200 Years Ago Today ~ The Retreat from Moscow

Righto.  So where were we? 

Ah yes.  That’s right.  About a month ago, after traipsing with his Grande Armee of some 500,000 plus men across Europe to Moscow–having lost more than half of them already to famine, dehydration, dysentery and just about anything else you can think of–he’d fought the Battle of Borodino and then, taken the capital of Russia, Moscow

Only that hadn’t worked out quite as planned.  Because the Governor of Moscow, one Count Rostopchin, had made plans to set the place alight if the Frenchies too it.  Which plans had been carried out.  And the place had burned to the ground over a period of four days. 


Right.  So here we are, back in burnt-out Moscow, Napoleon installed at the Kremlin (kinda suits him, don’t you think–he would have loved the KGB!), his remaining troops–some 90,000 of them–reduced to living in the burnt out shells of buildings, scrabbling for food, abusing the remaining Muscovites, stealing, fighting among themselves…and all of them waiting. 

For what?

Well, that’s unclear.  Sort of. 

Napoleon had sent a letter to the Tsar’s mother, burbling about how much he valued his friendship with the Tsar and how he believed that this little contretemps of him being forced to invade Russia was caused by the Tsar having bad advisors and how he really, really, really hadn’t meant for his men to act so savagely in Moscow–that was all Rostopchin’s fault…

So apparently, what he was waiting for was a peace envoy from the Tsar in St. Petersburg saying something along the lines of, “Oh!  Oh!  Changed my mind again.  I really do love you best, Nappy old thing, and I’ll do anything you want so we can be friends again…”

(Ya, like that was going to happen…)

But by the 3rd October, Napoleon was getting a little fractious.  So he insisted his sidekick, Caulaincourt, go on a peace mission to Alexander. 

Caulaincourt refused.  Point blank. 

Plan B was to send another chappie, Lauriston, to see the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian army, General Kutuzov, with a letter to be delivered to the Tsar…

Lauriston went.  Kutuzov played the wily old fox–as ever–and when Lauriston returned to Napoleon on the 6th October, he had good news–Kutuzov would see the Tsar got the letter.  Napoleon (sad, befuddled twit) was jubilant. 

(The letter has never been found…)

So, what sort of jolly larks and japes were the rump (did I say rump? I mean to say remnant…) of the Grande Armee getting up to while they awaited confirmation from the Tsar that they’d won and Russia had lost and they could all be friends again? 


They held a number of spectacular military reviews, with the lines of buffed and polished troops marching perfectly in the great piazza before the Kremlin:  the Infantry of the Old Guard, Roguet’s Division, Compan’s Division, the next day, Gerard’s…on and on and on. 

Napoleon visited the Kremlin churches…The Italian singer, Tarquinio, gave two concerts for the Emperor…there were piano recitals.  The Emperor spent his evenings rewriting the constitution of le Comedie Francaise–the state theatre of France–while on Wednesday, 7 October, the “French Theatre in Moscow” gave its first performance, opening their Moscow run with a three-act comedy called, Le Jeu de l’Amour et de l’Hasard…[the Game of Love and of Risk].

Yet meanwhile, winter threatened. 

(Napoleon believed that the climate of Moscow was like that of Paris.  [Do not say anything!])

By the second week of October, there were frequent snow flurries, though none settled in the street.  The common soldiers (and many of their officers) had lost all sense of discipline and been reduced to lives of savage desperation…stealing, fighting, whoring, raping, pillaging, always in want, always hungry, always cold…and nothing but ashes and rubble about them. 

Daily, detachments of cavalry were sent out of the city to forage for food, only to be harassed by bands of Cossacks and locals.  When (if) they returned late at night, often they would have found nothing for themselves or their horses.  (This according to one officer destroyed the cavalry and artillery horses…)

Eventually, Napoleon caught on though–the Tsar wasn’t playing.  And by the 13th, he was heard to say, “We must hurry.  In eight days we should be in winter quarters.” 

By the 14th, the evacuation of the wounded was being hurried along.  The rank and file still believed they were heading for India.  Reinforcements of cavalry and artillery were sent messages to halt at Smolensk.  Napoleon gave the orders that he would depart the city on Sunday, the 18th.

A flurry, a rage of pillage–pillage on an industrial scale–and at every level, began.  The soldiers stripped the city of anything and all they could find, with Napoleon leading from the front. 

He had robbed Venice and Rome and Malta of their treasures.  Now, he arranged for the great iron cross that graced the tower of the church of Ivan Veliki in the Kremlin to be removed–he planned to carry it back to Paris and mount it atop the dome of Les Invalides where he thought it would look just spiffing…

However…when the cables were fastened to the cross and the engineers began to lower it down, the cable snapped, the scaffolding collapsed, the Sappers fled, and the cross fell–breaking into three pieces as it hit the ground. 

Still…Napoleon had the bits packed up along with all the other holy relics he’d filched and added to his baggage train.

He ordered the remaining buildings–those like the Kremlin and the Arsenal which were still standing and might prove useful to the Russians upon their return–to be mined. 

(What he did not include in those orders was a provision for the horses to be shod with spiked winter-shoes, which would allow them to safely travel uphill and down in snow, sludge and sleet.  His neglect in this is one of the single-greatest contributions to the cataclysm which would overcome his army over the next months.)

Though everything was ostensibly ready for departure on the 18th, Napoleon decided to defer his departure for one more day, determined to spend one more night in the Kremlin.

Finally, on the morning on the 19th October 1812, the vast stream of human beings began to pour out of the city gates in a procession of carriages, carts, pedestrians, horsemen, waggons…hordes of refugees, camp followers…all of them flowing out of the city onto the roads to Kaluga, weighed down by packs stuffed with booty, dragging sledges piled high with pillage, wearing layers and layers of clothing they had stolen from the Muscovite houses or stripped from off the Muscovites themselves… 

It was a bright day, and clear.  And by noon, the Emperor of the French has crossed the Moskva river… 

As Eugene Labaume wrote:  “Those who did not witness the departure of the French army from Moscow, can form but a faint idea of what the Greek and Roman armies, were, when they abandoned the ruins of Troy or of Carthage…The long files of carriages, in three or four ranks, extended for several leagues, loaded with the immense booty, which the soldiers had snatched from the flames, and the Moscovite peasants who were now become our servants resembled the slaves which the ancients dragged in their train.  Others carrying with them their wives and children, or the prostitutes whom they had found at Moscow, represented the warriors amongst the captives had been divided. 

“Afterwards came numerous wagons filled with trophies, among which were Turkish or Persian standards, torn from the vaulted roofs of the palaces of the czars, and, last of all, the celebrated cross of Saint Iwan gloriously closed the rear…

Out of Moscow via the savage scorched-earth Russian landscape and into the brutal jaws of cruellest winter…

Can anyone say Pyrrhic victory?

12 comments on “200 Years Ago Today ~ The Retreat from Moscow

  1. Debra says:

    My God, it must have been a nightmare for the common people. This only 200 years ago.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I think it goes beyond nightmare. The whole debacle includes well over half a million Frenchmen and their allies, but we have only guesswork when it comes to how many civilians accompanied them; and we have even less of an idea of how many Russian civilians perished…the number is likely to be well over 150,000…Plus, the fields across western Russia hadn’t just been burned (so that the French couldn’t forage), but they’d also been salted, so how long was it before the Russian peasants could farm there again?

  2. Debra says:

    Who is that handsome, angry Russian in the picture?

  3. cavalrytales says:

    Good post. Sorry – abacus, I mean laptop. playing up.

  4. russiansnows says:

    Nicely done! This is a good summary of the situation. You point out something that might be a key to the lack of preparedness: If Napoleon only intended to move to winter quarters: “We must hurry. In eight days we should be in winter quarters,” Perhaps he felt the preparation for winter could take place there (Smolensk). If they could get there before the snow fell, the winter horse shoes would not have been necessary. He observed on the day of departure that the weather was that same as it would have been at fountainebleu (mild).

    • M M Bennetts says:

      The winter horse shoes–as any farrier will tell you–ought to have been a priority even if Napoleon were not expecting heavy snowfall and plunging temperatures, because at the very least, the roads and cart tracks would have been inches deep in mud–and that’s uphill and downhill. Regular horseshoes have no grip, hence on the muddy downhills, with the heavy artillery guns at their backs, the guns would have overturned and rolled over them, crushing the animals’ limbs; on the uphills, their hooves would have had no purchase while the weight of the guns and wagons would have dragged them backwards.

      The fact is–and this was proven time and again–Napoleon knew little and cared less about horses and his lack of interest and knowledge brought him and them to catastrophic grief.

      • russiansnows says:

        Events certainly proved him wrong on the horse shoe issue.

      • russiansnows says:

        Do you think this was the single greatest factor in the disaster? (Not the only factor, just was it the greatest factor.) To put it another way, other than leaving Moscow earlier or not going that far at all, what one single change would have resulted in the most lives saved during the retreat?

      • M M Bennetts says:

        I’ve spent the night thinking through the weather factor. It’s a curious thing. Napoleon blamed the unseasonable early winter that set in on the 6/7 November, but the fact is, the weather had been abysmal throughout the campaign, even from the point of the troops amassing on the borders of Poland and Prussia in January 1812.

        The harvest of 1811 had been very poor in Prussia (and across Europe), the winter had gone on three weeks longer than expected, so the planting didn’t happen until nearly a month later than usual, thus the harvest in June, upon which Napoleon was counting to feed the troops and horses didn’t occur. (The British harvest was also rubbish that year!)

        So, already before he set foot on Russian soil, Napoleon’s troops were dying of starvation, dysentery, dehydration (and deserting in droves). The horses were suffering horribly as well. Labaume writes of even Prince Eugene having to dine off acorns–because that’s all there was. So that says to me, the logistics of the whole enterprise were fatally flawed from the get-go.

        It would be easy to say that the weather problems were unexpected. Napoleon certainly did say it. But Europe had been in the grip of a mini-Ice Age since at least the early 1790s. For example, Ireland, which we think of as mild, had been experiencing severe winter blizzards, gales, freezes all during the era–it was one of these spectacular blizzards which had prevented the French Invasion (of 40,000 troops) of Ireland from taking place–the transport ships literally were just blown away. The Thames was regularly freezing solid during this period–it really hasn’t frozen solid like this since the early winter of 1814–but then it was a regular occurrence. The harvests in Britain and France had been bad for several years, because of late plantings and summers where the sun never shone.

        So it might be fair to say the weather in Europe was uniformly rotten and it had been since 1790–so there’s no excuse for Napoleon not to have known and no grounds for him predicting or expecting better weather than he had, because he’d experienced some pretty rough storms and blizzards already–throughout his adult life in fact. Which has led me to wonder if his failure to take it into account has perhaps something to do with his Corsican childhood–I mean, yes, one could argue that he was just a megalomaniac and thought himself and his plans above such pettinesses as weather–but I do wonder.

        Often, one will encounter immigrants who’ve come to Northern Europe from a hot climate and even in winter, when we’re all huddled up in our woollies and boots, they’re still wearing sandals and light fabrics…and it often is nothing more than that their childhoods (which are far more formative than we give them credit for) taught them to expect warm winters–dry or wet–and they can never get their heads around the cold and the snow. They just can’t. Napoleon was Corsican–winter was certainly colder than summer then, but, you know, when did the fellow first see snow? Could he conceive of snow and ice on that scale?

        Likewise, the horses. Napoleon was from a poor Corsican family on a downward spiral. He didn’t learn to ride from childhood. The family couldn’t afford to keep horses. If they kept animals it would have been donkeys (don’t get me wrong, I like donkeys).

        And also, by 1811, when he was planning this escapade into Russia, he’d lost touch. He’d forgot how vital horses were to the daily survival of his troops–they’re essential for forage, transport–they’re not just pretty things with shiny coats who can do cavalry tricks. Without them, his army was one big fat sitting duck–they couldn’t feed themselves, they couldn’t defend themselves, they couldn’t move quickly.

        So yes, while according to the farriers and historians I’ve heard recently, the failure to fit winter horseshoes ensured the destruction of the remnants of the Grande Armee in winter 1812, and had they had their winter shoes, probably the casualty list would have been halved, it was the failure from the outset to adequately address the various logistical issues from day one which ensured the doom of the enterprise.

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