Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 was a disaster.
The campaign started well as Napoleon and his Grande Armée pushed into Russia and even briefly occupied Moscow. But there the tide turned. As summer turned to winter, his army was forced into a humiliating retreat westward. Only 120,000 of his 500,000 Grande Armée returned home.
Many think that the notorious French leader was simply a fool to take on the might of Imperial Russia. So why did he invade?
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Elsewhere, Napoleon had moved his forces through much of Europe unchallenged and it seemed that Russia and the United Kingdom were the only two nations standing in the way of complete continental dominance.
As part of his on-going battle with the United Kingdom, the French had implemented their continental blockade which was effectively a full trade embargo. Without the necessary resources to defeat his enemy in battle, Napoleon had enforced the embargo against the emerging industrial power in an attempt to force poverty, debt and ultimate surrender.
Russias part in the embargo
The blockade had begun in 1806 and had become widespread across Europe but Russia was viewed as being critical to the campaign’s success. The reason for the invasion was therefore identified by many as an attempt to keep Tsar Alexander I as a supported of the embargo.
This is a more likely scenario although an official reason was that the French Emperor had intended to prevent Russia from invading Poland and, as such, the conflict was named as the Second Polish War. In Russia however, it came to be known as the Patriotic War.
The conflict began on the 24th June 1812 as Napoleon’s troops crossed the River Neman and into Western Russia. With numbers of around half a million, they comfortably succeeded in some minor skirmishes while in August of that year, the invading army won the strategic Battle of Smolensk.
However, while the Grande Armee were capturing Smolensk, the Russians won a crucial battle at Polotsk which prevented Napoleon from marching on the capital St Petersburg. As a result the Emperor resolved that the war itself had to be won in Moscow.
70 miles outside of Moscow, the French and Russian armies clashed in the bloodiest battle of the war. Nearly a third of the 250,000 men on the battlefield were killed, wounded or captured – including 47 French generals and 23 Russian generals. It was a pyrrhic, victory for Napoleon’s men. The Russians withdrew to regroup and although Napoleon went on to briefly occupy Moscow, he and his Grande Armée had over-extended themselves.
It is not clear whether the French or Russians burnt the city of Moscow to the ground. But it left Napoleon with a worthless prize. Forced out into the countryside, he and his men were soon forced to begin a long and humiliating retreat.
Prior to the war of 1812, Napoleon was an undefeated military genius but the defeat had dealt a blow to his aim of European dominance from which he would never recover.
The conflict also sparked the War of the Sixth Coalition which was responsible for finally defeating Napoleon and sending him into exile on Elba.
The reasons for Napoleon invading Russia may have been twofold but this was his first significant military mistake and one which was to ultimately cost him an Empire.