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.