French retreat russia

The French retreat Russia in the harsh winter.

The French invasion of Russia was an unsuccessful Napoleonic campaign into Russia in 1812. The campaign is considered by many to be the turning point of the Napoleonic Wars.


The years 1810 and 1811 were the period of Napoleon's greatest power. On the north he had annexed Holland, Friesland, Oldenburg, Bremen, and all the coast-line as far as Hamburg, and on the south Rome and the Papal states. His empire thus extended from the frontiers of Denmark to those of Naples, with Paris, Rome and Amsterdam as its first, second and third capitals, and it was divided into 130 provinces, having a total population of 42,000,000. He may also be said to have exercised almost unlimited control in Spain, the Italian kingdoms, Switzerland and the Confederation of the Rhine. But now the tide began to turn, as Russia found it impossible to carry out the Continental blockade without permanent injury to her great landowners; Sweden, which had accepted Bernadotte, one of Napoleon's generals, as King, was in a like predicament. The Berlin decree was frequently evaded, and Russia began an inevitable alliance with Sweden.[1]


Early battlesEdit

In May 1812, Napoleon declared war against Russia, and determined in spite of the dissuasion of his most prudent generals to invade the country. On 16 May, Napoleon was in Dresden making arrangements for the great Russian campaign. The army he organized for it has been estimated at from 640,000 to 680,000 men, inclusive of Prussian, Austrian, German, Polish and Swiss auxiliaries. An army of 300,000 Russians, under Michael Andreas Barclay de Tolly and Pyotr Bagration, assembled on the banks of the Nieman River to oppose him. On 24 June he crossed that river at Kovno, and the Russians retired step by step before him, deliberately wasting the country, carrying off all supplies and avoiding as far as possible general engagements. The French, however, pushed rapidly forward, overtook and routed the rear guard of Barclay's army at Ostrovno, 25 July, and on the 28th occupied Vitebsk. On 16 August, the Russians made a stand at Smolensk against an advanced division of the French army, and when the latter entered the city on the 18th it was in ruins.[1]

Moscow and Retreat Edit

Both the opposing armies now took up their march toward Moscow. Russian marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, who had succeeded Barclay, resolved to dispute the passage of the Grande Armee at Borodino. A ferocious battle thus ensued on the 7th September, which cost the French at least 35,000 men and the Russians perhaps 45,000 men.Both sides having fought themselves to exhaustion were in a position to claim a victory, but Kutusov decided to withdraw, leaving Napoleon in possession of the battlefield and with a costly victory. Nonetheless, the road to Moscow now lay open.

Vereshagin Napoleon near Borodino

Napoleon at the Battle of Borodino-Seotember 7th 1812

On the 15th, Napoleon entered Moscow, which had been deserted by its inhabitants, and which was nearly destroyed by a fire that began on the same night and lasted five days. The baffled French were compelled to seek shelter in the desolate surrounding country. Napoleon attempted to negotiate with Czar Alexander I of Russia; it was impossible to pursue the Russians farther; nothing remained but retreat. The French army was now reduced below 120,000 men. For some time the weather was favorable, but the winter set in earlier than usual, and with extraordinary severity. The line of retreat, too, led through the very districts which had been wasted on the advance. Swarms of mounted Cossacks incessantly harassed the French, now sadly demoralized by cold, famine, disease, and fatigue. When the invaders left Smolensk on 14 November, they numbered 40,000 fighting men, and when they had fought their way over the Berezina, there remained but 25,000. At Smorgoni, Napoleon quitted the army on 5 December, leaving Joachim Murat in command.[1]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 The Encyclopedia Americana Corporation. "Napoleon I." Encyclopedia Americana. Vol. 19. New York: Encyclopedia Americana, 1919. 695-700. Print.

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