Napoleon's Disastrous Russian Campaign

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Napoleon's Disastrous Russian Campaign

One historian has summed up Napoleon’s military campaign in Russia in 1812 with these words: “The problems of space, time, and distance proved too great for even one of the greatest mil­itary minds that ever existed.” Napoleon made several serious miscalculations. First, he never expected that he would have to travel all the way to Moscow. He was used to defeating an enemy after only one or two battles and then having the enemy ask for peace. Napoleon expected to defeat the Russians far short of Moscow.

He also gravely miscalculated the problems of feeding, equipping, and moving 422,000 troops in Russia. The roads were terrible, and supplies were often delayed weeks or even months. Normally Napoleon could count on taking grain and live­stock from local farmers to extend his food sup­ply. To prevent this, the Russians themselves destroyed what little they had – through the tactic of scorched earth.

As a result of these miscalculations, Napoleon and his army were already deeply in trouble by the time they reached Smolensk in August, two months after starting out. Their supply lines were overextended, and the size of the army had been reduced by fighting along the way. At this point, Napoleon made a critical decision. Because the Russians would not fight a major battle, he would simply press on and capture Moscow and bring them to their knees. The Russians gave Napoleon his long-awaited fight 70 miles west of Moscow, on the field of Borodino. It was a bloodbath for both sides, but it was indecisive. One week later, Napoleon entered Moscow.

Napoleon expected the Russians to ask for peace terms, but they did not. Moreover, the Russians had destroyed Moscow as they with­drew. As a result, the French troops could not find housing. The Russians hoped that eventually Napoleon would be defeated by the bitter cold of the Russian winter. The first frost and snow were only two weeks away when Napoleon finally decided to lead his army back to France.

On October 24 the Russians attacked the retreating French as they tried to cross the Lusha River at Maloyaroslavets. The French won the battle, but at a cost of 7 generals and 4,000 men. On November 9 the French reached Smolensk once again. The temperature plunged to 12ºF, and Napoleon’s food supplies were low. Still the French pressed on, through heavy snow, in a line that stretched for 50 miles. Meanwhile the Russians repeatedly attacked the retreating French. By November 25 the French had reached the Berezina River near Borisov. Here the Russians had knocked down the bridges and forti­fied the river banks. Napoleon’s forces quickly threw up two new bridges, but in their panic to cross the river, thousands died in the freezing waters. In early December Napoleon left his troops and set out by carriage for Paris. The remnants of his “Grand Army” straggled after him.

Discussion Review (not to be turned in):

1. What natural barriers did the French have to traverse? How did the Russians make use of these barriers?

2. How many miles was the “Grand Army’s” round trip to Moscow and back?

3. Explain why Napoleon failed in Russia because of “space, time, and distance.”


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