During the tragic russian countryside which began on June 24, 1812,Napoleon I lost more than 300,000 men. It was the beginning of the end for the French Empire. The retreat will be marked by numerous scenes of atrocities where the barbarity of the Cossacks disputes it in the deplorable climatic conditions imposed by "General Winter". The Russian campaign is one of the most dramatic episodes in the entire history of the Napoleonic Wars. The tragedy deeply marked the spirits, to the point that Bérézina has become a common expression to speak of a calamitous situation.
The reasons for entering the war
We sometimes hear that the Russian campaign was an act of hibris on the part of Napoleon who, at the height of his glory and his power, would have lost everything in a too daring expedition. This claim deserves to be challenged since firstly Napoleon was not in an easy situation then and therefore the invasion of Russia was not a personal whim.
Indeed in 1811 Napoleon, although at the head of the first European power (not to say world), encountered some difficulties. From a symbolic point of view firstly the situation with the papacy has escalated, but worse, from a military point of view the imperial army is completely stuck in Spain where it faces the guerrillas and the English. The best troops are therefore forced to stay on the peninsula and the constant losses weigh on public opinion. The defeats suffered by the French generals put an end to the myth of the imperial army's invincibility, and the European monarchies regained hope of bringing the Empire to the ground. In 1809, when Austria declared war on France, the Russian ally was frozen out. It was only by his own means that Napoleon silenced Austrian tendencies.
The Russian alliance therefore had only the name. The Tsar had not supported France, distancing himself more and more from France since the interview in Erfurt in 1808 when Talleyrand had taken care to awaken in him the idea of becoming the new liberator of the Europe by putting the Eagle on the ground. In the meantime, the Czar remains in a passivity which exacerbates Napoleon, the alliance is no longer useful: militarily, as we have seen, but also economically. Indeed the purpose of the alliance was to expand the continental blockade intended to strangle the British economy: it is not respected by Russia.
Napoleon also hoped for flourishing Franco-Russian exchanges, it is a disillusionment: the long distances mean that the exchanges are weak, confined to luxury goods. However, the Czar imposes dissuasive customs tariffs on this type of product. Military and economic disillusionment, but also lineage since the Czar refused Napoleon's hand to Napoleon, forcing the latter to refer to Marie-Louise of Austria.
Besides, the Czar is also very disappointed with Napoleon, it seems clear to him that Tilsit's commitments were only words. Alexander was weary of waiting for a campaign against Turkey that was still pushed back, he could no longer bear the brakes Napoleon put on his ambitions for Constantinople. He hardly supports either this Poland almost resuscitated under French influence under the name of Duchy of Warsaw, there, just at its gates. Finally, since the annexation of Oldenburg, France controlled the Baltic Sea, artery of Russian trade ... Russian trade, moreover, in bad shape since the continental blockade, with a trade balance still favorable to France.
In 1811 Napoleon felt that the Czar was going to pass from passive resistance to armed resistance: rumors of rearmament were running. Marshal Davout stationed in Poland informed him of the large movement of Russian troops to the east. Things are confirmed and Napoleon convinced himself that Poland was threatened, he sent troops to strengthen the possible future front line. For his part, the Czar Alexander remained hesitant, he ended up abandoning his preparations for attack to adopt a defensive strategy.
The march to war
The bellicose intentions of Russia having been revealed, respecting the continental blockade being a priority for Napoleon, he prepared his invading army. While the ambassadors drag out the negotiations in Saint Petersburg, Napoleon sets a levy of 120,000 men for 1812. The topography cabinet of the war office is responsible for producing the maps necessary for the future campaign. From January 1812, imperial armies stationed across Europe converged on Germany while Davout and his 150,000 men protected the Polish border.
Prussia is hesitant about what to do next, there is no lack of desire to follow the Russians but this would require Austria to do the same, victory would be more certain. However, Austria, defeated in 1809, was not yet in a position to offer real resistance to the French army. Finally, Prussia resigned herself to allowing the imperial army to pass through her territory and to provide it with about half of its own troops, or nearly 20,000 men. Austria follows suit, supplying 30,000 men with the promise of seizing the Romanian regions. Eventually Prussia and Austria find some interest in this easterly push, Austria would concede and give Galicia to the Prussians if it can seize Illyria.
Sweden on the other hand remains very cold towards Napoleon. The aristocracy is hostile to him and although French King Bernadotte only supports the interests of his own country. The continental blockade is no longer respected, Napoleon occupies Swedish Pomerania and Bernadotte joins the ranks of the enemies of his native land.
Russia of course obtains the adhesion of the United Kingdom, but also the neutrality of the Turks whom they have just beaten. Despite the immensity of his empire, the Czar Alexander was handicapped by the absence of conscription, he could only line up two armies, one under the orders of Barclay de Tolly (120,000 men) and the other under the command of Bagration ( 40,000 men).
On April 8, the Czar issued an ultimatum to Napoleon, ordering him to evacuate Prussia and all the lands beyond the Elbe. Before even waiting for the answer Alexander took command of his army in Vilna. Napoleon had prepared his campaign, he could no longer turn back and took personal command of the army.
Entering the campaign
On May 16, Napoleon was in Dresden, surrounded by his allies: the Emperor of Austria Francis, the King of Prussia Frederick William and the King of Bavaria. In a revolutionary enthusiasm which astonishes Napoleon sings "The song of departure"! On June 24, the Napoleonic army crossed the Niemen and entered Russian territory, the same night Napoleon's horse, frightened by a hare, unsettled its rider. Some saw it as a dire omen.
Napoleon marches ahead with an army of 250,000 men, mostly French, he is supported on his flanks by the army of his son-in-law Eugène de Beauharnais (90,000 soldiers from Italy and southern Germany) and that of King of Westphalia, his brother Jérôme Bonaparte (70,000 Germans and Poles). Nothing seems to stop Napoleon's army, but the enemy is constantly slipping away. On June 28 Vilna is taken but Jérôme does not manage to prevent Bagration from withdrawing, the tone rises within the French command and Jérôme returns home ...
As the French army sinks into Russia's immensity it weakens. In fact, Napoleon was still forced to leave small contingents behind to ensure the safety of his supply lines. Refueling which is moreover less and less effective as we move away from the border. Added to this is the almost natural phenomenon which causes any army on the march to shrink due to desertions and diseases (typhus, dysentery, etc.).
But the invading army suffered, not from the cold at the start of the campaign, but from the heat of the days which contrasted too much with the freshness of the nights. The supplies are bad, to relieve France Napoleon had planned to use on Prussia and Poland, but the hostile population of the first and the bad harvests of the second make this plan lame. The army is losing 5 to 6,000 men a day! Not all exhausted people make it to hospitals, and many rotting bodies pollute the air along the paths.
Clash of the Titans
The Russian army has never stopped retreating, not out of strategic insight as it is sometimes said, but out of fear of confrontation, at least that is what Jean Tulard emphasizes. On the contrary, Marie-Pierre Rey emphasizes that the withdrawal orders were printed even before the invasion, thus justifying strategic premeditation. The two are not incompatible, the General Staff certainly had foreseen this option and the generals on the ground certainly found it too risky to face Napoleon anyway. They therefore withdraw, burning behind them the non-transportable supply stocks. On August 17, the Russians sought to defend Smolensk: the burnt city fell into the hands of the French and the Russians resumed their frantic flight. Arrived in Moscow, however, it seems out of the question to continue to retreat.
Russian Marshal Kutuzov, who replaced Bagration, gazes with a vulture's eye at this self-weakening prey. On September 7, 1812 he placed his troops in a defensive position, determined to defend Moscow. The Russian strategy consists in positioning a considerable number of soldiers (110,000) on a front of 8 km by relying on a network of redoubts supporting each other by their guns and offering formidable defensive anchors with mounds of earth, ditches, networks of piles to pack the horses and lines of wolf traps ... The goal is simple: to force Napoleon to a war of attrition where he will not be able to deploy his tactical genius and will be forced to send his men to the butcher's shop on a sophisticated defensive system. The use of the scorched earth tactic will do the rest.
At dawn, 1227 pieces of artillery vomited hell (on average 3 cannon shots per second and 430 rifle shots per minute), the battle was extremely violent and indecisive, especially around the Great Russian Redoubt which is ultimately only carried away by an epic charge of cuirassiers commanded by Caulaincourt, who is killed on this occasion. Napoleon hesitates to have his Guard given, he finally decides to keep it intact and perhaps loses the opportunity to crush the Russian army. In the evening the Russians lost 45,000 men (killed and wounded), they also abandoned a thousand prisoners and twenty guns. The French count more than 6,540 killed and 21,450 wounded.
At night the exhausted soldiers bivouac on the battlefield where corpses and dying comrades pile up, mingled with more than 15,000 horses cut down in the battle. Kutuzov uses this respite to fall back in disorder and manages to pass off his fierce resistance as a victory that will go down in Russian history as Borodino, the name of a village on the battlefield. On the French side, the battle bears the name of Moskova (from the name of the river) and the victory cannot be called into question since Napoleon made his entry into Moscow on the 14th.
Napoleon enters the Kremlin, it is certain that the end of the campaign is near. It was by taking Berlin and Vienna that he had negotiated peace with Prussia and Austria, so must Russia. It was sometimes said that he should then have abolished serfdom in order to rally the peasants, but that would have been to commit to redistributing land and entering into a fight to the death with the armies of the Czar while he was far away. from its supply bases (a courier took two weeks to go from Moscow to Paris). No, Napoleon is a man of lightning war, he invades and negotiates, he has no interest in staying here, Moscow is just a stopping place and a bargaining chip.
Moscow, the holy city, was evacuated of its population. Suddenly a fire breaks out, then another, the whole town is set on fire! We throw ourselves towards the water pumps: they have disappeared! Everywhere arsonists released from prisons by Governor Rostopchine on the orders of General Koutouzov set the city on fire. Fanned by a violent wind, the flames spread inexorably in the middle of the mostly wooden buildings. Heat invaded the streets, sparks burned skins, some soldiers took advantage of the state of panic to plunder the city: on that day hell was in Moscow. Powerless, Napoleon watches his conquest go up in smoke. The fire did not stop until the 21st, for lack of fuel ... The arsonists who had been arrested were executed.
Napoleon, however, did not lose hope, he waited for a response from the Czar, the start of negotiations, a desire for peace… Nothing came. Fearing to be trapped in Russia, he resigned himself to ordering the retreat. On October 19, the French army left Moscow in ruins, leaving behind 700 sick and wounded, which Cossack General Ilowaiski gave to the peasants who massacred them to share their uniforms.
The retreat from Russia
The retreat is the most famous event of the unfortunate Russian campaign, the soldiers are forced to turn back and have great difficulty in obtaining supplies in a country where the population is hostile and where the Cossacks implement the principle of scorched earth. At the height of their woes, winter suddenly hit Russia with freezing temperatures reaching -25 or even -30 degrees. After an exceptionally mild October, the French did not expect to be thrown into white hell like this.
In summer uniform, the soldiers are caught off guard and somehow adapt to what they find on the way. The column stretches out, encumbered with loot amassed and pulled into various cars. Cars which will all end up on the sides of the road when the horses in turn succumb to the cold and hunger. The cold sticks to the lips, freezes the limbs, he who never dozes off never wakes up. The Cossacks finish off those who remain behind or move away from the main column.
The Cossacks massacre, capture some moujiks are ready to pay to have a Frenchman in their hands for the simple pleasure of impaling him or throwing him in a cauldron of boiling water. Hunger grips the stomachs, giving birth to the most sublime cohesions as well as the most unhealthy selfishness. Horse meat is a delicacy, those long dead, frozen, are difficult to cut, even with an ax. But as soon as they stumble we rush on those still alive! In the midst of starving soldiers, Russian prisoners are even worse off, and even among their ranks we can see acts of cannibalism. Soldiers, prisoners, but there are also a few women in this human flow: officers' wives, vivandières, actresses, women of bad life ...
In Smolensk, a city burnt down during the conquest, Napoleon had planned supplies, but the disorganization of the supplies meant that they were insufficient and only benefited, so to speak, the Guard, who arrived first. On November 6, 1812 Napoleon learned terrible news. The rumor of the military disaster reached Paris and General Malet nearly toppled the regime. The latter staged a coup by announcing the death of the Emperor and rallying various companies in the capital on the mere presentation of a bogus order from the Senate. Supported in this way, he freed a few companions from prison and even managed to lure the first regiment of the Imperial Guard to whom he ordered to block the entrances to Paris. He has Savary and the Prefect of Police imprisoned, all that remains is to convince General Hullin, Commander-in-Chief of the Place de Paris, to hold the capital.
But as the day breaks the deception is unmasked by Hullin and his staff, Malet is finally arrested. Napoleon is ulcerated by this news, it is not so much the audacity of Malet that puts him beside himself but rather the incompetence of his ministers who let themselves be surprised and the behavior of the officers who followed a pseudo-order of the Senate. without even thinking of joining his thread, the Aiglon. Aware of the danger posed by rumors of his death, eager to resolve these political failures, convinced that the only way to resume the military initiative is to raise a new army in France to counterattack, Napoleon decides to leave his army for Paris . He advances with his men, under the pressure of the Russians who try to block the road, to stop him, and are faced with fierce resistance as in Krasnoë where Ney manages to save the rear guard. Faced with the danger of Cossack raids, 600 cavalrymen were assembled in Doubrowna, who still had their horses, to form around the Emperor this bodyguard which was called the "sacred squadron".
On November 21, Napoleon only had 24,000 soldiers ...
The Russian campaign turns to Berezina
Arriving at Bérézina, the army finds itself stuck in front of a river carrying huge blocks of ice. For the Russian army the moment of hallali seems to have come, but thanks to the sacrifice of its pontonniers who work wonders in the icy waters, the French army manages to escape with 50,000 combatants. Yet it is only at the cost of scenes of horror, a rear guard holding back the enemy while on the bridges we trample, we jostle, and at the slightest misstep we disappear forever in the tumult of the waters. jellies.
He entrusts the command to his brother-in-law Murat and leaves for Paris by sledge, only accompanied by Caulaincourt, Duroc, Mouton and a few others. For this trip from December 7 to 18, 1812, Napoleon carried a small vial of poison around the neck, a tragic alternative to capture. The getaway will end in a vulgar post car, in Meaux the Emperor and his companions had to give credit to pay for the travel costs, having between them all only 80 francs in their pocket ...
Unable to manage this routed army Murat in turn entrusts command to Marshal Ney who deploys colossal energy to save what can be. On December 8, the scraps of the French army were jostled by Koutouzov in Vilna and on the 12th they crossed the Niemen again. The losses of the Napoleonic army are estimated at over 390,000 dead, including prisoners and deserters.
On December 31, 1812, the Prussians, feeling in a position of strength, changed camps. From then on, Napoleon's allies turned against him one by one, all hoping to have their share of the pie for having participated in the victorious march of the Russian army. Although after this turnaround Napoleon's situation seemed hopeless, he nevertheless managed to organize fierce resistance thanks to a new army raised in emergency. The year 1813 was marked by the German campaign where, although outnumbered, Napoleon managed to defeat the allies on several occasions.
So much so that the order becomes not to attack the French army when Napoleon is in command, but only when one is facing one of his generals ... Napoleon may be a genius, he cannot be everywhere at the same time. … The adventure ends in 1814 with the campaign of France where Napoleon offers a dazzling spectacle of strategic qualities, glorious swan song until abdication.
- BOUDON Jacques-Olivier, History of the Consulate and the Empire, Perrin, 2003.
- DAMAMME Jean-Claude, The soldiers of the Grande Armée, Perrin, 2002.
- GARNIER Jacques, Atlas Napoléon. 126 maps on Napoleonic life and campaigns, Napoleon 1st Edition, 2006.
- REY Marie-Pierre, The terrible tragedy. A New Story from the Russian Campaign, Flammarion, 2012.
- PIGEARD Alain, Dictionary of Napoleon's battles, Tallandier, 2004.