French invasion of Russia (1812)

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Image:Koetoezov kazan.jpg
Kazan Cathedral in St Petersburg and the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow were built to commemorate the Russian victory against Napoleon.

The invasion of the Russian Empire led by Napoleon I of France in 1812 was a turning point in the Napoleonic Wars. The campaign reduced the French and allied invasion forces to less than two percent of their initial strength. Its sustained role in Russian culture may be seen in Tolstoy's War and Peace and the Soviet identification between it and the German invasion of 1941-1945.


[edit] Nomenclature

Napoleon's invasion is better known in Russia as the Patriotic War (Russian Отечественная война, Otechestvennaya Voyna). It is also occasionally referred to as the "War of 1812", which can be confused with the 1812 conflict between the United Kingdom and the United States.

[edit] The Invasion

[edit] The Opposing Armies

Napoleon's invasion of Russia
OstrownoKlyastitsySmolensk1st PolotskValutinoBorodinoTarutinoMaloyaroslavets2nd PolotskCzasnikiVyazmaSmolianiKrasnoiBerezina

On June 24, 1812, the Grande Armée of 691,501 men, the largest army assembled up to that point in European history, crossed the river Neman and headed towards Moscow.

The Grande Armée was divided as follows:

In addition 80,000 National Guards had been conscripted for full military service defending the imperial frontier of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. With these included total French imperial forces on the Russian border and in Russia came to some 771,500 men. This vast commitment of manpower severely strained the Empire - especially considering that there were a further 300,000 French troops fighting in Iberia and over 200,000 more in Germany and Italy.

450,000 French troops made up the majority of the army with French allies making up the rest. In addition to the detached Austrian corps under Schwarzenberg there were some 95,000 Poles, 90,000 Germans (24,000 Bavarians, 20,000 Saxons, 20,000 Prussians, 17,000 Westphalians and several thousand from smaller Rhineland states), 25,000 Italians, 12,000 Swiss, 4,800 Spaniards, 3,500 Croats and 2,000 Portuguese. In addition there were Dutch and also a number of Belgian contingents. In short every nationality in Napoleon's vast empire was represented.

According to most modern estimates, the Russian army numbered less than the French initially. Some 280,000 Russian troops were deployed to the Polish frontier (in preparation for Tsar Alexander I's planned invasion of the French satellite, the Grand Duchy of Warsaw). Total Russian armies numbered about 500,000 (some estimates place the number as low as 350,000, while others go anywhere up to 710,000 - probably a figure in the vicinity of 400,000 is more accurate) on the eve of war. These were divided into three main armies - the First Army of the West (commanded by General Mikhail Barclay de Tolly) of some 159,800 men, the Second Army of the West (commanded by General Pyotr Bagration) numbering 62,000, and the Third Army of the West (commanded by General Tormasov) numbering about 58,200. Two reserve forces, one of 65,000 and one of 47,000 supported these three frontline armies. Going by these figures the Russian armies immediately facing Napoleon numbered some 392,000. In addition, peace had been secured for St Petersburg with Sweden and the Ottoman Empire - freeing up over 100,000 more troopers. Efforts were made to swell Russian armies and by September troop numbers had been expanded to around 900,000 - not including irregular cossack units, which probably add a further 70,000 or 80,000 men to the total.

[edit] The March on Moscow

Image:Smolensk eagles.jpg
Eagles monument in Smolensk, commemorating the centenary of the Russian victory over Napoleon.

The invasion commenced on June 23, 1812. Napoleon had sent a final offer of peace to St. Petersburg shortly before commencing operations. He never received a reply, so he gave the order to proceed into Russian Poland. He initially met little resistance and moved quickly into the enemy's territory. Barclay, the Russian commander-in-chief, refused to fight despite Bagration's urgings. Several times he attempted to establish a strong defensive position, but each time the French advance was too quick for him to finish preparations and he was forced to retreat once more. This has often been used as an example of the scorched earth policy.

Political pressure on Barclay to give battle and the general's continuing resistance (viewed as intransigence by the populace) led to his removal from the position of commander-in-chief to be replaced by the boastful and popular Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov. Despite Kutuzov's rhetoric to the contrary, he continued in much the way Barclay had, immediately seeing that to face the French in open battle would be to sacrifice his army pointlessly. Finally he managed to establish a defensive position at Borodino following an indecisive clash at Smolensk on August 16-18. The Battle of Borodino on September 7 was the bloodiest single day of battle in the Napoleonic Wars, and possibly of recorded human history. The Russian army could only muster half of its strength on September 8 and was forced to retreat, leaving the road to Moscow open. Kutuzov also ordered the evacuation of the city.
Image:Napoleon Moscow Fire.JPG
The French in Moscow

By this point the Russians had managed to draft large numbers of reinforcements into the army bringing total Russian land forces to their peak strength in 1812 of 904,000 with perhaps 100,000 in the immediate vicinity of Moscow - the remnants of Kutuzov's shattered army from Borodino partially reinforced.

[edit] The Capture of Moscow

Napoleon moved into an empty city that was stripped of all supplies by its governor, Fyodor Rostopchin. Relying on classical rules of warfare aiming at capturing the enemy's capital (even though St. Petersburg had been the actual capital at that time), Napoleon had expected Czar Alexander I to offer his capitulation at the Poklonnaya Hill, but Russian command did not think of surrendering.

Instead, fires broke out in Moscow, and raged in the city from 14 to 18 September New Style (2 to 6 September Old Style). Moscow, constructed mainly of wooden buildings at the time, burnt down almost completely (it was estimated that 4/5ths of the city was destroyed), effectively depriving the French of shelter in the city. It is assumed that the fires were due to Russian sabotage. Subsequently, before leaving Moscow, Napoleon gave orders to have the Kremlin and all public buildings burnt. Additionally, the Grand Army, unhappy with military conditions and no sign of victory, began looting what little remained within Moscow; however during the long retreat most items had to be abandoned.

Napoleon would later remark that had he moved out of Moscow a fortnight earlier than he did, he could have destroyed Kutuzov's army encamped at nearby Tarutino. While this would have by no means left Russia defenseless, it would have deprived it of its only concentrated army capable of challenging the French.

[edit] Retreat

Image:Napoleons retreat from moscow.jpg
Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, painted by Adolph Northern in the 19th century

Sitting in the ashes of a ruined city without having received the Russian capitulation, and facing a Russian maneuver forcing him out of Moscow, Napoleon started his long retreat. At the Battle of Maloyaroslavets, Kutuzov was able to force the French army into using the very same scorched Smolensk road on which they had earlier moved East; continuing to block the southern flank to prevent the French from returning by a different route, Kutuzov again deployed partisan tactics to constantly strike at the French trail where it was weakest. Light Russian cavalry, including mounted Cossacks, assaulted and shattered isolated French units.

Supplying the army became an impossibility - the lack of grass weakened the army's remaining horses, almost all of which died or were killed for food by starving soldiers. With no horses the French cavalry ceased to exist, and cavalrymen were forced to march on foot. In addition the lack of horses meant that cannons and wagons had to be abandoned, depriving the army of artillery and support convoys. Although the army was quickly able to replace its artillery in 1813 the abandonment of wagons created an immense logistics problem for the remainder of the war, as thousands of the best military wagons were left behind in Russia. As starvation and disease took their toll the desertion rate soared. Most of the deserters were taken prisoner or promptly executed by Russian peasants. Under these circumstances the severely weakened Grande Armee was defeated in running battles at Vyazma and Krasnoi, while separate French corps incurred losses at Polotsk, Czasniki, and Smoliani. The crossing of the river Berezina was the final French catastrophe of the war, as two separate Russian armies inflicted horrendous casualties on the remnants of the Grande Armee as it struggled to escape across pontoon bridges.

In early December 1812 Napoleon learned that General Claude de Malet had attempted a coup d'etat back in France. He abandoned the army and returned home on a sleigh, leaving Marshal Joachim Murat in charge. Murat later deserted in order to save his kingdom of Naples, leaving Napoleon's former stepson, Eugene de Beauharnais, in command.

In the following weeks, the remnants of the Grand Army were further diminished, and on December 14 1812 they were expelled from Russian territory. Only about 22,000 of Napoleon's men survived the Russian campaign. Russian casualties in the few open battles are comparable to the French losses, but civilian losses along the devastated war path were much higher than the military casualties. In total, despite earlier estimates giving figures of several million dead, around one million were killed - fairly evenly split between the French and Russians. Military losses amounted to 300,000 French, 70,000 Poles, 50,000 Italians, 80,000 Germans and perhaps 450,000 Russians. As well as the loss of human life the French also lost some 200,000 horses and over 1,000 artillery pieces.

[edit] Historical Assessment

Image:Inside the hermitage.JPG
A hall of military fame in the Winter Palace with portraits of the Russian war heroes.

The Russian victory over the French army in 1812 marked a huge blow to Napoleon's ambitions of European dominance. Like the comprehensive defeat of French naval power at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the Russian campaign was a decisive turning-point of the Napoleonic Wars that ultimately led to Napoleon's defeat and exile on the island of Elba. For Russia the term Patriotic War (an English rendition of the Russian "Отечественная война") formed a symbol for a strengthened national identity that would have great effect on Russian patriotism in the 19th century. The indirect result of the patriotic movement of Russians was a strong desire for the modernization of the country that would result in a series of revolutions, starting with the Decembrist revolt and ending with the February Revolution of 1917.

Napoleon was not completely defeated in Russia. The following year he would raise an army of around 400,000 French troops supported by a quarter of a million French allied troops to contest control of Germany in an even larger campaign. It was not until the decisive Battle of Nations (October 16-19, 1813) that he was finally defeated, and even then he continued on to campaign in France in 1814. The Russian campaign, though, had revealed that Napoleon was not invincible. Smelling blood and, urged on by Prussian nationalists and Russian commanders, German nationalists revolted across the Confederation of the Rhine and Prussia. The decisive German campaign could not have occurred without the message the defeat in Russia sent to the world.

[edit] List of Russian commanders

Charles Minard's graph showing the strength of the Grande Armée as it marches to Moscow and back, with temperature (in Réaumur) plotted on the lower graph for the return journey. -30°Réaumur = -37.5° Celsius

[edit] External Links

[edit] References

[edit] External link

es:Invasión napoleónica de Rusia fr:Campagne de Russie (1812) he:מלחמת רוסיה-צרפת (1812) nl:Veldtocht van Napoleon naar Rusland ja:1812年ロシア戦役 no:Napoleons felttog i Russland 1812 pt:Campanha da Rússia (1812) ro:Războiul Patriotic din 1812 ru:Отечественная война 1812 года zh:俄法战争 sv:Napoleons ryska fälttåg

French invasion of Russia (1812)

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