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The Start of Napoleon’s 1814 Campaign

Following his defeat at Leipzig on 16-19 October 1813 Napoleon’s army was forced to retreat from Germany. He managed to get about 70,000 formed troops and 40,000 stragglers across the Rhine after winning the Battle of Hanau on 31 October, but he lost almost 300,000 men in Germany in 1813, with another 100,000 trapped in isolated garrisons. In the south Wellington’s army of British, Portuguese and Spanish troops had crossed the River Bidassoa into France on 7 October, and by 10 November were across the Nivelle.

The Coalition facing Napoleon had different objectives. The Austrians were the most willing to negotiate. Emperor Francis I of Austria was Napoleon’s father-in-law. More significantly, his chief minister, Prince Klemens Metternich was concerned that the overthrow of Napoleon would boost German nationalism, which he feared would weaken Austria’s position in central Europe.

Tsar Alexander I of Russia was, according to David Chandler, ‘in two minds’ about whether to avenge Napoleon’s occupation of Moscow in 1812 by occupying Paris or to stop a war in which Russia now seemed to be fighting for the benefit of others, but ‘[o]n balance…favoured action.’[1]King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia tended to follow the Tsar’s lead, but many of his countrymen wanted revenge for past defeats and humiliations at the hand of Napoleon.

Bernadotte, once one of Napoleon’s marshals and now Crown Prince of Sweden, dreamed that he might replace Napoleon as ruler of France. The British, concerned with the balance of power in Europe, were willing to leave Napoleon on the throne of France provided that it was restricted to its natural frontiers, excluding Antwerp and the Scheldt.

At Frankfurt on 16 November Metternich obtained the consent of his allies to offer Napoleon the 1797 frontiers of France, including Belgium and the Rhineland. Charles Esdaile suggests that Alexander agreed because he expected Napoleon to reject the offer, which would ‘legitimise the continuation of the war. Esdaile adds that Lord Aberdeen, the ‘young and inexperienced’ British Ambassador to Austria, ‘more surprisingly’ agreed to terms that did not achieve ‘several important British goals.’[2]

The Emperor gave a favourable verbal response to the envoy who brought them to him, but his initial written reply did no more than propose new peace talks, suggesting that he was just playing for time in order to build up his forces. The British insisted that nothing more should be done until Lord Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary, arrived.

On 30 November Napoleon gave provisional acceptance to the offer, but his envoys were told that discussions would now be based on France’s 1792 frontiers. This was unacceptable to the Emperor, who told the Marquis de Caulaincourt, his recently appointed Foreign Minister, that:

‘France without its natural frontiers, without Ostend or Antwerp, would no longer be able to take its place among the States of Europe.’[3]

Chandler doubts ‘whether either side was completely genuine in its offers and suggestions at this time.’[4] However, Esdaile argues that ‘it is impossible to say’ if the original offer would ever have been signed, but ‘it was the best that Napoleon could hope for.’[5]

The Coalition plan was complex. Bernadotte’s Army of the North, less General Friederich von Bülow’s corps, would continue the siege of Magdeburg, surround Hamburg and threaten Denmark. Bülow’s corps, supported by a British expeditionary force under General Sir Thomas Graham would move into Holland which had revolted against France rule, take Antwerp and invade France through Belgium.

The main attack would come from the 200,000 man Army of Bohemia, commanded by Prince Karl Philip zu Schwarzenberg, but accompanied by Alexander and Friedrich Wilhelm. It would move from Basle to Colmar, cross the Rhine and advance to the Langres Plateau. It would then attack the French right whilst Napoleon’s centre was pinned by Prince Gebhard von Blücher’s 100,000 strong Army of Silesia, which was to cross the Rhine between Coblenz and Mannheim.

Schwarzenberg’s army would link up with Austro-Italian troops that were moving on Lyon, whilst Wellington’s army would advance north from the Pyrenees. By the middle of February there would be nearly 400,000 Coalition troops in France.

The Coalition plan was the one that had worked in Germany the year before. Fortresses should be masked rather than besieged. Its armies should manoeuvre against the enemy’s flanks and lines of communication, forcing Napoleon to respond to these threats. The Coalition would attack only when it heavily outnumbered the enemy. If one Coalition army was attacked by a large enemy force it would retreat, and the other Coalition army would advance.

Against this there were only 67,000 French soldiers on the frontier from Strasbourg to the North Sea. Napoleon called up 936,000 men, but many evaded conscription, and less than 120,000 of them served in the 1814 campaign. There was a shortage of equipment for those who did report for duty and a lack of NCOs and junior officers to command them. Napoleon was forced to use invalids and pensioners as leaders of even Imperial Guard formations.[6]

The Emperor attempted to find troops from his Spanish and Italian allies, but the only ones that he obtained were some veteran troops from the French armies facing Wellington. His position was further weakened by the defections of the King of Naples, his brother-in-law Joachim Murat, on 11 January, and the King of Denmark 3 days later.

Napoleon’s main advantage was that he could move his army quickly around a country with good road and river communications and several supply depots. He had to prevent the enemy from uniting, but could not afford the casualties of even a victorious major battle. Chandler notes that the Emperor had to fight a ‘war of subtlety and fast manoeuvre.’[7]

Napoleon could risk losing Paris, which was the centre of his power and the main supply depot and headquarters of his army. F. Loraine Petre points out that Paris ‘represented France in a way that Moscow did not represent Russia in 1812, or Berlin Prussia in 1813.’[8]

Blücher’s Army of Silesia crossed the Rhine on 29 December 1813, followed by Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia on 1 January 1814. Blücher’s army moved 75 miles in nine days, and had crossed the Marne by 22 January. The next day its advance guard took a bridgehead over the Meuse. The cautious Schwarzenberg moved more slowly, but reached his initial objective of the Langres Plateau on 17 January. He then halted for six days because there were suggestions of a new peace conference.

By 23 January the flanks of the two Coalition armies were only two days march apart. Napoleon had hoped that his frontier forces would delay them more, enabling him to build up his army. He now had to take personal command of the field army. On 25 January he left Paris to start his 1814 campaign.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 947.

[2] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 517.

[3] Quoted in Chandler, Campaigns, p. 948.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, pp. 515-16.

[6] Troop strengths are from Chandler, Campaigns, pp. 948-50.

[7] Ibid., p. 955.

[8] F. L. Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814 (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1914), p. 3.

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The Battle of Nations: Leipzig (2) The Battle 16-19 October 1813.

On 14 October 1813 Napoleon abandoned his attempt to destroy the three Coalition armies that he faced in Germany in detail, and moved his army to Leipzig. On 16 October he was attacked by the Army of Bohemia under the Austrian Prince Karl Philip zu Schwarzenberg from the south and the Prussian General Gebhard von Blücher’s Army of Silesia from the north. The Army of North Germany under Bernadotte, the Crown Prince of Sweden and formerly one of Napoleon’s Marshals, had moved more slowly, but would be at Leipzig by 18 October.

Napoleon was outnumbered on 16 October but not hugely, except in artillery. According to F. Lorraine Petre the Coalition had 205,000 men, including 3,500 Cossacks and 40,000 other cavalry, and 916 guns at Leipzig on 16 October. The French had 191,000 men, including 30,000 cavalry, and 690 guns. These odds were not enough to counter-balance Napoleon’s superiority to the opposing commanders. However the Coalition would have 321,000 men, including 8,500 Cossacks and 60,000 other cavalry, and 1,382 guns by 18 October. The French army would then have risen only to 205,000 men, including 30,000 cavalry, and 700 guns.[1] David Chandler thinks that both sides had more guns on 18 October than Petre says: 900 French and 1,500 Coalition.[2]

If Napoleon was to win he had to do so quickly. The French were in a strong position, although the Emperor did not intend to sit on the defensive. They had the advantage of operating on interior lines, making it easier for them to move troops around the battlefield. They had increased this advantage by destroying a large number of bridges. Napoleon was looking north for future operations and his possible line of retreat. There was a shortage of bridges if his army had to retreat west, which was the shortest route back to France.

Napoleon, unaware of the locations of Blücher and Bernadotte’s armies, did not expect much action in the north, which was to be held by III, IV, VI and VII Corps under Marshal Michel Ney.

The main French attack would come in the south. The 37,000 men of II, V and VII Corps, would pin the Army of Bohemia. The 23,000 men of Marshal Jacques Macdonald’s XI Corps and General Horace-François-Bastien Sebastiani’s II Cavalry Corps would envelop the enemy right. The decisive blow would be made by the Imperial Guard, including its cavalry, IX Corps and I Cavalry Corps, a total of 62,000 men, supported by either IV or VI Corps moving south.

The Coalition intended that Blücher’s 54,000 men should attack in the north west and General Ignac Gyulai’s 19,000 in the west. Their main attack, however, would be in the south with 77,500 Austro-Russians under Prince Ludwig Pyotr Wittgenstein. The 24,000 men of the Russian and Prussian Guards would be held in reserve.[3]

At 7 am Napoleon ordered Marshal Auguste Marmont to move his VI Corps south. Marmont obeyed, although he could see Blücher ‘s campfires, so knew that the Coalition were likely to attack in the north. However, Blücher ‘s troops then began to advance, and Ney cancelled Marmont’s movement, ordering him to take up position at Möckern instead. Ney told General Henri-Gratien Bertrand’s IV Corps to move south in place of VI Corps, but Gyulai then launched his attack against Lindenau, and Ney sent IV Corps to reinforce against this assault. He sent only two divisions of General Joseph Souham’s III Corps south.

The main Coalition attack in the south started around 8:30 am, but was hampered by poor co-ordination, mist and rain. The poor weather also held up the French enveloping move. A frontal battle therefore took place around Wachau. By 11 am the Coalition attack was running out of steam. Reinforcements were brought up, but they encountered XI Corps moving forward.

In the north Blücher moved cautiously because he knew that Bernadotte would not arrive that day. The fighting in the north and west was going well for the French, but it meant that neither IV nor VI Corps could move south. The two divisions that Ney did send south did not arrive in time to take part in the attack.

The French began counter-attacking in the south at mid-day, and were able to force the Coalition troops back. However, the absence of reinforcements from the north prevented the planned envelopment of the Coalition right from coming to fruition. Nevertheless, Napoleon launched his main attack at 2 pm.

This initially went well. At 2:30 pm a major cavalry action began. The French I Cavalry Corps, commanded by General Jean-Pierre Doumerc because General Marie-Victor-Nicolas Latour-Maubourg had been wounded, broke two Coalition battalions, captured 26 guns and nearly got to Tsar Alexander’s command post. A counter-attack by Alexander’s escort squadron and Russian cuirassiers pushed the tired French cavalry back at 3:30pm. This could have been a decisive breakthrough, but Doumerc and Marshal Joachim Murat failed to send reinforcements. The Army of Bohemia had been forced to retreat, but was still intact.

Napoleon would have sent reinforcements to exploit the success of I Cavalry Corps if he had been on that sector, but he had ridden north to Möckern just 2:30 pm after hearing heavy firing.

The battle round Möckern was fierce. Around 2 pm Blücher sent Count Johann Ludwig Yorck’s corps against Marmont’s VI Corps and Count Alexandre de Langeron’s corps against General Jan Dombrowski’s Polish division on Marmont’s right. The Poles were forced back by weight of numbers. Langeron’s advance was held up, however, when he mistook an advancing French division for a corps and fell back.

Ney recalled the two divisions of III corps that he had sent south. He then changed his mind, and ordered to turn round again. They spent most of the day marching between Möckern and Wachau without playing much role in either battle. Ney would make a similar mistake in the 1815 campaign.

A desperate battle took place between Yorck and Marmont’s corps at Möckern. The leading Prussian division was routed around 5 pm, and Marmont ordered General Karl von Normann’s Württemberg cavalry, which would change sides two days later, to charge. Normann refused, so Marmont advanced his infantry, but they were attacked by Yorck’s cavalry. VI Corps was thrown out of Möckern. Marmont rallied his men, and darkness ended the action before Blücher could commit his reserves.

The French won narrow victories at Lindenau and Wachau on 16 October, but were beaten at Möckern. The Coalition lost 30,000 dead, wounded and prisoners and the French 25,000.[4] The French might have won a decisive victory at Wachau if either the two divisions that Ney marched around the battlefield or the 30,000 man garrison of Dresden had been present, or if I Cavalry Corps’ success had been reinforced.

However, the number of Coalition reinforcements heading for Leipzig meant that the French chance of victory had now gone. Napoleon could have extracted the bulk of his army if he had retreated on 17 October, but he chose to stay and fight. He tried to win time by offering Emperor Francis I of Austria an armistice, but this only convinced the Coalition that Napoleon realised that he was close to defeat.

The 17 October was a quiet day, although there was some fighting between Blücher and Marmont’s troops. Napoleon did not attack, and the Coalition decided to wait a day for their reinforcements.

The Coalition intended to launch six attacks on the French. These were commanded by Blücher  and Bernadotte in the north, Count Levin August Bennigsen, Prince Mikhail Barclay de Tolly and Prince Friedrich Hesse-Homburg in the south and Gyulai in the west

Napoleon ordered the shortening of his line and made preparations to retreat. He ordered, too late, the construction of more bridges at Lindenau. The French held a gap between Blücher and Gyulai, allowing them a line of retreat.

The attacks began slowly. Hesse-Homburg’s attack was repulsed by Prince Józef Poniatowski’s Poles and Gyulai’s by Bertrand’s IV Corps. In the east MacDonald and Sebastiani linked up with General Jean-Louis-Ebenezer Reynier’s newly arrived VII Corps to complete the shortening of the line.

In the afternoon Barclay and Hesse-Homburg’s attacks were repulsed, but Bennigsen, eventually supported by the late arriving Bernadotte, forced MacDonald, Sebastiani and Reynier back. Napoleon committed the Old and Young Guards in a successful counter attack. However, at 4:30 pm two Saxon brigades and an artillery battery of Reynier’s VII Corps deserted to the Coalition, opening a gap in the French line.

Bennigsen and Bernadotte then renewed their attacks. By sunset the French were holding in the south, but had been forced back to the suburbs of Leipzig in the north and east. They were running out of ammunition, and clearly were unable to hold, so Napoleon ordered preparations for a retreat.

III, VII and IX Corps acted as a rearguard under the command of Marshal Nicolas-Charles Oudinot whilst the rest of the army began to retreat across the River Elster at Lindenau. The Coalition did not realise what was happening until 7 am, nearly five hours after the retreat had begun. The French received a further respite when Napoleon persuaded King Friedrich August I of Saxony to ask Alexander to spare Leipzig, resulting in a 30 minute ceasefire at 10 am.

Oudinot had 30,000 men to hold a front line of 6,500 yards.[5] They were forced back into the inner city by 11:30 am, but continued to resist, and it appeared as if the retreat would be a great success.

However, Napoleon had put the ‘unreliable’ General Dulauloy in charge of demolishing the only bridge over the Elster at Lindenau once the French army had crossed it.[6] Dulauloy delegated this to Colonel Montfort, who left a corporal in charge of the demolition charges. The corporal panicked when he saw some Russian skirmishers approach the bridge, and blew it whilst it was full of French soldiers, horses and wagons, with thousands of others still to cross.

Poniatowski, who had just been promoted to Marshal, drowned when he tried to cross the Elster. Those who could not cross fought on until surrendering in the late afternoon.

The Coalition lost about 54,000 me killed and wounded over the four days of battle. French losses were 38,000 killed and wounded, 5,000 Germans deserted and 30,000 captured. Six of Napoleon’s generals were killed, including Poniatowski, 12 wounded, including Marmont, MacDonald and Ney, and 36 captured, including Reynier. The King of Saxony was also captured. The French also lost 325 cannons, many supply wagons and much of their stores, including 40,000 muskets.[7]

Napoleon’s only chance of winning was on the first day because of the many Coalition reinforcements that were on their way. He might have done had he not left 30,000 men at Dresden, or if Ney had not marched two divisions round the battlefield.

The Emperor should have withdrawn on 17 October, but he still would have extracted more men, guns and supplies on 19 October without the negligence of the officers put in charge of demolishing the bridge. However, enough Frenchmen escaped for the war to continue. This might not have been the case if Bernadotte had arrived earlier.

This battle ended Napoleon’s empire east of the Rhine. Saxony was occupied by the Coalition, although Dresden held out until 11 November. Many of the members of the pro-French Confederation of the Rhine followed the lead of Bavaria, the largest member, and joined the Coalition.


[1] F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), pp. 328-29.

[2] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 932.

[3] Ibid., pp. 924-25.

[4] Ibid., p. 932.

[5] M. V. Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin: The Franco-Prussian War in North Germany, 1813 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), p. 273.

[6] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 935.

[7] Ibid., p. 936; Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin, pp. 275-76.

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The Start of Napoleon’s 1813 German Campaign

Napoleon had to rebuild his army following the failure of his 1812 campaign in Russia. The 1813 class of conscripts had already been called up, meaning that 137,000 men were nearing the end of their training at the start of 1813.[1]

More men were found from the National Guard, a home defence militia, the navy and Italy. Troops were also transferred from Spain to the German front. Others were found by calling up the 1814 class of conscripts early, along with men who had managed to evade the draft for health or other reasons in earlier years.

The new army was large and would fight bravely, but many of the infantry were either young and inexperienced or else old. It was harder to replace the horses than the men lost in Russia. The lack of cavalry would prove to be a major problem for Napoleon in 1813.

The French Empire managed to replace the cannons lost in Russia, but they needed horses to pull them, as did supply wagons, creating logistical difficulties.

Napoleon also had problems with the quality of his generals. According to David Chandler, the mid-ranking officers were still good, but the marshals were tired and past their best, whilst the junior ones were inexperienced.[2]

Whilst rebuilding his army, Napoleon left Marshal Joachim Murat in command in Germany. The Emperor had hoped that Murat would be able to hold the Russians along the River Vistula, but he was forced to retreat to Posen (now Poznan). He then handed over command to Napoleon’s step-son Prince Eugène, and returned to his kingdom of Naples.

Eugène had too few troops to fight, and the frozen rivers were no help to the defender. Despite orders from Napoleon to hold, he was forced to withdraw his forces, apart from some isolated garrisons, behind the River Elbe.

Tsar Alexander I of Russia was, according to Dominic Lieven, effectively his own foreign minister. He was with his army, whilst the official foreign minister, Nikolai Rumiantsev, was in St Petersburg. Alexander’s aim was to force France behind its natural frontiers. Rumiantsev thought that the Tsar was too focused on Napoleon, paid too little attention to the Ottoman Empire and Persia and was too keen to satisfy the Austrians and British. [3]

Prussia had been forced to contribute a corps to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, but on 30 December 1812 its commander, General Ludwig Yorck, signed the Convention of Tauroggen with Russia, making his troops neutrals. He acted without the consent of King Friedrich Wilhelm III, but the news was received enthusiastically in Prussia.

Friedrich Wilhelm, according to Lieven, ‘detested Napoleon and…liked and admired Alexander…[but] was a great pessimist.[4] He hesitated until the Russian had reached Prussia, but on 28 February 1813 Russia and Prussia signed the Treaty of Kalisz. Five days later the Russian entered Berlin.

The main sticking point in the negotiations was Poland. Friedrich Wilhelm did not want to lose any of the territory that Prussia had gained from the 18th century partitions of Poland. Alexander, however, thought that the only way to deal with Polish nationalism without weakening Russian security was to have a Polish kingdom whose monarch was the Russian Tsar. The agreement was that Prussia would be restored to its 1806 size, receiving northern German territory and population to compensate it for any losses in Poland.

The treaty required both parties to attempt to bring Austria into their alliance. The Austrians, however, were cautious for now.

On 16 March Prussia declared war on France. Napoleon had limited the size of its army to 42,000 after defeating it in 1806, but allowed it to recruit more in late 1812. The Prussians had also secretly created a reserve by forcing a proportion of their soldiers to retire each year. They were therefore able to field 80,000 well trained troops, backed by the Landwehr, a conscript militia and volunteer units.

Charles Esdaile argues that only a ‘very small number’ joined because of German nationalism, but Prussia did have 270,000 troops by the summer.[5]

Defensive manoeuvring continued until early April. By then Eugène had withdrawn from the Elbe because the Prussians were massing near Dresden, and had deployed his troops in a strong defensive position with his right flank on the River Saale.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 866.

[2] Ibid., p. 868.

[3] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), pp. 285-90.

[4] Ibid., p. 293.

[5] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 494.

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The End of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign

After a fierce action, the rearguard of Napoleon’s Grande Armée crossed the River Berezina on 29 November. It seemed to the 55,000 men who had made it over the Berezina that the worst was over. Armand Caulaincourt, formerly Napoleon’s Ambassador to Russia, and a member of his entourage, wrote that ‘After the crossing of the Berezina all faces brightened.’[1]

In fact, although the Berezina was the last major action of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, his army continued to lose men in rearguard actions and to the weather. The temperature was still falling and was recorded as being -30° C (-22° F) on 30 November and -37.5° C (-35.5° F) on 6 December by Dr Louis Lagneau.[2]

Napoleon’s original plan had been to defeat Admiral Pavel Chichagov’s army in order to clear the route to Minsk, but the losses incurred in the crossing meant that he had no choice but to retreat to Vilnius.

He reached Smorgoni on 5 December. He then informed his marshals that he intended to return to Paris. He would take only a small entourage and escort, posing as Caulaincourt’s secretary. He reached Paris late on 18 December.

David Chandler notes that the marshals and most subsequent commentators agree that Napoleon’s decision to return to Paris was correct. His subordinates could handle the rest of the retreat, and he was needed in Paris to recruit new troops and to rally public opinion.[3]

The Emperor left Marshal Joachim Murat in command. Adam Zamoyski says that he would have preferred to appoint Prince Eugène but feared that Murat would mutiny if put under Eugène’s command.[4]

Chandler argues that Murat was more suited to pursuing a defeated enemy than to carrying out a retreat. He attributes Napoleon’s decision to appoint Murat instead of Eugène to the influence of Marshal Louis Berthier, his chief of staff.[5]

Murat’s orders were to make for the supply base at Vilnius. About 20,000 of the men who had crossed Berezina failed to make it; the survivors reached it between 8-10 December. It contained four million rations of biscuits, nearly as much meat and plenty of clothes and weapons. However, the starving troops rioted. Many drank themselves into a stupor and died of exposure. [6]

Many of the Grande Armée’s losses were caused by typhus. In 2001 a mass grave was found by construction workers in Vilnius. It was initially assumed that it contained either Jews murdered by the Nazis or victims of Stalin’s terror.

However, the grave contained French coins and belt buckles from the Napoleonic era, showing that the corpses were of some of Napoleon’s soldiers. A scientific analysis showed that they died of typhus. See this article from Slate.com for more details.

Napoleon had ordered Murat to allow the army to rest and recuperate in Vilnius for at least eight days. Murat, however, was concerned by the threat from Cossacks and ordered the retreat to resume on the night of 9 December; 20,000 men wounded earlier in the campaign were left behind in the hospitals.

The army crossed the River Niemen and left Russia on 14 December. The pursuing Russians, by now reduced to 40,000 men, stopped at the frontier. [7]

The forces on the flanks of the main force also withdrew from Russia. General Ludwig Yorck, commanding 17,000 Prussians and 60 guns, was surrounded on 25 December. After five days of negotiations  he signed the Convention of Tauroggen, making his troops neutrals. He acted without the consent of his king, but the news was received enthusiastically in Prussia.

Prince Karl Schwarzenberg, commanding the Austrians also signed an armistice with the Russians. Austria and Prussia would fight against France in 1813.

According to Chandler, Napoleon took 655,000 troops into Russia, including reinforcements. Only 25,000 out of the 450,000 in the central army group, commanded by Napoleon himself, crossed back over the Niemen. Losses in the flanking forces were high, but not quite as bad; 68,000 of them returned, making a total of 93,000 who retreated out of Russia.

Of the approximately 570,000 who did not, 370,000 died in action or of illness or exposure. The other 200,000, including 48 generals, were captured; about half of them died in captivity.

Napoleon also lost 200,000 horses and 1,050 of the 1,300 guns that he took into Russia. The Russians captured 929, the others being destroyed. New guns were built and new soldiers recruited, albeit inexperienced ones. The horses were the hardest to replace

Russian casualties were 150,000 killed and at least twice as many wounded or frost bitten. Chandler says that the impact of the campaign on Russian civilians cannot be calculated.[8]

Click here for a link to a graphic created by Charles Minard in 1869. It shows the routes taken by the Grande Armée to and from Moscow, with the thickness of the lines indicating its strength at each point. This is then compared with the temperatures throughout the campaign, shown in the chart at the bottom. The temperature is given in Reamurs. Multiply by 1.25 to obtain the temperature in Celsius.

The next and final post on this campaign will discuss why it failed.


[1] Quoted in A. Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (London: HarperCollins, 2004), p. 481.

[2] Ibid., pp. 482, 504.

[3] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 849.

[4] Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 495-96.

[5] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 850.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., pp. 850-51.

[8] Ibid., pp. 852-53.

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Napoleon Retreats from Moscow, 18 October 1812

This post leads on from this one on the Battle of Borodino on 7 September 1812.

After Napoleon’s victory at Borodino led to the French capture of Moscow, Prince Mikhail Kutuzov’s Russian army retreated to Tarutino, south and slightly to the west of Moscow. Adam Zamoyski describes this as ‘a good position.’[1] It was a sufficient distance from Moscow to be safe from a major French attack, threatened the French lines of communication and protected the routes to the south.

The French cavalry, commanded by Marshal Joachim Murat, and Marshal Josef Poniatowski’s V Corps were near Tarutino. Some Russian generals, notably Count Levin Bennigsen, wanted to attack them, but Kutuzov realised that his army needed time to rest, recuperate and receive reinforcements.

The rest of the French army was around Moscow. Much of the city was destroyed by a fire that started on 15 September and lasted for three days. City Governor Count Fyodor Rostopchin had made preparations to burn any stores useful to the French and city and had ordered Police Superintendent Voronenko to set fire to not only the stores, but to anything that would burn. Rostopchin had also withdrawn all the fire fighting pumps and their crews from the city.

Zamoyski suggests that the fires started by Voronenko and his men were further spread by local criminals and French soldiers engaged in looting, and by the wind. He contends that the fire left many French troops without shelter. Other historians who believe that the fires were started deliberately by the Russians include David Bell and Charles Esdaile.[2]

David Chandler agrees that Rostopchin ordered the fires, but says that most supplies and enough shelter for the 95,000 French troops remained intact. He argues that a complete destruction of the city would have actually been better for the French, as it would have forced them to retreat earlier. Instead, Napoleon stayed in the hope that he could persuade Tsar Alexander to come to terms.[3]

On the other hand, Leo Tolstoy claims in his novel War and Peace, the most famous book on the 1812 Campaign, that the fire was an inevitable result of an empty and wooden city being occupied by soldiers who were bound to smoke pipes, light camp fires and cook themselves two meals a day.[4]

On 5 October Napoleon sent delegations to attempt to negotiate a temporary armistice with Kutuzov and a permanent peace with Alexander. Kutuzov, who wanted to gain time to strengthen his forces, received the French delegates politely and gave them the impression that Russian soldiers wanted peace.

However, Kutuzov refused to allow the delegation to proceed to St Petersburg to meet the Tsar. He sent their letters on to the Tsar, with a recommendation that Alexander refuse to negotiate, which the Tsar accepted. According to Chandler, Napoleon refused to believe that the Tsar would not negotiate until a second French delegation also failed.[5]

The balance of power was moving against Napoleon as time passed. Chandler says by 4 October Kutuzov had 110,000 men facing 95,000 French at Moscow and another 5,000 at Borodino. The Russians had an even greater advantage on the flanks.[6]

Napoleon had been sure that Alexander would negotiate once Moscow fell and had not planned what to do if the Tsar refused to make peace. According to Zamoyski, Napoleon had studied weather patterns and believed that it would not get really cold until December, but did not realise how quickly the temperature would drop when it changed.[7]

Chandler argues that he had six options:

  1. He could remain at Moscow. His staff thought that there were sufficient resources to supply his army for another six months. However, he would be a long way from Paris, in a position that was hard to defend and facing an opponent who was growing stronger. His flank forces would have greater supply problems than the troops in Moscow.
  2. He could withdraw towards the fertile region around Kiev. However, he would have to fight Kutuzov and would move away from the politically most important parts of Russia.
  3. He could retreat to Smolensk by a south-westerly route, thus avoiding the ravaged countryside that he had advanced through. This would also mean a battle with Kutuzov.
  4. He could advance on St Petersburg in the hope of winning victory, but it was late in the year, his army was tired and weakened and he lacked good maps of the region.
  5. He could move north-west to Velikye-Luki, reducing his lines of communication and threatening St Petersburg. This would worsen his supply position.
  6. He could retreat to Smolensk, and if necessary, Poland the way that he had come. This would be admitting defeat and would mean withdrawing through countryside already ravaged by war.

There were major objections to each option, so Napoleon prevaricated, hoping that Alexander would negotiate. On 18 October Napoleon decided on the third option, a retreat to Smolensk via the southerly route, which would entail a battle with Kutuzov. He ordered that the withdrawal should begin two days later.[8]

Also on 18 October, however, Kutuzov decided to attack Murat’s cavalry at Vinkovo. An unofficial truce had been in operation, so the French were taken by surprise. Murat was able to fight his way out, and Kutuzov did not follow-up his limited success.

However, the Battle of Vinkovo, also known as the Battle of Tarutino, persuaded Napoleon to bring the retreat forward a day. Around 95,000 men and 500 cannon left Moscow after 35 days, accompanied by 15-40,000 wagons loaded with loot, supplies, wounded and sick soldiers and camp followers.[9]

In an attempt to distract Kutuzov, Napoleon sent another offer of an armistice and told his men that he intended to attack the Russian left flank, expecting this false intelligence to reach Kutuzov.


[1] A. Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (London: HarperCollins, 2004), p. 333.

[2] D. A. Bell, The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Modern Warfare (London: Bloomsbury, 2007), p. 259; C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 478; Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 300-4.

[3] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 814-15.

[4] L. Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans., A. Maude, Maude, L. (Chicago IL: Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., 1952). Book 11, p. 513.

[5] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 814.

[6] Ibid., pp. 815-16.

[7] Zamoyski, 1812, p. 351.

[8] Chandler, Campaigns, pp. 817-19.

[9] Ibid., pp. 819-20; Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 367-68.

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The Battle of Borodino, 7 September 1812

This post follows on from this one on the Battle of Smolensk on 17 August 1812.

Most of French army rested near Smolensk for 6 days after the battle and Napoleon thought about wintering there. This would allow new drafts to be trained and the supply arrangements to be improved. Napoleon might obtain a large Polish army if he allowed the establishment of a Polish Kingdom. An advance on Moscow might not bring victory, and could leave the French deep in Russia in winter, with long and exposed lines of communication.

However, Napoleon needed to get Russia back into the Continental System, by which he was conducting economic warfare against Britain, as quickly as possible. The Russians would also be able to train reinforcements and might counter attack. The French already had supply problems. Setting up an independent Poland would make it hard to achieve a negotiated peace and would upset that Austrian and Prussian monarchs. Halting the offensive would be presented as a defeat by his foreign enemies and his domestic opponents would conspire against him if he stayed away from Paris for too long.

David Chandler argues that Napoleon believed the only way to win a war was to destroy the enemy army. He thought that Tsar Alexander would have to fight for Moscow:

If for logistical reasons it was dangerous to linger at Smolensk, it was even more risky to head for Moscow, but only by such a bold course could there by any possibility of a reasonably rapid conclusion to the campaign.[1]

Alexander had decided to give up his strategy of conceding ground. On 24 July he made a successful appeal for new recruits. Religious symbols were presented to the army.

On 17 August, with the battle of Smolensk about to start, a meeting of senior generals urged Alexander to replace Mikhail Barclay de Tolly as commander-in-chief of the army with the Mikhail Kutuzov, a veteran of Russia’s wars with Poland and Turkey. He had done a good job in extracting the Russian survivors of the defeat at Austerlitz; he was nominally in command there, but Alexander was present and had ignored his advice not to fight. He did not receive another field command until 1811, when he won a number of victories against the Turks.[2]

Charles Esdaile points out that the loss of Smolensk, a major centre for the Russian Orthodox Church, threatened the estates of several leading nobles. Many officers were bitter and angry that they had continually to retreat. The government was successfully trying to boost Russian patriotism. Kutuzov was the leading ethnic Russian general whilst Barclay, who had surrendered much Russian territory, was regarded as a foreigner.[3] In fact, although Barclay had a Scottish name, he had been born in modern Latvia and his Scottish ancestors had emigrated to Russia in the seventeenth century.[4]

The Tsar ‘feared and resented’[5] Kutuzov and hesitated for three days before accepting that the strength of opinion amongst his nobles and generals left him with no choice but to appoint the 67 year old veteran. Alexander, concerned over Kutuzov’s ‘possible treachery as well as his imputed incompetence’[6], appointed Count Levin Bennigsen as his Chief of Staff. Barclay retained command of the Russian 1st Army.

On 24 August Napoleon decided to advance on Moscow the next day. As before, his army was menaced by Cossacks as it moved through territory that had been subjected to a policy of scorched earth. Heavy rain made Napoleon say on 30 August that he would return to Smolensk the next day unless the weather improved, but 31 August was dry and sunny.

By 5 September the French could see the Russians digging in around the village of Borodino. There is some doubt over which was the bigger army. Chandler, Esdaile and Zamoyski all put the French one at over 130,000. Chandler has 156,000 French leaving Smolensk, but 133,000 at Borodino. Chandler and Esdaile both say that there were 121,000 Russians at the battle, but Zamoyski argues that recent Russian research estimates the Russian strength at 154,800 to 157,000 men. This includes 10,000 Cossacks and 30,000 militia, who played little role in the battle, but the French Guard, which Zamoyski  puts at 25,000 men and Esdaile at 18,000, also did not fight in the battle. Chandler gives the Russians an advantage of 640 to 587 in artillery.[7]

John Elting notes that this was the largest ratio of artillery to men that Napoleon, an artilleryman, had at any of his battles; 4.5 guns per 1,000 men compared with around two in his early battles, 3.9 at Wagram in 1809 and 3.5 at the later battles of Leipzig in 1813 and Waterloo in 1815.[8]

The Russians had taken up a naturally strong defensive position, which they had then strengthened by the construction of a series of redoubts. One was a mile in front of the main position at the hamlet of Shevardino. The main line was held by a large entrenchment called the Great or Raevski Redoubt to the north and three flèches on hills further south. The flèches were arrow-shaped redoubts fortified on three sides, but with the rear open. An earthwork at Gorki guarded the new post road to Moscow and others covered the River Kalatsha north of Borodino. See the map below:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Battle_of_Borodino_map.jpg. Original from Gregory Fremont-Barnes (main editor) – The Encyclopedia of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, page 172. Adapted from Chandler 1987, 437.
Reference to Chandler is unclear, but may be The Dictionary of Battles (London: Ebury Press, 1987).

There was a fight for the Shevardino Redoubt on the afternoon and evening of 5 September, which ended when Kutuzov withdrew to the main line after the Polish General Jozef Poniatowski’s V Corps moved along the old post road.

Napoleon was ill with a heavy cold and an old bladder infection, meaning that he was far less active during the battle than normal. Both sides spent 6 September preparing for battle. Napoleon decided that the terrain north of Borodino was too difficult for an attack. A demonstration there would have tied down Russian troops, but this was not done. He made the capture of the Great Redoubt a priority, even though this would mean heavy casualties.

Marshal Louis Davout wanted to outflank the Russians to the south with 40,000 troops, but Napoleon told him ‘Ah, you are always for turning the enemy. It is too dangerous a manoeuvre.’[9] The Emperor thought that the Grande Armée was too small to detach a large flanking force and was concerned about the condition of his troops, artillery and especially horses. The Russians might avoid battle if they realised that he was planning to outflank them. Even if he succeeded in threatening their communications, his study of Frederick the Great’s campaigns convinced him that this did not greatly concern Russian armies that were about to fight a major battle.

Short of time, Napoleon decided on a frontal attack rather than a battle of manoeuvre. The attack began at 6 am and initially went well, with the French taking Borodino in the north, the flèches in the centre and Utitsa in the south. Russian counter attacks began at 7 am, forcing the French back. The open backs of the flèches made it hard for the French to defend them against counter attacks.

Kutuzov realised that there was no French threat north of Borodino, allowing him to move troops who were guarding the Kalatsha further south. Napoleon also committed new troops. By 8:30 am he had few reserves left other than the Imperial Guard.

The French launched a new attack against the Russian centre just after 10 am. Artillery caused heavy losses on both sides, including generals. Davout had been wounded earlier, and Marshal Michel Ney received four wounds during this phase, whilst the Russian Prince Piotr Bagration was killed. The Russians were forced back and Marshal Joachim Murat’s French cavalry, seeing an opportunity for victory charged, but the Russians formed square and held firm. Davout, Murat and Ney urged Napoleon to commit the Old Guard, but the Emperor refused.

The Russians had been forced back, but were able to reinforce the hardest pressed parts of their line. Chandler argues that Kutuzov did not actively command, but left most decisions to his subordinates, contenting himself with accepting or rejecting their ideas. Napoleon, tired and in poor health, did not perform well. preferring to stay at his command post and receive reports rather than going forward to see what was happening.[10]

A surprise attack by Uvarov’s Russian cavalry forced the French out of Borodino. Napoleon’s step-son Prince Eugène stabilised the situation, but this delayed his IV Corps’ planned attack on the Great Redoubt, and made Napoleon sure that he must not commit his Guard in case of further such surprises.

Eugène’s attack was carefully planned and had the support of 400 guns. Casualties were again heavy, but the French had taken the Great Redoubt by 3 pm. Eugène sent forward every available cavalryman in an attempt to exploit the success, but Barclay stopped the French advance by sending in two corps of Russian cavalry, whose horses were in far better condition than the French ones.

Eugène asked Napoleon to deploy the Guard, but the Emperor refused. Chandler notes that Marshals Murat and Louis Berthier agreed with him this time and argues that the Emperor was correct to maintain it intact, since he was 1,200 miles from home.[11] The Russians were able to retire to new positions.

The Russians launched a counter-attack, which was stopped by French artillery. In the south Poniatowski’s V Corps advanced, and by 6pm the Russians in the south had withdrawn to the line held by the rest of their army. The Russians had been forced back to an inferior position, but their army was still intact. The fighting now died down.

The most common figures for casualties (dead and wounded) are 30,000 French and 44,000 Russians, making this the bloodiest battle of the Napoleonic Wars and perhaps any until the First World War, but estimates vary from 28,000 to 50,000 French and 38,500 to 58,000 Russians. The casualties included 48 French generals, 11 of them dead, and 29 Russian generals, six of them killed. The French fired between 60,000 and 90,000 artillery rounds and 1,400,000 to 2 million musket cartridges.[12]

Chandler argues that neither Napoleon nor Kutuzov significantly contributed to the battle. The Russian generals made many mistakes; unnecessarily extending their line before the battle, leaving the southern flank open, exposing their reserves by putting them too far forward and not exploiting Uvarov’s local success. Chandler says that ‘[w]hat saved the Russian army was the dogged courage and endurance of its rank and file.’[13]

Borodino is known as La Bataille de la Moskova in France. Napoleon could claim victory on the basis of occupation of the ground, and probably casualties inflicted, but he had not destroyed the Russian army.

Kutuzov realised that his army was not capable of fighting again and retreated towards Moscow, 75 miles to the east. On 13 September he called a meeting of his eight most senior generals. Four, including Barclay, agreed with his view that the army would be destroyed if it fought again, and that it was more important to preserve it than to defend Moscow.  Bennigsen, supported by the other three, wanted to attack a French corps on the march. Kutuzov decided to withdraw and the Army abandoned Moscow early on 14 September.

Zamoyski describes Kutuzov’s decision to give up Moscow to save his army as ‘ the only brilliant decision he made during the whole campaign.’[14] He notes that Kutuzov told the Tsar that the loss of Smolensk made the loss of Moscow inevitable, thus transferring the blame to Barclay.[15] The French army, now reduced to 100,000 men entered Moscow later the same day. It was deserted as two-thirds of the population of 270,000 had left and most of the others stayed indoors.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 792.

[2] P. J. Haythornthwaite, The Napoleonic Source Book (London: Arms & Armour, 1990), pp. 339-40.

[3] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), pp. 475-76.

[4] A. W. Palmer, An Encyclopaedia of Napoleon’s Europe (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1984), pp. 25-26.

[5] A. Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (London: HarperCollins, 2004), p. 25.

[6] Ibid., p. 248.

[7] Chandler, Campaigns, pp. 794, 1119; Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, pp. 476-77; Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 258-59.

[8] J. R. Elting, Swords around a Throne : Napoleon’s Grande Armée (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988), p. 59.

[9] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 798.

[10] Ibid., p. 804.

[11] Ibid., pp. 805-7.

[12] Ibid., pp. 806-7; Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, p. 477; Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 287-88.

[13] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 808.

[14] Zamoyski, 1812, p. 287.

[15] Ibid., p. 292.

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Battle of Smolensk, 17 August 1812.

This post follows on from this one on Napoleon’s campaign in Russia up to Battle of Vitebsk on 28 July 1812.

The Russian commander, General Michael Barclay de Tolly, was reluctant to attack. The further that the French advanced into Russia, the better the odds became for the Russians. The French were being harassed by Cossacks and had to leave troops to guard their lines of supply, whilst the Russian were able to bring up more troops.

However, most Russians could not understand why they were surrendering so much territory without a fight, especially after Barclay was joined by General Peter Bagration’s Second Army on 4 August. According to David Chandler, Barclay commanded 125,000 men and Napoleon had about 185,000 in the immediate area.[1]

Barclay was under pressure both from both Tsar Alexander and from his subordinates to attack. On 6 August his generals persuaded him to concentrate against Marshal Joachim Murat’s cavalry and Marshal Michel Ney’s corps. The next day, Barclay received false reports that there was a French force at Poriechie to his north. He re-aligned his army to the north to face the supposed French threat.

General Matviei Platov, commanding the Don Cossacks. did not receive the order to move north. He encountered and defeated General Horace Sebastiani’s cavalry division at the Battle of Inkovo, taking 200 prisoners, but had to retreat when the French counter-attacked.

Barclay ordered a cautious advance on 13 August, but Bagration, angered by Barclay’s continual changes of orders, declined to co-operate. He had put himself under Barclay’s command when they united on 4 August, but he was not officially subordinate to Bagration.

Napoleon had halted his advance on Smolensk and prepared to receive a Russian attack when he learnt of Inkovo. By 10 August it was apparent that this was not going to happen and he resumed preparations for an attempt to envelop the Russians at Smolensk. Chandler says that:

Almost all commentators agree that this operational plan constitutes one of Napoleon’s masterpieces…This was a manoeuvre of strategic envelopment worthy of the one that preceded his great triumph of Jena-Auerstadt in 1806, and if it had succeeded the fruits of victory would have been no less impressive.[2]

The French manoeuvres started on 11 August. Barclay put a rearguard of 8,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry under General Neveroski on the south bank of the Dnieper to guard the approaches to Smolensk. It held up the French cavalry, which might otherwise have reached Smolensk on 14 August. Instead, Napoleon paused for a day to re-group.

Napoleon had now lost the element of surprise and the Russians were able to withdraw to Smolensk. Barclay ordered General Raevski to occupy it with 20,000 men and 72 guns. It had a medieval wall and some more modern defences, but these were in a poor state of repair.

The French reached Smolensk on 16 August. Some fighting took place, but they did not attempt to storm the city until the next day. The Russians held on, suffering 12-14,000 casualties, but inflicting 10,000. Chandler says that it is unclear why Napoleon attacked rather than masking the city and moving to threaten the Smolensk to Moscow road.[3]

Barclay feared such a manoeuvre and evacuated Smolensk on the night of 17-18 August after destroying all his stores. Grand Duke Constantine, the Tsar’s brother, and General Bennigsen objected to this and accused Barclay of cowardice.

The French were slow to move, and their pursuit did not get properly underway until 19 August. General Junot was ordered to take his corps over the Dnieper at Prudichevo in order to cut off the Russian retreat, but took all day to find a crossing, and then did not attack. Ney and Murat were held up by the Russian rearguard under Eugen and Tutchkov at Valutino, and the main Russian

Napoleon did have some good news on 18 August; a victory at Polotsk secured his northern flank. Marshal Charles Oudinot, the French commander, was wounded, but General Laurent St Cyr took over and defeated the Russians. St Cyr was promoted to Marshal.

However, Napoleon was having to advance even further into Russia in an attempt to bring the Russians to battle.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 782.

[2] Ibid., pp. 783-84.

[3] Ibid., p. 786.

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