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  • Writer's pictureSimon Vincent

The Mad Genius of Russia's Victory over Napoleon

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

Napoleon watches Moscow burn, Winter 1812.

So you think you are good at chess? Sure you are. You are one move away from checkmating your opponent. But what do you do when your opponent suddenly flips the board, picks up a gun and points it at your face? Can you still checkmate him?

This is exactly what happened to Napoleon Bonaparte in Russia. Napoleon was invincible when his enemies fought by the rules of European warfare. So how do you defeat him? You don't play by the rules of European warfare. This was the mad genius of Russia's war with Napoleon.

Napoleon, the master of Europe

Napoleon is one of the most brilliant warlords in history. He had an exceptional talent for leadership, logistics, map-reading and the art of war. He was also very imaginative, managing to do the "impossible" time and time again. His power rose out of the ashes of the French Revolution (1789-1796), when the power vacuum in the country had left it so desolate and chaotic that it seemed beyond repair. However, within a few years of being France's leader, he turned the country around and restored it to become Europe's superpower. When Europe's monarchies declared war on him in 1805, they started the Napoleonic Wars.

From 1805 to 1807, Napoleon marched 300,000 soldiers across the continent and crushed every European Kingdom in a humiliating manner. He was always too fast, too unpredictable and too strong for his enemies. By 1810, the mighty Austrian-Hungarian Empire, the proud Kingdom of Prussia, the honourable Spanish Empire, and the Italian states were all subdued by Napoleon. Such accomplishments had not been seen since the days of Julius Caesar, or Alexander the Great. Napoleon had become the Master of Europe within just a few years.

However, two nations still posed a threat: Great Britain and Russia. Russia had already been defeated in battle by Napoleon (at Austerlitz in 1805, Eylau in 1806 and Friedland in 1807), but only in central Europe. The vast Russian Empire remained untouched. So, on the river Tilsit in 1807, Napoleon met with Czar Alexander I to discuss relations. In an unlikely turn of events, the two regents not only agreed on peace - but became good friends and allies!

Napoleon as King of Italy, by Andrea Appiani

However, being friends with Napoleon proved to be very strenuous. The French Emperor demanded that Russia ceased all trading with Great Britain. This was economically disastrous for Russia. It did not take long before Russian nobles furiously demanded a revision of the Czar's commitments. In 1811, Russia secretly began resuming trade with Britain on the black market. Once the French found out, all hopes of peace extinguished.

Napoleon, emboldened by his sweeping successes and invincibility, immediately assumed war as the consequence. He decided to invade Russia.

His plan was to (1.) split the Russian forces with haste, and then (2.) force one large, decisive battle that he could win. Then, (3.) he would march on a capital or major city, and expect the Russians to sue for peace to escape the embarrassment of having their cities conquered or looted.

This was Napoleon's blueprint. It was the exact way he had so successfully fought and defeated all of the European states. It was the conventional way of fighting wars in 18th century Europe. But Napoleon overlooked one thing: there was nothing "conventional" about Russia.

Russia was and is a completely different country, with a people of a unique mentality and culture. Since its founding by Vikings in the 8th century, the Russians had centuries of pain and suffering in their collective consciousness, including the terrors of the Mongols, civil wars (Years of Trouble), invasion and repression by the Poles, acute poverty and a harsh climate. Only with the rise of Czar Peter the Great (late 17th century) had Russia risen to strength and stability. Under Czar Catherine the Great, it carved itself an Empire stretching from Poland to Korea. By Napoleon's time, the Russians were ready to annihilate anyone who dared to break them.

"One must never ask more of fortune that she can grant." - Napoleon.

I: Deny, Scorch, Terrorize

Napoleon in Russia by Vasily Vereshchagin

Napoleon's army to invade Russia was the largest standing army in European history. It tallied 685,000 men - a spectacular force. This made the invasion equally about warfare, as it was about logistics. To feed, clothe, and supply this monster of an army, Napoleon needed secure supply lines and access to Russia's farms, woods, and rivers. This was a massive running cost, so Napoleon also needed a quick victory. The Emperor was confident. He predicted that the whole invasion would last just five weeks.

The French Grande Armee crossed into Russia in July 1812. They were organised into several army corps, each commanded by one of Napoleon's handpicked marshals. He coordinated his corps to split through the Russian defence corps, trap them, and to destroy them one-by-one.

However, the Russians were elusive and unwilling to fight. They kept slipping out of the French grasp to avoid any meaningful combat. Napoleon's colossal army was also much slower than usual, burdened by its enormous baggage train. To add to the trouble, the Russian summer heat was unbearable, and when rainfall came, Russia's poor roads became muddy, which slowed down supplies. The army was also consisting of fresh, international conscripts - young men with little experience or endurance for the never-ending marches. Soon, tens of thousands were infected with various diseases or passed out from exhaustion. Many began to desert already.

To make matters worse, the Russians were burning and destroying all their own crops, supply depos, and fields to deny the invading French any nourishment or materials. It is commonly known as the scorched earth strategy. This was already an unthinkable move in central Europe, but perfectly doable in Russia. They would rather burn their own lands than allow their enemy to eat.

The Russian army corps kept luring the French deeper into Russia. Each village was left desolate and devoid of any resource. Thousands of soldiers disappeared, died, or became incapable of fighting.

Meanwhile, French troops would be constantly harassed by the infamous Cossack cavalrymen of Russia. Cossacks riders were known to be merciless to their enemies, and impossible to catch. They would strike and disappear like a shadow in the night. They knew every inch of land on their territory, and used it all to their advantage. They plundered the baggage train and camps, blocked the supply and communication lines, and raided the marching troops, often capturing wounded soldiers and torturing them. They also hunted down French reconnaissance, which limited Napoleon's ability to "see" ahead. Needless to say, this was very demoralising to the French army.

The French captured Vilnius and Minsk, and pushed on to Vitebsk, but in each instance failed to catch the main Russian army. By this time, they were already 200 miles (420km) into Russia, much further than Napoleon had planned, and with nowhere near a conclusive result.

It was incredibly frustrating to Napoleon, but he refused to end the campaign. "I am about to embark on the greatest and most difficult enterprise I've ever attempted. But what has begun must be carried through," Napoleon wrote to the Prefect of Paris.

Therefore, with these measures, the Russians were already picking Napoleon's army apart. They:

  1. Denied him the pitched battle he wanted, and needed.

  2. Drained his ability to wait for the battle he wanted by...

    1. Scorched earth strategy: burning all crops and fields, starving the soldiers.

    2. Drawing him deeper into Russia during a heatwave, exhausting the soldiers.

    3. Terrorising his supply lines and soldiers, demoralising the soldiers.

Cossacks write to the Sultan of Turkey, by Ilya Repin

II: Strike hard, strike madly

In mid-August, Napoleon finally managed to catch the Russian armies at Smolensk, the ancient and holy city. The Russians were bound to escape again, but Napoleon secured their flanks and began bombarding the city. Despite some gruelling street combat however, the Russians retreated, denying Napoleon the protracted battle he desperately sought.

Having captured Smolensk, Napoleon re-assessed his options. He was deep into Russia and winter was looming. One idea was to winter in Smolensk and continue the campaign next year. But then again, Moscow was "only" 230 miles away. It was just too tempting, so, Napoleon decided to push on to try to capture it before year's end.

Why did Napoleon take this gamble? Moscow was not the functioning capital of Russia, but it was the historic capital, and the heart of Russian identity, culture, and power. By nearing it, he would force the Russians to give him a decisive battle. No one would let their most illustrious city fall to an enemy without a fight. If he then could capture Moscow, then the Russians would undoubtedly be humbled into submission.

Mikhail Kutuzov.

He was right. Czar Alexander I ordered his military to confront Napoleon in one, mad onslaught of blood and gunpowder. Taking command of the army was the one-eyed Mikhail Kutuzov. Kutuzov, aged 68, was a former student of Suvorov and a veteran commander. He had been beaten by Napoleon before, at Austerlitz in 1805, and knew all too well how brilliant Napoleon was on the battlefield.

While Kutuzov wanted to continue with the scorched earth strategy and avoid battle, he also agreed that giving up Moscow without a fight would be heart-breaking to his war-eager soldiers.

On September 7, 1812, Kutuzov took up position by Borodino. His men were ready to bring hell upon the French. Kutuzov had set up a near impenetrable defensive position on top of three hills that could only be attacked head-on. It was a test to see how far Napoleon would go for his ambitions - or how brilliant his military mind could be. Nevertheless, a gruelling affair awaited.

"I could not escape the feeling that something huge and destructive was hanging over all of us." - Captain von Linsingen, a veteran.
Prayer before Borodino, by Egor Zaitsev.

The battle of Borodino became the bloodiest and most dreadful in the Napoleonic era. The field saw 250,000 men clash in a carnage of firepower, screams and blood. The French forces kept attacking the Russian positions, but found themselves in an inferno of bullets and cannon fire. Swarms of French soldiers would climb these blood-infested hills, but be bayonetted back by its defenders. Each attack was repulsed, and came at shocking losses. Napoleon would keep sending his brigades into the field, with sometimes just a quarter of them returning. However, the Emperor refused to quit, as he sensed the Russian positions were near breaking point. Finding a gap in the enemy line, he ordered one of his marshals in a tactical assault that finally broke the Russian line. The Russians retreated and took up a new, yet weaker, position along the Borodino village.

Battle of Borodino.

"Of all my fifty battles, the most terrible was the one at Borodino," Napoleon once said, and rightly so. At this stage of the battle, the field was covered by some 70,000 corpses. It was the maddest thing Europe had seen thus far.

However, although Napoleon had taken the hills and fought Kutuzov out of position, the Russian soldiers showed no sign of giving up. It became increasingly clear that the only way to make them surrender was to annihilate the entire army, which Napoleon hesitated in doing, for it could lead to his own annihilation, too.

Meanwhile, the Russian marshals discussed the situation fiercely. If they held their ground, they might perish and fight to the last man. If they withdrew, they would give up Moscow. When Kutuzov learned that he had lost 44,000 Russians that day, he took an executive decision to retreat. This meant opening Moscow to the French.

Kutuzov decides to open Moscow for Napoleon by Vasily Vereshchegin

III: Burn his victory

Napoleon watches the fire by Vasily Vereshchegin

"Peace lies in Moscow," Napoleon said on September 8th. It all seemed to finally come triumphantly into plan. He had got his decisive battle at Borodino, won it, and now had Russia's prize city ready for the taking. Russian surrender was imminent, surely. All the staggering suffering of his Grande Armee would not be in vain.

The Grande Armee finally marched into Moscow on September 15th. Victory, at last.

However, something was not right. Though he had gained what he technically wanted, there was an eerie feeling that it wasn't enough. It was as if the equation Napoleon had achieved, wasn't yielding the result he expected. 2+2 did not equal 4.

Moscow was deserted, and the French soon found out that parts of the city were torched. Immediately, French firefighters got to work - but no matter their efforts, the fire kept spreading. It also appeared at different corners of the city. Soon, entire districts were engulfed in fire, destroying absolutely everything - homes, entertainment venues, halls and government buildings, storage areas and depos, and markets. Napoleon woke up that night and was met by a sight only Emperor Nero had witnessed before him - an entire city torn in flames. Practically all of Moscow was burning. It was the maddest thing in the entire Napoleonic wars.

The city the army had sacrificed hundreds of thousands of lives for, was being eroded before their very eyes. The city that ought to be Napoleon's bargaining chip - a token of Napoleon's victory and the end to the war - was engulfed in flames. The only, and last, hope for peace, was burning.

In that bitter moment, Napoleon must have realised what this meant: the Russians had burned his victory, and would never surrender. They would rather burn their ancient capital than to surrender their nation. In that moment, Napoleon knew he was defeated.

After four days of fire, it finally began to settle. French soldiers began plundering and looting what remained of the ruined place. Meanwhile, Napoleon sent a futile letter to Czar Alexander I demanding his surrender, but to no avail. The Czar never replied. The clock was ticking. Every hour took the French closer to the ruthless Russian winter. They had no winter clothing, and their supply lines were in total disarray due to Cossack raiding. The inescapable dread of a looming catastrophe burdened Napoleon's mind every day. On October 13th, the first snowfall landed. The Grande Armee was 500 miles away from safety. They had fallen perfectly into the mad Russian trap.

IV: Annihilate

"Now is the moment my campaign begins." - Czar Alexander I
Burning banners, by W. Kossack.

On October 19th, the Grande Armee left Moscow. The French soldiers packed everything they found of food, loot and clothes. The plan was to reach Smolensk as soon as possible and winter there. The army now tallied 100,000 men. For the first time, the Grande Armee was outnumbered by Kutuzov, who still had 110,000 soldiers waiting outside Moscow.

The main highway to Smolensk was already stripped of supplies, so Napoleon planned on taking an alternative route further south. However, he was stopped at the ghastly battle of Maloyaroslavets, and forced to use the main, desolate highway to Smolensk.

The temperatures now went below zero, and soon reached -20 degrees Celsius. The fatigued soldiers and horses began collapsing by the road, both starved and freezing. Those who fell asleep without shelter froze to death during the night. Doctors and nurses dumped the sick and dying on the field to save themselves and maintain pace. Soon, 1/3 of the army had disappeared, and another 1/3 turned rogue - operating independently in a desperate hunt for survival.

"The road was strewed with the dead, our sufferings exceeded imagination." - General Rapp, Napoleon's Aide-de-Camp.

Meanwhile, Kutuzov's army was at their heels, and attacking their rear guards wherever they could. In each confrontation, the French had little to offer of resistance, and usually kept withdrawing. Cossacks stormed into their vulnerable marches, instilling the soldiers with fear and dread. Even the the Russian civilians engaged in the terror: peasants would capture wounded or weak soldiers and take them to their village to be hung, tortured or shot. Napoleon himself carried a tiny flask of poison around his neck in case of capture. The enemy offered no mercy.

Smolensk was reached on November 10th, but due to poor supplies and the approaching Kutuzov, he had to keep fleeing. All other important supply depos were already taken by the Russians, and now Kutuzov was keen on fighting. Two Russian army corps were also blocking his route back to Poland in the West. Napoleon was being surrounded, and he had only 45,000 capable soldiers left to use in battle. He had almost no cavalry, as the horses were being eaten up by his starving soldiers.

"This is beginning to be very serious," - Napoleon to General Caulaincourt on November 23rd.

He then received news that the last French supply depot at Minsk had fallen to the Russians. Several Russian army corps had then taken position by the Berezina river, attempting to trap what remained of the French army.

On the Western side of the Berezina river stood several Russian army corps, while on the Eastern side, Kutuzov's main army was approaching. Napoleon's only hope now was to cross the Berezina river, but attempting this was practically suicidal. The river's ice was broken, so it was now a flowing mixture of freezing cold water and iceblocks. Nevertheless, Napoleon ordered his Dutch engineers to build pontoon bridges at haste to allow his army to escape before the main Kutuzov army arrived from behind.

Crossing Berezina river, by Peter von Hess.

These brave engineers stood chest-deep in the freezing stream and boldly hammered together the bridges both day and night. Most of them froze to death or drowned in the attempt. Napoleon sent his most able divisions across first to secure the bridgehead and fight off the Russian army corps there. Then, he sent another division East to divert the impending Kutuzov army. This would give the French enough time to cross.

However, after just a few hours of crossing the river, the Russians realized what was going on, and began attacking the retreating French army. It was a nightmare. Desperate soldiers threw away their guns and knapsacks as they rushed over the pontoon bridges, all while under intense fire by the Russians. A blizzard swept over the landscape, blinding several divisions, who got lost and walked straight into Russian fire. Other divisions managed to stay coordinated, and fought very bravely to shield their fellow soldiers as they crossed.

Unfortunately, the "stragglers" (the fatigued) of the army refused to move and preferred to rest in the camp. Officers urged them to get moving, but they wanted to rest. By early morning on November 30th, time was up. The Dutch engineers destroyed the pontoon bridges to prevent the Russians from using them. This left thousands of the weakest French soldiers stranded on the wrong side of the river, waiting to be captured or killed by the Cossacks. Temperatures reached -30 degrees centigrade at this point.

Marshal Ney retreats, by Adolphe Yvon.

The Grande Armee had escaped by the grit of their teeth, with tens of thousands of losses. Those who were strong enough hurried onwards. Napoleon rushed to Paris to re-assure the government, while his Marshal, Michel Ney, stayed behind to guide the troops home. By December 9th, they finally reached safety. Thousands of ragged, meagre and traumatised soldiers streamed across Imperial borders to safety in Poland. Marshal Ney was the last Frenchman to leave Russian soil. The proud army was nothing but a shadow of its former self.

What began with Europe's most spectacular army of 680,000 men, was reduced to practically nothing. Half a million men had perished: 375,000 dead, 100,000 captured, and only 95,000 returned (where a mere 20,000 were able). In other words, for every 12th man, one died in battle, two were taken prisoners and possibly died in captivity, eight died of disease or climate, and only two would return home.

Entire army corps were completely annihilated. Marshal Ney, who had fought and suffered side-by-side with his men throughout the campaign, bitterly wrote "Second and Third Corps are no more than a memory. The latter numbers only 60 men." The destruction was unimaginable.

Napoleon would never fully recover from this. His invasion of Russia in 1812 proved to be the fatal mistake that turned the tide in Europe against him. All his old enemies now sensed weakness, and mobilised for war. By 1814, Napoleon was forced to abdicate the throne. Though he would have one last dash for power in the following year, he was defeated and lived the rest of his life in exile.

Perhaps Napoleon's gravest mistake was his underestimation of the mad genius of the Russian mind. While he expected to fight by the rules of standardised European warfare, the Russians played by no rules. For them, it was victory or death, and absolutely nothing in between.

The Russians had denied Napoleon battle for weeks, and starved his army with the unthinkable scorched earth strategy. They then offered battle, but with such overwhelming ruthlessness that it nearly broke Napoleon's army. Finally, when victory was in sight, and all the pain, sacrifice, and faint hopes seemed to be worth it - the Russians torched their own treasured city. This, as to say: if you want to win Russia, you need to kill each and every one of us. Siberia would be the next frontier. This was the mad genius.

At that point, Napoleon's worst nightmare had materialised itself. He was dealing with a people totally different from any other. He was playing chess, while they pointed a gun to his head.

Night Bivouac of the French army by Vasily Vereshchegin

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