Napoleon’s Ruinous Retreat from Russia…

This isn’t a very festive topic, I’ll admit.  Not full of Christmas cheer and a wassail or anything.  And I’m sorry for that.  Truly I am.  For I should like to be telling you something to bring joy and laughter and goodwill to men, but…

But you see, 199 years ago this week, the infamous 29th Bulletin announced to France that the Grande Armee had been lost amidst the winter snows of the Russian plains, that few of them would be returning from the Russian wilderness…though of course, Napoleon lied about this as he did about everything else. 

And this was shortly followed by the reappearance of Napoleon in Paris.  Alone.  With only his secretary, Caulaincourt at his side.  And no army.  Not any.

And I can’t get this out of my head.  Not this week.  Not that I believe it’s a sequence of bicentennials that the French government will wish to commemorate next year.  Though possibly the Russians will…

For nearly a year, Napoleon had been planning the invasion of Russia–ever since Russia had quietly reopened her ports to British ships and trade in 1811.  (This really pissed him off.)  And during that time he had amassed one of the largest land armies ever seen–the Grande Armee–the Great Army. 

The recruiting officers had been busier than ever, squeezing the hated ‘blood tax’ out of the peoples across Europe; more than one year’s class of conscripts had been mobilised.  Allies too had been forced to send troops–Bavaria, Westphalia, Saxony, Italy, Holland…50,000 troops from Poland…

And the sum of troops for this expedition?  On paper, at least 450,000 troops.  (Some military experts put the number much higher–all the way up at 650,000.  Though the estimates of Russian spies of the time is around the 450,000 mark.) 

Nor does this take into account the hordes of accompanying civilians.  Napoleon’s household alone contained some 100 to 150 civilians–butchers, cooks, vintners, bakers, saddlers, blacksmiths, laundresses…And many of Napoleon’s generals also had large ‘households’ which accompanied them into occupied territory.  Then there are the thousands of soldiers who brought their wives and children; there are the bakers, saddlers, blacksmiths, brandy-sellers, and camp followers…some 50,000 people, is the conservative estimate of the number of civilians. 

And for months before the invasion began at the end of June 1812, this vast swarm of humanity–more than half the population of London at the time, it was–amassed in Prussia and Poland.  Oh, and don’t forget the 450,000 horses in readiness for the beginning of the Polish Campaign as it was called.  (Napoleon hadn’t yet officially announced it as a plan to invade Russia.) 

But already there were problems. 

Europe was in the grip of a period of exceedingly cold winters which lasted well beyond their usual allotted time.  So, across Prussia and Poland, in those stretches of land where Napoleon had his armies camped in readiness for his arrival, the harvest–that harvest which was meant to feed this vast army of men and horses–wasn’t ripe.  It was still too green.  So the horses fed upon it and died, in their thousands, of colic. 

Even Prince Eugene de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s stepson, was reduced to living off acorns…

And the troops went hungry–they starved or became ill with dysentery.  They suffered horribly from dehydration too.  And died. 

Poland was frighteningly poor.  Even by the low standards of the day.  The French occupation of their country made paupers of most Poles.  Literally.

So despite what Napoleon said in that official Bulletin to which I referred earlier, that all the problems were due to horrible weather on the homeward journey (and that’s still the version of events many people believe), the fact is a third to one half of his army was dead before Napoleon crossed the River Niemen into Russian territory on the 28th June 1812.

And that’s not counting deserters…(because the French didn’t count deserters.  They didn’t admit that anyone deserted.)  There were probably some 30,000 deserters roaming the countryside and pillaging by this point.

So, Napoleon crosses the Niemen with his game plan–the plan he loves.  He believes the Russians won’t tolerate invasion, that they’ll instantly run out to meet him, and either negotiate a peace, or there’ll be a decisive battle in which he’ll whoop the socks off them and then he’ll dictate terms to the Tsar.  (He liked being in charge, Napoleon did.)

However, the Russians had their own game plan.  And it didn’t look anything like his. 

Instead of giving battle, they just kept withdrawing.  Day after day, week after week.  Across a Russian landscape that had been stripped bare–scorched earth. 

The weather wasn’t great either.  Daytime temperatures were up around 37 degrees Celsius.   And there was a massive storm, one which turned the roads to bog, so that men and horses drowned.  Or froze to death when the bogs froze at night.  Some 10,000 to 35,000 horses died in this agony.

And all the while, Napoleon issued instructions to his intermediary, Maret, to publish accounts of non-existent triumphs in the official Bulletins, and ended each letter to his wife with the sentence, “The emperor’s health has never been better.”  (Which was also untrue.  He was suffering from a severe bladder infection known as dysuria.) 

So across this Russian landscape, with starvation stalking his men and horses, Napoleon pursued the retreating Russian troops–determined to gain a decisive victory, bewildered that no emissary from Alexander arrived to beg for peace on any terms. 

Vilna, Vitebsk, and everything in between all fell to the French troops and were wrecked by them.   Their sick filled the houses converted into hospitals and then filled the mass graves in which they buried them.   They took the city of Smolensk, but their artillery shells set fire to the city’s wooden buildings–and it became a living hellfire.  Once destroyed, the troops would find no place to rest or recuperate within its walls, and no food neither…

The Russians under General Mikhail Kutuzov finally gave battle at a place called Borodino, not far from Moscow, on the 7th September 1812. 

I’ve blogged about this elsewhere, so I shan’t now go into details.  But the number of casualties is staggering–even for the Napoleonic era.  The Russians may have had more men–at least on paper–but 31,000 of them were militiamen and armed only with pikes and axes.  So probably the Russians had about 125,000 troops.  And they faced a French army of  perhaps 130,000.  By the close of day, the French had lost some 35,000 men; and the Russians somewhere between 45,000 and 50,000–with much of their officer corps wiped out.

Both sides declared it a victory; Kutuzov ordered a retreat and by the 14th of September, the Russian army was passing through Moscow–joining a mass exodus of Muscovites–at least two-thirds of the city’s population.

Again, Napoleon misread the Russians.  He firmly that if he occupied their beloved Moscow, the Russians would come begging for peace. 

Napoleon entered Moscow on the 15 September and took up his headquarters in the evacuated Kremlin.  But just as he was getting comfortable, fires were started throughout the city upon the orders of the Governor of Moscow, Rostopchin.  Over the next six days, the fires raged, destroying some three-quarters of the city.  The starving French soldiers looted and pillaged whatever was left.  The wounded were left in the streets to die. 

And Tsar Alexander did not come begging for peace either, though every day patrols brought in scores of French foragers and marauders and deserters–so the Russians knew that the French were lacking even basic food and fodder.

Finally, after weeks of inaction–perhaps he got a whiff of snow–Napoleon decided to abandon Moscow and begin the march home, though he’d achieved none of his objectives:  he’d had the big battle, but the enemy didn’t appear to be destroyed.  They certainly hadn’t come begging for peace on any terms and his plan to force them to return to the Continental System had assuredly failed.  He’d taken their capital, but then it had been turned to ash…and meanwhile, Russian troops were attacking those French battalions in the field…

Hence on the 17th October, Napoleon, accompanied by all that was left of his armed troops–probably now some 95,000 men, or less–quitted Moscow for the long march back to Paris.  Joining them were some 40,000-50,000 civilians–and as the French troops had ransacked Moscow for treasures which they intended to bring home and sell in order to make their fortunes–some 15,000 to 40,000 carts, carriages, and wagons piled high with food and luggage and booty. 

Within a day, these treasures were being abandoned along the roadside…On the 22nd October, fierce rainstorms turned the roads into a sea of mud.  Nor was the fight against the Russians finished.

Around this time too, Napoleon sent Tsar Alexander a letter–which the Tsar apparently hardly bothered to read, though he did say, “Peace?  But as yet we have not made war.  My campaign is only just beginning.”

Straggling across this barren landscape of mud, their morale in tatters like their clothes, the remnants of the French army were harassed by the small hordes of Cossacks on their fast ponies–those left behind would be captured and taken back to Russian villages where they would be tortured to death.  

And then, on the night of 6th November, the temperatures plunged and men and horses froze to death in what was to be the beginning of the end for the survivors of this disastrous campaign.  The freezing temperatures also meant that there was no water–either for the horses or the men–without water, the remaining horses died.  And it would only grow colder.

There were more battles to come too as the now rested and remounted Russian troops mounted assaults on the retreating French, including the terrible assault as the French sought to cross the Berezina.  During those three days at the end of November, the French lost a further 25,000, though perhaps up to 10,000 of those were civilian stragglers–though, mind you, this isn’t mentioned in the 29th Bulletin either.  

At Molodechno on the 3rd of December, Napoleon composed that 29th Bulletin to which I keep referring.  He hid most of the truth of how he’d managed to lose some 450,000 troops–but he did almost admit the scale of the disaster.  He blamed the freezing weather that set in after the 6th November.  And he reassured his subjects that “the Emperor’s health has never been better.”   

Napoleon himself, determined to shore up support and save his throne, abandoned the few remaining troops on the evening of the 5th December and set off for Paris, alone with Caulaincourt, his secretary.  

For those he abandoned, further death and destruction lay at Vilna…

The 29th Bulletin was published in Paris on the 16th December and everywhere, the news it contained was met with shock and stunned grief.  Never, not once, before had Napoleon admitted anything like defeat or even setback–he’d even had Trafalgar announced as a French victory.  The scale was beyond anything anyone could imagine.

Of the possible 450,000 troops, not to mention horses and civilians, who went into Russia, no more than 50,000 came out.  Probably less than that.  And less than a quarter of those lost died in battle.  Of the nearly 30,000 Italians who had been part of the Grande Armee, only 3% survived.  Across Europe, in all those countries controlled by France, the losses were the same and grievous to be borne.

Napoleon and Caulaincourt reached Paris around midnight on the 18th December.  It was snowing.  And within three days, Napoleon was calling for a new Grande Armee of 350,000 troops…

I have deliberately excluded the harrowing details of these events from this brief account, the descriptions of battles, the geography even.  For a full account, I cannot recommend strongly enough Adam Zamoyski’s 1812:  Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow.  Also, utterly fascinating as it gives the Russian account of the situation is Dominic Lieven’s superlative Russia Against Napoleon, the Battle for Europe, 1807-1814.

(Zamoyski’s ground-breaking work was such that I could not get the images out of my head–thus the truth of Russian campaign and the publication of the 29th bulletin became intrinsic elements in my novel, Of Honest Fame.)

And now, as I think yet again on all those lives squandered and all those families, those wives, daughters and sweethearts left newsless and comfortless…Well, it’s time for a cup of tea at least, I think.  Don’t you?

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18 comments on “Napoleon’s Ruinous Retreat from Russia…

  1. Debra Brown says:

    Dreadful. How can a man be so cruel and so power-hungry as to do that? And then have the gall to ask for more troops?

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I left out the truly dreadful stuff!

      I think one can only, by this point, think of Napoleon as a meglomaniac. He’s certainly not rational. He has lost all sense of anything beyond his own pursuit of glory and power. He always did have a ‘problem’ with the human cost–he it was who said, “I have an income of 85,000 men a year.” And they, to him, were expendable.

      The thing is–as I’ve explained elsewhere–he did get that second Grande Armee by the spring of 1813. Only to have lost them as well by the end of the year. One can only think of a paraphrase of Lady Bracknells’ comment in The Importance of Being Earnest: “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness…”

  2. cavalrytales says:

    There’s a quote in Zamoyski’s book where a French officer describes being able to see the horses’ entrails through open wounds in their skin – before the retreat even began.
    You can’t really imagine it.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I know. There were passages in that book where I really needed to close my eyes, you know? Though that does make reading a bit challenging…The cruelty to the horses was as horrific as anything in Warhorse. But I guess, as well, what got to me was how wanton was Napoleon’s cruelty. He valued nothing and no one but himself and his personal power, and this on the grandest scale imaginable. He just frankly didn’t give a damn about anything else and was impervious to the catastrophic suffering he’d brought about. (He should have been locked up. Instead, they gave him another army of 350,000 men to squander…)

  3. timqueeney says:

    Superb post. Fascinating stuff. Curious that prior to their invasions, neither Napoleon nor Hitler factored in the effect of the Russian’s greatest commander: General Winter.

    Both started too late: June 24 for Napoleon and June 22 for Hitler. Both gave themselves too little time to wrap things up before General Winter strode onto the stage in his resplendent white uniform.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Well, yes, we do tend to believe the General Winter story. It’s so dramatic and credible.

      But Zamoyski gained access to more than the usual French sources, he had full access to the Polish sources, the Lithuanian and Ukrainian and Russian sources as well. And that’s where all the accounts of the death by starvation, dysentary and dehydration come from–and that was at least half of the total troops–dead without firing a shot or even crossing the border into Russia!

      Hence, before they departed from Moscow to march into the icy jaws of General Winter, Napoleon had already lost 3/4 of his army.

      Obviously though, those findings don’t square neatly with the image Napoleon always projected of himself as the caring-sharing military leader, at one with his troops. (Yadda yadda yadda…)

      Lieven’s findings (again Russian and German sources) have only backed this up further, as he understands a horse-drawn society better than Zamoyski, so his explanations of what the loss of those 450,000 horses meant to an army or a nation are eye-opening.

      And, whilst we may judge that they started too late, they could not have started any sooner. Indeed, because of the lateness of the harvest in 1812, not only were Napoleon’s men and horses doomed to starvation, the local populations were likewise reduced to privation. Napoleon’s men, angry that the harvest wasn’t ready, rode hell-for-leather through the ripening corn so that it was trampled and of no use to anyone. To feed their horses, they stole the thatching from off the locals’ roofs.

      • timqueeney says:

        You’re absolutely right, of course. Was just engaging in a bit of rhetorical flourish — can’t help myself sometimes! Anyway, thoroughly enjoyed this. Thanks.

  4. Very good summary of the cost of the campaign in human lives. The suffering of the soldiers is often overlooked when we look only at the strategy of the campaign. The decisions that are made by the leaders have real consequences for those who must carry them out.
    My blog follows the trials and tribulations of the soldiers during the disastrous Russian campaign. I use eyewitness accounts to detail what it was like to be a soldier in Russia in 1812.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I’ve read several of the French survivors’ memoirs from the 1812 campaign. Not all of them are pro-Napoleon by any means, but there is certainly an element of that in many of them. What has made Zamoyski’s and Lieven’s work so outstanding that it has left all previous works on the subject in the shade is that both men accessed the Russian, Polish and Ukrainian eye-witness and court accounts of the period–which give one a much more accurate and even-handed view. Both verify the accounts of the atrocities of which the French complained with Russians accounts, for example, which confirm that the French weren’t making up what they’d endured at the hands of the Russian peasants–if anything, they were playing it down. I wouldn’t now take a step in writing about this period without consulting the pair of them.

      Also, because of the thaw of relations between the West and Russia and Ukraine, there has been a certain amount of archaeological investigation of battlefields and mass graves dating to the invasion. And for example, the forensic historians analysing the skulls found in the mass graves from Smolensk–among other things–that 80% of those French troops buried there were suffering from tertiary syphilis. This, again, has forced us to reconsider what we thought we knew about the Grande Armee and Napoleon’s alleged excellent treatment of his troops and the alleged excellence of medical care available to them.

      • I used Zamoyski’s book quite a bit when I was working on my novel. In my blog, I’ve concentrated on the daily experience of the soldier as much as possible although I do have incidents described by officers. I agree that the eyewitness accounts are mostly pro-Napoleon, but I leave most of that out and concentrate on what it was like to survive day after day with little food in the relentless cold whether a supporter of Napoleon or not.
        Another book I found fascinating was Illustrious Dead: The Terrifying Story of how Typhus Killed Napoleon’s Army by Stephan Talty. The massed troops and lack of knowledge about how typhus is spread led to a wasting of the army without any combat taking place.

  5. Kevin says:

    Hey do you know of any field Marshals that withdrew their support for Napoleon immediately after the Russian Campaign?

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Support within the army remained strong for Napoleon, even after the disaster of the Russian campaign. And that is true of les Marechaux. No Marechaux had died on that campaign, although at Borodino, the French had lost twelve generals.

      It is probably a statement of just how thoroughly France was a military state, with a military dictator at its head that the army continued to follow Napoleon even after the Russian campaign.

      It’s only after the cataclysmic loss at Leipzig in October 1813, when not only are the French thoroughly defeated by the Russians, Austrians and Prussians, but the French retreat is as ill-managed as can be imagined, that there is a nascent, but general realisation that Napoleon’s time may be coming to an end…

      • M M Bennetts says:

        I should also add that in Napoleonic France there was no such thing as public opinion. It didn’t exist. There was no such thing as a free press–the two newspapers were state-controlled and the one, le Moniteur, was cited in this old French saying, “To lie like le Moniteur…” Dissent was stifled at all cost.

        In early 1812, both Fouche, Napoleon’s Minister of Secret Police, and Talleyrand, his Foreign Minister, had strongly opposed the proposed Russian invasion and had both been sacked from their positions.

        The new Minister of Police, Savary, had spend the months prior to the invasion rounding up dissidents and chucking them in prison. He was known in France as Napoleon’s Fanatic for his fierce and even murderous devotion to the Emperor.

        Hope this helps.

  6. […] anyone say Pyrrhic victory? Like this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in Did You Know?, History, […]

  7. A member of my family, who took part in Napoleon’s Russia-Campaigne, as a Hungarian Hussár-capitain, wrote an “memoire” about it in 1813, with the title “Napoleon’s pleasure walk to Moscow and back”. http://www.rakovszky.eu/default.shtml?id=LiL3LitRAndras1812

    It is available on my family-site in German and Hungarian. Unluckily I found no time to translate it into English.
    I would rather like to illustrate the article with some picture showing the ruin of the “Grande Armée”.

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