In 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte – emperor of the French for the previous eight years – sent 600,000 of his troops into Russia. Allied with the British and Austrian empires, Russia had increasingly become the focus of Napoleon’s foreign policy following his naval defeat to the British at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The same year, victory over combined Austro-Russian forces at the battle of Austerlitz had seen him extending his influence eastwards through the annexing of lands in Prussia.

Napoleon made significant blunders during his invasion of Russia, including a refusal to deploy his Imperial Guard at the battle of Borodino
Napoleon made significant blunders during his invasion of Russia, including a refusal to deploy his Imperial Guard at the battle of Borodino (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Before considering what would have happened next had Napoleon’s Russian campaign been successful, it is instructive to first understand his motivation for putting so many of his men on the front line. It would be too easy to assume that Napoleon was simply empire-building and pursuing ambitions of controlling much of mainland Europe. This is not the case, as Michael Broers – professor of western European history at the University of Oxford and author of Napoleon: The Decline and Fall of an Empire, 1811–1821 (Pegasus Books, 2022) – explains.

“Napoleon never intended to conquer Russia. It’s an urban myth. His aim was to find the Russian army – the only one still strong enough to be a threat to him – and thump it. He knew he couldn’t rule Russia. His objective was to make it too weak to fight him, and to force Tsar Alexander I to be his ally. Napoleon had no intention of deposing or replacing him, but he wanted to neutralise the Russians for as long as possible, and leave them too weak to worry him. The invasion was about containment.”

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Long journey home

In 2019 the skeleton of Charles-Étienne Gudin, a French general killed during Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia, was unearthed near the city of Smolensk. The remains were returned to France in 2021 and buried with full military honours.

Indeed, why the notion of Napoleon as the power-hungry expansionist out to conquer Russia has prevailed is a curious one. He himself admitted that Russian containment was the invasion’s over-riding objective. “They must be pushed back into their ice,” the French emperor reportedly announced, “so that for the next 25 years, they no longer come to busy themselves with the affairs of civilised Europe.” By reducing Russia’s military potency, Napoleon wouldn’t have to keep looking over his shoulder.

Had he been successful in his Russian mission, had he not retreated with just 100,000 survivors of his original 600,000-strong invasion force, what would have been the significance for eastern Europe? “If he had crushed Russia,” says Professor Broers, “it would have meant there would no longer have been a threat to his ally in Poland, the Duchy of Warsaw. Above all, it would have brought Russia back into the Continental Blockade against Britain – and so cut off the supplies that the Royal Navy needed for its ships.”

A British invasion?

The Continental Blockade was Napoleon’s response to Britain’s own blockade of the French coasts, and prohibited the importation of British goods into any countries that were allied to France. A weakened Russia would have been forced to adhere to the doctrine, in the process damaging Britain economically. “The whole aim of the invasion of Russia,” confirms Professor Broers, “was, ultimately, to weaken Britain – and the Royal Navy especially. It would have been his first priority.”

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French soldiers depicted carrying out inspections in the Kingdom of Saxony (a Napoleonic client state) in a bid to stop people from importing British goods
French soldiers depicted carrying outinspections in the Kingdom of Saxony (a Napoleonic client state) in a bid to stop people from importing British goods (Photo by: Bildagentur-online/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Indeed, had his troops accomplished their mission and emerged more intact than they were in defeat, an invasion of Britain could well have been on the cards. “He never gave up on it. He intended to invade Britain in 1811, but felt Russia had become the bigger threat.” That being said, it is likely that an invasion of Britain would have been a dismal failure – even if Napoleon himself didn’t see that.

In context

In the first days of the summer of 1812, French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte sent 600,000 troops of his Grande Armée into Russia. The Russian army chose to protect its soldiers by withdrawing from certain cities, often razing them to the ground and ruining crops in an act of attrition warfare.

The French advanced but, with dwindling supplies, Napoleon’s men struggled, suffering from hunger as well as diseases such as dysentery. Having lost great numbers in various skirmishes, a protracted time spent in burned-out Moscow convinced the emperor to retreat with a brutal winter on the horizon. He returned to Paris, having lost half a million of his men.

There’s also a theory that Britain’s other route around the Blockade, Spain, might well have found themselves subject to an amplification of the Peninsular War (which had begun in 1808), but Professor Broers disagrees. “Napoleon’s army fought on in Spain until the end – until it was driven out. He wanted ‘out’ of Spain for years; he saw it like Vietnam. With Russia back in the Blockade, it would not have mattered so much, as Britain would have been less of a threat.”

Generally, though, Napoleon was unlikely to have expanded his empire. “He wanted to protect what he had, above all. He would have liked to have regained France’s lost colonies in the Caribbean and, had he managed to get full control of Spain, its colonial empire, but it wasn’t a priority.”

Neutralising the threat

Aside from its emperor not subsequently falling from power, a French defeat of Russia is likely to have brought more peace and stability to Europe. “Had Napoleon beaten the Russians,” concludes Professor Broers, “there wouldn’t have really been much trouble left inside Europe to threaten him. A unified Germany would have been impossible as long as France was strong. Poland would have been united and strong, and never conquered again. And Russia would not have been able to make trouble in the Balkans for a while.”

Had he managed to contain Russia and avoid that humiliating defeat, the course of European affairs would surely have taken a different direction.

Professor Michael Broers teaches at the University of Oxford, and specialises in the Napoleonic period. Nige Tassell is a journalist specialising in history.


This article was first published in the Christmas 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed