18 December 1812

Two hundred years ago…well, one hundred and ninety seven years ago, at a few minutes before midnight on 18 December 1812, (to be exact) a battered coach pulled into the snow-clogged and darkened courtyard of the Palais de Tuileries in Paris.  The palace was darkened too, with the inhabitants and servants long since abed.

The two men inside the coach were bearded, shrouded in soiled greatcoats and filthy–so much so that the sentries on duty didn’t recognise them.  Yet it was none other than Napoleon, (and his private secretary, Caulaincourt) just returned after abandoning the tattered and starving remnants of his Grande Armee in the snowbound plains of Russia.

The scale of the human catastrophe that was the Russian campaign of 1812 is something we still cannot truly comprehend.  Nor are the numbers of casualties at all certain. 

On paper, at least, Napoleon took something like 650,000 troops into Russia.  In reality, the allied Prussian troops under General Yorck never joined the main force of the Grand Armee in the depths of Russia. 

Nor does this figure include the vast numbers of civilians who accompanied the army.  Many officers took their wives and children with them.  And there were the camp followers too, the brandy sellers and victuallers, cooks, private servants and blacksmiths, and hundreds of others.  So the number of civilians may be as much as another 100,000.

Nor are the figures for those troops who survived to return to France any better.  Estimates vary–but it’s somewhere between 7000 and 30,000. 

Yet whichever it is, the cost is enormous, unthinkable even,  for the kindest and most generous estimate suggests that Napoleon lost at least 93% of his forces.  And that’s without adding in those civilian losses which included many, many children. 

Nor is the true story anything like that promulgated by Napoleonic legend.  At least half the army perished before Napoleon and his troops ever crossed the Nieman into Russian territory on 24 June 1812–for they were woefully unprepared–and they died in their thousands of starvation, dehydration and dysentery.  Even Prince Eugene, Napoleon’s step-son and King of Italy, was forced to live off loaves of bread made from acorns–because that’s all they could find to eat, acorns.  Their thousands of horses died too–of colic, starvation and dehydration. 

And then came the Pyrrhic victory of Borodino on 7 September, and the taking of Moscow–which the Russians set ablaze.  And which the French left, on 19 October as the winter snows were beginning, to begin their trek of thousands of miles across the barren, frozen plains…and there the remaining forces died, exhausted–starving, freezing to death in temperatures of -35F, their eyelids falling off with frostbite and going mad–harried by Cossacks or drowning in the frozen rivers they tried to cross.    

Napoleon, of course, did as he always did–he abandoned his remaining troops, just as he had after the disastrous Egyptian campaign–and on the 5th December, he hightailed it back to Paris to shore up support and save his crown.  And to start–again, as he always did–the Napoleonic spin machine’s wheels turning which would transform this unprecedented unnatural human disaster into a Napoleonic pecadillo caused by the unseasonable winter weather. 

(To give you an idea of the scale of the losses, the total population of Great Britain in 1800 was ten million.  Thus Napoleon’s losses in the six months of the Russian campaign equalled at least 5% of the British population.)

And yes, I know this is perhaps not the most festive of posts–but I do think it important to remember all those brave men and their families–for those losses left whole villages in France, Italy, the Low Countries, Germany and Poland, bereft of men, not just for that year or that Christmas, but for generations. 

And the bravery and stoic courage of these men in the face of such adversity deserves to be remembered and even honoured.  And perhaps serve to remind us that although the weather outside is frightful, we have much to rejoice in–most especially each other.  

With all good wishes for a happy and peaceful Christmas. 

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5 comments on “18 December 1812

  1. B.Lloyd says:

    Very timely post, also in memory of those still in conflict this season, and the next season, and the next after that . . . Leaders, despots, politicians seem to learn little or nothing from history, so it ends up repeating itself : hence Germany failed in WWII to invade Russia in the same way Napoleon did. Or having read the history books, the despot ignores the warnings and decides, it won’t happen to ME. . .
    It occurs to me that we have come full circle in another way :viz.: the treatment of the soldiers when they return home, especially if they return home wounded. They quickly run the risk of becoming homeless and hopeless, as in Wellington’s time. So it was cheering to see ‘the Force’s Sauces’ set up as a charity aid to attempt to heal this worst wound of all : the total abandonment of soldiers on their return to civvy street.(www.pryorsbank.co.uk/cafe-news/)

    We are shamed by our past in a most perverse way at times, in that the past sometimes offered more to the people alive then than the present offers to those alive today. The word workhouse is imbued with misery and sinister associations, yet not all were appalling and at least offered the basics of shelter and work – more than could be said to be on offer today, outside of limited voluntary services already strapped for resources . . . and here endeth the mini-rant for today.
    And best wishes for a happy passing of the winter solstice into a sunny new year . . .

    • M M Bennetts says:

      There is a tremendous novel on the vicarious nature of war, written by Gilles Lapouge, called The Battle of Wagram. It’s well worth a look.

      • B.Lloyd says:

        Thank you – also came across the Napoleon and Battle of Wagram by Gunther Rothenberg – the author’s biography alone would fill a history book, fascinatin’ stuff.

  2. Nice post. And how many of Napoleon’s cavalry and packhorses struggled back? 3000 out of 300,000 wasn’t it?
    The British government have always had a love/hate relationship with the Services – love them when they need them and hate them when they have to spend money. And they’ve been just as bad with horses. After the slaughter at Corunna came the starvation in Crimea, just a single horse repatriated from 30,000 or so shipped to South Africa for the wars against the Boers, the sell-off of requisitioned animals after the Armistice in 1918 to avoid the costs of shipping them home and a repeat in Palestine at the end of WW2.
    I love the inscription at the base of the statue in Port Elizabeth which commemorates all horses’ sufferings in the Boer Wars:
    “The geatness of a nation consists not so much upon the number of its people or the extent of its territory as in the extent and justice of its compassion.”
    So true.
    Have a great Christmas,
    Jonathan

    • M M Bennetts says:

      The thing is, it’s always very difficult to tell with the French in the Napoleonic conflicts, because their numbers are often deliberately inexact. In terms of troops, they didn’t record desertions and they didn’t record MIAs. So, you never quite know how many they started out with.

      And it gets even iffier with animals. For example, in the four days of deluge-like rain which fell on Vilna after 28 June, they reckon that they lost few troops. However, the animals could hardly have fared worse. Most artillery units lost approx 25% of their horses and the same goes for most of the cavalry units–leading to a rough guess that in four days of rain, the combat units lost at least 10,000 horses–all of which drowned. But that’s a very low guessimate and ignores the equine losses of the supply columns–so probably the figure is likely to be 40,000 horses perished in those four days.

      And this, I have to tell you, so does my head in that I can hardly bear to think on it.

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