Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow 1812

published on June 30, 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

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

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

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

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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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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”

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