Napoleon Took Moscow - Why He Didn't Win The War

Posted by RTH Real Time History on

The soldiers of the Grande Armee have marched more than 2000km, and after bloody fighting and brutal deprivations, they have finally reached Moscow, Russia’s old capital. As the units of French, German, Italian and Polish troops pass through the city gates, Russians troops and civilians flee in panic. As night falls, ominous patches of light flicker across the city. As the wind picks up, the lights burn brighter, join together, and begin to spread. Moscow is burning.

After the Battle of Borodino, Napoleon’s Grande Armee forces the Russian army to retreat eastwards, towards Moscow. Russian leadership now faces a torturous choice: they can risk another battle with their badly weakened army, or they can abandon the historic former capital city to the very French-led army they have publicly said they’ve beaten just days before.
Kutuzov, whom the Tsar makes a Field Marshal on September 11, thinks about fighting more delaying battles west of Moscow. But his generals remind him that the army no longer has enough men to face Napoleon, and it’s also struggling with morale and supply. Most Muscovites flee the city, even as thousands of wounded from Borodino stream in for treatment. On September 13, the Russian generals meet. Barclay and Yermolov want to retreat, while Bennigsen, DokhturOv and Moscow Governor Fyodor Rostopshin want to fight. Kutuzov decides that Moscow cannot be defended, and must be evacuated:
“Napoleon is like a torrent which we are still too weak to stem. ‘Moscow is the sponge which will suck him in […] I will see to it that French, like the Turks last year, will eat horse meat!” (Zamoyski and Rey, 169)
Moscow is thrown into chaos at the news. Residents panic, pack their things, and soon choke the streets as refugees following their army as it leaves the city. Russian soldiers are demotivated and discipline begins to break down as units plunder on their way out. For many, losing Moscow is unthinkable and akin to the end of the world as they knew it. Lieutenant Alexander Chicherin of the Semenovskii Regiment:
“As we passed through the city, it seemed I had entered an unreal world. I wanted to believe that all I saw – the sadness, the fear, the panic of the inhabitants – was just a dream and I was surrounded by ghosts. The ancient spires of the Kremlin, the tombs of my ancestors, the cathedral where our Sovereign was blessed, everything cried for vengeance. There are things that cannot be explained.” (Rey 19)
As the Russian army withdraws, the Grande Armee arrives. In hasty talks, General Raevsky and Marshal Murat agree to a ceasefire after the Russian threatens to set fire to the city. Strange scenes ensue as French-led units run into and sometimes even mingle with Russian units, with both armies looting freely. For the Grande Armee, Moscow seems to hold out the promise of relief after more than two months of unbearable suffering. Sergeant Bourgogne of the Imperial Guard recalls his hopes:
“At that moment, all the suffering, the dangers, the hardships, the privations, everything was forgotten and swept from our minds by thoughts of the pleasure of entering Moscow, of taking up comfortable winter quarters in it and of making conquests of another kind, for that is the character of the French soldier: from the fight to lovemaking, and from lovemaking to battle.” (Zamoyski)

Napoleon enters Moscow on September 15 and sets up in the Kremlin, expecting that now Tsar Alexander will make peace. But soon, the streets of the old capital begin to fill with smoke.

The great city into which the Grande Armee marches on September 14 is nearly empty – of 262,000 residents, only about 10,000 remain. Among those who have left are 2100 firefighters and their 96 water pumps, ordered out of the city by Governor Rostopshin. Small fires break out on the evening of the 14th, but French officers assume they have broken out accidentally as a result of careless soldiers, Russian and European alike. But later that night, larger and more ominous blazes break out in the Kitai Gorod quarter. French-led troops rush to try to put them out and discover torch-bearing arsonists – it’s now clear the fire is no accident. Before he left, the Governor had ordered the chief of police to set the city on fire as part of Russia’s scorched earth policy. With a rising wind, no firefighters and no more fire pumps, it is a matter of time before the conflagration gets out of control in a city made mostly of wood – even though the French arrest and execute 400 Russians suspected of spreading the flames. On the 15th, Arbat is burning, and Moscow University library turns to ashes. The 16th, the fire reaches the stables next to the Kremlin, and Napoleon leaves Moscow for nearby Petrovsky Palace.

Grande Armee units also partially evacuate the city until fresh rain finally puts out the fire on the 20th. When they return, much of the city is smoking charcoal: 29% of homes are destroyed, along with 73% of churches and countless cultural treasures. and their attitude has changed. Far from an oasis, Moscow is now a ruined city filled with anger and fear. French-led troops now loot and kill with renewed ferocity. They shoot hundreds of civilians and wounded, and rape an unknown number of women. French soldier R. Bourgeois witnesses the atrocities:

“When we became certain the Russians had decided to sacrifice their city, an inhibition spread among the troops. Civilians […] chased out of their homes by the flames […] were stopped by soldiers lacking all humanity, who mistreated them and only left them after robbing them of their precious things […] Any women who appeared were seized at once and delivered up to the brutality of those who preyed upon them.” (Rey 181)

One captain of the Guard steals silver church ornaments, melted them down and sold them. Bavarian war artist Albrecht Adam accepts the invitation of a French officer to acquire some Italian art. Russian civilians also loot whatever they can in the absence of any order or police. One type of item the Grande Armee looters do not focus on for the most part is warm winter clothing. When some Polish units begin smithing winter horse shoes, French officers simply laugh at them.

While the Grande Armee plunders conquered Moscow, Napoleon busies himself with attempts to reach out to the Tsar for a peace deal. The result is not at all what the Corsican expects.

The Emperor of the French feels that now that he has, in his eyes, defeated the Russian army at Borodino and occupied Moscow, the Tsar ought to be ready to make peace. And Russian leadership is feeling the pressure after Moscow has fallen. There is panic in St. Petersburg, and the army is in crisis. Count Rostopshin complains bitterly: “The soldiers are no longer an army, but a horde of bandits, looting under the very eyes of their commanders. One cannot shoot them: how can one punish several thousand people a day?” (Zamoyski)

On September 18, Napoleon meets with Russian General Ivan Tutolmin, who agrees to act as an intermediary and writes to Maria Fyodorovna, the Tsar’s mother. She does not respond. On the 22nd, Napoleon convinces an officer close to Grand Duke Constantine to carry a letter to the Tsar at St. Petersburg. But he does not answer either – in fact, the officer is accused of treason put in prison. Napoleon then asks the Marquis de Caulaincourt to go to see the Tsar, but Caulaincourt says there’s no point. The Emperor, however, is not ready to give up, and he writes his own letter to Kutuzov which he entrusts to the former French ambassador Jacques Lauriston on October 4. Kutuzov has orders from the Tsar to continue the war, but he agrees to meet Lauriston in secret in case he can learn something of French plans and play for time while reinforcements are on their way. Lauriston bitterly complains about partisan peasants, who are ambushing and killing Grande Armee troops. Kutuzov is unmoved:
“[I] cannot civilize in three months a nation that considers the enemy worse than a gang of marauding Tatars under Genghis Khan […] I am only responsible for the behavior of my soldiers.” (Rey 187)

While Napoleon tries in vain to treat for peace, his army spends a relatively comfortable month in Moscow. The Russian army, meanwhile, is able to pull off an important strategic maneuver after leaving Moscow. Kutuzov’s forces head southeast towards Ryazan. French cavalry give chase, and the Cossacks seem to be just ahead of them. But the bulk of the Russian army suddenly turns west, and at first the French don’t notice it’s only the Cossacks in front of them. The main army reaches Tarutino on October 3 and sets up camp to wait gather strength. It also now controls the vital routes south and southwest of Moscow, and is close to its supply bases in Kaluga. If the Grande Armee wants to move west through an area it has not already devastated, it will have to fight to get there.

The Grande Armee has conquered and plundered the ashes of Moscow, the Third Rome and the old capital of the Russian empire. Napoleon is adamant that he wants peace, but he cannot make it alone. His army has been gravely weakened and still suffers from desertion and ill-discipline – and now, the Russian army’s Tarutino Maneuver has placed it in a menacing position. The Russians have suffered terrible losses, but they can replace them, and the country’s will to fight is shaken but not broken. Politician Alexander Turgenev is dismayed at the destruction of Moscow, but confident of ultimate victory:
“The ruins [of Moscow] are for us the wages of our penitence, moral and political; and the fire of Moscow, of Smolensk, will, sooner or later, light for us the way to Paris. These are not empty words, I am completely certain of it.” (Rey 23)
After his unsuccessful peace feelers, Napoleon is now certain that his army must leave Moscow. He orders preparations to begin; and a few days later on October 13, the first snowflakes begin to fall.


  • Boudon, Jacques-Olivier. Napoléon et la campagne de Russie en 1812. 2021.
  • Lieven, Dominic. Russia Against Napoleon. 2010.
  • 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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