*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Throughout Napoleon’s career as a general, he built a reputation for conceiving ambitious battle plans and somehow managing to pull them off, either through ingenious tactics or sheer force of will. All that came to an end on October 19, 1812. Unable to break through Russian resistance, the French Emperor turned his army to the west in hopes of retreating before winter snows trapped them, setting the stage for one of the most infamous defeats in military history.
By 1812, the French Empire had far outgrown the borders that existed when Napoleon took the reins of the army in 1796. Now in control of large swathes of modern Germany, Italy, Poland, Italy and Spain through either conquest or treaty, the short general and his troops seemed to be nearly invincible. The strength of the army seemed an incredible deterrent to conflict and a bargaining chip in the negotiation of new alliances. Thus, when word reached Napoleon that Tsar Alexander I was under pressure from the Russian nobility to abandon the agreement the two men had reached at the Congress of Erfurt, he was furious.
Determined to prove the Russians had made a serious mistake, Napoleon built an army of as many as 500,000 men before launching forward from Poland on June 23, 1812. Going against conventional wisdom, he would lead his force — the largest army Europe had seen up to that point — all the way to Moscow to subjugate the Russian monarchy for good. Arguably driven by his own ego more than sound military strategy, Napoleon blinded himself to the realities of a 600-mile march to the Russian capital and pressed on.
Knowing his soldiers would be unable to overcome the invaders in direct confrontation, Russian General Mikhail Kutuzov managed to avoid a frontal assault altogether. Acting in a hit-and-run manner while pulling off an organized retreat, his troops burned everything in sight as they slowly pulled within the city of Moscow in early September. Following the Russians through burned out forests, the French would find the land bereft of resources, leaving them hungry and fatigued by the time they made camp, which negated the effect of their larger numbers somewhat.
On September 7th, the Russians stepped forward to face the French at the Battle of Borodino, near a village on the outskirts of Moscow. The two armies clashed in a fierce, day-long engagement that left almost 80,000 dead, possibly the bloodiest day Europe has ever seen. Crippled by a lack of information about the sorry state of his opponents, Napoleon held the field as the Russians slipped through Moscow and retreated further into the countryside — if his tired army had been able to pursue, he might have gained the decisive victory he believed would bend the Tsar to his will.
As the French troops waited, the leadership of Moscow made a bold demonstration of defiance: the Russians would set their home city on fire as they moved out. A week after his triumph at Borodino, Napoleon marched his army in assuming he would find ample supplies and downtrodden citizens. He saw neither — those who left took much of the food with them and only a small number of residents remained behind, mostly patriots intent on harassing the French.
After spending four weeks in the city, Napoleon realized he would not be welcoming a Russian party suing for peace. Fearing for his control of France, he opted to march his Grand Armee home on October 12, 1812. Lumbering to the southwest, the French suddenly found the Russians eager for a fight. Starving and weary, Napoleon’s soldiers were easy targets for relentless attacks. Beyond simply facing devastating assaults from the Russians themselves, the French had to contend with obstacles placed in their path by their enemies, making the retreat that much more difficult. After leading most of his soldiers across the Morava River in modern Slovakia, an impatient Napoleon burned the bridges with some 10,000 waiting to cross.
By this point, many of Napoleon’s men must have wondered if any of them were going to survive. Two months after leaving Moscow, the French army made it to safety on December 14th. With just 100,000 survivors, only 1 in 5 of the men who had left returned. Writing later on, Napoleon reflected, “The most terrible of all my battles was the one before Moscow. The French showed themselves to be worthy of victory, but the Russians showed themselves worthy of being invincible.”
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