Napoleon's invasion of Russia

From Academic Kids

The invasion of the Russian Empire led by Napoleon in 1812 was a critical turning point in the Napoleonic wars. (The invasion route crossed, besides what is still in Russia, what are now parts of Lithuania and Belarus.) The campaign reduced the French and allied invasion forces to less than two percent of their initial strength. Its sustained role in Russian culture may be seen in Tolstoy's War and Peace and the Soviet identification between it and the invasion of 1941-1945.



Napoleon called this warfare the Second Polish War.

Until 1941 it was known in Russia as the Patriotic War (Russian Отечественная война, Otechestvennaya Voyna); the Russian term Patriotic War of 1812 distinguishes it from the Great Patriotic War, the term the Soviets applied to their front in World War II.

Also in Russian, it is occasionally referred to as the "War of 1812", offering some opportunity for confusion since in English that invariably refers to the war, overlapping it in time, between Britain and the United States.

The Invasion

Missing image
Charles Minard's graph showing the strength of the Grande Arme as it marches to Moscow and back, with temperature (in Raumur) plotted on the lower graph for the return journey. -30 Raumur = -37.5 Celsius

In June 1812, Napoleon's Grande Arme of 610,000 men, the largest army assembled up to that point in European history, crossed the river Neman and headed towards Moscow. The initially 280,000-strong harassed the French flanks with attacks from small battalions of Russian troops and local Cossacks. Though the Russian army suffered defeats on the approaches to Moscow in the battles of Smolensk (August 46) and Borodino (August 26), it was not decisively destroyed, and inflicted almost as many casualties as it suffered. By the end of August, Napoleon had lost two-thirds of his army but kept marching on towards Moscow. On September 1, Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, in command of the Russian Army since early August, ordered the evacuation of the city. The widely held belief that the Russians used a scorched earth policy, whereby they burned the crops to keep the French from living off the land is false.

By this point the Russians had managed to draft large numbers of reinforcements into the army bringing total Russian land forces to a strength of around 904,000 with perhaps 100,000 in the immediate vicinity of Moscow - the remnants of Kutuzov's shattered army from Borodino partially reinforced. The ability of the Russians to so quickly replenish their numbers was the critical advantage that would bring them ultimate victory by the end of the campaign.

The Capture of Moscow

Napoleon moved into an empty city that was stripped of all supplies. Relying on classical rules of warfare aiming at capturing the enemy's capital (even though St. Petersburg had been the capital since the early 18th century, not Moscow), he had expected tsar Alexander I to offer his capitulation, but Russian command did not surrender. Instead, fires broke out in Moscow, and raged in the city from 2 to 6 September. Moscow, constructed mainly of wooden buildings, burnt down almost completely, effectively depriving the French of shelter in the city. It is assumed that the fires were due to Russian sabotage.


Missing image
Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, painted by Adolph Northern in the 19th century

Sitting in the ashes of a ruined city without having received the Russian capitulation, and facing a Russian maneuver forcing him out of Moscow, Napoleon started his long retreat. At the Battle of Maloyaroslavets, Kutuzov was able to force the French army into using the very same scorched Smolensk road on which they had earlier moved East; 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 trail where it was weakest. Light Russian cavalry, including mounted Cossacks, assaulted and shattered isolated French units. Supply of the army grew increasingly difficult, and the desertion rate increased. Starting in November 1812, the Russian winter caused additional hardship to the French army, as soldiers and horses started to die from hunger, frostbite and exhaustion on the march. The crossing of the river Berezina brought about another major defeat, as Kutuzov, deciding that the time was right for an open battle, attacked and crushed the part of the French army that had not yet made it across the bridge. In the following weeks, the remnants of the Grand Army were further diminished, and on December 14 1812 they were expelled from Russian territory. Only about 10,000 of Napoleon's men survived the Russian campaign. Russian casualties in the few open battles are comparable to the French losses, but civilian losses along the devastated war path were much higher than the military casualties. In total, despite earlier estimates giving figures of several million dead, around one million were killed - fairly evenly split between the French and Russians. Military losses amounted to 300,000 French, 70,000 Poles, 50,000 Italians, 80,000 Germans and perhaps 450,000 Russians.

Historical Assessment

The Russian victory over the French army in 1812 marked the first blow to Napoleon's ambitions of European dominance, and was the turning-point of the Napoleonic Wars that led to Napoleon's ultimate defeat. For Russia the term Patriotic War (an English rendition of the Russian "Отечественная война", better translated as War of the Fatherland) formed a symbol for a strengthened national identity that would have a great impact on Russian patriotism in the 19th century. The indirect result of the patriotic movement of Russians was a strong desire for the modernisation of the country that would result in a series of revolutions, starting from the Decembrist revolt and ending with the February Revolution of 1917.

List of Russian commanders


  • 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow, Adam Zamoyski, HarperCollins, 644 Pages. ISBN 0027123752
  • Blundering to Glory:Napoleon's Military Campaigns (2nd edition) Owen Connelly. 254 pages. ISBN: 0842027807de:Vaterlndischer Krieg

fr:Bataille de la Moskowa#Campagne prcdant la bataille no:Napoleons felttog i Russland 1812 ru:Отечественная война 1812 г.


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