Napoleon’s March to Russia

Blowhard, Esq. writes:

The Corsican in more triumphant times. Portrait by Jacques-Louis David, 1801-1805.

The Corsican in more triumphant times. Portrait by Jacques-Louis David, 1801-1805.

The year 1812 was a turning point in Napoleon’s career due to his fateful decision to invade Russia. While many know of his defeat by the Russian army in the bitter winter cold, less well known (at least to me) is the arduous, hellish story of his army’s march to Moscow in the first place.

Why did he invade Russia at all? There were a few reasons but a major one was that in the early 1800s Napoleon had rallied and coerced his allies into imposing an economic blockade against his hated enemy, the British. While Russia was initially a participant in this blockade, the resulting toll on its economy was too great such that Tsar Alexander reneged on his promise and resumed trade with Great Britain. In addition, Napoleon was a self-made man, a hick from the sticks, who couldn’t rely on any sort of noble birth or royal authority on which to base his rule. Instead, his political legitimacy rested on military prowess, on his insatiable hunger for more territory. As for the long distance from Paris to Moscow, Napoleon scoffed, “Alexander the Great was as far as from Moscow when he marched to the Ganges.” Thus, in May 1812, Napoleon left Paris and headed east.

By June 1812, his Grande Armée consisted of 650,000 troops, the largest army Europe had seen up to that point. Less than half of his troops were French, the balance coming from all over the French empire and its territories – Belgians, Germans, Prussians, Austrians, Dutchmen, Italians, Swiss, Poles, Lithuanians. The men brought with them 200,000 horses, whole herds of cattle and oxen, large quantities of biscuit, rice, and fodder for the animals, and brandy for the men. The supply train was the largest ever gathered, consisting of 26 transport battalions. There were over 25,000 wagons and ambulance carts, over 1,400 cannon. One historian has joked that it was the “largest traffic jam in European history.”

In previous campaigns against the Italians, Austrians, and Prussians, Napoleon relied on a nimble army that was able to execute lightning strikes. But with hundreds of thousands of troops split into three massive divisions, it was not easy to maintain the tight communication necessary to pull off complicated coordinated attacks. Not to mention that feeding and supplying all those men was a logistical nightmare. Even with its enormous supply train, soldiers still relied on foraging off the land as they had in earlier campaigns. In late June, one of Napoleon’s Polish commanders notified him that as the army was stripping the land of food foraging was becoming increasingly difficult, that the supply problems were growing more serious every day. An eyewitness in Vilna observed how the French army commandeered all of the bakeries. At first the Lithuanians greeted the army as liberators, but they soon fled into the forest with all the food they could carry in an attempt to flee from the ravenous soldiers.

French grenadier and voltigeur of 1808. From P.-M. Laurent de L`Ardeche's «Histoire de Napoleon», 1843

French grenadier and voltigeur of 1808. From P.-M. Laurent de L`Ardeche’s «Histoire de Napoleon», 1843

While the bitter Russian winter that Napoleon faced has passed into legend, less well known is the searing, oppressive heat suffered by the soldiers during their summer march. Torrential rain was followed by heat that could get as high as 97 degrees. Jacob Walter, a young German foot soldier, wrote that “heat and dust flared up into our eyes, as if from smoking coal heaps.” To lighten their packs, many soldiers threw away vests, cleaning articles, and trousers. When they crossed the Neman River, they thought it would be easier to find food, but towns and villages were already stripped by peasants fleeing ahead of the army. When Walter and his fellow soldiers found some sacks of flour they had to hold off fifty villagers. “They charged us, we had no choice but to shoot at them,” he wrote.

It was also difficult to find potable water. They drank reddish-brown swamp water through pieces of cloth to avoid swallowing millions of tiny red worms. One witness wrote, “The men grew weaker every day, and the companies grew smaller. We marched day and night.” Another conscript lamented, “I look forward to getting killed, for I am dying as I march.” Dysentery, hunger, and dehydration brought down tens of thousands of men while thousands more deserted. Without enough fodder, horses did no better. By the time Napoleon reached Vitebsk in late July, his Grande Armeé hadn’t yet engaged the Russians in major battle but his fighting force had already lost more than one third of its men.

Several times as they marched east, Napoleon thought about turning around and abandoning the campaign. In private he wrote, “I have marched too far.” In mid-August, when his army had shrunk to 156,000, he debated with his generals whether to press onward. He announced that he campaign was over but, two days later, he changed his mind. He ultimately decided that he couldn’t abandon his pursuit of the Russians and thought victory would come once he got to Moscow. He said, “The very danger pushes us on to Moscow. The die is cast. Victory will justify and save us.” A Lithuanian observer blamed Napoleon’s “fatal genius.” He said, “From illusion to illusion he rushed to his ruin, rejecting the truth as an apparition whose presence he could not endure.”


Charles Joseph Minard’s flow map of Napoleon’s march to Russia, published in 1869. Edward Tufte, the data visualization expert, said that it “may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn.”

September 7, 1812, the Battle of Borodino. Technically, the French won because the Russians had withdrawn. The road to Moscow was wide open. There were 44,000 Russian casualties to France’s loss of 30,000. Jacob Walter, our German foot soldier, called the battlefield a “kingdom of death.” Borodino still didn’t give Napoleon decisive victory he needed.


Louis Lejeune, “The Battle of Moscow, 7th September 1812,” 1822

On September 14, 1812, Napoleon marched into Moscow. One of his commanders later wrote that Napoleon’s “joy was overflowing. The Russians, he thinks, will sue for peace, and I shall change the face of the world. Alas! how short was this moment of happiness!” The city was empty. Its 300,000 citizens had evacuated. The starving army scoured the town for food and drink, barging into houses and churches to take everything they could find. Jacob Walter recalled that “there were beets as large as bowling balls.” The next night, Moscow went up in flames. The city governor had hired arsonists so as to leave nothing for the French. Later, during his exile on St. Helena, Napoleon said of that night, “O, it was the most grand, the most sublime, the most terrifying sight the world ever beheld.”

The French occupied Moscow, the city had been destroyed. Napoleon was certain that Alexander would surrender. He moved into the Kremlin to await word of the Russian capitulation, but days passed and the French envoys came back empty-handed. Alexander had no intention of surrendering. He wrote to his sister, “I have learned to know him now. Napoleon or I, I or Napoleon. We cannot reign side by side.” Back in St. Petersburg, Alexander was building his army.

Franz Krüger, "Portrait of Alexander I of Russia," 1837

Franz Krüger, “Portrait of Alexander I of Russia,” 1837

Napoleon could wait no more. Winter was coming. He left Moscow, his army consisting of fewer than 100,000 men. On November 6th, 1812, the first significant snow fell. The temperature dropped to -35 degrees at night. Horses froze in their tracks, soldiers fought over scraps of food. A witness recalled that “every sentiment of man was extinguished.” What did Napoleon himself feel? What was going on in his mind? Walter personally observed Napoleon walking among his men, “It is impossible to guess what he felt in his heart. His outward manner seemed indifferent and unconcerned over his soldiers’ wretchedness. He may have only felt ambition and lost honor.”


Adolph Northen, “Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow,” c. mid-1800s


    • Mark Knopfler’s “Done with Bonaparte.” As Paleo Retiree said, it’s not often you come across a great song set during the retreat of Napoleon’s army from Russia.

About Blowhard, Esq.

Amateur, dilettante, wannabe.
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5 Responses to Napoleon’s March to Russia

  1. John Adan says:

    Dysentery killed 200,000 troops, mostly foreigners, before Grande Armee reached Russian border.
    On the way back, the survivors were eating grass and berries. In Vilnius, locals locked their gates, soldiers slept outdoors on the ground, thousands froze to death.


  2. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    Weird coincidence (or maybe not?) of history: Both Napoleon and Hitler invaded Russia on the same calendar day: June 22.

    Seems to me that Russia is too big and decentralized to be conquered and held. Plus, it’s full of goddamn Russians. But if you’re a power-mad egomaniac bent on dominating Europe, you need to neutralize that power to the east.


    • John Adan says:

      Genghis Khan made Russia what it is today. They had to develop entirely new tactics and strategy to cope with Mongol hordes. What we are facing today is more of the same. You have no idea in your wildest dreams what awaits us in the future. Vikings developed trade routes from Scandinavia to Byzantium via river systems and Black Sea. They built a trading organization step by step. Subsequent Mongol invasion and genocide caused unification and expansion of the locals out of the Northern forests across to Black Sea and eventually the Pacific shoreline.


  3. Pingback: Blowhard, Esq.’s Recent Art & Architecture Posts | Will S.' Miscellany

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