Why Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia Was the Beginning of the End

Why Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia Was the Beginning of the End



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After taking power in 1799, French leader Napoleon Bonaparte won a string of military victories that gave him control over most of Europe. He annexed present-day Belgium and Holland, along with large chunks of present-day Italy, Croatia and Germany, and he set up dependencies in Switzerland, Poland and various German states. Spain was largely under his hegemony despite continuing guerilla warfare there, and Austria, Prussia and Russia had been browbeaten into becoming allies. Only Great Britain remained completely outside of his grasp.

In 1806 Napoleon decided to punish the British with an embargo that became known as the Continental System. But by the end of 1810, Czar Alexander I had stopped complying due to its deleterious effect on Russian trade and the value of the ruble. Alexander also imposed a heavy tax on French luxury products like lace and rebuffed Napoleon’s attempt to marry one of his sisters. Exacerbating tensions was the 1807 formation of the Duchy of Warsaw. Though Napoleon created that state from Prussian, not Russian, lands, Alexander worried that it would incite a hostile Polish nationalism, according to D.M.G. Sutherland, a history professor at the University of Maryland who has authored two books on the Napoleonic era. “Down to the present day, the love affair between the French and Polish is pretty permanent,” Sutherland said.

READ MORE: The Personality Traits that Led to Napoleon's Epic Downfall

Napoleon, who considered Russia a natural ally since it had no territorial conflicts with France, soon moved to teach Alexander a lesson. In 1812 the French emperor raised a massive army of troops from all over Europe, the first of which entered Russia on June 24. “It was the most diverse European army since the Crusades,” Sutherland said. Estimates vary, but experts believe that at least 450,000 Grande Armée soldiers and perhaps as many as 650,000 ended up crossing the Niemen River to fight approximately 200,000 soldiers on the Russian side. By comparison, George Washington’s army during the American Revolution rarely numbered more than 10,000 or 15,000 men, explained Sheperd Paine, president of the Napoleonic Historical Society.

Napoleon’s goal was to win a quick victory that forced Alexander to the negotiating table. The Russians pulled back, however, and let the Grande Armée capture the city of Vilna on June 27 with barely a fight. In an ominous sign of things to come, an electrical storm pouring down freezing rain, hail and sleet killed a number of troops and horses that very night. To make matters worse, Grande Armée soldiers were already deserting in search of food and plunder. Nonetheless, Napoleon remained confident. “I have come once and for all to finish off these barbarians of the North,” he purportedly declared to his top military advisors. “The sword is now drawn. They must be pushed back into their ice, so that for the next 25 years they no longer come to busy themselves with the affairs of civilized Europe.”

In late July, the Russians similarly abandoned Vitebsk, setting fire to military stores and a bridge on their way out. Then, in mid-August, they retreated from Smolensk and torched that city. Many peasants, meanwhile, burned their crops to prevent them from falling into French hands. “Certainly, the scorched earth tactics were incredibly important in denying the French army sustenance,” said David A. Bell, a history professor at Princeton University and author of “The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It.” The summer heat had likewise become oppressive, and Grande Armée soldiers were coming down with insect-borne diseases such as typhus and water-related diseases like dysentery.

Thousands of men died while fighting at Smolensk and elsewhere. But the Russians did not truly make a stand until the September 7 Battle of Borodino, which took place just 75 miles from Moscow. That day, the French and Russians pounded each other with artillery and launched a number of charges and countercharges. Roughly three canon booms and seven musket shots rang out each second. The losses on both sides were enormous, with total casualties of at least 70,000. Rather than continue with a second day of fighting, the Russians withdrew and left the road to Moscow open.

On September 14, the Grande Armée entered the ancient capital of Moscow, only to see it too become engulfed in flames. Most residents had already escaped the city, leaving behind vast quantities of hard liquor but little food. French troops drank and pillaged while Napoleon waited for Alexander to sue for peace. No offer ever came. With snow flurries having already fallen, Napoleon led his army out of Moscow on October 19, realizing that it could not survive the winter there.

By this time, Napoleon was down to some 100,000 troops, the rest having died, deserted or been wounded, captured or left along the supply line. Originally he planned a southerly retreat, but his troops were forced back to the road they took in after a replenished Russian army engaged them at Maloyaroslavets. All forage along that route had already been consumed, and when the army arrived at Smolensk it found that stragglers had eaten the food left there. Horses were dying in droves, and the Grande Armée’s flanks and rear guard faced constant attacks. To top it off, an unusually early winter set in, complete with high winds, sub-zero temperatures and lots of snow. On particularly bad nights, thousands of men and horses succumbed to exposure. Stories abound of soldiers splitting open dead animals and crawling inside for warmth, or stacking dead bodies in windows for insulation. “Things got bad very quickly,” Paine said. “It was a constant attrition.”

In late November, the Grande Armée narrowly escaped complete annihilation when it crossed the frigid Berezina River, but it had to leave behind thousands of wounded. “From then on, it was almost every man for himself,” Paine said. On December 5, Napoleon left the army under the command of Joachim Murat and sped toward Paris amid rumors of a coup attempt. Nine days later, what little remained of the Grande Armée’s rear guard stumbled back across the Niemen River.

Emboldened by the defeat, Austria, Prussia and Sweden re-joined Russia and Great Britain in the fight against Napoleon. Although the French emperor was able to raise another massive army, this time it was short on both cavalry and experience. Napoleon won some initial victories against his enemies, but he suffered a crushing defeat in October 1813 at the Battle of Leipzig. By the following March, Paris had been captured and Napoleon was forced into exile on the island of Elba. In 1815 Napoleon made one more attempt to take power but was overcome at the Battle of Waterloo. “Charles XII tried it, Napoleon tried it, Hitler tried it,” Bell said. “It never seems to work out invading Russia.”

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Jun 24, 1812 CE: Napoleon Invades Russia

On June 24, 1812, the Grande Armée, led by French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, crossed the Neman River, invading Russia from present-day Poland.

Geography, Physical Geography, Social Studies, World History

Advance and Retreat

The famous map depicts the advance (tan) and disastrous retreat (black) of Napoleon’s Grande Armee through Russia.

On June 24, 1812, the Grande Armée, led by French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, crossed the Neman River, invading Russia from present-day Poland. The result was a disaster for the French.

The Russian army refused to engage with Napoleon&rsquos Grande Armée of more than 500,000 European troops. They simply retreated into the Russian interior. The Grande Armée did not have the supplies or the distribution networks required for such a long march. French strategists assumed the Grande Armée would be supplied by wagons, or would be able to gather supplies as they went. Russian roads, however, were in very poor condition, making it very difficult to transport supplies. The Grande Armée also failed to prepare for Russia&rsquos harsh winter. Its troops were not dressed or trained for the kind of weather they faced.

The invasion lasted six months, and the Grande Armée lost more than 300,000 men. Russia lost more than 200,000. A single battle (the Battle of Borodino) resulted in more than 70,000 casualties in one day. The invasion of Russia effectively halted Napoleon&rsquos march across Europe, and resulted in his first exile, to the Mediterranean island of Elba.


Why Napoleon’s 1812 Russian Campaign Failed

This is the last post the series on Napoleon’s 1812 Russian Campaign. It discusses the reasons why it failed, which relate mainly to logistics.

David Chandler argues that the enterprise was beset with problems from the start. [1] Tsar Alexander I was not persuaded to come to terms by the threat of invasion, meaning that he was unlikely to negotiate once the fighting had started. Defeats made the Russians more, not less, determined to resist the size of Russia made it hard to conquer.

Napoleon was fighting on two fronts. A successful end to the Peninsular War would have released 200,000 troops. Without them, he was forced to turn to allies to supply him with troops. Some of them, including Austria and Prussia, were very reluctant to co-operate. The different languages and equipment of the various nationalities involved created discipline, communications and supply problems.

Napoleon was unwilling to restore the Kingdom of Poland because he needed Austrian and Prussian aid. Consequently, he did not receive full support from the Poles and Lithuanians. However, he gave them enough encouragement to make the Austrians and Prussians suspicious.

Chandler believes that the main reason for the campaign’s failure was logistics. The French over-estimated the traffic capacity of the roads, meaning that supply convoys were always late. There was less grain and fodder available than they had forecast. The depots were too far to the rear and the Russian scorched earth policy meant that the army could not find supplies locally.

The retreating army found large amounts of supplies at Smolensk, Vilna and Kaunas, whilst the Russians captured more at Minsk and Vitebsk. The problem was not the quantity of supplies, but the ability to move them to the front line.

Napoleon should, in Chandler’s view, have spent the winter of 1812-13 at Smolensk. The Emperor had not originally intended to go as far as Moscow. His plan was to win a decisive victory as soon as possible, but the Russians evaded a series of traps intended to force them to fight at Vilna, Vitebsk, Drissa and Smolensk. The French supply system could not cope with the demands of the advance from Smolensk to Moscow.

The need to protect the lines of communication and flanks meant that Napoleon did not have enough troops to win a decisive victory by the time that he managed to bring the Russians to battle at Borodino.

Napoleon then stayed too long in Moscow, allowing the Russians to rally after Borodino. Chandler points out that the Emperor had captured Vienna in 1805 and 1809 and Berlin in 1806 without the enemy immediately coming to terms, so why did he think that taking Moscow in 1812 would induce Alexander to surrender?

Finally, Napoleon took the wrong route from Moscow to Smolensk. In order to avoid fighting Kutuzov, he switched from the southern route through the fertile and unspoilt Kaluga province to the northern route, which had been ravaged in his advance. He did this after the Battle of Malojaroslavets, but this was a French victory. Chandler doubts that the cautious Russian commander Prince Mikhail Kutuzov would have risked repeating the heavy casualties of Borodino to defend Kaluga.

Chandler argues that Napoleon was already beaten by the time that the Russian winter set in. He also notes that the French suffered as much from the heat of the summer, which caused many men to drop out and killed many horses. The cold made the disaster worse, but did not cause the French defeat.

Chandler praises the endurance and skill in combat of the Russians, and says that the strategy of trading space for time in order the blunt Napoleon’s offensive was correct. However, he wonders whether or not this was the intention from the start, suggesting that the Russians retreated because of weakness rather than a deliberate plan. He contends that it is difficult to see a clear Russian plan until after Napoleon reached Moscow.

In summary, he argues that Napoleon’s military abilities had declined. He was less energetic than in the past. He failed either to supervise his subordinates, or to take charge himself at the decisive point. He over-estimated the ability of his army and under-estimated the Tsar. Finally, the enterprise was simply too big.

Martin van Creveld devotes a chapter of Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, in his seminal work on importance of logistics in the history of warfare, to Napoleon’s campaigns.[2]

Van Creveld says that the Emperor increased his supply train ahead of the invasion, and stockpiled large amounts of artillery ammunition. He notes that the operational plans for the campaign have not survived, but argues that the logistical arrangements imply that he expected a short war.

The French supply train was inadequate to sustain an advance on Moscow. An army of 200,000 men that took 60 days to reach Moscow (the Grande Armée actually took 82 days) would have required 18,000 tons of supplies. The French supply train had a capacity of half that, and would also have had to supply troops protecting the flanks and lines of communication.

Once in Moscow, 300 tons of supplies per day would have been needed. It was 600 miles from the supply depots, so the required transport capacity would have remained at 18,000 tons, assuming that supplies moved at an optimistic 20 miles per day.

The invading force carried four days of rations in their packs and 20 days in their battalion supply wagons. Van Creveld argues that a 12 day campaign is implausibly short. He therefore contends that Napoleon expected to win within 24 days, whereupon he would have required his defeated opponent to supply his troops, as he had done previously. This would have allowed him to advance up to 200 miles into Russia.

According to van Creveld, logistics played a major role in the planning of the campaign. The invasion had to begin in June so that the 250,000 horses could be fed from the grass crops. It was impossible to provide fodder for so many animals from base depots. The invasion route was determined by supply considerations the roads were too poor further north and the River Niemen could not have been used to supply a more southerly advance.

He believes that the Russian plan was also based on logistics. His contention is that all the Russian commanders agreed that ‘only the factors of distance, climate and supply could defeat the French army.’[3] The only dispute was over the speed of retreat some were afraid that too quick a withdrawal would cause a revolt by the serfs. It was also necessary to ensure that Napoleon followed the Russians into the interior.

Mistakes by his subordinates, notably his brother Jerome, prevented Napoleon from defeating even part of the Russian army at Vitebsk, which van Creveld says is the furthest into Russia that the French logistic system could sustain the army.

Napoleon chose to head for Moscow because the land became richer after Smolensk, so it was easier to live off the land the further east he moved. His army was strong enough to defeat the Russians at Borodino.

Van Creveld believes that the Grande Armée’s biggest problem was ill discipline rather than lack of supplies, citing as evidence the fact that the Imperial Guard reached Moscow almost intact.

My view is that Napoleon’s first mistake was to invade Russia whilst he was still at war in the Iberian Peninsular. He should have concentrated on first winning that war. His dispute with Alexander over the Continental System, the French attempt to wage economic war with Britain, would have mattered less if the British had been expelled from the Continent.

Victory in the Peninsular would at best have meant that there was no need to invade Russia. At worst it would have released a large number of French troops for the invasion of Russia, reducing Napoleon’s dependence on allies.

Having made this initial mistake, he planned to win a quick victory. He failed to do so because the enemy did not play into his hands, and because of mistakes by his subordinates. He did not supervise them as closely as in the past, probably because his army was now too big for his old, personal style of command to work.

After failing to win an early victory, he should have wintered at Smolensk. There was no reason for him to assume that he could win a decisive victory by heading deeper into Russia, or that he would force the Russians to surrender by taking Moscow. The Russians had only to survive to win, so there was no point in them risking a catastrophic defeat.

Napoleon made the losses from his defeat worse by making a number of errors after reaching Moscow: he stayed there too long he retreated by the ravaged route that he had advanced across and he should have taken only as much loot and as many guns as he had horses to pull.

Overall, Napoleon took on an enterprise that was both unnecessary and too big to succeed when he invaded Russia. It was an example of the importance of logistics in warfare see the blog entry on Bullets, Bombs and Bandages, a BBC TV series on logistics.

[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966). The analysis of the reasons for the failure of the campaiign is on pp. 854-61.

[2] M. Van Creveld, Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). The chapter on Napoleon is on pp. 40-74, with the 1812 Russian Campaign analysed on pp. 61-70.


Contents

Tsar Alexander I had left the Continental blockade of the United Kingdom on 31 December 1810. [32]

The Treaty of Schönbrunn, which ended the 1809 war between Austria and France, had a clause removing Western Galicia from Austria and annexing it to the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. Russia viewed this as against its interests and as a potential launching point for an invasion of Russia. [33]

Napoleon had tried to get better Russian cooperation through an alliance by marrying Anna Pavlovna, the youngest sister of Alexander. But finally he married the daughter of the Austrian emperor instead. On 20 March 1811 Napoleon II (Napoléon François Joseph Charles Bonaparte) was born as the son of Emperor Napoleon I and Empress Marie Louise becoming Prince Imperial of France and King of Rome since birth. [33]

Napoleon himself was not in the same physical and mental state as in years past. He had become overweight and increasingly prone to various maladies. [34]

The costly and drawn-out Peninsular War had not been ended yet and required the presence of about 200,000–250,000 French soldiers. [35]

Officially Napoleon announced the following proclamation:

Soldiers, the second Polish war is begun. The first terminated at Friedland and at Tilsit Russia vowed an eternal alliance with France, and war with the English. She now breaks her vows, and refuses to give any explanation of her strange conduct until the French eagles have repassed the Rhine, and left our allies at her mercy. Russia is hurried away by a fatality: her destinies will be fulfilled. Does she think us degenerated? Are we no more the soldiers who fought at Austerlitz? She places us between dishonour and war — our choice cannot be difficult. Let us then march forward let us cross the Niemen and carry the war into her country. This second Polish war will be as glorious for the French arms as the first has been but the peace we shall conclude shall carry with it its own guarantee, and will terminate the fatal influence which Russia for fifty years past has exercised in Europe. [36]

The invasion of Russia clearly and dramatically demonstrates the importance of logistics in military planning, especially when the land will not provide for the number of troops deployed in an area of operations far exceeding the experience of the invading army. [37] Napoleon made extensive preparations providing for the provisioning of his army. [38] The French supply effort was far greater than in any of the previous campaigns. [39] Twenty train battalions, comprising 7,848 vehicles, were to provide a 40-day supply for the Grande Armée and its operations, and a large system of magazines were established in towns and cities in Poland and East Prussia. [40] The Vistula river valley was built up in 1811–1812 as a supply base. [38] Intendant General Guillaume-Mathieu Dumas established five lines of supply from the Rhine to the Vistula. [39] French-controlled Germany and Poland were organized into three arrondissements with their own administrative headquarters. [39] The logistical buildup that followed was a critical test of Napoleon's administrative and logistical skill, who devoted his efforts during the first half of 1812 largely to the provisioning of his invasion army. [38] Napoleon studied Russian geography and the history of Charles XII's invasion of 1708–1709 and understood the need to bring forward as many supplies as possible. [38] The French Army already had previous experience of operating in the lightly populated and underdeveloped conditions of Poland and East Prussia during the War of the Fourth Coalition in 1806–1807. [38]

However, nothing was to go as planned, because Napoleon had failed to take into account conditions that were totally different from what he had known so far. [41]

Napoleon and the Grande Armée had used to be living off the land that had worked well in the densely populated and agriculturally rich central Europe with its dense network of roads. [42] Rapid forced marches had dazed and confused old-order Austrian and Prussian armies and much use had been made of foraging. [42] Forced marches in Russia often made troops do without supplies as the supply wagons struggled to keep up [42] furthermore, horse-drawn wagons and artillery were stalled by lack of roads which often turned to mud due to rainstorms. [43] Lack of food and water in thinly populated, much less agriculturally dense regions led to the death of troops and their mounts by exposing them to waterborne diseases from drinking from mud puddles and eating rotten food and forage. The front of the army received whatever could be provided while the formations behind starved. [44]

the most advanced magazine in the operations area during the attack phase was Vilna, beyond that point, the army was on its own. [41]

Compare on Minard's Map the location of Wilna.

Ammunition Edit

A massive arsenal was established in Warsaw. [38] Artillery was concentrated at Magdeburg, Danzig, Stettin, Küstrin and Glogau. [45] Magdeburg contained a siege artillery train with 100 heavy guns and stored 462 cannons, two million paper cartridges and 300,000 pounds/135 tonnes of gunpowder Danzig had a siege train with 130 heavy guns and 300,000 pounds of gunpowder Stettin contained 263 guns, a million cartridges and 200,000 pounds/90 tonnes of gunpowder Küstrin contained 108 guns and a million cartridges Glogau contained 108 guns, a million cartridges and 100,000 pounds/45 tonnes of gunpowder. [45] Warsaw, Danzig, Modlin, Thorn and Marienburg became ammunition and supply depots as well. [38]

Provisions and transportation Edit

Danzig contained enough provisions to feed 400,000 men for 50 days. [45] Breslau, Plock and Wyszogród were turned into grain depots, milling vast quantities of flour for delivery to Thorn, where 60,000 biscuits were produced every day. [45] A large bakery was established at Villenberg. [39] 50,000 cattle were collected to follow the army. [39] After the invasion began, large magazines were constructed at Vilnius, Kaunas and Minsk, with the Vilnius base having enough rations to feed 100,000 men for 40 days. [39] It also contained 27,000 muskets, 30,000 pairs of shoes along with brandy and wine. [39] Medium-sized depots were established at Smolensk, Vitebsk and Orsha, and several small ones throughout the Russian interior. [39] The French also captured numerous intact Russian supply dumps, which the Russians had failed to destroy or empty, and Moscow itself was filled with food. [39] Twenty train battalions provided most of the transportation, with a combined load of 8,390 tons. [45] Twelve of these battalions had a total of 3,024 heavy wagons drawn by four horses each, four had 2,424 one-horse light wagons and four had 2,400 wagons drawn by oxen. [45] Auxiliary supply convoys were formed on Napoleon's orders in early June 1812, using vehicles requisitioned in East Prussia. [46] Marshal Nicolas Oudinot's IV Corps alone took 600 carts formed into six companies. [47] The wagon trains were supposed to carry enough bread, flour and medical supplies for 300,000 men for two months. [47]

The standard heavy wagons, well-suited for the dense and partially paved road networks of Germany and France, proved too cumbersome for the sparse and primitive Russian dirt tracks. [48] The supply route from Smolensk to Moscow was therefore entirely dependent on light wagons with small loads. [47] Central to the problem were the expanding distances to supply magazines and the fact that no supply wagon could keep up with a forced marched infantry column. [43] The weather itself became an issue, where, according to historian Richard K. Riehn:

The thunderstorms of the 24th [of June] turned into other downpours, turning the tracks—some diarists claim there were no roads in Lithuania—into bottomless mires. Wagons sank up to their hubs horses dropped from exhaustion men lost their boots. Stalled wagons became obstacles that forced men around them and stopped supply wagons and artillery columns. Then came the sun which would bake the deep ruts into canyons of concrete, where horses would break their legs and wagons their wheels. [43]

The heavy losses to disease, hunger and desertion in the early months of the campaign were in large part due to the inability to transport provisions quickly enough to the troops. [48] The Intendance administration failed to distribute with sufficient rigor the supplies that were built up or captured. [39] By that, despite all these preparations, the Grande Armée was not self-sufficient logistically and still depended on foraging to a significant extent. [46]

Inadequate supplies played a key role in the losses suffered by the army as well. Davidov and other Russian campaign participants record wholesale surrenders of starving members of the Grande Armée even before the onset of the frosts. [49] Caulaincourt describes men swarming over and cutting up horses that slipped and fell, even before the horse had been killed. [50] There were even eyewitness reports of cannibalism. The French simply were unable to feed their army. Starvation led to a general loss of cohesion. [51] Constant harassment of the French Army by Cossacks added to the losses during the retreat. [49]

Though starvation caused horrendous casualties in Napoleon's army, losses arose from other sources as well. The main body of Napoleon's Grande Armée diminished by a third in just the first eight weeks of the campaign, before the major battle was fought. This loss in strength was in part due to diseases such as diphtheria, dysentery and typhus and the need to garrison supply centers. [49] [52]

Combat service and support and medicine Edit

Nine pontoon companies, three pontoon trains with 100 pontoons each, two companies of marines, nine sapper companies, six miner companies and an engineer park were deployed for the invasion force. [45] Large-scale military hospitals were created at Warsaw, Thorn, Breslau, Marienburg, Elbing and Danzig, [45] while hospitals in East Prussia had beds for 28,000. [39]

Cold weather Edit

Following the campaign a saying arose that the Generals Janvier and Février (January and February) defeated Napoleon, alluding to the Russian Winter. Minard's map shows that the opposite is true as the French losses were highest in the summer and autumn. Napoleon lost the majority of his army due to his neglect of logistics and supplies such as food, water and fodder for the horses. In addition, when winter eventually arrived, the army was still equipped with summer clothing, in spite of a 5 week stay at Moscow, and did not have the means to protect themselves from the cold. [53] It had also failed to forge caulkin shoes for the horses to enable them to traverse roads that had become iced over. The most devastating effect of the cold weather upon Napoleon's forces occurred during their retreat. Starvation coupled with hypothermia led to the loss of tens of thousands of men. In his memoir, Napoleon's close adviser Armand de Caulaincourt recounted scenes of massive loss, and offered a vivid description of mass death through hypothermia:

The cold was so intense that bivouacking was no longer supportable. Bad luck to those who fell asleep by a campfire! Furthermore, disorganization was perceptibly gaining ground in the Guard. One constantly found men who, overcome by the cold, had been forced to drop out and had fallen to the ground, too weak or too numb to stand. Ought one to help them along – which practically meant carrying them. They begged one to let them alone. There were bivouacs all along the road – ought one to take them to a campfire? Once these poor wretches fell asleep they were dead. If they resisted the craving for sleep, another passer-by would help them along a little farther, thus prolonging their agony for a short while, but not saving them, for in this condition the drowsiness engendered by cold is irresistibly strong. Sleep comes inevitably, and sleep is to die. I tried in vain to save a number of these unfortunates. The only words they uttered were to beg me, for the love of God, to go away and let them sleep. To hear them, one would have thought sleep was their salvation. Unhappily, it was a poor wretch's last wish. But at least he ceased to suffer, without pain or agony. Gratitude, and even a smile, was imprinted on his discoloured lips. What I have related about the effects of extreme cold, and of this kind of death by freezing, is based on what I saw happen to thousands of individuals. The road was covered with their corpses. [54]

This befell a Grande Armée that was ill-equipped for cold weather. The Russians, properly equipped, considered it a relatively mild winter – the Berezina river was not frozen during the last major battle of the campaign the French deficiencies in equipment caused by the assumption that their campaign would be concluded before the cold weather set in were a large factor in the number of casualties they suffered. [55] However, the outcome of the campaign was decided long before the weather became a factor.

Summary Edit

Napoleon lacked the apparatus to efficiently move so many troops across such large distances of hostile territory. [56] The supply depots established by the French in the Russian interior were too far behind the main army. [57] The French train battalions tried to move forward huge amounts of supplies during the campaign, but the distances, the speed required, and missing endurance of the requisitioned vehicles that broke down too easily meant that the demands Napoleon placed on them were too great. [58] Napoleon's demand of a speedy advance by the Grande Armée over a network of dirt roads that dissolved into deep mires resulted in killing already exhausted horses and breaking wagons. [41] As the graph of Charles Joseph Minard, given below, shows, the Grande Armée incurred the majority of its losses during the march to Moscow during the summer and autumn.

Crossing the Russian border Edit

The invasion commenced on 24 June 1812 with Napoleon's army crossing the border on schedule with around 400,000 to 450,000 men into Russia:
1. The left wing under Macdonald with the X corps of 30,000 men crossed the Niemen at Tilsit towards Riga defended by 10,000.
X corps of Macdonald 30,000
2. The centre under Napoleon Buonaparte with 297,000 men crossed the Niemen at Kowno/Pilona towards Barclay's first army of 90,000.
Guards of Mortier 47,000
I corps of Davout 72,000
II corps of Oudinot 37,000
III corps of Ney 39,000
IV corps of Eugene 45,000
VI corps of St. Cyr 25,000
Cavalry corps of Murat 32,000
3. The second centre under Jérôme Bonaparte with 78,000 men crossed the Niemen near Grodno towards Bagration's second army of 55,000.
V corps of Poniatowski 36,000
VII corps of Reynier 17,000
VIII corps of Vandamme 17,000
Cavalry corps of Latour Maubourg 8,000
4. The right wing under Schwarzenberg crossed the Bug near Drohyczyn towards Tormasow's third army of 35,000.
Auxiliary corps of Schwarzenberg 34,000 [18] [19]

In the course of the campaign, the IX corps of Victor with 33,000, the divisions Durutte and Loison with 27,000 as part of the XI reserve corps, other reinforcements of 80,000 and the baggage trains with 30,000 men followed the 440,000 of the first wave.
IX corps of Victor 33,000
XI corps of Augerau parts of the reserve

Napoleon's army had entered Russia in 1812 with more than 600,000 men, 180,000 horses and 1,300 pieces of artillery. [59]

In January 1813 the French army gathered behind the Vistula some 23,000 strong. The Austrian and Prussian troops mustered some 35,000 men in addition. [59] The numbers of deserters and stragglers having left Russia alive is unknown by definition. The number of new inhabitants of Russia is unknown. The number of prisoners is estimated around 100,000, of whom more than 50,000 died in captivity. [60]

Napoleon had lost in Russia more than 500,000 men. [59]

March on Vilnius Edit

Napoleon initially met little resistance and moved quickly into the enemy's territory in spite of the transport of more than 1,100 cannons, being opposed by the Russian armies with more than 900 cannons. But the roads in this area of Lithuania were actually small dirt tracks through areas of dense forest. At the beginning of the war supply lines already simply could not keep up with the forced marches of the corps and rear formations always suffered the worst privations. [61]

The 25th of June found Napoleon's group past the bridgehead with Ney's command approaching the existing crossings at Alexioten. Murat's reserve cavalry provided the vanguard with Napoleon the guard and Davout's 1st corps following behind. Eugene's command crossed the Niemen further north at Piloy, and MacDonald crossed the same day. Jerome's command wouldn't complete its crossing at Grodno until the 28th. Napoleon rushed towards Vilnius, pushing the infantry forward in columns that suffered from heavy rain, then stifling heat. The central group marched 70 miles (110 km) in two days. [62] Ney's III Corps marched down the road to Sudervė, with Oudinot marching on the other side of the Neris River in an operation attempting to catch General Wittgenstein's command between Ney, Oudinout and Macdonald's commands, but Macdonald's command was late in arriving at an objective too far away and the opportunity vanished. Jerome was tasked with tackling Bagration by marching to Grodno and Reynier's VII corps sent to Białystok in support. [63]

The Russian headquarters was in fact centered in Vilnius on June 24 and couriers rushed news about the crossing of the Niemen to Barclay de Tolley. Before the night had passed, orders were sent out to Bagration and Platov to take the offensive. Alexander left Vilnius on June 26 and Barclay assumed overall command. Although Barclay wanted to give battle, he assessed it as a hopeless situation and ordered Vilnius's magazines burned and its bridge dismantled. Wittgenstein moved his command to Perkele, passing beyond Macdonald and Oudinot's operations with Wittgenstein's rear guard clashing with Oudinout's forward elements. [63] Doctorov on the Russian Left found his command threatened by Phalen's III cavalry corps. Bagration was ordered to Vileyka, which moved him towards Barclay, though the order's intent is still something of a mystery to this day. [64]

On June 28, Napoleon entered Vilnius with only light skirmishing. The foraging in Lithuania proved hard as the land was mostly barren and forested. The supplies of forage were less than that of Poland, and two days of forced marching made a bad supply situation worse. [64] Central to the problem were the expanding distances to supply magazines and the fact that no supply wagon could keep up with a forced marched infantry column. [43] The weather itself became an issue, where, according to historian Richard K. Riehn:

The thunderstorms of the 24th turned into other downpours, turning the tracks—some diarists claim there were no roads in Lithuania—into bottomless mires. Wagon sank up to their hubs horses dropped from exhaustion men lost their boots. Stalled wagons became obstacles that forced men around them and stopped supply wagons and artillery columns. Then came the sun which would bake the deep ruts into canyons of concrete, where horses would break their legs and wagons their wheels. [43]

A Lieutenant Mertens—a Württemberger serving with Ney's III corps—reported in his diary that oppressive heat followed by rain left them with dead horses and camping in swamp-like conditions with dysentery and influenza raging though the ranks with hundreds in a field hospital that had to be set up for the purpose. He reported the times, dates and places of events, reporting thunderstorms on June 6 and men dying of sunstroke by the 11th. [43]

Desertion was high among Spanish and Portuguese formations. These deserters proceeded to terrorize the population, looting whatever lay to hand. The areas in which the Grande Armée passed were devastated. A Polish officer reported that areas around him were depopulated. [65]

The French light cavalry was shocked to find itself outclassed by Russian counterparts, so much so that Napoleon had ordered that infantry be provided as back up to French light cavalry units. [65] This affected both French reconnaissance and intelligence operations. Despite 30,000 cavalry, contact was not maintained with Barclay's forces, leaving Napoleon guessing and throwing out columns to find his opposition. [66]

The operation intended to split Bagration's forces from Barclay's forces by driving to Vilnius had cost the French forces 25,000 losses from all causes in a few days. [65] Strong probing operations were advanced from Vilnius towards Nemenčinė, Mykoliškės, Ashmyany and Molėtai. [65]

Eugene crossed at Prenn on June 30, while Jerome moved VII Corps to Białystok, with everything else crossing at Grodno. [66] Murat advanced to Nemenčinė on July 1, running into elements of Doctorov's III Russian Cavalry Corps en route to Djunaszev. Napoleon assumed this was Bagration's 2nd Army and rushed out, before being told it was not 24 hours later. Napoleon then attempted to use Davout, Jerome, and Eugene out on his right in a hammer and anvil to catch Bagration to destroy the 2nd Army in an operation spanning Ashmyany and Minsk. This operation had failed to produce results on his left before with Macdonald and Oudinot. Doctorov had moved from Djunaszev to Svir, narrowly evading French forces, with 11 regiments and a battery of 12 guns heading to join Bagration when moving too late to stay with Doctorov. [67]

Conflicting orders and lack of information had almost placed Bagration in a bind marching into Davout however, Jerome could not arrive in time over the same mud tracks, supply problems, and weather, that had so badly affected the rest of the Grande Armée, losing 9000 men in four days. Command disputes between Jerome and General Vandamme would not help the situation. [68] Bagration joined with Doctorov and had 45,000 men at Novi-Sverzen by the 7th. Davout had lost 10,000 men marching to Minsk and would not attack Bagration without Jerome joining him. Two French Cavalry defeats by Platov kept the French in the dark and Bagration was no better informed, with both overestimating the other's strength: Davout thought Bagration had some 60,000 men and Bagration thought Davout had 70,000. Bagration was getting orders from both Alexander's staff and Barclay (which Barclay didn't know) and left Bagration without a clear picture of what was expected of him and the general situation. This stream of confused orders to Bagration had him upset with Barclay, which would have repercussions later. [69]

Napoleon reached Vilnius on 28 June, leaving 10,000 dead horses in his wake. These horses were vital to bringing up further supplies to an army in desperate need. Napoleon had supposed that Alexander would sue for peace at this point and was to be disappointed it would not be his last disappointment. [70] Barclay continued to retreat to the Drissa, deciding that the concentration of the 1st and 2nd armies was his first priority. [71]

Barclay continued his retreat and, with the exception of the occasional rearguard clash, remained unhindered in his movements ever further east. [72] To date, the standard methods of the Grande Armée were working against it. Rapid forced marches quickly caused desertion and starvation, and exposed the troops to filthy water and disease, while the logistics trains lost horses by the thousands, further exacerbating the problems. Some 50,000 stragglers and deserters became a lawless mob warring with local peasantry in all-out guerrilla war, which further hindered supplies reaching the Grand Armée, which was already down 95,000 men. [73]

Kutuzov in Command Edit

Barclay, the Russian commander-in-chief, refused to fight despite Bagration's urgings. Several times he attempted to establish a strong defensive position, but each time the French advance was too quick for him to finish preparations and he was forced to retreat once more. When the French Army progressed further, it encountered serious problems in foraging, aggravated by scorched earth tactics of the Russian forces [74] [75] advocated by Karl Ludwig von Phull.

Political pressure on Barclay to give battle and the general's continuing reluctance to do so led to his removal after the defeat at the Battle of Smolensk (1812) on August 16–18. He was replaced in his position as commander-in-chief by the popular, veteran Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov. Kutuzov, however, went on with Barclay's strategy, using attrition warfare against Napoleon instead of risking the army in an open battle. The Russian Army fell back ever deeper into Russia's interior as he continued to move east while intensifying the guerilla warfare of the Cossacks. Unable because of politial pressure to give up Moscow without a fight, Kutuzov took up a defensive position some 75 miles (121 km) before Moscow at Borodino. Meanwhile, French plans to quarter at Smolensk were abandoned, and Napoleon pressed his army on after the Russians. [76]

The Battle of Borodino Edit

The Battle of Borodino, fought on 7 September 1812, was the largest and bloodiest battle of the French invasion of Russia, involving more than 250,000 troops and resulting in at least 70,000 casualties. [77] The French Grande Armée under Emperor Napoleon I attacked the Imperial Russian Army of General Mikhail Kutuzov near the village of Borodino, west of the town of Mozhaysk, and eventually captured the main positions on the battlefield but failed to destroy the Russian army. About a third of Napoleon's soldiers were killed or wounded Russian losses, while heavier, could be replaced due to Russia's large population, since Napoleon's campaign took place on Russian soil.

The battle ended with the Russian Army, while out of position, still offering resistance. [78] The state of exhaustion of the French forces and the lack of recognition of the state of the Russian Army led Napoleon to remain on the battlefield with his army, instead of engaging in the forced pursuit that had marked other campaigns that he had conducted. [79] The entirety of the Guard was still available to Napoleon, and in refusing to use it he lost this singular chance to destroy the Russian Army. [80] The battle at Borodino was a pivotal point in the campaign, as it was the last offensive action fought by Napoleon in Russia. By withdrawing, the Russian Army preserved its combat strength, eventually allowing it to force Napoleon out of the country.

The Battle of Borodino on September 7 was the bloodiest day of battle in the Napoleonic Wars. The Russian Army could only muster half of its strength on September 8. Kutuzov chose to act in accordance with his scorched earth tactics and retreat, leaving the road to Moscow open. Kutuzov also ordered the evacuation of the city.

By this point the Russians had managed to draft large numbers of reinforcements into the army, bringing total Russian land forces to their peak strength in 1812 of 904,000, with perhaps 100,000 in the vicinity of Moscow—the remnants of Kutuzov's army from Borodino partially reinforced.

Both armies began to move and rebuild. The Russian retreat was significant for two reasons: firstly, the move was to the south and not the east secondly, the Russians immediately began operations that would continue to deplete the French forces. Platov, commanding the rear guard on September 8, offered such strong resistance that Napoleon remained on the Borodino field. [78] On the following day, Miloradovitch assumed command of the rear guard, adding his forces to the formation.

The French Army began to move out on September 10 with the still ill Napoleon not leaving until the 12th. The main quarter of the Russian army was situated in Bolshiye Vyazyomy. Here Mikhail Kutuzov wrote a number of orders and letters to Fyodor Rostopchin and organized the withdrawal from Moscow. [81] 12 September [O.S. 31 August] 1812 the main forces of Kutuzov arrived at Fili (Moscow). On the same day Napoleon Bonaparte arrived at Bolshiye Vyazyomy and slept in the main manor house (on the same sofa in the library). Napoleon left the next morning and headed direction Moscow. [82] Some 18,000 men were ordered in from Smolensk, and Marshal Victor's corps supplied another 25,000. [83] Miloradovich would not give up his rearguard duties until September 14, allowing Moscow to be evacuated. Miloradovich finally retreated under a flag of truce. [84]

Capture of Moscow Edit

On September 14, 1812, Napoleon moved into Moscow. However, he was surprised to have received no delegation from the city. [85] Before the order was received to evacuate Moscow, the city had a population of approximately 270,000 people. 48 hours later three quarters of Moscow was reduced to ashes by arson. [26] Although Saint Petersburg was the political capital at that time, Napoleon had occupied Moscow, the spiritual capital of Russia, but Tsar Alexander I decided that there could not be a peaceful coexistence with Napoleon. There would be no appeasement. [86]

Retreat Edit

On October 19th, after 5 weeks of occupation, Napoleon left Moscow. The army still numbered 108,000 men, but his cavalry had been nearly destroyed. With horses exhausted or dead, commanders redirected cavalrymen into infantry units, leaving French forces helpless against Cossack fighters. With little direction or supplies, the army turned to leave the region, struggling on toward worse disaster. [87]

Napoleon followed the old Kaluga road southwards towards unspoilt, richer parts of Russia to use other roads for retreat westwards to Smolensk than the one being scorched by his own army for the march eastwards. [88]

At the Battle of Maloyaroslavets, Kutuzov was able to force the French Army into using the same Smolensk road on which they had earlier moved east, the corridor of which had been stripped of food by both armies. This is often presented as an example of scorched earth tactics. Continuing to block the southern flank to prevent the French from returning by a different route, Kutuzov employed partisan tactics to repeatedly strike at the French train where it was weakest. As the retreating French train broke up and became separated, Cossack bands and light Russian cavalry assaulted isolated French units. [89]

Supplying the army in full became an impossibility. The lack of grass and feed weakened the remaining horses, almost all of which died or were killed for food by starving soldiers. Without horses, the French cavalry ceased to exist cavalrymen had to march on foot. Lack of horses meant many cannons and wagons had to be abandoned. Much of the artillery lost was replaced in 1813, but the loss of thousands of wagons and trained horses weakened Napoleon's armies for the remainder of his wars. Starvation and disease took their toll, and desertion soared. Many of the deserters were taken prisoner or killed by Russian peasants. Badly weakened by these circumstances, the French military position collapsed. Further, defeats were inflicted on elements of the Grande Armée at Vyazma, Polotsk and Krasny. The crossing of the river Berezina was a final French calamity: two Russian armies inflicted heavy casualties on the remnants of the Grande Armée.

In early November 1812, Napoleon learned that General Claude de Malet had attempted a coup d'état in France. He abandoned the army on 5 December and returned home on a sleigh, [90] leaving Marshal Joachim Murat in command.

Subsequently, Murat left what was left of the Grande Armée to try to save his Kingdom of Naples.

In the following weeks, the Grande Armée shrank further, and on 14 December 1812, it left Russian territory.

Napoleon's invasion of Russia is listed among the most lethal military operations in world history. [91]

Grande Armée Edit

On 24 June 1812, around 400,000–450,000 men of the Grande Armée, the largest army assembled up to that point in European history, crossed the border into Russia and headed towards Moscow. [18] [19] [20] Anthony Joes wrote in the Journal of Conflict Studies that figures on how many men Napoleon took into Russia and how many eventually came out vary widely. Georges Lefebvre says that Napoleon crossed the Neman with over 600,000 soldiers, only half of whom were from France, the others being mainly Poles and Germans. [92] Felix Markham thinks that 450,000 crossed the Neman on 25 June 1812. [93] When Ney and the rearguard recrossed the Niemen on December 14, he had barely a thousand men fit for action. [94] James Marshall-Cornwall says 510,000 Imperial troops entered Russia. [95] Eugene Tarle believes that 420,000 crossed with Napoleon and 150,000 eventually followed, for a grand total of 570,000. [96] Richard K. Riehn provides the following figures: 685,000 men marched into Russia in 1812, of whom around 355,000 were French 31,000 soldiers marched out again in some sort of military formation, with perhaps another 35,000 stragglers, for a total of fewer than 70,000 known survivors. [97] Adam Zamoyski estimated that between 550,000 and 600,000 French and allied troops (including reinforcements) operated beyond the Nemen, of which as many as 400,000 troops died but this includes deaths of prisoners during captivity. [17]

Minard's famous infographic (see above) depicts the march ingeniously by showing the size of the advancing army, overlaid on a rough map, as well as the retreating soldiers together with temperatures recorded (as much as 30 below zero on the Réaumur scale (−38 °C, −36 °F)) on their return. The numbers on this chart have 422,000 crossing the Neman with Napoleon, 22,000 taking a side trip early on in the campaign, 100,000 surviving the battles en route to Moscow and returning from there only 4,000 survive the march back, to be joined by 6,000 that survived from that initial 22,000 in the feint attack northward in the end, only 10,000 crossed the Neman back out of the initial 422,000. [98]

Imperial Russian Army Edit

General of Infantry Mikhail Bogdanovich Barclay de Tolly served as the Commander in Chief of the Russian Armies. A field commander of the First Western Army and Minister of War, Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov, replaced him, and assumed the role of Commander-in-chief during the retreat following the Battle of Smolensk.

These forces, however, could count on reinforcements from the second line, which totaled 129,000 men and 8,000 Cossacks with 434 guns and 433 rounds of ammunition.

Of these, about 105,000 men were actually available for the defense against the invasion. In the third line were the 36 recruit depots and militias, which came to a total of approximately 161,000 men of various and highly disparate military values, of which about 133,000 actually took part in the defense.

Thus, the grand total of all the forces was 488,000 men, of which about 428,000 gradually came into action against the Grande Armee. This bottom line, however, includes more than 80,000 Cossacks and militiamen, as well as about 20,000 men who garrisoned the fortresses in the operational area. The majority of the officer corps came from the aristocracy. [99] About 7% of the officer corps came from the Baltic German nobility from the governorates of Estonia and Livonia. [99] Because the Baltic German nobles tended to be better educated than the ethnic Russian nobility, the Baltic Germans were often favored with positions in high command and various technical positions. [99] The Russian Empire had no universal educational system, and those who could afford it had to hire tutors and/or send their children to private schools. [99] The educational level of the Russian nobility and gentry varied enormously depending on the quality of the tutors and/or private schools, with some Russian nobles being extremely well educated while others were just barely literate. The Baltic German nobility were more inclined to invest in their children's education than the ethnic Russian nobility, which led to the government favoring them when granting officers' commissions. [99] Of the 800 doctors in the Russian Army in 1812, almost all of them were Baltic Germans. [99] The British historian Dominic Lieven noted that, at the time, the Russian elite defined Russianness in terms of loyalty to the House of Romanov rather in terms of language or culture, and as the Baltic German aristocrats were very loyal, they were considered and considered themselves to be Russian despite speaking German as their first language. [99]

Sweden, Russia's only ally, did not send supporting troops, but the alliance made it possible to withdraw the 45,000-man Russian corps Steinheil from Finland and use it in the later battles (20,000 men were sent to Riga). [100]

Losses Edit

A serious research on losses in the Russian campaign is given by Thierry Lentz. On the French side, the toll is around 200,000 dead (half in combat and the rest from cold, hunger or disease) and 150,000 to 190,000 prisoners who fell in captivity. [10]

Hay has argued that the destruction of the Dutch contingent of the Grande Armée was not a result of the death of most of its members. Rather, its various units disintegrated and the troops scattered. Later, many of its personnel were collected and reorganised into the new Dutch army. [101]

Most of the Prussian contingent survived thanks to the Convention of Tauroggen and almost the whole Austrian contingent under Schwarzenberg withdrew successfully. The Russians formed the Russian-German Legion from other German prisoners and deserters. [100]

Russian casualties in the few open battles are comparable to the French losses, but civilian losses along the devastating campaign route were much higher than the military casualties. In total, despite earlier estimates giving figures of several million dead, around one million were killed, including civilians—fairly evenly split between the French and Russians. [17] Military losses amounted to 300,000 French, about 72,000 Poles, [102] 50,000 Italians, 80,000 Germans, and 61,000 from other nations. As well as the loss of human life, the French also lost some 200,000 horses and over 1,000 artillery pieces.

The losses of the Russian armies are difficult to assess. The 19th-century historian Michael Bogdanovich assessed reinforcements of the Russian armies during the war using the Military Registry archives of the General Staff. According to this, the reinforcements totaled 134,000 men. The main army at the time of capture of Vilnius in December had 70,000 men, whereas its number at the start of the invasion had been about 150,000. Thus, total losses would come to 210,000 men. Of these, about 40,000 returned to duty. Losses of the formations operating in secondary areas of operations as well as losses in militia units were about 40,000. Thus, he came up with the number of 210,000 men and militiamen. [103]

Aftermath Edit

The Russian victory over the French Army in 1812 was a significant blow to Napoleon's ambitions of European dominance. This war was the reason the other coalition allies triumphed once and for all over Napoleon. His army was shattered and morale was low, both for French troops still in Russia, fighting battles just before the campaign ended, and for the troops on other fronts. Out of an original force of 615,000, only 110,000 frostbitten and half-starved survivors stumbled back into France. [104] The War of the Sixth Coalition [105] started in 1813 as the Russian campaign was decisive for the Napoleonic Wars and led to Napoleon's defeat and exile on the island of Elba. [2] For Russia, the term Patriotic War (an English rendition of the Russian Отечественная война) became a symbol for a strengthened national identity that had a great effect on Russian patriotism in the 19th century. A series of revolutions followed, starting with the Decembrist revolt of 1825 and ending with the February Revolution of 1917.

Alternative names Edit

Napoleon's invasion of Russia is better known in Russia as the Patriotic War of 1812 (Russian Отечественная война 1812 года , Otechestvennaya Vojna 1812 goda). It should not be confused with the Great Patriotic War ( Великая Отечественная война , Velikaya Otechestvennaya Voyna), a term for Adolf Hitler's invasion of Russia during the Second World War. The Patriotic War of 1812 is also occasionally referred to as simply the "War of 1812", a term which should not be confused with the conflict between Great Britain and the United States, also known as the War of 1812. In Russian literature written before the Russian revolution, the war was occasionally described as "the invasion of twelve languages" (Russian: нашествие двенадцати языков ). Napoleon termed this war the "Second Polish War" in an attempt to gain increased support from Polish nationalists and patriots. Though the stated goal of the war was the resurrection of the Polish state on the territories of the former Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (modern territories of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine), in fact, this issue was of no real concern to Napoleon. [106]

Historiography Edit

The British historian Dominic Lieven wrote that much of the historiography about the campaign for various reasons distorts the story of the Russian war against France in 1812–14. [107] The number of Western historians who are fluent in French and/or German vastly outnumbers those who are fluent in Russian, which has the effect that many Western historians simply ignore Russian language sources when writing about the campaign because they cannot read them. [108]

Memoirs written by French veterans of the campaign together with much of the work done by French historians strongly show the influence of "Orientalism", which depicted Russia as a strange, backward, exotic and barbaric "Asian" nation that was innately inferior to the West, especially France. [109] The picture drawn by the French is that of a vastly superior army being defeated by geography, the climate and just plain bad luck. [109] German language sources are not as hostile to the Russians as French sources, but many of the Prussian officers such as Carl von Clausewitz (who did not speak Russian) who joined the Russian Army to fight against the French found service with a foreign army both frustrating and strange, and their accounts reflected these experiences. [110] Lieven compared those historians who use Clausewitz's account of his time in Russian service as their main source for the 1812 campaign to those historians who might use an account written by a Free French officer who did not speak English who served with the British Army in World War II as their main source for the British war effort in the Second World War. [111]

In Russia, the official historical line until 1917 was that the peoples of the Russian Empire had rallied together in defense of the throne against a foreign invader. [112] Because many of the younger Russian officers in the 1812 campaign took part in the Decembrist uprising of 1825, their roles in history were erased at the order of Emperor Nicholas I. [113] Likewise, because many of the officers who were also veterans who stayed loyal during the Decembrist uprising went on to become ministers in the tyrannical regime of Emperor Nicholas I, their reputations were blacked among the radical intelligentsia of 19th century Russia. [113] For example, Count Alexander von Benckendorff fought well in 1812 commanding a Cossack company, but because he later become the Chief of the Third Section Of His Imperial Majesty's Chancellery as the secret police were called, was one of the closest friends of Nicholas I and is infamous for his persecution of Russia's national poet Alexander Pushkin, he is not well remembered in Russia and his role in 1812 is usually ignored. [113]

Furthermore, the 19th century was a great age of nationalism and there was a tendency by historians in the Allied nations to give the lion's share of the credit for defeating France to their own respective nation with British historians claiming that it was the United Kingdom that played the most important role in defeating Napoleon Austrian historians giving that honor to their nation Russian historians writing that it was Russia that played the greatest role in the victory, and Prussian and later German historians writing that it was Prussia that made the difference. [114] In such a context, various historians liked to diminish the contributions of their allies.

Leo Tolstoy was not a historian, but his extremely popular 1869 historical novel War and Peace, which depicted the war as a triumph of what Lieven called the "moral strength, courage and patriotism of ordinary Russians" with military leadership a negligible factor, has shaped the popular understanding of the war in both Russia and abroad from the 19th century onward. [115] A recurring theme of War and Peace is that certain events are just fated to happen, and there is nothing that a leader can do to challenge destiny, a view of history that dramatically discounts leadership as a factor in history. During the Soviet period, historians engaged in what Lieven called huge distortions to make history fit with Communist ideology, with Marshal Kutuzov and Prince Bagration transformed into peasant generals, Alexander I alternatively ignored or vilified, and the war becoming a massive "People's War" fought by the ordinary people of Russia with almost no involvement on the part of the government. [116] During the Cold War, many Western historians were inclined to see Russia as "the enemy", and there was a tendency to downplay and dismiss Russia's contributions to the defeat of Napoleon. [111] As such, Napoleon's claim that the Russians did not defeat him and he was just the victim of fate in 1812 was very appealing to many Western historians. [115]

Russian historians tended to focus on the French invasion of Russia in 1812 and ignore the campaigns in 1813–1814 fought in Germany and France, because a campaign fought on Russian soil was regarded as more important than campaigns abroad and because in 1812 the Russians were commanded by the ethnic Russian Kutuzov while in the campaigns in 1813–1814 the senior Russian commanders were mostly ethnic Germans, being either Baltic German nobility or Germans who had entered Russian service. [117] At the time the conception held by the Russian elite was that the Russian empire was a multi-ethnic entity, in which the Baltic German aristocrats in service to the House of Romanov were considered part of that elite—an understanding of what it meant to be Russian defined in terms of dynastic loyalty rather than language, ethnicity, and culture that does not appeal to those later Russians who wanted to see the war as purely a triumph of ethnic Russians. [118]

One consequence of this is that many Russian historians liked to disparage the officer corps of the Imperial Russian Army because of the high proportion of Baltic Germans serving as officers, which further reinforces the popular stereotype that the Russians won despite their officers rather than because of them. [119] Furthermore, Emperor Alexander I often gave the impression at the time that he found Russia a place that was not worthy of his ideals, and he cared more about Europe as a whole than about Russia. [117] Alexander's conception of a war to free Europe from Napoleon lacked appeal to many nationalist-minded Russian historians, who preferred to focus on a campaign in defense of the homeland rather than what Lieven called Alexander's rather "murky" mystical ideas about European brotherhood and security. [117] Lieven observed that for every book written in Russia on the campaigns of 1813–1814, there are a hundred books on the campaign of 1812 and that the most recent Russian grand history of the war of 1812–1814 gave 490 pages to the campaign of 1812 and 50 pages to the campaigns of 1813–1814. [115] Lieven noted that Tolstoy ended War and Peace in December 1812 and that many Russian historians have followed Tolstoy in focusing on the campaign of 1812 while ignoring the greater achievements of campaigns of 1813–1814 that ended with the Russians marching into Paris. [115]

Napoleon did not touch serfdom in Russia. What the reaction of the Russian peasantry would have been if he had lived up to the traditions of the French Revolution, bringing liberty to the serfs, is an intriguing question. [120]

Swedish invasion Edit

Napoleon's invasion was prefigured by the Swedish invasion of Russia a century before. In 1707 Charles XII had led Swedish forces in an invasion of Russia from his base in Poland. After initial success, the Swedish Army was decisively defeated in Ukraine at the Battle of Poltava. Peter I's efforts to deprive the invading forces of supplies by adopting a scorched-earth policy is thought to have played a role in the defeat of the Swedes.

In one first-hand account of the French invasion, Philippe Paul, Comte de Ségur, attached to the personal staff of Napoleon and the author of Histoire de Napoléon et de la grande armée pendant l'année 1812, recounted a Russian emissary approaching the French headquarters early in the campaign. When he was questioned on what Russia expected, his curt reply was simply 'Poltava!'. [121] Using eyewitness accounts, historian Paul Britten Austin described how Napoleon studied the History of Charles XII during the invasion. [122] In an entry dated 5 December 1812, one eyewitness records: "Cesare de Laugier, as he trudges on along the 'good road' that leads to Smorgoni, is struck by 'some birds falling from frozen trees', a phenomenon which had even impressed Charles XII's Swedish soldiers a century ago." The failed Swedish invasion is widely believed to have been the beginning of Sweden's decline as a great power, and the rise of Tsardom of Russia as it took its place as the leading nation of north-eastern Europe.

German invasion Edit

Academicians have drawn parallels between the French invasion of Russia and Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of 1941. David Stahel writes: [123]

Historical comparisons reveal that many fundamental points that denote Hitler's failure in 1941 were actually foreshadowed in past campaigns. The most obvious example is Napoleon's ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812. The German High Command's inability to grasp some of the essential hallmarks of this military calamity highlights another angle of their flawed conceptualization and planning in anticipation of Operation Barbarossa. Like Hitler, Napoleon was the conqueror of Europe and foresaw his war on Russia as the key to forcing England to make terms. Napoleon invaded with the intention of ending the war in a short campaign centred on a decisive battle in western Russia. As the Russians withdrew, Napoleon's supply lines grew and his strength was in decline from week to week. The poor roads and harsh environment took a deadly toll on both horses and men, while politically Russia's oppressed serfs remained, for the most part, loyal to the aristocracy. Worse still, while Napoleon defeated the Russian Army at Smolensk and Borodino, it did not produce a decisive result for the French and each time left Napoleon with the dilemma of either retreating or pushing deeper into Russia. Neither was really an acceptable option, the retreat politically and the advance militarily, but in each instance, Napoleon opted for the latter. In doing so the French emperor outdid even Hitler and successfully took the Russian capital in September 1812, but it counted for little when the Russians simply refused to acknowledge defeat and prepared to fight on through the winter. By the time Napoleon left Moscow to begin his infamous retreat, the Russian campaign was doomed.

The invasion by Germany was called the Great Patriotic War by the Soviet people, to evoke comparisons with the victory by Tsar Alexander I over Napoleon's invading army. [124] In addition, the Germans, like the French, took solace from the notion they had been defeated by the Russian winter, rather than the Russians themselves or their own mistakes. [125]

Cultural impact Edit

An event of epic proportions and momentous importance for European history, the French invasion of Russia has been the subject of much discussion among historians. The campaign's sustained role in Russian culture may be seen in Tolstoy's War and Peace, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, and the identification of it with the German invasion of 1941–45, which became known as the Great Patriotic War in the Soviet Union.


Why did Napoleon's invasion of Russia fail?

Full answer is here. Correspondingly, what was the result of Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812?

A single battle (the Battle of Borodino) resulted in more than 70,000 casualties in one day. The invasion of Russia effectively halted Napoleon's march across Europe, and resulted in his first exile, to the Mediterranean island of Elba. terrible and damaging event. the way something is spread out over an area.

Also, where did the majority of Napoleon's soldiers come from in its campaign against Russia? In response, on Midsummer Day in 1812, Napoleon crossed the River Niemen into what was then the Russian province of Lithuania, in a bid to conquer Russia with the biggest, most spectacular army Europe had ever raised. This army consisted of almost half a million men, only half of them French.

Thereof, how did geography affect Napoleon's invasion of Russia?

In short, Russian geography defeated Napoleon by being too big to transport supplies and too cold for troops to survive. The furious Russian winter kicked in after Russian partisans set-fire to much of occupied Moscow to deprive the French invaders of food and lodgings.

Why did Napoleon attack Moscow?

In August Napoleon attempted to encircle the Russians at Smolensk, but they retreated once more. It was at that point he made the decision to advance to Moscow - because he believed the Russians would not allow the city to fall without a fight, and so he would get the decisive battle he wanted.


Why Invading Russia was Hitler's Downfall

&ldquoTwenty-seven million dead &ndash such a price was paid by no other country&hellip.You cannot understand Russia unless you understand what we went through in the war.&rdquo


&mdashVladimir Putin, June 22, 2001

June 22, 2020, marks the 79th anniversary of Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany&rsquos invasion of Russia. The event set off a new stage of World War II, precipitated a catastrophic loss of life in the Soviet Union, and, it would hardly be an exaggeration to say, changed the course of world history.

On this day in 1941, Nazi troops passed onto Soviet soil to commence a siege that caught most citizens by surprise. While Stalin had received numerous warnings from his military advisors that Hitler's attack was imminent, he did not heed their advice. By the end of the war, over 27 million Soviet citizens lost their lives.

The Soviet Union entered the war in 1939 when, under their Non-aggression Pact of 1939 with Germany, they invaded Poland and quickly defeated the Polish army. Secretly, an addendum had been added to the Pact. According to the addendum, Poland and the whole of Eastern Europe would be divided between Germany and the Soviet Union. The Soviets received Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Finland, and Poland east of a line formed by the Vistula and San rivers.

But Hitler&rsquos share of the spoils was not enough for him. The Führer was determined to take over the Soviet Union as soon as he obtained control of Europe, regardless of his pact with Stalin.

Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in the surprise attack known as Operation Barbarossa set off the Great Patriotic War, Russia's name for WWII as fought on Soviet soil. The Soviet Union needed to defend its borders and citizens &ndash and to do that, Stalin joined forces with the Allies. This was a significant turnaround after the pact with Hitler, but a necessary one to face the Nazis in war.

It has been speculated that if Hitler had not attacked the Soviet Union, Stalin may well have never entered WWII and would have continued to supply the Nazis with the materials of war. A worse scenario would have been if Stalin had supplemented Hitler&rsquos forces with Soviet troops. The outcome of WWII in Europe might have been very different.

Luckily for that particular period of world history, military leaders with the goal of gaining a foothold on Russian soil have not fared very well. Napoleon invaded Russia and tried to take Moscow beginning in mid-June of 1812. His attempt was far more short-lived than Hitler's, and just as unsuccessful. At least, unsuccessful for him: it became a central element of Lev Tolstoy&rsquos War and Peace, making it one of the most literarily important wars in history.

Hitler, initially, managed to take large portions of the Soviet Union west of the Urals with sweeping panzer movements. His goal was to take down the Soviets, gain control of Moscow, and proceed over the Urals to where Stalin had positioned the bulk of his manufacturing plants.

But it was not to be. By November, 1941, the Germans had suffered an unprecedented 730,000 casualties. The Soviet winter counter-offensives, launched in December, steadily exhausted and demoralized the Nazi troops. Hitler, having visions of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, forbade any form of retreat. This caused his troops to suffer dramatically as they lacked proper clothing and supplies to survive the brutal Russian winter.

On top of that, the Soviet Union was now one of the Allies. The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union prompted a resolution between Moscow, Britain, and the United States in September of 1941. The United States and Britain pledged quarterly allotments of supplies to the Soviet Union to aid in their struggle with Germany. By the end of winter, Hitler's divisions had been diminished by roughly two-thirds: it was a force he would never fully rebuild.

After tremendous suffering, loss of life and bloodshed, the Soviet Union managed to turn the tide with victories at Stalingrad and Kursk in 1942 and 1943. Like Napoleon, Hitler was run out of Russia, pursued by an army of determined Russians with a blood debt to settle. The Red Army pushed Hitler back to Berlin and captured that city in the early days of May 1945. Allied forces entered Berlin from the west, and the end of WWII in Europe was declared on May 9th &ndash a date celebrated as Victory Day in Russia to this day.

June 22 is a date that means little to the rest of the world and is acknowledged only in other nations affected by Hitler's siege, particularly Ukraine and Belarus. Russians see the eventual victory over Hitler as a testament to their endurance, tenacity, and iron will. They also see it, especially the victory at Stalingrad, as a decisive turning point in the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany.

The significance of today's anniversary and the events of the following years of the Great Patriotic War cannot be underestimated in understanding Russian history. Moreover, the continued impact of the violence of war, massive loss of life, and sense of importance in driving the Allies toward victory continues to shape Russia today.


Lessons from ‘Losses from the Russian Campaign’

The piece called “the best statistical graphic ever drawn” by seminal data visualization theorist Edward Tufte is Joseph Charles Minard’s ‘ Carte figurative des pertes successives en hommes de l’Armée Française dans la campagne de Russie 1812-1813 .’ Hereafter this work will be referred to as ‘Losses from the Russian Campaign,’ or by its common nickname, the Napoleon infographic. This was one of Minard’s last works , made at age 88, the year before he died. While he received a substantial amount of acclaim in his lifetime, the status the Napoleon infographic has come to reach is phenomenal. This piece launched the field of data visualization, popularized a new method of demonstrating data, and has remained prominent, admired, written about, and regularly imitated almost continuously since Minard made it in 1869.

A 1997 academic paper is dedicated to revisioning it with “cutting edge” 1997 computer analysis techniques, and every new generation of technology has done the same. Twenty years later, a 2017 interactive from a Russian news agency called ‘ When Napoleon Went East ’ did much the same thing, though on a different scale. It unpacks the story behind the infographic and the data Minard used. This unfolds across an interactive map of the campaign with asides, highlights, visual and explicit references to Minard, and customization options. This data visualization about a famous data visualization won gold in the 2017 Information is Beautiful Awards, an extremely competitive prize. There are also animated versions of the map, and countless other tweaked or overhauled incarnations. The York University site the 1997 paper is hosted on offered a “Re-visioning Minard Contest” with twenty wildly different entries. It has also been reimagined by the popular webcomic, XKCD .

This is the infographic that gets people excited and thinking about data visualization. Some never stop. As his epithet for ‘Losses from the Russian Campaign’ makes obvious, Edward Tufte has put this piece up on a pedestal, to the extent that everyone who attends one of his lectures receives a copy of the Napoleon infographic draped over the back of their chairs. He is not alone in his admiration even with the explosion of data visualization in the last decade, this one from 1869 consistently takes one of top spots in lists of the best or most influential infographics, especially in lists made by data artists .

If there was a Statue of David or Mona Lisa in the field of data visualization, ‘Losses from the Russian Campaign’ would be it: an over-referenced, often-imitated piece by a master about whom countless books, research papers and website interest pieces have been written. However, like the Statue of David and the Mona Lisa, ‘Losses from the Russian Campaign’ really is a beautiful, effective and affecting masterpiece that actually deserves its hyperbolic admiration.

Even within Minard’s own body of work, this piece is special. The Napoleon infographic was among Minard’s last , but it was paired and printed with a similarly conceptualized work depicting Hannibal’s disastrous march from Spain to Italy. For over a century, the Hannibal infographic has almost always been ignored or treated as a separate piece, even though, according to a 1997 paper by Michael Friendly of York University, “it is certain that Minard meant for them to be compared” and they do exhibit many similarities. Both show the destructive results of storied, ego-driven commanders leading massive forces out of their element, though on different scales. The comparison across time is interesting but both pieces are self sufficient and meaningful without it. The most likely reason that the Hannibal infographic is largely ignored though is the same reason the Napoleon infographic is so celebrated. Both use largely the same brilliant techniques, and the narratives are similar, but the material for the Napoleon one is far more recent, so much richer, and exponentially more horrific.

The data narrative told through the infographic is that of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign , when his Grande Armée crossed the Neman (Niemen) River with over 400,000 men from across the French Imperial Empire, in what has been called the largest European force ever assembled up to that point. It crossed into what was then Russia on June 24th, 1812. Just under six months later, the Grande Armée returned over that same river on December 14th with just 10,000 men… a 97% loss of life.

‘Losses from the Russian Campaign’ dissects this catastrophe through the depiction of six variables in an imaginative, integrated, and deceptively simple fashion. There is no flashy title, moving parts, complex color scheme, or moving description that one might expect from a modern infographic. Minard lets the data speak. According to his translated obituary , “Mr. Minard wrote without pretension, thinking only to join concision and clarity.” Minard simply explains how the piece works, and leaves the user to history’s lessons.

The variables Minard uses to tell the story of the Russia campaign include the size of the Grande Armée, represented by “the width of the colored zones” as he says in the translated description . Here he also explains that he intended the colored zones to represent “the men who entered Russia” (the pinkish color, which was once red) and “those who got out of it” (black). However, these colors also inherently denote the direction of the army’s movement. The other represented variables include the Grande Armée’s longitude (x axis) latitude (y axis) the temperature on the retreat from Moscow (in Minard’s contemporary Réaumur scale ), and time, as shown through key dates in the retreat. He also gives a window into Napoleon’s strategy by showing the branching off of battalions to strategic locations along the advance. Here is a version of the Napoleon infographic which includes a Réaumur to Fahrenheit conversion for context.

‘Losses from the Russian Campaign’ is immediately visually rich, but it is also so unique that reading it takes a little getting used to. For one, t he map is not obviously Russia. Friendly (1997) writes that “Minard almost invariably chose accuracy of the representation of data over the “tyranny of precise geographical position” whenever conflict arose – It is for this reason he carefully labeled his maps cartes figuratives et approximatives.” Without the distraction of detailed geography, the data is more clear, and the map becomes more intuitive the more you look at it.

It takes the user from the far left of the page and the crossing of the Nieman River all the way to Moscow, and back again. The width and lighter color of the advance have greater visual hierarchy and grab the eye. The line leads through its brutal, jagged diminution to the far edge of the map, where it doubles with the stark black line of the number of men on the retreat. This leads the user back across the page, until the line stops at the river it started at. The map equates life with width, and having followed the course of this journey from its beginning, then wide enough to correspond with 422,000 lives, the thinness at the very end is genuinely terrible.

All of Minard’s brilliant choices were also practical ones. Choosing to change the color of the line to show the retreat was a good move to differentiate it from the advance, but the genius was in picking black. In contrast with the alive-feeling color of the advance, the journey on the way back feels, simply put, doomed. It intuitively expresses the failure of the enterprise, and how the return was an entirely different experience for the forces than the advance. There had been no glory for the Grande Armée, and the spare sobriety of the Napoleon infographic’s palette makes that abundantly clear. The change to black ultimately makes it easy for the user to imagine the experiences that narrowed that line, and turns a military retreat into a horror story that is as emotionally affecting as it is intellectually compelling. This simple, evocative choice is one of the most foundational to the infographic’s success.

Another important choice was that Minard included the rivers, drawn with relative, undistracting accuracy. Again, the map does not look like Russia, but the rivers ground the map in recognizable geography. They also serve two other purposes. The first is that with its bends, forks, varying widths, and turns, the line showing the advance and retreat in ‘Losses from the Russian Campaign’ visually references the rivers it crosses. The shape feels recognizable, almost organic as a flow map, this is not a far reach. Minard operates on many levels, and a more conceptual metaphor works as well. Lives were carried along this course, directed by the decisions of Napoleon and a scattering of his officers: an unstoppable, inescapable, and deadly current.

Rivers were also of particular significance in the campaign. The Nieman was the start button of the whole affair, and bookended the entire, horrible reality of it. Every river narrows the line of how many lives remained on the campaign, from the Mohilow to the Moskva, just before Moscow. However, as Minard shows cleanly but poignantly, one river exacted a particularly harsh toll: the Bérézina.

An article from The Economist which covered Minard reports that “the French now use the expression “C’est la Bérézina” to describe a total disaster.” As the map shows, over halfway through the retreat, the 20,000 remaining forces who actually made it to Moscow (and survived the retreat to that point) were reunited with 30,000 men who had branched off early in the campaign to hold a more northern part of Russia. Their death rate was comparatively low (5,000/35,000). Without the journey to Moscow it is likely that their experience was substantially less horrific than their compatriots, but this did not last. The combined forces shortly reached the freezing Bérézina river. Minard shows the sudden, jagged cut to the width of the line 22,000 men, almost half of the combined forces, never made it across.

On the map this event is given no notation or description to mark it- just the change in width and numbers on either side of the river. No explanation is required the user can find the event with ease, immediately understand what it shows, and feel the repercussions. Minard’s representational devices are almost entirely self-sustained. It is worth noting that in English language articles, ‘Losses from the Russian Campaign’ is almost never shown translated or given a translation in the article text. This is because the description, simple as it, is almost superfluous. If the user has heard of Napoleon and knows that the infographic is about the Napoleonic campaign into Russia, the map can do the rest.

E.J. Maray is quoted as saying that the piece “seemed to defy the pen of the historian by its brutal eloquence.” Everything is clear, and nothing obstructs appreciation of the horrors of the data, like the crossing of the Bérézina River. The representation is impartial, clinically beautiful, and does not soften the reality of the events it depicts. This is the “brutal elegance” to which E.J. Maray refers . Minard’s obituary writer explains that his directive with information graphics was “that the first glance takes in and knows without fatigue, and which manifest immediately the natural consequences or the comparisons unforeseen.”

Minard’s retirement, which began in 1851, was spent in the years of France’s Second Empire (1852-1870), a Bonapartist regime. Under this administration, people were encouraged to be nostalgic about the years of France’s ascendancy during the first imperial period and the Napoleonic wars were heavily romanticized. For as public and respected a figure as Minard to make ‘Losses from the Russian Campaign,’ so accurately and horrifically depicting the beginning of Napoleon’s downfall and greatest military catastrophe in his career, much less in the history of the country of France, was a statement as clear as it was bold. The fundamental purpose of ‘Losses from the Russian Campaign’ was to show the cost of war, and to force a revisionist public to remember that cost, and own their loss. At this, he succeeded.

Minard had an abhorrence of warfare. He was never a soldier, but he did experience war. Already a star government engineer working internationally in 1815, he found himself “confined in the besieged town of Anvers” after which he “always retained a sharp impression of some bloody episodes of the bombardment.” He later had the task of overseeing the rebuilding of much of what the wars of the period had destroyed, and this experience stayed with him. Perhaps only in his later years did he have the distance to revisit this period of warfare from 1812-1813, so close to his own experiences two years later. A more likely motivation is that he saw the past being repeated, as the Second Empire descended into warfare it died the year he did, just after the Napoleon infographic was published.

Everything Minard did in his long, incredibly productive life was for a purpose. He is described in his translated obituary by his friend and successor as general inspector of bridges and roads, V. Chevallier, as being “the untiring savant who devoted his long existence to making himself useful.” He always “endeavored to popularize the most salient results” of the great technical, historical and economic questions he studied so that he could share his knowledge. Minard never stopped working and learning, and after his retirement (forced on him in 1851 at 70 by an age limit), “he put out a long series of research as interesting as it was varied, which only death interrupted.” This of course included his data visualizations “to which he attached a well merited importance.” Minard made roughly two of these per year for 27 years. Aside from his information graphics, he wrote “eight short books (including La Statistique, Minard (1869)), 10 sets of course or lecture notes, 30 published brochures and 17 articles” for a prestigious journal. His output was truly prodigious, and with it he made a mark on his world.

Minard first rose in the echelons of French society through his work as France’s chief engineer of roads and bridges, for which he received the cross of the Legion of Honor he would later be instrumental in the planning of France’s railway system. This influence grew exponentially because of his infographics. The man who wrote Minard’s obituary has reported that “Minard’s influence and contribution was such that, between approximately 1850 and 1860, all Ministers of Public Works in France had their portraits painted with one of Minard’s creations in the background.” In spite of his status and ability to use the resources of the state for his research, his data visualizations were rarely made for the government he began making them for his lessons when he became the superintendent and professor at the prestigious School of Bridges and Roads.

One of the hallmarks of Minard’s work is his attention to detail and devotion to data. He is always clear on any alterations he has made to the representation of his figures, including the following in the top legend of the translated flow map:

“To better represent the diminution of the army, I’ve pretended that the army corps of Prince Jerôme and of Marshall Davousz which were detached at Minsk and Mobilow and rejoined the main force at Orscha and Witebsk, had always marched together with the army.”

On modern infographics, this would be a footnote, but Minard always strived for transparency, and this choice made the map more effective. On Tufte’s website, he includes a profile of each of Minard’s known data sources, most of which were journals from survivors of the catastrophic campaign. In the translated flow map legend Minard explains: “The data used to draw up this chart were found in the works of Messrs. Thiers, de Ségur, de Fezensac, de Chambray and the unpublished journal of Jacob, pharmacist of the French army since 28 October.”

These sources are not clean-cut reports of troop movements and death counts. In his journal, the pharmacist Jacob , “tells grim tales of finding dead men in the snow, crossing at least a section of the Beresina with his suitcase on his shoulder and his body in the water, eating horses, walking with no hat, no scarf, and no gloves through the blizzard.” Another of Minard’s sources who survived the ordeal, the Duke of Fezensac wrote: “History offers no other example of such a disaster, and this journal can give but a feeble idea of its extent but at least I have written enough to preserve the memory of the events which I witnessed, some of which are little known.” Because he was an officer close to the top ranks, Fezensac was also aware of the catastrophic decision making going on, so this made him one of the most important data sources. As his profile states, “he was a witness to the ups and devastating downs of the whole affair.”

With intimate, harrowing research materials like these journals, and simply because of the subject matter, ‘Losses from the Russian Campaign’ was not like Minard’s other brilliant graphics, and neither was the process of making it. It is difficult to imagine that a man like Minard would not have applied special effort to representing this subject to the best of his considerable abilities.

However, in the roughly one hundred and fifty years since the infographic was made, the accepted statistics for this conflict have changed, meaning Minard’s numbers of 10,000 out of 422,000 returning from the campaign were incorrect. The number of troops that crossed the Nieman River is now accepted as 600,000, and the number of soldiers that returned is estimated at 30,000- a 95% loss instead of 97%. However, it has been projected that only 1,000 of these men were ever fit to resume military duty.

Because the proportions between the differing numbers are so similar, the magnitude of the loss that Minard portrayed is still accurate, and the infographic has maintained its relevance. The decisions that brought the French army to this devastation also have not changed, and therefore neither has the infographic’s narrative and purpose. It is not very well known, but Napoleon was actually convinced by several of his officers to end the campaign after only a month in, during which time he had already lost over 80,000 men to disease. History might have looked quite different had he not changed his mind two days later. He is quoted as saying, “The very danger pushes us on to Moscow. The die is cast. Victory will justify and save us.” Minard’s ‘Losses from the Russian Campaign’ quietly eviscerates this mentality and the catastrophic death it caused.

It is impressive that Minard’s figures (or at least proportions) were as close to accurate as they were. As seen in the date on the piece, Minard made this flow map in 1869, 56 years after the 1813 return of the remaining soldiers. This was a historical work, even then. Finding accurate data from the survivors was a long and difficult process, and even now it is hard to know how he tracked down the journals and data sources he did, some of which were unpublished. His dedication to pursuing research was as prodigious and prolific as everything else he did.

‘Losses from the Russian Campaign’ came from a brilliant mind that still casts a long shadow. In the last year of his life, Joseph Charles Minard produced a brutally eloquent message about the wastefulness of war that has informed and connected with audiences for centuries. Minard’s last work was also his greatest, and truly deserves Tufte’s epithet of being the best statistical graphic ever drawn.


Disease, Starvation, and the Brutal Russian Winter – Why Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia Failed

In 1812, Napoleon’s Grande Armée (Great Army) invaded Russia. Though made up of about 680,000 soldiers, they lost. Historians have given many reasons as to why they did – citing weather, logistics, and crazy Russian tactics which didn’t care how many of their own civilians suffered and died.

While all true, a recent discovery revealed another, more devastating explanation.

It was made in Vilnius, Lithuania in the autumn of 2001. Workers were destroying a Soviet Army barracks and digging trenches to lay down telephone wires when they came upon something gruesome – human bones. A lot of them.

Given where they were found, everyone was convinced that they were victims of the KGB. Eight years before, they had found a mass grave filled with about 700 bodies – all confirmed KGB killings.

So they called in the Lithuanian Prosecutor General’s office, which in turn called on the Institute of Forensic Medicine. But the bones predated the Soviet occupation, so they called in archaeologists.

Digging a little more, they discovered 3,269 bodies at one site, alone. A search through the historical records found that after Napoleon’s retreat, locals dumped 7,190 people and 12 horses in the area.

Vasily Vereshchagin’s, “On the Big Road,” depicting the Grande Armée’s retreat

They also found coins, medals, buttons, belt buckles, and the remains of uniforms belonging to Napoleonic France. Forensic evidence not only supported the historical narrative, but it also revealed something new.

So first the history. Napoleonic France was originally allied with the Russian Empire, but there was a problem – Britain.

Thanks to its vast navy, Britain ruled the waves and wasn’t happy about Napoleon. The feeling was mutual, so to force them into submission, he imposed the continental system – a trade embargo meant to isolate the British and force them into a peace treaty.

But the Russians weren’t happy, either. They were rich in natural resources but were technologically backward and poor. Britain was the exact opposite, so its growing number of factories were always hungry for raw materials. Desperate for cash, Russia defied the blockade.

Nikolay Samokish’s “Courage of General Raevsky,” depicting Russian forces at the Battle of Saltanovka on July 23rd, 1812.

Which upset Napoleon, of course. Under the pretext of liberating Poland, he invaded Russian Poland. The bulk of his troops gathered at Kaunas and Aleksotas (both in Lithuania) and crossed the Neman River into Western Russia on June 24 th , 1812.

Supplying such a large army wasn’t easy, but he had expected a quick victory. It was anything but quick, as the Russians kept avoiding him save for some engagements like those at Smolensk in August and at Borodino in September.

When not fighting, Russian troops would burn their own towns and fields to deprive the invaders of food and shelter. Unfortunately, it had the same effect on their own civilian populace.

Starving, exhausted, and facing the brutal Russian winter, Napoleon withdrew his army to Smolensk and Vilnius with the Russians in hot pursuit. Only about 27,000 soldiers made it out, leaving some 100,000 captured and another 380,000 dead.

Napoleon’s invasion ended on December 14 th , 1812 – and with it, his reputation was devastated and his eventual defeat assured.

John Heaviside Clark’s “Crossing the Neman,” by the Grande Armée.

The mass grave proves that his army had indeed suffered from hunger, cold, and other injuries associated with war. They also came from other parts of Europe, consistent with the fact that the Grand Armée was an international force. A few were also women who served as cooks, clothes-washers, and nurses, as well as wives and camp followers.

The most devastating thing the archeologists found, however, were DNA samples of the bacteria which cause trench fever and typhus.

You can’t get either from cold, hunger, or injury. You can only get them from lice. So that was the other thing they found – DNA from lice. It was on everything. Sadly, even that is mentioned in the historical records.

Across the river, most Russian roads were nothing more than dirt tracks. Though not a problem for the infantry and cavalry, it was a problem for the supply wagons and slowed them down considerably.

Even before they reached Vilnius, records show that they lost almost 20,000 horses due to the lack of water and fodder. Men became delirious from high fever, others got rashes all over their bodies, and still others turned blue in the face before dropping dead. The doctors just couldn’t cope with the numbers.

Lack of adequate sanitation, wearing the same uniform for weeks on end, as well as close quarters, made excellent breeding ground for lice, fleas, and disease.

According to Baron Dominique Jean Larrey (the head military surgeon), the lice were everywhere because of the unusual summer heat. When it became too much, men would rip their off uniforms and burn them for fun.

Because the clothes were so thickly infested that they’d first explode. Then they’d fizzle before bursting out in tiny fireworks from the burning insects.

Charles Joseph Minard’s famous 1869 chart depicting the Grand Armée’s losses during the Russian Campaign.

Winter took care of the insects, but most didn’t have sufficiently warm clothing to deal with the extreme cold. With supply wagons bogged down, the land insufficient to sustain such vast numbers, and the Russians burning what was left, hunger did the rest. But it doesn’t end there.

The archaeologists also found that all of the bodies had been malnourished since childhood. While some may have joined the Grand Armée for glory, many must have done so in the hope of regular meals, and the chance of a glorious reward which never came.


Find out more

1812: The Great Retreat by Paul Britten-Austin (Greenhill Books, 1996)

1812: Napoleon's Invasion of Russia by Paul Britten-Austin (Greenhill Books, 2000)

With Napoleon in Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Faber Du Faur, 1812 by Christian Wilhelm von Faber du Faur ed. Jonathan North (Greenhill Books, 2001)

1812: Eyewitness Accounts of Napoleon's Defeat in Russia ed. Anthony Brett-James (Macmillan, 1966)

Napoleon's Invasion of Russia by George F Nafziger (Presidio Press, 1998)

In the Legions of Napoleon: Memoirs of a Polish Officer by Heinrich von Brandt ed. Jonathan North (Greenhill Books, 1999)

In the Service of the Tsar against Napoleon by Denis Davidov, translated by Gregory Troubetzkoy (Greehill Books, 1999)


Disease, Starvation, and the Brutal Russian Winter – Why Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia Failed

In 1812, Napoleon’s Grande Armée (Great Army) invaded Russia. Though made up of about 680,000 soldiers, they lost. Historians have given many reasons as to why they did – citing weather, logistics, and crazy Russian tactics which didn’t care how many of their own civilians suffered and died.

While all true, a recent discovery revealed another, more devastating explanation.

It was made in Vilnius, Lithuania in the autumn of 2001. Workers were destroying a Soviet Army barracks and digging trenches to lay down telephone wires when they came upon something gruesome – human bones. A lot of them.

Given where they were found, everyone was convinced that they were victims of the KGB. Eight years before, they had found a mass grave filled with about 700 bodies – all confirmed KGB killings.

So they called in the Lithuanian Prosecutor General’s office, which in turn called on the Institute of Forensic Medicine. But the bones predated the Soviet occupation, so they called in archaeologists.

Digging a little more, they discovered 3,269 bodies at one site, alone. A search through the historical records found that after Napoleon’s retreat, locals dumped 7,190 people and 12 horses in the area.

Vasily Vereshchagin’s, “On the Big Road,” depicting the Grande Armée’s retreat

They also found coins, medals, buttons, belt buckles, and the remains of uniforms belonging to Napoleonic France. Forensic evidence not only supported the historical narrative, but it also revealed something new.

So first the history. Napoleonic France was originally allied with the Russian Empire, but there was a problem – Britain.

Thanks to its vast navy, Britain ruled the waves and wasn’t happy about Napoleon. The feeling was mutual, so to force them into submission, he imposed the continental system – a trade embargo meant to isolate the British and force them into a peace treaty.

But the Russians weren’t happy, either. They were rich in natural resources but were technologically backward and poor. Britain was the exact opposite, so its growing number of factories were always hungry for raw materials. Desperate for cash, Russia defied the blockade.

Nikolay Samokish’s “Courage of General Raevsky,” depicting Russian forces at the Battle of Saltanovka on July 23rd, 1812.

Which upset Napoleon, of course. Under the pretext of liberating Poland, he invaded Russian Poland. The bulk of his troops gathered at Kaunas and Aleksotas (both in Lithuania) and crossed the Neman River into Western Russia on June 24 th , 1812.

Supplying such a large army wasn’t easy, but he had expected a quick victory. It was anything but quick, as the Russians kept avoiding him save for some engagements like those at Smolensk in August and at Borodino in September.

When not fighting, Russian troops would burn their own towns and fields to deprive the invaders of food and shelter. Unfortunately, it had the same effect on their own civilian populace.

Starving, exhausted, and facing the brutal Russian winter, Napoleon withdrew his army to Smolensk and Vilnius with the Russians in hot pursuit. Only about 27,000 soldiers made it out, leaving some 100,000 captured and another 380,000 dead.

Napoleon’s invasion ended on December 14 th , 1812 – and with it, his reputation was devastated and his eventual defeat assured.

John Heaviside Clark’s “Crossing the Neman,” by the Grande Armée.

The mass grave proves that his army had indeed suffered from hunger, cold, and other injuries associated with war. They also came from other parts of Europe, consistent with the fact that the Grand Armée was an international force. A few were also women who served as cooks, clothes-washers, and nurses, as well as wives and camp followers.

The most devastating thing the archeologists found, however, were DNA samples of the bacteria which cause trench fever and typhus.

You can’t get either from cold, hunger, or injury. You can only get them from lice. So that was the other thing they found – DNA from lice. It was on everything. Sadly, even that is mentioned in the historical records.

Across the river, most Russian roads were nothing more than dirt tracks. Though not a problem for the infantry and cavalry, it was a problem for the supply wagons and slowed them down considerably.

Even before they reached Vilnius, records show that they lost almost 20,000 horses due to the lack of water and fodder. Men became delirious from high fever, others got rashes all over their bodies, and still others turned blue in the face before dropping dead. The doctors just couldn’t cope with the numbers.

Lack of adequate sanitation, wearing the same uniform for weeks on end, as well as close quarters, made excellent breeding ground for lice, fleas, and disease.

According to Baron Dominique Jean Larrey (the head military surgeon), the lice were everywhere because of the unusual summer heat. When it became too much, men would rip their off uniforms and burn them for fun.

Because the clothes were so thickly infested that they’d first explode. Then they’d fizzle before bursting out in tiny fireworks from the burning insects.

Charles Joseph Minard’s famous 1869 chart depicting the Grand Armée’s losses during the Russian Campaign.

Winter took care of the insects, but most didn’t have sufficiently warm clothing to deal with the extreme cold. With supply wagons bogged down, the land insufficient to sustain such vast numbers, and the Russians burning what was left, hunger did the rest. But it doesn’t end there.

The archaeologists also found that all of the bodies had been malnourished since childhood. While some may have joined the Grand Armée for glory, many must have done so in the hope of regular meals, and the chance of a glorious reward which never came.


Watch the video: Napoleons invasion of Russia visualized