How Napoleon was humbled

Two hundred years after Napoleon launched his ill-fated invasion of Russia, Dominic Lieven argues that it was more than just the winter that defeated the French army

The Flight of Bonaparte from the Battle of Krasnoi, 1815. Artist: Sutherland, Thomas (1785-1838)

This article was first published in the June 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

In 1812 Napoleon invaded Russia with the largest army yet seen in Europe. Of the 600,000 soldiers he led into Russia in 1812 a mere 25,000 survived to fight for him in the campaign of 1813. The scale of the catastrophe astonished Europe and led to the formation of an alliance between Russia, Austria, Prussia and Britain which defeated Napoleon on the German battlefields in 1813 and then invaded France the following year.

This article was first published in the June 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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In 1812 Napoleon invaded Russia with the largest army yet seen in Europe. Of the 600,000 soldiers he led into Russia in 1812 a mere 25,000 survived to fight for him in the campaign of 1813. The scale of the catastrophe astonished Europe and led to the formation of an alliance between Russia, Austria, Prussia and Britain which defeated Napoleon on the German battlefields in 1813 and then invaded France the following year.

The allied armies captured Paris in March 1814 and overthrew Napoleon.

In 1812 Russia was the only remaining independent great power on the continent. By a series of stunning victories from 1805–09 Napoleon had wrecked Austria and Prussia and forced both countries to become his satellites.

Napoleon’s key aim in attacking Russia was to turn her into a satellite too. A defeated Russia would cease to be a threat to Napoleon’s European empire and would become an obedient tool in his war against Britain. Perhaps she would be forced to mount a threat to British interests in India and Persia. Certainly she would have to ruin her trade and finances by joining Napoleon’s economic war against Britain. She would also have to cede some of her western borderland provinces to the reborn Polish kingdom, which was Napoleon’s most loyal satellite in eastern Europe.

Napoleon aimed to win a quick victory over Russia in the same way that he had defeated the Austrian and Prussian armies in a matter of weeks in the campaigns of 1805 and 1806. If he could pin down and destroy the Russian army near the border then the tsar, Alexander, would be unable to continue the struggle. Without his veteran cadres the tsar would have no chance of rebuilding a viable army during the war.

Realising Napoleon’s aims, Alexander and his chief military advisor, General Mikhail Barclay de Tolly, made the preservation of their army their top priority. Outnumbered by more than two to one, the Russians adopted a strategy of withdrawal across the whole of Lithuania and Belarus, scorching the country as they retreated in order to deny supplies to Napoleon and wear down his forces. The strategy worked: by the time Napoleon reached Smolensk on the borders of the Russian heartland, he outnumbered the Russians by less than three to two.

During the battles near Smolensk in August 1812 Napoleon was presented with the opportunity he craved to crush the Russian forces. That he missed his chance is due, primarily, to blunders made by his subordinates – though the Russian troops’ fierce and skilful resistance also played its part.

Napoleon then had the option of ending his campaign in Smolensk and using the winter of 1812–13 to consolidate his base in Lithuania and Belarus in preparation for a strike into the Russian heartland in the spring of 1813. But he feared that France would be wracked by political instability if he was away for two campaigns. He also (correctly) doubted his ability to feed his army in winter in Lithuania and Belarus. So he chose to march on Moscow in September 1812.

The Russian capital was only two weeks’ march from Smolensk. In the post-harvest season Napoleon could easily feed his army in the Russian heartland. He also knew that the Russian army could not abandon Moscow without offering battle, so providing him with the opportunity to destroy it.

Napoleon got his battle at Borodino in September but failed to achieve a decisive victory. The French took Moscow but that elusive strategic objective – the destruction of the Russian army – had escaped him yet again.

As a result, Napoleon had no idea what to do next and sat in Moscow hoping that Alexander would himself decide to make peace or be forced to do so by Russia’s elites. This showed how little Napoleon understood his enemy: knowing full well that Moscow could become a trap for the French with winter approaching, peace was the last thing on Alexander’s mind. In fact, even if he had wished to come to terms, Alexander would not have been able to do so since Russian public opinion, already outraged by the French invasion, was further infuriated by the burning of Moscow.

Beating a retreat

After dawdling in Moscow for six weeks while Alexander mobilised resistance, Napoleon was forced – by the prospect of being cut off and unable to feed his army – to retreat all the way back to the Russian frontier. In the process, he looked on with ever growing alarm as his army disintegrated before him.

The ferocious Russian winter has long taken credit for humbling Napoleon’s forces but French indiscipline proved even more telling. So too did the enormously superior Russian light cavalry (above all, Cossack irregulars), who harassed Napoleon’s troops and denied them any possibility to forage away from the roads.

Yet Alexander knew that driving Napoleon out of Russia was not enough. So long as Napoleon dominated Germany and all of western and southern Europe, he would remain an enormous threat to Russian security.

Directly or indirectly Napoleon ruled over 63 million subjects in 1812; the tsar just 42 million. Russia could not afford the cost of securing its frontiers against such an enemy for long. So, in December 1812, Alexander invaded central Europe. In doing so, he hoped that Prussia and Austria would join his war against Napoleon.

The tsar’s calculation proved correct – but only just. In the first half of 1813 Napoleon put a new army of almost 500,000 men in the field, initially outnumbering the Russo-Prussian allies by two to one. Only in the autumn 1813 campaign, when Austria finally joined the allies and Russian reinforcements arrived en masse, did the advantage swing towards the allies. Even then victory rested on a knife edge until the decisive battle of Leipzig in October 1813.

Russia’s role in Napoleon’s defeat has been widely misunderstood. The west has tended to blame his invasion’s failure on the climate and Napoleon’s mistakes.

Russians, meanwhile, thanks partly to Leo Tolstoy, have placed the emphasis on the elemental force of Russian mass patriotism. Neither side has given due recognition to the skill with which the Russian government executed a strategy that played to Russia’s strengths and Napoleon’s weaknesses in 1812.

One key reason why both sides have so seriously underestimated Russia’s victory is that the 1812 campaign is not studied in the context of Alexander’s overall grand strategy, which only came to fruition in 1813–14.

Alexander inspired and led the continental coalition that ultimately destroyed Napoleon’s empire. The Russian army was far more formidable in autumn 1813 than it had been in 1812, and it formed the core of the allied coalition’s military forces.

The horse was in many ways the key to Napoleonic-era warfare, playing the role of the tank, aeroplane, lorry and mobile artillery in today’s warfare. Crucially, Russia mobilised its formidable horse industry for war with exceptional skill.

Above all, however, Russia defeated Napoleon because its leaders out-thought him. Alexander’s combined military/diplomatic strategy was more realistic and more subtle than Napoleon’s reliance on blitzkrieg.


A Nazi repeat?

Comparisons between Russia’s defeat of Napoleon and Hitler are striking – and they are made often.

In both cases Russia stood alone on the European continent against an enemy who mobilised the resources of much of Europe against her.

Initially Russia’s only major ally in both wars was Britain but in 1812, and even more in 1941, the British army could not make any decisive impact on a land-war in Europe. In both cases, Russia constituted the last chance for the preservation of the balance of power in Europe. She achieved her victories over both Napoleon and Hitler against the expectations of most Europeans, and at huge cost to the Russian people.

In the defeat of both Napoleon and Hitler, Russia’s huge size and resources were crucial. The invading military machines were greatly weakened as they attempted to reach and dominate the heartland of Russian power around and beyond Moscow. To vast distances were added the hazards of the Russian climate as roads dissolved into autumn mud and invading armies crumbled amidst the snows of winter.

It is now widely recognised, even in the west, that to these elemental forces in 1941–45 must be added the skill of many Soviet generals and the successful mobilisation of Russia’s economy and society for war by the Soviet regime. It is time to recognise this for 1812–14 too.

It was difficult but not impossible for a would-be European emperor to conquer Russia. Wilhelm II did this in 1917–18, or rather the Russian revolution delivered victory to him.

Whereas Napoleon and Hitler’s reliance on purely military blitzkrieg failed, a more intelligent military-political strategy designed to exploit opposition within the Russian and Soviet empires might have succeeded both in 1812 and in 1941. By invading and devastating the Russian heartland, Napoleon and Hitler played into their enemy’s hands.

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Dominic Lieven is professor of Russian government at the London School of Economics and Political Science