During the summer of 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, advanced upon Russia, the final quest to secure his Grand Empire in Europe. After seizing power in France, following the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, Napoleon subdued nation after nation, replacing the old feudal order with his new vision for Europe, including his Napoleonic Code.
Having amassed an army of 600,000 troops from a twenty-nation coalition, the largest military force ever assembled prior to World War I, Napoleon marched upon Russia, expecting to defeat them in battle, once or twice, and then negotiate conditions of peace and cooperation with Czar Alexander.
The Russians did not cooperate. Ironically, Napoleonís army so intimidated the Russians that they chose to retreat, again and again, toward the interior. In their rapid pursuit, Napoleonís forces outran their supply trains, requiring them to survive off of the land and the storehouses of local citizens. In early September the two armies engaged in battle not far from Moscow itself, but the Russians again withdrew successfully, this time into and beyond Moscow. Upon Napoleonís entry into the city, he found it abandoned by the government and its inhabitants, who had fled to the countryside, leaving behind three-quarters of its buildings ablaze.
Unable to secure food, shelter, and clothing for his troops for the bitter winter that approached, Napoleon ordered retreat. Disaster followed. Freezing weather, intermittent attacks at their rear and flanks, muddy roadways, and bridges burned by the Russians resulted in the destruction of his Grande Armee during this ordeal. It is estimated that 500,000 soldiers were lost: 250,000 dead, 100,000 taken prisoner, the remainder wounded or deserted.
History records Napoleonís Russian adventure as one of his great errors. Neither he nor France regained the greatness of prior periods.
Published previously in an earlier website, July 4, 2003.