The Russian Campaign


1812 Invasion of Russia
French Command Structure
Russian Command Structure

On the Road with the Grande Armee
Map of the first stages of the Great Retreat

Map of the last stages of the Great Retreat
Jean-Roch Coignet's Description of the Retreat
Coignet's Brush With Cossacks

By Richard Moore

While allies in name, France and Russia were never real friends.

Russia's economy was being hurt by Napoleon Bonaparte's Continental System that banned trade with Britain and internal pressures forced Tsar Alexander to turn a blind eye to those who broke it.

Bonaparte decided to bring the Russians back into line and gathered a Grande Armee of more than 500,000 men - including contingents from all France's allies - to frighten them.

The implied threat did not work and the tsar ordered two Russian armies to protect the Motherland.

Led by General Barclay de Tolly and General Bagration, the Russians retreated as Bonaparte's troops swarmed across the frontier on the River Niemen on 24 June.

Combining at Smolensk, the Russian armies fought at Smolensk and Valutino, but the overall strategy was to trade space for time and continue to avoid a major battle with the French. Finally the retreat stopped some 110 kilometres west of Moscow.

Now under the command of General Mikhail Kutusov, the Russians set up strong defensive positions for his 120,000 troops at Borodino and waited for Bonaparte's men to come on.

They did so, 133,000 strong, and the fighting was brutal, even in Napoleonic terms, with little quarter being given.

Although advised by Marshal Davout to manouevre around the defences and attack from another direction, Bonaparte threw his men into a series of bloody attacks on the Russian positions.

At the end of the day - and at the cost of 44,000 Russian casualties and 30,000 French losses - the battle was indecisive, as Bonaparte withheld his Imperial Guard in a move that probably saved Kutusov's army from destruction. But, so far from friendly territory, Bonaparte said he could not take the risk.

Kutusov retreated again and the French occupied a burning Moscow - set on fire by the Russians themselves.

Hoping for a Russian surrender that never came, Bonaparte waited in Moscow for five weeks - far too long - and then began what would become one of the greatest disasters in military history.

Again ignoring good advice from Davout to take a different, better-supplied route to that they had advanced on, Bonaparte sent his men back to Smolensk through already-plundered territory.

To make a bad situation worse, the snows came early in 1812 and the cold, together with hunger and cossack attacks, doomed what had been one of the most impressive armies ever to be formed.

Defended by a magnificent fighting rearguard led by Marshal Ney, the French struggled on. They were almost destroyed during the crossing of the River Beresina where a two-day battle to hold off the Russians allowed what was left of the army to limp across two fragile bridges.

Bonaparte left the army on 5 December to return to Paris where a coup had been foiled and to raise another army. His troops dragged themselves on and on 7 December finally crossed the Niemen out of Russian territory. They had survived, but only 20,000 of them.


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