Napoleon Invades Russia, June 24, 1812

Napoleon in His Study, 1812
Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825)
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Another bicentenary is here, though its connection to Britain is not quite direct.  However, the failure of Napoleon’s Russian invasion and the destruction of a large part of his army contributed to his ultimate defeat(s) by the allied nations led by Great Britain.

With the benefit of hindsight, historians have spent two hundred years pointing out the deficiencies in Napoleon’s goals, strategies and execution.  I have to admit most of my knowledge about Napoleon’s  Russian campaign was learned in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, published in 1869.

And since it is incredibly long (though also brilliant), I skimmed (or skipped) large sections.  So my limited knowledge is, perhaps,  more attributible to the 1956 film of War and Peace.  I love that movie, starring Audrey Hepburn as Natasha, Mel Ferrar as Prince Andrei, and Henry Fonda as Count Pierre Bezukhov.

War and Peace, directed by King Vidor
There have been other non-novel versions of Tolstoy’s sprawling masterpiece, including an opera by Sergei Prokofiev, composed during World War II.  I remember the 1956 film with great affection.  In order to cover most of the story, however, it lasts about three and a half hours.

War and Peace, Metropolitan Opera production 2002

As everyone knows, Napoleon’s campaign in Russia was a total disaster.  Numbers vary but about half a million soldiers of the Grand Armee marched into Russia and only a fraction returned by the end of 1812. Well before the Russian campaign, Arthur Wellesley, later named first Duke of Wellington, began to turn the tide in the Peninsular War, invading Spain from Portugal in January, 1812.  Wellington and the allies won the Battle of Salamanca, June 17-22, 1812.  French Marshall Soult and his defeated troops fought on but slowly withdrew into France.

Battle of Salamanca, June 17-22, 1812

On June 24th, having heard nothing about the British and Allied victory in Spain, Napoleon’s troops crossed the river Niemen into what is now Lithuania, then Russian Poland.  The Russians, greatly outnumbered, usually retreated or conducted brief skirmishes instead of standing and fighting as Napoleon’s enemies usually did.  In doing so, the Russians drew the French deeper and deeper into their sparsely populated regions, completely fouling up supply lines for the rapidly moving French.  By mid-October, the French encircled Moscow, the capital.  The Russians evacuated the city — and it burned, whether set afire by the fleeing citizens or by the invading troops no one can know.  Probably both.

Napoleon’s Retreat from Russia
by Alfred Northen (1828-1876)
On the long retreat in the frigid weather through land already stripped of all provisions, constantly harrassed by Russian troops and Cossack raiders, the French troops simply starved or froze.  Supplies and artillery were abandoned. The horses also died or were consumed. By mid-December, when the last of the French left Russia, up to 380,000 men had been lost with almost 100,000 captured.  It had been a national disaster for France and a personal catastrophe for Napoleon.

1 thought on “Napoleon Invades Russia, June 24, 1812”

  1. Alas, alas, woe is the literature major (me!), but I could never get through War & Peace…neither the book or the movie!

    But what an auspicious date, the 24th of June… Napoleon's Ides of March, truly 🙁

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