Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia
In 1812, on the eve of invading Russia, Napoleon bestrode Europe and was at the height of his power. By year’s end, he had suffered an epic defeat, and began the downward slide that would culminate two years later in his exile to St. Helena.
His first misstep was his poor choice of subordinates. His aim was to bring the Tsar to heel by decisively defeating the Russian army as soon as possible. However, he appointed his unqualified stepson, Prince Eugene, to major command, and the inexperienced youth allowed the Russians to retreat. Napoleon then plunged into Russia, following the Tsar’s army for hundreds of miles as it retreated, refusing to give battle and scorching the countryside. He had planned to halt at Smolensk, go into winter quarters, and resume the campaign the following year. But once in Smolensk, he decided to continue on to Moscow.
Near Moscow, the Russians finally offered battle at Borodino. Napoleon won a hard fought engagement, but at the decisive moment, he wavered and held off from his usual tactic of sending in the elite Imperial Guard, kept in reserve, to finish off the reeling enemy. That prevented the victory from becoming decisive, and allowed the battered Russians to live to fight another day.
When he reached Moscow, Napoleon assumed that the Russians would sue for peace, so he waited for their peace feelers even as winter drew near. The Russians strung him along, but no more than he strung himself along with wishful thinking of peace negotiations long after it became obvious that the Russians were not interested. By the time he gave up and marched back to Smolensk, it was too late, and his unprepared army was caught by winter during the retreat. That was exacerbated by his choice of route: he had two options and ended up picking a route that was struck by severe winter storms, while the one he didn’t take saw little snow that year. Most of his army starved or froze to death, while more were killed by Cossacks who harried the rear and flanks of the retreating columns.
Napoleon had marched into Russia with 685,000 men – at the time, the largest army the world had ever seen. He came out with only 35,000 Frenchmen still under his command, with the remainder either dead (over 400,000), deserting, or switching sides. Reflecting upon the debacle, Napoleon commented: “From the sublime to the ridiculous, it is only one step“.