Nov 16, 2020 in History

Napoleons Army

25 November 2013

What Happens When One Bites More Than He Can Chew or


Why Napoleons Army Was Defeated in Russia


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At the beginning of the year 1812, nearly all of the continental Europe was under the French control. Imperialistic politics of the French emperor resulted in a decade of wars, secured dominion of France over the European states, and brought fame and reputations of a successful military commander to Napoleon Bonaparte. Largely interconnected Europe with its well developed network of roads allowed Napoleon to wage and win quick wars with relative ease and small casualties. Because of Napoleons success in fighting with numerically superior enemies, he is regarded as one of the greatest military commanders in history. Often, Napoleons military campaigns are subjects of studies in military academies.


In 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte raised 600,000 men army and led it to fight Russia, the only continental power of the time in Europe that dared to oppose ambitious emperor. The very beginning of the campaign was not promising. Against his generals advice (Campaigns and Battles), Napoleon decided to continue with war on Russia. French army was doomed from the first weeks of the campaign, but Napoleon exaggerated pride, arrogance and poker-players instinct carried him beyond (Dodge 137; Kroll, Toombs, and Wright 117) into the war and subsequent defeat. Napoleon was neither prepared nor experienced in the new kind of warfare that Russians forced upon his army.

Account and Analysis of Napoleons Campaign against Russia

Historical Account

French Revolution resulted in an interesting historical paradox. People of France overthrew imperial regime and founded a republic just to have a new emperor in place, only a decade and a half after the start of the revolution. One of the outcomes of the French peoples victory was the rise of nationalism that led to the rise of Napoleon. After coming to power in1799, Napoleon Bonaparte won several strategic military victories that resulted in his control over the major part of Europe. Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, Poland, Austria, Italy, Germany, Austria and Prussia were either conquered or forced into becoming allies. Napoleons successful invasion of Europe led to the confrontation with Britain and Russia. Great Britain was out of Napoleons reach and suffered from the effects of Continental System economic embargo. In 1806, Napoleon imposed economic sanctions against Britain by forbidding continental European states and merchants to do trade with Britain. In 1810, Russian Czar Alexander I violated the embargo because of its detrimental effects on Russian economy. This fact, coupled with the need for Napoleons army to have free passage through Russian territory on his way to future conquest of India, led French Emperor to the decision to invade Russia. Napoleon wanted to colonize India, monopolize profitable Asian trade (James Ford Bell Library) and strengthen French influence in Asia. Napoleon expected to capture Russian territory and access to Russian supplies on his way to further conquests. He expected war with Russia to be one more military conflict similar to previous successful campaigns. The closest Napoleons counselors advised Napoleon not to engage Russia in military conflict (Campaigns and Battles). Napoleon expected for the war to last 20 days (Burnham). In 1812, Napoleon increased his army to over 600.000 men (the largest European military force assembled to that time) and moved to Russia whose army was three times smaller. Napoleon did not just expected to win a quick victory and force Alexander I into negotiations about alliance. His goal was to deal a crushing blow to the barbarians of the North and push them back So that for the next 25 years they no longer come to busy themselves with the affairs if civilized Europe (Greenspan). At the same time, French Emperor did not attempt to overthrow Russian society or Russian tsardom; he wished to defeat the Russian army in battle and then to force Alexander to make peace on his terms, which would involve Alexander agreeing to impose the continental blockade on England (Hartley 30). In Napoleons view, defeat of Russia would serve as an instrument for inflicting economic damage on England which was outside of Napoleons reach (Dodge 136). Napoleons statement about Russians as barbarians of the North (Greenspan) who are not eligible to participate in European political affairs emphasizes his imperialistic attitudes towards Russia.

Multinational army led by Napoleon captured Vilna, Smolensk and Vitebsk with relatively small losses although problems with supply lines, deserters and epidemics of typhus and dysentery were besetting French army from the very start of the campaign and resulted in a continuous and significant decrease of a number of troops. One month into campaign, 80,000 troops were dead or incapacitated by typhus (Knight). Already then, retreating Russians torched abandoned cities, bridges and stores. Farmers burned their crops and supplies to avoid them from falling into the hands of the French. On September 7, 75 kilometers away from Moscow near the village of Borodino, Russian and French armies engaged each other and fought fiercely for one day, suffering casualties of over 70.000 on both sides. Next day Russian army retreated, set Moscow on fire, and left together with most of capitals inhabitants. Russian people and soldiers carried out the orders to take all the food supplies and leave all the hard liquor behind for the French Army. On 14th of September, Napoleons army entered the deserted city. French soldiers drank and pillaged while Napoleon waited for Alexander to sue for peace. No offer ever came (Greenspan). Widespread and high alcohol consumption within Napoleons army was responsible for lack of discipline from the first days of Russian campaign (Thadeusz). By the second half of October, Napoleon realized that his army will not survive the winter in Moscow and ordered his troops to retreat back to France along Southern route. By this time, Napoleon had only 100.000 troops left. The rest were wounded, dead or captured. Tens of thousands deserted or were guarding supply lines. Few skirmishes with Russian army forced Napoleon to withdraw his troops from Southern direction and retreat along the Northern route that was devastated when French advanced. Supply lines were exhausted, and unusually early winter set in. In the end of November, the army that suffered from constant attacks by Russian troops, bitter cold, hunger, lice and diseases consisted of no more than 40,000 troops. Thousands of wounded were left behind, and in the middle of December, about 20,000 hardly fit for action soldiers returned to France. Sweden, Prussia, and Austria rejoined Russia and Great Britain in their fight against Napoleon. French emperor managed to raise another 300,000 men army, but it lacked training, experience and cavalry. Thus, after several initial victories, Napoleon suffered a devastating defeat in October 1813 at the Battle of Leipzig. In March 1814, Paris was captured, and Napoleon was sent in exile. In 1815, Napoleon used French peoples feelings of nationalism and made one more attempt to raise another army and take power but was completely defeated in the Battle of Waterloo.

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Analysis of the Campaign

When one discusses imperialism, it is common to imply imperialistic politics and attitudes of civilized nations of Europe towards third world countries of Africa, Asia and South America. One might trace causes of imperialism to economic reasons and belief that other races are inherently inferior and need guidance of a more enlightened civilization. French revolution led to the rise of nationalism within the country and stronger belief in its cultural and military superiority. The time was right for Napoleon to go to war with the rest of Europe. In this case, imperialistic ambitions of a French emperor were directed at other European nations and barbarian Russia of the North, not at overseas colonies.

Napoleons age was not the age of globalization. Although Napoleon attempted to create what might be considered a global European union under the rule of the French emperor, he was unable to recognize that societal, economic, military and political dynamics he was dealing with had early signs of globalization. Napoleon was attempting to solve global European problems by applying local measures. He believed that extension, protection and enforcement of French political power were possible through the means of war. French economic interests and ideology with a strong element of nationalism dictated the necessity of war and provided justification for it (Rothenberg 771). France took upon itself the role of a civilized nation that can exercise international police power (Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine). This approach led Napoleon to mistakes and subsequent loss of the throne. The typical example was his attempt to solve European conflict by a single battle with Russian army. At that time, warfare stopped being solely military and local. Russians won because they realized that total warfare versus local one will bring the victory.

Napoleons logistics failed to provide supplies for his army. Moreover, peculiar terrain, lack of good road network, and scarce agricultural base combined failed to sustain French army. Napoleon missed careful evaluation of factors that were critical to the success of his campaign. Perhaps, military genius was not a permanent attribute of Napoleons personality, as well years of military victories contributed to Napoleons exaggerated confidence and narcissism. Unbound pride and arrogance helped Napoleon to convince himself and others that he could win, despite all of the obvious obstacles (Kroll, Toombs, and Wright 117). Napoleon lost ability to gauge facts, his disbelief in failure, bred of the stupendous successes in the past, which lay at the root of his indecisiveness. With the same old mental grasp, he was in character no longer the same man (Dodge 137). In other words, it was not the same brilliant commander, but a self-centered man who lost connection with reality and believed in his myth. Given this additional consideration, French campaign against Russian army was programmed to be defeated. Napoleon acted as Chinese Emperor Qian Long who addressed King of England George III, in 1793, as a barbarian ruler of his barbarian subjects (Backhouse & Bland 322-331). Underestimating the enemy and failure to negotiate led to the loss of military power and commercial benefits. China gave in to unequal treaties forced upon it, trade and influx of Europeans (Macmillan; Perdue 21-26). In a similar manner, Napoleons underestimation of adversarys capabilities led to his demise.


Napoleon decided to engage Russia in military conflict contrary to the advice of his generals and counselors. Analysis of Napoleons campaign allows concluding that French army was doomed from the first weeks of the campaign, but Napoleon exaggerated pride, arrogance and poker-players instinct carried him beyond (Dodge 137; Kroll, Toombs, and Wright 117) into the war and subsequent defeat. Napoleon was neither prepared nor experienced in the new kind of warfare that Russians forced upon his army.


Two hundred years past since Napoleons defeat in Russia, but it is difficult to find a person who has never heard his name. Napoleons legal reform in France and his military achievements cause unceasing interest of historians and the general public. Napoleons life story is the remarkable and interesting account of extraordinary achievements and surprising demise. Of all the factors involved in bringing about Napoleons defeat, Russian campaign was the event that ensured Napoleons downfall. It was the Emperors Stalingrad after which he had not been able to recover.


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Image 1 Napoleons Retreat from Moscow

Painting by Adolf Northen


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