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Napoleon I on the Borodino Hights. 1897. Oil on canvas. Vasily Vereshchagin. Historical Museum, Moscow.The Patriotic War of 1812, or the Russian Campaign of Napoleon as it was called on the West, occupies one of the most remarkable places in the century-old and reach of events Russian history. The Patriotic War of 1812 had become the beginning of the end of Napoleon's Empire; Russia had become the place of the destruction of the Great Army.

Many events were contained in this heroic epoch: long and heavy retreat of the Russian armies in land, a bitterness of defeats of the first months of the campaign, the tragedy of the surrender of Moscow to the enemy, the triumph and the joy after enemy's proscription from the limits of Motherland.

Portrait of the Emperor Alexander I.The officially given reason for the invasion was Napoleon's desire to defeat Britain. Because of Britain's power at sea, Napoleon could not even think about overcoming her without powerful allies on the Continent. Russia was a key power that did not cooperate in closing her ports from British trade and thus enabled Britain to survive Napoleon's tactics.

Another and perhaps a more important reason was that Napoleon's and Alexander's interests were in competition when it came to acquiring new territory. Alexander I resented Napoleon's seizure of Oldenburg on the German coast and was suspicious of Napoleon's plans about Poland. Alexander himself had absorbed a large portion of Poland, which made Napoleon fear that Alexander might want to take the rest of it, too.

Napoleon.There was a third, more personal matter that might have had some impact. In 1808, Napoleon was planning to divorce his wife Josephine for not giving him a child and to marry one of Alexander's sisters. When Alexander's older sister, Catherine, married, Napoleon requested the younger sister's, Anna's, hand. Anna's mother despised Napoleon and refused to give her daughter to Napoleon, saying that Anna, at fifteen years old, was too young to marry and that Napoleon would have to wait until she would be eighteen. Napoleon correctly interpreted the response as refusal, which caused Alexander and Napoleon to distance from their temporarily cordial relationship.

The War Gallery of the Winter Palace.The portraits of glorified military commanders of the Patriotic War of 1812 look down on us with their handsome and brave faces full of military couragein the The War Gallery of the Winter Palace.

In1819 George Dawe arrived in Russia at the invitation of the Emperor Alexander I to paint portraits of the heroes of the Napoleonic Wars for a Military Gallery in the Winter Palace. In some cases these portraits could not be taken from the life, if the general had died in battle or from wounds received. In such cases the artist had to turn to existing images and an earlier engraving and pencil sketches.

Emperor Alexander I personally confirmed the list of generals proposed by the General Staff for portraits to adorn the War Gallery. These were 349 participants of the Patriotic War of 1812 and the campaigns abroad who held the rank of general or were promoted to general shortly after the end of the war.

Marshals Mikhail Kutuzov.Marshals Mikhail Kutuzov war the key figure of the Patriotic War of 1812. Kutuzov became the Russian army commander at the age of sixty-seven years. He has generally been described as a corpulent, lethargic and yet shrewd and intelligent general. Whereas Napoleon generally sought major engagements, Kutuzov's strategy was to wear down the French by continuous minor engagements while retreating and preserving his own troops. Under public pressure, he occasionally actually fought the enemy, e.g. at Borodino, but he never seemed to take advantage of his minor victories and really try to destroy the enemy.

All of Russia knew the names of those War Heroes. One could write a heroic ode to each of them. They were the subject of celebratory lines in the poem by Marina Tsvetaeva dedicated to the battle of Borodino:
“…Three hundred defeated -three!
Only the corpse did not rise from the earth.
You were children and heroes,
You could do anything!..”

Prince Peter Bagration.Prince Peter Bagration (1765-1812) was spoken of by his contemporaties as – "‘God of the Host". During his 30 years in military service Bagration took part in 20 campaigns and 150 battles.

Prince Peter, descended from the Georgian ruling family, but without a powerful patron or money to buy a position, and thus he began his military career as an ordinary infantry soldier. It took him 11 years to reach the rank of Major, being promoted solely thanks to his military talents. He was famed for remaining cool-headed in the most dangerous situations and for always taking calm, measured decisions; at the same time he was renowned for great personal bravery. Both Count Alexander Suvorov and Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, the most famous of all Russian military leaders, placed Bagration in the most dangerous situations, where they knew it would be necessary to fight against overwhelming odds.

At the battle of Borodino he commanded the left flank which took the first blow from the enemy. The French twice took control of the earthwork fortifications, Bagration’s fleches, and twice were driven away. During one of these attacks by the enemy Prince Peter raised his troops to the counter-attack, and at this moment he received a fatal wound, dying three weeks later.

Portrait of Alexei Yermolov.Aleksei Ermolov (1777-1861) was an outstanding military figure and one of the most popular people of his age. During the Patriotic War of 1812 Ermolov participated in all the major military action. In the heat of the battle of Borodino, Kutuzov sent him to the left flank, in the 2nd army, where Bagration was heavily wounded, and Ermolov was able to overcome the disarray in the ranks of the troops.

After seeing that Raevsky’s central battery had been taken by the French, he organized a counter attack, took the battery and led its defense until he himself suffered a contusion from a canister of shot.

Denis Davydov.The name of Denis Davydov (1784-1839) is inextricably bound up with the Patriotic War of 1812 as the originator and one of the leaders of the partisan movement. Denis Davydov’s military talents were highly esteemed by Kutuzov and Bagration, and Nikolai Yazykov said the following about his poetic gifts:
“Your powerful, lively, bubbling and martial, entrancing, youthfully rakish verses will never die.”

Battle of Borodino

Napoleon was anxious for a major battle that he felt would deliver Russia over to him. Initially, he felt that Smolensk would be that town. He met fierce and heroic resistance there. But the Russians made a strategic retreat from the town setting it on fire and leaving few supplies and only a handful of people. Napoleon was sure that he had the Russian troops on the run and that it would only be a matter of time.

Napoleon's hope for battle was rewarded at Borodino. It was one of the major battles of the War of 1812 in Russia. The Russian commander Kutuzov, following the surrender of Smolensk to the French forces, made the decision to stage a decisive battle against the Napoleonic army.

Battle of Borodino on September 7, 1812 was the peak of the glory of the 1812 Patriotic War. It determined the outcome of the war against Napoleon. Thousands of soldiers from the whole of Russia withstood the army of Napoleon. The battle lasted 6 hours.

Napoleon called it “the battle of giants”. Later, being in exile, French Emperor had recognized, that from 50 battles, given by him “In the battle under Moscow the greatest valour was displained and the least success was gained. The French had shown themselves deserved to gain the victory, but the Russia had got the right fully deserved to be invincible.”

Battle at Borodino, Peter von Hess, Hermitage Gallery.
Battle at Borodino, Peter von Hess, Hermitage Gallery.

Artillery played a central part at the battle of Borodino. At the later stages of the battle staggering numbers of guns were assembled by each side to pulverize the opponent. By the afternoon of 7 September, Napoleon concentrated some 300 cannon against Bagration’s positions on the Russian left flank and Rayevky’s redoubt in the center. Russians replied with over 300 guns.

The death toll was catastrophic -- 58,000 Russian troop members died and nearly 50,000 Napoleonic forces including 47 generals. Both sides claimed victory. But Napoleon had failed in his attempt to totally destroy the Russian army. The Russians continued to retreat and Napoleon became convinced that Moscow would herald the end of the Russian war effort.

Till our days, Borodino is a symbol of greatness of the Russian spirit and object of the national proud.

Portrait of Nikolai N. Rayevsky, 1812 War Hero, George Dawe, No later than 1828, Oil on canvas.
Portrait of Nikolai N. Rayevsky, 1812 War Hero, George Dawe, No later than 1828, Oil on canvas.

General Nikolai Nikolaevich Raevsky (1771-1829) was a talented and brave military commander.

During the Borodino battle Raevsky’s corps defended the Kurgan Heights located at the center of the positions occupied by the Russian troops. Here 18 weapons from the battery later named for Raevsky were set up. This was the battery that repelled all the attacks of the French.

Surrender of Moscow

Napoleon in Moscow.A
dvancing to Moscow, Napoleon waited outside the city gates for prominent civic authorities to greet him and to discuss terms of surrender. None arrived. Moscow had been deserted.

Napoleon entered the city and took up residence in the czar's palace.

As the Napoleon's troops noticed that they would not be treatened by Russian troops in Moscow, they went on unauthorized pillaging trips, gathering whatever treasures were left behind by wealthy Muscovites and feasting on wine and delicacies.

Two days later, a fire broke out. Whether it was started by the drunken soldiers or by patriotic Russians, is not clear although the Russians clearly had had the intention to burn the city as all the fire-engines had been rendered unusable and fire-floats had been sunk in the river.

Burning Moscow, 1812.

apoleon called upon the Tsar to surrender, who ignored his request.

Realizing that Moscow would be uninhabitable for the six months of winter, Napoleon decided on a strategic retreat. Unfortunately, he didn't make his decision until he had been in Moscow for nearly three weeks. It was now mid-October.

inter was coming and extreme cold would start soon. Napoleon had a tough decision to make. Advancing to St. Petersburg, the capital, to bring the war to an end was out of the question as the army was in such poor condition and would be without supplies on the road. Staying in Moscow for the winter would not guarantee supplies either, especially with all the fire damage, and there would be the additional risk of cut communications for the five winter months. Napoleon would have preferred returning to France but did not want it to look like a retreat. Hoping that Alexander I would settle for peace, Napoleon sent emissaries to him but by now Russians already understood Napoleon's difficulties and refused to negotiate.

Napoleon had lost about 80,000 men from diseases alone. Napoleon could have lowered the casualties if he had brought more doctors and more supplies. Napoleon regarded his army as mere numbers and did not contemplate that they would be
affected by hunger and fatigue.

As news came that Russians were approaching Moscow, Napoleon decided that a hasty retreat to Paris was in order and left the city. However his retret t from Russia would be far from pleasant.

Napoleon in winter dress. Vereschagin."I do not remember that I suffered so much from cold as on the journey from Vilna to Kovno. The thermometer had gone to twenty below. Although the Emperor was dressed in thick wool and covered with a good rug, with his legs in fur boots and then in a bag made of bear's skin, yet he complained of the cold to such an extent that I had to cover him with half of my own bear-skin rug. Breath froze on the lips, and formed small icicles under the nose, on the eyebrows, and round the eyelids. All the clothwork of the carriage, and particularly the hood, where our breath rose, was frozen hard and white. When we reached Kovno the Emperor was shivering as with the ague." - French Soldier.

At Smolensk, Napoleon found out that three Russian armies were converging together in the west, trying to bar his escape route. There was no time to lose if they wanted to escape the trap.

Cossacks were hardy and recklessly courageous men from the Crimea, Don and Volga regions, who were good at skirmishing and night-raids, and were able to fight even in the extreme cold weather.

Napoleon led his army westwards to Orsha at Dnieper. Napoleon was in front with the Guard, followed by Eugene's corps, Davout's corps and Ney with the rearguard, the whole train extending 40 miles. The Russians cut the road between Napoleon and Eugene east of Krasnoe. After successfully fighting for a while, the Russians broke off their attack, and Eugene's corps managed to pass through safely to Krasnoe. The Road remained open for Davout but Ney was trapped. Napoleon could not send any help because he was already across Dnieper Orsha and wanted to move on to Berezina. Ney's guard was surrounded by three enemy corps and General Miloradovich proposed truce if Ney would surrender. Despite having only 6,000 against some 80,000 Russians, Ney replied "A marshal does not surrender", tried to break through the Russian lines but when stopped by rifle and artillery fire retired to a ravine. The Russians did not follow. In the dark, Ney found a place to cross the Dnieper and about 2,000 men were able to cross. The rest were left behind. Of the 2,000 troops that crossed the river, only about 800 survived the 45-mile march to Orsha. Although Ney's guard had practically ceased to exist, his survival was seen as a great victory.

"I beat the Russians every time but that doesn't get me anywhere." - Napoleon Bonaparte.

After Berezina the troops' goal was to reach Vilna where they hoped to find food and supplies. They had only a few guns, little ammunition and almost no horses left. Napoleon decided to leave his army on December 5, leave Murat in charge, and hurry to Paris where he arrived two weeks later.

Faber de Faur's sketches recorded the Napoleon Army's hardship The abandoned army was left struggling in the extreme cold. December 6 was the coldest day, with -38 degrees C. About three quarters of the army froze to death that night.

The army arrived at Vilna on December 8. The famished men got out of control: they invaded warehouses and private houses, fought over food and a warm place to sleep in. However, they were not able to rest long. The Cossacks were about to enter the city, and Murat ordered the army to resume the march. Many ignored, preferring capture.

The decimated column, still harassed by some Cossacks, then moved on, aiming for safety beyond the Niemen River, 70 more miles distant. The final survivors crossed it at Kovno December 13 and 14, after one last fight at the town's river bridge--by some estimates only 5,000 to 13,000 men in fighting fettle out of Napoleon's original force of nearly 600,000 men.

Historians are still perplexed as to how and why the huge Grande Armee of 1812 was not only unsuccessful in the invasion of Russia, but why it was largely destroyed in that long, difficult campaign.

Napoleon did not lose the war out of military errors but of a simple miscalculation - a miscalculation that was made by Hitler a century later. Napoleon believed that if he occupied Moscow, the Russian
government would collapse and he would rule Europe with little opposition. But as history reveals, this tactic does not work and Napoleon is defeated, paving the way for other nations to deny Napoleon's lust for power.

After the Russia incident Napoleon's Empire fell apart. England, Russia, Prussia, and Austria allied together to fight the French. The French had to retreat. Then on March 30, 1814 the allies captured Paris. Even Napoleon's generals realized it was a lost fight and gave up. Napoleon was forced to abdicate the throne on April 6, 1814.

war with napoleon  |  decembrists  |  revolution  |  second world war  |  soviet era  |  perestroika

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