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  • James Houser

December 14, 1812 - Napoleon's Retreat from Moscow

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

December 14, 1812. It has been almost six months since Napoleon’s Grande Armee ́ invaded Russia, almost 450,000 strong. Today, it stumbles back over the Russian border with only 10,000 men left. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia has come to an end in one of military history’s great epic disasters. It is the beginning of the end for the French Emperor, and the turning point of the Napoleonic Wars.

This is sorta Part 2 of the “Napoleon invades Russia” saga. Part 1 was back in September, when I discussed the Emperor’s march to Moscow. On the miniscule chance that anyone is actually going back and reading old posts, the link is on the website. It provides a good deal of background and the first leg of the journey. If you don't wanna read it again, that's cool, I’ll give you a quick recap before we dive into the epic disaster of the 1812 retreat. It’s quite a doozy.

So where are we? In 1812, Napoleon’s French Empire controlled almost all of Europe, except for some holdouts in Spain and Portugal – reinforced by the British Empire – and the mighty empire of Russia. Though France and Russia had been nominal allies since 1807, neither trusted the other and they had almost no mutual interests. Tsar Alexander I had grown increasingly cold to Napoleon, and by 1812 the rift was complete.

Napoleon pulled out all the stops to assemble a massive force to invade Russia: a jaw-dropping 685,000 men deployed in three different armies, with Napoleon’s main force – the Grande Armee ́ – containing 450,000 alone. His force required huge quantities of horses, supplies and wagons, so much that it nearly drained Europe in the process. When Napoleon invaded Russia, he intended to leave nothing to chance, and was going to strike with the largest army possible. With 1,400 cannons, 200,000 horses, and well over half a million soldiers, it was the largest army that had ever been assembled on European soil. On June 24, 1812, Napoleon’s French horde – reinforced by Germans, Italians, and many other reluctant nationalities – crossed the border, aiming to destroy the Russian armies.

Almost instantly, Napoleon found the campaign slipping from his fingers. Rather than standing to fight against this colossal monstrosity, the Russian armies retreated deep into the vast forests and plains of their country, causing Napoleon to follow and try to force them into a decisive battle. As the blue-coated columns trekked deeper into Russia, muskets and packs weighing heavily on their shoulders and cannons rattling along unimproved roads, the magnificent fighting machine of the Grande Armee ́ began to break down. As the Russians retreated, they burned everything in their path, meaning that even Napoleon’s vast food supplies were not enough.

It’s a popular misconception that the Russian winter would destroy Napoleon’s army. In fact, the march INTO Russia did far more damage. Men dropped like flies from the heat, privations and anguish of the campaign. Napoleon’s army wasn’t too small; if anything, it wasn’t small ENOUGH. It was beyond the capacities of any staff or commander in 1812 to somehow feed 450,000 men on a single axis of advance, and the fields were picked clean even as Napoleon’s men starved. Napoleon had counted on winning a decisive battle against the Russians in June or August, but as they retreated, he had no choice but to follow.

On September 7, 1812, Napoleon finally brought General Kutuzov to battle at Borodino 60 miles west of Moscow. After a savage, day-long brawl that was widely remembered as the most savage battle of the era, Napoleon forced Kutuzov to retreat at the cost of 28,000 men. Seven days later, Napoleon entered Moscow – but even as his men entered the city, the Russians were setting secret fires inside abandoned houses. By September 18, the Emperor Napoleon ruled over Moscow, or what was left of it. A burned-out husk of a city was all he held.

Napoleon only had 95,000 men remaining - a fifth of his original army - whittled down by battle, exposure, heatstroke, malnutrition and capture. He was 600 miles from safe territory, in a wreck of a city and with extremely limited food supplies. Kutuzov’s Russian army hung south of the city, watching, battered but still dangerous. What to do now? Napoleon had invaded Russian territory. He had defeated them in battle. He had taken their greatest city. Why didn’t they give up? This was how it was supposed to work!

As September grew into October, Napoleon sent message after message to the Russian Tsar, offering peace terms that grew increasingly desperate. When the Tsar refused to respond, Napoleon’s situation became readily apparent. He had planned his invasion of Russia to work like all his other campaigns: a rapid, decisive set of maneuvers that would envelop and ruin the Russian armies within a matter of days. It had worked before, and worked magnificently: against the Austrians in Italy, against the Austrians and Russians at Austerlitz and at Friedland, against the Prussians at Jena and Auerstadt. Napoleon was the greatest general of his age, because he had found a system that WORKED, and used it ruthlessly to crush his enemies.

But in Russia, the system didn’t work. The Russians simply had more room to retreat than Napoleon had anticipated. They were fine with seeing their lands burned, their cities captured, their resources taken. By leading Napoleon deep into the vast expanse of their native soil, the Russians had drawn him into a trap of his own devising. They didn’t really even have to fight him; in fact, their strategy worked better when they didn’t. By denying him the decisive battle he sought, they drew him on like a cat chasing a thread into the dark forests of Russia. Despite the Battle of Borodino and the capture of Moscow, the Russians had not been defeated because they did not consider themselves defeated. It was that simple.

Napoleon had gotten INTO Russia. How was he ever going to get out?

By the middle of October 1812, Napoleon’s Grande Armee ́ was running short of food and the Emperor had to acknowledge the inevitable. With the Russians showing no signs of coming to terms, with his army stuck 600 miles from home, and with winter approaching, it was time to cut losses and make for the Russian border. The task wouldn’t be easy. There was little chance they could make the border before the snow began falling, the roads of Russia were famously impassable during the autumn “rasputitsa” of October and November, and General Kutuzov’s Russian army was still out there hovering around like a vulture.

But they had to try. If Napoleon’s army tried to winter in Moscow, with no food and with Russians all around, it would be a catastrophe. The French began to file troops out of Moscow, and on October 19 Napoleon himself left the city he had done so much to conquer and which had brought him so little. The retreat from Moscow had begun, and it would be one of the bitterest and most harrowing episodes in European military history, remembered forever after as one of the great disasters. But as I’ve noted above, the real disaster had occurred on the WAY to Moscow. The retreat was just the icing on the cake.

If the weather, terrain, and already exhausted state of Napoleon’s Imperial troops wasn’t enough, the Russians were going to have something to say about it. The footsore, bedraggled, hungry and demoralized Frenchmen began their shuffling march westward, hoping to make good time before winter arrived. Napoleon and his marshals rode alongside them, with the brave, fiery redheaded Marshal Michel Ney commanding the rearguard. They made their way back across the terrain they had paid in blood and sweat to capture, including the battered field of Borodino with its unburied bodies still rotting in the sun. As the cold wind swept across Napoleon’s Grande Armee ́, though, the Russians were closing in.

Napoleon had wanted to avoid retracing his steps and going back the same way he had come, since that route – a northerly road going through Smolensk and Vitebsk in central Belorussia – had been torched by the Russians and picked clean by the French during the previous summer. He wanted to take a southern route instead, brushing through the fertile plains of northern Ukraine, where he could hopefully find food.

But Kutuzov was determined not to let Napoleon take this road. Instead, he moved quickly to block Napoleon’s path along the easier southern route. On October 24, five days after he had left Moscow, Napoleon ran headlong into Kutuzov’s roadblock at Maloyaroslavets. After a fiercely fought engagement, Napoleon realized that the longer he fought this battle, the less time he had to make his escape and the clock was ticking. With Kutuzov blocking his path southwest, Napoleon was forced to turn west and take his army back the way it had come – along the long road straight west to Smolensk, across Belorussia, and finally into safe territory in Poland.

This decision, as it turned out, was fatal and would lead to the final destruction of his army. It may have been the most fatal decision of Napoleon’s reign. His troops shuffled west, unaware that they were heading into 500 miles of hell, bitter and burnt, harassed by the enemy the whole time. Their Emperor had condemned them to march through a barren wasteland with winter on the way. Napoleon’s ruin had truly begun.

As soon as Kutuzov realized Napoleon’s new course of action, he embarked on a new strategy of parallel marching. His army kept pace with the French, launching continuous harassing raids and small-scale attacks when an opportunity presented itself, but otherwise denying Napoleon the opportunity of a major battle. Regular and irregular Russian forces continually probed the column, attacked sleeping camps, cut off detachments. Most feared of all were the Cossacks, irregular nomadic cavalry from central Asia and the southern Steppes who would appear from the darkness screaming and slashing their sabers. The constant Russian harrying became a real threat from the get-go, as they began to split up the long marching column and threaten various portions of the Grande Armee with encirclement.

The food situation was dire when the retreat began, and only grew worse as the days dragged on. The army slouched forward, no longer marching, and nibbled on bits of bread they had brought from Moscow. The horses began to grow sick and die from tainted straw or lack of fodder. By late October even the generals were eating horseflesh, since there was precious little other food to be had. On November 3, one Russian attack nearly encircled the corps of icy, brilliant Marshal Louis Davout at Vyazma; Davout cut his way out to join hands with Ney, but in the process 3,000 Frenchmen surrendered. This abnormal number of prisoners showed how close Napoleon’s army was to complete collapse.

On November 4, snow began to fall, and the temperatures dove to miserable levels. The staggering Grande Armee ́ increasingly resembled a horde of refugees, rather than a disciplined army. Some soldiers would lie down by a fire, and be unable to muster the courage or stamina to rise and keep moving, preferring to fall into Russian hands. But it quickly became clear that this could be a fate worse than death. Frenchmen could be sold into slavery by Cossack chiefs if they were lucky, but torture was commonplace and stories of being skinned alive were not entirely exaggerations. Suicide became an increasingly tempting option for the men on Napoleon’s retreat, as misery began to collide with the utter lack of hope. In one column of 3400 French prisoners, only 400 came home; out of a unit of 800 that surrendered, only 16 survived. Surrendering was no guarantee of survival at all.

The army lost all sense of morale, discipline, or camaraderie. Men were charged gold pieces to sit by a fire, and the wounded were dumped from carts and left to die. The horses pulling the carts had usually died as well, and the wolves of the Belorussian forests would converge and tear them to pieces before the infantry had a chance to carve up the corpse. Men began to lose extremities – toes, fingers, noses, penises – to frostbite. When a soldier began to show signs of imminent death, his comrades would strip him of his clothes and provisions before he had even stopped breathing.

The only hope, really, was to keep moving. The retreat had become a feat of human endurance. To the veterans of Napoleon’s great military machine, one of the greatest in the world once, hell wasn’t hot at all. It was cold, bitterly cold, and hungry, and bleak. The Grande Armee pushed on, even as it died.

Marshal Ney’s command of the rearguard became a thing of legend. At times his small corps was the only thing holding off the pursuing vulture of Kutuzov’s Russian army. Don’t get me wrong: Kutuzov’s men were suffering as well, and they were often equal targets of local Russian resistance since the Cossacks raided friendly civilian and enemy combatant alike. But the Russians were still pressing behind the French, and Ney’s inhuman optimism and unparalleled bravery continued to hold the French rearguard together, desperately fending off the stabs of Cossack cavalry and Russian musketeers. The army lurched onwards.

By November 12, the army had reached Smolensk. They were almost halfway there, only 364 miles to go, but the situation was even more desperate than it seemed. Two other Russian armies had emerged to the north and south, and were hurrying west to block Napoleon’s crossing of the Berezina River. Not only was Napoleon now being followed from behind, but the Russians were threatening to converge on his line of retreat and block his escape altogether. There was a very real chance that the Emperor, his top generals, and the shattered hulk of his army would be trapped in the tomb of Russia. After gathering whatever meagre rations he could get from the stores at Smolensk, Napoleon set out once again to the west, racing against the Russians and against the worsening winter. Temperatures were reaching -22 Fahrenheit. More men were dying from the conditions than from the enemy. The light at the end of the tunnel seemed to get farther and farther away.

The two flanking Russian armies almost caught Napoleon as he tried to shoot the gap between them. Napoleon collected what men were able to stand and reminded everyone why he was the most feared general in the world. In a brilliant display of leadership and courage, he launched a desperate attack at Krasnoi on November 14 that hammered open the escape route for his army. Some 13,000 men were lost, and 26,000 captured, and over 120 guns captured – reducing the Grande Armee ́ to a bloody rump. By losing all their artillery, baggage train, and horses, Napoleon’s force had almost lost any capacity as a fighting force – but they had lived to fight another day. The Russians had suffered grievously too, with Kutuzov losing almost 40,000 men in the vicious fighting, but he too survived to continue his pursuit.

In the course of the Battle of Krasnoi, Ney’s rearguard had been completely cut off, surrounded by snow, Russians and dead horses. Napoleon grieved his Marshal, and gave him up for dead…until a week later, when Ney arrived at Imperial headquarters. He had begun the retreat with 9,000 men, but had lost almost all of them in a gripping day-long battle to save what was left of the army. He only escaped with 800 survivors, all battered, bruised and cut up just like their commander. “Those who have returned with me,” Ney proclaimed, “have their balls attached with iron wire.”

On November 21, Napoleon’s army – having grown slightly larger again after bringing in detachments and smaller armies - finally reached the banks of the Berezina. The ice-laden, 300-foot-wide river was surrounded by marshlands with only limited crossing points. Napoleon’s army came to a halt and began to dig defensive positions as the engineers began to construct their pontoon bridges. This was their most dangerous moment. Already, word had gotten out that the Russians occupied the west bank of the river, and Kutuzov’s men were closing in from the east. The Russians had started to come upon horrific sights, such as a French grenadier who had frozen to death eating the flesh of a still-breathing horse and several French soldiers who were killed in the process of cooking and eating a comrade. The snow built up everywhere, forming enormous barriers and forcing snowblindness on the soldiers of both sides. The Battle of the Berezina had begun.

Napoleon had ordered his bridging column destroyed, but he had been fortunately disobeyed, and the engineers began to piece the bridge together. The mainly Dutch engineers braved the crippling, killing cold of the water to lay the bridge, with some dropping dead and being carried away by the current. As they battled to lay the bridges, Napoleon supervised them closely, riding back and forth to pick out men who were exhausted and order them to lie by the fires. In the meantime, he ordered deception units to move back and forth and pretend to build bridges, drawing the Russians away to either flank. The crackle of musketry and the boom of the few cannon Napoleon had left echoed off the riverbanks as the noose drew tighter. Even the Emperor’s spirits began to flag as he heard the Russian guns growing closer as the bridge slowly crept across the river.

But Napoleon’s distractions had worked, drawing the Russians away from the crossing site on the western bank, and by November 26 the Berezina was bridged at two places. The bridges had no guardrails, were a hair above the water line, sagged under every step, and were quickly covered by horse dung, but the army was able to cross. In all more than 50,000 soldiers crossed the Berezina, but thousands more were unable to escape and left behind to face the mercy of the Russians. It was a bitter, decrepit remnant that Napoleon led on the last leg of escape.

On December 3, Napoleon issued a general bulletin blaming the weather entirely for the disaster and giving the Russians no credit at all. But the losses were already frightening, and on this side of the Berezina he received even worse news. A coup had occurred back in Paris, based on a false report of the Emperor’s death, and his entire Empire was in jeopardy. Plus, if anything was to be salvaged from the disaster of the Russian campaign, a new army had to be raised quickly. Calling together his generals, Napoleon announced that he had to ride ahead of the Grande Armee ́ and return to Paris. He left them on December 5, racing back first in a sled then by horseback, arriving back in his capital in a crazy thirteen days. But his army struggled on without him.

When the rump of the Grande Armee ́ finally returned to Polish soil on December 14, 1812, it numbered 25,000 men out of the 450,000 who had left in June 1812, and of these only 10,000 were capable of combat. Including Napoleon’s detached armies and flank units that came in separately, around 80,000 French troops survived the Russian campaign altogether, but this can hide the apocalyptic scale of the losses. Most recent research estimates that Napoleon lost some 524,000 men, of whom around 120,000 were captured by the Russians. Many of the POWs also died, and very few ever returned to France. Out of the 400 brave Dutch engineers who had bridged the Berezina, only 50 would ever see home again.

The human cost was staggering, unprecedented in the annals of human history for a single military campaign, but just as bad was the loss of materiel. Napoleon had lost so many wagons, artillery pieces, and muskets that his factories would be playing catchup until Waterloo, but by far the worst loss was the price in horses. The French had lost 200,000 horses in the disaster of Russia, which would leave them permanently short of cavalry and transport for the rest of the decade, and even impacted French agriculture throughout the 1820s. Napoleon had finally pushed his luck too far, with too much, and it had blown up in his face and the face of Europe. The miserable human disaster of his invasion of Russia was a feat of hubris on a massive scale.

Though Napoleon would be dangerous, canny, and a force to be reckoned with for three more years, Russia had broken the back of the Grande Armee ́ for good. Never again could he pull off the great victories of the past, since he had destroyed the instrument of those victories in the frozen wastes of the Tsar’s realm. Even worse, now all of Europe realized that Napoleon was vulnerable, and not invincible after all. “The spell is broken,” Tsar Alexander said, surveying the wreckage of the 1812 retreat from Russia.

The spell was indeed broken. The tide had turned. Napoleon’s fate was sealed.

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