This essay will examine the factors that led to Napoleon and his enormous army retreating from Russia and eventually losing a great majority of soldiers as well as their notoriety of being “invincible” after invading Russia in 1812. It will also consider the effects that that particular war had on the downfall of Napoleon’s empire in the subsequent years. The Campaign of 1812 was to be Napoleon’s crowning achievement.
His Grand Armee of over 600,000 men from all corners of his empire was the largest he had ever assembled. The Emperor of France was notorious to his enemies.
His armies were said to be invincible and his tactics in battle were second to none. This was at least how he was perceived at the time. On the 23rd of June, 1812 he invaded Russia with the hopes of ultimately dominating Europe. Napoleon did not anticipate, however, the harsh Russian weather that they had to face coupled with the scorched-earth policy that the Russians employed. He also overlooked the resolve of Tsar Alexander in that the Russian Tsar would not surrender to Napoleon under any circumstances. Napoleon was also fighting a losing battle within himself.
His age was beginning to get the better of him and his unwavering confidence in himself blinded him from making correct decisions. The campaign of 1812 was a disaster for Napoleon. Worse than the loss of over 500,000 men in Russia was the realization of France’s enemies that Napoleon was no longer the ‘Invincible’ conqueror that he was. Napoleon’s Russian campaign failed due to the culmination of these various factors, but above all, it was Napoleons faulty judgment and unwavering confidence in himself that led to his demise.
Furthermore, this great defeat exposed Napoleon’s weakness to his enemies and as a result his reign as emperor came to an end. The weather was a worthy opponent to Napoleon and his Grand Armee during his campaign in Russia. However, casualties could have been prevented if Napoleon prepared properly for this grand campaign. Russia experiences extremely cold winters that arrive rapidly. It also gets very hot in the summer months. At the start of Napoleon’s campaign his army experienced very hot weather. As the campaign entered July the heat became unbearable.
Napoleon and many of his men were struck with diseases.  Napoleon was losing soldiers to exhaustion, sickness and desertion at a rate of 5,000 per day. It is reported that after two months, without even fighting a battle Napoleon had lost 150,000 soldiers.  General Clausewitz wrote, “The bad water and the air-borne insects caused dysentery, typhus, and diarrhea. “ However, if Napoleon had planned to bring more doctors and medicine with him then many thousands of lives would have been saved. I believe this is Napoleon’s first in a series of mistakes that stems from faulty planning.
Napoleon’s army suffered even worse during their retreat from Moscow. The soldiers were shattered by the bitter cold of the harsh Russian winter. Again, Napoleon had not planned properly for this. In fact, he had not even planned that he would be in Russia during the winter, another fatal mistake. Napoleon proclaimed before the campaign began that he expected it to last 20 days.  And according to another source he prepared 40 days worth of food for his army.  Either way this gross miscalculation by Napoleon in the preparation stages of his campaign.
It is evident that Napoleon did not thoroughly plan for the Russian campaign, nor did he make the correct calculations that would ensure a decisive victory. I think that this is due to his slowly deteriorating heath as well as Napoleon’s overconfidence and irrational belief that he could not be defeated. It seemed as though Napoleon failed to display his true genius in 1812 that had won him countless battles in the past. He displayed much caution, which was uncharacteristic of his once vigorous and dominating demeanour.
It is still unclear whether this was due to his illness at the start of the campaign or a more deeply-seated issue in Napoleon’s age and irrational beliefs. This is what Napoleon said on the subject of his own health: “Health is indispensable in war”; and, a few years later :”There is but one season for war; I shall be fit for it six years longer, and then I shall myself be obliged to stop. ” He had passed the limit set by himself when the highest efficiency could be expected.  “Napoleon was 42 years of age in 1812 and clearly his best years as a youthful and energetic leader were behind him.
As he entered into this midlife crisis he became more restless and he wanted to fully control Europe before he grew too old to do so. Napoleon also maintained this sense of destiny, he found it incredible that others even tried to oppose his strength. “Russia is now being led to her fate, let her destiny be fulfilled! “ This quote is evidence to the claim that Napoleon allowed his ego to get the better of his judgement. In Napoleon’s mind, it was god’s will for him to crush Russia and seize control of Europe.
It was impossible for him to lose this campaign against Russia, especially with the greatest army the world had ever seen at his disposal. With such a tremendous force Napoleon overlooked the finer details of the campaign that were essential to assuring its success. Another factor that greatly contributed to the failure of Napoleon’s 1812 campaign was the tactics that the Russians employed to deter his Grand Armee. The Russians would retreat deeper inland as soon as they saw the Grand Armee approaching, which worked to exhaust their enemy.
The Russians had no choice but to retreat when they saw Napoleon’s massive approaching army. As a result of this, the Grand Armee suffered.  It is unclear whether the Russians retreated as they were aware that facing the enormous invading force was suicidal or they did it on purpose in order to intentionally tire out the enemy. Either way, the retreat worked wonders against Napoleon’s Army. A French General said this: “We (the French cavalry) deploy, and boldly advance to the attack, and already reach their line; but they disappear like a dream and we see only the bare pines and birch trees.
An hour later, when we have begun to feed our horses, the dark line of Cossacks again appears on the horizon, and we are again threatened with an onslaught. We repeat the same manoeuvre, and, as before, our operations are not attended with success. Thus one of the best and bravest cavalry forces the world has ever seen was tired out and disorganised by those whom it considered unworthy foes, but who were the real saviours of their country. “ As the Russians retreated, they gained in strength, and exhausted the resources of country on the path that was to be trailed by the invaders.
This has come to be known as the ‘scorched earth policy. ’ This strategy was designed to deplete the enemy’s resources so that they may only survive on the provisions that they brought along with them. The Russians burned their own countryside as they fell back. Napoleon did not anticipate the use of this tactic. It was greatly effective in depleting the numbers of the Grand Armee by starving the enemy. The Russians were determined to defend their country from almost certain defeat. They fought knowing that their entire country was relying on them to keep it from falling into Napoleon’s hands.
This incentive and confidence in battle that the Russians had was also not anticipated by the French Emperor. He expected the Russians to roll over and be crushed as he had done in previous campaigns. Also to his horror he found that the discipline in his own ranks was slowly fading… As previously stated, Napoleon had amassed his army from all corners of his empire. Among the French there were Germans, Italians, Poles, Spaniards, Portuguese, Swiss and Croatians. Even though the numbers of this army were staggering, their cohesion as a unit was compromised due to the simple fact that they were all from different countries.
This mixture of languages and cultures, although very large and well organized, made efficiency and discipline an issue for Napoleon. Also, only the French troops were the ones who were well equipped and well trained, they were inspired to fight under their beloved Emperor. The same cannot be said of the rest of the troops.  The foreigners were fighting because they had no choice, they were allies to Napoleon but they shared no special bond with him, nor were they particularly motivated to be fighting in his name and in the name of France.
This was another key factor that played a large role in the dismantling of the army during Napoleon’s retreat form Moscow. Napoleon also failed to realize that the Tsar Alexander would not surrender as easily as he thought. Napoleon thought that after a handful of decisive victories the Tsar would agree peace terms and Napoleon would have his way. He also mistakenly thought that if he were to occupy the Russian capital of Moscow then the country would be at his mercy. “A Single blow delivered at the heart of the Russian Empire, at Moscow the holy, will instantly put this whole blind, apathetic mass at my mercy.  Napoleon, despite having extensive relations with Tsar Alexander had underestimated his character. The Tsar’s resolve was strong and unwavering in his decision to not accept terms of peace with Napoleon. He did not even respond to Napoleon, even though the French Emperor now occupied the capital city.  It is important to note that as the Grand Armee entered into Moscow it was in flames, set ablaze by the Russians themselves in accordance with their scorched earth policy. This denied Napoleon’s men the provisions and plunder that they so desired and had been promised.
The occupants had fled to the countryside and the city was left deserted and up in flames. Napoleon had again been bested by the Russians. His army was now 1/5th of what it was. Two of my sources hold very different views when it comes to the morale of Napoleon’s men at this time. One maintains that the officers maintained their confidence in Napoleon while the troops, although not happy with the fact that they had no provisions “retained their thoughtlessness” and were still content under the Emperor’s guidance.  The other source depicts more of a sense of disillusionment within the ranks. The fires by which the place was devastated reacted on the discipline of the troops. The men abandoned themselves to disorder, and marauding did not cease until the Emperor took stringent measures to restore discipline. ” Napoleon was left with a dilemma to ponder. He could either continue the campaign and make a final push to defeat the weakened enemy with the disgruntled and famished troops that he had left or he could quickly retreat and leave Russia knowing that he had been outmanoeuvred by his enemy. Napoleon took a third option.
He waited for word from Tsar Alexander. He was optimistic that the Tsar would sign a peace agreement. Napoleon was unaware of the fact that Alexander could not possibly surrender, it was his duty as Tsar to never accept terms. This led to Napoleon hesitating in Moscow for five weeks. With no word from Alexander and winter fast approaching. A decision needed to be made quickly. Napoleon gave the order to retreat and they marched out of Moscow on the 19th of October.  This hesitation from Napoleon would soon come back to bite them.
Napoleon lingered in Moscow for far too long. His stay should not have exceeded two weeks and he should have retreated in September. By hesitating so long he brought about the horrors that would face him and what was left of his army in the following weeks. Three weeks after Napoleon and his army exited Moscow the winter emerged. As they marched westward the cold gradually increased until it became almost unbearable. As the temperature dropped to -20 degrees the retreating soldiers began dropping like flies from starvation, disease and the bitter cold.
Discipline declined. The famished soldiers no longer did what they were told. They had no honour left to do battle, instead the main goal of every soldier was to stay alive. Men fought over food supplies and clothes. Some abandoned the unit in search of provisions elsewhere. The army was no longer a fighting force.  This, however was not the retreating army’s only problem. The Cossacks attacked the army from all flanks, they were vicious and relentless to Napoleon’s army, and they showed no mercy to anyone who fell behind the main unit. 17] Napoleon’s army was slowly fading away, little by little each day. Napoleon even wore a vial of poison around his neck in the event of him being captured. Less than 90,000 soldiers escaped Russia even after Napoleon had abandoned what was left of his army when he heard of a coup developing in Paris. The campaign in Russian was colossal failure. With what looked like a sure victory for Napoleon at the start of the campaign ended in shambles. Napoleon was outwitted and undone by the tactics of the Russians. Something Napoleon did not consider possible.
Napoleon’s failure to understand that the Russians would fight with such desperation to defend their motherland was a costly mistake. Napoleon greatly underestimated his enemy, as well as the amount of necessary provisions to feed such a massive force as the Grand Armee. Everything seemed to conspire against Napoleon in the Russian campaign and in some respects he was hopelessly unlucky. His belief in himself and his army was so great, his ‘star’ so bright that he became blinded. He failed to think through the battle plan thoroughly enough and the result was a great failure. This failure did not go unnoticed by the rest of Europe.
After it became obvious that Napoleon had lost with such a large army at his disposal Britain, Russia, Prussia and Sweden decided to strike Napoleon when he appeared weakest. His reputation as an invincible conqueror took a massive hit. The rest of Europe realized that it was possible to defeat Napoleon. Napoloen was able to rally another army to defend his empire from the forces that were now conspiring against him but it was too late, the initial damage had been done through the Russian campaign and Napoleon’s empire would never again ascend to what it once was prior to the campaign of 1812.