The Russian Campaign 1812: Ultimate Chance for Peace?


French Fusiliers in Bardin Regulation. This is how these men would have looked in the 1812 Russian campaign.


Russian Army. Flügel-Adjutant of Infantry, campaign dress (1812), Field officer, Infantry, summer dress (1812), Capt., Izmailovski Lifeguard, summer dress (1812)


Charles Joseph Minard’s famous graph showing the decreasing size of the Grande Armée as it marches to Moscow (brown line, from left to right) and back (black line, from right to left) with the size of the army equal to the width of the line. Temperature is plotted on the lower graph for the return journey (multiply Réaumur temperatures by 1¼ to get Celsius, e.g. −30 °R = −37.5 °C).

War having been declared on him, in fact if not in law, could Napoleon have avoided the invasion of Russia? Briefly, he considered waiting in Poland for Alexander to attack him. He quickly perceived that the tsar had no such intention. Alexander feared a new Friedland that would not, this time, lead to a new Tilsit. Time was on Alexander’s side. He had a sufficient period to complete the mobilization of the most powerful army ever possessed by Russia. He had all the time he needed.

From Napoleon’s perspective, the situation was completely different. It was obviously not in his interest to await the completion of Russian military preparations. He could only maintain for a short time the enforced allied mobilization that provided his new Grand Armeé. Above all, he needed to act prior to the opening of a British front in Western Europe. The war in Spain gave him enough concerns by itself! He regretted even having waited until summer. A spring offensive would probably have permitted him to avoid the coming catastrophe.

Napoleon issued his traditional order of the day to the Grand Armeé on June 21:

Soldiers: The second Polish war has begun. The first ended at Friedland and Tilsit. At Tilsit, Russia swore eternal alliance with France and war against England. Today Russia violates its oaths. Does it believe that we are degenerate? Are we not still the soldiers of Austerlitz? Russia has placed us between war and dishonor. There can be no doubt as to which we will choose.

Beginning on June 24 with a spectacular yet unopposed crossing of the Niemen in the Kovno area, the war with Russia ended in tragedy in December. This war consisted of two very distinct phases: first, a diabolic pursuit of the Russian army to Moscow, marked by the indecisive victory of Borodino or the Moskva; next, a catastrophic retreat back to Poland from October to December.

The Diabolical Pursuit

Once again, no desire for territorial conquest underpinned the Russian campaign. The goal of Napoleon’s campaign was to destroy the enemy army, thereby forcing Russia to make peace.

The army operating in Russia approached a total of 600,000 men. Half were assigned to hold occupied territories and provide logistical support, while the other half were first-line combat troops.

The invading force consisted only of the attack echelon of the Grand Armeé, whose unprecedented strength of more than half-a-million men stretched from the Rhine to the Niemen. Its international composition was one of the more original aspects of this gigantic military amalgam. Frenchmen represented only a third of the total force and half of the attack echelon. It was a true European army, an army of “twenty nations” as it was labeled at the time.

The largest foreign contingent, 100,000 men, came from the Confederation of the Rhine (Bavaria, Westphalia, Württemberg, Baden, Saxony, and several duchies and principalities). Next in descending order were Poland (50,000), Austria (32,000), Italy (30,000), Prussia (20,000), and Switzerland (10,000). The Netherlands, Denmark, Naples, Spain, and Croatia also provided contingents of several thousand soldiers each.

Such a disparate and uneven ensemble could not go far without experiencing problems of cohesion and logistics. It was a long way from the minuscule and uncouth Army of Italy of 1796!

Barclay de Tolly, Peter Bagration, and Alexander Tormasov commanded the Russian armies, more than 300,000 men with some 900 guns. The Russians deployed thusly: (1) Barclay de Tolly’s main body of 140,000 blocked the axis from Vilna to Saint Petersburg; (2) a secondary body of 60,000 men, commanded by Bagration, operated on Barclay de Tolly’s left on the axis of Moscow; and (3) and Tormasov’s reserve army was being formed south of the Pripiat Marshes.

Napoleon operated on four axes: (1) in the north, Macdonald with the Prussian and Bavarian contingents; (2) in the center with the emperor were Prince Eugene, Oudinot, and the Imperial Guard; (3) in the south, Davout and Jerome; (4) in the extreme south, Charles-Philippe Schwartzenberg’s Austrian corps as flank guard against Tormasov along the Pripiat Marshes.

Eugene’s slowness of movement permitted Barclay de Tolly to escape encirclement in the area of Vilna, which fell without fighting on June 26. The tsar sent his police minister, Balashov, to Napoleon with a message offering negotiations if the Grand Armeé returned to Poland. In full retreat, the vanquished dared to dictate unacceptable conditions to the victor. The purpose was obvious. Alexander sought only to gain precious time to permit Barclay de Tolly to recover and to complete the concentration of Tormasov’s army. If he genuinely wanted peace, why did he not ask to open negotiations without preconditions? Why, at Vilna before hostilities began, did he refuse to receive Ambassador Lauriston, who was carrying a final attempt at peace?

Continuing its advance under weather conditions so extreme that they slowed its progress, the Grand Armeé occupied Vitebsk without opposition on July 27.

The heat, dust, thirst, mud, and mosquitoes inflicted an inhuman trial on the men. Unit strengths visibly declined under the effects of illness.

Barclay de Tolly and Bagration linked up at Smolensk. The city resisted an initial attack on August 16-17. Napoleon believed that he finally had found an opportunity for a great, decisive battle. Once more, however, Barclay de Tolly retreated after setting the city on fire.

The scorched earth policy of the Russian army owed more to the force of circumstances than to a deliberate choice. The Russian army’s leadership was divided into two groups: those who wished at all costs to prevent the Grand Armeé from reaching Moscow, the historic and religious heart of Russia, and those who sought at any price to preserve the army from disaster by evading a great battle against the invincible Napoleon. Up until Smolensk, Russia was fortunate to have in Barclay de Tolly a partisan of the second group; otherwise, the Russian campaign would have reached its conclusion before Vilna or Vitebsk.

Barclay de Tolly’s refusal to defend Smolensk set off a crisis in the Russian high command, a crisis that had been brewing from the start of the campaign. The aristocracy rebelled against a retreat that was without end and that damaged its dignity. Without doubt, the aristocrats also feared that the presence of the Grand Armeé in the heart of Russia might encourage an uprising among the serfs. Alexander eventually yielded to his aristocracy by replacing Barclay de Tolly with Kutusov, the brave vanquished of Austerlitz.

The new commander-in-chief decided to stop Napoleon at a position between Borodino and the River Moskva.


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