Winning by Retreating: The Lesson Russians Taught Napoleon

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Napoleon’s withdrawal from Russia, a painting by Adolph Northen. A movie War and Peace (1956) beautifully depicts the tragedy that struck the Napolean’s army, in the disguise of a victory

Collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times

Napoleon Bonaparte (French: Napoléon Bonaparte [napoleɔ̃ bɔnɑpaʁt], Italian: Napoleone Buonaparte; 15 August 1769 – 5 May 1821) was a French military and political leader who rose to prominence during the latter stages of the French Revolution and its associated wars in Europe.

He was Emperor of the French from 1804 to 1815. His legal reform, the Napoleonic Code, has been a major influence on many civil law jurisdictions worldwide, but he is best remembered for his role in the wars led against France by a series of coalitions, the so-called Napoleonic Wars. He established hegemony over most of continental Europe and sought to spread the ideals of the French Revolution, while consolidating an imperial monarchy which restored aspects of the deposed Ancien Régime. Due to his success in these wars, often against numerically superior enemies, he is generally regarded as one of the greatest military commanders of all time, and his campaigns are studied at military academies worldwide.[1]

St. Basil Cathedral: A Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow

The invasion of Russian commenced on 24 June 1812. Napoleon had sent a final offer of peace to Saint Petersburg, the capital of Russia, shortly before commencing operations. He never received a reply, so he gave the order to proceed into Russian Poland. He initially met little resistance and moved quickly into the enemy’s territory. The French coalition of forces amounted to 449,000 men and 1,146 cannons being opposed by the Russian armies combining to muster 153,000 Russians, 938 cannons, and 15,000 Cossacks.

On September 14, 1812, Napoleon moved into the empty city of Moscow that was stripped of all supplies by its governor, Feodor Rostopchin. Relying on classical rules of warfare aiming at capturing the enemy’s capital (even though Saint Petersburg was the political capital at that time, Moscow was the spiritual capital of Russia), Napoleon had expected Tsar Alexander I to offer his capitulation at the Poklonnaya Hill but the Russian command did not think of surrendering.

As Napoleon prepared to enter Moscow he was surprised to have received no delegation from the city. At the approach of a victorious general, the civil authorities customarily presented themselves at the gates of the city with the keys to the city in an attempt to safeguard the population and their property. As nobody received Napoleon he sent his aides into the city, seeking out officials with whom the arrangements for the occupation could be made. When none could be found, it became clear that the Russians had left the city unconditionally.[54]

In a normal surrender, the city officials would be forced to find billets and make arrangements for the feeding of the soldiers, but the situation caused a free-for-all in which every man was forced to find lodgings and sustenance for himself. Napoleon was secretly disappointed by the lack of custom as he felt it robbed him of a traditional victory over the Russians, especially in taking such a historically significant city.[54]

Before the order was received to evacuate Moscow, the city had a population of approximately 270,000 people. As much of the population pulled out, the remainder were burning or robbing the remaining stores of food, depriving the French of their use. As Napoleon entered the Kremlin, there still remained one-third of the original population, mainly consisting of foreign traders, servants and people who were unable or unwilling to flee. These, including the several hundred strong French colony, attempted to avoid the troops.

After entering Moscow, the Grande Armée of Napolean, unhappy with military conditions and no sign of victory, began looting what little remained within Moscow. The same evening, the first fires began to break out in the city, spreading and merging over the next few days.

Moscow, comprised two thirds of wooden buildings at the time, burnt down almost completely (it was estimated that four-fifths of the city was destroyed), depriving the French of shelter in the city. French historians (e.g. Philippe Paul, comte de Ségur) assume that the fires were due to Russian sabotage.

Tolstoy, in War and Peace, claimed that the fire was not deliberately set, either by the Russians or the French; the natural result of placing a wooden city in the hands of strangers in wintertime is that they will make small fires to stay warm, to cook their food and for other benign purposes and that some of the fires will get out of control. Without a fire department, house fires will spread to become neighborhood fires and ultimately a city-wide conflagration.

Sitting in the ashes of a ruined city without having received the Russian capitulation and facing Russian operations against his supplies forced Napoleon and his diminished army out of Moscow.[59] He started his long retreat by the middle of October 1812. At the Battle of Maloyaroslavets, Kutuzov was able to force the French army into using the same Smolensk road on which they had earlier moved East and which had been stripped of food by both armies. This is often presented as another example of scorched-earth tactics. Continuing to block the southern flank to prevent the French from returning by a different route, Kutuzov again deployed partisan tactics to constantly strike at the French train where it was weakest. Light Russian cavalry, including mounted Cossacks, assaulted and broke up isolated French units.[59]

Supplying the army became an impossibility – the lack of grass weakened the army’s remaining horses, almost all of which died or were killed for food by starving soldiers. With no horses the French cavalry ceased to exist and cavalrymen were forced to march on foot. In addition the lack of horses meant that cannons and wagons had to be abandoned, depriving the army of artillery and support convoys. Although the army was quickly able to replace its artillery in 1813, the abandonment of wagons created an immense logistics problem for the remainder of the war, as thousands of the best military wagons were left behind in Russia. As starvation and disease took their toll desertion soared. Most of the deserters were taken prisoner or promptly executed by Russian peasants. Badly weakened by these circumstances, the French military position collapsed. The Russians inflicted further defeats on elements of the Grande Armée at VyazmaKrasnoi and Polotsk. The crossing of the river Berezina was the final French catastrophe of the war, as two Russian armies inflicted horrendous casualties on the remnants of the Grande Armée as it struggled to escape across pontoon bridges.

In early November 1812 Napoleon learned that General Claude de Malet had attempted a coup d’état back in France. He abandoned the army and returned home on a sleigh, leaving Marshal Joachim Murat in charge. Murat later deserted to save his kingdom of Naples, leaving Napoleon’s stepson Eugène de Beauharnais in command.

In the following weeks, the Grande Armée shrank further and on 14 December 1812 it left Russian territory. According to the popular legend only about 22,000 of Napoleon’s men survived the Russian campaign. However, some sources say that no more than 380,000 soldiers were killed.[3] The difference can be explained by up to 100,000 French prisoners in Russian hands (mentioned by Eugen Tarlé, released in 1814) and more than 80,000 (including all wing-armies, not only the rest of the “main army” under Napoleon’s direct command) returning troops (mentioned by German military historians). Most of the Prussian contingent survived thanks to the Convention of Tauroggen and almost the whole Austrian contingent under Schwarzenberg withdrew successfully. The Russians formed the Russian-German Legion from other German prisoners and deserters.[28]

Russian casualties in the few open battles are comparable to the French losses but civilian losses along the devastated campaign route were much higher than the military casualties. In total, despite earlier estimates giving figures of several million dead, around one million were killed including civilians — fairly evenly split between the French and Russians.[60] Military losses amounted to 300,000 French, about 72,000 Poles,[61] 50,000 Italians, 80,000 Germans, 61,000 from other nations. As well as the loss of human life the French also lost some 200,000 horses and over 1,000 artillery pieces.

For the rest of the story go to Wikipedia

War and Peace (1956)

War and Peace is a commendable attempt to boil down Tolstoy’s long, difficult novel into 208 minutes’ screen time. In recreating the the social and personal upheavals attending Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia, $6 million was shelled out by coproducers Carlo Ponti, Dino d…

Summary: PG · 3hr 28min · Classic

Find it on: Xbox Video · YouTube · Amazon

Director: King Vidor

Categories: The Muslim Times

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