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Napoleon's Russian Campaign of 1812

Napoleon's Russian Campaign of 1812
Title: Napoleon's Russian Campaign of 1812
Release Date: 2018-05-20
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
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Napoleon passing the night in a Russian chteau near Mikalevka, afterreceiving the news of General Malet's conspiracy in Paris
From the painting by Verestchagin









During recent years the history of most of Napoleon's great campaignshas been given to the world, with the notable exception of that ofthe catastrophic Russian expedition of 1812. Apart from compilations,I have met only one original work on the subject, in the Englishlanguage, during the ten years the present work has been in preparation.

The publication of thousands of documents dealing with the strugglefrom the French side by the Historical Section of the French WarOffice, has rendered easily accessible an immense mass of materialfor the earlier period of the campaign. A beginning in this respecthas also been made by the War Office at St. Petersburg, and someinteresting light is thereby thrown upon the preparations on theRussian side, as well as upon the personalities of the Russian leaders.There are also many documents from private sources which have beencollected and published.

My aim has been simply to relate the history of the terrible campaignin straightforward fashion, without obscuring the narrative by toomuch digression. I believe that, as matters stand, a better servicewill thus have been rendered to the cause of history than by thecomposition of a huge essentially technical work—for which, indeed,there is no place in this country. At present, apart from the needs ofsoldiers—which they are better qualified to supply than myself—it isnot so much scientific discussion of the campaign that is required asknowledge of its episodes. This I have conscientiously endeavoured tosupply.

I have to express my obligations to Mr. F.J. Hudleston, of the StaffLibrary at the War Office, for permission to make researches among theworks under his charge dealing with the campaign, as well as to hisassistant, Mr. Baldry, for his kind help during my work there. I amindebted to Mr. Gordon Home for much invaluable assistance, which it iseasier to name than to classify, since it extends to every part of thebook.



I. The Preliminaries 1
II. Napoleon's Army and its Generals 20
III. The Russian Army and its Generals 41
IV. The First Stage of the Campaign. Operationsfrom Kovno to Vitebsk 59
V. The Operations about Smolensk 108
VI. The Operations in Volhynia and on the Dna 159
VII. Smolensk to Borodino 183
VIII. The Occupation and Destruction of Moscow 220
IX. The French Sojourn in Moscow 241
X.The First Stages of the Retreat 263
XI. The Operations in Napoleon's Rear duringSeptember and October 286
XII. The French Retreat. Maloyaroslavetz toOrsha307
XIII.Orsha to the Berezina 344
XIV.Conclusion of the Campaign. Losses andResults374
Appendices A to E392
Bibliography 405
Index 409


1.  Bad News from Paris
2.  The Emperor Alexander I of Russia
3.  Prince Eugne, Son of the ex-Empress Josephine
4.  Details of the Uniforms of the Infantry of theFrench Army in 1812
5.  Marshal Davout
6.  Prince Joseph Anthony Poniatowski, Nephew of StanislausAugustus, the last King of Poland
7.  Field-Marshal Prince Barclay de Tolly
8.  Field-Marshal Prince Golnischev-Kutuzov
9.  General Prince Bagration, Commander of the SecondRussian Army in 1812
10.  Joachim Murat, King of Naples
11.  The Old Fortifications of Smolensk
12.  Marshal Oudinot, Duke of Reggio
13.  The First Battle of Polotsk
14.  General of Cavalry Count Platov
15.  Marshal Ney
16.  Moscow from the Sparrow Hills
17.  Napoleon's First View of Moscow
18.  Napoleon Watching the Burning of Moscow
19.  The Kremlin, Moscow
20.  Marshal Victor, Duke of Belluno
21.  The Church of Vasilii Blagorennyi at Moscow
22.  The Council of War after the Battle of Maloyaroslavetz
23. Marshal Gouvion St. Cyr
24.  Count Wittgenstein
25.  Armed Russian Peasants in Ambush in the Woods waitingto cut off French Stragglers
26. The Retreat of the French from Moscow
27. Russian Grenadiers Pursuing the French Army
28. Napoleon, Berthier, Murat, and Rapp (in the ordernamed) round camp fire
29.  General Baron Ebl
30.  Crossing the Berezina
31.  Marshal Ney Supporting the Rear-guard during theRetreat from Moscow
32.  Napoleon's Travelling Kitchen


Plan of Battle of Saltanovka
"        "    Smolensk
"        "    Lubino
"        "    Gorodeczna
"        "    Borodino
"        "    Vinkovo
"        "    Maloyaroslavetz
"        "    Polotsk (2nd)
"    Order of French Retreat, October 31
"    Battle of Viasma
"        "      Krasno
"    Passage of the Berezina
"    Battle of Polotsk (1st)
Map of Theatre of War, showing positions of opposing forcesat opening of campaign and movements on both sides up tooccupation of Moscow      (folding, at end of volume)
Map of Theatre of War, showing positions of opposing forcesat the evacuation of Moscow and movements on both sidesto the end of the campaign      (folding, at end of volume)


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The Russian Campaign of 1812 was the last and greatest of Napoleon'sefforts to impose his dominion upon Continental Europe; and it resultedin perhaps the most tremendous overthrow that any world-conqueror hasever sustained. A review of the immediate causes of the mighty struggleis necessary and not without interest, but it is difficult, as onestudies Napoleon's character, to resist the conclusion that it wasinevitable. The career of the Corsican adventurer whom genius and goodfortune had made Emperor of France, resembles the fateful developmentof a Greek tragedy. By 1812 his pride had reached its height. Whateverset itself in opposition to his will must be trodden under foot.Russia, impelled partly by a natural sense of independence, partly byeconomic causes, made up her mind to resist him, and the consequencewas an attack upon her by the tyrant of south-western Europe.

The effects of the Continental system varied in different parts ofEurope, but everywhere they were bad. France, wealthy in herself, andwith the material advantage of being able to maintain her overgrownarmies at free quarters in foreign countries,[Pg 2] felt them least—afact which probably accounts for Napoleon's long continuance inpower. Elsewhere the pressure was cruel, especially in Sweden, whichpractically depended for economic existence upon her sea-bornecommerce. Russia, though self-supporting as regards food supplies,also suffered materially from the cessation of her trade with GreatBritain; and the classes which felt the pressure most were those of thenobles and merchants, which embodied and voiced such public opinionas existed in the country. There was also in Russia a healthy senseof independence, coupled with a feeling of possessing such strengthas made destruction, at the hands even of Napoleon, impossible. Suchopinions were certain to penetrate sooner or later to the Tzar and hisadvisers; and, in spite of much irresolution and diversity of views,they could not fail to exercise considerable influence. Besides, thecommencement of a new independent Poland, in the shape of the GrandDuchy of Warsaw, established by Napoleon on the western frontier ofRussia, was an ever-present source of anger and uneasiness. The GrandDuchy was, to all intents and purposes, a military camp, a sort ofFrench advanced guard against Russia. Within its bounds everything wassubordinated to military organisation, and its large army, organisedand trained on French principles, and with French aid, was a very realmenace.

Napoleon's political marriage with Maria Louisa of Austria, at a momentwhen he was ostensibly negotiating for the hand of Alexander's sister,added to the Tzar's sense of his people's sufferings and his empire'sdanger a feeling of personal injury. Next year this was aggravated byNapoleon's abrupt annexation of the coast-lands of north-west Germany,including Oldenburg, whose ruler was Alexander's brother-in-law. In thebeginning of 1811 the Tzar issued a commercial decree which virtuallyprohibited various French imports into Russia, and also permitted theimport of Colonial goods[Pg 3] under a neutral flag. The measure must, ofcourse, have been under consideration for some time, and Russia'sfinancial straits amply account for it, but coming as it did on theheels of Alexander's protests against the seizure of Oldenburg, itenraged Napoleon. In a letter to the King of Wrttemberg he describedit as a declaration of hostility, and, since any movement in thedirection of independence inevitably called down his furious wrath, hewas probably right.

At the same time these events were scarcely the cause ofhostilities—they merely hastened them. Whatever diplomacy might do,neither Napoleon nor Alexander had any belief in the permanence of thetruce which had been called in 1807. Soon after his second marriageNapoleon had observed to Metternich that war with Russia was in thenature of things. The retention of strong garrisons in the Prussianfortresses on the Oder, the steady increase in the forces of the GrandDuchy of Warsaw, and the continued occupation of Danzig, almost onthe Russian frontier, were measures which can hardly be regarded asdirected otherwise than against Russia. Moreover, besides the troopsof Napoleon's German vassals, an army of 100,000 Frenchmen occupiedGermany. It is absurd to suggest, in the face of all this, that warwas forced upon Napoleon by Russia—except, of course, in so far asindependent action of any kind always challenged his hostility.

Whatever Alexander's personal feelings might be—and there is nodoubt that he was to some extent fascinated by the French Emperor'spersonality—he was gradually forced into the conviction that peacewas impossible. In 1810 he appointed as War-Minister General Barclayde Tolly, an officer who had greatly distinguished himself in theFrench and Swedish wars; and the reorganisation of the Russian forceswas energetically proceeded with. Count Arakcheiev, Alexander's harshand brutal, but undoubtedly industrious and[Pg 4] energetic, minister,had already done much, especially in the direction of improving thearsenals and reserves of arms. Barclay's measures were steadilydirected to preparing for a war on the western frontier. The countrywas surveyed, roads examined and improved, magazines formed,fortifications planned and begun, and, above all, troops steadilyconcentrated. Progress was, however, slow. Apart from the backwardstate of the country as a whole, divided counsels in the ImperialCabinet, the poverty of the exchequer, and the strain of the longand by no means successful Turkish war, it was necessary to proceedcautiously, for fear of provoking Napoleon too soon into offensiveaction.

The preparations were, in fact, entirely defensive in character, andappear very modest

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