Following their defeat at the hands of Napoleon and the Grande Armee at the Battle of Borodino, the Russians fell back to tend to their wounded and work out what to do next.
Although the Commander-in-Chief, Prince Mikhail Kutuzov, had given his word to the Tsar that he would never allow the French to take the capital, Moscow, it increasingly looked as though the Russians had no alternative.
If they fought the French at the gates of the city, in the state they were, the Russian army would undoubtedly be destroyed. Which would mean both capital and the army would be lost.
Whereas if they abandoned Moscow, the badly beaten up army might be saved to fight another day.
Hence by 4.00 in the afternoon of the 13th September 1812, at the council of war, despite his avowals to the contrary, Kutuzov knew there was no alternative–he just wanted others to be the ones to first voice the idea.
And although there would be much opposition to the abandonment with one general writing to his wife, “What shame for the Russian people; to abandon one’s cradle without a single shot and without a fight! I am in a fury, but what can I do? I am now convinced that all is lost, and since that is so nobody will convince me to remain in service; after all the unpleasantness, the hardships, the insults and the disorders permitted by the weakness of the commanders, after all of that nothing will induce me to serve–I am outraged by all these goings-on!”
Despite that, the order was given and by 11.00 that night, the evacuation had begun with the heavy guns of the artillery being pulled through the streets… “The march of the army, while being executed with admirable order considering the circumstances, resembled a funeral procession more than a military progress…Officers and men wept with rage…”
By the 14th September, with the enemy French still snapping at their heels, the remains of the demoralized and exhausted army were passing through the city of Moscow, with all of their baggage. Their passage wasn’t helped by the vast civilian exodus that was simultaneously occurring, jamming the narrow streets with carts, carriages and drays.
A vanguard of Polish Hussars under the command of Marshal Murat were pushing into the city even before the Russian rearguard were in place…and the Russian general, Miloradovich had to negotiate for a few hours truce in order to allow the remaining Russian troops to pass through the city and out.
Murat, believing that the war was now over, agreed.
It was like an article of war: if you defeated the army and then took the enemy’s capital, the war was over. They were surrendering. You then swarmed in and took over and arranged things to suit yourself.
Napoleon had done it scores of times. That’s how he worked. First deliver an absolutely fatal exterminating battle and annihilate the other country’s army. And then, if the enemy didn’t come crawling begging for mercy, seize his capital and dictate the terms by which he could keep his crown…or not, as the case may be.
Among the terms would be vast reparation payments (someone had to pay for that massive French army!), membership in the club of the Continental System and no more trading with those pesky English, lots of artwork to be taken off to the Louvre…that kind of thing.
By the afternoon of the 14th September, the columns of troops of the Grande Armee reached the summit of Poklonnaia hill. Before them, the city of Moscow…”This capital looked to us like some fantastical creation, a vision from the thousand and one nights…” wrote one soldier.
“This magnificent spectacle surpassed by far everything that our imagination had been able to conjure in terms of Asiatic splendour…An incredible quantity of bell towers and domes painted in bright colours, topped with gilded crosses and linked to each other with chains which were also gilded, stood out even at a distance in the reddish tinge of the declining sun. The vast Kremlin, and its bell tower ending in a great cross which everyone claimed was solid gold, but which was certainly of sparkling silver-gilt, dominated this magnificent picture.”
Everyone, but everyone accepted that Tsar Alexander would have to make peace with Napoleon now. Only…no one came out to greet the French as they entered the city. There was no delegation of officials handing over the keys to the city. No cheering by the few remaining inhabitants to welcome the soldiers. Nothing.
And as Napoleon waited outside the city, peering through his telescope at the various buildings, no delegation of officials could be found…the shops and houses were all shuttered and barred…the wounded Russian troops had been left in those buildings which were serving as hospitals…
At 6.00 in the morning of the 15th, Napoleon at last rode into the city to take up residence in the Kremlin. His Imperial Guard followed him in full parade dress, marching behind their regimental bands…
Of this city that covered 34,337,304 square metres, with 2567 stone houses, 6584 wooden houses, 464 factories, and a population of 270,184 souls, only about a third of the people remained.
Normally, had there been an official delegation, these would have begun billeting the troops on the people. But there was no one. And so the breaking into houses, the looting of shops, the pillaging began. At first it was just a search for food and drink and accommodation…
And then, something extra-ordinary happened.
The Governor of Moscow–a nobleman by the name of Rostopchin–just before he left the city, gave the order to the Police Superintendent Voronenko to set the city on fire. Rostopchin was determined that there would be nothing for the French but a pile of ashes. Food, granaries, warehouses, all of it was put to the torch.
Napoleon ordered firefighting details to be sent out. But Rostopchin had foreseen everything and had had the pumps disabled and destroyed. There was nothing the French could do.
By 4.00 in the morning on the 16th, the fire–blown by a fierce wind–was licking at the walls of the Kremlin and Napoleon’s fearful staff begged him to leave the city…which he did…
“The whole city was on fire, thick sheaves of flame of various colours rose up on all sides to the heavens, blotting out the horizon, sending in all directions a blinding light and a burning heat…These sheaves of fire, swirling in every direction through the violence of the wind, were accompanied in their upward rise and onward progress by a dreadful whistling and by thunderous explosions resulting from the combustion of powders, saltpetre, resinous oils and alcohol contained in the houses and shops…” wrote Dr. Larrey.
The Muscovites who had remained in the city, hiding in cellars, were driven out, the hospitals caught fire, the wounded trying to escape the flames leapt from the windows, and everywhere, everywhere, a drunken orgy of looting, of pillage and rapine had begun.
The streets were littered with books, with shattered porceleins, with the shards of broken windows. The bedding was ripped from the cupboards and beds and strewn about the roads. Sacred icons from the churches lay scattered and trampled underfoot.
The very clothes were ripped from women and children by gangs of French soldiers–who would in turn be robbed of the clothing and precious objects they’d stolen by other gangs. And all of them clubbing each other, often beating each other to death. Generals, officers, everyone joined in the frenzy…
“All these excesses of avarice were joined by the worst depravations of debauchery…Neither the nobility of rank nor the candour of youth nor the tears of beauty were respected in a rush of cruel licentiousness which was inevitable in this monstrous war…” wrote one French officer.
The fire raged for three days.
Only on the 18th September did Napoleon ride back into the city…a smouldering city of ruins and ash…and still, the Russians sent no envoy…nor was there anyone to listen to his propaganda machine’s proclamations of French glory and generosity…all was silence.
Surely, this was among the emptiest and most costly of victories…
Alle Seelen ruhn in Frieden.