In less than 20 years, a little Corsican—a nobody in the army of his adopted country, France—had come to cast such a mighty shadow over Europe that kingdoms fell, worldly-wide counselors quailed at a baleful glance from him, and foreign ministers tried vainly to cobble together shifting alliances that could defeat him on at least one battlefield.
Yet in a fit of pique, while still engaged with enemies in Western Europe, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte led his feared Grande Armee of more than half a million strong on pontoon boats across the Niemen River from Poland into Lithuania, on their way to Russia, from June 24 to 26. The invasion of Russia--planned for the last year and a half, begun with soldiers in magnificent apparel loudly singing French patriotic songs--would unravel by the fall, depleting his forces and leading to his eventual loss of power.
It has not escaped historians’ notice that the two masters of the European land mass over the last 2½ centuries, Napoleon and Adolf Hitler, both began to fall to earth with foolhardy invasions of Russia. The similarities between the two were, in fact, so extensive and pronounced that they became the subject of an entire book, Desmond Seward’s Napoleon and Hitler: A Comparative Biography (1990).
Certainly, the same question—What was he thinking?—arises from both Napoleon’s 1812 campaign and Hitler’s in 1941. Both invasions occurred when the strongmen, though they had continually outguessed opponents on the field, still had not overcome opponents in the West (Napoleon’s: a force of British soldiers and Spanish guerrillas, led by the Duke of Wellington; Hitler’s: Great Britain, in North Africa). Both strongmen were determined to strike at Russian rulers they deemed either vulnerable or downright treacherous. Both ignored pointed warnings that they would face a brutal Russian winter. And both thrust deeply into Russia before slowing down and suffering stinging losses from which they would never recover.
Yet the story of Napoleon’s Russian misadventure is astonishing in and of itself, even without the comparison to Hitler. His motives, and those of his opponent, Czar Alexander I, were more complex than the Nazi dictator’s, and the losses were, proportionately speaking, as staggering as those endured by Germans under their ruler in WWII.
To start with: Napoleon was peeved at Alexander’s vacillating attitude toward the Continental System, a blockade in which all trade with Great Britain was forbidden. After a defeat at the hands of Napoleon in the Battle of Friedland, Alexander concluded the Treaty of Tilsit with him, agreeing to leave most of Europe to the French leader while he maintained a free hand in dealing with Finland, Sweden and the Ottoman Empire. Once foes, the two took to proclaiming their brotherhood to each other, united by disdain for Great Britain.
It didn’t last long. Alexander, discovering that the freeze on British trade was having an adverse effect on the economy of his own country, too, looked the other way when Russian merchants began to break the blockade, angering Napoleon.
What may have annoyed the French emperor even more, however, was the Romanov dynasty’s refusal to facilitate his offer of marriage to Alexander’s youngest sister, Grand Duchess Anna. Like Britain’s Henry VIII, Napoleon’s fear that a lack of an heir would produce discord in France after his death led him to contemplate divorce from the Empress Josephine. Additionally, marriage between two royal houses would enable him to consolidate power in Europe—something he was in a great hurry to do, following one battle after another.
But Alexander’s father, Czar Paul, had given his wife, Dowager Empress Maria, right of approval over prospective grooms for her daughters—and Maria could not abide the thought that her youngest daughter would marry someone she regarded as a scoundrel. Additionally, a rumor appears to have reached her—spread by Napoleon’s soon-to-be-ex, Josephine—that the general, all-conquering on the battlefield, was rather less triumphant in the boudoir. (Incidentally, the saying that spread after this choice bit of gossip—“Not Tonight, Josephine!”—became the initial, ultimately rejected title for one of cinema’s great comedies: Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot.) The Dowager Empress—and, hence, Alexander—refused to consent to a union so disadvantageous.
Imagine you’re Napoleon. Not only has your diplomatic maneuver been stymied, but also your very manhood has been questioned. (And unfairly maligned, at that: After his marriage to Josephine was dissolved, he sired a child.) How would you react?
Napoleon, guessing the outcome, went off and married Maria Louisa of Austria. But he was still furious over the slight from the Romanovs. And Alexander, already concerned about this reaction to the matrimonial mess, grew worried as he saw the man he had once marveled at massing more and more troops in Poland, just beyond his sphere of influence.
Faced with Napoleon’s blustering about the Continental System as well as these latest military maneuvers, Alexander carefully went over with one of his diplomats what he wanted to convey to the French emperor: France might have better-trained troops and more skilled generals, but Napoleon could never hope to conquer Russia. In fact, the farther he penetrated inland, the more likely his defeat at the hands of a vicious winter.
Napoleon ignored the warning and thrust his army into Russia. It seemed like a juggernaut, but that was a bit deceptive—only two-fifths were French. The other soldiers, as well-trained as they were, were not as highly motivated to fight for their country.
Alexander’s Minister of War, Barclay de Tolly, adopted a “Fabian” strategy (named for the ancient Roman general Quintus Maximus Verrucosus Fabius) of avoiding pitched battles and frontal assaults in favor of a war of attrition. In the American Revolution, George Washington’s patient implementation of this strategy bore positive results at Yorktown.
The strategy was meant to minimize the Russian Army’s huge liabilities, which, as summarized in Curtis Cate’s fine history of the campaign, The War of the Two Emperors, included the following:
*archaic army regulations dating back to Czar Peter the Great in 1716;
*widespread gambling, drunkenness, and dissipation among the officers;
*foot soldiers, taken from the vast population of serfs, recruited by their masters for 25 years—and, consequently, with low morale;
*inadequate food that left soldiers so weak they could not withstand disease or low marches;
*field artillery forces commanded not by skilled, trained officers, but by favorites of the hierarchy.
Again, Napoleon was warned about the nature of the strategy facing him. Again, he chose to plunge ahead, sure he could carry all before him.
Speed was required to make Napoleon’s strategy of enveloping the Russian army work, but that was precisely what he could not achieve in the coming campaign. His opponent would simply pull back, denying him the decisive battle he wanted. His men became exhausted from the increasingly dire conditions of the march (clouds of dust that, after downpours of rain, could turn roads into mudfields; dying horses; mosquitoes; dysentery; etc).
Napoleon regularly pushed his men to their physical limits (e.g., their heavy wool uniforms made them wilt in the early summer heat). But the supreme strategist of the era had made a great error, and continued to do so, as he pursued an enemy that would never really give him the fight he wanted.
Most important, he lost time. A campaign that began in summer heat was continually delayed. After the Russian Army left Moscow with the city in flames, he waited for weeks for a surrender that never came, leaving him less time to pull out of the nation before the Russian winter.
The names of the battles in the subsequent campaign—Smolensk, Borodino, Maloyaroslavets, Berezina—would enter Russian legend, most memorably in Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel, War and Peace. The truth, though, was that the campaign was marked by terrible mistakes and hideous casualties on the part of generals on both sides. (The commander that Alexander eventually appointed to lead his armies in the field, General Mikhail Kutusov, pursued the withdrawing Napoleon in a leisurely manner that enabled the French emperor to escape utter destruction.)
Once Napoleon straggled home to France, John Quincy Adams, serving as America’s ambassador to Russia, remarked of the campaign that there was “nothing like it in history since the days of Xerxes.”
The toll on Napoleon’s army was astonishing. By mid-January, the once-Grande Armee—now placed under the command of General Joachim Murat—numbered a mere 40,000 organized troops and another 20,000 stragglers—physical, and often mental, shells of their old selves. In another year, Napoleon would be forced from his throne following another defeat. Even an escape from a prison at Elba could not regain the domination of the continent he once had, as the Duke of Wellington and his allies defeated him, at last, at Waterloo in 1815.
(The image depicts Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, in a painting by Adolph Northen.)