The Russian Campaign


Moscow burnsIn 1811, Tsar Alexander I, supposedly allied with Napoleon, refused to be part of the continental blockade of British goods any longer. Napoleon’s edict barring trade with Great Britain was ruining the Russian economy. Tensions quickly escalated; every attempt to negotiate failed.

On June 24, 1812, ignoring the advice of his closest advisors, Napoleon invaded Russia. Never in living memory had so large an army been assembled — Italians, Poles, German, French — more than 600,000 men from every corner of his empire. Napoleon prophesied the war would be over in twenty days.

“I know Alexander,” Napoleon said. “I once had influence over him; it will come back. If not, let destiny be accomplished and let Russia be crushed under my hatred of England.”

Napoleon’s army trudged slowly across Russia’s vast, open spaces. He hoped to annihilate his enemy quickly, but the Russians would not give battle. As the Tsar’s armies retreated, they burned the countryside behind them, leaving the Cossacks to hack at Napoleon’s rear and flanks, then gallop away.

As the days passed, the blazing heat of the Russian summer began to take its toll. Soldiers fell out from exhaustion, sickness, and desertion — more than five thousand a day. After two months, before Napoleon had fought a single battle, 150,000 soldiers were out of action.

At last, with summer ending, the Russians turned and faced their enemy at the crossroads village of Borodino. Moscow, the holy city of Russia, was at stake. On the morning of September 8, the soldiers of the Tsar prepared themselves for battle, chanting, “‘Tis the will of God, ’tis the will of God.”

The battle of Borodino was a brutal slug-fest. Napoleon threw his enormous army at the Russians in a frontal assault, showing little of his old strategic subtlety.

The battle began at 6:30 in the morning and lasted until 3 in the afternoon. At that point, both armies were exhausted. The Russians fought the Emperor’s armies to a standstill. The next day they withdrew, leaving Napoleon proclaiming victory.

Moscow was at his mercy, but the Russians refused to make peace. As Napoleon’s army entered the city on September 14, he found it almost deserted. That night, Moscow began to burn.

“Mountains of red, rolling flames,” Napoleon recalled later, “like immense waves of the sea. Oh, it was the most grand, the most sublime, and the most terrifying sight the world ever beheld.”

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