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Today in 1812 – Napoleon Invades Russia

24. June 2010 by Gregg 0 Comments

On June 24th, 1812, the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte began his campaign to invade Russia. During this period, Russia was controlled by the Tsar, a Royal family and Napoleon saw his attack of the Russian Empire to be an attempt to capture land from the Tsarist regime and reinstate Poland – which had been previous been captured and divided among Russia, Austria and Prussia.

With the march officially beginning in April, Napoleon’s army crossed over into what was generally considered Russian territory on June 24th. Almost immediately, the flaws in the plan became apparent. While Napoleon was a skilled ruler, he was not the military strategist that most of the world had come to believe he was – he relied on his well-trained and enormous army to attack by force, rather than through cunning and skill. One early issue is that the French army, trained to live off the land in any territory they invaded, was unable to use this skill in the cold, barren Russian wilderness that they had entered through.

As the French advanced, the weather grew colder, the conditions more dire and Napoleon’s army started diminishing. The French Army ended up losing almost 70% of the troops they arrived with by the end of the campaign, along with most of their artillery and almost all of their horses. The conditions worsened the effects of minor injuries and sicknesses and made the skirmishes with the Russians all the more deadly.

While the conditions were terrible, the strength and size of the French army still outclassed the smaller groups of Russian fighters that faced them, allowing Napoleon’s troops to make considerable distance across the empire. They eventually made their way to Moscow – not the capital at the time, but still one of the most important cities in Russia. What they found there was probably the death-blow to the campaign. The city had been evacuated almost entirely, with whatever population was left looting and burning every building they could in an attempt to make the French victory as hollow as possible. Napoleon, who was used to a more Western European style of warfare which consisted of more diplomacy and who had expected his capture of the city to open up talks between him and the Russian Tsar was disheartened. The French Army, furious at the Russian retreat and the fact that they had spent almost six months advancing on a city that had ended up being a looted, empty shell, began burning down everything that was left – finally destroying about four fifths of the city.

Napoleon ordered his army to retreat back through the Russian wilderness, but rather than allow them, the Russian Army continued their attack even as the French were leaving. They razed the countryside, stopping the French from being able to feed themselves or their horses and resulting in many of them dying or killing the horses for food. The retreat was also taking place in the dead of winter, which in Russian folklore is sometimes referred to as “General Winter” and anthropomorphized as a military commander the has protected the Russians against attacks ranging from the Swedes in 1700, to the Nazis during World War II.

Today, the French invasion is considered one of the worst military blunders in history and began Napoleon’s downfall. While Russia lost almost as many troops as the French and many more civilians, the humiliation that Napoleon underwent in his failure to force Russia to capitulate has labeled the Russians as the victors.