French Invasion of Russia in 1812: Advance, Retreat & Battles

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  • 0:02 The Tsar Ticks off Napoleon
  • 0:56 Napoleon's Shaky Plan
  • 1:55 Into Russia
  • 3:03 On to Moscow
  • 3:59 Heading for Home
  • 5:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812. We'll take a close look at the emperor's reasons for invading, the progress of the invasion, and the results of the campaign.

The Tsar Ticks off Napoleon

By 1807, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte exerted significant influence over most of Europe. One nemesis remained, however: Great Britain. In an effort to crush his enemy economically, Napoleon ordered other countries not to trade with Britain, and for a while, most of them complied.

Pretty soon, though, Tsar Alexander I of Russia noticed that these trade restrictions were tough on the Russian economy, and at the end of 1810, he decided to stop cooperating with Napoleon's orders. Tired of being Napoleon's puppet, the tsar placed a heavy tax on French luxury imports, protested against French expansion into new territories, and refused to let one of his sisters marry the French emperor. The annoyed Napoleon decided that it was time to teach Alexander a lesson.

Napoleon's Shaky Plan

Napoleon tried diplomacy for a little while, but his heart was set on invading Russia and putting the tsar firmly back in his subordinate position. Against the advice of his closest advisers, the emperor began building a vast army, which eventually numbered about 600,000 French, German, Italian, and Polish soldiers.

Napoleon planned to invade Russia, fight a major battle, squash the Russian army (which was about a third of the size of the emperor's force), and make Alexander eat crow. The emperor figured that this whole process wouldn't take very long, maybe 20 days at most. His army was invincible after all, or so he thought. He would only bring a few supplies, about 30 days worth of food. His men could live off the land if necessary. Napoleon's calculations, however, missed the mark by a long shot, and he would soon be in for a proverbial rude awakening.

Into Russia

Napoleon began his quest in late June of 1812 when he and his army crossed the Nieman River and entered Russia. Right from the beginning, nothing went according to the emperor's plan. First off, the Russians refused to fight. Alexander understood that if he engaged Napoleon directly, his smaller force would be crushed, so he applied a defensive strategy.

The Russians led Napoleon along, but they scorched the earth as they went, burning crops in the fields and deliberately destroying the food that Napoleon's army needed to survive. They even let the emperor's forces capture several cities, but they burned them as they left, depriving the enemy of necessary supplies.

The summer was a hot one, and hunger and disease ran rampant among Napoleon's soldiers. As many as 5,000 per day dropped over dead. By the time two months had passed, over 150,000 soldiers were out of commission, many of them permanently. Even Napoleon had to admit that things weren't going very well, but he pushed his army forward nonetheless.

On to Moscow

The two armies met in their first major battle at Borodino on September 7, 1812. It was a blood bath. Between the artillery fight and the charges of both armies, who clashed head to head, at least 70,000 and perhaps even up to 108,000 men lay dead or wounded by the end of the day. Neither side won a decisive victory, and the Russians slipped away, leaving open the road to Moscow, 75 miles in the distance.

Napoleon pushed on to Moscow, hoping to find a city packed with the food and supplies his army so desperately required. When he arrived on September 14, he was disappointed. Moscow was already in flames, for the Russians were determined to destroy anything that the emperor's army could use. Napoleon also hoped that Alexander would open peace negotiations, but the tsar steadfastly refused.

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