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'It is but a step from the sublime to the ridiculous' - Napoleon

The story of Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia and the disastrous retreat which ended it is, of course, well-known. Although Napoleon intended the treaty of Tilsit to commit Alexander to a policy of non-intervention in European affairs, the two men were never truly allies.

As was the case with all countries affected by the Continental System, Russiaís economy was nearly in ruins without open trade and internal political pressures in Russia forced Alexander, who had imperial ambitions of his own as monumental as Peter the Great's, to turn a blind eye to Russians openly conducting trade with England in defiance of the Berlin Decree.

Having no confidence that General Lauriston would be successful negotiating in Moscow toward a peaceful resolution to the growing crisis with Alexander, and fully aware the czar was making threatening moves against the fledgling Grand Duchy of Warsaw, Napoleon spent months studying books on Russia preparing for a war he believed inevitable.  And despite obvious logistical problems, bad roads he was aware of but paid little mind to, and dubious allied contingents that he'd have to deal with (especially the Austrians and Prussians), he decided to strike at the Russians in the summer of 1812.

Throughout the Spring of 1812, Napoleon marshaled on the frontiers of Poland the Grand Army of Europe, a colossus of nearly 700,000 men combined, 450,000 of which actually crossed into Russia on three fronts though only half of the army was actually French in 15 divisions, 11 Infantry corps and 4 Cavalry corps along with 1,300 pieces of artillery.

The army was divided into three bodies, a main strike force of 250,000 under the emperor's personal command, a northern wing of 150,000 men under the command of Viceroy Eugene and Prince Jerome, and a southern wing of approximately 65,000 men under Marshal MacDonald and Austriaís superb general Karl Schwarzenberg.  Another 225,000 men were kept in reserve.

80,000 National Guards were conscripted for service defending the frontier of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. These included, total French forces on the Russian border and in Russia came to very nearly 800,000 men! This vast commitment of manpower severely strained the Empire considering 300,000 French troops were still in Spain and over 200,000 more were based in Germany and Italy.

In addition to the Austrian corps under Schwarzenberg there were some 95,000 Poles, over 90,000 Germans (24,000 Bavarians, 20,000 Saxons, 20,000 Prussians, 17,000 Westphalians and several thousand from smaller German states), 25,000 Italians, 12,000 Swiss, 4,800 Spaniards, 3,500 Croats and 2,000 Portuguese. There were also Dutch and Belgian contingents. Every nationality in Napoleon's empire being well-represented, the 'Army of Twenty Nations' was the largest army ever assembled in Europe, bigger even than Romeís at zenith.

At the core of this cosmopolitan juggernaut was Napoleon's Imperial Guard, by then an army within an army nearly 50,000 men strong. This formidable threat, however, did not intimidate the Tsar who on paper at least could muster 600,000 men thanks to well-timed peace treaties with Sweden and Turkey, though at the outset of the campaign he could only muster 220,000 men in two field armies.

Alexander proceeded to order these two armies to protect the Motherland. Led by General Barclay de Tolly (of Scottish descent) and General Prince Pyotr Bagration, the Russians strategically retreated as French forces crossed the Niemen river on 24 June 1812 in three columns.

Napoleon's ambassador to Moscow, the Marquis de Lauriston

In the Campaign of 1812, the fiery old Napoleon of the days in Italy gave way to a different Napoleon: Overweight and rather bourgeois in his habits, in love with his bed, unimaginative, often in poor health, uninspired and unwilling as always to take advice from informed subordinates, some of whom were known to occasionally get the Emperor's backhand across the face for daring to speak out. Even Marshals were not exempt from answering to the colossal imperial superego.

The combined Russian armies fought at places like Smolensk, Valutino and at Polotsk where St. Cyr defeated General Pyotr Wittgenstein, but the overall strategy was to trade space for time and avoid a decisive confrontation, Napoleon's preferred method of ending wars.

Alexander, however, eventually gave in to demands that Russian honor be defended and ordered the army to make a stand, the retreat coming to a halt eighty miles west of Moscow at the village of Borodino. With the Russian army by then under the command of Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, the Russians set up strong defensive positions for their 120,000 troops at Borodino and waited for the Grand Army's attack.

With Napoleon and his Staff watching from Borodino Hill, 133,000 Frenchmen hacked away for most of the day at the stubborn Russians. The fighting was brutal from the get-go even by Napoleonic standards, with little quarter being given by either side. Although advised by Marshal Davout to go around the defenses and attack from another direction, Napoleon scoffed at him saying 'you are always for turning an enemy, it is too dangerous a maneuver' and launched his troops forward in a series of costly attacks against strong Russian positions. Serving with the Grand Army, the Baron Louis Lejeune gives us an absorbing eyewitness account of what transpired that awful day at Borodino on 7 September 1812:

"About seven o'clock on the morning of the 7th the signal for the attack was at last given, and immediately 800 pieces of cannon on our side opened fire on an equal number of Russian howitzers and guns, the projectiles from which plowed through our ranks with a hissing noise such as it is impossible to describe. As ill luck would have it, our reserves at the beginning of the struggle, even those of the cavalry, were rather too near the fighting.

And either from vainglory or more likely from fear of giving a false impression to the enemy, they would not retire the few hundred paces needed to place them in a position less exposed to useless danger, so that we had the grief of seeing thousands of gallant cavaliers and fine horses struck down, though it was of the utmost importance to us to preserve them.

The Emperor had announced that he would establish his head-quarters on the redoubt taken the evening before, and as a matter of fact he passed a great part of the day on that elevated position, sitting on the steep bank of the exterior slope, and following all the movements of the troops with the glass he kept in his hand. His Guard was posted behind him on the amphitheatre formed by the redoubt and its surroundings, and all these picked men, curbing with difficulty their eager desire to take part in the fighting and help to secure the victory, presented a most imposing appearance.

General Compans had the honour of being the first to lead his infantry to exchange fire with the Russians. He was ordered to attack the enemy's centre on the left of the Passavero wood, and to reach it he had to scale the heights and take the redoubts which barred his passage. The 57th Regiment led the way with a dash, carrying all before it, the battalions charging the first redoubt at the double, where a hand-to-hand conflict lasted for nearly an hour.

The rest of the division supported the movement, and the enemy returning with considerable reinforcements to try to retake the redoubt, the ditches were in a few minutes choked up with thousands of killed or wounded Russians. The Gerard and Friant divisions, meanwhile, supported by the cavalry, had attacked other redoubts on the right of that assailed by General Compans.

All this time the formidable artillery of the redoubts in the centre of the enemy's line was working such fearful havoc in our ranks, that it became of the utmost importance to take the largest of these redoubts and spike its guns. The sappers of the engineers, therefore, beneath a hail of grapeshot, flung several little trestle bridges across the Kaluga stream protecting the base of the ridge, and the Morand division crossed the ravine with their aid and managed to get at the enemy.

The first brigade of this division, led by General Bonamy, scaled the height and the entrenchments, deployed successfully in the redoubt, and killed the artillerymen at their guns. But the Russians came to the rescue in great force, and General Bonamy, after receiving seventeen bayonet wounds, fell disabled, and as he was taken prisoner he had the grief of seeing all his men either killed or driven back. The remainder of the Morand division was only able to protect the retreat of the few who escaped in disorder.

The Delzons division, belonging to the Viceroy's corps, which was on our left, meanwhile vigorously attacked and took possession of the fortified village of Borodino. Prince Eugene, who had, of course, not foreseen that this attack would succeed beyond his hopes, had ordered nothing more than the taking of Borodino ; but the 106th Regiment, carried away by success, was able to cross the Kaluga by the mill bridge as the Russians had done before it, and pursued the enemy to the heights beyond, scaling them as rapidly as did the retreating forces.

General Lariboisiere mourns the death of his son at Borodino, 7 September 1812, a detail from the painting by Baron Lejeune

General Plauzonne, however, seeing that the intrepid soldiers of the 106th Regiment were allowing themselves to be separated and were not waiting for the rear of their column to come up, ordered them to halt so as to offer a combined resistance to a Russian column which was coming down to crush them. At that very moment, however, General Plauzonne was killed, and in the momentary confusion into which his death threw his men, the Russians swept down on them and very few of the brave fellows escaped. The 92nd Regiment hastened up to their aid, and in spite of our great loss and of every effort made by the Russians to retake Borodino, it remained in our hands.

Marshal Ney, meanwhile, was gaining ground on the heights above the village, bristling though they were with redoubts and batteries, the artillery fire from which mowed down our ranks. It was grand to see Marshal Ney standing quietly on the parapet of one of these redoubts directing the combatants who were hurrying up below him, and never losing sight of them except when he was enveloped in clouds of smoke. A few paces from where Marshal Ney was standing, the gallant General Montbrun, of the cavalry, was carried off by a ball.

Marshal Davout, Prince of Eckmuhl, continued to defend the redoubts which he had taken, and which the enemy never ceased to try to regain. I was ordered to take the distressing news to him that Prince Poniatowski, who was manoeuvring on the right, had met with such terrible obstacles in the form of dense woods and swampy marshes that he could not, as arranged, fall upon the rear of the Russian left, and so harass it as to aid the first French corps by a powerful diversion. At this moment, in fact, the Marshal's position was most critical ; for although the cavalry under King Murat occupied the whole of the plain before him, and made a series of charges on that of the enemy with the happiest results, the fire from the Russian artillery was making Davout's post all but untenable.

Davout had just been wounded in the arm, but he remained in command of his division. His chief of the staff, General Romoeuf, was pierced by a ball as he was speaking to us. The Marshal, greatly put out at having to make an isolated assault in front on a position which he thought ought to be attacked simultaneously on three sides, said to me angrily, ' It's a confounded shame to make me take the bull by the horns.' I hastened to go and tell King Murat of the critical position of Davout, and he at once ordered several masses of cavalry to unite for the support of General Friant, to whom I carried the order to take Seminskoe. All of a sudden I now saw the plain covered with masses of cavalry, Russian, Cossack, French, and that of our allies, engaged in a desperate melee, and after half an hour's struggle our side remained masters of the ground.

It was about three o'clock in the afternoon when I took this good news to the Emperor. The Russian artillery from the big central redoubt continued, however, to work terrible havoc in our ranks, which had advanced so boldly within range of it, and the Emperor saw the great importance of getting possession of it. Orders were therefore sent to General Gerard, whose infantry was at the base of the height on which was the redoubt, to take it by assault, whilst King Murat was instructed to support Gerard's attack with a numerous body of cavalry. The manoeuvre was admirably executed, and our infantry, supported by Caulaincourt's cuirassiers and pontonniers, penetrated into the entrenchments.

General Kutusoff, however, who looked upon this redoubt as the key of his position, immediately pointed 100 pieces of cannon upon us, hoping by that means to drive us back, whilst a considerable column of picked Russian grenadiers, who had been hidden at 'the bottom of a ravine behind the redoubt, advanced to attack us. In the struggle the wind, which was blowing strongly, raised clouds of dust, which mingled with the smoke from the guns was whirled up in dense masses, enveloping and almost suffocating men and horses.

Field Marshal Kutuzov with his Staff at Borodino

When at last the thick clouds, augmented every moment by the fury of the combat raging on every side, rolled away, we found that the column of Russian grenadiers had been driven back into the ravine, and that we were masters of the redoubt where the artillerymen had been cut down at their guns. Thirty pieces of cannon also remained in our hands, the violence and rapidity of our cavalry charge having been such that the enemy had not had time to drag them away. Our victory had, however, been dearly bought, for Caulaincourt had been killed at the gorge of the redoubt, as he led the charge.

The Emperor, satisfied with all that had already been accomplished by General Friant and the other divisions under Davout, now thought the right moment had come to send his whole Guard to complete the victory, as yet only begun, when a timid counsellor remarked to him, ' Allow me to point out that your Majesty is at the present moment 700 leagues from Paris, and at the gates of Moscow.'

The reflection that he was so near Moscow seems to have greatly cheered the Emperor by calling up a picture in his mind of his entry into that town with all the pomp of a conqueror, and, turning to me, he said, 'Go and find Sorbier, and tell him to take all the artillery of my Guard to the position occupied by General Friant, to which you will guide him. He is to extend sixty guns at right angles with the enemy's line, so as to crush him by a flank fire, Murat will support him.'

I galloped off to General Sorbier, who was a very hasty man, and he, incredulous of my message, did not give me time to explain it, but broke in on what I was saying impatiently with the words, 'We ought to have done that an hour ago!' He then ordered the artillery to follow him at a trot. The imposing mass of the artillery at once rolled away with a resounding clank of chains into the valley, crossed it, and ascended the gentle slope covered with the entrenchments we had taken from the enemy, where they broke into a gallop to gain the space necessary for extension by the left flank.

In the distance I could see King Murat caracoling about in the midst of the mounted skirmishers well in advance of his own cavalry, and paying far less attention to them than to the numerous Cossacks who, recognising him by his bravado, as well as by his plumed helmet, and a short Cossack mantle made of a goat's skin with long hair resembling their own, surrounded him in the hope of taking him prisoner, shouting, 'Houra! houra! Murat!' But none of them dared even venture within lance's length of him, for they all knew that the King's sword would skilfully turn aside every weapon, and with the speed of lightning pierce to the heart the boldest amongst his enemies.

I galloped up to Murat to give him the Emperor's instructions, and he left the skirmishers to make his dispositions for supporting General Sorbier. The Cossacks took his withdrawal for retreat or flight, and followed us. My horse, which was not so fleet as that of the King, for he was mounted on a beautiful fawn-coloured Arab, caught its feet in the drag-rope of a gun which was making its wheel of a quarter circle at a gallop.

The animal, though hurt and shaken by the shock and fall, struggled up again at once without throwing me, and galloped furiously to where General Sorbier was standing in the centre of the terrible battery, now beginning to pour out volleys of grapeshot, shells, and balls on the enemy's lines, which it enfiladed, every discharge telling. The enemy's cavalry made many useless efforts to destroy our line of guns. We remained masters of the fortified position, which the Russians had looked upon as impregnable, and I went to the Emperor to report on what had taken place.

The day was already far advanced. We had dearly bought the advantages we had gained, nor was there as yet anything to indicate that the struggle would not be renewed on the morrow. When I got back to the Emperor he had already been able to judge of the good results achieved by the artillery of his Guard, and he was still hesitating whether, as many amongst us wished, he should follow up this success with a grand charge from the whole of the brilliant cavalry of the Guard. Just at this moment a Russian lieutenant-general who had been taken prisoner was brought to the Emperor.

After having talked to him very politely for a few minutes, the Emperor said to some one standing by, 'Give me his sword.' A Russian sword was at once brought, and the Emperor, taking it, graciously offered it to the Russian general with the words, 'I return your sword.' It so happened, however, that it was not the prisoner's own sword, and, not understanding the honour the Emperor meant to do him, the Russian general refused to receive the weapon. Napoleon, astonished at this want of tact in a general, shrugged his shoulders, and turning to us said, loud enough for the General to hear him, 'Take the fool away!'

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous:  Napoleon leading the remnants of his once proud Grand Army on its ill-fated  retreat from Moscow

The battle now seemed to be approaching its close. The noise of the firing was diminishing, and the sun was setting. The Viceroy had posted a large body of his troops on our left beyond the Kaluga stream, at the foot of the height on which was the big redoubt taken by our cavalry. The Prince was going about amongst his battalions, when the enemy, who had probably recognised him, ordered a considerable body of Cossacks to charge and try to carry him off. Fortunately the Prince noticed the masses of cavalry threatening our left, and in anticipation of their attack he at once formed his divisions in squares by regiments.

The Viceroy (Prince Eugene) had only just time to fling himself into the 84th Regiment, beside Colonel Pegot, and to order the Italian regiment to repulse the thousands of Cossacks advancing upon us with lowered spears, before the shock came. But the point-blank discharge from our infantry drove the mass of riders, always so clever at turning tail, back upon themselves. Our cavalry pursued them for a short distance, and then returned to the ranks. The night fell, and put an end to the exhausting struggle all along the lines of the rival hosts."

Napoleon had withheld his precious final reserve, the massive and deadly Imperial Guard, replying to constant requests for reinforcements during the battle that 'if there is a battle tomorrow, with what shall I fight it?' So far from friendly territory, and with his incredibly long lines of communication and supply under constant attack by Platov's cossacks and partisans, Napoleon said he could not take the risk, not even to deliver a final decisive blow.

Various sources put the Russian losses at Borodino at between 38,500 and 44,000, but the official records shown 43,924 dead, wounded and missing. Among those losses were 23 generals. The true extent of the punishment absorbed by the Russian army is perhaps best illustrated by more graphic descriptions of individual formations:  The 2nd Army of the West had been reduced from 20,000 to 14,000 men.  Many battalions had fewer than 200 men remaining. The six grenadier battalions that had defended the wounded Bagrationís fleches were reduced to a total of about 300 men. The Empress Cuirassier Regiment had entered the battle with 400 men and ended it with only 95.

French losses, though much lower at around 30,000 men, nonetheless included some fairly harsh realities as well including 14 divisional and 22 brigade commanders lost, along with 32 staff officers, 86 aides-de-camp and 37 regimental colonels. Both sides were left totally exhausted, physically and mentally. And that was accentuated by the indecisive nature of the battle.  It's also interesting to note that while salvaging what was left on the battlefield the French collected 20,000 artillery balls with which to restock their supplies. 

While Napoleon had nearly destroyed Kutuzov's entire army, his own was shot up more than badly enough to leave it irretrievably weakened even though the dubious victory at Borodino had in fact left the road to Moscow open. For his part, Kutuzov at the famous Fili conference made the prudent decision to abandon the fight to save Moscow, thus saving his army from total annihilation.  Kutuzov knew he was the one with time on his side.

Napoleon's forces proceeded on to Moscow and entered the capital of Russia on September 15, his headquarters being established in the Kremlin.  Hoping his occupation of the Kremlin would have a strong psychological impact on the Russians, Napoleon believed the objectives for the campaign were well on the way toward being achieved.  He still had hopes of forcing Alexander to sue for peace on his own terms.  The czarís emissaries, however, would never arrive.

The dead tranquility and emptiness of Moscow startled Napoleonís soldiers. 'The absolute stillness around us made us keep silence and listen nervously for every sound. Even the bravest felt fear', one later wrote. Soldier Bourgogne recalled, 'We were surprised that we did not see anybody around. We could not decide what to attribute this complete silence to, such a beautiful city and so soundless, somber and deserted! We heard only our own footsteps. Of course we did not speak much. 

First we tried to re-assure ourselves that the citizens were in their houses and were secretly watching us.  We could not even imagine that such rich and beautiful houses had been abandoned by their owners. Approximately an hour after our entrance into the city, the fires started. We thought that looters from among us set the fires unintentionally. We didn't think the Russians were so barbaric that they would set fire to their property and destroy one of the most beautiful cities of the world!'

Contrary to popular myth, it was not the French who set the fires in Moscow, that dubious honor goes to Count Rostopchin, Governor General of Moscow who had released nearly a thousand prisoners to become incendiaries putting the torch to the great city.

Waiting for a surrender that would never come, Napoleon spent five weeks in Moscow trying to put out fires and keep his looting crazed army from completely disintegrating around him, a herculean task at that point. Finally having had enough of waiting and realizing Alexander wasnít going to capitulate, the emperor finally ordered a retreat and so began one of the greatest military disasters in history.

The real culprit behind the burning of Moscow, it's Governor, Count Fyodor Rostopchin

Again ignoring good advice from Davout to take a different, better supplied route than the one they had advanced upon, Napoleon sent his men back to Smolensk through territory already stripped clean. To make a bad situation worse, the winter of 1812 came early and the cold together with hunger and attacks by Platov's cossacks doomed what had been one of the most powerful armies ever assembled.

Rather than retreat southwest which would have meant depriving the enemy of the chance to concentrate against him on a single front, Napoleon instead retreated along the Kaluga road, the same route the army had advanced upon during the summer, a particularly demoralizing decision since it meant the army would have to revisit the battlefield of Borodino which by then looked like a bit of hell on earth since so many bodies of both men and animals were still unburied.

Despite random successes against Russian forces still somewhat disorganized in their pursuit, Napoleon ran into serious problems as to lines of supply and communication and manpower attrition. And while the army put up stiff resistance every step along the way, the loss of five thousand men at Maloyaroslavets, despite a heroic effort by Prince Eugeneís troops, pointed to the gradual disintegration of a once proud army which would soon become a mob of men seeking not glory but survival..

Despite mounting obstacles and defended by a magnificent fighting rearguard action on the part of Marshal Ney, the French struggled on toward the relative safety of the Polish frontier.  They were almost destroyed during the crossing of the Berezina, where a two-day battle to hold off Kutuzovís advancing Russians allowed what was left of the army to limp across two fragile bridges.  For the most part the worst was over although, as evidenced by the recent discovery of several thousand troops buried in a mass grave at Vilna, many more men would succumb later to the effects of exposure, malnutrition and typhus.

This is an anonymous painting of a pair of Napoleon's fearsome Guardsmen and their trusty companion (soldiers adored their regimental pooches) after the battle of Borodino

Stating that he was returning to Paris to deal with the conspiracy of Gen. Malet to dethrone him as well as to assemble yet another army of 300,000 men he knew heíd need since there were already rumblings of another coalition against him, Napoleon ordered the burning of the imperial eagles and abandoned the army on 5 December. 

Shortly after his return to Paris, Napoleonís famous 29th Bulletin did what few of his bulletins had done before, actually telling the truth admitting that nearly the entire Grand Army of Europe was lost even though the gradual influx of survivors would suggest that actual losses during the campaign, while nonetheless severe, were a bit exaggerated.  Napoleon's troops, meanwhile, dragged themselves forward and on 7 December finally crossed the Niemen back into Poland.

The army had survived though only 93,000 men are known for certain to have crossed the Niemen and they werenít going to be in any shape for combat for weeks if not months to come and thus couldnít be used to form the nucleus of the new army the emperor was already marshaling in Germany.  In a letter to the Abbe Du Pradt after he had left Murat in charge of the army in Poland, Napoleon wrote 'It is but a step from the sublime to the ridiculous' , an appropriately cynical assessment of the situation the famed mountain of confidence suddenly found himself in.

As early as the news of the pyrrhic victory at Borodino, Talleyrand had remarked 'this is the beginning of the end'. Little did he know just how right he was, that he had actually predicted the beginning of the end for Napoleon, his Grand Army and his dream of a United States of Europe.

Vive L'Empereur!