Russian Campaign (1812)

Article

July 5, 2022

French Emperor Napoleon I's 1812 campaign in Russia was the turning point of the Napoleonic Wars. The emperor, who ruled almost all of Europe, was at the height of his power, amassing an invasion army of between half a million and 800,000 men to deal with his last continental opponent, the Russian Empire. The allied army advanced into Russia, but the tsarist troops retreated using scorched earth tactics based on the plan developed by Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov, avoiding clashes. Before Moscow, the Russians were forced to fight, and after the Battle of Borogyno, which resulted in enormous losses for both sides, the tsar surrendered the capital at Kutuzov's request, but did not ask for peace. During the French occupation, Moscow, completely evacuated by the Russians, burned to the ground, and the Napoleonic army, completely depleted of supplies, began its painful retreat in the harsh Russian winter. During the campaign, at least five hundred thousand soldiers of Napoleon's army were killed, disappeared or captured and only about 20,000 men returned home. The Grande Armée was thus practically destroyed. The military event entered Russian history under the name of the Patriotic War (Russian: Отечественная война), and – from a Russian point of view – its historical and cultural significance is comparable to that of the Second World War, referred to as the Great Patriotic War.

History, background

By 1812, all of Europe with the exception of Great Britain was under Napoleon's influence - apart from the French territories, the continent was ruled by puppet states or countries defeated by the emperor and forced into alliance with him. Since Napoleon could not directly attack the island nation, which still resisted him, due to the lack of a fleet capable of confronting the British, he announced a blockade covering the whole of Europe with the continental blockade. The previously defeated Russian Empire also joined the blockade, but the stoppage of traditional maritime trade caused severe economic difficulties. For this reason, and because of certain provisions of the Schönbrunn Peace signed with the Habsburg Empire in 1809, which were unfavorable to Russia, the Russian Tsar Alexander I announced his exit from the continental blockade system in 1810.

Preparation, war plans

Napoleon's multinational Grande Armée of nearly 600,000 men was the most powerful war machine of the time. Only half of the military was made up of French, it was mostly composed of Poles and Germans, and a significant number of Italians also fought in it. They were further reinforced by various nationalities, such as the Swiss, whom Napoleon considered the best soldiers. Sons of other nations also served in the Grand Armée, so e.g. Spaniards, Croatians, Danes, Hungarians, Czechs, Dutch, Belgians, etc. The main reasons for the success of the Napoleonic armies were the modern equipment, the excellent coordination of the types of weapons, and the ability to move and move the columns at lightning speed. The latter factor was primarily due to the fact that traditional armies could not operate for long periods of time away from their supply bases: the amount of supplies needed to supply tens or hundreds of thousands of soldiers could not be transported by carts on the road network of the time. On the other hand, the French army - thanks to its well-organized accommodation system - was able to supply itself from the battlefield during its lightning-fast marches, practically by looting the food supply of the villages and towns there. This method was successfully applied on the densely populated Western European battlefields, but on the Russian steppes the armies had to cover much greater distances, and the