At the battles of Austerlitz in 1805 and Friedland in 1807, Napoleon’s Grande Armée won decisive victories over Russian forces. The ensuing Treaty of Tilsit made Napoleon master of Continental Europe. Yet by 1814, after defeating Napoleon’s invasion of their homeland, victorious Russian soldiers entered Paris. How was Russia able to turn defeat into victory against one of history’s greatest generals? 


Following the Treaty of Tilsit, Russia was to become an ally of Napoleon’s empire. The alliance was unstable and both powers were suspicious of each other. Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I made preparations for the resumption of war.

The tsar was aware that the army had to be reformed. In 1810 he appointed General Mikhail Barclay de Tolly to the post of War Minister. Barclay introduced a new code of field regulations to streamline the command structure. He changed the composition of units in order to improve manoeuvrability on the battlefield. An intelligence network was set up to keep an eye on Napoleon. The arms factories in Tula were ordered to increase their productive capacity.


The initial strategic plan divided Russian forces into three main armies. Barclay himself headed the 110,000-strong First Army, General Pyotr Bagration was at the head of the 40,000-strong Second Army. A Third Army of Observation of 70,000 men under General Alexander Tormassov was deployed on the Danube to screen the Austrians. The Russians hoped Bagration’s Second Army would lure the enemy to the fortified camp at Drissa, where Barclay’s main force was waiting to deal the hammer blow.

No-one in Russia expected that when Napoleon crossed the River Niemen into Russia in June 1812, he would do so with 600,000 men. The strategy was thrown out of the window. The Russian armiesin their disposition were dangerously isolated and outnumbered. Napoleon hoped to prevent the First and Second armies from joining up, and destroy them in succession. By deciding to retreat, Barclay conceded territory in order to gain time and avoid engaging the enemy with the numbers stacked against him.

In early August a brief stand was made at Smolensk, where Barclay and Bagration’s units finally joined together. Fearing encirclement Barclay decided to abandon Smolensk and continue his retreat towards Moscow. By this point Barclay’s retreat was becoming increasingly unpopular among his more aggressive subordinates. The tsar was compelled to appoint General Mikhail Kutuzov as supreme commander. Kutuzov was universally popular among the army and people, though he continued the policy of strategic retreat. In a poem commemorating the deeds of the two men, Pushkin wrote: “Here is Barclay the initiator; and here Kutuzov the finisher.”


When he heard from Kutuzov that Moscow was to be abandoned, Governor of Moscow Fyodor Rostopchin ordered that all supplies be destroyed lest they fall into enemy hands. He set fire to his own mansion as a message of defiance to the invaders.

Vasily Vereshchagin. Wait. Let them come nearer

Vasily Vereshchagin. Wait. Let them come nearer

The Russian peasantry suffered a great deal during the course of the war, but remained committed to expelling the invader, whom they considered the Antichrist. They destroyed their own supplies and waged a guerrilla war against Napoleon’s army during its invasion and retreat.

Vasily Vereshchagin.The end of Borodino battle

Vasily Vereshchagin. The end of Borodino battle

The actions by these partisans forced Napoleon to station more men to guard supply posts, thus weakening his main force. At Borodino deep in the heart of Russia, Napoleon only had 140,000 effective troops, a quarter of his initial force.


Vasily Vereshchagin. In the Kremlin - A Fire

Vasily Vereshchagin. In the Kremlin – A Fire

When he took possession of Moscow, Napoleon had anticipated that the tsar would surrender to him. A punitive peace treaty would be signed to teach the Russians a lesson. Alexander remained steadfast and refused to answer Napoleon’s invitation to talks. The previous year he warned Caulaincourt, the French ambassador, “I would rather pull back to Kamchatka than cede provinces and sign treaties in my capital.” For a whole month Napoleon waited before finally turning back from Moscow, beginning the Great Retreat.


Vasily Vereshchagin. On the road. Retreat

Vasily Vereshchagin. On the road. Retreat

It is often assumed that Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was defeated by the harsh Russian winter. By the terms in which it is usually expressed, this belief is a misconception. Napoleon had prepared meticulously for the campaign and invaded Russia in June in order to avoid fighting in winter. When Napoleon arrived in Moscow winter had not yet come. Winter only arrived when Napoleon began his retreat. In their tired and hungry state, pursued by Kutuzov and his Cossacks, the French soldiers found it difficult to survive the cold. The privations suffered by his men prevented Napoleon from remaining within Russia and recommencing his campaign the following year.

The Patriotic War of 1812 ended when the remnants of Napoleon’s army straggled over the River Berezina. Of the once mighty Grande Armée, only 30,000 men remained, 5 percent of the original force. In 1813, combined Austrian, Prussian and Russian armies swept across Europe and entered Paris the following April. 18 months after Napoleon was sitting in Moscow waiting for Alexander’s surrender, Alexander entered Paris and ensured Napoleon’s surrender.

The text by Jimmy Chen

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