Napoleon “The Russian Conflict”Napoleon was one of the greatest military leaders of all time. By 1812 Napoleon had expanded
the territory of France all over Europe including Spain, Italy, Holland, and Switzerland. The countries that
Napoleon did not directly control, he was usually allied with. The turning point of Napoleon’s career also
came in 1812 when war broke out between France and Russia because of Alexander I’s refusal to enforce
the continental $
Even the French nation could not provide all the manpower and supplies needed to carry out the
Emperor’s grandiose plan for subduing Russia. Throughout 1811, he worked to mobilize the entire
continent against Russia. He not only levied the vassal kingdoms in Spain, Italy, and Germany but also
summoned Austria and Prussia to furnish their share of men and goods. Altogether, Napoleon could count
on nearly 700,000 men of 20 nationalities of whom more than 600,000 crossed the border. Grown far
beyond its original intended size, the army was difficult to assemble and hard to feed. Between Tilsit and
Moscow, there lay over 600 miles of hostile barren countryside. Because of lack of supplies and the
difficulty to feed the large army, Napoleon’s plan was simple: bring about a battle, defeat the Russian
army, and dictate a settlement. Apparently neither he nor his soldiers, who cheerfully began crossing the
Nieman River, thought beyond the immediate goal.
Already 300 miles into Russia, Napoleon had not yet found a way to exploit his advantage. In the
Emperor’s programming the resources necessary to achieve his objective, he had anticipated fighting a
battle within a month after crossing the Nieman. Toward the end of that month Napoleon began to realize
that events were disproving the validity of his estimates. Dying horses littered the roads and the advanced
guard found little forage as Russians everywhere abandoned their homes. Napoleon knew that he needed to
fight. At Smolensk, he set up for a battle and waited but the Russians, afraid of a trap steadily withdrew
their troops from Smolensk and continued to retreat deeper into Russia.
The only major battle in the Russian campaign proved that something was definitely lacking in
Napoleon’s judgment. Borodino was a battle of legendary proportions. Before the battle Napoleon
proclaimed, “Soldiers, here is the battle you have so long desired!” However, the fight was inconclusive.
At its end, Napoleon found himself the possessor, not of a victory, but of a barren hillside and an
increasingly compelling commitment to advance further into the east. Well into the battle, the French had
almost cracked the left side of the Russian Army. Several French generals had requested that Napoleon
would commit the guard infantry into battle. This would create the final blow and insure the Russian defeat.
After 14 hours of intense combat, the fighting died out at nightfall, and Mikhail Illarionovich Kutusov, the
Russian general, gratefully began to retreat his troops. The guard infantry had remained unused. After the
Battle of Borodino, in which losses on both sides totaled !
over 70,000 men, Napoleon had 100,000 effectives remaining, while Kutusov probably had no more than
55,000. Both sides claimed a victory, whereas actually, both sides had lost. While the Russian army filed
disconsolately toward Moscow, the Emperor of the French rationalized his indecision at Borodino by
contenting himself with the capture of the city.
On September 14, Napoleon rode into Moscow at the head of a fraction of the Empire’s military
strength. Meanwhile, Napoleon’s opponent had made a decision that was to shape the remainder of the
campaign. Kutusov made up his mind not to fight another battle in defense of Moscow. Kutusov ordered
the city’s population out into the countryside, released all inmates from the city jails, and destroyed the city
firefighting equipment. Napoleon and his army of 100,000 arrived only to find a handful of the original
inhabitants and several hundred criminals and lunatics freely roaming and plundering the streets. That
night, fires sprang up all over the city. Fire swept through the city for several days and by morning it was
apparent that most of the city had been consumed by the flames. Left with no choice, Napoleon sent peace
proposals to Alexander, but Alexander refused to even discuss the concept of peace while the French
remained on Russian soil. Napoleon was given an opportu!
nity to evacuate Moscow by acting like he was reinforcing his brother-in-law’s troops. Napoleon’s plan was
to march to Kaluga and Bryansk. By returning along an untraveled route, he hoped to find forage for the
horses, avoid the appearance of a retreat, and eventually settle the army in winter quarters somewhere
between Smolensk and Minsk. There appeared to be a good chance to reach his destination before the first
frost. It was imperative to do so. The horses were not shod for heavy snow, nor had the troops been issued
any winter gear. On October 31, Napoleon and the guard reached Vyuzma; Davout (his general) had
cleared Borodino. One week later a heavy snow fell and, with it, the morale of the French. On icy roads it
was impossible for the starving horses to pull their loads. Tired men dropped in their tracks and pushed to
the side of the road, were lost forever. Artillery pieces, loot, and many of the wounded were left behind.
November was an unending catastrophe!
for the decimated French army. Men began to fight for scraps of bread and frozen horseflesh. As the army
began to fragment, there were extraordinary acts of individual heroism. Mere survival itself required
unending strength of will. Many men fell and simply refused to rise again and go on. Marching out of
Smolensk, the ragged, frozen and famished group of men knew that they must sooner or later fight the
Russians as well as the winter. On November 16, Kulusov blocked the French escape routes. The Russians
made many attacks on the French. And because of the health of the French soldiers, there was little
opposition for the Russian’s attacks. Napoleon had returned to France to preserve his empire. With his
desertion marking the end of the war.
A lengthy bulletin had appeared in The Moniteur on the return of Napoleon. Until November 6,
the weather was good, and the movement of the army was executed with success, but on the 7th the cold
commenced. French officers and soldiers had fought bravely, and their General had led expertly. The
Russian winter, not the Russian army, had defeated him.
Electronic Arts EA 3D Atlas 1995, N.Y. New York
Grolier Incorporated Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 1994 N.Y. New York
SoftKey Infopedia 2 1996 N.Y. New York
Webster New World Dictionary 1984 N.Y. New York