Why Napoleon’s 1812 Russian Campaign Failed

This is the last post the series on Napoleon’s 1812 Russian Campaign. It discusses the reasons why it failed, which relate mainly to logistics.

David Chandler argues that the enterprise was beset with problems from the start. [1] Tsar Alexander I was not persuaded to come to terms by the threat of invasion, meaning that he was unlikely  to negotiate once the fighting had started. Defeats made the Russians more, not less, determined to resist; the size of Russia made it hard to conquer.

Napoleon was fighting on two fronts. A successful end to the Peninsular War would have released 200,000 troops. Without them, he was forced to turn to allies to supply him with troops. Some of them, including Austria and Prussia, were very reluctant to co-operate. The different languages and equipment of the various nationalities involved created discipline, communications and supply problems.

Napoleon was unwilling to restore the Kingdom of Poland because he needed Austrian and Prussian aid. Consequently, he did not receive full support from the Poles and Lithuanians. However, he gave them enough encouragement to make the Austrians and Prussians suspicious.

Chandler believes that the main reason for the campaign’s failure was logistics. The French over-estimated the traffic capacity of the roads, meaning that supply convoys were always late. There was less grain and fodder available than they had forecast. The depots were too far to the rear and the Russian scorched earth policy meant that the army could not find supplies locally.

The retreating army found large amounts of supplies at Smolensk, Vilna and Kaunas, whilst the Russians captured more at Minsk and Vitebsk. The problem was not the quantity of supplies, but the ability to move them to the front line.

Napoleon should, in Chandler’s view, have spent the winter of 1812-13 at Smolensk. The Emperor had not originally intended to go as far as Moscow. His plan was to win a decisive victory as soon as possible, but the Russians evaded a series of traps intended to force them to fight at Vilna, Vitebsk, Drissa and Smolensk. The French supply system could not cope with the demands of the advance from Smolensk to Moscow.

The need to protect the lines of communication and flanks meant that Napoleon did not have enough troops to win a decisive victory by the time that he managed to bring the Russians to battle at Borodino.

Napoleon then stayed too long in Moscow, allowing the Russians to rally after Borodino. Chandler points out that the Emperor had captured Vienna in 1805 and 1809 and Berlin in 1806 without the enemy immediately coming to terms, so why did he think that taking Moscow in 1812 would induce Alexander to surrender?

Finally, Napoleon  took the wrong route from Moscow to Smolensk. In order to avoid fighting Kutuzov, he switched from the southern route through the fertile and unspoilt Kaluga province to the northern route, which had been ravaged in his advance. He did this after the Battle of Malojaroslavets, but this was a French victory. Chandler doubts that the cautious Russian commander Prince Mikhail Kutuzov would have risked repeating the heavy casualties of Borodino to defend Kaluga.

Chandler argues that Napoleon was already beaten by the time that the Russian winter set in. He also notes that the French suffered as much from the heat of the summer, which caused many men to drop out and killed many horses. The cold made the disaster worse, but did not cause the French defeat.

Chandler praises the endurance and skill in combat of the Russians, and says that the strategy of trading space for time in order the blunt Napoleon’s offensive was correct. However, he wonders whether or not this was the intention from the start, suggesting that the Russians retreated because of weakness rather than a deliberate plan. He contends that it is difficult to see a clear Russian plan until after Napoleon reached Moscow.

In summary, he argues that Napoleon’s military abilities had declined. He was less energetic than in the past.  He failed either to supervise his subordinates, or to take charge himself at the decisive point. He over-estimated the ability of his army and under-estimated the Tsar. Finally, the enterprise was simply too big.

Martin van Creveld devotes a chapter of Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, in his seminal work on importance of logistics in the history of warfare, to Napoleon’s campaigns.[2]

Van Creveld says that the Emperor increased his supply train ahead of the invasion, and stockpiled large amounts of artillery ammunition. He notes that the operational plans for the campaign have not survived, but argues that the logistical arrangements imply that he expected a short war.

The French supply train was inadequate to sustain an advance on Moscow. An army of 200,000 men that took 60 days to reach Moscow (the Grande Armée actually took 82 days) would have required 18,000 tons of supplies. The French supply train had a capacity of half that, and would also have had to supply troops protecting the flanks and lines of communication.

Once in Moscow, 300 tons of supplies per day would have been needed. It was 600 miles from the supply depots, so the required transport capacity would have remained at 18,000 tons, assuming that supplies moved at an optimistic 20 miles per day.

The invading force carried four days of rations in their packs and 20 days in their battalion supply wagons. Van Creveld argues that a 12 day campaign is implausibly short. He therefore contends that Napoleon expected to win within 24 days, whereupon he would have required his defeated opponent to supply his troops, as he had done previously. This would have allowed him to advance up to 200 miles into Russia.

According to van Creveld, logistics played a major role in the planning of the campaign. The invasion had to begin in June so that the 250,000 horses could be fed from the grass crops. It was impossible to provide fodder for so many animals from base depots. The invasion route was determined by supply considerations; the roads were too poor further north and the River Niemen could not have been used to supply a more southerly advance.

He believes that the Russian plan was also based on logistics. His contention is that all the Russian commanders agreed that ‘only the factors of distance, climate and supply could defeat the French army.’[3] The only dispute was over the speed of retreat; some were afraid that too quick a withdrawal would cause a revolt by the serfs. It was also necessary to ensure that Napoleon followed the Russians into the interior.

Mistakes by his subordinates, notably his brother Jerome, prevented Napoleon from defeating even part of the Russian army at Vitebsk, which van Creveld says is the furthest into Russia that the French logistic system could sustain the army.

Napoleon chose to head for Moscow because the land became richer after Smolensk, so it was easier to live off the land the further east he moved. His army was strong enough to defeat the Russians at Borodino.

Van Creveld believes that the Grande Armée’s biggest problem was ill discipline rather than lack of supplies, citing as evidence the fact that the Imperial Guard reached Moscow almost intact.

My view is that Napoleon’s first mistake was to invade Russia whilst he was still at war in the Iberian Peninsular. He should have concentrated on first winning that war. His dispute with Alexander over the Continental System, the French attempt to wage economic war with Britain, would have mattered less if the British had been expelled from the Continent.

Victory in the Peninsular would at best have meant that there was no need to invade Russia. At worst it would have released a large number of French troops for the invasion of Russia, reducing Napoleon’s dependence on allies.

Having made this initial mistake, he planned to win a quick victory. He failed to do so because the enemy did not play into his hands, and because of mistakes by his subordinates. He did not supervise them as closely as in the past, probably because his army was now too big for his old, personal style of command to work.

After failing to win an early victory, he should have wintered at Smolensk. There was no reason for him to assume that he could win a decisive victory by heading deeper into Russia, or that he would force the Russians to surrender by taking Moscow. The Russians had only to survive to win, so there was no point in them risking a catastrophic  defeat.

Napoleon made the losses from his defeat worse by making a number of errors after reaching Moscow: he stayed there too long; he retreated by the ravaged route that he had advanced across; and he should have taken only as much loot and as many guns as he had horses to pull.

Overall, Napoleon took on an enterprise that was both unnecessary and too big to succeed when he invaded Russia. It was an example of the importance of logistics in warfare; see the blog entry on Bullets, Bombs and Bandages, a BBC TV series on logistics.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966). The analysis of the reasons for the failure of the campaiign is on pp. 854-61.

[2] M. Van Creveld, Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). The chapter on Napoleon is on pp. 40-74, with the 1812 Russian Campaign analysed on pp. 61-70.

[3] Ibid., p. 65.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under War History

2 responses to “Why Napoleon’s 1812 Russian Campaign Failed

  1. Pingback: What Minard’s Map Helps Show Us: Why Napoleon’s 1812 Russian Campaign Failed | Michael Sandberg's Data Visualization Blog

  2. Pingback: Napoleon delays his Russia invasion - Page 4 - Historum - History Forums

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s