How Napoleon's Russia Campaign Collapsed

Posted by RTH Real Time History on

The first snow is falling over the smouldering ruins of Moscow in October 1812. In the Kremlin, Napoleon is desperate: His Grande Armee is in shambles, the Tsar is not interested in peace, the Russian army is recovering its strength, and Russian Generals are planning the final destruction of the weakened French forces. Even in far away Paris, Napoleon’s enemies have understood that the invasion is going poorly – Napoleon’s Downfall might just be a matter of time.

By mid-October 1812, Napoleon and much of his Grande Armee have spent nearly a month in Moscow, but the Tsar has refused all offers of peace. The Emperor has decided to leave the ruined city. Spending the winter in Moscow would keep him far from politically unstable Paris and staying might put his armies at risk of being further weakened over the winter while the Russians get stronger. But he’s had a difficult time deciding what to do once he does leave. He could move west along a southern route through Ukraine, but this would take him even further from the centers of Russian political power, and the Russian army is blocking his path. He could also decide to move north towards St Petersburg and try to force a decision, but the onset of fall, the massive distances involved and the weakened state of the Grande Armee make this unlikely. Another option is a withdrawal to Smolensk (and possibly further), either by a route south of the one the Grande Armee had already taken, or by the same route. This would be an admission of catastrophic defeat, and expose the army to the risk of starvation if it follows the same devastated route through Belarus.
Napoleon finally chooses the least bad option: he orders a retreat to Smolensk through Yel’n’a, passing south of the area destroyed in the summer. This means fighting their way through the Russian army encamped at TarUtino. The Grande Armee army prepares to leave Moscow on October 18.
While Napoleon is wasting valuable time in Moscow, Russian leaders are also making plans. Kutuzov’s priority is to rebuild his army’s strength, and he does so: he had just 40,000 men when he arrives on October 3, but two weeks later he has 88,000 regulars and 28,000 cavalry, including irregular Cossacks and Bashkirs. Meanwhile irregular Cossack cavalry and peasant partisans raid Grande Armee foraging parties and isolated units, which cause the French 15,000 men during the month they are in Moscow.

The strategic retreat is over, the new Russian military objective is to go on the offensive. Now, the Tsar expects that his armies, which outnumber the French-led invasion forces for the first time since the campaign began, will strike at the Grande Armee from multiple directions to surround and destroy it. Wittgenstein’s northern corps, reinforced with fresh units from Finland, is to push south against the corps of Oudinot and Wrede. In the south, Admiral Chichagov’s Army of the Danube is to move against Schwarzenberg’s Austrian corps. Finally, Kutuzov’s main army is to close on Napoleon’s main force from the east – all with the objective of trapping the Grande Armee and delivering a crushing blow somewhere in Belarus.

While Napoleon agonizes in Moscow before finally deciding to move west, Kutuzov strikes first at Tarutino.

The Russian army’s Tarutino maneuver had allowed it to escape the Grande Armee and set up camp between Moscow and Kaluga. French Marshal Murat’s cavalry corps and General Poniatowski’s 5th Polish Corps encamp just north of the Russians to keep an eye on them.
Kutuzov is working on rebuilding his forces, but as the weeks pass, Generals Bennigsen, Barclay, and British advisor General Wilson all pressure him to maintain offensive action. So he approves a surprise attack on the French and Poles for October 18. Murat’s cavalry is a shell of its former self. The entire 3rd Cavalry Corps, for example, only has 700 sabres out of its original complement of 9700, and the Saxon brigade has been reduced to a mere 50 horses. Polish Lieutenant Henryk Dembinski complains that the surviving mounts are in a pitiful state:
“It was so bad that, even though we had folded blankets to the thickness of sixteen, their backs had rotted through completely, so much so that the rot had eaten through the saddlecloth, with the result that when a trooper dismounted, you could see the horse’s entrails.” (Zamoyski)
This is the depleted force the Russians catch completely unaware near VInkovo. Ten regiments of Cossacks carefully approach the unsuspecting French and Poles before charging straight into their camp. At first, the Allied troops closest to the Russians panic and simply flee, leaving their weapons and supplies behind. French Captain Bréaut describes the chaos:
“We finally got into battle formation. The guns were firing on us with grapeshot, nothing stopped them. There were too many Russians. […] we were quickly forced to retreat, but did so in good order. Cannon balls were falling in our ranks like hail […] Everywhere we looked we saw nothing but Cossacks.” Boudon 248
But just as it seemed the Cossacks might be able to use their momentum and French disorganization to score a complete rout and perhaps even capture Marshal Murat, they stop. A Russian army corps also joins the fight, but by now the French and Poles have recovered their wits and they are able to inflict losses on the Russians – including corps commander General Baggovut, who is killed.
Some observers argue that the Cossacks simply wanted to secure their loot from the French camp, while others emphasize that Kutuzov is satisfied with the limited victory and orders no pursuit.
The Battle of Tarutino, or the Battle of Vinkovo, is relatively small scale but important: the Russians are from now on willing to go over to the offensive, and the Grande Armee is psychologically shaken and beatable.

The Russians triumph at Tarutino, but Kutuzov doesn’t press his advantage despite good intelligence from his superior light cavalry. Instead, the Grande Armee will come to him as it leaves Moscow behind.

The Grande Armee that marches out of a burnt-out Moscow on October 18 and 19 is a shadow of the one that crossed the Neman river in June. The Tsar has rejected Napoleon’s peace offers, and in the month the army spent in Moscow, Cossack and partisan raids kill or wound another 10-15,000 men. There are now only about 95,000 men in Napoleon’s main strike force. The months of hardship have reduced them to a disorganized and dispirited crowd intent on surviving rather than conquering.
A massive baggage train of up to 50,000 wagons, carts, and even wheelbarrows, accompanies the troubled army’s columns. Captain Eugene Labaume is reminded of a scene from antiquity:
“He who has not seen the French army leave Moscow can scarcely imagine the Greek and Roman armies as they abandoned the ruins of Troy or Carthage. The long lines of carts, in ranks of three or four, extended several leagues and were loaded with the immense booty the soldiers had torn from the flames.” Boudon 249
Many French residents of Moscow who had lived there before the war also leave, along with some Russians who cast their lot with the French. Napoleon initially leaves 10,000 men in the city with orders to blow up the Kremlin, but changes his mind soon after and orders all his troops to leave. They attempt to destroy the Kremlin but fail.
The French-led occupation of Moscow causes a strong feeling of resentment in Russia and helps rally the population against the Grande Armee. Russian authorities use the fire for propaganda, but peasant art and songs also show their hatred of the French and genuine attachment to Russia.
The reality of the re-entry of Russian troops and civilians into Moscow is more complicated than patriotic sentiments. The city is absolutely ruined, as one pre-war French resident who decides to stay recalls:
“One could barely recognize where the streets had been; corpses lay everywhere in the streets and in the courtyards […] dead horses blocked the roads, the carcasses of cows and dogs lay among the bodies of people; a little farther along [those] who had been hanged – they were arsonists who had been shot and then strung up. We passed all this by with an inconceivable indifference.” Rey 206
As the French leave, peasants from the devastated villages around the city organize themselves into large groups and take advantage of the disorder to plunder anything of use still left among the ruins. An anonymous Russian observes the chaos:
“By entire convoys, peasants arrived in Moscow to steal what the enemy hadn’t had the time or the possibility to take away. They took mirrors, chandeliers, paintings, books, furniture; in a word, they took everything they could lay their hands on.” Rey 224
Russian authorities arrest many of the looters in the following days, but eventually strike a modus vivendi by having the peasants carry the thousands of bodies lying in the streets outside the city limits and bury them on their way home.

As Napoleon leaves the ruins of Moscow behind and wants to reach Smolensk or Minsk by a safe route to consider his options and perhaps set up winter quarters. But a restored Russian army is blocking the way.

The much-reduced Grande Armee that left Moscow on October 18 heads to the southwest, towards Kaluga and the encamped Russian army. He hopes to take a southerly route westwards, but wants to avoid the Russian army. So his forces veer west and head for MaloyaroslAvets, a small town at a key junction that would allow the Grande Armee to choose its preferred route and keep the Russian army at bay.
The Russians know French-led forces are near MaloyaroslAvets, but they don’t know it’s Napoleon’s main army until Russian partisans get confirmation from captured French officers. Meanwhile 6000 men of Eugene’s vanguard have occupied the town, and General DOkhturov decides to attack them with his force of 12,000.
The night of October 23, the Russians manage to push the French units out of the town and across the lone bridge spanning the nearby river. Dokhturov sets up his guns on the steep slopes behind the town, which gives the Russians a tactical advantage for the main battle which starts early on the 24th.
The fighting rages back and forth throughout the day, and each side throws in more and more units. In all some 32,000 Russians and 24,000 Grande Armee troops are involved. Most of the troops fighting on the French side are from the Italian peninsula, and Maloyaroslavets is the culmination of their role in the campaign. Italian units hold out in bitter fighting around a monastery, while the town changes hands up to 5 times. In general, Russian troops are able to attack downhill with powerful artillery support from the heights above, while Eugene’s men must worry about the vulnerable bridge behind them. The fighting in the streets is at close quarters, and British General Robert Wilson, who is attached to the Russian army, recalls the haunting scene:
“The crackling flames – the dark shadows of the combatants flitting amongst them – the hissing ring of the grape as it flew from the licornes – the rattling of the musketry – the ignited shells traversing and crossing in the atmosphere – the wild shouts of the combatants, and all the accompaniments of the sanguinary struggle formed an ensemble seldom witnessed.” (Zamoyski)
The Russians decide to abandon the town, which has burned to the ground during the battle, and withdraw to the ridges while their cannons continue to fire on the French and Italians. By this time Kutuzov’s and Napoleon’s main armies have both arrived on the scene, but the Emperor hesitates.
On the 25th, he rides out to assess the situation and But while on the south bank of the river, a Cossack patrol ambushes the Emperor’s scouting party. The Chasseurs de Garde barely manage to hold off the attackers, and one Cossack rider manages to get within 20 meters of Napoleon himself. Sergeant Bourgogne of the Imperial Guard is among the troops rushing to help and witnesses a tragic mistake:
“We saw the Emperor almost in the midst of the Cossacks, surrounded by generals and staff officers. […] At the instant when the cavalry entered the plain, several officers were forced to draw their sabers to protect themselves and the Emperor, who was in their midst and might have been taken. One of the staff officers, however, after killing a Cossack and wounding several more, lost his hat, and then dropped his saber. Finding himself weaponless, he rushed at a Cossack and snatched away his lance and began to defend himself with it. At that very moment he was spotted by a Horse Grenadier of the Guard, who, mistaking him for a Cossack, because of his green cloak and lance, rode him down and passed his saber through his body.” (Chandler)
Napoleon survives the incident, and determines that he doesn’t want to risk his main force crossing the bridge within range of Russian guns. The Battle of Maloyaroslavets is over: tactically it’s a draw, and costs both sides around 7000 killed and wounded. Strategically though, it is an unintentional Russian success. Kutuzov is cautious and withdraws, but Napoleon never learns his way to Kaluga is open. The Grande Armee’s easier path west has been blocked, and the hapless French-led forces must now retrace their steps through the very same region that both armies had plundered and burned their way through in the summer.

The Russians have forced the Grande Armee to retrace its steps on its retreat, and disaster looms. To make matters worse for Napoleon, Russian forces go over to the attack far to his rear – on the northern flank near Polotsk.

On the northern front, Russian army general Wittgenstein now has 40,000 men, although 9000 are militia, to pit against Oudinot and Wrede’s 17,000. There are also 10,000 more Russians under General Fabian von Steinheil marching from Riga. If Wittgenstein can defeat the Franco-Bavarian force around Polotsk and capture the town’s bridge across the Dvina, he could threaten French supply centers at Vitebsk, Minsk and Smolensk. Since Wittgenstein doesn’t have the engineering capabilities in his corps to build a pontoon bridge east of St Cyr’s corps to outflank them, he decides to attack head-on and use his numerical superiority to drive the French and Bavarians back. On October 18, the Second Battle of Polotsk begins as three Russian columns arrive outside the town. In the morning, cavalry units clash several times as Wittgenstein tries to advance his lead units and push the French out of a wood. Then, at 11:00, French cavalry smashes into the Russian left, and Wittgenstein himself is briefly in danger until more Russian horsemen arrive and the French withdraw. Then Russians sent their reserves into the center of their line, and after fierce fighting over the field fortifications, the Franco-Bavarians have no choice but to give way and retreat towards the city. Swiss Lieutenant Zimmerli recalls the intense Russian artillery fire:
“For an hour and a half cannonballs literally rained down on us, and in our passive position we expected at any moment to be carried away or torn to pieces by one. We were very happy when news came of a Russian attack on a field fortification and we were called to defend it. At least there we could fight back.” Maag 175
Meanwhile, General Prince YashvIl advances on the opposite bank of the PolotA river. The Russians manage to surround a Croatian regiment and force the French back, but break off the fight when French artillery in Polotsk opens up.
The day ends without a decision, as the French make good use of field foritifcations and the awkward battlefield which divided the more numerous Russians in two. Fighting continues on the 19th, but Saint-Cyr realises that with Stenheil approaching, he might be surrounded. That night, the 2 and 6 corps make a hasty retreat across the river and blow the bridges, leaving many of the Bavarians trapped on the northern bank and bound for captivity. The 2nd Battle of Polotsk costs the Grande Armee about 4000 killed and wounded and 2000 prisoners, and the Russians lose about 8000.
The Bavarian corps is so weakened that it retreats to western Belarus, while Oudinot’s 2 corps joins up with Victor’s corps to protect a potential retreat for their Emperor.

The Emperor’s Russian campaign is collapsing, and even his barren path of retreat is in danger of being cut off. In Paris, the latest defeats are still unknown, but bad news from Russia has been trickling in for weeks and sets off a political shockwave.

With the Emperor thousands of km away in Russia and the army bulletins growing ever more cryptic, opponents of Napoleon’s rule decide to risk a coup. General Claude Francois de Malet had served in the French army before resigning when Napoleon crowned himself emperor in 1804. Malet is a fervent republican, and is in a Paris prison after conspiring against Napoleon in 1808. He has connections to some other disgruntled groups, including officers in the secret Societe des Philadelphes, and Bourbon royalists in the secret Association des Chevaliers de la foi. He’s in prison with Catholic dissident the Abbe Lafont, and together they break out of jail on October 22. Malet immediately puts his plan into action. In full general officer’s uniform, he presents forged documents declaring Napoleon’s death to an officer of the French national guard, who believes him. One of the forgeries is an order from the senate and reveals Malet’s intentions for France: the end of the empire, a popular vote for a new constitution, peace with foreign enemies, immunity for imperial officials, amnesty for political prisoners, freedom of the press, and reconciliation with the Pope.
Malet uses the troops under his control to free two other imprisoned republican generals, who move to take over the police and arrest imperial officials. Early on the morning of October 23, Malet and his accomplices have control of the Ministry of Police, the local prefecture, police headquarters, and Paris city hall. The 1st Regiment of the Imperial Guard joins the coup and prepares to block the city gates. But when Malet confronts the Commander of the Place de Paris and even shoots at him, Genera Hulin has Malet arrested, and the conspirators are executed a few days later.
The Malet coup attempt fails, but it reveals the presence of small but motivated networks of Frenchmen opposed to the Emperor on republican, royalist, and Catholic grounds. It also shows the fragility of Bonaparte’s hopes for a dynasty. When faced with Napoleon’s apparent death, officials did not immediately call for Napoleon’s son to be proclaimed Emperor and Marie-Louise regent. Regime change is considered possible even at the highest levels of government in Paris, a thought that will give Napoleon cause for concern when he eventually finds out about the coup – for now, he has no idea.
Hortense de Beauharnais writes to her brother Eugene about the Malet affair and fear of the Emperor’s wrath:
“You must know by now about our Paris adventure. Everyone is worried about how the emperor will take it. We all laugh at the police, but we are worried about them and we believe that the emperor will not sacrifice people who are devoted to him. […] The last [army] bulletin has caused alarm. We, those who have spirit, think that you are preparing for a rearward movement that is quite wise. But the rumor mill got a lot of people to think the emperor might be dead.” (Boudon 348)
By the third week of October, Napoleon’s entire campaign in Russia is in shambles. His army is depleted, he has decided to leave Moscow, and the tide on the battlefield has turned against him at Polotsk, Tarutino, and Maloyaroslavets. Still, many of his men like Lieutenant Dembinksi, believe in him:
“We could see that we were slowly perishing, but our faith in the genius of Napoleon, in his many years of triumph, was so unbounded that these conversations always ended with the conclusion that he must know what he is doing better than us.” (Zamoyski)
For the Russians, their strategic retreat, scorched earth policy and People’s War have required terrible sacrifices from the army and the peasants alike, but they are now bearing fruit. They have the enemy where they want him – now it’s a question of striking before he can escape.
On October 26, with cold autumn rains in full swing during the day and frost covering the earth at night, the Grande Armee begins its long and uncertain retreat along the exact same route it had come in July and August. In an ominous sign, the Emperor of the French now carries a small vial of poison everywhere he goes.


  • Boudon, Jacques-Olivier. Napoléon et la campagne de Russie en 1812. 2021.
  • Chandler, David. The Campaigns of Napoleon, Volume 1, New York 1966.
  • Lieven, Dominic. Russia Against Napoleon. 2010.
  • Maag, Albert. Die Schicksale der Schweizerregimente in Napoleons I. Feldzug nach Russland 1812. 1900.
  • Rey, Marie-Pierre. L’effroyable tragédie : une nouvelle histoire de la campagne de Russie. 2012.
  • Zamoyski, Adam. 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow. 2005.

1812 Napoleon's Downfall

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