’s infantry consolidated their
hold on the Redoubt, he ordered forward all

the available cavalry to exploit this success

But they were met, and checked by the last
Russian cavalry reserves

Eugène now implored Napoleon to commit the
Imperial Guard

But again, the Emperor refused “I will
not destroy my Guard,” he told his staff,

“I am 800 leagues from France and I will
not risk my last reserve”

By 5pm, both armies were in a state of utter
exhaustion

The battlefield was strewn with dead and wounded

Some infantry battalions could muster only
a third of their strength

Cavalry could advance no faster than a trot

Gun crews were collapsing with fatigue

As dusk approached, fighting slowly died out
across the battlefield

Napoleon and the French army expected the
fighting to resume the next day

But by dawn, Kutuzov, having learned the full,
horrifying scale of Russian losses, had ordered

a withdrawal

The losses on both sides were enormous

Russian casualties are estimated at 44,000

French losses: around 30,000, including 49
generals – 12 of them killed

Borodino would prove to be the bloodiest single
day of the Napoleonic Wars

The Russian army could not fight another battle
until it had received major reinforcements

And so Kutuzov decided that he must abandon
Moscow

On 15th September, a week after his victory
at Borodino, Napoleon entered the city

He would find it virtually deserted, and already,
the first fires starting to burn

15th September 1812 83 days after invading
Russia; a week after his costly victory at

Borodino; Napoleon entered Moscow

He expected to be greeted by dignitaries,
formally offering the city’s surrender

Instead, he discovered that 90 per cent of
Moscow’s inhabitants had fled

A fire had started the previous night, and
was blamed on drunken soldiers

But over the next 48 hours, fires continued
to break out across Moscow, until most of

the city was ablaze

Count Fyodor Rostopchin, the city’s governor,
had ordered that Moscow be destroyed rather

than allowed to fall into enemy hands

And now fires were being started deliberately
by Russian criminals, freed from jail and

acting on police orders

French soldiers rounded up and shot any they
could catch, but the inferno was impossible

to contain

In four days, two-thirds of Moscow was destroyed

With the fires finally under control, Napoleon’s
soldiers turned their attention to systematically

looting the ruined city…

While from his new quarters in the Kremlin,
Napoleon sent a letter to Emperor Alexander

in St Petersburg, inviting him to make peace,
and end the war

He received no reply

Napoleon waited, confident that Alexander
would eventually negotiate

But as the days passed, he grew increasingly
uneasy

Cossack raids were disrupting his vital communications
with Paris, as well as the arrival of supplies

While the steady attrition of French forces,
and Russian reinforcements, meant Napoleon

was outnumbered for the first time in the
campaign

Rumours also reached him that his reluctant
allies, Prussia and Austria, were in secret

talks with his enemies

Napoleon had proposed that the army winter
in Moscow – but that now looked too dangerous

Reluctantly, he accepted that the army would
have to move back to Smolensk to find safe

winter quarters

Napoleon knew how severe Russian winters could
be, but continued to put off his departure,

reassured by fine October weather, and hoping
that at the last minute, there might be a

message from Alexander, offering peace

It never came

On 13th October, the first light snow fell

Five days later, Kutuzov launched a surprise
attack on Murat’s advance guard at Vinkovo,

and defeated it

Napoleon, stung into action, gave the order
for the army to leave Moscow the next day

100,000 men of the Grande Armée left Moscow
in a column 10 miles long, with an estimated

40,000 carriages and carts

There were women and children too: army wives
and the vivandières, the women who cooked

for the soldiers, as well as some civilians

Every wagon and pack was stuffed with as much
food and loot as possible

As he set off, Sergeant Bourgogne of the Imperial
Guard made an inventory of his pack It contained:

“several pounds of sugar, some rice, some
biscuit, half a bottle of liqueur, a woman's

Chinese silk dress embroidered in gold and
silver, several gold and silver ornaments,

amongst them a piece of the cross of Ivan
the Great

Besides these I had my uniform, a woman's
large riding-cloak, two silver pictures in

relief, 12 inches long and 8 high, all in
the finest workmanship Also several lockets

and a Russian Prince's spittoon, set with
precious stones

I wore over my shirt a yellow silk waistcoat,
which I had made myself out of a woman's skirt;

over that a large cape lined with ermine,
and a large pouch hung at my side by a silver

cord
This was full of various things – amongst

them, a crucifix in gold and silver and a
little Chinese porcelain vase Then there

were my firearms, powder-flask and sixty cartridges
in the box”

This heavily-encumbered army did not yet realise
it was in a race against time

The Russians were beginning to move against
the flanks of Napoleon’s 550 mile-deep salient

That very day, Wittgenstein’s army was driving
back Marshal Saint-Cyr’s outnumbered force

at Polotsk… and drawing Victor’s Ninth
Corps west to support them

In the south, Admiral Chichagov’s advance
had Schwarzenberg’s Austrian corps falling

back to cover Warsaw

The corridor was closing

And then there was the weather… though Napoleon
was confident his army could reach winter

quarters in Smolensk in twenty days – well
before the more extreme temperatures were

due to hit

Napoleon planned to withdraw via Kaluga, through
unspoilt country where the army could forage

for supplies

But Kutuzov sent General Dokhturov’s Sixth
Corps to block the road at Maloyaroslavets

In fierce fighting, Italian troops of Eugène’s
Fourth Corps drove the Russians out of the

town

It was a hard-won victory, reminiscent of
the fighting at Borodino

Kutuzov now stood between Napoleon and Kaluga

Napoleon now took the unusual step of conferring
with his marshals And after discussing various

options, he decided that rather than seek
another major battle, they would retreat the

way they’d come, along the Smolensk road

Napoleon had hoped to avoid this route, as
it meant marching back through country already

stripped bare of supplies

The day after the fighting at Maloyaroslavets,
Napoleon was nearly captured by a group of

Cossacks, and saved only by General Rapp’s
charge at the head of his escort

After this close shave, Napoleon had a phial
of poison made up, which he carried around

his neck in case of capture

Napoleon’s army set off on its new course,
shadowed, at a respectful distance, by Kutuzov’s

army to the south

They passed the old battlefield of Borodino:
a grisly, unnerving sight, where crows pecked

at half-buried corpses

Relentless marching quickly began to tire
out men and horses

A few days later, the temperature fell below
freezing

The army’s overworked, starving horses died
en masse

Discipline began to break down, as some drivers
simply dumped the sick and wounded by the

roadside, to try to ensure their own survival

As the French column became increasingly strung
out, General Miloradovich, commanding Kutuzov’s

advance guard, fell on Davout’s rearguard
outside Vyazma

For a few hours Davout’s First Corps was
cut off, until Eugène and Ney came to his

rescue

The battle ended with street-fighting in Vyazma,
as the French hastily evacuated the burning

town

For the soldiers of the Grande Armée, so
unaccustomed to retreats and routs, Vyazma

was an alarming, demoralising blow

On 4th November it began to snow heavily
The next night temperatures plummeted to minus

20 degrees Centigrade

Few men or women had proper winter clothing,
or access to shelter Many froze to death

overnight

The next morning wagons and guns were abandoned

Many soldiers now sought to save themselves,
ignoring officers, stealing horses and food,

and leaving the column to scour the countryside
for supplies

Many of these foragers were found by the Cossacks,
some cut down or lanced, others robbed of

every possession and left to freeze

In a few cases, they were handed over to peasants,
eager for retribution against the foreign

invaders who’d plundered all they owned

As the army struggled on towards Smolensk
through blizzards, Napoleon ordered Eugène’s

Fourth Corps to strike out for Vitebsk, where
there were large French supply depots

But Vitebsk had already fallen to the Russians
Fourth Corps was too weak to fight its way

through, and rejoined the army, minus its
artillery, and most of its baggage

A colonel who saw Fourth Corps at this stage
described men ‘without shoes, almost without

clothes, exhausted and famished, sitting on
their packs, sleeping on their knees and only

rousing themselves out of this stupor to grill
slices of horsemeat or melt bits of ice’

Just three weeks after leaving Moscow, a third
of the army was dead or captured About half

the rest formed a growing army of stragglers:
men without units, prepared to fight only

to survive

Napoleon reached Smolensk on 9th November

The first troops into town ransacked the supply
depots, leaving nothing for those who followed…

including Ney’s rearguard, which arrived
six days later

Napoleon had hoped to make Smolensk his winter
base, but the state of the army and lack of

supplies meant the retreat had to continue

But the five days he spent there gave Kutuzov
time to circle ahead and prepare an ambush

When the French retreat resumed, he struck
thirty miles west of Smolensk at Krasny

In three days of desperate fighting through
knee-deep snow, Napoleon used his Imperial

Guard to hold open the road, as Eugène and
Davout’s corps fought their way through

the ambush with heavy losses

Two regiments of the Young Guard were ordered
to make a sacrificial counterattack to keep

the Russians at bay and were virtually annihilated

Kutuzov held back many of his troops, and
was blamed for not trying to destroy Napoleon’s

army when he had the chance It’s possible
he was concerned at the number of raw conscripts

in his own army, also suffering terribly in
the freezing conditions

Not every French corps broke through at Krasny

Marshal Ney and his 6,000 strong rearguard
arrived on 18th November, to find the road

blocked by 60,000 Russian troops, and no sign
of the promised support from Davout’s First

Corps

Ney’s men hurled themselves against the
Russian lines with desperate courage, but

were mown down

Rejecting several invitations to surrender,
Ney led the survivors in a daring, night-crossing

of the Dnieper river, then across 45 miles
of open country under constant attack from

Platov’s cossacks, to reach Orsha

By the time Ney rejoined the army, his rearguard
was down to just 800 fighting men, leading

a column of several thousand stragglers

The army regarded his escape as a miracle,
and when Napoleon heard of it, he immediately

dubbed Marshal Ney ‘the bravest of the brave’

Napoleon had escaped one trap, but now three
Russian armies were closing in from different

directions, and outnumbered him nearly 3-to-1

From the east, Kutuzov’s main army, with
65,000 men

From the north, Wittgenstein with 30,000,
steadily driving back Marshal Victor’s Ninth

Corps

And from the south, Admiral Chichagov’s
Army of Moldavia, with 34,000, having detached

General Osten-Sacken with 30,000, to prevent
Schwarzenberg’s Austrians and Reynier’s

Saxon corps marching to Napoleon’s aid

Napoleon was heading for Minsk, a major French
supply base with vast stores of the food,

clothing, shoes and ammunition that his army
so desperately needed

But on 21st November, disastrous news arrived:

Minsk had fallen to Chichagov

He’d then marched on Borisov, driven out
the Polish garrison, and captured its bridge

over the Berezina River

By rights, the Berezina ought to have frozen
solid by now, so Napoleon could have crossed

anywhere, but a sudden thaw had turned the
river into a torrent of ice and freezing water

Napoleon was, at least, joined by the hard-fighting
Marshal Oudinot and his Second Corps, which

hadn’t suffered as badly as the main column
on its retreat from Polotsk

Oudinot launched an immediate counterattack
on Borisov and retook the town, but couldn’t

stop the Russians burning the bridge

With no other bridge for miles in either direction,
it seemed Napoleon’s exhausted army was

finally doomed

But there was one sliver of hope – Polish
cavalry had found a ford across the river

near the village of Studienka

Napoleon issued a flurry of orders: Second
Corps was to fake preparations for a river

crossing south of Borisov, Victor’s Ninth
Corps, arriving from the north, was to form

a rearguard east of Studienka to hold the
Russians at bay… while engineers worked

as quickly as possible to build pontoon bridges
across the river… and win Napoleon’s army

a fighting chance of escape

On the afternoon of 25th November, General
Eblé’s Dutch engineers began building two

300-foot pontoon bridges across the Berezina
River

They worked day and night, sometimes chest-deep
in freezing water, and completed both bridges

in less than 24 hours

Few of the engineers survived the ordeal

Chichagov had been totally fooled by the diversion
south of Borisov, and was moving his troops

south to face it – allowing Napoleon’s
army to begin crossing its rickety bridges

virtually unopposed

Oudinot’s Second Corps led the way, to secure
a bridgehead, followed the next day by the

remnants of the main army

Priority was given to formed troops, still
able to fight For the time being, the army’s

vast crowd of stragglers remained on the far
bank

By the time Chichagov realised his mistake
and began moving north, Napoleon had troops

in place to defend the crossing

On the east bank, General Partonneux’s 12th
Division – 4,000 relatively fresh troops

from Victor’s Ninth Corps – formed the rearguard

As Platov’s Cossacks approached from the
east – the vanguard of Kutuzov’s main

army – Partonneux tried to rejoin Ninth
Corps

But caught in a swirling blizzard, with visibility
down to 50 metres, he marched straight into

Wittgenstein’s army His entire division
was killed or captured

The next morning, Chichagov and Wittgenstein
launched co-ordinated attacks on both sides

of the river

There was desperate fighting on the west bank,
where Marshal Oudinot was (yet again) seriously

wounded, but his Swiss infantry held the line…
until General Doumerc’s cuirassiers, the

army’s last heavy cavalry, charged and routed
the Russians

At great cost, Polish and German troops of
Victor’s rearguard held off the Russians

until dark… then pulled back across the
bridges

For two nights, officers had been trying to
get the vast camp of stragglers to cross the

bridges when they weren’t being used But
with temperatures reaching minus 30 centigrade,

they’d preferred to stay put, huddled around
their fires

At dawn on the 29th, with the army leaving
and the Russians approaching, thousands of

stragglers surged in panic towards the bridges
Dozens were crushed underfoot Others fell

or were pushed into the water, or tried to
swim, which was certain death

When French engineers burned the bridges at
9am, thousands were cut off, and left to the

mercy of the advancing Cossacks Some became
prisoners, others were simply put out of their

misery

Since the retreat began 43 days earlier, the
Grande Armée had marched nearly 500 miles

– under constant attack, starved, exhausted…
and for the last 23 days, in lethal sub-zero

temperatures without proper clothing or shelter

In that time, the fighting strength of the
Grande Armée had been reduced from around

124,000 men to 20,000, with as many stragglers
still following the army

As the retreat continued to Vilna, the weather
turned even worse, with temperatures falling

to minus 37 degrees centigrade

The Russian armies at least now held back,
leaving the winter, Cossacks and Russian peasants

to finish off the invaders

On 5th December, Napoleon left the army, travelling
incognito across Europe at breakneck speed…

and reaching Paris in just 13 days

Naturally, English satirists capitalised on
Napoleon seeming to abandon his defeated army…

and many soldiers did regard it as an act
of betrayal

But his generals supported his decision to
leave – there’d already been one attempted

coup against Napoleon in Paris, and there
was much work to be done to rebuild the army,

and reassure France’s allies

On 9th December, 51 days after the retreat
began, around 20,000 ragged survivors of the

Grande Armée began crossing the Niemen River,
back into friendly, Polish territory

According to legend, Marsal Ney was the last
man across

Napoleon’s invasion of Russia had proved
to be one of the greatest military disasters

in history

He had made fatal miscalculations about geography,
logistics, and above all: Russia’s political

and strategic response to his invasion

These blunders cost his empire around half
a million men… as well as a quarter of a

million horses, and 1,000 cannon

Put another way, of every 12 men who marched
into Russia with the Grande Armée:

One was killed in action or died of wounds

Two were taken prisoner, one of whom died
in captivity

Seven died from disease or the effects of
climate

Just two returned alive

Contrary to myth, many more soldiers had died
in the summer advance – from heat, typhus

and dysentery – than were lost in the winter
retreat

Russian military casualties were estimated
at 150,000, and a huge but unknown number

of civilian deaths

The Russian campaign was a catastrophe for
Napoleon Not just in lost troops and resources,

but in damage to prestige and reputation
That winter all his enemies sensed weakness,

and prepared to join forces against him for
the first time…

But the Emperor wasn’t going down without
a fight

Back in Paris he admitted to his ministers,
“Fortune has dazzled me, gentlemen I’ve

let it lead me astray Instead of following
my plan I went to Moscow I thought I’d

make peace there I stayed too long I’ve
made a grave mistake… but I’ll have the

means to repair it”

Thank you to the artists Aleksandr Averyanov
and Egor Zaitsev for kind permission to use

their artwork in this video

And thanks as always to all our Patreon supporters
for making this series possible

Find out how you too can support the channel
and get ad-free early access to new videos,

by visiting our Patreon page

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